I tried to think of a more subtle title for this post, but I couldn’t, because I am so enthusiastic about the books I’m going to mention that subtlety is just not an option. What can I say – I have a lot of feelings about stories.
I can’t help it.
So, here they are – four books that completely blew me away.
Every Day by David Levithan
(Content note: Cissexism, heterosexism and drug abuse)
When I first heard about the premise of this book, I wasn’t sure that it would work. The protagonist, A, wakes up in a new person’s body every day, and has to try and negotiate that person’s life without the people around them twigging. Interesting idea, but how well could it be sustained through an entire novel?
As it turned out, very well indeed. Levithan avoids the most infuriating pitfall of stories like this – he never, ever, breaks his own rules. The story centres around A falling in love with a girl, Rhiannon, and trying to find a way to stay with her – and I was dreading the possibility that The Power of Love would somehow fix everything. Nope. The book avoids that simple
cop-out solution, and keeps the complications that make the premise so interesting.
Another thing I loved about Every Day was the fact that it didn’t shy away from issues surrounding sexuality and gender identity. A has been inhabiting different bodies since birth, and doesn’t identify with any gender. A’s sexual experience includes people of all genders. But when Rhiannon, a cis, het girl, realises that she has feelings for A, she can’t help but think of A as “him”, and their relationship as a purely heterosexual one – a microcosm of how cis, heterosexual society projects these traits onto everyone else.
On top of the interesting plot and nuanced look at the characters and their biases, the writing is just damn great. One chapter in particular stands out – the chapter where A wakes up in the body of a drug addict. While A usually gives the reader a run-down of the person’s gender, appearance, and life, we learn nothing about this particular character except that they are (almost literally) dying to use. The constant repetition of “the body”, and the struggle A has with this body and its cravings throughout the day, are haunting.
Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz
(Content note: Biphobia, eating disorders)
There are books that have made me think “I wish I’d written that.” There are books that have made me think “I wish I was in that world.” But I can’t remember a book where I have so desperately wished the main character was real and that we could be friends.
Etta’s voice comes through in a way that is so strong and clear that you almost can’t believe she’s a fictional character. The story opens with her in recovery from an eating disorder and trying to deal with biphobic bullying from her former friends at school. Both of these things cause Etta an incredible amount of pain, which comes across so vividly – the scene where she is triggered while eating at a restaurant, and nearly relapses, is gut-punchingly real:
“…now I’m staring down at it and I can’t even figure out what it is. I can’t taste it any more. I can’t remember it. I can’t even make out the shapes of it. It’s transmogrified itself into FOOD. It’s like what they ate in The Sims. It’s a plate of FOOD. I’m sitting here eating it. Shit.”
And yet, alongside Etta’s pain, we have her strength, her compassion, her wit and humour, and the fact that she is, as she says herself, “just a happy damn person.” And this, more than anything, is what makes me wish she was real. She’s flawed and contradictory and fun and funny and completely, entirely human. Etta is exactly what a Strong Female Character should actually be – a strongly-written, believable person.
The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury
First of all, look at the glory that is that cover. Second of all – The Sin Eater’s Daughter is one of those books that proves that if something is done well enough, you can enjoy it even if it’s not your usual taste.
I love fantasy, but I generally like my fantasy to be urban, or satirical, or real-world-viewed-sideways. I love Discworld, The Dresden Files, and Diana Wynne Jones’ interplay between magical worlds and our own. It’s much rarer that I get sucked into an entirely fantasy world – but with The Sin Eater’s Daughter, I did. Salisbury sets up a society that’s so rich and compelling that you can’t help but want to know more; about their legends, their politics, and their traditions – especially the sin eating of the title.
I don’t generally like love triangles. In fact, they usually annoy me intensely. I’ve read a few YA novels where it feels as if the love triangle was shoehorned in at the last minute to meet some obligation. But in The Sin Eater’s Daughter, the love triangle grows naturally out of the plot, and makes total sense for the characters involved. In fact, it doesn’t really feel like “a love triangle” at all – it’s just the characters, negotiating their relationships and making mistakes and choices and, again, being believably human.
Every Day and Not Otherwise Specified are punchy and fast-paced – like watching a film. The Sin Eater’s Daughter, on the other hand, is like looking at a huge, intricate painting (or one of the heroine Twylla’s embroidered screens), noticing more detail the longer you linger. (On that note – I need to brush up on the language of flowers, and then read it a second time). That’s not to say it doesn’t pack a punch – the mid-point twist made me squeak out loud. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is slow-burning, but every moment of the story counts.
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
Murder Most Unladylike is ostensibly middle-grade rather than YA, but it is living (well, not living – tangible. Well, not tangible, I read it on Kindle, but never mind) proof that a book aimed at young readers can still be complex, nuanced, and with a central mystery that can even fool a reader pushing thirty.
(To be completely fair, most mysteries fool me. I love my detective stories, but I’d never be any good at solving a crime myself).
The story, set in the Thirties, follows narrator Hazel Wong and her best friend Daisy Wells as they solve the murder of one of the teachers at their boarding school. Stevens builds up the suspense and expertly sets out clues (take note: EVERYTHING is significant), and yet the ending still came as a total surprise. Once again, the characters are brilliantly drawn. Hazel is quiet, thoughtful, and utterly engaging, while Daisy initially seems to be your stereotypical jolly-hockey-sticks schoolgirl, but turns out to have quite a dark streak, in that she sees both crimes and people as puzzles to be solved.
Although Daisy regularly compares herself and Hazel to Holmes and Watson, the story feels like a cross between an Agatha Christie novel and an Enid Blyton adventure – if Blyton checked her privilege and had a go at challenging racism instead of perpetuating it. The story doesn’t shy away from showing the bigotry Hazel faces as the only East Asian girl in an otherwise all-white school – even, on occasion, from her best friend.
A thrilling murder mystery, compelling characters, and lavish descriptions of food (by the way, bunbreak is now a thing in my life, and it should be in yours, too) – what more could a reader want? Well, a sequel. Luckily, there is one – Arsenic for Tea. Which I read in one night. I didn’t mean to, it just happened.
So, there you have it. I’ll end where I began – read these, now. These four books are about as different as could be, but in their own ways, each one is brilliant.
Alice’s books are available on Amazon and Smashwords. Her webcomics, co-created and illustrated by Emily Brady, can be found at the Footloose website. Ally rambles about writing, feminism, and odd questions that cross her mind on Twitter and Facebook.