Category Archives: fiction

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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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic, 2017.

This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

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Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017.

Set in a galaxy far far away, this speculative novel, first in a duology, has some familiar and some new elements from brand name author Veronica Roth of the Divergent series. The world building is far more complex than she has attempted before, which makes the initial chapters are rather laborious and confusing as a plethora of characters, cultures, and political and religious systems are thrown at the reader. Once the novel gets into its rhythm, however, this all makes more sense and there’s some intriguing ideas around “the current” – the major force in this universe – and the currentgifts that each individual develops at puberty.

We are also in familiar star-cross’d lovers territory with the two leads coming from different nations living on the same planet. White Akos is the younger son of a high-ranking Thuvhesit family who is kidnapped by the cruel and ruthless Shotet leader, Ryzek, to be an aide to his sister “medium brown, almost golden” Cyra. The novel is a split narrative, and Cyra’s first person account is much more immersive than Akos’s third person point of view. Despite Akos and Cyra coming from the opposite sides of a planetary civil war, what do you think might happen?

As with Divergent, there are themes of identity, destiny, and how an individual can change and determine these. While high-ranking family members each have a foretold fate, these are ambiguous enough that their apparently obvious meaning may be twisted in a way that makes for a satisfying plot. Despite coming in at 468 pages, the pacing and plot will keep the reader engaged, and looking forward to the completing novel. With more sadism and more complex worldbuilding than her previous series, Carve the Mark will work best for older YA readers.