Book Reviews of 2020

The final 40 days of this unprecedented — and for many of us, unprecedentedly awful — year are upon us. It’s also the close of my sabbatical semester, one activity of which has been getting this blog and website up and running again. I thought I’d make it easy on myself by starting out with posting reviews of my favorite reads of the last year (or so), most of which have been published in Historical Novels Review, the journal of The Historical Novel Society.

First up, from the November 2019 issue, is Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind them All, by Laura Ruby (Balzer & Bray, 2019):

This luminous, moving novel by an award-winning YA novelist is a genre-defying achievement. Part ghost story, part feminist history, part love letter to the city of Chicago, this narrative jumps back and forth between the 1940s and earlier years, as it follows the coming-of-age trials of Frankie Mazza, a sensitive adolescent who lives with her siblings at the Angel Guardian Orphanage.

Like many of their fellow inmates, the Mazzas aren’t actually orphans, but have been left in the dubious care of the nuns by parents who cannot care for them for various reasons. Their days are not as desperate as Oliver Twist’s, but the banality of their existence is not livened much by their friendships and field trips though Chicago neighborhoods. Frankie is a talented artist whose grief over her father’s abandonment, and separation from her first love by World War II, keep her from attempting to follow her own dreams.

What makes the story unforgettable is the voice of its narrator, a spirit who haunts the orphanage and has become fascinated with Frankie. Pearl is a fierce, sarcastic ghost whose own tragic history is revealed in tiny bits as she travels around the city, spying on the living and the dead and trying to determine where she’s supposed to be. Her observations are both funny and poignant and provide a vivid counterpoint to Frankie’s search for love and purpose, which spans most of the decade of the 1940s. While the secrets and revelations both Pearl and Frankie discover about their own pasts are not unexpected, they are rendered with raw emotional power.

This is a book to be savored for its gorgeous prose as well as its memorable characters. It has already been long-listed for a National Book Award and is sure to appear on many other 2019 award lists.

(© Kristen McDermott 2019)

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