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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Things That Make Me Happy: Part 2

Coffee

me and coffee

I love coffee. In my social media profile pictures (see above), I’m holding a tiny cup of espresso and smiling. Mmmm. Coffee. I remember that espresso. It was wonderful.

I’m not a morning person, and I’m basically a zombie until I have my morning coffee. I drink it, I wake up, and I’m happy. I love coffee. And I’m not a coffee snob either. I’ll drink any kind of coffee, as long as it’s got milk or a fake-milk product in it.

If it’s coffee, it makes me happy

Many years ago, I lived with my in-laws for a few months while we sold one house and bought another, and my husband defended his dissertation and drove all our stuff across the country. I had an infant who wouldn’t sleep longer than two hours at a stretch and a four year old who didn’t nap.

My in-laws drank instant coffee in the morning. I did too. Instant coffee. With a little of my father-in-law’s non-dairy, Irish cream creamer. Mmmm. Blurry eyed, nauseous from lack of sleep. Instant coffee made me happy.

What I Drink Now

I’ll drink instant coffee and enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize a truly superior coffee. (Note smile on face, above, with cup of Parisian cafe espresso).

In December, I got a French press and my husband got a milk frother, so we now make superb coffee at home. Mmmm. It makes me so happy. I pour a generous amount of skim milk into my mug, microwave for 30 seconds, whisk the milk frothy, and pour in the wonderful French press coffee. Happy.

coffee french press
Our French Press
coffee frother
Frothing the Milk
coffee
Mmmm. Coffee

Doing Good in the World

I buy free-trade, sustainably grown coffee. It isn’t hard to find in most American grocery stores. Although it might be slightly more expensive, it is worth it to support sustainability and to pay workers a fair wage. Here is central Wisconsin, Liberation Farms is a good source of sustainable, free-trade coffee.  Doing good in the world. That makes me happy too.

What makes you happy?

Things that Make Me Happy: Part 1

There are a lot of things going on in the world right now that make me unhappy. To combat those problems, I’ve started volunteering and donating more, but that doesn’t do a lot to combat depression. However, I do find great joy in some peculiar little things, and I thought I’d start sharing them with you.

Hanging Wet Laundry Outside to Dry

clothes

I enjoy this on so many levels:

Pro-Environment! I’m using solar and wind power to dry my clothes. It is free. It is healthy. It is good for the planet.

Fresh Scent! I love how clothes smell when they have dried outside.

Stain Remover! Sunlight is an environmentally-friendly, chemical-free stain remover, mostly for food-based stains like tomato. (My mom told me this, so it must be true.)

Kills Germs! Sunlight kills germs. (I read this on the internet, so probably not true.)

Offend Conservative Neighbors! I don’t know for sure that my neighbors hate seeing laundry hanging in the open one yard over, but I suspect they cringe whenever they see me walk outside with my laundry basket and clothespins. Because drying clothes outside is free, only poor people and tree-hugging liberals do it in America. I imagine my neighbors find me a blight on the community. When we bought the house, they told me they were grateful a white family had bought it, as they’d seen some not white people looking at the house. Ha! Take that racist *expletive* neighbors!

Oops. I left my happy place, thinking about my neighbors.

Coffee. Coffee also makes me happy. Look for a blog post in the next bit about coffee. Do you have peculiar little things that make you happy? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.