I’ve gotten through 16 books so far this year–which is disastrously low, because January’s reading is supposed to be when I catch up on all the Caldecott contenders! I haven’t had the chance to look at so many of those as usual, but I suppose I can look forward to that for the rest of the year. Here are some selected books and (very) mini-reviews:
4. Pokko and the Drum, Matthew Forsythe: This is about a frog who gets a drum and is too noisy and who ends up in a band; sadly, for some of the bandmates, we cannot eat our friends. Another good lesson is never date a drummer, though do remember I was a percussionist in a past life. This is a really charming book about keeping at it.
9. Crier’s War, Nina Varela: This is an excellent fantasy–layered and complex in exactly the right ways, and structured really well for a series installment. With fantasy, getting the balance of world and characters can be really tough, but this succeeds, and I want to read more about the struggle with what it means to be.
13. Redwood and Ponytail, K. A. Holt: At work, we have this e-reader/audio app so we can access company publications, and while Chronicle published this in hardcover, my employer produced the audio edition (and it won an American Library Association Award). I checked it out not knowing anything about it–including that it was older MG, verging on younger YA, though it all depends on how you count things–and was immediately thrown by the changing POV in verse with a chorus! I really struggle with audiobooks, but because this is verse (which to me sounds like prose read aloud–a recommendation in my ears), the entirety is just under 5 hours, so it’s a good length for me and my ears’ attention span. Anyway, this, particularly Kate the perfection theme, was really harrowing in the back half of the book, but there was the right amount of hope and healing mixed in. It’s also fascinating to think that this book has a place right now, but that for target age readers, the need for books like this is rapidly dissipating. Maybe not everywhere, but certainly enough. (And I wonder if in many ways, it’s going to linger as a book for grownups; there is an older character role model with a very frequent story you don’t hear as often. But, hey, no spoilers.)
15. Truman by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins: Aw, a turtle has an adventure! The turtle I acquired in college–one that was cute and tiny and likely not sold legally–went to spend the summer with a friend and was…short-lived. But here, a really cute turtle has an adventure of heart and bravery when his girl goes away…
16. Fry Bread, by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal: I loved the sweet simplicity about how food connects us to family, but I really appreciated the back matter–and I am typically irritated by back matter, in part because it’s so often just for adult readers, and because we put it in the back so the front of the book is pretty, even if the information is useful simultaneous with the pretty, and it’s either relevant to the story or it’s not, and it’s a pressure from educators when not all books have to be useful in that way, and argh. Here, it reminds us that even when outsiders see a monoculture, there is a multiplicity of experience, observance, celebration, and so on. It’s smart, thoughtful, and kind, and I’m glad for it.
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):
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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 Mirror, Swipe 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.)
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.
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.
11. ThisIs 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).