When I Am Through With You – Stephanie Kuehn

throughwithuCharm & Strange  was my introduction to Stephanie Kuehn’s work and I have been a fan ever since. When I Am Through With You is her latest YA offering and it’s a layered and tense thriller.

The narrator of the story, Ben Gibson, is a high school senior.  From the very beginning, readers know that something has gone horribly wrong Ben’s life.

This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not.

Rose is (was) Ben’s girlfriend. She chose him, not the other way around. She is an exotic combination of her French Peruvian heritage, a “girl with bright eyes and brown skin and very short hair.”

…Rose was my first everything. First kiss, first touch, first girl to see me naked and lustful without bursting into laughter (although she was the first to do that, too). We did more eventually. We did everything. Whatever she wanted, Rose dictated the rhyme and rhythm of our sexual awakening, and I loved that. I never had to make up my mind when I was with her.

Ben is an engaging narrator, even though the reader might consider him unreliable. Kuehn wisely keeps her cards close to her chest, unspooling Ben’s backstory carefully. Why does he suffer from debilitating migraines? Why does he feel like his life is on the road to nowhere? What happened to Rose?

Much of the action happens in the middle of the book. Ben is helping his teacher, Mr. Howe, lead a camping trip out in the wilderness. Rose and her twin Tomas, Duncan (the high school drug dealer), Clay ( a quiet , studious kid), Archie (the wild card), Avery (Ben’s childhood friend), and Shelby (volleyball goddess) are the other campers. It’s kind of like the Breakfast Club of orienteering. Out of their natural element (with the exception of the teacher, who isn’t really front and centre, but manages to be important nonetheless), alliances fray and a combination of bad luck, bad decisions and bad weather cause total chaos and panic.

When I Am Through With You wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I knew to expect great writing, and I knew that the characters would be smart and prickly – something I’ve come to expect from Kuehn. This book asks you to  consider the moral choices these characters make. Ben is unrepentant, but he is also sympathetic. I felt tremendously sorry for him throughout the novel. It’s not all introspection, though. There are some truly heart-racing moments in this novel, and its propulsive plot will keep you turning the pages.

Exit, Pursued By a Bear – E.K. Johnston

Seventeen-year-old Hermione Winters is a spitfire. Co-captain of her high school bearcheerleading team, she is looking forward to one last cheerleading camp, one last year of school and then the freedom her future offers her. She is smart, fun-loving and although she loves cheerleading and takes it seriously, she is not the stereotypical cheerleader. To be honest, there isn’t actually a mean or petty girl in E.K. Johnston’s YA novel Exit, Pursued by a Bear. 

I wonder if Johnston chose Hermione’s name as an allusion -to the character from Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. That’s where the novel’s title comes from; it’s is a famous stage direction from the same play. Never mind, as a character she is sympathetic and admirable. And her life is about to get a lot more complicated.

Every year, the cheerleaders meet at Camp Manitouwabing, which is about an hour from Parry Sound. Teams from different schools meet there for two weeks of intense training. At a dance, just before the end of the camp, someone slips something into Hermione’s drink, and when she wakes up, she’s in the hospital. She has no memory of what happened, but she spends the next year dealing with the aftermath of the event.

There are lots of YA novels out there that deal with rape, but I have to say that this is one of the better ones I have read. After the attack, Hermione’s squad closes rank, insulating her from the inevitable rumours. Only Hermione’s boyfriend, Leo, fails to step up. Not that she needs him; she’s got her bestie, Polly, a pit bull of a friend, who is always at the ready to fend of anyone who even looks sideways at Hermione.

There are lots of great people in her corner, actually. Her psychiatrist, the female police officer tasked with finding the perp, Hermione’s parents who want to protect her, but know that offering too much protection would do their daughter a great disservice at the end of the day.

The novel is brisk, but it does allow readers a glimpse into Hermione’s PTSD, and how she tries to figure out the best way to deal with what has happened to her. Will she let this one incident set the course for her life? I am happy to say that the answer is a resounding no.

One scene I particularly liked was when Hermione and Polly are interviewed by a local reporter. Their cheerleading squad is a pretty big deal, but the journalist does manage to ask a question about the attack:

“Hermione, after your attack at the end of last summer, do you have any words of advice on how other girls can be smart, and stop such awful things happening to them.”

Polly, as always, speaks the truth.

“You’re okay with asking asking a girl who was wearing a pretty dress and had nice hair, who went to the dance with her cabin mates, who drank from the same punch bowl as everyone else – you’re okay with asking that girl what mistake she made, and you wouldn’t think to ask a boy how he would avoid raping someone?”

The conversation has to change. Polly knows it. Hermione knows it. It’s time everyone did.

I really liked this book for a lot of reasons. It’s Canadian, it’s well-written, it says important things without being didactic and you will root for Hermione.

 

A List of Cages -Robin Roe

cagesI could NOT put this book down. From the moment I met Julian and Adam, the two narrators of Robin Roe’s debut novel A List of Cages, I was immediately invested. This is a book with so much to say, but its messages are never didactic. It’s horrifying and heart-warming in equal measure.

So, Julian, aged 14, is a loner. He has just started high school and he is friendless and often in trouble at school – even though he does his level best to make himself invisible. When he’s called to the principal’s office he calls himself “a microscopic boy”; his English teacher tells him he’s “too quiet” and the other kids are horrible to him. He eats lunch alone in a small room in the attic of the auditorium. There he can dream about the life he used to have.

Adam is a senior. He’s a popular kid and even though Julian  has “only been in this school for a little while…heard his name a hundred times, mostly from girls who are in love with him.” Adam is happy, clumsy, and popular.

Adam and Julian have history, though. When Adam was in Grade 4 and Julian in kindergarten, they worked together to improve Julian’s reading skills. When Julian’s parents are tragically killed in an accident when he is 9, he goes to live with Adam and his single mom, who is a social worker. The arrangement falls apart when Julian’s Uncle Russell turns up out of the blue and claims him.

Their reunion is awkward at first. Julian is shy and distrustful, but it doesn’t take long for him to figure out that Adam is, above all else, kind. And Julian could certainly use a little kindness in his life.

It won’t take readers long to figure out that Russell is a monster – there’s really no other word to describe him. Roe drops clues early on and I have to admit to feeling very uneasy from the first couple of pages. Maybe it’s the mother in me; maybe it’s the teacher, but either way, I knew that Julian was neglected for sure, and certainly not safe.

The first time Russell ever punished me was for hanging a picture in this room. I should have checked with him first, I know that now, but I didn’t think to do so at the time. In my old room I could hang pictures whenever I wanted. Russell’s punishment wasn’t all that severe, but that had never happened to me before, and it shocked me. After it was over, he asked if I would nail holes into a stranger’s wall.

Roe’s book is a wonderful reminder of how little we know about the lives of others. Our snap judgments and cruel remarks never take into account what the subject of our derision might be facing on a daily basis. Adam is naturally empathetic. Even Julian notes that while “Hate ricochets…kindness does, too”.

A List of Cages is important, genuine and brimming over with heart.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

On the Edge – Allison Van Diepen

ontheedgeOne of my favourite YA tropes is bad boy/good girl. I can’t seem to get enough of it, really, and if there’s a heaping helping of angst thrown in, well, it doesn’t really get much better than that. Allison Van Diepen’s novel On the Edge seemed like it might have the goods, but it was only just okay.

Maddie Diaz is headed for college on a full scholarship. She lives with her single mother, works part time at McDonald’s and has a posse of good girlfriends.

One night after work she’s cutting through the park on her way home when she witnesses to members of the Reyes gang kicking the crap out of a homeless guy, someone everyone in the neighbourhood knows by name. She does the right thing and identifies the guys, but that means that her own life is in danger.

Enter Lobo, tall, dark, handsome and mysterious. After Maddie gets jumped, Lobo swoops in to rescue her and sparks fly.

He wore a black bandanna over his face. That couldn’t be a good thing – I should be scared of him, shouldn’t I? But I wasn’t. I knew that I was safe. I felt it in the gentle way he was supporting my head.

To complicate things, there’s also Maddie’s growing attraction to Ortiz, the guy who works at the local convenience store and is unbelievably hot with his “unruly black hair…chiseled, clean-shaven face.”

There’s nothing really wrong with On the Edge, but it doesn’t really break any new ground, either. The characters are mostly stereotypes; Maddie has a vein of heroism; Lobo is more than he seems, including seeming way older than 19.

I wouldn’t dissuade students from reading this book, but as for scratching my bad boy/good girl itch, it didn’t quite fit the bill.

 

We Are Okay – Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour’s award-winning YA novel We Are Okay, is a lyrical and moving look at the weareoknature of grief. This is a quiet novel, and so I would caution readers not to expect histrionics or very much action. Instead, LaCour focuses on the protagonist’s interior life, which has been altered by loss.

Eighteen-year-old Marin is attending school on the East Coast, far away from her hometown, San Francisco. It’s Christmas, and everyone has left the dorm except Marin, who has no place to go. Her roommate, Hannah, is clearly worried about her and Marin knows

why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway to weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in – a stunned and feral stranger – and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me.

Marin is anticipating the arrival of her best friend, Mabel.  She knows “Mabel is coming tomorrow, whether I want her to or not.” The idea fills Marin with a sort of dread, even though she knows she should be happy.  She hasn’t communicated with Mabel in months though, and has, in fact, ignored all of Mabel’s attempts to make contact. She thinks she can fool Mabel into thinking that everything is okay but

Mabel knows me better than anyone else in the world, even though we haven’t spoken at all in these four months. Most of her texts to me went unanswered until eventually she stopped sending them.

There will be no way to fool her.

Nothing much happens in We Are Okay, but that’s just plot, anyway. The story toggles between Marin’s reunion with Mabel and the story of their friendship back in California. We also learn that Marin has been raised by her grandfather, a fierce but tender man, who has a few secrets of his own. Her grandfather’s death clearly accounts for some of Marin’s sadness, but flashback’s reveal that Mabel is also central to Marin’s story.

There is a lovely, melancholy cadence in LaCour’s book. It’s poetic without being showy and the nature of Marin’s grief is unspooled in a way that will keep readers turning the pages. I guess that’s what prevents We Are Okay from being all doom and gloom. Yes, Marin is sad, but she’s trying to come to terms with her derailed life. She finds small ways to tether herself to the world, a pair of pottery bowls, the “perfect shade of yellow” for instance.

This is a thoughtful, lovely and moving novel and I highly recommend it.

They Both Die at the End – Adam Silvera

theybothdieIn a not-too-distant future universe- or I don’t know, maybe it’s way in the distance – Mateo Torrez gets the call everyone dreads:

…I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-four hours you’ll be meeting an untimely death. And while there isn’t anything we can do to suspend that, you still have a chance to live.

Mateo is only seventeen and he certainly doesn’t want to die.

Neither does eighteen-year-old Rufus Emeterio. He gets the call as he’s beating the snot out of Peck, his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.

Death-Cast makes the call, but they can’t tell you anything more than sometime in the next twenty-four hours your number is up. That’s the premise of Adam Silvera’s philosophically astute and heart-breaking YA novel, They Both Die at the End.

Mateo and Rufus came from vastly different worlds. Mateo is introverted and lives his life from the safety of his apartment. His father in in the hospital in a coma; his best friend, Lidia and her infant daughter, Penny, are his closest friends. Rufus lives in a group home. His family had received the Death-Cast call and perished. He has a new family, now, a rag-tag group of foster kids and the foster parents who love them. Despite the fact that he was beating someone up when we meet him, he is a sweet and thoughtful kid.

Mateo and Rufus meet via the Last Friend App, an app “designed for lonely Deckers and for any good soul who wants to keep a Decker company in their final hours.” (Decker meaning those on deck to die). Although the boys come from vastly different worlds, their one night together opens them up to life’s possibilities in ways neither could have imagined.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Mot people exist, that’s all.” Oscar Wilde

That’s the quote that opens this much-lauded novel. It’s so true, isn’t it? We hide behind our phones, we curate our lives for social media (just look at pictures of people at concerts; everyone is holding up a phone to video the performance rather than enjoying it in the moment.) We collect stuff, not memories. We don’t really talk to each other anymore. With the specter of the end hanging over their heads, Mateo and Rufus spend the day criss-crossing NYC, having meaningful moments with their loved ones and moments of introspection with themselves.

Thornton Wilder warned audiences back in the 1930s that life was “too wonderful for anybody to realize.” In his play, Our Town, Emily asks the Stage Manager if “any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute.” I think Mateo and Rufus would have appreciated Wilder’s sentiment.

I truly fell in love with these characters, and I kept thinking “surely they’re not going to die” but the book’s title is not misleading. Silvera’s novel is outstanding and I highly recommend it.

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.