January 18, 2014

Best Books of 2013

Before we get any further away from 2013, I've got to recap my favorite reads of the year. The general theme within my favorites can probably be summed up as: dark, lyrical, and full of everyday magic.

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
YA Dark Speculative Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: Gansey has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on the hunt to find Glendower, a vanished Welsh king. Legend has it that the first person to find him will be granted a wish—either by seeing him open his eyes, or by cutting out his heart. Blue Sargent, the daughter of the town psychic in Henrietta, Virginia, has been told for as long as she can remember that if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. But she is too practical to believe in things like true love. Her policy is to stay away from the rich boys at the prestigious Aglionby Academy. The boys there—known as Raven Boys—can only mean trouble. When Gansey and his Raven Boy friends come into her life, Blue realizes how true this is. She never thought her fortune would be a problem. But she was wrong.

This book, Part 2 in the four-part Raven Cycle, offers some of Maggie's strangest, most complex, and most accomplished storytelling yet. It strikes a perfect balance between all of my favorite things: a subtle, mostly unspoken, angst-ridden romance; complex characters that are both horrible and wonderful; a strong mystery and a world full of speculative elements built up in a way that makes it all feel very REAL. I enjoyed a whole host of things about this book, but here are some of the highlights:
  1. It is incredibly atmospheric. You fall into her descriptions of teenage male bonds and of rich kid high school parties, and they all feel richly drawn and very true. She didn't shy away from painting her world in honest details: her characters swear. A lot, but not gratuitously. She talks about drugs, but they aren't some racy prop meant to prop up the drama. She makes a conscious choice not to shy away from the rougher edges of teenage (particularly wealthy teenage) life and problems, and her book is all the better for it. 
  2. It involves the ability to take things out of dreams. There is a character who can take things out of his dreams. While this could easily become overdone, this author's deft touch makes it dark and tangible and pleasantly haunting. I've wanted for years to describe what it feels like to wake up from a dream and feel like it's followed you into waking--Maggie does it in ways I could never have imagined. 
  3. This book is beautifully written. It is what I would like my writing to be when it grows up.
Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff
YA Dark Speculative Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: A girl haunted by the troubled ghost of her best friend finds herself sucked into a darkly mesmerizing string of murders, in which a serial killer who leaves a paper-heart 'valentine' on his victims' bodies draws ever closer.

This book shares some of the same qualities as Maggie's Dream Thieves--it is dark, atmospheric, deals with taut issues of friendship and love, and delves into a well-drawn (but by no means overdone) love story. I love the way Brenna does the Seemingly Broken, Bad Boy with a Good Heart. As a love interest, Finny is endlessly fascinating. Brenna has a mastery of spare detail that makes his interactions with the main character feel both very true, and very real. Her characters are always complex, and not always lovable, but she finds ways of making you love them, even when they're a total mess. It's the murder mystery and the way she deals with ghosts that really intrigued me. I was drawn into this book from the very first page.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Adult Speculative Historical Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: The circus arrives at night, without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic. Welcome to Le Cirque des RĂªves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway - a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in "a game," in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

I can't quite describe how deeply and immediately I loved this strange and beautiful book. She creates an incredibly unique and richly-drawn world in The Night Circus: I can't imagine anyone reading this book and not yearning to be amongst the crowd experiencing all the wonders it holds. The book features many characters and side stories, but they all end up being woven together beautifully, in ways that make you feel as if you're reading the work of someone who TRULY knows what they are doing. I particularly liked the slow burn of the love story between two young magicians brought up to be rivals, but who fall in love through the magic they create: whose tricks meant to thwart the competition actually turn into a kind of magical love letter, written in a language only they can truly understand. This book feels like the product of Pride and Prejudice marrying Lev Grossman's The Magician, and then holding hands with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This book created the kind of awe and absorption that reminded me why I love to read.

All That Glows by Ryan Graudin
YA Speculative, History-tinged Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: Intense and electric, this is the ultimate tale of forbidden love. Emrys, a spirited and charismatic Faery Guard of the British monarchy, is sent to London to guard Richard, the bad-boy prince of England, from assassins and paparazzi. Despite her status as a guard of the royals, Emrys struggles with her feelings as she tries to not fall in love with the charming prince. But when an ancient Fae murders the king, Richard’s father, and starts attacking the other royals, Emrys must risk everything to hunt through London’s magical dark side in order to protect her charge—and the boy she loves.

While this book by my fabulous critique partner Ryan Graudin doesn't officially come out until Feb. 11, I'm excited to call it one of my favorite books of this year! All That Glows is a YA Historical Fantasy that tells the story of a modern-day prince guarded by the young fairy who has to protect him from all of the forces that threaten his life, and the powerful pull that threatens her heart. I've read this story several times over the course of its budding life and have remained sucked in by how atmospheric her descriptions of both London and the fairy world. She makes you feel like you're there, walking the darkened streets of London. Even in scenes of violence and darkness, she makes you want to step into the pages and be there with her characters. She deftly weaves bits of Arthurian legend into the trials of a modern-day prince, giving readers a window into what it might be like to be a royal, and crafting a beautifully-drawn fairy world that exists parallel to it. The strength and beauty of Ryan's writing definitely make her a writer to watch!

The Great Gatsby
Literary Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: The exemplary novel of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald's third book, The Great Gatsby (1925), stands as the supreme achievement of his career. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties in West Egg, Long Island, at a time when The New York Times remarked, "gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession," it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s that resonates with the power of myth. A novel of lyrical beauty yet brutal realism, of magic, romance and mysticism, The Great Gatsby is one of the great classics of twentieth-century literature.

While this isn't the first time I read Gatsby, it was the first time I had the privilege to teach it. From the day I first introduced them to the America of the 1920s to the day we held a dramatic reading of the 'hotel scene' in our classroom, I got to watch my students collectively fall in love with Fitzgerald's novel in a way I've never seen students do before. It reminded me what I've always loved about this beautiful novel: the powerful, stunning sweep of the language, the magnetic pull of its opulent, devastating world, and the subtle exploration of what it means to try to something lost and to define your life by your love for someone else. This is the ultimate exploration of the American Dream and whether it exists in life, or only in our country's imagination. If I had to read one book every year for the rest of my life, I think this would probably be it.