Allison’s Favorite Reads of 2016, Part Two

Part Two of my favorite reads is long overdue. I love to pick a variety of books for these lists and try to have books on here for every age – nonfiction, picture books, middle grade, YA, adult, fiction, graphic novels. I will admit I changed my mind about this list about 15 times. There were a lot of good books this year! But here are 5 more books I loved in 2016.

28114411Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet

Like many children, I loved E. B. White’s books growing up. I remember very fondly my teacher reading The Trumpet of the Swan to us in second grade. This biography by Melissa Sweet is a very unique book. Not quite a picture book biography, it does have chapters and feels a little thick. But the scrapbook-style illustrations are half of what makes the book so wonderful. Sweet’s description of this man’s life made me love him so much for the quiet, thoughtful man that he was. I was so touched I was brought to tears multiple times. I so appreciate E. B. White for being such a good man and one who truly loved words and nature and understood so completely the sensibilities of child readers.

11324722The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

I ended up reading this in November during and after the elections. It was very good timing. If you want to understand why some people are conservative and some are liberal, this book is an excellent look into that question. Haidt is a moral psychologist and has done several studies on morals and deeply held beliefs. According to him morality is not just being fair or doing good but there are 6 different moral foundations we all hold to one degree or another. Liberals place more importance on some of them and conservatives on others. He also talks about how humans are 90% ape and 10% bee and that ten percent is very important in understanding how and why we form groups and are happiest in groups of like-minded people. It’s just all so really fascinating and it changed the way I see a lot of things and I can’t wait to discuss it with my book club next month.

28763485The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

I enjoyed Yoon’s first book Everything, Everything but I didn’t love it. It was a fun read, but a little too fluffy. This book is leaps and bounds above her first. The Sun is Also a Star is a really, really sweet YA romance but it is also a look at the immigrant experience, both documented and undocumented. There are also lots of fun juicy philosophical discussions and debates between the two main characters, Daniel and Natasha. Daniel is a dreamer and a poet but is feeling the pressure of his first generation Korean American parents. Natasha is a realist, a scientist, who clings to facts. Her family is about to be deported back to Jamaica. Most of the story takes place in the one day where fate or destiny brings them together in New York City. I loved that these felt like real characters and they talked like real teenagers (ahem, ahem, John Green).

1466455Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

I am a huge fan of Liane Moriarty. I’m working my way through her backlist and of the 3 Moriarty books I read this year, this one was my favorite. It is about triplet sisters Lyn, Cat, and Gemma. They are each very different and their relationships with each other are volatile and complex. You know at the start of the book that during their 33rd birthday dinner they get into a huge fight at a restaurant and one sister throws a fork at her sister’s pregnant belly. Did I mention it was also hilarious? So we go back in time to see the events in their lives that led up to this big blowup. They are each dealing with very different issues but they are all super relate-able. And of course I extra loved it because I have two sisters myself so even though we aren’t triplets, I know how sisters can be. I listened to the audio of this through Hoopla and the narration with a slight Australian accent was absolutely perfect.

26221428The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

I have not read the Mysterious Benedict Society series by this author but it always sounded like something I would love. So when this new series starter came out this year I snatched it up. It was a really fun Middle Grade read, especially for smart kids who love mysteries and puzzles. Our main character Reuben finds a watch with magical properties to make the owner invisible and he goes on a quest to find out more about this watch and where it came from. He makes some great friends on his quest but there are also dangerous men chasing him who want the watch for themselves. There is a family of lighthouse keepers who help him on his quest and a mansion with hidden passageways and trap doors. It was a pleasure to watch this mystery unfolded and I highly recommend it to all mystery and puzzle lovers who enjoy a good story.

 

 

Favorite Reads of 2013 (Part One)

10836471 Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

This novel begins in the year 2073 when a man named Eric visits the island of Blessed and meets a woman named Merle. After this beginning section we have six different parts and each one goes back further in time, all the way back to the tenth century. The stories seem very different from one another, but they are all intertwined in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There is a lot of symbolism in this book and the setting and atmosphere are just the right amount of spooky and mysterious. This is a beautiful book about love and sacrifice and one that is begging to be reread again and again.

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell

After I read this, I knew I had found my new favorite book. I already posted a review of this book here. Here, I’ll just say if you would like an amazing book about the first year college experience, fandom, writing, social anxiety, and family relationships with the best romance I have probably ever read, then you must absolutely read this book! Even if none of those things sound interesting to you, read it anyway. It is that good.

15819028 The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

It’s no secret I love speculative fiction/magic realism/literary fantasy/whatever you want to call it. And this book was just my cup of tea. It takes place in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York in 1899. A Jewish man has a rabbi use old magic to make him a wife out of clay, a golem. When the man dies on the passage to the United States, the golem must make her own way in the city. A few blocks away, an Arabic tinsmith accidentally releases an ancient powerful jinni and worlds collide in beautiful ways when the two magical beings meet. I love what one of my new favorite authors, Anne Ursu, had to say about this book, “Here’s an adult book smart and inventive enough to be written for children.”

15953632If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead

It’s also no secret that I love whales. Whales are my favorite animal and my dream is to go whale watching, so I found this picture book about whale watching absolutely delightful. In this quiet and thoughtful book, the narrator describes the many things you must not do if you want to see a whale. Erin Stead won the Caldecott Medal a few years ago for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, also delightful. When I went to the ALA exhibits in Chicago this year, I got to meet her and she signed this book for me! I was in heaven.

1161536 The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont

Even though this was written over thirty years ago, this was the best graphic novel/comic book I read all year and it also made me a dying and eternal fan of the X-Men. I’m always on the lookout for comics with strong female characters, and this story about Jean Grey of the X-Men could very well be the best I’ve read yet. I was initially put off by the retro comics style artwork and coloring, but once I was hooked on the story, it really started to grow on me. When it was over I was begging Michael for more amazing stories like this. Sadly, there really aren’t enough out there. But for a good read in its current run, definitely check out the new all-female cast X-Men title by Brian Wood.

15944406The Doll Bones by Holly Black

This is probably my favorite middle grade book of the year. It has just the right elements creepy old dolls, friendships, magic, quest adventures, and themes of growing up to make it a nearly perfect book. Zach, Poppy, and Alice are three friends who have always created fantasy worlds in their play together. Now that they are growing older, Zach is having doubts about whether he wants to keep playing the game. Then, Poppy tells Zach and Alice a dark story about an old doll in her mother’s cabinet and the ghost of the doll that is haunting her until she returns the doll to the site of her burial. Spooky but not too spooky and lots of fun, I highly recommend this book to readers of all ages, especially since I wish it had been around for me to read when I was younger because I could absolutely relate to these characters and their struggles with growing up and letting go of their fantasy worlds.

The Dream Thieves

17347389The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. 14 and up. Scholastic Press. 439 pages. Copy provided by my library.

Be forewarned, this is the second book in a series, so you’re going to want to read The Raven Boys first. So go do that right now, and come back right away. Because, guys, the second book is even better.

In the first book, Blue, who was raised in a family of psychics, meets four best friends Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah, who are students at the private school nearby. She joins them on their quest to find an ancient Welsh king and there is magic and mystery and the characters are so vivid they jump off the page and the relationships between all of them are very complex and interesting and it is just one heck of a great book.

And like I said, book two is even better! The best way I can describe The Dream Thieves, what I found myself thinking again and again as I was reading it, is that this book is intense. And not only intense, but fast paced and filled with emotion and tension on every page. Reading this book is like an experience in not being able to catch your breath for page after page after page.

You discover as you read that there is a lot more magic in this world than you realized. And it’s also really scary and can affect you in disturbing ways. This book is mostly about Ronan who is a dark and angry character with a really, really interesting story line. He can take stuff out of his dreams. And he learns how to control it and starts doing it more and more but there are dangerous people out there who are after him and also other people who have this gift and abuse it. But the plot is so much more complex than that and there are so many surprises and twists and turns and I don’t think I have ever read  a breathtaking page turner quite like it.

The five characters Stiefvater has created are so, so real. They are so strongly written and all have unique thoughts and desires and motives behind their actions. I can’t think of many other books with such a large main cast that are so strongly and distinctly written. It is really, really well done here. And I love each of those characters with my whole heart, even though quite a few of them are the kind of guys I would probably despise if I knew them in real life. But Blue even kind of acknowledges this but once she got to know them and was sucked into their world and their quest and their magic, she fell in love with all four of them too. I love this series and I am just dying to see where it is headed next.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell. 14 and up. St. Martin’s Press. 433 pages. Copy provided by my library.

I think I have just discovered my favorite book of the year. Quite possibly my favorite book ever! Well, yes, I do have many, many favorites, but just trust me on this one. Fangirl is a really, really good book. I can’t remember the last book I read that affected me so deeply, that had me so lost in the story and the characters, so believing in every single word on the page. I don’t remember the last time I discovered an author who was speaking TO ME. Who wrote this book FOR ME. That is how Rainbow Rowell makes you feel. She has an amazing ability to look into the human soul and somehow capture it on the page. Have I mentioned I love this book?

Oh, you wanted an actual review? Not just me gushing my heart out in love? Okay, I’ll try to see what I can do.

Fangirl is the story of Cath in her freshman year of college. There absolutely need to be more books about this important life transition. (Another 2013 book that deals with year, though in my opinion not nearly so well, is Just One Day by Gayle Forman. Interesting to compare the two.) Anyway, Cath is very close to her twin sister Wren. They are going to the same Nebraska university but Wren doesn’t want to be roommates. She wants to experience college to the fullest and have her own social life apart from her sister. Cath has social anxiety and is a bit of a hermit, so she isn’t used to meeting people or doing things without Wren by her side. Navigating college on her own is really tough. Cath also writes fanfiction and has thousands of readers who hang on her every word. She is writing a Simon Snow story and is racing to get it finished before the final Simon Snow novel comes out. Over time, Cath does start to slowly make friends with her roommate and her roommate’s friend Levi.

The novel covers a whole year in Cath’s life. Some parts might feel slow to some readers, or as though not a lot is happening. But I loved the slower pace. Through that year we get to watch her grow into herself, find her voice as a writer, deal with her relationships with her partying sister and her mentally unstable dad and her nonexistent relationship with her mother (who left them), and oh did I mention fall in love? This book has the most achingly lovely and real romance. Normally I’m not a gushy person but oh I loved it and it made me feel swoony. Plus, there are so many parts that are just witty and hilarious and so, so funny. Rowell has such an amazing way with words. As a diehard Harry Potter fan, I loved the Simon Snow passages interspersed throughout. I actually really wish they were real books and that I could read more of that story. It was wonderful.

So, if I sound like I only have good things to say about this book, it is because mostly I do. It is a long book with a lot of plot threads and the ending seemed a little rushed in the way it tied up all the threads pretty quickly. I would have liked a slower burn of an ending to fit the pace of the rest of the book. Really, though, I just didn’t want the book to end. Cath and Levi and Wren and her dad and all the characters are so real to me now that as soon as I finished the book I missed them. And I have to say once again, this is the best book I’ve read all year.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

16052012Flora & Ulysess: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo. Ages 8-12. Candlewick Press. 233 pages. Copy provided by my library.

Here’s a link to a fun interview with the author.

I was instantly charmed by Flora & Ulysses. It is absolutely just my kind of book. Flora, our smart, cynical young heroine loves to read about the adventures of the Illuminated Man in the comics her dad used to read to her. But now her parents are divorced and she lives with her mom, who writes romance novels and hates comic books. Ulysses, the superhero squirrel, got his powers when he was vacuumed up in a Ulysses turbo vacuum (it is also how he got his name). He was rescued by Flora, and became a flying, typing, poetry-writing superhero squirrel.

This book has a cast of fantastic peculiar side characters and it is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and tug-at-your-heartstrings sweet. There are comic book panels, drawn by K. G. Campbell, that occasionally further the story. And those scenes of action told through comic books style images really make this book fantastic. We even get to hear parts of the story from Ulysses’ point of view, and DiCamillo has nailed the narrative voice of a squirrel, let me tell you. It is simply perfect. The same goes for the voice of the entire book. It really is just pitch-perfect. There is a lot of clever wordplay in this book, which only adds to the charm and the characters of Flora and William Spiver. At is heart, though, it is a book about finding your place in the world, and it does a very fantastic job of sharing that message.

I fell in love with this super-powered squirrel and his best friend and champion Flora and I am going to be excited to share this with the children I work with. This very well may be one of my favorite books of the year.

Allison’s Favorite 2011 Reads (Part Two)

It’s time for part two, highlighting five of my favorite reads of 2011.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Adult Scientific Nonfiction.

I am really fascinated by medical/scientific nonfiction books for some reason.  This book is a history or ‘biography’ of cancer. It is a fascinating history! I really loved that the author tied the history in with his own stories and experiences working as an oncologist to make it more readable.  Mukherjee has a wonderful way of making even the most technical details easy for the average reader to understand. I am so glad I read this book and I came away with a much greater awe for science and also for the mysterious and scary thing that is cancer.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Ages 9-12. (I listened to the audiobook read by Lincoln Hoppe).

I really hope this book wins a Newbery! I think it totally deserves it. This book tells the story of 14-year-old  Doug Swieteck. He recently moved with his parents and brother to Marysville, New York. And he doesn’t like it. But with the help of a new friend, Lil Spicer and a book of Audubon prints Doug comes to love this new town as well as learn how to grow into the type of person he wants to be. There is a ton going on in this book but Gary Schmidt weaves it all together into a story that will have you crying and laughing and in the end, cheering.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Ages 10 and up.

This is a book that stays with you. This is a book that left me speechless. Conor is a young boy dealing with the fact that his mother has cancer. Dealing with the fact that his mother is dying. But it is also a book about hope, and about the power of stories in our lives. There is a monster who comes to visit Conor. The monster will tell Conor three stories, and then it will be Conor’s turn to tell his own story. The writing in this book is amazing, and so are the darkly beautiful illustrations. I will never forget this book.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai. Ages 9-12.

A story told in verse. A 10-year-old Vietnamese girl immigrating to the United States with her family after the Vietnam War. Ha relates her travels her new home and her difficulty adjusting to the new life and surroundings. I was so impressed with how well Lai is able to say with so few words through the voice of Ha and her poems. This is a moving book and one that is filled with hope.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Adult Fiction. (I listened to the audiobook read by Grayce Wey).

This is another immigrant story, though a very different one. Kimberly Chang immigrates to the United States with her mother as a young girl from Hong Kong. They live in heartbreaking poverty as Kimberly’s mother works in a Chinatown clothing factory and Kimberly becomes a star pupil at school with her bright intelligence. They must work hard for everything they have, but Kimberly is determined to make a better life for herself and for her mother.

Also, I must add two more books: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray and Delirium by Lauren Oliver. They both receive honorable mention.