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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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Storm on the Desert by Carolyn Lesser

Image from Goodreads.com

Lesser, C., & Rand, T. (ill.) (1997). Storm on the Desert. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN: 9780152721985

Annotation: The Southwestern desert bakes in a summer sun as thirst inhabitants seek shelter. Suddenly, a storm rages, and in the aftermath, the desert is a changed place.

Reaction: I loved this book. Lesser’s poetry is lovely, but it’s Rand’s illustrations that bring to life a monsoon storm in the Sonoran desert. He perfectly captures what a storm is like: sudden, no visibility, flash floods, running for shelter, and the peaceful aftermath, being cleansed by the rain. His illustrations make me homesick for Tucson and the raging summer thunderstorms we endure there.

Lesser gives a shout out to the Desert Museum in Tucson in the acknowledgements, which warms my heart. I never went to the Desert Museum in the six years I lived in Tucson, thinking I would always have the opportunity some other time. Now that I don’t live there, I wish I gone back then.

This book could have a place as a part of a 5th or 6th grade poetry unit, to teach students about free form poetry. It also could be used as part of an ecology unit, to teach students about the desert and its unique inhabitants.

This book has examples of both simile & metaphor.

Simile:

  • “like a dragon breathing fire”
  • “puff up like a prickly pillows”
  • “fragrance like lemons”
  • “shaking like a dog after a bath”
  • “like towering giants”
  • “as dry as dust”
  • Metaphor:

  • “great bowl of the desert”
  • “bony fingers of lightning”
  • “coyote becoming a shadow”
  • This book is in my Top Ten Favorites.

    Media Used: Pencil, pastel, chalk, and watercolor on 100% rag stock.

    Author’s Website

    Illustrator’s Website


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    A Mother’s Journey by Sandra Markle

    Image from Goodreads

    Markle, S., & Marks, A. (ill.) (2006). A mother’s journey. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. ISBN: 9781570916212

    Annotation: This book follows a young female emperor penguin on her months long journey across Antarctica to fill up on food for the not yet hatched chick for which her mate is caring.

    Reaction: Even though I know that emperor penguins surviving the way nature intended, there is something so sad to me about how mated pairs spend most of the year apart from each other, especially since there’s is always a chance one of them will never come home. The author provides lots of facts for the reader about these penguins, but she also gives us some poetry too: “the partners sing a last duet” when the female leaves on her hunting expedition. It’s hard not to romanticize the penguins’ relationship. Thankfully, though, the author refrains from personifying the animals and sticks to recounting what a typical journey for the females would be like.

    The illustrations are realistic and Marks shows off the Antarctic landscape when given the opportunity. The image of the full moon over the broken ice where the females will hunt is vast and beautiful as is the line of penguins walking with the aurora at their backs a couple of pages earlier.

    This book would be great as a part of a 5th or 6th grade science unit about oceanography and marine biology, which I remember studying in both those grades.

    Media Used: Watercolor and ink

    Author’s Website

    Illustrator’s Website


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    Ballywhinney Girl by Eve Bunting

    Image from Goodreads

    Bunting, E., & McCully, E. A. (ill.) (2012). Ballywhinney Girl. Boston: Clarion Books. ISBN: 9780547558431

    Annotation: While cutting peat for the kitchen fire, a young girl and her grandfather uncover a 1,000 year old mummy. When the mummy is whisked off to a museum, the girl must come to terms with her feelings about the discovery.

    Reaction: This book would be a great introduction for 5th graders to mummies outside of Egypt, and a class could use this as a starting point to study the science of the mummification process and how mummification might occur naturally.

    I love the pen lines of the illustrations, their crispness and the way they provide shape and definition to the watercolors. The illustrations of the imagined life of the Ballywhinney Girl are particularly beautiful, misty and romantic.

    Media Used: Watercolor and pen and ink

    Author’s Website: None

    Illustrator’s Website


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    The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

    Image from Goodreads

    Kamkwamba, W., Mealer, B., & Zunon, E. (ill.) (2012). The boy who harnessed the wind. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9780803735118

    Annotation: In the African country of Malawi, a 14 year old boy teaches himself how to build a windmill to produce electricity and pump water for his father’s farm.

    Reaction: This book was really inspiring. I had to tell my husband about it when I finished because William’s accomplishments sort of blew my mind. He was a boy with no money and not a lot of education, yet he was able to create a windmill out of junkyard scraps based on instructions he needed a dictionary to read. Because of his drive, determination and ingenuity, William was able to better his life and the lives of his family, and he was given opportunities to continue his education and get his story out to the world. Ultimately, this problem solver is going to be able to help make his entire country and the world a better place.

    The bright colors of the art really suit the African landscape, and the cut paper adds a lot of texture and dimension to the oil paintings.

    Media Used: Oil paint and cut paper

    William Kamkwamba’s Website

    Bryan Mealer’s Website

    Illustrator’s Website


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    I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen

    Image from Goodreads

    Christensen, B. (2012). I, Galileo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN: 9780375867538

    Annotation: Galileo was a radical scientist and mathematician whose most memorable work proved the Copernican theory of a sun centered universe, though he also invented the compass and microscope and experimented with pendulums.

    Reaction: I enjoyed this first person biography of Galileo. He was such a forward, progressive thinker, and it’s really too bad that the Church wasn’t ready for his discoveries. Christensen does a good job of showing his need to always be learning new things; even when the Church forbade him from talking about the Copernican theory, he kept right on examining the world around him and learning things no one ever had before.

    The art is really nice, and I like the thick black lines Christensen uses to outline, which gives the reader the feeling of looking at stained glass windows. She uses lots of vivid colors that only add to the illusion of stained glass. I also really loved her depictions of Galileo’s various experiments, particularly the one with his father, testing lute strings with various lengths and tensions.

    Media Used: Gouache resist with oil paints.

    Author’s Website

    Lesson Plan
    Grade Level: 5th-6th
    Subject/Content: Science/experiments
    Summary of Lesson: Students will recreate some of Galileo’s experiments
    Focus Question: How do you design and conduct scientific experiments?
    Books/websites used: I, Galileo
    School science text

    Procedures:
    –>From I, Galileo, students choose one experiment to recreate in small groups
    –>Conduct experiment and draw conclusions
    –>Present findings to the class
    –>Discuss, as a class, the findings and the process of conducting the experiment

    Outcomes:
    –>Develop teamwork skills
    –>Learn how to conduct an experiment
    –>Experience the scientific process
    –>Learn how to draw conclusions based on data collected during experiments
    –>Develop public speaking skills through presentation of findings to class


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    The Prairie Builders by Sneed B. Collard III

    Image from Goodreads

    Collard III, S. B. (2005). Title. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. ISBN: 061839687X

    Annotation: The author takes the reader to the 8,000 acre Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Following the scientists and volunteers, readers will learn what has happen to the native tallgrass prairie and how and why they are working to bring it back.

    Reaction: The author introduces readers to an important ecological issue in the U.S., bringing back the grasslands. The restoration of corn fields to native prairies is discussed, and wonderful photography follows the restoration process. The author discusses the reintroduction of the Regal Fritillary Butterfly, the collecting of seeds, reintroduction of bison, controlled burns, and the hard work and time involved. This is a great science book for fifth grade and introduces students to a current ecological issue.

    This book is part of Assignment 2: 5th Grade Science.

    Media Used: Photography

    Author’s Website