Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan is a relaxing read, like sitting with girlfriends for a long chat.
The story pivots back and forth between college senior Sam and new mother Elisabeth’s points of view. Sam is hired to help care for Elisabeth’s son Gil while she tries to get back into writing after her family’s move from Brooklyn to suburbia.
They develop a close friendship which blurs lines with each other’s personal lives. There are many topics, such as adapting to a new residence, financial struggle, pregnancy, friend/significant other relationships and familial conflict. This all builds toward a surprising fallout.
Characters are well written and mostly likable. The story reminds us about the fragility of relationships during our lives.
Me Moth by Amber McBride is a story written in narrative verse following the terrible accident that killed Moth’s parents and brother. Moth is the sole survivor.
Moth lives a solitary existence with her aunt. She is basically unseen and she prefers it that way until meeting newcomer Sani. Sani and Moth connect and run away together. Their interests in music and the arts (Moth was a dancer) bond them. The writing exudes this artistic ethereal feeling as readers travel along with Sani and Moth.
There is a blending of Moth’s Hoodoo upbringing by her grandfather and Sani’s Native American culture. All comes to a startling conclusion when Moth realizes her truth and more about Sani’s special gift. His gift was also his illness, until meeting Moth.
This book stands out because of its unique approach and meaningful word choice.
Counterfeit by Kristin Chen is a story of a good girl gone bad.
Ava Wong is a corporate lawyer turned stay at home mom to her emotionally turbulent toddler Henri. Her husband is a very busy surgeon, leaving Ava and nanny Maria to care for the home front.
Ava’s former college roommate Winnie (who dropped out due to a scandal) suddenly gets in touch. Winnie slowly reels Ava into her counterfeit purse business which did very well, until they get caught.
The story is primarily told from Ava’s point of view as she explains the whole process to the female detective who infiltrated their scam. Is it possible for Ava and Winnie to pull off the ultimate story in order to outsmart the law and their high-powered bosses?
This is an engaging read that kept me turning pages until its end.
The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes is my final 2023 high school Nutmeg nominee!
Avery was down on her luck and living in her car when a handsome guest summons her at school. She is asked to partake in billionaire Tobias Hawthorne’s will reading. It turns out that she is is his primary heir which shocks his two daughters and four grandsons.
She now owns his massive estate and possessions including his nonprofit organization. Avery gets close to a couple of the brothers as they attempt to decipher clues left in Tobias’s letter to each brother. They hope the clues will lead to Tobias’s reason for choosing someone he never met as his heir. Throughout this mystery are challenges that Avery must face as an overnight billionaire.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam is another 2023 Nutmeg high school nominee.
This book is written in narrative verse which is fitting for main character Amal’s artistic and poetic nature. The story details Amal’s conviction and sentence to a juvenile detention facility following a racially charged fight which landed a white boy, Jeremy Mathis, in a coma. While Amal admits to throwing the first punch, he was not the cause of Jeremy’s hospitalization.
Amal uses lyrics and art to process his feelings of anger, sadness and love as he encounters people who either support or tear him down. The author’s note provides insight and parallels to the “Central Park jogger” case, in which coauthor Salaam was wrongfully convicted and charged along with four of his friends.
This story has a profound message of maintaining hope and strength in the midst of adversity.
More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood is another 2023 high school Nutmeg nominee.
Danyal may be extremely handsome, but he has several struggles to overcome. Danyal is known for being a low-achieving student, so it is a major problem when he is chosen to represent his history class for the upcoming Renaissance Man competition. In this competition he will need to present a final essay on his teacher’s topic of choice- Winston Churchill. He must decide whether to tell the truth about Churchill’s part in the Bengal Famine. Doing so may jeopardize whether he passes the class, and also will prevent his lifelong crush, Kaval, from seeing him as a marriage match.
Another conflict is his choice to go against his Muslim upbringing by getting friendly with a marriage prospect who was involved in a sex tape. There is also Danyal’s love of cooking, which is considered a poor future prospect by both his dad and his crush, Kaval.
Danyal is able to navigate all these troubles with support from very different friendships, and with his own heart and mind’s guidance. East Indian religion, history and culture are important parts of this story. It also includes topics such as being true to oneself, forgiveness and standing up for what is right.
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka counts down convicted killer Ansel Packer’s final hours before his execution, while also alternating among various female characters.
In the countdown, Ansel’s describes his theory on human nature, the reason for his kills, and how he was able to finally find peace within himself. Unfortunately, these latter events occur too late for him and for his victims. Now he must come to terms with his actions.
There are three women who complete Ansel’s story. All contribute different views and background about his character. Lavender is his mother, who spent four years enduring a controlling, abusive relationship before leaving her husband and two sons behind. Saffy first saw some of his disturbing behavior while sharing a foster placement together. Now she is a detective and Ansel is on her radar again. And finally there is Hazel, twin sister of Ansel’s wife Jenny.
This was a highly entertaining read that had me thinking deeply about human nature and all of the little events and choices that shape us.
We Are Not Free by Traci Chee is an amazingly well-written compilation of fourteen Japanese American teenagers’ experiences during WW2. The story is historical fiction beginning right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, progressing through their imprisonment in camps, service in war (for some), and release to an uncertain future three years later.
The characters are all from Japantown, San Francisco, and they all connect as either family or friends. Each character’s personality is so different, yet each imparts the horrifying hostility during this time and its impact on families.
I appreciated how the story began and ended from the same character’s point of view along with one of his drawings at the end which tied so much together. There are other significant touches too, such as the inclusion of news clippings and artifacts of the time period, and the lyrical style showing one character’s conflict between claiming loyalty to Japan or America.
The sign of a well-written story is when you can’t stop yourself from thinking about all of its elements, even down to the author’s note at the end. This story definitely accomplished this for me, and is one that I will not forget.
Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King is a beautifully expressive novel. It approaches depression, mental illness, marital issues and abuse with a sensitive touch.
Sarah decides to stop going to school. The reason for her abrupt decision is slowly released, and it’s much deeper than the school bullying incident which acted as a catalyst. Sarah has been settling into a depressive state since she was ten. Spoilers are ahead.
Sarah interacts with herself at various ages: ten, twenty three and forty to name a few. Each age imparts some hidden truth, but ten is most important. This is when she first witnessed her father’s physical abuse of her older brother. She hasn’t had contact with her brother since.
Sarah begins slowly confronting her various selves as she wanders her town, spends time “in school” at an abandoned building, follows a homeless artist and interacts with her parents. Ultimately she is able to reach out to her estranged brother and speak about her pain. Gradually, she is able to return to one of her true loves, art, and find comfort with her brother and mother.
This is often a heavy read that reveals the powerful depth of human emotion.
Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez is about overcoming obstacles to achieve one’s dreams. It is also a 2023 high school Nutmeg nominee.
In Argentina, women are disregarded and young girls go missing without much attention. All the attention and praise seems to go to the men, especially those earning a name for themselves in soccer. This includes Camila’s brother and her childhood crush Diego. But Camila is a very good soccer player too, nicknamed Furia. She wants to pave her own way to success and move to the States to play soccer.
Camila’s team won their division and now she has a chance to get attention in the finals tournament. Camila will need to work harder than ever to get ready for the tournament, while also dealing with family conflict because of her abusive father, and her rekindled relationship with Diego, who is now a Juventus player.
This story includes important ideas about culture and empowerment.