All the Beautiful Strangers – Elizabeth Klehfoth

There’s lots of things to like about Elizabeth Klehfoth’s debut novel All the Beautiful Strangers. The story follows two timelines separated by a decade. In 2007 Grace Calloway, wife to Manhattan real estate mogul Alistair Calloway, has vanished without a trace. In 2017, Grace’s eldest daughter, Charlie, is in her final year at Knollwood Prep, a prestigious school where her father was once a revered student.

Charlie thinks she wants to be part of the only group that matters, the super secret A’s. But to become a part of that group is to participate in some extremely problematic initiation rituals. No matter: Knollwood is her life and the A’s offer an opportunity to belong in a way Charlie has never felt she has.

The thing is, Charlie is being chased by ghosts in the form of her mother’s mysterious disappearance. Then, she gets a message from her Uncle Hank, her mother’s brother.

I hadn’t seen Uncle Hank in years – since I was ten, and my father issued the restraining order.

No one besides Dr. Malby ever talked to me about my mother. But he wanted to know. What had that last month been like with her? Had she seemed different in any way? Who came and went at the house? How had things been between her and my father? And that night that she disappeared – what had I heard? What had I seen?

When Hank shows up with some photographs taken around the time his sister went missing, it sends Charlie back into her past, asking the questions she never knew to ask.

All the Beautiful Strangers is a layered story about family secrets, loyalties and the lengths people go to to protect those they love. Charlie is a tenacious, intelligent character who is determined, once and for all, to find out what happened to her mother. Although it’s not specifically YA, I think it would certainly appeal to patient YA readers. It makes for compelling reading, although at times it moved just a teensy bit too slowly. The two time lines are handled deftly, and the writing is terrific, so Klehfoth is definitely one to watch.

Our Chemical Hearts – Krystal Sutherland

“I always thought the moment you met the great love of your life would be more like the movies,” Henry Page, the protagonist of Krystal Sutherland’s YA novel Our Chemical Hearts announces. Henry, a high school senior, is a romantic at heart and when he imagines falling in love, it’s not with someone like Grace Town, the new girl at school. Grace wears boy’s clothes, walks with a cane and seems neither clean nor healthy.

When Henry and Grace are picked to co-edit the school’s newspaper and are forced to spend time together, Henry finds himself drawn to Grace’s quirks because he has some of his own. Then he discovers that before moving the Henry’s town and school, Grace was “a girl in a red dress with red lipstick and loose curls in her honey-blond hair. She was smiling brilliantly…” Henry wants to know more and the more he knows the more he falls, until Grace’s secret is revealed and his life implodes.

Our Chemical Hearts is not a fluffy YA romance. It deals with some serious real-life issues and treats its characters like the almost-adults that they are. Henry, for example, has long admired the “perfect” relationship his parents have and yearns for the same sort of fairy-tale love. It’s not until his much older sister, Sadie, shares some things about his family that he may not know that he starts to understand that relationships, and the people who inhabit them, are complicated.

Grace is truly messed up. She starts to reveal herself, bit by bit, to Henry and his optimism is the seemingly perfect antidote to her pessimism – the ying to his yang.

…tell me you believe that our lives are anything more than a ridiculous cascade of random chances. A cloud of dust and gas forms our planet, a chemical reaction creates life, and then all of our cavemen ancestors live long enough to bone each other before they die awful deaths. The universe is not the magical place people like to paint it as. It’s excruciatingly beautiful, but there’s no magic there, just science.

Ouch.

Henry and Grace bond over music, literature, even their co-editing gig provides them with common ground, and their story is as true a depiction of a high school romance as you’re likely to find.

Highly recommended.

All the Things We Do in the Dark – Saundra Mitchell

One hot summer when nine-year-old Ava is outside riding her bike around the apartment complex where she lives, a man tells her “I have something that will keep you cool…” He leads Ava down a lane between the apartments and the trees and assaults her. This is the beginning of Saundra Mitchell’s YA novel All the Things We Do in the Dark.

Flash forward and Ava is now seventeen. Her parents are divorced. She has one best friend, Syd. She tries to be as invisible as possible, although she lives in small-town Maine where everyone knows who she is and what happened to her and if they didn’t, the scar the man left down the side of her face would certainly be cause for curiosity.

Ava has never really dealt with the trauma of her assault. Her mother keeps close tabs on her, but even she doesn’t know everything and Ava is prone to keeping secrets. This becomes evident when one day, walking home through the woods, she stumbles upon the body of a young girl.

She’s twisted like a Barbie doll at the waist. Her top half points forward, baring her face, her chest, those Vs. It takes me a minute to realize they’re stab wounds. Her bottom half faces down. Somehow both her breasts and her butt are exposed at the same time.

Human people, alive people, they don’t make that shape.

Ava makes a decision: she doesn’t tell anyone about the body. Chalk it up to shock or her own bad experience post-assault, but she decides to protect her. It’s a ridiculous decision to make – readers will know that – but Ava hasn’t ever really recovered from her own post-assault experience.

When Ava returns to the scene of the crime, she discovers someone else there, and convinced that she has stumbled upon the murderer, she gives chase. That’s where Mitchell’s book morphs from an examination of the trauma of assault to a straight-up mystery. I think I found this part of the book a little less successful, mostly because some of the decisions Ava makes (even though I could sort of understand why she was making them) seemed a little unrealistic.

Mitchell does do a wonderful job of crafting a character who has been through something horrific, something she still struggles with many years later as she tries to navigate relationships (with her bestie and a new friend, Hailey) and her own complicated feelings about her body and sexuality.

While I found the writing a bit choppy, a students in my class (who recommended the book) said that she liked the writing, that it felt like a conversation with her friends and that she related to some of the relationships in the book. That’s the true test of a YA book, I think: does it speak to its intended audience?

Odd One Out – Nic Stone

One of the topics the students in my Young Adult Literature class discussed this semester was the importance of diversity in fiction. Nic Stone wrote a wonderful opinion piece called “Don’t Just Read About Racism—Read Stories About Black People Living” where she expressed her own experiences with books featuring Black characters and the problem of having every single ‘diverse’ text tackle issues of police brutality and racism or simply featuring characters she didn’t recognize. Tokens or sidekicks.

“I met three African-American characters in books between 8th and 12th grade,” she writes. “The first was a Black man falsely accused of a horrific crime—literally because of #WhiteWomanTears—who despite his innocence suffers a horrific fate (Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird). The second was a Black man with a role so minor, most people don’t remember he was Black or don’t remember him at all (Crooks from Of Mice and Men). And the third was an escaped Black slave written (by a white man) in vernacular so dense that half the time, I had zero idea what homie was trying to tell me (Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

I hated all of it.”

Why was it, Stone posits, that growing up she never read about Black kids going on adventures, solving mysteries, falling in love? “What if we’d seen Black people in books just being human?” she writes.

Cue her 2018 YA novel Odd One Out, the story of seventeen-year-old besties Courtney “Coop” Cooper and Jupiter “Jupe” Charity-Sanchez. Coop has been in love with Jupe for as long as he can remember, but Jupe likes girls. At least she’s pretty sure she likes girls. She hasn’t really had any experience with them. Then Rae Chin moves to town. Suddenly Jupe and Coop find themselves part of a very complicated triangle.

This is exactly the sort of book Stone was talking about when she described the sort of stories that were unavailable to her when she was growing up. The characters in Odd One Out are just trying to navigate family stuff (Jupe has two dads; Coop’s father was killed in a car accident; Rae’s mom took off, but all the parents in this book are professional, loving, sane parents – not a gang banger among them), school and what turns out to be very complicated feelings for each other.

All three main characters get a turn to tell their story (Coop was my favourite; I found him funny, loyal, and charming) and I loved every second I spent with them. The drama is all self-made, but these smart and sensitive teens are trying to figure it out and that sometimes makes for hurt feelings, which Stone doesn’t shy away from. Odd One Out is a coming-of-age story which will appeal to any teen who has ever been in love or questioned their sexuality. The fact that I adored this book proves Stone’s point that “the more we see Black people living—loving and doing and being and feeling and going on adventures and solving mysteries and being the heroes—the more we come to recognize our shared humanity.”

Amen.

Highly recommended.

Forbidden – Tabitha Suzuma

Blame it on V.C. Andrews. If you’re a reader of a certain age, you’ll remember the moment you read that attic scene where brother and sister Cathy and Chris do what no brother and sister should ever do. Flowers in the Attic was published in 1979, which is the year I graduated from high school. I flew through the book and its sequels and prequels, until I lost interest. In the characters, not in the subject matter because while incest is certainly taboo, there is something strangely riveting about relationships that are not meant to be. Ever.

Several of my all-time favourite books including Relations by Carolyn Slaughter (which predates this blog), A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore and Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon are about incestuous sibling relationships. Meg Rosoff’s masterful How I Live Now is about cousins who fall in love. You might well ask how books that tackle this subject could possibly be made palatable, and yet they can be. But I think that the material must be handled by a skillful writer because it’s certainly a fine line to walk between compelling and believable, and just uncomfortable ickiness. For example, none of the books I’ve mentioned here concern abusive relationships (although there is horrible abuse in Billy Dead between the sister and a different family member), or relationships between an authority figure, a father or uncle for example, and a much younger person. Two other books I really loved include these sort of relationships: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel. Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss is about the author’s sexual relationship with her father and it has a huge ick factor, but is also so compelling it’s hard to stop reading. I definitely think incest is a kink and I couldn’t tell you why I find it so fascinating, but I do.

I had never heard of Tabitha Suzuma’s 2010 novel Forbidden until a few days ago, when I stumbled across a mention of it on the Internet. I ordered the book and settled down to read it, and I couldn’t stop reading.

Lochan, almost 18, is trying to keep his family together with the help of his younger sister, Maya, almost 17. They have three younger siblings, Kit, 13, Tiffin, 8, and Willa, 5. Their mother is an alcoholic who works as a waitress and spends most of her time across town at her boyfriend Dave’s house or hung over on the couch. Their father left London with his new girlfriend – now wife – and moved to Australia six years ago. The financial support eventually stopped, but so did any contact.

The novel’s narrative alternates between Lochan and Maya, and it is clear that they depend on each other to make it through the craziness of trying to look after three younger children, the house and meals and everything else you might expect a parent to do, and stay on top of their schoolwork, too. Lochan is brilliant and bound for University London College as soon as he finishes his A Levels. What he struggles with is severe anxiety. He is friendless at school, rarely speaks, and spends most of his time sitting in a stairwell, reading. Maya is more outgoing, but her best friend is her brother, and it’s been that way since even before their father left.

Lochan and Maya get each other. With Maya, Lochan can relax. She can make him smile. She can calm his nerves. Lochan realizes his feelings are changing first.

We are still dancing, swaying slightly to the crooning voice, and Maya feels warm and alive in my arms. Just standing there, moving gently from side to side, I realize I don’t want this moment to end.

It’s only when that closeness crosses the line, and it’s revealed that Maya’s feelings are the same, that the brother and sister find themselves in a precarious predicament.

I refuse to let labels from the outside world spoil the happiest day of my life. The day I kissed the boy I had always held in my dreams but never allowed myself to see. The day I finally ceased lying to myself, ceased pretending it was just one kind of love I felt for him when in reality it was every kind of love possible. The day we finally broke free of our restraints and gave way to the feelings we had so long denied just because we happened to be brother and sister.

From that moment, the novel is relentlessly, breathlessly un-put-downable. I kept waiting for some big twist, something that would allow Lochan and Maya to have the life they want, which is a life together. Every stolen moment is fraught with the danger of being found out and being found out would have devastating consequences for their younger siblings, who would surely end up in the foster system, since their mother is rarely around and certainly not fit to care for them.

Suzuma skillfully navigates a story which has the potential to be so problematic, but which ends up being beautiful and devastating. I really loved this book and I keep wondering what it is about these forbidden relationships that keep me coming back for more. Even Maya is self-aware enough to know that her feelings for her brother are unnatural.

Having a physical relationship with one’s brother? Nobody does that; it’s disgusting; it would be like having Kit as my boyfriend. I shudder. I love Kit, but the idea of kissing him is beyond revolting. It would be horrendous; it would be repulsive –

Perhaps it is their circumstances that make the notion of being in love more palatable. “Lochan has never felt like a brother” Maya rationalizes. “He and I have always been equals.” In every instance of incest that I have read, there has been some trauma involved. For Maya and Lochan it is their total sense of abandonment, of having to be adults when they are really still kids; of having no one to turn to but each other. Another quality of this sort of story is the angst. When two people should be together and can’t be together – for whatever reason, not limited to being siblings – I am all in. 100%,

Suzuma does not shy away from any of this story’s minefields and she doesn’t exploit her characters, either. I will definitely be reading more by this author.

Together We Caught Fire – Eva V. Gibson

Eva V. Gibson’s debut YA novel Together We Caught Fire sounded right up my alley when I added it to my TBR list. My son bought it for me for Christmas and I read it in pretty much one sitting. I wish that I could say that the book lived up to its promise, but it wasn’t quite a hit for me.

Lane Jamison’s life was upended when she was five and discovered her mother lying in a pool of blood in their pristine white bathroom. Now 18, she acknowledges that “Blood itself wasn’t the problem. Cuts, now, those were a different story – the parting of skin beneath steel, blood or no blood, never failed to fuck me up.” Lane’s mother’s suicide has left her with deep, unhealed psychic wounds and an inability to sleep properly.

Her life is further unsettled when her father marries Skye, mother to the boy Lane has been in love with since he took over frog dissection duty in eighth grade AP Biology. Suddenly this unattainable boy is sharing her house and, well, that situation is just untenable because Grey McIntyre was the “longtime occupant of my heart’s most vulnerable nook, hopeful and buoyed in the chair next to mine. The only boy I’d ever loved.”

Grey’s girlfriend Sadie is the daughter of the local televangelist. Sadie has her life mapped out, and that life involves getting married and having a truckload of kids. She’s a good person, if perhaps a little judge-y. Her older brother, Connor, is the black sheep, kicked out of the house when he was fourteen and only just now finding his footing as an artist. That’s one of the ways he and Lane bond: she is also an artist, crafting creations from yarn. Connor sees right through Lane and claims he sees right through Grey, too. That his sister is caught between them is problematic, even though Lane assures him that her feelings for Grey predate Sadie and, anyway, she would never act on them. Thus, you know, the angst.

One of the main issues I had with this book is how over-the-top dramatic everything is and I think that drama isn’t helped by Gibson’s prose, which is beyond purple.

My skin simmered; my veins were kerosene, aching for the touch of a match. Everything hung on that word – our lives and family, past and future; the seconds before and after it left his mouth ran together like gooseflesh melting smooth in the sun, and this wasn’t my fault – he’d found me on his own, plunged blind into dark, brackish depths, dredged me from the groundwater so we surfaced together. Never stopped to think if we should breathe in open air.

The odd thing is that I found some the writing in the book quite beautiful; it’s just that it got in the way of the plot’s momentum – and in a book where nothing really happens, that’s a problem.

I loved the idea of this book because I am all for angst, but I think too much is made of the fact that Grey is now Lane’s brother/step-brother; they are both adults and not related by blood, so the taboo is a bit watered down. C’mon, it’s not Flowers in the Attic level wrong. Truthfully, these young people are going through what many teenagers do: heartache, depression, guilt and lust. It just feels like more because of the way the story is written. Strip that away and what’s left? Your enjoyment will depend on your patience for the way the story is told.

The Tragic Age – Stephen Metcalfe

Billy Kinsey is an outsider. It’s not just the port-wine hemangioma on the right side of his face. It’s not just the fact that he’s moved to L.A. suburb from the San Joaquin Valley, where he lived a slightly more normal life. It’s not just that he’s an insomniac. It’s not just that his father won 37 million dollars in the lottery and now his mother lunches and plays tennis and his father drinks. It’s not even just that when he was 11, his twin sister Dorrie died of cancer. Well, actually, it’s all of these things.

Stephen Metcalfe’s debut novel, The Tragic Age, is laugh-out-loud funny, tender and wry. Billy, 17, is adrift. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s not exactly sure what the right thing is. It isn’t until Willard “Twom” Twomey comes into his life, followed by the re-entrance of his sister’s childhood bestie, Gretchen, that the fog starts to lift for Billy.

Twom is a larger-than-life character. He doesn’t back down from anyone. When the school’s meathead starts teasing Twom about his name, Twom lets him have it with the back of his dinner tray.

I also soon discover that despite his revolutionary’s attitude towards rules and authority, Twom has his own highly evolved sense of right or wrong. He dislikes what he calls the “dickhead club” and he has complete empathy for the underdog.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that Billy’s an underdog, he sure could use a friend or two and Twom comes along at the right time.

So does Gretchen. Although Billy of course knows her, she and her family have been, until recently, living in Africa, where Gretchen’s father “was a hotshot doctor of infectious diseases.” Her arrival back in Billy’s orbit is problematic.

It goes without saying that girls can make you do insane things. One minute a guy can be, if there is such a thing, normal, the next, he’s cracking stupid jokes and running and dancing in place like a babbling, mindless idiot. Another word for this is “dating.”

The Tragic Age follows Billy as he navigates his final year of high school, falls in love and tries to figure out what anything means…and whether anything is worth it, after all. The grief he feels over Dorrie’s death is clearly unresolved; in fact, he and his parents never even talk about Dorrie. They don’t really talk about much of anything, and that’s part of Billy’s problem.

Billy is on a slippery slope and the novel’s final pages are made for the big screen. That makes sense, since Metcalfe has worked in the film biz. I’m not sure the frenetic pace suits the rest of the book, but I still really enjoyed it. Billy is a memorable character and his experience of disillusioned, navel-gazing, teenagedom will be recognizable to anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or figure out how to simply survive.

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.