Now is the Time for Running – Michael Williams

now is thetimeIt’s amazing how sheltered I am. I remember reading The Kite Runner years ago and being shocked how little I knew about that conflict. And I know next to nothing about the conflicts in Africa. Michael Williams’ YA novel Now is the Time For Running doesn’t spend too much time talking about the politics of the conflict, but readers will soon understand the chaos and devastation it causes.

Fifteen-year-old Deo lives with his amai (mother), grandfather (Grandpa Longdrop), and older brother, Innocent. Innocent is 25, but he is ‘different’. His impairment is never specified, but it hardly matters. Deo looks out for his big brother.

Deo lives in Gutu,  Zimbabwe. He spends his spare time playing soccer with a ball his grandfather made for him.

It is no proper soccer ball. It is a pouch of cow-leather patches sewn together with twine, stuffed with tightly rolled plastic.

It’s clear that circumstances are dire for Deo and his family. When soldiers roll into their village and demand that the villagers bring them their food, Deo thinks “Does he not know we have nothing, that there is no food here?”

The situation between Deo’s village and these soldiers soon escalates and Deo and Innocent suddenly find themselves running for their lives.

Now is the Time for Running  follows Deo and Innocent as they try to make their way to the relative safety of South Africa, where they think their  father is currently living and working. It is a perilous journey and it is difficult to know who to trust. Deo is an engaging and sympathetic narrator and you will want to know that he and Innocent arrive safely, but safety is a rare commodity.

I was wholly invested in Deo and whipped through this book in record time. It would certainly appeal to anyone looking for a fast-paced story about survival, students who like soccer and anyone interested in social justice.

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

liarsCadence Sinclair, the narrator of E. Lockhart’s riveting YA novel We Were Liars, lives a seemingly charmed life. The eldest of the Sinclair grandchildren, she summers with her cousins Johnny, Mirren, Liberty, Bonnie, Will and Taft on Beechwood Island, a private island off the coast of Massachusetts, somewhere near Martha’s Vineyard. Her grandparents, Harris and Tipper, have a created a sort of kingdom on Beechwood. Each of their three daughters has their own house on the island, but everything revolves around the patriarch. There is a lot of drinking and in-fighting, all of it held together by Tipper. When she dies, the daughters and their children, who are used as pawns to secure Harris’s favour, go a little off the rails.

The summer that Cadence is eight, Johnny brings his friend Gat to the island.

His nose was dramatic, his mouth sweet. Skin deep brown, hair black and waving. Body wired with energy. Gat seemed spring-loaded. Like he was searching for something. He was contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee. I could have looked at him forever.

Cadence, Johnny, Mirren and Gat, the Liars,  become an inseparable foursome. Gat is invited back every summer and by the time they are fourteen, Cadence and Gat have begun tentative steps towards crossing the friendship line. Cadence feels “the love rush from me to Gat and from Gat to me.”

But then summer fifteen happens. That’s the summer Tipper dies. It’s also the summer that Cadence goes swimming alone at the little beach. She doesn’t remember much of what happened

“I only remember this: I plunged down into this ocean,                                                          down to rocky rocky bottom, and                                                                                                      I could see the base of Beechwood Island and                                                                            my arms and legs felt numb but my fingers were cold.                                                        Slices of seaweed went past as I fell.”

It’s a summer that changes everything. Cadence is taken home to Vermont to recover and she doesn’t return to Beechwood until summer seventeen. Her memory is suspect, making her a terrifically unreliable narrator. She suffers from debilitating migraines; she starts to give away her possession. Her island has changed and so have the Liars. One thing remains unchanged though: the way she and Gat feel about each other.

I loved pretty much everything about We Were Liars. I loved the jagged edges of Cadence’s memory as she tries to piece together the mystery of her accident. I loved the dysfunctional nature of the Sinclair family. As Cadence admits in the beginning, “I am the eldest Sinclair grandchild. Heiress to the island, the fortune, and the expectations.”  And I loved the Liars.

Lockhart’s book has a big plot twist. Some might see it coming; I did not. I am not a teenage reader so while the twist wasn’t exactly shocking to me, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective. We Were Liars is a page-turning puzzle of a book. I read it in one breathless gulp.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Stop Somewhere – TE Carter

Ellie Frias, the narrator in TE Carter’s YA novel I Stop Somewhere,  is an awkward First autumn frost on Stinging Nettle leaves - France  -  -  -teenager who wants to make a good impression when she starts high school. Ellie understands that “Pretty is power.” She’s never really fit in, but she is determined that when she starts high school, things will be different.

Ellie lives with her single father on the wrong side of town. Her mother took off when she was just a baby and although she and her father have always been close, Ellie feels herself drifting away from him. She understands that he tries, but it isn’t enough, so Ellie turns to Kate, an older girl who lives in the house behind her. She needs guidance and she has no friends.

I started school with the right clothes. My curves showed where they were supposed to but nowhere else, and Kate had helped me with my hair. We’d bleached two strips down the front and dyed them blue so the color framed my face. With my new T-shirts that were a testament to my apathy, I fit in by not caring about fitting in.

Ellie does get the attention of Caleb Breward, a popular boy at school, whose father is an important figure in their town, Hollow Oaks. He tells her she’s cute and names her “Elusive Ellie.” Ellie is so desperate to be accepted and loved, that she doesn’t realize what a shark Caleb is. Or maybe she actually does know, but she finds a way to rationalize it.

…I knew very little about Caleb Breward, and most of what I did know wasn’t great. It tried to show me all the days he’d passed me in the hall and wouldn’t look at me. My brain had a long list of amazing reasons I should have walked away, but Caleb’s closeness did things inside of me I didn’t know how to process.

Carter manages to capture what it is to be an insecure girl with remarkable accuracy.  What makes Caleb such a chilling character – and trust me, he’s way more awful than just being some douche who breaks a girl’s heart – is that he plays on Ellie’s insecurities. He hasn’t really got very much going for him other than an oily charm and a seemingly bullet-proof family.

This is a novel about rape, victim-shaming and what it means to survive. I found I Stop Somewhere compelling and heart-breaking in equal measure.

In Real Life – Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

in_real_lifeAlthough I really don’t know very much about gaming (my gaming experiences consist of playing PacMan and Asteroids at the local pin ball joint, and then a few years later staying up all night to play Scorched Earth), I do understand the appeal of an on-line persona. During my years in fandom, I had a fake name for all the fanfiction I wrote, and I met loads of other people (mostly women) who wrote fic in their spare time: mothers and teachers and lawyers and even a judge. While my persona was very much me, having met some of these ladies in real life, I know that many of them were more daring, outgoing, over-the-top online compared to the way they were in their every day lives. That aspect of Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s graphic novel In Real Life was familiar to me.

Anda has recently moved from California to Arizona with her parents. She hasn’t really settled in, except with the boys who play D & D, and so when Liza McCombs shows up in her computer class to invite girls to play Coarsegold, a first person game for girls only, Anda jumps at the chance. (This is the point where I admit that I don’t really know much of anything about this sort of thing.)

Anda creates an avatar, Kalidestroyer,  befriends another player, Sarge. Sarge recruits Anda to “kill some guys.” (Virtually, of course.) The guys Sarge wants Kalidestroyer/Anda to kill are gold miners, players who “collect items for gold and sell the gold to other players for cash.” Someone who actually games will probably understand the mechanics of this better than I did, but eventually Anda comes across one of these gold farmers and instead of killing him, she starts to talk to him. Turns out, he’s a boy from China.

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Doctorow says in In Real Life ‘s Introduction that he hopes readers will “be inspired to dig deeper into the subject of behavioral economics and to start asking hard questions about how we end up with the stuff we own, what it costs our human brothers and sisters to make those goods, and why we think we need them.”  Doctorow believes that while the Internet doesn’t necessarily solve the injustices of the world – which we can all agree are many – it “solves the first hard problem of righting wrongs: getting everyone together and keeping them together.”

As Anda’s gaming life spills over into her real life, it’s easy to see the point Doctorow is making. This is a worthwhile book for gamers and anyone interested in justice.

Starry Eyes – Jenn Bennett

Although it took the story a little while to get going, Jenn Bennett’s YA romance 94B71DCC-2A46-44E4-90BF-CABC55A86A33Starry Eyes ended up being a sweet love story with believable main characters.

Seventeen-year-old Zorie lives with her father and stepmother in Melita Hills, California. Her parents own a health clinic, acupuncture and massage and the like. Sharing the building with them is Toys in the Attic, a sex shop owned by Sunny and Jane, married mothers to Lennon. Lennon and Zorie used to be besties. Childhood friends whose feelings for each other had crossed the line into something more complicated before Lennon ditched Zorie, without explanation, Before the homecoming dance. Now the two are barely speaking to each other. And Zorie’s father seems to have a total hate-on for Lennon and his moms now, too.

It’s the summer before senior year and Zorie is in hard-core planning mode. She’s a planner because “Spontaneity is overrated.” When she is invited on a glamping trip (high end camping) with her “kind of, sort of friend” Reagan, she really doesn’t want to go. Her mother thinks it would be good for Zorie to go, though, and when Zorie finds out that Brett, “a minor celebrity in our school” will be going, Zorie agrees to go with.  Zorie has been “nursing a crush on him since elementary school” and the two had exchanged one kiss at a party. There’s also the problem that Zorie has recently discovered that her father has been cheating on her mom and she needs some time to decide how to handle the discovery.

Things get complicated when it turns out that Lennon is also going on the trip.

The first third of the book sets up this premise, and it’s the part of the book that moved the most slowly for me. When I was done reading, I did understand why some of this set up was important, but for the me, the best part of the book was when Zorie and Lennon suddenly find themselves on their own in the woods.

Being alone gives them a chance to talk, something the two hadn’t really done for a long time. There’s real energy between the pair, sexual energy, for sure, but also something more powerful: Zorie and Lennon clearly care very deeply for each other. As they walk through the woods, they talk. They are not distracted by the outside world and the solitude gives them time to reveal long-held wounds.

Readers will root for Zorie and Lennon. These are imperfect teens, but they also felt real to me. There’s a beating heart at the centre of this romance.

 

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.