Top 10 of 2019

January 3, 2020 at 7:03 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Top Ten – 2019

  1. Hard Road West: History and Geology Along the Gold Rush Trail – Keith Heyer Meldahl
  2. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo – Tom Reiss
  3. The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World – Abigail Tucker
  4. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
  5. The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood – Barb Bentler Ullman
  6. The Forest for the Trees – Betsy Lerner
  7. Warriors of the Storm & The Flame Bearer – Bernard Cornwell
  8. The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt – Kara Cooney
  9. Alloy of Law – Brandon Sanderson
  10. George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution – Brian Kilmeade

First off, I read over 120 books this year. The numbers between 120 and 130 get hazy, because I read a lot out loud to my kid and try not to include picture books in the numbers, but we still occasionally review picture books on Goodreads. Combined, my daughter and I are also halfway through a dozen books or so (some read alouds, some audiobooks, some books that I’m actually just reading to myself). Out of the 120 these are the books I chose for my top ten. They’re sort of in order, but don’t hold me to it. My ranking system may be moody at best. Everything in the top ten list, however, I will read again, and never give up my copy (or will purchase new copies if I do), if I can help it.

Hard Road West is a history and geology book. For a geologist to make me laugh while reading, and want to make plans to re-read the book again and again, that’s not just something, but something worthy of a Number One spot.

The Black Count is a riveting depiction of an era and author everyone should read, especially in the racially charged climate which we currently reside. It shows that there are always racist turds and always kind people that get along, regardless of policies and customs. It gives an in depth study of Dumas and why and how he wrote the sort of stories that intrigue us hundreds of years later. Rich in content and writing style, I’m putting this on my kid’s high school reading list.

The Lion in the Living Room is a spunky account of felines. Thorough, scientific, and enjoyable, this journalistic presentation of the most common house pet and city pest is completely engrossing.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine surprised me. I’m not known for picking up “new” books, contemporary New York Times bestsellers, while they’re still considered somewhat current. Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick (as cute as I think the actress is) would usually be a turn off for me. Typically I wait to read these sorts of things until I nab them in clearance years after the excitement has died down. Usually I read them and think, that was nice, and set it aside. Water for Elephants is a prime example: Enjoyable, but I’d probably only read it again if I was stuck in a waiting room, without reading material, and it happened to be left behind by someone else. Gruen is actually excellent waiting room material. But Eleanor Oliphant captivated me from the first page. As someone who is known to have some Asperger markers and has suffered from PTSD, I found myself reading Eleanor’s internal monologues (in the beginning, much less later in the book) and thinking, YES! Eleanor is definitely a distinct character, all her own, who also manages to be extremely relatable. I was surprised I loved the book so much. I am still surprised it has resonated with me for months. I’m even more surprised it has made it to my annual top ten list.

The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood completely captivated my daughter and I. It doesn’t have nearly as much fairy wonderland as you’d expect from the marketing, dealing more with life issues of the little girl who can see Nutfolk Wood, but it was exactly what we needed when we needed it. We purchased and enjoyed the sequel as well, and I would love to read more by this fairly obscure children’s author.

The Forest for the Trees is possibly one of the most motivational writing books I’ve ever read, aside from On Writing by Stephen King. I loved reading Lerner’s experience with authors from her unique perch as an editor. Her whole career actually fascinated me, and motivated me to get more word counts per day, and clean up my manuscripts in a timely fashion. That being said, I’m still a typical writer and I missed my own self imposed deadline this Christmas. Pushing for February and praying for my publishing house in all they deal with!

Warrior of the Storm and The Flame Bearer are Bernard Cornwell books I read this year. It’s unfair to give them their own lines as they belong to the Saxon Tales series (my favorite) and will push everything off the list always! My love for this series knows no bounds and I can’t wait to finish the series and start over from the beginning. I wrote Nancy & Uhtred as a love of the series letter to Bernard Cornwell and my dream is still for him to one day read my little novelette, because his books truly move me.

The Woman Who Would Be King is a speculative biography on Hatshepsut. I’m fascinated by Hatshepsut and have read two or three biographies on her this year. I’ve read biographies on her in the past as well. I’m completely convinced it was she who pulled Moses from the river and I have a life long mission to read everything scholarly ever written on or about the woman.

Alloy of Law is just down right fun. Can we all just come out and say it together? Brandon Sanderson is amazing, his books are amazing, and he’s the best fantasy writer currently writing fantasy. And he’s so diligent, he actually puts out books regularly. Mistborn is possibly my favorite adult fantasy series of all time. I know, those are dangerous words when Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings captured my heart for decades, but Sanderson’s working is not to be taken lightly or dismissed. His books will become longstanding classics. I did prefer the original series to what I’ve read of this second trilogy, but I think that’s just a matter of personal preference, not writing or storytelling ability.

George Washington’s Secret Six is the story that inspired the tv show Turn. I love American Revolutionary history. Our nation’s foundation is pretty intense and Kilmeade is a great storyteller to armchair (or backyard hammock) historians. His work can be easily passed to upper middle school and high school students, and I’d like to read them all.

Honorable Mentions (or the books that would be included in a top 20 list, in no particular order):

Grayson – Lynne Cox

The Lost for Words Bookshop – Stephanie Butland

The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France – Eric Jager

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia – Laura Miller

Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith – Natasha Crain

Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

Trouble is a Friend of Mine – Stephanie Tromley

Founder, Fighter, Saxon, Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians – Margaret C. Jones

Matilda Bone – Karen Cushman

Byzantium: the Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich

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Diminutive Books I Have Loved

August 19, 2019 at 4:20 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Once upon a time…

I was on a book hunting excursion at the Recycled Bookstore in Denton, Texas. That night I purchased and read a book by Paul Collins called Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. I loved every minute of it and proceeded to hunt down everything the man had ever written. When pressed, I will tell people this is my *favorite* book. As a book lover, it hurts me to choose just one, so I must admit I don’t even know if this is an accurate proclamation. But it is the one I claim.

Later, I would get a job at Half Price Books and not only re-read this gem, but purchase any copies that came into the store. I’ve given several copies away, I think I own a few still, the one I will always keep is the polypropylene covered first edition I bought in Denton. Of all the parts of the book, one quote regarding dust jackets and marketing is the one that has always stuck with me, it’s something I have even told other booksellers when training them:

“Woe and alas to any who transgresses these laws. A number of reviewers railed against ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ because it used the diminutive hardcover size and muted color scheme of, say, an Annie Dillard book–thus cruelly tricking readers of Serious Literature into *buying crap*. Not to be outdone, the Harvard University Press issued Walter Benjamin’s opus ‘The Arcades Project’ with gigantic raised metallic lettering. One can only imagine the disgust of blowhard fiftysomethings in bomber jackets as they slowly realised that the project they were reading about was a cultural analysis of 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie–and not, say, a tale involving renegade Russian scientists and a mad general aboard a nuclear submarine.” 

I am a sucker for diminutively sized hardback books with matte finished covers, especially if they are about books or nature. Case and Point: the hardback edition of Sixpence House is 5.7 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches in size. It isn’t small per se, but it is definitely smaller than your typical contemporary New York Times bestselling fiction, like Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, for instance, which is 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches. Or, if your flavor is more sci-fi/fantasy, Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings hardcover stands at 6.4 x 2 x 9.6 inches. 8.6 inches to 9.6 inches is a meaningful jump in the publishing world. It tells you something about what is lurking inside those beautiful, beautiful pages.

Imagine how much more significant a leap from 9.6 inches down to 7.3 inches, which is the height of the hardcover edition of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. I plucked this book up sometime before I separated from my ex-husband. I read it just a month before I finally said enough was enough. I remember reading it and craving the calm of being bedridden and having nothing to do except think and watch a snail creep around the house. I was aware that it was probably ridiculously unhealthy – to crave someone else’s pain, but I was very much exhausted of my own. Much relief comes from evicting an abusive drunk from your home, but before you’re free it’s nice to find comfort in books like this one. I’d like to re-read it again, and soon, so I can appreciate it more fully for what it is rather than using it to hide from what it isn’t.

I’m in a good place now, much healing has occurred over the last few years, but I still occasionally crave tiny and textured books. Keeping an eye out for calming and similar reading experiences, and knowing what I know about book covers, imagine my glee when I discovered Grayson by Lynne Cox.

One of the most lovely qualities of such books is that they can be read in one sitting by nearly any audience, but they rarely talk down to the reader and are often articulate and well-researched. These are the books written by amateur observers – remember the Latin root for amateur is amo, “I love.” An amateur is not someone who is less competent, as the connotation has evolved, but someone who has learned something for the sheer passion of it. They didn’t study for a grade, they aren’t necessarily doing it for their job, instead it is their passionate hobby. It is what they pursue at the end of the day when their bones are tired and their eyelids weak.

Lynne Cox loved to swim in the ocean. She swam every day for miles. I read about her swimming habits and am in awe. Several times I looked at my fiancé and said, “I would have drowned.” I definitely would have probably choked on the grunion when it slithered into my mouth, and then drowned. But Lynne Cox didn’t drown the day a baby whale found her during her morning swim. In fact, she swam and tread water for hours so she could help him find his mama. She didn’t go back to shore when her lungs were burning and her body freezing, because he would have beached himself and died. Lynne Cox loves the open water and the beach and you can experience how deep this love goes when you read about just one morning of her whole life. So much quality is packed into 150 pages: quality time (my love language), quality writing, rich and genuine details about sea creatures off the coast of California. I loved every second of this darling book and I’m grateful Cox chose to share it with the world.

This experience, to me, defines the genre of diminutive books. They aren’t separated out in any particular way in any bookstore I’ve ever patronized (again, I’m using the less commonly used definition here: “frequently shop”), but they definitely reside in the same file folder in my brain… and yes, my brain is actually a series of files and folders (and boxes and “gently raining post-it notes”) I spend hours sorting through. The books, and an assortment of others, all belong in the same place in my mind – not just belong in the same place, but belong to each other, I think.

Each one is a small nod of knowing to another, whether they are aware of it or not, guiding people ever so tenderly down a cobblestone path lit by fireflies and dreams…

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