January 24, 2015

Best Books of 2014

Resolutions for 2015: blog more! I've missed it. I'm Tumbling now, too. You can find me here.

Before we tick over into February 2015, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to reflect on my Best Books of 2014.

Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: Young Adult

Here is the Shelfari synopsis (although if you haven't read any of the other books in the Shiver trilogy, it might not mean much): Sinner follows Cole St. Clair, a pivotal character from the #1 New York Times bestselling Shiver Trilogy. Everybody thinks they know Cole’s story. Stardom. Addiction. Downfall. Disappearance. But only a few people know Cole’s darkest secret – his ability to shift into a wolf. One of these people is Isabel. At one point, they may have even loved each other. But that feels like a lifetime ago. Now Cole is back. Back in the spotlight. Back in the danger zone. Back in Isabel’s life. Can this sinner be saved?

There are those actors that we love because they are great at playing a certain type - a certain flavor that pervades every project they do. No matter which of their movies we watch, we know their are certain things we can expect and be entertained by. And then there are those actors who are chameleons, completely rearranging themselves with every new movie they take on. And then there are those actors we love because they've figured out how to do both of those things at once.

That is one of the reasons why I loved Maggie Stiefvater's "Sinner." It feels very much like her style, filled with witty jokes and troubled geniuses, but it's also riddled with sparkles and angst in the best kind of way. This is a story about damaged people trying to find out if they can help each other to be less damaged, but they do "damaged" in a way that is incredibly fun to take part in. As usual, Maggie makes her setting of Los Angeles feel like a living, breathing thing, and makes her characters vivid and complicated and wonderfully unique. Her writing, as per usual, is astounding. Also, it made me cry at two in the morning. It doesn't get much better than that.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: Young Adult

Here is the Shelfari synopsis: The third installment in the mesmerizing series from the irrepressible, #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Maggie Stiefvater. Blue Sargent has found things. For the first time in her life, she has friends she can trust, a group to which she can belong. The Raven Boys have taken her in as one of their own. Their problems have become hers, and her problems have become theirs. The trick with found things, though, is how easily they can be lost.

Happy is the heart that gets to read TWO Stiefvater novels in one year! This dark, folkloric, mysterious series she's created could not be more different than Sinner. It is also maybe my favorite YA series I've ever read. The characters here are magnificent. It's not often in my adult life that I love characters so much, and feel I know them so well, that I get actively upset or excited about what happens to them. But she's created this vast cast of characters that leaps off the page, and I loved following them through this slow-burning third novel. I love that she has two male characters having a maybe-love story, but it's all simmering just under the surface. I love that she makes the impossible feel real. I love that she reinvents what ghosts are supposed to be like. I push this series on people more than anything else I've read these past few years. So if you haven't read it, YOU SHOULD DO SO RIGHT NOW. You're welcome.

This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Genre: Nonfiction Collection 

This book is a collection of Ann Patchett's nonfiction essays, collected and revised from the many publications she's written for over the span of her career. The collection includes memoir, travel writing, a speech to a freshman college class, and span a host of topics, all of which delve into her personal life.

As I've gotten older, I have become more and more open - or perhaps just more and more aware - of how much good writing and fascinating stories live in the Nonfiction section. I've come to love reading true stories told well, but almost never do I find myself enthralled by a whole book full of them. That's what this collection did: it enthralled me, not just with its ability to draw me into someone else's life, but by the way Patchett deftly knew what small details were worth including and which ones needed to be left out. As a writer, every turn of the page brings some new amazement: she really nails the framing of each story, creating a world that you can, and want, to insert yourself into.
One of my favorites is an essay about an RV trip with the man that would eventually be her husband, a trip that was both about exploring RV culture and whether or not her relationship with said man was going to work out. Most of the essay is really just about the experience of RV parks, of living in a small space, of nights spent with the window open, thinking about the twists and turns of life...nothing dramatic really happens. And yet, she manages to make it both an incredibly beautiful reflection on life on the move AND a reflection on relationships.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Genre: Children's Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: This is an extraordinarily moving novel about coming to terms with loss. The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do. But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting. He's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming...The monster in his back garden, though, this monster is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth. Costa Award winner Patrick Ness spins a tale from the final idea of much-loved Carnegie Medal winner Siobhan Dowd, whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself. Darkly mischievous and painfully funny, "A Monster Calls" is an extraordinarily moving novel of coming to terms with loss from two of our finest writers for young adults. This book is jacketed.

Although I'm a fairly sensitive soul, I don't often find myself moved to tears while reading. I can count the number of books that have extracted tears from me on one hand. Well, I COULD count them using one hand, until I read this book. This is a book about a boy in the process of loving his mother: of having to come to terms with losing her, and then having to find the strength to let her go. But that wasn't what made me cry. What made me cry was the way Patrick Ness weaves the story with brutal honesty, but also with a searing compassion that makes it funny as well as sad. It made me cry the kind of tears that are weighted down with the knowledge of recognition: of knowing that this story you're sad about isn't yours, but it holds so much that has or could be yours. I was pulled in completely, and was shown something that my mind and heart continues to return to. It is the best kind of fairy tale: dark, twisted, and beautiful. The language here is lyrical and rhythmic. It manages to be both haunting and occasionally funny. It begs to be read out loud. Also, there are the illustrations. The idea of a book accompanied by pictures brings to mind the kind of children's book that adults aren't meant to read. But it certainly doesn't FEEL like a children's book when you flip through these particular illustrations. It feels more like a work of art. 

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls 
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis from Shelfari: After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty, and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm—a world now partially shattered. As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country. Weaving provocatively between home and school, the narrative powerfully unfurls the true story behind Thea’s expulsion from her family, but it isn’t long before the mystery of her past is rivaled by the question of how it will shape her future. Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner—a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression—.

Every Christmas, my Dad gives me a pile of books. This was the first one that I grabbed off the pile in 2014, and it ended up being one of my favorites. It's atmospheric as hell. I felt myself being sucked in from the very first page by the two rich worlds the author created: the tangled Florida orange groves and stately house Thea grew up in, and the pine-wooded, mountainous North Carolina girls' camp she finds herself outcast to. Both settings were ones I found myself happy to get lost in for hours at a time, sucked in by the fascinating details and the deft way she made each place an important character in Thea's story. The story revolves around a mystery that takes its time revealing itself. We are given to understand, early on, that Thea gets sent away to camp because she's done something bad, very bad (which, for a girl in the 1920s, can safely be assumed to have to do with sexual misconduct). Instead of finding out about it all at once, the story takes us back and forth between her childhood memories and her present time at the camp, weaving the two together so that they blur beautifully, but never totally merge. I loved the finely-woven relationships: between twins, between girlfriends, between parent and child, between young girl and inappropriate lover. I loved the way this author told us volumes about these relationships without stating it explicitly, through hand gestures and things done unsaid.

The Walled City by Ryan Graudin
Genre: Young Adult (Thriller)

Synopsis from Shelfari: There are three rules in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife. Right now, my life depends completely on the first. Run, run, run. Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there traffic drugs or work in brothels--or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself.

I'm going to shamelessly love on my critique partner Ryan here--which I don't feel bad doing, both because she's fabulous and because this book is, too. The Walled City is a beautiful read: breathlessly fast paced, but also rich with setting detail. I don't quite know how she made such a filthy, scary place enjoyable to spend hours in, but she did. Her three main characters, all of whom have their own point of view in the story, weave together beautifully to create a tapestry of what it might be like to live in such an unforgiving place. It's intense, but also thoughtful. It's a story of hardship, but also a story of hope. I dare you to put it down once you've gotten to the end of page one!

The Secret Place by Tana French
Genre: Mystery

The sensational new novel from “one of the most talented crime writers alive” ( The Washington Post ) The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says: "I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM." Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. “The Secret Place,” a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

I actually listened to this book in the car, and loved it so much that I then went out and bought the book so I could pick it to pieces for inspiration. This mystery about an Irish boarding school is magnificently well told. It's scary how well she captures the teenage voice--there are those that thing she made her teen characters too mean and image-focused, but I disagree. I think she captured nicely the intense cliquey-ness, the desperate need to belong and to be seen, that is the cornerstone of high school experience. She bounces seamlessly between the detectives, who both have something to prove on this case, and flashbacks from the girls' perspectives, revealing information just when you need it. Her writing, as always, is just beautiful to read, and her mystery was insanely well done: I had no idea who did it until the very end. If you're a mystery lover, this is a must-read.