Our 2015 Best Books of the Year
Our Best Books of 2015 list is the result of an alchemy mixing the joy of choosing wonderful books with anguish over what we couldn't include. So here it is, after blood, sweat and tears. See our reviews below.
American Blood by Ben Sanders (Minotaur Books)
Carter & Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard (Thomas Dunne Books)
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books)
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Random House)
In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware (Scout Press)
The Incarnations by Susan Barker (Touchstone)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (Pantheon)
Under the Udala Trees by Chinela Okapranta (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)
Drinking in America by Susan Cheever (Twelve)
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Grove Press)
The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander (Grand Central)
Midnight's Furies by Nisid Hajari (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Missoula by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday)
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (Atria)
This Old Man by Roger Angell (Doubleday)
Thunder & Lightning by Lauren Redniss (Random House)
Wanted by Chris Hoke (HarperOne)
Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes, collected by Elizabeth Hammill, illus. by 77 artists (Candlewick)
Ask Me by Bernard Waber, illus. by Suzy Lee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Way to School by Rosemary McCarney with Plan International (Second Story Press)
Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, illus. by Lauren Tobia (Kane Miller)
Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter, illus. by Qin Leng (Knopf)
Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan)
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad/HarperCollins)
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick)
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Calvin by Martine Leavitt (Margaret Ferguson/FSG)
by Ben Sanders
In Ben Sanders's high-speed thriller, Marshall Grade--a former NYPD officer now in witness protection--compromises his safety when he starts to investigate the disappearance of a woman in Albuquerque. If the mob-hired killer known as the Dallas Man finds him, he's dead. Still, Marshall hopes that his search might assuage his guilt over the mistakes that landed him in New Mexico. His investigation pits him against drug traffickers, and the shockwaves trigger the attention of the Dallas Man.
Eschewing words unnecessary to pell-mell plot advancement, Sanders's tense voice lends gritty heft to the time-honored trope of a man blessed with a very specific set of skills. Handy with a weapon and possessing a quick mind, Marshall matches wits with thug after thug, but will he meet someone more dangerous than himself?
As the title American Blood suggests, copious pints are shed in varied and gruesome fashions. Although the pacing is swift, character development is not lost in the shuffle, and the Dallas Man in particular intrigues. Sanders keeps forward momentum at maximum velocity, and manages to slip in a few nifty plot twists at the last second, including a terrific hook that sets up a sequel. American Blood is a thrill ride more than worth the admission. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Carter & Lovecraft
by Jonathan L. Howard
Private investigator Daniel Carter is haunted by the case that ended his career as a homicide detective. He and his partner had cornered a serial killer. When he went to rescue the latest victim, Carter left his partner with the dying suspect in a room covered by indecipherable symbols. He returned in less than five minutes, just in time to watch his partner commit suicide.
Months later, an attorney jolts Carter out of a low-key life of adultery investigations and background checks, delivering the news that Carter has inherited real estate from a complete stranger. Carter discovers the property is actually a bookstore run by Emily Lovecraft, descendant of cosmic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. There, a series of seemingly supernatural murders turn Carter and Lovecraft into reluctant partners on the hunt for a suspect whose terrifying powers connect to Carter's old murder case.
In Carter & Lovecraft, Jonathan L. Howard (the Brothers Cabal series) crafts a creepy mystery in which the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft is more fact than fiction. Together, Daniel and Emily tmake a formidable team and the solid foundation for a sequel promised by Carter & Lovecraft's twist ending. Supernatural mystery and thrilling horror offer something to love for genre fans of all stripes. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer
Thomas Dunne Books,
Circling the Sun
by Paula McLain
Growing up in Kenya on her father's horse farm, the young Beryl Markham was able to make her own rules: exploring the farm's rugged terrain, becoming an expert horsewoman, befriending the Kipsigis natives who worked for and with her father. But when Beryl becomes a teenager, her father's business faces financial ruin and she is left to fend for herself. Fiercely independent yet unsure of social conventions, Beryl falls into a series of disastrous romantic and professional relationships. In her third novel, Circling the Sun, Paula McLain explores the complexities of Beryl's life and traces her journey from young girl to horse trainer to world-renowned aviatrix.
McLain's skill at blending fact and fiction dazzles in Circling the Sun. Drawing on Markham's memoir West with the Night and other historical sources, McLain paints a lushly colored portrait of 1920s Kenya. Beryl's love for Kenya's wild landscapes, as well as her deep loneliness, comes through on every page.
In prose as luminous as the African skies, McLain charts Beryl's journey of self-discovery: searching, stumbling, getting back up and eventually soaring. Heartbreaking and defiantly hopeful--like Beryl herself--Circling the Sun is a masterful story of hardship, courage and love. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
by Jill Alexander Essbaum
If the unexamined life is not worth living, then the life of Anna Benz should be rich and fulfilling. The introspective Anna spends nearly all her days and nights reflecting on her life--her often distant banker husband, Bruno, his family, her three children, her expatriate Zürich surroundings, her Jungian psychoanalysis and her lovers. Consumed by a listless sadness, she fills sleepless nights wandering the hills behind her suburban house and empty days riding the trains and walking the streets of the city. With Bruno's encouragement, she had begun psychotherapy in an effort to become more engaged in her Swiss life and meet new people. And so she does. After a brief, passionate love affair with a visiting Boston scientist, she indulges in more sexually intense and transitory liaisons. She finds adultery "alarmingly easy" and tells herself that it satisfies and suits her: "Surrender is your strong suit. Assent, your forte." From a "good wife, mostly," Anna becomes an active adulterer: "Some women collected spoons. Anna collected lovers."
In Anna Benz, Jill Alexander Essbaum has created a genuine, complex woman whose journey--no matter how dark it may be--reveals truths as only great literature can. Hausfrau is not just an exceptional first novel, it is an extraordinary novel--period. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
In a Dark, Dark Wood
by Ruth Ware
Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood is her first novel--an enchantingly unsettling thriller with mysterious characters and a classically spooky setting.
Nora is a writer of crime fiction, a loner who appreciates solitude. But when she gets an invitation to a hen party being thrown for a woman she hasn't spoken to in 10 years, against her instincts, she agrees to attend. The party's setting serves as a disturbing beginning: an isolated castle of steel and glass set deep in the English woods, populated for the weekend by nervous guests, each apparently with secrets to keep.
In the novel's disjointed timeline, Nora later wakes up in hospital with fractured memories of being covered in blood and running through dark woods; the police are waiting outside her door. What happened to her? Or... what has she done? As the narrative switches between Nora's confusion and the events leading up to her hospitalization, she and the reader together begin to wonder: Can she really not remember, or does she not want to? Both timelines accelerate with building suspense toward the big reveal, and eventually Nora will have to recall events from her past that she'd rather leave forgotten. As the story culminates, readers who appreciate being unnerved will be charmed. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
by Susan Barker
Fantasy and thriller collide in this novel from Susan Barker (The Orientalist and the Ghost), a thousand-year epic of reincarnation wrapped in a paranoid game of cat and mouse.
When Wang Jun finds a letter in his taxicab, he assumes it was mistake. A driver in Beijing, he shares an unremarkable existence with his wife and school-age daughter, yet the letter's writer insists Wang is a reincarnated soul destined to walk the path of life with him/her throughout the ages. They have already shared many lives as family members, lovers, enemies. Bound by fate, Wang and the writer will reunite again in this life, their shared history of love and betrayal more powerful than any present ties.
Barker seamlessly integrates the letters and chapters about Wang's more immediate past--his difficult childhood, a stay in a mental hospital and a love affair that still haunts him. She writes on an enormous scope, rolling ancient Chinese history and legends together with the Communist Revolution and the modern-day country they created. Despite the multiple jumps through time, Barker never loses her grip on the pacing, ratcheting up the tension. Brutal yet seductive, this journey through the darkest parts of the human spirit will leave readers with chills running down their spines. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara
A law clerk and an aspiring actor lease a meager apartment in Manhattan, laying the foundation for many years of friendship between Jude St. Francis and Willem Ragnarsson in A Little Life, the astonishing second novel by Hanya Yanagihara (The People in the Trees). Interwoven with them are their close friends, frenetic artist JB and stalwart architect Malcolm. The foursome's dynamic relationships comprise a lush backdrop for the greater drama gradually unfolding throughout Jude's adulthood.
Yanagihara writes each character with an empathy that embraces their desires and revulsions, so that every break of trust and every tender moment reverberates across the novel's dazzling panorama. Still, she never loses sight of its enigmatic hub: Jude, a man of indeterminate race, with no relatives to speak of, a suspect lack of sexual expression and an excruciating disability he insists not be mentioned. But how long can his friends overlook his vacillating health and psychological distress before Jude becomes a danger to himself?
Yanagihara's powerful prose alleviates even the heaviest of sorrows. She is a master observer of the human psyche, and A Little Life vibrates with the hope of personal redemption, delivering something far greater than its humble title presumes. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
by Paul Beatty
The protagonists of Paul Beatty's first two novels, White Boy Shuffle and Slumberland, are well-read and well-schooled in street vernacular and hip music, with a sardonic skepticism about what it means to be a black man in the modern world. The Sellout takes this up a level; it's an over-the-top fable of a young black man street-named Bonbon who farms an urban tract in South Los Angeles.
Bonbon, raised by an academic sociologist with a penchant for using his son for behavioral experiments, receives a $2 million wrongful death settlement when his father is accidentally shot by the LAPD: "He and I bought the farm on the same day." With his new wealth and land, Bonbon develops his farm à la George Washington Carver, finding his own peanut "in the plant life that had the most cultural relevance to me--watermelon and weed."
Beatty is funny as hell and offers a serious consideration of race through a relentless parade of stereotypes skewering blacks, whites, Mexicans, celebrities, Africans, even autistic kids. Behind the humor, however, Beatty asks important questions about racism and identity. The Sellout is a knock-out punch to everything all races smugly accept as our appropriate roles in a diverse world. It's always more complicated than we think. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
Under the Udala Trees
by Chinelo Okparanta
This first novel from Chinelo Okparanta (after the story collection Happiness, Like Water) throws into sharp relief the historical and continuing struggles of the LGBTQ population of Nigeria, reminding us that gay rights are a global battleground.
After Ijeoma's father dies during the Nigerian civil war in 1968, she is sent to live with a grammar school teacher and his wife while Ijeoma's mother returns to her parents' village, promising to send for her. Weeks, then months, pass without any summons. While she waits, Ijeoma becomes a de facto servant to her hosts, but her lot is lightened when she rescues an orphaned girl her age, Amina. Although Amina belongs to the Hausa--her people were on the opposite side of the war from Ijeoma's--the teacher and his wife grudgingly agree to let her stay. The girls play together, work side by side and share a bed. Soon their friendship blossoms into first love, but when their feelings are discovered, they face severe consequences.
Though understandably filled with sorrow, Ijeoma's life also reflects a spirit so strong even its owner cannot break it. Tragedy and oppression shape her path, but her inarguable sense of self and her longing to experience great love make turning away from Okparanta's heroine impossible. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer
by Sydney Padua
Steampunk icons Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were frustrated pioneers of 19th-century computer science. Babbage spent many years and government grants developing his Analytical Engine, a steam-powered calculating machine, and Lovelace wrote the first computer program. But Babbage never completed his machine, and Lovelace, like her father, Lord Byron, died at the age of 36.
In her first book, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, London animator and cartoonist Sydney Padua creates an alternate history for them in which they enjoy a lifetime of happy collaboration and fantastical adventures. They amuse Queen Victoria, battle Luddite mathematicians and meet with great minds of the century. One chapter is a raging satire of economic theory; another dramatizes Lovelace as Alice in the Wonderland of her career and her detractors; another sends George Eliot into the cat-infested guts of the Difference Engine in desperate pursuit of the only copy of her first novel, wandering through a flowchart and some loops in the process.
Padua's writing overflows with wit and charm and enthusiastic geekery. Her cartooning is artistic and energetic. Lovelace and Babbage is an exhilarating ride through a rich period of scientific history, both as it was and should have been. --Sara Catterall
Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Readers familiar with Ta-Nehisi Coates from his thorough, insightful reporting for the Atlantic may not be fully prepared for the uncategorizable tour-de-force that is Between the World and Me. The slender volume is structured as a letter to Coates's teenage son and, while it benefits from the same keen mix of history, sociology and rhetoric that produced Coates's masterful piece "The Case for Reparations," this is as personal as a published work can be. Sprawling, discursive, angry, relevant, lyrical, Between the World and Me uses prose that recalls David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident in its ferocious beauty.
Coates addresses matters of race at a time when young black men continue to die at the hands of police officers with disturbing regularity. His central thesis is deeply unsettling: "There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy." His argument is as rhetorically sound as it is passionately delivered--an unrelentingly frank work expressed so perfectly that the truth of it resonates with every word. His 2015 National Book Award and MacArthur "genius" grant underscore his brilliance. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books
Spiegel & Grau,
Drinking in America: Our Secret History
by Susan Cheever
Historian, biographer and novelist Susan Cheever (E.E. Cummings) believes drinking has been an underlying force shaping the American story from the 17th century to the present. She launches her engrossing, insightful narrative with the Mayflower, which transported 200 barrels of alcohol to the New World. Adults and children both consumed beer for sustenance and health, as water stockpiled in barrels onboard grew fetid. Running out of beer was a major reason the Pilgrims landed at Cape Cod and not further south. Ten years later, the Puritans jump-started the American brewing industry.
Cheever winds through the Whiskey Rebellion; Johnny Appleseed's frontier apple orchards that led to healthy apple cider production and, later, 66 proof applejack; Meriwether Lewis's reliance on whiskey in building the Erie Canal; the rum trade's connection to slavery; and the Civil War, where liquor often helped turn the tide of battle.
Cheever cites many examples of how alcohol and drinking have been divisive and destructive forces that have brought "pain... and incompetence" to the history of our national landscape. But she makes an equally effective and compelling historical case for how "drinking is a cherished American custom--a way to celebrate and a way to grieve and a way to take the edge off. It brings people together." --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
H Is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald
British poet and naturalist Helen Macdonald, inconsolable after her father's sudden death, coped with bereavement by immersing herself in training a goshawk. In H Is for Hawk, she shares her decision to adopt Mabel, and her months-long dedication to training this fiercest of creatures. "The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life."
Macdonald juxtaposes the tale of her healing and the grueling protocols of falconry with the parallels--and differences--between her relationship with Mabel and writer T.H. White's relationship with his hawk, Gos, as recorded in his 1951 book The Goshawk. Reading this at age eight fascinated and puzzled her: "Gos was comprehensible, even if the writer was utterly beyond understanding."
She learned to observe from her photojournalist father, and as a "watcher" all her life, Macdonald could imagine herself in the hawk's mind. She vividly portrays the English countryside and her dear Mabel: "Formidable talons, wicked, curved black beak, sleek, café-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-colored teardrops, looking for all the world like some cappuccino samurai." A memoir of loss and healing, a biography and a goshawk primer, H Is for Hawk is heartfelt and lyrical. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
The Light of the World: A Memoir
by Elizabeth Alexander
Poet Elizabeth Alexander (Crave Radiance; the 2009 Inaugural Poem) was enjoying a loving, creative, exultant and full life with her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and their two sons, when Ficre died suddenly. The Light of the World is her record of that man--husband and father, artist, activist and chef--and of Alexander's gratitude for the years she shared with him and the family they made.
This astonishing and naturally poetic memoir of love and loss is vivid with sensory detail. Alexander gives evocative descriptions of Ficre's paintings and the food and music they shared; she counts his scars; she recounts her dreams of him. But her memoir is not a dream: Alexander is lucid and absolutely present. Perhaps to ward off the end, the story she tells starts, and starts again, and starts again: at their respective mothers' pregnancies; at Ficre's 50th birthday, the week of his death; at their meeting at a coffee shop in 1996. In this tender, perceptive portrayal, Ficre--an Eritrean native, a peace-lover born into war--comes alive again.
Language of unrivalled beauty eases a sad story, and Alexander and her sons do make a joyful noise in the end. Their shared dreams, scars, meals and songs are fittingly and exquisitely honored here. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition
by Nisid Hajari
In Midnight's Furies, Nisid Hajari brings his reportorial experience as Asia editor for Bloomberg View to bear on the shocking violence that accompanied the creation of Pakistan and the end of the British Raj in India. Hajari provides an almost day-to-day account of the disastrous political posturing and egregious miscalculations that culminated in genocidal riots and proxy wars during the summer of 1947.
He frames the events surrounding Partition like a Greek tragedy, with epic, larger-than-life figures--Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian Congress; Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan; Mahatma Gandhi--at best failing to ease religious tensions between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, at worst encouraging sectarian violence. None of the major players, however, could have predicted the immense tsunami of hatred that would wash over India in the months prior to and immediately after independence. Built-up tensions and escalating reprisals erupted into full-scale slaughter, which Hajari depicts with horrific intimacy.
Nightmare visions pepper the pages of this often-overwhelming history, but to a purpose: depicting the psychological scars that have dogged Pakistan and India, leading to everything from outright wars to state-sponsored terrorism and nuclear armament. He makes a convincing case that before these wounds are addressed and healed, little progress can be made in the subcontinent. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
by Jon Krakauer
The Department of Justice reports that 110,000 young women in the U.S. are raped yearly. At least 80% of those assaulted don't report it. And odds are that rape is committed by a serial offender. Why? Jon Krakauer (Under the Banner of Heaven; Into Thin Air) explores the reasons in Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, with searing stories of blatant injustice.
Missoula's "greatest source of civic pride" is the University of Montana Grizzlies, whose football players display a sense of entitlement fostered by both school and town. Many in the college milieu view athletes accused of rape as beleaguered victims; students and non-student supporters vilify accusers. One young woman, raped by four players, said, "Mom, they're football players and nobody's gonna listen to me." The police chief discounted her claim of never giving consent since she had been intermittently semi-conscious, not unconscious.
A 2014 Department of Justice report about Missoula was damning; since the report, changes have been made, but the Griz football team's "pernicious atmosphere of entitlement" is still a problem, mirroring other colleges' troubles. Missoula is a passionate, maddening indictment of campus rape in one town that is emblematic of many. --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
by Sy Montgomery
Readers who think of the octopus as only a sea-dwelling monster or a seafood delicacy will be astounded by naturalist Sy Montgomery's peek into the lives of these reclusive, intelligent creatures.
The moment she met Athena, a giant Pacific octopus, at the New England Aquarium, Montgomery fell in love. She knew the basics about octopuses--they can change their color, re-grow limbs, taste chemicals through their skin, squeeze through quarter-sized holes, lift 30 pounds with a single sucker, and engage in play and problem-solving behaviors--but wanted to know more. Although Athena died soon after their meeting, the "alien's kiss" of her tentacles so captivated Montgomery that when a new octopus arrived, she continued visiting and formed relationships with aquarium staff and their eight-legged charges. In her quest better to understand the world of these graceful invertebrates, Montgomery became certified to dive, attended the Seattle Aquarium's Octopus Symposium and spent countless hours with octopuses Octavia, Kali and Karma at the New England Aquarium.
Always lyrical and at times almost worshipful, Montgomery's descriptions of her encounters with these charming cephalopods and their surprising capabilities will make readers fall hard for an animal many regard with horror--and long to walk arm in arm, in arm, in arm. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
This Old Man: All in Pieces
by Roger Angell
Roger Angell's gentle wit and insight permeate brief vignettes in This Old Man. He reviews his stepfather E.B. White's One Man's Meat, a book that "always had the heft, the light usefulness, of a bushel basket, carrying a raking of daily or seasonal notions." His membership in "the greatest generation" somewhat embarrasses him, with its cavalier acceptance of the firebombing of Japan that annihilated close to a million civilians: "Killing more civilians than the other side is what war makes you do, but reaching the decision and then acting on it doesn't make you good or great. It makes you tired and it keeps you awake at night, still crazy after all these years."
Angell's collection ends with "This Old Man," from the New Yorker. He's still got some spunk: "I'm ninety-three, and I'm feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I've forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours... the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already." Let's hope Angell hasn't really had enough already. He's a national treasure, who appreciates the rarity of an unassisted triple play and laments instant replay reviews because "umps should always be right, even when they aren't." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future
by Lauren Redniss
Lauren Redniss (Radioactive) offers a gorgeously rendered and singular piece of work with Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future. Her original artwork--copperplate photogravure etchings and photopolymer process prints, hand-colored, and a few drawings in oil pastel--is stunning, dreamy and evocative, the perfect complement to facts about weather and carefully selected interview excerpts and quotations.
She comments on the artistic tradition that inspired her: artist/scientists whose devotion to precision and accuracy have historically paired with "a sensation of strangeness, wonder, terror." Her work is certainly worthy of that tradition; drawings of wildfires recall Picasso's Guernica, and the chapter entitled "Sky" contains only striking illustrations and no text.
Redniss's text riffs on weather phenomena--conditions (cold, rain, heat, fog), concepts (dominion, war, profit)--and spans the planet and peoples throughout history. She considers weather that has been blamed on witches or credited to gods; the use of cloud seeding as a weapon by the United States against Vietnam; and weather derivatives and insurance. Her subjects are quirky and entertaining; her chapter "Forecast" covers both the Old Farmer's Almanac and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That tone of marvel and whimsy, plus exquisite illustrations, make Thunder & Lightning both remarkably beautiful and pleasingly informative. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders
by Chris Hoke
In the introduction to his humbly powerful memoir, Chris Hoke says he is trying to "paint God" through a series of wanted posters. These posters share the vulnerable and human side of individuals written off by society--cast off to prisons, deportations, even locked Dumpsters.
Drawn to prayer early in life--but not in a way that was easy to define and pursue--Hoke tried formal college studies and informal conversations with church leaders, but it wasn't until he undertook a volunteer position with Tierra Nueva, a Christian ministry in Washington State, that he found the fulfillment he sought. There Hoke helped migrant workers navigate the legal system and served as chaplain in a men's correctional institution. He met with hardened criminals in Bible study groups and one-on-one prayer sessions, learning more about them than what was apparent from their tattoos and rap sheets.
Hoke's story is one of faith and hope, but also a compelling commentary on the U.S penal system and the callous disregard for the bodies and souls crushed by it. Hoke notes a parallel between his life and that of Saint Christopher, patron saint of safe travels, but readers are likely to see a different parallel with a famous shepherd--and wanted man. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts
Children's & Young Adult
Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
by Elizabeth Hammill, collector
From "Baa, baa, black sheep" and "Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack" to "Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree" to "Moses supposes his toeses are roses...," poem gatherer Elizabeth Hammill, who grew up with the unforgettable characters of Mother Goose, loves the "music, beat, rhythm, repetition, and rhyme" of nursery rhymes.
In this knockout-gorgeous British import (created to benefit Seven Stories, Britain's National Centre for Children's Books), an Inuit finger game, a Yiddish rhyme and other "tiny masterpieces of verse" from Jamaica, Australia, England, Scotland, South Africa, America and Trinidad will surprise and delight preschoolers. Peter Piper, Old Mother Hubbard and Little Miss Muffet take their place next to an astonishing variety of lesser known rhymes and verse.
A veritable who's who of much-loved artists--Bob Graham, Ed Young, Mo Willems, Ashley Bryan, Mini Grey, Jon Klassen, Lucy Cousins, Shaun Tan, Jerry Pinkney, Emily Gravett, Nina Crews, Satoshi Kitamura, Polly Dunbar, Charlotte Voake, Chris Raschka, Ted Dewan and many more--creatively interprets 150 nursery rhymes. Over the Hills and Far Away is a visual feast for children's book lovers, a splendid gift for any wee reader and, of course, an unbeatable baby-shower gift. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
hardcover, 160p., ages 2-7, 9780763677299
by Bernard Waber, illus. by Suzy Lee
The late Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile author Bernard Waber's Ask Me is just about a father and daughter on a walk, some might say. Suzy Lee's pencil lines--often in the glaring reds of fall leaves--are expressive, but not meant to be fancy. What's the big deal? The big deal is (and it really, really is) that the conversation between father and daughter reflects all their love and the history they've shared in a way that is so fresh and real it sounds like a transcript of a recording. The girl keeps asking the father to ask her what she likes. When he responds, the text is in purple. Beginning with the girl's line, it goes like this: What else do I like? / What else do you like? / I like sand. I like digging in the sand. I really, really do like digging in the sand. Deep, deep, down, down in the sand. / And I like seashells. Remember when we collected seashells? / I remember. / And I like starfish." This lovely back-and-forth winds over hill and dale until, finally, teeth are brushed and pajamas are on: "Good night." --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-7, 9780547733944
The Way to School
by Rosemary McCarney, Plan International
Around the world children get to class by canoe, through tunnels, up ladders, and by donkey, water buffalo or ox cart. In Rosemary McCarney's The Way to School, a collection of striking, full-color photographs of schoolchildren from Myanmar, the Philippines, Ghana, Brazil, China and beyond, readers will see that the path to school can be "long and hard and even scary," depending on the terrain, the weather, even natural disasters.
The lively, conversational text asks young readers to consider what they would do to get to school. "What if there was a river in your way? Would you bravely wade across... paddle across... float across... or fly across?" Each river crossing, from pants-rolled-up wading to flying through the air on a zipline cable, is illustrated by a crisp, colorful photo of children and accompanying adults doing just that, and each photo is labeled, subtly, in small italics, with the country shown. "Whether your way to school is long and lonely" (solo trudging in Tanzania) or "short and friendly" (walking with friends in Haiti), "It's always worth the journey!" Buoyant and beautiful, The Way to School is a powerful illustration of the importance of education and the universal drive to learn. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Second Story Press,
hardcover, 32p., ages 5-9, 9781927583784
Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus!
by Atinuke, Lauren Tobia
Nigerian-born storyteller Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus is an exuberant, biracial girl who "lives in Africa. Amazing Africa." This warm, appealing picture book opens with Anna leaning her head against her redheaded Mama's big, pregnant belly. This, it turns out, is the calm before the storm, because the "double trouble" in the book's title means twin brothers.
The trouble begins right away. The very first day, Mama is too tired for her morning cuddle with Anna, and Uncle Bizi, who always makes her ogi (a pudding-like cereal) for Sunday breakfast with Grandmother, is busy cooking for Mama. Grandmother is sleeping, because she was up all night helping with the birth of the baby boys. Anna thinks "More trouble!" in what becomes a refrain of sorts. All ends well, however. Soon enough, her ogi is ready, her Grandmother's awake, and Mama even has time to cuddle. In fact, when her baby brothers start crying, Anna rallies around to kiss and comfort them: "Don't cry, little Trouble" and "Don't cry, little Double."
Lauren Tobia's joyful, thoroughly charming illustrations, with their soft, textured lines and rich, festive colors reflect the warmth of a close-knit extended family in the face of "double trouble." --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
hardcover, ages 3-7, 9781610673679
Piper Green and the Fairy Tree
by Ellen Potter, illus. by Qin Leng
Maine's Peek-a-Boo Island, where all the kids ride a lobster boat to school, is the enchanting setting for Piper Green and the Fairy Tree, a warm, witty chapter-book series debut by Ellen Potter (Olivia Kidney series, The Kneebone Boy).
Piper Green insists on wearing her absent older brother Erik's monkey-face earmuffs for the first day of second grade. So, it's with earmuffs stubbornly on that Piper and her little brother Leo take the Maddie Rose, a lobster boat, to the 50-kid school on Mink Island. (At the wharf, Mr. Grindle asks, "How's the wife and kids, Leo?" because Leo tells everyone he's married to a piece of paper named Michelle and that their children are three yellow Post-it notes he stuck on Michelle.) Though Piper is a hilarious first-person narrator, the story is not all hilarity: Piper's brother Erik moved out to attend high school on the mainland, and she misses him fiercely. It's not until she encounters the magic of the mysteriously mewing Fairy Tree that she abandons the earmuffs once and for all. Qin Leng's cheerful, expressive black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations (and a map!) add even more merriment to this story of community, caring and kittens. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
paperback, 112p., ages 7-9, 9780553499261
Listen to the Moon
by Michael Morpurgo
This uplifting, heartrending story by British author Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) opens in May 1915 in the Scilly Islands, off the English coast of Cornwall. Jim Wheatcroft and his son, Alfie, are fishing near the island of St. Helen's, when Alfie hears an "almost human" crying coming from a centuries-old quarantine site. Alfie and Jim discover a half-starved waif and row her home to their farm on Bryher. "Lucy" is the only word she speaks, but her blanket identifies her as possibly German--"a lousy Hun," jeers Cousin Dave. Still, "Lucy Lost," who is a mystery, a silent mermaid or ghost child to the whispering locals, is a welcome distraction from the growing list of wartime casualties in France and Belgium.
Lucy is slowly brought back into the world by the bountiful love of the generous Wheatcrofts, her music and drawing, and a "whiskery old horse" named Peg that won't let anyone but Lucy ride her. Listen to the Moon is a story that invites readers into the sights, sounds and smells of island life, and, refreshingly, unwinds at its own pace, mirroring the steady day-to-day kindness of the Wheatcroft family that forms the cornerstone of this beautiful novel. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan,
hardcover, 352p., ages 10-14, 9781250042040
Gone Crazy in Alabama
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia takes Delphine, Vonetta and Fern--the three sisters from her Newbery Honor book, One Crazy Summer, and P.S. Be Eleven--to their paternal grandmother's home in Alabama. Along the way, she digs deeply into the complexities of race and societal hierarchy during the summer of 1969.
Delphine knows their Brooklyn ways are not so easily tolerated in the Deep South, where Big Ma and her mother, Ma Charles, live. Still, it upsets her when her beloved cousin hangs his head and says "yes sir" to Sheriff Charles. The plot thickens when she finds out Sheriff Charles runs with the Klan--and that he's kin to Ma Charles. Ma Charles and her half-sister, Miss Trotter, aren't speaking, but they aren't so different, really. Delphine discovers, at the root of the pair's rivalry, a need to know that each was loved by the father they shared. When a tornado strikes and Vonetta goes missing, the family comes together--every branch of it. With humor and wisdom, Williams-Garcia layers in the themes of all three books the way the sisters "[lay] their voices down," and the effect is spellbinding. Themes of self-realization, reconciliation and accepting a painful past all culminate in this grand finale. --Jennifer M. Brown
hardcover, 352p., ages 10-14, 9780062215871
The Hired Girl
by Laura Amy Schlitz
In Newbery author Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl, 14-year-old Joan Skraggs wants nothing more than to get an education and become a schoolteacher, as her late mother wanted. The year is 1911, the place rural Pennsylvania, and opportunities for farm girls are few. She vows to escape her cruel father and endless chores, reasoning that if she's going to live a life of servitude, she might as well be paid for it. As soon as she can, Joan flees by train to Baltimore. She changes her name to ''Janet Lovelace'' and winds up in the wealthy Rosenbachs' elegant Jewish home as a hired girl, ''a kind of Gentile Cinderella.'' "Janet" is an aspiring Catholic, and her crash course in Judaism is not only instructive, but often farcical. Her earnest theological musings are humorously contrasted with more worldly concerns, from stylish hats to stray cats to her ardent, forbidden love for the Rosenbachs' artist son, David.
Fans of Little Women, rejoice. Joan's impassioned diary, inspired by Schlitz's own grandmother's journals, explores themes of faith and feminism, love and literature, culture and class in early 20th-century America, all the while charming readers with a vivid cast of characters. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
hardcover, 400p., ages 12-up, 9780763678180
by Gary D. Schmidt
Gary D. Schmidt, two-time Newbery Honor winner, tells the terrific, gut-punching story of a 14-year-old boy who is the father of a child he's never seen, a baby named Jupiter.
When teenager Joseph Brook is delivered by the State of Maine to the Hurds' farm, the social worker warns them that he won't be touched, won't eat canned peaches and, by the way, has a baby somewhere. But 12-year-old Jack Hurd knows Joseph is an okay guy when the family cow, Rosie, takes a liking to him. Orbiting Jupiter grabs readers by the collar right away, with Jack's direct, plainspoken voice that bursts with heart.
Joseph, withdrawn at first, warms up to the family in time, but his past haunts him. He often cries out the name of his true love and baby's mother, Maddie, and one moonlit night, sitting around the fire with Jack and his parents, Joseph says, "I have to see Jupiter. Will you help me?" To the bitter end, the Hurds remain as comfortingly steadfast and true as "the smell of hay and old wood and leather and cow" of their barn. Love doesn't conquer all in this spare, masterful novel, but it's a force to be reckoned with. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
hardcover, 192p., ages 13-up, 9780544462229
by Martine Leavitt
Seventeen-year-old Calvin's first gift was a tiger named Hobbes, his best friend is named Susie, and he was born the same day Bill Watterson's last Calvin and Hobbes comic was published. It's little wonder, then, that he thinks he is Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. And that would also explain why Hobbes the tiger is actually talking to him.
Canadian novelist and National Book Award finalist Martine Leavitt (Heck Superhero; Katurah and Lord Death) skillfully reflects the daily agony of a funny, hyper-intelligent young man who just wants to be normal, not a guy who's diagnosed with schizophrenia. Calvin decides that if he can persuade Bill Watterson to write just one more comic--one with no Hobbes--then he will be cured. And, if he walks from his home in Ontario, across the frozen top of Lake Erie to Ohio, where Watterson lives, the cartoonist won't be able to refuse. Susie decides to join him, and their treacherous, icy journey blurs into a dreamlike odyssey. They talk about beauty, bullying, poverty, war, zebra mussels... and the possibility of changing the world. Leavitt's Calvin is a hopeful, exquisite exploration of the human mind--both well and sick--and the slippery nature of reality. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness
hardcover, 192p., ages 12-up, 9780374380731