2016 Year-End Reading Wrap-Up

Number of books read in 2016: 201

Picture books: 90

Partially read books: 8

Books read in 2015 minus picture books and partially read books: 103

YA/children’s books read: 40

Average number of books read per month (including YA, excluding picture books and partially read books): 8.58

Audiobooks: 11

Nonfiction (adult/YA): 22

Total page count: 27,536 (This seems suspiciously low, given that the last two years my page count was just over 50,000, but exporting the data I want from LibraryThing is frustrating, and honestly I don’t have the patience to dig into this. It’s still a pretty good chunk.)

Male or

Female/male authors: Tipping female for the second year in a row but still pretty close to 50-50.

Five-star ratings: 23, including re-reads; lots of childhood favorite re-reads this year, including The View From Saturday and Ella Enchanted. And Greenglass House, again.

Previously: 2015 Year-End Reading Wrap-Up

Again, no specific reading resolutions for the year. I have continued to winnow down my book collection at home, and have just a few books on the shelf that I’ve been meaning to read; one of these is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, which I suppose would be appropriate to check off the list.

I have enjoyed reading without the lurking feeling of each book being part of a “to do” list. I’ve discovered (and revisited) many, many picture books, from my own childhood copies (One Woolly Wombat!) to the brand new and delightful (too many to name). I’ve ventured more into children’s chapter books and met Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine.

Like many others, I’m also trying to read a broader variety of perspectives: books by women and people of color and other minorities, books whose subjects or main characters are something other than straight, white, middle-class Americans. There have been some spectacular collections of scathingly funny and serious feminist essays (Lindy West, Caitlin Moran, Mindy Kaling), and Rebecca Solnit has a new book coming out in March). And YA authors have been at the forefront of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks charge from the beginning, which means we’re growing a generation more open-minded than any before it.

“And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation.” -Caitlin Moran, Moranifesto

Best books I read in 2016

There were many books published this year that I was looking forward to eagerly, and which I devoured as soon as I could get them. Other books sneaked up on me (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child!), some were recommended by friends or librarian-friends, others discovered serendipitously (my toddler pulling them off the library shelf), some a combination of the above. Links go to my LibraryThing reviews.

Cover image of My Real ChildrenAdult Fiction

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling

My Real Children by Jo Walton

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

“And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.” -Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time

Adult Nonfiction

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

“Shame is a tool of oppression, not change….You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy.” -Lindy West, Shrill

Teen/YA

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

My True Love Gave to Me (short stories, edited by Stephanie Perkins)

Cover of I Am the Wolf...And Here I ComeChildren’s board books and picture books

Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood

There Is A Bird On Your Head by Mo Willems

I Am the Wolf…And Here I Come! by Benedicte Guettier

I Kissed the Baby by Mary Murphy

One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak – I can’t believe I missed this one as a kid. It is the perfect counting book for introverts.

How to Cheer Up Dad by Fred Koehler

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Children’s chapter books/series

Cover image of ClementineThe Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker – I listened to all seven of these audiobooks (narrated by Jessica Almasy) and loved every single one. Clementine reminds me of Ramona Quimby (especially when adults tell her to “pay attention” and she says that she was paying attention…to something else. Perfect kid logic). The parents are great characters too.

Coming soon…2017

I haven’t looked too far ahead into 2017, publishing-wise. The book I am most anticipating, of course, is the sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife, but there is no new news about it, as far as I can tell, and the last I heard, it was looking like ballpark 2018. I’d be excited to read anything new by David Mitchell or Nick Hornby, but they each had books out in 2015 (Slade House and Funny Girl, respectively). I’d love to read whatever Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus) is cooking up next, too. I’m sure plenty of wonderful new books will come along while I’m waiting for these…what are you excited to read this coming year?

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

Cover image of My True Love Gave to Me
The teen librarian at our library has been bringing up (or perhaps I should say swooning over) this story collection since she first read it, and now that I have read it as well, I have to agree that her starry-eyed state is completely justified. There’s not a dud in the bunch, and while I was looking forward to the authors I already knew (Rainbow Rowell, Gayle Forman, Kelly Link, David Levithan, and Holly Black), I really enjoyed encountering the others for the first time as well, and will probably look up some of their other books in the next few months.

For once, I read this book the way I always intend to read short story collections (but rarely do): I parceled out one or two stories at a time over the course of several days. It was a perfect way to absorb each story and let it settle before reading the next one.

In order of appearance:

“Midnights” by Rainbow Rowell: After years of New Years’ parties with the same crowd, Mags finally gets her midnight kiss with her longtime best friend, Noel.

“It’s going to get worse,” he said. “You’re going to keep changing.”
“Well, so are you,” she said.
“I never change.”
Mags laughed. “You’re a kaleidoscope. You change every time I look away.”
-Rainbow Rowell

“The Lady and the Fox” by Kelly Link: Miranda is the goddaughter of Elspeth Honeywell, and spends every Christmas at the grand Honeywell house. Year after year, she encounters a man – a ghost? – in the garden, but only when it’s snowing.

“Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Pena: Shy is catsitting for his boss – and slowly starving – over Christmas, when Haley, another tenant in the building, comes down to ask about a plumbing problem. She’s Shy’s age, beautiful, and a great cook, but Shy has to overcome his pride to accept her help.

“Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han: Natalie lives with her adoptive father, Santa, at the North Pole, and has a crush on one of the elves, Flynn; her Christmas wish is a kiss from him.

“There are two kinds of children. The kind who believe and the kind who don’t. Every year, it seems there are fewer in the world who do. Papa says it’s not an easy thing to ask a child to believe in what they can’t see; he says it’s its own magic. He says that if you have that magic inside you, you should protect it all your life and never let it go, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
-Jenny Han

“It’s A Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” by Stephanie Perkins: Marigold visits the Christmas tree lot next to her apartment building, trying to get up the courage to ask one of the guys who works there if he will voice one of her animation videos. Before coming out with her question, she accidentally buys a Christmas tree that North helps her bring home – then he helps her reorganize her whole apartment, which she and her mother haven’t bothered to unpack since they moved in (after discovering that they were Marigold’s father’s other, secret family). And then it starts to snow.

“I’ve always felt lucky to live someplace where snow is rare, you know? It’s the rareness that makes it so special.”
“That could be said about a lot of things.”
-Stephanie Perkins

“Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan: A boy dresses up as Santa to help his boyfriend’s little sister keep believing for one more year.

“Krampuslauf” by Holly Black: The narrator and her friends Penny and Wren throw a New Years’ party in her late grandmother’s trailer to trap Penny’s two-timing prep school boyfriend, but some magical guests show up as well.

“Sometimes I felt like I was waiting for my life to begin and more than anything, in that moment, I wanted to force some kind of beginning. I wanted things to be different than usual.”
-Holly Black

“What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” by Gayle Forman: The title character is regretting her decision to leave New York for the Midwest for college, but things begin to look up when she meets someone who shares her sense of humor (e.g. making fun of reindeer sweaters) at a caroling night.

“Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire: Prankster Vaughn has to save the church Christmas pageant (which he inadvertently ruined by accidentally setting fire to the church barn) and if he can impress the pastor’s daughter Gracie at the same time, well…that’s just extra motivation.

“Welcome to Christmas, CA” by Kiersten White: Maria lives in a tiny California town called Christmas; she can’t wait to graduate and move away with her savings (tips from working in the Christmas Cafe). But when the cafe gets a new chef named Ben – someone who has a knack for knowing (and cooking) exactly what each person wants to eat – Maria thinks she might stick around a little longer.

“Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter: Teen pop star Liddy Chambers swaps tickets with a stranger at an airport to escape her tyrannical manager, Derek; she flies to Oklahoma, where she pretends to be an Icelandic exchange student visiting her boyfriend Ethan and his family, who rally around her even when they know she’s a fake.

“The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor: Neve is a poor orphan whose closest friends perished in a fever last summer; her highest hope is to reach “Age” and be set free so she can settle a plot of land in Fog Cup (as gloomy as it sounds). When the town’s fire-and-brimstone preacher declares his intention to marry her, Neve begs for help from an old god – and the Dreamer answers. A bit Maggie Stiefvater (The Scorpio Races), a bit Neil Gaiman (“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”).

“Some kinds of misery make you hate the world, but some kinds make you hate yourself…”
-Laini Taylor

Cover image of Summer Days and Summer NightsThese stories are set in different places and times, real and imaginary, past and present. The characters are different as well: optimistic and pessimistic, gay and straight, poor and middle-class and wealthy, Christian and Jewish and pagan, Black and white, skeptical and romantic. (One can see why it’s YA authors who are leading the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.) All in all, it’s a pretty near perfect collection, and I’m looking forward to Stephanie Perkins’ other anthology, Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories.

Top Ten Historical Fiction

September kind of got away from me. September is always a busy month during which I think I’ll have more time than I do have, but this year, thanks to two bouts of stomach flu, I pretty much missed half of it entirely. Which is to say, I’ve been meaning to write a Top Ten Tuesday post for the historical fiction genre since I read Linda’s Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels blog post over half a month ago.

Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I find that the best authors in this genre are able to weave period detail into their stories in a way that is subtle and memorable at once. Even though I studied history in college, it’s the history I learned through stories that has stuck with me best.

Cover image of Wolf HallSome novels take famous figures from history and are centered around important historical events. In the case of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it is the court of King Henry VIII in England. In the former, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is the main character during Anne’s rise, marriage to Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and Henry’s disenchantment with (and beheading of) Anne. For her books – the first two of a planned trilogy – Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell as her main character.

Cover image of Suite FrancaiseOther novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the draw of these stories is how their authors are able to make the time and place come to life in a way that seems real. Like Henry VIII’s era, World War II is a popular time period for historical fiction; most recently, the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a bestseller (and with good reason). A few of my favorite WWII novels are Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Cover image of FeverStill a third type of historical novel features extraordinary people in ordinary (for them) times. These characters are as vivid as their settings: Mary Malone (better known as Typhoid Mary) in Fever by Mary Beth Keane, set in turn of the century New York. Katy Kontent in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, also in New York, in the 1930s. Regret, a Korean “picture bride” in Alan Brennert’s Honolulu. Tom and Isabel in post-WWI Australia in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. Mattie Gokey in the Adirondacks in 1906 in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, and Desdemona Hart in 1930s Massachusetts in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade.

Cover image of AstrayFor those who have been counting, this has been more than ten, but I want to mention just three more. Astray is a collection by Emma Donoghue, in which each story was inspired by a real piece of history; Donoghue is so inventive that she can spin two sentences from an old newspaper into a complete, absorbing story.

Finally, there are two books from my childhood that could be called historical fiction with a twist: Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck includes an element of time travel, and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix takes place in what appears to be an 1840s village, but – to the main character’s shock – isn’t.

Do you like historical fiction? Which novels are your favorites, and why? If you haven’t read historical fiction before, do any of the above sound interesting?

 

 

 

Pleasure reading should be pleasurable

Makes sense when you think about it, right? Yet so many of us feel obligated to finish a book once we’ve started it, and feel guilty if we set it aside. We really should read it, because a friend recommended it, or it got a good review, or it’s on a topic we really ought to know more about, or everyone else is reading it, or we put it on our to-read list four years ago (but we can’t remember why), or it’s a classic…fill in the blank however you like.

But unless a book is assigned reading for school or work, then presumably you’re reading for pleasure, and pleasure reading should be pleasurable. Not that you shouldn’t ever explore a new genre or try a book that you find a bit difficult, but if you’re 25 or 50 or 100 pages in and you’re just not that into it, then by all means, put it down and pick up something else instead! You have this librarian’s permission.

This is something I have worked on for years myself. I was inspired partly by Knopf editor Marty Asher, who said something along the lines of “I don’t have time to read anything but great books” (and that was almost a decade ago). Of course, you might well think a book is going to be great and it turns out not to be: you can only judge so much by the cover, title, author, first sentence, first page, flap copy, reviews, etc. Most of us don’t choose books we think we’re going to dislike on purpose.

And yet it can be so hard to put down a book we’ve invested some time in already. It feels like giving up; it feels like failure. And who knows? We’re optimistic; maybe it will get better in another 25, 50, 100 pages. But no: at some point you begin to feel certain that this book is not the one for you, at least not right now. (“Every reader his/her book, every book its reader“).

One side effect of my free time having been somewhat curtailed of late is that I have become much better at putting down a book that doesn’t hook me quickly. This is usually not a reflection on the book’s quality; it’s just not for me, not right now. For example, I have decided to return M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead to the library – despite the fact that it was personally recommended to me by a reader I trust, and that it was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults – because I just can’t get excited about the siege of Leningrad right now.

What can I get excited about? Young adult fiction, apparently: I’ve read nine YA novels so far this year, including some truly stellar books (all right, let’s name names: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Like No Other, Dumplin’, Roller Girl, Echo, A Step Toward Falling, Bone Gap, Rain Reign). I’ve also read (and re-read) some excellent picture books. And, I got to read Gayle Forman’s upcoming adult novel Leave Me, which is just as good as her YA; I read it in just two days, and I have a three-month-old baby, so that should tell you something. (The thing it should tell you is “read Leave Me“!)

So there you have it, from a librarian: if you don’t like what you’re reading, and you don’t have to read it, put it down and read something you love instead. That’s the beauty of the public library: millions of books just there for the borrowing. Don’t do what I did and spend an entire month trying to slog through a book you aren’t that excited about: you’re not being graded, and ticking a box on a checklist you made yourself isn’t nearly as satisfying as spending time reading a book you love. In fact, I think there’s a song about this. Let it go…

[All that said…my library is hosting a 2016 Reading Challenge with some interesting categories, and one book can count toward more than one category. Click through to read more if you’re interested in participating.]

A book about wizards

Book recommendations work in funny ways, or perhaps I should say that people’s responses to recommendations are variable. I tend to react with either enthusiasm or skepticism, depending on (a) who is doing the recommending, (b) what they’re recommending, and (c) how they describe it. If two or three trusted fellow readers all tell me I have to read a certain book, I’m quite likely to add it to my list or bump it to the head of the queue. But if a book is riding a wave of popularity, and the buzz is inescapable, I’m likely to go the other way and avoid it, figuring that no book could live up to the hype. (I’ve been wrong about this in a number of cases – Life of Pi comes to mind – but often books really don’t deserve the hype surrounding them and I don’t regret missing them.)

cover image of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneHere’s a case where my initial skepticism gave way to devoted enthusiasm: Sometime in 1997 or 1998, my mom brought home a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Aw, Mom, I don’t want to read a book about wizards,” I said.

Let the record show that she was right and I was wrong.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Cover image of Carry OnSimon and Baz, Penelope and Agatha, the Insidious Humdrum, the Mage, and Watford – all born in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl – have their own story here. Simon’s origin story is similar to Harry Potter’s: he was an orphan living in the “Normal” world until age 11, when the Mage brings him to the Watford School to study magic. Now it’s Simon’s final year at Watford: the Mage has little time for him, and his roommate/enemy/suspected vampire Baz has not returned to school. The Insidious Humdrum still threatens the magical world, which is already divided between the traditional old families and the Mage’s revolutionary ideals.

Simon Snow is the main character, but Penny, Baz, and Agatha each get a turn to narrate, as does Lucy, whose identity (other than her name) isn’t immediately clear. Simon wants to enjoy his last year at Watford, but also to defeat the Humdrum once and for all; Penny (think Hermione with a rebel streak) is his (platonic) best friend and a talented magician whose parents are both professors; Agatha doesn’t want to be involved in dangerous adventures at all, and secretly prefers the Normal world, though she can’t admit it to her parents; and Baz, once he returns to Watford after an unexplained six-week absence, wants to decode the message his mother’s ghost left for him with Simon.

Carry On has plenty of pop culture references – the words “carry on” come from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – partly due to the fact that magic, in Simon Snow’s world, is based almost entirely on words: the more often certain words are used in specific combinations, the more powerful of a spell they become. Shakespeare and nursery rhymes, therefore, are quite powerful; cliches and lyrics to pop songs may be powerful for a time, but lose their power when they fall out of fashion. I enjoyed this not-so-subtle reminder of the power of language, as well as Rowell’s hat-tips to other fantasy novels: there are obvious similarities to Harry Potter, of course, but there’s also something Philip Pullman-esque about the way that adults are willing to sacrifice children in service to the what they perceive as the greater good.

Fangirl‘s Cath would be happy with the way that Simon and Baz’s relationship evolves, but I won’t say more than that here. The way that Rowell weaves Baz’s mother’s death and his being a vampire into the plot, however, is quite clever. Carry On absolutely stands on its own as a fantasy novel that anyone can enjoy, and those who liked Fangirl will definitely want to read it. While I prefer Rowell’s realistic fiction (or in the case of Landline, mostly realistic fiction with the addition of a magic-fucking-phone), I thoroughly enjoyed Carry On.