Thursday, January 12, 2017

2016 Reading Wrap-Up

I read a lot of books last year. Here's my favorite forty. Many of these have already been reviewed in my monthly reading round-ups, but I want to do a little more to spotlight them.  So here are the forty best books I read in 2016, over all categories.


Book of a Thousand Days         Hale, Shannon
Drawing inspiration from a little known tale from the Brothers Grimm, Hale weaves a fairy tale story that takes seriously the vulnerability of women in a society ruled by men, and the vulnerability of servants in a world of aristocrats.  Plus, this fantasy version of the Central Asian steppes is a refreshing alternative to yet another faux medieval European world.

Full Cicada Moon           Hilton, Marilyn
A novel in verse following a biracial girl who dreams of space flight living in a small New England town in 1969.  I highly recommend it to everyone, especially fans of the "One Crazy Summer" trilogy.

Code Name Verity   Wein, Elizabeth
A suspenseful WWII spy drama, a window into the little known history of female pilots in the war, and a powerful portrait of female friendship.  Carefully researched and beautifully written.

Pride and Prejudice     Austen, Jane
I expected it to be a moving love story about an intelligent, independent woman.  I expected a biting critique of Regency gender politics.  I didn't expect it to also be laugh-out-loud funny.  I am now a confirmed Janeite.

Fake Mustache    Angleberger, Tom
When I first reviewed Fake Mustache, I argued that a plot in which a completely unqualified person nearly becomes President thanks to a nefarious scheme and the hypnotic powers of the titular hairpiece made it impossible to classify the book as realistic fiction, in spite of the fact that there are no obvious sci-fi or fantasy tropes at play here.  Unfortunately, the recent election made this book far too real for me.  But I'm glad we still have books like this one, where national disaster is averted by the efforts of a well-meaning nerd and a knockoff Hannah Montana.

Seventh Son (Tales of Alvin Maker, #1)  Card, Orson Scott
There is much more at work here than just a retelling of Mormon origins with magic added.  It is a complete reexamination of America's founding mythos. Ben Franklin is a wizard who tamed the power of lightning.  Thomas Jefferson is a guerilla freedom fighter against a Southern monarchy.  George Washington is Lord Potomac, sent by the king to apprehend Jefferson and put down the rebellion.  And weaving through all of it is a William Blake who came to America and took the name Taleswapper, seeking visions of the divine along the frontier.


H is for Hawk    Macdonald, Helen
Part memoir of grief, part ode to the bird of prey she has chosen to raise, part history of falconry, part biography of T. H. White and his own troubled relationship with a goshawk.  All of it moving and deeply insightful.  I received a free copy from Leah Libresco.  

Long Walk to Freedom    Mandela, Nelson
Nelson Mandela has rightfully become a legend for his decades of struggle against Apartheid, his role in a peaceful end to the regime, and his time as South Africa's first black president.  Through it all, he proved himself as a man of immense integrity and dignity.  As a writer, he is thoughtful and deeply gracious, pointing out his own flaws while giving others the benefit of the doubt, and his memoirs are as much a history of the movement as the life of a man.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad      Anderson, M.T.
Anderson is the author of "Feed", a young adult dystopian tale that deserves much more attention than it receives.  Here, he tells the story of a real dystopia-- Stalin's Russia.  Starting with the hook of the incredible journey of the microfilm of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony from the beseiged city to the United States, it delves into the terror and repression that spread through the USSR in the 1930's, then takes on the Nazi invasion of Russia and the Seige of Leningrad itself.  This is an unflinchingly wise look at the horrors of the Twentieth Century.

Last Night, a Superhero Saved My Life   Mignogna, Liesa
A wide-ranging collection of essays on the ways in which superhero stories bleed into our lives and come to influence our identities.  Some of the essays are luminous, some workmanlike, all worth reading for fans of comics or for anyone who wonders why so many adults devote so much time to fantastic stories.

This Bridge Will Not Be Gray     Eggers, Dave
A history of the Golden Gate Bridge, this is one of the best picture books ever written about public architecture.

Building the Book Cathedral Macaulay, David
David Macaulay's work is amazing, and this delightfully meta book has his classic work on the construction of a Gothic cathedral surrounded in the margins with details on how he researched, created, and revised the original.

Comics and Graphic Novels

Lumberjanes  Stevenson, Noelle et al
I'm identifying the entire series here rather than a specific issue or collected volume.  Lumberjanes is a delightfully zany comic whose madcap hijinks rest on a solid base of deep character development.  Each of the Lumberjanes Scouts is a unique and fully realized person, and their strong friendships are the foundation for all of the action that follows.

Orbital   Runberg, Sylvain; Pellé, Serge
Again, I'm talking here about the whole series so far.  In six volumes, Orbital tells an interesting original story of Earth's ascension into an intergalactic Federation.  At a time when collective organizations on Earth, such as the EU, are struggling to determine how to balance the collective good and national sovereignty, a thriller of space diplomats facing similar challenges is fascinating, and Orbital does a great job.  The series so far is clearly building towards some big reveals, and I look forward to future installments.

Batman: Earth One, Volume 1 Johns, Geoff; Frank, Gary; Sibal, John
Johns' depicts an early, unready Batman better than Frank Miller's classic Year One.  This is a Batman who, eager to reveal a powerful conspiracy behind his parent's death, misreads the clues and finds patterns that aren't there.  It's his failures here that prepare him for greater work in the future. Yet my favorite changes here are to Alfred, who is re-imagined as head of security for the Waynes, a grizzled veteran who becomes a compassionate caretaker for the young Bruce Wayne, but who is definitely not the classic butler.

Barbarian Lord   Smith, Matt
He-Man meets the Viking Sagas in this arresting adventure tale.  Complete with land disputes, talking ravens, poetic rap battles and skeletal villains, Barbarian Lord is a beautiful mashup of '80's fantasy campiness with authentic Viking culture.

Hicksville          Horrocks, Dylan
A meditation on the meaning and nature of comics as both art and industry told through a mind-bending, multi-layered comics narrative.

Jerusalem: A Family Portrait      Yakin, Boaz; Bertozzi, Nick
Yakin is a filmmaker, and this is a highly cinematic portrayal of familial angst amid the national struggle of Israel's war of independence.

The Only Child       Guojing
A hauntingly beautiful story of loneliness and imagination, drawing on the author's experience as an only child in the People's Republic of China.

Lando    Soule, Charles; Maleev, Alex
The perfect heist story, with the smoothest operator in the galaxy in the title role.  This story gives Lando time to shine, and shows the firm moral core of the lovable con man begin to rise to the surface, setting up his future with the galactic Rebellion.

Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage       Morrison, Grant; Case, Richard; Braithwaite, Doug;  Hanna, Scott; Garzon, Carlos; Nyberg, John
Doom Patrol is weird and awesome.  Here, deeply damaged heroes protect a world which has rejected them from absurdist existential threats from beyond this dimension. 

New Super-Man      Yang, Gene Luen; Bogdanovic, Viktor; Friend, Richard
When a lazy teen bully whose previous brushes with adventure have mostly revolved around hitting up nerdy classmates for their lunch money stands up to a super-villain invader and gets featured on national television, the Chinese government decides he's the perfect test subject for an experiment to create their own national Superman.  But now that he's super, Kenan Kong has a lot to learn about how to be a hero.

Fantasy Sports No. 1     Bosma, Sam
The world needs more epic fantasy/NBA mash up stories.  With a tone somewhere between hit genre-bending fantasy comic "Spera" and the recent breakout "Rutabaga: Adventure Chef", Bosma's first "Fantasy Sports" tale reveals Wiz Kid, an intern with the Mage's Guild, and Mug, the barbarian raider she's been assigned to shadow, as they seek to rob the treasure of an ancient tomb and are forced to beat it's undead ruler at his own game-- the game of hoops!  Here's to many more adventures for this duo.

Level Up           Yang, Gene Luen; Pham, Thien
After his father's death, gaming prodigy Dennis Ouyang is visited by four angels who promise to help him fulfill his father's dream that he become a doctor.  Things go well for a little while, but when Dennis expresses uncertainty about what he wants for his future, the angels are revealed as a little less than angelic.  A thoughtful take on the challenges of meeting the expectations of hardworking immigrant parents, and the pressures that haunt us all.

Picture Books

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem "Pangur Bán"     Bogart, Jo Ellen; Smith, Sydney
A perfect picture book.  With a paraphrase of a thousand year old poem for text, and illustrations that are nothing short of illuminating, this is a delightful read.

The Hello, Goodbye Window     Juster, Norton; Raschka, Chris
A collaboration between two of my favorite children's book creators.  It's a beautiful tale of family love that rightfully won a Caldecott when it was published.  As an adult reader, my thoughts turn to the backstory of the grandparents, an interracial

The Supreme, Superb, Exalted and Delightful, One and Only Magic Building     Kotzwinkle, William; Servello, Joe
A Babel-like fable set in an ancient Chinese empire.  A haughty emperor sets out to build the most impressive building in the world as a monument to his legacy, and he brings craftsmen from throughout his mighty realm.  But in the end, his pride and arrogance bring down the edifice he builds.  The woodcut illustrations complement the text beautifully. Unlike many older picture books set in Asia (I'm looking at you, Tikki Tikki Tembo) it doesn't depend on stereotypes and presents authentic characters.

Walk On!: A Guide for Babies of All Ages           Frazee, Marla
Marla Frazee is a genius, and this how-to guide/inspirational manifesto is brilliantly executed.  

The Beginner's Guide to Running Away from Home     Huget, Jennifer Larue; Red Nose Studio
Another excellent how-to guide.  Anything illustrated by Red Nose Studio is worth a read, and Huget's clever tongue-in-cheek text easily matches the beautiful illustrations.

A Bus Called Heaven   Graham, Bob
Bob Graham excels at modern fables about the importance of community.  This is the story of how a little girl, with a little help from her neighborhood, turns an abandoned bus into the place everyone wants to be.  Call it the "Stone Soup" of community organizing.

The Heart and the Bottle           Jeffers, Oliver
A moving fable of grief and love from Jeffers.

The Wicked Big Toddlah       Hawkes, Kevin
Sometimes in a book, illustrations serve a stronger text, sometimes text serves the illustrations, sometimes they work perfectly hand in hand.  And sometimes, text and illustrations compete with one another to make the story even more hilarious and over the top.  That's the case here, where matter of fact narration from a girl about her younger brother is paired with zany illustrations of her family's frantic attempts to care for the gargantuan infant.

North Woods Girl         Bissonette, Aimée; McGehee, Claudia
We all know that you have to go through the woods to get to grandmother's house, but this book about a grandmother, granddaughter duo shows what to do once you get there.  A rich tale of family and forest.


The Rocket Book          Newell, Peter
This experimental picture book published in 1912 has a gimmick-- there is a hole punched through the center of each page.   In the illustrations, these holes mark the passage of a rocket set off accidentally in the basement through 20 floors of apartment building, causing chaos along the way.  The book is in the Library of Congress' rare book collection, and was digitized so anyone can read it.  Read it here.

Mormon Shorts            Hales, Scott
I could call "Mormon Shorts" an LDS "Far Side" but that comparison would fail to capture Hale's versatility and gentle, tongue-in-cheek humor.  This is a great collection of single panel comics and twitter-length fiction about Mormon culture and belief.  You can read some of the comics from the collection for free online here. And you can find out more about Scott and other things he writes here.

A Street Called Home     Robinson, Aminah Brenda Lyn
"A Street Called Home" is a fold-out accordion book presenting a full Aminah Robinson tapestry.  Lively and full of detail, it is a window into the little told history of Northern black communities in the early twentieth century.  It was my second time "reading" the book that I realized that there is art on both sides of the accordion sheet, effectively presenting two tapestries.  This is one you'll want to unfold in your living room and look at for an hour or two.

Sail Away         Hughes, Langston; Bryan, Ashley
Hughes poems of the sea are powerfully illustrated by Ashley Bryan, an artist and children's book author and illustrator who was literally born into the Harlem Renaissance (He was born in Harlem in 1923 and credits his childhood in an environment filled with art for helping him choose his path in life).  Having lived in coastal Maine for several decades now, Bryan is attuned to Hughes' love for the ocean and his papercuts are the perfect accompaniment for Hughes' words.

Lost & Found    Tan, Shaun
The stories in this book fall somewhere in the borderlands between comic book, picture book and illustrated short story. Taken together, they showcase Tan's prodigious imagination, and the very pleasurable act of reading the text and intricate artwork lets us look at the world from a slantwise perspective, rather similar to standing on one's head.  The first tale, "The Red Tree" is a parable of depression and creativity.  "The Lost Thing" invokes some of the otherworldliness Tan's "Arrival" or "Tales from Suburbia."  The final tale, "The Rabbits" actually illustrates a text by John Marsden, an allegory of colonization from the perspective of those colonized.  With Tan's paintings, it becomes a steampunk anti-colonial "Watership Down." If you're not familiar with Tan's work, do yourself a favor and check out everything he's created.

The Bird King and Other Sketches          Tan, Shaun
It's always interesting to get an insight into the imagination and process of a talented artist.  This sketchbook contains whole worlds and well displays Tan's talents. If you've never read a book by Tan, read all the others first, then come back to this.
How to Be Drawn         Hayes, Terrance
Have you ever read a poetic spreadsheet? Police report? Architectural summary? Interview transcript?  Hayes takes on all these forms and more in a book that takes poetry firmly into our modern world of technical writing, pushing at the boundaries of written forms many of us interact with on a daily basis.

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