23528142by Kaui Hart Hemmings
YA Contemporary
2 of 5 stars

Kaui Hart Hemmings burst onto the scene with her debut novel, The Descendants (you may have heard of the film, which garnered considerable Oscar buzz and put Shailene Woodley on the list for “The Divergent Series” movies). The writing is fantastic and I snatched up her next novel, The Possibilities, and it was nearly as good as the first one. It was a bit darker, but still had the prose I loved. Juniors is her YA debut, and unfortunately, this is her weakest book.

Part of my issue was the jacket copy—this wasn’t about fitting in as part Hawaiian/part Mainlander at all. This was entirely focused on social classes—namely Lea’s upper middle class life and her experience living on a millionaire’s estate for most of her junior year of high school. I’m always curious about other cultures and how they have to bump up against each other these days, but Lea’s constant (and I mean constant) attitude regarding the mostly-rich vs. the extremely rich was exhausting. Lea spends the novel wishing she had more money and a different personality, and in the end she ends up staying exactly the same. I just didn’t enjoy spending all that time in her head.

There’s an attempt at female friendship (after the typical catty back-stabbing and gossiping) that falls flat. There are a few observations about social quirks and some insight into life on Oahu, but overall this felt like the author’s cathartic (but largely unrelatable) project about her high school experience. This reads like a Hawaiian version of The OC or something, and it’s just not my cup of tea. I just don’t enjoy drama for drama’s sake.

None of this means the writing isn’t good—as usual she makes excellent choices with her sparse descriptions and dialogue—but I’ll be more cautious about her next book, especially if it’s YA. Juniors has been optioned by director Jason Reitman.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Juniors is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – Gabi has a tough senior year ahead with her best friend’s pregnancy and her other best friend kicked out of his home for being gay. But she’s determined to get into college and her poetry can support her along the way. See my review here.
  • The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith – Hadley misses the flight to her father’s second wedding, but ends up meeting Oliver: cute, British, and a good listener. Maybe it’s fate! See my review here.
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han – Lara Jean has had many crushes, but never a boyfriend. She writes down her feelings in letters (to save, not mail) to get over them. But then her letters DO get out, and she has to encounter her feelings for these boys and their reaction to them. See my review here.
  • Made You Up by Francesca Zappia – Alex has to navigate the high school landscape with a slight disadvantage: she doesn’t always know what’s real and what’s not. Her schizophrenia tries to trick her every day, which she has started to get used to, until she starts to wonder if her best friend is imaginary. See my review here.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces

20702546by Isabel Quintero
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel – October 14, 2014

My best friend rec’d me this book (an embarrassing 5 months ago) and I finally got my hands on it. I am so glad I did! This book actually made me cry (a rarity) and it is amazing! I’ve read my share of YA high school coming of age novels, but this is unlike any of them. I wish I had read this book when I was in high school.

I was a little nervous when I opened it and realized it’s Gabi’s story as told through her diary, but this format is actually perfect. We get all the ups and downs of Gabi’s high school experience–the stress of class, homework, and peers–but Gabi has so much more going on than the average angst-ridden white student at the center of most of the YA high school novels I’ve read. Her father is a meth addict, her best friend just found out she’s pregnant, and her other friend Sebastian needs a home because his parents kicked him out for being gay. She’s overweight, and constantly guilt-ridden by well-meaning but conservative relatives about what “good girls do” and how her appearance is paramount because otherwise she won’t get married. College? That’s for White sluts. And anyone else who can afford it.

Gabi’s frustrated, elated, and insightful entries chronicle how turbulent high school is, and how difficult it is to grow up in a world of contradictions. Her sharp observations regarding feminism (i.e. a female’s place in the world, body image, and social status) feel smart without being ahead of her age group. She is an honest protagonist that wins you over again with each day’s account of her life.

An additional nice surprise is her poetry. A few poems make it into her diary and these enhance her senior year in ways that surprised me. I don’t normally enjoy poetry (not that I’ve had much exposure to it since English classes) but these were good. The strength of this book is the open language of the writing. It reminds of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ work–strong thoughts and emotions packed into seemingly simplistic thoughts that anyone could have, if they ever stopped long enough to think. I can’t recommend this enough!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s store website, here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Juniors by Kaui Hart Hemmings – Speaking of her style in this review, her sparse, punchy writing is amazing, and Lea’s story of fitting in as the product of two cultures sounds similar to Gabi’s. It didn’t end up taking the direction I wanted, but you decide! See my review here.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – I think of this as a quintessential high school coming of age story dealing with sexuality, race, and social class against the back drop of Typical American High School. See my review here.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – Junior doesn’t want to end up like the adults on the Spokane Indian Reservation, so he makes the leap of attending the nearby all-white high school–whose mascot is an Indian. This is probably the closest match to Gabi’s story.
  • The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes – When Minnow escapes the Community the night it burns down, missing her both of her hands and key knowledge about the world outside of the cult, the bigger question is what she knows about the Prophet’s death. See my review here.
  • Born Confused by Tenuja Desai Hidier – Dimple Lala struggles with her identity as the child of traditional Indian parents who finds that India is a trendy stereotype at her high school. Add in being set up with a “suitable boy”–who might not be as suitable as her parents believe–and Dimple has a lot to figure out before she graduates.
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – A Mexican American family in the southwest is getting ready to sell their family ranch. Carolina feels caught between her parents’ wishes and her grandfather Serge declaring that he doesn’t want to leave his home. Then the story he’s telling Carolina about the past seems to be more real than make-believe. See my review here.

The Young Elites

20821111by Marie Lu
YA Fantasy
5 of 5 stars

This book blew me away! I would not change a thing about it – I loved it! Where do I even begin? This got bumped up on my TBR list because I happened to find an ARC (in the wild!) of the sequel, The Rose Society, and just knew I had to read these ASAP. I’ve heard good things about Marie Lu for years, and now I know they are completely deserved.

Adelina may seem like a typical protagonist – she has a dysfunctional (abusive) parent, a perfect little sister, and can’t wait to get away and earn her independence. She has some intense scars from the Blood Fever as well as her father, and it’s easy to root for her. In a society that hates malfettos (marked survivors), Adelina is definitely the underdog. But the best part is that she is not the hero. Adelina discovers she has tremendous powers of illusion, but that she can only feed her power with fear, bitterness, anger, and hatred. When the Young Elites’ Dagger Society saves/recruits her to the cause of restoring Enzo (another marked Blood Fever survivor) to the throne, she is caught up in court intrigue and espionage. But Adelina is tired of being used, and when her sister is kidnapped, she decides to burn everything in her path to save Violetta.

At this point, I was a bit disappointed that this series fell prey to what I call “the perfect little sister” trope. Beginning with Prim in The Hunger Games, every Strong Female Protagonist must have a Perfect Little Sister that illustrates the heroine’s flaws while also standing in as the only innocent person in the world, and the only thing in the world worth saving. She has no personality (except sweetness and light) and no purpose aside from being used to push our heroine into compromising situations or toward personal growth. It feels empty to me, as if without the younger sister, our heroine wouldn’t be empathetic or human, like she’s somehow deficient. All of that ranting to say: THIS book takes that trope, and twists it into something fresh and interesting, and THAT is when it won me over. Violetta is not just the Perfect Little Sister, and this fact sets up some amazing possibilities for this series and Adelina’s journey.

This is an excellent story about thwarted intentions and what brings out the darkness in all of us. I cannot wait for the sequel (I’ll be starting that as soon as this post is finished), but I have a feeling I’ll be just as eager for the third book.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Young Elites is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website, here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski – An excellent blend of intrigue and espionage. Although there is no magic here, Kestrel must match wits with everyone she encounters. See my review here.
  • Clariel by Garth Nix – A prequel to the Abhorsen trilogy – Clariel struggles against the future her parents have laid out for her, and the call to powers unlike anything she’s ever known.
  • The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman – Lyra and Will find a knife of amazing power and struggle to use it for good, when both of their worlds have other plans for it.
  • Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo – Light and darkness battle in more ways than one in this trilogy, and it’s fantastic! See my review here.
  • Nevernight by Jay Kristoff – Mia Corvere is determined to survive initiation into the Red Church to become one of the best assassins in the land. Only then can she avenge her fallen family. See my review here.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

17185496by Stephanie Oakes
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel – June 9, 2015

I never expected to give a debut novel five stars, but this book blew me away! This is the type of story I’ve only encountered on-screen (think “Silence of the Lambs” or “True Story”) but I loved watching it unfold on the page. It interweaves the old folk tale The Girl with No Hands/The Handless Maiden with a modern twist.

Minnow escaped her cult for good the night the entire Community burned to the ground. The night her only outside friend, Jude, was killed. The night the Prophet was silenced forever. The detectives want to know what really happened, but Minnow isn’t talking.

What makes Minnow such a fascinating character is her strength in the midst of ignorance. Not only is she dealing with the absence of her hands, she is confronting the destruction of her entire world and all of her beliefs. She knows the Prophet was a liar, but she has nothing to fill the gaps with if she rejects the cult teachings. Her journey to knowledge of the world and of herself manages to be both heart-breaking and hopeful.

This story is gruesome and haunting and definitely worth reading! Minnow’s story is unlike anything I’ve read, but I’ll do my best with recommendations.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website, here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan – Yes, it’s a jump to zombies, but the small cult of Sisters sheltering Mary from the outside world is similar and this is an interesting read. See my review here.
  • Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis – Maren struggles to learn about her past and what is in store for her future as someone who enjoys the taste of human flesh. Maren is so much more than her condition, and her quest to find her place in the world is engrossing. See my review here.
  • A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan – Althoug Rose isn’t physically deformed, her long exposure to statis and lack of knowledge about her world gives her a similar struggle to Minnow. Her emotional journey is different but just as strong.
  • Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke – Three points of view (hero, liar, villain) tell you a creepy tale from a small mountain town. See my review here.

Never Let Me Go

18515951by Kazuo Ishiguro
Science Fiction
4 of 5 stars

This has been on my “should read” list for a few years (probably since the movie came out, honestly) and I finally picked it up for a book club read. I’m so glad I did, because the writing is beautiful and I’d forgotten enough of the plot to appreciate the few twists that Kathy H. narrates. This is the kind of science fiction I tend to prefer – our world but with a few key differences that twist society.

Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth grow up at Hailsham, an isolated and exclusive English boarding school. At 31, Kathy looks back on their friendships over the years and why the guardians of the school stressed how special they were. Her gradual revelations regarding their status as clones and organ donors are haunting because they are so matter-of-fact. Kathy is perceptive and practical, and her portrayal of their gradual acceptance is wistful without begging for pity. Much of the strength came from lack of specifics as well. We don’t know what four donations the donors are expected to make, what begins their donation period, or how far apart they are. We don’t know how they get around in “normal” life as they learn to be carers and prepare for their donations.

The questions Kathy leaves us with go beyond ethics regarding cloning and organ donation. She asks us whether they were better off being sheltered from their fates, or if they should have been told from the beginning. Was it worth giving them an education, a sense of culture, or should they be treated as property, kept in ignorance? Why give them a sense of self-worth that the public doesn’t have for them?

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Never Let Me Go is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website, here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – At first glance this is probably an odd recommendation to make. However, the similar simplistic narration and themes are the connecting points for me. This novel deals with the exploitation of children, gradually revealed secrets, and the feelings of the children as they realize their position as pawns. See my review here.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – This deals with creating a perfect society rather than healthcare, but the themes of genetic manipulation, control of information, freedom, and human rights is in keeping with the questions asked in Never Let Me Go.
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – A short novel that is credited as the birth of science fiction as a genre. The Time Traveler relates his adventure 800,000 years into the future and the decayed, divided society he found there.
  • Eva by Peter Dickinson – This is intended for a younger audience, but it’s still one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. My advice is to check it out and try to avoid plot spoilers at all costs. I read this a long time ago and the uncomfortable realizations have stuck with me.

Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception

3112850by Maggie Stiefvater
YA Fantasy
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel – October 8, 2008

I’ve been a Stiefvater fan for years now, and I happened upon this and its sequel at a little independent bookstore when I was exploring Estes Park. I meant to read it but it isn’t a common find these days–so when they fell into my lap I was very excited! This is a fun peek at her earliest work. The unique descriptions and darkly thrilling plots she’s now known for are already here, but the voice is younger and less polished. The earnest writing makes up for some cheesy moments, and although Dee tends to tell you what she shouldn’t be feeling quite a bit, I can forgive it for the genuinely interesting faery world that is weaving its spells around her.

It’s so clear here that everything the author loves went into this story: Virginian small towns, Irish culture, cars, bagpipes, and music generally were given the spotlight and the characters lived among it all with stilted bravado.

But then the faeries won’t leave Deirdre alone, and their attention grows deadlier by the day. This is when it feels like the characters shed their scripts and claim their own identities, and everything flows smoothly from there. I love the twists on faerie folklore, and more than anything I loved the ending! So often in these stories the clever human finally overcomes the mischievous faeries and solves the riddle that lets everything turn out for the best. This one doesn’t do that and it’s gutsy and maddeningly good.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Lament is available on Goodreads and on Llewellyn’s store website, here. This bookstore sponsors Flux, Stiefvater’s publisher for the Books of Faerie. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Tithe by Holly Black – Kaye lives a vaguely interesting life in New Jersey, but when a fae warrior shows up in the forest and she saves his life, she has no idea what’s about to happen to her. This is a modern retelling of the Tam Lin myth, and has a very similar style and tone to Lament. The riddles are fun, and if you need a fix when you realize the Lament trilogy is still unfinished, I would start here. See my review.
  • The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black – This is one of the best YA fantasy books I’ve ever read, and I think it’s what Tithe was meant to be. It’s dark, clever, and heart-wrenching, don’t miss it! See my review here.
  • M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman – A collection of paranormal short stories with his usual flair (note that these stories do come in other anthologies, this just happens to be the one I have). I enjoy his dark stories and writing, and I think fans of faery folklore would find tales to love here too.
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – This YA paranormal/fantasy quartet wraps up in 2016, and the writing is amazing! Blue Sargent lives in a tiny Virginia town, and she’s about to meet four of the most intriguing private-school boys you could imagine. They’re looking for the lost Welsh king to grant them a wish, and Blue’s seen enough strange things to know they’ll probably find him. See my review here.
  • The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw – A middle-grade tale with traditional changeling and faery lore that is beautifully done. When Saaski starts to realize she is a changeling, she decides to go into the faery mound to find her true family and the human child she replaced.
  • Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton – I admit, the cover and the fact that this is set in small-town Missouri grabbed me. (Who uses Missouri for anything?! This Missourian was very excited. Then Gone Girl happened, which was a bit more believable…) Anyway, the point is, the narration is a bit awkward, but the magic and the story here kept me interested, and I think if you enjoyed Lament you’d like this too (though faeries are not present). Tessa Gratton is one of Stiefvater’s close friends.
  • The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater – A remote island implied to be close to the UK hosts an annual race among the natives who are able to ride the water-horses (kelpies). Puck is the first girl to enter this race, but she isn’t the only one with everything to lose. This has a similar use of folklore magic and protection from magic that feels true. See my review here.
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – A dark novella I absolutely love, that has the same sense of vague “rules” when it comes to interacting with supernatural creatures, be they faeries or something else. See my review here.

Queen of Shadows

18006496by Sarah J. Maas
YA Fantasy
5 of 5 stars

This was a tough book to review. There were so many things I absolutely loved, but also a few things that really bothered me. Like they took me out of the story, bothered me. In the end up I rounded up to 5 stars though, because of the cleverness of the plot and the fact that the powerful women in this story received far more screen time than the guys – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

So what did I love? Aelin is smarter than ever in this book, and her plans for revenge and strengthening her court are so layered and complex, I had several instances of “Damn, girl! Did not see that coming!” Aelin/Celaena has always been clever of course, but there’s a sense of calculated maturity here that wasn’t present in the previous books, and I appreciated how she’s grown up.

What else did I love? MANON. She is my new favorite character – I loved her in Heir of Fire, and her chapters here are even more compelling. She is complicated and always changing, and the more we see her relationships with the Thirteen, the more I rooted for the Witch-clans. I know, even though they aren’t “the good guys.”

What else did I love? ALL THE OTHER WOMEN OF THIS BOOK. This is the first YA fantasy novel I’ve read in some time that devoted the majority of its pages to female characters, and it’s amazing. Six female POVs, and even more women who tell their stories to our main characters. They are all given depth, secrets, emotions, motivations, and their interactions are the heart of this story. This is what bumped up the rating for my review. This is why I’ll return to this book again and again.

With all that, what could possibly bother me? I’ll tell you: Chaol. He was one of my favorite characters in Crown of Midnight. In Heir of Fire he was frustrating as he waffled over his loyalty/honor, but he got there in the end, you know? After this book, I feel like I don’t even know him. Worse, I felt like he didn’t know Celaena/Aelin at all. It didn’t feel true to his character previously, and when it feels like something is forced for dramatic effect, I get annoyed. Luckily, I met Sarah J. Maas at a signing event a few days ago, so I asked her about Chaol!

Sarah explained that Chaol is in a lot of pain during this book with his internal struggles and Dorian’s fate, and that as people do (as Celaena did frequently), he lashes out and becomes an asshole. She wanted to show that sometimes people go back and forth on their personal journeys, that sometimes a step forward is followed by two steps back. “Not everything is solved with a short talk and a training montage!” she said. “That doesn’t fix everything.” Ultimately, at the end of this book Chaol is now in a position to grow as a person and become better, and she said that he needed a healing journey just like Celaena did in Heir of Fire. I’m still not thrilled with how abrupt Chaol’s reactions felt, but I do respect Sarah’s answer and what she was trying to portray. For her part, she’s excited that Chaol has sparked so much debate among fans, and said that it’s rewarding to write something that makes people talk and argue, not just geek out with happiness.

With all that said, the plot twists and unexpected ending were great, and if the next two books hold up, this is what will push the series to the next level. Fantasy is always in danger of succumbing to genre tropes, and this book took the opportunity to thwart some of those expectations, and I like that. Now the agonizing countdown begins for Book 5!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Queen of Shadows is available on Goodreads and on Powell’s store website, here. Powell’s has several locations in Oregon, and is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas – If you can’t stomach a year-long wait between Throne of Glass books, this is the fantasy series she started in May 2015, with the next book due out in the spring of 2016. Feyre accidentally killed a faerie, and trades her life for the safety of her family in this Tam Lin/East of the Sun, West of the Moon retelling. See my review here.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik – If you want more fantastic female friendship, look no further. Agnieszka is the unwilling apprentice to her valley’s protective wizard, the Dragon, but she learns there is more at stake than her village. See my review here.
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore – Katsa is her uncle the king’s Graced assassin, but she longs to leave her life of killing behind. A foreign prince brings this opportunity to her when she joins him on a quest to find his missing uncle. See my review here.
  • The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski – Kestrel is in a game of political chess with everyone she meets, most of all with Arin, her former slave that holds her heart but can’t know her true feelings. See my review here.
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater – This installment of the paranormal/YA fantasy series focuses on Ronan, the angry, brash boy of the group who can take things from his dreams. What he soon learns is he isn’t the only one who can. This is a beautifully written quartet that wraps up in February 2016.
  • The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon – Book 2 in the series finds Paige back in London’s underworld, struggling to reveal the truth to other clairvoyants, blocked at every turn by her old master’s manipulation. If you enjoyed Celaena and Arobynn’s twisted mind games, there is plenty of that in this book. See my review here.

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