The Compulsive Reader: December 2013

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favorite Books of 2013

I know, I know. Another one of those end-of-year lists. How obnoxious. Yet, I can’t seem to stifle my inner list-maker long enough to let this opportunity slide. My one point of order? This is my list of favorite books released this year. I am making no claims that these are the best books of 2013, or that this list is the best list out there. I just happen to think it is.

(Also, this list details books that are new releases for 2013. Here’s a list of books I read in 2013 that weren’t released this year. I liked them a lot so you should totally check out that list.)

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

The year 2013 was a truly great year because we saw not only two new books by Gail (the second being the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage, Curtsies & Conspiracies), but the beginning of a new series! While the Parasol Protectorate series is not YA, it has definite crossover appeal and I devoured those books. Here is Gail’s new series for YA readers (although all readers will love it), set about 20 years before her Alexia Tarabotti first wielded her dangerous parasol. It can be read completely independently of her other series, but there are some fun character overlaps. Click here to read my review of Etiquette (out now in paperback!), and here to read my review of Curtsies.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

New Orleans in 1950 is a bit of a departure from Sepetys’ first book, which explored the Soviets’ mistreatment of their Baltic prisoners during World War II. I’m still not quite sure how she does it, but Sepetys gives her newest book stakes that are just as high as those in her previous novel. While Out of the Easy is an arguably lighter read than Between Shades of Gray, it is also a fascinating and heartbreaking story about how far one girl will go to get an education, and the ties that bind her to New Orleans. This is a really gripping historical fiction novel, and I can’t recommend it—or its author—enough. Click here to read my review of Out of the Easy (out in paperback in April) and here to read my review of Between Shades of Gray (out now in paperback).

The Color of Rain by Cori McCarthy

This book is by a debut author, but the confidence in this story and the lyricism of the prose would have you think differently. It’s the story of what you would do for someone you loved, what happens if that action demands too much of you, and how you can heal from giving too much of yourself. It’s a hopeful story, and while there is a lot of darkness (further compounded by the setting, the unsettling dark void of deep space), there is also a light at the end that is not unrealistic. This book is out in paperback, and you can read my review here. Also, keep an eye on this author. Her next book is Breaking Sky, and it sounds awesome.

Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

This book is hard to read, but it’s also hard to ignore. I first heard of it and couldn’t get the premise out of my head. I finally read it, and I was blown away by the voice and the energy of this story, and the emotional arc that had me laughing and sobbing. Angie is a girl we can all recognize, in ourselves or in our own lives, and her struggle to express and experience her feelings, she makes so bad choices. She also discovers some really amazing things in this book. I couldn’t stop reading it. Angie stuck with me for weeks after I finished the book. Click here to read my review. Click here to read about what awesome things Charlton-Trujillo is doing for at-risk kids.

45 Pounds (More or Less) by K.A. Barson

This is the time of New Year’s resolutions, and this book couldn’t be more relevant. Seriously. If you've ever gotten stuck in a dress, or told yourself you can lose x-amount of weight just in time for that big event, read this book. Ann’s story may seem like it starts off as weight-loss, love-yourself story, but it will surprise you with its honesty, its humor, its examination of family and why we say and do the things we do when it comes to food. Barson’s story is brisk, funny, and heartfelt, and it will put you in the perfect state of mind to feel healthy about yourself. And, it will make you laugh a lot. Click here to read my review.

Eleanor & Park and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

To think that a year ago, I had never even heard the name Rainbow Rowell. I first heard about her in BookPage, back in February. I thought Eleanor & Park looked really good, but I was a broke student in her last semester of college, and so I asked for the book for my birthday, in May. By the time I got it, it seemed that I was already late to the “Rainbow Rowell is the Coolest” club. And then, in September, we got ANOTHER new book from her! But seriously, though. Rainbow Rowell is a very skilled and beautiful writer, and the stories she creates are moving and funny and entertaining, and they make the world seem like a better place, despite the fact that she writes about some very dark topics—abuse, mental illness, loneliness, and isolation. Rowell’s books are a reminder than everyone deserves love and life can be unexpectedly awesome. Click here to read my review of Eleanor & Park, and here to read my review of Fangirl.

Reality Boy by A.S. King

I don’t think I need to go on and on about how awesome King’s writing is (resisting temptation…). I didn’t think that I could love a book as much as I loved Ask the Passengers, but Reality Boy was brilliant. It’s a book that punches you in the face to get your attention, and once you’re immersed, there’s no coming up for air until the last page. I love how King wrote the scenes from Gerald’s present and his childhood to interact and play off of each other, and the sly way in which she takes clichés—like running off to join the circus—and turns them on their head in this book. Go get a copy. Click here to read my review. (Bonus! King also released a collection of short stories earlier this year called Monica Never Shuts Up. Read my review here.)

Entangled by Amy Rose Capetta

Think of all of your favorite tropes and heists and character quirks from the TV show Firefly. Imagine how awesome they would be in a YA book. Here is that YA book. It’s not Firefly in book form, because that would be boring, but it is an irresistible mix of fun, physics, and action aboard a magnificent smuggler ship that will capture your heart much like the cast of Firefly did. Capetta goes beyond that, though: her characters are searching for connection and finding it in unlikely places, and they are confronting strange science that will change their universe. Click here to read my review. Look for the sequel, Unmade, in Fall 2014!

Blaze, or Love in the Time of Supervillains by Laurie Boyle Crompton

If that title doesn’t get your attention, then the cover will. And if neither of those elements convinces you to put this book on your to-read list, then allow me to elaborate. Blaze is the kickass protagonist you’ve been hoping to find your entire reading life. She’s smart, she’s witty, she’s confident, she loves all things Marvel, and she can still get all girly over a boy. But when that boy doesn’t turn out to be the hero she thought he was, she sets out to expose him for the creep he is. Blaze’s journey isn’t exactly orthodox, and she may be a little naïve when it comes to relationships, but here is a heroine who won’t back down, won’t dumb down, and is proud of her passions. (And also, super hilarious.) Click here to read my review. This book is out in paperback, and Crompton’s next book, The Real Prom Queens of Westfield High, is out in February!

What were some of your favorite books read in 2013? What are you looking forward to in 2014?

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Semester of Middle Grade

As promised, here is a list of middle grade fiction that I read this past semester. You can go here to read about my exploration with middle grade, and if you're at all interested in what I read for school last semester, here is a link to my semester bibliography. I've been having a hard time deciding how I want to talk about middle grade books on my blog--some I don't necessarily feel inspired to review, and some I can't stop talking about. And yet, my blog has always been a YA book blog, and I am slow to change that. I'm just going to take it as it comes!

The first middle grade I read when I found out I was accepted to VCFA was MG written by faculty members!

The Grand Place to Fix Everything and The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami

These books follow Dini, a Bollywood-obssessed girl whose life is upended when her parents decide to move to India for her mother's job. The only bright spot is that in India, Dini is closer to her Bollywood heroine, Dolly Singh. I loved how these stories unfolded, mainly from Dini's perspective, but Krishnaswami includes perspectives from other characters to help tie all of the plotlines together in a lovely, seamless manner.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

The Underneath, I am sad to admit, is a book that I would have never picked up as a kid. I was even hesitant to do so as an adult until my friend Cori McCarthy told me that I simply must. (And yes, I do whatever Cori McCathy tells me to do.) I was so not one for animals-as-main-characters when I was a young reader, and I would say I am still not, but Kathi Appelt's book is a definite exception. This book is so lyrical, so moving, and so beautiful. The characters--a cat and her kittens, an old hound dog, and a snake--all come together in unexpectedly wonderful and terrible ways. This book. It must be read by all.

One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

If you're the type of reader that is impressed by award stickers, then the cover of One Crazy Summer is awe-inspiring. And, as I discovered, the book is so deserving of its awards. The voice of protagonist Delphine and the voices of her two younger sisters are completely unforgettable, and their story is one that sucks you in, makes you cringe and laugh, and maybe even want to cry a little. The sequel? Just as good.

Before heading to residency, I also read a few books that I noticed were popular, or were recommended to me by friends (Cori again).

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

At this point, I had not read A Wrinkle in Time yet (stop gasping, that's to come!) but I found that it didn't matter too much with this book. The first chapter had everything that I loved about book beginnings: a strong voice, full of personality and wit, a well-established setting, and the presentation of a puzzling mystery. I loved everything about this story and how Stead told it.

The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen

This is a book that I was actually sent an ARC of back before it came out. I picked it up because I like fantasy with twists, and this book promised just that. While I was able to figure out the big twist pretty early on, I enjoyed how Nielsen took the reader through the story and how the protagonist reacted to all of his challenges. It was a fun first book and one I recommend often to customers at the bookstore. I am looking forward to the the second book!

Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles

Cori's recommendation to me? "Read this book. It made me bawl." So naturally, I borrowed her copy as soon as I could. And it did make me bawl, too. But it is also so sweet, so quirky, and so heartfelt that I begrudged not a single tear. I loved this book.

Throughout my semester, I tried to read one book written and published before I was born. This system has educational value as much as it was an excuse to go back and read all of those books I never read as a kid (I blame you, Mom).

(Not really, Mom.)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Yes, it's true. I never read this book as a kid. It's funny, because I distinctly remember having a copy (it looked like the cover pictured) but I have no idea why I didn't read it. Since admitting that I had never read this book caused such a reaction among my classmates that I was afraid they'd vote me out of the class, I read this one pretty early on in my semester. I liked it. I hesitate to say I love it. I think that if I had actually read this book at age 11 or 12 or even 13, I might have loved it. As it is now, adult me appreciates it and finds it interesting, but...no strong emotional attachment. Sigh.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

If I thought that admitting to not having read A Wrinkle in Time was a crime among my VCFA class, then admitting to having never even heard of The Westing Game was treason. What can I say? I read it because my friend Emily kept writing the title and author down on cafeteria napkins and imploring me to go get a copy. I found this one endlessly fascinating because this book, while written for children, barely has any children in it. It's a great, twisty mystery that keeps you guessing, and even my mom loved it. Thanks, Emily. (Sorry it took me so long.)

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

My knowledge of the Peter Pan story begins and ends with viewings of the Disney movie and Finding Neverland. I really enjoyed this bizarre little story, although it did sort of break my heart in a way. It has definitely stuck with me and I am sorry it took me so long to read it, yet happy I read it when I did. Make sense? (Don't worry, I'm not even sure if that sentiment makes sense to me.)

My exploration of MG was slow at first. I mainly stuck with re-reading books and authors I remembered liking as a kid.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.K. Konigsburg

Yes, a classic kid's book I did read as a kid! I remembered finding this one a bit bizarre and funny, but ultimately really great. After re-reading it, I loved the wordplay between Claudia and Jamie, and I loved how the story was written as a letter. It reminded me, in a way, of Rebecca Stead's writing.

Turtle in Paradise and Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

I read and loved Jennifer Holm's Boston Jane trilogy when I was a kid, and I remember empathizing deeply with Our Only May Amelia (I grew up the only girl with four brothers and at my private school I was the only girl in my class for three years). I wasn't crazy for Turtle in Paradise but I really enjoyed Penny From Heaven. Holm's books have a great, conversational tone to them and her protagonists are always strong characters who have a knack for getting themselves in too deep and then finding a way out of their messes.

Once I got started with MG, I couldn't bring myself to stop!

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

I read Stead's third book since I loved When You Reach Me. I can't decide which book I like more! While this book does't have the high concept plot, it does have a mystery, and the emotional arc of Georges' story is so well-written. I loved this book.

Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff

I am a big fan of all things fairy tales and I especially like the Rumpelstiltskin tale. My friend Kelly told me I must, must read this book, and I am so glad I did! Rump was a lot of fun, and I can't wait to see what else Shurtliff will publish! (Bonus: I totally wrote an entire paper on this book and villainy in middle grade novels. That's how much I loved this book!)

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

This book is a retelling of "The Snow Queen" and I adored it. I loved Ursu's language and the lyricism of this story of friendship and resilience and the power of imagination. I recommend this book to almost everyone that comes into the bookstore looking for MG fiction. I should also mention that the interior art in this book is gorgeous. The illustrator, Erin McGuire, does an excellent job with this book!

Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

This book has one of the best first scenes and best uses of tension that I have ever read. The first chapter hooks you in and makes you empathize for the protagonist, and the rest of the story is just as good. I can't wait for Snyder's next book, Seven Stories Up!

Pie by Sarah Weeks

I remember hearing a fantastic pitch for this book at a GLIBA conference I attended two years ago and I am so glad I got a chance to finally pick up Pie! When Alice's Aunt Polly, the Pie Queen, dies unexpectedly, Alice struggles to find a way to honor her memory while at the same time protecting all of her pie secrets from Polly's enemies. This book was quite a fun read, despite the sadness of Polly's death.

The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford

Two of my favorite YA books are by Standiford: How to Say Goodbye in Robot and The Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters. I read this book in a day. The protagonist is Minty, an aspiring roller derby girl, who finds a tree in the woods behind her house that holds all of the neighborhood secrets, written on pieces of paper. If you like Rebecca Stead, you'd like this book!

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

I will admit that part of the reason why I picked up this book is that my VCFA classmate Gilbert Ford illustrated the cover (and isn't it fantastic?!). I really enjoyed this story about plucky heroine Mo who begins investigating a murder in her small Southern town, and uncovers answers about her own past along the way. It reminded me a lot of the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley. (This one also gets a star because my mom LOVED it.)

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

This is a quick, quirky story that would make an excellent read-aloud for any kid. I enjoyed the illustrations and the clever twists and turns, the zany characters and great wit.

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

This book is a really great "in between" books for kids who are starting to grow out of MG but may not be completely ready to go all YA. The protagonist is in eighth grade, she's smart yet a bit naive, and her story really appealed to me as a YA reader, yet I'd feel comfortable handing this book to a MG reader.

It's been quite a semester, and I can't wait to do it all again starting next week! What MG books do you love?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Books I (Finally) Read in 2013

As a blogger, sometimes I think I get so focused on new releases. What's new and cool in 2014? What's coming out NOW even seems to be old news. One awesome thing about being at VCFA is that I am encouraged (and sometimes very pointedly directed) to awesome backlist titles that I may have missed in past years. Here's a list of books that I've finally, finally read in 2013. (Please don't yell at me too much for taking this long!)

Shine by Lauren Myracle

After sitting on my shelf for almost two years, I finally read Shine! It was a lot different from what I expected. This book really shows the darker side of poverty--not just how a lack of money forces you to live, but what it can do to people on an emotional and psychological level. Shine is not representative of all poor communities, but Myracle does tell one hard and heavy story here. I could see some really interesting parallels between it and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Okay, okay. I get what the hype is all about now! This book has one of the best prologues that I have ever read. It grabbed me instantly, and I love the Imperial Russian influences on the setting. The setting was the best part for me, but I was fascinated by the magic system as well. This is a great book, and I promise, I'll read the sequels. Soon. Maybe after grad school?

Story of a Girl and Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

My first Sara Zarr book was Once Was Lost, and I've read her every release since then, but I keep meaning to go back and read her first two books. Hooray for critical essays and annotated bibliographies, because I finally had a purpose to read Zarr's first two books. Tragically, I am all caught up now and even though 2013 saw TWO new releases for Zarr, I want more. Now.

Where Things Comes Back by John Corey Whaley

I am kicking myself for not reading this sooner. I get very upset when I think about my history with this book. I received an ARC back in 2011, and it was talked up to me multiple times. I took a look at the old cover, and I think I skimmed the summary, and somehow I decided that this was a middle grade book? (No, I don't know what I was thinking.) And, if you recall, I didn't read MG back in 2011. So, I gave the ARC to another blogger. STUPID ME. When I got to residency in July, my fabulous roommate Courtney Rogers was aghast to find that I had never read it. I like Courtney, so I found myself a copy and was delighted to find that I was wrong about this book. I loved it. Loved it with a sort of book passion that makes me order five copies for the bookstore and then sell every single one of them in a week. (Yeah, that happened.) But seriously. THIS BOOK. READ IT.

Feed by M.T. Anderson

I know, I know. But I finally read it! It wasn't what I expected. I expected to like this book. Instead, it made me very uncomfortable. Which was the point, I'm pretty sure. It's a sticky book. It will be hard to read, but it sticks to you until you've finished it, and then it sticks with you some more. Like all important books do. (Plus, it's brilliantly written. If you want to be a writer, read this book and look at how it works.)

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo

I received this book last year and despite receiving a wonderful blurb from Melina Marchetta, it went on my "want-to-read-but-can't-right-now-so-maybe-someday-when-I'm-on-my-island-with-nothing-else-to-do" pile. And hooray for VCFA and making me pick up a lot of books on that pile! I liked this one a lot. It was heartfelt without being mushy and I just really felt for both of the characters. Plus, it's not just released in paperback here in the US!

What books have you read (or do you want to read) that you seemed to have missed when they first came out?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Feed by M.T. Anderson

Titus doesn’t think for himself. He doesn’t have to when he is constantly plugged into his feed. The feed connects him to everything and everyone, and he’s always searching for the next trend, the next amusement. A trip to the moon puts Titus in the path of Violet, a girl who thinks differently about life and resists her own feed, challenging Titus for the first time in his life.

Titus isn’t a particularly likable character, and judging by how few times his name is mentioned throughout the novel, he is not meant to be. Anderson’s use of slang works well to create a future that is frighteningly similar to our own world and condemning of society’s reliance on consumerism. Like Titus, this story is uncomfortable and somewhat frustrating, yet strangely compelling and foreboding in its descriptions of a dead Earth and dying humanity too preoccupied to care.

Cover Comments: I like how this cover hasn't changed all that much since the book was released. It's memorable and fitting for the story. 

Book purchased at my indie.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Post-Christmas Book Happiness

Hello, lovely readers. I hope you all had a lovely Christmas if you celebrate it, and a wonderful day anyway if you don't. My Christmas season has been unusually busy this year, with extra bookstore shifts and Christmas shopping. Being busy at work is nice, and working extra hours because we're selling so many books is fantastic, but I am relieved that Christmas is past because now I can focus on two three things:

1. Reading books
2. Getting ready for January residency
3. Reading more books

This Christmas I received more books than I have in the past five years combined, and most of them aren't YA (gasp, shock, etc., etc.). It's actually sort of funny how before I started graduate school, I read every YA book I could get my hands on, and reluctantly made time for other books. Six months ago, I would have thought that being at VCFA would give me the permission I needed to read as many YA books as I want without having to explain myself. Instead, VCFA encourages me to read wider than what I have always read and enjoyed, and that means different genres, different age categories. As a result, my Christmas book haul looked like this:

In the Woods and The Likeness by Tana French

I read Broken Harbor and Faithful Place earlier this year, and I fell in love with French's writing. I like combination of dark, perplexing mysteries with a literary eye for story and character development. French's characters are fascinating and flawed, and I knew after reading Broken Harbor that I had to get my hands on everything she's written. Bonus? My mom loves these books as well, and they're very easy sells at the bookstore.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

No, I have not seen the TV show! I did, however, order this book for the bookstore when the TV show was blowing up my Facebook news feed, and I had time to read approximately 50 pages of the book before we sold out. I've discovered that I enjoy memoirs (read earlier this year: Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler and Wild by Cheryl Strayed), and I like Kerman's voice a lot. Looking forward to reading this one!

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Because, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl.

And, my token YA novels: The Fiery Heart by Richelle Mead, Also Known As by Robin Benway, and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.

The Fiery Heart has been tempting me since it came out like, two weeks before my final packet of grad work was due. (Try finishing up a semester of grad school when you know a new Richelle Mead book is out in the world. Just try it. It's HARD.) Richelle's words from BEA in May--that this is the "Shadow Kiss of the Bloodlines series" have haunted me for months. This book. It's happening. I'm finally reading it. Don't give me any spoilers, please.

I love, love, love Robin Benway's two previous novels, Audrey, Wait! and The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June. I would pick up anything she writes, even her grocery lists, just because of those two books. And now Also Known As is out in paperback! Hooray!

And finally, Rose Under Fire. Because Code Name Verity ripped my heart out. I'm a masochist.

So, my challenge to myself is to read all of these books. In the next two weeks before I hop onto a plane to snowy Vermont to be reunited with my writing family at our beloved second home that is the campus of VCFA. In between bookstore shifts, knitting myself another dozen pair of wool socks (VT and MI are COLD), reading workshop submissions, and oh yeah, blogging and my own writing.

Challenge accepted.

What books did you receive this Christmas?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars Movie Poster

So, in case you missed it, this happened:


I love it.

There has been some controversy over the tagline--"One sick love story"--but honestly, it made me laugh. Let's think about this: The Fault in Our Stars is a sad book, yes. But I would not classify it as a sad book. It's a funny book, it's heartfelt, and it has its really sad moments, but it's mostly really funny and sarcastic. And I like that John Green doesn't take himself too seriously in the story. So, the tagline fits for me, and wasn't insulting in the least. And if you are upset with it...well, I hardly think it's Green's fault.

So, what do you think of the poster?

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

When Ashlee Parker is found dead in the woods, Emily’s ex-soldier father is charged with her murder. Emily won’t accept her father killed Ashlee and suspects someone else was in the woods the night. Ashlee’s boyfriend Damon can’t remember the night she died and is wracked with guilt. The fear that he is responsible for Ashlee’s fate leads him to carefully search for answers--and that means facing Emily.

The Killing Woods is a dark, atmospheric thriller with unrelenting questions. Emily and Damon's alternating perspectives, paired with flashbacks to before Ashlee was found dead, set a fast pace for this book. The woods take on a special sort of eeriness as Emily explores the place she has known as a refuge and as dangerous, and Damon slowly reveals the game he and his friends play in the darkness of the woods. Emily’s love for her father and strange attraction to Damon bring the two together in a tense, emotional search for the truth. The Killing Woods asks the hard questions about what terrible things humans are capable of, and how far people will go to experience the ultimate rush.

Cover Comments: I like the dark blue of the cover, and the red in the title treatment. The silhouette of the girl running fits the story well!

The Killing Woods will be available on January 7th, 2014 in the US (available now in the UK and Australia). Lucy Christopher is the visiting writer at VCFA's winter 2014 residency, and I am excited to learn from her next month. Her first book, Stolen, is also excellent!

ARC picked up at the Heartland Fall Forum.