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December 2022

Best Reads of 2022

My blogging partner Kathleen stepped down early in the year, so it dawned on me that this would be the first year I made a Best Reads list without her. In the past, we each choose five, for a total of ten- but this year ALL the choices are mine!

This year I was on the committee for 2022 Best Graphic Novels for Adults through the American Library Association, an honor I have had to keep under wraps until we were finished compiling our list. So there have been outstanding books that I have read this year that I can not review publically until the list is revealed in January (stay tuned!!), so next year’s list will include a few of those.

No One Else

Author and illustrator R. Kikuo Johnson expertly showcases a true-to-life look at grief and family dynamics set in Hawaii. This multi-generational take is bittersweet and tender- adults who are facing new chapters in their life will relate.

Stray Dogs

“What do you get when you crossbreed Silence of the Lambs with All Dogs Go To Heaven? Well, you get Stray Dogs” (Forbes). While some people, especially dog lovers, might not enjoy this wicked thriller, I believe the juxtaposition of cutesy art and a deadly storyline make it a graphic novel not to be missed!

Not All Robots

In the year 2056 robots have supplanted humans in a futuristic world. Humans are no longer required to work, with newly sentient robots doing everything for them. An uneasy alliance has formed between the two factions, with each nervous about what the other is capable of. Author Mark Russell’s satire is spot-on, highlighting toxic masculinity, consumer society, corporate greed and white supremacy. Taken as purely social commentary, the narrative is biting, with a side of snark.

Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories

This creepy collection of one-panel stories was absolutely perfect! Each page is its own little eerie story that gives you an introduction to a greater narrative of your own choosing. As a child, I loved the book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg which gave you pictures and a one-sentence prompt, and this graphic novel does the same.

Saga V10

Welcome back Saga! Alana is doing her best to raise Hazel and Squire, with a motley group of misfits making a new family of sorts. I really miss Marko and am clinging to a shred of hope that he is alive. While I don’t consider this volume the best so far, I was thrilled that this series has returned after a multi-year break.

So Much For Love

Part memoir, part self-help book, Sophie Lambda is a French illustrator who shares her disastrous love affair with a narcissist. The art is delightful, as Sophie takes a self-deprecating look at her life and builds comedy into it. A trash-talking teddy bear (unseen to all but herself) is her ally, and she isn’t afraid to show her own foibles.

Year Zero

Year Zero is basically World War Z in graphic novel form! Five stories run parallel to one another to represent a microcosm of a global zombie epidemic- Sara is a polar research scientist who is the one who inadvertently finds the first zombie frozen in time, Daniel is a young orphan from Mexico City, Saga is a paid assassin in Tokyo, Fetemah is an army informant in Kabul and BJ is a doomsday prepper in Minnesota. These five individuals, deal with the sudden fallout when they become the few who have survived the apocalypse.  Volume 2 recently came out too.

White Ash

“The smaller the town, the bigger the secret…” White Ash is set in a Pennsylvania blue-collar mining town, and recent graduate Aleck is desperate to leave and start his freshman year of college. But a mining accident in which his father is hurt badly puts his plans in jeopardy, and he is thrown together with the mine owner’s daughter Lillian who recently returned from boarding school. At first, it seems like a straightforward story of star-crossed lovers from different socioeconomic classes, but then a secret is revealed that puts a fantasy twist on the entire narrative.

Batman: Three Jokers

Three Jokers have emerged in Gotham- the Criminal, the Comedian and the Clown. In this strong story, author Geoff Johns has pulled together threads from A Death in the Family and The Killing Joke, that ties in Jason Todd aka Red Hood and Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl, the two from the Batman Family that have been most affected by The Joker. The art by Jason Fabok is fabulous and this is a Batman story not to be missed.

The Complete Maus

Maus is extraordinary! I read this two-part graphic novel series by Art Spiegelman years ago and remembered the framework, but re-reading it was eye-opening as further life experiences can make you look at it with whole new eyes. We simply can not close our eyes to the horrors of the past or the realities of today, and books that address those issues should be read by everyone. This book truly was deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1992!

2022 proved to be a challenging blogging year for me. I really missed writing with Kathleen, although blogging solo has had its advantages too. I was worried my stats for the entire year would be in a free fall, but I gained traction later in the year with a consistent blogging schedule, and while they are slightly lower than the previous two years, they are above the 2018 & 2019 stats. All in all, I’m glad that I continued blogging and I look forward to sharing new reviews next year. May 2023 be your best year yet!

12 Days of Christmas Book Tag

With Christmas around the corner, I thought a book tag would be a fun way to wrap up the year ahead of my Best Reads list. I’m going to try to keep most of my answers to this year’s reading, but a few answers were slightly modified since the questions could be hard to find a book to match.

This tag was originally created years ago by YouTuber Lizzie Loves Books.

1. A Partridge in a Pear Tree: Favorite Stand-Alone Book?

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley is a gritty thriller that was a love letter about Native culture and was beyond excellent! While it is a YA novel, it will also appeal to adults who are looking for an intriguing coming-of-age narrative

2. Two Turtle Doves: Fictional OTP/Favorite Ship?

Aging professional tennis players Carrie Soto and Bowe Huntley from Carrie Soto is Back have a sweet and realistic romance that proves second chances are possible!

3. Three French Hens: Favorite Trilogy?

The Appalachian Trilogy by Silas House is made up of books A Parchment of Leaves, The Coal Tattoo and Clay’s Quilt, and spans 100 years of the Sizemore family in eastern Kentucky, and is a respectful and loving look at an extended family. House is my favorite modern author known for writing authentic and beautiful fiction about contemporary Appalachia. 

4. Four Calling Birds: Favorite Fictional Beast/Creature?

I re-read the amazing graphic novel The Complete Maus this year.  I now understood better the reason why the author portrayed the characters as animals- with mice representing those of the Jewish faith, cats as Nazis, Poles as pigs, the French as frogs and Americans as dogs. This storytelling device surprisingly made them seem more human, as the reader better understands the unfairness of characterizing an entire culture or nationality as the same. It also made their trying to pass as non-Jewish with a mask on, more poignant.

5. Five Golden Rings: Show Five Golden Books

Not sure how to showcase five golden books, so instead I am choosing Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson. This harrowing historical fiction story about a young slave woman is based on the real-life of slave Mary Lumpkin and her life at Lumpkin’s jail in Richmond, Virginia. 

6. Six Geese a Laying: Rotten Egg- What’s Your Least Favorite Book?

Run, Rose, Run by Dolly Parton and James Patterson. I adore Parton, but the Nashville-based story was so fake and saccharine that I could barely finish it.

7. Seven Swans a Swimming: Show a Book with Water on the Cover

The Project by Courtney Summers is another YA gritty thriller about sisters in peril that has a lake on the cover, and the lake played an important part in the conclusion.

8. Eight Maids a Milking: What Fictional Food Do You Wish You Could Taste?

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles featured the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin, and the meals described at their restaurant sounded delicious.

9. Nine Ladies Dancing: Favorite Dance Between Two Characters?

The Appalachians: America’s First and Last Frontier is a lovely book of essays about the people, history and land of Appalachia. Black and white photographs, poems, diary excerpts and song lyrics also add to this collection, all of which celebrate Appalachian cultural heritage. The song lyrics sent me to YouTube where I watched many videos of folk songs and dancing from people in the region.

10. Ten Lords a Leaping: Favorite Book-To-Movie-Adaptation?

I’m flipping this- I read Lord of the Flies for the first time (I have tried many times over the years, and just couldn’t finish it until now), so afterward I watched the 1963 and 1990 films, and both were terrible adaptations! While books are always better than movies/tv, this was incredibly true with these two movies.

11. Eleven Pipers Piping: Favorite Book-To-Movie-Adaptation Soundtrack?

Beats me. On a vaguely similar note- I really enjoy the opening music on the tv series Yellowstone.

12. Twelve Drummers Drumming: It’s The End of The Song; What’s Your Favorite Book Ending?

I have been listening to a riveting Marvel podcast series that is based on Old Man Logan this year and last, and the sixth and final season is releasing weekly right now. I’ve been enjoying hearing about the adventures of Star-Lord, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Wolverine and Doctor Doom so I am looking forward to how they all will join together to save their dystopian world.

I rarely do book tags anymore, and as I conclude this one, I remember why- they take much longer than I expect to try to match up your answer to a question that can be oddly specific. Nevertheless, this tag made me comb through my Goodreads data, and I enjoyed looking back at my reading this year. Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Not All Robots

In the year 2056 robots have supplanted humans in a futuristic world. Humans are no longer required to work, with newly sentient robots doing everything for them. An uneasy alliance has formed between the two factions, with each nervous about what the other is capable of.

The Walters family made up of teens Cora and Sven plus their parents have been assigned Razorball, a hulking giant of a robot who seems to spend a lot of free time in their garage tinkering on an unknown project. Tensions are high within the family, with the father being slavishly devoted to the robot while the mother and teens question this new way of life. While at first humans were grateful for the help and giving up menial labor, they are now perceived as little more as pets to the AI robots. Another wrinkle is that occasionally the robots malfunction and go on killing sprees.

But even the robots face obsolescence when new mandroids are manufactured, looking humanoid and making the metal robots look outdated. This obsolescence makes me think of the classic Twilight Zone episode The Obsolete Man when all that is good is brushed aside for technology and progress to the detriment of mankind.

The art is solid and was appropriately shadowy and moody considering the storyline. The artist Mike Deodato Jr is very fond of grid overlays and it works effectively. The dot matrix that often was used to convey shadows was very apropos for the storyline.

Author Mark Russell’s satire is spot-on, highlighting toxic masculinity, consumer society, corporate greed and white supremacy. Taken as purely social commentary, the narrative is biting, with a side of snark. Recommended!

It Ends With Us & It Starts With Us

Many of the author Colleen Hoover’s books are on best seller lists, so I decided to request her most popular one and give it a go. The novel proved to be a mixed bag for me- I thought the domestic violence angle made what I thought was going to be a typical love triangle storyline much deeper, however, I still had issues with it. *Some spoilers ahead*

It Ends With Us

Lily is a new college graduate who is new to Boston and left reeling from her abusive father’s recent death. She has a meet-cute moment with cocky surgeon Ryle and then re-meets him months later when she implausibly opens a florist shop and hires his sister who becomes Lily’s best friend. During this time she is re-reading her HS journals that detail her relationship with her first love Atlas, who also came from an abusive family. Lily and Ryle start dating, so of course, she bumps into Atlas who is a chef at a trendy restaurant he recently opened. But she stays with Ryle and marries him, who is charismatic but has anger issues, that eventually boil over into several instances of domestic abuse.

As I too had an abusive father, I could relate to Lily and thought it was sadly realistic how she kept on excusing Ryle’s behavior and staying with him. But I took affront to Lily’s extended decision on whether to leave him, as I found the distance he gave her and the access to money and the apartment highly unrealistic. Most women when trying to leave an abusive partner have extremely limited options, and that’s why so many women stay. In an afterword, Hoover shared IRL that her mother had to leave her father and was poor while she struggled to get back on her feet, so I found this perfectly crafted ending a disservice to real abused women who don’t have that luxury when leaving.

Nevertheless, I do plan on reading the sequel. I loved Atlas, and want to read his side of the story. I also want to see how Hoover chooses to portray Ryle, who made my skin crawl even before the abuse started. 

It Starts With Us

This sequel is the author’s gift to fans who fell in love with Lily and Atlas. Hoover was already a popular author, but readers on TikTok (aka BookTok) catapulted her books onto the best-seller list with their online recommendations. I heard she hadn’t planned on writing this book, as the first book established that Lily and Atlas would have a HEA, so this is basically a thank-you to readers of her books.

Almost a year out from Lily’s daughter’s birth and her divorce from Ryle, she remeets Atlas and they quickly fall in love again. Of course, there are the speedbumps of Ryle’s jealousy and that Atlas takes in his previously unknown preteen half-brother. But their renewed love story is sickeningly perfect and the novel concludes on their wedding day.

I don’t wish to be overly critical, for I too shipped Lily and Atlas, and I thought the domestic violence angle of the first book made what I first thought was going to be your usual love triangle narrative more engaging. I appreciated that Hoover didn’t try to overtly redeem Ryle in this story, he remained an abuser who needed to radically change his ways. Overall, this was a sweet romantic book that all Lily and Atlas fans will enjoy!

Header image from Time article

Stray Dogs

“What do you get when you crossbreed Silence of the Lambs with All Dogs Go To Heaven? Well, you get Stray Dogs” (Forbes). Yes, what a perfect description of this dark tail (tale)!

Sophie is a new dog in a house full of dogs but she senses something is off. Where is her beloved female owner? Unfortunately, dogs have faulty, short-term memories so she can’t quite remember what happened, but she knows something bad occurred. The man who brought her to the home wraps her in a scarf with the scent of her previous owner, and suddenly Sophie remembers this man is a killer. She frantically tells the other dogs but they dismiss her allegations, as they too have forgotten their previous owners and the tragedy that brought them to this new remote house in the country. But eventually, it becomes evident that each dog is a trophy of a killing, and the other dogs help her search for answers. You will gasp and have to contain your tears when you later witness a certain trophy case. Despite all this, most of the killing is implied and off-page, so the story is remarkably bloodless.

The art style is based on the Don Bluth style of animation, showcased in classic children’s movies like the aforementioned All Dogs Go To Heaven, plus An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and The Secret of NIMH. You will fall in love with each heroic dog, but then because of that, be devastated when some dogs don’t survive. Make sure you check out the cover art from the back of the book and look at the covers from each issue. They are inspired- leaning into the horror genre- by paying homage to famous movie posters.

While some people, especially dog lovers, might not enjoy this wicked thriller, I believe the juxtaposition of cutesy art and a deadly storyline make it a graphic novel not to be missed!

ElfQuest podcast

As a fan of ElfQuest for decades, I made an early donation to the Kickstarter campaign of Wendy and Richard Pini who were raising money to develop an “audio movie” of the first book of the epic elf saga. I followed with interest, as actors were chosen to voice the characters. This first season is aptly based on the first collected graphic novel, Fire and Flight, which first introduced readers to the World of Two Moons and the elfin Wolfriders. Tune in yourself to the Apple podcast!

Fire and Flight

Fire and Flight introduces us to the Wolfriders, an elfin band that rides wolves and live in the woods, or as they call it, The Holt. Primitive humans are their enemies and have captured one of the elves, Redlance. A rescue is mounted to retrieve their friend, but at great cost, as the humans burn down the woods in retaliation. The character Savah, who we will truly meet later, is the all-knowing narrator in these early episodes.

Trollish Treachery

All the elves and their wolves are able to escape to the caverns of the trolls, but due to some trickery, the trolls lead them underground and abandon them near an entrance to a desert.

The Burning Waste

The elves, led by their leader Cutter, set out across the sands in hope of finding a new home. On the brink of disaster, they are completely shocked to find a hidden elfin village in the desert mountains. 

Raid at Sorrow’s End

They barge into the peaceful village, creating chaos, for the other tribe is as shocked at their existence as they were. The Sun Villagers welcome the Wolfriders while Leetah, the Healer, uses her magic to heal Redlance.

Recognition

We learn some important background to the story-as Savah the eldest Sun Village elf there, explains how the elves and humans became enemies and how the desert tribe came to be where they are. Cutter feels the pull of Recognition (when two elves are drawn to each other’s souls and come together to create a strong child) towards Leetah, to the great dismay of Rayek, the Sun Villager’s chief hunter. Savah shared her backstory about her lifemate who became obsessed with shaping the rocks of the desert.

The Challenge

Cutter and Rayek engage in a series of physical and mental challenges in an attempt to win Leetah’s heart on the Bridge of Destiny. Two cocky alpha males fighting for one woman- I wasn’t a fan.

Wolfsong

Although Cutter won the challenge, he only won the chance to woo Leetah. One night she eavesdrops on a howl the Wolfriders have and learns more about their tribe and way of life. She is intrigued by their stories and begins to respect Cutter.

Blood of Ten Chiefs

More backstories are shared, specifically the tale of how Cutter became the chief of his tribe at a young age when his father Bearclaw was killed by the evil monster Madcoil.

Voice of the Sun

The Sun Folk and the Wolfrides begin to work together, as Redlance’s magic gift with plants is appreciated and Scouter’s keen eyesight is needed. When spooked wild animals threaten the village, the Wolfiders leap into action.

The Bridge of Destiny

The healer Leetah finally gives into Recognition with Cutter and the two tribes rejoice. The concluding minute shares the two tribes live in harmony for seven years until the humans find the remote village…but that is a story for Season Two!

I question using the term audio movie that the creators used, for I feel that the word podcast is more accurate, and more people will understand that term. While it was voiced wonderfully and included sound effects, in no way did I consider it a movie of any sort. For podcast fans, this is a great way to be introduced to the world of ElfQuest and the Wolfriders. For those that fell in love with the elven tribes in the graphic novels, this is a treat, however, I did miss the exquisite art of Wendy Pini. ElfQuest became a sensation it was due to Wendy’s art, so I have to admit I missed it. But if and when season two is greenlit, I will be tuning in!

Incredible Doom: Vol 2

This coming-of-age sequel set in 1994, has four teens whose home lives were falling apart, come together in an unlikely alliance. In the first volume, the internet brought them together, but now they grapple with the consequences of their choices as they all live in a home with other wayward teens who are on the fringes of society.

Allison, who escaped from a manipulative and abusive father with her boyfriend Sam, is struggling with fitting in while Sam wonders if he made the right decision to leave home to be with her. Richard has recently moved to the local high school and been bullied by someone he knew years ago at a summer camp, finds out why this former campmate has it out for him (and the reason has to do with Star Trek!). And we really get to know Tina, a tough computer expert who puts others first but deserves to find her own happiness with another alternative music fan that she meets at a local concert. The stories of these disenfranchised and realistic characters, who are tail-end Gen X’ers, ring true. They ache for connection, and reach out to others, sometimes successfully and sometimes not as they grow up in a changing world.

The art is done in black and white with blue accents for shadows and to infer other colors. A variety of panel placements and computer screens successfully pull you into this world of technology and limitless possibilities. This graphic novel effectively captures the early grunge era of the 1990s and reminds us of that era of technology -computer usage before the World Wide Web via dial-up. It looks so very primitive now but was cutting edge for a new generation of youth who would come of age with home computers.

The conclusion leaves a few narrative threads hanging, plus I have enough nostalgia for that era, to tune in for more!

Appalachian Trilogy by Silas House

Silas House is my favorite modern author, known for writing authentic and beautiful fiction about contemporary Appalachia. I read his novel Clay’s Quilt years ago, but had not realized afterward he wrote two more prequel books about Clay’s family until I picked up A Parchment of Leaves and realized he was writing about the ancestors of Clay. I then read The Coal Tattoo which depicts Clay’s mother’s life, and finally re-read Clay’s Quilt once again.

A Parchment of Leaves (2002)

Set in the early 1900s in eastern Kentucky, Saul is a young man who falls in love with a Cherokee woman, whose family lives in a small settlement nearby. They marry and have a daughter named Birdie, but problems arise when Saul’s brother Aaron also falls in love with Vine. The extended family endures poverty and discrimination in their rural life, but ultimately the bonds of family and friendship strengthen them. The story also highlights a love of nature and shows a changing way of life in the mountains as logging companies move in.

I loved this book and it proved to be my favorite of the trilogy. As I am already a fan of Appalachian fiction, I was then doubly pleased to find a reference to people of Melungeon descent in this story. As someone who suspects this ancestry in her family (not proven yet-as records back then were non-existent or hidden), I was interested in reading about Cherokee and Melungeon culture and how people were treated because of it. The book was heartbreaking to see families hide their language and customs, and have the next generation not know of their past. This book was so true to life; I could imagine Vine, Aaron, Serena, Saul, Esme and Aidia, and see them in my mind’s eye. 

The Coal Tattoo (2004)

This book was a sore disappointment to me after reading A Parchment of Leaves and loving the character of Vine so much.

I was not happy about Vine’s painful death and the regrets she had, and then how her daughter Birdie died, but the flashbacks to her friendship with Serena were wonderful. Her grandchildren Easter, Anneth and Gabe were not worthy of Vine; with Anneth especially rubbing me the wrong way. I wanted more of Gabe in the story, while poor Easter could never relax because she was always so rigid. Yet, the chapters about her son being stillborn and her crisis of faith were heartbreaking. I was pleased that she had a happy marriage to El and the chapter about having a ‘small life’ was well written about how some people are happy with their small town/rural life and don’t need more to be happy. Anneth was truly unlikable to me, her wild and foolish behavior set my teeth on edge. I didn’t buy her love affair with the soldier and her falling in love and getting pregnant during a weekend with him. The ending of the story was rather abrupt but will conclude with Clay’s Quilt (although this trilogy was written with the last book chronologically written first).

Clay’s Quilt (2001)

Clay’s Quilt is an evocative and lyrical book about Clay Sizemore, a young man tied to his family and community in Kentucky, and how he finds his place in life. Orphaned as a young boy, Clay is raised by his pious aunt and hard-drinking uncle and is blessed with many cousins. He is especially close to his cousin Dreama and his best friend Cake. After high school, he willingly works in a local coal mine, and parties every weekend with Cake. For years a lot of drinking, smoking marijuana and dancing were part of their lives, but he feels stuck in a rut when he meets Alma, a fiddler who is getting divorced from her abusive husband. The two fall in love, but a deadly fight with Alma’s ex gives him a crisis of faith that he needs to work through. The ending is a love letter to his region and kin, and this debut novel by House ended up being the last of a three-book series that House wrote about the Sizemore family.

On a side note, when does contemporary writing become historical fiction? Published in 2001, the story takes place from the 1970s through the 90s, although much of it feels timeless, as technology with computers and cell phones was not part of the narrative. The opioid epidemic had not hit the area yet and coal mining was still a viable job, so the story feels like a puzzle piece bridging the past and modern life now. I applaud the author for bringing the fictional Sizemore family to life and showcasing his beloved Kentucky. Many Appalachian books are set in the past, so this book was a breath of fresh air about being proud of your heritage- for he brought to life the beauty of the mountains, plus he showed respect to working-class and rural families of a region that is often overlooked or even looked down upon. I highly recommend the entire three-book series!

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