Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan
Josie attends both college and high school, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So she has to be able to speak fluent High School and College. There are people in her life who speak her own language, her best friend Stu, her parents, and her older sister Kate. Josie also has to learn the way to talk to Kate about her dismal new boyfriend who doesn’t seem to be going away as quickly as Josie would like. Even worse, it looks like they might be getting married, but not if Josie can stop it. As Josie starts to date, she learns that there are Boyfriend languages that she has to learn as well. But will anyone bother to learn to speak Josie? And how in the world do you stop a crazy bride-to-be from ruining your life along with her own?
McCahan has written a smart female protagonist who is not afraid of being seen as intelligent and often shows off her knowledge in very humorous ways. It’s great to have a super-smart girl in a book who relishes her own brains and also manages to have close friends. Just as lovely is a book with a teen protagonist who enjoys her parents and gets along with her siblings too, most of the time. Josie is entirely herself with her own sense of identity that often does not match the ones that people want to inflict upon her. And that is celebrated in this wonderfully clever read.
McCahan has a knack for comedic timing and witty comments. She doesn’t take it too far or make Josie too very clever. Instead the humor reads naturally and seems like the sort of things that a smart teen would say. The use of foreign languages to look at how people communicate in different ways is a very clever take on it. As Josie stumbles through relationships on different levels, she is acutely aware of when things go awry but also just as confused about how to fix them.
This is an outstanding novel with an unusual protagonist that will have you laughing along with Josie as she navigates the many languages of her world. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Cady has been spending her summers on the family’s private island for her entire life. She and her two cousins Johnny and Mirren were joined by Gat, a boy who became almost a cousin but also so much more for Cady. The foursome call themselves The Liars, and during the summers were inseparable but barely contacted one another during the rest of the year. But then one summer it all changed and now Cady can’t remember what happened. She was found bedraggled and wet on the beach of the island, alone. Now she suffers from amnesia and migraines, spending days in bed in severe pain. But she is determined to find out what happened, even if the other three refuse to contact her any more, so she returns to the island.
Lockhart has created a mystery and thriller that is written like modern poetry. She plays with construction in her novel, dancing between verse and prose masterfully. This disjointed approach to construction also speaks to the way the entire novel is deconstructed and put back together again. The book moves in time, flashing forward and backward, yet is never confusing. Still, readers will be caught in this sparkling web, unable to piece together the mystery until Lockhart is ready for the reveal. And she does it with great style and technique.
With such a character-driven book, the depiction of the characters is of paramount importance. Lockhart excels in all of her books in creating characters who are real people, human and flawed. She does the same here, creating in Cady a very complicated character that readers have to put together as a puzzle until it clicks together in the end. The other supporting characters are equally well rendered. Even the parental figures who seem stereotypical at first reveal surprising depth as the story continues.
Superbly crafted and brilliantly written, this book is one of the best of the year. Get your hands on it now! Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Delacorte Press and Edelweiss.
Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle
This sequel to the award-winning Better Nate Than Ever is one of the strongest second books in a series I have read. After getting cast as ET in the upcoming ET: The Musical, Nate is now living in New York City with his aunt who is also an actress. But Broadway isn’t everything that Nate has dreamed it would be. There seems to be a feud between the video-game creator who is their director and the choreographer. Nate is an understudy and a member of the chorus but he can’t tap dance and is put into extra classes to improve. But there are also high points. Nate has a secret admirer who leaves notes and gifts, and he certain he knows who it is. Nate is also secretly helping another of the ET actors with her lines and they become close friends over manicures. Like any great Broadway story there are twists and turns and some romance too. It’s one hell of a second act.
Federle writes in a way that is so easy to read and creates books that are impossible to put down until the final curtain falls. This ease of reading though is because he is really writing directly for children in a way that is open, honest and speaks to all children whether they are actors or not. Add in Nate’s questioning his sexual identity and you have a book with plenty of depth.
What Federle does best is to create characters who surprise and delight. Nate himself captures this. Nate could come off as a stereotypical actor, but instead because the book is in first person, Nate reveals all of his inner dialogue. Much of which is screamingly funny. But Nate is not the only deep character here. Even tertiary characters are interesting and offer glimpses of how unique they are. Among the secondary characters, there are many who would make great books all on their own. Federle is a master of creating characters and making us care for them.
Bravo! This is a smash production filled with humor and delight. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
A stunningly inventive retelling of Beauty and the Beast, this debut novel turns the entire tale around over and over again. Born into a world captured under a paper sky, Nyx has been promised as a bride to their demon ruler since she was born. Her father promised tribute when he made a deal with the demon, so Nyx is to be sacrificed. But her sacrifice is not to be without results, so she has been trained to kill her demon husband. On her seventeenth birthday, she is sent to live with her new husband whom she has never met in his incredible castle. She is not expecting to be beguiled by her new husband or by his silent shadow that serves him. But once in the realm of her husband things are different, answers are not as clear, and even the questions shift and change just like the rooms and doors in the castle. Nyx must figure out how she can save not only her family and her world but whether her newfound love can be saved too.
I was amazed when I discovered that this is a debut novel. The writing has a polish and steadiness that would not lead one to believe that when reading. Hodge has managed to take the foundation of the Beauty and the Beast storyline but then transform it, writing her own original world on top of it yet never quite leaving the original too far behind. It is a critical balance in reworking familiar stories, and Hodge manages it admirably. She turns it into something wilder, more frightening and just as beautiful.
Nyx is a wonderful protagonist. I love how prickly she is, how feisty and fiery. She can stand right up to a demon and match wits with him. Yet she is also entirely human, torn by the fact her father chose to sacrifice her, awash with a mix of love and hate for her twin sister, and at times overcome with the situation she finds herself in. Hodge allows these opposite forces to linger, building the tension and not resolving it until the end.
Dramatic, romantic and completely beguiling, this retelling of Beauty and the Beast will get teen hearts racing even as the world twists and turns changing the story. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.
Defy by Sara B. Larson
This debut YA novel is a mix of romance and fantasy. In a jungle kingdom with a cruel ruler, Alexa and her twin brother survive the murder of their parents. Alexa has been raised by her father to fight, something very unusual for a girl in their society. This lets her disguise herself as a boy and avoid being taken to a rape house and used by the king’s soldiers. She becomes one of the best fighters in the prince’s guard. But the prince is aloof and cold to everyone, never showing any interest in becoming a ruler. Alexa finds herself guarding the prince personally after an attempt on his life. Then she is taken hostage along with the prince and another of his guard. She finds herself drawn to the man the prince is behind his cold exterior and also drawn to the other guard, a man she has known for years. But how will they ever accept her as a girl when they have only known her as a man?
Larson has created a very compelling world here. The jungle setting is refreshing as is the kingdom ruled by fear and cruelty. The pacing is fast, almost breakneck, making it a very riveting read. Larson’s characters are complex as well. In particular, the prince himself is very well drawn as a mysterious figure that is constantly revealing new aspects. The ending is satisfying with a build up that adds to the tension.
At the same time, the book does suffer from some debut mistakes. Alexa is constantly losing consciousness throughout the book. She is tough as nails, except for her skull. Then she seems to recover from long blackout periods with few ill effects. The rape house aspect of the kingdom was not necessary for the story at all. I hope that it becomes vital in the rest of the series, because otherwise it was a poor choice to be included. When Alexa’s real sex is revealed, it is very anticlimactic. For something that was seen to be life or death, the result is lukewarm at best.
While it does suffer from some plot issues, readers who enjoy fantasy mixed with romance will enjoy this new series. Appropriate for ages 14-16.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Scholastic.
Champion by Marie Lu
This is the third and final book in the Legend trilogy and it does not disappoint. June and Day have almost entirely stopped communicating with one another now that Day has his brother Eden to care for and June is busy learning to be the next leader of the Senate. Day also is keeping his deteriorating health secret from everyone, though he is finding it harder and harder to deal with the blindingly strong headaches. Eden may be the key to stopping a plague that threatens an invasion of the Republic by the Colonies, so June asks Day to join her in Denver without mentioning his brother. Reunited, the two feel their connection immediately, but both are holding secrets that they don’t want to reveal. Yet they are also the only two people who have the ability to change the course of a war where winning could be the biggest loss of all.
Lu has written her entire series with a grand feel of cinematography behind it. In each of the scenes, they come to life as if shown on a mental screen. Her writing is crisp and clear, yet it also delves into murky situations that are less than clear. The question of loyalty to a government that has hurt your own family, killing some members, grapples with dark issues. It is this wonderful mix of action and adventure but also thoughtful questions about larger issues that make this series compellingly readable.
The characters of Day and June have grown throughout the entire series. Both started at very different places than they ended up, and yet the growth has been natural, with distinct reasons for the changes. Their romance, flawed and consistently stumbling, is gut wrenching and entirely beautiful. They are a couple that are drawn together like moths to flames and then burned, retreat and then burn themselves again. The romance just like their character development is honest, natural and glorious.
An action filled, taut ending to an incredible series, this book also has plenty of heart, romance and wisdom. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Cath knows exactly what she is. She’s a fan of Simon Snow, a magical series of books that rival Harry Potter in popularity. She’s a twin. She’s a college freshman. And she does not want to go out and meet people or party. She’s much happier in her dorm room writing fan fiction about Simon Snow and his arch nemesis Baz, where she has reworked them as a steamy gay couple. Cath’s twin also attends the same college, but Wren does not want to be seen much together and is completely into the college party scene. So Cath spends much of her time alone or with her prickly new roommate, eating protein bars and peanut butter because the dining hall freaks her out. Soon Cath will be asked to choose between writing fiction and writing Simon Snow fan fiction. She will need to figure out how to let her Dad live his own life even though he is fragile. But most of all, she needs to figure out how to live life on her own terms and have it be a life worth living.
Rowell does it again with this second book for teens. Her writing voice is uniquely hers, so that her books could only be written by her. She has a wonderful sense of humor that runs through her books, often popping up in the most serious of moments like humor often does in real life. This book is complicated, about more than one expects from the title. While it is about fan fiction, it’s also about so much more, including being a young writer, the writing process, siblings, broken families, and even first love.
Her characters are deep and worth spending time with. Cath is remarkable both in her own issues that she carries with her but also in the way that she survives and flourishes. Her early days at college echo many of my own fears, though I never succumbed to eating protein bars to survive. Many high school students will see their own thoughts reflected here too. It’s universal and makes Cath immediately relatable and lovable. And I must comment again about how well Rowell writes romance and sex scenes. Sex is part of life in her novels, something to be applauded, where no young women are made to feel slutty because they are sexually active. It is beautifully handled.
I can’t wait to see where Rowell takes us next. She is an author who belongs on lists alongside John Green and Gayle Forman. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman
Tara’s father is Jewish and her mother is East Indian, so Tara has mixed feelings about her upcoming bat mitzvah. Some of the kids in her Hebrew class even wonder if she is actually Jewish at all. Tara though is more concerned with whether she actually believes in God and if she doesn’t, does that mean that she can’t have a bat mitzvah? She also worries about what celebrating this side of her family says to the other side. So Tara decides to make sure that both sides of her family are represented by wearing a family sari that had been passed down for generations. Unfortunately though, the sari is accidentally burned and Tara has to figure out how to tell her mother about it. But that’s not the only complexity in Tara’s life. Her best friend Rebecca seems to be spending more time with another girl, someone that Tara doesn’t get along with. Her other best friend Ben-o seems interested in being more than friends sometimes but other times spends a lot of time with another girl. It’s up to Tara to navigate all of the confusion and make her bat mitzvah her own.
Freedman very successfully tells the story of a young woman dealing with two distinct family heritages. Happily, she doesn’t feel the need to build heightened angst about it, allowing Tara’s personal doubts to really drive this part of the story. Her family around her does not have the same feelings, sharing holidays with one another and enjoying the same foods, most of the time.
The book has a lightness of tone that makes the book very enjoyable. Freedman explores bullying with a perfect touch, but less successfully explores the underlying issues. Tara is a strong heroine who is far from perfect. She has a temper, responds physically at times, and can be too self-absorbed to really see what is happening with her friends.
Hurrah for a book with a brown-skinned girl right on the cover that explores her multicultural heritage in such a straight-forward way! Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.
All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry
Judith has returned to her family and her small Puritan town after being missing for two years but she is unable to speak because her tongue has been cut out. Without speech, the entire community ignores Judith and treats her as if she is less than a person. Her own mother reviles her, never saying her name and ordering her around as “you” instead. In her silence, Judith has many secrets that she keeps close. She sees everything and moves through the town as if she is a ghost. But inside herself, Judith is smart, caring and dutiful. When her mother refuses to hear her attempts at speech, Judith stops trying altogether. When the boy she loves takes another as a fiancé, Judith is only kind to the girl. Secrets though have a way of getting out and one dangerous secret may just be able to save their community.
The first thing I have to say is that the cover is lovely but very misleading. This is a book set in an unnamed historical setting and the cover reads entirely modern. Reading the book I was astonished to find it was historical fiction and kept turning back to the cover in confusion. The paperback cover is no better since it also conveys a modern feel.
With the cover aside, this is one incredible read. One might think the lack of real historical context would be an issue, but it works well here. The focus is on the people rather than the setting, though the world of Puritanical thought is an important element throughout. The book is a real mystery novel with the questions of what really happened to Judith swirling throughout the book. The reveal is tantalizingly written, making for one compelling novel.
Berry writes with a lyrical voice throughout, capturing the loneliness and longing of Judith. The beauty of the writing serves as a way for readers to see the thoughts of Judith and understand that she is rich with thinking inside. Berry is also masterful at pacing and how she reveals the details. It is entirely on her terms and readers may guess what is coming but can never be sure until it is revealed. It is a book where the ending is crucial, exciting and immensely satisfying.
A great pick to book talk for teens, the premise of this historical novel should be more than enough to get teens to pick it up. The writing and the mystery will keep them reading. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor is the new girl at school. She is different from everyone else with her bright red hair and men’s clothes. Park has gone to this school forever, he knows everyone on the bus and just wants to keep his head down and be ignored. But Park can’t ignore Eleanor when she is standing in the aisle and needs somewhere to sit. So he lets her sit by him. They don’t talk though, until he notices that she is reading his comics too. Their relationship slowly grows and they start talking together only about comics. Eleanor doesn’t want to talk about her horrible home life that had her kicked out of the house for a year. Park doesn’t want to scare her off by pushing. Little by little, this becomes a book about first love between two teens who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Little by little, this book steals your heart too.
I honestly don’t think I can voice how good this novel is. Rowell writes with such truth and passion through the entire book that it makes your breath catch at times. She does not turn away from the most horrible parts of being a teen, bullying, family crisis, the stumbles on the way to a connection. These are the moments that cast the others in such light, that make the others shine and dazzle.
Eleanor and Park both narrate the story in turns. That decision was critical to this book, allowing each teen to talk about what they love about the other and the amazement they feel that someone likes them too. The two characters are so different, from such differing backgrounds. They are living people, ones who enter your dreams because you feel like they are part of you.
Her book is just like first love. It is stunning, honest and raw. It is unforgettable. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.