Tuesday 7 October 2014

Top 20 YA Books Of The Last 10 Years

Well, what an AMAZING weekend that was for YA! The closing weekend of Bath Children's Literature Festival, the opening one of Cheltenham, and also the two day YA Literature Weekender at the South Bank Centre as part of the London Literature Festival. I attended both days of this, and it was really great - the highlight being a fantastic panel on gender in popular culture with awesome authors Holly Bourne and Holly Smale (who I finally got to meet after wanting to for YEARS!) and two of my favourite people in the world of YA, brilliant author Non Pratt and Scholastic's commissioning editor David Maybury. Lots of other great panels and workshops, though, and it's amazing to see bloggers and vloggers I know getting involved officially - the wonderful Benjamin of Tomes did two talks on dystopian books (I only caught the second part of the Noughts and Crosses one due to train issues, but loved the Shadow of the Wolf one!) while I've heard great things about Lucy from Queen of Contemporary's panel at Cheltenham.

As well as the live events, though, there were other great things going on. Monday saw the release of the Book Blogger UKYA Awards, which a number of us have been involved in. Chief organiser has been the brilliant Faye from A Daydreamer's Thoughts - who's somehow managed to do a great job of putting them together at the same time as launching her PR services for authors, which I'd highly recommend to anyone looking for extra publicity. Head to her blog for all the results!

Also, Nicolette Jones wrote a wonderful piece for the Sunday Times on 100 Modern Kids' classics - 20 each in the age groups 0-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12 and 13+. If you're a Times subscriber you can get the full article, which really is a fantastic read. Otherwise, they're got a list on their shop, so you can at least see what made it.

Of course, this got me thinking about my own top books of the last 10 years. I don't know enough about the bottom 3 age ranges, but I had a stab at 13+, and at 10-12. The 13+ are below, the 10-12 will follow at some point next week.


I stuck to stuff already released - otherwise The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson would have been a definite, and Melinda Salisbury's The Sin Eater's Daughter would almost certainly have got in as well.

I stuck to individual books rather than series - Curtis Jobling's Wereworld and Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls were the big losers here, I love both series but couldn't quite put them ahead of anything here.

I kept it down to one per author, to try and spread the love around a bit.

Also, the reviews/plot summaries are extracts of my longer reviews, which you can get to by clicking on the title - mainly at The Bookbag.

The bare bones. There are four girls in a band. There's a TV talent show, and the chance to progress, just not as a quartet. There's a difficult decision to be made.

And there's one of the best YA contemporary stories I've read in years, exploring media manipulation, cyber-bullying, body image, romance, friendship, making choices, and doing it all with incredible heart and a wonderful cast of characters. Narrator Sasha is outstandingly portrayed, with Sophia Bennett bringing her vividly to life, flaws and all, but the other girls in the group are all very realistic as well, as are their schoolmates and the various people involved in the talent show. I also really liked the way that Bennett dealt with the fall-out from the decision made and both the positive and negative effects of social networking.

As for the climax - I'm not quite sure if this is my favourite UKYA contemporary book of the last decade, but it's got hands-down the best ending, so perfect that I wished I was fit and coordinated enough to be able to turn cartwheels, as it seemed to be pretty much the only appropriate response to such a wonderful conclusion. 

Love In Revolution by BR Collins

I can never really review this; I just incoherently ramble "OMG READ THIS NOW!" Wonderful love story between two girls falling for each other during a revolution. Perhaps the most outstanding book of last year for me. (And last year was AMAZINGLY good.)

15-year-old Ash has been waiting for his father to come back from the war. He's following in his dad's footsteps as the stag boy in the traditional Stag Chase, and he knows his dad will be proud of him. Running through the mountains whenever he can to train, he's not bothered by the taunts of the other boys who he beat to become the stag, and who will take their places as hounds - he knows their hostility is traditional. But something is stirring in the countryside, and he sees strange visions, while his old friend Mark is behaving seriously creepily. Is Mark just grieving for his father, or is there something more sinister at work?

Classic fantasy at its absolute finest, this stunning debut brilliantly mixed old legends with thoroughly modern problems - including Ash's dad's PTSD, the foot and mouth crisis which has left his village reeling, and the bankruptcies of local farmers. Reminiscent of Susan Cooper's wonderful The Dark Is Rising series, this is my favourite UKYA of the year so far, and my tip for the Carnegie. 

Lucy wants to celebrate the end of school by finding the mysterious graffiti artist Shadow, whose work she's becoming obsessed with. The last thing she wants is to be stuck with Ed, a boy she briefly dated a couple of years ago, especially since that date ended with her breaking his nose after he put his hands in an inappropriate place. Ed, though, is supposed to be able to help her find Shadow, so she puts up with him. During the night, we see the story from both Lucy and Ed's sides as they gradually grow closer to each other.

Crowley has created a wonderful cast here of smart, artistic, and romantic young people. Ed and Lucy are wonderful narrators and the chemistry between the pair of them is absolutely off the charts - I was desperately hoping throughout the book that they'd get together. The supporting cast is also really strong, while the events all happening in one night works very well, making it a pacy and action-packed read.

As great as the characters and plot are, though, the real selling point is Crowley's fabulously lyrical prose, which is an absolute pleasure to read. There are gorgeous lines on virtually every page, making it a book you can completely lose yourself in.

The story of two teens trying to lose their virginities before going off to university. They’re both legally allowed to have sex, they’re both keen on the idea, but a mixture of their friends, bad timing, and sheer dumb luck keeps getting in the way.

It’s played for laughs and it’s hugely successful at getting them – I was nearly falling off my chair quite early on – but it’s also a book which really cares about its characters. Yes, there are some people acting in massively stupid ways at time but they’re not nasty to each other – just impulsive and sometimes careless. Massively, staggeringly funny.

Cellist Mia has just performed well in her audition for the ultra-prestigious Juilliard school, her boyfriend's rock band are becoming increasingly successful, and she has a loving family. Everything to live for... and then.

Left in a coma by the car crash that killed her parents and has put her young brother at death's door, Mia has to choose whether to live or die. Told in a mixture of Mia watching the people she lives react to her horrific accident, and flashbacks to show her relationship with boyfriend Adam develop and her growing interest in music, this is heartstoppingly brilliantly written. The characters - Mia herself, of course, but also Adam, her younger brother Teddy, her parents and her best friend Kim - are all lovingly crafted, the writing is lyrical, and the tension is built up to an incredible level - I honestly had no idea what Mia's final decision would be until right before she made it. 

Again, no plot summary as this is the last in one of my all-time favourite series.

Brutal, as his fans have come to expect by now - nothing quite as horrifying as a couple of the scenes involving Penny earlier in the series, but there are still some terrible deaths, one of which nearly had me throwing my copy at a wall in frustration, despite this being the most expensive book I've actually bought for ages. (I was 2nd in line to borrow it from my local library, but I couldn't wait even a day longer to read it and grabbed it in town a few days ago.)

I think the most impressive thing about the series, as a whole, is just how realistic the characters and their relationships feel. Yes, there's people who can shoot light out of their hands, telekinetics, and healers, but as out of the ordinary as the powers are, the teens wielding them seem utterly believable. As well, I love the way the non-powered teens have played such a big part in the series, and the character development of the entire main cast over the six books.

It's completely unpredictable - I had absolutely no idea how on earth it would end, but Grant brings things to a stunning conclusion. Amazingly good.

Faith has been moved into a different form to separate her from her friend Megs, as the teachers seem to think they're a bad combination. On the plus side, the school are bussing in cute boys for their choir - and Faith is ready to get to know the dreamy Finn a lot better. Until she realises he's singing a duet with her sworn enemy, at least. Can Faith get the boy? And will she be able to move back into the same form as Megs by impressing Miss Ramsbottom with her new found maturity?

While there are some hilarious lines on nearly every page, it's Faith's voice in general, and the wonderfully warm characters, which had me hooked on this. Faith herself is a brilliant creation - heedless and bossy at times, but with her heart in the right place - while her friends and the boys they're interested in are all well-developed. Also, while I don't think I've read any other book more than twice in recent years - and few more than once - I've read this four times in the last eighteen months and it is brilliant EVERY time.

No plot summary, for fear of spoilers for first three in one of my favourite series.

I was expecting this to be amazingly good after loving the first three in the series so in many ways I wasn't surprised here. As ever, Hill has created a complex, twisting plot, going back and forth between numerous protagonists, and juggles the action and pacing perfectly here. Similarly, his characterisation is uniformly strong. Larissa, Jamie, his parents, the Rusmanov brothers, Dracula, Henry Seward, Paul Turner, Cal Holmwood, and Kate and Matt are all vivid, well-rounded creations.

I'm also fascinated by the development of the world that we've seen over the four books so far. While the biggest change since the start of book one is that various revelations have opened some people's eyes, at least, to the existence of vampires, the more interesting one - at least to me - is tied into this. We've seen good and evil vampires before, but in the previous book, and even more so in this one, we get to see that there are a large number of indifferent ones. They're not interested in fighting, just in surviving, in as far as vampires can be said to survive. Can Department 19 continue to kill them just for being vamps, or does this make them as bad as the vigilante groups which have formed and are panicking and attacking innocent humans? It's an intriguing question and Hill doesn't give any easy answers here.

14-year-old Jenna survived a car crash which killed her best friend. Sometimes, she wishes it was her who was dead. Because the crash left her face scarred, and she can't stop feeling like a freak. As if that wasn't hard enough to cope with, her dad is out for justice and has set up a pressure group in response to the light sentence given to the driver of the car she was in - and the youth is responding with intimidation. Just as she hits rock bottom, though, 16-year old New Age traveller Ryan comes into her life. Could he be the person to see past her scars?

Intensely romantic, really thrilling, and with lots to provoke thought on the nature of beauty, friendship, discrimination, mental illness and loyalty. I found it an incredibly easy book to read because Jarratt's writing style is absolutely superb - pacy and vivid - while I was particularly impressed by the way Jenna's disfigurement was handled with sensitivity and by the way her character changed as she started to come to terms with it.

Pantomime is almost certainly the best fantasy of the last decade. That's virtually all I can say about it without getting deep into spoiler territory, which as regular readers will know, I hate. (Oh, actually, I can probably just about tell you that there's a circus in there as well without completely ruining it for you.) I'm not sure whether to praise LR Lam for writing such a phenomenal book or curse her for writing one that's almost completely unreviewable. There's such a big twist early on (which, admittedly, I guessed), that I can't even really say much about the start.

Inside Lam's world, she's created a fabulous society of circus misfits who are reliant on each other to earn a living but have their own intrigues, quarrels and love affairs. She's populated it with brilliant characters, capable of love, heroism, and cruelty. It's a book which looks at bullying, romance, family, and perhaps most impressively, issues about sexuality that are normally found only in a handful of contemporary books. 

Two boys - no longer a couple, but still friends - are kissing outside their high school. But this is no ordinary kiss. This is a kiss which they intend to last over 32 hours, breaking the world record for longest kiss. Their friend will document it, spreading the world to, and beyond, their community, some of whom will be supportive, others of whom will be disgusted. Two other boys are in a relationship, while two more may be about to start one. An eighth is looking for something he may never find. Two Boys Kissing tells the story of all these different boys, at different stages of love.

This is, in a word, stunning. Narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who've died from AIDS - a lost generation, admiring yet at least slightly resenting these younger boys who have the opportunities they missed - it's a lyrical, wonderful, exquisite book which cements Levithan's place as one of the greatest prose stylists writing today. 

Amy hasn't got in a car for months, since her dad died in the crash, so she can't believe it when her mother tells her she needs to take it from California to the East Coast, even if she has arranged for Roger, the seriously cute son of a family friend, to drive. She thinks the trip will be a four day nightmare, as scheduled by her mother. Except Roger's not keen on overly regimented trips, and Amy's so upset at being forced into doing this that she's happy to go off track… so the pair decide to take the scenic route and explore America on the way there.

I adore the way this is put together – it's stunning. The travel book pages, motel reservation slips, and similar things add to the story wonderfully, especially towards the end, the photos are beautiful, and as for the playlists… wow! However, in addition, it's superbly written. Amy and Roger are fantastic characters, the people they meet are sweet, funny and quirky in their own ways, Amy's fear of cars and the start of her recovery from her guilt after her father's death are very well-portrayed, and the descriptions of the places they visit are great. 

There were once two sisters who were not afraid of the dark because the dark was full of the others voice around the room...

But now there's only one, because 19 year old Bailey has died and her 17 year old sister Lennie is left alone in her grief, apart from her Gram and Uncle Big.

What happens to a stupid companion pony if the racehorse dies?

Shattered by her sister's sudden passing, the only person Lennie feels she can turn to is Bailey's boyfriend Toby. And then the unthinkable happens and they kiss...

What if music is what escapes when a heart breaks?

Arriving into this mess is the gorgeous newcomer to school, Joe Fontaine. From the moment Lennie meets him at band practice there's instant electricity between them, and after never having anyone special in her life, Lennie is irresistibly drawn to two different boys. Can she go on with her life without Bailey to lead the way?

This is breathtakingly, incredibly, heartbreakingly beautiful. Debut author Jandy Nelson – how can anyone be this talented when writing their first novel? – creates a cast of compelling characters and manages to make Toby and Lennie so sympathetic that what seemed to be a rather unlikely love triangle works surprisingly well. I read through the entire book in a three hour train journey, stopping only for ten minutes to tear myself away before I burst into tears at Lennie's grief. (This worked originally but by the end I was crying anyway!)

Hannah is 15 and pregnant. She can't tell anyone who the father is - but new boy at school Aaron steps up to offer his services as a fake father. Hannah accepts, and the pair start their journey to parenthood. But who really is the dad, and why is Aaron willing to make such a massive commitment to a girl he doesn't even know that well?

Two brilliant narrators with amazing voices make this a must read, while Non Pratt also excels at capturing the relationships between friends, both the backstabbing that goes on between the shallower teens and the real love and support shown to Hannah and Aaron by a couple of their classmates.

Elise is a fragile girl who's never felt like she fitted in anywhere. Shuttled between her divorced parents, she's desperate to be popular at school but can't work out how. Then a chance event leads to her DJ'ing in Start, a hot underground nightclub and her life suddenly improves dramatically - but can she really leave behind her old self, or are the bullies who make her feel like there's nothing worthwhile about her life right all along?

Gripping from the very first chapter, which ends with Elise making a horrific decision which feels all too real because of the skill with which Sales shows us her issues. Demonstrating how casual day to day nastiness can be so draining on a person and just how much damage a teenager's peers can do, it's got a strong anti-bullying message which never feels preachy. It's brutal at times - if anything, the stunning prose and Elise's incredible voice make it even harder-hitting. The voice, the prose, the plot, an amazing ending, and a strong supporting cast (including parents who actually clearly care about their daughter and don't act like complete idiots) mean that it's one of the best teen novels of the decade so far.

This is being billed as a story of drug addict Sophie investigating best friend Mina's death, which is remarkable for being both an honest description and completely misleading at the same time. Yes, the focus is on Sophie's hunt for Mina's killer, but the mystery aspect is the weak part of the book - there aren't enough clues given for the reader to have a decent chance of working out the solution through anything other than random guesswork.

So why is it top five of the last ten years despite the murder mystery not really working that well for me? The characters are absolutely outstanding. Sophie is a superb narrator - sent to rehab for an addiction she'd already beaten and finally out and ready to seek justice. The relationship between Mina and Sophie has incredible chemistry and made me really care about both of them - which was rather soul-destroying as we know from the start that Mina is dead! As well, the jumping from time to time - the narrative alternates between 'now' and events at various prior points in Sophie's life - works brilliantly, gradually painting a fuller picture of Sophie, Mina and Mina's brother Trev.

Oh, and it's also probably the most emotional book I've ever read. I've mentioned before that a couple of the very best books of recent years have made me cry in public - but none of them destroyed me in the way this one did, leaving me choking back sobs for hours afterwards.

Hugely recommended as an absolute must-read.

Austin is confused. He's in love with both his girlfriend Shann and his best friend Robby. As if that wasn't a big enough problem, he and Robby have just managed to let loose an army of preying mantises which may bring about the end of the world. Who said Ealing, Iowa was boring?

This isn't a book I'd expect anyone to merely like. This is one that seems to be almost calculated to provoke strong reactions, whether they're ones of love or hate. Where it worked pretty much perfectly for me was in the central love triangle. Austin is a wonderful narrator who genuinely cares about both Shann and Robby and struggles with his feelings for them, while they're both well-rounded characters with real strengths and flaws. It's also - for all the sex, bugs killing people, teen angst about sexuality, and the fact that Austin spends much of it counting down to the end of the world - an incredibly fun book.

The year is 1959, and a small group of black students are attending Jefferson High, a previously all-white school. Barely anyone is happy that Sarah Dunbar and her friends are going to Jefferson, and the group face a terrifying ordeal as they're surrounded by people who want to see them fail. Chief amongst them is Linda Hairston, daughter of one of the town's most vocal segregationalists. But when Sarah and Linda start working together on a school project, they start to realise they may have more in common than they think - and friendship might not be all they're looking for from each other.

A hugely, nearly unbearably powerful read, with a great pair of narrators and excellent chemistry between them.

Verity is a collaborator. Captured by the Gestapo in France in 1943, she agrees to give up information about the war effort – not even in return for her life being spared, but to gain just a few weeks and a quick and merciful death. She tells the tale of how she came to be in France, from the moment she met her friend Maddie, the pilot whose plane she bailed out of, right up until her capture. It’s a gripping tale of friendship, courage, patriotism, love, and family. And nothing – but nothing – is quite as it seems.

Anyway, the best advice to give you would be to go and read this NOW. Yes, I could ramble on about Verity and Maddie, the two wonderful heroines, and the way their friendship is handled so beautifully. Yes, I could talk about Weir’s phenomenal writing style, and the superb narration by Verity, which veers between heartbreaking, brutal, gorgeous, and surprisingly funny. I could even tell you how many times I burst into tears reading it. (Actually, the last one’s a lie, I lost count at around page 250.) But just trust me, you MUST read this.

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