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Thursday, March 28, 2013

6 Surprising YA Books

Author Valerie Cole had this great blog post about surprising books. That is, books that are so very different from what you expected when you first cracked the spine. I love this idea because it’s happened to me: I’ll conjure an image of a book based on its blurb or cover only to find out it’s an entirely different story than I’d imagined.

So I’ve copied that idea. You should know, most of my greatest ideas are not my own. Like that time I grilled a peanut butter and fluff sandwich. Good idea. Not mine.

Here you go, my top surprising books.*

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Samantha Kingston has it all: looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last. The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. Living the last day of her life seven times during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death--and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.
What I expected: The teen version of Groundhog Day, a movie I didn’t even like. But I was told this book was good, so I bought it and WOW.

What I got: Gorgeous writing and a complicated and often mysterious plot. I was surprised to find myself enjoying each new day, never feeling as if I was reading the same scene over and over again.

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
As children, Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick were both social outcasts. They were also one another’s only friend. So when Cameron disappears without warning, Jennifer thinks she’s lost the only person who will ever understand her. Now in high school, Jennifer has been transformed. Known as Jenna, she’s popular, happy, and dating, everything “Jennifer” couldn’t be—but she still can’t shake the memory of her long-lost friend. When Cameron suddenly reappears, they are both confronted with memories of their shared past and the drastically different paths their lives have taken.
What I expected: A cute love story.

What I got: One of my favorite relationships in all of fiction. Plus, one of my favorite YA boys ever. It’s not a love story. It’s about the bonds of friendship and the way one person can impact your life. The plot is complex, the writing wonderful, and the feeling you have at the end? I want to bottle it. (You can read my full review here.)

Chime by Franny Billingsley
Before Briony’s stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family’s hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it’s become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment. Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He’s as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she’s extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn’t know.
What I expected: I blame this on the cover, but I was expecting a typical paranormal romance.

What I got: An amazing story, rich setting, characters so real they may be human, and prose you can’t help but covet. (You can read my full review here.)

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler
According to Anna’s best friend, Frankie, twenty days in Zanzibar Bay is the perfect opportunity to have a summer fling, and if they meet one boy every day, there’s a pretty good chance Anna will find her first summer romance. Anna lightheartedly agrees to the game, but there’s something she hasn’t told Frankie—she’s already had her romance, and it was with Frankie’s older brother, Matt, just before his tragic death one year ago.
What I expected: A lighthearted romantic comedy with maybe a few sad moments. Nothing serious—I mean, the plot revolves around meeting a different boy each day.

What I got: Aside from major heartache a few pages in? A really great story with complex characters and an author so capable she makes you ache for these characters before you really know them. The title doesn’t do this book justice.

The Summer of Skinny Dipping by Amanda Howells
Sometimes I wake up shivering in the early hours of the morning, drowning in dreams of being out there in the ocean that summer, of looking up at the moon and feeling as invisible and free as a fish. But I'm jumping ahead, and to tell the story right I have to go back to the beginning. To a place called Indigo Beach. To a boy with pale skin that glowed against the dark waves. To the start of something neither of us could have predicted, and which would mark us forever, making everything that came after and before seem like it belonged to another life. My name is Mia Gordon: I was sixteen years old, and I remember everything. 
What I expected: A lighthearted (see a pattern here?) beach read. Something worthy of that cover.

What I got: From the title and the tone of the cover, you’d think this is a breezy love story that makes you do things like sing la la la while smiling. This is a love story, but— I hesitate to say more because it’s better if you don’t expect anything. Suffice it to say, there’s so much more to this than skinny-dipping at the beach and falling in love. There’s real loss and real issues explored in the book that will make you feel ALL THE FEELS.

The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan 

Nick and his brother, Alan, have spent their lives on the run from magic. Their father was murdered, and their mother was driven mad by magicians and the demons who give them power. The magicians are hunting the Ryves family for a charm that Nick’s mother stole—a charm that keeps her alive—and they want it badly enough to kill again. Danger draws even closer when a brother and sister come to the Ryves family for help. The boy wears a demon’s mark, a sign of death that almost nothing can erase...and when Alan also gets marked by a demon, Nick is desperate to save him. The only way to do that is to kill one of the magicians they have been hiding from for so long. Ensnared in a deadly game of cat and mouse, Nick starts to suspect that his brother is telling him lie after lie about their past. As the magicians’ Circle closes in on their family, Nick uncovers the secret that could destroy them all.
What I expected: A possibly cheesy paranormal romance, an opinion mostly based on the cover. 

What I got: That cover just doesn’t do it for me. (It’s since gotten an update that doesn’t really do it for me either. Another version does, though.) And then I saw the cover of the sequels (see above) and I really thought this series would be hokey. But it was getting great reviews and it had been recommended to me more than once. So I gave it a try, and I’m so glad I did. The writing is smart and funny, the story hard to put down, and the end? Well, it’s one of the only really great twists in YA fiction that I can think of.  

What books have surprised you?

* You may notice that I’m most often wrong about contemporary YA. I’m not sure what that says about me.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Just One Day: YA Book Club Review

Welcome to book club, you lovely, lovey people. If you’re reading this and have already read Gayle Forman’s Just One Day, feel free to participate in the comments on this blog and the others listed below. This is a very welcoming book club. Not welcoming enough to provide tea and cookies, but welcoming all the same. (Also, if you want to get specific, there are cookies on this blog, just of the HTTP variety.)

Before we chat, a couple notes:  

Warning No. 1: Before you read on, you should know that this review is slightly spoilery. Not totally, but if you want to be completely surprised, you may want to close your eyes.

Warning No. 2: This review is biased. Well, come to think of it, most reviews are biased. As readers, we can’t help but judge a book on our personal preferences, our past, and so forth. I think you should keep that in mind while reading my review.

So let’s get started, shall we?

Like I said, this is a biased review. And I think in order for you to really understand it, you first need to know something about me: I generally dislike male love interests who flirt with a ton of girls, sleep around, and are otherwise candidates for Player of the Year. Note that I didn’t say characters who are players, just love interests. And note that I said generally, not always.* Understanding this about me is important right now.

(Almost but not quite as important as knowing I hate ketchup on inappropriate foods, mayonnaise, and onions more than anything.)

First off, let me say that Gayle Forman’s writing once again drew me in. The settings she conjured were one of my favorite parts of the book, which unsurprisingly made me want to travel the world RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

She’s also created some truly wonderful characters, though their wonderfulness is overshadowed by Allyson’s friend Dee. His scenes were the best in the book. Of course, other side characters were great, too. The tour guide leader. The Shakespeare professor. The best friend who’s trying to find herself. The restaurant chef. The travelers from Oz. I loved each and every one of the characters in this book—except one.

Which brings me to Willem.

Here’s the thing: Going into this book, I knew the story would be a romance. Had I not known that, I think I would have liked Willem at the beginning. He’s the type of guy who’d make a great travel companion—as a friend. And I really loved how he pushed Allyson out of her comfort zone.

But they’re not friends, not the entire time.

And that’s what got me. From the minute they set off, he’s eyeballing other girls. He gets half naked with another, and even if it isn’t in a romantic way, he’s the type of guy who lets his ex undress him and thinks nothing of it. He’s the kind of guy who flippantly tells Allyson that, oh yeah, the girl he said was a friend is actually someone he fell in love with once. And he’s the type of guy to have girls scattered across Europe.

Granted, it’s not all his fault. He never says the day is anything but fun. He never promises anything and never indicates he’s interested in anything but a one-time thing. I understand this, and I guess I can’t fault him for that. Maybe it’s Allyson’s fault for thinking there was meaning to their daylong relationship.

But I don’t think that’s it.

I think we’re going to find out that his time spent with Allyson was meaningful to him. That he liked her. Maybe he didn’t consider her a stain on his life like she did him (and this is the part where, if you haven’t read the book you go, HUH?) but I think it meant something.

But I couldn’t make myself fully blame Allyson for her (seemingly?) unrequited feelings and the depression that follows. When I traveled at Allyson’s age, I was just like her: very play by the rules, color within the lines. Traveling on your own or with a friend and meeting people from all over the world really can change you. (Not that I’m, like, a wild child. Hardly.)

I also believe you can fall in love in a day simply because everything about the place you’re in—the fact that you’re there on your own, that everything is foreign, that you’re figuring out who you are—is romantic. So I can see how doing something daring (because up and leaving for a foreign country with a stranger is daring) and being in Paris could make her fall for Willem. I absolutely believe this.
Look! A kissing gif to make up for the blocks of text.

And I think that’s why I couldn’t get behind the relationship. True, we weren’t in Willem’s head (and I’m sure there’s much more to him than what he let Allyson see), but there were no outward indications that he liked her as more than a one-day fling. Yes, he was worried when she got hurt, but any friend would feel that way. His other qualities didn’t redeem him enough for me to like him or like him with Allyson (who I wished would quit her search and look for a straight guy with Dee’s personality).

That said, the mystery of what happened to Willem was interesting and kept me turning pages, and I really liked the reason he had for up and leaving. There’s a cliffhanger ending, and the next book is told from Willem’s point of view, which I hope makes me like him more. I’m guessing that will be the case since he’ll probably have the opportunity to tell us exactly what Allyson means to him. (Or maybe he won’t. Because...that ending.) And I hope he has a good reason for the girls scattered around Europe like used train tickets.

Maybe a final warning is in order: This book is getting phenomenal reviews and my dislike for love interests who screw around and act casual about it definitely colors my review. So I’d encourage you to read others’ (like the ones posted below!) to get a well-rounded view of the book.

Okay, guys. Let’s have it:

* For example, Sam Henry in Miranda Kenneally’s Catching Jordan sleeps around and is one of those guys I shouldn’t like for a romantic interest. But everything else about him makes me love him, and he’s clearly smitten with Jordan. So by the time these two get together I’m waving my pom-poms like, YES!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Rules of Book Club

So on March 26 (that would be next Tuesday), the YA Book Club will be discussing its March novel. I was simply going to remind you of that fact today, but then I found possibly the best inspiration for the Book Club’s future bylaws. 

Who’s all for making a few updates to the way things run around here? Consider it done.