Captain’s Honors for 2016

For those of you who are more interested in award categories like Best Memoir/Biography and Best Young Adult Novel than Best Documentary and Best Animated Film, I offer my Captain’s Honors for 2016.


A picture of some of the books read in 2016 sitting on top of a cabinet.

I must say I am delighted to have read almost twice as many books in 2016 as I did in 2015. Not only does this mean I got to go on more literary voyages, but also that there are more categories in this series of Honors. However, even though this will be one of my longer posts, I promise it will not take you three hours to find out what my favorite book of 2016 was. (Good luck to all of you staying awake to find out what 2017 film won the Oscar for Best Picture tonight!)

The Captain’s Honors for 2016


Favorite Non-fiction Book


■   The Best Yes: Making Wise Decisions in the Midst of Endless Demands by Lysa TerKeurst
■   When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

The Honor goes to When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins.

The Best Yes was one the first books I read 2016 as I was wanting to be more intentional about commitments I made and thus the things I spent my time on. This is definitely a book I will revisit, but the Honor goes to When Everything Changed because it was so fascinating and I learned so much! If you are interested in seeing the progression of women’s rights along with the cultural shifts in what women can (or should) be and do in the United States in the last 60 years or so, I highly recommend this book.




Favorite Memoir/Biography


■   American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague by John Oller
■   The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew–Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, Priscilla Warner
■   Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs

The Honor goes to American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague by John Oller.

You can thank my friend Marlene that this category exists because she loaned me two of the three books in it. I recommend all of these books. American Queen wins the honor because it is a masterful and compelling portrait of one of the most interesting people you’ve probably never heard of. I am grateful to Marlene because without her bringing this book to my attention, I doubt I ever would have read it. If you like biographies, you should check it out as well!



Favorite Historical Fiction Book


■   Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
■   Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini

The Honor goes to Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is the easy winner for me in this category, but I can’t be sure that it wins on it’s own merits or due the shade I cast on Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. After reading American Queen, I found Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival on Audible and eagerly listened to it. Unfortunately, my experience listening to this audiobook was similar to watching a movie based on a book you liked in which the casting is all wrong and the narrative choices are a bit questionable. The novelized version of Kate Chase Sprague’s life was a disappointment to say the least, but I can’t tell if that’s because it was poorly done or because I found the biography so intriguing. Regardless of why I disliked Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, I honestly enjoyed Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. It was interesting to see some of the same events and characters from different perspective, so in the end I’m glad I read both of Ms. Chiarverini’s books, even if one was unsatisfying.


Favorite Romance Book


■   The Red Door Inn by Liz Johnson
■   Where the Wind Blows by Caroline Fyffe

The Honor goes to The Red Door Inn by Liz Johnson.

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you’ve probably guessed that I don’t read a lot romance novels. I don’t know how often this category will appear, so if you’re a fan of the genre, this is your lucky day! These novels have lovely settings: modern day Prince Edward Island for The Red Door Inn and the Wild West of the 1800s for Where the Wind Blows. Both of these stories have lead characters whose characterization was consistent and whose personalities don’t annoy me. Neither book has graphic bedroom scenes. But a plot development in the final act of Where the Wind Blows merely serves to create unnecessary melodrama (ugh!), and that puts it in second place for these rankings.


Favorite Young Adult Book


■   101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
■   The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley
■   Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
■   The Giver by Lois Lowry
■   My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen

The Honor goes to My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen.

This category, more than any other this year, is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. All the other categories had a clear winner, even if it was a close race. But all five of these books are favorites. I would give a 5-Star rating to all them except 101 Dalmatians; I would give the book 4 stars, but listening Martin Jarvis’ brilliant performance of it is a 5-Star experience. How can I even choose?! My Life in Dog Years wins solely because I would recommend it to anyone regardless of their genre preferences. This book is beyond such borders and everyone should read it.


Favorite Fiction Book


■   The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
■   The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
■   The Yard by Alex Grecian

The Honor goes to The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

All of these novels are solid reads. The Yard is a fascinating mystery set in the early days of Scotland Yard after the last of Jack the Ripper’s murders. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a dark, beautiful, modern-day fantasy like nothing else you will read (as so many of Neil Gaiman’s stories are). But The Golem and the Jinni was my favorite book of 2016. Set in turn-of-the-century New York with flashbacks to ancient Sryia, I loved losing myself in this world and never grew tired of it–even after 19 hours!


Favorite Audiobook


■   101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
■   The B-Team: The Human Division by John Scalzi
■   The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
■   Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini
■   The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Honor goes to The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

I suppose it goes without saying that my favorite book of the year would also win the Honor for Favorite Audiobook. Nevertheless, I highlight it here because George Guidall’s performance made my experience of the story much richer. I’m confident that I still would have loved The Golem and the Jinni if I’d read it in print, but I am grateful for the opportunity to listen to this audiobook.


Recommended from the Rest


■   The Applause of Heaven by Max Lucado
■   The B-Team: The Human Division by John Scalzi
■   The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
■   The Quick and the Dead by Louis L’Amour

The Honor goes to The B-Team: The Human Division by John Scalzi.

If you are a science fiction fan, I recommend The B-Team: The Human Division (only available at The characters, both human and alien, were well drawn and the background for the conflict was interesting. Overall, a short, fun bit of intergalactic and diplomatic intrigue with a space battle thrown in for good measure.

As promised, I’ve finished announcing these awards in less than three hours. What’s also good news is that I didn’t pick up any Barnacles in 2016!

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A Perfect Start

A new journal is like new fallen snow–tantalizing with the pristine magic of unblemished potential. So of course I wanted my first drawing in my new journal to be perfect–a good first impression for my future self and any other readers as well as a worthy use of the first page’s potential. I even chose to do a less ambitious design so I was sure to get it “right”. But somehow I got off track with the alternating pattern of the fourth tangle and suddenly my perfect design wasn’t perfect, nor could I ever make it so.

And thus it became the perfect first entry for my spotless journal–a humorous reminder of the vanity of perfectionism. Since perfection is never guaranteed–even with an easy project, route, or goal–why not pursue something more ambitious if that’s what your truly want? No sense declining the opportunity solely out of fear of failure. If you can fail at something less inspiring, you might as well fail at something that ignites your enthusiasm!


A journal page with a black and white Zentangle design and the following quote: I am not perfect; I am much stronger than that. –Rune Lazuli

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Captain’s Honors for 2015

2017Nov12November often finds me reviewing my “Things I Want to Do This Year” list to see what has been done and what hasn’t been done, what could still be accomplished and what needs to be moved to the “Next Year” list. This post is on the TIWtDTY list and today I’m going to get it crossed off the list!

In light of viewing my reading experiences as voyages though “seas that swell with waves of words and are bounded by paper”, I’ve decided to inaugurate the Annual Captain’s Honor Awards as a way to highlight my favorite voyages in a given year. By way of introduction, here are some explanations about these awards. First, I’m starting with my booklist from 2015 because there are books on that list I really want to write about but don’t have time analyze individually in a detailed way. Second, these are books that I read in 2015, not books that were published in 2015. Just to be clear, this means there may be classics competing with newer releases in some categories. It also means there may be some different categories in subsequent annual awards depending on what I read that year. Third, the Honors are awarded based entirely on my subjective experience with book. I’m not grading these books on some academic or literary rubric, so sometimes the Honor will go to a book that wasn’t as well written as it’s competitor simply because the former resonated with me more than the latter. So without further ado, I present

The Captain’s Honor Awards for 2015


Favorite Fiction Book


  • Shane by Jack Schaefer
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Honor goes to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

The winner for Favorite Fiction Book was a difficult choice because I rate both books at 5 out of 5 stars. Both books have a rich cast of characters and in depth themes that are ripe for discussion. Both books could be classified as genre fiction, yet appeal to readers outside of those genres. I appreciate that Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic story showed how even after a cataclysmic event, life goes on and it’s not all horrible. I also loved the exploration of the theme “Survival is insufficient.” I believe that while art isn’t essential to survival per se, art is one of the things that makes the struggle to survive worth it. And when survival is a struggle, if you don’t have a reason to persevere, you ultimately won’t survive.


Favorite Non-Fiction Book


  • Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey
  • Love Worth Giving by Max Lucado
  • Start With Why by Simon Sinek

The Honor goes to Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey.

While all of these books have merit, Girl in the Dark is the favorite by a mile. I listened to this memoir read by Hannah Curtis on Audible and promptly bought two copies on CD as gifts for friends. Anna Lyndsey’s story about living with extreme sensitivity to light is best experienced with your own eyes closed in my opinion, but whether you read or listen, I highly recommend this honest and inspiring journey of making a life within unexpected restrictions.

Favorite Young Adult Book


  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson
  • The Wonderful Wizard of OZ by L. Frank Baum

The Honor goes to On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson.

I had never read Baum’s original classic before and I must say that he did a masterful job; I can see why The Wonderful Wizard of OZ is so beloved and inspired numerous sequels, spin-offs, and re-imaginings. Andrew Peterson’s first YA novel is not so masterful, due in large part to his choice to use footnotes for humor (just because David Foster Wallace does something doesn’t mean everyone should do it). Yet, the beauty and poetry in some of Peterson’s scenes moved me so deeply that it made reading The Wonderful Wizard of OZ seem like nothing more than an example of literary craft in a college class. Thus, for all it’s flaws, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is my favorite of the two.

Recommended from the Rest


  • After the Wall by Jana Hensel
  • C Is for Corpse by Sue Grafton

The Honor goes to After the Wall by Jana Hensel.

These are books didn’t make it into the running for favorites, but were good reads nevertheless. Choosing between a memoir and a murder mystery is even less “apples to apples” than the Favorite Non-Fiction Book choices were, but thanks to my random reading tastes, that’s what it comes down to. I recommend After the Wall as a valuable perspective on the experience of growing up in a country that no longer exists (East Germany) and the challenge that presents in navigating identity as an adult.

Barnacles for 2015

There were a couple of books that I read in 2015 that were not favorites, nor would I recommend them. These are the Barnacles that I picked up in my literary voyages that year.

Worst Waste of Potential

The Barnacle goes to Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I thought the premise was brilliant and the world-building was fascinating. Unfortunately I found the main character to be annoying and unsympathetic (possibly even idiotic and pathetic, but that might be a bit too harsh). I tolerated his antics until his victory lap at the end of the book and decided to save myself the aggravation of having him as my guide for the next 15 books in the series. This was a big disappointment because I was totally hooked on the world. (I also recognize that I am in the minority in my experience of this book if the ratings on Amazon have any validity.)

Worst Waste of Time

The Barnacle goes to Separate Beds by LaVyrle Spencer.

If romance is your genre, I’d be happy to recommend several other titles, but don’t bother with this one. Just don’t. Life is too short for you read it or for me to write more about it.

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Book Review: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen


My personal rating:  4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis:  As the daughter of a Scottish duke, Georgie is genuine British royalty with a title (Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie) and no money (her brother cut off her allowance). Rather than being saddled with an arranged marriage to a miserable Romanian prince, Georgie strikes out on her own in London, searching for a suitable way to support herself. She hadn’t planned on becoming a private investigator, but when the body of an unsavory Frenchman with a claim on her family’s estate is discovered in her London townhouse, she doesn’t have much of a choice if she wants to keep her brother out of jail and her name out of the tabloids.

The first morsel of prose:  There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal. First, one is expected to behave as befits a member of the ruling family without being given the means to do so. One is expected to kiss babies, open fetes, put in an appearance at Balmoral (suitably kilted), and carry trains at weddings. One is not, for example, allowed to work at the cosmetics counter at Harrods, as I was about to find out.

The reason I chose this book:  We were going to spend the weekend visiting relatives and I wanted a book that was interesting without being too demanding so that I could easily pop in and out of the story between conversations and other activities with family members. Her Royal Spyness fit that criteria perfectly!

My experience with this book: In a word–fun! The mystery was well plotted. The clues were all there and you got them at the same time our heroine did so you could figure it out for yourself. (No waiting for a final assembly of the suspects so that a super-sleuth can enlighten everyone–including you, the reader–about some obscure detail on which the whole case hinges.) Georgie was a resourceful heroine and I loved rooting for her. To top it all off, the humor was spot on for me.

What this book is about:  Navigating family expectations and obligations while building a life for yourself; pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and discovering what you value most.

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Book Review: Dogsong by Gary Paulsen


My personal rating: 5 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis: Russel is painfully unhappy with himself and his life with his father, but he can’t figure out why. His father sends him to the last Eskimo in the village who lives in the traditional way without any modern tools or technology, and Oogruk teaches Russel everything he can remember from before the white men came. Consequently, Russel takes Oogruk’s challenge to leave the village with the sled and the dog team, live off the land, and become what the dogs could help him to be–a man with a dog song.

The first morsel of prose: Russel Susskit rolled out of the bunk and put his feet on the floor and listened in the darkness to the sounds of morning. They were the same sounds he had always heard, sounds he used to listen for. Now in the small government house–sixteen by twenty–they grated like the ends of a bone.

The reason I chose this book: My friend had given me Gary Paulsen’s book My Life in Dog Years and I was delighted with it, so she loaned me Dogsong, as it is another one of her favorites by Paulsen.

My experience with this book: The voice of this book immediately impressed me. From the first page, it conveyed to me (a White Anglo-Saxon Person) that Russel is not like me and the place he lives in is so different from anything I have experienced it might as well be Middle Earth or some other fantasy realm. At the same time, I completely sympathized with his predicament; I, too, have struggled to find a way of living that is truly satisfying or meaningful. I found Russel’s journey compelling and profound. I was totally enthralled by this book!

What this book is about: Accepting challenges, facing fears, persevering, and learning to be the person that you are.

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Book Review: The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette


My personal rating:  4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis:  A spaceship lands outside of a small town in rural Massachusetts and for three years does nothing–or does it? Government specialist Edgar Somerville is convinced that the lack of change in Sorrow Falls indicates the spaceship is having an effect on the town beyond making it a hot spot for UFO enthusiasts. Although he initially rebuffs 16 year-old Annie Collins’ offer to act as his translator (“If you want to get good answers instead of the usual answers, you need someone to call bullcrap on them when they say it,” Annie asserts), Ed discovers Annie is the key to finding out why the spaceship is here.

The first morsel of prose:  The spaceship landed on a cool night in August, in a field that wasn’t being used for anything in particular. Like most remarkable things, nobody realized it was remarkable as it happened. The ship lit up the sky above Sorrow Falls when entering the atmosphere, but that was only slightly unusual in the way that a meteor could be slightly unusual.

Later, eyewitness accounts would describe the evening as becoming “as bright as daytime” in that moment, but this was a profound exaggeration. The truth was, while the object flashed brightly, an observer had to already be looking skyward to see it. If one were instead looking at the road, or the television, or the ceiling, the craft would have gone unnoticed as it traveled toward that field on the edge of town.

The reason I chose this book:  One evening I can home from work tired and wanted to get lost in a story that didn’t demand a high level of concentration or critical thought. This sci-fi novel fit the bill.

My experience with this book:  This book was so much fun for me! It’s written in third person and a lot of the humor comes through the commentary in the narration. This isn’t science fiction that uses human interaction with aliens to explore important philosophical themes (although that is a pleasure in it’s own right); this is science fiction that uses human interaction with aliens to have an adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed the exploits of the humans and aliens in Sorrow Falls.

Having said that, I must clarify that if your idea of a sci-fi adventure is non-stop action or suspense that compels you to read until 2:00 a.m., then this story may be too pedestrian for your taste. The story takes place three years after the spaceship lands and you spend the first part of the novel getting a feel for the new normal that has developed in Sorrow Falls as the characters go about their daily lives. Given that I found the novel’s narrative voice amusing, I was quite entertained during this section, despite the lack of action.

It also helped that the novel centers around Annie Collins, the character who charmed me completely. The rest of the characters ranged from cliched, to adequate, to above average. The only one I thought was a little too on-the-nose was Una, but that opinion may be unduly influenced by the audiobook narrator.

I listened to this novel through Audible, and the narrator, Steve Carlson, delivered the dry humor of the novel’s narration pitch perfect, but I found his performance of the dialog merely adequate. Even with that criticism, I have no regrets about purchasing this audiobook, and I anticipate listening to it again.

The story went places that I didn’t expect, but the developments didn’t seem out of place. My only quibble with the plot (in hindsight) regards Annie’s escape from the Washington bureaucrats. I guess I’m getting cynical, but I think in real life she would have died in an assassination made to look like an accident. But that wouldn’t have fit the tone of this story at all, so it’s not a big problem for me. Besides, I really liked Annie and wanted to see her succeed in the end, which she did in admirable fashion.

What this book is about:  Expectations; how extraordinary things can become normal and how ordinary things can be amazing; and the power of ideas.

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Book Review: Mouse Guard Fall 1152 by David Petersen


My personal rating:  4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis:  After vanquishing a Weasel Warlord in the winter war of 1149 and securing peace for the mouse territories, the Mouse Guard no longer serves as soldiers but pathfinders, weather watchers, and body guards for mice traveling through the territories. When three Guard Mice are dispatched to locate a missing merchant and his grain shipment, they find evidence a plot destroy the Mouse Guard. Liam, Kenzie, and Saxon try to uncover who has betrayed Lockhaven, why someone wants to bring down the Guard, and what the rumors about the legendary hero, the Black Axe, mean.

The first morel of prose:


From Mouse Guard Fall 1152 by David Petersen. Photo by Jennifer Kay.

Let me tell ye about the guard. We mice have little chance in this world considering all the critters that eats us. We know to build our cities hidden and protected: deep within rock outcroppings, in tangled root, and beneath loamy soil. We survive.

The reason I chose this book: I decided to get this as birthday present for my nephew C.J. who will be 9 years old soon. My husband had read it before, but I had not. I bought it on the strength of his recommendation and I wanted to read it myself before giving it away.

My experience with this book: I read it straight through in one evening; it took me roughly two hours. Mouse Guard Fall 1152 is a gorgeous graphic novel and I hope C.J. likes it. The two things that kept me from giving it five stars are (1) the lettering in the Epilogue is difficult to read–not impossible or illegible, but my reading pace slowed considerably which makes me a little concerned with how C.J. will manage it; and (2) a few of the panels were unclear–I couldn’t tell what was going on in two of them. Despite that, I had no trouble following the story and I keep seeing scenes from the book in my mind. I want to read it again, although in order to do that I will have to get my own copy now or ask to borrow C.J.’s copy later. After I finished the book, I couldn’t help comparing it to Redwall by Brian Jacques. At first I would have said I liked Redwall better, that it was a more robust story more masterfully told. Now I’m not so sure. David Petersen’s pictures keep drawing me back to Mouse Guard, and if you’re telling your story in a graphic novel, that’s a master stroke.

What this book is about: The camaraderie of those who serve, work, and fight together, and the question of what is an army’s purpose, especially in times of peace.

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