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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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.

All the Bright Places- Jennifer Niven

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch an interview with Jennifer Niven.

Reality Boy – A.S. King

Uncategorized

reality

Gerald, now 16, was a reality show child – and not the cute, talented kind.  In fact, he was on Network Nanny because of his bad behavior.  Now 11 years later, he cannot escape the fact that his town, kids at school, and the nation saw him as a 5 year old who pooped, anywhere he wanted when upset.  Gerald is known as “the crapper”.  As if having the world know your childhood was not bad enough, his violent tendencies continued so now he goes to anger management; he has an overly verbally and emotionally violent drop-out sister; and Gerald lacks friends.  Throw in a tendency to cuss a lot and his rage issues …. and one sees how being a reality-show participant has messed up his life.

Gerald’s positive things in his life – Gersday…. an invention in his mind of daydreaming escapism, it’s another day of the week where he often eats ice cream, visits with his normal sister (who loves him).  He also has a job he likes and a cute girl who soon befriends him.  When a stranger’s hug and sympathy about what Network Nanny did to him causes him to breakdown, the reader more easily relates to him.

Chapters alternate between Gerald living his life and the episodes of Network Nanny that focused on 5 year old Gerald and his 8 and 11 year old sisters, Lisi and Tasha.  Tasha already clearly a psychopath. What’s worse, is Gerald begins to realize that besides his mom favoring Tasha, the psychopath, she clearly ignored Gerald and wanted him in the Special Ed classes to explain his bad behavior so that it was no reflection of her parenting.

Gerald fears he is about to let go on an intense violent outburst and is always trying to keep his anger bottled up, but there are numerous times when it comes out – often scaring those around him.  The struggle of trying to keep well deserved anger within and the new friendship, realizations that his mom was an enabler, and the dream to leave town and “the crapper” image behind is always present … and we root for Gerald getting out from his reality boy image.

A girl, a dream of running away to the circus, and eventually Gerald realizing his worth and demanding changes in his life lead to Gerald living in the moment and letting go of Gersday.  A symbolic swing on a trapeze bar releases him from his shell and there’s quite a lovely ending for him leaving the past behind and having dreams and goals for the future.

14 and older, tons of cussing/fighting/and lots of mentions of sex from the psychopath sister.