Between Shades of Gray (Ruda Sepetys).
Rightfully included amongst this year’s William C. Morris award finalists, this is one of the most heart-wrenching YAs I have ever read. Centred on a little known incidents of World War II Lithuania, where millions of Baltic state residents were arrested and sent to prison camps in Russia, Between Shades of Gray is at heart a simple story of a young woman forced to grow up fast as horrific events she cannot control unfold around her, yet its power lies in its simplicity. Sepetys’s prose is strong and purposeful. Every moment works, seemingly effortlessly, to tell a story in such a matter-of-fact manner that you can’t help but be completely taken in by its power. It’s a book that doesn’t rely on absolutes (some of the prisoners can be pretty unlikable, and the heroine has some moments of almost grating self-pity); these are humans, with all the shades of gray contained within. Even if you’re not a fan of historical fiction, I heartily recommend this book. It’s not an easy read but it’s one full of emotion, outrage and most of all, hope.
Across the Universe (Beth Revis).
Speculative YA and I haven’t always gotten on. Sometimes our relationship is so antagonistic I wonder why I bother with it sometimes. While I am admittedly a sci-fi fiction novice outside of Star Wars, Across the Universe began with a bang and kept me gripped throughout. While certain elements of the story will feel familiar to some, it’s the mood of this book that stood out to me; one of almost unbearable claustrophobia and just a hint of paranoia, as Amy tries to find her way in a closed off society of the future that has reverted back to simpler modes of life just to survive. The intricacy of Revis’s world-building was something of a godsend in a year of dystopian fiction relying on a singular concept with little thought given to it afterwards. It’s a story with risks and consequences, one where issues of race, identity and sex are handled maturely and consistently with the society’s rules, and one where my expectations were subverted. I don’t often commit to series these days but this is one I will definitely be investing in.
Sister Mischief (Lauren Goode).
Despite the continuing pushing forward of the dystopian YA trend, one that left me feeling rather unsatisfied, this was truly the year of great contemporary YA for me. The first time I read the blurb for Sister Mischief, I cringed a little. A teenage lesbian Jewish rapper from Minnesota? It sounded like the set-up for an SNL sketch! By the time I’d read about 100 pages of Sister Mischief, I was ready to fall to my knees and beg forgiveness for ever doubting it. Sometimes you just love a book wholeheartedly. It doesn’t happen very often for me but it did with Sister Mischief. It takes skill to create not just one but several complex, interesting teenage female characters from elements that so easily could have slid into parody, and to do it with such love and humour. Multiple issues of identity and finding your own voice are handled with aplomb, encapsulating everything that makes being a teenager so much fun and such a frustrating experience. Sister Mischief has enough diversity, humour, love, issues and creativity to fill 10 books.
Shine (Lauren Myracle).
Like Sepetys, Lauren Myracle has the enviable talent of being able to say so much with so few words. This is a book that does not shy away from the ugliness of humanity. The story unfolds like a good mystery, revealing the world to the reader piece by piece as the masks of small-town sweetness and hospitality slip away to fully reveal the darkness underneath. The smallest characters are fleshed out suitably to avoid the all too easy stereotypes of the small-town south and even when tackling issues such as sexual assault, homophobia, religion and crystal meth, the story does not once slip into preaching. The simplicity of her prose in telling such a difficult and all too relevant tale – a gay hate crime occurs in small town America, forcing the tight-knit community to confront its deep seated bigotry – makes Shine a gripping and realistic piece of contemporary YA, even when tackling issues more commonly found in soap operas. Myracle does not dumb down her story for the YA crowd; she simply presents this world as it is. While the National Book Award mess may have overshadowed the story for a while, this is a book that deserves attention.