2018 in Review …

2018 was a good reading year for me — 111 books in total; 86 by women authors, 25 by men; a lot of British and American based books but also a few from Korea, Ireland, China, and Rwanda.  Types:

10 non fiction
48 General fiction
17 Literary fiction
10 Fantasy and Science Fiction
8 Mystery
18 Children and Young Adult

My goal for 2019 — more non-fiction and more foreign fiction — but we’ll see what happens!

My favorites for the year …

Non Fiction:

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham — An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson).

Killers of the flower moon by David Grann — A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s.

The Library Book by Susan Orleans — The story (and multiple fascinating back stories) of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees.

General Fiction:

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson — Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. 38-year-old Leia Birch is a well-regarded graphic novel artist and self professed “uber-dork”. After an enjoyable comic book convention hook-up with a gorgeous black man in a come-hither Batman cowl and cape, she finds herself pregnant. Take it from there …

Chemistry by Weike Wang—A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel — A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner — An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066 and first interned, and then repatriated to Germany.

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland — Spiky Loveday Carew has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

The News of the World by Paulette Giles — A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield —An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

Literary Fiction
Exit West — A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement.

Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim — An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War.

Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika — Beautifully written book about Morayo Da Silva — a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose — A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond.

Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward — Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward — A powerful novel. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Small Country by Gaël Faye — A coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger — A story of the opportunity for redemption and resurrection for a fading town and the fading men within it. Perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Irontown blues by John Varley — A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley. could be subtitled: “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown”

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes — A blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Our first person narrator is Zinzi Lelethu December — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series as awesome and complex as the first.  Unrivaled world building with an  overwhelming variety and depth of populating cultures  — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

Mystery:
Bluebird, Bluebird — A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing, truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

Young Adult:
School for Psychics by K.C. Archer — A Harry Potter-style story for millennials with a menagerie of psychic powers nurtured by a blend of science, chakras, vegan diets and computer hacking in a School for Psychics. A fun book — well paced, great plot development, cool characters, and multiple layers of mystery. Also, nothing egregiously stupid which frankly tends to pepper this kind of book.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Lerner Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.

(My last YA review for a while…)

Cute and whimsical, this early YA book explores the world of stereotypes using fictional characters who long to be more than their boilerplate dictates. Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy who works hard and is true to type, but chafes a bit under perceived Author mismanagement. He is sent to Group Therapy with a set of Manic Pixie Dream Girls — just one step away from termination — in order to learn to “remember his place” and “The Author is always right.” However, when the Trope Town Council decides that perhaps the Manic Pixie Dream trope is more trouble than it’s worth, Riley and his therapy cohort have to come up with something big to show how truly important their trope is.

On the surface this is fun and a little silly and will appeal to the younger part of the YA demographic. However, there is some depth to the discussion of literature, the use of stock characters (stereotypes) and the impact that can have on readers. In the Trope Museum the characters bear witness to old stereotypes that have been “retired” due to being offensively racist, sexist, etc. The Uncle Tomfoolery trope is a prime example. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is on the chopping block for being sexist. But Riley, as an experimental “Boy” version, shows how it may be the association of a particular race, gender, sexual preference with a particular trope that is the issue, not the trope itself. I liked that a lot — there are various personality stereotypes that exist in the world — the damage (I feel) is associating them with whole groups of people based solely on physical characteristics.

*** Spoiler alert *** One more small thing I appreciated. Riley finds himself at the center of a love triangle between Zelda (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and Ada, a “Developed” girl in the novel he is working on. At the end of the book, all three step off into the sunset on the Termination Train to Reader World without having to resolve the triangle. They are happy to pursue their own lives and see where it takes them without necessarily “winning” the boy. When I was growing up, just about every movie I saw and book I read focussed on the girl falling in love with the right boy. Regardless of her other pursuits, if she didn’t get the boy at the end, she felt like a failure. Since I was never taught this explicitly, it was difficult to question to the premise. Fiction has a powerful ability to teach us norms of expectations and behavior under the covers as it were. I like the not-so-subtle messages in this book.

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

The last of the three!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Pushkin Press through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 12, 2019

An utterly delightful re-publication of a classic children’s series from the 1940s. I’m both embarrassed that I never knew this series existed and happy that I get to discover it now. Originally published in 1941, the author began work on it in 1938 when she was 14 years old — helping to explain why the children all feel so authentic. Maggie Smith says, “I wanted to act before I read this book, and afterwards there was no stopping me.”

This story follows seven children from three families in the town of Fenchester (based on Colchester in the UK) as they found the Blue Door Theater company and forge a future in the dramatic arts. Nigel (15) wants to be a commercial artist and designs and builds all the sets; Vicky (13) is a dancer; Bulldog (13) is a comic and a builder (he does the electric work himself and designs a mechanism to make the curtains “swish”); Jeremy (14) composes music and plays the violin; Lynette (13) is the consummate actress of the group; Sandra (14) sings beautifully and designs and makes all the costumes; and Madeleine (9) acts and works as the group promoter!

What I love about the story is the detail about every aspect of the theater — from converting an abandoned church into an actual theater to writing the pieces to performing them. The children do everything themselves — they create the costumes, they build the sets from abandoned materials, they write the plays and the music and act in them. They learn new skills and use them to create something where nothing had been before. They even make use of one of their mother’s “hair” — the ringlets she cut off and saved ages ago. They also make mistakes and while the story in the book does not revolve around these mistakes, they do lend an air of credibility to the story. Not everything goes perfectly all of the time! I also learned a lot about life in Britain in the 40s: an introduction provides currency translations (12 pence to the shilling; 20 shillings to the pound; 21 shillings to a guinea) and distinct art forms like the English pantomime are introduced. Each performance they give is described in great detail as well — the music, the drama, and the comedy.

This is the first volume of five and I’m happy to find that the publisher intends to release them all. Great for fans of Noel Streitfeld.

Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills

#2 in the children / YA review series!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on January 15, 2019.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

A beautifully written book about the strength of friendships.

Sophie loves everything about her small Illinois town of Acadia — the Yum Yum Shoppe with its fourteen flavors, the school marching band, and the music of their one famous singer / songwriter — Meagan Pleasant. Most important is her close friend group, encapsulated in their WWYSE (where will you spend eternity) group chat — though newcomer August is a pretty intriguing addition.

There is plenty of plot — some romance, some adventure, and some revenge planning along with a well-paced unfolding of surprising secrets. However, the real attraction of the book lies in the characters themselves — likable kids dealing with the realities of life in ways that are focussed, but not dripping with drama. The dialog is natural and (very) funny. There were several points where I teared up reading inspired descriptions of the importance of friendships and family in life. While there is little of the grit present in some urban YA novels, it doesn’t shy away from elements in the environment that today’s teens may be exposed to: blended families, drug use, casual sex, single mothers, open sexual preferences, and even relatives in jail. Acadia isn’t a fairytale locale but a very real place where teenagers are simply trying to grow up and understand what is important to them.

The Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander

I took a break from all the heavy stuff I’ve been reading and read three wonderful children / YA novels.  Here is a review of the first (and my favorite) in the trifecta!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on April 30, 2019.

A brilliantly imaginative story combining history, science, and the importance of knowledge into a children’s adventure story centered around the most impressive, awesome, majestic, humongous library of all time.

Lenora — our eleven-year old heroine — escapes from her (luckily) inattentive nanny through a secret arch of her local library and lands in the aforementioned “Library of Ever.” Confronted with a ten-foot tall stern and very pointy librarian who insists that only library employees may enter, she applies for and is immediately granted a job as the 4th Assistant Apprentice Librarian. Her largely self-directed adventures take her through the Calendar help desk, the cartography section, and a live-action diorama of Bubastes (look this up!). She helps penguins find their way home, a tardigrade (yes — this is a real thing — look this up too!) get directions to Alpha Centauri, and a King in the year 8000 unravel some trouble with time. My absolutely favorite part is when she dons a pheromone interpreter (in her nostrils) in order to help her understand a group of troubled ants.

Most importantly throughout, she works to fight off the Forces of Darkness personified as beings dressed in overcoats and bowler hats, who seek to extinguish the light of knowledge in the world around them.

This should be required reading for all middle schoolers — an ode to librarians and a concise and pithy description of the importance of libraries and knowledge freely available to all.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Writing: 5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4.5

Another middle school age book snuck into my (overwhelmingly large) pending reading pile yesterday by means of the “bookseller recommends” shelf at the local Indie bookstore. Inspiring, heart warming, and laugh-out-loud funny, it features a 12 year-old, highly gifted misfit as its heroine. Willow Chance is a happily adopted, probable genius, with obsessions for medical conditions and plants. She prefers “large talk” to small talk.

As a warning, what starts as a funny book takes a nosedive on page four when Willow comes home to police cars and finds out that her parents have both been killed in a car accident. That felt like a smack in the face. Keep reading — the book gets better and better after that inauspicious start. Mai Nguyen, who only recently met Willow at the counselor’s office where her brother was also “seen,” manages to get her mother to temporarily take Willow in — to their subpar dwellings in the garage behind her mother’s nail salon. Dell Duke is the fairly unlikable, total loser of a guidance counselor, but he too has a pretty interesting (and unexpected) role to play in the proceedings. The action takes off from there.

Though race is not emphasized, most of the characters are clearly of mixed race — Willow is adopted and states that she is “a person of color”; Mai’s mother is the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and a black GI, and her children have a Mexican father (who left years ago). Did I mention that the action takes place in Bakersfield, California? Not sure I’ve ever come across Bakersfield as a novel venue before.

I could not put this book down — started it around 3pm and finished before I went to bed. Willow is a character you will love — reminiscent of Harriet the Spy or Eleanor Oliphant, middle school style. You will also love the impact she has on those around her. What emerges is a story about family, communities knitting together on the fly, and determination. Fantastic read for adults and middle schoolers alike.

Some favorite lines:

“The instructor, Mrs. King, had just plowed her way through a popular picture book. It featured the hallmarks of most pre-school literature: repetition, some kind of annoying rhyming, and bold-faced scientific lies.” (about her pre-school experience)

“The teenage boy and the man are as close to wild animal observation as anything I’ve seen.”

“When the soil is too alkaline, which can be thought of as being too sweet, you need to add sulfur. I explain this, but I can tell that it’s not a spellbinding discussion for the people I live with.”

“What is more temporary than nail polish? No wonder she has such an attachment to the concept.”

 

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4
Children’s fiction — middle grade

New (to me) word: hibernaculum — a place in which a creature seeks refuge, such as a bear using a cave to overwinter.

I loved this book — a perfect middle school read!

Gusta Newbronner “loses” her father on the bus ride from NYC to Northern Maine. She will be staying with the grandmother she has never met and living in Grandma Hoopes’ orphan home. The time is 1941 and there is general tension around foreigners. The tension is even higher around Gusta’s father who is not only a foreigner, but a union organizer as well. While Gusta sees her father as brave, courageous, principled, and fighting injustice, others see him simply as a foreign fugitive.

The story is full of real and (to me) lovable characters — her grandmother and aunt, the various children staying in the orphan home, new found cousins, and even the two children who represent opposing sides in “the Dairy Wars” in her classroom. Originally shy and unassuming, Gusta comes into her own as she learns to stand up for what she believes in and to fight injustice in whatever way she can. In the meantime she is making friends, getting to know her family and joining the Honorary Orphan Band (playing the French Horn — she appears to be a bit of a prodigy).

The writing is excellent. In addition to delightful language (see examples below), we are treated to intriguing descriptions of the process of egg cleaning (far more unpleasant than I would have ever guessed), the thrill of playing the French Horn, oculism in the 40s, pigeon photography (as in they are trained to take the photos), and magical stories from Gusta’s great-grandfather, the sea captain. I absolutely loved the description of what it was like for Gusta to see clearly for the first time when she was able to get glasses. Masterfully done.

The novel has that genuine feel of a true story — unsurprising as it is a fictionalized account of the author’s mother’s life, supported with extensive research using the local paper archives. I would add this to any middle grade reading list.

Some of my favorite lines…

“The winter must have been picking at the scabs of that road for months.”

“Gusta’s mother was omnivorous when it came to words”

“For a moment, Gusta stood there, just saving the feeling of having someone in the world who was already glad today about seeing her tomorrow.”

“And the heaviness inside Gusta, where all the secrets festered, thickened and increased.”

“She knew from stories that wishes wriggle and cheat — if they even exist at all.”

“It was like she coated all her meanness with a hard-sugar layer of wholehearted sincerity.”

“Georges made the happy sound of someone who has just become a part of the great unfolding history of pigeon photography.”