Snow White by Matt Phelan

A perfect lunchtime length read. I’ve really enjoyed Phelan’s work in the past and this latest graphic novel is no exception. A retelling of Snow White set in NYC in the 1920s. Snow White not only as not a magical fairy tale, but as historical fiction! In graphic novel format! I really liked this a lot. It felt like watching a film, perhaps a silent black and white film (much like reading Hugo Cabret, though in this case I want Baz Luhrmann to come make this a film). The illustrations are soft black and white, with occasional spots of pink/red (Snow’s bright cheeks, the heart). The evil stepmother is marvelously portrayed. The fashion of the time and her Ziegfield girl rich socialite suited this role perfectly. She was wonderfully rich, evil, and deranged. Snow was perfectly beautiful. I loved the historical and real details, such as Hooverville, the Macy’s windows, and the hairstyles.

An absolutely terrific new take on a classic fairy tale.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

choirAdd this to the list of my favorite WWII, set in England, historical fiction novels. This was marvelous. I felt like it started off with me thinking it was going to be a sweet story about women coming together in their village during the war, combined with gossipy town stories. And while it was that, I felt it really grew into something more.

The story is told through journal entries, occasional notices, and letters. The characters include a widow whose son is off fighting, the manor house family with snotty rich older daughter who toys with men, the younger sister who wants to be more grown up, the lovely new choirmistress and some other standard fare village characters. But throw in the completely unethical blackmailing midwife and suddenly everything got more complicated-bribes, spies, secret identities, etc. I really enjoyed how this story had plenty of that “plucky women get stuff done during the war” that I like so much, but what I especially liked was that none of the women saw that ability in themselves and it was a pleasure to see them come to recognize their strengths.
While it seemed, at first, that this would be mostly light, there was plenty of realistic sorrow. I also thought all the parts about the women singing were woven in very beautifully.

I loved this and could so easily visualize everything. Absolutely charming, winning, historical fiction.

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

jason1st book of 2017! And a nice way to kick off the year. This was a prepub that I got for Paul and he read it first and liked it very much. Teenage boys and video games in the 1980s-right up his alley.

This was a nice way to kick off a new year-a quick read, totally entertaining, and quite unexpected. Obviously I loved that this was set in the 1980s in a year I clearly recall, as well as set in NJ. (Though I could never quite figure out what town “Wetbridge” was supposed to be, or where St. Agatha’s was supposed to be. Perhaps they were combinations of other real life places. They were both easy for me to imagine.)
I thought this was a great story-I really enjoyed the look at early video game programming and the structure of the story. There was a big section I was very tense reading-I thought I could see the whole way the story was going and didn’t want to put myself through reading about the main character making Terrible Choices. However, I kept going and I was really pleased with how the author did not do exactly as I thought he would.
I’m not sure if this is being published as adult or ya, but definitely teenagers would enjoy it. And hey, you get to visit his site and play the video game, too!

Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LaFleur

New year, new start. Rather than trying to fill in all the missed posts I’m going to try anew to sync up with my Goodreads tally and as I’m able I’ll go back and fill in. So here’s book #2 of 2017:

blueI picked this up because I really l really liked Love, Aubrey and thought I’d try the author’s newest book (plus, pretty cover.) I didn’t read what it was about and so this whole thing was such an interesting surprise to me.(not like Love Aubrey.) A very fast (one day) read and pulled me in right from the start. I found myself making comparisons to first one book and then another. Was it like Number the Stars? Was it something dystopian? Was it like Bletchley Circle ? (Yes, this is what I came back to most. Thinking about the women of Bletchley Park in WWII who were crackerjack at seeing patterns and breaking codes.) Was this fantasy since it had a map at the beginning of made up countries? (no.) Was this WWII historical fiction? (No, but felt most like it.) A very intriguing story about war, friendship, family, and gifted children. It felt like the beginning was menacing-children were being rounded up to fight a war but not told what they were going to do. But when they do go, it is not at all what was expected.  It was clear to me about 3 pages from the end that this was either going to have a terrible unresolved ending, or it was set up for a sequel. And sure enough, after the last page it says the story continues in the next book, with a title already. This book was pretty short and honestly I’d rather parts 1 and 2 were just published as one volume because I’m still caught up in the story and can’t believe it just ended!

Top Ten Books of 2016

Top Ten Books of 2016

It’s a sad truth that I haven’t been putting my reviews here since August. BUT. I’ve still been meticulously keeping track of all I read, and writing brief reviews on Goodreads. Here it is December 31 and I wouldn’t dream of not doing my top ten books of the year post.
First, how was my reading this year? This year I set my goal to be 70 books, which I thought to be reasonable, and possibly even low (ever since the year I didn’t meet my goal, I go for “attainable.”) I easily exceeded and finished with a very nice 91 titles. You can see a lovely image of all the covers here.  My reading changed a bit this year because I returned to work as a school librarian in a school for 4th and 5th graders. Thus, I’ve upped my middle grade reading. As usual I did not count picture books, although I read plenty, though I did include the audiobooks we listen to as a family. Things got a little fizzley at the end of the year, with nothing wowing me or captivating me. Fortunately I was handed a prepub of Miss You by Kate Eberlen right after Christmas and it saved the day. Good to end the year with an emphatic 5 stars!
As in the past two years I was determined to reread at least one or two old favorites, and this year I reread Patty Jane’s House of Curl by Lorna Landvik, Anne of Green Gables and  Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery (beautiful new editions I got for Christmas), Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes, and  The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher.  They are all five star books and were all a joy to reread and rediscover. Every time I read a little detail I’d forgotten I’d have a lovely gasp of recognition.  I’m not going to include any of them on my top 10 list (so I can squeeze more in, of course), but if I did I would put The Shell Seekers and Harriet the Spy on it. The Shell Seekers is on my permanent Top 10 list and not surprisingly this not only held up, but was like a vacation from life as I was totally immersed in it. It will forever be one of my favorite books. It’s engrossing, historical, emotional, and really made me realize how often I refer to it consciously or unconsciously when reading other British historicals. Here was my full review of it.  Harriet the Spy was a treasured childhood book that I have not reread as an adult. Rereading it now I realized that it was an even better book than I’d realized at the time. It’s also more mature than I realized, really tapping in to difficult friendship problems and emotions. The characterization of Janie and her parents was hilarious and I remembered just how much, as a child, I’d love these stark unflattering portrayals of adults and children. Here is my full review of it.

 

Top Ten Books of 2016: (in no particular order)

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: What a beautiful story. I adored this. It had the lovely writing I expect from Allende, was nicely put together, had some interesting historical parts (internment camps of WWII), and she made characters I deeply cared about. All woven together into a bit of mystery. How did the past part turn into the current part? What happened in their lives? How is this all fitting together? Though my books aren’t ranked, I would put this in the top 3.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling (and others): I was initially reticent about reading this-screenplay, not really Rowling, do we need it? But boy am I glad I read it. It was a very welcome return to HP’s world and extremely satisfying. I loved it.
Miss You by Kate Eberlen: Can’t say enough about this, the last book I read of the year. Dreamy, romantic, nice and long, really everything I want in a book.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud: The only graphic novel to make the list. This book was fantastic. The ending took my breath away-literally made me gasp, and then cry. It was perfect.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: A favorite writer. This was part of that whole Jane Austen rewrite thing (I also read Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler,which I enjoyed.) and it was immensely satisfying. Funny, clever, the whole package.
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume: O Judy! I loved this! Such an interesting specific historical time (and New Jersey local!) that I really knew nothing about. I loved the many points of view, and of course Judy’s writing. I was very caught up in this story.
Scythe by Neal Shusterman: The only YA to make the list this year. A perfect example of dystopia and I can’t stop thinking about so many aspects of it. A great story and the structure and writing were great.
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: A worthy follow up to the success of Where’d You Go Bernadette? I really enjoy her humor and style of writing. This book made me laugh and cringe.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: The only children’s title to unreservedly make my Top 10 list. Absolutely wonderful historical fiction, touching, beautiful story with some really harsh truths about humanity in it. A great addition to this genre (WWII, London children evacuees.)
One True Loves by Taylor Reid Jenkins: I only gave this 4 stars, but I’m putting it on the list because, to be frank, the story has stuck with me more than some of my 5 star books. I love “what if?” concept and I thought she charmingly managed to explore a person’s two possible paths very nicely and neatly.

Honorable Mentions: The list was originally 13, so I’m forcing 3 onto the honorable mention list.

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty: Moriarty remains one of my favorite authors. I know I will like anything she writes. Good long stories with many points of view, human foibles fully on display, and realistic outcomes. I did have to look up which one this was, though, as I can’t keep her books straight. And rereading my review I see that yes, I didn’t like this as much as her other books, but on its own it was compelling and well written. I gave it 5 stars, but given the previous sentences I’m putting it in the honorable mention section.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Apix Sweeney: I know I gave this 5 stars, but I’m bumping it to the HM list because…I really couldn’t tell you much about it unless I reread my review in great detail. At the time I enjoyed it very much and liked the writing but very little of the story has stuck with me.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson : I truly liked this very very much and am not sure why it only got 4 1/2 stars from me. Unlike The Nest I remember quite a bit about this WWI story, and in fact some scenes remain vivid in my mind. Simonson really captured this moment in time quite well. Though like all WWI stories you know it’s going to be sad..

Other Bests and Honorable Mentions:

I may not have kept track of all the audiobooks this year, but we did listen when we drove places on summer vacation. Also, with the start of my job my son drove to work with me and we listened to books on our very short commute together. My two favorite were both books I’d already read in print, but enjoyed something new from the marvelous audio production. The first was City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, read by Wendy Dillon. The atmospheric sounds added so much, especially at the end of the novel. The other was The Graveyard Book, read by the author, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a wonder at reading his books. He’s basically both author and amazing actor. I loved hearing this.

As I mentioned before I’ve been upping my middle grade reading since I’m now a 4th/5th grade librarian. These were the standout children’s titles I read this year:

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan: Wonderful! I loved the structure, which is that the story of this last year of a school (before it is destroyed) is told from many points of view in poetry. So beautifully put together and showcasing many forms of poetry. Really super.
The Seventh Wish By Kate Messner: Drawn to this by the hubbub surrounding its release. I thought it was wonderful and I do so love this genre-realistic with a little bit of magic. Same style as her other book, All the Answers, but this time taking on what it’s like to have a drug addict in the family. Really solid good story.
Baker’s Magic by Diane Zahler: Top notch magical adventure. I loved it and the students I’ve passed it on to have loved it as well. I’m struggling to find a readalike for this. A great story structure-every single chapter came to an end and made you excited to turn the page and find out what happens next.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker: What an ingenious blend of animal story-human story, and not magical, fully realistic. Some dark explorations of contemporary war, lots of stress for animals lovers, and an emotional story. A real gem.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson: Newbery honor graphic novel, I (and my daughter, and all my students) loved this. No easy answers in friendship and yes, as you grow up, you sometimes grow apart from your friends, and it’s not easy. The roller derby angle is simply a really interesting added bonus to a great story about growing up (not too much!) and finding your own interests and friends.

Honorable mention YA book would be The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. As a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, I loved the premise of this. Consider all those shows and books like Buffy that focus on the few kids who are always fighting off supernatural danger. What about everyone else?? Very clever and fun.

thisisjustOne more honorable mention for a (not new) nonfiction book that I “discovered” on the shelves of my library: This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman. I do love the poem This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams, and that’s the set up for this terrific story. A class reads that poem and then each writes an apology poem. The second half is the poems that the apology recipients write back. And what’s so impressive is that the stories together (not unlike The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary) form a bigger story. It’s really incredible to read on your own, or as a class.

squidAnother nonfiction that I loved was Giant Squid by Candace Fleming. (It’s getting award buzz, so I’m looking forward to seeing what it gets.) I loved the poetic opening, Eric Rohmann’s gorgeous dark illustrations, and how Fleming writes about a creature that we know very little about! As usual, I loved the extra information in the afterward. If I remember nothing else it will be the astonishing fact that sperm whales have been found with thousands of giant squid beaks (they don’t digest, but remain whole) in their stomachs. Which means there are thousands and thousands of squids swimming around in our oceans and yet we only ever saw a living one for the first time a few years ago!!!!

A very full varied year of reading! I’m so glad I took the time to reread so many old favorite this year and will continue to do so next year. Who knows what 2017 will bring? Well, of course we know some things. My next most anticipated books will be Kevin Kwan’s newest and I just hear that J. Courtney Sullivan has a new book in the works. Hooray!

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

(Reread in June 2016, posting my Goodreads review right now just so I can link back for the year end review!)

This was a favorite book as a child and decided to reread it this weekend. Reading it now as an adult–wow. Louise Fitzhugh was a genius. I have so much to say about this book, which I’ll leave for my longer review on the blog. For here I’ll say: it a treat to walk down memory lane. As with a lot of my childhood rereads I was surprised to find that my memory had distorted the proportion of things in the book (for example, Ole Golly leaves pretty early on in the book. In my memory that was at the end. I thought the spy routes were covered frequently, but they actually were also a pretty small part of the overall length of the book.)
Harriet is a terrific character and the emotions are heartfelt and true. One of the things that really stood out to me (that I believe I also really liked as a child) was the , hmm, I really have a hard time finding the right word. Harshness? Nastiness? Not softness? of the vocabulary and writing. Janie calls someone a cretin. Adults are called out as ridiculous. There’s often a quick sentence that is quite cutting. As a kid it amused me and I liked it. As an adult it amuses me, I like it, and I admire it in the writing and see it as a rarity in children’s books.

Crowned and Dangerous by Rhys Bowen

I do so love this series (Her Royal Spyness.) In this latest entry it picks up mere minutes after the conclusion, with Georgie and Darcy headed off to that most promising of historical destinations-Gretna Green.  But of course, events waylay them.

I really enjoyed that this installment brought the action into Ireland and included Darcy’s family. We took a break from Belinda and Her Majesty, which I think keeps the series fresh.
I loved the historical detail and the tiny village and the traditional mystery format. I also appreciated that there was a little less of Queenie in this one (though she’s far from gone.)

Delightful!