The Best Books of 2021

Here are my favorite reads of the past year, in the order I read them. First are the books for adults and then the list of books for children.

Novels for Grown Ups:

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

A bed-ridden Irish teenage girl recounts her family’s past and her town’s present, while the rain falls and the river Shannon rises. The narrator’s voice is brilliant, and the varying importance of water in her stories will keep your thoughts returning to this book.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness build a snow child, and the next day a real little girl shows up. Where has she come from and is she real? Year after year, she comes in the winter and leaves in the spring, until love tries to bind her to a civilized life. A beautiful, fairy-tale-like story.

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

An epic story set in a fantasy world very similar to the middle ages in Iberia. Competing tribes and religions try to maintain and/or conquer the land each believes should be theirs. This is the El Cid story, although that character has a different name and isn’t immediately recognizable. An amazing story. I plan to read much more by Kay.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

A murder mystery / fantasy? in rural Poland. The narrator is a middle aged / elderly woman who believes that the murders are being committed by deer and other animals to avenge the hunting deaths of their kin. This is a bizarre story, and perhaps not for everyone. I, however, was mesmerized by the narrator’s voice and her way of seeing the world.

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

Need a light, romantic-comedy-type novel? I discovered Kate Clayborn this year (thanks, Rikki!), and this is my favorite of her books that I’ve read so far. Although light and romantic, this book is also quite clever, using art and signs and numbers and letters. The characters are well developed and (as an English teacher married to a math professor) reminded me of my own romance.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Two best friends are ripped apart by an event that happened many years ago, and you don’t find out what that event is until near the end. When this happens in novels, I am often upset that the event wasn’t really that kind of event, but it is in this story. Young-sook and Mi-ja grow up on the Korean island of Jeju where they learn to dive great depths for food. The story spans WWII with the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, up to current times. A fascinating story with incredible historical detail.

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

I like The Parable of the Talents better, but I think you should read them both and The Parable of the Sower comes first. Butler’s vision of America in the future is terrifying, yet similar to other places in the world when governments collapse. I found the main character’s “discovery” of the Earthseed religion, God-as-change, intriguing.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

Another romantic comedy. When Tiffy must move out of her boyfriend’s flat, she can’t afford any place in London except this strange, flat-share arrangement. She gets the flat (and bed) in the evenings, nights, and weekends, and Leon, a nurse who works nights and spends the weekend away, gets it the rest of the time. The two don’t meet for a long time, but get to know each other through the notes they leave for each other. Alternate chapters are narrated by Tiffy and Leon and O’Leary does a great job with their very different first-person styles. A fun read which also handles the serious topic of gaslighting/emotional abuse.

Novels for Kids:

Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna by Alda P. Dobbs

I was lucky to get a copy of this to review for the Historical Novels Society.

A story of the Mexican revolution told through the eyes of a 12-year-old, parent-less girl trying to care for her elderly grandmother and two young siblings. Fleeing the Federales, Petra and her family travel through villages, the desert, meet up with some courageous rebels, then continue on, hoping they will be allowed entry into the United States.

The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm

11-year-old Bell has grown up in the US colony on Mars, where they live underground and have no contact with the other Mars colonies. He’s a normal kid with friends and school and chores and lots of curiosity. When a virus causes all the adults to get sick, what can the kids to do keep the colony alive? This book takes a turn and handles questions that you don’t see coming. A great read.

Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz

Rhaskos (clay) is a young slave boy in Thessaly who is fascinated by paintings and art. Melisto is a young aristocratic girl (amber) living in Athens whose nurse just happens to be Rhasko’s mother. The story is told in various formats: illustrations of artifacts with guesses to use and identity; verse from the gods about what will happen; prose of the characters’ stories. As usual, Schlitz has created a masterpiece. Will it win the Newbery? It has some stiff competition.

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey by Erin Entrada Kelly

Marisol Rainey’s backyard contains the most perfect climbing tree ever. But Marisol Rainey is afraid to climb it. Marisol is eight years old and suffers from anxiety. This is a book for the time—I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins the Newbery. In an entertaining book for young readers, Kelly handles the problem of anxiety in a patient, supportive way.

Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen

Paulsen’s autobiography details the brief (but wonderful) time Paulsen spent with relatives in a cabin in northern Minnesota, to his years living in poverty with alcoholic parents, both in the Philippines and in Chicago. This might be Paulsen’s best book of all. The courage of young Gary, the drive that kept him safe and sane, and the importance of books and the wilderness, make for a powerful story. Another possible Newbery winner.

The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

Gabrielle grew up poor in Haiti but gets the opportunity to move to New York City when she is ten to live with her uncle and his family. Her family is counting on her to be successful in America, so she can eventually send home money and possibly help to bring her family to the US. But, living in the United States, where she doesn’t speak the language and is constantly bullied, is difficult. So, Gabrielle turns to a witch to help her fit in—but is she ready to pay the cost of the witch’s spells? Arnold’s story is magical, exciting, and thought-provoking. Another potential Newbery Award winner?

Let me know what your favorite books of the year were in the comments below. Happy 2022!

Two Great Books for You to Read!

Within the last two weeks, I read two books about Christian missionaries traveling to alien worlds. I recommend them both. Both are works of fantasy, yet both are grounded in reality, providing wonderful character studies and handling deep philosophical questions.

book of strange new thingsIn The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Peter, an English pastor, is chosen by a powerful multi-national corporation to act as a missionary to the Oasans, people on a planet newly colonized by earth. Peter must leave his beloved wife, Bea, and their cat, Jacob. Bea introduced Peter to Christianity and their marriage has been one of deep love and total companionship. The difficulty of their separation and what it does to their relationship is one of the main focuses of the novel. The “aliens” that Peter ministers to are thirsty for knowledge of Christ, and we wonder why. We also wonder about the powerful muti-national corporation and its motivation for sending Peter. And what about the previous pastor who disappeared? And the linguist who taught the natives English and also disappeared? While the novel is suspenseful, it isn’t action-packed. The stress on Peter and Bea’s relationship also causes stress on their faith, and this is where the book excels. Its examination of love and faith in crisis is fascinating.

The Sparrow bookThe Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is also an examination of faith. Father Emilio Sandoz had it and lost it: why? Father Emilio Sandoz is one of a crew of Jesuit missionaries sent toward Alpha Centauri after radio signals demonstrate that intelligent life exists on a planet in that area of space. Sandoz is the only survivor of the mission. The book alternates between “past” and “present.” In present day, Sandoz is being interrogated by the Jesuits to discover what went wrong. He is accused of some horrible crimes. In alternate chapters, we learn about the discovery of the radio signals, the recruitment of the crew (all wonderful characters, that we readers fall in love with; Sandoz being the most wonderful), the trip across space, until the past meets up with Sandoz’s confessions. What went wrong? How did everyone die? How did Sandoz “go bad” ? This book has action, great characterization, and incredible world building. The author, Mary Doria Russell, has a PhD in biological anthropology, and uses her knowledge well. The development of the setting on the new planet–the cultures and languages and interactions of the races–is brilliant and probably my favorite part of the book.

I was disappointed by the endings of both books. However….

After thinking about the ending of The Book of Strange New Things for several days, I changed my mind. It ends exactly how it should. I didn’t “get” it at first, but I do now.

The Sparrow puts so much emphasis on what went wrong, what horrible thing happened, that its discovery was anti-climactic for me. I still recommend the book.

I highly recommend both books. So, get reading!

Best Books of 2014

In 2014, I read 119 books. Some were children’s books which is part of the reason that number is so high. Also, my house isn’t very clean.

Many of the books were good, but not many were great. Putting this list together was difficult. If I named only the great books, my list would be too short. If I named all of the good books, the list would be too long. I decided to go for diversity of genre, subject and audience. The books are grouped by intended audience, in the order I read them.

Children’s Books:

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz
I love the way the author uses the classic novel Treasure Island in this story of a brother and sister who live with their lying, oft-depressed grandmother for reasons they don’t quite understand–at least not at first.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
The deportation of the Jews from Denmark during WWII, as narrated by 10-year-old Annemarie, whose best friend is Jewish. The innocence of her voice and the simple yet suspenseful plot has made this story a classic.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ella (Cinderella) is cursed by a fairy with the gift of obedience, making Ella a slave to the whims of others. Ella is a great character and her quest for self-determination makes this a perfect book for young people.

Holes by Louis Sachar
Multiple story lines that blend together to perfection. Well-crafted characters, exciting action, and a strong message. Funny too.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
Rose, obsessed with homonyms and rules, is misunderstood by her classmates and her father, but not by her dog, Rain/Reign. When Rain goes missing in a storm, Rose has the skills needed to find him, but what she finds will surprise you. Beautiful, beautiful book. My vote for this year’s Newbery Award (not that I have a vote. . . )

Young Adult Books:

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater
“Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.” I read this so long ago, I had to take this blurb from the author’s website. I remember loving the characters, the horses, the slow-build romance, and the intense suspense.

Cress by Marissa Meyer
Third book in the Lunar Chronicles series, using Rapunzel as its fairy-tale base. Cress is a prisoner, not in a tall tower, but in a satellite. I love the character of Cress, possibly because she reminds me of me. I laughed a lot. Cannot wait for the last in the series, Winter, out in fall 2015. The prequel, Fairest is out in Feb 2015. (The order of this makes me crazy, but that is for another blog.)

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire
Set in the last years of the Russian monarchy, Egg and Spoon is a fanciful mix of history, folklore, philosophy, childhood fantasy, silliness, and very clever writing.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
In order to attend the school he wants in the fall, mildly autistic Marcelo must work in the mail room of his father’s law firm. His father, impatient and unsympathetic to his son’s issues, wants Marcelo to experience “the real world.” Marcelo learns a great deal about life, his family, and what he, himself, is capable of.

Silverblind by Tina Connolly
This world is alive with fantastical creatures, fey magic, and disturbing technologies. The main character, half-fey Dorie, is delightful and complex, and the romance flows easily within the greater plot (saving the fey world) which is well paced and suspenseful. Themes such as the environment and women’s rights are integral but not didactic.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Exciting and suspenseful story of one fictional man’s life growing up in North Korea. What I liked most about this was the main character and the way he sees the world. A different mindset than I’m used to.

Redshirts by John Scalzi
Funny. Very, very funny. If you don’t know, “redshirts” are characters in Star Trek who don’t live to the end of the episode. Scalzi introduces us to characters in a Star Trek-like world who realize this is happening and what they do to avoid becoming a “redshirt.”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The fictionalized story of real-life suffragist/abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Gremke and their wholly fictional slave, Handful. Why had I never heard of these women? Their story is fascinating, painful, and inspiring.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Raised in the foster care system, Victoria won’t allow anyone close to her. She uses her knowledge of the language of flowers to help others, until she meets a man who also knows that language. Victoria’s character is absorbing and the mystery of her past intriguing.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
A psychologically scarred young woman cares for a physically scarred, wheelchair-bound man. The two fall in love. Will her love be enough to stop him from his desire to commit suicide? Moyes handles difficult issues deftly. A great book for book clubs because of the discussion it promotes.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
A female scientist is sent by her pharmaceutical company to a lab in the Amazon rainforest, after the death of her colleague there, to bring a renegade scientist and her discoveries back to civilization. What amazed me most was how Patchett was able to manipulate and alter my perspectives of the people and events as the story progressed. The ending is perfection.

The Cuckoo’s Calling / The Silkwork by Robert Galbraith
What holds these detective stories above the pack is the depth of the characterization. The stories are complicated, suspenseful and, in places, funny. Galbraith is really JK Rowling, so the level of writing should be no surprise.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
This isn’t the long-awaited final book in Rothfuss’s trilogy, but it does come from the same world. Auri, a minor character in his other books, is the only character in this novel. Although light on plot, Auri is such a compelling character that the book works. Rothfuss’s prose is so beautiful, you might weep.

If you decide to read any of these books because I recommended them, let me know what you think. Happy New Year!

Best Books of 2012

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.