I will alwaysWhen I was a kid, I had pen pals. Lots of them. I think I started writing letters when I was about seven. We moved away from Winnipeg  where we had been living for a couple years. I had to leave my best friend, Lynne, behind and we kept exchanging letters for many years – up until recently when my Christmas card to her was returned ‘address unknown.’

I came of age in the 70s, way before Facebook or email. The only way to maintain a relationship with someone who lived far away was to write a letter. Long distance phone calls were pretty expensive, but stamps were cheap. By the time I was sixteen I had at least two dozen pen pals from all over the world. I loved getting their letters and learning about their lives. I still have one of those pen pals, and although we tend to catch up via the Internet now, we have shared dozens of letters over our 40+ year correspondence.

So I was ready to love I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda (with help from Liz Welch). I’ll spare you the suspense: I LOVED this book.  It’s the true story of how Caitlin, a thirteen-year-old from Hatfield, Pennsylvania writes (via a school project) a letter to thirteen-year-old Martin who lives in Mutare, Zimbabwe. That letter  – as generic as it must have been – is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Caitlin chose Zimbabwe from a long list of countries because it sounded exotic. She really knew nothing about the country.

My knowledge of Africa consisted of what I had seen in the National Geographic magazines my mother subscribed to for our family. I loved looking at the colorful photos of tribal people who wore face paint, loincloths and beads. I didn’t think my pen pal would dress like that, but I had no idea what kids in Africa wore. Jeans, like me?

Caitlin has no idea of Martin’s circumstances, but the reader does. Martin lives with his parents and siblings in Chisamba Singles “a housing development built in the 1960s as a place for men from the rural areas to stay during the week while they worked in different factories.” Martin and his family share a room with another family, upwards of twelve people crammed into a space designed to hold two.

The story toggles back and forth between Caitlin and Martin. Caitlin’s life is mostly concerned with friends and shopping, while Martin’s life is focused on doing well at school. Education in Zimbabwe is a privilege, not a right. Martin understands that to be successful at school is a (potential) ticket out of abject poverty.

While most of Caitlin’s classmates give up their pen pals after only a couple letters, Caitlin and Martin maintain their correspondence and  Caitlin comes to understand the truth of Martin’s circumstances. If only she could have known the anxiety her asking for a photograph caused Martin. Or what he had to give up to send her some cheap earrings. It was truly heartbreaking.

And also amazing. Because once Caitlin and her family are aware of just how dire things are for Martin and his family, they do everything in their power to help. It’s pretty awesome.

In 2015, Caitlin addressed students at a high school. She said “One small act of kindness…You have no idea how powerful that can be, whose lives it can change, including your own.”

Be the change, people.

Highly recommended.

Mary Iris Malone, Mim for short, is not okay. Life has thrown her some curve-balls of mosquitolandlate: her parents’ divorce; her father’s quicky marriage to Kathy; their subsequent move from Ashland, Ohio to Jackson, Mississippi. When Mim overhears her father and stepmother talking to the principal, she’s convinced that her biological mother is sick and makes the decision to hop a Greyhound and travel the 947 miles back to Ohio to see her.

This is the premise of David Arnold’s debut novel Mosquitoland , a book which garnered massive praise and stellar reviews when it was published in 2015. I have to say, it’s worthy of all the fuss.

Mim’s journey is both literal, and she meets all-sorts on the bus and beyond, and figurative; this is a journey of self-discovery only a quirky, intelligent and empathetic sixteen-year-old could take.  Mim reveals herself in journal entries addressed to Isabel, and to various passengers, including Arlene, the old lady who sits next to her on the bus. Arlene turns out to be just what Mim needs because “it’s nice to sit that close to someone and not feel the incessant need to talk.”

Then there’s Walt, the boy Mim meets when she ends up getting off the bus. Walt is slightly left of center. He lives in a tent in the woods. “What are you doing?” He asks her  when he finds her asleep under an overpass. “…as a part of big things?”

Walt is a completely endearing character and Mim is “100 percent intrigued” when he says “Do you like shiny things? I have lots of shiny things there. And a pool…You’re a pretty dirty person right now. You could use a pool. Also, there’s ham.”

And then there’s Beck. Mim first notices him on the bus and then in a weird twist of fate, she meets him again at the police station (long story).

He’s older than me, probably early twenties, so it’s not completely out of the question – us getting married and traveling the world over, I mean. Right now, a five-year difference might seem like a lot, but once he’s fifty-four and I’m forty-nine, well shoot, that’s nothing.

There’s a quality about him, something like a movie star but not quite. Like he  could be Hollywood if it weren’t for his humanitarian efforts, or his volunteer work, or his clean conscience, no doubt filled to the brim with truth, integrity, and a heart for the homeless.

There is nothing I didn’t love about Mim or her journey. There is nothing I didn’t love about the other characters she meets – except for Poncho Man. (Obviously.) Mosquitoland has it all: the absurd, the laughs and the feels. It is a beautifully written book about growing up, facing your fears, what family means (both the family you are born with and the family you make) and why it is okay to admit that you are not okay.

Mad love for this book, so of course it is highly recommended.

 

marrowGah! This book, you guys.

Francis, though everyone calls him Frenchie, is on the run from the “recruiters”.  Pretty much every Indigenous person is because their bone marrow holds the key to dreaming, which is something white folks no longer have the ability to do.

“Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there.”

“You are born with them. Your DNA weaves them into the marrow like spinners….That’s where they pluck them from.”

It’s sometime in the not too distant future and we’ve pretty much wrecked the Earth. Because of course we have. When Cherie Dimaline’s YA novel The Marrow Thieves opens, Frenchie is holed up in a tree house with his older brother, Mitch. But then the recruiters show up, and the boys are separated, and Frenchie finds himself on the run once more.

The characters in The Marrow Thieves are all too aware of their rocky history with the Canadian government, and sharing those stories is part of what keeps them focused on getting to safety, which in this case is north where they hope they will find fresh water and clean air and freedom.  So north is the direction Frenchie heads and it isn’t long before he meets a group of travelers. Frenchie joins this ad hoc family and his adventure begins.

The dystopian nature of this novel is really only the story’s framework. It’s enough to know that these people are considered ‘other’ and useful only for what they can provide to the government. Their current plight mirrors the whole residential school debacle, a part of my country’s history, I am ashamed to admit, I was grossly ignorant of until recently.  Those places were less about assimilation (and even that is abhorrent)  and more about annihilation.

The real story, the heartbeat of Dimaline’s novel, is the characters and their stories – both individually (which they tell in their own ‘Coming-To’ stories) and collectively. Getting to know these people felt like a privilege; I fell in love with them and the way they looked out for each other. I experienced a real fear for their safety and on the few occasions they were rewarded with something good, I felt that, too.

I will not forget these people, their connection to the Earth and each other, for a long time. The Marrow Thieves should be required reading for all Canadians…and, trust me, once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down anyway.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

ameliaanneKat Rosenfield’s YA novel Amelia Ann is Dead and Gone is lush and languid, a coming-of-age story and a mystery that sends ripples through the small, insular community of Bridgeton.

At the same time that eighteen-year-old Becca is anticipating the beginning of a new and better life away at college, the unidentified body of another young girl turns up on the side of the road, outside of town.

People buzzed and hummed and speculated. It seemed impossible that the dead girl, the rag-doll on the road-shoulder, could remain anonymous for long. Not with everybody talking about her, her, her.

Everything is about to change for Becca. She’s just graduated from high school (salutatorian, no less) and her “too-smooth boyfriend with a beater pickup and no diploma of his own” has just broken up with her.

Our first meeting was romantic. High school legend-like, it made me yearn to stay with him just for the chance to tell our someday-kids about how their father had swept me off my feet at the tender age of sixteen.

The news of the dead girl is diverting at first, but then becomes a constant buzz in the back of Becca’s head. She can’t stop wondering about her – who she is and what happened to her, and it’s this compulsive fascination that brings the novel to its dramatic climax.

Amelia is experiencing a similar ‘new beginning’. She’s just graduated from college and decided to  pursue acting, a track-jump that her boyfriend, Luke, simply cannot or will not understand. The time spent with Amelia, is time well-spent. She is a girl who is finding her feet, discovering what she wants to be and understanding that sometimes that means leaving people behind.

When Rosenfield sticks to Becca and Amelia, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone races along like a thriller (albeit a really beautifully written thriller). Sometimes, though, she diverted my attention away to talk about the town from the vantage point of a sort of disembodied third-person omniscient vantage point.

In a small town, there are things you simply grow up knowing. You need them all – the shortcuts, secrets, and scandals that make up the town’s collective unconscious, the whispered bits and pieces passed from older lips to younger ears.

I found this stuff sort of extraneous to the plot (although I suppose it did, in some ways, explain the town’s mentality), and bogged things down a bit. A subplot about a tractor in the lake was, likewise, unnecessary. When Rosenfield stuck to Becca and Amelia’s story, though, I was all in and even with my minor grumble, I still highly recommend this book.

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.

//players.brightcove.net/823022174001/0de3ded5-8290-49c7-b25d-fcddec46dfb3_default/index.html?videoId=5713014172001

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.