Top 11 Reads for 2011

Wow, isn’t that a nice tight title? I should win an award for creative titling, for that.

Ahem.

I saw the trend going around the blogsphere to post a list of the best books read in the previous year, and thought I should dutifully follow that trend. Then I looked back over the list of what I’ve read in the past 12 months, and my word, there are some HAWT books in that list. I’ve seriously read at least six stories which have markedly changed the way I approach reading and/or writing.

Enough prevarication! On to the list! (Click on any of the covers for the goodreads page.)

Title: Gender and Grace

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publication Date: May 1990

Why I loved it: Okay, so my faith is showing, I think. Also, this review is gonna be over-sharing. YOU”RE WARNED.

This book isn’t exactly a “debut,” but it is, I think, still (mostly) current. I am not used to reading very much non-fic, but issues of gender roles and feminism kept coming up in my life, so I decided I should stop forming my opinions on here-say and start reading.

Given that I’ve grown up within the (very) Conservative Christian church, and still am within that community for much of the time, I had internalized the gender-role viewpoint to an extent that is still surprising me. That viewpoint, for those who are not aware, holds that the genders are created differently, created for different roles. Men will go out into the world and provide for/protect the family, and women will stay home and nurture the family. Of course, it is possible to diverge from God’s plan for that, but as someone who is both a person of faith and wants the best for their family, those roles must be adhered to. Not only SHOULD they be adhered to, but if they are rebelled against, the rebels won’t actually be happy.

So that’s been messing me up lately. I am suspicious and panicky around traps built into my DNA, but I also believe in them. Hate the fates, but worship the fates. Basically, emotions are trolls.

ANYWAYS after one or another of my melt-downs about I’m not actually supposed to be in school I should be learning wifely skills oh gosh what if I never get married doesn’t that mean I’m a failure, I decided that melting down sucked, and I should do some reading on the subject. Now of course, I couldn’t do secular reading on it, because a.) I am not sciencey, and b.) the question is essentially one of theology, since all things being permissible does not mean they are beneficial.

And this book took my fears, and went all GENERAL REVELATION WILL DISMANTLE YOUR CULTURE-BOUND MISOGYNY AND SUBSTITUTE REVELATIONAL EQUALITY IN LOVE. And I had a little joy-fit. It’s got cultural psychology, and clinical psychology, and stats, and sociology and biology and theology, making a wonderful stew of interesting things. I borrowed this copy, but I deeply want one of my own. I also want to read more on this subject.


Title: Son of Neptune

Genre: MG Fantasy

Publication Date: October 2011

Why I loved it: How do I love this book? Let me count the ways.

It’s funny, it’s full of AWESOME adventure and peril up the ying-yang, I can recommend it to anyone over the age of 9, it’s so heavy I could probably kill bears with it (meaning it took me more than an hour to get through it), and it’s just full of amazing. This is a book which deals with questions of responsibility, what is worth dying for, trust, redemption, love, betrayal, and also features grain spirits that dissolve into breakfast cereal when killed. WHAT IS NOT TO LOVE?

Nothing, that’s what. This book is flawless, thank you, goodnight. (Also the plot absolutely delights me. Rick Riordan is one of the authors I trust to write good stories every time.)


Title: Divergent

Genre: YA Science Fiction (Dystopian)

Publication Date: May 2011

Why I loved it: Well at first I really enjoyed this because it was such an exciting, fast read. But that criteria has applied to many books in my past which I didn’t love as much on second or third thought.

HOWEVER, I would still (cautiously, because of the character deaths) recommend it about, I believe. And that’s because of the themes of family, courage, responsibility, and how you deal with the truth. (So good!)

The main character in this book is a fighter, which made me happy, and I loved how fully-realized she was. I loved how fully realized all the characters were, and that decisions have consequences, (I could even track much of the romance, which is not my forte), and the battles…

One of the biggest things which made this story stick in my head was the variety of battles fought by the characters. There is a trend in Dystopian literature to portray the majority of battles and costs to the character as external. The hero is virtuous, fighting an evil structure outside his or herself, and internal battles don’t come up. It’s rare that anyone has to fight against their own mind, their own body, their own terrors, their own emotions– or that the toll for disaster is taken internally. Whereas in this book, about half of the battles were internal, and they were just as important as the external ones. I really liked that. 😀


Title: The Thief

Genre: MG Fantasty

Publication Date: October 1996

Why I loved it: This book is just a teeny jewel of craft. It’s simple, (deceptively so), and works with well-known tropes.  So you’re just happily coming along for the ride with this adventure, and then EVERYTHING INVERTS. This book is seriously the benchmark by which I will now measure all ending-twists, because it is so cleanly done. Never obvious when I was reading it, and yet stunningly obvious when I got to the twist. It was just so well done.

And I’m not the only one who’s noticed this. The book won the Newbery Metal. So, y’know, it’s doing pretty well for itself.


Title: The Goblin Wood

Genre: YA Fantasy

Publication Date: March 2003

Why I loved it: Hilari Bell is an artist. She just is. She does not write to any formula that I am aware of, and yet I’m yet to read any one of her books (featuring wildly dissimilar premises and plots) which I don’t love.

And the world building. Oh the world building.

She writes complicated ethical dilemmas, with good people on both sides, and terrible things happen, and you start to realize that even though that person is charming and believes in what he is doing, you may not want him to get his way, and there are COSTS, and you care absolutely about all the characters, and– I could go on. This story made me care so hard.


Title: Tyger Tyger

Genre: YA Fantasy

Publication Date: November 2010

Why I loved it: Let’s see. Realistic Family dynamics featuring younger siblings and parents who are realistic and important- Check.

Music as a plot point- Check.

Hilarious- Check.

Irish folktales and more- Check.

Believable Romance- Check.

Side characters who are fully realized- Check.

Someone threatens to swallow someone else’s finger- Check.

Completely awesome- Check.


Title: Dark Life

Genre: MG Fantasy

Publication Date: May 2010

Why I loved it: This book made me go “adventure? I like it.” And after years of trying to convince myself to read romances and dramas, it was FUN to read something that was fun. Well, fun and peril.

I get a geeky delight out of good world building, and this one definitely qualified. There’s floating cities, and people who glow from eating bioluminescent plankton, and houses made out of jellyfish, and bandits, etc. The aesthetic strongly reminds me of Firefly— under the ocean.

Plus it opened with a shark attack.


Title: Melting Stones

Genre: YA Fantasy

Publication Date: October 2007

Why I loved it: It would start to sound like I’m repeating myself if I say “The world building,” but it’s rather true…

An absolute deal-breaker for me in fantasy stories is magic systems which are too simple. We’re introduced to a super-powered magician who has to learn their delicately nuanced skill,  a skill only one person in a generation can master– and it comes down to a matter of positive thinking or simply picturing what the magician wishes to happen. At which point I throw the book across the room and shout angrily.

BUT TAMORA PIERCE DOES NOT DO THAT. The magic systems are always easy to understand, and yet it’s also clear that they quite believably could take years to master. So that delights me.

Also, the external battles the characters are fighting for survival rely on their internal battles to trust and care about others. Fighting one’s fear and grief, in fact. I thought it was going to be a keep-me-occupied-while-waiting-for-work read, but it was amazing.


Title: The Unidentified

Genre: YA Science Fiction (sometimes identified as Dystopian).

Publication Date: October 2010

Why I loved it: I have developed a theory that Dystopian literature has been around long enough that is no longer just a theme. Because, as “everyone knows,” the point of a dystopian story is to comment on the nature of the dystopia, right? The inevitable journey is the hero’s discovery of just how messed up his society is, and then his decision to fight against it or not– right?

But the thing is, if you’re my age, you’ve been reading Dystopian fiction pretty much as soon as you could stagger towards the SF section. I’ve read a lot of commentaries on the nature of the dystopia. And eventually, if you’re an avid reader, you start to think about inverting the thing that “always happens”. INEVITABLE IS NOT THE END.

Ahem.

It is my theory that this is starting to happen. We’ve read enough, and for goodness sake, we’ve been observant enough, that the society presented as perfect actually having severe flaws isn’t actually a shocking plot reveal. It’s just setting. And I believe that’s what’s going on in this story. You have a Dystopian story, but the point isn’t really the setting, it’s the plot and the internal trajectory of discovery and engagement that the characters are going on.

So this story is in that setting, and (believably) they don’t change the world, and I like it a lot. Also techy world building. Loooovvvveee…

I had to go through that little spiel because the review page for this book on goodreads was full of people arguing about “point” of dystopian literature (and that’s not even touching on the people who were incorrectly identifying any post-apocalyptic or dark SF as dystopian, because I can GO ON FOR A WHILE on that subject).


Title: Flash Burnout

Genre: YA Contemporary Drama

Publication Date: October 2009

Why I loved it: In stark opposition to my usual stance on contemporary dramas, I loved this story. A big part of this was the characters, who were nuanced and amazing. And that list of “awesome characters” included the smart-alec MC, his girlfriend, his friend who is a girl, his older brother, and his parents. And I don’t mean the characters were all just funny and well voiced, I mean they were realized. They had unusual and believable interests. His mum was a Chaplin and his da was a coroner. His brother was a Jock and a Straight-A student and madly in love with a rebellious girl who was new in school. These people were so alive I feel like I could meet them someday.

And within the story there were consequences, and people who couldn’t be saved. And mistakes were made, and things were learned.

I’ve talked before about how I am really touchy around dark books. There’s a fine line I cross between “oh man that is good and painful and GOOD” and “that is well written and imma go eat nothing but cotton candy to contract that story”. For me, this one stayed on the good side. And I love it, rather.


Title: Plain Kate

Genre: YA Fantasy

Publication Date: September 2010

Why I loved it: This is one of my favourite books, not only for this year, but of all time. It was the first story I read in 2011, and MAN did it get the year off to a good start.

Plain Kate is about russian folklore, and family, and sacrifice, and love, and grief, and death, and fear, and craft, and Oh. My. Gosh. it is so good.

I don’t notice writing. (This has been noted.) And even I noticed the pure artistry with which this story is put together. It’s BEAUTIFUL. And oh the characters. Oh Kate. Oh Taggle. Oh Linay.

I’ve been trying to recommend to everyone that they read it for the past year, with very poor success. I think this is when the subject of this book comes up I loose language capabilities, reverting to flailing and repeating the words “wow” “good” “joy” “sorrow” and “you.” Thankfully it has now won the TD Children’s Literature Award, so maybe I can point to the sticker and argue that way.

This book is brilliant. You should read it.


Honorable Mention Non-FicEating Disorders and Cultures in Transition

This book was freaking fascinating. Especially the article by Dr. Sing Lee about the differences between Anorexia Nervosa as typified within a North American context and within an Asian context, with historical data for added AWESOME. I am a Sing Lee fangirl, right now.

Honourable Mention FictionClockwork Angel

FUN. Funny, and exciting, and well written and DRAMA OMG DRAMA, and fun.

~*~

There is my list! Go crazy in the bookstore, folks.


(Next time I review books I’m going to give myself a sentence limit.)

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