Unveiling our Top 10 YA Books List

The time has come for another list! As you will all soon come to realize, Emera and Kakaner have a dire weaknesses for creating and maintaining lists. We are also both fanatic collectors and readers of YA books, even in our post-teenage years

The list is reproduced below, but its permanent home is on our Lists page here:

The Black Letters Top 10 YA Books

In alphabetical order by author:

  • Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll
  • Ella Enchanted (1997) by Gail Carson Levine
  • The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Justin Norton
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) by Robert C. O’Brien
  • The Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O’Dell
  • Bridge to Terabithia (1977) by Katherine Paterson
  • The Perilous Gard (1971) by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare
  • Maniac Magee (1990) by Jerry Spinelli
  • Dealing with Dragons (1990) by Patricia Wrede

Well, we started with about 20 choices and it was slightly tricky narrowing it down to 10. The genres range from fantasy to urban fiction to historical fiction to animal fiction, which we believe is a pretty healthy smattering of YA genres. If anyone hasn’t read any of these, well, he or she should. All these reads would probably take about an hour, two hours tops, and promise to be most rewarding.

Anna, by Isaac Marion and Sarah Musi (2009) K

Date Read: 6.11.08
Book From: BurningBuilding, now Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

The summer I discovered Isaac Marion‘s fiction (or more correctly, Emera discovered and I piggybacked on that), I ran around my friends group trying to get everyone to read his stories. I basically spent all of a work day on BurningBuilding engrossed in his short stories, sometimes reading some more than once. Out of all these, the one I repeatedly recommended was Anna, a story I believe is impossible not to love.

Anna is the first person tale of a young ghost who wanders through earth and time, and one day, falls in love with a young boy and follows his life. The story is a mixture of emotions, atmosphere, and a small bit of dialogue that somehow come together to produce a sweeping epic effect. Its simple but beautiful prose is proof that one doesn’t need embellishments and flourishes to successfully tell a story.

The word that always comes to mind when I read Anna is “floating”. First of all, Anna… well, she floats, so I believe it is appropriate. But the word also captures the way Anna lives out her “life”, carried by a wind of time, sometimes skipping 10 years, sometimes 100. This ephemeral quality is also skillfully conveyed by Sarah Musi‘s illustrations, which feature a lot of flowing lines and a bit of whimsy.

In particular, Anna contains one of my favorite scenes ever:

“One day in high-school the boy met a beautiful girl, and they kissed under the football bleachers. Anna turned away, and wished for a strong wind to blow her far from there, but the air was still. She floated into a mountain instead, moving through the rock for miles until she reached the mountain’s heart, and closed her eyes there, feeling the warm, dark crush of the mountain’s life grinding around her.”

I love the idea of withdrawing into the heart of a mountain to mourn. It is such a powerful, majestic image (or maybe I just love mountains and am obsessed with Now We Have a Map of the Piano by Mum), and I like to believe the mountain also lends Anna strength for the rest of her journey.

As of this entry, Marion still has 25 remaining copies of Anna. These are gorgeous, self-published illustrated books on very fine, sturdy paper. If this sounds interesting, you should definitely purchase a copy before Marion becomes too famous =)

Go To:

Isaac Marion
Purchase Anna
Online Sample
Anna (2008) [E]

“Behind the Mirror,” by Yoon Ha Lee (2007) E

Date read: 8.10.09
Read in: Coyote Wild
Reviewer: Emera

Yoon Ha Lee’s flash fiction (I did a word count out of curiosity – 223) “Behind the Mirror” is lovely, sad, and unsettling, and has one of the most memorable single lines I’ve read, that could be a poem all by itself. The story has an appropriately vanishing feel to it, a sort of silvery evanescence. I found one paragraph a little overwritten, which is troublesome in such a short piece, but it doesn’t really hurt the story as a whole.

“Behind the Mirror” appears in the first issue of online speculative fic/poetry quarterly Coyote Wild. Take a minute out of your day to enjoy Lee’s story. (That’s why I love short fiction – you can pop one in here and there so easily.)

Go to:
Yoon Ha Lee

Hugos a go-go

The winning Hugos have been declared, and I suspect that no one was too surprised by the results. For one, Neil Gaiman‘s The Graveyard Book did indeed take best novel, making this Gaiman’s fourth Hugo win, out of six nominations – one of which, for Anansi Boys, Gaiman actually turned down. Not a bad record, eh?

Other familiar names on the winning list included Ted Chiang, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, Ellen Datlow, Doctor Horrible, WALL-E… I was also very happy to see that Weird Tales won for best semi-prozine only two years after its reorganization/makeover, and that Electric Velocipede won for best fanzine.

Awards season

I can’t say I’m qualified to blog about genre fiction awards season, given that I generally straggle at least one year behind current offerings in the field, but I’m still having fun following the buzz surrounding the 2009 Hugo Awards and World Fantasy Awards, the shortlists for which have been released.

SF Signal has an interesting panel feature asking a dozen-odd genre folk the following questions about the Hugo Awards:

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?
2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?
3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

It went on a bit long for me, so I stopped halfway through, but of what I read, I found Paul Graham Raven‘s answer to #2 particularly interesting and well-articulated. Steve Davidson’s responses were also useful in considering the history, scope, and overall “purpose” of the awards – mainly, that the Hugo Awards were not primarily conceived of as writing awards, but as gestures of recognition to a variety of figures in fandom. I guess that the idea of “best” is compelling enough that that ends up being the focus, as with all awards.

The top two trends in responses:

  • The Hugo Awards, being based on the votes of a small subset of people, are more likely to reward a particular sort of popularity than, necessarily, literary merit. This is expressed with varying degrees of resignation and ire by nearly every panelist.
  • Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book seems the top pick for best novel, with potential but unlikely competition from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. (It’s a battle of the Nei/als, as one panelist put it.)

Go to:
Hugo Awards nominees
World Fantasy Awards nominees

“Urchins, While Swimming,” by Catherynne M. Valente (2006) E

Date read: 8.5.09
Read in: Clarkesworld, Issue 3
Reviewer: Emera

Catherynne Valente‘s short story “Urchins, While Swimming” left me wide-eyed and breathless. It’s a simple, sorrowful, beautiful story, filled with unforgettable imagery and lyrical language. It’s about love between mothers and daughters, and falling in love, and the Russian rusalka myth. (Unless you already know it, you might not want to read it until after you’ve read the story.)

Below, a few of my favorite lines:

“The stars were salt-crystals floating in the window’s mire.”

“Artyom ate the same thing every day: smoked fish, black bread, blueberries folded in a pale green handkerchief.”

“…she did not say we drag the lake with us, even into the city, drag it behind us, a drowning shadow shot with green.”

For this story, Valente won the 2007 StorySouth Million Writers Award for Best Online Short Story; very cool, and deserving. Kakaner also lent me her copy of Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden this weekend, and now I’m even more excited to start it.

Also, since both of us are so partial to short fiction, we’ll probably be inaugurating a secondary review index for short stories alone, which will require a monumental amount of effort, but hopefully be rewarding.

Go to:
Catherynne M. Valente

The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E

Date Read: 7.9?.09

 

Book From: Personal collection

 

Reviewer: Emera

Jessamy Harrison is eight years old, the British-born daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father. Extraordinarily precocious and sensitive, she spends hours by herself and often falls into inexplicable screaming fits and fevers. One summer, her mother brings her to visit her grandfather in Nigeria. Even among her cousins there, Jess feels unwanted and out of place, until she meets Titiola – “TillyTilly,” as Jess calls her – an odd, mischievous girl living in an abandoned building on the family compound. TillyTilly is soon Jess’ first and best friend, and delights Jess with her waywardness and strange tricks. However, as their pranks become increasingly vicious, Jess begins to realize that TillyTilly is becoming an uncontrollably destructive force in her life.

Helen Oyeyemi famously wrote The Icarus Girl at the ripe age of 18, while studying for her college entrance exams. (She ended up at Cambridge.) When I tell friends this, they tend  to raise an eyebrow and ask if it reads like it was written by an 18-year-old. Amazingly, it doesn’t. Oyeyemi’s writing is elegant and meticulously stylized, only occasionally venturing into the overwrought. Her portrayal of Jess is astoundingly compelling. The reader immediately and intimately enters her perspective and begins to understand how tormented and frighteningly fragile she is, despite being (or because she is) so young. Much of the impetus to read onwards, in my experience, came from the desire to see Jess safe and healed from her fears. I was increasingly terrified for Jess as the novel went on, and some of the scenes in the book reach truly nightmarish pitches of horror. The half-articulated, hallucinatory style of the darker, mythical elements actually reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Continue reading The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008) K

Date read: 11.8.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Nobody Owens (Bod) lives in a graveyard, has ghosts for friends and family, and a mysterious neither-living-nor-dead guardian. As he grows up, he has to learn both the ways and secrets of the large graveyard as well as deal with the outside world. This foreign world is extremely dangerous place for Bod because the assassin of his family is still on the prowl. Throughout the journey of his childhood Bod basically learns about growing up– girls, beings which are neither living nor, and slowly, how to function in the outside world.

Review

Way to go Neil Gaiman! All those months of meticulously following the progress of The Graveyard Book on his blog certainly paid off– the day it was released, I headed over to my local bookstore, plucked one brand spanking new copy off the display, and settled into an armchair to read for the next couple hours. I read it all in one sitting, and in about a week, after procuring enough monetary funds, I immediately bought the book.

I have to say The Graveyard Book was spot on in so many respects– character development, pacing, storytelling… to name a few. Sure Bod lives in a graveyard, but his childhood frustrations and adventures  are so relatable. He has his own quarrels with his guardians, fighting against the constraints of the graveyard much like children do their own homes. The imagery is simply splendid, especially Bod’s adventures beneath the graveyard and all the different fantastical creatures. And, who doesn’t like ghosts, vampires, and other such creatures? I definitely felt transported into another world through that imaginary magic portal every child wants to travel through. Above all, I was definitely caught up in the snowball effect of the novel– you’re reading and the suspense and developments keep piling on until suddenly, you realize you haven’t been breathing for several pages. That is the feeling I’d been longing to experience again, that same thrill of reading Patricia Wrede or Brian Jacques or J.K. Rowling as a child with breathy light-headedness.

The Graveyard Book has replaced Coraline as my favorite Gaiman YA fiction. It is fantastical, yet down to earth at the same time, and strikes a wonderful balance between barreling trains of action and meandering scenes chock full of character development. Quite honestly, one of my recurring gripes with Gaiman’s works is they typically feel a bit cold, despite being terrifically written and crafted. I usually enjoy every minute of a Gaiman novel or comic, but come away feeling a bit dissatisfied, as if it didn’t successfully speak to me on a deeper level. The Graveyard Book, however, was warm and honest, and definitely a great read for any child or even adult.

Go to:

Neil Gaiman

Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

Date Read: 6.13.09

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Emera

Oskar is an alienated twelve-year-old living in a decaying Swedish suburb in the 1980’s. He is brutally bullied at school, and fantasizes often about striking back at his tormentors, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper articles about murders as his inspiration. Two new neighbors move into Oskar’s apartment complex: one an older man, and one, apparently his daughter, an androgynous girl named Eli who smells terrible, walks barefoot in the snow, and only comes out at night, but is nonetheless befriended by Oskar.

If you know anything about vampires, you can imagine where this is going. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, translated by Ebba Segerberg) was a bestseller in Sweden when it was published in 2004, and gained further international attention when the 2008 Swedish-language film adaptation (IMDB) won a number of awards and became a surprise hit. I’m not sure now if I heard about the movie or the book first, but unusually for me, I ended up watching the movie first, and read the book shortly after. I enjoyed both immensely, but for slightly different reasons in each case. Given that, I thought I’d do a combined film and book review. Please note that mild spoilers follow.

Continue reading Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) E

Vampire Deluxe!, by Lawrence Gullo & David Ryder Prangley (2009) E

Date Read: 6.19.09
Book From: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Vampire Deluxe!, by Lawrence Gullo and David Ryder Prangley,  is a profoundly silly vampire comic featuring two medieval lads who masquerade as princes of the night in order to sex (and rob) the ladies. Pretty good plan, huh?

The concept is good enough to deserve a longer treatment, at least in my opinion, but here it sets up a pleasurably nonsensical plot involving midnight mandrake-digging expeditions, voluptuous ladies in white gowns, and dialogue like “Take that, harlot.”

Gullo’s characters are distinctively gaunt and elegant, and while his stylized anatomy can make for stiff posing, his characters’ hilarious facial expressions often sell the punchlines of the sardonic jokes – something I also find to be the case with My Life in Blue, his first webcomic. (Vampire Deluxe! also happens to be set in Gullo’s mythical Eastern European homeland, Baritaria, the subject of his second webcomic, Baritarian Boy.)

Eeeeeeeeehhhhhh

All in all, I had me some good times with Vampire Deluxe! – it’s a quick and marvellously fun read for any fan of Gothic goofiness. (If you like Young Frankenstein, try…)

Go to:
Lawrence Gullo: bio and author page
My Life in Blue
Baritarian Boy