As major publications and critics announce the Top 10 Lists or best of the year, I want to add my nominations. I read over a 100 books this year, though not many were published in 2018. Following are three lists: the top 10 books I read written for adults; the top 10 for teens; and a couple notable picture books. The books are listed in no particular order; it was difficult enough for me to narrow it down to these 23. The unique benefits of these particular lists are that most are easily available, either in paperback or without a waiting list at your local library.
Merry Christmas! May you have the time over the holidays to enjoy the pleasures of reading a good book.
Best books for Adults
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, Mallory Ortberg (2018)
Horror is everyday as the title suggests, but Ortberg spins good tales all the more shocking because they begin in ordinary life. Her feminist fables transform the Grimm brothers mythology with force and violence and a bit of joy. This book disrupts the stories we learned as children, like The Velveteen Rabbit and the Old Testament stories. Imagery also modernizes and horrifies. I squirmed when a voice becomes “a crawling black thing across the floor” and when the frog prince has breath that smells of old coins. Several gender inversions are likewise creative. Witty and vicious and delightful, these stories demonstrate how literature can shake you up with its emotional impact.
Sing Unburied Sing, Jesmyn Ward (2017)
A National Book Award winner, Sing Unburied Sing is a contemporary journey, developed with echoes from many other stories, including Homer and August Wilson’s play cycle. Teenage Jojo has been brought up by his grandfather in the African American poverty of Southern Mississippi. His drug addicted mother Leonie has been mostly absent, but now asks him to ‘be the man’ in a road trip. Leonie has decided to fetch her husband from the jail at Parchman Farm when he is released. She will bring her best friend and her two children. Leonie’s narration reveals how she is haunted by memories of her brother, killed by racist teens long ago. Pop, the grandfather, objects to this family trip, but must stay behind to nurse his dying wife. Pop himself was once imprisoned at Parchman, and a boy he tried to protect there becomes a driving force in this novel of how the past haunts the present. The book’s developing tragedy has the aura of car sickness, a literal issue for the youngest child. Jojo struggles to fulfil his promise to Pops to protect those he loves.
River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey (2017)
Winslow Houndstooth travels the Wild West assembling his operations team. He has to face down aggressive saloon attacks, poisoned drinks, and paid killers. Otherwise, this 1880’s Western is based on an alternative history: hippopotamuses have filled Louisiana marshes — a government attempt to provide a food source — but they’ve gone feral. Houndstooth and his crew are hippo wranglers! This adventure combines traditional Western tropes with fantasy, and the cast of characters includes two powerful, complex females. I appreciated that there is a non-gendered character, too. It’s short, fun, and there’s a sequel for fans like me.
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai (2018)
Makkai’s literary novel begins with a funeral and throughout shows people surviving tragedy. Her “great believers” are the two narrators, with interrelated stories in different decades. In 1985, Yale Tishman is a handsome gay man in Chicago, enjoying a long term relationship that should protect him from the disease that has just killed a good friend. Fiona is the little sister of that friend, and she befriended Yale before her brother’s death.Yale and Fiona created a strong supportive friendship which helped them as the AIDS crisis developed. Now in 2015, Fiona is struggling with a soured relationship with her daughter, staying in Paris with an artist from her brother’s circle. Makkai has written a poignant and vibrant novel with detailed specifics of time and place to show the importance of friendship.
Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan (2011)
I loved this jazz novel, travelling between Weimar Berlin and 1990’s Baltimore. Before Hitler’s rise, Berlin hosted a non-stop party, and American jazz flourished. But under Hitler, the country outlaws live jazz. Sid is an expat bass player who knows he’s not genius, but his presence is important because it holds his band mates together. In need of protection is Heiro Falk, a German jazz prodigy in their band, as well as other players with African heritage. Their racially mixed band hides from the Gestapo, or ‘Boots’ in their slang. With a mysterious girl, lots of long-kept secrets, and a Louis Armstrong cameo, loose ends don’t resolve until a filmmaker documents their story. Edugyan’s book tells a moving story of art and friendship in a lively jazz parlance.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire (2017)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones is about Jacqueline and Jillian, age 12, twins who go down a set of stairs which magically appeared in their grandmother’s trunk. After a decade of meeting their parents’ expectations, they break out (there’s no rule against this) to go under their home and enter the predatory Moors. They are not prepared, though, to deal with truly evil figures or even to make decisions in this sinister fantasy land, a twisted version of lions and wardrobes. With McGuire’s occasional sketches and some witty narrative parentheticals, this slim modern book should join the dark fantasy classics on the shelf. McGuire is a local author, and I hope to see her at bookstore readings.
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones (2018)
This novel tells the story of a marriage, beginning with the newlyweds having their lives upended. The young black groom is accused of a rape he did not commit. When Roy is sentenced for 12 years, his wife Celestial continues to love and supports him. The two characters tell alternate chapters leading up to his arrest, and then the genre changes. The second section is their letters during his imprisonment. Over time, Celestial finds herself slowly pulled into a new life without him. The suspense at the end comes from wondering if the marriage will resume or end. And if it ends, will it be a fade-away or a violent collapse? Big issues of race, parenthood and social class complicate their marriage and personal lives.
Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin (2017)
This novella is one conversation, mysterious and ominous, between Amanda and David. Amanda took her daughter to a vacation home in Argentina, then was so frightened she tried to leave. Amanda is now in the hospital and David has her retell her story, saying, “We’re looking for worms.” I’m not sure quite what he means, but this novel likewise worms its way into your psyche. David seems malicious, though he asks only for more detail, pointing out when ‘this is the important part.’ Amanda talks of polluted water, deaths, and split souls. Magic realism brings the thrilling story into hyperfocus, and every word and every moment counts.
The Silence of Our Friends, Mark Long, et al (2012)
Jack and his wife raise their kids in 1960s Houston, surrounded by racists and trying to teach their children another way. A white reporter and cameraman, Jack befriends Larry, an African American professor and civil rights organizer. Larry struggles to trust Jack, who often remains silent. In one episode, the two break the color line by dining at each other’s homes. Their friendship is rarely easy, and the graphic novel format pictures events, no inner monologue or explanation needed. Jack is pressured by his paper to not tell the truth about protests he’s seen, so his version of a policeman’s shooting won’t be heard until he is called to testify in court. The book ends with Martin Luther King’s death and several pages of silence. Once again, a graphic novel says more in visuals than paragraphs of text could. Long and Powell, local writer artists, work together to create a another great book that connects big issues to the details of individual stories.
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
Hamid describes the arc of a love affair in world of magic realism. Saeed still lives with his parents when he meets Nadia, who wears a protective burka, though she’s not Muslim. Saeed prays every day, while Nadia rebels with drugs and rule-breaking. When their unnamed country descends into civil war, streets and the internet are blocked. Their romance adapts to the horrors and violence developing in their hometown. Their story is then interrupted with vignettes of other couples who go through certain doors around town into other countries. The two buy passage across one of these magical thresholds and Nadia promises Saeed’s father that she will protect his son. Away from home, the two are sometimes bound by physical attraction, sometimes by loneliness, and sometimes by duty. Their fantastic journey in this adult novel develops with complexity but never sacrifices character development.
Best Books for Young Adults
Dear Martin, Nic Stone (2017)
Justyce is a top student and a star debater with a chance to go to Yale next year. Everything looks good about his future, until an early moment jeopardizes it. He walks out in the middle of the night to stop his ex-girlfriend from attempting to drive drunk. As he tosses her into the back seat and buckles her in, a siren sounds, and he’s slammed into the car and cuffed. The cop gives him no chance to speak, having already decided from his dark skin and hoodie that he’s guilty of a crime. Luckily Justyce recalls his mother’s advice and sits quietly until he’s set free the next day. But this incident leads him to start writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. for advice. His life gets further complicated by his attraction to his debate partner, a white girl his mom warns him to avoid. Stone’s characters are well-developed, and the dialogue explores issues of race with confidence and care. If a couple scenes are a bit didactic and episodes occasionally looks like playscript, those imperfections are slight when compared to the power of the story and its emotional realism.
Daughter of the Pirate King, Tricia Levenseller (2017)
Alosa is the daughter of the Pirate King, and since he wants a long lost treasure map, she is sent to recover it. She goes into disguise and becomes a captive on an enemy ship to locate the map. She is powerful even in captivity, with fighting skill, leadership ability, and intelligence (as well as an ego to match). When Riden, her attractive captor, seems to fall for her, she’s still manipulative even though she feels a similar attraction. Abundant romantic angst does not cause her to lose her tough persona. This may have been written for middle schoolers, but my new favorite escapism will be reading Levenseller.
Picture Us In the Light, Kelly Roy Gilbert (2018)
Sometimes getting what you want most doesn’t solve your problems. Danny Cheng, the main character of Picture Us In the Light, loves art; he has been drawing portraits for years and is hoping his portfolio gets him early acceptance into his dream school, the Rhode Island School of Design. Early in the book, Danny gets his acceptance letter, and he and his supportive family celebrate. But he finds this acceptance (and the scholarship he’s offered) doesn’t provide the satisfaction he expected. Tensions rise with other problems: Danny’s dad refuses to discuss a mysterious box his son found, and a close friend refuses to talk about her depression. Then, his dad loses his job, the family moves to a cheaper city outside the wealthy Silicon Valley and Danny switches schools. The story develops issues of immigration, suicide, religion, socioeconomic status, diversity and LGBTQ, but these issues are intrinsic to the characters’ stories, not its defining characteristics. His parents’ secrets and a bit of romance add to the heartbreak. Kelly Loy Gilbert’s book is beautiful, with images and metaphors smoothly woven into a character driven story of emotional depth and hope.
Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds (2017)
Long Way Down dramatizes a crucial decision for one urban teen. Will, the African American narrator, saw his brother killed yesterday. Shots rang out, and everyone hit the ground, but Sean was hit, leaving behind a bloodstain and their crying mom. In his now empty bedroom, Will gets out his older brother’s gun. He will honor his brother by following the three rules Sean taught him: don’t cry, don’t snitch, and get revenge. The story is told in free verse as Will rides the elevator down to the first floor. This may not seem like much of a story, but on each floor a new person who is tied to Will’s past enters, and Will’s resolve on his course of action is shaken. The ending should be a spur to conversation, about race, violence, and revenge.
Autoboyography, Christina Lauren (2017)
Tanner wants to float through his last year of school, but his best friend August persuades him to join her in The Seminar, an intense class in which students produce a book in 4 months. The class has a special guest, Sebastian, who wrote a book in last year’s class that is to be published. When Tanner and August first see him, both fall in love with this Mormon model of perfection. Nobody, not even August, knows that Tanner is bisexual, but when the boys’ attraction heats up (and it does– this is romance, with covert glances, heated kisses, love letters and more) she needs to be told. Instead, Tanner uses their secret romance as the fodder for his writing, but then cannot share it because Sebastian is not willing to reveal he’s gay. Tanner’s parents are fantastic, the romance is sweet, and the church is, somehow, not totally lambasted.
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, Steve Sheinkin (2017)
Jim Thorpe’s life, especially his years at the Carlisle School playing football, is the focus of this nonfiction book. Carlisle was a boarding school created by Pratt, an Army captain, to destroy the Indian identity and force young people to assimilate; more people ran away than ever graduated. Sheinkin also reviews the early development of football. While all these topics seem to indicate an information-dense text, Sheinkin tells a strong narrative story, and Thorpe’s struggles and successes are engaging. The short chapters and many photos and diagrams makes it an easy book to read, appropriate for middle school readers, the uninformed of football history, and anyone else who cares about sports, Olympics, Native Americans, and success stories.
Noteworthy, Riley Redgate (2017)
Jordan spends the first 25 pages of this novel angry and frustrated that for three years now she hasn’t been cast in her art school’s musical. She’s a scholarship student, and her parents wonder if she’d be better off coming home, going to public school, and getting a job to help out the family finances. Telling physical details and a large vocabulary bring Jordan’s predicament to life with skill. In desperation, she auditions for a male a capella group, creating a new persona as Julian. I know in the real world this mask would be exposed before the three months she plans to wear it, but she’s an actor, and Riley Redgate is a master storyteller. Amid all the charming shenanigans, Jordan starts asking herself important questions about gender and wealth. The rich kid prep school milieu is enriched with minorities, gays, lesbians and trans. There’s romance, but friendship is the greater lesson, and the challenges of family expectation and misunderstanding. Although I usually balk at unbelievable story lines, I read every word of this enlightened novel for teens.
What to Say Next, Julie Buxbaum (2017)
Kit is not recovering well after the death of her father. When her friends are on a different wavelength, her grief leads her to sit with David in the school cafeteria. David has Asperger’s and usually sits alone to avoid the taunts of his peers. His unfiltered honesty acts as a balm for Kit who is disgusted by the shallowness and euphemisms of her friends. David narrates every other chapter, and it is both hilarious and painful to compare their perceptions. David’s older sister has helped him to make a notebook to record life advice: he writes reminders that certain people cannot be trusted; brief descriptions of his classmates to help him remember their names; explanations of idioms, etc. David also relies on his sister’s advice to develop the first friendship he’s ever had. A sweet romance develops.
Foolish Hearts, Emma Mills (2017)
Foolish Hearts is light young adult romance. Claudia is enrolled at an upper-class private school for girls because her dad teaches there and she’s quite smart. Claudia’s concerns are with friendship, boy bands, and romance. She has one best friend, and that’s always been enough. But she overhears a private conversation at a party when she is hiding, and is exposed, which earns her a powerful enemy. Then a failed group project with this girl means she’s got to participate in the school play to make amends. Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced with the boy’s school next door, brings opportunities and changes that she’d rather avoid. Claudia has a great and cutting humor, and is supported by well-developed and flawed friends and siblings in this sweet coming-of-age.
The Red Bird All-Indian Travelling Band, Frances Washburn (2014)
Sissy Roberts lives with her parents on the Pine Ridge Reservation, working as a waitress at one of the two cafes in town, watching rodeos, and singing in bars that cover their floors with sawdust. It’s 1969 and she was the smartest girl in high school, but doesn’t have the money to leave. When a Native is found dead outside the bar the title band played at, Tom Holm, an FBI agent, shows up to investigate. He especially wants to ask Sissy questions. She’s not a suspect, but as everyone in town tells her their troubles, Holm thinks she can help him. Sissy’s too smart, though, to not know that she’ll live with the consequences if the secrets of her bandmates and friends are exposed. The investigation is the catalyst to Sissy’s own coming-of-age. As a former South Dakota resident, I see in Washburn’s prose the empty spaces and beauty I remember from the state, though I don’t have Washburn’s Lakota perspective. Sissy’s voice is understated, accepting, and impossible to walk away from. This may have been written for adults, but I think its nature lends towards young adults, though an interest in 1960s music might help.
3 Amazing Children’s Books
The Day War Came, Nicola Davies (2018)
This picture book begins with a girl’s regular morning, waking up with her family, then going to school, learning about volcanoes and then drawing birds. But on this ordinary day, war interrupts school: the violence is suggested with black lines criss crossing over several pages. She walks, runs, and travels to escape. In a new country, she peers longingly through a school’s window, seeing other children study volcanoes and draw birds. She is turned away at the door, and young readers see her pain. When a boy shows up in the refugee camp carrying a chair for her so she can go to school, he spreads hope and welcome and color. Davies was inspired by a true story of a lone refugee child denied school. Our goals ought to be to have resources for everybody and show empathy.
We don’t eat our CLASSMATES, Ryan Higgins (2018)
I was thrilled by this book, and the children I read it to also liked it. We laughed, giggled, pointed out details in the drawings, and then reread it. Penelope is a much loved T. Rex nervous about her first day of kindergarten. When she goes in the classroom door, she is surprised to find that her classmates are all children! And children, she knows, are delicious. Clever artwork, humor, and a surprising sensitivity combine to make a book amazing!
Jane, the fox, & me, Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (2012 in France, English translation 2013)
Jane is for any girl who has been bullied, with delicate drawings adding poignancy. Helene is traumatized by nasty graffiti in the bathrooms about her weight, and so she hides in books. At this particular moment, she is reading Jane Eyre and it is a delight to follow her understanding as she reads. Her thoughts on Jane break up her story with the only color pages, in a style distinct from the rest. A required class trip to nature camp brings the social conflicts to a head.