I want to start a monthly roundup of the books I read each month, and though I realize it’s almost the end of November, I did take a photo to commemorate October, so here goes!
Not all the books I read in October are pictured here: I read a total of 9 books (OK, one of them I technically finished on Nov. 1 but I’m counting it for October).
First, just a bit of a disclaimer! I am an editor, and have been a nonfiction book editor for 11 years. I’m a critical reader, and it takes a lot for me to get lost fully into a story. I pick things apart even when they’re good, but I will try to make it clear when something is good and when something is not worth anyone’s time. I went for years not reading any books for pleasure at all—it never felt like “pleasure” when I’d spent my entire day reading—but a friend noticed that I like YA fiction and she’s fed the habit in such a way that YA fiction is ALL I read anymore. Don’t dismiss them just because they’re intended for teens—most tackle incredibly mature subjects, or find ways to sneak in a message with the young reader none the wiser. They’re shorter and easier to read, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sophisticated or advanced. It is truly my favorite genre these days. I can barely choke down an adult novel.
Also, my commute is approximately 1 hour each way, and I live at the end of the line—hence I get a seat and can tuck into my book and not pay any attention for a solid length of time. Plus I read fast, which accounts for the quick turnover of books!
I’d heard nothing but good things about Joan Bauer as a mainstay of YA fiction, but I’d never read anything by her before. Hope Was Here was, quite randomly, the first one I read—I had two in my pile by her but I just grabbed this one on my way out the door one day. And I was struck the whole time I was reading it by how “old school” it felt. That’s the only way I could describe it, though others who’d read her too felt the same way. Anyone my age remember Homecoming and Dicey’s Song? There was something about the gravity of the voice in this book that reminded me of those books, which I haven’t read since I was about 13 years old. Someone suggested that I thought this because there were no trappings of modern society in the story—a tale of, really, the mayoral campaign of an ill diner owner—but that wasn’t true: kids in support of the candidate make a website for him. The main character, Hope, seventeen years old, recently moved to town and working at the diner, has a maturity that belies her supposed age, but no matter: She still has girlish crushes and sees the world through her own lens. This book was excellent, and I recommend it highly.
Since I was in a happy Joan Bauer place, I moved right on to another one by her, this one her latest, Close to Famous. The main character, a girl with a pretty hard life who wants to host a cooking show, is a lot younger than Hope, but even still, the book reads very young. I was disappointed. It felt as though it was intended for a much younger audience, and though it was well written for that age, it didn’t have that solid presence that Hope Was Here had had. The writing is still top-notch, but something about the shift in tone really just didn’t do it for me. Even the cooking angle wasn’t enough to satisfy me! I do hope that this is not indicative of the way her stories are moving—though happily there is a good archive of older stuff by her for me to go through. And lucky for me, my friend Holly owns most, if not all, of them!
I shifted gears with this next book, Fat Vampire, whose cover is simply genius and had me eager to dive in. Sadly, the cover is the best thing about this book, by the author of the clever and fun The True Meaning of Smekday. Fat Vampire starts out just fine—doughy loser kid gets turned into a vampire, tries to navigate this new world. There are some laughs, some awkward moments, and overall you’re totally feeling for the main character. But it goes off the rails quickly, and ends . . . well, it just ends. This is one of those books that when I had about a quarter inch of pages left to go, I started marveling that the story could possibly come to a resolution in time. There are books that pull it off—I think Mockingjay is one that ends fast but furious and satisfyingly—but this one definitely does not. The muddy, boring ending struck me as lazy writing.
My next book was going to hopefully take the bad taste out of my mouth left by Fat Vampire. Thirteen Reasons Why is Jay Asher’s only book, and was one of two books selected by my YA-fiction-only book club. Several members of the group had read it before and raved, so even though I knew what it was about and that it might be a downer—before committing suicide, a girl recorded audiotapes detailing the 13 people/moments/actions that led to her taking her life, and the tapes are being sent to the 13 people specified—I was looking forward to it. I was surprised to find that the story is told not as mere transcripts of the tapes, or from the girl’s point of view, but from one of the people mentioned on the tapes, a boy. His character was really believable; his reactions to her overwrought whining were spot-on for kids that age, I think. I was riveted but ultimately a little disappointed: The main character starts to come off as whiny and looking to assign blame for even minor slights. Still, it was a clever approach and the characters are well drawn. I’m annoyed, though, that it turns out our narrator was really blameless for her suicide. The pervasive attitude in YA that the narrator has to be “clean” in order for readers to identify with him or her is starting to bug me. I suppose I should give Fat Vampire some credit for not keeping the main kid whitewashed like that, which it definitely did not. The main character of Fat Vampire was downright despicable by the end. I guess I should like it for that alone!
Our second book for book club, another downer, was You, about how little things can set a kid’s life on a drastically bad course. Instead of having committed suicide, this main character got caught up in a lot of bad things—failing grades, the wrong friends, etc. It’s incredibly short (I think it took me 2 hours to read!) but compelling the whole time, especially because it’s written in the second person. But even though the text is saying “You slept through your alarm,” the character is decidedly not the reader; it’s a boy who has a name and is his own flawed personality. I preferred this one to Thirteen Reasons Why, actually, but it also left me feeling a bit annoyed at the main character. Both books, though, make for good book club discussion, as there’s a lot to talk about, from the storytelling to the characters. I do wonder, though, as a kid who was fairly un-troubled while growing up, if neither could ever really speak to me. Perhaps someone else would have a completely different reaction. Both are really well written, though—I just am not sure I connected with either.
Before I started Thirteen Reasons Why, I had started Sorta Like a Rockstar, but I set it aside about halfway through to ensure I finished the book club books in time. This book is long, something I normally take issue with (I believe stories can be told in fewer words to better effect), but it’s long not because it’s dense with text, but because there’s pacing that requires more pages. The first half is definitely heavy with impending dread: You can just TELL something bad is going to happen. And it does, but the event itself isn’t nearly as hard to take as the aftermath—the main character’s reaction and coping. It was so visceral that I basically sobbed while reading it. On the subway. The ending was so long, in fact, that it took me more than one commute ride to finish, which means I cried in public for two hour-long stretches. So I guess I connected with this book far more deeply than I did with either You or Thirteen Reasons Why. When I described the story to my boyfriend, he annoyingly pointed out that the ending is kinda dumb, and one that I would definitely ridicule at length had it been in a movie. I was so angry at his dismissive attitude that I ordered him out of the kitchen, in fact, and didn’t talk to him for some time. But he’s right. The ending is dumb. It’s one where everything is far too neatly wrapped up, and like many a cliche books it has a final scene where practically every character ever introduced to the book shows up. Think Love Actually but in teenage form. So, yeah, the ending’s pretty cheesy, but by the time I got there it didn’t matter: The story had completely hooked me.
Next up, something light and fluffy so that I would feel good about reading and not depressed all the time! The Sixty-Eight Rooms definitely did not make me cry at all, not even a twinge (which is not to say it wasn’t a touching, sweet story). The audience for this book is much younger—middle reader—and the writing is clunky at times (many people point out the inelegance of the dialogue), but the magical subject matter was just a lot of fun. Two kids find a key that allows them to shrink down to be to scale to the Thorne rooms, the miniature room recreations at the Art Institute of Chicago (which exist in real life). The writer seemed to have done a good deal of research on the Thorne rooms, though of course embellished them with this magic angle, so it rang “true” in a way. And even if the dialogue was clunky, the book would be a great read for middle readers. Especially for those in the Chicago area, who could actually go to the exhibit to see the rooms described. I’m sure every kid imagines what it might be like to get inside them!
The Everafter, which I read next, was originally planned to be called The After, which I know because I read an advance reader’s copy of the book. I don’t know if more was changed, too (though I know that changing a title is far easier than making content changes that late in the game). But this book was a real disappointment. The writing was stellar—this author can really tell a story well!—but the construct, the illogical internal logic . . . it was just annoying. The main character has died, and we encounter her in “the after” or the “everafter,” I suppose, where she is reduced to only her soul. The area is scattered with glowing objects that she soon realizes are objects she supposedly lost while alive. If she touches one, she’s transported back to the moment when she lost it. But the definition of lost object is pretty loose—ok, a doll, or keys, or a bracelet makes sense, but the cooked peas that roll off her plate and she smashes into the floor? Come on. I complained while reading it that if that counts, then every hair ever fallen out of her head should count, too, or any discarded object EVER. Also she seems able to change history so that she finds the things—after which she can no longer visit that memory. But in one of the memories, she loses and finds the object all within the original memory. So how could she go back to it at all? And if she changes the history to find the object, she says that she feels a “shift” indicating that the course of her life was slightly different, but it seems as though none of those changes could really change history? Basically, I spent the whole time questioning the ridiculous choices in the narrative and couldn’t just enjoy the character development, which was very good, or the story, which was interesting. I do hope this author writes more.
Finally, the best book I’ve read in a long time: Divergent. I’m lucky enough to have friends in YA publishing (I’ve always worked in nonfiction—art books, cookbooks, craft books), and the ones who had read Divergent raved so much that soon the ARC was pressed into my hands. I received it on a Saturday. I finished it two days later. The original recommender said the book made her think “Katniss and Peeta who?” and she was not wrong. This book, which doesn’t come out until May, is another future post-apocalyptic tale. And if I thought I was getting tired of that genre, this book is so good so as to have made the style relevant again. I won’t say too much, because it’s really one of those books that you have to read yourself, but I’ll say that the mood of the world reminded me so much of Uglies that I half expected Tally to make a cameo, but the setup has the energy of Hunger Games. I devoured it, and the only negative thing I can say is that reading it so soon before its on-sale date puts me in a VERY bad place for reading the subsequent books in the series (because of course it’s going to be a series). But I’ll reread Divergent in a heartbeat, so I’ll live :)