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.

 

Amulet

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.

 

Embassytown

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.

 

REAMDE

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!

 

Summer Reading

My list of books this summer was very eclectic as a result of a new teaching assignment: English 8, English 9 and Social Studies 10 focusing on Canadian history.  But fortunately this meant discovering some engaging reading material!

Sisters in the Wilderness – The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill by Charlotte Gray proved to be a most interesting books on Canadian history, while read as a fascinating biography on these two sisters.  The day I finished the book, both sisters were mentioned in articles in the Globe & Mail – not bad for a couple of women who died over a hundred years ago.  How Canada was ‘sold’ to potential immigrants makes for a fascinating back story.

The Fault in Our Stars by  John Green This is a book that I plan to use in my English classes.  I think it would be a great book to link with Romeo and Juliet while looking at an inquiry project on “what makes a good relationship?”, or perhaps  “Should you walk away from someone you love to protect them?” In reading this I also discovered John Green on twitter, and he makes some very interesting and informed comments on literature for young adults.

Esther – The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright by Julie Wheelwright brings a personal focus to Canadian history.  Esther’s descendent, Julie Wheelwright, traces the life of her ancestor who was kidnapped as a young child from Maine, adopted by a native family, released to a French Jesuit and taken to live in Quebec where she became a Catholic and refused to return to her family.  All of this before she was 18 years old!

While I remain hopeful, with only 7 days left before school starts, there are a few books that might remain on my shelf tempting me while I should be planning lessons…

Guys write for Guys Read, a collection edited by Jon Scieszka

If Walls Could Talk – An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World – The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and The Endurance by Jennifer Armstong.

But the ultimate reward from this summer is finding a book that my teenaged son would read and complete… After several false starts including The Diviners by Libby Bray and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams, it seemed that the densely worded books simply weren’t going to hold his attention long enough to complete the story.  So I adopted a different approach, suggesting a shorter paperback novel that isn’t much heavier than his iphone.  Upon finishing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, my son said it was a “powerful story”.  And that was enough to make me happy.

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.

Great Reads for 2013

I’ve read some great books in the past few months, and I want to share them with you.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is about women pilots in WWII. But it’s also about spies, espionage, and has an amazing plot that will keep you guessing.

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior, is set where butterfly migration is affected by climate change. It’s a wonderful story about a young wife and mother who learns her own value, and takes control of her future.

Ranger or Morelli? Stephanie Plum is still deciding in Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich.

Erin Morgenstern’s debt novel, The Night Circus, is a fantastical love story. If you enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife or The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, you’ll like this.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. When I recommend this book to friends, I tell them not to read the cover, to just dive in. And to make sure they have some free time–you won’t want to put this down.

In 2010, I read The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian. An amazing novel in itself, with and ending that will leave you reeling, it also references events from The Great Gatsby as though they are historical.  I had to read Gatsby right after (Well before the movie hype made the book popular.)  ps–We’re planning a bookclub fieldtrip to see The Great Gatsby this weekend!

 

 

Rediscovering a great author

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan BradleyI had completely forgotten about looking for the next book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce Mysteries until Leah posted an article on fb featuring  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I went right to my library’s website and reserved the next two books and, because I’m not known for my patience, I went to the village library (actually a reading room) to look for them there. Success! I came home with the second book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. I just have to finish the book I’m on now (no, I’m not saying what it is, everyone reads “candy” books sometimes!) and then I can dig in. Hopefully the third book, A Red Herring Without Mustard, comes in soon.

He, She, They — or I?

do you like books written in first person or third personI recently realized that almost all of the YA books I’ve read in the past two years have been written in the first person. (E.g., “I did this, I did that” instead of “He did this, she did that.”)

Many of these books are ones I’ve absolutely loved — such as the Hunger Games series.

… And of course, I’ve also read many great literary works that have been written in the first person as well. Portnoy’s Complaint comes immediately to mind as well as Grace River, by our own lovely Rebecca Hendry.

And yet if you asked me, I’d have to say that I tend to prefer books that are written in the third person. I have no idea why that would be. Maybe because so many of the classics I studied in school — as well as all of the epic horror, sci-fi, and fantasy sagas I devoured in teens and early 20s — were written in the omnipotent third person?

In other words, maybe in my subconscious mind that’s how books are “supposed” to be written?

… Honestly, I have no idea.

So I thought I’d put this question out there: Which do you tend to prefer — books in the first person or books in the third? Do you have a particular favourite or would you say it depends on the type of story?

Your thoughts, please!

What I’m reading now — by Leah

[This post was written by our esteemed Leah J. I’m just the humble poster — Erin]

At the moment I have a high school class of English students, so my challenge as a teacher is to find books they’re interested in reading. This challenge has become significantly easier since finding the “Stellar Book Awards” online.

Fortunately, our library had a little money in the budget so we were able to get a few copies of every title for students to read. Here’s what I’ve read and loved so far this month:
The Apprentice’s Masterpiece: A Story of Medieval Spain by Melanie Little

It wasn’t until I got this book home that I realized it was written in free verse. What was I thinking? Unless Shane Koyczan is reciting it from memory, any type of verse would be a little tedious for spring break reading. That’s what I thought at first. How wrong I was – I read this book in one sitting! (Actually I was still in bed, occasionally calling out for cups of tea). Hard not to review this one without resorting to clichés, so I won’t, just find it and read it.

Getting the Girl by Susan Juby

A quick paced book, slice of high school life with several characters providing comic relief. Wonder what’s on your teenaged kids’ mind? Read this, and you won’t have to bug them by asking “How was your day at school?”

Lockdown by Diane Tullson

What really happens if a “shooter” shows up at your school? And what would your reaction be? Tullson writes a story that catches the reader by surprise, and appeals to the reluctant reader with a gripping story uncluttered by a long, drawn out plot.