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Gene Weingarten, a longtime Washington Post journalist and two-time Pulitzer winner, picked a date at random (Dec. 28, 1986) and found a multitude of real-life stories, from all over the country.
Musician/author/poet Patti Smith’s third volume of her memoirs — the first, “Just Kids,” won the National Book Award in 2010 — takes us through her life in her 70th year, in “a hybrid narrative that’s part travel journal, part reflexive essay on our times, and part meditation on existence at the edge of a new decade of life,” wrote an NPR reviewer, describing the book as “a beautifully realized and unique memoir that chronicles a transformative year in the life of one of our most multi-talented creative voices.”
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Diaz’s debut memoir, winner of the 2020 Whiting Award for nonfiction, tells of growing up in a troubled family in Puerto Rico. “Diaz is meticulous in her craft, and on page after page her writing truly sings,” wrote a New York Times reviewer. “This brutally honest coming-of-age story is a painful yet illuminating memoir, a testament to resilience in the face of scarcity, a broken family, substance abuse, sexual assault, mental illness, suicide and violence. It takes courage to write a book like ‘Ordinary Girls,’ and Diaz does not shy away from her deepest, most troubling truths.”
Named one of the best books of 2019 by The New York Times, this sprawling debut novel is “an intimate, brainy, gleaming epic, set mostly in what is now Zambia, the landlocked country in southern Africa,” wrote an NYT reviewer; the book follows the fortunes of three families across four generations, from colonialism through the AIDS crisis. “The reader who picks up ‘The Old Drift’ is likely to be more than simply impressed,” the review continued. “This is a dazzling book, as ambitious as any first novel published this decade. It made the skin on the back of my neck prickle.”
Jeong, a bestselling author of psychological thrillers in her native South Korea (including “The Good Son”), wrote this novel, translated by Chi-Young Kim, in 2011; it’s only just now being translated and published here. This book, about a young boy whose father is accused of a brutal crime, is “an admirable achievement,” wrote a Los Angeles Times reviewer, “bolstering the case for Jeong as one among the best at writing psychological suspense.”
Ruth Ware is awfully good at British haunted-house novels, and this one adds a modern twist to Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” “ ‘The Turn of the Key’ contains all the most pleasurable hallmarks of the genre,” wrote an NPR reviewer. “Secret garden, handsome handyman, ghostly footsteps, a locked attic, whispers in the village of hauntings and deaths, a scribbled warning from the last nanny.” She calls it “a clever and elegant update to James’ story, one with less ambiguity but its own eerie potency.”
“The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder that Shocked Jazz-Age America” — a work of true-crime history and an Edgar Award nominee — introduces us to a famed 1920s bootlegger tried for the murder of his wife. A Washington Post reviewer wrote that “Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald “would undoubtedly have appreciated this heady cocktail of murder, intrigue and Jazz Age excess.”
I love how Horowitz’s mystery novels play with narration and character; there’s always an insouciant twist you don’t see coming. An NPR reviewer wrote “Horowitz mimics Golden Age authors (Christie, Allingham, Marsh, Sayers) so well in his books’ scope and denouements that fans of both puzzle and cozy mysteries will savor the balance of clues and cups of tea (OK, more often pints and cocktails, here) that the author seems to have imbibed like mother’s milk.”
Susan Choi’s fifth novel, winner of the 2019 National Book Award for fiction, is initially set at a 1980s drama school, where several teenage students are manipulated by a charismatic teacher. A reviewer in The Guardian noted, “What she’s done, magisterially, is to take the issues raised by #MeToo and show them as inextricable from more universal questions about taking a major role in someone else’s life, while knowing that we’re offering only a minor part in return.”
The man who invented the Grinch, the Lorax and the Cat in the Hat is the subject of the carefully researched biography “Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination.”
Perfect for YA readers: High school, how bad can it get? Well, blackmail, cheating, gossip, manipulation, lying, police brutality, racism and murder. The novels of Thomas, McManus and Urban take us back to those gruesome-as-only-high-school-can-be days where everything seems to be high-stakes and intensely important, but sometimes, more than feelings get hurt. One reviewer described McManus’s “One of Us Is Lying” as “‘Pretty Little Liars’ meets ‘The Breakfast Club.’” (If I remember correctly, my high school was just like that.) And talk about game-playing: Urban’s Christie-esque “All Your Twisted Secrets” brings a group of students into a deadly real-life game of Clue. And in “The Hate U Give,” Thomas makes worlds collide in her timely and honest examination of how the pressure to balance your identity as a student at a fancy prep school, your racial identity and your identity at home can turn into an intense, life-changing drama.
You just might need the warm, chatty delights of a Lipman novel. This one, her 11th, is about an old yearbook that goes astray, causing troubles for its owner’s grown daughter and the busybody documentary filmmaker who finds it. A New York Times reviewer described it as “a caper novel, light as a feather and effortlessly charming” and said it “inspires a very specific kind of modern joy.”
From the Seattle-based author of “Alif the Unseen” comes this historical fantasy, set in the royal court of Granada during the Spanish Inquisition and featuring the friendship between a concubine and a palace mapmaker with an extraordinary gift. Seattle Times reviewer Wright called it “an enchanting historical fantasy adventure that combines an unconventional love story with a thoughtful exploration of faith and religious tolerance.”
By James Lee Burke
By David W. Blight
By Robert A. Caro
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