This is not the first of Ruta Sepetys’ books that I’ve read, and it certainly won’t be the last. She’s a master of storytelling and highlighting under-represented events and periods in history in a way that’s relatable for young people. Her latest is another young adult historical fiction that sheds light on the Nicolae Ceausescu dictatorship and communist rule of Romania in the late 1980s. Romanian citizens lived in terror due a vast and intricate spy network composed of ordinary citizens set up to spy on one another for government favors including food, medicine, and electricity. Families and neighbors, teachers and students, coworkers and friends are all starving, paranoid, and constantly looking over their shoulders worried about who will turn them in for voicing even the slightest bit of discontent over Ceausecscu’s rule by isolation, deprivation, and fear. Homes are bugged. Food rations are extreme. Everything is illegal from Coke and Twinkies to western magazines and typewriters. People trade in Kents (cigarettes). This is the world that teenager, Cristian Florescu, is being raised in. He dreams of being a writer, keeps a secret notebook, and instead of dreaming about his future, he watches his grandfather slowly dying and his parents suffering in silence. Cristian finds himself at the mercy of the secret police, Securitate, as they force him to become an informer, using him to spy and report back for medicine for her grandfather. His efforts at subversion reach a tipping point when the Romanian revolution takes hold, and Cristian can no longer be part of the silence. His rage and frustration are loud, and he takes brave risks to become part of the solution to expose the country’s suffering to the world. Sepetys sears this story into your heart. Cristian’s longing, fear, and passion jump off the page and make him come alive. The country’s suffering is heartbreaking. This is a fascinating, somber, and hopeful historical piece that you can only come away from in awe.
A billionaire’s mansion. A cryptic will. Four alluring grandsons. A family inheritance denied. Secret passages. Is it all just a game left by a twisted, rich old man or is there something deeper to the mystery of why Avery Grambs was left a fortune from a man she’s never even met or heard of? Jennifer Lynn Barnes knows how to keep a reader glued to the pages. This is a breezy, fun delight. Barnes jumpstarts this young adult mystery trilogy with puzzles and twists right from the first few pages. Avery just wants to get out of high school and move on with her life. Billionaire Tobias Hawthorne dies and bequeaths his estate and entire fortune to her. To claim her inheritance, she must move into the sprawling Hawthorne House and stay there for a year. The house is filled with intrigue including the entire disinherited Hawthorne family, and most of them are not too thrilled with the interloper. Who is Avery and why did Tobias leave her everything, cutting the family out entirely? Together with the four handsome Hawthorne grandsons, Avery sets out to discover the truth about the mansion and the old man’s penchant for riddle and games. There’s a lot of lusty tension brewing in between a love triangle of sorts which just adds to the suspense of turning each page. I’m a huge puzzle nerd, so I love the juxtaposition of romance with a clue-based contemporary mystery. Inheritance Games is just plain fun.
This duology is a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in Shanghai in the 1920s. Two major gangs run the city and are constantly embroiled in a longstanding blood feud. Juliette Cai, recently returned from America, is the heir to the Scarlet Gang while her childhood friend and once-flame, Roma Montagov, is heir to the Russian White Flowers gang. A sickness creeps into Shanghai, one that causes people to claw their own throats out, and as gang members on both sides fall to this new rival, both Juliet and Roma struggle to find answers. Is it contagion or a monster lurking beneath the darkness of the Huangpu River? Roma and Juliette have to put aside their differences and work together to save their city. The sexual tension between these two is fire. They feign hatred for one other with intensity but then can’t tear away from each other’s eyes; a single brush of a fingertip sends them reeling back to a time when they cared for each other deeply, and family feuds didn’t matter. The push-pull of attraction is satiating. I love how Chloe Gong immerses this story of love and yearning amidst themes of colonization, identity, and culture. Juliette is Chinese and returns only to find that she feels like an outsider in her own home country as foreigners have taken over the city. Roma is torn between loyalty to his family and the violent path they’ve carved out versus loyalty for people he loves regardless of gang ties. The setting is lush with bright lights and seedy, dark alleys, filth and fringe, holstered guns and flapper dresses, gritty streets and golden decadence, and you can’t help but feel part of the city. I didn’t love the ending; it was a hodge-podge of too many things, and it felt a little rushed but still a gorgeous young adult blend of sweeping classic elements and intricate modern drama.
Get this one on your shelf book friends! I may be a convert. I’ve always complained about verse novels, and here I am falling in love with another one. Home is Not a Country took my breath away, and now Clap When You Land revived me. Rich with sadness, longing, loss, and the complexities of being a young adult dealing with tragedy and trauma, this book is a powerhouse. A father dies in a plane crash on his way to the Dominican Republic. Two daughters mourn his tragic death – one in New York City and one in the Dominican. Each girl doesn’t know the other exists until they start piecing things together. In their grief, they find ways to deal with their anger and find forgiveness, family, and each other. Elizabeth Acevedo paints a picture of two very different settings, both colorful and charming. I love how each character tells her story in the back-and-forth chapters, slowing coming to grips with this new reality and the blank spaces that used to be filled with a father’s presence. It’s a really touching story of how ties bind people together in often bittersweet, unplanned ways.
This verse novel left me wrecked. Safia Elhillo’s writing is so elegant and intense that I had chills the whole way through. I’m not typically into verse novels, but I wanted to pick one up in honor of National Poetry Month for April. What a standout. Run to the book store or grab your digital reader; it’s worth the rush. Nima lives in America but feels like an outsider. She struggles with identity and clings to the idea of a life she was meant to have instead of this one filled with isolation and post 9/11 harassment. She wears the same dirty sweatshirt every day, doesn’t engage with her classmates, and endures bullying and physical harassment. Naima’s mother was an immigrant from an unnamed Muslim country, and as Nima feels detached from both her mother and her American life, she begins to imagine a parallel universe ushered by her alter-ego, Yasmeen. Yasmeen’s father is alive and lives in their Arabic-speaking homeland filled with family, friends, music, and dancing. Nima is disillusioned and adrift in her present life. She’s angry and unable to accept why her mother brought her to this country. In America, she views her mother from afar with sadness and frustration, but when she travels “home” with Yasmeen, she sees her as a dancer full of life and promise. But as Yasmeen pulls back the curtain of this past life like the spirits in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Nima begins to also see the cloudy, wavering parts of the mirage. This life she thought she was meant to have is not what she had conjured up in her longings. Yasmeen reveals a darkness that helps Nima embrace her present, reconnect with her mother and family in America, and discover her identity in ways that satisfy both her love for nostalgia but also her desire to belong. Nima’s home is what she makes for herself. I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of this book. It’s both gentle and shocking at the same time. I ached for Nima and her mother as they circled their distant relationship, never quite reaching one another. Elhillo’s book provides countless avenues for thoughtful reflection and is going straight to my “new loves” shelf.
I like this book, but I’m dying for the cover. Finally, a cover highlighting the female protagonist to look as I imagine her; she’s straight-up dazzling. I enjoyed this YA read, but wasn’t blown away. Enchanted Jones is an aspiring singer, swimmer student athlete, and feeling like an outsider after her close family moves to the suburbs. She’s the only black girl in her school, and she’s trying to figure out exactly where she fits in. Cue Korey Fields, a famous adult R&B artist, who spots her at a talent audition and grooms her R. Kelly-style. Enchanted yearns to be a professional singer but is also at a tender age when teens are just trying to figure out who they are. She notices Korey’s controlling behavior but writes it off because he’s an adult, and she believes in him. Korey gaslights her and manipulates her family into trusting him. Tiffany D. Jackson does a good job showing the subtle ways that Enchanted’s abuser creeps into all parts of her life, taking advantage of her drive to be a singer and alienating her from her loved ones and friends. The book starts off with a shocking scene where Enchanted wakes up to blood everywhere and a body. The murder mystery element gets convoluted in the end and is ultimately where I lost interest in the book. I also found the plot was too carbon copy replica of the R. Kelly scandal. I wanted Enchanted’s story to be more of her own instead of what felt like a re-telling. With that said, it’s a book that will surely resonate with many young adults.
This book kept me on the edge of my seat mainly because I had no idea what was going on until the very end, but when I finished it, I felt let down. The idea behind Wilder Girls is so cool - a bunch of girls stuck Lord-of-the-Flies-style on an island plagued by the gruesome Tox. They're all living at a boarding school when girls suddenly start experiencing horrific, painful symptoms. Byatt grows a second spine. Hetty's eye seals shut. Someone sprouts gills. Reese gets a scaly hand. I mean, how twisted is that? The island is quarantined from the mainland, and the girls and two remaining adults set up a system for survival. The mainland sends food and supplies as they try to discover a cure. This is how I like my horror, grisly and terrifying.
I loved how all the elements of this meshed together into something cohesive - post-apocalyptic, survival, feminist, sapphic horror, environmental critique, and a smidge of romance and longing. If I'm ever cut off from society in a pandemic, I want the girls from this book with me as my survival squad. The whole book felt very girl power-ish but not in a corny way at all. I appreciated the unique name choices, unique but not outrageous like Moon Puzzle. Some of the names I've been seeing in YA fiction lately make me cringe. Who can take Moon Puzzle seriously? All of the main characters are assumed white.
One of Byatt's cyclic changes forces her into the infirmary, but she never returns. Hetty is determined to find her. Reese is quiet and brooding, and the sexual tension between Hetty and Reese is electrifying and gradual. The girls grapple with the physical challenges created by the Tox but also with one another and the elements outside their compound. The Tox has affected nature, and wild animals show signs of infection. My biggest issue with the book was the reveal of the nature of the Tox including the secrets surrounding it and the adults who are controlling information on the island. Answers are teased through the whole book and then dumped in your lap in a giant, messy pile with no fanfare. It's like the author decided to wrap things up by spilling all the secrets in one anticlimactic word vomit. I felt like I was holding my breath through the entire book, and then the big gulp of air I got to take at the end was stale and smelled like a paper mill at the same time. Harsh. If you've never smelled the emissions from a paper mill, consider yourself lucky. It's a putrid mix of sauerkraut and rotten eggs. I digress. My main point is that I was frustrated with the ending and the reveal, and it ultimately ruined the book for me.
Ryn is the main character, and she's a badass gravedigger who also slays bone houses (living dead) in her spare time. This YA fantasy reads like a step back in time but it packs a modern punch. Ryn and her siblings live on their own in a small village surrounded by an iron fence built to keep the bone houses out. Much of the folklore surrounding the bone houses in Colbren is viewed as just that - old stories, but Ryn knows better. She comes upon a mysterious man named Ellis being attacked by one of the risen dead, and after she saves him (hooray for females who do the saving) she finds out he's a mapmaker who has gotten himself lost. I felt very distant from the characters when I first started reading this, and the magical elements felt too separate from Ryn's story, but I stuck with it and was not disappointed. In fact, I was riveted. Things pick up when Ryn and Ellis team up to figure out why the bone houses are suddenly attacking in mass. Some of the plot elements surprised me so much that I had to reread parts to make sure I was understanding what happened. I love when books take me by surprise.
I especially love how both Ryn and Ellis' characters were developed slowly and expertly. Ellis may have some physical weaknesses but Ryn's strengths make up for it, and they complement each other in a way that doesn't leave one overpowering the other. They become a team that isn't based on stereotypical gender roles. When Ellis is tender, Ryn is tough. They bond as orphans and the agony of not knowing exactly what happened to one of their parents.
Without spoiling anything, there's also a zombie animal that plays a big part of Ryn and Ellis' journey to stop the bone houses. This decaying pet becomes their savior in many ways and was a fascinating supernatural element. Bravo to Emily Lloyd-Jones for a fantasy zombie book that is so satisfyingly unique and special.
This is a prototypical, young adult, dystopian series that leaves teen girls swooning in a science fiction love triangle between Cassia and two super hunky, brooding boys. All is not as it seems in Cassia's world where young people are paired up with their spouses at age 17 at a special banquet. She's matched with her best friend, Xander, but when she views her Match video giving information about Xander, a picture of mysterious Ky flashes into view and makes her question whether the Match is destiny or not. The Society has close control over romantic partners, death, jobs, and food intake, and Cassia begins to wonder why everything is chosen for them. Matched is an interesting YA exploration of free will and how a tightly controlled environment always has dirty secrets lurking in the shadows. This was a very popular series when it first came out, and a classic constant in the dystopian genre.
This is a young adult romance with a contemporary twist. There are tons of books out there with teenagers battling rare and complicated illness while falling in love with someone. This one is a little different so it's nice to see some plot changes within the genre.
Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Based on the tons of glowing reviews for this book, mine is going to be highly unpopular. I like the simplicity of the title. I love how Isabel writes a column where she asks people questions but offers no advice. I like how the characters are two teens living with chronic illness. Isabel tries hard to repel her feelings for the gorgeous, funny, and completely loyal Sasha but ultimately grows to appreciate finding someone who can relate to the world of illness and chronic pain. I like the message that everyone's pain or problems are relevant no matter how big or small they may seem. They're important and life-altering for that person, and that's all that matters. I can see how high school kids would love this, but I just couldn't get into it. In fairness, I read a lot of YA and am fairly critical. It's not your typical YA romance fluff; there's substance to it. I just didn't really like Isabel, and she carries the story. She's terrible at letting people know her feelings, and it often makes her interact poorly with others. She gets upset when friends and family don't know how to respond to her battle with rheumatoid arthritis but doesn't try to explain what she needs or wants to anyone either. While it's certainly unfair she has to deal with this debilitating condition, it's also unfair that she has set expectations for how others should treat her but doesn't communicate those to the people that care about her. The romance is sweet and slow, a little weird, but lovely and realistic at the same time. I wanted to like this more.
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Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.