Great 2011 Books to Gift

I have to admit that I haven’t read as much fiction this year as usual. It’s just been one of those stressful years where reading has unfortunately taken a back seat. But I started thinking about Christmas coming up and what I have read this year that I’d love to pass along for my family and friends to enjoy. Here are the new young adult novels published in 2011 that have wowed me.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

This book felt like the rich, authentic fishermen-island setting of Katherine Patterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, but with the tenacious spunk of Puck Connolly and the sagacious reticence of Sean Kendrick — two characters who instantly endeared themselves to me. I’d recommend this to everyone, both those who love Stiefvater’s other books and those who haven’t liked or haven’t read them. This is by far her best and it shines brilliantly.

If that doesn’t convince you, read this review at Angieville or the snippets of starred reviews on Stiefvater’s site. I’m not the only one who thinks this is one of the best books of the year.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor is one of my favorite authors because of her ability to create intricate, fully realized worlds and to describe them in sentences I savor. This novel does that again with not one but three complex interconnected worlds, complete with compelling mythologies and cultures, and the story takes gut-wrenching twists that made me gasp. My one and only complaint is that it ends on a cliffhanger, waiting for a sequel to wrap it up. Of the four books I’m listing in this post, this one is the only novel with mature content, so I’d recommend it for older teens and up. The story is so apocryphal and unique they’ll be spellbound.

The publishers have set up a gorgeous website with news of all the starred reviews and “best books of 2011” designations this novel has already received plus free previews of chapters, characters, etc.

Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

These are the kind of books that can be enjoyed by anyone, guy or girl, teen or adult. I handed the first to my 20-year-old brother and he declared he was instantly hooked. My 25-year-old sister read all three as fast as she could get her hands on the next. And her middle-school students are loving the series too. What makes these books so fun and interesting is the steam punk genre: an early 20th century world full of fabricated animals and steam-powered machines, which I posted about here.

Entwined by Heather Dixon

Anyone who loves fairytale retellings needs to read this one! It’s like The Secret Garden meets, well, a nuanced version of the awesome storyboard humor of Heather Dixon. Heather’s sense of humor and background as a storyboard artist bring the twelve dancing princesses to life in the greatest ways. As I said in a blog post called “Showing Character” back in the spring, Heather never has to stop and explain things, you just understand by the expressions or dialogue or actions — even by the sounds. The scenes tug your heart in two directions, knowing how much each side is hurting and misunderstanding the other, while keeping a subtle humor alive and well. I loved everything about it, especially it’s wide age appeal: eight-year-old girls would be enthralled as much as I was as an adult. It’s wonderful.

What 2011 books are at the top of your gift list? Or what older books are you still buying for book lovers in your life?

Leave a comment!

Showing Character

A little over a year ago, I asked four of my author friends what it’s like to work with an editor. One of them responded by giving me a comic strip she’d drawn herself.

So awesome! I laughed hard when I got it, and I still laugh when I go back and read that post. Visiting her blog StoryMonster is the same kind of treat: a visual delight with plenty of good-natured humor. All of that combined with tweets from her editor at Greenwillow gushing about how amazing Heather’s debut is . . . well, I knew I had to preorder it and read it immediately once it finally came out at the end of March.

And I loved it.

Honestly. Her editor wasn’t exaggerating with the gushing. This novel is gorgeous.

Especially after the fuss I made in last week’s post, I figure I better tell you how and why.

First of all, the novel is based on the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses.


Right there, anybody would stop and tell you that’s way too many characters to deal with. How is a reader supposed to keep track of them all? There’s a very real danger of several, most, or all of them falling flat. But in Entwined, they don’t.

To keep the ages straight, she uses the trick of having the girls’ names arranged A–L: Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium, Eve, Flora, Goldenrod, Hollyhock, Ivy, Jessamine, Kale, and Lily. Why are they alphabetical? Because the king loves order, so even the trick itself reveals character.

It doesn’t take long for each sister to feel rounded out beyond just their age. When gentlemen begin calling, we learn that Clover is the most beautiful by how they react to her, and we also learn that it’s not easy to tell who is the oldest just by looking at the girls. But Clover’s beauty is paired with bashful stuttering to round her out. Bramble is the outspoken rebel. Delphinium likes to pretend to faint. Goldenrod hides a little in the shadow of her twin Flora. Ivy is always eating. While the younger girls are featured less prominently, we always have a sense of them and the sense that each is unique.

Maybe thanks to her storyboarding background, Heather is fantastic at showing everything. She never has to stop and explain things, you just understand by the expressions or dialogue or actions — even by the sound!


A tiny arrow, just the length of her hand with a little metal heart for the tip, had imbedded itself in the wall next to Azalea.


The candle went foof.

“Ack!” said Azalea. She smothered the fire in the folds of her skirt, leaving the odor of smoked fabric.

That gift for showing is one of the main ways she brings her characters to life. Lord Teddie is always bubbly and jovial, so when his face and voice suddenly become serious, you know how hurt he is. How much or how little Clover stutters reveals her feelings. Azalea digs her fingernails into her palms when she’s angry.

And best of all, their father is flawed and wonderful, too. They hate him for abandoning them after their mother dies, but Heather lets the reader see that he’s not mean, only in terrible pain from missing his wife.

Consider this scene:

“But it does help,” said Clover. She kept her eyes down, lashes brushing her cheeks, but she pulled the courage to step forward. “Mother would — would dance at night, too. In the ballroom — and — and you were there, and you danced the Entwine, and — you caught her, and she kissed you. On the nose.” Clover blushed deeply. “I think it was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.”

She said it with fewer pauses than usual, as though she had recited it a hundredfold. Azalea pulled her hand away from the slate, thinking of Mother and the Entwine, the tricky dance with the sash. If Mother had gotten caught, it was only because she had let the King catch her.

The king backed up, taut, against the rosebush ledge, the dry thorny branches pressing into his back. His face had become severe.

“It helps to remember,” said Clover.

“We will not speak of your mother,” said the King. His voice was even, but harder and colder than frozen steel. “You are finished with your lessons. Go to your room.”

The words lashed. Clover cowered, swallowed, then pushed her way out of the nook, clutching her boots and limping. They could hear her choked weeping echoing down the hall.

“Oh, Clover!” cried Flora. Hands linked, she and Goldenrod bounded after.

“Oh, look what you’ve done!” said Delphinium, crying angrily. She swept Lily into her arms and took off unevenly after them. Kale, Eve, Jessamine, Hollyhock, and Ivy ran out, followed by Bramble, who shot the King a flaring look as she left.

That’s just one example of why I think this book is gorgeous: the scenes that tug your heart in two directions, knowing how much each side is hurting and misunderstanding the other, while keeping a subtle humor alive and well (oh how I love that Bramble and her looks and scolds!).

I think knowing Heather makes the humor even better, too. So check out the comic she drew for me, check out her blog, check out Entwined, and enjoy every page!

Read any other fantastic examples of novels that delight your senses and show character?

Leave a comment!

Stretching My Genre Limits

See this cover? This is so not my kind of book. Even hubby said so when he saw me reading it.

I mean, you can say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” all you want, but I much prefer the argument that judging the book is sort of the point of the cover. A cover with detailed art of dragons and sword-wielding heroes is meant to appeal to those who like high fantasy; a cover with a sexy, cleavage-bearing woman swooning in the arms of a muscular hunk is meant to be recognized as Harlequin romance. (They still make them that way, right? I haven’t seen one in a long time, not since I discovered my grandmother’s stash.) Covers are meant to indicate what kind of book it is. 

And a cover with bright-pink-or-purple cutesy fonts is meant to say, “Read me if you love all the drama of scoping out and scheming ways to catch hot boys in high school.”

I rolled my eyes at that stuff even while I was in high school. I mean, I liked boys. I had my share of crushes. But I had little patience for the sagas that so many girls seemed to crave. In fact, I hung out with mostly guys because of the simple fact that they didn’t show up at dances with their mascara running because some other girl had stolen their heart-throb and they didn’t rush over and huddle around the mascara runner anxious to be involved in and know every detail of the drama.

But here’s the surprise of the week: I loved this book.

The premise hooked me before I ever saw the cover. It’s about a high school senior who drops her phone in a fountain and suddenly the only person she can call is her freshman self. And since her senior self (code name: Ivy) just got dumped by the guy she’d wasted three and a half years on, ditched friends for, neglected school for, etc, it feels like the perfect opportunity to convince her freshman self (code name: Frosh) not to make the same mistakes.

Even though I could see pretty early on what the resolution would have to be, it was so much fun to read through all the twists along the way. I loved all the characters and loved watching them experiment with new identities throughout the book (high school was definitely that way). I loved the immediacy of the consequences, how Ivy would tell Frosh to change something and instantly Ivy’s present became completely different, sometimes for the better but often for the worse.

And I loved the message that balance is the life lesson of the day. That’s sort of my motto, too.

Plus, this book didn’t have the things I expected from the genre. It wasn’t about clandestine make-out sessions or back-stabbing girlfriends or any of that drama. It was just about navigating the hairy-scary teenage years when so much (college, friends, even graduation) is riding on your decisions.

In conclusion, I’m glad that I stretched outside my genre comfort zone. I should do it more often, perhaps. I’m sure there are gems in every genre, and maybe there are even whole genres I’ve misjudged.

What about you? Read anything outside your usual genres lately? How did it go? Do you believe in judging a book (or at least its genre) by its cover? What are some books you’ve loved whose covers totally didn’t look like something you’d be into?

Leave a comment!

4 Stars for EVERYTHING!

A month or so ago a neighbor borrowed a book from me and returned it a few days later when my husband happened to be outside, so she handed it to him. For the record, this wasn’t a book I had recommended to her but that a co-worker of hers had, and she just happened to read my copy of it.

When my husband asked how she’d liked it, she said (the way hubby related the story), “Eh. It was okay. Nikki gave it four stars on Goodreads, which I don’t get, but she gives four stars to everything.”

And hubby, who also gets my Goodreads reviews in his email, said, “That’s so true.”


Is it dumb of me to feel defensive about that?

Maybe it’s just that I have a supreme dislike for absolutes like always, never, everything and nothing. After all, the person accused only has to produce ONE example to the contrary and the comment is nullified. So of course I opened my Goodreads shelf and showed hubby examples of five- and three-star ratings, even a rare two-star label.

I could have also protested that Goodreads doesn’t allow half stars, so it’s not like I have a huge set of options, though I often mention in my review that I would give something three-and-a-half or four-and-a-half stars if I could.

But really, the thing is that I do genuinely “really like” most of what I read, and “really like” is the qualification Goodreads sets for four stars. Five stars is considered “amazing,” so I reserve that for books that I think I could read over and over again and not tire of or else books where the ideas and the writing blew me away. Three stars is just “liked it,” so I use that when it feels as though that’s what I’d honestly tell someone if they asked me about the book.

Honestly, I am honest about my reviews.


So maybe the real issue is that I only read recommendations. Even when I browse a bookstore looking for titles I haven’t heard of yet, I ask for recommendations from the bookstore staff and I look for a starred review from Kirkus or Horn Book or Booklist or School Library Journal or Publisher’s Weekly printed on the cover of the book. Although I adore beautiful cover art and think it makes reading the book an even greater pleasure, I don’t let the cover design recommend the book over other considerations. My TBR list is generally too long as it is, so I’m never really in the position of having to just pick up a book that “looks” good. And so, I usually only read books that others have already agreed are four- or five-star books.

But then, do I end up sounding snobby, and is that worse than being accused of only giving four stars all the time?

What made me think of all this this morning is that I finished Skellig by David Almond last night and decided to give it four stars. I really liked it. I’d read it again. It might not become an all-time favorite of mine, but I’m very glad a bookstore employee pointed me to it and I want to do the same favor for others.

Four stars just kind of fits that bill.


I’m tempted to jump from here into other discussions, like “to rate or not to rate” because of the danger of offending authors vs being helpful to other readers, and how to be tactful in your reviews so as to show that this is only your opinion of your particular experience reading this book rather than a dictate of what the book “deserves,” etc, but I’ll save those topics for future posts.

So for now, really the only question is what do your book ratings say about YOU? 😉

Leave a comment!

Books That Speak to You

A while ago I reported that I was in a reading slump. Now I’ve got so many I’m excited to read that I wish I could read faster! So today’s blog is an update on a few of the amazing books I’ve read lately. I don’t know that any of them would appeal to everyone, but they all “spoke” to me. It’s a subtle thing — where every sentence is a joy to read, where you love the feeling of sinking back into the story, where every aspect from characters to twists to word choice makes you smile. And for me, it’s when the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “beautiful.”

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

This collection of short stories will definitely appeal most to fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you’ve never heard of either of these books, I highly recommend both. Susanna Clarke has a gift for both writing and storytelling, as I mentioned in my Thanksgiving post, and reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu was a fabulous treat. Even the least significant character is made interesting by her skilled pen, and every twist is subtle and perfect.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

This is a gorgeous look at what it might be like to be left behind. What if you were an only survivor? And what if you were in a coma facing the choice of following the others or staying on your own? It’s an unusual book in that the main character really can’t do anything, the way normally an MC is expected to propel the action, but I loved the glimpses of her life and her choice. It’s a look at what makes life worthwhile even at its most difficult, which is also sometimes the most beautiful.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

This book is almost epic. It’s a thick, 400+ page tome that took a while to plow through. But I loved it. I loved the parallels to Don Quixote, especially, and the way that what the reader knows to be reality the character supposes is a dream, flipping the two and ultimately asking what is real. And of course the book is tragic. The main character is dying of mad cow disease. There is no cure. But Libba Bray turns that into a wildly hilarious road trip about the meaning of life, and I couldn’t help laughing out loud. Constantly. And the ending is beautiful.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

This is a novel about a seventeen-year-old boy with autism, and I’m three quarters of the way through it right now. I love this book. I love its perspective on life. I love Marcelo. I love Jasmine. I wish I could articulate everything that’s captivated me about this book. The complexities of it are a huge part, maybe. Like when he asks the rabbi why Adam and Eve became ashamed of their nakedness when God created them naked and God declared them good. It’s beautiful in its questioning of life.

What books have spoken to you lately? What’s the most important ingredient for you to love a book, or do you want it all — every aspect perfect?

Leave a comment!

Compiling a “Reference” Library, or Why Writers Should Read and Own Books

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

~Stephen King’s On Writing

Hooray! What could be a better New Year’s Day activity than book shopping? This morning I’m off for the New Year’s sale at my favorite independent bookstore, armed with a list of titles, two gift cards, and a little bit of budgeted spending money. New year, new books. Hip, hip, hooray!

For the curious, here’s what I’m hoping to bring home:

The first five I’ve already read and have been dying to own. The last three have been so highly recommended by so many people that I’m going to take a leap of faith.

See, my normal pattern is to put every book I hear about on hold at the library, read it, and then buy the ones I can hardly bear to return to the library. In other words, I feel like it’s mandatory to own every book that I love. So with the last three above, I’m just trusting that they’re going to be indispensible as well. And once in a while it’s nice to read my own brand new book on a first read rather than a library copy.

[UPDATE 1/2/10: Actual purchases ended up being If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Catching Fire, Shiver, The Dark Divine, Silksinger, and Skellig by David Almond, which was one that the bookseller recommended. They were out of a couple I wanted, but that was better for the budget, and my birthday’s coming up. I also came home with these other recommendations: Fat Cat by Robin Brande, Alanna by Tamora Pierce, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Hold Still by Nina LaCour. I love independent booksellers! My TBR pile will never run out.]

But that’s sort of a tangent. The real point of this post is this: it’s essential for writers to read and own books!

I almost feel like I’m writing this to my husband in defense of all the money and space I’ve used up on my fiction library, like this is my chance to justify all of that.

So here goes.

One Christmas a while ago, I gave a copy of Life of Pi to my sister-in-law. She’s not an avid reader, but I felt like she’d be somebody who could appreciate good writing when she met it. A little while later she told me this: “Wow. I just read the first few pages, and I feel like now I really get it, like I know what good writing is now.”

Exactly! You have to read good books to know what good books are. And even once you get a feel for what’s involved with good writing, you have to keep reading and keep learning and expanding that definition for yourself.

For example. This week I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I was spellbound. I’ve never been a short story reader, but these short stories had me mesmerized. Susanna Clarke has a gift for storytelling. Even the most minor characters are unique and flawed in interesting ways, and she employs subtleties and implications that make the experience of reading downright gleeful. I learned so much about the craft of writing just by reading it.

But why do I need to own it? Why do I need to take up more bookshelf space when I’m already running short? Isn’t reading it once enough?

Owning books is crucial because great examples from a writer’s genre become that writer’s “reference” library.

Actual reference books, like the kind that describe “how to write”? I own maybe four or five of those. Novels that demonstrate how to write? I own hundreds of those. Those are my “reference” library.

Here’s an example of why. A while ago on Twitter an author I know asked everybody for recommendations of books that alternate between two narrators because the manuscript she’s working on does that. She didn’t ask for books that give directions on how to alternate between two narrators. She asked for books that do it well so she could study and learn from examples.

My “reference” library is what I turn to any time I want ideas of how to manage something well. How do you write a killer first page? Go take your ten favorite books off the shelf and read their first pages. How do you make the voice of your novel come to life? Go pull out books whose voice resonated with you and study them. How do you write a prologue that is also the ending but with a twist that will blow readers away? Go take a look at Water for Elephants.

For me, even though my local library is AMAZING (so good about getting the latest titles right away!), it’s not close enough. When I’m in the middle of writing a scene and I think of something I want to check in a book I’ve read, I want that book to be on my shelf, ten steps away.

So that’s my advice for today: go buy some books!

Never feel ashamed that your house is crammed with them. Never apologize for the weight of them when the movers (or male relatives, or yourself if you’re independent like that) are carting fifty boxes of them to your new larger house once you become rich and famous (ha ha!). This is your job. You are a writer. If you were a chiropractor, you’d have that chiropractic table thing. Dentists have the chair and all the freaky sci-fi-looking equipment around it. You have your books, and they are the mark of your trade. (Plus a laptop or pens and notebooks, but that’s another discussion.)

Oh, and as long as I’m on a soapbox, buy as many books from independent booksellers as you can! Keep the book industry alive. Ask them for recommendations and be amazed at their hand selling prowess. These people know books and love books and deserve to be patronized (hmm, that sounds funny). Buy independent when you can!

And then, the bonus of owning books is that I get to loan them out to friends and spread the joy of reading around.

Why are books essential to you? Which ones have taught you the meaning of good writing? What would your ideal home library be like? Any books on your book-shopping list right now?

Leave a comment!