This first half of 2015 has seen a lot of terrific books, and here are 6 of my favorites from the year so far: 2 adult novels, 2 memoirs, and 2 YA picks. I think all of them are appropriate vacation reads as you head to the beach or wherever you’re heading for some R&R. Enjoy!
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (Adult Historical Fiction)
Everyone’s talking about this WWII homefront novel, in which two very different sisters endure the terrors and deprivations of wartime France.
Vianne, a conventional housewife and mother, spends the first part of the war in utter denial that any of it is real. Her husband will come home from the front soon, she tells herself, and take care of the family; he will save them from this nightmare. Her impetuous younger sister Isabelle thinks Vianne is a trusting fool for not seeing the Nazi threat for what it truly is: the end of life as they have known it. While Vianne begins the novel desperate simply to survive, Isabelle is aching to make a difference, leave a mark, resist the tide of cruelty.
The novel’s opening theme—“In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are”—is carried through in the beautifully observed characters of these sisters, who both change profoundly during the war. This is going to be a book club mainstay for years to come.
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (Adult Fiction)
This darkly satirical novel will have you rooting for crack cocaine. I’m serious.
Crack, called “Scotty” in the book, is the story’s most unforgettable character, and he steals the show. A large part is narrated from Scotty’s POV, as we see how low the character of Darlene is brought because her “relationship” with Scotty has made her vulnerable to modern-day slavers on a Louisiana farm. Because of Scotty, she loses almost everything, including her son Eddie and her self-respect.
Note: if you can listen to the book without children around (keeping in mind that there are about 50,000 F-bombs in it), choose the audio version over the print book. Normally, when authors read their own work, you sigh and think how a professional actor might have improved things. Here, given the author’s eclectic background in acting and comedy, no professional narrator could have done a better job. You will enjoy Scotty’s voice so much that you’ll feel guilty about wanting an illegal substance to have more screen time.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (Grammar/Memoir [Is that even a category? Well, it is now.])
OK, so maybe your definition of “beach read” is not expansive enough to include a memoir that is really a grammar and punctuation textbook in disguise. More’s the pity. This book is so smart and hilarious that I want to give a copy for Christmas to all my many Word Nerd friends.
Norris, a copy editor for the New Yorker since the 1970s, serves up fascinating lessons on the history of grammar and punctuation alongside snarky (and often profane) observations about the English language’s dire need of a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun and remedial lessons in correct apostrophe usage. I was particularly interested in what she says about the ways our language is changing and Other Signs of the Endtimes. The last chapter and the epilogue are basically skippable, though.
If you like a pungent dose of humor with your memoirs, check this out. We’ve had a lot of great memoirs about motherhood when the kids are little, like Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. Like Lamott’s writing, this is sharply observed and wickedly funny, but Anchor & Flares tackles a part of motherhood that is undertheorized by comparison: those boomerang years when your young adult kids are launching, however awkwardly, into their own lives.
Years ago, Braestrup won over readers with her memoir Here If You Need Me, which chronicled how her first husband’s sudden death left her with four young children to raise on her own (with the help of a proverbial village). In this follow-up, we see those kids setting off into the adult world, while their thoughtful, funny mother sifts through memories and wonders about her various maternal successes and mistakes. It’s poignant without being maudlin, and it often packs a sneaky theological punch-from-behind. The final chapters will make you laugh and cry.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (YA fantasy)
I enjoyed this opening novel is Tahir’s ambitious series, set in a Roman Empire-like society that worships bloody sport and military precision. The story centers around Laia, a seventeen-year-old girl who enlists in a rebellion against the Empire to save her older brother from execution. Laia signs on to be a house slave to a sadistic military commandant, knowing her real job is to act as a spy. There she comes to know the commandant’s unexpectedly gentle son Elias, who is about to graduate from the Empire’s brutal military academy but harbors dreams of running away.
Yeah, you can see where this is going, but to the book’s credit, the obligatory romance is more complicated than it first appears, and there are enough plot twists and intriguing magical elements to keep the dedicated fantasy fan guessing. I liked it enough that I will certainly read the second book, which is more than I can say for most dystopian YA fiction these days, much of which seems like it has taken the “epic Marxist class struggle with heavy adjunct of romance” formula to a boring extreme.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (YA contemporary)
And speaking of YA, I’m sneaking another YA recommendation in here even though it’s not a 2015 book (it came out last summer). We Were Liars was the best YA novel I read last year, hands down, and nothing quite as good in the genre has come my way since then.
DO NOT READ REVIEWS OF THIS BOOK, or peek at spoilers, or try to find out anything about it. Just read the book itself and don’t skip ahead to the ending. There is a reason the awards have been laid on fast and thick for this novel. It was the only YA title to make Amazon’s year-end roundup of the top 20 books of 2014, and year-end “Best” lists at Publishers Weekly, Time, School Library Journal, and Goodreads.
Just. Read. It.