Tag Archive | highly recommended

The Truth Commission – Susan Juby

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.

 

 

 

Ask the Dark – Henry Turner

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.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

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.

 

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of those writers who can maneuver a huge cast of characters so commonwealthdeftly that you hardly notice the machinations.  Her novel Commonwealth, the story of the intersecting lives of two families, might have crashed and burned in less talented hands, but Patchett moves these people backwards and forwards in time without seeming to  break a sweat.

Fix and Beverly Keating are hosting a christening party for their daughter when Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin. Of the dozens of people invited to celebrate baby Franny, police officer Fix “struggled to make the connection” when he opened the door to the district attorney. Bert’s arrival was precipitated by the fact that “he hated Sundays.” By Sunday, Bert had had all he could stand of his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa: “he couldn’t play with them and he didn’t want to play with them and didn’t want to get up  and get the baby…”. Trapped in a life he clearly doesn’t want, he latches on to Fix’s party as a momentary escape hatch. By the end of the afternoon – perhaps lubricated by the gin, Bert has kissed Beverly and set off a chain of events that reverberates through the years.

After Beverly and Bert leave their marriages and form a new relationship, the five children (Franny and Caroline Keating and Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie Cousins) form a lasting bond. They navigate their lives – sharing confidences and allegiances, tragedies and achievements. Central to this story is Franny, who as an adult begins a love affair with Leon Posen, a celebrated writer looking for his next commercial success. He finds it in Franny’s family and the novel he writes exposes fault lines, mends fences, rights wrongs and assuages guilt.

As happened with her novel Bel Canto, I found myself falling madly in love with these characters and their very human-ness. The novel twists around itself, moving backwards and forwards in time – jumping years and characters. Sometimes we get just a taste of a character and their life, sometimes we are fully immersed. I never felt short-changed because I didn’t know everything about everyone; I didn’t mind the novel’s elliptical narrative. That’s life, isn’t it? Days and days of sameness marked by little heartbeats of pain or sorrow or happiness. Patchett manages to capture those heartbeats beautifully and there are moments in this book that took my breath away.

Commonwealth made me consider how we are our memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. And sometimes, as Franny remarks, there are stories we need to keep for ourselves.

Highly recommended.

 

Monsters – Emerald Fennell

monstersWhat would you get if you mixed Enid Blyton with Stephen King? I think you’d probably get Monsters by Emerald Fennell.

Monsters is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who has spent the last three summers at her Aunt Maria and Uncle Frederick’s crumbling seaside hotel because her “parents got smushed to death in a boating accident.”  The unnamed narrator now resides with her maternal grandmother and “During the summer holidays, Granny always decides she has enough of me…” That’s how she ends up in Fowery, somewhere on the Cornish coast of England.

The town of Fowery is as eccentric as its residents, a “tiny multicoloured town…built up the side of a green, green hill” and ruled by William Podmore, a recluse who is rarely seen.

Everyone in town knows our narrator – she’s a regular visitor to the candy store and book shop. She knows they think she’s peculiar. And she is. She’s fascinated with murderers and she and her grandmother often watch gory films together. She’s practically memorized The Murderers’ Who’s Who. So she hits the creepy jackpot when the body of a woman is found caught in a fisherman’s net. Suddenly, the summer is starting to look up.

Then thirteen-year-old Miles arrives with his over-bearing mother. Turns out  Miles has a lot in common with our narrator:  he’s fascinated with true crime, a little on the eccentric side and he’s smart.

I really enjoyed Monsters. It’s quite unlike any recent YA book I’ve read.  I was a big reader of Enid Blyton’s books when I was a kid. I loved solving the mysteries in the Adventure series. Fennell’s book is certainly more subversive than Blyton’s books – which were straight up mysteries a la The Bobbsey Twins. Monsters is decidedly darker.

Miles and our narrator spend the summer trying to figure out who murdered the young woman and when another body turns up, they try to figure out who might be next on the killer’s list. They also play their own murder game.

This time instead of being strangled, the victim was drowned. Miles would push me under the water, and I would have to thrash around, yelling and screaming, begging for my life.

If this sounds a little twisted, it is. Monsters is a page-turner with an extended cast of characters ripped straight from a Tim Burton movie. It is odd and oddly fun.

Highly recommended.

 

 

I’ll Give You The Sun- Jandy Nelson

This is us. Our pose. The smush. It’s even how we are in the ultrasound photo they took of us inside Mom…Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cell of us, we were together, we came here together.

20820994That’s almost-fourteen-year-old Noah, one of the twins who narrates  Jandy Nelson’s remarkable YA novel I’ll Give You the Sun. Alternating between Noah and his sister, Jude, who tells her part of the story at age sixteen, the novel traces the siblings’ journey from innocence to experience.

Jude and Noah are artists who dream of getting into California School of the Arts (CSA).  Their parents, both professors, are going through something neither understands. Noah observes “Dad used to make Mom’s eyes shine; now he makes her grind her teeth. I don’t know why.” The summer they turn fourteen, though, their world is rocked by tragedy.

When Jude picks up the story, it is clear that whatever closeness the twins shared has leeched away, their “twin-telepathy long gone…because of all that’s happened, we avoid each other – worse, repel each other.”

Jude and Noah are both eccentric as heck. Jude channels the spirit of her dead Grandma Sweetwine. She’s a self-proclaimed bible thumping klutz who is boycotting all boys because of a traumatic experience she had with Zephyr, the three-years-older than her surf god who “made [her] feel faint every time he spoke to [her].” Noah has his own issues. For one, he paints in his head – elaborate pictures that he’s never told anyone about, not even Jude when they were speaking.  Then there’s Brian, the boy next door. And Noah’s strained relationship with his father who wants him to man up. When the unthinkable happens and Jude is accepted into CSA and Noah is not, the rift between the twins grows larger. It takes a long time before either realizes that the secrets they’d been keeping in an effort to protect each other were, in fact, part of the reason they were estranged.

I’ll Give You The Sun is one of those amazing (and rare) YA novels that actually treats its target audience like they are intelligent (which as a high school teacher, I can tell you with certainty, they are). Everything from the novel’s narrative structure, to its examination of art, love, grief, jealousy, personal happiness versus personal responsibility,  and family dynamics is designed to make you think and question.

Once you’ve settled into the twins’ strange world, you will fall in love with them. They are resilient, brilliant, and endlessly fascinating. They are also just barely hanging on on their own and when Jude finally lets her heart break “Noah is there, strong and sturdy, to catch me, to hold me through it, to make sure I’m safe.”

Jandy Nelson writes beautiful books (check out her first exceptional novel The Sky is Everywhere) peopled with flawed and  totally sympathetic characters. That says nothing of the beautiful prose – resplendent language that spills out of every page. I’ll Give You The Sun is deserving of its copious praise and numerous awards. Jude and Noah will certainly stay with me in the days ahead.

Highly recommended.

A Step Toward Falling – Cammie McGovern

astepAlthough Belinda and Emily, the alternating narrators of Cammie McGovern’s excellent YA novel A Step Toward Falling, attend the same high school, the two girls couldn’t be more unalike.  Belinda is twenty-one and spends her days in the Life Skills class with other students who have physical  or developmental disabilities. Emily is a high school senior who co-chairs her school’s Youth Action Coalition with her gay bff, Richard, but hasn’t ever really taken a stand, preferring to work behind-the-scenes..

At a high school football game, Belinda is attacked and Emily witnesses the event and does nothing – not because she’s a horrible person, far from it, but because her “brain couldn’t process what it was seeing.” Anyway, in the next instant she sees Lucas, one of the school’s football players, running from under the bleachers and she is sure he saved Belinda. The fact that he did nothing either, sends Lucas and Emily to the Lifelong Learning Centre where they must volunteer with young adults who have  a variety of  developmental disabilities.

As for Belinda, she retreats to the safety of her home where she lives with her mother and grandmother. She watches Pride and Prejudice, and avoids talking about what happened to her because according to her Nan “what’s done is done, sweetheart. The important thing is you’re home now and you’re safe. You never have to go back to that school or see those people again as far as I’m concerned.”

Navigating high school is hard enough, but everything about the girls’ journey – albeit different –  feels  honest. Belinda is in love with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. She is quite sure that he is watching her from the television screen, and she’s “pretty sure he loves me, too.”  Belinda’s innocence is what protects her from understanding that Ron, one of the football team’s star players, doesn’t actually care for her, even though he asked her to dance at a Best Buddies event.

Emily has spent all of high school hiding out in the library. She watches the table of football players and their picture-perfect cheerleader girlfriends and dreams about a post-high school life where everything will be better.

Lucas, who is seen only through Emily’s eyes, is huge and “a little scary-looking.” But, like all the characters in McGovern’s novel, there is more to him than first meets the eye.  And that’s kind of the point. How can we ever truly know someone if we never bother to talk to them, try to understand them or  extend the branch of friendship?

McGovern’s novel might have veered into ‘preachy-ness’ had it not been for the authentic voices of Belinda and Emily. I loved spending time with these girls. I loved how Emily and Lucas made a genuine effort to make amends and, in the process, became better people. There is certainly a lesson here, but it doesn’t feel instructive as much as it feels heartfelt and human.

Highly recommended.