In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m doing a post about some of the books I’ve loved most this past year. If you’re one of those people who treats yourself to something lovely every February 14th, then go buy these books and put them at the top of your to-read pile. You won’t regret it.
So, here we go, not ranked but more or less in the order I read them . . .
Story of a Girl – Sara Zarr
This was my third (or was it my fourth?) time reading this magnificent book. Ostensibly about a girl who’s unfairly pegged with a crappy reputation, it’s really about tons (and tons) more. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a book that more eloquently captures the roller coaster ride of human relationships – love and sex, resentment and rage, hope and pain, forgiveness, redemption, etc. etc. etc. Just writing about is making me want to go and read it again. I probably will. You should, too.
The Mist and Dolores Claiborne – Stephen King
The Mist is Stephen King at his best. Compact, pitch-perfect, and terrifying, it’s also an incisive exploration of human behavior in the grips of fear. I still haven’t seen the movie. I don’t think any special effects could ever be as scary as the stuff King’s language gets your imagination cooking up.
And Dolores Claiborne – a long-spun yarn, a first-person narrative that never drags, a page-turner that nonetheless digs deep and thrills even when relating some downright disgusting stuff.
Vegan, Virgin, Valentine and Tangled – Carolyn Mackler
Carolyn Mackler became one of my favorite authors this past year. She’s funny, deep, and enviably versatile. Mara, the narrator of Vegan, Virgin, Valentine, is a brilliant young woman, and you know a YA novel is off to a good start when the author doesn’t belittle their characters. That being said, Mackler doesn’t hesitate to toss Mara into situations that all the brainpower in the world couldn’t make any easier to deal with.
Tangled is on here, in part, because of its bold structure. The story plays out over four months, and each month is narrated by a different character. It takes skill to make something like that work, and Mackler makes it work wonderfully. Also, the book’s packed full of sentences as good as this: “As I closed my door, I wondered how it’s possible that one person’s entire world can change while the other person is still making watermelon soup.”
Hate List – Jennifer Brown
Brown uses a complicated structure to tell a complicated story – Valerie’s story, the girl who was dating Nick Levil when he brought a gun to school and opened fire in the Commons, killing six students, one teacher, and wounding many others, Valerie included. Through Valerie’s story, we see just how deep such wounds can be – ones caused by horrific acts of violence and those, too, caused by a mean remark, a distant parent, or one’s own feelings of guilt and shame.
No one should read the blurb on this book’s back cover and assume that Brown simply picked a “hot topic” to write a novel around, that she wrote about a school shooting just to try and drum up more interest. The shooting is the story’s launching point, yes, but any reader will quickly see that this book offers well-written insight into much, much more.
Franny and Zooey – J. D. Salinger
Franny and Zooey sat on my shelf for years and years. Along with my copy of Nine Stories, I moved the book with me to every one of my dorm rooms and apartments. For no good reason, I just never read it. I always picked up Salinger’s shorter stories instead. I wish I hadn’t waited.
Franny and Zooey are the youngest members of one of the most eccentric and well-known families in American literature: the Glass’s. Salinger tosses some weighty stuff into these kids laps (or heads, I suppose), and watching them struggle with it is an incredible experience. For months after I finished it, I still had certain lines floating around in my head.
Everyone should read this book, but young adults especially, plenty of whom have no doubt felt like Franny, teetering on the edge of an adult-sized nervous breakdown. This great book would remind them, importantly, that they are not alone.
Nickel Plated – Aric Davis
If I had to pick just one, I’d say Nickel Plated was the best book I’ve read in the past year. It’s a modern-day noir with a big, beating heart, and Davis doesn’t flinch away from dark, upsetting things.
I think there are a lot of YA books out there that have unnecessary sequels, that get artificially stretched out into prettily-packaged trilogies (don’t get me wrong, though – there are plenty of trilogies I enjoy). This, however, is one book that I desperately wish would have a sequel.
Nickel, the narrator, is such a unique, electrifying presence, that if Davis put out a hundred more books packed with his adventures, I’d read every one of them.
There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom – Louis Sachar
This was one of my favorite books growing up. I found it online sometime last year, and – nerd alert! – hunted down a version that had the same cover art as the copy I had (and read and read and read) back in the third or fourth grade. Reading it again almost two decades later, I loved it just as much. Watching Bradley Chalkers soften up and learn about honesty, love, and friendship through his interactions with Jeff, the new kid, and Carla, his guidance counselor, is fun, funny, and instructive.
The Chocolate War – Robert Cormier
Another reread. Cormier was far and away my favorite author as a teenager. I read him incessantly in middle school and the first couple years of high school, but then stopped, and never came back to him. A few months ago, though, I dug his books out of my old room and did some re-reading, wanting to see just what it was that had me so hooked on him.
The answer? Everything. The man was simply a wonderful storyteller.
What I might’ve loved most, though, was the bravery with which he plunged down into the darkness inherent in humanity and – as opposed to so many YA books out there now – didn’t feel obligated to climb back out into the light and tie everything up nice and neat. Sometimes a story demands a sad, frustrating, painful ending. Cormier wasn’t afraid to write them.
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and You Are Here – Jennifer E. Smith
I just discovered Jennifer E. Smith last month – and once I did, I promptly read all of her books (and can’t wait to read her new one, coming out this April). She’s the kind of writer who you read slowly, lingering over every sentence because each one is just so damn perfect. A couple weeks ago I tweeted something about how I’m convinced that she’s incapable of writing a bad sentence (though of course I know that in addition to having a natural gift, Smith puts a lot of hard work into each one of those sentences) – and, well, I still am.
I could go on and on about how real her characters are and how exciting and moving their stories can be, but seriously, just read her. Like, now. You’ll be glad you did.
The Last Policeman – Ben H. Winters
An asteroid is hurtling toward the planet earth, and Detective Hank Palace is still trying to solve murders. That right there should be enough to get you to go out and get this book. But it’s not just a gimmicky premise. Winters delivers.
Like Nickel Plated, The Last Policeman is a noir with heart, and every sentence – every single one, I promise – is an absolute gem. And while Aric Davis may never sit down to write a sequel to Nickel Plated, the follow-up to The Last Policeman – titled Disasterland – is slated to come out on July 30, 2013.
. . .
I could add more. It turns out I’ve done a lot of great reading since last Valentine’s Day. I sincerely hope this post inspires you to read some of the books listed above – in their own way, each one is just wonderful.
Also, feel free to send over some suggestions – what books have you loved most this past year?