Hello all you wonderful readers!
I figure I’d better get cracking on this blog post, as it is nominally intended to help you with your holiday shopping, and once again I’ve already missed Hanukkah. (I mean, we certainly had Hanukkah here — holy bananas, the toddler LOVED the menorah! ”More candles! More Hanukkah! More songs!” Really, I think he would have been just as happy to keep lighting candles in lieu of presents . . . whereas the almost-4-year-old was QUITE CLEAR on the importance of the presents part!) :-)
Anyway, I read oodles of wonderful books this year, so I hope you find something thrilling on this list — either to give as a present or for you!
For Whichever Of Your Friends Loves Books the Most
Especially If She Still Believes in Fairies
And/Or Might Have to Battle Her Mother One Day For the Safety of the World
Among Others, by Jo Walton
Oh my goodness, I ADORED this book. It might be my absolute favorite of the whole year, and what’s funny is I’m not sure I would have picked it up based on the description. I read it just because I really loved her book Tooth and Claw (one of the best and most unique dragon books EVER — imagine Jane Austen’s society, but everyone’s a dragon — it’s brilliant). So I figured I’d try this one, and it just filled me with so much joy. It’s written as diary entries — a fifteen-year-old Welsh girl writing in 1979/1980 — and it’s fascinating because it’s set after this big climactic confrontation in her life, which she survived (but her twin didn’t), and now she’s trying to figure out where her life goes from here, while attending boarding school in England, where there are hardly any fairies — oh, yes, there are fairies, but WEIRD interesting fairies and weird complicated magic and a perfect sense of humor. Mori, the narrator, is such a strong likable voice, and best of all, she loves books. At this point, books are kind of her only friends, and just like a real person, she writes down what she thinks of what she’s reading in her diary, so there are all these smart, thought-provoking comments about various (real) books all the way through, most of which are classic SF because she loves science fiction, and I read a lot of that myself at almost that exact same age, so I really couldn’t help but love her.
Aargh, it’s so hard to describe this book . . . except maybe to say that it felt like a grown-up version of Diana Wynne Jones, so if that means something to you, I bet you’d love it too. Oh, and it is a “grown-up” book with a little bit of grown-up stuff in it, but I’d happily give it to an intelligent 12-year-old, too, especially one who loves reading and especially anyone who loves science fiction.
It made me want to go reread Asimov and Heinlein (and read for the first time some of the ones I missed, like Tiptree and Delany), and most of all, it made me want to fill my house with books I love, so I can look at them every day. Of course, I have a LOT of books already, but I don’t own all the books I love, and I feel like I should. Like this one! I got it from the library, but clearly I need to own it. :) (And so do you! And all your bookworm friends!)
For Your Other Book-Loving Friend, Who May Not Believe in Fairies, But Does Believe in True Love
Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell
Also a contender for my favorite book of the year – Eleanor and Park, happy sigh. The cover kind of perfectly sums it up, but I would add: great, strong characters, really funny, smart dialogue, and a teenage relationship that feels real and makes total sense. (Plus lots of comic book references, so, it’s kind of another book about loving books, and loving books together with another person, which is SO AWESOME.)
For Your Super-Smart Friend Who Deserves An Equally Smart Boyfriend/Girlfriend
(And Who Hasn’t Given Up On Dystopian Novels Yet)
the Legend trilogy, by Marie Lu (Book 2: Prodigy, Book 3: Champion)
I for one am happy to keep reading dystopian novels for as long as they’re the big shiny craze, but I must say this is one of the best — partly for the complex, well-developed world, and partly for the compelling romance! Imagine you were literally the smartest sixteen-year-old in the country, and your government sent you on a mission to find the teenage guerilla warrior who’s been fighting against the totalitarian state, but of course when you find him he turns out to be funny and kind and dreamy . . . and then everything gets more and more complicated . . .
For That Friend Whose Friendship Makes Everything Better
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
Adorable gorilla! Even more adorable baby elephant! Don’t you just want to hug this cover? You’ll feel the same way about the book, which won the Newbery last year and completely deserves it. It’s sweet, funny, sad, heartwarming, smart, with beautiful art throughout — and it’s TOLD BY A GORILLA! Do you really need to know more? Trust me, it’s wonderful.
For Your Partner in Crime
(The One Who’s Always Getting in Trouble
But Only Because She Should Totally Be In Charge of the Whole World Already)
Bad Girls series by Cynthia Voigt
Cynthia Voigt, of course, is famous for books like Homecoming and Dicey’s Song and A Solitary Blue, all of which I loved, so I should probably have expected how much I would love these, too. The series tells the story of Margalo and Mikey, two best friends who aren’t ever going to be “good girls.” They meet in sixth grade and keep causing trouble and fixing things and arguing and making mistakes and playing by their own rules, and most of all, they keep being themselves, and they stay best friends, all the way through grades 7-10 in the next four books.
It’s hard to give more specific examples because so much happens in five books, but I definitely think it’s worth reading the whole series to see how they grow and change (although they feel incredibly consistent as characters throughout — amazing writing!), and also to see what happens to all their 6th grade classmates by sophomore year of high school. The books are all funny and smart and might make you wish you had a best friend this loyal (or make you feel really lucky if you do!). :-)
A Few Dragon Books
For Your Musical Friend Who Likes Dragons and Mysteries (I Know, Who Doesn’t?)
Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman
An entirely different and unique kind of world populated by dragons (and people, and dragon-like people and people-like dragons), with a romance and a murder mystery woven in. Plus it’s a great cover!
Empire of Ivory and Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik
I’ve mentioned how much I love the Temeraire books before — these are some of my favorite dragons ever, because they have such distinct, fabulous personalities. And in Victory of Eagles (book five of the series), we get a lot more of Temeraire’s perspective, which is WONDERFUL and so funny. I recommend all of these and can’t wait to read the sixth one myself! :)
Books for Grown-Ups
For Anyone You Know Who Has Ever Expressed Any Desire to Climb Mt. Everest Because Guess What TURNS OUT IT’S A TERRIBLE IDEA
Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
This book was incredibly riveting, super sad, and completely shocking, not to mention impossible to put down. It’s about what happened on Mt. Everest in May 1996, when more people died in a single day than ever before or since, and it’s told by someone who was actually part of the climb that day — and who also happens to be an amazing writer. For a moment at the beginning, he really conveys that feeling of “yes! I want to climb huge mountains!” or at least, “OK, I get why people want to do that” — and then by the end you’re like, “WHY WOULD ANYONE WHY” and “THIS SOUNDS LIKE THE WORST HOBBY EVER,” or at least that was my reaction. YEESH. A really, really great book.
For Your Possibly Psychic Aunt Who Always Has Deja Vu
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
I love everything by Kate Atkinson. Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Not the End of the World are still my favorites, but this one had her signature beautiful writing and fascinating characters and weird storytelling. The idea is that the protagonist is living her life (the same life) over and over again, coming back each time she dies and getting another chance to set things right. There’s a lot about WWII and particularly the London Blitz, so it gets a little sad and gory in parts, but it’s still fascinating. I think if you liked The Time-Traveler’s Wife (not for the romance, but for the unusual storytelling) or Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, you’d like this.
For Whoever Hasn’t Already Read This
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
I know, I know, only one of the most popular books this year, but I really enjoyed it (and again, couldn’t put it down). I think what made it more clever than your average thriller is that the two main characters were so complicated and fully explored. Twisty fun!
For the Grown-Up Who Secretly Wants to Read Legend or The Hunger Games
Wool, by Hugh Howey
It’s another dystopian on the list! But it’s a grown-up one, so . . . totally different? Maybe not — we’re still talking about rebelling against a future totalitarian society — but what is really different is the world, where everyone lives in this giant, mostly underground silo, peering out at the destroyed planet through grimy cameras. Like The City of Ember all grown up! It’s weird and a little surprising, which I liked. Don’t be fooled by the nondescript title or tells-you-nothing cover: this is a pretty action-packed, futuristic, thriller-ish, SF-ish story.
A Smattering of Classics
For Someone Who’ll Totally Understand that One of the Greatest Books of All Time Is, Yes, About Bunnies
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
I love this book with a fiery passion (this year was maybe the third time I’ve read it). It is so brilliant and dark and unique and frequently heart-pounding and terrifying. I know! But they’re awesome bunnies! Think of it like Animal Farm but more exciting. Or hey, Warriors fans, if you’ve made it through ALL of those books and are looking for the original amazing epic animal story, THIS IS IT! Murderous bunnies! Psychic bunnies! Dictatorial bunnies! Oh my goodness, just read it already.
For Your Dark and Brooding Book-Loving Friend
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Holy bats, I literally just discovered that there are two sequels to this. MORE of this world! ACK AMAZING! It’s another book about books and loving books, except it’s all dark and gothic and romantic and crazy and set in Barcelona. Like The Count of Monte Cristo meets Great Expectations meets The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (ooo, that book was wonderful too). I only wish I’d read it while actually IN Barcelona, because I bet that would be amazing. (Hey, gift idea for any, say, husbands out there who still haven’t conquered Christmas shopping: how about the next two books + a trip to Barcelona! Perfect. Done. I have solved all your problems for you. ADAM.) ;-)
For Someone Who’s Looking for the Reincarnation of Shakespeare
Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard
I don’t actually re-read a lot of books (there are so many new ones still to get to!), but this one and Watership Down (and Ender’s Game and The King Must Die by Mary Renault) are ones I’ve gone back to more than once, because I love them. This is a play and it’s sort of indescribable, because it’s kind of about math and gardens (what?), but really it’s about love and coincidence and tragedy and extremely British people being extremely cleverly funny. Have you noticed that I like funny books? :-) I think this is the funniest one on my list this year. (Tom Stoppard is also the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and he wrote the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love.)
Inevitable Parenting Recommendations
I do read a lot of parenting books, yes. (Why is my three-year-old losing his mind over me putting his milk in the wrong cup? How can I solve this problem while the one-year-old is simultaneously hollering “MOMMY CARRY ME!” at full epic tragedy volume? Why do they both think yelling “GOOOOOOO!” at red traffic lights is either hilarious or productive? I KNOW PERHAPS A BOOK WILL TELL ME.)
My two favorites this year:
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, by Dr. Laura Markham
Her website, www.ahaparenting.com, is actually a wonderful place to start while you’re waiting for this book to come into the library — there’s so much on there to help when you are trying to be calm and sane and loving in the face of toddler insanity. My favorite suggestion of hers involves playing physical games with your little ones. Whenever Jonah is extra-specially crazy, it works magical wonders if I just pick him up and pretend he’s a pie and run around the house offering pieces of him to everyone and then decide not to share him and hide him in the couch so I can eat him all myself. (You know, as you do.) (That wasn’t one of her specific suggestions, but it’s along the same lines . . . and Thanksgiving-inspired!) ;-)
Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn
I haven’t actually finished this one yet, but I like it so far, and one of the very best, most wonderful, sweetest mommies I know absolutely swears by this book, so if it’ll help me be anything like her, then it must be brilliant. :-)
Sticks and Stones, by Emily Bazelon
The last one is less about parenting and more specifically about bullying, but it sure makes you think about how to help your kids be neither the bullied nor the bully. Alarming and thought-provoking and thorough.
And Finally, Just to Torture You . . .
The other contender for Very Best Book I Read This Year — but you can’t have it yet! Because it’s not being published until March 2014!
The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski
But really, you’re lucky, because it’s the beginning of a trilogy, and when I got to the end it was kind of TOTAL AGONY to realize that I not only have to wait for book 2, but I have to wait even longer because book 1 isn’t even out yet.
It is SO AMAZING, though, you guys. Amazing romance, amazing characters. Did you like The Queen of Attolia? (WHAT? Go read that book AT ONCE. Well, OK, read The Thief first. AT ONCE.) It’s like that kind of setting and interesting political dynamics plus the doomed but wonderful romance of Legend. I can’t wait for you to read it! Yay!
In the meanwhile, if those aren’t enough Christmas gift suggestions for you, there are these dragon books you could give people . . . or this other one about a secret zoo full of mythical creatures . . . you know, if you like that kind of thing. :-)
This post is now way too long, as usual — hooray for wonderful books! Good luck with the rest of the crazy holiday season, and in case I’m not back before the end of the year, Happy Everything to all of you!
Quote of the Day:
“When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head.” — Among Others, Jo Walton