Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My favorite reads in 2016

Each year, I look back on the books I've read and share my top 10 (or sometimes a few more!).  This year, I'm grouping my favorite books by category.  As you will see below, I struggled to limit the list to 10 this year, so here's my top 15!

Non-Fiction
Most books I read in this category pertained to poverty in America, since that's the focus of one of my jobs.  The three best books I read this year all fall in this area, and I can't recommend them highly enough.  I think each of them provides a new perspective on life in America, particularly in light of the Presidential election this year. 


JD Vance, graduate of Yale Law School, grew up in a steel town in southern Ohio.  His grandparents, the one constant in his tumultuous life, were recruited by the steel company to move with many others from their hometown in Kentucky, thus maintaining their "hillbilly" culture.  In addition to addressing the reasons why a candidate like Donald Trump appealed to many blue-collar workers struggling to make it financially, Vance addresses the impact of childhood trauma and the Adverse Childhood Experiences study.  PLEASE READ THIS BOOK!


As a living wage job becomes less attainable for those without a college degree, how do families survive financially?  What impact did welfare reform enacted under Bill Clinton have on the fiscal landscape of those at the bottom of the earning pool?  Could you live on just $2 a day per person in your family?  


Sociologist Matthew Desmond moved into two extremely low income housing areas in Milwaukee to understand how families on the edge struggle to maintain housing.  Without an address, how do you get a job?  What would you do to put a roof over your family's head?  All three of these books are heartbreaking, but also demonstrate the problem solving skills and resourcefulness of those living in poverty in America.


As you may know, I'm obsessed with Hamilton - both the musical and the man.  Although I don't think I would have liked him very much because of what is described as a very abrasive personality, I have huge admiration for all he accomplished to make our country what it is today.  Before the musical and my subsequent reading of this book, I could have told you Hamilton was on the $10 bill, he was the first Treasury Secretary, and he died in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr (which I knew from the Got Milk commercial!).  I think this may be the level of knowledge most people have about Hamilton's life.  This man set the stage for our economic vitality as a country and his greatest project, the Federal Reserve system, is still going strong.  One of my favorite lines from the musical sums it up for me, "America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.  You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up."

Young Adult Fiction
I love a good young adult book!  Many of these were recommended to me by my friend, and elementary school librarian, Audra Reed.   Please don't discount them just because they were written for a younger audience.  Two of these books, Fish in a Tree and Because of Mr. Terupt, address how an outstanding teacher can change the course of their students' lives.  



“Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”  How do students suffering from learning disabilities like dyslexia manage to fool their teachers so they aren't considered "stupid?"  Ally has hidden her inability to read for years.  It takes a very special teacher to help her see how special she truly is.  Last year, I read One for the Murphys by this author, and I would highly recommend that book as well.




Seven 5th graders share the story of a year that changes them forever and the teacher who makes it happen. The first in a series.


I discovered Jennifer Holm this year with the publication of her latest young adult book based on her family history, Full of Beans.  All of her books are enjoyable, but my favorite was Turtle in Paradise about a young girl sent to live with family on Key West during the Great Depression.  



Do you love libraries?  Love to read?  Can you solve the literary clues to escape from Mr. Lemoncello's library?  Truly wonderful - this is one I will read again!


Fiction

There are books published at just the right time, and this is one of them.  Incredibly relevant to the discussion of race in America, Picoult once again delivers a story to make you explore your own beliefs.  As she asks in the book, would you know if your neighbor were a white supremacist?  Do we  ever know how another person truly thinks and feels?  


I always love a good sweeping historically based novel, and Gyasi's Homegoing did not disappoint!  Two half-sisters born in Ghana in the 1700s experience very different lives, and set the course for the lives of their families to come.  One sister is sold into slavery while the other is married to a British slave trader.  What is the legacy of slavery in these families?



I discovered this series this year and read them all!  What great mysteries set in England in the 19th century following the newly created Scotland Yard Murder Squad.  


Maybe I liked The Yard so much because it reminded me of one of my absolute favorite series, Laurie King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books.  The Murder of Mary Russell is the 14th book in this series and the best I've read in a long time.  If you haven't read these books yet, you really need to start with the first, The Beekeeper's Apprentice.  



In the final book of the Mr. Mercedes trilogy, Stephen King is at his storytelling finest.  All three books are worth reading, but the third was my favorite.


Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs have appeared in numerous books by Jeffery Deaver, but this was the most engrossing I've read of this series in years.  A true page-turner!



My Favorite Book of the Year


This 2016 Newbery Honor book tops my list this year.  I know the author from some simple chapter books Lily loved about Tony Baloney the macaroni penguin, and while those books were fun, I wasn't sure what to expect from Echo.  A single harmonica makes its way across the world to change the course of three young lives.  

Saturday, January 2, 2016

My favorite books from 2015

For the first time this year, I used GoodReads to track my books.  It told me I read 91 books and almost 35,000 pages in 2015!

Here are my 10 favorite books I read in 2015:


1. Historical fiction seems to always top my list, and this year is no exception.  The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters participating in their own ways in the resistance movement in France during WWII.  Beautifully written and a fascinating story.  


2. Edward Stanton, a thirty-nine-year-old man with Asperger's Syndrome, leads a quite and extremely structured life.  When new neighbors move in, Edward's world is turned upside down as he begins a friendship with 9-year-old Kyle and his mother.  Heartwarming, quirky, and quietly funny, I was heartbroken to reach the end of the book.  Wonderful characters make this book well worth reading.


3. Another common theme in my yearly book list is young adult fiction.  Micah lives with his Grandpa Ephraim, but his life is turned upside down when Ephraim becomes ill.  Grandpa Ephraim has always entertained Micah with fantastic stories of the magical Circus Mirandus, but on his deathbed, Grandpa reveals the Circus Mirandus is real and Micah must find it to save his grandfather.  

4. I've enjoyed Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York blog for some time, and this book is a fascinating compilation of beautiful pictures and stories.  My favorite story from the book:


"We're eye doctors."  "What's something about the eye that most people don't realize?"  "The eye doesn't see.  The brain sees.  The eye just transmits.  So what we see isn't only determined by what comes through the eyes.  What we see is affected by our memories, our feelings, and by what we've seen before."


5.  Historical young adult fiction?  How could I not love it!  Telling the story of the school desegregation in 1958 Little Rock, the story focuses on the friendship between two girls, one white and one "passing" for white and the dangers of their friendship during a time when Jim Crow prevailed.



6. Monsieur Perdu, a literary apothecary, operates his bookstore from a barge on the Seine and prescribes books to cure his readers' ills.  Years ago, his great love disappeared leaving him with a letter, which he refused to open.  When he finally reads the letter, he pulls up anchor and sails his book barge on a quest to find his lost love.  Simply charming.


7.  I love a good mystery with a twist!  The book jacket calls it at a modern retelling of Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train where two strangers meet and hatch murder plots.  One of those books I just couldn't put down!


8.  Another excellent mystery.  I love Kate Morton's historical mysteries, and The Lake House didn't disappoint.  In 1933, 11-month-old Theo disappears from his family's lake house during a summer solstice party, never to be found.  What happened to Theo?  More than 70 years later, police detective Sadie Sparrow stumbles across the abandoned lake house and the mystery of Theo's disappearance and sets out to solve this cold case.  


9.  Everyone should read this book about the end of life.  Written by a surgeon facing his own father's death Gawande begins to question the decisions made by medical professionals trained to fix our bodies at any cost.  When is quality of life compromised?  When is it time to let go?


10.  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is one of my favorite books of all time, so I would read anything she published.  85-year-old Addie Baum tells the story of her childhood and young adulthood to her granddaughter as she attempts to answer the question, "How did you become the woman you are today?"  LOVED this book!

Okay, I can never have just 10 books I loved in a year - in fact, I had 20 this year that I ranked with five stars, so here are some others I would recommend reading:
My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman
Wonder by RJ Palacio
Trail of Broken Wings by Sejal Badani
The Forgotten Daughter by Renita D'Silva
The Bone Tree by Greg Iles
The Dead Key by DM Pulley
The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith
The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech
The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Golbraith (nom de plume of JK Rowling)
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Happy reading!


Friday, March 6, 2015

Required reading for all people!


I kept seeing this book at the top of the New York Times Non-fiction Best Sellers list, but a post on Goodreads from my friend Sarah Caldwell Hancock convinced me to get this book from the library.  While it deals with the very difficult topic of our mortality, I believe it should be required reading for all humans to assist us in making end-of-life decisions.

Topics range from nursing homes to assisted and independent living facilities to hospice.  The author, a surgeon, discusses what he has learned from multiple patients as well as from his own father's death.  He talks about how many doctors believe it is there job to focus only on health and safety, while what needs to be addressed is enabling well being.

I think everyone should consider the vital questions posed by Dr. Gawande:
1) What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
2) What are your fears and what are your hopes?
3) What are the trade offs you are willing to make and not willing to make?
4) What is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

For example, he had one patient with cancer who said quality of life would be the ability to eat chocolate ice cream and read, and was willing to risk paralysis.  Another felt a risk of paralysis made surgery an unacceptable course.

Please take the time to read this important book!

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 runners up

Last night, I kept thinking about the books I enjoyed this past year but didn't make it on my top 10 list.  Here's a second list of my "runner's up."  

Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd - This book should have made my top 10 list.  I love Sue Monk Kidd's writing - particularly The Secret Lives of Bees which I listened to in my car again after reading The Invention of Wings.  Based on the history of abolitionist Sarah Grimke, the book follows Sarah and Handful, a slave from Sarah's parents' home. 

Brillance by Marcus Sakey - Imagine a world where 1% of the population carries a gene for true brillance.  What happens when the other 99% decides to rebel?

The All-Girl Filling Station by Fannie Flagg - Fritzi runs her family filling station during WWII with her sisters and then takes on even more daring adventures as she learns to fly a plane.

Outcasts by Kathleen Kent - A taut, thrilling adventure story about buried treasure, a manhunt, and a woman determined to make a new life for herself in the old west (taken from Amazon's review)

TimeBound by Rysa Walker - Kate's grandmother gives her a blue medallion that allows her to travel in time.  Kate must go back to the Chicago Exposition of 1893 to prevent a murder.

The Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani.  I love all of her books.  This is the third book in her Valentine series.  My favorite of her books is Lucia, Lucia.

The Target by David Baldacci - featuring his protagonists Will Robie and Jessica Reel.  Fast moving - I couldn't put it down.

Letters from Home by Kristina McMorris - In 1944, Liz attends a USO dance and meets soldier Morgan McClain. Liz's roommate, Betty, agrees to write to Morgan while he is overseas, but she asks Liz to ghostwrite for her.  I truly loved this book.

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter - Her book Criminal is one of the best crime books I've read - ever.  I love her characters.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty - While I liked Big Little Lies best, I also really liked this one where Alice falls from a stationary bicycle and loses 10 years of her memory.  Will she fall in love with her husband, whom she was divorcing, again?

One for the Murphys by Lynda Hunt - young adult fiction about a girl named Carley who is in foster care.  We are reading this one for CASA book club.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart - more young adult fiction that should be read by all.  A summer mystery on the private island of the uber-rich Sinclair family.

My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni - seriously good mystery.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate - This book won the Newbery medal in 2013 for outstanding children's literature.  Told from the perspective of a captive gorilla named Ivan.

 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

My favorite books from 2014

For the past five years, I have been recording each book I read with a rating.  Here are the 10 books I rated a "5" in 2014 (well, 12 books, but there's a trilogy, so I'm counting them as one!)


1.  My favorite of the year was "My Notorious Life" by Kate Manning.  Based on the life of Axie Muldoon, known as the "wickedest woman in New York" for her work in women's reproductive rights in the late 19th century.  Axie's life begins on the streets of New York in the 1860s, where she and her siblings struggle to survive.  Sent west on an Orphan Train, she later finds her way back to NYC where she is apprenticed as a midwife.  Unwilling to go quietly about her work, Axie struggles to give women reproductive choice in a time when to do so was scandalous.  I can't recommend this book highly enough!

 

2.  There is nothing I love to read as much as sweeping historical fiction.  Ken Follett's Century Trilogy certainly fits the bill!  Following the lives of 5 families from America, England, Germany, and Russia from pre-World War I through the 1980s, "Fall of Giants," "Winter of the World," and "Edge of Eternity" are worth your time.  For much of the first book, I felt as though I was in the world of Downton Abbey (which I also watched for the first time this year!).  If you like historical fiction, these books are for you.


3. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is probably my single favorite book of all time.  I've been fascinated with Nelle Harper Lee for years - as most readers have probably asked, why did she write a single book?  After watching a PBS special on her life and learning about her family, particularly her older sister Miss Alice, who worked as an attorney alongside their father, I wanted to know more.  Journalist Marja Mills befriended Nelle and Alice and was granted access to their lives of the course of multiple years.  One of the things I found most interesting was Nelle Harper's thoughts about young adult fiction, and how glad she was "To Kill a Mockingbird" was not classified as such, as she believed it would have limited its exposure to adults.  As a lover of young adult fiction, I wish I could disagree with her, but I think many excellent books are discounted because they are written for young people!  (As an interesting side note, Nelle Harper Lee joined her friend Truman Capote to Kansas to help him research "In Cold Blood."  For a period of time, they rented a house in Manhattan just a few blocks from my house - 1711 Fairchild Ave.)


4.  This book has been on my list to read for multiple years, and I finally got around to it this year.  Wish I had read it sooner!  "The Night Circus" is simply enchanting.  I found it reminiscent of the movie "The Prestige," where two young magicians compete against each other in what becomes a battle of life or death.


5.  I read "The Rosie Project" while we were in Colorado last winter.  Don is a geneticist with some unusual thoughts about life.  When he decides to find a wife, he creates a survey to find the right woman.  Not just any survey - Don's survey has sixteen pages and is designed to eliminate women with characteristics he finds unacceptable.  Rosie is a bartender who is searching for her father.  Don sets aside the Wife Project to help Rosie with her Father Project and ends up falling in love despite his best efforts.  The second book in this series will be released this week, and I can't wait!


6.  How have I never read this book?  After hearing my friend Audra Reed talk about reading it with her 6th grade class, I checked it out from the library.  What amazing young adult fiction!  Like "The Hunger Games," it makes you think about how very different our future world could be with just a few changes to the present, and not in a good way.  


7.  This is the "fun" book on my list, particularly for all you parents of kids in elementary school or for my teacher friends!  A parent is dead at a PTO fundraiser.  Was it murder or an accident?  What is really going on behind closed doors in this sleepy school community?  And why does everyone in the PTO have a blonde bob?  Too entertaining!


8.  The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books are quiet stories, but I always find them quite entertaining.


9.  My friend Beth St. Amand wrote this memoir about her son's death by suicide.  Every parent or person who works with young adults should read this book.


10.  While in Florida for Christmas, I read "All the Light We Cannot See."  Another work of historical fiction (are you noticing a theme in what I like to read?), it follows the lives of two children in pre-WWII France and Germany whose lives intersect during the war.  I've seen this book mentioned multiple times as one of the best of 2014, and I couldn't agree more!

I know there are still three days left in 2014, so I may have an update to this list ;)  Happy reading!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

My first favorite read of 2014


My Notorious Life by Kate Manning follows Axie Muldoon from her early childhood as a beggar on the streets of New York City in the 1860s to her notoriety as Madame X, a wealthy midwife and provider of contraception and abortions.  Based on the life of Ann Lohman, called the "wickedest woman in New York," Axie's story is thought-provoking and suspenseful.

Some of my other recent reads worth your time:
Fannie Flagg's The All Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion made me laugh out loud.  The characters grab your heart and your imagination!

Outcasts by Kathleen Kent follows a prostitute turned teacher named Lucinda Carter and a Texas policeman named Nick Cannon in post-Civil War Texas.  Their stories converge as Nick hunts for a killer named McGill.  This book reminded me of Lonesome Dove in the setting and storytelling.

I discovered TimeBound by Rysa Walker on my Kindle when I was searching for a book to check out with my Amazon Prime membership.  Young-adult fiction often captures my imagination in a way I don't find with other books, and this was no exception.  16-year-old Kate receives the ability to time travel from her grandmother and must return to the 1893 Chicago Colombian Expo to save her grandmother's life.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

My favorite books of 2013

I read fewer books in 2013 than I have read in many years.  My new crochet hobby took up more time than I thought!  However, I easily found 10 favorites for 2013.


1.  My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
I found Justice Sotomayor's autobiography enlightening and inspiring.  What a childhood she had and what incredible experiences as an adult. 

 
2.  Criminal by Karin Slaughter.  I discovered Karin Slaughter through this book, which was featured in the Book Page Daily email I get from our library.  I then went back and read all of her books.  The protagonist of this book is a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent named Will Trent.  He first appears in her book Triptych, and I would highly recommend reading the whole series (Triptych, Fractured, Undone, Criminal, and Broken).


3.  Beyond Cold Blood by Larry Welch.  This book, while non-fiction, follows nicely after Criminal.  Welch is the former director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigations and he highlights the role of the KBI in some of the biggest crimes in the state of Kansas.  Absolutely fascinating!


4. The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton.  I just love Morton's books!  Mystery and history wrapped together.  For fifty years, Laurel Nicolson has kept a secret from her family - while hiding in a tree during a family picnic, she saw her mother commit a terrible crime.  Now, as the family gathers to celebrate their mother's 90th birthday, Laurel is determined to find the truth.


5. Love Anthony by Lisa Genova
This book contains two intertwined stories, one of which I found wanting but the other which truly touched my heart.  Olivia's son, Anthony, was diagnosed with autism at age three.  Following his death, she seeks to understand the meaning of Anthony's short life.  Author Lisa Genova is a PhD neuroscientist, and her fiction focuses on disorders of the brain.  Her first, Still Alice, was a favorite of mine in 2009.


6. The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande.  This was our first CASA book club selection of 2013 and a great way to start the year - for once, a book without a depressing ending!  Reyna Grande and her two siblings were left behind in Mexico while their father sought work in America.  Reyna details their live in Mexico (poverty beyond anything we can imagine in America), their attempts to cross the border and find their father, and their life in America once they do find him.


7. Joyland by Stephen King.  This is King at his best.  Novellas have always been his strong suit (The Body, which became the movie Stand By Me, and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redepmption to name a couple).  I also read and enjoyed his Dr. Sleep this year, but not as much as I enjoyed Joyland.


8. Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann.  One of the few books of historical fiction I found this year.  Amanda Rosenbloom owns a vintage clothing store.  She discovers a journal written by Olive Westcott in 1907 sewn into the lining of a muff she purchased from an older woman.  

 
9. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult.  So often I read Picoult's books only to find that I HATE the ending; however, this time it was worth the read.  Sage Singer is a baker who meets a man named Josef Weber in her grief support group.  After developing a relationship, Weber reveals a life-altering secret to Sage.  What will she do with the information he shares?




10.  Inferno by Dan Brown.  While is wasn't as good as The Da Vinci Code, it was the first book I read this year that I couldn't put down.  Read it from cover to cover over a weekend.