2015 Favorite Reads: Published Before 2015

Ok, second round on 2015 Faves.  The non-new release section.  And, go!

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins9627755

I am not a big contemporary reader, but the Anna and the French Kiss series kept coming up on the interwebs, and when I heard the final book was about a girl named Isla (my daughter’s name), I figured it was time for me to pick one up and give the books a try.

The word everyone uses with this series is “cute” and I completely agree, but it doesn’t feel nausiatingly so, more comfortably cute.  The series mostly takes place at the American School of Paris, a high school for well-to-do American teenagers.  (Ok, so the middle book, Lola and the Boy Next Door does not.)  One of the biggest strengths about Further, while I find contemporaries a little tiresome because they have to tread the same ground of life as a teenager (I understand some people want/need to read about people in similar situations, but I lived through high school and have no desire to re-experience it), and I find books about rich people a little annoying and to primarily be wish-fullfillment, Perkins did a great job making these books interesting because the teenagers were not in a run-of-the-mill high school, yet not too terribly annoying about their wealth and privilege.  

In this book, we follow Isla who is in her senior year at the American School of Paris, and she has a huge crush on Josh, who lost all of his friends to the previous year’s graduation.  And Isla is trying to work out what she should do about college, what she wants for a career, from life, all the questions!

I really loved that Perkins seems to love the locations she writes about, primarily Paris.  I have never been interested in going to Paris, but after reading these books I’m kind of like, ‘yeah, I’d go to Paris and see all the stuff.’  Her characters feel pretty grounded in reality, and while I know that Isla got some mixed reviews, but I found her confusion really realistic.  She wasn’t like Anna and Lola who had strong self-identities even as teenagers, but some of us just don’t quite know who we are and what we want from a major life choice at 17.  (Also, Isla chose my alma mater!)  I re-read this book almost as soon as I finished reading it, which is not a situation I find myself in very often.  LOOOOVED it.

The Brides of Rollrock by Margo Lanagan

11164791So, I would’t have predicted that this book was going to make it into my favorites of the year.  I super love selkies (Secret of Roan Inish, anyone?), even though they are always typical Celtic sadness-ever-after for everyone.  However, I spent about 3 months on the beginning of this book.  It was just not grabbing me, I did not love it.  It begins with a section told from the point of view of a little girl who is shunned and teased by the islanders of her home and even her own siblings for being lumpy and ugly, but then finds that she has a way with the seals on the island.  She is a witch and decides to get her revenge on the people of the island by bringing them these irresistible seal wives.  The human women get mad and leave the island, the seal wives get sad for the ocean, and the men stuck in the middle feel sad all around.  And the witch is happyish because everyone else is miserable with her.  

Lanagan’s writing is lovely and she stays very true to the melancholy of the selkie tale.  It makes for an uncomfortable read sometimes, and getting through the first section was hard work.  But, the pay off is lovely, and she ends it on a hopeful note.  I wasn’t quite ready for more of Lanagan’s writing straight away, but 6 months later, I am looking through her back catalog for an interesting read.

Stolen Magic by Stephanie Burgis14931151

This is the final book in the “Kat, Incorrigible” or “The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson” series.  Kat is the youngest of four siblings, who are the children of a distant parson, who has remarried after the death of the children’s mother.  Kat and her sisters are witches, which is not ok in this England.  Their brother has failed out of Oxford, and the oldest sisters have no marriage prospects.  Kat has the power and the hutzpah to get her family in line.

So, I am probably biased because I was so happy this book took place in Devon, where I used to live.  But, it also had Kat acting more consciously, and acting more in her own interests, rather than entirely just running around trying to sort out her siblings.  I mean, she certainly was sorting out her siblings, but I feel like we saw more personal growth and self-knowledge of Kat in this book.  She learns about her mother, she deals with her feelings about both of her sisters getting married and leaving her, she finally gives those Guardians what they need to respect her, and she meets a boy who could just about keep up with her.  

I think Kat is a great role-model for kids.  She is bright, and capable, and she makes mistakes, but recovers from them.  And Burgis is a fun writer.  I swallowed this book whole over the course of a day, holding it front of myself as I tidied my house, cooked dinner, sat next to the bath while my kids splashed, and so on.  I hear Burgis has a new middle-grade book announced, The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart and a historical fantasy about opera and magic called Masks and Shadows.

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater17347389

I listened to these books read by the wonderful Will Patton, who for me only enhances the amazingness that is these books.  In fact, driving across Washington State still makes me think of Ronan and Adam.  And Blue.  And Gansey.  And Henrietta, Virginia.

Now when I first tried these books out, I wasn’t really sure what I’d think.  I’m not that into boarding schools, not that into 20th century occult, not that into prep school boys (the Ivy League will do that to you).  However, I am into beautiful w
riting, interesting stories, and girls who aren’t afraid to be different.  I love Blue.

It’s a series that’s hard to summarize in terms of plot, it’s more about the characters and their growth and experiences through the situations that arise from looking a Welsh king, Glendour, who they think it buried in Virginia (just go with it now, Stiefvater sells it in the text).  There’s Gansey (ahem, Richard Campbell Gansey III) the perfect scion of old Southern wealth, who is obsessive about finding this Welsh king.  Ronan Lynch is a from a wealthy family with three sons who are all struggling after the death of their father and the subsequent loss of their mother.  He’s angry, coarse, and Gansey’s biffle.  (Note: if you are listening to this audiobook and have small children around, Ronan uses a LOT of cuss words.  Just, so you’re ready!)  Adam Parish rounds out the Raven boys, a Henrietta local, working to pay for his tuition to the expensive private school.  He deals with an abuse homelife, and his work to get himself out of that cycle, as well as the knock-on effect it has on his self-image and the impact that has on his friendships.  And Blue is th17378508e only girl of our main characters.  She is the daughter of a single mother, and lives in a house of women who are psychics.  Blue is not a psychic, she doesn’t know who her dad is, she dresses and eats how she wants because she isn’t going to let other people dictate what she does, she doesn’t know what she wants to do when she graduates from school, and she has been told by all the psychics that she’ll kill her true love if she kisses him.  And she saw Gansey’s ghost, which means that he’s her true love.  Or she kills him.  Or both?

The first book, The Raven Boys, starts a little slowly as everything and everyone get established, but I picked up the second book, The Dream Thieves, about a month after finishing it.  And I got Blue Lily, Lily Blue, just as soon as my library would let me.  The momentum just builds until you are riding in a giant speeding snowball.  The series so far is pretty tightly plotted together.  My husband and I agree that the books function more as volumes of the same story than books in a series.  They do each have their own arc, but all of the threads are just so tightly tied together that I can’t imagine just reading one and finding it enough—but in a good way, not in an incomplete way.  I like to imagine that Stiefvater didn’t want to inflict a monster book on her readers’ wrists and backs.

I also love the way Stiefvater depicts rural people and communities.  She gives them legitimacy and dignity, while still being honest about the setting.  And I love that Adam and Blue go to work so regularly.  Adventuring has to wait until shifts end or days off.  Like it does for regular non-wealthy kids.  Also, Stiefvater is a real petrol head, so cars get some special attention in these books.  I’m not a petrol head, but she writes these cars in such a way that I found myself asking my husband for the cultural significance of a Mitsubishi, what did it say about the driver.  

The Stief is AMAZING.  I am sad now thinking about how great this series is and just how much longer it is until The Raven King is released.  The downside of reflecting on book lovin’. 

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

The Body at the Tower by Y.S. Lee

6698199Book Riot is my favorite website, especially because of the love they give to books of all types, and the way they consciously read books by authors of color and with main characters of color.  Prime example for me of these two points is The Agency series, by Y.S., a historical spy series about a young Victorian woman who is mixed-race.  Mary Quinn struggles with her identity as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant to Britain, and a white woman, but Mary passes as white.  She is rescued from life on the street by two women who train girls to be spies because according to the agency women and girls are overlooked and discounted, making them perfect spies.  This starts Mary off investigating several mysteries, encountering people at all different levels of London society, and confronting her own personal demons and personal growth.

7507889When I first checked, the Amazon ratings for this series didn’t have one rating below a 4, which with ~100 ratings confirmed to me that this series is solid.  (And the ratings are deserved–I know Amazon ratings can be a little rigged.)  I love Mary, I love how she grows, I love that her growth isn’t contingent on her becoming someone else, only becoming more herself.  Lee has a PhD in Victorian Literature, and I felt in good hands with her drawing Mary’s London.  It’s not a cuddly place, but it’s not overly graphic (mostly).  I am definitely keeping an ear out of news of any more writings by Lee.  

Psst!  Next is a story in Jessica Spotswood’s historical anthology A Tyranny of Petticoats.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

10626594I also LOVED Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, though I haven’t gotten very far with her Wolves of Mercy Falls series (I tried the audiobook and the narrators sounded like a 14 year old girl and her love interest sounded like a gym teacher.  :(((  Steve West in The Scorpio Races is now on my faves of narrators.  I would listen to him read the phonebook.)

The Scorpio Races is set on a vaguely British-esque Isle, on the Scorpio Sea.  Every fall the carnivorous water horses, the capell isce come out of the sea, and the locals capture and race them.  Puck, a girl decides to race against reigning champion, Sean Kendrick who is racing to stay with his horse.  The book is atmospheric and beautiful, with a kind of timeless feel.  I lived in rural Britain for several years, and I felt that this book could have been in a modern setting.  It was only when the cost of a horse was mentioned that I guessed it was probably more mid-20th Century than a recent time.  But the time isn’t relevant, the book exists in its own world, that feels like it could realistically be tucked in a small corner of the world.  Puck and Sean are totally horsey animal lovers, who love their small island, their small community.  The action is slow-paced, building up to the race at the end, but this book totally held my attention.  I listened to it twice this year (and I am not a big re-reader), the second one in time for the Scorpio Festival, a read-a-long held in October and November, when the book is set.  I will HAVE to make November cakes next time, because I am for real going to be reading this book over and over.

Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan17910078

I previously talked about how much I lovelovelove Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, about a women scientist in a Victorian Britain-like country, who Brennan’s anthropology shines through in this series, and possibly it shines through best in this book.  I really loved that her books are positive about people and lifestyles that have struggled to gain respect  as colonization spread, people who life styles were termed “primitive” rather than well-adapted to their local environments.  

Brennan also ups the ante with the mystery of the Drakonians in this book, really setting us onto a lead!  I think this might be my favorite book in the series so far, though Voyage of the Basilisk is a very close second.

The Diviners by Libba Bray7728889

Holy whoa, is the only way I could possibly start this review.  Like, this book makes me want to just toss in any writing aspirations I have because this book is SO good.

The Diviners is the story of Evie O’Neill who moves to New York City during the Roaring Twenties.  She wants to live the high life, her uncle needs to keep his museum (Museum for American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult) running and is helping out on a murder investigation as an occult expert. Evie is keeping her own secret, she can read the history of an object by holding it, which makes her a diviner.  Evie makes lots of friends in New York City with their own complex and interesting back stories.  Sam is a pickpocket, Theta is a Ziegfeld Girl, Henry is a pianist, Memphis is a Harlem poet, Jericho assists at the museum, and Evie’s best friend is Mabel, who seems to be too ordinary for her own good.  

Bray does a wonderful job at painting the scene of New York City and America in the 20’s.  She uses all kind of lingo and slang from the era, and incorporates real events and people into the narrative.  The eugenics movement is in full swing, as well as the revivalist preachers, and anti-immigration attitudes, always odd for a country made of colonizing immigrants.  It is also a horror story, and is a little bit creepy, but since I’m a big baby, I just skipped the murder chapters, and went to the next one about the main characters. Seriously, this baby of a book has something for everyone since it comes in at 592 pages and 1.9 pounds (in hardcover). 

Also, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) named the audio version of this book as one of their best books of 2012.  I listened to this book, and I inclined to agree with them (about it being a great audiobook, I’ll take their word for the 2012 part).  January LaVoy is a goddess.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

18764828This book was a surprise.  I saw the cover at my local indie, read the description was “Twelve Dancing Princesses set in 1920’s NYC,” saw a glowing review on NPR, and then sat listening obsessively while my family napped because I HAD to find out what was going to happen.

Josephine and her eleven sisters are kept up in the upper floors of their father’s house, who is embarrassed by the sheer number of them as a clear indicator of his inability to sire a son.  Josephine is her father’s instrument, keeping her sister in line to protect them from him, so that no one knows about how many of them there are.  But, she has one weakness and that is that she allows her sisters to go out dancing at the speakeasies in New York, or they’d go crazy trapped inside.  She meets a handsome bootlegger named Tom, her father decides to marry them off asap, and it’s all around wonderful.

Valentine makes the sisters believable and separate, which is impressive given the giant cast of them.  I really enjoy interesting retellings, and I wasn’t sure how on earth Valentine was going to pull this one off, but the answer is “she will do it well.”  The 1920’s seems to be catching creative imaginations lately (or maybe it’s just me), but it really does offer a great setting with bootleggers, speakeasies, police raids, beautiful dance shoes, iconic full-body dancing, and a dash of girl power.  Valentine even gets some interracial romance into the book, which is not common in either fairy tales, nor popular ideas of the 1920’s.

*And for those like me, don’t worry there is no sexual violence (I’m am not here for that).

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