Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lucky 7: My Top Teen Books of 2014

Human nature loves list-making, and this time of year is the list-iest. With the new year approaching, I too like to look back on my year-in-reading and shine a special light on those books that were especially awesome. Below are my top 7 works of teen fiction published in 2014, appearing in alphabetical order by author. Note that many of these titles appear on other, more reputable year-end best lists, as if you needed any further proof of my good taste. Here's hoping your 2014 was just as full of fabulous fiction. -Kelley, (Your) Teen Services Librarian

1. The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own. 

My review: Many have told me that Laurie Halse Anderson is the master of YA fiction, and this book left me in complete agreement. I am only ashamed to admit that this was my first LHA book--may there be many more.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is a beautiful, sad, and tender novel. It looks closely at an issue that many teens must grapple with (a veteran parent with PTSD), but that so rarely appears in contemporary fiction. Hayley is so full of palpable fear, which is difficult to experience, because you feel like she's a friend you can’t do anything to help, and she probably wouldn't take your help, anyway. The armor she uses to hide her stress and insecurities is an amazing suit of snark, providing moments of necessary (and LOL) levity. (When taking a math test she's not at all prepared for: "All of my answers were drawings of armored unicorns".) The realistic romance between Haley and Finn also allows some relief and just the right amount of hope. 

File under: Realistic Fiction, Awesomeness

2. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

My review: Brilliant, slim, harrowing, heartbreaking. E. Lockhart writes YA fiction that is a cut above the most. Even though I knew fairly early on what was "happening" here, the pleasure (mixed with a fair amount of wincing) is in the complex unfolding. This book has been checked out of my library since it hit the shelves in May, and there are many good reasons why. I finished it in September, and it's still haunting me.

File under: Realistic Fiction, Mystery, Tragedy

3. Cress by Marissa Meyer

In this third book in the Lunar Chronicles, Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, now with Scarlet and Wolf in tow. Together, they’re plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and her army. 

Their best hope lies with Cress, a girl imprisoned on a satellite since childhood who's only ever had her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker. Unfortunately, she’s just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder and her handsome accomplice.

My review: If this series continues to get any better my brain might explode. Seriously. Cinder was really good, Scarlet was amazing, and then Cress came along and swept me off my feet. Oh, the romance! The adventure! All mixed together with spaceships and moonscapes. And for those of you who love yourself an evil queen, there is none better than Levana. She eats other evil queens for breakfast.

Cress wins the extra special distinction of being the one book I read this year that I literally could not put down. This book kept me up at night and had me waking up early in the morning to finish it. A sure sign of quality.

Read first: Cinder, Scarlet

File under: Fairytale Re-telling, Science Fiction, Series Addiction

4. Panic by Lauren Oliver

Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a dead-end town of 12,000 people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do.

Heather never thought she would compete in Panic, a legendary game played by graduating seniors, where the stakes are high and the payoff is even higher.

Dodge has never been afraid of Panic. His secret will fuel him, and get him all the way through the game, he's sure of it.

For Heather and Dodge, the game will bring new alliances, unexpected revelations, and the possibility of first love for each of them—and the knowledge that sometimes the very things we fear are those we need the most.

My review: This book had me hooked by the end of page 1, and I held on tight all the way through; mostly because I was so terrified, but also because I truly cared about the fully realistic main characters.

Welcome to Panic. If you think the Hunger Games are a horrible post-apocalyptic nightmare from a future far away, this book will make you stop and think about the dangerous risks and thrills that contemporary, everyday teens go looking for (especially when they're bored or desperate). Panic is another terrifying, dangerous game, put on for the amusement of the spectators, and the potential profit of the contestants. And just so you know: people have died playing Panic.

Again, I loved how realistic the setting and characters were. Lauren Oliver skillfully brings both Heather and Dodge's complex personalities and back-stories to full life. Her nuanced, damaged characters make it so much harder to sit through the stages of Panic, because you know that both of them have so much more at stake than thrills, money or pride. Oliver also throws in a few serious communication flaws and adolescent insecurities, making everyone in the game extra untrustworthy.

If you're looking for a breathtaking, exhilarating read about teens who could easily be your classmates, this one is for you. Also, save the tigers (spoilers!).

File under: Dueling Narrators, Realistic Fiction, Suspense

5. The Living by Matt de la Peña

Disclaimer: I just realized that this book was NOT published in 2014, but this list would be lacking without it, so it stays.

Shy took the summer job to make some money. In a few months on a luxury cruise liner, he'll rake in the tips and be able to help his mom and sister out with the bills. And how bad can it be? Bikinis, free food, maybe even a girl or two—every cruise has different passengers, after all.

But everything changes when the Big One hits. Shy's only weeks out at sea when an earthquake more massive than ever before recorded hits California, and his life is forever changed.

The earthquake is only the first disaster. Suddenly it's a fight to survive for those left living.

My review: I am not a disaster girl. I don't like watching disaster movies, and I don't like reading disaster books. And did I mention I HATE diseases? Call me a little too sensitive to human suffering. BUT… I really wanted to read something by Matt de la Peña, Greater Rochester Teen Book Festival alum and all around amazing person. So here we are.

I ended up really enjoying this book, and it's one I've recommended many times ever since I finished it. I appreciated how unflinching and raw the disasters and aftermath were depicted.

There is so much more to this book than horror and thrills (which are abundant, believe me). Amid all the bodies (and sharks!), you'll find opportunity to ponder socio-economic inequality and race relations. If you're into government/big cooperation conspiracy theories, there's something here for you as well. Lastly, there are some natural, unforced romantic tensions that I think older teen boys will easily relate to. I think all of these elements are part of what makes the book so good, but they don’t slow down the action at all (in case you were worried about that).

Shy is faced with some very tough choices, and it is edifying to watch him weigh his options, at times with only a few seconds to spare. I think this is a great book that prompts teens to ask themselves, "What would I do in this situation?" You'll be asking yourself that question many times along the way of this heart-pounding ride.

File under: Disasters (Natural and Otherwise), Suspense, Survival

6. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba interweaves the story of his Polish legacy with the story of how he and his best friend, Robby, brought about the end of humanity and the rise of an army of unstoppable, six-foot tall praying mantises in small-town Iowa.

My review: Austin Szreba has a healthy preoccupation with the intersection of histories. He believes that the roads of coincidence cross back and forth across time, right in front of us. As a self-made historian, he writes these observations down. Grasshopper Jungle is Austin's recording of the end of the world. While the world is ending, our narrator is also authentically struggling to separate hormones from love and friendship, and human stupidity from beauty. It happens like this...

A gang of total oafs beat the crap out of Austin and his best friend, Robby, in the nowhere town of Ealing, Iowa, in an alleyway affectionately referred to as the "Grasshopper Jungle". Later that night, the same gang of total oafs breaks into the office of Austin's boss, an office that Austin and Robby have also just broken into. Inside they have discovered the most messed up treasure trove of Cold War era stuffs ever seen. While Austin and Robby are smart enough to stand in fear and awe of the glowing blue orb of "Contained MI Plague Strain 412E", the total oafs decide it would be fun to take it for a stroll...

It was not a good idea. You know what I mean.

The joy of the rest of this book is in letting Austin tie all the ends together while hell breaks loose in Ealing. In his own meandering, often gross, and truly funny way, Austin discovers what MI Plague Strain 412E is, what it does (bad stuff), and where it came from (totally bizarre). While he's figuring this all out, he has the unfortunate fate of being a teenage boy made horny by nearly everything, which is inconvenient when the world is ending. Incessant male teenage arousal can also be inconvenient when you're trying to figure out your feelings for your girlfriend and possibly your best friend, too. Female characters, like Shann, seem a big thinly drawn, but that may be appropriate considering the narrator, who happens to be preoccupied by unstoppable, giant mantises bent on devouring the entire human race. And other stuff.

This book is anticlimactic (in a good way!), hilarious, and somber all at once. It is certainly the most unique end-of-the-world fiction I have read in maybe ever.

File under: Gross, Hilarious, Science Fiction

7. Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

There is danger in dreaming. But there is even more danger in waking up.

Blue Sargent has found things. For the first time in her life, she has friends she can trust, a group to which she can belong. The Raven Boys have taken her in as one of their own. Their problems have become hers, and her problems have become theirs.

The trick with found things though, is how easily they can be lost.

My review: Many fellow Raven Boys fans were down on this book. Yes, it’s a "bridge book", and it's slimmer than the previous two volumes, but I don't at all believe that Stiefvater is slopping out mere filler before the final installment in this quartet. This book is oh so careful and delicate. There are rich developments here, especially in the relationships between characters; a new bad guy is introduced, along with his equally deplorable wife; and the author's fantastical creativity is on full display. Also, there is a character named Jesse Dittley who is THE BEST.

If you haven't read The Raven Boys and its sequel, The Dream Thieves, never fear! You have three amazing books to devour before book #4 comes out sometime in 2015.

This is probably my favorite young adult series of the past few years.

Read first: The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves

File under: Fantasy, Series Addiction, Supernatural

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