Sold – Patricia McCormick

It’s awful to say this is one of the best YA books I’ve ever read, given the topic, but I went through it in one sitting unable to put it down. At 13, Lakshmi lives a hand-to-mouth existence in a small village in Nepal. She’s smart and enjoys simple pleasures courtesy of a hard-working mom. Unfortunately, she also has a step dad who drinks and gambles away what little they have. When a monsoon destroys their crops, he gets Lakshmi a job which she thinks involves working as a city maid. Upon reaching India, however, she learns she’s been sold into prostitution instead. A cruel woman named Mumtaz runs the brothel, trapping young girls with babies and unfair debts. Lakshmi’s intelligence helps her survive even in this harsh new world and is a factor when she must make a decision which is essentially a death trap or a life line. The writing in this novel is superb, bolstered by research the author did in India and Nepal. It’s short and terse but packs a powerful punch enabling readers to realize how difficult life remains for many millions of women worldwide.

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The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

Starr Carter, 16, has one persona in her poor black neighborhood and another in the predominantly white prep school she attends. But the uneasy balance is upset when she sees her best friend, Khalil, shot to death by police while unarmed. It’s complicated. Khalil is a drug dealer albeit an unwilling one. Her uncle is a cop and her boyfriend white. When the shooting makes national headlines, as the only witness, Starr is caught between a friend at school who thinks Khalil might have had it coming and her neighborhood which has seen one too many young black men killed. The dialogue in this well-written YA novel feels totally authentic. The writer manages to convey the complexity of the issue of racism and police violence through the protagonist’s life circumstance. Starr isn’t perhaps the typical victim, and her school friends at times seem somewhat two-dimensional in their political correctness, yet the book is still a compelling read lending insight into one of the most disturbing facets of modern American life.

Fire and Fury – Michael Wolff

Having read Katy Tur’s book about the tRump presidential campaign and Luke Harding’s book about tRump’s alleged dirty dealings, I wasn’t expecting much from Fire and Fury in terms of style. I was pleasantly surprised. Wolff is a smart writer and although he gets bogged down at times in observation, overall the book makes for a satisfying read as it covers the first year of the tRump presidency. The most explosive contents have already been spotlighted extensively on cable news. However, the book is a revelation as Wolff delves into the White House infighting between tRump’s closest aides. It reveals the ugly side of politics–that the presidency represents power and those closest to the president can wield it with impunity. It reveals the fight to control a man who is essentially a loose cannon and uncontrollable. It reveals how everyone had a personal agenda and how hard they fought to get it front and center. It’s an unflattering portrayal of an unpopular president who along with his aides aren’t worthy or qualified to hold positions affecting the lives of people worldwide. 

Belgravia – Julian Fellowes

I started this book by the man who gave us Downton Abbey and couldn’t put it down! Disclaimer: it won’t be for everyone. The closest thing I can liken it to is a really well done Regency (minus the sex) which is maybe my number one guilty pleasure. In 1815, beautiful Sophia Trenchard is in Brussels before the battle of Waterloo. There she falls in love with with Edmund, Viscount Bellasis–an impossible match given he is the son of an Earl and she the daughter of a tradesman. Fast forward 25 years and the Trenchard family has outpaced even their wildest expectations moving among the London aristocracy as though they actually belong. Enter Lady Maria Grey who develops unexpected feelings for Christopher Pope, the son of a country vicar and an unabashed businessman. Can the tragedy of Sophia’s affair translate into something positive for a new generation? This is drawing-room repartee at its best, although the plot is contrived with stock characters and at times feels a bit silly. Still, it makes for compelling reading with a highly satisfying end. 

Carve The Mark – Veronica Roth

If you like YA Dystopian, this book’s for you. Written by the author of Divergent, it’s more sci-fi than what we’ve come to expect, but there are plenty of fantasy elements to placate the faithful. Cyra is Shotet; sister of the violent brutal leader. Akos is from a prominent family of the opposing Thuvhe tribe. Akos is kidnapped as a child to prevent Cyra’s brother from meeting a dismal fate predicted by planetary oracles. In this universe, people are gifted with various powers. Cyra’s gift, killing by touch, causes her a great deal of pain. Akos is given to Cyra because his gift is able to counteract hers. Cyra has spent her life trying to survive her sadistic brother. Akos’s only goal is to escape. As their relationship flourishes, Cyra joins forces with rebels attempting to overthrow her brother to help him get away. Although the plot in this book seems unnecessarily complex, Roth has not lost the ability to pen a page-turning story with compelling lead characters, romance and adventure aplenty.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia brings about sweeping changes, especially for the aristocracy. Count Rostov finds himself sentenced to house arrest in The Metropol, a grande dame of a hotel not far from the Kremlin. Rostov isn’t permitted his usual accommodations but must make do with a tiny room in the attic. How he adjusts to his confinement and reduced circumstances provides the crux of the novel. Instead of crumbling, the Count uses his charm and wit to carve out a life for himself as year after year slips by while tumultuous events occur outside the hotel’s doors. Even in his small world, Rostov manages to make friends, fall in love, experience fatherhood and find purpose in life. The pacing of this book is slow and it took me awhile to get into it. However, the writing is eloquent and the Count such a gentleman I soon found myself worrying about and rooting for him. An epic story well worth the time and effort.

 

 

Unbelievable – Katy Tur

Katy Tur was an NBC television reporter with an enviable posting in London when asked to report on Donald tRump’s presidential campaign. She was given the assignment over more seasoned reporters with the expectation the run would be short-lived. But seeing the reaction of fans, Tur began to believe the impossible might actually happen. For a year and a half, she lived out of a suitcase, following him to forty states, living on junk food and struggling to keep up her appearance in more than 3,800 TV reports. Along the way, she endured taunts from tRump for calling him on his lies, at one point needing Secret Service protection from rabid fans. In some ways this is a difficult book to read because we know tRump wins. It’s painful reliving the experience. But Tur doesn’t shy away from revealing his pettiness; the difficulty of life on the road; the character of his followers; and the obsequiousness of staff. All in all, a fascinating look at a political reporter on the road during an election year covering the circus that is Donald tRump.

So Far From the Bamboo Grove – Yoko Kawashima Watkins

A story about a young Japanese girl fleeing Korea at the end of WWII, this is a children’s novel recommended by members of my book club. Published in 1986, the book has lost none of its relevance or punch. Eleven-year-old Yoko is living a happy secure life as the daughter of a Japanese official stationed in North Korea. Everything changes when the U.S. drops nuclear bombs and Japan surrenders. Yoko, her mother and her older sister, Ko, must abruptly flee Communists looking for revenge without her father or older brother.  Having lived the experience, the author is able to bring Yoko to life as a spoiled little girl forced to get tough to survive. The writing is spare, scenes of death, rape and other atrocities delivered without sensationalism yet all the more compelling for the restraint. Will the family get back to Japan and be reunited in this riveting tale of escape and survival? Highly recommended for all ages.

The Lost City of the Monkey God – Douglas Preston

Preston is one of my favorite science-based thriller writers. When I saw this book I snatched it up not realizing it’s non-fiction. It made no difference. The book-based on his adventures in Honduras-is every bit as fascinating as one of his thrillers. There have long been rumors about a lost city in the Honduran interior. In 2012, Preston joined a team of scientists on a quest to find it. Going off findings from lidar (an amazing new mapping technology), Preston ventured into the densest kind of rainforest; terrain which hasn’t seen human habitation in hundreds of years. Battling impenetrable foliage, torrential rains, disease-carrying insects and deadly snakes, the group makes one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century. Preston covers every inch of the battle from challenges posed by an ever-changing Honduran government to unchecked drug lords to environmental hostility. Intriguing glimpses are granted into a culture which predated the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors but vanished shortly after. Why? Preston’s answer presents a chilling reality for societies which all coalesce, peak and ultimately disappear.