Vanessa Babcock, the protagonist of Calla Devlin’s debut, Tell Me Something Real, is sixteen. She lives with her parents, her older sister, Adrienne, andtell-me-something-real-9781481461160_lg her younger sister, Marie, in San Diego. Their mother, Iris, has leukemia, and Vanessa and her sisters often accompany her to a clinic in Mexico where she is treated with the controversial drug, Laetrile.

…the FDA’s banned Laetrile in the States, [and] a lot of people are coming to Mexico to treat their cancer. Most aren’t as lucky as we are, living in San Diego so close to the border.

Each of the girls have their own quirks. Adrienne is prone to swearing like a sailor. Marie is fascinated with the Catholic saints. Vanessa dreams of attending music school. Their father, an architect, works too much, leaving the care of Iris to his daughters, care that is taking its toll.

On one trip to the clinic Vanessa meets Caleb, a boy just a little older than she is who is also taking Laetrile. When Iris suggests that they open their home to Caleb and his mother, Barb, in an effort to make it easier for Caleb to receive his treatments, it seems like a win-win. Barb cooks real meals, and her sunny disposition improves life for everyone. And then there’s Caleb.

He looks healthy, sunburned, and rosy cheeked like me. It isn’t until he steps through the entryway – away from the protection of the flowers – that I recognize he is one of them.

Caleb becomes Vanessa’s touchstone, until one day he tells Vanessa that he and his mother are going home. Something isn’t right in the Babcock home, but he is reluctant to say just what that something is.

I have mixed feelings about Tell Me Something Real. There’s no arguing that Devlin is a talented writer, even though I didn’t feel like this debut went anyplace particularly special. Vanessa’s first person narrative is compelling enough, but her sisters seem more like a collection of quirky attributes than flesh and blood people. The plot does take an unusual turn, but even that felt somehow contrived.

What I wanted, I guess, was an emotional centre and despite the (melo)drama, Tell Me Something Real just didn’t have a beating heart. I wouldn’t discourage people from reading it, for sure, but it was just only so-so for me.

marrowGah! This book, you guys.

Francis, though everyone calls him Frenchie, is on the run from the “recruiters”.  Pretty much every Indigenous person is because their bone marrow holds the key to dreaming, which is something white folks no longer have the ability to do.

“Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there.”

“You are born with them. Your DNA weaves them into the marrow like spinners….That’s where they pluck them from.”

It’s sometime in the not too distant future and we’ve pretty much wrecked the Earth. Because of course we have. When Cherie Dimaline’s YA novel The Marrow Thieves opens, Frenchie is holed up in a tree house with his older brother, Mitch. But then the recruiters show up, and the boys are separated, and Frenchie finds himself on the run once more.

The characters in The Marrow Thieves are all too aware of their rocky history with the Canadian government, and sharing those stories is part of what keeps them focused on getting to safety, which in this case is north where they hope they will find fresh water and clean air and freedom.  So north is the direction Frenchie heads and it isn’t long before he meets a group of travelers. Frenchie joins this ad hoc family and his adventure begins.

The dystopian nature of this novel is really only the story’s framework. It’s enough to know that these people are considered ‘other’ and useful only for what they can provide to the government. Their current plight mirrors the whole residential school debacle, a part of my country’s history, I am ashamed to admit, I was grossly ignorant of until recently.  Those places were less about assimilation (and even that is abhorrent)  and more about annihilation.

The real story, the heartbeat of Dimaline’s novel, is the characters and their stories – both individually (which they tell in their own ‘Coming-To’ stories) and collectively. Getting to know these people felt like a privilege; I fell in love with them and the way they looked out for each other. I experienced a real fear for their safety and on the few occasions they were rewarded with something good, I felt that, too.

I will not forget these people, their connection to the Earth and each other, for a long time. The Marrow Thieves should be required reading for all Canadians…and, trust me, once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down anyway.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

fallingAmy Zhang’s novel Falling Into Place tells the story of sixteen-year-old Liz Emerson’s journey from happy child to miserable teen and the drastic choice she makes in an effort to end her emotional pain.

On the day Liz Emerson tries to die, they had reviewed Newton’s Law of  Motion in physics class. Then, after school, she put them into practice by running her Mercedes off the road.

Zhang’s elliptical novel cuts back and forth through time, unraveling Liz’s story in little non-linear pieces, while also offering us insight into the lives of Liz’s friends Kennie and Julia. Adults are pretty much non-existent in this story; Liz’s widowed mother is often away on business, leaving Liz to her own devices. (This usually means she’s partying & making out with random people, drinking alone or making herself puke.)

Liz’s car accident is no accident. She meticulously plans the event to look like an accident because she can’t stand the mess of her life – some of which is beyond her control, but some of which she created for herself. She reaches out, at the last minute, to her school’s guidance counselor, but he’s an ineffective lump (of course he is) and by then Liz has really already made up her mind.

Liz and her friends are shrill and often unkind and not entirely likeable. Which was a problem for me.  An unnamed first-person character recalls when Liz was happy and full of love, but it will be relatively obvious who that person is for careful readers.

She cannot bear to catch fireflies in jars. She hates zoos. She will not let her father teach her about constellations, because she will not trap the stars. She lives in a world made entirely of sky.

Although I didn’t find Liz particularly sympathetic, the glimpses into her childhood do humanize her. Her casual cruelty and lack of empathy, although perhaps realistic enough in today’s world, just didn’t work here the way it might work in a novel by someone like Courtney Summers. None of the characters felt real to me; they felt like shells.

Whether or not Liz survives her ‘accident’ is perhaps what will keep readers turning the pages, but for me, there was no real skin in the game.

ameliaanneKat Rosenfield’s YA novel Amelia Ann is Dead and Gone is lush and languid, a coming-of-age story and a mystery that sends ripples through the small, insular community of Bridgeton.

At the same time that eighteen-year-old Becca is anticipating the beginning of a new and better life away at college, the unidentified body of another young girl turns up on the side of the road, outside of town.

People buzzed and hummed and speculated. It seemed impossible that the dead girl, the rag-doll on the road-shoulder, could remain anonymous for long. Not with everybody talking about her, her, her.

Everything is about to change for Becca. She’s just graduated from high school (salutatorian, no less) and her “too-smooth boyfriend with a beater pickup and no diploma of his own” has just broken up with her.

Our first meeting was romantic. High school legend-like, it made me yearn to stay with him just for the chance to tell our someday-kids about how their father had swept me off my feet at the tender age of sixteen.

The news of the dead girl is diverting at first, but then becomes a constant buzz in the back of Becca’s head. She can’t stop wondering about her – who she is and what happened to her, and it’s this compulsive fascination that brings the novel to its dramatic climax.

Amelia is experiencing a similar ‘new beginning’. She’s just graduated from college and decided to  pursue acting, a track-jump that her boyfriend, Luke, simply cannot or will not understand. The time spent with Amelia, is time well-spent. She is a girl who is finding her feet, discovering what she wants to be and understanding that sometimes that means leaving people behind.

When Rosenfield sticks to Becca and Amelia, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone races along like a thriller (albeit a really beautifully written thriller). Sometimes, though, she diverted my attention away to talk about the town from the vantage point of a sort of disembodied third-person omniscient vantage point.

In a small town, there are things you simply grow up knowing. You need them all – the shortcuts, secrets, and scandals that make up the town’s collective unconscious, the whispered bits and pieces passed from older lips to younger ears.

I found this stuff sort of extraneous to the plot (although I suppose it did, in some ways, explain the town’s mentality), and bogged things down a bit. A subplot about a tractor in the lake was, likewise, unnecessary. When Rosenfield stuck to Becca and Amelia’s story, though, I was all in and even with my minor grumble, I still highly recommend this book.

Columbine. Newtown. Parkland. The fact that we know these towns because of the school shootings that happened there is shocking. According to Everytown there have been 302 school shootings in America since 2013. True, not all of these incidents have resulted in death, but the fact that someone brought a gun into a school is pretty horrifying.

For comparisons sake, there have been seven school shootings in Canada with a total of 28 fatalities. (And I’m not talking since 2013, I’m talking in total.) The first happened at a high school in Brampton in 1975. The worst happened at École Polytechnique in 1989 where 14 women were killed. The most recent happened in La Loche, Saskatchewan in 2016 where four people were killed and seven were injured.

I know that guns (and gun control and 2nd amendment rights) are a contentious bowl of soup, but, people! Seriously.

thisiswhereMarieke Nijkamp tackles gun violence in her compelling (and heartbreaking) YA novel this is where it ends.

Four narrators tell the story of what happens when a student locks the entire student body (almost) into the gym and starts shooting.

There’s Claire, a senior track star who isn’t in the gym because she’s training for an upcoming track meet.

There’s Autumn, a dancer who can’t wait to blow her popsicle stand of a town, a backwater named – ironically – Opportunity.

There’s Sylv, a girl who would sacrifice anything to keep those she loves safe, including Autumn.

And there’s Tomas, Sylv’s twin, who is breaking into the principal’s office with his friend Fareed when the chaos start.

What do these four people have in common? That would be Tyler, Autumn’s brother, a beautiful but damaged boy who clearly feels he has nothing left to care about. But really, Ty’s motives for shooting up the school don’t matter, really. The terror is real. The violence is real.

The action of the novel takes place over the course of 54 minutes. In that time, we come to understand how these five students are connected. We also learn about their hopes and dreams; we see their bravery and their fear; we root for them and we mourn with them. It’s pretty compelling stuff especially now when school shootings seem to be happening with alarming regularity.

Nijkamp was smart to let us into these character’s heads. They reveal secrets they’ve kept from each other – mostly out of love. They admit to weaknesses and also dig deep for reserves of bravery and strength. And, they even find compassion.

“Grief is one big, gaping hole, isn’t it?” Sylv says to Ty.

I don’t know if he hears me, but my words are as much for myself as for him. “It’s everywhere and all consuming. Some days you think you can’t go on because the only thing waiting for you is more despair. Some days you don’t want to go on because it’s easier to give up than to get hurt again.

this is where it ends is a timely book with an important message.

 

strongerIn  Jolene Perry’s novel Stronger Than You Know, fifteen-year-old Joy Neilsons has come to live with her aunt and uncle after having been removed from the trailer home she was living in with her mother. The Child Services Summary Report  indicates that she wasn’t allowed out of the 750 sq. ft. mobile home, did not attend school and was dehydrated and malnourished when authorities removed her.

Turns out, not having enough to eat or drink was the least of Joy’s problems, and although Perry wisely spares us the graphic details of Joy’s abuse, readers will easily be able to fill in the horrific blanks.

Stronger Than You Know is the story of Joy’s recovery which, as you can imagine, is not without its setbacks. For one thing, Joy hasn’t been properly socialized, so dealing with large groups of people is problematic. Imagine going to school – high school, at that –  for the first time. For another thing, Joy distrusts men, making it difficult for her to be around her uncle, Rob, and her cousin, Trent. Trent’s twin sister, Tara,  is a little easier to cope with, but Joy is still distrustful of this new life she’s been given, a life she knows she doesn’t belong in. Aunt Nicole offers safety and comfort, but the PTSD Joy is experiencing is palpable.

She measures her recovery by listing her accomplishments:

  • Went to school.
  • Ate in the cafeteria.
  • Answered a teacher’s question.
  • Ate a few bites of dinner with the family in the dining room.

All the people in Joy’s new life, even Trent, who initially seems like an asshat (and one could make the argument that he turns the corner with a little too much ease), are warm and loving humans. The boy she meets on the walk to school is patient and understanding when Joy acts peculiarly. Her Uncle Rob is super protective because he’s had some personal experience with trauma. If any characters are under-developed it’s because they are the villains of the piece and it’s easy enough for smart readers to fill in those blanks.

Overall, Stronger Than You Know will speak to any young reader who has had to overcome horrific circumstances in the hopes for a better life. As Joy learns, a better life is waiting.

 

 

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.