Four Star Books Read in 2015: Children and Young Adult


Holes by Louis Sachar: Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.
It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.

Reviewed on blog in September 2015. 

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder: The first time Melanie Ross meets April Hall, she's not sure they'll have anything in common. But she soon discovers that they both love anything to do with ancient Egypt. When they stumble upon a deserted storage yard behind the A-Z Antiques and Curio Shop, Melanie and April decide it's the perfect sport for the Egypt Game.
Before long there are six Egyptians instead of two. After school and on weekends they all meet to wear costumes, hold ceremonies, and work on their secret code.
Everyone thinks it's just a game, until strange things begin happening to the players. Has the Egypt Game gone too far?

I'd been aware of this book since I was a child, but had never picked it up. I was looking for a Newbery Medal book and found this on my shelf. It's incredibly charming and quirky and very readable. There are times when the children seem wise and articulate beyond their years, but there are also times when they are normal, extremely geeky children, and it all kind of balances out. There are also horrific things that, at first glance, don't seem to belong in a children's book, until you think more carefully about, oh, almost every children's book ever. I felt like Snyder gave her prospective child audience a lot of credit, and I like that. 

Young Adult:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Charlie is a freshman.
And while he's not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it.
Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mix tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But he can't stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a deeply affecting coming-of-age story that will spirit you back to those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.

I borrowed this from my niece - still haven't seen the movie. I really liked it. I can't tell if I only think this because I already know it's been made into a movie, but the whole thing felt very cinematic. All of the relationship dynamics were very well-drawn and affecting in different ways. I have a fondness for epistolary novels anyway, and I thought the device was very effective here. 

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson: A brilliant, luminous story of first love, family, loss, and betrayal for fans of John Green, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell.
Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah's story to tell. The later years are Jude's. What the twins don't realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.
This radiant novel from the acclaimed, award-winning author ofThe Sky Is Everywhere will leave you breathless and teary and laughing—often all at once.

Very glad I decided to read this before my self-imposed ban on YA lit (which never really came to anything, partly because I have no willpower, partly because it was kind of a stupid, arbitrary decision). For once the comparisons to other writers I love (John Green, Rainbow Rowell) seem warranted. I have a completely goofy, uncritical, moon-eyed crush on this book. I loved the exuberant writing style, the slightly implausibly witty and polished dialogue, the flawless rendering of adolescent (and adult) yearning and rage and sorrow and terror. The plot is contrived, but it's all so well done that it feels more like fate than clumsy artifice. I really, really liked it.

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson: Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life - and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they're the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can't collide without the whole wide world exploding.
This remarkable debut is perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Francesca Lia Block. Just as much a celebration of love as it is a portrait of loss, Lennie's struggle to sort her own melody out of the noise around her is always honest, often hilarious, and ultimately unforgettable.

Not quite as transporting as I'll Give You the Sky, but on the whole I've become a fairly ardent Jandy Nelson fan this year. A lot of readers have commented that Lennie is not a very likable character, which I'll grant. Grief can make people unlikable, and prone to making questionable decisions, and really frustrating to be friends or family members with, and I feel like that's the kind of 'unlikable' Lennie is. I heard the same thing from people about Quentin Coldwater in the Magicians trilogy, and when I asked the author about a question on Goodreads, he said that Quentin is depressed, and in that light it's understandable that people wouldn't find him likable. Some people have to have a sympathetic character in order to feel connected to a book, which is fair. It's usually not a problem for me if a character isn't uniformly likable, particularly if the character's history, context or underpinnings make their objectionable behaviour or demeanour understandable, which I feel is the case here. There's a little of the John Green syndrome here - all the characters are just so FABULOUS and eccentric and colourful, and teen-agers are fairly uniformly witty and articulate. Sometimes it all becomes a bit much. But Nelson writes with such energy and zest that this is eminently forgivable.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel: Love can never die.
Love conquers all, so they say. But can Cupid’s arrow pierce the hearts of the living and the dead - or rather, the undead? Can a proper young Victorian lady find true love in the arms of a dashing zombie? 
The year is 2195. The place is New Victoria - a high-tech nation modeled on the manners, mores, and fashions of an antique era. A teenager in high society, Nora Dearly is far more interested in military history and her country’s political unrest than in tea parties and debutante balls. But after her beloved parents die, Nora is left at the mercy of her domineering aunt, a social-climbing spendthrift who has squandered the family fortune and now plans to marry her niece off for money. For Nora, no fate could be more horrible - until she’s nearly kidnapped by an army of walking corpses. 
But fate is just getting started with Nora. Catapulted from her world of drawing-room civility, she’s suddenly gunning down ravenous zombies alongside mysterious black-clad commandos and confronting “The Laz,” a fatal virus that raises the dead - and hell along with them. Hardly ideal circumstances. Then Nora meets Bram Griswold, a young soldier who is brave, handsome, noble . . . and dead. But as is the case with the rest of his special undead unit, luck and modern science have enabled Bram to hold on to his mind, his manners, and his body parts. And when his bond of trust with Nora turns to tenderness, there’s no turning back. Eventually, they know, the disease will win, separating the star-crossed lovers forever. But until then, beating or not, their hearts will have what they desire.
In Dearly, Departed, romance meets walking-dead thriller, spawning a madly imaginative novel of rip-roaring adventure, spine-tingling suspense, and macabre comedy that forever redefines the concept of undying love.

I've tried a couple of steampunk novels and I usually find they don't work for me. But hey, steampunk zombies, I gave it a shot. The high-tech society paired with Victorian sensibilities is really interesting - they have these parasols that have gas-powered lamps in them and I totally want one. The zombie part works well too, and the romance is surprisingly believable, considering the circumstances. It's sort of a big, fun, gothic, event-packed adventure with satisfyingly cartoony villains and witty banter. Great fun.

Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow: In the world of Sorrow’s Knot, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be home to something hungry and nearly invisible, something deadly. The dead can only be repelled or destroyed with magically knotted cords and yarns. The women who tie these knots are called binders.
Otter is the daughter of Willow, a binder of great power. She’s a proud and privileged girl who takes it for granted that she will be a binder some day herself. But when Willow’s power begins to turn inward and tear her apart, Otter finds herself trapped with a responsibility she’s not ready for, and a power she no longer wants.

This is a beautiful, ambitious, strange and incredibly sad book, weighty with archetype and metaphor. The characters, young and old, are complicated and flawed and sometimes frightening. I had to reread a few sections to figure out exactly what was being said. Bow's previous book, Plain Kate, was a really tough act to follow, and I still prefer it slightly. She really doesn't sugarcoat any of the big ideas or shrink from sorrow and sacrifice, despite writing for  young readers, which is admirable. I'm really curious to see what she does next.

The Archived (The Archived #1) by Victoria Schwab: Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.
Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.
Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was: a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.
Being a Keeper isn't just dangerous—it's a constant reminder of those Mac has lost, Da's death was hard enough, but now that her little brother is gone too, Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself may crumble and fall.
In this haunting, richly imagined novel, Victoria Schwab reveals the thin lines between past and present, love and pain, trust and deceit, unbearable loss and hard-won redemption.

Welp, let's see... a massive ghostly library where the entries are dead people, things that are sort of like zombies, really great writing and witty banter between a kick-ass female lead and a love interest who wears guyliner. Could this be any MORE in my wheelhouse? I've been intrigued by V.E. Schwab's writing since I read Vicious - she takes familiar tropes and puts incredibly original twists on them, so I always feel like I'm reading something really refreshingly different, and on top of that she tells a really great story. 

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz: A gritty, romantic modern fairy tale from the author of Breakand Gone, Gone, Gone.
Be careful what you believe in.
Rudy’s life is flipped upside-down when his family moves to a remote island in a last attempt to save his sick younger brother. With nothing to do but worry, Rudy sinks deeper and deeper into loneliness and lies awake at night listening to the screams of the ocean beneath his family’s rickety house.
Then he meets Diana, who makes him wonder what he even knows about love, and Teeth, who makes him question what he knows about anything. Rudy can’t remember the last time he felt so connected to someone, but being friends with Teeth is more than a little bit complicated. He soon learns that Teeth has terrible secrets. Violent secrets. Secrets that will force Rudy to choose between his own happiness and his brother’s life.

Pretty fantastic, on the whole. Surprising and different, at times violently repulsive. Hits you in the face with some unflinching questions about what you're willing to do with your ethics when someone you love is on the line. Every so often gets a little too glib and quippy and hilariously profane and slips into manic-pixie-dream-guy territory, but gets back on track. No Hollywood ending.

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead: When seventh grader Georges (the S is silent) moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a twelve-year-old coffee-drinking loner and self-appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer's first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?

Oh look, another author whose book I really liked and yet I liked her previous book slightly better; I'll bet that's REALLY ANNOYING for authors. When You Reach Me was an instant classic, in my opinion, riffing as it did on another instant classic while being just a really striking, romantic, melancholy, beautiful work in its own right. Liar and Spy is a lovely little book, and I don't mean that pejoratively. It takes talent to make a quiet, small story this charming and important.

Beware the Wild by Natalie C. Parker: It's an oppressively hot and sticky morning in June when Sterling and her brother, Phin, have an argument that compels him to run into the town swamp—the one that strikes fear in all the residents of Sticks, Louisiana. Phin doesn't return. Instead, a girl named Lenora May climbs out, and now Sterling is the only person in Sticks who remembers her brother ever existed.
Sterling needs to figure out what the swamp's done with her beloved brother and how Lenora May is connected to his disappearance—and loner boy Heath Durham might be the only one who can help her. 
This debut novel is full of atmosphere, twists and turns, and a swoon-worthy romance.

I have a soft spot for this kind of thing anyway, and this was done really well. The main character is sympathetic but not simpering, and she has a solid group of good friends so when the romance happens with the "only one who understands what she's going through" it doesn't happen in isolation, which is refreshing. The plot hook and world-building are  extremely engaging and the steamy southern atmosphere of the town and the swamp are cinematically vivid. It's magical - the twisted, dark kind. 

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold: Sephora Golding lives in the shadow of her unbelievably beautiful mother. Even though they scrape by in the seedier part of Venice Beach, she's always felt lucky. As a child, she imagined she was a minor but beloved character in her mother's fairy tale. But now, at sixteen, the fairy tale is less Disney and more Grimm. And she wants the story to be her own. Then she meets Felix, and the fairy tale takes a turn she never imagined. Sometimes, a story is just a way to hide the unspeakable in plain sight.

Very mature and extreme for YA - you couldn't put this in a high school library without risking some extremely pissed-off parents. The weaving in of the myths with the story adds immensely to the work without detracting from the gritty realism. I'm not sure the twist was absolutely necessary, but I believe it wasn't used purely for shock value.

The Cracks in the Kingdom (The Colours of Madeleine #2) by Jaclyn Moriarty: The second in Jaclyn Moriarty's brilliant, acclaimed fantasy trilogy, THE COLORS OF MADELEINE!
Princess Ko's been bluffing about the mysterious absence of her father, desperately trying to keep the government running on her own. But if she can't get him back in a matter of weeks, the consequence may be a devastating war. So under the guise of a publicity stunt she gathers a group of teens -- each with a special ability -- from across the kingdom to crack the unsolvable case of the missing royals of Cello.
Chief among these is farm-boy heartthrob Elliot Baranski, more determined than ever to find his own father. And with the royal family trapped in the World with no memory of their former lives, Elliot's value to the Alliance is clear: He's the only one with a connection to the World, through his forbidden communications with Madeleine.
Through notes, letters, and late nights, Elliot and Madeleine must find a way to travel across worlds and bring missing loved ones home. The stakes are high, and the writing by turns hilarious and suspenseful, as only Jaclyn Moriarty can be.

I LOVE this wonderfully imagined series. I love the kingdom of Cello, I love the wonky magic that can kill you or make you crazy, I love the characters and the story and the people missing people and people finding people and the intrigue and the letters passed through the parking meter and everything, everything. Transports of delight, I'm telling you - transports

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender: In this asylum, your mind plays tricks on you all the time…
Delia’s new house isn’t just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females—an insane asylum nicknamed “Hysteria Hall.” However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself.
But the house still wants to keep “troubled” girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia gets trapped.
And that’s when she learns that the house is also haunted.
Ghost girls wander the halls in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia finds that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, as well, harbors shocking truths within its walls—truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free.
But she’ll need to act quickly, before the house’s power overtakes everything she loves.
From master of suspense Katie Alender comes a riveting tale of twisted memories and betrayals, and the meaning of madness.

Nice. Original story, compelling character, nice skewed take on the ghost story.

The Dogs by Allan Stratton: Cameron and his mom have been on the run for five years. His father is hunting them. At least, that’s what Cameron’s been told.
When they settle in an isolated farmhouse, Cameron starts to see and hear things that aren’t possible. Soon he’s questioning everything he thought he knew and even his sanity.
What's hiding in the night? Buried in the past? Cameron must uncover the dark secrets before they tear him apart.

This wasn't precisely what I was expecting - there was a little more reality than spooky story - but it was frightening and affecting. 

A Path Begins (The Thickety #1) by J.A. White: Hand in hand, the witch's children walked down the empty road.
When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic . . . except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr's Realm. But mostly it's called the Thickety.
The black-leaved trees swayed toward Kara and then away, as though beckoning her.
The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother.
And that is just the beginning of the story.
The Thickety: A Path Begins is the start of a thrilling and spellbinding tale about a girl, the Thickety, and the power of magic.

After a weird period of not being able to settle down and finish anything, I finished a bunch of books in the space of a couple of weeks. I then went through a period of wondering if reading at this age is just a matter of nothing new under the sun. After reading extensively for thirty-plus years, it's understandable that not much seems completely original and surprising. That said, the echoes in this book of The Crucible, every Disney movie where the protagonist grows up motherless, every YA novel where there is a dangerous forest and/or magic is thought to be evil but revealed to just be misunderstood and dangerous in the wrong hands, are built on admirably, so it isn't just derivative. Kara is a good character. I did have some problems with people who take pleasure in cruelty being let off with the explanation that they're just poor simple folk who fear what they don't understand. I don't have a really strong sense of where the next book will go, but I will probably read it.


StephLove said…
I didn't read the Egypt Game as a child either, but I read it with Noah several years ago after he bought it from Scholastic or it came into the house some other way. We liked it, too.

I am curious how an epistolary novel could seem cinematic. These characteristics somehow seem opposed to me.
Alison said…
Your reviews always make me think. For example, I read Holes years ago and loved it; I wasn't a child but I was reading like one. Your points are very well taken.
Nicole said…
I thought that Perks of Being A Wallflower was something I read as a kid, but seeing that it was published in 1999, I guess it wasn't. Maybe it was something similar, but I have no idea. This comment is idiotic, sorry, but now I'm on a mission to figure out what book it is I'm thinking of based on hazy memories of random scenes...

Popular posts from this blog

Clothes Make the Blog Post

Ceci n'est pas un blog post

Real Talk