I keep a little notebook to jot down book titles as I read them and was surprised to see I’ve devoured about sixty books since January.
A phenomenon, which I’m sure everyone’s observed, is how wildly diverse review comments can be. One person gives five stars and another says it’s the worse book ever. The point being that we’re each formed by genetics, environment and experience to have strong biases and desires that may differ radically from someone else’s. And, hey, maybe one day we're receptive and another we're cranky.
So my method of picking some YA books to showcase was seeing which ones stuck to me for one reason or another--it might be visceral impact or a fresh style. I dislike spoilers, so I will mainly mention why the craft of these books appealed to me. I’ve included snippets to give a sense of writing style.
THE MARBURY LENS by Andrew Smith
This is a book I normally would run away from, but it may be the most absorbing, riveting and deeply affecting book I read all year. I’m not a person who loves horror, and this one is horrifying. I almost couldn’t keep reading when I encountered an early scene that hit all my revulsion buttons.
I wouldn’t recommend this to a young or sensitive teen, but for the mature reader, this is an extraordinary tale that leaves you wondering if you’re reading a psychological thriller or a gritty urban fantasy or a mash-up. Smith is so skillful that I don’t care how it’s categorized. The characters and worlds he built have wormed into my consciousness. For better or worse, I doubt they’ll ever leave. How’s that for powerful storytelling?
Snippet: I guess in the old days, in other places, boys like me usually ended up twisting and kicking in the empty air beneath gallows.
Upper YA/Adult crossover for brutal, disturbing situations and language.
LIAR by Justine Larbalestier.
I knew two things before I opened this book. One: there had been controversy over the first cover, which featured a white model, even though the protagonist is black. The publisher created a more representative cover after the uproar. Two: the protagonist is a liar.
I was prepared for an unreliable narrator but not for how ensnared I became in the story, which is suspenseful and surprising. The reader is made a participant, because Micah says on the first page that she’s telling “you” her story and promises not to lie. “This time I truly mean it,” she says. From there on, the reader knows Micah can’t be trusted, no matter what she says, and this makes for a dynamic reading experience in which the reader questions and sorts information.
I’m impressed with the writing craft--how pieces of the story are presented or withheld or turned upside down. Micah is a fascinating character, but you never know if you’ve really figured her out.
Snippet: I tell her I don’t have a broken heart. It’s still beating, the blood still moves around my body; it only aches when I remember to breathe.
Upper YA/Adult crossover for language and situations.
REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly.
I bought this because I like the look of the cover and the author’s style. I was beyond pleased with the surprise inside the covers—a contemporary tale of a troubled teenager with a kind of ghostly time travel via an old diary that renders parts of the novel historical fiction set in the French Revolution. I love the way the protagonist’s passion for music and the guitar help her stagger through overwhelming grief, and how her discovery of another girl’s life and unfinished mission gives her own life new purpose. This story is smart and layered.
Snippet: I eat my dinner alone tonight, like I do every night. In our big, empty dining room. It’s not so bad. I can study my music and no one asks me about the calculus test I failed; or reminds me of my curfew; or demands to know the name, address, and intentions of the delinquent du jour crashed out in my bed.
Mature YA/crossover for language and situations.
SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi
This book started in a claustrophobic, scary way and escalated. Set in a believable dystopian future, the haves and have-nots both struggle to survive. I liked the way the author organically wove in the effects of environmental disaster by simply showing how people found ways to exist in a world made smaller and more dangerous than ever. Nailer, the protagonist, is tough, vulnerable, hopeful and noble, despite his deplorable start in life.
Snippet: A few men were lounging in the shade, tats and piercings showing unknown affiliations. They watched as the three interlopers moved through their turf. Nailer’s neck prickled. He palmed his knife, wondering if there would be bloodshed.
YA with some brutal scenes.
PARANORMALCY by Kiersten White.
This is a romp--a fresh slant on paranormal stories. The teenage protagonist bags paranormals of all stripes for an international containment agency. What she doesn’t know is much about herself and why she is skilled this way.
Snippet: Just as he reached for my neck, I tased him. I was there to bag and tag, not to kill. Besides, if I had to carry separate weapons for every paranormal I took out, I’d be dragging around a full luggage set. Tasers are a one-size-fits-all paranormal butt-kicking option. Mine’s pink with rhinestones.
YA. Suitable for the younger end of the spectrum, too, the protagonist actually says “bleep” when upset.
THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson
The author is so good at finding fresh, spot-on ways of describing things that I think the book should be read for that alone, but the story is meaningful, as well. For instance, when Lennie, the teen protagonist, describes the way she and her Gram and uncle stare at nothing, following the death of her sister, Nelson writes that “it’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.” Lennie can only let out her grief in written words that she scatters, everywhere. Then a sexual awakening tied to her loss really upends her.
Snippet: Gram raises her hands to her face in distress, and I go back to scribbling a poem in the margin of Wuthering Heights. I’m huddled into a corner of the couch. I’ve no use for talking, would just as soon store paper clips in my mouth.
Mature YA for language and situations.
BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
I might not have picked up this book about a clique of popular mean girls, but I’m glad I did. Oliver impressed me with the way she peeled character revelations away layer by layer. Early on, the protagonist dies in a car accident but wakes up again and again the morning of the day it happens. With each new-but-same day, she changes her actions, altering events--at first, hoping to survive and later with more awareness of herself, her family, her friends and their victims. I don’t want to give away what happens but it’s a story that resonates long after the last line.
Snippet: It’s a good feeling knowing you can basically do whatever you want and there won’t be any consequences.
Mature YA for language and situations.