Favorite books of 2014

21 12 2014

In 2014 I read a lot less than in previous years. This was mainly due to a second sort of job. In 2012 I started working on an ESL method. I wrote 2 units (well, 3 actually, but one’s for the next book in the series) last year, but this year I was also asked to coordinate another book in that same series. 2014-12-13 17.14.53This meant I had to write units, edit my own as well as other people’s units and coordinate the whole thing (which is a lot like pretending you know what you’re talking about). That’s on top of a full time teaching job, of course. Anyway, water under the bridge… I read a lot less: still 97 books, but a good 6000 pages less than in 2013, for example.

First, for this “best of 2014” list, I am not going to count books I re-read this year even though they would have scored high on this or any list (so that means, no Maus or As I Lay Dying, which I both rated 5 stars, for instance).

Second, it seems I’ve really become more selective in my reading because I didn’t give any book just 1 star this year, which is definitely a first. There were plenty of books I didn’t particularly cared for, or authors who I thought had previously published a lot better books, but I just didn’t pick up a book I knew wouldn’t be for me.

Finally, I am not discriminating here. My list has everything thrown in together because that’s just how I read: so-called YA literature (most of what I read), picture books, graphic novels, and so-called Adult literature. Big deal. I don’t want to rate from 10 to 1 or from 1 to 10, so this year, it’s in reverse alphabetical order (by author). Also, books that were published in 2014 get an *.

 

  • The Free by Willy Vlautin *.
Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin

I saw Willy Vlautin perform with The Delines in November. Even before the gig, I knew this book would end on my end of year list. It’s really everything I want in a book: great voice, intertwining stories and lives, ‘ordinary’ people just trying to survive in contemporary society’s desolation… you know, the fun stuff of life J , but with a remarkable attention to hope and compassion.

 

  • Anything by Shaun Tan, especially The Arrival and The Red Tree. Simple: Shaun Tan is brilliant. Seeing one of his images on NCTE’s Annual Convention catalogue was a bit unexpected and otherworldly, though, like much of Tan’s own work.

 

  • Grasshopper Jungle* and 100 Sideways Miles* by Andrew Smith. Andrew Smith has 2 books on this year’s list, and I am currently reading an ARC of The Alex Crow. I have not made it a secret that I am a great admirer of Andrew Smith’s work, because his work has what I am constantly looking for when I’m reading: the voice of the author (see more about this later). As different as all of his work may be (Ghost Medicine is nothing like Winger is nothing like Grasshopper Jungle), there’s always the distinct ‘Andrew Smith’ signature all over the pages: twisted and chaotic at first glance, honest, thoughtful and incredibly smart at second glance. Even though I don’t love all of his books in the same way or to the same degree – obviously I have favorites, of course I do – I respect this author in the way he stands his own unique ground in the midst of so much mediocrity.

 

I want my hat back

I want my hat back

  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. This book has a poetic quality to it that was so different to read from anything else I read this year. A true thing of beauty. A book about so many things (family, friends, war, sexuality) in the most natural and obvious way.

 

  • I want my hat back and This is not my hat by Jon Klassen. These books were published a few years ago, but I only bought them last summer in London. I love them. My kid loves them. I read them to her in these different voices, and she does them too, and it’s just totally hilarious every time we read them together. Subversive, hilarious, brilliant.

 

  • Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S.King *. I know pretty well what I want to get out of a book. Of course I want a good plot. Of course I want well-developed characters. Who doesn’t? But what I really want to get out of a book is personality. A book that says (!): “Here, this is me, read me!” For me, a book absolutely without a doubt needs to have personality. The personality of a book is not really something tangible, like a likable character or a satisfying conclusion to a plotline. For me, the personality of a book actually lies in the author’s ability to create a universe that is unique to that particular author, often book after book after book. I call it the voice. This is definitely not the same as the voice of the (main) character in the book. Rather it’s the voice of the book. By extension you could say that this is the voice of the author. It’s not that I think authors agree with everything mentioned in their own books (I really don’t, real authors are much smarter than that), but I believe that there really should be something of the author in each of their books: their voice if you will. To be really into a book I have to sense that voice.

    It’s also not something casual or flippant. Of course I recognize that every author has a particular style and what not. No , it’s more than just a unique style: there has to be a sense of urgency that goes along with that voice. There are a couple of authors who capture that sense of urgency for me (Matt de la Peña, Gregory Galloway, Adam Rapp, Andrew Smith, to name just a few). But the author who really personifies for me what it means to

We love bookmarks.

We love bookmarks.

have an urgent voice that demands to be heard is A.S. King. I know it sounds all new agey (ugh!) and I can’t really describe what it is exactly, but it’s something all over the pages. It’s why every one of her books has very firm ties to the here and now of this world (even though the book might be set in the 17th century or show snippets of the future). It’s why every one of her books betrays a concern with the state of the world as it is. Here. Now. For you to be read. Right now. A sense of urgency, as I said before.

I didn’t write a review of Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, and I’m not going to now. The best review of that book has already been written, by Rick Yancey for the New York Times. Let’s just say that Glory O’Brien has everything I just mentioned about a book having a personality and a voice that betrays a sense of urgency on the part of its author. After drinking the remains of a petrified bat, Glory and her ‘friend’ Ellie start seeing snippets of the future and the past. The way the future is visualized is prophetic to say the least. And a veritable horror story, if there ever was one!

And as I said, of course I want well-developed characters and I got them. There is obviously Glory who is such a complex character: a complicated mess, hard to love, angry, hurt, so many things at the same time. But there is also Glory’s dad (I always love the dads in A.S. King’s books), and even Glory’s mother, who’s been dead since Glory was 4. Admittedly, this book is somewhat light on ‘plot’, but what it lacks in plot, it well makes up for in Questions about Big Ideas. I love that there are so many questions explored in this book: what is friendship, what is community, what is real, what is only perception, what is belonging, what are our rights as human beings, what are our rights (mine and yours) as women, … A.S. King keeps on asking the questions ( 😉 ) we are all asking ourselves (or should be asking ourselves!): those of the history of the future and what it means to be and to be seen as a whole person.

Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van

 

  • We Were Here by Matt de la Peña. I “discovered” Matt de la Peña and his books this year. We Were Here is incredibly touching. Touching in the same way as how you can’t NOT love Of Mice and Men. If you don’t, I don’t want to be your friend (anymore). I’m sorry, but certain books are just relationship/friendship dealbreakers. Added bonus: I heard Matt de la Peña speak at NCTE this year at the CEL luncheon.

 

  • Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle*. This is the second book of a musician-storyteller (John Darnielle of Mountain Goats fame of course) in this list of favorite reads. Wolf in White Van was longlisted for the National Book Award and deservedly so. It’s the type of book that is so brilliantly constructed that the only appropriate response I could come up with at the end of it, was a healthy “WTF was that crazy shit right there?” This guy can write. I loved it!

 

  • The gigantic beard that was evil by Stephen Collins. That title alone should be enough to make you read this graphic novel. But if that is not enough: it’s about hair and no hair and elsewhere and here, and evil beards,
    Look at this!

    Look at this!

    and neatness and structure and fear and chaos and society and life and… fuck, this was good. 

 

  • The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson *. I don’t think there’s been a year that I didn’t list a Laurie Halse Anderson book as a favorite read of the year. With The Impossible Knife of Memory she did it again. Damn, this woman is good.

There are also 5 honorable mentions:

 

  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It had been years (definitely more than a decade!) since I last read a Julian Barnes novel. This one was stellar!
  • Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle. I hate musicals. HATE them. But I LOVE this book.
  • The truth about Alice by Jennifer Mathieu *. Incredibly powerful story about cruelty and stereotyping. Sucked me right in.
  • Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian. Carrie Mesrobian has balls. That’s all.
  • 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma. My surprise read of the year. Because of this cleverly deceptive story I cannot wait for The Walls Around Us.




Mid-year reading update

25 06 2014

thefreeIt’s almost July 1st and I feel I am way behind on my reading. Even though it’s not about the quantity (I’m only at 46 books read) and all about the quality, this bugs me.

So how about that quality then? Here are the books that rocked my little reading world so far:

2014 publications:

  • Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith: lonely at the top, nothing even comes close to the uppercut this book was. If this doesn’t get the Printz then the Printz is worthless.
  • The Free by Willy Vlautin: So good! This is what 21st century social realism is all about. If Steinbeck and Vonnegut lived today, they’d be proud of Willy.
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson: excellent as only Anderson can be!

Older stuff:

  • Anything at all by Shaun Tan, but most especially The Arrival, The Red Tree and The Rabbits. Tan’s mind is un-freaking-believably spectacular.
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the most poetic YA book I have read in a long long time.
  • Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware, a graphic novel that is truly groundbreaking.
  • The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman. I re-read this one and it’s still amazing although I remember certain things differently.
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: yes, very British in style, topic matter and execution, yes very ahum ‘literary’, but what an excellent philosophical detective-y thought experiment this is!




Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (by Benjamine Alire Sáenz)

10 06 2014

Aristotle and DanteAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the most poetic, most beautiful, book I have read all year. It is so many things at the same time: a book about friendship, a book about family, a book about love, a book about heart, a book about secrets, a book about truth, a book about what it means to discover the secrets of the universe.

This book is such a special thing, the language deceptively simple, which renders it so powerful and a book for all ages. Every word of every sentence is meticulously placed and makes the reading so natural and the whole experience of reading this book so powerful and magical at the same time.

In a vague attempt to lay out the plot: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Ari (Aristotle) Mendoza, a loner and an angry boy. It is summer 1987 and Ari meets Dante Quintana, who is completely unlike Ari. Dante is open and joyful and he teaches Ari how to swim. It is a meeting that will evolve into a friendship and this friendship is something that will change both of their lives forever, in ways neither of them could have foreseen.

And even though the friendship between the two boys is the focus of the story, there are so many other elements in the book that just shine, not in the least the way in which the grown-ups are not described as ‘obstacles’ in the process of growing up (as is sometimes the case in certain YA novels), nor are they nuisances of magically absent, no: they are very much there. Also, most things are just so obvious in this book, it’s not really about putting things into question for the sake of it, but about discovering things, discovering things that Ari had hidden in himself for a long time. There are so many things going on – yes, this is about Mexican-Americans and how to reconcile different lifestyles, yes this is about sexuality, yes this is about a family with a dad who’s a war veteran and a son who is in prison, etc. – but it is all treated in the most normal way possible, like “this is how things are, let’s find a way to ourselves again, navigating through all that”. Of course there are also struggles and fears but these struggles and fears happen in lots of families and they may happen to all boys who are trying to find a way to their soul. And family and friendship formed the much needed anchors to confront the struggles and fears that Ari had. As such, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe describes both unique and very individual struggles and fears, but has an unmistakable universality as well, something which is the hallmark of true Literature.

For all those people out there who say that YA (or MG or…) doesn’t have any depth, for all those people out there who say that YA does not have any meaningful characters, for all those people out there who say that YA is not Literature, you are Wrong with a capital W. With Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe I have, yet again, a book here that completely overturns your biased little minds.








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