Sometimes you open a book and the voice grabs you on the first page and doesn't let you go until the last. These three are like that:
Patrick Ness The Knife of Never Letting Go (the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy)
A good fantasy (I've reclaimed that word too) writer creates a world that is totally believable. Todd Hewitt's world is a settler colony, where humans have beaten the indigenous population into submission, but somewhere in the war suffered a terrible loss. As a result, there are only men in Todd's world - men whose Noise, their every thought, is broadcast for all to hear.
Rebecca Stead When You Reach Me
A slim, perfect book about love, death, friendship, being 12, and time travel - and a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time' to boot.
I ordered Stead's book through the public library after finding out it was the winner of last year's Newbery Medal. When I picked it up and saw the big print, I felt disappointed; I'd been excited, but thought that even with my growing passion for children's and YA novels, this was going to be too simple. It wasn't. Stead gradually reels out and satisfyingly ties up (but not too tightly) a complex story with a minimum of verbiage.
Margo Lanagan Tender Morsels
If The Knife of Never Letting Go is dark at times, Tender Morsels is midnight. An often unsettling re-telling of the Grimm story of Rose-Red and Snow-White, this is some of the best writing I've read in years.
When Neil Gaiman spoke at Wellington Town Hall earlier this year, the thing I was most struck by were his comments on CS Lewis.
Like me (and many, many fortunate people) Gaiman didn't get the Christian references in the Narnia series until quite late in the series (me, I had to wait until my born-again uncle told me). He observed, sweetly, that as a Christian allegory, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was obviously a bit of a failure. He felt instead that Lewis crammed into TLTW&TW all the things he loved from Christian, Greek and other mythologies.
The next few books aren't quite as astounding as the ones above, but each has, in Gaiman's sense, a Lewisian aspect.
Lev Grossman The Magicians
I'm not usually a fan of the 'Like a mixture of X and Y with a dash of Z' although I would make an exception for Luca Turin, who described a perfume as embodying the child Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller didn't have. But the reviewer who described The Magicians as the missing link between the Narnia books and Donna Tartt's The Secret History was on to something.
As soon as I read the opening page of 'The Magicians' I felt like I was reading along to a New Romantic soundtrack, all cutting observations and floppy fringes. Brilliant and unloved, 17-year-old Quentin Coldwater is still secretly yearning for the imaginary world of the British 1930s fantasy series he read as a child - and still covertly re-reads - to be real. Quentin would trade in his real existence for a magic wardrobe any day. And then it happens.Scott Westerfeld Leviathan
Philip Pullman had daemons - Westerfeld has a alternate world where Darwin didn't just figure out evolution - he also invented genetic engineering. As a result Europe is poised on the brink of an equivalent to World War I, with the cultural lines drawn between the Clankers (the Austro-Hungary alliance which has developed a mechanical culture) and the British Allies who power their society with genetic splicing. Occasionally clunky writing (and terrible terrible fake swearing) is overcome by the sheer awesomeness of this vision.
Frances Hardinge The Lost Conspiracy (alternative title: Gullstruck Island)
When I read Elizabeth Knox's YA duo - the Dreamhunter books - I felt she'd failed to provide a sufficiently detailed, sufficiently strange alternate late-colonial New Zealand. The books just didn't have that lushness of imagination, that wealth of detail that you sink into, that The Hobbit or TLTW&TW have.
Hardinge is not short on invention. In fact, this book is relentlessly, overwhelmingly inventive. As an adult reader I felt occasionally overladen, but have you ever heard a kid who loves reading complain about a book being too long, or too full of remarkable things? I can't actually even begin to tell you what the books about - try the link above instead.
*Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle - first read when I was in my early teens - remains one of my favourite books. Writing that sentence reminds me of the part in the book when Thomas tells Cassandra that he knows Rose is not really in love with Stephen, because she never talks about him - people who are in love stop going on about the object of their affections. I Capture the Castle is, of course, a classic coming of age tale, and on reflection, that's the thread that binds all six of these books together.