Alone – Cyn Balog

Cyn Balog’s YA novel Alone is the story of sixteen-year-old Seda who lives with her mother and four younger siblings in Bismarck-Chisholm House or, as she calls it, Bug House. Seda’s mother is a former Boston College professor who is currently writing a book, her father is MIA and her siblings are two sets of twins aged six and four. Seda was a twin, too, but her brother Sawyer was absorbed into her own body in the womb, or so says family lore.

For years Bug House was run as a “Murder” house, where patrons could stay in one of eighteen guest rooms and had the daylights scared out of them. It’s an isolated spot; the nearest store is twenty miles down the mountain. Seda, our narrator, laments the isolation, the loss of her life in Boston, her father’s disappearance from her life, her mother’s kookiness, the fact that there’s no cell service, and just the general creepiness of Bug House.

All that changes though when a freak snow storm ushers in a handful of strangers, three boys and two girls.

The other members of his group are beautiful, yes, but he – with his thick mop of hair spilling out of the openings of the hockey mask and big heavily-lidded brown eyes – is godly. He’s the kind that always gets it last and worst in slasher films, just before his smart and sassy girlfriend-heroine saves the day.

Alone amps up the creepy house narrative with an unreliable narrator, a house full of secrets and a scavenger hunt game that quickly goes off the rails. There’s enough twists and turns and things that go bump in the night to make any fan of horror movies or scary stories happy. I did find that it got off to a slow start, but once it got going it was an enjoyable page-turner.

It Sounded Better in My Head – Nina Kenwood

Nina Kenwood’s YA debut It Sounded Better in My Head wasn’t even on my radar when I recently picked it up at the bookstore. It was a William C. Morris Debut finalist and had excellent reviews from School Library Journal and Bookpage (I trust those sort of endorsements over author plugs, tbh) so I bought it. It might have languished with all the other unread books in my class library, but I picked it up to read and honestly couldn’t put it down.

Eighteen-year-old Australian, Natalie, is waiting for her university admission results and planning her future with her besties Zach and Lucy, when her parents announce that they are separating. Worse, they knew this was coming and had neglected to tell her for ten months. Some almost-adults might take this in their stride, but it knocks Natalie sideways because she likes solid plans and the status quo. That’s how her world works.

Or that’s how it has worked ever since she hit puberty and her body betrayed her.

I went from being a straight up-and-down stick figure to a scribble of hips, stomach, breasts, thighs and stretch marks. I didn’t even know stretch marks were a thing.

[…]

But the stretch marks were nothing compared with the pimples. A regular scattering of pimples at first, and then more, and more. Then pimples that turned, almost overnight, into deep, cystic acne. […] It’s gross. I was gross. I woke up thinking that every day for a long time.

I suspect we can all remember the awkwardness of being a teenager, of comparing yourself to others, and Natalie spends most of her early teens friendless and hiding out. At thirteen, she becomes “Reluctant Natalie. Anxious Natalie. Bitter Natalie. Neurotic Natalie.” At fifteen, though, after medication clears up her skin a little and her mother convinces her to attend a creative writing camp, she meets Lucy and Zach.

It’s still hard for Natalie to put herself out there, but all that is about to change when Zach’s older brother, Alex, and his friend, Owen, invite her to a party and Natalie surprises herself by accepting. When Alex and Natalie find themselves in a dark alley because of a game of Spin the Bottle, Natalie finds herself in uncharted water.

And the whole thing is sheer delight. Honestly, I loved Natalie. Let’s face it, it’s only as an adult looking back that your teen years seem even mildly awesome. The best years of your life, my ass. I suspect Natalie speaks for a whole bunch of teens who breathe a sigh of relief when Friday night rolls around. For Natalie it meant that she didn’t “have to go outside or see anyone other than [her] parents for the next two whole days.”

Over the course of just a few days, Natalie’s life is upended, but sometimes that’s what needs to happen in order to get the life you want.

Highly recommended.

The Great Godden – Meg Rosoff

Nothing much happens in Meg Rosoff’s latest novel The Great Godden. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say nothing happens. The novel is a quiet gut-punch rather than the wallop Rosoff packed with her novel How I Live Now, but it’s a fascinating character study and great read.

Two families spend time every summer on the Suffolk coast. There’s our unnamed narrator and their siblings Mattie, Tamsin and Alex and their parents. Then there’s Hope and Mal, who live in another little house on the property. Hope is the narrator’s father’s “much younger cousin”. This summer is disrupted by the arrival of Kit and Hugo Godden, sons of Hope’s godmother, Florence, Hollywood film star.

Our narrator’s gender is deliberately ambiguous and one of the delights of the novel is trying to suss out if they are male or female – although ultimately it doesn’t matter. Either way, the first time they see Kit Godden, as he unfolds himself from the back of his mother’s limo, they think

Kit Godden was something else – golden skin, thick auburn hair streaked with gold, hazel eyes flecked with gold – a kind of golden Greek statue of youth. […] In my memory he seems to glow. I can shut my eyes and see how he looked to us then, skin lit from within as if he’d spent hours absorbing sunlight only to slow release it back into the world.

Kit’s younger brother, Hugo, pales by comparison and the two brothers don’t seem to get along. Kit’s charm contrasts sharply with Hugo’s surly quiet. But as we all know, all that glitters in not gold.

The narrator watches as Kit’s attention focuses on the their younger (and beautiful) sister Mattie, and how “Within four seconds he had charmed her practically to death.” The narrator is also smitten, though. As the summer goes along, they watch Mattie coast on the romantic highs Kit offers, and also watch her shrink when Kit diverts his attention away from her. And that’s what Kit does: he’s a player and The Great Godden is a wonderful character study of how we take the shiny, pretty bauble at face-value.

The Great Godden is shot through with a vein of dread; we can see the potential for the train wreck a mile down the track, but we keep heading for it. That’s what the narrator does. One part of them doesn’t believe a thing that comes out of Kit’s mouth; the other part believes every word and the whole thing is fascinating.

This is a story which is told from some distant point, where the narrator has had time to reflect on that summer and it adds an air of melancholy to the story because the narrator realizes, in retrospect, exactly what was lost. I love books that do this. The plot unfolds in the moment, but the gaze is distant. The writing is straight-forward and clean and I gobbled the book up in a couple of sittings.

Meg Rosoff talks about the book here.

Punching the Air – Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam

I try to remember what I privileged position I inhabit when I read books like Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. What can I, a white, middle-aged (I know, it’s a stretch to call me middle-aged), middle-class woman from Eastern Canada, really know about what it is to live in this world as a BIPOC? Nothing. It would be a stretch to even say that I have been discriminated against because I am female because if I have been, I haven’t really been aware of it.

I do think I have a responsibility, as an educator – sure – but also as a human being, to educate myself and expose myself to experiences that are unfamiliar to me. It’s not enough to hope that our children will be better humans than we are; we all have to do better.

Punching the Air is a novel-in-verse that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Amal Shahid, an artist and poet, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, although he does admit that he “threw the first punch.” Turns out “…it wasn’t about/who threw the first punch/ It was about courts, turf, space/ Me and them other boys/ were just trying to go home”.

Jeremy, the white boy who gets hurt in the altercation is in a coma, and Amal ends up in a juvenile detention facility. He tries to work through his confusion and anger, but it isn’t easy. “I went from/kid to criminal to felon/to prisoner to inmate” and despite a supportive family he must navigate his new reality on his own.

Punching the Air tracks Amal’s time in the facility where he vacillates between hopelessness and hopefulness. Although he is not doing hard time with hardened criminals, juvie is still an unpleasant place. Amal tries to keep his head down. He goes to school. He does what is asked of him – mostly. But he’s a kid and the system is stacked against him and the weight of all those bricks of discrimination weigh heavy on him.

I read Punching the Air in an afternoon. Amal’s voice is clear as a bell. This experience, while fictional, comes from a place of truth. Yusef Salaam himself was convicted of a crime he did not commit when he was just fifteen. (Central Park Five) His experiences with a justice system that is clearly stacked against people of colour – and there is no one in their right mind who could dispute this – adds a layer of authenticity to Amal’s story. But even without Salaam’s experiences, this novel has much to contribute to the discussion and is a worthy addition to classroom and personal libraries. I will certainly be recommending it to my students.

Family – Micol Ostow

In the summer of 1969, seven people in L.A. were murdered by people tied to Charles Manson. Manson was a wannabe singer and leader of a cult-like group. In 1974, Vincent Bugliosi’s (with help from Curt Gentry) account of the events, Helter Skelter, was published. When she was twelve, Micol Ostow’s father gave her a copy of the book and it is clearly the inspiration for her YA novel Family.

Family is the story of seventeen-year-old Melinda Jensen. She’s run away from home, leaving behind an emotionally distant mother and a sexually abusive “uncle jack.”

now meant “uncle jack” and whiskey breath and roaming hands and squeaking bedsprings.

it meant mother, treading water, understanding that jack was not your uncle, not your father, not your family. mother, watching you drown, doing nothing as you drifted, as the current pulled you to a place where whiskey breath and roaming hands couldn’t reach.

Melinda doesn’t use capitals for anything, unless she’s talking about Henry. He finds Melinda, “a heap of bones, a tangle of stringy hair, collapsed on a sticky park bench” and offers her what she seems to desperately need. He scoops Melinda up and whisks her back to the ranch, where he lives with a bunch of other misfits. The rules are simple: “everything belongs to everyone. there are no parents, no ownership, no ego. no “i”.”

For a time, Melinda finds relief from her life at the ranch. It’s all free love and shared meals and music. To be in Henry’s orbit is to be chosen, doused in his special light. Until, of course, it’s not. Until she is called upon to participate in a horrific crime.

Family is written in verse and this might, perhaps, be one of its problems. It’s a bit repetitive. I loved the idea of the book and anyone familiar with Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders will certainly recognize the parallels. I wanted to empathize with Melinda, clearly she’s had a rough go, but it was hard to really care about any of these characters given that the prose was so fragmented. I have read other novels-in-verse and have found them satisfying, but this one just didn’t pack the emotional punch I was expecting. I think if you are at all interested in Manson, you should definitely give Helter Skelter a go. Like Ostow, I read it as a teenager and it really is quintessential true crime.

The Lying Woods – Ashley Elston

Owen Foster has it all going on. He’s a high school senior at an exclusive private school in New Orleans and his parents are loaded. His life has been pretty sweet. That is until his mother shows up one day to tell him that he has to come home to Lake Cane because his father has been accused of stealing from the very company that provided Owen with his privileged life and also, he’s missing.

This is just part of the story in Ashley Elston’s compelling YA mystery The Lying Woods. The second narrative happens twenty years in the past when nineteen-year-old Noah arrives in Lake Cane looking for work at Gus Trudeau’s pecan farm. Noah hasn’t had an easy life, but he’s hoping to turn things around and despite Gus’s warning that he’ll put a bullet in him if he steps out of line, Noah is convinced that he can make something of himself here. When he meets Maggie, he’s sure of it.

Readers will have a great time trying to figure out how these two timelines are related, but the best thing about Elston’s novel is that both stories are interesting all on their own. For Owen, he’s trying to figure out if the things that his father is accused of are true. The company his father ran, Louisiana Frac, employed a lot of people in the small town, and what his father did has left a lot of them without a job, or worse, without their life savings. People are suspicious of Owen’s mother, convinced that she knew what her husband was up to and even has some of the missing money. When Owen has to finish his senior year at the local high school he discovers that he doesn’t really have any friends with the exception, perhaps, of Pippa, his best friend when he was a kid. She, at least, seems willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Noah is the proverbial kid from the wrong side of the tracks. As his relationship with Maggie develops, he is not unaware of the complications their relationship presents. But he is willing to do whatever it takes to make a life with her. But it seems Noah can’t catch a break. I was really rooting for things to go his way, too.

Although this is classified as YA, it actually has a lot to offer adult readers. The writing is as good as any you’d find in an adult mystery; the characters are believable and sympathetic; the mystery is twisty enough to keep you guessing. I haven’t ever read this author before, but I would certainly like to read more.

One of Us is Lying – Karen M. McManus

Nate and Bronwyn 4eva! Yeah, sure, there are other characters in Karen M. McManus’s super fun YA page-turner One of Us is Lying, but as we all know I am a sucker for a misunderstood bad boy. (At my age, I should really be over that. ) Okay, let’s not get off track here.

Bronwyn (super-smart), Nate (known drug dealer), Cooper (star athlete), Addy (beauty queen) and Simon (outcast) are all sent to detention for having phones in class. (Cue The Breakfast Club soundtrack.) Yes, these are the stereotypes you’d expect to find in a YA novel, but McManus manages to make each of these characters way more than they appear on paper.

Each character is given their opportunity to speak, so the narrative clicks along really quickly. (I read this novel in about one sitting – mostly because I couldn’t put it down.) Before detention is over, Simon is dead and the four remaining students find themselves prime suspects in his death. (Murder?)

Simon wasn’t actually a very nice guy. He ran a blog called About That which reported high school gossip and revealed dark secrets, secrets students would certainly rather not share. And it turns out that the four remaining teens all have something to hide. As Bronwyn says: “As a general rule, and especially lately, I try to give Simon as little information as possible.”

As some of these secrets come to light, suspicion shifts from one student to the other. And all the while, someone is still posting on Simon’s blog. So whodunnit is definitely a big part of the fun with this book.

Additionally, though, McManus makes you care about each of the four main characters. They are fully realized individuals, with back stories which will likely speak to many teen readers. There are a slew of equally compelling secondary characters and even the parents (who are often remote, shadowy creatures in YA) are not static.

The fun of this novel is not only trying to figure out who might have a motive to kill Simon (they all do), but how this supposed murder might have taken place. And that would have made for a great book all on its own. but McManus makes this novel about so much more than that. She tackles bullying, the weight of expectations, friendships, toxic relationships, the rumour mill and its devastating consequences, and trust without making any of it instructive.

I loved these characters and I had so much fun reading this book. Can’t wait to read the sequel.

Highly recommended.

No Saints in Kansas – Amy Brashear

A chance encounter with the relative of Bobby Rupp, one of the original suspects in the deaths of the Clutter family, inspired Amy Brashear to write No Saints in Kansas. In this YA novel, Brashear reimagines the murders, made famous in Truman Capote’s masterpiece of non-fiction In Cold Blood, from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Carly Fleming. Although she is a work of fiction, her father, Arthur, is the lawyer who ultimately defends one of the two men convicted of the homicides.

Carly and her younger brother Asher and their parents have relocated to Holcomb, Kansas from New York City after one of Mr. Fleming’s cases goes sideways. Holcomb is a backwater compared to Manhattan, and Carly has a hard time fitting in. She is an “outsider” and no matter what she does, it feels like she always will be. From her point of view, the way “in” is through Nancy Clutter because “Everyone likes – I mean, everyone liked – the Clutter family.” It feels like a dream come true with she is asked to tutor Nancy, although Nancy seems less happy about it. In her imagination, Carly imagines that tutoring Nancy is

…how we became best friends. From that moment on, we were inseparable. We were attached at the hip. At lunch, at 4-H club, at every school event, double dates, sleepovers, I was popular by association.

I wish.

When the Clutters are found dead in their home, and Carly learns that Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby is a suspect, she is determined to clear his name. She snoops in ways that are, truthfully, wholly unbelievable including a visit to the Clutter farm post-murders and stealing documents from the courthouse.

Although the real-life Clutter murders are the backdrop for Carly’s story, this is just as much about what it is to not fit in. Holcomb is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone. Some of the teens in Carly’s orbit are downright mean to her. Her one “friend”, Mary Claire, runs hot and cold. No Saints in Kansas is as much about navigating an awkward adolescence as it is about the Clutter crime.

For anyone who has read In Cold Blood this book will obviously pale in comparison. Capote’s book, which I read many, many years ago, is meticulously researched (interestingly, Harper Lee spent time in Holcomb acting as Capote’s researcher), but still reads like fiction. Capote reconstructs the Clutter’s last day, follows the investigation and also paints a picture of their murderers that is often quite sympathetic, particularly towards Perry Smith, with whom Capote had a close relationship.

None of this is to say that Brashear’s  book is without merit. I think most younger readers would find it compelling enough and reading it  might encourage them to tackle Capote’s book, too.

 

Rules of Attraction – Simone Elkeles

I read the first  novel in Simone Elkeles Perfect Chemistry trilogy, Perfect Chemistry sevenrules years ago. (Yikes!!!) Since then, I have recommended the book countless times to students looking for a romantic, fast-paced story. I have never had a single student tell me they didn’t like it. It’s a great book and even boys enjoy the story of Alex and Brittany. And if they like that book, well, Alex has two brothers and they each get their own novel. I hadn’t read either of the follow -ups, so I grabbed Rules of Attraction to bring home to read during this strange time of quarantine.

At the end of Perfect Chemistry, Alex and Brittany had left Chicago and gone off to college in Colorado. Carlos, 18, has now been sent to live in Colorado to get him away from the gangs in Mexico, where his mother and younger brother Luis still live. Carlos is the proverbial “angry young man”. The decision to go to America was not his

Mi’ama didn’t ask if I wanted to leave Mexico and move to Colorado to live with my brother Alex for my senior year of high school. She made the decision to send me back to America “for my own good” – her words, not mine.

So, he’s pissed off at the world: At his brother who left gang life when he fell in love with Brittany, at the system which seems against him, at the world, and at Kiara, the daughter of the professor with whom he lives as a condition of getting caught with drugs soon after he starts school.

Kiara, also a senior, is a good girl. (Of course, that’s the way these stories go. :-)) She’s recently been text-dumped and she’s feeling a little raw. She knows Alex because he works as a mechanic (to help pay for college) and he’s been helping her refurbish her car. When he asks her to show Carlos around school, she happily agrees. Carlos, however, isn’t interested in being shown anything.

I don’t need a damn peer guide because (1) it’s obvious from the way Alex greeted Kiara a few minutes ago that he knows her, and (2) the girl is not hot; she has her hair up in a ponytail, is wearing leather hiking boots and three-quarter stretch pants with an Under Armour logo peeking out the bottom, and is covered from neck to knee by an oversized T-shirt with the word MOUNTAINEER written on it, and (3) I don’t need a babysitter, especially one my brother arranged.

Of course, readers know that Kiara and Carlos will end up together, that she will bring out the hidden softness in him, that he will fall in love with her inherent goodness, that they’ll overcome the obstacles chucked in their path.

Teen readers will eat it up.

Books to distract you…

When it comes to reading these days,  I am looking for books that are total page turners. I want to be entertained and distracted without it being too labour intensive…so I thought I would offer up a few titles that might fit the bill.

First off, I HIGHLY recommend everyone check out Thomas H. Cook. If you tend to read via kobo or kindle you can probably get a hold of his stuff and he’s definitely on Audible. Cook is mystery writer I discovered probably 20 years ago. Since that first book, Breakheart Hill, I have been a massive fan.

I recommend Master of the Delta, which is the story of young teacher who gets in way over his head with a student whose father is a serial killer.

Another great book by Cook is Instruments of the Night which is the story of a writer who is asked to imagine what might have happened to a young girl who disappeared 50 years ago. Paul is not without some demons of his own and it makes for white-knuckle reading.

But, really, no matter what you pick, it will be worth reading.

Another total page-turner is Peter Swanson’s book The Kind Worth Killing. It’s the storykindworth of a man and woman who meet by chance at Heathrow airport. Over a drink, the man reveals that he thinks that his wife is having an affair and he wants to kill her – which may be a bit of an extreme reaction, but there you go. The woman offers to help the man’s fantasy become a reality and the novel does not let up from there.

Lots of readers will be familiar with Gillian Flynn because of the massive success of Gone Girl, but I actually liked Dark Places better. It’s the story of Libby Day, an angry, damaged woman who survived the murders of her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, Ben, has been in jail for the crime for the past 24 years. But did he actually do it?

Other writers who consistently deliver books with a pulse include Lisa Jewell  (I recently read The Family Upstairs and I couldn’t put it down) and Tim Johnston (Descent is one of the best books I’ve ever read.)

My-Sunshine-AwayOne last book you should add to your tbr pile is M.O. Walsh’s debut My Sunshine Away. This is a coming-of-age novel about a boy obsessed with a neighborhood girl who is raped. Readers will not be able to turn the pages of this book fast enough.

Moving away from the thrillers a little bit, but still talking about books that will immerse you in a world that is not this one, I may as well include a book about people who are trapped together in one place. In Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, a group of people are at a gala in South America when terrorists storm the building and take everyone hostage. That’s the plot in a nutshell – but this book is SO much more than that. Riveting and heartbreaking and life affirming.

Another book that will drop you into another world is John Connolly’s masterful novel The Book of Lost Things which follows young David as he journeys  through a twisted fairy tale world in search of a way to rescue his mother from death’s clutches.

Finally, if you haven’t yet read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng now would be the perfect time. This story about a family growing up in Ohio in the 1980s has it all: characters you want to hug, complicated relationships between parents and their children, siblings and spouses and a mystery. The book’s opening line is “Lydia is dead.” and it really doesn’t let up from there.

Let’s not forget young adult readers. As a teacher I would really be thrilled if my students would just spend 30 minutes a day reading. I know it’s not possible to visit the book store these days, but Bookoutlet.ca and Indigo both deliver. 🙂

Here are some awesome titles for your teen.

We Are Still Tornadoes  by Susan Mullen and Michael Kun The story follows besties Cath and Scott during the first year after high school. It’s 1982 and so way before technology, so the pair write letters back and forth. This is a feel-good novel that made me laugh out loud.

For fans of Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Grey and Salt to the Sea)  check out her latest novel The Fountains of Silence, which takes a look at Spain under Franco’s dictatorship. Sepetys is fantastic at making history and people come alive and this is a great step up for older teens.

If your teen hasn’t yet discovered Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers, now would be the perfect time. She’s written a terrific, page-turning zombie novel This Is Not a Test and her latest novel, Sadie, is a wonderful hybrid novel that follows a young woman on the hunt for her sister’s killer. There’s a podcast you can listen to, as well. I haven’t yet met a Courtney Summers novel I haven’t loved.

Finally,A Short History of the Girl Next Door  by Jared Reck is a beautiful coming -of-age story about a boy in love with the girl who lives across the cul de sac from him. They’ve been besties, nothing more, since they were little kids…and things are about to get complicated. This is a terrific book for anyone.

I know these are trying times…but a good book really can help pass the time, and I hope you’ve seen something here that makes you want to read.