12 Favorite Young Adult Ficton Books I Read in 2014

Not all of these YA fiction books were published in 2014, but several of them were.

The Winter Horses by Phillip Kerr. Historical fiction/magical realism set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. If you like horses or World War II stories, check it out.

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs. If this one were published now, it would be YA since it features teenaged protagonists. It’s not at all like contemporary YA, though.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. 1950’s New Orleans, on the seamy side of town.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This novel hit way too close to home for me to be able to write an objective, or even subjective, review. However, I found it quite haunting and memorable.

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. Good Arthurian fiction series, The Merlin Spiral also includes Merlin’s Shadow, and Merlin’s Nightmare.

Always Emily by Michaela McColl. An atmospheric mystery featuring Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky. A fictionalization of the true story of how Hitler’s pet film director, Leni Riefenstahl, enslaved Sinti and Roma gypsies to have them work as extras in her movies.

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora. Borderline between middle grade and YA and lots of fun for bookish types.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud. Maybe middle grade, maybe YA, but good anyway.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. Book #2 in the Lockwood & Co. series about ghost-busting adolescents in an alternate history Victorian world.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. I just read this one yesterday, but I liked it a lot despite some flaws. My review will be posted in 2015.

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The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry

Good old-fashioned Robert Heinlein-style juvenile science fiction. The story takes place in our own solar system. The characters are all human (well, except for Grandpa who’s mostly cyborg by now). The unfamiliar words are mostly space travel jargon (fireship, grav-sled, transponder) and pirate talk (belay, burgoo, avast, barky). There’s politics and adventure and espionage, and girls and guys take part equally in the adventure and in the drudge work.

Twelve year old twins Tycho and Yana, and older brother Carlo Hashoone are the three probable heirs to the Hashoone family business: a privateering starship called the Shadow Comet. Their mom, Diocletia, is the captain, and dad, Mavry, is the first mate. However, since only one of the three siblings can become captain when mom retires, there’s a lot of rivalry mixed in with the teamwork as the entire family, including Grandpa, work together to find and take prizes, namely Earth cargo ships. Because the Jovian Union, where the Hashoons are from, and Earth are technically at war, the Shadow Comet operates under letters of marquee to capture and hold for ransom any starships from Earth that might cross their path.

Besides just being a lot of fun, the book might bring up some interesting class or family discussions:

What is the difference between a pirate and a privateer? (Reference and compare Sir Francis Drake and also U.S. privateers of the American revolution.) How are the crew of the Shadow Comet different from historical pirates like Jean Lafitte? How are they similar? Are privateers really just “pirates with papers”? Is it justifiable to be a pirate (or privateer) if you’re fighting for your country while you you take a little profit for yourself?

Can family members work as a team and also be rivals for the same position? How would that work in real life? Have you seen families pull together in a crisis? Do they always?

Did you think it was unusual to have the mom be the captain of the Shadow Comet, with the dad serving under her authority as first mate? What did you think of Captain Diocletia giving orders to her father, her husband, and her children? Why do you think the author wrote the characters’ roles this way?

Yana is impulsive and decisive, whereas Tycho is more thoughtful and indecisive. Which twin are you more like? Which one do you think would make a better captain someday? Or would you choose Carlo, since he’s older and a better pilot?

What do you think about Grandpa’s decision at the end of the book? Was he right? If not, do you understand why he did what he did?

You can probably think of other avenues for discussion as you read the book. Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra is the first book in a series about the Hashoone family and their piratical (privateering!) adventures. The second book is Curse of the Iris, due out December 16, 2014.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Shipwreck Island by S.A. Bodeen


A book like this one should come with a warning label. It’s not a whole book. It’s short, 184 pages, and it just ends . . . in the middle of the story. It ends like an episode of LOST. In fact, it reads a lot like an episode of LOST. Anyway, I felt cheated. The book should have something on the cover that says it’s the first installment in a series. And I find that there are to be four books in all, and the next book in the series won’t be out until July, 2015. Not. nice.

Publisher? Editor? Author? Whoever is in charge? If you have a story that is this unfinished, just wait and publish all four volumes at the same time. Or publish the whole thing in one book. Something. At least with LOST, we only had to wait a week to see what happened next. A year is too long for me, and it’s certainly too long for the ten and eleven year olds that this series is written for. Do you know how long a year is in a pre-teen’s life? It’s forever. (Yes, the kids waited for the next installment of Harry Potter—because each of those books told a complete story. And the HP kids grew as the series went along.) Shipwreck Island is not Harry Potter, although HP is a book that one of the characters takes along to the desert island, and no one is going to remember—or care—what happened in this book by next July.

In Shipwreck Island, we have three kids and a mom and a dad who are shipwrecked on a mysterious island. I don’t see how the kids can grow much older or have the books’ themes and plots become more mature as they progress unless the author plans to have them stay on this island for a very long time. The first book only covers about two days on the island. So in next year’s exciting episode, are we going to have a time marker that says, “One year later . . .”?

Shipwreck Island could have been a good solid read for middle grade students who like adventure and a bit of mystery and horror. Those ten and eleven year olds don’t even remember LOST, anyway. However, somebody blew it as far as pre-publication planning goes. If you really, really love desert island stories with weird and scary creatures, wait three more years and buy the complete book in four volumes.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Blue Sea Burning by Geoff Rodkey

This final book in the Chronicles of Egg trilogy begins as Egg has just been saved from death by hanging by his uncle, the pirate Burn Healy. The first chapter begins with three problems: the ship is sinking, other pirates are out to kill them, and the ship’s crew is giving Egg and his friends murderous looks and muttered threats as they look for a way to get rid of him.

The book just gets better and better from that fine start. There’s a sea battle, so well described that I read every word, instead of skimming the fighting part, as I usually do, to get to the end and find out who won and who lost. Mr. Rodkey writes his characters, especially Egg, and his action scenes with a deft hand, including humor, emotion, and vivid description incorporated into the fast-moving story.

You certainly can’t fault the book for a lack of action or for starting out slowly. The action is relentless and absorbing, and it doesn’t come at the expense of character development. Egg began the series in the book Deadweather and Sunrise as a naive and victimized boy, and in this third book his philosophy of life and his rationale for decision-making are both much more sophisticated. And yet he still has a lot to learn.

The setting is South Pacific islands-ish, perhaps Caribbean, but with mythical islands in an imaginary world. The volcano, the pirates roaming the seas, tropical fruits, religious details, and some of the names (Mata Kalun, Moku, Okalu, etc.) made me think more of the South Pacific. The religion that’s incorporated into the story is particularly interesting to me. Egg’s native friend, Kira, prays to and worships the sun god, Ka. The “settlers” with more British names use the word “Savior” as a sort of swear word or curse (“Oh, Savior’s sake!” and “the Savior as my witness . . .”), but it’s never clear in this book what “savior” they’re talking about. Burn Healy lives by the Pirate Code, a set of rules for an honor culture, that Burn made up himself and had all of his crew sign. He does, that is, until he doesn’t, more on that later.

Egg doesn’t pray to Ka, although he’s glad that Kira does. He hasn’t signed the Code. And he doesn’t seem to have any other religious background or belief. So, Egg is the proverbial seeker, open to truth wherever he can find it, somewhat disillusioned by his recent experiences, but wanting to do what is right and good. So, the search starts with Egg’s Uncle Burn, who has already violated his own Pirate Code by saving Egg’s life, telling him that the world can’t be divided into good and evil, that everyone and everything is “grey”, mostly evil. Egg later decides that the only men on the Blue Sea are “bad and worse.”

But Egg keeps trying to figure out and do what’s right. The Pirate’s Code is not sufficient to inform his actions, but he still wants to be “honorable”. He becomes involved in a project to free the slaves in the silver mines, because slavery is wrong. His uncle tells him, “So are a million other things in this world. You can’t right them all.” Egg persists because he wants to prove himself worthy of the sacrifices others have made in his behalf.

Then, about halfway through the book, Egg and his friends are translating a treasure map with an inscription that comes to the crux of the matter. In part it says: “This we swear as truth: the man who seeks rescue from the gods will die in bitterness. Neither Ka, nor Ma, will save him. The only savior of man is man.”

So, Egg knows he’s on his own, with only his friends to help him, maybe, and yet he carries on. Egg becomes his own savior. He and his friends save the slaves from the silver mine, and they save the people that the the pirates have captured and planned to kill, and he destroys the evil, nefarious villain of the story with a lot of fortitude and a handy trick. Seemingly, the only savior of Egg is Egg himself.

And yet . . . on page 332 Egg is “praying” for his brother Adonis. A figure of speech? Perhaps. But then, as the action winds down, and Egg is almost safe and victorious, but not quite, this interesting thought comes to him:

“I’d seen more than my share of trouble, and when the eruption blotted out the sun, my body finally decided enough was enough, and that it was time to check out for a while and not come back until somebody else had fixed things, or at least swept up some of that ash.”

Finally, at the end of the book, Egg says, “The future felt like a math problem I couldn’t solve.” Maybe, even though this series is over, Egg has even more to learn about Somebody Else who saves and who solves when human efforts are not sufficient.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi

For the second book in a trilogy, Through the Ever Night is not bad. It has a beginning that brings readers up to speed fairly quickly (although it would be better to have read the first book in the series, first and recently), and it has an ending, sort of.

As the novel opens Perry and Aria are reunited, but there are obstacles to their romance and threats to their survival. Aria is being blackmailed by Hess, the ruler of Reverie, which is the virtual reality home of her childhood. In the Real world, Perry is now Blood Lord of the Tides, but along with great power comes great responsibility (where have I heard that one before?). The Tides don’t like Dwellers from Reverie, like Aria. And Aria must find the Still Blue, a storied land of calm and safety, in order to free Perry’s nephew, Talon, from the clutches of the evil Hess. Perry also needs to find the possibly mythical Still Blue as a last refuge for his people from the Aether storms and the marauding bands of displaced people who will eventually destroy them.

By the end, they still haven’t found exactly what they’re looking for, some people have died, others have betrayed or been betrayed, and all is still not well under the never sky. But Perry and Aria are together, which is what most readers will have been rooting for all along. This fantasy adventure romance is mostly romance, with a touch of female empowerment and a brooding, wild man hero. Teens will love it, and I found it definitely readable and good enough to keep me on the hook for the third book in the series.

Semicolon review of Under the Never Sky, the first book in this series.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

Geometry and drawing and chalk duels and strategy games and kidnapping (or murder?) and boarding school and alternative fantastical history with a touch of steampunk. The Rithamtist, by the same author who finished Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time adult fantasy series, is an excellent conglomeration of all of the above plus a lovely set of characters who made the reading both interesting and fun.

Joel is a poor scholarship student, son of the cleaning woman, at a rich people’s school. And what’s more, he longs to be a Rithmatist, but knows he’s missed his opportunity. Rithmatists are an elite bunch, even within an already elite school. They are the specially chosen fighting force that holds off the chalklings on the frontier in Nebrask and keeps them from overrunning the island states of the United Isles. Rithmatists are chosen in a special ceremony when children are only eight years old, and only one in a thousand is picked to join the Rithmatists. Unfortunately Joel missed his “inception” ceremony, so he’s doomed to hangout on the periphery of The Rithmatists who study at Armedius Academy and pick up what he can about Rithmatics as he makes unauthorized visits to Rithmatic classes.

However, now Rithmatist students are disappearing in very suspicious circumstances, and only Joel and the brilliant but aging Rithmatics Professor Fitch can possibly figure out who is behind the disappearances and how to stop them. But Joel suspects that Professor Fitch’s rival, the brash young Professor Nalizar, might be involved in the kidnappings, and a Rithmatist student who’s taking remedial classes, Melody, is definitely involved in Joel’s life whether he wants her to be or not.

You can’t go wrong with this Cybils-nominated fantasy adventure—unless you’re allergic to geometry or chalk dust. The winners of the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category and all the other categories will be announced on Friday, February 14th. The Rithmatist is definitely a contender.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

A homeschooling mom friend recommended Under the Never Sky, the first in a futuristic, dystopian trilogy of YA novels about a place I wouldn’t want to visit In Real Life. Aria lives in Reverie, an enclosed pod-like city where everyone spends their time experiencing life in virtual reality “Realms”. When she visits the outside, the “Real”, Aria is in for a dangerous surprise and a journey that will both change her and show her true self.

Perry is a hunter and a fighter; for him, violence is a way of life, a tool for survival. When he meets the Dweller-girl Aria, the two opposites form an unlikely alliance so that both of them can maybe get what they want. Aria wants to find her mother who has been lost in a research accident (or attack), and Perry wants to find his nephew who was kidnapped by the Dwellers.

Plot and characters were at the forefront of this YA novel, and the story itself was a page-turner. I couldn’t tell you what the story was about, in terms of themes, except maybe that surviving together in a harsh and dangerous world can breed inter-dependence, or even what Perry calls “being rendered” with another person.

“Aria smiled, turning toward him, her eyes dropping to his mouth. The room sweetened with her violet scent, drawing him in, becoming everything, and he felt it. A shift deep within him. The seal of a bond he’d known once before. And suddenly he understood . . .
It happened.
He had rendered to her.”

This one is a good, romantic yet wild and ferocious, adventure story for alternate universe geeks who love a good rendering on or around Valentine’s Day (or anytime really). The second and third books in this trilogy are titled Through the Ever Night and Into the Still Blue.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Redux

In light of the movie that’s just been released, I thought I’d re-run my review of Ender’s Game from 2006 when I first read it. I would add the updated perspective that I’m much less inclined to think of books as “boys’ books” or “girls’ books” nowadays, having been proved wrong so many times by my own children and others. Suffice it to say that Ender’s Game is violent, with few or no well-rounded female characters.


I hate mind games; this book was one big mind game.
I’m not too fond of war movies or novels or violence; Ender’s Game is all about war and violence.
I’m more of a fantasy fan than a science fiction fan; Ender’s Game is science fiction with a vengeance.
And to top it all off, this violent science fiction novel that tries to play games with the reader’s mind is definitely a boys’ book. It wasn’t written for girls, and it probably won’t appeal to many of them.

However, I thought Ender’s Game was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time; maybe the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read. Someone told me that Ender’s Game is on the required reading list for Marine Corps officer candidates. I can see why; did I mention that this book is very military, very male?

Ender Wiggin is an illegal Third (third child), but like his brother, Peter, and his sister, Valentine, he is a genius. The powers that be hope he is also the one kid who can save the world from the Buggers who have already invaded Earth twice and are expected back anytime. Or maybe we’re planning to get them before they invade for a third time. Either way Ender, still a child, must learn enough very quickly to lead Earth’s army in what may turn out to be Armageddon, the final battle for domination of Earth and its colonies.

The themes in this book make it intriguing even as the plot twists and surprises keep the reader turning the pages to see what will happen next. Ender’s Game asks questions about power and violence and sin and forgiveness. Is it morally acceptable to use overwhelming force against an enemy when you know that enemy is willing and able to destroy you? What if you begin to enjoy the exercise of violence and power over others for its own sake? Can members of very different cultures communicate and make peace, or are they doomed to destroy one another? Is it acceptable to strike first to destroy an enemy who has already attacked you once? Can people change? Does a truly evil child, a torturer, become civilized? How? How are leaders formed? What makes a group, an army unit, for instance, a cohesive force? How does a leader go about creating that cohesiveness?

Lots of questions. Some of these questions are questions that we’re still pondering and muddling through as a country in the aftermath of 9/11. Orson Scott Card certainly doesn’t have all the answers, and I thought the ending of the book was its weakest part. However, he definitely asks the right questions, questions that we will be forced to answer as we deal with our own crises in this post 9/11 world.

Highly recommended with one caveat: the language is army language, rough and crude. If that bothers you, skip this book. (To tell the truth, crude language annoys me. However, it wasn’t gratuitous; I would imagine that men whose profession is violent use just the kind of language that is in this book, only worse.) I think it’s worth skimming over some words in order to read this story and think about its implications.


I assume the movie asks and attempts to answer some of the same questions. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard it’s quite violent, in keeping with the source material.

The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George, author of seventeen mysteries about Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, has placed her first young adult novel on an island, Whidbey Island, near Seattle, Washington. The island setting gives the novel a claustrophobic feel, while the main character’s ability to hear “whispers” of other people’s thoughts makes it eerie and somewhat Hitchcockian in another way.

Becca King and her mom are on the run from Becca’s stepfather who used Becca’s special “mind-reading” abilities to enrich himself. However, now that both Becca and her mom know that the stepfather is a murderer as well as a thief, their lives are in danger. So mom leaves Becca with a friend on Whidbey Island, while she goes on to Canada to make a place for the two of them.

The story was compelling, but there were issues. Maybe because this book is the beginning of a series(?) about Becca and her mom and Whidbey Island, there were lots of unanswered questions and plot and character developments that felt unfinished and just weird somehow. Yet, I’m not sure I care enough about Becca and her new island friends to find the next book in the series and read it.

The “whispers” that Becca hears are chaotic fragments of thought that also give the book a weird vibe. I couldn’t figure out half the time who was thinking or what they were thinking about, and I didn’t see how Becca could make much sense of her sixth sense, either. The ability to hear thought whispers certainly doesn’t give Becca much insight into the people she meets on the island, nor does her ability help her to figure out who injured her new friend, Derric, and put him into a coma. Or was it an accident?

I prefer Ms. George’s Inspector Lynley mysteries, and I found the fragmented whispers of thought in this book annoying and unnecessary.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire is billed as a companion novel to Wein’s popular and award-winning World War II story, Code Name Verity. It’s not really a sequel, but it does take place after the events in Code Name Verity and some of the same characters do make an appearance, particularly Maddie, Queenie/Verity’s best friend. However, this new book is really about 18-year old American pilot, Rose Justice, who joins the British Air Transport Auxiliary in order to help end the war. The story takes place in England, France, and later, Germany, as Rose’s flying assignments take her closer and closer to danger and destruction.

Rose Under Fire may not please all of the fans of Code Name Verity because it’s not as psychologically suspenseful as Code Name Verity is. However, Rose Under Fire is a fascinating look at an aspect of the Holocaust and the concentration camps that I didn’t know much, if anything, about. After a series of misadventures, Rose ends up incarcerated in Ravensbruck, the infamous German death camp. It’s 1946, and the war is coming to an end. However, the Germans are determined to fight to the bitter end, and those who have been committing atrocities in Ravensbruck and elsewhere are making every effort to cover their tracks and maintain order before the Allies liberate the camps.

Part of the cover-up involves silencing those who can bear witness to the worst of the atrocities. Rose, who becomes an accidental witness to some of Ravensbruck’s most horrific secrets, is charged by the other women prisoners to survive and tell the world about the things she sees and learns while she is imprisoned.

While I was reading Rose Under Fire, I was reminded of Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. (I highly recommend both the book and the movie.) I thought perhaps that reminder was because Wein’s book takes place in Ravensbruck, the same prison camp where Corrie and her sister Betsy were held. However, it turns out that there is more to the echo than just a common setting. Ms. Wein lists The Hiding Place in her bibliography at the end of her book, and I found the following information in an article online:

“. . . at age eight, she (Elizabeth Wein) first encountered information about concentration camps, in a comic book adaptation of Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. She read the book itself a few years later, and then drew her own illustrated version of Boom’s memoir about hiding Jews from the Nazis at the family’s watch shop in Holland. ‘I was obsessed with her story, frankly,’ Wein says. ‘Something about how they managed to maintain hope resonated with me.’ ~Publishers Weekly

I was reminded of The Hiding Place because Ms. Wein did her research well. The Ravensbruck in Rose Under Fire is the real Ravensbruck, the same horrible place that is shown in Corrie Ten Boom’s memoir and testimony to God’s grace and mercy. Rose Under Fire isn’t a religious or “Christian” book at all, but there are touches of grace: a motherly prisoner who always prays before allowing her brood their daily crumbs of bread, another prisoner who gives her life in Rose’s place, and Rose herself who receives supernatural strength to endure unspeakable suffering. Rose is a poet as well as an aviator, and in her poems (Elizabeth Wein’s poems) she writes about suffering and hope and redemption.

I was reminded of Corrie Ten Boom’s famous statement of faith and courage: “No pit is so deep that He is not deeper still; with Jesus even in our darkest moments, the best remains and the very best is yet to be.”

And there’s the admonition of Elie Weisel, who said, like so many other Holocaust survivors say: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

Rose Under Fire, though it’s fiction, is a true witness to the depravity of man and the tenacity of hope, sure to get a Cybils nomination in the YA fiction category.

An interview with Elizabeth Wein at Playing by the Book.