I read 138 books in 2012, including 2 re-reads, one college textbook (a new text for the class I teach), and even one book that I abandoned (yet still reviewed). Of that number I have chosen my top ten favorites of the year.
In the number 10 spot I have chosen “Cinder,” by Marissa Meyer. I have been enjoying the recent trend of fairy-tale retellings, and this one is especially inventive with the Cinderella story so adeptly reimangined in a futuristic cyborg setting. It is very creative and fun, but most of all memorable. I was left wanting to know more at the end of the story, so I’m glad there are more books coming out, though I’m a little hesitant that the forthcoming books will be focusing on other fairy tales–we shall see. If Meyer handles it half as well as Jessica Day George does in moving from the 12 Dancing Princesses story in “Princess of the Midnight Ball” to the Cinderella story in “Princess of Glass,” with overlapping characters and a consistent world of magic, then I’m sure they will be worth reading too.
Although a large percentage of my favorite books are fantasy novels this year, I do have a couple of other selections to highlight. Sarah Dunant’s “Sacred Hearts” is one such book and comes in at number 9. This book is set in a 16th-century Benedictine convent and explores the many reasons why women would come to spend their lives in such a place. In that way it gives a little historical background of Renaissance Italy, and although the women described are fictional, you do get a sense of how restrictive the culture could be for women and how the convent could be seen as allowing its nuns a certain amount of options or even freedoms within its confining schedules and prison-like walls. I enjoyed the main characters, especially Suora Zuana (the dispensary mistress) and even Serafina (a novice incarcerated against her will), and I was satisfied by the ending. In addition, Dunant’s writing is lush and luminous in description. I can see why this book got on a list at NPR of novels that should be made into movies.
Another book of vivid imagery that sticks with you is “A Curse Dark as Gold,” another fairy-tale re-imagining by Elizabeth C. Bunce. This is just my level of scary ghost story–it’s truly spooky, but not gross or horror-like. With the story of Rumplestiltskin underlying the main plot of a miller’s family trying to succeed during the Industrial Revolution (despite an enduring curse and the death of their father), there is a lingering atmosphere of darkness and danger (but only in a delicious fairy-tale way). I loved the characters, I loved learning about the weaving trade, and I thoroughly enjoyed the love story. The magic and ghosts were extra bonuses. Save this book for Halloween time for a seasonal read, or, if you can’t wait, read it now. It’s that good.
Speaking of spooky, Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” is also dark and dangerous, but in a completely different way. This book is a wow book. It is set in a gothic and ghostly Prague and is filled with so many memorable and unique characters. As I was looking back through my year of books trying to fill an empty spot on my top ten list, I kept coming back to this one and finally realized that it needed to be counted among my favorites (here it is in the number 7 spot). Although it is touted as a romance (“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.”), I found those parts to be overblown and less successful than the story of Karou and her “monster” family. I was very intrigued by the conflicts she faced of good and bad (are the angels good? is her “father” bad?), and the consequences of choices. I like the idea that good and bad are not always as evident as black and white, and that demons can be loving parents too. It reminds me of a line from the song “No One is Alone” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods: “Witches can be right, Giants can be good, You decide what’s right, You decide what’s good.” If you like fantasy, especially fantasy that is a little dark, a little funky, and a little bit turned around, then I know you’ll be drawn in by Taylor’s luscious writing in this book. And, I have not been able to think about teeth in the same way since reading this novel.
I am delighted to include another Flavia de Luce book by Alan Bradley in my list again this year. “I Am Half Sick of Shadows” once again brings us back to Buckshaw, this time to enjoy the filming of a movie on site as the days lead up to Christmas. Unfortunate about that murder, but Flavia is in her element as resident sleuth, only allowing herself to be a little distracted by the raging snowstorm and her determination to come up with some chemical concoction to catch Father Christmas. Flavia is one of those characters you can’t wait to visit again and again. And even though I would not be the sort of person to get caught up in her shenaningans in real life, I sitll relish reading about her adventures and quirky world view. Plus, the writing is a joy.
“Sorcery and Cecilia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot” is delicious! It is the perfect sort of fantasy, regency era, witty, magical, silly, original, romantic, mystery fluff that I just eat up. I love the magic of charms and spells here–the characters are fun and enchanting. And I adore the epistolary framework of this book, especially since it came about by the authors, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, playing a “letter game.” Their writing excercise was so perfect, they got it published. I am so impressed by this idea that if any one of my writing friends wants to have a go at our own version of this game, I’d be willing.
Sometimes the books that make it to my favorites list are obvious–they were simply excellent books, well written, enjoyable, memorable. Other times it is much harder to decide: do I choose one that I loved reading at the time but didn’t stick with me over time, or do I opt for one that I may have rated lower but has kept coming back to mind? I generally go with the latter. For example, I loved a book called “Cat Girl’s Day Off” by Kimberly Pauly–it was a delightfully funny read, witty and inventive, and it even had talking cats (I can’t resist those!), but it was just a fun, fluff book. I really can’t remember much about it these many months later. On the other hand, a book like “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer,” by Lish McBride, which I also thought was fun and funny when I read it, has only grown in my estimation as time has passed. I continue to chuckle just by thinking about it. I want to read it again and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel this year (“Necromancing the Stone”). “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer” has a lasting, if macabre, charm to it (and it’s hard to get Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” song out of your head). Did I mention that it also has a talking cat (sort of)?
“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern was a book that I knew would be on my favorites list from the minute I read it. It was a stunningly spellbinding book. I loved the battle between a sort of natural magic vs. a magic of spells. I found the story fascinating, full of evocative images, and simply magical. I loved it all: the physical book with the lovely cover art, the striped paper inside, and the ribbon bookmark; and I loved the story and characters: that amazing clock, the magical competition, Marco and Celia, Poppet and Widget, and so much more.
I knew next to nothing about President Garfield before I read this book, “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard, so it was a real pleasure to get to know a little bit about this remarkable man. Of course finding out about how capable, honorable and compassionate Garfield was made it harder to read about how incapable his doctor was, and what a needless loss his death was after Guiteau shot him. Candice Mallard does a remarkable job telling this historical story with precision and thrilling pacing. There were times I could not put the book down. This is non-fiction that is accessible, readable, and surprising (even when you already know the ultimate outcome). An excellent book, and it is only my passion for all things Nextian, that keeps it out of the number one spot. It was by far the best book we read in book club this year.
For my top pick of the year, I simply had to choose Jasper Fforde’s brilliant continuation of the Thursday Next series, “The Woman Who Died A Lot.” Thursday Next is getting older. She no longer has her position at SpecOps, she has false memories of a non-existent child, and her body is stiff with pain and injuries. Her children are intelligent young adults, but the timeline has changed so that their opportunities for success are not what they once were. Goliath is still causing trouble. Aornis has escaped and is always a danger. Moreover, God has revealed himself to the earth again, and has begun smiting unrepentant cities—next on the list: Swindon. Can her new job as head librarian at Wessex All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library Service provide her adventurous spirit with enough fuel? Since she lives in a literature-obsessed alternate world, with the Book World only a read away, not to mention the tantalizing possibility of access to Dark Reading Matter, of course it can! This was a fabulous addition to the Thursday Next series. Yes it was a bit chaotic, but when the end of the world is looming, it is to be expected. Jasper Fforde’s sense of humor shines bright in these wacky adventures. I absolutely love these books. Warning: Do not attempt to read them out of order. Go back and start with “The Eyre Affair.” And then keep going. Fun, fun, fun.