Ruthless – Carolyn Lee Adams

2E11B418-C156-499C-B40A-C90F9802D4A7Seventeen-year-old Ruth Carver has a nickname on the show-riding circuit: Ruthless. She earned the name by being single-minded  when it comes to competitions, but it’s more than that. At the ranch, it’s “sink or swim” and Ruth lives by that motto. Ruth also understands that her success in the ring will benefit her parents’ struggling ranch. She’ll do whatever it takes to win, even if that means pushing other people away from her. That includes Caleb, the boy who loves her.

Carolyn Lee Adams’ YA novel Ruthless is a thrill-ride of a novel. It starts when Ruth wakes up in the back of a pickup truck, buried in a mound of manure, hay and shavings. She’s hurt and she soon realizes that she is in trouble, serious trouble.

The trouble comes in the shape of a man Ruth nicknames Wolfman.

He is tall and big, with a large, black beard and bushy eyebrows. He has strange hazel-orange eyes. He reminds me of a wolf.

Ruth remembers him from the ranch. “I kept seeing that wolf-looking guy, and that wolf-looking guy kept seeing me,” Ruth recalls. So “I told Dad to fire him.” Seems like Wolfman is the kind of guy to carry a grudge.

Wolfman aka Jerry Balls, is a smart and dogged  psychopath.  He punishes girls who he feels are deserving and Ruth can see that “He hates me in a way that I didn’t know was possible.”

So here is Ruth, trapped with a psycho in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Left alone when Wolfman is called in to work, she discovers that she is not his first victim, but she is determined that she will be his last. Her breathless escape from his cabin is just the start of 200+ pages of pulse-pounding reading.

If you’re wondering how Ruth is going to manage getting and staying away from Wolfman in the middle of nowhere, in terrain she doesn’t know, without supplies…well, that’s part of what makes Lee’s novel so compelling. Failing is not an option here and readers soon discover that Ruth is every bit as tenacious as Wolfman.

There is nothing graphic about this book, although the threat is imminent. Wolfman is also not a one-dimensional character; his story is told through a series of flashbacks. Doesn’t make him any more sympathetic, but you still get a glimpse into how he might have ended up the way he did.

We also see a bit of Ruth’s story from pre her abduction. One surprisingly prescient snippet recalls a conversation she has with her family. Her grandfather, once a sheriff, is offering advice should she ever be taken. He tells her “Don’t ever let them take you to a second location.” Her father offers “May God have mercy on the soul of the poor bastard who ever dared try.” Truer words.

Ruthless is terrific.

Inexcusable – Chris Lynch

inexcusableAlthough I teach high school English and although Chris Lynch is a prolific writer of award-winning YA literature, his novel Inexcusable is the first of his books I’ve read. This particular novel was a National Book Award finalist, as well as top of  many other “Best of” lists. School Library Journal called it “A finely crafted and thought-provoking page-turner.”

Keir Sarafian is a high school football player and an all-around decent guy. That’s what his single dad, Ray, tells him. That’s what his older sisters, Mary and Fran, tell him. That’s what his class and team mates tell him. So that’s what Keir believes.

When Inexcusable opens Keir tells us that “The way it looks is not the way it is.” From that intriguing opening, we follow Keir through the last few weeks of his high school career. We watch him play a never-ending game of Risk with his father. We watch him take down a player on an opposing football team, a hit which seriously injures the other player and earns Keir several scholarship offers and the nickname “Killer.”

Lynch carefully layers the character of Keir. He’s an affable guy. On the surface, at least, he seems to have it all.

I got along, and got along well. Got along with staff, with teachers and lunch ladies. Got along with guys, with athletes I knew before but knew better now, guys who were studs at basketball, or even guys who played sports that didn’t matter, like tennis. I got along with smart kids like debate, as well as with guys who sat around glassy-eyed and famously did nothing at all.

Keir wants to be liked. “I hate it when people I love scream at me,” he admits, which is one of the reasons he so admires his father. And because he so admires his father, Keir realizes that he “had to be a good guy if you were Ray Sarafian’s kid. You couldn’t possibly be anything less.”

But the real truth about Keir Sarafian is something different. And Lynch unspools Keir’s story  – which is really the story of what happens between Keir and his beautiful classmate Gigi Boudakian on prom night – with care. I felt my feelings about Keir constantly shifting.

Lynch explains in his preface for the 10th anniversary edition of the book that “The novel remains the supreme art for serious investigation for these troubled-troubling individuals who do things that appall us…There are no excuses for doing something deplorable. There is just the story behind the story. And if at the end of one of these stories we cannot feel empathy and compassion for the deplorable character, that is not at all unreasonable. But the hope really is that we might come away with a bit of understanding for a human condition we did not particularly want to understand before.”

What is so remarkable about Lynch’s novel is the way Keir’s version of events – even his version of the kind of young man he is – is so out of sync with the way things actually are.

Good guys don’t do bad things. Good guys understand that no means no, and so I could not have done this because I understand, and I love Gigi Boudakian.

Inexcusable  is a timely, well-written and ultimately devastating story which will offer plenty of opportunities for discussion for mature readers.

 

When We Collided – Emery Lord

Vivi and Jonah, the narrators of Emery Lord’s YA novel When We Collided, are damaged collidedseventeen-year-olds, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on living. Their singular voices will likely strike a nerve with many young readers.

Jonah lives in Verona Cove, a small coastal town in California. He’s smack in the middle of six kids and is often tasked with looking after his younger siblings because his older sister has been away at college and his brother is working. His father recently died and his mother can’t seem to get out of bed.

Vivi and her mother are summering in Verona Cove. They needed an escape and Vivi has already decided that she loves Verona Cove, but she “waited until the seventh day to commit.” When she meets Jonah and his youngest sister, Leah, 5, she’s immediately smitten. Vivi falls fast and hard for a lot of things. Listening to her is sort of like watching the ball in a pinball machine bing off all the obstacles. It’s tiring to try to keep up, but she is utterly charming and Jonah has never met anyone like her.

The girl looking down at us has white-blond hair, and her lips are the color of maraschino cherries. She doesn’t look like any girl in my school. She doesn’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen in real life.

Vivi and Jonah hit it off and before you can say “summer romance”, the two are inseparable. For Jonah, Vivi is like a breath of fresh air. She makes him feel special. She listens to him as he tries to navigate the loss of his father and his new situation at home. He doesn’t understand what is happening with his mother and he doesn’t know how to help her. Like his older siblings, he’s just trying to keep his head above water and keep “the littles” (the family name for the younger kids) healthy and whole.

Things seem to be going fine between the two, until they’re not…and they’re not because Vivi starts to act increasingly more bizarre. I think Lord does an exceptional job of tracking the course of Vivi’s mental illness – the erratic and increasingly manic behaviour that finally comes to a head.

Teenage romance has the potential to be a messy business, no question, and the stakes are high for Vivi and Jonah who realize they need each other and also realize that their relationship is problematic (for a variety of reasons.) I appreciate that Lord didn’t try to tidy things up for these two extremely likable characters. You’ll root for them. Your heart will break for them. Your life will be better for having known them.

 

Cuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge

cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

Lessons From a Dead Girl – Jo Knowles

Before Laine Green even hears her mother answer the phone, she knows that Leahlessons Greene is dead.

As I listen to her panicked voice, I feel the tiny bricks that have walled away certain memories continue to crumble….All I see behind my eyelids is Leah. Leah with her red-glossed lips. Leah standing above me. Leah telling our secret to a crowded room of strangers and my only friends in the world. Leah walking away, leaving me in the rubble of my ruined life.

Laine, the seventeen-year-old first person narrator of Jo Knowles’ YA novel Lessons From a Dead Girl, had willed Leah to die, had wanted it more than anything. And now that it is actually fait accompli, her feelings are complicated, an “overwhelming sense of guilt and fear.”

Once Lainey and Leah were best friends. Their older sisters were friends, and they’d decided that Leah and Laine should be pals, too. It’s an awkward relationship at first, for reasons that are obvious,  at least to Laine.

Leah is popular and I’m not. Leah is also beautiful. Everyone wants to be Leah’s best friend. But me? Most people don’t even know who I am.

When the pair are children, the forced friendship soon morphs into something more genuine…and then seems to morph into something else again. The girls practice being husband and wife in Lainey’s “doll closet”, a game that makes Lainey both uncomfortable and “tingly.”

It is easy to see why Lainey is so conflicted. She’s not like the other girls. Her hair is “like a boy’s, short and brown and messy. My striped shirt is too small and has a grass stain on the front. Even my face is dirty. I look like a boy. An ugly boy. And I feel like one, too. Why would Leah be my friend?”

That question is at the root of this compelling novel and as the girls grow up and their relationship shifts and strains against the warped rules of adolescent girlhood, their bond frays and eventually breaks. Laine chafes against the secret she is keeping, but Leah has a few troubling secrets of her own.

Lessons From a Dead Girl is a very different book from See You at Harry’s. Knowles writes with authority no matter the topic, and Laine’s journey from innocence is powerful and compelling.

 

Sadie – Courtney Summers

sadieI thought if I waited a few days after finishing Courtney Summers’ latest book Sadie, I would have a better chance of articulating my feelings coherently. Sadly, I don’t think I am actually going to be able to adequately express all the ways I loved (and hated) this book.

The premise is clever. West McCray, a radio producer at New York’s WNRK, is shaking up the station’s format by introducing a new podcast, The Girls. The podcast “explores what happens when a devastating crime reveals a deeply unsettling mystery.”  McCray dives headlong into the story of Mattie Southern, a thirteen-year-old whose dead body was discovered in an orchard near a burning schoolhouse, and her nineteen-year-old sister, Sadie, who is missing.

I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered in that orchard will not be part of this show. While the murder, the crime, might have captured your initial interest, its violence and brutality do not exist for your entertainment – so please don’t ask us.

Transcripts of the podcast (and you can actually listen to those here) alternate with Sadie’s first person narrative. Sadie leaves Cold Creek’s trailer park and her surrogate grandmother, May Beth, to find Keith, a man who once lived with Sadie and Mattie’s mother, Claire. Claire is currently out of the picture, an addict who’s had a steady stream of creeps in her bed.

Despite being blocked at every turn, Sadie is like a dog with a bone when it comes to tracking down Keith, a man she claims is her father. She buys a junker car, and asks fearless questions, hindered only by her stutter and youth. By about page thirty I was as invested in Sadie’s hunt as she was. She is equal parts vulnerable and tough-as-nails and 100% believable.

And this is where I have to pause and commend Summers, once again, for writing characters who are so real. Regular readers to this blog will know I am a fan of Summers and have read several of her books including Cracked Up to Be, All the Rage, This Is Not a Test, and Some Girls Are. I’ll tell you this – Summers is not writing the same book over and over. Her characters are not stereotypes. They are vulnerable, broken, tough, cynical and hopeful and every combination in between. Sometimes they say or do things that are wince-worthy, but as a mom and high school teacher, I know that Summers cuts as close to the bone as it’s possible to get. Like it or not.

So, I wasn’t surprised that I fell in love with Sadie, rough edges and all. I expected to be invested in her journey and I hated (that’s what I hated, folks) that it was a journey that she felt compelled to take. I hated that I was afraid for her the entire freakin’ time! Sadie loved her sister and made sacrifices for her that Mattie would never have the opportunity to understand. That’s what it is to love someone.

McCray is always just one step behind Sadie, but his podcasts fill in some blanks, allowing us to see how Sadie is viewed from other perspectives. Former teacher, Edward Colburn, says, “She was teased by her classmates because of the stutter and that caused her to withdraw.” Her boss, Marty McKinnon said Sadie was “a good kid, hard worker.” Mae Beth said that “The only thing Sadie was afraid of was losing the family she had left and that was Mattie.”

All of these ingredients add up to a story that McCray describes as being “about family, about sisters, and the untold  lives lived in small-town America. It’s about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love…and the high price we pay when we can’t.”

There are few moments of levity in this novel, but Sadie (the novel and the character) will haunt your dreams.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Monday’s Not Coming – Tiffany D. Jackson

Thirteen-year-old Claudia and Monday are inseparable, even though they come from twomonday different worlds. Claudia lives with her stable and loving parents; Monday lives with her single mom and three siblings in Washington’s Ed Borough Complex, a part of town Claudia isn’t allowed to visit without an adult.

After returning to DC from a summer with her grandmother, Claudia is looking forward to starting grade eight with her bestie, but Monday is a no-show. When she doesn’t show up at school all week, and when calls to her house yield no answers, Claudia gets worried. A frightening visit to Monday’s apartment only ratchets up Claudia’s concern.

Tiffany D. Jackson’s YA novel Monday’s Not Coming is part mystery and part coming-of-age story. Claudia’s life is upended by the disappearance of her friend. For one thing, Monday helped Claudia with her school work and without her, Claudia is lost and “Without her, the [lunch] line went on for eternity. Without her, I ate alone. Being alone made you a target, though, and ain’t nobody got time for stupid boys throwing food at your head.”

Life ticks along for Claudia. She joins a dance group, meets a boy at church, starts getting help with her schoolwork, but none of these things fill the hole left by Monday. The two girls shared a lot of dreams – attending the same high school, making it on the dance squad, leaving the horrors of middle school behind. The longer Monday is gone, though, the more Claudia has to move forward with her life.

Readers will turn the pages of Monday’s Not Coming desperate to know what has happened to her, but I was interested in Claudia’s personal journey. Monday is a larger-than-life character, not afraid to stand up for herself or go after what she wants including the hottest boy in school. Claudia is shocked to discover new things about her best friend and she begins to wonder just how well she actually knew her.

There’s a twist in this novel that I didn’t see coming, and I can’t say that it worked 100% for me. However, it in no way undermined my overall reading experience. Monday’s Not Coming is a worthy addition to my classroom library.