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!




The Impossible Knife of Memory (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

18 05 2014

Noggin & The Impossible Knife of MemoryI have never known a Laurie Halse Anderson novel to be a disappointment and The Impossible Knife of Memory – published 15 whole years (already!) after the seminal Speak – is also anything but! On the contrary, it shows once again that Anderson can put her mind to something – in this case ‘dealing with PTSD’ – run with it, make the topic her own, mold it and shape it into an impeccably written novel, containing convincing characters. Characters who are anything but perfect, characters who do questionable things, but who are incredibly believable and real.

17-year-old Hayley Kincain has been homeschooled for a long time because her father’s restless mind didn’t allow him to stay put. Now, though, her father decides it’s best to settle down again so Hayley can graduate from school like the rest of her peers. This however, does not tell the entire story. Hailey doesn’t really want to deal with her memories, memories that involve a dead mother, a dead grandmother, an evil alcie stepmother Trish, but most importantly an ex-military father who’s suffering from PTSD and who she is basically taking care of. A daughter performing a parent’s duty and keeps the fact that she’s suffering from it a secret for the outside world.

Through some flashbacks, the reader gets to see some of the horrors that Hayley’s dad went through during his deployment in Iraq, a deployment which now causes severe trauma. Some of this is not easy to read, nor should it be. This is an incredibly serious issue and the reader gets to see it all. All of Hayley’s father’s experiences influence Hayley and the way she interacts with the people around her, who she considers to be zombies. As a result, Hayley doesn’t really have a lot of friends. There’s Gracie, the girl she knew ‘from before’, but now there’s also Finn, a boy who shows a real interest in her. Hayley doesn’t really understand this herself but she slowly lets him into her complicated life. With his help Hayley starts recognizing certain things about her life and the people in it, what she needs and what her dad needs. At the same time she starts to realize she might not be the only one dealing with difficult (home) issues. It’s also great to see different types of relationships in a novel, not just boy-girlfriend (which there also is, of course), but also father-daughter, stepmother-stepdaughter, friend-friend and a few more.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is one my favorite 2014 reads so far, no question about that. For all the horrible things and the darkness it contains, there’s something incredibly hopeful and at times even funny about it too. Anderson has a knack for infusing her (main) characters with a certain wit that lights up their sentences. Not that it ends all sunflowers and daisies, of course, because issues like PTSD or broken relationships don’t just heal miraculously. The Impossible Knife of Memory confirms Anderson as a go-to author: powerful story, true characters, stellar writing, wit, emotion and a dash of romance? If only more books could deliver on all of those points!





Twisted (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

14 07 2012

After his junior year in high school Tyler Miller goes from your average high school loser to popular guy, even potential dating material for the high school Queen Bee Bethany Milbury. Tyler has gained somewhat of a notorious reputation after the community service he had to perform because he got busted spray-painting graffiti all over the school. Another side effect of this ‘Foul Deed’ as he calls it himself is his newly gained muscled body. If his community service amounted to anything at all, it was proving that digging holes is what he’s really good at, not the AP courses his dad wants him to take. Also, having required said hot bod means  he now gets what he always wanted: he gets noticed. Not just by Bethany, but also by her brother, Chip, who feels challenged in his position of high school king.

Twisted is sometimes called a companion novel to Anderson’s almost legendary novel Speak. While Speak featured the voice of the victim, Twisted shows what happens when people get accused of things because of a certain reputation they have and despite your best efforts you don’t know how to convince them otherwise. Twisted too features a standard high school where the caste system is firmly in place, just like in Speak: the ‘popular posse’ vs the ‘loser nobodys’. When the two mix, you know the consequences will be dire. In this case, everyone’s eye is on Tyler when a dramatic incident supposedly happens to Bethany Milbury.

In Twisted Anderson experiments with a male voice, but I feel this is only successful up to a point. The story of Twisted definitely plays on two different levels: Tyler and the whole Bethany affair on the one hand and Tyler and the relationship with his father at home on the other hand.  But both plotlines are basically about the same thing: power and control. At school, Tyler now has something which he’s always wanted: he has a powerful, maybe even a bit mysterious aura, so much so that Chip, Bethany’s brother feels threatened by it. Obviously he does his utmost to continue humiliating Tyler. Bethany on the other hand sees this power as an alluring factor and does what she does best: she flirts with the hot guy. Now, as two-dimensional as she may seem, there are actual girls out there like Bethany, and the fact that Tyler wanted to do the honorable thing and rejects her just doesn’t play well with the Bethanys of this world.  In the high schools I know, though, a girl like Bethany would never be popular, she’d be the school skank, gossiped about by the girls, and even scorn by the boys for being so easy. Anyway, that’s beside the point. From a narrative point of view, I didn’t really buy the sudden ‘summer change’ in personality in Tyler. From the way his voice sounds (why graffiti the school in the first place if not to get noticed, right?), I can’t believe he was ever such a ‘loser nobody’. Also, Bethany’s brother already hated him before that summer and before Bethany started paying attention, so yet again, this is proof that Tyler wasn’t all that invisible to him.

The other plotline about Tyler and his dad is an intensification of what plays on the other level, and this plotline is definitely the stronger one, one where Tyler’s voice is most effective. Tyler shows restraint when he could abuse his power with Bethany. Tyler’s dad on the other hand feels he’s losing out at his job and wants to maintain a certain level of control and works this out on Tyler and the rest of the family. Just like Chip feels he’s losing control, just like Bethany feels a loss of power when she gets rejected, Tyler’s dad does almost anything to stay on top in his job and at his home life. Tyler consequently feels he’s worth nothing and that he sucks at life.

 

Even if Twisted is not entirely successful, it does have quite a few redeeming qualities, not in the least the exploration of the relationship between the stressed out, controlling father and the son who has different priorities, different interests than what his father has decided for him. When things get going here, it is highly explosive. In a way, Tyler has literally been working up a muscle to stand up to his father, even more so than as a way to ‘impress the girl’. The fact that his father of all people does not believe him when he says he didn’t do what he is accused of makes this a turning point in Tyler’s struggle. Twisted may not be Laurie Halse Anderson at her best, but it’s still pretty good… a story that I think a lot of boys might relate to…even if it’s only secretly so.





Drowning Instinct (by Ilsa J. Bick)

5 07 2012

Ilsa J. Bick’s Drowning Instinct is the second Printz contender the cat has read in as many weeks. Drowning Instinct, though, is a whole different ballgame than Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities. However, the voice of its protagonist/narrator is as powerful as the reach of Bacigalupi’s (geo)political ambitions (BTW, ‘drowning’ seems to be a keyword these days). Drowning Instinct is contemporary YA at its best. It’s set very much in the tradition set by a someone like Laurie Halse Anderson, introducing us to stories that are thoroughly character-driven, and delving into the deepest human emotions possible, wherever that may take you.

The book starts when Jenna Lord, 16, is dragged out of the water and Detective Pendleton (‘Bob’) gives her a tape recorder so she can give him her story… the truth, the truth, and nothing but the truth. Of course, that truth is an ugly one. At 16 Jenna is already deeply scarred, figuratively as well as literally. She’s just returned from an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital, courtesy of her cutting, a fire and a dysfunctional family life or all of that combined. She now has to attend Turing, because her emotionally demanding father (aka PsychoDad), insists this will be the best way to adjust to normal life again. This is where she meets Mr Anderson, who she claims is the way her story of the truth should start.

There are a couple of things that make of Drowning Instinct a captivating and thoroughly twisted read. First of all,  there’s the device of the unreliable narrator, used here in the best way possible. Jenna insists that in the complicated relationship between her (a student) and Mr Anderson (a teacher), she was not a victim…which is of course the first thing that pervy Bobby-o (Jenna’s words) would think of. And indeed to a certain extent (and up until the big reveal, which I’m not going to reveal!) we see that both characters are thoroughly messed up, and both need each other to fix them back to normal. On the other hand, there are a couple of things our unreliable narrator Jenna omits. For one, I don’t really recall Jenna actually mentioning Mr Anderson’s age… which of course, shouldn’t matter when we’re dealing with a student-teacher relationship, but my point is, Mr Anderson could be 24 (Jenna says he attended Stanford), he could be 30 or he could be 40. When someone of about 24 is in a relationship with someone who’s 36, no one thinks twice about this. But when one of the two is a minor – even ‘already’ 16 – and the other is an adult – even ‘only’ 24 – then things get complicated of course. I’m not saying that one is right and the other is wrong, but it’s the same sort of dynamic that plays all through the novel. The same is true when the relationship gets physical. Narrator Jenna careful skirts over that, because she feels it’s none of ‘Bob’s’ business. Who’s predator, who’s prey? Does Jenna find out, will the reader find out? It’s just such a thrill to see what (if anything) will be revealed by the (un)reliable narrator.

Also, the characters – and it’s not just the protagonists Jenna and Mr Anderson – in Drowning Instinct are of the type the cat loves best: they are complex, they’re messed up, there is never only a right or only a wrong, there are so many shades of gray here that it’s almost an expressionist landscape of pain, cuts, emotions added onto the canvas layer upon layer. Of course, Jenna only tells us what she wants to tell us about the other characters, but I liked the way Matt (Jenna’s brother who’s deployed in Afghanistan) and Danielle’s characters were used in the book, showing us that there are more broken people that just Jenna and Mr Anderson.

Lastly, there’s Ilsa J. Bick’s use of setting and space. The Wisconsin woods in which Jenna starts to run again is used so effectively that it’s almost a metaphor for the density of emotions that Jenna ànd Mr Anderson are dealing with. This is something which I also noticed in Ashes, where the woods are also almost a character of their own. Again, the mood of much of the book is enhanced by the setting, and this setting definitely has some filmic overtones. This really is how an author should use space to really show and to add meaning to the words on a page.

The cat loved Drowning Instinct, but she doesn’t think it will win the Printz. Is it good (“literary”) enough to win it? Probably (narrative voice, setting and pacing are stellar), but I don’t really know whether the Printz Committee would go for this particular topic right at this moment in time. I do think it’s Printz Honors material for sure.  Readers who liked Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy will find an equally as uncomfortable read in Drowning Instinct. There’s something about broken and flawed characters that make them so irresistible to read about, maybe because they make us feel less flawed, or maybe because we recognize ourselves in part of who they are. Either way, contemporary YA at its best, peeps. Read Drowning Instinct!





Forge (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

12 06 2011

Laurie Halse Anderson set the standards very high for herself with Chains, the first installment of the Seeds of America trilogy. In Chains we encountered Isabel, a New York slave at the beginning of the American Revolution, and her personal – desperate – need to be free against the backdrop of a nation’s quest for freedom from a foreign oppressor, the very same setting that also M.T. Anderson used in his majestic Octavian Nothing books, by the way. Chains’ sequel Forge – though not really focusing on Isabel, and definitely not another scientific experiment – is another proof of what a literary giant Laurie Halse Anderson really is in the realm of historical fiction in general, and the YA-universe in particular. Read the rest of this entry »





The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (by M.T. Anderson)

13 05 2011

In Bookland, there’s nothing as satisfactory as picking up a book with no prior knowledge or expectations regarding its plot or style, and being completely dazzled by the entire experience once you’re through it. Such was the case with M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1. M.T. Anderson gained some notoriety after publishing (the sadly not readily available on Amazon)  Feed, a YA cyberpunk novel and a National Book Award Finalist, but I’m sure there weren’t too many people who saw this one coming! Read the rest of this entry »








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