Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Top Ten Books of 2011

2011 was many things for YA books: the year of sequels and series, dystopian fiction, and many more self-published e-books. Thankfully, there were slightly fewer angels, werewolves, and vampires, and quite a few books that were surprisingly compelling.

Listed in ascending order, the following are my favourite books of 2011:

(Warning: spoilers ahead, though nothing too specific.)
by Stephanie Perkins
Release Date: September 29, 2011

Cute.  I can think of no better way to describe Lola and the Boy Next Door. Lola is endearingly quirky, with her penchant for wearing outlandish, themed costumes on a daily basis. Cricket, her love interest and - as one would expect - neighbor, is equally sweet and eccentric. Memorable and fun, Lola and the Boy Next Door was easily my favourite contemporary novel of 2011.

by Jeri Smith-Ready
Release Date:  May 3, 2011

Shift sort of sneaked up on me. I liked Shade, but this sequel really upped the romantic drama and mystery surrounding Aura's ghost-seeing abilities. Compelling plot progression, swoon-worthy boys, and unique magical elements - what's not to love?

by Tabitha Suzuma
Release Date: June 28, 2011

Poignant and emotional, Forbidden defied my expectations. It would be easy to judge such a book solely on its subject matter - an incestuous relationship; it's a testament to Tabitha Suzuma's writing that the two main characters remain sympathetic throughout. Ultimately, it's impossible not to be pulled into their inevitably doomed romance.

Forbidden is also a welcome stand-alone novel in a year that was inundated with sequels and series-starters. And I really like the cover, with its simple but effortlessly symbolic concept.

by Ann Aguirre 
Release Date: April 12, 2011

Enclave is sharp and fresh and original - everything I want in a dystopian read. This genre became a definite trend in 2011, resulting in the publication of many underdeveloped and similarly themed books. However, Enclave immediately caught my attention. The grittiness of both its setting and heroine drive the fast-paced narrative, ensuring that Enclave is thoroughly engrossing.

by Ilona Andrews
Release Date: May 31, 2011

The degenerating cover art and continuously bland titles that plague the Kate Daniels series are a pity, because the books keep getting better and better. This is my favourite adult urban fantasy series, and Magic Slays is particularly gripping. Why? Well, a bitingly funny heroine, romance and witty banter, and a self-contained plot that builds on an already intricate setting. Awesome.

by Cassandra Clare
Release Date: December 6, 2011

Cassandra Clare published two books in 2011 - City of Fallen Angels and Clockwork Prince - the latter of which is unequivocally my favourite. It is so good. Richly atmospheric, Clockwork Prince fully evokes its Victorian London setting. In Clockwork Angel, the characters - I'm looking at you, Tessa and Will - and plot developments often seem too reminiscent of their counterparts in the original Mortal Instruments trilogy. Thankfully, Clockwork Prince further develops the interpersonal relationships and characters, establishing The Infernal Devices as a unique, intriguing series in its own right. 

(And it goes without saying that the cover is gorgeous.)

by Laini Taylor
Release Date: September 27, 2011

Daughter of Smoke and Bone would rank high on this list based solely on the strength of Laini Taylor's fluid, evocative writing. Fortunately, Daughter of Smoke and Bone also features my favourite main character of 2011: blue-haired, artistic, impetuous Karou. While the romance is at times trite, its development is logical and undeniably beautiful. The books is also full of surprises, and the fantasy elements are beautifully interwoven with the Prague setting.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone breathes life into the increasingly predictable urban fantasy genre. It is unique and lovely, with a vivid cast of characters.

by Alison Goodman
Release Date: April 19, 2011

I love YA fantasy in the vein of Tamora Pierce; last year, Eona: The Last Dragoneye provided what I would consider the most kick-ass heroine and compelling fantasy setting. Set in an Asia-inspired world, the book is satisfyingly significant in size and contains magical dragons, action, and romance.

The first book considers the varied interpretations of gender, Eona's attempts to pass as a boy, and her struggle to overcome a crippling injury sustained during childhood. This second book in the duology is very much about Eona's reclaiming her female identity and settling into her heroine role. I found it even more engrossing than its predecessor.

by Maggie Stiefvater
Release Date: October 18, 2011

Another stand-alone novel! Unlike many of the other books on this list, The Scorpio Races is slow-building and subtle rather than action-packed. It is beautiful in a very understated way, with its quietly endearing romance and memorable narrators, Sean and Puck. The premise - villagers riding man-eating water horses in a deadly, annual race - is refreshingly original, as are the motives of those who compete. The inhabitants of the rural village setting are also as idiosyncratic and likable as the book's main characters.

Though not fast-paced, The Scorpio Races is lyrical, atmospheric, and compelling.

by Veronica Roth 
Release Date: May 3, 2011

Really, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.  

Divergent is attention-grabbing, fast-paced, and emotional, featuring a complex society and conflicted heroine. Based on these characteristics, it's also the only recently published dystopian book that actually warrants comparisons to The Hunger Games. I, you know, sort of liked Divergent. It's an okay book.

But seriously. Divergent is addictive. There's action, romance, a strong heroine, and plenty of potential for future books in the planned trilogy.

(Can Insurgent be published already? Please?)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Bleeding Violet

Title: Bleeding Violet
Dia Reeves
Simon Pulse
Release Date:
January 5, 2010

Hanna simply wants to be loved. With a head plagued by hallucinations, a medicine cabinet full of pills, and a closet stuffed with frilly, violet dresses, Hanna's tired of being the outcast, the weird girl, the freak. So she runs away to Portero, Texas in search of a new home. But Portero is a stranger town than Hanna expects. As she tries to make a place for herself, she discovers dark secrets that would terrify any normal soul. Good thing for Hanna, she's far from normal. As this crazy girl meets an even crazier town, only two things are certain: Anything can happen and no one is safe.

Bleeding Violet is dark, surprising, and wholly unique. The first few chapters merely hint at the weirdness to come, which includes flying leech monsters, hallucinations, a strange romance, and plenty of inexplicable craziness.

Sensitive and volatile, Hanna is a main character that defies stereotypes and simple categorizations. She is stubborn, unapologetically promiscuous, and at times morbidly whimsical, yet her naivety is somehow convincing as she navigates the complicated paranormal politics of Portero, Texas, the place she is determined to make her new home. Her simplistic, often childish yearning to be loved by her mother grounds her sometimes too-intense personality and endears Hanna to the reader even when her actions are clearly ill-fated.

In terms of pacing, Bleeding Violet is driven by Hanna’s manic-depressive mental fluctuations: when she’s at her most agitated, the book speeds by with surprising alacrity, only to slow to a more comfortable pace as Hanna calms down. The violence, sexual themes, and general craziness of Bleeding Violet are more intense than most YA books, but Dia Reeves manages to blend these elements in a way that is disturbingly fascinating, if often discomfiting. This is reflected in the paranormal setting, which entrenches the reader in a vague, brutal town with even more callous residents. At times, it’s difficult to connect with the characters simply because their decisions and lives are so far outside the realm of normal rationale.

Despite this, Bleeding Violet is refreshingly unique, with its gritty lack of realism and darkly lush setting – the perfect background for Hanna’s mentally unstable but ultimately charming perspective.

Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have)

Title: Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have)
Sarah Mlynowski
Release Date:
June 7, 2011

2 girls + 3 guys + 1 house – parents = 10 things April and her friends did that they (definitely, maybe, probably) shouldn't have. If given the opportunity, what sixteen-year-old wouldn't jump at the chance to move in with a friend and live parent-free? Although maybe "opportunity" isn't the right word, since April had to tell her dad a tiny little untruth to make it happen (see #1: "Lied to Our Parents"). But she and her housemate Vi are totally responsible and able to take care of themselves. How they ended up "Skipping School" (#3), "Throwing a Crazy Party" (#8), "Buying a Hot Tub" (#4), and, um, "Harboring a Fugitive" (#7) at all is kind of a mystery to them. 

Ten Things we Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) is super fun. I suspected as much based on the title and synopsis, but I was surprised to find that the story is also quite sweet. April’s adventures – including the adoption of an adorable kitten named Donut, frequent parties, sex, and purchasing a flamingo-pink hot tub named Hula – are as ridiculous as they are hilarious. Fortunately, the craziness of April’s lifestyle is grounded by her normality, realistic struggles with interpersonal relationships, and family issues.
Ten Things we Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) contains some very touching, emotional moments relating to April’s scattered family and abandonment issues. It never approaches tearjerker territory, thanks in large part to the humour and sense of teenage debauchery that infuses each sentence, but the depth and development of its characters keeps the book from being merely a fluffy, funny attention-diverter. I also liked the cutely creative narrative quirks Sarah Mlynowski integrated into the book, such as random mini-flashbacks and aptly-named chapter titles summarizing the ten things April and her friends did (and, you know, shouldn’t have).
The romance is fairly predictable. It’s definitely cute, I liked the “mystery” surrounding one half (third?) of the love triangle, but there seems to be too little build-up for what happens at the very end of the novel. Nevertheless, Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) is endlessly entertaining, with an endearingly teenage narrator, a refreshing lack of stereotypical side characters, and quirky-cute writing.
Rating: 4/5
Cover Thoughts: The models' expressions are cute, but I'm kind of indifferent to the cover as a whole; my biggest pet peeve with contemporary young adult covers is that there's nothing especially unique or eye-catching that draws my attention, which is sort of the case here.
If you liked Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have), you may enjoy reading:
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
The Summer I turned Pretty by Jenny Han

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review: Shift by Jeri Smith-Ready

Title: Shift
Author: Jeri Smith-Ready
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: May 3, 2011
Previous Titles in Series: Shade

Aura’s life is anything but easy. Her boyfriend, Logan, died, and his slides between ghost and shade have left her reeling. Aura knows he needs her now more than ever. She loves Logan, but she can’t deny her connection with the totally supportive, totally gorgeous Zachary. And she’s not sure that she wants to. Logan and Zachary will fight to be the one by her side, but Aura needs them both to uncover the mystery of her past—the mystery of the Shift. As Aura’s search uncovers new truths, she must decide whom to trust with her secrets…and her heart.

Like Shade, Shift is part ghost story, part romance, all lovable characters and darkly awesome writing. I especially liked all the musical references (Radiohead!) (Mumford & Sons!); Aura seems to have a playlist for every mood, which is just a cute, small detail.

Aura is smart, competent, indecisive without seeming wishy-washy, and normal in that she makes some definite mistakes in this book (that are nonetheless very fun to read about). While there aren’t too many new characters introduced, I liked that Logan’s little bro (Dylan) has a more significant role, leading to some pretty entertaining moments. Logan himself continues to be impetuous and dramatic, but his personality is tempered by those unintentionally sweet moments that maintain his likeability. Zachary, on the other hand, is earnest and endearing and – best of all – not without a few flaws. And his accent! Mm. I would love to listen to an audiobook version of Shift (preferably read by James McAvoy) solely in order to fully appreciate all those sexy Scottish inflections.

In fact, my favorite part of Shift had to be that Zachary wears a kilt at one point. Swoon.

Ahem, anyway. I loved Jeri Smith-Ready’s writing, which transitions smoothly from humour to romance and ensures that Shift is as compulsively readable as its predecessor. She also does well what is too-often neglected in urban fantasy: world-building. She creates an explanation for the fantasy elements that exist in the modern-day setting, rather than simply throwing in some magical creatures or borrowing entirely from mythology or folklore. The concept of ghosts and their connections to Aura continue to be expanded on in this installment, ensuring that Shift is more than just a ‘middle book.’

Overall, Shift, with its heightened romantic drama, mystery-solving, and surprising revelations, is even more engrossing than Shade. I just wish I didn’t have to wait until 2012 to read the next (and final?) book.

Rating: 5/5

Cover Thoughts: It's not that I don't like it - the dark red and violet really resonate with the story and Aura is striking a suitably strong pose - but the 'girl standing with her face obscured' thing is way overdone. I feel like Shift deserves a more unique, pick-me-up cover.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday (3)

Waiting on Wednesday is a bookish meme hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine that allows readers to share the yet-be-released books they're most excited about.

This week I'm cheating a bit by including two books. They suit each other well title-wise, but really, well, it's just that they're both so pretty I couldn't decide between them...

So, the book releases I'm currently anticipating (i.e. impatiently waiting for) are:

Daughter of Smoke and Bone
by Laini Taylor
Release Date: September 27, 2011

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grown dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war. Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages—not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out. When one of the strangers—beautiful, haunted Akiva—fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

Why is it "WOW"-worthy?

I loved Laini Taylor's creative and exquisitely written Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer.
I can't wait to see what she does with a more traditional urban fantasy setting. Daughter of Smoke and Bone sounds AMAZING, and even the synopsis hints at the eloquently descriptive writing and quirky character creations I've come to attribute to this author. Karou sounds like a unique and fascinating heroine, and the fact that she purportedly has blue hair is just a bonus.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

by Rae Carson
Release Date: September 20, 2011
Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness. Elisa is the chosen one. But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess. And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake. Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young. Most of the chosen do.
Why is it "WOW"-worthy?

There is little that will entice me to read a book more than Tamora Pierce's endorsement. Besides being my favourite author, she almost always highlights books with magic, romance, and a strong heroine - three elements that seem to be present in The Girl of Fire and Thorns. The "Chosen One" and prophecy-fueled premise doesn't sound too unique, but the cover is very pretty. I also really like books in which the main character has to mature or transform in a significant way in order to overcome The Big Bad, and I think it's implied by the synopsis that this is the case with Elisa. Some reviews have mentioned that the fantasy world is unique and well-built, which also bodes well.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review: Wanderlust

Title: Wanderlust
Author: Ann Aguirre
Publisher: Ace
Release Date: August 26, 2008
Previous Titles in Series: Grimspace (My Review)
Sirantha Jax is a “Jumper,” a woman who possesses the unique genetic makeup needed to navigate faster than light ships through grimspace. Jax has worked for the Farwan Corporation her entire career. But now the word’s out that the Corp deliberately crashed a passenger ship, and their stranglehold on intergalactic commerce has crumbled—which means that Jax is out of a job. She’s also broke, due to being declared dead a little prematurely. So when the government asks her to head up a vital diplomatic mission, Jax takes it. Her mandate: journey to the planet Ithiss-Tor and convince them to join the Conglomerate. But Jax’s payday is light years away. First, she’ll have to contend with Syndicate criminals, a stormy relationship with her pilot, man-eating aliens, and her own grimspace-weakened body. She’ll be lucky just to make it to Ithiss-Tor alive…
Wanderlust introduces readers to a new Jax: feeble and less combative, but also more selfless and aware of other peoples’ feelings. This is both a welcome change – it’s nice to see her character developing – and problematic in terms of Wanderlusts pacing. Just as Jax’s physical deterioration saps her character of the strength and tough persona she displayed in Grimspace, the narrative initially seems sluggish. Jax's new fragility means that she's sidelined from much of the action, which has the unfortunate side-effect of also disconnecting the reader from the story. Thankfully, despite a fairly simplistic plot that never really seems to go where it promises, the book picks up speed as it goes along, propelled by promising new characters and a planet-wide war.

Jax’s sickness also causes her to withdraw from March, and this leads to some conflict in their relationship, which is further exacerbated by March’s unerring hero complex. In Wanderlust, their on-and-off relationship adds drama without detracting from the plot; I just hope March and Jax’s breakups and makeups don’t become a too-recurring theme in future books, as it could become tedious. That said, they suit each other so well and their scenes together are so poignantly written that it’s impossible not to continue hoping for their Happily Ever After. I also liked that Ann Aguirre doesn’t shy away from separating these two characters on occasion, allowing the focus to shift more toward the action and character interactions than the romance.

This definitely benefits Wanderlust, as the side characters in this series continue to impress. Each of them is established as unique and likeable without their personalities ever seeming over-the-top. In particular, Vel is awesome; I loved his dry humour and awkward politeness, and his growing friendship with Jax is both amusing and thoroughly endearing. Enough new characters – including a few cameos by Jax’s mother – are introduced that this installment feels fresh and surprising, but not so many that the cast ever felt overwhelmed by unrecognizable names and faces.

Wanderlust, like its predecessor, would be an enjoyable, quick read even for those who don’t usually like science fiction. It also tones down on some of the narrative quirks that grated in Grimspace, such as the overuse of ‘frag’ as a swearword. Unfortunately, sketchy plotting and an initially slow pace weigh Wanderlust down, and, unlike the fast-paced and self-contained first book, it suffers from trying too hard to set up the next installment in the series. Nevertheless, Wanderlust is effective in that the ending left me pining for the third book, Doubleblind, and I can’t wait to see Jax attempting to play the role of gracious diplomat.

Rating: 3/5