Category Archives: YA fiction

Looking for Alaska – John Green – 8/10

“But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”

lookingforalaskaI’ve read John Green’s latest and most promoted book, The Fault In Our Stars, and loved it, albeit with some minor reservations. I think this is better. Miles is the new kid at prestigious Alabama boarding school Culver Creek. Far from condemning him to being the social recluse he was at his old school, his roommate Chip (aka Colonel Catastrophe) takes him under his wing and introduces him to schooltime pranks, smoking, and the enigmatic Alaska Young. Alaska is hypnotic, unpredictable, trouble and generous…

I preferred this to TFIOS, even though TFIOS has been Green’s breakthrough book. Tragedy hangs over TFIOS inescapably; the whole plot is steeped in it. Alaska is much more everyday, full of the para-tragedy of the threat of expulsion, of being caught smoking or staring out the window or throwing up on your girlfriend. After the shock of the tragedy around which the book pivots, the characters’ reactions are credible without being predictable. Miles, The Colonel, Takumi, Alaska and Lara are a band of thieves, but a happy and warm-hearted group. They subvert authority while retaining fervent respect when they feel it is intellectually due. 

Green obviously has a gift for creating memorable teenage characters. Like Hazel and Augustus in TFIOS, I won’t be forgetting Miles Halter or Alaska Young any time soon. Their memories for last words and poety respectively (and The Colonel’s for capital cities), Alaska’s impulsive and spontaneous nature, her love of fast driving, fast food and fast friends; Miles’ timidity and strength under pressure. Importantly, they are quite different from his characters in other books – it’s hard enough to create a few characters like this band in Alaska. To resist the temptation to reuse them is commendable.

One of my objections to TFIOS was that 17-year-old boys don’t talk like Augustus does (or at least, none that I’ve ever met talk like he does). In Alaska, Miles often thinks lyrically, but speaks in a more typical manner. In LFA there is much less writing for the cute quote, the school study guide; the writing is both more straightforward and richer than in TFIOS.

“I was caught in a love triangle with one dead side.”

TFIOS was very good. This is better. Read it.

Additional information:

Copy borrowed from Mini-Me
Publisher: HarperCollins, 263 pages (paperback)
Order LOOKING FOR ALASKAfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

My Life After Now – Jessica Verdi – 7/10

“Relationships are not democracies.”

my life after now

This novel addresses the severely under-discussed topic of teen HIV infection due to unsafe practices. Lucy Moore contracts HIV on a drunken night out, and struggles with telling those closest to her. High school is tough enough with the new girl at school trying to steal your boyfriend, trying to win the part of Juliet, and figuring out what’s going on with your birth mother, without having to confess to your crush that you have HIV.

The characters are well written and the dynamic between the teenagers is good and strong and credible – as a YA novel, this does well. Tight knit community with fault lines? Check. Protagonist with dark past? Check. Bad behaviour creating conflict? Check. Even without the deep medical/behavioural topic, this makes a really solid teen novel. The perfect guy is of course not perfect, evil arch-queen softens a bit eventually, and nice guy doesn’t come last.

The HIV thing – I was actually really surprised by this. Verdi writes sensitively and delicately about this; Lucy really does screw up pretty badly, and then she suffers, and her parents suffer, and her friends suffer, and she joins a support group where the members face prejudice every day. Interestingly, she makes friends with someone who contracted HIV at birth from her mother, and has thus had a life of living with it, but at no fault. Verdi really does examine living with HIV from every angle (that one can within the remit of a YA novel).

On the other hand, the novel felt polemical – “look at how a stupid drunken mistake screws up a life” and “be nice to HIV-positive people”. Valid messages, no doubt, but a little exhaustively repeated here. Perhaps a YA novel, by definition of type, is less subtle than some of what I’m used to. Nevertheless, a tough story, well told, through a complex narrator with credible and sympathetic friends. Worth the read.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Order My Life After Nowfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green – 8/10

“Hazel Grace, could I, with my meager intellectual capacities, make up a letter from Peter Van Houten featuring phrases like ‘our triumphantly digitized contemporaneity’?”

tfios

From the blurb: Despite the tumour-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

From my first post (about 150 pages into this book):

First impressions: these kids are witty, and I love their conversation, but so far, so another teenage cancer-ridden love story. See similar misery novels: My Sister’s KeeperElsewhereBefore I Die.

I like the humour, the conversations are funny, but then I had An Issue With This Book: Augustus. He talks like no 17-year-old I’ve ever met. He talks like no man I’ve ever met. I know some quite humorous young women who can get about that many words per minute in amusing streams of consciousness out, but no men. I’m not trying to generalise here, find me an erudite loquacious teenage boy, never mind teenage cancer-surviving boy, and I will eat my metaphorical hat. And when I cannot believe the conversational talent of one of the main couple, things are Not Going To Go Well. Or so I thought – I’ve another 70 pages and sort of accepted it but it still bugged me. But now they’re in Amsterdam and drinking the stars and falling in love but it’s cute and complex and not totally sugar-laden because Hazel thinks of herself like a grenade and… stuff. Themes. Things that English teachers like to discuss.

Now that I’ve finished the book…

Major Emotional Upheaval point was kind of obvious, but still neatly done and Green doesn’t shy away from the ugly tragedy of cancer; two of the three main kids go through some pretty awful, harrowing suffering. I ended up not crying after all (after putting the book down for a week because I didn’t want to take it on a commute and end up bawling in public), but I think those less stony-hearted than myself would weep.

The characters are solidly built and funny, clever kids facing their own mortality far too early. The parents and extended families struck me as a little light, but part of that will be because they were simply not the focus of the story.

Generally excellent writing, many witticisms and clever lines:

“It’s hard as hell to hold on to your dignity when the risen sun is too bright in your losing eyes, and that’s what I was thinking about as we hunted for bad guys through the ruins of a city that didn’t exist.”

“I was wondering what ontologically meant. Regardless, I like it. Augustus and I were together in the Improbable Creatures Club: us and duck-billed platypuses.”

Definitely a good read – sweet, romantic, emotionally upheaving, generally restoring faith in humanity and families and friends while ultimately sad… I foresee this appearing on required reading lists for schools in about 3 years’ time – there are stacks of themes to discuss here.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed, sort of, from The Book Accumulator at Mini-Me’s behest.
Publisher: Penguin, 313 pages (paperback)
Order The Fault in Our Starsfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

City of Bones – Cassandra Clare – 4/10 (DNF)

““Can I help you with something?”
Clary turned instant traitor against her gender. “Those girls on the other side of the car are staring at you.”
Jace assumed an air of mellow gratification. “Of course they are,” he said, “I am stunningly attractive.””

In this first of the Mortal Instruments series, Clary Fray is happily going about her suburban New York life with her mother (squabbling) and her best friend Simon (not realising he loves her) when some demons turn up at her local nightclub. She receives a panicked call from her mother and goes into hiding with the local Shadowhunters, a group charged with killing evil daemons; but why did Clary have no idea about all of these magical groups if she is clearly a part of their world? But how can she see them if she’s not part of their world? Confusement.

Actually, as I write that synopsis I realised that Simon goes from not being able to see Shadowhunters and daemons at the start of the book, to being able to flirt/argue with them within thirty pages. So not sure what’s happened there.

I didn’t reject this quite as quickly as I gave up on Clockwork Angel, but I abandoned it for the same reasons: overdone romance and too foreign a fantastical world.

Within the first 169 pages (for thus far I did read), Clary has been totally oblivious to Simon’s enormous crush on her, found Jace both repellant and attractive, got jealous of Simon’s attentions to Isabella and defended him in a secret-crush-rather-than-old-friend way to Jace. We see the love square. OVER AND OVER AGAIN. WE GET IT. STOP HITTING ME WITH YOUR LOVE SQUARE OUCH OUCH OUCH!!!

Similarly, we’re in New York, in a club. But these kids are 16, please explain how they’re in a dodgy nightclub? Then there’s frantic running back to the apartment… But Clary stops at the red light? Really?

Oh and Clary thinks that Switzerland is between Germany and France. And no one, not even Shadowhunters FROM EUROPE, corrects her. Excuse me while I sob quietly in a corner.

I did keep reading it in little spurts after I’d given up on it but I thought I was just resuscitating a dead beast, so I gave up.

No thanks.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed from Mini-me.
Publisher: Walker, 485 pages (paperback)
Don’t order from Amazon, but if you must, I would appreciate it if you used the City of Bones (Mortal Instruments) link*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins – 6/10

“People of Panem, we fight, we dare, we end our hunger for justice!”

District 12 is gone. Katniss has escaped from the Quarter Quell along with Finnick and Johanna, but Peeta was left behind and may be dead or being tortured by the Capitol. Gale is poor comfort to Katniss, given that they are stuck in underground bunkers and cannot hunt. And now the leader of District 13 wants to use Katniss as the face of the rebellion…

Mockingjay is at once a wonderful and unsatisfactory ending to the Hunger Games trilogy. The political revolution and the war that must come in order to end the Capitol are expected and necessary, but brutal and overcooked. So many people die. The huge final battle goes on for ever and you read faster and faster trying to get to the end of it and you end up getting lost because here’s another terrible thing – snakes! Treacherous ground! Mutts! Sirens! It’s a bit “here be dragons” except over and over and over again. Much like the last instalment of Harry Potter.

Gale and Peeta are both developed thoroughly as characters in volume three, and both discover very dark sides. Gale’s proficiency at war design is frightening; Peeta’s brainwashing is awful and terrifying – particularly as he never seems to fully shake it off. His strength becomes a liability, rather than the boon it was in the first two books. The love triangle is eventually resolved; I don’t think I would have minded which one she ended up with! But Mockingjay is full of personal tragedy for Katniss.

As in Catching Fire, Panem’s political system has some surprises for us. Coin, the leader of the rebels, is not all she seems. Katniss does something extraordinary towards the end of the book and is then isolated during its aftermath, so we don’t really see the aftermath very well.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed from Mini-me. Now borrowed by The Physicist!
Publisher: Scholastic, 391 pages (paperback)
Order Mockingjay Classic (Hunger Games Trilogy)
from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.

Clockwork Angel – Cassandra Clare – 3/10

“That’s the same symbol that’s on the Dark Sisters’ carriage – that’s what I call them, Mrs. Dark and Mrs. Black, I mean…”

Having had a rather good time with YA literature pretty much any time I’ve read any (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Before I Die, Elsewhere), I thought I’d finally give in and try out one of Mini-Me’s favourite series. Being methodical, I thought I’d start with the prequel and carry on through the (currently) 4 volumes of the Mortal Instruments series…

Well, this was not a good start. I gave up on page 117.

While The Hunger Games was a well-crafted world to which a reader could easily relate, this was not only set in Victorian London but with a hefty dose of not terribly clearly explained magic thrown in as well. As a result, the setting was simply too remote to be able to make much sense of it.

The female character, Tessa, had a fair amount of get up and go about her, but nothing very special, no shining light that those around her recognise. Will was a male character written for teenage girls – full of infuriating grins and sarcastic wit.

And as for calling Mrs. Dark and Mrs. Black “The Dark Sisters” – I couldn’t believe the lack of effort given to that particular name; it dragged the target age group down to 5-8 year olds. At least call them Mrs. Black and Mrs. Shadow, or something!

Additional information:
Copy borrowed from my 15-year-old sister, who loves this series.
Publisher: Walker Books, 476 pages (paperback)
Order The Infernal Devices 1: Clockwork Angel from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins – 9/10

“The bird, the pin, the song, the berries, the watch, the cracker, the dress that burst into flames. I am the mockingjay. The one that survived despite the Capitol’s plans. The symbol of the rebellion.”

This is one of very very few trilogies I have read in my life where the second book is just as good, if not better than the first.

Katniss and Peeta have won the 74th Hunger Games and are paraded around Panem on their Victory Tour. After a personal touch to the speeches goes horribly wrong in District 11, they retreat into the roles that the Capitol wants them to play, but Katniss can never shake off her need to rebel against the ghastly President Snow. He exacts revenge for her rebellion in the arena in a terrible way, and now Katniss will need more than Peeta and Haymitch to keep her alive.

One of the biggest strengths of these books is the incredible world that Collins has created. It’s not complex – it’s just the future, but it has been a long time since I was so engrossed in a different world that it was hard to pull myself back to reality; Garth Nix’ Sabriel/Lirael/Abhorsen series was probably the last one to do it. As a result, the reader is devastated by the twist in the plot which puts Katniss and Peeta back in terrible, awful danger.

Katniss develops significantly as a character in Catching Fire – she is regularly reminded that she is not as “good” a person as Peeta. She seems to be in shock for much of the first part of the book – I was discussing the book with Sister-in-Law Physicist, who loved the books but thought that Katniss turned too weak at the start of this volume. I think she was incredibly strong, but then that the fact that her attempt to reach out to the people (particularly the families of those who died in the arena in the Games) unleashed such brutality, she didn’t really know what to do and just went through the motions.

The romantic entanglements tangle further in this volume; Katniss constantly seeks comfort from Peeta without ever giving him much back. She is having to present Gale as her cousin, knowing how much it hurts him. She is flattered and confused by Finnick’s flirtatious attentions at the Capitol. While I was tired of her vascillation, I can see why she couldn’t choose – Gale is her past and her ally, Peeta her survival and her future.

Read the first one, and then read this one. Just go and do it, now. And watch the film.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed from Mini-me. Now borrowed by The Physicist!
Publisher: Scholastic, 391 pages (hardcover)
Order Catching Fire (Hunger Games, Book 2) from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins – 9/10

“Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games”

For those few people left in the world who haven’t read the book or seen the film… Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, the most deprived of the districts of Panem. When her younger sister is selected as a sacrificial tribute to the Hunger Games, a TV show run for the amusement of the Capitol and the suppression of the districts, Katniss runs to take her place. Once she gets there though, she will need all her instincts and wit, not just her honed hunting skills, to survive.

The most obviously positive aspect of this novel is the choice of protagonist. Katniss is not perfect, and she knows it. Highly skilled, by all means, diligent and hard-working and caring for others, certainly. But she is proud and headstrong and thinks she knows best in every situation and is cruel to both Gale and Peeta – and best of all , she recognises her own failings. Collins could easily have chosen the gentle giant Peeta, with his superior charm, world wisdom and general all-round goodness, to be her protagonist – the Ellie Linton of Panem. Harry Potter had failings but wasn’t really aware of them. Bella… well we all know that Bella just sits around waiting for Edward or Jacob or some other lovesick demon to kiss her. So I was impressed both by Collins’ courage in giving Katniss non-trivial character flaws, but also granting her the wisdom to see them and how they might impact others.

The other characters are very strong as well – and Collins hits the mix of development neatly. Peeta is in some ways more complex than Katniss, and we can’t help but like him. The rest of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, but that is all that is required for the plot to progress. Because we’re stuck in Katniss’ head, we only learn about the other characters as she considers them, which is a neat way to make Peeta’s actions more mysterious.

The plot? Well, I’m not usually a sci-fi fan. I’ve steered clear of the YA craze for dystopia. But I read all but 30 pages of the book on a two-and-a-bit-hour train trip and couldn’t wait to have a chance to finish it that afternoon. I was rapt. Collins hit just the right mix of sci-fi and today’s world that it was a different world (and one that was very hard to pull myself out of!) without being a foreign one. We spent enough time in District 12 setting up Katniss’ character, her bitterness, her difficult relationship with her mother, the dynamic with Gale and the total malnutrition. Then off on the train to the Capitol, and there is lots of time for the Katniss-Peeta thing/non-thing to be a thing, and then into the arena. Where it is no holds barred – and yet not grisly. Or maybe I don’t notice these things.

Highly recommended.

Additional info:
Copy borrowed from Mini-me. Now borrowed by The Physicist!
Publisher: Scholastic, 374 pages (hardcover)
Order The Hunger Games Classic (Hunger Games Trilogy) from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.

The Dead of the Night – John Marsden – 7/10

“Night started to fall, then it fell, till it was lying all over the ground.”

This is the second in the Tomorrow series – following on from Tomorrow, When the War Began. Ellie and her friends, now a depleted number, have returned to their bush camp-out following their successful guerilla attack on the bridge. On an exploratory trip out of their camp, they come across another guerilla camp, run on rather different lines. After disaster strikes, their hearts are hardened and they undertake further attacks on Wirrawee.

I rather enjoyed the first in this series – I didn’t find it very profound but the post-invasion world was an interesting setting for what is essentially a novel about teenagers’ interactions under stress. The Dead of the Night is considerably darker – Ellie and her friends are coming to terms with what it means to be a soldier, to have to kill in order to survive. Ellie’s peace-time conscience is getting the better of her and she finds it a relief to be ordered around in the other camp, only permitted to do housework and not be a soldier.

Plausibly, by this stage, the members of the group are all pretty fed up with their situation and one another and there are plenty of squabbles. Interestingly, the group dynamic has changed after they all read Ellie’s record in the first volume (the story is seen through Ellie’s record of what the group go through, she is their chosen record-keeper and is brutally honest about their combative deeds as well as the budding relationships) – she writes for a while about the power of the written word and how her honesty (or perspective) has altered her relationship with both Homer and Fi.

There isn’t much character development as we return to the same characters, but it’s interesting to see Ellie and co deal with new situations, particularly the conflict that is arising within each person and the group as their deeds become more brutal. Their disappointment with the adults in the other camp is profound – they cannot believe how much the adults have fallen for the pointless propaganda of their leader.

I won’t be bothering to seek out the rest of this series, but if they were right here in front of me, I would read them – the characters are fun and complex, and their adventures are high-octane enough to be suspenseful and credible.

Additional info:
This was borrowed from Mini-Me.
Publisher: Pan MacMillan Australia, 284 pages (paperback)
Order The Dead of the Night: Book Two, The Tomorrow Series from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.

Tomorrow, When The War Began – John Marsden – 7/10

“None of us wants to end up as a pile of dead white bones, unnoticed, unknown, and worst of all, with no one knowing or appreciating the risks we’ve run.”

John Marsden’s Tomorrow series comes heavily recommended by Mini-Me and several of our cousins, including TNLRC. A movie was made last year and the books are now set reading in a number of Australian high schools. I can tell why – it’s Lord of the Flies, but happier, and more Australian. I have to admit I was not captivated the way I expected to be (too much hype?) but I can see the quality of this for a teenage audience, particularly an Australian one.

The principle is a simple one: Ellie and her friends remove themselves from civilisation for a few days on a bush adventure and come back to find their world changed – homes abandoned, working animals dying, and a total lack of power or communications. After a number of incidents in the town as they gather supplies and run across soldier patrols, they return to their bush hideout to take stock and survive; a retaliatory strike by the group results has dangerous consequences.

I was surprised and confused by the use of gender in this novel – for a start, I was surprised to find a book written by a man and set in a pseudo post apocalyptic world narrated by a girl. Ellie isn’t overly feminine (although two of the other female characters are very girly girls) but Marsden has captured a special character – much like Lyra in Northern Lights. Conversely, I was unconvinced by Kevin, who seemed quite weak as a character. I understood Marsden’s intentions to make Homer the leader, the one with the life intelligence even though everyone thinks he’s not got much between his ears, but it was a little overdone – his strategic knowledge is a little too good, too quickly. He tells the group to choose different rooms when a house is being searched by helicopter, so that they will have a 360 degree view as a group – really? On film it made more sense, but I still felt it was a little wise beyond his years.

On the other hand, I felt that the plot and setting were very well done. Marsden has chosen (wisely) a simple, familiar setting (well, familiar to Australians!) and made a disaster scenario which requires little exposition. One day everything is normal, when the group comes back their world has changed. While certain scenes (particularly the incredible claw-lift truck incident) run high on adrenaline and not so much on character, the book is much more about the intra-group dynamic and major character development than it is about an invasion of a peaceful and highly desirable country.

Having watched the film a few nights ago, I would recommend both or either as good “disaster” novels which are fairly light on the disaster but examine the emotions and relationships between 8 fairly normal teenagers under stress. The characters appear more real, more fragile and flawed, and both Kevin and Homer, with whose characterisation I have taken issue above, were much more credible.

Well worth a read, particularly if Lord of the Flies put you off in school.

Additional info:
This was borrowed from Mini-Me.
Publisher: Pan MacMillan Australia, 284 pages (paperback)
Order Tomorrow, When the War Began from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 645 other followers