All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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all the bright placesAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Knopf, 2015.

High school seniors Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet at the top of a bell tower – they are both considering jumping – but helping each other down is the start of an intense relationship. Working together on a U. S. Geography project, they “wander” Indiana, finding meaning and beauty in obscure places. But Finch suffers from (unnamed till late in the book) bipolar disorder and, though he is in an “awake” phase, he knows that “asleep” is coming, and Violet is still grieving over the death of her sister. Finch helps Violet to mend, but can she help him?

Initially, it seems like a check the box YA romance: Eleanor and Park mismatched couple? Check. Fault in Our Stars sick teens? Check. Smarty pants, snarky voices, alternating chapter narrators and classic literary references? Why, yes, yes and yes – hello, Virginia Woolf.

But somewhere along the way I was drawn in by the appealing leads, who became real people that I cared about. Niven takes her time building Finch and Violet, and their relationship. Violet is not really interested to start with, and it takes some time for Finch’s peculiar charms to work their magic on her and the reader. And perhaps because of her personal experience, mentioned in the author’s note at the end, these characters gain an authenticity and take off from the page.

This one is going to fly out of my library – and rightly so. And I really appreciate the author including a list of resources for teens suffering from mental illness, grieving, bullying, abuse, or contemplating suicide.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

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The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Crown, 2016.

In this appealing William C. Morris award winner, three friends go through their senior year at school in mostly blue collar dead-end Forrestville, Tennessee. All three are social outcasts. Dill is the son of a jailed Pentecostal preacher who was imprisoned for possessing child pornography. Lydia is the creative fashionista behind the Dollywould blog, and her middle class family and creative sensibilities set her apart. Travis, the burly and gentle son of an abusive father and compliant mother, escapes into the Bloodfall fantasy novels and insists on wearing a dragon necklace and carrying around a staff. Their friendship may be unlikely, but Zentner makes it work.

I loved these characters, so vivid and genuine. Shifting between the three narrators, the first two-thirds is at a relaxed pace as we get to know them all. We understand the layers that make them up: their families, their ambitions, their limitations, self-imposed or otherwise. Through their eyes we see their possible futures: Lydia is the only one planning to escape the bounds of Forrestville by heading up to NYU, whereas Dill’s family are deep in debt from his father’s legal bills and can’t afford for him not to work, and Travis has no ambition beyond working at his father’s lumberyard.

Zentner lost me on a couple of points. There is a dramatic plot twist that sets the final third on its head and I felt the novel then shifted into a more conventional fraught YA romance. Secondly, I didn’t like that it’s the middle class family that are so wonderfully supportive and loving, whereas both working class families are wretched and dysfunctional.

Nonetheless, Zentner has clearly got a talent for deep and rich characters and settings, and I look forward to future novels. Recommended for fans of Jandy Nelson and Jennifer Niven.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

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The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Balzer + Bray, April 2017.

Ms Albertalli’s debut novel, upside (2015), was on many best-of lists and her new one, The Upside of Unrequited, is equally as charming and thoughtful.

For 17 year-old Jewish Molly Peskin-Suso, the upside of the 26 unrequited crushes she has had so far is that she has never had the pain of rejection, because they have never gone beyond Molly’s head. The downside, of course, is that she has never know the thrill and joy of being in love.

As she watches her twin sister, Cassie, fall in love with Korean American Mina, Molly realizes she wants more than just a having a crush on someone she may not even talk to, she wants an actual relationship. But is it going to be with Hipster Will, Mina’s best friend, or is it going to be with dweeby Reid, who Molly finds herself chatting and flirting with at work?

As gay marriage is legalized, and the twins’ moms plan their wedding, Molly rejects holding herself back and decides to put herself out there, with all the potential high stakes emotions that brings with it.

Albertalli has the wonderful gift of taking the reader inside the head of her characters. Unlike, say, Jennifer Niven, she writes about everyday, regular teens, but with all the heightened emotions of those years. Molly’s changing relationship with Cassie is at the heart of the book, and it is bittersweet for both of them as they realize that as they move on with their own lives they have to leave some things behind.

Molly refers to herself as “fat”, and while she certainly doesn’t feel the need to change her lifestyle, she has some self doubt about her body and is sensitive to what she perceives as other people’s views: Her grandmother gets under her skin about it, and a comment from a boy at a party incenses her. These conflicting reactions feel entirely realistic for a contemporary teen.

As with many recent YA novels, Cassie’s sexuality is not a big deal and the gender of her partner is largely irrelevant. However, the celebration of their moms’ relationship does hark back to older generations, as some relatives question the validity of it, even as the country moves forward.

Albertalli has a gift of writing easy reading, but not lightweight, novels that speak to the everyday experiences, anxieties, and triumphs of teenagers and I’d thoroughly recommend them.

Thanks to Balzer + Bray and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Mosquitoland by David Arnold

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MosquitolandMosquitoland by David Arnold
Viking, 2015.

Recently moved to Mississipi (aka Mosquitoland) with her father and new stepmother, 16 year-old Mim overhears a conversation that suggests her mother is ill, so she embarks on a 947-mile journey to Cleveland, Ohio to see her.

Mim is a humorous, intelligent and engaging narrator who defines herself as “a collection of oddities” and her entertaining odyssey, narrated through a journal and letters, is never straightforward, but “detours are not without purpose.” Mim has accidentally blinded herself in one eye, by looking at an eclipse, and this lack of visual perspective is a metaphor for how she views herself and other around her, particularly her parents and stepmother, and her encounters with different characters, both good and evil, develops her insight.

Along the way, Mim picks up two traveling companions: Walt, who has Down Syndrome, and gorgeous Beck. They both are able to understand her in a way that offers Mim an alternative idea of family: “If you can find [one person who gets you], you’ve found home.”

It is not clear to the reader (or even to Mim herself) whether she is simply on the far end of quirky, or is suffering from genuine psychosis as her father believes. Once again (see All the Bright Places) we have a teen with an unspecified mental issue – and in this case it is not entirely clear that she has one at all – who decides that medication is not for her. I’m in no way a mental health expert, but I do worry about the trope that taking medication in some way dulls you and makes you a “Generic”.

Also of concern is Mim’s ritual of using her mother’s lipstick as “warpaint” and referring to herself as a “Cherokee chieftess.” It is written (both by Mim and Mr. Arnold) with a knowingness about stereotypes, but I should point out that it has been called out by Debbie Reese.

This original, episodic novel has a slightly hallucinogenic tone that fits perfectly with the nature of a symbolic quest, and will appeal to teen readers who enjoy idiosyncratic characters and inventive writing.