Category: Best of

Best Books of 2016, Part II

Here is part two of my Best Books post, in which I wax rhapsodic about another YA fantasy, some mysteries, some middle grade and a few children’s picture books! I hope you have a chance to check some of these out! And if you missed it, check out part one of my post of Best Books of 2016!

Now, if you know me, you know how much I love YA. And if you know how much I love YA, you know how much I love Leigh Bardugo. I didn’t miss the sequel to Six of Crows, and I didn’t leave it off my list! Here we go, making the world right:

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Yes, this is one of my favorite reads. I am, however, still in a bit of huff because the series is over. This book is the second one in the Six of Crows series. I reviewed Six of Crows here. Have I told you lately how much I love these characters? I love them so much, it hurts to say goodbye. In fact, I had a really hard time getting into this book. I had to enact the buddy-read method to get me to keep moving forward – and so that I would have someone to cry with when it was over. Okay, I didn’t cry (much). But it was still very sad. Nevertheless, pain is a part of life, and I suggest you get your hands on all the Leigh Bardugo books you can carry, and just sit down and read them all straight through. You’ll have a helluva hangover, but it will be so worth it. This setting, the writing, the story, the characters – you will be in love. (Bonus: I did preorder this, and I did get the most coolest preorder swag ever! More on that later.)

Mystery

In the Moors, Unraveled Visions, Beneath the Tor (Shaman Mystery series)
by Nina Milton

I’ve recently discovered a series published by a Minnesota publisher, Flux, which has a mystery imprint called Midnight Ink. I was looking for books about shamans, and stumbled across the Shaman Mysteries series by Nina Milton, about a modern shamanic practitioner named Sabbie Dare. Not only is it fascinating to hear about how she plies her trade, but the mysteries are good too. They are set on the Somerset moors, which only adds to the overall appeal. There are three in the series and I read them out of order, which does not seem to matter too awful much. Each one of them pulled me in and kept me going late into the night. I love Sabbie and I am totally rooting for her, even if she does have a habit of sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Bonus: this counts as research for my work in progress!

Middle Grade

Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper

What a lovely, refreshing, too-true bit of magical realism! I met Abby while we were both working on a project last spring, and I was so happy to find that her debut novel is every bit as effervescent as she is. It is a story about bullying, but also about self-confidence, about being true to yourself, and about the rigors of junior high. The main character may have a made-up condition, but the challenges she faces are as real as anything you will ever read. I loved Elyse, and her chirpy voice is spot-on and feels like someone I know. I am looking forward to more from this author!

The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee by Erin Petti

This is delightful. That is the first word that comes to mind. This was one of my top Halloween Reads this year (check the link for the full review). It is a bit creepy, yes, and in the way of children’s literature, involves giving the children a great deal of license to do as they wish. But it is a lovely story, a bit of a mystery, a love story and a ghost story all rolled into one. The construct of the main character being very curious and loving scientific method means that this is very literally used in the story, which is one way of slipping in exposure to that. But Thelma is so delightful, and her need is so dire, that we cannot help but root for her. There is even an online component. I received this at the Heartland Fall Forum book show.

Children’s Picture Books

I just got my first issue of Horn Book, which had a very cool subscription deal that I couldn’t pass up. And it reminded me again how much I love a really beautiful children’s book. I will highlight a couple here that came to me over the past year.

One North Star: A Counting Book
by Phyllis Root
Illustrations by
Beckie Prange and Betsy Bowen

This is flat-out gorgeous. I love the combined woodcut and watercolor illustrations, the deep colors, and the depiction of the natural world. It is a counting book, too, which is absolutely fun. It takes the reader deep into caves, under water, and into a bear’s den. The pages are lush and rich with detail, while at the same time being very simple. I also like that there is information in the back on the different habitats depicted. If you have not yet discovered Phyllis Root, also check out her Plant a Pocket of Prairie book, also illustrated by Betsy Bowen, or any of her other many titles. This is my top children’s book of 2016! I received a copy of this book from the publisher, University of MN Press.

 

Tinyville Town Gets to Work! By Brian Biggs

This book reminds me of the old Richard Scarry books I had when I was a kid (which, yes, I still have), with its busy bright pages full of people doing all kinds of things. This is the first in the Tinyville Town series by Biggs. I got to meet the author at the Heartland Fall Forum in the Moveable Feast, where he told us about this book. It describes a very big process (building a bridge) in a very simple way, and celebrates the idea of how people working together can make great things happen. I look forward to more in this series!

Wake Up, Island by Mary Casanova
Woodcuts by Nick Wroblewski

This details a similar landscape as One North Star but contrasts with its very delicate, lovely illustrations that also include woodcuts but with a softer palette. This book shows the whole world waking up – not just a sleepy bear scratching his back, but pine trees that stretch, and lichen that warms a rock. This is full of fun sounds – mallard wings “wuff-wuffing,” a chickadee calls, a red squirrel chatters and munches. Children will get a feel for the whole world that is contained in this tiny spot of the north woods. I received this book from the Minnesota publishers reception at the Heartland Fall Forum.

There are so many good books out there. This is a much longer list than I typically give. I keep thinking of more books I want to add. But hopefully, one of these will appeal to you, and you will find the book that you need at the time that you need it. Because books really do change lives, and they really do matter. I hope you have many great books come your way in 2017!

Best Books of 2016, Part 1

I love my stats. I am still not sure if I’ll make my reading challenge goal for this year – I had hiked it up to 80 books, even though last year I had not made my goal of 75. Call it a fit of optimism. But the year before last I read 100. Now my challenge shows me that I have 1 day and 10 hours to make my goal. This year, they have a feature called My Year in Books, which is like catnip to me. My longest book was Crooked Kingdom at 536 pages (every moment of it worthwhile); my average page count per book was 296 pages. These 72 books I’ve read so far this year amount to 20,439 pages. I like that. It’s a nice round number. I only wish I had more reading stats.

What I do have is a list of the books I liked the most. The ones that stuck with me. Here I’ll highlight my favorite reads of the year, covering many genres. My top three (no surprise) are all YA fantasy.

I want to say that YA fantasy has really stepped it up in recent years, but maybe it is just that I have only begun paying closer attention since I started blogging. I have gotten to know many bloggers on Twitter and Instagram who focus on YA, so that might be leading me more towards that genre as a whole. I am not a huge fan of contemporary (though I love Rainbow Rowell and I am looking forward to Adam Silvera’s new one), but I can’t get enough of the fantasy.

Without further ado, here are my top reads of 2016!

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

This one has stuck itself deep into my heart, deep into my psyche and my imagination. It is one of the most highly imaginative, well-executed books that I think I have ever read. It feels cut out of whole cloth. It is magical, awe-inspiring – the superlatives do not do it justice. What Kristoff has done here is imagined a whole new world – one with three suns, then created a lexicon that uses that specific element – days are not days, they are “turns” and so these characters do not say ‘some day,’ but “some turn.” He has then populated that landscape with an incredible cityscape, and other continents that share their own incredible histories, and then peopled that world with characters that make you cringe and make you cry, that you will root for and fear all at once. The writing, the very magic of the words and sentences, is sublime. There is even – wait for it – a vast, cavernous library that has its own surprise, and is prowled by actual bookworms, which will eat you whole.

This is deep and dark and full of foreboding. People die. Many die in gruesome, startling ways. Our heroine, Mia, is befriended by shadows, and you will soon wish you had your own Mister Kindly. Her story is heartbreaking, but she rises above it in ways that will astonish you. You may not agree with everything she does, but you will want her to succeed at doing it. Let’s just say it earns the hashtag for this title, which is #stabstabstab.

I cannot say enough good things about this book, except holy hell, why was it not on every best list, and why is it not being sung from the mountaintops? And just that you should go get it. Read the synopsis on your chosen book site, and then know that is not nearly enough. It is so much more. For some reason I haven’t published my review yet. And my library doesn’t have a copy. I had to get mine from another system (thank the goddess for Interlibrary loans!). But it is worth hiking over hills and mountains to get this in your hands.

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

It was hard to choose, if I had to, between this and Nevernight. The clincher, I think, was the overall feel of the book. This is a fantastic story, told by two teens, who are very different from each other. I don’t know if you will like Katie, but that’s okay. You may be repulsed by August, or utterly charmed by him. You will certainly feel for them as they are drawn into this world they inhabit, which they are trying very hard to resist. I loved the story here, I loved the characters, and I loved the utterly forlorn nature of the situation. This is not sugar-coated. It is dark and it is nasty. But there is music, though it does not bring beauty, and at the end, there is hope. This was the second book I had read by Schwab, and I found it even more wonderful than her Darker Shade of Magic series. No romance here, thank you very much. And I can’t wait for the second in this duology, Dark Duet. You can see my full review here.

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

I’ve been championing this book ever since I first read it. I loved it. It is a fast-paced, rousing rebel-with-a-cause adventure, and I want to get back to the desert and see what could possibly happen next. I loved Amani and I loved the setting. I could taste both the dust in my mouth and her own desperation to get out of her sleepy little one-horse town. But along with the adventure, this was also a book about stories. There are legends, and myths, and everyone has their own secrets, and the stories might be true, or might not. There is magic, there is a lovely spot-on bit of blushing romance, and I can’t wait for the next book. I don’t own a copy of this one, but I am torn now, because they changed the beautiful cover for the next book. Why oh why did they do that? They just don’t understand – series must match! And that gorgeous cover is something I would have loved to see carried through. Ah well. I know well enough by now that publishers have reasons why they do things.

Nonfiction

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy

I read this bit by bit, trying to savor it but still rushing to the next chapter. I loved the way it was laid out. Each chapter focused on a different element of writing. You might want to skip ahead to whatever is eating you at the moment, but I urge you to read it all the way through. It’s like a little masterclass between covers. See how many flags are in my copy? I am excited to put all this great advice to use. A Minnesota author by a Minnesota publisher! I got this copy at the Minnesota reception at Heartland Fall Forum, where I finally got to meet Ben in person.

The Song Poet by Kao Kalia Yang

If you have not read The Late Homecomer, you may not be familiar with Yang. She is a Minnesotan, but her writing will take you far away from here. In her latest book, she tells the story of her father. It’s interesting to hear a daughter focus on her father, but clearly they have a special relationship, and his gift made an impression on her. This is a riveting account of his life, from the mountaintop jungles to the refugee camp to life in America. It is clear that should Yang choose to, she would be an astounding poet. If you ever – I mean EVER – get a chance to hear her speak, run, don’t walk. She can make an entire room cry just answering a question. Her thoughtful, clear-headed story will leave its mark on you. Bonus: if you are not familiar with the Hmong people, you are in for a helluva story. I am so glad that she wrote this book. This one should be filed under “miraculous.” (I received a copy of this book from the publisher at the spring bookseller meeting of MiBA.

Grief Is the Things with Feathers by Max Porter

Never mind that Porter stole the title of the poem that was my mantra while my best friend was fighting cancer. I was irked by that at first, wishing I’d thought to title my poetry collection with this, but that would be too close to the source, wouldn’t it? At any rate, I did not have huge high hopes for this novel. I thought it was at best an affectation, at worst an over-hyped golden boy. But, ahem, I stand corrected, even if only to myself. This spare, lyrical novel will give you pause. It may seem crazy, but just read every word and take the journey. The journey is always different but the ending is magnificent. Keep going.

Fiction

The Dark Lady’s Mask by Mary Sharratt

Carry yourself away, 400 years in the past and across the ocean, to Italy, to England. Mary Sharratt brings it all to life. In what is fast becoming her trademark of authenticity, she has recreated the world in which, perhaps, William Shakespeare made the acquaintance of England’s first published lady poet, Aemelia Bassano. He may or may not have traveled to Italy with her, and then, returning to England, he wrote those sonnets – to her? It is all conjecture at this point, but oh, highly suspect! And somehow, it just feels right. We get glimpses of the court life, glimpses of the precarious nature of society then, the predicament of women, and the words, all the words. This is a lush, fully-imagined story, great for anyone who enjoys diving into historical fiction. Disclaimer: I worked with Mary on a social media campaign for the release of this book. Look for #OpheliaReads on Twitter and Facebook for some fun pics!

Wintering by Peter Geye

And now for something completely different. Peter Geye fully brings to life the landscape of northern Minnesota like no one else. In fact, you could say that the landscape is another character in his books. If you have not read his earlier work, The Lighthouse Road, you could pick that up first, and then binge both of these. They are each told covering two time periods, and contain multiple perspectives, sharing some characters. It is complex writing, and beautiful. Geye returns to his North Shore town of Gunflint, and tells the story of a trip a father and son took into the wild years before. It is an adventure story, tense yet full of the peace of nature. You do not need to have read Lighthouse Road in order to enjoy Wintering, however. Just find yourself some Peter Geye, and settle in for a great winter read.

 

And with that, I got carried away. Check back tomorrow for the second half of my Best of 2016 reads, with more YA, mystery, middle grade and children’s picture books!

Minnesota Nice: Best of 2015

The year of 2015 was a slow reading year for me. I typically would have little trouble meeting my goal of 100 books. This year, I have yet to reach my goal of 75 books. I have 36 hours and 13 books to go (with seven books on my Currently Reading shelf). Do you think I can make it?

Of the books I read this year, several were standouts. I read widely, so this will include some fantasy, some historical, some nonfiction and even a gorgeous book that you might think was written for children. These are not reviews, per se, but my recommendations. You can find a synopsis of any of these titles on GoodReads or Amazon.

First up, the two books that I want to highlight the most. These are the books that I recommend without fail, that I cannot stop thrusting into the hands of unwary passersby. I even handsold a copy of one of these to a friend at a bookstore – and I don’t even work there! Without further ado, here are my favorite reads from 2015.

LibraryMountCharTHE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR
by Scott Hawkins

What do you do when you find that your god needs to be replaced? This is the one I handsold. This is the book that when I finished it, I wanted to turn right around and start reading it again. This book enlarged my world and blew my mind. It is gory in places, but the story swept me along so that I didn’t even mind how many different ways people were being killed. The mythology, the magic, the languages – THE LIBRARY! Oh, I’m a sucker for a lovely library, with floors of jade and a ceiling that reaches the sky. But there’s much more to it, and Hawkins delivers on all fronts. Doesn’t hurt that he is a super accessible on GoodReads and his blog and he gifts his readers with insight, as well as an extra short story now and then. I hardly ever read anything with the word ‘contemporary’ in it, but this contemporary fantasy does everything right. He’s been compared to Neil Gaiman, and earns every bit of it.

THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET by Natasha PulleyWatchmakerFiligree

For a swift journey back to Victorian London, you can’t go wrong here. This story takes all that is magical about London, and with a funky clockwork steampunk vibe, makes it about all the universal things that we are so concerned with: belonging, choices, finding your way in life, possibilities, and chance. The concerns feel modern, yet we are completely present in Victorian London. The characters build until you are rooting for them, whether they are good or bad. Exploring the idea of knowing what might happen, and how that affects things, and what change a chance encounter can exhibit. There was just enough tension, but not too much, and the intriguing magical realism lent an other-worldly air to that seemed exotic, along with the Japanese flourishes. What would you do if you could sense what was going to happen? How would it affect your life if you saw sounds as colors? I enjoyed this book so much, I’m leading the discussion on it in book club in two months. Think Aimee Bender meets Cassandra Clare.

SERIES

ShadowBoneThe Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

I read these straight through, and boy howdy, am I glad I did. There is nothing quite like completely inhabiting a world, and Bardugo takes you there and sticks you in it. As Alina’s fortunes rise and fall, your heart will too. You will fall in love repeatedly, you will root for and then banish bad guys, you will despair and then be uplifted. Just start with Shadow and Bone and cozy up with all three. Surrender to the Russianesque flourishes, the empirical splendor, the daring and the imagination. It’s a truly fun ride. Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising.

My treat to myself for New Year’s Eve will be reading SIX OF CROWS, also by Leigh Bardugo, which is set in the same world but is a different storyline. I’ve been looking forward to this for months. I have no doubt that it will deliver everything the hype has promised.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I likewise read these all straight through, once the final volume came out. These kept me up way past my bedtime, as I wondered how on earth the children were going to get out of yet another seemingly deadly situation (SPOILER: they do). But even as they survive each grim encounter, you wonder how their kind will survive overall, and that is what kept me turning pages. Top that with the strange and curious photos that accompany each chapter, which really help you to picture the characters and bring the story to life. I loved the erstwhile love story background to it all, I loved the imagination of how this society lived and thrived and then merely survived, and what will happen to them next. Spellbinding. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Hollow City, Library of Souls.

Contemporary Fiction

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal

I am still, months later, in love with Eva. I want more of Eva. This is, in the same vein as Stonich’s VACATIONLAND, a collection of stories, really, all connected by their relationship to one woman. Each chapter features a different food (with recipes!!). I love the pure sensory detail of it, but the characters shine through, even with as large a cast as this. Life, love, food. What else is there? This one brings it home, and particularly so if you have an attachment to the Midwest. True Minnesota flavor.

FishingRayanneFISHING WITH RAYANNE by Ava Finch

Call it chick lit if you like, but this lovely story, with its feisty heroine, made me sit up and take notice. I loved Rayanne, I loved her grit and determination but also her insecurity and vulnerability. I like how she knows the right thing to do but can’t always quite manage it. I like how she loves Dot, but somehow manages her mother and father too. I love how she found herself in fishing, and in so doing, made a name for herself, a life for herself, in a field with few women, but I wouldn’t call her a feminist. I can’t wait for the next one in this trilogy. Also, that whole Minnesota thing, done so well.

Honorable mention in novels:

ILLUMINAE by Amie Kaufman

Such a cool presentation, a story told in real time excerpts via email, reports and instant messages. I loved the story, I loved the experience. Even if you have never read a piece of science fiction, you will enjoy this space story/romance.

FIRST CIRCLE CLUB by Alex SiegelFirstCircle

I love a good mystery, but am less enamored with thrillers. However, this supernatural thriller picked me up and carried me along and then gently set me down at the end, and I can’t wait for the next one. Heaven and hell band together to fight an unknown foe – what could possibly go wrong?

Children’s Book

THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE by Neil Gaiman

This gorgeous book, with its breathtaking and detailed pen and ink drawings, vellum jacket and beautiful prose, will carry you along just fine… until suddenly, in true Gaimanesque fashion, it veers wildly off to the left and you are careening down a road that you never dreamed existed. Recommended for strong-willed girls, unless you want to truly tame them. Boys will enjoy it too, don’t get me wrong. I simply loved this original retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale. Just stunning. I’ve recommended it to a slew of friends already.

Nonfiction

Because I review books about literature for Library Journal, I invariably come across gems so delicious that I just must share them. This year was no exception. Here are a few that grabbed me.

100DemonsONE HUNDRED DEMONS
by Lynda Barry

You might flip through this quickly, but it will surely leave you with food for thought. I loved how she took something that at face value might seem innocuous, and then turned it into a profound statement on life. I also loved the way it was presented. A truly talented artist, Barry seems to also be something of a philosopher.

RARE BOOKS UNCOVERED: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places by Rebecca Rego Barry

This book made me cry. At the end of the story about the manuscript discovered in the attic, how that house had seen so much history, I don’t know why, but I was just overcome. It also served to awaken in me a latent tendency for collecting. I’ve dabbled in book collecting over the years, but this book is such a handy primer to the passion, it is like a how-to. And who am I to resist? I gave it a starred review for Library Journal. This book will give you hope for that pearl in the oyster.

Honorable Mention in nonfiction: These titles were so valuable to me over the past year, I would be remiss in not mentioning them.

THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee

A completely accessible and clear-cut exploration of the treatment of cancer. Anyone who has been touched by this monstrous disease and who has wondered why will find some answers here.

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP by Marie Kondo

I have read this through at least twice, and will likely read it again before too long. Kondo’s method will work for you, but it won’t be quick. Her idea of sorting by category rather than location in attempts to declutter is a game-changer.

In my years of writing for Examiner, I always enjoyed round-up posts. You can find my year-end Best of posts there, as well as an annual Halloween Reading post. The last one of these was done on my writing blog, because I no longer wanted to post on Examiner but hadn’t yet gotten this blog up. Included in that post was The Library at Mount Char and the Miss Peregrine’s series. They are just that creepy!

There are many more books on my list, many more books in stacks and piles around my house, and many more that I hope to review on this blog over the coming year. The reviews won’t all be this long. 🙂 I hope you will join me!

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