Okay, so I mentioned on Twitter that I’d read about thirty good books this year. The actual number is probably higher, but I went back and found some of the ones that really stood out. In case you’re looking for a book to check out, these I can heartily recommend! Be aware, however, that I read a wide mix of books. Some are middle grade, some YA, some adult, some fiction and some nonfiction. All these books may not appeal to every reader. I’m sure I’m forgetting some . . . The ones at the beginning were posted on my blog with longer reviews. The ones at the bottom were every bit as good — I just didn’t have time to do lengthy reviews on them.
Also, be aware that this isn’t every book I read. I make a point not to review books that I didn’t like, couldn’t finish, or simply found ‘meh.’ If you can’t say anything nice . . . well, pick another book!
It’s been a long time since a book has made me teary-eyed, but Gracefully Grayson had me sniffling at the end. The story is beautiful and authentic. To say it is the tale of a young transgender person coming of age and finding his (her) identity misses the larger picture. This is a book about how we treat each other as human beings — whether we choose compassion or mistrust, kindness or ostracism. Most of all, it’s a story of courage. Grayson is a sixth grader who has always felt different and alone. His parents died when he was young. He hasn’t eaten in the lunchroom with his peers since second grade. When he looks in the mirror, his reflection does not match what he feels inside. Secretly, he imagines his over-sized shirts are dresses and his workout pants are long skirts. He wishes more than anything that he could be who he really is on the outside as well as the inside. When the school play comes around, The Myth of Persephone, Grayson tries out for the lead female role of Persephone, causing a storm of reaction that will affect everyone in his life. I know the character of Grayson. I have taught Grayson in my own classroom. His struggle and his bravery are portrayed with great love and insight. I’m grateful this book exists — not just for transgender youth, but for all young readers who are searching for their own identity and their own voice in the face of societal pressures.
Caleana Sardothien, young woman assassin, is betrayed and sentenced to the salt mines of Endovier. After a year, however, she is given an opportunity: If she wins a contest to become the king’s champion, she will be granted a four-year contract, working as an assassin for the empire she hates, at the end of which time she will be freed. After reading the premise of the book, I thought, “Sign me up!” After the first chapter, I knew I was in good hands. This book has plenty of mystery, magic, humor and romance — a perfect brew for fans of good YA fantasy. If you liked Graceling, Grave Mercy, Shadow and Bone or other fantasies featuring strong female protagonists with scary good skills, I think you’ll enjoy this quite a lot. And it’s the first of a series!
An adult sci fi novel with an intriguing premise: Mankind has reached its first extraterrestrial world, Oasis, and the giant corporation USIC is working hard to build a colony there while economic and climatic conditions on earth continue to deteriorate. There’s one hitch to their plans: the natives of Oasis want a preacher. They’ve had a limited introduction to the Christian faith, but after their first human pastor mysteriously goes missing, they refuse to provide food to the human settlers until a new preacher arrives to replace him. Peter Leigh steps up to take the job, leaving behind his wife Bea in England to become an interstellar missionary. When Peter gets to Oasis, we know something is not right. Why have two colonists disappeared? Why are the natives so intent on learning about the Christian gospel? And why is USIC censoring news and correspondence between Earth and Oasis? As Peter and Bea write back and forth to one another, sharing what is happening on the two planets, the story becomes both painful and compelling. And when you find out the answers to some of the novel’s central mysteries . . . Well, I won’t give anything away, but the answers pack a punch.
An awesome comic book debut — Ms. Marvel introduces Kamala Khan, your typical 16-year-old Muslim Pakistani-American girl from Jersey City, who is endowed with the power to change her form and size. The writing in this series is so good — punchy, funny, believable and fresh, and Kamala’s daily-life struggles dovetail wonderfully (and sometimes hilariously) with the exploits of her secret alter ego. If you like the Marvel universe and are looking to check out some original new superheroes, I highly recommend Ms. Marvel.
Looking for a good middle-grade adventure this summer for you and your kids? LOOT by Jude Watson should be at the top of your list. Jude knows this territory well. Not only does she write beautiful prose worthy of the National Book Award (which she won, writing as Judy Blundell). She also understand what kids want in a fast-paced action story. She has written numerous novels set in the Star Wars universe, and is also a veteran of the 39 Clues, which I was lucky enough to be part of.
Still, none of that prepared me for the fantastic thrill ride of LOOT.
Imagine your dad is the world’s most notorious jewel thief, Alfie McQuin. You live on the run, traveling from heist to heist, never attending school but learning all sorts of other skills — how to bluff at poker, how to blend into crowds, how to con someone out of their money, how to pick any lock. Sound fun?
That’s life for twelve-year-old March McQuin, until one night in Amsterdam when his dad falls from a roof (or was he pushed?) and lies dying on the cobblestones at March’s feet. Alfie’s last words seem to be a riddle: “Wait one month. Find jewels. Follow falls to day. No!”
Soon March is plunged into a dangerous search to find out what his dad was up to, and who might have killed him. He is reunited with a twin sister — Jules, not jewels! — whom he never knew he had. Together they race to find the secrets of Alfie McQuin’s biggest, unfinished heist, but they’re pursued by a crooked cop, a sinister old heiress, and many others who will do anything to stop them. Who can they trust? Can they even trust each other? The stakes are clear: If they succeed, they’ll be set for life. If they fail, they’ll be dead.
So many things I love about this book: the ultra-short chapters that keep you turning pages, the pitch-perfect dialogue, the supporting characters Darius and Izzy, the humor, the action, the twists and turns. Cursed jewels, a dangerous prophecy, a crash course in the history of thievery, acrobatics and grift . . . this is LOOT you can take to the bank. It’s the perfect summer read for kids (or adults who like kids’ books!).
The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson. Jack the Ripper has returned to modern London, or has he? YA supernatural sci fi with a wonderful cast of characters.
The Sisters’ Brothers, by Patrick de Witt, a Western, which I don’t read very often, but this is the best one I’ve encountered since True Grit. Eoin Colfer recommended this one to me, and he was right on the money. Two assassins make their way through the Wild West on a job that goes horribly and hilariously wrong.
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer. I remember this book being on my grandfather’s bookshelf. It’s the first real blockbuster attempt to tell the story of Hitler’s Germany by an American author who lived in Germany at the time and watched the rise of Nazism. Some elements of the narrative seem dated now, but the firsthand account is compelling and terrifying. Not an easy read or a short read, but definitely a book I had on my bucket list, now checked off!
Tesla’s Attic, by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman. Top notch middle grade fantasy adventure with a whacky sense of humor — a definite pageturner.
The Fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Heather. I wouldn’t recommend this for the casual reader looking for an easy introduction. The information is dense and the canvas is huge, but it presents a wonderful picture of how Rome fell, the story woven from all the available sources from an age where documentation is scanty.
By Blood We Live, by Glen Duncan. The third volume in a knockout amazing series about werewolves and vampires. This is a definite *adult* fantasy, tons of violence and sex, but written in beautiful prose. The first volume is The Last Werewolf.
I went on a Nesbo kick during 2014 and read The Bat, The Redbreast, Nemesis and The Leopard. This is bleak stuff, Norwegian police thrillers, but I found them strangely addicting.
The School of Good and Evil, Soman Chainani, A middle grade/YA fantasy that re-imagines the world of fairy tales and will make you question who is the good princess and who is the evil witch. Loved it!
The Young Elites, by Marie Lu. YA fantasy. The X-Men meet the Spanish Inquisition is the best way I can describe this book. After a plague sweeps through the world (which resembles Renaissance Europe but with different gods and cultures) some surviving children develop strange and amazing powers, but these children are quickly ostracized and hunted down. A fascinating, highly original premise. Be warned: some pretty dark stuff happens to the characters, but the narrative is compelling.
And of course I re-read the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and many other books on Norse mythology getting ready for Magnus Chase . . .