The Lost History of Stars, by David Boling: I knew next to nothing about the Anglo-Boer wars at the turn of the 19th century, so this was a welcome though difficult read. In this novel, which was inspired by the author’s grandfather’s own experience as a soldier in the war, a family of Dutch Afrikaner settlers have been forcibly taken from their farm by British soldiers and put in a concentration camp with thousands of other detainees. The camps are overcrowded and disease ridden, and detainees die on a daily basis. 14-year-old Lettie copes by reliving memories of stargazing with her grandfather, writing in her journal, and doing her best to keep her family together in the camp. Along the way, she enters into an uneasy quasi-friendship with a British guard, Tommy Maples, who has developed a distaste for the war and the camps and occasionally does her kindnesses at great risk to himself. VGR
Protected, by Claire Zorn: Zorn, an Australian writer, produces a moving contemporary YA about a lonely, bullied teenager whose popular older sister died in a car accident. As Hannah comes to terms with her sister’s death and memories of their relationship, a new boy at school tries to befriend her and draw her out of her shell. VGR
Now That You Mention It, by Kristan Higgins: A heartfelt story featuring Nora, a gastroenterologist who is hit by a van at the start of the book and ends up moving back to her tiny Maine town to recuperate. She is trying to find out what happened to her father, who disappeared from her and her sister’s life when she was a child, reconnect with her gruff, no-nonsense mother, and forge a relationship with her niece, a prickly teen whose mother (Nora’s sister) is in prison. Humor, some romance, strong female friendships, facing high school demons, and personal growth abound.
What to Say Next, by Julie Buxbaum: Terrific YA told in alternating viewpoints. David is a brilliant loner who is clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum. He survives high school by avoiding all social interactions and wearing a pair of giant noise-canceling headphones whenever he’s not in class. Kit, a relatively popular girl, has just had her world blown apart by her father’s death. An unlikely friendship forms between the two of them when Kit decides to sit at David’s lunch table one day. VGR
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black: Black really, really knows how to weave an engrossing story. The novel kicks off with the violent murder of Jude’s parents in front of her, her twin sister, and her older sister. The murderer just happens to be her older sister’s real father, a redcap from the world of Faerie. He takes all three girls to be raised in his home and in the treacherous world of the High Court of Faerie. Jude manages to get herself embroiled in all sorts of palace plots and deceptions despite her mortality and constant bullying by High Court teens. I cannot wait for book two! VGR
The Music Shop, by Rachel Joyce: There were things to love in this novel, but overall I felt very frustrated with certain aspects of the story and had a hard time connecting to any of the characters. The story revolves around Frank, who owns a shabby record shop and knows exactly which piece of music is going to connect and resonate with the people who come in his shop. A mysterious woman faints outside his shop one day, and eventually asks Frank to teach her about music. As their friendship develops, we get snippets of Frank’s unconventional upbringing with his mother, Peg, who taught him his love of music. Frank’s fellow shopkeepers are a quirky, motley lot who keep the story interesting, but overall this novel fell flat for me.
All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater: In Bicho Raro, Colorado, the Soria family all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. This story centers on three Soria teens who handle their strange life in different ways. The Soria miracles involve pulling the darkness from people who come to them, and the darkness manifests in a myriad of bizarre manners – one man grows to giant proportions, another woman is only able to parrot back things people say to her with no words of her own. Unfortunately, part 2 of the miracle – banishing the darkness – can only be done by oneself, leaving many pilgrims languishing around the Soria family compound in strange states. Stiefvater is a beautiful writer, but as usual with her books, I never felt entirely engaged or interested.
My Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows, and Brodi Ashton (audiobook): For some reason, when I tried to read this last year I couldn’t get into it, but I listened to it on audiobook this month and kept finding any excuse possible to listen. This is a fantastic send-up of British history in the style of Monty Python, focusing on Edward VI (teen king), Lady Jane Grey (teen queen who succeeded Edward for 9 days before being beheaded), and Gifford, Jane’s husband in an arranged marriage (who just happens to be a horse shapeshifter in this version of history). Ridiculous, funny, and lighthearted. VGR
Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor: This was another that I tried to read last year and couldn’t get into, but then I started listening to the audiobook, and when the audiobook was too slow for the level I wanted to immerse myself in the story, I switched over to the book. Complicated path! This was a 4.5-5 star read for me right up until the end, at which point some choices Taylor made plummeted my rating to 1 star. So it’s hard to say whether I would recommend this or not. I hope she redeems herself in the next book. At any rate, it’s a mysterious, lovely fairy tale of an orphan librarian dreamer who reads of a mythic lost land – only to discover it is real, after all, and he is allowed to take part in an expedition to save it.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne: This book completely blew me away. I read the synopsis, felt ‘meh’, but read it based on lots of outstanding reviews. And it was so well written and so compelling. The book takes us through the life of Irishman Cyril Avery, born to an unmarried teen mother in the 1940s and adopted by an odd, remote couple. Along the way, Cyril falls in (unrequited) love with his (straight) best friend, makes a lot of poor choices, finally finds the love of his life when he moves to Amsterdam, and experiences a lot of drama and heartbreak along the way. VGR
Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant: I don’t normally read horror, but this was a terrific story about killer mermaids. It sounds ridiculous, and yet Grant makes it all feel very real. Seven years earlier, Imagine Entertainment sent out a ship and crew to film a mockumentary about mermaids. No one returned, and disturbing footage surfaced that most people wrote off as faked. Now a new ship has been assembled, filled with scientists and researchers – and Imagine employees, of course. What waits for them out in the Mariana Trench is incredibly disturbing and vicious. Read this one with the lights on, not right before falling asleep as I did. VGR
The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden: The first book in this series, The Bear and the Nightingale, was an engrossing tribute to Russian fairy tales. Arden ups her game in this book, which was even better than the first. Vasya is now orphaned and cast out of her village, so she dresses as a boy and goes off adventuring on her mythical stallion. Along the way she meets up with her brother, her sister, an epic villain, and collides with her own fate and the expectations of everyone around her. Book three promises to be truly fantastic! VGR
The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker: This would be a fairly good post-apocalyptic thriller if the main character wasn’t a whiny man-child wanker. Meteorites have destroyed most of the world and killed off a huge percentage of the population. Ed managed to hole up in his basement with his wife and two young children, and when they are separated by hundreds of miles after being rescued, Ed’s only chance to reach them is to start running.
Terminal Alliance, by Jim C. Hines: Like all of Hines’s novels I’ve read, this is a funny, light-hearted SF/Fantasy that makes for a fast read. This new series, titled “Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse,” is a military SF starring a sanitation crew on an Earth Mercenary Corps spaceship. The human race was almost wiped out by a mutated plague that left the survivors in a feral state. A race of sentient aliens, the Krakau, has slowly and carefully been curing select humans and introducing them to the greater galaxy, putting them to work in their army (but never in positions of command). When a surprise attack kills the spaceship’s Krakau leaders and turns almost all the human crew back into ferals, Lieutenant Marion “Mops” Adamopoulus has to lead her team of janitors in a desperate attempt to fight off enemies and discover the truth behind the plague that crippled humanity.
The Librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe: This is a novel based on the real-life experiences of Czech teenager Dita Kraus, a prisoner and survivor of Auschwitz. Dita was put in charge of eight precious books in the family camp and protected them at great personal risk. The story is important, but the actual writing (or else the translation) was lacking. It almost read like a textbook, despite it being a work of fiction based on real events and people. There was no connection or emotion and I felt disappointed that the book didn’t knock this story out of the park. 5 stars for Dita and her amazing courage and determination to survive, 2 stars for the actual storytelling.