Book Bites: Hist Fic & Other Picks

As we continue to mask up and social distance… well, it’s another great week to curl up with a good book, isn’t it? Fortunately, we have some great recommendations to help you do exactly that, highlighted by a trio of wonderful historical novels. If that’s not your flavor, don’t worry: We also have a sweet family read-aloud, swoony YA escapism, a multi-generational South African saga, and two compelling memoirs from a pair of remarkable women. Happy reading, Houston—and here’s hoping that we can gather together to talk about books in the not-too-distant future.

Ages 4-8

Watercress by Andrea Wang; illustrated by Jason Chin

As her family drives along a road in rural Ohio, a girl's parents suddenly stop when they see watercress growing by the side of the road. She's embarrassed when she has to help collect it and refuses to eat it when it's prepared for dinner. This prompts a family discussion of her parents' childhood in China that helps the child gain appreciation for her parents and for the watercress. A lovely story about family heritage.


READ this autobiographical picture book for its poetic text, stunning illustrations, and emotional resonance.
PASS for now if you just noticed some delicious leaves and herbs growing outside your window.
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Ages 13 and Up

With You All The Way by Cynthia Hand

To All the Boys I've Loved Before meets Hawai’i! Ada's hot, athletic, perfect boyfriend cheats on her days before her annual trip to her surgeon mother's conference in Hawai’i. Grappling for her bearing and trying to pick up the pieces of her broken heart, Ada comes up with the one thing that she thinks can help her get over her no-good ex: rebound sex in paradise. But as her vacation goes on, Ada may come to realize that paradise may not be as pretty as it looks.

With You All the Way is a refreshing read, perfect for a relaxing day in paradise. I felt like I was transported to Hawai’i while reading, and I really liked how the author made Ada's experiences relatable. An intriguing, page turning rom-com that left me wanting more even after the book was finished. 

—Olivia, Teen Advisory Board

READ for the breezy rom-com vibes and thoughtful treatment of sex and consent.
PASS if you’ll just get jealous that you can’t hop on a plane to Hawai’i right now.
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Adult Fiction 

Vera by Carol Edgarian

Vera's story unfolds against the backdrop of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the subsequent fires. Vera, her mother and sister live in a modest part of the city. We learn that Vera is actually the child of a well-to-do madam and that her "mother" is being paid to raise her. She visits her real mother occasionally at the Gold House, a mansion in Pacific Heights. When the earthquake hits, Vera's "mother" is killed. She and her sister make their way to the mansion but Rose is not there. A large cast of characters, including the Chinese cook, a stable boy, the corrupt mayor, and more play out in this engaging historical fiction. Edgarian does a great job of putting you on the scene as the city struggles for survival.


READ because this is a pageturner that, despite the devastation of its subject matter, will ultimately fill you with hope.
PASS if you’re more in the mood for a disaster story in the Godzilla vs. Kong vein.
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The Elephant of Belfast by S. Kirk Walsh

As the world is imploding into WWII, an orphaned elephant named Violet is brought by ship to the Belfast zoo. There, young Hettie Quin, an aspiring zookeeper, falls in love with Violet. But changes are coming. In spite of bombs, troubles between the Catholic conspirators, and the very real question of how to care for wild animals in dire situations, Hettie strives to help Violet and keep her own family together.


READ because this is beautifully-drawn historical fiction from a great new Texas author.
PASS if you’ve read all the WWII stories you think you need—although we think this forgotten slice of history warrants your attention.
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Leonora in the Morning Light by Michaela Carter

In 1937, Leonora Carringon, a privileged 20 year-old Londoner, is involved in an affair with older German artist Max Ernst. Leonora runs off with Ernst to Paris, exploring her own artistic talents while living as his love interest. While they are partying and living lives that push against traditional norms, Germany is gaining strength as a world power. Historical details of Nazi occupation in Paris and the rise of Surrealism weave throughout this tumultuous love story. For a while, the couple peacefully lives and creates in the French countryside, but when Max is sent to internment camps for being one of the “degenerates,”  they must each figure out how to escape to America. Peggy Guggenheim’s role in saving artists, such as Max, and their art during this important period shapes each character as does a forced stay at a mental institute for Leonora. Ultimately, they all end up in New York and their lives stay entwined until Leonora realizes she must break free to find her own creative, sane self.


READ because this fascinating story of an incredible artist is full of art, intrigue, and heartbreak.
PASS if you’re worried that reading about the Surrealists will give you creepy dreams.
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The Promise by Damon Galgut

At the first of four funerals that punctuate this 30-year saga, ten-year old Amor Swart reminds her family of her mother’s dying promise—to give the family’s longtime housekeeper, Salome, the deed to her little house on the family’s ranch.. The Swart ranch is outside Pretoria, South Africa, and, during the waning days of apartheid, Amor and her older siblings face the challenges of apartheid’s legacy in very different ways. At each funeral, Amor reminds her siblings of the promise to Salome, a promise unmet for three decades, and a promise that reflects in a larger sense the trajectory of South Africa’s history until the present day. Galgut writes in powerful and beautiful prose about human frailties, tragedies, and failed opportunities, but there is a lightness in his touch and an ending that left me perfectly satisfied. Loved it.


READ this rave-reviewed book because Damon Galgut is an amazing writer at the height of his powers.
PASS if you’re looking for some light and breezy beach reading.
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Adult Nonfiction 

Finding Freedom by Erin French

Do not read this book when you are hungry! Aside from the stories about her abusive first husband and her time in rehab, food fills the pages of this compelling memoir of a young woman's fight to realize her vocation as a chef. From the age of 13, when her father put her to work in his diner, Erin loved working with food and serving it to others. An unplanned pregnancy during college in Boston brought her back to rural Maine where she worked at restaurants, cafes, and bars until she was able to open a small restaurant. But, as she achieved success as a chef, her unhappy marriage came to feel like a trap, and her long hours in the restaurant led to prescription drug addiction. Any reader who has started a small business or dreamed of starting one will recognize the trials and pitfalls entailed therein and, at the same time, will be inspired by Erin's grit and determination that led to the creation of The Lost Kitchen, a restaurant so popular today that there is an annual lottery for each season's dinner reservations. Recommended.

— Alice 

READ because French’s is an extraordinary story you won’t soon forget.
PASS, as Alice warns, if you’re hungry!
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How to Raise a Feminist Son by Sonora Jha

The story of an immigrant woman and her struggle to raise a son who can see women as people (versus objects) with voices that merit as much attention as those of men. Jha's story is a moving account of her own struggles growing up and of moving to the United States. She has determined her own story and offers a method for how to see and appreciate the successes along the way. 


READ this powerful story for its actionable advice and sharp insight.
PASS if you’re cool with another six thousand years of patriarchy.
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