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Sleepers, dark horses, and underdogs

At year’s end, we’re bombarded with “best of” lists. Though the following books received mostly favorable reviews, they may have flown under the radar for most readers in 2011, which makes them good titles to suggest when all of the blockbusters are checked out:

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick
Though this post-apocalyptic novel has a female protagonist, it has a gritty, realistic feel that gives it guy- as well as girl-appeal. Seventeen-year-old Alex runs away to the woods to scatter her dead parents’ ashes and to come to grips with the incurable brain tumor that surely will cut short her life. Meanwhile, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) reverberates through the atmosphere, killing most of the world’s people and wiping out all electronics systems. Some of the survivors develop super senses (Alex’s sense of smell is ramped up) and some, particularly the young, become zombie-esque killers with a taste for human flesh.

Alex meets up with 8-year-old Ellie, whose grandfather was killed by the EMP, and Tom, a young Army vet with a mysterious past, and they band together to try to stay alive. Bick is a former Air Force major, and the wilderness survival details have a realistic edge that makes this dystopian thriller more plausible than some. While there may be one subplot too many, this is the first in a planned series, so loose ends (and the cliff-hanger ending) should be tied up in future installments.

Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber
When Perry’s parents force him to take Gobi, their dowdy Lithuanian exchange student, to senior prom, the dull night he expects takes a screeching 180-degree turn. It turns out that Gobi is a cold-blooded professional assassin, and she drags Perry along as a henchman on her one-night revenge mission across Manhattan. This fast-paced suspense story with humorous undertones is just 190 pages long and is a great pick for teens who like their fiction fast and furious.

Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin
This romance about the stars of a hit teen-focused television show has more depth than the genre to which it refers. Structured in chapters that alternate points of view, Charlie Tracker (the girl) and Fielding Withers (the guy) are red-hot actors on the show “Jenna and Jonah’s How to be a Rock Star.” Their fame and fortune rest on viewers believing that they are as much in love in real life as the couple they portray on TV. The reality is, of course, that they can’t stand each other, and when they have a public falling out, they are forced to hide out from the press in one of Fielding’s homes. It’s only then that they get to know each other as real people, not as representatives of a corporate brand. The plot may be predictable, but the exposure of the cynical way that business manipulates both actors and viewers is thought-provoking. It’s a great choice for readers that can’t get enough of the Robert Pattinson/Kristen Stewart romance!

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
This book’s unfortunate cover (an illustration of an ivory-billed woodpecker on a tree) may make it a tough sell, but being nominated for YALSA’s 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults may help it find its audience. Sarcastic 17-year-old Cullen Witter snoozes through life in Lily, Arkansas, working in a gas station and making up titles of books that he one day may write. The monotony breaks when his 15-year-old brother Gabriel disappears without a trace. While his family is disintegrating, his town is going bonkers over a sighting of the supposedly extinct “Lazarus bird.” Cullen despises the tacky carnival atmosphere that grips the town, leading to book title #78: It Is Not a Sin to Kill a Woodpecker.

Across the world in Africa, 18-year-old missionary Benton Sage loses his faith and returns home to the wrath of his stern and unyielding father. His dissolution intersects with Gabriel’s disappearance in a major plot point that would ruin the story to divulge. This book is perfect for introspective teens that are open to complex stories about characters whose lives are not as small and ordinary as they may appear to be on the surface.

When you look back at 2011, what books did you enjoy that didn’t get the notice you think they deserve? What little gems are you talking up, hoping that someone else likes them as much as you do?

— Suzanne Neumann, currently reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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Suzanne Neumann


  1. Interestingly enough, some of these books look more interesting to me than some of the big blockbusters! Thanks for pointing them out.

  2. […] reviews or landed on the various best of lists. The Hub, of course, is a great stop for finding well reviewed titles and also analysis and interesting break downs of the “best of” lists. Largehearted Boy […]

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