Another year distinguished by a glut of good books has flown by. One of my hardest jobs in the face of such abundance is winnowing the lot to a manageable few of the best; in this case, that means a baker’s dozen selected from an initial list of 27. Ah, the labors of Hercules! Anyway, the awful deed is done, and here’s the list—a varied lot, but one that is distinguished by the creative originality that each of its constituents offers to delighted readers.
The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Volume 2: Empire Decayed, by Daniel Kraus
How to describe this novel and the volume that preceded it? The term sui generis leaps to mind, for there’s nothing else quite like this vast, mind-boggling story of an eternally 17-year-old boy, the account of whose colorful life is a richly observed and, yes, disquieting picture of the America in which he lives.
The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle
Federle’s first YA novel is a clear winner, a reader pleasing offering of heart and humor that gives us a protagonist who is coming to terms with guilt while dealing with a tentative love affair. Distinguished by well realized characters and a clever plot that is, as I said in my Booklist review, as bright as a button. This is a treat from start to finish.
Highly Illogical Behavior, by John Cameron Whaley
The latest offering from the Printz Award-winning Whaley doesn’t disappoint. This character-driven story of a boy whose challenges don’t defeat him and a girl who believes in herself the way some people believe in God is distinguished by its wit, its quirky tone, its offbeat premise, and its excellent characterization.
The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge
Here’s one of the most critically praised books of the year—deservedly so. Startlingly original speculative fiction of the first order that, with a sinister botanical twist, belongs in the cerebral company of the likes of Philip Pullman and Margo Lanagan. And in a novel of lies that’s the truth.
The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry Here is one of the very best historical novels of the year. The thoughtful story of the teenaged mystic Dolssa de Stigata is beautifully plotted and the 13th century setting, meticulously researched and wonderfully realized. Atmospheric and numinous, this superb novel is at once challenging and richly satisfying.
The Raven King, by Maggie Stiefvater
The fourth and final volume in Steifvater’s Raven Cycle is, simply, a marvel, arguably the strongest and most spacious of the four volumes that comprise the cycle, which is surely a modern classic in the making. The four Raven boys and their friend Blue are, simply, characters to die for and their beautifully imagined story never strikes a false note as it arrives at a deeply satisfying conclusion. Oh, for a fifth volume . . .
The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner
Could a novel set in a small Southern town named for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan be anything but atmospheric? Steeped in Southern Gothic, this darkly fascinating story of the coming of age of three outsider friends is a natural for fans of Flannery O’Connor. Could there be higher praise?
The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan
Like everything Australian artist Tan does, this one is wildly original. The book is a collection of 75 of his quirky, moody and atmospheric sculptures, each one illustrating an excerpt from one of the Grimm’s fairy tales. In an afterword, Tan notes the influence of Inuit stone carvings and pre-Columbian clay sculptures on his work. An illuminating gallery tour on paper, the book comes with an enthusiastic foreword by Neil Gaiman and commentary by distinguished Grimm scholar Jack Zipes, whose own collection of Grimm tales is exemplary. This is a must-have for Tan fans, and a terrific book for browsers.
Still Life with Tornado, by A. S. King
And now for something entirely different: Here’s the latest wildly imaginative novel from A. S. King, a master of magic realism and the surreal. This one is no exception; a book about art and originality that is itself both artful and original, this is a reading experience akin to riding a literary tornado. Fasten your seatbelts, readers.
The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
Timely and apposite, Yoon’s heartfelt story of two teens—a girl whose family is facing deportation, and a poetic Korean-American boy facing a potentially life-changing interview—is deeply engaging, beautifully written, and distinguished by characters readers will fall in love with.
Unbecoming, by Jenny Downham
This complex novel of a grandmother who is losing herself while her granddaughter is gaining insight into both the elderly woman and her own teenage self — including the discovery of her sexual identity — is moving and memorable and reminds us that before you can come out to others you must first come out to yourself.
We Are the Ants, by Shaun David Hutchinson
Self-hating teenager Henry is caught in an existential trap: Finding life to be absurd, he thinks humans are not the apex of civilization; on the contrary, they are no more significant than ants. Are they even worth saving? A relevant question that this superb novel of ideas addresses with insight and originality.
Whatever, by S. J. Goslee
This charming novel of a conflicted boy who falls in love with his bete noir is a deeply satisfying pleasure, a coming out novel without the traditionally tiresome sturm und drang. The tone, at once humorous and heartfelt, is spot on, and the characters are so engaging as to make what is surely the most likable novel on my list.