This was a pretty good reading year, though my totals are still much, much lower than many people's, and I only caught up with a lot of others' significant books of 2008, if not earlier. The year started with a combined read of one of those 2008-for-most-of-the-world books (Kristin Cashore's Graceling) and a 2009 debut (R.J. Anderson's Knife, which I reviewed here). Nice start.
Those who have seen my lists before know that I tend to avoid difficult decisions about my favourite book, the top three (or even the worst book) by a combination of grouping and inventing odd categories. In contributing to the Strange Horizons 2009 in Review, I wasn't able to do that - though it did help somewhat to eliminate realist novels. Anyway, pushed thus, I chose Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island as my favourite, though saying anything about it in such a short space was incredibly difficult. (I wrote about it here when I'd just finished reading it, and had no such problem, but was excessively careful about spoiling, which didn't make for great lucidity when I wanted to quote half the book.) I also summarized my feelings about Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child pretty severely for the SH review, which is no harm, perhaps, for any who are already aware of the book's place in Racefail 09.
Anyway - groupings: More Debut-in-2009 Books I Liked a Lot:
- Lisa Mantchev's Eyes Like Stars - smart and funny (a favourite comination) fantasy with great setting, appealing characters and much more to discover about the world.
- As You Wish, by Jackson Pearce - also the winner of the award for 'silliest way to put a book on my TBR pile which worked', as I came across her 'AmazonFail: The Video' somewhere or other and decided I would read anything she wrote. And very much enjoyed the story of a Jinn trapped on earth by the protag's refusal to make the three wishes that will set him free to go back to his world. Sweet and funny, but also with nice riffs on happiness, the achievement of it and the difficulty of figuring out the difference between loving someone and wanting to be with them and wanting it so much that you can't see what they want or need. Only complaint was that it was too short - not something always true of YA fantasy! Looking forward to her next.
- Megan Crewe's Give up the Ghost - which also wins an award for the book inspiring the most thought about a post that I've never made. Lovely book about a girl who can communicate with ghosts, but not so well with 'breathers' - lot of moving scenes dealing with loss and grief, and a nicely pitched maybe-romance.
- And one non-fantasy: Victor Watson's Paradise Barn. Beautifully written story of three kids in an English town at the start of WW II. Has many standard elements of the old-fashioned children's story (new-comer to small community shakes things up, kids solve mystery police can't), but the characterization is wonderful, and so much is said in such simple, understated language. Fantastic.
Two Contrasting Series/Trilogy Ends:
- Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series finished off very satisfyingly - the action/tension was kept well ratcheted up and despite that, there were really engaging scenes with many of the main characters.
-Linda Buckley-Archer's Time Quake, the conclusion to the trilogy, on the other hand, was leaving me more and more disengaged right up until the very end, which upset me quite a bit. I thought the scientific aspect very dubious indeed, but more importantly, it felt as if the ending negated everything the younger protagonists had endured, and learned and achieved, and that was horrible. I'd liked the first book a lot, been quite impressed with a surprising and costly twist in the second, and so was disappointed for all that to have been lost. (Time-Quake also annoyed me by having two different characters in different times repeat the dreadful line about America being the place where anyone can achieve anything they want if they try hard enough. Yeah. Tell that to everyone now who can't afford decent health care, for one.)
The Book I'd Never Have Read Had Anyone Else Written It:
- Hilary McKay's Wishing for Tomorrow. A sequel to A Little Princess would have seemed like a really rotten idea, but -- Hilary McKay. That says enough - and the trust wasn't misplaced. Loved it.
The Book On a Topic I'd Have Avoided Had Anyone Else Written It:
- Sara Zarr's Once Was Lost. Abducted girl? Very scary subject, and I feared the heartbreak greatly, but I knew that Zarr wouldn't do anything emotionally manipulative and never considered for a second waiting until enough other people had read it to get an idea of how much heartbreak there'd be. Again - one of my favourite books of the year. One of the things I've appreciated in the two previous books and found in this one is the fact that Zarr always manages to keep the story firmly the teen protagonist's, but at the same time has adults whose growing hasn't stopped just because they're grown up. Sam's (alcoholic) mother is so beautifully portrayed, in a way which never either diminishes the difficulty of having a parent with a drinking problem nor makes that drinking problem all about its effect on Sam, I was blown away. Wonderful stuff.
Book That Made Me Pleased To Have Got the Audiobook *and* Want the Print Version Too:
- That's a two-way: Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (read by the author) and James Kennedy's The Order of Odd-Fish. Sherman brought more layers of feeling to the story that is apparently largely his own, and it alternated between really funny and close-to-unbearably sad with amazing speed. Jessica Almasy read a story with a cast of -- millions! -- and kept a distinct voice for each, handling the more-piling-on-top-of-more scenes with appropriate hilarity, while also managing to get across Jo's fearful isolation with a light touch. Written up here.
Author Who Provided Me the Most Hours of Reading Pleasure:
- Sherwood Smith. Hands down. Not only did she have a bunch of books come out in 2009 - including the lovely Sasharia en Garde! duo - but I also got to beta read a great story which should be coming out soonish. (Unlike most of the rest of her fans, I didn't get to read Treason's Shore in print in 2009, but believe me, I cried and rejoiced over it plenty as a WIP. And am looking forward to rereading immensely.) asakiyume interview with Sherwood discussing the Sasharia en Garde books here.
Book That Combined Most Wildly with a Paper at the DWJ Con:
- The Reformed Vampire Support Group, by Catherine Jinks. The paper was gnomicutterance/Deborah Kaplan's "Disrupted Expectations: Young/Old Protagonists in Diana Wynne Jones' Novels", which I've had the pleasure of reading after the con, and - wow. I listened to this on audiobook, and must have spent half the time wondering just who the expected reader was (or what age, rather), sometimes so strongly I nearly lost the plot. Seriously - it's not that the book is a complete reversal of every sexy, super-strong vampire book ever written, although it is. Complete with vivid descriptions of one of the nastiest 'lives' you could imagine. But the thing that really struck me was that the main protagonist, Nina, was 'fanged' when she was 15 and looks - will always look - 15, lives in her mum's basement, but she became a vampire in 1973. At one point, she says forcibly to a young werewolf, 'But I'm 51!', which is about as much of a turnoff as you'd imagine, though he tries to be gallant. Her emotional and mental age veer uneasily between those two extremes, and her 51 is far more of a problem even than my real 51 is, given all the weakness that comes with being a vampire. Very, very odd book, though I quite enjoyed it. I'd love to know how it struck 15-year old readers (and Deborah!).
The Annual I Remain Out-of-Step with Most of the YA Reading World Category:
-Carrie Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth - about which I've said enough.
-Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan - didn't hate it, just found everything except the idea of the genetically manipulated creatures pretty boring. And the characters very much so.
- Catching Fire. Suzanne Collins, as if I needed to give the author. Sure, it's a page-turner, but I realised I just don't like Katniss much at all, and definitely feel manipulated by all the piling on of Suffering! Injustice! Love Triangle! I'd a sudden flash this morning to how like the President and government were to Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire. Except maybe more inept, and therefore less likely to have succeeded in all that destruction.
And a New One - in Which I'm IN Step (and a bit baffled):
- I loved Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. Hit my romantic soft spot hard, and loved the humour. But, but, it's a big old New York Times Bestseller! How confusing.
Book Which Had a Problem I Thought Only a Personal Pet Peeve, but Was Actually a Real One:
- Oisín McGann's The Wisdom of Dead Men. Great title, great story - going off in a wildly new direction at the end of this one - won't even think of trying to say anything coherent about the book(s) until the trilogy is completed.* (Hoping hard that it will be soon.) But the thing which really threw me out of the story was the use of 'accent' for the lower-class characters' dialogue. Page after page of 'dis', 'dese' and 'dat's -- very unpleasant if you're a slow reader who hears all dialogue in your head as I do.
But the real problem is that even if the intention is only to distinguish between the characters who are supremely powerful as the Wildensterns are, and those who are at the other end of the social scale, it does so by making the powerful, wealthy, ruling class the norm against which the working class characters are made Other. There really isn't a need to make the point that the power structure is wildly unfair by making the ones who are benefitting from (and furthering) that unfairness the ones whose speech seems perfectly normal. And it rather undercuts the ideology that seems to be running through the books.
It only irritated me so much because the story is often astonishing. I was very surprised - shocked - by a plot twist I never expected. And I love that the sometimes tension between science and religion is far more complex than the all-too-typical automatic association of religion and hypocrisy. Here, scientific and religious belief are sometimes held by the same person, and neither is automatically connected to morality (or immorality).
*Ditto for Kathleen Duey's A Resurrection of Magic trilogy. I read Skin Hunger in 2009, Sacred Scars this January, but everything newly-read kept feeding back to previously-read sections, and after nearly losing the will to live for the middle half of Sacred Scars, I suddenly found a lot falling into place. I'm hoping desperately that the third book won't be too long in coming.
Finally, The Best-Intentioned Book that Manages To Be Much Less Than Its Highlights Suggest It Should Be:
- Does This Book Make Me Look Fat? ed. by Marissa Walsh. Also possibly winner of worst title ever. The highlights for me were Daniel Pinkwater's cheerful and self-accepting essay about being the F-word. Fat. Indeed he writes 10 'fat's in a row, in the midst of explaining that it's the one word you can't say. The other was Sara Zarr's 'It Is Good', which tells with great eloquence how she came to believe that she'd forfeited her 'right to basic respect and decency' by being fat. 'That the only way to buy my rights back was to lose weight.' Some of the essays and stories were okay, some good (I particularly liked Jaclyn Moriarty's, which is well weird) but the one which is narrated by the brother of a girl who's severely ill with anorexia, who eventually has to accept that her anorexia was caused by his telling her that the girls at his college have to 'be a perfect ten' for him to really like them, not so much. Well-meaning doesn't excuse such a simplistic treatment of a very complex disease. I haven't read/seen all of the recommended books/films, but it doesn't look a very valuable resource, which seems less surprising on re-consideration of the editor's introductory piece: someone who's clearly far from fat-acceptance herself might not have been the best choice for editor. And the final page's 'No, this book does not make you look fat.' just made me queasy.