The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson was my favorite book last year. I didn't write a review at the time because I couldn't quite express how much I liked it. It's about Elisa, princess of a small kingdom and bearer of a godstone, meaning that she is marked to do extraordinary things. However, Elisa is not a kick-butt heroine -- at the beginning of the book, she's overweight, doesn't know how to fight, and is, in fact, a little bit lazy. She's a princess, and therefore basically a spoiled child. The beauty of this book is how Elisa is transformed, over the course of the story, into a responsible adult. Of course there are adventures, and a little hint of romance (relatively little romance, though), and some fights with Bad Guys, but the best part of this story is Elisa's transformation. Carson also does a great job with setting, describing a rich and detailed fantasy world without big information dumps that detract from the plot.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater surprised me -- I was not a fan of Stiefvater's other books, but this one is in a class by itself. Here's what I wrote about it after I read it:
The Scorpio Races takes place on the fictional island of Thisby, the only place in the world where water horses come ashore. They are dark, dangerous, and beautiful, and each November the islanders hold the Scorpio Races, where men ride the water horses, often to their deaths. Sean Kendrick, four-time winner of the races, will ride because it is what he does -- the races make him feel alive, and he has a sense of empathy with the horses that no other rider can match. Puck Connolly will ride because she must -- with her older brother leaving for the mainland and her landlord threatening to foreclose on her home, the prize money is all that will keep what remains of her family together.Entwined by Heather Dixon is a retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales, "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." The thing I most remember about the book is how elegant the writing is. The details are so finely crafted, and this is another book where the author does a really excellent job with the setting. It also has some great gentle humor, and the relationships between the characters are spot-on. I love a good fairy tale retelling, and this is one of the best I've ever read.
This book is by times both gripping and thought-provoking. The romance grows slowly, none of this star-crossed love-at-first-sight business, and the atmosphere the author creates is truly spectacular.
Divergent by Veronica Roth was my first really good read of 2011. Here's what I wrote about it then:
Divergent is a dystopian novel set in a world where humans have divided into five factions that co-exist peacefully, each faction taking charge of one function of government or society. At the age of 16, each person makes the most important choice of their life: which faction to join. Factions are based on which trait one most values: bravery, selflessness, intelligence, honesty, or kindness. Once a person has chosen a faction, the faction is expected to hold the foremost place in their loyalties, even before their family.Chime by Franny Billingsley -- I won't summarize this one, since you can read about it in the post I wrote last week. I do think it's one of the strongest books I've read from the 2011 publishing year.
Beatrice Prior has grown up in Abnegation, the selfless faction which controls the government (because of their selflessness, they are seen as incorruptible), but Tris doesn't feel like she is selfless enough to spend her life in Abnegation. She struggles with the thought of leaving everything and everyone she has ever known, but choosing her faction is only the first challenge that awaits her. After choosing a faction, teens must pass Initiation -- different for each faction, but challenging and sometimes dangerous. To top it off, Tris may be even more different than she originally suspected . . . and she lives in a world where such differences can get her killed.
This tightly-plotted story will grab readers' attention, pull them in, rush them through heart-pounding action, and leave them breathlessly wanting more. The author doesn't pull any punches, either: Tris's danger feels raw and realistic. The characters are strong and complex, and there's just enough romance to add interest to the story without taking over the central plot. Fans of The Hunger Games will love this book.
My list is all speculative fiction . . . what can I say? I read a lot of fantasy! And I'm going to throw in a bonus book which is also speculative fiction (another dystopia, to be precise):
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was one of the few "grown-up books" that I read last year (though it has a lot of elements that would make it a strong young adult novel, which is why I mention it here. Well, that and the fact that it is made of awesome). Here's what I wrote about it then:
I am geeking out over Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's a fantastic dystopian story set in the year 2044. The global economy is in the toilet, the energy crisis is truly critical, and most of the world's population spend all of their time in OASIS, a video-game world, to escape the grim realities of real life. When James Halliday, eccentric creator of OASIS, dies, he leaves his massive fortune to the first player who can find the "easter egg" he has hidden within the game. Ready Player One is the story of Wade, a nerdy teenager living in an Oklahoma City trailor park -- completely indistinguishable from thousands of other nerdy teenagers, until the day he finds the first key to Halliday's puzzle.The Alex Awards honor adult books that have great crossover appeal for teens, and if Ready Player One doesn't get an Alex, I'll be shocked and appalled. (There's usually a good-sized list of Alex Awards, so I think it's actually a pretty safe bet.) As for the others, I don't see Divergent winning anything, but it definitely has popular appeal. As for the others, I've already mentioned my inability to accurately predict Printz winners and honor books, but I'd be thrilled to see at least one of them on the list.
The world-building in this story was fantastic, and Wade is a great character: believable, definitely irritating at times, but completely likeable. I got completely sucked into the quest -- I might as well have been wearing an OASIS visor myself! Highly recommended, and if you are a gamer (or love '80s pop culture) you must go read this right now. You can thank me later.
I'll be watching the ALA webcast tomorrow morning (7:45 Central time), and you can bet you'll be hearing from me later to talk about how my favorites fare!