“Goodbye Stranger” by Rebecca Stead

“Goodbye Stranger” has a definite middle school vibe, where your friends are the most important and boys become interesting to some of your friends, but not everyone. Bridge, Tabitha, and Emily are best friends who encounter changes from growing up.

Bridge meets Sherm and starts hanging out with her maybe-crush. Tabitha starts resisting the appearance and attitude expectations that come with noticing members of the opposite sex. Emily has an older boy who’s actually interested in her. When Emily starts taking pictures of herself for this boy, the three friends have to decide if they fit together in the same way anymore.

Both libraries I visited placed this book on the YA shelves, even though it has a distinctly middle grade voice. I mean the characters are twelve-years-old for goodness sake! I suspect this decision was made because of the supposedly mature topic of a girl sending pictures of her body to a boy.

I think an age limit on this topic is a little ridiculous. Girls notice boys at a fairly young age. Boys notice girls around the same time. It is good for girls to think about boundaries and their bodies and the internet before they hit the late middle school and high school crowds. In fact, most of this book isn’t about the pictures. It’s about becoming comfortable about who you are.

There’s also a subplot about bullying in high school told from the second person in occasional chapters. I mention this because I think it’s the first time I’ve read a second person narrative that wasn’t a choose-your-own-adventure. At first it was jarring, but eventually I really wanted to know who “I” was and how “I” fit into the plot.

“A Step Towards Falling” by Cammie McGovern

When Emily and Lucas witness Belinda, a disabled girl, being assaulted under the school bleachers at a football game, they froze. Neither of them knew why. The school punishes them. They have to volunteer with other people with disabilities.

“A Step Towards Falling” takes a difficult, often poorly discussed issue and unpacks it with compassion and empathy.

The story is told from the perspective of Emily and Belinda. The different perspectives show the reader how people are people no matter what their abilities are. Disabled people have personalities, likes and dislikes, passions, and talents. And like anyone else, disabled people deserve to have friendships and romantic partners and to find true love.

Even though Emily and Lucas made a terrible mistake by not standing up for Belinda, they aren’t portrayed as evil people. Lucas is a star player on the football team who has experienced a family tragedy. Emily is an activist who is horrified that her actions did not match with her beliefs. When the volunteering experience increases their compassion, the reader comes along for the ride.

How we treat people matters. “A Step Towards Falling” reminds us of this.

“Afterworlds” by Scott Westerfeld

“Afterworlds” is really two YA novels in one. The first is the tale of Darcy, an 18-year-old whose Nanowrimo YA novel has been accepted for publication. The second is Darcy’s YA novel about Lizzie, a girl who pretends to be dead so well during a terrorist attack that she manages to access the afterworld.

The two novels are told in alternating chapters. I couldn’t decide which one I liked better, which is saying something since usually I like fantasy hands down. As an aspiring YA author, learning about Darcy’s move to New York and introduction to the YA world seemed pretty magical as well.

The highlight in Darcy’s section really was her relationship with her family and her new romance with a fellow debut author. The whole thing had a just-moved-out-from-home vibe that I could relate to well. Also, the characters’ analysis of Darcy’s finished novel was funny since you are reading it simultaneously. Especially the discussions about sacrificing culture for YA hotness! Fortunately, no spoilers were introduced. It was neat to see what changes Darcy made to the novel as it progressed.

The highlight in Lizzie’s section definitely was the theme of death. This book was often super dark – I mean it starts with a graphic terrorist attack which allows Lizzie to see ghosts. And the ghost Lizzie winds up spending the most time with is an eleven-year-old girl who suffered a horrific death. How Lizzie comes into her supernatural powers and uses her origin story to stay strong is inspiring. Although the hottie was cute, he didn’t have much of a personality.

Anyway, reading Afterworlds is kind of meta. Makes you wonder at the additional layer of Scott Westerfeld writing Darcy writing Lizzie.

“Slated” by Teri Terry

What if the government could wipe your mind and you’d start a new life with a new family as a new person? How would you know who you really are without your memories?

This is what happens to Kyla. She is what the government calls Slated. Once she leaves the hospital, she joins a new family, which sounds hard enough, but also her mood is constantly monitored with a device called Levo. If she gets too sad or angry, an electric shock goes to her brain and kills her on the spot.

The government claims that she was a terrorist and that their treatment of her and the other Slateds is justified to protect society. That they have been lenient by giving Kyla a second chance.

But Kyla has scary dreams that might be her memories. What are they telling her? Who is she really?

This sci fi thriller had me flipping pages as quickly as possible. Terry’s writing is addictive. You have to learn what the deal is with Kyla. Was she really a terrorist or is she an innocent person the government targeted for asking too many questions? What is the real deal with the Slateds? Who can she trust?

Themes of governmental control and individual freedom, as well as a heightened teenage search for identity run through “Slated.” As always, it’s useful to ask how similar Kyla’s world is to our own. How is a person classified as dangerous to society? How much control should the government have over our own lives? Also, the book kind of creeped me out – in a good way.

I’m definitely hooked and going to read the next installments of the series.

“One Of Us Is Lying” by Karen M. McManus

Five kids go to detention. One is murdered. Who killed him?

The premise of this book is simple and catchy. It works so well.

I loved so much about it from the standard school setting to the detailed characterisation. The four murder suspects are a jock, a nerd, a popular girl, and the school drug dealer. However, their background stories are intriguing enough to keep them from being too stereotypical.

At some point in the novel, you will be convinced that you know who is the murderer. For sure. And then out of nowhere, another hint will point you in a different direction and you’ll go “meh, maybe it wasn’t them,” and you’ll have to keep reading to find out the truth. Make sure you have time, because you’ll stay up all night with this book! Consider yourself warned.

Each character has flaws, but they also have positive traits as well. Sometimes I’d think, “Heh, I can see why this person would want to kill that kid.” And then I’d think, “God, I hope they didn’t. They have so much to lose if they did.” This constant flip-flopping feeling the whole way through is what makes McManus brilliant.

In terms of themes, this novel is extremely relevant. The kid murdered was a cyberbully with an inflammatory blog. Although everything he posted about his peers was technically true, it makes him the most unlikable character of the bunch.

In addition to cyberbullying, “One Of Us Is Lying” addresses academic cheating, high pressure to succeed, drugs, parental approval and disapproval, mental illness, and being true to your identity. This book involves so many topical issues that the high school environment feels dangerous, challenging, and real. The characters make tough decisions, sometimes the wrong ones. Sometimes there is no right decision to make.

“One Of Us is Lying” speaks directly to its teen audience. It’s cyberbullying gone too far. It’s bad decisions made for good reasons. It’s an awesome read.

 

“Mind Games” by Teri Terry

Luna is a Refuser. In a world where everyone uses Virtual Reality nonstop, she is one of the few who refuses to have an implant. Unlike her Refuser peers, she does not have a religious or medical exemption. Luna refuses to get an implant for a seperate reason. A reason she keeps secret. Why?

“Mind Games” is a science fiction thriller full of secrets. It is these secrets that keep the reader wondering who Luna is, who Luna’s mother was, who can she trust, what is the sinister company PareCo up to. The list goes on.

When Luna is taking for PareCo’s two standard tests, rationality and intelligence, she is forced to stop hiding from her abilities. She has to decide whether to work with the company or fight it.

I found this book relevant to today’s society where we are on the brink of developing virtual reality. Already, I find that the internet is addictive in itself and virtual reality seems that much more seductive.

Will humans prefer to escape constantly in fantasy worlds? Will we abandon our bodies entirely to live in our minds?

I wonder.

Although “Mind Games” is very concept-driven for a book, there are some interesting character connections as well. Particularly between Luna and Gecko, and Luna and her former good friend.

One small complaint I had with the novel was the treatment of Hacking. Certain Hacking was compared with magic. Although you could imagine that in virtual reality hacking may look more visual and awesome, in reality the virtual reality framework probably will involve lines and lines of code.

Coding can feel magical certainly, but the book took a more fantastical approach. Although there was nothing wrong with that! It could be boring hearing how Luna types code or reads code or destructs code or whatever. I just had difficulty understanding the ending because of it.

Overall, I liked the themes and concepts in the book. Certainly thinking about how virtual reality should be handled is a topical issue.

“Lord of Shadows” by Cassandra Clare (The Dark Artifices Book 2)

“Lord of Shadows” is enormous at 699 pages. Not that I’m complaining, because I definitely needed this latest Shadowhunter fix. The cast of characters is enormous and includes references and some appearances of my favourites from “The Mortal Instruments” and “Infernal Devices” series as well.

If you are reading Clare for the first time, “The Dark Artifices” series is not the place to start. It builds too much on the “Mortal Instruments” series. Start there, and read your way through.

“Lord of Shadows” builds more on the fairy world, including the Seelie and Unseelie courts. It is very reminiscent of “Wicked Lovely,” where fairies are sexy, dangerous, tricky and evil. Werewolves and vampires barely show, but I didn’t mind. The fairies are pretty interesting and anytime a deal shows up, you know the Shadowhunters will get the short end of the stick.

As always, the relationships shine in this novel. The Shadowhunter world is dominated by who they love and why they love them. Many ships will sail in this series. Many. Sometimes I wish the emphasis wasn’t just on who wants to date who, but it’s interesting and addictive. 😛

Emma and Julian’s relationship where they have forbidden parabatai love confuses me. I understand that parabatai are supposed to fight together and have a strong bond of friendship, but not have romantic feelings for each other. I understand that there is a curse if they fall in love. I understand that it’s taboo in Shadowhunter culture. But why Emma refuses to tell Julian all the details about why she can’t love him and pretends to date his brother instead, just… why? This obstacle towards them making their relationship official doesn’t quite work.

I really liked Christina, Kieran, Mark love triangle. How will be resolved in the future? I need to know.

“Lord of Shadows” has lots of diverse characters. Some are from different cultures, some have disabilities, many are LGBTQ. I really like the inclusiveness of the series and of Clare’s work in general. With a cast this size, I sometimes find it difficult to know all of the characters, but when I do get to know them, I generally like them.

Also, the latest threat in “Lord of Shadows” is a group of racist bigots trying to dominate the Clave and wipe out people who are different, like the Downworlders. Take of that what you will.

The more I read about Clare’s world, the more complete it seems. So much so, that when I’m finished I feel like I could buy a plane ticket to Idris.

If only. 🙂

 

“I am Princess X” by Cherie Priest (illustrations by Kali Ciesemier)

I love webcomics, like Dumbing of Age, Questionable Content, Yume Dream and Girls with Slingshots. In fact, an afternoon spent discovering a new webcomic and reading every single episode with a friend is my idea of an afternoon well spent. So, a YA novel with a webcomic in it is basically a marriage between two of the best art forms ever. It also helps that Ciesemier’s art is gorgeous in black, white and hot pink.

The two best friends in this novel make comics together. May writes the story, the Libby draws the art. The heroine of the comic – Princess X – beats stuff up with a massive sword. I definitely related to this a lot. (The comics, not the sword welding princess. (Actually, scrap that. I related to the princess too. She was awesome.)

When I was in middle school, I briefly drew and wrote a comic for my friends. I don’t know what the exact plot was – I don’t think there was much of a plot beyond my friends meeting all the cute cartoon boys we loved (like Inuyasha and Kyo from Fruitsbasket and maybe Spader from Pendragon, who isn’t a cartoon shut up) and freaking out because they were cute. Anyway, it was fun. It brought my friends and me together.

So I was feeling for May, when Libby and her mom drove over a cliff one night and died. No more friendship, no more comics. But here’s the creepy thing – many years later, May starts seeing Princess X around the city again. She becomes convinced her friend didn’t die and tries to find her based on a popular webcomic called – you guessed it – Princess X.

Another aspect of “I am Princess X” that really struck me is that it gets a lot done with a surprisingly small cast. Every sentence, every plot point, every character really counts. The writing is gripping and creepy, yet minimalist. Priest’s style works well. The pacing at the end will have you staying up “just a few more minutes” to find out what happens.

The one character I wasn’t completely sold on was May’s ally Patrick. Patrick’s main service to the plot was his made tech skills. Yes, mad tech skills were needed for the plot, but his connection to May wasn’t entirely clear to me. It didn’t seem believable that he would risk so much for a May’s old best friend. Especially since May and he just met.

However, the villain is complex. May’s backstory is realistic and gives the reader empathy. The scientific logic is solid. All in all, “I am Princess X” is a fast-paced read with beautiful illustrations.

“The Novice” by Taran Matharu (Summoner book 1)

Taran Matharu’s “The Novice” took me by surprise. Fletcher, a blacksmith’s apprentice, discovers he has a talent for summoning demons and after a nasty brawl with the village bully, flees his home forever. Soon enough, he is directed to summoning school and meets a diverse group of peers.

Although “The Novice” does have typical fantasy tropes, including a magic school, demons, and creatures from middle earth, it turns them into something refreshing.

If you like your fantasy to contain lots of world building, “The Novice” does not disappoint. Much of the dialogue revolves around discussing every detail of every demon and the culture of dwarves and elves, two species living often in conflict with humans. Often these descriptions become longwinded and the plot comes to a standstill. However, I didn’t really mind due to some unusual political commentary.

“The Novice” deviates from the norm in fantasy and frequently discusses race relations and inclusion. There are clear parallels between the dwarves and Sikhs. The message opportunities for foreign or disadvantage communities in education is clear. The only elf and dwarf in the summoning school encounter challenges due to discrimination and prejudice.

The hero Fletcher provides the reader with a role model. He never discriminates, although his peers can be cruel to elves and dwarves. He asks the elves and dwarves polite and curious questions about their culture and breaks down cultural barriers.

Compared to the racist nature of his peers, Fletcher’s open attitude seems to be an anomaly. And this was my small problem with the characters – there are very few morally grey situations. Either people are horribly racist or extremely politically correct.

Also, I’m curious about the main villain in the book – the orcs. They also are their own race with their own culture. And yet, dwarves, elves, and humans are convinced they are pure evil. (Although the summoning school investigates some of the orcs’ summoning practices.) Hopefully, this will be addressed in the next two books in the series.

I liked “The Novice” a lot. Often literary lovers complain that fantasy is pure escapism and “The Novice” definitely challenges that statement. Although, the demons are pretty cool and the final battle is epic, so if you’re looking for escapism the “The Novice” delivers that as well.

“And I Darken” by Kiersten White

I picked up “And I Darken” thinking it was fantasy. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be more historical fiction. This turned out to be pretty sweet.

This epic novel was inspired strongly by Ottoman and Romanian History, which fascinates me since my education neglected these countries and time periods. However, where the novel really shines are the characters.

The three powerhouse characters are:

1) Lada, the Wallachian ruler’s daughter. She is fierce and vicious, angry and cruel. Strongly independent, she bows for no one – especially men. Sometimes her unlikeable personality made her a difficult character to read about. However, she is placed in difficult circumstances when her family is forced to flee her country. Her father leaves her brother and her in Edirne with the Sultan, as agreement to support the Ottoman Empire. This somewhat excuses her dreadful behaviour. Also, she grows on you.

2) Radu, Lada’s younger brother. He is the most likeable of all the characters. Gentle and empathetic, he always thinks about other people over himself. He is a perfect foil to his violent sister. Although sometimes his softness also drove me crazy, since occasionally his failure to stick up for himself or say what he wants got on my nerves.

3) Mehmed, the third and least favourite son of the Sultan. He values friendship and loyalty, and often has to make difficult choices about who to trust and how to act. His personality really comes out when he interacts with either Lada or Radu. Without them, he is aloof and distant and barely has any personality at all.

These three characters drive the plot. There are some turbulent romantic moments that shine through the brutal betrayals and back stabbing and wars. The religious dialogue is fascinating, but it always comes back to these three. How they interact. How their views contrast. Whether they will support each other or come to blows.

In terms of writing style, the chapters and sentences are short, direct, and clear. Even though the book is fairly large, the pacing is fast.

I’m very much looking forward to reading the next in the series.