Miss Megan’s Five Star Favorites, Part III

Believe it or not, I read grownup books on occasion. Not as often as I would like, but still, I try to add a “big kid” title to my list every now and again. These are a selection of my favorites, the ones I’ve given the coveted five star rating on Goodreads.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’DonnellHarperCollins; 25.99; Ages 16-adult

Opening line: “Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.”

For fans of: The Cement Garden; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Pure by Julianna BaggottHachette; 9.99; Ages 14-adult

Opening line: “There was a low droning overhead a week or so after the Detonations; time was hard to track. The skies were buckling with dark banks of blackened cloud, the air thick with ash and dust.”

For fans of: The Hunger Games; Divergent

Room by Emma DonoghueLittle Brown; 14.99; Ages 16-adult

Opening line: “Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.”

For fans of: Living Dead Girl; Angela’s Ashes

Atonement by Ian McEwanAnchor Books; 15.00; Ages 16-adult

Opening line: “The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

For fans of: Skeletons at the Feast; Never Let Me Go

Jane Eyre by Charlotte BrontePenguin; 7.99; Ages 14-adult

Opening line: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

For fans of: Great Expectations; Persuasion

Give us a call or shoot us an email if you want to put any of these titles on hold! (703) 548-4092 or info@hooray4books.com

Read on, readers!

Miss Megan

New From Ruta Sepetys: Out of the Easy

11178225There was a lot of twitter last spring about Ruta Sepetys‘ debut novel, Between Shades of Gray. It also got some buzz for being commonly confused with a certain erotic series that skyrocketed to popularity around the same time. But they’re definitely not the same. Based on research into her own family’s past, Between Shades of Grey is the harrowing story of life in Stalin’s work camps.

So how does an author follow that? By leaving Siberia and heading to New Orleans, that’s how.

Sepetys’ new novel, Out of the Easy, follows Josie, a seventeen-year-old bookworm with hopes of heading to Smith College in the fall. But nothing is simple for the daughter of a prostitute in the 1950s, and when Josie is pulled into the intrigue of a local murder case, it seems like her dreams of escaping the Big Easy may never come true.

I read both Between Shades of Grey and Out of the Easy as advanced reader’s copies, and I can honestly say that they’re both memorable, striking novels that will stay in your head for a while. But, on the whole, I enjoyed Easy a lot more. The plot and several subplots are pretty basic, as it turns out, but that’s okay, because Sepetys has given us an excellent protagonist to drive the story forward. Josie is strong, plucky, resourceful, and extremely likable. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to use her considerable cunning to her advantage. She’s scrappy. I’m a big fan of scrappy heroines.

No, Ruta Sepetys definitely doesn’t shy away from difficult characters and situations. That’s why her stories are so engaging. Out of the Easy is the perfect pick for a lively book club discussion, or just some entertaining, dramatic solo reading. Check it out on our YA shelf!

Read on, readers!

Miss Megan

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys; Philomel (Penguin); 17.99; Ages 14+

P.S. One of the main plot points of the novel follows Josie’s efforts to go to college out East. In keeping with that theme, Penguin is offering an Out of the Easy scholarship contest! Access full rules and a submission form here.

Gifts for Guys: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Some of my favorite YA picks are “boy books.” Maybe it’s because novels with male protagonists are rarer, maybe it’s because their voices feel fresher, maybe it’s because the author knows he (or she) has to work a little harder for his audience. But I’ve noticed that, when I compile my list of favorites at the end of the year, the YA category is dominated by guys.

I’m definitely adding Dodger to my 2012 list. It’s written by Terry Pratchett, so you know it’s brilliant. (Have you read Nation? It’s another one of my favorite boy-driven stories—though there’s a plucky girl to add to the interest, too.)

Don’t worry, this isn’t a retelling of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Pratchett’s too smart for that. Instead, it’s an imagination of what might have inspired Dickens to write one of his most famous novels—or, rather, one of his most famous characters. (No, not the simpering little tyke who wants some more.) The resourceful, street-wise Dodger! In Pratchett’s vision of events, Dodger is a “tosher,” one of a collection of brave souls who scour London’s underground sewer tunnels for hidden treasure. During a pleasant evening of toshing, Dodger finds himself drawn to the aid of a damsel in distress, and, before he knows it, into a web of mystery and intrigue. 

Within that web are familiar figures from Victorian history, politics, and literature. Most notable is Dickens himself, who becomes Dodger’s benefactor of sorts. But there are also cameo appearances from Sweeney Todd and future prime minister Benjanim Disraeli, to name just a couple.

Pratchett’s originality is what carries the day here, and it’s an engaging narrative that never ceases to surprise, entertain, and engage.

This hilarious, poignant novel is the perfect gift for anyone who A) loves historical fiction, or B) just plain loves a good story. And, really, isn’t that everyone?

Read on, readers!

Miss Megan

Dodger by Terry Pratchett; HarperCollins; 17.99; Ages 12-adult

The Age of Miracles: A Novel

Everything seems normal when 11-year-old Julia wakes on a Saturday morning, until she and her family hear the news: the rotation of the earth is slowing. Natural disasters are inevitable and life as everyone knows it will be no more. The days and nights lengthen, gravity shifts, latent volcanoes erupt, and scientists don’t have any helpful answers. Amidst the frenzy caused by the slowing, we see the world through the eyes of Julia as she navigates through changes in friendships, her first love, and a crumbling family.

If you’re a fan of apocalyptic narratives, you should definitely read this book. Be warned, though, if you’re looking for end-of-the-world violence, explosions, and alien invasions, you will not find any of that in The Age of Miracles. Instead, Walker moves the story along at a rather leisurely pace allowing readers to experience the gradual effects of the slowing just as the characters do. She makes the whole concept of the slowing seem probable and real, which is very unsettling. This book has been marketed for adults, but I think it should also appeal to YA readers. The main character is in middle school and very relatable. From first bras to best friends who turn on you, teens and adults alike will identify with the ups and downs of adolescence.

It’s a pretty quick read – you’ll be on the edge of your seat wanting to know what horrible thing the slowing causes next – and has a satisfying ending. Pick up The Age of Miracles today (you might want to get in the mood by listening to REM’s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”) and you’ll experience an apocalyptic world so convincing that you may start counting the minutes in each day to make sure they don’t add up to more than 24 hours…

The Age of Miracles: A Novel, by Karen Thompson Walker, Random House, $26.00

– Kristen

Rediscover a Classic: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

It’s one of my favorite opening lines in all of literature. It’s odd and alluring and adorable all at the same time. You’re hooked, right?

17-year-old narrator Cassandra Mortmain’s family, having fallen on hard times (in the most charming Austenian sense of the phrase), take up residence in a crumbling castle in the English countryside.

Let me repeat. They live in a castle. Eat your hearts out, anglophiles.

Meet a colorful cast of characters, all described with witty brilliance in Cassandra’s journal. There’s Rose, Cassandra’s beautiful but slightly affected elder sister. Topaz, her quirky, artistic stepmother, who has an embarrassing penchant for nude revels in the moonlight. Stephen, the honest, handsome son of the Mortmain’s loyal cook, who, Cassandra is uncomfortable to admit, is a bit in love with her.

Enter Simon and Neil Cotton, wealthy young American men who have just purchased a nearby estate. Eligible suitors! The Mortmains are thrown into a tizzy. When Rose and Simon become engaged, change descends upon the family. Cassandra is caught in the middle, pulled simultaneously towards her love of home and her desire to grow up and join the wide world.

Set in the 1930s, when England, like Cassandra, was teetering on the brink of the modern age, this is one of the most satisfying titles I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Cassandra’s narration is frank, witty, and utterly hilarious. This is one of those books you’ll want to read over and over. Cracking open that cover is like seeing an old friend!

I envy those of you reading this for the first time—it’s like discovering Downton Abbey all over again.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith; St. Martin’s Press (Macmillan); 14.99; Ages 12+

P.S. After you read the novel, watch the movie (it’s on Netflix). It stars Bill Nighy as Cassandra’s brilliant but absent-minded father. Need I say more?

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

You know we’re big fans of adults who love well crafted young adult novels. We have a book club just for you guys, that’s how great we think you are. So take notice, teens and grownups alike: you’ll want to read this one. Immediately.

When Greg’s (sort of) ex-girlfriend is diagnosed with leukemia, he finds himself prodded into a half-hearted friendship. Enter Earl, Greg’s only other friend, a pseudo-thug with a Napoleon complex who curses like a sailor. Of course, friendship blossoms between all three. This novel of unlikely friendship is a wry, self-effacing, sarcastic read that is impossible to put down. It’s the gems of discovery made by each character that make this book so memorable, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s told with a hilarious, cinematic tone. This is an honest, smart, belly laugh-inducing, tearjerker of a novel.

We’ve seen several teen reads with themes of cancer and illness this year, titles like The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder, and, most notably, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. What makes these books fantastic is their unwavering honesty. Jesse Andrews achieves this brilliantly. His characters feel like real people–flawed, confused, emotional, and hilarious.

I read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl while commuting, and I had such a visceral response to the story that I found myself laughing out loud one moment and crying the next, all to the great confusion of my fellow passengers. Sorry, DC metro riders, but when you’ve got a book this good to read, it’s inevitably going to turn into a shared experience for all of us.

Read on, lovers of YA. Read on.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews; Abrams Publishing; 16.95; Ages 14+

Miss Megan’s Guide to Dystopian Fiction

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that the latest trend sweeping the teen/young adult section is dystopia. Bye, vampires! Happy trails, werewolves! So, as we enter the holiday shopping season, I thought I’d give you my quick and dirty run down of the genre, as well as my top picks.

According to trusty Merriam-Webster, dystopia is “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” It is, essentially, the “anti-utopia,” a world where civilization has run amok, and things are, generally, pretty bleak. Why on earth would I want to read about that, you ask? Because it is the perfect environment for plucky, brave, intelligent protagonists to rise from the ashes, that’s why! And take heart, grownups–this genre tends to accommodate adult readers quite well, thanks to the political and philosophical implications of the setting. But enough teacher-talk. Let’s get down to business…

The One That Started It All (Sort Of): Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press)

Let’s go through our dystopian checklist. Iron-fisted dictatorship? Check. Brutal, warlike society designed to squelch any thought of rebellion? Check. Resourceful, loyal heroine? Love triangle? Trilogy? Check, check, check. Sure, dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 have been required reading in high schools for years. They’ve appeared in children’s lit, too (see The Giver). But we have Suzanne Collins to thank for their explosion onto the pop culture scene like never before. And even with a rabid fan base and a movie adaptation on the way, allow me to say: these books are excellent. Awesome, even. Collins’ characters are incredibly compelling, and she knows how to layer on the action like nobody’s business. If you haven’t read these yet, DO IT NOW. You won’t regret the decision. Just be warned that you may not be able to sleep until you’ve torn through all three novels.

The Kinder, Gentler Introduction to the Genre: Matched by Ally Condie (Penguin Books)

Not drawn to epic, expansive scenes of battle, blood, and gore? No need to miss out on the dystopian genre! This is the book I recommend for younger readers who want to check out Hunger Games but probably aren’t quite ready, or those who just aren’t sure about the violence. In the Society, marriage matches are made scientifically. The process is streamlined, and Cassia hasn’t once heard of a mistake being made. But at her own matching ceremony, she sees two boys on the screen that is to reveal her future husband. Confused, Cassia embarks on a quest to discover exactly what happened in her case, and discovers more deeply hidden secrets than she could have imagined. Matched focuses heavily on the societal/political implications of dystopia and for the most part keeps away from scenes of intense violence, while gently developing the various character relationships. Watch out for book two, Crossed, which will be out November 1st.

The One That Gets You Right Into the Action: Divergent by Veronica Roth (HarperCollins)

I’ll admit, my expectations weren’t high for this one. It was, I thought with disdain, a debut novel. Everyone wants a piece of the dystopian pie, but can anyone really expect a hit on the first try? The answer, in Veronica Roth’s case, is a resounding yes. After reading Divergent (another one that cost me sleep, I was that breathlessly glued to the page), I was ready for a slice of humble pie. Roth’s story is gripping and unique, and I couldn’t wait to see where it went next. Set in future Chicago, society is divided into factions based on various essential character traits. Upon turning 16, teens go through a series of diagnostic tests to determine which faction they are best suited for. Typically, this is a simple, logical process, but for Beatrice it is anything but. Instead of fitting neatly into one faction, she is suited equally for more than one, a trait that makes her “divergent” and possibly dangerous to the methodical system that has been established. I loved that Roth didn’t waste time with exposition–we as readers are thrown right in with Beatrice as she struggles to figure out her situation, and we can only hang on and enjoy every moment of the exhilarating, heartpounding ride! Book two (it’s a trilogy) is set to be released in May 2012, and I, for one, can’t wait.

The Thoughtful, Dreamy Romance: Wither by Lauren DeStefano (Simon & Schuster)

Let’s slow things down a bit and take a breath. As gung-ho as I am about the guerilla warfare and subversive rebellion of dystopia, all that combat can be taxing. Apparently Lauren DeStefano agreed with me. Don’t be fooled, though, there’s plenty of action here. But it’s punctuated nicely by gentle scenes of character development. Set in a world where disease claims all females by the age of 20 and all males by 21, Rhine knows she doesn’t have long. But when she is kidnapped and forced into a polygamist marriage (the gentry’s desperate attempt to continue their bloodlines), she is determined to spend what time she has left formulating a plan for escape. What she doesn’t expect, though, is to find friendship, sisterhood, and even love inside the walls of her palatial prison. The uniqueness of the plot intrigued me, and I was most definitely not disappointed in the choices the author made. DeStefano’s characters are engaging and unexpectedly sympathetic–relationships between the three sister wives are especially compelling. There are moments of frantic speed, but for the most part the tone of this novel is dreamlike, which makes it a welcome departure from some of the more stark offerings of the genre. Like every other book on this list, it’s the first in a trilogy–the second installment will be available in February 2012.

My New Favorite That You Absolutely, Positively Must Read: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Candlewick Press)

I’ll shout this from the mountaintops: I LOVE THIS BOOK! My fellow bookseller Amanda always recommends it, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about. Boy, was I rewarded for my effort! I could only wonder how long I had survived without experiencing the brilliance of this title. And guess what? For the first time on this list, we have a male protagonist (don’t worry, ladies, there’s a prominent female here, too). Todd Hewitt has only ever known the presence of Noise. It is all around him–coming from the men of his village, from his own head, even from his dog, Manchee. It expresses the hidden thoughts and emotions of every man and animal in Prentisstown. But when Todd finds a void in the midst of the Noise, he stumbles upon a being he has never before encountered–a girl. Suddenly, his world is thrown upside down, and he is forced to flee his home in hopes of finding refuge from those who are determined to capture both him and Viola, his mysterious new companion. Please know: this description only scratches the surface of how excellent this book truly is! Ness expertly examines the difficult choices that must be made when the lines between good and evil are confusingly blurred. Yes, you guessed it, this is a trilogy, and, no, you won’t be able to quit until you’ve read all three books. Which I emphatically encourage you to do as soon as humanly possible!

There’s a lot more to this genre, but these are the stand-outs in my mind. I’m an unapologetic fan of dystopian novels, so I’m always on the lookout for the next winning title. Stop by our front desk and ask for our latest favorites–we’re always thrilled to talk books!

Happy reading,

Miss Megan G.