What We Lost – Sara Zarr

whatwelost“The whole world is wilting,” says fifteen-year-old Samara (Sam), the protagonist of Sara Zarr’s YA novel What We Lost.

She means the comment literally because it’s so hot that she wakes up every couple of hours “in a puddle of sweat,” but the observation is also figurative. Sam’s life is full of conflict and chaos. Her father, Charlie,  a pastor at the local church, is distracted and every day Sam wakes up to something “ruined or broken or falling apart.”

Part of the problem is that Sam’s mother is currently residing at the New Beginnings Recovery Center in an effort to get sober. Without her mother there, Sam feels adrift. There’s not enough money and Sam is tired of having to pretend that her mom just isn’t feeling well enough to attend church or other social functions. Things get even more complicated when Jody, a thirteen-year-old member of Sam’s church, goes missing  and Sam’s small town suddenly becomes a lens through which she is able to see all the world’s flaws, including her own.

I’ve read Zarr’s fantastic book Story of a Girl and her novel Roomies, which she co-wrote with Tara Altebrando, and which I also loved. Zarr has a real gift when it comes to creating empathetic characters and Samara is no different. Her fifteenth summer is a perfect storm of angst and confusion, suspicion and alienation.

I wish I understood what happened between then and now. I wish there was a way to put your finger on the map of life and trace backwards, to figure out exactly when things had changed so much…

As the town searches for Jody, Sam’s dad spends time with her family, acting as a sort of spokesperson. During this time, Sam grows closer to Jody’s older brother, Nick. He “could probably be a model” Sam observes, studying him the way “every girl who has ever known Nick has studied him.”

The problem with their blossoming friendship is that Nick is a suspect in the disappearance of his sister and Charlie doesn’t want Sam to hang out with him. Charlie also doesn’t want Sam to be alone; the town no longer feels safe. Sam is shuttled back and forth between her house and her best friend Vanessa’s. Sam has suspicions of her own; she wonders why her dad is spending so much time with Erin, the church’s youth group leader.

Zarr manages all these threads beautifully, allowing Sam her questions  about her faith in God,  suspicions about her dad, loneliness for her mom and feelings for Nick to percolate under the hot summer sun.

Great read.


The House – Christina Lauren

Okay, there’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s, well, just disbelief. I so wanted to like Christina Lauren’s (the co-writing team of Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) YA novel The House, but I didn’t. Actually, my feelings are more conflicted than that: I liked some things about the book and really, really disliked others.

the houseThe good: The writing in The House is actually pretty decent. At least decent enough that I wasn’t groaning over clunky sentences. In particular, the spooky scenes were well-written – propulsive and skin-crawlingly descriptive.

The two main characters, Delilah and Gavin are likeable teens. The story is told in alternating chapters labeled ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ so the reader is privy to the thoughts of both characters. Delilah has recently started high school in her hometown in Kansas after leaving a  school on the east coast. Gavin has lived his whole life in “the House,” an odd patchwork house hidden behind a fence. The two knew each other as children, before Delilah had been sent to live with her grandmother. Now she is intent on rekindling her friendship with Gavin.  It would seem that he is the proverbial bad boy and that Delilah is smitten.

The bad: There is no long burn here, no smolder – which is unfortunate because these stories work so much better when there is. Gavin and Delilah fall pretty much in love almost immediately. Of course, their relationship is not without its problems and that’s the part of the story that was the most problematic for me.

Things inside House can come alive in a way that I don’t think things anywhere else can. When an object is inside House…it can be alive….


Things in the house move….They take care of me. They always have. They would never leave….It’s a bit like having a really big family, but no one speaks.

Yep, Gavin’s house is alive. His parents are gone, but House has always taken care of him, anticipating his every desire, making his food, taking care of his needs. He doesn’t see it as particularly strange because, of course, it’s all he’s ever known. For most young adult readers this likely won’t seem like much of an imaginative stretch. They’ve grown up reading books where teens fight to the death, have other-worldly powers and fall in love with vampires and werewolves, but for me, I just found it sort of goofy.

As it turns out, House isn’t all that benevolent when it seems like Delilah might steal Gavin away. The novel gives new meaning to the notion of playing house, that’s for sure.

Kindness for Weakness – Shawn Goodman

One of my students recently read Shawn Goodman’s novel Kindness for KindnessWeakness and when she returned it to my classroom library, she told me that she loved it so much that she’d asked for her own copy for Christmas. Her endorsement encouraged me to read the book and I am so glad I did even though it broke my heart. Seriously.

James is fifteen. He lives with his drug-addicted mother and her scummy, drug-addicted boyfriend, Ron, in a one-bedroom trailer. His older brother, Louis, moved out two years ago. James is adrift; he hasn’t got one positive thing going for him. He is  “just a lonely kid loping along the street with [his] head down.”

Then his brother offers him a job and James, desperate to be a part of Louis’ life, accepts. Problem is, the job is dealing drugs and James gets caught. He won’t rat out his brother, so he’s thrown into Morton, a juvenile facility.

There is nothing good about his new reality. James thinks

I am a loser, I am scared and weak. I want to call Mr. Pfeffer and ask him what I’m supposed to do. I want to talk to him over cold root beers, and have him tell me that everything will be okay. I want him to give me new books, enough to last twelve months, so I can disappear into the pages and not have to deal with this place. I could read one book after the other, stopping only to eat, sleep, and do school or chores or whatever it is they do here.

But James does learns the rules and in some ways he comes into his own at Morton.  There are a couple of guards who are compassionate and make an effort to teach the young men in their charge that there is always an alternative.  Despite his circumstances, James starts to consider what his future might look like.

I want to go to college…I want to live in a dorm where no one will know where I came from or who I was at my old high school. I want to start over and see the world outside of Dunkirk. I want to take writing classes.

James also reaches out to his old English teacher, Mr. Pfeffer, and the two exchange letters. James takes comfort in literature, and I have a soft spot for any character who loves books. James strives to stay out of trouble because he wants to get out and make something of his life.

Shawn Goodman actually worked in New York’s juvenile justice system and this experience gives Kindness for Weakness a real feeling of authenticity, but it is James that is the emotional center of this book.  He is a believable, sympathetic character. I fell in love with him at the very beginning and rooted for him until the book’s devastating conclusion.

Highly recommended.


The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

catcher-in-the-rye-cover-imageSo I recently re-read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time in about twenty years (or maybe longer, although I shudder to think) because I am teaching Grade 11 this year and Salinger’s classic coming-of-age story is on the reading list. Now I have to figure out what I really think about this book – not just what I want the kids to think I think about it.  It’s a problem because I believe that Holden Caulfield is definitely a character adolescents should encounter, if only because he (and this novel) is alluded to in so much of the literature, music, and films that followed.

If you’re out of the loop, The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and concerns almost-17-year-old Holden Caulfield, a smart but disenchanted student who has just been kicked out of Pencey Prep, a fancy boarding school in Pennsylvania. “You’ve probably heard of it,” Holden tells us. “They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time.” Holden is flunking all his courses except for English (he’s a voracious reader) and so he’s being sent home.

When the novel opens though, Holden is recounting “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty rundown” from a rest home in California. Once he establishes where he is, Holden starts to tell his story – embellishments (by his own admission, Holden is “the most terrific liar”) and all.

There is no question that The Catcher in the Rye is dated. Holden peppers his speech with “goddam” (a rather tame expletive by today’s standards), he smokes and drinks (not that today’s teenagers don’t, but there is something old-fashioned about the way he treats these vices) and he’s able to spend an extended amount of time in New York City without breaking the bank (I wish!). Everyone Holden encounters is a “phony” and despite his obsession with sex, Holden is still a virgin. That said, there is something thoroughly modern in Holden’s quest to make sense of  his life, which has gone seriously off the rails.

At its heart, The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about growing up. Holden doesn’t want to, not really. It is perhaps the reason why he’s still a virgin and why he thinks the Museum of Natural History is a perfect place.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still just be finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

Holden can’t stop time, although I think he would desperately like to. He also can’t undo the fact that his beloved brother, Allie, is dead. “You’d have liked him,” Holden tells us. He is preoccupied with the loss of innocence that precipitates the headlong fall into adulthood. He tells his little sister, Phoebe, that he would like to be a “catcher in the rye,”

…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…

Holden’s narrative amounts to a desperate cry for help, for someone to listen to him, for someone to answer his questions, questions which, on the surface (like, where do the ducks in Central Park go when the pond freezes over) seem innocent, but which really demonstrate Holden’s search for meaning.

In Holden, Salinger has created a timeless character who will always have something to say to anyone who cares to listen.

Fitz – Mick Cochrane

fitzMick Cochrane’s YA novel, Fitz, is the story of what happens when a boy decides to confront the father he’s never met.

Fitz is a “typical fifteen-year-old boy. A sophomore on the B honor roll. A kid with a messy room, an electric guitar, a notebook full of song lyrics, vague dreams about doing something great some day, a crush on a red-haired girl.”

And like many other teens, Fitz (short for Fitzgerald) lives with his single mom. His father is an unknown entity; his mother doesn’t talk about him and although he supports Fitz financially, Fitz knows nothing about him. That doesn’t mean Fitz doesn’t think about him, though.

When Fitz was a little boy, he liked to imagine that his father was quietly, secretly watching over him, loving him, for his own good and unselfish reasons, from a distance.

Circumstances have changed, though. Fitz has inadvertently discovered his father’s home address and he’s decided to confront his dad, which, sure, that seems plausible enough. What doesn’t seem quite as likely is the fact that Fitz takes a gun with him and pretty much kidnaps his father. It’s a scenario that could go horribly wrong.

Turns out, though, that Fitz’s father, Curtis, is a decent guy – clearly, he’s been paying support all these years. Over the course of the day the two listen to music, hang out at the zoo, have lunch and visit Curtis’s office (he’s an attorney). As the day unfolds, Fitz tries to figure out what it is he really wants to know about his dad and Curtis, it seems, is only too willing to talk, has – in fact – been waiting for fifteen years to have this conversation with his son. It’s kind of sweet, really.

“You were a good baby, a beautiful baby,” that’s how he starts. That’s his once-upon-a-time. He says that Fitz was healthy, bright-eyed, curious. He had amazing blue eyes. It’s just that he didn’t sleep, at least not for long stretches.

Fitz is sensible enough to listen as his father tries to explain the story of his relationship with Fitz’s mother and smart enough to realize that even parents make mistakes because, in their own once-upon-a-time, they were young enough to make them. If the story seems just a tad sentimental, Cochrane can be forgiven because Fitz is a likeable character and, thankfully, the gun is little more than false bravado.