10 Best Books Read in the First Half of 2019

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Bardugo’s bestselling story holds up to rereads.  Thought it is a thriller full of high-stakes gambling and a hint of mystery, it is not the plot twists that make the story, but the characters.  I love how they all seem a little broken–but all remain lovable.  A must-read for fans of YA fantasy.

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Lovely War by Julie Berry

Caught with Ares in a net, Aphrodite begins spinning a tale for her husband, a tale of two romances during WWI. Hazel is a shy pianist. James is an aspiring architect heading off to the front. A chance encounter brings them together, but war may drive them apart. Meanwhile. Aubrey is a ragtime musician heading off to fight in France. And he has fallen for Colette, a Belgian girl with a tragic past. Both couples long to be reunited when the war ends, but all of them know that hope fades fast in the trenches.  A beautiful and evocative romance that explores how war affects the lives of the young.

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New Kid by Jerry Craft

Jordan Banks wants to attend art school, not the fancy prep school his mom is in love with. And he’s a little worried about the lack of diversity. It’s difficult to be the new kid in general, but Jordan also has to deal with stuff like the teacher never getting his name right and always looking at him when financial aid is discussed. He’s not sure he’ll ever fit in. Or that he can keep his old friends if he does.  A sensitive portrayal of how it feels to want to fit in at middle school, especially when you have to deal with micro-aggressions.  Certain to be on many “best of” lists this year.

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Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Isabelle has never been able to please her mother.  She’s too wild.  Too ugly.  Too opinionated.  That hasn’t kept her from trying, though.  She’ll cut off her own toes to try to make her mother happy.  But the prince isn’t fooled.  As blood pools in Cindererlla’s glass slipper, Isabelle is sent away in disgrace.  And now everyone knows just how terrible she really is.  Then chance gives her the opportunity to change her fate, to reclaim the pieces of her heart she’s lost.  Isabelle yearns to try.  But maybe she’s too bitter and broken to get her own happily-ever-after.  A provocative, fast-paced feminist fairy tale.

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Vango: Between Sky and Earth by Timothee de Fombelle

Nineteen-year-old Vango is about to be ordained when gunshots ring out across the plaza. The police want Vango–but so do a shadowy group of men. Unsure of why he’s being attacked, Vango flees. He will travel across Europe, by airship, by train, and by boat, in search of his past, hoping it will unlock the secrets of his present.  A gripping story that joyfully combines readers’ favorite tropes and never admits that eventually this adventure might verge a little close to the ridiculous.  First published in France, this story is notable for its divergence from the American YA market.

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Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

John Garth carefully chronicles Tolkien’s childhood friendships and how they sustained himself and his imagination before, during, and after WWI.  This seminal work is a must-read for any fans who want to know more about Tolkien’s work and how his experiences shaped it.

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Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Scarred by a wolf when she is seven years old, Echo Alkaev leads a lonely existence, shunned by the villagers who think she is cursed. Years later, she meets the wolf again and he strikes a bargain: he will save her father’s life is she agrees to live with him for one year. In his house under the mountain, Echo finds an enchanted library and begins to fall in love with Hal, who seems trapped in the books. But an evil force is growing and the wolf, Echo, and Hal will all be lost at the end of the year, unless Echo can find a way to break the curse.  A haunting fairy tale retelling that melds elements of “Beauty and the Beast,” “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” and “Tam Lin,”  Echo North has a classic feel that makes it seem almost like the original story.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (series) by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

Squirrel Girl eventually became my favorite superhero because she fights, often with her fists, yes, but more often with her heart.  She strives to discover why villains are acting the way they are, and then to find a solution that will satisfy them and protect others from their future villainy.  In other words, she’s fighting long-term, not just punching a villain only to have them return another day.  But it’s not all doing good deeds.  The Squirrel Girl comics are hilarious!

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The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

In Aster’s family, girls grow up to be witches and boys grow up to be shapeshifters. But Aster wants to be a witch, too, even if he has to keep spying on the girls’ lessons. Then the boys starts disappearing. Can Aster help find them with his witch powers?  This gorgeous graphic novel sensitively explores what it means to be denied the opportunity to do what you love or be who you are.  The colorful illustrations will appeal to readers while the themes of acceptance and inclusion will be celebrated by librarians, parents, and educators.

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Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

The March sisters are facing a Christmas without presents as their mom works late shifts as a nurse and their father serves overseas.  But they soon realize that others have it worse than they do, and that there is still plenty in life to appreciate.  Together, they will face whatever life throws at them and come out stronger.  A graphic novel retelling of Little Women set in modern-day New York City.  This fresh contemporary effortlessly updates Little Women with modern value of inclusion, diversity, and feminism, while maintaining the relationships that are at the heart of the story.

Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb

Your First Novel CoverInformation

Goodreads: Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2006

Official Summary

In Your First Novel, novelist Laura Whitcomb and seasoned literary agent Ann Rittenberg team up to provide you with the skills you need to write your dream novel and the savvy business know-how to get it published. In this all-in-one resource, you’ll discover essential novel-writing techniques, such as:

-How to best structure your research so that you can save time later
-How to card your story before you start writing
-What to consider when developing your cast of characters
-How to adapt classic story structures to fit your own ideas

…and insider information on what it takes to get published, including:

-What agents do at those three-hour power lunches–and how it affects you
-What makes an agent instantly reject a manuscript
-How to correctly translate submission guidelines
-What happens if you get multiple offers–or no offers at all

Plus, learn about the publishing process from the firsthand accounts of such noted authors as Dennis Lehane, Kathryn Harrison, Jim Fusilli, Kathleen George, and others!

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Review

I’m not typically in the habit of reading advice about how to write, but I saw this at my library and was intrigued, not least because the reviews seem to be polarized.  People either love or hate this book, and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.  Some of the fundamentals are valuable, but overall the book is dated and prescriptive in a way I personally found off-putting.

The first section, which is about writing your novel, has a variety of advice and exercises that writers can try, for just about every part of the writing process.  Whitcomb walks readers through how they can try to build characterization, how they can write more engaging description, and a variety of other topics.  I didn’t personally try any of them, but I think this section could have value for someone actively writing or revising a novel who wanted to use the book as a reference. Obviously, it doesn’t have the same value if, like me, you’re kind of just reading about the exercises and not actually walking through them.  Whitcomb does seem to have certain opinions on writing and what makes it good that others may or may not agree with, but overall I think you can take what works for you from this section and ignore the rest.

The section by the literary agent is less helpful.  Rittenberg does discuss the general process of publishing and the role of literary agents, which will be useful to new-ish writers but old news to people who already are familiar with how the book publishing industry works.  Her advice for how to write well enough to get an agent, however, is out-dated and often based on her personal quirks.  For example, she insists that revision must be done on manuscript papers that you have printed out, that she does not know a single author who has successful revised something entirely on the computer.  This seems like an odd statement to have made even in 2006, but it’s there in the book.  She also insists that aspiring authors should not hire a freelance editor to help them with their book, not because it’s not necessary and they could save their money (which would be reasonable advice), but because she thinks that this is somehow cheating.  She has a personal rule not to take on writers who have sought professional feedback because they need to have revised “by themselves” to get a real feel for their book.  This seems wild to me, particularly in an industry where “whether you can work with an editor and take feedback” is actually a determining factor for editors when they acquire books.

So, overall, this was just a weird read.  I think most of it’s not useful, and maybe it would be actively bad advice for someone who accepted it all at face-value, but I think there are enough gems in it that anyone serious about writing a novel might want to check it out.  Just search your library first or try to find a cheap copy.

3 StarsBriana

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver

Information

Goodreads: Spinning Silver
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: July 10, 2018

Official Summary

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

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Review

Spinning Silver is a beautiful story about identity, independence, and getting what you’re owed. When protagonist Miryem becomes tired of her moneylender father never having the fortitude to collect what people have borrowed, she takes up the task herself—to mixed reaction.  Her parents, and frequently the narrative voice, worry that the job has made her “cold,” but she knows she is only taking what is hers, which most of the borrowers can actually afford to pay, and readers will likely cheer for her as she navigates judgement, attempted violence, and other dangers to make herself a home and an identity of which she can be proud.

The world is one like ours but also inhabited by the mysterious and unmerciful Staryk, a somewhat fae-like race whom humans avoid at all costs.  Novik does a masterful job with the world building, showing readers things that are familiar along with ones that are new, and though the world seems harsh and unforgiving at times, particularly to people like Miryem’s Jewish family who don’t quite fit in or aren’t quite welcome, it’s one that’s so vivid and so intriguing that I find myself wanting to visit.

Novik also skillfully weaves a number of stories together as the book progresses, not just Miryem’s and the Staryk’s, but also that of the tsar, the new tsarina, Miryem’s servant (for lack of a better word), and her brothers.  All the characters are struggling against chains and trying to break out of the choices that others have made for them in order to forge their own paths—though it turns out, of course, that the decisions other people make (even if they’re not thinking of you at all) will always have an influence on your life.  Seeing the different interactions between the characters and watching their stories finally begin to come together is fascinating, and it shows Novik’s talent for structuring a complex story.

Finally, I was intrigued by the representation/characterization of the Staryk, as the interactions between them and humans highlights many of the themes of the book and helps the characters see things more clearly.  The Staryk are fae-like, as they live in a kingdom mostly inaccessible to humans that operates on different rules, both physical and social.  They are unforgiving and have practically no interest in humans, whom they will kill like inconvenient animals, particularly for crimes like hunting “their” animals in the woods (yes, the woods in the human world).  Part of the story is about seeing the Staryk as people rather than the Other, which one of the characters then uses to draw a parallel to how Jews are frequently Othered in the human world.  However, I was particularly interested in the ideas the Staryk have about debt/gifts/promises, which are, well, Fae-like and very different from humans.  (I may be biased because I did some research on gift theory in grad school, and I think there’s a lot to unpack in Spinning Silver about gifting and exchange.)

Spinning Silver is long—I felt as if I’d been reading forever only to realize I was about 1/3 of the way through the book—but the story is worth it.  This is very likely to be on my list of Top Books I Read in 2019 at the end of the year, due to the fabulous world building and characterization and the thoughtful questions the story raises.

5 stars Briana

4 Spellbinding Retellings of “Beauty and the Beast”

cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Seventeen years ago, Nyx’s father made a bargain with the demon lord who rules their land.  Now Nyx must become his wife, but she is not going willingly.  She has a plan that will end his reign once and for all.  But what happens when she falls in love with the person she wants to destroy?

A dark romance focused largely on Nyx’s feelings for the demon lord and his shadow.  Readers who enjoy steamy reads will likely find this to their taste, but fans of fantasy may also enjoy the unique worldbuilding.

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A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and LonelyPrince Rhen is cursed to relive his eighteenth year over and over again until a girl falls in love with him.  Unfortunately, they never do–not when they see the beast he becomes.  Then Harper, a girl from D.C. enters his world and, suddenly, Rhen thinks he might have a chance.  But war approaches his borders and Harper fears for the family she left behind.  Can Rhen save both his kingdom and his heart?

A gripping retelling that goes beyond the romance to tell a story about political machinations and impending war.  Readers who enjoy high fantasy and war stories will delight in this expanded version of an old story. There’s even a sequel!

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Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Evie enjoys working on her healing remedies along with her best friend Wormy.  But then Wormy has to ruin everything by proposing.  Even worse, the fairy Lucinda does not agree with Evie that she is too young to think of marrying anyone.  As punishment for rejecting Wormy, Lucinda transforms Evie into an ogre.  Now, she only has a few weeks to accept a proposal–or she will be an ogre forever.  A prequel to Ella Enchanted that can be read as a standalone.

Readers expecting a second Ella Enchanted may find themselves disappointed by this prequel.  Readers who judge the book on its own, however, will likely be delighted at the opportunity to return to Ella’s world, learn more about ogres, and immerse themselves in the lives of characters who played pivotal roles in Ella Enchanted.  Evie is a spunky heroine whose kindness will cause readers to sympathize with her and cheer her on her journey.

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Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Scarred by a wolf when she is seven years old, Echo Alkaev leads a lonely existence, shunned by the villagers who think she is cursed. Years later, she meets the wolf again and he strikes a bargain: he will save her father’s life is she agrees to live with him for one year. In his house under the mountain, Echo finds an enchanted library and begins to fall in love with Hal, who seems trapped in the books. But an evil force is growing and the wolf, Echo, and Hal will all be lost at the end of the year, unless Echo can find a way to break the curse.

This enchanting fantasy blends elements from “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Tam Lin.”  Readers who love retellings with a classic feel will fall in love with Echo North, which captures the elusive spirit of Faerie.

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Vango: A Prince without a Kingdom by Timothée de Fombelle

Information

Goodreads: Vango: A Prince without a Kingdom
Series: Vango #2
Source: Library
Published: 2011 (trans. 2015)

SummarY

Vango is on the run.  From arms dealers.  From Russian operatives.  From the French police.  And he still does not know why.  But as he begins to discover more of his past, leading him from Europe to the skyscrapers of New York, he realizes that one day, he may have to stop–even if it costs him everyone he loves.  Trans. by Sarah Ardizzone.

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Review

Vango: A Prince without a Kingdom is an exuberant mixture of every adventure trope a reader could possibly want, heavily flavored with every key historical moment a reader could think of.  The result could border on the ludicrous, for those who do not delight in such absurdities.  Readers who have a sense of fun, however, and who do not take their genre fiction too seriously, will love going with Vango on another wild adventure.

Vango is still on the run, being chased alternately by the French police and unknown Russian agents, but now also by an arms dealer who wants him dead.  Poor Vango has no idea why all this is happening, though, of course, Italian pirates and Joseph Stalin seem to be involved.  However, things start to get interesting when Vango stops running and his adventure novel turns into a crime/spy novel as he attempts to find the men who killed his parents and help an old friend prevent WWII.  Readers, of course, realize that preventing WWII is futile.  But it’s difficult not to hope Vango will succeed anyway.

I am not sure characterization is the strong suit of the novel.  Vango himself remains pretty mysterious, while his lover Edith and his friend the Cat remain aloof.  They become interesting not so much because readers know them and thus sympathize them, but because their lives are so interesting.  Edith, after all, is a Scottish heiress with a penchant for speeding cars and flying planes.  The Cat is a lonely girl who runs the rooftops of Paris.  And Vango?  Well, Vango, of course is a train-running, roof-climbing, zeppelin-boarding enigma who can speak several languages and defy death at every turn.  Maybe readers don’t need to know him personally to find his story fascinating.

Describing the book and its myriad tropes, as well as its insistence on squeezing in every possible historical reference (Nazis!  The Hindenberg!  Stalin!) does admittedly make it seem a little much. But it was precisely this overload of tropes and references that made me love it.  The book just wants to take readers on an adventure.  And it does that splendidly.

4 stars

Where Should You Begin with Marvel Comics?

Starting to read comics can feel very intimidating.  When I first began, I did not know where to start or what comics I could read without feeling like I had to start at the beginning of the story–perhaps decades ago!  Over time, however, I have found a few favorite comics.  And learned some titles that easier for beginners to access.  Here are my suggestions for readers new to Marvel.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North (Writer) and Erica Henderson (Illustrator)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has quickly become what is perhaps my favorite Marvel comic, even over Ms. Marvel.  (Thanks to Michael over at My Comic Relief!  Check out his blog for cool comic discussions and recommendations!)  Doreen Green’s preferred method of dealing with supervillains is by trying to rehabilitate them–a refreshing new take on the old “beat them up and hope they learn their lesson this time” routine.  She believes unfailingly in the goodness of people and in the power of second chances, meaning that, even though her squirrel abilities perhaps make her “unbeatable,” it is more likely her optimism and confidence.

But why start with Doreen Green aside from her winning personality?  Is it the humor?  The squirrel armies?  A hero who named himself Chipmunk Hunk?  Well, maybe, but, perhaps equally important is that you really don’t need to know much about Marvel history to read The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.  The comics fill you in on the pertinent parts, meaning you won’t feel overwhelmed or confused if you start reading here with limited (or no) knowledge of comics.

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Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson (Writer) and Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)

Like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel is great for new Marvel readers because the stories do not expect readers to be intimately familiar with Marvel history.  Kamala Khan’s story is just starting out, so it provides all the necessary background information you’ll need to feel comfortable diving in.  Aside from that, Ms. Marvel is a great comic because it features a relatable protagonist just trying to do her best and keep it all together.  School, family, friends, romance–and saving the world?  Kamala wants to be the best in every area of her life, but learns over the course of the series that sometimes you need a little help.  It’s a great message with a winning protagonist.

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Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick (Writer) and David Lopez (Illustrator)

When I first read the first volume of DeConnick’s run, I was admittedly confused.  However, I tried again and was immediately won over by Carol Danvers’ confidence and her desire to help others.  The new Captain Marvel movie and the excitement it generated makes this another great comic for new readers to take up, as I’m sure they’ll fall in love with Carol all over again.

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Runaways by Rainbow Rowell (Writer) and Kris Anka (Illustrator)

This series starts up some time after the original run by Brian K. Vaughan, but it supplies all the necessary background information for readers to dive into the story.  I did not need to know what happened to the characters previously to be invested in their current struggles, which focus a lot on their interpersonal relationships and their desire to find their place in the world, now that they have escaped from their supervillain parents.  Rowell writes with heart and humor, making me love her run even more than Vaughan’s, which I began reading after I read Rowell’s first two volumes.

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Spider-Man: Miles Morales by Brian Michael Bendis (Writer), et al.

I actually began this series with volume two because my library did not have volume one–and I still ended up loving it.  Miles Morales is such a wonderful protagonist, concerned with doing the right thing and being a good person.  I loved the focus on school, friendships, and family.  Even though I found myself slightly more confused by references to past events,  this did not stop my enjoyment of the series.  I think Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a great place to start particularly for readers who are looking for some of the newer heroes or a teenage hero.

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Conclusion

Jumping into the world of comics can be scary, especially when you think of the decades of history behind some of the characters and the stories!  However, jumping in is really the best way to go because, the  more you read, the more comfortable you’ll become!  I still don’t know all the characters or what happened to them, but I’ve found that even seeing some cameos or references can help build up your knowledge and make you feel more comfortable the next time you see a character.  And, eventually, you start to realize that you belong!  Comics are for you!

Do you read Marvel comics?  Where do you thing new readers could begin?

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Information

Goodreads: Stepsister
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

SummarY

Isabelle has never been able to please her mother.  She’s too wild.  Too ugly.  Too opinionated.  That hasn’t kept her from trying, though.  She’ll cut off her own toes to try to make her mother happy.  But the prince isn’t fooled.  As blood pools in Cindererlla’s glass slipper, Isabelle is sent away in disgrace.  And now everyone knows just how terrible she really is.  Then chance gives her the opportunity to change her fate, to reclaim the pieces of her heart she’s lost.  Isabelle yearns to try.  But maybe she’s too bitter and broken to get her own happily-ever-after.

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Review

Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister will likely be one of the standout YA fantasies of the year.  In it, Donnelly imagines the aftermath of Cinderella’s romance through the eyes of Isabelle, one of her “ugly” stepsisters.  Isabelle may not be as pretty as Cinderlla. And she’s certainly not as sweet.  But Isabelle is strong and smart and hardworking.  And she thinks it’s about time she gets to be happy, too.  In Isabelle, Donnelly gives readers a heroine who is not afraid to stand out or to go after what she wants–even if the world repeatedly tells her “no.”  Stepsister is a fierce, feminist retelling that makes readers rethink what they know of “Cinderella.”

Donnelly’s retelling feels different from the many on the market as she focuses on the experiences, not of Cinderella, but of her stepsisters.  Donnelly does not pretend the two were really nice–they did, after all, treat Cindererlla like dirt.  She does, however, make them sympathetic, first by showing how society set them against each other buy judging their worth based on their looks and their docility, and then by showing how their mother stifled them by forcing them act like the “proper young ladies” they never wanted to be.  Isabelle is angry, resentful, and bitter–and not just at her perfect, beautiful, now fabulously-wealthy stepsister.

The theme of societal expectations runs throughout the book.  And, for the most part, it is a thoughtful look at how the patriarchy harms women.  At times, however, the message becomes heavy-handed, with characters actually making speeches about how women can never find out how strong they are, etc. Fortunately, the story is strong enough to survive these rough moments of dialogue.

The story focuses on quite a bit, not just Isabelle’s survival after Cinderella leaves and the village turns on her once-wealthy family.  There is a war going on, with troops rapidly approaching.  There is a long-lost love.  And there is a quest–a way for Isabelle to be granted her heart’s desire, if only she can be strong and smart enough.  It all makes for a fast-paced, exciting read, one that effortlessly expands the world of Cinderella from a house and a palace, to a kingdom.

Stepsister is sure to please both fans of fairy tales and fans of feminist fantasy.  With its strong protagonist, engrossing storyline, and fast-paced plot, it is sure to be one of the most notable YA fantasies of 2019.

4 stars