2011 has been a huge reading year for me. Although I still don’t read as much as I need and want to, I’ve probably read more this year than I have since I was nine or ten years old, when I had time to devour every book in sight.
And it has been glorious.
Not only have I read a lot of books (and again, many of you out there would probably scoff at the number in comparison to your own, were I to tally them all up), I’ve read a lot of good books; nay, a lot of GREAT books. Basically, there is a ridiculous, tremendous amount of talent out there.
So, I want to dedicate this post to my favorite books of 2011. These are not necessarily books that came out in 2011 (although some of them are), but are all books I have read this year, regardless of publication date.
They are, in no particular order:
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
This is a book about angels and demons, about wishes and hope and a brutal magical war (and if you’re rolling your eyes because you feel like the whole angels thing is overdone in YA or whatever, stop right there; okay, actually, finish out the eyeroll because you’re kind of freaking me out with your eyes frozen at the ceiling like that; and then, rest easy, because this book is fresh and original and the exact opposite of cookie-cutter). This book is about Karou, a fierce girl with blue hair and a mysterious past, and Akiva, a tormented warrior. It’s a sweeping, terrifying, literary fantasy that made my heart race, my palms sweat, and my jaw drop in complete awe. And, on top of all of that, it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Laini Taylor’s prose is exquisite, the kind of writing that makes me want to both throw in the towel and strive to be better. If you haven’t read it yet (or read any of the countless rave reviews), do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.
Fire by Kristin Cashore
Beautiful prose, distinctive in some way, is 99% of the time a requirement for me to truly, deeply love a book, and Kristin Cashore (like Laini Taylor, Erin Bow, Neil Gaiman, Franny Billingsley, Peter S. Beagle, and Robin McKinley) is one of those authors whose words make me gasp aloud from the sheer beauty of them. The way she weaves together words astounded me, first when I read Graceling, and even more so when I read its companion book, Fire. Added to that beauty is original world-building (the monsters! such a fantastic idea) that seems as organic and well-developed as though Cashore is simply describing to me a place that already exists; characters that grab hold of my heart and refuse, tenaciously, passionately, to let go; and romance that feels real and nuanced and raw. Fire is a complex, strong heroine the likes of which I aspire to create in my own stories, and Brigan — okay. Let me just say that I don’t easily get swoony over literary heroes. I have extremely high standards, and one misstep here or there will garner only an eyeroll from me. But Brigan. I loved him so much. I swooned for Brigan. Me. This book is definitely in my top five favorite books ever, and I don’t love books lightly.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Isn’t her name cool, by the way?)
Cool name aside, and in all seriousness, this perfectly crafted example of magical realism (one of my favorite genres, and also, in my opinion, one of the hardest to write) is one of the best books I’ve ever read. In fact, I read it entirely in one sitting, because I just couldn’t bear to part with this book. I started it one night and stayed up until 3:00 in the morning or something ridiculous because it was just that good. Ivey’s prose is pristine, enchanting perfection, her characters unforgettable, her story heart-wrenching in all the best ways. The premise is simple, haunting, and gave me chills when I first read the flap at this year’s BEA: A middle-aged couple, grief-stricken and starting a new life in 1920s Alaska, make a child out of snow and longing and heartache one night . . . and then they start seeing a mysterious child flitting through the trees. A child wearing the same scarf their snow child wore, with golden hair and sky-blue eyes. I love the way the book trailer puts it: “Is she the answer to their prayers? Or a strange, magical dream?” You can, if you so desire, read my official Goodreads review here, but suffice it to say that you should really just go pick up a copy of this book when it comes out in February. It will stay with you for a long time after you finish that last, aching page.
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Surely by now, you have heard of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, beginning with A Game of Thrones, which was adapted into an HBO television series this past spring. But have you read them? They’re not for everyone, I admit, and if you’re anything like me, you get really intimidated by huge, elaborate series that you know you’ll probably love but hesitate to commit to. (This is why I have yet to start Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, for example.) But I’m so glad that I finally put that fear aside and started these books because they are absolutely fantastic. When I read A Game of Thrones, I feel like it completely changed my writing life, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. I didn’t know fantasy could be like this; or rather, I did on this sort of vague intellectual level, but I hadn’t yet experienced it myself. This series is gritty, raw, brutal, populated by ambiguous, flawed, and often not-very-nice characters, and can be, at times, extremely hard to stomach. Martin doesn’t pull any punches with his characters’ various perversions, nor with their at times untimely fates. This is why I say this series isn’t for everyone, but, oh, do give it a try if you even have the slightest inclination toward fantasy. You won’t be able to tear yourself away, once you get into it. You’ll need to see the twisted fates of this huge array of characters through to the end — whatever tragic, maybe triumphant, maybe heartbreaking end that might be. You’ll be Team Stark or Team Lannister, and you will love them and hate them. You’ll want to go around saying, “Gods be good,” and “Winter is coming.” And you will absolutely THROW YOUR BOOK ACROSS THE ROOM in shock and horror about three-fourths of the way through the first book, A Game of Thrones, when you realize what just happened, and that it’s not getting miraculously changed at the last minute for a nice happily ever after, and that you are forever, irrevocably hooked.
Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver
I read this little gem of a book with a lump in my throat and an ache in my chest, due to a combination of the sheer beauty of Oliver’s prose, her perfectly timeless middle grade voice, and the simple, heartstrings-tugging power of her story about a grieving girl, a lonely ghost, and a friendless boy apprentice (and a good-hearted security guard, who will absolutely steal your heart; and an evil alchemist; and a sad, gray world devoid of joy, magic, and sunlight). I teared up several times while reading this book because how Oliver explored the loneliness of these characters, their grief and loss and longing for companionship, felt so damn real. When I heard Oliver speak on a BEA panel this year, she spoke of writing this book during an extremely difficult period for her, personally, and the truth of that rings through every page. It is a book that isn’t afraid to talk to its target audience about such adult, mature issues as loss and grief, and it is also a book unafraid to be unabashedly, wildly, imaginatively beautiful. The Other Side, Po’s home, and even the bleak, A Little Princess-esque attic in which Liesl lives, are vividly described, and how all the little pieces of characters and plot intertwine like clockwork is immensely pleasing. The perfect book for curling up with on a chilly, cozy night — or on any night, for that matter.
Chime by Franny Billingsley
Wow. That’s what I kept thinking as I read this book, which Agent Lady basically thrust into my hands, saying, “You. Will. LOVE. This.” And she was right. I loved this. Nay, I LOVED this. Chime is dark, scary, hilarious, and exquisitely written. Billingsley does things with her prose that I would never have expected, that made me read certain lines over and over, just to soak up all the pretty. It’s about Briony Larkin, who is a witch (or is she?), who killed her stepmother (or did she?), and who is definitely one of the most clever, wittiest, most interesting YA heroines out there. She will (and does) do anything for her twin sister, Rose (who “prefers not to” do a lot of things she should, and “prefers to” do things Briony wishes she wouldn’t), who falls mysteriously ill. She harbors deep anger at her father, who prefers talking with God to talking with his daughters. She falls, reluctantly at first, for the “lion boy” Eldric, who brings smiles and sunlight into her world — and he can never, ever know her terrible secrets. This is a beautifully crafted fairy tale that puts a whole new spin on things like imps, brownies, and witches, and the setting of Briony’s village, Swampsea, is so vivid you’ll feel like you’ve grown up there, too, by the book’s end. Chime is one of those books I pick up occasionally, flip to a random page, and just read for a bit — for excitement, for inspiration, to recapture that sense of skin-chilled wonder I experienced when first reading this dark, gorgeous fantasy. Highly, fervently recommended.
Don’t these books sound fantastic? And the crazy thing is (again, so much talent out there), I read many more incredible books this year. Like Victoria Schwab‘s haunting, lovely The Near Witch, Catherynne Valente‘s unbelievably imaginative The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making, and Julianna Baggott‘s terrifying, breathtaking Pure (coming out in February).
I recommend all of them, heartily (like a good soup!) and with much fangirlish flailing.
Thank you, 2011, for introducing me to such fantastic books!
And you, dear blog readers: What are some of the best books you’ve read this year? Feel free to share in the comments!