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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Busy, Busy, Busy

I’m working full time this semester and have been too busy to write for this blog or to do any writing at all. Hopefully that will change in the spring when I am back to teaching part time. I’m still reading like crazy, though. Look for my Best of 2018 post in early January.

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.

 

 

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!

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.

Author Interview: Callie Bates

callie batesToday I welcome Callie Bates to my series of author interviews. Callie is the author of the soon-to-be-released The Waking Land, a young adult-crossover fantasy novel. Her book release party will be in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, on June 27th at the North Lakeland Discovery Center. I was lucky enough to read parts of The Waking Land in a critique group a few years ago and was not at all surprised when Callie sold the book to Del Rey Books. I’m so excited to read the whole story!

Elizabeth: Callie, welcome! Can you tell my readers about The Waking Land?

callie baties bookCallie: Thank you so much for having me! The Waking Land is about a young woman who’s raised as a hostage for her father’s failed rebellion—but when she’s framed for murdering the king, she has to go on the run. Meanwhile, she struggles to understand her repressed, forbidden nature magic. Basically, it has intrigue, romance, revolution and, hopefully, lots of fun!

Elizabeth: How did the first idea of the story come to you?

Callie: I’ve been tinkering with Elanna’s character for years, and she has evolved enormously over that time! I wanted to write a story about a girl forcibly raised away from her home, but who still possesses a deep and undeniable connection to the land and people she comes from—and who, at the same time, is determined to forge her own identity. But, because I didn’t really know what I was doing, it wasn’t until after I wrote a rather long and rather awful multi-point-of-view manuscript that I realized she could have a solo story in her own right. And that I might even be able to figure out how to write an ending for that!

Elizabeth: In what ways is Elanna like you and in what ways is she different?

Callie: We are both stubborn and snarky! However, Elanna is infinitely more hotheaded than I am, has PTSD from childhood trauma, and is much more attached to her perceived truths. (In case anyone wonders: I do not have Stockholm Syndrome!)

Elizabeth: How has living in the Northwoods of Wisconsin influenced this story?

Callie: If I gave Elanna anything of myself, it’s my love of the natural world. I’m deeply rooted in the place where I live. Here, trees outnumber people, and it’s easy to see the land as a character in its own right. I have always been baffled by people who put human needs before the needs of the environment, especially in the era of climate change, instead of seeing us as an interdependent whole. Elanna’s magic is an attempt to unite the experience of being human with the living experience of the land itself.

Elizabeth: How did you get your agent, and how long did it take you to get published?

Callie: Quite simply, I cold queried, and I’m here to tell you that it does work! My agent asked to see a revision of The Waking Land in 2014 and, because I am nothing if not thorough, I took my time and completely rewrote the manuscript in a different voice and tense. Fortunately, she loved it and offered representation. That was in early 2015; we sold the manuscript a few months later. So, it’s been 3 or 4 years since I first wrote this book. However, since I’ve been wanting to publish since I was 11, you could say it’s taken me almost 20 years to get there!

Elizabeth: Congratulations! I am shocked that a cold query worked! Good for you! Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

Callie: I draft by hand in a notebook, then move on to working in Scrivener and Word. My drafts are often too short and skimp on some important moments, so I am often adding word count even in late edits. (Which is not what most writers recommend, but it seems to be how I roll.)

Elizabeth: What are you working on now?

Callie: I’m just finishing up the second book in the trilogy, The Memory of Fire! It jumps to a new narrator—and, for the most part, a new part of the world—though I can’t say too much without giving spoilers for The Waking Land

Elizabeth: What book(s) have you read recently that you feel passionate about?

Callie: I’m currently reading two I love—The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, which is a wonderful middle grade fantasy, and A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab, which is the culmination of an epic trilogy. I highly recommend both!

Elizabeth: I love The Girl Who Drank the Moon! I’ll put A Conjuring of Light on my TBR list. Tell us more about yourself.

Callie: Aside from writing, I’m also an occasional harpist. I play the folk harp, and I’m also a certified harp therapist, trained to play one-on-one or in group settings at hospitals, nursing homes, and the like, to facilitate the healing process. Unsurprisingly, I’m an outdoor enthusiast. I love to travel, too; many of my better story ideas come to me while I’m ambling around somewhere new. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, studied creative writing in college, and stubbornly persisted until I had a book ready to go out into the world.

We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Elizabeth: Pizza or salad?

Callie: Pizza!

Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?

Callie: TEA. Black, milk, no sugar.

Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?

Callie: Both?

Elizabeth: Tree house or doll house?

Callie: Tree house!

Elizabeth: Violin or piano?

Callie: Violin!

Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?

Callie: Darcy…but Heathcliff is more exciting…

Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?

Callie: Loooooove scene!

Learn more about Callie from her social media sites:

Website: calliebates.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/calliebywords

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/calliebywords

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15986018.Callie_Bates

Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/calliebates

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/callie_bates/

You can pre-order / buy a copy of The Waking Land here:

Barnes & Noble

Penguin Random House

Amazon

Amazon UK

Interview with Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

Elizabeth-MahonThe Historical Novels Society 2017 Conference is in June, and as part of a blog-blitz of promotion, I get to interview Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, HNS secretary and conference liaison for agents and editors.

ElizabethCF: Hi Elizabeth, welcome to my blog! How did you first get involved in the HNS?

ElizabethKM:  I first heard about HNS way back in 2011 when I received an email asking if I was interested in attending the San Diego conference as a blogger and author. I had never heard of HNS before but I was immediately intrigued and ended up joining. I had no idea that a group existed that shared my love of historical fiction. It was like the best kept secret. I’ve been a member ever since.

ElizabethCF: One of the wonderful things about the HNS conference is that all writers attending have the opportunity to pitch to an agent or editor. Can you tell us what exactly your job as Agents and Editors Liaison entails?

ElizabethKM: My job involves being a liaison between the conference and the editors and agents.  I initially contacted all eight editors and agents who are attending this conference this year. Several of the editors and agents such as Irene Goodman, Anna Michels and Kevan Lyon have attended the conference before but several are new to the conference. I’m also responsible for putting together the pitch schedules for each editor and agent which involves a great deal of juggling.

ElizabethCF: Who are all of the agents and editors attending the conference this year?

ElizabethKM: Our editors this year are Anna Michels from Sourcebooks, Lucia Macro from Harper Collins, Bess Cozby from TOR books, Martin Biro from Kensington. Agents include Irene Goodman, Kevan Lyon (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency), Jennifer Weltz (Jean V Naggar Literary Agency) and Erin Harris (Folio Lit).

ElizabethCF: You are the author of the blog Scandalous Women. Launched in 2007, the site has averaged over 20,000 hits a month and was named on the the 50 Top History Blogs by Zen College Life. Can you tell us what prompted you to start this blog?

ElizabethKM: Frankly I was bored blogging about myself. I’ve always been a huge fan of biographies and historical fiction since I was a child, particularly the novels of Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton. It seemed natural to start blogging about all these fascinating women that I was reading about. And everyday I would discover more and more women that I had never known about. It was really a labor of love from the very first day.

ElizabethCF: Do you have a favorite scandalous woman–or one you would enjoy telling us about?

ElizabethKM: Wow, that’s really hard. All of the women that I’ve written about are my favorites. But if I had to choose one, it would be a toss-up between Anne Boleyn and Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were hugely controversial during their lifetimes, misjudged, and misunderstood. Anne Boleyn, of course, Henry VIII’s second wife who ended up losing her life after less than three years of marriage, but gave the world Elizabeth II. And Mary Wollstonecraft traveling to France to see the Revolution first hand, wrote “The Vindication of the Rights of Women”, gave birth out of wedlock, and managed to make a living as a writer in the 18th century. It took huge courage for her to leave the safety net of a job as a governess to create an independent life for herself. And course she was the mother of Mary Shelley.

ElizabethCF: How do you go about researching each of the stories?

ElizabethKM: For any of the women that I’ve written about, I start off with what I can find on the Internet, read several biographies before I sit down to write. Some of the women I’ve written about such as Gertrude Bell and Lady Hester Stanhope were so fascinating that I could have gone on researching them forever. I’m really looking forward to watching the new film about Gertrude starring Nicole Kidman, Queen of the Desert.

elizabeth mahon bookElizabeth CF: After several years of success as a blog, Scandalous Women became a book: Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women, published in 2011 by TarcherPerigee. Was it difficult choosing which women to include in the book?

ElizabethKM: Yes, it was terribly difficult. I wanted to include several of the women that I had already written about on the blog, but it was also important to have new content for readers. My agent and my editor wanted to make sure that there was a nice mix of women that were recognizable along with many women who might not be. Also, my word count was only 75,000 so I had to limit the number of women that I profiled. I think that 35 turned out to be a great number. I went back and forth on several women who ultimately didn’t make it into the book including Princess Diana, Patty Hearst and Gloria Steinham.

ElizabethCF: Can you tell us anything more about yourself?

ElizabethKM: I’m a former actress and producer, mainly classical theatre. Also, in my spare time I like to dance. It relaxes me. Ballroom dancing in particular especially American Rhythm, rumba, cha-cha, mambo, East Coast Swing, bolero and samba.

Elizabeth CF: Thanks, Elizabeth!  It was great to learn more about you, Scandalous Women and the HNS Conference.