Back in June, 2014, I gave a little workshop on good summer reads for my women’s group at Church, and in preparation I delved quite heavily, though somewhat haphazardly, into the “clean romance” genre. This included some Christian romance, classics, YA titles, and some random online picks that had good reviews. Unfortunately this field was very patchy for me, and I read a lot that was hardly worth mentioning. On the other hand, this exploration led me to one of my very favorite books of the year, Susanna Kearsley’s “The Winter Sea” (although I didn’t read it until AFTER my summer presentation, so it didn’t get on my list for that class, but I’m delighted to add it to this list today). Additionally, there were some great titles that I read for my book club, but, with the exception of “Call the Midwife,” I just didn’t feel like putting them on this favorites list. So, in the end, and once again, out of the 116 books I read in 2014, most of my choices come from the rather stellar world of YA fantasy. My first two picks are interchangeable in position; either could have landed in the top spot. They are so entirely different from each other that it is comparing apples and oranges, but in the end I put “The Screaming Staircase” first because it is such a uniquely fresh voice that I felt it deserved an extra edge.
1. The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud. Although this book came highly recommended from somewhere (npr perhaps?), I was a bit hesitant to read it because it just didn’t seem my type (I haven’t read any other Jonathan Stroud either). On the one hand, the title is slightly off-putting. But, on the other hand, that same title reminded me a little of Nancy Drew mystery titles, hinting that this book is a mystery with a young sleuth/s geared to younger readers. That’s where the commonalities stop, however. Despite my fond affection for the Nancy Drew stories of my childhood, this book is far superior in so many ways, and will undoubtedly appeal widely to a young millennial readership (older readers too!). Stroud’s writing is top notch, and the story is witty, clever and fresh. He imagines an eerie future London that has been widely infested with generally evil ghosts, intent on malicious harm, destruction and revenge. Unfortunately, although the hauntings continue to spread, adults are unable to see or combat these spirits. Only young children can. Thus a necessary ghost-fighting industry has emerged, largely employing precocious pre-adolescents. Yes, these books are scary, but in a sort of enjoyably goose-bumpy kind of way (not in the nightmarish, can’t sleep kind of way). Also in a silly, Ghostbusters-y kind of way. Add to the mix some fabulously intriguing characters (including our intrepid trio of Lockwood & Co. ghost hunters: Anthony, Lucy and George), an exciting mystery (on top of all the ghostly battles), and Sherlockian deductions, and you have a recipe for greatness. I loved this book, and am excited to report that #2 in the series (The Whispering Skull) is equally as good. I can’t wait for more!
2. The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley. This book was an absolute pleasure to read! That alone makes it deserving of a high rating, but there is much more to recommend it. I enjoyed the twin plots of a modern-day British writer and the early 18th-century Jacobite rebellion in Scotland. Both stories are well told, and I enjoyed being in each place equally. And I was utterly fascinated with the idea of “genetic memory.” Carrie McClellend discovers she is related to one of the historical figures she is researching, and visiting Slains draws out ancestral memories of past events. This plot is both clever and compelling.
The Firebird makes a nice companion book (we find out more about the historical part of the story), and although there are no genetic memories to supply the continuing story, Kearsley introduces another character with a paranormal angle, a modern heroine who can touch art objects and sense their past history. Art that tells its own stories! And a trip to Czarist Russia. Of course I loved it.
3. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth. I became all kinds of obsessed with the BBC TV series based on these midwife books because the characters were so rich and the stories so absorbing, so I was highly motivated to add this book to our book group’s reading list in 2014. The book did not disappoint. Worth’s memoir is equally as compelling as the TV show. She is a frank narrator, unflinching in describing some fairly horrific living conditions and medical conditions common to the poor people living in the tenements (or worse) of post-war London. It seems incredible that anyone not born to it would willingly submit themselves to this environment, so I especially enjoyed Jenny’s revelations about the evolution of her feelings, as she warms up to the people she serves and finds a deep well of love and compassion motivating all with whom she works. These insights make this book not only entertainingly informative, but also satisfying and enriching.
4. Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones. Kermit the Frog, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…. I love your bold energy, your unfailing optimism, your innate goodness, your musical talent, your quirky humor, your leadership, your froggish charm, your casual greenness. With my unabashed crush on this loveable frog, it should be no surprise that I have also always been a big fan of Jim Henson. I knew that Jim was supremely creative and quirky, even beyond his beloved Muppets, but this book revealed a lot about the man that I had never known: from his childhood, schooling, family, dreams and goals, and friendships, to chronicling even some of his failings and failures. The book starts out in an almost-too-folksy manner, but once I warmed up to the simple, if stylized way in which Jones presents his facts, that very writing style seemed to represent Henson himself, so it ended up working for me. This was a very pleasurable read. As a side note, one of my goals for 2014 was to learn how to check out e-books from my library, and this book was my first effort at doing so. It was such a successful endeavor that I have become a devoted borrower of digital books. I love being able to immediately download available titles, and I really appreciate that the books are automatically returned when my time is up—no more overdue library fines!
The last six books on my favorites list are representative titles of six wonderful YA series. Any of the first books in the series are superb and could stand alone, but in all cases, the stories and characters are only enhanced by a continuing narrative.
- The Far West, #3 in the Frontier Magic series by Patricia Wrede
A magical western series? Oh yes. Eff and her family head to the borders of the Western Expansion to study the magical creatures that live beyond the explored edge and to assist the homesteaders in creating magical boundaries as they push into this new frontier. So much is still unknown since Lewis and Clark never returned from their exploratory trek (did a fierce dragon get them, or merely a stampeding mammoth?), but the amazing magical protection dome set up by the founding fathers, (Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and their like were powerful wizards all) still keeps out the most dangerous beasts. Our young heroine, Eff, must rise above the stigma of being a thirteenth child, and learn to control her magic while discovering who she is and how she fits into the world. These books have a bit of a leisurely feel, filled with lots of details about the frontier and the expeditions, but I think this is a strength not a weakness. I enjoyed hearing about their exploratory findings, both magical and otherwise. Wrede writes with such a confident and consistent hand that I always find her books worth my time.
- Palace of Stone, #2 in the Princess Academy series by Shannon Hale
This book is Hale at her finest: she’s an impressive writer and storyteller. Even though it has been a while since I read the first book (The Princess Academy, also first rate), Hale skillfully drew me back into the story and had me rooting for Miri and her new life in the city, without her losing her sense of home and old friends.
- Mira’s Diary: Lost in Paris, #1 in the Mira’s Diary series by Marissa Moss
Mira can time travel in these books, and although some of the time-travelling back-story and rules are a bit murky in the book, the history is not. In this first book of the series, Mira visits the artist Degas in Paris and gets caught up in the Dreyfus affair. This was a great way to bring light on an episode of history that should get more attention. I also read the second book, wherein Mira travels to Baroque Rome to visit Caravaggio (!).
- Song of the Quarkbeast, #2 in The Chronicles of Kazam series by Jasper Fforde
16 year old Jennifer Strange is acting manager of Kazam’s Mystical Arts, where she scrounges up as much work as she can for her cadre of aging magicians and sorcerers. This series is so creative and whimsical and Ffordian (gosh, I love his books). This second book in his children’s series is just as delightful as his first, and I may have even liked it better.
- Waistcoats & Weaponry, #3 in The Finishing School series (with #1 Etiquette & Espionage, and #2 Curtsies & Conspiracies, and a 4th title to come out later this year in 2015) by Gail Carriger
I know you’ve been waiting for a steampunk series set at a girl’s boarding school, right? Of course you have (even if you didn’t know it)! And of course this finishing school (housed on a constantly floating dirigible) is, in reality, a training ground for espionage. The instructors are vampires, werewolves and mad scientists, all with impeccable manners and breeding, and the girls are talented, witty and resourceful, with Sophronia leading the pack. Great companion series to Carriger’s marvelous Parasol Protectorate, though these Finishing School books are ostensibly geared for younger readers. Delightful!
- United We Spy, #6 in The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter
While we’re at it, here is another series of books set at a girl’s boarding school, which is not all it pretends to be (yep, it’s really a super-secret spy school instead). Unlike Carriger’s steampunk books, this series is set in the “real” world, assuming that the real world has unbelievably precocious teenager girls, who are tremendously smart, intuitive and deadly. Most of the story is rather ridiculous, but that is part of the fun. The writing is fast-paced, light-hearted, smart and quirky. These books are “cute” in the very best sense. And, as the series progresses, Carter injects the stories with a weightiness that adds real life experience to the fun (and sometimes scary) unrealistic elements upon which the series started. These books were a fun and satisfying journey. I am enjoying Ally Carter’s writing and will check out other titles by her soon.