Marilla by Sarah McCoy

The fact that I loved this book is absolutely hypocritical of me. As a devoted Anne fan I adore the books and am committed to only watching the movie with Megan Fellows, Colleen Dewhurst, and Richard Farnsworth. Dewhurst IS Marilla to me. Which is also to say that I have not watched Anne with An E and in a very proprietary way was annoyed with people who “suddenly” liked Anne. However, I have finally relented and promised my friend I will watch it this year, so we’ll see. And then my Anne BFF said she did read Marilla and I was curious about it, so here we are. Readers, I loved it. I am filled with admiration for McCoy for so perfectly writing this story in a way that felt true to Green Gables in its descriptions of the beautiful landscape of PEI, as well as somehow perfectly imagining Marilla’s personality as a young person. It just all made sense. And so, reading it felt like returning to a place and story I love.
Here are some notes I jotted as I read:

Marilla passing the exam and feeling a new confidence in her knowledge and education. I feel like it reflects when she is so proud of Anne going to college.
The French servant at Rachel’s house. She comes from a rather well to do family!
The Queen is Queen Victoria!
The political stuff that I knew NOTHING about.
Bannocks, neeps, etc showing their Scottish heritage
So yes, there was quite a bit of history here that I really knew NOTHING about. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that the Underground Railroad stuff was news to me, too. I guess I thought once slaves made it to Canada they were safe? It was also surprising to me to see just how long ago this was-1830s!!
Two other things: 1. I loved every time a name was mentioned that I knew to be a family name that shows up in Anne’s time. It also really reinforced that a small town it was, how isolated they were, and how many people spent their lives in that one specific place. I won’t spoil any names for anyone, but I will say that one in particular made me gasp.¬† 2. This story imagines Marilla’s relationship with Gilbert Blythe’s father, John, based on the fact that in one of the books Marilla confides to Anne that people once called him her beau. There is one scene between them that I found a bit jarring both in imagining Marilla in it, as well as thinking about Anne & Gilbert and how their intimate relationship is described.
And finally, I really loved seeing Rachel Lynde as Marilla’s girlhood friend and watching them grow up together.
This book was such a treat. I absolutely loved it. Obviously author Sarah McCoy is a kindred spirit. ūüôā

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (take two)

My first book of the year was indeed something from within the house (but that said, I’m delaying my “no library books” challenge because I simply had to get something.) While tidying up our basement room of books What Alice Forgot caught my eye. It’s an old rumpled advance reading copy. I noticed that I wrote my name inside it-surely because I liked the book so much I lent it to several people afterward. I enjoyed this every bit as much as I did the first time.¬† It’s been long enough ago that I had forgotten what a prominent part in the story her sister plays.
This was the first book I read by Liane Moriarty and it was before she hit it big here and became well known. At the time I remember thinking how much I loved how much humor there was in the story-just very funny sentences and turns of phrase-while at the same time having a lot of very deep emotion and certainly some sadness. Bonus: I literally couldn’t remember the ending.
Definitely stands up as a great story. I couldn’t help but think how much having amnesia for a 10 year block of your life is basically like creating time travel and, possibly, a do-over. I also liked thinking about what it would be like if I didn’t remember the last ten years and was confronted with it now. Would I be surprised? Would I like who I am?

Original review from 2011.

The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves

I really liked this a lot and was happy to squeeze in a really good book on the last day of the year, but also happy that I didn’t feel compelled to revise my Top Ten of 2019 list.
Add this to the growing number of books I’ve read in the past five years that are about adults on the autism spectrum.
In the “present” day (2001) Annika and Jonathan run into each other at the store. They had an intense relationship in college, but haven’t seen each other in ten years. We’re not really sure how they went from being in love and ready to start a life together to a decade of communication, but eventually that is revealed. The point of view not only goes back and forth between present and 1991, when they fell in love, but also back and forth between Annika and Jonathan. I really liked these characters a lot and was really rooting for them. I also really liked Annika’s friend and roommate Janice, who I hope grew up to be a social worker or counselor because she always knew the right thing to say and was such a good friend to Annika. When Annika starts college it is pretty overwhelming for her-she’s been homeschooled since seventh grade. On top of not understanding social situations and people, that really impacts her ability to fit in. I assumed that for this story to work the author picked the 1991 setting because in 2019 there’s no way that Annika would not have been diagnosed with autism. No one in her family ever says autism and Annika does not even say it about herself. She’s just “different.”
A lot has changed in the decade since they were together and I very much wanted them to have a second chance, happily ever after ending.

Top Ten of the Decade

I hadn’t even been thinking about this New Year’s being the end of a decade. And then Melissa said that in addition to her Top Ten of the Year, she was thinking of doing a Top Ten of the Decade. Obviously, I immediately wanted to do it, too.¬† I really enjoyed looking back and what I had kept track of. It turns out that here on this blog I’ve written a list of my favorite books each year since 2010, with the exception of 2011. It appears that 2011 I was very spotty on my reviews and not coincidentally, that’s the year I started keeping track of things on Goodreads. It wasn’t hard, though, to look at 2011 and figure out what I would have picked that year.
Decade at a glance: 2013 and 2014 were the best years. Just SO. MANY. GOOD. BOOKS.¬† This is also the decade where I started reading (and they became very popular) Liane Moriarty, Lisa Jewell (again), Kate Morton, and J. Courtney Sullivan–authors I see now as my tried and true favorites. I also read a lot more YA at the beginning of the decade, which makes sense since I was still profesionally involved in young adult librarianship.
I stayed true to my interests and read a LOT of time travel and WWII fiction.  This decade had some stand out trilogies for me too-Hunger Games, Arc of a Scythe, Leviathan.

It’s going to be very very hard to narrow this down, so I think my criteria will be: which of these wonderful books are the ones that I am still thinking about? Which ones really made an impact on me?¬† I’m making my own rules here, so what I’ve come up with is an actual TOP TEN. Followed by a second set of ten that we’ll call the runners up. Really, just as good and still a 5 star book, but getting slightly edged out by these first ten.

In no particular order, my favorite books of the Decade are:

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20191230_151445Irresistable Henry House by Lisa Grunwald: This book has stayed with me for sure. Henry was a baby raised by home ec students! Historically fascinating, and then a great story following Henry well into adulthood. I remember I liked the details about his Disney days.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty: This was the first book I read by her. She wasn’t a popular author in the states yet and I just loved this. I thought it was a great story and I liked her writing and started seeking out all her other books.

Maine by  J. Courtney Sullivan: In my initial run through of top books there were THREE by J. Courtney Sullivan. I think she is a great writer and I love how big her stories are. This one probably stayed with me the most-the setting, the Catholicism, the unlikable characters. Just a sweeping great story.

Arc of a Scythe trilogy by Neal Shusterman (Scythe, Thunderhead, The Toll): Since I just finished this two days ago I feel like I’ve been talking about it constantly. This trilogy was fantastic and I know I’ll still think of it well into the next decade. Wonderfully and intelligently well written and constructed¬† paired with a a really exciting story. Plenty to think about in terms of humanity, civilization, religion, technology, and politics-but also just a really ace story.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn: So great that I reread it last year and deemed it still wonderful. Some of the other books on this list were big popular hits. This one wasn’t, but for whatever reason it really spoke to me and has stayed with me. Superb.

Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein: Yes, I’m going to count both of these books as one even though they are not really a series. These books were emotionally gutting. In particular I can vividly recall finishing Rose Under Fire on a sunny Saturday morning at the soccer field and crying and crying. I…should have finished it a home. Brutal and inspiring. Verity shows the heroism of a pilot and spy and the strength of friendship and sacrifice. Rose takes you into the most brutal of concentration camps. Highly recommended for everyone.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton: Another WWII and another author with more than one title on my original list. Her stories can somewhat run together-she’s got a distinctive style. But this one really stood out to me. I loved how the threads of mystery came together (slowly, but surely, it’s a big book) and just found it supremely satisfying and clever, as well as being another great look at life in England during WWII.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan: About a thousand times lighter than the sad WWII books, this book was endless fun. Very popular for good reason and the movie was fun, too. When this first came out my friend and I kept remarking to each other that it was actually super educational. And you know what? It was. A fascinating look deep into another culture-not just Asian culture, but also the uber wealthy.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck: Taking it down once again, this heartbreaking and intense novel was amazing. First of all, it showed a time and place that I really hadn’t seen in WWII fiction before–the war is technically over and it’s in Germany. Now what? What of the women left alive? I was fascinated the different characters and stories. Not an easy book to read, but oh so worthwhile.

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh: I really enjoy her writing style. Blunt? Matter of fact? Something about the way she spins her story pulls me right in. This look at a Pennsylvania coal mining town through a few decades was so interesting to me. Historical fiction that is surely relatable and memorable to people still living, but to me might as well have been another world and time entirely.

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This second set is also great, for sure. We’ll call them the runners up.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson: Truthfully I barely remember what the story is about. But I remember the warm feeling of how much I liked it, as well as one particular scene that, like Henry Himself, was a small detail of ordinariness that spoke volumes about simple pleasures in life. (In fact, Maine also carries a similar detail. A character responding to someone who feels that she put too much effort into a tray with a cup of tea and something to eat on it by saying it was exactly the right amount of effort. That the small things in life are worth doing nicely, even if, perhaps especially if, they are for oneself.)

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz: I just remember loving this.

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis: WWII again. Bumping it down to tier 2 because these books are big and long and full of historically accurate detail that is probably boring to a lot of people. It’s like being in a museum. I felt like I time traveled when I read these. (Oh and there’s time travel in these,so…)

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton: A fantastic Morton story mostly taking place in Australia. I was captivated by how the pieces of this story fit together.

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan: “A diamond is forever.” That marketing slogan and how it was created is the basis for this book, which I found a fascinating premise. Lots in here about a powerful career woman and a really engaging (ha ha) story.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan: This one is perhaps more similar to Maine with family saga and drama, with the added appeal of a cloistered nun. Also, as a story about young women emigrating from Ireland I really liked learning about that.

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson: This book was such a surprise to me. Thought it would be fluff, but in fact it was a great all around well written novel. It stuck with me.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: YA? Adult? A book everyone can love. Loaded with 80s pop culture references this is a wonderful fun and clever story. The film, sadly, did not do it justice.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: This was a divisive book in my reading circle of friends. Personally, I loved it. I thought it was amazingly well written-the structure of the story trying one life after another trying to get it right. Seeing so many alternative timelines (in WWII) was just incredible.

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman: Ove is a character I won’t soon forget. Cranky and depressed, determined to die. And yet, this was a heartwarming and even funny (!) story.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: Not funny. Another gutwrenching WWII novel. Like Women in the Castle I felt this story was giving me an interesting perspective of the era that I hadn’t read a lot about. But it involves the French Resistance so you know it’s going to be really sad. And it was. But of course also heartwarming.

I’m going to finish up by mentioning yet another WWII book: The War that Saved My Life and its sequel, The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. These are children’s books and they were the best children’s WWII fiction I’ve ever read. A crippled and abused girl is a London evacuee to the countryside where she is paired with a sad woman. I both read and listened to it on audio and the audio made it even more intensely emotional. Wonderful books for children who want to grow up and read all the grown up WWII books I like.

[Update: It’s 4 days later and I have to add two more because I can’t bear the thought of leaving them off this list of memorable fantastic books of the decade: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by Ryan Stradal and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Both of these books were great stories and wonderfully well written. I especially admired the structure of Kitchens.]

And there you have it!
Would be fun to look back in another 10 years and see if these books are ones I am still returning to, or have read again since, or if the authors continue to be ones I admire.
Here’s to another decade of great books!
Sarah

P.S. And if you’re interested, here’s the list I was working with and whittling down

2010 Dies the Fire, Candymakers, Revolution, The Help, The Lonely Polygamist, One Day, Irresistable Henry House, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Admission

2011 [Apparently in 2011 I didn’t make a top 10 list and posted only occasionally.] All Clear, Goliath, Scorpia Rising, Wonderstruck, Maine, I Think I Love You, Started Early Took My Dog, Three Wishes, What Alice Forgot, The Penderwicks, Leviathan, Behemoth, Shipbreaker, Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, Forgotten Garden, Cleaning Nabokov’s House, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Book of a Thousand Days

2012Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, Code Name Verity, Hypnotist’s Love Story, Ready Player One, Scorpio Races, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Fault in Our Stars, I’ll Be There,

2013The Engagements, The Husband’s Secret, Rose Under Fire, Life After Life,¬† Where’d You Go Bernadette, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore,¬† The Secret Keeper

2014Crazy Rich Asians, House We Grew Up In, Before I Met You, Eleanor and Park, Hundred Year House, Big Little Lies, Fangirl, Rosie Project

2015 The Lake House, A Man Called Ove, My Real Children, A Spool of Blue Thread, The Nightingale, The Rocks, Replay

2016 In the Unlikely Event, Miss you, Scythe, War That Saved My Life

2017 War I Finally Won, Saints for All Occasions, Time and Time Again, Dear Fahrenheit 451, Standard Deviation, Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

2018 Kitchens of the Great Midwest, The Women in the Castle,  Baker Towers, How Hard Can It Be?

2019

Top Ten Books of 2019

Christmas is over and now it’s time for one of my favorite activities of the year’s end–looking back at what I read and choosing my Top Ten. My friend Melissa suggested she might also do a Top Ten of the DECADE and oh my, you’d better believe I’m going to do that too.
OK, as usual, first some details about my year in reading: I set a Goodreads goal of 100 (just like last year) and have read 101 (same as last year!) [Update: I squeezed in one more book after writing this. So it’s really 102.]I’m pretty pleased with that amount, though if I’m honest, I really don’t try to meet the goal-I’m just out here reading what I like.
Of those, 13 were graphic novels, and I’m just going to eyeball it and guess about half were children’s books (and all the graphic novels were children’s or YA.)¬† As for audiobook listening I’ve enjoyed taking the opportunity this school year to listen to some stories I love with my 12 year old daughter–Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Giver (we’re midway through Gathering Blue.) And, earlier in the year, we listened to Sharon Draper’s Blended, which gave us lots to think and talk about. And I couldn’t have been more thrilled this summer than to make the whole family listen to Cheaper by the Dozen. (phew! they liked it!) As a family we also listened to Circus Mirandus, which was a top audiobook for me this summer. We loved the heartwarming story and Bronson Pinchot can do now wrong in audiobook land. Listening to The Giver was absolutely wonderful. It had been a long time since I’d read it and it was just fantastic to return to this story.
I did not do a ton of rereading this year, but I did reread Mrs Queen Takes the Train, which was one of my¬†Top Ten of 2012. If it wasn’t already on a list it would go on this one. Just as terrific the second time around.

I noticed this year that I had many more 3 star ratings than usual. I had 7 clear standouts and then just a little more reflecting to come up with my top 10. Does that mean that overall this year I didn’t read as many amazing books as usual? Or perhaps I’ve been a more critical rater. Either way, I started and ended the year strong with the first and final books both going on the list.

In no particular order, here are my Top Ten** Books of 2019! These are the books that I thought were the most well written, the most engaging, the best stories, the ones that I wanted to recommend to others, and the ones that I continued to think about after the last page.
**Turns out it’s eleven.
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The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes Historical, plus an empowering story about amazing women, plus it’s about the WPA Pack Librarians in Kentucky. There was no way I wasn’t going to love this.

The Toll by Neal Shusterman Simply incredible. I’ll be thinking about this A LOT and continuing my quest to try to get my husband and teenage son to read this. (I don’t rank, but if I did this would be in the top five.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel What a picture of a future world. This was a fascinating story and I was so intrigued by how Shakespeare and theater were woven throughout. This was also amazing in how it cleverly brought together threads of the story to go full circle. Beautifully written.

Henry Himself by Stewart O’Nan¬† When I think back on this it makes me want to sigh and slow down. It is such a different pace and tone from the Blake Crouch novels I read this year. I kept describing this story as one where not much happened, but it was somehow compelling and I loved the minutia. O’Nan’s writing was top notch. And the Pittsburgh details really drew me in. I should note that after I read Henry Himself I read Emily, Alone and also loved it. If I had to choose between the two, though, Henry is making the list.

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper You know, I wasn’t sure if I’d put this on the list or not. My criteria is usually that I should remember the book without having to read my review, but when I read it I felt like I really wanted to include it. As with the next book listed, this is one that I actively enjoyed the process of reading. Here’s what I said, “And I really liked this emphasis throughout the story on the possibility of being happy. The possibility of being loved and loving. The possibility of change… And it‚Äôs also well written with some gentle humor and terrific lines.”

Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald.¬† I don’t know if this was as well written (in terms of literature) as some of the other novels listed, but I was completely swept up in this story, fascinated by the unique twist on time travel, and captivated by the historical detail. This was one of the books I most enjoyed reading this year. I couldn’t help but notice that Grunwald made my Top Ten list in 2012, as well.

Recursion by Blake Crouch Fast paced and totally kooky and convoluted and I was delighted with every twist and turn of time.  After reading this I immediately read another Crouch book, which I also liked a lot.

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen And here we go with a third book on this list (that’s basically a third) that is about time travel (loosely defined.) It’s sometimes hard to keep all the time travel books straight. I remember this one as being the one where the guy is an agent from the future who is stuck in the past and has one of the cleverest time travel endings I’ve ever read.

The Lost Roses by Martha Kelly While some of the other books listed I’ve described as being enjoyable and fun to read, this was so intense I wouldn’t call it fun to read. But it was truly great-I loved the history of it, plus WWI is not what I usually read so I found it highly educational.

I’ve been so torn between these final two that I’m just going to give in and call this year’s list Top Eleven because I simply can’t choose. These two are both really good and really different from each other. Apples and oranges.
The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan–For some reason I only gave this 4 stars, which is silly, because this book was a straight up delight. Spies and stout ladies with handbags in WWII, but as with her other novel, a deeper level of the serious dangers of daily life in WWII.
The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell–creepy and weird, unreliable narrators, unlikable people, but I couldn’t look away and she’s a really good writer.

Honorable Mentions to ya novels Match Made in Mehendi and To Night Owl from Dogfish by Meg Wolitzer. Mehendi was such a fun book. I felt like it was refreshing take on romance and teen (much older teens) and though I run hot and cold on Wolitzer, Night Owl was also super fun. A little bit Parent Trap, a little bit crazy camp, and of course everyone had personality to the extreme in an unbelievable way, but I liked it and my daughter loved it, too.

This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews. Although this isn’t slipping into my Top Ten, this book deserves an honorable mention as well, and perhaps the qualifier of Best Graphic Novel I Read This Year. This was just enchanting, magical, charming. It felt quite a bit like a Studio Ghibli film and I loved going on this surreal adventure with the characters. I also loved the soothing blue color palette.

What’s ahead for next year? As you might guess, we have a huge home library. I find myself wondering when I’ll read the books that we have. In my mind it’s like I’m waiting for some stretch of time when we’re all stranded in here and have to live off the entertainments we have in the basement. Which is kind of awful because it seems like I’m imagining a post-apocalyptic time. Why should I wait for that? So, my personal reading challenge for next year, for a span of 3 months, is to only read books that are already in my home. Nothing new from the library. Even if something fantastic comes out. I’m limiting it to three months because I don’t think I’ll have the self control to do a full year, or even six months. And I will likely make exceptions for books I feel I ought to read for work (including the book club for staff that I’m starting in a couple of weeks.) Honestly, it shouldn’t be too hard because not only will I get to reread wonderful books I keep thinking “oh someday I’ll reread you”, but there are plenty of pre-pubs and the like that I’ve just never gotten around to. I’ve already grabbed a few from the basement to get me started–What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (a dusty old prepub, the first book of hers I read) and a Maeve Binchy.
What are you most excited to read next year? What are your reading goals?

Happy Reading and Happy New Year!
Sarah

Not If I Can Help It by Carolyn Mackler

Willa lives with her dad and brother in Manhattan and goes to (what seems to me) a pretty chi chi private school. Her best friend there is Ruby. Willa’s parents are divorced and she spends weekends with her mom. Everyone gets along and everything is great, even though Willa has sensory processing disorder. She mostly manages it and it’s just a fact of her life, including the occupational therapy sessions she has. However,she does keep that all a secret from everyone outside the family. So when Willa and Ruby find out that their parents have been secretly dating for almost a year and are in love, it shakes up everything in her world.

I would actually bump this up to 3 1/2 stars because I did think it was very good and I enjoyed it. Definitely something I will be recommending to students. I was really fascinated by the look at what it might be like to have Sensory Processing Disorder. And although I am an adult and don’t have it, I really related to Willa when it came to her feelings of frustration about change. In fact, I think I was more upset than she was about a situation near the end of the book and she reacted more maturely than I, a current adult, would.

The Toll by Neal Shusterman

This may have been my MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2019. Ever since I finished¬† Thunderhead two years ago I’ve been eager for this final book in the Arc of a Scythe trilogy to be published. [I see I didn’t review Scythe here, but did briefly mention it in my Top Ten of 2016.) Readers, it DID NOT DISAPPOINT. There are only two days left in 2019 and I knew midway through this that it would most certainly be ending up on my Top Ten of 2019 list (which I can’t wait to get started on today.)
So, where to begin.  First of all, this book is 625 pages long. When I picked it up from the library I was thrilled to see how long it was. And then I waited a whole week to read it (because, Christmas.) And it was wonderfully long and satisfying.

As I mentioned, it’s been two years since Thunderhead and while the conclusion of that book has stayed in mind most vividly, I wasn’t sure what else I remembered. No worries-I was easily brought up to speed. This novel is so beautifully constructed you almost want to go back and read it again now that you see how it all fits together. There are multiple sections, multiple points of view, and once again we are reading the Thunderhead’s direct commentary and thoughts. In addition periodic witness to another conversation-but you’re not sure who the participants are. And another repeated interstitial that I think I only just now realized exactly what it is. (so might go back and reread those parts.)

This conclusion is pretty epic. It covers a lot of ground, both in storyline and chronology. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, other than the story is continuing on. It explains exactly what has happened in the world since the dramatic conclusion of Thunderhead and continues, chronicling a rise to power of what I would call a megalomaniac despot. I think you’d have to be blind to not see the parallels to our current socio-political situation. It’s really an amazing work showing how civilizations rise and fall. Throughout the novel I really had no idea how this was going to conclude in a satisfactory manner. I will say –it did. 100% satisfied.

5 stars and one of the best of the year!