Diverse YA & MG reads from 2020

This story was published the week of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and I didn’t feel like writing or posting. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that this short list of books represents what America means to me. Immigrant stories, learning about racism and antiracism, overcoming defeat and achieving dreams. Maybe even more fitting, I’m typing all this while watching Inauguration Day coverage on TV. American flags, national anthems, feeling hopeful and optimistic.

For the past few years I have made a point of focusing my reading on books by women and POC. There are good stories that deserve to be told. I don’t want to get on a high horse around this. But I do believe it is important to walk the walk and talk the talk. If you don’t know what or who to read, you can start with this list (if you enjoy young adult reads), and I also suggest making use of The Seattle Public Library’s “Your Next Five” feature. You can tell a librarian (all via web form or email) what books you just read or enjoyed, and they’ll give you recommendations. Be upfront that you want to read POC authors and they will find you a book. Or, you know, your local independent bookstore. Or, if you must, Twitter.

Or start with this: Great Diverse Reads of 2020

My favorite books from 2020

It’s been a while since I listed out some favorite books of the year. My last post like this was in 2016. Egads! This would be an odd year to resurrect it, because 2020 was not a productive year of reading for me. According to Goodreads I have read an average of 62.33 books a year over the last 9 years. In 2020, my 10th year of keeping track, I only read 29, fewer than half of my usual rate. One would think that, by staying at home 95% of the time for 10 months straight, that one might read more, but there seemingly was much to do that wasn’t reading.

photo credit: https://www.pexels.com/@dom-j-7304

The last few summers I participated in Seattle Public Library’s Book Bingo which guaranteed at least 24 books read over the summer, but I skipped it this year. There was other pandemic activities to be had, such as knitting, bread baking, remote learning supervision, job searching, coding, and then puppy life. Puppy life is really something, right?

I read a lot of YA and middle grade books, and reread some favorites due to some of the pieces I wrote for ParentMap. So, my favorite reread is definitely Are You There God, It’s Me Marageret, and I already wrote about that.

Here are some of my favorite books from 2020. The list is shorter this year. See above paragraphs about how I didn’t do as much reading

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid.

A young black woman finds herself in the center of controversy when she is accused of kidnapping a child she babysits for. An engaging and realistic look at how we view race, white privilege, and woke culture.

Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Two teenage girls who have never met are met with devastation of a loved one after a plane from New York to the Dominican Republic crashes. Surprise twist is when they learn they share the same father.

Written in free verse, this novel does a beautiful job at describing the lives and challenges and the emotional upheaval for these two girls. Also, I wrote a little bit about it already, in an upcoming piece that I’ll link to when it’s live.

Big Summer, Jennifer Weiner

This was one of the few books I actually wrote a review for on Goodreads, so I think that meant I liked it! Weiner is known for her chick-lit hits, but for her last two novels, I feel like she’s made a stretch out of that zone and has gone exploring a bit. Big Summer starts one way that seems familiar and then takes a twist into mystery, which is refreshing coming from the author. I think the unexpectedness of it is what made it so enjoyable for me.

I will end this post with one observation, which is that there are a number of franchises/series I have been reading, some for the past 10 years, that published within their respective series in 2020 that left me less impressed than usual. I won’t give names. Okay, I will. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is slowly killing me. I am still trying to get through the final epic. I am not sure if it was me, or the books themselves. Normally, my faves, including Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs and Sarah Maclean knock them out of the park. I’m deciding if it was the mood I was in (like for all of 2020), or the books themselves. I’ll have to do some rereads in 2021 to make my final decisions. So, there’s that.

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My favorite pandemic books

I am compiling (in my head, of course), a short list of my favorite books from 2020, but until I get that done, here’s a #TBT from my Instagram account, which is private.

I did this Insta Story back when we all thought we’d be out of the office, or out of school, or out of whatever for, like two weeks. Two weeks somehow turned into two months, then the rest of the year.

These books popped up into my head again recently because over dinner the other night my family had a fun discussion around what we would do if/when a zombie apocalypse (or, any apocalypse) were to occur. I have, due to a lot of fiction reading, given this a lot of thought and felt I had a lot to contribute. My daughter’s first instinct, she said, was to head to the middle school she now attends, which I found interested because it is first, further away from us than, say, her elementary school and second, still very unfamiliar to her because even though she’s a student there, she’s never taken a class in person there. I do think she’s got the right idea, though. Schools, malls, airports are all ideal locations to consider for the long haul.

Anyhow, here is a photo flashback of some flu pandemic novel recommendations, with a little added detail that I didn’t include in the original story:

FWIW, Instagram stories is my preferred storytelling method on social media.
The Stand by Stephen King
The Stand, by Stephen King (“You never forget your first”)
I read this right after the release of the TV mini-series adaptation that starred Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald. The version of the paperback I bought, which I got from the airport, had the two actors from the series. I think I have reread it once, and rewatched the old series, or at least seen parts of it. I have no plans on watching the new version that is now airing.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller.
I read so much that sometimes I forget books that I’ve read, but The Dog Stars has definitely stuck with me through the years. I think it was one of those books that I had in my queue at the library, and by the time I got it off the Holds list, I had forgotten everything about why I had it in the queue in the first place. When that happens, and then you get hit with a great story, well that’s always a memorable one. I really liked the post-pandemic lifestyle the main character lived, in the airport hangar. This is when I started keeping notes on living through these types of things.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. This was recommended to me by a friend, who also lent me his copy. You are just going along, reading all of these different storylines, knowing at some point they will connect, but not entirely sure how, when suddenly it comes and you are just, like, Wow. I very much like to allow books or stories happen to me, vs trying to guess what will happen. It is a much more appealing way to enjoy a surprise twist.
Year One, by Nora Roberts
Year One, by Nora Roberts. Is there anything that Nora Robert can’t do? This novel was not only pandemic creating chaos, but also supernatural and magical. But I remember it for the post-pandemic parts, of the life and society that’s built up from the destruction. I’m seeing now that the entire series is much more magical and fantastical, and since it’s Nora, probably a little sexy. I’ll have to add them to my queue.
Severence, by Ling Ma
Severance, by Ling Ma. This has a cool twist on the panedmic, with the added Zombies that are spooky but not deadly. Memorable to me because it reflected a millennial generation perspective, which the others did not.

I wrote a thing about what I read when I was a kid

Quick background to share about this piece I wrote for ParentMap earlier this month. I got a puppy while writing it, and at one point I was so sleep deprived from waking up every two hours in the night to let the puppy out to pee that I was nervous I would not finish it. But I did, and here it is:

MIDDLE-GRADE BOOKS FROM THE 80S THAT ARE STILL WORTH READING (ParentMap, Oct. 16, 2020)

Some more background. I informally polled friends on social media of what they remember reading when they were in 4th thru 7th grade. A lot of my elementary school friends came out of the woodwork to share books I remember us all reading and loving. It was fun to see many patterns emerge from around the nation. Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary were among them, but also Baby-Sitters Club (which truthfully, I missed out on, but have enjoyed catching up with via the graphic novels and Netflix series) and Sweet Valley High. Also lots of old-timey stuff, like Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, and for some more “mature” readers, V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steele! Oh yes, I did read Flowers In The Attic, but it wasn’t quite something I could write about for ParentMap.

Anyway, give it a look. And tell me what you read when you were this age!

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Cha

You know what’s really hard to do? It’s hard to recommend a book to my daughter. I was an avid reader growing up. Read what are now some classic authors, but back in the 80s, were just books. Beverly Cleary was a go-to. Cynthia Voight. And, of course, the one and only Judy Blume.

Over the years I have tried in earnest to convince my kid that these are books and authors she should read. They are great books. But, here’s what I learned pretty quickly: I am NOT COOL, therefore my book recommendations are also NOT COOL.

I did manage to sneak a few things in. I read Freckle Juice to her out loud at the right age (still such a great book!). We listened to part of Henry and Ribsy on a car ride down to Portland once. I also learned to acquaint myself with some newer, hipper books so I could try to be, at the very least, hip to the past century.

This has resulted in a few successes, most notably Kate DiCamillo and Rebecca Stead (I try not to brag, but I read “When You Reach Me” months before my kid did, begged her to read it, which she wouldn’t. When she finally did and agreed it was a good book I did not “I told you so!” her too bad)

I now know I just need to leave her be and she’ll read who she wants to read. She liked Harry Potter, but she LOVES Percy Jackson. Has begged me to read the full series, all three of them (THREE??). I’m two books in, after two years.

She read another book titled Ban This Book, used that junior fiction novel to learn about a whole slew of books that had once been banned, THEN went and reserved or borrowed a whole bunch of other books from the library. And that’s how we ended up here:

Are you there, God? It’s not me, it’s my kid!

To my surprise one day about a month ago, I was alerted that Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, was ready to be borrowed from the library.

Readers, I was honestly nervous. She was going to read about PERIODS. Which, now that I think about it, why was I so nervous? She had just finished The Hate U Give, is a much more powerful story. I am unsure what made me so nervous. Maybe that this book seemed like something my mother wouldn’t have wanted me to read. As a mother, was I supposed to shield her or something?

She read it in an afternoon. And she liked it, thought the bust exercises scene was hilarious (also confirmed with me that it doesn’t really work), and then went on with her day.

I decided a few nights later to tuck into it (read it in about 90 minutes. I remember it being much longer!), and I need to say this … Margaret still slaps!

The cover of Are You There, God?
as I remember it, back in the 80s

The friend drama is as real today as it was back then (Nancy is still a mean girl), as are the crushes. I had actually forgotten one of the biggest controversies of the storyline, where Margaret researches different religions and tries to figure out who/what she is. This blew me away, as I feel like it could be very representative of where my family stands today.

Blume also updated the references to the sanitary napkins. I remember her descriptions even back when I read it being dated, so I was glad to see she took the time to make this relevant, decades later. And, to be honest, like, what a sneaky way to let girls know how to use a pad. I see what you’re doing, there, Ms. Blume, and I 100% approve.

The kid has already moved on from this book to her next thing (rereading her Baby-sitters Club graphic novels, thanks to the recent Netflix series). But this book has stayed with me for a little longer. My kid is growing up. She will start middle school next year, and at some point my relevance and importance in her daily decisions will diminish. It is a hard pill to swallow. Perhaps this is why I long for us to connect with books.

Guess it’s time to crack open that third Percy Jackson.

My favorite reads from 2016

Hello, 2017. What a year that 2016 was, eh. Like, wow. Good riddance.

You may or may not recall at the beginning of 2016 I set out a goal to write a review for every book I read, with my reading goal being set at 60 books for the year. Not only did I fail in my attempt to write a review for every book, but last year marks the first time, since I started setting reading goals, that I missed that mark as well. All told, I wrote 28 reviews and read 52 book (really had to cram that final one in, staying up way too late New Year’s Eve Eve to finish it, making New Year’s Eve pretty much a non event for me. My final one was for a book I finished in July (though posted in September because I’m slow on things). Why stop there? Well, in August I read about nine books and I just couldn’t face that many write-ups. And for what, for a New Year’s Resolution, which I shouldn’t have set up for myself to begin with? Aiyayay.

I’d say the main difference between 2016 and the prior years is my commute. I took the bus for a number of years to Bellevue for work and in the fall of 2015 I moved offices over to Redmond and started taking the company shuttle. There is still time for reading on a commute, but thanks to wifi I found myself working on my laptop for some of the commute. I also had a knitting project I was cramming in for a few months. And then I discovered podcasts. So, yeah, there were other things to be done that wasn’t reading-related. I noticed in November I only read two books, which is far lower than my average. That was a bad month for me. I spent a lot of time fuming while reading Facebook. So, yeah. F-you 2016.

I’m not terribly sad about missing the goal. I accomplished a lot more. I knit a pretty badass Gryffindor scarf (and I’m in the midst of Ravenclaw one). I tried crocheting (still trying to get the hang of that). I opened my mind to podcasts and have had a blast listing to Anna Faris is Unqualified, The Nerdist Podcast and others.

Today I went through my list of books I did read (hey, 52 books means one book a week, more or less), and have compiled a list of 2016 favorites:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. (pub. 2007).

Read in Feb. 2016. I don’t need to do another review, right? I already did one. It’s right here. But I will say this. If a friend, whose book recommendations are often on the mark for you, recommends a book to you year after year, for the love of all things holy read the frikking book. By far the best book I read this year, and the only one I gave 5 stars to on Goodreads this year.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson (pub. 2016)

Read in July 2016. I couldn’t get over the young boy in the novel. As a mother striving to be the best mother I must say the mom in this book drove me nuts but the boy made me want to be a kid again. \

Here’s my review.

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride & Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld (pub. 2016)

Read in June 2016. I got kind of obsessed with this one. I just loved what Sittenfeld did with this modern version (all but the “Bachelor”-type setup near the end). I dare anyone to find me a more compelling tribute/fan-fiction etc to P&P.

Here’s my review.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller (Published 2012, Read in Feb 2016). My goodness do I love post-apocalyptic popcorn fiction like this. And guess what, I actually did not write a review for this one even though I read it early in the year. I did write a bit for another post-flu endemic type novel, Station Eleven, which also wowed me (and if I thought more about this post I’d pair them up together in my best-of list because they were both so enjoyable in this genre).

Set in Colorado, a man goes through life following a sickness hits the country that wipes out the majority of the population. His dog and a fellow survivor are his only companions and he longs to see if there’s something else out there.

A great story of survival that also helped layout a plan for when the flu pandemic finally hits. I also have a review for Station Eleven here.

Others that I loved … Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, The Lake House by Kate Morton, The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher.

Most of my faves were read earlier in the year. The latter half of the year, I definitely hit a low season. Another possible reason I didn’t reach my goal was the number of books I started but didn’t finish (includes: The Avenue of Mysteries, A Discovery of Witches, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven).

And here’s one I did not love but really wanted to: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Really lame fan fiction, IMO. Hopefully it shows better on stage than it did on paper.

So, Happy new year! I’m setting my 2017 goal for reading to 52 books, which will hopefully give me some time to knit while I commute and do other fun stuff as well.

 

Great Night (or Review: Goodnight, Nebraska)

Goodnight, NebraskaTitle: Goodnight, Nebraska

Author: Tom McNeal

Read in: July 2016 (published in 1999)

One sentence summary: Shy boy who has seen tragedy in his life shoots step-father, which sends him to a small town in Nebraska where he seeks to redeem and forgive himself

There are a number of books in this year’s list that were recommended from my friend Kate, who is a middle school teacher. She does a lot of reading so she knows what to recommend when students ask her. This was on that list, and I didn’t get around to it until now, but I’m glad I did.

So much of my reading is genre specific. I love urban fantasy. I enjoy comedy romance. Young adult fiction. How often do a read a book that’s just a plain good novel with a compelling story. This one is that. Without supernatural heroes, epic bloody fights, sensational landscapes or laugh out loud dialogue.

This just told a very good story by a really great storyteller. Vivid characters in a small town remind you that everyone has secrets and scandals, and tragedy happens to those who least expect it.

(Not really a) Review: One More Thing Stories And Other Stories

One More ThingTitle: One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

Author: B.J. Novak

Read in: July 2016

Disclaimer: I only took this out because of #BookBingoNW, which you will soon see, is why I picked up a lot of random books this summer.

I wish I could say I loved these stories and laughed at many of them, because I would like to think that B.J. Novak is that creative. And I think I liked some of the stories but I also feel like for most of the book I was cramming it down my throat to tick this off my list. I can vaguely remember some of the stories but nothing is really coming to me right now, nearly two months later. That’s my bad.

I could have been a better reader. Good thing someone isn’t reviewing my reviews.

 

Review: Be Frank With Me

Be Frank With MeTitle: Be Frank With Me

Author: Julia Claiborne Johnson

Read in: July 2016

Two-Sentence Summary: Editorial assistant lands a gig babysitting the son of a reclusive writer trying to pen a new book. The kid is peculiar, and chaos, lots of it, ensues.

File this one under, “Was on the waiting list for this one so long can’t remember who recommended it or why I wanted to read it in the first place.” I love when this happens, and I dive into a book I know nothing about, and end up loving it. That was this book.

BFWM is has a similar feel to Where’d You Go Bernadette, which I read a few years ago and enjoyed but didn’t love it like some of my friends did. In this one, though, that Frank, the child is such an adorable kid, along with the Harper Lee/Salinger-esque recluse writer of a mother who adores the son but can’t manage a social conversation to save her life.

The story is laid out from the perspective of a fish out of water, an editorial assistant of the publishing company who will be publishing the follow up to this Great American novelist, sent to LA from New York to ensure the writer is, well writing.

I can’t say enough about Frank. He dresses like he should have been in the talkies in teh 20s, and his intellect isn’t comparable. On one hand I think about what it would be like to have a child like Frank and how it would drive me crazy. On the other hand I know I’ll never meet a kid like this so I savor the crazy dressing, the insane imagination.

Recommended for: Bernadette fans

Review: The Rainbow Comes and Goes

TRCAGTitle: The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss

Authors: Gloria Vanderbilt, Anderson Cooper

Read in: June 2016

One sentence summary: Successful broadcast journalist and his successful designer mother share reflect on their family past through letters written to each other.

Gloria Vanderbilt has had one heckuva roller coast ride of a life. From being the center of a custody battle at a young age, to dealing with unfathomable loss of a husband and a son, to losing a business and building a life back up, this woman has a lot to reflect on from her life.

Anderson Cooper has built an amazing career, purposefully not taking advantage of the glamorous name his mother no doubt would have brought for him. He has made a note to keep stories to themselves until here and here he is revealing about his brother’s suicide, his father’s death at a young age, and his coming out. On the other side, Vanderbilt had a carefree way of discussing the men in her life, the abuse she took in some cases, the feeling of losing your family, or those you always saw as family. What is most incredible to me is that woman is in her 90s! And is so eloquent with her words.

Just as the title alludes, this is a family that has experienced quite a bit of loss. But the two of them have managed to overcome those hurdles, and take that rainbow when it comes. Surely you appreciate it more once you’ve seen it go.

Knowing how hard it sometimes is to talk to family in person, I found the letter-writing format that the mother and son developed to be a very real, very “I could easily see doing something like this with my child one day”.

Recommended to: readers who like memoirs, hollywood starlets, or are a fan of Anderson Cooper.