Best YA and Middle Grade Books of 2016

All year long I’ve shared my reads with you, but now we get to get down to the good stuff: the best books of 2016. In order to make the lists manageable and catered to your interests, I’m breaking down the year’s best reads into three categories: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, and Best Middle Grade/Young Adult. One thing to note: my Best Of lists consist of the best books I read in 2016, but is not limited to books published in 2016. Okay then, let’s talk kid lit!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Young Adult

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

When I read the last sentence and closed this book, I took a deep breath. I knew it would take me some time to come to terms with it (in the best way possible). If you had asked me at different points in the book what I thought, I would have given you three different answers. In the first third of the book I was slightly confused and more than a little worried. Both the format and the writing style took some getting used to. Told from the perspective of twins Noah and Jude, the story alternates both in narrators and timing. Noah tells the before, when the twins are 13 and everything they know about life and each other seems to be changing. Jude narrates the period 3 years later, after their world is torn apart. Nelson has the uncanny ability to write straight from a teen’s brain. It was confusing at first, but once I dialed into it, I loved it. This was my pick for book club and I was feeling anxious that I’d made a terrible choice! In the middle of the book, after getting used to the writing style and getting deeper into the story, I was hooked. And the last third of the book? I couldn’t stop. It’s been a long time since I was so absorbed in a story that I knew I couldn’t sleep until I’d finished the book, but that’s exactly what happened with I’ll Give You the Sun. I literally gasped out loud at one point, and was sorely disappointed that, at 1 in the morning I didn’t have anyone to talk about the book with! I sobbed at the end, as Noah and Jude make each half of their story whole in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to remake their world.

Salt to the Sea by Ruth Sepetys

Salt to the Sea taught me about an epic historical event I knew absolutely nothing about (and I bet you don’t, either). In this historical fiction novel for young adults, we learn about the terrible tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Arranged by the Germans, the ship was to be salvation for over 9000 German refugees fleeing the Soviet army. Instead it was sunk by Russian torpedo, resulting in the largest loss of life in a single ship history. And I’d never even heard of it. Told in alternating viewpoints as several characters make their way to the ship, it’s a riveting and heartbreaking story. It came highly recommended and I now know why. It’s marketed for teens (and content makes it best for 14 and up), but it’s so solidly written and researched that any fan of historical fiction, regardless of age, will enjoy it.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Teen crushes, Dolly Parton, small town Texas, and an over-the-top beauty pageant … what more could you ask for in a delicious YA book? I stole this one from Elena’s book shelf and devoured it faster than one of the red candy suckers hunky Bo leaves for Willowdean in her locker. Willowdean is used to not fitting in and she’s fine with it. Being the overweight daughter of the town’s former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet winner is Willowdean’s claim to fame, and she’s happy to not draw any more attention to herself than that fun fact already does. The pageant is her mom’s thing, who’s gone from crown-winner to crown-giver as the head of the pageant. Willowdean is comfortable in her own skin and in being the sidekick to her cute best friend, until the attention of Bo and a rift with her BFF leave her unsure about everything. She can think of only one way to get her confidence (and maybe her best friend) back: entering the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant. Willowdean and the charming characters of Clover City, Texas won me over in the first few chapters. This book deserves a tiara of its own!

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Jessie is floundering. In less than two years her life has been turned upside down. Her mother died. Her father eloped to a widow he met online. And now, in an effort towards new beginnings, her father moves them from Chicago to LA to live with their new family. It’s all going wrong and Jessie can’t fit in to save her life. Then she gets an email from someone calling themselves Somebody/Nobody (SN). SN seems kind and helpful, offering to be Jessie’s guide to her new school and everyone in it. But should she trust SN? Does SN really have her best interests at heart, or is this just another cruel trick played by classmates? Things get complicated as Jessie begins to have feelings for SN, just as she’s getting a small foothold on her new life.

This is exactly the kind of YA I love: smartly written, but not too serious; funny, but not silly. I’m also finding I have a new appreciation for books set in LA now that I’ve been there. I took this book to the beach with me and it was perfect for reading in short bursts in between sunning and swimming.

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

More like This is What Fluffy YA Fun Looks Like. Smith’s book read like a modern-day version of my tween/teen daydreams: Quiet girl-next-door strikes up flirty (yet completely anonymous) relationship with boy via email, thanks to one mistyped character in an email address. Boy, who happens to be world-famous teen-heartthrob, figures our where girl lives and convinces the producers of his next big movie to film on location in girl’s small town. Will they fall in love in real life? Can they survive jealous friends, meddling agents, and keep their relationship under wraps? OH, THE DRAMA. But it totally works and I loved it. Elena loved it, too.

Middle Grade

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

You guys, I did it! I finally read Harry Potter! I don’t know why I waited so long, but you can bet it won’t take me as many years to read the rest of the series. I read the first book as my pick for “A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF” in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. Both Mike and the kids have been begging me to read the books for years. Since finishing the first book, I also got through The Chamber of Secrets by listening to the audio version on our way to the beach. The audio versions, narrated by Jim Dale are fantastic. My goal for 2017 is to finish the series (I’m on Book 4). I’m hoping if I finish them next year and I’m very, very good, I’ll earn myself a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2018!

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Mysterious, nuanced, sad and relatable … those are just a few of the words that come to mind after finishing When You Reach Me. I read this aloud to Eli, and we both found ourselves wanting to read just one more chapter to get us closer to figuring out the many mysteries in Miranda’s life. Will her mom win the $20,000 Pyramid? What’s up with the Laughing Man? Why does her best friend, Sal, suddenly want nothing to do with her? And most troubling, who is leaving letters for Miranda and what will happen if she ignores them? I remember Elena trying to read this one on her own in 4th or 5th grade and declaring it “too creepy” to finish. It does have a dark side, but when read aloud and given the opportunity for discussion I think it’s perfectly appropriate for 3rd grade and up (although Eli did groan at the mention of kissing).

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

I want to give Vanderpool all the gold stars for writing a book that manages to grapple with tough subjects (autism, PTSD, grief, and adolescence) beautifully through relatable and endearing characters. Jack Baker is adrift in his new boarding school in Maine. A grieving Midwest boy struggling to fit in, he finds a friend in the most unlikely of boys, Early Auden. They set out together on the Appalachian Trail together for very different reasons, learning valuable lessons about friendship, trust and the deepest kind of love. I read this aloud to Eli and we were both hooked. He loved the plot line of two boys on a quest, while I swooned over some of the best writing and dialogue I’ve found in a middle grade book.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

I’ve never read anything like this Newbery Medal Winner by Kwame Alexander. Written in verse,  a genre that I would typically pass over. But it came highly recommended, and I thought the topic (basketball) would appeal to Eli. We both loved it. It made us laugh, think and talk about some tricky issues regarding relationships, and cry. Alexander tells the story of twins Josh and Jordan. They both love basketball and they’re fantastically good at it, thanks to passion, genetics and the coaching of their father (a former professional player). Junior high brings big changes to the boys and their relationship: girls, competition, rivalry and worries about their father’s health. Their struggles and their story would be compelling on its own, but the writing style takes it to another level. I’d recommend this book to just about anybody (I bet the audio version would be fantastic!), but I’d enthusiastically put it in the hands of reluctant young male readers.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo is a master at writing books for children that adults will love. She’s also extremely gifted at writing books that make wonderful read-alouds. Despereaux the mouse may be small (even if his ears are extremely large), but he is mighty and brave when it comes to his love for the Princess Pea. Nothing can stop him from rescuing her – not the deep, dark dungeon, the rats, the butcher knife, or his own family’s betrayal. But it’s in the journey in which he learns what’s really important: love, loyalty and soup. Eli wasn’t captivated by the first couple of chapters, but I urged him to give it a few more nights of reading … and he was hooked. We especially love the character of Miggery Sow. Not only is she fun to read as a narrator, but she speaks to the heart of what all children want: to be heard and seen.

What did you and your kids read and love in 2016?

Best YA & Middle Grade Books of 2016

 

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Best Fiction Books of 2016

All year long I’ve shared my reads with you, but now we get to get down to the good stuff: the best books of 2016. In order to make the lists manageable and catered to your interests, I’m breaking down the year’s best reads into three categories: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, and Best Middle Grade/Young Adult. One thing to note: my Best Of lists consist of the best books I read in 2016, but is not limited to books published in 2016. Okay then, let’s talk fiction!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I put this on my Best of 2016 list way back in January, and I haven’t changed my mind. Dystopian, set-in-the-future, computer-gaming books would not normally be a genre I’d naturally pick up, but this book came highly recommended by several readers whose judgement I trust. It was also recommended that I listen to the audio version, narrated by my childhood crush, Wil Wheaton.

Set in 2044, Wade Watts’ United States isn’t much like the one we live in today. Thanks to a catastrophic energy crisis, most of the population can barely afford to keep themselves fed and housed. Mass migrations to the cities have resulted in most citizens living in “Stacks:” trailer home after trailer home stacked haphazardly on top of one another. With no family to speak of, and little resources, the socially awkward and introverted teenager finds comfort in the virtual world of the OASIS. When the creator of the OASIS and object of Wade’s deep admiration, James Halliday, dies and leaves his vast fortune to the first person who can unlock the hidden digital puzzles within the virtual world, Wade becomes obsessed. And when he becomes the first player to stumble upon the first clue, the game is on. What follows is a fast-paced journey through a virtual future, mixed with drama, humor, suspense and SO many fantastic references to the 80s. Even if you think this book isn’t for you, I beg you to give it a chance. I highly recommend the audio version – Wheaton is absolute perfection as Wade.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

It seemed that 2016 was the year of elderly characters for me! I read several (The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The One-in-a-Million Boy, and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper), but I will never, ever forget Ove as long as I live. He’s my favorite geezer (very closely followed by Ona in The One-in-a-Million Boy).

Ove is the curmudgeonly, easily angered neighbor nobody wants next door. How hard can it be to mind your own business and follow the rules? In this day and age, it’s apparently very hard for everyone but Ove. Underneath the gruff exterior, there lies a deep sadness in Ove. He grieves for the love of his life, and wants nothing more than to join her … if only everyone around him wouldn’t make it so bloody difficult! Ove’s plans and carefully constructed world come crashing down when a new family moves in next door. Between the bumbling husband, nosy wife, and the chatty young girls, Ove can’t find a moment’s peace. And that’s before the cat moves in. Forget 2016, this is one of my favorite books of all time.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Reclusive, fiercely private and cranky author M.M. “Mimi” Banning hasn’t been seen or heard from since she published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel 30 years ago. After falling prey to a financial scam, she needs the money to keep from losing her home … so she must the world’s most anticipated follow-up novel. In order to do so, she’ll need a little help with childcare for her 9-year-old son, Frank. He’s no ordinary child: well read and familiar with every old Hollywood film, with a closet full of suits, spectacles and hats to help him dress the part, Frank is both charming and troubled. It will take someone special to care for Frank and live up to Mimi’s standards. Enter Alice, sent by her boss and Mimi’s publisher to do whatever it takes to give Mimi the time and privacy to finish her novel. Witty, funny and thoughtful, Johnson’s novel is a must-read.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Scott Burroughs is a struggling painter and recovering alcoholic living a quiet life in Martha’s Vineyard when Sarah offers him a ride to the city on her husband’s private jet. Joining them on a Sunday evening flight are Sarah’s husband, head of a cable news network, her two children, Ben, an investment banker on the verge of indictment for fraud and his wife, the family security guard, the stewardess and two pilots. When the plane crashes into the ocean without warning 16 minutes later, only two survive: Scott and the couple’s 4-year-old son. Mirroring today’s vicious news cycle, Scott goes from being the hero to a suspect in a matter of days. What (or who) was behind the crash? Are Scott’s motives for building a relationship with the boy influenced by money? Hawley tells a fascinating and gripping story, keeping the reader on their toes and turning pages. This is definitely one of my top reads of the year – just don’t read it on a plane!

The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood

It’s heartbreaking to fall in love with a character you already know is going to die. That’s what happens with “the boy” in this quirky novel by Monica Wood. Is it strange to call a story about an 11-year-old boy that dies quirky? Probably. But Wood manages to make a story that could be so easily overshadowed by death and sadness into story about hope, tenacity, acceptance and forgiveness.

When the boy is assigned to help 104-year-old Ona Vitkus as part of a scouting project, he embarks on a journey to do so much more than fill her bird feeders and sweep her walk. Obsessed with Guinness world records of all sorts, he inspires Ona to try for her own world records in the “Oldest” categories, starting with Oldest Licensed Driver. Ona makes the boy feel welcome and comfortable in his own odd skin, while the boy brings Ona companionship and joy that she hasn’t felt in years. His sudden death leaves a hole in her life and many others, including his estranged parents, Belle and Quinn. Belle asks only one thing of Quinn: finish your son’s scout requirement and spend the next seven Saturdays helping Ona around the house. Through Ona and the spirit of the boy, Quinn tries to work through the sadness and regret of being an absent father to a boy he never knew or understood.

Knowing the boy is going to die is indeed heartbreaking. Still, Wood gives the reader reasons to feel hope and joy through his presence and the other broken but lovable characters. I know cranky elderly characters with a hidden soft side seem to be a literary theme lately, and I can see how a reader might be done with the idea. But please don’t pass over this one just for that reason! Fans of A Man Called Ove or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time should especially give The One in a Million Boy a read.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In the modern day, we like to think nothing short of a nuclear war could end the world as we know it. But in Emily St. John Mandel’s beautiful and haunting book, all it takes is a fast-moving virus. The Georgian Flu explodes around the world, killing anyone who contracts it within 48 hours. Highly contagious, it wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The few survivors suddenly find themselves in a world without transportation, communication, or electricity. Entire cities are deserted, leaving behind only corpses and the remains of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Twenty years later, a troupe of artists, actors and musicians known as The Traveling Symphony wander from outpost to outpost, entertaining the survivors and trying to bring beauty into a bleak world. Welcomed by most, they are disturbed and frightened to come across a violent and controlling prophet who seeks to end their existence. As they travel to escape the prophet and bring missing Symphony members back to the safety of the fold, the author weaves together the past and the present to reveal the things that connect us even as the world falls apart around us.

The dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre doesn’t appeal to everyone, but if you’ve written them off as not for you I would encourage you to give Station Eleven a chance. I like to think of it as dystopian for the discerning reader. I was riveted from beginning to end.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Plumb siblings (Leo, Bea, Jack and Melody) have spent years dreaming, planning and getting themselves into financial trouble with only one thought in mind … it will all be fine after “The Nest.” The Nest is a trust set aside by their father long ago, meant to be nothing more than a modest midlife supplement, available to the children when the youngest turned 40. But thanks to some shrewd investing, The Nest is worth more than any of them could have imagined. At least it was, until Leo’s accident. With Leo facing an expensive divorce, a stint in rehab, and an injured young girl that needs shush money, the once glorious Nest is in danger of being depleted. You won’t believe this is Sweeney’s first novel. It’s juicy, filled with family drama, greed and lust. You’ll be sucked in immediately, pulling for some characters and shaking your head in exasperation at others. I read this for book club and the discussion was fantastic.

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

Lily the dachshund is more than just Ted Flask’s pet. She’s not just man’s best friend, she’s his best friend. On Thursdays they talk about cute boys. On Fridays they play Monopoly, and on Sundays they eat pizza. They’ve been together for 12 years, and Lily has seen Ted through highs and lows. He is particularly low, unhappily single after a six-year relationship ends and going through the motions in dating and therapy, when he notices a visitor. Lily has an octopus. On her head. Author Steven Rowley tells a tale for dog-lovers and regular humans (I make no promises for cat lovers) alike about the unique love humans share with their dogs. Based on his relationship with his own Lily, who developed a brain tumor that eventually took her life, Lily and the Octopus is a treat to read. You wouldn’t expect a book about a melancholy owner facing the death of his dog to be funny, but it is – Rowley has a way with words that invokes laughs without resorting to snark. But prepare yourself – you will be touched deeply and there will be eye rain.

Still Life by Louise Penny

My love for Anne Bogel’s book recommendations runs strong. I know she loves this murder mystery series a lot, but when guests on her podcast, What Should I Read Next, consistently brought it up as one of the 3 books they love, I knew it was time to pay attention. My initial stubborness at reading this book came from the fact that I don’t actively seek out murder mysteries and I especially don’t seek out an entire series of them. I have a hard enough time getting through my TBR list without adding a 12-part series to it! Well, I’m hooked! The series revolves around Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector with the Surêté du Québec. He’s the very best at his job, and in the first book he’s sent to the rural town of Three Pines. The quiet little town’s beloved resident Jane Neal has been found killed by a hunter’s arrow. Unfortunate accident or sinister plot? Only Gamache can find out. I’m on my fifth book in the series and I crave them like you would crave a warm fire and a hot mug of cocoa on a cold evening. I’m a big fan of books that are able to transport you to a place you’ve never been before and make you want to live there. I mean, other than someone from Three Pines getting whacked in every novel, the place seems quite lovely! I hope to finish the series in 2017, but will cry big fat tears when the last book is read.

The Martian by Andy Weir

When Mark Watney wakes up after the accident that nearly killed him he notices two things: he’s not dead, and he’s stranded on Mars. Alone. A sudden sandstorm wreaks havoc on Watney and his fellow Hermes crew members. In their rush to escape, he’s injured. The signals coming from Mark’s spacesuit indicate he’s dead, leaving his heartbroken crew mates no choice but to evacuate and save themselves. What follows is a fantastic story of survival, ingenuity, and sacrifice. Watney refuses to give up and die, and those back on Earth refuse to accept his return as an impossibility. I don’t typically enjoy science fiction, and early descriptions of the book painted it as very detailed and extremely accurate when it came to descriptions of space travel and life on Mars. I decided to move past my worries that it would be boring or over my head and chose it for “A book that intimidates you” for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. I’m so glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version. Did some parts get overly descriptive and deep into science and math? Yes, and I let them go right over my head. It didn’t interfere with my understanding of the story one bit. I enjoyed the movie every bit as much as the book, even with the weird Hollywood liberties they took with the rescue attempt.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Every time I pick up a book that takes place during World War II I wonder if it’s possible to add anything new to the story. Hasn’t everything already been written? And then I get swept away in a book like Everyone Brave is Forgiven. I learn something new and give thanks yet again to have never experienced war in my own front yard. Cleave’s novel is set in London in the early years of the war. While Alistair volunteers to serve his country, his friends Tom, Mary and Hilda are left behind. Alistair battles near-starvation and the loss of a limb while under siege in Malta, while the others endure the daily bombings in London.

It took me about 75 pages to get into the book, but once I did I couldn’t put it down. Beyond the subject of the war, Cleave’s characters grapple with love, loyalty, class and race. It is heartbreaking at times, and (trigger warning) a few passages are painfully descriptive in regards to war injuries and death. But it is also beautifully written, and I found myself re-reading passages for their beauty and writing down lines to remember always. (“But what good is it to teach a child to count, if you don’t show him he counts for something?” asks Mary of Tom in regards to her fondness for an African American student.) It is also witty and funny, and I found myself laughing out loud at the banter between the characters. Everyone Brave is Forgiven reminded me of everything I loved about All the Light We Cannot See – a gripping story, endearing characters and top notch prose – with the added fun of amusing dialogue between young friends.

You know my favorite fiction of 2016, now it’s your turn. What’s the best fiction book you read in 2016?

These are the 11 books I read and loved the most in 2016.  Some great picks for your next book club in here!

 

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September – November 2016 Must Reads

Driveway reading

This post contains affiliate links.

How is your reading coming along these days? We’ve had such a gorgeous fall here in the Midwest, and that’s translated into more reading time for me. How so? Well, I treated myself to a camping rocker from REI in September. As we’re not a camping people, the rocker has taken up residence in my garage. On the many mild and sunny afternoons and balmy early evenings, I’ve pulled my rocker out to the driveway and read. I set a goal of reading 80 books this year, and I’m thrilled to see that I’ve hit that goal with a month and a half left to go in 2016!

This year I’d like to share a few posts in December reviewing my Best Books of 2016, and so I’m going to wrap up my monthly reviews with this post and share December Must Reads after the first of the year. One more quick aside before I delve into the reviews …

If you read and loved A Man Called Ove as much as I did, I highly recommend the movie. They did an absolutely wonderful job with it, and I think readers will be pleased. Makes me want to read the book again! Ove and his motley crew of neighbors are some of my favorite characters of all time. FYI: the movie is in Swedish, so be prepared for subtitles.

Must Reads

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This was my pick for the MMD Reading Challenge in the category of “A book published before you were born.” Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five was Vonnegut’s unique way of sharing his experience as a witness to the bombing of Dresden during WWII. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war, as is the character of Billy Pilgrim. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, I don’t imagine Vonnegut experienced time travel or was captured by aliens. After my previous experience with science fiction (Sleeping Giants) and my tendency to not enjoy the “classics” as much as I enjoy contemporary fiction, I was hesitant to pick up Slaughterhouse Five. But I’m a slave to my Reading Challenge picks, and I also felt quite guilty as a Hoosier not ever having read anything by Indianapolis native Vonnegut. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the novel. It was clever, witty and felt quite modern.

The Girls by Emma Cline

I almost chose this as my Book of the Month Club selection in July, changing my mind at the last minute. I had a feeling it would be one of those books I either loved or hated. Instead, I’d put it solidly in the category of good. I found myself eager to read the story of young Evie each night, but wasn’t mesmerized or wowed. Set in California at the tail end of the 60s, Evie is lost, looking for companionship, and longing to be known. Her parents are newly divorced and consumed with their new found freedom. A rift between Evie and her girlhood friend leaves Evie open and vulnerable. When she sees the girls from the ranch outside of town, Evie is immediately curious and attracted. After just a few visits to the ranch, spending time with the group’s leaders Suzanne and Russell, Evie is hooked. Without anyone to notice her girlish edges begin to harden, Evie edges toward a path of darkness and danger. I enjoyed the writing, especially Cline’s observations about girls, their power, and their shortcomings. And a warning: there are some hard parts in this book, including graphic descriptions of sex and murder. If you enjoy coming-of age stories with less violence and more hopeful endings, I’d pick up How to Build a Girl instead. If fiction based on true crime is in your wheelhouse (The Girls is based loosely on the Manson murders), then don’t miss this one.

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Do you believe that the secret to great achievement is talent, and that some people are just destined for greatness while the rest of us slog along? Or is it possible that talent is only one part of the equation, and that effort, skill, passion and perseverance are far greater predictors of what one can achieve? These are a few of the questions that Angela Duckworth explores in Grit. I was initially curious to read Duckworth’s book out of a desire to nurture grit in my own kids. And while I learned a great deal about what grit is and how to foster passion and perseverance in my children, I was even more inspired to rethink my own attitude towards work and living a grittier life. We all have the potential to do meaningful, interesting and powerful things, according to Duckworth’s research. What we do with that potential is something entirely different. I love non-fiction that reads like fiction, and through Duckworth’s highly readable research and anecdotes, I felt like I was reading a personal journey through self-discovery as opposed to a dry book about how to be more successful. I found myself sharing snippets of the book often, both with Mike and the kids, which is a sign that a book is a game-changer for me. This book will stay with me for a long time, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading it.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In the modern day, we like to think nothing short of a nuclear war could end the world as we know it. But in Emily St. John Mandel’s beautiful and haunting book, all it takes is a fast-moving virus. The Georgian Flu explodes around the world, killing anyone who contracts it within 48 hours. Highly contagious, it wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The few survivors suddenly find themselves in a world without transportation, communication, or electricity. Entire cities are deserted, leaving behind only corpses and the remains of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Twenty years later, a troupe of artists, actors and musicians known as The Traveling Symphony wander from outpost to outpost, entertaining the survivors and trying to bring beauty into a bleak world. Welcomed by most, they are disturbed and frightened to come across a violent and controlling prophet who seeks to end their existence. As they travel to escape the prophet and bring missing Symphony members back to the safety of the fold, the author weaves together the past and the present to reveal the things that connect us even as the world falls apart around us.

The dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre doesn’t appeal to everyone, but if you’ve written them off as not for you I would encourage you to give Station Eleven a chance. I like to think of it as dystopian for the discerning reader. I was riveted from beginning to end.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Like many of you, I went through the same arc of emotions when Lee’s highly anticipated novel came out. I was giddy with excitement while ambivalent about whether she wanted us to actually read the book. And then came the feedback from other trusted readers: not good, a book they hated, don’t bother. Several times I saw it on my library’s bookshelf and passed it by. Two things convinced me to pick it up finally: it was my book club’s pick for December and I found out the audiobook is narrated by Reese Witherspoon. I don’t know if it was my extremely low expectations, Reese’s magical voice, or a combination of both, but I truly enjoyed it. I wasn’t expecting it to be on the level of To Kill A Mockingbird, and I was prepared for Atticus to let me down. I think knowing those things allowed me to appreciate the novel for what it is: a chance to revisit a place and characters that I love and the sweet pleasure of a little more time with Harper Lee. I strongly feel that Witherspoon’s voice enhances the reading experience a great deal, so if you’ve been putting it off due to poor feedback I encourage you to give the audiobook a try. Personally, I found the characters’ struggles and flaws as they aged believable and thought-provoking (although I do wish Lee had explored Scout’s adult relationship with Calpurnia more deeply). I’m really looking forward to discussing this book with other readers. (And if you want a great insight into the reclusive Lee, definitely pick up The Mockingbird Next Door.)

Honorable Mention

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Mysterious, nuanced, sad and relatable … those are just a few of the words that come to mind after finishing When You Reach Me. I read this aloud to Eli, and we both found ourselves wanting to read just one more chapter to get us closer to figuring out the many mysteries in Miranda’s life. Will her mom win the $20,000 Pyramid? What’s up with the Laughing Man? Why does her best friend, Sal, suddenly want nothing to do with her? And most troubling, who is leaving letters for Miranda and what will happen if she ignores them? I remember Elena trying to read this one on her own in 4th or 5th grade and declaring it “too creepy” to finish. It does have a dark side, but when read aloud and given the opportunity for discussion I think it’s perfectly appropriate for 3rd grade and up (although Eli did groan at the mention of kissing).

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

I’m a big Sarah Vowell fan, dating back to her early days on This American Life. I’m not a huge history buff, but Vowell has a way of making the past fun to revisit. In this title, Vowell takes a deeper look at Revolutionary War icon the Marquis de Lafayette. This has been on my TBR list for over a year, but my recent obsession with Hamilton finally convinced me to pick it up. We all know that what we learned in school about history is never the whole story, but I’m still amazed at how much I assumed I knew about the Revolution that is completely false. Vowell takes a deeper look at the people, including Lafayette, George Washington, John Adams and many other movers and shakers of the Revolution (yes, that includes Alexander Hamilton). Her researched insight, mixed with her wry humor, pop culture references and restrained snark, make for a fun read. I absolutely love Vowell’s voice (if you’ve never heard it before, listen to a sample somewhere), so the audio version is a must. Warning: not everyone feels the same way.

The Optimistic Child by Martin E. P. Seligman

This is an extremely niche book, so I won’t give it a lot of space. As a decidedly optimistic person, my son’s temperament can give me fits. Eli is prone to complaining, and we sometimes tease him that his Eeyore is showing. So I was intrigued by a book that promised to help kids fight pessimism and problem-solve instead of complain. It’s a bit dated in parts and somewhat of a dry read, but quite helpful. It includes a detailed questionnaire for kids to help determine their level of pessimism, followed by a treasure trove of exercises and useful advice to help them navigate difficult situations.

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

The third book in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. I don’t believe you need to read them in order, as I think they’d all stand alone well. However you’ll miss some great character development and some subtle backstories if you read them out of order. In this installment, a well-loved woman who returned to Three Pines to reunite with an old friend is literally scared to death during a seance. Freak accident? Or had someone finally had enough of the Madeline Favreau that could do no wrong? This was probably my least favorite of the series so far, but that only means it took me 4 days to read it instead of 2!

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

As in Sarah Vowell’s book, Salt to the Sea taught me about yet another historical event I knew little about. In this historical fiction novel for young adults, we learn about the terrible tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Arranged by the Germans, the ship was to be salvation for over 9000 German refugees fleeing the Soviet army. Instead it was sunk by Russian torpedo, resulting in the largest loss of life in a single ship history. And I’d never even heard of it. Told in alternating viewpoints as several characters make their way to the ship, it’s a riveting and heartbreaking story. It came highly recommended and I now know why.

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

The classic from your childhood … or at least mine. #iamold I read this aloud to Eli. I think it stands the test of time, Eli thought it was just okay. I’m not sure it would hold his interest if he read it himself, but it worked well as a read aloud.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Billed as “the funniest book you’ll ever read about death,” this is no Fault in Our Stars. But that’s okay. Even though Andrews handles teens with cancer in a completely different way than John Green, he’s able to do the same magical thing as Green: write realistic, relatable teenagers. It’s good, entertaining YA. (Although I’d wait on recommending it to tweens, there’s lots of swearing and talk about sex and drugs.)

The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes

This sat on my nightstand for months before I finally made myself pick it up. Fun fact: I’m great at reading library books, horrible at reading books others pass on to me to read “when you get the chance.” So much so that I made a category in my monthly reading log for “Books I Already Own or Have Been Loaned to Me.” I’ve enjoyed other books by JoJo Moyes (Me Before You and After You), and was surprised to find myself struggling with the story of a French woman, Sophie Lefevre, struggling to keep her family safe during the German occupation of World War I. A portrait of Sophie, painted by her husband, ties the story together between past and present. It took me 130 pages or so until the story clicked for me, and from that point on I enjoyed it. Don’t let the war as a backdrop turn you off if you feel as if you’re over that story line right now. Love, letting go, and the question of who art really belongs to are much stronger themes here.

Didn’t Like and/or Couldn’t Finish

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: This was my selection for “A book that was banned at some point” in the MMD Reading Challenge. Persepolis is Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. I enjoy graphic novels (Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant is one of my favorite books of all-time), and I appreciate the depth of pain and emotion in Satrapi’s novel, but it wasn’t the right book for me.

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton: I’m a big fan of Glennon Doyle Melton’s popular blog, Momastery. She’s a phenomenal blogger and a wonderfully motivating speaker, but I didn’t find that it translated well in book form. I’ll still read her first book, Carry On Warrior, because I like her so much as a person, but I won’t be pushing this book into lots of hands.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonsson: I so wanted to love this book. I kept feeling like I’d get hooked in the next chapter, or I’d fall in love with a character when they were developed just a teensy bit more. And then the book was over. I do wonder if listening to the book (if it was done well with the accents) would have enhanced my reading experience enough to push it from just okay to a must read.

Since She Went Away by David Bell: I tolerated this one for book club. It wasn’t a slog – I got through it rather quickly, and was curious to see how the mystery/crime thriller played out. But I figured it out before it ended and I rolled my eyes a lot.

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky: An advanced reader copy from Netgalley, this title is getting lots of attention – as in on lists of best books of 2016. I finished it, but it annoyed me the entire time.

What have you been reading and loving lately?

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