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.

 

Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven

diversity in YA, families, Favorites, gay characters

Jennifer Niven continues to bring together two unlikely people with the characters of Libby Strout (the fattest teen in America) and Jack Masselin, who cannot recognizes faces.  After years of Libby being home-bound (and losing hundreds of pounds) she reenters the world of public school, years after she had to be removed from her house by a crane.  Libby has overcome her mother’s death and faces high school bravely and with a fierce sense of humor.  Jack, always trying to fit in with those around him so that they don’t notice his moments of confusion at not recognizing his friends, remembers Libby from the night her house was taken apart so that an overweight girl could be lifted from it.

Now in high school, Jack gets caught up in a cruel game of ‘fat girl rodeo’ and he and Libby are linked together beginning with the prank and ending with group sessions and community service.  Libby is brave throughout the story, hardly letting teasing affect her.  She dances, has a quick wit, and knows people have seen the news story of her years ago, but doesn’t let it define her.  Soon she is also the only one Jack has confided into about his Prosopagnosia disorder.  An unlikely friendship for sure, but it is one with humor and support.

“We’re all weird and damaged in our own way. You’re not the only one.”

In the bravest move Libby could imagine, she proves to students – and herself – that she IS wanted, that everyone has insecurities, and that she is alive and present.  She encourages everyone to be proud of themselves and dance!  With a unique challenge/diagnosis pairing, the plot is original and really focuses on being true to yourself and loving what makes you – You!  There is a lot of cussing in this one though which is why I have it as 14 or over.


I kept thinking of the title and wondered if ‘holding up the universe’ was the weight on Libby’s shoulders, or thinking back to her substantial weight gain after her mother’s death, but finally I think it’s about how everyone is connected.  It’s a collective togetherness.

On a side note

– there is some backlash on the internet about Niven’s portrayal of obesity and the few moments Libby doubts her worth.  Instead of focusing on those fictional thoughts, the more significant portrayal of Libby is one who is fiercely strong, funny, kind, brave, and happy.  In the letter she writes to everyone/anyone, she gives worth to everyone, no matter their intelligence, size, race, or skill.  Some also think her portrayal of a cognitive disorder is romanticizing mental defects and focuses too severely on prosopagnosia.  Niven always researches for her books and writes in a respectful, profound, and delicate way.  I’m sure, like every disorder there is a range of severity, and she focused on Jack’s as severe.  As always though, this is fiction.  Enjoy fiction and know the overall tone is one of kindness, being true to yourself, and seeing past the labels of high school.

As always, I love Jennifer Niven and find her writing beautiful and that the story is always worth reading.

“Dear friend, You are not a freak. You are wanted. You are necessary. You are the only you there is. Don’t be afraid to leave the castle. It’s a great big world out there. Love, a fellow reader”

The Incident on the Bridge – Laura McNeal

alternating narration, families, Female Leads

Thisbe was once a studious, if a little shy, high school student.  Not until a summer romance ended did she retreat into herself.  It wasn’t just that the relationship with Clay ended, but how it ended. Then as isolating as first heartbreak often is, Thisbe doesn’t realize the distraction and danger it puts her in as we learn it does on one night on the bridge.  As days go by into Thisbe’s disappearance, her little sister Ted and a new friend in town trying to recover from his own grief pair up to seek the truth concerning Thisbe’s disappearance.

Learning the backstory of Thisbe and Clay’s relationship alternating between the present days that occur after the night Thisbe disappeared, readers are privy to the inside thoughts of many characters, family members who fight for the truth they hope for, school friends who saw Thisbe’s demise, and the police who are trying to piece together different images of the  missing Thisbe.  Then as Thisbe picks up the narration herself, we realize this tale is far more sinister than high school relationships and that her broken heart led to a distracted moment which will change her life forever.

And what about all the people who either passed Thisbe on the bridge or the security officer who looked at her phone to check on her sick baby and missed the incident on the bridge?  This is a great telling of how we all interact and how people affect one another sort of like Gone Girl with a mystery to unwind.  As characters revisit conversations they had with Thisbe, everyone reflects on how people affect one another.  Thisbe herself realizes that her fixation on Clay and her own downward spiraling isolation wasn’t just an inward sulking, but a distraction which led to her not thinking clearly and over all abduction.

This is a shared narrative that is full of action, but more importantly it shows how we all connect and how, in a state of emergency, people can come together despite their guilt, innocence, or confusion.  There is a common goal and in this case it is to find Thisbe.

Wither – Lauren DeStefano

Dystopian, Fantasy, Female Leads

In a future where science has resulted in men dying at the age of 25 and women at the age of 20, life rules have changed and what is legal has certainly changed. Previous generations tried to create a super-race, but instead have given early death sentences to future generations.

The Gatherers, a group of men who kidnap women to be young brides only to procreate before their deaths and help the human race survive, have captured Rhine.  She now faces a future away from her brother and as a new bride in a house that feels more prison than “starter home.”  Along with her are two other teenagers.  These are her future sister wives.  This is part dystopian and part Mormon family lifestyle.  While their groom Linden seems to actually be considerate, Rhine soon realizes he is in the dark on how the girls were captured and sent to his mansion.  At the patriarchal lead is Linden’s dad Vaughn, who even though he is one of the first generation doctors, there is a sinister side to him and what goes on in the basement of the mansion.  Is he really working on a cure that will let people live past their 20’s?

Rhine must deal with her spoiled captivity and fights against it the full time she’s in the mansion.  Her sister wives are opposites and while young Cecily is eager for the marriage, Jenna approaches this kidnapping as a place to die.  Friendships among the ladies occur, but their differences are always apparent in how much they give in to the marriage and inner resistance.    Rhine wants to escape and must find a way to escape, under the noses of Vaughn and Linden, but also find her way back to her brother.

There’s mystery, love, relationships, and enough questions left unanswered that the series is worth a read.


The Chemical Garder series continues with Fever and Sever

The Girl With The Wrong Name – Barnabas Miller

Action, Female Leads

This is a multi-level mystery concerning a “night in question” for Theo Lane who does not remember a night a few months ago, one that left her with a scar across her cheek.  As she has hidden away from her friends for the summer (and away from mirrors), she finds a connection in watching strangers and trying her hand at film making.  One stranger in particular catches her eye – both because he is attractive and also because he returns to the cafe at the same time everyday and she is curious as to why he returns.  As Theo must return to her teenage life of attending school and rejoin her friends, she also befriends this stranger, Andy, and helps him navigate New Your City looking for a girl he met days ago, but he doesn’t have a lot to go on.

It begins as navigating subways and burrows of the city and spirals into a sinister scenario where Theo questions Andy, her “night in question” and her own lack of memory, and what really happened to Andy’s mystery girl Sarah.  There are similarities between Sarah and Theo, earily so.  Are their mysteries related?  How does Andy seem to know so many people if this is her first time in New York?  Why do both Theo and Andy seem to have so many questions about their own past?

The mystery is the plot of the whole novel and at each new discovery, Theo faces moments of mental confusion as if her past and “The night in question” are intertwined with Andy.  She also over-medicates herself which brings a new mystery to the reader: Are Theo’s revelations real or are the connections made while in a drug induced haze?  Similarly, as We Were Liars the mystery comes with twists and turns and right when you think you know the ending – Boom, there’s a twist.  This takes a while to understand and even if you think you know the twist and end to the mystery, you don’t.  I had about three different “bad guys” I suspected before I found the truth.

It’s great.  It’s bold.   Read it, but there are lots of levels perhaps too much for the under 13 crowd.

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’.

 

All The Rage – Courtney Summers

Award Nominee, Female Leads

The title isn’t a trendy saying, instead it’s the rage of Romy Grey who was date raped by a popular boy, and Sheriff’s son.   Once he is accused, Romy is an outcast – seen as a liar and bullied by the small town high school teenagers, and even prominent adults in the community. This is a story that needs to be told- date rape occurs and should be reported.  I’ll get this out at the beginning – Romy is a survivor in more ways than one.

It begins with the retelling of a night in which Romy was so excited – what to wear on an anticipated date, being asked out by the cutest boy, and then having “fun” defined  by the 6, 7, 8, 9, and even 10 shots of alcohol she ingested  – probably no more then 110 pounds.

“How do you get a girl to stop crying?  You cover her mouth”

Where are the friends the night of and where are the adults the days after I was left wondering?  It makes me sad to read about the isolation and shame that results after a rape and certainly after a woman doesn’t report it. This is a strongly written, bold and powerful novel.  If every girl who experience some form of harassment had the strength of Romy, we would bee strong  stronger as  a female population.  Romy struggles and it is also important for readers to see protagonists with real life struggles and that there isn’t always a quick fix.

Months after her rapist has left town, the harassment continues as classmates are angry of his absence and she is seen as a liar.  Throughout the novel, she uses red nail polish and red lipstick as her shield and Romy finds courage to go to school each day (impressively), but her real solace is working in a diner one town over with people who don’t know her or her history.  When these worlds collide, Romy must face her past and also her vulnerability.  There are positive people in her life, but they cannot offset the mean girls at school and the harassment of boys. When Romy is found on a dirt road, 30 miles from town after going missing one night, with her clothes messed up and the words “Rape Me” written on her stomach, she cannot ignore her past any longer.   The same night, the town’s favorite popular girl also goes missing and Romy wonders if the coincidence of their disappearance on the same night has any link to her past.

Summers covers the aftermath of rape – isolation, shame, anger – well and also shows the strength in Romy as she deals with a town who shames her and calls her a liar.  When even the Sheriff publicly humiliates a teenager, one can’t read past the unfairness and sexism that Romy faces and that females still face such horrible backlash if coming forward with rape accusations against the wrong guy – even if it is the truth.  There is cruelty and unfairness in this novel, but there is also determination and strength.   In the end, Romy’s truth is known, she accepts support, and kindness from an unlikely person helps her feel validated and have a sense of worth.  Still, there are lots of serious mature issues in this besides the date rape.  Definitely a book I won’t forget for a while for the honest and respectful way it dealt with a serious issue of rape, teenage parties and bullying being allowed by adults, and how quickly one girl can get lost and isolated.


I am interested in Courtney Summers now and her award winning other books.  I love that this is her idea of a great character, “She likes writing books about girls who only have themselves because sometimes that realization is the scariest and most important thing–the slow untangling of the difference between ‘lonely’ and ‘alone.’ Her favorite kind of stories are the ones that make you wish so badly they’d ended differently but deep down you know they really couldn’t have gone any other way.”   She is a strong voice, who seems to focus on strong female characters.  Read more about her on her website

 

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly –

Award Nominee, Female Leads

Minnow Bly’s parents joint a cult when she was young.  She was punished by her hands being chopped off at the wrists.  Let’s take a moment and process that.  Many people, including my public library, thought this book was an adult book – so be warned.

The story is told in flashbacks and to the FBI psychologist that visits Minnow in juvenile detention.  We read about her story from her family joining “The Community”, the years her family increased in both children and importance within The Community, and the events that led to Minnow’s disability –  as well as the death of the Prophet. Minnow is a smart seventeen year old, despite the fact she cannot read and has had the world kept from her.  Through the years she didn’t trust the Community or the Prophet’s stories and communication with God.  Only when she runs further into the woods and finds a teenage boy living in a cabin, with his dad, does she realize the lies she has been told and that people outside of the Community are not evil.  Jude helps her through the years by offering a supportive escapism.

With such a sad and dark plot, the humor found with Minnow’s cell-mate Angel is a nice reprieve, in juvenile detention, but still.  Angel helps Minnow learn the rules of juvenile detention.  Minnow decides to get the truth out about the Community, especially how it treated children and women, and agrees to talk to the FBI, who are investigating the burning of the Community and the death of the Prophet.

A dark story of mystery, a cruel disfigurement, and overcoming something horrible.  Similar to This. As we read more about Minnow’s background and the brainwashing the men of The Community taught, it is difficult to separate this story from modern cult-like groups.  For being a debut novel, I was very impressed with the depth of the various plots.  Be aware there are beatings, torture, and some cussing, but overall it shows how Minnow survived and begins to rebuilt her life.

Here is an interview with Stephanie Oaks


William C. Morris YA Debut Novel Nominee (2016)