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10 Novels with Moral Dilemmas You’ll Contemplate for Days

Sara Roncero-Menendez
July 13 2021
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Right and wrong, good and evil—some novels take place in worlds where the correct paths are easy to find, where the heroes are saints, and the villains are sinners. However, there’s something to be said for a good book that makes you question your foundations of thinking and consider difficult subjects. These books will have you trying to unravel your own thoughts about fairness and morality as the characters make the hard choices, confronting big ideas and even bigger consequences. So if you’re looking to be challenged by a read this month, here are ten novels sure to put your principles to the test.

Revival Season
by Monica West

Depending on where you grew up, tent revivals are nothing new, but Monica West’s REVIVAL SEASON crafts an intricate and spellbinding story around a family that runs one of these moving houses of worship. The Hortons are a complicated bunch: Father Samuel is an iron-fisted preacher, Joanne serves as both mother of three and perpetual victim of Samuel’s abuse, son Caleb is working to be more like his father, daughter Miriam narrates the story and struggles with her faith, and Hannah, the youngest child, has cerebral palsy. As they travel across the south to preach to different towns, tensions run high, and Miriam starts to wonder how a loving God could let so much suffering happen to their little family.

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Revival Season
Monica West

The daughter of one of the South’s most famous Baptist preachers discovers a shocking secret about her father that puts her at odds with both her faith and her family in this “tender and wise” (Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth) debut novel.

Every summer, fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton and her family pack themselves tight in their old minivan and travel through small southern towns for revival season: the time when Miriam’s father—one of the South’s most famous preachers—holds massive healing services for people desperate to be cured of ailments and disease.This summer, the revival season doesn’t go as planned, and after one service in which Reverend Horton’s healing powers are tested like never before, Miriam witnesses a shocking act of violence that shakes her belief in her father—and in her faith.

When the Hortons return home, Miriam’s confusion only grows as she discovers she might have the power to heal—even though her father and the church have always made it clear that such power is denied to women. Over the course of the next year, Miriam must decide between her faith, her family, and her newfound power that might be able to save others, but, if discovered by her father, could destroy Miriam.

Celebrating both feminism and faith, Revival Season is a story of spiritual awakening and disillusionment in a Southern, black, Evangelical community. Monica West’s transporting coming-of-age novel explores complicated family and what it means to live among the community of the faithful.

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The Storyteller
by Jodi Picoult

Sage Singer is a baker, who works through the night so that no one sees her scarred face and while grieving the loss of her parents. She has only a few friends, including the elderly Josef Weber from her grief support group, who is also a loyal bakery patron. When Josef opens up about a terrible secret, and asks Sage to help end his life, she has a difficult choice to make. THE STORYTELLER is a testament to Jodi Picoult’s prowess as a writer, and she has crafted a story with characters so enthralling, you’ll find it hard to put it down. Not to mention the last-minute twist that will turn the entire story on its head in the best possible way.

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The Storyteller
Jodi Picoult

An astonishing novel about redemption and forgiveness from the “amazingly talented writer” (HuffPost) and #1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult.

Some stories live forever...

Sage Singer is a baker. She works through the night, preparing the day’s breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. When Josef Weber, an elderly man in Sage’s grief support group, begins stopping by the bakery, they strike up an unlikely friendship. Despite their differences, they see in each other the hidden scars that others can’t.

Everything changes on the day that Josef confesses a long-buried and shame­ful secret and asks Sage for an extraordinary favor. If she says yes, she faces not only moral repercussions, but potentially legal ones as well. With the integrity of the closest friend she’s ever had clouded, Sage begins to question the assumptions and expectations she’s made about her life and her family. In this searingly honest novel, Jodi Picoult gracefully explores the lengths to which we will go in order to keep the past from dictating the future.

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The Secret of Raven Point
by Jennifer Vanderbes

War changes all those who encounter it, which this novel explores through Juliet Dufresne. She enlists in the army during World War II and serves along the front lines to try to find her brother, who has mysteriously vanished. During her long and difficult travels, she comes across Christopher Barnaby, a catatonic soldier who might know just where her brother has disappeared to. With the help of the young psychiatrist Dr. Henry Willard, Juliet will dive into Christopher’s traumatic memories of combat, reflecting on the very nature of war itself. Dark yet heartfelt, THE SECRET OF RAVEN POINT will make you question what you would do in the face of unrelenting violence.

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The Secret of Raven Point
Jennifer Vanderbes

When seventeen-year-old Juliet Dufresne receives a cryptic letter from her enlisted brother and then discovers that he’s been reported missing in action on the Italian front, she lies about her age and travels to the front lines as an army nurse, determined to find him.

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Amnesty
by Aravind Adiga

Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, who goes by Danny, is an undocumented immigrant working in Sydney as a cleaner, slowly trying to build a better life for himself. All is going according to plan until one of his clients is brutally murdered, and he suspects one of his other clients of having perpetrated the deed. Danny’s faced with a life-altering dilemma: come forward with what he knows and get deported back to Sri Lanka, or say nothing and keep living his life with his job and girlfriend as justice goes unserved? Heartbreakingly beautiful, AMNESTY explores the challenges of being undocumented and the quandary about doing what is right within a system that consistently punishes people regardless of their character.

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Amnesty
Aravind Adiga

An “urgent and significant book [that] speaks to our times” (The New York Times Book Review) from the bestselling, Man Booker Prize–winning author of The White Tiger and Selection Day about a young illegal immigrant who must decide whether to report crucial information about a murder—and thereby risk deportation.

Danny—formerly Dhananjaya Rajaratnam—is an illegal immigrant in Sydney, Australia, denied refugee status after he fled from Sri Lanka. Working as a cleaner, living out of a grocery storeroom, for three years he’s been trying to create a new identity for himself. And now, with his beloved vegan girlfriend, Sonja, with his hidden accent and highlights in his hair, he is as close as he has ever come to living a normal life.

But then one morning, Danny learns a female client of his has been murdered. The deed was done with a knife, at a creek he’d been to with her before; and a jacket was left at the scene, which he believes belongs to another of his clients—a doctor with whom Danny knows the woman was having an affair. Suddenly Danny is confronted with a choice: Come forward with his knowledge about the crime and risk being deported? Or say nothing, and let justice go undone? Over the course of this day, evaluating the weight of his past, his dreams for the future, and the unpredictable, often absurd reality of living invisibly and undocumented, he must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities.

“Searing and inventive,” Amnesty is a timeless and universal story that succeeds at “illuminating the courage of displaced peoples and the cruelties of those who conspire against them” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis).

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Falling
by T. J. Newman

Who doesn’t love the “trolley problem”? If you don’t already know, the “trolley problem” is a philosophical thought experiment. It basically posits that you’re a trolley driver who has lost control of the trolley’s brakes, and you can choose to continue your course and hit multiple people stuck on the track or change tracks and hit only one person. In T.J. Newman’s FALLING, swap out the trolley for an airplane, and the lives at stake are all the passengers on one side, and the pilot’s family on the other. Who will pilot Bill Hoffman choose to save? This book is definitely one to pick up if you plan to stay grounded for a while.

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Falling
T. J. Newman

“Stunning and relentless. This is Jaws at 35,000 feet.” —Don Winslow
Falling is the best kind of thriller…Nonstop, totally authentic suspense.” —James Patterson
“Amazing...Intense suspense, shocks and scares...Chilling.” —Lee Child
“The perfect summer thriller. Relentlessly paced and unforgettable.” —Janet Evanovich

You just boarded a flight to New York.

There are one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard.

What you don’t know is that thirty minutes before the flight your pilot’s family was kidnapped.

For his family to live, everyone on your plane must die.

The only way the family will survive is if the pilot follows his orders and crashes the plane.

Enjoy the flight.

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The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
by Louise Erdich

Louise Erdrich is a master of character studies and stories with complicated moral dilemmas. THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE follows Father Damien Modeste, a priest on the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse. He carries a big secret: he was assigned female at birth but has been living as a man, a fact that he worries about being revealed as he approaches old age. That fear only intensifies when a troubled colleague comes to the reservation to investigate the life of the possibly false saint Sister Leopolda, who Damien knows all about. Caught between telling the truth about Leopolda and revealing himself, or lying to protect them both even though he believes she is evil, Damien confronts hard truths about himself and the world.

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The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
Louise Erdich

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Leaving Berlin
by Joseph Kanon

When the sins of your past come to haunt you, what would you do to get your life back? For Alex Meier, it means joining the CIA to infiltrate his native Berlin, a place he fled before World War II began. But from the start, Alex finds himself struggling with his new role, especially when he realizes his mission is to spy on the woman he left behind. A tale of survival, betrayal, and ever-shifting allegiances, LEAVING BERLIN is a twisty spy thriller that will have you rooting for Alex at every turn to get home, even when that means having to commit terrible crimes to get there.

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Leaving Berlin
Joseph Kanon

New York Times Notable Book * NPR Best Books 2015 * Wall Street Journal Best Books of 2015

The acclaimed author of The Good German “deftly captures the ambience” (The New York Times Book Review) of postwar East Berlin in his “thought-provoking, pulse-pounding” (Wall Street Journal) New York Times bestseller—a sweeping spy thriller about a city caught between political idealism and the harsh realities of Soviet occupation.

Berlin, 1948. Almost four years after the war’s end, the city is still in ruins, a physical wasteland and a political symbol about to rupture. In the West, a defiant, blockaded city is barely surviving on airlifted supplies; in the East, the heady early days of political reconstruction are being undermined by the murky compromises of the Cold War. Espionage, like the black market, is a fact of life. Even culture has become a battleground, with German intellectuals being lured back from exile to add credibility to the competing sectors.

Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer, fled the Nazis for America before the war. But the politics of his youth have now put him in the crosshairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of his family, he makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin. But almost from the start things go fatally wrong. A kidnapping misfires, an East German agent is killed, and Alex finds himself a wanted man. Worse, he discovers his real assignment—to spy on the woman he left behind, the only woman he has ever loved. Changing sides in Berlin is as easy as crossing a sector border. But where do we draw the lines of our moral boundaries? At betrayal? Survival? Murder? Joseph Kanon’s compelling thriller is a love story that brilliantly brings a shadowy period of history vividly to life.

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Other People's Children
by R.J. Hoffmann

The ties that bind us aren’t always cemented in blood. Gail and Jon Durbin have been trying for a baby, but several miscarriages and failed adoptions later, they are desperate for a child of their own. Carli is a pregnant teen who is more than willing to give her baby up to the Durbins so that she can get out of her mother’s house and go off to college and into the world. Unfortunately, Carli’s mom has other ideas after she has an encounter with the Durbins. A tale of three mothers trying to do what they think is best, OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN will have you in tears, sympathizing with and hating various characters in turn and wondering what you would do with your hopes and dreams on the line.

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Other People's Children
R.J. Hoffmann

A riveting debut novel about a couple whose dream of adopting a baby is shattered when the teenage mother reclaims her child.

What makes a family?

Gail and Jon Durbin moved to the Chicago suburbs to set up house as soon as Gail got pregnant. But then she miscarried—once, twice, three times. Determined to expand their family, the Durbins turn to adoption. When several adoptions fall through, Gail’s desire for a child overwhelms her.

Carli is a pregnant teenager from a blue-collar town nearby, with dreams of going to college and getting out of her mother’s home. When she makes the gut-wrenching decision to give her baby up for adoption, she chooses the Durbins. But Carli’s mother, Marla, has other plans for her grandbaby.

In Other People’s Children, three mothers make excruciating choices to protect their families and their dreams—choices that put them at decided odds against one another. You will root for each one of them and wonder just how far you’d go in the same situation. This riveting debut is a thoughtful exploration of love and family, and a heart-pounding page-turner you’ll find impossible to put down.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer
by Oyinkan Braithwaite

If you knew your sister was out every night, murdering men as fast as she could find them and leaving it to you to clean up the mess, what would you do? For Korede, secrecy is the key to keeping her family together and her sister, Ayoola, out of jail. However, that loyalty comes into question when Ayoola sets her sights on the doctor Korede is in love with, a doctor who’s more than a little interested in Ayoola. Mixing drama and a dark sense of humor, MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER is the kind of morally gray story that asks readers to weigh the bonds of family versus one’s duty to do what’s right.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer
Oyinkan Braithwaite

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Florence Adler Swims Forever
by Rachel Beanland

Each summer, the Adler family rents out their Atlantic City home to make a little extra cash, and they crowd into the small apartment above their family bakery. In the summer of 1934, Esther and Joseph house not only their daughters, Florence and Fannie, the latter of whom is in the middle of a risky pregnancy, but also a young woman from Nazi Germany. But there’s a terrible secret, one they must keep from Fannie, that leads to a web of lies that will consume the family in the sweltering summer months. FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER highlights the bonds of family, and what people will do in order to protect the ones they love.

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Florence Adler Swims Forever
Rachel Beanland

“The perfect summer read” (USA TODAY) begins with a shocking tragedy that results in three generations of the Adler family grappling with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets over the course of one summer.

*A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice * One of USA TODAY’s “Best Books of 2020” * One of Good Morning America’s “25 Novels You'll Want to Read This Summer” * One of Parade’s “26 Best Books to Read This Summer”

Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now, Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

“Readers of Emma Straub and Curtis Sittenfeld will devour this richly drawn debut family saga” (Library Journal) that’s based on a true story and is a breathtaking portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.

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