Back in high school, I used to keep a list of books I read each year. Because I like books. And lists.
But for some reason, once I left high school, I stopped keeping track of my reading. Probably because college hit me hard and I had no time to wash my hair or cook in an oven anymore, let alone keep lists of my books (although I did still read a lot, both in and out of class).
Last year, though, I decided to try again. I kept a list of every book I read for a year. And it was satisfying. (Which surprised me, for who-knows-what-reason. Because books. And lists. Obviously.)
I was also surprised that in spite of my two jobs and a published novel this year, I still managed to read 70 books! It was fun to count them and watch the trends in my genre preferences. Fantasy, steampunk, and children’s lit were the big winners this year (more non-surprises). I also starred my very favorite reads, books which (surprisingly or unsurprisingly) deeply moved, entertained, or educated me in an important way. Six books got starred, so I thought I’d share these meaningful books with you.
Alina’s Six Top Books of 2016
Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor
In a world stuffed with sappy, simplistic spiritual books, Taylor does not add to the problem. This book was deep, sensitive, insightful, brave, and completely helpful to me.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
A beautiful, sad, empowering classic about a young woman who goes from victim to victor. Favorite quote: “No one is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.”
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
Sometimes (a lot of the time) I learn from teaching as much as I ever did from being a student. Having assigned this novel to my students, I figured I’d better read it…and it was wonderful. Shattering. Honest about the complexities of racial tensions in pre-apartheid South Africa (and anywhere). But also unapologetically hopeful about the possibilities of love and kindness.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I have no idea how I got through high school and a college English degree without reading this one, but I’m glad I finally got around to it. This book was wise, sorrowful, hopeful, and so so so relevant to life in 2016. It had an eerily prophetic ring to it, actually. Or maybe the world just hasn’t changed that much.
Austenland by Shannon Hale
This book was just sheer fun. I love Jane Austen and I love Shannon Hale, so put the two together and you get a decadent slice of fun and humor. And also a strong heroine with some wise insights on being a young woman in the 21st century. I (maybe) read it three times in the same month.
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
This one was also pure fun. I was first attracted to it for its cover (yes, even authors do that), but I stayed for the rollicking romp of fantasy-steampunk-science fiction-Sherlock Holmes delightfulness, complete with cyborg alligators and plenty of bibliophilia. Now I must read the rest of the series.
A spiritual book, three social commentaries, a parody on a classic, and a fantasy romp, making the top of my list? How…unsurprising.
What were some of your favorite reads in 2016?
I like to read. (Oh yeah, just a little bit. I’m a maniac out of control on this one.) I’m keeping count of how many books I’ve read this year, and I might actually blog about that later on. But especially as the weather gets colder and the nights get longer, reading is my favorite thing to do. And I’ve had the privilege of reading some really great indie books over the last year or so. So with winter and the sometimes-overwhelming holidays zooming up, I thought I’d share my top indie picks to keep you reading happily. Especially because Black Friday weekend=deals on books. And most of these e-books cost less than $3 (some are even free). So yeah. Check out these awesome indie books that bring new and different flavors to the reading world. You’re welcome.
Side note: many of these authors have actually been so gracious as to stop by for an interview on this blog! You can find them by typing each name into the blog search bar!
Dreamwalker series by Angela Wallace (fantasy)
Lady of Devices series by Shelley Adina (steampunk, oh yeah! I’m on book 10 of the series.)
Masque by W.R. Gingell (fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast)
Mourning Cloak series by Rabia Gale (fantasy)
The Rummy Club by Anoop Ahuja Judge (contemporary)
The Stream by A.R. Silverberry (fantasy)
Sunbolt series by Intisar Khanani (fantasy with an awesome Middle Eastern flavor)
Wish series by Grier Cooper (contemporary)
Oh hey, The Illuminator Rising ebook will be 99 cents from Black Friday through Cyber Monday! And if you haven’t yet started the Voyages of the Legend series…
Oh guess what, Book 1 will be 99 cents all weekend too! 🙂
Happy Thanksgiving, and happy reading!
I’m not going to lie–one of my favorite things about being an author, especially an independent author, is getting to meet other authors. Unlike much of the world, I’ve found the book community to be a really team-focused, everybody-can-win environment. Which is how I was lucky enough to meet and interview W.R. Gingell, a fellow fantasy author.
Today is launch day for W.R.’s latest novella, “The First Chill of Autumn.” To celebrate, W.R. has graciously stopped by my blog for an interview!
Welcome, W.R.! So tell us–how did you first get started writing?
Well, I remember that my first story was written in 1st grade, and was something about a family following a sea-turtle into the sea and having an adventure underwater with mermaids, shadowy, dangerous sharks, and underwater volleyball (?!) That wasn’t really the start of it, though. I wrote that because I was told to write a story. I don’t think I wrote it because I wanted to write it. The second was a 10-page saga (IT WAS A SAGA IN MY TINY MIND, OK?) when I was about grade two, and that was written because it was adventurous and featured my then-best-friend Kylie. It involved lions, tigers, bears, and anacondas (on an Australian mountain, no less. My tiny mind had no idea of geography, just which animals were the most ferocious and adventurous). It was, oddly enough, written from 1st person POV, but with the actual heroine being observed from that POV. I think that shows some greatness of mind…or maybe I was always just a bit weird…
That story was closer to being written because I wanted to write it, but I didn’t really begin to write because I wanted to write until I was about ten or eleven. That was after years of reading and having my head stuffed with ideas that just wanted to come out, and when I began to really write, I never looked back. I started with drawings and character-word lists, but found that stopped me really writing; so I gave up on those and concentrated on getting the actual story down. I don’t think any of those earlier projects were ever finished, but I do remember my first finished book (80k-odd words, I think) at fourteen. It was called Those Mad Bradleys. Since then, it’s seen a complete rewrite, and will see another before it is (hopefully) released next year…
Wow! You got started early! So what draws you to fantasy/fairy tales?
I’ve always loved fairy tales. There’s a magical, dangerous feel to them, and all the earlier ones were written with huge spaces for creative freedom in their plainness. It meant that I could take them and shape them and turn them into whatever I wanted to, while still keeping the magic.
What inspired your current series?
I have two current series. One is the Two Monarchies Sequence, which is one book in (I’m working on the second at the moment); and the other is the Shards of a Broken Sword trilogy, which is being finished May 31st! TMS was inspired by fairy tales (Spindle is a sort of a cross between Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel), and SOABS was inspired by Jack Heckel’s Charming Tales, which are light-hearted and rather hilarious. His dragonish POV and a tickling question or two that his books raised in my mind went on to be the story seeds of two of those novellas.
Did anything unexpected happen as you were writing your new book?
No 😦 I’m such a boring person. Though I did get a resurgence of bronchitis, if that helps?
Oh, wait! I rediscovered my love for Owl City and found out that I can write standing up (and dancing), so there’s that…
I think that counts as interesting! So why did you choose self-publishing? What’s your favorite thing about it?
Ah! My creative freedom! My much-larger-cut of the royalties! Seriously, though, I love almost everything about it. I originally chose SP over TP (wait, that doesn’t sound right…) because I loved the immediacy of it, the better pay factor, and the fact that I wouldn’t have to change things I loved because someone else had a different vision for my books. I love being able to choose my own cover artist. I love learning what works and what doesn’t work in advertising. I love the new worlds that have opened up to me, and the new people I’ve met. It gets overwhelming sometimes (especially when I’m sick), but by and large, there isn’t much I’d change about it.
Wow! Especially because you run all aspects of your writing business, you have to be really disciplined. So what gets you into creative mode?
Sometimes it’s music. Sometimes it’s a day-dreaming session. More often, I’m not in the mood, and I have to sit down and write anyway. Sometimes you have to wake up the creative mode before it wants to get out of bed. It’s a moody teenager, but it’s worth making it work for you rather than the other way around.
I love it! What are three books you’d want with you on a desert island?
Oh, so hard! I would definitely have Pride and Prejudice. I would also probably cheat and take my Barchester Chronicles omnibus (thus bringing about six extra books); and I would bring either Kate Stradling’s Kingdom of Ruses or The Legendary Inge.
An omnibus is possibly cheating, but since I’d do the same, I’ll overlook it. Which character in your new book do you relate to the most? Why?
That’s also kinda tough. It would be either Aerwn or Dion. Dion for the pure fact that her physical weakness of shaking and throwing up when under pressure or under unpleasant circumstances is something that I struggle with on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis. I’m used to being forced to do things while feeling awful, just because they need to be done and I’m the one who has to do them. I feel for Dion because she has to do much bigger things than I need to do, while feeling worse.
Aerwn, I relate to because she’s the one looking on. She wants to be the one to do things and she’s impatient, because she knows she’s not the one who has to do the things. She has to sit back and watch, because she’s not the special one. So she has to do what she can in the background. She has to fight and struggle and work, and she’ll never be the hero. But she keeps working anyway, because what she’s doing also needs to be done.
Thank you so much for stopping by, W.R.! It’s great to hear about your creative process, and congratulations on your new book launch!
Here’s where you can find a copy of “The First Chill of Autumn” online. It’s only 99 cents at the moment, so check it out!
Here’s her author bio:
W.R. Gingell is a Tasmanian author who lives in a house with a green door. She loves to rewrite fairytales with a twist or two–and a murder or three–and original fantasy where dragons, enchantresses, and other magical creatures abound. Occasionally she will also dip her toes into the waters of SciFi.
W.R. spends her time reading, drinking an inordinate amount of tea, and slouching in front of the fire to write. Like Peter Pan, she never really grew up, and is still occasionally to be found climbing trees.
Llassar is an occupied country– but nobody seems to know it.
Fae began to filter slowly into the land shortly after the birth of the crown princess, Dion ferch Alawn, supposedly fleeing a dark threat in Faery known as the Guardians. But that was fifteen years ago, and now there isn’t a town in Llassar that isn’t populated by or under the control of the fae.
Smaller, weaker, and less talented at magic, Llassarians are quickly finding out that there’s no fighting the invasion that crept in so quietly and politely. Even the castle isn’t free of fae: those closest to the king and queen are faery advisors.
When Dion ferch Alawn returns from a carefully sanitised tour of Outer Llassar, the most exciting thing she expects from the near future is the present her twin sister Aerwn promised for their seventeenth birthday.
Then her carriage breaks down, and Dion gets a taste of what the real Llassar has become: desperate, enslaved, and ripe for rebellion. Getting home safely is just the first problem she faces: the real struggle begins when Dion returns to the castle. Her new knowledge is inconvenient and unwelcome– to declare it, treason.
March has been a busy month for school visits!
Early in March, I visited the HEART for Christ homeschool support group. One thing I love about homeschool groups is the mixture of age ranges. These students ranged from 4th-8th grades, and their questions were deep, varied, and fascinating.
Last week, I was the author guest at Allen At Steinbeck Elementary School. They hosted a schoolwide event called Story Fun Night, and it was just amazing to see so many kids and parents turn out to support literacy. The crowd was huge and I was recovering from a bout of laryngitis, but we had a blast anyway.
I love visiting school groups and helping students get excited about reading and writing. But I wouldn’t always have said that. If you’d told my 13-year-old self I would one day be talking in front of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, the shy, awkward teenager I was would have crawled under the nearest table (probably with a book).
I’m an introvert to the core. No work has better helped me understand that part of myself than Susan Cain’s amazing book Quiet. (It’s also an incredible resource for parents and teachers of introverted children, by the way.) Introversion can be a strength–it’s linked in many cases to traits like creativity, empathy, and a strong sense of conscience–but it can also be a hindrance to doing things like speaking dynamically in front of a crowd.
Cain writes that (some) introverts have a special ability–call it a superpower–to temporarily act like extroverts for the sake of “core personal projects,” subjects they care about deeply.
For me, that subject is books.
When I’m talking about literacy, I’ve found that I can get up in front of people, speak with energy, and actually enjoy it. I get energized when I’m listening to students talk about their questions, their roadblocks, their story ideas. Because it’s about books. And kids. And putting the two together. And that matters to me.
So yes, I thoroughly enjoy the solitude that a writing life entails. And yes, after speaking, I usually disappear into a book or take a nap. But I’ve also, surprisingly, come to love the part of my job that involves talking in front of people. I love the connection that reading offers us. I love the conversations that develop at the book signing table or over e-mail. I’ve discovered it’s actually pretty fabulous to love doing more than one thing.
So to all my fellow introverts out there–you’re okay. You’re doing fine. Follow your passions. They just might lead you to your superpower.
I am finally sitting down to review the Bay Area Book Festival! Sometimes life just rolls in like a bulldozer…
This event was the first of its kind in the East Bay, with an estimated 50-60,000 people in attendance. Two days of nonstop immersion in books and readers. So. Much. Fun.
For starters, I learned that my little 5-seater car can tote 250 books, 3 carts, a box of art prints, and all sorts of other necessary festival paraphernalia. And still leave room to see out the back.
On June 6-7, whole city blocks of Berkeley were closed to traffic and lined with tables and booths. My illustrator, Amalia Hillmann, and I had a table in the Children’s Area. We had copies of The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test, a coloring book, art prints of the illustrations (now online here), stickers, bookmarks, and all sorts of fun. There was a little of everything in the space around us: independent author displays, publishing houses, educational foundations, a guy twisting balloon dolphins and swords, and some amazing food trucks.
I didn’t get away from the table much, but I did check out the art installation at the center of the festival. Lacuna was an interactive sculpture designed to feel like an outdoor library. It was stocked with 50,000 donated books that were free for people to take home. And did they ever! By the end of the weekend, the shelves were almost bare.
Book jackets fluttered overhead, like the winged ideas enclosed within books.
Our blue-draped Illuminator table saw a lot of action over the weekend. The Children’s Area was busy almost constantly. It was fun to chat with readers both young and young at heart (I was surprised at how many young readers preferred paperbacks to e-books). I even met a girl named Ellie. She was excited to find a book with a heroine who shared her name.
On Saturday we had my amazing mom in residence, painting Vestigian designs on kids’ hands in shimmery metallic colors.
We also had coloring pages and a box of crayons available. I liked this neon-pink version of Aletheia. The young artist explained that he was helping the islands with their advertising.
Authors and illustrators gave presentations on a nearby stage throughout the weekend. After her presentation, I got to meet LeUyen Pham, who illustrated Shannon Hale’s latest book, The Princess in Black. She is just as nice as she is talented. She even bought a copy of The Illuminator’s Gift. My only regret is that I didn’t take a picture with her.
By the end of the weekend, I was exhausted, but satisfied. Though I’m not really a big-crowds person, I enjoyed meeting such a diverse assortment of people who all shared my favorite interest: reading. The organizers say they’re already planning next year’s festival for the first weekend in June.
I asked one young boy what he liked to read. He answered, “Books!”
That pretty much sums it up.
Phew! It’s been a busy month! So far I’ve visited four school groups, with one more to come later this week: one public, one private, and two homeschool co-ops. We’ve done fun activities like making up fantasy names, exploring our 5 senses, and drawing fantasy maps. These students, ranging in age from 8 to 15, consistently amaze me with their insight, creativity, and perseverance. One group was made up of mostly students with dyslexia who use software like Dragon, Siri, or Kindle text-to-speech to overcome their difficulties with print media. Some of them are writing books (or even sequels to books) of their own. It’s always an honor and a joy to meet these fearless young writers. (For details on how to schedule a visit for the 2015-2016 school year, check out my Speaking page.)
With the school year winding down, it’s now time to mark your calendar for the first bookish event of this summer. I’m SO excited for this one. On June 6-7, downtown Berkeley will be closed to cars and open to readers! The Bay Area Book Festival is the first free, public literary event of its kind in the East Bay. The event is family-friendly and even has a whole area dedicated to children and another for teens. It will be like literary Candyland for two whole days! Here are some reasons to get excited:
-Appearances by big-time authors like Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) and Judy Blume
–A sculpture built of 50,000 books that readers can take home with them!
-Fun activities like book-themed sidewalk chalk painting, a dance performance by the Ballet Folklorico Mexicano, a giant gecko, a farmer’s market, a chance to play with typewriters, and a petting zoo with a baby kangaroo
-An art installation of flying, talking books
-A visit with illustrator Amalia Hillmann and me! We’ll be at a table in the Children’s Area by City Hall, along with lots of other authors, bookstores, and book-related activity booths, including a stage where performances will be going on all weekend. At our table we’ll have coloring pages and face painting from The Voyages of the Legend, lots of different art prints and some cool new art products, and of course, copies of both The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test. We’ll even be unveiling a reprinted edition of The Illuminator’s Gift at the event, complete with a map and some new illustrations!
I can’t wait for the Bay Area Book Festival! All the details are on the event website. It will be a weekend of nonstop book fun! I hope to see you there!
There’s been a lot of buzz about gender-divided reading lately. Last month Shannon Hale, author of Princess Academy, blogged about her frustrations with gender-divided school visits. Because some of her books have the word “princess” in the title (and perhaps because she’s a female author), some schools have excused their girls to attend Hale’s assemblies, but not their boys, assuming–or forcing–boys’ disinterest. Yet Hale reports the story of a boy who asked to buy her princess book by whispering in her ear, too ashamed to admit it in front of either classmates or teachers.
Then last week, The Independent announced that it would no longer review books marketed to exclude either sex. For example, Buster Books markets books with titles like “The Beautiful Girls’ Coloring Book” and “The Brilliant Boys’ Coloring Book,” limiting the former to topics like fashion and the latter to sports, and using cover colors like pink and blue as cues. The Independent pointed out that such marketing is demeaning to kids, who are people of complex and diverse personalities. Some girls like to play and read about sports; some boys grow up to be fashion writers. The Independent further argued that the best books have universal appeal. Instead of spending energy marketing “boy books” or “girl books,” the publication urged putting out good books and letting people pick their own. Both girls and boys, for example, devour Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, undeterred by the sex of the protagonist and unaided by a pink or blue cover. It makes sense from my own experience: as a kid, I read and loved both Anne of Green Gables and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, simply because both were great books.
As an author and educator, I feel drawn to this debate. Reading fiction is all about identification with a character: learning to see the world through another pair of eyes. If you want to live many lives in the space of one, read books. When kids first start reading, they tend to choose protagonists who are similar to them in age, personality, and life circumstances. This is also true of gender: when they are beginning readers, my girl students tend to choose books about girls, and boys about boys. But the power of reading doesn’t leave us where we are. As we grow and mature as readers, we learn to see the world through eyes other than our own. It’s called empathy, and fiction has been proven to increase this skill. As adults (especially those in the roles of parents and teachers), it’s our job to expose kids to books about people who are not like them. It’s part of raising kind, thoughtful, and compassionate human beings.
As a writer of children’s literature, I feel especially strongly about this. The Illuminator’s Gift features a female protagonist. True, many of my readers are girls who identify with Ellie, a 12-year-old girl. But some of my readers are boys who identify with Ellie too. They’ve told me she’s their favorite character in the book because she’s kind and finds the courage to be brave when she needs to. The fact that she’s a girl doesn’t change that. That’s why I have never advertised my books as being only “for girls,” despite my female protagonist. I applaud these boys who are learning to see through the eyes of someone who is different from them.
Ultimately, it seems to me unjust that a child should be discouraged from reading a book because of their sex. Whether by gender-based marketing or discriminatory school policies, to keep a boy out of a female author’s school visit or label a book on rocketships and backhoes as being only for “Brilliant Boys” seems like a form of soft censorship. How can one person predetermine what another may read, on the basis of sex of all things? Why not filter their reading based on class, ethnicity, or shoe size? Sound like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or The Giver? (It’s no wonder reading speculative fiction is connected with having better ethics.) Kids (and adults) should never be shamed or pressured out of reading a book on the basis of gender expectations. To do so limits the ideas they’re exposed to, and thereby the amount of imagination, compassion, and empathy they can develop. It’s cutting off our own nose by handicapping our society’s future.
My caveat to this is as an educator. Some of my students are reluctant readers who struggle with comprehension, let alone finding enjoyment in reading. For these students, I place the love of reading as the first and highest priority. I give these students books that are as easy as possible for them to identify with. For my beginner boy students, I choose books with male protagonists and subject matter I know the students will enjoy. It’s most important to me that my students learn to associate reading with pleasure. If that connection isn’t there, they will never reach for the ideas and empathy that harder books can teach them. Only once that reading-for-fun habit is established do I challenge them to read about characters who are different from themselves. Only then can they begin to appreciate the Anne Shirleys, the Jo Marches, the Karanas of literature.
Have you tuned in to the debates on gender-divided reading? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Today is Friday, November 21, 2014.
That means there are just 9 DAYS ‘til the release of Book 2, The Illuminator’s Test, on 12/1/2014!
And I have something special to show you…
The book cover!!! It’s here, thanks to my talented illustrator Amalia Hillmann, who also did the amazing interior illustrations for this book. Here’s a teaser of the inside…!!
Haven’t read Book 1 yet? You’re just in time! The e-book version of the award-winning first novel The Illuminator’s Gift will be on sale on Amazon.com over Thanksgiving weekend! It’ll be 99 cents on Black Friday, $1.99 on Small Business Saturday, and $2.99 on…whatever that Sunday is called. Then Book 2, The Illuminator’s Test, releases on Cyber Monday, 12/1!
To celebrate the book release, here are some fun events coming up! Watch for more news here, on my Facebook page, and on Twitter. Or sign up to get updates ahead of time by subscribing to my e-mail newsletter!
11/24-12/12: The Illuminator’s Test tours the Internet! Watch for advance reader reviews, go behind the scenes of the writing process, and even listen to a radio interview! First stop will be an advance review on The Book Sage book review blog on Monday, 11/24. The rest of the stops are posted on my News & Events page and on my social media pages.
12/7: Sidewalk chat at Recycle Books, Campbell! I’ll be hanging out at the sidewalk table outside of Recycle Books with book reviewer Lloyd Russell between 10:15 and 12:15. Stop by and pick up a copy of The Illuminator’s Test or just chat about books (which is my favorite thing ever).
12/13: Book launch party at Village House of Books! Want to get your paperback copy of The Illuminator’s Test in time for Christmas, have it signed, and hang out with illustrator Amalia Hillmann and me, all at the same time? Then come to the book launch party being held at Village House of Books in Los Gatos! On Saturday, December 13, the new store on 21 W Main Street will stay open for us after hours and we can party! Treats, face painting, and art activities from 6:30-7:30, then a read-along, Q&A session, and book signing from 7:30-8. Stop by for a few minutes or stay all evening! Hope you can make it!
Even more fun events are spinning together for 2015! I’m already making plans to speak for some fantastic schools, homeschool groups, and book clubs to help kids and teens get excited about reading and writing. I’d love to come visit your organization too! To book me as a speaker for 2015, send me an e-mail!
So very many exciting things happening! Buckle your seatbelts; here we go!
Last Thursday was The Illuminator’s Gift‘s first solo appearance in a bookstore! The charming Village House of Books hosted a party that entertained both kids and kids at heart. About 50 people turned out for the fun, in spite of a massive traffic accident that blocked Highway 17 and much of Los Gatos. I myself was almost late to the party. But hearing about a huge truck crash with fatalities makes you grateful to be alive, let alone be at a bookstore having fun with some wonderful kids.
My mom did shiny, swirly face painting, with designs either from the story of The Illuminator’s Gift or inspired by the cover.
Kids of all ages entered a coloring contest, redesigning the cover of The Illuminator’s Gift according to their own imaginations (and supervised by cover artist Amalia Hillmann).
More than one guest arrived in a stroller or baby wrap. These moms are my heroes for starting ’em young. This little charmer was helping me sign books.
Then we all got to do some reading. Perfect party, right? This image is a snapshot of my dream job.
One lucky girl won a free book as a door prize. A bunch of the kids followed along in their copies as we read from chapter 15, “Illuminations.”
Another girl won a book based on her shiny entry to the art contest. Several of the contestants posed to show off their beautiful work.
Fun was had by all, then this writer went home for a good night’s sleep.
For a complete gallery of pictures, visit artist Amalia Hillmann’s website!