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Best of 2015: Book Edition, Part 2

These are some wonderfully odd, deliciously creepy, and beautifully written books. If you like them too, let’s be friends. Here are my top 5 books of 2015!

5. The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last

After recently completing the MaddAddam trilogy, you would think that Margaret Atwood might be out of speculative fiction ideas for a while. But you would be wrong! The Heart Goes Last takes readers to a different but also disturbingly familiar future. To escape homelessness caused by a major economic collapse, a married couple joins an experimental community requiring them to alternate monthly between a comfortable home and a prison. This being an Atwood book, the situation becomes emotionally fraught and plot twists ensue.

4. Dreamer’s Pool, by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer's Pool

Reading Juliet Marillier is one of the most comforting activities to me. Her new series Blackthorn & Grim has many familiar components from her past books, but some new elements as well. Unlike the young women who usually narrate Marillier’s novels, Blackthorn has half a lifetime of traumatic experiences behind her. In Dreamer’s Pool she escapes wrongful imprisonment with a large man named Grim. The two settle in a faraway region, but Blackthorn’s work as a healer soon embroils them in a mystery involving the local prince’s bride-to-be.

3. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes writes literary mysteries with a supernatural twist. The Shining Girls features a time-traveling serial killer in Chicago. In the 1990s Kirby is one of his would-be victims who survives, then takes a newspaper internship in order to investigate her attack. The relationship between Kirby and her reluctant mentor at the newspaper is hilarious and ultimately touching. The story is sometimes frightening but very well-executed. Beukes paints the world as raw and starkly beautiful, which is a worldview that I find incredibly compelling.

2. Friends with Boys, by Faith Erin Hicks

Friends with Boys

I picked up Friends with Boys because Faith Erin Hicks is collaborating on a project with Rainbow Rowell. My exposure to graphic novels is limited, so I was shocked by the emotional connection I felt to the characters. The images gave me a strong sense of their voices and mannerisms without needing many words. Maggie is starting high school after years of being homeschooled with her three older brothers. There she makes her first female friend, and Lucy is such a cute, vibrant character. Friends with Boys is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

1. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River Cover

Dennis Lehane, I’m sorry I wrote you off for years because your books are shelved in the mystery section. What a fool I was! Mystic River is phenomenal as both a mystery and a character study. After an incident involving three childhood friends, Lehane jumps ahead to the men in adulthood while also giving the reader a strong sense of how they became the way they are. The mood of a blue collar Boston neighborhood permeates every page. I was completely immersed, enthralled, and astounded. (You can read my discussion of the book here.)

I hope you enjoyed this year’s retrospective. I certainly did!

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An Abundance of Books for Fall

Fall always seems to be a great time for new book releases. And while I certainly wouldn’t wish away the rest of the summer, I’m starting to get excited for new books from many of my favorite authors.

The Heart Goes Last on September 29!

The Heart Goes Last

Margaret Atwood most recently wowed the literary world with her MaddAddam trilogy. The Heart Goes Last has a different dystopian setting, but one can assume it touches on some classic Atwood themes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose? I’m excited by the fact that The Heart Goes Last seems to have a greater focus on relationships. In exchange for a comfortable home the rest of the year, a married couple agrees to spend every other month in prison. Then they both become obsessed with the couple that occupies their home on alternate months. Best case scenario, this book could occupy an interesting space between the MaddAddam trilogy and The Blind Assassin.

Carry On on October 6!

Carry On

Does this require any explanation? It’s Rainbow Rowell! Carry On is an offshoot of the fictional fantasy series that’s the obsession of Cath in Fangirl. A fictional world from within another work of fiction becomes a real life book. Yes, it’s all very meta in the best possible way. Carry On promises all the romance and emotion of her previous books but with the addition of magic. Since Rainbow professes to be primarily a fantasy reader in her own life, I trust her to explore a new genre. Not to mention this cover is so unexpected and BEAUTIFUL. I will be dancing all the way to the bookstore on October 6.

Career of Evil on October 20!

Career of Evil

I recently declared myself a fan of the Cormoran Strike mystery novels. Since I was almost two years late to the party, the third novel is already coming out this fall. I can’t wait to be reunited with Cormoran and Robin, and the plot summary promises that this mystery will require delving further in Cormoran’s past. As I mentioned in the previous post, I already have the first two books in paperback, so I will try to resist buying the hardcover. The library wait list is the answer for now. Obviously I’m not going to wait another year for the paperback release. Bless the prolific talents of Ms. J. K. Rowling.

Tower of Thorns on November 3!

Tower of Thorns

My love for Juliet Marillier is documented on the blog, but I haven’t talked about this relatively new series. I read Dreamer’s Pool, the first Blackthorn and Grim novel, back in January. In typical Marillier fashion, Blackthorn is a healer, but she’s of humbler origins than the Sevenwaters protagonists. Not unlike a good detective series, Blackthorn and her friend Grim help unravel a mysterious and probably supernatural happening while Blackthorn deals with her personal demons. The prose is as lovely as I expect from Marillier’s adult novels. I can’t wait to hold this hefty hardcover in my hands.

As much as I would love to purchase every single one of these books, I will be utilizing library requests in some cases. I’m a little behind on my reading goal for the year, which is often the case around this time, so these new releases should make it easier to catch up. Did I miss anything exciting?

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Regarding Trilogies and Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the Forest

Trilogies abound in the fantasy world. With trends in young adult publishing since the success of The Hunger Games, it seems like every new book that comes out is part of a series, particularly in the fantasy genre. That series structure can start to feel obligatory, but it’s helpful to remember that the trilogy accommodates the way we typically tell stories. There are places for the beginning, middle, and end; or if you want to employ the language of three-act story structure, there’s the setup, complications, and climax. Provided that the writer has enough story to justify three books, the trilogy is a reliable format.

As this TV Tropes article suggests, the middle installment of a trilogy is often considered the weak link. It lacks the novelty of the first story and the climactic excitement of the third. Personally, I often like the second part best, such as in The Hunger Games series or The Lord of the Rings films. My reasoning is that second books (or movies) deepen the character development of the first book without being as stubbornly action-focused as the third book. This preference really just reflects my priorities as a reader and viewer.

Juliet Marillier, my favorite fantasy author, is no stranger to the trilogy. Although she expanded her Sevenwaters Trilogy into a six-book series, I like to think of them as two connected trilogies. The original trilogy follows three generations of the family at Sevenwaters, while the additional three books are narrated by three sisters from the same family. True to form, my favorite book in the original trilogy is the second. However, all of Marillier’s books contain engrossing standalone stories, perhaps with the same antagonist appearing in multiple books or repercussions from the previous book driving the plot of the current story. It should be noted that these are adult fantasy novels with a high level of narrative complexity.

The Caller

In her most recent young adult series, Marillier uses a more traditional version of the trilogy structure. The three Shadowfell novels have a common narrator who, along with a cast of secondary characters, is working toward one large goal. Neryn was born with the uncanny ability to communicate with the Good Folk (magical beings), but such powers are forbidden by the king. Although I enjoyed Shadowfell, the first installment, I didn’t read the second book until this fall. It wasn’t until Raven Flight that I really felt invested in the series.

That fact would fit in nicely with my “second book, best book” theory. Raven Flight raises the stakes by connecting Neryn to an underground rebel movement and fleshes out several secondary characters. However, the Shadowfell series turns out to be an exception to my rule because the third book was my favorite. The Caller continues the quest begun in Raven Flight, but plans go awry enough to keep the reader guessing. There are also more moments with Flint, a rebel spy in the midst of the king’s court, who is almost surely a more interesting character than Neryn. I was well-satisfied by how all the parts came together. Some of the typical Juliet Marillier story elements are present, but remixed in a way that should please fans, not bore them.

I’ve been having a really good year in the young adult reading department. The Best of 2014 will be here before I know it, and there will be more than enough contenders for the top ten. Not that I’m complaining!

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Tales from the Teen Section

Recently I was given some added responsibility at my bookseller gig. Along with one of my coworkers, I’m now in charge of monitoring the teen section. I guess a passion for young adult literature makes you somewhat unique in literary circles, or at least in my particular group of booksellers. For me it was an easy offer to accept.

My recent reading efforts have been mainly in adult literature, so I’ve enjoyed this motivation to get back into the YA scene. I started with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which has been a bestseller alongside The Fault in Our Stars since 2012. (That’s especially cool because Ransom Riggs and John Green attended Kenyon College together.) Miss Peregrine’s is a rare book that is truly difficult to compare to anything else. Riggs used vintage photographs, often of the creepy variety, as inspiration for a school full of children with “peculiar” abilities. The narrator Jacob is investigating his grandfather’s past, leading him to England and the peculiar children. This book is proof that inventiveness can thrive in the YA genre.

Miss Peregrine's

Next I ventured into the Teen Fantasy and Adventure section. Last year Juliet Marillier, my favorite fantasy writer, released a new teen book called Shadowfell. It’s the first in a series about a girl named Neryn who lives in a kingdom where magic is forbidden. This is dangerous for someone like Neryn with an uncanny ability, in her case to see and speak with magical folk. Shadowfell had many of the hallmarks of Marillier’s adult novels, but the story felt simplified for a younger audience. Marillier has such a lovely writing style that I enjoyed the book even when I thought I could predict what was coming next. Even better, my predictions were sometimes proven wrong. It won’t win my devotion to the extent of the Sevenwaters series, but I’m looking forward to reading the second book in July.

Shadowfell

Most recently I finished The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. She is another friend of John Green’s, so you can tell where I go for YA recommendations. This book is about Rory, a Louisiana teenager who spends her final year of high school at an English boarding school. Someone begins recreating the Jack the Ripper murders, and Rory gets caught up in the mayhem. I enjoy how Johnson approaches a classic subject like ghosts with a modern, snarky tone. She isn’t necessarily trying to be deep, but her writing is well-researched and entertaining. The Name of the Star is also the first in a series called Shades of London. The Madness Underneath,  the second book in the series, is high on my to-read list.

The Name of the Star

The floodgates have opened. I have a list of at least ten more YA books that I want to check out. As if that wasn’t enough, Sarah Dessen’s new book comes out a week from today! The teen section is often the butt of jokes, and admittedly there are some superficial and copycat titles out there. Like any genre, YA has its good and bad examples. And Gentle Readers, I will continue sharing the good examples with you.

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Reading Roundup: Winter 2013

After reading many new books in the last four months of 2012, I began the new year with a desire to reread. The first on my list was The Fault in Our Stars. I read it back in February of 2012 and spent the rest of the year recommending it to friends and customers. It seemed like a good time to refresh my memory. During my second reading, I laughed out loud, cried more than once, and appreciated a new favorite book all the more.

I enjoy the comfort of rereading, and I didn’t want to stop with The Fault in Our Stars. My last book of 2012 was Flame of Sevenwaters, the latest installment of the Sevenwaters series. (It could be described as a pair of trilogies or just a series of six books.) As with any good addition to a series, it made me want to revisit the earlier books. After realizing how scarce they are through Hennepin County Libraries, I finally added Daughter of the Forest and Son of the Shadows to my personal collection. What better way to escape dreary winter than a thick fantasy novel?

Night Circus

In my “By the Book” self-interview, I mentioned the books waiting on my dresser. I eventually read both The Dinner and The Night Circus. A lot of booksellers are comparing The Dinner by Herman Koch to Gone Girl, and I can see the connection between these psychological thrillers. The Dinner may be somewhat more “literary,” but I found Gone Girl far more engaging in terms of both character and plot. In a completely different vein, The Night Circus was a satisfying historical romp about dueling magicians.

In March my reading had an unintentional theme. I found myself reading multiple works about the Soviet Union during World War II. The first was a manuscript that I was lucky enough to be assigned at my internship. Not all manuscripts given to interns are promising, but I finished this one with pleasure. The second was City of Thieves by Daniel Benioff, a book recommended by my friend Hillary. We had dinner in February, and I (nicely) demanded book recommendations. It’s a quick and memorable read. I feel that I’ve read a lot about World War II, but these books made it clear that there’s more to learn.

City of Thieves

There are many exciting books coming out this spring and summer, including new novels from Khaled Hosseini and Sarah Dessen. I can’t wait for sunny afternoons reading in my backyard!

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Read More for Four: The Wrap-Up

Read More for Four Icon

Gentle Readers, I apologize for keeping you in suspense! Yes, I’m sure there have been many sleepless nights wondering, “Did she read the last two books? Did she meet her goal?” The answer is yes!

Since I never completely fell off the reading wagon, it probably comes as no surprise that I met my Read More for Four goal. Eight books in four months was a very satisfying conclusion to the year. My first December book was Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Although it didn’t eclipse The Devil in the White City, it kept me interested by shining a light on a lesser known part of history. That is, the way that diplomats chose to deal with Hitler’s government in the 1930s. The issues weren’t considered as black-and-white as you might expect.

I ended the month on a delightful reading note. My name finally reached the top of the library waiting list, and I read Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier. The previous book in this series made it onto my best of 2012 list. I could easily have included either title, but I was still reading Flame when the time came for writing lists. Although I most often read realistic fiction, I’m glad that certain writers can inspire me to branch out. The Sevenwaters series fulfills my occasional desire for escapism reading while giving me characters that I really love.

Read More for Four helped me match the number of books I read last year. As previously mentioned, I keep track of my reading on a website called Good Reads. However, the site provides more stats than just number of books read. It also tallies the number of pages read each year. By that measure, 2012 trounced 2011 by more than 1,000 pages! 

Of course, all these statistics aren’t the point of reading. It’s just fun to challenge myself now and then. I never regret time spent with a book, and two new books per month was a nice pace. I’m hoping to continue it in 2013 — with less obsessive documentation on the blog. As always, happy reading!

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Best of 2012: Book Edition, Part 1

Last year I could only scrape together a measly five books for my list. This year it was easy to find ten books that I loved, and I probably have my bookstore job to thank for that. Enjoy numbers 10 through 6.

10. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

I don’t read much fantasy these days, but Neil Gaiman is a living legend. When I saw Stardust at the library, I decided that it was worth a read. The movie was also a distant memory, so I figured it wouldn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book too much. In fact, the two are such different entities that it’s easy to avoid comparisons. Gaiman performs an impressive feat by writing a fairy tale that feels unfamiliar. At the same time, his unsentimental tone reminded me of the original fairy tale texts that I studied in college.

9. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

It took some time for me to warm up to The Help. Eventually I fell in love with the characters, and there was no going back. As most readers probably know, it tells the story of a young Southern woman who wants to write a book about the lives of “the help.” The point of view alternates between Skeeter, the young white writer, and the two black maids who collaborate with her. I loved the descriptions of Skeeter’s experience writing for the local newspaper and her complicated relationship with Aibileen and Minny.

8. Seer of Sevenwaters, by Juliet Marillier

I may not read much fantasy, but Juliet Marillier is too superb to quit. I’ve been reading the Sevenwaters series since high school. If you want an epic romance/adventure set in ancient Ireland, well, they don’t come any better than this. I thought the series was going downhill with the fifth book, but Seer of Sevenwaters was a return to form. Although Marillier has a talent for plucky heroines, this time she offers a more thoughtful protagonist. Of course, there’s enough inner turmoil and outward adventure to keep things interesting.

7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Madness, and Magic at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson

Sometimes the truth is more fascinating (and more frightening) than fiction. Erik Larson specializes in detailing historical events that make the reader say, “I can’t believe that happened!” This month I also read his book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. It was entertaining and probably an easier read, but I ultimately prefer The Devil in the White City because I learned so much about turn-of-the-century America. (My full-length review can be found here.)

6. The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The story of Oryx and Crake continues with The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s precise narration is perfectly suited for speculative fiction. The details of her not-too-distant future are inventive while still feeling like a plausible extension of the world today. I enjoyed this female-centered installment, which focuses on God’s Gardeners, a religious splinter group that is peripherally mentioned in Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood makes clear the complexity of the world that Atwood has imagined. I can only read and be amazed — and wait impatiently for the final book.

It was hard to narrow them down, but I did it. Tomorrow I will unveil the illustrious top 5!

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