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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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Very soon after I decided that I wanted to be a YA writer, I learned the following “truth:” that girls will read novels with both male and female protagonists, but boys will only read novels with male protagonists. So if you want the widest crossover, you write a boy protagonist, and if you write a girl protagonist, that means you’re mostly writing for a female audience.

Then I heard the oft repeated story about how J.K. Rowling decided to use her initials as her author name so that the readers would not know she was a woman. And I heard about how YA was dominated by women writers, sometimes as though this were a bad thing.

Then I heard a couple of male writers who I respect talking about the problem of there not being enough boy books in YA. Later on, I heard about what a problem it was that there were too many female protagonists and “girl books” in modern YA.

Shall I define “boy book” for you? A boy book probably has a male protagonist. It features action and adventure and is quick paced. It probably doesn’t have much if any romance. The language and structure might also be more straightforward and simple, since one of the main reasons having YA boy books is supposed to be important is to encourage reluctant boy readers to read.

A “girl book,” by contrast, probably has a female protagonist. It may have action and adventure and be quick paced. It almost certainly includes a romantic element. It might focus more heavily on social interactions and relationships in general, as well as issues of social status (because of course, men aren’t interested in status at all. Ha!). There might also be a stronger focus on emotions. The language and structure run the gambit between simple and complex.

I’m not going to mince words: these truths about boy readers, the YA genre, and boy and girl books are harmful and sometimes flat-out false. If boys won’t read books with girl protagonists, especially by the time they are teenagers, this is not a good reason to write and publish fewer books with girl protagonists. This is a red flag that something is wrong with the message our society is sending to these boys.

Often this argument gets lost in the rush to emphasize the importance of boys learning to read. It’s fine to perpetuate this “truth” of boys being unwilling to read anything not entirely male-centered, the unstated message goes, as long as we can wheedle them to read anything at all. And this is how sexist thinking gets passed on to the next generation.

Obviously boys learning to read is important. It’s important that everyone learn to read. And it’s also important that we throw away outdated and harmful ideas about gender and stop teaching boys that girls and anything related to girls are somehow shameful or uninteresting or embarrassing. THESE CAN BOTH BE IMPORTANT AT THE SAME TIME. Revolutionary idea, I know.

If YA did have such a predominance of female protagonists, I’d be happy, given all the messages female teens receive to the contrary, that there was at least one place where they could experience other females being front and center, having agency and their own individual identities. But it is not necessarily even true that YA has more female protagonists than male. According to this study, 49% of YA protagonists are male. 49%. And only 36% of YA protagonists are female. (15% have protagonists of both genders.)

You know what else isn’t true? That YA is dominated by women writers. The same study found that 56% of YA writers were women, which is hardly an overwhelming majority.

When we talk about female protagonists in YA books as if they’re somehow a bad thing, we’re strengthening harmful stereotypes. When we believe boys won’t read books with female protagonists, we’re sending them the message that they shouldn’t want to, or that there’s some kind of problem with reading these so-called “girl books.”

The Feminist Batwoman wrote a fabulous essay called “Boys Don’t Read Girl Books and Other Lies My Society Told Me.” She ran a successful experiment exposing her little brother to novels about girls as well as boys, and she has this to say about boys not reading books with girl protagonists: “My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.”

We need to stop talking about boy books and girl books as if this is some kind of important and valid distinction. We need to wake up and realize that 56% of YA writers being women does not mean that women dominate the genre. And we need to think long enough to realize that if girls are happily reading novels with protagonists of both genders, there’s no reason we can’t work towards encouraging boys to do the same. Plenty of boys already do.

For a long time I took these assumptions about YA and YA readers for granted. I’m guessing I’m not the only one. Therefore, if you think this is an important and interesting issue, I encourage you to share this essay or start a conversation with your friends and colleagues. Let’s challenge what everyone knows and find out what lies underneath, shall we?

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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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Dear Library,

I can’t remember the first time I stepped through your doors. In fact, my first time probably involved being carried, too young to walk. I didn’t realize then that I was visiting one of my lifetime homes.

What I do remember is visiting you without fail every other Saturday afternoon. Library Saturday, one of the high points of the week. I remember exploring the high stacks of the children’s section, what we might call Middle Grade today. My mom would linger by the new releases section, trying to pick out titles she thought I’d like, while I flung myself into the great sea of books.

Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy and Tacy books, Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. I checked out the first two Lord of the Rings books but not the third, and then nearly died waiting for the next Saturday to get the third…but it was too late, the magic was lost, and I never finished. The Mary Poppins books, getting T.B. White and T.H. White mixed up, and then I discovered E. Nesbit and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books and Zilpha Keatley Snyder (oh, Below the Root).

I unearthed Beauty by Robin McKinley from your shelves, and it became my first long-lasting favorite book. I found the Pierces, Tamora Pierce and Meredith Ann Pierce, and devoured them. And when I needed a sure thing, I’d wander over to the other side of the room and choose a fat collection of fairy tales: one of the colored Fairy books, perhaps, or a collection of Grimm.

And then I graduated to Upstairs where the adult fiction lived, an endless stream of Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey and Andre Norton and Victoria Holt.

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Some of my happiest hours were spent browsing underneath your roof. I started my own little library at home, but it didn’t matter too much that I couldn’t afford all the books I wanted because I could always visit you and find something new to read that would transport me to a magical place. That would teach me what the world could be, what my place might be in it, and how to live.

And your guardians! The wise folk who spend their days roaming your halls and helping make your knowledge more accessible. They smiled at me when I checked out the maximum twelve books every time. I couldn’t help thinking that by spending so much time there, they were absorbing the essence of the place, a situation I deeply envied. Because who wouldn’t want to spend their time surrounded by books?

Oh, Library, I love you so. You are always there waiting for me, willing to give me the brain food I crave. You, with your multiple locations and quiet reading areas and musty smell and old books that have worn edges and yellowed pages and have been touched by who knows how many pairs of hands. You, who offer knowledge and adventure and magic and possibilities to anyone who enters. You, who played such a large role in who I am today and who I will become tomorrow.

I love you, Library. You will always hold a special place in my heart.

Your admirer, and perhaps even (do I presume too much?) your daughter,
Amy

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Book worm: a person who cannot imagine an existence without reading.

It just occurred to me the other day that most people are not book worms. I mean, I know that most American adults do not read that many books; in 2007 the media had fun complaining about how 27% of Americans hadn’t read a book in the last year, and looking at that same study, of the remaining 73% of people who did read, 25% of them had only read 1-3 books in the past year.

Sometimes numbers take a while to sink into my brain. But I met someone at a party recently who announced, “I don’t read.” I appreciated his bluntness: no excuse making, no pretending. And I realized these hypothetical people who don’t read (or don’t read much) actually exist. They are all around me, all of the time! My lifestyle, in which books have always featured prominently, is not the way everyone I know lives. What an epiphany to have, right?

I love reading. I feel physically hungry to read more good books. When I purchased William Shakespeare’s complete works for the Kindle, I almost started crying because I can now carry all of Shakespeare’s words wherever I go. I cannot contemplate a life in which I don’t have time to read; my brain cannot even compute the possibility.

Photo by Eneas de Troya

You know you’re a book worm when:

1. You worry when you leave your house and don’t have a book with you.
2. The idea of having hundreds of books on a portable device reduces you to tears of joy.
3. Libraries and bookstores are the most amazing places on the planet because you can experience physical proximity to so many books at once.
4. The idea of having your bedroom lined with bookshelves gives you a cozy feeling.
5. When you think of being stranded on a desert island, your first concern is what books you would choose to have with you (and how you’d survive if you didn’t have any books at all).
6. One of the best parts of planning a vacation is choosing the books you’ll take with you.
7. You buy a special book for your birthday each year so you know you’re guaranteed to have a pleasant day.
8. You know every section of wall in your home that could be used for more bookshelf space in the future. Book storage is one of the most important uses of your home.
9. You have trouble getting rid of books, even duplicates.
10. When called upon to choose between reading a good book and doing another activity, it is a really tough choice. (Or it’s an easy choice; of course you’d rather stay home and read.)
11. Your favorite gift to receive is a gift certificate to buy more books.
12. It is hard to leave a library or bookstore without a large stack of books.


13. You are pretty much always in the middle of at least one book.
14. Your most important criteria when purchasing a purse/bag is how big a book it will fit (the winners are the ones that will accommodate hardcovers).
15. You want to live forever because otherwise, think of all the books you’ll miss!

I love being a book worm. It brings me so much joy. What about you? Are you a book worm? Do any of the above behaviors sound like you too?

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As the year draws to a close, my attention turns to the list of books I have read this year. I’ve been keeping track for the last three years, and I’m surprised at how much pleasure this small habit gives me. I only write down the books I have finished, which eliminates many books every year, nonfiction taking an especially big hit since I often read selections from nonfiction books instead of reading them from beginning to end. Re-reads count, as do beta reads for novelist friends. Short stories and novelettes do not count unless they are in a collection, but novellas sometimes do…if I remember to include them.

Looking over my list for 2011 as of today, I’ve selected my ten favorite new-to-me reads thus far this year. It’s been a fantasy-heavy year for me, in stark contrast to my list of favorites of 2009, which was very science fiction-heavy. Maybe next year I can find more of a balance.

I did read several YA dystopias this year, but upon reflection I am unable to include any of them on my “Best of” list this year. While some of them were entertaining, none of them hold up particularly well in my memory, and almost all of them suffer from some flaw or another that makes me hesitate to recommend them. I haven’t read all the recent YA dystopias that have received good buzz yet (I’ve heard good things about Blood Red Road and Legend, for example), so it’s my hope that I missed a few gems that I’ll catch up on next year.

Favorite YA Novels:

1. Where She Went, by Gayle Forman. Contemporary YA
This is the sequel to If I Stay. It is told from the point of view of a young rock star who is trying to come to terms with his life and his decisions. The two main characters are both passionate about music, which possibly explains why I particularly like it.

2. Red Glove, by Holly Black. YA contemporary fantasy
This is book 2 in the Curse Workers series, and it does not stand alone. I’ve been really enjoying this series; the world building is strong and the books have their own distinctive voice that make them both enjoyable and memorable.

3. Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins. YA contemporary romance
A romance set in a boarding school in Paris. The plot isn’t the strong point here, but the protag Anna’s voice is likeable, distinctive, and feels very very real.
4. The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson. YA epic fantasy
This is by far the best YA novel I read this year. The worldbuilding, voice, plot, characters: all of them worked for me. It reminds me a bit of old Robin McKinley a la The Blue Sword, but definitely tells a story all its own.

Favorite Adult Fantasy Novels:

5. The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of the Gods, by N.K. Jemisin
The last two books of her trilogy, these books do (more or less) stand alone. This is epic fantasy written straight for my own personal taste. I think I particularly love these books because they are NOT set in Ye Olde Medieval Europe only sanitized; the setting feels real and true to itself, and the characters aren’t cookie cutters either. Plus I love the books’ cosmology so much, and I enjoyed the last book in particular, told from the POV of one of my favorite of her gods.

6. Among Others, by Jo Walton. Contemporary-ish Fantasy (set in the 1970s)
You might have to be an SF/F fan to truly appreciate this book (although that being said, plenty of its references did not hit the mark with me). This book takes place after the big show-down of the plot, so can be seen as a novel-length denouement (although of course it is more than that) and it unfolds itself leisurely and with great character depth. The end didn’t work for me, but even so, it was one of my best reads of the year.

7. The Map of Time, by Felix J. Palma. SF(?)
I suppose this novel is technically science fiction, since it involves time travel, but it read more like fantasy to me. A spellbinding yarn that weaves in and out of itself in a few (to me, at least) unexpected ways, this historical fantasy/sf/whatever-it-is charmed me, especially in the sections involving the author H.G. Wells.

8. Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. Contemporary Fantasy
It’s the worldbuilding of this novel that makes it stand out, set in modern South Africa exploring the consequences of one little addition of fantasy/magic to the world we know now. This novel moves at a furious clip, and occasionally the plot suffers from this, but it’s worth the read to be immersed in this fascinating world.

9. Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Historical Fantasy
10. The Lions of Al-Rassad, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Historical Fantasy
What is most noteworthy about my reading year is that I discovered the beautiful prose of Guy Gavriel Kay. I have to be in a certain mood to read him, but when I am, there is absolutely nothing better.

What books did you read this year that you particularly enjoyed? Please let me know so I can add them to my reading list!

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