Rachel Swirsky’s Young Adult and Middle Grade Novel (Norton) Recommendations, 2014

In order to create this list, I read sixteen young adult books. That's not very many, but I knew this wouldn't be a very comprehensive list. Four more books were on my list as things I wanted to read. There is some vague possibility I might get to them and, if I do, I may review them separately.

I primarily gathered the list of books I read by asking trusted readers — people whose opinions I hold in high esteem, such as some of this year's Norton jurists, and my friends who are young adult authors. Most other years I would have asked authors whose young adult novels I like to let me know if they had published anything I missed; this year, I didn't. I also looked at recommendations that passed through the SFWA list for YA/MG authors, both by people discussing books they enjoyed and people discussing books they had written; I didn't end up picking up all of these.

At my request, two authors sent me electronic copies of their books, but I have been unable to read either at this point due to my recent loss of internet access. My apologies to both of those authors and to their publishers; I will read them for the Hugo best novel, although I know young adult doesn't always get a fair shake there.

While I didn't read very widely this year, I did find a *really high* density of books that I liked a lot. I turned up two books that I marked as "average" (3 stars) and one that I didn't finish reading (it was the second or third in a series that I hadn't been especially fond of to begin with). Everything else I marked as "interesting" (3.5) or above. I'm pretty sure there was a higher number of books that I rated 4.5 and 5 than I ran into last year.

BOOKS DEFINITELY ON MY BALLOT:

THE SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Young adult: In future Brazil, a teenage street artist learns about the politics of her city as she falls in love with the summer prince who will be ritually killed at the end of the season.

I had a little bit of trouble with this at first because I was listening to it in audio and it took me a while to adjust to the narrator (who did a lovely job, but I still had to adjust to her). However, the story is beautiful, remarkably lush and sensory, evoking a strong sense of what it's like growing up. The science fiction elements are wonderful. The story moves in fluid and unexpected ways and balances wonder and confusion and growing awareness and all those other attributes of adolescence beautifully.

17 & GONE by Nova Ren Suma

Young adult: If this book is nominated for the Norton, the first debate will likely be whether or not it's actually genre. I resort to my general opinion in cases like this: who cares?

Seventeen-year-old Lauren discovers the MISSING poster for Abby Sinclair who went missing from the site of a summer camp near where Lauren lives. She begins to be haunted by Abby, and later the ghosts of other girls who went missing at age seventeen.

This is one of the most effective ghost stories I've ever read, slowly and beautifully building its mood through setting and deep immersion in the main character's point of view. It does a beautiful job of exploring the fragility of being seventeen, right on the boundary between adolescence and adulthood; in this story, that boundary marks radical and potentially fatal change. It explores the terrible mundanity of violence against girls without dropping into any easy or trivializing narratives.

BOOKS POSSIBLY ON MY BALLOT:

ZOMBIE BASEBALL BEATDOWN by Paolo Bacigalupi

Middle grade: Three best friends make their way through the zombie apocalypse.

A fun and action-oriented adventure, amusingly laced with Bacigalupi's politics. I gave this to my nephew and it was as well-received as I expected it to be.

THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black

Young adult: A teenage girl wakes up at a party and discovers that everyone else has been murdered by vampires. Exploring, she finds her ex-boyfriend has survived but been exposed to vampiricism. A strange vampire helps save their lives, and in return they try to save his, while trying to figure out how to make it through the next few months without being killed by other vampires, turning into vampires, or being endangered by vampire-phobic human society.

CONJURED by Sarah Beth Durst

Young adult: A teenage girl in witness protection has both amnesia and magical powers. Relocated to a small town, she tries to figure out the meaning of both.

Immediately interesting. Vivid imagery. Although I tend to find amnesia plotlines annoying, this one really worked for me. I liked the development of the mystery, and how many strange possibilities seemed feasible as the text continued. Kept turning and twisting in ways I didn't expect, all of them interesting, although there were a few moments in the last third that didn't quite work for me.

SEPTEMBER GIRLS by Bennett Madison

Young adult: A teenage boy visits the beach where he discovers "The Girls," strangely beautiful blonde women whose surreal appearances and behavior suggest that they are otherworldly.

Very beautiful and detailed, with strange and poetic interstitial passages. I thought at first that the "unreachable, unattainable, mystical girls ARE ACTUALLY MAGIC" thing would annoy me, but the novel manages to overturn those tropes, endowing the characters with individuality and motivations. The surrealism works with the piece rather than against it and develops unusual and emotional content with a lot of metaphorical resonance for exploring adolescence and emotional boundaries. Lots of vivid, striking details. I got a bit sick of the casual misogynist chat between male characters, although that's not an indication that it shouldn't have been there or wasn't well done; I just had a personal pet peeve about it after a while. Beautiful, beautiful writing.

BOOKS I RECOMMEND:

GHOULISH SONG by Will Alexander

Middle grade: When a little girl becomes detached from her shadow, her family and community conclude that she is dead, and send her away.

There were moments when I felt that this novel wasn't tied together as well as it could have been, but it worked quite well for me when considered as a series of vivid and strange images. (There is totally a plot; it just seems sometimes as if the main character is being blown through it. I don't think it would bother me if I could turn off writer-brain which is not always helpful as a reading tool.) There are some really beautiful and odd moments about bones and music, and the vaguely disturbing magical imagery in this book (and Will's first book) reminds me a bit of Miyazaki.

DOLL BONES by Holly Black

Middle grade: Three young children discover that a doll who featured in their games contains the ashes of a dead little girl.

Another really interesting haunting story. Definitely the best "creepy doll" story I remember reading. The haunting and related details are well-developed (and I had no idea that bone porcelain had bones in it!), but the particularly interesting thing for me was the development of the main character. I thought it had an interesting perspective on masculinity, and on that moment growing up when "playing pretend" is no longer permitted or easy, which I have to confess drove me nuts as a kid.

MIRAGE by Jenn Reese

Middle grade: The second book in the series that began with ABOVE WORLD which was on last year's Norton ballot.

In this world, many parts of humanity have split off into groups genetically engineered to survive in different environments, such as mermaid-type people, harpy-type people, etc. As part of their epic adventure to oppose the man trying to take over the world, the young protagonists (two mermaids who don't yet have tails, a harpy, and a centaur born with a genetic abnormality that made him express as only human) journey to the desert where they try to recruit the society of genetically enhanced centaurs to their side. Two things stand in their way: 1) the centaurs have already been recruited by the other side, and 2) the centaur-boy who travels with them has been sentenced to death if he ever returns.

This is a lot of fun, with neat world-building details and particularly cool fight scenes.

THE WAKING DARK by Robin Wasserman

Young adult: The novel follows the stories of several teenagers who all live in the small town of Oleander. On a strange day in Oleander, five people went mad and murdered every living person they could find, killing themselves afterward. Four of the protagonists are the survivors. The fifth is one of the murderers who lived.

This is a very dark and unforgiving novel. I loved the way that its rotating points of view were created with such detailed precision, the lives of each teenager, and the town as a whole, feel exceedingly well-realized. I thought that, perhaps, it was longer than it needed to be.

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2 Responses to Rachel Swirsky’s Young Adult and Middle Grade Novel (Norton) Recommendations, 2014

  1. 1
    Fibi says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post. Over the last few years I have enjoyed finding your stories on Amazon as well as reading a few of your suggestions from similar posts. For example, last year you recommended an excellent novel, Vessel.

    Given that I have already read the Summer Prince (and second your recommendation) I think its time to go download 17 and Gone.

  2. 2
    Mandolin says:

    It’s a really gorgeous book. I hope you like it!