Friday, January 6, 2017

Favorite Books Read in 2016


For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2016. All the books I reviewed or authors I interviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2016, not necessarily books published in 2016.

1.     CREWEL by GENNIFER ALBIN

In a world where gifted people can weave time and matter on a physical tapestry, Adelice stands out as extraordinarily talented. Only her invaluable skill keeps her alive, since she boldly questions and challenges her superiors in a society that wants to make every decision for every person without any resistance.

2.     EVERY OTHER DAY by JENNIFER LYNN BARNES

Kali is your cliché over-the-top, kick-ass, invincible heroine...some days - but every other day she’s a normal teenager. Then Kali spots a mark on a girl at her high school that means that girl will die within the day. Unfortunately, this happens on one of Kali’s “normal” days.

3.     SHARK GIRL by KELLY BINGHAM

When fifteen-year-old Jane loses her arm in a shark attack, she also loses her artistic talent and her privacy. She can’t sketch anymore without her good hand and now the media expects her to act out the part of inspiring survivor.

4.     WRITTEN IN RED by ANNE BISHOP

Meg is a blood prophet, which means when someone cuts her skin she sees visions of the future. She’s held captive so this power can be sold as a service, but she escapes and flees to live with the Others. While dangerous themselves, the Others don’t abide by human law and have no legal obligation to return a human fugitive.

5.     THE GATHERING STORM, THE UNFAILING LIGHT, and THE MORNING STAR by ROBIN BRIDGES

Set in 19th century Russia, this series spins a captivating story of glittering balls and dark magic. Duchess Katerina hides her necromancer power until a vampire prince threatens her family unless she marries him. Now her taboo gift might be the only thing that can protect her.

6.     TELL ME THREE THINGS by JULIE BUXBAUM

Jessie’s still reeling from her mother’s death when her father abruptly remarries and moves them to a different state to live with the new stepmom and her son. Los Angeles is a big change from Chicago and Jessie might be lost at her pretentious new school if not for the help of a mysterious stranger who emails her tips on how to navigate the local social politics.

7.     THE PHOENIX DANCE by DIA CALHOUN

In this twist on “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Phoenix wants to be a shoemaker but her manic depression makes her an unreliable employee, sometimes brilliant but other times apathetic. When her mentor loses his appointment as the official royal shoemaker since the princesses keep wearing through their shoes overnight, Phoenix takes it upon herself to figure out what’s really happening.

8.     PLACEBO JUNKIES by J.C. CARLESON

Audie scams drug trials for a living, but she and her friend have a plan to sign up for as many as they can without getting caught and really cash out. Trust the author with this book, even when things don’t quite make sense. Drug addled Audie is an unreliable narrator and things aren’t what they seem. 

9.     THE FAIRY’S RETURN by GAIL CARSON LEVINE

This last tale in Levine’s charming “Princess Tales” series spoofs “The Golden Goose.” When Princess Lark stops so much as smiling, her father declares she can marry the first prince to make her laugh. We know that will be our hero Robin, but not yet how this commoner will get around the prince requirement.

10.  BETWEEN THE SEA AND THE SKY by JACLYN DOLAMORE

Mermaid Esmerine has always had a love for all things on land, which is why she’s one of the select few chosen to become a siren, who can walk on land with the help of a magical belt. When her sister’s belt is stolen, forcing her to stay on land, Esmerine enlists the help of a childhood friend, the winged bibliophile Alander.

11.  NOBODY’S PRINCESS by ESTHER FRIESNER

Everyone knows the story of Helen of Troy, but usually Helen is depicted as a passive object in the story, a trophy. Friesner instead presents an active, determined young Helen who wants more for herself than a husband and children.


Ibbotson writes sweet, young adult, historical romances, each featuring a smart, self-sufficient, kind-hearted heroine. From pre-war Austria to the Amazon, these novels are rooted in setting and each feature a wide cast of lovable characters.

13.  ON WRITING by STEPHEN KING

Part memoir and part writing guide, this book follows King’s journey to his successful writing career and is packed full of helpful advice and insight for aspiring authors. Writers and King fans alike will enjoy this medley of personal biography and motivational writing tips.

14.  FINDING AUDREY by SOPHIE KINSELLA

Audrey has incapacitating social anxiety that keeps her homeschooled and friendless. Then her brother’s friend Linus starts taking an interest in her and reaching out for a connection. Only Kinsella could give this premise so much heart and hilarity.


This true crime book follows the story of Lucie Blackman, a young British woman murdered in Japan. From the culprit’s mindset to Lucie’s work as a hostess to the media reaction over her disappearance, this book is packed with fascinating discussion-worthy content.

16.  BURNING MIDNIGHT by WILL MCINTOSH

A while ago colorful spheres popped up all over the world. Find two of the same color and you can “burn” them for some kind of personal enhancement: taller, stronger, smarter, etc. Welfare kid Sully buys these spheres and resells them for a small profit. When he teams up with a sphere hunter, they wind up finding a sphere no one has seen before...and they’re not ready for the revelation of what burning it will do. 

17.  ESPERANZA RISING by PAM MUNOZ RYAN

Esperanza lives a privileged life on her ranch in Mexico until her father is murdered by bandits and her family forced to abandon all their wealth and flee to the United States. Now Esperanza must work hard for a meager living. When her mother falls ill as well, Esperanza’s character will truly be tested.

18.  HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by JENNIFER NIVEN

After Libby’s mom died, she ate her feelings and became morbidly obese. Though still overweight, Libby finally lost enough to return to high school - where she meets Jack, a popular jerk who secretly has face blindness. Jack might be better at blending in, but Libby has what really counts: a resilient spirit and maturity beyond her years.

19.  ENDERS by LISSA PRICE

This sequel to STARTERS picks up after Callie overthrew the organization that “rented” young bodies to the wealthy. Now people are hunting down the Metals, those with a chip in their brain enabling their body to be controlled by another mind. As a Metal herself, Callie goes on the run and tries to pick up and help as many others like her as she can.

20.  I AM PRINCESS X by CHERIE PRIEST

As kids, best friends Libby and May invented a character called Princess X and together created a series of comics featuring their strong, wacky heroine. Then Libby dies in a car crash, but three years later May finds a Princess X web comic. The storyline contains details only Libby would know and even hints that maybe Libby didn’t die but was actually kidnapped. 

21.  THE SOUND AND THE FURRY by SPENCER QUINN

This latest installment in the Chet and Bernie mystery series has private investigator Bernie and his loyal dog Chet working a missing person’s case. Narrated from Chet’s canine perspective, the voice sometimes comically strays from the point or fixates on inconsequential details.

22.  CLEOPATRA: A LIFE by STACY SCHIFF

Usually portrayed as a manipulative seductress, records suggest Cleopatra wasn’t actually that attractive. Her notable charm came from her intelligence and charisma. This biography chronicles Cleopatra’s unusual and fascinating life and all her stunning endeavors.

23.  THE BAD BEGINNING by LEMONY SNICKET

Siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are sent to live with their relative, Count Olaf, upon their parents’ untimely deaths. They quickly learn their new guardian is a cruel brute set on stealing their family fortune and then killing them off, too. This morbid series features a unique sense of witty, wacky humor.

24.  POISON STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER

Yelena’s about to be executed for murder when she’s offered an out: become the Commander’s food taster instead. Better to risk death than walk into guaranteed death, so Yelena accepts. However, surviving won’t be easy. The father of her victim wants her dead and she seems to be developing magical abilities in a land where such powers mean a death sentence.

25.  AND I DARKEN by KIERSTEN WHITE

In this dark, epic fantasy tale, White crafts a story of doomed friendship. When royal siblings Lada and Radu are given to an enemy as collateral for peace they meet the future Sultan Mehmed. Together the three form a powerfully bonded but toxic friendship triangle that will both build each other up and wreck destruction in all their lives.

26.  THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR by NICOLA YOON

Can two people fall in love in one day? Natasha is a cynical skeptic due to be deported tomorrow and Daniel a hopeless romantic who wants something else for himself than his parents’ plan that he become a doctor. On paper, they don’t make sense, but Yoon crafts her characters with care and the chemistry between them is utterly convincing.

Friday, December 30, 2016

I AM PRINCESS X

Review of I AM PRINCESS X by CHERIE PRIEST

Best friends Libby and May create a fun character called Princess X and collaborate on a comic featuring this heroine.Then Libby dies in car accident and May loses both Princess X and her best friend.

Three years pass and all of a sudden May starts noticing Princess X paraphernalia everywhere: stickers, graffiti, a whole web comic carrying on the story of this character. As May looks closer into this phenomenon she finds clues that suggest only Libby could be the one behind this, not to mention further clues within the comic that seem to be trying to tell her that Libby never died; she was kidnapped.

While it seems crazy and dangerous and also too good to be true, May cannot let go of the idea that her friend is actually alive and the only way she can tell May is with Princess X. With the help of her neighbor, who is amateur hacker, May follows the clues to dark corners all in the hope that at the end of this maze she’ll find her best friend.

While the characters feel a little flat, the twists in this plot-driven YA novel make up for it. PRINCESS X is a fun, exciting read: a thriller wrapped up in a sweet friendship story.


*** SPOILER ALERT ***

The novel kind of lost me once May actually finds Libby. At that point they decide to hunt down the man behind this, a known murderer, by themselves. Now I could get behind May’s logic for looking for Libby herself. Adults wouldn’t believe her. Everyone already thinks Libby dead and May comes across as a crazed grieving friend. However, once they have Libby it seems the strategy should be getting to safety and alerting authorities, not chasing after a dangerous man themselves. While there are explanations for risky actions, nothing felt convincing to me and the last part of the book felt contrived for extra thrill.

Friday, December 23, 2016

STONES FROM THE RIVER


Review of STONES FROM THE RIVER by URSULA HEGI

With this novel, Hegi crafts a sweeping tale about prejudice and belonging. On a wider scale, the book follows World War II from the perspective of the Germans, while on a smaller scale we live through the eyes of Trudi, a dwarf but more importantly an intelligent, tenacious woman driven to bitterness by the ostracization of her peers.

The first half the novel focuses on Trudi’s individual struggle fitting in as a dwarf starting from childhood. She starts collecting secrets about people as she learns that: 1. Secrets give you power. And 2. People like gossip. Then the storyline shifts as the Nazis come to power. All of Trudi’s grudges, which felt so justified earlier, start to feel petty in comparison to the horrors taking place around her.

While I enjoyed most of this novel, I did grow bored around the halfway point and set it down for perhaps three months before resuming. When I did resume, it felt like I had given up right before the story picked up its pace, so I suppose there’s kind of a “calm before the storm” feel to the plot as it transitions from Trudi’s personal grievances to the larger scale atrocities being committed by Nazis.

There’s a huge cast of characters in this novel, which I always enjoy. Far too many to list in a review. I particularly like Trudi’s father, a classic personality: the grounded, quiet, wise mentor. Leo truly sees his daughter for all her unique strengths, but he also recognizes how the world will see her and doesn’t try to shield her from the reality that many people won’t look past her differences.

I also love that this book continues past World War II, following aftermath in Germany. So many World War II novels cut off during the war, usually because they’re telling a more focused story about one or a few individuals who didn’t fare well during that time. However, this novel has a wide scope. It doesn’t feel so much like it’s about World War II but rather that’s one of the many things that happens in the story. The book begins well before and continues on after the war, remaining true to the themes of prejudice and belonging.

Friday, December 9, 2016

CREWEL


Review of CREWEL by GENNIFER ALBIN
(first in the CREWEL WORLD series, based on a review copy)

Adelice lives in a world where gifted women possess the power to “weave” reality on a physical tapestry, crafting every decision for every individual in society. These revered Spinsters weave everything from birth and death to relocating supplies.

In a society where you have to pick your words very carefully, well, Adelice’s parents have done just that her whole life. Thankfully, their careful word selection has been enough to warn her that they hope she isn’t picked as a Spinster because that life isn’t the heaven those in power would have her believe. Of course, as any reader would expect, Adelice is picked as a Spinster. Her parents’ attempts to hide her fail and have devastating consequences. Once in her new home, Adelice hears repeated whispers about how girls who try to run like she did rarely get the honor of living...and yet she’s receiving preferential treatment. It turns out Adelice has some extra special capabilities that make her too powerful an asset to murder over the slightest display of rebellion.

I really liked Adelice. She’s recklessly brave, speaking up in situations where she knows full well that her challenging comments will have repercussions. She’s too true to her mind to keep her mouth shut even when doing so would make life go more smoothly for her.  

Albin also populates her novel with an assortment of distinct and interesting side characters, each well crafted and intriguing in their own way. Most admirably, each feels like they have their own story even if we’re fixating on Adelice’s right now.

While I really love the concept of this crafty magic system, the magic sometimes feels a little arbitrary. The limitations are laid down like facts, but I don’t understand why you can do one thing but not another, except that it works better for the story that way. I think that if you can weave reality you should be able to change time, for one thing. Though I will mention that I really liked how Adelice learns to manipulate the weave to create “new moments,” little snippets of reality outside what others around her can see or experience. Talk about having a nice safe space in a bad situation.

With CREWEL, Albin introduces readers to a unique and intriguing world but more notably to an exceptional heroine. I can’t wait to read the rest of this series.

Friday, December 2, 2016

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE


Review of HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by JENNIFER NIVEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I’m a sucker for a strong, smart female protagonist, but when everyone’s trying to write an original character sometimes unique becomes a little less original. My point is that, pleased as I am that there are so many worthy heroines in contemporary literature, some of the less layered ones start to blend. Not Libby. Her incredible strength, spirit, and humor feel completely fresh and specific to her experiences.

After Libby’s mom’s death several years ago, she started eating her feelings. Not a little, but a lot. Until she becomes morbidly obese and confined to her bed. Then she made headlines when a crane had to remove the side of her house and lift her out of her room so she could be taken to a hospital. Fast forward to today and Libby’s lost a lot of weight (though she’s still big enough to attract stares and whispering) and she’s venturing out of home school and into a public high school.

In contrast, we also follow Jack, one of the most popular guys at school and a typical jerk. Except the atypical secret that no one knows is that Jack has face blindness. Terrified of becoming a target rather than a weapon, Jack hides his inability to distinguish faces with an egocentric attitude. When you’re popular, people aren’t as surprised when your gaze slides over their face without any recognition, even when you ignore someone supposedly a friend.

Somehow Jack finds himself drawn to Libby. Well, their initial introduction isn’t a pleasant one. Jack isn’t proud of his jerk friends or his jerk self, but deep down inside he likes the idea of being a better person. So when his friends come up with a cruel game for harassing overweight girls at school, Jack comes up with a plan. It’s mean and makes him the bad guy, but it will end his friends’ game once and for all.

I completely understand why Jack admires Libby. It’s frustrating when you read a book where characters respect/love/hate someone and you just can’t see what they see. Well, Libby does stand out and I’m not talking about her size. She’s comfortable with who she is as a person and has learned to accept and cope with the fact that others will mostly focus on the external. She’s outspoken and intelligent and brave and basically all the virtues Jack wishes he had the guts to embody. Oh, and in a weird way her size is an asset for Jack. Libby may be one of the few people he can pick from a crowd. Even if he can’t recognize her face, he can recognize her size.

This novel is also funny, a rare and precious asset in a good book as I can tell you from both my experience as a writer and an avid reader that drama is so much easier to write than humor. As only one example from this book, I cracked up out loud at a line when Jack’s talking to his girlfriend. Internally, he always reminds himself that his on and off again, popular, and equally jerk girlfriend used to be sweet. And she still has nice moments. So when they’re talking on the phone one night and she’s being, well, not so sweet, Jack thinks to himself that he wishes he could just ask her, “Can you put nice Caroline on the phone now?”

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE is an empowering story about inner strength and inner beauty. I doubt I’ll forget Libby or humbling resilience anytime soon.

Friday, November 18, 2016

POISON STUDY


Review of POISON STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(first in the STUDY trilogy)

Yelena murdered her benefactor in self-defense (not that anyone saw it that way or would believe her) and now faces execution. Then spymaster Valek offers her a second chance: become the Commander’s food taster. Though she risks ingesting poison with every meal, Yelena recognizes the difference between certain vs. possible death and, of course, accepts Valek’s offer.

Valek slips Yelena a poison called Butterfly’s Dust on her first day. If she reports to him each morning, he’ll give her a daily antidote to stave off a slow and painful death. If she runs away, she’ll die within the day. Now Yelena juggles learning about a wide array of poisons, figuring out who she can trust and how to ally herself, and, perhaps most problematic, hiding her possible magical abilities in a land where such talents equal a death sentence.

Above all, this is a story of survival. Yelena doesn’t have an immediate goal at the start of the book beyond living. A goal that proves especially difficult in her circumstances, but remains her primary drive from beginning to end. At the start surviving means paying close attention to Valek’s poison training in the hopes of detecting something without ingesting enough that it will kill her. Then she encounters enemies who want revenge for the man she killed and she must learn some beyond basic self-defense. As if that weren’t enough, a magician approaches her and reveals that Yelena has “untamed” magic. Magicians are forbidden in Yelena’s land and if she’s discovered her death will be ordered...again. However, if she doesn’t master her magic, the magician warns they will have no choice but to kill her before her magic gets too out of her control. So Yelena faces attacks on her simple survival goal from all sides. This also makes it extra interesting to read on in the series and see what Yelena will start wanting for herself once survival becomes less of a challenge.

This book was a re-read for me and I found myself surprised on the second reading by the strength of the feminist subtext. I primarily recalled this trilogy as a compelling, fun read with a lot of flaws. However, on the second read I barely noticed said flaws and found myself instead impressed by strengths I think I underestimated on the first read. Aside from an admirable heroine and other progressive characters and messages, these strengths also included the big cast of characters, a common theme among my favorite books. I especially like that Yelena evolves from a lone wolf character in a place of desperation at the start of the novel to someone surrounded by people who support her and lent extra power by forming strong bonds with the right people. 

My one consistent complaint with Snyder’s work is that the writing isn’t nearly as strong as the plot. And I believe it’s this weakness in very basic points of the writing that lead me to undervalue the book as a whole. Snyder often connects two distinctly separate sentences with only a comma where there should be a period or at least semi-colon. I also always find multiple dangling participles in her work as well as clauses that don’t apply to their intended subject. It occasionally makes the story a little harder to follow when I’m distracted by basic grammar mistakes or even find myself re-reading sentences to ensure I understood the intended meaning. 

I look forward to re-reading the other two books in this trilogy and was also reminded that Snyder has new work out I have yet to read. Snyder’s another writer who can be a little formulaic, but I like her formula so I’m not complaining.

Friday, November 11, 2016

THE MORNING GIFT


Review of THE MORNING GIFT by EVA IBBOTSON

Ruth had plans to flee with her Jewish family from Vienna before the Nazis reached the city. Her family made it out in time, but not Ruth. Her father’s young colleague Quinn finds her and resolves to help. After exploring their limited options, they agree to marry so she can leave with him as his wife. The plan is to annul the marriage once she’s safe, but they quickly learn such a fast annulment will call the validity of the marriage into question and may send Ruth straight back to Austria. So instead they intend to carry on with their separate lives until such time that a divorce makes sense, except Ruth enrolls in university and finds herself taking Quinn’s classes, which makes not seeing him significantly harder.

I found this Ibbotson novel especially humorous. Ruth and Quinn both go to extremes trying to avoid each other. Meanwhile, as a young prestigious professor, Quinn is considered quite the catch and other young women are doing their very best to get and hold attention. Oh, and did I mention Ruth already has a fiancé? She and Quinn both agree to keep silent on exactly how he smuggled her out of Austria, so Ruth’s family and fiancé have no idea she’s technically a married woman now.

I enjoyed the chemistry between Ruth and Quinn. Ibbotson has a knack for writing romances where characters are drawn to each other not because they have exactly the same views but because they’re intrigued by each other’s different views. Quinn and Ruth argue over near about everything, but then each is left musing over the other’s points.

As with Ibbotson’s other young adult historical romances, the heroine is a classic Mary Sue trope. Everyone either adores or detests Ruth and if they detest her that’s a sure measure they’re a bad character. She’s sweet to the point of naivety and always aims for perfection of character.

With THE MORNING GIFT, Ibbotson crafts another sweet and funny romance against the backdrop of real historical issues. Sadly, I’ve reached the end of reviewing all of her young adult novels, but I still look forward to reading her middle grade work.