This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday. So even if you’ve got big evening plans, you should still have plenty of time during the day to sit down with a much-loved book. Or maybe you’d rather have the full-fledged Valentine’s Day experience. Maybe you want to fall in love all over again. If that’s the case, I’ve compiled below a list of some of my favorite reads from the past calendar year. The books aren’t listed in any particular order. Each one was wonderful – lovable in its very own way.
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Loser – Jerry Spinelli
If you read this blog on a regular – or even semi-regular – basis, you know by now that I adore Jerry Spinelli and pretty much every single word he’s written. That being said, in a long career full of spectacular books, Loser stands out as one of Spinelli’s greatest. The novel is, essentially, a sustained character study. Maybe that doesn’t sound all that exciting to you, but the character in question – Donald Zinkoff – is unlike any other character you’ll ever meet. Stuffed with humor and wit, with delectable sentences and beautifully built scenes, at the core of Loser is a big old beating heart – the same one whose beats you can feel throughout all of Spinelli’s books.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives – David Eagleman
David Eagleman is a rare bird – a neuroscientist/fiction writer. That slash, though, makes the divide seem starker than it really is. Because Eagleman brings his imagination to the scientific study of the brain, and brings a neuroscientist’s detail-oriented rigor to his fiction – a situation that produces great results on both ends. Sum is, as its subtitle indicates pretty clearly, a book of forty short “field reports” from different versions (or visions) of the afterlife. Some consist of just a couple finely tuned paragraphs, others run to a few pages. Each one, though, is guaranteed to shake up your perspective, to leave you reevaluating not only your thoughts about what might come next, but also how you’re living in the here and now.
The Year of Billy Miller – Kevin Henkes
A quiet book about an ordinary kid that, in its own gentle way, is extraordinary. Kevin Henkes is a master at teasing beauty and insight out of seemingly uneventful moments and minor, forgettable details. And really, what more can you ask for from a book?
Countdown City (The Last Policeman, #2) and World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, #3) – Ben H. Winters
Two years ago, Ben Winters’s The Last Policeman appeared on my Valentine’s Day list. I urged people to read it, and eagerly looked forward to the pair of sequels that were slated to come out soon. Well, they came out, and I devoured them – and subsequently fell into a mini-depression upon realizing that there were no more Last Policeman books for me to look forward to. Fortunately, Winters is hard at work on a new project, one that I’m sure will be just as compelling at The Last Policeman series. In the meantime, read these books.
Counting by 7s – Holly Goldberg Sloan
Counting by 7s is one of those books that I wanted to never end. It’s filled with characters you quickly learn to love, despite their oddities, shortcomings, and flaws, and saying goodbye to them on the final page wasn’t easy. It’s got both humor and heart in abundance – a combination, if you couldn’t tell, that gets me every time.
Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players – Stefan Fatsis
I’m a word freak. The kind of person who can happily page through a dictionary. Who gets positively giddy over etymology, and can seek out the origins of a strange idiom with the same fervor others might tackle a gripping mystery novel. I’m also a fan of Scrabble. You can understand my excitement, then, when I came across Stefan Fatsis’s book. Before I’d even read a page, I knew I was going to love it. But Fatsis book is so much more than a compendium of obscure words and strange etymologies – it’s an in-depth exploration of a highly unique subculture, packed full of empathetic portraits of some of the oddest and most fascinating people you’re ever likely to meet.
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table – Roger Lancelyn Green
Yes these characters and stories are more than a millennium old. Yes they’re still, after all that time, awesome. This is the original swords-and-sorcery tale, and it stands up against all of those that have come after it. But the stories of Arthur and his Knights have had a profound influence on more than just the fantasy genre – nearly every novel you pick up has a quest, in one form or another, at its center, and along with The Odyssey, this is one of world literature’s greatest quests. To repurpose a phrase of the great Frank Zappa’s: chivalry isn’t dead, it just smells funny.
The Magic Finger – Roald Dahl
Not much to say here. A slim little gift from the mind and imagination of Roald Dahl. It won’t take you long to read, and you’ll be better off for having done so.
The Underneath – Kathi Appelt
I’m going to get mathematical for a moment, because in The Underneath, a book that’s poetic in every sense of the word, Kathi Appelt makes a staggering mathematical achievement. The novel weighs in at just over 300 pages, and somehow, Appelt manages to pack each and every one of them with more gorgeous language than you often find over the course of an entire book. I’ve written about the underneath twice before on this blog, and could easily, happily gush about it again – not only about the abundance of beautiful phrasing, but about the way Appelt so deftly braids together three unique storylines, the way she constructs scenes, the way she captures movement, the way she delves so deeply and empathetically into the hearts and minds of all of her characters – but that’d be a bit redundant, so you can just read those previous posts here and here.
A Tangle of Knots – Lisa Graff
A Tangle of Knots drops you into a world just a little left of our own. It doesn’t explain itself, and it doesn’t have to – Lisa Graff is a deft enough writer, a compelling enough storyteller, to convince you to go along for the ride. Also, the book is full of cake recipes. Delicious ones. I had never heard of Graff before coming across A Tangle of Knots, and by the end of it, I was overjoyed to have discovered a new favorite writer.
The Farmer and the Clown – Marla Frazee
A picture book with nothing but pictures – beautifully, intelligently constructed pictures. In just a handful of wordless pages, Marla Frazee tells a rich story, bursting with humor and heart. It’ll leave you seeing a little clearer, a little deeper, and is bound to make you rethink the possibilities of pictures.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne
A classic. A book over 150 years old that can still get your heart hammering and your mind racing. Skip the recent remake of the film, and get yourself a copy of the real deal.
Figgs & Phantoms and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues – Ellen Raskin
To read an Ellen Raskin book is to take a trip into one of the quirkiest and cleverest imaginations to have ever graced the planet. Her books are big, gorgeous puzzles, ones that will confound you while making you laugh and hurt and wonder. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, to my mind, her death at the age of 56 was one of the great literary tragedies of the 20th century. I’m sure she had another bunch of wonderful books in her, and it pains me that I – and the rest of the world, too – will never get to read them. But we still have those that she produced, and every one of them is an absolute gem.
The Crazy Man – Pamela Porter
I finished The Crazy Man about a week ago, and I’ve found myself thinking about it every day since. It’s a historical novel told in verse – a combination that doesn’t always do it for me. But I’m convinced Pamela Porter could’ve written a book about paint drying, and I would’ve gobbled it up just as eagerly. Fortunately for us, she tackled heavier fare – loss, death, prejudice, poverty, guilt, shame, and a variety of issues surrounding mental health – and of course it doesn’t hurt that she does it with such skill, grace, and (here it is) humor and heart.
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Should you pick up any of these books, I’d love to hear how you liked them. And if you’ve got some much-loved books that you think I need to read before Valentine’s Day 2016, comment below and let me know.