Posts Tagged ‘book review’

100 word review:
All The Birds in the Sky

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews

AlltheBirds

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published by Tor Books, January 2016
checked out of the library
Read in May 2016

Target audience: Young Adult, Adult

Outcasts Patricia and Laurence became unlikely childhood friends despite asking different questions – Is magic real? Can technology save the world? When they reconnect years later after a long estrangement, it looks like they’ve both found what they wanted… but the world has other plans. Quirky, intimate, modern, and compassionate, Birds blends magical realism and futurism to mirror the connections and conflicts between nature and technology. Anders does a remarkable job of making large problems personal and personal problems earth shattering. She never takes her storytelling too seriously but uses a deft hand to reveal character details without overburdening her writing.

Should I read it? Definitely. Highly recommended for fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.

 

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Vacationing with Books

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

I may not like packing for vacations – it always takes me forever and I always forget something critical like sunscreen or socks – but I do like carefully curating my Books To Read on Vacation selections. I have to assess how many free hours I will have to read; determine the proper balance of genres; evaluate which books are too heavy to travel; decide which books hit the right tone for my destination.

The last vacation I went on was to sunny Florida. I spent several wonderful days desperately trying to soak in as much warmth and Vitamin D to make up for the years and years I’ve been snow- and cold-bound this winter. And reading. In the sun. With a glass of iced tea. Slice of heaven.

The books I selected to bring were: The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi (realistic YA), A Visit from the Goon Squad (literary adult), The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (classic sci-fi), and Snuff by Terry Pratchett (satirical fantasy). You can see what I did there – a smorgasbord of stories, nothing too dark but works with some meat and interest. Alas, I didn’t get to Snuff this time around but I did get to read the other three.

This is part of a series of 100 Word Book Reviews.

chance you won't returnThe Chance You Won’t Return
by Annie Cardi
Published by Candlewick
received as a galley
Read in March 2015
Target Audience: Young Adult

Full-disclosure: Annie and I were actually suitemates/classmates at Young Writers Workshop at UVA in 2001 and only recently rediscovered each other. We’ve since met for coffee and conversation and she is a lovely (and highly entertaining) person. I assure you none of this has anything to do with my assessment of her book. But frankly, her book is as lovely as she is.

On the surface, Alex’s problems seem typical: drivers ed and a new love interest. Instead, she’s hiding the secret of her mother’s dissolution into an alternate identity: Amelia Earhart. The story is tightly written with carefully, emerging tension: we follow Alex as her fraught relationship with her mother twists into something both distancing and tender. I found it especially refreshing that the romance in the story was an added layer of conflict, but not the focus. Cardi writes with humor and a light touch, even when the topic is serious and destructive for the main character.

Should I read it? Yes. Annie Cardi has a way with characters that will draw you in. They are complex and interesting and most of all, heartfelt. I am looking forward to her next work!

9780307477477A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Published by Knopf (Random House)
passed along from my mother
Read in March 2015
Target Audience: Adult

My mother described this book as “weird” with a wrinkle of her nose but it’s the kind of weird I love. Each chapter closely follows a different character’s story. Sometimes they seem barely connected, but ultimately they spiral and build on one another. The characters revolve around the double helix of music and time, examining the rise and fall of the music industry. Egan’s writing is dark and tongue-in-cheek, as are her characters. She paints them brilliantly in just a few strokes and makes you care, even as she eases you out of one life and into the next.

Should I read it? Definitely. It’s not for everyone, but there’s a reason it won the Pulitzer. I love books that break the novel form open to see what hatches. In this case, something beautiful and wonderous.

starsmydestinationThe Stars My Destination
by Alfred Bester
Published by Vintage (Random House)
purchased – Wellesley Free Library book sale
Read in April 2015
Target Audience: Adult

Alfred Bester is a classic science fiction author and this book had been on my to-read list for a long time. It’s the story of Gully Foyle, a brute of a man wronged by fate and turned viciously vengeful. It had strong tones of Philip K. Dick – psychics, telepathic teleportation, grand conspiracy, and elaborate and fanciful tech. The book explores the darkness of human nature, both physically and psychically. It wasn’t totally my cup of tea – aside from Gully, the characters felt flat and the ending “twist” felt muddy – but it was interesting to see the root of so many SF tropes

Should I read it? Meh. If you enjoy classic SF from the 1950’s or are rounding out your reading in science fiction canon, then reading Bester is a must, though I might go with The Demolished Man.

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100 word review:
This Side of Salvation

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews.
sideofsalvation

This Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready
Published by Simon Pulse
received as a galley
Read in August 2014

Target Audience: Young Adult

What if you discovered your parents appeared to have been taken up in The Rapture (or in this case, The Rush), leaving you behind? So hinges Smith-Ready’s complex book for teens that tackles hefty themes (faith, love, grief) with a gentle touch. The dialogue is sharp and spot-on, balancing darker moments with wit and humor. The last quarter of the book slumped a bit for me, as if the author wasn’t sure what to do after the pieces of the mystery fall into place. Ultimately this story isn’t about religion, rebellion, or sacrifice; it’s about the resiliency of family.

Should I read it? Yes. I get the sense that Smith-Ready is just going to keep getting better. Don’t let the religion bit turn you off – it’s another dimension to the story, not the only one. I was pleasantly impressed by this book.

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100 word review:
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland…

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews.

GirlWhoFell

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan
purchased at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, MA
Read in July 2014
Target audience: Middle grade, Young Adult, Young At Heart

Once again, a lush and intricate book for young readers. September is growing up and learning that hearts are fickle things. When she makes her way back to Fairyland, she finds herself drawn to Fairyland Below where her wayward shadow is making merry and wreaking havoc. The shadows embody the parts of people that they keep hidden, the “sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts.” Valente’s language is spell-binding and there seems to be no limit to Fairyland nor her imagination.

Should I read it? Why yes, but this is a sequel so I would definitely go about reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making first, as you will get more out of it and then proceed straightaway to read The Girl who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. This series is perfect for young and old dreamers alike who are always peeking inside wardrobes and broom closets seeking grand adventures.

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A little plug for bookstores, inspired by this purchase: I want to remind readers that bookstores, like World Eye Bookshop, can special order most titles for you, as long as they are in print, just as well as an online retailer. That is, if it’s not something they have on the shelves at the moment (instant gratification!). Many stores also do shipping. Either way, it’s a nice way to support stores in your community (or in the community of someone you are gifting).

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100 word review:
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

This is part of a series of 100 word book reviews

VitalPhenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published by Hogarth (Random House)
Read in July 2014
purchased at the Friends of Wellesley Free Library book sale

War-scarred Chechnya becomes a character all it’s own in Marra’s novel as his story weaves through the country’s history and geography. Following several otherwise unremarkable characters, the lyrical story unfolds of an incompetent doctor-cum-portraitist trying to save the life of his neighbor’s young daughter. But it’s more than that. It’s the story of aborted futures; of family, both blood and built; of the grip of history, fear, and loyalty. Marra has a beautiful, delicate touch with language. The book is intense, but the author balances the tone nicely with touches of humor and yes, even small glimmers of hope.

Should I read it? Yes. It is unlike anything I have read recently and harkened back to a period when I read a rush of Booker-prize/nominated books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena reminded me of those books with it’s character driven narrative, close integration of history, and eloquent language.

Trigger warning: This book contains visceral descriptions of torture and kidnapping (one chapter in particular).

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100 word book reviews: June/July 2014

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

A new feature: Short reviews that are a maximum of 100 words. Here is a selection of books that I’ve had the good fortune to dive into this past month. Have you read any of these books? What did you think? What are you reading right now?

calamity physicsSpecial Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marissa Peshl
Published by Penguin
purchased at Harvard Bookstore
Read in June 2014

An unconventional roller coaster. Blue is the brilliant daughter of a professor and the book (when it’s at it’s best) chronicles her nomadic childhood until it slams up against a more conventional plot of loner-joins-the-in-crowd. Parts reminded me of The Secret History — a group of “cool” misfits hang out with the beautiful, smooth, film teacher. Until the book becomes a murder mystery… or does it? The book’s drastic loop-de-loop three-quarters of the way through left me with no idea who any of the characters were. Stylistically, it is quirky, over-the-top, smart, and generally very interesting. But also long.

Should I read it? Yes, but be prepared for an enigmatic ending. The structure of the book as well as the asides, references, and oddball images make it worth a read for the style alone.

girl who circumnavigatedThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making
by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan)
purchased at Harvard Bookstore

Read in June 2014

Young September is swept away to Fairyland where she embarks on a grand journey while stomping all over the tropes of magical abduction and adventure. It’s about finding yourself and your own heart. The language is luscious, musical, complex, bubbling — this is a strong, sophisticated book for young readers and adults alike. Some may be put off by Valente’s intricate and over-the-top style but there are surely readers like September (and myself) who “…read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.”

Should I Read It? Yes, definitely. But only if you like big, beautiful words, made-up lands, adventure, and brave young girls. The series just gets better and better.

player of gamesPlayer of Games by Iain M. Banks
Published by Orbit (Hachette)
purchased used at Harvard Bookstore
Read in July 2014

While I’ve enjoyed other works by Banks, this one didn’t hold together for me. It started off very slow; the trigger for the major plot line – a master game-player being blackmailed into clandestine service — didn’t occur until nearly page 100. While the story did become more gripping through the latter half of the book, I found the ending somewhat predictable. It was a good introduction to The Culture and I will likely read others books within this universe because I trust Banks as a writer, but this is not my favorite.

Should I read it? Meh. If you’re trying to read all The Culture novels, I’m told it’s a must. If you’re just looking for some good Iain M. Banks, I might otherwise recommend, The Bridge (under Iain Banks — finally reissued!), The Algebraist or even Inversions (despite it’s infuriating structure/ending).

last policemanThe Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
Published by Quirk Books
received as a galley
Read in July 2014

This book struck the perfect balance of an old story told in a fresh way. It’s a murder mystery wrapped in an existential conceit: does the law matter if the world is ending anyway? I found the world Winters paints to be true, dark, and almost heartbreakingly normal. He manages to sustain the tone throughout the book without it dragging the reader down. The mystery itself is nothing unique, but the characters and the stark near-future setting make it a compelling start to the trilogy.

Should I read it? Yes. Especially if you like your mystery with some existential apocalypse mixed in. Or your apocalypse with some existential mystery. Or both. I’m moving book two, Countdown City, to the top of my pile.

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Book Review:
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Yeah, pretty much you should read this.Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Orbit Books, 2013
book purchased at Brookline Booksmith
Read in June 2014

If my last blog post got you down at all, never fear; when one cover closes, another one opens and the cover that opened wide for me was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

I have been reading incredible praise up and down the blogsophere about this book for over a year now; it has won a 2013 Nebula Award, an Arthur C. Clarke Award, a 2014 Locus Award for a First Novel, and has been nominated for a Hugo. Leckie has been writing and publishing short stories for a while now, but this was my first encounter with her writing and I can see why it’s been blowing people away.

The title, Ancillary Justice refers to a starship – The Justice of Toren – and one of her “ancillaries” Breq, a human-drone possessed by the A.I. of the ship. In fact, the protagonist and narrator of this story is the ship itself. The twist is that this vast mind that the ship once had – controlling an immense battleship and seeing through the eyes of hundreds of ancillaries – has been reduced to a single ancillary. A hive mind has been reduced to a single mind; an incredibly powerful artificial intelligence has been restricted to the capabilities of one (slightly enhanced) human body. A mind that appears to have one stone-cold focus: revenge.

One of the things I loved the most about Leckie’s debut novel was the characters. Breq has the mind of a machine, but one that’s been crafted equally for analysis and emotion in order to make meaningful decisions. She is calculating, determined, fierce, but with moments of deep compassion. She is neither male nor female, and yet, also, both. Or something else entirely. She has found music and religion and a mission. And she is faced with one of the biggest questions of the book – is a machine allowed to have a conscience? Is a soldier?

The key to Ancillary Justice is the blurring of identities. Not only does Breq confound the meaning of “human” and “machine,” but her culture, the Radchaai, forces us to examine gradients of gender, class, and citizenship. These broader questions are draped like a jeweled net over a robust, space-operatic narrative that traipses through backwater planets, space battles, political intrigue, and straight into the heart of a fragmenting galactic empire.

If I had one critique, it would be that the Radch civilization, at times, seemed like a flat background. I’m not talking about their religion or class system, or even their fashion sense which Leckie goes into in great detail. But for an Empire that has brutally “annexed” other cultures for a hundred years, I wanted it to feel more three dimensional. I wanted to know about some of the other cultures that had been absorbed; I wanted a better sense of the Empire’s cosmography; how the constant expansion was impacting “citizens” in different parts of the Empire. Fortunately, Ancillary Sword comes out this October.

Is Ancillary Justice worth reading? Absolutely. It’s exciting to see a debut novelist hit it out of the park like Leckie does here, drawing readers into a new world that asks a lot of big questions. It has classic tropes with modern twists and characters that feel both familiar and fresh at the same time.

 

As someone who has been rumbling and ruminating on stories with A.I. protagonists and non-gendered narrators, and who has been desperate for some solid, classic science fiction, this book filled me up.  If The Blind Assassin was the kind of book I wanted to write in 2004, Ancillary Justice is the kind of book I want to write today, right now.

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Re-Reading The Blind Assassin

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Blind AssassinOne of the myths about working at a bookstore is that aside from selling the books on your shelves, your job is to just to read all day. Ahhh, that sounds lovely. Well, while reading is certainly implicit, if anything, I read less than I did before I started working there (though my cumulative knowledge of books in general expanded ten fold). Now, this is all relative – I’m a big reader so “less” for me is still considerably above average for most – but one of the ways I planned to begin my recalibration from “bookstore employee” to “self-employee” was to re-read one of my favorite books, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

Hot damn people, Ms. Atwood is good. Her books are not happy books – they are striking books. They leave you stricken. They challenge and ignite. I wanted to re-read her because in the past when I’ve read The Blind Assassin, I have wanted to peel the words from the page and put them in my own mouth to make them my own. I bet that if you dig around in the archives here, you’ll find another post in which I’ve said the exact same thing. I don’t care. Her writing is exquisite.

When I first read The Blind Assassin, I was in college. It was a secret Santa gift from a friend. I read it at precisely the right time, you know what I mean? When a book seems to be perfectly aligned with your mood, interests, and needs at a specific time in your life? This book was it for me. I was taking workshops where we were reading First Light by Charles Baxter and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The Blind Assassin was this gripping, intense, literary book that braided together a historical narrative, science fiction, romantic affairs, news clippings, a character driven storyline (or two or three) and above all a mystery. I remember getting two-thirds of the way through and the heightened sense of tension as I began to suspect the ending; the mounting sense of “Is that it? Am I right?” as I barreled through the final pages. It was the sort of book I desperately wanted to write myself.

It had a huge influence on my writing. If you read any of my work from college you’ll see I began to emulate her style of metaphor, her tendency to end paragraphs with potent, impacting sentences or images. Edgy, beautiful, dark passages like:

“The snow fell, softly at first, then in hard pellets that stung the skin like needles. The sun set in the afternoon, the sky changed from washed blood to skim milk. Smoke poured from the chimneys, from the furnaces stoked with coal. The bread-wagon horses left piles of steaming brown buns on the street which then froze solid. Children threw them at one another. The clocks struck midnight, over and over, every midnight a deep blue-black riddled with icy stars, the moon white bone. I looked out the bedroom window, down to the sidewalk, through the branches of the chestnut tree. Then I turned out the light.” (334)

Since reading The Blind Assassin for the first time, I’ve read a ton of her work – short fiction, novels, poetry, essays, book reviews. When you read deeply of a writer, you almost get a character study of her – her voice, revisited themes, memories that made a big enough impact that the show up in story after story, different iterations and different angles. I don’t like everything she’s written: I didn’t enjoy Alias Grace and felt like Lady Oracle was an undeveloped precursor to her vastly superior (and one of my favorites) Cat’s Eye. I love the sharp left turn of Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood. I have only met Atwood once, when she signed my book along with two hundred other people, but I feel like I know her. Know her style at least.

This was my fourth time reading The Blind Assassin. I almost wrote here “I wonder if you can re-read a book too many times” but then I realized that isn’t precisely it. When you know a book well enough, know it’s twists and turns, it can color your entire reading. I realized as I dug into it again, eagerly at first and then with some dismay, that the book was so much heavier, darker, and longer than I remembered. All of the things I knew and loved about Atwood’s style were there but, well, I wasn’t. The reader I am at this moment is not the reader that clung to those pages on her first, second, and third read. It was a much harder read this time around, knowing the fates of these characters, knowing how far they had to go and how they’d be scarred by it. I sat reading in the early summer sun, trying to understand a little more about the writer I want to be.

I thought I wanted to be the next Margaret Atwood, once upon a time. In a lot of ways, I still strive towards her precision of voice and images, her tightly woven character plots. But I’ve read a lot of books since then, met a lot of writers, written a number of stories. In school, The Blind Assassin gave me that taste of sci-fi, when I was knee deep in the “literature” of my undergraduate writing courses. It showed me that stories didn’t have to be linear or all told in flashbacks – that they could move sideways or meander between the worlds of truth, fiction, and further fiction. I would still recommend it to people, wholeheartedly, though it isn’t an easy book. If you are new to Atwood, I might recommend starting with her short story collection Moral Disorder or her classic The Handmaid’s Tale.

This is an extremely long way of saying that while still in the pantheon of my favorite works, I’m not sure The Blind Assassin is number one anymore (sorry, Ms. Atwood!) How have your reading tastes changed over time? Did you have a favorite that didn’t hold up to re-reading at a later date?

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Favorite Reads of 2012: Non-fiction

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but when I do it tends to be travel or food memoir, occasionally biography. Or cookbooks, but do those count?

Non-FictionWild

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

This is not a smug, self-indulgent memoir-of-a-woman-finding-herself. It’s a raw, heart-felt memoir of a woman losing herself and then finding that she was strong enough to endure that loss and rebuild.

Wild is a book about making crazy, irrational decisions that are rooted in primal needs: to be loved, to have love, to find love. It’s a book about the hunger for connection. About the way we challenge ourselves in order to prove we are deserving of love, only to discover the only person we had to prove anything to was to ourselves. Cheryl Strayed writes about her experience hiking out the grief and despair of trading in one life for another. Reading this book during a year of transition was a balm; no matter what you’re going through, everyone can use a bit of wisdom from Strayed, who also writes as the heart-felt, ugly, sassy, and gut-wrenching Sugar at Dear Sugar on therumpus.com. In all of her writing she holds up her own life as an example and a warning and matter-of-factly – not making excuses for her choices, but revealing what informed them. Using her life as a lesson for others who are also struggling. Again, personal history.

If you haven’t read Wild or Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar column on therumpus.com or her new, also-incredible-non-fiction-read-from-2012 Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, then you absolutely must stop everything and do one of those three things immediately. It may very well change your life.

Honorable Mention: Aside from Tiny Beautiful Things? Probably My Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg.

Oh, and if cookbooks DO count:

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman.
Seriously folks, this book is awesome. I read it cover to cover. Like a real book. Who does that?

Previously: 2012 Kids Favorite Reads
2012 Science Fiction & Fantasy Favorite Reads
2012 Speculative Fiction & Fiction Favorite Reads
2012 Young Adult Favorite Read
s

Previously previously: 2010 Faves

And looking ahead:

A few of the books I am looking forward to reading in 2013, in no particular order:

  • The Raven Boys and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater
  • The Twelve by Justin Cronin
  • Because it is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin
  • Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
  • Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz
  • The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
  • Okay for Now and What Came from the Stars by Gary Schmidt
  • Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
  • a whole lot of books by Terry Pratchett
  • The Dragon’s Tooth by ND Wilson
  • The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
  • Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
  • The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
  • Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (releases 2013)
  • The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane (!!!!!!) by Neil Gaiman (releases in 2013)
  • The Doors of Stone by Patrick Rothfuss (releases in 2013)
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Favorite Reads of 2012: Kids

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

So while most of the author events I plan for my bookstore are for young readers, I am ashamed to say that of all the kinds of books I read in 2012, I read the least number of books for kids. I did read a number of picture books (babies will do that to you); I don’t usually include those in my annual tally or track them on goodreads, but I’ve listed a few at the bottom that I thought were a lot of fun.

Kids

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

WonderThis book is like Marcelo in the Real World for younger readers. Our protagonist, Auggie, was born with a severe facial deformity. But this year he’s starting fifth grade at a mainstream school – and encountering all the complications that come with being the new kid and someone who looks different. But where Wonder is unique, is that it examines Auggies situation through multiple points-of-view – Auggie, his sister, her friends, the kids he meets at school. Normally this many viewpoints in a middle grade novel would seem confusing (all the voices sounding the same) or unnecessary, but in this case the author uses these different voices to show all sides of human character – when we try too hard; when we do the right thing, even if it hurts; when we do whatever we can to fit in; when we hurt a friend and don’t know how to make it right; when we say things we don’t really mean; when we want to be someone we’re not.

Wonder is uplifting, funny, sad, tough, just like Auggie. This book doesn’t pull punches either – it challenges kids to think and talk about how to connect with each other, even when it seems hard.

Honorable Mention: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead; Winterling by Sarah Prineas

 

Picture Books

morris lessmore

“Everyone’s story matters.”

dragons love tacos

“The only things that dragons love more than tacos and parties are taco parties.”

goldilocks

“The first bowl of chocolate pudding was too hot, but Goldilocks ate it all anyway because, hey, it’s chocolate pudding, right?”

squid and octopus

“Obviously what we really need is a hot pot of tea.”

duck sock hop

“Socks with stars and socks with moons / socks with cars and socks with spoons”

Previously: 2012 Science Fiction & Fantasy Favorite Reads
2012 Speculative Fiction & Fiction Favorite Reads
2012 Young Adult Favorite Read
s

Previously previously: 2010 Faves

Next: Non-fiction

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