Book Reviews for Fans of YA and Non-fiction

If you want to become a better writer, you’re supposed to read a lot, specifically in the genre that fits your writing fancy.  So, over the past few months I’ve consumed a fair amount of YA Contemporary.  Here’s a micro review of each book, plus a nod to the non-fiction piece chosen by my book club (non-fiction is NOT one of my writing or reading fancies, but this one was pretty good, so I’ll share…)

Story of a Girl, by Sara Zarr

***National Book Award Finalist

When she was 13 years old, Deanna Lambert spent a lot of time in the back seat of her brother’s friend’s car — until the night her father found her.  Three years later, stories about Deanna “the slut” still haunt her daily life.  Her father won’t look at her, her brother likes to keep her close and “out of trouble”, and her mother just wants to solve everything with ice cream.  Deanna takes a job at a local pizza joint before she realizes that her brother’s friend, and her former backseat companion, works there.  But being near Tommy again forces Deanna to face her past and rewrite her story.

I liked this novel the best of the three Sara Zarr books I read because it touches on a topic faced by nearly every teen.  The characters and family dynamics are real, flawed, and heartbreaking.  Deanna aches for love and affection, to feel “chosen”, which leads her to make poor choices, with dramatic ramifications.  This is a great book for teens, especially girls, as it tactfully and honestly explores how sex can impact your life.

I listened to the audio book of Story of a Girl, which is performed by Sara Zarr.  Her reading was somewhat flat, and I think I would have preferred to read the novel myself.

sweetheartsSweethearts by Sara Zarr

As kids, Jennifer and Cameron were social outcasts who found comfort in each other until Cameron mysteriously disappeared.  Years later, Jennifer has transformed herself into “Jenna”- skinny, popular, and dating.  When Cameron comes back into the picture, Jennifer must revisit her past and the bittersweet memories that link her to Cameron.

I read this book the fastest, as Zarr does a nice job of keeping up the pace and intrigue by switching back and forth between past and present narratives.  Sweethearts does a great job of exploring the difference between who people think we are and who we feel like inside.  Jennifer’s relationship with Cameron is complicated and ultimately unfinished, leaving me feeling unsatisfied at the end.  Zarr in general seems big on ambiguous endings, which can be frustrating, but is also very realistic.

How To Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Jill MacSweeney is grieving the loss of her loving father and trying to figure out who she is, now that he’s gone.  Mandy Kalinowki has never known love and wants to find it for her baby, as well as for herself.  Jill’s mother brings these two extremely different girls together when she agrees to adopt Mandy’s yet unborn child, no strings attached.

The set up for this book is unusual, and slightly far-fetched, but the emotions explored – wanting love, losing love, learning to let go – are realistic.  All of the main characters need saving, and it’s interesting to watch how each of them finds happiness.  This ending was the least ambiguous and the closest thing to happy for me.

Along for the Ride, Sarah Dessen

along-for-the-ridePerfect daughter Auden hasn’t slept at night for years, ever since her parents started fighting.  She blames herself for their divorce.  Needing a break from her overbearing mother, she decides to spend the summer living with her father, his wife, and their new baby at their beach house.  But even with a change of environment, she can’t shake her insomnia, and that’s how she meets Eli, a fellow loner who shows her around the beach town in the wee hours of the night.  Eli helps Auden experience the carefree teenage life she never had, and Auden helps Eli release the guilt he feels over a friend’s death.

This is the ultimate beach book, best read in the sand.  (Sadly, it’s October and that’s a slim possibility for most of us.)  I could relate to Auden’s need to unwind and expand her comfort zone, and I loved the beach setting.  Use this one to escape the winter blahs or put it on your TBR for next June.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

boys-in-the-boatThis non-fiction book tells the story of the nine University of Washington crew members who beat the odds to qualify for, and win, the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.

At the beginning, Boys in the Boat includes lots of extraneous details about the crew members and their families, and I struggled a bit.  As it progresses, the book narrows its focus to one amazing crew member, Joe Rantz, and his triumphant rise over poverty and neglect.  It also includes snippets about the rise of Hitler in Germany and his impact upon the 1936 Olympics.  This is a feel good story about hard work and perseverance, and ultimately, I liked it.  I listened to the audio book, which is performed with enthusiasm by Edward Herrman.

I never choose to read non-fiction on my own, so it’s a good thing my book club prompts me to do it at least once a year.

Have you read any good YA or non-fiction lately?  Share a bit and help us choose our next book!

Thanks for adding to the discussion!








Julia Tomiak

I believe in the power of words to improve our lives, and I help people find interesting words to read. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Google+. Member of SCBWI and


  1. I like to throw a YA book in the mix every month or two – thanks for the recommendations! I have an excellent book to suggest – All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Another good one is You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan. Completely different books, but I liked them both.

  2. I should read Dessen and Zarr, knowing they are so popular, and trying to write some YA, myself! I’ve been anxious to get my hands on Boys in the Boat for years now – sitting on my bookshelf!!!! I’ve seen the YA version, as well as Unbroken for YA, but my son read the adult version and loved it 🙂 Thanks for these.

    1. Yes, I think I might stick with the adult version for my son, too. I highly recommend Dessen and Zarr – character driven stories that I think you’d like.

  3. Interesting – Boys in the Boat has two versions. There is the adult version and the YA version. Not something that is done very often. I read a review by a woman who was supposed to read the book and could not get into it but found the YA version and loved it.
    Your odd fact for the day.

    1. Carol, that is a great odd fact! I’ve seen that done for I Am Malala and Unbroken as well. (I was happy I had the YA version of Malala.) I’m considering getting a printed version of Boys in the Boat for my son – perhaps the YA version would be a good choice. Thanks for the tip!

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