The books that gave us comfort, joy—and lots to talk about.
By Frances Osborne
320 pages; Knopf
The Bolter chronicles the life of Idina Sackville, a wellborn British woman who defied convention by having "lovers without number" and choosing a decadent expat life in Kenya in 1918. Was Sackville a protofeminist free spirit à la Isak Dinesen or a spoiled rich girl who couldn't resist a scandal? Author Frances Osborne—Sackville's great-granddaughter—traces her ancestor's journey from madcap to just plain mad.
Dreaming in Hindi By Katherine Russell Rich 384 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
What do you do when rotten luck leaves you speechless? After two bouts with cancer and the shock of getting fired, Katherine Russell Rich "no longer had the language to describe my own life. So I decided I'd borrow someone else's." Dreaming in Hindi is the verbally and emotionally dazzling story of Rich's passage to India, where she tried to master an intricate foreign tongue—and became fluent in the language of human possibility.
Little Bee By Chris Cleave 288 pages; Simon & Schuster
A terrifying memory unites two very different women—a wry and ingenious young Nigerian refugee newly sprung from a British detention center, and an editor of a fashionable English women's magazine—in Chris Cleave's hauntingly original novel, Little Bee. A story about what it takes to look horror in the face and still find beauty.
Blame By Michelle Huneven 304 pages; Sarah Crichton/FSG
Sly yet openhearted, Michelle Huneven's Blame takes on the recovery movement in this novel about Patsy MacLemoore, a slightly wild, 20-something history professor involved in an alcohol-related crime. All too flawed, Patsy eventually finds redemption, only to wind up questioning her hard-won moral certainties later on. Think The Good Mother or House of Sand and Fog: It's that good.
Losing Mum and Pup By Christopher Buckley 251 pages; Twelve
Christopher Buckley's life wasn't exactly like most people's—his parents were William F. and Patricia Buckley, East Coast social and intellectual fixtures. But Losing Mum and Pup, his memoir of the year in which they both died—is universal in its evocation of loss. It's extraordinary for its clarity and, of course, its wit (Buckley has also written many comic novels, including Thank You for Smoking). "Lovely people sometimes do unlovely things," Buckley has said. But he—and we—can love them anyway.
We already knew Dave Eggers could tell his own story very well—see 2000's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—but he leaves himself out of Zeitoun. Here, the subject is a Syrian-born contractor who should have been lionized for his selfless work in New Orleans during and after Katrina but was instead caged like an animal in a makeshift jail; the book is a masterpiece of compassionate reporting about a shameful time in our history.
Say You're One of Them By Uwem Akpan
368 pages; Back Bay
Only Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian-born writer and Jesuit priest, could guide us though such desperate terrain, from street slums in Nairobi to war-torn Rwanda, with something like hope in our hands. No doubt, these stories of rape, slaughter, and child slavery are difficult to bear. But, told mostly by children, Say You're One of Them, a recent pick of Oprah's Book Club, tempers ineffable treachery with wild-eyed imagination, offering a ravenous prayer for a better world.
Some Things That Meant the World to Me By Joshua Mohr 208 pages; Two Dollar Radio
Meet Rhonda, a man who spends his haunted, liquor-fueled days Dumpster diving for redemption. With his first line—"I'd like to brag about the night I saved a hooker's life"—debut writer Joshua Mohr sucks you into Some Things That Meant the World to Me. Charles Bukowski fans will dig the grit in this seedy novel, a poetic rendering of postmodern San Francisco culminating in, of all places, Home Depot.
The Invisible Mountain By Carolina De Robertis 384 pages; Knopf
Carolina De Robertis's The Invisible Mountain—about three generations of strong women whose passions play out against the politics of 20th-century South America—does what the best, most readable novels do: It tells a compelling human story about identity while also quietly evoking a place and time.
Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness By Tracy Kidder 304 pages; Random House
Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains is the astonishing real-life story of a man called Deo, who, after witnessing the destruction of his native Burundi, faced poverty and deep humiliation in America—and rose above it. Kidder can describe a 14-hour trek up a mountainside so vividly you understand that moving on can be a show of strength, as some things matter more than a broken heart.