Cuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge

cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

Sadie – Courtney Summers

sadieI thought if I waited a few days after finishing Courtney Summers’ latest book Sadie, I would have a better chance of articulating my feelings coherently. Sadly, I don’t think I am actually going to be able to adequately express all the ways I loved (and hated) this book.

The premise is clever. West McCray, a radio producer at New York’s WNRK, is shaking up the station’s format by introducing a new podcast, The Girls. The podcast “explores what happens when a devastating crime reveals a deeply unsettling mystery.”  McCray dives headlong into the story of Mattie Southern, a thirteen-year-old whose dead body was discovered in an orchard near a burning schoolhouse, and her nineteen-year-old sister, Sadie, who is missing.

I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered in that orchard will not be part of this show. While the murder, the crime, might have captured your initial interest, its violence and brutality do not exist for your entertainment – so please don’t ask us.

Transcripts of the podcast (and you can actually listen to those here) alternate with Sadie’s first person narrative. Sadie leaves Cold Creek’s trailer park and her surrogate grandmother, May Beth, to find Keith, a man who once lived with Sadie and Mattie’s mother, Claire. Claire is currently out of the picture, an addict who’s had a steady stream of creeps in her bed.

Despite being blocked at every turn, Sadie is like a dog with a bone when it comes to tracking down Keith, a man she claims is her father. She buys a junker car, and asks fearless questions, hindered only by her stutter and youth. By about page thirty I was as invested in Sadie’s hunt as she was. She is equal parts vulnerable and tough-as-nails and 100% believable.

And this is where I have to pause and commend Summers, once again, for writing characters who are so real. Regular readers to this blog will know I am a fan of Summers and have read several of her books including Cracked Up to Be, All the Rage, This Is Not a Test, and Some Girls Are. I’ll tell you this – Summers is not writing the same book over and over. Her characters are not stereotypes. They are vulnerable, broken, tough, cynical and hopeful and every combination in between. Sometimes they say or do things that are wince-worthy, but as a mom and high school teacher, I know that Summers cuts as close to the bone as it’s possible to get. Like it or not.

So, I wasn’t surprised that I fell in love with Sadie, rough edges and all. I expected to be invested in her journey and I hated (that’s what I hated, folks) that it was a journey that she felt compelled to take. I hated that I was afraid for her the entire freakin’ time! Sadie loved her sister and made sacrifices for her that Mattie would never have the opportunity to understand. That’s what it is to love someone.

McCray is always just one step behind Sadie, but his podcasts fill in some blanks, allowing us to see how Sadie is viewed from other perspectives. Former teacher, Edward Colburn, says, “She was teased by her classmates because of the stutter and that caused her to withdraw.” Her boss, Marty McKinnon said Sadie was “a good kid, hard worker.” Mae Beth said that “The only thing Sadie was afraid of was losing the family she had left and that was Mattie.”

All of these ingredients add up to a story that McCray describes as being “about family, about sisters, and the untold  lives lived in small-town America. It’s about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love…and the high price we pay when we can’t.”

There are few moments of levity in this novel, but Sadie (the novel and the character) will haunt your dreams.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

I Will Always Write Back – Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda w/ Liz Welch

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.

Mosquitoland – David Arnold

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.

 

The Marrow Thieves – Cherie Dimaline

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.

 

 

 

 

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone – Kat Rosenfield

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.

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

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.

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