RTW: Top Five (Okay, Six!) of 2011…

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where the ladies at YA Highway post a weekly writing- or reading-related question for participants to respond to on their own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody’s unique take on the topic.

Today’s Topic: What were your top five favorite books of 2011?

Two posts in one day?! That’s right. I couldn’t NOT post about my favorite reads from 2011. That would be, like, a disservice to the reading/writing/book blogging community, right? Oh, and I have SIX favorites because I’m a big ol’ cheater and I just couldn’t leave any of these off my list. Here they are in no particular order, with a link to my original (rave) review after each summary:

Divergent by Veronica RothIn Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself. During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her. My thoughts…

Divergent (Divergent, #1)

Where She Went by Gayle FormanIt’s been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam’s life forever. Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard’s rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia’s home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future – and each other. My thoughts, and also here…

Where She Went (If I Stay, #2)

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie PerkinsBudding designer Lola Nolan doesn’t believe in fashion . . . she believes in costume. The more expressive the outfit — more sparkly, more fun, more wild — the better. But even though Lola’s style is outrageous, she’s a devoted daughter and friend with some big plans for the future. And everything is pretty perfect (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the dreaded Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighborhood. When Cricket — a gifted inventor — steps out from his twin sister’s shadow and back into Lola’s life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door. My thoughts…

Lola and the Boy Next Door

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini TaylorAround the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war. Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages–not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out. When one of the strangers–beautiful, haunted Akiva–fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself? My thoughts…

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #1)

The Scorpio Races by Maggie StiefvaterIt happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die. At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them. Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen. My thoughts…

The Scorpio Races

Chime by Franny BillingsleyBefore Briony’s stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family’s hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it’s become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment. Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He’s as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she’s extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn’t know. My thoughts…

Chime

*All summaries borrowed from Goodreads.

Tell me… What are your favorite books from 2011?

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RTW: October’s Wrap-Up and Book of the Month


Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where the ladies at YA Highway post a weekly writing- or reading-related question for participants to respond to on their own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody’s unique take on the topic.

Today’s Topic: What’s the best book you read in October?

Wow… October was a month of aMaZiNg books! For the first time ever, I couldn’t choose just one Book of the Month. Nope, this month, I’m giving you TWO extraordinary recommendations–lucky you! But first, here’s my wrap-up:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – Honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d like this one. I’m not a Holden Caulfield fan, and I’ve heard Diary compared to The Catcher in the Rye more times that I can count. That said, I DID enjoy Diary, iimmensely. Junior’s narration was often funny, incredibly poignant, and, at times, heartbreaking. The comics and cartoons sprinkled throughout were a much appreciated surprise. I have no idea what it’s like to be an Indian living on a “rez,” but this book felt absolutely authentic.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – I snatched this middle grade novel up at the library after reading glowing recommendations from Kat Owens, Sara McClung, and Alicia Gregoire. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue what was going on throughout the first big chunk of the story. That’s not to say I wasn’t entertained; I totally was. Miranda and her accompanying characters were vivid and intriguing. Still, all of the cryptic clues and references to the future left my head spinning. But, I just had this feeling that sticking with it would pay off big. It SO did. I literally had chills throughout the last quarter of this book–the ending is that mind-blowing, that stunning. The day I returned When You Reach Me to the library, I went out and bought my own copy because I couldn’t NOT own it. If you’re not sure whether you like middle grade, read When You Reach Me. You will LOVE it!

Toxic by Jus Accardo – The follow-up to my CP’s debut, Touch, will be available Spring, 2012. I can’t give anything away, of course, but mark your calendars… it’s fantastic!

Hourglass by Myra McEntire – I loved this premise–time travel, the chance to change lives in the span of one hour. Main character Emerson was spunky and cool, though she sort of fell apart every time an attractive boy stepped onto the scene. The boys in the book were pretty hot though… certainly good distractions! I also dug the twisty ending and the atmospheric descriptions.

Teach Me by RA Nelson – Eek… Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned! I wasn’t sure about this one going in: High school senior has a sordid affair with her teacher, obsession and betrayal ensue. But, thanks to main character Carolina (and her majorly over-the-top shenanigans) I ended up enjoying Teach Me. Carolina is super smart and makes awesome observations about people and life, but she’s a social outcast among her peers. She somehow manages to garner sympathy even when making some questionable–okay, disturbing–choices. A well-written, compellingly honest contemporary.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laine Taylor – This book. Oh, THIS BOOK. Simply brilliant, and definitely one of my October Books of the Month. But, I’m not going to go into a full recommendation today because Smoke and Bone is the book we’ll be discussing for Fall Book Club. Check back Friday for my lovefest review.

And my second Book of the Month, Lola and the Boy Next Door, by Stephanie Perkins


From Goodreads: Budding designer Lola Nolan doesn’t believe in fashion . . . she believes in costume. The more expressive the outfit — more sparkly, more fun, more wild — the better. But even though Lola’s style is outrageous, she’s a devoted daughter and friend with some big plans for the future. And everything is pretty perfect (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the dreaded Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighborhood. When Cricket — a gifted inventor — steps out from his twin sister’s shadow and back into Lola’s life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door.

I’d heard from more than one person that Lola was better than Stephanie Perkins’ debut novel, Anna and the French Kiss, which I absolutely loved. I sincerely doubted that anything could be better than Anna, but yeah… I have to say, I think I enjoyed Lola just a *tiny* bit more.

Seventeen-year-old Lola Nolan is an amazing protagonist. One of my favorites of any YA, I think. Lola is all kinds of conflicted. While she’s highly emotional, she’s also genuine and loving and unique and creative and funny. She has a humorous way of describing tough situations that lightened what was, essentially, a serious novel. And while Lola is a sweet girl, she’s not exactly a good girl. She’s self-centered. She lies. She sneaks around behind her parents’ backs. And that rocker boyfriend mentioned in the synopsis above? He’s twenty-two, and not exactly wholesome (he actually turns out to be slightly less-than-perfect, but he had his reasons and I have to say, I didn’t hate him). All of this discord within Lola’s personality made her delightfully real. She’s someone I wish I’d known in high school, someone I would have loved to be friends with.

And Cricket… what a perfectly lovable romantic interest. I see him as he’s pictured on the cover (adorable), and cherished every aspect of his sweet, highly intelligent, awkward, loyal, bumbling, pin-striped personality. He’s just right for Lola (obviously), yet he’s wonderfully flawed (like a real boy!). He knows what he wants, and while he’s full of conviction, he’s patient too. Plus, he’s friends with Etienne! I challenge any female reader to dodge to Cricket’s charms. Seriously. He’s enchanting.

Lola is set in San Francisco, which is probably obvious if you’ve given the cover a look. The city comes alive within the pages of the book, so much so that I want to visit again and take time to savor the atmosphere Stephanie Perkins so perfectly captures. All the major landmarks are there (the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Alcatraz, Muir Woods National Park), but there’s also a more subtle mood that hangs in the background, a sparkle that’s all San Francisco, yet not at all cliché or stereotypical.

And Lola‘s supporting characters… fabulous! Andy and Nathan (Lola’s dads) were distinct, strict, bona fide parental figures. Best friend Lindsey was an excellent source of comic relief. Calliope (Cricket’s twin) was an unpredictable sort of mean girl. Even Norah turned a corner and became someone I wasn’t expecting.

Lola, at its heart, is about finding your authentic self and embracing it for all it’s worth. A very worthwhile message weaved cleverly into a layered, entertaining story full of family and friendship and love. If you think you don’t like contemporary, or romance, or “chick-lit,” think again. Stephanie Perkins has a talent for creating real-life characters you’ll fall for head-over-heels, and for writing romantic scenes that’ll have your heart skipping. Please, please, please, buy and read Lola and the Boy Next Door!

What’s the best book YOU read in October? (And don’t forget to check back Friday for my review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone!)

On the elusive “perfect” novel…

I’m not sure there’s really such a thing as a “perfect” novel (all books can all be improved upon somehow, right?), but this weekend I read a story that was, in my opinion, about as close to perfection as one can get:


Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins was just SO FREAKING FABULOUS. I mean really… I found myself grinning like an idiot as I read, blown away by the awesomeness printed on every. Single. Page. I’m not going to go into a full review today (though one will surely come later!) because more than anything, Lola got me thinking about what makes a novel stand out as truly amazing.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you read several books in a month. The bulk of those might hover somewhere around GOOD (like, three or four stars on Goodreads). There are probably a few that STINK, or, just weren’t for you (the one or two star books). And, if you’re lucky, there might be one that separates itself from the pack. It’s that elusive five-star book that makes you laugh and cry and gasp and clench your fists in indignation and cheer for the characters as if you know them. It’s the book that makes you feel.

I think we can all agree that the perfect book is a careful combination and precarious balance of crucial literary elements, melded together in a seamless, harmonious way. A way that makes us care totally and completely about the future of the book’s characters. It’s those crucial elements, though, that are different for all of us. Some people are all about character development. Others, pacing. Some are looking for adventure, or gorgeous writing, or steamy romance, or a setting that sings. It’s the importance of each of these elements, and the way they’re merged, that makes some people swoon over Edward and Bella’s undying love, and others cringe in disgust.

It’s a very subjective thing.

For me, the crucial Big Five elements that play into MY perfect book are:

  • Relatable, likable main characters. These people need to sPaRkLe.
  • A believable, naturally progressing (read: HOT) romance.
  • Flawless, distinctly-styled writing with engaging, authentic dialogue.
  • A unique setting, so richly and beautifully described I want to go there. Or, so crazily terrifying it gives me nightmares.
  • The unexpected. Twists and turns that leave me reeling. My jaw needs to drop at least once.
If those Big Five are all there, skillfully blended, I’ve found a favorite. In fact, if my Big Five are strong enough, I can overlook other weaknesses. A slow pace, for example. Or a somewhat flat supporting character. Or a slightly unresolved ending. If my Big Five are present and accounted for, I’m going to care. I’m going to feel. I’m going to have an emotional experience, one I’ll always remember. I’m going to recommend that book up and down and all around. And I’m going to be a very happy reader. 

Books that are on my Favorites List because they so perfectly unify my Big Five: Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and Where She Went, Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Franny Billingsley’s Chime, The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield, and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere. 

What are your must-have elements for an ideal reading experience? What books are on your personal “Perfect” List?