Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My Top Ten Favorite Books of 2012

I have to admit, it pains me to put this list together. Only ten books?! After the agony that was the Cybils shortlist, how can I put myself through this again? But, somehow I managed to sift through the 136 books I read this year and pick out my absolute, most beloved, tip-top favorites.

10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews
 This was literally the first book I read for the Cybils, and when I finished it I said to the husband, "I think I just read the winner." Greg's story of a teen's first, terrifying, confusing brush with death and the the pains of adulthood left me stunned and touched. Although Greg isn't the friendliest of narrators--he's self-deprecating to a fault and admits he's a lazy underachiever--the bonds he forms with his intensely charismatic best friend, Earl, and Rachel, a young girl dying of cancer, reveal a young man's earnest stumblings towards honesty and integrity. 

9. Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai
 There haven't been many verse novels that have really touched me, but Inside Out and Back Again surprised me with the simplicity, humor, and emotion of its writing. Told from the perspective of a young Vietnamese girl who moves from Saigon to Alabama during the Vietnam war, the verse elegantly captures a child's blunt, straightforward understanding of the world, while hinting at the more mature thoughts beginning to emerge. This is one of the very few books this year that actually made me cry (and it made me laugh quite a bit, too).

8. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Emily M. Danforth
 What a quiet, wonderful, moving book. I read this one for the Cybils and had to admit that the slow, meandering plot would be a tough sell for "kid appeal," but personally, I was blown away. From the surface, it seems like the kind of story made for a moral: a young woman growing up in rural Montana with a conservative aunt eventually realizes she's a lesbian. But The Miseducation of Cameron Post has more in common with Carson McCuller's genre-defining coming-of-age novel Member of the Wedding than an after school special. What I loved about Cameron was the straightforward, unapologetic attitude she had for her own life, not so much questioning who she was but how she saw herself. And the writing is achingly lovely, wistful and sincere, so much that I can't wait to see what Emily M. Danforth comes up with next.

7. I Hunt Killers, Barry Lyga
This one was a ride. I loved, loved, loved Jazz's journey, trying to discover who he really was without his serial killer father's genes or looming influence. The constant examining and re-examining of his own identity is something that most teens can relate with, but for Jazz, the stakes are much higher: he might, just naturally, be a psychopath. When he tries to use his unique perspective for good--investigating a series of murders that mimic his dad's work--it's a stunning reminder of the power of our choices. And beyond the complex psychology, it was just a great read--suspenseful and thrilling, with an ending that left me (thankfully not literally) gutted, and anxiously waiting for the next in the series.

6. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
 You'll find Verity on a lot of "Best of" lists this year, and for good reason. A beautifully-written story about friendship, Verity takes what might be a gimmicky frame--the novel is largely in the form of a "confession" of a British spy captured by Nazis--and instead uses it to reveal the intelligence, grit, and resourcefulness of its main characters. Like a lot of the books on this list, Verity is a great read, with every page upping the tension and making me wonder (and worry) about the future of the narrator, but ultimately, this is a book about the power of friendship: selfless and sustaining.
5. Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins
 I was late to the Anna boat, which is a shame because this charming romance was a pleasure to read from the first page to the last. For all the "legendary" romances in YA literature, I always had a hard time believing the underlying sparks, mostly because characters seemed to go from body-worship to insta-love (and back again). Anna stood out in that I could see, all the way down to the bones, the real friendship behind Anna and Etienne's relationship. It reminded me, wonderfully, of the kind of butterflies I got when I first met the husband, the delightful discovery that you like this person and that the more you find out about them the more you like them. Far from superficial, Anna and Etienne's relationship goes through real ups and downs, and, at the same time, both of them grow and mature in ways outside of their romantic feelings. It's funny and charming and a "light" read, but it's more than that, too: a poignant picture of a young woman discovering love (and independence) for the first time.

4. Bitterblue, Kristen Cashore
Both Fire and Graceling, Kristen Cashore's earlier books, ended up on my Best of 2011 list, so it should come as no surprise that the conclusion to the Graceling books found a place on this year's list. Bitterblue presented a unique sort of challenge: a young queen, lacking the kind of magical abilities that set Fire and Katsa (the earlier book's main characters) apart, struggling to help her kingdom heal from the psychological scars inflicted by her father, the former king. But, unsurprisingly, Cashore met this challenge with grace and intelligence, as Bitterblue must figure out what makes a leader and how to best help people heal. While Bitterblue presents a more human, vulnerable character than her predecessors, she's also more relatable, relying not on magical abilities to save her but her own heart and mind. 

 3. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. Martin
I'm cheating a bit with this one, picking 5 books for my number 3 slot (consider them all tied). But if I was to list every one of George R. Martin's excellent novels individually, I'd have pretty much nothing left on my "Best of" list. I'm a fan of the HBO series, and despite my aversion to spoilers, I decided to read all the books over the summer. They're not perfect--I mean, you can only read so many lists of random hedge knights before you go crazy--but for moments that truly transported me to another world, I can think of nothing better. Those characters! Those amazing, surprising scenes! And ultimately, the deft and nuance Martin shows in sketching out his characters' emotional and psychological journeys.* It's brave and stunning to let beloved characters make horribly wrong decisions (and even braver to kill them off), and the result is that Martin's world feels even more human and real than most of the "realistic" fiction out there.

2. The Theory of Everything, J.J. Johnson
 My favorite! I can't even describe why I adored this little book so much, except that, like falling in love, sometimes it just comes out of nowhere. It's not the easiest story: teenager Sarah is still struggling with her best friend's accidental death and has grown morose, snappish, and snarky towards anyone who tries to help her. But there's such a earnest, raw display of emotion as Sarah questions the meaning of life in a world that's grown suddenly fragile. There's so much that I loved: Sarah's spot-on humor and voice, the varied friendships she develops and how each change her, the smart and quirky chapter drawings that help move the plot forward. This is a book I would have loved, passionately, as a teen, and it's the kind of book I want to push into kids' hands.

1. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
For the second year in a row, my favorite of the year is an adult novel, this time Junot Diaz's Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I'm not sure why I picked it up, but I'm glad I did. Weaving Dominican culture and pop-culture, Diaz presents a stunning portrait of a young man's life and background. It's not an easy read, shifting between multiple times and perspectives, but Diaz masterfully blends these varying stories into a single human experience. It's the kind of book that makes me exciting about reading and writing, a thoroughly original and unique piece of work that manages to inspire and break your heart in equal measure.

*Ben Wyatt gets it right: "He's telling human stories in a fantasy world!"

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