Off the Shelf – December 22

Listen to the column here

Some people make grocery lists, I make book lists. Students recommend things, other blogs and traditional reviews, good looking covers. If I don’t buy it immediately, I write it down. This is also the time of year when publishers start to promote new books and I am always on the lookout for the next great book.

Huffington Post recently published an article by young adult book blogger Lisa Parkin about the four next great young adult book trends. According to the article we’ll be seeing less dystopian and “sick lit” in the coming year and readers can be on the lookout for these trends.

  1. Crimes and Cons: stories about characters on the wrong side of the law
  2. Retellings: fairy tales with a YA twist…this isn’t a new trend exactly, but these types of stories are picking up traction
  3. Quirky and moving: these are novels that feature memorable characters in unusual (but not out-of-this-world) situations
  4. Dealing with loss: these are stories of teens dealing with loss of loved ones

You can read Parkin’s article and see her recommendations in each category here.

I could stay in my house and read non-stop for the next five years and still not finish all the physical books on my tbr pile, but that won’t stop me from adding these titles to the line-up.

brightAll the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

So, this book would fit into the “dealing with loss” category. It’s the story of Violet and Theodore who are both struggling with life when they meet on the edge of the bell tower at their school. And they end up saving each other. I’m really looking forward to this one.

listA List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me – Jason Schmidt, memoir

This book sounds intense. It’s the true story of a boy who has, from the sounds of things, grown up in a world of chaos and has known, from a very young age that what happens in his house must stay a secret. How does a good kid overcome a bad childhood – that’s the question this book asks and answers.

playlistPlaylist for the Dead – Michelle Falkoff

So a couple years ago Jay Asher’s novel 13 Reasons Why was a big hit and early reviews are saying that this is even better. I wasn’t actually a huge fan of Asher’s novel, but most of the teens I know who read it loved it and so I suspect this will be a big hit, too. It’s the story of a teenage boy named Sam who tried to understand why his best friend killed himself by listening to the playlist of songs he left behind.

mosquitolandMosquitoland – David Arnold

So, this book is getting some serious buzz and was chosen as one of the American Booksellers Association’s Indies New Voices novels. It’s a road-trip story and everyone knows road trips are fertile literary ground. This one is about a girl who takes a bus from Mississippi to Ohio and meets some quirky characters and learns a lot about herself on the way. Sounds great.

It’s so important that young adults are able to see themselves in the characters of the books they read. Not everyone is beautiful or athletic or brilliant – some of us are mortal and have human failings and frailties. If books can show teens that there is hope and happiness and humour to be found, let’s let them find it.

What books, YA or otherwise, are you looking forward to reading in 2015?

Heading Out to Wonderful – Robert Goolrick

wonderfulI was a big fan of Robert Goolrick’s novel, A Reliable Wife, but I turned the last page of his second novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, this morning with le sigh. And not a good sigh.

Brownsburg, Virginia, 1948 is the setting of Goolrick’s novel. It was

the kind of town that existed in the years right after the war, where the terrible American wanting hadn’t touched yet, where most people lived a simple life without yearning for things they couldn’t have

Into this town comes Charlie Beale. He arrived in “a beat-up old pickup truck. On the seat beside him were two suitcases. One was thin cardboard and had seen a lot of wear and in it were all of Charlie Beale’s clothes and a set of butcher knives as sharp as razors.” The other suitcase is full of money.

Turns out that Charlie is not as dicey as he sounds, though. He quickly gets a job at the town butcher shop and soon ingratiated himself with the people of Brownsburg.

He cut the meat and charmed the ladies, one by one, but, more than charm, he treated every one, black and white, from the richest to the shoeless poorest, from dollars and dimes, with the same deference and shy kindness, and he won their hearts…

He makes good friends with Will, the man who owns the butcher shop, and Will’s wife, Alma, a school teacher. He becomes especially close to Will and Alma’s five-year-old son, Sam.

Charlie tells Will that he is ready to settle down, that he has been looking for “something wonderful.” Brownsburg, apparently, is it.

Or maybe the something wonderful is Sylvan. She’s the young wife of the town’s richest man, Boaty Glass. Sylvan is an uneducated girl who comes from the country (the reader will eventually find out how the repulsive Boaty landed such a beautiful wife) and dreams of being a movie star.

…she looked as though she had stepped into the shop from another part of the world…Her lips were a crimson slash, her hair pulled up in gleaming blonde waves on top of her head, held with tortoise-shell combs studded with rhinestones. Se wore dark sunglasses, a thing no other woman in town even thought to own, and espadrilles, tied with grosgrain ribbons around her ankles…

None of the other women speak to her, but Charlie can’t take her eyes off her and “she went off in his head and his heart like a firecracker.”

It is Charlie’s illicit relationship with Sylvan that makes up the bulk of the story. Sam, although only a child, plays a pivotal role.

Heading Out to Wonderful should work. I can’t quite figure out why it doesn’t. Perhaps it is because I never really felt like I understood either Charlie or Sylvan. The reader is never privy to Charlie’s past and so never clearly understands what motivates him. Where did all his money come from, for example? Why does he prefer to sleep outside on the ground?

Sylvan is, I think, something of a cold fish. Her only friend is Claudie, a black seamstress in town. Sure, I could chalk up her behavior to youth, but I just didn’t  like her and so it was hard to root for the relationship between her and Charlie.

Goolrick is a great writer and for that reason, Heading Out to Wonderful was easy enough to read, but lots of things about this book irked me (Charlie’s younger brother turning up out of the blue, for example)  and so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. Loads of other people/critics loved it, though.

Kiss Crush Collide – Christina Meredith

kisscrushcollideJust once I’d like to see a girl go on a journey of self-discovery that isn’t instigated by the boy she meets. But essentially that’s what happens to Leah Johnson, youngest of a trio of golden girls in Christina Meredith’s YA novel Kiss Crush Collide. These are girls whose futures have all been mapped out by a cliché of a mother and a doting but passive father. Yorke, the eldest, is in college and planning a wedding to her boyfriend, Roger; Freddie is graduating from high school and heading off for a year in France; Leah is about to start her last high school summer before she, too, becomes (like her sisters before her) valedictorian and then on to bigger and better things.

But that all changes when Leah meets Porter at her family’s country club (yes, they’re that kind of family; they go to the country club on Friday night).

When he wrapped his fingers around mine, a warm current of electricity flowed through me. I felt suddenly solid, as if my world had been rolling past me and it had stopped right now, amazingly sharp and in focus as if I had just taken off my roller skates. I didn’t want to let go.

That’s the boy: green eyes, beautiful brown hair, penchant for stealing cars. He pushes/pulls Leah in ways that Shane (her perfect high school boyfriend) never has, so of course she wants him. She sneaks off with him on the very night she meets him and then can’t stop thinking about him.

I suspect that lots of girls in my class will like Kiss Crush Collide and that’s okay.  There are lots of girl meets boy books out there, and this one sits pretty much in the middle of the pack. What has Leah learned from her seventeenth summer? How to drive her car (finally) and her life. Too bad it was a boy who taught her how to do both.

Off the Shelf – December 8

This morning on CBC’s Information Morning I talked about some of my favourite YA novels of 2014. You can listen to that interview here.

At the end of the year, some people reflect on whether or not they made good on their resolutions, I think about my reading year. Book junkies like me start considering the state of their bookshelves.

There are usually a few memes floating around that ask book bloggers to consider what they’ve read this year. It’s always fun to go back through my blog and think about the books I’ve read.

It’s also the time of year when all the major book players start posting best of…lists. That’s good and bad for people like me – because if there’s one thing I don’t need…it’s more books. However, if you’re looking for some new reading material, here are some great lists to get you started:

Kirkus: Best Teen, Best Fiction; Best Nonfiction

Huffington Post

The Guardian

Telegraph’s Best Teen Books

Book Riot’s Must Read Books from Indie Presses

School Library Journal

and the Mother lode of book lists…

Today, I thought I’d talk about three stand-out YA reads for 2014, one of which is geared to 12-14 year olds, so middle school.

totally joeTotally Joe – James Howe

So, James Howe is super prolific (he’s written over 80 books) and is probably best known for his Bunnicula series. That’s a vampire rabbit that sucks the juice out of vegetables. Totally Joe is part of the Misfit series, the Misfits being this group of friends who are sort of picked on in school and band together. These books actually inspired ‘no name-calling’ weeks at North American schools.

Totally Joe is the second in the series, but I didn’t read the first book and it didn’t really matter. This is the story of Joe Bunch, a kid in 7th grade who is given this very cool class project…and alphabiography. He has to come up with something about his life for every letter. Joe is funny and smart and kind and has a great, supportive family. He also happens to be gay and so he takes a lot of grief from some of the meatheads at school. I loved how open and honest Joe was about his sexual orientation – he’s a really positive role model. I think it’s super important to see kids reflected in the books they read, and I think Totally Joe is age-appropriate and important.

raftThe Raft – S. A. Bodeen

This book is fantastic. I’m not really one for survival stories, but this book is a real page-turner. It’s the story of fifteen-year-old Robie who lives with her scientist parents on Midway, an island about 1300 miles from Honolulu which is where Robie is when the book opens. She’s visiting her aunt. Midway’s teeny, about 2.4 square miles so every once and a while, Robie needs a little taste of civilization. Anyway, she’s on Honolulu and her aunt gets called away on business, which is no big deal, Robie’s used to being on her own…but then something happens on the street and it freaks her out and she decides to take the cargo plane back to Midway. Phone and Internet service is spotty, as you can imagine, and she can’t let her parents know what that she’s coming and then – of course – the plane crashes in the middle of the Pacific and of the three people on board, only she and Max, the co-pilot, survive. They’re on this raft with nothing. It’s a real OMG book with a feisty protagonist, lots of interesting things to say about the environment (none of it preachy) and a terrific, propulsive plot. Great book.

morethanthisMore Than This – Patrick Ness

So I’ve talked about Patrick Ness before, he’s the author of the Chaos Walking series. I actually chose this book for my book club this year. We don’t normally read Young Adult books, but this one seemed interesting and because I’m a fan I figured why not. There was mixed reactions in the group, but the students in my classes who’ve read the book have loved it…and that’s really the litmus test.

When the novel opens, a boy is drowning. Then he wakes up and he’s not dead. But he’s also alone and he actually remains alone for about 160 pages. At first he doesn’t have any memory, then he figures out that his name is Seth and he appears to be in the English town he grew up in before he moved to the States. This is a post-apocalyptic town though. There are houses and business, but they’re empty and it’s all just creepy. Then, about half-way in Seth meets Thomasz and Regine and “the driver” this faceless, seemingly indestructible guy whose mission in life seems to be to hunt the three teenagers down.

This is a smart book. It works on a bunch of levels: sort of a crazy hybrid between thriller and speculative fiction and a book that asks BIG questions about that journey between self-centered adolescence and manhood and what Seth discovers is that “whatever is forever certain is that there’s always more.”

Any of these books would make great Christmas gifts for the young readers in your family.

Silent to the Bone – e.l.konigsburg

silentWhen thirteen-year-old Branwell’s baby sister ends up in a coma, Branwell stops talking and it’s up to his best friend, Connor, to figure out what really happened the day Nikki was hurt. That’s pretty much the plot of e.l. konigsburg’s YA novel, Silent to the Bone. Luckily, in konigsburg’s skillful hands, this story ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts.

I cannot explain why Branwell and I became friends. I don’t think there is a why for friendship, and if I try to come up with reasons why we should be friends, I can come up with as many reasons why we should not be. …Friendship depends on interlocking time, place and state of mind.

Connor is, in fact, a true-blue friend to Branwell. After Nikki is hurt, Branwell is sent to the Behavioral Center for observation. Connor visits him frequently and despite Branwell’s silence, Connor knows in his heart of hearts that Branwell did not hurt his baby sister.

Connor devises a genius way of communicating with Branwell based, in part, on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In that book, a paralyzed man dictates his life story by blinking his left eye. Connor creates a series of flash cards using words he thinks might trigger a reaction. Slowly the true story of what happened to Nikki is revealed.

Silent to the Bone ended up on just about everyone’s “best” list including the ALA, New York Times and School Library Journal. One of the reasons, I think, is that the book is layered. There’s the central mystery of what happened to Nikki; there’s the complicated blended family relationships, there’s the love and petty jealousies that mark any solid friendship.

Branwell and Connor are believable characters. Connor’s older sister (from his father’s first marriage) helps Connor disseminate all the information he gathers from his visits with Connor. Connor is only a kid, sure, but he’s tenacious and smart and he is determined to figure out what really happened.

This is a great book for thoughtful readers.

The Children Act – Ian McEwan

children's actYou can always count on Ian McEwan to bring on the controversy. This is the fourth of the prolific British novelist’s books we’ve read in my book club and it prompted a loud and lively discussion.

The main character in The Children Act is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London. She’s about to turn 60 when her husband, Jack, a professor, announces that he wants to have an affair (this is not a spoiler, really; the revelation comes pretty much on page one). She’s been married for thirty years and until the moment her husband tells her that he needs this because it is his “last shot” and he’s “yet to hear evidence of an afterlife” she’s been pretty smug about her life. While it is true that they don’t have children, they have had a good life together: enough money, a nice home, friendship and, Fiona admits ” she had always loved him.”  To say that Jack’s confession throws Fiona for a loop is an understatement, but she does not intend to “manage the rest of her life alone.”

Into Fiona’s fractured world comes the Henry family. Adam Henry is seventeen and he and his family are refusing the blood transfusion that may save his life because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to their beliefs, “Mixing your own blood with the blood of an animal or another human being is pollution, contamination. It’s a rejection of the Creator’s wonderful gift. That’s why God specifically forbids it in Genesis and Leviticus and Acts.”

Fiona’s actually quite adept at sorting through these complicated and potentially incendiary cases, but even she is not quite sure what compels her to reserve judgment so she can visit Adam in the hospital. She calls the decision “a sentimental error,” but she goes anyway and discovers that seventeen – year – old Adam is , despite his illness, “beautiful.” It’ll be obvious to careful readers that Fiona is smitten. In fact, during the first few moments of their meeting she “caught nothing.” The visit that follows is charged – not sexually, really, although there is an element of that, too – with the kind of energy that happens when two people discover a shared passion. For Adam and Fiona it is music and poetry. Ultimately, Fiona’s decision sets Adam on a path that has profound consequences for them both.

I really liked The Children Act. McEwan is a smart writer and he’s adept at spinning a narrative that is tightly focused. Fiona isn’t a particularly likeable character, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to relate to her. This is a great book to get people talking.