Whenever I get asked the question “what do you like to do for fun?” reading is always one of the hobbies I list first— I think I actually wrote one of my MIT application essays on how much I liked books— but this past semester I spent the majority of my time reading textbooks and pset problems and articles on dummies.com and not much else. Tragically so, because reading was a huge part of my life back in high school, but since starting college and no longer having access to the neighbourhood library that I used to frequent I’ve been reading a lot less than I used to.
So as soon as the semester ended, (literally as soon as I stepped into the airport for my flight back home), I decided that there was no better time to make up for lost time than now. But as soon as I started reading again I quickly remembered why I hadn’t been reading as much recently— when I start reading a good book, I become very, very reluctant to put it down before I finish it. Some of my favourite books that I’ve had for years have stains on them from being brought along for a walk home in the rain or from accompanying me at mealtimes or surviving apartment hopping across cities and countries. I still remember getting directly called out by my middle school principal for reading the Goblet of Fire in assembly… and for getting reprimanded by my Chinese debate captain for reading The Selection during some presentation. (I guess there’s a reason that I never was a very good member of the team :() The few books that I read this past semester came with me to lectures and to dining halls, and were… not so conducive to my productivity, so I think I need to figure out how to strike a better balance so I can keep reading more even when school starts up again. (Promising myself that I’m just going to read one more chapter doesn’t work very well 🙁 )
I’ve always had a bit of a thing for YA novels because of how light-hearted and character-driven most of them are, but I’ve been trying to explore different genres and books that I wouldn’t usually pick up. One genre that my mom is particularly fond of is thriller novels, and while I’m not a big fan of horror movies (probably an understatement, I am extremely weak), I thought that picking up some YA thrillers would be a good opportunity for me to dip my toe into the ghostly waters. Most of the books that I’ve been reading are recommendations from friends or from online sites like Goodreads, while others are stories that I first fell in love with years ago and that I can’t help revisiting every now and then. So without further ado, here is a breakdown of ten of the books that I’ve read recently!
Spoilers will all be in white text, so highlight to read those sections.
They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman
This is a YA thriller about a girl who goes to a private school where she’s a part of a secretive and exclusive club (read: cult) called The Players. Years before, during her initiation into the group, her best friend Sheila was killed and Sheila’s boyfriend Graham was indicted for the murder. But was he actually the killer?
(Spoiler: no, or there probably wouldn’t be a book to read to begin with :p)
My first question when reading the book was what is a Player? The members are handpicked from the incoming freshman class by the upperclassmen, and are subject intense hazing rituals to prove that they “have what it takes” to be one of them. Once becoming a player, they throw parties and sit at an exclusive lunch table and *gasp* break the school dress code, and also have access to years worth of test answers and to connections and information that can help set them up for life. Many of the players access this information through an app to achieve high test scores and gain the upper hand for college admissions, though it seems like the concessions of once being a Player last far beyond high school through the network of graduates. There’s certainly a price to pay for all of this, though, beyond the weight on one’s conscience, as evidenced by Sheila’s death.
Part of the appeal of thrillers to me is trying to piece together the clues to figure out who the culprit is before it’s revealed to us, and I thought that it was pretty obvious who the actual killer was around halfway through the book— which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never cared much about spoilers, because ~it’s all about the journey, not the destination~, unless the destination itself is unideal and the book has a unsatisfying ending.
This book wasn’t bad, but it’s also definitely not a book that I’m itching to re-read anytime soon. I liked the premise and the setting, and the commentary on societal inequalities and morality in regard to cheating on tests and college admissions was also interesting, but I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters save for the main character Jill’s parents and her boyfriend Henry, who she was dating even though she liked someone else:( . The whole atmosphere of the book was pretty dark and grim, and even reading about some of the events that took place made me feel a little uncomfortable, so if you’re looking for a feel-good read then you might want to look somewhere else. Despite being a part of greek life hazing is something that doesn’t sit right with me at all, and I was glad that the main character and I at least agreed on that front. Spoiler: (highlight to read)
I didn’t really care for the relationship between Jill and her “older guy,” Adam, who was giving very sus vibes all the way from the beginning. She finds out that he was the killer from coincidentially seeing a ring of great significance in his drawer, which did seem a liiiittle too convenient. I also thought that the entire situation with her brother becoming a stereotypical Player and beginning to show little regard for others and particularly girls was really sad. At the end of the novel, she gives up her status as a player and her admission to Brown, which I understand as a statement of no longer needing the conncetions and status she was afforded as a Player to make her own way in life, and it was nice that the hypocrisy of the other Player’s in perpetuating the hazing was called out.
Freakanomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
I read this book during my freshman year of high school for econ class, and I remembered enjoying it a lot so I decided to pick it back up again when I saw it on my bookshelf. It’s definitely much more interesting than I imagine an econ textbook to be, though I don’t know how much of this book is economics and how much of it is just looking at data and writing a nice story about it. Still, re-reading this book reminded me of discussing the business practices of high-end escorts with my classmates in the building of an autobody repair shop that was our high school at the time, which made for a fun trip down memory lane. I also particularly liked the chapter about parenting and standardized testing, and the entire section about the escapades with the drug dealers was interesting but read kind of like a soap opera?
A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
Part 2 of my foray into YA thrillers! Another very popular book that I was excited to get into- the premise of the investigation being a girl’s school project was interesting and I liked how the format lent to her comments and interview transcriptions that drove the narrative in addition to the usual paragraphs of text and dialogue.
I read this book as a part of my “let’s try out the YA mystery genre” shelf and I really liked the light-hearted nature of this book despite the happenings being contrastingly much darker than I expected. The main character Poppy’s school project is to investigate what truly happened to one of her classmates who was presumably murdered by her boyfriend. The boyfriend was later found dead in the forest, his death ruled as a suicide and supposedly serving as evidence of his guilty conscience. Poppy’s not sure if he did it, though, and teams up with his brother to dig into the past and uncover what truly happened.
I read this immediately after finishing They Wish They Were Us, so this was the second book in a row I read about boys being implicated of murdering their girlfriends. The other similarity between this book and They Wish They Were Us is that they’re both investigating murders that happened a long time ago, to the point where people around them keep saying that they’re doing more harm than good like picking at a wound that had just freshly scabbed over. Though I guess the wound inflicted towards those accused of the crimes, if they truly were innocent, had never healed to begin with.
I thought that Poppy was a fun protagonist, even though her zeal and bravery did come off as ill-planned stupidity at times, like when she rushed into a drug dealer’s den without thinking and decided to confront the suspect(s) of the crime(s) all alone, without backup or letting anyone know where she would be not once but twice. Thank goodness for plot armour.
If you’re into plot twists, this book actually has two, and the reveal definitely unnerved me which I guess means that the book did its job.
(We find out that one of the perpetrators was a teacher at Poppy’s high school and her best friend’s father, someone who Poppy had trusted and confided in about her investigation. Combined with his pedophilic relationship with the girl who went missing, finding out that someone that you trusted and looked up to was really not who you thought they were at all is a terrifying thought. Way scarier than being murdered by a rando on the street.
He’s not actually the one who killed the girl, though he did kill the guy whose name I forgot (oops) to frame him for the murder since he thought that she had been fatally injured during their breakup. This honestly didn’t make that much sense to me- she hit her head on a table or something and was bleeding, so he went and killed her boyfriend? Maybe I just don’t know enough about head trauma. Hopefully I won’t have to learn too much about that subject matter anytime soon! Stay safe and don’t forget to wear your helmet when biking and skateboarding and especially when arguing with predators.)
As a side note,
(I was really, really hoping that she wouldn’t end up with the murdered guy’s brother, who was basically her co-investigator. Can’t there ever be two people who are just crime solving buddies and good friends? And then they were holding hands in the epilogue and I thought, oh.)
Diary of Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
I visited my younger cousin’s house and saw their collection of Diary of Wimpy Kid books on their bookshelves and immediately felt compelled to read them all again, both for the nostalgia and because I unironically still think that they’re super entertaining (though I’m not quite sure about what that says about my sense of humour). I think I started reading the series back when I was in elementary school, and Jeff Kinney’s been coming out with books annually for more than a decade now so there was a lot for me to catch up on.
There are certain books that I remembered pretty vividly, but I thought it would be fun to reread them all and I definitely got a kick out of some of the half-buried memories that resurfaced from getting to read all about Greg’s misadventures again. One thing that I noticed for the first time was that Jeff Kinney uses British spellings because he’s British… I hadn’t seen the word “maths” in years!
10/10 books overall, though some are definitely better than others, and Greg and Rowley’s relationship is uncomfortably dysfunctional at times (especially in the spin-off book Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid which is from Rowley’s perspective). I remember watching the three original Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies back in the day which made Greg out to be more likable by including some semblance of ~ character growth ~, but book Greg is pretty much a stagnant character who does dumb and sometimes morally questionable things and gets away with it. I particularly enjoyed Hard Luck (the lime green book, since I don’t know them by installment number and mostly identify them by cover colour) because he seems to mature a bit by the end of it, but I read the books for entertainment and less so for moral advice it’s all good:)
Best: Rodrick Rules, The Last Straw, Hard Luck
Worst: Double Down, Big Shot
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I was asking my friends for suggestions of books that I should read and many of them were shocked to find out that I never read The Hunger Games- and there’s no particular reason that I hadn’t, even though I knew all of the basic plot lines from how popular the franchise became with the success of the trilogy and the film adaptations. I kind of agreed that it was a crime that I called myself a fan of YA novels yet I had never read one of the defining books of the genre, so I read the first installment of the series and was glad I did!
The premise of the books is what makes it unforgettable, and even though I’m generally not a huge fan of action or gorey battle scenes I thought that the second half of the book following Katniss’ struggle for survival during the games to be just as interesting as the first half that mainly involved setup in establishing the characters, the world they lived in, and their relationships with each other. I also thought that the world building was well done in the fact that I didn’t ever feel like there was too much info-dumping of monotonously describing how the government or political system of Panem worked, though I’m sure that my prior basic understanding of the plot helped.
I remember this book being super popular in middle school and some of my classmates arguing over whether Katniss should end up with Peeta or Gale, so I was expecting romance to be a more prominent ingredient of the book only to find it mostly… absent? Gale is barely in this book, except for when they’re hunting together in the beginning and Katniss once wondering if maybe he could be her boyfriend if things were different, but I thought that the story of how they began to work together hunting and trading and how she trusted Gale to look after her little sister was cute. But in a friendly way, if that makes sense. Peeta on the other hand was really Going Through It, with their whole relationship basically being a show for the cameras and Katniss only going along with it to seem likable and to gain the support of sponsors who could get her through the games. There was literally one point in the book where Katniss kissed Peeta so that she could get a bowl of soup, and well, she was starving, so I can’t judge her too harshly for that. Peeta definitely would have done it even if there was no soup involved though, a sentiment which seemed to be sadly unreciprocated at the end of the novel. His memory of their first meeting back in elementary school was also pretty cute, though I’m not sure if Katniss felt any which way about it. I know this is only the first book in the trilogy, but I didn’t feel as if there was any romance in this at all, and honestly I’m not complaining- I’m sure she would be happy just living with her sister and her cat and goat in a nice house and a lifetime supply of lamb stew.
Character-wise, Rue was definitely my favourite, and even though Katniss was pretty abrasive at times I thought it made sense as a product of how she was forced to become the sole provider for her family from such a young age. I also wish we saw more of Cinna, and Thresh, the other district 11 tribute who seemed to spend most of the games in some bushes, but aside from some of the throwaway tributes I wouldn’t mind reading about most of the characters again in following installments of the series.
Overall, a solid book- I definitely understand why it was so popular back in the day, but as for right now I’m solidly on #teamletKatnissjustliveapeacefullifeforonce. please.
I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
I’ve always thought that Sophie Kinsella books are like sticks of rainbow cotton candy- fun and pretty and sugary sweet, but without a whole lot of substance. I’ve Got Your Number is no exception.
I previously read a couple of the books in the Shopaholic series, mostly from when I picked them up at the library back in high school, and while the situations and thought processes are often quite absurd I often find myself enjoying them anyways. You just have to turn off your common sense and allow yourself to get swept up in the fantasy for the plot to seem even the slightest bit plausible, but the antics that the characters get into are fun to read about.
This book follows a woman who’s about to be married to a man that she’s only known for a couple of months, only to lose his family’s heirloom engagement ring at a hotel. She tries to leave her phone number so that she can get contacted in the case that it’s found, but then her phone is stolen by some random mugger(?) and she conveniently finds a company phone in the trash can that she claims instead. But oh no, the phone belonged to the secretary of this super important business man and now he wants it back!
I thought that it was interesting that the book tried to include some character development in the main character learning to become more assertive and, for lack of better words, finally growing a spine instead of being such a people-pleaser to the point that she was completely disregarding her own wants and desires. The businessman-guy’s presence in her life was definitely conducive to this, and I thought that his abrupt and straight-forward nature was pretty funny. The book also includes a lot of texts between various characters which was a fun format, though I didn’t care much for the little mystery thrown in near the end or her one coworker who was constantly drooling over her fiance and generally being a little mean. Her fiance was honestly quite horrible, but we didn’t really learn much about him until the last fifth of the book so I didn’t feel (his betrayal and cheating) impact me as hard as it probably should have. (When the wedding planner was revealed to be the person that he had cheated with, I scarcely remembered who she was:( ) I liked the call back at the end of the novel where a small detail mentioned previously became important, but the Speak Now by Taylor Swift moment was… a little cringeworthy, especially when
(the main character and her new man enjoy the wedding reception that was meant for her and her now-ex-fiance. Awkward much? Oh well, I guess you can’t let all that money go to waste. There was also the plot point where she thought that the businessman-guy was engaged when he wasn’t, but even after she found it he was single she was still engaged so they were having an emotional affair?)
There’s this one scene where she’s cheating in a scrabble game to impress her fiance’s academic parents which I thought was hilarious, and I didn’t know what any of the high scoring words meant so I guess this book did teach me something- some new vocabulary words and to pick up any phones that I happen to see in trash cans to find my prince charming. Because that’s a thing that definitely happens to people.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
This was one of the books that I downloaded before departing on my trip to Korea. I’m not going to lie, I first saw the title and the French flag on the cover of the book and started to second guess the plethora of positive reviews I had seen about it. But you can’t judge a book by its title, and so I started reading it anyways- I only got around a third of the way through before I started to seriously consider putting it down and never picking it up again.
This is a book about a girl named Anna who moves to a fancy American boarding school in France, where she meets and becomes transfixed on this French/American guy who already has a girlfriend who goes to a nearby college. She also has this boy she likes from back home, but she likes the new French boy more anyways. tldr things happen, like her dating this other random guy who she doesn’t like and treats her horribly in order to make the French guy jealous, and the French guy is basically cheating on his girlfriend to be with Anna the entire time. I thought that the entire situation was a little messy, and I wasn’t a fan of any of the other characters in the friend group either, especially Anna’s new best friend who also likes the French boy which means that she has dibs so Anna can’t like him. Aside from the fact that French boy is literally already in a relationship, since when can you call dibs on a person??
The main reason that I finished this book was because I was sitting in a cafe for three hours and didn’t have anything better to do- if not for that, I’m not sure that the plot would have been compelling enough for me to read until the end. I don’t regret reading it- it helped me overcome jetlag and pass the time- but not sure that I’d recommend it to anyone else either.
The Selection by Kiera Cass
My go-to not-so guilty pleasure book about a girl who competes in what is essentially a dystopian royal version of The Bachelor and falls in love with a prince. Most of my friends have probably heard me talk about this book by now, and honestly, I love it:) I first read this book back when I was in middle school (this was the book that I was caught reading in Chinese debate class) and the nostalgia that I have for the series as a whole (but mostly this first installment in particular) is definitely part of the reason that I enjoy it so much even upon re-reads.
This book follows America (in a time where America as a country is No Longer A Thing) who is born as a Five- basically every person is born into a numbered caste that dictates their profession. Ones are the royalty, threes are doctors and teachers, sevens are manual labourers, and fives are artists. America’s last name is Singer, and she’s… a singer. I liked America’s character, especially her relationship with her family members, and her take no crap attitude is an admirable product of the world she was born into. I actually think that she and Katniss are actually pretty similar- they’re both strong and stubborn and forced to take on a whole lot of responsibility in their families, although the dynamic between America and her parents and siblings (minus Kota) made me feel warm inside and the relationship between Katniss and her mother and sister was a whole lot less sunshine and rainbows.
When the book first starts off America’s secretly dating this guy named Aspen, but then he breaks up with her because he thinks that she can do better for herself by marrying someone of a higher caste than him. But not before convincing her to sign up to be a part of the Selection, which gives her the opportunity to be “randomly” selected as the one 16-20 year old girl from her province who gets to go live at the castle and potentially end up marrying the prince. It’s a tradition that the princes marry a “daughter of the people” supposedly to raise the country’s morale, so now that he’s of age to be married he just needs to eliminate the girls one by one until he decides who he wants to become the queen. A lot of this book revolves around the infighting within the girls, and the whole conflict of “are you here for Maxon (the prince) or are you here for the crown?” I didn’t really know how to feel about
(America and Celeste’s relationship- I remember her getting a redemption arc at the end of the series, but her portrayal as a classic mean girl in this book was a little flat. I also understood America’s frustration that Maxon seemed to be getting along so well with Celeste, who was her #1 enemy, though I also don’t know if it was appropriate of her to flat out ask him to kick her out. Oh well, it’s not like he listened anyways…)
By nature of the size of the cast- 35 girls from each of the provinces alone- we didn’t get to know any of them very well in this book, even Marlee, who became America’s best friend in the competition. And honestly, even after re-reading this book countless times I still can’t name any of Tiny or Jamelle or Emmica’s character traits :/ I liked that one of the other contestants, Ashley, got a relatively large spotlight early on, (and also liked her subsequent sudden elimination right at the very beginning of their arrival at the castle- it was kind of the oh crap this is real moment that signalled that the competition had truly begun.) However, I do think that this is in character, owing to our POV character admitting that she doesn’t have many friends- through her eyes we spend most of the book with Maxon or her palace maids.
Favourite scene: The first morning at the castle, with the rapid fire one-on-one talks and the reprisal of the whole “my dear” joke then the eliminations and the prince sending strawberry tarts home to America’s family. It’s so full of magic and excitement and of cOurse Maxon picks America out of the crowd because she’s nOt LikE all the otHer GirLs. Also I really love strawberry tarts and the mental image that this scene conjures in my mind always makes me so happy.
Least favourite scene: The ending of this book… I get that the love triangle is a popular trope for a reason but personally I’m not a huge fan :’)
Hopefully I’ll be reading more interesting books soon- feel free to leave me recommendations:)