simonBecky Albertalli’s YA novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda won the William C. Morris Debut Award, but the accolades don’t stop there. The book has been praised or recognized by everyone from ALA, Carnegie, Oprah and Lambda. Although this book has been on my shelf for a couple years, as soon as I knew the movie was coming out – I knew I had to read it…and I am soooo sorry I waited so long.

Simon is a junior in high school. He lives with his younger sister, Nora, and his parents. His older sister, Alice, is away at college.

Simon is all kinds of awesome. He’s funny, self-aware, smart and gay. The problem is that he hasn’t told anyone yet – about being gay. Everyone knows the other stuff. Well, there’s one person who knows Simon’s secret. His name is Blue. He and Simon have been exchanging emails and those emails are what set Simon’s story in motion. When he forgets to log out of his Gmail account at school, another kid, Martin, sees the emails and uses them to blackmail Simon into helping him hook up with one of Simon’s friends, Abby. It’s kind of a ridiculous premise, really, but let’s remember the cesspool that is high school.

…the whole coming out thing doesn’t really scare me.

I don’t think it scares me.

It’s a giant holy box of awkwardness, and I won’t pretend I’m looking forward to it But it probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. Not for me.

Simon’s blackmailer is “a little bit of a goober nerd”, but Simon doesn’t want to out Blue and so he does his level best to match make, but the problem is that Abby likes someone else, Nick, who is one of Simon’s best friends. And then there’s Leah, Simon’s other bestie, who may have feelings for Nick herself. It’s a tangled web, but maneuvering through these relationships is part of the high school experience.

Watching Simon and Blue’s relationship unfold via their emails is really beautiful. Despite attending the same school, they don’t know each other’s true identity and so they speak freely about their insecurities and hopes. They fall in love without meeting and, I have to say, it’s pretty damn romantic.

The other awesome thing about Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is that it’s funny. Like laugh-out-loud funny. And also heart-felt without being schmaltzy. Even Martin has his moment of redemption. There are no bad guys in the story, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn (sans didactics).

…people really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it’s a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.

High recommended.


crackeduptobeCourtney Summers is one of my favourite YA writers. Cracked Up to Be was her debut novel, but it’s the fourth book I have read by this talented Canadian author. I have also read her terrific zombie novel This is Not a Test, her caustic novel about high school bullies, Some Girls Are and All the Rage, a frightening look at the aftermath of sexual assault.

In Cracked Up to Be, Parker Fadley has clearly gone off the rails. The once perfect student, cheerleading captain, and homecoming queen is potentially not going to graduate, must adhere to a strict curfew and she’s come to school hung over on more than one occasion. What could have possibly happened to upend Perfect Parker’s perfect life?

Figuring that out is what pushes this novel along and whether or not you’ll feel satisfied with the explanation for Parker’s fall from grace will be up to you. This is high school – so everything has a heightened sense of drama, but ultimately, that’s not what is so awesome about Summers’ book.

What’s awesome is Parker herself, a fully realized character that is both 100% unlikeable and 100% sympathetic…if that’s even possible.

The problem with alienating, self-destructive behavior is people get it into their heads it’s a cry for help. I wasn’t. It was just a really poorly executed plan to get everyone off my back. So now I’m halfway between where I started (not alone) and where I want to end up (alone) and I just have to roll with it if I want to graduate or else I’ll never be alone.

The thing about Perfect Parker is that she doesn’t sound like she was an altogether stellar human being even before whatever happened happened. Perhaps it’s true of all perfectionists: it’s their way or the highway. But post-event Parker is particularly prickly. Becky, the girl who has taken over as head cheerleader and hooked up with Parker’s ex-boyfriend, Chris, takes the blunt end of most of Parker’s vitriol.

“Screw him, Becky. I don’t care.”

“Parker – ”

“Becky, really. I don’t want to hear it. You’re dull.”

She rolls her eyes. “For five seconds you almost seemed human.”

The truth is that Parker is very much human. She is someone who feels as though she has done an awful thing and must be punished. If the universe can’t punish her sufficiently, she’ll punish herself. And if that means pushing away everyone who cares for her (Chris is about as good a friend as Parker has and he remains steadfastly in her corner even when she is utterly horrible to him.), well, that’s what she’s going to do.

The thing I have always admired about Summers’ writing is that it always feels unflinchingly honest. Her characters speak their minds. They are awful and vulnerable in equal measure. The more time we spend with Parker, the more we  start to see the cracks in her veneer. And by the novel’s conclusion, readers will be hopeful that those cracks will let a little healing light in.

Highly recommended.

The-Woman-in-the-Window-A_-J_-FinnHoly unreliable narrator, Batman! There seems to be a whole slew of books of this type post- The Girl on the Train. A.J. Finn (nom de plume of Daniel Mallory, executive editor at Morrow) adds yet another to the cast with Anna Fox, the first person narrator in The Woman in the Window. A student in one of my classes wanted to read this book, so I bought it for my classroom library. He read it lickety-split and then encouraged me to read it, which I did, in two breathless days.

Anna Fox is a watcher. From the windows of her  Victorian home in Harlem, she watches the lives of her neighbours. “My Nikon D5500 doesn’t miss much, not with that Opteka lens,” she admits.

From her vantage point, she can observe people living their daily lives: cheating spouses, book club meetings, teenagers playing video games and musical instruments. Slowly it is revealed that Anna is separated from her husband and daughter, and also suffers from agoraphobia. As Anna explains “Agoraphobic fears…include being outside the home alone; being in a crowd, or standing in a line; being on a bridge.” She considers herself to be an extreme case, “the most severely afflicted…grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

She occupies her time on the Internet, learning French and playing chess and overseeing a discussion board called Agora, set up for other sufferers of her condition. (She’s actually qualified because before her life went south, Anna was a psychologist.)  She’s a fan of old movies, particularly noir films, and merlot – of which she drinks a lot. The fear of being outside the safety of her mansion/prison is not the only problem in Anna’s life; she is clearly depressed and self-medicating with alcohol and the drugs her own psychiatrist prescribes, a lethal combination that impacts what Anna sees one night.

That would be a murder.

By then, Finn has done such a good job of portraying Anna as such a hot mess that readers won’t know what to believe. Anna doesn’t either. When the police investigate the crime, they discover there’s no body and the person Anna thought she saw doesn’t even exist. Oh, what a tangled web.

Keeping Anna trapped in her house ups the suspense ante, for sure. Her days are often a drunken blur and even when she tries to get it together so that she can figure out what she saw or didn’t see, she just can’t. Despite this, Anna is a sympathetic character, whose well-being you will care about, especially when you discover one of the novel’s central plot points (which I did relatively early on but, trust me, that in no way hindered my enjoyment of this novel).

The Woman in the Window has garnered a lot of buzz and for good reason. It’s well-written, page-turning fun, with a beating heart at its core.

Highly recommended.

My-Sunshine-AwayJust when I thought my reading slump was never going to end, I read M.O. Walsh’s compelling debut novel My Sunshine Away. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I loved this book – start to finish.

The unnamed adult narrator is recalling the time between ages 14 and 16, when he lived with his mother on Piney Creek Road, in an affluent area outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s obsessively in love with Lindy Simpson, the beautiful fifteen-year-old track star who lives across the street. After Lindy is raped, our narrator’s life is irrevocably changed. Through his eyes we try to unravel the mystery of who hurt Lindy and so, in that respect, My Sunshine Away is a total page-turner. But it is so, so much more than that.

First of all, Walsh evokes a sense of time and place that is both exotic (I have never been to Louisiana, although I would love to visit once Trump is no longer in office) and familiar. Set in 1989, the book’s sense of time and place is practically nostalgia now. The children on the street get together and play football, go fishing, wander the woods, gather piles of moss. It’s pre-Internet and so reminiscent of my own childhood despite the fact that it’s 20 years later. You know, back when kids played outside. With each other.

The main character is completely authentic. From his vantage point as an adult, he spills both the varnished and unvarnished truth about those two turbulent years when he watched Lindy so closely that readers might actually believe he could have had something to do with her attack. He even admits that  he was “one of the suspects”,  but then begs the reader to “Hear me out. Let me explain.”

There was something about My Sunshine Away that reminded me of Thomas H. Cook.  This is a compliment. Really. At his best, Cook writes literate mysteries that often plumb the complicated depths of family and memory. I couldn’t help but think of Cook while reading Walsh because Cook’s characters are never stereotypes. They are so fully realized that his novels always feel like  much more than just a straight-up mystery. This was true of My Sunshine Away, also. Like our narrator, we want to find out who had hurt Lindy, but we also want to come to terms with the narrator’s relationship with his father who has left the family home, and his wife and son bereft. We want to see him work his way through his awkward adolescence. This is  a bildungsroman done so well that your breath will literally catch in your throat.

The narrator’s self-awareness is so profound that it takes My Sunshine Away to another level entirely.

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

I highly and wholeheartedly recommend this book.


Normandy Pale, the narrator of Susan Juby’s award-winning YA novel, The Truth Commission,  lives with her parents and older sister, Keira, on Vancouver Island. Keiratruth is a celebrated graphic novelist, whose series Diana: Queen of Two Worlds, tells the story of “a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average”  family which includes her  high-strung easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister.”

Keira published three volumes of Diana, a smash hit with a huge cult-following, and then went off to college in the States.

That’s the same time Normandy (Norm for short) started attending Green Pastures Academy of Arts and Applied Design where everyone knew who she was because of her sister. It was notoriety Norm didn’t particularly covet because “you cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in these books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life.”

The Truth Commission‘s conceit is that Norm is writing her Spring Special Project, a story which covers three months from the previous fall (Sept-November).

Here’s how the project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher. She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next – as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of non-fiction.

Norm’s story is about The Truth Commission, a committee consisting of Norm and her best friends Neil and Dusk (aka Dawn) who “went on a search for the truth and…found it.” Norm discovers that the truth is a complicated thing and that is especially true in her own family.

Keira has returned from college under a rather dark cloud. “She wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Norm tells us, “and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again.”  Now she spends most of her time in her room or in the closet she and Norm share and “when she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went.”

Since Norm and Keira have never been particularly close, Norm is almost flattered when Keira starts sneaking into her room at night admitting “I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.”

I loved every minute I spent with Norm and her friends, who are equally smart and funny. There is a sort of mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Keira? Although that is certainly one reason to turn the pages I think Normandy pretty much had me at ‘hello.’

Highly recommended and BONUS! Canadian.




askthedarkSometimes you happen upon a book with a narrator who just feels 100% authentic. That was the case with Henry Turner’s debut YA mystery  Ask the Dark, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery.

Fourteen-year-old Billy Zeets lives a hard scrabble life with his widowed father and older sister, Leezie. Ever since Billy’s father hurt his back and has been unable to work, things have gone south. Now the family is on the brink of losing their house and despite Billy’s reputation for cuffing school and petty theft, he’s determined to help his father get back on his feet.

The novel starts at the end where Billy informs us that he’s feeling better. People keep asking him about what happened and Billy has decided that he’s just going to tell the story once and “get it the hell over with.”  He’s not used to being the center of attention. In fact, Billy is about as much of an outlier as you can get. His classmate Sam Tate tells him

…you’d never have done it, never even found out about it, if you hadn’t done all the things people hated you for. It turns out those were the right things to do, Billy. Isn’t that funny? All that stealing and never going to school. It’s what made it so you were outside a lot, seeing things nobody else saw. Hidden and secret things.

Billy tells us that “The first boy got took last September” and that he knew him. “He was fourteen then, same as me.”  They weren’t friends or anything, only he “prob’ly didn’t like me ’cause’f how I’m in trouble all the time, and his parents prob’ly told’m I ain’t the right sort of boy for him to get to know.”

When Billy stumbles upon the naked body of another missing boy, he understands that something evil is happening in his neighbourhood. He becomes more watchful and utilizing skills he’s learned from years of ducking in and out of dark alleys, back yards and woods – he starts to pay attention. He’s convinced that he can figure out who the killer is just by doing what he’s always done.

Ask the Dark has some truly creepy moments and  although Billy insists he “ain’t no hero” but you’d be hard pressed to find a braver or more sympathetic kid.

Highly recommended.

I cannot remember the last time I fell so hard for fictional characters. I just wanted to hatescoop Starr Carter and her family up and hug them forever. Starr’s the sixteen-year-old narrator of Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give, and her story might have been ripped from recent headlines. It feels especially timely now, given what is happening in the U.S.A and around the world. I would like to think Canada is immune to racism, but I know it’s not true.

Starr lives with her parents, Lisa, a nurse, and Maverick, an ex-con who now owns and runs the neighbourhood grocery store in Garden Heights, an inner-city neighbourhood prone to violence and crime. Starr straddles two worlds; she lives in Garden Heights, but she and her older brother, Seven, and younger brother Sekani attend a “bougie private school” across town. Starr realizes at a young age that “Williamson is one world and Garden Heights is another, and I have to keep them separate.”

Driving home from a spring break party, Starr and her childhood best friend, Khalil, are pulled over by the police and Khalil is shot and killed by the cop. (Not a spoiler – honest!) It is a horrifying moment in the book, and for Starr the beginning of personal journey which changes her life and the lives of those around her.

Let’s just establish some context for me as a reader. I live on the East Coast of Canada, in a small blue collar town of about 75,000 people. I can count on one hand the number of black kids who attended my high school back in the 70’s. I knew them; I was friendly with them; I don’t recall them being treated any differently, but how would I know? Fast forward almost 40 years and now I teach high school – same city, different school. There is certainly more racial diversity at my school of about 900 kids, but it is still predominantly white. My city has had an influx of Syrian refugees in the last couple years, but still, mostly white. I would like to think that I am not racist, but honestly, sometimes I say things that are probably not PC and my kids – who are 20 and 18 –  say “Mom, you can’t say that.”  I have never been the minority, but as a woman I have encountered – I am sure – instances of discrimination or harassment that I have likely joked about or glossed over.

Starr agrees to testify in front of the grand jury to determine whether or not the officer who shot her friend should be indicted for the crime, but she has already come to understand how the world works. She sees it first hand every day – on her own streets where gangs and drug lords run the show and the potential for violence is simmering on the surface. She’s seen it her private school  where

Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang – if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.”  Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.

Starr tries to keep her two lives separate and she doesn’t tell her school friends that she’s the witness in the shooting death of her friend. There’s a lot of pressure on her from all sides – to maintain the status quo and to stand up for what’s right. Finally, Starr decides to choose differently in all aspects of her life, telling her Chinese friend, Maya, “We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

How can that not resonate with people? How long will we let the  Donald Trumps of the world trash talk  – well – just about everyone? Because if The Hate U Give taught me one thing (and trust me, it taught me way more than one thing) it’s that we need to stand up and call people out when they are speaking derogatorily about others.

The Hate U Give ripped back the curtain and exposed a world I knew nothing about and as a reader and an educator, that’s a good thing. I often say that books are a great way for young readers to see themselves reflected back at them, but I think it’s equally important for them to see into the lives that are not like theirs. How else will they ever understand someone else’s point of view if they are never exposed to it? There is beauty to be found in our differences, people.

I loved every second spent with Starr and her amazing family. The Hate U Give is hopeful, heart-breaking,  beautiful and important and highly recommended. Read it and then get everyone you know to read it, too.