Tag Archive | 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.

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 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.

 

 

Winger – Andrew Smith

It is so much easier for me to read YA books that are geared for girls, but since it’s often the boys who are reluctant readers in my classes, I really make an effort to buy and read books I think might appeal to them. Andrew Smith’s book Winger is one book which has garnered copious praise – and it is definitely a book I can highly recommend to those boys who say they don’t like to read.

Ryan Dean West attends a private school called Pine Mountain in Oregon. He’s in Grade Eleven winger-smitheven though he’s only fourteen. He’s super smart. He’s also a talented artist (many of his drawings, cartoons and graphs are included in this novel) and he’s also a terrific rugby player. His nickname, “Winger”, comes from the position he plays on the team.

But despite a whole list of things in Ryan Dean’s plus column, there’s a few things on the negative side. For one, this year he’s living in Opportunity Hall, O-Hall, where they stuck him “after they caught me hacking a cell phone account so I could make undetected, untraceable free calls.” Living in O-Hall sucks for two reasons: 1. Ryan Dean isn’t living with his two best friends Seanie and J.P. and 2. His new roomie is Chas Becker “a friendless jerk who navigated the seas of high school with his rudder fixed on a steady course of intimidation and cruelty.”

The one thing in Ryan West’s life that is both blessing a curse is Annie Altman.  Annie is also in grade eleven, but she’s sixteen. She’s Ryan Dean’s best friend, but he is also desperately in love with her.

…most people would think there couldn’t possibly be anything between us beyond a noticeable degree of friendship, even if I did think she was smoking hot in an alluring and mature “naughty babysitter” kind of way

This year at Pine Mountain turns out to be a year of firsts for Ryan Dean, but it is also a year when he makes a lot of mistakes. He capitulates to teen pressure and drinks for the first time. He gets into fist fights. He makes out with another guy’s girlfriend. But through it all, he remains self-deprecating. In his words: “I am such a loser.”

Ryan Dean is just one of the many lovely things about Smith’s book. I am not a fourteen-year-old-boy, nor have I ever been, but Ryan Dean’s voice feels authentic to me. He is constantly walking that fine line between making a smart choice and doing something he knows he shouldn’t. His narrative is filled with inappropriate talk about sex (just about every girl/woman he encounters makes his acute sexual radar) and expletives which he only ever uses “in writing, and occasionally in silent prayer.”

Winger is filled with laugh-out-loud moments – mostly due to inappropriate sex-talk, but also really lovely moments between Annie and Ryan Dean and Ryan Dean and Joey, another guy on the rugby team who also happens to be gay.

You couldn’t pay me to be a teenager today. But spending time with them is always a delight, even when they break my heart.

Highly recommended.

The Last September – Nina de Gramont

Brett loves Charlie. He’s the older brother of lastsepther best friend, Eli. She and Eli are students in Colorado and one stormy night they attend a party and Charlie is there, too, his flight delayed because of the storm.

That day, the first day I ever saw him, he had three days’ worth of stubble. He wore a thin black thread around his neck, beaded with a smooth lapis stone that matched the color of his eyes.  When I looked at him, his lips slid up at the corners. My heart lurched. I don’t know why. It lurched toward him and refused – stubbornly – to ever lurch away.

Nina De Gramont’s book The Last September takes zero time to hook you by the throat and it doesn’t let you go until the very end. I really couldn’t put this book down. On the surface it’s a love story. But it’s a love story that goes horribly wrong because by the end of the first sentence we learn that Charlie is dead. Brett tells us “Because I am a student of literature, I will start my story on the day Charlie died. In other words, I’m beginning in the middle.” By the end of the first page we’ll know that Charlie has been murdered.

Their love story unfolds in flashback. When the novel opens, Charlie, Brett and their toddler daughter, Sarah, are living in Charlie’s family cottage at Cape Cod Bay. Brett is finishing her PhD dissertation; Charlie is doing odd jobs.  On this particular day, Brett is frustrated with Charlie, a feeling not at all out of place in most marriages. When Charlie mentions that Eli had called and that he wanted to come for a visit, Brett is reluctant to see her old friend because “the last time we saw Charlie’s brother he’d dropped an enormous amount of weight and begun scribbling notes on his jeans and forearms.”

I have guilty reading pleasure buttons and, I have to say, The Last September hit every single one of them. Angsty love affair. Check. Unbearable suspense. Check. Heartbreak. Check. Check.

What happened to Eli? What happened to Charlie? What happens when Ladd, Brett’s former fiancé arrives back in town? If this sounds suspiciously like Peyton Place, you’re not wrong. But, omg, The Last September is so much fun to read. The writing is luminous and so even when I didn’t 100% buy the plot twists, it didn’t matter because I just wanted to find out what had happened to Charlie and I wanted to know that Brett was going to survive the grief.

Highly recommended.

 

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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It took me four reads before I finally fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel, The Great Gatsby. I might not have ever read it again after the last time (a couple years ago my book club had a ‘year of classics’) had it not been for the fact that I am teaching grade twelve this year. Often referred to as the quintessential American novel, its place in literary canon is certainly undeniable, but I just never bought in. The Great Gatsby  is my daughter Mallory’s favourite novel and she was understandably flummoxed as to why her English teacher geek of a mother never really liked the book. Now we’re on the same page. If you believe that a classic is a book that never runs out of things to say, this book certainly qualifies. I guess I’m just late to the party.

how-whimsical-2006-great-gatsby-book-coverNick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, moves from the mid-west to Long Island’s West Egg to take a job on Wall Street. Across the bay in East Egg lives his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, an old Yale classmate of Nick’s, a man so “enormously wealthy” he’d brought  “down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.”  Nick comments “It was hard to imagine that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.”

Despite their wealth, Daisy and Tom don’t seem particularly happy and on his first visit with them Nick discovers that Tom is having an affair.  When it comes to the Buchanans, all that glitters is not gold.

Next door to Nick’s little house, and directly across the bay from the Buchanans,  lives Gatsby. His mansion is “a colossal affair by any standard.” Gatsby throws lavish parties every weekend  – huge glittering affairs attended by the who’s who of New York and “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”  On the first night Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s he is “one of the few guests who had actually been invited.” Soon after meeting his charming and enigmatic host, Nick finds himself drawn into a compelling love affair between Daisy and Gatsby, a love affair that had actually begun five years earlier.

The Great Gatsby operates on two very distinct levels: as a love story and a social commentary on the decadence and decay at the heart of the American Dream.

Gatsby’s single-minded devotion to Daisy, his desire to wipe out the present and reclaim their shared past drives him to create a sort of fantasy life. Everything Gatsby does is for Daisy and Nick remarks on his “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” But Nick also acknowledges that perhaps Gatsby wants “too much” of Daisy and cautions him  that “You can’t repeat the past.”

On another level, Fitzgerald’s novel captures the glittery, frenetic 20s. A generation of young men had returned from the Great War, Wall Street was booming and in Fitzgerald’s version, anyway, people cared about little else except having fun.   Underneath the façade, though, there is rot and corruption. No one works except for Nick. They just drink and laze about. Nick sees it and when the veil is pulled back he tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd….You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, I see that now. I am sorry it took so long to believe in the dream.