My Favorite Books of 2015

Oh my god, it’s winter break. So much sleep. So much reading. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, it seems only right to tally up some of the best books I read this year and decide which ones were my absolute favorites, and oh my goodness were there some really amazing ones. To make it a little bit easier, I’ve split them up by genre this time around.

Fantasy

I really gravitated towards contemporaries this year, meaning that I also really stepped back from fantasy for awhile, which is a little strange considering fantasy books are a large part of what made me fall in love with reading and start this blog in the first place. (Hence the first review being about The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.) But that does not at all mean that I don’t still adore great fantasy books, and oh my god were there some fantastic ones.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa TahirAn Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes was the first fantasy I read after a looong stretch of mostly reading contemporaries, and it was the best re-introduction into the genre I could have asked for. This story of two very different characters living under the rule of the brutal Martial Empire–Laia, a slave girl, and Elias, an extremely accomplished soldier–is absolutely captivating, filled with complex characters and a plot that makes you feel like you’re constantly holding your breath as you turn the pages. There’s magic, an amazing setting, and some of the highest stakes I’ve ever read about, and it is fantastic. This is the kind of book I want to throw into people’s faces just so they’ll read it and can freak out about it with me. Especially Helene, because oh my god Helene. (I also went to a book event featuring Ms. Tahir at Politics and Prose in D.C., and she is absolutely lovely, not to mention hilarious.) (Full review here.)

The Wrath and the DawnThe Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is another fantasy that grabbed me, pulled me in, and refused to let go. Renée Ahdieh’s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights is so full of talent and skill that it still makes my head spin, and its story of Shahrzad and Khalid swept me up and made it near-impossible to put the book down for even a second. Shahrzad and Khalid are both so amazing and complex, not to mention all the other characters, and I fell in love with them so completely that I think I’m still recovering. Ahdieh’s writing is downright gorgeous, and she paints the world of Khorasan so masterfully that it only absorbed me even more. I loved so many things about this book–the plot, the characters, and especially the friendship between Shahrzad and her handmaiden Despina, because yes to awesome female friendship in books. Not to mention the romance, which made me fall in love so completely that it’s arguably the best ship I read about all year. This book made me forget lunch, guys. It’s so good. (Full review here.)

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching 2

White is for Witching is the most recent fantasy I read, and it’s also one of the most interesting things I picked up all year, nightmares and fairy tales mixed with the very real dangers of the world into a captivating cocktail. Helen Oyeyemi’s tale about Miranda Silver, and the lives of the Silver women who came before her, is something like labyrinth, weaving together what is real and what is not, what is light and what is dark, and and what the reader can and cannot trust. She writes in a way that draws the reader in and then doesn’t let them go, and uses the magic and darkness of her story to also touch on the very real issues of our world. Miranda and the other characters are drawn in a way that makes them feel real and human, despite the supernatural voices that haunt their lives, and the narration is done in such an interesting way that I was caught almost from the beginning. It’s the kind of story that you just can’t look away from, and I loved being swept up in it. (Full review here.)

Contemporary

This year led to me realizing that contemporary is one of my favorite genres in pretty much ever–I love reading about characters in high school, going to work, carrying out their lives in the very same times we live in. While there likely isn’t going to be any pixie dust or dragons, contemporaries can have some amazing stories, and falling headlong into some of them this year led to a lot of great discoveries.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 2The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

If I had to name one book I read this year that was closest to my favorite, it would be The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. I’d been meaning to read this book for ages, and when I received it as a present at the start of the summer, it wasn’t long before I finally tried it. Junot Díaz writes in a way that I fell in love with, and I adored learning about Oscar’s life and those of the people around him, especially the unnamed narrator that we finally meet more than halfway through the book. He narrates in a voice that draws the reader in and makes it incredibly hard to escape, and the characters are all so human and flawed that by the end I felt as if I really knew them. The plot covers generations of Oscar’s family, taking the reader from his home in New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back again, and it’s filled with conflict, romance, and tons and tons of stories. I loved it so much that I bought the short story collections Drown and This Is How You Lose Her right afterward, which were just as amazing, and my only regret is that I sped through them so quickly that now I don’t have anything else new from Díaz to read. Let the rereading commence.

Purple Hibiscus 2Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus is another contemporary I read this year that I became completely absorbed in and absolutely loved. I’d never read anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, and her first novel was more than enough to convince me to read anything else by her that I can get my hands on. Purple Hibiscus focuses on the lives of Kambili and Jaja, two children living in the household of their fanatically religious father, and Adichie tells the story of their growth and education (particularly while visiting their aunt’s family in Nsukka) in a way that makes it all seem so real and vibrant that I was totally drawn in. She paints the picture of Kambili’s family’s lives in a way that makes the reader feel as if they actually know them, and each of the characters is incredibly real, with their own complex emotions and desires. I loved getting to read about all their conflicts, both internal and external, and part of me wishes that the book had gone on much longer just so I could have read more.

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeTo All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the many great books of 2014 that I missed out on, but I absolutely adored falling into it this past spring. The story of Lara Jean Song and her hidden (and then not-so-hidden) love letters totally drew me in, full of cookie-baking, fake dating, and sisterly love. I loved getting to know these characters, especially Lara Jean and Peter K, and it was so much fun to see the way they bounced off each other and interacted. Han’s writing and Lara Jean’s narration was as addicting as the cookies Lara Jean bakes, and I loved reading about her family’s interactions and her friendship with her sisters. This is the kind of book that I started reading and just couldn’t stop, and when everything was mixed together–the characters, the details, the romance–it made my little reader heart so very happy 🙂 Not to mention more than a little hungry.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih AlameddineAn Unnecssary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman follows a plot that is just about as far away from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before as possible, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it just as much. Rabih Alameddine’s story of a 72-year-old woman working as a translator in her book-filled apartment in modern Beirut was incredibly hard to put down, especially because of the amazing narration of Aaliya, the main character. Aaliya’s voice is one that I fell completely in love with, telling her own stories and those of other characters in a way that made her almost irresistible. She has the best way of putting things, full of wry and cutting remarks, and describes them in a way that made my weakness for amazing descriptions all the more apparent. She paints a picture of Beirut that made it seem so real I could almost reach out and touch it, a city wracked by the Lebanese Civil War and home to everything she loves. I loved seeing everything through Aaliya’s eyes, and the other characters were just as much fun to read about, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and always interesting. What made it even better was Aaliya’s deep and abiding love of books, written in a way that made it seem as if it was almost a living thing, radiating from the pages. It’s yet another one of my weaknesses, and for that I adored the book all the more.

Historical Fiction

When I came to this category, I realized that I read very little historical fiction this year, which is a definite lamentable fact. Historical fiction can be so extremely well done (see: Ann Rinaldi), and I’m not entirely sure how I ended up reading so little of it these past 12 months. Hopefully I’ll get to some really amazing reads in 2016, but for now, there is one book that totally bowled me over in a way that only the best books can.

The Valley of AmazementThe Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I finished The Valley of Amazement about two days ago, and I think a part of me is still reeling. It’s the first Amy Tan book I’ve ever read (I know I’m disappointed too), and after finishing it late at night it took me forever to finally fall asleep, because oh my god feelings everywhere. Tan tells the story of Violet Minturn, a young girl growing up in her mother’s courtesan house in Shanghai during the early 20th century. But when a web of lies ends with Violet being forced to become a virgin courtesan, it sends her on an entirely different track in life, one that Tan captures with so much mastery it left me wondering what to do with myself after I was finished. Tan’s writing is amazing, and the story of Violet’s life, interspersed with those of the myriad of other characters, made it near-impossible to put the book down. Each of the characters is original and flawed, and by the end I felt as if they had actually existed, wondering what happened to them after the pages were closed. The writing itself only drew me in more, capturing the expansiveness of the story and switching capably between different points of view. It tackles feelings of love, hate, and abandonment, and I loved it so much that my only problem now is moving on from it and picking which of Tan’s books to read next.

Nonfiction

Like historical fiction, nonfiction is not a genre that I focused on very much this year, despite my newfound love of historical musicals about Alexander Hamilton (seriously, don’t get me started because I could ramble on about Hamilton for literally hours without pausing) (>resists the urge to start singing<). But of course, there is one book that stands out as one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year, and also ever.

March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate March--Book TwoPowell

I adored the first book in Congressman John Lewis’s March series for many reasons–the illustrations, how vibrantly it tells the story of his childhood, the look it gives into the Civil Rights Movement. And I was just as captivated by March: Book Two, if not more so. It’s true that it’s very different from the first book–it’s more violent, more mature, and it gives a much deeper look into the people of the movement and the challenges they faced. Lewis writes unapologetically about these challenges, describing in detail the vicious brutality with which the protests were met, as well as the conflict within the movement itself. Powell’s illustrations only make the book more absorbing and striking, stark black-and-white images accompanying each of Lewis’s words. It brings the racism and brutal history of our country–one built on the genocide and exploitation of black people–to terrifying life, in a way that made me more furious than any other book this year. It’s the kind of book that I want everyone to read, especially in times when the racism of the United States is still alive and well and affecting people in a million ways. It tells a story that’s wholly human and that needs to be told, and if there’s one book people read from this list, I hope it’s this one. (Full review here.)

And that’s about it for my favorite books of 2015. I’m hoping I’ll find myself reading many more in the next year, and hopefully (>crosses fingers<) writing about them as much as I can. It’s true that I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to this year, but many of the books I did get to were absolutely fantastic, and I can’t recommend them enough. And now I’m going to go make Christmas cookies, because it doesn’t need to be the actual holiday to use copious amounts of decorative sugar.

Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season, and Happy New Year!

–Nora

P.S. I feel like it says something that the little blurbs I write for books are now just about as long as the first reviews on the blog. A master of brevity I am not.

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Good Omens

Jeez, you’d think since it’s summer I’d be posting more often. . .I apologize! Now that I actually am posting, the book of the day is Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. And there’s one thing I would like to say right off the bat: I have never read any other book that made the end of the world so funny. So that is a definite plus! Besides that. . .well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, obviously, the world is going to end. And in Good Omens, it’s going to end in just a few days. But we humans aren’t the only ones who aren’t exactly keen on everything going BANG. Aziraphale and Crowley, an unlikely duo made up of an angel and a demon, would rather the Earth stay intact also. Unfortunately, fate isn’t really on their (and our) side.

This book is kind of hard to describe, really. It features Anathema Device, who’s “psychic, you see.” It features Newton Pulsifer, Witchfinder Private, and his superior, Shadwell, Witchfinder Sergeant. It features the Them, a small gang living in the village of Tadfield in Oxfordshire, composed of Brian, Pepper, Wensleydale, and Adam, their leader. Oh, and another thing: Adam’s the Antichrist.

So this book isn’t about any one, or two, or three characters specifically. It’s about the Apocalypse and what happens to the characters as it approaches. And this book is good. It is most definitely good. The characters, the plot, the creativity shown throughout. . .it was great. Even if I didn’t get some of the references. Because they were British. And I’m not British. >cries<

Ahem. Anyway, the book was really enjoyable (in case you didn’t get the point). It’s funny, it’s smart-aleck-y, and the plot is really good. To me, Aziraphale and Crowley are the real stars of the novel; their scenes are most definitely my favorites, and I did find myself getting somewhat bored when they were out of the picture for a while. But really, that’s my only complaint. Overall, Good Omens is a great read, and I definitely recommend it. And no, it doesn’t feature zombies.

Literary Quote of the Day: “Just because you’re an angel doesn’t mean you have to be a fool.” —Good Omens, written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

A Christmas Carol

Yes, I know it has been a while since my last post. But I am back on Christmas Eve, with a holiday-themed book. Who hasn’t heard of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s famed ghost story of Christmas? Who hasn’t heard of the grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge, whose every other word is “humbug”? How many of us have actually read the story? I never had, I realized, so I thought I’d give it a try. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly man, without a family, whose sole interest is making money. He believes that Christmas is a humbug, and no more cares for it than he does for being wished a merry one. Scrooge has no sympathy for the beggars who crowd the streets of London, nor even for his own clerk, Bob Cratchit. He has had no friend since his partner, Jacob Marley, died on Christmas Eve seven years past. But Scrooge doesn’t mind, which is just as well. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge has his usual day of conducting business, eating at a tavern, and going home to his lonely house: The one Jacob Marley formerly lived in. It is a normal day, correct? But the night brings something unexpected. A ghost, wrapped in chains, appears to Scrooge as he sits by the fireside. And there are three more specters to come. After a whirlwind night of memories, visions, and revelations, Ebenezer Scrooge will never be the same. Charles Dickens’s writing can certainly be a little confusing at first, even frustrating, but once you get the hang of it, the story is enjoyable. Warning: It may be a Christmas story, but that doesn’t mean it will not give you the chills. However, it will get you in the holiday spirit, and I wish you a happy one!

Author Tidbit: Alan Bradley

Alan Bradley, author of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and the other Flavia de Luce mysteries, has led an interesting life. He was born in Toronto, Canada. He received an education in electrical engineering, and has worked at television and radio stations. He become Director of Television Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, and later left for early retirement. He then began writing. He has written children’s stories and short stories that have been published in literary journals, and became the first President of the Saskatoon Writers. While part of the Casebook of Saskatoon, he met the late Dr. William A.S. Sarjeant. The Casebook of Saskatoon was devoted to Sherlock Holmes and his adventures, and studying them. The book they worked on together, Ms. Holmes of Baker Street, presented the idea that Sherlock was, in fact, female. This resulted in many interviews and appearances, in the “firestorm of controversy”. He has also written The Shoebox Bible, a story about a family managing to persevere and love, even without a father. The first book in his series of Flavia de Luce (remember Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie?) got the Debut Dagger Award of the (British) Crimewriter’s Association, and the next two books in the series have been received the same enthusiasm. Actually, the fourth book, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, is just recently published, at the beginning of November. In my opinion it is just as good, if not better, than its predecessors. Yes, I’ve already read it. Alan Bradley presently lives in Malta with his wife. Also two cats. You can visit him at www.flaviadeluce.com. I strongly suggest you take a look and grab onto one of his books when you get the chance!

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Okay, okay. Yes, I KNOW this took a while. Sheesh. Why don’t you try to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (by Mark Twain) for Banned Books Week, while trying to do all your schoolwork and when you don’t want to take the big old thing to read at school because its Dad’s? Hmm? Yeah, so don’t scold me. Anyway, first things first…

So, I was originally going to just read Huckleberry Finn for Banned Book Week (more on that later…), but luckily, my dad told me I couldn’t without reading Tom Sawyer first. So, here I am. Tom Sawyer is going to drive his Aunt Polly to an early grave with his antics. Skipping school, shirking chores, all manner of mischief…this is no well-mannered, well-behaved boy, no sir. What fence is more famous than the one Tom had to whitewash, but instead tricked the fellow boys into doing for him? Well, Tom may be in a little deep when he and Huckleberry Finn, lurking in a graveyard at midnight (I won’t tell you why) become witness to murder. They know who done it, but they swear they won’t tell, lest the murderer come after them. And Tom can’t help but feel guilty when someone else gets the blame for the crime. But he and Huck swore they wouldn’t tell, and with blood! So Tom tries to forget about it, and occupies himself with regular antics. There’s Becky Thatcher to daydream about, running away to become pirates, and all manner of trouble Tom gets up to. I think I can safely say that I liked this book a bit better than Huckleberry Finn, no offense to him. It might have absorbed me more, I might just have liked the plot better, but I enjoyed it more. But, hey, that’s just me. Now, let’s move on…

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is what the whole post was leading up to, wasn’t it? Huckleberry Finn is one of the most challenged books in America today, for the frequent use of the notorious “N” word. One case has been taken to a federal appeals court by parents that sued a local high school for the presence of the book on a required reading list. Louisa May Alcott deemed it unsuitable for children. It’s definitely understandable that some people find this offensive, and they don’t have to read it if they don’t want it. But Mr. Twain’s defense was, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” In other words, just because some people may not like this book, it should not be known as evil or dangerous, and should not be made off-limits to the public. And we have to admit, things were different in those times. Slavery was still legal. African-Americans did not have the rights they do now. It’s sad, but it’s true. I’m not saying the word is at all okay; it’s not. I’m just saying it’s not enough to censor a book. So that’s just my opinion on this matter. Now, onto the actual book!

Huckleberry Finn has a problem on his hands: He’s been adopted, and now people are trying to make him civilized! For a boy that’s run wild his whole life, this is a crisis. And things aren’t exactly peachy when who shows up but his good old dad–the town drunkard. Huck’s life has changed yet again, and now he’s living with a man that’s not what you think when you say “Daddy”. Still, it’s a bit better than being dressed in uncomfortable clothing and going to church and all that. But all the same, Huck’s had enough. So, after much preparation, he’s gone. And he doesn’t plan on coming back. And neither does Miss Watson’s runaway slave, Jim. The two are fast friends, and they’re down the river before you can blink. They get into all sorts of trouble, and all sorts of adventures. Huckleberry Finn is a bit more grown up than Tom Sawyer, so just telling you.

Both books are considered classics, and part of the basis for all American literature. Some love them, some hate them. But I’m glad I read them, and I think they’d be an interesting read for anyone.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Now, we all know that this blog is for kids. I review kids’ books, I write about kids’ authors, and that’s pretty much because I’m a kid. But attention adults, because this one is actually one for you! The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. (I mean, it’s fine for the kids, but I found it in the adult section at the library. It’s for both, okay? Let’s get on with it.)  Meet Flavia de Luce, an experienced chemist who is probably one of the most reliable experts on poisons you’re likely to meet. She’s also an eleven year old. Flavia lives at the creaky old estate of Buckshaw in England, and with two decidedly evil sisters, a stamp-obsessed father, and a mother who’s dead, things aren’t always quite as interesting as she would like. But all that changes when Flavia happens upon a dead body in the cucumber patch. She doesn’t know who it is, but she does have a feeling that it might have something to do with the dead jack snipe that mysteriously appeared on Buckshaw’s doorstep recently. Now, why did that bird have a strange stamp stuck on its beak that seemed like it nearly gave Mr. de Luce a heart attack? This mystery has more twists and turns than the craziest maze in the world, and I can guarantee that it won’t turn out the way you think it will. Gripping plot, detailed characters, and great writing will keep you turning the pages. So go grab a copy!