Best Books of 2018

Books are my inspiration and my solace. No matter how busy I am, I make time to read. It is how I relax and stay sane. Below are the best of the books I read this past year. Intended audience key: MG: for middle grade readers (children ages 8-13), A: for adults.

2018 was the year I discovered N.K. Jemisin (A).

I was blown away by her Broken Earth trilogy (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky), which takes place in a fantasy-earth world where magic controls geology–to a certain extent. Creative and brilliant. You can read here what I wrote about that series in the summer. I also enjoyed Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods. In this world, gods and godlings mix regularly with mortals. The politics of the humans and the gods are elaborate and deadly. Incredible world building. The most appealing thing to me about Jemisin is her use of women and people of color as central, complex characters.

The rest of the books are listed in the order in which I read them:

Unless by Carol Shields (A)

Rita Winter is a mostly happy, forty-something successful Canadian writer whose teenage daughter drops out of university in order to sit in silence on an Ontario street with the sign “goodness,” for reasons nobody understands. Shields’ ability to develop characters, imagine relationships and make a reader care about people is amazing.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran (A)

Claire DeWitt is a private investigator who obsessively follows the advice of a book she found as a teenager. Something mysterious happened to young Claire and that is slowly revealed as background to the actual mysteries. In the first book Claire is hired to discover what happened to a missing district attorney who may or may not have died during Hurricane Katrina. In the second book, Claire investigates the death of her ex-boyfriend in San Francisco. These mystery novels are strange and dark and, for me, entirely engaging. I eagerly await the next installment.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (A)

In 19th century Ireland, a young girl survives for months without eating. Some call it a miracle, but the church needs “proof.” A skeptical nurse is hired to watch over the child and see if she is eating. Soon the nurse realizes that her watchful eyes could be preventing the secret delivery of food which will eventually cause the girl to die. I found this story fascinating on so many levels: the character development, the religious politics, the plight of women in male-dominated societies, and the discovery that there are many actual historical references to young-girl-not-eating “miracles.”

The Knowledge by Martha Grimes (A)

For years I’ve been a fan of Grimes’ Richard Jury mysteries and this one I found especially good. A murder occurs outside an invitation-only elite gallery/bar, and the alleged culprit immediately escapes to Africa, but he is followed by a young girl who is part of an underground-network of pickpockets, cab drivers, and people watchers. There is a lot going on, and I won’t spoil it. If you haven’t read any Richard Jury novels, I’d suggest reading them all, in order, as part of the fun is catching up with the side characters that are Richard’s friends.

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley (A)

I’ve never met a Kearsley novel that I didn’t whole-heartedly love. This is my new favorite. As usual, there are two parallel stories. A modern day tale of a Canadian archivist who is hired to make a museum of an old Long Island house, allegedly haunted by someone murdered during the French and Indian War. The historical story follows the origin of the ghost story. In the 1700s a family is forced to billet an enemy Canadian solider, and a relationship develops between the soldier and the family’s daughter. But, of course, there is much, much more going on. Kearsley is a master at bringing history to life, at creating complicated and emotional relationships: both romantic and familial, at weaving suspense between past and present, and by being a little bit spooky. A clever and satisfying story.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson (MG)

Many people think this may win the 2018 Newbery Award, and I won’t be surprised if it does. I’ll admit the story started slow for me, but then I got caught up in it and couldn’t put it down. Candice finds a clue in her grandmother’s house that could lead to finding a large amount of money for the small South Carolina town where she is currently living. Unfortunately, chasing after this fortune ruined her grandmother’s career and reputation. In a parallel story, we follow the historical injustice that happened in that town and created the inheritance. This is an impressive puzzle-mystery that children will really get into, and it also covers important topics like racial injustice, segregation, divorce, bullying and more. That makes it seem heavy, which it isn’t. It’s a fun read with humor and great characters.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (A)

This is a collection of essays written by Ann Patchett for magazines and newspapers, for speeches given at commencements and conferences. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I love Ann Patchett, so I gave this collection a try. Every story rang true for me. Interesting and engaging and wise. The title comes from one essay– not all the writing is about marriage. Many of the essays involve advice to writers or observations about writing, but Patchett covers many other topics as well.

Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (MG)

This children’s novel takes place in the middle ages and follows the adventures of a hunchback boy who is hired to carry a bag for a pilgrim. They have adventures as they travel and the reader comes to realize there is something unusual about the boy (who doesn’t eat and can talk to animals) and the pilgrim (who is more a thief than a religious person). I cared a great deal for Boy and found this story a lot of fun.

Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (MG)

Kate DiCamillo’s writing always draws me in. There is something about her style I find appealing: it’s simple and yet deeply true, personal and heartfelt. This story follows Louisiana, a character from DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale. Louisiana has been raised by her crazy, odd-ball grandmother who, at the beginning of this book, wakes Louisiana in the middle of the night to “run away,” leaving behind all the girl’s adored pets and new friends. An empty gas tank and a toothache cause them to end up in Richford, Georgia, where Louisiana learns much and finds what she needs.

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (MG)

Amal’s dreams of becoming a teacher are dashed one day when she doesn’t give up her pomegranate to the richest man in her Pakistani village. He calls in her father’s debts and Amal ends up a servant in the Khan’s household. This is an engaging story with an intelligent and strong protagonist. It took turns both expected and surprising. A well-needed story explaining the indentured servitude that occurs to many young women around the world.

Circe by Madeline Miller (A)

Circe is a daughter of Helios, Titan and god of the sun, and the nymph Perse. My knowledge of Greek mythology and Homer’s The Odyssey is rather mediocre. It was great fun to see the cast of characters I knew (the minotaur, Icarus, Jason) and and did not know (Aeetes, Hera, Scylla) pass through Circe’s story. The writing is beautiful and the character and world development perfect. Great fun.

I’d love to hear what your favorite books are of the past year.

Happy New Year!

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Exciting News: Twice

!ADiscoveredDiamond[1][1]News #1: A month or two ago I mentioned that Syncopation: A Memoir of Adele Hugo was named a “diamond” and that a review on the Discovering Diamonds website would be forthcoming. The review is up, and it is lovely.

Syncopation_EcoverNews #2: Syncopation: A Memoir of Adele Hugo is now available as an e-book on amazonUS and amazonUK.

If you have already read Syncopation, consider writing a review of it on amazon: all reviews are welcome, whether you loved it or hated it. After all, no book is for everyone, and shoppers should know if it is a good match for them or not.

 

 

A Book Series You Must Read!

broken earth books

I’m not waiting until my “best books of the year” post to tell you about a series I just finished, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. This is one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read–and I read a lot of fantasy! The first book in the series, The Fifth Season, won the Hugo Award in 2016. The second book, The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo Award in 2017, and the final book of the trilogy, The Stone Sky, is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award (announced in August).

I don’t want to spoil your reading experience by telling you a lot about these books; instead, I’m going to focus on why you should read them.

1. Strong female characters. The main characters in this series are female. The side characters are female. The only-meet-them-once characters are female. Yes, there are male characters, and they are interesting characters, but this is a story about women. The experience of reading this is the inverse of nearly every fantasy novel I’ve ever read.

Talk about whole new worlds!

I fear that by explaining this, you men won’t want to read the series, but you should! You should read it and allow the experience to open your eyes to what it is like to be a female reader of fantasy!

Did I mention that nearly all the characters are black too? Kaboom!

There are excellent reasons, in terms of world building, that this story is populated by people of color and that women are the movers and shakers–read it to find out why!

2. World Building. Another reason to read this series. The development of the setting is phenomenal! This is sort of our world…maybe… not really. Something really bad happened to the Earth (which you don’t discover until the end of the first book), so there are problems with volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis, etc. The fifth season refers to a time on the planet when eruptions and earthquakes and other natural disasters damage the air and land so severely that the human race is nearly wiped out–again and again. These “seasons” happen periodically. Here is a poem from The Fifth Season that explains the phenomenon:

Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall;

Death is the fifth and master of all.

Did that give you goosebumps? I got them the first time I read it.

3. Symbolism/Metaphor/Literary-ness. There is depth to this story. The plot is exciting and engaging, and you can read and enjoy it just for that. But there is so much more going on. I don’t want to spoil any of this for you, so I won’t explain all the incredible layers of meaning in these books. This is one of those stories that you think about for days, weeks, months after you finish. You can savor this story, over and over, and marvel at all the things N.K. Jemisin accomplished.

That’s it. I hope you are curious and eager to get these books. Let me know, below, if you’ve read them, or if my blog convinces you to read them, and if you love them as much as I do.

Discovering Diamonds

!ADiscoveredDiamond[1][1]I’m pleased to announce that Syncopation has been selected as a Diamond by the reviewers at the Discovering Diamonds blog. It will be featured on the site May 18th.

Discovering Diamonds is a book review site for historical fiction, bringing attention to well written books published by small presses or self published. The reviewers read many independently published books, and most are not designated a Diamond. I’m stunned and honored that Syncopation is receiving this accolade.

Discovering Diamonds is a wonderful resource for readers of historical fiction who would like to find new books, especially exceptional books overlooked by mainstream publishers. I encourage you to visit the site, to find and read some of the other Diamonds they have discovered.

Happy Reading!

Best Books of 2017

Wow! What a year! In an effort to hide from the collapse of my state and country, I’ve distracted myself admirably. I’ve had a great year of reading! These are my favorite books of 2017, which is when I read them, not necessarily when they were published.

I’ll start with a triple by Neal Stephenson:

Reamde by Neal Stephenson (A)

Reamde is a ransom-ware virus that Chinese hackers put on computers that play the popular online game T’Rain. The virus shuts down the user’s computer until gold is delivered to a spot in the game. The virus is a minor irritant to some, but to a Russian mobster it creates a life-or-death situation that sucks in a whole crew of innocent and interesting people, in a series of crazy dangerous adventures around the world. Nail biting, breath taking, funny. Stephenson genius.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (A)

Magic used to exist, but somehow, in the mid-1800s, technology blocked and ended its ability to function. With the help of a cryogenic chamber and the world’s oldest witch, linguist Melisande and government agent Tristan are able to re-start magic, using it to time travel. The official goals of D.O.D.O. are to subtly change the past to benefit the current US government, but there are side-efforts and secret agendas. The story is told through journal entries, emails, classified reports, PowerPoints, and other documents, starting with with Mel’s journal in which we learn she has been trapped in 1851 London. Fast-paced, mind-blowing, hilarious.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (A)

Snow Crash is a computer virus that is able to physically harm people when they are exposed to it in the online world called the Metaverse. Pizza delivery guy, hacker, and Metaverse warrior, Hiro Protagonist teams up with female skateboarding courier Y.T. to save the world. The story doesn’t pause for you to breath and brims with technology that no one knew existed/would exist when Stephenson wrote it in 1992. In this book, Stephenson invented the word avatar (in part–read his notes at the end).

My other top books, in the order in which I read them:

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (MG)

This won the 2017 Newbery and rightfully so. The residents of a village make a yearly sacrifice of a baby, leaving it in the forest so the forest’s witch will leave them alone. The witch finds the babies, astonished they have been left alone in the forest. She feeds them on starlight and takes them to loving families. One year, she accidentally feeds the baby on moonlight, filling the child with magic. The witch raises this baby herself, keeping the child’s magic muffled. When the girl hits adolescence, her magic becomes too strong to hide. A wonderful story: suspenseful and smart with fascinating characters. I was blown away by the idea of the “sorrow eater”: a person who gets strength from others’ anguish. I’ve known a few of those!

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (MG)

My vote for the 2018 Newbery. (Note: I don’t actually have a vote.) In 1913 a baby washes up on the shore of an Elizabeth Island near Cuttyhunk. She is adopted by a hermit-like man who names her Crow. By the age of twelve, Crow’s curiosity about herself is set to bursting. This is the story of a girl trying to discover who she is and who she wants to be, but it is also a fast-paced thriller with kidnapping and buried treasure, a murderous escaped convict and a shipwreck. The characters are wonderful–quirky and lovable and real. The lessons Crow learns about people and herself are profound. The writing is fabulous.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsythe (A)

The Rapunzel story told in alternating parts: the story of Rapunzel, the story of Rapunzel’s witch, and the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the 17th century noblewoman who wrote the version of Rapunzel we know today. Forsythe brings to life the historical settings, and the way she weaves together the three stories is genius.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (A)

The story of four friends: Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm who meet in college, move to New York City, and continue their friendship through the years. Over the decades, their friendships change, and the reader learns more about each of them and their pasts, especially about Jude whose secret, horrible childhood makes him the man he becomes. This story will wring you out emotionally. Beautiful and painful. So much wisdom and insight.

Euphoria by Lily King (A)

The setting is 1933 in the jungles of New Guinea where three young anthropologists (a woman and two men) study tribes most of the world know nothing about. I was fascinated by the characters, their relationships, and the tribes of New Guinea. An unpredictable, gripping story.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (A)

In the near future, the entire human race is nearly destroyed by a virus. Station Eleven follows several characters in several time periods, some before the infection spread and some trying to eek out an existence post-apocalypse. You don’t know who will survive and who exactly all of the survivors are. The plot is well crafted, but what drew me in were the characters: fascinating and realistic.This book has been criticized by some readers, I think, because they expected a science fiction thriller, and it isn’t that. This is a story about people.

The Strays by Emily Bitto (A)

The story of a fictional family, the center of an artists’ commune in 1930s Australia, and how their lives fells apart. Lily is the outsider-narrator, yearning to belong to this family she is always a part of and yet always apart from. Bitto’s prose is poetry, and she paints her characters in bold, colorful strokes. You want to meet and be included in their lives, and yet at the same time, you are grateful it is only a story and you are allowed your distance. The Strays is sweet-nostalgia and bitter-tragedy.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (YA)

In Rowell’s novel Fangirl, the main character writes fanfiction. In that novel, there are excerpts of her stories, which copy a sort of fake Harry Potter series. Rowell’s fictional writer assumes that the characters in the fictional story are gay and incorporates that into her fanfic. Carry On is the final volume of the fictional series, as written by the fictional writer in Fangirl. (Is this too confusing?) Carry On is brilliant on many levels: the way it is like Harry Potter but is all its own story, the way it is the final volume of a series that doesn’t actually exist. The story itself. The characters. I recommend reading Fangirl first.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (A)

What if the underground railroad were literally an underground railroad? Whitehead won the National Book Award for this amazing story which chronicles the atrocities inflicted upon Black Americans by white people. Depressing but also inspirational. The writing is outstanding; the characters true. A must read.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi (MG)

Through a plausible mishap, young teenager Charlotte Doyle finds herself the only passenger on a ship sailing from England to America in the 19th century. The captain uses her to spy on the crew, who he believes are planning a mutiny. They are, and Charlotte finds herself trapped in the middle, not sure who to trust. She is a wonderful character, and like the ship in its storm, the story will leave you gasping for breath.

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate (MG)

Red is a several-hundred-year-old oak tree known to the humans in her area as the Wishtree because once a year they tie their wishes on her branches. Slated to be cut down, Red decides to try to answer one of the wishes: that of a girl in an immigrant family who asks for a friend. As a tree she cannot do much, so she calls on her animal friends to help. Beautiful, beautiful story. This may win the Newbery.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (YA)

I heard about this book in the uproar of the announcement that a bunch of men were making a “girls” Lord of the Flies. Beauty Queens is THE Lord of the Flies with girls. Teen beauty contestants survive a plane crash on a jungle island (or some survive). The way these women handle the dangers of their situation: no food or water, giant snakes, sexy pirates, murderous state department thugs, a volcano, and more, is brilliant. Hysterically funny, with spot on social commentary, commercials, and surprising plot twists.

Intended audience key: MG: for middle grade readers (children ages 8-13), YA: for teens, A: for adults

Newbery Contenders 2018, Part 2

Every year in January, the American Library Association gives the Newbery Award to the author of the “most distinguished” American children’s book published in the previous year.

I’ve been reading books that others believe are Newbery contenders. In this post (and my last post), I review those books and give my own thoughts. I am not a member of the selection committee and my thoughts on these books are my personal opinion only.

wishtreeWishtree by Katherine Applegate

Applegate won with The One and Only Ivan a few years ago, and this book is just as good. Her ability to give credible voice to unusual narrators is amazing. Ivan sounded like a broken-in-spirit silverback gorilla. Red sounds like a several-hundred-year-old oak tree in danger of being cut down. Beautiful book and an easy read. Highly recommended.

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloanshort

I enjoyed this book a lot, but I’d be surprised if it won the Newbery. My friend is reading it to her 4th grade class who like it. The main character is a tween girl who is mourning her dog and who signs up with her younger brother to be in a children’s theater, semi-professional, summer production of The Wizard of Oz. Because she is short, she is cast as a Munchkin. Because she is older than most of the kids, she gets to be a flying monkey and makes friends with the adult actors. Funny, touching. Well worth the read.

ethan beforeThe Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish

A serious story about a boy who had a best friend that something horrible happened to. His family moves to Georgia and he slowly makes another friend, who is hiding things just like he is. It is during a hurricane, when everyone’s lives are in danger, that we the reader find it all out. There were a few things that didn’t ring true for me, and it was a little darker than I can take right now. Might win some awards.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompsongoldfish boy

A boy with OCD who is afraid to leave his room watches his neighborhood out his window. He is the last to see a toddler before the child disappears from a nearby yard. He decides to solve the mystery, which pushes him to confront his illness. The mystery doesn’t end the way I expected, which I found both disappointing and disconcerting and, eventually, pleasing. Probably not a Newbery, but a great book for kids who like mysteries.

someday birdsThe Someday Birds by Sally J.Pla

I read this right after reading The Goldfish Boy, and thought… another OCD boy? But the stories and characters are different. In The Someday Birds, the boy must accompany his siblings and babysitter on a cross-country trip to where their father, who suffered a head injury in Afghanistan, is in a hospital. The main character deals with germs and hardships by trying to focusing on his obsession: birds, and trying to find the birds on the list he and his father made before his father was injured. Touching, funny, and I learned a lot–about birds and other things.

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig Kingme and marvin gardens

At the backyard stream he cleans up every day, a boy discovers a new species that eats plastic and poops toxic waste. Suspenseful and hard to predict, I enjoyed the story more than I expected. A little preachy. I don’t see it catching the Newbery, but it would probably make for some good classroom discussions/activities on pollution and the environment.

see you in the cosmosSee You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

The main character (who probably has Asperger’s) builds a rocket and goes on a road trip alone (well, he brings his dog) to try to win a rocket-launching competition. Just because a book’s main character is a kid, doesn’t mean the book is for kids. I enjoyed this book, but too much of the story is about the adults circling the main character, who is a bit too naive, and who narrates what the adults say and do without understanding what they are saying or doing. As an adult, I found the story interesting and intriguing, but I would not recommend it for children–not because it is inappropriate, but because, I think, they’d find it boring. I’d love to hear from kids or anyone who read this with kids and disagrees. I’ve been reading more and more books-for-children-that-are-really-for-adults, and so I’m planning a future blog post on this topic.

Possible Newbery contenders I have not yet read:

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these books and my contenders list. Did you hate a book I loved? Love a book I didn’t love? Am I missing a book you think could win the Newbery? Let me know in the comments below.

Newbery Contenders 2018

Every year in January, the American Library Association gives the Newbery Award to the author of the “most distinguished” American children’s book published in the previous year.

I’ve been reading books that others believe are Newbery contenders, and in this blog (and my next blog), I will review those books and give my own thoughts. I am not a member of the selection committee and my thoughts on these books are my personal opinion only.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk book beyond

This is my top pick. I read it early in the year and wrote a review of it for Historical Society Reviews. You can read my summary and opinion there. It’s a great book, better (in my opinion) than Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, which won a Newbery Honor last year. If Beyond the Bright Sea doesn’t win the Newbery Award, I expect it to be an honor book.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khanbook amina

Amina is the shy daughter of Pakistani immigrants whose best friend is Soojin, a Korean immigrant. They live in Milwaukee where they feel welcome and safe, until an act of terrorism changes Amina’s world. This is a good, solid book, handling important contemporary issues in an appropriate way for middle grade readers. I liked it, but it didn’t have the power or poetry I expect of Newbery winners.

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garciabook clayton

Clayton Byrd plays the blues harp in Washington Square Park with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the Bluesmen, hoping for the day he’ll be good enough to have his own solo. But Cool Papa Byrd dies, and Clayton’s mother, who has a grudge against her father, sells nearly everything of his. Angry, Clayton runs away to find and tour with the Bluesmen. I enjoyed this book but found the ending abrupt and too easy. The writing is good and Clayton is a great character, as is his grandfather. It will win some awards, but I’d be surprised to see it capture a Newbery.

Patina by Jason Reynoldsbook patina

Follows Ghost (2016 ) in Reynold’s Track series. Patina “Patty” Jones is an elite runner who expects to win every race. She lives with her little sister, uncle and white aunt because her father died years ago and her mother lost both legs to diabetes. Patina is one of the only black girls at her private school, she loves/hates her little sister, worries about her mother, and now that she’s moved up an age-level, isn’t winning all her races. Great writing; Patina’s voice is amazing. It’s a “sports” book and the second in a series, so I’d be surprised but not disappointed to see it catch a Newbery.

Refugee by Alan Gratzbook refugee

The story of three refugee families from three time periods whose stories inter-twine in surprising ways. Exciting, powerful, timely and terrible, this book has a chance. Read my summary and review at Historical Novels Review.

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinellibook wardens

This was suggested to me as a Newbery contender. I’m a fan of Spinelli, but this didn’t live up to my expectations. I’d be surprised to see it winning any ALA awards–but, my opinions are not always the opinions of those who matter. Read my summary and review at HNR.

My Newbery contenders TBR list (in no particular order) include:

The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

The Someday Birds by Sally J.Pla

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz

As you can see, I’ve got a lot of reading to do before January!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these books and my contenders list. Did you hate a book I loved? Love a book I didn’t love? Am I missing a book you think could win the Newbery? Let me know in the comments below.