Heart-less YA for Valentine’s Day!

Young adult (YA) books are fun to read – for teens and adults!  New YA authors are constantly introducing fresh material, blending genres and incorporating topical subjects; established YA authors continue delivering stellar series; and many well-known adult novelists such as James Patterson, Harlan Coben, Kathy Reichs, and Kelley Armstrong now also write for the YA market.  Plus, some of the latest blockbuster movies such as The Hunger Games series, Ender’s Game, and the Twilight series (and the projected blockbuster Divergent coming out in March) have been based on YA novels.

However, to me, the fun of YA novels diminishes when they focus more on love triangles than on the marketed genres and plots.  Romance novels and romantic subplots can be quite enjoyable, but when a supposed action novel devotes more time to agonizing over who likes whom than to the action sequences and plot, I am left feeling disappointed.

With that in mind, here is a list of YA books I have enjoyed where romance supports - but does not overwhelm - the main plot.

1. Bloody Jack series by L. A. Meyer
Beginning with Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy, this series follows the life - and many adventures - of Mary “Jacky” Faber, an orphan girl in early-nineteenth-century London who disguises herself as a boy to make her way in the world.  In the first book, Mary changes her name to Jack (a.k.a. “Jacky”) and signs on as a ship’s boy for a British warship dedicated to hunting pirates.  While Jacky does become secretly engaged to fellow ship’s boy James Fletcher, their romance is kept to a minimum, and the focus of the book is on the high seas adventures. The series has reached an impressive 11 books as of fall 2013, and the first few that I have read/listened to via audiobook have been entertaining, action-packed, and humorous - especially as read by narrator Katherine Kellgren.

2. Virals series by Kathy Reichs
This action/mystery series – with a bit of science fiction thrown in – is written by forensic anthropologist and crime writer Kathy Reichs.  Main character Victoria “Tory” Brennan (the great-niece of Reichs’ adult series character Temperance Brennan) lives on a remote island in South Carolina with her researcher father and a small group of other scientists working for the Loggerhead Island Research Institute (LIRI).  In the first book, she and her friends stumble upon an unsolved murder case and become targets when they start investigating.  They also become infected with an experimental virus that gives them super-heightened senses when they “flare,” which helps their investigating skills but adds the complication of concealing their new abilities.  Tory goes through some romantic ups and downs with boys in school, but action and suspense are the overriding tone of the book.

3. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
New YA author Ransom Riggs delivers an intriguing supernatural mystery in which average 16-year-old Jacob discovers that his grandfather’s fantastical stories of monsters and “peculiar” children with mysterious powers might actually be true.  Upon his grandfather’s sudden, violent death, Jacob convinces his father to take him to Wales so he can learn more about his grandfather’s past, specifically the orphanage for peculiar children to which his grandfather had been sent to escape Nazi persecution in Poland.  Not only does Jacob discover the orphanage, but he meets the very same children his grandfather had stayed with, all of whom are living in a time loop in 1940.  He also learns that the monsters that got his grandfather are hunting all peculiar children…and Jacob is one of those being hunted.  In terms of love interests, Jacob does develop feelings for one of the girls, but the complicated romance only adds to the world-is-turning-upside-down-and-things-are-moving-too-fast tone.  Book one ends on a cliffhanger, but luckily the sequel, Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, has just been released.

4. Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan
Though realistic fiction is not my usual genre of choice, this book turned out to be a compelling read.  Obstinate 16-year-old Eleanor “Elly” Crowe is seven months pregnant and hastily married to her irresponsible boyfriend, much to the disapproval of both their families.  Elly’s missionary parents have moved to Kenya, and she is left to spend the summer working at her husband’s family’s summer camp for overweight kids – not her cup of tea.  After a somewhat rocky start, Elly begins to fit in, bond with a few of the campers, earn a smidgeon of sympathy from her in-laws, and feel more positive about her future.  A tragedy on the day of her baby’s birth, however, brings more heartache, and Elly must see her way through another round of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  Despite the depressing-sounding plot, Elly is a likable, relatable character whose spunky, insightful, borderline-sarcastic perspective on things makes the book very enjoyable.  She does become attracted to another counselor when her husband seems to be backing away from the whole relationship, but this adds to Elly’s feelings of confusion, abandonment, and lack of emotional support rather than detracting from the plot.

5. The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
In Sanderson’s suspenseful fantasy, main character Joel has been given free tuition at an elite prep school because his parents used to/still work there.  (His chalk-maker father is deceased, and his mother is a cleaning lady.)  As a charity-case scholarship boy, Joel has never fit in – not actively disliked by his fellow students but just not wealthy or connected enough to form close friendships.  Also keeping him apart is his obsession with Rithmatics, the arcane art of bringing chalk drawings (“chalklings”) to life, an art form practiced by specially gifted people called "Rithmatists" for the purpose of protecting the world from destruction by wild chalklings.  Despite Joel’s knowledge, interest, and skill, he is not one of the gifted ones and so must study in secret.  His studies pay off, however, when several Rithmatic students on campus are attacked and disappear, and Joel and struggling Rithmatics student Melody must work together to solve the problem before it is too late.  Joel and Melody become close, but a romance between the two is never over-emphasized.


6. Dodger by Sir Terry Pratchett
For anyone who enjoys reading about early Victorian London, this book is a wealth of interesting trivia.  London guttersnipe Dodger is a tosher, a treasure-hunter in the city’s sewers.  When he rescues a girl from two assailants one dark night, he comes to the attention of newspaperman Charles Dickens (before he was famous), and the two of them set out to protect the girl when it becomes clear that her marriage prospects are tied to international politics.  Dodger ends up meeting some of the most powerful and noteworthy people in England - Henry Mayhew, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, and Sweeney Todd, to name a few – and his humorous perspective makes this mystery/adventure an entertaining read.  In terms of romance, Dodger does fall in love with the girl, Simplicity, but the relationship builds throughout the story and never detracts from the story.

To conclude with a bit of humor from the book F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers by Richard Benson:

Test Question:  What is a CD-ROM?
Student Answer:  A cd of romantic music

Have a happy Valentine’s Day!

-- Jennifer Post, Youth Services Librarian

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