I have to face facts: I’m not going to get caught up in reviewing the books I read last year.
However, I’m not going to let that prevent me from doing some summarizing and some recommending. If I’ve reviewed the book, I’ll include the link. But if we don’t go this route, I’ll still be contemplating my year-end post next fall (like the 2011 best reads post I never published last year).
I finished 100 books last year. These are the 10 best (with a few honorable mentions):
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This was my absolute favorite book I read last year. It’s the fantastical look into a circus that rolls into town unannounced and is open only at night. Constructed as part of a bet by the two best magicians of the day, the circus is the setting and culmination of a duel between the two men’s proteges, Celia and Marco, who square off in building more and more elaborate tents over the course of many years. If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading this novel, may I suggest you place it at the top of your pile? It was truly beautiful to read, the sort of story you’re grateful someone has thought to write.
- Endangered by Eliot Schrefer
These next two titles were my favorites of my Cybils reading, but this one edged into second place. It’s the story of Sophie, who’s returned to her mother and the place of her birth, the Democratic Republic of Congo, for her annual summer break, leaving behind her father and her Westernized life in the United States. While her mother, who runs an animal sanctuary for bonobo apes, is out of town for a few days, civil war erupts and armed militants invade the preserve. The teen finds herself on the run with a young bonobo she’s named Otto, working to reunite with her mother without the benefit of modern communication devices. This is a book that will inspire teens and adults alike to learn more about bonobos and the conservation effort surrounding them.
- Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
One of the best novels of friendship I’ve read in a while, this suspenseful story is set during World War II. A teen spy has been captured behind enemy lines by the Nazis, and things are not looking good for her. She has been tortured and has agreed to reveal secrets in exchange for the return of her clothing and time and paper upon which to tell her story and that of her pilot, Maddie. A painful but compelling piece of historical fiction, the book contains twists and turns throughout, including one that had me gasping aloud and another that leaves you echoing Lord Nelson with the refrain, “Kiss me, Hardy!”
- Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
This was the very first book I finished in 2012 and it remained one of my favorites from the year. (Thanks for giving it to me, Rudi!) Brian Selznick is unrivaled at weaving art and words together to create a charming and masterful narrative. In this novel, the words tell the story of 12-year-old Ben, who recently lost his mother and then his hearing in quick succession. And the illustrations give us insight into the 1920s world of Rose, who is obsessed with film star of the day Lillian Mayhew. Told in concert, Rose and Ben’s stories, taking place a half century apart, will bring them both to the same place — New York’s American Museum of Natural History — in their searches for answers.
- Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley
Rosie is a headstrong and independent young woman being raised by two fairies, Aunt and Katriona. As her 21st birthday nears, Rosie is about to find out who she really is and what she’s really made of, as an evil fairy wreaks havoc on her homeland. In this feminist retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, author Robin McKinley takes the power away from the prince and puts it squarely in the hands of the cursed princess. The core elements of the original story remain intact — princess, fairies, evil, spindle, ignorance, sleep, briars, a “prince” and his “kiss” to awaken the main character, and buckets of true love — but it is made real by a three-generation cast of kick-ass women, several pretty awesome guys, and communicative animals, as well as a quest to keep things lively.
- Among Others by Jo Walton
Mori’s family has abandoned her — too frail, crazy, or dead to take care of her. When she runs away from a state-run orphanage in search of her long-lost father, she also find aunts, who send her off to boarding school. She makes friends for the first time in her life, but worries that they have only been drawn to her because she cast a magical spell seeking them out. Offering up a story where we don’t know what’s real and what’s a product of a distressed mind, Among Others is a love letter to remaining true to yourself, to the power of literature, and to finding your people.
- The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis
Anna lives a comfortable upper-middle-class German life. Her parents dote on her. She is well liked at school. She’s graduating at the end of the year and is planning to go abroad for a year to live as an au pair. Her friends consider her naive, but she knows that they’re wrong. Proving that may be what prompted her to pursue Abel, their high school’s drug dealer, in the first place. But it is his protective love for his little sister, Micha, and the story that he spins her that keeps her coming back, even after frightening aspects of his story world and the real world start converging. An intense, but lyrical (kudos to the translator!) thriller, The Storyteller is not a book I’d likely pick up of my own accord, and is definitely one I would have put down had it not been part of my Cybils reading. That said, I cannot imagine anyone reading it without being gutted by it.
- The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Like Among Others, The Art of Fielding was a book that defied discussion for me. Set on a modern-day, fictional liberal arts campus, the novel focuses on the intersection and intertwining of five people when Henry, a flawless shortstop who has a hard time imagining life beyond baseball, makes his first error on the field — ever — and sends his life and those of four others into a tailspin. Two of those are his teammates: big, solid catcher Mike, who’s put everyone else’s success in life ahead of his own, and Owen, Henry’s gay, bookish roommate. The other two are Guert, the college president who has secretly begun an illicit romance, and Guert’s rebellious daughter, Pella, who has returned home after the breakup of her teen marriage. This is a college book, but not a college book. It’s a baseball book, yet not a baseball book. It’s about how one moment, one action, can change everything, but still change nothing at all. It’s either brilliant, or it’s pretentiously unexceptional; a year later, I still can’t tell you which, but I can say it’s still on my mind.
- The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
The year is 1967, and Holling Hoodhood finds himself the sole student in Mrs. Baker’s seventh-grade class who isn’t attending off-campus religious education on Wednesday afternoons. [My dad assures me this was, in fact, a thing back in the day.] This means, of course, that he’s stuck by himself in class, and Mrs. Baker is also stuck, unable to leave school early. To punish Holling for this crime, she assigns him week after week of Shakespeare’s plays. As the school year progresses, Holling must see whether he can broker peace with Mrs. Baker, broker peace at home between his left-leaning, Vietnam-opposing older sister and his conservative businessman father, and broker peace within himself as he works to figure out who he is and whom he wants to become.
- Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinnelli
The folkloric rise of Jeffrey Lionel Magee into the boy everyone in Two Mills came to know as ‘Maniac’ Magee begins when he literally runs into the town early one morning. Everyone agrees he’s a little off. He hits everything the town’s top pitcher has to throw, including a frog. He untangles every knot put before him. And he charms his way into every heart, although it takes some longer than others. And that’s before he unites the racially divided townsfolk, all in his quest for a place to call home.
- The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King: The first in a series offering a retelling/expansion of the Sherlock Holmes canon, featuring a teenage girl with a mind as keen as the retired detective’s.
- Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton: A collection of witty comic strips for lovers of literature, history, and women’s studies.
- Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta: The heartbreaking tale of an Australian girl at boarding school who’s looking for answers in her present and in a story.
- Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins: Modern teen romance set in Paris. Need I say more?
- The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg: Four students befriend one another, become an academic bowl team, and go about improving the life of their teacher. (Really, it’s so much better than that sounds.)
- Arcadia by Lauren Groff: The epic story of Bit, from his toddlerdom on a hippie commune, through his early adulthood in modern New York City, to his fatherhood in the near, somewhat dystopian future.
What were your favorites last year?