2014 favorites (so far):
Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre
This is a war story that isn’t about glory and death, that isn’t about great wounded heroes or the terrible spiral and consequences of war – though neither does it ignore those things. Fives and Twenty-Fives jumps between the past and present: the past narrative follows members of a Marine Engineering platoon fixing potholes in Anbar province in 2005-2006; the present catches up with the three narrators: the platoon’s lieutenant, medic, and Iraqi interpreter. I did laugh, and I did cry, but overall this book felt like a tender, intense reminder of the connections between sacrifice and hope. Highest recommendation here – even if you don’t enjoy reading war stories, I think you should give this one a try.
Fiendish by Brenna Yovanoff
This is my favorite of Brenna’s since The Space Between. It’s everything I want from a novel: dark, scary, complicated magic, fascinating characters, a really intriguing and slow burn romance (but not that slow). Clementine’s story is one of the most unique I’ve ever read: at the start of the story, she’s been walled up in a basement for ten years. The language is, as always, vivid and poetic, clinging with Brenna’s great atmosphere.
Behold the Bones by Natalie C. Parker
This one doesn’t come out for a while, but I got to read it early. If you liked Natalie’s first book, you’ll be blown away by this one, though it also stands alone as a companion novel. The narrator is Candy from book 1, and she is sassy and complicated and strong. Love the dangerous, beautiful magic and twisty plot, and y’all know I love kissing books – well this one has some of the hawtest kissing.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
I’d been looking forward to this since I heard of it (being a huge fan of the author’s work), and it did not disappoint. Maia, half-goblin fourth son of the Emperor is thrust unexpectedly onto the throne when his father and brothers are killed in an airship accident, and its a struggle to survive and learn to rule. The premise IS the plot in this one: all political action and intrigue, with layers of meaning to everything. The world building is oh-so precise and overwhelming at times – which helped me identify with Maia’s position. I was so impressed with how sprawling politics and characters are so contained within the book. Loved some of the characters so much I immediately reread chapter 1 in order to relive meeting them for the first time. A book about leadership, isolation, and friendship.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
This book had everything I wanted from a vampire book (as a life-long fan of Lestat in particular): interesting and brave human girl, dangerous, half-crazed vampire boy, a road trip, historic flashbacks, blood and violence, kissing, amazing world-building, and a perfectly ambiguous ending that suited the story that came before. This is an alternate history for fans of world-building and smart characters.
Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine
A retelling of “Romeo & Juliet” from Benvolio’s point of view, I was interested but wary as I always am when it comes to R&J. It’s such a beautifully-written play (duh, Shakespeare at his poetic best) but I often have issues with how the play’s themes are modernized or NOT modernized, and have trouble finding it relevant the way stories should be. PRINCE OF SHADOWS blew me away: not only does it retain the passion and violence of the original story, it makes Benvolio so impossibly intriguing and fills in such great backstory for characters like Mercutio and even Romeo that I won’t be able to see/read the play itself without imagining this version. This is about love and family in the midst of horrible hatred and constant violence. I loved the curses, the kissing, the fury of it.
Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
It was hard to imagine the third book of His Fair Assassins trilogy surpassing DARK TRIUMPH, but holy rusted metal, batman! I loved MORTAL HEART even more, somehow. Annith was so different from her sisters, quieter but just as fierce, with possibly more riding on her shoulders. Her bravery was the kind where you have to question your family and everything you think you know in order to do what’s right. I can’t really talk about the love interest without melting out of my chair, not to mention spoilers. BUT this is one of those rare time I’ll say: if you love my books there is just no way you won’t love this one. So trust me.
Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian
It’s rare for me to fall for a book with no magic or monsters! But this is one of the most entertaining, hardest books I’ve loved in a while. Like SPLIT by Swati Avasthi, it impressed me with its voice and its straight look at the consequences of violence. I LOVED Evan, the pov character. He was funny and charming even when he was making some questionable choices, and was vulnerable to me as the reader, even when I think he didn’t mean to be. The story itself was brutal, but also surprisingly simple – maybe it had to be for the complicated characters to shine so well.
The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston
I read this in 2013, but it just came out this year, so here ya go: This book is a delightful, funny, moving alt history about a dragon slayer and his family who move to rural Canada to protect the people from carbon-eating dragons. The tone is amusingly wry and heartfelt, with fascinating, fun world-building and characters I’d really like to have dinner with (not to mention fight dragons with). I have also read the sequel PRAIRIE FIRE and it was even better, despite that it made me cry buckets.
Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr
The first book in Kerr’s amazing Deverry Cycle, Daggerspell was a reread for me. I am so impressed with how much I loved it now – possibly more than when I read it when I was 16. The characters are so complicated, the magic has consequences, but the scope of the world and plotting blows me away. It’s a Germanic/Anglo-Saxon fantasy setting, with layers of past lives woven together, history and politics and war and love. Recommend the entire series – which is finished now, so you’d never have to worry about waiting for the next book!
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
This book was beautiful: the concept, the world-building, the characters. It’s poignant and aching, and I loved it. It’s about a future world where ever few years the country elects a summer prince to be sacrificed to ensure the queen’s rule. It’s about art and friendship and the meaning of sacrifice.
Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
The second book in His Fair Assassin series, it blew me away. I really liked book 1, but this story destroyed me in all the best ways. A new narrator and a new love story that is intense and sexy, with very dark themes that the author doesn’t shy away from. It’s hard, but worth it.
A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare
I read Dare’s whole Spindle Cove series in one week, and this one was my favorite of the lot. They’re romance novels with fantastic wit and heart, and her use of language makes me giddy. So much fun, and Minerva and Colin’s romance was my favorite romance I read all year.
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
The second book in The Raven Cycle, full of cussing, friendship, fast cars, and the most intense not-kissing in the entire universe. Incredible word-play, and long-term characterization that is woven carefully and won’t let you go. Also monsters and more monsters and real-world magic done right.
The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
This book snuck up on me. It’s about two girls in medieval Wales, told from their very different points of view. I enjoyed the history and their great voices, and then suddenly was caught up in the violence and desperation and forgot to put the book down. Very smart writing, great history, and complex, real characters. I hope there’s a sequel, but it doesn’t need it.
Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta
The third book in Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles, I think I can easily say that this is the most fantastic, wrought, emotional, finely tuned fantasy trilogy I may have ever read. It is hard, and as I said in 2012 about the first book, Finikin of the Rock, is dense and difficult sometimes, but so incredibly worth it. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and Froi and Quintana are some of the most unique characters. They’re so raw, so good at hurting and being hurtful, but what connects them to each other, their homes, and their families is just amazing. It’s about curses and family and betrayal and hope.
Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater
The companion to her Wolves of Mercy Falls series, this is about an ex-rock star and an 18 year old ice queen being in love and being themselves in LA. No other book has made me actually want to visit LA like this one: it’s a lush, magical place, even when it’s rough and filthy. Cole is as amusing and heartbreaking as always, Isabel makes me laugh hard with her snark. It’s one of those books about people and intimate moments, and so nicely done you won’t even notice that nothing is happening.
A Wounded Name by Dot Hutchison
A retelling of Hamlet in a modern boarding school, from Ophelia’s point of view, this book dragged me in from the very first line. The prose is gorgeous, playful, and smart, just like the original play’s, and though I’ve never particularly cared for Ophelia, I was in love with this version and desperate for her to find a way out of her cage. The book is devastating but surprisingly hopeful in places, though overall a tragedy of course. A must have for fans of Hamlet.
Both rereads, but its been fifteen years since the last time. Although I usually assume everybody has read these, I know it’s not true. What are you waiting for? They’re still so relevant and well done. These books were formative for me so it’s hard to talk about them rationally other than to simply say they are amazing. The former is an intricate, scary history of the Mayfair Witches, with the past and present woven together seamlessly and beautifully, as well as populated by passionate women and the creepiest, sexiest familiar ever. The latter book is lush and dreamy, sexy and philosophical, and you should just read it. Because reasons. Reasons being LESTAT.
The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke
This high fantasy has great voice, great action, piracy, thieving, and bloody, dirty, rule-bound magic – my favorite. It’s fast-paced, with two strong leads who are flawed, but ultimately good. The plot is complicated, and I’m a little in love with the motivations of said strong leads. Ananna is impulsive and Naji driven, both of them practice morally ambiguous trades, but manage to find their own ethics.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Dragons, music, political intrigue, identity politics? What’s not to love? Nothing. There’s nothing I didn’t think was excellently done here. Hartman clearly is in control of her tools, weaving a story where everything matters and has it’s place. Seraphina struggles with who she is, with honesty and desire, and grows over the course of the story. The secondary characters were wonderfully drawn, especially the dragons (a real feat for a people who don’t naturally emote!) and Kiggs.
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
I love Melina Marchetta and everything she does. Her books destroy me in the end, in that raw, slow-burning way that means I can’t read anything for days afterwords. Finnikin took some getting into (as her books often do), but as with Jellicoe Road it’s more than worth being patient and just enjoying her language and gradual characterizations. This book is dark and complicated and hard – it’s about things we don’t want to think about but need to, about how hope and goodness can be lost and found again, and love, and loyalty and trust.
The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson
This book was perfect. It did everything I wanted it to do, and better than I imagined. There was political intrigue and danger, intense romance, religion and growing up, hurricanes and deserts and assassins. I loved it in all the possible ways, especially for the hero Elisa and how she grew up even more than she did in the first book, how she realized what power is and should be, and what kind of queen she wanted and needed to be. So highly recommend this for a strong, amazing hero who is so in her own unique way, because of her spirit and willpower and faith.
The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken.
Out in December 2012, this book is Jason Bourne meets “Push” with teenagers and a dystopian USA. It was intense and well written, very exciting, with lots of action and a good amount of character arc. The world building impressed me, as did the use of first person to deal with mind magic and unreliable narrators. The ending crushed me – in a good way.
A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix
Here’s a stand-alone by an author whose previous books I’ve loved. He’s always excellent with voice and world building, and this is no exception. It’s sci-fi and quite techie in the beginning, but the technology is very smoothly a part of the world, and Khemri is a narrator who drew me in immediately, despite being arrogant and spoiled. Possibly because of it. It’s a story about perspective and humanity and how we change.
The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima.
The first of a series, this is a high fantasy I fell right into. Great characters, an interesting, intricate plot, with long looks at class and race, magic and ruling. Han kept me going with humor and feeling, and Raisa is such a strong personality, with desires and flaws. I loved the second book in the series, The Exiled Queen, and the third is a prize for finishing my own WIP.
Legend by Marie Lu.
This was my 2nd book of 2012, and we started off with a bang! A basic dystopia, this action novel really buckles down and focuses on a tight plot and excellent characters. Dual POVs – one an infamous young rebel, one the military-trained prodigy set to track him – these characters are very, very good at what they do. That means conflict arises not from flubs or accidents, but from characterization and setting. Lu writes sharply and deals with moral issues without blinking. There’s violence and death, but also family and love and loyalty. No cliffhanger or love triangles (whew!), but open to the next stage in the journey. I’m already looking forward to book 2.
TOP READS FROM 2011:
The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff.
This book destroys me. In the best possible way. Brenna is my crit partner and I’ve read several versions of this book: every time it breaks me apart and makes me love it all over again. Intense characterization, unbelievable atmosphere and world-building, gorgeous language… plus demons as only Brenna can do them. It’s an epic family drama and a love story. It’s about redemption. Ay, me. I love it so.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
A little bit historical, a little bit fantasy, (and all beautiful), this book has humor and delicate romance and violence and flesh-eating water-horses. What more could you ask for?!
Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff.
Basically, I just want to say that this book is a long poem about love, identity, confusion, homelessness, selflessness, longing and yearning and fire. It takes place in a magical land called Brooklyn – the one in New York. It’s not magical like unicorns and rainbows (well maybe rainbows), but magical the way summer is magical when you’re in school: its hot and free and finite. Summers bleed together and become one reality, confined only by the end of school and the beginning of school, and in between are possibilities and change and friendship and love.
The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta.
This book is about loss. And it’s riveting. The prose is tight and short and cutting, telling more than showing, and yet it slowly builds an entire portrait of a young man. And his disastrous, funny, broken family. The precision with which Marchetta examines the fallout of tragedy without being at all sad or depressing had me rereading whole pages, trying to dissect exactly how she was doing it. She manages to make me so angry at Tom (and everyone) and also totally in love with him (and everyone). And THAT is exactly what family is about, I suppose – all those contradictory emotions coexisting. It was like I was part of the mess. And very glad to be.
Entwined by Heather Dixon.
This retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” hit that sweet spot of great voice and lovely story – it reminded me of Robin McKinley and Martine Leavitt. It was charming and magical, and I especially loved the relationships between all the sisters, and the focus on family.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.
like it when girls fight with swords, but secretly I like it even better when they fight with brains and heart. (Both swords AND brains/heart trumps everything, of course.) This book gives me all of it, plus a relateable heroine with a wonderful character arc. The worldbuilding was very well done, and I was delighted by the hard themes Carson explored about fighting and killing for God, loss, love, and courage. My favorite themes! There were some surprising plot twists, too, that had me horrified and cheering simultaneously.
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik.
A Napoleonic war alternate history WITH DRAGONS. Do I have to say more? Ha – well, it’s got excellent voice, and the MC is delightful. The main relationship is between a Navy man and the dragon he’s suddenly stuck with. I loved the details of how exactly the different dragons are used as an “air force,” from rigging to hierarchy. So much fun.
TOP TEN FROM 2010:
KETURAH AND LORD DEATH by Martine Leavitt.
I would give this book to anybody, and don’t tell me if you don’t like it because clearly that means there is something wrong with you. It’s perfect for me: a new fairy-tale, Death, love, strong characters, plot twists, and exactly the right ending. <3
SPLIT by Swati Avasthi.
Voice, character, plot all come together in this intense book about a boy who leaves home after a final abusive incident with his father and goes to live with his older brother. Amazing perspective, great emotional sensitivity, but also hard-hitting. Recommended to anybody, again, esp if you want contemporary with a strong voice.
THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES by Carrie Ryan.
I read the first 30 pages of this book on the treadmill, past my usual time, because I couldn’t put it down long enough to turn off the machine. As I was writing CROW MAGIC, the companion novel to BLOOD MAGIC, I kept thinking about this book. It’s a companion to THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH – the books compliment each other and are in conversation with each other, but both stand alone. And Dead-Tossed was better and more complex and intense for me. It expands the world in the exact way I want Crow Magic to. For zombie lovers and zombie haters. This isn’t your standard zombie book – takes place a long long time after the so-called apocalypse, and society has shaped around it.
MISTWOOD by Leah Cypess.
High fantasy, with an immortal protagonist who doesn’t remember being immortal. The set-up for this book sounded tough to me, but Cypess makes it smooth and obvious. I loved all the characters in it, and when it neared the climax and the narrator was having to make a choice about who she was and who she wanted to be, everything had been drawn so complexly and in shades of gray to the point where I wasn’t sure what I thought she should pick. Well done! For readers new to high fantasy, this would be great – the world building is solid, but not sweeping or overwhelming like it can be sometimes.
FIRE by Kristen Cashore.
This is the sexiest, most emotionally complicated book I’ve read in a while. <3 High fantasy again, and I couldn’t read anything for a while after because the characters were so damned intrusive. Another companion novel (to GRACELING), you also don’t need to have read the first. FIRE stands totally on its own, and is a better, more unique book. It’s about beauty and sex and family and leadership and bravery. This is one for lovers of high fantasy, built to explore the ambiguities of the above things.
THE THIRTEENTH CHILD by Patricia C. Wrede.
An alternate history that is magic porn. Takes place in an American pioneer prairie, where magic is real. The protags are learning about magic and danger and whew! It hit all my magic and world-building buttons. This is one of mine that would be totally accessible for a less advanced reader (I’m not talking age here, but reading maturity, you know?). I enjoyed it thoroughly, and can’t wait for the next one in the series!
COLD MAGIC by Kate Elliott.
Yes, I just flailed a couple of weeks ago about my love for this book. It’s everything I want: alternative history, with magic and epic Darcy-esque romance, adventure, dinosaurs, fairies, Napoleon, spies, major world-building fu. If you like any of those things, READ THIS BOOK.
INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher.
A rollicking adventure, as they say! This was a fast read for me because I was having so much fun with the characters and world. Very action-oriented with lots of little moments of surprise and wonder that reminded me of Harry Potter kind of world-building.
TOP TWELVE FROM 2009:
CHALICE by Robin McKinley.
CHALICE has a gorgeous voice. The opening is Classic McKinley: striking visual, meandering backstory, all told like a fairy tale. It was beautiful, moving, but also comfortable and sweet, like one of those books I read in a hammock when it’s warm outside and the cicadas are singing.
BOY MEETS BOY by David Levithan.
I read this in about two hours, without drinking or breathing I think. It’s the world I want to live in, even though bad things happen. A little bit reality, a little bit reality-we-wish-for, I’d put this book in anybody’s hands.
THE THIEF by Megan Whelan Turner.
So, this book surprised me. The plot is pretty generic high fantasy, the characters are the types you’re familiar with if you’ve read the genre in any with any sort of familiarity. But I adored this book. It’s the voice of the narrator, the thief known as Gen. He’s charming and young, obnoxious and daring. I couldn’t wait for the sequel, and it was just as good. Technically, it should be here, too. The sequel, THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, did something so risky and emotionally shocking that I keep meaning to give it it’s very own post.
THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins.
Exciting. Emotionally jarring. Post-apocalyptic. Sexy. Death + death + death. Beautiful moments. I can’t really be coherent about the awesomeness of this book. My mom started reading it right before Thanksgiving and called me cussing because she couldn’t put it down but hadn’t started the turkey yet.
SAVING FRANCESCA by Melina Marchetta.
I stayed up until 2 in the morning reading this, even though it’s not very exciting and nobody’s going to die. The characterization made me want to read it over and over again with a red pen and a highlighter so I could study it and learn how to do the same. I loved every character in it, even the jerks, because they were so real. Proof that something character based can be the most riveting fiction thing I’ll read in a year.
JELLICO ROAD, also by Marlina Marchetta.
I had trouble with the first 100 pages of this book, but Maggie threatened to never speak to me again if I didn’t press on. She was oh-so-right. The beginning is thick, with difficultly twisted narratives, and takes a long long while to get into. But once I did there was no backing out, and just like FRANCESCA, the level of characterization was beyond awesome. Worth the effort, like so few things these days.
WORLD WAR Z: A History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.
Told through interviews with people who managed to survive the zombie apocalypse, this was a fascinating thought-experiment about global politics and human nature. I was in turns fascinated, creeped out, and amused. One chapter gave me chills outside on a 93 degree afternoon, and two made me cry. (The WHALES man, the poor poor whales!) I might mention who’s getting this for Christmas, but they could be reading.
BALLAD by Maggie Stiefvater.
I’ve known this book since it was a little fetus book with several wrong beginnings. But I didn’t read it between the time Maggie turned it in to her editor and the time I bought it at my favorite bookstore. A year had passed, and I’m a forgetful person. I remembered that it was awesome, but I was almost bug-eyed at the gems I’d forgotten. It’s got angst, romance, kissing (good and bad), and totally homicidal faeries. HOMICIDAL FAERIES. The only real kind.
THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan.
So my love for this is really for the whole series. Percy, the hero, learns that he’s the son of Posiedon and goes off to summer camp with a bunch of other half-godlings. Trouble and hilarity ensue. There isn’t any layered characterization or brilliant prose, but it’s super fun, and I laughed ALL THE TIME while reading it. Esp when Apollo randomly breaks out into (bad) haiku and limericks. <3 <3 <3 Can’t wait to see the movie.
SKIN HUNGER by Kathleen Duey.
Besides having the coolest title and best cover EVER, I was addicted to this book. Not because I loved the characters (I loathed a couple of them, actually). But because it was so unique. Because the reality of the story was so horrible. I did NOT want to live there, I did not want to be part of it or know the characters. But I never, ever wanted it to end. Honestly, this would be one of those books I’d only give to a smart, balanced kid, and I’d want to talk about it. There’s no sex and no overt violence, but the cruelty of the world, and the stark nature of the magic would have horrified me when I was younger. As an adult, I was haunted for days. And there IS morality there, there is goodness. I wouldn’t call it hopeless… just hard. (I don’t feel like I’m doing this novel justice. Just trust me: It’s incredible.)
CRANK by Ellen Hopkins.
This is a novel written in poetry. I was dubious, because I’ve been burned by novels of poetry before. But Hopkins is amazing at not only finding voices within poetry, but in weaving poems into poems and evoking emotions. It isn’t an easy book because of the subject matter, but very readable. I can imagine reading it out loud, though much of the artistry is in seeing the poems on the page.
EYES LIKE STARS by Lisa Mantchev.
LOVE! It’s got theater, it’s got Shakesperean characters come to life (Hamlet! Ophelia! Ariel!), it’s got romance and sexy kisses. It’s got intrigue! Tiny obnoxious fairies! A sequel! A spunky, smart heroine I want to have been friends with in high school. (And Ariel. Definitely my #1 favorite sexy boy of the year.)