Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – April Genevieve Tucholke

Seventeen-year-old Violet and her twin brother, Luke, live in a crumbling mansion in the town of Echo, somewhere on the coast of the Eastern United States. Their parents are absent, artists traipsing through Europe, so Vi and Luke are left to fend for themselves in the house built by their rich great grandparents. The money is long gone and now the house is no longer “dignified and elegant and great and beautiful.” Vi calls it Citizen Kane, but mostly because her grandmother, Freddie, had given it the nickname. Now Freddie is gone and so is the rest of the money Vi’s parents had left for her and Luke to live off until they returned from Europe. That’s the reason Vi decides to rent the guest house and that’s how River comes into her life. between-the-devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea

He was not tall – less than six feet, maybe – and he was strong, and lean. He had thick, dark brown hair, which was wavy and parted at the side…until the sea wind lifted it and blew it across his forehead and tangled it all up. I liked his face on sight.

River’s arrival shakes things up for Vi. She’s an introspective girl, prone to solitude and tucking herself away with a volume of Nathaniel Hawthorn short stories. Her one friend, Sunshine (the daughter of hippies who live down the road) is more a friend of proximity than anything else.

April Genevieve Tucholke’s YA novel Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is a strange hybrid of gothic romance and suspense thriller. Although Vi is naive, she’s no – wait for it – shrinking violet. River’s just about the most exciting thing to happen in Echo in her whole life. The problem is that shortly after his arrival strange things start to happen. For one thing, a little girl goes missing and children in town claim to have seen the devil. Then the town drunk slits his own throat, in broad day-light, in the town square. Then River’s brother, Neely, shows up and Vi discovers that River has a tendency to lie about just about everything.

There are some truly creepy moments in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and, like Vi, you’ll be conflicted about River’s motives and actions. I don’t want to say too much about what’s going on because it’ll be more fun if you find out for yourself. Let’s just say, there’s some nasty energy in Echo and this book has a kick-ass denouement. There is a second book, Between the Spark and the Burn and according to Tucholke there are no plans for a third (praise the book gods!) so I will probably purchase the second book just to see what happens.

Lovely writing and page-turning fun makes Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea a winner.

Night School – C.J. Daugherty

Over 400 pages and I read them all lickety-split. C.J. Daugherty’s YA novel Night School is so much fun! Even when I discovered – about half way in – that the book is the first in a series (and you know how I feel about series), even then…I had to keep reading. (I don’t really have anything personal against series. It’s just that it’s such a commitment of reading time and that’s in short supply in my reading world. Still, as soon as I finished the book, I had to go online to see whether the sequel(s) was out. Um. There are four more books, people!)

Sixteen-year-old Allie Sheridan is always in trouble these days. She used to be a good kid, but then her older brother, Christopher, disappeared under extremely mysterious circumstances, and Allie’s been hanging with losers, defacing school property and just generally getting into trouble ever since. Finally her parents can’t take it anymore and decide to send her to Cimmeria Academy, an elite private school in the middle of the English countryside.

Night_SchoolThere – cut off from the outside world (no technology allowed) – she meets Isabelle, the school’s headmistress, and a cast of intriguing teenagers, among them Sylvain, gorgeous and French; Katie, the snotty rich girl; down-to-earth, Jo and Carter West, he of the endless brown eyes and bad reputation. They are all staying on at Cimmeria for the summer term. (School breaks up about mid-July in England and then goes back after Labour Day, early September…so about a six week break.)

Allie soon falls into the school’s rhythms and discovers that she kind of likes it at Cimmeria. Jo is nice and Sylvain is paying special attention to her. The food is great and the school is beautiful.  What’s not to like?

Well, first of all there’s ‘Night School’, but like ‘fight club’ – you’re not supposed to talk about it.

Students in certain advanced areas of study take part in Night School to prepare them for life after Cimmeria so you will sometimes hear them working late in the evening. Only very few select students are offered this opportunity; if you are not among them, you must not attempt to interfere with or observe Night School, and the fourth floor of the class-room wing is off limits.

Then there’s the woods though, according to Jo,  “we don’t actually do much in the woods, and they kind of discourage it because of, I dunno, health and safety or something.”  Then there’s Carter’s cryptic warning: “You haven’t been at Cimmeria long enough to understand how things are here. So be careful, okay? Things are not what they seem. People aren’t always who they seem to be.”

And I still had 200 pages to go!

There are creepy moments aplenty in Night School. Intrigue galore. And even if the payoff isn’t quite there, there’s more than enough to keep readers turning the pages. I would definitely be interested in reading the next book in the series, Legacy, to see how Allie makes out.

My only other niggle is that the characters don’t sound British. The occasional ‘blimey’ thrown into their dialogue does not a British accent make. They sounded decidedly American to me, which stands to reason: Daugherty is from New Orleans, though she now lives in England. That’s a small thing, though, and in no way undermined my overall reading experience.

Fun, fun, fun!

The Replacement – Brenna Yovanoff

Brenna Yovanoff’s YA novel The Replacement is quite unlike anything I have read before, which is a good thing. It was well-reviewed when it debuted in 2010 and I have been wanting to read it for a while. I was particularly intrigued by the cover, which is creepy, although I try not to chose books based on their cover alone – that has lead me down a few crap book paths.

Gentry isn’t like other places and Mackie isn’t like other 16-year-olds. He’s a replacement,  left in the crib of a human baby who was spirited away by the strange inhabitants of the the labyrinthine world beneath Gentry.

7507908Mackie lives with his older sister, Emma and his parents. He has a best friend, Roswell. He has a crush on a pretty girl, Alice. But he also can’t abide blood. Or get close to anything made of stainless steel. Or go to church, even though his father is a preacher.

Mackie knows he is different. “I dream of fields,” he says, “dark tunnels, but nothing is clear. I dream that a dark shape puts me in the crib, puts a hand over my mouth, and whispers in my ear. Shh, it says. And, Wait. “

The way his sister tells it, someone took her real brother in the middle of the night when she was four years old.

When she reaches her hand between the bars, the thing in the crib moves closer. It tries to bite her and she takes her hand out again but doesn’t back away. They spend all night looking at each other in the dark. In the morning, the thing is still crouched on the lamb-and-duckling mattress pad, staring at her. It isn’t her brother.

When the little sister of Mackie’s classmate, Tate,  goes missing, Mackie is forced to confront his own origin story and this leads him the The House of Mayhem and The Morrigan, a girl who rules there and whose “jagged teeth and tiny size made her seem more implausible, more impossible than all the rest.” All the rest of what, you might ask? Yeah, that would be the living dead girls. The Morrigan  tells him “We were so pleased that you survived childhood. Castoffs generally don’t.”

When Tate asks for Mackie’s help, he is reluctant; he’s got his own problems. But when The Morrigan offers to help Mackie feel better even he can’t resist. There is a strange barter system between Mayhem and Gentry: Mayhem thrives on adulation. But Mayhem isn’t the only world beneath the town. The Morrigan has a sister, and she thrives on blood sacrifice.

Mackie doesn’t fit in, but  whether or not Yovanoff meant for his journey to be a metaphor (like Joss Whedon’s monsters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) hardly matters because The Replacement is a thrill ride.

Great book.

Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

between-shades-of-grayWe all know about the atrocities of the Holocaust, but until I decided to read Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine class I knew nothing (shamefully) about what happened in Lithuania during the same time period. During that time Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They rounded up doctors, teachers, musicians, artists and government officials and their families – anyone whom they considered a threat – and shipped them off to work camps. Sepetys’ father was the son of a Lithuanian military officer. He and his family managed to escape to a German refugee camp (the irony is not lost on me). It is the author’s personal connection to this devastating blot on human history that inspired her to tackle telling the story. And what a story it is!

Lina is just fifteen when the NKVD (Russian Secret Police) burst into her home and demand that she, her ten-year-old brother, Jonas, and their mother, pack a suitcase and come with them. It is June 14, 1941 and the world Lina has known – one of art and intellect, of safety and family – is forever shattered. Their father is not home.

The first question I asked my students when we started the book was what they would take if they only had twenty minutes to decide. Lina was getting ready for bed and she remarks “They took me in my nightgown.” What is important when you have no time to think?

I put on my sandals and grabbed two books, hair ribbons and my hairbrush. Where was my sketchbook? I took the writing tablet, the case of pens and pencils and the bundle of rubles off my desk and placed them amongst the heap of items we had thrown into my case.

From the minute Between Shades of Gray starts until the final pages, the reader is living in a world that is almost impossible to comprehend. My students have no frame of reference. Even those who do not live privileged lives have never had to face this kind of terror. As I read the book out loud to my rapt students, I often found myself on the verge of tears imagining the fear, pain and plight of these people who were forced from their homes for no reason. What would I be capable of if I had to protect my family?

Lina’s mother, Elena, is a remarkable character. She is an educated woman who speaks Russian, a handy skill in these circumstances. She does whatever she has to do in an effort to keep her family together, trading items she has sewn into her coat in advance (foreshadowing  the events to come) for food, favour and, in one particularly poignant trade, for the life of her son. Her strength of character, her resiliency (which is mirrored in her children) sustains them all through the long, hard days ahead.

Eventually Lina and her family find themselves at a labour camp in Siberia. I can remember joking about Siberian labour camps as a kid. I didn’t know anything about them; I would have just made a throwaway comment about sending someone to Siberia. Sheer ignorance on my part because the conditions are unimaginable.

It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but polar tundra and the Laptev Sea. The wind whipped. Sand blew into my mouth and stung my eyes.

Worse – they have nowhere to live. The only two buildings are for the Soviets. It’s cold and soon it will be dark 24 hours a day.

I can say this about the book: my students loved it. Although I had promised to read it out loud to them, many read on their own, racing to finish. That’s high praise, especially since many of students would identify themselves as reluctant readers. I had several boys finish way before we did.

Sepetys talks about her novel here and it’s worth watching the video before you read the book. Sepetys talked to survivors and some of their stories find their way into this novel. I wish that the ending hadn’t seemed quite so rushed, but that’s a small niggle and may have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t quite ready to say good bye to these remarkable characters. Overall, Between Shades of Gray is a miracle of a book, a life-affirming novel of resiliency and love and a sober reminder of the terrible things we do to each other.

Highly recommended.

Bystander – James Preller

bystanderJames Preller’s middle grade novel Bystander does a good job of illustrating the school-yard bully.  Wikipedia describes that bystander effect, or bystander apathy, as “a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present.”

When thirteen-year-old Eric moves to a new town with his mother and younger brother Rudy, he meets Griffin, a boy with “soft features … thick lips and long eyelashes…pretty.”  Griffin travels with a pack and when the boys arrive at the basketball court where Eric is practicing foul shots, Eric wonders “if something bad was about to happen.” It doesn’t take him long to figure out that despite Griffin’s alluring charisma, there is something off about him, a fact reinforced when Griffin tells Eric “I’m a good guy to be friends with…but I’m a lousy enemy.”

Truer words. When Eric starts his new school he wants nothing more than to get along. He’s a decent kid, a little sheltered, perhaps (he doesn’t have a cell phone and his mother won’t let him use Instant Messenger). I’ve been the new kid and I know what it’s like to start a new school, so I felt for Eric as he surveyed the cafeteria that first day, wondering where to sit.

In a month, he assured himself, everything would be fine. He’d make new friends, sit with them, eat, joke, laugh. But right now, today, the first day of school, it all kind of sucked. But on another level, none of it really mattered. Eric could smell his meatball sub and he felt hungry. He wanted to eat.

When Griffin stops at his table, chagrined that Eric is alone and invites Eric to eat with him and his friends, Eric accepts. In some ways, it’s a bit like making a date with the devil and we all know what they say about the devil you know, right. It doesn’t take long for Eric, who is a smart kid, to figure out that Griffin just isn’t the kind of friend he wants to have, even if it means that he’s going to suffer for it.

Bystander is a straightforward novel about making choices. Bullying is a hot topic these days and something we talk about even at the high school level. Published in 2009, Bystander doesn’t really address the problem of cyber bullying; Griffin is a garden-variety thug (if you can actually be a thug at 13.) The thing about Griff, though,  is that he’s sort of sympathetic; Preller doesn’t paint him with a simple black stroke.

Despite the fact that the book is intended for a younger audience, I think I have some grade nine students who would enjoy this story. They are not so far removed from middle school that they won’t remember characters just like Griff and his ilk.

What We Lost – Sara Zarr

whatwelost“The whole world is wilting,” says fifteen-year-old Samara (Sam), the protagonist of Sara Zarr’s YA novel What We Lost.

She means the comment literally because it’s so hot that she wakes up every couple of hours “in a puddle of sweat,” but the observation is also figurative. Sam’s life is full of conflict and chaos. Her father, Charlie,  a pastor at the local church, is distracted and every day Sam wakes up to something “ruined or broken or falling apart.”

Part of the problem is that Sam’s mother is currently residing at the New Beginnings Recovery Center in an effort to get sober. Without her mother there, Sam feels adrift. There’s not enough money and Sam is tired of having to pretend that her mom just isn’t feeling well enough to attend church or other social functions. Things get even more complicated when Jody, a thirteen-year-old member of Sam’s church, goes missing  and Sam’s small town suddenly becomes a lens through which she is able to see all the world’s flaws, including her own.

I’ve read Zarr’s fantastic book Story of a Girl and her novel Roomies, which she co-wrote with Tara Altebrando, and which I also loved. Zarr has a real gift when it comes to creating empathetic characters and Samara is no different. Her fifteenth summer is a perfect storm of angst and confusion, suspicion and alienation.

I wish I understood what happened between then and now. I wish there was a way to put your finger on the map of life and trace backwards, to figure out exactly when things had changed so much…

As the town searches for Jody, Sam’s dad spends time with her family, acting as a sort of spokesperson. During this time, Sam grows closer to Jody’s older brother, Nick. He “could probably be a model” Sam observes, studying him the way “every girl who has ever known Nick has studied him.”

The problem with their blossoming friendship is that Nick is a suspect in the disappearance of his sister and Charlie doesn’t want Sam to hang out with him. Charlie also doesn’t want Sam to be alone; the town no longer feels safe. Sam is shuttled back and forth between her house and her best friend Vanessa’s. Sam has suspicions of her own; she wonders why her dad is spending so much time with Erin, the church’s youth group leader.

Zarr manages all these threads beautifully, allowing Sam her questions  about her faith in God,  suspicions about her dad, loneliness for her mom and feelings for Nick to percolate under the hot summer sun.

Great read.

 

The House – Christina Lauren

Okay, there’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s, well, just disbelief. I so wanted to like Christina Lauren’s (the co-writing team of Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) YA novel The House, but I didn’t. Actually, my feelings are more conflicted than that: I liked some things about the book and really, really disliked others.

the houseThe good: The writing in The House is actually pretty decent. At least decent enough that I wasn’t groaning over clunky sentences. In particular, the spooky scenes were well-written – propulsive and skin-crawlingly descriptive.

The two main characters, Delilah and Gavin are likeable teens. The story is told in alternating chapters labeled ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ so the reader is privy to the thoughts of both characters. Delilah has recently started high school in her hometown in Kansas after leaving a  school on the east coast. Gavin has lived his whole life in “the House,” an odd patchwork house hidden behind a fence. The two knew each other as children, before Delilah had been sent to live with her grandmother. Now she is intent on rekindling her friendship with Gavin.  It would seem that he is the proverbial bad boy and that Delilah is smitten.

The bad: There is no long burn here, no smolder – which is unfortunate because these stories work so much better when there is. Gavin and Delilah fall pretty much in love almost immediately. Of course, their relationship is not without its problems and that’s the part of the story that was the most problematic for me.

Things inside House can come alive in a way that I don’t think things anywhere else can. When an object is inside House…it can be alive….

*

Things in the house move….They take care of me. They always have. They would never leave….It’s a bit like having a really big family, but no one speaks.

Yep, Gavin’s house is alive. His parents are gone, but House has always taken care of him, anticipating his every desire, making his food, taking care of his needs. He doesn’t see it as particularly strange because, of course, it’s all he’s ever known. For most young adult readers this likely won’t seem like much of an imaginative stretch. They’ve grown up reading books where teens fight to the death, have other-worldly powers and fall in love with vampires and werewolves, but for me, I just found it sort of goofy.

As it turns out, House isn’t all that benevolent when it seems like Delilah might steal Gavin away. The novel gives new meaning to the notion of playing house, that’s for sure.

Fitz – Mick Cochrane

fitzMick Cochrane’s YA novel, Fitz, is the story of what happens when a boy decides to confront the father he’s never met.

Fitz is a “typical fifteen-year-old boy. A sophomore on the B honor roll. A kid with a messy room, an electric guitar, a notebook full of song lyrics, vague dreams about doing something great some day, a crush on a red-haired girl.”

And like many other teens, Fitz (short for Fitzgerald) lives with his single mom. His father is an unknown entity; his mother doesn’t talk about him and although he supports Fitz financially, Fitz knows nothing about him. That doesn’t mean Fitz doesn’t think about him, though.

When Fitz was a little boy, he liked to imagine that his father was quietly, secretly watching over him, loving him, for his own good and unselfish reasons, from a distance.

Circumstances have changed, though. Fitz has inadvertently discovered his father’s home address and he’s decided to confront his dad, which, sure, that seems plausible enough. What doesn’t seem quite as likely is the fact that Fitz takes a gun with him and pretty much kidnaps his father. It’s a scenario that could go horribly wrong.

Turns out, though, that Fitz’s father, Curtis, is a decent guy – clearly, he’s been paying support all these years. Over the course of the day the two listen to music, hang out at the zoo, have lunch and visit Curtis’s office (he’s an attorney). As the day unfolds, Fitz tries to figure out what it is he really wants to know about his dad and Curtis, it seems, is only too willing to talk, has – in fact – been waiting for fifteen years to have this conversation with his son. It’s kind of sweet, really.

“You were a good baby, a beautiful baby,” that’s how he starts. That’s his once-upon-a-time. He says that Fitz was healthy, bright-eyed, curious. He had amazing blue eyes. It’s just that he didn’t sleep, at least not for long stretches.

Fitz is sensible enough to listen as his father tries to explain the story of his relationship with Fitz’s mother and smart enough to realize that even parents make mistakes because, in their own once-upon-a-time, they were young enough to make them. If the story seems just a tad sentimental, Cochrane can be forgiven because Fitz is a likeable character and, thankfully, the gun is little more than false bravado.

 

If You Find Me – Emily Murdoch

“Mama says no matter how poor folks are, whether you’re a have, a have-not, or break your mama’s back on the cracks in between, the world gives away the best stuff on the cheap.”

IF-YOU-FIND-METhat’s the first thing fifteen-year-old Carey tells us in Emily Murdoch’s amazing novel If You Find Me. From the moment she speaks, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with her and as her story unspools, it’ll be even more difficult not to want to want to hug her and her little sister, Jenessa, who is just six.

Carey and Jenessa live in a trailer in  in the middle of Obed Wild and Scenic River National Park or, as the girls call it, “the Hundred Acre Wood.” Their mother, Joelle, is usually gone and has, in fact, been MIA for “over a month, maybe two at this point,” leaving the girls to fend for themselves. Carey does the best she can to look after herself and Jenessa but “when you’re livin’ in the woods…with no runnin’ water or electricity, with Mama gone to town for long stretches of time, leavin’ you in charge of feedin’ a younger sister…with a stomach rumblin’ like a California earthquake” it’s not easy. The girls exist, mostly, on beans fixed in “new and interestin’ ways.”

On this particular day, though, Carey and Jenessa have company. A woman “as thin as chicken bones, her gait uneven as her heels sink into the soft forest floor” and a man stumble into the girls’ campsite.

He hasn’t offered his name, and he isn’t familiar to me. But in that instant, hittin’ like a lightnin’ bolt, I know who he is.

If You Find Me is an amazing story of resilience and family and forgiveness, but it is also a horrific story of abuse and neglect, made all the more powerful because of Carey’s compelling and authentic narration. I fell in love with her the moment she started to tell her story and I know this is fiction, but I also know that children endure atrocities at the hands of their parents and guardians all the time.

Suddenly, Carey finds herself living with a father she doesn’t remember, a new step-mother and a step-sister who clearly resents her, attending school for the first time.  Jenessa seems to thrive in her new surroundings and although Carey contemplates returning to the her life in the woods, her love for her sister prevents her from running. Their journey is one of resilience and hope, but it’s not all smooth sailing.

I loved this book because I loved Carey. I wish the ending hadn’t seemed so rushed, though, because I don’t think Carey’s relationship with Ryan was as fully developed as it might have been and other pieces fell into place just a tad conveniently, but whatever; I haven’t read a YA book with a narrator I’ve loved quite as much as I loved Carey in a long time.

Highly recommended.

Made of Stars – Kelley York

madeofstarsHalf-siblings Hunter and Ashlin have been friends with Chance since they were kids and first started to spend summers in Maine with their father. Chance is the glue that bonds the three together, despite the fact that Hunter and his sister don’t really know all that much about him.

I knew all the things about Chance that mattered most. Chance was strangeness and whimsy in human form.

Chance was our summer.

We didn’t see him or talk to him through the winter, but when we arrived for summer vacation, the three of us came together like we’d never been apart.

This year things are different, though. Hunter and Ashlin have decided to take a gap year and spend it with their father, who is still recovering from a workplace accident (he’s a cop and was shot; Hunter and his sister were kept with their mothers and away from their dad for a couple years).

So, now they’re back in Maine with their dad and each other…and with no way to contact Chance. When they finally do track him down,  they discover that Chance hasn’t been 100% honest with them.  For one thing, his house “is nothing like what Chance described.”  His parents are clearly not glamorous jetsetters, either. Instead, his mother looks “like she cuts [her own hair], and her face is gaunt and tired. She’s wearing a gray men’s bathrobe over a nightgown and pink slippers that have seen better days.” Chance’s father is “broad-shouldered and stone-faced, with a jaw that hasn’t seen a razor in a few days.”

But Chance is the same. And not the same.

Kelley York’s YA novel Made of Stars captures that time between innocence and experience. These three teens have a shared history made more complicated by an unexpected love triangle. But Made of Stars isn’t a straight-up love story.  When someone turns up dead, Chance is implicated and Hunter and Ashlin set out to prove his innocence. Turns out, even that is more complicated and dangerous than the siblings could have imagined.

Enjoyable read.