Fire Keeper’s Daughter – Angeline Boulley

Angeline Boulley’s debut Fire Keeper’s Daughter was my first read in 2022 and it’s a cracker. It’s almost 500 pages long, but it was so good I had a hard time putting it down. It’s nice to start a new reading year with a great book!

Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Her white mother comes from a wealthy, important family – a building at the local college is named after her grandfather. Her Ojibwe father, who died when she was seven, lived on the Sugar Island reservation, the place Daunis calls her “favorite place in the universe.” Daunis has a brother, Levi, who is just three months younger than her. There’s complicated family history, but Levi and Daunis are close; they are both talented hockey players, and they both idolized their father, who himself was a superstar on the ice, destined for great things until he was injured in a car accident. Daunis is meant to be headed to the University of Michigan for pre-med, but when her uncle David dies and her maternal grandmother ends up in a nursing home, Daunis makes the decision to start her post-secondary education closer to home.

Then she meets Jamie. He’s a new recruit to the Supes, the local elite junior A team her brother captains. There’s an immediate spark between the two. Soon they are running together in the morning and Daunis finds herself sharing things with him that she’s never shared before.

There is so much to love about this book I don’t even know where to start. First of all, Daunis is a fabulous character: smart, resilient, capable, loyal. She aligns herself with her Ojibwe heritage even though she is an unenrolled member because her father isn’t listed on her birth certificate. Her best friend Lily is in the same boat and “We still regard the tribe as ours, even though our faces are pressed against the glass, looking in from outside.”

Boulley captures all the hardships of being a biracial teen, the casual racism Daunis experiences, the sexism; it’s all here, but none of it is didactic. The novel also weaves traditional beliefs as well as stories and language throughout the narrative, which as a white person with very little knowledge of these things, I found fascinating.

Something else that is encroaching on her life is the proliferation of meth, which seems to be coming from Sugar Island and which is starting to impact people she cares about. Her childhood friend, Travis, who has become a shadow of his previously charming, handsome and goofy self now has ” hollows under his cheekbones [that] are concave to the point of sickly. Any softness is gone.” Travis’s addiction is just the tip of the iceberg, though and when Daunis witnesses a murder and discovers that Jamie is not quite who he seems, she finds herself helping the FBI investigate the meth and the novel kicks into high gear.

It would be one thing if Fire Keeper’s Daughter was just a story about a girl trying to figure out how she fits into two very different worlds, but this ambitious novel is so much more than that. It’s a mystery, it’s a coming-of-age story; it’s a story about culture and family. It’s so good.

Highly recommended.

The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta

Although I do not know this for sure, Dean Atta’s novel-in-verse The Black Flamingo feels like a very personal story. Atta tells the story of Michael, born in London to a Greek Cypriot mom and a Jamaican dad who exits the family shortly after Michael is born.

“…six days before the millennium,/ she burned their Christmas dinner/ and he shouted, “You’re useless!”/ before throwing his plate down, turkey/ stuck to the kitchen floor. and I cried,/ startled by early indoor fireworks./ That was the end for them. The beginning/ for Mummy and me.”

Atta unspools Michael’s story, which is the story of someone who isn’t quite Greek enough or Jamaican enough, and definitely not straight enough, a fact he seems to realize relatively early on. When he is just six he tells his mother “If you only get me one present/ this year, please can it be/ a Barbie?”

I can relate to that. My son was totally enamoured with Bratz dolls when he was a kid. And long hair; he desperately wanted long hair, so eventually we got him a hat with all these long braids sewn along the edges. He wore that thing constantly.

The next year Michael tells his mother he wants to change his last name to hers, a request that earns him “the longest hug I’ve ever had.” (Nineteen seconds!)

The novel traces Michael’s adolescence, his friendship with Daisy, and finally his journey to attend university in Brighton. It is here that he finds his people at Drag Society, and ultimately himself.

“I’m just a man and I want/ to wear a dress and makeup on stage./ I want to know how it feels to publicly/ express a side of me I’ve only felt privately/ when playing with my Barbie as a boy.”

The Black Flamingo is a coming-of-age story, a story about identity and family, and it is lovely and lyrical and hopeful, too.

The Closest I’ve Come – Fred Aceves

This year in my grade ten English class we’ve decided to try something new: podcasts. I have never made one and have only recently started to listen to them, but one of my colleagues and I thought it might be a great, non-traditional way for students to show their learning. We hooked up with a local organization called Brilliant Labs for the tech-y stuff and paired students up to read books that dealt with the topic of coming of age, which is this term’s big idea. Then, my colleague and I decided that we should give it a go, too.

We read Fred Aceves debut novel The Closest I’ve Come which tells the story of fifteen-year-old Marcos Rivas who lives in Tampa, but not in the part of Tampa tourists see. His mother seems sort of checked out and her boyfriend, Brian, is a bully. Marcos notes “With every step home my bones are getting shakier.”

He moved in last summer, just before the worst heatwave in a decade, but the strangling humidity didn’t faze him none. The douche sat in the armchair (my armchair when my mom’s between boyfriends) with the fan pointed at himself. Even with me and my mom also watching TV, even though the fan has an oscillating setting, it forever pointed his way.

Things are pretty grim for Marcos. They’re poor, he struggles in school, some of his friends are borderline criminals and although he dreams of getting out of the hood, he doesn’t really know how he’s going to accomplish this. Then an opportunity lands in his lap.

Congratulations! You’ve been selected to take part in a new, exciting program.

The exciting program is an after-school group which is meant to provide enrichment to students with potential. One of those students is a take-no-prisoners girl named Amy who Marcos has admired from afar for many months. Marcos muses: “Me and Amy got something in common, even if it’s only this. Us together ain’t crazy. It might be fate.”

Marcos’s experiences in the class and interacting with students he might not normally interact with helps Marcos realize his potential. He learns that while it might be nice to figure out how to fit in, it’s also important to remain true to one’s self. Watching him struggle to play the crappy hand he’s been dealt is inspiring, especially because nothing comes easy for him.

I really enjoyed The Closest I’ve Come. I will post a link to our podcast here when it’s finished.

Finding Felicity – Stacey Kade

Although I was much older than the show’s target audience, I fell madly in love with the J.J. Abrams/Matt Reeves coming-of-age drama Felicity (1998-2002). In the show, Felicity Porter gets the boy she’s loved from afar, Ben Covington, to sign her yearbook on graduation day, and what he writes causes her to abandon her post-secondary plans and enroll at NYU, which is where Ben is going to university. The series’ four years follow Felicity through her friendships and relationships and decisions, both good and bad, and it is all must-watch television. I still love the show and rewatch it start to finish every couple of years.

In Stacey Kade’s YA novel Finding Felicity, eighteen-year-old Caroline Sands has just graduated from high school, meaning she’s leaving the mess of the last few years behind and hoping for a fresh start when she starts Ashmore, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, in the fall.

After her parents’ divorce, Caroline and her mom moved to Arizona, and she just never really found her people. Instead, she found Felicity, so when her mom asked her about school and her friends, she just told them about the characters from the show. What could go wrong with that?

Ashmore is supposed to be Caroline’s new beginning, a chance to reinvent herself and make new friends. She neglects to tell her mother that part of the reason she wants, no needs, to go to this school is because Liam Fanshaw – her Ben-equivalent – is going there, too. What could go wrong with that?

Finding Felicity will speak to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their own skin and desperately just wants to fit in. Caroline is awkward, for sure, but mostly she lacks confidence. That’s relatable, I think. Common wisdom would suggest that a new place doesn’t equal a new you and sometimes figuring it out is hard, but not impossible. Caroline makes a few missteps, but ultimately starts to craft the life she has wished for, and many teens will enjoy the journey.

Every Exquisite Thing – Matthew Quick

Nanette O’Hare is trying to figure stuff out in Matthew Quick’s (Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock) YA novel Every Exquisite Thing. She’s a straight-A senior, and a super-star soccer player from an affluent family, so on the surface one might assume that Nanette has got it all going on. But it’s not true. Since mid-way through her junior year she’s been eating lunch with her English teacher, Mr. Graves, and avoiding her bestie, Shannon, whose questionable sexual escapades had started bothering Nanette back in middle school.

One day Mr. Graves hands her a tattered copy of Nigel Booker’s novel The Bubblegum Reaper, a book that Mr. Graves claims changed his life.

It’s maybe not the most literary work in the world. Probably a bit dated. But it’s a cult classic and I have a feeling that it might be the perfect read for you. Maybe even a rite of passage for people like us.

The Bubblegum Reaper does, in fact, have a tremendous impact on Nanette’s life. The book’s author lives in her home town, and Mr. Graves arranges for the two to meet.

Spending time with Booker was becoming an addiction, mostly because it was the only part of my day when I felt like I could be myself – or maybe like there was one person in the world who didn’t want me to be something I didn’t want to be or to act a certain way or to go along with everything that others pushed into my life.

Through Mr. Booker she meets Alex, a boy her age who writes poetry. The bond between the two teens is cemented as they talk about the book and share their own feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement.

It is through these relationships that Nanette is able to shake off some of the personas she’s adopted over the years. She starts to say no when she might have just said yes and, ultimately, though certainly not without some heartache, Nanette is able to forge her own path and become the person she really wants to be.

Every Exquisite Thing is a philosophical, quirky and thoughtful coming-of-age story.

Odd One Out – Nic Stone

One of the topics the students in my Young Adult Literature class discussed this semester was the importance of diversity in fiction. Nic Stone wrote a wonderful opinion piece called “Don’t Just Read About Racism—Read Stories About Black People Living” where she expressed her own experiences with books featuring Black characters and the problem of having every single ‘diverse’ text tackle issues of police brutality and racism or simply featuring characters she didn’t recognize. Tokens or sidekicks.

“I met three African-American characters in books between 8th and 12th grade,” she writes. “The first was a Black man falsely accused of a horrific crime—literally because of #WhiteWomanTears—who despite his innocence suffers a horrific fate (Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird). The second was a Black man with a role so minor, most people don’t remember he was Black or don’t remember him at all (Crooks from Of Mice and Men). And the third was an escaped Black slave written (by a white man) in vernacular so dense that half the time, I had zero idea what homie was trying to tell me (Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

I hated all of it.”

Why was it, Stone posits, that growing up she never read about Black kids going on adventures, solving mysteries, falling in love? “What if we’d seen Black people in books just being human?” she writes.

Cue her 2018 YA novel Odd One Out, the story of seventeen-year-old besties Courtney “Coop” Cooper and Jupiter “Jupe” Charity-Sanchez. Coop has been in love with Jupe for as long as he can remember, but Jupe likes girls. At least she’s pretty sure she likes girls. She hasn’t really had any experience with them. Then Rae Chin moves to town. Suddenly Jupe and Coop find themselves part of a very complicated triangle.

This is exactly the sort of book Stone was talking about when she described the sort of stories that were unavailable to her when she was growing up. The characters in Odd One Out are just trying to navigate family stuff (Jupe has two dads; Coop’s father was killed in a car accident; Rae’s mom took off, but all the parents in this book are professional, loving, sane parents – not a gang banger among them), school and what turns out to be very complicated feelings for each other.

All three main characters get a turn to tell their story (Coop was my favourite; I found him funny, loyal, and charming) and I loved every second I spent with them. The drama is all self-made, but these smart and sensitive teens are trying to figure it out and that sometimes makes for hurt feelings, which Stone doesn’t shy away from. Odd One Out is a coming-of-age story which will appeal to any teen who has ever been in love or questioned their sexuality. The fact that I adored this book proves Stone’s point that “the more we see Black people living—loving and doing and being and feeling and going on adventures and solving mysteries and being the heroes—the more we come to recognize our shared humanity.”

Amen.

Highly recommended.

Nothing – Janne Teller

Translated from the Danish, Janne Teller’s award-winning YA novel Nothing is pretty dang bleak. When fourteen-year-old Pierre Anthon announces on the first day of school that “Nothing matters”, he sets off a chain reaction of events that runs the gamut from the childish to the horrific to the ridiculous.

Pierre Anthon and his hippie father live in a commune, so his classmates figure it makes sense for him to take the position that “It’s all a waste of time. […] Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you begin to die. That’s how it is with everything.”

Pierre Anthon takes his belongings, leaves school and proceeds to climb the plum tree in front of his house. As his classmates pass by he slings hard plums and his dismal world view at them. His friends decide that they have no choice but to coax him out of the tree and the only way to do that is to prove that life is worth something.

The kids come up with a plan. They’ll create a sort of installation at the old saw mill. The will collect things that matter. At first, they ask their neighbours to make a contribution and the items start to accumulate: old crockery, a rose from a bridal bouquet, photographs. Then, feeling that they didn’t have enough skin in the game and that Pierre Anthon would see straight through them, they decided they needed to pony up and make a personal contribution to the cause. That’s when things start getting tricky.

Pierre Anthon’s view is decidedly nihilistic: religious and moral principles don’t matter, and life is meaningless. As the teens push each other to contribute things that are deeply personal, they cross more than one line. They soon lose sight of what they set out to do and their whole experiment becomes less about trying to help their friend see the value in life and more an exercise in horror.

Translation aside (and you know how I generally feel about them), Nothing is a surprisingly complex book. At first I thought it was going to be juvenile; the characters are barely teens and they sound young; the ideas and the themes in this novel, however, are anything but. The novel starts out quite innocently, but it goes down a very dark path, invites the reader to consider some equally dark ideas and you won’t come out the other end feeling even remotely hopeful about life.

Lies You Never Told Me – Jennifer Donaldson

Ohhh. This one got me.

Jennifer Donaldson’s YA mystery Lies You Never Told Me is a dual perspective narrative that should keep readers guessing until the end. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how Gabe’s story intertwined with Elyse’s.

Gabe and Sasha are their school’s power couple. Sasha is one of the Austin elite and Gabe is a Chicano skateboarder he knows Sasha’s parents don’t approve of even though he “grew up in the same bougie neighborhood [and] my mom’s family has been in the U.S. for generations. They’re old money. They could find any of a hundred reasons not to like me.”

But Gabe is actually a good guy. He’s a great big brother to his six-year-old sister, Vivi, who was born with Down syndrome. He does well enough in school, has a couple great friends and puts up with a lot from Sasha, who seems stuck up and high maintenance from the get go.

One night, leaving Sasha’s house on his skateboard, Gabe is hit by a car. The girl who finds him and calls 911 is a new girl at their school, Catherine, and Gabe is drawn to her in a way he can’t explain. When he can no longer deny his growing attraction to Catherine, he breaks up with Sasha, but she’s not having it. Sasha mounts a full on campaign to get Gabe back.

The other narrator is Elyse, a girl with her own troubles. Her mother is an addict and Elyse is just barely holding it together. She does her best to pay the bills and look after her mother, but she’s just fifteen and it’s hard.

When her best friend Brynn convinces her to try out for the school’s production of Romeo & Juliet, Elyse barely hesitates.

I can feel the change come over me as I recite the words. It always happens – or it happens when I’m focused, when I’ve found something in the role to love. My shoulders round forward, my mouth quirks upward into a wistful grin, and I slide into character with ease.

Elyse is convinced that Brynn is going to snag the lead, but when the new drama teacher, Mr. Hunter, awards the role of Juliet to Elyse, her life explodes with possibilities.

Donaldson skillfully weaves these two stories together, and even though none of the four main characters (Gabe, Sasha, Elyse and Catherine) necessarily interact with each other, your brain will work overtime trying to figure out what links them together. Lies You Never Told Me is a well-written YA mystery with lots of twists and characters you will like and loathe in equal measure.

This Is Our Story – Ashley Elston

I read a fair number of thrillers and mysteries. I love the propulsive nature of the plot, the twists and turns, and the hero/heroine in danger. It’s hard to write a thriller that keeps you guessing, unless the writer makes a complete 360 that leaves you shaking your head. Behind Her Eyes springs to mind. I love books with sinister underpinnings like Unspeakable Things or The Roanoke Girls.

Ashley Elston’s YA mystery This Is Our Story puts a lot of adult mysteries to shame, really. It’s the story of five best friends: Grant, Shep, Logan, Henry and John Michael. After a wild night of partying at John Michael’s father’s hunting lodge (these boys are all from wealthy families), Grant is dead.

One of us pulled the trigger, but we all played our own part in his death. They will find marks on Grant that don’t fit with an accidental shooting. They will find marks on us that shouldn’t be there either. The last twenty-four hours will have them talking about more than what happened during this early-morning hunt.

The remaining boys, known collectively as the River Point Boys, leave their fancy private school and enroll in the local public school, but Belle Terre, La is a small town where everyone knows everyone anyway.

Kate Marino attends this school and she is quietly devastated by Grant’s death as the two had been texting each other for weeks and had planned to meet at a party the night before Grant was killed. As part of her senior year, she’s interning at the District Attorney’s office, a job that mostly consists of boring filing, until her mother’s boss tasks her with taking photos, a skill she has honed during her time working for the school’s paper and yearbook.

The powers that be might have a vested interest sweeping this incident under the rug, but Kate is determined to get to the bottom of who killed her friend/potential more than friend. And then she discovers that maybe she didn’t know Grant at all.

I literally couldn’t put This Is Our Story down. Kate is a smart, mature narrator and she keeps digging through the clues, determined to get to the truth even when it seems like her personal safety might be at risk. The novel also uses an anonymous third person perspective – one of the River Point Boys – to give us some insight into what the group might be thinking. It’s impossible to work out which of the remaining four boys might be the culprit, though.

There are lots of twists and a few real surprises, too, and I took the book home with me so I could read the last 75 pages because I HAD TO KNOW.

This well-written, YA mystery is really awesome and I will certainly be looking for more books by this author.

Rosie & Skate – Beth Ann Bauman

Sisters Rosie, 15 and Skate, 16, share the narrative in Beth Ann Bauman’s YA novel Rosie & Skate. They live in a crumbling house on the Jersey Shore. Well, Rosie lives there with her cousin, Angie. Skate lives at her boyfriend’s house with his mother, Julia. The sisters’ father is currently in jail for committing petty crimes while under the influence. although Rosie insists that her father is “a nice drunk.”

Bauman’s novel follows the sisters as they navigate their relationship with their father (Rosie is hopeful and forgiving; Skate has given up on her father and doesn’t believe he will ever get better), and each other. Skate is clearly the more worldly of the two: her older boyfriend, Perry, is in his first year at Rutgers and Rosie hasn’t even been kissed. Over the course of a few weeks, though, each of the girls will encounter unforeseen challenges that will push them along the path to adulthood.

Rosie & Skate is one of those quiet books where not much happens, but it still feels packed. I suppose that’s because when you are a teenager everything feels momentous. Who is guiding these girls? Who can they turn to but each other when things go off the rails – as they so often have in their lives.

There are no bad actors in this novel, even Rosie and Skate’s dad is searching for answers as to why he can’t seem to stop drinking. Rosie and Skate have their own way of coping and they certainly make mistakes, but anyone who was ever a teenager will recognize themselves in some of the questionable decisions the sisters make.

Ultimately, though, Rosie & Skate is a hopeful book about family, particularly found family, and spending time with these sisters is time well-spent.