Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson
Okay. So I’m a librarian, trained in the art of providing library services to children and young adults. One of the biggest tools that Readers Advisors possess is the almighty Readalike. If you liked this, you’ll like this. If you like that and this, then try this. But when you have a deep, personal connection with a certain author’s work – especially when the author is very well-known – then the readalike game can be tricky. Is there really another series that can live up to a diehard Harry Potter fan’s expectations? Well, I feel that way about Sarah Dessen. If a work of contemporary realism for young adults has a first person female narrator and any hint of romance, then it’s probably going to appeal to Sarah Dessen fans. Well, not this one. I actually don’t read books with the SD readalike claims because I know that she’s the best for a reason: if a book were to be as good as a Sarah Dessen book, then you wouldn’t be invoking her name. The book would stand on its own. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but I feel that many Readalikers (especially those attempting to market new books and authors) mistake content with execution. As a Dessen fan, I don’t crave romantic stories about teen girls in the South – I crave the deft storytelling, appealing characters, and unique slices of teen-girlhood that Dessen so expertly serves up.
I’ve said this before, but I think Morgan Matson might be the only writer I’ve encountered who can stand up to the Dessen comparisons. Since You’ve Been Gone is a summer story about a teen girl – Emily – whose best friend takes off unexpectedly. There’s a gimmick – Emily’s friend left behind a list of daring deeds to accomplish – but it kind of fades behind Emily’s story after a certain point. What’s left is a solid bit of girl-centric YA realism that should keep you satisfied until the next Sarah Dessen comes out. (In May of 2015. Not that I am counting down the days or anything)
A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty
Confession: I have a bit of a problem with Australian YA. I don’t always… get it. And because I don’t get it, I don’t always like it. It’s an affliction. It almost feels ethnocentric or something. I don’t know why, but most of time when I finish reading an Australian YA book I’m left feeling like I missed a big part of the picture. If you meet me IRL, ask me about the time I ate a publisher’s dinner with the editor of Jellicoe Road. Oof.
So you know how I write “reviews” that start with a paragraph explaining why I thought I wouldn’t like a book and then I segue into how and why I was surprised to like it? Consider this your segue. I like Jaclyn Moriarty! It’s possible that I only have issues with Australian dramas. I find comedies much more agreeable, especially those written the style and wit that drips off of Moriarty’s stories. In this book, homeschooled Madeleine unwittingly discovers a portal to another dimension. Actually, Madeleine has no idea that she’s even made the discovery – the reader knows because her chapters alternate with a boy who’s living in the other dimension. These two stories aren’t necessarily woven together, but they move steadily toward one another.
Besides Moriarty’s talent with the clever phrase, what stood out to me in this book was the playful world building. The Kingdom of Cello is lively, weird, and endangered by… uh… storms of color? I guess you could call it that. Whatever. Many of the fantasy novels I’ve read feature alternate worlds where things are desolate, scary, and somehow broken. The Kingdom of Cello isn’t a Happy-Cheery-Princessland, but the details Moriarty chooses cast Cello into an entirely unique light. I haven’t yet read the sequel, The Cracks in the Kingdom, but I’ve heard that it’s better than the first!
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Hmmm… did I just step back in time? Is it 2012 again? Have you heard of this book called Code Name Verity? No? Hmm. How strange. Well it’s amazing!
Seriously – I am literally the last person to jump on this bandwagon, and I’m sure that you’ve all read this amazing piece of historical fiction. This is really an impossible book to summarize because so much of the plot twists and turns throughout the story, but I’ll tell you that it’s about a pair of unlikely female friends in Europe during WWII. They are involved with the flying of planes. They are trying to pursue dreams and survive a war. They are brave and daring and smart and their voices soar right off the page. I found this book a bit difficult to get into, but after the halfway mark some truly shocking story developments had me completely rapt. A companion – Rose Under Fire – came out last year. I’ll probably read it sometime in 2017, but I’m guessing I will feel just as dumb for putting it off as I feel now.
Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu
Tab lives in a small town in Vermont where her hip (ish) young parents run a coffee shop, the guy she’s dating is someone else’s boyfriend, and her friends think she’s slutty ever since she grew boobs. Life is not so great. When she finds a mysterious url written inside a used book, Tab discovers an anonymous online community of anonymous devoted to challenging one another to taking bold action in the face of their problems. Sometimes disturbingly bold. Considering the kind of 90’s and 00’s YA that I grew up with, Tab, to me, is a classic YA heroine – she’s smart, self-deprecating, and confused as to why the world has to suck so bad when all she wants is the same thing everyone else wants. And I loved the small town Vermont setting – Haydu creates this appealing little nook of the world; I’d even go as far as to call it a little Stars Hallows-y. And like Stars Hallow, Tab’s world is populated with colorful, well-developed side characters. Sasha Cotton, in particular, deserves her own spin-off book for sure. There’s no flashy plot and the ending was a little over the top for my tastes, but I had to include this book on my end of year list because it reminded me of everything I love about YA – how a story can be quiet without being boring, a heroine can be right and wrong at the same time, and how satisfying it can be simply to sit and watch a fictional life unfold for a few hours. I muscled through this in less than a day, and enjoyed every minute of it.
Reality Boy by A. S. King
Somehow I managed to skate through life for a number of years without reading any A. S. King. You might recall that last year, King earned two (prestigious, highly sought after) spots in my top ten – Ask the Passengers was #10 and Please Ignore Vera Dietz was #8. So now I am an A. S. King fan, and that’s good news because she seems to keep these appealing, slightly off-center books coming with some regularity. I read Reality Boy early in the year, but Gerald’s character has really stuck with me: his voice and perspective is so distinct and individual. The hook is that Gerald is suffering from the aftermath of starring on a reality television show as a child – a Supernanny type show that focused on Gerald’s poor behavior as a child. Now that Gerald is a teenager, he’s no longer the misbehaving kid that earned him the nickname “The Crapper,” but he’s still stuck with the dysfunctional family that landed him on the reality show in the first place. The family dynamic here is incredibly uncomfortable – a situation that borders on abusive without ever crossing the line – but watching Gerald slowly deal with his anger and find his footing with a job, a new friend, and a sense of control over his life was nerve-wracking and heartwarming and everything else that I find so special about a close first-person coming of age story. If I *had* to rank the King titles I’ve read so far, I think that Ask the Passengers and Please Ignore Vera Dietz would come ahead of dear Gerald… but I would also say that this third book was the one that tipped the scales for me – if Reality Boy is a “third best” book, then I’m officially on the A. S. King train.
The Strange and Beautiful Life of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
I mentioned earlier that I am a fan of the Big Fat Family Drama. I went into Leslye Walton’s debut novel pretty blind – I don’t tend to read flap copy or reviews very often anymore – so the first thing that I noticed about The Strange and Beautiful Life of Ava Lavender was how familiar it felt. This is a Big Fat Family Drama… but not so big, or fat. Also, magical realism. Also, also, it’s a YA book. So basically, the exact book for me.
This book has received a lot of praise this year for rich, evocative language and unique storytelling. But what I most admired about Ava Lavender was how masterfully Walton tethers a multi-generational story together cohesively, and in a way that narrows in on the adolescent experience throughout. The book begins with Ava’s great-grandmother, an immigrant whose siblings suffer bizarre, somewhat magical fates when she is still a teen herself. The story follows the family down the matrilineal line, from Manhattan to Seattle, where Ava is born and emerges as the story’s primary protagonist. Ava is born under the weight of her troubled family heritage – she shares a home with a mother and grandmother who are capable but self-isolated, and a brother with an unexplainable disability – and a budding mystical condition of her own. Ava’s challenge is to come to terms with her family and forge her own way in the world; familiar YA territory, but with the backdrop of this complicated and richly realized family (not to mention the gorgeous, historical Seattle details) this debut really shines.
Up next… THE TOP TEN!