Top 10 YA Reads of 2017

Another year has gone by, dear readers. It hardly seems possible. Where did the time go? I think this means I’m getting old. BUT, that’s neither here nor there…

Inevitably, at the end of the year, this reader/writer looks back at what she wasted spent her time on the last twelve months. In retrospect, I feel pretty good about my year, all-in-all. I got a lot done, much of it fun. Here are some of the things I’m going to count as wins:

  • I spent an entire year in my position at the Library, and saw some awesome things happen there. Our team gained several new staff members, all with unique strengths and talents, and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with them on a daily basis. We implemented a lot of new programs, and introduced some non-traditional materials, and our patrons ❤ ed them. So that’s pretty cool.
  • I prevailed in the Great Reading Contest of 2017. I have to give props to my little sis, though, because she found/recommended some great books to me that I may not have otherwise come across. And I have a feeling that the GREAT READING CONTEST OF 2018 isn’t going to be so easy a win, because now she has her Competition Pants on.
  • I spent an entire year writing regularly, like, with goals and accountability partners and stuff. That was WAY new for me. I also tried not being a pantster, and did a little plotting. Because of this, I
  • Wrote a book. From scratch, start to finish. And it wasn’t even that hard. (Not to belittle the time and work authors put into their books – I mean, it’s really hard work. It was just not nearly as hard when I did the groundwork ahead of time.) It’s got me thinking that maybe the “planning” thing isn’t such a bad idea.

In addition to looking back over some goals met, I am also obliged to include the inevitable “Best of” year-end list. As most of you know, I read across a lot of genres, but particularly like to read YA. So this list in particular highlights my Top 10 YA Reads of 2017. Picking only ten books was SO hard. If I had no life, and no other responsibilities, I could have done a Top 30 list. But, alas, I am a grown-up, so you only get ten.

I don’t have any “official” criteria by which I judge books. But they have to hold my attention, and I have to care about the characters. I don’t like books with sucky characters. That’s just straight-up honesty.I don’t have any patience for whiny, helpless characters (most of the time female, which I also take exception to. Like, why can’t more people write strong, capable, ladies who can wear lipstick while twirling nun chucks?). I end up wanting them to die, and I’m fairly certain that’s not the intent of the author. So to make the list, the book had to have good characters.

I am one of those crazies who likes a complex plot. Linear simplistic plots are complete snoozefests, and tell me one of two things: 1) the author lacks imagination enough to carry off an interesting subplot, or 2) the author thinks his reader isn’t intelligent enough to follow multiple lines. Either way, simple = boring. Give me a broken/multiple timeline story with different narrators and POVs any day over something linear and sensible. So to make the list, the book had to have a complex plot.

Interesting settings are the cherry on top of sprinkle-laden whipped cream covering the hot fudge book sundae. An imaginary setting isn’t necessary, but I want to see something that makes the setting different. A book can take place in a completely conventional location – say, New York City – but be presented in a completely unique way, and that engages my own imagination. So to make the list, the book had to have an interesting setting (though this wasn’t a deal-breaker).

Without further ado, here they are, in numbered, but no particular order:

10 The Reader1. The Reader by Traci Chee – I put off reading this book for the longest time. Heaven only knows why. It was clever and beautiful, and about a Book that holds All The Power. And it has pirates. Lots of pirates. There’s mystery and murder and magic, and really, what more can you want? You can read my full review here.

10 The Girl at Midnight2. The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Gray – This book (well, this trilogy, really) was the sleeper of the year for me. I picked it up on a whim because, well, dragons, and read the whole trilogy in three days. The heroine is sassy and stabby and isn’t afraid to say exactly what she’s thinking. And did I mention there are dragons?

10 Caraval 3.Caraval by Stephanie Garber – Can we all just take a minute to appreciate a book about a magical, slightly murdery island that is a little reminiscent of a nightmarish Wonderland?

10 The Casquette Girls 4.The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden – I have so much love for this book (and its sequel, The Romeo Catchers). Vampires (but not sparkly ones, thank the godstars), ghosts, voodoo, and witchery set in New Orleans? With a double helping of red beans and rice, thank you very much. You can read my entire review of this book here.

10 Six of Crows 5.Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – Riff-raff, street rat, I will buy that. Throw in some revenge, criminal masterminding, an enigmatic gang leader, and the most ballsy heist since Oceans 11, and you’ve got a great story.

10 Strange the Dreamer 6.Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor – Beautiful, beautiful blue monsters. And “Strange” isn’t an adjective. That is all.

10 A Study in Charlotte 7.A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro – A (in my opinion) brilliant new take on the Holmes/Watson dynamic, where Holmes is appropriately infuriating yet awesome, and Watson actually has some agency.

blog nevernight 8.Nevernight by Jay Kristoff – Murder wrapped in death wrapped in killing dipped in blood, with a smart- mouthed, cigarillo-smoking female antihero protagonist who has a license to kill. Jay Kristoff is basically a god. (Note: this is arguably not a YA title…)

10 The Dark Days Club 9.The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman – Proof that women can do anything – even hunt demons in a corset. Oh, and resist the patriarchy.

10 Lord of Shadows 10.Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare – Flawed characters with good intentions who keep secrets from one another in an effort to protect each other, but end up putting each other in more danger because of their stubbornness. Sassy, stabby Emma and scheming Julian. You can read my full review of this book here.

In reality, there were so many good books I read this year. Kudos to all of you authors out there who keep giving us amazing stories to read. I can’t wait to dive into 2018.

My next reads are:

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

The Speaker by Traci Chee

A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab

How’s that for an awesome lineup?!

Au revoir.

“This is a Book”

I’ve had this book sitting on the top of my TBR pile for months now, and I finally got to it. I’m so glad I did, because I loved it, and now I’m a little annoyed that I waited so long to read it. I will not make the same mistake with The Speaker.

I really liked the concept of this book. It takes the idea that books include *all the knowledge* and sprints away with it. But in this society, land, world people don’t know how to read, or even what writing is. It is not something that is taught, not something that is desired. Except by a very few. And these few control the fate of the realms.

In some ways the story is cliche – young girl loses parents and all she holds dear, and is forced to venture out into the big, wide, scary world alone, and learns she has a rare and secret superpower, which, of course, others want to take advantage of. But that’s where the “been there, done that” stops. Nin is not helpless, and she is not foolish; she is no damsel in distress. In fact, she becomes the hunter, the rescuer, and attempts to take her fate and her future into her own hands.

Along the way, she befriends a ship full of pirates (because what girl doesn’t need a handsome captain and scallywag crew on her side?) and rescues a boy whose greatest talent is murder (who happens to be a mute, by the by). So, really, nothing typical here.

This book had a couple of things I really liked:

  • This book is not for the faint of heart. It has multiple storylines, and multiple timelines, which I ❤ ❤ ❤ . The threads weave in and out of one another, sometimes knotting together, sometimes barely touching, but the end result is a beautiful, intricately crafted tapestry. I so appreciate authors who assume their readers are intelligent, and Traci Chee does not make things easy for her readers. She expects them to follow and keep up, and she tells the story unapologetically.
  • Many books which feature a disabled or special needs character (no matter what it is that makes them so), whether intentionally or not, portray that character as somewhat less than. When I understood that Archer couldn’t speak, I was nervous that he would be shown as more of a victim than anything, someone to be pitied. This was not the case. At all. Though it took him a little time to get his bearings, and to settle in with Nin, he was never a victim. It was almost as if he was just waiting for me, the reader, to understand him, before he revealed himself. (And perhaps this was Chee’s intention – for her readers to experience what Nin experienced with Archer.) Archer is strong, he is smart, he is kind, which makes his ability to kill someone with a flick of his wrist even more important.

I like it when books surprise me in a good way, and this one certainly did. There is mystery, there is love, there is danger, there is adventure, there is heartache – all ingredients for a great story.

Peace out, my friends.

 

Crooked and Saintly

One of the reasons I enjoy YA literature is because YA authors are willing to write about absolutely anything and everything.  They are not self-conscious, they are not pretentious, they are not shy.  What they are is brave.  And inventive. And original. I mean, cyborg Cinderella? Check. Time-traveling pirates? Ahoy. Gender-bent Dracula origin story?  Savage.  It’s my firm belief that YA authors take full advantage of the fact that there are a lot of people out there who want to read stories that speak to their imagination – that make them feel wonder and confusion and atmosphere.

I recently sat down with the most recent release of an author I feel is one of the most unique currently writing in the genre.  That is to say her books are straight up cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.  They’re disorienting and magical and confusing, and represent all the best things about YA literature.  And when I finished reading All the Crooked Saints the only thing I could think was: what must it be like to live in Maggie Stiefvater’s head?

The book is about – (waves hand vaguely in the air) – darkness and monsters and love and slightly creepy, miracle-hungry owls. It’s hard to pin down, really.  The narrative is written in omniscient POV, which isn’t done a lot, and it took a little getting used to.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times in the first fifty pages I just looked at this book and said, “It’s so WEIRD.” But a good weird, not a bad weird. And it took me a while to catch on to all the intricacies of the miracles and the anti-miracles (as I came to think of them), but once I did, I steamrolled ahead.

In all honesty, what kept me reading was the characters. The Soria family is wholly unique and individual, and unlike anything I’ve ever come across. In a way, they’re unrelatable because of their remarkable gift; on the other hand, it made me care about them all the more.  They represent the best and worst aspects of humanity, in that they have the ability to work amazing miracles, but those miracles also call forth unimaginable darkness. And it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of adults in this book – all of whose stories play an important role in the events of the book. That is something very different for a YA read. I liked it, and think it added richness to the overall tapestry of the narrative.

The story of the Sorias of Bicho Raro, Colorado, teaches lessons about people and humanity, and the miracles coupled with the inescapable darkness speak of deeper truths. But there is a shiny, glittery spark of hope here, too. Stiefvater does not crush all dreams (though she is completely capable of doing so). Individuals at the mercy of their darkness can choose to face that darkness, accept the truth of the part of their soul it represents, and banish it. In essence, if they are true to themselves, they are freed. What greater lesson can there be?

If you’re a Stiefvater fan, this one is a little different, even for her.  Ye be warned.  I even recall one particular tweet in which the author herself referred to this as “my weird little book”. Enough said.

 

 

 

When Fiction Becomes Reality

If you’re a loyal (or even an occasional) reader, you know that I ❤ New Orleans with a capital ❤ . I love the history, the food, the people, the music… There is always something going on in NOLA, and if you’re there and are bored, it’s your own fault. My darling husband and I just returned from NOLA, where we spent several days doing some touristy stuff (no matter how many times you visit, the nighttime ghost tours of the French Quarter are always a must), and a lot of wandering around on our own.

There’s no real way to adequately describe the personality of a city like New Orleans. It’s schizophrenic in the best possible way.  Every street has its own style, its own flair, its own history, and its own look. This is why you can walk a mere block or two and have it seem like you’ve stepped into another world.  The Vieux Carre is as different from the Garden District as the sun is from the moon.

Though there are other places I have visited that I enjoyed, none of them have captured my soul quite like NOLA has.  Because I thrive on stories – I read them, I write them, I tell them.  And NOLA has endless stories.  Some are horrid and bloody (Madame Delphine LaLaurie, I’m lookin’ at you right now), some are outlandish and nigh unbelievable (the ghost of a pirate guarding Jean Laffite’s treasure haunts Laffite’s Blacksmith Shop, a local bar), and some are downright sad (a boarding school burned, killing several children who couldn’t escape). But ALL of them, no matter the subject, are interesting.

I stumbled across Alys Arden’s book The Casquette Girls purely by accident – one of those “if you liked this, then try that” types of things. I read the blurb, and saw that it was set in New Orleans (relatively) present-day, and that it somehow involved vampires.  This presented a conundrum. With the exception of one or two specific titles, I am not a fan of vampire books. At all. However, I am a fan of New Orleans. So the fact that this book was set in the Big Easy drew it out of the “nope” category into the “I’ll give it a try” category. I’m so glad I did, because, Reader, I am in total love with this book. Arden takes several prominent (and some obscure) urban legends from New Orleans history and, along with some contemporary events, weaves them into a beautiful tale of mystery, magic, and adventure.

First of all, the setting is perfectly presented. It conveys the colorful personality of New Orleans – in all its aspects – very well. It embraces the diversity, the culture, the humanity of the city and its residents unapologetically – even proudly. Additionally, it is set in the days following “the Storm”, which is obviously Hurricane Katrina, but is never specifically named as such. So readers get to experience the devastation, the loss, the frustration of the situation right along with the characters.

And let’s talk about those characters for a minute… The story revolves around Adele – born and raised New Orleansian, half-American/half-French, and telekinetic; Desiree – New Orleans native, mayor’s daughter, and hereditary voodoo witch; and Isaac – high school dropout, relief worker, and animagus. I liked how each of the characters is in a different stage of their supernatural journey: Adele learns of her abilities at the beginning of the book, Isaac knows what he is but is still coming to terms with it, and Desiree has known of her gifts from birth and has been practicing magic her whole life. The characters are dynamic, individual, and interesting all, in their own rights.

The plot of this book kept me rapt, and I literally lost sleep over it (because I stayed up late reading). It expertly intertwines a past storyline with a present storyline and make me care equally about both. The past bleeds forward into the present, and decisions made by characters in the past affect the fate of characters in the future. I liked the limited POV, and that I learned things as the characters learned them; I felt a sense of profound pleasure when I started putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

I must confess, though, that I did NOT see the plot twist coming, so that was a nice surprise.

I also liked that though this book had vampires, it wasn’t wholly about vampires. Yes, they played a role and essentially acted as a catalyst for the events, but they weren’t the main focus of the story. Which was totally fine by me.

On a sidenote: I read this book before my husband and I went on our latest trip to NOLA, and it was a blast to be able to try to find all the different places highlighted in the book on the actual streets of the French Quarter.  Alys Arden grew up in NOLA, and as an expert on the area, adds in places that only locals (or someone who is a frequent visitor) know about.  I took pictures of some of them.

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Bottom of the Cup Tea Room
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St. Germain House
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Old Ursuline Convent

Overall, I found this book to be fun and thoughtful and clever, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Romeo Catchers.

A Bittersweet Farewell

As a self-proclaimed loner/introvert, I am one of those people who spends a lot of time alone.  This has always been the way of things, and it means that I’ve always enjoyed solitary activities – reading, writing, wandering.  I am also one of those completely insane people who love school, and actively look for new things to learn.  I am a #historybuff, and have always had a fascination with all things ancient in general, and Egyptian in particular. Independently of any assignments or school requirements, I learned about the history of Egypt, its deities, and its mythology.  Yes, nerd.

Eye_of_Horus

Years (and years and years ago), one of my reading buddies (one of the rare friends I’ve known since childhood, and retained into adulthood) introduced me to the Amelia Peabody mysteries, penned by Elizabeth Peters (a nom de plume for Barbara Mertz).  I was in my late teens, and immediately fell in love with the clever, feisty Englishwoman and her larger-than-life husband, Emerson.  Their adventures were ones I reveled in – chasing criminals across the desert and through famous ruins, discovering lost treasures, championing equality for all – and I looked forward to each new installment of the series with excitement.

peabody

One of the things I really liked about the series was the characters.  I appreciated how independent and forward-thinking Amelia Peabody was, and how she acted as if equality for all people – regardless of sex, race, or upbringing – was a given, rather than a right.  She was confident, she was brave, and she did not let others push her around.  And above all, she was clever, and used her intelligence to her advantage to get her out of all sorts of trouble.  Emerson, likewise, was written as an evolved character.  In a time period where men were intimidated by women who exhibited intelligence, courage, and autonomy, Emerson reveled in the fact that his lady love possessed all these qualities – and more.  He did not try to stifle her, he did not try to protect her; rather, he looked to her as an equal.  Additionally, he is awesome even on his own.  He’s brilliant, brave, determined, and just the kind of man others respect respect because he deserves it, not because he demands it.  Peabody and Emerson (and their son Ramses – but that’s another post), are among – and even at the top of my list – my all-time favorite literary characters.

peabody Emerson

Alas, the era of Victorian gentlewoman Amelia Peabody Emerson is, indeed, over. Back in 2013, when I heard Barbara Mertz had passed away, I was profoundly saddened.  There would be no more Peabody/Emerson adventures, and I would miss them deeply.  So, in 2016, I was ecstatic to hear that Joan Hess would be producing one final volume, called The Painted Queen, based on Barbara Mertz’ planned plot and notes – a mystery surrounding the 1912 discovery of the famed bust of Nefertiti. And even though I knew it couldn’t be *exactly* the same as a Peters novel, at least it would have my beloved characters.

It goes against everything inside of me to give a negative review of this book. And to tell the truth, I didn’t dislike it. If it were a standalone title, and I didn’t have the rest of the Peabody canon to consider, I would think it a wonderfully fun adventure full of colorful characters. But it’s not a standalone. And though I think Hess did an admirable job of taking up Mertz’ mantle, something that had to have been infinitely difficult, I do think she fell a bit short of the mark.

Aside from the obvious continuity errors (of which there are many), something just seems a little off about the novel. It’s not the story – that was well done. The mystery is mysterious, the danger is dangerous, and the villain is villainous. Rather, it’s the characters themselves that I find problematic. Having read nineteen other entries in this series – all multiple times – I have gotten to know these characters quite well. And I find that, as written in The Painted Queen, they are all slightly off-center. Let’s look at them:
Amelia Peabody has always had an appreciation for whiskey and soda, and for adhering to mealtimes in an effort to retain a modicum of “civilization” in an “uncivilized” environment, but in this book, she is overly preoccupied with alcohol and with all the food. I mean, squirreling sandwiches away in her pockets and mentioning food every other page? If she had eaten so much through the entire series, she would have had to have a new working outfit made every season, and have her belt of tools resized to accommodate her expanding girth. This is not the same character I included in my Top 10 Coolest Book Characters post here.
Emerson has always been one of my favorite characters. In fact, I included him in one of my blog posts about my Top 10 Sigh-Worthy Heroes here, at my old blog home. I have a special appreciation for Emerson, because he very much reminds me of my own husband – large and imposing and blustery with a vocabulary quick to include expletives, but with a heart of gold. And I found the Emerson in this book to be a diminished caricature of Mertz’ Emerson. His suddenly-developed penchant for publicly professing his undying love and inability to live without Peabody was laughable. Everything he did was exaggerated, almost to the point of buffoonery, and it was a sad treatment of this most illustrious character.
Ramses I found to be the closest representation of the original. He is still imperious and arrogant, and his mind is still brilliant, if a little devious.
Nefret is a little trickier to discuss, because her changedness could be attributed to her harrowing (though self-afflicted) experiences reported in The Falcon at the Portal. She is demure, constantly apologizing, and annoyingly ladylike. This is not the Nefret I know and love. Yes, she made mistakes; no, she doesn’t need to change her entire personality to make up for them.
And, last but not least, there’s David, who seems to be around just for comic relief, and to make Ramses look smarter (as if that’s necessary). This annoyed me. I always admired the character of David, and considered him an integral part of the Peabody-Emerson family, as he was intelligent, yet brought a different perspective to the group. That is completely missing from this story.

So, even though it was lovely to return to Egypt for one last season with the Peabody-Emersons, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Good bye, Peabody.  You will be greatly missed.