I finished 158 books in 2016. That’s about average for me.
Though I ran into a real slump this year. It probably sounds ridiculous to say I had a reading slump when I read 158 books in one year, but there it is.
Halfway through the year I had finished 104 books, so I definitely slowed down during the second half of the year. A few things happened:
- Pokemon Go. I hate to say a game stopped me from reading, but it did. Sort of. The game works best when you get outside and move, and it’s ideal to play while running. And it doesn’t work very well to listen to an audiobook while running and playing Pokemon Go. So I stopped listening to audiobooks. Haven’t finished one in months (and haven’t run in a while either).
- This fall I haven’t been consistently reading to the kids. We used to finish a book every week or two, but the last one we tried I think we quit.
- Slump. Then the real reason is that I just hit a slump. I couldn’t get interested in a book and took a long time to get through the ones I did like. I’m not sure what happened, if I was just in a mood or what, but my reading seriously slowed down. I’m not sure if I’m out of yet (I still haven’t been reading as voraciously), but the closest thing I have to a cure is finding books I love. Not just like or enjoy, but love. That means quitting books a lot more, which is something I still have to force myself to do. I’m getting better at it. Slowly.
I’ll share my favorite reads (fiction & nonfiction), trends and look at diversity in separate posts.
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.
You can also check out my previous reading lists: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002 and 2001.
- Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott – 4 stars
When Anne Lamott talks about writing, she often talks about magpies, of collecting scraps of this and bits of that, and weaving together a story. That’s what this book feels like, a collection of wonderful sayings and observations, all wrapped around a real story of teen angst and motherly depression. It reads a lot slower than I remember, but about halfway through it picks up momentum.
- March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell – 4 stars
The story of the civil rights movement from John Lewis’ perspective continues in this powerful graphic novel. This chapters focuses on the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. I’ve studied the civil rights movement before, but it’s just so eye-opening to keep engaging with it and realize the insane reality of what was happening.
- This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki – 4 stars
This is a quiet graphic novel about two pre-teens spending the summer at the cottage. There’s not a lot of action. It’s mainly watching two townie teenagers struggle with pregnancy and the main character’s parents struggle with their marriage. It’s quiet and foreboding, kind of like early adolescence.
- Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach – 3 stars
This is the beginning of a fast-paced, military sci-fi series that’s engaging and quick, if not entirely brilliant. I’m struggling between 3 and 4 stars here, but it just felt like it needed a little more magic to push it to four stars. Plus, it’s one of those annoying series where you don’t get a proper sense of closure in the first installment. I hate that. But good, fun action. For that reason alone I might read more in the series.
- Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash – 4 stars
The graphic memoir is apparently a thing, and this coming of age, awkward adolescent love story is an ideal glimpse into that time of hormones, uncertainty and trying to find yourself. Throw in same sex attraction and you’ve got a recipe for poignant and potentially depressing. I’m not sure why we’re always drawn back to these stories that so painfully remind us of adolescence—you’d think we’d want to forget. And it is a memoir, so don’t expect a storybook ending.
- The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and Caanan White – 4 stars
From the author of World War Z comes a graphic recounting of this heroic black regiment from World War I. While the illustrations are black and white, it’s still pretty gruesome. But the story is really solid, doing a good job of giving the social/political background where America was basically pathetically racist. This is a chapter of history we don’t hear much about and a story that, no matter how painful, we need to be telling.
- Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks – 3 stars
“It’s easy to lose your soul in high school.” More adolescent angst with this graphic novel about Maggie entering high school after being home schooled all her life. There’s a great dynamic with her three brothers and these punk friends she makes, but she’s also haunted by this ghost. Yeah, that should be a major plot point, but it’s sort of not and never really explained or resolved. The story would have been just fine with out it, so it felt kind of unnecessary and weird.
- See No Color by Shannon Gibney – 4 stars
This is the story of a transracial adoptee who has never actually heard those words. She’s 16 and a star baseball player, pushed by her former pro father. The book really bothered me because the parents are so clueless, speaking about race as if they’re colorblind (but saying things like “she’s not black, she’s mixed,” as if being black were a bad thing) and trying to avoid any discussion of her adoption. When the girl brings up her birth family, the adoptive parents are offended. It’s like a textbook example of what not to do. Ultimately it’s a powerful story of a girl coming to terms with her story.
- Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall – 2 stars
Ug. I never would have finished this book, but I was reading it to my kids and they loved it. The story just dragged and dragged, giving way too much unnecessary detail. At nearly 400 pages, it easily could have been cut by a third or half and been a much better story. It’s basically a group of kids evacuated to Mars because aliens are attacking earth, but then the adults in charge on Mars disappear and adventure ensues. Of course it took 140+ pages to even get to that point, so you can see how slow things moved.
- Truest by Jackie Lea Sommers – 3 stars
So my friend Addie Zierman described this book as, “the most deeply and poignantly Christian YA book I’ve ever read. The sweet and confused teenage characters drink, swear, and make all kinds of mistakes…but they are on a very real and honest spiritual quest.” So I had to give it a shot. It’s not a “Christian” book as Addie makes clear, but it does have Christian characters who ask questions about God and faith in a sincere way. It’s also a YA love story, with teenage characters doing stupid, irritating things because they’re teenage characters (Come on West, wake up and smell the cheater!). Sometimes that grates on me. But it did have a larger drama at play that really pulled you through to the end. It also played with words and poetry without being too over the top (came close). I’d probably give it 3.5 stars if I could. Plus, Minnesota FTW (both setting & author).
- When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over by Addie Zierman – 5 stars
I read this back in 2013 and loved it. Re-read it now and still love it. Maybe even more. Not only does Addie dissect a world that’s painfully too familiar and offer brave insights, but there are so many wonderful turns of phrase along the way.
- Just Write: Here’s How by Walter Dean Myers – 4 stars
This workhouse YA and middle grade writer has written more than 100 books in his life. He explains his love for reading and goes into practical detail about how to write. Most writing books I’ve read are full of flowery language and inspiration. Myers doesn’t waste much time trying to inspire you. He focuses on the practical realities of outlining a book and how to make it work. I don’t know if I’ve read a book on writing that’s so practical.
- Star Wars Darth Vader: Shadows and Secrets by Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca & Edgar Delgado – 2 stars
Volume two in the post-Episode IV, re-imagined Star Wars comic universe. There was a scene when Vader visits the burned out home of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru that had potential, but otherwise it’s not super intriguing. He throws his lightsaber to take out a Y-Wing—that was kind of cool.
- Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past by Diane Wilson – 5 stars
This is part memoir, part fiction about a woman exploring her family history and connection to the Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota. It goes back and forth between re-imaged history and her own search to uncover family roots. What’s fascinating is her family’s status as “half-breeds,” something that effectively ended with her mother (the author is one-eighth native). In 1862 the story centers on a full-blooded Dakota woman who married a French fur trader and finds herself taking refuge in Fort Ridgely while many of her family members are attacking the fort. For the authors mother, it meant growing up in a reservation school, being considered “white trash” and never quite fitting in with either side, white or native. The story culminates in a commemorative march, remembering the forced march of Dakota women, children and elders to the prison camp at Fort Snelling. This section especially hit home as I can picture the final bridge they crossed and path they took into Fort Snelling. It’s only a few miles from my house. (I’m giving it five stars because I found it so incredibly engaging and riveting—I read it one day. While I think it’s a great book, I think my geographic connection plays a big role in that.) Also, this book was recommended to me by the saleswoman at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, which is a testament to the power of the local bookstore.
- Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – 5 stars
The backstory of this novel is ridiculous. The novel probably wouldn’t exist without that backstory, which makes it important, but I don’t think you need to know it at all to enjoy the story. On the face of it, it’s a brilliant mirror of the Harry Potter series. It’s the story of a Chosen One wizard in his final year at a magic school, complete with a terrorizing villain, a wise hero, a classmate enemy, and on and on. But it’s different. It could never exist without Harry Potter, but it stands on its own. Wholly original and yet so completely derivative (sort of like The Force Awakens). Of course the secret is that’s what every story is. The backstory that’s so fun? These characters first appeared in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl as a wonderful Harry Potter-esque series that spawned the character Cath’s fan fiction. Carry On isn’t even that original series, it’s Rowell’s take on that series. She made up her own fictional series within a fictional story and then wrote her own fan fiction about it. What?! No matter. It’s awesome.
- Sweet, Hereafter by Angela Johnson – 2 stars
This is the third in a trilogy of loosely connected stories in a town called Heaven. They’re all short, quiet reads, though this one feels even shorter and quieter. I didn’t feel as pulled into this story as I did with the others.
- The Hole We’re In by Gabrielle Zevin – 3 stars
This started off as a darkly funny story of a family doing everything wrong and digging themselves deeper and deeper in debt. But about a hundred pages in it shifts to just being dark and just gets darker. Zevin’s wonderful writing is the only thing that kept me going.
- Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt – 4 stars
I’m a sucker for a good time traveler story and this one is pretty fun. They do the classic thing and visit every moment of historic significance possible. It’s mostly fun and light, and tends to avoid deeper moments. Or maybe chases them. There’s a scene where they visit the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and become more than observers. But they reason they go in the first place is quickly forgotten. This is a story that’s more about the time travel than the travelers involved.
- The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks – 2 stars
Ug. This was pretty great until the end. Spoiler alert: It sucks. No answers, no explanations, just death. The setup of a group of people kidnapped and forced to live in this underground bunker is just bizarre and intriguing enough to suck you in. But ultimately it leaves you without any answers, any resolution, any hope. An author shouldn’t set up those kinds of questions without offering an answer (and despair is not an answer worth my time).
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel You Know It’s True by Ryan North and Erica Henderson – 3 stars
More quirky adventures of Squirrel Girl, this time joined by Chipmunk Hunk, Koi Boy and Girl Squirrel. As a bonus, she single-handedly takes out Captain America, Spider-Man and Steve Rogers, then teams up with Thor and Odenson. Not as hilarious as the first volume, but still pretty good.
- The Last Chance Texaco by Brent Hartinger – 4 stars
A quick story about Lucy, a girl in the foster care system who comes to the last chance group home before being shipped off to an institution. Everything is stacked against her, but she has to find her place in the world. It turns into a mystery as cars in the neighborhood are being set on fire and the group home is blamed.
- Nimona by Noelle Stevenson – 5 stars
I read this last year (and called it one of my favorites) and wanted to revisit it already. Graphic novels work well for that. This is just such a creative, fun take on the classic villain/sidekick story.
- Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride – 3 stars
A story of black soldiers in World War II, struggling against a superior German force in a war-ravaged Italy. The story follows a kind of fantastic tale of an injured Italian boy and the soldier who saves him and gets lost in the process. It’s kind of rambling, but kept moving decently enough.
- Black Baby White Hands: A View From the Crib by Jayia John – 4 stars
This is the story of the first transracial adoption in New Mexico, told from the perspective of the black boy adopted by white parents. It’s primarily about the many transracial issues the author faced, growing up in a white family and community and always being different, yet also feeling alienated from the black community. It’s a pretty meaty read, full of story and I think it takes a little getting into (the beginning felt a little random, like you’re not sure how these threads are coming together, but eventually it does). This is a must-read for parents adopting transracially.
- Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber – 4 stars
Oh how I love Nadia’s words. So much grace and love and reality in these pages. But she’s also not some hippy-dippy, head-in-the-clouds freak. She’s a theologian. Just one who happens to swear on occasion.
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum – 4 stars
Originally published in 1997, this introduction to racial identity is still relevant and needed today. It explores concepts such as systemic racism and white privilege, and offers ideas and examples for how to constructively talk about race and racism. I should have read this book years ago.
- Junior Braves of the Apocalypse: Book 1: A Brave Is Brave by Greg Smith, Michael Tanner and Zach Lehner – 2 stars
A group of scouts goes camping in the woods and comes back to discover a zombie apocalypse. I don’t think it lived up to the potential.
- Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark by Addie Zierman – 5 stars
I like Addie’s books because they so clearly mirror my own journey. Night Driving takes up after she’s acquired the fire and then burned out—the story told in her debut When We Were On Fire. Now Addie is a mother to two small boys and still struggling with that impending sense of darkness that seems to loom largest in the midst of northern winters. So she makes a daring escape, hurtling south on an epically brave/foolish road trip from Minnesota to Florida. Her struggle feels familiar and comfortable when she doesn’t come up with easy answers. At times I think she’s a mess, and yet that’s exactly the point. Ironically, I don’t think it’s as strong as her debut, which seemed to flare up while this one is more of a slow burn. (I blogged about this book in more detail.)
- Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata – 3 stars
This is the story of a Japanese family in the early 1960s that moves to the Deep South and struggles. Told by the younger daughter, it rambles, much the way life does, and slowly builds to a climactic illness. I didn’t care much for the slow rambling—it was interesting, especially culturally. Reminded me of The Watsons Go to Birmingham. But the kids really liked it.
- Star Wars: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka – 4 stars
There’s so much hunger for Star Wars: The Force Awakens material, and this quick middle-grade chapter book delivers. It’s three separate short stories about what Finn, Rey and Poe were doing before The Force Awakens. There aren’t any major reveals or bombshells, though we do learn more about the relationship between the Republic, the Resistance and the First Order. The story of Finn is perhaps the weakest (too bad since it opens the book) and it’s hard to connect the Finn in this story with the Finn in the movie (though it does make his motivations in the movie more believable). The story of Rey is the best of the bunch. Poe’s is all the exciting spacefighter action we didn’t quite get in The Force Awakens. I tend not to expect much from these stories since you know where they start and end—they can’t break the mold or tell anything earth-shattering. But I enjoyed this—especially seeing Rey the scavenger in action.
- Soppy: A Love Story by Philippa Rice – 5 stars
What’s not to like about this cute little love story? It’s a graphic novel (graphic comic?) and doesn’t really go anywhere plot-wise, but it’s just the ridiculously adorable things couples do together. If you’re part of a couple, you’ll likely recognize yourself in many of the tender moments. So good.
- Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston – 2 stars
A geek girl discovers herself in performance art over a transformative summer. Felt a little flat and quick.
- Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older – 4 stars
Quick paced, gritty “spectral noir” story with plenty of action. I don’t usually care for ghost stories, but this one had a strong voice and moved quickly. Good stuff. I’ll be checking out the rest of the series.
- The Dakota War of 1862: Minnesota’s Other Civil War by Kenneth Carley – 3 stars
A quick overview of the Dakota Uprising, it felt reasonably balanced considering it was written in 1976. It did feel like it glossed over the forced march of the peaceful Dakota who surrendered and were imprisoned at Fort Snelling, many of whom died during the winter of 1863. But it does give a good general overview of the conflict and the various skirmishes and conflicts.
- Good As Lily by Derek Kirk Kim & Jesse Hamm – 2 stars
Interesting setup: A teenager is visited by a 6-, 29- and 70-year-old versions of herself. But the execution is just weird and slow.
- Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles – 5 stars
This atheist, liberal, gay journalist comes to Christianity drawn to the sharing of food in communion. There’s a section in the beginning that’s a little slow, where Sara describes her many years gallivanting through war zones. It’s as if she’s trying to establish her liberal street cred, but it gets boring. I mean, it’s great that you were pregnant and hiding in an alley in the middle of a shootout between revolutionaries, but I want to hear more about your fights with the outreach committee at your Episcopal church. Oddly, I’m not exaggerating. She starts a food pantry and struggles with “normal” Christians who aren’t comfortable with all the poor people flooding their congregation. It’s a powerful example of church finally breaking through and being the church.
- Midnight Taxi Tango by Daniel Jose Older – 4 stars
The second installment in the Bone Street Rumba series, more fast-paced “spectral noir.” This time the bad guys are creepy people made up of villainous cockroaches, like the bug man from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
- The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander – 4 stars
This is the lovely story of a husband dying too young. After escaping war in Eritrea, Ficre makes his way to America and lives life to the fullest as a painter, chef, husband and father. He dies suddenly at 50. His wife, Elizabeth, tells the story like poetry—light phrases and glimpses and moments. Even though it’s a story of death, it’s somehow light, yet deep at the same time.
- My Country ‘Tis of Thee by Keith Ellison – 3 stars
The memoir of America’s first Muslim Congressman and Minnesota’s first non-white Congressman. I’m usually not into political memoirs, but this was pretty interesting. He grew up in Detroit and moved to Minnesota for college, like I did (well, Detroit suburbs) and it was kind of fun to see a little inside Minnesota politics.
- Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton – 4 stars
A poignant collection of incredibly diverse people (I mean, wow, lots of weirdos!). I think it worked best when the captions let the people speak for themselves, as opposed to the author trying to be clever.
- If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For by Jamie Tworkowski – 2 stars
The founder of To Write Love On Her Arms collects some of his blog posts into a single book. It’s engaging, but feels very much like a collection of blog posts, some a little too vague and not much of an over-arching story. After the first third it got a little dry. Love the organization and the message though.
- Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro – 3 stars
This is kind of a hard memoir. Dani has dropped out of college to be the arm candy of her former best friend’s sleazy father, when her parents get in a horrific car accident. She’s a complete mess, but it’s a moment where her life changes course. It’s hard to read because she’s not very sympathetic, but it is well-written and gripping in a way.
- The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman – 2 stars
I probably should have quit this book sooner. The writing had a certain quality that kept pulling me back when the story bored me. The characters were a fascinating mess that never felt very resolved. Probably not the book for me.
- The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta – 3 stars
A Minneapolis-based story about kids who start building robots and discover a secret in an abandoned building. It’s set up as this great robot-battle, but there’s not nearly enough battling robots for my taste. My kids really liked it, but I got bored early on.
- Out of Sorts: Making Peace With an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey – 3 stars
Early in the book she talks about theology being formed by autobiography, and how she loves to hear stories of faith. I think that’s what I was looking for more in this book—stories. It’s a lot of theology light (I don’t mean that in a demeaning way) or Christian living, that’s helpful and good; but I wanted more story.
- Frindle by Andrew Clements – 5 stars
What a great little story about words and authority. Nick makes up a new word—frindle—and gets his entire school using the word, to the consternation of his teacher. It’s a quick read and my kids loved it.
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – 4 stars
This story about the death of a teenage daughter in an interracial family could have been so depressing. But I think it was ultimately hopeful. The family’s daily life was marked by silence, expectation and solitude. This is the story of how they finally recognized their own failure. So it is dark, but I didn’t think it ended in despair. The writing is also sparse and wonderful, full of lots of details and a plot that keeps moving. It says exactly what it needs to say and no more, which made for a quick read.
- Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace by Patricia Raybon & Alana Raybon – 3 stars
A Christian mother and her Muslim daughter dialogue about their divisions over religion. It’s a little frustrating because they’re reflecting back and forth, sharing some of their conversation but mostly their reactions and insights. It’s an important conversation to have and it’s powerful how it disrupted their family and allowing for dialogue has brought them together, but as a reading experience it felt a little lacking.
- Sunrise at Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers – 2 stars
Walter Dean Myers has a trilogy of sorts of war stories, three vaguely interconnected tales about World War II, Vietnam and the Iraq War. This is the third one I read, and I’m disappointed. It’s very much in the same framework as Fallen Angels in that it gives a good glimpse at life in war, but it lacks an overriding plot. You’re kind of just along for the journey and it doesn’t feel like it has much of an arc. Things get more intense toward the end, but for most of the time you’re just bumping along from mission to mission. Starting with the invasion at Normandy, Invasion at least felt like it had more of an arc.
- Unnatural: Spiritual Resiliency in Queer Christian Women by Rachel Murr – 3 stars
This is a collection of stories about gay Christians, the negative voices they heard and the redemption they found. It’s pretty academic in the approach—she interviewed all participants and told their stories in a blended form through thematic chapters. But there’s still enough story—and the unifying center of the author’s story—to keep it from being too academic.
- Prayer: Forty Days of Practice by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson – 4 stars
This is a short book with illustrated, one-sentence prayers. There are some short essays interspersed, but it’s mainly the short prayers. It’s a great book to tackle one prayer per day, to really take your time with it. It’s not something you want to rush through.
- Big Machine by Victor LaValle – 3 stars
This is kind of a bizarre mystery, not unlike Lost. I liked the narrator, and that probably helped keep me engaged. As the story goes on, not a lot is explained and you’re kind of just along for the ride. By the end it felt a bit too fantastical for my taste.
- Habibi by Craig Thompson – 3 stars
A graphic novel larger than any Bible I’ve owned, this is an intricate tale of an orphaned girl turned prostitute and the slave boy she claimed for herself. It dives deep into Islam and the intricacy of language and pattern. It’s also a story about harems, slavery, eunuchs—so there’s lots of nudity and sex (it never felt inappropriate, but for a graphic novel it’s a little more in your face—and awkward if you’re reading in public). This is a masterwork of sorts, but it felt a little too much for me. I think the story got lost in all the spectacle.
- Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton – 4 stars
Such a great collection of photos, and this version has longer quotes/stories from each person, which makes it a lot more engaging.
- Star Wars Volume 2: Showdown on the Smuggler’s Moon by Jason Aaron, Stuart Immonen and Simone Bianchi – 3 stars
Back to more fun Star Wars comics. This one had a great tale about Obiwan Kenobi that makes me want to hunt down the Kenobi comics. It also hinted at lots of Jedi secrets, but then revealed next to nothing. Sometimes the Star Wars comics feel like a tease.
- Star Wars: Chewbacca by Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto – 3 stars
An entire comic featuring Chewbacca as the main character is pretty funny. Though I’m not sure they could sustain an entire series where you can’t understand the main character.
- Star Wars: Lando by Charles Soule, Alex Maleev and Paul Mounts – 3 stars
An entire series about Lando? OK, but only because he made a joke about the universe needing a place called “Lando Land.” It’s fun seeing him as a hustler, and again we get some great hints about Jedi and Sith lore, but mostly that’s a tease.
- The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare – 3 stars
This is an engaging 1700s survival story about a white boy learning from local natives, though the portrayal of the Native Americans feels stereotypical.
- Sidekicks by Dan Santat – 3 stars
A graphic novel story about superhero pets. It had it’s moments.
- Report From Planet Midnight by Nalo Hopkinson – 3 stars
This is a collection of two short stories, the transcript of a speech and an interview. The speech an interview were pretty fascinating, especially as she talked about racism in science fiction. In general, I’m not a fan of short stories, but the first story was pretty engaging, though it really left me wanting more. I didn’t care for the second.
- The Storyteller’s Beads by Jane Kurtz – 3 stars
A middle grade story of Ethiopian Jews escaping persecution and famine in 1980s Ethiopia. It’s kind of a downer story, though my kids liked it.
- Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – 3 stars
This is a densely written, intricate tale of a doctor growing up in Ethiopia and then coming to America. It’s really about the family relationships between Marion and his twin, his absent father and his adoptive parents. The story has some wonderful moments, but it also had a lot of dead spots. A lot of people love this book, but I think it could have been edited better.
- Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu – 4 stars
Inspired by the Duggars, this is the story of a teenage girl in an extremely conservative and protective family who decides to escape. It’s captures the quiverfull movement a little too well, but also does so with humanity and respect. It’s not some hit job, but a more powerful story about faith and choices.
- How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr – 4 stars
This adoption story follows a teenage mother and the family hoping to adopt her baby. Though there’s a wrinkle: the adoptive mother lost her husband in the last year and has a teenage daughter who’s not too sure about the adoption. They’re also not following standard adoption rules with lawyers and social workers, so it gets a little messy. But it fairly addresses the issues and concerns on all sides in adoption.
- Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton – 4 stars
Does money make you happy? It depends. The researchers look at the science, and it turns out our feelings are highly subjective. Making more money doesn’t necessarily make you more happy, though giving money away can. Buying experiences can make you more happy than objects. They offer a lot of unexpected insights about how to spend your money in this short, very readable book. (I wrote a series for iThemes based on this book.)
- Seveneves by Neal Stephenson – 4 stars
The moon is broken up by an unexplained force, and what starts as historical curiosity, turns into the end of life on earth. Fragments of the moon will eventually rain down on the earth, killing everything and giving humanity less than two years to do something. Thus begins a herculean effort to build a space habitat where humanity can survive—and we’re treated to 550 pages of tense, nail-biting action (with lots of detailed, technical explanation that you put up with because the action keeps going). Then (and this is where I’m probably getting into spoiler territory, so SPOILER ALERT), when survival is assured, the story jumps ahead 5,000 years. That’s a tricky thing to do, and it nearly ruined the novel. We get 150 pages of extremely technical explanation that’s not really necessary and very minimal plot. It’s hard to make it through that section. Finally, the plot picks up again and we follow the action between competing spacer survivors and previously unknown groups of humans who managed to survive on (or rather, under) the surface. It’s quite a yarn, though the ending felt like a bit of a let down. For all the explanation we get about surviving in space, we hear next to nothing about surviving under the surface, and the way it was ignored bothered me (clearly that was on purpose, but I think it could have been hidden better). I was also mildly annoyed that for all the space travel detail, next to nothing was said about the complete impossibility of a renegade group that broke away to colonize Mars (and presumably died—they’re never heard from again). To give so much technical detail in some places and absolutely none in others is a bit bizarre. I’m also not sure I buy seven new races (the title: Seven Eves) that 5,000 years later have remained completely distinct. At any rate, it’s a good read. I have a lot to say and I’m critical about it because it’s good, but could have been better.
- In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III – 4 stars
I’m surprised I enjoyed this as much as I did—there’s not much to it. It’s barely a story. A grandfather takes his son on a journey across the prairie, following the life of Crazy Horse. But it’s somehow captivating in its simplicity.
- The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae – 3 stars
Interesting perspective and stories, though I really didn’t find it as hilarious as the cover promised.
- To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson – 3 stars
This is the second book following the antics of Jackson Greene. While it’s a fun, quick read, it’s also a little hard to follow. The twists and turns get complicated and sometimes they’re not explained to be dramatic and sometimes they are explained and they’re too confusing.
- On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson – 3 stars
I don’t know what to make of this one. Everybody loves it, but I’m not feeling it so much. The title and the first few chapters try to have this jokey, funny approach, but then that quickly goes away and it becomes a regular adventure/fantasy romp. Which is fine, but it feels like it’s lacking purpose. Lots of adventure and action, but for what purpose? I felt like there were too many loose threads and not enough focus. In The Lord of the Rings you know Frodo has to take the one ring to the fires of Mount Doom. It seems like an impossible task and they have to go through all of Middle Earth to get there, but you know the ultimate goal. Here I felt like we had no goal. We jump from one predicament to the next, without knowing why we’re going through it all. My kids loved it though, so we’ll probably read the rest of the series.
- Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan – 4 stars
A mystical and musical story that intertwines multiple threads around a magical harmonica. Yeah, that sounds a bit weird, but it’s wonderful. It has an overarching story that bookends three separate but connected stories. My only complaint was how frustrated each story made me as we dealt with fascism, issues of loss and neglect surrounding orphans and racism and nationalism around the Japanese intern camps in the U.S. during World War II. The injustice seemed to keep piling up, but we hadn’t yet heard the final song. To really do the story right, you need to listen to the audio book.
- The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston – 3 stars
This YA story about modern dragon slayers was intriguing. It proposed an alternate reality where dragons were drawn to carbon emissions, threatening humanity. It’s told from the perspective of a dragon slayer’s bard, a fellow teen who writes music and tells his story. It has an interesting pacing that’s quiet but slowly urgent. I wasn’t blown away but it, but it was intriguing.
- Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars
Just a simple, powerful story of three brothers who have lost their parents and are struggling to get by. It has a powerful voice, which really makes the story, and otherwise it’s just simple. No driving plot or complicated anything, just struggling kids. Good stuff.
- Endangered by Lamar Giles – 4 stars
Quick thriller about teen bullying, revenge and blackmail. It moves quickly and doesn’t bog down in details.
- Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin – 4 stars
It’s not very often a book can take the most cliche setup of 1980s TV—amnesia—and make it interesting. A teenager hits her head and loses four years of her memory. It’s engaging to watch a teen deal with that setup. Good stuff.
- The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks – 3 stars
A graphic novel about two teens on opposite sides of an occupying force in an ancient city. It’s quick and engaging, but I wasn’t blown away.
- Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson – 4 stars
A work of alternate history that assumes John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was successful and launched an abolitionist war for independence. There are some fascinating ideas here, but it reads like a 200-page short story. There’s a lot left out and I never quite connected to the main characters that framed the story. But the ideas are something. The story includes an alternate world within this alternate world where John Brown failed and we get a world much like the reality we know today. The story has nothing but contempt for that vision, which is striking and fitting in an African-led new American nation.
- Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff – 5 stars
This is the wonderfully heart-breaking story of a foster kid bouncing from family to family and reflecting on the perfect family she left behind. She likes to draw and is immensely talented, which gives the book a helpful lens. It’s entirely too romantic a story (the kind that makes people think fostering is easy), but it’s still wonderful.
- Copper Sun by Sharon Draper – 5 stars
I couldn’t sleep last night, so I picked up this book. I was maybe 15 pages in. I read the entire thing (300 pages) before going to sleep. I want to say it’s “just” a slave story, starting with abduction in Africa through whipping in America—meaning it’s hardly original. But it was so powerful. The story is sparse and quick, giving enough detail to be brutally honest but also told with enough care and nuance to make it more than guilt. I’ll be honest: it’s hard to read about slavery. But we need to. So much rhetoric crumbles in the face of these stories. So we must endure and share them. (This book seems especially ripe for book club or classroom discussions. It would be a powerful companion to a history lesson.)
- Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick – 4 stars
Good stuff. I really like the unique voice Matthew Quick brings to his characters. It really helps you engage, especially in this case with a mentally challenged guy who’s not very likable on the surface. But the voice makes him likable. That’s why I couldn’t even get through the movie.
- My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind and Doubt Freed My Soul by Amir Ahmad Nasr – 3 stars
A memoir from a Sudanese Muslim who became a vocal blogger and began to question his faith. It’s a fascinating exploration of faith, Islam and the current age. But it also gets bogged down in unimportant details. It’s a helpful glimpse into the Muslim mind, but it wasn’t as engaging as I’d hoped.
- A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park – 3 stars
A quick, engaging story about an orphaned boy in 12th century Korea and the master potter he starts working with. I liked the simplicity of it, though I don’t think my kids found it as engaging.
- The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth – 4 stars
Powerful story of a teen girl who loses her parents and explores her sexuality. Her religious aunt eventually discovers that she’s gay and sends her to a Christian anti-gay “re-education” camp. It’s pretty horrible that these organizations exist, and it’s heart-breaking watching her go through this struggle.
- Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher – 4 stars
I had a vague idea that Carrie Fisher—Star Wars’ Princess Leia—had a rough life, plagued with drug and alcohol abuse. But I had no idea. Born into Hollywood royalty, her story is just bizarre. All the substance abuse covered up a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. What’s hopeful though is that she seems to be getting her life under control. She has a dry, brutal wit and unloads a number of zingers in this quick memoir. Don’t read it for the Star Wars references (only a few), read it for that dry wit.
- Orphan Train by Christian Baker Kline – 4 stars
In the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s, orphans were collected in the East, put on trains and sent to the “frontier” of Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas. The children would be lined up and potential parents would take their pick. In some case (many cases?) these arrangements were little better than indentured servitude. These were the orphan trains. This story veers back and forth between a modern girl struggling in the foster care system and a girl 70 years earlier packed on an orphan train. The rejection and emotional abuse is stunning. In both eras.
- The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich – 3 stars
This is the second story in the Birchbark House series. What’s interesting about these books is that they’re just a chronicle of life as it happens, with the larger forces of life happening more in the background. As such, it’s harder to be completely engaged. It’s a fascinating picture of native life, but the overarching narrative is lacking.
- Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres – 4 stars
I read this story with a morbid fascination. It’s not a happy read. Abusive parents, racism, rape, more rape, emotional abuse, religious stupidity. It’s really the story of a white girl and her adopted black brother trying to survive their parents’ Christian zeal. The abuse and hypocrisy is just astounding. It’s really heartbreaking and not the kind of story you can gushingly recommend, though it is powerful. (I debated giving this 5 stars, and might still revise my rating).
- Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew G.I. Hart – 4 stars
This is a challenging book that cuts to the heart of racism in America. It’s based on the idea that racism is not a matter of a lack of shared perspective (i.e., we simply don’t understand one another), but a problem of imbalanced hierarchy. In other words, it’s a problem of systemic advantage. That’s not any easy word for white Americans to hear, but I think Drew Hart makes a strong case based on a thorough understanding of Jesus’ embrace of the marginalized. This is a book churches need to read and Christians need to embrace. (My review for Church Marketing Sucks)
- It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort – 4 stars
This is the scattered memoir of the woman her married her boyfriend when he was diagnosed with brain cancer, they decided to have a baby together, then within six weeks she lost her father, husband and miscarried a second baby. Nora knows tragedy. She’s also hilarious. The book is raw and funny and shocking and all the things you want in a book about cancer. It’s only weakness is that it feels like a collection of essays and not a continuous book—from the scattershot way she tells her story to the way she repeats certain descriptions or funny lines, you get the impression that this originated as separate essays or blog posts. That’s OK, it is what it is, but just be clear that it’s not a front-to-back, chronological story with no repetition. And when you go through as much shit as she did, you can write your memoir the way you want.
- The Impostor’s Daughter: A True Memoir by Laurie Sandell – 2 stars
Meh. A graphic novel memoir about a woman’s scam artist father and how it messed her up.
- Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella – 5 stars
What a fun book. Quick profiles from a diverse range of strong, powerful women. Lots of folks here I didn’t know (which isn’t saying much) and some great stories.
- The Wild Robot by Peter Brown – 4 stars
A gentle story of a robot on an uninhabited island who adopts a baby goose and learns how to get along with the other animals.
- Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich – 4 stars
A travel memoir about canoeing among the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota and Ontario. Author and bookstore owner Louise Erdrich explores her Ojibwe past and love of books. There’s not a lot plot-wise, but it still manages to be engaging.
- Reflections From the Riverfront: Essays on Life in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area by Tim Spitzack – 3 stars
This is a collection of essays that originally appeared in the local Voice newspaper reflecting on the unit of the National Park Service in the Twin Cities. I worked for MNRRA for a summer, so this was close to home. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s simply about noticing and appreciating the nature around us.
- Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher – 2 stars
I enjoyed Carrie Fisher’s first memoir, Wishful Drinking, for its randomness and quirky lines. This one was even more random and less quirky. Mostly it was weird stories with famous people: Ted Kennedy, Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.
- After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars
A story about a trio of teen girls dealing with urban themes of imprisoned family members and foster care, bookended with the story of Tupac.
- Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northop – 4 stars
A powerful slave narrative about a free man in New York who is abducted and forced into slavery in Louisiana. He recounts the daily brutality and travails of life in slavery.
- The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks – 2 stars
I really struggled with this book. My daughter’s teacher read it to her class and she loved it, insisting I read it to her and her brother. We had a lot of conversations about the portrayal of the Native American. I was initially put off when Omri kept referring to the Indian as his, but that attitude changed over the course of the book and was very much the point. All in all, the magical story feels overshadowed by the many issues the story raised. I talked more with my kids about the practice of scalping than about toys coming to life.
- Roots by Alex Haley – 5 stars
The remake of the TV miniseries prompted my interest in the book. I wouldn’t have considered reading it, but a friend recommended the book over the series and I’ve had a renewed interest in stories of slavery (thanks to Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun). This is the story of an American family, from the African kidnapped and sold into slavery to his descendant, the man who wrote the book. More than half the book follows Kunta Kinte, from birth to the selling of his daughter. That break in the narrative is a little jarring, but from there it becomes more of a generational saga. It reminds me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, only more engaging and readable. While the narrative of each individual is strong and unique (each characters is their own person, fleshed out so superbly), I think the real strength of the story is in the overall history. This is the story of America, one we often shy away from. It might have been stronger to see the detailed narrative continue through the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement, but it is what it is. The ending, focusing on how Alex Haley pulled the story together, also feels like a bit of a pittering out. After 850 pages I would have preferred a more traditional ending, and left that stuff for an afterword. But it does cap a powerful story about how American came to be what it is today.
- How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle – 3 stars
A ghost story of sorts about the Trail of Tears. It’s a quick read, and kind of a morose tail, but it feels like it should be part of a larger tale.
- Freeman by Leonard Pitts Jr. – 5 stars
This story follows three threads in post-Civil War America. We get Sam Freeman, an escaped slave who has been living free in the North, Tilda, his estranged wife, who has been kept in slavery in Mississippi, and Prudence, a rich white woman from Boston who decides to venture to the South to set up a school for freed slaves. It really digs into the reality of the post-war days, from Northerners angry about emancipation to the Southern resolve to fight freedom for blacks for “one hundred years, if necessary,” which obviously came to pass. It’s full of intriguing ideas, from the paternalistic Northerner to the cowed slave to the educated black man. The story also builds and gains momentum, really sucking you in. I listened to the audiobook and I honestly couldn’t listen fast enough.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster – 3 stars
I got the audiobook to listen to with the kids during a trip. It’s over-dramatic and over-written, which is saying something considering it’s Star Wars. The real advantage to reading it was a few extra scenes and comments that didn’t make it into the movie. In many cases lines from the movie appeared verbatim, but in most cases there was an extra phrase or sentence that added some context, but didn’t really help. There were extra scenes, including an unnecessary opening with Leia, an explanation of how Poe was rescued on Jakku, a scene where Chewbacca rips off Ungar Plutt’s arm (giving the movie it’s requisite arm/hand-removal scene), Kylo Ren inspecting the Millennium Falcon, the snowspeeder chase and a scene at the end where Hux rescues Kylo Ren. There were three other differences that I found significant. First, we get more explanation in Rey’s force vision. Specifically, it sounds like a woman is leaving Rey behind and promising to return. Second, we’re clearly told that Kylo Ren knows Rey. At one point when he realizes the extent of Rey’s power with the force, he says, “So it is you.” Many have theorized that Rey was a very young Jedi in training, who was hidden away, escaping Kylo Ren’s attack on Luke’s Jedi academy. This seems to give that credence. Finally, the most significant difference is in the final duel when Rey has struck down Kylo Ren. In the movie, a gulf immediately appears between her and Ren and she has no opportunity to strike a final death blow. In the book, she has an opportunity and considers it. In that moment, she hears the voice of Supreme Leader Snoke telling her to kill Ren. She recognizes it as the voice of the dark side, and refuses to give in. She steps away, and then the gulf between the two appears. Clearly that’s not cannon given how the movie went, but it seems like a significant moment. For other theorists out there, the book also plays up a romance angle between Finn and Rey more than the movie does. These extra moments might be interesting for the fanatics out there (like me), but all in all it’s not the greatest book.
- We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge – 3 stars
A black family moves into a sketchy institute to raise a chimp as one of their own. It’s an exploration of our subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism and our inability to talk about it. It’s also pretty weird.
- As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds – 4 stars
After a string of YA releases, Jason Reynolds turn to middle grade with a gentler story about two brothers spending a month with their grandparents in the country. The story isn’t fast-paced or exciting, but it moves along thanks to Reynolds’ brisk writing style. The main character, Genie, is anxious and full of questions and learns a lot from his blind grandfather. It’s a good family story.
- Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Seghor – 3 stars
A low-level drug dealer and murderer finds redemption and transformation after a decade in jail. He recounts his life on the streets and his struggles to survive in jail. It’s a powerful story and shows the many failings of our prison system and the sucking depths of the urban drug cartel. While his transformation is inspiring, it felt like a story with nowhere to go.
- Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff – 3 stars
A Victorian caper where an unstoppable woman fighter gets in and out of scrapes, recruiting a Turkish Lieutenant as some comic relief. It’s wacky and fun, but feels lacking in an overall purpose. All the zany fun doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.
- Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman – 4 stars
A fun superhero and villain story, full of cliche and spoof. While I enjoyed how the story came together, some of the narration felt a little off, like I didn’t always understand exactly what was happening. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about it felt a little off. But overall it’s a fun caper.
- All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin – 4 stars
A future YA love story involving a crime family, the DA’s son and illegal chocolate. It’s an interesting setting and a fun little fling. I’m not sure if I’m hooked enough to read the whole series.
- Booked by Kwame Alexander – 4 stars
The depth and detail packed into this story told in poetry is impressive. It’s about a soccer phenom struggling through his parents’ separation, dealing with bullies, his word addict father and a crush. It’s a quick read and engaging too.
- Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia – 3 stars
The third book in the Gaither Sisters series (started with One Crazy Summer), this continues the late 1960s glimpse of life in the black community, this time in the deep south. These stories kind of plod along and give us wonderful little glimpses, and by far the best part is the interactions between the sisters, but the over-arching plot always seems minimal.
- The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich – 4 stars
After reading Indian in the Cupboard, I wanted to read my kids a more realistic portrayal of Native Americans. I’ve read it before, but it was fun to read it the kids. There’s a moment when Omakayas learns more about her past that was rather poignant. It was fun to watch the gears click in their heads when I read that part.
- Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass – 4 stars
A great story centered around the total solar eclipse. It’s told from three different perspectives, which gets a little confusing, but mostly it holds together well. Learning about the eclipse has inspired me to check out the next total solar eclipse to hit the U.S. in 2017.
- Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor – 4 stars
The story of an Episcopal priest who leaves the ministry after 20 years, but not her faith. It’s a fascinating portrait of life inside the church and many of our hangups and problems.
- Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst – 3 stars
A fun little book about a terrible girl who goes in search of a brontosaurus as a pet. Milo wanted to do book club with me, so this was our first book club book. It was quick and fun, a good early chapter book.
- The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks – 4 stars
A fun comic about a, well, superhero girl. It’s not quite a spoof and it’s not a comic book (more of a strip), but it’s fun and witty. What more do you need?
- Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate – 5 stars
A wonderful story of a boy whose family is struggling and on the verge of homelessness. The boy is obsessed with facts and science, but starts to see his old imaginary friend, Crenshaw. It was a great book to read aloud to the kids.
- If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan – 4 stars
This is the heart-wrenching story of two teenage girls in love in Iran, where homosexuality is a crime. The parents of one girl arrange her marriage to a wealthy doctor and the other scrambles to hold on to love. It’s a powerful glimpse into a culture we don’t always hear about and a conflict often ignored.
- Perdition by Ann Aguirre – 4 stars
The setting alone is intriguing: Sentenced to life on a prison ship locked in orbit, the inmates descend into tribal factions much like Lord of the Flies. But then we get a new prisoner with mysterious powers, just as the Queen Dredd’s territory comes under attack. It’s bloody and full of action—a fun ride.
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – 4 stars
This is a grand, sweeping narrative about slavery that spans two continents and eight generations. It’s a multi-generational tale like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Roots, though it keeps jumping back and forth between Africans who stayed in Africa as slavetraders, and Africans who were enslaved and sent to America. Since we follow two sides of the family line through eight generations (16 characters?!), there are a lot of characters to follow. It’s an enjoyable book to read and the writing is good, but I don’t think Gyasi quite overcame that challenge. But still, I haven’t read a book that spans the transatlantic slave trade quite like this.
- EllRay Jakes Is Not Chicken by Sally Warner – 3 stars
Book club with Milo continues. These short, beginner chapter books are always iffy. I’ve read from this series before and it’s decent. This one started off with the typical bully story, though it did get a little more interesting and wasn’t completely cliche.
- Sees Behind Trees by Michael Dorris – 3 stars
A quick read about a Native American boy with really bad eyesight. In modern times he’d probably be considered legally blind. The descriptions and ways he compensates with his hearing is interesting, but the overall story is a little odd.
- The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo – 4 stars
Re-read this classic to the kids. Milo cried at the end and Lexi said, “Meh.”
- Ms. Marvel Vol. 5: Super Famous by G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona, Nico Leon
I really enjoyed the latest trade paperback in the Ms. Marvel series. It feels like the story has really come into its own, not over-reaching with gigantic storylines, but just telling simple stories really well. There’s nothing over-the-top amazing about it, but it’s probably one of my favorites in the series so far.
- I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin – 3 stars
This is an interesting story about a dictatorship in Chile and a young girl living in exile in the U.S. before returning to her country. It’s great to get a glimpse of life in Chile and to hear this exile and return story. But it drags. I read this for book club with Lexi and she loved it, but it took me forever to get through it.
- Bird Box by Josh Malerman – 3 stars
A bizarre post-apocalypse horror/thriller story where some unexplained creature appears causing people to go crazy and kill each other. The only way to avoid going mad was to keep your eyes closed. It made for a tense story, though I never felt like it did anything that unique.
- Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool – 4 stars
An interesting story about a girl in Southeastern Kansas, exploring a town’s history and her own history jumping back and forth between 1936 and 1918. It feels very timely given the themes of immigrants.
- Grant Park by Leonard Pitts Jr. – 4 stars
A gripping thriller about a plot to kill Barack Obama on election night in Grant Park in 2008. The story flips back and forth between 1968 and the Memphis riots and 2008 and the plot by white supremacists. It’s a powerful mix of issues and there were several conversations in the book that really gave clarity on racial issues.
- Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Vol. 1: BFF by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare and Natacha Bustos – 4 stars
This is a reboot of a classic (and kind of bizarre) Marvel concept, but it’s actually pretty fun. Lunella is this genius girl and it’s fun watching her use “brains over brawn.” It’s also fun watching her tell off the Hulk.
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – 3 stars
I struggle with what to think about this book. It’s kind of weirdly sci-fi, but that part of it really sneaks up on you. For much of the book it felt a little too disjointed. It all comes together pretty well in the end, but that made for a less enjoyable reading experience.
- The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm – 3 stars
I think I was expecting something more serious from this book (not sure why), and it’s definitely not. It’s off kilter and goofy, but not quite what I was looking for. A good read and definitely feels unique, tackling an issue like growing up in a unique way.
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan – 3 stars
A story about a mysterious bookstore, a secret society and using cutting edge programming to solve puzzles should be more engaging. The story had real moments, but also fell flat in a number of ways. The technology bits felt watered down (or maybe I read too much Cory Doctorow and Neal Stephenson) and the actual puzzle felt glossed over (as if the author was intentionally vague so as not to have to create a difficult puzzle). It had its moments, but it could have been so much more.
- Autobiography of a Family Photo by Jacqueline Woodson – 2 stars
This is an early novel for adults from the master of YA and kids books. It’s definitely dark and dreary, full of sexual abuse and poverty. It has much of Woodson’s characteristic poetic writing (though it’s straight prose), but it’s still rather depressing. I can see why it was hard to find.
- Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker by Megan McDonald – 3 stars
I’m not a big fan of these early reader chapter books, but Milo and I read it for book club together. He thought it was hilarious and loved it. I tolerated it.
- Bird by Crystal Chan – 4 stars
This is a really interesting book. Lexi and I read it for book club and it’s been on my list for a while. It’s a very real and honest book. It’s full of difficult topics and hard truths. Honestly, it’s kind of a weird book. It starts by saying the grandfather killed the brother. Then you learn that the grandfather has stopped talking, the dad believes in duppies—which the mom thinks is ridiculous—the daughter feels ignored and a new friend shows up who is adopted and not very happy about it. The adults in the book are far from perfect and the story honestly addresses real issues.
- Blood Hollow by William Kent Krueger – 3 stars
I enjoy working through this mystery series, but as the fourth book it feels like we’re getting a little ridiculous. Too much horrible stuff happens to Cork and his family, and the mystery is getting a little too cloudy.
- Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters – 4 stars
This is a fascinating thriller set in a world where the Civil War never happened and slavery continues to be legal in four states. Victor is a bounty hunter, tracking down escaped slaves who try to flee with the help of the Underground Airlines, the modern version of the Underground Railroad. It’s full of twists and the brutality of slavery and the ongoing sting of racism.
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – 4 stars
This is an interesting fable of a story where the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad under the ground, yet it’s also brutally real. It follows Cora as she escapes slavery and encounters different worlds that are just as cruel. It’s definitely a thinking book, but also moves along with a lot happening.
- Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson – 3 stars
A few weeks back I read Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel, which was published 20-some years ago, so it was fresh as I approached her latest work and second novel for adults. It’s surprising how similar the two stories felt. Both are told in a first-person perspective, follow young teens in 1970s Brooklyn and read more like memoirs than novels. Another Brooklyn was engaging and quick, but I think it lacked some of the immediacy of Woodson’s more poetic stories.
- A Girl Named Mister by Nikki Grimes – 3 stars
A quick story written in free verse (though I listened to the audiobook) about a teen who gets pregnant. What makes the story interesting is the way it weaves in the story of Mary and parallels the two girls’ stories. It does dive into a lot of religious issues and finds grace and forgiveness in teen pregnancy, though it also feels a little simplistic (there’s more focus on pregnancy and the resulting fallout than any focus on dealing with sex, lust, safe sex, etc.).
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – 3 stars
This has been on our shelf as one of our favorite books and I finally got around to reading it. It’s beautifully written with these poignant vignettes of Francie’s coming of age in Brooklyn. It doesn’t have a driving plot, which makes it a bit of a slow read. It took me a while to get through it and I didn’t like the lack of adventure, but it does have its own charm. I can see why some people love it.
- Ghost by Jason Reynolds – 4 stars
I’m continually amazed at how fast Jason Reynolds keeps cranking out books. And they’re good. This is a quick story of a kid in a tough family life finding his place on a track team. As usual, the voice is phenomenal.
- Unicorns vs. Goblins: Another Phoebe and Her Unicorn Adventure by Dana Simpson – 4 stars
Another great chapter in this cartoon series. It still reminds me of Calvin & Hobbes in so many great ways.
- Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo – 3 stars
I might have been in a bad mood when I listened to this one, because I usually love Kate DiCamillo’s stuff. While the characters are great, in that devastating Kate DiCamillo way, the plot felt like one of those bumpy rides where we seem to careen along for no reason.
- Charisma by Steven Barnes – 4 stars
This was a fascinating, slow burn thriller. At 450 pages maybe a little too slow (it took me a while to finish), but the story of engineering low income youth tapped into a lot of intriguing and timely themes.
- Brothers of the Buffalo: A Novel of the Red River War by Joseph Bruchac – 4 stars
A back and forth perspective on the Indian wars of the 1870s as told by a black U.S. cavalryman and a Cheyenne warrior. I’ve read very few accounts that have such respect for native cultures. It’s refreshing to get a wild west story that’s a little more accurate.
- The Phoenix on Barkley Street by Zetta Elliott – 3 stars
This is a quick story about bullies and a magical phoenix. I read it to the kids and they really enjoyed it.
- Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer – 3 stars
The premise of this story is that high school seniors start spontaneously combusting. Weird, right? Yeah, SPOILER ALERT, but the story kind of falls apart from there. It’s quirky and weird, and I did keep reading it, but it wasn’t very satisfying. The main character goes on a depressing streak toward the end and there’s never any explanation. Bleh.
- Star Wars: Vader Down Vol. 1 by Jason Aaron, Mike Deodato Jr., Laura Martin & Mark Brooks – 3 stars
The only redeeming thing about this comic collection is evil C3PO. I don’t know what his name actually is, but he wants to torture and murder everyone and it’s really kind of funny. But Vader is comic book ridiculous, taking on squadrons of troopers by himself, neigh invulnerable.
- Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes – 5 stars
This is effectively a self-help book. But it comes from the mind behind ABC’s Thursday night line up: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice and How to Get Away With Murder. Rhimes is a gladiator, so it’s wonderful to peel back the layers and see her struggles and how she overcomes them. Maybe I just really needed this book, but I loved it. (I wrote a series for iThemes based on this book.)
- A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover From Great Success by Tracy Kidder – 2 stars
This is the story of tech guru Paul English, founder of Kayak.com, and how he dealt with his incredible wealth. At least that’s how it was billed. Maybe a quarter of the book deals with how Paul gives away his money and supports great causes. But most of the book is a detailed biography of how Paul thinks and how he dealt with his various diagnoses. It’s beautifully written, which is why I bothered finishing, but it didn’t live up to the billing.
- Sold Into Egypt by Madeleine L’Engle – 3 stars
This is partially a retelling of the story of Joseph and partially a memoir. L’Engle’s thoughtful, wandering discourse is good, but I never found myself sucked in. If I wasn’t reading it for book club, I probably would have given up.
- Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King – 4 stars
This one is weird. The main character, 16-year-old Sarah, is going through some kind of existential crisis and seems to be crazy. She keeps running into different versions of herself—a 10-year-old Sarah, a 23-year-old Sarah, etc. But as we dig into the story, it’s more about her family’s deep problems. The story was a little hard to get into at first (is this real? dream? manic episode?), but it sucked me in despite the weirdness.
- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – 4 stars
Nnedi Okorafor’s sci-fi work is always so different and fascinating. She weaves together tribal stories from Namibia with futuristic tech and aliens, and the result is fascinating. It’s really a glorified short story, but it was a happy find.
- Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith – 4 stars
This noir-mystery, Veronica Mars-lite YA story is quick and engaging. It further cements Smith’s genre-hopping skills.
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – 5 stars
I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately and haven’t read a lot of fiction that felt consuming. Until this one. It’s a weird fantasy story in an alternate earth rocked by constant seismic activity that threatens all life, except for a group of oppressed people who have the power to control these quakes (see? Weird). I generally don’t like these kind of fantasy stories where things aren’t explained and you kind of just have to ride it out and sort it out as you go. But something about Jemisin’s writing just sucked me in and carried me along. It felt effortless and wonderful. I can’t wait to read the next chapter in the trilogy.
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now by Ryan North and Erica Henderson – 4 stars
This series is so fun. And this time we get time travel. What’s not to like?
- The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin – 4 stars
Usually I don’t make it all the way through fantasy trilogies. I stall out after the first or second one, and often I don’t even get that far. I usually don’t like fantasy when things aren’t explained, and there’s a lot not explained in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. But I still like it. This one wasn’t quite as gripping as the opener, but it still pulled me along, even when some things weren’t entirely clear. Good stuff.
- Because They Marched: The People’s Campaign for Voting Rights That Changed America by Russell Freedman – 4 stars
I received this book as a Christmas present and started reading through it almost immediately, but I had to put it down because it made me so angry. The violence and hatred that plagued America in the 1960s is just mind-boggling. And it’s equally frustrating that we continue to struggle with racism today. Many of the criticisms and arguments are achingly familiar, many of them used today and hurled at modern movements like Black Lives Matter. Sometimes I think we sanitize the civil rights movement, that we all look back with nostalgia that our country overcame. But we forget the sacrifice it required, the bravery of people who stood up and risked everything simply for the right to vote. We forget that the hatred on display in the 1960s didn’t magically go away.