My favorites of 2017

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Here are my favorite books for 2017. These are ones that I gave 5 stars to in Goodreads but don’t include the adult books I read (or, more often, listened to) as they are outside the purview of this blog. My shift towards YA and away from middle grade is virtually complete – I have read some middle grade this year but not very much and only one book makes it onto my list. While some of these YA novels read a little younger than others, they are all definitely intended for a teen, rather than tween, reader.

Realistic Fiction
Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

Speculative Fiction
The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. book 5) by Jonathan Stroud
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

Nonfiction
Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

There is also one late addition that I have read but not yet posted a review for, but will do at the beginning of the year:
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

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Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner
A Queen’s Thief novel
Greenwillow, 2017.

Though I have read and enjoyed a couple of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books it was a long time ago and I recall very little. This book is not quite part of the series but is set in the same world and Eugenides the Thief is a support character.

A YA historical novel set in an alternate version of Medieval Mediterranean, it’s both a buddy road trip and a primer on political manipulation and intrigue. Kamet, a high up Mede slave is on the run after his master is poisoned and fortuitously meets up with an Attolian who is there to take him to Gen, the King of Attolia as revenge for something his master did. (The Attolian’s name is withheld until quite late in the book – a typical Turner ploy. Apparently this character was in a previous book though I had no recollection of him – anyway, I’ll treat it as a spoiler and won’t give his name here)

As they travel by boat, foot, and cart on the run from the Emperor’s guard, they encounter kindness and cynicism, help and hindrance. Narrated by Kamet, we see his sharp-wittedness which gets them out of as many tight spots as the Attolian’s fighting skills. His condescension to the Attolian, who he believes to be a bit of a lunkhead, gradually gives way to admiration and friendship.

The writing is exemplary and serves the characters and the plot without being showy for the sake of it and it’s a satisfying, warm novel that’s character driven as well as plot driven. There are the twists that a Turner fan might expect but are just as thrilling for a newcomer to the series. As ever with Turner, while I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, I’m not sure how much kid appeal it has – but she keeps writing them and libraries keep buying them so I’m obviously missing something!

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 2017

Pullman makes a welcome and largely successful return to the world of His Dark Materials with the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set when Lyra Belacqua is just a baby. I LOVED all three books of HDM but most especially the middle one, The Subtle Knife which introduced Will.

In the familiar steampunky Oxford, where a person’s soul is an externalized animal daemon and alethiometers can reveal the truth, 6-month old Lyra has been placed in the sanctuary of a nunnery to protect her from the Magisterium, the ruling religious body, after a witch has prophesied that she is “destined to put an end to destiny.”

The protagonist is 11-year old Malcolm Polstead – a marvelously enterprising, curious, and full-hearted boy who is something of a precursor of Will. He helps out at his parents’ pub and at the nunnery where he meets and becomes deeply enamored of baby Lyra. In his wanderings around the city he becomes involved with a scholar-spy who might be working against the Magisterium.

When a supernatural storm floods the country, Malcolm, along with sharp and no-nonsense 16 year-old Alice, rescues Lyra from the nunnery. They set off in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, to London to the perceived safety of Lyra’s father. On this odyssey, which has rather more natural and supernatural encounters than I really wanted, they are relentlessly pursued by a smiling villain and his hideously deformed hyena daemon.

Pullman expands the world – three alethiometers! – and adds new characters including the uncomfortably creepy villain, Gerard Bonneville. There are returning characters, including Lyra’s parents Lord Asriel and the chilling Mrs. Coulter, which might bring a frisson of familiarity to HDM readers but new readers will not be disadvantaged.

The target is still organized religion and Pullman pursues this with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Magisterium’s secret police, and the League of St. Alexander, which empowers children to turn in supposed enemies of the Church. Dust is discussed briefly, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I got much out of those passages and recall feeling similarly vague in the later (chronologically) books.

The ending is frustratingly abrupt, raising many questions and it is unclear how or even if the next book in the series, apparently set a decade after His Dark Materials, will answer them. Nonetheless, even with flaws, this is an impressive extension to a beloved series that will appeal to tweens, teens, and adults.

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

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Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu
DC Icons series
Random House, January 2018.

This solid second entry in the DC Icons series which looks at the teenage years of superheroes is set in a bleak crime-ridden Gotham City in which the megarich are being murdered and their funds taken to finance an anti-capitalist operation called the Nightwalkers. The police manage to capture one, Asian American teen Madeline Wallace and she is kept in top security Arkham Asylum where 18 year-old Bruce Wayne is doing community service after a run in with the law.

Ms Lu has definitely opted for the bleaker Christopher Nolan Dark Knight vibe rather than the more campy alternative, and while atmospheric, it did make the book a bit of a trudge for me. However, Ms Lu does action well, and the writing really lifts off in those scenes, particularly in the climax when Bruce takes on the Nightwalkers, clad in a prototype batsuit.

Bruce is a smart and earnest protagonist, still haunted by the murder of his parents when he was younger, and he falls hard for the far more complicated and gorgeous Madeline. Though the Nightwalkers are new villains, there are several characters that will be familiar to those who know the Batman comic books and movies.

As with Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman, the superhero name is only in the title, and in this younger Bruce we can clearly see the upstanding and thoughtful citizen and skillful fighter that he will later become in his role of guardian of Gotham City.

The novel works equally well for those who are familiar with Gotham City and those who are new to it, and, with its high interest main character and top notch YA author, it is a must have for all libraries serving teens.

Thanks to Random House for the review copy.

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Beast and Crown by Joel Ross

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Beast & Crown by Joel Ross
HarperCollins, 2017

I really enjoyed the two-book Fog Diver series, and was on the panel that awarded the Cybil to The Fog Diver. So I was excited to get Mr Ross’s lively new middle grade fantasy in which he continues to use alternative worlds to look at life for those who are on the bottom rung, or not even part of society. While it is not quite as thrillingly imaginative or as smart as his previous novels, it is still very readable and is bound to please middle grade fantasy fans.

13 year-old Ji is a boot boy for an aristocratic family and is friends with Sally, a stable girl and Roz, a young lady without means who is tolerated by the family. The three are planning to escape to the city to rescue Sally’s brother Chibo. Fate seems to be on their side when they are taken to the city as part of the young master’s entourage where he is to be trained to take part in a competition that will decide who is heir to the throne.

The ruler of the world is the Summer Queen who uses magic to suppress the ogres, goblins, and other non humans who threaten the humans. However, Ji and friends find that these so-called monsters are a lot more civilized than the humans.

The characters are as well-crafted as those of the Fog Diver and have a similar range of skin tones. Just like the previous book, they are appealing but perhaps a little one dimensional: Ji is cunning and wants to be self-centered but is too moral; Sally is brave and wants to be a knight; Roz is a “lady” and is full of book-smarts. There is a lot of fun to be had with Nin the ogre who conflates words to produce pleasing new ones.

The created world is straightforward and has less depth than The Fog Diver, and is a curious appropriation of Asian and Latinx cultures for no apparent reason. Pet peeve – to show that this is not our world, there are two moons which is straight out of the Secrets of Droon playbook.

The plot feels a little derivative – I noticed a resemblance to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, though without the edge and sharpness. Nonetheless it moves along at a good clip with some interesting twists. There are some curious diversions which seem like they are going to lead to something but then don’t, making the book rather longer than it needs be, though maybe setting something up for the next book.It was clear fairly early on that this would be a series (or maybe just a duology) but a resolution is reached and I don’t really feel the need to read more.

Release by Patrick Ness

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Release by Patrick Ness
HarperTeen, 2017

Over the course of one “eternal pivotal day” Ness’s masterful YA speculative novel tracks both gay white rising senior Adam Thorn and the destiny of the world. As in The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015), the author intersperses a wrenching realistic novel with snippets of an apparently unrelated fantasy story, and their coming together at the end, a mere brief kiss of two worlds, completes both stories.

Adam is having the worst day of his life: His former lover Enzo, who he is still not over, is leaving town, his boss fires him after Adam turns down his advances, and there is tension with his repressive evangelical family.  Adam reels through all of this wanting only a release to let him live his life as he wants.

Meanwhile the spirit of a girl who was murdered has bound itself to a Queen, and seeking her own release walks the town. And if the Queen doesn’t get back to the lake before the sun sets, then the world will end.

Adam is a vibrantly alive teen who has felt unloved by his blood family so has created his own family. Angela, who is Korean, is everything a person might want in a best friend – supportive, funny, wise and always on his side. Her liberal and loving adoptive family provide a stark contrast to Adam’s. And he has a new boyfriend, Linus, who Adam knows intellectually is so much better for him than Enzo but his heart has yet to accept it. (Note: there is some fairly explicit but sensually written sex).

As I found with The Rest of Us, I chafed at the fantasy element initially but loved the realistic sections. Towards the middle I was appreciating the way they echoed and resonated with each other, and by the end, the closure made sense, though the two stories are nowhere near as integrated as in the previous novel. Could it work without? Yes, probably, but it would be a lesser novel.

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston
Dutton, 2017

This quirkily appealing alternate history imagines that the sun never set on the British Empire because Queen Victoria’s descendants married into the colonies, ensuring a “cosmopolitan, multiracial mosaic.” Now, two centuries on, a debut ball in Toronto brings together quiet and pragmatic white Helena, her Irish-Hong Kong Chinese unspoken intended August, and Margaret, with “brown skin, epicanthal folds” and a “curly dark mass” of hair.

Each of the three has a secret that will shape their futures: Margaret is actually the heir to the throne; August has got himself into legal and financial trouble; Helena learns that she has an XY chromosome and is intersex. How these three learn each other’s secrets and what they do with them makes for an entertaining and charming novel. However, I thought that Helena’s Big Reveal was somewhat muffled and its significance isn’t explained till much later.

The world the author has created is an intriguingly odd mash up of Victorian era dress and manners, present day technology, and scifi genetic matching and it is explicated through snippets of history at the start of chapters. I found the role of genetics, which is somehow under the purview of the Church, to be a little confusing and it was never entirely clear to me what connection Helena’s mother had with all of this.

Nonetheless, the author’s three lead characters are very well-crafted and it is their story and the unexpected ways in which their relationships develop that form the beating heart of the novel and while the setting is smart it takes a backseat to that. While I spent most of the novel assuming it was going to be a series because of the leisurely pace, a surprisingly quick and complete wrap-up suggests otherwise though I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel.

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