Lots of good reading this year. Another year of ridiculous numbers—149 this year.
One of the benefits of reading is an increased sense of empathy. You can understand someone different from you a lot better if you can see from their perspective. If there was one theme this year, it was understanding different perspectives.
Some of the various perspectives that could use some understanding this year cropped up again and again in my books this year. Themes such as racism, disability, transgender and Islam.
I also read a lot of graphic novels.
For a more visual look, you can check out my Year in Books from Goodreads.
If you want to read more, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.
- Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott – 4 stars
A collection of somewhat disconnected stories about grace and life and such. I think every one of Anne Lamott’s friends are dying.
- Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars
A poetic story about a teenage Katrina survivor who relocates and crashes into a meth habit. It had kind of a rough, rocky start, but once it got going it was engaging and poignant.
- The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson – 4 stars
A pretty tough story about a teenage girl and her PTSD-suffering father. It really captures the reality of trauma.
- Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler – 4 stars
A fascinating story of post-apocalyptic survival, dystopian horror and a religious idea that humanity needs to step away from the nest of earth and spread to the stars. It’s told in an autobiography format, with a few introductions that add depth to the cast of characters (which took me a few chapters to get used to). What’s perhaps most fascinating about this story is the utterly believable “cult” of Earthseed which seems less a religion and more a scientific reality, and the way it’s brutalized by those looking for a scapegoat. (And apparently I read this series out of order… I’m curious to see how that colors my reading of Parable of the Sower.)
- The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – 5 stars
I listened to the audio book last summer and loved it, so I read it to the kids. Such a fun story of the gentle and loving Ivan.
- Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland – 3 stars
Diversity is something I continually value, but it’s not so easy to achieve. Using social psychology, Cleveland explores why we’re so divided and ways we can overcome those divisions. It’s fascinating stuff and she often makes more accessible with humor, stories and personal revelations. But it’s also heady stuff. I got lost (i.e. bored) by the academics a few times and felt like application would take a lot more work than my casual reading. A good book for sure, and something I’ll probably come back to as a resource. But it didn’t exactly keep me up at night.
- Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr. – 4 stars
Written about the events in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, this is King’s defense of much of the work of the civil rights movement. He narrates what happened in Birmingham, and then gives context and rationale for why they did what they did. It includes his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” It’s powerful stuff, very applicable to today and a good reminder of the depth of King.
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman – 2 stars
Listened to this audiobook and wasn’t impressed. It’s kind of a weirdly creepy fantasy tale.
- Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Berg – 4 stars
A story of a girl in Haiti who wants to become a doctor but has to overcome poverty and natural disasters. Written in free verse, it’s a realistic glimpse into the reality of life in Haiti.
- I Have a Dream: The Biography of Martin Luther King by Margaret Davidson – 4 stars
A straight-forward middle grade biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that I read to the kids. It’s pretty compelling and had me nearly choking up in a few places. The kids found it pretty engaging too.
- Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste – 4 stars
I’ve read this book before but re-read it for book club. It tells the brutal story of the Ethiopian revolution in the 1970s from the perspective of one family. It’s a difficult story, but also illustrates the difficulties of revolution—the clash of family and politics, the brutality of overreach and the dangers of government gone awry (both the cruel communist dictatorship but also the aging monarchy that failed to respond to a famine).
- Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan – 3 stars
Sometimes I love YA books for the intense drama and the way that everything as a teenager is the end of the world. And sometimes I get tired of it and I just want the characters to grow up. This book was the latter. There was just such an arrogant immaturity raging at the heart of the conflict and I couldn’t get into it. I just wanted them to get over themselves and move on.
- An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay – 4 stars
I recently read Beneath the Lion’s Gaze with a book club and there was a lot of discussion about the intense violence in that book. Honestly, I felt like it was relatively subdued, with only a couple admittedly difficult torture scenes and the rest was mostly after the fact. An Untamed State, however, had such intense violence that I struggled through it. A woman is abducted in Haiti and just brutalized. Rape was just the beginning. While difficult to get through, it sets up the second half of the book where she’s freed and has to put her life back together. The second half wouldn’t have had the intensity without the violence of the first half. So a difficult book I’d be hard pressed to recommend, but a very powerful one.
- Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris – 4 stars
I’m not big on celebrity bios, but this one is pretty great. It has the swagger, humor and heart of Neil Patrick Harris and is literally in the format of the old ‘Choose Your Own Adventures.’ I’ve wanted someone to bring back this style for a while and it’s pretty fun in autobiography format. I’ll admit I cheated and just read it straight through (which worked just fine, unlike the original ‘Choose Your Own Adventures’) because I didn’t want to miss anything.
- Among Others by Jo Walton – 3 stars
Kind of a peculiar, very meta story about a girl who lives science fiction and is in the midst of her own fantasy battle with her half-witch mother. It’s all told journal style in a very matter of a fact way, which makes it kind of distant. It’s slow and plodding and even when it reaches the climax it’s not very edge of your seat. Her love of science fiction and constant mentions of Tolkien, Lewis, Heinlein, Vonnegut and other scifi mainstays was great (I even found a few book suggestions). That’s probably what kept me reading.
- Danger on Panther’s Peak by Bill Wallace – 3 stars
I remember reading this as a kid and loved it. I read it to the kids and they enjoyed it. The story is a lot shorter and less intense than I remember.
- Blackout by Connie Willis – 3 stars
Historians travel back in time to observe history as it happens? Awesome. But the execution isn’t as great. After some initial setup, the book descends into an overly long stretch of disconnected stories that take way too long to interconnect with no sense of any rising action at all. You’re just following this disjointed stories waiting for something to happen. Individually they’re interesting to read, but it’s so long. And worse yet, it ends abruptly with no resolution—a two-part book chopped in half (and part two is even longer). I’d like to see what happens, but not sure if I can see it through.
- Purgatory Ridge by William Kent Krueger – 3 stars
The third in the Cork O’Connor series. Good stuff, a fun read, though it didn’t blow me away.
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – 3 stars
A free verse memoir about Woodson’s childhood. It has some interesting commentary on growing up in the 1960s and the path that led her to becoming a writer, but I wasn’t blown away. Interesting details, but I enjoyed her novels more.
- The Peace War by Vernor Vinge – 4 stars
A fascinating future dystopian sci-fi story where the ability to bobble up weapons—literally lock them away in giant mirror balls—has put an end to war and nations and created the Peace Authority. But it all starts to pop through the actions of some brilliant geniuses and bands of tinkers our of a Cory Doctorow novel. Fast-paced and fun.
- Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle by Dana Simpson – 4 stars
A fun, witty little comic about a girl and her best friend who happens to be a unicorn.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – 4 stars
Finally convinced the kids to let me read this to them. They loved it. I always forget how long this one takes to get going.
- Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey – 4 stars
A fun space opera full of mystery, action, war and some weird alien stuff. I liked the middle ground between far future space and near future—humanity was all over our solar system but they hadn’t reached beyond. Not many sci-fi books cover that territory.
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler – 4 stars
So I went back and read the first book in this series and my love for Octavia Butler is just growing. The story probably starts a little slow, but it builds into just a great post-apocalyptic tale. I think the context of the sequel really helped me engage, knowing where the story was going and the depths of the Earthseed philosophy. I’m not sure how well that would have worked on its own. I think the story might also feel a little flat if you just read the first one. The sequel really gives a sense of depth and accomplishment. What I really like about the series is the reality of the decline of civilization. It might not technically be post-apocalyptic because there is no apocalypse, but the breakdown of law and order is portrayed so realistically. There are poor, lost, marauding, desperate people everywhere. So many intriguing ideas in this series.
- On Basilisk Station by David Weber – 3 stars
Classic sci-fi featuring the daring female captain Honor Harrington (and the odd little cat that perches on her shoulder, much like a pirate’s parrot). I liked the strong female lead (and this is the first in a lengthy series), but the action was slow. Much of the 400+ page book was just set up and only rarely did things actually swing into action. Fun when it happened, but it took too long to get there.
- Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome by Brad Montague & Robby Novak – 5 stars
Such a fun collection of wacky awesomeness and ways to make the world better. Kid President shares 100 ways to be awesome and introduces you to all sorts of people doing awesome stuff along the way. It’s just a positive, fun read. (Made me feel like a bit of a stick in the mud at times).
- P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia – 3 stars
The continued story of the Gaither girls after their One Crazy Summer in Oakland with their mother. We follow Delfine into sixth grade, watch her uncle come home from Vietnam, her father get married and the girls fall for the Jackson Five. While some engaging vignettes, it didn’t feel nearly as compelling or tied together as the original.
- Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine – 4 stars
A powerful, difficult and necessary conversation on race. What I found most compelling were the multiple continued vignettes showing daily slights and slams over race. This is what we white Americans are often so clueless about and laugh off as no big deal. All that and it’s still a very approachable, poetic book. It’s not academic and overwhelming. I read the whole thing on a Saturday, though I think it’s a book that requires multiple readings.
- The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds – 4 stars
Poignant story of a teen boy who comes to grips with his mother’s death by taking a job at a funeral home and sitting in on the funerals of strangers. It’s kind of a weird set up, but Reynolds has a great voice and it’s a compelling story.
- Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth – 4 stars
Funny, tough and bleak, this is the story of a drug dealing Native American teenager who yearns to escape her abusive, alcoholic (white) father and her dead end town.
- No Blade of Grass (or The Death of Grass) by John Christopher – 3 stars
One of the bleakest post-apocalyptic stories I’ve read, this one starts with a virus that decimates food supplies, prompting a murderous solution that kicks off the survival of the brutalist. The descent to murder is surprisingly quick for the main characters and I found it hard to fathom.
- Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott – 5 stars
I re-read it for book club and it’s still one of my favorite books on faith. She has such a real, honest, tell it like it is voice, which means she’s up front about how messed up she is. Yet she’s also not afraid to talk about faith like we often want to but are too scared to actually do. She’s irreverent and reverent at the same time. I always forget that this is just a collection of essays, which does make it a little disjointed.
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis – 3 stars
The first and last couple chapters get 5 stars, but the stuff in the middle felt so scattered and aimless. There’s a larger, overarching plot, but much of the stuff in the middle is just disconnected stories. The ending is about the Birmingham church bombing and really takes a sudden serious turn. It’s good, but a bit jarring after so much wandering.
- Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet – 2 stars
A dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where environmental collapse means the end of humanity. Nat’s parents have opted for the final solution, a “contract” that’s basically assisted suicide with a fancy vacation to say goodbye to your loved ones. Nat and her brother Sam aren’t so sure about it. It really plods along and by the end feels pretty short in the plot department. Could have been a lot more.
- Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling – 4 stars
A post-apocalyptic scenario where an unexplained event has the impact of an EMP but also changes the laws of physics and stops most forms of explosive combustion. So bullets won’t fire, dynamite doesn’t explode, steam engines won’t work. Doesn’t make any sense, but the result is a post-apocalyptic world that’s more King Arthur. The descent to swords and serfdom is fast and brutal. The story bogs down in places and it’s the first of a series, but overall it’s pretty good.
- The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass – 3 stars
A quick read aloud for the kids where students are inexplicably fighting ice zombies. Nothing is really explained, but that’s not the point. The action and humor are fun, and my kids liked it, but it wasn’t anything amazing.
- How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater by Marc Acito – 4 stars
Grabbed this audio book for a trip on a whim and turned out to be pretty funny. Sort of a caper/heist type story starring horny teenagers. Lots of sex. But it has a great voice, arrogant and self-deprecating at the same time.
- The World Inside by Robert Silverberg – 4 stars
A fascinating history of a world embracing population growth where humanity lives in these massive, isolated silos. It’s an interesting storytelling style that constantly switches narrators, making it feel a bit like a glorified short story. But the concept and story are pretty good.
- A History of the Future by James Howard Kunstler – 3 stars
It’s the third novel in his A World Made By Hand series, which is a great take on the post-apocalytpic future. I like his style and like the world, but the plot isn’t quite there. It follows a bunch of mostly disconnected stories that overlap occasionally and none of them come to a very satisfying conclusion. It feels kind of lackluster. It’s worth reading if you like the series, but it’s not a great chapter.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry – 3 stars
Middle-grade dystopian story about a society that takes away all pain and the freedom that causes it. Felt pretty heavy handed and I was more interested in the world outside.
- Pain Free At Your PC by Pete Egoscue – 3 stars
A book of medical advice I’m reading to help combat ergonomic issues. Reads like one of these wacky things you see on TV and aren’t sure if they’re legit. But the basic idea and execution seems pretty good. We’ll see how well it works over time.
- Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh – 3 stars
Some funny moments from this web comic gone print, but also some awkward, weird ones that just don’t land right.
- Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story by David Levithan – 3 stars
An amazing concept—what if we actually wrote the musical from the novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green? It’s a fun idea, it’s not such a fun 200 pages of reading.
- The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill – 3 stars
Story of a kid who becomes a millionaire by making his own toothpaste. It’s a fun little story and does a good job teaching about economics. But the last few chapters really go awry—the mobster bomb hit was enough of a stretch, but telling it through one of the character’s really bad screen plays was even worse. Docking the book an entire star for that one.
- The Remaining by D.J. Molles – 4 stars
In preparation for disasters of apocalyptic scale, the U.S. government set up 48 lone survivors with bunkers and locked them in whenever things looked hairy. The latest scare turns real and Lee finds himself a well-stocked survivor in what’s basically a zombie scenario. His mission is to connect fellow survivors and rebuild the United States government. Despite the bizarre-o set up, it’s a quick read and fun action. It turns into a series and I’ll have to check out the rest of it.
- Rebuild by Marcus Cylar – 4 stars
Being a pastor is an extremely difficult job with a high rate of burnout. That’s where author Marcus Cylar was, but instead of dusting off his hands and moving on, Marcus has decided to focus on the issue and help other pastors through their issues. It’s full of practical advice and real world situations (it gets a little too real at times). A good read for pastors, but also people in the pew who need to care for their pastor.
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – 3 stars
An elderly pastor in Iowa is writing his 7-year-old son a series of letters to explain the things he won’t be able to tell his son. So it’s a bunch of ramblings from an old man, reflecting on his life and the lives of his father and grandfather. Some interesting details come out, but the whole thing feels pretty tedious. The quality writing and the hints of story kept me going, but it’s not exactly edge of your seat reading. I’m shocked so many people love this book as much as they do.
- A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren – 5 stars
A post-apocalyptic tale following the life of a woman named Mary. It’s told in two alternating perspectives, one a chronicle of her life that she writes when she’s older and tells the story of the the end of the world and her coming to live with Rachel. The other perspective is the old age version of Mary as she’s writing the story and living in an increasingly close-minded religious community. It’s ultimately a battle of philosophies, Rachel’s science and book-loving modernism vs. the close-minded, patriarchal Christianity (think witch burning) of a group of survivors. It’s written in a very relaxed and leisurely voice, but there’s a lot of tension and action in the story. One of the better post-apocalyptic stories I’ve read in a while. And you have to love any story where they’re saving books.
- Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers – 3 stars
I’m not sure what to say about this book. The plot feels like it just muddles along, though it offers a stark and brutal glimpse at the reality of the Vietnam War. It’s a worthwhile perspective, but it kind of just plods along.
- Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed – 4 stars
At the beginning this felt like another whiny teen novel: daughter of strict immigrants is dating behind their backs and they crack down. But it soon turned into a gripping and infuriating tale of forced marriage and abusive cultural traditions. It was a quick read too—I finished it in a single day.
- In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang- 3 stars
A quick graphic novel about gaming and economics. It’s kind of the short version of one of Doctorow’s novels, though with more of a focus on girls and much, much quicker.
- Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh – 3 stars
A slow apocalypse scenario where a depression drags on and life keeps getting worse. It had some interesting ideas and reminded me a lot of Cory Doctorow, without all the arrogance. Though it lacked a driving plot and ultimately just stumbled along.
- Red Thunder by John Varley – 4 stars
A ragtag effort to build a spaceship always makes for a good story. Some out of order storytelling makes it a little awkward in a few places, but otherwise it was a fun and thrilling read.
- How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon – 5 stars
Very timely and relevant book. A black teen is shot by a white man, launching a scandal that varies by perspective. The story is told in alternating viewpoints and everyone saw the incident differently. In the wake of real life racially charged incidents like Ferguson and Baltimore, this is powerful. The audio version was especially great because different voice actors took on each perspective.
- Overrrated: Are We More in Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World? by Eugene Cho – 4 stars
Pretty challenging book poking at our world-changing, cause-addicted tendencies and whether we’re doing good or just inflating our ego.
- Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng – 3 stars
I had high hopes for this story about a quiet, introspective girl who prefers books to people and struggles with her Chinese heritage, but it’s just slow and never really gets moving. I read it to my kids and it didn’t generate much excitement.
- God Help the Child by Toni Morrison – 3 stars
I’ve never been able to get into Toni Morrison’s work. Her writing is gorgeous, but her plots always mystify me. They always seem to meander around and toy with fantasy in ways I don’t like. Her latest was no different. Gorgeous writing, really interesting characters, but a plot that seemed to go from one train wreck to the next. I think it ended up being poignant, but I didn’t enjoy the journey.
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – 4 stars
I like being in book clubs because they encourage me to read stuff I otherwise never would. This is one of those books. It’s a slowly unfolding confession from a double agent at the end of the Vietnam war. The main character always seems to have two personalities, sees two sides to the story and never quite fits in. It’s most telling when he returns to America and understands more of American culture than Americans do. It is a slow book and took me over a week to get through. It’s not as gripping as I like, but it really explored some deep ideas in interesting ways. A very unique perspective on the Vietnam War.
- Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata – 5 stars
This is the most honest, painful and perhaps approachable work of fiction I’ve ever read on adoption. It’s told from the perspective of 12-year-old Jaden, who was adopted when he was 8 and has a number issues from his traumatic past. His family is adopting a new baby and he travels with them to Kazakhstan, where nothing is quite working out like it’s supposed to. The story exposes some of the issues of international adoption, but doesn’t provide pat answers, instead letting them simply be exposed like a raw nerve. It’s an incredibly sad book, but also deeply hopeful.
- Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick – 5 stars
Amber is quirky and fun and full of hope. She’s also homeless. But that doesn’t get her down. This story was fun and inspiring, but then it took a dark turn and got so good I couldn’t put it down. It’s YA and maybe a little dramatic, but it’s full of heart-breaking pain, real questions and a zest for life.
- Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick – 5 stars
A big, slow kid and a tiny, sickly one team up to vanquish dragons and learn dictionary words. This is a wonderfully tender and real story, told in a perfect voice. I read it out loud to my kids and just loved reading it. It has just enough wonder and joy to overcome the devastating reality. Great book.
- Andreo’s Race by Pam Withers – 2 stars
A 16-year-old’s family adventure race in Bolivia turns into an opportunity to track down his birth family and uncover an illegal adoption syndicate. Sound ridiculous? It is. The adventure parts are engaging and clearly the author’s specialty, but the adoption parts are atrocious. The adoptive parents need some serious therapy. They never talk about adoption and hide all the details from their son, though he’s obviously adopted. The story is predictable and painful, especially major adoption issues are glossed over or treated like minor concerns. At the end everything is wrapped up neatly with tidy apologies. It’s good to see more stories addressing international adoption and even being willing to tackle the dark side of it. But this book doesn’t do it justice.
- Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany – 2 stars
It starts as an interesting investigation into a secret code linked to terrorist attacks, but it just gets weird from there. The linguistic ideas were intriguing, but it the climax was too cerebral for me.
- Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff by Justin McRoberts – 4 stars
I like creative kick-in-the-pants books. McRoberts’ is short, unpretentious and full of practical nuggets. That’s all you need.
- Mimi by John Newman – 3 stars
The story of a family dealing with the death of their mother and the three kids and father trying to carry on. It has some poignant moments, but it never really grabbed me.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – 4 stars
An intriguing post-apocalyptic novel that emphasizes how much of civilization is lost, but also what is retained. The story follows a traveling symphony and acting troupe that performs Shakespeare, but it really jumps around following several different threads that are all woven together by the end. It’s an impressive bit of storytelling and is probably one of the more approachable post-apocalyptic stories I’ve read.
- Hold Fast by Blue Balliett – 4 stars
A caper story about a family poor in wealth but rich in spirit who get caught up in crime and end up separated and in a homeless shelter. The poetry of Langston Hughes is featured as an inspiration and gives the story a peculiar rhythm. The family’s love of words is infectious, and the realities of life in a shelter are sobering.
- Drita My Homegirl by Jenny Lombard – 3 stars
A simple story of an immigrant from Kosovo who eventually befriends an American girl. Both girls are struggling with a lot, and the back and forth narrative works pretty well.
- Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate – 4 stars
Read this immigrant story aloud to my kids and I loved it as much as the first time I read it.
- Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White – 3 stars
I’m not as enamored with this classic as everyone else is. Plenty of good advice, but it also comes across pretty snooty.
- Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo – 3 stars
An interesting fantasy story that launches a series. It felt pretty unique, but I don’t know if its a series I’ll keep reading.
- Wonder by R.J. Palacio – 4 stars
A compelling story about a boy with a deformed face who tries to go to school for the first time. The story starts off pretty slow with the boy’s perspective, but when it starts changing perspectives it gets more engaging.
- Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu – 3 stars
A fairy tale story about a girl who loves fairy tale stories. It has a lot of magic and wonder to it, though the magical world never felt very real to me. I found her real world exploits much more engaging. It’s also one of the rare stories where the protagonist is an international adoptee. It doesn’t really play into the story too much, but it’s an interesting footnote.
- The Awesome by Eva Darrows – 3 stars
A foul-mouthed teenage monster hunter runs into trouble when she tries to lose her virginity in order to hunt vampires. Complicated? Yeah. Funny and profane? Yep.
- The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman – 4 stars
A pretty fun time travel story with some interesting twists. Heavy on the physics, the actual time machine only goes forward at increasing intervals of time and space. The story is pretty good, though the far future gets a little weird (as expected) and I didn’t feel like everything was adequately explained.
- The Guardians of Time by Poul Anderson – 3 stars
A collection of four stories following a time travel cop who chases down people who break the rules of time travel.
- Nimona by Noelle Stevenson – 4 stars
A fun and unique graphic novel about a reluctant super-villain and his eager new sidekick. The characters defy stereotypes, the humor is quirky and the story is original. Good stuff.
- My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga – 4 stars
Two teens make a suicide pact so they can help each other follow through. But life complicates things. It’s a dark book but still hope shines through.
- Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers by Scott Norton – 3 stars
The text is a bit dry and slow to get through, but it’s packed with processes, templates, suggestions and so much more.
- What Have We Learned by Lyle Schaller – 3 stars
A collection of lessons in how to do church from one of the foremost church consultants of the 20th century. I feel like I’m just dipping into his many insights.
- The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex – 3 stars
This is the book that inspired the movie Home. Loved the movie. Feeling meh about the book. The satire on the treatment of Native Americans is spot on, but the wider story feels scattered. It’s an adventure/journey story, but the goal (reuniting a character with her mother) feels only semi-important. The plot bounces around in ways that just feel unhelpful. This is the rare case when I think the movie was better than the book.
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – 5 stars
Re-read (or rather re-listened to) this time travel classic. Such a great story.
- Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill – 4 stars
A moving personal story of a boy who always felt he was a girl. The are a lot of road bumps and raised eyebrows in this transgender account, but it’s powerful and eye-opening. The rejection and hurt is mind-boggling. As people why is it so threatening to us when someone doesn’t fit our predetermined societal ideal?
- Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky – 4 stars
It’s a simple story of a boy who always wants to dress up like a girl and finally gets the chance in the school play. In one sense it feels like a simplistic approach to transgender issues, but it also feels approachable (especially for the middle grade audience). Overall, it amazes me how cruel people can be.
- Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones – 4 stars
A fun middle-grade mystery of sorts about a girl who inherits a flock of odd chickens. It’s told through letters she writes, which is kind of an odd device, but it’s a fun little book.
- James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl – 3 stars
I don’t remember if I’ve read this before, but I read it out loud to Milo. It’s a simple story and a fun read, though it doesn’t grab me as some of Roald Dahl’s other stories do.
- Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward – 4 stars
A poignant and powerfully written memoir about a black girl growing up in poverty near New Orleans and watching five young men in her life die too early. While mostly it’s just stories from these lives, it’s also a larger statement about race in America today.
- Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle – 3 stars
I liked the premise of this one—a religious sect mysteriously raptured as the end of the world dawns—but it took a long time to get going and ultimately it didn’t pan out. [Spoiler Alert] It all ended up being a hoax, which seems like a ridiculous thing to be able to pull off. I didn’t find it convincing.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – 3 stars
I’m torn about how to rate this one. It’s widely praised and it’s well-written and a good read. But it rubbed me the wrong way. I had just finished listening to Jesmyn Ward’s memoir of poverty and too-early death, Men We Reaped, when I started this one. The difference was jarring, this fairly well-off suburban white kid who struggles with—what—being too smart and socially awkward? Ironically, the comparison of struggles is actually a theme at the end of the book when Charlie’s secret is revealed. It’s a worthy thought, but I couldn’t shake the frustration with white privilege. I also didn’t understand the conceit of the book being told as Charlie’s letters to a stranger.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison – 3 stars
I must have watched the movie in college for film class but never actually read the book. It’s a haunting tale of post-slavery in Ohio and it’s truly a difficult book to read. It’s hailed as a masterpiece, but I really struggle with Toni Morrison’s style. I often didn’t understand what was going on. It’s really only the brutal assessment of slavery and its effect on people that made it worth reading, and that alone is pretty tough to face. In the end it’s a hard book in many ways, though I think worth it.
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson – 4 stars
Quick and poignant. Just a powerful story of finding your place in this world and then what happens when you lose it all. I read this a long time ago, but it was a book club selection for my book club with my daughter.
- The Round House by Louise Erdrich – 3 stars
I enjoyed the story and the writing in this book, but it felt like the story was so often lost and just descended into rambling. It was well-written rambling and engaging enough, but I wanted more of a driving plot. The story had an engaging mystery, but it just sauntered around the idea and that got a little old.
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz – 4 stars
Two teenage boys are figuring out who they are. At first I thought this was going to be a simple love story of two kids figuring out they’re gay. But it was more complicated and intriguing than that, and had me fooled until the end.
- Fake Mustache by Tom Angelberger – 4 stars
This was just goofy and funny. And mustache!
- Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor – 4 stars
I’ve struggled with Okorafor’s books because they’re such a mysterious blend of sci-fi and African spirituality. I prefer my sci-fi to have less fantasy and more reality, so the spirituality is a little off-putting for me. But this one was really interesting, especially since it slanted to a more sci-fi topic (aliens!) but approached it in a very African way. I’m not sure how to explain that, other than to say Okorafor said this was inspired by an angry reaction to the movie District 9, a movie where aliens become refugees in South Africa. Okorafor wanted to explore what would happen if aliens came to Nigeria. It’s an interesting read and sets up potential sequels.
- Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older – 4 stars
A mural painter as a hero? Sign me up. The story starts off at a sprint and takes a little catching up, but it explores this mysterious spiritual world of shadowshaping. Featuring a cast of diverse people of color and a few jabs at the white establishment, it’s a fun read.
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – 4 stars
I read this one aloud to the kids. It’s fun to go back and read Harry Potter with fresh eyes. This one always seemed like one of the weaker stories in the bunch, which is odd because it’s so foundational for what comes later. In some ways it’s surprising how much the adults let things slide—it’s full of racist undertones (mudbloods) that are never squashed and Dumbledore does basically nothing to stop an attack on the school. It’s a good thing Harry figured it all out. Between this and his hiring of Lockhardt, you start to wonder if Dumbledore has completely lost it.
- Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang – 5 stars
Incredible memoir about growing up in an Asian American immigrant family. It’s full of hip hop, basketball references and food talk, which is hardly up my alley, but it’s very engaging. He has such a bravado that’s very honest, down to earth and approachable. I am glad I listened to audio book, since I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce half the names. Plus he actually laughs at his own jokes.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 2 stars
This has been described as one of the greatest novels of the century. I don’t get it. The author describes the writing style as how his grandmother told stories—this understated style that slips in supernatural elements without comment or surprise. The approach seems to remove all tension from the story. It’s this crazy, six-generation soap opera, that should be wild and dramatic, but it feels like monotone. I see the mastery in the long-reaching story he’s telling and how it all comes together. But it wasn’t the book for me.
- Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan – 5 stars
This is the story of a genius girl who’s too smart to connect with her peers and then loses her adoptive parents in a car accident and is thrown adrift. It has this perfect intellectual voice that just nails genius, while also realistically grappling with some pretty heavy duty pain and loss. The story of how she creates a new family for herself is just powerful and touching. I finished it in a single day.
- The Class of ’65: A Student, a Divided Town and the Long Road to Forgiveness by Jim Auchmutey – 2 stars
This is a fascinating story of racism in the south that’s ultimately incomplete. It tells the story of the Christian community, Koinonia, and the end of segregation at Americus High School in Georgia. It focuses on white student Greg Wittkamper as he struggles with the fallout of Koinonia’s support of the civil rights movement. It’s a powerful story. But it’s only a road to forgiveness for the white community. Spoiler Alert: While Greg gets an apology from the students who persecuted him, the black students don’t. This fact comes up in the epilogue, almost as an after thought. It might be a story of forgiveness, but it’s only partial forgiveness and definitely not a story of racial reconciliation.
- Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon – 3 stars
A modern re-telling of Robin Hood (with technology!) that’s the start of an on-going series. I read it aloud to the kids and really liked the opening, but it never seemed to settle into a rhythm. It left a lot to be solved in future chapters, which left my kids annoyed.
- Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans – 4 stars
I can’t get enough of books where they explore what they hate about church and what they love about church. Lots of good stuff to underline and helpful thoughts on faith.
- The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by TaNehisi Coates – 3 stars
This is TaNehisi’s memoir of growing up in Baltimore. It’s interesting for context and understanding an urban perspective, but I didn’t find it incredibly engaging.
- Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars
I’ve read this one before and re-read it to the kids. The poetry style was interesting to read out loud, and I think the kids enjoyed it, though not as much as I did.
- Every Day by David Levithan – 5 stars
I re-read this one in anticipation of the companion novel, and it was just as good and unique as when I first read it.
- Another Day by David Levithan – 3 stars
This is a companion novel to Every Day, written from the perspective of the girl who befriends A in their various forms. I thought it would be just as unique and fun as the original, but it felt very much like a redo. Reading Every Day immediately beforehand was probably a mistake, but even still it didn’t feel like it added much to the story.
- I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch – 3 stars
An interesting story about the ongoing pen-pal relationship between Caitlin from the U.S. and Martin from Zimbabwe. What’s perhaps most engaging is how their interaction has to deal with all the disparities of poverty and wealth.
- Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer by Una LaMarche – 4 stars
A collection of essays about being a neurotic woman with a unabrow, I guess? It was just a funny look at growing up as a female in America, from adolescence to motherhood.
- Armada by Ernest Cline – 4 stars
I’m not sure he could possibly follow up Ready Player One with anything that didn’t feel like a let down. Armada is no Ready Player One. Expect that going in. But it’s still a fun space yarn, focused on video games and lots and lots of sci-fi references.
- Don’t Fail Me Now by Una LaMarche – 4stars
What starts off as a poor urban teenager story—mom arrested for drugs, kids on the verge of being put in protective care, disinterested relatives, absent father—turns into a pretty engaging story of long-lost siblings meeting for the first time in a cross-country roadtrip to visit the dying father who walked out on both families. Complicated family tree? Yep.
- Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes – 4 stars
A quick graphic novel that teaches introductory coding concepts. I was curious how they would pull that off and they did it pretty well. The only downside is that it’s over quickly and the next edition doesn’t come out for nine months.
- The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy – 4 stars
A post-apocalyptic tale in the not-too distant future with a little bit of the fantastic (explained scientifically through mutation). It’s a good read and pretty gripping.
- The End of All Things by John Scalzi – 4 Stars
A continuation of the Old Man’s War saga, told in the episodic formula Scalzi used for The Human Division, which makes the storytelling feel a little disjointed. It also helps to remember what happened in the previous installments. But it’s still quick action and lots of fun.
- Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon – 3 stars
A teen with SCID (people are so allergic to the world they have to live in a bubble) falls in love. This story had a lot going for it, but it started to fall apart for me when the disease kept Madeline from living her life. Her mother seemed to protective and (SPOILER ALERT), that’s how it turned out. Her mom had actually made up the diagnosis as a way to protect her daughter after losing her husband and son. That feels disingenuous to me—almost a mockery of this rare illness.
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Vol. 1 by Ryan North & Erica Henderson – 4 stars
Such a fun comic book about a girl with the proportional strength of a squirrel. What does that mean? I don’t know, but it’s funny and ridiculous and lots of fun. I passed this one around with the kids.
- Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona – 4 stars
The ground-breaking story of the first Muslim superhero. Kamala Khan gets polymorphic powers after encountering a weird mist and it’s a pretty fun opening chapter.
- Ms. Marvel Vol 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona & Jacob Wyatt – 4 stars
The continuing story of Ms. Marvel, which gives us some wonderful fan moments with an appearance from Wolverine. She also gets a sidekick—a giant dog, Lockjaw, with teleporting powers. She also finally takes on a villain and sees it through to the end. Lots of fun.
- Star Wars Vol. 1: Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron, John Cassady & Laura Martin – 3 stars
The Star Wars comics return to Marvel (hmm… wonder how that worked out) and this story takes place after A New Hope and before Empire Strikes Back. It feels a little disjointed, though I think that’s because it’s also paired with a Darth Vader comic series that tells his side of the story. There’s a confrontation between Luke and Vader that feels a little odd. It also underscores what I always considered to be goofy—Kenobi hides baby Luke from Dad Vader by putting him with his Uncle & Aunt, but neglects to change his last name.
- Ms. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed by G. Willow Wilson – 4 stars
Another installment of Ms. Marvel and more guest stars. Loki makes an appearance and we get Colson and Jemma from Shield. This continues to be a fun story to follow and is slowly pulling me into the comic book world.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – 4 stars
With the ongoing racial tensions in the U.S. and a book that squarely addresses them with such poignancy, it’s no surprise that this award-winning book is topping everyone’s list. But it’s also not an easy book to read. It’s intense and meaty and wordy. It drips with great literary passages, but also deep concepts that can be difficult to wrap your head around. I’ve heard it’s a book you need to read, discuss, process, then read again, discuss again, process again, read some more, discuss some more, etc. After only one reading, I feel like I barely scratched the surface—almost as if I didn’t read it at all. I’ll be coming back to this one.
- The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – 3 stars
The story of a woman who spent her life posing as a Catholic priest on an Ojibwe reservation. It’s engaging in that it’s telling a story over a lifetime, with all the interconnected threads. But it also dragged and I had a hard time finishing.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – 3 stars
I knew nothing about this classic and finally got to it thanks to a book club. It’s a powerfully feminist story for being written in the 1930s. It had some radical ideas for the time about race, culture and gender roles. The dialect is a little hard to get through and I found the first third or so kind of slow. The last third really picked up and felt a lot more engaging.
- You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day – 4 stars
I really enjoyed this memoir from a quirky and fun Internet star. Felicia Day has had some minor TV roles, but she’s best known for creating The Guild and co-starring in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Her writing is funny and surprising, full of wit and self-deprecation. It was just a fun autobiography until the last third when she opens up about how her neurotic personality and need to succeed was ruining her life. She also addresses the #GamerGate controversy—something I was aware of but only on the periphery. In general, it feels like more of the horrifying backlash of white males crying “All Lives Matter” and supporting the barely veiled racism of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—only worse (if that’s possible). For all the joy and wonder the Internet enables, it’s depressing to see destructive people come and crap all over everything. Those two issues end up being less than a quarter of the book, but in some ways it feels like they out-weigh Felicia’s larger message of embracing your weird.
- Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou – 4 stars
This picks up after I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and continues Maya Angelou’s story, this time covering her late teens. It’s essentially a series of disasters as she jumps from one job to the next, always trying to establish herself and take care of her son, only to fall for some sort of scam. A few of those difficult situations involve setting up her own brothel and working as a prostitute, both of which came up around Angelou’s death in a sort of mini controversy (which can be summed up in, “Gasp, Maya Angelou did bad things, why are we celebrating her life?”). Overall it’s a quick read and very engaging, despite what feels like a lack of a story arc.
- The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – 5 stars
This was simply a delightful story. That sounds like something a middle-aged woman would say, but honestly it was a wonderful story. It’s about a bookstore owner who is in a very dark place and then his life slowly begins to turn around. It’s got all these inter-connected characters and happenings, there’s a framing device of referencing short stories and it’s just a great book. I do think it starts a little slow, so give it a little time. But once it gets going it really hooks you.
- The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina – 4 stars
This is kind of an odd and unique YA, far-future post-apocalyptic/dystopian story about a group of children with odd powers that are deemed illegals. A group of them escapes society and lives on their own, and we follow Ashala as she’s captured by the government. It’s full of twists and turns that are honestly hard to follow (I just kept reading until it made sense, and it did eventually get there), but it was ultimately a fun little adventure.
- We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo – 4 stars
This is the story of a girl growing up in Zimbabwe through the tumult of the land uprisings and eventually goes to live with her aunt in America. In terms of plot, that’s about it. I generally don’t like books with so little plot, but it’s well written and keeps moving, which makes it pretty engaging. Ultimately it’s more of a perspective or a window into a worldview than a specific story.
- Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead – 3 stars
This story of a naming consultant coming to settle a dispute over a town’s name is interesting, but ultimately left me unsatisfied. It’s a little too literary and full of itself, trying to make such grand sweeping statements about names and what they’re hiding, without just telling a good story. The writing and talk of naming ideas was pretty great though. Whitehead has a way with words.
- The Toymaker’s Apprentice by Sherri L. Smith – 4 stars
This retelling of the Nutcracker is full of wonder and a gothic sensibility with the nearly mad villain mice. It’s a fun, magical story and really displays the breadth of Smith’s writing.
- The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera – 3 stars
The is the novel that inspired the award-winning movie of the same name, and while it’s the same transcendent story, it just didn’t grab me the same way the movie did. I think it’s because the main character Kahu feels flat. She has this incredible story of effectively being the fabled chosen one, but she’s rejected by her grandfather and village chief because she’s a girl. But she doesn’t seem to care and loves her grandfather anyway. The story feels much deeper than the movie on the mythology side, but character wise it falls short.
- The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour – 4 stars
This is basically the story of a girl defying cultural expectations and pursing her dreams. What makes it so intriguing is those cultural expectations are from Saudi Arabia. Wadjda lives amid the extremely strict and confining rules of Saudi cultural and religious life. The story flaunts those rules and in some ways left me wondering how critical the author wanted to be of her homeland. Also intriguing is that the book first appeared as a movie, Wadjda, before being turned into a book. Rarely seems to happen that way and now I’m curious to watch the movie and see which one tells the story better.
- Kanan: The Last Padawan by Greg Weisman, Pepe Larraz & David Curiel – 3 stars
This comic book collection tells the back story of one of the stars of the Star Wars Rebels series, Kanan Jarrus. Not having seen any of the Rebels series didn’t impact my enjoyment of the story at all. It’s framed to connect with Rebels, but it’s almost entirely back story with no knowledge of the series needed. It tells the story of a Padawan who escapes the execution of Emperor’s Order 66 and has to find a way to survive in the galaxy. It’s pretty well done and a nice background piece in the Star Wars universe. Though these kind of stories always make me wonder about the “That boy is our only hope,” line in the original series. In the movies we quickly learn, “No, there is another,” and stories like this always feel like another, “Oh wait, we missed this guy too.”
- March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell – 4 stars
Congressman John Lewis has been a powerful voice in the civil rights movement for 50 years. This is a graphic novel re-telling of his story. This first chapter talks about how he grew up and his first major civil rights work doing lunch counter protests in 1960. It’s framed around the first inauguration of Barack Obama, which nicely roots it in history and gives a perspective of how much things have changed.
- Saga Volume 1 by Brian Vaughn & Fiona Staples – 3 stars
Graphic novel series that’s sort of a Romeo and Juliet had a baby type thing, as two opposing soldiers fall in love and have a baby, then do whatever they can to protect said baby. It felt a little random to me in the way the plot sped forward and I had my usual frustration with fantasy where the available power seemed to fit the needs of the plot. I don’t know if it gripped me enough to check out the rest of the series.
- Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed – 4 stars
A magical/fantasy adventure romp set in the Islamic world. It follows an aging gaul (demon) fighter and his young forked-sword-wielding apprentice and the girl who turns into a lion as they battle a new evil intent on destroying the world. It has great action and pacing. My only complaint was that the middle seemed to slip into too much of a lull before the climactic battle.
- Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley & M. Goodwin – 4 stars
Quick graphic novel about a princess who saves herself. It’s funny and trying to up-end the standard princess schtick.
- Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale by Joss Whedon, Chris Samnee, Dave Stewart, Steve Morris & Zack Whedon – 3 stars
One of the most intriguing and unsolved mysteries of the Firefly TV series was the background of Shepherd Book. He was this fascinating religious monk or missionary who also had specialized military knowledge. This comic collection tells the story with an interesting reverse narrative, but ultimately the mystery was more intriguing.
- Ms. Marvel, Volume 4: Last Days by G. Willow Wilson by Adrian Alphona – 4 stars
The end of the universe and hanging out with her namesake, Captain Marvel. This comic book continues to be just plain fun.
- Shooting Kabul by N. H. Senzai – 3 stars
This is the story of a family escaping the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and their youngest daughter gets left behind. The son is wracked with guilt and tries to enter a photo contest so he can use the grand prize to return to Afghanistan and find his sister. It’s a compelling setup and does a good job of showing Afghani culture, but the story felt too bumpy for me.
- The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick – 4 stars
The most striking thing about Matthew Quick’s writing is that he does character and voice extremely well. This story is told from the perspective of someone with some kind of mental delay who is struggling with his mother’s death and processing by writing letters to Richard Gere. It moves along at kind of an odd pace and the characters are just more and more bizarre (a priest who defrocks himself, a cat-lover with Tourette’s and a girl who works at the library that gets nicknamed the “Girlbrarian”). It’s weird. Definitely weird. But I enjoyed it.
- Blankets by Craig Thompson – 4 stars
This graphic novel memoir about being raised in Christian fundamentalism and then falling in love and struggling to grow up is an incredible piece of work. I think it hits a little too close to home for me. He really nails that late high school/college-age time when you’re wrestling with what life is all about. Bonus points for the Petra references. (Something about it bothered me though, which is what keeps me from giving it 5 stars. Maybe it’s the ending or I just need to read it again and soak in it some more. I do tend to read graphic novels too fast.)
- Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey From the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games by Lopez Lomong with Mark Tabb – 4 stars
I’ve read a number of stories about the Lost Boys of Sudan and the incredible trials they’ve faced. This one focuses on Lopez’s joy of running and the way he sets and achieves his goals. It’s inspiring. But perhaps what was most engaging about this story was feeling the incredible distance between Sudan and America and watching one man stuck in the middle trying to bridge that gap. Bringing a few boys to America doesn’t solve the refugee crisis or even address what created those refugees in the first place. This really isn’t the focus of the book or something it tries to solve (though his foundation is addressing this), but it’s the primary question I walked away with.
- Serenity: Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon & Georges Jeanty – 4 stars
Whenever a comic book takes up the story of a beloved movie or TV series it’s usually a letdown. I never cared for the comic book reincarnation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the post-Firefly comics. They never seemed grand enough or would just descend into the weird. But this tale picks up after the Serenity movie and reads like an excellent sequel. They’re mourning the loss of Wash while taking on a new grand adventure. I looked into these comic books when they first came out, but the serial nature would have driven me nuts. Reading them as one trade collection is pretty great. There are plenty of nods to the TV series and tributes to Wash. So good. If only someone would make this movie.
- The Marvels by Brian Selznick – 3 stars
Selznick’s stories are always a wonder—a great combination of illustration and written story. Though this one is much more divided—you get 400 pages of illustration, followed by 200 pages of written text. His stories also often have a remarkable twist, which I don’t always find easy to swallow. Same with this story. It could have worked out, but I felt like there were too many stray threads. It’s a bold endeavor, but I think I wanted it to accomplish more.
- Back Channel by Stephen L. Carter – 4 stars
This is an imagined history of the Cuban Missile Crisis where a black college student serves as President John F. Kennedy’s back channel negotiator with the Russians, hidden behind a fake affair. It’s a real spy story that moves quickly and is very engaging. I don’t know the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis well enough to know how accurate it was (the author includes a detailed list of every fact he changed to fit his story), though it felt very real.
- All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely – 5 stars
This is a hard book to read. It’s the story of a black teenager assaulted by a white police officer. I read it the week of the no-indictment verdict in the Tamir Rice case, so it was very timely and fresh. The description of the incident—which started as a misunderstanding and overreaction, and then quickly escalated to excessive force—was hard to read. As these stories keep happening, it’s all-too real. But what sets this story apart is that it tells the perspective of the black boy who was beaten, but also another white teen who witnessed it. The white teen also knows the police officer involved, which creates this deep tension. As the school and community confront what happened, it becomes a powerful microcosm of the current debate about racism, protest, Black Lives Matter and police brutality. The story doesn’t offer easy answers or solutions—we never hear the resolution of the case.
- El Deafo by Cece Bell – 4 stars
A great little graphic novel memoir about a girl who becomes deaf and struggles to fit in at school. While much of the story is about dealing with being deaf, I think it’s more about making friends and fitting in and it presents the realities and complexities in a very approachable and honest way. And it does it with plenty of humor (some of it toilet-based).
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 4 stars
A tiny, little, very short book (less than 50 pages) that’s really a glorified essay. And not even that glorified. It’s based on a TED talk and pitches the idea that we should all be concerned about gender equality. It punches holes in all the ridiculous criticisms of feminism (it’s only for angry women who can’t keep a husband) and explains why we should all care about these issues. Good stuff. And tiny books are fun.