End your year with a good book! Here are our staff’s top three books of 2018. Happy reading!
Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield
The Thames River is the setting for this fairy tale mystery. A girl is found in the river. Is she the girl who disappeared three years ago, or is she the girl whose mother reportedly drowned her in the river? Is she someone else entirely? Her story is intertwined with the stories of an odd set of characters straight out of a fairy tale. This book captivated me from the first page. It cast a spell over me, just as the strange girl seemed to cast a spell over many of the folk who encountered her. I didn’t want the story to end, and I hope that Diane Setterfield will weave more stories along the Thames with these characters.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
The Overstory by Richard Powers was the most unusual book I read this year, and it has bubbled up in my consciousness many times since I finished it. The novel takes several seemingly unconnected storylines and reveals how the life of each character has been touched or altered by the presence of trees. I enjoyed the stories, and how they came to be woven together. I learned more about trees than I ever imagined I could learn through a novel. In the end, this novel is a love song to trees, and to the lost ancient forests of the earth. I will never look at a tree the same way again.
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
The Cruel Prince is the first in a planned trilogy by YA author Holly Black. A human girl and her twin sister are stolen away to grow up in the home of the man who killed their parents. Black creates a beautiful and terrible Faerie world populated with immortal creatures that thrive on intrigue and treachery. The girls attend school with the children of Faerie royalty, and much like high school in the human world, they have to deal with taunts and ridicule, as well as unexplained kindnesses and secret attraction. Jude is a formidable main character, striving to achieve power in this foreign world by her own means, and risking everything for it. I was so surprised when the girls, with their Faerie half-sister, ride out across the ocean and come ashore at Two Lights, then travel overland to hang out at the Maine Mall!
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who is “unstuck in time”. Throughout the story, Billy relives moments of his life—the present time with his wife and kids, his time as a chaplain’s assistant in World War II, his experiences during the Dresden bombing of 1945, and his experiences with aliens on the planet Tralfamadore. In the absurd structure of Billy’s narrative, Vonnegut explores the unbearable weight and the devastating effects of war. As one would expect with a Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse-Five is witty, satirical, and filled with black humor. While Vonnegut’s novel serves as a criticism on war, Slaughterhouse-Five deftly explores how order and meaning is found in an otherwise incomprehensible world. There is hope, and as the Tralfamadorians like to say, “So it goes.”
America Is In the Heart by Carlos Bulosan
Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiography chronicles the struggles of Filipino immigrants in America during the 1930s. Bulosan explores the lives of Philippine peasants and farmworkers. He describes in heartbreaking detail the harsh realities confronted by those Filipinos who emigrated to America, seeking a better life. America Is in the Heart’s narrative is simple and accessible with an encompassing emotional depth which one can easily relate to. Despite the terrible experiences of migrant workers, Bulosan remains faithful to the America he idealizes—a country that promises opportunity for all, regardless of the color of one’s skin. America Is in the Heart’s message remains relevant, even today.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Dark, unsettling, and suspenseful—Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca, has all the characteristics of a good thriller. The story is told from the perspective of a young unnamed narrator, who becomes the second wife of the wealthy and the dashing Maxim de Winter, owner of the lavish and beautiful, Manderley. The newly married Mrs. de Winter is dreamy, extremely romantic, and terribly shy. Her insecurities are further exacerbated by the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. She obsesses and fantasizes about Rebecca—who she was, what she did, and how she acted. Du Maurier’s writing is dreamlike and brooding, creating a setting that one can easily get lost in. We feel the darkness and the menace that makes Rebecca very compelling. Much like its affect on du Maurier’s unnamed narrator, Rebecca will haunt its readers and leave them breathless.
Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo
Jo Nesbo’s stand-alone novella, Blood On Snow, tells the story of Olav, a hired-killer whose ability to love elicits a great deal of empathy from the reader without resorting to tired, cliched, stereotypes. The atmosphere and images are dark, gritty, and engrossing, as one would expect when reading noir fiction. The writing is sparse and eloquent. What becomes of Olav and the heart-wrenching ending compensates for the novel’s tendency to be predictable. It is important to note that Blood On Snow is not, in any way, a Harry Hole novel. It is vastly different in both style and tone. Take it for what it is. Blood On Snow is a good, fast-paced thriller.
My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci
Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, is a story of two people searching for identity, love, and a sense of belonging. The book has two narrators, a mother and a son (Emine and Bekim) . Bekim’s struggle lies within his sexuality and the fact that he is a refugee who grew up in Finland. While Emine’s struggle lies within her culture’s lifelong traditions. As a young girl, Emine is aware that her marriage will be arranged and that her life will be shaped by it. Statovci writes with conviction and with brevity. My Cat Yugoslavia is a beautiful allegorical tale of immigrants living on the fringes of society, not knowing where they fit or what will become of them.
Confessions by Kanae Minato
Vengeance is the main theme of Kanae Minato’s debut novel, Confessions. Yuko Moriguchi’s daughter has been murdered. Police have ruled it was an accident. When Moriguchi decides to investigate, she discovers the murderers were two of her students. On her last day of work as a teacher, she decides to seek vengeance. With the story’s alternating perspectives, Minato delves deeply into the lives of characters who are each affected by the murder. Told in a sparse and direct manner, with unexpected twists, Confessions is a fast-paced and clever psychological thriller.
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Caramelo is about three generations of a Mexican-American family. The novel resounds with history, family and love. The colorful tapestry of many voices is woven together through the caramelo rebozo, or shawl, which has been passed down through generations of Reyes women. Every summer Celaya Reyes and her family journey from Chicago to Mexico City to visit the awful grandmother. Along the way, Celaya absorbs the stories of her family. The delightful descriptions of her family are so evocative, the characters became real, and I felt as though I was in the car with them, bouncing along the highway to the other side.
Seaweed Chronicles by Susan Hand Shetterly
Seaweed Chronicles is a beautiful contemplation of seaweed and evocation of the Maine coastline, intertwining a rich pallet of stories of people from Maine coastal communities, depicting the interconnectedness of all things, and the interactions of seemingly disparate ecosystems. It is an important look at how our exploitation of marine resources has put our coastline and our world in danger. Seaweed is passionately depicted as vital both ecologically and economically. Everything we take from our environment has to be balanced against sustainability and the future health of our planet. Now walking along a beach, I keep a special eye open for seaweed, looking upon it with greater understanding and a deeper gratitude for its beauty and importance in Nature’s cycle. I am in awe.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Unsheltered tells the story of two families from two centuries both living at the same small- town street intersection. Both are living during times of seismic societal and environmental change. Both live their lives by following the rules and trying to build a solid foundation for their own lives and their children’s. The foundations of their lives are crumbling at the same time the foundations of their houses are. They become unsheltered both physically and metaphorically. I felt drawn into the lives of the characters and found myself contemplating my own shelter, its place on the street, in the city, on the planet; its past and tenuous future in my care. I wonder about the previous owner, her history and the history of our house. Then I wonder about the future – the house’s future, my family’s future, the planet’s future.
Baby Teeth by Donny Cates
This ongoing comic series is about a teen, Sadie, who gives birth to a child who is far from normal. The baby, who she names Clark, won’t drink milk, but does love a bloody snack. The blood, though, has to be from one of his relatives. If that wasn’t bad enough, an assassin shows up and tries to kill Clark, because he thinks Clark is the antichrist. It only gets weirder from there. Featuring inter-dimensional portals, demon raccoons, secret societies, and a whole lot of other terrifying things, this is a non-stop horror adventure, and I loved every minute of it.
Game On! by Dustin Hansen
I grew up playing Mario and Duck Hunt on the original Nintendo, followed by Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo, Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis, Mario Party on the Nintendo Gamecube, and the list goes on and on…. This book provided me a lovely trip down memory lane. It takes the reader through the history of video games starting with Pong. Each section contains images from the games being discussed, a history of the game, information about the game play, and other interesting tidbits. This was a fun and informative read for anyone who likes video games.
Illegal by Eoin Colfer
This beautifully illustrated and poignant graphic novel explores the plight of refugees and undocumented immigrants around the world. Young Ebo has been left on his own. His older brother has left Africa to try and find his sister in Europe. Now Ebo wants to try and follow him. In order to do so, he first needs to find enough money to get to the city, and then find a way to get on a boat. In order to get to Europe they have to endure an incredibly hot hike across a desert with no food, as well as survive an overcrowded boat that eventually springs a leak. While the story itself is fictional, thinking about all the people that live through similar experiences is heartbreaking and eye opening.
Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver
I find words and nature to be the two greatest sources of healing, yet words often fail to adequately wrap their forms around our landscapes. Mary Oliver has been rising to this challenge for decades, carving words into the earth without marring it. Devotions, a hefty volume of new and selected poems, celebrates Oliver’s songs of nature and the self. Written between 1963 and 2015, Devotions serves as an assurance that in our post-industrial and contentious age, being human does not mean we cannot love the limbs of trees as though they are our own, nor does inherent sadness mean that we cannot face life with uncontrolled joy. Oliver reiterates throughout her verse that attention to the details of our natural surroundings is a balm and salvation.
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Twenty-three years after the publication of her well-loved novel, Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman has followed up with a prequel that can be enjoyed by both new and familiar readers. This time we visit the Owen sisters and their brother growing up in New York City at mid-century, decades before they become the elderly aunts of Practical Magic. The novel traces through the literal landscape of the 50s and 60s while simultaneously flirting with the fantastic, in what has become Hoffman’s signature synthesis of the earthy and the occult. The Owens siblings contend with the power of prophecy and the titular rules of magic while navigating the very human terrain of attempting to love and come into one’s own being. Hoffman is not the first writer to explore through narrative the question of whether, we would follow love despite knowing that it would bring agony to ourselves and others, but she finds lyrical, entertaining, and magical ways to explore these themes.
The Flourishing of Floralie Laurel by Fiadhnait Moser
Moser’s debut novel strikes the balance that often characterizes middle grade readers, encapsulating both the gravity and lightness that reflect the vicissitudes of real life. In 1920s England, young Floralie Laurel finds a letter from her missing mother and, with the use of a flower dictionary, deciphers the hidden meaning which aids her quest to rebuild her family. Part mystery, part ode to all things botanical, this magical realist tale takes Floralie on an adventure that leads her to make alliances with a gardener, a librarian, and a mute poet as she seeks to find her mother and fill in the holes in her own story. The integration of floriography, mental illness, and the challenges of artistry allow for new perspectives within classic parameters of orphanages and adolescent journeys.
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I’m Sad by Michael Ian Black
I really enjoyed this picture book by comedian/children’s book author Michael Ian Black. It’s about a flamingo who is feeling sad. Flamingo’s friends, a potato and a little girl, try to cheer him up, but sometimes Flamingo is just feeling sad and that’s the way it is. The illustrations by Debbie Ridpath Ohi are simple, yet hilarious and you can’t help but laugh at some of the things the potato says. It’s nice to read a children’s book that says it’s okay to be sad.
Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa
The main character of this book is a teenage half-human/half-Kitsune (a magical creature that can turn into a fox and likes to play tricks) girl named Yumeko. She is an orphan who was raised by monks at the Silent Winds Temple. When an Oni (a giant ogre) and his army of demons attack the temple, Yumeko is sent on a mission to stop an ancient dragon from being summoned. This was a fast-paced and interesting book and I can’t wait for the next in the series!
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
I picked up the first Binti book because it had won both the Hugo (2016) and Nebula Awards (2015) and I love good science fiction. The Himba people in Nigeria tend to remain in their homeland for their entire lives, but Binti is offered a full scholarship to Oomza University, the best school in the literal galaxy. She decides to leave home and take her spot at the school. On the trip to Oomza University her ship is attacked by aliens called the Meduse. I recommend all three books in the series, but the first book really starts the series off with a bang!
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu
Amidst a market that is currently full of titles collecting the lives and accomplishments of amazing women throughout history (and rightfully so!), Brazen stands out. Even if you feel relatively well-versed in feminist history, you will learn new things and about new people from this book. The art is cute and clean and expressive without being overwhelming or cluttered. The diversity of characters from different cultures, races, identities, and backgrounds is excellent. The depth of information on the women Bagieu highlights is amazing, especially considering that each little mini-biography fits onto just a few pages.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
A futuristic sci-fi novel that takes place on a spaceship where human culture mimics the power dynamics of the antebellum south, An Unkindness of Ghosts is an amazing examination of race, power, and identity. The cast of characters will draw you in and create a resonant picture of what it means to be “othered” in a myriad of ways—through trauma, gender, race, perception, ability. The science of this world is well thought-out, and the plot will satisfy those who enjoy a vision of a world where the marginalized can push back against an oppressive society to create change.
Dreadnought by April Daniels
If you like superhero stories that don’t shy away from hard questions, then Dreadnought is for you. The book focuses on Danny, a transgender teenage girl who is transformed into the super powered hero Dreadnought when the previous Dreadnought passes the mantle on to her. The mantle’s transformation of Danny into her ideal self—a strong, powerful woman—is wonderful and life-changing…except for the fact that she is not out to her parents, who immediately want to change her back. Initially, I feared that this book’s apparent “magical girl transformation” transition story might serve to enforce any number of negative transmisogynistic stereotypes, but Daniels—a trans woman herself—has Danny deal with these issues thoroughly, and doesn’t shy away from the viciousness and terror that transphobia and hatred bring to Danny’s life. Danny is ultimately a victorious character, who revels in her freedom and power as the new Dreadnought and fights to find her place in the world. The super-powered fights and battle scenes are written in a way that make them exciting but also easy to follow, and the cast of characters and heroes will satisfy the cravings of Marvel fans in search of more stories.