Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Books of 2012!

According to records on Amazon, I've read upwards of 150 books over the last year (and that's just through Amazon! That doesn't even include book purchases from new or used bookstores… So THAT'S where all my hard-earned cash disappears to!).

I love to read… to get lost in the pages of an incredible story, to be transported to another world, another time, another life… to escape my present reality. Reading is how I stay sane, and even though it is an expensive addiction, it is certainly still a hell of a lot cheaper than traditional therapy!

Anywho, narrowing down all of my favorite reads to a list of 12 is no easy feat! The following is my attempt to chronicle the best of the best stories I read in 2012. Yes, I may have cheated a bit and included a couple of books by the same author, but then again, this IS my blog, and I can do whatever the hell I want! SUE ME!

(Please note that these are simply books I READ in 2012, not books that were RELEASED in 2012. Some have been out for half of forever and I never got around to reading them until recently.)

Here I present, in no particular order, the Best Books of 2012!

1) Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss is the story of a film-loving high school senior shipped off to a boarding school in France by her Nicholas Sparks-type-author father. While living and learning in Paris, Anna develops new friendships, and finds herself drawn to the gorgeous and hysterical Etienne St. Clair. St. Clair has a serious girlfriend, but that's ok, since back home in America, Anna's cute co-worker is waiting for her.

As hurt and betrayal enter all of her relationships, Anna must find a way to pull herself out of the mire of her own messes in order to have her very own French kiss.

This book was so refreshing! No unrealistic "love at first sight" here- the complex romance in this story really captures the guilt, frustration, and confusion of falling for someone off-limits. Not only is the romance relatable, but the ups and downs of friendship are also accurately portrayed. Stephanie Perkins manages to create a relevant, hilarious, and deep story of love and friendship in the City of Lights.

Lola and the Boy Next Door tells the tale of Lola, a quirky fashion designer-in-the-making living in San Francisco with her two dads. Happily dating her significantly older bad-boy-musician-boyfriend, Max, Lola finds her world turned upside down when the boy next door, Cricket, returns to wreak havoc on her heart.

Much darker and more emotional than Anna, this book touches on tough subjects- losing your virginity, drugs, dysfunctional families, deception, the pressure to succeed… so many deep topics! Yet somehow Stephanie Perkins still manages to pull off a fun, applicable read that leaves the reader suddenly wanting to sew their own clothes and start ice skating. Honestly, I think I may like Lola even more than Anna. I eagerly await the final book in the trilogy, Isla and the Happily Ever After, reported to be released sometime during the summer of 2013!

2) The Selection by Kiera Cass

The Selection is kind of a cross between Hunger Games and the Bachelor. Let me explain.

Like the Hunger Games, The Selection is a dystopian novel, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. This story takes place sometime in the future in a country formerly known as the continent of North America, now called Illea. (When the United States of America could not pay back their debt to China, China invaded and took over the government. After a series of events, consolidation of countries, and a rebellion, the nation of Illea was born.) Set up with a caste system, inhabitants of Illea are trapped in the numbered social sphere to which they were born, with little to no chance of ever elevating themselves higher. When the prince of Illea, Maxon, comes of age, the nation-wide, televised process of The Selection begins. Female applicants from every district enter their names to become one of the thirty-five lucky women with the chance to compete for the crown and the prince's heart (Very Bachelor-like… minus the rose elimination ceremonies).

America Singer, a Five, is a talented musician hiding a secret, forbidden romance with Aspen, a lowly Six. When she enters her name into the Selection, America sees it only as a means to get her nagging mother off of her back and to show Aspen that there will be no "what-ifs." Only, nothing goes according to plan. Aspen, in a fit of wounded pride and a misguided attempt to put America's well-being ahead of his own, breaks up with her. Then, against all odds, America wins a spot in The Selection.

Brokenhearted and still in love with Aspen, America breaks down the first night at the palace, and ends up confessing to Prince Maxon that she doesn't want to be there. Yet, she can't go home and face her old life if Aspen is no longer a part of it. America and Prince Maxon strike a deal- America will be his friend, and will give him the inside scoop on the other girls in the competition. In return, Maxon will keep America around as long as possible, which also has the added benefit of a financial reward for her family in her absence.

As The Selection process continues, America faces manipulative, catty contestants; dangerous rebel attacks on the palace; and confusing feelings for the prince she had no intentions of pursuing. 

I cannot WAIT until the sequel, The Elite, comes out on April 23, 2013! Thank goodness Kiera Cass wrote an e-format novella, The Prince (a story told from Prince Maxon's perspective!), which comes out on March 5, 2013!

3) Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Bitterblue is the third and final novel in the Graceling trilogy.

In the story, Bitterblue is finally reigning as the Queen of Monsea, but finds ruling difficult in light of her overly-protective advisors. Determined to discover what really transpires in her kingdom, Bitterblue disguises herself and sneaks around her kingdom at night.  As truth trickles in about the atrocities committed during her father's reign, Bitterblue begins to doubt her solid advisors and instead finds herself leaning on the wisdom of thieves.

This book stands apart from the first two in the Graceling series. Bitterblue is no Graced fighter on the run like Katsa, or strikingly beautiful, mind-controlling monster like Fire. Bitterblue is a queen. While she certainly has her selfish/rebellious moments, overall this book is much more slowly paced compared to the others in the trilogy. That being said, the story is far from disappointing.

Kristin Cashore weaves hints and clues throughout the pages, but I was still completely flabbergasted when the truth ultimately comes out. Rather than shying away from tough subjects, Cashore tackles them head on. The result is a beautiful, deep fantasy novel that shows the reader that freedom and progress is not found in ignoring the painful past, but by taking a long, hard look at the suffering and struggle of one's history and moving on as a stronger and more empathetic individual.

I am sorry to see this trilogy come to a close, and hope that Kristin Cashore will create a spin-off series to complement it!

4) Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes and The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson

Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes follows the European adventures of a teenage girl named Ginny. Ginny was accustomed to her flaky, artist Aunt Peg randomly disappearing without notice only to pop up later with incredible stories about her various escapades, but nothing could prepare her for the news that her aunt had died of a brain tumor while living in England, or that she had arranged for Ginny to experience Europe without a plan, without a map, and without contact back home. Each leg of Ginny's journey would be explained to her in one of thirteen little blue envelopes, and the next letter could not be read until the task in the previous one was finished.

Ginny learns to fully immerse herself in the European experience, the confidence to be alone, to take life one day at a time, to fearlessly try new things, and to open herself up to new relationships. While her European expedition may not always go exactly according to plan, by the end, she manages to have a whole new perspective on who she is and what she is doing.

The Last Little Blue Envelope tracks Ginny as she once again travels across the pond to obtain the stolen last little blue envelope. Only, instead of having the final letter from her aunt handed over to her care, the one that she hopes provides insight and guidance for her life, the last little blue envelope is held hostage. Oliver blackmails Ginny into following her aunt's directions to trek back across Europe, picking up various art pieces hidden in Paris, Belgium, and Ireland and to split the profit from the sale of the final piece with him.

Not only must Ginny travel with this pensive, strange, good-looking extortionist, she must also do so in the company of the boy she loved and his girlfriend. That's right. Keith, from book one, with whom Ginny had "something," neglected to tell Ginny that he was seeing someone new. Things go from bad to worse when Ginny is forced to break the law to obtain one of the pieces; endure Keith's constant, cruel tormenting of Oliver; witness Keith making out with his new lady love; and finally come to grips with the fact that her aunt is really, truly gone.   

5) For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

For Darkness Shows the Stars is a Sci-Fi/Dystopian interpretation of Jane Austen's Persuasion. After The Reduction, a terrible punishment from God for scientific/technological experiments when humanity supposedly attempted to turn themselves into gods, Luddite lords banned technology and struggled to survive. The cataclysmic penalty left most people "reduced;" -mute, simple-minded, and unable to function well without the leadership of the Luddites who utilize the reduced as a source of labor.

Elliot takes her responsibility as a Luddite very seriously. She loves the reduced, and the post-reduced (individuals born of reduced parents, but who are every bit as capable as a luddite) folks on her estate, and endeavors to curb or mitigate the frivolity of her father, Baron North, as much as possible. It is this keen sense of obligation to care for and protect that propels her to refuse her one chance at love and happiness. Her childhood sweetheart, a Post named Kai, runs away without her- leaving them both brokenhearted.

Now, four years later, the estate is barely scraping by because of Baron North's mismanagement and haughtiness. Elliot does all she can, even going so far as to create an illegal hybrid wheat plant to supplement the crops to keep her people fed through winter, but her father discovers her secret and the wheat field is destroyed. When the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of Post shipbuilders and explorers, request to rent out part of the estate to prepare for their latest expedition, Elliot sees the means to make it through the season. Only, the famous, dashing Captain Malakai Wentforth is none other than Elliot's old friend and flame, Kai.

As the Cloud Fleet makes a splash in the community, Elliot discovers that they harbor a disturbing secret that could either save or obliterate her world. She must choose to remain silent, and risk everything she's ever known, or to expose the Cloud Fleet for who and what they are, and lose her love forever.

I absolutely LOVED this book! From the gorgeous cover to the parallels with Jane Austen, this novel was a great read. The dystopian world that Peterfreund created was surprisingly believable. It would have been easy for it to become far-fetched, but the author carefully crafted a back story that made sense. One part of the story that worked particularly well was the snippets of letters between Elliot and Kai before his departure from the estate. It was cute and comical to watch their relationship evolve from children to sweethearts.

This was a great story, and now I'm curious to read other works by Peterfreund!

6) The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys follows a girl named Blue as she navigates the supernatural whirlwind that is her life. Every year on St. Mark's Eve, Blue accompanies her psychic mother to a churchyard where the spirits of those to die in the next year file past. Only this time, Blue, who has no clairvoyant abilities of her own, suddenly sees one of the soon-to-be-dead, and he talks to her. Her Aunt Neeve explained that, "There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark's Eve… Either you're his true love… or you killed him."

The two may not even be mutually exclusive. For as long as she can remember, the psychics in her life (ant there are plenty!) have all agreed on one thing about Blue's future- she will kill her true love with a kiss. This prophecy hasn't been too much of an issue for Blue, who mainly keeps to herself. She works her job at the local pizza parlor, spends time with her mom and their roommates, and does her best to avoid the obnoxious, trouble-making Raven Boys attending Aglionby, the posh private school in town.

When the spirit she spoke to in the churchyard, Gansey, turns out to be the leader of a group of Raven Boys that keep popping up in her life, Blue finds herself sucked into an epic adventure that brings promises of danger, excitement, and glory.

My favorite part of this book was the relationships between the Raven Boys. Gansey is the fearless leader of the group, obsessed with discovering the truth behind the legends of a dead Welsh king. He is wealthy, charismatic, and bright. Adam is the poor kid attending Aglionby on scholarship, who longs for the life his friends take for granted, but is seemingly trapped in the hell that is his home life. Noah is the quiet, mysterious, and observant fellow who flits in and out of the picture, and Ronan is the angry bad boy who lashes out to hide his pain. Ronan's fondness for the baby bird makes for some of the best scenes in the story! Another aspect that made the novel so intriguing was the myths surrounding the Welsh king, the science of ghost/spirit hunting, and the research into ancient history that is revealed, bit by bit. While definitely a supernatural story, the facts and figures involved make the book that much more real and interesting.

I am waiting in eager anticipation for book two in the Raven Cycle to debut!

7) The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners is a supernatural historical fiction novel set in Manhattan during the Roaring Twenties. With murders, mysteries, jazz, speakeasies, museums, and a great cast of characters, this book was one of my all time favorites!

When Evie's strange abilities get her into trouble at home, her parents ship their wild-child off to her uncle, the curator of the Museum of Creepy Crawlies in New York City. There, Evie and her friends end up on the trail of a serial killer who's brutal murders have an occult/book-of-Revelation bent to them. Investigating the case could prove deadly, though, as Evie's special powers come out in the open and the killer's eyes turn towards the bunch.

Little historical details like the passionate work of anarchists to mobilize American workers in revolt, to the injustice of the treatment of African Americans, to the workings of the black market and prohibition, combined with paranormal elements, make this a winning novel.

I read this book while on a road trip to Santa Barbara before embarking on a cruise to Mexico. It was dark outside, and curled up in the back seat of my friend's car, I couldn't help but occasionally gasp or scream out loud at some of the scarier parts in the story (which may have resulted in some near-car-crashes when I unwittingly scared the crap out of the driver). Over the next few days out at sea, I may have had Dramamine and Mai Tai induced nightmares about the creepy, whistling killer from the book, the story was THAT impactful. Funny yet chilling, Libba Bray wrote a terrific tale that made my blood run cold, but left me wanting more.

8) The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight chronicles twenty-four hours in the life of Hadley, a girl on her way to London to participate in the nuptials of her father to a woman she has never met. When she arrives at the airport four minutes late and misses her flight, Hadley ends up on the next available flight, sitting next to a good looking British boy named Oliver.

Chatting during the long plane ride, the two find themselves drawn to each other as they talk about their families, their interests, and general random nothingness. In the chaos of customs and baggage claims and crowds of tourists, Hadley and Oliver are separated upon arrival. Is the connection they shared in that brief encounter enough to get them both through their respective familial turmoil?  

I loved, loved, LOVED this book! It made me want to book a flight to London just so I could fall in love with a cute, snarky British chap en route. While difficult to describe, the dialogue between Hadley and Oliver, and Hadley's flashbacks to various points in her family history, are what made this book more than just a fluffy romance about love at first sight. It is a story about heartbreak, hurt, and betrayal when a family falls apart and parents divorce. It is about forgiveness, and letting go of the bitterness of the past to make way for the joy and happiness of a new future.

9) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is a story of a young girl and her family in Nazi Germany, told from Death's perspective. Beautifully written with vivid details and descriptions, this story offers a unique perspective on a scene from WWII that will haunt the reader when the final page is finished.

Even though the story itself is good- a little girl who learns to read and acquires books in unusual ways; an accordion-playing father with lots of love, conviction, and compassion; and a Jewish fighter who must march past the ghosts of his past and into the demons of his future, overall it is the impeccable word choices and incredible pictures painted by Zusak that earns this book a spot in the top twelve.

10) The Hobbit by J.R. R. Tolkien

Alright, so this one was a re-read in preparation for the film, but I LOVE it! Definitely worthy of the top twelve. Check out my review in an earlier post!

11) Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

This, too was a re-read. Blue Like Jazz is known as a non-religious look at Christian spirituality, and when I first read it my senior year of high school, I was scandalized by some of the content. Now, as a not-particularly-religious person, I found Donald Miller's almost irreverent approach to faith and God refreshing. He doesn't mince words. He doesn't ignore the tough stuff. He doesn't behave as he should.

Blue Like Jazz is a genuine discussion of faith, and the closest thing to mirror my own personal theology that I have encountered. One part, I think when he is discussing the conversion experience of his friend, Laura, Miller said something that has stuck with me every since. The point was made that "coming to Jesus" was not something that you did, or that Jesus did, but rather was something outside that happened TO you. Like falling in love, you can't make it happen, the other individual can't make it happen… it is an outside force that transpires and transforms the person involved. I LOVED this description of the faith experience. This book may be nearly ten years old, but it definitely was one of my favorite reads of the year.

12) Austenland and Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Austenland is the story of a woman named Jane who's love life is in a sad state. No man she meets can measure up to the dreams of Mr. Darcy she envisions in her head. Her elderly, wealthy aunt calls her out on her obsession- after all, Colin Firth's character hardly exists in real life. Or does he? When the wealthy aunt passes away, Jane receives a surprise vacation to a special, secretive resort that caters to the Jane Austen-obsessed. Women can dress up in regency attire, live as Jane's characters did, and stay in an impressive manor in the English countryside- complete with dashing gentleman ready to woo!

Jane embarks on this adventure with the intentions of ridding herself of this embarrassing Mr. Darcy fixation, but ends up with a couple of options for romance instead. Not only does she find herself falling for the lowly gardener, Martin, she's also inexplicably drawn to the irritating Mr. Nobley.  When it's time to return home, will Jane be cured for good?

Midnight in Austenland follows another woman who ventures to the mysterious Austen-ish resort, but ends up with an experience more in line with Agatha Christie. Charlotte, a recently divorced mother of two, treats herself to a vacation and ends up investigating clues to a real life mystery. Along the way, she befriends Miss Charming (who was also in the first book, and is absolutely HYSTERICAL!) and gets especially close to her scripted brother, Eddie.

Not only will Charlotte need to gather the courage and spunk to wrap up the mystery and stay one step ahead of the killer, she will also need to be brave enough to open her heart to the possibility of love once again.

As a HUGE Jane Austen fan, I was delighted with these books by Shannon Hale! The stories were funny, cute, and applicable. I sincerely hope that Hale will come up with another Pembroke Park novel sometime in the next year!

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