Friday, January 16, 2015

Best Books for Young Adults 2014

Here are my top-five favorite young adult books that I read (or reread) last year:

5. Battle Royale – Koushun Takami

Koushun Takami's notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: a class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill one another until only one survivor is left standing. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan - where it then proceeded to become a runaway bestseller - Battle Royale is a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world. Made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, Battle Royale is already a contemporary Japanese pulp classic, now available for the first time in the English language.
Review: Battle Royale isn't literature. There's not much depth to it. A lot of the characters are underdeveloped. It could use some more world building. The violence is unrealistic. It's slightly predictable. It's the textbook definition of pulp fiction.

And it's awesome. I've wanted to read this book for years, ever since I heard that it was inspired in part by Stephen King's work. It didn't disappoint. This story has a familiar plot: a bunch of fifteen year olds are put on an island and told to kill each other, but it's different enough from other books with that plot to be interesting. My favorite element of the book was the POV switches. We get to learn about a lot of the characters and why they chose to participate or not participate in the game.

A lot of people have been comparing this book to The Hunger Games. Battle Royale has more gore and less politics. There are a lot of characters (over 50, I think), and the majority of them die. We get to see the bloody details of almost every death. A lot of gunshots, a few stabbings, a poisoning, some falls from high places, a hatchet in the face, that kind of thing. There is a lot of action, a lot of plot twists, and at least one death every few dozen pages.

If you have a strong stomach, time to read 600 pages, and a love of intense books, I'd recommend this one.

If I had to find things to complain about, the translation would be at the top of my list. I wish I could read Japanese. I have a feeling that this book is much better in its original language. There were a few times, especially at the end, where I had to reread to make sure that I understood what was happening.

Another thing that I would complain about is the number of characters. There are a lot of them, and some of them have similar names (Yukie, Yuko, Yuka, Yukiko, Yumiko). It can be hard to remember who is doing what.

Finally, Kazuo's bulletproof vest annoyed me. Bulletproof vests aren't that bulletproof. The more you shoot them, the less effective they become. Kazuo got shot a ton of times and never seemed to be too bothered by it. Actually, both Kazuo and Shogo seemed unrealistically prepared for the game.

Even with the complaints, I enjoyed this book. I'm glad I finally got a chance to read it.

4. Fat Kid Rules the World – K.L. Going

Troy Billings is seventeen, 296 pounds, friendless, utterly miserable, and about to step off a New York subway platform in front of an oncoming train. Until he meets Curt MacCrae, an emaciated, semi-homeless, high school dropout guitar genius, the stuff of which Lower East Side punk rock legends are made. Never mind that Troy's dad thinks Curt's a drug addict and Troy's brother thinks Troy's the biggest (literally) loser in Manhattan. Soon, Curt has recruited Troy as his new drummer, even though Troy can't play the drums. Together, Curt and Troy will change the world of punk, and Troy's own life, forever.
Review: The 5 stars are for Curt. He is a fascinating and complicated character. I really appreciate that a drug addict/criminal character is written so complexly. He isn't just a semi-homeless drug addict, he's also a punk rock god, a friend, and a realistic human. He's not a "bad guy" or a cautionary tale. The author just let him be himself. That's awesome.

The book's narrator, seventeen-year-old Troy, is a self-conscious fat kid. He meets semi-homeless Curt while trying to come up with an un-funny way to commit suicide. Curt immediately decides that Troy will be the drummer in a new punk rock band, even though Troy doesn't know how to play the drums.

The book is very well-written and has some funny moments. The characters behave like realistic teens and twenty-somethings. The plot is a little slow, and Troy is not as complex or interesting as Curt, but Curt more than makes up for all of that. The book is worth reading just for him.

3. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still. 
By her brother's graveside, Liesel's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger's Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. 
So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found. 
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up, and closed down. 
In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.
Review: The narrator, Death, tells the story of an orphan, Liesel Meminger, and several families living outside of Munich during WWII.

This is by far the best book I've read this year (so far). It's the kind of book that makes you sit in stunned silence for a few seconds after finishing it. The story is a familiar one, but the writing is poetic and beautiful. There were several times where I stopped and reread sentences or whole paragraphs because I liked them so much. This is some of the most interesting writing I've ever seen in a young adult book. The strangeness of the language totally fits Death, the strange, nonhuman narrator.

I do understand the negative reviews that this book gets. It's experimental, the narrator is extremely intrusive, the writing draws attention to itself, the book is hard to read quickly, and the story isn't anything new. However, none of that bothered me. I thought this book was fascinating.

2. Burned – Ellen Hopkins

I do know things really began to spin out of control after my first sex dream. 
It all started with a dream. Nothing exceptional, just a typical fantasy about a boy, the kind of dream that most teen girls experience. But Pattyn Von Stratten is not like most teen girls. Raised in a religious—yet abusive—family, a simple dream may not be exactly a sin, but it could be the first step toward hell and eternal damnation. 
This dream is a first step for Pattyn. But is it to hell or to a better life? For the first time Pattyn starts asking questions. Questions seemingly without answers—about God, a woman's role, sex, love—mostly love. What is it? Where is it? Will she ever experience it? Is she deserving of it? 
It's with a real boy that Pattyn gets into real trouble. After Pattyn's father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control until Pattyn ends up suspended from school and sent to live with an aunt she doesn't know. 
Pattyn is supposed to find salvation and redemption during her exile to the wilds of rural Nevada. Yet what she finds instead is love and acceptance. And for the first time she feels worthy of both—until she realizes her old demons will not let her go. Pattyn begins down a path that will lead her to a hell—a hell that may not be the one she learned about in sacrament meetings, but it is hell all the same. 
In this riveting and masterful novel told in verse, Ellen Hopkins takes readers on an emotional roller-coaster ride. From the highs of true love to the lows of abuse, Pattyn's story will have readers engrossed until the very last word.

Review: When sixteen-year-old Pattyn starts questioning her religion and disobeying her abusive father, she is sent to live with her aunt on a rural cattle ranch. On the ranch, Pattyn meets an older boy who changes her life forever. Burned is written in a mixture of formal and free-verse poetry.

This book is intimidating because it's written in verse, and it's a thick book. Don't be intimidated. The poems are very easy to understand, and the plot is pretty simple. The book is actually a quick and entertaining read. 

I had a hard time finding things to criticize, but a lot of people criticize this book because of its portrayal of Mormons. There are abusive families, abusive communities, and abusive churches within every religion. This book is not about Mormons. It's about Pattyn and her experience as a member of an abusive religious community. I thought the author did an accurate job of showing religious abuse.

Even though this is a book of poetry, it has all the elements of a great novel: complex characters, an intriguing premise, suspense, action, fast pacing, romance, and a twist ending.

I already knew about some of the twists because I read reviews before buying the book, but there are so many twists that you won't see all of them coming. This is a very interesting book. I can't wait to read the next one in the series.

1. Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson

Jess Aarons' greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He's been practicing all summer and can't wait to see his classmates' faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys' side and outruns everyone. 
That's not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.
Review: This was one of the books that changed my life as a child. I just reread it as an adult for a grad school essay, and I still love it. It's probably one of my favorite books of all time. It's an entertaining story with relatable characters for children, but it also has a lot for adult readers to think about. The book explores the issues surrounding poverty vs wealth and innovation/change vs tradition. It shows how some parents relate differently to female children and male children. It shows the difficulties of male/female friendship in elementary school. It confronts issues about gender and how society believes that boys and girls should behave. Best of all, it shows that imagination is important, fears can be conquered, and belief in yourself is essential.

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