Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Setting, Butt-Kicking, and Character Development, Oh My! My Best Book Discoveries of 2011

With the holidays quickly approaching, this past week I’ve found myself spending a lot of time reflecting on the past year—and with it, the past year’s books. While as a book marketer I’m already looking at books that are a year or more from publication (we just launched the Winter 2013 list—yeesh!), as a reader I find myself looking back as often as I look forward. If you asked me what my favorite reads this year were, you’d find my list reflects that; it’s pretty evenly split between books I loved from 2011, books I discovered my love for in 2011 (though they came out years ago), and books I was lucky to read in advance and can’t wait to buy in hardcover come 2012.

Books I Read Early—and Can’t Wait Until 2012 to Read Again

---> Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood
Though I enjoy many books each year, it’s a rare book that I truly love. So when my roommate Victoria thrust this book into my hands, I think she and I both saw it as a chance to test whether our tastes aligned and we could trust each other to recommend books. The answer is yes. In Born Wicked, Jessica has built a compelling, convincing world that feels at once familiar and completely foreign, both reserved and darkly dangerous. The climax delivered such a skillful series of blows, twists, and reveals that I found myself breathless and begging for more when I hit the last page.

---> Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen
I picked Scarlet up for the butt-kicking female protagonist—and there’s plenty of that—but I stayed for the love story. This book breathes new life into the Robin Hood story with characters that ring utterly true both as heroes and as conflicted, broken teenagers. The fast action and the book's many surprises kept me breathlessly turning pages. What’s more, amidst this wave of paranormal and contemporary romances, it was refreshing to read a love story that didn’t dominate the plot but nonetheless felt essential to it, and very, very right.

---> Butter by Erin Lange
Butter is the story of an overweight teenager who, friendless, teased, and out of hope, threatens to eat himself to death live on the internet on New Year’s Eve. When his announcement skyrockets through the rumor mill, he’s suddenly noticed—even liked—by his classmates, and he finds himself wondering if he can really go through with the plan—and if he has a choice in the matter. This book had me at its oh-so-heartbreaking premise, and it absolutely delivered. Erin doesn’t shy away from showing teenagers at their most brutal, but she nonetheless tells a story that is ultimately about redemption.

---> Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas
More butt-kicking! Celaena Sardothien is plucked from certain death in the slave mines of Endovier and whisked away to a glass castle to compete for the title of King’s assassin. All that stands between Celaena and the promise of freedom is a deadly competition, a chamber far below the castle that's full of dark secrets, and a host of traitors who make it impossible for Celaena to trust anyone—even the two men closest to her. A jaw-dropping cross between The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, this book refused to let me put it down until I’d raced to the end. (Also, that art is fan art! So cool!)

Favorites of 2011

---> Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
I never fail to be spellbound by Laini’s lyrical writing and her oh-so-literary approach to storytelling. She took a commercial concept—an angel falls in love with a demon, and it does not go well—and surprised me with her execution. On a structural level, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is like almost no other YA I’ve read. And yet, even when the story’s pace was leisurely, I was completely and utterly captivated.

---> The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab
The Near Witch is Victoria’s first novel, a lovely tale of intrigue, magic, and a dash of love. Again, it was Victoria’s literary style that pulled me into this one, and I can’t stop talking about her characters—including her setting, a moor that becomes a character in its own right under Victoria’s skillful hand.

---> Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
From a neurologist’s lens, Cordelia debunks the myths we’ve all heard about the genetic roots of gender, and builds a compelling argument for viewing gender as a social construct. I learned an immense amount from this impeccably-researched book.

---> Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls
In this literary middle-grade novel, a young girl grieving her mother’s death meets a mysterious man who can make flowers bloom and create roots, seed, and flower out of nothing. But if he can breathe life into a plant even in the dead of winter, can he bring back Molly’s mother? Season of Secrets is one of those rare gems that broke my heart entirely, and then stitched it back up again in the course of 250 pages.

And I Just Had to Mention…

---> Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore
Kristin’s characters! Oh, heavens, her characters. Katsa, Po, Fire, and Briggan are among the most complex characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and the emotional truths at the heart of both of these epic-fantasy-meets-love-stories are so well-observed and maturely handled that I have a hard time believing Graceling was a debut. Had the battles, chases, fights, and escapes of these novels not even existed, I’d still be singing their praises as finely wrought character studies. But married with plot, those characters make Kristin’s books some of the best I’ve ever read. I can't wait for Bitterblue!

How about you? What were your favorite reads of 2011? What are you waiting on in 2012?


  1. Some of my favorites were on your list, but I'd also add the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. These books were mostly told from the point of view of a teenage male protagonist which is refreshing in itself (though the female protagonist later shares the narration), and the stories it tells about human nature and growing up are heartbreaking.

  2. Totally agree with you about 'Season of Secrets'! I look forward to reading some of the others - and my top title for this year would be the astounding 'Chime' by Franny Billingsley.

  3. Alaina - Yay, I'm so glad you enjoyed the Chaos Walking trilogy! I am addicted to Patrick Ness's writerly voice, and I have been meaning to read the whole series for ages. Guess I have another reason to add it to my list!

    Katherine - I'm so happy that you loved Season of Secrets too! It's such a lovely little book and I'd really like to see if get even more attention. As for Chime, I've heard such good things and definitely want to read it!

  4. I always trust your recommendations and I'm adding some titles to my reading list! Thanks so much for this post. It is a gift to me.

  5. Johanna, I think you'd love all of these books, but Scarlet and The Near Witch in particular seem like ones that suit you -- Scarlet for the butt-kicking lady lead and its voice, and Near Witch for the beautiful descriptions of setting (totally different, but it reminds me of your husband's photos!). You'll have to tell me what you think!

  6. I absolutely second the recommendation for Chime--I just read it, actually, and I was completely mesmerized. I'm certain I'll want to read it again. Other books from this year that I loved are Blood Red Road by Moira Young, a post-apocalyptic YA; Divergent by Veronica Roth, a dystopian YA; The Sentinel Mage by Emily Gee, a straightforward fantasy with some great female protagonists and gender issues; and, of course, Red Glove, the second in the Curse Workers series by Holly Black.

    In particular, if you're looking for a good, non-swoony romance with lots of other plot surrounding and informing it, go for any of the first three.

  7. Great list! Born Wicked and Daughter of Smoke and Bone really blew me away this year. They're both books I almost passed on because I didn't think i would like them but then they ended up being some of my favourite reads. Funny how things like that work.