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Time once again for this columnist to render his selection of the best books of the year. There were 18 titles on my short list this time around, and I have winnowed them down to the 9 best of the best. Here is the final list:
Albertalli, Becky. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.
Closeted 17-year-old Simon is in love with an anonymous boy who calls himself Blue. The two boys know each other only through the e-mails that they pseudonymously exchange. But that is enough for Simon, who writes his e-mails as “Jacques,” to fall head over heels in love with Blue. And readers will fall head over heels in love with Albertalli’s wistful, whimsical, wonderful coming-out story starring, in Simon and Blue, two swell kids who deserve every happiness.
Almond, David. A Song for Ella Grey.
Brilliantly conceived and gorgeously written, the latest from Almond is a modern retelling of the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Set in the north of England instead of Greece, it follows the fortunes and growing love of the two bohemian teens, beautiful, dreamy Ella (Eurydice) and the wandering singer Orpheus as they tenaciously hold on to their youth and each other. Like Orpheus’ voice, Almond’s is lyrical and magical, a perfect match for his material, which promises to endure as long as the legendary story it evokes.
Anderson, M. T. Symphony for the City of the Dead.
The gifted Anderson takes a walk on the nonfiction side of the street to superlative effect in this magisterial book about the Siege of Leningrad, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, and his Leningrad Symphony. Anderson finds the drama inherent in his subjects and shares them in this beautifully researched and written book. Truth is fugitive in the time and place that provide the setting for his account, but Anderson has done a heroic job of pursuing and finding it. The result is always engrossing and illuminating. Bravo.
Brooks, Kevin. The Bunker Diary.
Move over, Alfred Hitchcock, there’s a new master of suspense in town, and his name is Kevin Brooks. The book has sparked controversy on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in England, where it won the prestigious Carnegie Medal to the dismay of many observers who regard the book as being too hard edged—if not downright nihilistic—to recommend for young readers. Nevertheless, in its visceral power The Bunker Diary is virtually unrivaled and will find its ardent fans, of whom I am obviously one.
King, A. S. I Crawl through It.
If Salvador Dalí had written a young adult novel, it would have been I Crawl through It. Sadly, there are no limp watches in sight, but there are plenty of surreal moments, as King limns the lives of a clutch of troubled teens who suffer at school from daily bomb threats, a surfeit of standardized tests, and secrets that slowly emerge from their pasts. I often say that the first thing I look for in a new novel is originality, and in King’s latest brilliant effort, I found it in spades.
Kraus, Daniel. The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, v.1: At the Edge of Empire.
Easily the most artfully prodigious novel of the year—make that the decade—Kraus’ singular, sui generis story of 17-year-old Zebulon Finch’s lively, decades-long death in life is an unstinting exercise in imagination and erudition. There is much to marvel at here, but perhaps best of all is the voice with which Zebulon tells us his richly conceived story. He calls his manner of speech “flamboyant elocution,” but whatever you call it, it is surely the greatest sustained exercise in voice since M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing. Happily, it will continue to be heard in the forthcoming second volume of Zebulon’s adventures. I can’t wait.
Ness, Patrick. The Rest of Us Just Live Here.
Ness’ exercise in magic realism is a charmer, in large part because of his terrific protagonist, Mikey, who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, and Mikey’s best friend, Jared, who is gay and one quarter god, the god of cats, no less, which explains why he can cozy up to mountain lions. As for Mikey, he wants to cozy up to beautiful Henna, upon whom he has a major—unstated—crush. Meanwhile, beings called the Immortals are trying to infiltrate the kids’ town in order to take over the world. Eek.
Oppel, Kenneth. The Nest.
Wow! What a story, one that has the feeling of an instant classic that begins in the numinous and gradually, with mounting suspense, morphs into the grotesque. Oppel, a Printz Honor Award winner, has done a masterful job of creating a mash-up of fantasy and horror that transcends genre and becomes a wonderfully artful work of literary fiction. In the process, Oppel has created, in his protagonist, Steven, and the queen wasp whom he encounters, characters who will live in readers’ memories long after they have finished the book.
Reynolds, Jason and Brendan Kiely. All American Boys.
Two teenage boys, one black (Rashad) and one white (Quinn), are inextricably linked when Quinn witnesses Rashad being savagely beaten by a white policeman with little or no provocation. Seamlessly coauthored, this hard-edged, ripped-from-the-headlines book is more than a problem novel; it’s a carefully plotted, psychologically acute, character-driven work of fiction that challenges readers to contemplate large issues of police brutality and race in America, issues that demand debate and discussion, which this superb book so powerfully enables.
And there you have it, my best of the best of 2015. What are your choices?
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