Between – Jessica Warman

Elizabeth Valchar has it all: looks, popularity, a boyfriend who loves her, a best friend who is also her step-sister. On the night of her eighteenth birthday, Liz wakes up to a new reality: she’s dead. That’s not a spoiler, by the way – we find know this by page 6.

Jessica Warman’s YA novel Between is a curious hybrid. It’s part mystery (I really found myself flipping those pages to see what had happened to Liz), part social commentary, part ghost story  and part teen drama.

When Liz ‘wakes up’ and realizes that she is between life and death she also discovers that she is not alone. Her companion is a former classmate, Alex, a boy who had been involved in a hit and run a few months previously. Alex is her guide in this strange new space Liz finds herself.

By placing her hand on Alex, Liz can revisit moments in her life and she isn’t all that happy with the things he has to show her because, as it turns out, Liz  Valchar wasn’t that nice.

My stomach feels hollow with guilt and shame as I watch my younger self, and all my friends, giggle while Topher torments Frank.

“But it’s not like I really did anything…I mean it was mostly Topher-”

“You’re fight,” he interrupts, you didn’t do anything. You never did anything to help him. You wouldn’t have dared; it might have made you less cool.”

As Elizabeth comes to terms with who she’d been in life, we also see how many of the people in her orbit cope with her death. Her ability to listen in on conversations and revisit significant moments in her life gives her insight and ultimately makes her a better person. Although I figured out one of the novel’s central mysteries relatively early on, it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of this book.

I think teens will really see themselves in Liz and her friends. They’ll certainly root for her redemption.

Things Change – Patrick Jones

When sixteen-year-old Johanna accepts a ride home from a meeting with Paul, even she is surprised when she boldly asks him to kiss her. Paul is sort of a well-known figure at their high school, not because he’s an athlete or a particularly good student, but because he is funny and good-looking. People want to be around him. Johanna, on the other hand, is studious and  not very popular. Her one and only friend, Pam, calls her “Books” and the two girls have a standing date at the local bookstore on Saturday.

Patrick Jones’ debut novel Things Change will appeal to fans of realistic fiction. Johanna will be immediately recognizable to young girls; they will either see themselves or someone they know in her. Like many teenage girls, Johanna tries to please her parents, tries to balance school and life and falls head over heels in love with a boy who is fighting his own demons. Because one thing Things Change is not is a straight up love story.

Paul and Johanna eventually hook up and it’s all sunshine and roses – except for when it’s not. Paul is possessive and jealous and has a temper that causes him to lash out at Johanna, inflicting physical and emotional pain for which he is almost immediately contrite. But that’s the pattern, right? And Johanna – young and inexperienced – does what many much older women in her situation might do: she makes excuses, tries to be perfect, forgives.

Although the third person narration is mostly limited to Johanna’s point of view, Jones does something smart,  giving the reader a glimpse of Paul’s psyche by letting us read letters he writes to his dead father. I say it’s smart because it prevents Paul from being a one dimensional monster and the book from being a one-note cautionary tale. Paul’s demons in no way excuse his deplorable behaviour, but it does make him human and somewhat sympathetic.

Patrick Jones used to be a Young Adult librarian and Things Change certainly demonstrates that he’s listened to and observed teens carefully. This book doesn’t preach nor talk down to his target audience. It’s not overly graphic, but there is some sexual content and bad language. That said, I will happily be recommending it to readers in my classroom – both those students who claim they don’t like to read and those who want to read compelling and realistic fiction.

Chasing Boys – Karen Tayleur

Chasing Boys is the story of Ariel, El for short, who has moved from her swanky school and big house to a new school and an apartment with her older sister, Bella, and her mom. Dad – whereabouts unknown, but clearly he’s left a void in Ariel’s life which she is in desperate need of filling. So, there’s this boy. His name is Eric and he’s a star basketball player and practically the most perfect boy at school. Everyone has a crush on him, but he has a girlfriend. And not just any girlfriend, but the popular and pretty (and, as it turns out, decent and nice) Angelique.

So, is Karen Tayleur’s first YA novel anything more than your standard girl chases boy teen romance? Well, no and yes. For starters, El is a likeable character and the first person narration is swiftly paced and often quite funny. El is smart and attractive, but doesn’t really feel like she fits in anywhere other than with her two best friends, Desi and Margot. She’s also trying to work through abandonment issues and for that she meets with a therapist, Leonard, once a week. The thing is, she can’t actually talk to Leonard.  “If I was talking to Leonard,”  she muses, “which I am not, I would ask him a question.”

Eric isn’t the only boy orbiting El’s life. There’s also Dylan.

Dylan slumps in the seat and glances at me. I realize he’s the newest guy at school and I give him my catatonic stare – the one I use when I want the other person to look away. It’s usually pretty effective. He has a thin white scar, almost invisible, that travels from his bottom lip and disappears under his chin, and just for a moment I wonder how it got there. His lips curl into a sneer and I look straight ahead.

El tries to balance school and home and her crush on Eric and Dylan’s passive-aggressive interference in her life with varying degrees of success.  For the teen reader who is looking for a book that is entertaining and not particularly challenging, Chasing Boys will likely fit the bill.