When I Am Through With You – Stephanie Kuehn

throughwithuCharm & Strange  was my introduction to Stephanie Kuehn’s work and I have been a fan ever since. When I Am Through With You is her latest YA offering and it’s a layered and tense thriller.

The narrator of the story, Ben Gibson, is a high school senior.  From the very beginning, readers know that something has gone horribly wrong Ben’s life.

This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not.

Rose is (was) Ben’s girlfriend. She chose him, not the other way around. She is an exotic combination of her French Peruvian heritage, a “girl with bright eyes and brown skin and very short hair.”

…Rose was my first everything. First kiss, first touch, first girl to see me naked and lustful without bursting into laughter (although she was the first to do that, too). We did more eventually. We did everything. Whatever she wanted, Rose dictated the rhyme and rhythm of our sexual awakening, and I loved that. I never had to make up my mind when I was with her.

Ben is an engaging narrator, even though the reader might consider him unreliable. Kuehn wisely keeps her cards close to her chest, unspooling Ben’s backstory carefully. Why does he suffer from debilitating migraines? Why does he feel like his life is on the road to nowhere? What happened to Rose?

Much of the action happens in the middle of the book. Ben is helping his teacher, Mr. Howe, lead a camping trip out in the wilderness. Rose and her twin Tomas, Duncan (the high school drug dealer), Clay ( a quiet , studious kid), Archie (the wild card), Avery (Ben’s childhood friend), and Shelby (volleyball goddess) are the other campers. It’s kind of like the Breakfast Club of orienteering. Out of their natural element (with the exception of the teacher, who isn’t really front and centre, but manages to be important nonetheless), alliances fray and a combination of bad luck, bad decisions and bad weather cause total chaos and panic.

When I Am Through With You wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I knew to expect great writing, and I knew that the characters would be smart and prickly – something I’ve come to expect from Kuehn. This book asks you to  consider the moral choices these characters make. Ben is unrepentant, but he is also sympathetic. I felt tremendously sorry for him throughout the novel. It’s not all introspection, though. There are some truly heart-racing moments in this novel, and its propulsive plot will keep you turning the pages.

White Rabbit – Caleb Roehrig

white rabbitRufus Holt is having a really fucking bad day. I use the expletive because, well, there’s a lot of F-bombs in Caleb Roehrig’s YA mystery White Rabbit. I’m not a prude by any stretch, but I have to admit that by the end of the novel I was getting a little tired of all the swearing. Surely teenagers as smart as the ones who populate Roehrig’s world would have the vocabularies to match.

But, really, that’s just a niggle. Overall, Roehrig has written a tightly plotted and well-written (I know what I said, it’s still a well-written book!) mystery.

Sixteen-year-old Rufus has just received a call from his half-sister April. He’s pissed because his ex-boyfriend, the handsome and thoughtful Sebastian, has just hauled him out of the 4th of July party they were attending to “talk.” But then, April tells Rufus that she’s in trouble and needs his help.

Rufus’s relationship with April is somewhat contentious. Her father is his father, but Rufus is the black sheep. His father is never anything but cruel to Rufus. His relationship with his older brother, Hayden, is downright abusive. But when April calls, Rufus feels obligated to help. What he discovers is his sister, whacked out of it,  sitting in a puddle of her boyfriend Fox Whitney’s blood surrounded by White Rabbits, “a designer drug known to cause euphoria, heightened sensory perception, and hallucinations.” But “the pills have also been linked, notoriously, to acts of extreme violence.”  April swears she didn’t kill Fox and begs Rufus to help her.

Rufus and Sebastian spend the rest of the book trying to prove April’s innocence by visiting the other people who’d attended the same party. Rufus has never been a part of the “IT” crowd, but one of the party attendees is Lia, Sebastian’s ex-girlfriend. Sebastian insists that he’s not leaving Rufus, and besides he has the car.

White Rabbit  is a carefully plotted mystery. The characters are, generally speaking, awful people – with the exception of Rufus (despite his potty mouth) and Sebastian. As the boys try to get answers to clear April’s name (and there is a financial incentive for Rufus to take on this mostly thankless task), they are lied to, shot at, chased with cars. While they try to figure out whodunit, Rufus and Sebastian also try to navigate their feelings for one another. There are red herrings galore and people with nefarious motives, but all of it makes for page-turning fun.

 

 

I Stop Somewhere – TE Carter

Ellie Frias, the narrator in TE Carter’s YA novel I Stop Somewhere,  is an awkward First autumn frost on Stinging Nettle leaves - France  -  -  -teenager who wants to make a good impression when she starts high school. Ellie understands that “Pretty is power.” She’s never really fit in, but she is determined that when she starts high school, things will be different.

Ellie lives with her single father on the wrong side of town. Her mother took off when she was just a baby and although she and her father have always been close, Ellie feels herself drifting away from him. She understands that he tries, but it isn’t enough, so Ellie turns to Kate, an older girl who lives in the house behind her. She needs guidance and she has no friends.

I started school with the right clothes. My curves showed where they were supposed to but nowhere else, and Kate had helped me with my hair. We’d bleached two strips down the front and dyed them blue so the color framed my face. With my new T-shirts that were a testament to my apathy, I fit in by not caring about fitting in.

Ellie does get the attention of Caleb Breward, a popular boy at school, whose father is an important figure in their town, Hollow Oaks. He tells her she’s cute and names her “Elusive Ellie.” Ellie is so desperate to be accepted and loved, that she doesn’t realize what a shark Caleb is. Or maybe she actually does know, but she finds a way to rationalize it.

…I knew very little about Caleb Breward, and most of what I did know wasn’t great. It tried to show me all the days he’d passed me in the hall and wouldn’t look at me. My brain had a long list of amazing reasons I should have walked away, but Caleb’s closeness did things inside of me I didn’t know how to process.

Carter manages to capture what it is to be an insecure girl with remarkable accuracy.  What makes Caleb such a chilling character – and trust me, he’s way more awful than just being some douche who breaks a girl’s heart – is that he plays on Ellie’s insecurities. He hasn’t really got very much going for him other than an oily charm and a seemingly bullet-proof family.

This is a novel about rape, victim-shaming and what it means to survive. I found I Stop Somewhere compelling and heart-breaking in equal measure.

Starry Eyes – Jenn Bennett

Although it took the story a little while to get going, Jenn Bennett’s YA romance 94B71DCC-2A46-44E4-90BF-CABC55A86A33Starry Eyes ended up being a sweet love story with believable main characters.

Seventeen-year-old Zorie lives with her father and stepmother in Melita Hills, California. Her parents own a health clinic, acupuncture and massage and the like. Sharing the building with them is Toys in the Attic, a sex shop owned by Sunny and Jane, married mothers to Lennon. Lennon and Zorie used to be besties. Childhood friends whose feelings for each other had crossed the line into something more complicated before Lennon ditched Zorie, without explanation, Before the homecoming dance. Now the two are barely speaking to each other. And Zorie’s father seems to have a total hate-on for Lennon and his moms now, too.

It’s the summer before senior year and Zorie is in hard-core planning mode. She’s a planner because “Spontaneity is overrated.” When she is invited on a glamping trip (high end camping) with her “kind of, sort of friend” Reagan, she really doesn’t want to go. Her mother thinks it would be good for Zorie to go, though, and when Zorie finds out that Brett, “a minor celebrity in our school” will be going, Zorie agrees to go with.  Zorie has been “nursing a crush on him since elementary school” and the two had exchanged one kiss at a party. There’s also the problem that Zorie has recently discovered that her father has been cheating on her mom and she needs some time to decide how to handle the discovery.

Things get complicated when it turns out that Lennon is also going on the trip.

The first third of the book sets up this premise, and it’s the part of the book that moved the most slowly for me. When I was done reading, I did understand why some of this set up was important, but for the me, the best part of the book was when Zorie and Lennon suddenly find themselves on their own in the woods.

Being alone gives them a chance to talk, something the two hadn’t really done for a long time. There’s real energy between the pair, sexual energy, for sure, but also something more powerful: Zorie and Lennon clearly care very deeply for each other. As they walk through the woods, they talk. They are not distracted by the outside world and the solitude gives them time to reveal long-held wounds.

Readers will root for Zorie and Lennon. These are imperfect teens, but they also felt real to me. There’s a beating heart at the centre of this romance.

 

The Voice of the Night – Dean Koontz

I have read more than one novel by Dean Koontz, most memorably his 7939529 thriller Intensity.  I wouldn’t say I am a fan, really, but I know that I can depend on him to deliver a decently-written page-turner.

The Voice of the Night tells the story of fourteen-year-old Colin, who moves with his newly divorced mother to Santa Leona, a coastal town near San Francisco. There he meets Roy, a kid who is the same age, but who possesses all the qualities Colin lacks: charisma, confidence and good looks.  Colin has never really had a best friend before, and for some reason Roy seems to take a shine to him.

But it’s a sinister shine. Roy is fascinated with death. He wants to know if Colin has ever killed anything. He brags that he has, but Colin is pretty certain, at least at first, that it’s some sort of friendship test. When Roy brags about torturing a cat,

…Colin sensed that Roy was testing him. He felt certain that the gruesome story about the cat was just the latest test, but he couldn’t imagine what Roy had wanted him to say or do. Had he passed or failed?

Despite Colin’s uneasiness, Roy is “just about the best friend a guy could ask for.” Until he isn’t. And it doesn’t take long for The Voice in the Night to kick into high gear.

There are no adults in this book. Colin’s mother is running an art gallery and getting her post-divorce sea legs under her. She is rarely home. Colin’s dad takes him fishing once with a bunch of his friends, who are all drunk jerks. Roy’s parents, too, are MIA. When Colin’s relationship with Roy begins to unravel, he is all alone to try to figure it out. And more and more, Colin begins to feel as though his life depends on it.

The Voice in the Night clicks along without too much interference. The cast of characters is small, their motivations obvious and the conclusion, although a tad trite, is believable.

Inexcusable – Chris Lynch

inexcusableAlthough I teach high school English and although Chris Lynch is a prolific writer of award-winning YA literature, his novel Inexcusable is the first of his books I’ve read. This particular novel was a National Book Award finalist, as well as top of  many other “Best of” lists. School Library Journal called it “A finely crafted and thought-provoking page-turner.”

Keir Sarafian is a high school football player and an all-around decent guy. That’s what his single dad, Ray, tells him. That’s what his older sisters, Mary and Fran, tell him. That’s what his class and team mates tell him. So that’s what Keir believes.

When Inexcusable opens Keir tells us that “The way it looks is not the way it is.” From that intriguing opening, we follow Keir through the last few weeks of his high school career. We watch him play a never-ending game of Risk with his father. We watch him take down a player on an opposing football team, a hit which seriously injures the other player and earns Keir several scholarship offers and the nickname “Killer.”

Lynch carefully layers the character of Keir. He’s an affable guy. On the surface, at least, he seems to have it all.

I got along, and got along well. Got along with staff, with teachers and lunch ladies. Got along with guys, with athletes I knew before but knew better now, guys who were studs at basketball, or even guys who played sports that didn’t matter, like tennis. I got along with smart kids like debate, as well as with guys who sat around glassy-eyed and famously did nothing at all.

Keir wants to be liked. “I hate it when people I love scream at me,” he admits, which is one of the reasons he so admires his father. And because he so admires his father, Keir realizes that he “had to be a good guy if you were Ray Sarafian’s kid. You couldn’t possibly be anything less.”

But the real truth about Keir Sarafian is something different. And Lynch unspools Keir’s story  – which is really the story of what happens between Keir and his beautiful classmate Gigi Boudakian on prom night – with care. I felt my feelings about Keir constantly shifting.

Lynch explains in his preface for the 10th anniversary edition of the book that “The novel remains the supreme art for serious investigation for these troubled-troubling individuals who do things that appall us…There are no excuses for doing something deplorable. There is just the story behind the story. And if at the end of one of these stories we cannot feel empathy and compassion for the deplorable character, that is not at all unreasonable. But the hope really is that we might come away with a bit of understanding for a human condition we did not particularly want to understand before.”

What is so remarkable about Lynch’s novel is the way Keir’s version of events – even his version of the kind of young man he is – is so out of sync with the way things actually are.

Good guys don’t do bad things. Good guys understand that no means no, and so I could not have done this because I understand, and I love Gigi Boudakian.

Inexcusable  is a timely, well-written and ultimately devastating story which will offer plenty of opportunities for discussion for mature readers.

 

When We Collided – Emery Lord

Vivi and Jonah, the narrators of Emery Lord’s YA novel When We Collided, are damaged collidedseventeen-year-olds, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on living. Their singular voices will likely strike a nerve with many young readers.

Jonah lives in Verona Cove, a small coastal town in California. He’s smack in the middle of six kids and is often tasked with looking after his younger siblings because his older sister has been away at college and his brother is working. His father recently died and his mother can’t seem to get out of bed.

Vivi and her mother are summering in Verona Cove. They needed an escape and Vivi has already decided that she loves Verona Cove, but she “waited until the seventh day to commit.” When she meets Jonah and his youngest sister, Leah, 5, she’s immediately smitten. Vivi falls fast and hard for a lot of things. Listening to her is sort of like watching the ball in a pinball machine bing off all the obstacles. It’s tiring to try to keep up, but she is utterly charming and Jonah has never met anyone like her.

The girl looking down at us has white-blond hair, and her lips are the color of maraschino cherries. She doesn’t look like any girl in my school. She doesn’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen in real life.

Vivi and Jonah hit it off and before you can say “summer romance”, the two are inseparable. For Jonah, Vivi is like a breath of fresh air. She makes him feel special. She listens to him as he tries to navigate the loss of his father and his new situation at home. He doesn’t understand what is happening with his mother and he doesn’t know how to help her. Like his older siblings, he’s just trying to keep his head above water and keep “the littles” (the family name for the younger kids) healthy and whole.

Things seem to be going fine between the two, until they’re not…and they’re not because Vivi starts to act increasingly more bizarre. I think Lord does an exceptional job of tracking the course of Vivi’s mental illness – the erratic and increasingly manic behaviour that finally comes to a head.

Teenage romance has the potential to be a messy business, no question, and the stakes are high for Vivi and Jonah who realize they need each other and also realize that their relationship is problematic (for a variety of reasons.) I appreciate that Lord didn’t try to tidy things up for these two extremely likable characters. You’ll root for them. Your heart will break for them. Your life will be better for having known them.