I think I’ve mentioned here how much I love young adult books, but just to reiterate: I love them a lot. There are loads of YA books out there and, as with any genre, it’s key to have a trusted source to help you sort out the pearls from the muck. My favorite YA source is Kidliterate, which reviews picture books for little kids but is also a fabulous place to learn about new and upcoming books for teens (and grownups). The site’s creator works for an independent bookstore, so she reviews things from a bookseller’s perspective, meaning you sometimes get interesting inside information on the expected audience or potential controversies. But she never spoils the books, so there’s no need to worry about getting too much information. I was thrilled to see that the Kidliterate folks have posted a whole flurry of holiday recommendations, including a list of YA books with “awesome teen girls” as the main character. I’ve immediately put every one of those on my library list, but until they start coming in I can talk about Gabrielle Zevin’s All These Things I’ve Done.
Zevin has written a number of other YA books, including 2005’s Elsewhere. That one is about a girl who dies and ends up in the afterlife, where you age backwards until you’re a baby and you are born again back into the world. Which sounds dumb, frankly–when I heard the description of this books I remember thinking clearly that it was Not a Book for Me. But a friend with a solid YA track record recommended it, and I found it charming. It was a bit like reading a fairy tale or a fable, but at the same time had a very matter-of-fact attitude towards death and the afterlife that never made me, as an extremely nonreligious reader, uncomfortable.
All These Things I’ve Done is about Anya Balanachine, a teenager living in New York City in 2083. In this particular dystopian future there are shortages of everything, the city is rife with crimes–the standard. More specifically to this universe, coffee and chocolate have been outlawed and Anya’s father made their family fortune as a crime boss in the chocolate underground. Both her parents are now dead, so underage Anya is responsible for keeping her family together and trying to keep them out of trouble and out of the family business. It’s YA, so there’s also a cute boy and a school dance.
I enjoyed the book and it had some lovely touches. Although it’s set in the future, Anya’s world feels very accessible, close enough to our world to be easy to imagine and different in believable ways. For example, producing new materials is so difficult that the teenagers wear vintage clothes when they go out–this is both logical and let me imagine that Anya and her friends were wearing clothes from my closet. And the New York the characters live in is certainly different, but still recognizable. I also really like the matter-of-fact way the book handles how Anya feels about her father’s organized crime involvement and how it affects the way other characters treat her. It’s clearly something she struggles with, especially as the book goes on, but not something she can afford to get overly dramatic about. Anya’s relationships with her sister and brother also feel very real–loving, but occasionally irritated.
I had one major issue with the book, however: I didn’t realize until I was nearly halfway through that this is first book in a series (the Birthright series) and it reads that way. As much as I enjoyed All These Things I’ve Done, it felt like a really long introduction to a story. Just when I started thinking to myself, “All right, NOW we can get going!” the book ended. Which bodes well the book two, whenever it comes out, but leaves book one as an unfinished story in my mind. I know this is probably my own fault for not researching enough before I started reading, but am I going to have to start assuming that every YA book is part of series unless I am specifically told otherwise? Look, I love being able to read two or three or more books about characters that I love, but I do need for those books to stand alone. The Hunger Games may have always been planned as the first in a trilogy, but it is a complete, satisfying story with a sense of conclusion and ending. Or, you know what, it doesn’t necessarily even have to stand alone. The second two Hunger Games books can’t stand by themselves, and I adore the Mortal Instrument books by Cassandra Clare, which are not independent stories and are full of cliffhangers. Maybe the real issue is that I need to feel like I got my money’s worth, so to speak, out of the book. I want to feel like it was a piece of writing worth my time. And this one felt like a very long introduction to characters who are going to get to the real action later. I think my suggestion here is to go read Elsewhere now, and then come back and read the Birthright series in a few years when more books are out and the story feels more like a meal and less like an appetizer.
And now I am off to wrap a million presents and celebrate with my family. Happy holidays to all of our tens of readers and here’s to a 2012 full of good books!