This past year was an excellent reading year for me. I read a total of ninety-four books (so close to one hundred…) and many were superb. Creating this list has been very difficult. I’ve left off many good books, and this list is still longer than I’d like. The ones I’ve chose are listed in the order I read them, mostly. Anyway, here we go:
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Some have called this pretentious, and it probably is, but I liked it nevertheless. Eugenides creates a college experience more like what I imagined college would be (a serious intellectual experience) than what I experienced (interesting classes and a lot of mindless parties). The author’s sculpturing of mental illness is fascinating.
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
Set in 1971 and narrated by sixth-grader Frannie, this is a well-crafted story that explores many themes, including hope (“the thing with feathers”). Everyone in Frannie’s school is black, until a white boy with long hair joins their class. He’s called Jesus-Boy because of his hair and his apparent serenity. Frannie’s best friend begins to wonder if the boy might really be the Savior. At home, Frannie’s mother is pregnant which is scary because she’s had several miscarriages, and Frannie’s teenage deaf brother struggles with his place in the world. Moving story.
The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now both by Gary D. Schmidt
These two books are brilliant children/young adult reads. The Wednesday Wars is about Holling Hoodhood’s seventh-grade year and Okay for Now is about Holling’s friend Doug Swietek’s eighth grade year. Holling is forced to read Shakespeare by his teacher, and the book is thematically built around the plays he reads. Doug studies Audubon paintings in the local library and the book is thematically built around those paintings. So, the books are cleverly structured, but what readers are going to mostly notice are the realistic, likable main characters dealing with difficult family, friend, and school situations. Serious issues written with a deft hand. The stories are funny, clever and heart-felt. Schmidt deserves a Newbery.
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Caleb was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard and is the title character, but this is really Bethia Mayfield’s story. Bethia, the daughter of a liberal Calvinist minister, journals of her life on the Wampanoag’s island (now Martha’s Vineyard), Bethia runs fairly free for a young girl, meeting Indian Caleb and playing with him on the beach, though knowing that most would not approve of their friendship. When her mother dies, Bethia must take on more responsibility. Caleb comes to live with them to become educated, and each keeps their past connection secret. When he goes to Harvard, she goes to the mainland too, as a servant to pay for her own brother’s education. The marvel of this book is the way Brook brings to life the setting. The altered language, the sea, the tight grip of Puritanism, the racism, the poverty. It’s a fascinating re-imagining of people who lived long ago.
I, Iago by Nicole Galland
How do you take one of literature’s most vile villains and make your readers like him? Galland begins in his childhood and lets him tell the story. Iago is a fun, likable character, and the story rolls along at a good pace. When Othello begins wooing Desdemona, I found myself wondering how Iago would be able to narrate and explain the tragic events that I knew must follow. Did Shakespeare misunderstand? Had Iago behaved well and gotten a bad rap? Or would this character I’d learned to love turn on his friends? How could that happen? I won’t tell you here–get the book and find out.
The Diamond Age; or a Young Lady’s Primer by Neal Stephenson
In a list of hard-to-summarize books, this is probably the most difficult. But I will try. In a future world, Hackworth is an engineer who helps to design a book that is really a supercomputer with the intent of educating its reader. The book is intended for the King’s daughter, but Hackworth steals a copy for his own daughter, only to lose it to the streets, where urchin Nell gets it. Hackworth’s book is marvelous, teaching Nell how to read, how to fight, how to survive, and finally how to think for herself. Much more happens (there are probably a half a dozen other subplots) but this is what I remember best. Stephenson’s imagination is extraordinary and his ability to predict technology is nothing short of genius.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Everyone in my family enjoyed this book. The year is 2044 and the world is in terrible shape, so most people escape from it by logging in to the virtual world of OASIS, created by James Halliday. Halliday, a multi-billionaire obsessed with 1980s culture, dies without an heir, but in his will he tells the world that he has left keys in OASIS, which when found will open gates and lead to other keys. The first person to open all three gates will get his fortune. Ready Player One is narrated by the teenager who finds the first key. Part sci-fi, part mystery, part love story, part 1980s-nostalgia trip, part dystopian fantasy, part thriller, this book is all good fun.
Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona
Lili is the could-have-been daughter of the real-life Emilie, Marquise de Chatelet, 18th century French intellectual, mathematician and lover of Voltaire. The Marquise dies giving birth to Lili, a child that history does not remember. The novel moves between the stories of Lili and Emilie, two women who are intelligent, strong, and independent, characteristics not valued among women in 18th century France. A fascinating, moving story.
The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Picture the spouse you love in the hospital in a coma about to die. Are you sad? Heart-broken? Now picture finding out that the person you love was cheating on you. Was possibly planning to leave you. How do you feel? How do you deal with those feelings? How do you deal with your children, who are having trouble with their own grief? That’s the premise of this beautiful, well-crafted, heart-wrenching story.
Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
New York City seventh-grader Georges (the “s” is silent, but causes him no end of grief in school) must deal with bullying, a change of residence when his father loses his job, and a mother who works so much she’s never home. In his new apartment, Georges meets Safer, a home-schooled boy who accepts Georges into the Spy Club to investigate the strange doings of Mr. X who lives in the apartment above Georges. As the parent of a seventh-grade boy, I can tell you that Stead knows kids. The characters are smart and funny and troubled and, more than anything, real. I loved Georges, and loved Safer’s little sister Candy, and as my focus was on the characters, I was taken completely by surprise at the turn of events at the end of the story. Wow! A great book for kids and adults alike.
Leviathan, Behemoth,and Goliath all by Scott Westerfeld
I loved this trilogy so much that I forced my twelve-year-old to read them, and they became three of his favorite books. Westerfeld has created a world divided between “clankers,” people who work with all types of fantasy-type machinery, and “Darwinists” people who have genetically altered animals to work like machines. But wait, this is an alternate history of World War I as well: the clankers are the Austria-Hungarian empire and the Darwinists are Britain and its allies. The book opens with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the escape of the archduke’s son, Alek, one of the story’s main characters. The other main character is Deryn Sharp, a girl pretending to be a boy so that she can become a British midshipman. She gets work on the Leviathan, a living airship which is a genetically-altered, whale-like creature that flies because it is filled with hydrogen. Sound far fetched? It doesn’t when you read it. The world building is meticulous. The characters are well drawn and the story fast-paced. Fun, fun, fun!
The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow
Sorceress Emma Bannon teams up with mentath (think Sherlock Holmes-type intellect) Archibald Clare to protect Queen Victrix and all of Britannia in this alternate-history, sort of Victorian era, steampunk thriller. The breath-taking action begins mid-story, with reader and characters trying desperately to figure out what’s going on. Although the story is non-stop, the world building and character development are what impressed me the most. I hope this is the beginning of a series.
In the Garden of the Beast by Erik Larson
The only nonfiction book to make my list; this reads like fiction. Larson uses letters, journals, and other primary sources to describe the lives and thoughts of William E. Dodd, American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and Dodd’s twenty-something daughter, Martha. The Dodds don’t know World War II is on the brink, although the ambassador has a very low opinion of the men in charge of Germany. Martha, on the other hand, is seduced by the charming Germans and makes light of the few bad things she hears about. This book is a brilliant look into the experiences and thoughts of two people who bumped elbows with some of the most infamous characters in history, as history was unfolding. Fascinating.
This Lullaby, What Happened to Goodbye? and The Truth about Forever all by Sarah Dessen
Dessen is the master of young adult books for girls. She covers serious teen issues with well-developed, realistic characters. I read these three books in about four days—not because they are short, but because I couldn’t put them down.