Holiday Reads 2015 – YA Edition
Step right up and dive into some amazing Young Adult fiction this holiday season – these are the titles teens, tweens, young adults and adults everywhere will be clamouring to read!
Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray – $23
A few years ago, Libba Bray, already a well-respected YA award-winning author, shook things up by releasing a 600+ opus entitled The Diviners. The concept? A fantasy-enriched version of New York City in the 1920s, where flappers and mobsters are just as common as diviners and demonic spirits. It earned rave reviews from critics and readers alike, and after four long years, the sequel is finally out! Many of the same characters are present as Diviner fever takes over NYC – but another more sinister illness is looming, in the form of a sleeping sickness that traps people in their dreams (or nightmares). Two dream walkers – Henry from the first book and Ling, a new character here – must explore a curious dream world to uncover the mystery and stop the sickness from spreading.
It’s a spine-tingling good read. For me personally, while Naughty John (the big bad in the first book) was plenty terrifying, this one is perhaps even more eerie, if in a slightly more subtle way. A must-read for anyone who enjoyed the original, while the two-pack of the first two books in the planned series of four make a wonderful gift for any fan of the 1920s.
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon – $21.99
We’ve all heard of the proverbial ‘bubble boy’ right? The idea of someone who is born without an immune system / is basically allergic to the world? That’s what our protagonist, eighteen-year-old Madeline Whittier, is grappling with. Having not set foot outside of her filtered air home since she was a baby, Maddy is relatively content with her sanitized life, until a new boy next door moves in – intelligent, athletic, attractive Oliver, who is dealing with family drama of his own. Maddy and Olly begin interacting and a romance between them blossoms – one that causes Maddy to become increasingly reckless, potentially throwing her entire little ecosystem out of sorts. The question then becomes, what’s more important?: Life itself, or living it?
Many people will obviously compare this to John Green’s blockbuster hit, The Fault in Our Stars. The comparison is apt. As much as you want things to progress between Olly and Maddy, you can’t help biting your cheek in anticipation that something will go wrong for Maddy’s health or even on Olly’s side with his family difficulties. Despite the heavy subject matter, the story also has a sweet, lighthearted vibe, thanks to whimsical illustrations woven into the pages, fun little asides in the form of Maddy’s dictionary definitions, and other little sidebars. But rest assured – the story packs an emotional wallop, one that has the potential to blindside you and stick with you for days after.
Reawakened by Colleen Houck – $20.99
All matter of classical stories have been mined in the YA world – from vampires and princesses to trolls and urban legends. But Colleen Houck dips way into the archives with this tale of a young, privileged girl in modern times named Lily that crosses paths with a very dreamy, very powerful Egyptian prince named Amon (who is also basically a mummy) that has been resurrected with a particular mission. Amon and Lily are bound together through some magical events, and he essentially recruits her to help him fulfill his tasks. But Lily – strong-willed except when it comes to standing up to her no nonsense parents – isn’t quite having it. Not only is she having a hard time wrapping her head around Amon’s powers, she’s having an even harder time denying her budding feelings for him.
This story was unique in that the ‘what if?’ question posed at the beginning of its conception was ‘What if Gossip Girl crossed paths with an Egyptian mummy?’ That may sound wacky but it is the premise of the story, which is full of swoony romance but also features tons of cool mythology (seriously, several chapters are dedicated to Amon’s devastating back story) and action that’ll keep you guessing. It’s a surprising mix but it mostly works and stands out as one of the more unusual YA books I read this year.
Another Day by David Levithan – $20.99
When I picked up David Levithan’s Every Day a few years ago, I had no idea what I was getting into. That book is now one of my all-time favourites and one I replay in my head often. So imagine my delight when I found out there was going to be a companion novel, told from the perspective of Rhiannon, the girl A falls for. If you haven’t read the first book, the gist of the story is A is someone who wakes up in a different body every single day. Sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, usually within a certain geographic range and age. Despite the differentness of every day, A’s life felt the same, until they crossed paths with Rhiannon. So now, we get to find out more about how Rhiannon experiences their interactions – the complexity of her feelings, her relationship with Justin and trying to wrap her head around falling for ‘the driver’ (A) and not the ‘car’ (the body A is in each day).
The main thing I have to say is I’m glad I read this book years after the first one came out. The story felt unfamiliar enough that it felt fresh, to the point where I wondered how much of the conversation portions of the story were told in A’s book versus expounded on in Rhiannon’s. I suspect reading the books one after the other would feel like more of a repetitive exercise. A’s story is perhaps the more interesting of the two, because it delves into all of these different worlds, whereas in this one we’re limited to Rhiannon’s little world. But it’s still a fascinating tale, because you understand how difficult their future really is, and Rhiannon’s little world is opened up to all kinds of interesting thoughts on gender and love and being worth something to someone. An absolute must-read if you’ve read the first book (and if you haven’t read it, then what are you waiting for?) Cause the ending here? Stunning. And surprising.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – $21.99
Leigh Bardugo is best known for her fantasy series The Grisha – a slightly gothic fantasy romance trilogy. The good news for readers of that series is that her newest offering takes place in the same magical world as that one, but is a wholly separate story taking place during a different time. And it stars a wily and intriguing protagonist named Kaz, who has been tapped to lead an insane heist that promises lucrative results – if he’s successful. Namely, he needs to bust out a scientist-type locked away in an impenetrable fortress. Said scientist has the formula to a terrifying drug that can amplify the magic powers of the world’s ‘Grisha’.
Told in rotating viewpoints of this not-so-merry band of thieves, murderers, gangsters and enemies, I would loosely describe the book as Ocean’s 11 meets James Bond meets a host of fantasy novels, but that’s oversimplifying things. But to put it to you this way – if you like a good heist novel, you want a world that is amazingly built (note: you don’t need to read The Grisha series to get it), and you’re hoping for a serious page-turner, then my friends, pick this one up.
I Crawl Through It by A.S. King – $21.50
See if you can keep up with me here. This book is about four high school students creeping toward graduation and feeling like they’re imploding. They cope with their various traumas in surrealist ways – Stanzi splits herself in two, Gustav builds an invisible helicopter, China has swallowed herself so her insides are now out, and Lansdown, who compulsively lies and has her hair grow a la Pinocchio. Sound wacky? Cause it kind of is. The plot is loose at best, but basically follows the four teens as the author strips back what real-life, everyday teenage drama (date rape, anxiety, abandonment, parental pressure, etc.) has led to these odd manifestations.
The book, admittedly, won’t be for everyone. It’s very disorienting at first and the whole surrealism / magical realism takes awhile to get used to. But if you’re into the writing of say, Haruki Murakami, then you’ll probably lap this sophisticated YA read right up. To me it was more of a book where you could appreciate the moments or the short chapters, as opposed to easily being able to grasp the entire rambling story. This is not a linear story by any means, but if you’re searching for a unique enigma of a book, this is definitely an interesting one to pick up.
The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich – $21.50
The one thing I really love about YA fiction these days is there is something for everyone – and this list totally proves it! From swoony romances to engaging fantasy worlds to magical realism to, in the case of The Dead House, an eerie horror novel, the YA genre really consists of dozens of genres. Like Illuminae (which I review a bit later on in this post), the story is told primarily through ‘found documents’. The mystery at hand follows a tragic accident 20 years after it happened, when a school caught fire and killed three students, causing a fourth to vanish. There is a main suspect in the incident is a girl named Kaitlyn, who is actually the alter ego of Carly, the girl who vanished. If that sounds confusing – Kurtagich is an expert at making this book easy-to-read and discern between the ‘two girls’.
As a reader, you get to uncover the mystery of what really happened that night by reading Kaitlyn’s dark and disturbing diary, alongside police reports, video transcripts, and so on. As you can imagine with a main character that has two sides, the narrative here is very murky – I read it continually wondering where the story was going (in a good way) and being pleasantly surprised and spooked (in an even better one). A chilling read that I also hope to see on the big screen one day!
The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch Volume One by Daniel Kraus – $24.99
Immortality, as it is presented here, is not nearly as glamorous as the vampires of Twilight would have you believe, but nor is it as hopeless as the shambling corpses of The Walking Dead suggest. The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch is written in autobiography format by the titular protagonist, who is gunned down just before the turn of the century while working as a henchman for a Chicago gangster. But miracle upon miracles, Zebulon is resurrected as something living but not quite human – he has no need for food, sleep, drink, or even air, but he is susceptible to the wear and tear of the world. In this first volume, Zebulon documents about fifty years of his life, including his silver spoon upbringing pre-death, as well as the many lives he experiences after he is revived – from unwillingly taking part in a bizarre traveling show to serving as a WW1 soldier to brewing moonshine in the 20s to a stint in Hollywood.
The only other thing I’ll say about this book is that I am hard-pressed to actually call it a YA novel. Yes, it’s about a teenager, but it’s about a teen who lives for 40-50 years in the span of this novel alone (the second instalment is due out next fall). Given Zebulon’s origins, the story is written in a very mature, sophisticated voice that rivals that of some of the better literary fiction I’ve read. So if you’ve ever been wary of the YA label, well then, this is the book for you, because it hardly belongs here! A little bit Benjamin Button, a little bit Forrest Gump, Zebulon’s action-packed life is enough to hook any reader of any age.
The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski – $20.50
I’ll admit, this is one of the books I was most excited to read this year – and it didn’t disappoint! The second entry into the ‘Winner’s Trilogy’, this intriguing novel continues the game of cat and mouse established in the first book between Valorian daughter of a famed war general, Kestrel, and former slave-turned-governor of the Herrani people, Arin. Despite the twosome’s passionate if forbidden flirtation, Kestrel has gone ahead and betrothed herself to the Emperor’s son Verex, in a marriage of strategy, not love. Kestrel is lavished with attention but much of it is unwanted, as the Emperor lays out his plans for Kestrel and she quietly resists them (or tries to). Arin, meanwhile, is trying to deduce what Kestrel is really up to in the palace and how she could turn her back on him and his people – or is it really all just in his head?
Happily, this book avoids the dreaded ‘second entry’ slump in a trilogy. Many others struggle with the second book as they’re really just eager to sprint toward the finish line. But Rutkoski successfully expands the world she created in the first book and turns the screws even tighter than before in an impossibly tangled storyline. Put it this way? My heart was pounding in the final 50-100 pages, even though nary a drop of blood was spilled on the page.
Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin – $21.50
There’s a very buzzy show that’s about to hit Amazon in a couple of days called The Man In The High Tower which is set in a world where the Axis of Evil actually won WW2. In the meantime – or perhaps as a companion to the show’s vision of what that world looks like – there’s Ryan Graudin’s new offering, which is apparently part of a series unlike his much-loved debut The Walled City. Set in the late 50s, the story centers on a girl named Yael, the victim of work camp experiments during the war, who is seeking her revenge on Adolf Hitler.
The opportunity presents itself in the form of a race across Europe and Asia, where the winner will get a private audience with the reclusive leader. Yael disguises herself but threats are omnipresent – the person she is impersonating is being watched closely by her twin and former love interest, and beyond that, Yael also starts to bond with her fellow competitors, Hunger Games story. Can Yael be cutthroat enough to win the race? And even if she does, will she follow through on her initial mission? Part sci-fi, part dystopian, part action adventure race, this story has seriously got it all and earns Graudin another gold star in my books!
Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between by Jennifer E. Smith – $21.50
Imagine a book that crystallizes a particular point in time so spectacularly well that, even if you didn’t go through the exact same thing, you still feel all the feels as you read. That’s the case with this heart breaker, which follows Clare and Aidan on their last night before they leave for colleges on opposite coasts. Having dated for the past two years, the twosome are reflecting on their relationship with a trek through town to relive some memorable moments in their relationship while deciding whether or not to break up or try to ‘go the distance’ with a long-distance relationship.
A simple enough plot, but the debate is not so simple for Aidan and Clare, who are faced with a heart-wrenching decision. What do you do when breaking up is the ‘right’ thing to do, but you still love someone a lot? That’s the central question here and it’s not easy to answer. Clare and Aidan flip flop a fair bit throughout the story in terms of breaking up, and the melancholy hanging over their relationship extends to their extended circle of friends, who are each going their separate ways too. Any adult that reads this will fully recognize the reality of Clare’s words as she debates why it’s sensible for them to break up – as well as the road ahead for the already-tenuous friendships with the people she’s leaving behind. The result is a book that expertly delves into a real situation, with realistic teenage characters, who make realistic choices. It’s actually a refreshing change of pace from most YA books that are at least 25% fantasy in more cases.
Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – $21.99
And the award for the most creative book this year has to go to Illuminae. There, I said it. But let me explain why. The story follows Kady and Ezra, a pair of teens that have just broken up – only to have their planet invaded. Kady and Ezra join the forces trying to hold off their attackers as a hacker and fighter pilot respectively, and a desire to repair their romance bubbles under the surface.
This may all sound at least a little bit standard…but the big twist is in how the story is presented, namely through ‘found’ documents like emails, chat transcripts, computer data, medical reports, journals and so on. The unique format is what gives this book my utmost praise, as it makes reading 600 pages a total breeze and the authors really use the format to their advantage to not only draw you into their incredibly complex world, but make you clamour (no seriously, clamour!) for the next book in the series. Yes other books may have used that format before (including the quite entrancing The Dead House in this same post), but it’s used to devastating effect here.
Nightfall by Jake Halpern & Peter Kujawinski – $20.99
This interesting novel is set on a mysterious island that undergoes 14 years of light followed by 14 years of night. Marin, her twin brother Kana, and their friend Line, are all nervous as night is quickly approaching, and they are all preparing for their first stint in the ‘Desert Lands’. Through a series of mishaps, they end up missing the boats that will take them ashore, and are terrified about the fact the island apparently freezes and is totally inhospitable. But what they don’t realize is that during their 14 years away, something else inhabits the island…something else that very much doesn’t want them there.
The first chunk of this novel reminded me of a folk tale, with sort of an eerie, mysterious presence hanging over the plot. It may move a bit slower than some readers will like, but shortly after the trio is abandoned things take a sharp turn toward the disturbing. My spine was tingling, my heart was racing, and my stomach was definitely churning as the stakes are raised. As the threesome work to find their way off the island, threats come at them from all sides, including from within their ranks. The main thing I was curious about when I was done was whether there’d be a sequel as there still felt like plenty of unanswered questions…and indeed there’s going to be a companion novel (not necessarily a sequel) for those of you that gobble this one up.
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – $22.99
I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell a few years ago and LOVED it. Loved it. If you’re unfamiliar, you can read my review here – but the gist of that story is about an introverted girl named Cath and her twin sister Wren attending college and pursuing their own lives for the first time ever. Cath is preoccupied by the ‘before’, in the form of fan fiction she has been writing in advance of the eighth Simon Snow (a Harry Potter-esque series) book’s release. Interspersed in the book are segments from Simon Snow, which caught reader’s attention as much as the core book itself.
Now Rainbow Rowell has taken that imaginary world and brought it to life with a full-fledged novel that retains the hallmarks of her writing (adorable yet realistic romance, cunning comedy, effortless pacing) but mixes it with some exhilarating fantasy elements. It’s a treat to read whether you’re a Rainbow Rowell fan, a curious Simon Snow reader, or a diehead Potterhead – I won’t ruin too much beyond that other than to say, sometimes it’s not really fair how much talent certain authors have. Sigh.
The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle – $23.99
Imagine that every fall your family suddenly becomes afflicted with a rotten clumsy streak. To the point where death is a looming threat. That’s what Cara has experienced her whole life, each and every October. But this year, Cara begins to tug at the edges of this reality, in part spurred on by her blossoming if taboo romance. As she uncovers what has caused all this (literal) pain and grief, the twists will startle you and shock you beyond belief.
To that end, this book did indeed remind me of other twist-heavy tales, like E. Lockhart’s famed We Were Liars, but it definitely has a more eerie, fantastical vibe in the same vein as Nightfall, which I reviewed above. It was one of the more page-turner books on this list, so be prepared to keep that bedside lamp on till the wee hours once you get into it (and perhaps a nightlight afterward, as it’s definitely not the warm and fuzziest of books).
Okay guys! Believe it or not, I’m giving away ALL 15 books I featured in this jam-packed post (yes I know there’s only 14 in the image above). Want to win this amazing book prize package? Here’s how to enter:
1) First & foremost: you must be a subscriber to the Canadian Gift Guide to enter this giveaway. It’s as simple as finding ‘The Gift of Gab’ box in the righthand column and dropping in your email or clicking follow. Then leave me a comment below by November 28, 2015 telling me your top three reads from this list!
2) Entries are limited to one per person / per email address / per household (or more if you score bonus entries). A random draw will be conducted on or around November 29, 2015 to select the winners, who will have 48 hours to respond before another winner is chosen in their place.
3) Entries are limited to Canadians that have reached the age of majority in their province. Quebec is not eligible for this promotion.
4) Bonus Entries: If you’re interested in staying in the loop on the publishers that worked with me on this post, all you have to do is sign up for their social media, and while you’re at it, earn bonus entries into this fun giveaway! Just be sure to leave separate comments with links back to earn your bonus entries.
Raincoast Books – Is the publisher of Six of Crows, Carry On and The Winner’s Crime. Follow them on Twitter and Tweet about this giveaway tagging me, them, and linking back to this post.
Penguin Random House of Canada – Is the publisher of Another Day, Everything, Everything, Illuminae, Reawakened, Nightfall, and The Accident Season. Follow both Penguin and Random House on Twitter and Tweet about this giveaway tagging me, them, and linking back to this post. And yes, this counts for two entries!
Hachette Book Group – Is the publisher of Lair of Dreams, Hello, Goodbye & Everything In Between, I Crawl Through It, The Dead House and Wolf by Wolf. Follow them on Twitter and Tweet about this giveaway tagging me, them, and linking back to this post.
Simon & Schuster – Is the publisher of the Life & Death of Zebulon Finch. Follow them on Twitter and Tweet about this giveaway tagging me, them, and linking back to this post.