My favourite sci-fi/fantasy books of 2013

As always, last year I read so many good sci-fi/fantasy books, I can hardly remember them all. Here are the ones that stuck in my head because they were especially great.

The Drowned Cities

Paulo Bacigalupi’s follow-up to his YA novel, Ship Breaker, tells the tale of Mahlia and Mouse—two orphan refugees trying to survive in a war-torn future America where global warming, resource mismanagement, and corporate greed have brought about profound social and economic collapse.

When Mouse is forcibly conscripted into an army of child soldiers, it’s up to Mahlia and a genetically modified half-man, half-beast weapon named Tool to save him before the depredations of war damage him beyond all recognition. Not a light tale by any stretch of the imagination, but Bacigalupi creates compelling and realistic characters, and the grim future he envisions is frighteningly easy to believe in.



amuletMy eight-year-old son got The Stone Keeper, the first book in this graphic novel series as a Christmas present in 2012 and immediately borrowed the rest of the books from the library. He inhaled them all.

The books tell the story of Emily and her younger brother, Navin. After the tragic death of their father, the siblings are forced to travel to an underground world populated by menacing elves, man-eating demons, and robots to rescue their kidnapped mother and save a world threatened by unspeakable evil.

Although ostensibly written for the 10-13 crowd, Amulet is one of those rare graphic novel series that appeals equally to all ages. The story is gripping and the artwork is gorgeous. I’m just as impatient and excited as my son is for book 6 to come out hopefully this spring.



embassytownOh, China Mieville. No other writer’s imaginary worlds are as dark, twisted, alien and somehow still irredeemably human as yours are.

Embassytown tells the story of a colony of humans living on a planet inhabited by a benign and mysterious alien species on the far edge of the galaxy.

The Arieke, or “Hosts,” speak a complex language that makes it impossible for them to express anything other than literal truth and can only be approximated by Ambassadors, cloned human twins raised from birth to telepathically anticipate each other’s thoughts and speak in unison. When a new type of ambassador comes to Embassytown, the equilibrium between the humans and the Arieke is destroyed and the colony finds itself threatened with annihilation.

This story is as much a meditation on the power of language to shape reality as it is a compelling and original vision of what living on an inhabited alien planet might be like.


Leviathan Wakes

leviathan wakesIf you’re hankering for a well-written, exciting space opera, look no further. This thrilling series opener kicks off with a ship’s entire crew getting reduced to a horrifying puddle of goop when they come into contact with an ancient alien bio-weapon that was supposed to reach Earth a billion years ago but instead got hooked into orbit around Saturn.

Now that this ancient bio-weapon has been discovered by one of Earth’s most powerful corporate entities, what does it mean for the future of the human species? (Hint: nothing good.)

Leviathan Wakes is the first book of James S. A. Corey’s Expanse trilogy and is one of those rare page-turners that kept me guessing the entire way. I’m currently a third of the way into the final novel and still have no idea how the story’s going to end – the mark of a fantastic story, in my books.



reamdeOkay, so this story isn’t strictly science fiction or fantasy, but given that it was written by Neal Stephenson and a significant chunk of the action takes place in a World of Warcraft-like video game environment, I had to include it. (Mostly because I loved it oh so much and wanted to write about it.)

REAMDE kicks off with a classic “wrong place at the wrong time” scenario in which the niece of a millionaire video game creator gets kidnapped by the Russian mafia, who need her shady computer programmer boyfriend to help them find the Chinese hacker who has compromised their sensitive banking information.

The story takes them from the Pacific Northwest to China and then into the wilds of the BC interior and involves gangsters, Muslim terrorists, British secret agents, evangelical Christians, drug runners, and mountain lions. A fun and gripping read and a great introduction to Neal Stephenson if you’ve never read any of his other books.


The Night Circus 

night circusWhat do you get when two ancient magicians make a wager on who can train the most powerful apprentice – and a 19th-century traveling circus is the stage on which their protégés are forced to do battle? One of the darkest, most original and unforgettable love stories you’ll ever read.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, so all I’m going to say is that this book will either make you want to run away with the circus – or run screaming from anyone who professes to have magic powers. One of the best stories I’ve read in years.


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

the girl whoIf you love Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, then you need to read this book by Cathrynne M. Valente. In my view, it’s the first true successor to these time-honoured children’s classics that manages to pay homage to them while still being a completely original work that deserves to become a classic in its own right.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland tells the tale of September, a 12-year-old girl who’s whisked away from her boring life in Nebraska by the mischievous Green Wind, who takes her to Fairyland so she can have an adventure of her own. On her quest to retrieve a spoon from the tyrannical Marquess who now rules Fairyland, she teams up with a Wyverrary (half Wyvern, half library) and an Arabian djinn named Saturday.

When her friends are kidnapped by the Marquess and taken to the other side of Fairyland, she is forced to unravel the mystery of the beloved Queen Mallow’s disappearance and the Marquess’s rise to power.

Although it’s ostensibly written for 10-12 year olds, this book is rich with deep allegorical meaning that appeals to adults as well and will make you and your children want to read it over and over again.

And best of all, it’s only the first book in a series. I can’t wait to read book number two!

So what were your favourite sci-fi/fantasy books of 2013? Or do you read books from a different genre? Let us know what your top picks were in the comments!


YA Fiction–Moving Away From the Post-Apocalyptic Themes

It has been a heavy few years in the world of YA fiction. Vampires, werewolves, and the end of the world as we know it have flooded the market.

I do appreciate the portrayal of strong female characters in some of these books. Katniss in The Hunger Games Trilogy is a good example. While Sarah Dessen writes a great love story, her novels don’t typically have a lot of substance.

That said, here are some of my recommendations for YA novels that are real, thoughtful, and do not have any vampires in them.

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Junior’s decision to go to an all-white high school off-reservation has his on-reservation friends and family criticizing him for his choice. Filled with serious topics and a lot of humour to offset them, this is one of my favourite YA books. This one is my 14 year old’s favourite.

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman

Reluctant Dahlia goes to sleep-away camp and finds herself caught up in a mystery surrounding the camp.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

A story about young women pilots in WWII, the plot is complex with amazing twists. A great choice for older teens (and parents), especially those who like spy novels.

Hoot by Carl Hiassen

Kids standing up for what they believe in, and encouraging adults to do the right thing.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

My 12 year old son recommends this one. Artemis is a millionaire, genius, and a criminal mastermind.

I have a turtle

I Have a TurtleWhen I was four I had a favourite book, I Have a Turtle. What I loved most about this book was that I only had to memorize half of the book to be able to “know” it all. I still have it memorized, “I have a turtle. In my mother’s hatbox. Under my bed. In the corner of my room. In my house. Surrounded by trees. with all the people passing by. I have a turtle.” Then it went in reverse order.

While it did nothing to teach me proper sentence stucture, I remember realizing that the words in this book were the same as some of the words in my abc books–I ran to get them–and I could read!

The Musty Smell of Old Books

I am a big big fan of technology. I am also grateful to be alive during the birth and development of the internet. But one thing I don’t think I will ever be able to wrap my mind around is the “E-Reader”. Don’t get me wrong. I fully intend to avail myself of an iPad2 once the insanity at the stores has subsided. But I really don’t see using it to replace books.

Books have a special heft to them. They smell good. And I can take it into the bath with minimal risk of expensive damage. And let’s face it, the bath is where I read the most.

E-books also have no history. Because I also love old, used books.

As a kid, I used to trawl the libraries when they were selling off their old collections. I remember one book in particular that apparently had been a school book during the 1910’s and 20’s. There were doodles of flappers in the pages. How awesome!

Flipping through the pages of these used books and discovering the story was literally like following in the footsteps of the previous reader. You also discover great books that are no longer in print.

I kept all of my books from childhood. And now I am rediscovering them as I read them to my kids each night. Another reason why the internet is great, you can easily track down some of these old titles that have either been re-printed or else are available used. One of my all time favorites, “Beginners Luck” by Oriel Malet is sadly not available at However, many of my other favorite titles are:

A few years ago I was visiting Portland and discovered Powell’s. An amazing 4-story book store that takes up an entire city block. In their children’s section was an entire wall right up to the 15’ ceiling of old, used children’s books. Heaven.

If you haven’t been there, it is worth a trip to Portland just for this (although there are lots of other good reasons to visit Portland). Or you can check them out online at

8 Great Books for 12-13 Year Old Boys

great books for 12 13-year-old boysA friend recently asked me to suggest some books for her 12-year-old son. Since far more books are marketed to girls that age than boys, my friend complained that it’s hard to find stories her son would like.

Here are the suggestions I gave her, as well as some more I got from my librarian husband… if you know any boys in this age group who are interested in reading, you might consider recommending or buying some of these books to them as well:

  1. Gone by Michael Grant. One reviewer describes this story as “Lord of the Flies, if it were written by Stephen King” and I think the description is pretty apt.

    In the book, everyone 15 years old and up disappears in an eye blink from a small California town and the children who are left have to figure out how to deal with it. And some of those kids are developing strange mutant powers…

    It’s an exciting, fast-moving read. My one complaint is the characters are pretty one-dimensional. The bad guys are bad — really sociopathically evil — for no other reason than they were born that way. The male protagonist is a little more interesting in that he’s an extremely reluctant hero. But the story did deal with some of the issues I thought might get glossed over, such as “what about the friggin’ babies?!”

    There are at least two more books in this series – Hunger and Lies. Haven’t read them yet but plan to.

  2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. The story of Nobody Owens, a boy who’s raised from a baby by a bunch of ghosts in a graveyard and a vampire. If he leaves the protection of the graveyard then he risks being murdered by the nefarious “Jack,” the assassin who killed his family and is eagerly waiting to finish the job.

    I love this book so much. Neil Gaiman is a wonderful writer and creates worlds that are original, creepy, beautiful, and unforgettable.

  3. I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore. Haven’t read this one yet but am dying to. It’s being promoted as a book that fans of the Hunger Games trilogy will love and is scheduled to be released as a major motion picture in 2011.

    “John Smith” is one of nine aliens who were brought to Earth as an infant to flee the invading species that attacked their home world, Lorien. The only problem is, the invading species has now found them on Earth. Three of Loriens have already been found and murdered. John is number four on the list.

  4. The Dangerous Days of Daniel X by James Patterson. Daniel X is an alien who looks just like a regular teenager who’s tasked with the onerous duty of protecting the Earth from all the really NASTY aliens out there… It’s got kind of a “Men in Black” thing going on.

    The writing is short, snappy, and fun. Plus, the bad guys are monstrously gruesome.

  5. The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer. Rob recommended this series about a high school guy whose father was a vampire and mom was human. His parents died in a mysterious accident and he has to discover the truth of what happened to them, in addition to dealing with regular high school drama and avoid getting spiked by the vampire hunters who are on to him.

    Yeah, I know, vampires, bleah… I’m sick of them, too. But at least this story has a male protagonist who presumably doesn’t sparkle.

  6. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. This is a more literary read which has garnered great reviews. It’s about two very different boys who happen to share the same name and whose paths intersect in a way that changes their lives forever. Critics call it “humourous and insightful.”

  7. Bonechiller by Graham MacNamee. This is a great horror story for kids—but be warned: it is SCARY. Not gruesome or gory… just “scared to turn out the lights” freaky. Danny and his father move to a small, remote town in Ontario where every generation, during the coldest winters, children mysteriously start disappearing. People think they’ve run away, but Danny discovers the truth on one particularly frigid evening when a horrifying creature taps him to be its next victim.

    The monster in this story is original and downright disturbing… but the writing is top-notch and the characters are interesting and well rendered. If scary stories are the only thing that pique your 12- or 13-year-old’s reading interest then I suggest you get him to give this one a try.

  8. RIP, M.D. by Mitch Schauer. This graphic novel is perfect for boys who aren’t quite sure if they really like reading yet, but are into funny, dark stories involving monsters.

    Ripley Plimpt’s life is turned upside down when he saves the life of a tiny bat — only discover the bat was really a vampire. Suddenly he acquires the reputation as a “monster doctor” and has all sorts of monsters big and small coming to him for help in solving their problems.

So those are some ideas to get you started… Do you have any more suggestions? If you know of any books that your boys have enjoyed reading, please tell us about them in the comments.