Best Books of 2017

There were so many wonderful books published in 2017, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that I especially loved. Here they are:

Memoir

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe – by Kapka Kassabova

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In this book, the author returns to Bulgaria (where she was born and spent her childhood) after a long absence. Her goal is to better understand the human and cultural impacts of the Iron Curtain border that intersected this area of the world, and this goal leads her into an exploration of the concept of borders themselves and how they impact the current immigration crisis in Europe. She crosses the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece many times over the course of her journey — a powerful experience for her after growing up near a border that seemed truly uncrossable. Her interviews with the people she meets in these borderlands unlock astonishing stories, as well as a variety of perspectives on the impact of recent history in the Balkans.

Short Stories

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories – by Penelope Lively

Purple swamp hen

This was my first venture into the work of Penelope Lively, and I’m eager to read more. I found each of these stories to be sharp, engaging, and witty. At first glance, the stories seem to be about the mundane — a broken down van, an elderly lady doing her weekly shopping, an uncomfortable lunch meeting. But each story delves into the recesses of the human soul, and reveals something extraordinary and unexpected by its close.

Fantasy

Stone Sky – by N.K. Jemisin

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When the first two books of a trilogy have been as widely lauded and won as much critical acclaim as The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate have, I always worry that the author won’t be able to stick the landing with the final book. I shouldn’t have worried in this case. The ending is masterful. This trilogy creates one single (several thousand page long) story arc, and this final book brought the story to a thundering, earth-shattering close. This is not light and fun fantasy — it delves into difficult themes such as abuse, trauma, power inequality, and rebellion. The world-building is captivating, the storytelling is masterful, and the ideas and struggles are deep and powerful.

Science Fiction

Binti: Home – by Nnedi Okorafor

home

This book (the second installment in the trilogy) is refreshingly different from classic science fiction. The author is Nigerian-American, and her works generally focus on African-based science fiction and fantasy. This book explores a kaleidoscope of different elements: a tribal girl struggling with the pull between her ambitions and the traditional expectations of her community, the tensions of a burgeoning friendship between this girl and a squid-like being who is the traditional enemy of her people, telepathy and unexplained mental powers, tribal magic and alien beings. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the third volume of this unique and beautiful trilogy.

Non-Fiction

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult – by Bruce Handy

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This book will appeal to adults with a literary bent who still enjoy reading kids’ books — in other words, right up my alley. It’s a delightful romp through American children’s classics as varied as Goodnight Moon Charlotte’s Web, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8. The book isn’t intended for a scholarly audience, but it does explore children’s books as literature — digging into the lives of the authors, the thematic and structural elements (why do anthropomorphic animals feature so strongly in children’s lit?), and what children’s books from different eras say about the changing way we see our kids.

Young Adult

The Hate U Give – by Angie Thomas

hate u give

The main character in this book is 16-year-old Starr, a girl who regularly moves between two worlds — the world of the underprivileged black neighborhood where she lives and that of the mostly white suburban school she attends. The uneasy peace she’s carved out for herself between the two worlds begins to splinter when she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend at the hands of a white police officer. The story is raw and powerful, but it’s also told with nuance and compassion. This isn’t a political tirade disguised as fiction — it’s a deeply felt story exploring many facets of a terrible situation.

Middle Grades Fiction

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus – by Dusti Bowling

events in the life

This is the story of Aven, a delightfully spunky girl who was born without arms (but likes telling people that she lost them wrestling an alligator), as she moves to a new town in order for her parents to take over the management of a run-down wild west amusement park. It’s a fun book, full of adventure, humor, and pluck, and I found it refreshing to read a book about a character with physical differences that didn’t treat those differences as the most important aspect of the story or of her as a person.

Graphic Novel

The Best We Could Do – by Thi Bui

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This powerfully rendered graphic memoir follows a Vietnamese-American woman’s exploration of her family’s past. She delves into her parents’ backgrounds, their lives in Vietnam, and their eventual journey to America as refugees. The theme of motherhood weaves throughout the book, as the author (a new mother herself) seeks to understand her own mother’s past through the lens of motherhood. For a more in-depth look at this book, check out this post.

Vietnamese-American Stories: The Best We Could Do and The Refugees

Two of the best books I’ve read this year were by Vietnamese-American authors. It wasn’t particularly intentional on my part, but I love it when I find unexpected connections in books that I read. The books are The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui and The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. In one sense they’re very different from one another – the first is a memoir in graphic novel format, and the second is a collection of short stories. Yet the two books complemented each other in interesting ways.

best we could doThe Best We Could Do is a graphic memoir, in the tradition of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland. The author herself arrived in the US as a toddler (after her family fled Vietnam), so the book centers more on her parents’ stories. In fact, the very process of her seeking to uncover her parents’ stories is woven into the narrative itself. We see the long, difficult conversations she had with her father, and the way her mother opened up more easily to the author’s Caucasian husband about her past than she could with her own daughter. We see her father’s childhood unfold, and then her mother’s. These two stories providing an interesting counterpoint to each other – the mother grew up in the social elite, attending French schools, and vowing never to give up her freedom and dreams by marrying or having children. The author’s father, on the other hand, grew up in poverty, abandoned by his father – a man who later tries to recruit him to the Communist cause. Seeing the history of Vietnam as a backdrop to these two very different childhoods provided an interesting glimpse into the varied experience of the Vietnamese people.

Another element of this book that stood out to me is how the author tells the story through the lens of motherhood. Pregnancy and birth is a sort of frame to the narrative. The book opens with a vivid scene of the author giving birth to her firstborn child, and we watch as she’s inundated with the questions and fears that often accompany motherhood. Her new understanding of both the significance and the difficulty of having a child leads her to investigate her own mother’s past with a particular focus on the experience of motherhood. As the story unfolds, she follows each of her mother’s pregnancies, set against a background of a changing country, often full of turmoil and unrest. The pregnancies are varied: there are stories of infant loss and stillbirth, stories of “replacement pregnancies” following the loss of children, stories of fleeing the country with an infant in arms and of giving birth in a refugee camp. There’s a poignancy to a woman realizing for the first time the intensity, meaning, and self-doubt of being a mother, and then seeking to interpret and understand her own mother’s past in light of this.

refugeesThe Refugees served as both a complement and a counterpoint to The Best We Could Do. It’s a slim collection of short stories, much more understated and reserved than the graphic memoir. All of the stories relate in some way to the Vietnamese-American experience, yet there was an incredible amount of variety among the stories. The fact that the characters’ lives had a connection to Vietnam wasn’t presented as a dramatic or flashy thing – there was no sense of exoticism or melodramatic pity in these stories. Instead, we see a nuanced and often understated look into a few moments in these characters lives. It shattered the illusion of a single, monolithic “Vietnamese-American experience.”

Not all of the stories were about literal refugees. To me, the title seemed to refer more to the unmoored feeling of being between cultures – not fully belonging to one or the other. This unmoored feeling presented itself in very different ways depending on the personality and experiences of the character. The characters themselves are well drawn and they come to life on the page. We see the adult daughter who lives with her ghost-believing mother who finds herself haunted by the memory of the brother who died saving her life as they escaped from Vietnam. Or the Vietnamese girl who idolizes her half-sister living in America, until the sister comes to visit and reveals the complicated truth of her life in the States. There’s the retired USAF pilot who fought in the Vietnam War, now visiting his daughter who has chosen the life of a language teacher in Vietnam, as they hash out their conflicting views about the country his daughter now calls home. And we see the elderly librarian who questions her husband’s past when he begins to call her by another woman’s name as his Alzheimer’s worsens. Each character inhabits his or her own space, and reveals another facet of the story that connects Vietnam and America.

These two books stand beautifully in conjunction with each other. On the one hand, they have quite different ways of approaching the subject – The Best We Could Do with its striking visuals and deeply personal autobiographical story, and The Refugees with its thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of a multiplicity of different experiences among Vietnamese-Americans. Yet they both delve deep into the same subject matter – the lives of people who have become Americans due in large part to the Vietnam War. The war is an ever present thread weaving throughout both books, but it’s not often the main focus of the narrative in either book. Instead, these books focus on the personal journeys of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American individuals – their joys and their struggles, and the way Vietnamese and American culture rub up against each other in their lives. Both books are beautifully written, and the experience of reading them side by side deepened my understanding and connection to these stories and experiences.

Christmas Picture Books – 2017 edition

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is our picture book tree. Every year I wrap up 25 Christmas themed picture books and put them in a tree-like pile in our living room. Some of the books are one we own, but most I check out for us from the library.

Then every day from the beginning of December through Christmas, my son unwraps a book and we read it together. I love this sweet Christmasy time together each morning during the lead up to Christmas Day.

When we first started this tradition, I had Mom-guilt about not purchasing a bunch of new books for my son to unwrap each year. But then I realized that using mostly library books can be a good reminder that the gift is the story itself and the experience of reading together — not the material object.

We’ve done this for several years now, and while we have some favorite titles that we read every year, I always try to find fun new titles too. Here’s our list for this year — we’ve found each of these books to be delightful!

1. Twelve Days of Christmas – by Rachel Griffin

twelve days

2. A Star for Christmas – by Trisha Romance

star for christmas

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas – by Dr. Seuss

how the grinch stole christmas

4. Christmas in the Trenches – by John McCutcheon

christmas in the trenches

5. Birds of Bethlehem – by Tomie de Paola

birds of bethlehem

6. Pick a Pine Tree – by Patricia Toht

pick a pine tree

7. Under the Christmas Tree – by Nikki Grimes

under the christmas tree

8. The Night Before Christmas – by Clement Clarke Moore, illustrated by Raquel Jaramillo

the night before christmas

9. Red and Lulu – Matt Tavares

red and lulu

10. Samurai Santa – by Rubin Pingk

samurai santa

11. We Three Kings – by Gennady Spirin

we three kings

12. Bear’s First Christmas – by Robert Kinerk

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13. When Santa Was a Baby – by Linda Bailey

when santa

14. Sleigh Bells and Snowflakes – by Linda Bronson

sleigh bells

15. Maple and Willow’s Christmas Tree – by Lori Nichols

maple and willow

16. The Little Drummer Boy – by Ezra Jack Keats

little drummer boy

17. I’ll be Home for Christmas – by Holly Hobbie

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18. The Twelve Sleighs of Christmas – by Sherri Duskey Rinker

12 sleighs

19. Apple Tree Christmas – by Trinka Noble

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20. The Little Reindeer – by Nicola Killen

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21. Silent Night: The Song and its Story – by Margaret Hodges

silent night

22. Baboushka and the Three Kings – by Ruth Robbins

baboushka

23. Christmas in the Country – by Cynthia Rylant

Christmas in the country

24. There Was No Snow on Christmas Eve – by Pam Muñoz Ryan

no snow on christmas eve

25. This First Christmas Night – by Laura Godwin

first christmas night

 

Picture Books about the Middle Ages: Monks and Monasteries

In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a change in the world of picture books. The picture books that explore history and the lives of famous people have gotten so much better. You can see it in the Caldecott lists, with titles starting to appear such as Henry’s Freedom BoxA River of WordsDave the PotterMe…JaneThe Noisy Paintbox, or Freedom in Congo Square — all books that tell compelling stories while at the same time exploring a particular historical person or event. As both a history buff and a lover of picture books, seeing more of this kind of picture books makes me very happy.

There’s something magical about exploring history through picture books.  Instead of a list of kings and battles and dates, you get a compelling narrative or personal story, complete with illustrations that give the kind of visual cues for the historical setting that are almost impossible to relate solely through words. A well done historical picture book engages the senses and gives a unique window into the time period.

So when I started looking over my 7-year-old son’s history curriculum for this year, I was disappointed with the lack of picture books. We homeschool and our curriculum (Sonlight) relies mainly on A Child’s History of the World and The Usborne Book of World History for its survey of world history. These are both good books, but I thought the experience would be enriched by adding in some well chosen historical picture books along the way.

In this first post, I will share the picture books we used to supplement our study of monks and monasteries during the Middle Ages. I’ll continue with an ongoing series of posts featuring the picture books that align with various periods of history as we study them. Our curriculum for this year covers the rather daunting period of the Middle Ages through World War II. With this large of a time span, it’s obviously going to be a high level survey, with just a few hand picked picture books to go along with each era.

So whether you’re a homeschooler, a teacher, a librarian, or just a parent or care-giver who wants to explore history with the kids, I hope you enjoy diving into this collection of picture books.

Picture Books About the Middle Ages:

Monks and Monasteries

The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane – by C.M. Millen

theophane

This tale follows a plucky young monk named Theophane as he works in the scriptorium of an Irish monastery, copying manuscripts and creating books. Told in lilting verse, and with beautiful stained-glass style illustrations, the story brings to life a number of aspects of bookmaking — making the ink, collecting herbs and berries for color, binding up donkey hair for brushes, etc. My favorite aspect of this particular book was the fact that it incorporated into the text translated quotations of actual poems written by Irish monks in the margins of their manuscripts.

Magic in the Margins – by W. Nikola-Lisa

margins

This story also focuses on a young boy working in the scriptorium of a monastery, but the focus is different than in The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane. Our main character, Simon, is just an apprentice in the scriptorium, and he longs to progress from simple sketches and exercises to being able to fully illuminate pages in the manuscripts. An unusual assignment from the abbot of the monastery leads Simon on a journey of discovery about meaning and imagination in art. This book goes into more depth about the artistic marginalia that monks included in the illuminated margins of their manuscripts than other books I’ve seen.

Saint Francis and the Wolf – by Jane Langton

francis

Set in 12th century Italy, this is the tale of a wolf who terrorizes the town of Gubbio until Saint Francis steps in and brokers peace between the wolf and the town. The charming illustrations are in the style of medieval illuminations and give a good sense for both the dress and the architecture of the time.

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{For fellow homeschoolers: this list of books aligns with Week 1 of Sonlight’s Core C}

 

 

Engaging Books to Read When it’s Hard to Concentrate

I ended up with unexpected surgery on my ankle two weeks ago, so I’ve found myself laid up on the couch with plenty of time to read. Unfortunately (between the pain and the pain medication) I’ve also found it difficult to concentrate on books. It’s been harder than usual to find books that are engaging enough to hold my attention as I recover, but I’ve managed to find a few that fit the bill. These four books were quite engrossing, and I found them hard to put down despite my lack of concentration.

The Sun is Also a Star – by Nicola Yoon

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This is a sweet YA romance between a Jamaican girl and the Korean-American boy that she meets by chance on the day before her scheduled deportation. It all takes place in a single day, and has a narrative that shifts between characters and perspectives. The main characters are both flawed and charming, and I found both of their backstories to be compelling.

Born a Crime – by Trevor Noah

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I listened to this riveting memoir on audio, and I think that Trevor Noah’s voice talents added a great deal to the experience. Parts of this book are intense — as the son of a black woman and a white man in Apartheid-era South Africa, Trevor Noah’s very existence was illegal. Yet the tone doesn’t stay heavy. Interwoven are hilarious stories of mischief and mayhem, and cultures colliding. Deeply compelling and incredibly funny at the same time.

Rebel of the Sands – by Alwyn Hamilton

rebel-in-the-sands

This action-packed fantasy focuses on Amani, a young woman desperate to get away from the small desert town where she grew up. Her world is reminiscent of the Middle East, except that Djinni and magical beasts still roam the desert and interact with the human world. The fantasy world is intriguing, the characters are compelling, and the plot kept me reading past the time I should have turned off the lights.

The Night Gardener – by Jonathan Auxier

night gardener.jpg

This eerie and lovely middle grade novel follows a young Irish brother and sister who find themselves employed in a decrepit English house that hides many secrets. It’s a spooky tale, with a certain reminiscence towards Edgar Allen Poe, but the creepiness never gets over the top. The characters are memorable, the plot moves quickly and gracefully, and the storytelling is enchanting.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Why I Read

Why I Read

by Kaytee Cobb

cobb-maternity-19Hello, my name is Kaytee. I’m a relatively new-ish book blogger over at notesonbookmarks.wordpress.com. I love to read; and when I’m done, I love getting to interview authors for my site. But that’s just a little part of who I am. My husband, Jason, and I are about to celebrate 11 years of marriage. We met at the University of Arizona, so we are avid Wildcats fans. I finished a Masters in Spanish while he went to Medical school and then we moved to Oregon for three years, where we had a hard time with the dreary skies. In 2012 we moved to Albuquerque, NM, to be closer to family (but not so close that we get free babysitting!), and enjoy the sunshine again! I’m also a homeschool mama of three sweet, little boys, director of our local homeschool co-op, and considering becoming a lactation consultant (or maybe an author!) as a “later” career path… but my plate is too full right now. Reading is where my heart is, so I’m looking forward to being here as a guest today to tell you about WHY I READ!

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I’ve been an avid reader ever since I was a little girl. I loved destroying my classmates in monthly reading challenges in school (competitive, much?). Like many of us, I fell off the reading bandwagon a bit while I was in college because I had so much other required reading to do, and much of mine was in my second language. The limited number of hours in a week meant that free-time for reading was almost non-existent. After I finished my degree, I took a slow dive back into the bookish world, typically reading somewhere between 30 and 50 books a year, even after having our first baby or two.

That number has exploded over the past year, though, even as we added baby #3. I’ve found ways to squeeze reading into every free moment of my life, whether I’m driving, cooking, cleaning, or homeschooling, there’s a book in my hand or in my ears. I just cannot get enough. I’ll read anything I can get my hands on, but especially love good literary fiction, and I can devour a psychological thriller in just a few hours. I could write another entire post about how I read so much with three littles at home, but this post is about the reasons.

When I open a book for the first time, I am so excited to discover a new world (or re-enter a favorite one, if this is the next in an already-loved series). I cannot wait to meet new characters, explore new landscapes, or feel new feelings. I am thrilled to fall in love for the first time (again!), run away from a killer, or experience the prejudices of racism. Maybe this time I’ll grow up in the south, see the world through the fingers of a blind man, or live in India. I might be part of these characters’ lives for a week or a year or three generations. Every single new book that I open reveals another facet of the world I love to explore.

As I jump from book to book, I am transported from space stations to springtime in Manhattan, from the battlefields of WWII to a future I could never imagine. Great fiction takes me there, for far less than the cost of a plane ticket, or time machine.

Non-fiction involves the same transportation, but always somewhere of this world. Perhaps I know myself better; perhaps I walk a hard road alongside the author; or perhaps I recognize the seedy underbelly of a society that I have never seen before. When non-fiction authors open my eyes, they force me, or maybe just help me to look further inward and outward than I have in the past. These authors open up new worlds that exist right here around me, instead of only in the pages of their books.

Last year, I read 123 books (remember I said my reading exploded?). That means I had 123 new worlds opened up to my eyes via fiction and non-fiction. This year, I look forward to reading even more. I know that with every word I devour I become more than I was. I know more, yes, but I am more, too.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

Best Books of 2016

There were so many wonderful books published in 2016, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that particularly stuck out to me. Here they are:

Fiction

War and Turpentine – by Stefan Hertmans

war and turpentine.jpg

This book took me completely off guard. It’s a fictionalized account of the author’s grandfather: his life as an artist, the trauma of WWI in Belgium, and the shattering of an old way of life. Perhaps because it’s fiction that borders on memoir, the characters seemed so real, so vivid, so fragile. I’m looking forward to re-reading it again and again over the years.

Memoir

Lab Girl – by Hope Jahren

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I’m fascinated by memoirs by people who are passionate about things I know very little about. That was definitely the case with Lab Girl. Hope Jahren is a scientist studying trees and plant life, but her memoir covers so much more than science. It’s the story of a woman trying desperately to prove herself in a field full of men. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship with her oddball lab partner Bill. It’s the story of a fight against mental illness and a tenuous questioning of the workings of the mind. Hope tells her story against the backdrop of short essays about the trees she studies, and it ties together to create a thing of beauty.

History

A House Full of Daughters – by Juliet Nicolson

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Not many people can trace the women in their family back seven generations the way that Juliet Nicolson can. But she has fascinating stories to tell of the women in her family all the way back to the 1830s. In the midst of telling her own family story through the eyes of its women, she traces the historical context of these women’s lives as well as exploring the angst-ridden relationships of mother and daughter that travel throughout the years. I found it to be beautifully written, and intriguing in its scope and focus.

Poetry

The Rain in Portugal – by Billy Collins

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I’ve loved Billy Collins’ poetry for years — he treats poetry so lightly and includes such winning humor, yet his poems have moments of true depth and poignancy as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. He covers topics as various as jazz music, a lonely summer from his childhood, and the ghosts of siblings he never had.

Science

The Gene – by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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This fascinating and highly readable book offers the history of genetics in a way that blends history, science, sociology, and personal narrative in a compelling way. Mukherjee draws us in with his own family story of genetically transmitted mental illness, and then takes us on a fascinating history of how the gene was discovered and explored. He starts with Pythagoras and Aristotle and takes us through the mapping of the human genome. In an age of so much change and discovery in the field of genetics, I found this book to be particularly intriguing.

Science Fiction

The Paper Menagerie – by Ken Liu

paper-menagerie

This grouping of science fiction short stories blew me away. Each story is original, unusual, and written with subtlety and grace. The sheer diversity among the stories caught my attention — some are more traditional science fiction with astronauts on ships; others are speculative fiction about how history could have been different; some are set in our own world with one thing slightly “off.” There’s a murder mystery with a cyborg detective, a tale about the last living Japanese man, a story about humanity’s shift into a robotic form. Overall, it’s a book with gripping storytelling, compelling new ideas, and beautiful prose.

Fantasy

The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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This is the story of an enmagicked girl, a snarky witch, a disgruntled swamp monster, and paper cranes that come to life. The world-building is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the story wends between humor and pathos in a compelling way.

Middle Grades Fiction

The Wild Robot – by Peter Brown

the-wild-robot

I found myself utterly charmed by the antics of Roz, a robot who comes to consciousness one day, finding herself alone on a wilderness island. She explores the secrets of her own existence and develops relationships with the animals who inhabit the island. The juxtaposition of the mechanical and the wild creates an intriguing world, and the illustrations that appear throughout the book only add to the delight.

If you have a middle grades reader in your house, be sure to check out my post on the 10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 as well!