Vivi and Jonah, the narrators of Emery Lord’s YA novel When We Collided, are damaged collidedseventeen-year-olds, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on living. Their singular voices will likely strike a nerve with many young readers.

Jonah lives in Verona Cove, a small coastal town in California. He’s smack in the middle of six kids and is often tasked with looking after his younger siblings because his older sister has been away at college and his brother is working. His father recently died and his mother can’t seem to get out of bed.

Vivi and her mother are summering in Verona Cove. They needed an escape and Vivi has already decided that she loves Verona Cove, but she “waited until the seventh day to commit.” When she meets Jonah and his youngest sister, Leah, 5, she’s immediately smitten. Vivi falls fast and hard for a lot of things. Listening to her is sort of like watching the ball in a pinball machine bing off all the obstacles. It’s tiring to try to keep up, but she is utterly charming and Jonah has never met anyone like her.

The girl looking down at us has white-blond hair, and her lips are the color of maraschino cherries. She doesn’t look like any girl in my school. She doesn’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen in real life.

Vivi and Jonah hit it off and before you can say “summer romance”, the two are inseparable. For Jonah, Vivi is like a breath of fresh air. She makes him feel special. She listens to him as he tries to navigate the loss of his father and his new situation at home. He doesn’t understand what is happening with his mother and he doesn’t know how to help her. Like his older siblings, he’s just trying to keep his head above water and keep “the littles” (the family name for the younger kids) healthy and whole.

Things seem to be going fine between the two, until they’re not…and they’re not because Vivi starts to act increasingly more bizarre. I think Lord does an exceptional job of tracking the course of Vivi’s mental illness – the erratic and increasingly manic behaviour that finally comes to a head.

Teenage romance has the potential to be a messy business, no question, and the stakes are high for Vivi and Jonah who realize they need each other and also realize that their relationship is problematic (for a variety of reasons.) I appreciate that Lord didn’t try to tidy things up for these two extremely likable characters. You’ll root for them. Your heart will break for them. Your life will be better for having known them.

 

cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

Before Laine Green even hears her mother answer the phone, she knows that Leahlessons Greene is dead.

As I listen to her panicked voice, I feel the tiny bricks that have walled away certain memories continue to crumble….All I see behind my eyelids is Leah. Leah with her red-glossed lips. Leah standing above me. Leah telling our secret to a crowded room of strangers and my only friends in the world. Leah walking away, leaving me in the rubble of my ruined life.

Laine, the seventeen-year-old first person narrator of Jo Knowles’ YA novel Lessons From a Dead Girl, had willed Leah to die, had wanted it more than anything. And now that it is actually fait accompli, her feelings are complicated, an “overwhelming sense of guilt and fear.”

Once Lainey and Leah were best friends. Their older sisters were friends, and they’d decided that Leah and Laine should be pals, too. It’s an awkward relationship at first, for reasons that are obvious,  at least to Laine.

Leah is popular and I’m not. Leah is also beautiful. Everyone wants to be Leah’s best friend. But me? Most people don’t even know who I am.

When the pair are children, the forced friendship soon morphs into something more genuine…and then seems to morph into something else again. The girls practice being husband and wife in Lainey’s “doll closet”, a game that makes Lainey both uncomfortable and “tingly.”

It is easy to see why Lainey is so conflicted. She’s not like the other girls. Her hair is “like a boy’s, short and brown and messy. My striped shirt is too small and has a grass stain on the front. Even my face is dirty. I look like a boy. An ugly boy. And I feel like one, too. Why would Leah be my friend?”

That question is at the root of this compelling novel and as the girls grow up and their relationship shifts and strains against the warped rules of adolescent girlhood, their bond frays and eventually breaks. Laine chafes against the secret she is keeping, but Leah has a few troubling secrets of her own.

Lessons From a Dead Girl is a very different book from See You at Harry’s. Knowles writes with authority no matter the topic, and Laine’s journey from innocence is powerful and compelling.

 

sadieI thought if I waited a few days after finishing Courtney Summers’ latest book Sadie, I would have a better chance of articulating my feelings coherently. Sadly, I don’t think I am actually going to be able to adequately express all the ways I loved (and hated) this book.

The premise is clever. West McCray, a radio producer at New York’s WNRK, is shaking up the station’s format by introducing a new podcast, The Girls. The podcast “explores what happens when a devastating crime reveals a deeply unsettling mystery.”  McCray dives headlong into the story of Mattie Southern, a thirteen-year-old whose dead body was discovered in an orchard near a burning schoolhouse, and her nineteen-year-old sister, Sadie, who is missing.

I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered in that orchard will not be part of this show. While the murder, the crime, might have captured your initial interest, its violence and brutality do not exist for your entertainment – so please don’t ask us.

Transcripts of the podcast (and you can actually listen to those here) alternate with Sadie’s first person narrative. Sadie leaves Cold Creek’s trailer park and her surrogate grandmother, May Beth, to find Keith, a man who once lived with Sadie and Mattie’s mother, Claire. Claire is currently out of the picture, an addict who’s had a steady stream of creeps in her bed.

Despite being blocked at every turn, Sadie is like a dog with a bone when it comes to tracking down Keith, a man she claims is her father. She buys a junker car, and asks fearless questions, hindered only by her stutter and youth. By about page thirty I was as invested in Sadie’s hunt as she was. She is equal parts vulnerable and tough-as-nails and 100% believable.

And this is where I have to pause and commend Summers, once again, for writing characters who are so real. Regular readers to this blog will know I am a fan of Summers and have read several of her books including Cracked Up to Be, All the Rage, This Is Not a Test, and Some Girls Are. I’ll tell you this – Summers is not writing the same book over and over. Her characters are not stereotypes. They are vulnerable, broken, tough, cynical and hopeful and every combination in between. Sometimes they say or do things that are wince-worthy, but as a mom and high school teacher, I know that Summers cuts as close to the bone as it’s possible to get. Like it or not.

So, I wasn’t surprised that I fell in love with Sadie, rough edges and all. I expected to be invested in her journey and I hated (that’s what I hated, folks) that it was a journey that she felt compelled to take. I hated that I was afraid for her the entire freakin’ time! Sadie loved her sister and made sacrifices for her that Mattie would never have the opportunity to understand. That’s what it is to love someone.

McCray is always just one step behind Sadie, but his podcasts fill in some blanks, allowing us to see how Sadie is viewed from other perspectives. Former teacher, Edward Colburn, says, “She was teased by her classmates because of the stutter and that caused her to withdraw.” Her boss, Marty McKinnon said Sadie was “a good kid, hard worker.” Mae Beth said that “The only thing Sadie was afraid of was losing the family she had left and that was Mattie.”

All of these ingredients add up to a story that McCray describes as being “about family, about sisters, and the untold  lives lived in small-town America. It’s about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love…and the high price we pay when we can’t.”

There are few moments of levity in this novel, but Sadie (the novel and the character) will haunt your dreams.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Thirteen-year-old Claudia and Monday are inseparable, even though they come from twomonday different worlds. Claudia lives with her stable and loving parents; Monday lives with her single mom and three siblings in Washington’s Ed Borough Complex, a part of town Claudia isn’t allowed to visit without an adult.

After returning to DC from a summer with her grandmother, Claudia is looking forward to starting grade eight with her bestie, but Monday is a no-show. When she doesn’t show up at school all week, and when calls to her house yield no answers, Claudia gets worried. A frightening visit to Monday’s apartment only ratchets up Claudia’s concern.

Tiffany D. Jackson’s YA novel Monday’s Not Coming is part mystery and part coming-of-age story. Claudia’s life is upended by the disappearance of her friend. For one thing, Monday helped Claudia with her school work and without her, Claudia is lost and “Without her, the [lunch] line went on for eternity. Without her, I ate alone. Being alone made you a target, though, and ain’t nobody got time for stupid boys throwing food at your head.”

Life ticks along for Claudia. She joins a dance group, meets a boy at church, starts getting help with her schoolwork, but none of these things fill the hole left by Monday. The two girls shared a lot of dreams – attending the same high school, making it on the dance squad, leaving the horrors of middle school behind. The longer Monday is gone, though, the more Claudia has to move forward with her life.

Readers will turn the pages of Monday’s Not Coming desperate to know what has happened to her, but I was interested in Claudia’s personal journey. Monday is a larger-than-life character, not afraid to stand up for herself or go after what she wants including the hottest boy in school. Claudia is shocked to discover new things about her best friend and she begins to wonder just how well she actually knew her.

There’s a twist in this novel that I didn’t see coming, and I can’t say that it worked 100% for me. However, it in no way undermined my overall reading experience. Monday’s Not Coming is a worthy addition to my classroom library.

belzharJam Gallahue just hasn’t been able to recover from the death of her boyfriend Reeve Maxfield. “I loved him,” she explains, “and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me.” As a last resort, Jam’s parents send her to The Wooden Barn, “a boarding school for ’emotionally fragile, highly intelligent’ teenagers.”

Meg Wolitzer’s YA novel Belzhar follows Jam on her journey of recovery, although it probably won’t be the sort of recovery readers will be expecting.

Jam is picked to take a course called Special Topics in English, the “smallest, most elite class in the entire school.” Taught by Mrs. Quenell, Special Topics has a reputation at The Wooden Barn. Jam’s roommate, DJ, tells her that students who haven taken the class act like it’s no big deal, but “when it’s over, they say things about how it changed their lives.”

Jam shares the class with Casey, a girl in a wheelchair, Sierra, Marc, and Griffin, a boy who is “good-looking but in a hostile way.” Their special topic is Sylvia Plath, who will be the only author the five students will study. In addition, they are required to write in journals that Mrs. Quenell hands out to them. Mrs. Quenell tells the students that each of them “has something to say. But not everyone can bear to say it. Your job is to find a way.”

The thing about these five students is that they have each suffered some sort of trauma and it turns out that their journals and the entries they write in them magically transport them back to a happier time in their lives. These experiences, which they call going to Belzhar (a weird take onthe title of Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar) causes them to open up to each other and to the world.

Whether you buy into the magical realism elements of this novel or not, there is certainly truth to the fact that some people get stuck in their grief or anger. Each of these teens has been trapped by their experiences  and the act of writing allows some of the poison in their lives to seep out.  “Words matter,” Mrs. Quenell tells her students, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Not everyone will appreciate Belzhar. I can see how some students might balk at the notion of Belzhar as a real place, but as a metaphor it most certainly works. Human beings do get stuck. We hold on to things and people that are not healthy. We don’t fully live; we deceive ourselves. It takes work, sometimes, to shed trauma, but surely it’s worth it.

“You’re all equipped for the world, for adulthood, in a way that most people aren’t…So many people don’t even know what hits them when they grow up. They feel clobbered over the head the minute the first thing goes wrong, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to avoid pain at all costs. But you all know that avoiding pain is impossible.

Belzhar is worth a look.

 

 

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.