I know, I know–this post is soooo late! But I’d worked so hard on it, I didn’t want to leave it hanging…
On the flip side, a February Wrap-Up will hopefully come sooner, rather than later! 🙂
1. The Ethan I Was Before, Ali Standish
Ethan had been many things. He was always ready for adventure and always willing to accept a dare, especially from his best friend, Kacey. But that was before. Before the accident that took Kacey from him. Before his family moved from Boston to the small town of Palm Knot, Georgia.
Palm Knot may be tiny, but it’s the home of possibility and second chances. It’s also home to Coralee, a girl with a big personality and even bigger stories. Coralee may be just the friend Ethan needs, except Ethan isn’t the only one with secrets. Coralee’s are catching up with her, and what she’s hiding might be putting both their lives at risk.
This book was a beautiful exploration of grief and guilt for young audiences. Ethan is a touching narrator, full of emotions and struggle that feel real and potent to the reader. Nothing is simplified in this story, despite the fact that it’s written for a young audience (and I think that’s a great thing!). The story is also complex, with layers and intertwining lifelines and twists… Standish does an excellent job of fleshing out a whole series of characters, each with unique traits. I don’t see this one becoming a “favorite” for the year, but I still appreciate what this book accomplishes.
2. The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Jonasson
From the author of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared comes a picaresque tale of how one person’s actions can have far-reaching-even global-consequences On June 14, 2007, the king and the prime minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the royal castle. Later it was said that both had fallen ill, but the truth is different.
The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto. Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township, be it from drugs, alcohol, or just plain despair. But Nombeko takes a different path. She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the position of chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects. Here is where the tale merges with then diverges from reality. South Africa developed six nuclear missiles in the 1980s, then voluntarily dismantled them in 1994.
This is the story of the seventh missile, the one that was never supposed to have existed. Nombeko Mayeki knows too much about it, and now she’s on the run from both the South African justice system and the most terrifying secret service in the world. The fate of the planet now lies in Nombeko’s hands. Jonasson introduces us to a cast of eccentrics: a nerve-damaged American Vietnam deserter, twin brothers who are officially only one person, three careless Chinese girls, an angry young woman, a potato-growing baroness, the Swedish king and the prime minister. Quirky and utterly unique, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is a charming and humorous account of one young woman’s unlikely adventure.
I’ve said this before, and I will continue to say it: For all of the reasons I loved The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, I hated this book. Where the characters in the first book were lovable, none of the characters in this story had redeeming characteristics. The plot itself was so steeped in African and Swedish history, I was simply lost (and yes, this is a failing on my part and on the part of the American education system, but still–I couldn’t even enjoy the story!). The story line itself ran a little long, with a lot of extra details that never actually connected back. And the conclusion of the book was largely disappointing. This is the first book of 2018 that I did not enjoy, and I have a feeling it may make a “Worst of” list by the end of the year.
3. Pashmina, Nidhi Chanani
Priyanka Das has so many unanswered questions: Why did her mother abandon her home in India years ago? What was it like there? And most importantly, who is her father, and why did her mom leave him behind? But Pri’s mom avoids these questions–the topic of India is permanently closed.
For Pri, her mother’s homeland can only exist in her imagination. That is, until she find a mysterious pashmina tucked away in a forgotten suitcase. When she wraps herself in it, she is transported to a place more vivid and colorful than any guidebook or Bollywood film. But is this the real India? And what is that shadow lurking in the background? To learn the truth, Pri must travel farther than she’s ever dared and find the family she never knew.
In this heartwarming graphic novel debut, Nidhi Chanani weaves a tale about the hardship and self-discovery that is born from juggling two cultures and two worlds.
I thought this story was delightful and adorable. I’ve seen a few negative reviews that focus on the age of Pri, and I do agree that her age seems at times incongruous with her behaviors. At the same time, I think it’s easy to overlook that and still appreciate what the book is saying. I appreciated the look into a culture that isn’t my own, and I like the choice to have a protagonist learning about herself. The pictures are beautiful, and the use of color vs. gray-scale is excellent. This book is certainly for young audiences, but I think several age groups can gain something from it.
4. The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman
Lost in a new world, Lyra finds Will—a boy on the run, a murderer—a worthy and welcome ally. For this is a world where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and witches share the skies with troops of angels.
Each is searching—Lyra for the meaning of Dark Matter, Will for his missing father—but what they find instead is a deadly secret, a knife of untold power. And neither Lyra nor Will suspects how tightly their lives, their loves, and their destinies are bound together… until they are split apart.
I read “His Dark Materials” trilogy when I was in high school, and so I am only revisiting the series now. Many elements of these books disturb me. I have a hard time reconciling the content with the prescribed age group. However, I have a lot of respect for Pullman’s storytelling abilities. The layers of these books are well-constructed, intricate. And while I at times find the elements uncomfortable and dark, I understand the talent behind them.
5. Uncommon Type: Some Stories, Tom Hanks
A collection of seventeen wonderful short stories showing that two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is as talented a writer as he is an actor.
A gentle Eastern European immigrant arrives in New York City after his family and his life have been torn apart by his country’s civil war. A man who loves to bowl rolls a perfect game–and then another and then another and then many more in a row until he winds up ESPN’s newest celebrity, and he must decide if the combination of perfection and celebrity has ruined the thing he loves. An eccentric billionaire and his faithful executive assistant venture into America looking for acquisitions and discover a down and out motel, romance, and a bit of real life. These are just some of the tales Tom Hanks tells in this first collection of his short stories. They are surprising, intelligent, heartwarming, and, for the millions and millions of Tom Hanks fans, an absolute must-have!
Featuring additional performances by Peter Gerety, Peter Scolari, Cecily Strong, Holland Taylor, and Wilmer Valderrama on “Stay With Us.”
I think Steve Martin says it best in his blurb on the back of this book: “It turns out that Tom Hanks is also a wise and hilarious writer with an endlessly surprising mind. Damn it.” These stories are delightful, thought-provoking, educational… I hate to say I was surprised, but I honestly was. I feel like Hanks would have done himself a service if he had published these in a two- or three-part volume series, because the single book is quite the tome (it weighs in at just over 400 pages). By the end, I was a little burnt out on short stories featuring typewriters. However, the quality and texture of the stories never dwindled. Fans of fiction and of Hanks will like this collection, a whole lot.
6. Unraveling Oliver, Liz Nugent
In this “compelling, clever, and dark” (Heat magazine) thriller, a man’s shocking act of savagery stuns a local community–and the revelations that follow will keep you gripped until the very last page. This work of psychological suspense, a #1 bestseller in Ireland, is perfect for fans of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Ware.
“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”
So begins Liz Nugent’s astonishing debut novel—a chilling, elegantly crafted, and psychologically astute exploration of the nature of evil.
Oliver Ryan, handsome, charismatic, and successful, has long been married to his devoted wife, Alice. Together they write and illustrate award-winning children’s books; their life together one of enviable privilege and ease—until, one evening after a delightful dinner, Oliver delivers a blow to Alice that renders her unconscious, and subsequently beats her into a coma.
In the aftermath of such an unthinkable event, as Alice hovers between life and death, the couple’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances try to understand what could have driven Oliver to commit such a horrific act. As his story unfolds, layers are peeled away to reveal a life of shame, envy, deception, and masterful manipulation.
With its alternating points of view and deft prose, Unraveling Oliver is “a page-turning, one-sitting read from a brand new master of psychological suspense” (Sunday Independent) that details how an ordinary man can transform into a sociopath.
This book is terrifying, in that bone-chilling way that makes you think, “Holy crap, this could actually happen…” In the same vein as Psycho and its descendants, this story explores the mind of a man with a frightening absence of remorse. I love the way Nugent uses multiple perspectives to reveal the reality of what happened behind this story. Everyone has a tiny piece of the puzzle, but it’s only when the reader sees every story set side-by-side that we can see the reality of Oliver. Frightening, dark, and not for the faint of heart, this story was the exact type of thriller that I love.
7. We Are Okay, Nina LaCour
You go through life thinking there’s so much you need…
Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.
Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.
I need to start with a disclaimer here: I listened to the audiobook of this book, and I feel like I missed so much because of the format. I fully intend to actually read this book before the year is out.
This story is beautiful. The characters, touching. Like The Ethan I Was Before, it’s an honest exploration of grief on a level that young people could understand. But, even more so than the first book, I think this is a story that will touch individuals of all ages. The story is recognizable, and yet it captures unique perspectives and ideas in ways not yet visited. And I haven’t even touched on its representation! Let’s just say, we need even more books like this one as we go forward (and that responsibility should not fall solely on LaCour, even though she’s shown herself to be capable).
8. Little & Lion, Brandy Colbert
When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.
But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.
Okay, another disclaimer: This is the first book I have ever personally encountered with a bisexual main character. For this reason, I think I loved the story more than others who’ve read more books with subjects like this, because I’m unaware of overused tropes (this is the first I’ve seen them!).
I love that this story is about siblings. The relationship between Lionel and Suzette is excellent and handled so well. The complexity of their connection is enjoyable and torturing, at the same time. As a sister, I felt this story on a very deep level, and I appreciate Colbert for tackling these two characters. I do feel that the book tries to tackle too many issues all at once. In fact, the book touches on almost every major social issue we talk about in culture today, at some point. I think the plot and characters may have been stronger with a little more focus. I still loved this book, and would consider it my favorite for January 2018.
9. The Storyteller’s Daughter, Cameron Dokey
In a faraway kingdom, a king has been betrayed. Deeply hurt and bitterly angry, he vows never to be deceived again. Unfortunately, the king’s plan to protect himself will endanger all of the realm’s young women, unless one of them will volunteer to marry the king – and surrender her life.
To everyone’s relief and horror, one young woman steps forward. The daughter of a legendary storyteller, Shahrazad believes it is her destiny to accept this risk and sacrifice herself.
On the night of her wedding to the king, Shahrazad begins to weave a tale. Fascinated, the king lets her live night after night. Just when Shahrazad dares to believe that she has found a way to keep her life and an unexpected love – a treacherous plot will disrupt her plan. Now she can only hope that love is strong enough to save her.
This is one of my favorite books of all time. I don’t know that I’d ever make it through the original Arabian Nights, but this adaptation makes me want to try.
My favorite element of the book is the way in which the stories Shahrazad tells blend into the overarching plot. I like the interruption of the short tales, and the way the reader can see how they connect back to the rest of the story (none of the storyteller’s stories are actually random, you know).
I also really love the attitude toward women in this book. There are certainly bad eggs present for driving the plot, but considering the cultural foundations of the story, Shahrazad has a lot of agency. And Shahrayer is a worthy companion to such a strong woman.
If you haven’t read Cameron Dokey’s adaptations before, I think this is a great one to start with, and then you should check out the others, too!
10. This Is Really Happening, Erin Chack
BuzzFeed senior writer Erin Chack provides a collection of personal essays for the Snapchat generation.
Erin recounts everything from meeting her soulmate at age 14 to her first chemotherapy session at age 19 to what really goes on behind the scenes at a major Internet media company. She authentically captures the agony and the ecstasy of the millennial experience, whether it’s her first kiss (“Sean’s tongue! In my mouth! Slippery and wet like a slug in the rain.”) or her struggles with anxiety (“When people throw caution to the wind, I am stuck imagining the poor soul who has to break his back sweeping caution into a dustpan”).
Yet Erin also offers a fresh perspective on universal themes of resilience and love as she writes about surviving cancer, including learning of her mother’s own cancer diagnosis within the same year, and her attempts to hide the diagnosis from friends to avoid “un-normaling” everything.
This book is marketed as an easy-to-digest memoir for teens, but I think it is so much more than that. Chack’s voice is authentic and approachable, and her stories are so real they can be felt. She writes to a young audience, but I don’t think that necessarily isolates the topics she’s discussing.
I am, of course, a huge fan of memoirs in general. So I naturally enjoyed this one a lot, just by its nature. But I also think this goes beyond a lot of the semi-autobiographical books people write nowadays and attempts to talk about deep themes we see and know in our own world.
In short, I laughed, I cried, I said, “Girl, me too!”
11. Fans of the Impossible Life, Kate Scelsa
Mira is starting over at Saint Francis Prep. She promised her parents she would at least try to pretend that she could act like a functioning human this time, not a girl who can’t get out of bed for days on end, who only feels awake when she’s with Sebby.
Jeremy is the painfully shy art nerd at Saint Francis who’s been in self-imposed isolation after an incident that ruined his last year of school. When he sees Sebby for the first time across the school lawn, it’s as if he’s been expecting this blond, lanky boy with mischief glinting in his eye.
Sebby, Mira’s gay best friend, is a boy who seems to carry sunlight around with him. Even as life in his foster home starts to take its toll, Sebby and Mira together craft a world of magic rituals and impromptu road trips, designed to fix the broken parts of their lives.
As Jeremy finds himself drawn into Sebby and Mira’s world, he begins to understand the secrets that they hide in order to protect themselves, to keep each other safe from those who don’t understand their quest to live for the impossible.
I’m beginning to notice an unfortunate trend with many LGBTQIA+ books, which is that we quickly develop a main character with a unique identity, but then we don’t know what to do with them… This book had a great premise with an awesome cast of characters, but I was left questioning why the plot took the turns it did. I really liked Mira and Jeremy, but I didn’t enjoy Sebby, which made a good bit of this book hard to swallow.
I think books like this often try to tackle too much, so what they do address feels watered down or skimmed over. This story is still super important, but it’s not my favorite YA text on subjects like it.
(Also, it was recommended to me based on my love of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and, unfortunately, I see absolutely no similarities. This book brought with it none of the affection I had for Charlie, Sam, and Patrick).
12. One Was Lost, Natalie D. Richards
Damaged. Deceptive. Dangerous. Darling. Are they labels or a warning? The answer could cost Sera everything.
Murder, justice, and revenge were so not a part of the plan when Sera set out on her senior camping trip. After all, hiking through the woods is supposed to be safe and uneventful.
Then one morning the group wakes up groggy, confused, and with words scrawled on their wrists: Damaged. Deceptive. Dangerous. Darling. Their supplies? Destroyed. Half their group? Gone. Their chaperone? Unconscious. Worst of all, they find four dolls acting out a murder—dolls dressed just like them.
Suddenly it’s clear; they’re being hunted. And with the only positive word on her wrist, Sera falls under suspicion…
All I can say is, whoa!
This was a great spine-chilling read, with lots of unbelievable twists and turns. The plot was so complex, it actually had me stumped for quite a bit of it (which is super hard to do, so props to the author on that one!). I did end up feeling that the story got a little long. There was a few too many “Is he, or isn’t she…?” moments, but this still fed into a great mystery and a lot of suspense. It’s pretty impressive when an author can make you think, Wait…is the narrator behind this?!
13. You Know Me Well, Nina LaCour and David Levithan
Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a crazy night? No one, really?
Mark and Kate have sat next to each other for an entire year, but have never spoken. For whatever reason, their paths outside of class have never crossed.
That is, until Kate spots Mark miles away from home, out in the city for a wild, unexpected night. Kate is lost, having just run away from a chance to finally meet the girl she has been in love with from afar. Mark, meanwhile, is in love with his best friend Ryan, who may or may not feel the same way.
When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other—and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more.
Told in alternating points of view by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, You Know Me Well is a story about navigating the joys and heartaches of first love, one truth at a time.
I liked this book a lot better than Fans of the Impossible Life, even though it’s not my favorite LaCour or Levithan story. These characters are adorable, and I LOVE that the focus of the story is on the friendship between Kate and Mark. It’s unconventional, which helps keep this story distinguishable from others like it. I also liked how this entire plot addresses the complexity of friendship. Yes, romance is still real and accounted for in the book, but so much of the characters’ time is spent looking at platonic relationships and how to navigate them. I’ve felt inundated with romance for far too long, so having a story like this (and Little & Lion) was like a breath of fresh air.
My one complaint was the ways in which the plot jumped back and forth in time. Because I was listening to the audiobook, I had a hard time keeping track of what was happening when. Perhaps this is more noticeable and navigable in the printed text, so I may give this one another shot on paper!
And that’s it for January! I really had planned to publish this in that first week of February, but c’est la vie.
See you with a February wrap-up soon! (But no promises…ha!)