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Posts Tagged ‘book love’

This weekend at Legendary ConFusion I’m going to be on a panel in which we discuss recent science fiction and fantasy novels that we thought were good, along with some that are coming out soon that we’re looking forward to. So it’s basically a recommendation panel. The perfect time for me to write about what I think about recommending books.

The problem with book recommendations is that taste differs. The biggest mistake I see people making with their recommendations (or at least the one I notice most often) is that they assume because they liked a book, that means I’ll like the book, even when they know nothing (or very little) about what I like and dislike. Which is another way of assuming everyone will like the book.

Everyone will NEVER like every book. I know this all too well because I have what I’ll call a distinctive sense of taste. This doesn’t mean I think my taste is better than other people’s, or even particularly developed. It means that there are plenty of books–particularly adult science fiction and fantasy–that are extremely popular and that I either really didn’t like or can’t force myself to get through.

Photo Credit: jinterwas via Compfight cc

As it turns out, readers enjoy different things and are bothered by different things. I read primarily for character, although I also appreciate a good plot. (See my love for Agatha Christie. A lot of her characters are pretty cardboard, but the mysteries are so compelling to me that I don’t care.) If the characters are interesting to me, I don’t mind a slower pace and I’ll even overlook some sloppy plotting (aka a coincidence or two). I am bothered by characters who don’t seem real, by extremely dense prose, by large and gaping plot holes, and by most large infodumps. I can sometimes let fairly far-fetched world building go, especially in the high-concept stage of the world, as long as the world remains consistent and the characters are involved in a struggle that captures my imagination. But even I have my limits. (Love is a disease that everyone is cured from when they’re 18? Nope. Couldn’t believe it.)

I don’t mind dark fiction, and I don’t mind sad endings, but I’m less excited if the entire novel is just flat-out depressing to me. (I couldn’t finish Revolutionary Road for this reason.) There are certain fantastical tropes that I’m pretty tired of, including: werewolves, Fae anything, dragons, and portal quests. That being said, I still read novels with these elements, I’m just more picky about how they’re handled. For some reason I have more patience for vampires, witches and other magic users, and the politics associated with monarchies. There is a whole complicated system of subgenres that I’m more likely to enjoy or bounce off.

This is all to say, recommending novels blindly is like doing anything else blindly: your success rate is not going to be all that great. So when I recommend novels, I prefer to do it by describing what a novel is like and leaving it to my audience to decide if it fits into their taste. For example:

  • This novel is like this other novel you might have read or heard about, and this is how.

  • This novel is great if you don’t mind the silly central world building idea. If that kind of thing bothers you, though, give it a pass.

  • This novel is this particular sub-genre, or maybe these two sub-genres combined.

  • This novel is fast- or slow-paced.

  • This novel concerns itself with this fantasy or science fictional trope. (If I think it’s a fresh take on the trope, I’ll say that as well.)

  • This novel is on the literary side. (If questioned, I can then try to define how I think this expressed itself in the particular novel under discussion.)

  • This novel is all about the action. This novel is light and fun.

  • This novel really made me think. (And if I can say about what, all the better!)

It’s okay that we’re not all going to love exactly the same things, whether they be books, movies, or activities. And not all recommendations are going to be equally successful for all people. To me, a book recommendation is more like a blip on my radar. Now I know the book exists, and I can make my own decision as to whether to read it or not.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to try new things, educate our taste, and expand our horizons. No one else can do it for us. They can only offer ideas and possibilities of which directions to go exploring.

Can you describe your taste in novels?

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First of all, I stayed up late to finish Insurgent by Veronica Roth last night (the final novel in her Divergent trilogy). If I’d finished it before Tuesday, it would have made my best YA list, so I’m giving it a shout-out right now. The ending was…something. Veronica Roth didn’t play it safe writing this one; she took a big risk, and while I’m sure some readers didn’t like what she did, for me I felt like she avoided the easy way out and instead opted to say something important. So I’m entirely on board with the book.

And now I’m going to switch my focus to adult fiction. Well, adult fiction and one memoir.

Honorable Mention:

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls’s memoir of her childhood was fascinating and well-balanced in showing both tender and excruciatingly difficult moments. I did find myself wishing for more time spent on her adulthood so I’d be able to see her character arc more clearly, but I do understand that wasn’t the purpose of this memoir.

My Favorite Adult Novels of the Year:

Just don’t expect to get much sleep while you’re reading this one.

Nexus and Crux, both by Ramez Naam

These two science fiction novels have probably gotten the majority of my in-person talking up time this year. Near-future, cool ideas, compelling characters, page-turning thrillers. What’s not to love? I can’t wait for the next one to come out.

Old School, by Tobias Wolff

I picked this up after my friend Rahul recommended it and I was not disappointed. It’s literary fiction set at a boys’ boarding school, and the protagonist is just so interesting to hang out with for a while. The stakes in the story are, for the most part, relatively small, but I actually really get invested in small stakes in many stories, and this was certainly one of those cases.

Love Minus Eighty, by Will McIntosh

When I heard Will McIntosh was writing a novel based on his Hugo award-winning short story “Bridesicle,” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. And this time, my anticipation paid off. The world building is strong and I love how the idea of “Bridesicles” introduced in the short story was further developed. I also loved that this was an interesting science fictional story that also incorporated romantic elements to good effect.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I’ve heard this novel compared to vN by Madeline Ashby, which made my list last year, but while both novels are about robots, they are very different in tone. Where vN is more an adventure story, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter has a slower pace and a more literary voice. It is not so much a story about robots as it is the story of the coming of age of a girl, and how her relationship with one robot changes and affects her over the course of her life. And it was so beautifully done. io9 has a fantastic review if you want to learn more.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

I had never read anything by Shirley Jackson apart from her famed Lottery story, and I decided it was time to change that. This novel features one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator I’ve had the joy to experience. It’s creepy and sneaky and liminal, and it could be read as completely realistic or as fantastical or as simultaneously both.

 

Thinking back on these novels has made me so happy. So much amazing writing! Here are some other adult novels I’m looking forward to reading soon. They’re all already out, and the last four are even in my possession.

Fortune’s Pawn, by Rachel Bach

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi

The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

iD, by Madeline Ashby

Ironskin, by Tina Connolly

Map of the Sky, by Felix J. Palma

River of Stars, by Guy Gavriel Kay

What novels have you read this year that stand out for you? What novels are you excited to read? Any 2014 releases you want to clue me in about?

 

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It’s once again the time of year where I look back over my reading list and think about my favorite reading experiences from the past twelve months.

I didn’t read as many novels this year as I have in recent years. Partly, this was because I began reading plays for one of the local theater companies, which took up a bit of my reading time. But mostly it was because, for the first time, life events took so much of my focus that I didn’t have much left over for reading. Let’s hope this changes in 2014!

Today I’m going to talk about the YA novels I enjoyed the most this year and follow up with a list of titles that I’m looking forward to reading in upcoming months.

Honorable Mentions:

When We Wake, by Karen Healey

Science fiction about a teenager who dies during a protest and then is woken up a hundred years later, after being cryogenically frozen. As many Amazon reviewers mention, there are a lot of political ideas in this novel; I personally did not find them too heavy-handed, but your mileage may vary. I really enjoyed the world building and the setting of a future Australia. The actual story did remind me a bit of The Long Sleep, though.

The Originals, by Cat Patrick

Light science fiction about three teenage sister clones. They divide each day into three: high school morning classes, high school afternoon classes, and extracurricular activities after school, while the other two clones are homeschooled. What makes this novel is the family dynamics, both between the three sisters and the relationship they have with their mother.

My Favorite YA Novels of the Year:

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black

Holly Black makes vampires fresh and creepy (no small feat!). Her protagonist has a strong voice that pulled me right through.

The Bitter Kingdom, by Rae Carson

The finale of the trilogy begun with The Girl of Fire and Thorns and The Crown of Embers, this novel had a big job to tie everything up in a satisfying conclusion for our heroine, and it did not disappoint. A very strong YA epic fantasy trilogy.

Aren't they beautiful?

Aren’t they beautiful?

The Lucy Variations, by Sara Zarr

This YA contemporary novel follows the life of Lucy, a concert pianist prodigy who, in reaction to family pressure, retired during her teens. The reader gets to watch as she explores her family dynamics and decides what place to give music in her life. Complex characters, character relationships, and family dynamics combined with a passion for classical music? This is novel written for me.

The Different Girl, by Gordon Dalquist

I don’t want to say much about this one for fear of spoiling it, but I can assure you that it is definitely science fiction. We see the world from the perspective of our young protagonist, who is sheltered and often ignorant, and we learn about how the world actually works as she does. I found this story to be compelling and beautiful as it gradually unfolds.

YA Novels I’m Looking Forward to Reading in the Future:

The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart (comes out in May 2014)

Reality Boy, by A.S. King

She Is Not Invisible, by Marcus Sedgwick (comes out in April 2014)

Allegiant, by Veronica Roth (I’m in the middle of this one right now)

The Diviners, by Libba Bray (It’s already on my Kindle, hooray!)

Roomies, by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr (comes out December 24, 2013)

Which YA novels did you read and enjoy this year? Which ones are you looking forward to?

 

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I was hanging out in the hallway at the Nebula Awards weekend last Friday when I ran into my friend Rahul. He proceeded to completely floor me by mentioning that he throws books away when he finishes them.

“But you don’t literally throw them away, right?” I couldn’t help asking. “I mean, you don’t put them in the garbage, do you?”

“Actually,” he said, “I put them in the dumpster.”

After a few minutes of spluttering, I said, “I’m totally going to blog about this!” So here I am.

As appalled as I am by the idea of actually throwing books away (as opposed to giving them to Goodwill or selling them to the used bookstore), my constant struggle to stay within my allotted shelf space gives the idea a certain shine. Plus, there is no denying it’s easier to walk down to my garage and chuck some books in the dumpster than it is to make a trip to Goodwill. But really Rahul’s strategy highlights a key question:

Are books disposable objects? What value do they retain once we’ve read them? What value do they have if they sit on our shelves for years without ever being read? (My to-read shelves have expanded to encompass an entire tall bookshelf so I’m sure some of them will never be exposed to my eyeballs.)

I approach the ownership of books from a position of scarcity. I remember when I could only afford to buy a couple of (mass market paperback) books per year. This meant that my small personal library acquired an almost sacred feel to it, and I never got rid of any books, even ones that I really didn’t like. Even now, when I do sell books back to my local used bookstore, it’s not an activity without a certain element of pain (which also means I procrastinate about doing it). And I hardly ever remove an e-book from my Kindle and dread the day when I fill it up so I’ll be forced to curate my collection.

The bulk of my library. Once I take care of those boxes, this will be my dream room realized.

The bulk of my library. Once I take care of those boxes, this will be my dream room realized.

On the other hand, even while I adored my small personal library, I turned to the public library for the bulk of my reading. And heavy library usage does support the idea of books as disposable objects for the individual, if not for society. I kept my library books for two weeks or a month, and then the vast majority of them I never checked out again. Is Rahul’s practice of chucking his read books into the dumpster so much different, given that many libraries use donated books to raise funds through book sales instead of actually cataloguing and storing them? Sure, the library will receive fifty cents or a couple of dollars for that book donation, but not enough money to get anyone really excited.

So maybe books really are disposable objects. But I still can’t imagine throwing mine in the trash can; they have too much of an aura of magic and possibility for that. I’ve imbued these objects with so much meaning that I can’t bear to part with them, just as another person saves ticket stubs or theater programs. Except they’re not quite the same; books represent not only an experience I had in a past, but an experience I can choose to have again, albeit perhaps in an altered form since each reading of a book can expose new layers.

What do you think? Are books disposable? Do you throw books in the trash when you’re through with them? Should you start?

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Today I’m going to talk some more about books. What bliss!

Nonfiction:

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson
I wrote about this book here. Bill Bryson is talented at keeping me amused, what can I say?

How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ
As a female writer, I found this book particularly fascinating. This book was published in 1983, but it certainly seems relevant today. I remember a certain comment on my post earlier this year about intelligent women, making the argument that women aren’t as intelligent as men because they haven’t created as many masterpieces–in literature, in music, in the visual arts. (Don’t bother looking for that comment, by the way. I deleted it. Life is too short for such stupidity.) If you are interested in why it seems that less of the literary canon was created by women, this book will help answer that question for you.

My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
I wrote about this book here. This book’s joy comes from the irrepressible personality of Julia Child. I don’t read a lot of memoir, but maybe I should.

Adult Fiction:

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells. Fantasy
Anyone who writes a book with somewhat dragon-like characters that doesn’t cause me to throw it across the rooms deserves a lot of credit. The plot is fun here, but what I really liked in this secondary world fantasy was the world building and learning more about the society of said dragon-like creatures. We learn about it through an outsider of the society, which makes the unfolding discovery seem natural.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King. Historical mystery
I asked Facebook for a recommendation for a mystery that had an eccentric woman genius as the detective, in the same mold as Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. One of my friends came through for me by recommending this book, the first of a series, about the female protegé of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read several of these books, and I plan to read more. Mary Russell is a great character, and in addition to the mysteries, I love reading about her scholarship in religious history, which adds an extra dimension and depth to these books.

The Testament of Jesse Lamb, by Jane Rogers. Science fiction
Reading this book gave me a breakthrough on point of view for my own novel, The Academy of Forgetting, so I love it for that. I also like its slow pacing and build, its use of language, and its taking a familiar science fictional problem of fertility and making it intimate and deeply personal. (This book is also interesting because it was marketed as adult fiction, but it features a teenaged first-person protagonist. I’m guessing they chose to market it as adult because of the style.)

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. Literary
This book took me awhile to read, and I was in love with it the entire time. It’s set in 1890s New York high society and has echoes of Jane Austen’s novels of manners, although this book contains a more overt social critique. In Austen, her heroines are forced to operate within the rules and strictures of society, but they are able to harness these rules into providing a “happy” ending for themselves, whereas this novel shows the tension between these rules and a woman’s desires and potential happiness, highlighting the society’s damaging attitudes about women and the price that is paid to follow society’s confining rules. So very fascinating. I’m also completely intrigued by Edith Wharton now. My thanks to Rahul Kanakia for the recommendation.

vN, by Madeline Ashby. Science fiction
I can sum up my enjoyment of this novel in one word: Robots! Robots are awesome, and the robots in this novel are no exception. The ending was a bit … strange, but overall, quick pacing, high stakes, and a fun plot made this novel quite entertaining.

Washington Square, by Henry James. Literary
I also have to thank Rahul for telling me about this novel (which means I should really tell you to go follow his blog, where he talks about all these fabulous books). What’s interesting about this book is that it’s about all these really awful people, and it draws viciously accurate portraits of their personalities. We also get to see the effects of living and dealing with really awful people on the heroine, Catherine, who is sadly not awful herself (she’d probably do better in that environment if she was). A well-done family drama, set in 1880s New York.

Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Historical mystery w/ magical realism elements
I don’t really know the genre of this book. Also I have apparently been living under a rock because this book was really popular when it came out, but I only heard about it when my friend Bill Schafer mentioned it to me this year. And finally, I am reading this novel right now and am only halfway through, and I generally don’t recommend books until I finish them, because what if the ending doesn’t land? So we’re engaging in some risk-taking here. But it’s such a beautiful book so far that I feel it belongs on this list. I mean, it starts out with the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.” What’s not to love about that? As a writer, I’m finding what Zafon is doing with first person POV (well, mostly 1st person) to be very interesting. As a reader, I am simply enchanted by the story and characters. Some poking around on the internet tells me that many people talk about it mainly as a mystery set in post-war Barcelona (which is such a rich setting, by the by), but I’ve been reading this as very much magical realism. The flirtation with the fantastic in this book is one of the parts that intrigues me the most.

All right, hit me with your own favorite reads of the year. I always like hearing about books that have made an impression. And if you have your own year-end book list, feel free to link to it as well.

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It’s that exciting time when I review the list of books I’ve read this year and share some of my favorites. Basically this is an excuse for me to talk about books I love, which is a particularly enjoyable activity. So enjoyable, in fact, that this year I’m going to write two lists: one of the Middle Grade and Young Adult books that I loved, and one of the adult books I loved.

Yes, it was a very good reading year, and I can’t narrow down any further than that.

Today I’m sharing my top list of YA and MG novels I’ve read for the first time in the last year. And it’s such a good list, it makes me happy just to contemplate it.

Honorable Mentions:

Legend, by Marie Lu. YA dystopia
Entertaining adventure story.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. YA fantasy
Very evocative writing, strong settings, enjoyable sense of wonder. I’m not generally a fan of long flashbacks, though.

My Top Ten:

The Skull of Truth, by Bruce Coville. MG fantasy
I heard Bruce Coville speak at a SCBWI conference, which motivated me to try his books. This one is probably my favorite so far. Clean, engaging writing, a fun plot, and I adore the skull character so much.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley. YA fantasy
What stands out in my memory about this novel is its unique voice and its strong sense of setting. Haunting.

Black Heart, by Holly Black. YA fantasy
The third book of a trilogy that always ends up on my year’s best lists. Holly Black brings her story to a close in a satisfying way, and the magic system continues to enchant me.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. YA contemporary
I read this for a book club, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a novel told in a series of letters sent to a stranger, and we get a deep look into the protagonist’s head and heart, cracks and all. It’s one of the best books I’ve read at catching the deep confusion of being a teenager.

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore . YA fantasy
This is a complex, layered novel about the recovery from trauma, both of a nation and of a teenaged girl. It doesn’t rush or skirt away from the hard questions.

Every Day, by David Levithan. YA fantasy
The writing is good, but what makes this novel is its central conceit: that every day, the main character (who is genderless) moves into a different person’s body. Fascinating exploration of identity, morality, and love.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. YA contemporary
I wrote about this novel here. I am not the only person who thinks this book is brilliant.

Looking for Alaska, by John Green. YA contemporary
Oh, John Green. This book is also brilliant. The voice, the characters, the themes, the setting. This is a book that rips your heart out and makes you wiser because of it.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente. MG fantasy
This book is both beautiful and clever. It reminds me a bit of the Oz books in terms of its narrative style (omniscient) and sense of wonder, but with more modern sensibilities and better plotting. And it really is so insightful and clever, with a heroine that I want to spend lots of time with. (In fact, I have the next book in the series, it’s a minor miracle I haven’t read it yet.)

A Monster Calls and mask
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. MG…contemporary w/ fantasy elements? You decide.
This book broke my heart. It delivered my most powerful emotional reading experience of the year. It uses the fantastic as metaphor in truly masterful fashion. You want to read the physical version of this book, not the electronic one, because of the beautiful artwork that really adds to the story.

What were your favorite YA and MG books you read this year?

 

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Last week I spent way too much time filling out the Locus 20th Century Poll. I had to make two lists: my top ten favorite science fiction novels from the 20th century, and my top ten favorite fantasy novels. (There were short fiction categories too, but I’m less well read in those categories. And the 21st Century poll, since it only covered twelve years, was not as time-consuming.) Locus provided a handy reference list of many eligible novels that I poured over.

What I found fascinating was the difference for me in creating the science fiction list versus the fantasy list. For the science fiction list, I had no trouble coming up with ten titles. In fact, my main problem was I kept coming up with ever more titles, and then I had to choose which ones to actually include in my final list, and in what order. And all the titles I was coming up with are books that I’ve adored, that have had a huge impact on me, that I could obligingly gush on about for some time.

And then I started working on my fantasy list. I eventually added Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of al-Rassan and Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, both of which I am deeply enthusiastic about and neither of which was on Locus’s reference list. However, the other novels I listed, while entertaining novels and influential in the field, did not inspire the same gush-worthy feelings. I’ve always thought of myself as an equal lover of both science fiction and fantasy, so this surprised me. Which led me to consider the general pervasiveness of fantasy in my experience of story.

I fell in love with science fiction as an adolescent. I still remember exactly where I was when I finished reading Ender’s Game for the first time, and how I felt about it. I was twelve. And from then on, I swallowed science fiction novels from the library’s adult section upstairs in great gulps.

But fantasy has been with me from the very beginning. I didn’t call it fantasy back then. In my experience, it was a natural and inevitable part of the landscape of storytelling. It was my air. Even the picture books my mom read to me before I could read to myself involved talking animals and portal quests and magical items. And those titles in children’s literature that I now know are part of the fantasy genre? I can gush about them just as long and just as fervently as I can about Dune or The Handmaid’s Tale.

I grew up on fairy tales, so very many fairy tales. I loved them with a passion. My other two favorites? King Arthur stories and Robin Hood stories. I devoured so many of the children’s fantasy classics: Peter Pan; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and all the other Oz books at the library; The Narnia Chronicles; the Roald Dahl books (I particularly adored The Witches); The Phantom Tolbooth; Mary Poppins; The Sword in the Stone; Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (I loved The Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream); Freaky Friday; The Dark is Rising series; the Black Cauldron series by Lloyd Alexander; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Mrs. Piggle-wiggle’s Magic, The Princess and the Goblin; E. Nesbit’s novels; Diana Wynne Jones’s novels; The Ordinary Princess; The Hobbit. And eventually I was lucky enough to graduate to Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley.

This was one of my two favorite books (along with Ender's Game) for almost a decade. Then I added many more.

This was one of my two favorite books (along with Ender’s Game) for almost a decade. Then I added many more to my favorites list.

So now whenever I am asked about my favorite fantasy novels, or my fantasy influences, or apparently when I try to make lists of fantasy novels, those books and stories from my childhood are what I remember. I remember them from a time before I knew fantasy was a separate thing (which means, of course, that it doesn’t have to be). And a lot of my gush-worthy fantasy feelings are focused there. (Several of my favorite new fantasy novels have also been YA or MG.)

This doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate adult fantasy novels, or even love them. But I do think I approach them with eyes and mind very much informed by children’s literature, those titles that were such a deep and early part of my love of reading and of story.

How about you? Did you read a lot of fantasy or science fiction as a child? How difficult would it be for you to make those two top ten lists?

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