Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Top Ten Reads of 2014

Welcome to my Second Annual Top Ten Reading List!

This just might be the least important Top Ten Reading List you'll come across this holiday season. Unlike others, my list isn't comprised only of books that came out in 2014, nor is it a Top Ten List of books by HOT NEW AUTHORS. Theses aren't books of Earth-shattering importance, and they're not books written by self-published authors who are on the rise.

These are just books that I stumbled across this year, read, and fell in love with.

That's all that I want out of my books. I won't tell you how to read or who to read, but I want to highlight these books because I think that you may enjoy them. Okay?

First things first: I read 29 total books this year. More than some of you may have read, and definitely less than a lot of you read. I read self-published books and traditionally published books, fiction and non-fiction. When it comes to my Top Ten List I only have one rule: any given author may only have one book on the list. To do otherwise just seems to me unfair. That limited how I could shape my list, however, as I discovered and fell WAY in love with three authors this year: Donald Westlake (I read three of his books), John Green (I read three of his books as well), and Nelson DeMille (I read a whopping SEVEN of his books this year).

So you can probably understand my rule now, huh?

Here's your alert:


And away we go!!

Number Ten: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall by Carolyn Keene

If you've spent any time at all on this blog, then you already know of my affinity for the Nancy Drew Mystery stories. I've reviewed a few of them before. The character of Nancy Drew was an early feminist icon for young girls and her stories are chock full of adventure and spine-tingling moments. I love them. Has it been a decade (or more) since you spent an afternoon with Nancy? Pick one of her books up again. I guarantee you won't regret it.

Number Nine: Beyond Hades by Luke Romyn
Beyond Hades is an action-packed thrill ride based on one crazy notion: Greek mythology is real and someone has opened the gates to Hades, unleashing monsters of unspeakable ferocity. Pardon my pun, but what in the HADES would we do in that situation?

Call in the military, an academic, and a time-traveling Aussie to save the planet. 

Seriously. This book is just that crazy and just that fun. It also ends on kind of a cliffhanger, but don't worry: there's a part two.

Number Eight: 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

In the late 1800s an African American man named Solomon Northup wrote a harrowing memoir that raised a few Victorian eyebrows before it slowly faded from the limelight until it was made into a movie of the same name earlier this year. I heard of the movie and decided I would rather read the book.

If you are an American I urge you to read this memoir. It will change the way you think of our history. Yes, we all know our nation was built on the backs of slaves. Yes, we all know that a war was fought that ultimately resulted in the freeing of those slaves and the simultaneous creation of a category of second-class citizenship, the echoes of which are still felt today. We all know this. 

But the real, lived experience of an American slave is something most of us have the good fortune to know nothing about. And shame on us for that. If we as a nation are ever to be able to move on from the continuing impact of our bloody heritage, we all must be made to face the truth of it.

Solomon Northup was a Northerner who was born free. His father, a lifelong slave to a man with--at the time--progressive views on the subject, was freed in his master's will. Solomon was taught to read and write, to farm, some basic carpentry, and also learned to play several musical instruments. When he became a man he married his sweetheart and started a family. And then he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. And because of all of the laws that governed slaves and their movements, he couldn't just go to the police and explain that he was a free man. So he spent twelve long years toiling under the yoke before he finally managed to prove his status and return to his family.

This is a gut-wrenching tale. I challenge you to make it all the way through without shedding a tear.

Number Seven: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half is a book that grew out of a blog of the same name. Check it out! But even though I have a blog of my own I tend of walk around woefully unaware of what's happening on the interwebs, so I bought the book without knowing anything of its predecessor. AND I FUCKING LOVED IT. If you know the blog, you know what to expect from the book: lots of super colorful illustrations and soulful venting. Buy it. Read it. And laugh until you cry or piss your pants or both.

Number Six: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I loved, loved, loved this book.
But I have an embarrassing confession to make: I watched the movie first. I know. That's completely backwards. You're always supposed to read the book first. That way, while you're watching the movie, you can fit together the pieces that don't make sense, and you'll know what was left out. You can read my review of the movie HERE.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower has everything I love about YA books. There's a protagonist who agonizes about not being "normal," fierce friendships that start in uncomfortable ways, and the roller coaster ride of adolescent self-discovery. There's so much Why am I this way? Why are we this way? How can we make the world better/happier/more peaceful/ more exciting?? But it's never too much. None of it is shoved down the reader's throat. In fact, the manner in which Mr. Chbosky wrote the novel allows for the reader to be made to feel uncomfortable in a natural, almost inevitable way. Sort of like reliving adolescence. It is a MASTERPIECE of storytelling.

Also, the story is set in State College, Pennsylvania. I once lived there. If you ever lived there, you will enjoy all the State College references. 

Number Five: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket

For the record, I didn't know Daniel Handler was Lemony Snicket when I read this book. Nothing against Lemony Snicket or his Series of Unfortunate Events, but I picked up The Basic Eight because it--and it alone--enticed me.  

There's not much I can say about this book without giving away crucial plot points. I don't mind a spoiler or two in a review but these are Fight Club level twists and I want you to have the same level of enjoyment as I did when I read it. So I'll leave you with the Amazon blurb:

Flannery Culp wants you to know the whole story of her spectacularly awful senior year. Tyrants, perverts, tragic crushes, gossip, cruel jokes, and the hallucinatory effects of absinthe -- Flannery and the seven other friends in the Basic Eight have suffered through it all. But now, on tabloid television, they're calling Flannery a murderer, which is a total lie. It's true that high school can be so stressful sometimes. And it's true that sometimes a girl just has to kill someone. But Flannery wants you to know that she's not a murderer at all -- she's a murderess.

Number Four, Truth in Advertising by John Kenney

I picked up Truth in Advertising at Half Price books. It was a pure impulse buy. I knew nothing of John Kenney and the cover art didn't tell me much about the story, but I had a feeling I would like it, and I was right. Buying Truth in Advertising was a damned good rash decision. Smart, funny, fresh, and almost unnervingly wise. I had so many "A-ha!" moments while reading. I highly suggest this read!

Number Three: Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

I said in the introduction that I read seven books by Mr. Nelson DeMille this year. When it came time to compile this Top Ten list I knew that one of his books had to be included, but I wasn't entirely sure which one it would be.

I did know one thing, though: whatever book I chose was going to be a John Corey book. 

John Corey is a recurring character in Mr. DeMille's books. He's also my favorite literary alpha male. I dedicated a whole blog post just to him. Check it out! 

Plum Island is the very first in the series of books that feature Mr. Corey. And it's awesome. Unlike other books on this list, Plum Island isn't deep. There's no brooding, no angst, and no characters who agonize about who they are really. You know in their souls. Don't get me wrong. I love angsty characters. But every so often, a strong, gruff, no-nonsense alpha male is what a story (and I) need. You know, deep down. *wink* *wink*. 

Ha ha. Just kidding But seriously. This book is awesome.

Action. Adventure. Sarcasm. Laughs. This is what you're in for when you read Plum Island. So read it.

Number Two: The Cutie by Donald Westlake

The Cutie was the first book I ever bought solely because of its cover. Also, with the 50 cent price tag it had at Recycled Reads Austin, I knew there was no harm in trying it. The way I figured it, I'd peruse a few pages to get a feel for the story, and if it was no good, what had I lost? Fifty cents and a couple minutes of my time. 

No harm, no foul.

I've heard the name Donald Westlake before. And whenever I've heard it, it was spoken with reverence. Donald Westlake is one of the Big-big names in pulp fiction. However, The Cutie was my first foray into the pulpy arts. I've long been intrigued by the idea of pulp fiction, but never really prepared to take the plunge. I mean, yes, I read genre fiction, but pulp? Come on, I have a Master's degree.

Nevertheless, that cover intrigued me. And guess what? IT WAS A FUCKING LIE!! That woman appears NOWHERE in the novel. And she isn't the cutie referred to in the title! Who is the aforementioned cutie? Well, you think you know from the first chapter but the real identity of the cutie is one of the many twisty twists of this book! 

The Cutie was so much fun to read. Donald Westlake has a really hysterical way with words. Here's how chapter two starts, by way of example:

Outside was the city, and it had halitosis. The air was hot and damp, and breathing was a conscious matter.

That is just pure literary gold, pulp fiction style. Love it!

And now, without further ado, we have...

Number One: Looking for Alaska by John Green

WARNING! Throughout the year, I have become something of a fangirl for John Green, and it all started with this book, Looking for Alaska, and the titular character, Alaska Young. Here's what Shmoop said about Alaska, and here's what I said about Alaska, and about the other heroines of John Green novels. 

Because, for me, the real treasures in John Green novels are the heroines he depicts. I discovered this when I read Looking for Alaska the first time, and rediscovered it when I read it again a few months later. (Yes I read this book twice this year. That is why it HAD to be number one.) I found myself falling in love with Alaska right alongside Miles, the main character. I could totally envision myself falling just as hard for a similar girl had I met one when I was Miles' age. 

Looking for Alaska is amazing. It's accessible for both teens and adults without being either overly simple or obtuse or preachy. It's wise and loving, and yes, angsty. But life is angsty, and sometimes we want our art to mirror the struggle of life. 

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