My favorite books of 2013

So it’s time to jump on that bandwagon and share what I enjoyed the most in 2013. Of course, since I didn’t read all the new and hyped books of the year, I can only include my opinions on what I did read, but I think it’s a pretty good list nonetheless. So let’s get right to it:

The best

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein. A friend who really knows her YA/middle-grade stuff loved this, so I thought I’d check it out for myself and my 11-year-old. I got it from the library, handed it over to my young book-devourer, then enjoyed it after she did. It’s everything you’d want from a book for young readers: fun, clever, kind of adventurous, and highly imaginative. It made me and my daughter both wish there was a real library as amazing as the one imagined by Grabenstein. Every town needs a Mr. Lemoncello with deep pockets and a desire to give back to the community via a well-appointed library.

Just One YearJust One Year, the follow-up to Just One Day, by Gayle Forman. Forman can do no wrong when it comes to young adult/new adult books. They are utterly real and honest, with characters who are just as real. The stories are moving and touching without cheaply playing on heartstrings. This latest pair of books focus first on the young woman who falls for a guy during a trip to Europe and the one day they have together, then the guy. We get each of their perspectives and see how they come together initially, but, more importantly, how they grow individually so they could stay together.

Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox. Knox proved she has solid writing talent with this first new book since her YA “duet” of Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. I can’t recommend her enough. The stories are mysterious and fascinating while delivering big on setting. Like Forman’s books, there is poignancy and sweetness without overdoing it. I gobbled them up. I wrote a whole post about Knox.

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. This British book was actually published earlier but hit it big this year through word of mouth in the U.S. — and rightly so. It’s a sweet story of two unlikely people falling for each other: a formerly successful businessman-turned-quadriplegic and the woman who’s hired to care for him and lift his spirits. It really tugs on the heartstrings and makes you think. Get a box of Kleenex ready.

Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. Here’s another that sparked lots of word of mouth, months before it was published. I was forced to wait to read it closer to its pub date, and let me say it was worth the wait. This was another story of unlikely love, this time between a man with Asperger’s and a girl who is definitely not the type of woman he’d expected to fall for. Clever, sweet, funny, insightful. I laughed, I read cute segments out loud to my daughter. When I feels the need to read passages out loud to family members, you know it’s good. Only drawback: a couple dozen f-words.

The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley. I ran across the gothic-y The Shadowy Horses on my library’s e-book website and gave it a try. Definitely enjoyed it. Then when I saw this new book would be following one character from that book later in life, I felt I must read it as well. After being caught up in the two parallel stories in this newest book for a very enjoyable 500 pages or so, I wished there was more. Luckily, Kearsley has plenty of other books for me to enjoy in the same genre, and I got extra-lucky a few days ago to get some e-copies for a special $1.99 on Amazon. Life is good. If you like clean gothic tales, Kearsley is a must-read. And read a bit more about her and other fave authors on this post.

Now for some nonfiction:

The World’s Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne. I laughed, I was fascinated, I learned. This memoir took me inside the head and life of a really cool and smart guy who happens to wrestle with Tourette syndrome. It was so interesting and entertaining that I introduced it to my book club, and it made for a great discussion. Read more on my post about it.

Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill. I already wrote a long post about this book on our health care system and what we deem to be “health insurance,” but what should be more precisely termed “health coverage.” In short, this book is what I think EVERYONE should read when talking about health care in the United States and the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. It might take a little concentration for some readers, but this is another I read out loud from a bunch and dog-eared and underlined a ton. Just a must-read.

The most disappointing:

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. I have seen this on a number of “best-of” lists this past couple of weeks and still am stymied as to why that is. I sometimes think that editors and critics jump on bandwagons just because everyone else seems to think the book “should be” good. I thought the premise of this book was fascinating but that its execution wasn’t so hot. It just didn’t seem to “mean” anything. If everyone supposedly loved it because the premise was great but thought they were the only ones who didn’t “get” the bigger meaning and didn’t want to admit it, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you’d like to read more about my disappointment with this book, look at my original post.

Bellman and BlackBellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield. Dang it, this was so disappointing. I guess it was almost inevitable. I count her first book, The Thirteenth Tale, as probably my favorite gothic book. So that’s a lot to have to live up to. But this second book just didn’t deliver any big twists or messages. It kind of just went along, told its story, and said goodbye. Ah, well. Maybe she can write a third somewhere down the road and redeem herself just a bit.

There you have it, folks. I’m eager to see what 2014 brings in the way of great new books. Happy reading.

The magic of reading aloud to a child

I’ve been blessed with four amazing daughters, and I have to say that, despite my general unease and unpreparedness for being a mother when I first gave birth, one of the things I most looked forward to at that time was being able to read to my children. I wasn’t a big fan of newborns or even older babies; I was eager to teach and talk to little people. Over time I did get better at appreciating the fun parts of having babies around, but I still think that my favorite part of raising children is teaching them and interacting verbally. What fun!

As a reader myself, sharing books with them was a big part of that teaching and communicating. I admit, however, when I first started reading aloud to my now-16-year-old, I was not a fan of the ABC and 1-2-3 books that we had to read OVER AND OVER. And over. And over. And … well, you get it. And over. Gah! Richard Scarry, cute. But I can only count so many bunnies and watermelons up till 3 or 4 or even 10 until my head’s about to explode like a ripe melon hit by a sledgehammer. I was SO excited when she got past that stage and I could read actual stories to her. Then we went through the stage of the very short stories that we read over and over and over. Even Dr. Seuss started to get on my nerves a bit. No, Mom, no. Don’t say that!

At any rate, I toughed it out and read to my girls every night. Unfortunately, I will also admit that as the third and fourth came along, I ended up getting a little busy and just overwhelmed to read to every single one of them every single night. My youngest hasn’t had the privilege of me reading to her every night before she nods off. The best she’s had was me reading to her in the middle of the day just before naptime. Now that this littlest one is in kindergarten, I’m going to have to figure out a good time to read to her and with her regularly. ‘Cause for a while there a few years back, I really was going bed to bed and room to room at 8:00 at night and reading with one girl at a time. An hour later, I was definitely ready for bed myself. Alone time with the husband? Important, yes. Did we get much of it? Not really.

So the routine’s gotten shaken up, but I’ve still logged many very pleasurable hours reading with the girls, at various stages and differing ages. Even my oldest enjoys having me come in at night sometimes as she’s finishing up schoolwork and Facebook-chatting and all that kind of teen stuff and lie down next to her on her double bed and read aloud as she winds down and relaxes to the sound of my voice. With her, I’ve read some of A Tale of Two Cities or Huck Finn or All Quiet on the Western Front, all assignments for classes, or we’ve pulled out a few old favorites for some fun. Maybe I’ll even read to her the night before she gets married someday. It’ll be the best way to remember our time together as mother and daughter at home.

My third daughter is an absolutely voracious reader and has been wolfing down books this summer in particular. We’ve had fun with a few in particular: I read Freaky Friday, one of my favorites from when I was a pre-teen long ago, aloud to all of the girls who wanted to listen some months back, and we all laughed and chortled and chuckled together at all the funny things that happened (Boris and his beetloaf … funny stuff, man). This past month or so, this third girl and I have been reading the very charming and quotable books about the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. I am of the opinion that read-alouds are most fun when they provide many opportunities for giggling and lines to quote later as a shared experience. Daddy has no idea what we’re referring to, which is different from all of our shared family movie quotes.

I read Eragon aloud with my oldest when she was probably about 10, and it took us six months to get through. But we enjoyed it. The movie version came out not long after, and she and I joined together in great distress and disgust when the movie version was absolutely horrible. What a shame!

I admit that though I do have children of varying ages, picture books up through teen and adult books, and I do a ton of reading on my own, young adult books aren’t my specialty. I have lots of blogger friends who really know a LOT about the middle-grade and young adult genre. So I think my last point here is: what do you think qualifies as great read-aloud material for middle readers, in particular? I think that something of a modest length and with some silliness is extra handy. More “serious” material is fine as well, but the silly factor makes it lots of fun. Any ideas?

Favorite teen books, part 2

So since I wrote about my take on NPR’s top-100 young adult books, I realized I had a lot more to say on the topic. First, I felt that there were a fair number of books on the list that were just so-so and wouldn’t really stand up in 20 years or more to be “classics.” So then I thought, “Hm. So what books are missing from this list that should be on it?” And I realized, looking through all of the books I’ve kept and lugged around with me through thousands of miles of moves and lots of years, that I didn’t really have a lot to add to the list, for a few reasons. First, some of the books I remember loving and reading over and over were actually more like middle-grade books, rather than for older teens. Second, I’d like to see more Madeleine L’Engle books on the NPR list, but at least her teen books were represented with A Ring of Endless Light. (The wonderful series that starts with A Wrinkle in Time, of course, is really more aimed at middle readers.) Third, I just couldn’t find any other books I’ve read and enjoyed that weren’t on the list already or were really what I’d call classics. Yes, there have been some great books written in the past 25 years or so since I wasn’t a “young adult” myself, but I think most of what I have read more recently as an adult has gotten represented. Honestly, though, I think the list would be better if it were just a “top 50.”

So I’m going to write today just a bit about some of the books that I did absolutely adore as a younger reader, books I either kept from buying them way back when or that I bought later on to have copies of in my home library. They’ll fit into a few different categories, but I’ll just kind of lop them together in this post.


  1. Middle-grade books I adored and read and re-read: These are easy: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and A Wrinkle in Time and sequels by Madeleine L’Engle. I have no idea how many times I went back to savor these. I will say now as an adult that I have read some with my daughters, and I still enjoy them for various reasons but am not quite as captivated. I’m guessing that has to do a little with the age level. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence is so complex in its world and how it is written that it can be read by middle readers but still is great for older readers, and it’s held up well for me as an adult. I don’t think that this means anything negative about the middle-grade books I loved so much back then, but they were, I think, really well-aimed at those ages, rather than being for a broader age group. But others may very well disagree with me on that opinion.
  2. On to L’Engle’s teen books: as I just mentioned, there is a definite difference in target audience between A Wrinkle in Time and the Austin family books, even though there are connections in characters who appear in the two major sets of books she’s written (about the Murrays and Austins). The characters are different ages, as are the target readers, and have different kinds of struggles and experiences because of their ages. I love how I was able to grow up with Madeleine L’Engle’s characters, moving from middle reader to teen.
  3. On teen books that were my absolutely most-read: thank you, Beverly Cleary. She, like L’Engle, wrote books for a variety of ages of young readers, and I grew up with her characters as well. I enjoyed Ramona and then went on to gobble up her teen romance stories. I really could have added in Cleary’s teen romances to the great clean romance list I contributed to and wrote about here. I read two books countless times: Fifteen and The Luckiest Girl. They are so well-worn they’re soft to the touch. My 16-year-old, who has kind of grown out of gobbling up books the past few years, still has read and re-read Fifteen almost as many times as I read it (at least 15). Some teens today might think that the stories are dated, and while it’s true they are most definitely set in a “simpler” time, they are still swoon-worthy and absolutely delightful. They’re clean, romantic and absolutely true. I wish more books today were as good as those.

And there you have it. I may revisit the topic and talk more about middle-grade books in the future, but for now this is how I view some of my old faves.