Ronit & Jamil – Pamela L. Laskin

alternating narration, biracial couple, diversity in YA, families, love, Middle Grade Romance, novel in verse

Take Romeo and Juliet and put it in current times with the Israeli and Palestine conflict and we have Ronit & Jamil.  A smart Israeli girl and a smart Palestinian boy, both raised by doctors who meet in passing assisting their fathers at a hospital.  Thus begins this little (178 paged pocket sized) universal love story.

This story reads quickly and even quotes a few lines from Shakespeare’s work.  What is unique in this modern retelling is that communication not only occurs via text messages, but that Ronit and Jamil, unlike Juliet and Romeo, know the entire time they are going against family rules and cultural laws.  In fact, knowing how their relationship would be both a disgrace and punishable, makes them value their time together even more than the immature star-crossed-lovers.  The forbidden love is similar, as it has probably occurred throughout time, but these passages make it modern in a way the reader – even if unfamiliar with the Palestine and Israeli struggle – will follow.

Throughout the alternative narration, Ronit and Jamil have similarities with their family lives and their own interests, as seen in the passages “What I love” and “What I hate”.  The overall tone is one of finding love and while being afraid of rules, family, and law, holding onto that love through a time of war; finding joy and truth when it contradicts what you were led to believe.  Ronit and Jamil eventually must face their reality and which they will chose: family or love.

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The Sun Is Also A Star – Nicola Yoon

alternating narration, diversity in YA, families, love, Safe Bets

“Do you have idea what it’s like not to fit in anywhere?”  For our characters, they all do.

Natasha is Jamaican and came to America as a child with her family.  Daniel’s family is Korean, but he was born in America.  Both struggle with living in America as outsiders.  For her it’s due to the location of her birth and for him it’s trying to learn how to be both American and Korean.  Life for Natasha is worse than trying to live the American life, she is trying to stay in America.  Natasha’s family is to be deported – tonight – when the story begins.  As a senior in high school who only knows of her life in Brooklyn, Natasha has gone from looking at colleges and planning prom to trying to find a way to remain.

This is more than a YA “meeting a stranger-turned-romance” tale, it shows the depth of families, the struggles when a teenager takes on parental roles, but what makes this second novel by Yoon amazing, and hold up to Everything, Everything is the way she writes of the side characters to show everyone has a story and how lives are connected.  This novel has so much enjoyment to offer from the budding friendship/romance of Natasha and Daniel to the way they spend a day when one is blessed with the freedom of teenagers out of school for a day as they answer questions and experience different parts of Brooklyn and New York City.  Natasha is strong and believes in science.  She values facts over emotion.  When she meets Daniel, who believes in emotions, dreams, poetry, and fate, at first it’s with amusement, but as the day continues, they both begin to understand their view of the world isn’t the only way to view it at all.

The story of these two and their immigration background, family cultures, and day together is a great story on its own, but what I appreciate of this story is that we learn about side characters in alternating narrations, yet characters who seem to have no connection somehow affect each other’s lives.  A side character story line from the security guard to an immigration lawyer having an affair show how people are connected. Yoon also manages to make us see people and circumstances from another view.  As the title suggests, the sun is more than the sun. In a story focused on people coming into a country seeking a home, the real story is the humanity between people – no matter where they are from.

 


Click here for an interview with Nicola Yoon

Going Rogue (Also Known As #2) – Robin Benway

Action, Best "best friends", families, Female Leads, love, Middle Grade Romance, Safe Bets, Series, spies, Young Readers

In this second novel of the Also Known As series focused on the average family out the outside, super spies on the inside, we find 16-year-old Maggie in a good place.  She still loves living in New York, her best friend Roux, and her boyfriend Jesse.  She has great parents (spies) and a friend-uncle (also a spy) and her skills at opening safes are amazingly honed.

……. and of course that can’t last…….

Soon her parents are facing false accusations of stealing and Maggie must face her next challenge without them.  Don’t worry for our girl though, she’s a quick thinker and has a new team to help her.  This tale takes us to Paris, a new twist with the Collective, and also the typical high school challenges that Maggie, Roux, and Jesse face – as well as the secret world that awaits our favorite spy family.  Maggie is a little more experienced than the first novel and faces more grown up issues once she is on her own.  However, she is still a character with heart who puts the protection of her friends and family above her own.

It’s a safe series that keeps the reader’s attention.  Roux is, thankfully, a voice of realism and sarcasm and even she finds some happiness and acceptance in this sequel.  The intrigue continues not only throughout this book, but enough that I will continue with the series (as soon as there is word on Book #3, which there isn’t as of today).  It’s funny, smart, loyal, and adds adventure and mystery.

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.

P.S. I Like You – Kasie West

families, love, Middle Grade Romance, music, Safe Bets, Young Readers

Lily wants to be a songwriter and her constant need to create lyrics eventually leads her to a secret pen-pal who can also talk about music.  For a girl who doesn’t feel she fits in at her high school other than with her best friend and no help to Cade, who singles her out whenever he can, she finally finds a person who she can be completely open with. It begins as a simple doodle and lyric on a desk in Chemistry class, but soon develops to a full note exchange between classes.  This is similar to You’ve Got Mail with pen-pals being school notes left in a desk.

Once Lily learns a few details about her pen-pal, she begins to look at most kids in her school with a curious thought: could he/she be the pen pal?  Juggling school, a music competition, and her overcrowded house with a sister and twin younger brothers, there’s not a lot of time for Lily to write.  Add to this, her best friend and her boyfriend trying to set her up with their friend Daniel.  Soon Lily wonders is her pen pal the cute boy she always sees listening to his headphones or should she stop hiding behind the secrecy of letter writing and focus on Daniel right in front of her?

She is a strong girl who doesn’t mind wearing the clothes she buys from thrift stores or being the odd girl who stands up to Cade.  Still, the mystery of a stranger who she can speak about music with is inciting and causes Lily to act similarly as any teenager with a crush.  It’s honest and real and any teen uninterested in dating or those that don’t mind developing crushes each week will enjoy.  Readers will find themselves in a little bit of Lily.  Characters can be independently strong, yet also susceptible to the actions of peers and the distractions of a first crush.


Read-a-Likes:

 

The Book of Broken Hearts – Sarah Ockler

diversity in YA, families, Favorites, love, mental illness, Safe Bets

Jude Hernandez is 18, the much younger sister of three older sisters who live around the country, and is spending her summer before college in an effort to fix her dad’s old motorcycle.  Why?  Because her dad, Papi, is at the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and Jude sees how each time Papi speaks of his summer riding the motorcycle, he lights up.  The only problem is the 19 year old who is the hired worker to fix the motorcycle is Emilio Vargas – the youngest brother of the Vargas boys who have broken the elder Hernandez sisters’ hearts.

Jude (JuJu) was a 12-year-old preteen when she took the oath to swear off the Vargas family with her older sisters.  Surely now that the eldest sisters are living in different states, and are grown, the juvenile oath doesn’t hold…. the bike can get fixed before the summer and her sisters will never know Emilio Vargas was invited into the Hernandez household.  The only problem is Emilio shares the good looks of the Vargas family, and JuJu not only relies on him to restore the motorcycle, but begins to rely on him during the summer she cares for her ailing dad.

With sisterly humor, family struggles, a light romance, and a daughter’s love wanting to do something for her father who is disappearing from their lives.  Her love for her dad surpasses the sisterly oath.  In a light, entertaining read, this is an entertaining romantic and even silly story of a family and first romance.

Hades – Alexander Adornetto

love, religious, Series, Uncategorized

This is the sequel to Halo and while I normally don’t read religious focused YA, I was curious as to how the angel got kidnapped and into  Hades.  The story continues with Beth, an angel sent to Venus Cove with her fellow angels covering as her older brother and sister.  She still is in the relationship with Xavier, a human who knows all about the angels.  As the students return to school the struggles of an appeared teen suicide still haunts Beth and her friends.  On Halloween, the girls decide to do a seance – and thus, evil returns to Venus Cove.

The story is actually entertaining, if juvenile in how relationships are perceived and the stereotypes of activities in Hades occurring.  Yes, Adornetto even goes so far to not use the word “hell”, but Hades even though vocabulary is mature and violence takes place.  It’s an odd combination of innocence with Beth’s point of view on love, but then with a very obscure and impressive vocabulary.  Juvenile in plot and story – but with writing of someone who knows how to use a thesaurus!  I think this is why it’s a safe series and I have middle school girls reading it.  The romance is interesting to them and the overall point is to be more good and angelic than bad and unkind.

We do meet Lucifer (who the demons call “big daddy”) and witness traditional sins, learn the history of fallen angels, and that a glimmer of hope causes some Hades to break loose in Hades. Beth does have a few other lost souls trapped who try and help her and once she learns how to witness and connect with Xavier and her siblings, the plot continues with the angel and human brigade (my words, not the author’s) trying to find a way to rescue their angelic Beth.  So with portals to and from hell, I mean Hades, an archangel, a seraphim, and a nun to assist, and two teenage humans, the struggle for the angel who may start the apocalypse by being in Hades is real and a unique plot.

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

 

Ask the Passengers – A. S. King

Award Nominee, diversity in YA, families, Female Leads, gay characters, love

No one is perfect.

There are sort of three stories in one with this novel, which takes a little bit to get really into but it’s worth the wait. First, is the narration of Astrid Jones’ 17 year old life.  Her family moved to a small town from New York after her mom decided to buy the old family estate.  The mom is a piece of work, judgmental, favors Astrid’s younger sister so openly to serve her alcohol, take her on “mommy dates”, and favor any moment spent with her ignoring Astid for similar things.  Her sister is more small town minded than Astrid and focuses on what her schoolmates think.  Then the dad is clearly unhappy in a dull job and avoids his passive aggressive wife by smoking pot.  Astrid is also secretly trying to figure out if she’s gay and afraid to let anyone know.  Oh, she also helps keep the cover up of the perfect “it” couple at school, Christina and Justin (who are both gay, but pretend to be dating).

The second aspect of this story is when Astrid lays on her picnic table in the backyard and imagines the lives of passengers as planes fly above her.  We are given little mini-stories of passengers as Astrid imagines who is in the planes.  But in a touching way for a girl who receives no real love at home, she passes love to these strangers thousands of feet above her whose lives she imagines.  She doesn’t want to keep all of her love since she doesn’t feel she needs it all, but in a full circle at the end, it is Astrid who receives love.

The last part is actually quite funny.  It helps to offset the homophobic slurs that eventually get said and the sad lack of a mother-daughter relationship that Astrid wants, but doesn’t have.  Astrid is in a humanities class studying philosophers and she’s decided to take her appreciation of Socrates by imagining “Frank” Socrates and how he’d react to her life.    As she discusses Plato’s  Allegory of the Cave, she eventually compares those cavemen who want to stay living in the shadows to that of her close-minded classmates, and even her own sister who refuses to branch out from their mother’s favoritism to be an independent thinker.

cave

This is definitely a novel for older readers, not because of the many gay characters (who most are still in the closet other than their friendship), but due to the cussing.  There is a lot of cussing.  Once Astrid and her friends are outed (a raid on the gay bar in the city) prejudice and stereotypes become more apparent in their high school and Astrid not only has to struggle with the small minded hatred, she has to decide whether to tell her parents the truth.  She questions her arousal to Dee, her openly out female coworker and girlfriend.  There are great points made in this book about trying to find the truth and what people actually need to be honest and happy.  Even from her judgment mom, Claire, Astrid is told being gay isn’t a choice, you’re either born gay or straight.  While Claire hates how the gossip affects her and is not a warm mother to her eldest daughter, King has this otherwise bad mother say a loving comment which offers overall support, even if her daily actions are contradictory.

In the end a big discussion on labels and placing people in boxes to try to categorize them is the point – and being true to yourself.   With the humanities project of arguing paradoxes, Astrid argues against the idea of perfection and proves her point that no one is perfect, not her overcritical mother, her best friends, or passengers that fly over her house.  Everyone is simply trying to live and she sends love to them, but decides to keep some for herself as well.

 

It’s Not Summer Without You – Jenny Han

death, families, love

Well I picked up this audio CD without knowing it was a 2nd in a series.  That’s OK, I like Jenny Han and I caught on.  It’s a story about loss and how one moves on from loss.   In this case it’s our narrator, Belly (guess I should have read the first of the Summer series to know why her nickname is ‘Belly’).  Anyway, her pseudo aunt has died and left many heartbroken, but she is also recovering from the breakup with Conrad, Suzanne’s son, and summertime childhood friend turned fling after many years.

A good amount of teenage questioning occurs such as how, as we age relationships change.  Conrad struggles with the loss of his mom and turns everyone away, while his brother Jeremiah is happy to rekindle his old friendships – especially when Conrad disappears for a few days. The kids have an unrealistic few days at the summer “Cousins” beach house (unsupervised), but it’s a nice coming of age / grieving / growing up that any teen reader will enjoy due to those days of freedom.

What is significant in this novel which deals with death is that the question of how one grieves is brought up numerous times.  Sometimes even to question whose grief is more important than other person’s grief – the sons, the best friend, the ex-husband?  How everyone reacts to death is different not only based on the relationship, but based on each individual, and Belly finds out that its not whose grief that is most important, but that it is dealt with properly in a way to heal and move on.

Still, I prefer (and loved) To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before also by Jenny Han, which also offers a great coming of age story, but a bit more comical.

The ending though totally makes me want to read the third book – it’s years later and Belly runs out on her own wedding…..what!?!

Series: The Summer I turned Pretty 

the-summer-I-turned-pretty