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.
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Overdue update (August reads)

5 09 2014

A long overdue update about books read in August.

The disappointments:

  • Crazy (Amy Reed): Even though it gives an insight into a important mental health issue (bipolar disorder), it’s not done very convincingly. The book is told in emails between Connor and Izzy, which is a poor choice of narrative device to tell this particular story, because it gets in the way of real character development and it actually hinders the plot advancement. The result is a fairly predictable course of events. It also doesn’t really help that the main characters are…well… dull.
    2.5 stars
  • California (Edan Lepucki): mCaliforniaore dullness… I got Californa mainly for the Colbert Report / Amazon / Sherman Alexie reason. The hype about this book was huge, it helped Edan Lepucki immensily, but the book itself…meh…I’m not too wild about it. It’s the story of Frida and Cal in a post-apocalyptic world that seems to just be… It looks like something environmental happened, but there’s hardly any world building so it’s all a bit sketchy.
    The main problem with this book though is that it seems thoroughly underdeveloped: the characters are dull and need fleshing out, the plot is not really going anywhere and meanders its way towards a sort of non-conclusion, there’s a lot of talk about actions that have been taken / are being taken but that we never get to experience being taken… if that makes sense? No? Don’t worry, the book itself makes very little sense as well. And nothing gets any sort of satisfying explanation because the reasons mentioned to do something are all so very arbitrary (like the whole Containment – Children bit: doesn’t make sense). A poor man’s The Road, I guess?
    2.5 stars

Onto the better stuff…

Picture book classics

  • Robot Dreams (Sara Varon): a wordless picture book about a dog and his robot-friend. This picture book classicsis a timeless and universal tale of the search and need for finding a connection and friendship. I also adore Sara Varon’s visual style. It’s so soft and easy-looking. My kid loves it as much as I do (Odd Duck is probably my kid’s favorite book).
    4 stars
  • The Dark (by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen): I think Jon Klassen’s Hat-books are a stroke of pure genius, but what he does here with Lemony Snicket is equally brilliant: a variation on a child’s age-old fear: fear of the dark. Really not to be missed!
    4 stars

Great YA books

  • 17 & Gone (Nova Ren Suma): I have to say that me liking this book came as a bit of a surprise. I liked – didn’t love – Imaginary Girls, but 17 & Gone is such a step up from that, in my opinion. Yes, I did guess from the very start what was going on, but despite that I continued to be enthralled by what was going on with Lauren and her visions of the lost girls. The main reason for this is Nova Ren Suma’s lush writing: her sentences are more than words on a page. They’re vibrant and have a sense of urgency that is mesmerizing and just urge you to keep on reading. Definitely the surprise of the summer.
    4 stars
  • We Were Here (Matt de la Peña): I have to say that I have completely fallen for Matt de la Peña’s books. I liked Mexican Whiteboy a whole lot, but I have to admit that I fell a bit in love with We Were Here. We Were Here is about a boy Miguel who’s sent to Juvi for a crime he’s doesn’t reveal, but which obviously haunts him. There he meets 2 ‘companions’ in Mong and Rondell. Three teens, each with baggage aplenty on a ‘road trip’ to Mexico. This story of (especially) Miguel and Rondell is the stuff classics are made of and it’s done so well. We Were Here really made me think of Of Mice and Men, a book that is also referenced in the story. We Were Here really broke my heart in the exact same way as Steinbeck’s classic did. I can’t wait to hear Matt de la Peña speak at NCTE’s Annual Convention in November!
    4.5 stars

 

 





Short Cuts

11 03 2013

I Will Save You (by Matt de la Peña)

i will save youKidd Ellison has the worst of lives. Away from the mental facility Horizons where he ended up after his mother killed herself (after she killed her abusive husband), he now lives in a tent on the beach, employed by Mr Red. In I Will Save You Matt de la Peña plays with narrative timelines as the reader has to figure out the links between Kidd and Olivia, Kidd and Mr Red, and especially Kidd and Devon, a guy Kidd met at Horizons but who now also turns up at the beach.

The book actually starts at the end of it all, when Kidd somehow pushes Devon off of a cliff, and then goes back to tell the entire story in flashback, memories, dreams and notebook entries (Kidd writes in his philosophy of life notebook). This disjointed chronology may throw you off at times, but it actually enhances the sense of desperation Kidd feels. The only thing this broken and vulnerable kid wants it to save Olivia, but when the mysterious Devon arrives and starts his devious schemes, everything Kidd wants is threatened. Even though you know from the start that something is up with Devon – there are clear hints throughout the book – I’m sure some readers will still be shocked at the ultimate twist at the end of the book.

I was a bit surprised to see this listed as a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, because it’s not exactly a “quick read”. On the contrary, it really does require some effort from the part of the reader. I don’t see my reluctant readers picking this up ‘quickly’. In any case, I Will Save You is a deeply moving and engaging book about a boy with an extremely troubled past and whose future is far from bright. Definitely one of the saddest books in a long time…

4 stars

 

My Swordhand is Singing (by Marcus Sedgwick)

my swordhand is singingMarcus Sedgwick is a cat favorite. One of the only writers to successfully publish work for children and young adults, his foray into the ‘darker’ genres is remarkable. In My Swordhand is Singing Sedgwick takes on the myths of the vampire. In his version of the age-old myth, there are no melodramatic romances. There are also no shining and sparkling über-creatures and irresistible doe-eyed maidens. Instead, Sedgwick focuses on the folktales that have been told all over the world, all through the ages. He sets his story in the 17th century in the dead of winter somewhere in Eastern Europe. We get the story of a father, Tomas – a drunk – and his son Peter, both woodcutters and not liked by the villagers where they have settled. In this tale we get gypsies and the evil of the Shadow Queen. In this tale we get the ‘hostages’ (vampires), who’re only after one thing and it’s not making out with the living!

Sedgwick’s horror is so different from the fantasy horror that is usually associated with Vampire stories these days. If anything, it looks like for once we get a writer who has done his homework researching ancient folklore instead of romanticizing it. My Swordhand is Singing is by no means Sedgwick’s best work, but it already shows what this unique writer will attempt in later books too: a focus on setting (eerily so), an interest in the past, and gothic-like retellings of old tales.

3.5 stars








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