Friday, June 6, 2014

We've Moved!

The 2014 great books list is up at our new home --  It's still under construction, but we are working hard to archive all titles on the new site, with some great new search features.  In the meantime, the old titles are still here for your reference.


Thursday, May 30, 2013


Top Picks are books recommended by a critical mass of our list's contributors.  There are hundreds of additional selections in regular fiction, non-fiction and "old favorites" lists below.  We've been at this since 2006, so browse old lists for more ideas.  You can navigate by scrolling, but it's easier to use the menu at the side. 

< -----   over there ("blog archive")

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2013 Fiction Top Picks:
Beautiful Ruinsby Jess Walter.  Contributor comments:  “A lovely novel set alternately in the Italian coast in the 1960s and Hollywood today ... transitions between a beautiful young cast member of the Cleopatra movie who was involved with Richard Burton, a young hotelier in Italy, an American writer who summers in Italy and an American film producer and his assistant.”   

"The book takes you from 1960s Italy in (during filming of the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra) to present day Hollywood and American heartland in the present.”    And, "This book is well-written, at times very funny, cynical, and sweeping. It apparently ties together the Italian sea coast of the 1960s to Hollywood today and has been very well reviewed. Well written, and will make you chuckle."  

Romantic, historical fiction that will take you away. Very enjoyable read. It comes together beautifully in the end.”

Brooklynby Coim Toibin.  This was on the 2012 New Fiction list. It was bumped up this year on the strength of additional enthusiastic reviews.  Eilis Lacey grew up in a small town in Ireland after World War II.  When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor her in America, she decides she must go, leaving behind her fragile mother and vivacious sister. 

“I loved the tone and the voice of the narrator, the way the story was sparsely told and yet so full of life.  Toibin shows us so much about the time and experience of Irish immigrants in the years after World War II without telling us explicitly."  (Great interview with author here: BBC)  

“I can’t possibly explain why I loved this book so much.  But it says something about the state of literary fiction that it took me until halfway through this book to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Just because she’s putting her suitcase in a shed while she spends the day with her brother before her ship sails, does NOT mean it will be stolen.  There are actually people who can be trusted.  You can have a whole novel populated with decent human beings and have it still be so compelling that readers fly through it and are left wanting more.”

Faithful Place by Tana French.  “How had I not heard of Tana French before last summer?  In this, her third novel, an undercover Dublin cop is called back to his old neighborhood by his sister.  He’s avoided the place since his girlfriend disappeared twenty-two years earlier, just before just when they were about to elope.  And now her suitcase has been found in an abandoned house, turning all his old assumptions on their heads.  He investigates (failing to mention to his higher-ups his personal involvement in the case).  It’s a dark, compelling page-turner.  French is a master of story and character and an exquisite writer. (NB: If you like Faithful Place, do not be tempted to think her earlier works must be even better. Unlike many contemporary writers who get lazy after one success, French’s work has only improved.  It’s best to move on to the sequel, Broken Harbor).”     

The Round Houseby Louise Erdrich. Lots of positive comments:  “Riveting and suspenseful, arguably the most accessible novel to date from the creator of Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and The Bingo Palace, Erdrich’s The Round House is a page-turning masterpiece of literary fiction—at once a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a tender, moving novel of family, history, and culture.” 

“Modern day version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Very interesting story about life on an Indian reservation in the Southwest.”  

The Twelve Tribes of Hattieby Ayana Smith. This book, like many these days, hovers between short story and novel, with stories eventually woven together to form a whole, growing richer as it progresses. Readers learn about a mother, Hattie Shepherd, through the stories of her many children.  “Yes, it felt like an Oprah book but still very good.”   

“It's a novel in which each chapter tells the story of one the main character's children. So it's a bit like short stories that are woven together. It is easy to get into and it follows a large family from the segregated south who struggle to find their way out amid poverty and racism. It is compelling and well written and on Oprah's book list.”

Where'd You Go, Bernadetteby Maria Semple.  The author, among other accomplishments, wrote for Arrested Development, which might give you some notion of what you’re in for.  The book is about a Seattle mother who disappears just as the family is about to go on a trip to Antarctica.  Her 15-year-old daughter takes on the task of finding her.  It’s an epistolary novel, but entire chapters consist of medical reports and faxes and police reports.  It’s satirical – lots of humor about Seattle (I don’t know that much about Seattle, but that’s not necessary to appreciate it). 
“So funny and wacky, Seattle humor.”
“Great beach book about an eighth grade girl whose mother has disappeared.  Well written and funny with an interesting (but not off-putting) structure.  I read it in three days.” 
“Very funny, clever writing with several LOL moments. Will appeal to Moms in our ‘over achieving’ [DC] area.”

2013 Non-Fiction Top Picks:

Mike Isabella's Crazy Good Italian: Big Flavors, Small Platesby Carol Blymire.  We’ve never had a cookbook as a top pick, but this one is special.  Not only was it co-written by our clever and devoted contributor, it also includes great summery recipes.  (Carol, among many accomplishments, also cooked her way through the Alinea Cookbook. See here).

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good LifeBy Rod Dreher.  “It's a wonderful book--just released and debuted on the NYT bestseller list. A story of family, community, small town America, illness, and a meaningful life. Ruthie Leming – the author's sister and a non-smoker – is diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer in her early 40s. Little Way tells the tale of what happens in the wake of her diagnosis. The ways in which a community rallies around the Leming family and the ways in which it profoundly changes her brother Rod, the author. It's a beautiful book and I highly recommend it to you readers. I couldn't put it down and--despite crying several times during the book.  I felt happy and uplifted after reading it. Little Way is a rare book and I hope you and the beach books list will give it a whirl.”

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander.  Many of you mentioned this book, about a brain surgeon’s near death experience.   “This book had tremendous impact on me.  Of course, Scientific American is discounting everything in it. I read it after a good friend died and shortly after the terrible tragedy in Connecticut occurred. As I watched the Rabbi, Priests, Ministers, etc., give their eulogies, it just was so clear to me that they were all praying to the same ‘person.’  Alexander's writing simplifies things in a way that gave me a language to explain these two events to myself and to my children.  Highly recommend for anyone who is struggling or suffering from a loss.” 

“This book doesn't constitute ‘proof,’ but it's an interesting addition to the literature on this topic. The author makes his case from his perspective as a neurosurgeon who underwent a critical illness and had a near death experience.”

(pssst...  you're not done!  top picks are just the beginning - see our other lists for 2013: newer fiction, non-fiction and older fiction! Navigate from the "blog archive" to the left.)


The "newer fiction" list contains books published in the past few years.  They might not be "top picks," but many newer fiction books reappear as top picks in subsequent years, so don't let that deter you!  We inlcude contributors' comments, as always, and where we had only a title by way of recommendation, we have filled in with Amazon or other sources.

11/22/63by Stephen King.  “I kept hearing that this book was about traveling back in time to save President Kennedy - and that definitely was the driving force of the narrative - but I actually enjoyed all the other plot lines so much more! At one point in the middle of the book I just wanted to say ‘Forget Kennedy! The world will be fine. Let's just get back to the high school and Sadie!! Put on another show! Dancing is life!’ I didn't care that Oswald met with other Russian immigrants or even that he beat his wife one minute and charmed her the next. But I realize that all of these little pieces are what make the whole so much more fulfilling. George experiences little harmonies - residue of his time travel that keep raising flags. We really need to experience all of these events with him to understand and appreciate the final outcome. By the end of the book I felt like I knew these people, this town - I wanted them as friends and neighbors. It takes 700+ pages to bring so much to life so clearly and it was worth the investment to read every page.”

The Accidentalby Ali Smith.  This is one of many suggestions from a contributor who shared a book list compiled by her fellow Barnard College alums.  (Subsequent entries marked “Barnard Book Club.”)   “The Accidental is the dizzyingly entertaining, wickedly humorous story of a mysterious stranger whose sudden appearance during a family’s summer holiday transforms four variously unhappy people. Each of the Smarts–parents Eve and Michael, son Magnus, and the youngest, daughter Astrid–encounter Amber in his or her own solipsistic way, but somehow her presence allows them to se their lives (and their life together) in a new light. Smith’s exhilarating facility with language, her narrative freedom, and her chromatic wordplay propel the novel to its startling, wonderfully enigmatic conclusion. Ali Smith’s acclaimed novel won the prestigious Whitbread Award and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.”

All That Isby James Salter.  From Amazon: “From his experiences as a young naval officer in battles off Okinawa, Philip Bowman returns to America and finds a position as a book editor. It is a time when publishing is still largely a private affair—a scattered family of small houses here and in Europe—a time of gatherings in fabled apartments and conversations that continue long into the night. In this world of dinners, deals, and literary careers, Bowman finds that he fits in perfectly. But despite his success, what eludes him is love. His first marriage goes bad, another fails to happen, and finally he meets a woman who enthralls him—before setting him on a course he could never have imagined for himself.”

Ancient Lightby John Banville.  "Gripping and wistful account of a long ago love affair in rural Ireland.  Gorgeous writing, if a tad pompous in places." 

Anonymous Sourcesby Mary Louise Kelly.  Two contributors mentioned this book, and it’s not even published yet!  (Release date June 18.)  It looks like a great read, and should be of particular interest to this blog’s readers. “An intriguing thriller from a former NPR correspondent about a young reporter who must match wits with spies, assassins and a terrorist sleeper cell targeting the very heart of American power… Thom Carlyle had it all: the rowing trophies, the Oxbridge education, the glamorous girlfriend. But on a glorious summer evening in Harvard Square, Thom is murdered—pushed from the top of a Harvard bell tower. The New England Chronicle sends a beautiful, feisty, but troubled reporter named Alexandra James to investigate. It is the story of a lifetime. But it is not what it seems. Alex’s reporting takes her abroad, from the cobbled courtyards of Cambridge, the inside of a network of nuclear the corridors of the CIA...and finally, to the terrorists’ target itself.

Attachmentsby Rainbow Rowell.  “Very beach-worthy.  A romantic story about an Internet security professional whose job is to monitor the emails of employees in the newsroom of the paper where he works.  He becomes fascinated by an ongoing email conversation between two friends and falls for one of them.  A tech geek makes for an odd romantic hero, but it works.” 

Awayby Amy Bloom. From Amazon:  “The epic and intimate story of young Lillian Leyb, a dangerous innocent, an accidental heroine. When her family is destroyed in a Russian pogrom, Lillian comes to America alone, determined to make her way in a new land. When word comes that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive, Lillian embarks on an odyssey that takes her from the world of the Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle’s Jazz District, and up to Alaska, along the fabled Telegraph Trail toward Siberia. All of the qualities readers love in Amy Bloom’s work–her humor and wit, her elegant and irreverent language, her unflinching understanding of passion and the human heart–come together in the embrace of this brilliant novel, which is at once heartbreaking, romantic, and completely unforgettable.”

The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novelby Louise Penny.  “I am a devotee to the Inspector Gamache series penned by Louise Penny and the newest offering does not disappoint. Gamache and Beauvoir find themselves in an isolated monastery in Canada, summoned to investigate the murder of the abbot. The murderer must be a monk – but who? As Beauvoir struggles with addiction, Gamache struggles with police department politics, making for a multi-layered and satisfying mystery.”   This is one of several titles from contributor Michele Woodward, who has her own great booklist.   

The Best of Usby Sarah Pekkanen.  "It is an easy, easy read, but she develops characters unusually well for a paperback beach read.  And although I hadn't met her before her recent reading at Politics and Prose - she's a Chevy Chase mom of three, so hats off to her!"

Black List: A Thrillerby Brad Thor.  “This is the eleventh book in Thor’s series about ex-Navy Seal Scot Harvath.  It opens with an attempt to kill Harvath and his entire company in what turns out to be part of an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government.  The pseudonymous black list is buried in some government basement somewhere, seen only by the president and a handful of advisors. Once your name is on the list, it never comes off, until you are dead.  Great thriller.” 

Bolero (A Nick Sayler Novel)by Joanie McDonald.   Nick Sayler, a damaged PI, lives on a barge on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.  He reluctantly gets involved in a whodunit when a doctor calls from Bellevue hospital to tell him a woman who was the victim of a brutal attack has amnesia.  She remembers nothing about the attack, or her life, but was carrying his business card.

The Burgess Boysby Elizabeth Strout.  By the author of Olive Kittredge, a top pick a couple of years ago.  “Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever. I have read and loved every novel by Elizabeth Strout and this newest one does not disappoint. As always, the author delivers rich character development and nuanced insight into complicated family dynamics. Also, a must-read for anyone from Maine.”

Capitalby John Lanchester:  “It’s 2008 and the markets are crashing. The residents of Pepys Road, London begin receiving anonymous postcards that say ‘We Want What You Have.’ Who are they from?  An epic novel with intimate portrayals set a time of extraordinary tension.”

The Chaperoneby Laura Moriarty.  “A fast beach read with a vivid 1920's backdrop, this is the story of Louise Brooks (who became a famous silent film star) and the chaperone accompanying her to NY where she will attend dance school. To borrow from Wicked lyrics, both women are not sure they were changed for the better, but because they knew each other they were changed for good...”

Citrus Countyby John Brandon. “Brandon finds shards of redemption in the swampy backwaters of Florida in his funny and horrifying latest. When Shelby Register moves to Citrus County, Fla., with her single father and little sister, she's expecting ‘surfers instead of rednecks,’ but the precocious teen makes the best of it.”  
Edenbrookeby Julianne Donaldson.  “For those who like romantic Austen-esque novels set in the early 19th century, this is a charming alternative to the trashy ones that dominate the genre.  A young woman, bored and trying to avoid an unwanted suitor in Bath, England, joins her social climbing twin sister at a house party in the English countryside.  Shenanigans and romance ensue.  Fluff, but much better written and not as pornographic than the usual fare.” 

To the End of the Landby David Grossman. From one of Israel’s most acclaimed writers comes a novel of extraordinary power about family life—the greatest human drama—and the cost of war.  Ora, a middle-aged Israeli mother, is on the verge of celebrating her son Ofer’s release from army service when he returns to the front for a major offensive. In a fit of preemptive grief and magical thinking, she sets out for a hike in the Galilee, leaving no forwarding information for the ‘notifiers’ who might darken her door with the worst possible news. Recently estranged from her husband, Ilan, she drags along an unlikely companion: their former best friend and her former lover, Avram, once a brilliant artistic spirit.” (Barnard Book Club). 

Everythingby Kevin Canty. “In taut, exquisite prose, Kevin Canty explores the largest themes of life—work, love, death, destruction, rebirth—in the middle of the everyday. On the fifth of July, RL and June go down to the river with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red to commemorate Taylor’s fiftieth and last birthday. Taylor was RL’s boyhood friend and June’s husband, but after eleven years, June, a childless hospice worker, finally declares she’s “nobody’s widow anymore.” Anxious for a new beginning, June considers selling her beloved house. RL, a divorced empty-nester, faces a major change, too, when he agrees to lodge his college girlfriend, Betsy, while she undergoes chemotherapy. Caught between Betsy’s anguish and June’s hope, the cynical RL is brought face-to-face with his own sense of futility, and the longing to experience the kind of love that “knocks you down.” Set in Montana, reflecting the beauty of its landscape and the independence of its people, this is a shimmering novel about unexpected redemption by a writer of deep empathy and prodigious talents.”  (Barnard Book Club)

The Gap Yearby Sarah Bird.  “Cam has raised her daughter Aubrey alone ever since her ex left to join a cult. But now the bond between mother and daughter seems to have disappeared. While Cam is frantic to see Aubrey, a straight-A student, at the perfect college, on a path that Cam is sure will provide her daughter success and happiness, Aubrey suddenly shows no interest in her mother’s plans. Even the promise of an exciting gap year saving baby seals or bringing clean water to remote villages hasn’t tempted her. She prefers pursuing a life with her wrong-side-of-the-tracks football-hero boyfriend and her own secret hopes.  Both mourn the gap that has grown between them, but Cam and Aubrey seem locked in a fight without a winner. Can they both learn how to hold onto dreams . . . and when to let go to grasp something better? Sarah Bird’s trademark laugh-out-loud humor joins with the tears that accompany love in a combination that reveals the fragile yet tough bonds of mother and daughter.”

The Garden of Evening Mistsby Tan Twan Eng.  “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan....  Eng's writing is poetic at times and full of beautiful imagery. The Malaysian settings of the Japanese garden and the tea estate are fully drawn and for the past few days my head has been filled with visions of lush jungle and a formal structured garden of rock and foreign plants - contrasting images that parallel life in a country controlled by outsiders, first by the British and then the invading Japanese during the war.  Teoh Yun Ling is a retired judge who returns to the Cameron Highlands with aphasia - she will slowly forget how to speak and write and understand language. As a result, she starts to document her past and her story is told through her writing interspersed with episodes in the present day. The story unfolds slowly and while the book is character driven, the plot is generally compelling.”

Ghana Must Goby Taiye Selasi.  “Kweku Sai is dead. A renowned surgeon and failed husband, he succumbs suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of Kweku’s death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Ghana Must Go is their story. Electric, exhilarating, beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go is a testament to the transformative power of unconditional love, from a debut novelist of extraordinary talent.”

The Girl Who Fell from the Skyby Heidi Durrow.  “This novel tells the story of a girl, daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. who miraculously survives a tragedy that claims the rest of her family.  She moves in with her African-American grandmother and struggles to fit in with her light skin and blue eyes.” 

The Given Dayby Dennis Lehane.  “I avoid most of the books at the top of the bestseller list. If it’s 50 Shades of anything, or Grisham, or Clancy, or Baldacci, I’m going to skip those and go to something else. So I had avoided Dennis Lehane due to his popularity. I was stupid. This is a great book, totally up my alley – a sweeping family drama set against racial upheaval and political turmoil. I loved it, and I apologize to Dennis Lehane profusely.”  (H/T Michele Woodward’s book list)

Gone Girlby Gillian Flynn.  This book made the list as a unprecedented "midsummer addition" last year.  I’m sure most of you have at least heard of it, if not read it.  A gripping psychological thriller.  Very hard to put down.  One contributor commented, “A lot of HATE in that one!” 

Hens Dancingby Rafaella Barker.  Oh, please do try this book!  It's so much fun.  Barker is a British magazine columnist often compared to Helen Fielding.  Hens Dancing is a married (well, divorced) woman's story, but the Bridget Jones comparison is apt. Venetia lives in rural England with her three children (two spirited boys and a baby girl known only as “The Beauty.”)  The book is a journal spanning a year after her husband leaves her for the dreaded Helena (or “the poison dwarf” - Venetia's nickname).  Characters include her vodka-swilling mother and an interesting contractor.  It is at once absurd, warm and romantic.  As another contributor said, “British year in the life story with a great setting, fun characters and reads Bridget Jones-esque.” 

Hope: A Tragedyby Shalom Auslander.  “The rural town of Stockton, New York, is famous for nothing: no one was born there, no one died there, nothing of any historical import at all has ever happened there, which is why Solomon Kugel, like other urbanites fleeing their pasts and histories, decided to move his wife and young son there. To begin again. To start anew. But it isn’t quite working out that way for Kugel… His ailing mother stubbornly holds on to life, and won’t stop reminiscing about the Nazi concentration camps she never actually suffered through. To complicate matters further, some lunatic is burning down farmhouses just like the one Kugel bought, and when, one night, he discovers history—a living, breathing, thought-to-be-dead specimen of history—hiding upstairs in his attic, bad quickly becomes worse.  … A hilarious and haunting examination of the burdens and abuse of history, propelled with unstoppable rhythm and filled with existential musings and mordant wit. It is a comic and compelling story of the hopeless longing to be free of those pasts that haunt our every present.”  (Barnard Book Club)

The Hypnotist's Love Storyby Liane Moriarty.  “A fatal attraction type novel about a hypnotist who falls in love with a man who has a stalker.  The stalker is posing as one of the hypnotist’s clients, and becomes part of her life as well.  Hard to explain, but fun to read.”

The Interestingsby Meg Wolitzer.  “Lives of a group of teenagers who met and bonded at summer camp. The author weaves her characters together going back and forth in time.  Engrossing.”

Imperfect Blissby Susan Fales-Hill.  This frothy, fun and satirical Price and Prejudice send-up features the Harcourts of Chevy Chase, MD. (Chevy Chase finally gets its literary due!)  Our heroine, Elizabeth (“Bliss”) has moved back home with her daughter after a nasty divorce, and is working on her PhD.  Things get complicated when her sister Diana (all the Harcourt daughters are named after royalty) stars in a reality TV show called The Virgin.  Mayhem and romance ensue.

John Saturnall's Feastby Lawrence Norfolk.  “This is one of the two books I bought in hardcover this year because the review I read noted that the paper and quality of the book was remarkable (it is) and that every chapter begins with a recipe (it does). Knowing that recipes and Kindle do not mix well, I bought the book and once it was in hand I was glad I had. It’s a rich and sumptuous book set in England in the Middle Ages. John Saturnall is an orphan whose mother taught him the ancient religious ways of living and of cooking. He rises to head cook for a lord, and falls in love with the lord’s daughter – mostly by cooking for her. It’s about time men realized the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach, too!”  (H/T Michelle Woodward’s best books list).

The Last Letter from Your Loverby Jojo Moyes  Several of you mentioned this book – it was on the bubble for top pick. “In 1960, Jennifer Stirling wakes in the hospital and remembers nothing—not the car accident that put her there, not her wealthy husband, not even her own name. Searching for clues, she finds an impassioned letter, signed simply ‘B,’ from a man for whom she seemed willing to risk everything. In 2003, journalist Ellie Haworth stumbles upon the letter and becomes obsessed with learning the unknown lovers’ fate.”   This novel is at times predictable, but the overall arc of the story is not what I expected.”

The Legend of Brokenby Caleb Carr.  "In the kingdom of Broken, the priests and god-kings value physical perfection so banish anyone less than perfect. These people become the tribe of Bane, who exist in nearly perpetual war against Broken. Set in Germany in about 750 A.D., Carr laces the language with slightly Germanic phrases – just enough to make the reader think. And, the perfection of Broken echoes the rise of the Aryan nation of the Nazis. It’s written in a nearly archaic style which takes some getting used to, but once you do the story comes alive."

Life After Lifeby Kate Atkinson. From the New York Times:  "Ursula Todd keeps dying, then dying again.  She dies when she is bering born, on a snowy night in 1910.  As a child, she drowns, falls off a roof and  contracts influenza.  Later, she commits suicide and is murdered.  She is killed during the German bombing of London in World War II and ends her life in the ruins of Berlin in 1945.  Each time Ursula dies, Atkinson ... resurrects her and sets her on one of the many alternate courses that her destiny might have taken.... Atkinson nimbly succeeds in keeping the novel from becoming confusing." Atkinson's book One Good Turnwas on the list last year. [Ed: Read One Good Turn and loved it, btw].
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.  From Amazon:  "After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.  Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them."  

The Lover's Dictionaryby David Levithan.   "This was the most originally laid out book I have ever read. It's a quick and moving read."
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French.  Based on a true crime story (this book is of the "creative non-fiction" genre).  The book is about the murder of a young Englishwoman and its effect on the last days of colonial Peking and "Old China." French explores the question around the unsolved murder.  Was the victim an innocent schoolgirl, or was she a young rebel enjoying Peking at its most exciting?  The author follows the investigations by the Chinese police and the British legation, then an independent investigation funded by the victim's father, then forms his own theory.
Model Homeby Eric Puchner.  "A tale about a troubled family that has moved from Wisconsin to California in search of a better life, but not finding it.  Dad built a housing community but a toxic waste dump is opening up next door. He is in dire financial straits and trying mightily to hide it.  The novel is populated with eccentric, quirky characters.  It has been compared to Franzen's Corrections" 

By Nightfallby Michael Cunningham.  "Peter and Rebecca Harris: mid-forties denizens of Manhattan’s SoHo, nearing the apogee of committed careers in the arts—he a dealer, she an editor. With a spacious loft, a college-age daughter in Boston, and lively friends, they are admirable, enviable contemporary urbanites with every reason, it seems, to be happy. Then Rebecca’s much younger look-alike brother, Ethan (known in the family as Mizzy, “the mistake”), shows up for a visit. A beautiful, beguiling twenty-three-year-old with a history of drug problems, Mizzy is wayward, at loose ends, looking for direction. And in his presence, Peter finds himself questioning his artists, their work, his career—the entire world he has so carefully constructed. Like his legendary, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s masterly new novel is a heartbreaking look at the way we live now. Full of shocks and aftershocks, it makes us think and feel deeply about the uses and meaning of beauty and the place of love in our lives."  (Barnard Book Club)

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood.  "Two very independent women from two different eras (1919 post-earthquake San Francisco and 1960 suburbia around the time of JFK's inauguration) whose tales are told in alternating chapters that ultimately intertwine.  The poignant story examines love, grief, motherhood and loss. Terrific historical fiction - great atmospherics in both stories." 

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstoreby Robin Sloan.  "Harry Potter meets Google."  "Clay Jannon has left his job as a San Francisco Web designer (recession) and is now the night shift worker at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It doesn't take him long to recognize just how odd this store is.  Its few 'customers' don't actually buy anything, but come in repeatedly examining obscure books. He decides to unravel the mystery and enlists the help of his geek friends to do so." 

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmakerby Jennier Chiaverini.  "A historical novel based on the true relationship of Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Lizzie Keckley, a former slave.  Lizzie was privy to many inside conversations in the White House during the Civil War.  The real Lizzie Keckley published her memoirs, which resulted in her being completely ostracized by Mrs. Lincoln, but those notes and letters were used for this novel.  An interesting read, but not addictive."

The Orphan Master's Sonby Adam Johnson  "Fascinating fictional story about North Korea. Not for the faint of heart but very timely. The author has done immense research so much of it is based on real stories and is haunting."

Overseasby Beatriz Williams.  "A passionate love story about a charming British WWI officer who inadvertently time travels to modern day.  He falls in love with an American Wall Street broker, but his past follows him into our century.  The story interweaves scenes from today with the scenes of the heroine traveling back to 1916 to warn the officer about his future.  There’s a sense of foreboding throughout, which will force you to stay up late to finish in one sitting."

Pureby Andrew Miller.  "A young engineer is given a task - to empty the cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris in 1785. The graveyard is so full of decaying bodies that the smell permeates the surrounding streets of Paris, the food is tainted, the locals all have sour breath. Jean-Baptiste finds himself in a strange world with a strange job and the result is delightful. I loved the atmosphere of this book and found myself completely engrossed in the story of the cemetery and the characters linked to it. Imagine having to excavate a pit of bones so deep there is little oxygen at the bottom. Loved it."

Reconstructing Ameliaby Kimberly McCreight, From Amazon: Kate's in the middle of the biggest meeting of her career when she gets the telephone call from Grace Hall, her daughter’s exclusive private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Amelia has been suspended, effective immediately, and Kate must come get her daughter—now. But Kate’s stress over leaving work quickly turns to panic when she arrives at the school and finds it surrounded by police officers, fire trucks, and an ambulance. By then it’s already too late for Amelia. And for Kate."

Say You're Sorryby Michael Robotham.  “Quick detective fiction read.”  "Two missing girls.  Two brutal murders.  One person knows the truth."

The Secret Keeperby Kate Morton.  “Like her other novels, this book shifts back and forth through time to solve a mystery, this time a dying woman’s grown children delve into her past during WWII.  I thought I knew where the story was going, but Morton twisted it at the end to make it unpredictable and even better. “

In the Shadow of the Banyanby Vaddey Rattner. From Amazon: "For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood— the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival."

Skiosby Michael Frayn.  “It's not easy to write a good farce. Too often it becomes too silly, too coincidental, too over the top unbelievable and the spell is broken. For me, Skios achieves just the right balance of mistaken identity, accidental bedmates, chance meetings and "what are you doing here?" moments to make for a really funny, engaging farce. I wouldn't even want to try to recap the plot - it would be like unfolding an origami crane - just let yourself enjoy the twisted shape that has emerged.”

The Snowmanby Jo Nesbo.  “creepy Scandinavian murder mystery a la Dragon Girl.”

The Starboard Seaby Amber Dermont “a beautifully written first novel...lots of good sailing analogies... A coming of age story, taking place at a fictional New England boarding school....A few tears at the end...”

The Storytellerby Jodi Picoult.  “It was so moving that I read three more books on the Holocaust.”

Tell the Wolves I'm Homeby Carol Rifka Brunt.  “This is the story of a June, a 14 year-old whose uncle - the person she loves most in the world - dies of AIDS. It's the 1980's - a time when people were afraid and ignorant and AIDS was whispered about. It's easy to get into June's head, to understand her loss. And her uncle Finn is a man that anyone would love to be with, making June feel special despite all her insecurities. I loved her stories of their time together. But there are other relationships in June's life - old and new - and each of these is strained and altered under the grief of Finn's death. There were a couple of moments where I felt like June's actions were more plot driven than realistic which took me out of the story for a bit but then she would say something that would break my heart and my eyes would start to tear up and I was right back into it.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fryby Rachel Joyce.  From Amazon:  "Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.  Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live."

The Various Haunts of Men (Simon Serrailler Mystery)by Susan Hill.  “This is the first in the Simon Serrailler detective series. Interestingly, he is hardly in this book at all which I thought was a clever idea. Instead, Hill gives us Freya Graffham - a new young policewoman in town who has a crush on Simon and sees him as an almost mythical figure. We learn a lot about him through her eyes but he always stays a little removed, intriguing, and seductive - the desire to know more means the second book in the series is already in my TBR pile ready to go. Hill isn't writing your usual mystery. She focuses mostly on character, developing even the minor players with personalities, motivations, and back stories. Everyone has a little something going on - some of it is linked to the plot and but some of it just adds richness to the people we are starting to care about. The mystery is here but it feels secondary and doesn't kick in for quite some time. That was ok with me but I could understand if a reader was frustrated with the pace. I actually thought the mystery is the weakest part of the book with an interesting premise but an underdeveloped conclusion. Even so, this was a book that I raced through and really enjoyed.”

From Wall Street With Love: Be Careful of What You Wish For (Volume 1)by Leigh Boyer.  A "scandalous tale of bad behavior in  finance" it was "Written by a PR person who used to work for BofA, or Citi, or Amex .... or so the NY rumor mill spins. Feels like thinly veiled fiction. Easy read, can do it in a day and a half."

Warm Bodiesby Isaac Marion.  “I’m embarrassed to admit that I discovered this book as a movie preview while watching the final installment of Twilight: Breaking Dawn.  Ready to move on from tween vampire books, I easily transitioned into tween zombie books.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where zombies have taken over all countries and few humans remain, one zombie falls for a human girl and suddenly starts to feel human again.  Total beach read – you’ll be done in a few hours.”

What Happened to Sophie WilderDescribed as a stunning, smart, short, and fantastic first novel written by an author wise beyond his years - it is a modern fable of faith and doubt, ambition, and love. In the novel, a young male writer deals with the reappearance and disappearance of the woman he met in college and loved. It discusses the New York publishing world, the growing pains of post- collegiate life, and THE RIGORS OF ROMAN CATHOLICISM. Sophie has converted to Catholicism, and somehow this plays largely into the plot. Hailed as one of the best of 2012, it too has been very well reviewed and received.”

What Alice Forgotby Liane Moriarty.  “A fun novel about a woman who hits her head in spin class and comes to with the last 10 years shaved off her life.  She believes she is madly in love with her husband and pregnant with her first child.  In reality, she has 3 kids and is in the midst of a bitter divorce.  Things change as she starts seeing her real life through the more innocent and happy lens of her younger self.”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Storiesby Nathan Englander.  In eight short stories, Englander grapples with the weight of the past, the relationship between history and the present, and the place of the Holocaust in modern life. Englander's characters wrestle with issues of faith, justice, desire and love, and his stories explore classic themes of sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of adversity.”  (Barnard Book Club) 

The Yacoubian Buildingby Alaa Aswany.  “This controversial bestselling novel in the Arab world reveals the political corruption, sexual repression, religious extremism, and modern hopes of Egypt today. All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed "scientist of women"; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires. These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany's remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world. The author has a way of making a world that is so foreign seem familiar because the characters are human and flawed.”

(That's the end of our newer fiction list, but there's more - go to the "blog archive" navigation bar for our 2013 non-fiction and older fiction lists)