My Favorite Reads of 2014

The moment I finish reading a book, I write down my impressions of it in a reading log before they start to fade away or get influenced by other people's opinions. At the end of each year, one of my favorite things to do is go back and look over the books I've read that year. Here are 2014's stats:

Total number of books read: 29
--of which were advanced readers copies: 9
--of which were audiobooks: 2
--YA books read: 18
--MG books read: 2
--adult fiction books read: 6
--nonfiction books read: 3

These numbers are far lower than in previous years. When I was in the Peace Corps, I averaged about four books a week. I think, in part, I was reading less this year because I was traveling often: I did 45 book-related events in 2014. And partly that number is down because I read more lengthy adult fiction, which takes longer than YA or MG. But mostly, I think my numbers were down because I was focused more on writing my own books. This was a big year for exploring new genres and new ideas for me; I worked on four different books and brainstormed several others. I think I needed to pull away from reading others' work for a little while, to focus on my own. That said, I came across some amazing books. The kind of book where you just know, within a page or two, that it is going to be fantastic, and it doesn't disappoint. Here were my favorites:

It's a great mix of adult fiction, YA fiction, adult horror, middle grade, and literary fiction. 

But wait! I have one more bonus favorite of 2014, which I'm saving for last because it was the best of the best. I still think about this book months after reading it. I recommend every single person pick up and read:

What about you? Have you read any of these titles? What are some of your favorite reads of 2014?

On YA and genredom

I just finished a marathon of book events that started way back in August: a writing retreat in the Tennessee mountains, YALL Fest, librarian and bookseller conferences, a jaunt to the UK, bookstore events with fellow authors. I'm exhausted. And happy. It was marvelous to see so many of you in person, and marvelous to to come home to this guy:

A common refrain kept surfacing at most of these events that goes something like this: YA isn't a genre, it's an age range. You've probably heard it, too. On twitter. At conferences. I once saw an aspiring writer cry because a publishing professional told her only newbies who hadn't done their research called it a genre. People feel VERY STRONGLY about this, it seems, and I get it. It's trying to define the murky language used to describe books and writing, which is often generalized, and hard to put a pin on, because it's a big world of literature out there. I've said the same refrain a lot, while giving writing workshops. But once, a student raised his hand and asked, "You said YA is for everyone, not just teens. So what do you mean by saying it is an age range?" 

And I thought he had a good point, and it made me think harder about this distinction. What does it mean, exactly, to be an "age range"? That YA is intended for a 12-18 year old audience? I don't think that's really true, except for some oversimplified but necessary marketing labels, and I think most authors would agree. Nick Hornby has a great quote about this: I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal. Truly, YA books are for anyone, regardless of their age. So maybe the "age range" designation refers to the age of the protagonist, not the reader. And for sure, the vast majority of YA has a teen protagonist, but not all. (THE BOOK THIEF, for example, is commonly called YA but the protagonist is 9.)

So sure, the protagonist's age is important, and a key trait of YA literature. But I'm not sure I agree that YA isn't also--primarily--a genre. A genre is a set of literature that shares core common elements. For sci-fi, it's advanced technology or outer space. For thrillers, it's murder or crime. While YA novels can contain any of these elements, I think its core trait as a genre supersedes all of that: that YA books are, at their core, coming of age stories. They all deal with discovering who you are, and where you fit into the world. Whether it's a dystopia thriller, a quirky romance, or a historical ghost story, they all revolve around this central YA theme. 

My next book after The Madman's Daughter series has clear sci-fi elements: there are aliens, space stations, and questions over scientific experimentation. But I see it more as a YA novel set in space, than pure science fiction. It's an important distinction. That's because, when I really think about the themes and core message of the book, it isn't (primarily) about the consequences of future science, as sci-fi often is. It's about teenagers trying to fit into a new world, which is pure YA through-and-through.

I wonder if we are doing YA a disservice by insisting it isn't a genre. These books--the quirky romances and the dystopian thrillers--DO have a lot in common. There's a reason they're together on a bookshelf that goes beyond the protagonist's age or the reader's age. Publishers create imprints for YA because they clearly see strong commonalities. People come to YA festivals because they love the feel of YA books, regardless of those books' subgenres. And what creates a genre, if not the love and dedication of readers?

So I wonder, why do people insist so strongly that YA isn't a genre? Why are the common traits of YA not "enough" for it to stand as its own genre? Genre-blending happens a lot in YA, which is one of the reasons I love both reading and writing it, but it happens in all genres. I've heard the Madman's Daughter series called all of these genres, or a mix: thriller, historical, sci-fi, romance, horror. And I think the reason why it's hard to put it into a clear category is because it ISN'T any one (or two) of those. Its genre is YA. And in YA, it can be all of those things at once.

Cover reveal (+giveaway): THE CAGE

I love cover reveals. They tell you such much about a book, and something about seeing an eye-catching image makes it so real. I'm thrilled to share the cover for THE CAGE, my new young adult series with Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, that comes out this summer. This book has been in the works for a while. It all started at a writing retreat where a fellow author told us stories about bear research she and her husband and done in zoos. I've always been fascinated by zoos; it's amazing to have such a huge variety of wildlife in one place, with creatures from different continents right next to each other. It all leaded me to wonder, what if PEOPLE were the ones behind the bars?

I love movies like PLANET OF THE APES that turn the tables and make humans into the less-dominant species. I had so much fun creating a frightening and dark world where human teenagers were the caged wards of a more powerful species. For fans of THE MADMAN’S DAUGHTER series, THE CAGE isn’t quite as dark, but there is plenty of madness, monsters, and ill-fated love. I hope you love this cover as much as I do!

Here we go….

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The full description of THE CAGE:

When Cora Mason wakes in a desert, she doesn't know where she is or who put her there. As she explores, she finds an impossible mix of environments--tundra next to desert, farm next to jungle--and a strangely empty town cobbled together from different cultures and time periods, all watched over by eerie black windows. And she isn't alone.

Four other teenagers have also been taken: a beautiful model, a tattooed smuggler, a secretive genius, and an army brat who seems to know too much about Cora's past. None of them have a clue as to what happened, and all of them have secrets. As the unlikely group struggles for leadership, they slowly start to trust each other. But when their mysterious jailer appears--a handsome young guard named Cassian--they realize that their captivity is more terrifying than they could ever imagine: their captors aren't from Earth. And they have taken they five teenagers to an otherworldly zoo--where the exhibits are humans.

When a forbidden attraction develops between Cora and Cassian, she realizes that her best chance of escape might be in the arms of her own jailer--though that would mean leaving the others behind. Can Cora manage to save herself and her companions? And if so…what world lies beyond the walls of their cage?

THE CAGE releases May 26, 2015.

GIVEAWAY TIME:
Let me know what you think! Leave a comment on this post and you'll be automatically entered to win one of the very first advanced review copies of THE CAGE. I'll announce the winner here next week. It's open internationally! And remember, newsletter subscribers always get exclusive first access to big news like cover reveals and sales, along with special subscriber-only giveaways. You can sign up below.