Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss marries romance, friendship and growing up with the delights of the Seine, macaroons and cinemas in the City of Lights. Picked for the off-beat charms of the book’s namesake, Anna, and the deft handling of a budding romance, Anna has the ability to melt the hardest of hearts. Paris is not a convenient, exotic backdrop, but rather plays a role in the character’s decisions, development and ultimate self-discovery. With Paris popping off the page and a set of richly-developed characters, our panel was delighted by this lovely and refreshing debut novel.
Sepetys channels the harrowing reality of life in Stalin’s Lithuania through the eyes of Lina, a talented artist and passionate fifteen-year-old. Herded into a dirty train car with her mother, brother and an ensemble of survivors that eventually become her new family, she’s forced to journey nearly 7,000 miles across the Arctic Circle to Siberia. Beautifully written, Shades strikes a near perfect blend of historical fact and fictionalized dramatization. Sepetys spares no details of the suffering and brutality, but moments of compassion, bonding, and Lina’s growing love for a fellow survivor steeps the story in a tender realness. This book will grip fans of historical fiction and make non-fans wonder what else they’ve been missing in the genre.
Bunheads gives a person and in-depth look at the intense and demanding life of a dancer. As a nineteen-year-old in the Manhattan Ballet, Hannah has dedicated her life to dance. In the single-minded pursuit of her dream to be a soloist, she’s all but given up on the idea of having an education or personal life outside of the ballet. We were impressed by not only the starkly honest portrayal of life in a professional ballet company, but also Hannah’s personal growth and struggle as she attempts to remain devoted to her dance while at the same time questioning the life she’s chosen. This is not a sacrifice-anything-for-the-dream type of book; Hannah grapples with just how much she must continually give up for the sake of dance. This is an original and wholly captivating book with a compelling female lead and an honest portrait of her struggle to succeed.
Some books defy categorization, and Everybody Sees the Ants is a prime example. Lucky Linderman escapes from incessant bullying and his dysfunctional family through dreams of his MIA grandfather and repeat visits by some very entertaining ants. Lucky’s wild hallucinatory adventures give him the strength of will to survive his external tribulations. There are no firm answers here—Lucky may or may not be completely crazeballs—but it’s impossible to resist taking this journey with him as he comes to terms in little pieces with his life. Our panel was captivated by this quirky twist on the standard coming-of-age story.
Frost had at least one panelist cowering under her covers with all of the lights on. Deliciously scary, and successfully walking the finest line between psychological and paranormal suspense, Baer captures the tone of the gothic novel with her haunted boarding school. In Celeste and Leena’s beautiful Victorian dorm, we are witness to the meticulous unraveling of the main characters’ psyche as their perfect senior year deteriorates one eerie event after another. Is Celeste just dramatic? Does some one have it out for her? Is she victim of hereditary psychological issues? Or is it the house?
In a year that saw a seemingly never-ending supply of sports books, Cohen’s Leverage was never once in danger of being left in the dust. Told in two distinct, believable voices, this story about an unlikely friendship between a mouthy gymnast and a quiet football player wowed panelists in every possible way: muscle, heart and mind. It deals with bullying and abuse without ever feeling exploitative; the violence is visceral without ever being excessive. The corruption that our heroes face will draw genuinely horrified gasps, but even their minor triumphs will also bring wholehearted cheers.
Both funny and heartbreaking, Stupid Fast drops readers into 15-year-old Felton’s mind as he replays the events of the summer that changed his life. It’s rough going from a quiet nobody to the lead recruit for the high school football team, but there’s more to this story than football. Felton’s memorable voice captures the struggle of navigating a family falling apart at the seams and the tenderness of a first love — though he would probably gag admitting this. The novel’s small town setting plays a noteworthy role in helping Felton confront challenges of money, race, and most importantly, himself. This is one summer he and readers will not forget.