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.

Nevermore – @Kelly_Creagh

I’ve been trying to finish Kelly Creagh’s debut YA novel Nevermore for the past few nights. Kids in bed, kitchen clean,  email answered. Check, check, check. With my cat Lily curled beside me, I finally settle down to the book and read until my eyes are burning.  I actually finished it during my 4th period Writing class today. (We read for the first 30 minutes on Tues and Thurs!) I have SO much love for this book.

Isobel Lanley is a popular sixteen-year-old cheerleader. In many ways she is just what you’d imagine her to be; she’s pretty, dates a hunky football player and sits with the ‘in’ crowd at lunch. But Isobel’s world takes a flying leap from normal when she is paired  with Varen Nethers to do an English project.

He sat in the back row against the far corner, slumped in his seat and staring straight ahead through shreds of inky locks, his thin wrists lined in black leather bands specked with hostile silver studs.

Isobel can’t believe her crappy luck. Not only are they going to have to work together, but they are going to be researching Edgar Allan Poe. And Varen is clearly hostile towards her. A simple (although slightly unconventional) phone number exchange sets off a chain of events that isolates Isobel in ways she couldn’t ever imagine. And then things start to get really weird.

Kelly Creagh’s book is so much fun, I couldn’t wait to read it every day. Voya called it an “English teacher’s jewel box,” and it’s easy to see why. Although I am not an expert on Edgar Allan Poe (and I don’t mean to imply that you have to be in order to enjoy this book), I did catch many of the allusions. Nevermore is a well-written, intelligent, puzzle of a book that will appeal to any reader – young or old – who likes a novel with a little meat on its bones.

Although it’s likely that Nevermore will get stuck with the ‘paranormal romance’ tag, I think that label actually does the book a disservice. Yes, there is romance – but you wait for hundreds of pages before Isobel and Varen even kiss. Ratchet up the angst, why don’t you. (And, Ms. Creagh, was that some Buffy speak I caught in there?) There were moments in this book when I was seriously creeped out. One menacing character, Pinfeathers, is super-creepy. Reynolds is another character that is difficult to figure out. Is he good? Is he deceitful?

And, best of all, Isobel is a terrific character. She’s smart and brave and resourceful. And I can’t wait to see what happens to her  in Nevermore‘s sequel, Enshadowed.

I am really looking forward to passing this one on to students in my class.

 

 

 

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s well-regarded memoir The Year of Magical Thinking recalls the year following the death of her husband and writing partner John Gregory Dunne. Didion and Dunne were married for 40 years and were literary royalty. They counted many other famous writers and celebrities among their friends. It would seem that theirs was a charmed life. John Gregory’s famous brother, Dominick, writes about his brother’s death here.

“Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant,” Didion writes. And while we certainly all know this is true, Didion experiences it first hand at a particularly trying point in her life.

She and her husband have just returned from the hospital where their only daughter Quintana is recovering from a particularly virulent flu. They’ve just sat down to dinner  when Didion looks up from her salad and sees him slumped over the table.

I have no idea what subject we were on, the Scotch or World War One, at the instant he stopped talking.

I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable.

I remember saying Don’t do that.

As it turns out, Dunne had a bad heart and was living on borrowed time. None of that lessens the shock of his sudden passing for Didion. Although her prodigious skill with the written word is apparent in this memoir, her grief over the loss of her husband is as raw for her as for any of us. Death is the great equalizer. Didion is forced to come to terms with Dunne’s death even as she continues to deal with her daughter’s illness. (In a sad post script, Quintana died just a couple years later from the complications of her illness. There has also been some speculation that Quintanta died, ultimately, of acute pancreatitis caused by alcoholism. She was just 39.)

In the early days after Dunne’s death, Didion tries to keep it together. She keeps expecting Dunne to walk through the door; she continues to store information to share with her husband at a later date. She says: “Of course I knew John was dead…Yet I was myself was in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone…I needed to be alone so he could come back.”

The Year of Magical Thinking is not a romantic memoir. Didion, despite her sorrow, turns a clear, at times even dispassionate, eye on the nature of grief. She’s been trained to do that, of course. Does it lessen the impact of the story she has to tell? Not really. But was I as emotionally engaged as I thought I would be. Not really.

 

The Day I Killed James – Catherine Ryan Hyde

People die of love.

Eighteen-year-old Theresa believes this to be true, or at least she claims she does in Catherine Ryan Hyde’s YA novel, The Day I Killed James. We meet her at the beginning of her therapy sessions with Dr. Grey. She doesn’t like him very much.

I’ve thought about dumping him and getting  somebody else, but that would be the easy way out, which I’m not entirely sure I deserve.

So why is Theresa in therapy? Well, James, the buff boy next door – who has been trying to get her attention forever – ends up dead after she takes him to an end-of-year party in an effort to make her boyfriend, Randy, jealous. It isn’t until weeks after his death that Theresa can admit to perhaps liking him…just a little bit.

If I had felt it any more strongly, I might have cracked like a china cup. It was like a pressure inside me, like an old steam boiler, and I just lay there hoping it would hold. Hoping I would hold.

Theresa isn’t a horrible person and taking James to the party to make Randy jealous isn’t the worst thing she could have done, but the aftermath of that event sends Theresa off on a journey of self discovery that is actually long overdue.  Theresa has some things to work out and while James might be the catalyst, some of her problems pre-date him.

I didn’t like the beginning of The Day I Killed James very much. The story is told mostly as a series of journal entries prescribed by Dr. Grey. Things improve a little bit in the novel’s second part. Theresa is now Annie and she’s left home not so much to sort out her life, but to escape it. She soon discovers that it’s almost impossible to avoid all human contact. Her sudden ‘relationship’ with a precocious eleven-year-old girl named Cathy ups the ante a little – but also seems slightly forced.

However, when all is said and done, I think teens will quite like the story of what it means to love and how important it is to take care of each others’  heart.

Stitches – David Small

I am not a graphic novel aficionado, but David Small’s Stitches  has been on my tbr radar for a while. Small’s memoir of growing up in 1950’s Detroit with an older brother, a radiologist father and a bat-shit crazy mother (although the discovery of her secret life makes her a tad more sympathetic) has won a slew of accolades and was a finalist for several major awards including the National Book Award.

I can’t comment on the quality of the art – or how it compares to the art of other graphic novels because I don’t have any frame of reference. All the pictures are simple and black and white, but they were very effective drawings.

The story of David’s life begins at six. The reader learns a little bit about his family, his absent father, his cold and distant mother.  Memoirs aren’t meant to dissect an entire life; rather, this is the story of one life-altering moment. A growth on David’s neck, discovered when he is 11, must be removed. The diagnosis: a cebaceous cyst. It takes David’s parents three and a half years to organize the surgery – not just one operation, but two. When David wakes up from the second operation, he discovers that his vocal chords have been severed and he is, for all intents and purposes, mute.

I read Stitches in an afternoon. It’s a sad tale, made darker because of the author’s muted drawings. For anyone wondering whether it is possible to have a worthwhile life after a craptastic childhood, Stitches is proof-positive.