What She Left Behind – Tracy Bilen

13040715Sara’s mom finally has a plan to get the two of them out of Dodge – okay, they don’t actually live in Dodge, they live in Scottsfield, a town so small it doesn’t even have traffic lights. Life with Sara’s dad, Ray, an ex-cop cum hardware store owner, has passed the point of impossible and taken a right turn at scary. He’s abusive and a tad on the crazy side considering he still thinks his son, Matt, lives at home. Matt’s dead.

This is what we know at the beginning of Tracy Bilen’s YA novel What She Left Behind. Getting away is a good plan, Sara thinks, until her mother fails to pick her up at the appointed time and place. When she gets home from school her father tells her that her mother was called away on a last minute training course, but every time Sara tries to call her cell it goes straight to voice mail and the duffle bag she’s packed and stowed under her bed, well, that’s been unpacked and everything returned to its place.

Sara was always the invisible one in the family. Her mother and brother took the brunt of Ray’s abuse. Now all eyes are on Sara and she’s desperate to find out what’s happened to her mother and to avoid her father’s ire.

Two boys come to her aid: Zach, her brother’s best friend and Alex Maloy, hot boy from school. Zach knows Sara’s family history; Alex is new on the scene and seems to be interested in Sara, for real, and although Sara likes Alex she also knows there’s no point in pursuing anything with him since she and her mom are leaving…just as soon as her mom returns. He’s cute, though.

I read What She Left Behind in one sitting. Seriously. The plot clicks along at a good clip; Sara is likeable and sympathetic. Ray is one brick short of a chimney. Alex is too-good-to-be-true, but don’t you kinda want that for the girl whose life is pretty much shit.

I’d have no trouble recommending this book to my students.

Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You – Joyce Carol Oates

I have a love/hate relationship with Joyce Carol Oates. Sometimes I read her and after I’ve settled into the odd rhythm of her writing I think, yeah, that was pretty good (We Were the Mulvaneys; Beasts) and then sometimes I read her work and think, that was a lot of effort for nothing (Rape: A Love Story) and then there’s this time, when I read Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You and about two thirds of the way in I thought, what the hell just happened? 13501407

Merissa Carmichael has just been accepted into Brown, her first Ivy League choice. Merissa, M’rissa to her friends, has it all going on: good students, good athlete, good friend, pretty and popular, but she is also deeply troubled.

…in the little bathroom adjoining her room, with trembling hands – trembling with excitement, anticipation! – opening a drawer beside the sink, and, at the very back of the drawer, seizing the handle of a small but very sharp paring knife – bringing out the knife, and pressing its tip against the inside of her wrist, where the skin was pale and thin…

Nadia Stillinger, Merissa’s friend, “hadn’t a chance of getting into Brown, or any Ivy League university” has her own problems including a father who works too much and a too young step-mother. She’s fat, too, weighing in at a whopping 119 pounds. And everyone knew that  it was “utterly, utterly disgusting to be fat.”

The one thing Nadia and Merissa share is Tink, the child-star who moved to their town of Quaker Heights, New Jersey during their junior year. Tink is a “short, fiery-haired girl” whose  “face was pale and plain, as if it had been scrubbed, and even her freckles looked bleached.” She’s unlike any other girl at Quaker Heights High.  She talks back to teachers, doesn’t give a rat’s ass for fashion and doesn’t even seem all that interested in making friends, which is why the girls in Merissa’s circle so desperately want to fly in Tink’s orbit. She seems fearless. Until she kills herself – which actually happens before the story begins – so much of the story is told in flashback.

Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You  isn’t your average YA novel. First of all, the narrative is  Joyce Carol Oates wacky. The narrator is one of the girls – but not Merissa and not Nadia and not Tink. Lots of personal pronouns, though, like “We were stunned” and  “We laughed because Tink laughed”. Still, the first part of the novel is tightly focused on Merissa and her penchant for cutting and the trauma of her parents’ crumbling marriage. Then, Merissa is abandoned (presumably in a much better emotional place than when we meet her) and the focus switches to Nadia and her problems – mostly to do with an incident at a party and her inappropriate feelings for her kind (and handsome) Science teacher.

You either get used to the way Oates writes or you don’t. This book is rife with parentheses and asides couched in dashes. Perhaps the writing is meant to mimic the frenetic minds of its characters, but whatever the case I read the novel quickly. I can’t say I didn’t like it, but I can’t say I loved it, either. There is potential for discussion because the book is topical and in many ways captures the complicated and fraught time in a young woman’s life just before she is about to step over that imaginary line into adulthood. Sadly, some don’t make it.

And We Stay – Jenny Hubbard

Sixteen-year-old Emily Beam, the protagonist in Jenny Hubbard’s YA novel And We Stay,  has been whisked away from her home town to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts. It’s midway through Emily’s junior year, an odd time for a student to be starting at The Amherst School for Girls.  Emily just wants to be left alone, though, and she keeps her head down and her cards close to her chest.  It’s clear that she’s suffered some sort of trauma and her parents have decided she will not be returning to her old school to “deal with the whispers and stares and, of course, the memories.”

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Emily settles into life at Amherst as best she can. Her roommate, K.T. is friendly and not too nosey and that’s good because Emily isn’t willing to talk about her life. The most she is willing to divulge is that she’s come from Boston – which isn’t exactly true.

Although she doesn’t want to talk about why she’s started school half way through the year, her story is revealed to the reader in short order: her boyfriend, Paul, has died. The details of his death are revealed through flashbacks and the poetry Emily begins to write, in part, inspired by Emily Dickinson. As it turns out, Dickinson had been a student at Amherst one hundred years before.

Hubbard is clearly a poet. Poetry figured in her first YA novel, Paper Covers Rock, a book I really loved, too. In And We Stay, Emily uses her poetry as a way to try and make sense of the senseless. In her poem “Ashes” she writes:

The same sky that once

held her dreams has stolen

her story. And the stars

will know just

how to tell it:

night after night

over and over.

Slowly, Emily opens herself up to the possibility of recovery and healing, but the journey is not without its difficulties. Hubbard negotiates Emily’s journey with a keen sense of the teenage heart.  Perhaps one might view Emily Dickinson as a plot device, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Poetry is the art of heightened emotion, of making the unknowable knowable and Emily is trying to do just that: make a horrific act something that she can survive – because she can. Because she must.

And We Stay is all the things I want my YA books to be: beautifully written, smart and engaging, emotionally intelligent and a page-turner. The book won several awards and is, in my opinion, deserving of them all.

Highly recommended.

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.