For the last few years, rather than talk about the best books of the year, I’ve instead chosen to talk about my favorites. These are books that stuck with me for one reason or another, books that I know will be in my mind and my heart a little bit longer than most. A favorite to me is a book that I can, and usually have, found myself rereading and revisiting.
I usually like to hold out until the last minute — the final week of December — to share them, but I feel pretty confident in this year’s choices. These aren’t in any particular order, since I think it’s impossible to rank favorites. Each favorite has a different reason for being a favorite and how do you choose one reason as being a better reason than another? Every book on this list was published in 2012, despite the fact I have been lucky enough to read a book or two publishing next year that I believe may end up on next year’s list already.
I have a little bonus, too: a giveaway of one of not just my 2012 favorites, but one of the books that has found space on my all-time favorites list.
Antonia Michaelis’s The Storyteller broke me as I read it. It’s an exceedingly dark story, part told through fairy tale but balanced with being wholly realistic. The way Michaelis weaves the story of a girl who lives a charmed life against a boy who has had anything but is masterful. The heavy themes and the tough-as-hell passages to read through make not just Anna learn how to empathize, but they force the reader to do so, too. Likewise, the incredible translation work on this book is to be commended. I think this is a contender for the Printz still, and I think it’s a book that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should for all it accomplishes.
The Storyteller isn’t for the faint of heart, and while it’s a contemporary novel, it’s not straightforwardly so. There is a fairy tale aspect to this, so I can see this being appealing to fans of not just realistic, but also fantastical tales.
Speaking of dark, haunting, stomach-turning stories, I have no qualms about including Adam Rapp’s The Children and the Wolves on my favorites list. Told from three voices, this is the story of middle schoolers who are caught up in playing a series of horrific power-wielding games. There’s the abduction of a small child by these three as a means of revenge. This isn’t a book with a hopeful ending. This is a book without any hope at all. But the way Rapp taps into the psyche of three very aching middle schoolers is commendable, and he does so with few words and few pages. Literary YA at its finest.
I can’t shake this one from my mind because of where it goes and how it gets there. It is so easy to hate everything these middle schoolers are doing. They’re rotten. But it’s also painfully easy to understand why they choose to do what they’re doing. All three of them want and deserve so much more than what’s in front of them. They’re acting in a way they think will get them there. It works — and it hurts — because these are middle school kids.
Trish Doller’s debut Something Like Normal has left me thinking “then what?” since I finished the book earlier this year. While I loved how the story tackles PTSD, the struggles of returning to a life so different than it was just months earlier, what really stood out to me about Doller’s novel was how imperfect Travis was. Where it would be easy for him to be a hero upon his return from Marine service, he is not. He’s made mistakes and he owns that he’s made them. But more than that, he doesn’t become perfect even then. He still continues to be human and do dumb, irrational things. Travis’s voice is believable and it’s honest.
The writing is tight and the pacing for this shorter book is exacting. Although not an entirely easy read because of what Travis is dealing with mentally, it’s worth it for the satisfying — if not completely tied up — conclusion. I wish I knew what happened after because I cared about him and Harper that much. Something Like Normal made me cry, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
The excitement I had in seeing Laura Buzo’s Love and Other Perishable Items on this year’s Morris shortlist was huge. Where most stories come about because of a big event happening in the lives of the main character, what made Buzo’s book so stand out to me was this wasn’t like that — this story is about Amelia and about Chris, and while both of them come with baggage to the story, it’s not their baggage that defines their story. Rather, it guides it.
This Australian import was not a love story, though there was much talk of love and what it means, and neither was it a story of loss or change, even though those things were big, too. It’s about everything. About life, feminism, about family and friendship and romance. I love the way Buzo shows us the perspective of a smart and determined young teen Amelia and the more mature, more worldly but never, ever pretentious or creepy Chris. It’s a story that made me happy reading it and made me happy when I finished it. The dual perspectives worked well, the two voices were incredibly distinct, and I could see myself at 16 or 17 thinking this book was the best book in the world. At 28, I think it’s pretty damn good, too.
I am not a huge genre reader, which means I don’t read a lot of mysteries. It’s not that I don’t like mysteries — I do — but I like them when they’re somehow tied into a bigger, more contemporary story. That’s, of course, just one reason Kat Rosenfield’s Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone worked for me and stands out this year. Becca’s desire to get out of the town she’s always known, the longing to try something new and different and be somehow bigger than everything around her is palpable. But all of those things that make where she is the place that it is are inextricable from her, too, and this all comes to a head when the dead body of Amelia shows up on the side of the road.
Rosenfield has a gift for lyrical writing, and paired with the mystery of who the dead girl is, Becca’s voice and drive and, at times, utter fear for the unknown future sears. This is a raw and powerful story and never once does the styling of the book impede the character development. The parallels between Becca and Amelia are savvy, and both girls have great voices. And really, I love a story about getting free from a small town. Especially when that small town is still part and parcel of who the character wanting out is. Even if you can get out, you can’t always escape completely.
Maybe this was really the year of the multiple point of view. Siobhan Vivian’s The List knocked me out with eight — yes, eight — distinct voices. But what this book does is examine, question, and dismantle the perceptions of beauty. Of what it means to be the prettiest or the ugliest. Does what a person looks like define them? Or is it only a very subjective, tiny part of who they are? Aside from being an incredibly feminist novel (which I do not think there are enough of in YA), this is the kind of book I feel like I could hand any teen girl and have her identify with one — if not all eight — of the characters here.
The List is not just a favorite because of the topic it takes on or the ability to give eight girls eight distinct voices, but it’s a favorite because it’s well-written. Vivian tosses readers into Homecoming week at Mount Washington High School. It’s easy to visualize and sink right into.
I don’t read books from page one to page 400+ in one sitting, but I did that with Lindsey Barraclough’s Long Lankin. This book was sold to me at ALA Midwinter from the publisher as a creepy book, and it delivered on that promise. I’ve read a fair number of horror stories and I have seen more horror movies than I can count, but I was still in awe of Barraclough’s ability to give me chills with this one.
Long Lankin is not so much about the scares at the end of the book — as a reader you might see it coming if you’re paying attention — but it’s much more about the journey to get there. Barraclough builds tension, and she builds incredible atmosphere in this book. For me, that’s what takes a scary story from good to great. This well-paced horror novel is one I’m still thinking about and one that I would love to see adapted on screen (and I rarely ever say that).
The last book I’m putting on my 2012 favorites is Courtney Summers’s This is Not a Test. This little zombie novel is so much more than a story about zombies. It’s a story about humans and coming face to face with horrific things that exist outside ourselves . . . and maybe even more about the horrific things that exist inside ourselves. Sloane, who has no reason to live and wants to die, is forced instead to survive and endure against her will. In doing so, in realizing that everything in her life is within her own control now, it’s possible she’s able to see that despite how awful the world around her has become, she has reason to live. And that reason is for herself.
This is a book I’ve read more than once already, and I just wrapped up listening to the audio production of the story. It’s always interesting to hear how a performer voices characters you’ve read and know and have developed perceptions about, but this production is a worthy one. Sloane’s voice is great, and there’s a surprise in hearing Rhys given a southern accent. But it works. In each reading of Summers’s novel, I’ve found myself picking up on new and subtle aspects of the story that make it even more powerful. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to like any of these characters nor what actions they take, but I did. I love how complicated, how frustrating, and at times, how utterly unlikeable Sloane is. I love more watching her arc go from wanting to die because she had no reason to live to wanting to live because she had no reason to want to die anymore.
Zombies are terrifying as hell. So are human beings.
A few other noteworthy titles this year for me included Amy Reed’s Crazy (for an incredibly realistic and painful depiction of bipolar disorder), Ilsa J Bick’s Drowning Instinct (for going there and doing so without undermining incredible character development), A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers (specifically for the way it portrays the value of loving people for who and what they are), Megan McCafferty’s Thumped (the longer I think about this book and its predecessor, the more I absolutely love what McCafferty does — the messages, the satire, and the critique of modern society are so spot-on), and Jennifer E Smith’s The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (wait for this one: I love how the romance plays out and how it’s complicated and not easy and yet so simple).
As I was thinking about this year in review, about my favorite things I read, I couldn’t help but think about the favorite things I wrote this year, too. This was the first year I really felt like talking outside book reviews and books, and I think that giving myself permission to do that let me explore a lot of things I’d always wanted to, but had maybe been a little reluctant to. These include:
- To be a woman and speak your mind
- Weight, Body Image, and Body Portrayal in YA Fiction
- The value of reader’s advisory
- Being authentic
- Blogging about taking up the 30 Day Shred (and yes, I am still doing it! If you’re curious, I’m down somewhere near 36 or 37 total inches since starting which is insane)
- On Passion and Igniting It
- You Can Like What You Like
- Guys reading and girls reading and the implications of gendered space and books
- On being critical
It’s been a good year for reading — even though I read no where near as many books as I hoped I would — I’m pleased with having read about 160 books. The titles above represent the ones that stood out to me and will stick with me long after this year passes. If you haven’t read any of them yet, I suggest getting on that.
I have a signed copy of This is Not a Test to share with one reader. All you have to do is fill out the form below. This is a US/Canada giveaway only. I’ll draw a winner on December 31.
My reading habits have changed a lot in the last few years — in college, I pretty much only read “classics,” even as fun reading outside of being an English major. It was that or adult literary fiction, with periodic non-fiction thrown in. Then when I went to library school, I was a heavy adult non-fiction reader. I did dabble in a bit of young adult fiction both in college and in library school, but certainly not to the extent I do now.
Even though I’m way more reluctant to pick up classics now, I often think about the ones I read and loved and how much they influence how I read today. I also think a lot about the classics I didn’t read that it seems everyone else has read and tell myself someday I will read them (really). I thought it could be fun to talk about the lasting influences, as well as talk about what I haven’t read in hopes of maybe being convinced to give something new a try.
For me, the reading experience of classics is influenced a lot by time and place, maybe more than any other type of book. I can remember where I was when I read each of these the first time and I can remember what it felt like to experience the novel in a way I can’t always do with other books. I wonder how much it has to do with classics being a sort of collective experience, since books become “classics” through generations of reading.
Moby Dick is a pretty contentious title I’ve learned — it’s either LOVED or it’s HATED, and there’s very little ground between. But you can put me squarely on the side of thinking this is one of the all-time greatest novels. It’s long, it’s long-winded, delving into whaling and life on a whaling vessel and really, it’s a story about life and people. Ahab is obsessed with finding this whale because it’s his life duty to finally win this war once and for all. Except fighting nature, fighting the creatures outside of yourself as some sort of justification for existence, doesn’t quite work that way. The story is brilliant, and Melville makes it even better because the writing itself is poetic. It is almost entirely a metaphor, which I love without shame. There’s certainly a story but oh, it’s so much more in the story that’s not being told than in the one being presented. Moby Dick is an untouchable book for me — nothing will ever quite live up to it in my mind. I’m extremely curious how China Mieville draws on Melville’s book for inspiration in his forthcoming Railsea.
When I was in library school, I had access to one of the best special collections libraries in the world, and one of my classes required that we do an in-depth appraisal on a rare book. Of course, I picked this one, and getting the opportunity to spend a long time with an original of Moby Dick only made it that much more meaningful.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is my favorite Bronte work (which you’ll see is an unfair statement soon). It features a strong, independent woman in a time when they weren’t celebrated in literature — kind of ironic given that Bronte couldn’t publish this under her own name, but under the more “masculine” name Acton Bell. In the book, Gilbert becomes obsessed with the reclusive Helen, who lives in Wildfell Hall with her young son. The townspeople have given her quite a reputation, and despite some reluctance on Gilbert’s part, he’s still fascinated by Helen. Eventually, she lets him in on all of the terrible things that happened in her last marriage, why she left, and why she is who she is now. I’m hit and miss with Victorian lit, but this one is and will always be among my favorites because Helen is a hell of a character and she feels so, so much. Oh, and this is told in dual narrative too, so readers get both Helen’s voice and Gilbert’s.
One of my all-time favorite movies is Malena — it’s the story of a woman who moves to a small Sicily town while her husband serves in World War II. She’s beautiful, and she’s a threat to all of the other people in town because of this, and she endures a sort of humiliation no one deserves because of it. The story’s not told through her eyes, though; it’s told through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who is fascinated with who this woman really is. Although the movie isn’t based on Bronte’s story, every time I watch it I can’t help but think about Helen and Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In both, strong, independent women being pushed to the margins of their communities because of cattiness, gossip, and a lack of interest in getting to know the whole person within (or the kinds of pain she carries).
Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West is arguably the first novel that deals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Written in 1918, West’s story follows Chris as he reunites with three women who have played a huge role in his life. The problem is, he can’t really remember them or what they really meant to him before the war took a toll on his mental state. Chris is unable to remember his wife or his cousin when he returns home, and he believes the poor, unkempt Mrs. Grey is his wife. It’s a story about love and sacrifice, and it’s one wrought with desperation. Of course Chris’s wife wants him back for herself, and she wants him to be better. The thing is, neither she nor his cousin can figure out the way to cure him or whether they have the right to make him better themselves. This is a short book — one I think I read in a couple hours — but it’s an emotional powerhouse.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is one I think everyone knows or at least has heard of. When I was in 6th grade, I had my first male teacher, and he was a hulking, scary kind of teacher — over six feet tall, build big, and he had a booming voice. The kind of guy you don’t mess around with. He knew I was a reader, even back then, and I will never forget him telling me that the only book that ever scared him was Kesey’s book, but that I was too young to read and appreciate it for what it was. He told me to read it later — and I did. I don’t know if I would go as far as to say it scared me, but I would say it gave me a lot of chills. It’s not so much the mental ward setting, though that’s certainly something that always does put me in a certain state when reading. It was the social dynamics that made this book one of my favorites — it’s the little guys vs the big guys. It’s a story where those without power try to get it. Oh, and it’s told through the eyes of the character who won’t talk to anyone but it’s in his power of observation that the story really unfolds. This is the kind of book I keep hoping will be visited in some way in a ya retelling/revisioning because it is so ripe for it. I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count but the book does it better.
When I was in high school, I wrote book reviews for the high school newspaper (and music reviews, too, and no, I won’t brag and talk about how I interviewed people like Matt Nathanson before he was who he is today, not at all). One of the books I reviewed was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and since that day, I’ve revisited this novel many, many times. It’s still a favorite. I won’t go as far as to say this is a true crime story, because I’m fairly certain Capote took many liberties in reporting, but this is a novel about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in small-town Holcomb, Kansas. It follows the actual murders, the investigation into the crime, and the uncovering of the murderers and subsequent sentencing of them. Capote’s book melds everything I love about journalism with traditional storytelling, and it probably left me more terrified and scared than any horror book I’ve read — true events, especially random murder in an average town, is so much scarier than ghosts or vampires or the undead. Although it’s probably not a classic in the sense that Melville’s book is, it is a classic in my mind and it’s got lasting power.
A handful of other favorite classics include Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (which, true story, I wrote a play based off one summer for a play-writing class I took) and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (if “I Sing the Body Electric” doesn’t give you chills when you read it, I’m not sure we’d get along well — it is one of the best pieces of poetry in existence).
I’m part shamed and maybe part proud I haven’t read some of these. But I’m putting it out there to maybe be convinced that one or all of these are worth the time to visit in the near future.
Confession: I have not read any Jane Austen. Actually, I take that back. I’ve been sitting about 40 pages in Sense and Sensibility for over a year now, and I read one of Austen’s short stories. I took a class in Victorian Lit (see the Anne Bronte book above) and had one of my favorite professors, who told me that if I wanted to start somewhere with Austen, to read her short story “Lady Susan.” “Lady Susan” was the only thing Austen ever wrote that she hated and wished she hadn’t written, so of course I read it. It’s dark! I loved it! But after that, I never found myself compelled to finish a novel of hers. I’ve got copies of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and, yes, The Complete Works of Jane Austen on my book shelf. They’ve been great dust collectors.
Another author I can put on the “haven’t read a single work from” list is Virginia Woolf. Maybe not entirely remarkable, but seeing I was assigned To the Lighthouse on more than one occasion in school and that I have copies of many of her books, it is pretty noteworthy. I’m not sure I wouldn’t like her works, but I’m not entirely sure I would be sucked into the writing. I’ve been told The Years would probably be a good place to start.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is another one of my “haven’t read” books. I’ve read both of Anne Bronte’s titles, and I’ve read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but I haven’t ventured into Charlotte’s work. I do feel a little lost because I haven’t read this one, especially since it happens to make appearances in so much contemporary fiction.
The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer are books I never read, either. And I have to be completely honest and say neither has appeal to me as a reader, so I’m almost glad I’ve missed out. I realize the foundation they both play in a lot of literature afterward, but I’ve gotten by this far and figure I’ll be good for a while longer.
William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is sort of a big one to miss, and it’s one I know got read in high school. Except I took a class where instead of reading the books most high schoolers read, we were given more esoteric (read: more awesome) picks, including Les Miserables. I do want to read this one at some point because I know it’s a bit brutal, and that’s always up my alley.
Maybe I’m being a little generous calling Bram Stoker’s Dracula a classic, but there it is. I haven’t read it, and I’ve been told more than once how fantastic a read it is. I have read many modern retellings or revisionings of this one, but I haven’t read the original itself.
Who I’d Like to Read or Revisit
A few bonus titles! There are so many classics I’ve meant to read or have read and didn’t appreciate the first time I read it for one reason or another. It’s my hope in revisiting these (or experiencing the first time) will help me find new favorites for my top list.
I read My Antonia and O Pioneers! and I believe a number of short stories by Willa Cather in high school, and I remember hating them quite passionately. The thing is, now that I’ve spent real time in the Midwest and have come to really like it here, I feel like I’d have a different appreciation for Cather’s books.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has been recommended to me numerous times, and given my prior experience enjoying Russian Lit, I think this is one I have to get to eventually. It’s the story of Ivan, who is a labor-camp worker in one of Stalin’s work camps. It’s supposed to be quite graphic and a great portrait of an individual trying to find some sort of dignity when there was none to be had.
I grew up just south of Chicago, and I find it a bit of a shame I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler, seeing he was not only regaled as one of the leaders in mystery/detective fiction, but he was also a Chicagoan by birth (which, to be fair, I haven’t read Sinclair Lewis either, but there’s something much more appealing about reading a mystery than reading about the south side slaughter houses). The Big Sleep is Chandler’s most well-known novel and it seems like a good place to start . . . whenever I get the chance to.
I have been told by everyone who has survived reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that it’s one I don’t have to read but I find that to be a challenge, rather than a warning. I’ve had to memorize a good chunk of this book before (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”) and I’m fascinated to read the entirety of Walden because of that.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a book I have not one, but two copies of, in my collection. Yet, I haven’t read it. I carry a certain amount of shame for not having read this one, too.
Last, but not least, I am anxious to some day reread J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I used to read this book every year in high school and I read it a couple times in college. I tried reading it in library school, but in the process of having it checked out from the library, I lost it, then ended up paying for it and finding it months later. Long story longer, I kind of feel like this is the kind of book that I would find obnoxious now, even though I loved it back in the day. The sort of book you measure your own maturity and growth against, whether that’s fair or not. I’m curious whether Holden stands out at all or it’s the secondary characters who come to the forefront of the story.
So now tell me, what should I be reading? And maybe what I’m more interested in hearing — what classics have you loved or missed? Why? What makes a classic work for you?
Like in 2009 and in 2010, I don’t plan on sharing what I think were the best books of the year. It’s entirely subjective and, well, as much as I like reading and poring over “best of” lists, I think favorite lists are more enjoyable to talk about. It’s unscientific and there’s no criteria other than gut reaction.
So this year I’ve read 250 books to completion and probably had another 50 or so I didn’t finish for one reason or another. My favorites list is composed of those books that stand out to me for one reason or another, and they’re books I keep thinking about. These aren’t in any order, and I’ve kept it limited to the books published in 2011 (though I’ve got a couple at the end published prior to this year that have stood out to me, too). Without further ado…
Without doubt, I think the book that stands out to me the most this year is CK Kelly Martin’s My Beating Teenage Heart. This is speculative fiction, and it touches upon the issues of loss, grief, and on the connects among people, be they strong or very, very loose. What starts out as a book that feels like it’s going to be a tear jerker for one reason spins around in the final two chapters to become a book of utter hope. I’ve passed this one along to more than one person since reading it, and it’s one I keep coming back to, thinking about how much I need to reread it. My chest swells a bit when I think about how those final two chapters made me feel.
This year, I discovered Blake Nelson in a really big way, and as soon as my reading time opens up again, I plan on finishing my tour de Nelson. I think I have three of his books left to read before I’ve read them all. That said, Recovery Road has been my favorite. The ups and downs we experience right along with Maddie are powerful and realistic. I’m rereading this one right now because I enjoyed it so much, and what I’m loving is how similar (and different) Maddie is from Andrea Marr, Nelson’s classic from Girl. Also, clearly, I have a thing with books featuring a heart on the cover.
Moira Young’s rapid-paced Blood Red Road is one of the most memorable post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read, and I’ve read a good handful of them. Saba is a fantastic, daring, and strong main character, and the writing really pulled me in. It’s not traditional, it’s a bit dialectic, and it’s not usually anything I care for but the elements all connected perfectly here. Moreover, this book, while part of a trilogy, stands completely on its own. I got the entire story in one book, and yet, it managed to hook me enough to want the second book.
Let’s file this one under surprise favorites, but Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast had everything I like in a book: a strong voice (male, even, which I love even more), a rural setting (which when I read I knew exactly what town it was modeled after and, after handing this book off to a friend, ALSO knew exactly what town it was modeled after), a strong voice, enough romantic tension to make me care, believable family crumbling, a strong voice, and did I mention a strong voice? Felton is one of the strongest characters I’ve read this year, and I cannot wait to revisit him in the companion novel. I think when I was 15, Felton and I would have been really good friends.
When this book was handed to me back in January as a bound manuscript with little more than a bright yellow paper cover, I didn’t know what to expect. But I got a lot, and it’s still stuck with me, even almost a year later. Amy Kathleen Ryan’s Glow is a sci-fi novel, set aboard a spaceship of pioneers leaving Earth to settle a new world. It features not only the space adventure, but it features twists and turns left and right, along with loads of romantic tension (without overpowering the narrative) and it’s an extremely fascinating look at the intersections of faith, politics, and dialog. There’s so much going on politically here, but as soon as you feel you have an idea where Ryan will lay down her message, it’s switched up. Bonus: strong female character. Second bonus: as soon as I finished I wanted to discuss this one with someone because there’s so much to unpack. Third bonus: I’m very eager for the sequel. Negative: I think the paperback cover of this book is one of the biggest cover fails in a long time. Why, why, why?
I don’t usually reread books, but apparently my favorites list this year is chock-full of books I’ve reread, which I take to mean something in and of itself. Alas, Imaginary Girls was excellent the first time I read it, but even better the second time. This is a must-read for language and imagery lovers. It’s a must-read for those who like books that are haunting and eerie and don’t offer any answers but loads of questions. More importantly, it’s fun. I loved the entire experience reading it. I was immersed completely, and I wanted to get lost in this strange little world.
A few other books that really stuck out to me that were published in 2011 include:
Amy Reed’s Clean, which I have also now read twice. Great voices, character development, and great writing.
Kirsten Hubbard’s Like Mandarin, which explores female friendship and power within these relationships in a brutally realistic manner. Grace is among my all-time favorite characters, I think.
Joshua Cohen’s Leverage, which follows two boys as they’re put in a situation of life and death (literally). This is “Mean Girls” with testosterone, and it left me physically and emotionally exhausted the whole way through.
Marianne Baer’s Frost surprised me because it was the first psychological thriller in a long time to actually get me. I didn’t see the end coming, and it was just so perfect. The trick was on me, and I appreciated that because the writing, the story, and the characters were so well developed. I deserved being tricked!
Hannah Harrington’s Saving June is one I didn’t review here, but it stands out to me as I write this list because it tread so many well-worn tropes but still managed to be different. It’s a story of dealing with grief, it includes a road trip, and a lot of music. But I think what stood out to me was how good the romantic tension was, as well as how realistic it was. I liked this book this year, but I know had I had this when I was 16, it would have been my all-time favorite for sure.
Cat Clarke’s Entangled also deals with grief, but it handles it in an entirely unexpected, twisted, and brilliant way. I’m bummed it’s near impossible to get in the States, but it is worth tracking down via Book Depository. The dark and unflinching nature of this one worked for me.
Did I mention I read 250-some books this year? I have a few more new favorites that were new-to-me this year. They published before 2011, but I picked them up this year, and I’m so glad I did.
Katie Williams’s The Space Between Trees is a lush, lyrical mystery with some of the best writing I’ve read this year. The mystery itself is good, though not entirely unpredictable, but the way some of the secondary characters tie together in this one is smart. It’s a slower read but in a good way. The writing is worth it.
Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful had one of the best characters I’ve read this year, too. Riley is a hardass, tough-as-nails, never-going-to-change kind of girl but through the novel, we see that facade fall apart. She’s challenged on her ideas of faith and friendship and she comes out a way stronger person because of it. Maybe what I loved most about Riley is she’s not ashamed of who she is, strengths and weaknesses. She’s totally comfortable in her skin, too. I find that a way too rare quality in ya fiction (yet she still has an entire arc and change!).
Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup is one I read right at the beginning of the year and it still lingers in my mind. It’s an adult psychological thriller and it is dark, twisted, and sick. I loved every single minute of it. I picked up Murakami’s Piercing as soon as I finished this one and loved it, too, though Miso Soup is a little stronger. It’s not for the weak of stomach or those who don’t like violence, but for those who are okay with those in their fiction, this one gets it right.
Need a place to start? Here’s a list of some of my favorites that combine great writing with reader appeal. This list isn’t scientific and lots of things will be left off; this is meant to be a bit of a cheat sheet and a way to dive in quickly. As a preface, I should say I lean toward the edgier, heavier topics, but I’m going to make the effort to toss in some lighter contemporary, as well. I also make no promises on not spoiling the plot on some of these.
This isn’t the first book by Knowles I read, but it’s the one that impacted me the most. This is a story of a sick, twisted, unhealthy friendship and the consequences that arise from such a relationship. I didn’t like this book, and I hated both the main characters. But you know, that’s what made the book work and that’s part of why it’s so powerful. Lessons from a Dead Girl is less a story than it is a character study, so the plot isn’t necessarily over the top nor flashy. It doesn’t need to be because the key is the dynamic between these two girls that causes one to end up dead.
High Dive by Tammar Stein
This seems to be one of those books that’s always on the shelf and always overlooked. Arden, the main character, is heading to Sardinia to see her family’s vacation home for the last time. After her father’s sudden death and her mother’s deployment to Iraq, they’re selling the home. But rather than wallow in the pity she has for her situation, Arden takes a chance to explore Europe with a group of girls who are otherwise strangers to her before saying goodbye. Arden is a fantastically developed character, and the choices she makes in this journey really highlight this weird place she’s in, where she must say goodbye to her past and embrace the fact that her future will never be the same. Add to that the backdrop of her mother being in Iraq, and you have a powerful read.
I’ve reviewed this title in depth, so I won’t talk too much about the plot. I’ve read a couple of Reinhardt’s books, and this was the one that really knocked me out, really impacted me in a way I wasn’t expecting, and I think it’s one of those supremely underrated books. This is a story of brothers, of family, and of the power war has to change everything that once was. I’ve talked this title at the high school, and it’s gone out. It’s one you have to sell to your readers, since it’s a quiet looking book. And as much as it feels like it could be depressing — and trust me, there are depressing parts — it’s ultimately got a touch of the positive to it, too. A tear jerker on both ends of the spectrum.
Out of the Pocket by Bill Konigsberg
This might be one of the most underrated books that I’ve read (and loved). What happens when the guy who is a killer football player and well respected for his game skills happens to be gay? How does he cope with this internally and externally? Konigsberg builds an incredibly well-fleshed main character, and the backdrop of football and jock culture is well tackled. Bobby has a supportive and strong family, and really, this is one of those books that’s really good because there aren’t any big issues in the book. Bobby doesn’t have to dodge drugs or sex or an abusive household. Instead, he needs to confront his true feelings and do so in a way that respects his teammates, his family, and his future as a football player and public figure.
I’ve expressed my love for this series before. Murdock’s crafted a dynamic character in DJ, a farm girl in Wisconsin who has strong (though challenged) family pull, an interest in sports, and one hell of a head on her shoulders. This clean read is sweet but touches on heavy issues without coming across heavy handed or uncharacteristic. There’s romance, a host of life choices DJ must confront, and a family that’s about as real as they come. I think of any book I’ve read, this one’s setting is truly a part of the story, and Murdock gets it right. DJ’s voice is spot on, and the final book in this series was another teary read for me.
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
I could have picked either of her other two books, which were on my list of favorite reads of 2010, but it’s her debut novel that should make the list of “must read” contemporary ya (as determined by yours truly). I was lucky enough to be a part of the judging committee that awarded this book the 2009 Cybils award, otherwise I may have never picked up this story about a girl who removes herself from everything she once loved. Parker’s dropped out of cheerleading, her grades are slipping, and her parents are convinced she’s going to kill herself. While reading this, I hated Parker, yet I couldn’t stop myself from reading the book and finding out why it was I hated her or whether or not I really did hate her. It’s an addicting read, and one that we know, since it’s a story we know. We know people who fall through the cracks like this, who have something that’s deeply bothering them but which they pack away and don’t release. This is an unexpected and satisfying read, and a book that begs me to revisit, to see if I still feel the way I did about Parker when I first read it.
Split by Swati Avasthi
Speaking of both Cybils and debut novels, this is another deeply affecting novel. It’s a story of abuse and survival, one that will haunt you while you’re reading and haunt long after. The writing is strong, and the voice is spot-on male. I think in my initial review, I was a little short-sighted in calling it an “issues” novel, given that this is a story that’s beyond single issue. Despite Cybils accolades, I still think this book is highly underrated and underread, despite the fact it has wide appeal for teen (and adult) readers. I’ve talked this one at the high school, and I’ve had no problem seeing it circulate. My book club kids have identified it as one they’d love to read and talk about, as well, and I think it’s actually quite a strong novel to use in a book discussion.
I Know It’s Over by C. K. Kelly Martin
When Nick’s prepared himself to dump his girlfriend Sasha, he realizes it won’t be as painless as he hoped when he learns Sasha’s pregnant. Nick’s an incredibly fleshed character, dynamic and emotional without treading away from feeling like a realistic male character, as could easily happen with a story like this. I bought every one of his emotions, felt all of the pain he felt, and believed in what he was doing. Martin’s book treads into territory that’s apparently taboo and not talked about, which is abortion.
Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick
Another book I’ve raved about before. But here’s something I haven’t told you before: it took me two times to get through this book. But that second time was absolutely worth it. I was reluctant. I didn’t want to buy it. But I was wrong.
I’ve used this book in my book club, and I have rabid fans of it. Amber Appleton is the epitome of a fantastic, optimistic, kick ass character, and she is one despite all of the horrible things stacked against her. This is a quieter book, but one that deserves a huge response. And a tissue or two.
I could double the size of this list, maybe even triple or quadruple it. But I’m leaving it at nine titles, four featuring male voices and five featuring female voices. Most have been published in the last year, but there are a handful of older titles. It can be overwhelming to dive into a new genre or reading area when there’s so much to choose from, but starting small and then moving forward is the only way to do it. I’ve tried to offer a wide swath of style and topic and offer exposure to some of the names popping up in the contemporary ya world that are worthy of following.
If you’ve read any of these, weigh in! And if you know of other must-read recent titles that should be on everyone’s radar or in their back pocket for recommendation, leave a comment.