“I always thought the moment you met the great love of your life would be more like the movies,” Henry Page, the protagonist of Krystal Sutherland’s YA novel Our Chemical Hearts announces. Henry, a high school senior, is a romantic at heart and when he imagines falling in love, it’s not with someone like Grace Town, the new girl at school. Grace wears boy’s clothes, walks with a cane and seems neither clean nor healthy.
When Henry and Grace are picked to co-edit the school’s newspaper and are forced to spend time together, Henry finds himself drawn to Grace’s quirks because he has some of his own. Then he discovers that before moving the Henry’s town and school, Grace was “a girl in a red dress with red lipstick and loose curls in her honey-blond hair. She was smiling brilliantly…” Henry wants to know more and the more he knows the more he falls, until Grace’s secret is revealed and his life implodes.
Our Chemical Hearts is not a fluffy YA romance. It deals with some serious real-life issues and treats its characters like the almost-adults that they are. Henry, for example, has long admired the “perfect” relationship his parents have and yearns for the same sort of fairy-tale love. It’s not until his much older sister, Sadie, shares some things about his family that he may not know that he starts to understand that relationships, and the people who inhabit them, are complicated.
Grace is truly messed up. She starts to reveal herself, bit by bit, to Henry and his optimism is the seemingly perfect antidote to her pessimism – the ying to his yang.
…tell me you believe that our lives are anything more than a ridiculous cascade of random chances. A cloud of dust and gas forms our planet, a chemical reaction creates life, and then all of our cavemen ancestors live long enough to bone each other before they die awful deaths. The universe is not the magical place people like to paint it as. It’s excruciatingly beautiful, but there’s no magic there, just science.
Henry and Grace bond over music, literature, even their co-editing gig provides them with common ground, and their story is as true a depiction of a high school romance as you’re likely to find.
Milly, Aubrey and Jonah Story have been invited to spend the summer on Gull Cove Island by their grandmother, Mildred. That might not be an out-of-the-ordinary invitation for some people, but it is for these three teens. For one thing, they’ve never met their grandmother. For another, they haven’t seen each other for years and their parents (Milly’s mom and Aubrey and Jonah’s dads) are also estranged. So, it’s a weird request all-around.
Gull Cove Island was a little-known haven for artists and hippies when Abraham Story turned it into what it is today: a place where rich and semifamous people spend ridiculous amounts of money pretending they’re getting back to nature.
Milly’s mother, Allison, is anxious for her daughter to go. Twenty four years ago, she and her brothers (Adam, Anders and Archer) had each received a letter from their mother which said “You know what you did.” With that, they were cut out of their mother’s life both personally and financially and none of them really understood why. Milly’s mom thinks this invitation may be the opportunity to mend fences and for the cousins to get to know each other.
This is the set up for Karen M. McManus (One of Us is Lying, One of Us is Next) latest novel The Cousins. The novel is told from multiple perspectives during two different time-lines, so you get to see the parents as young adults and then their offspring who arrive on Gull Cove Island to a less-than-warm reception. Clearly there is something strange going on, and Milly is determined to figure it out, with or without her cousins’ help.
Like her previous novels, McManus manages to keep all the plates of a compelling mystery spinning. Each of the three teens are intelligent and likeable. The real mystery is rooted deep in their parents’ past and some of those characters aren’t so nice, particularly Jonah and Aubrey’s dads. Readers will have a lot of fun trying to figure out what the heck is going on, but like with her previous novels, McManus will always be one step ahead of you.
Blame it on V.C. Andrews. If you’re a reader of a certain age, you’ll remember the moment you read that attic scene where brother and sister Cathy and Chris do what no brother and sister should ever do. Flowers in the Attic was published in 1979, which is the year I graduated from high school. I flew through the book and its sequels and prequels, until I lost interest. In the characters, not in the subject matter because while incest is certainly taboo, there is something strangely riveting about relationships that are not meant to be. Ever.
Several of my all-time favourite books including Relations by Carolyn Slaughter (which predates this blog), A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore and Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon are about incestuous sibling relationships. Meg Rosoff’s masterful How I Live Now is about cousins who fall in love. You might well ask how books that tackle this subject could possibly be made palatable, and yet they can be. But I think that the material must be handled by a skillful writer because it’s certainly a fine line to walk between compelling and believable, and just uncomfortable ickiness. For example, none of the books I’ve mentioned here concern abusive relationships (although there is horrible abuse in Billy Dead between the sister and a different family member), or relationships between an authority figure, a father or uncle for example, and a much younger person. Two other books I really loved include these sort of relationships: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel. Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss is about the author’s sexual relationship with her father and it has a huge ick factor, but is also so compelling it’s hard to stop reading. I definitely think incest is a kink and I couldn’t tell you why I find it so fascinating, but I do.
I had never heard of Tabitha Suzuma’s 2010 novel Forbidden until a few days ago, when I stumbled across a mention of it on the Internet. I ordered the book and settled down to read it, and I couldn’t stop reading.
Lochan, almost 18, is trying to keep his family together with the help of his younger sister, Maya, almost 17. They have three younger siblings, Kit, 13, Tiffin, 8, and Willa, 5. Their mother is an alcoholic who works as a waitress and spends most of her time across town at her boyfriend Dave’s house or hung over on the couch. Their father left London with his new girlfriend – now wife – and moved to Australia six years ago. The financial support eventually stopped, but so did any contact.
The novel’s narrative alternates between Lochan and Maya, and it is clear that they depend on each other to make it through the craziness of trying to look after three younger children, the house and meals and everything else you might expect a parent to do, and stay on top of their schoolwork, too. Lochan is brilliant and bound for University London College as soon as he finishes his A Levels. What he struggles with is severe anxiety. He is friendless at school, rarely speaks, and spends most of his time sitting in a stairwell, reading. Maya is more outgoing, but her best friend is her brother, and it’s been that way since even before their father left.
Lochan and Maya get each other. With Maya, Lochan can relax. She can make him smile. She can calm his nerves. Lochan realizes his feelings are changing first.
We are still dancing, swaying slightly to the crooning voice, and Maya feels warm and alive in my arms. Just standing there, moving gently from side to side, I realize I don’t want this moment to end.
It’s only when that closeness crosses the line, and it’s revealed that Maya’s feelings are the same, that the brother and sister find themselves in a precarious predicament.
I refuse to let labels from the outside world spoil the happiest day of my life. The day I kissed the boy I had always held in my dreams but never allowed myself to see. The day I finally ceased lying to myself, ceased pretending it was just one kind of love I felt for him when in reality it was every kind of love possible. The day we finally broke free of our restraints and gave way to the feelings we had so long denied just because we happened to be brother and sister.
From that moment, the novel is relentlessly, breathlessly un-put-downable. I kept waiting for some big twist, something that would allow Lochan and Maya to have the life they want, which is a life together. Every stolen moment is fraught with the danger of being found out and being found out would have devastating consequences for their younger siblings, who would surely end up in the foster system, since their mother is rarely around and certainly not fit to care for them.
Suzuma skillfully navigates a story which has the potential to be so problematic, but which ends up being beautiful and devastating. I really loved this book and I keep wondering what it is about these forbidden relationships that keep me coming back for more. Even Maya is self-aware enough to know that her feelings for her brother are unnatural.
Having a physical relationship with one’s brother? Nobody does that; it’s disgusting; it would be like having Kit as my boyfriend. I shudder. I love Kit, but the idea of kissing him is beyond revolting. It would be horrendous; it would be repulsive –
Perhaps it is their circumstances that make the notion of being in love more palatable. “Lochan has never felt like a brother” Maya rationalizes. “He and I have always been equals.” In every instance of incest that I have read, there has been some trauma involved. For Maya and Lochan it is their total sense of abandonment, of having to be adults when they are really still kids; of having no one to turn to but each other. Another quality of this sort of story is the angst. When two people should be together and can’t be together – for whatever reason, not limited to being siblings – I am all in. 100%,
Suzuma does not shy away from any of this story’s minefields and she doesn’t exploit her characters, either. I will definitely be reading more by this author.
I fall in love with fictional characters all the time, and I fell hard for Maverick Carter, Starr’s father in Angie Thomas’s outstanding debut The Hate U Give. In Concrete Rose, Thomas has turned her gaze to Maverick’s teenage story and it’s a doozy. Could I love Mr. Carter any more than I already did? Um, hell yeah.
The setting is familiar, the Garden Heights neigbourhood where The Hate U Give takes place. Seventeen-year-old Maverick lives with his mother who works two jobs to try to fill in the financial gaps left by Mav’s father’s incarceration. Mav has a legacy on the streets of Garden Heights because of who his father is, former crown of King Lords, (I guess that means top dog.) There’s a gang hierarchy
You got youngins, badass middle schoolers who swear they got next. They do whatever the rest of us tell them to do. Then you got li’l homies like me, King, and our boys Rico and Junie. We handle initiations, recruitment, and sell weed. Next is the big homies, like Dre and Shawn. They sell the harder stuff, make sure the rest of us have what we need, make alliances, and discipline anybody who step outta line. When we have beef with the Garden Disciples, the gang from the east side, they usually take care of it. Then there’s the OGs, original gangstas. Grown dudes who been in this a long time. They advise Shawn. Problem is, there ain’t a lot of OGs left in the streets. Most of them locked up like my pops, or dead.
Despite his gang affiliations, Mav is not a punk. His girlfriend, Lisa, is college-bound. His mother is supportive and no-nonsense. Mav’s older cousin, Dre, is one of the big homies, and always has his back. When Mav gets the news that he’s a father, his world is rocked back on its heels, and the book shifts into high gear. When the baby’s mother essentially abandons him, Mav has to start making some tough decisions. If you’ve already read The Hate U Give you know how that turns out because Maverick as a father: chef’s kiss.
I loved this book. First of all, I loved how immediate and compelling Mav’s voice is. I live in small-town Atlantic Canada. I don’t know anyone who speaks this way.
When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.
They ain’t written down, and you won’t find them in a book. It’s natural stuff you know the moment your momma let you out the house. Kinda like you know how to breathe without somebody telling you.
For me, the way this book is written is absolutely one of the best things about it. Mav’s voice is so compelling and original.
I also loved how many people were in Mav’s corner, pushing him to make better choices. I mean, he’s a seventeen-year-old father who still has to go to school and work part time at a job he hates for way less money than he’d make selling dope on the street. His boss, Mr. Wyatt, tells it like it is and doesn’t cut Mav any slack. Three strikes, he’s out. His baby cries all night, Mav still has to go to school. But these people are still in his corner, and watching him try to live up to his responsibilities is truly a thing of beauty.
Although Maverick’s story obviously takes place seventeen years before the events in The Hate U Give, and so is perhaps technically a prequel, I still suggest you read The Hate U Give first. You will fall in love with him as an adult. Going back and learning how he got there will only make you love him more.
Well, my second YA novel by Karen M. McManus caps off my 2020 reading year, and has the distinction of being my 86th book. I thought when I set my 2020 challenge at 75 I was being optimistic, and then Covid happened.
I read McManus’s book One of Us Is Lying this summer and I really enjoyed it. One of Us Is Next is a sequel of sorts as some of the characters from the first book make an appearance in this one, too. (Bronwyn & Nate!) Eighteen months after Simon’s death (first book), students at Bayview High School find themselves under attack by someone who entices them to play a game of Truth or Dare. It’s clear that whoever this is, they knows some pretty dark secrets and they’re not afraid to share them. As one student says, “Always take the Dare.”
Phoebe, Knox and Maeve narrate this story. Phoebe is the first victim of the game and the secret revealed about her has a damaging ripple effect. Maeve (Bronwyn’s younger sister) refuses to play, and her punishment is to have a secret revealed which damages her friendship with former boyfriend now bestie, Knox. Things take a decided turn for the worst when a students accidently dies.
McManus juggles the different perspectives and all sorts of other teenage drama while moving the mystery along. Alliances are made and broken. There’s some swoon-worthy romance (those Rojas sisters are lucky in love), and there’s also some commentary about slut shaming, bullying and just how clique-y high school can be. It’s clear that McManus cares deeply about these characters and she has a real ear for how teens talk.
This is another fun page-turner by a YA writer worth reading.
Eva V. Gibson’s debut YA novel Together We Caught Fire sounded right up my alley when I added it to my TBR list. My son bought it for me for Christmas and I read it in pretty much one sitting. I wish that I could say that the book lived up to its promise, but it wasn’t quite a hit for me.
Lane Jamison’s life was upended when she was five and discovered her mother lying in a pool of blood in their pristine white bathroom. Now 18, she acknowledges that “Blood itself wasn’t the problem. Cuts, now, those were a different story – the parting of skin beneath steel, blood or no blood, never failed to fuck me up.” Lane’s mother’s suicide has left her with deep, unhealed psychic wounds and an inability to sleep properly.
Her life is further unsettled when her father marries Skye, mother to the boy Lane has been in love with since he took over frog dissection duty in eighth grade AP Biology. Suddenly this unattainable boy is sharing her house and, well, that situation is just untenable because Grey McIntyre was the “longtime occupant of my heart’s most vulnerable nook, hopeful and buoyed in the chair next to mine. The only boy I’d ever loved.”
Grey’s girlfriend Sadie is the daughter of the local televangelist. Sadie has her life mapped out, and that life involves getting married and having a truckload of kids. She’s a good person, if perhaps a little judge-y. Her older brother, Connor, is the black sheep, kicked out of the house when he was fourteen and only just now finding his footing as an artist. That’s one of the ways he and Lane bond: she is also an artist, crafting creations from yarn. Connor sees right through Lane and claims he sees right through Grey, too. That his sister is caught between them is problematic, even though Lane assures him that her feelings for Grey predate Sadie and, anyway, she would never act on them. Thus, you know, the angst.
One of the main issues I had with this book is how over-the-top dramatic everything is and I think that drama isn’t helped by Gibson’s prose, which is beyond purple.
My skin simmered; my veins were kerosene, aching for the touch of a match. Everything hung on that word – our lives and family, past and future; the seconds before and after it left his mouth ran together like gooseflesh melting smooth in the sun, and this wasn’t my fault – he’d found me on his own, plunged blind into dark, brackish depths, dredged me from the groundwater so we surfaced together. Never stopped to think if we should breathe in open air.
The odd thing is that I found some the writing in the book quite beautiful; it’s just that it got in the way of the plot’s momentum – and in a book where nothing really happens, that’s a problem.
I loved the idea of this book because I am all for angst, but I think too much is made of the fact that Grey is now Lane’s brother/step-brother; they are both adults and not related by blood, so the taboo is a bit watered down. C’mon, it’s not Flowers in the Attic level wrong. Truthfully, these young people are going through what many teenagers do: heartache, depression, guilt and lust. It just feels like more because of the way the story is written. Strip that away and what’s left? Your enjoyment will depend on your patience for the way the story is told.
I Hope You’re Listening, Tom Ryan’s latest YA offering, capitalizes on a couple of today’s most popular phenomena: podcasts and true crime. Dee Skinner was seven when she and her bestie Sibby Carmichael headed out to the woods to play in the treehouse built by their friend Burke’s uncle Terry. Dee’s life is forever changed by that afternoon because Sibby disappears.
What happened to Sibby Carmichael that afternoon in the woods?
If anyone should remember, it’s me. I was there, after all. But ten years and a million sleepless nights later, nothing new comes to me. No sudden revelations, no deeply buried memories emerging from a haze. Just the same few fragments, still crisp and clear in my mind, still as useless as they’ve always been.
Dee struggles with what happened to her friend, and because she wants to help, but doesn’t know how, she starts a podcast called Radio Silent which becomes something of an Internet sensation. Her friend Burke is the only person who knows she’s behind Radio Silent; Dee, known as The Seeker online, wants to keep it on the down-low for reasons mostly having to do with wanting to stay out of the public eye. She was, after all, the girl who didn’t get taken that day in the woods.
Dee uses the power of the Internet to investigate other missing persons cases, but not Sibby’s. She introduces the stories and then lets her listeners, known collectively as the Laptop Detective Agency, share information and look for clues. Radio Silent has actually had some success, too, but survivor guilt still weighs Dee down.
Then another local girl, Layla, goes missing, and the coincidences start piling up. Dee is reluctant to use her platform to dig for evidence; the disappearance is just too close to home, both literally and figuratively. Already the media is sniffing around, and Dee is keen on staying as under the radar as is humanly possible.
I Hope You’re Listening is a page-turning mystery times two: what happened to Sibby? what happened to Layla? The last third of the book is almost impossible to put down. I could totally see this story as a limited series on Netflix. Dee is a wonderful character, vulnerable for sure, but also fearless and smart. I really enjoyed spending time with her.
Tom Ryan is a new-to-me YA writer. I’ve seen him around Twitter and recently attended a virtual reading through the Lorenzo Society where he, Kathleen Peacock (You Were Never Here) and Jo Treggiari (The Grey Sisters) spoke about their writing and read from their novels.. All three of these authors are from the Maritimes, which makes me extra happy to support their work.
Billy Kinsey is an outsider. It’s not just the port-wine hemangioma on the right side of his face. It’s not just the fact that he’s moved to L.A. suburb from the San Joaquin Valley, where he lived a slightly more normal life. It’s not just that he’s an insomniac. It’s not just that his father won 37 million dollars in the lottery and now his mother lunches and plays tennis and his father drinks. It’s not even just that when he was 11, his twin sister Dorrie died of cancer. Well, actually, it’s all of these things.
Stephen Metcalfe’s debut novel, The Tragic Age, is laugh-out-loud funny, tender and wry. Billy, 17, is adrift. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s not exactly sure what the right thing is. It isn’t until Willard “Twom” Twomey comes into his life, followed by the re-entrance of his sister’s childhood bestie, Gretchen, that the fog starts to lift for Billy.
Twom is a larger-than-life character. He doesn’t back down from anyone. When the school’s meathead starts teasing Twom about his name, Twom lets him have it with the back of his dinner tray.
I also soon discover that despite his revolutionary’s attitude towards rules and authority, Twom has his own highly evolved sense of right or wrong. He dislikes what he calls the “dickhead club” and he has complete empathy for the underdog.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that Billy’s an underdog, he sure could use a friend or two and Twom comes along at the right time.
So does Gretchen. Although Billy of course knows her, she and her family have been, until recently, living in Africa, where Gretchen’s father “was a hotshot doctor of infectious diseases.” Her arrival back in Billy’s orbit is problematic.
It goes without saying that girls can make you do insane things. One minute a guy can be, if there is such a thing, normal, the next, he’s cracking stupid jokes and running and dancing in place like a babbling, mindless idiot. Another word for this is “dating.”
The Tragic Age follows Billy as he navigates his final year of high school, falls in love and tries to figure out what anything means…and whether anything is worth it, after all. The grief he feels over Dorrie’s death is clearly unresolved; in fact, he and his parents never even talk about Dorrie. They don’t really talk about much of anything, and that’s part of Billy’s problem.
Billy is on a slippery slope and the novel’s final pages are made for the big screen. That makes sense, since Metcalfe has worked in the film biz. I’m not sure the frenetic pace suits the rest of the book, but I still really enjoyed it. Billy is a memorable character and his experience of disillusioned, navel-gazing, teenagedom will be recognizable to anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or figure out how to simply survive.
Tyler Johnson Was Here adds another voice to #BLM and it’s a worthy voice indeed. Inspired by events in his own life, debut novelist Jay Coles tells the story of seventeen-year-old twins Marvin and Tyler who live with their mom in Sterling Point, Alabama. Their father has been incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.
The novel’s opening scene is a doozy. Heading back from the corner store to their house with their best friends Ivy and G-Mo, the brothers find themselves in the middle of an incident. An incident involving guns. And a cop. And already I am 100% out of my element. Of course, I am present enough in the world and read enough YA to know that this clash and the bullets and the violence are not an anomaly.
At first the friends think they’ve found themselves in the middle of some sort of gang dust-up, but when the cop shows up they realize it’s much, much worse. The cop has a kid with him, and as Marvin and the others watch
The cop keeps bashing the poor kid into the sidewalk, smashing his face onto the surface, screaming hate into the back of his head, screaming that he forgot his place in the world, screaming that his wide nose had it coming. All I can see – all I can focus on – is the cop as he pulls out his baton.
It is hard not to be affected by this scene, or any of the other things that happen as Marvin tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life, especially after it seems that Tyler is making some decisions that are clearly not of the good, including a friendship with Johntae, a known drug dealer.
The odds seem stacked against Marvin and Tyler simply because of the colour of their skin. There are very few white folks in this world, but I have to say I didn’t trust any of them – even Mrs. Tanner Marvin’s English teacher. I think she was sincere, but did she just have a white saviour complex? And here’s something I never thought about. Marvin describes his Advanced English class as “whack as shit”.
We don’t learn anything worth knowing, and today’s been just the same old dead white people, and white poems that she forces us to write on white pages. And now she tells me that Shakespeare was the world’s first rapper.
Ouch. As an English teacher myself, that stings a little, but the kid’s got a point. The Western canon leaves a lot to be desired – even I know that – and I love a lot of it.
Tyler Johnson Was Here is a readable, propulsive and frustrating novel. It is a much-needed reminder that everyone does not have the privileges that I have taken for granted my whole life. If the characterization is not quite as robust as I might have liked, it’s a small complaint because ultimately I was invested in Marvin’s story and spending a couple hours with him is time well spent.
Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”
Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”
Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.
I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.
My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?
Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes
There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.