Amber Morrell

writer, reader, librarian

Category: Roundups

2015 Favorite Reads

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I’ve had about a week to recover from the start of the New Year, but I still can’t get over some of the great books I read in 2015. I figured since I didn’t post all my reviews here for those books that I could do a small round up of my favorite books from the past year. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the other 34 books I read–on the contrary, I read some amazing stories and I’ve been taken to wild, thrilling worlds. I read more this year than any other year in my life, and consequently I think I learned more about the world–and about myself–this year. Some of the books that might have made this list are actually 2016 releases, so it felt unfair to include them.  These are the absolute BEST books I read, in no particular order.

 

A Darker Shade final for IreneA DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V.E. Schwab

Okay, I know I said these books were in no particular order. But ADSoM is easily my favorite book published in 2015, and it’s the only 2015 release on this list. I love the worldbuilding the most. A Darker Shade of Magic encompasses four parallel Londons–although we only see three of them, they each have such definitive and beautifully crafted character that I was so enthralled with every detail of them.

The magic in this novel follows a set of rules that are simple but make perfect sense. By the time we get to the climax, it is believable and exciting because the magic system is so solid.

Schwab is also a master at crafting a compelling plot. The characters get into trouble, make a plan, but then everything goes wrong. Super wrong. The worst things that can happen DO happen. I was constantly excited and honestly scared, because there is so much mystery entwined with the worlds. I felt on the edge of my seat to the very last page.

11235712CINDER by Marissa Meyer

Cinder completely blew me away. I’ve been hearing about this book both online and through word-of-mouth from some friends, and it absolutely met the high expectations.

Cinder is a strong, caring, and relatable character, and I love that she uses her skills and her wit to get her out of (and in to) perilous situations. She’s not afraid to do what’s right, even when faced with crazy challenges and an abusive family. In fact, Cinder impressed me time and again with her strength even when her “family” mentally and physically abused her.

I thought the love story was trite at first, but it really does develop to be believable and honest. I love the mishmash of Cinderella and Anastasia and CYBORGS!

While there were some plot points I totally saw coming, the ride getting to them was such a thrill.

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THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been citing THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE as my “favorite novel ever” for a while now. It’s always my go-to recommendation for someone that likes fantasy but wants something thoughtful and different. It’s short and sweet and absolutely brilliant. Neil Gaiman knows how to craft an emotional and meaningful story. A beautiful, magical journey that really captures the contrast between childhood and adulthood and the way our memories can play tricks on us. It’s a very uncomplicated story, almost like a fairy tale, but it sticks with you.

October Wrap Up

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This is coming a little late, but I wanted to do a quick wrap-up of what I’ve done and of what’s to come. The month of October was the first of hopefully many where I actively post reviews of the books I read on this blog. Not every book is going to make it; some books are old and reviews are outdated, some books are so popular that my tiny opinion will be trampled on by much louder and more influential ones, and some books I had to read for school so it kind of feels like cheating to write a review of them (besides, I’m probably sick about talking about it ad nauseum in class anyway). In any case, this post will wrap up everything I’ve read this month and what I’ve liked the most, including books I didn’t formally review.

Here is a chronological list of the books I read. Books with links will link to its review.

  1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
  2. Damned if I Do, by Percival Everett
  3. The Coquette, by Hannah Foster
  4. The Abyss Surrounds Us, by Emily Skrutskie
  5. When the Killing’s Done, by T.C. Boyle
  6. Seaside, by Wylde Scott
  7. The Girl in the Well is Me, by Karen Rivers
  8. Queen of Shadows, by Sarah J. Maas
  9. The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee

What I Liked

Quite a bit of the list is comprised of books I had to read for school, which is not surprising for someone studying English (note that I didn’t include a reading if I only read an excerpt; only complete novels or books are on the list). What surprised me is that I liked much of what I read, including some of the things I read for my early American Literature class like Foster’s The Coquette. It felt so modern even though it was written in the late 1700s and I was shocked to find that there isn’t a modern retelling of it. A modern YA retelling of The Coquette would be absolutely fantastic, pregnancy and all.

Another book I found quite pleasant was When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle. This is the first Boyle novel I’ve read even though he’s quite a prolific and well-known writer, and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. Especially after doing a close reading of the novel, I find his mastery of language extremely nuanced. His approach to time in the novel (and his manipulation of it) has been inspiring my own writing for the past few weeks.

On the reading-for-fun front, my favorite novel this month is of course Emily Skrutskie’s The Abyss Surrounds Us. I say that not just because she’s a sassy and smart Twitter gal, but because the book just down-right rocks. It’s filled with kick-ass girl-power badassery. And it’s weird. And I love it.

Looking Ahead: November

This month is the month of essays, midterms, delicious autumn comfort food, and of course: NaNoWriMo! I’ll be participating as part of the North Orange County region with some absolutely amazing writing friends (you know who you are!). And because I’m no longer a retail slave I’ll actually be able to go out and do write-ins on the weekends! I’m even hosting my own write-in this year: It’s called “Thirsty Thursdays,” and it’s basically a write-in with alcohol. What could go wrong? (Except, you know, drinking until you pass out and not getting any writing done. Oh, was that what I was supposed to be doing? Writing?) If you happen to be in the Orange County area, definitely check it out! The information is all on the NaNoWriMo regional page for North OC.

I don’t actually know what I’ll be doing for NaNoWriMo yet. I planned on continuing my current YA fantasy WIP, but since it’s been regularly eating my soul and then vomiting it into a dark pit sadness, I’m considering starting something new. Something modern. Something fun (and less, you know, despair-ridden).

Will I get any reading done this month? I guess we’ll find out!

4 Middle Grade Books With Awesome Girl Protagonists

I love middle grade books. Middle grade fiction explores what it means to discover who you are and what you want to be, compared to YA, which tends to ask questions about where you fit in with the world. With middle grade you get action-packed adventure and journeys where characters begin to discover who they are as rational, intelligent people without all the sexual tension holding them down.  And while I like romantic subplots that make me squee and roll around my bed in “will-they-or-won’t-they” agony as much as the next girl, there’s something special in watching a character discover themselves before they romantically connect with other people.

I decided to compile a list of five middle grade novels that have an awesome girl as the leading character. Getting inside the head of a strong, willful girl is one of the reasons I love to read. The following books are in no particular order; they’re all awesome!

The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove

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Summary from Amazon:

Boston, 1891. Sophia Tims comes from a family of explorers and cartologers who, for generations, have been traveling and mapping the New World—a world changed by the Great Disruption of 1799, when all the continents were flung into different time periods.  Eight years ago, her parents left her with her uncle Shadrack, the foremost cartologer in Boston, and went on an urgent mission. They never returned. Life with her brilliant, absent-minded, adored uncle has taught Sophia to take care of herself.

Then Shadrack is kidnapped. And Sophia, who has rarely been outside of Boston, is the only one who can search for him. Together with Theo, a refugee from the West, she travels over rough terrain and uncharted ocean, encounters pirates and traders, and relies on a combination of Shadrack’s maps, common sense, and her own slantwise powers of observation. But even as Sophia and Theo try to save Shadrack’s life, they are in danger of losing their own.

The Glass Sentence plunges readers into a time and place they will not want to leave, and introduces them to a heroine and hero they will take to their hearts.

The Glass Sentence is a unique middle grade fantasy–probably one of the most interesting and quirky premises I have read in a long time. In its essence it is a time travel story, but it’s the earth itself that has fragmented, meaning the characters travel in time just by physically moving from place to place. I’m unsure where to categorize this as far as genre–historical fantasy? Science fiction? Steampunk? The genre-bending line-blurring of The Glass Sentence is one of the reason I love it so much. The premise is just so fresh.

The main character, Sophia, seemed really relatable to me, as well. I like that she was timid and emotional and didn’t always make good choices. Most young teens are like that, but with most middle grade adventures it’s like they suddenly burst from their shell as full-fledged, confident adults. Sophia’s anxiety was a breath of fresh air. She got frustrated. She cried. She stomped her foot. And even though she resented these emotions, they’re just so real to me. We aren’t all stoic statues that can control ourselves, and controlling my own emotions was something I struggled with a lot as a teenager–I still struggle with it sometimes today.

The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers

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Summary from Amazon:

A hilarious and heartwrenching story about a bullied girl whose search for a new beginning takes a dire wrong turn.   

Newcomer Kammie Summers has fallen into a well during a (fake) initiation into a club whose members have no intention of letting her join. Now Kammie’s trapped in the dark, growing increasingly claustrophobic, and waiting to be rescued—or possibly not.

As hours pass, the reality of Kammie’s predicament mixes with her memories of the highlights and lowlights of her life so far, including the reasons her family moved to this new town in the first place. And as she begins to run out of oxygen, Kammie starts to imagine she has company, including a French-speaking coyote and goats that just might be zombies.
This one hasn’t been released yet so I don’t want to give too much away. It will be published on March 15, 2016, and I plan on releasing a full review when the date gets closer. But I will say that Kammie has a super sassy voice that I completely fell in love with. The majority of the narrative is of her thoughts while she’s in the well. She reminisces about the past, and battles with some serious issues of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil. The style becomes stream of consciousness at times as Kammie begins to hallucinate, and I just feel like I’m there with her. This book should be on everyone’s 2016 TBR.

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

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Summary from Amazon:

With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.

The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.

But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are?

This book sounds cheesy, and it kind of is. It’s fun and ridiculous and it doesn’t take itself seriously. I know I said I liked my middle grade romance-free, and this could be considered a deviation from that. But I would argue that the romance in this book is only there to parody itself; is finding your “true love” even necessary in a story? Not just in fairy tales, but in all narratives. Did we really have to pair off all the Harry Potter characters at the end? Does not having a True Love by the end mean you’ll be an old maid forever (and is that a bad thing)? I think this book, through satire and tomfoolery, really gets to the heart of love stories purpose in narratives for children and young adults.

As a bonus, it explores the dynamics of friendship between girls, a theme I always love to see. The girls in this novel actually have distinct personalities–something that can be rare even in books with a strong female lead. Both Sophie and Agatha are strong in their own way, and neither way is good or bad.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin

Summary from Amazon:

WHEN YOUNG TENAR is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, everything is taken away — home, family, possessions, even her name. For she is now Arha, the Eaten One, guardian of the ominous Tombs of Atuan. While she is learning her way through the dark labyrinth, a young wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs’ greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Ged also brings with him the light of magic, and together, he and Tenar escape from the darkness that has become her domain.

This is an oldie, and it’s technically in the YA section, but I see it fitting in more with middle grade themes. Middle grade as a genre didn’t exist back in the 70s when this was published, and if it were published today I believe it would be sorted definitively into middle grade rather than YA.

I chose The Tombs of Atuan because it changed the way I see coming-of-age stories about girls. Tenar is a girl who lost everything, even her name–but through sheer willpower she finds the light in the darkness (quite literally). Many authors, most recently David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame, have said that LeGuin’s Earthsea series is one of the best fantasy series of all time, and I absolutely agree. I don’t think there exists a series that packs as much of an emotional, literary punch through the fantasy genre as Earthsea does. Out of the entire series, The Tombs of Atuan is a strange, beautiful outlier.

 

What are some middle grade novels you love and recommend? Let me know in the comments!

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