Present Time! Get Thee to a Bookstore!

Hi everyone!

Have you bought your Hanukkah and Christmas gifts for everyone yet?  If not…have you considered BOOKS as a present?  OOOOOOOOO?  Because you know what’s awesome?  BOOKS!  Books is the answer.  They make totally completely excellent gifts, especially when they are good books, such as all the ones I’m going to recommend in this here blog post (yay!).

As longtime readers know, every year I write down all the books I read, and then at the end of the year I go back through the list and post about all my favorites.  I was especially glad I did that this year, because lately I’ve felt like I’ve been stuck in a rut of boring or terrible or annoying books, which I read far too many of in 2010.  (More on this next week—this week is about the good news!)  But going back through my list helped me realize that I also read many quite wonderful books, and I’m very excited to tell you about all of them (so apologies in advance for the long post!).  🙂

In fact, the great books outweigh the terrible books at least two to one, which isn’t too bad.  And I’ve made it to my 100 books goal already, so hopefully I can squeeze in a few more in December—I’m determined to read only really great books for the rest of the month, so if you have suggestions, please come over to Facebook and share them!

All right, on to the books!  Hooray!

For Your Mom (Hint: Write something in the front about how much you appreciate her, because this book is about a really extraordinary mom, and it will probably make her cry.)  Or for any new moms you know, as long as they’re pretty tough, because it DEFINITELY will make them cry.

Room: A Novel, by Emma Donoghue   

This might be my favorite book of the year (and it was even published this year!), although I might feel that way because I just finished reading it.  It is SAD but it is also hopeful and AMAZING.  Without giving too much away: it is told from the POV of a five-year-old boy who’s spent his entire life in an 11 x 11 foot room with his mother, who was kidnapped at age 19 and has been trapped in this place by her abductor for seven years.  But the little boy, Jack, has no idea that they’re in a prison; he loves his life, he loves his mom, and he thinks they’re wonderfully busy and have lots of fun, mainly because Ma has done so much to fill up his life and protect him and keep him happy and teach him everything she can and SOB SOB SOB! 

One of the moments that really got me is when he describes a game called Scream, which they play every day, except not on the weekends, where he and Ma climb up as close to the Skylight as they can get and then scream and yell and holler at the top of their lungs.  Jack thinks this is GREAT fun…but of course it’s really Ma hoping someone will hear and rescue them.  Did I mention SOB SOB SOB?

I read one commenter who said it starts off a bit slow, but that wasn’t the case for me: the beginning is all about how this mom and her little boy spend their days together and all the ways she’s found to entertain him with very little and how close their bond is, and so, as you might imagine, I found it ENTHRALLING.  Like, I wanted to take notes enthralling.  I hope I can be this engaged and entertaining with my little person, especially considering I’ll have vast quantities more stuff to use!

But Ma’s not at all perfect, either; she’s just doing the best she can in the worst possible circumstances.  And Jack isn’t perfect, but he’s so lovable, and I read the whole book in a day because I just had to find out what happens.  (In fact, I tried to read it while Jonah was playing with his toys, and of course the book promptly became the most fascinating thing in the world to him.  WHAT IS IT?  Why does Mama love it so much?  CAN I EAT IT?)  (“Can I eat it?” being the prevailing recurring theme around here.)

It is definitely more appropriate for grown-ups (and precocious teenagers), but it’s not so much about imprisonment as it is about parenting.  And it’s not as dark as the subject matter would suggest…still, think carefully about who you give this to!  (But do give it to someone!)

My other two most favorite books of the year:

For Your Incredibly Smart, Quirky Friend Who Should Totally Be Running Her Own Secret Society
Disreputable History
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by
E. Lockhart

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I loved this book SO MUCH.  The voice was perfect, the heroine was fantastic, the writing was thoughtful and funny, and there were plenty of surprises that made total sense.  It felt like a very real world, and boy, do I want to be friends with Frankie!  She’s kind of like a literary Veronica Mars, so if you have any friends who miss that show (like I do!), they would probably love her, too.  Super totally brilliant.  🙂

For Your Sweet Bookworm Friend Who Loved Walk Two Moons and A Wrinkle in Time

When You Reach Me
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

It won the Newbery Award last year, so everyone already knows how marvelous it is, but if you have any friends who haven’t read it yet, give it to them!  It’s perfectly plotted, like Holes, with distinctive, fascinating characters, like Walk Two Moons, and an unpredictable, twisty, thought-provoking story like nothing you’ve read before.  I adored it more than I can say.

But wait!  I have TWO MORE favorite books of the year!:

For Your Friends Who So Need To Move On From Twilight to the Next, Much Cooler Paranormal Romance

Firelight cover web       Paranormalcy cover web
Firelight by Sophie Jordan  and  Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

Here’s my original blog post about these two terrific reads.  Does your friend prefer dark, pulse-pounding, star-crossed romance?  Try the book on the left!  Or does she like her books to be hilarious and action-packed, preferably with hags and mermaids and hot shapeshifting boys?  Then the book on the right is the one for her!  Seriously, you can’t go wrong with either of these.  And they both have sequels coming out in 2011, so you’re already all set for next year’s presents too!  Woo hoo!

I also read some more “classic” fantasy which I loved…

For Your Musical Friend Who Also Loves Dragons (how cool does that person sound?), or for anyone who’s never discovered the Pern books

Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey

I read all of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books when I was a kid, starting with this one, which I went back and reread this year, and still loved.  The world of Pern is sort of fantasy created by science fiction:  there were spaceships, way back when, and it’s an alien planet, and I think there must have been genetic engineering to create the dragons…but now everyone lives in forts or caves and they ride dragons to save the planet from the dangerous Thread which falls from the sky, and in this book you meet Menolly, whose music can charm the tiny dragons called fire lizards, and OMG HOW MUCH did I want a fire lizard when I was eleven?  VERY VERY much!

I think this book is a great introduction to the world of Pern (it’s aimed younger than most of the books), and it’s followed by Dragonsinger and Dragondrums, which I remember also loving.  If you know anyone looking for dragon excitement, this is it!

and P.S. this new cover is COOL AS and I WANTS it.

For That Friend For Whom You Bought All Those Other Megan Whalen Turner Books Last Year Like I Told You To

Conspiracy of Kings
A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

It’s book four in the Attolia series, all shiny and new this year, and of course, it is brilliant like the others.  If your friend has read the others (starting with The Thief), you know she needs this!  And if she hasn’t, but she loves complicated, character-driven fantasy with very weird but compelling romance, then give her all four.  🙂

For Your Sister or Your Best Friend Who Loved the Little House Books but Thought They Needed MORE BOYS!

Betsy-Tacy Betsy-Tacy-Tib  Betsy 7-8 Betsy 9-10
The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace

I can’t believe I’ve never read these before, but I finally tackled the whole ten-book series this year, as I discussed a few blogs ago, and then are WICKED ADORABLE.  Historical fiction fans will love the details of life at the beginning of the century, and cute boy fans (like me!) will love the high school stories of Betsy and her romantic travails.  I still have a couple of related Maud Hart Lovelace books to read (I can’t wait for Carney’s House Party, which is zinging its way to me through the library system, so I can find out what happens with her and Larry!), but I am so happy to have finally joined the ranks of Betsy-Tacy fans!  🙂

For Any New Moms You Know Who Are Slightly Crazy (Like, Say, Me)

Child of Mine   Feeding Baby Green   Bright from the Start   Whats Going On

These are just a few of the parenting books I read this year, but these four are probably my favorites.  As I’ve said before, anytime I’m faced with a new problem (like, say, a BABY!), my instinct is to go find a book I can read about it.  The first two here are (obviously) about feeding the baby (which is kind of a full-time occupation around these parts, since we have apparently produced THE HUNGRIEST BABY IN THE UNIVERSE).  (Come to think of it, we probably could have anticipated this from how ravenously starving I was all throughout pregnancy.  Hmmm!)  (Either that or it’s genetic.)  (Probably that.)  The other two are about how baby’s brains develop, which I think is mad fascinating.

Of course, now I need new books about how to stop the prolonged shrieks of despair when the baby isn’t getting fed fast enough (“What do you MEAN I can’t have SEVEN BANANAS AT EVERY MEAL?  WHY must I wait for the squash to cool down?  You are TOTALLY eating something yummier than me even though it looks exactly the same I MUST HAVE IT NOW!  And by the way I KNOW YOU ARE HIDING BLUEBERRIES FROM ME I CAN HEAR THE CARTON FALLING AROUND IN THE FRIDGE!”).

Today we reached the zenith of amazing food: teeny sunflower seed butter & blackberry jam sandwiches.  Oh BOY.  Nothing can possibly ever measure up to the instant enthusiastic love this produced.  I’m afraid it’s all downhill from here, baby.  Well, until ice cream (holy bats, and then to convince him we can’t have ice cream 24 hours a day!).

For Your Writer Friends

Opposite of Fate                 Save the Cat
The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan         Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder

These books are totally different, but both would make great gifts for any writers or aspiring writers you know.  The Opposite of Fate is sort of the story of Amy Tan’s life, but not in a straightforward autobiography sort of way—it’s more like musings and moments and essays—and it’s…oh, dear, I’ve run out of adjectives.  Astonishing, but more so!  Fascinating, but more so!  All the weird weird things that have happened to her and her family, and how they’ve influenced her writing (I also love all of her books)…it left me feeling like there really is something else stirring the universe, beyond the world of normal.  It’s hard to explain, but it’s a wonderful read (for writers or Amy Tan fans or anyone, really, I think).

Save the Cat!, on the other hand, would be a perfect gift for your friend who’s stuck in the middle (or the beginning!) of their novel (especially right after NaNoWriMo!).  It’s technically about screenwriting, but it’s chock-full of great suggestions for plot outlining and storytelling and character building.  And it’s fun!  I love books that make me desperately want to get back to the keyboard and my own writing…more like this, please!

For Your Friend Who Likes Seeing Old Stories in New Ways, or That Guy Who’s Impossible to Buy For

Fables3  Fables8  Fables1001
Fables by Bill Willingham

The fairy tale characters we know have been driven out of the Homelands by a mysterious Adversary and are now living in secret in present-day New York, where the Big Bad Wolf is the Sheriff, Snow White is the Deputy Mayor, Jack the Giant Killer dreams of becoming a movie legend, and Cinderella is a secret agent investigating the Adversary’s hidden identity.  I know, awesome, right?  I read all the books that are out so far, including the spin-off Jack of Fables series, and they’re full of surprises and humor and cool visuals and fun.  This is one of my favorite graphic novel series ever—highly recommended!  (Definitely on the adult side, just to warn you.)

For Your Friend Who Loves to Read What’s Hot Right Now 

Wake    Matched    Extras
Wake, by Lisa McMann  Matched, by Ally Condie  Extras, by Scott Westerfeld 

All right, Extras actually came out last year, but, despite being an enormous Scott Westerfeld fan (Midnighters rules!), I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t read the entire Uglies series until now.  But I’m so glad I did, because the fourth one, Extras, is totally my favorite—holy cow!  What a crazy (and alarmingly believable) world he’s created here!  What a great central character!  What trippy technology, and such an exciting, fast-paced plot!  Nobody builds worlds better than Scott, I think, and the detail and complexity of this particular one totally blew my mind.  If you like the recent wave of dystopian fiction, go back and read these for a pre-Hunger Games version of how it’s done.  Especially Extras, which kind of takes the next step beyond “let’s take down this oppressive dystopian government!” to “so…then what? is this actually better? or just different?”  Kind of super-cool.

Closer to the Hunger Games mold, but with its own neat twist, is Matched, where kids are “matched” with their future spouse by a computer when they’re seventeen.  Cassia gets paired with her best friend Xander—but then a different face flashes briefly across the screen, and it’s another boy she knows.  Did the computer get it wrong?  Who should she really be with?  It’s a premise that reaches out and grabs you, and then it’s a pretty unusual, sweet love story.  With more to come!  I can’t wait for book two!  Plus this literally just came out this week (and how much do we love this cover?), so it’ll be a VERY shiny and new present!

Wake came out a couple years ago, but the third book in the trilogy (Gone) arrived this year, and aren’t trilogies best when you can read them all at once, anyway?  :-)  (Not that I’ve ever tortured people with a cliffhanger or anything.)  17-year-old Janie keeps getting sucked into other people’s dreams, which is not as fun as it sounds…especially when she falls into nightmares and finds out way more than she wants to know about the people around her.  I loved the voice and the romance and the very unexpected places the plot went; I couldn’t predict what was going to happen, which I always appreciate!  Give it to your friend with insomnia…it’ll help her get through the night, plus reassure her that her problems could be worse!  😉

For Your Friend Who’s Always Like, “I Should Read Something Classic and Famous” or “The Only Really Good Books Are Over 900 Pages Long” or “Gee, I Wonder What Farming Was Like in Russia in the Late 1800s”
Anna Karenina3
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

OK, true, several of the 100 books I read this year were graphic novels, but on the other hand, one of the books was Anna Karenina, so don’t be calling me a slacker over here.  :-)  Of course (warning: heresy ahead!), I rather thought this book needed some editing (I’m sorry!  I know that’s a blasphemous thing to say about the greatest work of literature ever or whatever!  But it was seriously long!  With a lot of rambling about farming and a very lengthy unnecessary scene about a local election that nobody outside of 19th-century Russia will ever care about!  The novel would still be awesome…I scandalously contend MORE awesome…without it!).

But the multi-dimensionality of the characters was mind-boggling, and there were all these moments that seriously made me go, “Yes!  I know that feeling (or that person) exactly!”  Which is FREAKY, and tells you Leo Tolstoy was remarkable about understanding universal human stuff.  Including some really astonishing new-mom moments, which, how did he know?  How did he get inside my brain?

Also, the climax of the book still traumatizes me if I think about it too much, even though I knew it was going to happen well before I started.  I could really go on and on about this book, but I will spare you.

Just one more thing to add: Adam loved it, too!  Someone who would rather be programming or playing saxophone than reading!  So it is not just for big book nerds like me, but also…um, other kinds of nerds.  🙂

And finally, two books by (full disclosure) people I know, but luckily they are excellent and I feel quite confident recommending them anyhow.  🙂

For Your Big-Brained Friend Who Talks Way Way Too Much

Wisenheimer, by Mark Oppenheimer

I don’t normally like memoirs* (usually they make me feel like, why should I care about your random life, random person?), and I must admit it is SO WEIRD reading the memoir of someone I consider a friend, but Mark’s story of his childhood as a debate-loving wordsmith was really compelling…it felt familiar (yes, it is possible I was kind of a wordy kid myself, although my own drug of choice was spelling bees followed by theatre) and yet also surprising and astonishingly frank—it reminded me of Paul Feig’s memoir Kick Me in its honesty.  If you know someone who keeps getting into trouble for using their intelligence and wordiness the wrong way, steer them toward this book (and the nearest debate team) for a little hope, humor, and guidance.  🙂

*unless they’re by writers about becoming writers, or Prisoner of Trebekistan

For Your Friend Who Cares About What’s Happening in the World  (Hint: Pair this with a charitable gift—like an animal from Heifer International or a contribution to Partners World—to make this an even more meaningful and awesome present.)

Bamboo People
Bamboo People, by Mitali Perkins 

I’ll be honest, I love Mitali (as does everyone who meets her!) and her books, so I can’t be objective about this, but I think Bamboo People is my favorite of hers so far.  (And it also came out this year, so it is also shiny and new!)  It’s about what’s really going on in Burma right now, realistic but not depressing, with two engaging boy narrators who bring the story to life.  I didn’t know much about Burma, so I really appreciated this glimpse of a totally different world and the struggles they’re dealing with.  But it’s also an action-packed story that I think boy readers would easily get into, and pairing it with something that helps the world at the same time would be a great way to remind them that it’s more than a story.

In fact, all of these books would go well with a gift like that—some of my other favorite charities are DonorsChoose, First Book, Doctors Without Borders, and the World Wildlife Fund—or find something you (or the one you’re buying a present for) care about and pick a charity to match.  Cool, right?

And if you’re looking for more terrific book suggestions, don’t forget to check out Annie and Aunt, where my lovely and brilliant friend Annie has been talking about wonderful books with her aunt all year.  :-)  And say, there are some books by me out there, too!  🙂

Hooray!  Happy Hanukkah, everyone!  We’re off to feed the baby latkes (will he love them?  answer: are they food?  then yes) and keep him away from candles and see how long we can get away with eight days of bananas instead of presents.  ;-)  Yay for the holidays!  Here’s wishing hugs and books and new Top Chef All-Stars episodes and happy thoughts to all of you!

Quote of the Day:  “To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention.” — Ursula K. LeGuin