Author Archives: hayleybeale

Grit by Gillian French

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Grit by Gillian French
HarperTeen, 2017.

This evocative realistic YA story of secrets and small mindedness in a small white working class Maine town, Sasanoa, centers around rising high school senior Darcy Prentiss, a young woman with a reputation.

Rumors are rife and knowing about what Darcy was doing last year when her ex-best friend Rhiannon disappeared. Darcy’s loyalty to her family and her streak of independence means she won’t tell the truth because she’s keeping the secret of her cognitively disadvantaged cousin Nell.

The author wonderfully imbues the claustrophobia of the dead end town and its old fashioned, but not in a good way, views of how girls should behave. This setting reminded me of Kara Thomas’s Little Monsters, though the plot is more romance and less mystery.

Self-aware narrator Darcy and her family crackle off the page with life and seething resentments. I particularly appreciated Aunt Libby whose bitterness embodies all of the town’s phoniness, and Darcy’s sister Mags who knows who she is and expects Darcy to live up to those standards. There are other characters who are rooting for Darcy, even if she initially doesn’t recognize it.

Several storylines weave through the novel and each of them connects to Sasanoa’s attitudes towards those who are different: Rhiannon’s disappearance, tension between local teens and migrant workers as they harvest blueberries, Darcy’s fledgling romance with a boy who isn’t just interested in hooking up, and the competition for pageant queen which both Darcy and her mentally challenged cousin Nell are entered in. The strands all gradually converge and the hypocrisies of the town are laid bare as Darcy, with the support of others, disentangles herself from what other people’s opinions have made her.

Ideal for teens who enjoy novels driven by gutsy young women and laced with cultural consciousness.

Dreamfall by Amy Plum

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Dreamfall by Amy Plum
HarperTeen, May 2017

I was really enjoying this imaginative and gripping scifi horror thriller, but then I started to get this little niggle: there wasn’t much left to read and there seemed a fair bit of plot to squeeze in. And then, oh crap, I realized it’s the first book in a series. Why, why, why? It felt like another 50 pages would have been quite sufficient to tie up all the ends and give us a satisfying resolution. But, oh no, Ms Plum, who has written other series, wants to keep it going. Still, on the basis of reviewing what’s in front of me and not what I wish it was, here goes….

After an experimental treatment for severe insomnia goes wrong, seven teens are stuck together in a place they call Dreamfall, which throws them alternately between one of their nightmares and a white waiting room-like void. The nightmares are various degrees of chilling and originality, including monsters, clowns, and zombie monks, and the author ratchets up the tension as the teens race to out of each nightmare and back to the Void.

The Dreamfall teens are mixed in age, ethnicity and social class and two of them, 16 year old Catalina and 18 year old Fergus narrate these sections. Initially it’s all a bit of a jumble with seven characters, but they do gradually shake out into at least two-dimensions. A third narrator, Jaime, is a medical student who was observing the treatment in the lab and this allows the reader to see the doctors’ reactions, improbable as they sometimes are, as well as allowing us to peek at the subjects’ files and find out the differing reasons for their insomnia.

The plot rattles along at a breakneck pace, only to come to an abrupt cliff-hangerish sort of ending. No real resolution is reached, just further twists thrown in along with a bunch of other loose ends. It’s not clear where the author is going to take this, or if this is going to be a trilogy or duology. For my money, this should have been a one and done, but teens who like series may disagree.

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Worthy by Donna Cooner

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Worthy by Donna Cooner
Point/Scholastic, 2017

White high school junior Linden’s social status is on the rise – she’s dating hot Mexican American baseball player Alex and she’s become part of the “Lovelies” crowd that’s organizing prom. The only cloud on the horizon is a new school wide app called Worthy which gets users to anonymously rate and comment on whether a girl is worthy of the guy she’s dating (everyone is apparently heterosexual in this Texas school). Even as she questions why it’s only the girl being rated, Linden thinks this app seems like fun but later realizes that it can hurt people.

Linden is a somewhat contradictory character – she’s a quiet introvert who makes a few credibility straining extrovert choices which drive the plot along. The big star of the book, for me, is Nikki Aquino, her best friend, “a gorgeous plus-sized Filipino girl,” who seems to have oodles of self-confidence to go her own way. Her reaction to being on Worthy is priceless, but at the same time we see her vulnerability and self-doubt. Other teens and family members are all pretty two dimensional.

The attention-grabbing cover will ensure this book gets picked up, and readers will get what they came for. The plotting and pacing are sound, and the novel is very readable, though the resolution is YA glib – everything gets sorted out rather more easily than it would do after such emotional damage in real life.

The book raises some interesting questions about judgment, both by your peers and by yourself, and like 2015’s NEED raises the question about what people will do when they are allowed to be anonymous. The author also considers the idea of inward and outward beauty, as Alex’s sister helpfully has a Beauty and the Beast-themed quinceanera.

This is not a book that’s going to change the world but it is thoughtful and slightly provocative.

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It Started with Goodbye by Christina June

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It Started with Goodbye by Christina June
Blink, May 2017

Actually it starts with the main character being in a lawyer’s office, but that’s a little less catchy!

Riffing on the Cinderella story, this amiable realistic YA novel explores family, friendship, and finding your own path.  After white high school junior Tatum Elsea is wrongly convicted of a misdemeanor, she must spend her summer doing community service and earning money to pay her fine, under the watchful eye of her harshly strict Chilean “stepmonster.”

There turns out to be a silver lining as, under the influence of her fairy stepgrandmother, Tatum sets up her own design business, meets a dreamy “tawny brown” skinned boy, makes new friends, and comes to better know her stepmother and stepsister.

Debut novelist June has an easy touch with characters and plot, though neither pushes any boundaries and the resolution feels a little too slick. Review based on an ARC.

Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu

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Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu
Seventeen/Harlequin Teen, 2017

I always enjoy a good teen with issues novel, and this decent, easy reading, realistic YA novel has five teens with five different issues! Stella (depression), Clarissa (OCD), Andrew (anorexia), Ben (bipolar), and Mason (narcissism) have all been sent to Camp Ugunduzi, a “wilderness therapy camp.”

Debut novelist Yu makes a reasonable go at creating these five different characters who narrate the four weeks of camp. Of the five, I most enjoyed spending time with Stella, who has a caustic wit, and Clarisa, who is genuinely striving to ‘get better’ even though her definition of what that means changes over the four weeks. Andrew is also a sweetheart, and I felt that the author got closest to his psychology than to any of the others. I found Ben’s chapters rather long winded and Mason just feels like a filler character to make up the five. All the characters are apparently white, with the exception of Asian Clarisa.

Very little of the solo or group therapeutic treatment is actually shown. The camp director is perceived as creepy and full of anodyne cliches and the teens deride their two counselors, Josh and Jessie, as a hippie and a drill sergeant. Conversely, there is much rule-breaking including heavy drinking, without consequence, which leads to a potentially skewed portrayal of what such a camp might offer.

The group are told to create a Safe Space Cabin as a team project, which seems like it’s meant to provide a spine for the novel but it gets a bit shuffled into the background. A tragedy in the final third of the book feels a little perfunctory, and happens offstage so lacks immediate impact. Really, only Clarisa seems to derive much benefit from the camp, though they create strong relationships with each other.

While debut novelist Yu has drawn from her own experience of mental illness, she does not cite any additional research or offer any helpful resources for teens who might recognize their own challenges (though I did read this as an ARC so it might have changed).

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Black History in Its Own Words written and illustrated by Ronald Wimberley

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Black History in Its Own Words written and illustrated by Ronald Wimberley
Image Comics, 2017

This visually stunning collection of bold portraits of Black icons paired with quotations started as a Black History Month project by Ronald Wimberley in 2015 for an online political comics newsletter, The Nib.

Each double page spread has a high impact black and white comic book style portrait set on a colored background with a quotation incorporated into the illustration. On the facing page, there is some biographical information, sometimes straightforward, sometimes quite sophisticated. There is also usually the source of the quote.  The order of the portraits is a little random – done by date of production and no other discernible organization.

The author has selected his subjects as “people whose words and lives spoke to me personally” and these include Civil Rights notables, such as Angela Davis and Sojourner Truth, and cultural figures including Spike Lee, Prince, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama are notably omitted while more obscure figures, like punk rocker Poly Styrene, are included.

The quotations do not follow a particular theme, and a few lack meaning without context, but overall they add up to an individual and poetic portrayal of Black thought.

However, though the majority of quotations have sources and dates, there are a handful that don’t, and the Works Cited at the back of the book is in unreadably miniscule font.

Thought-provoking browsing for teens and adults.

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt, 2017

Heiligman (Charles and Emma, 2009) artfully lays out her magnificent biography of the Van Gogh brothers “as if you are walking through a museum show of their lives – a collection of paintings, drawings, and sketches.” This series of chronologically arranged vignettes, grouped into thematic “galleries,” is written in the present tense and illuminates the lives of Vincent and his younger brother Theo and their deep and intense relationship.

There are two touchstones which the author returns to several times. One is a conversation the teen brothers had on a walk together in 1872 in which they pledge that “they will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.” She also uses as a central metaphor the idea of Vincent and Theo “carrying each other’s parcels.”

Drawing deeply on the plethora of letters from, to, and between the brothers (and recording this in detail in the endnotes), she follows them from their early years in rural Netherlands across Belgium, England and France, sometimes together, often apart. Echoing Vincent’s eclectic and evolving style, the author moves fluidly between sketches, impressions, and richly detailed portraits narrating the brothers’ friendships and romances, their mental and physical states, and the development of their work, showing how these are all fused together.

Theo (left) and Vincent

Though Vincent is the more famous one, she argues that without Theo’s support – financial, emotional, and professional – he would not have become the magnificent artist we know. Using black and white reproductions of ink drawings as illustrative “gallery” dividers and an insert of color prints of key paintings, the author connects Vincent’s life with his work and gives the reader an insight into his process and vision.

Ms Heiligman has succeeded in writing an intricate and layered biography that readers will enjoy both as a story of the complicated bond between two brothers and for the understanding that they gain into one of the world’s most renowned painters and his art.

Extensive backmatter also includes a list of people, a thorough timeline, sources, and index.