Celebrating 20 Years of Sonderbooks: Favorites from 2001

August 2nd, 2021

This month, I’m celebrating 20 years of writing Sonderbooks!

I thought it would be fun to celebrate by posting some favorite books from each of those 20 years, so I’m starting with 2001.

Of course, that task is simple, since each year I made a list of Stand-outs — I called it a Special Edition at the beginning. So I’ll look at my list from 2001 and talk about the books that I especially remember and love twenty years later.

Wow. The first thing I notice is that I was doing more rereading back at the beginning — and covered some of my all-time favorite books that year. This was because I tried to include an Old Favorite in every issue. I’ve gotten away from that and I miss it. But I won’t even go over all the wonderful books I reread that first year — those are all still my favorites, and you can see them in the Special Edition.

But look at the books I read the first time that year!

The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner!

These almost-historical fantasy novels in a world similar to ancient Greece deal with the cleverest but also wonderfully flawed main character and the plots of the whole series, but especially at the beginning, have twists that make you want to read and reread to admire the craftsmanship.

Enchantress from the Stars, by Sylvia Engdahl!

This science fiction book tells a story from three perspectives — a super advanced society who has perfected space travel and telepathy, a medieval society on a planet somewhere, and an advanced — but not so advanced — society that also has space travel and wants to harvest the resources of the medieval planet. Without interfering, a young woman from the super-advanced society is sent to the planet to convince a young man she is an enchantress and can teach him to go on a quest and defeat the dragon that’s attacking.

Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin, by Diana Wynne Jones!

In these books, we see a fantasy world where people from our world come for tours. This year, Derk of Derkholm has been appointed the Dark Lord the people on the tour will have to think they’re defeating. Lots of humor plus insight into fantasy tropes.

The Sand-Reckoner, by Gillian Bradshaw!

This is still one of my favorite novels ever — about the life of Archimedes, the great mathematician of Alexandria.

Tales from Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin!

This went along with rereading all the Earthsea books — but I especially loved some of the additional insights in the stories of this book.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig!

I can’t believe I didn’t read this until 2001! It’s a classic. Read it!

I read five books about English Speakers moving to live among a different culture! Those are so much fun. Check my Special Edition for the list.

Suburban Nation, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck

The ideas in this book still fascinate me — about how much the design of cities makes them livable — or not. I could see for myself how much nicer it was to live in a European village, and this book pointed out some of the reasons why suburbs aren’t as livable.

For the Love of Ireland, edited by Susan Cahill

This is still my favorite travel book ever. It very much helped that I read it during my favorite vacation ever — three weeks traveling around Ireland. But I also liked the format — stories and essays about Ireland collected in one volume and tied to places in Ireland.

Okay, there were lots more wonderful books I read and reread that year. It’s made me smile to revisit them. I can tell this way of celebrating is going to make me want to do lots of rereading. No wonder I love writing Sonderbooks so much!

20 Years of Sonderbooks!

August 1st, 2021

Twenty years ago I began writing Sonderbooks.

It started as a sometimes weekly, sometimes biweekly ezine — an email newsletter. I think before the end of 2001, I’d figured out how to make it a website. I posted the back issues on the web and still posted them in “issues.” Here’s Sonderbooks #1.

I like the tagline I used then: “Discover new books. Discuss old books. Order more books.”

In 2007, I took a web design class while I was getting my degree in Library Science and decided it was time to revamp my website. A friend even made a new logo for me!

My last “issue” was Sonderbooks #107, dated June 30, 2006 — the last one I posted while living in Germany. I didn’t post a lot that year when I moved back to America, went to library school, looked for a job, and was on the other side of the world from my husband, who was planning to divorce me. But when I started back up, the website had a new look, I added a blog, and I’ve continued on for twenty years — longer than my marriage lasted before he left!

Once I started writing Sonderbooks, I knew this was just the right outlet for me. I got to write, I got to write about books, and I got to use a little bit of my computer skills. Besides, once I’d started working in a library, I couldn’t keep track of all the books I read, and writing Sonderbooks was a way to keep track. I have even made friends, starting back in 2001 and continuing through the present, by discovering a mutual love of books through Sonderbooks.

Since I didn’t date my first few issues except August 2001, I think that means I need to celebrate all month! I’d like to do twenty posts about my favorite books from each year of reading.

But I’m also hoping to rethink the look of the site again and (finally) make it more mobile friendly. I’ll probably choose a wordpress theme for my blogs, so may have to give up the way the look matches the pages. I need to fix the search box, which stopped working when I switched hosts a few years ago. I want to add a Teen Nonfiction category. And I’m going to think through if I want to change the format out of tables — which don’t show up as well on mobile devices. I might even do like I did in 2006 and just start new pages, with links to go back to the old. But one thing I need to figure out is how I want it to end up.

So stay tuned!

And to readers, old and new, thank you for letting me share good books with you! Writing Sonderbooks continues to bring me great joy!

Watch for more 20th Anniversary posts this month!

Review of Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal

July 31st, 2021

Without a Summer

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tom Doherty Associates (TOR), 2013. 381 pages.
Review written June 25, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

My sister Becky gave me this book years ago (Thank you, Becky!), but alas, like so many non-library books that don’t have a due date, I didn’t get to it right away. But the time was finally right when I signed up for the 2021 Jane Austen Summer Program, a four-day virtual symposium on Jane Austen, and Mary Robinette Kowal was one of the speakers, giving two wonderful talks about putting fantasy into your Jane Austen adaptation.

At the conference, I also learned that the year 1816 really was a year without a summer. The note at the back says that after a volcano erupted in the West Indies, the ash disrupted weather everywhere, and there was snow in Washington DC in July. In fact, Mary Robinette was able to determine the weather in London for the days covered in this book. I had assumed when I started reading that it must have been a side effect of magic – so I was quick to believe that people would have looked for magic users to blame for the strange weather, which turns out to be a key point in the book.

This book is another Austen-like story, with magic. The author does write each book as a stand alone. In this third volume of the Glamourist Histories, Jane’s sister Melody needs to find a husband and is running out of options in the country, so Jane and her husband take Melody to London while they work on a glamural for Lord Stratton.

The author worked in ideas from Jane Austen’s Emma as Jane tries and fails to be a good matchmaker for her sister. But there’s a lot more going on as well. Sir David’s despicable father wants to renew their relationship and meet his wife – but there are some plots afoot. And the coldmongers are getting blamed for the wintry weather in summer – even though that is not how glamour works. It all builds to a big climax that puts Jane and her husband in danger, with Melody’s happiness also at stake.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Mary Robinette’s sessions at the Jane Austen symposium tremendously, and gained a new appreciation of her craft in writing these books. She wanted to write a fantasy novel similar to the books Jane Austen wrote – where the fate of the world is not at stake, but instead the happiness of a few people. She wanted magic, but in order for it to be one of the womanly arts, it had to be magic that didn’t do much. The “glamour” in these books is all about illusion. And it’s typically done by women – except for professionals glamourists, who of course are men. So Sir David working with his wife is breaking ground and defying convention.

Another thing I found out when I looked in the back of the book is that my sister-in-law Laura (then Plett) is acknowledged! She does calling for English Country Dances, and gave the author some tips about how the dances were done in Regency England. So it was fun to come across her name in the back of my book.

This series is lovely and highly recommended. I hope this will give me the motivation to set aside the recently published books I need to read for Capitol Choices and read a couple more Austen-with-fantasy books purely for my own enjoyment. There are two more in the series, and it’s high time I caught up.

maryrobinettekowal.com
tor-forge.com

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Review of My First Day, by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Liên

July 29th, 2021

My First Day

by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Liên

Make Me a World (Penguin Random House), 2021. Originally published in Vietnam in 2017. 40 pages.
Review written May 19, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a mind-expanding book with lush paintings. This picture book doesn’t tell you what it’s the first day of until the end.

As the book opens, you see a boy come out of his house on stilts and get into a small boat on the big river. Every spread is entirely filled with one grand picture, and most of the pictures are mostly filled with the river, with the small boy in a boat somewhere in the spread. Here’s how the text begins:

Where the great river, mother Mekong, tumbles into the endless sea . . . that is where I live.

I wake up with the sun creeping into the sky and wait for tide and time to bring to me my little open boat.
Today is the first day.

This is the first time I’ve made this trip on my own, weaving through floodwaters and forests.
Mama said I’m big enough now to go by myself. Papa said to be careful because that’s what papas do.

The paintings make this trip into an epic journey. The boy goes through waves dwarfing his boat, rain and a dark forest all around, a crocodile and other creatures lurking in the water – and comes out to a bright sky with storks flying ahead of him, all manner of fish beneath him, and even a herd of water buffalo looking at him kindly.

Before he gets to his destination, we see many other kids in boats, traveling the same direction. “Hello, friends!”

And then with the final page of the story, we learn where this adventurous journey has taken him – to his first day of school.

Notes at the back set the story in the Mekong Delta and tell how the river is used as a roadway and in many other ways.

It’s a lovely starting-to-school story that shows children in another part of the world are the same – excited about starting school – but different in the way they get to school. Along with the stunningly beautiful pictures, this is a book you won’t forget. Because the book was originally published in Vietnam, it won’t be eligible for the Caldecott Medal, but the illustrations are so amazing, it would surely be in the running if that weren’t the case.

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Review of Love Is the Way, by Bishop Michael Curry

July 28th, 2021

Love Is the Way

Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times

by Bishop Michael Curry
with Sara Grace

Avery (Penguin Random House), 2020. 259 pages.
Review written May 24, 2021, from my own copy.
Starred Review

My church small group has been going through this book, at the rate of a chapter per week (with a 6-week break in the middle for a Lent study), and we’re finishing up this week. It’s been a wonderful book for discussion.

The tone is devotional, with personal stories from the bishop in every chapter. It starts out a little bit general about loving others, but does continue to specifics like loving LGBTQ people and loving people of different races and different political views.

He frames the book with each chapter having a subtitle that’s a question about love, a question he’s actually been asked. He begins with “What is love?” and “How do I find God’s love?” and continues through things like “Do I have to love even my enemy?” “How can love overcome what divides us and move us forward together?” and “Does love mean avoiding politics?”

I expected something with less depth than what I got. His willingness to delve into practical issues means the book challenges the reader, because we can all get better at loving.

And he’s also inspirational. I enjoyed the chapter “It’s Not Easy,” which had the question “I’m just a regular person – can my love have an impact?” No surprise, the answer is Yes, and that answer is proved by stories in the chapter. Here’s how that chapter ends:

It is impossible to know, in the moment, how a small act of goodness will reverberate through time. The notion is empowering and it is frightening – because it means that we’re all capable of changing the world, and responsible for finding those opportunities to protect, feed, grow, and guide love. We can all plant seeds, though only some of us may be so lucky as to sit in their shade. Since we can’t start twenty years ago, the best time to start is today.

And here’s how the book ends. (It’s not a Spoiler with Nonfiction! Here’s where this book will take you.)

When God, who is love, becomes our spiritual center of gravity, and love our moral compass, we live differently, regardless of what the world around us does. The world changes for the better, one life at a time.

So don’t give up on love.
Listen to it.
Trust it.
Give into it.
Obey it.

Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate when nothing else will. May God love you and bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.

You can think of this book as a compelling call to love.

penguinrandomhouse.com

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Review of Allergic, by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

July 22nd, 2021

Allergic

by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

Graphix (Scholastic), 2021. 238 pages.
Review written June 25, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Allergic is a sweet graphic novel about a girl who’s planning to get a dog for her tenth birthday – and breaks out in a rash after she’s given her heart to one. It turns out that she’s allergic to anything with fur or feathers.

This has repercussions. Maggie’s class can’t have a class pet. When her new friend who moved in next door gets a puppy, that means Maggie can’t come over any more.

She tries to cope in ways that turn out to be both bad and good. The idea of trying to secretly keep a mouse in her closet turns out to be not so great. Meanwhile, Maggie’s mom is expecting a baby soon, and Maggie’s feeling a little left out.

The pictures in this graphic novel are adorable, and the reader will love Maggie and her family. Her plight will capture the sympathy of readers, helping them see a perspective maybe different from their own. All while reading and viewing a great story with plenty of conflict in a popular format. This book will fly off the shelves, and deservedly so.

meganwagnerlloyd.com
michellemee.com
scholastic.com

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Review of We Are Not Free, by Traci Chee

July 21st, 2021

We Are Not Free

by Traci Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 384 pages.
Review written November 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 National Book Award Finalist

We Are Not Free is a novel about Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated during World War II. An interesting and effective choice made for this novel is to present the story from multiple perspectives. Every chapter has a different perspective.

We start with a 14-year-old kid in a community of Japanese Americans living in “Japantown” in San Francisco. We hear about the older teens he looks up to who will end up being viewpoint characters as the book goes on.

The book starts three months after Pearl Harbor when people of Japanese descent are getting targeted by racists. It continues as they have to sell off their possessions, because they’re only allowed a little bit of luggage in the slightly-refurbished racetrack where they’re taken next. It goes on through the war as the people in the camps have to decide if they will declare their loyalty to a government that removed their rights and volunteer to fight in the war.

By using so many perspectives, we get a broad view of what happened to different groups of people, including those who went on to fight in the war and those who refused. We learn about various levels of inhumane treatment, from the horrific conditions for those who were deemed a threat to the smaller indignities such as happened to those set loose with $25 and having to find a new place to live.

The teens have widely different attitudes. Many are angry. Some just want to make the best of things and move on with their lives. All of them encounter grave injustices, and seeing the situation from so many different eyes helps the reader understand the whole thing better.

And, yes, there are a lot of painful things that happen. This isn’t a feel-good book, but it is a book that shows you many sides of a terrible historical injustice perpetrated by our own government. I wish this book weren’t as timely as it is.

tracichee.com
hmhbooks.com

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Review of Before They Were Artists, by Elizabeth Haidle

July 20th, 2021

Before They Were Artists

Famous Illustrators as Kids

by Elizabeth Haidle

Etch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021. 64 pages.
Review written July 6, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a picture-book-sized nonfiction book for children in graphic novel format telling about the childhoods of six distinguished illustrators.

I would have never thought to put these particular illustrators together in a book, and I love the variety of backgrounds they represent. We’ve got:

Wanda Gág, who wrote Millions of Cats, born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Maurice Sendak, who wrote Where the Wild Things Are, born in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York.
Tove Jansson, who wrote Finn Family Moomintroll, born in 1914 in Helsinki, Finland.
Jerry Pinkney, who wrote The Lion and the Mouse, born in 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Yuyi Morales, who wrote Just a Minute, born in 1968 in Xalapa, Mexico.
Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, born in 1941 in Tokyo, Japan.

Each illustrator gets a title spread with one book featured (the one I listed above), a picture of the illustrator as a child in the landscape of their own books, with a quotation coming from a speech bubble. There’s a time line across the bottom with notable events in their lives, including other books they’ve written. Then they each get six to eight more pages with panels in graphic novel format telling about their childhoods, how they got started in art, and their many accomplishments.

This book is delightful to look at and presents lots of information in an entertaining way. It’s sure to inspire other young artists or at least get them thinking about what their love for art could lead to.

There’s a spread at the front with the title “What makes an illustrator?” It talks about how they had many different backgrounds, but they loved to draw.

In all cases, inspiration from someone else helped pave the way: another artist, animator, cartoonist, or painter whose books, films, or paintings moved hearts and imprinted themselves on minds. These heroes and mentors made a path of possibility to walk down.

May the stories in this book inspire other artists in turn.

hmhbooks.com

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Review of The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker

July 18th, 2021

The Hidden Palace

by Helene Wecker

Harper (HarperCollins), 2021. 472 pages.
Review written July 14, 2021, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

I loved The Golem and the Jinni so much, I preordered this book as soon as I heard that there was a sequel. I think you’ll enjoy this more if you’ve read the first book (and you definitely want to read it!), but even though it had been eight years since I read the first book, the important parts came back to me as I read.

Like the first book, I’m tempted to call this Historical rather than Fantasy, because the historical details of life in New York, both the Syrian neighborhoods and the Jewish neighborhoods, ring true. This comes after the crisis of the first book, and talks about what’s next for the golem and the jinni, now they’ve found each other. How do you build a life when your lifespan goes far beyond your human neighbors?

Meanwhile, we find out about two other creatures like our heroes: There’s a golem whose master is the young orphaned daughter of a rabbi, hiding in an orphanage. And across the sea, there’s a jinniyeh, outcast from her own kind because she can tolerate touching iron, but who hears about the iron-bound jinni who lives across the sea.

Chaya the golem still hears the thoughts of all around her, so she discovers when they notice that she’s not ageing. She’s going to need to make a new life for herself. Ahmad the jinni is much less deliberate. When his partner dies, he becomes obsessed with making a palace out of metal inside their warehouse. And when someone who doesn’t need to eat or sleep becomes obsessed, he can truly withdraw from the world.

This is another rich tapestry of a book, dealing with two people who aren’t actually human, but who are full of nuance. Can they stay in each other’s lives, or are they too different? This book feels completely realistic as it explores this question. We also see how each one has become part of a community, and lives all around them are touched by their existence. And we’ve got further thoughts about what it means to be human from the perspective of those who, technically, are not human at all.

This is a wonderful follow-up to an amazing story.

harpercollins.com

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Review of Red, White, and Whole, by Rajani LaRocca

July 9th, 2021

Red, White, and Whole

by Rajani LaRocca

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 217 pages.
Review written April 28, 2021, from a library book

This is a novel in verse, so it goes quickly. Reha is telling her story and this is how she introduces herself:

I have two lives.
One that is Indian,
one that is not.
I have two best friends.
One who is Indian,
one who is not.

At school I swim in a river of white skin
and blond hair and brown hair
and blue eyes and green eyes and hazel,
school subjects and giggles about boys,
salad and sandwiches.

And on weekends,
I float in a sea of brown skin and black hair and dark eyes,
MTV music videos and giggles about boys,
samosas and sabjis.

In both places I have
gossip and laughter
music and silence
friendship.
But only in one place do I have
my parents.

I’ve read quite a few books set in middle school lately. As always, there’s plenty to navigate. Reha’s got her two lives, and at school is assigned to work on a project in English with a boy and wonders what that means. And she wants to go to the school dance, but will her parents let her?

Then her mother gets sick with leukemia, and all other concerns fade in comparison. This book is set in 1983 and reflects the treatments available then.

It’s a tough story, but I like the way Reha’s friends rally round. I also enjoyed the Indian folk tale Reha tells us about, regarding a princess who charmed Lord Death and won the life of her husband.

Reha’s mother’s red blood cells and white blood cells need to work together. She’s a hematologist, so she knows what’s going on with leukemia. Just as those blood cells need to work together, Reha wants the parts of her life to work together.

This novel is poignant and insightful, a quick read that doesn’t feel trivial.

rajanilarocca.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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