Category Archives: Picture Books

Top 11 Books I Read in 2019, Out of 130…

When this posts, it will be almost the end of the year, so it’s time to round up my top reads. I’m currently grumpy that I’ve read 129 130 books and despite getting some good recs on how to handle that, I can’t decide if I’m reading one LONG book to close out the year, or trying to read six short ones. If it’s one, I’m likely to finish early; if it’s six, I might not make it…

Because the FTC sometimes gets grumpy about things, here are my top two that I loved, in alphabetical order, that I was involved with this year, and consider that your official disclaimer (also I want two more slots):

Cover image for Amelia Westlake Was Never Here by Erin Gough. An empty schoolgirl uniform in shades of purple and blue is illustrated on a bright pink background.

1. Amelia Westlake Was Never Here by Erin Gough: A contemporary feminist rebellion rom-com with two very different girls at its heart–who, by the end, have come into their power and started interrogating some of the their own privilege. And they get to overthrow the status quo.

Cover of We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett. An intricate red and gold phoenix seems to rise from the rubble of a ruined city.

2. We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett: In this feminist fantasy that spins off from the real-life history of the WWII Night Witches, two girls fly magical planes and try to find a purpose in a wartime that doesn’t want them, even though it really needs them–and in they end, the thing they really need to save is each other.

And next up, my non-related top 10. This is anything from the 129+ books I read in 2019 (I wrote this mid-December, planning to finish a few more), but my personal favorites (provided I’m willing to share, because sometimes, I’m not…but these, definitely). And I do count the occasional re-read in my total, but they’re not eligible for top 10 of the year; I don’t count manuscripts, at all, even though I read a lot more of them. In no particular order other than chronologically when I read them:

Cover of The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg. Two women reach for each other's hand, and on a black background, we see a ship floating on water, surrounded by constellations.

1. The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg: This graphic novel retelling of Scheherazade is both a love story and a love of story. In an intriguing twist, the Scheherazade character is actually a lady’s maid, and through her telling of the stories, she becomes the titular hero. There’s much here to love and to be frightened by in the stories of how hard it is to keep and tell and even read stories when others want them taken away.

Cover of Willa and Hesper by Amy Feltman. Two girls stand under the branch of a lemon tree.

2. Willa and Hesper by Amy Feltman: Okay, this is a sad one–two young women (who dated briefly) have contrasting journeys to find themselves and family histories during trips to Europe. They were never meant to be, and this isn’t a love story, and yeah, it’s a lot about dealing with grief and self and such. This gets on my top ten for having really stunning writing, the kind that even non-underliners like me want to underline and read over and over to feel them squeeze you.

Cover of Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. A woman holds a curved blade in front of a draped US flag.

3. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: I kept trying to read this in 2018, but every time I picked it up, I’d have to put it down–emergency tasks, emergency reads, emergency something, and I’d lose momentum, and it would slide down my TBR just one or two spots. But 2019 was my year, and I loved this story about killing zombies and kicking ass, including racist ass, in a zombie-infested post–Civil War America. I rarely like zombies, but Jane, the main character, is awesome, and I’m so in for the upcoming sequel.

Cover of Love, Z by Jesse Sima. Six robots huddle around a smaller robot, who has a heart-shaped thought bubble that reads "Love, Z."

4. Love, Z by Jesse Sima: Sometimes I read books that are not about two girls! This is a charming picture book about a little robot who leaves home in search of the meaning of love. While out in the world, the robot asks other robots–who are all wondering, themselves. And sometimes love is already right there, where you weren’t even looking….

Cover of Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi. A girl with a long braid, wearing Spider-Man pajamas, looks up at a ghostly tiger, horses, and peacock while books swirl down in her direction.

5. Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi: A fun and heartwarming adventure that also draws on the Mahabharata. Aru and her new friend Mini are trying to solve some epic problems with time, and Aru’s…wearing Spider-Man pajamas. Also Mini has to cry before she can get up and go on her adventure, and I find that so relatable, even though I can’t remember the last time I got to cry before I had to get up and go.

Cover of The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite. Two women in ballgowns embrace.

6. The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite: This romance has a half-dozen tropes I despise, and it’s still the best, or among the best, I’ve read in a decade. (It also has a few I love, like realizing you dodged a bullet and moving on after bad relationships, and characters having interests besides each other, which makes me care about them while they care about each other because they are fully realized characters. Also a thing I love is that this is a historical, published by a major publisher, and I’m still kind of surprised that they did it. I’m cynical.) There’s a great twist ending, and a related book about the grumpy print shop lady on the way in the spring, too.

Cover for The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake. The title is set over an illustration of seaweed.

7. The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake: I have previously described this as “this book fucked me up,” but actually, it really didn’t. When it comes to retellings, I like them retelling-flavored, and this is exactly how much Twelfth Night I want in a retelling. Yes, please convince me of a love triangle, even if I don’t like them. Yes, please give me messy, complicated characters figuring out what they’re doing wrong and not being able to go from nothing to everything fixed in a minute. Give me siblings and struggles with history and mental health. Give me a foggy coastline and sea air. Give me some pretty fantastic kissing. And let me feel the hurt, but healing, too.

Cover of Heartstream by Tom Pollock. It says "I just wanted to connect..." on a red background, and there is a black phone shattering into pieces.

8. Heartstream by Tom Pollock: Amy is a heartstreamer—think YouTuber, but with emotions instead of videos. You can follow heartstreamers to feel what it’s like to live on a yacht, or to confirm other people feel the way you do, or to just feel. On the day of Amy’s mother’s funeral, a woman wearing a bomb takes Amy hostage, and Amy keeps streaming to save her own life. In alternating chapters, Cat, and her friend Evie, are important players in a boy band fandom; everyone waits for their updates on what they hope is the boys’ romance, but Cat is dating one of the boys…and the news gets out. Amy’s fans are coming to help her—and the boy band’s fans are coming to harm Cat. And just as their lives are falling apart, their worlds collide in a high-stakes thriller about celebrity, secrets, and online obsessions spiraling out of control, for fans of Black MirrorSwipe Right for Murder, and Kill the Boy Band. You’ll have to get an import of this, as it’s not published in the US, but it is available. (Clearly I wrote a formal review and I am not ashamed to re-use it here.)

Cover of The Vagina Bible by Jen Gunter. A pink zipper is unzipped.

9. The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter: The best of the books I read about vaginas this year. (What, didn’t YOU read more than one?) It’s very informative, especially in how it goes into so many studies that show up in places like women’s magazines but aren’t really that reliable, as well as rumors, old wives’ tales, and so on, plus there’s handy medical info. While it definitely gets into how people feel about women and women’s issues, it’s fairly trans-inclusive.

Cover of The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Hold. A woman colors in an animation cell with deer on it.

10. The Queens of Animation, Nathalia Holt: You know how women really haven’t been allowed to do a lot of things? Well, that includes being an animator, particularly for a company we shall not name. I learned so much from this book–certainly, some of the complicated stories behind certain animated films and how the necessity of having a lot of cooks in the kitchen means a lot of cooks are in the kitchen, but also about how there are some visuals that are deeply embedded in Certain Company that are the work of a handful of very talented people who go uncredited. If you liked Radium Girls, The Rise of the Rocket Girls, Hidden Figures, etc., you’ll be into this narrative nonfiction.

Cover of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. A red bird and a blue bird are mirrored.

11. This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone: Two women, real and robotic, are locked in a dance across the threads of time. There is a red faction and a blue faction, and they are agents of those, embedded in different timelines trying to swing things just enough to win a war far, far in the future. And there is the wonder of a game well played, a worthy opponent, and the slowest burn romance you ever read but the book is short so you also get some immediate gratification. Packed with cultural references, this is the book Ready Player One wishes it were.

Honorable mentions, partly those things I remembered just now: A beautiful picture book about family and survival on not much, Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler; a Kickstarter manga called Roadqueen: Eternal Roadtrip to Love by Mira Ong Chua that was a hilarious personal rec; Ocean Meets Sky by Eric and Terry Fan for being the kind of whimsical I really enjoy; Ruby’s Sword by Jacqueline Véssid and Paola Zakimi because girls should get to stab people too; Maid by Stephanie Land for picking up where I miss Barbara Ehrenreich; Tiny T. Rex and the Impossible Hug by Jonathan Stutzman and Jay Fleck because I too am a dinosaur who wants longer arms to give better hugs; You Are Light by Aaron Becker for being one of the most beautiful board books I’ve ever seen; Dreadnought by April Daniels for its complex dive into saving others and yourself, but I actually first read it years ago so it wasn’t exactly eligible for this post; Turn This Book Into a Beehive by Lynn Brunelle and Anna-Maria Jung because you can; a “we got married in Las Vegas by accident” romance that’s so bad I’m not otherwise admitting I read it; probably some stuff I’m forgetting; and anything I read between now and the end of the year (because I don’t know if I’m going for 130…or 135).

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Filed under Adult Books, Fantasy, MG, Picture Books, Reading, SF and SpecFic, Thrillers, YA

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been remiss: I have not been reviewing* what I read this year. (I keep wondering if I ought to, or even could, port those entries over here; however, this isn’t generally to be a book blog.) The asterisk is there because I keep running across so many posts that want to tear apart the idea of the reader review–it’s not in academic format X, one should have a certain background to review books, if you’re not going to give things five stars you shouldn’t tell people about them…argh. I agree to an extent that there are “reviews” that aren’t; posting jacket copy isn’t a book review, and my shorthand reviews are often more reminders for me when I return to a post than an in-depth examination on the page. Reader reaction to a book, even bad or ill-informed, can be a useful input. I quit Goodreads because I got tired of following the “rules” and having people think that a 3-star “I liked it” or 2-star “It was okay” were negatives, and let’s not even talk about why I don’t give Amazon the benefit of my mental energy anymore, except to say harassment, bots, and scraping.

All of that sounds cranky, doesn’t it? More than I’m feeling at the moment, anyway. So, let me give you the highlights of this spring and summer’s reading that you can currently buy. As always, I don’t get to reviewing more than a fraction of what I read, and disclaimer that due to school and work right now, I am not taking any outside requests to review books.

Adult

In FallingIn Falling Snow, Mary-Rose MacColl

Iris Crane, from Australia, goes to France during World War I to fetch her underage brother home. Once there, she is–distracted, I suppose–into the service of a women-run and women-staffed hospital, where she serves as a nurse and an assistant to the hospital director. Reveling in becoming her own, she neglects to expose her very happy brother, who is himself finding a place in the world. But the war looms over them, and they can’t see the threat approaching. In the seventies, Iris’s granddaughter Grace is an ob-gyn in a man’s world, and has to find a way to care for her family and her career as they teeter on the brink of disaster. Big, sweeping multi-generation family story, told with an awry sense of POV and tense that makes perfect sense to show Iris’s perspective. A very feminist story.

That’s a big picture, so I’m switching to thumbnails…

 

YA

courtCourt of Fives, Kate Elliott

I read this in ARC and couldn’t put it down. Sometimes, you know when a story has really taken a step ahead, and when it re-sets the starting line. I could tell you this is fantasy Little Women mixed up with Greco-Roman history and American Ninja Warrior (YEAH), or I could tell you that this is the real daughter of The Hunger Games (ALSO YEAH). My reading tip: pay attention to the peoples, their history, and their culture as they are introduced. I didn’t, and spent a lot of the book getting people confused. (Note: reader error. I actually did this on the book below, too, so I had a muzzy couple of weeks until I settled down and just read.) Luckily for me, that means a re-read. First in…a set of some number that I don’t actually know. Absolutely, positively worth your time, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this as a Cybils finalist this year, at the very least.

wrathThe Wrath and the Dawn, Renée Adieh

I really didn’t think I was going to like this; how many times have you read some big retelling and had it not work? Or, perhaps more accurately, had it not bring anything new to the table? I am picky, maybe too picky, about retellings. I want the story to be re-told, not simply told again with some details changed. I want the story to be transformed. I–maybe–don’t want it to be clear that something is a retelling, even. In this story, the great Shahrzad vows vengeance on the king who kills his wives, but finds herself in a more complicated relationship with the king than she anticipated. What makes this story work is that the author really, really knows what to do with romantic tension, and that is: pull the rubber band tight and aim it, but keep you wondering if and when the snap and flight will happen. Also, if you see a  physical edition, check out the really glorious cover treatment. Set to be a duology.

MG

egyptThe Egypt Game, Zilpha Keatley Snyder

I don’t think I read this growing up, so I rectified that. A group of kids in 1960s Berkeley gathers in a seemingly-empty backyard space and plays at Egypt, as they know it from books about ancient history. There are kids of different races, single parents, and free-range afternoons. But there’s a child killer on the loose, and it could be someone who’s watching all of them more closely than even their bright minds could have imagined. (And that’s the weakest part of the book; I think the murderer could have been a bit bigger part of the book and that plot line not so squished into its brief pages at the end, all without hitting gory or too scary.) I love the look back at kids before the time of the helicopter parent, and I think that–a limited amount of freedom coupled with the knowledge that there are caring adults around–is an experience that, with parenting style changes and cell phone ubiquity, few will have again. I love, too, the variety of people and households that appear in this book. Not everything holds up perfectly, as you can imagine, but there were some good surprises. I think, too, that the author really gets how kids learn (live?) for/through imaginative play, and their Egypt is clearly only their Egypt, standing in for real life where it’s harder for each of them to navigate and negotiate the same thoughts and feelings. That said, since the follow up is titled The Gypsy Game, I think I’m going to skip it.

Twesting gamehe Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

I’m reading all the game books this summer, yes. My first note: don’t get the Puffin Classics edition of this and then read the front matter, because there’s a piece about the book and author that actually spoiled, for me, the puzzle of the story. Not all of it–and if I told you why and you haven’t read, I’d spoil you–but enough to be irritating. I’m afraid that this wasn’t a great read for me; maybe I missed the right age to first read it, maybe I wanted more with more of the characters, maybe I thought the format wasn’t quite right (repackage this written for an older audience, and I might be all over it), maybe I wasn’t fond of aspects of the writing style. Maybe I thought it too weird that there wasn’t enough emphasis on the lives of children for this to be for children, because if a book for children stars adults, I want there to be some childlike aspect to the adult that appeals to the interests and cares of people of a younger age. I also felt like some of the way the mystery was handled was a stretch, and I didn’t understand (all of) what Westing wanted. Sorry, folks. I’m disappointed in me too.

HookHook’s Revenge, Heidi Schultz

Apparently, I have been on a middle grade streak, people (I also had a nice time re-immersing in The True Meaning of Smekday and Smek for President by Adam Rex in the late spring/early summer, but I’m going to assume you already know how fun those are). Here’s the tough thing: I find Peter Pan to be a difficult story all around. Barrie was a weird guy. There are hardly any girls, and they are servants in one way or another. Tiger Lily and her tribe are nasty stereotypes, and neither erasure nor amplification seems to be the way to go forward. That out in front, Hook’s Revenge is the story of Hook’s daughter, who has been left to relatives and boarding school, but who is absolutely not a pretty, coddles princess. When she is called upon to exact Hook’s revenge, you couldn’t ask for a more willing and eager…pirate. Jocelyn Hook is DELIGHTFUL, and the voice of the book utterly delightful too. Especially recommended for girls who think they need to be a certain way. Also my BFF should read this one.

PB

to the seaTo the Sea, Cale Atkinson

This is a lovely, vivid picture book about friendship and loneliness. The illustrations are deep and beautiful and, at least in color, unexpected. Pair it with its book trailer to extend understanding a bit. One of the favorites of at least one small person’s summer reading.

 

 

MimiMimi and Bear in the Snow, Janee Trasler

The spoiler alert on this is that I cry every time I read it. Look, people, if it comes with pictures, those “little” emotions, like happiness, sadness, worry, fear, joy, well, they stab me right in the gut every time. I read a review of this before it came out and put it on my to-buy list, and wasn’t sorry. Mimi and Bear are separated; will Mimi find Bear again? Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

 

 

Now, off to tackle chores and that pile of email that’s glaring at me from the corner.

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Filed under Adult Books, Fantasy, Historical, MG, Picture Books, Reading, SF and SpecFic, YA