American Street – Ibi Zoboi

death, diversity in YA, families, Female Leads, gay characters

Fabiola Toussaint and her mother are traveling from Haiti to America to join her aunt and cousins, but when Fabiola’s mother is held back by customs, Fabiola joins her cousins and aunt alone.  In Detroit, a city much different that Haiti, Fabiola tries to remember her mother’s guidance in a city where everything is different, her cousins act older than they should, and a mysterious stranger seems to be sending Fabiola messages.

She wants to gain her mother’s freedom, but without money or knowing how to find her once she’s been sent to New Jersey, Fabiola must turn to her cousins and friends in this new city.  Among them is Kasim, the cute boy who seems to prefer Fabiola’s natural hair and Haitian accent over the makeover and slang her cousins give and teach.  Only when a detective approaches Fabiola to assist them in a previous crime and offer to help her with the immigration process for her mother must Fabiola decide which family is more important: the life with her mother or the new love and family she has found with her cousins and Kasim.

It is often a difficult balance in trying to portray a group of people without falling into stereotypical traps in language or behavior, but this is a nice balance offered by Zoboi.  Fab’s cousins are mostly American in behavior and pretend to be strong, but when faced with challenges and fear, they fall into each other with the vulnerability that is only protected in the safely of siblings.  Stereotypes and strengths are gone and we see four young females from a different country trying to survive in a cruel world when they get swept up in greed and a new way of survival.

Fabiola’s experience with family, neighborhood criminals, her Haitian culture, and the need of her mother still detained by Immigration officials makes for a unique story of life in America, but be warned – drugs, crime, sex, death, and cussing.  Still, Fabiola (as well as some other finely created female characters) is smart, strong, and brave.  This is a new story, a strong story, and one worth sharing.

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The Way We Fall (Fallen World, 1) -Megan Crewe

Climate Fiction, death, diversity in YA, families, Series

Kaelyn narrates a virus outbreak through her journal entries intended for her former best friend.  Little did she realize beginning a journal-apology would act as a first hand account to an illness that soon begins killing off her friends and neighbors.

What starts with an itch and a cough leads to a hyper-hallucinating fever, with the end result being death.  Soon school is cancelled, and Kaelyn remains in her house with her family.  While her dad is one of the island’s doctors, he cannot explain what is happening.  When the government and the World Health Organization comes to town searching for answers, Kaelyn and her neighbors are left in the dark.  Things go from odd to worse with eventual Quarantine status for those left on the island.

Even though her current circumstances seem out of the ordinary, her friendship struggles are quite ordinary for teenagers.  Kaelyn’s family moved away years ago and only recently returned.  She tries to make new friendships, but is haunted by one from the past.  Her friend Leo who after being best friends for a decade, had a falling out, and now Kaelyn wants to make amends – only, this virus is keeping her on the island and him off.

Soon it’s been months, the island is still under quarantine, and more have gotten sick.  The Mainland isn’t helping other than drop offs by helicopter, but with a recent rogue gang taking things by force, the humanity of Kaelyn’s neighbors begins to disappear as would happen as fear and death increase while supplies decrease.  There’s also a light romance, but the overall focus is the disease and the island.

Being the beginning of a series, I grew tired of it expecting more action and story line progression. I’m a bit curious how the series moves forward once our characters get off of the island (which is the plot of the second), so I may finish this series eventually.


A great science/virus – apocalyptic plot like Life As We Knew It, The Living, Sweet, and H2O and other ClyFi or science conspiracy books.


Series Continues:

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, The Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel – Deborah Hopkinson

Action, death, period pieces, Safe Bets, Young Readers

Life for Eel is difficult as he tries to survive the streets of London as an orphan, doing odd jobs and being a “mudlark” who searches along the River Themes for trinkets to sell.  With a cruel man after him, no parents to protect him, and a little brother he pays lodging for, life is worse than for most 13 year olds.  And then an outbreak of cholera (“the blue death”) occurs the streets of his friends and community.

Together with the good doctor, Eel uses his wits and familiarity with the locals to try to help the doctor learn more of the disease and how it spreads.  Happy to have a safe place – even though it’s a shed – and two meals a day, Eel feels important in trying to protect his neighbors as he learns the ways of medicine and science.  After losing a few friends he is even more focused with Doctor Snow.  Can Eel get past his station as a mudlark and help the good doctor?  Will Henry remain safe?

I love a good historical fiction, and this doesn’t disappoint.  There is action until the end and things get wrapped up quite nicely as many juvenile books do.  The reader is even lucky enough to have author’s notes at the end and learn more about the mid 1800’s, this real epidemic, and some of the real people – like Doctor Snow.

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.

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.

 

The Midnight Star (The Young Elites #3) – Marie Lu

Action, alternating narration, death, diversity in YA, Fantasy, Favorites, Female Leads, gay characters, Series

Three different groups of people continue to fight for power and their desire to be the one ruler in the final installment following  The Young Elites and The Rose Society.

Adelina is where she wants to be after the first two installments of this trilogy and that is as the White Wolf ruler.  She has reversed all prejudice and killings of the marked (those with powers) and has reversed the hatred she and her people faced and now in pure revenge fashion, aims it towards her former perpetrators.  She, along with her Rose Society of warriors, ensures that all marked (those formerly dubbed the ‘malfettos’) are respected in society. Her anger, and the voices in her head, make her self-conscious, paranoid, and cruel.

A few countries away her sister Violetta’s health is failing and a  prediction given earlier that the Elites will lose their powers and die seems to be coming true.  Violetta is protected by a powerful group of Elites – the same group that used to work with Adelina.  The Daggers know Adelina has gone off the deep end with her quest for revenge. They are another group vying for power.

Then there is Queen Maeve, one of the best female characters since Lady Macbeth, who harbors the two men that she brought back from death – and not with their former humanity.  Enzo, the former Malfetto Prince is still as powerful, but will kill more easily and Maeve must realize that her youngest brother, the one she always protected, is now more harmful than she realized.  Better think twice before bringing people back from the Underworld.  So Maeve, her soldiers, and her half-dead violent men are the third group.

Soon all sides collide in a battle of skill, power, and death.  People are captured by the other side and no one seems safe from each other or from the new threat they all face as marked malfettos, but a larger issue faces the powerful marked leaders: they are losing their powers.  A prophecy that was shared in the second book of the series seems to be coming true and now these strong leaders and enemies must come together for their own survival.  As battles continue, more people die (seriously – it’s like a Game of Thrones season), we wonder who will survive, who will retain power, and who will be the last leader standing. As the Elites travel to find the Gods and into the Underworld in order to learn why their powers lessen, more die on their journey.  This is a conclusion to the series that was focused on power and ruling an empire, but resolves in characters finding forgiveness, peace, love, and loyalty.

All in all after a violent, power hungry series, the Elites all finish mostly happily – if they were lucky enough to survive – and it’s a sweet ending, full circle all the way.

The Carnival At Bray – Jessie Ann Foley

Award Nominee, death, families, Female Leads, love, Printz Award Nominee or Winner, suicide

The story begins in 1993 in Chicago then a move to a small town life in Bray, Ireland, which made me wonder if teens in 2016 would even grasp the Grunge movement or know of the musicians that intertwine with 16 year old Maggie Lynch.  Well, I needn’t have worried since Maggie is similar to any teenager whether living 20 years ago or today.  Her life is uprooted when her flighty mom suddenly marries and Irishman and moves Maggie and her little sister to the coast of Ireland. But teenage angst, first love, and identity issues follow a person no matter where they go.

At her new school, and new country, Maggie doesn’t quite fit in with the locals, but also doesn’t try too hard opting for evenings spent at home exploring the goodies in care packages her rocker uncle sends.  As she navigates high school, dating, and first crush, she also balances her personal loneliness, her favoritism to her uncle whom her mom and step-father seem to always clash with Kevin’s ideas and behavior.

This novel in three parts covers a range of emotions and life experiences that one would have difficulty covering in one novel without seeming rushed or random.  That is, unless you are Ms. Foley who manages to show depth and personal growth to Maggie nearly every few chapters. The pilgrimage Maggie takes is not only physical, but emotional and enlightening maturity wise (other than leaving the country and not telling the parents, that’s never a mature action). As she comes across fellow travelers, she realizes the world is larger than what she believed not only regionally, but in relationships.  As she deals with personal loss, she also undergoes personal growth; while learning to accept herself, she learns to forgive her mother.  Relationships and experiences are at the heart of this novel whether it’s a friendship with Bray’s 99 year old village legend or the rocker, grunge loving irresponsible uncle.  Advice from both men help Maggie live to the fullest, open up to others, and experience life.

This story is certainly for the older teen reader (sex, alcohol, suicide, sexual encounters, drugs), but the telling of the mid 1990s and of life in Ireland is such a unique mix that I was surprised to find it so familiar.

This is also the funniest way to fill out an author bio that I’ve seen.  Jessie Ann Foley has her teenage self interview her adult self.


Awards and Nominations:

Printz 2015 Honor Book

William C. Morris Award Finalist

Kirkus Best Book of 2014

YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults 2015

 

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’.

 

The Naturals – Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Award Nominee, death, families, Female Leads, Series

Cassie is viewed as trouble.  Her dad is across the world and her mother is missing, presumed dead.  Cassie lives with her extended Italian family while her dad is away and one day when a young stranger leaves a business card for the FBI, her usual mundane life has an element of mystery.  This card attracts her interest in that she may finally gain some answers about her mother’s disappearance 5 years ago.

The chapters alternate between Cassie’s life and the narration of a serial killer [be warned, 14 and older].  Cassie is a “natural” a personality type the FBI is searching for of young teenagers with natural abilities – profiler, mind-reader, statistician, emotion-reader.  Now Cassie’s ability, trained by her mother’s influence seems to have a real purpose.  As she goes to D.C. under the ruse of a specialty government school, her FBI training begins, but for Cassie there is always the haunting reminder of her mother’s absence.  Her desire to learn the truth about her mom leads her to join this special group of the FBI, trained by real FBI agents.

Cassie and the four other “naturals” she is being trained alongside focus on their specialties also while trying to deal with typical teenage relationships, crushes, grudges, and confusion. Soon, of course, Cassie’s past and her mother’s death become key elements to a current serial killer’s traits and murders.  When Cassie begins receiving anonymous “gifts” from the killer, the FBI and The Naturals must all hone their abilities and work together to protect Cassie and catch the killer – before the killer gets Cassie.

It ends up being a good mystery and the “Naturals” are all interesting characters with good backstories.  I’m interested in if the series remains as dark as this first one with the plot of a serial killer or if there will be a variety of types of cases.  Also, will Cassie ever get the real answers surrounding her mother’s disappearance?

On a side (and fascination note) Jennifer Barnes is a professor of psychology, has a PhD from Yale, and has advanced degrees in psychology, psychiatry, and cognitive science.  This definitely adds a level of respect to the series and her darker characters.


 

series

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.