Five young adult books that I couldn't put down this year

Children’s book specialist Emily Gale selects the young adult books that she read in one sitting this year.

The Boy’s Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew by Eli Glasman

With remarkable wit and warmth, Eli Glasman invites his readers into the Orthodox Jewish community that provides the setting for his debut novel. Once I was in, I stayed put. It’s a slim, punchy story, no words wasted, which I found refreshing. I just hope it doesn’t get lost among the stocky series fiction because it’s an important as well as an enjoyable addition to contemporary YA.

I loved the insights into this very cloistered world. The rules and rituals are fascinating, and the main character, Yossi, is a well-drawn bridge between the community and the potentially ignorant reader. Yossi is faithful to his people but needs to carve a new space in the community because of feelings he can no longer deny. In the process he has a sexual awakening as well as an affirmation of his faith. Sometimes his gawkiness made me giggle, and then his thoughtfulness and intelligence impressed me – in this way he reminded me a little of Adrian Mole. With its Melbourne (Caulfield) setting and its theme of religion versus the individual, I can see a lot of adult readers being interested in this unique book as well as teenagers seeking an inspiring coming-of-age story.

Cooper Bartholemew Is Dead by Rebecca James

Reading in one sitting is becoming a habit for me with Rebecca James’ YA thrillers – I did the same with Beautiful Malice a few years ago. Her easy, engaging style is coupled with a masterful structure, flipping between the past and present at a furious rate, which keeps tension high all the time.

Cooper B is the kind of romantic hero I would have swooned over in my teen years. The fact that – as the title suggests – he is dead, did interesting things to my commitment to him as a character. Every time I enjoyed his dialogue, or admired his seduction of new girlfriend Libby and his loyalty to his best friends, I also warned myself off him: he’s dead! Pull back! But, you see, I couldn’t because Rebecca James is just that good. The mystery is of course how he ended up dead. High on drama, this is a romantic and tragic story for mid-teens and up.

The Jewel by Amy Ewing

I know that I’m not the only one who read The Jewel without putting it down. It came highly recommended to me by Michael Earp, the sales rep at Walker Books who last week won the Australian Booksellers Association rep of the year award for Victoria. He told me he’d been reading it obsessively in his car in between meetings and that I had to get into it. I said, ‘But Michael, it’s got a flouncy dress on the front; that doesn’t seem like something I’m going to enjoy.’ ‘Trust me,’ he replied. Well, Michael is a very passionate advocate of children’s and YA fiction, hence his much deserved award, so how could I refuse?

If I thought about it too much, I might be able to talk myself out of liking this book but my reading experience was pure fun and I’ll hold to that. Yes, there is a bit of ‘getting all dressed up’ and I have to admit that those parts were not my favourite. I’m missing that particular gene. And yes, there were a couple of cheesy moments that made me cringe a little. The romance, unlike Cooper Bartholemew Is Dead, meant very little to me – I was much more interested in Violet’s plight as a young girl who has spent her formative years in captivity in preparation for being bought as a surrogate at auction by a wealthy, dangerous older woman. I expect book two will come out in 2015.

Fun melodrama. Trust me!

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

I read two Rainbow Rowell books this year (the other was Fangirl) and I enjoyed them both, but Eleanor and Park is the one that had me at hello. It’s about an intoxicating first love between two teens who both consider themselves to be misfits – Eleanor because she isn’t a cute size 10 and doesn’t dress to conform, and Park because he’s half-Korean and they live in a mainly-white community.

What was most compelling for me was Eleanor’s rough home life. My heart was in a vice every time it was her turn to take over the narrative (it’s split evenly between the two). So although the romance was adorable (mix-tapes, hand-holding, misunderstandings), the main reason I couldn’t put this one down was that I needed to know that Eleanor was going to be okay. How clever, I thought, for a writer to create a character that you care about so much you don’t want to turn your back on them.

That said, Rainbow Rowell is also a very funny writer with some great one-liners. This is not doom and gloom, but heartfelt.

The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim

There are three reasons that made me stay up late to finish The Astrologer’s Daughter. The first is Rebecca Lim’s exceptional prose. Reading the opening I got the same goosebumps as I had when I first read Vikki Wakefield’s writing (see Friday Brown and All I Ever Wanted). On a line by line basis – the tone, the creative imagery – this felt like word alchemy to me.

The second reason I needed to inhale The Astrologer’s Daughter is the main character, Avicenna Crowe. What a unique, strong, intense female character. To give her a break, the she’s probably only intense because of her situation, which is that her mother has gone missing and Avicenna seems to be the only one who possesses the necessary skills to solve the mystery. And that’s the third reason I couldn’t put it down: the mystery. The answers were always tantalisingly out of reach.

Of the five, this is the one I’d most like to revisit, to practice the art of slow reading.

Emily Gale

Cover image for The Astrologer's Daughter

The Astrologer’s Daughter

Rebecca Lim

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