Monthly Archives: December 2016

Best of 2016

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lie treeHere are my favorite books of 2016. These are all ones I gave five stars to on Goodreads, and unlike last year’s list which was dominated by realistic fiction, this one is almost wholly speculative.

The list is in alphabetical order and I’ve split it into middle grade and YA, though some are more borderline than others, particularly both Hardinge books..

Though my actual paying job has meant that I haven’t been able to read and blog as much as in the past, I’m planning to keep going with at least a weekly post.

Happy reading in 2017!

scorpion rulesYA

As I Descended by Robin Talley

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne Jones

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby

creeping-shadowMiddle Grade

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Drowned City written and illustrated by Don Brown

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier

The Wooden Prince by John Claude Bemis

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Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

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saving-montgomery-soleSaving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

I really enjoyed Ms Tamaki’s This One Summer, and Saving Montgomery Sole has something of the spiky observation of that graphic novel, but doesn’t quite reach its heights.

Montgomery Sole is an odd duck in an decidedly homogenous Southern California town. She believes in mystical powers and, along with gay best friend Thomas and hippy Naoki, she has formed her school’s Mystery Club. Monty spends a lot of time on the Internet delving into such mysteries as spontaneous combustion and remote viewing, and that’s how she comes to acquire the Eye of Know for only $5.99. She comes to believe that the Eye gives her the power to hurt people who are threatening her, and she’s not sure how she feels about that.

Into this mix comes the Reverend White, a hardline Christian who believes in the sanctity of marriage. This is a threat to Monty as she has two Moms. When the Rev White’s son Kenneth turns up at school, Monty believes she has to act.

I didn’t find the whole business with the Eye to be particularly credible, whether it has powers or not, and while it does point to a teen’s urge to find something outside themselves to believe in, it just seemed a bit silly.

More satisfying is the White plotline, in which Monty feels she has to singlehandedly take on the reactionary newcomer after a crucifix appears on her, and others’, lockers. Her perception of her town’s conformity to socially conservative values is an assumption that she never considers will be challenged, and by tarring the son with the same brush as his father, she shows herself to be as blinkered as some of her classmates.

I liked the other two members of the Mystery Club: Thomas’s stoic attitude to the endless knee jerk homophobia of his classmates provides a sharp contrast to Monty’s bull in a china shop approach, and Naoki’s gentle quirkiness provides yet another contrast. Monty’s family feels robustly real as well – her two Moms and her sister, Tesla, form a tight loving around Monty as she thrashes around, and the Moms’ backstory gives authenticity to Monty’s panic.

This has had some pretty good reviews, but I didn’t find it a particularly satisfying read. Though pitched as a YA novel, it reads much more like a middle grade one; and while Monty is 16, she feels much more like a girl on the brink of adolescence than one heading into adulthood. I bought it for my high school library, but I suspect it will work much better for sophisticated middle graders.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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if-i-was-your-girlIf I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
Flatiron, 2016

High school senior Amanda is starting a new life in Lambertville, TN. She moves in with her Dad, starts school, makes some close friends, and attracts the attention of dishy football player, Grant. But Amanda has a secret – she is a trans girl and this is the first time she has truly been able to live as she has always felt inside.

Meredith Russo, herself a trans woman, has written both an excellent novel about a teen trying to work out who she really is, and a sort of handbook for both trans teens and their allies (Amanda’s advice: don’t ask about my surgeries, don’t ask about my genitals, and don’t ask what my name used to be). In her author’s note, she is clear that Amanda’s situation is relatively unchallenging and stereotypical in order to make her as relatable to cisgender teens as possible.

None of this would be relevant if Amanda’s story wasn’t credible and meaningful. The flashbacks to her past – bullied and harassed, misunderstood by her family and, ultimately, a suicide attempt – put Amanda’s present in context, and readers will empathize with her depression and frustration about the mismatch between what she is and how she is perceived.

Many of the other characters are also hiding something from even their closest friends, and as their secrets are shared, Amanda starts to feel the need for her friends to know who she really is. Her initial acceptance in Lambertville, while she is still passing, feels a little speedy, but it does set the stage for the big scene and redemption that we all know is coming, and does it well.

Many teens will recognize Amanda’s search for a coherent identity, and this well-written, and hopeful, book should gain wide cisgender and transgender readership.

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The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

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The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Balzer + Bray, April 2017.

Ms Albertalli’s debut novel, upside (2015), was on many best-of lists and her new one, The Upside of Unrequited, is equally as charming and thoughtful.

For 17 year-old Jewish Molly Peskin-Suso, the upside of the 26 unrequited crushes she has had so far is that she has never had the pain of rejection, because they have never gone beyond Molly’s head. The downside, of course, is that she has never know the thrill and joy of being in love.

As she watches her twin sister, Cassie, fall in love with Korean American Mina, Molly realizes she wants more than just a having a crush on someone she may not even talk to, she wants an actual relationship. But is it going to be with Hipster Will, Mina’s best friend, or is it going to be with dweeby Reid, who Molly finds herself chatting and flirting with at work?

As gay marriage is legalized, and the twins’ moms plan their wedding, Molly rejects holding herself back and decides to put herself out there, with all the potential high stakes emotions that brings with it.

Albertalli has the wonderful gift of taking the reader inside the head of her characters. Unlike, say, Jennifer Niven, she writes about everyday, regular teens, but with all the heightened emotions of those years. Molly’s changing relationship with Cassie is at the heart of the book, and it is bittersweet for both of them as they realize that as they move on with their own lives they have to leave some things behind.

Molly refers to herself as “fat”, and while she certainly doesn’t feel the need to change her lifestyle, she has some self doubt about her body and is sensitive to what she perceives as other people’s views: Her grandmother gets under her skin about it, and a comment from a boy at a party incenses her. These conflicting reactions feel entirely realistic for a contemporary teen.

As with many recent YA novels, Cassie’s sexuality is not a big deal and the gender of her partner is largely irrelevant. However, the celebration of their moms’ relationship does hark back to older generations, as some relatives question the validity of it, even as the country moves forward.

Albertalli has a gift of writing easy reading, but not lightweight, novels that speak to the everyday experiences, anxieties, and triumphs of teenagers and I’d thoroughly recommend them.

Thanks to Balzer + Bray and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

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creeping-shadowThe Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 4
Disney Hyperion, 2015

This middle grade series just keeps getting better. Lucy Carlyle is now out fighting ghosts on her own, away from the comfort and protection of Lockwood and Co. She’s doing alright, after all she has the Bartimaeus-style snarky skull to keep her company, and she’s making a living as a freelancer. But, and you’ll have noticed the name of the series, she’s soon back happily working with charismatic Anthony Lockwood, nerdy George Cubbins, and even last book’s newcomer and love rival, the elegant Holly Munro.

There is an overarching grand conspiracy going on, that seems to revolve around the two original agencies founded to solve the Problem, Fittes and Rotwell, and once again, Lockwood and Co. is all wrapped up in it. This time it starts when Lucy discovers that someone is stealing powerful Sources which should be destroyed, and leads to a very haunted village.

Stroud does a magnificent job of keeping this series fresh, building on the familiar characters and world, as well as introducing new elements. Coming into the familiar mix of humor, chills, and mystery is a more somber note, a trepidatious twang of foreboding: Lockwood’s dark side and live fast die young attitude comes more into focus, even as he gets closer to Lucy.

Each novel in this series can stand alone, with an episodic structure that builds to a dramatic climax. But the reader would be best to start at the beginning to get the full rich umami of the stew that the author keeps cooking up for us.

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