Spontaneous – Aaron Starmer

Best "best friends", Books Worth Crying Over, death, families, Female Leads, gay characters, love

Right when I think, “Where can YA books go next?  What will make a dystopia or a realistic fiction different?” I find my answer in Spontaneous: spontaneous combustion.

Yep, it’s just a normal day at high school when a student explodes in pre-calculus.  At first what seems an odd, freak accident causes everyone to pause and grieve for their loss when *kapow* (my words, not Starmer’s) another student explodes, splattering himself and blood all over classmates.  The FBI comes to investigate, but for Mara, she’d rather not try and figure out why this is happening, but wants to deny it – first with drugs, later with a boy named Dylan.  Through the year, an FBI investigation, a hashtag led night of vandalism, someone exploding in front of the [female] president, a brief reprise from spontaneous combustion, the senior class seems to survive with only the occasional explosion.  Mara’s focus on survival is set more on her best friend, Tess, and a new boyfriend, Dylan, who has a dangerous past. I’m not sure how teenagers exploding can still have a humorous tone, but this story does.  It also has a much deeper message behind the obvious plot.  From a recovering PTSD war verteran teacher to misfit teenagers finding common ground in their situation.  In the end differences are not what matter, but their common humanity does.

In a vulgar, ludicrous (often over-the-top with language or descriptions) storytelling, the heart of the story is exposed at the very end, on a prom night when the surviving senior class members all feel, and admit, they are to blame for the Covington Curse.  In reality, they are not, but isn’t that how teenagers internalize a problem?  By trying to explain both their role in an unfortunate experience and the reason why, they are lost and hurting. So while the premise is a bit over-the-top, the deep message of the story is as simple as it can be: love, loss, friendship, healing.  I’m not alone in praise, it’s in the works to be made into a movie.

In the end, I loved this for creativity and honesty with loss and coping mechanisms, even the unhealthy ones.  Self importance, grief, and anger are explained in a perfect teenage mind (Mara sometimes tries to trick the reader or asks us, taking a pause from the storyline, what we believe).  There are unanswered questions by the end, but Mara’s coping, growth, and hope at the end makes me happier than any answer.

Life is rough and we love, learn, grow.  People who like to read about a heartbreak and coping along the lines of Untwine, The Fault in Our Stars, and All the Bright Places, will find a sweet love story among best friends even among the bloody explosions.

“I am the same.  Through all this shit, I haven’t changed.  Not really. I love my parents.  I love my best friend.  I am capable of so much love.  Even if I am capable of so many other dark and strange feelings.  Maybe because of that fact.  I have thoughts.  I have opinions.  I have emotions that run the gamut.  They come on all of a sudden, and I will feel guilty about some of them, sure.  I will try to be better, of course.  But I can’t will it all away.  These things are me.” (page 347)

“I will do  more with the time I have but not because I’m afraid that the time I have is limited.  It may be a lot longer than I could ever expect, and I sure as hell don’t want to waste it brooding and worrying about my every little thought.” (page 351)

Final thoughts which leave me struggling about the book as whole for knowing your audience before recommending:

I’d be hesitant to recommend it to younger YA readers*.

The ending and last paragraph about sitting out the sunset made me cry.

A great book and a lesson how how to shape your overall outlook on life.

*I’m not a prude, but be wary of this one for language and a page and 1/2 sex scene.  Though I appreciate Starmer’s writing about safe sex with birth control and condom use, words typically avoided in YA books.


Court of Fives – Kate Elliott

Authors, Award Nominee, families, Favorites, Female Leads, Series

The intro is part Game of Thrones, Shakespeare, and mystery – sign me up!

Five sisters, one of which is Jessamy, a strong willed daughter who seeks adventure and freedom, are prim and proper born to a family rising in power and expected to behave as the highborn.  Since her father was born poor, but whose status has elevated due to his career and her mother is a commoner (who her father cannot marry!) the daughters are constantly insulted and considered commoner’s in their family’s new elevated status.  They are not the same as highborn, yet they are not commoners.  If this wasn’t challenging enough, Jessamy is a free spirit who wants to compete in the games of the Court of Fives.

The Fives is part gladiator games and part Ninja Warrior with alternating challenges of strength and flexibility.  The contestants can be anyone who can afford the entry fee and they are masked so identities are unknown.  Jessamy finds a way to enter, but she knows she must lose for winning would bring shame to her father and family – and they already have enough obstacles against them.  Once her secret is discovered, by a fellow highborn contender, her life gets even more complicated.   As Jessamy struggles with her want to compete, she must fight the urge of The Fives, but also with the want to see the boy she cannot.

When a death causes a life twist to Jessamy and her sisters, she both gets what she’s always wanted and also what she’s always feared – how does she choose between her dream and her personal freedom or her devotion to her family?

This is action, entertainment, character growth, and facing how allegiances made from the strangest of partners can be the strongest of partners [see, Shakespearean]. The writing is both old fashioned and beautiful, similarly as Jane Austen or other period pieces.  I have a new insult: “Your argument is a sieve that cannot hold water”

There are plenty of twists, dangers to overcome, but mostly Jess learns that decisions aren’t always clear and even after made, sometimes there was no choice at all, but an unfortunate ending to those who do not control their own lives.

Series continues with: Poisoned Blade and a 3rd untitled.

And We Stay – Jenny Hubbard

Award Nominee, death, Female Leads, Printz Award Nominee or Winner, Read-a-Likes, suicide

Jenny’s Junior Year of High School involves a transfer to a prestigious all-girl boarding school in Massachusetts.   The reason:  her ex-boyfriend showed up to her old high school, with a gun, and killed himself in the library.  OK, that sounded a bit like a game of Clue, but And We Stay is nothing to laugh at.  This Printz Award Nominee (2015) reminds me of Looking for Alaska by John Greene in that also has darker passages into the psyche of adolescents and forming self-identites.  While Alaska took us into the thoughts of the suicidal teen, And We Stay deals with the thoughts, questions, and anger of those left behind in possibly an accidental suicide.  Even that is a question – was Paul intending to kill himself or was it an accident?  There are no clear answers to this tragedy in Emily’s life.

An interesting element to the story is that it’s set in 1995, which is before school shootings began to be a common occurrence.  I wonder why she set it 20 years ago, but it will still appeal to teens now, but I am curious to the time chosen.

  • Notes to myself for the next article I’m doing for YALSA’s The Hub: this story brings up the shame and wanted secrecy of being left behind (or even the cause) of a suicide.  Also, touches on how people deal with death.  In I Was Here, the small town finds no surprise in Meg’s suicide using hindsight to process and understand that vibrate girl’s suicide.  In this story, while people try to find solace in religion and a higher power, Hubbard clearly (and honestly) offers an example of how people process grief – finding understanding through religion.  For Emily, however, that offers no peace or understanding – a fact I appreciate as many people face anger in the aftermath of a death and it is not only a respected stage of grief, but an honest human reaction to facing tragedy that one cannot understand initially, if ever.  The mind needs to process (not to mention the heart) …. in the aftermath of tragedy trying to process and cope are her challenges. Questioning faith and God

But Emily knows that God had nothing to do with it: it was her human error that caused Paul to end his life….As Reverend Wright prepared,with ancient Biblical words, to return Paul to the earth, Emily sent a letter to God….. Paul’s funeral was forty- six days ago.  She has not spoken to God since. (20)

Emily considers how girls’ brains are different and how she possibly could have saved Paul – an often guilt ridden thought left by those following a suicide.  Toward the end Emily has come to accept Paul’s death (time and a new environment surely helped) and developed a less angry tone to remembering Paul, “Emily knows she will always remember Paul, but she isn’t sure where it is he will stay.  She hopes he’ll stay in her head.  She will need room in her heart for other things, other people.”  This makes me rethink the title of And We Stay from focusing on the people left behind in a death to thinking those that die still stay in our hearts and minds.

An added bonus to Hubbard’s writing is the comparison and insight to Emily Dickinson’s life and poems – Dickinson is the namesake of the school.  But besides some enjoyment offered to our narrator Emily, the interest in poetry as a form of expression assists our Emily as she processes Paul’s death.  It also offers her a connection to Emily Dickinson while she’s hiding her past, shipped off from her family, and thrust into a new world – one that knows nothing about her and in which she feels alone.  We (the reader) are gifted with poems from both Emily Dickinson and Emily Beam – classics and originals, from Dickinson and Hubbard.  I especially liked the one with the take on the name/word Paul.  Hubbard is not only a great novelist, but also a nice poet.  This is a great story, covering two serious life events (death and an abortion), but it also covers the difficult process people go through in dealing with tragedy to heal and also develop deeper understanding to their own self-identity and how identities change and grow.


Defy – Sara B. Larson


It’s Aria Stark!

Well not really, but Alexa is disguised as a boy after her parents are killed by a sorcerer, village burned, and the army approaches the survivors. Marcel is her twin who quickly cuts off her curls and helps her create her new persona: Alex. (And can I mention how if the army had found Alexa as a girl she would have been sent to the “breeding house” – this book hits upon all of this within the first few pages)

Years later, Alex and Marcel are training as soldiers for Prince Damian. As rebels attack the palace, Alex(a) becomes Prince Damian’s nightly guard – an inconvenience for the female used to being able to dress less confining during the night.  Soon sorcerers return, our trio of main characters are kidnapped, and Alexa’s secret is out.  Sorcerers, secrets, and histories come out a little over half way through the book which left me wondering where this would go – so much so soon!  And the answer is: It went in a WONDERFUL direction.  This plot is more of an adult book so it’s definitely for the older teen (note: breeding houses, death, romance, and the fact that rape occurs in the breeding houses is mentioned numerous times).  Still, very brave and heroic characters, mysteries, and both good and bad sorcerers make characters rethink their belief of good and bad people in their society.

Definitely a “Girl Power” book.

Read more about the series from Sara B. Larson’s blog.

Series Continues: Ignite, Endure

The Red Queen – By Victoria Aveyard


Mare, no not like a horse, but like an impoverished teen living in a caste society, faces a bleak future with her life already mapped out: to go fight in a war when she turns 18.  In doing so she follows her brothers into a never-ending war.  The Reds are the poor who must do as the Silvers command.

Her world soon turns upside down when her family loses some financial security, her best friend loses his apprenticeship and faces going to war, and she meets a kind stranger who gets her a job in the Palace.  Soon Mare discovers more about a rebellion as well as a power she didn’t know she had.  Secret powers a’la The Young Elites .  The King and Queen are shocked and angered that a Red has powers, which they believed only Silvers were given – being the superior and more prestigious people.  They cannot lock up Mare or kill her as there were too many witnesses who saw “little lightening girl” and Mare ‘s ability to control electricity.  Instead, they create a new backstory for her and engage her to their younger son Mason.

Mare begins living the lie knowing one mistake will be her death.  Living among her enemies, she finds a few friends who do not trust the King and Queen or the decades long war the Silvers force the Reds to fight.  As a rebellion begins, Mare understands more of her power, and friends and foes take on new roles, she must decide how far she is willing to go for the good of her people or her own safety.

This has the personal drama of Game of Thrones (with less of the political storylines, and adult content of course) and is more dark than The Selection, but fans of both would enjoy this for some of the wicked characters.

Sequel: Glass Sword (and she is working on a third)

Sweet – Emmy Laybourne

Action, death, Favorites, Female Leads

Celebrities and overweight people are on a cruise with a special, new, dietary aid.  Solu is a sweetener to put on your food, in coffee, or cook with, and it will help people lose weight – or at least that is the stipulation for this expensive PR 24/7 event.  Its introduction is a week long cruise, with press, celebrities, and average people (well, those that can afford it) being televised over satellite before Solu is released to the public 7 days later.

The story has dual narrators – Laurel who is along with her best friend.  Both girls are slightly overweight and while Laurel is not there to lose weight her best friend Viv is.  Viv’s dad paid for the girls to go on this cruise hosted by Tom, our second narrator.  Tom is a reality star who is famous for his years of being overweight child Tom-Tom to a televised audience.  Now in shape, Tom doesn’t care to take Solu and neither does Laurel.  The foreshadowing that they will not only witness the effects of Solu, but then have to try and survive isolated on this ship is clear, but just like Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne keeps on delivering twists to the plot and crazy gruesome details of injuries and death.  I love her books, but I do recommend them with caution and often only to older readers.

I can’t give much more detail to the story itself without giving a lot away.  There’s a love connection, a corrupt scientist, and a whole lot of addicts who being to resemble zombies or brainwashed people losing all inhibitions and fear.  Parts seem to be more zombie-esque than survivalist, but it’s full of action –  and funny at times even when people are going crazy, which is a pretty impressive balance to pull off.

The Living – Matt de la Pena



Shy is a Mexican-American teenage boy working on a 5-star cruise ship for the summer.  He has a great group of coworkers who are friends with the appropriate amount of teenage teasing, but nothing too mean – which a lot of YA books don’t balance as well.  One night early into his voyage, a man confesses strange things to Shy and climbs overboard the highest deck, ultimately letting go and committing suicide.

If this weren’t enough to weigh on a young adult’s mind, soon someone appears asking questions about Shy and what this man discussed on the deck with him before jumping.  Right as the story takes a turn focused on a Pharmaceutical company conspiracy focused around a deadly illness, the cruise line is informed of a massive earthquake that hit California.  The weather begins to worsen and soon a tsunami hits the ship.  Action ensues with our favorite ship employees and a few passengers – the good and the bad – and soon the ship is sinking.  There is a lot of action from the first wave through Shy’s 8 days at sea: people are found, people die, sharks attack, water runs out, and hope is lost.  Besides the great action of this book, and there is plenty, there is a more mature subplot on class, opportunities given (or abused) based on class, and even when characters realize the injustices of the world – not including the bad luck of being aboard a sinking ship – there are moments of kindness, understanding, empathy, and simply learning that stereotypes are not always truthful.

Obviously Shy doesn’t die on the lifeboat – or there would be no book, and certainly not a sequel – but I can’t really continue without giving away the plot.  So know that if you can handle some very detailed chapters about a ship sinking, shark attacks, and life trying to survive on a lifeboat you will be able to make it through the scariest parts of this story to the much deeper conspiracy.  There are some great side characters and action.

A book most boys will like, mostly action and less romance since it’s a male narrator, but be warned – there is a good amount of cussing. Still, the plot (and one certain character) have sparked enough of an interest, and I feel devoted to Shy after surviving with him, that I will continue with the story.

“. . . adventure survival enthusiasts will relish the vivid and raw descriptions of the sinking ship, blistering sun, and shark-infested waters. But most appealing is the empathetic teen, portrayed as a tough guy with a romantic side, who will appeal to both males and females . . . ” — School Library Journal

“Peña takes the time to establish some solid rapport among his characters before unleashing the mayhem, though, and the central disease and drug scam is so viciously immoral that readers will probably book passage on the upcoming sequel, to learn whether Shy and his two smokin’-hot love interests will bring the bad guys to their knees.” — The Bulletin

Sequel – The Hunted (already out)

The Young Elites – Marie Lu



We begin with the pending execution of 16 year old Adelina.  Sounds promising right – in a dystopian, Shakespearean, Europe a ‘la 1400s and torture….sadly, this story fizzled for me.

After an illness, there’s a small group of Malfettos who have grotesque scars, but amazing powers. The Reaper, Magiano, The Wind Walker, and The Alchemist are The Young Elites.  They are fighting for survival against the Inquisitor.  Of course Adelina is rescued by them and in an X-men sort of way, learns about this group of Elites and learns about her personal powers.  Together – they fight injustice, try to help the innocent….. wait, I’ve been watching too much of the Avengers.  But they form a group surrounded by the Royal Malfetto-inflicted Prince Enzo (see why it’s Shakespearean?)

With guilt of her dead mother and abandoned sister, Adelina doesn’t know whether she should trust the world she finds herself or should run on her own.  She begins training with the Young Elites, but soon after she feels secure in her new surroundings,  something must shake that up.  In this case, it’s the Queen’s evil (self-hating Malfetto) Teren who has kidnapped Adelina’s sister and is holding her hostage.  Only Adelina’s divulging secrets of the Young Elites will save her sister.

This was a mix of Mortal Instruments and Game of Thrones to me, maybe that’s why I couldn’t get totally into it.  I kept visualizing the Queen as Cersei and Adelina as Clary, but neither female is as strong as the woman each reminded me of.   The story line finally picks up when Adelina is no longer able to keep both sides thinking she is true to them and thankfully, action begins.  I’m not surprised it needs to be a series since it began so slowly.  Truth be told, I wasn’t impressed with the Legend series either so maybe Marie Lu and I just aren’t meant to have an author-reader relationship.

Still, the teens will dig it, especially those that liked Mortal Instruments and that like tales of Royalty with a little Shakespearean murder.

Steelheart (Reckoners #1) – Brandon Sanderson



It’s not often I am into a book within minutes….. this is one of them.  Popular with some of my students – the preteen boys especially – I felt it was time to try and I’m glad I did.

Think magic transformers who have the strength of superheroes taking over mankind and destroying the world as they (the Epics) fight among themselves for the most power.   Epics do not care much for humans and have quickly become stronger than any government or the military.  David, our narrator, has been studying Epics for 10 years ever since his dad was killed by Steelheart, the strongest of the Epics who runs the city, the newly steel heavy Chicago.

David finds the Reckoners, the squad of humans who hunt the Epics.  This has been his other goal for the last ten years: To join the Reckoners and kill Steelheart.  The ultimate revenge.

As David trains and shares his research with the Reckoners, he realizes fighting the Epics will be more difficult than he imagined.  Yet, he has a skill for the technological tools “Prof” shows him, he seems to have a quick instinct that saves them on numerous occasions, and he develops a hard crush on Megan.

This is a great  story – very action heavy, very futuristic, and very appropriate for preteens seeking some adventure without a lot of romance.

I will continue.  The Sequel: The Reckoners.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

diversity in YA, Favorites, love, Middle Grade Romance, Read-a-Likes, Safe Bets, Young Readers


A story of sisters, crushes, mean girls, and first loves.  Yes, plural.

When Lara Jean’s secret love letters to all of her crushes (5) are mailed suddenly and accidentally, her love life is all too public.

A week shy of her older sister going to college in Scotland, Lara Jean, who doesn’t like change, realizes her life is about to change drastically.   Their mother died six years ago and Margot, the eldest, has kept the family organized and running.  Besides losing her sister to the Scots, she has lost a dear family friend (and her first crush) Josh when Margot breaks up with him.

Of course all the letters get out and all the recipients come looking for answers.  Lara Jean must explain and hide her true feelings for Josh.  It’s awkward and embarrassing, and totally funny when she and one of her recipients decide to “fake date” so she can save face and he can make his ex-girlfriend jealous.

As the story continues, Lara Jean gets a bit braver and honest with her relationships – with Peter, Josh, and her sisters.  Of course it can’t stay light and funny forever.  Soon Margo returns home and there’s a distance between the sisters from her time away.  A school trip brings a mean rumor and a post-Christmas party of carols and cookies ends up with everything publicly announced.  Kitty, the funny wise-beyond-her-years little sister gets her puppy though. Lara Jean realizes how her boy crushes through the years were all fantasy and that love is messy.

“Love is scary: it changes; it can go away.  That’s part of the risk.” and that’s a lesson everyone should learn.

A cute book.  Sequel: P.S. I Still Love You.  (yes, I’ll probably read it)