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.


The Rest of Us Just Live Here – Patrick Ness

Action, diversity in YA, families, Fantasy, Favorites, gay characters, mental illness

This is a funny combination of fantasy and realistic fiction for a group of seniors in high school whose town seems to face some type of fantasy end-of-the-world scenario every few years: vampires, ghosts, mystical deaths. Besides trying to survive strict parents, these teens need to simply survive.

In the heart of the novel is Mikey and his family – overbearing mom with dreams of becoming a US Congresswoman, alcoholic dad, a recovering anorexic sister, and a little sister who all adore and is a typical 10 year old in love with a boy band.  His school friends are a small group consisting of the missionary’s beautiful African-American daughter whom he has liked for years, a gay friend with a Goddess as a grandmother and who has the ability to communicate with all felines and also has healing powers, and his older sister Mel who is repeating senior year, due to the anorexia the previous year.  This is a mix of the quirky, well written, TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fantasy elements and a modern story of families and friends. Trying to survive high school cliques and demanding parents is hard enough, but with the occasional mystical mystery, teenagers dying far too frequently, and hoping the high school isn’t blown up (again) makes this a comical read.

The group takes on a few newcomers as more weird things occur across town: dead dear coming back to life, blue light shooting through the sky, and more Indie kids die each day.  I love how the chapters bounce between Mikey’s narration of his high school life and family and a factual account of how the Immortals invade the town – and the Finns, Satchel, Kerouac, etc find their demise.  As they get closer to graduation, the weirdness and deaths continue and finally Jared admits not everyone can be a hero and perhaps the friends should just survive and get out of town after graduation.

Other elements: alcoholic father, anorexia, OCD, gay characters.  After graduation, as the friends sit observing their high school burning after the Immortals blew it up, a touching realistic thought comes from Jared, you know – the 1/4 God who can heal animals and people – and that is that everyone has stuff in their lives to deal with, whether it’s illness, being one of the Indie kids, or being a deity.  Since Ness can bounce between reality and this sort of fantasy element so well, it comes off light and humorous at times, but there is a deeper lesson.   Teenagers who feel out of place, will find a comfort in this group of friends and the town that seems to have unfair luck with soul eating ghosts, vampires, and Immortals.  I laughed a lot, I found the friendships real and loyal, and I also enjoyed the plot-within-a-plot of the Immortals and Indie kids.

Omega City – Diana Peterfreund


When Gillian’s dad’s reputation has been discredited after all of his research is lost in a flood, she is determined to help her dad gain not only his reputation, but gain the truth of a scientist from the Cold-War era.

This is a light mystery of a group of kids discovering a diary of a scientist from the Cold War era who invented a battery that never ran out of power.  Only he is missing; his diary is missing; and Gillian’s and Eric’s dad (the author of Dr. Aloysius Underberg’s biography) is a discredited laughingstock in the academic community.

This is a juvenile book, not dystopian, and not my normal read, but it had me hooked fairly soon.  For young readers who want mystery and need to still be in juvenile books, this is great.

The group of friends are nice and different types of kids.  As Gillian and Eric add more people to their team of investigators, we see kids from different backgrounds, kids with different hobbies, and kids from different social circles come together using their own strengths to help solve the riddle.  There is supportive sibling love between the two after their mom couldn’t handle the conspiracy theory loving dad; there are teens who fit stereotypes and those that don’t; but the crew of kids are all working for one goal:  To find the truth about Underberg’s inventions and the secret from his diary.

There’s adventure as the kids are chased into the newly discovered underground city.  Levels beneath the ground, our adventurers learn more of Underberg’s inventions, why he created Omega City, and have to survive explosions and rising water levels.  They are brave as well as intelligent, quick thinking pre-teens and teenagers.  In the end, they uncover some secrets, are safe, and remain friends even after they return to ground level and their daily lives.   (This felt very similar to the plot of the Goonies, only with some cool history about the Cold War and facts about space thrown in.)

There is an untitled sequel in the works.

Also Known As – Robin Benway



Secret teenage spy with the skill of safe cracking mixed with all teenage angst of clothes, friends, and a crush – but written better than it sounds.

Maggie has multiple names, dozens of passports, and parents who are international spies.  To say the least, her upbringing was not a typical one.  She is skilled at breaking into locks, safes, and any obstacle: all but high school. Her assignment is to befriend a high school boy, Jesse Oliver, to get to his father’s article about The Collective, the spy group that Maggie and her parents work for.  Of course along the way, she realizes she’s never had a “normal” teenage experience and the story has a nice balance of high school entertainment (friends, parties, boys) and spy gadgets and adventures.

This is another book nominated for the Arkansas Teen Book Award, which, yes, is why I began it, but it’s light enough chick-lit YA that I didn’t mind reading it.  Maggie is on her first lead assignment.  She must attend an expensive private school on the Upper East Side, a’la Gossip Girl.  She befriends an outcast and quickly gets a crush on her assignment, but there’s more to the story than that.  Maggie has intense loyalty and Roo (yes, as in Kanga & Roo) is a hilarious friend – if you can see past the fact she is alone and forgotten by her Upper East Side parents, a cuss machine (who is working on it with a swear jar with her doorman, the closest she has to a daily person in her life), and drinks a lot.

Cussing and drinking.

I’m not a prude when it comes to cussing and drinking in YA books, but I also like to know when they exist.  This isn’t as much cussing as Reality Boy (which was great), but know it’s there – and this is certainly a book geared for girls…. kick awesome, spy, smart, savvy girls.   Don’t let the cussing keep you away.

Sequel: Going Rogue 

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

diversity in YA, Favorites, love, Middle Grade Romance, Read-a-Likes, Safe Bets, Young Readers


A story of sisters, crushes, mean girls, and first loves.  Yes, plural.

When Lara Jean’s secret love letters to all of her crushes (5) are mailed suddenly and accidentally, her love life is all too public.

A week shy of her older sister going to college in Scotland, Lara Jean, who doesn’t like change, realizes her life is about to change drastically.   Their mother died six years ago and Margot, the eldest, has kept the family organized and running.  Besides losing her sister to the Scots, she has lost a dear family friend (and her first crush) Josh when Margot breaks up with him.

Of course all the letters get out and all the recipients come looking for answers.  Lara Jean must explain and hide her true feelings for Josh.  It’s awkward and embarrassing, and totally funny when she and one of her recipients decide to “fake date” so she can save face and he can make his ex-girlfriend jealous.

As the story continues, Lara Jean gets a bit braver and honest with her relationships – with Peter, Josh, and her sisters.  Of course it can’t stay light and funny forever.  Soon Margo returns home and there’s a distance between the sisters from her time away.  A school trip brings a mean rumor and a post-Christmas party of carols and cookies ends up with everything publicly announced.  Kitty, the funny wise-beyond-her-years little sister gets her puppy though. Lara Jean realizes how her boy crushes through the years were all fantasy and that love is messy.

“Love is scary: it changes; it can go away.  That’s part of the risk.” and that’s a lesson everyone should learn.

A cute book.  Sequel: P.S. I Still Love You.  (yes, I’ll probably read it)

The Geography of You and Me – Jennifer E. Smith

alternating narration, families, Female Leads, love, Middle Grade Romance, Safe Bets, Young Readers


Ah, teens with opposite financial backgrounds meet in a blackout in NYC.  The financial formula that Nicholas Sparks loves, but written (pretty well) for teenagers.  How will these opposites attract?  Predictable, but nicely written with good development and a back-and-forth dialogue set for movies. Sort of witty, fast talking like John Green’s dialogue (but not as witty, or fast).  There’s a spark between Lucy and Owen obvious from the beginning, which is well developed within the first few chapters.

This book is pretty adorable.  Lucy and Owen aren’t the typical teenagers, and they don’t have the typical dialogue, but both seem more mature than any 16 or 17 year old actually would be (and both wander NYC alone more than any actual teenager would).  As they talk of their plans to go – somewhere, anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere they differ in views, but have the same need for a location connection – or perhaps a personal connection that they find with each other.

The book is broken up into five parts using the themes Lucy and Owen discuss while trapped in the elevator – to be Here, There, Everywhere, and Somewhere  — then finally Home. As they move and travel they still stay in touch and often think of one another.  A little dreamy, a little romantic, very teenage girl to stay focused on a dream and “what if”.

The rest of the story focuses around Lucy’s workaholic, uninvolved parents and Owen’s grieving, unemployed (but trying to remain upbeat) father.  Lucy’s family moves for work and Owen’s family travels across the country searching for a new sense of happiness since the death of his mother. As Lucy and Owen live in separate corners of the world, they are still drawn to the thought of the other. Unable to let the thought go, they both still question the “somewhere, anywhere, everywhere” thought of where is the location they truly belong.  Where is “Home”.

“Home”  is in the final portion of the story.  When not only they find happiness in their lives, but also reunite.

Its development builds throughout the middle portions to where you are reading it, picking up pace, and waiting for Lucy and Owen to reunite.  Well done, well written, and enjoyable. A happy ending not only for the romantics, but also for Owen’s grieving heart and Lucy’s need for a family.

So much adorableness.  Safe for all ages, especially those with wanderlust.

Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend – Katie Finn



This is a cute, lower YA, story of a summer escape for Gemma.  But it’s not all summer ease, parties, and rich kids at the Hamptons – though there is a laziness involved that only teenagers get in the summertime with no real responsibilities.  For Gemma, her summer plans quickly changed from doing volunteer work abroad with her boyfriend when he dumps her and her mother ships her off to the Hamptons to stay with her dad.  It has been five years since Gemma has been there and when she was last there, at age 11, she “ruined” the life of her former best friend.

No surprise then that when she returns at 16, she comes across Hallie again.  Only now she has a new hairstyle (a post-break up needed change insisted upon by her best friend Sophie), but an “S” necklace from her friend means that when Hallie sees Gemma, she doesn’t recognize her, and Gemma introduces herself as Sophie Tucker – her best friend’s name.  So – a new name, a new look….. a new girl, right?  Well that’s Gemma’s plan at least – to make right what she did the the past by befriending Hallie again and later revealing her true identity and apology.  Soon the added variable of having a crush on Hallie’s brother enters, as does an awkward near naked experience at a party.

Getting sucked into the teenage plan of new friendship took a while for me to get into, but once the back story of how Gemma “ruined” Hallie’s life comes out, it gets a bit more entertaining. As the days pass, Gemma becomes accident prone, but she does not find deeper meaning in this unfortunate events like the reader will.  Soon she and Hallie become friends, and, of course, soon Gemma’s real life invades her “Sophie” life.  Waiting for it all to come out gets entertaining and was worth the read.  Silly and light – much like I imagine a summer in the Hamptons would be like.

More juvenile than YA.  Fine for various ages.