A Year of Books 2019 — The Best of the Year

The time has come.

Every year about this time, my Bride and I assess.. the BOOKSHELF OF DOOM!

Actually, it’s not very doom-y. It’s this bookshelf that sits next to our bed. The goal every year is to fill it with what we read. Finish a book? It goes on the shelf!

(Other than my professional reading for the ministry… those reviews go up every week over on my other blog.)

And now… it’s time to look at what we’ve read! I’m starting with what I consider the best of the year. These are the books that touched me the most. That doesn’t mean that everything else I read this year is bad. It also doesn’t mean that these are the books that will win the most awards. They’re the books that held my attention best and made me go, “Hm.”

These aren’t in any particular order, so don’t read into that at all. It’s just, as I said, the best of what I read this particular year.

Without further ado…

***

To the Stars Trilogy by Harry Harrison
Homeworld
Wheelworld
Starworld

Jan Kulozik is an engineer in the future, living a pretty privileged life. Then, he’s brought into the underground and realizes his perfect life exists because a lot of other people have been pushed under by the ruling elite. Jan joins the rebellion… and fails. The “To the Stars” trilogy shows us Jan’s rise, fall, and ultimate victory over the establishment.

I’d never read Harry Harrison before, even though he is one of those names that’s widely respected in relatively older sci-fi. The characters and plots moved along, though it felt a lot like Logan’s Run for style. I could see it as a movie from that era, including the ideas for how technology worked. Reading the backs of the books, I had thought that I’d loath Wheelworld, the second installment that shows Jan’s captivity after his rebellion fails, but it was the most fascinating for me.

If you’re looking for some solid 70’s style action-based sci-fi, do yourself a favor and look this one up. You can get the omnibus pretty cheap, and it’s well worth your reading.

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Ulysse explores with others and discovers a planet where men are savages and apes walk, talk, and have technology like men. Ulysse’s very existence threatens the fabric of ape society. But how did it come to be that men were so animalistic? There’s a growing horror as the secret is revealed, and not one but two twist endings that, even though you can predict them before they play out, still leave a decided impact.

Look, this ain’t the movies. The book really did leave a strong impression on me. The printing in my hands is only 128 pages (though it has one of those terrible movie covers… arg!). I’d encourage you to read the source material for the films. It is neat seeing what was preserved, and the story here is so strong. Check it out!

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

Death has been conquered. No one dies anymore. To help people appreciate life, Scythes are sent to reap the population. They have quotas, but also very strict rules about who and how they perform their art. But there is a movement in the Scythe brotherhood to change how things happen. And someone is killing Scythes themselves.

Look, this is Shusterman. He writes solid young adult. This volume is book two in a trilogy, so please don’t start here; go read Scythe first. And then read this one. I love Shusterman’s worldbuilding. He has created a fascinating culture of what it would look like if there was no more death. The characters are incredibly strong here. There’s a twist at the end that I felt wasn’t quite earned, but I trust him enough to be looking forward to the final installment of the trilogy!

The Healer’s Legacy by Sharon Skinner

Years ago Kira ran away from her healer training to be with her boyfriend, the man of her dreams. That turned into a nightmare; he was an abusive warlord. Now Kira is trying to get away. With the help of a companion wyvern and a friendly panther-like cat, she must not only escape his physical presence, but find a way to heal from all the damage he’s done to her body and soul.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy with strong female leads, but this is the first I’ve read with a protagonist acting like an actual abuse survivor. Kira as a character fascinates me. While some of the events of the plot felt a touch forced – for instance, help arrives at just the right moment in a way that reminds me a bit too strongly of Lord of the Rings – the character work more than makes up for it. This is the first book of a trilogy, and the third book arrives this August if Amazon is to be believed. I’ll definitely be completing the trilogy. I’d recommend you order this as well if you want to support small-press authors who write good fantasy.

Daughters of Destiny by L. Frank Baum

Prince Kasam needs help. His grandfather was deposed, but if he returns to his nation at the right time, he will be the rightful heir to the throne. He just needs a little American muscle backing him up to make sure that everything goes according to plan. But the current Kahn’s son is in a monastery, a devout man with a good heart. And the Americans, well, what are they doing with all this? Who will reign in Baluchistan?

This is one of three adult novels written by L. Frank Baum, published originally in 1906. It felt like a Tom Clancy novel for all the political wrangling and action scenes, though obviously written in an earlier time. The neatest thing about the novel is that I wasn’t sure who the protagonist was! Baum was careful to write sympathetic characters all around, even though they were working against each other. As I was reading, I was very frustrated – until the last chapter, when the resolution made me say, “Oh!”

It’s relatively difficult to get your hands on this one, but if you get the chance and you’re interested in reading an older adventure story, I’d recommend picking it up. It’s a fast, fun read, and if you get frustrated along the way, well, the end of the novel makes everything clear.

Ghosts on the Red Line by Peter David Shapiro

Ghosts are appearing on Boston’s Red Line subway. Not everyone sees them, and everyone seems to see different ghosts. Suddenly the subway is a zoo. Some people have violent reactions to what they see. For others, this is now holy ground. Harry West is hired to find out what’s causing the visitations and shut it down. And when he does discover what’s causing it, should he shut it down? Is it holy ground now, a chance for the living to find peace with the dead? Oh, and also there’s a mobster who is very angry that the people he’s killed are showing up on his morning commute. That might cause a few complications.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up the book, but the journey was quite memorable. While Shapiro never really explains what the visitations are – real ghosts or hallucinations or what – he deals with the human consequences of such an event in not only a realistic way, but a gripping way. The short chapters zoomed me through the novel at warp speed. I thought that the mobster complication would make me roll my eyes, but it really did aid in the plot and raising the stakes. I’m not even sure what genre I’d put this in – urban fantasy, maybe? – but I’m glad I read it!

Company A by H. K. Devonshire

Look, I already reviewed the thing, all right? It’s Martian rangers. It’s a western on Mars. Just go read the full review, but the TLDR version: It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s worth your time.

***

Believe it or not, I read more than these books this year! I’ll be back next year with some fast reviews! But first… my Bride Helen also did reading things!

***

So, I read a bunch of things this year, too. Not nearly as many as I would have liked. And a good chunk of what I did read was “reading with the 1st grader.” Apparently caring for an infant is a full-time job. Really cuts into your reading time. Who knew?

Anyway, I still managed to find some good reads this year. In fact very little of what I read was bad. I will likely break down my list by age range because that works better for me this year. But first – the best picks across the board! (In no particular order.)

God Country by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw

Emmett Quinlan is slipping further into dementia. Even his family – son, daughter-in-law, and young granddaughter – finds it hard to be with him. Then, the sword Valofax finds him. And as long as he holds it, his memory is restored. But with the sword come enemies. Now Emmett must defend his home and his family from the gods of other words who would take the sword back….by any means necessary.

I read a few graphic novels each year. Not many, but a few. I think this year I read 2. Total. And one of them is making my Top 10 Top 9 list. That should tell you something right there. At its heart, this is a story about family, about love and memory and sacrifice for your family. (Plus there are some cool action scenes with zombies and rulers from other planets and stuff.) It’s a self-contained story (so no “comic knowledge” required) And the art is absolutely gorgeous. Highly recommended.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Dystopia before dystopia was a thing. Award winning, there’s a reason this one is so often required reading. Jonas lives in a perfect little city. Everyone is equal. Everything from the climate to your wardrobe to your job assignment is perfectly ordered and controlled. But at what cost? When Jonas is given the job of Receiver (to one day replace The Giver), he starts to get little glimpses of life “behind the curtain” and what has been sacrificed to achieve this “utopia.”

If you don’t know this story already, I’d be surprised. But, if you don’t, go read it. I read it again this year as I read the rest of the (new to me) quartet. (More on Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son in another post.) I still love how the color red makes its appearance in this story and just how ahead of its time this book really was.

On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer

Joel and Tony hop on their bikes, and Joel promises his father “on his honor” they will stick to the path. Of course he knows Tony wants to go rock climbing at Starved Rock (which is none too safe). Joel would rather go swimming, which is of no interest to Tony. But his father said they could go, and Joel doesn’t want to look like a wimp. Part way out to Starved Rock the boys stop and swim in the (off limits) Vermillion River. But Tony is not a strong swimmer, and now Joel has to live with the consequences.

This is a required reading novel I somehow missed along the way. I find it interesting how the boys unintentionally goad each other into taking risks that neither of them wants or intends to take.

A short, direct story that doesn’t pull its punches. Not light reading by any means, but definitely worthwhile.

The Grandmother Paradox – by Wendy Nikel

Fair Warning – this is book 2. You may want to read book 1 – The Continuum first.

Trying to preserve the timeline is never easy. Sending a 22nd Century man back to the 1890s to do so only makes it more interesting. It’s 2012. Chandler has been saved from a disaster in his time, 2112. And now he must go back, not to his own time, but even further back, to 1893. There he must find and protect a woman named Juliette. Otherwise, Juliette’s great-great granddaughter Elise might never come to save him in 2112. And if Elise never saves him…Sigh. It’s complicated.

Set against the backdrop of the Chicago World’s Fair and sprinkled with magicians and time travelers, this tale is even more fun than book 1. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say the timeline is….not exactly a straight line. And maybe some paradoxes are simply meant to be.

Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston

Part Dr. Seuss, part Tim Burton, all fun. Katrina Katrell runs away from her unloving aunt (who has hired a doctor to lobotomize Katrina, in case you were wondering when the darker bits pop up), and meets Mortimer. Far from a figment of her imagination (as her aunt claimed him to be), Mortimer is in fact a Zorgle. What is a zorgle? Well, it’s okay if you’re not familiar with them. They disappeared a while ago, along with most people’s sense of imagination. But together Katrina and Mortimer set out to find the lost Zorgles of Zorgamazoo.

Okay – just read the first few paragraphs:

Here is a story that’s stranger than strange.
Before we begin you may want to arrange:
a blanket, a cushion, a comfortable seat,
and maybe some cocoa and something to eat.

I’ll warn you, of course, before we commence,
my story is eerie and full of suspense,
brimming with danger and narrow escapes,
and creatures of many remarkable shapes.
Dragons and ogres and gorgons and more,
and creatures you’ve not even heard of before.
And faraway places? There’s plenty of those!
(And menacing villains to tingle your toes.)

So ready your mettle and steady your heart.
It’s time for my story’s mysterious start…

It sells itself. Now – go get a copy of the book (and that blanket and cocoa) and get reading! (P.S. Yes, all 280 some pages are written in verse. And yes, it is awesome.)

The Farthest-Away Mountain by Lynne Reid Banks

No one has ever been to the farthest-away mountain. With its enchanted, color-changing snow, it always seems just a little farther off in the distance. But Dakin has 3 goals in life: To meet a gargoyle, to find a prince for her husband, and to visit the farthest-away mountain. And one morning, the mountain calls to her. Along her journey she will cross paths with Old Croak the frog, a tiny troll who was turned into a statue, and 3 cowardly brothers Og, Vog, and Zog who are nevertheless quite helpful. Not to mention facing Graw, Drakamag, and finally the Colored Snow Witch atop the mountain.

This is another re-read for me. Full of fantasy tropes and classic set-ups, this was the book I remember introducing me to the genre. And for that reason, it always gets a place on my list.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

An old book appeared on Simon’s doorstep one day. A very old book. At first just a curiosity, as he continues to read it, it seems more and more that he was meant to have this book. That it really does connect to him and his family. The book is a journal dating back to the 1700s, and it tells of the strange and sometimes magical things that happened to a traveling circus. Including a drowned mermaid. Generations of drowned mermaids (better known as breath-holders now) in fact. Mermaids who drowned on July 24th, just like Simon’s mother. The question is, is it coincidence or curse?

I was drawn to this book because of the story behind its publication. To pitch her book, the author aged and hand bound her manuscript before mailing it in, so that an “old” book appeared on the doorstep of her would-be publishers just as one appears on Simon’s doorstep. And I think that’s just fabulous. You may also recall that I love a good circus magic story. I was slightly disappointed that Simon took so long to figure out the solution.(I got there first.) But the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

7 students, 1 teacher, and 1 snowy accident. Jessica, Alexia, Peter. Luke, Danielle, Anna, and Jeffrey all take turns narrating this story. Mr. Terupt is that teacher everyone loves, the one who seems to work magic in the classroom. And the accident, well, you’ll have to read about that.

Despite knowing what the story is building toward, (or maybe because of it?), doesn’t lessen the impact when you finally get to it. And I know 7 narrators sounds like a lot. But it works. It all works. Written by a former teacher, the characters are real and wonderful and heartfelt. I look forward to book 2.

Sector 7 by David Wiesner

A school field trip leads to an unexpected tour of Sector 7, the Cloud Factory.

This book has no words. Only wonderful illustrations. I now keep an eye out for more Wiesner books (and have collected a few). Do you see shapes in the clouds when you look up? Ever wonder where they come from or what it would be like to soar up into the clouds? Come visit Sector 7.

***

And there you have it. My Top 9 picks for the year. Tune in later for other things we read, because of course there’s lots more where this came from.

Published by Jon

I'm a pastor in Wisconsin. Constantly writing, whether it be fiction or sermons or anything in between. Husband and father. Over all this, Christian, willing and joyful servant to good master Jesus.

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