Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

I remember first reading To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han in seventh grade and immediately finding a connection with the protagonist, Lara Jean. My mom had just died and I was searching for someone not to tell me it was going to be okay or that they were so sorry, but someone to show me they can be successful and flourishing without a mother by their side. Lara Jean was exactly that. Her mom had died when she was nine (she was sixteen at the beginning of the novel) and Lara Jean was still thriving.

“I have a feeling that when I’m Stormy’s age, these everyday moments will be what I remember: Peter’s head bent, biting into a chocolate chip cookie; the sun coming through the cafeteria window, bouncing off his brown hair; him looking at me.”

Two books and a few years later, I am still finding solace and relatability in Lara Jean. She is now eighteen and about to go off to college. The center of her story has shifted to her relationship with her boyfriend and her changing family dynamic (her father is getting married). I loved the way Han portrayed Lara’s feelings about her step-mother-to-be. After my mom died, I moved in with my dad and his girlfriend, similar to how Lara Jean’s dad’s fiance moves in with her family. The relationship between Lara Jean and her father’s girlfriend is at some times complicated, but always realistic. Even still, the best relationship was between Lara Jean and her mother. Lara Jean struggles with advice her mother gave her, “never go to college with a boyfriend.” This advice, which goes against what Lara would like to do, leads to a struggle between honoring a beloved mother’s memory and moving on successfully. This is something I struggle with, too. How Han manages to capture exactly what I felt during this challenge, I am unsure. Whatever she does, it is truly moving.

And I haven’t even talked about the relationship between Lara Jean and her boyfriend, Peter. He is not just a plot device used to further character development, but a three dimensional person who is not restricted to what would be most convenient to write about. Throughout the novel, it felt like Lara Jean was an older sister or cousin, laughing and telling you about her many successes and failures.

Novels like Han’s remind me about why I love Young Adult. Sure, there are great novels about girls defying the system or liberating their authoritarian societies- but there are also stories like Lara Jean’s. These stories reach out to girls who may be struggling and give them a genuine perspective they can connect to and learn from. Lara Jean’s last chapter closes with everything it began with- the awkwardly sincere and perpetually hopeful writing of a teenager girl trying to figure her future out. I can’t wait to share her story with my little sister when she gets older.

PS: Check out my review of the second novel in Lara Jean’s story, PS I Still Love You.

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Remember 2012, when books like Divergent and The Hunger Games were popular? Dystopian novels had a moment, then faded into contemporary hits like The Fault in Our Stars. Until a recent resurgence in the popularity of dystopian classics, I hadn’t really thought of dystopians that much. Race, religion, space colonization, pollution, classism, nuclear weaponry, disease, shrinking privacy and growing surveillance- every issue under the sun seemed to already have a book written about it. Yet still, National Book Award winner Neal Shusterman, has written a dystopian truly unlike any other.

In the not so distant future, humankind has reached the apex of technological improvement and created the Thunderhead (meant to be like iCloud), the most powerful super computer in existence. It had eradicated disease, hunger, pollution, any true sense of class- but most importantly the Thunderhead has found a way to end mortality. No one can die naturally (and if they do decide to hurl themselves off a building for instance, they can be “revived”). This has turned  humanity into, as one character remarks, archaic cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner. However, due to population growth, some humans must be “gleaned.” This is the job of scythes, of which the two protagonists are training to become.

“The greatest achievement of the human race was not conquering death. It was ending government.”

What is so remarkable about Scythe is that there is truly no problems with the society. The government is not corrupt because there is no government, crime rates are microscopic because there is no motivator if everyone is equal, and the Thunderhead is not some robo terrorist that is hell bent on destroying all life. While some find this lack of visceral conflict boring, I enjoyed this aspect of Scythe. Instead of fighting for a “better” society, the characters spend the majority of their time pondering the ethics of killing- not whether it should be done, but how exactly it is done most humanely and if it is truly killing if the “victim” is willing to die. Of course, there is some conflict- but not the bloody, violent kind that dystopian novels tend to favor.

“Innocence is doomed to die a senseless death at our own hands, a casualty of the mistakes we can never undo. So we lay to rest the wide-eyed wonder we once thrived upon, replacing it with the scars of which we never speak, too knotted for any amount of technology to repair.”

I love books that force me to consider my own ideals, which is why Scythe is now one of my favorites. Seasoned author Neal Shusterman does not disappoint, so I urge you to head to your favorite indie bookstore today and pick up a copy of his latest.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

I absolutely adore Nina LaCour. She writes candidly about relationships- friendships, romance, family, in a way few other authors do. Through a mixture of inside jokes, intelligent observations, and awkwardly realistic interactions, LaCour builds characters so real they practically step off the page.

We Are Okay follows grief stricken Marin staying at her virtually empty college over winter break. Before her matriculation that fall, Marin’s grandfather (and only living relative) killed himself, causing her to flee her hometown of San Francisco for freezing New York. As all the best authors do, LaCour draws on her own experiences- in her acknowledgments, she remembers her own recently deceased grandfather. Over Marin’s winter break, she begins to untangle the relationships she left behind in San Francisco and why exactly her beloved grandfather’s death was so painful.

“She leans over our table and turns the sign in the window so that it says CLOSED on the outside. But on our side, perfectly positioned between Mabel’s place and mine, it says OPEN. If this were a short story, it would mean something.”

While I loved the themes of We Are Okay, I felt the writing was sometimes clunky or clichéd. I have noticed an uptick of more metaphorical writing in Young Adult and I am not a fan. This may be more of a personal preference, but I believe it is more admirable to be concise yet detailed- not meandering and flowery.

We Are Okay tackles isolation- which is, in Marin’s case, both literally and figuratively. LaCour also writes about honesty and what is left unsaid in relationships and how these omissions may shape false perceptions. LaCour continues to stun while writing about seemingly normal lives. I look forward to her next book.

Dreamology by Lucy Keating

If you’ve been looking for the perfect beach read- relax. You’ve found it. It is Lucy Keating’s debut novel, Dreamology. Light, funny, and whimsical, Keating’s novel is perfect for lounging poolside and just the right length (336 pages) to read in-flight.

Dreamology follows Alice, a New York transplant living in Boston with her dad. Since she can remember, Alice has had dreams about a boy who calls himself Max. When she starts school at the prestigious Bennett Academy (Keating attended Phillips Academy… possibly an inspiration?), Alice runs into a boy who’s identical to Max. But that can’t be possible. After all, Max is a figment of Alice’s imagination. But when she starts seeing other impossible things- like pugs sipping coffee in cafés or the ground rippling below her feet, she begins to think something is up. Can Alice figure out what’s happening to her mind before it’s too late?

“Our dreams are the one thing we share that nobody else can touch. Now we’re going to lose them, and I am terrified.”

While Dreamology occasionally borders on childish, it still provides a fantastical escape from reality. Keating combines pop culture references and whimsical new technology to create a world entirely her own.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I was pretty reluctant to read The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas’s debut (named after Tupac’s Thug Life tattoo) has gained a lot of press for being a novel about police brutality towards African American teens. But the special part about The Hate U Give isn’t the premise- it’s that it was written for teens. Yet, I was not drawn towards this novel. To me, it seemed like Thomas didn’t know how to connect with a teen audience when talking about systemic racism, so she turned what should have been a collection of essays into a novel. But, after some pushing from friends, I put my assumptions aside and picked up The Hate U Give. I couldn’t be happier I did.

While The Hate U Give does have a few rough, lecture-y moments, overall Thomas’ novel is a compelling, well written, and a well needed political commentary. I laughed out loud, cried, and bit my lip with the protagonist, Starr, while she was dealing with issues from the changing dynamic between her and her (white) boyfriend to the aftermath of her unarmed friend, Khalil, being shot by a cop. While educating me, The Hate U Give simultaneously forced me to confront my own privilege and acknowledge how situations Starr was put in would would go differently for me solely because of my lighter skin tone. Whatever the situation, Starr dishes out realness while she struggles with problems that are ordinary and extraordinary.

“Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black”

The Hate U Give should be required reading in every high school. Many classics like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have recently sprung to the front of reading lists. The Hate U Give deserves to be among them. While Thomas’s novel is not about dystopic, totalitarian societies, it is still an impressive new piece of political commentary. The Hate U Give teaches teens about the racism many of their peers face, while also urging them to confront their own privilege. Right now, we must to listen to stories like Starr and Khalil’s.

City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie Anderson

I decided to pick up City of Saints and Thieves because of its setting- Sangui City, an imaginary city in Kenya based on Nairobi. The author, Natalie Anderson spent the past decade in Africa working for NGOs, so I presumed her depiction of the continent would be pretty accurate. Considering the vastness and cultural diversity of Africa, it is shockingly sad that there re so few Young Adult novels set in the area. Needless to say, I was very glad to find Anderson’s debut.

After reading Anderson’s vivid, gritty depictions of Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I am especially disappointed in the lack of YA novels set in Africa. City of Saints and Thieves follows Tina, a teenage member of one of Sangui City’s most notorious gangs, the Goondas. Before joining the Goondas, Tina’s family fled the DRC for Kenya and her family worked for an affluent businessman on Sangui City’s “Hill,” (where the wealthy live). Tina joins the Goondas after her mother is murdered, by who she believes is their former employer, Mr. G. As Tina travels to find out who killed her mother and to exact her revenge, she listens to other women’s stories of the atrocities that led her mother to flee the DRC with Tina and her unborn sister.

City of Saints and Thieves is a relevant novel because of its description of the human rights violations happening every day in the DRC. Unfortunately, I did not ever come to love Tina. She’s described as tough as nails, but sometimes falls a little flat, especially when she says she’s “not like other girls.” This comment is misogynistic because of the implication of “other girls” as being bad or inadequate. With the feminist message this novel is trying to convey, sentiments like Tina’s can be confusing and a little hypocritical.

Natalie Anderson’s City of Saints and Thieves is a good read- if not for the setting and message alone. It is very important to address the issues of the systemic kidnapping, rape, and murder of African women and refugees.

King’s Cage by Victoria Aveyard

I have always been a sucker for so-bad-they’re-good things. I love shows like Gossip Girl and devour movies like Love, Actually. When it comes to books, I like to think I have better taste. But, the truth is, however poorly written and dully executed a novel like King’s Cage is, I still love it. I am a huge fan of Victoria Aveyard. I have met her multiple times at book festivals like YALLWest and have reviewed every single one of her books (Red Queen, Glass Sword).

Aveyard’s first novel, Red Queen, was fantastic. The plot was unique and compelling and the characters were interesting and likable. Unfortunately, Glass Sword, the sequel to Red Queen, and King’s Cage, the third novel in the series, fell short for me. The writing in both novels was overly dramatic, even silly at times. Besides this, the only character I grew to like was Evangeline Samos, who has been competition to Mare, the protagonist (Evangeline is not the antagonist per se, but not on Mare’s side) since the first page. Evangeline was a breath of fresh air- a reminder of what Aveyard can do.

“I know now I didn’t know what love was. Or what even the echo of heartbreak felt like”

What I felt King’s Cage lacked the most was great character writing. There are three narrators in this novel, all of whom sound more or less the same. These characters, especially Mare Barrow (the titular character in Red Queen) made choices that felt like they were made for the plot to continue, not because it was the correct choice for the character. However drawn out King’s Cage was (it just hits 500 pages) Aveyard still kept me turning pages. The plot wasn’t particularly interesting, but she is fantastic at dangling secrets and intrigue right beyond your reach.

I will continue to read Aveyard’s writing, even after her latest efforts. Maybe it’s my love for so-bad-they’re-good things, but I know she can get back to the distinctive writing she showcased in Red Queen, even if it takes a couple more tries.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

My first thought when picking up this book was, “I don’t want to read about another sugar coated book about loving the skin you’re in.” I have been blessed with a fast metabolism, and thus, have never gone past size 2 in clothing. Before reading Holding Up the Universe, I hadn’t really given thought to the enormous amount of unwarranted, unnecessary, and unhelpful comments that are directed to those that weigh a little more than what we define as average. I come from a place of privilege when talking about body issues, but it is undeniable that Holding Up the Universe has changed the way I will think and talk about my body and others’.

Holding Up the Universe follows Libby Strout, formerly know as “America’s Fattest Teen.” She left school in fifth grade, but has decided to go back to her local high school for her junior year. She is perfectly secure with her weight, but, upon returning to school, realizes others are not. And after a cruel joke is played on her, she is thrust into the high school spotlight.

“What is this whole ‘fat girl equals whore’ bullshit?… Why am I automatically a whore? How do that even make sense?”

Despite my initial reaction, I was excited to read Jennifer Niven’s latest novel. Her debut, All the Bright Places, fell short in terms of plot but was absolutely extraordinary when it came to characters and message. Unfortunately, Holding Up the Universe fell into the same trap. Libby’s romantic story arc felt forced and more like a tool for furthering the plot than a natural next movement. The more natural plot progressions came when Libby was dealing with grief over her mother’s death and auditioning for a dance team she had idolized for years.

While Holding Up the Universe suffers tremendously when it comes to plot, it still has a message important for every girl. The body positivity and self love Niven writes about never feels preachy, but always get the point across. Hopefully in her next novel, Niven will continue her superb writing and drop the superfluous romance.

Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

The less you know about E. Lockhart’s newest, Genuine Fraud, the better. Similar to Lockhart’s last novel, We Were Liars, Genuine Fraud features unreliable, wealthy-beyond-belief young adults spending summer on a Massachusetts island. Unlike We Were Liars however, Genuine Fraud‘s narrator, Jules, also spends her time in Cabo, Puerto Rico, London, and San Francisco. In these cities, Jules is caught in an unhealthy friendship with an affluent young women trying to figure out her place in the world. Even that description is perhaps revealing too much.

E. Lockhart has a talent for creating nuanced, vivid settings. Whether this talents comes from her hilariously lifelike background characters or strange descriptions of ordinary moments is unclear. Throughout the novel, I never felt like I couldn’t picture exactly where Jules was (although these places changed nearly every chapter).

“She was depressed and she didn’t love you anymore and she didn’t love me enough to stay alive, either. Stop acting like there’s anything else that could have happened.”

Genuine Fraud is the perfect book to read in a single sitting. It’s just over 250 pages and poses a question that will keep you turning pages.While it may lack depth, it makes up for it with twisting plot lines and descriptions that will make you feel like you’re standing right next to the main character, Jules. Be sure to pick up E. Lockhart’s newest when it comes out this September.

Tell Me Something Real by Calla Devlin

I’m a sucker for books set in San Diego, and when it comes to setting, Calla Devlin’s debut, Tell Me Something Real doesn’t disappoint. Even though Tell Me Something Real takes place in the 1970s, the picture of San Diego Devlin paints is achingly realistic. As I read, I found myself exclaiming excitedly, “I know exactly where she’s talking about!” Parts of Devlin’s novel also take place in Northern Mexico; Tijuana, Ensenada, and Rosarito. While descriptions of these cities are much briefer, they always feel fleshed out, and it is clear Devlin has done her research.

Aside from the setting, Tell Me Something Real is lackluster at best. While Devlin’s characters are all at least semi-interesting, a lot of them felt like caricatures, especially the love interest, Caleb. He is absolutely indistinguishable from Augustus Waters (The Fault in Our Stars), or Theodore Finch (All the Bright Places). His dark hair, blue eyes, and love for Kerouac paired with his brooding attitude and aptitude for surfing make him annoying and forgettable. The love story between Vanessa and Caleb always feels forced, almost like it didn’t quite belong. Without the love story, Tell Me Something Real would have been an extremely compelling novel about sisters grappling with their mother’s imminent death and how that changes their family dynamic.

“Her death will destroy us, but it will also free us of small burdens, of the constraints of her fatigue and nausea and strong opinions.”

Another weak point of Tell Me Something Real is the plot. The twist near the middle of the novel felt like I was reading Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon all over again- not a fresh debut. While Devlin recovers and creates a memorable scene between the sisters her novel is centered around, the story still suffers from lack of originality.

Hopefully Calla Devlin will write something stronger next time. She certainly writes setting well and included a couple nicely written scenes, but Tell Me Something Real fell short when it came to almost everything else.