I set quite a lofty reading goal for myself this year over at Goodreads with 70 books. And by the skin of my teeth…I still didn’t reach it.
Almost, though. Almost good.
In the end, I read 67 books. They were quite diverse in genre and category. We’re talking adults books from contemporary writers like Chuck Palahniuk and Kazuo Ishiguro to Jazz Age classics by writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway – then there was some poetry thrown in for good measure. In the YA category, I enjoyed reading some fantastic series – the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, His Fair Assasin Trilogy by Robin LaFevers, along with a few books that marked the conclusions to other series. There was realistic fiction by Laurie Halse Anderson, science fiction by Amy Plum, and good old fantasy by Maggie Stiefvater. Middle grade made the cut with the fabulous Varian Johnson, R.J. Palacio, and Holly Goldberg Sloan. Not to mention glorious picture books and graphic novels, oh my!
How to narrow down all of these fantastic books to ten favorites?
But…I did my best.
These are the stories that stuck with me long after I closed the cover on the final page. In no particular order. I do whole-heartedly recommend you embrace them all.
NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro
I heard Kazuo Ishiguro give an interview on NPR and the more he talked about his writing and his life, the more fascinating he seemed. I thought that if his writing was anything like he was, I had to read one of his books.
This book is so beautiful. The storytelling is so effortless, I just loved it. Even though the characters and their situation were sad and tragic, I was just so in awe of the whole thing. I don’t know if it was because I was viewing it as a writer or not. One thing I do know is that I could not put this book down.
As a child, Kathy – now thirty-one years old – lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory.
And so, as her friendship with Ruth is rekindled, and as the feelings that long ago fueled her adolescent crush on Tommy begin to deepen into love, Kathy recalls their years at Hailsham. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbed – even comforted – by their isolation. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. With the dawning clarity of hindsight, the three friends are compelled to face the truth about their childhood–and about their lives now.
A tale of deceptive simplicity, Never Let Me Go slowly reveals an extraordinary emotional depth and resonance – and takes its place among Kazuo Ishiguro’s finest work. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)
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WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson
I love Laurie Halse Anderson. She is a fearless author who writes emotion so beautifully. I first read her novel SPEAK years ago and I still can’t get that book out of my head. I heard Anderson speak for the first time last summer in LA and got to tell her how awesome she was in person.
She signed this copy of WINTERGIRLS to me simply “Be Brave”. And yet, isn’t that one of the hardest things to be? Her keynote speech was one of the best of the conference and I was so inspired by her, I can’t even tell you. On top of that, she writes this story like she herself suffered through anorexia and had the words of a poet to make the reader know exactly what it feels like to be at war with your own body and to not be able to see yourself as you truly are. She has woven eating disorder pathology and effortless character voice masterfully into a story you just can’t put down.
“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secrets,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.
Lia and Cassie were best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies. But now Cassie is dead. Lia’s mother is busy saving other people’s lives. Her father is away on business. Her stepmother is clueless. And the voice inside Lia’s head keeps telling her to remain in control, stay strong, lose more, weigh less. If she keeps on going this way – thin, thinner, thinnest – maybe she’ll disappear altogether.
In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the National Book Award finalist Speak, bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson explores one girl’s chilling descent into the all-consuming vortex of anorexia. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Laurie Halse Anderson here.
Follow Laurie on Twitter here.
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THE LUNAR CHRONICLES (Books 1-3) by Marissa Meyer
This was a fun and smart re-invisioning of the story of Cinderella. I loved the changes Meyer made to the original, especially giving Cinder a close connection within her adoptive family. The bond she shares with her youngest step-sister is tender and painful, especially when that relationship is tested and threatened.
Meyer is so creative in how she weaves the classic aspects into this new, futuristic world. The characters are well worth rooting for, especially the kick-ass female lead. I really enjoyed the entire series and I read through it all too quickly. I can hardly wait for the fourth book, WINTER, which doesn’t come out until November of 2015. That gives you plenty of time to read the first three books.
(Since this is a top ten list, I’m only giving details on book one. Trust me. you won’t be able to stop once you start. Carve out a weekend.)
Plot Summary for CINDER:
Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless Lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . .
Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Marissa Meyer here.
Follow Marissa on Twitter here.
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ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Saenz
From the very first page, I stopped to reread passages that took my breath away, that made me want to hug this book to me and never let it go.
Here’s the first passage that stopped me in my tracks:
As far as I was concerned, the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky. Then the sky could be as miserable as I was.
And that was just the writer getting warmed up and talking about the weather. He gets deep and breaks your heart with his words. And you want to thank him for it. This is a book I will read over and over until its pages fall out.
I read this book at the recommendation of a dear writer friend of mine. (Thank you Sharon!) And now I’m recommending it to you. To everyone who loves great story and words and beautiful characters. You will take this story into your heart and it will never leave you.
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.(Plot summary from Goodreads.)
Follow Benjamin on Twitter here.
WONDER by R.J. Palacio
This story resonated a little too close to home at times. Tears were shed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The chapters that hit me the hardest were, oddly enough, those told from the sister’s point of view. I think it was imagining my daughter having similar thoughts and how much she could relate to this experience because of her own brother.
There were just as many moments of laughter as tears and the overall emotion was of hope. I loved that most of all. This book is so worth sharing with everyone who needs to experience some empathy for anyone who’s different – and not just on the outside.
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances? (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about R.J. Palacio here.
Follow R.J. on Twitter here.
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REALITY BOY by A.S. King
This book is one of my greatest treasures – and not just because it is inscribed to me by the phenomenal A.S. King herself. (Okay, that doesn’t hurt – *hugs book tighter*.) I just love her writing so much. It’s honest and raw. I want to call this one ‘The Anger Book’ because it lets you really get down and dirty with feeling all kinds of angry. And understanding where your anger really comes from – that lack of caring, the seeing-but-not-seeing adults who let things happen, the neglect, the injustices that were done when you were too young to be in control of your destiny.
The main character, Gerald, taps right into it all and lets us live vicariously through him as he slowly starts to find his voice and make demands for a new life. Enpowerment on the page. Dig it.
Gerald Faust knows exactly when he started feeling angry: the day his mother invited a reality television crew into his five-year-old life. Twelve years later, he’s still haunted by his rage-filled youth—which the entire world got to watch from every imaginable angle—and his anger issues have resulted in violent outbursts, zero friends, and clueless adults dumping him in the special education room at school.
Nothing is ever going to change. No one cares that he’s tried to learn to control himself, and the girl he likes has no idea who he really is. Everyone’s just waiting for him to snap…and he’s starting to feel dangerously close to doing just that.
In this fearless portrayal of a boy on the edge, highly acclaimed Printz Honor author A.S. King explores the desperate reality of a former child “star” who finally breaks free of his anger by creating possibilities he never knew he deserved. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about A.S. King here.
Follow A.S. King on Twitter here.
THE GREAT GREENE HEIST by Varian Johnson
Author Kate Messner recommended this book to everyone on the planet during the awesome #weneeddiversebooks campaign. She wanted us to all put up (and not even shut up) and help make this book a bestseller, not just because it was written by a minority author, but because it was brilliant.
She was not lying.
After beginning page one on a road trip and finishing it before I reached my destination, I can attest to the fantasticness of Johnson’s storytelling. Man! I so wish I could’ve gone to school with a kid like Jackson Greene. If I were a kid right now reading this book, I would get into all kinds of mischief plotting my own Jackson-like schemes. I loved, loved, loved this character. I so hope Johnson gets to write more Greene adventures. I will read every one of them.
Jackson Greene has reformed. No, really he has. He became famous for the Shakedown at Shimmering Hills, and everyone still talks about the Blitz at the Fitz…. But after the disaster of the Mid-Day PDA, he swore off scheming and conning for good.
Then Keith Sinclair — loser of the Blitz — announces he’s running for school president, against Jackson’s former best friend Gaby de la Cruz. Gaby hasn’t talked to Jackson since the PDA, and he knows she won’t welcome his involvement. But he also knows Keith has “connections” to the principal, which could win him the election whatever the vote count.
So Jackson assembles a crack team to ensure the election is done right: Hashemi Larijani, tech genius. Victor Cho, bankroll. Megan Feldman, science goddess and cheerleader. Charlie de la Cruz, point man. Together they devise a plan that will bring Keith down once and for all. Yet as Jackson draws closer to Gaby again, he realizes the election isn’t the only thing he wants to win. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn mores about Varian Johnson here.
Follow Varian on Twitter here.
Follow Varian on Facebook here.
LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by Robin Talley
I was gripped by the story from the first pages. I could feel the tension of of those black students going through their first day of integration so intently, I don’t think my own muscles unclenched until the characters in the book were safely home. How any of them made it through an entire week, let alone an entire school year, living with constant fear and torturous conditions, is beyond me.
I’ve read a lot about the Civil Rights Movement and I thought I knew about the story of integration, but I’d never really thought about the story from the kids’ perspective. They really held the battle on their shoulders. And Talley weaves such a wonderfully nuanced tale that connects today’s struggle for equality with that of the past, making it just as relevant and just as terrifying. Sarah and Linda’s relationship grows so naturally and painfully that I couldn’t stop reading it. Really an excellent book.
In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.”
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Robin Talley here.
Follow Robin on Twitter here.
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ROSE UNDER FIRE by Elizabeth Wein
This is the companion novel to CODE NAME VERITY, which I read last year and loved so, so much. Some of the main characters from Verity make guest appearances in this book and I found myself wanting to spend more time with them and I was always sad when they left the stage, as it were. I think that says more about how powerful the first book was than anything else. Once I got into the thick of Rose’s story, I was completely overtaken. And there was a great deal to love about it. This book is chock full of strong female characters facing dire situations during war time and surviving on their own wits, just like its predecessor.
Told in a similar diary style as Verity, this book injects the reader straight into the heart of the main character’s deepest thoughts and fears, and takes the reader through the horrific aftermath of surviving the unsurvivable and how one adjusts back to real life. How you begin to live again after leaving so many others behind. Rose recants her tale in a Paris hotel where she’s afraid of even the maid’s light intrusions. She spends days writing down her nightmarish experiences so she won’t forget and so she can get through it. In doing so, she take us through the worst months of her life where in a place devoid of hope and life, she found both, and friendship as well. Just like its companion book, this is such a well-written story that it will leave you thinking about its characters long after you have put it down. It is well worth the read.
Rose Justice is a young pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War. On her way back from a semi-secret flight in the waning days of the war, Rose is captured by the Germans and ends up in Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi women’s concentration camp. There, she meets an unforgettable group of women, including a once glamorous and celebrated French detective novelist whose Jewish husband and three young sons have been killed; a resilient young girl who was a human guinea pig for Nazi doctors trying to learn how to treat German war wounds; and a Nachthexen, or Night Witch, a female fighter pilot and military ace for the Soviet air force. These damaged women must bond together to help each other survive. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Elizabeth Wein here.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter here.
Follow Elizabeth on Facebook here.
FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell
I’ve waited over a year to read this book! (I loaned my copy to a friend soon after receiving it for my birthday last year and then she moved and it was buried in a box for ages.) All in all, it was well worth the wait. Rowell’s characters are so well-written and so dynamic that they could’ve been people I went to college with. And talk about nostalgia! I was flashing back in my cramped dorm room, reliving those early days with my first roommate within a few chapters. The struggles of becoming an adult and feeling like you have no idea what you are doing, except that you’re pretty sure you’re making a royal mess of everything you touch. The allure of withdrawing into a fantasy world (escaping into a world of stories) is strangely familiar and one I’m sure many soon-to-be college freshman will soon be grappling with themselves.
Loved this book ALMOST as much as Eleanor & Park. It was really close. Rowell has such a unique style with her writing, she pulls you in as effortlessly as breathing. Before you know it, you just accept her reality as your own.
Cath is a Simon Snow fan.
Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan . . .
But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.
Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fanfiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.
Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.
Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.
For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?
Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?
And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind? (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Rainbow Rowell here.
Follow Rainbow on Twitter here.
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Follow Rowell’s Tumblr here.
So there you have it!
My favorite reads of the past year.
And here is a peek at my TBR pile. The poor neglected books I didn’t get to in 2014 that are waiting patiently for me to read in the new year. I may be crazy, but I think I’ll set my reading goal for next year even higher. Why not? I’m feeling optimistic.
What were your favorite books from 2014? What books are you looking forward to in 2015?