Category Archives: YA

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

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How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

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How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox
Dial, 2019.

Drawing on her personal experience of mental illness, the author creates an absorbing and authentic portrait of a teen girl under extreme stress.

At the beginning of the book, set in Australian oceanside town of Wollongong, 17 year-old Elizabeth “Biz” Grey feels disengaged and removed, and her brain gets stuck in loops.  Unsure of her sexuality, she tried to kiss her best friend Grace but is also attracted to new boy Jasper (all main characters appear to be white with the possible exception of Grace whose last name is Yu-Harrison).

Following an incident at the beach after which she is ostracized by her friend posse, she begins to lose her already tenuous grip on reality. She still sees and converses with her father, but he died when she was seven, and when she takes up photography, the images she creates literally speak to her. Her desperate and loving mother and endearing young siblings provide a solid home life but though Biz appears to be coping, inside she feels she is a “non-functioning sad person.”

The intense first person narrative puts the reader right in Biz’s head as her thoughts shake and circle around, showing her fuzzy line between reality and hallucination and her perception of the fragile line between life and death. It is a particularly tough read when she contemplates suicide but she ultimately decides that she needs to follow her father’s life in order to “get better.”

The author delicately and evocatively shows the complexities of mental illness as well as the challenges and grief it puts on friends and family. Will appeal to readers who appreciated Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep.

Resources are provided in the acknowledgements.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds

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Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds
Katherine Tegen, 2019.

An intriguing YA fantasy romance, which goes on for just a bit too long.

On a college visit, African American Jack King meets “beautiful brown super-tight-curls” Kate at a party and falls for her. Over the next four months they meet up, flirt, and get close. Kate fails to turn up to Jack’s prom because she’s “genetically unwell” and has been hospitalized and within a few short pages, Kate dies and then Jack falls downstairs and also dies. But then everything resets and he’s back at the college party and has the chance to save her again (and again).

The author skillfully plays out this looping, if a little too lengthily, as Jack tries different paths to perfect his plan to save Kate, though these come with the usual unintended consequences of time travel, both trivial and catastrophic. Part of Jack’s challenge is to also keep the delicate balance with his two best friends, biracial Jillian and Latinx Francisco “Franny” Hogan, complicated by them being a couple without ever realizing Jillian had been Jack’s crush.

The central trio of Jack, Jillian and Franny is richly and convincingly drawn, though Jack feels a little like a male version of a typical YA young woman: insecure, self-deprecating, but beloved by his friends. Kate, conversely takes the usual male role of being somewhat unbelievably both one-dimesionally perfect and also interested in Jack. Though it’s nice to see this gender role reversal, it doesn’t make it any more credible.

The author tries to keep the various iterations different enough to stay interesting for the reader, but I felt that there was maybe one too many, or maybe the later ones could have been trimmed. I appreciate that this is a fantasy and isn’t going to pass a logic test, but it’s never explained why Jack doesn’t confide in anyone, even Kate, nor is any reason given for his resets, and some of his choices defy credibility.

I did love both the wide diversity of the characters and that them being of color is never the point of the story though is integral to it.

Perfect for readers who enjoyed David Levithan’s Every Day (Knopf, 2012).

How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

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How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow
Delacorte, 2019.

When Grace “Tiger” Tolliver’s mother dies, she is catapulted into a grief-filled and uncharted future in this devastating YA novel.

16 year-old white Tiger and her mother are a tight-knit and insular unit, but when Tiger tentatively tries some baby steps at independence, it turns sour and she ends up lashing out at her mother’s claustrophobic protectiveness: “Why can’t you ever just fucking leave me alone.” That turns out to be the last thing she says to her mother who dies of a brain aneurysm later that day.

As there are no other relatives, Tiger is dropped into the state system while still in a tumult of grief. Refusing to eat or take off the hideous dress her mother bought her for a school dance, Tiger retreats into herself. However, her mother has left behind information about her father, and social services manages to dig up a 20-year-old half sister who agrees to be Tiger’s guardian, who has her own problems. Quite how this is considered acceptable when the parents of her best friend are turned down despite being comfortably off and having known Tiger for many years (there is no specific author’s note on the authenticity of this, but the author is familiar with the system so I take it that she knows what she’s writing about).

As she counts the minutes since her mother’s death, Tiger feels like an object being shuttled around the system. In her brief time in the emergency foster care system and later in a group home, Tiger meets caring adults who are genuinely trying to help her and others, as well as coming across stories of sickening abuse by both biological and foster parents.

Her narrative is interspersed with notes from a primer Tiger writes in her grief counseling group about dealing with the death of her mother and the ensuing emotional fallout, because there wasn’t one for her to follow and she wants other people to know what it feels like.

Though she still feels like she’s “walking around with a Grand Canyon of grief in [her] heart,” Tiger and  and the other “lost kids” she meets are slowly making families “out of scraps.” Kids she would have ignored or been intimidated by when she coasting through life not knowing what was about to hit her become close allies because of what they share.

This is a tough book to read. Early on, I was seriously considering abandoning the novel because it was so hard to read the raw feelings and comprehend the seriously messed up situation. But the author has a steady hand with light and shade, making it just about bearable, and readers who look for sad stories will find a gem here.

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

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The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Knopf, 2019.

An oblique and confusing YA murder mystery (is it? Is that what this?) set in a remote Australian town looks at issues of identity, heritage and injustice through an Aboriginal lens.

16 year-old Beth Teller is dead but that doesn’t stop her helping her white father, a detective, who is the only person who can see her. He is investigating a fire in a children’s home which has left one dead (adult) body and a mysterious Aboriginal witness, Isobel Catching. When I was a lot younger, I was very fond of a British TV show called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), about a pair of detectives, one of whom was dead. I thought this was where this novel was going. I was wrong.

Though not initially, as Beth’s narration follows her father’s investigation in a relatively straightforward, just the facts, sort of way. But added into that, she  witnesses his grief at her death in a car crash and his refusal to make peace with her mother’s Aboriginal family.

Then we get to Catching. Her evidence is given in the form of abtruse and symbol-filled free verse. I found it somewhat incomprehensible, but Beth’s dad starts picking out connections to the fire and to the history of the children’s home.

When Beth died, she had a glimpse of “what comes next” but believes she has to stay with her father until he can accept and move on from her death, and this somehow becomes wrapped up in solving the mystery; in the meantime she is “trapped between two different sides to the world” and this somehow becomes wrapped up in Catching.

In an authors’ note, the Aboriginal brother and sister team gives some background on the history and culture of their people, before and after brutal colonization, as well as explaining some of the stories that inform Catching’s narrative.

Though this short novel switches uneasily between a police procedural and an ambiguous fantasy, it brings welcome new voices to American YA literature.

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

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Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner
Crown, 2019.

Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood are the onscreen names of high school seniors Josie and Delia for their public access TV show where they present schlocky horror movies from the 1970s.

They make a good team. Delia knows and loves these horror movies because they are all that’s she has of her dad who left her and her mum when she was eight, and hasn’t been heard from since. Josie, however, has always wanted to work in TV, so when she is offered an internship at the Food Network, she is torn between trying to make Midnite Matinee a success or moving on. When Delia discovers that legendary horror show producer Jack Devine is at Shivercon it seems like a great opportunity to move their show to the next level.

The young women alternate narration. Delia is the emotional heart of the novel, desperately trying to find stability in her life, and Josie, witty and erudite, is ambitious and wants to bust open her life. Their friendship is intense but it seems to me that Delia does a lot more giving and forgiving than Josie.

Delia has depression, which is helped by medication – hooray for making this a depiction of the positive benefits of antidepressants. Additionally, Midnite Matinee with her best friend Josie gives her something to hold on to. Delia has also just discovered that her father lives close to where Shivercon is, so she could take the opportunity to see him and ask the question that has nagged her for so long – why did he leave?

Delia and Josie are spunky, foolhardy, brave (or oblivious as only a teenager could be) and get themselves into some wacky situations which are funny in the book but would be scary in real life and made me (as an adult and a parent) quite uncomfortable. However, the scenes of the setting up and taping of the show are hilarious and absolutely worth the price of admission..

This is a sweet and melancholy story about endings and beginnings, about a pivotal time of life (or at least, what feels like a pivotal time of life at the time) and two close friends going in different directions.

Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

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Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith
Delacorte, 2019

Putting aside the absurd premise of this novel (British Hugo was due to go on an Amtrak trip across America with his girlfriend Margaret Campbell, but when she dumps him he has to find another person of the same name to accompany him as the tickets are in her name) this is a YA romance as light and fluffy as a marshmallow.

Hugo is a biracial (white mother and black father) sextuplet and he and his siblings have been doing everything together forever and are even set to go to university together, so Hugo sees the train ride as an opportunity to strike out on his own. The warm love and support of his siblings, along with their amusing YA novel banter, grounds Hugo as well as allowing him the freedom to explore his own dreams.

Margaret “Mae” Campbell got into USC but not into the film program she wanted. She knows she’s good at film making and is passionate about it but, wouldn’t you know it, it takes her sort of boyfriend to point out her style is “impersonal”. Of course, once she falls in love with Hugo, the movie she decides to make about the stories of all the different people on the train gets the emotional lift it apparently needed.

Aside from a mildly uncomfortable racist incident in Chicago, there’s no intended edge in here whatsover. Though personally I was irritated by the patronizing attitude of the boys to Mae, I don’t think the author was deliberately meaning this to be an issue.

The author gives us a sly wink when she has Mae’s Nana talk about old romantic movies: “It’s not supposed to reflect reality…. But sometimes you just want to pretend that the world is a better place than it actually is. That loves triumphs over everything.” And that sums this book up in a nutshell and if sometimes a reader just wants to find characters who are smart, funny, attractive and able to fall in love in just three days (and sometimes I am that reader), then this is a good place to be.

Reviewed from an ARC.