Happy New Year! 2018 was a year of reading for sure! Last year, I kept almost perfect track of every book I read. Some of them I shared a bit about on Instagram or this blog, but I thought it would be the perfect time to share 18 brief book reviews for some of my favorites.
Most of them are middle grade/ young adult fiction. Not surprising, since I love to read from those genres. Without further ado, and in no particular chronological order, here are the reviews:
Middle Grade/Young Adult
Poppy by Avi: A young deermouse lives under the authoritarian rule of her father and the terror of Mr. Ocax, the owl. After her beloved Ragweed is eaten by Mr. Ocax, Poppy begins a journey to find a safer dwelling for her family. A tale of courage and wit, this is book 2 of a 6-book series and can stand on its own as well.
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson: Set in the 1970s, this story about Frannie records her school and home life and a growing self-awareness. The title is taken from ‘s poem of the same name about hope. Hope is exactly what Frannie seeks, while watching her brother Sean face disrespect for his deafness, her mother struggle with a pregnancy after miscarriage and loss, and school dynamics between queen bees and bullies. The class is unsure of the strange new student. Full of loving, realistic family dynamics, this book explores African-American life, biracialism, and discrimination. It’s a gentle, thoughtful and thought-provoking story.
The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman: Elizabeth begins a new high school and starts a job at a lending library, where she soon finds out about a mysterious collection with strange abilities. Someone with evil intent is out to get the collection. Can she and her new friends stop them in time? This book was fun to read and I enjoyed the unusual premise. Elizabeth’s gift for “smelling” magical objects was interesting. The antagonist was a bit two dimensional and I kind of rolled my eyes at yet another YA book with a romantic subplot. Seriously, it’s ok for not every protagonist in this genre to fall in love…overall, though, if you like fairy tales and fairy tale elements, mysteries, chases and a good dose of humor, you’ll enjoy this one.
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi: Aru Shah is a liar. She wants to fit in at her middle school. Her mom isn’t always there for her, and she so badly wants a friend. One day she releases a demon sent to awaken the god of death, and Aru Shah must embark on an epic quest where she will encounter gods and goddesses, beasts and strange houses (yes), and maybe even her own truth. This book was hilarious! It reminded me a lot of Rick Riordan’s books (he writes the intro to Aru Shah). Chokshi’s book is inspired by the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic poem. And also probably by middle school. I highly recommend!
If Wishes Were Horses by Anne McCaffrey: In this novella, Tizra is the teenage daughter of a magician who holds the village together under a nearby threat of war. While her village leader father is off fighting in battle, Tizra learns resourcefulness, leadership, and perseverance from her remarkable mother. Ok, so I liked some of the unusual things about this book. A mother, probably middle-aged, is the heroine of the story. Her magic is subtle and not the focal point, yet she is a powerful woman (total Enneagram 8, for all you personality type people like me): fearless, resourceful, and holding so much together, even when that means the entire village moves into your home and you have to clothe them in the dead of winter. I didn’t like how, even though it’s told from Tizra’s perspective, she seemed more like a means for the reader to see what was going on, rather than a three-dimensional character herself. Not fast-paced, but it stood out to me for it’s unique qualities.
Murder at Midnight by Avi: Young Fabrizio simply wants to be useful to his master, Magnus the Magician, but the grumpy old man complains about him more than he acknowledges his help. Though Magnus claims he is not truly a magician, as magic is outlawed in the city of Pergamontio, that does not keep him from getting caught in a political trap that may end in his death. Is magic truly involved? Fabrizio must find out to try and save his master before it is too late. This is a fun, fast-paced adventure-mystery.
Castle in the Air by Dianna Wynne Jones: The sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, this story follows Abdullah’s adventures that lead him from his home country of Rashpuht all the way to Ingary. He searches for his beloved princess, Flower-by-Night, encounters djinns, ruffians, cats, and more, as he is aided by a magical carpet. He is clever, and a bit of a romantic. If you liked HMC, read this. If you have or haven’t read any books by DWJ, read this. The foray into the desert country and Eastern-esque culture was delightful, and it’s full of twists and humor.
The House of Many Ways by Dianna Wynne Jones: The final book in the series also begins with a different protagonist. Set in Ingary, it follows Charmain Baker’s housesitting adventures. If the house bends space and time, one might have more of a challenge than usual. Like CITA, Howl and Sophie enter the scene towards the end, but by then I’d fallen in love with the new characters and it all blended together masterfully. (See above.) Of course, magical animals are present here too.
A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny: I couldn’t find Still Life, Penny’s first in her Inspector Gammache series, so settled on this one. The only way this may have been a problem was in Gammache’s character himself. He seemed like a man who has already overcome his demons, almost annoyingly perfect: he’s got a loving wife, successful kids, a top career, access to a secluded and beautiful bed and breakfast visited by the wealthy (and in this case, troubled). Other than that, Penny’s writing is more than enough to make me want to track down the first books. Wow. Her skill with creating characters you alternately want to slap and hug is remarkable. Everything is highly nuanced, and I’ve never read a mystery novel that almost felt like poetry in places.
Sovereign by C.J. Sansom: I’d read the first two in this series, Dissolution and Dark Fire, last year, and let me say, I am hooked. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer of Tudor London, finds himself heading to York ahead of King Henry VIII’s grand and expensive progress, where he will tend to legal matters. Naturally, a murder in York complicates issues, and political intrigue and danger ensue. I cannot express the skill and draw of Sansom’s writing. Not only does he make the period come alive in all its elaborate, fragrant, colorful detail, but he has created a multi-faceted protagonist that you can’t help but root for. Shardlake is often noted as melancholic and not without the faults that make a character seem real. He is also humane in a way that avoids feeling like the author took a 21st century character and put him in the 16th century. His personal suffering make him a sympathetic character. This book is paced so that I found it hard to put down! Sansom’s extensive research for the period that sent me on more than one Google search. I could talk a long time about this book, so consider this a recommendation.
The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry: This series opener begins with a killer terrorizing Cater Street in London, and Charlotte is caught up in it when a maid of her family household is found strangled. (Why ‘hangman’ is part of the title beats me, because even characters clarify that victims where not hanged but garroted. Shrug.) There is a lot of talk about the poor of London, but all the characters are middle class and up, so it felt like more telling than showing in this regard, though Perry did her research on the era. Still, I was mostly disappointed in this Victorian-era murder mystery/romance. Several characters, including Charlotte, made decisions that seemed very rushed and insincere. The whole ending was rushed and I would have loved to have read more about how everything wrapped up. The constable was pleasantly unusual and I thought Charlotte was enjoyably outgoing and flawed without being a pain, but sadly, I found the whole story lacking. But if you like Victorian society, light romance, and can overlook what appears to be an author’s rushed attempt to finish a book, you might like this one.
The Tale of Hilltop Farm by Susan Wittig Albert: Part of a series that fictionalizes Beatrix Potter’s life at Hilltop Farm, which she purchased in the Lake District, this book fits easily into the ‘cozy mystery’ genre. In other words, the plot is slower, the death is peripheral, and there is very little if any character development for anyone. Animal characters form a subplot, which could have been cute but felt kind of Meh. I wanted to like it more (Beatrix Potter! The Lake District!), but it felt like more of a waste of my time. Maybe some day if I’m sick in bed (ha), I’ll hunt down the next book. Maybe.
The River Bank by Kij Johnson: Five stars for this one! I mentioned it on my Instagram account. The sequel to Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows introduces new characters, specifically female mole novelist Beryl and her rather high-strung friend Rabbit. The two characters enter life on the river bank with all of its rhythms, surprises, and familiar characters. Johnson gently, masterfully allowing readers to questions assumptions about class, gender, and privilege. I’m glad I bought this one.
Thud! by Terry Pratchett: Part fantasy, part satire, this book is part of the extensive Disc World series. In a city nearing the anniversary of Koom Valley, an ambush of dwarves and trolls, a city inspector struggles to keep the peace. Then a ‘deepdowner’, a fundamentalist dwarf leader, is found dead, and his job gets that much harder, ending up in Room Valley itself. Pratchett is a genius with politics and humor. I laughed so much and found his parallels remarkable. For example, the deepdowners are dwarves that live so far below the city’s surface that they believe it does not exist, and they expect their females to dress as males. Any attempts to dress as female are punished at worst and frowned upon at best. Oh, and a board book plays a significant role. Just read it if you like good writing, satire, and/or fantasy.
The Round House by Louise Eldrich: I found this book through Kaitlin Curtice’s post of 25 books by Indigenous Authors You Should Be Reading ( a list I need to revisit). It’s about a young boy, Joe, who, after his mother’s attack in their Ojibwe reserve, goes looking for the perpetrator with his friends. Joe is a young teenager thrust into ugly realities, but he is all too familiar with life as a Native American in a country that wants to forget his ancestors’ ways of life and their own treatment of these people. Full of Ojibwe stories, sadness, humor, and pubescent sexuality, this is a masterful coming of age story. Eldrich is an excellent author and had me hooked even as the story genre isn’t one I would have picked up on my own.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clark: Wow, this book took all of six months for me to read! Clark writes brilliantly in the pastiche style, emulating the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The setting is an alternate British history during the Napoleonic wars and follows the reclusive magician, Mr. Norrell, and his brash, talented student, Jonathan Strange, their meeting, parting, and reuniting. Female, African-British, and poor characters are frequently silenced throughout the story, and by the protagonists. Arabella Strange, Lady Pole, Stephen Black, and Vinculus all have integral parts to play in the story, especially the ending. If you can plug away at a 1000 page book, love detailed footnotes and aren’t looking for a fast-paced action story, you’ll find this book hugely rewarding.
Fire and Hemlock by Dianna Wynne Jones: I know, I know-another DWJ. The only book of hers I’ve read set in the 1980’s, it is nevertheless a fantasy novel full of twists, humor, and details galore. The story is based on two Scottish poems, Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, and lines from one of these poems are quoted at the start of each chapter. I loved how those poems foretold elements of the story. It is confusing at times, one of those books in which you don’t catch everything in the first reading. Many consider it to be her masterpiece, and I can see why. Of all the novels I’ve read this year, this is one I’ll reread.
White Awake by Daniel Hill: Part personal journey, part informational, pastor Hill shares what it means to be white in America and how Christians can follow Christ out of blindness into awareness on the cultural identity journey. He shares seven stages on this journey: encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening, and active participation. Eye-opening for those of us just beginning to learn about our nation’s history of racism and white supremacy (like me), gracious towards everyone, I think this should be read by every church. I can’t do this book justice in a little paragraph. If you are white, please consider reading it.
The Other Side: Shorter Poems by Angela Johnson
Revelation by C.J. Sansom
Heartstone by C.J. Sansom
Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (reviewed here)
Westmark by Lloyd Alexander (reviewed here)