Friday, February 24, 2012

Best read of 2011

Fiction

The Teacher's Funeral by Richard Peck* I love books that make me laugh and take me back to simpler times. Highly recommend the audio book.

"If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it," begins Richard Peck's latest novel, a book full of his signature wit and sass. Russell Culver is fifteen in 1904, and he's raring to leave his tiny Indiana farm town for the endless sky of the Dakotas. To him, school has been nothing but a chain holding him back from his dreams. Maybe now that his teacher has passed on, they'll shut the school down entirely and leave him free to roam.

As he did in A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck creates a whole world of folksy, one-of-a-kind characters here--the enviable and the laughable, the adorably meek and the deliciously terrifying. There will be no forgetting Russell, Tansy, and all the rest who populate this hilarious, shrewd, and thoroughly enchanting novel.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.* A fun filled ride through mysteries and unsolvable puzzles. A great audio book.
Young readers who have worked their way through Lemony Snicket may well find their next obsession in The Mysterious Benedict Society, a dandy YA debut by novelist Trenton Lee Stewart. This engaging tale has all the elements tweens find intriguing: gifted kids, a dangerous mission, and a secret society where nothing is as it seems. Stewart throws plenty of challenges -- physical, mental, and moral -- in the path of his young protagonists, and readers will have fun solving the riddles and unraveling the clues in this smart, unconventional mystery. Complex, unpredictable, and deeply respectful of children's innate intelligence, The Mysterious Benedict Society is highly recommended for thoughtful preteens. P.S. We loved it, too!

The fabulous foursome readers embraced as The Mysterious Benedict Society is back with a new mission, significantly closer to home. After reuniting for a celebratory scavenger hunt, Reynie, Kate, Sticky are forced to go on an unexpected search--a search to find Mr. Benedict. It seems that while he was preparing the kids' adventure, he stepped right into a trap orchestrated by his evil twin Mr. Curtain.

With only one week to find a captured Mr. Benedict, the gifted foursome faces their greatest challenge of all--a challenge that will reinforce the reasons they were brought together in the first place and will require them to fight for the very namesake that united them.

Join the Mysterious Benedict Society as Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance embark on a daring new adventure that threatens to force them apart from their families, friends, and even each other. When an unexplained blackout engulfs Stonetown, the foursome must unravel clues relating to a nefarious new plot, while their search for answers brings them closer to danger than ever before.

The Summoning by Kelly Armstrong One of the best paranormal series I've read. Fast paced stories with imperfect characters who you find yourself rooting for.

After years of frequent moves following her mother’s death, Chloe Saunders’s life is finally settling down. She is attending art school, pursuing her dreams of becoming a director, making friends, meeting boys. Her biggest concern is that she’s not developing as fast as her friends are. But when puberty does hit, it brings more than hormone surges. Chloe starts seeing ghosts–everywhere, demanding her attention. After she suffers a breakdown, her devoted aunt Lauren gets her into a highly recommended group home.

At first, Lyle House seems a pretty okay place, except for Chloe’s small problem of fearing she might be facing a lifetime of mental illness. But as she gradually gets to know the other kids at the home–charming Simon and his ominous, unsmiling brother Derek, obnoxious Tori, and Rae, who has a “thing” for fire–Chloe begins to realize that there is something that binds them all together, and it isn’t your usual “problem kid” behaviour. And together they discover that Lyle House is not your usual group home either…

The Awakening by Kelly Armstrong

If you had met me a few weeks ago, you probably would have described me as an average teenage girl—someone normal. Now my life has changed forever and I'm as far away from normal as it gets. A living science experiment—not only can I see ghosts, but I was genetically altered by a sinister organization called the Edison Group. What does that mean? For starters, I'm a teenage necromancer whose powers are out of control; I raise the dead without even trying. Trust me, that is not a power you want to have. Ever.

Now I'm running for my life with three of my supernatural friends—a charming sorcerer, a cynical werewolf, and a disgruntled witch—and we have to find someone who can help us before the Edison Group finds us first. Or die trying.

The Reckoning by Kelly Armstrong
The explosive final part of the Darkest Powers trilogy, Kelley Armstrong's internationally bestselling YA series.

Courting Miss Lancaster by Sarah Eden A charming little tale that made me laugh.

Harry Windower adores blonde, green-eyes Athena Lancaster, but alas, a penniless man like himself has no hope of winning a young noblewoman's hand. To add insult to injury, Athena's brother-in-law and guardian, the Duke of Kielder, has asked Harry to assist Athena in finding a gentleman of her dreams. But the lovesick Harry is cunning as well: as the weeks pass, he introduces Athena to suitors who are horrifically boring, alarmingly attached to their mothers, downright rude, astoundingly self-absorbed, and utterly ridiculous.
Athena can't comprehend why she is having so little success meeting eligible and acceptable gentlemen. Indeed, her circle of admirers couldn't be be less admirable - nothing like the loyal, gentle friend she's found in Harry. But how long can Harry's scheme be hidden before it is discovered? And what will Athena do when she uncovers Harry's deception? Escape into a charming regency world in this delightfully romantic comedy of manners that will entertain you to the very last word

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter Ally Carter is one of my favorite authors as she writes funny, strong, and lovable woman characters and Uncommon Criminals doesn't disappoint.
Katarina Bishop has worn a lot of labels in her short life life. Friend. Niece. Daughter. Thief. But for the last two months she’s simply been known as the girl who ran the crew that robbed the greatest museum in the world. That’s why Kat isn’t surprised when she’s asked to steal the infamous Cleopatra Emerald so it can be returned to its rightful owners.

There are only three problems. First, the gem hasn’t been seen in public in thirty years. Second, since the fall of the Egyptian empire and the suicide of Cleopatra, no one who holds the emerald keeps it for long, and in Kat’s world, history almost always repeats itself. But it’s the third problem that makes Kat’s crew the most nervous and that is simply… the emerald is cursed.

Kat might be in way over her head, but she’s not going down without a fight. After all she has her best friend—the gorgeous Hale—and the rest of her crew with her as they chase the Cleopatra around the globe, dodging curses, realizing that the same tricks and cons her family has used for centuries are useless this time.

Gregor and the Mark of the Secret by Suzanne Collins Beautifully written tale that like The Hunger Games makes you think.
It's only a few months since Gregor and Boots returned from the Underland, leaving their mother behind to heal from the plague. Though Gregor's family receives frequent updates on her condition, they all know Gregor must return to fulfill his role as the warrior who is key to the Underlanders' survival. Accompanied by his now-talkative little sister Boots, still considered the honorary "princess," Gregor joins forces with another princess--12-year-old Luxa--and Ripred the rat to defend the Underlanders and the vulnerable "Nibblers," or mice, from the rat army.

Everyone in the Underland has been taking great pains to keep The Prophecy of Time from Gregor. Gregor knows it must say something awful but he never imagined just how awful: It calls for the warrior's death. Now, with an army of rats approaching, and his mom and sister still in Regalia, Gregor the warrior must gather up his courage to help defend Regalia and get his family home safely. The entire existence of the Underland is in Gregor's hands, and time is running out. There is a code to be cracked, a mysterious new princess, Gregor's burgeoning dark side, and a war to end all wars.

Percy Jackson and The Lightening Thief by Rick Riodran If you love mythology, then this is the series for you.
After getting expelled from yet another school for yet another clash with mythological monsters only he can see, twelve-year-old Percy Jackson is taken to Camp Half-Blood, where he finally learns the truth about his unique abilities: He is a demigod, half human, half immortal. Even more stunning: His father is the Greek god Poseidon, ruler of the sea, making Percy one of the most powerful demigods alive. There's little time to process this news. All too soon, a cryptic prophecy from the Oracle sends Percy on his first quest, a mission to the Underworld to prevent a war among the gods of Olympus.

After a summer spent trying to prevent a catastrophic war among the Greek gods, Percy Jackson is finding his seventh-grade school year unnervingly quiet. His biggest problem is dealing with his new friend, Tyson, a six-foot-three, mentally challenged homeless kid who follows Percy everywhere, making it hard for Percy to have any normal friends. But things don't stay quiet for long.

Dark Mirror by M. J. Putney Time travel and magic, what more could you want?
Lady Victoria Mansfield, youngest daughter of the earl and countess of Fairmount, is destined for a charmed life. Soon she will be presented during the London season, where she can choose a mate worthy of her status.

Yet Tory has a shameful secret—a secret so powerful that, if exposed, itcould strip her of her position and disgrace her family forever. Tory’s blood is tainted . . . by magic. When a shocking accident forces Tory to demonstrate her despised skill, the secret she’s fought so hard to hide is revealed for all to see. She is immediately exiled to Lackland Abbey, a reform school for young men and women in her position. There she will learn to suppress her deplorable talents and maybe, if she’s one of the lucky ones, be able to return to society.

But Tory’s life is about to change forever. All that she’s ever known or considered important will be challenged. What lies ahead is only the beginning of a strange and wonderful journey into a world where destiny and magic come together, where true love and friendship find her, and where courage and strength of character are the only things that determine a young girl’s worth.

Dark Passage by M. J. Putney
The Irregulars return home to 1803 England safely, but their worldview has changed. Not only have their heroic efforts at Dunkirk given them pride and confidence but their dangerous mission has increased their magical powers.

Non-fiction
This spare (256-page), erudite "portrait" doesn't attempt to retrace the entire life of Washington; rather, it concentrates on key themes and events that reveal the first president as he really was. As historian Joseph J. Ellis notes, the chapters on slavery and religion are especially beguiling and significant.

Churchill by Paul Johnson*
In Churchill, Johnson applies a wide lens and an unconventional approach to illuminate the various phases of Churchill's career. From his adventures as a young cavalry officer in the service of the Empire to his role as an elder statesman prophesying the advent of the Cold War, Johnson shows how Churchill's immense adaptability combined with his natural pugnacity to make him a formidable leader for the better part of a century. Johnson's narration of Churchill's many triumphs and setbacks, rich with anecdote and quotation, illustrates the man's humor, resilience, courage, and eccentricity as no other biography before.

The last quarter of the eighteenth century remains the most politically creative era in American history, when a dedicated and determined group of men undertook a bold experiment in political ideals. It was a time of triumphs; yet, as Joseph J. Ellis makes clear, it was also a time of tragedies—all of which contributed to the shaping of our burgeoning nation.

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Longitudes and Attitudes by Thomas Friedman An interesting look at 9/11.
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist and bestselling author of From Beirut to Jerusalem and The Lexus and the Olive Tree comes this smart, penetrating, brilliantly informed book that is indispensable for understanding today’s radically new world and America’s complex place in it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Highly recommended. Science and non-science lovers will love this.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

*Recommend the audio book