Monday, December 7, 2015

Faith, Courage and the Power of Music: My Favorite YA Books of 2015

     Santa isn't the only making his list and checking it twice. It's Award Season, when everyone and his dog make up "Best of the Year" book lists. This month, Teaching Authors takes a more casual approach; we're talking about the books that were memorable to us.

     I read a lot. So how did I narrow down my "memorable" books? They are the ones I could remember the author, title, story and characters, without consulting my reading journal. My number one choice was a no brainer, since I put my life on hold until I finished the book.  However, two others were a dead tie for second place. Surprise, surprise, all three are young adult. No grand plan on my part.  They are the most outstanding books as far as I am concerned.

   In a tie for second are:

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert--What made this book memorable is that religion is part of the everyday lives of the characters without it being a book about religion. Religion is not viewed in a cynical way, nor is it presented as the answer to life's questions. In fact, the characters
discover religion generates more questions than it "answers." A messy, complicated story that hops around various points in the past, to the present, but somehow never loses the reader along the way.


Dime by E.R. Frank.  Frank is known for her fearless approach to tough topics. She took on a big one this time; teen age prostitution.
Dime is a fourteen-year-old, lost in the foster care system. All she wants is a family and someone to love her.  She finds it on the streets of Newark--a "daddy" to "take care of her," along with two other "wifeys" who work for Daddy. Dime will do anything Daddy tells her to because he "loves" her. Gradually, Dime sees the truth about her "family." The voices of Dime, Daddy and the wifeys are distinct, and non-stereotypical. To be honest, this book was so heavy and intense that I wasn't sure I could finish, especially after I thought I knew where the story was heading. Dime herself, compelled me to finish. I'm glad I did.

So what kept me up nights, reading reading reading, even though, I knew how the story ended?" My first choice for personal reading is non-fiction, so it figures that one would be my "most memorable" of the year. My winner is a volume with the intimidating title of Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson. (Disclaimer: Although M.T. Anderson was one of my instructors in the Vermont College MFA program, we haven't been in touch in 15 years.)
I had misgivings. The book is 450+ pages (70 of which turned out to be documentation and indexes.) I already "knew" what happened: Shostakovich writes writes his Seventh Symphony, the "Leningrad" and the Nazis lose the Siege of Leningrad. Reading this book is truly not about the destination, but enjoying the ride. Even with such a potentially heavy subject, Anderson always finds a touch of humor in events. We see young Dmitri, a sheltered piano prodigy in Czarist Russia, evolve into a master composer within the confines of the Soviet system. We also see his career nose-dive when his work falls out of favor with The Party. What struck the deepest chord (sorry for the pun) in me was that while his physical world was in constant turmoil (messy love affairs, unemployment, starvation, Nazis...and a whole lot more) what gave his life meaning was music. He composed the "Leningrad" during the two and a half years the Nazis first tried to bomb, then starve, the city out of existence. Creativity triumphs all. Shostakovich's story (as well as the city of Leningrad's) has everything I love in a book...suspense, adventure, danger, intrigue, love, and most of all music. You don't have to know anything about Shostakovich, music or even Russia, to be sucked into this impeccably research story.

May 2016 be blessed with such terrific books as those of 2015!

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


JoAnn Early Macken said...

Thanks for the recommendations, MA! I'm adding some new titles to my list!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

You are most welcome, JoAnne.

Even in Australia said...

Just put Conviction and Symphony for the City of the Dead on hold at my library!

Sabrina Rose said...

I love the recommendations on this blog post! Thank you so much. I'm excited to add these to my list of books to read of holiday break. I am especially interested in reading Dime by E.R. Frank, because my heart is so full for those in the foster care system.