Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: contemporary ya (page 2 of 5)

Review: Stay With Me – Paul Griffin

Stay With Me book coverThree Things I Liked About Stay With Me

(1) There is an extremely strong use of voice throughout Stay With Me. Griffin does a great job of differentiating between his two protagonists through the way they tell their stories. The reader is unlikely to become confused about who is speaking, because the two voices are very different.

(2) The character of Vic is fantastic. His unwavering belief in the people around him is extremely important to making this book readable, despite the overwhelming negativity of the situations described in it.

(3) The dogs in Stay With Me are obviously written about by someone who knows and loves dogs. There is a strong and obvious parallel formed between them and Mack, and this is cleverly done, inserting a little hope where it is most needed.

Four Things I Disliked About Stay With Me

(1) I found that the age of the characters detracted from my enjoyment of the story. I didn’t think that either character really felt fifteen in terms of the way they interacted with the world and each other. The stakes in their romance were reduced by their ages; relationships between fifteen year olds rarely last, so it felt like the events of the book only hastened the eventual outcome.

(2) I was a little concerned by just how blasé the book was about underage sex. There was the sense that it is expected and right for fifteen-year-olds to rush into sexual relationships. Obviously this is something that happens, so I’m not questioning the realism, but rather the way it was presented as being inevitable.

(3) Stay With Me is mostly shade without many touches of light. Everyone in this book has bad things happen to them – even the dogs. I think that realism in fiction is fantastic, but I also think that things can reach the point where tragedy and bad life situations are heaped on top of each other to force emotional reactions that the reader wouldn’t otherwise have had.

(4) On a very personal note, I struggled with reading about the many abused dogs referred to in the story. I think that Mack’s relationship with the rescue dogs he trains is the most positive, powerful thing about Stay With Me, but the backgrounds of these dogs and their resilience to human cruelty was the element that made me come very close to stopping reading this novel, due to my own sensitivity to such things.

(Warning: Contains a lot of discussion of animal abuse and an animal death, violence and underaged sex.)

Review: Never Have I Ever – Sara Shepard

Never Have I Ever book coverWith Never Have I Ever, her second instalment in her The Lying Game series, Sara Shepard keeps the positives of the first book and cuts many of the negatives, leaving us with a better book overall. While I enjoyed The Lying Game, its sequel really drew me in and I think I’d now have to call myself a fan of the series.

All of the characters from the first book return for the second, but the big difference here is that the Twitter Twins, Lili and Gabby, play a much bigger role. Initially very annoying, they slowly become more likeable as the novel progresses, much as Laurel and Madeline continue to develop and become more-rounded characters. (Charlotte, in contrast, seems to slip into the background.) Most of all, however, Sutton seems to come into her own in Never Have I Ever. With the back-story out of the way, her strong voice is able to take over, so we find her cheering Emma on and groaning at her mistakes and truly feeling like a real character. Although it’s interesting to see Emma becoming a little more like her twin as the series progresses, it’s Sutton who seems to have the most room for character growth.

Once again, the mystery is at the forefront of the novel, and much of the plot is concerned with the identification of new suspects, along with a few new threatening situations that Emma finds herself in. While there’s certainly a formula to these books, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to watch it play out, even if we do work out the truth long before Emma and Sutton do! Shepard manages to keep the suspense high throughout the novel, which makes this a page turner and a surprisingly quick read.

My only real criticism of Never Have I Ever is that there were a couple of inconsistencies with the continuity. For instance, Emma uses Sutton’s iPhone at a point where it was still confiscated by her parents and, towards the end of the book, Sutton looks at Emma despite earlier stating that she can only see the world through Emma’s eyes. While such mistakes tend to draw the reader out of the action temporarily, however, they don’t detract from one’s overall enjoyment of the book.

Never Have I Ever was a lot of fun and its mystery well and truly has me hooked by this point. I’m definitely looking forward to reading Two Truths and a Lie.

Review: Anna and the French Kiss – Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss coverPeople have been raving about Anna and the French Kiss for as long as I’ve been book blogging. As a great lover of contemporary young adult romance, my interest was obviously piqued, but I didn’t rush to get my hands on a copy because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my inflated expectations. I need not have been concerned. Anna and the French Kiss is just as wonderful as everyone says it is.

The thing with contemporary romance is that it’s a genre where it is particularly obvious that there are only so many stories to be told. The key to a good novel, therefore, is not in the level of originality so much as it is in doing things well and with heart. And Anna and the French Kiss definitely has heart.

Anna makes for an extremely likeable protagonist. While she is beautiful (of course), she is not perfect. In fact, she learns a few important lessons about herself as the novel reaches its climax. She makes mistakes, but once she realises this, she works to put them right, which is the thing that matters. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Anna is passionate about something other than Étienne – film – and that her plans to study it remain firm despite her feelings for him.

Étienne himself is basically constructed by Stephanie Perkins to steal the hearts of a good number of her readers. He is thoroughly charming and always quick to defend and support Anna. There is the clichéd American fetishisation of a British accent, which I always roll my eyes at, but luckily Étienne has more to him than an accent and floppy hair. I liked the fact that he is short and that the trials in his life actually have an effect upon his behaviour.

Both the friendship and romantic tension between Anna and Étienne feel very real. Sometimes, romance can feel forced, but that is definitely not the case here. More importantly, neither Anna, nor Étienne, are forced to alter who they are in order to work together. My only concern with the relationship is the fact that, as charming as he may be, Étienne does not really strike me as a good long term relationship prospect. You wouldn’t catch me placing too much trust in sometime with such a history of extreme emotional cheating!

As a brief aside, I often struggle with books with an ‘American Goes Abroad’ focus, simply due to how the other culture is so often described in a patronising manner. This is absolutely not the case in Anna and the French Kiss, which I found very pleasing. In fact, any negativity is directed towards America itself – so perhaps the awkward feeling for non-American readers will be replaced by one for Americans!

Anna and the French Kiss is a warm and enjoyable novel, with characters that are easy to like and an overarching will-they-won’t-they plot thread that is very appealing. Stephanie Perkins deserves the praise that this novel has received and I very much look forward to reading the companion books.

Review: Forgotten – Cat Patrick

Forgotten book coverForgotten is based around a paranormal premise – that protagonist London can only remember forwards, instead of backwards like normal people – but nonetheless reads a lot more like contemporary fiction a lot of the time. London’s memory issues are always central, but there’s also a strong focus on family, romance and the mystery surrounding why London is the way she is.

With a protagonist who cannot remember anything about her past, Forgotten could have easily felt a little distancing, but Cat Patrick made the clever decision to keep London’s personality strong and constant, despite her needing to rely upon notes to feel her way in the world. I would have liked it if London had a few more people around her from her age group, as her complete reliance upon Luke for peer interaction isn’t very healthy, but I do understand that her condition would naturally make it hard for her to maintain many friendships. London is confident, interesting and empathetic – its just a pity she succumbs to Bad YA Name syndrome. London Lane? Oh dear.

Although I’d have liked to see London possess a few more friends, there’s no denying the fact that Patrick has written an extremely likeable love interest in Luke. He’s extremely supportive of London in all of her ventures (and moods!) and seems not to mind the quirks that stem from her memory issues. He’s definitely right up there on the list of non-creepy YA boyfriends. If only that list were a lot longer!

The most important and interesting thing about Forgotten, of course, is the novel’s premise. Patrick has both come up with a great concept and managed to maintain it in a reasonably believable manner, despite the logistical nightmares involved in working out how to allow London to function near-normally in the world. I like that some aspects of London’s abilities are left a little undefined, so that the reader is able to decide for themselves whether things are exactly as London believes them to be.

Towards the end of the novel, things start to be revealed at an increasingly rapid pace, which meant that I was left feeling a little like I could have done with an additional fifty pages worth of book! Some of these revelations were better signposted and supported than others, emphasising the abruptness of the conclusion. Certainly, there is a lot of room here for a sequel, although the absolute ending of Forgotten works well and the book exists comfortably as a stand-alone offering.

Forgotten has a great premise and an interesting mystery and should appeal to paranormal and contemporary fans alike.

Review: The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain – Cath Crowley

The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain book coverAfter feeling a little disappointed by Graffiti Moon, I was pleased to spot The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain in my local library, because I had enjoyed Cath Crowley’s style while not really appreciating the subject matter of Graffiti Moon as much as I could. Luckily, The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain is far more my sort of book, combining as it does my favoured realistic YA subjects of friendship, family and a smidge of romance with a sport-based plot.

The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain is a lot shorter than it looks, due to Crowley’s interesting use of extremely short chapters at times. The novel is told from the first person perspectives of most of the characters mentioned in it, including Gracie’s parents. Usually, this is a fun way of exploring the plot from multiple viewpoints, but it does feel a little jarring when the characters respond to what other characters have written as this only happens a couple of times with the characters mostly remaining unaware of what other people are thinking about a situation.

Crowley’s use of so many perspectives allows her to include my favourite aspect of this novel – Gracie’s parents’ thoughts on her and their relationship with each other and as a family. It’s an insight that is so rarely found in books for younger readers and while there’s a possibility that a section of Crowley’s audience will be uninterested in what it reveals, I actually thought that it was great for a book to talk about the feelings behind family break-ups, rather than just the feelings experienced by children once they occur. We’re still shown Gracie’s intense pain at what’s going on in her family (and her denial of it and how these feelings influence her on-field performance), but the book goes beyond that, making it better. Similarly, conflicting accounts of events through Gracie’s and Annabelle’s eyes show that Gracie isn’t always an infallible narrator when it comes to her behaviour.

Because Gracie is flawed – very much so. The way she plays soccer for the majority of the book will grate for any player or lover of team sports. She’s completely caught up in her own struggles and her own feelings and due to this she sometimes ends up treating the people around her very poorly. At no sense do you feel like she’s not a good person, but at some points she is very frustrating! She grows as the book continues, however, which is just what a protagonist should do.

I very much enjoyed The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain and was glad I gave Cath Crowley’s work another chance. I’ll definitely look up more of her books.

Review: Erebos – Ursula Poznanski

Erebos coverI’ve been keen to read Erebos since first hearing about it at the Publishers’ Showcase at the State Library late last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy. I had rather high expectations for the novel, given that a young adult thriller centred around a computer game seemed right up my alley. Luckily, my expectations were met and possibly even exceeded.

There are a lot of things that make me feel like playing video games, but reading isn’t usually one of them. Until now. With Erebos, Ursula Poznanski has created a real page-turner of a thriller where, along with the strong urge to continue reading, there is also a temptation to put down the novel in order to play a game yourself. The gameplay inside the novel is so well described, however, that it feels a lot like watching a friend play, which takes care of the cravings while the reader devours the book!

On the most basic level, Erebos is a book about a computer game. In fact, a good amount of the text is devoted to describing Nick’s in-game journey as Sarius. These sections are written in the present tense, as opposed to the rest of the book, which employs the past tense. In addition, they are told from the perspective of Sarius, rather than Nick, which further distances them from the rest of the text, allowing the reader to become immersed in the game itself.

As a protagonist, Nick grows on the reader as the book progresses. At first, he seems a little whiny and rather foolish, and he, like many of the novel’s characters, is negatively affected by the game’s addictive quality. He is not without growth, however, and by the end of the book he has becoming a likeable character, due in part to the influence of Emily and Victor, as well as his own experiences with the game.

Initially, I found Emily a little flat as a character, but she is fleshed out more as Nick has further contact with her, and she ends up being one of the strongest characters in Erebos. In contrast, I struggled a little with the characterisation of Brynne. We are told that she is not likeable, but never really shown it, so Nick’s constant negativity towards her and callous dismissal of her obvious feelings for him can feel very uncomfortable at times.

Really, though, the key supporting character in Erebos is the game itself. Poznanski has created a game that reads very much like the roleplaying games that will be familiar to so many readers and has then infused it with a deeply sinister element that gives the novel its edge. The escalating real life tasks asked of the game’s players are cleverly constructed and the portrayal of addiction is very well done. I think Poznanski did an excellent job of explaining why a group of teenagers could find themselves so deeply embroiled in circumstances they never would have considered before playing the game.

I personally loved Erebos. It is a well-paced thriller and an interesting exploration of human nature. It is also a book about gaming, and it was the combination of these two elements that made me enjoy it so much. I do wonder whether it would hold so great an appeal to readers who are not familiar with (or who are unimpressed by) the world of video games. I can imagine that the in-game sequences, at the very least, may be a lot less enjoyable.

Beyond this limitation, however, I think that Erebos should have a very wide appeal. Although it is marketed as a young adult novel and most of the characters are teens, I think that it would be equally suited to adult readers. It is an exciting and clever novel that well deserves the amazing sales that it has achieved in Europe.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: In Ecstasy – Kate McCaffrey

In Ecstasy book coverThe trouble with books about the Big Issues is that they often descend very quickly into lecturing and moralising, especially when they’re aimed at a youth market. With In Ecstasy, Kate McCaffrey does a great job of avoiding that route and thus ensures that her novel will be enjoyed by the young readers it’s aimed at as well as the adults who judged it winner of the Australian Family Therapists’ Book Award in 2009.

As a book about the dangers of drug use, In Ecstasy pulls few punches and represents the world of addiction in a way that bears many similarities to the personal accounts of those whom I’ve spoken to about their own experiences of heavy drug use as a teenager. Because of its realism, this is a darker book than many people would be comfortable reading. Sexual assault occurs more than once and, while the description is not graphic, the incidences are dealt with in such a manner that they could still prove very triggering to some readers.

The novel is presented from the perspective of two best friends, Sophie and Mia, with alternating first person chapters that employ two different fonts in the edition I read. At first, it’s easier to identify with Mia, because Sophie seems so perfect and self assured, but as the book progresses, the reader learns that Sophie has her troubles and her faults as well. At the same time, Mia becomes increasingly consumed by her drug use, which can’t help but erode some of the sympathy she had formerly gained. As the drugs take over, her behaviour becomes more and more selfish and she herself becomes less and less likeable, which I think is actually one of the strongest aspects of the novel. McCaffrey shows how drugs turn an average teenage girl, whom young readers will easily identify with, into someone who steals and deeply hurts her family and friends. Most of all, however, Mia hurts herself and it is her self-loathing and self-destruction that are especially painful to read about.

In Ecstasy is a strong novel with an obvious message that doesn’t overwhelm the story it tells. Due to the dark nature of much of its content, I would recommend it to older readers.

Review: The Unwritten Rule – Elizabeth Scott

unwrittenruleSarah has liked Ryan for years. The trouble is, Ryan is now dating her best friend, Brianna. Sarah knows that crushing on your best friend’s boyfriend is breaking one of the biggest unwritten rules of friendship but, the more time she spends with Ryan and Brianna, the more she realises that she doesn’t want to back away, even though she knows she should.

The Unwritten Rule does a very good job of capturing the kinds of emotions involved in having a crush on someone you’re not meant to like and I think that Elizabeth Scott did a good job of making her characters realistic when it comes to being too afraid to communicate due to inexperience and fear. Even more so, Brianna is just spot-on as a study of a teenage girl whose behaviour is entirely influenced by her unhappy home life. I think a lot of readers will dislike her greatly, but I personally found her a very sympathetic character, despite her self-centred behaviour.

I think my greatest difficulty with The Unwritten Rule was the fact that I just don’t like infidelity in any form. Scott puts a lot of effort into making it almost seem excusable here, by making both partners cheaters and by emphasising the fact that Brianna isn’t an entirely wonderful friend to Sarah but, in a way, that just made me more uncomfortable with the subject matter. There is always the feeling that what Sarah and Ryan are doing is wrong, but it seems to be portrayed as a justifiable wrong, and that just doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think it’s okay to cheat, just because your partner isn’t as perfect for you as someone else is and I don’t think it’s okay to betray a friend because she cares more about herself than about you. So I don’t think I’m really the intended audience for this book!

All that said, I enjoyed how the novel was written and found Scott’s style extremely fluid. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to readers who aren’t quite as put-off by infidelity and betrayal as I am, because I think it’s a well-constructed book with a lot going for it. As it was, I read most of it in one sitting, and will definitely look out for more of Elizabeth Scott’s books in the future.

Review: Graffiti Moon – Cath Crowley

graffitimoonLucy feels certain that Shadow is the right boy for her. The trouble is, she has no idea who he is, just that his graffiti art resonates with her in a way that few things manage to do. On the final night of year twelve, she sets out with her friends and Ed, the boy whose nose she broke in year ten, to search Shadow’s haunts in the hope of finding him and possibly more.

The trouble with hype is that I can’t help but be influenced by it when I pick up a book. Anyone who is at least marginally involved with young adult fiction couldn’t help but hear at least a little about Graffiti Moon last year, given that it seemed to win pretty much every award going, along with the adoration of readers worldwide. Knowing that the novel had such an incredible resume meant that I went into reading it expecting something mindblowingly amazing. And the trouble with that kind of expectation is that it’s hard for any book to live up to it.

Graffiti Moon is very well written, combining poetic prose with realistic dialogue in a way that works far more than it rightfully should. It focuses on teens with realistic backgrounds and personalities, although the ratio of sensitive, arty criminals is significantly higher than it probably is among real life teenagers. It shows character growth and provides a hint of romance without succumbing to the soulmates-at-first-sight mentality that is so common today. It’s a very solid book.

I didn’t love it, though. And that’s the problem with hype. Instead of being pleased to have read a good, enjoyable book, I feel disappointed that it didn’t change my world. I want to focus on the fact that the comedy of errors plot grew a little tired towards the end, when I just wanted Lucy to realise, or on the fact that the voices of the two key protagonists didn’t read as distinctly as I would have liked. And I don’t think that’s fair to Cath Crowley, because there are good reasons why Graffiti Moon has been as successful as it has. It’s just that it wasn’t really for me, and that’s okay. A lot of books aren’t.

Review: Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance – Emily Franklin & Brendan Halpin

Charlie and Aaron play girlfriend and boyfriend on a top family television program. In order to boost the show’s popularity, they also pretend to be in love in real life, an act that can be difficult to maintain when they annoy each other so very much. But then their cover is blown, their career is on the rocks and the two teen stars are forced to weather a frantic media storm without the old roles to depend upon.

Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance is a light read with three distinct parts. The first section concentrates upon Charlie and Aaron’s life as teen megastars, the middle focusses on their time hiding out together following the outing of their fake romance and the ending is set at a Shakespeare festival, where they have been cast as Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. The difficulty with this is that each section felt quite distinct and I had mixed feelings about the book as a whole. The first part was fun, the second part dragged a bit and the final section was far more my kind of thing. There’s still a focus on the relationship between Charlie and Aaron (after all, this is a romance), but there’s a strong coming-of-age element as well, and the two protagonists are allowed some real character development, which was lacking in the earlier part of the book.

Although the novel draws its ideas from Much Ado, it is not really a modernisation as such. Certainly, there are some strong similarities between Charlie and Aaron and their Shakespearean characters, but this is not really played up until the final section of the book. At most points, it reads like a standard fame-based contemporary romance, which I think is a positive. Connecting Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance too closely to Shakespeare’s work would undoubtedly highlight the former’s shortcomings, whereas it stands on its own as a fair example of its genre.

Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance switches between chapters told from the first person perspective of the two protagonists. I am not sure whether Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin took on a character each, as some other collaborations have done, or whether they contributed equally to each perspective, but I did find that the two character voices could seem a little indistinct at times. The biggest difficulty I had with this style of narration, however, was the fact that occasionally the reader is subjected to reading about the same events twice, but from different points of view, which often meant jumping backwards in time with the change of chapter. This seemed to happen more and more towards the end of the novel, and I found it quite a clumsy technique, which really took me out of the action rather a lot.

When it comes to likeability, I think that Aaron will be the more popular of the two main characters. Charlie is very realistic, and I enjoyed the way that she allowed herself to be more vulnerable as the story progressed, but she has an edge to her character that makes her initially more difficult to like. Aaron, on the other hand, always seems more down-to-earth. I’m not sure that he’ll end up a major fictional hearthrob, but he’s an interesting character who is not as distanced from readers by his television stardom as Charlie is.

If you’re looking for a light romance, you could definitely do worse than Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance, especially once the character development starts to kick in. It’s not the kind of book that will stick with me forever, but it was a pleasant way to while away a train trip.

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