Tag Archive | YA teen

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.

 

 

 

Ask the Dark – Henry Turner

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.

The Leaving – Tara Altebrando

leavingTara Altebrando’s YA novel, The Leaving, will give readers lots to chew on. It’s the story of six kindergarten-aged kids who disappear from their small Florida town only to turn up – minus one – eleven years later.  The kids are dropped off at a playground with maps tucked into their pockets to help them find their way home. They have no memory of where they were and their arrival back home sends ripples through their lives, the lives of their families and the community.

The narrative is shared between two of the returned, Lucas and Scarlett, and Avery, the younger sister of Max, the one child who doesn’t come back.  Avery was just four when her brother disappeared and her memories are vague. When her mother gets the call that the children have returned, Avery ” certainly hadn’t pictured it happening this way.”

It’s actually hard to imagine how any of these characters might have envisioned this moment – to have their sons and daughters returned to them without any memory of where they’ve been or what’s happened to them. And for Avery, she could already anticipate “the endless news coverage, the weird-sad looks she’d get from neighbors and everyone at school…she’d be famous, but not in the right way.”

As for Lucas and Scarlett, they feel a pull towards each other that seems more than survivor’s guilt. They discover they can do things they don’t remember being taught: Scarlett can drive a car; Lucas can load a gun. They also have strange elliptical flashes of memory: a carousel, a man carrying wrapping paper, hot air balloons. They are determined to solve the mystery of the missing eleven years and that makes for pretty compelling reading.

But the part of the book that was especially intriguing to me was this notion of memory and how our memories shape who we are and how, without them, we would certainly feel unmoored. Also worth consideration – and something I certainly thought about as I read Altebrando’s book – was what it would mean if we could actually cherry pick our memories. Lucas considers this notion, wondering:

“Why not forget?

Why not just black out something awful?

Like a shooting.

Or war.

Childhood, even.

Sure!

Oh.

Forgetting meant not knowing, meant ignorance, meant making the same mistakes again and again.”

The Leaving offers lots of food for thought, but even if young readers aren’t ready to consider the value of holding tight to the memories which animate their lives, there’s lots to keep them turning the pages. For my money, the last few lines of the book are worth the bits I didn’t quite buy.

Forget Me – K.A. Harrington

forgetMorgan lives in River’s End, a small town in central Massachusetts. While once prosperous, “the town’s only major employer, Stell Pharmaceutical’s, went under [and] several other businesses that relied on Stell soon followed.” That meant that both of Morgan’s parents (and almost everyone else in town) lost their jobs as biochemists and River’s End is a bit of a ghost town.

When K.A. Harrington’s YA mystery Forget Me opens, Morgan is on her way to a party when she happens upon her boyfriend, Flynn, standing on the side of the road. He hadn’t been able to go to the party because of plans with his parents, so Morgan is surprised to see him.  It’s clear that Flynn is a bit of a mystery man; Morgan admits she is “the only one he ever voluntarily talked to.” Still, Flynn’s behavior is particularly jittery and when Morgan  presses Flynn for an explanation, he breaks up with her. She watches him walk away and then – shockingly – Flynn’s hit by a car.

Flash forward three months and Morgan is still trying to come to terms with Flynn’s death when she agrees to her best friend Toni’s suggestion to create an on-line memorial for Flynn. When she uploads a picture of Flynn onto her FriendShare (like Facebook, I guess), the program wants to tag the picture as someone else, a guy named Evan Murphy. When she does a little investigation, it appears as though Evan Murphy and Flynn are one and the same and Flynn appears to be very much alive.

Forget Me is a terrific little YA mystery that will keep readers guessing. Morgan is smart and tenacious and readers will be rooting for her to get to the bottom of Flynn’s death (?). There is the potential for the machinations to get clunky or convoluted, but Harrington avoids both. The plot clicks along, clues are revealed in a timely fashion and readers should be wholly satisfied with the outcome.

 

Chopsticks – Jessica Anthony & Rodrigo Corral

ChopsticksSixteen-year-old Glory Fleming is a piano prodigy. When Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral’s hybrid novel – more about that in a moment – opens, Glory is missing. Then the story flashes back eighteen months to help us understand how her life has gone off the rails.

Chopsticks is a quick read, but that’s because much of the story is told through pictures: drawings and photographs.

For example, we learn about Glory’s childhood by flipping the pages of a family photo album. Pictures of her parents Victor and Maria, and baby pictures of Gloria and ‘pasted in’ cards and programs, give us a glimpse into a tight family unit.

Victor is a music teacher and Glory is his star pupil. After the accidental death of her mother, Glory throws herself into her music until she is so accomplished that The New Yorker calls her “The Brecht of the Piano.” Glory is known for her “innovative performances of classical pieces alongside modern scores.”  Soon, she is playing sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall.

 

And it’s all good until Francisco and his family, Argentinian immigrants, move into the house next door. Chopsticks gives us the same insight into Frank’s character by showing us cards from his parents and his diary in which he writes: “She is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. She invited me over and played Chopin on her piano.”

The pair form a friendship;  it seems as though Glory hasn’t actually had too many over the years. Although it’s completely natural,  their bond deepens and as she pulls away from her father and her music, Victor tightens his hold on his daughter. Frank isn’t without his own problems. Although he comes from a wonderful family, he has trouble fitting in at school and with the exception of art, and music, isn’t excelling academically.

In an effort to separate the teens, Victor plans a European tour for his daughter. Text messages, post cards and photos mark this period. But, of course, by this time Frank and Glory are in love and the time apart only heightens their feelings for each other.

Chopsticks is a beautiful book to read – each page is visually interesting and the story of Glory and Frank, each of whom want to find their own way out from under parental expectations and to discover their own path,  is certainly one most teens will relate to.

I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while and it did not disappoint.

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.

 

 

 

The Truth About Alice – Jennifer Mathieu

The-Truth-About-Alice-Jennifer-MathieuThe truth we probably don’t want to acknowledge is that high school is hell for loads of kids. I teach high school and even though I would like to think that my school is perfect and inclusive and bully-free, I know that isn’t actually the case. I suspect Jennifer Mathieu knows that, too. She is also a teacher, which is why her novel The Truth About Alice rings true on so many levels.

There is something about Alice Franklin that gets everyone talking. Everyone has an opinion and the four main narrators in Mathieu’s novel are happy to share their thoughts.

Elaine O’Dea, possibly the most popular girl in school (by her own estimation) remarks “She’s never been super crazy popular like me…I guess Alice Franklin has spent most of her life on the middle floor somewhere, but on the top of the middle. So she was cool enough to come to my party.” Kurt Morelli, brilliant nerd, describes her as “Alice Franklin with the raspberry lips and the bad reputation and the faraway eyes. Alice Franklin with the short hair not like any other girl’s and the gloriously loud laugh and the body that curves like an alpha wave. Alice Alice Alice Alice Franklin.”

Then, after a party at Elaine’s house, the rumour that Alice slept with two guys – one after the other – erupts. One boy, Tommy Cray, is in college and one boy, Brandon Fitzsimmons (Elaine’s on-again, off-again, on-again boyfriend) is the best quarterback Healy High has ever seen. Shortly after the party, Brandon is killed in a car accident and Alice is, apparently, to blame for that, too.

Kelsie, Alice’s supposed best friend, abandons her and aligns herself with Elaine and her crew. She adds fuel to the rumour fire by adding a few juicy tidbits. Josh, Brandon’s best friend, does his own part to fan the flames. Alice soon finds herself a pariah at school.

It would be easy to hate all the people involved with ostracizing Alice, but the truth is that these teens all have their own issues: parental expectations, sexuality, religion, weight and Mathieu does a pretty good job of allowing the reader to see their motivations and vulnerabilities.

This is a novel about the damage rumours can do. Healy is a small town and even the adults know the stories, but no one intervenes. Alice’s single mother is non-existent in a parental role, leaving Alice to fend for herself. We don’t hear from Alice until the very end – which I actually think was a smart choice on Mathieu’s part. Instead, we watch her navigate the steady stream of vitriol and slowly start to find her path due to her unexpected friendship with Kurt, a character you can only imagine has suffered his fair share of bullying.

The truth will out and when it does, some of the machinations didn’t ring quite true to me, particularly Alice and Elaine’s conversation in the hair salon, but that’s only a small niggle. I thought The Truth About Alice tackled a timely subject with a lot of honesty and many teens will certainly see themselves in the story.