This Is Not A Test – Courtney Summers

testThis is my second book by Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers and, that’s it:  I am a fan. I previously read Some Girls Are and I was totally taken with its unflinching look at what it is to be a teenage girl. It isn’t pretty, people.

This Is Not A Test has won a slew of awards including being named a  2014 OLA White Pine Honour Book, 2013 ALA/YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, 2013 ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, and  a  Kirkus New & Notable Books for Teens: June 2012. Trust me, the book delivers on every possible level.

Sloane lives in with her father  in Cortege. Her older sister, Lily, has left home and taken a piece of Sloane with her. It won’t take the reader very long to figure out that Sloane’s father is abusive. She tells us he burns the toast because she deserves it and when he reaches out to examine her face, Sloane flinches before she can catch herself. It’s no wonder that Lily has left, but the plan was that they were supposed to go together.

Based on the first couple of pages, it would be reasonable  to think that This Is Not A Test is a story about abuse, but you’d be so wrong. As Sloane is contemplating the burnt toast and the note her father has written to explain her absence from school, their front door starts to “rattle and shake.”  Someone is screaming for help and it is such a creepy event that as Sloane’s father heads to the door to investigate Sloane notes that he hesitates and she has “never seen him hesitate” in her life.

When Sloane’s father returns to the kitchen he’s screaming that they have to leave and he’s covered in blood. And then all hell breaks loose, literally.

Seven days later Sloane finds herself barricaded in Cortege High School with five other students: student body president, Grace, and her twin brother, Trace; Rhys, a senior;  some-time drug dealer and some-time boyfriend to her sister Lily, Cary and Harrison, a freshman who can’t seem to stop crying. The high school offers the six teens sanctuary while they wait for the help the feel sure will come. Unfortunately, the only announcement on the radio proclaims that “This is not a test.”

As the days drone on, Sloane and the rest of the trapped teens struggle to stay calm. They jockey for position, alliances are formed and they wonder what has happened to the rest of the world. It all makes for a riveting psychological drama because Summers has an ear for how teens speak and she doesn’t shy away from the fact that this scenario is relentlessly grim. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Except for the feeling fine part.

Sloane narrates this story and she is a sympathetic character. Even if she could get back home, what does she have to return to? No one knows about the abuse she suffered and without Lily she feels as though she has very little to live for. Thus, she has nothing to lose.

This Is Not A Test is my very first zombie novel. I’ve pretty much avoided them until now because, truthfully, they don’t really interest me all that much. If they were all as good as this one, though, I’d be a fan.

Apparently there is an e-sequel available, but truthfully, I thought the ending to This Is Not A Test was pretty damn perfect.

Highly recommended.

Faking It – Cora Carmack

faking itOn Feb 16, I did a column for CBC about New Adult Fiction, a category of fiction which targets the 18-25 age bracket and tends to be slightly more sexually explicit than a YA novel, but nowhere near as pornographic as Fifty Shades of Grey. I’d only read a couple of books that I would consider New Adult before I did the column, one I liked (Easy), and one I did not (Ten Tiny Breaths). Cora Carmack’s NA novel, Faking It, falls into the latter category.

First we meet Cade. He’s pining over Bliss. (Yes, all the names are this bad.) Although they never actually dated she’s Cade’s best friend and Cade feels as though Bliss is the one that got away. Every time he sees her with her new boyfriend, Garrick (told you), it feels “like a rusty eggbeater to the heart.”

He’s meeting them for coffee when the novel opens. Apparently, he’s a sucker for punishment. It’s at this meeting that Garrick tells Cade that he’s going to propose and Cade’s world  falls apart.

Enter Max. And her boyfriend…wait for it…Mace. They enter the very same café where Cade has just had his heart broken. Max is on her cell phone and she’s just discovered that her parents are not calling from Oklahoma, but from across town; they’ve made an impromptu visit and that puts Max in a bind. She has to come up with a suitable boyfriend, someone to make her look sensible and subdued, when clearly she is anything but. I mean, she has red hair! And tattoos! And piercings!!! Mace, despite being “gorgeous and a killer drum player” is not mom and dad boyfriend material. Max gets rid of Mace (not all that difficult all Max has to do is mention “parents” and Mace departs). That just leaves the problem of what to do about the boyfriend. That’s when she spots Cade. Despite the fact that he was “gorgeous, in that all-American model kind of way” Max normally wouldn’t have given him a second glance “because guys like that don’t go for girls like” Max. Thing is, he’s staring right at her.

Faking It is told in alternating first person narratives, so we get Cade’s point of view and then Max’s. That’s how we know that Cade has been watching her and how we know that he thinks she’s “bright.”(Her personality/aura/looks, not her IQ.) He also notices “no real connection between [Max and Mace].” When her eyes meet his it makes Cade’s “mouth go dry and stirred something in [his] chest. Stirred up other things, too.”  Um, wait a minute, didn’t you just have your heart-broken by that girl, Bliss, like five minutes ago? We’re only on page 20!

I am all about the slow burn and Faking It doesn’t seem to care about that. There’s an instant attraction between Cade and Max and soon they are bantering like Tracy and Hepburn, like with nicknames and everything. He agrees to be her date to Thanksgiving dinner and has no trouble playing the part of devoted boyfriend. In fact, he plays the part so well that Max’s parents invite him to Oklahoma for Christmas. Oh, what a tangled web.

Cora Carmack is a very popular, best-selling author and I have no doubt that for its intended audience Faking It hit all the right notes. For me, though, everything happened way too fast  and the over-the-top reactions to relatively minor obstacles and set-backs were just too much. I guess in that respect Faking It perfectly captures the drama of youth.

One more note: it’s biceps, people, even just in the one arm. Geesh.

Her and Me and You – Lauren Strasnick

her-and-me-and-you-366x550Alex and her mom have moved to Meadow Marsh to live in Alex’s dead grandmother’s house because “my favourite parent, Dad, had done some very bad things with a paralegal named Caroline.”

Faster than you can say trouble, with a capital T, Alex meets Fred and his twin sister, Adina. They’re  –  odd. Well, at least Adina is, but Alex is drawn to them anyway. Mostly she’s looking for an escape from the wreckage of her parents’ marriage and her mother’s subsequent nosedive into a bottle.

There’s not a lot of plot here – nothing much happens – but the triangle between Alex, Fred and Adina is almost immediately fraught with a weird and buzzing tension that Alex can’t quite get a handle on. One minute Adina is her bestie, the next she’s icing Alex out. To further complicate matters, Alex finds herself drawn to Fred, “his freckled face made [her] want to bake a batch of cookies. Down a gallon of milk.”

There’s also the problem of what Alex has left behind: her best friend, Evie, for starters has fallen in love and Alex felt “furious” about it. “Everything had changed so fast. Dad. Mom. Evie. Especially Evie.”

Her and Me and You is a relatively light-weight coming-of-age novel that is just better than average because despite the fact  that it has many of the standard YA realistic fiction hallmarks: divorced parents, absent parents, eating disorders, underage drinking, high school drama, it also has a compelling protagonist. Alex doubts herself in the way of all teenage girls, but she also has a wonderful capacity for growth and forgiveness. I liked that about her.

 Her and Me and You is a strangely compelling YA novel and I think it mostly has to do with how it navigates the tricky world of teenage relationships.

Off the Shelf – February 16, 2015

First of all, I don’t really believe in putting books into categories. I don’t believe in book shaming – that is – judging someone for reading something they enjoy just because it doesn’t fit into someone’s preconceived notion of what a person should be reading. So, for example, adults reading Young Adult lit. I read it because I teach teenagers and in order to do that well, I think I have to be on the same page as them (pun intended.) But I also read it because a lot of it is really good.  I guess categorization is useful for finding books – but I always tell students it’s important to read outside their comfort zones every once and a while.

When I think back to my days as a young reader, it was really before such a thing as “Young Adult” literature. You read kids’ books like Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew and then you just graduated to the rest of the books. So, when I stopped buying books from the Scholastic book flyer I graduated to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I can also remember reading my mom’s bodice rippers, books by Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss. Now, of course, young readers have a lot more choice and one of those choices is New Adult.

New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18–25 age bracket. St. Martin’s Press first coined the term in 2009, when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult‘.”

So – it’s sort of like the protagonists have graduated high school and gone off to college.

Remember being age 18-25? It is a tricky time in the people’s lives – sometimes juggling new responsibilities and freedom is harder than it looks so some of the tropes in new adult fiction include personal issues like anger-management, family difficulties and expectations, abuse, alcohol and drugs and sometimes the plots are soap-opera-esque. Often the narrative is told in the first person. The other thing people will likely notice in NA fiction is that the romantic scenes are just a tad racier than in YA fic – not of course 50 Shades racier, but still.

<insert rant about how crappy 50 Shades is>

OK – I am not a book snob and I read 50 Shades of Grey and laughed hysterically at all the hype it got as the book that revved up the libido of women all over the planet – 100 million copies, people. But that book has a very peculiar pedigree, right – started as fanfiction based on Twilight. So Anastasia is Bella and Christian is Edward. E.L.James wrote as Snowdragonprincess and posted the story in installments on Twilight fansites. Her fans (yep, fanfiction writers have hoards of fans) encouraged her to change the names and publish it as original fiction. My issue isn’t with the content or even that it started as fanfic – my issue is that it’s just BADLY WRITTEN. Here’s my review of the book.

But I digress

If you are interested in checking out some New Adult fiction, here are a couple titles in the genre.

easyEasy  – By Tammara Webber

So Easy is the story of Jacqueline Wallace, a second-year university student who is leaving a frat party and attacked by someone. She’s rescued in the nick of time by Lucas. He’s a Harley driving, pierced and tattooed artist-type who is also smart and awesome. Although their relationship is not without its problems, these are characters readers will fall in love with and root for. There’s a sequel of sorts for Easy, it’s called Breakable and it’s Lucas’s story. I really liked this book.

tentinybreathsTen Tiny Breaths – by K.A. Tucker

I didn’t like this one as much as I liked Easy. Kacey and her kid sister leave Michigan where they’d been living with their aunt and uncle after the death of their parents in a drunk driving accident. Kacey decided it was time to go after her uncle was getting a little too hands n with her little sister. They arrive in Florida where Kacey gets a job and meets Trent, the hot guy next door who has his own dark past. This one was just sort of ‘meh’ for me.

If you are interested in checking out other NA writers here are some of the names to know: Cora Carmack, Colleen Hoover and Jamie McGuire.

The History of Love – Nicole Krauss

historyWhen Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love was published in 2005 it took the literary world by storm (though not like the storm that is raging outside as I write this, cozy in bed with my cat and my tea.) Everyone loved this book: The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail. It was also the winner of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish fiction and BMOC’s Best Literary Fiction. The book has been on my tbr shelf forever (emphasis on the ‘ever’) and so I chose it as my pick for book club.

The History of Love is the title of the book Leo Gursky wrote for the love of his life, Alma. Alma flees Poland just before the invasion of the Nazis and when Leo finally makes his way to America, he discovers that not only does he have a son, but that Alma has married someone else.

…he stood in her living room listening to all this. He was twenty-five years old. He had changed so much since he last saw her and now part of him wanted to laugh a hard, cold laugh….She said: You stopped writing. I thought you were dead. …At last he managed three words: Come with me….Three times he asked her. She shook her head. I can’t, she said. And so he did the hardest thing he had ever done in his life: he picked up his hat and walked away.

Now Leo is at the end of his life. “When they write my obituary,” he says, “it will say LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.” Leo just wants to be seen. “Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even though I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor,” he says. His voice, one part resigned, one part hopeful is one of the novel’s greatest charms.

The other charming voice belongs to fifteen-year-old Alma – not the love of Leo’s life, but that of a teenager who lives in Brooklyn, with her widowed mother (who works as a translator) and younger brother, Bird. Her name is no coincidence: she was actually named after the character in Leo’s book The History of Love. This is where things get a bit complicated and I’m not going to bother drawing the chart required to understand it all – trust me, it’ll all sort itself out.

Alma is on a mission to find her mother a boyfriend. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when Alma was just seven and Alma feels as though her mother has been sad ever since. Alma is trying to navigate adolescence, her mother’s sadness, the fact that her brother thinks he’s the Messiah and her first love, too. Then (and I’m going to say it, girls!) by a weird twist of fate, The History of Love arrives for Alma’s mother to translate and the threads of Alma and Leo’s stories start to reach towards each other.

I really enjoyed The History of Love. There were some moments in the book that literally stopped me in my tracks. For example, Leo says: “All the times I have suddenly realized that my parents are dead, even now, it still surprises me, to exist in the world while that which made me has ceased to exist.” Those of us who have lost our parents will recognize that feeling (although perhaps never articulated) all too well.

This is one of those books, I think, which needs some time to sit in your belly. It is a book about connection – lovers, siblings, friends, parent and child. Leo, at the end of his life (which some might argue he wasted by loving someone he couldn’t have and not pursuing a relationship with his son) has all the insights of a person who has made errors in judgment, but is somehow still open to the world. Ultimately, The History of Love is about the desire we all have to be seen and understood and often the smallest gesture can have the biggest impact.

Highly recommended.

Charm & Strange – Stephanie Kuehn

charmWow. This William C. Morris Debut Award winner has it all. Charm & Strange, the first novel by Stephanie Kuehn, is amazing. I read a lot of YA fiction and this book is just a cut above. Way above.

Win has attended a boarding school in New England since he was twelve. A top-ranked tennis player, Win once hit an opponent across the face with his tennis racket.

He’s a lot of things. He is prone to motion sickness. He’s cold. Dangerous. Broken.

Into his life comes Jordan. She’s the new girl and she doesn’t know anything about Win and that’s pretty much the way he wants to keep it. They meet in the woods. Win has just been attacked by a couple of school bullies and Jordan has witnessed the whole thing. She asks why he didn’t fight back. Win never fights back because “That wouldn’t be fair.”

Their relationship is tentative because Win tends to stay away from people. His only other ‘friend’  is Lex, his former roommate, but even their relationship is strained.

Charm & Strange is a compelling story about dark secrets and how they can twist lives. Kuehn skillfully pulls the reader along a path that is almost too painful to read about, but she does it so well that you just can’t stop turning the pages. The novel is layered: Sixteen-year-old Win at school is told in first person sections called ‘matter’ and ten-year-old  Drew at home with his family (first person narrative in sections called ‘antimatter’). Win and Drew are the same person, and the reason for the name change will be revealed in due course. Win’s family: professor father, depressed shadow of a mother, older brother, Keith, and younger sister, Siobhan, are important characters is Win’s story.

This novel is so cleverly constructed; every page offers just a little more of Win’s story. Win is convinced he is about to change and not in a good way.

Change is imminent.

It has to be.

“Yeah, well, have fun with that,” Lex says. “Moon or no moon, I don’t plan on being anywhere near you.”

“Good,” I snarl, and he laughs even harder than before. My hands curl into fists. I want to shut him up.

Lex notices and skitters toward the door.

“Hey, Win,” he says as he leaves, “maybe it’s your head that’s broken, not your body. Ever think about that?”

Charm & Strange is a terrific book. I am having a hard time articulating how amazing it is. It is almost relentlessly bleak and yet as I closed the final pages I felt confident that despite Win’s dark past, the beast within would be tamed. For mature YA readers, Charm & Strange is one of the best of the bunch.

Highly recommended.

Kept in the Dark – Penny Hancock

keptinthedarkI read Penny Hancock’s debut novel Kept in the Dark in one breathless gulp. I absolutely couldn’t put it down. I love it when that happens.

Sonia lives in a house next to the Thames. Her husband, Greg, is a lecturing neurosurgeon; her daughter, Kit, is a student at university and Sonia herself is a vocal coach. From the outside looking in, it would appear that Sonia has it all. It’s pretty obvious, though, that Sonia isn’t entirely sane. When the nephew of a friend drops by to pick up an album, Sonia plies him with wine, then drugs him and locks him upstairs in the sound proof music studio.

Jez is just fifteen. He’s in London visiting his Aunt Helen and Uncle Mick and applying to colleges. His mother, Maria, lives in Paris. Sonia is taken with Jez immediately.

His dark fringe has fallen across one eye. He flicks I back, and looks at me from under long, perfectly formed black eyebrows. I notice his sinuous neck with its smooth Adam’s apple. There’s a triangular dip where his throat descends towards his sternum. His skin has a sheen on it that I’d like to touch. He’s of adult proportions yet everything about him is glossy and new.

The novel’s first person narrative is so creepy and claustrophobic.  We get to watch as Sonia justifies her behavior and work through the endless complications of keeping a fifteen-year-old boy captive. First of all, what happens when her husband arrives home from his business trip? What will she do when her daughter and her boyfriend come home from university. And then there’s Seb. He’s clearly someone from her past and Jez obviously reminds her of him, but who is he? Sonia says he was “the most beautiful creature that ever walked upon the earth.” Hancock seamlessly weaves Sonia’s present with her past and the mystery of Seb is equally as compelling as Jez’s fate.

There is a second narrator: Helen. Jez’s aunt is a bit of a mess in her own way. Jez’s disappearance while under her care has thrown Helen’s life into turmoil. When her sister arrives from Paris and the police get involved, Helen feels more like a suspect than a relative.

This book was so good. S.J. Watson, author of Before I Go to Sleep, sang its praises and I have to say I agree with Mr. Watson. Sonia’s midlife crisis – a rather strained relationship with her daughter; a sexless marriage; a difficult mother; and the house she grew up in that she vows never to leave despite the fact that her husband wants to sell and move to Geneva all seem to be conspiring against her. But none of it is convoluted or silly. The plot unravels like a dream that is both terrifying and strangely erotic.

Highly recommended.

The Girl in the Park – Mariah Fredericks

parkRain, the compelling narrator if Mariah Fredericks’ YA mystery, The Girl in the Park, attends the prestigious Alcott School in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “At our school,” she says. “everybody is the child of a somebody.” Rain’s somebody is her mom, an opera singer and “if you’re into opera, you probably know her.”

Rain is a watcher, a listener. Mostly it’s because she was born with a cleft palate, and although speech therapy has smoothed out some of the T’s and S’s, Rain’s still self-conscious. She hates how she sounds, “mushmouthed and nasal.”  That is, until Wendy starts school and tells her “Big deal. Okay, maybe you sound a little funny. But you need to forget about that and speak up girl.”

Wendy is larger than life. Although she’s rich, she comes from Long Island and doesn’t have the right kind of money or pedigree. The students at Alcott are snobbish and clique-ish, but that doesn’t stop Wendy from trying to make inroads. It’s when Rain tells her that she’s approaching it all wrong that the two girls become friends.

We only ever really see Wendy through Rain’s eyes because when the novel begins, Rain discovers that her friend has been found dead in Central Park. At this point, Rain and Wendy were friendly but no longer really friends. Wendy’s blatant disregard for the prep school rules and her reputation as a “skank” have caused Rain to distance herself from the girl who once told her that “You. Other the other hand. Listen. And you think. So when you do speak? You’re brilliant. So, give up the silence, okay”

Rain can’t stand the thought that something so horrible has happened to Wendy. Worse, the night it happened Rain was at the same party as Wendy and she feels she may have seen something that could help the police – she just doesn’t know what it is.

The Girl in the Park is a fast-paced mystery with enough suspects to keep readers engaged and guessing whodunit. It’s also a story that peers into the nasty, and sometimes heartbreaking, world of teenagers. I couldn’t put it down.