Two YA novels with lots of marketing and high expectations. Two contemporary stories set in high schools. Two pretty decent reads, but disappointing in different ways. Here are my reviews of One of Us Is Lying and My Life As a Hashtag.
I haven't stopped reading (although there was a short break when I moved house), but it seems I stopped reviewing when I began posting the interview series. Sorry about that! Here's two short ones from recent reads that have stuck with me.
Two new 5 sentence reviews! The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson After her older sister's death, Lennie finds herself in a love triangle with a talented musician and the only boy who truly seems to understand her grief. I really enjoyed the characters in this book, with all of them carrying complexities and motivations and flaws - all except Rachel, who annoyed me because there didn't seem to be any depth to her or reason for her and Lennie to hate each other. Grief and the guilt that comes with it was very effectively portrayed and I felt Lennie's emotions along with her. Plot-wise, things moved a little slow for my liking and although the drive behind Lennie's mistakes was explained, there was one I didn't find convincing enough. The family relationships that are bubbling in the background for most of the book are an understated gem, and this is what tipped it into 4 star territory for me.
Esme's Wish by Elizabeth Foster* 15-year-old Esme's search for her mother leads her to another world - one with magic, dragons, the best friends she's had and the greatest danger she'll face. This book has a literary bent and there are detailed, evocative descriptions that I'm able to recognise even if I can't fully appreciate them**. In places the language and vocabulary seemed very difficult for lower YA (which is the age this book is pitched at), although I am conflicted about that because I think there's value in extending young readers. There were times that I felt the ideas and events were summarised (and instances where they were unnecessarily repeated in summary), rather than experiencing them in Esme's head, but as action increased this became less of a concern, and for a debut I think the author has promise. The character arc was satisfying and I really appreciate that the friendships between Esme, Lillian and Daniel were free from unnecessary romantic tensions.
*NB: I was given an advance copy of this in exchange for an honest review. While I didn't know the author beforehand, I will be having a conversation with her in the coming weeks as part of my interview series - stay tuned! **I have aphantasia, so physical descriptions of people and places are the aspect of literature that has little effect on me. But I wouldn't have been successful in studying, writing or teaching if I didn't know good description when I see it!
It's no secret that I love Jaclyn Moriarty, and I'm quickly becoming a big fan of her sister Liane too. Main character Alice can't remember 10 years of her life, which is an interesting enough premise, but what makes this book so authentic is how it's more than just her memory that is lost - her personality is the same as it was ten years previous, and she struggles to come to terms with how her relationships have changed. Meanwhile her sister, Elizabeth, has battled years of infertility and is at breaking point with the grief. Elizabeth's honest, raw pain is so well executed and I really felt for her, although I know from my infertile friends that international adoption is far harder and rarer than the book suggests. The plot here is fairly straightforward and slow moving, but the characters feel real, their emotions are relatable, and the relationships between them are deftly portrayed.
This book has something sorely lacking in YA fiction - a protagonist who is overweight. But while her weight does (realistically) lead to snap judgments from people and bullying, there is SO much more to her (e.g. a love of dance, an awesome relationship with her Dad) and it's wonderful to read her portrayed in such a positive light. The other protagonist, Jack, struggles with some typical teen boy issues of "why am I compelled to do shitty things when I want to be a good person?" and some not-so-typical issues including a rare neurological disorder that renders him unable to recognise faces. It's a love story, but it's much more than that. It's about how we judge each other, and how we maybe *should* judge each other.
I was so unsure how to review this. As a whole, or individual stories? 5 sentences each? Just the highlights? In the end I went with 5 sentences overall plus 2 for each story. But the short version is: read it!!!!
I loved this book. An amazing selection of stories, and while there are some in genres I wouldn't normally enjoy (SFF, I'm looking at you!) each story had something to keep me reading and was very well written. Putting Jaclyn Moriarty's at the end was a great move for me, because she's my favourite author so it was like a reward for finishing or something - the dessert after the meal. Short stories are underrated and especially good for young readers who can squish one in on the bus on the way to school or between homework and netball or whatever. An excellent opportunity to find yourself a new favourite author (or 10).
One Small Step... The first girl born on Mars reveals the pressures of being a part of history, while trying to save her best friend/crush. Not something I'd ordinarily pick up but there were so many fascinating things to think about in this story and I've found myself recommending it many times since reading.
I Can See The Ending Another cool premise, where a teen psychic witnesses his own divorce and must work out why it's worth falling in love anyway. Great characters and believable relationships, in what is ultimately a story about finding joy and taking risks.
In a Heartbeat Teen pregnancy makes for a simple, often cliched story, but it's the execution that makes this shine. The main character's relationship with her own mother is depicted in wonderful detail for a short piece, and for me as a white reader, reading a somewhat familiar plot with an unfamiliar cultural background made the story fresh.
First Casualty Another sci-fi, which is not my cup of tea, but a great example of how alternate or futuristic worlds can be used to to explore social issues in our world. For anyone familiar with Australia's asylum seeker policies, this will leave you despairing over politics and the immoral behaviour of people with power.
Sundays Straight-up romance isn't really my thing either, but this wasn't bad. There's something very relatable about teenagers pinning their worldview of relationships on "that" one couple, and how something simple can trigger all kinds of anxieties about the future.
Missing Persons A contemporary for anyone who has ever had to move away from home. I didn't find this a particularly memorable story, but I could relate to the main character and the settings were very well established.
Oona Underground This is a bit of an odd one, where magic realism is used to help two friends realise that their love for one another is more than platonic. I found myself drawn into it like the characters were drawn into the maze underground.
The Feeling From Over Here A contemporary that I really enjoyed, with a very straightforward premise - 2 people with a history get stuck next to one another on a very long bus ride. There's an important lesson here, about how good people can do horrible things and the long-term impact our words can have on others.
Last Night At the Mount Solemn Observatory This is another that is character driven rather than plot driven, as a girl struggles to say goodbye to her older brother before he begins his adult life away from the family. Again, I wouldn't list it in a "best of the year" or anything, but it's a sweet story that doesn't rely on romance, which is rare in YA fiction.
Competition Entry #349 Time travel which doesn't change the past or make heros - instead, the main character gets to go back for ten minutes at a time to witness her first kiss and work out what went wrong. Everything I love about Moriarty in condensed form, this is quirky, well-thought out, clever and fun.
The Impossible Story of Olive in Love is about the other side of invisibility: when it's not a superpower, it's a pain in the ass and a lonely one at that. Olive is cursed to be invisible to all but her true love, which means for seventeen years she's been mistaken for a ghost, an imaginary friend, the wind and any number of excuses people make up to explain away the impossible - until she meets Tom, who can see her. It's a cool premise and the strength of this book is the plot, which explores interesting ideas and relationships. Unfortunately, the weakness is the characters, especially Olive, who often behaves and speaks in horrible ways and whose only excuse is "it's hard to be me". I could relate to Olive's predicament, but not to Olive herself, and it's hard to enjoy a book where the protagonist is so unlikable.
Frankie by Shivaun Plozza This is an excellent debut about a girl who is nothing like me and yet who I was able to empathise with deeply. Francesca Vega is an ordinary teen trying (and often failing) to be a good person, when a younger brother she didn't know existed arrives on the scene. Frankie has the benefit of an aunt who loves unconditionally, but she struggles to maintain her self-worth in the face of rejection by almost everybody else, including her mother. She is a raw, realistic character who faces the world with her chin angrily up, and my heart broke for her more than once. The story is believable, the relationships are complicated and the writing is top notch - I highly recommend.
Talking It Over by Julian Barnes This isn’t a new book (it was published in 1991) but I’ve had a first edition hardback sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years and thought it was about time I opened it up. Barnes is as talented a writer as I remembered, but the story itself didn’t grab me. It’s a love triangle, but that’s not really the point: Barnes writes to play with language and themes, to demonstrate mastery of a variety of voices, and to critique society through dry humour. He achieves all of this, and I stuck with the book long enough to be enchanted. That said, I didn’t relate to or particularly like any of the characters (and frequently wanted to punch Oliver) and it took me a lot longer to read than most of what I’ve been choosing lately.
Surviving Haley by Brenda Baker NB: This is Brenda Baker’s debut novel, published just before she and I “met” online and became friends and critique partners.
It’s a decent effort, probably a 3.5-star work, and a quick read. I found the core family of Lauren and her parents very deftly drawn and it was refreshing to find a book that considered the “other” side of eating disorders, i.e. compulsive overeating and binge eating. I’m not usually a reader of “Christian” books, but I didn’t find this overly preachy or moralistic. Many of the minor characters were used to introduce other important issues, but unfortunately these weren’t explored in any detail and the story ended without telling us what happened to them. Likewise the love subplot: what was there was good, but it’s what was missing that pulled the book down.
A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty This is the final instalment in a fantasy trilogy by one of my favourite authors. It tied up all the loose ends nicely and I was impressed by the complexity of Moriarty's world building and the ideas she expressed in this trilogy. In A Tangle of Gold there was less entwining of science and magic, but history played a much bigger role. I was a little disappointed with this book when comparing it to the earlier two, as I found certain aspects predictable (e.g. the "twist" regarding Madeleine) or unbelievable (e.g. Ko's actions and speech at the end). But I would recommend it anyway, and I still finished reading with that dual satisfaction and sadness that there was no more.
Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom This is a book with a disabled protagonist whose story is not about disability, but about love, loss, friendship and forgiveness. However, her disability (blindness) is also impossible to ignore as it affects everything from running on the school track team to how she knows a friend has texted. This balance gives Lindstrom room to raise social issues (such as racial discrimination, or disability in sport) without coming across as a PSA. I loved the realism and emotion in this book and the strength of the character voice. Highly recommended.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh It was easy to know I'd enjoy this because I find the blog amusing. Much of the book content comes directly from there, with only a few new pieces. A quick, fun read. Brosh takes the everyday and makes it entertaining by wearing her quirks with pride. This is nothing a school or uni would study on literary merit, but great for something light and relatable.