It’s Top Ten time, teen reading peeps! Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my “from-the-gut” favorites of the books I read this year. (While I love all my Top Ten books the same, I just might love BOXERS & SAINTS a tiny bit more:) Click on the title to go right to the review.
Black, Holly. Doll Bones.
Dahlquist, Gordon. The Different Girl.
Finneyfrock, Karen. The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door.
Forman, Gayle. Just One Day.
Forman, Gayle. Just One Year.
Kninsley, Lucy. Relish.
Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park.
Sedgwick, Marcus. Midwinter Blood.
Sepetys, Ruta. Out of the Easy.
Yang, Gene Luen. Boxers & Saints.
You know when sometimes you discover that amazing book that is ALL THE THINGS? Mystery? Check. Romance? Check. Family DRA-mah? Check. Unexpectedly awesome, never-saw-it-coming ending? Check, check! I wish I could tell you more about this book about a girl, her two cousins and the love of her life. But to say too much about this story of a family slowly rotting from the inside out because of greed and fear would be a great disservice. You should get the chance to savor this delicious narrative of privilege, love and madness on a private island for yourself. Suffice it to say that it contains shades of King Lear, Wuthering Heights and The Virgin Suicides. That the small, perfect characterizations: “Bounce, effort, and snark.” “Sugar, curiosity, and rain.” “Ambition and strong coffee” will have pulling out your own writer’s notebook to follow the pattern. That not only people but HOUSES in this story have their own personalities and strange little quirks. That the plot rug is pulled out from under you the minute you think you understand what is going on. And try not to scream when I tell you this terrific little tension filled package is coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you May 2014.
Mila is an exceptionally observant person. The intuitive only child of academics, she uses her keen sensory powers to discover what it is that people aren’t saying through their body language, facial expressions and clothing choice. That’s why her father agrees to bring her along on a trip to visit his best friend Matthew’s family, even though Matthew himself has gone missing. Maybe Mila can uncover the reason he abruptly left his wife, small baby and loyal dog. Mila interviews Matthew’s wife, plays with Matthew’s baby, walks Matthew’s dog and visits Matthew’s summer cabin. But as Mila carefully collects clues, she is drawn deeper and deeper into a mystery that perhaps only exists to her. While the ending of the book didn’t work for me for all sorts of reasons that will give away important plot points, I found Mila’s voice and the construction of the story unusual and intriguing. If you follow The Mentalist or enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, you’ll dig Mila’s cerebral adventures as well. Also, not for nothing, Picture Me Gone was nominated for a National Book Award.
Failin, Oregon, like every small town, has as many secrets as people. When lonely teens Anne and Lewis strike up an unlikely friendship, they have no idea that their innocent romance will end up bringing so many of the town’s secrets to light. Secrets about hoarder moms and absent dads. Secrets about lost belongings and found treasures. Secrets of past misunderstandings and future relationships. Each person in this intricate character-driven graphic novel will feel familiar as someone you know or love, and each one will lodge deeply in your heart. It’s hard to explain exactly how without giving it all away, but I can say that it reminded me of one of my favorite classics. Sara Ryan has always excelled at crafting fully rounded characters, and her first graphic novel is no exception. Her words are aided by the spot-on, realistically drawn art by Carla Speed McNeil. A well-told and astutely drawn story of fate and forgiveness.
World-weary traveler Willem is lost. But not in a GPS sort of way. He knows exactly where he is geographically. But ever since his father’s sudden death and his mother’s consequent withdrawal, he’s been wandering lonely as a cloud, drifting from one European destination to the next, trying to find an emotional anchor. And then for one day in Paris, he does. He meets the charming Lulu, an American girl on vacation who needs a distraction from her life as much as he needs one from his. They spend an amazing twenty four hours together. And then he wakes up in an emergency room, battered, bruised and barely able to remember the girl of his dreams. All he knows is that he wants her back, and he will do anything to find her. Except where does he start when he realizes that Lulu isn’t even her real name? Told in Willem’s brave, tender, tragic voice, this extremely satisfying sequel to the beautifully wrought Just One Day will satiate salivating fans who have been dying to find out what happened to Lulu’s mysterious Dutch crush. If you haven’t encountered Willem and Lulu before, you’ll want to read their twinned accounts back-to-back to get the full experience of their long distance love story. A Just Wonderful romantic adventure for the lucky-in-love and brokenhearted alike.
When Gerald was little, his parents signed his family up to take part in a reality television show called Network Nanny. Instead of helping, the show only exacerbated the issues in Gerald’s home—namely that his oldest sister Tasha was a psychopath who terrorized Gerald and his sister Lisi, and that their mother never did anything to stop it. In retaliation, little Gerald did the only thing he could to get back at his big bad sister: he took televised dumps on her most treasured possessions, earning the charming nickname the Crapper. His parents, unable to face Tasha’s disturbing behavior, blamed Gerald instead and the actress Nanny, the only one who ever called Tasha on her conduct, gave up after Gerald punched her in frustration. Now the Crapper is seventeen years old, and his reputation precedes him everywhere. As a result of his unfortunate television legacy and living under his sister’s reign of evil, he has developed a serious anger management problem that causes him to cut himself off from feeling anything so he doesn’t end up hurting anyone. Because lashing out is the only way he knows how to express himself: “The broken arm in freshman year. And nose. And that time I tried to crush a kid’s neck last year. I memorized the walls of the middle school principal’s office. I memorized every inch of the high school’s in-school suspension room.” But then he meets HER, the one girl who understands how he feels and can maybe even help him turn his life around. But will he ever be able to pull the layers of plastic wrap off his battered heart and learn to trust again? A.S. King’s latest is emotionally exhausting and blisteringly real, unlike the staged shows it’s based on. The story unfolds in a series of little ephiphanies as Gerald slowly comes to realize that he can reclaim his life and even fall in love if he’s brave enough to face down his past and confront his parents. The short chapters and spot-on dialogue make the pages fly. After closing the cover, I felt like I’d been through the psychological wringer—in the best possible way. This is one reality show that tells the truth. For more smart stories of savvy teens who learn to see through adult BS, you’ll want to check out King’s other outstanding titles.
Tina’s tired of everyone constantly asking her what she IS, when she’s still figuring it out herself. It’s annoying that just because she’s Indian, people think she’s going to end up in an arranged marriage meditating on sacred cows with a dot on her forehead. She happens to BE a lot of things, and not all of them have to do with where her family is from. So she’s pretty excited when her English teacher Mr. Moosewood creates an elective called Existential Philosophy, which is all about learning how to BE. And not anything in particular, either–just yourself. Tina thinks she can handle that, especially after her best friend dumps her and she develops a crush on the cutest boy at her private school. Her world is suddenly shifting. If she can learn to answer the big life questions posed by her existential philosopher hero Jean-Paul Sartre, maybe everything will fall back into place. Including her first kiss, which is the big life question Tina is most interested in answering. Forget the meaning of her existence! What actually matters most is if she ever plants a juicy one on skater boy Neil Strumminger, will he kiss her back? And if so, will they be boyfriend/girlfriend? Mari Araki‘s sketchy black and white drawings that look like they would be right at home on the cover of your favorite notebook perfectly compliment Keshni Kashap’s angsty text. This witty graphic novel about a smart, funny Indian girl seeking the meaning of life in high school hallways and family dance parties will ring true for anyone who’s ever tried to peel off society’s slapped on labels.
Dinah is a worrywart with a big heart who just wants everyone to get along and everything to be okay. She can’t bear hearing bad news and tries to stay positive even though sometimes she is just so sad about her best friend Skint she can’t take it. Skint is teenage cynic who is angry most of the time about all the bad things that happen to good people, but mostly about the bad thing that has happened to his good family: his smart, generous father is suffering from dementia, and Skint can’t do anything to stop it. When Dinah and Skint befriend a little boy who’s suffering in a way they both recognize all too well, their act of kindness towards him turns out to be a bomb that nearly detonates their friendship. The greatest strength of this character-driven book about real teenagers and real adults with real problems are its long, smart riffs of rich dialogue that just zip off the page, reminding me of some of my favorite titles, like this one, this one and oh, yeah, this one too. The Whole Stupid Way We Are is a sometimes sad, sometimes funny and always moving story about doing the best you can with what you have.
Since she was a little girl, Laura has been captivated by the colorful and bloody history and literature of Russia. But when she finally gets her chance to spend a college semester abroad in Soviet Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1982, she is disappointed by the dreary weather, bad food and suspicious locals. Then she meets Alyosha, a handsome young artist who adores all things American, including Laura. Soon they are caught up in a passionate love affair that is made all the more romantic by the fact that they must keep it secret because American students are discouraged from fraternizing with anyone outside the university. Alyosha gives Laura the keys to his apartment and she finds herself skipping class and lying to her chaperones in order to spend more time with him. She willfully ignores all the warnings from her friends that native Russians “fall in love” with Americans all the time in order to secure a visa to the United States. But as the semester comes to a close, and Alyosha talks more and more about how much he longs to visit San Francisco, Laura can’t help but wonder if the all the warnings are true. Is Alyosha really in love with her? Or is he just using her as a way to escape the close-minded culture of Soviet Russia? While not as offbeat and funny as the author’s smashing debut, this solidly written and deeply felt love story set in a time and place that will seem totally bizarre to those of you born in the 1990s is made even more fascinating by the fact that it is most likely based on this. This bittersweet romance is the perfect way to end your summer.
This last volume of the splendidly gruesome Monstrumologist series depicts sixteen-year-old Will Henry rebelling against the authoritarian rule of his mentor and sometimes nemesis Dr. Pellinor Warthrop more than ever before. Through the last three books, Will has continued to spiral down, down, down into a personal darkness from which he believes there is no salvation. Now a stone cold teenager, Will Henry has to fight to feel anything at all, except when it comes to his childhood sweetheart Lilly Bates. When they meet again as teens, he is instantly smitten, and not pleased to be distracted from his courting by Dr. Warthrop’s new obsession with yet another believed-to-be-extinct monster. But Will can never forget the secret that has dwelled in his blood since the beginning, which casts a shadow on his current bond with Lilly. Soon he is embroiled in a convoluted scheme that ends up turning all his relationships to ash, including the one that has defined him his entire life: his complicated connection to Warthrop. After breaking apart in the most spectacular manner, Will and Warthrop meet one last time, each uncertain about his life and legacy and if the world is big enough to contain them both. This concluding title of the Monstrumologist epic is disappointingly thinner than it’s predecessors in plot and page numbers. The beginning is a bit confusing, as it shifts forward and back in time from the events that lead to Will and Warthrop’s break to their final meeting. In addition, Warthrop’s attempts to secure his latest biologically aberrant prize initially devolves into a shaggy dog mystery that is sometimes difficult to follow. However, once yet another beloved character is killed off, the plot becomes clearer and Yancey pulls off a neat slight of hand identity trick near the end that left me both impressed and very, very relieved. And while the ending feels a little too neat, it also feels absolutely true. I am deeply sorry to see Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop go, as this is without a doubt one of my favorite book series of all time. To follow their horrific adventures from the beginning, start here, go there and there and end here when The Final Descent comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you.