Lists: Best of 2017 LGBTQIA

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It’s been a strong year for queer YA, and I think the release of the film, Love, Simon, based on Becky Albertalli’s Simon Versus the Homo Sapien Agenda has something to do with that, and will open doors for even more literature depicting positive representations of all sorts of teens, but particularly those who sit somewhere on the queer spectrum. You’ll actually find other LGBTQIA books on my other lists too.

Future Leaders of Nowhere by Emily O’Beirne (March) I have been raving about O’Beirne’s books for a couple of years now. Contemporary Australian coming-of-age stories about gay girls that have a fresh voice. I reviewed both Future Leaders, and its sequel, All the Ways to Here (November) here. Willa and Finn are searching for meaning and stability. They support each other, and are stronger for their love for each other.

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate (May) I don’t know if this is readily available in Australia, but look out for it. It’s such a strong novel with a poor Asian scholarship student transforming herself to a boy to join an all male an elite a cappella octet called the Sharpshooters. I think it’s the longest review on here. God, I loved this. Interestingly, MC Jordan’s possible bisexuality is not the biggest question of the story. Read with glee (sorry, can’t help myself).

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (April) A companion novel to Simon Versus the Homo Sapien Agenda, Albertalli introduces twins Mollie and Cassie, who each deal with issues, primarily romantic endeavors, that are equally sweet and thoughtful. Again, this novel is filled with inclusion elements, and a powerful overriding sense of celebrating who you are. Can’t wait for her collaboration with Adam Silvera.

Release by Patrick Ness (May) A deeply personal, intimate story, Ness shows us one day in the life of Adam Thorn. Set in small town America, Adam is the son of a preacher, and is about to say goodbye to his first love. As he experiences this day of tumultuous highs and lows, Adam shows us what helps him through: a best friend, a new love, and his own strength and resilience. It wouldn’t be Patrick Ness without a parallel story of the ghostly  kind. It’s dense and dark, but ultimately hopeful.

We are Okay by Nina LaCour (February) I keep going on about this one. My review was posted at Children’s Books Daily.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (June) For a book that I loved so much, I have not raved about it much. But it’s been getting rave reviews everywhere else, and was voted one of the top books in the Young Adult Fiction 2017 GR Choice Awards. My short review is here.

My mystery list which was actually supposed to be posted today will be published on Sunday.

 

Lists: Best of 2017 Younger Readers

And we’re off! My first list of favourite reads of 2017 are ones for younger teens. I am not going to write much about each book, but if I have reviewed it somewhere, I will link to that. These were the ones that I loved most for that 11 to 14 age group. It’s a difficult category because there are so many good books out there.

I plan to add 10 lists, posting one every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday over the next three weeks with my top 5 published on Boxing Day.

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The Traitor and the Thief is by NZ author Gareth Ward. It was released in August by Walker Books Australia and the cover reflects its steampunk nature. Sin is a terrific main character and there are two courageous girls who assist him ably. There’s a excellent mystery to solve, and a rich fantastical layer of world building that enhances the story.

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean was a surprisingly funny book about survival in the 1700’s on an island of birds. It’s very dark and totally immersive and explores many issues around faith, gender and power. Based on a true story, McCaughrean includes a long author’s note about her extensive research about what happened to the villagers, and why they never came back to collect the children. It’s an extremely poignant read. Also dense and quite literary.

The Fall by Tristan Bancks is fast paced, cleverly plotted, with extremely strong teen appeal. Sam is a brave protagonist, trying to emulate his father’s investigative skills. There is a lovely balance of action and reflection, with several literary and pop cultural references. The story is told over a 24 hour period, ensuring the tension rises dramatically, and the climax is edge-of-the-seat stuff. Highly recommended for action-oriented young readers.

Summerlost is written by Ally Condie whose previous books have been for older teens (The Matched series is possibly her most popular). It’s a gentle story that deals with grief and friendship. Our two main characters, Cedar and Leo bond over a small town actress, who hits the big time, but whose death remains a mystery. The setting is a Shakespearean Summer Festival, which is irresistable to an ex English teacher.

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone was always going to be a winner for me. Jaclyn Moriarty has a charming and lyrical way with words, and her ability to generate emotion is unequivocal. My review is here on the blog.

The Book of Secrets by A L Tait is the first book in her series, The Ateban Cipher, and it begins with a bang. I wrote a long, gushing review for Children’s Books Daily. I can’t wait for future titles.

My next list will be my favourite mysteries for older teens, posted on the 8th.

Review: The Sweetheart Sham by Danielle Ellison

The Sweetheart Sham by Danielle Ellison

Published by Entangled: Crush
Released: December  4 2017 (in the US)
ISBN: 9781640633551

Read: November 29 2017

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I love it when Entangled Crush advances me a book on Netgalley. I enjoy their marketing, their covers, and their final products. It’s true the books aren’t difficult to read, and are often predictable, but who doesn’t love a great HEA? Even though the focus is on bringing the two main characters together in a sweet and young teen friendly way, authors often slip in a few issues to challenge readers. These can be social, particularly friendships or the use of technology, or environmental, like sustainable living or conservation. But most often they deal with family dramas and identity crises, which with most young readers can identify.

In The Sweetheart Sham, Ellison develops a gay character, Will. who is too scared to come out. Will is a Montgomery, and in the small Southern town of Culler, this is a very big deal. He and protagonist and best friend, Georgia Ann, watched the only out boy leave town, and Will is horribly worried his conservative grandfather will reject him. To be able to spend time with his new secret ‘mystery boy’, Will convinces Georgie to go on fake dates with him. There are valid reasons why Georgie agrees – it’s summer, the wedding of the century, run by her mother, is stressful and going off with Will gives her much needed breaks, and there isn’t anybody she wants to date.

Except Beau. But he left town two years ago, breaking Georgia’s heart. So naturally, as soon as she agrees to this set-up, Beau appears for the summer, to re-connect with his estranged father, and to secretly see if his feelings for Georgia are true. Oi Vey, what a mess!

We are given both Georgia’s and Beau’s points of view, as well as flashing back to the past, when the heartbreak occurred. They both have come through some dark times – his parent’s divorce, and her mother’s cancer, and there’s a lot they don’t know about each other. But the attraction is undeniable and their secrets could break what’s left of their friendship. This aspect of the story is well handled, and even though we wish Georgia would come clean, it’s difficult to not applaud her loyalty to Will. Beau is charming and thoughtful, Georgia is feisty and kind, and of course, Will deserves the space to reconcile his identity in his own time. Ellison deals with this very compassionately.

Ellison makes a lot of points about the dangers of keeping secrets. Will and Georgia are also keeping secrets from each other – that she is (and always has been) attracted to Beau, and Will refuses to give up the identity of ‘mystery boy’. Beau is thoroughly confused by Georgia’s mixed signals, and through all of this, wedding plans go awry and need sorting. It’s a terrific set up, and we learn lots about all of the characters, ensuring the town of Culler comes alive for readers.

Of course, at the wedding of the year, everything is resolved wonderfully. If I have one niggle, i was disappointed there wasn’t a final scene between Will and Georgia once all the drama has died down: one quiet conversation where they forgive each other, and cement their best friend status. It would have been the icing on the (wedding) cake (so to speak).

Recommended to readers who already enjoy romance novels offered by Entangled, and who like small town shenanigans. The town is filled with quirky oldies who know everything and have no hesitation in telling the young ‘uns how they should live their lives. There is very little focus on the future, which is a nice change, and all the parents are supportive and avoid stereotypes. Thanks to Netgalley and publisher for this advanced copy. The Sweetheart Sham will be out on December 4.

Review: A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by MacKenzi Lee

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Published by: Katherine Tegan Books
Released: June 27th 2017 (in the US)
ISBN: 9780062382801

Read: October 28 2017

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A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is one which will need to be sourced internationally at this point. It’s a historical novel set in the 1700’s, with main character, Monty offering a strong narrative voice, who initially, seems very selfish and oblivious. This is realistic given his privilege and social standing. His father is a Viscount, and Monty is expected to toe the upper class line, however, he refuses. His rash and reckless behaviour takes a while to be explained. There is much trauma in his childhood, linked directly to his father’s discovery that Monty enjoys the (intimate) company of both girls AND boys. This attitude is historically correct, but as modern readers, we find this attitude abhorrent and unacceptable. While it hangs over Monty like a cloud, it doesn’t detract from the novel’s celebratory and hilarious tone. Of course, Monty grows as a character, and becomes much more worthy of the delicious Percy.

Monty and Percy are on their ‘Grand Tour’, an adventure that takes them around Europe (Yes! There’s a map!), including an author note at the end showing her extensive research on the times. Monty and Percy are accompanied by Monty’s sister Felicity, who is depicted as an enigmatic, surly bookworm. We can expect to see her story in the future, and honestly, I can’t wait.

I liked that this novel went places I didn’t expect, and while not everything was explained completely, the HEA was worth waiting for. There are pirates and gamblers and much shenanigans, mostly from Monty who really is just trying to do the right thing, and find his own place in this very narrowly conceived world. His courage and enviable flair are undeniable. It’s quite a long novel, and some patience is required while Lee sets up the location, the characters, and the situation. The ending is open, but hopeful. I will reread this one, for certain.

Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood

Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell, Fiona Wood

Published: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: August 29 2017
ISBN: 9781742612744

Read: June 24 2017

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Take Three Girls doesn’t pull any punches. It’s cleverly crafted for maximum impact through a variety of formats—online forum posts, journal entries, lessons plans, letters to parents, and our three protagonists’ alternating points of view—covering nine weeks from July to September (then one epilogue post in December) of a wellness program involving Year 10 girls from a private boarding school.

The topics cover online sexual harassment, friendship dramas, parental expectations and sibling rivalry, honestly and frankly. Some content might be shocking to adults, but we suspect some ( a lot of?) girls deal with this sort of terrible slander, mostly by ignoring it or turning to friends for support. What’s also abundantly clear is that a lot of the shaming is flagrant lies, and yet there’s little the girls can do to repair their damaged reputations. It’s systemic and endemic. Getting this book into the hands of girls is crucial because it impresses on readers that this sort of behaviour can be and should be stopped. It gives them the knowledge that they have the power to stand up to bullies, and redirect the narrative.

What Kate achieves at the end is marvelous and empowering. We are left with unfinished stories, but Ady’s plea is universal and hopeful: I just want to know that whatever happens, I can handle it.

Clem is the heart, Kate is the mind, and Ady is the soul of Take Three Girls. It’s astonishing,  It’s real. It’s important. Watch this literary space awards next year!

Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Released: April 4 2017
ISBN: 9781408883525

Read: January 29 2017

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This contemporary young adult novel is a dual narrative story between Juliet and Declan. They go to the same school, and know each other by sight, but connect through letters without knowing each is the other letter writer. This allows them to open up and speak freely, but it’s not long before their secret and public lives collide.

These are two damaged teenagers, but they are also strong, and they feel real. Kemmerer writes authentic boys, tough and scary on the outside, but really, soft as butter, vulnerable and looking for meaning. The issues of grief, and trying to become a better person despite a neglected upbringing are not new, but this author brings a fresh approach, and readers easily identify with Juliet’s attempts to understand her mother’s death, and Declan’s desire to prove himself worthy of her affection.

Would sit alongside other notable contemporaries written by Emory Lord, Jennifer Niven, and Jandy Nelson. It’s another one we would recommend to boys who enjoy contemporary novels, even though the cover might dissuade them. Kemmerer announced that one of the secondary characters, Rev, who is Declan’s best friend will also get his own novel. It’s coming next April, and it’s great!!

Family ultimately shapes teenagers’ formative years, and Kemmerer links Juliet’s way of looking at world directly to her mother, and this is a very effective way to shake Juliet to her core. This is an emotional ride for both our main characters, and it’s great that they can depend on each other. I found this very satisfying.

Review: The Things We Promise by J C Burke

The Things We Promise by J C Burke

Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Released: March 22nd 2017 (in Australia)
ISBN: 9781760290405

Read: 29 December 2016

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I am going to spend some time over the next few weeks, transferring (and extending) some of the reviews I wrote for Riverbend Standing Orders through 2017. It’s a terrific service (#biased), and if you are in a school, you might want to consider subscribing to receive some awesome texts. My reviews are primarily directed at adults who hand out books to teens, so they may be slightly spoiler-y, and often provide little plot summary.

J C Burke has written a raw yet restrained story about grief and life. It’s clear she has personal memories of the time about which she writes, and her affection for her characters shines through.

Protagonist, Gemma’s narrative voice keeps the story moving forward amid sadness and nostalgia. Burke’s style is chatty and breezy, but her subject matter is dark. The 1990’s don’t seem all that long ago (to me), and teenagers today have their own understanding of the mistrust and misinformation spread about the AIDS epidemic. But while this is an intimate portrayal of one young man’s situation, it could be any one of our friends or family members. The inclusion of stories of other men broadens the scope beyond Billy’s tragedy.

There are other things going on in Gemma’s life, and Burke deals with them all thoughtfully, while never diverting the attention away from what is her primary motive– to highlight the injustice faced by people with AIDS, and to mourn the loss and waste of young lives. Billy and Gemma’s mother represent liberal and supportive voices quietly suffocated by the fear and judgement so prevalent at the time. By the end, Gemma is reconciling her grief, with Burke carefully leaving her in a happy place, which provides a satisfying resolution for readers. This mature book will be suited to senior students who enjoy serious books with gritty realism and not necessarily happy endings. There is a hint of romance, and realistic friendship drama, but most importantly, there are positive and sensitive representations of what young gay men faced, and how they dealt with the isolation with dignity and courage.

I found The Things We Promise moving and profound.

Review: Any Way You Slice It by Kristine Carlson Asselin

Any Way You Slice It by Kristine Carlson Asselin

Published: Wicked Whale Publishing
Released: November 15 2017 (first published in 2015)
ISBN: 9780999420508

Read: October 30 2017

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This is a re-release of a romantic YA that was first published in 2015. It’s extremely entertaining and full of miscommunication and desperate attempts to keep secrets, but Asselin knows how to balance the drama with realism. Pen never gets too carried away until right at the very end, when her frantic efforts are of course blindsided. She was never going to be able to keep the secret of her playing ice hockey from her parents for much longer, but it was fun to watch her try.

Pen’s troubles are more than just hockey. She actually has no desire to attend culinary school either, and take over the family pizza business. It’s these uncertainties and her belief that her parents have very high expectations of her that keep her from being open with them. When Jake challenges her to take some risks, Pen is forced to think about many aspects of her life, and it’s both positive and authentic.

The sub plot involves Pen’s father trying to get his pizza restaurant onto a reality TV show. He’s so keen to develop his brand, he makes some pretty bad decisions about this, allowing Pen and her grandmother to bond over his prospective embarrassment. The friendship between Lori and Pen is also explored well, and shows the highs and lows of trying to be truthful to yourself as well as to others.

One of the best aspects of this book is that it’s sweet enough to give to a younger teen. There is little swearing, or under age drinking, and the romance is kept to kissing. The story proves that graphic scenes aren’t necessary to create and sustain a good plot. Pen is flawed but her heart is in the right place. Jake has a bad reputation, but we learn that he’s been misjudged. Even the boys who try to stand in Pen’s way aren’t always obstructionist, and ultimately Pen’s dad listens and accepts her point of view.

Copy provided by Netgalley and read with thanks. Recommended to readers who love their stories packed with fun and angst. The romance is sweet, and the family drama is strong. There’s a strong, positive hockey component, and Pen isn’t forced to play on a girl’s team. Released (in the US) on November 15.

Review: Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Published: Feiwel & Friends US (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Released: November 7 2017 (in the US) November 14 2017 (in Australia)
ISBN: 9781760555313

Read: September 17, 2017

This is a bold, ambitious novel dealing with many of the big questions challenging contemporary society. Placing it in a fictional world with super heroes brings a much welcome degree of separation, allowing teenagers to consider the political and social mores objectively, before making connections to their own world.

Meyer gives us both sides of the super hero debate. How much should we ‘ordinary folk’ rely on those with powers to aid us? The Anarchists believe people should rely only on themselves, and not on governments or organisations. Prior to the start of the book leader Ace, initiated chaos and destruction to force people to be more self-sufficient. It creates a power vacuum quickly filled by villains and terrorists, which leads to further decaying of civilisation.

To try to balance the evil over running Gatlon City, the Renegades appear, and ultimately triumph, but now twenty years on, have themselves fallen into corrupt and bureaucratic ways, with regular citizens still desperate for help. We are told Ace perished in the final battle and his legacy lives on in a very small number of Anarchists, one of whom is our leading lady, Nova.

Our leading man Adrian, naturally, fights for the Renegades, and when Nova infiltrates to cause maximum disruption, the scene is set for a push and pull of epic proportions. While we despair about Nova’s goals, we also have enormous sympathy as she witnessed the violent deaths of her family when she was very young. Her need for vengeance keeps her angry and motivated.

Adrian is filled with idealistic dreams of gaining affirmation. He wants to ‘do good’ and ‘be a hero’, but somewhere things become muddled, not only with his attempts at creating a (second) super secret identity, but also the distraction that is enigmatic Nova. Nova’s on her own journey of discovery; it’s not surprising that she realises her version of truth is far too simplistic. Never mind her attraction to a boy who lives a life of privilege and oblivion to some harsh realities.

Clocking in at over 560 pages, Meyer creates a crumbling world bursting at its seams. While there does seem to be some stability, we can see the grey twisty complications are going to expose a brittle foundation. Some of the Renegades are behaving badly, and not all the Anarchists deserve punishment.

The plot builds to a climax that involves betrayal and threatens exposure. As it is the first in a new series, Meyer leaves us trembling for more, not only in regards to the complex relationship between Nova and Adrian, but also with a myriad of sub-plots including the secrets surrounding Adrian’s younger sibling, Max, the unsolved mystery of the death of Adrian’s biological mother, and of course, Nova’s ultimate revenge. I have one niggle that I need to talk through with someone else (anybody? anybody?) who has read it, but it didn’t diminish my pleasure and appreciation of such a clever book. Great to see so many entertaining and well written genre novels for teens in this second part of the year.

Highly recommended for readers who love the idea of building a super hero origin story, and who like their plots twisty and overflowing with characters. Both our leads are troubled and while they do team up to solve crimes, they are also keeping a lot from each other. There are inclusive characters, including Adrian’s adoptive parents—two male super heroes in a strong loving relationship, and a range of ethnicities scattered among the secondary characters. Its pacing balances tense action and moments of quiet introspection carefully and deliberately. There are major reveals at the end, but are foreshadowed and not completely unexpected. I was fully engaged with this long, absorbing novel, and am eagerly anticipating the next. Renegades is out today in America, and due to be released in Australia on November 14.

 

 

Review: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

Published: Allen & Unwin
Released: November 1 2017 (in Australia)
ISBN: 9781760297176

Read: October 19 2017

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At 109 chapters and over 500 pages, this story will challenge some young readers. But it is worth it because we are taken into a world that is fully realised, but never over-explained. We travel with Bronte to visit ten Aunts, and they are distinct individuals, and nothing feels repetitive or cliched. Each moment of revelation is seamlessly woven through the storyline, so that when its significance is inevitably realised, readers are not surprised or jolted out of the narrative.

The underlying sadness and pain take a while to leak through. Bronte is seemingly accommodating and well-mannered, so much of her point of view is coated with a stiff-upper-lip resolve. However, she also displays tremendously brave behaviour and very acute observations, and slowly we are given a glimpse into how she really feels about the disappearance and death of her parents. There is anger of course, and a longing that permeates her quest. It’s only late in the novel we are told that Bronte is reliving the story two years after her adventures. As a 12 year old, her perspective is wiser and gently scathing towards unkindness and narrow-mindedness. This is very subtle and is a further layer in a cleverly constructed story.

Moriarty incorporates humour to great effect. Each Aunt is accompanied by other characters who test Bronte’s mettle (ha. See what I did there?), and her ability to adapt and learn shows young readers about resilience and reward. Aunt Sue’s boisterous sons are delightful and generous, and Aunt Nancy’s clever daughters are wily and honest. Taylor’s no-nonsense offer of friendship arrives at exactly the right time, and the boy with no shoes is a mystery Bronte refuses to leave unsolved. I could go on listing other wonderful characters – the noisy librarian is particularly welcome, and the water sprites are effusive and jubilant—but to do that would spoil much of the wonder and delight of the novel. It’s best you discover them on your own.

The final quarter where all the clues fall together into the intricately woven climax keeps readers madly turning pages to watch Bronte stay one step ahead of the evil threatening her family and her identity. She needs all her skills and friends to triumph, and it’s an astonishing and wholly satisfying defeat. Then we have the final pages of reflection and quiet acceptance of her new reality. If I wanted more here, well, that’s ok. Those final poignant pages are all the more powerful for their low key and concise conclusion.

This ambitious and clever novel seems geared towards younger readers, but I believe anyone will love it. I think everyone should read it, actually.