Seven excellent books in January, including a few exceptional debuts!
The Last Thing You Said by Sara Biren (April 4, 2017) – I talk often about “Katy Books” and Sara Biren’s forthcoming debut is definitely one — it’s as if she wrote this novel specifically with my tastes in mind. I adored this story of friendship, loss, and first love, set in a charming Minnesota lake community. Main characters Lucy and Ben are both trying to cope with overwhelming grief after Trixie, Lucy’s best friend and Ben’s sister, dies suddenly. Trixie’s death leaves a gaping hole in both protagonists’ lives, and challenges their fledging romance in heartbreaking ways. The Last Thing You Said is one of those stories that’ll make you feel a million emotions: sadness, joy, angst, despair, and hope, among them. If you’re a lover of intense YA romances, especially those told in alternating POVs, check this beautiful book out when it releases in April.
Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard – I loved this book. It’s the story of Pen, a girl who prefers all things boy, to the great dismay of her very conservative Portuguese parents. Pen’s a gamer who dresses in a traditionally masculine way. She’s crushing on Blake, this gorgeous, confident girl who’s also into gaming and who’s clearly perfect for Pen. Their emerging relationship turns out to be highlight of Pen’s narrative as she grapples to find her place in a world that raises its collective eyebrow at anyone who strays from binary and straight. My favorite parts of this story were the romance (duh), Pen’s voice (stellar), and her big brother, Johnny (a fantastic source of strength and support). I also loved how Pen learned to stand up to her supposed BFF who, in my opinion, is the literal worst. Girl Mans Up is a 2017 Morris Award finalist, and I can totally see why. Big recommend for this most excellent story.
Defending Taylor by Miranda Kenneally – I love Miranda’s books because they read like a chat with a friend. Their tone is conversational and sharp, and their protagonists always feel like real (awesome) girls. Defending Taylor is no different, though it does tackle issues more serious than many of Miranda’s other novels. Main character Taylor has been kicked out of her prestigious boarding school because she was caught with a backpack full of prescription drugs — drugs not prescribed to her. Turns out she was covering for her boyfriend and in doing so, she’s sacrificed admission to the school she loves, her captainship of the soccer team, close proximity to her friends, her parents’ trust, and maybe her future. Defending Taylor wraps up in a way that’s unexpected but realistic, and its romance is fantastic–so steamy, though simultaneously honest and authentic. Another must-read for contemporary YA fans.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – This collection of linked short stories was January’s book club pick and, frankly, I expected it to be a drag. But, surprise — I really enjoyed it! The book focuses (sometimes specifically, sometimes peripherally) on fictional Olive Kitteridge, a woman living in a small Maine town with her husband and her (eventually estranged) son, alongside a large cast of compelling characters. There’s something comforting about this book; its prose is lovely yet accessible, and its characters are presented in ways that makes them immediately relatable. Olive Kitteridge chronicles the lives of normal people facing challenges both minor and enormous, and it’s all about the human experience, how we perceive others and how we’re perceived. At times it made me squirm, vicariously embarrassed for these characters who become self-aware in eye-opening, often uncomfortable ways. And despite her prickliness, her quick anger, her occasionally immaturity, I genuinely liked Olive. Pick this one up if you’re into connected short stories with a literary slant.
The Fill-In Boyfriend by Kasie West – A fast, fun story about a relationship faked for the sake of saving face. The Fill-In Boyfriend is one to read between heavier, darker books, sort of a literary palate cleanser, if you will. While main characters Gia and Hayden have depth and definite chemistry, nothing about this plot is going to make you think too hard, or hurt too badly. My favorite aspect of the story, besides the utter cuteness of Gia and Hayden’s banter, was Hayden’s sister, Bec, who means to be a badass but, in fact, has a heart of gold. I love, too, Kasie West’s clean writing and interesting friendship dynamics. Read this one if you’re looking for a book that’s quick, cute, and romantic.
The Sandcastle Empire by Kayla Olson (June 6, 2017) – I had high expectations for this forthcoming debut, and the story far exceeded them. I mean, this book is strong. It’s high-concept and high-stakes (it plays out like a summer blockbuster), but the prose is just so gorgeous–almost poetic. I felt completely consumed by this post-apocalyptic world, where the “haves” have been dethroned, and the “have-nots” have seized all power and privilege. Main character Eden is on a mission to find sanctuary on what might be a mythical island, with a rag-tag crew thrown together by circumstance and desperation. Eden’s incredibly strong, but with vulnerabilities, and she has a way of drawing the reader in, until they feel as sweaty and breathless and scared and hopeless as she feels. While this novel is very much a somber story about what could be, it boasts a romance, too, which was (of course) my favorite part. My least favorite part? Um, the fact that I have to wait until 2018 to find out what’s going to happen to Eden next!
After the Fall by Kate Hart – It’s been several days since I finished this much-anticipated debut novel, and I’m still thinking about it–its characters, its themes, and its plot. Author Kate Hart tackles heavy topics within the pages of this story that might, initially, seem like the tale of two brothers who’ve fallen for the same girl. Instead, we join main character Raychel as she struggles with financial crises, sexual assault and recovery, stereotypes and double-standards, as well as ever-evolving relationships. Through much of the story, she’s also cultivating a secret romance with Andrew, the brother of her best friend (and unrequited admirer), Matt. After the Fall is a complicated book about flawed people. The story feels simultaneously full and complex and despairing and satisfying, and I love how its characters are never let off easy, allowing the author to convey profound messages without coming off as disingenuous. After the Fall broke my heart, quite honestly; it’s not the sort of story that ties off with a neat bow, and that’s part of what makes it so fulfilling. Big recommend for lovers of powerful, issue-driven contemporaries.
Tell me: What’s the best book you read in January?