The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. This book reminded me so much of the types I loved to read as a young girl. I loved to read historical fiction about smart, literary girls who go out into the world to make it on their own. You could also use the term Bildungsroman, if you wanted to sound really smart (look it up, you non-English majors!). I don’t read them so much anymore because my interests tend more towards fantasy and mysteries now that I’m older. But I still have a warm place in my heart for Laura Ingalls, Jo March, Jane Eyre, and the like. And so I loved this book about a young girl named Joan who runs away from her cruel father and the grueling work on his farm. She ends up as a maid in a wealthy Jewish household, and a lot of this book deals with the clash between Joan’s Catholicism and her Jewish employers. Joan wants to do what is right and struggles to understand what that is. There are a lot of interesting things in this book about religion and prejudice as well as fun moments with kittens and carousals.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I listened to this audiobook and was very pleased when my book club selected it as our next month’s pick. More historical fiction here, this book takes place during World War II. What I loved about it so much was that the two main characters had very different experiences than you generally read about. Marie-Laure is a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, who is the key master at the National Museum. During the occupation, she and her father flee to her great uncle’s house. Her father is carrying the most prized gem in the Museum, either a decoy or the real thing. A Nazi collector is hunting for the same gem. Then we have a German boy, Werner, who is an orphan in a mining town. He is fascinated by radios and learns to fix them, a sought-after skill in the Hitler Youth. This story follows the two over the course of several years and at the end their lives intersect in beautiful ways.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Another World War II book, and another audiobook. This one is for children. It tells the story of Ada and her brother Jamie. They live with their cruel mother in London. Because Ada was born with a clubfoot, her mother has never allowed her to leave their small apartment. When Ada and Jamie hear that they are sending children to the country they seize the opportunity to run away. They are placed with Susan, a reluctant guardian. I enjoyed seeing the development of Ada’s character as she learns about the world and learns to accept the love of Susan and the good changes that have happened in her life.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. This book is extremely hard to describe. Seriously, just read it! It is about a young man and his struggle with mental illness. The story is told in dual narratives and can be confusing at the start, but that is also kind of the point. If you stick with it it makes a lot more sense. Challenger Deep is a powerful book that doesn’t glamorize or sugar-coat mental illness. The voice is so realistic, which I am sure is in part due to the author’s personal experience with his son going through the mental illness described in the book.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman. I didn’t read as much nonfiction this year, but this was a book club pick and I am so glad it gave me a reason to read it. Sometimes when there is a book club book I’m not excited about, I’ll start reading fully intending never to finish the book. (I know, I’m terrible. But there are too many good books out there!) With this book, I was sucked in right away and knew it would be one to read to the very end. The nonfiction writing was just that good. And I learned, so, so much. I highly recommend this fascinating book.