Five Stellar Books To Dive Into Over Winter Break (and Three Books From Which You Should Steer Clear)

Five Stellar Books To Dive Into Over Winter Break (and Three Books From Which You Should Steer Clear)

Despite not being a popular pastime for teenagers, reading is a rare hobby that is both educational and recreational. The process of reading is much less arduous than it seems; in fact, I would argue that nothing can compare to the feeling of successfully finishing a book, whether it’s a historical tome or a magical fantasy. With winter break around the corner, now is the perfect time for discovering new worlds and meeting new characters through the power of books. As such, I would be remiss if I did not follow our school’s Quaker values and serve my community by offering book recommendations and warnings. Without further ado, here are five fantasy books to explore during the break – and three books that you should avoid.

 (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Many of you readers may be turned off by the fact that YA and fiction novels are widely regarded as childish or “girly.” However, I encourage all of you to remember that reading is reading, regardless of the genre. Everyone has different media preferences, and it would be incredibly silly for anyone to judge you or me for the novels we like to read based on something as silly as gender stereotypes. So as you read this list, remember one thing: these books are for everyone! Or, rather, everyone over the age of fourteen, since some of these books handle mature themes.)

DIVE IN!

BOOK #1: Crown of Coral and Pearl – Mara Rutherford

During a time where many people are forced to quarantine with their immediate families, a book like Crown of Coral and Pearl that analyzes the complexities of sisterhood comes across as incredibly vital. When Zadie, the most beautiful girl on the colonized island of Varenia, is chosen to immigrate to Illara (Varenia’s mother country) and become queen consort, she purposely ruins her appearance so she can stay with her family instead. In order to avoid angering the cruel prince of Illara by sending an “imperfect” girl, Zadie’s family sends her twin sister, Nor. There’s only one catch: Nor has a scar on her face, making her as “imperfect” as Zadie. As a result, Nor is tasked with keeping up the façade and overthrowing the prince before he destroys her – and the home she loves. It’s very rare for a book to lampoon imperialism, unfair beauty standards, and the patriarchy in one fell swoop, but Crown of Coral and Pearl deftly balances all three to create a tale of heart, wit, and soul. Even a tacked-on, desperate tease of an unnecessary sequel can’t blunt this book’s taut momentum, which will leave you on the edge of your seat as you turn its pages.

BOOK #2: Panic – Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver’s work will be mentioned in this article again, for all the wrong reasons. But before I lambast her most recent novel (the turgid and bland Vanishing Girls), I should offer praise where it’s due. And there is certainly a lot to praise about Panic. By setting her novel in a sleepy town like Carp, New York, Oliver manages to make her book delightfully boring; her descriptions of the rundown trailer parks and depressingly average malls that pepper the town make the reader feel as trapped as her hopeless main characters. But this boredom clashes with the book’s engaging plot, which centers around Heather, Dodge, Bishop, and Nat as they persevere through tenuous alliances, dangerous quests, and shocking betrayals while participating in an outlawed tournament called Panic. This high-stakes plot ensures that Oliver’s melding of the melodramatic and the mundane is a smashing success, and secures Panic’s place at the top of her bibliography.

BOOK #3: The Diabolic (+ The Empress and The Nemesis) – S.J. Kincaid

One of the major pitfalls of series-writing is the potentially inconsistent quality of the books. From George R.R. Martin (who can’t even finish his series) to Victoria Aveyard (who probably shouldn’t have bothered finishing hers), it seems that every author is doomed to go through a slump when chronicling consecutive adventures. S.J. Kincaid had no such slump; in fact, her Diabolic books steadily rose in quality as the series went on. This ascent culminated in The Nemesis, which deserves to go down in history as one of the best sci-fi adjacent books in the last five years. The book’s engaging plot twists, masterful characterization, and poignant emotional beats come together to create an absolute knockout of a finale, which is as jaw-dropping as it is satisfying. However, it’s necessary to read both The Diabolic and The Empress in order to fully comprehend The Nemesis, and both books are quite strong; while the former floats like a butterfly by exploring the budding emotions and ambitions of Nemesis (the titular Diabolic), the latter stings like a bee – and cuts like a knife – by breaking the reader’s heart at every turn. Overall, Kincaid’s trilogy is definitely worth the time it takes to read, and should be at the top of every avid reader’s book list.

BOOK #4: Renegades – Marissa Meyer

Oh, Renegades. Where do I even begin? To be quite honest, I seriously considered putting this book on the “steer clear” list because it was, to put it simply, a mess. The book makes its first mistake in the beginning two chapters: introducing no less than ELEVEN main and supporting characters with their own backstories. After this exposition dump, the book brings even more garbage into the fray by promoting the two most annoying and idiotic teens on Earth – Nova and Adrian – to main character status. Frankly, I feel insulted by these so-called “protagonists,” because most teenagers are much smarter and kinder than Marissa Meyer – the author – gives them credit for in Renegades. However, despite these major flaws, the book is strangely addictive. It’s plausible that my love of superheroes made me more willing to tolerate the book’s blunders, but I’ll chalk my surprisingly positive experience down to the relentless plot and unsubtle writing style. In this way, Renegades is eerily similar to a Michael Bay film (without the racist stereotypes): clunky, loud, and (sometimes) entertaining as heck. 

BOOK #5: Flawed (+ Perfect) – Cecelia Ahern

In an industry obsessed with trilogies (see above), it can be rather refreshing to dive into a book with only one follow-up. Flawed and Perfect form a duology that is more heartbreaking than it has any right to be. In a world where people who make moral mistakes (and the ones who aid them) are deemed “Flawed” and treated like second-class citizens, Celestine (the main character) suffers through torture, abuse, and judgement when she makes the fatal mistake of aiding a Flawed citizen in poor health. While Ahern’s criticism of holding morally flawed people accountable comes across as rather ignorant at times, her book thrives on its more conventional and earnest message: people are capable of learning from their mistakes. Her clipped and straightforward writing style also masterfully reflects Celestine’s reliance on logic and simplicity, making this book perfect for people who dislike excessive “purple prose.” 

STEER CLEAR…

(NOTE: Though I will provide the Goodreads link for each of these books, I strongly encourage you NOT to click on any of them. I can assure you that none of these books are worth your time, and that staying away from them will protect you from a world of pain and disappointment. Don’t make the same mistakes that I made, dear readers!)

BOOK #1: Caraval – Stephanie Garber 

Arguably the most frustrating book on this list, Caraval is almost insulting due to the fact that its premise is much stronger than its execution. A book that takes place during a magical festival and involves an elaborate quest should be one of the most entertaining books of the year; instead, Stephanie Garber sabotages her own book by writing foolish characters, horrible setting descriptions, and laughable plot twists that border on incoherence. While I applaud Garber for coming up with such an intriguing concept, Caraval is an absolutely perfect example of what NOT to waste your time reading.

BOOK #2: Frost Blood (+ Fire Blood and Night Blood) – Elly Blake

Frost Blood has a rather generic premise when compared to most of the books on this list. To its credit, it manages to sidestep this roadblock by making the plot somewhat comprehensible and entertaining. For these reasons alone, this book would have been a logical choice for my “dive in” list. Unfortunately, its sequel, Fire Blood, is an absolute mess; by using a new setting for its main characters, the book ruins the decent pacing and plotting that Frost Blood managed to partially perfect. Therefore, I would be the cruelest person alive to suggest Frost Blood to anyone, because the low, low quality of Fire Blood would only guarantee disappointment and exasperation down the road. To this day, I remain unsure if I want to read Night Blood, the third book in the series; however, I am considering picking it up in order to give the trilogy (and the author, Elly Blake) another chance to win me back. If I ever get around to reading it, I’ll be sure to let you all know if it redeems the series (though I highly doubt that it will).

BOOK #3: Vanishing Girls – Lauren Oliver

  Even though Lauren Oliver usually excels at writing entertaining stand-alone books (see above), her most recent novel, Vanishing Girls, can be counted as one of her rare misses. The book is an awful hair-puller of a novel; it is nigh-impossible to recall a single detail about the main characters, who fail to draw the reader’s attention in any meaningful way. In fact, mentioning the names of the characters in this list would be both pointless and frustrating; coincidentally, those two words could easily be used to describe the book as a whole. In fairness, Oliver deserves credit for her discussion of schizophrenia via a creative twist (à la The Sixth Sense), so it’s hard to fault the book for a lack of ambition. But that’s the other problem with Vanishing Girls: none of this ambition is couched in anything remotely entertaining.

So there you have it! I highly encourage all of you to dive into these five books (and avoid the last three for your own sanity) over the break. Happy reading, everyone!