Spontaneous – Aaron Starmer

Best "best friends", Books Worth Crying Over, death, families, Female Leads, gay characters, love

Right when I think, “Where can YA books go next?  What will make a dystopia or a realistic fiction different?” I find my answer in Spontaneous: spontaneous combustion.

Yep, it’s just a normal day at high school when a student explodes in pre-calculus.  At first what seems an odd, freak accident causes everyone to pause and grieve for their loss when *kapow* (my words, not Starmer’s) another student explodes, splattering himself and blood all over classmates.  The FBI comes to investigate, but for Mara, she’d rather not try and figure out why this is happening, but wants to deny it – first with drugs, later with a boy named Dylan.  Through the year, an FBI investigation, a hashtag led night of vandalism, someone exploding in front of the [female] president, a brief reprise from spontaneous combustion, the senior class seems to survive with only the occasional explosion.  Mara’s focus on survival is set more on her best friend, Tess, and a new boyfriend, Dylan, who has a dangerous past. I’m not sure how teenagers exploding can still have a humorous tone, but this story does.  It also has a much deeper message behind the obvious plot.  From a recovering PTSD war verteran teacher to misfit teenagers finding common ground in their situation.  In the end differences are not what matter, but their common humanity does.

In a vulgar, ludicrous (often over-the-top with language or descriptions) storytelling, the heart of the story is exposed at the very end, on a prom night when the surviving senior class members all feel, and admit, they are to blame for the Covington Curse.  In reality, they are not, but isn’t that how teenagers internalize a problem?  By trying to explain both their role in an unfortunate experience and the reason why, they are lost and hurting. So while the premise is a bit over-the-top, the deep message of the story is as simple as it can be: love, loss, friendship, healing.  I’m not alone in praise, it’s in the works to be made into a movie.

In the end, I loved this for creativity and honesty with loss and coping mechanisms, even the unhealthy ones.  Self importance, grief, and anger are explained in a perfect teenage mind (Mara sometimes tries to trick the reader or asks us, taking a pause from the storyline, what we believe).  There are unanswered questions by the end, but Mara’s coping, growth, and hope at the end makes me happier than any answer.

Life is rough and we love, learn, grow.  People who like to read about a heartbreak and coping along the lines of Untwine, The Fault in Our Stars, and All the Bright Places, will find a sweet love story among best friends even among the bloody explosions.

“I am the same.  Through all this shit, I haven’t changed.  Not really. I love my parents.  I love my best friend.  I am capable of so much love.  Even if I am capable of so many other dark and strange feelings.  Maybe because of that fact.  I have thoughts.  I have opinions.  I have emotions that run the gamut.  They come on all of a sudden, and I will feel guilty about some of them, sure.  I will try to be better, of course.  But I can’t will it all away.  These things are me.” (page 347)

“I will do  more with the time I have but not because I’m afraid that the time I have is limited.  It may be a lot longer than I could ever expect, and I sure as hell don’t want to waste it brooding and worrying about my every little thought.” (page 351)

Final thoughts which leave me struggling about the book as whole for knowing your audience before recommending:

I’d be hesitant to recommend it to younger YA readers*.

The ending and last paragraph about sitting out the sunset made me cry.

A great book and a lesson how how to shape your overall outlook on life.


*I’m not a prude, but be wary of this one for language and a page and 1/2 sex scene.  Though I appreciate Starmer’s writing about safe sex with birth control and condom use, words typically avoided in YA books.

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Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys

alternating narration, Books Worth Crying Over, death, diversity in YA, period pieces

There aren’t a lot of books that the night I finish reading it, I wake and in my groggy state think back to the heartbreaking parts or dialogue.  I mean, Come On Ruta Sepetys! This is not only based on a true story, but has amazing characters – brave, loyal, courageous, kind.  And Emilia – a “warrior” (as Florian eventually calls her) for sure.   Read it.  Trust Me. Tears will flow, but they are worth it.

In 1945, thousands of refugees were trying to flee Germany.  Joana, a Lithuanian, is hunted by guilt.  Florian is Prussian has a plan he believes fate will hunt him or lead him to success.  Emilia who is Polish is living in shame and Alfred, the German sailor, is hunted by fear and a strange view of self-importance.   As these people come together, either trying to flee or trying to survive, each faces their fears and personal dangers.

This is the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff at the end of WWII when 10,000 people were boarded on the cruiser [built for 1,463 passengers] to evacuate East Prussia.  Once at sea, a soviet submarine shot it with torpedoes and it sank, killing over 9,343 people.  It is the deadliest maritime disaster in history.  Sepetys writes of these hidden histories so that their stories are told and she does it so beautifully and respectfully.

I am still thinking of these characters 24 hours after completing the novel.  War brings about horrible situations, especially to the children, which is shown through these characters as well as the thousands of refugees our group encounters along the roads, walking across frozen bodies of water, and later on the ship which seems a savior, but ends up killing thousands.  Such wonderfully wise passages from The Poet, the elderly shoe maker who cares for Klaus, the 6 year old orphan, who still manages to find good in the world even as death surrounds all of them.  The historic details gained from Sepetys’ research are heartbreaking and shocking, especially to the desperate parents and the children cast aside.  The stories of the babies are really the only reason I would say 14 and over.  This was the first time I read all of the author’s notes following the completion of a work of historical fiction.

One of my top favorites for historical fiction, books worth crying over, and overall goodness still being in the world when there appears to be none left.  And that Emilia, quite the selfless warrior.

 

Faceless – Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Books Worth Crying Over, families, Favorites, Female Leads

Maisie, on a morning jog, becomes the victim of a freak accident.  Lightening strikes a tree causing a large branch to fall on electrical wires and Maisie is severely burned.  She does not remember the event, but wakes in the hospital after being in a medically induced coma.  Before the accident she was looking forward to Junior Prom, her jogs, and trying to ignore her fighting parents.  Now, waking months after the accident her injuries are worse than 3rd degree burns.  With half of her face gone, bones missing, and bandages along the left side of her body, Maisie’s life is altered forever.

With the possibility of a partial face transplant, Maisie must face (no pun intended) if moving on means moving on without the face she has known.  Can she return to her old life, but with a new face?  The transplant would possibly allow her to smell, taste, and feel the skin on her face, which is what she wants, but the thought of someone else’s face staring back in a reflection might be more difficult than healing physically.

As Maisie struggles to adjust both in the new flesh and immerse herself back into the high school setting, she begins a dangerous self-medication, or rather not-medicating.  On top of her own thoughts, she also overhears the opinions of her classmates and boyfriend Chirag who are struggling with the “new” Maisie as well.  As physical therapy continues, Maisie also goes to a support group with people coping with their physical ailments.  There she meets Adam who never knew the “old” Maisie.  And in Group, Maisie finally finds people who can understand what she is going through.

“You have to learn to love yourself before you can love someone else. Because it’s only when we love ourselves that we feel worthy of someone else’s love.”

The struggles, insecurities, and anger are truthful and beautifully written.  Maisie’s inner thoughts are honest and real, even once she has finished mourning her loss.  She has a few moments when she is able to joke and laugh again.  The process of healing (or even not healing) is long and different for everyone (as shown by people in her support group) and Sheinmel covers it with care, respect, and realistically.  With the whole last section focused on processing information, it being OK to be angry, resentfulness, jealous, and mad at the world, there is precious time given to the process of understanding and the psychological aspects of healing.  Maisie constantly refers to her current life as “Maisie 2.0” since she is no longer who she was. But, as the character Adam says, (paraphrasing), life continues to move and experiences shape you, whether old Maisie or 2.0 Maisie were here.  The fact is YOU are here and what will YOU do?

This is a beautiful story.  A top favorite like All The Bright Places.

 

This is Where It Ends – Marieke Nijkamp

Books Worth Crying Over, death, diversity in YA, families, gay characters

When all the students of Opportunity High try to leave their assembly, they find the doors are locked.  They then see Tyler on stage with a gun.  “Everyone has a reason to fear the boy with the gun.”  The majority of the novel is 53 terrifying minutes.

The plot unravels from different narrators, all of whom know Tyler in a different way: as a sister, an ex-girlfriend, those he’s accused of ruining his life and taking his family from him, and various classmates.  Students are able to text and alert the outside, but the instant posting can’t deflect the instant picking off of students or teachers from a trigger happy dropout.  This is dark, no doubt, but is getting lots of buzz so I read it.

Our different narrators are:

  • Tomas: a student who was breaking into school files during the assembly so happens to be one of two people free to roam the halls and try to get the doors unlocked.  He has also fought with Tyler in the past. He searches for his identity and role in family and school, but figures his most important role is to get people out of the auditorium.
  • Sylv: Sister to Tomas and girlfriend interest to Autumn, Tyler’s sister.  She is torn between her role at home and her dreams.  She will face Tyler to protect both Autumn and Tomas.
  • Autumn: Tyler’s sister and skilled dancer who takes verbal and physical abuse from their father ever since their mother’s death.  She must deal with her feelings of responsibility by association.  She is also willing to sacrifice herself for classmates.  She still loves her brother even though he’s become this monster and wants to protect him too.
  • Claire: Tyler’s ex-girlfriend.  She was outside running with the track team and she and Chris run from school to find a phone to call for help.  They realize the shooter is Tyler when they find his car next to the school security man’s car – the security guard is dead from a gunshot and the ammo cartridges are in Tyler’s car. Her brother Matt is inside.
  • Various texts messages from students within the auditorium.

Tyler is clearly a sociopath and he enjoys being in control of those in the auditorium.  It becomes clear to everyone that he is looking for specific people to shoot, but also shooting people at random so no one feels safe and Autumn places herself in a position to try and reason with her brother.  The story is told from many points of view with each chapter representing a few minutes of time.  It really reads fast in action and dialog, like I’m sure the chaos and confusion of a scene like this would, but also really slowly with the majority of plot and shootings occurring within 30 minutes of time.  Having the time stated at each narration prolongs the fear and uncertainty of victims and how each second would focus on breathing, the sound of one’s own heartbeat, or hearing every snicker from Tyler like seconds ticking away. The world stops in that auditorium and Nijkamp successfully covers this heavy, delicate topic and how teenagers would react.  The loss and shock is covered as well as anger and confusion.

“Together we could be so strong, but the gun has made us individuals”

This story is more than an overly dramatic scene or imaginative school shooting, and it is written with sensitivity, but also shows the darkness to a mentally unstable person like Tyler.   Adults in the assembly try to rationalize with an irrational Tyler, only to result in being picked off one by one.  There is both a method and randomness to Tyler’s victims and throughout the story, we learn about the previous relationships among the classmates.  They all are focused around the sense of family, whether their own, their missing family, or the family that develops in a positive high school experience with peers and teachers.   It also delves into serious topics of parents and children, and when the children sometimes take on the parental role; abuse at the hands of a parent; sibling relationships; bullying; sexual identities; sexual assault; and being an outsider in a small town.  The different narrators feel different levels of responsibility, believing “if only” situations then they could have prevented the shooting.  Some are brave in trying to stop him or find their sibling, most are just compassionate and scared.  It’s very sad to read [obviously], but all face a sense of loss whether losing a loved one, their dreams, or their lives.  Tyler’s actions are devastating right up to the end.

This is a story that breaks you heart for the school shooting aspect, of course, but makes one realize just how senseless crimes like these are and how we treat one another is important.  Nijkamp never claims to look into the psychology of killing or go into Tyler’s reasoning.  This is a book that shows what it is like for other people to live through (or not) a tragedy.  There are a variety of characters and their responses to not only the shooter, but the shooter’s sister, are honest.  This isn’t a psychological thriller.  It’s a sad story and an example of a mutli-person point of view telling of a tragedy.  It also shows that no one person could prevent Tyler’s actions, but characters come together to help as many students as they can, even in the last few minutes of death.  As with real tragedies, this book doesn’t wrap up into a nice ending.  Just because the shooting has stopped, doesn’t mean the pain and fear are over.  However, people will survive and in a Gone With The Wind realization they know that ‘tomorrow is another day’.

 

Untwine: A Novel – Edwidge Danticat

Books Worth Crying Over, death, diversity in YA, families, Read-a-Likes

Identical twin sisters Isabelle and Giselle are born into this world holding hands – and are holding hands when a car wreck takes Isabelle out of this world.   The description of “untwine” sort of breaks your heart in the first chapter.

Haitian parents who have announced their divorce to their teenage daughters and then a car crash all within the first chapter – it’s another death story, but the twin aspect is new.  There are very detailed descriptions of the car crash that nearly destroys this family.   While Giselle is in the hospital unconscious, she hears her visitors and is trying to will her body to wake up.  Finally she does wake to the realization that her sister is dead.  The rest of the story is showing the family trying to cope and move on.  When the police come to question the family stating the accident is under investigation because they do not think the driver who ran into the family’s car (another high school student) was an accident, Giselle starts to investigate this theory.  What would a new student have against her family or her sister?

This is a heartbreaking story as we witness this family try to physically heal from horrific injuries to emotionally heal with the loss of a sister, daughter, niece, and granddaughter.  Giselle narrates the first part of the book from within a coma and tries to focus on visiting family members and doctors.  She can’t stay awake long enough to learn of her injuries or her sister’s.  Once she is released from the hospital, she must begin living her life minus her other half.  This is a lovely story of friendship, love, and having to start over.  There’s a little mystery thrown in, but the beauty in Untwine is the way in which love and heartache are portrayed from everyone from a boyfriend to a parent  Throughout the novel there are flashbacks and stories to exhibit the family dynamics, the tradition of Haitian culture, and Giz still manages to find a few teenage secrets her twin kept to herself.

You’ll cry.  You’ll feel love and hope, but you’ll cry.  Danticat writes of how the sisters are entwined, they were holding hands when they entered the world and they held hands in the backseat of the crash, which eventually was their final separation: their untwine. As Giz slowly accepts Isabelle’s death, she realizes the rest of her family survived.  One decision, to remove her seat belt for a  moment, changed everything, but she and her family will survive this.  She questions how even though some goodness came with closure (remember, it’s a bit of a mystery so I’m not going to give that away), her sister is still gone, and pain is still felt.  In her sixteen year old logic seeking brain, she believes that maybe her family had just had too much joy, it was time for something bad to happen, and others needed some joy.  Giz questions the idea of why bad things happen and feels the loss of not only her sister, but of her best friend and now has no one to be other other half to whom she talks too.

In a touching scene late at night, on the kitchen floor, her aunt says she will become that person for Giz.  I sort of want to be adopted into this family.   This is a beautiful multi-generational family who come together in the worst moment of their lives and support one another in order to try and heal.  Very touching family moments and a good tear-jerker well worth shedding a few tears.

All the Bright Places- Jennifer Niven

Books Worth Crying Over, Favorites, love, Read-a-Likes, suicide

Violet and Theodore meet on the roof of their high school’s bell tower as each contemplate suicide.  As they sort of rescue each other and come down the stairs and back to the reality of high school, Theodore (aka: Finch) won’t let Violet go.  In an effort to get to know her he befriends her secretly in a one-on-one Facebook relationship and publicly, as declaring her a partner for a school project.

Through the daily tasks of teenagers trying to please parents and trying to uphold school ideals, Violet and Finch each struggle with their own thoughts and the reasons why they were on the bell tower in the first place.  For Violet, it’s a broken heart after surviving a car accident which killed her older sister.  For Finch, it’s balancing his awake moment and his “asleep” moments.  Violet tries to get past the victim status known for “extenuating circumstances” and even hit upon that in life you don’t always get answers, sometimes bad things happen,  sometimes good things happen, and sometimes life just happens

As predicted these two from opposite social circles soon find things in common and once paired on a school project, they open up to one another.  A similar guy-girl differences and conversational banter a ‘la The Geography of You and Me and The Fault in Our Stars, the teen YA romantic crowd will enjoy.  As they discover significant locations around town they discover that life has little moments of “bright places” and they find small moments of happiness with one another.  Even at the end, there’s a sort of farewell scavenger hunt for the last of the assignment.  It provides a romantic closure similar as The Fault in Our Stars.

Similarly to real life, those that struggle with depression often lose the battle.  This is the case for this story as well as one of our friends dies, but the book should not be avoided due to that plot.  In fact, it should be read for the beautifully written friendship that emerges and as a reminder to find the bright places in each of our lives.

It also covers the anger, guilt, and selfishness felt by many left behind a suicide. How people get to the point of contemplating suicide and how people can help one another.  These things and life  can leave you forever changed.

Watch an interview with Jennifer Niven.