Tag Archive | mature teen

Chopsticks – Jessica Anthony & Rodrigo Corral

ChopsticksSixteen-year-old Glory Fleming is a piano prodigy. When Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral’s hybrid novel – more about that in a moment – opens, Glory is missing. Then the story flashes back eighteen months to help us understand how her life has gone off the rails.

Chopsticks is a quick read, but that’s because much of the story is told through pictures: drawings and photographs.

For example, we learn about Glory’s childhood by flipping the pages of a family photo album. Pictures of her parents Victor and Maria, and baby pictures of Gloria and ‘pasted in’ cards and programs, give us a glimpse into a tight family unit.

Victor is a music teacher and Glory is his star pupil. After the accidental death of her mother, Glory throws herself into her music until she is so accomplished that The New Yorker calls her “The Brecht of the Piano.” Glory is known for her “innovative performances of classical pieces alongside modern scores.”  Soon, she is playing sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall.

 

And it’s all good until Francisco and his family, Argentinian immigrants, move into the house next door. Chopsticks gives us the same insight into Frank’s character by showing us cards from his parents and his diary in which he writes: “She is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. She invited me over and played Chopin on her piano.”

The pair form a friendship;  it seems as though Glory hasn’t actually had too many over the years. Although it’s completely natural,  their bond deepens and as she pulls away from her father and her music, Victor tightens his hold on his daughter. Frank isn’t without his own problems. Although he comes from a wonderful family, he has trouble fitting in at school and with the exception of art, and music, isn’t excelling academically.

In an effort to separate the teens, Victor plans a European tour for his daughter. Text messages, post cards and photos mark this period. But, of course, by this time Frank and Glory are in love and the time apart only heightens their feelings for each other.

Chopsticks is a beautiful book to read – each page is visually interesting and the story of Glory and Frank, each of whom want to find their own way out from under parental expectations and to discover their own path,  is certainly one most teens will relate to.

I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while and it did not disappoint.

Delicate Monsters – Stephanie Kuehn

The three central characters in Stephanie Kuehn’s darkdarkdark YA novel Delicatedelicate Monsters are hard to spend time with. From the moment we meet  Sadie, and Emerson  and his  brother, Miles, we embark on a journey that is both awful and strangely – redemptive. In any case, these train-wreck teens are hard to look away from.

Sadie has just returned to her home from a camp where the girls were “all supposed to be “troubled”” Sadie’s far tougher than these girls who are “wide-eyed and tragic, fragile herd-like things, brimming with stories of Painful Childhoods.” Sadie can’t relate because she is not like them. She has “no interest in introspection” and “she found threats a curious thing because she didn’t respond to them the way she was meant to…threats made Sadie’s skin grow cold and her brain grow mean.” Mean is exactly what Sadie is, too.

At first eighteen-year-old Emerson seems like an uncomplicated lug of a guy. He lives with his widowed mother and younger brother, Miles, 15. Miles is sickly and has been diagnosed – or misdiagnosed –  with a variety of ailments: night terrors, separation anxiety, rashes, fever, celiac. Despite his health concerns and the fact that Miles “didn’t like other people,” Emerson was convinced that his younger brother is “destined for…something. Greatness?” Miles is peculiar and although Emerson seems to care about Miles, he doesn’t defend him against the constant barrage of abuse – both physical and verbal – Miles takes from the thugs at school.

Kuehn dances these three teens together when Sadie returns to her hometown. She’s been expelled from boarding school (again) for almost getting someone killed. (The details of that are revealed through email exchanges between Sadie and her ‘victim’, Roman Bender.) The aforementioned camp was clearly a placeholder because her father is M.I.A. and her mother seems to have no real interest in her daughter. She’s been out of the hometown loop for a while, but she remembers Emerson. She specifically remembers the things they used to do together when they were kids and his mother, a nurse, would bring them out to Sadie’s family’s vineyard to care for Sadie’s grandfather.

Sadie doesn’t remember Miles, though. They meet during fencing and if she has any redeeming qualities, she shows them in her interactions with him. For a kid who tries to blend into the shadows, Miles seems to respond to Sadie’s “I don’t give a shit, but here, eat this sandwich” approach to friendship.

I love the way Kuehn writes her characters. This is my third book by her and although I didn’t love it as much as I loved Charm & Strange, I still couldn’t stop turning the pages. We’d be naïve to think there aren’t lost, damaged kids like Sadie, Emerson and Miles in the world. Kuehn doesn’t mince words or tread lightly in Delicate Monsters, and as prickly as these three are – the mother in me just wanted to hug them and try to right their scarily off-kilter worlds.

The Truth About Alice – Jennifer Mathieu

The-Truth-About-Alice-Jennifer-MathieuThe truth we probably don’t want to acknowledge is that high school is hell for loads of kids. I teach high school and even though I would like to think that my school is perfect and inclusive and bully-free, I know that isn’t actually the case. I suspect Jennifer Mathieu knows that, too. She is also a teacher, which is why her novel The Truth About Alice rings true on so many levels.

There is something about Alice Franklin that gets everyone talking. Everyone has an opinion and the four main narrators in Mathieu’s novel are happy to share their thoughts.

Elaine O’Dea, possibly the most popular girl in school (by her own estimation) remarks “She’s never been super crazy popular like me…I guess Alice Franklin has spent most of her life on the middle floor somewhere, but on the top of the middle. So she was cool enough to come to my party.” Kurt Morelli, brilliant nerd, describes her as “Alice Franklin with the raspberry lips and the bad reputation and the faraway eyes. Alice Franklin with the short hair not like any other girl’s and the gloriously loud laugh and the body that curves like an alpha wave. Alice Alice Alice Alice Franklin.”

Then, after a party at Elaine’s house, the rumour that Alice slept with two guys – one after the other – erupts. One boy, Tommy Cray, is in college and one boy, Brandon Fitzsimmons (Elaine’s on-again, off-again, on-again boyfriend) is the best quarterback Healy High has ever seen. Shortly after the party, Brandon is killed in a car accident and Alice is, apparently, to blame for that, too.

Kelsie, Alice’s supposed best friend, abandons her and aligns herself with Elaine and her crew. She adds fuel to the rumour fire by adding a few juicy tidbits. Josh, Brandon’s best friend, does his own part to fan the flames. Alice soon finds herself a pariah at school.

It would be easy to hate all the people involved with ostracizing Alice, but the truth is that these teens all have their own issues: parental expectations, sexuality, religion, weight and Mathieu does a pretty good job of allowing the reader to see their motivations and vulnerabilities.

This is a novel about the damage rumours can do. Healy is a small town and even the adults know the stories, but no one intervenes. Alice’s single mother is non-existent in a parental role, leaving Alice to fend for herself. We don’t hear from Alice until the very end – which I actually think was a smart choice on Mathieu’s part. Instead, we watch her navigate the steady stream of vitriol and slowly start to find her path due to her unexpected friendship with Kurt, a character you can only imagine has suffered his fair share of bullying.

The truth will out and when it does, some of the machinations didn’t ring quite true to me, particularly Alice and Elaine’s conversation in the hair salon, but that’s only a small niggle. I thought The Truth About Alice tackled a timely subject with a lot of honesty and many teens will certainly see themselves in the story.

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.

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 Dead House – Dawn Kurtagich

I cannot resist a book with a creepy cover – especially if there’s a  creepy house or building on it and so even though I’d heard nothing about this book and had never heard of its author, I took  a chance on Dawn Kurtagich’s debut novel, The Dead House.

deadhouseThe premise is that investigators are looking into the death of three students at Elmbridge High, a boarding school in Somerset,  England. The school was destroyed by fire.  In order to unravel the story they have gathered police interviews, personal diaries, notes and video tape footage which has been transcribed (although it might have been cool to include links to a site to watch the tape). The incident happened over twenty years ago and as the report statement reveals “little was revealed about the tragedy.”

The incident has been something of an urban legend  connecting Kaitlyn Johnson, “the girl of nowhere” to the blaze. When her diary is found in the rubble, it spurs a new investigation into what actually happened in the days leading up to the fire.

Readers will know they’re not in Kansas anymore from the book’s opening pages. First of all,  we’re at the Claydon Mental Hospital. Kaitlyn has written in her diary:

I am myself again.

Carly has disappeared into the umbra, and I am alone. Ink on my fingers – she’s been writing  in the Message Book.

Good night, sis! she writes. We’ll be back at school soon. I can’t wait.

Turns out Kaitlyn and Carly  are one and the same. Carly, sweet and shy, inhabits the day and Kaitlyn, a little tougher around the edges, inhabits the night. Dr. Lansing, their psychotherapist, says that Kaitlyn is a product of trauma, a personality born of a personal tragedy. The two personalities communicate via a message book. They remind each other of people they’ve met, food they’ve eaten and the minutiae of daily life. Their separate lives happily co-exist.

But then Carly seems to go ‘missing’ and that’s when things take a decided turn into the weirder.  Dr. Lansing considers the disappearance of one personality a breakthrough. She tells Kaitlyn, “Carly is letting you go. It has to happen. It will feel like abandonment, it will be so hard. But, eventually, you’ll find peace. You’ll integrate. Absorb.”

Kaitlyn is convinced that that is not what is happening. She thinks Carly is trapped in the “dead house” and she has to rescue her. Kaitlyn isn’t alone. Naida, Carly’s best friend, is also sure that something sinister is going on – something to do with powerful dark magic.

Whichever way you read The Dark House, as a novel about mental illness or a supernatural horror story, Kurtagich’s novel is unusual and compelling, if not always comprehensible.