Category Archives: Best Books

What I read in 2014 and top picks

That total of thirty-six books (plus a few more nonfiction titles I didn’t record as I dipped into and out of them over the summer) is the fewest I’ve had in a while.  As always, it’s been a heavy-on-the-fiction year.  Reading and reviewing have been struggles for me this year; I’m busier now than ever before.  Plus, I no longer have a nursing toddler, so that little bit of downtime I used to have is no more.  :-(    Of course, I’m not counting the read-alouds I shared with my children.  Next week I’ll share those, and on Thursday, January 1, I’ll put up a Read Aloud Thursday linky for you to share your own lists.  

As far as favorites from the year go, I can say that I’m happy that I’ve read more classics (and even a few from my Classics Club list!) than usual.  This is mostly because of my IRL bookclub.  I’ve also learned something about myself:  I dislike re-reading books, even books I love.  (Jane Eyre is what I’m thinking of here.)  Actually, I’m not sure that I really dislike re-reading books; I think the opposite might even be true.  I think it’s just that at this point in my life I very little quiet time that reading a hefty tome requires, and when it’s one I’ve read before, I grow impatient to get to something new-to-me (and easier to read!)  That’s my reading confession of the year.  :-)

As far as favorites go, I’m not going to overthink this or even quantify it.  I’m just going to go with my off-the-cuff reactions.  In no particular order (well, actually, in the order in which I read them ;-) ), these are my top picks of 2014:

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.  Such a complex, compelling, and heartbreaking story.
Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson.  Sherry recommended this one to me last year, and I’m so glad I read it.  Delightful!
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.  Suspenseful, entertaining, and well-written children’s book I had meant to read for a long time.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  I didn’t review it, but I shared quotes here and here.  Aside from just being proud of myself for reading the whole thing,  I am pleased to say that I enjoyed this one quite a lot.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  This was my favorite fiction read of the year.  I just love this story.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.  I never wrote a proper review of this one, though I did share some of my thoughts about it here.  This is one of those books that I devoured, and the end of it really gave me some things to consider.


The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt.  I’m two-for-two now with Schmidt; one of his books made my 2012 top picks list.

Revolution by Deborah Wiles.  This was my first documentary novel, but it won’t be my last.

There you have it: my top picks of the year.  Have you read any of these?  What did you think?

If you’ve shared your 2014 books list or top picks, leave me a link.  I’d love to read yours!

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Revolution by Deborah Wiles

Revolution by Deborah Wiles is a 2014 National Book Award finalist in the young people’s literature category, but I first learned about it via Heavy Medal as a potential Newbery contender.  It is the second book in Deborah Wiles’ Sixties Trilogy.  However, Revolution stands up very well on its own.  It’s a a documentary novel, something I don’t remember ever reading before (and in fact I didn’t even know what to call it until I saw the term on Wiles’ website).  This means it’s a scrapbook, of sorts–the actual novel is interspersed with photographs, news clippings, current-event essays, etc.  That brings the page count for the book up past the 500 mark.  Even without all the extras, though, Revolution is a substantive story.  It’s the story of Greenwood, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer, the summer of 1964.  The story is mostly told through the eyes of Sunny Fairchild, a twelve year old girl who has recently acquired a whole new family–a stepbrother, a stepmother, and a stepsister, to round out her family of two.  Her dad, once one of the town’s “good old bad boys,”  settled down into respectability–and fatherhood–a few years after Sunny’s mother ran off at Sunny’s birth. This is really the family’s and the town’s story, too, told mostly through Sunny’s eyes, but also through the eyes of a fourteen year old black boy named Raymond Bullis.  Sunny and her stepbrother, Gillette, have a run-in with Raymond in the opening chapter of the story, and he remains an enticing enigma to them–Who is the kid in the white hi-tops who has the gall to jump the fence and take a moonlit swim in the Whites Only Greenwood public pool?

This is a dense story, full of spot-on period details and lots of emotion, warmth, and insight into the inner-workings of a twelve year old girl who feels out of sorts because her mother abandoned her. Couple that with all the sixties angst, and it’s really very emotionally touching.  I admit to shedding a few tears in this story.  The back-and-forth POV switching is something I’ve never liked very much, but the voices are different enough (not to mention the fact that the pages themselves are shaded differently or use a different font from character to character) that I didn’t have one bit of trouble following the story.  I did find the “documentary” parts of the novel a little off-putting at times, but after I understood that the details they give actually enhance the story (for example, all of the Civil Rights acronyms that are very confusing), I actually began to read (or at least skim) them.  In fact, one of the most touching parts of the story for me was a little autiobiographical sketch of President Johnson, certainly not someone I would’ve ever imagined tearing up over before now.  :-)

I read Deborah Wiles’ Love, Ruby Lavender years ago but still remember it, which must mean I thought it was a pretty good story.  One thing I particularly like is that she’s a Southern writer writing about Southerners, so she gets the voices and the diction right.  I love this description from Revolution:

The phone rings before the sun is up, and that’s saying something.  When it’s summer, the birds start making a racket before five o’clock in the morning, which is the time it’s finally cool enough to pull up the covers and dream one last sweet dream, just before the sun beams over the horizon and starts to butter the day.

So that’s what I do.  My warm sheet feels just right against my chilly shoulders. (148)

This is a highly-polished story.  I love it, and I’m sure it will make my Best Books list for 2014.  My only criticism of it is that it feels rushed at the end–like we had a whole, slow summer full of all kinds of action and adventure and worry–and then bam!–it’s fall and the kids are back in school and things have settled back down into a semblance of normalcy.  I really want to know more about a lot of things that are hinted at the in story.  I want to know Gillette’s family story, especially.  I figure there’s more to come about that, maybe, since it is part of a trilogy.  I do want to go back and read the first Sixties Trilogy story, Countdown.  These books would make excellent companions to a study of this time period in U.S. History.  Highly (Highly) Recommended.  (Scholastic, 2014)

Other middle grade novels set in the 1960s:



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The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

I brought home Gary D. Schmidt‘s Newbery honor winning book The Wednesday Wars on a whim last week from the library.  I really needed to turn my attention to Jane Eyre, but I was in the mood for something short and easy, and after a while I really miss reading middle grade or YA fiction.  I LOVED Okay for Now when I read it this time a couple of years ago, so The Wednesday Wars has been on my radar since then.  I loved this one every bit as much as Okay for Now, which makes sense since the books are very similar in theme and tone and voice, and have a few characters in common.  (This also makes me wonder if these similarities are the reason that Schmidt was “robbed,” as Sherry puts it, of the Newbery back when Okay for Now was published.)

The Wednesday Wars is the story of Holling Hoodhood (yes, you read that right) and his seventh grade year.  The year is 1967, and Holling is simply trying to survive seventh grade.  The only son of a prominent but neglectful architect, Holling’s main distinguishing characteristic is that he’s the lone Presbyterian in a classroom full of Catholic and Jewish kids who depart school each Wednesday afternoon for religious classes at their respective places of worship.  What follows then is primarily the story of Holling’s relationship with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker, under whose care Holling is left each Wednesday afternoon.  Mrs. Baker’s exasperation at having the one seventh grader who hasn’t any place to be each Wednesday is almost palpable at the beginning of the story–she gives him inane tasks, like taking the blackboard erasers outside and clapping them.  She finally settles on a more appealing activity (at least for her initially):  she and Holling will study Shakespeare together.  The unfolding of the plot is then driven by Shakespearean themes.  This former English teacher absolutely loved being privy to the conversations between Holling and Mrs. Baker.  I love the relationship that develops–reading this caused me to look back at my own teaching years with fondness on a few students with whom I developed a similar relationship.

If the story sounds high-brow, it certainly isn’t.  Holling’s voice is that of a fourteen year old boy.  I found myself laughing aloud on more than one occasion.

The next afternoon, after everyone had left for Temple Beth-El or Saint Adelbert’s, and after Doug Swieteck and Danny had waited around until the last minute in case Mrs. Baker had arranged for Whitey Ford to show up, Mrs. Baker handed me back my Macbeth test.

“Macbeth and Malcolm are not the same person, though their names share an initial consonant,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“Nor are Duncan and Donalbain, who also share an initial and, for that matter, concluding, consonant, the same person.”

“I guess not,” I said.

“Malcolm and Donalbain are the king’s sons, not. . .”

“You know,” I said, “it’s not so easy to read Shakespeare–especially when he can’t come up with names that you can tell apart.”
Mrs. Baker rolled her eyes.  This time I was sure.

“Shakespeare did not write for your ease of reading,” she said.

No kidding, I thought.  (108-109)

Despite Holling’s adolescent attitude and bravado, though, this is a very poignant tale.  It brings together very tough, very real issues–the Vietnam War, immigration, family difficulties, first love–and measures out the problems and sometimes even the solutions through the beautiful sieve of a teacher/student relationship and Shakespearean genius.  This book will definitely make my best picks of 2014 list.  Highly, Highly Recommended.  (Clarion, 2007)

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WWW: One more from the Melendys

WWW ladydusk

Will you indulge me in just one more shared excerpt from Then There Were Five?  This caused me and my girls to laugh aloud.

Randy said, “What’s your favorite color, Mark?”

“Green is.”

“Well, you know what?  I’m going to knit you a green sweater.  A good warm one.”

“Gee, that would be wonderful.  But I don’t want you to bother.”

“Yes,” said Randy.  “Green.  With a neck and everything.”

This was no mean contribution.  Randy hated to knit and did it badly.  She had never knitted anything except staggering, uncertain scarves, and the prospect of a whole sweater, with a front and back an a neck, seemed as tortuous and difficult an undertaking as a journey through the labyrinth of the Minotaur.

“By Christmas it ought it be ready,” Randy said, and couldn’t help sighing.  “Anyway, sometime before spring.”

“Gee, that would be wonderful.”

“Wait till you see it first,” cautioned Rush.  “It’ll probably have three sleeves.”  (151-52)


I couldn’t help but be reminded of this:

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Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright

It goes without saying that we love the Melendys here at the House of Hope.  Then There Were Five is the third of the Melendy Quartet, following The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake.  This was our bedtime read-aloud for the past month or so, and it really makes a perfect bedtime read, excepting the fact that most chapters are pretty long.  It’s another episodic story, revolving mostly around the things the Melendy children do as they’re left alone without Cuffy or father for several summertime weeks.  The benignly neglectful (overgrown adolescent?)  Willy Sloper is the only adult about the place, so Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver do pretty well as they please, which makes for some very entertaining times.   This novel does have more of a cohesive storyline because of the introduction of an extra child–the fifth one indicated by the title–into the story.  Randy and Rush meet Mark Herron when they’re out collecting scrap metal for the war effort one day and immediately strike up a jolly friendship.  Mark’s a stolid, hard-working, yet jovial fellow, and the Melendys can’t help but love him.  His situation in life isn’t good; his guardian is a relative, a mean old cuss named Oren, who works him hard with little to speak of in return, and certainly no warmth or affection.  Due to a surprising turn of events in the story, Mark comes to live with the Melendys and is eventually adopted by Mr. Melendy at the very end of the tale.  Thus, the very, very heart-warming and touching theme of family love is beautifully explored in the story.  Given the light touch Elizabeth Enright employs through most of her stories, this unexpected (yet entirely appropriate, given the children’s ages) revealing of some very important issues in life is lump-in-the-throat inducing.  I can’t say when I’ve enjoyed a story more, and I think my girls would agree.

I’ve shared one quote already, but as usual, I can’t resist sharing a few more:

This, from Mr. Jasper Titus, another friend Rush and Randy make on their scrap metal drive, reminds me of something out of a L.M. Montgomery novel.  (In fact, the whole scrap metal drive reminds me of the episode in Anne of Avonlea (?) when Anne and co. are canvassing newspaper or magazine subscriptions.)  :

Before they left Rush and Randy learned a lot about Mr. Titus.  They learned that he was a bachelor whose only sister had kept house for him until her late marriage nine years before.  Up to that time he had been a farmer, but now he rented his barn, meadows, and pastureland and lived contentedly in his own house, with his pets.

“Always was lazy, always will be,” he said.  “Never did like heavy chores.  Just did ‘em ’cause my conscience drove me.  Yes, sir, drove me.  And then one day it quit, just laid down quiet and gave up the struggle.  Since then no more cows!  No more hosses!  No more blame chickens, only just enough to lay me a soft-boiled egg or two.  No more hawgs!  Nothin’ but small-fry pets to keep me company.  No more long rows to hoe!  No more corn!  Just grow enough garden truck so’s when I want a mess of peas for supper I can pick me a mess of peas.  Same with all the rest.  Always did like fussin’ in a kitchen, too.  Like to bake.  Used to be ashamed of it when I was younger.  But I ain’t ashamed no more.  One of my marble cakes took first prize over to Braxton Fair last year.  Yep.  That’s what I like.  Pets, and fussin’ in a kitchen, and goin’ fishin’.  And by golly that’s what I do!”  (34)

Cuffy gets all in a dither over how things will go to pot while she’s away:

“It’s not anything happening to you that I’m worried about,”  sniffed Cuffy.  “I’m only thinking of the state the house’ll get into with me gone.  Rush will step out of his clothes every night, leave them on the floor, and step into clean ones every morning till they’re all gone and he has to go without any.  Randy will leave paint water around in glasses till they make rings on the furniture, or someone drinks one of ‘em by accident and dies of paint poisoning.  Mona will forget to make her bed day in and day out till I get home.  She’ll get talcum powder into the rug, and her shoes will collect all over the house.  She’s always taking them off and going barefoot nowadays.  Shoes on the mantelpiece, windowsill, piano, everywhere.  I know her.  And nobody will wash the dishes!” (124)

One of Oliver’s passions is moths–catching the caterpillars, raising, them, and releasing them:

When the caterpillars had eaten several hundred times their own weight in greenstuff they began making cocoons.  In each glass jar Oliver had put some earth or a strong twig, depending on whether the creature in question was a burrower or a weaver.  Even Cuffy and Mona found themselves interested in the progress of the cocoons:  they were so ingenious, beautifully knitted, and in some cases lovely to look at.  The monarch caterpillar, for instance, contrived a waxy chrysalis of pale green, flecked with tiny arabesques of gilt.  It hung from the twin on a little black silk thread, like the jade earring of a Manchu princess [. . .]

The nice thing about the monarch chrysalis was that the creature which emerged at the end of two weeks was as beautiful as his case.  Orange-red and cream and black, like the petals of a tiger lily, he clung to the twig till his wings dried and widened, and then Oliver took him to the open window and deposited him gently on a leaf.  Watching the butterfly fluttering away in the sunshine Oliver could not help feeling a little like God releasing a new soul into the world.  (82-83)

Now for just one more, this time one that encapsulates in an exquisite word-picture the theme of home and family that is so beautifully depicted in the Melendy stories:

That night Mark got his wish.  He slept in the cupola.  The rain beat down on the little metal roof.  It spattered against the four windows, and ran down in a long stream from the spout.  The gutters tinkled and hummed.  The thunder sounded as if it had been cut up into squares.  It tumbled down the sky like giant blocks tumbling downstairs.  Mark snarled himself into his favorite sleeping position an felt as if he had come home at last.  [. . .] the violence of the last few hours [. . .] were thoughts too dreadful to contemplate now.  A safety door in his brain locked himself against them, and soon he was asleep.  (142-143)

Come back on Wednesday for our favorite excerpt from the whole book, one that made us laugh out loud.  :-)

So, what are you waiting for?  Get thee to the library or the bookstore and bring the Melendys home with you.  You’ll be glad you did!  Highly, Highly (Highly) Recommended.  (Macmillan, 1944)

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