Looking For Alaska – John Green

Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”

Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”

Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.

I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.

My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?

Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes

There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me – Amanda Davis

In the Afterward of Amanda Davis’s novel Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, Michael Chabon laments the fact that Davis died in a tragic airplane accident at just 32. “It is unfair, as well as cruel, to try to assess the overall literary merit, not to mention the prospects of future greatness, of a young woman who managed to produce…a single short-story collection, the remarkable Circling the Drain, and a lone novel,” he says. According to Chabon, Davis was the real deal, someone who likely could have written just about anything due to her “sharp, sharp mind, her omnivorous interests, and her understanding of human emotion.”

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is Faith Duckle’s story. She’s returned to school after several months in hospital after a suicide attempt.

I did it on a clear day, just before Christmas. I had thought about it constantly and planned a little, but when it came right down to it, I didn’t wake up that morning with an idea of what would happen or when I would know. I just knew. The light inside me had flickered and gone out.

The impetus for Faith’s suicide attempt is a horrific assault which had taken place under the bleachers at school during homecoming. A group of junior boys had plied Faith with “red punch that tasted like popsicles” and made her feel “normal.” Now, seven months later, she is back at school, forty-eight pounds lighter, but it seemed like “no one had even noticed I was gone.”

Friendless, except for the fat girl who follows her in the hall and sits behind her in class, offering unsolicited commentary, Faith struggles to regain equilibrium. Eventually, as memories of the event start to resurface, and with the fat girl’s constant prodding, Faith commits an act of violence and then hits the road in search of Charlie, the brother of her friend from the psych ward.

She ends up with a traveling circus, shoveling elephant shit and dreaming of becoming an aerial artist. Seeing Mina perform for the first time is revelatory for Faith, who must learn how to live in a body that has been changed by trauma. Mina “flew lightly, gracefully, as though it were perfectly natural to trust her entire body to this single thread.”

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is a beautiful book about misfits, kindness, and our ability to heal. I loved Faith’s time with the circus-folk and I was rooting for her success the whole time.

Fall For Anything – Courtney Summers

fallsummersSeventeen-year-old Eddie and her mother have recently suffered a tremendous loss. Eddie’s father, a once-renowned photographer, has taken his own life and neither of the Reeves women are coping very well. Eddie’s mother drifts, ghost-like, around the house wearing her father’s housecoat being fussed over by her best friend, Beth, who drives Eddie “fucking crazy.” Eddie avoids her house as much as possible, choosing instead to hang with her best friend, Milo.

Milo would do almost anything for me. He’s been my best friend since second grade, when a brief but weird obsession with the original Star Trek  got him sort of ostracized at the same time all the girls in our class decided a girl named Eddie must actually really be a boy. By third grade, we weren’t so outcast anymore, but we were beyond needing other people. We still are.

Eddie is trying to make sense of her father’s death, and she is pulled back to the place where he ended his life: Tarver’s Warehouse, an “old and abandoned” building.

I come at night, waiting for some piece of the puzzle to click into place, waiting to understand, and I stay until the living world presses in on me and I have to go back to it…

She is surprised to meet Culler Evans, a protege of her father’s, at Tarver’s. Culler tells Eddie that he knows her father “spent a lot of time here, so I’ve been coming out, just trying to figure it all out, I guess. I mean, to understand why he’d …”

The two instantly bond over their desire to understand this inexplicable suicide. When it appears that Mr. Reeves has left a series of clues that might unravel the ‘mystery’ of his suicide, it sends Culler and Eddie on a road trip.

Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers (Sadie, All the Rage, This is Not a Test, Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are)  has created yet another memorable character in Eddie Reeves. This makes the sixth of her books I’ve read and I have not once been disappointed to spend time with her characters. I always find her protagonists to be flawed, tough and vulnerable in ways that make them extremely sympathetic.

Eddie is no different. Her grief is palpable. It manifests itself in her hands, which she claims are dying, and in the ways she pulls people in and pushes them away. Even her escape route at night (she climbs out of her window and jumps to the ground) seems fraught with meaning. “I jump” she says. “It’s effortless. It is so easy.”

Fall For Anything is all the things a great YA book should be (well, all the things any great book should be): well-written, compelling, page-turning and with emotional heft. I held off reading it as long as I could because now I have to wait until February 2021 for The Project, Summers’ next novel. I know it will be worth the wait.

Highly recommended.

Rules of Attraction – Simone Elkeles

I read the first  novel in Simone Elkeles Perfect Chemistry trilogy, Perfect Chemistry sevenrules years ago. (Yikes!!!) Since then, I have recommended the book countless times to students looking for a romantic, fast-paced story. I have never had a single student tell me they didn’t like it. It’s a great book and even boys enjoy the story of Alex and Brittany. And if they like that book, well, Alex has two brothers and they each get their own novel. I hadn’t read either of the follow -ups, so I grabbed Rules of Attraction to bring home to read during this strange time of quarantine.

At the end of Perfect Chemistry, Alex and Brittany had left Chicago and gone off to college in Colorado. Carlos, 18, has now been sent to live in Colorado to get him away from the gangs in Mexico, where his mother and younger brother Luis still live. Carlos is the proverbial “angry young man”. The decision to go to America was not his

Mi’ama didn’t ask if I wanted to leave Mexico and move to Colorado to live with my brother Alex for my senior year of high school. She made the decision to send me back to America “for my own good” – her words, not mine.

So, he’s pissed off at the world: At his brother who left gang life when he fell in love with Brittany, at the system which seems against him, at the world, and at Kiara, the daughter of the professor with whom he lives as a condition of getting caught with drugs soon after he starts school.

Kiara, also a senior, is a good girl. (Of course, that’s the way these stories go. :-)) She’s recently been text-dumped and she’s feeling a little raw. She knows Alex because he works as a mechanic (to help pay for college) and he’s been helping her refurbish her car. When he asks her to show Carlos around school, she happily agrees. Carlos, however, isn’t interested in being shown anything.

I don’t need a damn peer guide because (1) it’s obvious from the way Alex greeted Kiara a few minutes ago that he knows her, and (2) the girl is not hot; she has her hair up in a ponytail, is wearing leather hiking boots and three-quarter stretch pants with an Under Armour logo peeking out the bottom, and is covered from neck to knee by an oversized T-shirt with the word MOUNTAINEER written on it, and (3) I don’t need a babysitter, especially one my brother arranged.

Of course, readers know that Kiara and Carlos will end up together, that she will bring out the hidden softness in him, that he will fall in love with her inherent goodness, that they’ll overcome the obstacles chucked in their path.

Teen readers will eat it up.

Allegedly – Tiffany D. Jackson

allegedlyFifteen-year-old Mary, the protagonist of Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut YA novel Allegedly, lives in a group home in Brooklyn. She has a tracking device on her ankle, no friends except for her boyfriend, Ted, and a reputation for being ‘psycho.’ How did she earn that reputation? When Mary was nine she killed a three-month-old baby named Alyssa who was in Mary’s mother’s care. Well, she allegedly killed Alyssa.

Everyone in the house knows what I did. Or thinks they know what I did. No one asks though, because no one really wants to hear how I killed a baby. They don’t even want to know why I killed a baby. They just want to pretend they know for knowing’s sake.

Before she came to live in the group home, she was in a state facility with adults. She was mostly mute and mostly locked up in solitary confinement. Now, with a little more freedom, she is desperate to make something of herself. She wants to write the SAT, not as ridiculous as it sounds because she is extremely clever – everyone says so. Although she doesn’t really have any positive adults in her life (the two women who look after the group home are awful, as are the other girls who live there; her mother is self-centered zealot and has mental health issues; the court appointed counselor who visits once a week is ineffective ), Mary is determined to get an education.

This is a novel that looks at all the ways that the system fails young people who might find themselves on the fringes of society. Mary tells her own story (one of physical, emotional and sexual abuse)  without self-pity. Too young to articulate what might have actually happened on the night Alyssa died, Mary did as her mother instructed and kept her mouth shut. When she finds herself pregnant, and realizes that there is no way that the state will allow her to keep her baby, she has something to fight for.

When Mary finally finds a couple champions for her corner including a lawyer willing to investigate her claims that she’s not guilty and a teacher willing to help her prepare for the SATs, it’s hard not to root for Mary. And it’ll be hard not to turn the pages either despite the often gruesome subject matter.

Allegedly is my second novel by Tiffany D. Jackson. I read and enjoyed her book Monday’s Not Coming last year. Her work is definitely worth checking out.

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.