Tag Archive | YA

This Gorgeous Game – Donna Freitas

Olivia Peters, the protagonist in Donna Freitas’ YA novel This Gorgeous Game,  is a seventeen-year-old aspiring writer who lives with her single mom and older sister in a close knit Catholic community in Boston. How Catholic? Let’s just say that the Peters’ have lots of priests and nuns for dinner and Olivia attends a high school where the principal is a nun.

gorgeousOlivia is beautiful and outgoing, but she’s one of those girls who doesn’t really know it – or, if she knows it, she doesn’t flaunt it. She’s a good girl. She’s obedient. All she wants-  all she can ever remember wanting – is to be a writer. When she wins the first annual Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize  she admits “I’ve always loved writing but I didn’t really think it would amount to anything.” The prize is substantial: a ten thousand dollar scholarship towards the college of Olivia’s choice, publication of her story and a spot in Father Mark Brendan’s prestigious summer fiction seminar.

Yeah, that  Mark Brendan. Olivia knows him – by reputation, at least.

I am struck by the tiny lines that web from his smiling eyes, the gleam from his perfect white teeth, his thick salt-and-pepper hair, the size of his hands, so large, the hands of a strong man. Everything about him seems to glow from within and soon I am aware that I am not the only person in the room who finds this visitor striking.

This priest is a celebrity, and also super-creepy. I mean, c’mon, the first thing he does is invite Olivia for a drink. She shows up in her school uniform and drinks hot chocolate while he drinks scotch and holds court.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but the moment I first saw you, I wondered to myself: how did so much talent, such insight and imagination, come from a girl so young, and with such startling beauty? What a beauty! I thought. God must have such extraordinary plans for such a creation as this.

In the beginning, Olivia basks in the glow of Father Mark’s attention: the private meetings to (ostensibly, at least) work on editing her story, the notes he leaves for her, the packages he sends. But soon Olivia is feeling isolated from her friends and family and Mark’s enthusiasm for her talent starts to feel like a yoke around her neck. He turns up unexpectedly in places he shouldn’t be, waits for her outside the school, gives her inappropriate gifts, calls her incessantly.

Turns out, Father Mark is not only a talented writer, but a talented stalker, too. Is it because of his celebrity status that the adults in Olivia’s life don’t see the change in her demeanor: she stops eating, her hair is listless, the spark is gone. She makes excuses until she can’t anymore, but I was really disappointed in her mother and in Sister June, the school principal, who seemed to have some misgivings early on, but didn’t intervene.

This Gorgeous Game is a page-turner that highlights the ways  in which someone in a position of power takes advantage of someone vulnerable. There is nothing graphic here and Olivia is a likeable narrator, if a little sheltered and naïve – which is, of course, completely understandable given her upbringing.

 

 

 

Modern Monsters – Kelley York

Kelley York’s YA novel Modern Monsters is a relatively straight-forward story about the modernmonstersaftermath of a sexual assault. This is my second novel by York and while there is certainly nothing wrong with it, I preferred Made of Stars, which I found to be beautifully written and nuanced. Modern Monsters suffers (but only slightly) by comparison.

Vic Howard is a senior at high school. He’s a slightly awkward loner with a stutter who knows his place on the social ladder.

I am not important. I am tolerated by association. I am Vic Howard, Brett Mason’s Best Friend, so while people don’t always care to learn anything about me, they do recognize my face. Being cool to me, they seem to think, is a way to stay cool with Brett.

Vic and Brett have been friends since they were kids. Sometimes when Vic looks at Brett he sees “the chubby pimple-faced kid with braces and glasses.” This long-standing relationship is why Brett doesn’t impress or intimidate Vic. It’s also the reason why Vic does anything even remotely sociable: he is often Brett’s plus one.

That’s how he ends up at a huge party out at a cabin by a lake. He doesn’t want to go, but Brett insists. And that’s how he happens upon Callie Wheeler throwing up in the bushes. Vic deliberates leaving her alone – but only for a moment. Vic helps Callie to a bedroom, places a waste bucket beside the bed, and acknowledges that he’s done his part.

Except a day or two later the police arrive at Vic’s house to question him. Callie was raped at the party and Vic was the last person seen with her.

Modern Monsters tackles a tricky  and timely subject with a great deal of care.  The horror of being accused of something is bad enough, but Vic’s mother doesn’t seem to believe Vic when he vehemently denies the accusation. She can’t even seem to look him in the eye. He takes refuge at Brett’s house. Brett’s parents have always been like a surrogate family and Brett’s father is a lawyer who agrees to help him.

The kids at school are less forgiving and when the rumours start to spread Vic finds himself in some pretty dicey situations. It is Callie’s best friend, Autumn, who first believes Vic’s innocence and together the two begin to try to figure out who the real rapist is. Their sleuthing also leads to a relationship, Vic’s first.

Vic is a likeable character. He’s not perfect, but he’s decent. He’s a hard-working, honest and sympathetic character and it’s impossible not to like him. Autumn is feisty and smart. Even Caillie, although her role is peripheral, reveals herself to be forgiving and human.

This book is as much about standing up for yourself as it is about the horrors of sexual assault. Vic must navigate tricky family dynamics, the first stirrings of romance, and people’s mistrust of him. Whatever his perceived shortcomings, Vic is a good guy and readers will be rooting for him.

A Step Toward Falling – Cammie McGovern

astepAlthough Belinda and Emily, the alternating narrators of Cammie McGovern’s excellent YA novel A Step Toward Falling, attend the same high school, the two girls couldn’t be more unalike.  Belinda is twenty-one and spends her days in the Life Skills class with other students who have physical  or developmental disabilities. Emily is a high school senior who co-chairs her school’s Youth Action Coalition with her gay bff, Richard, but hasn’t ever really taken a stand, preferring to work behind-the-scenes..

At a high school football game, Belinda is attacked and Emily witnesses the event and does nothing – not because she’s a horrible person, far from it, but because her “brain couldn’t process what it was seeing.” Anyway, in the next instant she sees Lucas, one of the school’s football players, running from under the bleachers and she is sure he saved Belinda. The fact that he did nothing either, sends Lucas and Emily to the Lifelong Learning Centre where they must volunteer with young adults who have  a variety of  developmental disabilities.

As for Belinda, she retreats to the safety of her home where she lives with her mother and grandmother. She watches Pride and Prejudice, and avoids talking about what happened to her because according to her Nan “what’s done is done, sweetheart. The important thing is you’re home now and you’re safe. You never have to go back to that school or see those people again as far as I’m concerned.”

Navigating high school is hard enough, but everything about the girls’ journey – albeit different –  feels  honest. Belinda is in love with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. She is quite sure that he is watching her from the television screen, and she’s “pretty sure he loves me, too.”  Belinda’s innocence is what protects her from understanding that Ron, one of the football team’s star players, doesn’t actually care for her, even though he asked her to dance at a Best Buddies event.

Emily has spent all of high school hiding out in the library. She watches the table of football players and their picture-perfect cheerleader girlfriends and dreams about a post-high school life where everything will be better.

Lucas, who is seen only through Emily’s eyes, is huge and “a little scary-looking.” But, like all the characters in McGovern’s novel, there is more to him than first meets the eye.  And that’s kind of the point. How can we ever truly know someone if we never bother to talk to them, try to understand them or  extend the branch of friendship?

McGovern’s novel might have veered into ‘preachy-ness’ had it not been for the authentic voices of Belinda and Emily. I loved spending time with these girls. I loved how Emily and Lucas made a genuine effort to make amends and, in the process, became better people. There is certainly a lesson here, but it doesn’t feel instructive as much as it feels heartfelt and human.

Highly recommended.

All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

Not all YA books are created equal. When I was a teen in the 70s YA was barely a thing. Basically I went from reading The Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon to reading Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Scholastic flyer at school offered some options and I can all-the-bright-places-jktspecifically remember reading and falling in love with S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This is Now (a book I loved way more than I loved The Outsiders), and Judy Blume’s Forever, but the reading choices certainly weren’t as varied as they are for teens today.  I read a lot of YA now because I teach teens. Lots of it is mediocre. Lots of it is good. Then, every so often, you read a book you just want to tell all your students about. You want every single teen you know on the planet to read it. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is one of those books.

Theodore Finch is seventeen. He begins his story by asking “Is today a good day to die?” He’s considering this question from “a narrow ledge six floors above the ground.” That’s when he sees the girl, Violet Markey. “She stands a few feet away on the other side of the tower, also out on the ledge…”

This is how Niven begins to tell the story of Finch and Violet. Finch ‘rescues’ Violet, but because he has a reputation as being a freak, a loser, and unstable, the rumour around school is that Violet saved him. From this unlikely scenario, a beautiful friendship springs.

After Finch talks Violet off the ledge he asks her: “Do you think there’s such a thing as a perfect day?…A perfect day. Start to finish. Where nothing terrible or sad or ordinary happens. Do you think it’s possible?”  Just typing that now makes me feel as though I want to cry.

Violet doesn’t seem like a likely match for Finch. She’s “cheerleader popular” and dates Ryan Cross, a movie star handsome baseball star. Still, when the two are paired to participate in a “Wander Indiana” project (part of a course in U.S. Geography), they discover a kinship neither expected. As they travel to various points of interest, they start to trust each other. Violet begins the painful process of shedding the grief of a tragic accident and Finch finds more and more reason to stay “awake.”

One of the things that makes a YA novel great for me is characterization. I want the teens to feel authentic, not like stereotypes. Finch and Violet are beautifully crafted creations, and the people who circle their lives (parents and siblings and friends) are also well-drawn and nuanced. Finch’s mom is broken from her failed marriage; Violet’s parents are over-protective. As a mom of teens myself, I like to see parents in YA portrayed as real people – flawed and messy and trying to do the best they can even when can’t fix anything at all.

The other element of the novel that Niven handles so well is the issue of mental illness. All the Bright Places is not a “sick lit” book. Finch’s struggles are authentic and nuanced and painfully rendered in prose that is a joy to read. I can’t remember the last time a character has broken my heart, but Finch most certainly did.

I can’t recommend All the Bright Places highly enough. Buy it for every teen you know. Buy it for yourself.

 

 

Ten – Gretchen McNeil

There are enough diversions and red herrings in Gretchen McNeil’s YA mystery Ten to tenkeep attentive readers on their toes. The straight-forward narrative and familiar characters (the mean girl, the jock, the good girl) will certainly be appealing to readers of a certain age, but there isn’t much on offer here for anyone else.

Meg and her best friend, Minnie, have been invited to a weekend party on Henry Island, one of the islands off the coast of Washington State. Meg’s not really the party type and she’s already anxious about the fact that they’ve “lied to [their] parents and gone to a house party in the middle of nowhere.”

The party comes on the heels of a gruesome discovery at a rival high school – “the charred remains of a body found in the locker room.”

When the girls arrive (by ferry), they find the rest of the party guests: T.J. Fletcher, hunky football player and Meg’s not-so-secret-crush; Ben, the new boyfriend of their hostess, Jessica (who never shows us); Gunner, surfer dude; Kumiko, Gunner’s new girlfriend (Minnie was his former girlfriend); Vivian, seemingly sensible; Lori, random girl; Nathan and Kenny; token Neanderthals.

The festivities start with a few beers and then things start to go whacky. First of all, Ben almost dies from anaphylactic shock. Then, the group watches a strange and disturbing video that claims : “Vengeance is Mine.”  Someone tosses the room Meg and Minnie are sharing. Meg finds a strange diary. And then, one by one, people start to die.

Alliances and nerves start to fray as the teens realize they are cut off from civilization (no cell service or Internet) and that no one knows where they are. The most they can hope for is that Jessica arrives, as planned, on the next ferry.

McNeil keeps the action ticking along. The third person narrative is focused pretty tightly on Meg – but who hasn’t heard of an unreliable narrator before? There’s not a lot of opportunity for character development, not that it really matters. I think most teens will enjoy the straight ahead action, the creepy deaths and Meg’s valiant attempt to figure out who the killer is before it’s too late.

For the record: I didn’t get it right.

 

Winger – Andrew Smith

It is so much easier for me to read YA books that are geared for girls, but since it’s often the boys who are reluctant readers in my classes, I really make an effort to buy and read books I think might appeal to them. Andrew Smith’s book Winger is one book which has garnered copious praise – and it is definitely a book I can highly recommend to those boys who say they don’t like to read.

Ryan Dean West attends a private school called Pine Mountain in Oregon. He’s in Grade Eleven winger-smitheven though he’s only fourteen. He’s super smart. He’s also a talented artist (many of his drawings, cartoons and graphs are included in this novel) and he’s also a terrific rugby player. His nickname, “Winger”, comes from the position he plays on the team.

But despite a whole list of things in Ryan Dean’s plus column, there’s a few things on the negative side. For one, this year he’s living in Opportunity Hall, O-Hall, where they stuck him “after they caught me hacking a cell phone account so I could make undetected, untraceable free calls.” Living in O-Hall sucks for two reasons: 1. Ryan Dean isn’t living with his two best friends Seanie and J.P. and 2. His new roomie is Chas Becker “a friendless jerk who navigated the seas of high school with his rudder fixed on a steady course of intimidation and cruelty.”

The one thing in Ryan West’s life that is both blessing a curse is Annie Altman.  Annie is also in grade eleven, but she’s sixteen. She’s Ryan Dean’s best friend, but he is also desperately in love with her.

…most people would think there couldn’t possibly be anything between us beyond a noticeable degree of friendship, even if I did think she was smoking hot in an alluring and mature “naughty babysitter” kind of way

This year at Pine Mountain turns out to be a year of firsts for Ryan Dean, but it is also a year when he makes a lot of mistakes. He capitulates to teen pressure and drinks for the first time. He gets into fist fights. He makes out with another guy’s girlfriend. But through it all, he remains self-deprecating. In his words: “I am such a loser.”

Ryan Dean is just one of the many lovely things about Smith’s book. I am not a fourteen-year-old-boy, nor have I ever been, but Ryan Dean’s voice feels authentic to me. He is constantly walking that fine line between making a smart choice and doing something he knows he shouldn’t. His narrative is filled with inappropriate talk about sex (just about every girl/woman he encounters makes his acute sexual radar) and expletives which he only ever uses “in writing, and occasionally in silent prayer.”

Winger is filled with laugh-out-loud moments – mostly due to inappropriate sex-talk, but also really lovely moments between Annie and Ryan Dean and Ryan Dean and Joey, another guy on the rugby team who also happens to be gay.

You couldn’t pay me to be a teenager today. But spending time with them is always a delight, even when they break my heart.

Highly recommended.

All The Rage – Courtney Summers

Courtney Summers is Canadian – let’s just get that out of the way. I am extra disposed to courtney-summers-all-the-ragelove her because she’s, you know, Canadian. Like Ryan Gosling is Canadian. And ketchup chips. Okay, now I am just putting off talking about All The Rage because reading Summers isn’t like reading other YA writers. She hits you hard right in the solar plexus. Every. Time.

Romy Grey used to be on the inside – until a party  changes everything.  Now she finds herself navigating the shark-infested waters of her high school and her small town, Grebe, where everyone knows everyone and all those everyones are subservient to the Turners – the town sheriff and his business owner wife.

When Romy wakes up in a ditch, disoriented and with no memory of what’s happened to her, it brings her back to another night when a beautiful boy  – a boy she wanted – rapes her in the back of his pick-up truck.

…how do you get a girl to stop crying?

You cover her mouth.

Romy never tells anyone what this beautiful boy, Kellan Turner (one and the same) did to her. Instead, she pushes the trauma of it as far down inside as she can and protects herself by painting her nails and lips red. But this second incident  – the waking up on the side of the road – starts to unravel Romy. Things are further complicated by the fact that another girl, Penny, is missing. Penny and Romy used to be friends, but are no longer.

There is so much going on in All The Rage. And, frankly, Summers’ timing couldn’t be any better. We live in a world that blames the girl and, regretfully, never really holds the boy accountable. One need only recall the circumstances surrounding the victim in the Brock Turner  rape case to realize how inadequate society’s reaction to these horrific events is. (The link will take you to the victim statement, which should be required reading.)  And almost more problematic is the fact that often women don’t stand with women in these cases. Romy finds herself isolated, bullied mercilessly by other girls which I find incredibly disturbing.

Girls are told what they can and can’t wear – an ongoing issue in every single high school, I am sure – because a visible bra strap or a too-short skirt is clearly an invitation to be assaulted. The victim-blaming is insidious.

It’s all too easy for Romy to be victimized. She was never really part of the gang. Her father was the town drunk. She’s from the wrong side of town. Now everyone blames her for Penny’s disappearance. It’s no wonder that Romy  starts to come apart.

At the checkout, it’s just boys at the registers and I can’t stand the idea of them knowing what I wear underneath my shirt. I tell Mom I have a headache, give her my wallet,  and wait in the car while she pays for it all. I wish I didn’t have a body, sometimes.

There are some good things in Romy’s life. She lives with her mother, who is awesome, and her mother’s new boyfriend, Todd – whom I LOVED, btw. He’s one of the good guys. Leon, the cook at the diner where Romy waitresses, genuinely seems to care for her.

All The Rage tackles a difficult subject with respect and tremendous insight. Romy is a beautifully drawn character, fragile and tremendously brave in equal measure. If I wasn’t already a huge fan of Summers’, I certainly would be after reading this book.

Highly recommended.

Also read: Some Girls Are, This Is Not a Test