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If it’s December, it’s time for me to make my annual list of the books I consider to be the best of the year. As always, my list is admittedly idiosyncratic and highly personal. A few of its constituents are titles that I’ve reviewed; a few are ones that I believe didn’t get their fair share of attention; and a few are ones that were universally praised, but all have in common their overall excellence. Here they are:
Acevedo, Elizabeth. With the Fire on High. Following a first novel—The Poet X—that swept all the major literary awards is a tall order, but Acevedo succeeds brilliantly in her sophomore effort by giving readers a memorable book about an Afro-Latina teen mother with a talent for the culinary arts. Written in prose rather than The Poet X’s poetry, the novel proves the power and beauty of words in any form. Simply stunning.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Shout. A sequel of sorts to the author’s modern classic Speak, this is a memoir in verse—covered in accolades—that recounts her own rape at the age of 13, the circumstances surrounding the creation of Speak, and readers’ accounts of their own experiences of trauma. I predict a pride of prizes for this one.
Elliott, David. Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc. It was a good year for the Maid of Orléans (better, certainly, than 1431, the year she was burned at the stake) for there were not one but two superb books about her. In addition to Elliott’s, there was Stephanie Hemphill’s The Language of Fire: Joan of Arc Reimagined. Both are books in verse, Elliott’s in a variety of poetic forms and voices, including those of inanimate objects, and Hemphill’s, a first-person narrative. Both are equally compelling.
Henstra, Sarah. We Contain Multitudes. This epistolary novel about two boys who, as a class assignment, begin a correspondence and gradually fall in love, is a testament to the artful possibilities of a novel in the form of letters and one that celebrates the poet Walt Whitman to boot. How better to describe it than what one of the boys, Jo, says of a novel he is reading: “I can’t even summarize the plot; it’s that strange and sad and marvelous a story.” Hats off to Henstra; hers is not to be missed.
King, A. S. Dig. The inimitable King once again demonstrates her mastery of the surreal in this tale of five unknowingly connected teens. Their names convey the spirit of the story: they are the Shoveler; the Freak; CanIHelpYou?; the peripatetic Malcolm; and Loretta, ringmistress of a flea circus. Yes, it’s as gloriously offbeat as it sounds but with a depth of meaning that belies the superficial. One of King’s best.
Konigsberg, Bill. The Music of What Happens. Love can bloom in the unlikeliest places. In this case it’s in a food truck that brings Max, a baseball jock, and Jordan, a skinny emo kid, together as coworkers. At first uneasy around each other, the two gradually become friends and then something more. In telling their story, Konigsberg demonstrates once again that he is among the most important of contemporary writers of LGBTQIA+ fiction.
Lee, Stacy. The Downstairs Girl. Set in 1890s Atlanta, this superb historical novel introduces readers to Jo Kuan, a girl with a secret: she’s the pseudonymous author of a popular agony aunt column titled “Dear Miss Sweetie.” Chinese American Jo keeps her secret by being sequestered in a basement room that evidences the rampant racial prejudice of the time. The painful lessons of history are still being learned.
Pullman, Philip. The Secret Commonwealth. As might be expected, this is a masterful, brilliantly imagined continuation of the story of now 20-year-old Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, who are painfully at odds. Lyra finds an ally in Malcolm Polstead, who was a boy in this novel’s predecessor, La Belle Sauvage, as they journey across Europe and Asia proving their creator’s famous antipathy to Puritanism (i.e., the Magisterium). Haunting and deeply satisfying.
Rowell, Rainbow. Wayward Son. This sequel to the author’s marvelous Carry On sees its characters, Simon (The Chosen One), Penny, and vampire Baz coming to America in search of a change of scene that the latter two hope will cure Simon of his seemingly terminal lassitude. Adventures and misadventures ensue as the two boys agonize over the viability of their relationship. Happily it (the relationship, not the agony) will continue in the third volume in a promised trilogy.
Smith, Andrew. Exile from Eden. The giant praying mantises and their bête noires, boyfriends Austin and Robby, are back in another sequel, this one to the antic Grasshopper Jungle. This time around, the spotlight is squarely on the two men’s 16-year-old son, Arek, who secretly leaves their underground sanctuary in search of his missing two fathers. Along the way he will encounter more mantises, of course, but also a 12-year-old wild boy with the improbable name of Breakfast, his companion Olive, and some human monsters. Will Arek survive to find his fathers? What do you think?
Stiefvater, Maggie. Call Down the Hawk. I had the exquisite pleasure of reviewing each of the volumes in the author’s Raven Boys quartet. I missed this one, but if I had reviewed it, I would have given it big shining star, it’s that good, as it continues the story, focusing, this time, on the dangerous and irresistible dreamer Ronan. The best news is that this is the opening volume of a promised trilogy.
Yoon, David. Frankly in Love. At one point in this remarkably good first novel, its protagonist, Frank, sees a movie and describes it as “a perfect blend of rom and com.” He might have been describing this near-perfect story of summer love and the sometimes-sad realities of Korean American Frank’s life. Add substance to romance and you have an unrivaled read.
So these are mine; what are yours?
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