Vanessa Babcock, the protagonist of Calla Devlin’s debut, Tell Me Something Real, is sixteen. She lives with her parents, her older sister, Adrienne, andtell-me-something-real-9781481461160_lg her younger sister, Marie, in San Diego. Their mother, Iris, has leukemia, and Vanessa and her sisters often accompany her to a clinic in Mexico where she is treated with the controversial drug, Laetrile.

…the FDA’s banned Laetrile in the States, [and] a lot of people are coming to Mexico to treat their cancer. Most aren’t as lucky as we are, living in San Diego so close to the border.

Each of the girls have their own quirks. Adrienne is prone to swearing like a sailor. Marie is fascinated with the Catholic saints. Vanessa dreams of attending music school. Their father, an architect, works too much, leaving the care of Iris to his daughters, care that is taking its toll.

On one trip to the clinic Vanessa meets Caleb, a boy just a little older than she is who is also taking Laetrile. When Iris suggests that they open their home to Caleb and his mother, Barb, in an effort to make it easier for Caleb to receive his treatments, it seems like a win-win. Barb cooks real meals, and her sunny disposition improves life for everyone. And then there’s Caleb.

He looks healthy, sunburned, and rosy cheeked like me. It isn’t until he steps through the entryway – away from the protection of the flowers – that I recognize he is one of them.

Caleb becomes Vanessa’s touchstone, until one day he tells Vanessa that he and his mother are going home. Something isn’t right in the Babcock home, but he is reluctant to say just what that something is.

I have mixed feelings about Tell Me Something Real. There’s no arguing that Devlin is a talented writer, even though I didn’t feel like this debut went anyplace particularly special. Vanessa’s first person narrative is compelling enough, but her sisters seem more like a collection of quirky attributes than flesh and blood people. The plot does take an unusual turn, but even that felt somehow contrived.

What I wanted, I guess, was an emotional centre and despite the (melo)drama, Tell Me Something Real just didn’t have a beating heart. I wouldn’t discourage people from reading it, for sure, but it was just only so-so for me.

ameliaanneKat Rosenfield’s YA novel Amelia Ann is Dead and Gone is lush and languid, a coming-of-age story and a mystery that sends ripples through the small, insular community of Bridgeton.

At the same time that eighteen-year-old Becca is anticipating the beginning of a new and better life away at college, the unidentified body of another young girl turns up on the side of the road, outside of town.

People buzzed and hummed and speculated. It seemed impossible that the dead girl, the rag-doll on the road-shoulder, could remain anonymous for long. Not with everybody talking about her, her, her.

Everything is about to change for Becca. She’s just graduated from high school (salutatorian, no less) and her “too-smooth boyfriend with a beater pickup and no diploma of his own” has just broken up with her.

Our first meeting was romantic. High school legend-like, it made me yearn to stay with him just for the chance to tell our someday-kids about how their father had swept me off my feet at the tender age of sixteen.

The news of the dead girl is diverting at first, but then becomes a constant buzz in the back of Becca’s head. She can’t stop wondering about her – who she is and what happened to her, and it’s this compulsive fascination that brings the novel to its dramatic climax.

Amelia is experiencing a similar ‘new beginning’. She’s just graduated from college and decided to  pursue acting, a track-jump that her boyfriend, Luke, simply cannot or will not understand. The time spent with Amelia, is time well-spent. She is a girl who is finding her feet, discovering what she wants to be and understanding that sometimes that means leaving people behind.

When Rosenfield sticks to Becca and Amelia, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone races along like a thriller (albeit a really beautifully written thriller). Sometimes, though, she diverted my attention away to talk about the town from the vantage point of a sort of disembodied third-person omniscient vantage point.

In a small town, there are things you simply grow up knowing. You need them all – the shortcuts, secrets, and scandals that make up the town’s collective unconscious, the whispered bits and pieces passed from older lips to younger ears.

I found this stuff sort of extraneous to the plot (although I suppose it did, in some ways, explain the town’s mentality), and bogged things down a bit. A subplot about a tractor in the lake was, likewise, unnecessary. When Rosenfield stuck to Becca and Amelia’s story, though, I was all in and even with my minor grumble, I still highly recommend this book.

crackeduptobeCourtney Summers is one of my favourite YA writers. Cracked Up to Be was her debut novel, but it’s the fourth book I have read by this talented Canadian author. I have also read her terrific zombie novel This is Not a Test, her caustic novel about high school bullies, Some Girls Are and All the Rage, a frightening look at the aftermath of sexual assault.

In Cracked Up to Be, Parker Fadley has clearly gone off the rails. The once perfect student, cheerleading captain, and homecoming queen is potentially not going to graduate, must adhere to a strict curfew and she’s come to school hung over on more than one occasion. What could have possibly happened to upend Perfect Parker’s perfect life?

Figuring that out is what pushes this novel along and whether or not you’ll feel satisfied with the explanation for Parker’s fall from grace will be up to you. This is high school – so everything has a heightened sense of drama, but ultimately, that’s not what is so awesome about Summers’ book.

What’s awesome is Parker herself, a fully realized character that is both 100% unlikeable and 100% sympathetic…if that’s even possible.

The problem with alienating, self-destructive behavior is people get it into their heads it’s a cry for help. I wasn’t. It was just a really poorly executed plan to get everyone off my back. So now I’m halfway between where I started (not alone) and where I want to end up (alone) and I just have to roll with it if I want to graduate or else I’ll never be alone.

The thing about Perfect Parker is that she doesn’t sound like she was an altogether stellar human being even before whatever happened happened. Perhaps it’s true of all perfectionists: it’s their way or the highway. But post-event Parker is particularly prickly. Becky, the girl who has taken over as head cheerleader and hooked up with Parker’s ex-boyfriend, Chris, takes the blunt end of most of Parker’s vitriol.

“Screw him, Becky. I don’t care.”

“Parker – ”

“Becky, really. I don’t want to hear it. You’re dull.”

She rolls her eyes. “For five seconds you almost seemed human.”

The truth is that Parker is very much human. She is someone who feels as though she has done an awful thing and must be punished. If the universe can’t punish her sufficiently, she’ll punish herself. And if that means pushing away everyone who cares for her (Chris is about as good a friend as Parker has and he remains steadfastly in her corner even when she is utterly horrible to him.), well, that’s what she’s going to do.

The thing I have always admired about Summers’ writing is that it always feels unflinchingly honest. Her characters speak their minds. They are awful and vulnerable in equal measure. The more time we spend with Parker, the more we  start to see the cracks in her veneer. And by the novel’s conclusion, readers will be hopeful that those cracks will let a little healing light in.

Highly recommended.

strongerIn  Jolene Perry’s novel Stronger Than You Know, fifteen-year-old Joy Neilsons has come to live with her aunt and uncle after having been removed from the trailer home she was living in with her mother. The Child Services Summary Report  indicates that she wasn’t allowed out of the 750 sq. ft. mobile home, did not attend school and was dehydrated and malnourished when authorities removed her.

Turns out, not having enough to eat or drink was the least of Joy’s problems, and although Perry wisely spares us the graphic details of Joy’s abuse, readers will easily be able to fill in the horrific blanks.

Stronger Than You Know is the story of Joy’s recovery which, as you can imagine, is not without its setbacks. For one thing, Joy hasn’t been properly socialized, so dealing with large groups of people is problematic. Imagine going to school – high school, at that –  for the first time. For another thing, Joy distrusts men, making it difficult for her to be around her uncle, Rob, and her cousin, Trent. Trent’s twin sister, Tara,  is a little easier to cope with, but Joy is still distrustful of this new life she’s been given, a life she knows she doesn’t belong in. Aunt Nicole offers safety and comfort, but the PTSD Joy is experiencing is palpable.

She measures her recovery by listing her accomplishments:

  • Went to school.
  • Ate in the cafeteria.
  • Answered a teacher’s question.
  • Ate a few bites of dinner with the family in the dining room.

All the people in Joy’s new life, even Trent, who initially seems like an asshat (and one could make the argument that he turns the corner with a little too much ease), are warm and loving humans. The boy she meets on the walk to school is patient and understanding when Joy acts peculiarly. Her Uncle Rob is super protective because he’s had some personal experience with trauma. If any characters are under-developed it’s because they are the villains of the piece and it’s easy enough for smart readers to fill in those blanks.

Overall, Stronger Than You Know will speak to any young reader who has had to overcome horrific circumstances in the hopes for a better life. As Joy learns, a better life is waiting.

 

 

darkhouseWho doesn’t love a good scare? Not Ivy Jensen. That’s not her fault, though. When she was 12, someone broke into her house and slaughtered her parents. In her recurring nightmare about that horrible night, Ivy wakes “with a gasp, covered in [her] own blood. It’s everywhere. Soaking into the bed covers, splattered against the wall, running through the cracks in the hardwood floor, and dripping over [her] fingers and hands.”

Ivy is just one of the teens in Laurie Faria Stolarz’s YA novel, Welcome to the Dark House. She decides to enter a contest sponsored by Justin Blake, director of several famous (infamous) horror films featuring the Nightmare Elf. Intrigued by the promise that her nightmares will disappear, Ivy submits an essay describing her worst fear. So do Frankie, Garth, Parker, Shayla, Natalie and Taylor.

These teens win an exclusive weekend away to meet Justin Blake and get an exclusive look at his latest project. For some of the attendees, this is the chance of a lifetime. Boy-crazy Shayla is on a mission to “”make the most of every moment” [and] have a fun and fulfilling life.” Garth, Frankie and Natalie are uber-fans. Parker is an aspiring film maker. Taylor is…well…missing. Ivy just wants her nightmares to go away.

When the group arrives at the B & B where they will be staying, they find their rooms kitted out with their most favourite things. Their hostess is Midge, “the psycho chamber-maid who collects her victims’ fingers in the pockets of her apron.” The next afternoon, the teens are taken to a nightmarish amusement park in the middle of nowhere.

It’s like something out of a dream. WELCOME, DARK HOUSE DREAMERS is lit up in Gothic lettering, hanging above an entrance gate. There’s also a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and a ride called Hotel 9; with multiple pointed roofs, it looks like the hotel in the movie.

The rules are simple: the group has to leave their cell pones and recording devices behind, ride the rides and have some snacks, but each participant MUST ride the ride that has been specifically tailored to them. The prize? Well, “the camera’s already rolling” and so essentially, in a found-footage way, these guys are the stars of Blake’s latest project.

Of course, this is when things start to get a little hairy.

Welcome to the Dark House is reminiscent of teen horror movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fans of horror movies (and horror fiction) will likely enjoy the inventive ‘rides’ and these characters – although you don’t get to know any one of them particularly well. Of course, you wouldn’t want to get too attached now, would you? There are some truly creepy moments and a cliff hanger ending, so you’ll have to read the sequel, Return to the Dark House to discover how it all turns out.

 

 

wetogetherSeventeen-year-old Alice is a patient at Savage Isle, an institute for adolescents with mental health problems. She’s recovering after a devastating fire, set by her twin Cellie, killed her boyfriend, Jason.

In the prologue of Emiko Jean’s YA novel We’ll Never Be Apart, Cellie says

…I’ll say it was an accident. An unfortunate tragedy. But it was neither. When they asked me what happened that night, I’ll say, It was a mistake. But is wasn’t. I don’t remember, I’ll say. But I do.

After the death of their grandfather, Alice and Cellie bounce around to various foster homes. In one of those places, “the worst home yet,”  they meet Jason. Jason becomes their protector from their foster father. “He’d wrap his arms around us like a comforting blanket. He smelled of clean laundry, a smell that still makes me feel loved and protected. Cherished.”

Jason’s flaw is that he loves fire. Cellie does, too. Alice can only watch helplessly, but it doesn’t prevent her from falling in love with Jason. After his death, she vows revenge against her sister who turns up at Savage Isle, too, albeit in a locked ward. Alice needs another patient’s help to find her so she can kill her.

The story is told in present day – as Alice, with the help of Chase, attempts to find a way to get to Cellie, and also unfolds the girls’ tragic story through a series of journal entries.  Readers might sense that the narration is unreliable – and they’d be right. There’s a propulsive element to Jean’s story, as we follow Alice on her search for the truth of what happened the night Jason was killed.

We’ll Never Be Apart will probably be enjoyable to mature teens who like a twisty tale with a sympathetic narrator.

 

askthedarkSometimes you happen upon a book with a narrator who just feels 100% authentic. That was the case with Henry Turner’s debut YA mystery  Ask the Dark, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery.

Fourteen-year-old Billy Zeets lives a hard scrabble life with his widowed father and older sister, Leezie. Ever since Billy’s father hurt his back and has been unable to work, things have gone south. Now the family is on the brink of losing their house and despite Billy’s reputation for cuffing school and petty theft, he’s determined to help his father get back on his feet.

The novel starts at the end where Billy informs us that he’s feeling better. People keep asking him about what happened and Billy has decided that he’s just going to tell the story once and “get it the hell over with.”  He’s not used to being the center of attention. In fact, Billy is about as much of an outlier as you can get. His classmate Sam Tate tells him

…you’d never have done it, never even found out about it, if you hadn’t done all the things people hated you for. It turns out those were the right things to do, Billy. Isn’t that funny? All that stealing and never going to school. It’s what made it so you were outside a lot, seeing things nobody else saw. Hidden and secret things.

Billy tells us that “The first boy got took last September” and that he knew him. “He was fourteen then, same as me.”  They weren’t friends or anything, only he “prob’ly didn’t like me ’cause’f how I’m in trouble all the time, and his parents prob’ly told’m I ain’t the right sort of boy for him to get to know.”

When Billy stumbles upon the naked body of another missing boy, he understands that something evil is happening in his neighbourhood. He becomes more watchful and utilizing skills he’s learned from years of ducking in and out of dark alleys, back yards and woods – he starts to pay attention. He’s convinced that he can figure out who the killer is just by doing what he’s always done.

Ask the Dark has some truly creepy moments and  although Billy insists he “ain’t no hero” but you’d be hard pressed to find a braver or more sympathetic kid.

Highly recommended.