2021 in Review: Olivia Farr, Staff Reviewer's Top 5 books
Sparks fly between two teens as they grapple with grief, love, and the future in this unforgettable debut novel sure to entice fans of Jandy Nelson and Jennifer E. Smith Eighteen-year-old Amelia Griffin is obsessed with the famous Orman Chronicles, written by the young and reclusive prodigy N. E. Endsley. They’re the books that brought her and her best friend Jenna together after Amelia’s father left and her family imploded. So when Amelia and Jenna get the opportunity to attend a book festival with Endsley in attendance, Amelia is ecstatic. It’s the perfect way to start off their last summer before college. In a heartbeat, everything goes horribly wrong. When Jenna gets a chance to meet the author and Amelia doesn’t, the two have a blowout fight like they’ve never experienced. And before Amelia has a chance to mend things, Jenna is killed in a freak car accident. Grief-stricken, and without her best friend to guide her, Amelia questions everything she had planned for the future. When a mysterious, rare edition of the Orman Chronicles arrives, Amelia is convinced that it somehow came from Jenna. Tracking the book to an obscure but enchanting bookstore in Michigan, Amelia is shocked to find herself face-to-face with the enigmatic and handsome N. E. Endsley himself, the reason for Amelia’s and Jenna’s fight and perhaps the clue to what Jenna wanted to tell her all along. Ashley Schumacher's devastating and beautiful debut, Amelia Unabridged, is about finding hope and strength within yourself, and maybe, just maybe, falling in love while you do it.
Together, the two are unstoppable, and they have big plans for their future. Beginning with their graduation gift from Jenna's parents to go to a book festival where the reclusive author of the Orman Chronicles will be making a big and rare announcement - and the two have VIP tickets to attend and get their books signed. When Amelia has to go to the bathroom, Jenna gets a chance to meet the author - right before the event is entirely canceled, leaving Amelia without her own chance. As feelings do not always make sense, they have a fight about it before Jenna heads to her big botanist trip abroad - a trip that Jenna does not return from after an unexpected car accident.
Set adrift, Amelia's world feels off kilter without Jenna - and then a rare edition of an Orman Chronicles book is delivered to her favorite bookstore, the one where the two friends met. Following the signs and trying to learn more about this gift from Jenna and the messages she may have left behind, Amelia heads to Michigan from Texas to the bookstore that sent this mysterious package. What she finds there is bigger and more important than anything she could have anticipated.
What I loved: This book is everything. It broke my heart into a million pieces so many times, and I loved every second of it. Amelia is raw, genuine, and heartfelt. Along with the other characters we get to meet during the story, they all burrow into the reader's heart and come to life throughout the book. The characters are truly phenomenal, and I was delighted to meet them all. They have flaws and histories, and they felt so true and real.
A major theme of the book is about loss, grief, and the guilt and sorrow the people we love leave behind. Although we only know Jenna for a few chapters, she lives during this time so fiercely that her loss resonates through Amelia and the pages of the book. Alongside other characters and their grief, this theme was quite powerful, with discussions about how to move forward after such a loss and redefine yourself in the wake of it.
Other themes around healing and being true to yourself also resonate in the book and create a really strong story. This book is an absolute gem. I also want to add that it may have one of the best epilogues I have ever read. It is difficult to do such a book justice in a review, but this book is every bit as magical as the series that features within.
Final verdict: Raw, heartfelt, and beautiful, AMELIA UNABRIDGED is a powerful read about grief, love, and finding your truths. Highly recommend for fans of IF I STAY, LOOKING FOR ALASKA, and BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA.
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Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson
About This Book
From the New York Times bestselling author of Sorcery of Thorns and An Enchantment of Ravens comes a thrilling new YA fantasy about a teen girl with mythic abilities who must defend her world against restless spirits of the dead. The dead of Loraille do not rest. Artemisia is training to be a Gray Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the deceased so that their souls can pass on; otherwise, they will rise as spirits with a ravenous hunger for the living. She would rather deal with the dead than the living, who trade whispers about her scarred hands and troubled past. When her convent is attacked by possessed soldiers, Artemisia defends it by awakening an ancient spirit bound to a saint’s relic. It is a revenant, a malevolent being that threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard. Wielding its extraordinary power almost consumes her—but death has come to Loraille, and only a vespertine, a priestess trained to wield a high relic, has any chance of stopping it. With all knowledge of vespertines lost to time, Artemisia turns to the last remaining expert for help: the revenant itself. As she unravels a sinister mystery of saints, secrets, and dark magic, her bond with the revenant grows. And when a hidden evil begins to surface, she discovers that facing this enemy might require her to betray everything she has been taught to believe—if the revenant doesn’t betray her first.
Artemisia is one such person, who is content where she is with the Gray Sisters, those who cleanse the bodies of the deceased to prevent them from becoming spirits, and longs to stay away from people in general. However, when possessed soldiers arrive at the convent, Artemisia is handed a task by the head of the Gray Sisters, and in doing so, opens a box with a magical artifact - one containing a revenant, the strongest and most powerful of the spirits - and the most dangerous. As she unleashes its power, making her a vespertine, she loses control of herself and sight of the things she values most. In the struggles that follow, Artemisia is soon to learn humanity is on the line and left to determine her own role in the events to come.
What I loved: This was a consuming and atmospheric read that transports the reader to this magical and dangerous other world. The premise and the plot are tightly constructed with many twists and unexpected turns along the way. This fascinating world raises important themes around politics, religion, benevolent (or not) deities, twisted motives, humanity, and morality. These thought-provoking elements leave readers to consider which actions can be defined as good and who gets to determine the morality of them, as well as the ways in which they can be corrupted or skewed by the audience.
Artemisia is swept into this battle she did not ask for and does not desire, and the consequences change how others view her and what they want from her. The religion to which she ascribes is also interesting in how it relates to the deity the people worship and how the characters interpret signs and the influence in their own lives. There may be an element of choice in fate, but the significance of divine destiny/intervention is a frequent one. There are many questions raised around this worship, the power structures, and the way that it has developed. Between these intriguing topics, the book is certainly one worth pondering further and would make for a great book club pick.
The characters in the book are endlessly compelling, and beyond Artemisia, who is flawed and often seems to be muddling her way through the mantle she carries, there are several side characters who are beautifully constructed and felt so real. Marguerite, Leander, Charles, and Jean are particularly complex and well-developed. I appreciated the depth of their characters and the way that understanding changes how they are viewed by the reader. Some of the other/older nuns were also fascinating, and I would have loved to have spent even more time with them. Additionally, the revenant that is possessing Artemisia becomes one of the most endearing characters, and as she gets to know it, so does the reader, endearing it to them. Through Artemisia's eyes, there are so many the reader will come to love, and the power of the writing is in gaining these insights, understandings, and allowances that bring these characters to life. I'm hoping to see more of all these characters in future books.
The lack of romance was intriguing and not often seen. Notably, it was not missed in this action-filled read. This story is a stand-out with an intriguing and unexpected plot, twists that you don't see coming, and characters that leap off the pages.
Final verdict: With masterful world-building, compelling characters, and thought-provoking themes, VESPERTINE is a stunning and riveting YA fantasy read. Highly recommend for fans of THE MERCIFUL CROW, THE PRISON HEALER, WHAT WE DEVOUR, and DANCE OF THIEVES.
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Little Thieves #1 by Margaret Owen
A scrappy maid must outsmart both palace nobles and Low Gods in a new YA fantasy by Margaret Owen, author of the Merciful Crow series. Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl... Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love―and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele's dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself. The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed. Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life. Margaret Owen, author of The Merciful Crow series, crafts a delightfully irreverent retelling of “The Goose Girl” about stolen lives, thorny truths, and the wicked girls at the heart of both.
Vanja is now a notorious thief, the Pfennigiest, who steals from the wealthy and leaves behind red pennies. She steals their jewelry from under their noses to fund her own freedom - while also living a lie. She has stolen the appearance and life of the princess, Gisele, for whom she was a maid since childhood. Things, however, are changing when she finds herself cursed by a Low God offended by her thievery and greed, Gisele's betrothed Adalbrecht has returned to wed her, and the magical investigators- and one Junior Prefect, Emeric, in particular- are on the hunt for the Pfennigiest.
As Vanja tries to untangle the requirements of her curse - without the help from her godmothers - she also must fight for her life, contend with her past mistakes, and circumvent all the forces working against her.
What I loved: The characters in this story are fully realized and absolutely easy to fall in love with. Beginning with Vanja, but also including Emeric, Gisele, and Ragne, these are all wonderfully flawed and beautifully growing people that captivate the reader. Vanja has made mistakes, and she knows this, but what are choices if they are all bad? How can she make her own luck? Her humor, wit, heartfelt, and clever nature make her a character to behold. Her story will live close to the reader's heart. Through her eyes, the reader can see this world as it is, as well as the power struggles and political imbalances that separate the classes. Emeric is a character that feels like an acquired taste. His transformation in the reader's eyes feels miraculous, but by the end of the story, he is one of the greatest. He is loyal, genuine, and true - though not without a propensity towards mistakes. Gisele is another character who seems victim and villain, and only the story can help the reader weigh on which side she will fall. My absolute favorite may have been Ragne, the daughter of a Low God, whose honesty, confidence, and fervor make her a character that truly stands out in all the best ways. Notably, all these characters were so wonderfully crafted that they came to feel like close friends.
The plot itself is also beautifully written and the world fantastically constructed. The book is divided by the beginnings of fairytales that provide us glimpses into Vanja's life, along with gorgeous illustrations. These fairytales add an extra element of the mysterious and imaginative to the story, twisting her life from something mystical to something that felt so real. The pace was absolutely spot-on with nary a dull moment and the right amount of action and reflection/inner turmoil to bring the story to life. It is masterfully woven with twists that seem unexpected until you arrive at them and then feel there could have been no other way. The surprises and reveals were absolutely thrilling, and the whole story was completely riveting. I also really loved the romances that grow during the story, and I felt my heart break and mend with each scene leading to them in all those lovely ways Owen seems to be uniquely suited to writing.
The themes were really thought-provoking and powerful around impossible choices, servitude, power imbalances, trust, the definition of thieves, socioeconomic inequality and its manifestations, abuse of power, trauma, and morality with all its gray areas. In particular, the title comes from the notion of levels of thieves and the way that this is defined by power. This idea can be seen in the modern world as well, as those with power seem to escape punishment and differing dynamics with power around stealing (eg, punishment of wage theft by a company vs stealing from a company). This would definitely be a topic worth discussing and delving into further with a book group. Power and its imbalances are another strong topic in this book around the way servants are treated as well as the way in which the lower socioeconomic classes are suppressed and their world view differs as a result. This story raises a lot of important and inticing themes that warrant further discussion.
Final verdict: With masterful story-telling, captivating characters, and poignant themes, LITTLE THIEVES is a stunning and heartfelt YA fantasy that readers are sure to devour. Highly recommend for fans of VESPERTINE, THE SHADOWS BETWEEN US, THE PRISON HEALER, and THRONE OF GLASS.
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Counting Down With You by Tashie Bhuiyan
In this sparkling and romantic YA debut, a reserved Bangladeshi teenager has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake date her school’s resident bad boy. How do you make one month last a lifetime? Karina Ahmed has a plan. Keep her head down, get through high school without a fuss, and follow her parents’ rules—even if it means sacrificing her dreams. When her parents go abroad to Bangladesh for four weeks, Karina expects some peace and quiet. Instead, one simple lie unravels everything. Karina is my girlfriend. Tutoring the school’s resident bad boy was already crossing a line. Pretending to date him? Out of the question. But Ace Clyde does everything right—he brings her coffee in the mornings, impresses her friends without trying, and even promises to buy her a dozen books (a week) if she goes along with his fake-dating facade. Though Karina agrees, she can’t help but start counting down the days until her parents come back. T-minus twenty-eight days until everything returns to normal—but what if Karina no longer wants it to?
During those days, Karina is assigned to tutor a boy in her English class, Alistair (Ace), who is struggling in her favorite subject. Although she knows her parents would not approve of her spending any time with a boy, Karina agrees to help her favorite teacher as it will also waive the public speaking requirement that counts for a large portion of her grade. As she gets to know Ace, her feelings become even more complicated and his presenting her as his fake girlfriend makes everything seem to come apart at the seams.
Karina also has anxiety that she suppresses, and although she knows she needs help, because of her family's stance, she resorts to techniques she learned from google and her friends. During the month her parents are away, Karina is bolstered by the love of the people around her and able to examine her own wants and needs in a way she never could before - but what will she do when her parents return?
What I loved: This book hit me in a completely visceral way. There were tears streaming down my face for several chapters, and I include this as a good thing, because, wow, does Bhuiyan write in a way that brings these characters and emotions to life. This book completely pulls the reader in and gives a lot to think and feel. For teens struggling under the weight of parental or cultural expectations, this book sees you. I would love to put this book in the hand of every teen who has felt the crushing weight of parental expectations and disappointments and resultant anxiety, so they could know they are not alone and that they deserve their happiness too.
The romance here was really beautiful. I appreciated the honesty, the pace, the clarity of boundaries, and constructive reactions to boundaries. All of this sets a fantastic example for how relationships and love should be. Ace is #boyfriendgoals, seriously. Their relationship, boundary setting and respecting, and truths are all stunning.
An important part of the book is the people who love and support Myra/Karina. While not everyone in her position has this, I think this support is critical. She has Dadu, who is an all-around wonderful person, her BFFs, Cora and Nandini, who cannot always understand her life but believe her anyway, Ace, and eventually her brother, Samir/Rafiq. I found the discussions with siblings to be particularly poignant (both for Karina and Ace), as in situations with challenging parents, it can feel very isolating, especially when the experience by the person next to can be so completely different. Although both situations are very different, the conversations are held beautifully and the reader sees different ways in which needed support can be provided.
Other themes in the book were also poignant, including the sexism of the way that children of different genders are treated, religious prejudices, stigma around mental illness, and the way that speaking your truth and coming out can backfire in some families (side characters deal with LGBT coming out/dating experiences). These themes would make this book a fantastic discussion starter in the classroom or YA book club.
Final verdict: Beautiful, raw, and riveting, COUNTING DOWN WITH YOU is a stunning YA contemporary about love, happiness, and the search for your own path. Highly recommend reading this one - it is a book that will touch the heart and stick with the reader for a long time to come.
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Unchosen by Katharyn Blair
Katharyn Blair crafts a fiercely feminist fantasy with a horrifying curse, swoon-worthy sea captains, and the power of one girl to choose her own fate in this contemporary standalone adventure that's perfect for fans of The Fifth Wave and Seafire, and for anyone who has ever felt unchosen. For Charlotte Holloway, the world ended twice. The first was when her childhood crush, Dean, fell in love—with her older sister. The second was when the Crimson, a curse spread through eye contact, turned the majority of humanity into flesh-eating monsters. Neither end of the world changed Charlotte. She’s still in the shadows of her siblings. Her popular older sister, Harlow, now commands forces of survivors. And her talented younger sister, Vanessa, is the Chosen One—who, legend has it, can end the curse. When their settlement is raided by those seeking the Chosen One, Charlotte makes a reckless decision to save Vanessa: she takes her place as prisoner. The word spreads across the seven seas—the Chosen One has been found. But when Dean’s life is threatened and a resistance looms on the horizon, the lie keeping Charlotte alive begins to unravel. She’ll have to break free, forge new bonds, and choose her own destiny if she has any hope of saving her sisters, her love, and maybe even the world. Because sometimes the end is just a new beginning.
Harlow is the commander of the forces at their outpost, keeping the monsters at bay. Vessels as they are called are those infected with the Crimson (a zombie twist). They seek to destroy and/or turn humans who have not yet been infected, called Cursecleans. When raiders come into the settlement looking for the Chosen One, Charlotte pretends that she is the one they are looking for, protecting Vanessa. This sets off a cascade of events where the world hangs in the balance.
What I loved: The premise of the Crimson is about a pirate, Anne, who threw herself off the bow of her ship rather than be forced into marriage with a man she did not want. It was said that she spoke a curse, and when her remains were found and desecrated by greedy treasure hunters, the Crimson began. The way that this ends up unfolding was really unique and does have some strong feminist tones. The way this and the Chosen One pieces came together throughout the book and at the end definitely gave me chills. It's really brilliantly and intricately plotted- the mark of an excellent fantasy read.
I also really appreciated the character growth we see in Charlotte during the story. She seems to be just the extra one, but as she is forced into the world, she begins to learn who she is and who she wants to be outside of the way her sisters have defined her. That being said, I also appreciated the sister-love that is contained throughout, and the way that they always have each others' backs no matter what.
The romance, and the way that it evolves as Charlotte does, was definitely a win for me. From where she begins, in love with her BFF and her sister's boyfriend, to where she lands, it definitely showed her character growth- and was also totally swoony. I was there for it.
There are some great themes in the book about power, misogyny, fate, and ethics/morality that would be really interesting to discuss in a book group. At the end of the world, how an individual defines themselves and the roles they choose to take are really telling and definitely thought-provoking.
Final verdict: UNCHOSEN is an intricately plotted and masterfully told story of sisterhood, self-realization, and internal power that is sure to captivate readers. Highly recommend for fans of FABLE, SEAFIRE, and/or LEGEND.
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