Tyler Johnson Was Here – Jay Coles

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.

Looking For Alaska – John Green

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.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.

You Were Never Here – Kathleen Peacock

There are so many things to admire about Kathleen Peacock’s YA novel You Were Never Here, but let’s just start with the fact that it’s set in New Brunswick. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to read a book that takes place in my home province. Okay – now that that minor squee is out of the way, let’s talk about Mary Catherine Montgomery aka Cat.

Cat has been exiled from New York City, where she lives with her screenplay-writing father, to her Aunt Jet’s in small-town New Brunswick. (The town is called Montgomery Falls, but I pictured Fredericton, for those of you to whom that means something.) Aunt Jet is the caretaker of the family’s now crumbling ancestral home, which she operates – out of necessity – as a boarding house. The reason for Cat’s exile and her subsequent banishment creates just one of You Were Never Here‘s mysteries. Another is the disappearance of Cat’s childhood friend Riley Fraser.

The boy in the picture is handsome. Chiseled jaw and wavy hair kind of handsome. The kind of handsome that gets crowned prom king or maybe class president. Even though the smile on the boy’s face looks forced around the edges, it’s wide enough to bring out the dimple in his left cheek.

There are a thousand Riley Frasers in the world, and the boy in the poster is mine.

Riley Fraser has been missing for months. The two had been friends the summer they were twelve (five years ago, and the last time Cat had been to Montgomery Falls), but something happened between them (another mystery) and even though Cat knows “I don’t owe Riley Fraser anything – not after the last thing he said to me”, knowing that he has disappeared is deeply unsettling.

Cat has no intention of doing anything other keeping to herself while she’s in Montgomery Falls, but then she meets gorgeous Aidan Porter, one of Montgomery House’s boarders. He proves to be a welcome distraction as Cat tries to process not only what happened back home, but also her complicated feelings about Riley, their truncated friendship, and his disappearance.

Those feelings become even more complicated when she bumps into Riley’s older brother, Noah. At first, Noah seems disinterested in his brother’s whereabouts, but soon he and Cat team up to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Riley.

And there’s yet another mystery in You Were Never Here which has to do with Cat herself. She seems very reluctant to touch people. There’s an incident on the bus from NYC to New Brunswick, when Cat hesitates before letting a woman sit beside her.

…there’s only so much you can do when you’re big. You can twist and contort all you want, but volume is volume, and with both of us “fat” – “overweight,” my dad always corrects, as if that somehow sounds better – a trickle of sweat forms where our hips press against each other.

Cat’s size is only part of the issue, though. (And how awesome to encounter a protagonist who is not a ‘perfect’ size zero; neither is her weight a punchline or flaw.) The other reason for Cat’s reluctance to touch people is germane to who Cat is, but I’ll let you discover that secret on your own.

I flew through You Were Never Here because it was all the things I love in YA: well-written, suspenseful, peopled with realistic characters, and loads of fun. The last third of the book was so tense, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. The fact that I was in a somewhat familiar setting was just the icing on the cake.

Highly recommended.

The Lies They Tell – Gillian French

Pearl Haskins lives with her alcoholic father on the wrong side of the tracks in Tenney’s Harbor, Maine. (For the record, I am spelling harbour that way because, USA.) Pearl works at the local country club, where the wealthy summer folk flaunt their, well, wealth. It was here, at Christmas, that Pearl last saw the Garrisons: David, the patriarch; Sloan, his beautiful wife and two of their children, seventeen-year-old Cassidy and ten-year-old Joseph. Tristan, the oldest Garrison child, is not present. Later that night, while Pearl’s dad sleeps in the Garrison’s gatehouse, someone broke into the house and shot the Garrisons in their sleep, then set their mansion on fire.

Gillian French’s impossible-to-put-down YA mystery The Lies They Tell picks up the story the following summer. Pearl has graduated from high school and she’s still working at the country club, still impossibly in love with her best friend, Reese, and still trying to manage her father’s drinking, which hasn’t really improved because most of the summer elite blame him for what happened at the Garrison’s – even though he is clearly not to blame. In fact, the culprit was never caught and the main suspect, Tristan, has an ironclad alibi.

And now here he was “with his entourage, the boys of summer, owning the place.” For reasons Pearl can’t quite understand, she is drawn to Tristan, “gripped by the physical and emotional recoil she – and almost everyone else – felt in his presence.” She feels a kinship to him because she senses he is “so alone, even in a room full of people….”

When one of Tristan’s friends, Bridges, takes a romantic interest in Pearl, she suddenly finds herself drawn into a world which she has only ever watched from the outside. Bridges seems nice and seems to genuinely like Pearl, but is he to be trusted? The third boy in the group, Akil, seems to openly disapprove of her. And Tristan, he doesn’t seem to know she exists, until he turns his laser focus on her.

I really enjoyed this novel. For one thing, it’s very well-written and the characters are believable. You know how characters in mysteries and thrillers sometimes do stupid things? Not here. Pearl is smart. She wants to figure out what happened to Tristan’s family, on the surface so that the blame can be shifted away from her father, but also because Tristan just seems like a whipped puppy to her. As she sifts through the gossip and tries to make sense of Tristan himself, she comes closer and closer to danger.

Like Pearl, I kept changing my mind about whodunnit and by the time I got to the book’s final pages my palms were sweating.

Highly recommended.

Hotel for the Lost – Suzanne Young

Audrey has had a tough go. Her mother recently died; her older brother, Daniel, is barely speaking to her, and her father is so fed up he’s shipping her off to spend the summer with her maternal grandmother. This is how Audrey and her family ends up at Hotel Ruby, the creepy setting in Suzanne Young’s gothic romance Hotel for the Lost.

There’s a pathway into the trees, a road covered in debris of broken branches. I’m about to ask my father where the hell he’s going when a set of open iron gates appear in front of us. They’re ornate and oversize. Beautiful. Golden lights wrap their way up the tree trunks and illuminate the drive, now cleared.

Here, in the middle of nowhere, is a grand building – lit up at 3 a.m. like it’s New Year’s Eve. A white stone front, huge archway with ivy crawling up the walls.

Hotel Ruby is not like other hotels. For one thing, their stay there mellows Audrey’s dad out and one night turns into three. For another, there’s a massive party held in the ballroom nightly, but it’s by invitation only and Audrey is not invited. And then there’s Elias, the hot, strangely old-fashioned guy whose “smile is absolutely disarming in the most wonderful way.”

Audrey’s stay at Hotel Ruby gives her an opportunity to reflect on her mother’s death (something she has struggled to come to terms with). It also gives her the chance to see her father in a new light and to attempt to work through her complicated feelings for Ryan, the boy she recently dumped. Mostly, though, she wanders the strangely labyrinthine halls of the hotel, snogging Elias and trying to figure out why the place feels so strange.

Part of that strangeness has to do with Kenneth, the hotel’s uber-creepy concierge. And then there’s Audrey’s hallucinations, which become more pronounced the longer she’s at the hotel.

I think Hotel for the Lost had a lot of (often unrealized) potential, and the novel definitely picked up steam in the latter half. I think readers who enjoy a little bit of “what the heck is going on” will enjoy the story’s twists and turns, and anyone who enjoys romance will be rooting for Eli and Audrey.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay – Adib Khorram

It is impossible to count all the accolades Adib Khorram’s debut novel Darius the Great is Not Okay accumulated, but let’s just say if there is a “best” list, this YA book is likely on it.

In this compelling coming-of -age story, seventeen-year-old Darius Kellner feels like an outsider. Even in his own family he feels “other”. His mother is from Iran and his father is, as Darius calls him, an “Ubermensch.”

I did not inherit any of Dad’s good looks.

Well, people said I had his “strong jawline,” whatever that meant. But really, I mostly looked like Mom, with black, loosely curled hair and and brown eyes.

Standard Persian.

His looks aren’t the only thing that sets him apart from the other kids at his school. Darius is a bit of a geek, too. He loves Star Trek – it’s the one thing he and his father have in common and they rewatch an episode together every night – and Tolkien. He’s a tea aficionado. He also has a special relationship with his younger sister, Laleh.

…guys are not supposed to love their little sisters. We can look out for them. We can intimidate whatever dates they bring home, although I hoped that was still a few years away for Laleh. But we can’t say we love them. We can’t admit to having tea parties or playing dolls with them, because that’s unmanly.

And, the most damning thing of all: Darius suffers from clinical depression.

When Mrs. Kellner learns that her father back home in Iran is terminally ill, the family decides to visit. She hasn’t been home in seventeen years, and Darius and Laleh haven’t ever seen their grandparents except via a computer screen. It is to be a life-changing trip.

As much of an outsider as Darius is at home, he feels just as much on the outside in Iran. Unlike his sister, he doesn’t speak Farsi. He is a “Fractional Persian” at best, and the customs and culture are almost as alien to him as they might be for someone without any ties to the country. Luckily, he meets Sohrab almost as soon as he arrives, and this new friendship teaches him not only about his heritage, but about himself as a person. Their unfolding friendship is truly a thing of beauty to behold.

There is a real sense of place in Khorram’s novel. What I know about Iran would likely fill a teaspoon, and most of that is likely negative. Not sure why. This novel is full of history and culture and food and family. It is brimming with life, even with the shadow of political and religious unrest simmering beneath the surface. But that is not what this book is about. This book is about finding your place, accepting your perceived flaws, belonging.

Darius is a complex character, a teen you want to hug. As he taps into all the things that make him who he is, his notion of who he might be shifts, too. And that is a joy to behold.

Highly recommended.

Teach Me to Forget – Erica M. Chapman

High school junior Ellery has a plan. The plan involves a gun. Nothing is going to stop teachher. The money she’s saved for a trip to Paris will instead pay for her funeral. She’s already booked cleaners to come in the day after. This is the scenario in Erica M. Chapman’s YA novel Teach Me To Forget.

There are, she understands, a couple flaws in her plan. Her bestie Jackson is one of them.

Jackson will hurt. We’ve been best friends since he climbed my tree and broke his leg in second grade. He’ll get over it. He’ll find another friend. Someone who deserves him more than me.

Her mother is another one; “…there’s a sadness in her eyes” that Ellery feels responsible for. And then there’s Colter Sawyer, the high school senior who just happens to be working at the K-Mart when she tries to return the gun (which turns out to be defective).

Colter is in Ellery’s AP English class, but the two are not friends. He is immediately suspicious of Ellery telling her “There’s no way anyone sold that gun to you.” Colter recognizes in Ellery something he has seen before and he makes it his mission to “save” her.

I don’t really know how to feel about this book. On the one hand, it highlights the helplessness and hopelessness of a suicidal person. It also tries to illustrate the importance of having people in your life, connections that you can count on. There are moments of surprising humour and the relationship between Jackson and Ellery is lovely. Jackson was my favourite character, but as things heat up between Ellery and Colter, he seems to drop off the page.

There was also something sort of shrill about it the book, though. Ellery was constantly screaming and running away from situations. I get that she is unwell and I had a great deal of sympathy for her. I also wondered why her mother, a nurse of all things, didn’t notice that her daughter seemed to be going off the rails. Yeah, I know, she was dealing with her own grief, but still. Not even a little bit suspicious? And then there’s Colter, whose own backstory, while tragic, makes him wayyyy too patient with Ellery. Given his circumstances, and knowing what he knows, you’d think he’d be a little bit more aggressive with getting Ellery professional help. “I love you” doesn’t necessarily save the day.

I appreciated what the book was attempting to do. It worked on some levels, but some of the characterization was a miss for me.

Fall For Anything – Courtney Summers

fallsummersSeventeen-year-old Eddie and her mother have recently suffered a tremendous loss. Eddie’s father, a once-renowned photographer, has taken his own life and neither of the Reeves women are coping very well. Eddie’s mother drifts, ghost-like, around the house wearing her father’s housecoat being fussed over by her best friend, Beth, who drives Eddie “fucking crazy.” Eddie avoids her house as much as possible, choosing instead to hang with her best friend, Milo.

Milo would do almost anything for me. He’s been my best friend since second grade, when a brief but weird obsession with the original Star Trek  got him sort of ostracized at the same time all the girls in our class decided a girl named Eddie must actually really be a boy. By third grade, we weren’t so outcast anymore, but we were beyond needing other people. We still are.

Eddie is trying to make sense of her father’s death, and she is pulled back to the place where he ended his life: Tarver’s Warehouse, an “old and abandoned” building.

I come at night, waiting for some piece of the puzzle to click into place, waiting to understand, and I stay until the living world presses in on me and I have to go back to it…

She is surprised to meet Culler Evans, a protege of her father’s, at Tarver’s. Culler tells Eddie that he knows her father “spent a lot of time here, so I’ve been coming out, just trying to figure it all out, I guess. I mean, to understand why he’d …”

The two instantly bond over their desire to understand this inexplicable suicide. When it appears that Mr. Reeves has left a series of clues that might unravel the ‘mystery’ of his suicide, it sends Culler and Eddie on a road trip.

Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers (Sadie, All the Rage, This is Not a Test, Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are)  has created yet another memorable character in Eddie Reeves. This makes the sixth of her books I’ve read and I have not once been disappointed to spend time with her characters. I always find her protagonists to be flawed, tough and vulnerable in ways that make them extremely sympathetic.

Eddie is no different. Her grief is palpable. It manifests itself in her hands, which she claims are dying, and in the ways she pulls people in and pushes them away. Even her escape route at night (she climbs out of her window and jumps to the ground) seems fraught with meaning. “I jump” she says. “It’s effortless. It is so easy.”

Fall For Anything is all the things a great YA book should be (well, all the things any great book should be): well-written, compelling, page-turning and with emotional heft. I held off reading it as long as I could because now I have to wait until February 2021 for The Project, Summers’ next novel. I know it will be worth the wait.

Highly recommended.

The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut YA novel The Poet X tells the story of fifteen-year-old Xiomarapoetx who lives in Harlem with her twin brother, whom she calls ‘Twin’) and her Dominican immigrant parents. She’s a good girl; she has no choice. Mami’s rules are law, and Xiomara wouldn’t dream of breaking them. But there are some things Xiomara can’t control. For example, she is “unhide-able”

Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said/ was “a little too much body for such a young girl.”/ I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips/ so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school/ now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong.

She starts to question organized religion and at school, she finds herself drawn to her classmate,  Aman.  She starts keeping secrets from her mother because religious conviction is non-negotiable and  Mami’s dating rules are written in stone: she can’t date until she’s married.

When her English teacher encourages Xiomara to write poetry, she discovers that she has a lot to say and there might actually be a way to say it. As she commits her thoughts to the page, her confidence grows.

…I know that I am ready to slam. / That my poetry has become something I’m proud of./ The way the words say what I mean,/ how they twist and turn language,/how they connect with people,/ How they build community,/ I finally know that all those/ I’ll never, ever, ever”/ stemmed from being afraid but not even they/ can stop me. Not anymore.

There’s no reason to be intimidated if you’ve never tried a novel written in verse. The writing is stripped down, these’s no pesky exposition, and it cuts straight to the bone. Xiomara is a thoughtful, intelligent character and you will be cheering her on as she finds the power of her own words.

I loved spending time with Xiomara. As an English teacher, I appreciated that words offered her an escape and comfort and eventually the freedom to speak her truth. I highly recommend The Poet X especially if you’ve never given a novel in verse a go.

Watch Elizabeth Acevedo talk about how the novel came to be:

The Fountains of Silence – Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys has a gift. Well, she has many gifts, to be fair, but I particularly admire her ability to write characters that absolutely lift off the page and linger in your imagination long after the last page has been turned.

At my high school, we introduce readers to Sepetys in grade nine, when we read Between Shades of Gray. I have yet to encounter a student, even  those who identify as non-readers, who doesn’t rip through that book, many reading way ahead of the class. In grade ten, when we introduce Salt to the Sea there are very few groans. Again, students quickly become wholly invested in the stories of the characters. When I read the final few pages out loud to my grade ten classes in the fall, I had to stop several times because I was so close to tears I couldn’t get the words out. That’s how you know these characters have become real to you, I guess: you care about their fate.

fountainsI was very excited to read Sepetys’s latest book, The Fountains of Silence, because I just knew that I was going to meet a new cast of characters to fall in love with, and I wasn’t wrong.

Daniel Matheson is almost nineteen when he travels to Madrid with his parents during the summer of 1957. His father is an oil tycoon from Texas, and his mother is originally from Spain. Daniel’s dream is to become a photo journalist, but his father disapproves. While Mr. Matheson does business, Daniel takes pictures, and in doing so he starts to see that sunny Madrid is one city to tourists and another to people who struggle beneath Francisco Franco’s yoke.

Ana works in the hotel and is assigned to help the Mathesons. Her story is one of poverty and struggle. Her father was executed and her mother imprisoned and “Her parents’ offense has left Ana rowing dark waters of dead secrets. Born into a long shadow of shame, she must never speak publicly of her parents. She must live in silence.”

Ana and Daniel feel an instant attraction to each other, but it’s the classic case of being from opposite sides of the social spectrum. There is so much Ana wants to say and can’t, and so much that Daniel doesn’t understand, but certainly will.

Although Ana and Daniel’s story is central to the plot, there are other compelling characters in this book, including Ana’s older brother Rafa and his childhood friend, Fuga; Ben, a seasoned journalist who takes Daniel under his wing, and Puri, Ana’s cousin who works at a local orphanage. Although Ana and Daniel will take up most of the space in your heart, all the characters you’ll encounter are compelling and interesting.

Once again, Sepetys has mined history to find her story. This one concerns the thousands of children who were stolen from their parents and adopted by more ‘suitable’ families. It also provides a window into the period of the Spanish Civil War and the years immediately following, when “Helpless children and teenagers became innocent victims of wretched violence and ideological pressure.”

Their stories deserve to be told and Sepetys does them, and us, a great service by telling them.

Highly recommended.