All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

Not all YA books are created equal. When I was a teen in the 70s YA was barely a thing. Basically I went from reading The Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon to reading Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Scholastic flyer at school offered some options and I can all-the-bright-places-jktspecifically remember reading and falling in love with S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This is Now (a book I loved way more than I loved The Outsiders), and Judy Blume’s Forever, but the reading choices certainly weren’t as varied as they are for teens today.  I read a lot of YA now because I teach teens. Lots of it is mediocre. Lots of it is good. Then, every so often, you read a book you just want to tell all your students about. You want every single teen you know on the planet to read it. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is one of those books.

Theodore Finch is seventeen. He begins his story by asking “Is today a good day to die?” He’s considering this question from “a narrow ledge six floors above the ground.” That’s when he sees the girl, Violet Markey. “She stands a few feet away on the other side of the tower, also out on the ledge…”

This is how Niven begins to tell the story of Finch and Violet. Finch ‘rescues’ Violet, but because he has a reputation as being a freak, a loser, and unstable, the rumour around school is that Violet saved him. From this unlikely scenario, a beautiful friendship springs.

After Finch talks Violet off the ledge he asks her: “Do you think there’s such a thing as a perfect day?…A perfect day. Start to finish. Where nothing terrible or sad or ordinary happens. Do you think it’s possible?”  Just typing that now makes me feel as though I want to cry.

Violet doesn’t seem like a likely match for Finch. She’s “cheerleader popular” and dates Ryan Cross, a movie star handsome baseball star. Still, when the two are paired to participate in a “Wander Indiana” project (part of a course in U.S. Geography), they discover a kinship neither expected. As they travel to various points of interest, they start to trust each other. Violet begins the painful process of shedding the grief of a tragic accident and Finch finds more and more reason to stay “awake.”

One of the things that makes a YA novel great for me is characterization. I want the teens to feel authentic, not like stereotypes. Finch and Violet are beautifully crafted creations, and the people who circle their lives (parents and siblings and friends) are also well-drawn and nuanced. Finch’s mom is broken from her failed marriage; Violet’s parents are over-protective. As a mom of teens myself, I like to see parents in YA portrayed as real people – flawed and messy and trying to do the best they can even when they can’t fix anything at all.

The other element of the novel that Niven handles so well is the issue of mental illness. All the Bright Places is not a “sick lit” book. Finch’s struggles are authentic and nuanced and painfully rendered in prose that is a joy to read. I can’t remember the last time a character has broken my heart, but Finch most certainly did.

I can’t recommend All the Bright Places highly enough. Buy it for every teen you know. Buy it for yourself.

 

 

Ten – Gretchen McNeil

There are enough diversions and red herrings in Gretchen McNeil’s YA mystery Ten to tenkeep attentive readers on their toes. The straight-forward narrative and familiar characters (the mean girl, the jock, the good girl) will certainly be appealing to readers of a certain age, but there isn’t much on offer here for anyone else.

Meg and her best friend, Minnie, have been invited to a weekend party on Henry Island, one of the islands off the coast of Washington State. Meg’s not really the party type and she’s already anxious about the fact that they’ve “lied to [their] parents and gone to a house party in the middle of nowhere.”

The party comes on the heels of a gruesome discovery at a rival high school – “the charred remains of a body found in the locker room.”

When the girls arrive (by ferry), they find the rest of the party guests: T.J. Fletcher, hunky football player and Meg’s not-so-secret-crush; Ben, the new boyfriend of their hostess, Jessica (who never shows us); Gunner, surfer dude; Kumiko, Gunner’s new girlfriend (Minnie was his former girlfriend); Vivian, seemingly sensible; Lori, random girl; Nathan and Kenny; token Neanderthals.

The festivities start with a few beers and then things start to go whacky. First of all, Ben almost dies from anaphylactic shock. Then, the group watches a strange and disturbing video that claims : “Vengeance is Mine.”  Someone tosses the room Meg and Minnie are sharing. Meg finds a strange diary. And then, one by one, people start to die.

Alliances and nerves start to fray as the teens realize they are cut off from civilization (no cell service or Internet) and that no one knows where they are. The most they can hope for is that Jessica arrives, as planned, on the next ferry.

McNeil keeps the action ticking along. The third person narrative is focused pretty tightly on Meg – but who hasn’t heard of an unreliable narrator before? There’s not a lot of opportunity for character development, not that it really matters. I think most teens will enjoy the straight ahead action, the creepy deaths and Meg’s valiant attempt to figure out who the killer is before it’s too late.

For the record: I didn’t get it right.

 

Last Minute Gift Ideas

Listen here.

Okay, I admit it, with one exception, I haven’t even started Christmas shopping yet.  I think I must need a little bit of snow to get me in the holiday spirit.  That said, I thought I would offer up some gift suggestions for the book lovers out there.

For the teenage boy on your list:

winger-smithWinger by Andrew Smith

Winger is the story of fourteen-year-old Ryan Dean West, a super smart kid who attends a ritzy boarding school in Oregon. Now, although I am neither 14 nor a boy, I think I can say – based on my day-to-day dealings with them that Smith accurately captures the vernacular of the species.  Ryan Dean is so smart he’s already in Grade 11. He’s a good kid, but he’s been moved into Opportunity Hall, the residence where the kids who have gotten into trouble live. (He got caught hacking a teacher’s cell phone so he could make long distance calls.) He places rugby, thus his nickname) and is in love with his best friend, Annie. Smith’s book is filled with all sorts of cartoons that Ryan Dean draws as a way of sorting out all his feelings about just about everything. This book won loads of awards, but I should point out that there is loads of swearing (although Ryan Dean would never swear out loud, he’s writing so he can) and sex talk (although nothing super explicit.) More importantly, Ryan Dean is kind and sensitive and is just trying to do the right thing, even when he does exactly the wrong thing. Beautifully written, well-drawn characters. This is a winner.

For the teenage girl on your list:

Vanishing Girls – Lauren Oliver vanishing-girls-jacket

Lauren is a well-known YA author. She penned the Delirium series, but Vanishing Girls is my first book by her. This is the story of sisters Nick and Dara and the aftermath of a terrible accident. It’s told via dual first person narratives, police reports, diary entries, illustrations etc  so there’s a bit of a multi-genre approach.  Nick and Dara are super close, but they are also very different and the novel tracks their relationship which post-accident has hit a rather bumpy patch. Dara has actually disappeared. Then, with the disappearance of another young girl, Oliver takes us down a full-on thrill-ride. It’s got a little something for everyone, really: mystery, suspense, a love-interest, family drama. And it’s well-written to boot. No real caveats for this one although it’s definitely for older teens.

achildofbooksFor the young reader on your list:

I recently picked up a beautiful book at Indigo – not really as a gift, but I think I know who I will give it to. It’s called A Child of Books and it’s by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston. It’s a whimsical book about the love of books – so you can see how it would appeal to me. A little girl  takes the hand of a little boy and they wander together through their imaginations which are fed, of course, by books and words. It’s so pretty and positive. Maybe it’s the gift I will give to myself this year.

 

For the reader who’d appreciate a book by a local author: riel

I would suggest picking up Riel Nason’s sophomore effort, All The Things We Leave Behind. Readers might remember Riel’s first novel The Town That Drowned and her second novel is also very evocative of small-town NB circa 1970s. In this novel 17-year-old Violet has been left to look after the family business – antiques sold out of a purple barn up past Fredericton. I actually met Riel before she became a novelist – she was actually in the antiques business and so I worked with her because of my job with The Canadian Antiques Roadshow. Anyway, in this story, Vi’s older brother Bliss is missing and her parents have gone looking for him. This novel is a little darker than The Town That Drowned, but it will be  wonderfully familiar to anyone who has spent any time upriver.  Older teens could certainly read it, too.

567For anyone who likes poetry:

I can’t claim to understand the poems, but if you like poetry and you want a challenge – check out Robert Moore’s latest collection, Based on Actual Events. You might need to read it with a dictionary close by – but even without one, you’ll probably get some of Bob’s dry wit. For those of you who don’t know, Bob is a prof at UNBSJ and I am guessing you can pick up a copy of Based on Actual Events at Tuck, the story his wife Judith Mackin owns.

 

 

For those who like a suspenseful read: lastsept

The Last September by Nina de Gramont

This would be a great gift to give to someone who likes suspense with a little meat on its bones because it’s not actually a suspense thriller – even though it sort of reads like one. It’s the story of Brett who falls in love with her best friend Eli’s older brother, Charlie.  When Charlie is murdered  – no a spoiler – we learn Charlie is dead by the end of the first sentence, Gramont spins the story back in time to let us discover how Brett’s love story unfold. Our book club had a great time debating this one – especially when there was some dissention over whodunit. I actually wrote to the author for clarification and she wrote me back, too. It’s a great little book for a stormy winter afternoon.

 

2016adventcalendar_3Finally, plan for next year and order:

The Short Story Advent Calendar – I ordered this for my son this year. It’s a box of short stories you open one at a time on the days leading up to Christmas. Really cool.  And Canadian!

Order early, though

Happy holidays and happy reading!

Books for what ails you

Like everyone else in the free world, I watched the recent American presidential election with my heart in my throat. I finally put my phone down at around 12:30 a.m. on the night of the election feeling pretty certain that the impossible had happened. I woke up a handful of hours later and my fears were confirmed.

Back in the day I used to watched The Apprentice. We’d mock Trump as he got off his private jet, that impossible hair flapping in the wind, his mouth like a little anus. He just seemed like a caricature. And now he’s the president of arguably the most powerful country in the world. It’s a terrifying notion to a left-leaning person like me. I hope Trump will surprise us, but I still don’t think he’s qualified for the job.

globalcitizenI have to admit that I was feeling a little smug because, y’know, I’m Canadian and Justin Trudeau is our Prime Minister. He’s not perfect, certainly, and we’re not perfect as a nation, but c’mon. And then Kellie Leitch, one of the people running for the leadership of our national Progressive Conservative Party (as if the national  PC Party is actually ‘progressive’) hitched her star to Trump’s wagon saying we needed to vet our immigrants more carefully. Seriously? I blame Stephen Harper for creating a climate where someone could say something like that in a country that was freakin’ built by immigrants. (Okay, truthfully, I blame Harper for lots of things; I just don’t like the man.)

All the vitriol has me thinking about the world – which is in dire need of some perspective. And some hope. And where do we get it?  Books.

One of the things I always tell my students is that reading allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes.  How can we be sharing this planet and not understand that, fundamentally, we are the same, not different? Sometimes we all live in our own little bubble – me included –  and so we only have a couple options to help us see over our own personal walls: travel and books. I love both, but traveling is expensive, so I guess it’s books (and truthfully, the way I buy books – also expensive).

I thought I’d share some books that might help you see your fellow human differently. If we can’t (try to) understand each other, if we’re not open to listening to someone else’s point of view – even if we don’t agree, if we don’t at least grasp the concept that we are all in this together or we all suffer, well, we’re doomed. I’m a glass half full sort of person, so I would like to believe that perhaps Trump’s victory is a wake-up call to us all that the world is on a precipice. We can either take a step back in love or jump off into the abyss with hate.

I choose love.

These books are about experiences I have never had and all of them got me to ask questions and see people and countries in a new way. Some made me uncomfortable, some made me feel ignorant and blind. All of them were profoundly moving. If we are going to make this world better we need to practice our empathy skills. Books help with that. As Atticus Finch so wisely put it, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

So go on. Start walking.

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Stephen Galloway 9780307397041

Spend a few hours with Kenan as he braves the streets, making a treacherous journey to the brewery to collect fresh water for his family. He’s a father who only want to keep his children safe, feed and clothe them.

Never Fall Down – Patricia McCormack neverfalldown

Reading Arn’s story has reminded me again of the priviledged life I’ve lead and of the absolute power of literature to crack open the insulated world in which we often live.

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Bejamin Alire Saenz aristotle_and_dante

I was the age of these characters somewhere around 1976. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Okay, looking back – of course I did, but we didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t acknowledged. As far as I know, they weren’t out. I am profoundly grateful as a teacher and a parent, just as a human being, that books like this exist.

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

the-book-thiefLiesel is extraordinary. She and Hans bond late at night, when Liesel’s nightmares wake her, and Hans teaches her to read. Books and words are central to Liesel’s story. So is her friendship with Rudy, the boy next door. Through their eyes we see Hitler and Nazi Germany; we experience the atrocities and the small kindnesses. Zusak’s story is mostly about everyday things: hunger, pettiness, laughter, hope, cruelty and kindness.

 

Bel Canto – Ann Patchett bel-canto1

For me, though, this is a book about love- how it shapes us and changes us, how beauty transforms and transports and how you just might take a risk if you thought it might be your last opportunity to do so.

 

totally joeTotally Joe – James Howe

Joe is totally self-aware. It’s one of the pleasure of Totally Joe, really, that he is a person who understands and accepts himself. That doesn’t mean he’s not susceptible to the taunts of others.

 

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq – Mark Alan Stamaty  alia

When the fighting starts in Iraq, Alia feels compelled to save the books in the library. When she can’t get her own government to help her, she starts moving the books herself.

everythingEverything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is an astounding, complex and heart-breaking look at the secrets we keep, not only from our families but from ourselves. Why we keep them, and the damage caused because of it, is just part of what happens in Ng’s book.

 

 

 

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

Twins Morwenna and Corwin have grown up on the Devon coast with their unhappy parents, John and Valerie, and their paternal grandfather, Matthew. They are eighteen when the novel begins and their father has just fallen off a cliff to his death. Morwenna, the narrator of Julia Rochester’s compelling novel The House at the Edge of the World says “He was pissing into the brine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.”

house-edge-worldMorwenna draws us into a gothic landscape where people use language with scalpel-like precision and the characters are not particularly sympathetic.

Take Morwenna herself. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a first-person narrator that I didn’t really like. Morwenna is prickly and often cruel. Her employer that eighteenth summer tells her she is “a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed little smartarse.” He’s not wrong. The only person she seems to even remotely care about is Corwin, her beautiful and enigmatic twin.

After the death of their father, Corwin leaves Thornton and heads to India where he says he is going to “move water.” Morwenna goes to London, first to school and then to a job as a book-binder. It’s incongruous to her personality – the care she takes to make these beautiful hand-crafted books with their embossed leather covers and beautiful end-papers.

Then Morwenna tells us “For seventeen years after my father’s death nothing much happened and then a pigeon flew through my window.” It’s a sign, surely. Corwin comes home and the siblings, again in each other’s orbit, start to pull at the thread of their family history.

Much of this history is captured in the map their grandfather, Matthew, has been painting for as long as they can remember. The map captures both the landscape and the history of their ancestral home and soon becomes an important clue in the mystery of Morwenna’s father’s life and death.

Even more intriguing to me is the relationship between Morwenna and her brother. To say it’s complicated would be the understatement of the year. His arrival back in England after a long absence offers Morwenna only “one last  lazy unspoiled afternoon” before Matthew’s map and their childhood home spills its secrets.

I really liked The House at the Edge of the World. The language is beautiful. There is an element of idioglossia between Morwenna and Corwin.  They are endlessly compelling even if you don’t particularly like them. The same is true for the rest of the characters. Only Valerie, when she finally moves away from Thornton, seems to manage a modicum of happiness.

I am not satisfied with the way I am talking about this novel. Gah! It’s probably because I don’t want to give anything away and I also have all these conflicting emotions about it. So let me just say this:

Highly recommended.

 

 

All The Rage – Courtney Summers

Courtney Summers is Canadian – let’s just get that out of the way. I am extra disposed to courtney-summers-all-the-ragelove her because she’s, you know, Canadian. Like Ryan Gosling is Canadian. And ketchup chips. Okay, now I am just putting off talking about All The Rage because reading Summers isn’t like reading other YA writers. She hits you hard right in the solar plexus. Every. Time.

Romy Grey used to be on the inside – until a party  changes everything.  Now she finds herself navigating the shark-infested waters of her high school and her small town, Grebe, where everyone knows everyone and all those everyones are subservient to the Turners – the town sheriff and his business owner wife.

When Romy wakes up in a ditch, disoriented and with no memory of what’s happened to her, it brings her back to another night when a beautiful boy  – a boy she wanted – rapes her in the back of his pick-up truck.

…how do you get a girl to stop crying?

You cover her mouth.

Romy never tells anyone what this beautiful boy, Kellan Turner (one and the same) did to her. Instead, she pushes the trauma of it as far down inside as she can and protects herself by painting her nails and lips red. But this second incident  – the waking up on the side of the road – starts to unravel Romy. Things are further complicated by the fact that another girl, Penny, is missing. Penny and Romy used to be friends, but are no longer.

There is so much going on in All The Rage. And, frankly, Summers’ timing couldn’t be any better. We live in a world that blames the girl and, regretfully, never really holds the boy accountable. One need only recall the circumstances surrounding the victim in the Brock Turner  rape case to realize how inadequate society’s reaction to these horrific events is. (The link will take you to the victim statement, which should be required reading.)  And almost more problematic is the fact that often women don’t stand with women in these cases. Romy finds herself isolated, bullied mercilessly by other girls which I find incredibly disturbing.

Girls are told what they can and can’t wear – an ongoing issue in every single high school, I am sure – because a visible bra strap or a too-short skirt is clearly an invitation to be assaulted. The victim-blaming is insidious.

It’s all too easy for Romy to be victimized. She was never really part of the gang. Her father was the town drunk. She’s from the wrong side of town. Now everyone blames her for Penny’s disappearance. It’s no wonder that Romy  starts to come apart.

At the checkout, it’s just boys at the registers and I can’t stand the idea of them knowing what I wear underneath my shirt. I tell Mom I have a headache, give her my wallet,  and wait in the car while she pays for it all. I wish I didn’t have a body, sometimes.

There are some good things in Romy’s life. She lives with her mother, who is awesome, and her mother’s new boyfriend, Todd – whom I LOVED, btw. He’s one of the good guys. Leon, the cook at the diner where Romy waitresses, genuinely seems to care for her.

All The Rage tackles a difficult subject with respect and tremendous insight. Romy is a beautifully drawn character, fragile and tremendously brave in equal measure. If I wasn’t already a huge fan of Summers’, I certainly would be after reading this book.

Highly recommended.

Also read: Some Girls Are, This Is Not a Test