Booked: The Muckraker’s Winter Reading List

Songs of Willow Frostby Jamie Ford (Random House)

songs of willow frostWilliam Eng, a Chinese American orphan in Depression-era Seattle, is told his mother will never return from the sanitarium to reclaim him from the Sacred Heart Orphanage. When he sees his mother in a movie on his twelfth birthday, he questions everything the nuns have told him. Along with his friend Charlotte, who has a troubled past of her own, William sets off to find his “ah-ma.”  As the novel progresses we learn the heartbreaking story of how Liu Song lost her son and became the film star Willow Frost.

“Songs of Willow Frost” is a character-driven novel, told in a simple prose that gets out of the way of the relationships at the heart of the tale. It’s one of the first books I’ve read recently with a female lead who, arguably, is not a strong, driven woman. The novel is all the more interesting for portraying a woman who wants to provide the best life for her son, but constantly faces hardships she simply cannot overcome. I appreciate the novel’s adhering to the truth of the time period – women faced numerous disadvantages across all levels of society in the late 1920’s and early 30’s, and these were multiplied for a young, unwed Chinese American mother.

Though the novel started strong, by the end there are a few details that left me thinking “Huh?” and at least one memory left unexplained. But it’s a quick read with a cast of memorable, if sometimes flat, characters that held my interest throughout the whole book. Ford’s first book, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” was a common book club pick, and I could see this one enjoying similar success.

Verdict: Jury’s still out. If you’re a fan of historical fiction and/or family tales that’ll bring a tear to your eye, it’s worth checking out.


We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo (Hachette)

we need new namesI wasn’t originally planning on reviewing this book. Then I read the first chapter and it completely blew me away. It’s no wonder that chapter won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing as a short story and the novel was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

“We Need New Names” is a cross-continental coming of age story. Darling begins narrating the tale when she is 10 years old, living in a shantytown called Paradise in Zimbabwe. Around the halfway point, she moves to “Destroyedmichygen” (what she names Detroit) to live with her aunt and shares her experiences and astute observations of her new country. Whether Darling is stealing guavas with her friends in Africa or driving without a license with her friends in America, you can identify with her.

Bulawayo deftly describes scenes from mundane, every day activities to extreme acts of violence, and everything in between. When Darling is distraught about lying to her friends about her father’s AIDS she explains, “I don’t like not playing with them and I don’t like lying to them because they are the most important thing to me and when I’m not with them I feel like I’m not even me.” I get that – what child hasn’t felt that way about their friends? Her use of language is on point, and a true pleasure to read. The narration reads plausibly for a ten-year-old, and it subtly grows more sophisticated as the book progresses and the narrator ages.

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Illustrated by: Minji Reem

While billed as a novel, the chapters are independent enough to read separately as vignettes. I particularly recommend “How They Left” and “How They Lived,” two powerful essays on the emigrant and immigrant experiences, respectively.

Verdict: Affirmed. The “joint and several” chapters are a perfect format for busy law students who want stories they can pick up when they have time, and still enjoy the experience of reading an overarching novel. For lovers of current literary fiction, readers looking to find a promising young writer at the start of her career, or good writing enthusiasts, “We Need New Names” is an incredible debut novel sure to impress.


Bruceby Peter Ames Carlin, (Simon & Schuster)

bruceLike almost anyone raised in central New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen is one of my heroes. I’ll sing along to “Born to Run” anywhere, anytime, fully aware of the irony that I celebrate a song about getting out of my home state. “Bruce” tells the story of the man behind these beloved songs.

Carlin had wide access to Springsteen, his family, bandmates, and friends, and the details provided in these interviews really flesh out the biography. From the Springsteen family’s working class beginnings in Freehold, New Jersey; to his first few bands playing small venues on the Jersey Shore; to the formation, dissolution, and reunion of the E Street Band; the biography traces every step in Springsteen’s career. Carlin deftly reveals the motivations behind each career move and the inspiration behind each adored song.

Maybe I’m a bit biased. Having grown up in the same county as Springsteen, I recognize the towns and landmarks mentioned in the book. (He brainstormed with bandmates at Inkwell? I’ve had late night fries there!) Yet, just like Springsteen’s Jersey-driven music captured the mood of a generation, the story of a young man passionate about music, who wouldn’t stop pushing himself to create and perform, should resonate with many who have relentlessly followed a dream — or hope to.

Verdict: Affirmed. For fans of the Boss, music, or biographies generally, “Bruce” is a well-crafted book exploring the life of one of America’s living legends.

Want to know if a book is worth your time? Send Nicole review suggestions and feedback at

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