Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fifteen YA Books Set in the Recent Past

I adore historical fiction: any time period, any geographic location, any subject matter. One of my favorite sub-genres, however, is recent historical fiction, which I loosely define as any story set in the 1970s or later. Here are some of my favorites, and some that are on my TBR. (Click on the images to be taken to the book's Goodreads page.)

This sweeping story spotlights a Bengali Indian-British-American family that grapples with issues like cultural and national identity over the course of three generations. It's incisively insightful, and it will make you fall in love with each of its characters. (And anyone who knows my tastes knows I love multigenerational stories.)

Four wildly different lives intersect in this quiet, character-driven tale about finding and choosing your family. The story truly capitalizes on its Alaskan setting, creating a powerful sense of place.

This sweeping, atmospheric story about a dangerous love triangle is sure to draw readers into its summer setting.

Fifteen-year-old Vinnie's life is kind of falling apart; his girlfriend moved to California without saying goodbye, his parents are divorcing, and his mom is moving him away from his home in Queens. What follows is a story of phone calls, angst, and girl-next-door romance.

This A Separate Peace-esque novel is a quietly beautiful triumph. The storytelling style is disjointed, stream-of-conscious, and overall strange, and the historical setting adds the perfect touch to a stunning story about friendship and coming of age.

This book's setting is based on the Kowloon Walled City, a lawless city of crime and debauchery that stood in China from the mid-1900s to 1994, when demolition was officially completed. This story, then, is just as thrilling as you'd expect.

Based on the author's own experiences, this novel follows a girl who is sent to a less-than-supportive psychiatric hospital in the 1980s to seek treatment for her eating disorder.

When Laura, an American university student studying abroad in the Soviet Union, falls for a local boy named Alexei, she realizes they must keep their relationship a secret for their own protection. Complete with emotionally-charged world-building, this story about a fraught romance and a nation shrouded in secrecy will have you hooked.

A historic heat wave is scorching Fielding Bliss's small town the summer he makes friends with the devil. As temperatures and tensions rise, strange accidents begin to occur—and no one quite knows why.

This heartrending story about a gay girl growing up in small-town Montana is equal parts languidly character-driven and thrillingly page-turning. It's one of my all-time favorites. (P.S. It was also recently turned into a movie that won the grand jury prize at Sundance Film Festival! Apparently it hasn't been picked up for distribution yet, but it had better be soon.)

The "DIY, mix tape, and zine culture of the mid-1990s" sets the backdrop for this quirky friendship-to-romance tale.

This stunning tearjerker-in-verse set during the height of the NYC AIDS crisis tells a deeply-felt story of family, secrets, and growing up. It's perfect for fans of Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

Set 23 years ago, before the buzz of technology and social media set the beat of society, this story provides the perfect quiet, introspective setting for a quiet, introspective story about recovering from a tragedy and expressing yourself through poetry.

Set during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, this story follows two teenagers dealing with loss and displacement.

If you're looking for a story set in the extremely recent past, this brilliant novel is for you. It centers around the Boston Marathon Bombing, spotlighting the reactions and private lives of teenagers across the country. From a Delaware teen with Superior Autobiographical Memory to an Idaho teen who's caught up in a risky "Plan" coordinated by an internet mastermind, each section of this book is enthralling.

What are your favorite YA books set in the recent past? I'm always looking for recommendations!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 2018 in Review

A monthly wrap-up post? For the first time in—what—a year? Why yes, I'm trying to get my life together in 2018, and hopefully I'll be taking all of you along for the ride. January has certainly been A Month, so let's dive right in.

from my reading list

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock | Goodreads
This was the first (and by far the best) book I read in January. Told in four masterfully interwoven narratives, this story set in 1970 Alaska has a quiet, bittersweet beauty; an unforgettable cast including vivid secondary characters; and such a strong sense of place. It's going to be on my best-of-the-year list in December for sure. My full review just went up, and you can read it here

from my tbr

 806 by Cynthia Weil | Goodreads
This story of three siblings—one who throws blenders and plays guitar, one who's allergic to everything and is into magic, and one who is a varsity swimmer with a group of female fans—on an epic cross-country road trip to find their biological father sounds like the kind of quirky contemporary that's absolutely made for me. As they travel, they evade police, try their luck on the slots, and meet a life-changing pig, all to track down their father, Donor 806.

from my life 

  • I started the second semester of my sophomore year of university! The semester is already off to a stressful start; I'm enrolled in a program called I-Core (short for integrative core), which is something of a rite of passage (and supposedly the hardest semester) in the business program at my school. Essentially, you take four introductory classes—supply chain, marketing, finance, and a leadership/management course) with the same people, all while completing a massive semester-long group project wherein you propose and analyze a new product or service for an actual Indianapolis-based company. It's already intense and we've barely even gotten started, but I can tell I'm going to learn so much.

  • I started my internship at the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation! I get to work primarily with the Indiana Authors Award, an annual award program that recognizes writers with ties to my state, and I also get to help with fundraising and other tasks. As a business student, I can't wait to learn more about nonprofits, especially one so close to my heart. (I love the Indianapolis Public Library system so, so much.)

  • I applied to study abroad in fall 2018! If all goes well, I'll hopefully be spending next semester in London, which has been a dream of mine for probably at least ten years. Stay tuned for updates because they will definitely be coming. 
How was your January? What did you read, and what are you up to? Let me know in the comments! And to my fellow students, good luck with the new semester!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Stunning Story with a Strong Sense of Place: The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock | Goodreads

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Release: February 23, 2016
Source: Library
ISBN: 9780553497786
Alaska, 1970: Growing up here isn’t like growing up anywhere else.

Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck suddenly comes her way. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This is a book about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.
Wow. Where do I even begin with this atmospheric, deeply felt, masterfully woven powerhouse of a story? The Smell of Other People’s Houses is the epitome of everything I love about literary YA, and it’s one of those books that reminds me why I love reading.

Starting on the first page, this novel had me entirely enchanted by its vivid, tangible setting. From a short prologue set in 1959, when Alaska became a state, to the rest of the novel, which spotlights Fairbanks and Southeast Alaska in 1970, The Smell of Other People’s Houses creates one of the most immersive, breathtaking backdrops I’ve ever read. I love novels with a strong sense of place, novels that practically seem to build a real-life location around each reader, and this novel does just that. Drawing from her family’s four generations’ worth of life in Alaska, Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock paints a masterful picture of the climate, culture, history, politics, and more of her state, creating an atmospheric story perfect for a snowy day.

Equally well-developed is each character’s story and the coincidental connections between each. At the beginning of the novel, we have four seemingly-separate narrators: Ruth, whose pregnancy throws her life through a loop; Dora, who longs to trade her abusive and neglectful family for another; Alyse, who wants to follow her dreams without disappointing her family; and Hank, a stowaway on a fishing boat who just wants to get away. However, as their tales progress, their lives intersect in surprising, never-contrived chance encounters. By the end of the novel, The Smell of Other People’s Houses has become an exquisite tapestry of stories, one that was quietly woven while you were too enthralled by each individual character arc to notice.

The four main characters aren’t the only ones who are spotlighted, though. The Smell of Other People’s Houses also features several key background characters with distinct personalities. These secondary characters not only aid in the chance meetings of the four protagonists, but they also receive stories, aspirations, and histories all their own, helping to create an unforgettable ensemble.

Best of all, The Smell of Other People’s Houses accomplishes its incredible world-building and character arcs using only 223 pages of sparse-yet-powerful storytelling. Not a single word is wasted, and Hitchcock often conveys complex feelings and sprawling scenes using only a few carefully-selected phrases. I can’t recommend this novel enough for fans of books that capture intense emotions and character development in a compact storyline—like Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses was the first book I read in 2018, but I already know it’s almost definitely going to be on my best-of-the-year list in December. It’s quiet yet emotionally riveting, and it encapsulates beautiful themes of finding and choosing your family—deliberately and through chance. At times it will make you feel, as Ruth says, that your heart is all beat out, but it will bring you back to life with bittersweet happiness and hope. Especially if you like character-driven stories and novels that shine a spotlight on an uncommon setting, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Three Reasons to Read The Way the Light Bends

Do you love electric, heartrending stories about the bonds that bind families? Do you enjoy stories told in carefully-cracked lines of free-verse poetry? Do you long to travel to New York through vividly-woven world-building?

If so, you have to give Cordelia's Jensen's work a try. Keep reading to find out why you should pick up The Way the Light Bends (or click here if you're interested in Skyscraping, her debut novel centered around the NYC AIDS crisis), but whichever book you start with, I know you'll be a fan.

the book

The Way the Light Bends by Cordelia Jensen | Goodreads

Publisher: Philomel Books
Release: March 27, 2018
Source: Author
ISBN: 9780399547447
Virtual twins Linc and Holly were once extremely close. But while artistic, creative Linc is her parents' daughter biologically, it's smart, popular Holly, adopted from Ghana as a baby, who exemplifies the family's high-achieving model of academic success.

Linc is desperate to pursue photography, to find a place of belonging, and for her family to accept her for who she is, despite her surgeon mother's constant disapproval and her growing distance from Holly. So when she comes up with a plan to use her photography interests and skills to do better in school--via a project based on Seneca Village, a long-gone village in the space that now holds Central Park, where all inhabitants, regardless of race, lived together harmoniously--Linc is excited and determined to prove that her differences are assets, that she has what it takes to make her mother proud. But when a long-buried family secret comes to light, Linc must decide whether her mother's love is worth obtaining.

three reasons to read it 

I'm a firm believer that YA needs more families, more present parents, more sibling relationships—and when I say all of this, I mean YA needs more families like Cordelia Jensen writes them. In both her debut and her upcoming novel, she creates bittersweet family bonds that feel emotional and true-to-life. Whether you're cheering for Linc to convince her parents that her artistic pursuits are worthwhile or racing to uncover the family's shrouded, storied past, you'll be completely absorbed in this family's strained-yet-somehow-loving home.

Best of all, though, is Linc's relationship with her twin, Holly. The pair used to be inseparable, but lately their lives have diverged due to differing interests, Holly's boyfriend, and more—leaving Linc feeling lonely and left-behind. The result is a relatable, uncomfortable, fascinating dynamic. It's perfect for fans of The Upside of Unrequited who related to Molly's struggle to come to terms with the fact that she and her twin might not always be each other's #1 person.

One of this story's key interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts is Linc's perceived inability to succeed in school; her academic struggles create immense tension between her and her parents and deeply impact her self-worth. These conflicts provide plenty of room for character growth—on the part of the protagonist and her parents—but best of all, seeing a protagonist with average academics is refreshing in and of itself. The Way the Light Bends reflects the reality, as so many contemporary YA books do not, that not every teen has a 4.0 GPA, that not every teen feels stereotypically book-smart—and most importantly, that straight As in high school are not a prerequisite for a successful life. I loved watching Linc pursue her dreams despite her confusion in geometry class, and I want to cheer for more characters with an academic standing like hers.

I'll admit it: I'm not usually a fan of the in-verse storytelling style. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but verse writing has to truly captivate me to have me as invested as classic prose. That's why Jensen's stunning ability to tell rich, deeply-felt stories using sparse wording impresses me all the more.

In my review of Skyscraping, I wrote that Jensen's broken free verse creates an emotional, breathless voice, as if the narrator is bursting with a vital story but is too emotional to tell her tale in anything more than short explosions of words. A similar analysis can be applied to The Way the Light Bends; while Jensen's upcoming novel isn't quite as much of a tearjerker as her debut, its verse still conveys a breathlessness, an inability to tell the whole truth. But this time, the breathlessness comes from Linc's passion for her art; the brokenness from her fear to share her true self with her family. The result is a fast-paced, captivating story that reads like the staccato clicks of a camera shutter—but manages to create an image as cinematic as a Pulitzer-winning photograph.

Have you read any of Cordelia Jensen's work, and do you love it as much as I do? What are your favorite books about family, and what are your favorite novels in verse? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Top Ten 2017 Releases I Didn't Get Around to Reading

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish
I read 58 books in 2017—a respectable amount for a busy university student, but not enough to truly get in on the end-of-the-year wrap-up post fun. As always, I compiled a best-of-the-year list, but that's about it.

One wrap-up post I totally can get in on, though, is a post about books I didn't manage to read. Here are the top ten 2017 releases I somehow didn't make time to read last year (but hope to read this year).

1. Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz
A magical realism f/f romance-slash-coming-of-age story centering a prize-winning teenage painter? Why haven't I read this yet?

2. North of Happy by Adi Alsaid
I've been an avid fan of Adi Alsaid's since 2014, so I can't believe I didn't pick up this book ASAP!

3. Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde
I've heard so much praise for this fun story about fandoms and friendships set in a convention center.

4. When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
I know. I'm behind. I'll get caught up before From Twinkle, with Love comes out.

5. Be True To Me by Adele Griffin
I'm not sure why I haven't read the latest book by one of my favorite authors—especially since I met her at Book Expo—but I will soon. I can't wait to enter the sure-to-be atmospheric world of 1970s Long Island.

6. You Don't Know Me But I Know You by Rebecca Barrow
This book about an adopted teen whose teenage pregnancy forces her to come to terms with her own biological mother's choices sounds like everything I love about contemporary YA.

7. Kat and Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza
With a cover so attention-grabbing and a premises centered around fandom and mental health, this book begs to be read, and I absolutely will  this year.

8. That Thing We Call A Heart by Sheba Karim
I have got to read this novel about a girl navigating friendships, faith, and family; exploring her sexuality; and so much more in 2018.

9. You're Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner
A book about a graffiti war featuring a Deaf protagonist? I have to read this one (and the author's 2018 release, which sounds equally wonderful) this year.

10. If Birds Fly Back by Carly Sorosiak
This novel is described as "a sparkling debut about love, family, and the mysteries of the universe." I'm sold, even if I didn't get around to reading it in 2017.

Which 2017 releases do you still need to catch up on? And which of these books should I tackle first? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.