YA Book Review: Rebel of the Sands

rebel of the sands

I’ve finally gotten a chance to sit down and properly gush over exalt this book.

And oh heavens, this book. In a nutshell, it’s about this girl named Amani, who comes from a dead-end little town in the middle of the desert called Dustwalk, which is where you go to die in obscurity. Amani wants out. She wants to find her next of kin in the city. Along the way, she steals a magical desert horse called a buraqi, meets Jin, a mysterious foreigner with a past he’s unwilling to talk about, falls for Jin, and finds out what she really is. (In that order.)

The whole story is so vivid and enchanting and fast-paced it leaves you breathless and utterly spellbound and calls to mind images like these:

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It’s been a while since I read something so beautifully crafted yet packed with tight action scenes and a plot that moves relentlessly forward. SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo was fantastic and all (seriously, read it if you haven’t already), but Alwyn Hamilton’s debut novel reminds me a lot of Laini Taylor’s DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy (hands-down THE BEST YA fantasy series I’ve read in my life – Laini is in a league of her own). Not in terms of plot, of course, but pacing and prose. The writing is lyrical yet concise – you don’t get the sense that the writer is getting carried away with la-di-da imagery and descriptions, but there is still poetry in her prose. Every sentence is perfectly crafted and carries the story forward.

Plot-wise, I mean the premise alone is enough to hook you. A mythical beast. A girl chasing her dreams. A mysterious foreigner. A rebel prince leading an uprising against the sultan. A rebel army made up of magical outcasts. SQUEEEE!

So many twists and turns. So many revelations. Such immense fun! I kept having to re-read sentences to savour them, and take down notes on how she crafted the scenes as well as outline the plot. Which explains why I took a month to read it. Also, I was trying to delay the inevitable end. When is the sequel going to be out already?!

Okay, I’m going to let the writing do the talking now.

Favourite quotes from the book:

The world makes things for each place. Fish for the sea, Rocs for the mountain skies, and girls with sun in their skin and perfect aim for a desert that doesn’t let weakness live.

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See why I can’t stop spazzing over this book?!?!

In short, REBEL OF THE SANDS is PERFECT. SO PERFECTLY CRAFTED I WANTED TO WEEP. So perfect it deserves all the 5-star reviews it has received. Because there are some books you read (as a writer) and realise that you will never – NEVER – be able to top because they are just that good. This is a book that deserves to be published and featured on the bestsellers list. Ms Hamilton, I take my hat off to you.

Excuse me while I go curl up in a corner now.

 

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.”

I’m late to the game, but I finally caught The Fault in Our Stars last night. I’d been avoiding this book/movie because it’s not about one sick person in a doomed relationship but TWO. You know this story will only end in tears, and I just wasn’t in the mood for it.

But Ed Sheeran’s All of the Stars music video, as well as Birdy’s Not about Angels, drove me to watch it at last.

The last time I cried so hard over a movie … Shoot, I can’t even remember. Even though I might have cried six times throughout The Return of the King (because LOTR will always have a special place in my heart), I didn’t literally sob into my palms the way I had at TFIOS.

Thank you, John Green. And I know my tweet was mildly sarcastic

But really, thank you. For creating such a beautiful, tragic, but somehow uplifting story that sheds light on cancer and the battle cancer patients fight every day.

I’m generally not into books with insta-love (Twilight was a phase – we all have our inglorious pasts), because I can’t understand how people can fall so completely head-over-heels for someone so quickly. Crushes I understand – but love?

But I suppose for Gus and Hazel, with only limited time on earth, they would feel everything more keenly. Insta-love in this case is not only justified, but credible. I love how they bonded not over their illness, but over a book, and a huge part of the story follows them on their voyage to Amsterdam to find the author, Peter van Houten, who changed their lives. And their interaction felt so real, you feel like you ARE Hazel falling for Augustus.

I also really like Hazel’s relationship with her parents. It’s not the “teenager wanting to be free and independent and hence rebels against the parents” trope you see in many YA stories. Hazel’s parents are protective without being stifling, and they have an implicit understanding with Hazel that they’re all in this together. It’s so nice to see a loving relationship between the teenage protagonist and her parents for once.

After Gus’s funeral ceremony, when Hazel just sat in her car, taking a moment for herself, I felt her pain. Her grief, her longing, her sudden emptiness. I missed Gus as much as she did. I missed his sweet and adorable text messages. I missed his bravado, his cocky smirk. I missed the reassuring smile he reserved just for Hazel. I missed everything about him.

But while the ending was devastating enough to bring even grown men to tears (what did you expect, right, with a love story of two terminally-ill patients?), it wasn’t depressing. John Green gave Hazel – and us – closure with Gus’s letter.

“Mr. Van Houten,

I’m a good person but a shitty writer. You’re a shitty person but a good writer. I think we’d make a good team. I don’t wanna ask you for any favors, but, if you have the time (and from what I saw you have plenty) please fix this for me. It’s a eulogy for Hazel. She asked me to write one and I’m trying, I – I just.. I could use a little flair. See, the thing is, we all wanna be remembered.

But Hazel’s different. Hazel knows the truth. She didn’t want a million admirers, she just wanted one. And she got it. Maybe she wasn’t loved widely, but she was loved deeply. And isn’t that more than most of us get?

When Hazel was sick, I knew I was dying, but I didn’t wanna say so. She was in the ICU when I snuck in for 10 minutes and I sat with her before I got caught. Her eyes were closed, her skin pale, but her hands were still her hands. Still warm and her nails were painted this dark blue-black color and I just held them. And I willed myself to imagine a world without us, and what a worthless world that would be.

She is so beautiful. You don’t get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she’s smarter than you cause you know she is. She’s funny without ever being mean.

I love her. God, I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. 
You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have a say in who hurts you. And I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.

Okay, Hazel Grace?”

– Augustus Waters

*

I feel so much better now after getting this out of my system. I spent the remainder of last night completely zombified, useless with my chores, because TFIOS is one of those stories that reaches into you and wreck you from within.

Plus, John Green is such a lovely human being!

I’m officially a fan.

Next up, If I Stay. Already have it on my Kindle, along with TFIOS, so bring on another bout of the feels. Yay for YA fiction!

To-Read List for May!

It’s a magical realism feast this month, in both contemporary and historical fiction. I’m liking this trend VERY MUCH.

Roald Dahl

Magical realism is such an unexplored genre (as compared to, say, crime and mystery) and I really love how it brings the fantastical into real life and stretches your imagination to accept the strange and the wondrous things that happen every day. That’s probably why I wrote Until Morning – and now No Room in Neverland – because I wanted so badly to read something set in the real world that contained romance and magic.

Speaking of Until Morning, I’ve decided to go the crowd-source route and post it up on Swoon Reads (which published a lovely contemporary romance novel A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall). You can read it (and rate and share if you enjoyed it!) here. And if you need an idea of what it’s about, here’s a teaser:

Lexi Keen has found her soul-mate, although she has never met Night, the elusive street artist who leaves his paintings around the city.

Still, that doesn’t stop her from penning letters to him – until she finds herself living in his paintings after a car accident lands her in a coma. In her mind she is wandering through Night’s paintings. Her only companion: a boy who doesn’t understand why he is trapped there with her and wants to leave.

Sam Young is trying to make sense of the dreams he has been having of late, dreams in which he meets the irreverent, free-spirited Lexi. When his father’s latest development project involves taking over the inn that Lexi’s father owns, Sam has to choose between his loyalties to his father and staying with Lexi in the dream, safe from reality.

So anyway, I’m really looking forward to this month’s haul. Yay for magical realism and contemporary fiction! That’s not to say fantasy is a dying genre, but I think readers as a whole are now looking to take a break from all that supernatural good-versus-evil stuff for a while and go back to something closer to the heart. Even agents I’ve queried have told me they’re not representing fantasy because the market’s too saturated and people are veering away from the genre at the moment.

To Read:

1. Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley

2. Girl At Midnight, by Melissa Grey

3. Above Us Only Sky, by Michele Young-Stone

4. Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby

5. The Cost of All Things, by Maggie Lehrman

6. Love Letters to the Dead, by Ava Dellaira

7. Love Fortunes and Other Disasters, by Kimberly Karalius

I can’t stop fangirling over these books. I mean, HAVE YOU READ THEIR BLURBS? ARE YOU NOT PROPERLY EXCITED ABOUT THEM ALREADY? Ships in the sky, memory erasure (coincidentally, I’ve been working on a short story about memory erasure too), Lithuanian bird-women, pickpockets in black markets and missing people. This is while I love reading and creating stories. There are so many exhilarating possibilities that set your mind on fire, so many stories that fill you with ideas and life.

And of course, there’s LANGUAGE itself. Prose. The stringing of words to form beautiful, heart-breaking sentences with rhythm and music.

From Magonia:

“I’m dark matter. The universe inside of me is full of something, and science can’t even shine a light on it. I feel like I’m mostly made of mysteries.”

“I know everyone has dreams of flying, but this isn’t a dream of flying. It’s a dream of floating, and the ocean is not water but wind.
I call it a dream, but it feels realer than my life.”

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Breathe, Joyce, breathe.

Currently Reading:

1. Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard

SO GOOD. The execution, the plot (and plot twists), the prose – all skillfully done. If I HAD to nitpick, I’d say that my connection with the characters isn’t as strong as the one with Alina and Mal from the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. Those two (plus Nikolai Lantsov) got me swooning and dancing and grinning and spazzing. Red Queen, while nicely done, doesn’t send me reeling. But this is probably subjective and different for every reader. This book is still HIGHLY recommended!

2. Before My Eyes, by Caroline Bock

Two words: mental illness. I’m a sucker for any story that deals with issues like this, especially anything creepy or disturbing or psychologically messed up and sheds some light on people dealing with the demons in their heads. Plus, it’s told in alternative POV and it reminds me a lot of Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn and *ahem* Lambs for Dinner by me.

Queued:

1. Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen

2. Friday Brown, by Vikki Wakefield

What’s on YOUR reading list this month? Recommendations always welcome! :0)

Book Review: Fangirl

Remember how excited I was to finally get started on Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell?

This is what you get when you buy into all the hype before reading a book.

I’d heard SO many good things about this book and this author. Two of Rowell’s books had topped the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2013, and there were so many five-star reviews for Fangirl.

But while I found the book entertaining enough, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down.


The Lowdown
Fangirl is about this introverted girl, Cath, whose twin sister Wren starts to drift away from her after as soon as they start college. While Wren is out partying and drinking herself silly, Cath presses on with her super popular fanfiction about the Simon Snow books (the equivalent of the Harry Potter series). There isn’t much of an overarching narrative thread. It’s just like a chronicle of Cath’s life as she goes through college, gradually sticks her head out of her hermit hole and meet people, get a boyfriend, and explain why fanfic is legitimate fiction to her Creative Writing professor.


The Verdict

The book wasn’t terrible. Some parts were really good, such as the Simon Snow bits (I was far more interested in reading about Simon Snow the magician and his nemesis Baz than Cath’s relationship drama), and the strained relationship between Cath and her mother (wow, that one got very close to home, I’ll give you that). But the parts I wish Rowell had explored were kind of underdeveloped. In the end, Cath’s mother just sort of disappeared towards the story. I really wanted to see some kind of emotional outburst or denouement between Cath and her mom, but the latter just faded out of the story to let the romance take over.

 

The Romance 
And speaking of the romance, I seriously thought it was meant to be satirical at first. The way Cath and Levi (her roommate’s boyfriend, whom her roommate two-timed, so that makes it okay for Cath and Levi to get together) fawn over each other. Cath is all up in his face, kissing his jaw, his chin, his nose, his lips, and they’re always going on about how gorgeous and adorable each other is and how much they miss each other.

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I mean, I get that you’re infatuated, but do people seriously go googly-eyed all. the. time. about their partners? Even if they do, does that fawning need to take up practically half the book? I found myself skipping the parts where they are all over each other, and more than once I wondered if Rowell was being serious or satirical about the whole YA/NA romance genre.


The Dialogue
I actually really liked the dialogue. It was one of the better qualities of the book. It felt natural and there were funny bits like this:

“You look ridiculous,” Wren said.

“What?”

“That shirt.” It was a Hello Kitty shirt from eighth or ninth grade. Hello Kitty dressed as a superhero. It said SUPER CAT on the back, and Wren had added an H with fabric paint. The shirt was cropped too short to begin with, and it didn’t really fit anymore. Cath pulled it down self-consciously.

“Cath!” her dad shouted from downstairs. “Phone.”

Cath picked up her cell phone and looked at it.

“He must mean the house phone,” Wren said.

“Who calls the house phone?”

“Probably 2005. I think it wants its shirt back.” 

I can just imagine this being read out in play-writing class (miss you guys!) and getting some laughs.

 

And then there are some bright moments like this one between Cath and her dad:

“Isn’t giving up allowed sometimes? Isn’t it okay to say, ‘This really hurts, so I’m going to stop trying’?”

“It sets a dangerous precedent.”

“For avoiding pain?”

“For avoiding life.” 

 

But then there’s semi-annoying banter like this:
“What if I promise not to touch you?”

“Cath laughed. “Now I have zero incentive to come.”

“What if I promise to let you touch me first?”

“Are you kidding? I’m the untrustworthy person in this relationship. I’m all hands.”

“I’ve seen no evidence of that, Cath.”

“In my head, I’m all hands.”

“I want to live in your head.” 

And sappy moments like this:

“You’re beautiful,” she said.

“That’s you.”

“Don’t argue with me. You’re beautiful.” 

 

And descriptions like this:

“Cath couldn’t stop thinking about Levi and his ten thousand smiles.” 

“His mouth was small, but bowed. Like a doll’s. She wondered if he had trouble opening it wide enough to eat apples.” 

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The Conflict

Everything was very la-di-da and smooth-sailing for Cath. Sure, she had a writing buddy who practically stole her story and a writing professor who gave her a bad grade because she submitted fanfic for an assignment (duh) and a sister who kept getting into trouble and expecting her to clean up after her and a mom who suddenly wanted contact with them. But everything felt kind of random and thrown together. I get that it mimics real life, since there’s no “overarching narrative thread” in reality, but it felt like Rowell smoothed these little issues over very easily.

The biggest challenge in school for Cath was … eating in the dining hall. Seriously, she kept a stash of energy bars so she wouldn’t have to eat alone in the dining hall. I get that, I really do. But I wanted to know more about her social anxiety – why is she this way? what happened in the past for her to be so afraid of meeting people? how is this going to affect her interaction with the new people she meets in college eventually? (It doesn’t, by the way, if her over effusiveness with Levi is any indication.)

I kept waiting for everything to snowball into something big at the end that led to a transformation in Cath (or any character). But even the fight she and Levi had towards the end was resolved in three pages or so.

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More! I need more conflict – both internal and external – to make me root for the characters! (There was, however, this one scene between Cath and Wren, where they argued about their mother. Cath hates her, wants nothing to do with her, sees Wren as fraternising with the enemy when the latter agrees to have lunch and be in contact with her. That was a particularly emotionally charged scene and I could totally relate to Cath. I only wished there were more moments like this in the book.)

I don’t know. Is it just me? Am I not quite getting something, some hidden awesomeness about Fangirl? Five-star YA contemporary is Sarah Dessen and Cath Crowley and Melina Marchetta for me. Fangirl is more like a 3 or 3.5 (a bonus 0.5 for the Simon Snow bits – even Baz, a fictional character, had more backstory than Cath, the protagonist).

(Just to be clear, I didn’t HATE it. I enjoyed it well enough. But I just don’t get the hype. For all the glowing reviews it got, I expected Fangirl to blow me away like What Happened to Goodbye or Graffiti Moon had.)

Still, I’m hoping Rowell’s other book, Eleanor and Park (which comes with its own set of 5-star reviews on Goodreads), will ease up on the weird touching and hungry kissing and sappy praises about love interest’s lips or hair or eyes or cheeks.

But from what I’ve read so far, that doesn’t seem too likely. Eleanor and Park have gone from sitting next to each other on the bus (because they had no choice) to sharing comic books and music to stroking each other’s hands to this:

Although I think the characters in Eleanor and Park have more backstory and personal conflict than those in Fangirl, so I’m holding out on the hope that this book will make me understand all those 5-star reviews. Okay, going in blind now…

Hope your week is filled with slightly more gratifying books! :0)

8 swoon-worthy male characters in YA fiction

Yes, I am unabashedly in love with Young Adult (YA) fiction.

I think adolescence is a wonderful period to write about because the characters are at the most pivotal stage of their lives, still impressionable enough to change for better or for worse as they try to find and define themselves with a particular identity. In fact, some of the characters in YA have been the most memorable ones for me. Some of them also made me fall head-over-heels in love with them because of how layered and conflicted and real they are.

In YA fiction, as Laini puts forth here in this powerful post in defence of YA (it’s awesome – go read it!), “the subject matter is vast, and transcend all genre borders.”

Plus, as this post argues, “the attraction isn’t just related to the fact that young adult novels tend to have faster-paced narratives. Many of these crossover “teen” novels are satisfying to adult readers because they tap into ageless themes, namely the sense that each of us longs to know who we really are in a strange, confusing and sometimes otherworldly world. As it turns out, the search for self is a lifelong one.”

Okay, serious stuff out of the way, here’s a list of boys in YA fiction that I’ve swooned and gushed over, and been irrationally legitimately obsessed with:

1. Wes from The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen

Still my favourite Sarah Dessen book, despite subsequent ones such as What Happened to Goodbye and Lock and Key that are just as beautifully written. Forever is something special, maybe because I can relate to the protagonist, Macy, so well, since she’s really close to her father and afraid of meeting new people too.

Who? Wes is your regular boy-next-door who prizes honesty – to everyone else and to yourself – above everything else.

Why? He looks for imperfections, appreciates them, even craves them. This is evident from the art he makes. (Yes, a boy who makes art. What’s not to love, right?) He uses scrap materials like wood and glass to create beautiful display pieces that are perfect in their imperfection.

Plus, he’s infinitely patient with his nerdy, overwrought little brother, Bert. Oh, and he helped the protagonist, Macy, move on from the death of her father. Yes, he’s a patient one. Perhaps boys who make art are usually this way?

Also, he is everything Macy needs to break out of her comfort zone (albeit with baby steps). He is responsible, reliable, has a great sense of humour and never gives up on you. It doesn’t feel stressful in his company.

In short,

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2. Sam from Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

Oh, Shiver. How I love you! I wish I could kiss you and have you turn into a boy as beautiful at heart and as sweet as Sam. The prose is honey and clove, bittersweet but not too cloying, and the setting just as heartbreakingly beautiful. I don’t think I’ve read another YA fantasy romance that made my heart swell and flutter and do all sorts of gymnastic feats the way Shiver had.

Quote from Shiver
Sam and Grace artwork for the book

Who? Sam is a sweet, soulful boy who turns into a werewolf when the weather dips and is desperately trying to cling on to his human form to be with the girl he loves. Also, he’s a little damaged: (*SPOILER ALERT*) when his parents found out he was a wolf when he was younger, they tried to slit his wrist and drown him in the bathtub. (Yes, lovely people, they are.)

Why? He writes poetry. He writes songs. He reads. He works at a bookstore. He reads Rilke (OH, RILKE!). He’s damaged, but is capable of love. He loves life, cherishes it, because of how fragile his humanity is. Need I say more?

3. Ian Waters from Wild Roses, by Deb Caletti

My favourite novel from Deb Caletti so far. Also the first one from her that I read. I loved the prose, the narrator’s voice, the romance, the drama of the entire story … but mostly, I loved Ian.

Who? Ian is the protege of world-renowned violin maestro, the brilliant but disturbed Dino Cavalli, who is also the step-father of the protagonist Cassie.

Why? He plays the violin. He has a great sense of humour, totally on the same wavelength as Cassie. He is never attention-seeking or complacent – much less cocky – despite his talent. He’s like snow that lands on the ground silently but beautifully. He’s the first character named Ian I had ever known, and his image will always go with that name for me.

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4. Mik from Night of Cake and Puppets, by Laini Taylor

Night is a novella from the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini.

You would think I’d be all over Akiva, the seraph warrior who is pretty much perfection embodied. But human Mik was who I fell for instead. Particularly in Days of Blood and Starlight, the sequel to Daughter, where Mik and Zuzana traipsed through the desert to find Karou, Mik was always attentive to Zuze, and very concerned about her well-being (is she dehydrated? bone-tired? in need of a good sleep?).

Plus, he and Zuze ended up being pals with the chimaera soldiers, who are basically animal hybrids. Monsters. They play well with monsters. Well, which monster can resist Mik’s sweet looks and manners?

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Who? Mik is the violinist with the dark, soulful eyes and flushed cheeks whom Zuzana is crazy about, and who turns out to be crazy about her too.

Why? He plays the violin. (I’m sensing a trend here.) He surprises her with cake and tea on an impromptu date on a rowboat. He gets her quirks, loves her for them, and comes with a few himself too (peacock footprints, anyone?).

5. Cole from The Road of the Deadby Kevin Brooks

I read this book waaaay back in 2005, but I remember how smitten I was with him, because he was a bad boy who was very protective of his younger brother.

Who? Your quintessential bad boy, Cole is the older brother of the narrator, Ruben. He gets into fights often, but fights for the people he loves.

Why? Because we all love a bad boy with a heart of gold. At least in fiction.

6. Michael Moscovitz from the Princess Diaries series, by Meg Cabot

I know there are people who scoff at the series for being about a self-indulgent teenage girl who uses way too many exclamation marks, but this series was what made me start keeping a journal when I was 11 years old and for that I’ll always be grateful to Meg Cabot. There is nothing quite as cathartic as putting your thoughts onto paper.

Who? Brother of Mia’s best friend, Michael has had a crush on Mia forever, back when she hadn’t ascended to royalty status.

Robert Schwartzman, who played the character in the screen adaptation

Why? He wrote a song for her, Tall Glass of Water. He supports her in her writing endeavours, is always eager to read what she writes, and gives sound, thoughtful feedback. He’s really smart, but works his ass off to amount to something he deems worthy of Her Royal Highness, even if she doesn’t care about their status difference.

Plus, his name just rolls off your tongue.

7. Luke Brandon from the Shopaholic series, by Sophie Kinsell

Okay, this one’s not YA, but come on, isn’t Luke swoon-worthy?

Hugh Dancy’s pretty eyes aside, Luke has many qualities to love. I mean, he married Rebecca Bloomwood, for heaven’s sake! Only a saint has that kind of patience. (No offence to Becky – I love her, but she can be tiresome at times.)

Who? Luke is the boyfriend – and later, husband – of Becky Bloomwood, a shopping addict and a pathological liar, but also a very loyal friend.

Why? He doesn’t do grand gestures of love, but you can always tell he loves Becky. Besides, he puts up with Becky, LOVES her despite her crazy antics. Enough said, don’t you think?

8. Jace Wayland/Lightwood/Morgenstern/Herondale from The Mortal Instruments series, by Cassandra Clare

Okay, I watched the movie before I finished reading the book, so the first face that comes to mind is Jamie Campbell Bower’s. Which does not hurt at all.

Jamie + Lily = Jamily. They are SO cute together!

Who? Snarky, handsome, lofty and insouciant, Jace is a demon-hunting Shadowhunter. Also, a boy in need of love who failed to get any from his father.

Jace artwork

Why? He’s the unattainable golden boy at school, the one whom everyone loves or loves to hate. He’s gorgeous, strong, attractive and he knows it. But his confidence – though some would say arrogance – is to mask the broken, wanting boy within.

And as a shameless plug bonus,

9. Drew from Lambs for Dinner, by, um, me.

Who? Cole has a history of being abused by his father before he ran away from home. He is loyal to his friends and closest to his aunt, regards his best friend’s father as his surrogate father, but keeps everyone else at arm’s length.

Why? Because despite his (initial) belief that he is too damaged, too different, to love, that he is more Wolf than Man, deep down he desperately wants to believe that he is not only capable of it, he is also deserving of it. Which is why he gives his all to Skye, when he falls hard for her.

Also, because I wrote him. Ha!

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So that’s my list of swoon-worthy boys from YA fiction. Let me know if there’s anything I missed out, in terms of characters or the things they did to make us fall in love with them!

Who are some of YOUR favourite boys from YA fiction? :0)