This post is LATE! But not TOO late—it’s still January. I’ve decided not to be embarrassed about being late with my Best Books of the Year posts unless I procrastinate all the way to February.
(*knocks on wood* Now, who wants to bet that I post the Best of 2016 in February 2017….? Oh, well.)
Anyway, without further ado, here’s my list for the Best Books of 2015:
FAVORITE NEWLY DISCOVERED AUTHOR OF 2015
The requirements for this award haven’t changed since previous years.
- I have to discover them this year.
- Then I must become so obsessed with them that I read ALL their books.
- They must have more than one book out, because with each book, my love for that author exponentially increases.
I worried that I didn’t have a favorite new author of 2015, and it’s almost true: I only have one HONORARY favorite new author. The reason she’s honorary is that I technically haven’t finished all her books. I’m still reading her first published title, I Thought It Was Just Me, but I technically started it before the end of 2015.
So, I say it counts.
You may know Brené Brown from her TED Talk, but some background: she is known for writing about shame and the way it influences our behavior.
If you’ve read the Ever Afters, you may also know that human emotion fascinates me, and what I love about Brené Brown is that she unknots and demystifies emotional processes—both bad habits she has noticed during her social work and healthy habits we can aspire toward. She stresses the importance of letting yourself be vulnerable in order to forge honest connection with other people, and she is open about trying to teach and to learn the processes she outlines.
It was helpful to read all this in 2015, which—it has turned out—was totally a growing year. Reading Brené Brown’s books helped me do two important things:
1) realize how hard I am on myself and
2) figure out how to stop being hard on myself so that I can instead save my energy for hard experiences that exist outside of my brain.
(Also, I really like that she’s a Texan that talks like a Texan. My parents are both from there, so I was deeply entertained by some of the phrases she uses. )
This section is extremely light, because I read VERY LITTLE Middle Grade this year. I’m shocked by how little middle grade I read. Normally, 22-35% of the books I read every year are middle grade titles, and this year, not even close: only 9% were in this age group.
I’m not sure what’s up with this, but if you have good titles to recommend, please LAY THEM ON ME.
The Witch’s Boy
The importance of words, the cost of magic, and the resourcefulness of two smart kids. I especially love the way Barnhill’s lyrical language elevates her fantasy to mythic levels, where the story feels ancient and true and relevant all at the same time.
This graphic novel is about growing up and learning how to be a good friend. The main character happens to be deaf, like one of my uncles, and I liked comparing Cece Bell’s memoir to the stories my mom told about what Uncle Corky faced growing up.
Weirdly, all of these novels have something random in common: they’re twisty and complicated with intricate world-building, layered characters, and a big cool payoff.
Best Tear Jerker / Contemporary – I’ll Give You the Sun
Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before—you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.
Twin brother and sister. Two perspectives over two timelines. A lot of beautiful words on family and grief and being your true self AND on art. I’m a sucker for beautifully lyrical books about artists, and I probably always will be.
Won the Printz right after I read it, so you know other people like it too.
Best Fantasy – The Darkest Part of the Forest
Twin brother and sister (again—isn’t that odd?), living on the border of a Faerie realm. A modern day fairy tale, much like Holly Black’s other work (which I have loved since my teens), but this one is different.
It has the twists of a Hitchcock thriller and the character development of a Joss Whedon series, where you’re led to believe one thing and you later discover something WAY more interesting.
Best Retelling Romance – The Wrath and the Dawn
So, in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a sucker for retellings, and I have a particular fondness for stories I love which haven’t been done very often (or very well).
The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights. If you’re not familiar with that one, it’s about a girl who knowingly marries a king who has a reputation for killing his wives the morning after the wedding. She starts telling a story that first night, and when the dawn comes, the story isn’t done, so the king lets her live. This repeats for…you guessed it, 1,001 nights.
A challenge to turn into a romance, right? But Ahdieh does! And it’s suspenseful and swoony and elegant. Sometimes, I worry about books where the language soars to great heights; the character development often can’t keep up. But for this one, I was 1001% on board with everything. (Yes, pun intended.)
And also, the author is from North Carolina! Where I grew up! How cool is that? Hopefully, our paths will cross someday soon, and I’ll get her to sign my copy.
Honorary Award: The Courts of Thorns and Roses – a new Beauty and the Beast retelling from Sarah J. Maas, who wrote one of my other favorite series, Throne of Glass.
Note: Both of these are rated on the high end of PG-13, I think. So, be warned.
Best Crossover – Sunshine
Full disclosure: Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors, and one of my most trusted reader friends has been recommending this book as one of her favorites for years.
That said, I struggled for years to get past the first ten pages. It’s a very different style from McKinley’s other work (grumpy modern-day narrator instead of high fantasy fairy tale), and plus, it starts off slow. But the world-building is deliberate and sumptuous, and McKinley has this way of creating history in characters and fictional cultures which you want to explore, and her heroines are bright, complicated, bossy, and flawed—all the things I’ve always loved in her work, but a poetic sort of magic conundrum: a magician with power over sunlight imprisoned with an ancient vampire.
But it’s definitely originally intended for adults: possibly even rated R.
Best Fantasy – Uprooted
I heard a lot of buzz about this! And I’m delighted to say it lived up to the hype!
A Dragon, who isn’t a dragon at all (more of an old magician), who accepts girls as a tithe from the villages he protects. Think Princess Mononoke meets Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki’s film based on Diana Wynne Jones’s book), but the grown-up version.
Best Memoir – Yes Please
A person’s tragedy does not make up their entire life. A story carves deep grooves into our brains each time we tell it. But we aren’t one story. We can change our stories. We can write our own.
This was one of the first books I finished in 2015, and I have to say, it absolutely started the year off on the right foot. It also totally prompted me to watch ALL seven seasons of Parks and Recreation and make Amy Poehler my new role model.
Best Books to Read Together
I used to wonder why people read Self Help books. My mom did, when I was growing up, and I thought it was very strange—especially since I thought she was wiser than the authors she was reading could ever be.
After being an adult for a while, I think I understand it a little better. Wisdom is out of fashion in our culture, partially because modern life is so very different than it was even twenty-five years ago. Elders and leaders of religious traditions don’t always have useable advice in an age that is more digitally connected and more visual and more hectic than ever before.
So, instead of hearing wisdom from someone who has lived it all and FIGURED IT ALL OUT (or at least, pretends to), we get reports from the trenches: people who are struggling with the same issues we’re facing, who are sharing what thoughts and processes help them best cope with modern life.
In 2015, these four books helped me rethink some poor (mental) habits—like being hard on myself and shutting down/distancing myself when I’m having a hard time, but here’s a breakdown on what each was specifically helpful with:
Daring Greatly/Rising Strong: Dealing with all the feels, especially those around shame/fear and vulnerability/courage.
The Art of Asking: Dealing with giving and receiving help, especially within the relationship of creator and audience.
Big Magic: Dealing with creativity, both the inspiration and the work.
I’ve been pretty open about how much I love quotes. I collected quite a few while I was reading, and I copied them out onto index cards to use to decorate the wall right across from my bed. For the past five months, they’ve been the first thing I see when I wake up every morning.
Without them, and without the emotional homework that went with them, I don’t think that I would have signed myself up to handle some of the tougher stuff I have been and will be handling in 2016. (More on that soon…)
Okay, y’all: What are some of your favorites from 2015? I would be especially delighted with middle grade recommendations, because I need to remedy this kidlit reading slump ASAP!