Arrowood by Laura McHugh

ArrowoodWhen Arden inherits the large, historic mansion called Arrowood on the Iowa banks of the Mississippi River, she is both thrilled and apprehensive to claim it as her home.  Though she lived there happily with her family until she was eight, the house was also the site of her two younger sisters’ disappearances.

Taken from the front yard while Arden was supposed to be watching them, her sisters’ abduction has haunted her for almost two decades.  And when she moves back into Arrowood, the creaking house itself seems to be urging her to seek out the long-buried family secrets that may hold the key to Tabitha and Violet’s fate.

A modern-day Gothic mystery with a perfectly eerie atmosphere, Arrowood is page-turner until the last chapter.

Quote:
“It was strange, crossing into Iowa, that I could feel different on one side of the bridge than the other, yet it was true.  Each familiar sight helped ease a bone-deep longing: the railroad trestle, the cottonwoods crowding the riverbank, the irrigation rigs stretching across the fields like metal spines, the little rock shop with freshly cracked geodes glinting on the windowsills.  I rolled down the window and breathed the Keokuk air, a distinct mix of earthly floodplain and factory exhaust.  The Mississippi lay to my right, and even though I couldn’t yet see it beyond the fields, I could sense it there, deep and constant.”

Author:
Laura McHugh is the author of The Weight of Blood and Arrowood.  She currently lives in Missouri.

Published:  2016
Length:  270 pages
Set in:  Keokuk, Iowa, United States

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The Girl Who Slept with God by Val Brelinski

girl who slept with godIn the insular community of Arco, Idaho in 1970, 13-year-old Jory Quanbeck’s life seems to be perfect, if a little strange to outsiders.  She’s close to her two sisters, younger Frances and older, pious Grace.  Her father is a well-respected college professor who teaches his children about astronomy.  Her mother is a homemaker, churning out endless supplies of nutritious yet tasteless lentil loaf between prolonged bouts of headache and exhaustion.

But one summer can change everything.  Jory strikes up a strange friendship with the charming driver of their neighborhood ice cream truck, and Grace returns from a mission trip to Mexico several months pregnant, claiming the baby is a gift from God.  Frightened and embarrassed, their parents pull both Jory and Grace from school and exile them to a small farmhouse on the outskirts of town.  There, free from parental supervision and the rigidity of their childhood home, Jory and Grace each begin to reexamine the things they’ve always accepted as truth.

Spellbinding and quirky, The Girl Who Slept with God is an engrossing coming-of-age novel and a perfect tribute to the complexity and strength of sisterhood.

Quote:
“In the silence, Jory thought she could hear a moth’s wings battening against the searing heat of the streetlight bulb.  It would be like flying into the sun, the thought.  Like turning your face into the brightest, whitest, most brilliant light.  Like deliberately diving into a beautiful, self-obliterating pool of fire.  Would that be such a terrible and foolish trade: a moment’s pure and incandescent joy in exchange for an eternity of darkest nothingness?  She closed her eyes tight and tighter, and for almost a second allowed herself to imagine that she still knew how to pray.”

Author:
Val Brelinski is the author of The Girl Who Slept with God, her debut novel.  Raised in Nampa, Idaho, she now lives in California and teaches creative writing at Standford University.  Her work has appeared Salon, Vogue, The Boise Weekly, and The Rumpus, among others.

Published:  2015
Length:  368 pages
Set in:  Arco, Idaho, United States

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Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

infidelAyaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel spans multiple continents — from Somalia and Kenya to the Netherlands and the United States —  and traces her life from her first memories to her controversial political career as an adult.

Born in Somalia, Ali was raised in a rigid form of Islam and underwent the horrific practice of female genital mutilation as a young child.  As the daughter of a leading figure in the Somali civil war of the 1980s and 1990s, she spent years living abroad in Saudi Arabia and Kenya, before returning to Somalia.  In her early 20s, Ali fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage to a man she barely knew, and sought refugee status there.  In the years that followed, she resumed her education, began a career in Dutch politics, grappled with her dwindling faith, and received death threats for her public criticisms of Islam.  Written with both courage and candor, Infidel is an important and riveting story.

Trigger warning: contains graphic descriptions of female genital mutilation. 

Quote:
“It was Friday, July 24, 1992, when I stepped on the train.  Every year I think of it.  I see it as my real birthday: the birth of me as a person, making decisions about my life on my own.  I was not running away from Islam, or to democracy.  I didn’t have any big ideas then.  I was just a young girl and wanted some way to be me; so I bolted into the unknown.”

Author:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a former Dutch politician, author, and humanitarian activist.   In 2007, she founded the AHA Foundation to support women’s rights and fight against forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and honor killings.  Her books include Infidel; Nomad: From Islam to America; and The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.

Published:  2006
Length:  353 pages
Main Settings:  Mogadishu, Somalia; Nairobi, Kenya; the Netherlands
Secondary Settings:  Mecca, Saudi Arabia; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Boston, Massachusetts, United States

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In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero, with Michelle Burford

in-the-country-we-loveOne day when Diane Guerrero was 14, she returned home from school to find her family’s Boston home deserted.  Her parents, undocumented immigrants from Colombia, had been taken away by immigration officials and locked up to await deportation.  As a U.S.-born American citizen, Guerrero could stay in the states and finish high school, but she had to rely on the kindness of family friends for a place to stay.  Separated from her family by thousands of miles, she struggled with depression and substance abuse.

Eventually, she pursued acting — a passion she had nurtured for years but discarded as too risky — and earned roles on successful shows like Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin.  Her memoir In the Country We Love is both a thoughtful coming-of-age story and powerful testimony in the current debate on immigration in the United States.

Quote:
“With just about every script, in almost every corner of the set, I was faced with the truth: This was my parents’ life. My mother had sat in handcuffs; my father had once worn an orange jumpsuit like the dozens that sat folded in our wardrobe department. For the other actors and me on our show, this was all fantasy, the re-creation of a world we knew little about; for Mami and Papi, it could not have been any more real or painful.”

Author:
Diane Guerrero is an American actress, and is best-known for her roles on Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin.  Guerrero grew up in Boston, and remained in school there after her family was deported; as an adult, she is an outspoken activist for immigration reform.

Published:  2016
Length:  272 pages
Main Setting:  Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Secondary Settings: Colombia;  New York City, New York, U.S.

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Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

crazy-rich-asiansWhen Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor, is invited by her boyfriend Nick Young to visit Singapore and meet his family, she hesitantly accepts.  Her first clues that all is not what seems about her mild-mannered beau: their flight’s swanky first-class cabin and the fact that his grandmother’s home is a sprawling, glittering palace.  As Rachel tries to adjust to living among Singapore’s richest families, she faces gossip, drama, and threats from all sides — including from Nick’s own mother, who is determined to prevent him from marrying Rachel.   Crazy Rich Asians is a fast-paced, endlessly entertaining debut novel that both illuminates and skewers Singapore’s wealthiest.

Quote:
“Astrid wasn’t attractive in the typical almond-eyed Hong Kong starlet sort of way, nor was she the flawless celestial-maiden type. One could say that Astrid’s eyes were set too far apart, and her jawline — so similar to the men on her mother’s side — was too prominent for a girl. Yet somehow with her delicate nose, bee-stung lips, and long naturally wavy hair, it all came together to form an inexplicably alluring vision. She was always that girl stopped on the street by modeling scouts, though her mother fended them off brusquely. Astrid was not going to be modeling for anyone, and certainly not for money. Such things were far beneath her.”

Author:
Kevin Kwan is the author of Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend.  He was born in Singapore, moved to the United States at the age of 11, and currently lives in New York City.

Published:  2013
Length:  416 pages
Main Setting:  Singapore
Secondary Setting:  New York City, New York, U.S.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

book-of-unknown-americansSet in the Redwood Apartments, a low-income complex in Delaware, The Book of Unknown Americans tells the stories of its many residents.  The novel opens with Alma and Arturo Rivera’s arrival from Mexico with their beautiful teenage daughter Maribel, who suffered brain damage after a tragic fall.  The Riveras become fast friends with the Toros, but when 15-year-old Mayor Toro and Maribel form a close friendship, fear and violence begins to tear their families apart.  Interspersed with their narrations are the voices of their many neighbors, who hail from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, and Guatemala — and form a vibrant chorus of immigrant experiences. 

Quote:
“English was such a dense, tight language. So many hard letters, like miniature walls. Not open with vowels the way Spanish was. Our throats open, our mouths open, our hearts open. In English, the sounds were closed. They thudded to the floor. And yet, there was something magnificent about it. Profesora Shields explained that in English there was no usted, no tu. There was only one word — you. It applied to all people. No one more distant or more familiar. You. They. Me. I. Us. We. There were no words that changed from feminine to masculine and back again depending on the speaker. A person was from New York. Not a woman from New York, not a man from New York. Simply a person.”

Author:
Cristina Henríquez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans, The World in Half, and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories.  Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, and The Oxford American, as well as several anthologies.  She lives in Chicago.

Published:  2014
Length:  286 pages
Main Setting:  Delaware, United States
Secondary Setting: Mexico

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

fun-home-coverAlison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home explores her childhood and relationship with her late father, who died in an accident that Bechdel strongly suspects was actually a suicide.   A mortician in his family’s funeral home — which his children call the “fun home” — Bechdel’s father is obsessed with the upkeep of their sprawling, historic home and his library of classic literature.  As Bechdel grew up, she became increasingly aware of the disconnect between her parents and the secrets that lurked just under the surface of their family facade.   Later, as an adult exploring her own identity as a lesbian, Bechdel learns her father was gay and begins to reexamine his life, marriage, and shocking death.  Challenged and banned in multiple U.S. states for its frank discussion of sexuality, Fun Home is an important, powerful memoir.

Excerpt:
fun-home
Excerpt image © Alison Bechdel and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.

Author:
Alison Bechdel is an American cartoonist and author.  She is best-known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For; her graphic memoir Fun Home; and the Bechdel Test, which evaluates gender representation in film and other media.

Published:  2006
Length:  232 pages
Set in:  Pennsylvania, United States

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Hiroshima by John Hersey

hiroshimaOn August 6, 1945, an American plane dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 100,000 people and destroying much of the city.  Written one year later, John Hersey’s book Hiroshima details the devastating impact of the bomb on six individuals, including a doctor, a widowed mother, and a German priest.  By telling their stories in detail, Hersey evokes for readers the horrifying, long-lasting effects of nuclear warfare.  Hiroshima was one of the first works of so-called New Journalism, in which the techniques of fiction are applied to non-fiction writing.  Editions published after 1985 include an additional chapter that circles back on the six featured people to explore how the bomb affected their later lives.

Quote:
“This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees — partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.”

Author:
John Hersey (1914-1993) was an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He authored more than two dozen books, including Hiroshima, A Bell for Adano, The Child Buyer, and The Call. 

Published:  1946
Length:  152 pages
Set in:  Hiroshima, Japan

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Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

rosemaryRosemary Kennedy was the younger sister of President John F. Kennedy, and was born intellectually disabled. After 20 years of shuttling her between schools and consulting countless doctors, Rosemary’s parents removed her from public life, desperate to keep her disability a secret. And then when she was 23, her father agreed to have Rosemary undergo a revolutionary and disastrous procedure: a lobotomy. Drawing on diaries, letters, and other primary sources, Kate Clifford Larson details Rosemary’s childhood, adolescence, and her isolated life after the failed lobotomy. Rosemary is a haunting, powerful portrait of the Kennedy family’s slow path to accepting Rosemary as one of their own.

Quote:
“During Rosemary’s childhood, the distinction between the intellectually disabled and the mentally ill was rarely made.  Instead, according to psychological definitions of the day, ‘idiots’ were the most severely disabled, classified as those with the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old or younger; ‘imbeciles’ as those with a three- to eight-year-old mental capacity; and ‘morons’ as those with an eight- to twelve-year-old capacity.  These labels limited society’s understanding of people with intellectual and physical disabilities, and lacked nuanced interpretation of the causes and conditions of various disabilities, including the many types of simple and complex learning disorders.”

Author:
Kate Clifford Lawson is an American historian and author.  Her books include Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter; Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero; and The Assassin’s Accomplice, a nonfiction work about Mary Surratt’s involvement with Lincoln’s assassination.

Published:  2015
Length:  320 pages
Primary settings:  Boston, Massachusetts and Jefferson, Wisconsin, U.S.
Secondary settings:  New York City, New York, U.S.; London, England

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The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

road-to-little-dribblingIn 1995, Bill Bryson traveled throughout England and recorded his humorous, exceedingly grumpy observations in Notes from a Small IslandTwenty years older and now a citizen of the U.K., he sets off to recreate his trip, traveling by foot, road, and railway to revisit some places and discover others.  He trudges along deserted footpaths, decries the state of historical monuments, and leaves no digression unexplored.  By turns affectionate and excoriating, The Road to Little Dribbling is a perfect homage to his adopted land.

Quote:
“I wondered idly what the builders of Stonehenge would have created if they’d had bulldozers and big trucks for moving materials and computers to help them design.  What would they have created if they had had all the tools we have?  Then I crested the brow of the hill with a view down to the visitor center, with its café and gift shop, its land trains and giant parking lot, and realized I was almost certainly looking at it.”

Author:
Bill Bryson is the author of various travel books, including Neither Here Nor There and In a Sunburned Country, as well as non-fiction such as At Home and The Mother Tongue.  Bryson currently lives in England with his family.

Published:  2015
Length:  385
Set in: England; Scotland

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