I don’t know if this happens in other creative industries, but book people are forever asking each other for reasons to be excited. Anything exciting coming up? Are you working on anything exciting? What are you excited about? I get that last one all the time from Publishing People, and whether they genuinely want my opinion on what they should be reading or are using me as a heat-seeking device to see where other publishers are focusing their attention and whether or not it rubbed off on me, I always find the question flattering. And terrifying. It’s like how walking into a karaoke bar invariably wipes your brain clean of any ideas about songs to sing. During one of the many conversations about karaoke I had with my brother while he was living in Japan, I brought up how hard it is to think of what song to choose and Bud said that one of his friends keeps a list in his wallet, and if he’s ever in a bar or grocery store and a good karaoke song plays he writes it down and then carries the list around with him in case a sing-off breaks out. It took me a year of being stumped by the Excited About question at author events and BEA for me to realize I need a similar system. And so that’s what you’re looking at right now: my cheat sheet for What I’m Excited About for 2014 (March-May).
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (March ’14)
Summary: A layered story of three generations leading up to the birth of a girl born with bird wings, and all of the wonder and angst that comes with them.
Why I’m Excited, short version: Magical realism isn’t for everyone, but this book is.
Why I’m Excited, long version: I usually loathe magical realism (people can’t be chairs, Aimee Bender!!) but I truly, truly loved Ava Lavender. This story of three generations of women recalls the sweeping family saga of Middlesex, but without that pesky incest and extraneous sex organs.
Kidding aside, I find myself finally understanding what I thought were bookseller clichés because of this book: I intentionally slowed down at the end of the story to make it last longer, I’m wondering how much time I should give myself before I reread it, and I’m picturing the readers for this book and testing out in my head what I’m going to say to them. I am actively jealous of these customers because they have the experience of reading Ava Lavender for the first time to look forward to. I can’t get over this book- but why would anyone want to, anyway?
The Riverman by Aaron Starmer (March ’14)
Summary: Alice In Wonderland is all fun and good until she shows up as the girl next door. 12-year-old Alistair is tasked by his neighbor, Fiona, of writing the story of the magical world Aquavania, the children who live there, and the man who is stealing their souls one by one.
Why, short version: With one foot in a realistic setting and one in a magical land, this is a great entry into fantasy for kids (and grown ups) who think they don’t like the genre.
Why, long version: Aaron Starmer does an amazing job of setting stakes for his characters, both in the real world and in Aquavania. The last book that was this much of a gut-check for me was Tom McNeal’s Far, Far Away; you know that feeling, where you want to pin a fictional character to the ground to keep them from heading down a path that you’re certain, for some untenable reason, will be bad for them. It’s a challenge for me to get through a fantasy novel (I’m trying, guys!); I not only burned through this one, but wanted to start reading again immediately as soon as I was finished.
Panic by Lauren Oliver (March ’14)
Summary: A game that’s a series of escalating dares played by teenagers the summer after graduation gets out of control in a hurry.
Why, short version: I love scavenger hunts/ large-scale games organized in secret by teenagers. I’m actively mad I didn’t put one together myself in high school, though that regret is fading fast in light of what happens in this book.
Why, long version: Lauren Oliver is such a goddamned baller. My introduction to Panic came at our YA Trivia Night AKA Cristin’s Greatest Life Accomplishment To Date, where Lauren was kind enough to serve as one of our visiting YA dignitaries and even kinder to read from Panic, which wasn’t even in galleys yet. She was maybe 3 sentences in before I wanted to steal her laptop to be able to read the whole thing. An awesome conceit plus a great writer. I loved every word.
Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira (April ’14)
Summary: Laurel responds to her teacher’s assignment to write a letter to a dead person by starting one-sided conversations with Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Amelia Earhart- everyone except her older sister, May, who has recently committed suicide.
Why, short version: This is The Big One, people. Really!
Why, long version: This isn’t just Good For A Debut Author (though it is– exceptional for one, in fact– if she isn’t a Morris Award finalist I’m going to have to take up my own one-sided correspondence with the American Library Association), it’s Great For Any Author. All of the hesitations you are having right now (do kids today know who Kurt Cobain was? Ugh, do I HAVE to read another suicide book?) would be valid for any other book- I went through all of them when I was handed this galley- but this isn’t Any Other Book, it is beautiful and amazing and basically everything that you want in a young adult novel. Am I overselling it? TRICK QUESTION this book is impossible to oversell.
Noggin by John Corey Whaley (April ’14)
Summary: The head of a teenage boy who died from cancer is cryogenically frozen and attached, five years later, to the previously-frozen body of a different dead teenager. So, you know, just your run-of-the-mill coming of age story.
Why, short version: It is incredibly fun to open conversations at your workplace with the statement “you would not believe how good this book about a cryogenically frozen/ unfrozen head is.”
Why, long version: This should be the weirdest book in the world, right? It should be Grasshopper Jungle meets Every Myth You’ve Ever Heard About Walt Disney meets Airhead meets Fururama, right? A frozen head book has no business being this good, and yet IT IS WONDERFUL. After his first book I was already emotionally contracted to read everything John Corey Whaley ever put on paper and after reading Noggin I know I’ll never regret any time I spend with this author’s work.
High & Dry by Sarah Skilton (April ’14)
Summary: High schooler Charlie Dixon tries to clear his name after being framed for contributing to a classmate’s near-fatal overdose at a party.
Why, short version: Noir for teenagers in an age where we all could use a little more Veronica Mars in our lives.
Why, long version: Everything about this book is clever and fast-paced and smart and somehow never feels self-aware or put-upon; it is so hard to get wit in YA without having to deal with accompanying pretension, and this book just hits it out of the park. There are great touches throughout the whole thing, including some subtle race commentary when two girls in choir with the same name are referred to as Sound of Music Maria and West Side Story Maria respectively based on ethnicity. High & Dry is also contains my running favorite Hilarious Treatment of High School Cliques. The whole thing is just genius.
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour (May ’14)
Summary: 18 year old Emi has a healthy obsession with movies and an unhealthy fixation on her exgirlfriend, Morgan. While scouting for movie props, Emi finds a letter written by a recently-deceased film icon and goes above and beyond in her attempts to get it into the hands of the rightful recipient.
Why, short version: Everything Nina LaCour writes is exceptional. She could decide to start ghost writing those Nigerian prince scam emails and I’d get mad when they didn’t win National Book Awards.
Why, long version: Emi’s job in film production design–a field I had previously never given a thought to, but now worship because of this book– is fascinating and realistic in a way that eludes all those books about girls with impossibly cool jobs (remember YA’s zoo internship phase? It was just after the Covers With Empty Shoes phase but before the Characters Who Make You Question What It Means To Be Human phase). Reading about set design now has me looking for meaning in each random object inhabiting any space I happen to occupy; this book is literally changing how I look at things. In addition to being a fantastic story, this happens to be a fantastic story with a teenage lesbian protagonist. We’re starting to get more and more YA fiction that (happily) affords gay characters the same thing we’ve been giving straight fictional teenagers for years: the chance to exist in a story that involves but doesn’t revolve around their sexual orientation the chance to be a character who is gay instead of A Gay Character. Emi is one of the best-written YA characters I’ve ever encountered, and the fact that she’s gay is just one of the many, many exceptional facets of this book.