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!

Interview with Author Pat Schmatz

Today I’m welcoming Pat Schmatz to my series of author interviews. Pat is the author of a number of novels for young adults including Bluefish, Mousetraps, Mrs. Estronsky and the U.F.O., Circle the Truth, and the recently released Lizard Radio.

Q: Welcome, Pat! Can you tell us about your new novel, Lizard Radio?

A: Lizard Radio is a coming of age story that takes place in an alternate universe, about Kivali, a gender-queer teen who might also sometimes be a lizard. It started a few years back when I sketched a young lizard wearing headphones. The lizard was trying desperately to get a signal. I began following the character, and she led me to some very unusual places. Kirkus Reviews called it science fiction, which surprised me. Others have called it dystopian. I don’t think it’s much more dystopian than our own world. I think my favorite description of it came from The Horn Book, who called it “mildly magical.”

More than anything, I’d say that it’s the story of Kivali figuring out how to tune into her own sense of ethics and truth, and to find the gray areas and gaps in the borders of a world that constantly demands either-or decisions and commitments.

Q: Many of your novels are character-driven, with a teenage protagonist who is, or thinks s/he is, an outsider. How do you go about developing your characters?

A: Like the lizard, most of my characters come to me as an impression, a feeling. They present themselves, and then I begin asking questions. I do a lot of question-asking throughout the writing process, actually writing out the dialogue of question and answer. I’ve found that a good tool for drawing out the character’s authentic voice. I also do a lot of work with setting, because I think setting and character are inextricably intertwined. I use poetry a lot. I’m not a particularly good poet, but I find the characters will often say things to me in poetry that they might not say in prose.

Q: You mentioned at a recent conference that because your novels are focused on characters, your books have been criticized for being “light on plot.” However, a starred review from Kirkus says that Lizard Radio has an “intricate, suspenseful plot.” Did you do anything differently when writing your most recent novel?

A: I did! I made up my mind that this time, by God, I was going to figure out how to plot. Someone had recommended The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson on draft #3, or maybe it was #4, I read from that book every day and followed instructions. I drew charts and graphs. I wrote out note cards. I hung graphs on my office wall. I thought very consciously about the rise and fall of action and emotion. I found it difficult – sort of like incorporating math into writing – but I think it helped.

Q: What do you find the greatest challenge in writing books for teenagers?

A: I don’t find any different challenges in writing books for teenagers that I do any other kind of writing. The greatest challenge for every writing project is to get a draft written. Once I have a rough story on paper, honing it is a matter of patience and hard work. But to go from the blank page to a real story, with living breathing people? That’s the challenge.

Q: What are some of the things you’ve done to promote your books?

A: I’m not a great promoter. When I visit schools or libraries, I like to have a topic or a workshop to teach. I find readings and signings excruciating, and I’m not much of a performer, but I do enjoy teaching. I’m passionate about books and creative expression – whether that’s writing, music, art, dance, whatever – so it’s fun to bring kids into that world with me.

I usually start my school visits off with the (true-ish) story about my very first school visit, which involved an almost debilitating case of nerves and an unfortunate encounter with a poopsicle (dog-flavored). That story generally loosens up the crowd and settles me down. Most everyone likes a good dog poop story.

Q: Do you have a favorite book or author?

A: The book that changed everything for me was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I read it when I was 10 or 11, and it told some truths that resonated for me in a way nothing else ever had. I decided after reading it that I wanted to write for teens. I’m amazed, when I talk with students about it now, how much kids still engage with those characters.

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:

Q: Pizza or salad?
A: Pizza

Q: Ocean or mountain?
A: Ocean

Q: Tree house or doll house?
A: Tree

Q: Violin or piano?
A: Piano

Q: Comic story or learn-something story?
A: Neither. I’ll pick feel-something story every time.

Q: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?
A: Can I pick Ginny Weasley?

Great Choice!

To learn more about Pat and her books, visit her website http://www.patschmatz.com, like her on Facebook http://facebook.com/PatSchmatzBooks, or follow her on twitter http://twitter.com/schmatz5

Thanks, Pat!

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.

Adult
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!

Interview with Margaret Muir

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Today I’m welcoming Margaret Muir, author of Sea Dust, the nineteenth-century story of a young woman who hides aboard a ship bound for Australia hoping to create a new life for herself; Through Glass Eyes, a saga set in Yorkshire; The Black Thread, a dramatic tale set on the Leeds and Liverpool canal in 1898; The Condor’s Feather, an equestrian adventure across the Pampas of Patagonia in 1885; and Floating Gold, the first in a series of naval adventure novels set during the Napoleonic Wars.

Elizabeth: Please tell us more about your most recent novel, Floating Gold. Image

Margaret: Floating Gold is an Age-of-Sail nautical fiction adventure, written for a male readership especially those who enjoy the works of CS Forester (Horatio Hornblower) or Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander). Set in 1802, Captain Quintrell is entrusted with secret Admiralty orders and heads to the Southern Ocean aboard the Royal Navy frigate, Perpetual. Battling unforgiving seas, near mutiny and freezing Antarctic waters, the captain is unaware of the dangers awaiting him when he reaches his destination.

Elizabeth: Sounds exciting! You are currently writing the second book in the series. What will be happening to the main characters in this next instalment?

Margaret: In The Tainted Prize, Captain Quintrell and his motley crew again head south but this time the destination is Peru. Drama and intrigue lie ahead, however, action on the gun deck is tempered by the undertone of political unrest which is simmering in the Spanish vice-royalties in South America. Also of concern is the vast number of African slaves being transported to Peru to work and die in the silver mines. This raises questions about the social, economic and human cost of the slave trade.

Elizabeth: Many of your novels are nautical adventures or involve the sea as a setting, almost as a character. Would I be right in this?

Margaret: Yes indeed, Elizabeth, and thank you for your observation. Both for me and certain characters I create, there is definite affinity with the sea to the extent that it almost takes on a character of its own – a dual character that can be either male or female. The masculine Sea (metaphorically speaking) is dominant, powerful, cruel, exciting and mischievous, manifesting himself in violent storms and turbulent currents. Conversely, the feminine Sea is beautiful, mesmerizing, gentle and evocative.

Here is an example of this personification from The Tainted Prize:

For Oliver Quintrell, the sea was his comfort and companion and, when licking the salt from his lips, he had no doubt she was his mistress. Despite her foibles and fickleness, moods and mysteries, she was soft and sensuous – beguiling in her calms and tantalising in her tantrums. She was the force which heaved beneath him every day and lulled him to sleep every night. By constantly challenging him, it was the sea who made him fearless (not reckless), and it was the sea who would receive him into her arms on the final day of reckoning.

Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your fiction and how do you go about your research?

Margaret: As all my stories are woven around imaginary characters, it is the time, place and setting that provides the historical elements. Floating Gold and The Tainted Prize take place against a backdrop of the Napoleonic War in the early 1800s. This is a well-documented era and there is no shortage of information about it, however, primary source material written by sailors who served in the Royal Navy at the time, or copies of original ships’ logs are most valuable for research.

ImageWalking the gun decks of an original man-of war like HMS Victory provides a valuable insight into life aboard a fighting ship, and in October, I will be re-visiting Victory and the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. After that, I will sail to Gibraltar to learn its history and experience its atmosphere first hand, as it will be one of the settings in my next book. Academic study of the Napoleonic Era, the Atlantic World and the Age of Revolution has provided me with background material to pepper my books. And, last but not least, sailing as a crew member aboard various tall ships has left me with an insatiable appetite for the sea.

Elizabeth: Enough of your books—tell us about yourself.

Margaret: I was born and bred in Yorkshire, England but moved to Australia in 1970. For twenty-five years my priorities were my career in Cytology and raising a family, and it was not until I was made redundant in the mid-1990s, that I had time to do things I had always wanted to. One of these was to write. The other was to sail on a tall ship. The tall ship came first followed by a BA (Writing) which led to my first novel, Sea Dust (2005).

Though it is many years since I left England, it was the moors and the rugged Yorkshire coast that I called on for the settings of my first three books. And while world travel is something I have enjoyed in more recent years, this also has had a considerable influence on my writing. Visits to South America and the Antarctic Peninsula directly inspired the settings for my novels, The Condor’s Feather and Floating Gold. Today, I live in Tasmania, an Australian state settled in the early 1800s from convict stock. It is called the Island of Inspiration and its history has inspired me to, one day, write a book about one of its infamous Bushrangers.

Elizabeth: 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: Coffee or tea?

Margaret: Whatever you are having.

Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?

Margaret: Ocean, of course.

Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?

Margaret: Hate shopping. Loved hiking when I was younger.

Elizabeth: Violin or piano?

Margaret: Neither – prefer the sound of silence.

Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?

Margaret: Mystery.

Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?

Margaret: Heathcliff.

Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?

Margaret: Death – stirs deeper emotions.

Learn more about Margaret at her blog www.margaretmuirauthor.blogspot.com  and website: www.margaretmuirauthor.com

ImageFor the month of September, you can purchase Sea Dust on Kindle for $0.99:

http://www.amazon.com/Sea-Dust-ebook/dp/B008J1PPP2/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1347314267&sr=1-1

Floating Gold is on Kindle for $2.99.

http://www.amazon.com/Floating-Under-Admiralty-Orders-ebook/dp/B008K9E3FQ/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1347314408&sr=1-1

Margaret Muir’s other titles are available on Kindle and as paperbacks via Amazon.

Margaret, thanks for visiting my blog today!