My Favorite Books of 2011, Part III

And the goodness of favorite books continues into a Part III!

The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Book 3 in The Demon’s Lexicon Series. Book One: The Demon’s Lexicon; Book Two: The Demon’s Covenant. Reading anything after this point is spoilers for the rest of the series. Personal copy. My review. “First things first; yes, this is a series, and yes, these books are best read in order. At this point, please check my prior reviews (links above) for The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant. The bigger question, with this being the last book in the series, is — is it worth it? Should a reader invest their time in reading this series? The answer, I’m happy to say, is “yes.” Those of you who were waiting because you want to read a series all at once will be richly rewarded with this intricate examination of magic, power, politics, choice, family, and love.”

Carter’s Big Break by Brent Crawford. Hyperion. 2010. Brilliance Audiobook. 2011. Narrated by Nick Podehl. Reviewed from audiobook from Brilliance. My review.Carter, Carter, Carter. As with the first book, I listened to the audiobook narrated by the brilliant Nick Podehl. Podehl does such a terrific job of channeling Carter that I sometimes thought I was carpooling to work as the book played. He captures Carter’s attitude, his bravado, his sweetness, and his general, inevitable tendency to be a total dumbass. Just as important, Podehl had me laughing so hard I was crying. Carter is — well, he’s a teenage boy. He sometimes talks before he thinks. Acts before he thinks. He is often clueless. But, underneath the friendly insults with his friends and his fumbling romance with Abby, he is a good, sweet boy (who would hate me saying so).”

The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska by Colleen Mondor. Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. My review. Disclosure: I am a friend of the author. “The myth of Alaska looms behind the story, and it’s a big myth, so Mondor wisely only looks at the myth as it applies to one area: flying. The myth is why some went to Alaska, why they went there to fly, and why the stayed. “It was the place where pilots were needed, where they mattered.” Myths are stories, and for Mondor and her pilots, the story matters. Why did a pilot, a friend, crash? What does “pilot error” mean? “Because he was lucky, he thought he was good.” True of pilots, but also true of anyone, and also true of how we choose to interpret our lives. How are our stories told and retold?”

The Returning by Christine Hinwood. Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher from ALA conference. My review. “How to explain this book? How to get you to read it, because, yes, I want you to. How to convey how much I love this book, and this writing, even though it was not easy. In truth, when I began I felt a bit cold towards it. I wasn’t sure when or where I was, just a place that was vaguely pre-Industrial and with some names vaguely familiar (Cam, Graceful) and others not at all (Pin, Edord, Vivrain.) . . .   And then, it all just — clicked. Part of it had to do with realizing that I had to stop putting expectations on this book, about what it would or would not be, and just let it enfold me. Just let myself sink into Cam’s world without worrying about who was a main character and who wasn’t, and whether this world was European or Asian or something else. And I realized that what The Returning was about, was not Cam, or Pin, or Graceful, but was about war, and the impact of war on regular people and regular lives. The people who stay in the same village, well, as Cam’s mother wisely says, “there’ve always been taxes, new Lord or old.” Their losses are in the generation of men that did not come home; Cam alone returned. For others, those displaced, like young Diido, the loss is of home and comfort and security. There are families like Graceful’s that now have opportunities they would not have had before.”

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2011. Review copy from publisher. My review. “The story: lonely, angry Rebecca. Smart, manipulative Ferelith. An odd, uneven friendship. Ferelith is brilliant but her interactions with people are distant. As she says early on, “I continued my education in a more important way, through the observation of everyone around me, because nothing is more important to learn in life than the interaction of a human being with another human being.” Her view of life is unique and she is drawn to the dark. “I think I was waiting, though I didn’t know what I was waiting for.” Ferelith creates situations to draw Rebecca into her petty thieving, trespassing, and explorations and Rebecca is only half-aware of Ferelith’s manipulations. . . . That is the story: unequal friendships, buried secrets, madness, blood, and the questions. Is there a God? Is there life after death? A Heaven or Hell? Angels or devils? . . . White Crow scared the hell out of me. But why? Not because of the horrors of the past. Rather, it’s because Ferelith so smoothly manipulates Rebecca, putting her in danger that is physical, emotional, and mental, playing on Rebecca’s trust and need and loneliness.”

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. 2011. Review from ARC from publisher. My review. “Killer horses. There are some reader who just need to know “killer horses.” I am not one of those people. Sorry, but I was never one of those girls who went through a horse phase. So, in other words, for me, Stiefvater had to work for it to make me fall for The Scorpio Races, and fall I did. What made me fall: the setting of Thisby. A small, isolated island except for the tourists who come for the Scorpio races and come to buy horses. The world where capaill uisce are real, and iron and bells and salt and circles can help tame them. A world where water horses kill and people view it as tragic and sad, but not unexpected. Thisby and the capaill uisce are from Stiefvater’s imagination (though based on the myths and stories of man-eating water horses), and so, too, is the time. It’s a world of cars but no Internet. It’s familiar, but slanted. Thisby is so real that midway through I began to wonder, half seriously, if I could visit. . . . Killer horses. No, “killer horses” was not enough to make me fall for this book, but as I read Stiefvater’s writing, as I saw the damage inflicted, as I read about the races, as I huddled with Puck and her younger brother in a flimsy lean-to while water horses came closer and closer — well, I fell for them, in the end.”

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by Luke Daniels. Review copies from publisher. My review. “This Dark Endeavor delves into just what motivated young Frankenstein. Victor has a twin brother, Konrad, older by a few minutes, but those moments are enough to make Konrad the golden child, the one everyone loves, the one who gets everything easily: the better student, the better fencer, the one all the servants love. The one their cousin Elizabeth loves. Victor’s feelings towards his brother are conflicted. He loves Konrad, is devoted to him, but is also jealous of all Konrad has and all Konrad is. When Konrad falls ill, Victor resolves to be the one to save him. It’s as much about saving Konrad as proving himself worthy; proving that he, Victor, is just as good — if not better — than his brother.”

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group. 2011. My review. “The first chapters have some stunning sentences that, in a handful of words, shows the horrors that Lina will be living through: “They took me in my nightgown.” “It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade.” “Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.””

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. My teaser. My review. “This is Min’s story, her long, glorious, honest letter to Ed about how and why they got together, and fell in love, despite — or maybe because of — being so different. Ed, a jock, popular; Min, who loves old films and coffee with friends. Min sends a box of objects to Ed; and I love that Min does this, that she is the girl who holds onto these items and then sends them Ed and I wonder — will Ed read the letter? Will he go through the box and match the things to the letter, remember as she remembers? Or will the box go into the closet, under the stairs, in the trash?”

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Atheneum Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Library copy. My review. “Cullen’s younger brother, Gabriel, disappears. It becomes a story of the loss of Gabriel, the search for him, but is also the story of how Cullen’s life goes on, because that is what happens. It is not just that the clocks don’t stop; it is that life is not so uncluttered that all else fades away and disappears along with the lost one. This is the first reason I love this book: Cullen’s life is full and messy and complicated. His reactions, his parents, are jagged and not linear.”

My Favorite Books of 2011, Part II

Because my favorites are too much for one post to hold!

The Lucky Kind by Alyssa B. Sheinmel. Knopf, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher. My review. “Nick’s struggles with the change in his family, or, rather, with his having to adjust to new information about his family, impact those around him. Part of the joy of The Lucky Kind is that because Nick has family and friends who are loving and supportive, they are able to give him what he needs during these months. No, they aren’t perfect; it is better than that, in that they are understanding and forgiving. Nick’s growth and coming of age is about how he, too, becomes understanding and forgiving. How he, too, earns the right to be one of “the lucky kind,” and learns that being “the lucky kind” isn’t about what one is given but rather what happens because of the choices one makes.”

The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher. My review. “Annah and Abigail are identical twins: Annah looks at Abigail — now Gabry — and sees what she, Annah, would have looked like and been like if she wasn’t scarred from barbed wire, if she had been loved by a mother and raised in a close, caring community. Readers of The Dead Tossed Waves know that Gabry’s life was not perfect. Annah does not want to be jealous of Gabry, especially since Annah believes it was her fault that the three children were initially lost in the forest. That Gabry ended up having a pretty good life is part of what Annah has to work through; Annah also has to work through Elias and Gabry’s relationship. Does Elias love Gabry because she is the unmarked Annah? This matters to Annah because of her bundle of emotions about Elias: Elias, the only person in her life for years. All her emotional life has been about Elias and now Elias loves another — not just any other, but Gabry. . . . . Just in case you’re thinking this is just an emotional merry go round, let me remind you: Living Dead. Zombies.”

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones. Candlewick. 2011. BrillianceAudio. Narrated by MacLeod Andrews. 2011. Review copy from publisher. My review. “Blink and Caution are two teens who fate has not treated well. Both deserve better than what life has given them. Caution, especially, has almost been broken by what she did. Almost . . . because while she ran away, while she hooked up with a drug dealer, while she is now on the run for her life, she is on the run. She does want to live. Blink & Caution is about two broken people coming together and being made whole, but it’s two broken people who are ready to be made whole. Had their paths crossed earlier, it would not have been the right time in either of their lives. Together, they are stronger; together, they may be able to figure a way out of the mess Blink is in. Together, they may become strong enough to survive on their own.”

The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey. Book 3 in the Monstrumologist Series. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. My review.If you enjoy horror, especially horror told in a literary manner, and haven’t read any of the Monstrumologist series yet, stop now and go read The Monstrumologist and The Curse of the Wendigo. This is the horror of Stephen King, including the deep examination of people and their psyches, a look into what makes people love — or people kill. It is told in the rich language of days past, as if polysyllabic words and classical language makes blood and violence easier to read about and to think about. To think – yes, horror demands you to think, not just about “what is that sound outside my window” but the deeper philosophical questions, such as – what is a monster? What is a man? What is the difference? Instead of Uncle Stevie making the reader think about the darker aspects of ourselves, it is Uncle Ricky, taking our hand as we search for monsters, known and unknown, inside and outside our homes and hearts.”

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. One of my top 5. My review.Elisa’s adventure is about to begin, and part of the joy of The Girl of Fire and Thorns is how she triumphs, despite the hardships and challenges she faces: everything from kidnapping to sand storms. I loved Elisa; loved how a person can be a hero who spent their life in books and comfort. Elisa had no reason to learn sword fighting, to ride a horse, to be athletic, so she wasn’t. She doesn’t become some slim fighting machine; but she does transform herself into a person of action. At its heart, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is about a girl becoming a woman because she realizes her actions have consequences, that life is more than sitting back waiting for things to happen, and that she has choices.”

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. My review. “Daughter of Smoke and Bone is stunning — I’ve never read anything quite like it. Taylor tells us, up front, “once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.” Talk about your spoilers! And this illustrates why spoilers don’t matter — yes, there will be an angel. There will be a devil. They will fall in love; the reader even knows how it will end. The entire plot is given away before the story even begins. Yet, still, the reader turns the pages, wondering, who is the angel? Who is the devil? How do they even meet to fall in love? What does this have to do with Karou, who lives in Prague and meets her best friend for coffee and picks the wrong boyfriend, yet also knocks on a normal-looking door and enters the mysterious workshop of Brimstone, a world where wishes come true for a price, and the price is teeth. Oh, what does Brimstone do with all those teeth . . .”

Uncommon Criminals: a Heist Society Novel by Ally Carter. Disney-Hyperion Books. 2011. Personal copy. Sequel to Heist Society. My review.I honestly believe there are two types of people in the world: those who love Ally Carter books, and those who haven’t read them yet. Those who do love them because they are “a good read”: fun, engaging, lively, smart. When certain critics moan over the dark state of YA literature, and where are the fun, lighthearted books, we turn to each other and say, “wait, what? There were no Ally Carter books on the shelves?””

Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Dutton Books, a member of Penguin. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. One of my top 5. My review. “How to explain the spell of Ruby, the web she weaves around all who know her. To know her is to love her. And as I write this, trying to both explain the magic and wonder of this book without revealing too much, I find that all I can write about is Ruby. All I want to write about is Ruby. Ruby is a magical older sister, almost mythical to her younger sister, Chloe. Zoey Deschanel would play Ruby in a movie, with her sundresses and boots, her big old Buick with the gas gage that always reads E yet always has a few extra miles left in her, ex-boyfriends ready to do any favor she asks, because, well, it’s Ruby. Some people are like that; charismatic, magnetic. Everyone loves Ruby. Best of all, Ruby loves Chloe. She includes Chloe in her circle, makes her part of it, whether its a circle of friends or of family (Ruby has practically raised Chloe). When Ruby says something is possible, it is. When Ruby says Chloe is capable of something, she is. For two years, Chloe has missed having someone believe in her so deeply, support her so completely: “Ruby could turn me from an ordinary girl you wouldn’t look at twice into someone worth watching, someone special, mythical even.” Who wouldn’t want a bond like Ruby and Chloe’s? But now, two years later, something is off, with Ruby, with that bond. Ruby has a secret, a secret she’s keeping from Chloe. Even when Chloe thinks she knows what it is, she isn’t even close to the truth.” 

My Favorite Books of 2011, Part 1

Earlier this month, my Top Five Books of 2011 was part of Smugglivus at the Book Smugglers.

Here, my complete list of Favorite Books Read in 2011, Part I

The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Candlewick. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. One of my top 5. My review. My review of the audio book. “Marchetta weaves together two stories: Tom, just entering his twenties, floating through his life because what he loved, what he valued, is gone. What isn’t gone he threw away, better to leave it behind than risk the hurt of more loss. [His Aunt] Georgie, twenty years older, is single and pregnant with mainly Tom for support. If Jellicoe Road was a puzzle, and Finnikin of the Rock a rough immersion into an unknown world, The Piper’s Son is an onion, something known but full of layers and secrets.”

The Queen of Water by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. My review. “Virginia doesn’t want your pity. She doesn’t want to break your heart. A stubborn child, she uses that willfulness to adapt, to learn, to grow despite all obstacles, even when those obstacles are her own fears and insecurities. This is a story of triumph, of hope, of finding one own’s way, and being true to oneself. Being true to oneself is never easy, because first you have to know yourself. How can you know yourself when your parents give you away? When the world you live in and is told is “good” labels you and your heritage “bad”, “stupid,” “ugly”?”

White Cat (The Curse Workers, Book One) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Review copy from publisher. Also listened to the audiobook version, copy from the library. My review. “This is an amazing mash-up of genres and I am head over heels in love. Maybe an emotion worker touched me with an ungloved hand while I wasn’t looking, but no, I think my love for White Cat is real and true. It’s difficult enough to write about a con, to write a mystery, to write about the supernatural or the mafia or family or friendship. To write about them all at once? For each to be spectacular? For all of them to be woven together flawlessly into one story? Amazing and impressive.”

Red Glove (The Curse Workers, Book Two) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Sequel to White Cat, which you really should read first. My review. “Red Glove digs deeper into the shady world where Cassel lives, exploring more layers and facets. He’s been raised to trust family and criminals, not friends and outsiders. The events of the past year left him distant from his brothers; it also brought his mother back into his life. She’s returned to her old ways, using her ability to manipulate and control emotions to target rich, old men. The reader also learns more about curse workers, the laws against them, and how those laws and discrimination led to the power of the crime families. Where does Cassel’s loyalties lie? Is it to his family and the person he was raised to be?”

Family by Micol Ostow. Egmont USA. 2011. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA. My review. “Melinda, Henry, the family. As the publisher’s website explains, Family is a “fictionalized exploration of cult dynamics, loosely based on the Manson Family murders of 1969.” Ostow uses fiction, verse, repetition and a fractured timeline to help the reader understand how and why someone could fall under another’s spell so completely that they do things they otherwise wouldn’t. It may use the broad bones of the summer of 1969, but it could any cult, any guru, any strong personality who captivates and betrays.”

Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. Simon & Schuster. 2010. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA. My review. “Benny’s journey with Tom outside the gate is the actual, physical journey of hunting zombies — and even that phrase, “hunting zombies,” turns out to not mean what Benny thought it was. It is the journey of Tom and Benny becoming brothers. Finally, it is Benny’s journey from child to adulthood as he learns the truth about the world and those he thought were heroes and cowards. That journey is scary and violent and actio n packed.”

Divergent by Veronica Roth. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. My review. “All these factions work together, like a perfect puzzle, to create a perfect society. Well, the intent was to create a perfect society, but can people really be so divided and a society remain whole? Does “faction before blood” really mean “faction instead of blood”? Beatrice — now called Tris — makes her choice and struggles to succeed. Divergent is about more, though, than factions. Tris discovers truths about her society; she is forced to make even more choices, ones that will not just impact herself but impact all in her world. Divergent is about more than exploring a structured world; it’s also action packed, as Tris moves from child to full member of her chosen faction, undergoing initiations and discovering who she really is.”

Chime by Franny Billingsley. Dial, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA Midwinter. One of my top 5. My review. “Briony tells this story, and it is a mad story. The first sentence shows us Briony’s strength and hints at what she has done: “I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please. I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story. I can’t relive those memories — the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp. How can you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.” Yes, a confession and an insistence she is horrid. But, how horrid is a girl who has confessed? How horrid is a girl who says “please”?”

Real Live Boyfriends (Yes, boyfriends, plural. If my life weren’t complicated, I wouldn’t be Ruby Oliver) by E. Lockhart. Delacorte, an imprint of Random House. 2010. Review copy from publisher. My review. “The Ruby books are best read in order. Not because of them being sequential and building on one another, which they are and do; but, rather, because combined they tell one story, of Ruby, as she matures and grows over the course of three years. It’s a true coming of age work and as I closed the book I wished that there was an award for best series, because the strength of some stories are not in their individual volumes but rather in the complete story. I don’t mean to say that the individual books aren’t strong — they are wonderful — but the true magic and genius of what Lockhart has done is revealed by looking at Ruby over the course of the entire series.”

Huntress by Malinda Lo. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC. Companion/prequel to Ash. My review. “If Ash was about recovering from grief (via a Cinderella retelling), Huntress is about love and what people will and won’t do for love and how those actions and non-actions impact people and their world. Love can be nurturing but it can also be destructive.”

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Scholastic Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA. My review. “What I’m fast appreciating about Libba Bray is that she’s always doing something different as an author; but, each time, it’s awesome. It’s like she’s the Meryl Streep of authors. Without the accents. Wait, Gemma Doyle was British so I guess maybe that counts? Anyway, so far Bray has given us a historical fiction lush with fantasy; a road trip that explores life, death, and spirituality; and now a satire about commercialism, beauty, and modern priorities and pirates. What’s next, westerns? (Actually, I know the answer is the Roaring Twenties. But still.)”

Tighter by Adele Griffin. Knopf Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher. My review. “Tighter creeped me out. In a good way. In a this is how I like to be scared way. Jamie may not have been told everything about her summer job and the previous summer’s tragedy, but she has a few secrets of her own. While running track, she suffered a back injury (a major lower lumbar sprain) and has been self-medicating ever since by raiding the medicine cabinets of her parents and siblings. Jamie has brought along fifty-odd pills for the summer, hoping they’ll ease the aches and help her sleep. But, the reader wonders, is that all it is?

Review: Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Atheneum Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Library copy. Morris Award Short List.

The Plot: Some things don’t come back; like Cullen’s cousin Oslo, dead from an overdose. Some things may come back, like the woodpecker that people believed was extinct until one self-important and pr-savvy professor came to town. In the town of Lily, Arkansas, eager, dream filled teens leave town, sure of bigger and better things that await them, and return because of heart break or sick parents or accidents. Lily, where things come back . . . . sometimes.

Will Cullen’s missing younger brother be one of those things that come back?

The Good: I confess; despite the many good things I’d heard about this books, from people like Kelly Jensen and Jen Hubert Swan, I didn’t put it on my to be read list because — and I cannot believe I’m admitting to this evidence of shallowness —  I didn’t like the cover.

First things first. How much did I love this book? It made me totally rearrange my scheduled blog posts, shifting a bunch of posts, in order to post this book in 2011 so I could call this a Favorite Book Read in 2011 (oops, spoilers, sweetie!) and then go revise my blog posts about my favorite books to add Where Things Come Back and finally to shift those favorite posts from the last week of 2011 to the first week of 2012. I know Sondy understands, that a favorite list isn’t done until the last day of the year happens so I shouldn’t have even tried to post them in 2011.

Where Things Come Back starts in a morgue, with seventeen year old Cullen identifying the body of his older cousin, Oslo. Cullen’s family and friends are introduced, a small circle of people in a small town. This is, at first, what Where Things Come Back seems to be about: small town boy coming of age. Strangely, another story is introduced, about a young man, Benton Sage, on a mission in Ethiopia a story that seems to have nothing to do with Cullen. On page 55, Where Things Come Back shifts: Cullen’s younger brother, Gabriel, disappears. It becomes a story of the loss of Gabriel, the search for him, but is also the story of how Cullen’s life goes on, because that is what happens. It is not just that the clocks don’t stop; it is that life is not so uncluttered that all else fades away and disappears along with the lost one. This is the first reason I love this book: Cullen’s life is full and messy and complicated. His reactions, his parents, are jagged and not linear.

Cullen’s brother is missing. And this is the second reason that I love this book: the mystery of Gabriel’s disappearance. That it isn’t introduced until over fifty pages in, and at only 228 pages, that means that almost a quarter of the book has gone by. An interesting choice; and one that allows the reader to know Cullen “before.” Or, rather, “during.” Cullen is another reason why Where Things Come Back is a favorite book read: Cullen, with his close relationships with a handful of people, his girlfriend issues, his anger that the town spends more time looking for the lost woodpecker than his lost brother.

When and why this story is being told is another strength of this book: just enough for the reader to know it’s not “now.” There is Dr. Webb, who says such things as “most people see the world in bubbles.” Who is he, when is Cullen talking about him? When is this taking place — the clues of this being in the past are few and far between, such as “the president can’t pronounce ‘nuclear’“. “I was still trying to figure out who I was back then.”

Zombies. At certain times, Cullen imagines life as a zombie movie. “His mind begins to wander and think about zombies.” At first, it’s simple day dreaming, making himself the hero in a zombie movie. Later, as he fears the worst, that Gabriel is dead because Gabriel wouldn’t run away, zombies become less about escapism and more about fears and nightmares.

Remember Benton Sage? How and why Benton matters to Cullen is ultimately revealed, and I gasped out loud when I realized the link between the two stories. No, really — I had been making a few guesses as the story progressed and Benton’s saga took some turns, but where it went . . . I didn’t see it coming.

Because of how much I enjoyed this book; because of the complexity of Cullen’s loss and grieving; because I’ve reread the ending a half dozen times; and because I’ve been searching for other reviews, looking for insights and analysis; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: 1941. Lithuania. Lina Vilkas is fifteen when the Soviet secret police come to her home, giving Lina, her mother, and her younger brother twenty minutes to pack their bags.

Twenty minutes.

They are put on a train, and, along with other men, women and children, sent to Siberia. The cattle cars are labelled “thieves and prostitutes.” The people are a collection of university professors (like Lina’s father), military officers, teachers, and others viewed as “criminals” by the Soviets. It includes the relatives of the criminals, like Lina and her mother and brother Jonas.

Lina goes from sheltered daughter and art student to someone who huddled in a cold shack, foraging for scraps of food, wondering when, and if, she will be able to survive.

The Good: The first chapters have some stunning sentences that, in a handful of words, shows the horrors that Lina will be living through: “They took me in my nightgown.” “It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade.” “Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”

Lina is plunged into a strange new world, and while the reader can anticipate, a little, just how bad it will get, Lina is teenager in 1941. She doesn’t know; she is protected by her age, protected by her parents, and protected by living in 1941 and not knowing, as the reader may, that Stalin’s occupation of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) will result in massive deportations. She does not know that they will be sent to Siberia, to the Gulag; that Stalin will be responsible for the deaths of twenty million people. So, if at times Lina takes risks or is thoughtless in what she says — she doesn’t know. As for how much the reader knows? I had a vague, general idea. After all, I’m a child of the time when the USSR still existed. I knew, vaguely, generally. I did not know the details; like, for instance, that people like Lina and her family would be sentenced for twenty-five years. That when the prisoners are dumped in Trofimovsk, the North Pole, after 440 days of travel and forced labor, that they would have to make their own shelters with scavenged materials, while the Soviet military live in buildings and eat food sent by the Americans.

I did not know the details; and that is what Between Shades of Gray provides, the details of living, of dying, of survival. Of finding love and beauty and hope in bleakness. Part of what gives Lina hope is her age: she is young, young enough to have just enough rebellion in her heart to keep going day after day. Part of what gives Lina hope is her art: seeing things as an artist, and also being an artist. Making a record of what she sees and how she sees it.

Between Shades of Gray made me cry, over and over. It also left me wanting to know more; it covers over a year in Lina’s life, but, as is shown in an epilogue, Lina and the other deportees that managed to survive would not return home until the mid 1950s. I want to know more, about Lina, her family, her friends; but I also want to learn more about this time and place. Between Shades of Gray is a Morris finalist; and it’s beautiful writing, a heartbreaking story. Yes, this is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011. I’ve now read two of the five Morris finalists, enjoyed both, but am holding off with guessing what the winner will be until I’ve read all five.

Review: Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC and final copy from publisher. My teaser.

The Plot: Min Green and Ed Slaterton have broken up. She gives him a box: a box, full of objects from the time they dated, from October 5 to November 12. The arty girl (no, don’t call her that) and the jock. Along with the box is a letter, Min’s letter to Ed, explaining — why we broke up. Explaining to Ed, explaining to herself, why they got together and why they broke up.

The Good: This is Min’s story, her long, glorious, honest letter to Ed about how and why they got together, and fell in love, despite — or maybe because of — being so different. Ed, a jock, popular; Min, who loves old films and coffee with friends.

Min sends a box of objects to Ed; and I love that Min does this, that she is the girl who holds onto these items and then sends them Ed and I wonder — will Ed read the letter? Will he go through the box and match the things to the letter, remember as she remembers? Or will the box go into the closet, under the stairs, in the trash?

Each object, each bottle cap and note, is illustrated in full color by Maira Kalman. (More on the book design and the ARC at my teaser). The final copy is gorgeous; the paper, thick and fine and smooth, deserving of Kalman’s illustrations. The attention to detail is stunning –under the jacket, the book cover is scattered rose petals. The endpapers (front and back both unique) are the beginning and end of the story. I first read this in advance review copy; my second time was the final book. Having all the artwork, and all the artwork in color, didn’t just make the book prettier. It also added an element of wonder, of guessing, of wondering just what is the significance of the item shown. Some have great meaning; others do not; and that is part of the reality of life and love and adds to the depth of the book. Sometimes a protractor is just a protractor.

Why did Ed and Min break up? Like the films Min loves, on one level, the reason is surprising and unexpected. On another, the romance is doomed from the start, with all the clues and reasons laid out from the beginning, making one wonder not why they broke up but why they managed to stay together for as long as they did.

Min and Ed are in two different cliques and two different worlds. Since Min is telling the story, it is always her point of view, and Ed’s world of basketball and bonfires and beer seems almost a cliche at times. Min cannot help revealing clues to show that Ed’s life is as three dimensional as her own; because, really, otherwise would she ever have given him a second look? And is her old films and coffee clique any less cliche? But back to Ed —  Min goes to a couple of basketball practices, playing the role of good, supportive girlfriend, and Min tells it to the reader and Ed to say, look what I did, I went to your boring practice, for you I was almost one of those girls who go to practice just to watch their boyfriends. While this is never a book about Min learning to appreciate basketball, the reader sees just how much Ed’s life and identity revolves around basketball, that it takes time and effort and work for him to be co-captain, and the reader wonders, even though Min never does, if a team gives Ed the support and family he doesn’t have at home. Handler gives the reader enough so they can see things Min does not. Or, rather, that Min cannot, because she is both trying to figure out who she is and also working through the hurt of her breakup.

And Min — oh, Min. Min, with her love of movies, not just any movies but old movies. Don’t bother IMDB’ing the films and stars she mentions, because they are films just for the book, vaguely familiar, but not quite. Min loves films and sees her world through them, views life, sometimes, as a film, creating events and parties as if it were a scene. (Ruby Oliver would approve.) It is clear that, even though Min may not realize it, that she watches the films in part to be The  Girl Who Watches Old Films. Refreshingly, Min is no mini expert, has yet to learn terms like avant garde because until a friend lends her a book, she hasn’t read about or studied film. I like how even though this is about how Min and Ed broke up, it’s also about Min growing as a person as shown by her learning more about movies.

I confess, after reading Why We Broke Up and put it back on the shelf, I think about Min and Ed as if it were real. What crazy party scheme is Min thinking up now? Doe Ed still drink his coffee the same way Min does? And because of that — because I care both about Min and Ed — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: This Dark Endeavor

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by Luke Daniels. Review copies from publisher.

The Plot: Victor Frankenstein, the teenage years. What made the boy into a man who was driven to create the monster?

The Good: Confession: I’ve never read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I’ve read the comics, watched the movies. That’s all you need, really, before reading This Dark Endeavor, but something tells me I would have gotten more out of the book had I been more familiar with Frankenstein. The “more,” though, is not anything about plot or character or writing; all those are independent of reading the original. Rather, I image that there were slight asides, references that I didn’t fully appreciate, but, didn’t miss because I didn’t know to miss them.

This Dark Endeavor delves into just what motivated young Frankenstein. Victor has a twin brother, Konrad, older by a few minutes, but those moments are enough to make Konrad the golden child, the one everyone loves, the one who gets everything easily: the better student, the better fencer, the one all the servants love. The one their cousin Elizabeth loves. Victor’s feelings towards his brother are conflicted. He loves Konrad, is devoted to him, but is also jealous of all Konrad has and all Konrad is. When Konrad falls ill, Victor resolves to be the one to save him. It’s as much about saving Konrad as proving himself worthy; proving that he, Victor, is just as good — if not better — than his brother.

Since Victor is only a teen, how can he save his brother? His wealthy father has hired the best doctors available, how can Victor compete with this?

Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth made a discovery in the Chateau Frankenstein: a secret room, both library and laboratory, created by a long ago ancestor who practiced alchemy. Their common-sense father forbids them to enter the secret room, but Victor becomes convinced that somewhere in there is the secret to saving Konrad.

Victor’s search drives the novel, and it’s a fast paced, exciting, exhilarating adventure. Victor has to do many things, from research in the library to translating old books, from the highest points to the deepest caves. Sacrifices are made, all to save Konrad. Elizabeth and a friend, Henry, participate in the search. Elizabeth is gutsy and brave; and, unfortunately for Victor, in love with Konrad. Henry is the poet of the group, and maybe it was Victor’s retelling but sometimes Henry seemed too aware of his role as the one who is excitable and emotional. Listening to this on audio made for a very exciting commute, with breathless adventure after breathless adventure.

The alchemy that Victor practices is more scientific than magical. For some things, it was if the alchemists Victor studied had just enough medical and scientific information to suspect the proper way to treat something. Seen through the modern reader’s eyes, Victor’s alchemy seems little different, if not slightly better, than the medicine practiced by the specialist doctors his father consults.

Victor doesn’t flatter himself. He shows his flaws, especially his jealousy and quick temper.

While it’s hard for me to say that Oppel captures the style of Shelley’s writing because I haven’t read the original, This Dark Endeavor, like Monstrumologist and the Octavian Nothing books, sounds like it was written in the time it was set yet remains accessible.

Over at Someday My Printz Will Come, Sarah looks at This Dark Endeavor through the lens of the Printz, pointing out strengths and flaws. At The Book Smugglers, Thea said it’s one of her favorite books this year.

Because Victor’s voice is compelling. Because his choices took me on a breathless adventure. Because This Dark Endeavor was both an extended game and a literary wonder. Because its made me want to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. 2011. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Every November, there are the Scorpio Races on the island of Thisby. Every year, people die. This is not a regular horse race; the horses are capaill uisce, water horses, horses captured from the sea. Horses that want to return to the sea; horses that can barely be tamed; horses that eat meat, including people who aren’t careful.

Sean Kendrick, 19, has won four of the past six years. He works near-magic with both capaill uisce and regular horses; but his life, and the horses he works with, and the capaill uisce he rides are not his own. Winning this race could mean winning his freedom — and the capaill uisce he rides.

Kate “Puck” Connolly is desperate. While raised on Thisby, she isn’t familiar with the races. She knows about the prize money; and when poverty and desperation threaten to split her small family, she takes a desperate gamble and enters the Scorpio Races.

Sean and Puck, strangers to each other, both wanting to win, both needing to win.

The Good: Killer horses. There are some reader who just need to know “killer horses.”

I am not one of those people. Sorry, but I was never one of those girls who went through a horse phase. So, in other words, for me, Stiefvater had to work for it to make me fall for The Scorpio Races, and fall I did.

What made me fall: the setting of Thisby. A small, isolated island except for the tourists who come for the Scorpio races and come to buy horses. The world where capaill uisce are real, and iron and bells and salt and circles can help tame them. A world where water horses kill and people view it as tragic and sad, but not unexpected. Thisby and the capaill uisce are from Stiefvater’s imagination (though based on the myths and stories of man-eating water horses), and so, too, is the time. It’s a world of cars but no Internet. It’s familiar, but slanted. Thisby is so real that midway through I began to wonder, half seriously, if I could visit.

Sean Kendrick. I have a new book boyfriend. Sean’s mother left for the mainland, as many islanders do; his father died racing. Sean works for Benjamin Malvern, a rich and powerful man who owns the best stables, the best horses, and the best capaill uisce, including Corr, the water horse Sean trains and rides and loves. Yes, loves; and this is part of the wonder of Sean Kendrick. He is a silent young man, known throughout the island for his way with horses and with capaill uisce, and he is a loner who does not realize he is also lonely. The connection between Sean and Corr is touching, especially considering that Corr is as dangerous as any other water horse and as capable of violence. The connection between Sean and Puck grows slowly (and thank you, thank you, thank you for a romance that is not love/lust at first sight but rather a growing attraction that is a surprise to both Sean and Puck, and where a simple touch is full of heat and passion.)

Killer horses. No, “killer horses” was not enough to make me fall for this book, but as I read Stiefvater’s writing, as I saw the damage inflicted, as I read about the races, as I huddled with Puck and her younger brother in a flimsy lean-to while water horses came closer and closer — well, I fell for them, in the end.

Puck and her brothers, Gabe and Finn. Following the death of their parents, these three (Gabe in his early twenties, Puck and Finn teens) have worked and struggled on an island with few opportunities. Gabe, like many before him, decides to leave for the mainland. This decision guts Puck, who cannot understand why Gabe would want to leave Thisby; why Gabe would want to live them. For most of the book, I hated Gabe with a passion that was pure and true and almost — almost — enjoyable in my self-righteousness. Puck and Finn are closer, and the interaction between these two, the sibling language and looks, was perfect.

The writing. Oh, the writing. Obviously, it conveyed the setting and time and magic; the danger and speed and racing; the island, with its vast spaces and small town interactions; and the characters of Sean and Puck, Gabe and Finn, and their neighbors. There were also the phrases and observations that made me nod or smile, like this, from Puck: “Part of me thinks he’s just humoring me, me a kid, him most of the way to man, but then part of me sees my hands in front of me. They’re Mum’s hands, not a little girl’s hands, and I know I’m wearing Mum’s face, too. I wonder how long it will take for me to feel as adult inside as I look outside.”

In case you haven’t guessed by now, The Scorpio Races is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: White Crow

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rebecca, 16, is spending six weeks of summer vacation with her father at the seaside town of Winterfold. It’s not a relaxing vacation: she and her father are barely speaking. Her boyfriend doesn’t call. She is alone and lonely when she meets up with Ferelith. Strange, brilliant, uncommon Ferelith. A friendship grows between the two teenage girls, a friendship born of loneliness and something more. Ferelith has been waiting, waiting for something. Or someone. And now Rebecca is here, lovely Rebecca, who doesn’t know or understand who Ferelith is. Ferelith wants to explore Winterfold’s dark past, and she wants company, whether or not Rebecca is willing.

Over a hundred years before, another unlikely friendship had sprung up in Winterfold, one between the village’s rector and a French doctor. The rector is obsessed with Heaven and Hell, the doctor, with what happens after a person dies. Together, they make a bloody pact to find the answers.

Answers that Rebecca and Ferelith are about to discover.

The Good: By this point, you may be aware that I enjoy both a good story and how that story is told.

The story: lonely, angry Rebecca. Smart, manipulative Ferelith. An odd, uneven friendship. Ferelith is brilliant but her interactions with people are distant. As she says early on, “I continued my education in a more important way, through the observation of everyone around me, because nothing is more important to learn in life than the interaction of a human being with another human being.” Her view of life is unique and she is drawn to the dark. “I think I was waiting, though I didn’t know what I was waiting for.” Ferelith creates situations to draw Rebecca into her petty thieving, trespassing, and explorations and Rebecca is only half-aware of Ferelith’s manipulations.

Winterfold is a dying town, literally. It is falling into the sea. House, churches, graveyards, have all disappeared beneath the relentless waves. Ancient, abandoned buildings give Ferelith much to explore.  (As an aside, Winterfold is based on a real town, Dunwich. I now want to go there on vacation.)

An unnamed rector lived in Winterfold a century before. His story is one of concern about Hell, of wanting to know what Heaven is like, and the doctor he meets who has an experiment to try to find the answers. All they need is volunteers. The dark rooms where the experiments took place draws Ferelith, and she drags Rebecca along.

How will this madness and horror end?

That is the story: unequal friendships, buried secrets, madness, blood, and the questions. Is there a God? Is there life after death? A Heaven or Hell? Angels or devils?

Now, how the story is told — that is where the book shifts into brilliance. Three voices, three points of view: Rebecca, Ferelith, the rector.

Ferelith, speaking in first person, speaking as if what she writes about has already taken place. All her chapters bear cryptic headings: I’m Not Dead. Catholic Day. Her thoughts are deep, layered.

Rebecca is more straightforward, third person, firmly in the present, talking about what is happening now, in a linear fashion with dates as chapter headings. It is not two people telling their different versions of the same event, or taking turns telling their tale. It is Rebecca’s story, with Ferelith letting the reader know the shadows and complexity which Rebecca is unaware of. Ferelith’s voice makes this compelling, suspenseful, scary, and Rebecca’s voice keeps the story grounded in reality and gives the reader to person to connect with.

The story of the two girls in the present is interspersed with the journal entries of an unnamed Rector where he asks questions about Hell, and gradually reveals just what is being done to discover the existence an afterlife. The reader learns what is happening, what happened, just in time to watch as the girls stumble upon the truth.

White Crow scared the hell out of me. But why? Not because of the horrors of the past. Rather, it’s because Ferelith so smoothly manipulates Rebecca, putting her in danger that is physical, emotional, and mental, playing on Rebecca’s trust and need and loneliness. It’s because the rector is so willing to rationalize events and actions, including manipulation and betraying trust.

Because White Crow scared me for all the right reasons. Because the image of Winterfold disappearing a foot at time haunts me. Because the triple narration showed just exactly how to use different voices and different perspectives. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: The Returning

The Returning by Christine Hinwood. Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher from ALA conference.

The Plot: A young man comes home from war, returning to the small village he left as a boy. At first it seems that only Cam Attling, missing an arm, has been changed by the war, but it touches all in both large and small ways. People are freed from doing what they had always done, being who everyone expected them to be. Some changes are internal: the realization that one can leave, whether it’s leaving an abusive husband or just wanting a different life than one’s parents. Others are more obvious: a young woman, alone and abused, determinedly creating her own future; a second son suddenly becomes the heir; an arranged marriage upsets all a girl thought she knew about life, love and family.

The Good: How to explain this book? How to get you to read it, because, yes, I want you to. How to convey how much I love this book, and this writing, even though it was not easy. In truth, when I began I felt a bit cold towards it. I wasn’t sure when or where I was, just a place that was vaguely pre-Industrial and with some names vaguely familiar (Cam, Graceful) and others not at all (Pin, Edord, Vivrain.) Just close enough to something known (Edward, Vivian), yet not, to be discomforting. So, too, the geography — there is a Downlander Village and the talk of war, the war between the Uplanders and the Downlanders, with the Uplanders triumphant. (Note I read the ARC, which had neither the maps, table of contents, nor character list of the final version.)

The story is about Cam, about Cam’s return, and how war impacted him and others, but The Returning dances around this, first telling us a story from the point of view of his young sister who sees Cam as a stranger, then from Graceful, the young girl he’d been betrothed to before he left for war, from others of the Village, with Cam figuring in their stories at least a little. Karyn at Someday My Printz Will Come was enthusiastic and I respect her opinion about books and the language and craft of the book was lovely, so I kept reading.

And then, it all just — clicked. Part of it had to do with realizing that I had to stop putting expectations on this book, about what it would or would not be, and just let it enfold me. Just let myself sink into Cam’s world without worrying about who was a main character and who wasn’t, and whether this world was European or Asian or something else. And I realized that what The Returning was about, was not Cam, or Pin, or Graceful, but was about war, and the impact of war on regular people and regular lives. The people who stay in the same village, well, as Cam’s mother wisely says, “there’ve always been taxes, new Lord or old.” Their losses are in the generation of men that did not come home; Cam alone returned. For others, those displaced, like young Diido, the loss is of home and comfort and security. There are families like Graceful’s that now have opportunities they would not have had before.

The reader learns more about Cam about a third of the way through, when his story takes center stage. Why did he go to fight, what he feels when he returns, and, most importantly, the ties he has with the “enemy” Uplanders are explored in rich detail as Cam tries to find his place in this new world. It’s not just the loss of his arm that prevents him from being the farmboy he was.

The Returning is a fantasy only in the sense that it is not our world; there is a medieval feel to this time and place, but no single thing ties it to our world enough to call it an alternate history. It is the villages changed by the War of the Roses, the aftermath of the Norman Invasion, the new Tudor rulers, World War I battle devastation. By removing the Lancasters, the Yorks, and any other familiar touchstone or name or place, Hinwood creates a place where the reader does not associate any one person or side with the “winner” or “loser,” the “good” or the “bad.” It answers the questions that I, as a history reader, wonder about – what happens to the people after the battles are fought? How do they live that next day, next month, next year?

The Returning was first published in 2009, in Australia, under the title Bloodflower. This is a situation where I like both covers, and each coveys a truth about the book, just different truths.

Because it managed to make me fall in love with it after I had already made up my mind not to like it. Because when I fell, I fell hard. Because Diido’s journey renewed my faith in people. Because there are is no good or evil, just people and power. Because it illustrated the power of choice, even when it seems there are no choices to be had. Because this world is fully realized and unique. For all these reasons, The Returning is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.