In a way, most of the books on this list are the ones that stuck with me, or surprised me in some way. What were your favorite books last year?
- Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson- This was one I read early on in the year, after the American Library Association Awards were announced. I was really taken with it – I admit that most of my WWII era reading has focused on the holocaust, or has been somehow centered on the Allied forces, or on Germany. To read about the horrors that faced the citizens of Leningrad during the war, and also the hope people had in resisting and surviving was highly educational and sometimes inspirational. Also, using the life of Shostakovich, as well as his work gave a great window into a great deal of Russian history.
- Illuminae: The Illuminae Files _01 by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristof – This novel was a surprise. It came in with a Junior Library Guild order, and I just decided to give it a go. This has a mixed media type of format, and is a sprawling, wonderful science fiction novel. This starts with the attack of a space colony and sprawls out wonderfully from there – it is the type of novel that has lots of references for fans of science fiction in general – in the same way that Ready Player One has references for gamers and fans of the 80s. This is one that I keep recommending to students, because I want to talk about it with other people. If you have read it, what do you think?
- All American Boys by Jason Reynolds – This novel was a Coretta Scott King Honor Award book, and has won several other honors and awards since, which is why I bought it for my high school library. This is a great novel in that it deals with an incident of police brutality, and the various witnesses, and players in the same incident. There are several vantage points, and in some ways is reminiscent of the also excellent novel How it Went Down, by Kekla Magoon. In this case, however, both people involved in the incident survive, although one is badly injured. A great novel both from a writing standpoint, and a current events standpoint. I think this would be a great choice to add to a curriculum.
- My Name is not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson – This novel I read as part of a project for a class, and it has really stuck with me. In my history classes growing up, the way that Native American’s were treated seemed to be simplified down to – we made treaties, we broke the treaties, the Native Americans live on reservations. While I need to do a lot more reading to expand on this lack in my knowledge of history and oppression, this particular novel deals with one of the more egregious issues that came out of the treatment of Native Americans and Inuit groups, with the establishment of boarding schools that denigrated tribal languages and history, and in some cases led to children being stolen from their families and sent to school, or even being adopted into other families. My Name is Not Easy is a useful novel to read to introduce junior high and high school students to this history.
- Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince – This graphic novel was different from anything else I have read. I read it as a class assignment as well, but have found myself thinking about it often. While thankfully there are more and more novels from the viewpoints of people who identify as transgender, this was interesting as the exploration of a woman’s life who identified as a tomboy, an identification that led to many questioning those choices more than being actually interested in her as a person. Instead of capitulating to gender norms, Liz Prince instead stayed true to herself, and her compelling memoir and artwork are an important piece of work for many students that may feel the same, but struggle to articulate their place.
- The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes – This novel makes the list because it is so well written, and while the events of the novel are shocking, and reminded me of some aspects of Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare, the titular character is so well drawn that nothing is placed for shock value. At the start of the novel we meet Minnow Bly – we know that her hands have been amputated by the leader of the cult she escaped from, and we know that something happened on the cult’s compound, but this novel takes the time to unravel the mysteries clearly and well. A haunting read.
- Bone Gap by Laura Ruby – To be honest, I had head a lot of great things about this novel, but the first time I tried to read it this year I could not get into it. I abandoned it, and then circled back months later. The second time I really enjoyed the fantasy/magical realism concepts that worked in the novel, as well as the mystery sections. I think what kept me reading the second time was the mythical core of the novel, of people who have struggles, and are tasked with nearly impossible obstacles, and yet manage to find their way. Students and adults alike that enjoy questing novels should enjoy this novel as well.
- The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins – This was on a recommended shelf at Prairie Lights Bookstore, and it was an amazing read. The man that checked me out the day I bought it was the one that recommended it, and he was passionate about it. I passed it on to my husband after I read it, and he loved it as well. This novel is complex and sprawling, about a group of people called librarians – each of whom is in charge of a different catalog. For instance, the narrator, Caroline, is in charge of language, while David is in charge of war and murder, and others are in charge of other information. There is a lot going on beneath the surface, and the library is not at all what it seems. This novel has both deep philosophical questions it is pursuing, and creepy moments, as well as a terrifically good story that makes it hard to put down.
- Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – This was actually a Christmas present from my husband, and he is reading it now. I enjoy memoirs, although they are not my natural first choice. What I found amazing and wonderful about this book, was that it was extremely educational about apartheid in general – and Noah does a wonderful job of entertaining the reader in often humorous ways, while explaining the realities of South Africa both under apartheid, and as apartheid was breaking apart. Also, he has piqued my interest, and I would really like to read more about South Africa more. A great memoir for fans of the Daily Show, and people that would like to begin their journey in understanding what apartheid was like.
- Dead Wake by Erik Larson– This was a Christmas gift from my sister, and I really learned a lot. When I was in school I remember learning about the Lusitania in a vague way – just, the Lusitania sank, and then it was used as a propaganda tool to enter WWI. That was about the extent of my knowledge. It turns out, even that gloss of information is not really correct. Erik Larson is so good at weaving complex strands of narrative together – and he does that so well here – drawing together the doomed ship, the uboat that was coming to sink it, and the complex political machinations going on at the same time. Even though I knew the outcome, I found myself hoping against hope that the boat would make it.