I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult Fiction novels lately. I sometimes find them a more satisfying read than adult fiction. So here’s what I’ve been reading.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. This is YA fiction/historical fiction and what a page turner. Set in Victorian-era New York (a refreshing change from Victorian London), it’s the story of Josephine Montfort, who is from a wealthy New York family and investigates the death of her father. There’s a bit of romance with a young reporter, Eddie Gallagher, who provides the tension: he comes from the street gangs of New York.

Very strong characterisation, with great character growth, although I did think the introduction of Eddie’s sister was unnecessary (the plot was strong enough). I was not keen on the voice of Grandma and found some of her utterances a bit silly (e.g. “Fine set of hips on that girl too. She’ll breed as easily as an Ayrshire heifer.”). An insane asylum also features in this book and I think Donnelly amped up the thrill level when Josephine’s uncle has her committed. Thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Thousandth Floor by Katherine McGee. YA dystopian fiction (although I’m not sure what the dystopian part was all about). I simply couldn’t finish it and found it pretty dull (I think I reached page 200 of 400+ pages).The futuristic setting had me intrigued: Manhattan 2118 and a thousand storey apartment complex. The book started off with the death of a young girl, as she falls from the roof of the complex. This was the only interesting part of the book for me.

I read that there are shades of Gossip Girl in this novel but I’ve never watched that TV series. I found it to be a pointless, slow-paced plot about rich kids living high up in the mega-tower (I really had to put aside any architectural worries about a thousand floors). The characters were flat and I didn’t care about any of them. Some were cliched: for example – Avery, rich, blonde hair, beautiful, genetically engineered. I also had a problem with Avery lusting after her own brother (albeit adopted). Just didn’t sit well with me.

This is McGee’s debut novel and I think this is the first book of some series. I was half-tempted to skip to the end and find out who was plastered all over the pavement and whodunnit, but….couldn’t be bothered.

My Name is Not Friday by Jon Walter. YA historical fiction. This is a book that had a slow start for me but rapidly picked up. Set in the Deep South during the American Civil War, it’s the story of a young orphan, 13-year-old Samuel, who is tricked into slavery. At first, I thought: yeah, heard this before but I think the strong voice of Samuel (whose slave name is Friday) created a very engaging character.

There was just enough accented speech of the time period to lend authenticity without being annoying. The story is told in the first person and you certainly become immersed in the narrative as Samuel works as a slave, then flees the oncoming Yankee soldiers. The scene where a black plantation manager is whipped by the white plantation owner’s wife is harrowing.

What I liked was the intimate glimpse into the relationship between slave and master. The young son of the plantation owner, Gerald, strikes up a friendship with Samuel and this I see as a vehicle for the author to drive the point home about equality.

There are any number of themes to ponder – the role of religion, colonialism, the meaning of family, loyalty and freedom – to name a few.

The author has an effortless writing style. After the darkness of the Civil War, I loved the final line in the book: “Some time soon I’ll stand in sunshine.’ I think this book should be required reading in high school History classes. It’s a story that will stay with you, that’s for sure.

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton. YA fiction/fantasy. You can see I’ve been reading a lot of YA books! This is the first book in a trilogy that Hamilton is writing and is a debut novel. I didn’t really like this book as I found it a very weird combination of gunslinging Wild West and Arabian desert folklore and magic with some X-Men references thrown in. I think it would have worked better if the Western references were ditched. I think the author’s world-building was strong enough to let the book be set in an Arabian setting.

It’s the story of a smart-talking, sharp-shooting 16-year-old girl, Amani Al’Hiza, who is determined to get out of her hometown called Dustwalk (I would too with a name like that). Hamilton paints an alternative universe and, since I’m not much of a fantasy genre reader, I found it a little difficult. There are creatures called Skinwalkers and the Demdjii (mythical horses).

Amani lives in a land occupied by a foreign ruler/Sultan and she meets up with Jin, who turns out to be the love interest and something else (won’t reveal in case you want to read the book).

Here are my issues: (1) writing style – the first half of the book employed an annoying over-use of similes and I found the wise-cracking Amani a bit too wise-cracking; (2) the strong world-building seems to die off in the second half of the book; and (3) the plot was entirely predictable. But I did hang in there to the end.

Sons of the Blood by Robyn Young. Historical fiction. This is Book 1 of the New World Rising series and I really enjoyed this book. It has a strong plot – set in 1483 during the War of the Roses, it’s the story of Jack Wynter, the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Vaughan. Jack is sent by his father to Spain with instructions to protect a secret document: a map. Following his father’s death, Jack returns to England and all hell breaks loose – rogue Catholic priests, mysterious organisations, people chasing around London for the map and a very interesting view on what happened to the Princes in the Tower (Edward and Richard).

A well-written book that never lost pace or focus. I’ll certainly read Book 2.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L.Stedman. What a stunning debut novel by an Australian author. The author is female and has done an outstanding job writing through the point of view of a male character. When I first read a synopsis of the plot, I thought how boring – set in 1926, WWI veteran, Tom Sherbourne who clearly has PTSD, is the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island off the Australian coast. His wife, Isabel, is desperate for a baby. So desperate that the couple make a decision that will affect their lives. Basically, it’s a story about bad things that happen to good people.

Ho-hum. But wait!! It’s such a beautifully written narrative; so poignant. The author excels at presenting the reader with a gut-wrenching moral dilemma. I think this book will resonant with Australian readers particularly – we understand the jargon, the Aussie language of the time period, the remoteness of parts of Australia, the weather and landscape.

Tom is a very believable character; Isabel not so much. There were times when I couldn’t quite believe that Tom would go along with Isabel; that his decision was so out of character for a WWI hero. But perhaps that is the point. I also thought there was a bit of awkward information dumping – scenes relating to the workings of a lighthouse.

I did see the ending coming. It was predictable but handled with great skill. I loved this book!

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’ve been helping the 15-year-old daughter of a friend of mine and homeschooling her three times a week. For her NCEA Level 1 English exam, I assigned her this classic book. In New Zealand, students can sit the exam and focus on whatever book they wish.

I think this is the fourth time I’ve read this outstanding book. I thought I knew it very well but discovered new things, thanks to our discussions in homeschool. For example: last year’s exam asked a question around symbolism and I hadn’t given this any thought before. The scene in the book where a rabid dog walks into the township is a symbol of the madness that Atticus Finch faces as he defends Tom Robinson.

We also watched the 1962 film together and the first comment was “this film is black and white”. So that was a great teaching point as well – why was the film shot in black and white?

If you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favour and get onto it.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope. A quiet, haunting book that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is the story of two mental patients, Irishman John and Ella, and it is a wonderful insight into the treatment of mental health in the Edwardian era. In the asylum is a ballroom and well-behaved patients can attend a dance there on Friday nights for social interaction and music therapy. John and Ella form a touching relationship that is threatened by Dr.Fuller, who provides the conflict in the novel. Fuller is fascinated with eugenics and struggles with his latent homosexuality – this creates a great character.

The author’s great-great grandfather was the inspiration for this novel – he was a patient in the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (in the UK) from 1905 until his death in 1918.

There are shades of Anthony Doerr in her writing – both describe the weather in breathtaking ways. I spotted the ending easily but I thought it was a fitting end. A very well-paced and well-written novel.

All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman. A Kiwi writer at the height of her talent. This book is 14 interconnected stories that follow the fortunes of a New Zealand family from the 1950s through to 2015.  It starts in the oppressive 1950s, when women were constrained by social and sexual mores of the time period. I wouldn’t say it’s a page-turner but you are invested in the characters, all related to the family matriarch, Irene Sandle. It is like watching a movie – 14 chapters that take you through 55 years of social and cultural history.

Being Australian, this was the interesting part for me – learning about the New Zealand of an earlier time period. Kidman also excels at creating vivid, in-depth characters that generate a reaction within the reader (either good or bad). I’m currently reading Kidman’s latest collection of poetry, This Change in the Light.

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