Monthly Archives: December 2016
For reasons personal and public, this past year has been a tough one. At times reading was a solace and at other times it wasn’t. Here are some titles that were significant to me during this dark time. Included are books published years ago, this year, and even a couple coming out next year. Some are for kids and some for adults. These stand out for me as titles that were immersive, often profound, informative, sometimes just delightful in a lighter way, and always memorable. I didn’t write about all of them — there are links when I did.
I used to run and now walk for quite a lot daily. Years ago I started listening to books as I did this. Mostly adult books as most of the ones I read otherwise are for kids. Some memorable ones from this year include:
- Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals
I listened to Durrell’s own reading of several of his stories after enjoying tremendously the television series, “The Durrells in Corfu.” I followed that with more stories read by Hugh Bonneville. All were much needed joyful experiences.
- Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
I’d read this years ago and decided to revisit it via the full cast audio production in preparation for the forthcoming television series. Given my greater (and many others) attention to cultural appropriation/appreciation I was impressed with Gaiman’s care given he’d written long before the current focus on this.
- N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season
Was blow away by this. While The Obelisk Gate didn’t excite me as much (perhaps because read it rather than listened to it) I think Jemisin is brilliant and can’t wait for the next in this series.
- Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend
This is a re-listen, and I’m not quite done as of this writing, but I’m loving it and ready to go back and listen to all my favorite Dickens. Simon Vance is a fabulous narrator.
- Paul Beatty’s The Sellout
This is original, scathing, and jawdroppingly smart. Not for everyone, but I thought it deserved every award it got.
- A. S. Byatt’s Possession
Wasn’t sure how this would hold up in terms of time and as an audio book, but it worked for me. A bit of a comfort read at a tough time.
- Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell
I’d read this one too long ago and decided to listen to it after seeing the television series. Enjoyed as much as the first time.
A few other adult titles sticking with me include:
- Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
- Cornelia Bailey’s God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man
Lovely memoir read in preparation for meeting Mrs. Bailey this summer during the NEH Gullah Voices Institute.
- Nathan Hill’s The Nix
A bit of a cheat as I’m not yet done, but it is fabulous.
And here are a handful of books for children that I’m thinking of right now. There are many more wonderful books out this year that I also read (some of which I will mention in a future Newbery post), but these are coming to mind just now. Links are to reviews and blog posts.
- John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March Book: Three
Didn’t write about it, but wow. A worthy finale to a brilliant series.
- Jason Reynold’s Ghost
My top hope for the Newbery.
- Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief
This isn’t out till 2017, but I read it in 2016 so here it is. Delightful.
- Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer
Another not out yet, but I was blown away by it.
- Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale
So impressed with the storytelling and themes of this one. Lovely illuminations and bookmaking too.
- Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second
- Anne Nesbet’s Cloud and Wallfish
- Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer!
- Candace Fleming’s Presenting Buffalo Bill
- Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising
- Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale
“On the Road,” with its recurring references to sex, drugs and domestic violence, might not seem like an ideal bedtime story for a child. But that’s precisely the point of KinderGuides, a new series of books that aims to make challenging adult literary classics accessible to very young readers.
That is from Alexandra Alter’s New York Times piece, “Forget ‘Pat the Bunny.’ My Child is Reading Hemingway.” Back in August I read with disbelief PW’s KinderGuides piece and wrote a snarky blog post giving my…er…strongly negative response to them. Today you can learn more about them and various responses to them (including mine) in Alter’s article. Two small bits of good news: they seem to have dropped consideration of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and James Joyce’s Ulysses, the latter “because we haven’t read it.”
Elizabeth Wein’s books offer so much. The worlds she creates are remarkable in their textures; whether they are set in actual historical pasts or fantasy historical pasts, they are rich with touches large and small that bring the worlds alive for readers. She does something similar with characters, making them complex, flawed, and vivid whether they are the ones we care deeply about, those that terrify us, or simply those a bit more on the fringe of the story. All of them feel fully rounded, ones we readers inhabit fully as we read. Then there is plot — Wein is a master at creating complex, driving, tangled, twisty, and unpredictable plots. Lastly, there is emotion, and not just for the characters — these are books that set readers’ hearts pounding, produce gasps of astonishment, smiles at the wit, and tears of joy and sadness.
Among Wein’s works are two novels set during Word War II: the jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing Code Name Verity and the equally dramatic and heartrending Rose Under Fire. Now we have The Pearl Thief, a prequel to Code Name Verity, featuring a much younger Julie. I admit I was a bit wary starting the novel, wondering if Wein was pushing too far with the same characters , but I needed have worried. This work is marvelous, as fully realized in all its facets as all the others. While the book isn’t out for a while yet, I wanted to get my thoughts down now (in a spoiler free way of course) so as not to have them drift away and to, hopefully, excite those of you waiting for it.
It is 1938 as the story begins and we meet fifteen-year-old Julie heading home to her family’s Scottish estate from her Swiss boarding school for the summer. The death of her grandfather and the need to pay off his extensive debt has meant that the estate has been sold and is being turned into a school. And so Julie’s return is bittersweet, her family occupying a few rooms of the place temporarily until they move out for good. Shortly after her arrival she lands in the hospital, having been hit on the head by an unknown assailant and then saved by local Travelers. Things and people go missing, mysteries pile up and Julie, her brother Jamie, and the Traveler siblings Euan and Ellen try to get to the bottom of it all.
While it has some of the delicious attributes of a cosy mystery, this is far more rich, a highly complex narrative featuring Julie’s coming-of-age (emotionally, sexually, and intellectually), the unpacking of family histories (Julie’s and the Travelers), direct presentations of period prejudices, all within a riveting plot full of Wein’s trademark twists and turns. As in her previous books, Wein creates a rich past world, fascinating characters, dramatic scenes, and great emotional depth. While it is not necessary to have any familiarity with Code Name Verity, those who have it will enjoy the younger Julie, observing her developing into the young woman that she is later on. Finally, in addition to everything else, Wein is just a wonderful wordsmith. I love her sentences, her dry wit. Say this brief bit on page 47.
Mother got up again, with an air of determination.
“Perhaps I’m a witness!” I said relishing the idea.
No one else relished it.
The Pearl Thief is a complete delight. Highly recommended.
So excited! Cannot WAIT for January 13th. For those who know the books, there is a lot here. (And, for one person who complained to me that Violet lacked ribbons in one of the teaser trailers — they are clearly here, just as I figured they’d be.)