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I’m not one of those people who keeps track of the number of books I read. To me, it’s not a contest. And many times, by year’s end, I forget the books I read at the beginning of the year and wonder whether I’ll have to scramble to come up with 10 books. So it was a nice surprise that I had 9 books which I gave the top rating of 5 in Librarything. What was even nicer, was that there were even more 4s, so 2012 was a darn good reading year from my perspective.

Reading’s a personal thing, as you know and there are a myriad of factors that go into enjoying a book: your mood when you read it, your favorite author, impeccable wording, an engrossing plot, believable characters. These top 10 books have it all: I was in the right mood, it was my favorite author (or singer, in one instance), the plots ranged from family, to heroism, to illness and the characters were pretty much all people I would like to meet. So, here goes:

SmallDamagesAlthough the top 5 are all magnificent books, I’ll always put a Beth Kephart book on the top of the list. She’s an incredible author whose words, many times, are poetic and lyrical and she outdid herself in Small Damages about a young pregnant girl who finds out that the true meaning of family isn’t always biological. If you read one of Beth’s books, you’ll find you have to read them all.

John Green’s Fault in Our Stars takes us through the harrowing ordeal of cancer but the love and friendship and perseverence that its characters exhibit is incomparable. It might just make you shed a tear. I described it as a book of strength, of philosophy, of humor and determination. It is all of those and more.

At the end of Wonder by R. J. Palacio, Mr. Tushman, Director of Beecher Prep School, Wonderaddresses the 5th grade/6th grade classes with a quote from J. M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird: “Shall we make a new rule of life…always try to be a little kinder than is necessary.” That is the theme of this gem of a book. It is the realistic story of a boy born with a serious facial deformity, overcoming the odds by mainstreaming into the local school. Told from various points of view, once you start it, you won’t put it down.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein comes in at number 4. It is a touching story about two young girls during World War II, one a pilot and the other a spy behind enemy lines in France, if you will. Their heroism and their friendship, while to them small, is huge. It is not like any other war story you’ve read. It is captivating (no pun intended) from the beginning.

LeaveYourSleepRounding out the top 5 is Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep. A five year labor of love, Merchant put to music children’s poetry written from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s and released a wonderful CD of the same name. She then, with illustrator Barbara McClintock, published a book with some of the poetry and beautiful illustrations. I’ve heard Merchant sing these poems several times in concert and have the CD, and as she said ““Poetry speaks of so much: longing and sadness, joy and beauty, hope and disillusionment…But poetry on the page can be difficult to penetrate; sometimes it needs to be heard.” But once heard, reading it and seeing the colorful illustrations adds a whole new perspective.

Since this is getting long, I’ll briefly mention the next 5:

The Bully Book by Eric Kahn Gale: if you’re the “grunt” who gets picked on, you want to find the Bully Book and destroy it. Bullying seems to be an epidemic and Gale tries to reverse the tide in this excellent book.

Period 8 by Chris Crutcher: Crutcher seems to have found his stride again in this honest book about honesty and relationship. Not as ‘in your face’ as Whale Talk or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (my two favorites), it’s still up there with his best.

Stay With Me by Paul Griffin: Violence is a fact of life to some people. Some people are good and some aren’t and what happens to them doesn’t always make sense. Stay With Me had me rivited and, it indeed, did bring on a tear or two.

NoCrystalStairNo Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: A marvelous picture book and more about Nelson’s great-uncle Lewis Michaux, a driving force for educating Blacks in Harlem. Michaux started out with nothing and built a tremendous bookstore in Harlem that attracted the likes of Malcolm X.

Almost Home by Joan Bauer: Bauer is one of the foremost writers for middle school readers and her stories are uplifting. In Almost Home Sugar Mae Cole survives her mother’s depression and a foster home by spouting the words of her grandfather, King Cole. A must read–plus the dog on the cover is adorable.AlmostHome

And the last of them are:

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

Ask the Passenger by A. S. King

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

I read so many more great books in 2012, but this is the best of the best, to me. I hope you enjoy some of them.

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As the title of this article aptly states: Rochester’s Ridiculous Banned Book Controversy. Again, I don’t understand why books that deal with controversial topics in a caring and tender way should be found objectionable by anyone. But that’s me, I guess.  And Tango Makes Three stirs things up again. As I said, I went to high school with one of the authors. I’m proud of him and the book.

Rochester’s Ridiculous Banned Book Controversy

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For a while, I thought I’d be hard pressed to come up with a 2011 Top 10 list for YA books. It was only in the past two weeks that I heaved a sigh of relief. Late reads solidified my list. So, here goes:

Topping my list at Number 1 is You Are My Only by Beth Kephart. I commented that, “As always, Kephart chooses her words with care, and while the language is not as ‘ethereal’ as in some of her recent books, her images and descriptions and wording remain essential in understanding the characters and surroundings.  There are secrets that need to be unearthed and things to ponder.  There are relationships that you are jealous you are not a part of and those you are glad you have not experienced.  You can read You Are My Only quickly and enjoy the story or you can read it slowly and savor every word and nuance and description.  Either way, you must read Beth Kephart’s latest addition to Young Adult literature.”

Night Circus by Erin Morganstern may or may not be considered a YA book, but I’m sure it will appeal to teens, so it comes in at number 2. It takes place in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Night Circus is dream-like.  Celia and Marco are unwilling pawns in a competition between two magicians, one that will last years, if not decades.  The competition’s only rule: there are no rules and neither player knows what to do and how a winner is determined. Erin Morgenstern has written a dream-like book similar to the dream state of the book’s Circus of Dreams.  It’s indescribable.  A must read.

Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet, a late comer to my 2011 reading, lands the number 3 slot.  Peet masterfully merges two stories, the first about England during WW II and and the second about the Cuban Missile Crisis into a book you can’t put down. His language, his sarcasm, his observations, his stories keep you reading way past bedtime.

Any Top 10 without a Brian Selznick book is lacking, so I must include Wonderstruck. Ben lives in Gunflint, Minnesota in 1977.  Rose is a lonely deaf child, living in Hoboken, NJ, overlooking the Hudson River, in 1927. Similar to Mal Peet, how these two stories, taking place 50 years apart, converge is one of the wonders of Wonderstruck.    There are more, such as the fact that Ben’s story is primarily written while Rose’s story is presented entirely in illustrations.  Selznick’s illustrations entice the viewer to scrutinize every line, every object, every picture, they are just so amazing. While you’re at it, reread The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I’m sure you’ll find something new in each drawing.

You know how much I love Joan Bauer and Close to Famous was as good the second tiem around as it was the first time. Number 5 on the list, it’s got great characters, a good story, and luscious sounding baked goods. It teaches you how to overcome adversity.

Coming in at nubmer 6 and 7 are Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver and Widsom’s Kiss by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, two wonderful fairy tales with amazing characters, wonderful writing and absorbing stories. Liesl and Po is geared more for upper elementary or lower middle school while Wisdom’s Kiss is for slightly older audiences.

Eona: The Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman is an action adventure with roots in Chinese astrology. The sequel to Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, it is action packed. This will attract boys and girls since there are  protagonists of both sexes. It is a marvelous way to introduce teens to the 12 astrological signs.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine got great reviews and rightly so. Twleve year old Caitlin has to deal with the death of her mother from cancer two years earlier and the recent middle school shooting death of her older brother Devon.  It’s a lot to contend with even if you don’t have Asperger’s.  While her father understands her, he must deal with his grief, and is unable to translate that to Caitlin.  It was Devon who really understood her and explained the world to her.  Caitlin’s special nature comes through loud and clear; her drawing ability, her affinity for dictionaries and the meanings of words, the comfort she feels when she puts her head under the couch cushions to feel closer to those people who sat on it.  Erskine doesn’t downplay the socialization difficulties Asperger children have because of their unique nature.  What you come away with after reading Mockingbird is a real sense of who Caitlin is–she is a real person and you want to get to know her, to be her friend.  There is a love and warmth that emanates from Erskine’s writing…you get the feeling she really loves Caitlin, not an emotion you often get when reading a book.   I had picked up Mockingbird back in mid-September and put it down within a chapter.  I guess I wasn’t ready for the book.  This time, I read the book in one day; that’s how much I liked it.  Mockingbird is a book for all age groups.  It is beautifully written, tender and informative as well.  It is worthy of its award (not something I can say about every award winner).

Forgotten by Cat Patrick was an unexpected find. Each night at precisely 4:33 am, while sixteen-year-old London Lane is asleep, her memory of that day is erased. In the morning, all she can “remember” are events from her future. London is used to relying on reminder notes and a trusted friend to get through the day, but things get complicated when a new boy at school enters the picture. Luke Henry is not someone you’d easily forget, yet try as she might, London can’t find him in her memories of things to come. When London starts experiencing disturbing flashbacks, or flash-forwards, as the case may be, she realizes it’s time to learn about the past she keeps forgetting-before it destroys her future.

I hope you pick up a few of these books and enjoy them as much as I did.

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I’ve talked before about author’s split personalities. Catherine Gilbert Murdock seems to fall into that category. I first encountered her writing in Dairy Queen, the first book in a trilogy about a girl wanting to play football and getting roped into coaching the opposing team’s quarterback. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone interested in sports. (The second and third books of the trilolgy, while still worth reading, veered off the sports theme a bit, and in my humble opinion, lost a little something.)

Then, all of the sudden I see Princess Ben, a fairy tale, written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock.  Can it be the same author? Yep. Princess Ben was a fun read, but it is surpassed by the enchanted Wisdom’s Kiss: A Thrilling and Romatic Adventure Incorporating Magic, Villainy and a Cat. Duke Roger of Farina, at his mother Queen Wilhelmina’s insistance, is sent to court Queen Temperance of Montagne. However, he falls in love with her sister, Wisdom (nicknamed Dizzy), much to Queen Wilhelmina’s dismay.

When he proposes and she accepts, Princess Wisdom and her retinue must journey to Farina.  Accompanied by the Queen Mother, (Ben)evolence and her cat Escoffier,  her ladies in waiting and guards, they begin their trek. The ladies in waiting, however, get violently ill at one of the inns along the way (I won’t tell you why). In order to save face and arrive with a smidgen of a retinue, they ask a serving girl, Trudy, take on the role of lady in waiting.

Arriving in Farina, Trudy comes face to face with Tomas, a boy from her childhood who had been sold off to an adventurer six years prior and with whom Trudy is love.

Oh, the complications Murdock tells us. Why does Wilhelmina want the marriage? What has Tomas been doing for six years? What does Dizzy really want? Are Ben’s letters getting through to Temperance? How does Trudy fit into all of this? And what of the cat?

All of this begins as a play Queen of All the Heavens: A Play in Three Acts penned by Anonymous. But it unravels in letters from the Queen Mother to Temperance, entries in Dizzy’s diary, a story told by Trudy to her daughters, letters from Tomas to Trudy and so many more writings, enough to make you dizzy. Wisdom’s Kiss has remarkable characters and a wonderful story. As it says in the title, it is “a thrilling and romantic adventure, incorporating magic, villainy and a cat.” It is a late entry into my 2011 Top 10.

I don’t know whether I want Catherine Gilbert Murdock to continue her fairy tales or go back to realistic fiction. Whatever she writes, it is anxiously anticipated.

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In my last post, I stated that readers would be hard pressed to realize that Tamar and Life: An Exploded Diagram were written by the same author. Now I’ll go a step further. I’m positive Mal Peet suffers from multiple personalities because I was hard pressed to realize that the first part of Life and the second part were written by the same author.

I almost didn’t read Life because of a bad review I read, but that would have been a grand shame, because it is one of my Top 10 of 2011, which hopefully I’ll get to next week. Part One: Putting Things Together recounts Clem Ackroyd’s life from his birth in 1945 through the early 1960s in England. His father, George, was in the military during World War II and didn’t meet Clem until he was 3 years old. Before that, Clem grew up with his mother, Ruth, and grandmother, Win. Peet is a knowing observer, talking about Ruth and George’s sexless marriage, their rise from poverty to lower middle class, their mindless, unworldy existence. As he ages Clem, he adroitly contrasts his teenage lust with his parents. Clem, a typical teenager, is a sex crazed boy in love with Frankie, daughter of the local manor owner–a couple both of whose parents would frown upon from a ‘class’ standpoint. But they are truly in love. Peet’s cadence in this narrative shifts from totally laid back to highly energized as Clem and Frankie’s passion escalates. Peet’s various characters are unique, extraordinary and loveable.

But, in Part Two: Blowing Things Apart, Peet abruptly shifts to the Cuban Missile Crisis, where he describes (at times tongue-in-cheek, hopefully) President Kennedy and his military advisors, Premier Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. In his Author’s Note,  Peet states “Clem Ackroyd is an unreliable historian”, so I’m sure there’s some ‘Author’s License’ in the depiction of these world leaders. However, it is riveting. In this second part there are occasional reversions to Clem and Frankie, but few and far between.

How Peet masterfully intertwines these two stories is not something I want to reveal to you. You must read it for yourself. And, if you’re like me, you may be surprised, saddened and surprised, by Part Three: Picking Up the Pieces. I could not put Life: An Exploded Diagram down. I chuckled. I smiled. I frowned. My emotions ran the gamut. Do yourself a favor. If you’re looking for that great end of year book, pick up Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet.

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“Mary White smelled of sweet perfume and mixed feelings when she greeted me at the door of her house,” Moe Prager says upon meeting up with an old acquaintance. “Kites bathed in dying orange light flirted with the Verrazano Bridge and dreamed of untethered flight,” he thinks as he drives along the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn as the sun is setting.

I’m making my way through the Moe Prager mysteries by Reed Farrel Coleman (I just finished Empty Ever After) because his latest one, Hurt Machine, just recently published, got great reviews. One more to go! Yes! And while I wouldn’t say the series falls into the “Literary” genre, they are literary, as evidenced by the snippets above. Coleman, in the form of Moe Prager, is practical, philosophical, literary and literate.

Prager’s also human. I have a lot of favorite mystery characters: Harry Bosch by Connelly, Kinsey Milhone by Grafton, Joe Gunther by Mayer, Jackson Brody by Atkinson, Mike Daley by Silverstein and, more recently, Claire DeWitt by Gran.  (By the way, if you haven’t read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, you must. That’s an order.) However, the only one I can visualize as a next door neighbor is Moe Prager.

There’s a 15 year gap in Moe Prager’s life between the previous installment and Empty Ever After. (In a recent interview Coleman said, unlike Sue Grafton’s protagonist, he, Coleman, must age his characters in order to keep it interesting.)  Empty Ever After incorporates the cases of the previous books, making it both a benefit and a hindrance.  If you’re familiar with the cases/books, you may or may not want to rehash parts of them again.  On the other hand, it all fits together nicely. If you’re not familiar with the previous books, you may get a tad lost, but Coleman does a good job of acquainting you with the salient points.

For purposes of this blog post, the plot is too involved to summarize without the backstory. Suffice it to say, Coleman makes it work. For a quick, enjoyable read, Moe Prager is a #1 recommendation.

Coleman also said that he plans two more Prager books, a prequel and another book. You know I’ll be waiting impatiently for these to be written.

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The Young Adult Division of the Nassau and Suffolk Library Associations are having Joan Bauer speak at their December luncheon and, so far, I’m planning on going. You may not think that’s a big thing, but I do…for two reasons.  One-Ms. Bauer just looks like a really nice person…don’t you think so?  Two, she writes great books (only a nice person can write her kind of books).  I’ve read Close to Famous, Peeled, Best Foot Forward, Rules of the Road and they are so enjoyable. You know, it’s so hard these days to find good stories without sex, violence, profanity, etc.  Ms. Bauer writes those kind of stories.

When Susan and I started this blog, one of our goals was to bring to the forefront writers that may be under the radar a bit.  You don’t hear a lot about Joan Bauer, so some of you may not know of her.  Her books haven’t been withdrawn from National Book Award consideration (I know, enough is enough).  They haven’t been challenged or banned, as far as I know.

On the other hand, she’s won the Newbery Honor Medal, the L.A. Times Book Prize and the Golden Kite Award of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators among other awards.  Rules of the Road was chosen as one of the top young adult books of the quarter century by the American Library Association.

My favorite Joan Bauer book?  It’d have to be Close to Famous.  Anything with food in it.  So, that’s why I’m excited about meeting Joan Bauer. (Plus, she lives in Brooklyn.  She’s got to be nice.)

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