A Year of Books: The top nine. Sixteen. Eighteen. Whatever.

For several years now, my Bride, Helen, and I set aside any book we read in the course of a year, so we can see how much we’ve read. It’s a fun exercise in looking back and seeing if you’re reading as much as you think you are. This year, we purchased a bookshelf just to hold what we’ve read. We aaaaaaaaaaalmost filled it:

A shelf of read books
Which also means that soon it will be empty as we start over for the year…

So close!

Actually, if you count the books we both read, add in my professional reading, what Helen reads to the kids, and a few library books that had to be returned to the library after Helen read them, and my individual comic books, well, we’d be well overflowing. So… win! And hopefully, since we’re in a new place that affords us some extra time for reading, we’ll more than fill the bookcase this year.

Anyway, we thought we’d share what we read this year. Feel free to chime in with your lists and your “best of’s.” We’d love to hear if you’ve read these and you agree, disagree, want to tear off our arms and beat us with them for our bad taste, whatever. Do you have any recommendations based on what you see we like? Anything that you see here and want to check out? Let us know in the comments!

This list will span several posts that will go up over the next couple of weeks. Today’s post is our top picks for what we read this year. Helen wanted to make it a top ten, but it didn’t quite work out. We’ve linked everything to Amazon so if something looks good to you, look! Commerce! Woo!

We’ve put these books in alphabetical order according to title; there’s no “best of the best” here. What we discovered is that Helen apparently gravitates toward the front of the alphabet, while I go toward the back. Strange. We’ll see if there’s more of that kind of thing as we post more capsule reviews.

Anyway… on to the list!

It’s a pretty cover.

The Blood Mirror 
By Brent Weeks

Helen says: READ THE BOOK! Okay, sorry. This is book 4 in a series. So I guess if you haven’t read any of Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer series, you should probably go start with Book 1 – The Black Prism. Go to Amazon or Goodreads or Barnes and Noble or whatever and read some reviews and then go read the book. Preferably within the week so that you can move onto books 2, 3, and 4.

Now, READ THIS BOOK! Okay, sorry.

But if you’ve already read books 1-3 *cough* Jon *cough* what are you waiting for?

Sadly this is Book 4 in what is now a 5 book series. Weeks discovered he had too much story left to tell and couldn’t possibly wrap it all up in Book 4. And thus the “last” book in the series became the next-to-last. Sigh. So now we eagerly await Book 5. In that vein, much of this book, unfortunately, feels like setup for book 5. Necessary setup, but setup none-the-less. Fortunately, there are a few shining character moments (and we already have so much invested in these characters) that this still makes my list of top picks.

I really can’t tell you more than that without ruining it. Weeks is phenomenal at taking your expectations and just….shattering them. Absolutely never saw it coming and leaves you wanting more – right in the middle of the story. These are not twist endings, but startling revelations mid-stream that change everything. And then the story keeps going. And Gavin gets one in this installment. Kip gets a couple cool moments, too. Now – Go read the book. (And come on Book 5!)

Jon says: Helen? Are you trying to tell me something?

Helen says: BRENT WEEKS! (readthebookreadthebookreadthebookreadthebook)

The pictures are fantastic. Seriously. It’s worth it for the illustrations alone.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick
By Chris VanAllsburg et al.

Helen says: This is a collection of 14 short stories by 14 different authors. Basic concept: Here’s a picture and a one line of text – Go! Most of the stories are fantasy or sci-fi or have some element thereof, which makes complete sense looking at the pictures. They are all wonderfully imaginative!

The first story in the collection didn’t work for me, but the rest were all great.
Favorites: Under the Rug by Jon Scieska, Missing in Venice by Gregory Maguire (probably my favorite or second favorite of the whole book), Mr. Linden’s Library by Walter Dean Myers (because how can you not love a story about stories?), Just Desert by M.T. Anderson (which is the other story vying for top spot), and Captain Tory (by Louis Sachar).

The Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, and Stephen Kings stories were also quite good. My only regret is that I didn’t sit and think up what story I would attach to each picture before reading the ones presented here.

Jon says: I read some novels by M. T. Anderson – one made my top list as well – so you might want to check those out, hon. But be warned: they are not pretty stories.

Helen says the book is good. I wouldn’t guess it by this cover… it’s just so… orange.

The Ethan I Was Before
By Ali Standish

Helen says: This was an excellent book. (Although the fact that it’s in the top 10 list should tell you that. I still had to say it at least once, somewhere. 😉 ) So, you had to read Bridge to Terebithia in grade school, right? Didn’t everybody? Well imagine that series of events as a prologue to this story. Ethan’s best friend Kacey is gone. Nothing is the same anymore. Ethan isn’t the same.

Then, throw in a new spunky, would-be best friend, a grupmy (but actually very sentimental) Grandpa, and one awesome hurricane, stir well, and see what happens. The Ethan he was before is gone, and the new Ethan….well, he’s still in process.

The book was full of real moments and real characters (which was my favorite part). You don’t actually get the story of what happened “before” till you’re a way into the book. But there is closure by the end.

She’s looking at you. She won’t look away until you open up the book and read. FEAR HER.

Fever 1793
By Laurie Halse Anderson

Helen says: I have been wanting to read this one for a while. Finally found it cheap at a Half Price Books so I grabbed it. I tend to learn more about history thorugh historical fiction than a great many other methods. Even if it is fiction, it still gives a great overview of the events. In fact, in the back of this copy you will find an Appendix full of source information the author used to help craft her story. It’s awesome.

Mattie lives in Philadelphia….until her rmother falls ill with Yellow Fever, along with the rest of the city. She and her Grandfather are in turns, helped by fellow passers-by, turned away by fearful officials, lose most of their belongings, receive medical care (We see two ways the Fever was treated, and apparently it was a controversy at the time.), and help care for others who could not escape the city. Overall it is the story of how Maddie grew up, really. I imagine living through a time like that forced a lot of people to grow up fast actually. In the end, for all the danger, it really could have been a much sadder story. (I mean, you’re reading a YA novel, so it’s a fair bet your main character lives, even through this.) But I enjoyed all the historical bit and pieces the author wove together to make this work.

There is just something about these older covers… I want to read them all. All of them. Give them here.

The Five Gold Bands
By Jack Vance

Helen says: Jack Vance, in case you’re not familiar with him, is sci-fi. Old sci-fi. Before all the tropes were tropes. This one is a high-stakes space adventure story and was honestly just a lot of fun to read. Paddy’s on a treasure hunt of sorts, collecting pieces of information (The titular Five Gold Bands) that will allow him to build an intertellar space drive. Along the way he meets all sorts of…less than reputable, and certainly less forgiving races. “Oh, Paddy has backed himself into another corner, found another way to get himself killed. How’s he going to get out of it?” Partly by skill and partly by luck is generally the answer.

Jon says: Man, Vance is just fun. I read a trilogy of his this year that just missed being in my top picks. If you’ve never heard of him and you’re a sci-fi fan, do yourself a favor and check him out. I can recommend Planet of Adventure as a great place to start, and I know Helen likes Dying Earth.

Helen says: Or The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph (if you’re not up for something epic and long.)

This isn’t the cover we have, but it’s the cover Amazon has. Clearly we must be wrong.

I Am Princess X
By Cherie Priest

Helen says: Oh, where do I start with this one? This story is mostly prose with comic pages scattered throughout, and it makes perfect sense once you know the setup. Libby and May created a character named Princess X, and together they wrote and drew fabulous adventures for her. Until Libby died in a car crash. The Princess X stories were lost, thrown out, and May was devastated.

A few years later, however, May suddenly sees Princess X springing up everywhere. Stickers, graffiti drawings, there’s a whole online store and a webcomic…..but how? May and Libby were the only ones who knew about Princess X. As May ties to dig to the bottom of it she becomes more and more convinced that Libby is the one posting the comic, that she’s alive and leaving clues for May to follow.

I won’t ruin the ending as it is a really wonderful mystery as you unravel the real story of what happened in that car crash. It was a bit slow at a couple points – like, I just wanted to know what happened next, just make it get here faster. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it kept me reading at a good rate. I love how you (the reader) get many of the clues the same way May does – through the comic panels, too.

THIS is the cover we have!

I am Princess X
by Cherie Priest

Jon says: Libby and May drew comics. Princess X fought monsters, ghosts, and any other bad guys they could dream up. And then Libby was in her car with her mom, and there was an accident. Libby died. Now May is sixteen. It’s been years since her best friend died. But then May sees Princess X… everywhere. There’s comics online, and it’s the same stories she and Libby came up with. Except for one thing… something is happening to Princess X that mirrors Libby’s death. It means that Libby must still be alive. But why is she hiding? Why does everyone think she’s dead? And why didn’t she come find May? Something sinister has happened, and May will find her friend no matter where the trail takes her.

Just… just read this book. It is at turns creepy and delightful and frighteningly creative. Priest put together some great characters in a thundering plot that doesn’t slow down. Peppered throughout the novel we get to read the Princess X webcomic; the illustrations by Kali Ciesemier match the tone perfectly. This one may not have been my favorite read of the year, but it’s probably in the top three or so.

Helen says: Hm. You found it fast, and I was wanting it to go faster. Interesting. Between our two reviews, I guess you can get a good idea of what’s in store. And the fact that it made both our lists should tell you something too.

You can tell it’s good because there’s really no cover. Just words. That means it’s fancy.

The Knife of Never Letting Go
by Patrick Ness

Jon says: The war went wrong. They released a virus, and now… everything can read each others’ thoughts. People can hear what others are thinking. And what dogs think (it’s less interesting than you might first consider). And what squirrels think. Everything. But… the virus backfired. Every human female died. Every single one. Todd is literally the last person born on the planet. He’s sent out to the swamp to get some fruit, and he hears everything: the crocs, the squirrels, his dog. They all make so much noise.

And then he finds a bubble of complete silence.

…is that… is that a girl?

This book blew me away. Twist after twist, they just keep coming, and the pace doesn’t slow down ever. At all. I rarely read two books from a series in a row; I usually have to take a break between. I read the entire Chaos Walking trilogy in… what? A week? That’s very unusual for me. And by far, book one is the best. (The other two are great; don’t get me wrong!) Ness creates a story that just drives and drives and drives. It’s hard to take even a deep breath between chapters. And by the way, that spoilery summary I wrote? That’s covered in… what? The first twenty pages? OK, I just checked. I spoiled page 64. But it’s a big book. Trust me; there’s plenty more to explore. Ness has won a devoted follower; I read plenty from him this year, and like Neal Shusterman, he’s now on my, “If it’s written by him, pick it up” list.

Helen says: Yay Ness! I read the first 2 in the series, but then I got sidetracked into other stories. So I need to go back and read Book 3. I debated putting this one on my list as well, but I knew Jon would do an excellent review. (And if you’ve talked to him in person he’s probably already recommended it to you. 😉 )

Jon says: Probably.

Creeeeeeeeeeeepy

A Monster Calls
By Patrick Ness and Jim Kay

Helen says: You will notice I put 2 names for this one. Patrick Ness is the author (whom Jon will tell you more about I’m sure. We read several Ness novels this year.) Jim Kay is the illustrator of the copy we have. You can buy a copy without illustrations….but I wouldn’t. They’re really wonderful. They’re black and white and really just fit the tone of the story. (The back cover tells me they won Kay a Kate Greenway Medal.)

I haven’t seen the movie. I may. I’m betting they changed a bunch of stuff, though. And this story is so powerful on its own….I’m not sure what I’d change. Seriously, I yelled at the book because the ending made me cry (fair warning I guess for those of you who haven’t read it yet). Basic concept: A yew tree comes to life and visits Conor. Three times he will come and tell Conor a story. On the 4th visit, Conor must tell him a story – a true story. Conor has been dreaming – nightmaring really (it’s a word). But it is a nightmare he must face, and the yew tree is here to help him do it.

Are you getting deja vu with this cover? I am.

A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness, from an idea by Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay

Jon says: Conor has called the monster. He thinks he needs it. He’s right. But there will be a price.

We need stories. Ness creates a story that brings forward this need… and weaves a spellbinding tale of a boy struggling in a way I can’t really bring forward without spoilers, but I can say it is something I’ve seen others struggle with. As a pastor, I’ve seen these situations over and over again… and the book makes that emotional state a reality that conveys exactly what people in these situations go through. And it might make you cry. You’ve been warned.

Helen says: Uh oh, you’ve been warned twice about crying. And yeah, kinda want to go look up Siobahn Dowd too.

Jon says: Yeah. We really should.

 

They probably shouldn’t be taking the boat directly toward the lightning, but what do I know?

North of Nowhere
By Liz Kessler

Helen says: I also read a number of stories (like Splendors and Glooms actually) which had an element of the supernatural/fantasy/magic to them, but were otherwise set in the real world. This is one of those, too.

Mia is forced to spend spring break in a little, nowhere town visiting her Gran (who insists on calling her Amelia – yuck.) Her Grandad (who Mia adores) has just up and left which is very confusing. So the family is, essentially, just waiting for him to call or come home or….something. To break up the boredom (and escape the family tension), Mia walks the beach. She ends up sneaking aboard a small boat docked there and exchanging “letters” (written in a diary notebook) back and forth with Dee who lives across the water in another small boring town. She also meets Peter….until Peter disappears too.

A small boat, a spinning compass, an abandoned town, and a 50 year old storm all come together to help bring Grandad and Peter home from North of Nowhere and somewhere in time. Have fun putting together the mystery.

Poseidon is grumpy when he hasn’t had his coffee.

The Odyssey
adapted by Gareth Hinds

Jon says: OK, really, you know the story to this one, and if you don’t, please go back to high school lit or curse your teachers for not going through it. It’s a classic with reason. Odysseus gets cursed on the way back from the Trojan War and has to wander the sea for years before getting home. On the way, he has adventures. Woo!

The story has been adapted so many times, but nearly every adaptation I’ve ever seen takes the original story as told by Homer, rearranges it, and then puts nearly the entire focus on the journey, instead of what happens once Odysseus gets home. Hinds, though, does something fairly gutsy: he keeps close to the source material. It begins with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, trying to track down his dad after years of absence. And I have to say: this book is so, so much better for keeping to the source. This is a graphic adaptation, told in comic book form. And man, the art is sumptuous. If you’ve heard the stories of Odysseus vs. the cyclops or any of his other adventures and you wanted to know more, but the English translation is a little imposing (and let’s be honest – it is!), check out this adaptation. It is faithful, arresting, adventurous, and shows why Homer’s story has endured for centuries.

Helen says: Um…yeah. I never read this in high school. Fail? I guess?

Jon says: Maybe you need to fix that by reading this adaptation, huh? Look, I help you be all cultured and stuff.

Can you guess what real-world nation this fantasy nation is based on? Bet you can’t! …that’s right! Belgium!

The Scroll of Years
by Chis Willrich

Jon says: Gaunt and Bone, partners in crime and… involved with each other, need to get away. The heat is on, and it’s not good to steal from wizards. And really, it’s probably for the best, anyway. Gaunt is pregnant with their child, after all. Their chosen safehaven, Qiangguo, has its own intrigues, though. Gangs of thieves, ancient artifacts, and the clever Next-One-A-Boy all conspire to suck Gaunt and Bone back into deadly adventure. No one will escape unchanged.

I picked this up in part because reading about a romantic couple that’s truly a couple feels so rare. And man, this novel does not disappoint. Gaunt and Bone truly love each other. They’re written as a comfortable married couple that just happen to be thieves and adventurers. Their loving banter, realistic fights, and support of each other carried the entire book for me. That’s not the only good thing, though. The setting enticed me; the setup for dragons alone would make a great novel in and of itself. The plot remains complex – this ain’t a YA novel! I got emotional reading this book, too. The introduction of Next-One-A-Boy left me heartbroken. The climax made me cheer! I requested – and received – the rest of the trilogy as a gift. I’ll be reading them this year without a doubt!

Helen says: You’re welcome! 😉

I saw this song in Chicago!

Splendors and Glooms
By Laura Amy Schlitz

Helen says: I read a few books with magicians in them this year. This, however, was by far the best of the lot. It’s set in Victorian England so part of it may just be the setting – a time when life was a bit less certain, a bit rougher. Because this is a tale of a kidnapping really. A magical kidnapping. And once Clara disappears from her home, not even her wealthy doctor father can really do much to help. Clara could be hidden right under his nose in fact and he could do little to save her because (Spoilers!) she’s been turned into a puppet. Add in a rival magician (who could restore Clara to her former self….for a price) and Clara quickly discovers there’s nowhere safe to turn. The magician’s two assistants are little better off, trapped by their own fear of the magician and his rival’s cunning, but together the three children must try to escape.

The cover is designed to look old, and I love that.

Starship Grifters
by Robert Kroese

Jon says: “The galaxy needed a hero! It got Rex Nihilo instead.” The conman got conned. He owns a useless planet and owes more money than exists in the entire universe. His only way out it to play two sides of a galactic conflict against one another: the Malarchian Empire against the Revolting Front. He doesn’t care about the doomsday weapon the Empire’s created. He doesn’t care about freedom. He cares about getting paid and not getting killed when he cashes the check. Hopefully Sasha, his faithful robot sidekick, can keep him alive long enough to avoid getting killed.

I have never laughed out loud at a book nearly as often as I laughed at this one. I recently found out that Starship Grifters is book one in a series. Awesome. I need to get the rest of them. So much. To give an example, at one point it appears the big bad doomsday device is about to explode. A general asks the dark overlord, “Sir, should we prepare your shuttle to evacuate?”

“What? In Our Moment of Triumph?”

“Yes. In your shuttle, Our Moment of Triumph.”

“Yes. Please prepare it.”

So many great jokes, besides there being a great plot. Rex is Han Solo if he really was a cad without the heart of gold. I usually hate characters like that, but Kroese pulls off a great, great coup in getting me to care about him. If you like laughing and you like science fiction, you really need to read this.

I’m saddened that the big guy with the ax doesn’t play a bigger part in the story.

The Suburb Beyond the Stars
by M. T. Anderson

Jon says: Something is wrong in Gerenford, Vermont. Time has stopped working properly. People refuse to leave their homes. Something hunts in the night. Brian and Gregory discover something is breaking into our world, and its effects are horrific. They will not be able to stop it. What can you do when faced with the end of all that is?

This is book two in The Norumbegan Quartet. The store I got this at had books two and three, so here’s where I started. While I desire to read book one, I don’t feel a pressing need to. If you’re looking for delicious creeping horror, check this out. Anderson has woven a tapestry that really gets under the skin and doesn’t let go. His imagination in what has happened to this Vermont town and what happened to its people terrifies, if nothing else than because it’s just-off-kilter makes you believe it could be real. It’s marketed as YA, but man, it worked for me! If you’re a fan of The House with a Clock in Its Walls and want something aimed at a little older audience, this would be a good place to go.

Helen says: Wow, I guess we really did read a bunch of horror and horror-ish things this year (compared to our “normal” anyway.)

Jon says: We really did, didn’t we? Not sure why that is. Huh.

Helen says: Blame the used book shops.

 

This is another one where Amazon offers a different cover… well, too bad! I like this cover better!

Welcome to Bordertown
ed. By Holly Black and Ellen Kushner

Jon says: Most anthologies have a few very strong entries, a bunch that are decent, and then a couple that are passable. The reason Welcome to Bordertown made my top picks is that there’s not a weak entry in the bunch. The setting itself ignites the imagination: a city on the edge of our world and Faerie, set modern day. Elves ride motorcycles. Women fall in love with statues. Werewolves own used book shops. And when you throw together a list of authors like Emma Bull, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, and Holly Black… well, this thing wins. It makes me feel all the feels. The only “downside” is that these short stories aren’t particularly short; if you’re looking for brief tales, this isn’t the collection for you. The last story is seventy pages, for instance! But you’ll be happy to visit Bordertown. Well, maybe not happy. It’s not that kind of magic.

I kinda wish the cover more reflected the fantasy aspects of this book…

What Came from the Stars
by Cary D. Schmidt

Jon says: The Valorim have fallen to dark Lord Mondus. No amount of magic, no amount of courage, no amount of innocence could stop him. As the last stronghold of light falls, the Valorim put all their knowledge and all their power into one last artifact and sent it out to the heavens to keep it from Mondus’s hands… It streaks across the stars and lands in the lunchbox of Tommy Pepper, sixth-grader. Now he has all the power from this fantasy-land and a key to finally grab a happy life. Except Lord Mondus sends his hunters to find the artifact and bring it back… by any means necessary.

I loved this book so hard. The opening chapter feels like Tolkien at his finest. Tommy is a real sixth-grader, struggling with real problems. And when fantasy and real life collide, author Schmidt makes it work. This book is not normal in many ways; even the solution to the final conflict comes in a manner I wouldn’t necessarily expect. While “modern-day teens fight fantastic foes” is a relatively common trope, this novel took the idea in directions I delighted in. The only problem is that the parts of the novel written in the fantasy setting really are in a fantasy setting; lots of made-up words that could cause problems for slow readers or those who hate having to wade through all the gobbledygook. That said, I loved it and would read it again.

Helen says: This one still belongs in my TBR stack. Because Jon got there first. Silly Jon.

Jon says: You love me!

Made it through the list!

Next time: We’re going to jump to the least recommended books… the books that made us go “meh,” “ugh,” and “might as well throw it out.” Should be fun!

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