My Top 2011 Teen Reads

I read close to 160 books in 2011 (I know, right?) and the majority were teens books. Here are my top five favorite teen books from 2011. If you’re looking for great reads to start our the new year, try one of these.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. Y Taylor.

Karou leads a double life: in one, she is an art student in Prague; in another, she is an errand runner for Brimstone, a chimaerae (demon) who barters teeth for wishes. Her worlds collide when she meets beautiful Akiva, who is on the other side of a centuries old war between angels and demons. This is a dark, romantic, suspenseful grown-up fairy tale, and it’s my favorite book of 2011.

The Isle of Blood (The Monstrumologist, Book Three), by Rick Yancey. Y Yancey.

Young Will Henry and his monster-hunting mentor, Dr. Warthrop, are back in their third adventure, where they travel to the Isle of Blood in search of the monster to end all monsters. If you are looking for something scary, gory, but also highly literate and thoughtful, look no further than Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series. A fourth book will happily be coming in the next year or so, so catch up while you still have time.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Cat Valente. Y Valente.

Twelve-year-old September leaves behind her mundane life in Omaha to travel to Fairyland with the Green Wind, where she comes into conflict with the Marquess, whose fickle rule has caused problems for Fairyland’s inhabitants. This is a truly inventive, idiosyncratic story with beautiful illustrations.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. Y Ness.

Grab some tissues, people! This is a heartbreaking yet life-affirming story of coping with loss, and the haunting, evocative black and white illustrations elevate the story to true art. Ever since Conor’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer, Conor’s been having nightmares of a terrible monster, but when the monster finally shows at midnight, it isn’t the one he expects. This monster, full of ancient wisdom, insists on telling Conor three stories in exchange for one story of Conor’s: the one story – the truth – that he doesn’t want to tell.

Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley. Y Whaley.

This is a strange one, but its strangeness is why I love it so. This literary novel tells intertwining stories of people searching for meaning and redemption in a messed up world. Cullen Witter lives in a tiny Arkansas town that is experiencing a revival after a birdwatcher claims to have seen a woodpecker long thought to be extinct. But while the townspeople are obsessed with searching for this mythical bird, Cullen is desperately searching for his missing younger brother, who disappeared at the same time. Meanwhile, Benton Sage, a missionary traveling in Africa, becomes disillusioned with his calling and sets up a chain reaction of events that dovetails perfectly with Cullen’s story. This excellent debut novel is both funny and meaningful.

Next week I’ll post my “Best of the Rest” list — books I really loved but didn’t make the top five.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, by Lish McBride

Author: Lish McBride
Genre: YA Paranormal (Horror-Comedy)
Pages: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Call number: Y McBride

Summary (from Goodreads): Sam leads a pretty normal life. He may not have the most exciting job in the world, but he’s doing all right—until a fast food prank brings him to the attention of Douglas, a creepy guy with an intense violent streak.

Turns out Douglas is a necromancer who raises the dead for cash and sees potential in Sam. Then Sam discovers he’s a necromancer too, but with strangely latent powers. And his worst nightmare wants to join forces . . . or else.

With only a week to figure things out, Sam needs all the help he can get. Luckily he lives in Seattle, which has nearly as many paranormal types as it does coffee places. But even with newfound friends, will Sam be able to save his skin?

My thoughts: This is a hysterical, scary, offbeat story about a slacker discovering his necromancer powers. It contains: a talking head, a (benign) zombie panda, a talking cat (who is actually a mini-dragon), homicidal lawn ornaments, sassy ghosts who love waffles, witches, weres, and an evil necromancer who makes his revenants do calisthenics just to prove a point. The book could have been a disaster, with too many quirky elements to succeed, but it has such heart that it works. It’s so good it was a finalist for the Morris Award in 2010.

I know this is terrible, but I often think of books in relation to television and movies. Probably because the only thing I do more than read is watch stuff. I think this is a mix of other witty but frightening and surprisingly touching horror-comedies, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Reaper, and Dead Like Me. I’m sure I could come up with more, but you get the point.

One minute Sam is deep-frying inappropriate things at Plumpy’s, the fast food joint where he works, and playing potato hockey with his co-workers and friends Ramon, Brooke, and Frank; the next, he’s being called out by a necromancer (Douglas, who Sam calls a “madman in pressed jeans”) and forced to deal with the fact that his mother has lied to him for years about his powers as a “death wrangler”.

Right from the outset, Sam was my kind of guy, when he wondered at how humankind spent thousands of years developing complex language systems only to create a cash register with pictures on it, “just in case the cashier didn’t finish second grade”. My feelings of love were cemented when he meets Douglas at the zoo to discuss necromancy, when Sam mentions that he never watches the news because “they just don’t make very good episodes of it anymore”. His deadpan, wise guy humor and pop culture references is what makes him so fun to read, but his underlying sweetness – his love for his friends and family – and his “why me?” plaintiveness is what makes him relatable. The other characters — Sam’s friends, his mother and sister, and a were-hybrid named Brid — are all equally developed and interesting.

The ending makes it clear that there will be (or at least, should be) sequels, which fills my heart with glee. This is a highly recommended book for lovers of paranormal thrillers and who are looking from something different from the standard formula.

My Top YA Reads 2010

It’s belated, but here’s my list of my favorite teen books published in 2010. Obviously, this list is highly subjective and totally dependent on what I got around to reading in 2010 (there are so many books to read each year that I can never keep up!); as you can tell, I read a lot of fantasy, paranormal fiction, and horror/thrillers, so generally any list I put together about my personal favorites will favor those genres heavily. Having said that, here’s the list (summaries courtesy of Ingram’s or the publishers’ themselves):

White Cat, by Holly Black. Paranormal. Y Black.
Summary:
When Cassel Sharpe discovers that his older brothers have used him to carry out their criminal schemes and then stolen his memories, he figures out a way to turn their evil machinations against them. Thoughts: I love heist stories and con artists. I love unreliable narrators. I love dark tales. I love secrets and twisty narratives where you’re never sure what’s going on until after it’s all been revealed (and even then, you’re not sure). Honestly, I think this one is my TOP top read of 2010. Here’s my review.

The Demon’s Covenant (sequel to The Demon’s Lexicon), by Sarah Rees Brennan. Paranormal. Y Brennan.
Summary: Mae Crawford’s always thought of herself as in control, but in the last few weeks her life has changed. Her younger brother, Jamie, suddenly has magical powers, and she’s even more unsettled when she realizes that Gerald, the new leader of the Obsidian Circle, is trying to persuade Jamie to join the magicians. Even worse? Jamie hasn’t told Mae a thing about any of it. Mae turns to brothers Nick and Alan to help her rescue Jamie, but they are in danger from Gerald themselves because he wants to steal Nick’s powers. Thoughts: This series is a great mix of original world-building, twisty plotting, and intriguing characters who are all super witty (perhaps unrealistically so, but who cares when it’s so fun to read?).

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, by Lish McBride. Paranormal. Y McBride.
Summary: Sam LaCroix, a Seattle fast-food worker and college dropout, discovers that he is a necromancer, part of a world of harbingers, werewolves, satyrs, and one particular necromancer who sees Sam as a threat to his lucrative business of raising the dead. Thoughts: This was one of the most thrilling and funniest books I’ve read in a long time. Sam has a great snarky voice, there’s tons of action and dark humor, and the plot kept me guessing the whole time. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford. Historical/Paranormal. J Milford.
Summary: When Jake Limberleg brings his traveling medicine show to a small Missouri town in 1913, thirteen-year-old Natalie senses that something is wrong and, after investigating, learns that her love of automata and other machines make her the only one who can set things right. Thoughts: Good and evil battle for human souls in a dusty, rural, close-knit Midwestern town in the early 1900s. A crossroads demon, a doctor who sold his soul to save lives but winded up cursing those he helped, a musician who once beat the devil in a fiddle contest, and an ambiguous larger-than-life trickster all converge around Natalie. Natalie’s combination of innocence, bluntness, and quick-thinking make her the perfect heroine for this tale of outwitting the devil. This book melds real aspects of Americana — Jack tall tales, clockwork automata, traveling medicine shows and snake-oil salesmen — with a supernatural premise, and it all comes together perfectly.

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver. Fiction/Paranormal. Y Oliver.
Summary: A terrible accident takes Samantha Kingston’s life. The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. In fact, she relives the last day of her life seven times, until she realizes that by making even the slightest changes, she may hold more power than she had ever imagined. Thoughts: This was one of those reads that really surprised me — I thought I would hate it but ended up really loving it. Here’s my review.

I Shall Wear Midnight (Tiffany Aching, Book Four), by Terry Pratchett. Fantasy. Y Pratchett.
Summary: Fifteen-year-old Tiffany Aching, the witch of the Chalk, seeks her place amid a troublesome populace and tries to control the ill-behaved, six-inch-high Wee Free Men who follow her as she faces an ancient evil that agitates against witches. Thoughts: I am sad to think there will probably not be another Tiffany Aching book, but as for series enders, this is a great one, encompassing everything that made the other three memorable: lots of British humor (both of the understated and loopy kinds), circuitous plotting, surprisingly serious undertones, and believable growth for the major characters, particularly Tiffany. I think this is my favorite one after the first, The Wee Free Men.

A Conspiracy of Kings (Queen’s Thief, Book Four), by Megan Whalen Turner. Fantasy. Y Turner.
Summary: Kidnapped and sold into slavery, Sophos, an unwilling prince, tries to save his country from being destroyed by rebellion and exploited by the conniving Mede empire. Thoughts: Turner does something different with the narrative in every Queen’s Thief book, and though I did miss Eugenidies in this fourth book, she made Sophos as interesting and complex a character, one who goes through similarly difficult trials on the road to kingdom. I’ve never written reviews of these books, because I don’t think I can do them justice, but I don’t think you can find anything better for subtle but brilliant political intrigue, fantasy world-building, and characters you absolutely fall in love with.

The Curse of the Wendigo (sequel to The Monstrumologist), by Richard Yancey. Horror. Y Yancey.
Summary: In 1888, twelve-year-old Will Henry chronicles his apprenticeship with Dr. Warthrop, a New England scientist who hunts and studies real-life monsters, as they discover and attempt to destroy the Wendigo, a creature that starves even as it gorges itself on human flesh. Thoughts: I just don’t see enough horror of this caliber, particularly for teens. The Monstrumologist, the first in the series, was a top read last year, and this one may be even better, because it raises the stakes for poor, doomed apprentice Will Henry and his recalcitrant master of monstrumology, Dr. Warthrop. I don’t love the series just because it’s gory, atmospheric, and frightening; I also love it because the characters, and their relationships with each other, have such depth, and because of the serious, literate tone to the storytelling (which fits perfectly within the setting and time frame of late 1800s New England).

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Author: Lauren Oliver
Genre: YA Fiction/Paranormal
Pages: 480
Call number: Y Oliver (it hasn’t come in yet, so put this book on hold now and you can get it in March — IT’S AVAILABLE NOW, March 8)

I really didn’t expect to like this book. The plot sounds like something out of an after-school special, like a Very Special Story about about appreciating your life or caring about others or not going to parties without a designated driver. The plot sums up easily: Samantha dies in a car accident Friday night on the way home from a party with her friends, but she realizes she has to relive the entire day when she wakes up in her bed to find it’s Friday morning again. As she lives Friday over and over, trying to figure out how to stop her death, she starts to notice things about her life, her friends, and her family that she never noticed before.

Instead of hating it, though, this book totally amazed me.

It isn’t sentimental or depressing or heavy-handed. It’s sad at times, yes, and it does have a message that is hard to ignore. Samantha starts out a little unlikable – she’s not a horrible person, but she’s self-absorbed and entitled. She has a comfortable life with a close-knit family, a popular boyfriend, and three best friends. She takes her popularity, and the perks that come with it, for granted, and she and her friends ignore and/or torment those lower on the high-school food chain. The thing is, she doesn’t seem to recognize their casual cruelty for what it is. It’s just the way things are in high school. But anyone reading will see the devastating effects their bullying has on others, particularly shy, quiet Juliet, who has been a long-standing target.

You’d think Samantha reliving the day of her death multiple times would get repetitive, but it doesn’t. Samantha’s death is a mystery that needs solving, and figuring out how and why the car accident happened (so that she can prevent it) unearths a whole bunch of secrets. She is constantly trying new things to get a different ending, and her decisions result in more and more deviations from the first Friday. Something as simple as being late for school instead of being on time has a ripple effect; something more substantial, like not going to school at all, make big changes (keeping in mind that it’s always Friday, of course, so certain scheduled events always take place whether Samantha is there or not).

The story ends up being a very intricate dance of action and consequence, and what’s most compelling is how Samantha’s story widens from being focused mostly on her to what’s going on around her. This gradual change is really important, because it shows how much Samantha has changed as a person (kinder, more compassionate, more aware of others, more outspoken) and it brings the circumstances leading up to her death into clearer focus (and a twisty set of circumstances it is).

Living the same day over and over is the ultimate learning experience. Overall, this book is about Samantha coming to realize what’s truly important and making her life one she can be proud of. Again, I know how this sounds like a Hallmark card, but Oliver manages to do it in a totally believable way without bringing the sap. Let me assure you, I am violently allergic to sap, so I really mean this. It’s moving, it’s meaningful, and I still can’t believe it’s a first novel. Wow.

2010 Blue Spruce Award Winner

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is this year’s Blue Spruce Award winner.

For those of you living under a rock, The Hunger Games is one of those books that just took off in popularity and acclaim, and I highly recommend you read it if you haven’t already. It’s an excellent read, fast-paced, full of nonstop action and big emotion,and it’s a great mix of wilderness survival story, science fiction dystopia, and love story. The sequel, Catching Fire, is just as good.

Here’s a brief plot summary from our online catalog: In a future North America, where the rulers of Panem maintain control through an annual televised survival competition pitting young people from each of the twelve districts against one another, sixteen-year-old Katniss’s skills are put to the test when she voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place.

By the way, the 2011 nominees for the Blue Spruce award are now available here. This is one of the only state awards that is chosen only by teens (yep, sadly, I don’t get to vote, but YOU do), and all you have to do is read at least three of these books. Then, find me at the library and tell me you want to vote, and I will give you a ballot you can fill out right then. It’s super easy! You have until January 2011 to vote, so check out the nominees and see if you’re interested in choosing next year’s winner.

Ask me more in the comments if you want, or e-mail, or find me at the library in person.

The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey

Publisher: Simon & Schuster’s Children’s
Genre: YA Horror
Pages: 448
Call Number: Y Yancey


“These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me…and the one who cursed me.”

So begins the journal of Will Henry, orphaned assistant to Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, a man with a most unusual specialty: monstrumology, the study of monsters. In his time with the doctor, Will has met many a mysterious late-night visitor, and seen things he never imagined were real. But when a grave robber comes calling in the middle of the night with a gruesome find, he brings with him their most deadly case yet. [summary from Goodreads]

The case starts out simple enough – the grave robber brings to Warthrop the corpse of a young girl inexplicably entwined with the dead body of a monstrous creature – but their search for what the creature is and how it got into the grave quickly becomes complicated. After a deadly trip to the local cemetery and some late-night dissections, Dr. Warthrop becomes convinced that the monster is an Anthropophagi, a hellish species his father had studied, and that the cemetery is their breeding ground. Their search to uncover more about creatures leads them from the graveyard to the mad house and into the past of both Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop.

The setting – New England in the late 19th century – is gloomy and bleak, perfect for such a dark story, and the haunted, driven characters fit the world perfectly. The Anthropophagi, far from being supernatural creatures, are wholly of the real world and are much scarier because of it – think about your local community being overrun by violent, man-eating animals at the top of the food chain and you’ll get the idea.

While the story has plenty of nail-biting suspense, hair-raising scares, and festivals of gore, it’s also a story about relationships, particularly of sons and their fathers: the son’s eternal striving to either live up to his father’s deeds, surpass them, or atone for them. Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop’s relationship is dysfunctional at best, shades of father/son and mentor/apprentice but not quite living up to either, but at the same time they need each other, if only because no one else needs them.

This is not a silly kid’s book about monsters that nobody would find scary. It’s not a B-movie. It’s not for the easily frightened or squeamish. What it is, is one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read (and I’m including adult books here, too), genuinely scary, fascinatingly gross, and psychologically complex.

If you like horror novels, this is the one to read.

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

gracelingAuthor: Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Harcourt, 2008
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 480
Call number: Y Cashore

I’ve read a lot of first novels lately, and it feels like despite the chaos and pessimism surrounding the publishing industry right now, there are a lot of first-time authors being published in YA. This is one of the better debuts I’ve read.

Katsa is a Graceling, one of a small number of people in the Seven Kingdoms born with the ability to excel at a special skill, called their Grace. Gracelings are marked by their eyes — Katsa has one blue and one green — and the fear that surrounds them severely limits their choices. Katsa, Graced with killing, is forced to become the assassin/enforcer for her uncle, King of the Middluns, torturing and killing those who displease him. This life of violence is all she knows, though she tries to atone by running a secret Council that works to bring justice to the kingdoms. On a mission to rescue the kidnapped grandfather of a royal family, Katsa runs into a man who unexpectedly matches her blow for blow in a fight. When he turns up again in her kingdom, she learns that he is a prince, the grandson of the man she rescued, and a Graceling as well. Prince Po is Graced with fighting, and he and Katsa quickly develop mutual respect and affection for each other. Together they travel to an isolated kingdom to find out the truth about the kidnapping of Po’s grandfather, and along the way, Po challenges the assumptions Katsa has made about herself and her Grace.

I can’t think of a lot of fantasy novels that mix such a kick-butt heroine with a romance that actually makes sense for the character. (I think Tamora Pierce’s Tricker’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen is another example.) Katsa is afraid of her Grace and her own anger. She doesn’t know how to make friends, much less be in love, without losing herself, and she struggles hard against her emotions. The only time she feels at peace, through much of the book, is when she’s fighting, because only then does she feel like herself. She’s determined never to marry, because she believes marrying can only come at the cost of her own independence, and I love how that never changes, though she eventually admits her feelings for Po. Po allows Katsa to be herself, and vice versa.

It’s the strength of Cashore’s characterizations of the two leads that really make this book excellent, though the plot elements — the kidnapping, the evil king Graced with a horrible power, the secret about Po’s Grace, the ending — are compelling in their own right. Cashore also writes some excellent fight sequences, which is important in a book with two main characters that are awesome at fighting. Katsa’s and Po’s practice battles, where they try to wipe the floor with each other, are a lot of fun to read. Finally, there is a good mix of great witty banter between Katsa and Po (Katsa especially can be quite funny) and a lot of heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking moments that give the characters and story depth without weighing it down..

Overall, I think this fantasy has everything going for it. I mentioned readers of Tamora Pierce liking this book above, but I also think readers who like Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series would enjoy this book for the intricate political intrigue, complex characters, and the romance between two equally powerful people.

Check out Kristin Cashore’s blog for news and information on her current projects!

*Want to see your own book reviews published on this blog? Want to win prizes for writing book reviews? Go here to see how!