Five Disappointing Young Adult Books

So this week I fell short of my goal to finish reading (and ranking) all of Rainbow Rowell because of my (much more ambitious) goal to read all of David Levithan.

Instead, I’m coming at you with a list of five disappointing young adult books I’ve read this year. Since I’m up to 82 out of 95 books for my original 95 books goal, and most of what I read is young adult, I’ve consumed a lot of it by now. And while I came to all of it hyped to enjoy it, there have been some books I’ve noped away from. (In addendum to those in this post: I obviously wasn’t too happy with Looking for Alaska, the Grisha trilogy, and the later books in The Selection series, either.) I finished them, because it’s not like most of them take a long time to finish, and I have a goal after all—but they’re on the discard list (or already gone), and here’s why.

#1. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

This book was so hyped for me, and maybe that’s why I found it disappointing. The voice of the girl who left behind the tapes explaining her suicide was vivid and moving, but the narrator chosen to describe and react to the experience of the tapes was as bland as humanly possible. Also, while I don’t have too much of an issue with young adult literature being didactic (or in less stuffy terms, trying to teach a lesson), I don’t react well to it when it’s hammer-on-the-head obvious. If you don’t think teens are smart enough to interpret very basic stuff (hey, maybe if people reached out to each other more, they’d feel less alone!), I don’t see why you’re pitching to them as your audience.

#2. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

I really wanted to like Throne of Glass. I pushed my way through this whole long, epic book trying to like Throne of Glass. But this book repeatedly told me about interesting events without showing them, gave me a heroine good at everything while continually making that questionable (what kind of perfect assassin can’t hold in their pride and shut up a minute?), constructed a love triangle I couldn’t care less about (for these to work, you have to care about the love interests), and hinted unsubtly at a magical origin for the protagonist that you can predict from the first instance. I wanted to. I tried. I couldn’t do it.

#3. Legend by Marie Lu

So I have no issue with tropes and familiar story patterns. What bothers me is when a lot of them crop up in a story and there’s not much else holding it together. You can use a trope and give it a twist, or ground it with characters and circumstances that make it feel emotionally weighty even in its familiarity. This book didn’t get there for me, so the dystopia where tests at a formative age are used to sort people + little to no parents + star-crossed enemies + “omg the government is lying about the thing!” structure didn’t do anything for me. Also, there’s a weird feeling that this book wants the idea that the government is lying to be shocking—not to the characters, but to the reader. Teens are not immune to genre-savviness, Legend. In fact, given the givens, they’re pretty good at it.

#4. We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

This book was too much about “learning important life lessons” for me, and it felt as if Ashley, one of the narrators, had to learn most of the “life lessons,” which left the two-narrator book out of balance. Also, the voices of the narrators cleaved a little too close to stereotype for me. Stewart was charming enough, but too spot on for an innocent too-smart nerd. Ashley’s brain was uncompromisingly self-centred and shallow until she “learned life lessons.” (Even very shallow teen girls can have soft spots and real dreams and thoughts. Come on.) Also, the way the plot punished the shallowness out of her felt harsh and almost as if it were trying to justify itself (while propping up Stewart as heroic). There were some cute moments in this book, but just nah.

#5. Red Rising series

These disappointed me the most, but I’m leaving them last because they seem to live in the “new adult” ambiguous genre wasteland, so whether you consider them a valid list entry may vary.

That aside, these books had the same problems Legend did but amplified: they’re a bunch of tropes cobbled together without much unique fleshing out. Mostly the plot and the protagonist follow each trope to its logical conclusion, and as a result the narrator-protagonist (and most of the supporting characters) don’t get much development as they move through the paces of the story patterns. (Dystopian sorting of society that invites rebellion! Inciting tragic event that sparks unrest! Peasant sneaking into the upper class to disrupt the system/fish out of water! Classic revenge narrative! And so on.)

Why did I read the whole series? Well, answer one is an attempt to get why some work friends liked it (I won’t get these hours back, but hopefully we’re still friends), but answer two is that the narrator-protagonist makes some interesting choices using a kind of extrapolative logic: when presented with options, he picks none of them and does something else. Sadly, once you get used to that, it also becomes easy to predict, so even the plot twists feel like they’ve stopped caring. I do get the sense this could work better as a movie series—it’s full of action, and using typical stories as shortcuts can work as a vehicle to get to the exciting bits in action movies. But as a book series, I wanted to care about the characters whose lives were at stake (and not feel as if I knew exactly who could or couldn’t die), and that didn’t much work out.

Of course, gentle blog reader, take my thoughts with a big grain of salt: the thing I care most about while reading is character and character development, and as a former literature-studier, I’m quick to identify a story pattern and get bored with it if it doesn’t give me something else to cling to. (Or put it in TV terms: I love Sense8, even though a lot of people found the plot achingly slow, because it pays a lot of attention to character. I gave up on Game of Thrones—not the book series, but the show—because although the plot will still hold some surprises, the character decisions started making no sense.)

And if it’s any consolation, once I get to the end of the year, I fully intend to make a young adult top ten. So, until then and until next week: thanks for caring about books with me!

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