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2014 in Review: My Top Reads

Looking back at my year of reading, I’ve read a lot, thanks to book clubs and graduating and not having a job for awhile. Plus, I’m now in an organization that puts out monthly reviews, which gets me even more excited to read and read and read and … I’m discovering over and over that my literary eyes are bigger than my stomach. Because no matter how many books I read there are hundreds more that I WANT to read, and I have to remind myself regularly that there’s nothing wrong with not being able to read everything ever.

I do feel fortunate that of all the books I read this past year, I rated nearly 20% of them 5 stars and only a handful 1 or 2 stars. However, that many 5 star books makes it difficult for me to narrow it down to my top picks for the year. Some are re-reads of past favorites, like Sandman, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Time Traveler’s Wife, some are sequels in series that I’m super excited about and in love with (Hello, Stormlight Archive and Saga) and others are massively popular hits; I mean, we’ve all already read The Fault in Our Stars, right? So … I guess it really isn’t that hard to figure out which were my ultimate favorites this year.

Originally, I thought this was going to be my Top Five of the year, but I read too many good freaking books, so have a Top 5% (in no particular order):

(All images from Goodreads.com

(All images from Goodreads.com)

Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez – First of all, this cover is phenomenal, and thankfully, the story within backs it up. The main character, Valentina, is tough and smart and conflicted. The plot hooked me right away, and I couldn’t wait to read more about what happened to Valentina and see what she was going to do next. And I LOVED the ending. I think it would have been really easy for this to end unsatisfactorily, but Martinez gave us an ending that really feels true to the characters she created, and I thought it was wonderful.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta – This is, hands down, my favorite book that I read this year. In fact, I read it twice within a couple of months because I love it so much. This is one that I try to recommend as much as possible, to people who are looking for a great YA novel after finishing The Fault in Our Stars or If I Stay, to people looking for a good audiobook, and all my friends have heard about it around 50 times. It’s so good, and y’all need to read it, seriously. Read it. (Be warned, the first 100 pages or so are a little confusing, but it picks up quick after that!)

Landline by Rainbow Rowell – I love Rowell. She’s a great storyteller, and her characters are so wonderful and real, and I want to read everything by her. I made the mistake of starting this one (her newest) right before bed, and ended up reading it in one sitting (by the time 5am rolled around, I was really thankful I wasn’t working at the time). Her writing is smart and funny and wonderfully consumable; all of her books have sucked me in and left me thinking about the characters for days afterwards. (Incidentally, I also gave one of Rowell’s other books, Fangirl 5 stars this year, and I gave Attachments 5 stars last year [actually, Attachments might be my favorite of hers that I’ve read {I’ve yet to read Eleanor & Park}], so basically, you can’t go wrong with my gal Rainbow).

Primates by Jim Ottaviani – This book is a graphic novel look Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, how they came to study primates and what they did to advance what we know about them. It’s a great introduction to these women for middle grade (and older!) readers, and it presents the information in a fun, accessible way. I think this could be a great book to use in a classroom and could easily encourage kids to do more reading on their own about primates or these scientists. Also, the reveal of Dian Fossey’s fate (murdered by poachers) left me sobbing in bed at the tragedy of it, though the book, thankfully, doesn’t come right out and say that she was murdered by poachers; Ottaviani handles it delicately and age-appropriately.

East of West by Jonathan Hickman – The story in this graphic novel is a little weird, but it was interesting, and I enjoyed this take on the apocalypse. But what really appeals to me about this book, and what has me recommending it to people is the art. I love the art SO MUCH. I love the image of Death as a long, lanky cowboy, the fight scenes are stunning, and the use of color is really well done. I spent more time than usual just enjoying Nick Dragotta’s art as I read this, and it’s what made me want to continue the series.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Adichie has created a completely compelling and thought provoking story in Americanah. She spends a lot of time talking about race and feminism in America through the lens of a non-American black woman, and I found it really eye opening and encouraged me to examine my own white privilege. But even more than that, the characters were so well written, and I was always anxious to see what happened next with them.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan – I read this at the beginning of the year, so my memories are a little hazy, but my one line review gives me a pretty good idea of how I was feeling when I finished: “This book is just so damn beautiful and heartbreaking.” I do remember how I felt so powerless, right along with Sahar, and I really liked this portrayal of LGBTQ issues in a country that is so different from the US. I wish I could better remember how Farizan wrote the transgendered characters Sahar encounters, but I do remember liking that Farizan made it a point to draw a distinction between being gay and transgendered, and that gender reassignment surgery would not magically fix Sahar’s problems, in large part because she was not born in the wrong body.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley – This book follows two girls, one black, one white, in 1959 Virginia, as the local high school integrates for the first time. It shows us the torment Sarah experiences as one of the first ten black students to attend the white high school, and her inner turmoil as she comes to grips with the fact that she likes girls. And we follow Linda, as she reevaluates all the beliefs she’s held her entire life, and it makes the reader examine the how and why beliefs are formed and whether they are true beliefs or not. I really liked this book for the way it showed how the Civil Rights Movement was something very personal for the people involved and put a (fictional) face to the struggle.

(If you’re looking for even more lesbian coming of age stories, check out The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a great book about a growing up lesbian in a small town in the ’90’s.)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay – This was sort of the year of my feminist awakening, and I’m trying to make it a point to try to read more books about feminism in our modern culture. This book came on my radar during the Goodreads Choice Awards voting, and the title and simple cover really grabbed my attention. This book was really an engaging read, and Gay’s style makes even her essay about competitive Scrabble fascinating. As I noted in my initial review on Goodreads, not every essay spoke to me, but they were all well written and thought provoking. This is another one that encourages the reader to examine his or her own privileges and view the world from different perspectives.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – After reading The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which is hilarious and wonderful, I was not expecting how different this book would be, and I think We Were Liars helps demonstrate Lockhart’s range as a writer. There’s very little funny here, and the suspense kept me obsessively reading from the first page. This book was supremely compelling and the big reveal is a total gut punch. It’s really well crafted, and the characters manage to be pretty unlikable yet totally fascinating.

What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend by Lissa Rankin – I feel like the title of this book tells you everything you’d ever need to know about it. It was fascinating and had a lot of helpful information about various issues concerning one’s lady business, as well as a lot of hilarrible (hilarious and horrible) anecdotes that make you feel a lot better about whatever weird things are going on with your junk. I think there’s good information in here for anyone who possesses a vagina, and Rankin has answers to the questions you didn’t even know you had.

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Zahra’s Paradise by Amir & Khalil

Image from Goodreads.com

Amir & Khalil. (2011). Zahra’s Paradise. New York: First Second. ISBN: 9781596436428

Annotation: After the 2009 Iranian elections and subsequent protests, a 19 year old boy goes missing. This is the story of his family’s desperate search for him.

Reaction: I don’t know what to say about this book. I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t take any pleasure from reading it, except the pleasure of reading a well crafted, riveting story. But I’m glad to have read it. I think it was worthwhile and important and I think more people should read it.

Amir and Khalil, writing under pseudonyms for safety reasons, created a story that, while fictional, is probably similar to what a lot of Iranian families went through after the 2009 election and protests. They capture the narrator and his mother’s desperation to find Mehdi after he never came home from the protests. The circles they have to run and the danger of asking too many questions just to find any information about him are ridiculous and heartbreaking.

I remember the tweets from protesters after the elections and the tweets from those outside Iran after the government cut off internet access. At the time, I didn’t quite realize just how brave and heroic the protesters were, but they faced imprisonment or worse for the chance at freedom.

I’ll admit to being a bit confused during the book occasionally simply because I don’t know anything about Iranian politics, but they have really helpful guides in the back (that I would totally have used while reading if I had known about them before I finished).

I would give this to mature readers, probably juniors and seniors in high school and above, but it’s especially for those who liked Persepolis. I think this would go with a high school current events unit really well, as it gives the reader a real sense of what Iran is like for regular people, and the additional context of a class discussion about the politics and modern history there would really be helpful.

Media Used: None listed

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Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Image from Goodreads.com

Bradley, K. B. (2011). Jefferson’s sons: A founding father’s secret children. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9780803734999

Annotation: It’s an open secret at Monticello that Beverly, Maddy, Harriet and Eston are Master Thomas Jefferson’s children by his slave Sally. How does this family deal with knowing their father is a great, influential man who owns them?

Reaction: Bradley tells her story over the course of 22 years through three slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson, using the 3rd person limited point of view. By switching narrators, she is able to cover the full history of her chosen time period while keeping the narrator a child. The first narrator shift was a little jarring for me, as I was really invested in Beverly’s story and wanted to continue with him, but by the second shift, it was expected and smooth reading. I enjoyed how she was able to show the reader how each previous narrator grew and matured through the eyes of the new narrator.

This book was a really fascinating look at a man who is generally idolized by the American History. While the story centers on the slaves who narrate the story, two of whom were Jefferson’s illegitimate children, their feelings about “Master Jefferson” color the narrative and give the reader a different perspective of the man. By the end, I found myself having a hard time reconciling the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and was an integral part of creating this country with the man who not only owned slaves, but had children with one of them and ran up ridiculous amounts of debt. Whenever I start feeling bad about my school loans again, I’ll console myself with the knowledge that at least I owe less than Thomas Jefferson did.

I would use this book as part of a 4th or 5th grade history unit to provide students with a different perspective than a typical history book has. I think an important part of history is to teach children about the good and the bad, giving them a rounded view of the world. I would even recommend this for adults, as I feel I learned a lot from reading this book. It has challenged my thinking about Thomas Jefferson, which I always think is the mark of a successful book. Bradley pushes her readers towards new ideas and forces us to rethink what we were taught.

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Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter

Image from Goodreads.com

Winter, J., & Priceman, M. (ill.) (2012). Jazz Age Josephine. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9781416961239

Annotation: Josephine was a natural performer and became a hit on Broadway, but as an African American woman in the 1920’s, she only received humiliating roles. So she moved to Paris, where she was embraced as a symbol of the American Jazz Age.

Reaction: I didn’t know anything about Josephine Baker before reading this story, but as I learn more, her life was fascinating. She used her natural skills to change her own life, and she held onto her dignity by not performing the degrading acts New York audiences wanted to see. She became hugely famous in France, and then had a major role in the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. More than that, Wikipedia says she helped the French Resistance in WWII and earned a military honor. I feel like this is a woman that more schools should teach, as she is a great role model. I think this book would be great to use in a classroom to teach 5th graders about different styles of poetry as well as history of both the 1920’s and as a segue into the Civil Rights Movement.

This is a long poem, full of repetition, rhythm and rhyme. Winter’s style and Priceman’s illustrations made me think of those fast, frantic jazz songs. It felt like a scene in some movie, a whirlwind of sound and movement. I love the way Winter includes onomatopoeia by spelling out the jazz music Josephine dances to in Paris: “Boh doh doh-dee-oh,” “boodle-am boodle-am boodle-am SHAKE!” and more.

I loved Priceman’s art in this book. She used lots of bright colors and fluid lines to get across the tone of the story and movement that makes up Josephine Baker’s history. The reader can imagine all the illustrations going on to finish the dance steps drawn. The art is full of energy and excitement. Also, looking at pictures of Josephine, Priceman really captured her smile and expressive eyes.

Media Used: Gouache and ink

Author’s Website: None

Illustrator’s Website: None


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The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Image from Goodreads

Sherman, D. (2011). The Freedom Maze. Easthampton, MA: Big Mouth House. ISBN: 9781931520300

Annotation: 13 year old Sophie lives the privileged life of a white girl in Louisiana in 1960, until she makes a wish for adventure and finds herself transported back to 1860 and mistaken for a slave.

Reaction: A friend of mine reviewed this so highly on Goodreads that I immediately looked for it at the library. I really enjoyed this. It reminded me a lot of The Root Cellar, which I read in 5th grade and was pretty scary to 10 year old me, even though I remember really enjoying it (clearly, since I remember the experience of reading the book, rather than the book itself, 18 years later).

At first I wasn’t sure how much I bought into the idea that white Sophie was mistaken for a slave in 1860 Louisiana, but I had to remind myself that light skinned slaves did exist, as Sherman mentions in her acknowledgements at the end. And looking back, Sophie learned much more by being a slave than she would have being accepted as a white family member (which does seem like a totally DUH moment when I say it like that).

I think Sherman does a great job of making Sophie’s journey and growth seem realistic and as relatable as a girl transported back to 1860 Louisiana can be. I will admit that it took me about half the book to really get into it, but thankfully, this book is pretty short, and even the slow beginning (which could have been attributed to the fact that I was reading it on my phone; the only “copy” the library had) was interesting enough to keep moving me along. I think I finished it in less than two days, once I really committed to reading it all the way through.

All the other characters are great, and I’m really glad Sherman avoids obvious stereotypes about Southern plantation owners and their slaves. She handles the abuse that slaves dealt with, severe beatings and rape, with humor in the case of the beatings, and grace and delicacy in the case of the rape. None of the abuse is graphic enough to disallow 11-13 year olds from this, for which I am thankful. (I’m also thankful that the Fairchild’s were fairly kind and lenient masters; I just do not think I could have dealt with any more abuse than is depicted.)

I think this would be a great book for teachers to use as a part of a pre-Civil War history unit in 5th or 6th grade, as my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Reker used The Root Cellar.

Norton Award winner
Prometheus Award winner
Mythopoeic Award winner
Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011
Tiptree Award Honor List

Author’s Website


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Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Image from Goodreads

Nelson, V. M., & Christie, R. G. (ill.) (2009). Bad news for outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books. ISBN: 9780822567646

Annotation: A former slave, Bass Reeves became one of the most feared and respected U.S. Deputy Marshals in Indian Territory. Everyone knew he always got his man.

Reaction: This was a really great story about an honorable, upstanding, honest and dedicated man. He worked hard and earned respect from everyone he came across, and I think he would be an excellent role model for kids reading this. This author does a great job of balancing fact and entertainment, and I love the way she incorporates Western jargon into the text.

The art is really nice, capturing the essence of Reeves’s character.

This book is full of great examples of simile:

  • “as right as rain”
  • “like a bear to honey”
  • “like trying to find hair on a frog”
  • “as far from tender as boot leather”
  • I would use this book as part of a 5th or 6th grade history unit. This would also be a good option to augment an English unit to teach simile.

    This book won the 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award and Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award.

    This book is on the 2011 Students’ List for “Books receiving votes for Top Ten Favorites from students in Summer 2011.”

    Media Used: Acrylic on paper.

    Author’s Website: None

    Illustrator’s Website


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    Golem by David Wisniewski

    Image from Goodreads

    Wisniewski, D. (1996). Golem. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN: 9780395726181

    Annotation: In 16th Century Prague, the Jews are being persecuted by the non-Jews, who are spreading malicious lies about Jewish traditions. To protect his people, the chief rabbi breathes life into a clay giant.

    Reaction: The paper cuts are amazing. I love all the details and intricacies Wisniewski is able to incorporate into his illustrations. As I examined the minute details of the pictures, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it took him to complete his paper cuts for this book, and I would love to know much was done by hand or with something like a die cut machine and how large the original illustrations were (surely big, right? they’re so delicate).

    I also really like the emotional complexity he gave to Golem, and how human he was by the end of the story. I wish he could have been allowed to savor life longer. Golem, named Joseph by his creator, should be a reminder to appreciate the small beauties of life, the way he savors the new experiences of being alive, like “the scent of a rose or the flight of a pigeon.”

    This book uses sophisticated language in the text through the religious terminology and through the complex ideas presented about humanity in the text and illustrations.

    This book won the 1997 Caldecott Medal.

    This book is on the 2011 Students’ List for “Books receiving votes for Top Ten Favorites from students in Summer 2011.”

    Media Used: Cut paper.

    Author’s Website: None