Alone – Cyn Balog

Cyn Balog’s YA novel Alone is the story of sixteen-year-old Seda who lives with her mother and four younger siblings in Bismarck-Chisholm House or, as she calls it, Bug House. Seda’s mother is a former Boston College professor who is currently writing a book, her father is MIA and her siblings are two sets of twins aged six and four. Seda was a twin, too, but her brother Sawyer was absorbed into her own body in the womb, or so says family lore.

For years Bug House was run as a “Murder” house, where patrons could stay in one of eighteen guest rooms and had the daylights scared out of them. It’s an isolated spot; the nearest store is twenty miles down the mountain. Seda, our narrator, laments the isolation, the loss of her life in Boston, her father’s disappearance from her life, her mother’s kookiness, the fact that there’s no cell service, and just the general creepiness of Bug House.

All that changes though when a freak snow storm ushers in a handful of strangers, three boys and two girls.

The other members of his group are beautiful, yes, but he – with his thick mop of hair spilling out of the openings of the hockey mask and big heavily-lidded brown eyes – is godly. He’s the kind that always gets it last and worst in slasher films, just before his smart and sassy girlfriend-heroine saves the day.

Alone amps up the creepy house narrative with an unreliable narrator, a house full of secrets and a scavenger hunt game that quickly goes off the rails. There’s enough twists and turns and things that go bump in the night to make any fan of horror movies or scary stories happy. I did find that it got off to a slow start, but once it got going it was an enjoyable page-turner.

It Sounded Better in My Head – Nina Kenwood

Nina Kenwood’s YA debut It Sounded Better in My Head wasn’t even on my radar when I recently picked it up at the bookstore. It was a William C. Morris Debut finalist and had excellent reviews from School Library Journal and Bookpage (I trust those sort of endorsements over author plugs, tbh) so I bought it. It might have languished with all the other unread books in my class library, but I picked it up to read and honestly couldn’t put it down.

Eighteen-year-old Australian, Natalie, is waiting for her university admission results and planning her future with her besties Zach and Lucy, when her parents announce that they are separating. Worse, they knew this was coming and had neglected to tell her for ten months. Some almost-adults might take this in their stride, but it knocks Natalie sideways because she likes solid plans and the status quo. That’s how her world works.

Or that’s how it has worked ever since she hit puberty and her body betrayed her.

I went from being a straight up-and-down stick figure to a scribble of hips, stomach, breasts, thighs and stretch marks. I didn’t even know stretch marks were a thing.

[…]

But the stretch marks were nothing compared with the pimples. A regular scattering of pimples at first, and then more, and more. Then pimples that turned, almost overnight, into deep, cystic acne. […] It’s gross. I was gross. I woke up thinking that every day for a long time.

I suspect we can all remember the awkwardness of being a teenager, of comparing yourself to others, and Natalie spends most of her early teens friendless and hiding out. At thirteen, she becomes “Reluctant Natalie. Anxious Natalie. Bitter Natalie. Neurotic Natalie.” At fifteen, though, after medication clears up her skin a little and her mother convinces her to attend a creative writing camp, she meets Lucy and Zach.

It’s still hard for Natalie to put herself out there, but all that is about to change when Zach’s older brother, Alex, and his friend, Owen, invite her to a party and Natalie surprises herself by accepting. When Alex and Natalie find themselves in a dark alley because of a game of Spin the Bottle, Natalie finds herself in uncharted water.

And the whole thing is sheer delight. Honestly, I loved Natalie. Let’s face it, it’s only as an adult looking back that your teen years seem even mildly awesome. The best years of your life, my ass. I suspect Natalie speaks for a whole bunch of teens who breathe a sigh of relief when Friday night rolls around. For Natalie it meant that she didn’t “have to go outside or see anyone other than [her] parents for the next two whole days.”

Over the course of just a few days, Natalie’s life is upended, but sometimes that’s what needs to happen in order to get the life you want.

Highly recommended.

Punching the Air – Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam

I try to remember what I privileged position I inhabit when I read books like Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. What can I, a white, middle-aged (I know, it’s a stretch to call me middle-aged), middle-class woman from Eastern Canada, really know about what it is to live in this world as a BIPOC? Nothing. It would be a stretch to even say that I have been discriminated against because I am female because if I have been, I haven’t really been aware of it.

I do think I have a responsibility, as an educator – sure – but also as a human being, to educate myself and expose myself to experiences that are unfamiliar to me. It’s not enough to hope that our children will be better humans than we are; we all have to do better.

Punching the Air is a novel-in-verse that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Amal Shahid, an artist and poet, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, although he does admit that he “threw the first punch.” Turns out “…it wasn’t about/who threw the first punch/ It was about courts, turf, space/ Me and them other boys/ were just trying to go home”.

Jeremy, the white boy who gets hurt in the altercation is in a coma, and Amal ends up in a juvenile detention facility. He tries to work through his confusion and anger, but it isn’t easy. “I went from/kid to criminal to felon/to prisoner to inmate” and despite a supportive family he must navigate his new reality on his own.

Punching the Air tracks Amal’s time in the facility where he vacillates between hopelessness and hopefulness. Although he is not doing hard time with hardened criminals, juvie is still an unpleasant place. Amal tries to keep his head down. He goes to school. He does what is asked of him – mostly. But he’s a kid and the system is stacked against him and the weight of all those bricks of discrimination weigh heavy on him.

I read Punching the Air in an afternoon. Amal’s voice is clear as a bell. This experience, while fictional, comes from a place of truth. Yusef Salaam himself was convicted of a crime he did not commit when he was just fifteen. (Central Park Five) His experiences with a justice system that is clearly stacked against people of colour – and there is no one in their right mind who could dispute this – adds a layer of authenticity to Amal’s story. But even without Salaam’s experiences, this novel has much to contribute to the discussion and is a worthy addition to classroom and personal libraries. I will certainly be recommending it to my students.

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

turtlesI have a deep and abiding love for John Green. He’s a passionate advocate for reading and learning. He makes nerdish pursuits cool and I think he’s a terrific writer. Lord knows, I was a sobbing, snotty mess at 2 a.m. finishing The Fault in Our Stars. I was pretty excited, then, to get my hands on Green’s latest book, Turtles All the Way Down.

Aza is sixteen and suffers from almost debilitating mental illness. She has no control of her thoughts and her thoughts take her to some pretty unusual and scary places. Even the simple act of eating is problematic for Aza who finds “the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting, so I was trying not to think about the fact that I was eating, which is a form of thinking about it.”

Still, she finds ways of coping. Daisy, for example, “played the role of my Best and Most Fearless Friend.” And then there’s Davis Pickett, a childhood friend with whom Aza reconnects after she reads in the paper that his billionaire father, Russell, has disappeared.

There’s not really a plot, but that’s not to say that nothing happens in the novel. Aza and Daisy decide they are going to play detective and figure out what happened to Russell. That leads to Aza and Davis picking up their friendship and discovering that they might have feelings for each other, which is complicated by the fact that Aza has spiraling thoughts. She fixates on things and can’t seem to stop, which leads her down a rabbit hole of worry. I suspect that anyone who suffers from anxiety or mental health issues will totally get Aza’s erratic thoughts. I didn’t, especially, but I thought Green did a tremendous job of illustrating how Aza gets trapped in her own head.

The sting of the hand sanitizer was gone now, which meant the bacteria were back to breeding, spreading though my finger into the bloodstream. Why did I ever crack open the callus anyway? Why couldn’t I just leave it alone? Why did I have to give myself a constant, gaping open wound on, of all places, my finger. The hands are the dirtiest parts of the body. Why couldn’t I pinch my earlobe or my belly or my ankle? I’d probably killed myself with sepsis because of some stupid childhood ritual that didn’t even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything.

Green has spoken quite openly about his own struggles with mental health. In an article with Time he said: “I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions. The word triggering has become so broadly used in popular culture, but anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack knows how badly they want to avoid it. It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life. But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression I could look at it and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it. And one of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.”

Turtles All the Way Down does not simplify Aza’s problems and there are no happy endings here, but I do believe this is a hopeful novel. And while it didn’t leave me a sobbing mess like The Fault in Our Stars there is much to admire here. Green remains one of my favourite YA writers.

Thornhill – Pam Smy

Thornhill-HousePam Smy’s lovely hybrid novel tells the story (in words) of Mary and (in pictures) Ella – two girls separated by twenty-five years. Ella and her father have moved into a house that looks out onto Thornhill Institute which was “established in the 1830s as an thornhill orphanage for girls” and sold in 1982 “after the tragic death of one of the last residents, Mary Baines.” For the last twenty-five years, the house has remained vacant, although plans have been made to develop the site.

Through a series of diary entries, we meet Mary. She’s an odd, mostly silent girl who is virtually friendless. As Thornhill prepares to be fully de-commissioned, the few girls who remain are merely passing time, waiting for placement with a family. Mary’s chief tormenter has just returned from a situation which didn’t work out and Mary feels she must “lock myself away. Now that she’s back it is the only way I can keep myself safe.”

Up in her attic bedroom, she spends her time making puppets.

I often wonder what my life would be like without my puppets. …I love that I am surrounded by the things I have made. They sit on shelves above my bed, on my bookcase, suspended from the ceiling, balanced on my windowsill – my puppets are like friends that sit and keep me company..

thornhillellaIn the present day, Ella spends much of her time alone, too. Her father, who clearly seems to love her, is away a lot. Her mother is presumably dead. Ella is curious about the house she can see from her bedroom window and the girl she sometimes glimpses in the overgrown garden behind the walls

One day, she manages to creep into Thornhill’s garden and she discovers  a puppet head. As the days go on, she continues to see the girl in the garden and to discover more puppet pieces.  She becomes more curious about Thornhill’s history and who the girl might be.

Smy makes great use of Mary’s diary entries to round out the story. Her story is particularly sad because there is no one in Mary’s life to take her side against the terrible bullying she endures. The adults in this story are either non-existent or ineffective. Her housemates are cruel and manipulative. Even though it’s obvious that her story isn’t going to end well, you can’t help but root for her.

As for Ella, the monochromatic pictures tell her story as beautifully as Mary’s diary.  It will be impossible not to race through the pages to find out what happens.

Ultimately, Thornhill is a story of loneliness and friendship, and although there’s no happy ending, it’s a journey worth taking.

The Truth Commission – Susan Juby

Normandy Pale, the narrator of Susan Juby’s award-winning YA novel, The Truth Commission,  lives with her parents and older sister, Keira, on Vancouver Island. Keiratruth is a celebrated graphic novelist, whose series Diana: Queen of Two Worlds, tells the story of “a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average”  family which includes her  high-strung easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister.”

Keira published three volumes of Diana, a smash hit with a huge cult-following, and then went off to college in the States.

That’s the same time Normandy (Norm for short) started attending Green Pastures Academy of Arts and Applied Design where everyone knew who she was because of her sister. It was notoriety Norm didn’t particularly covet because “you cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in these books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life.”

The Truth Commission‘s conceit is that Norm is writing her Spring Special Project, a story which covers three months from the previous fall (Sept-November).

Here’s how the project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher. She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next – as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of non-fiction.

Norm’s story is about The Truth Commission, a committee consisting of Norm and her best friends Neil and Dusk (aka Dawn) who “went on a search for the truth and…found it.” Norm discovers that the truth is a complicated thing and that is especially true in her own family.

Keira has returned from college under a rather dark cloud. “She wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Norm tells us, “and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again.”  Now she spends most of her time in her room or in the closet she and Norm share and “when she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went.”

Since Norm and Keira have never been particularly close, Norm is almost flattered when Keira starts sneaking into her room at night admitting “I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.”

I loved every minute I spent with Norm and her friends, who are equally smart and funny. There is a sort of mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Keira? Although that is certainly one reason to turn the pages I think Normandy pretty much had me at ‘hello.’

Highly recommended and BONUS! Canadian.

 

 

 

Stolen – Lucy Christopher

Sixteen-year-old Londoner Gemma  is in the Bangkok airport, a stop-over on her way to a family vacation to Vietnam. She’s just had a fight with her parents and she’s gone off on her own to grab a coffee and cool down. That’s when she notices the man. He’s hard to miss because he “had that look in [his] eyes, as though [he] wanted something from me.”  Gemma, on the precipice of adulthood, is drawn to the man and “those blue, blue eyes, icy blue, looking back at me, as if I could warm them up.”

stolenThis encounter is the beginning of Gemma’s journey in Lucy Christopher’s debut novel Stolen. Before Gemma has even realized what’s happening, the man is buying her coffee, introducing himself as ‘Ty’ and engaging Gemma in a conversation that makes her feel “grown-up, sitting there with the most handsome man in the café, drinking a coffee he had just bought for me.”

But then, things change for Gemma. When she wakes up – hours or days later – she is far away from her family, alone in the Australian outback with Ty. Thus begins a period of captivity for Gemma. Ty claims to have stolen her as a way to keep her safe, although from what, Gemma cannot discern.

Ty has clearly been planning this kidnapping for a long time. He slowly reveals parts of his life to Gemma and in some ways he is a sympathetic character – until you remember that he’s taken a sixteen-year-old girl away from her family and friends. The harsh landscape is alien to Gemma; they truly are in the middle of nowhere. Although there is a vehicle, Gemma has no idea where she is or how to find help. Although Ty has not physically harmed her, Gemma is constantly worried that he’ll soon tire of her and kill her. If he doesn’t, any number of poisonous critters or the harsh conditions might get her.

It all makes for a pretty compelling read.  Gemma slowly begins to adapt to her new reality and begins to trust that Ty doesn’t want to harm her and the book’s strange and alien landscape (he captures a wild camel, for instance) begins to work its peculiar magic on both Gemma and the reader.

In some ways, the book reminded me of an old movie from the 1970s, Sweet Hostage. In that film, Martin Sheen picks up hitchhiker Linda Blair and takes her to his version of  ‘Xanadu’. Under his tutelage, Blair begins to see the world as a much more beautiful place than her hard-scrabble upbringing would have her believe it is, but you can’t argue with the fact that she was, in fact,  kidnapped. Both the movie and Christopher’s novel plumb the depths of Stockholm Syndrome.

Christopher’s novel certainly offers something new to the YA genre and many teens will find Gemma’s story riveting.

 

 

 

Vanishing Girls – Lauren Oliver

Now that I am back at school, it’s time to start reading YA fiction again. I give it a little  break in the summer so that I can tackle my own mammoth tbr pile. I started this year by reading Lauren Oliver’s highly praised book Vanishing Girls. It’s pretty un-put-down-vanishing-girls-jacketable, folks.

Nicole (Nick) and her younger sister, Dara, couldn’t really be more unalike. Nick is the responsible one; Dara is the wild child and for as long as Nick can remember, people have been comparing the sisters.

She’s not as pretty as her younger sister…shyer than her younger sister…not as popular as her younger sister.

But despite their differences, Nick and Dara are close. Dara recalls that they’d spent

practically our whole lives sneaking into each other’s rooms to sleep in the same bed, whisper about our crushes, watch moon patterns on the ceiling and try to pick out different shapes…cut our fingers and let them bleed together so we’d be bonded forever, so we’d be made not just of the same genes but of each other.

Parker is Nick’s best friend – the boy from the neighbourhood who has shared every single milestone in Nick’s life. Then he and Dara hook up and things get awkward. Dara goes off the rails – drinking and doing drugs – and then there’s the car accident.

Oliver has written a novel that is both an exciting page-turner (a young girl goes missing and then Dara disappears and Nick is convinced the two disappearances are somehow connected) and a moving family drama. Nick and Dara’s parents have separated and the accidents adds extra emotional weight to the already damaged family.

The narrative unfolds in dual first-person narratives, through diary entries and police reports and photographs and illustrations. Each sister has her own version of the truth of what happened on the night of the accident and the time-shifting narrative will yield important clues to careful readers, but the truth is that when all is revealed, you’ll probably still be scrambling to figure out how Oliver’s pulled it off.

Oliver is well-known in the YA world. She wrote the popular Delirium series and I have been looking forward to reading her adult novel, Rooms. After reading Vanishing Girls I think I’ll have to move Rooms up my reading list. That’s pretty much the highest praise I can give.

Two books for summer school

Every year for the past seven, I’ve transitioned from regular school to teaching a month of summer school. Why, you might very well ask? Mostly for the money – although this summer my paychecks hardly seemed like incentive enough.Obviously I can’t cover a year’s worth of curriculum in three and a half weeks, so it’s mostly trying to teach grade nine and ten students reading and writing skills that will help them be successful next year. We read some short stories and poetry and this year we read Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Grade 10) and Todd Strasser’s The Wave. I’d never read either of them, but I knew they were accessible, high interest and short enough to get through in the limited time we had.

the_giver_1.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2The Giver takes place in a community that values Sameness. On the surface it might even appear like a Utopia. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a family unit lives with his younger sister, Lily, and his mother and father. None of them are biologically connected.  His life is structured around school and volunteering and ceremonies that mark the important moments in the lives of the citizens. He is apprehensively waiting the next ceremony. His mother tries to calm Jonas’s nerves by telling him

“Well, it’s the last of the ceremonies, as you know. After Twelve, age isn’t important. Most of us even lose track of how old we are as time passes, though the information is in the Hall of Open Records, and we could go and look it up if we wanted to. What’s important is the preparation for adult life, and the training you’ll receive in your Assignment.”

Feeling apprehensive is unusual for members of this community. Their lives are not complicated by hunger,  disease or even bad weather. Everyone has productive work to do. They share their feelings as part of a nightly ritual. They apologize immediately if they say something even remotely offensive to another member of the community. They start taking a pill as soon as they acknowledge “stirrings” of a sexual nature. The Elders make all the decisions and “Rules were very hard to change.” The very old, the very weak and those who commit crimes are “released.”

At the Ceremony of the Twelves, Jonas gets his assignment. He is to be the Receiver, which means he will work with The Giver, the community’s most important citizen. He alone holds all the memories and he will transfer them to Jonas. Suddenly the only home Jonas knows seems less like Utopia and more like a nightmare.

The Giver is a great book – suitable for all readers and filled with lots of opportunities to talk about what it is to be human, free-will and the value and importance of memory. I really enjoyed it and would definitely use it in the classroom again.

Todd Strasser’s novelization The Wave is less literary, but offers lots of opportunities to51MDeY-2CjL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_ talk, too.  The book is based on the true story of  California history teacher Ron Jones’ social experiment. (He’s been renamed Ben Ross in this book.) The year was 1969 and Ross had just shown his senior class a film about the Holocaust. When one of his students asked how the Germans could have just sat back and let the Nazis do what they did, Ross tried to think of a way he could illustrate the power of a fascist movement. He came up with “The Wave” and began to teach his students about discipline, community and action. Although the experiment was meant to be short-lived, it grew to include a salute, slogans and even a secret police force before it was finally dismantled due to complaints from parents and colleagues.

Virtually every one of my grade nine students really enjoyed reading The Wave. It was easy to read, so it’s perfect for struggling readers, plus it offered a lot of food for thought.

 

Another Little Piece – Kate Karyus Quinn

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as whackadoodle as Another Little Piece. But I kinda mean that as a compliment because even though I often didn’t have a sweet clue how all the disparate pieces of Kate Karyus Quinn’s novel worked together, I couldn’t seem to stop reading.

12665819A teenage girl wanders out of a field, her feet “bare and bloodied” tugging at the “garbage bag she’d refashioned as a poncho.” She doesn’t know who she is or where she is. It turns out she’s Annaliese, missing and presumed dead for the past year.

Her identity and what happened to her is just one part of the mystery and quite frankly I’m not sure I’m up to trying to untangle the messy threads of Annaliese’s life because it’s not just Annaliese’s life. In fact, Annaliese isn’t actually Annaliese at all. It’s hard to say much, but  there’s definitely something not quite right about her. She’s a girl who watches a football player across the field and feels, of all things, a pang of hunger.

I could see the beads of sweat on his golden brown skin. Except it didn’t resemble sweat so much as the juices dripping from the crisp and crackling skin of a roasted chicken. I wanted to sink my teeth into him.

As Annaliese (let’s call this one Annaliese Two) tries to reconcile her new life in this body that isn’t hers, she starts to have flashes of memory. In the first memory she is standing in the woods watching a girl (the real Annaliese, let’s call her One) have sex with a football player (same as the juicy  chicken one) and when they are done and the boy has left her, Annaliese Two steps out from her hiding place and tells  Annaliese One that “It’s time to pay.” Payment, as it turns out, is pretty gruesome, but that’s how Annaliese Two gets from body-to-body. And she’s been doing it for a long time.

Despite the desire to bite someone, Annaliese isn’t a vampire, but she is something very old (I think) and very deadly. That said, she isn’t altogether unsympathetic. When she meets Dex, the reclusive boy next door, she starts to wonder if she might not have another kind of life, a real life, one that actually belongs to her.

I had a hard time keeping all the girls straight in the story and I think that after a while I just stopped caring so much about the logistics of the plot. I followed the through-line of Annaliese and glossed over the bits that made me go WTF. Another Little Piece is well-written, creepy and original. There’s lots for careful readers to gnaw on…and that line will be really funny once you’ve read the book.