Category Archives: YA

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.

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Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

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Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte, 2019.

After the wonderful One of Us is Lying (2017) I had high expectations for Ms McManus’s new murder mystery. And while it is very good it’s much less nuanced than her previous novel – still highly recommended but not go-out-of-your way to read.

Twins Ellery and Ezra Corcoran have to spend the first four months of their senior year living in Echo Ridge, Vermont with their Nana, while their mother, Sadie, is in rehab. Twenty years ago, Sadie’s twin sister disappeared and has never been found, five years ago, homecoming queen Lacey was found murdered. This crime was never solved but the town has decided that Lacey’s ex-boyfriend, Declan Kelly was responsible. As Ellery and Ezra settle into school, there is a new wave of threats against the three candidates for homecoming queen and then one of them disappears. Is this all connected?

The story is told from the perspective of Ellery, a true-crime aficionado, and Declan’s brother, Malcolm – two fully fleshed out and interestingly quirky characters. However, it would have been nice if Ellery had had a bit more agency, and that’s a bit of an issue with all the female characters. The twins, Malcolm, and new friend Korean American Mia do some investigating of their own which may or may not help the police and now Malcolm is getting the same kind of suspicious looks as his brother did five years ago.

The author does a great job with a pretty straightforward murder mystery plot and adds in a couple of interesting layers. Echo Ridge is wealthy and almost wholly white, and Mia and her sister Daisy have felt the pressure of being outside that. There is a Latinx police officer too and the twins, who don’t know who their father is, are biracial – is it just coincidence that all these non-majority culture people are tangled up in this mystery? The novel also takes a sharp look at the role of the media is generating suspicions and fanning the flames of the threat story.

There are plenty of suspects, red herrings, and twists before an unexpected resolution is reached. This is a fast-paced and tightly plotted novel that will grip YA mystery fans.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

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Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña
Random House, 2019

This latest and very solid entry in the DC Icons series is a contemporary YA origin story for Clark Kent. 17-year-old Clark feels isolated by the astonishing powers he has but can’t quite control, and when he finds out that he is actually from another planet he feels even more of a freak.

The author makes the deft and timely connection between Clark being an “alien” and the change of Smallville from accepting community to one that is suspicious of those who are different, especially the Mexican migrant workers. Sadly, the author rather bludgeons the reader over the head with this connection and a few less mentions would make the novel feel less didactic.

Canon character Lex Luthor plus new characters, the Mankins family, are recent arrivals in town who appear to be philanthropic and upright citizens but may be connected to the mysterious disappearances of immigrants from the town. As Clark and his high school journalist best friend Lana Lang investigate, they uncover some nefarious goings on around the mysterious craters that are sprinkled around Smallville.

Clark is such a straight arrow he has the potential to be a dull protagonist but his earnest search for an identity and a role make him relatable, and his warm relationship with his parents and tentative romance with Gloria Alvarez show him as very human.

After many thrills and spills, the bad guys are unmasked and their dastardly plot is foiled. Clark realizes his job is to “protect not punish” and as he decides he will do everything in his power to make his adopted planet “a better, safer place,” his journey to becoming Superman is set.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

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On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, 2019

This stunning second novel from Angie Thomas is set in Garden Heights, the same fictional neighborhood as The Hate U Give (2017). 16yo Bri raps to express her feelings, but when an opportunity arises to be able to make money from her rapping, she has to decide whether the price she’ll pay is worth it.

Bri lives with her mother and brother, somehow just about scraping by. The author paints a warm portrait of a loving home: Bri’s mother is an ex-drug addict who is barely coping but is committed to raising her children to a better way of life; when she loses her job the fragile hold they have on managing is broken. Her brother has graduated from university but can’t get any better job than working at a pizza place. Meanwhile the gang members, including her Aunt Pooh have plenty of money.

Bri goes to an arts school in a more affluent part of town and is part of a small group of brown and blacks students, which enables the school to maintain its funding. But the security guards seem to single out these students for searches, and when one of them tries to search Bri’s backpack, her frustration at the situation explodes. Then the video of a part of this exchange gets onto social media and assumptions are made about what the search was for.

All this make Bri feel powerless: She wants to take control of her destiny and take the power away from other people over her. For Bri getting the “come-up” and making it means money initially, but it becomes more complex and nuanced.

As the daughter of now deceased local rap legend Lawless, Bri already has a certain kudos in the neighborhood, and her brilliant performance at a rap battle helps to solidify that. So when she records an anger-fueled rap that plays with black stereotypes that’s taken at face value, she has a tough decision to take: does she want to persist with this potentially lucrative “hoodlum” image or does she stay true to herself.

Thomas brilliantly plays with the theme of perceptions: the perception others have of Bri because she is black, because she is angry, because she is a girl, because she is a teen and all the combinations of those. Bri’s perception of herself and the persona that she wants to present move and coalesce over the course of the novel.

I was a little fearful about a novel with rap in it: I’m a middle-aged white woman and it’s not really my thing. I have frequently found rap or spoken word poetry in YA novels to be excruciating and have hastily skipped over them. But Bri’s raps jump off the page with rhythm and edge and while they read well on the page, I suspect the audiobook rendition would be on a whole other level.

This is another fantastic, intelligent, and powerful novel from Ms Thomas and will cement her position at the front of the YA pack.

Lovely War by Julie Berry

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Lovely War by Julie Berry
Viking, 2018

A gorgeous and lush YA romance set during World War I is framed by a quarrel between the Greek gods representing the novel’s big themes of love, war, art, and death.

When James Aldridge meets piano playing Hazel Windicot at a parish dance, they have only a few days together before he leaves for the front. They are both terribly British: shy and innocent, reticent yet thrumming with interior emotions. They have tea, stroll through parks, and go to a concert, and though they have never even kissed, it’s clear that theirs is a love for the ages.

As James is whisked off to the trenches, Hazel signs up to entertain the troops in France. There she meets up with Belgian Colette Fournier, who has survived a German massacre of her town in which all her friends and family were slaughtered. Through these two women we get to see the confining sexism of the times – neither British nor Belgian women got the vote till after the war, but it’s more the social and cultural norms that chafe here.

They both get to know Aubrey Evans, a black musician (all other main characters are white) who plays with real-life Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry ragtime band aka the Hellfighters. Through Aubrey we see the horrific bigotry that the black soldiers faced from their compatriots. As Aubrey and Colette begin to fall in love, there are warning signs that an interracial romance will be a grenade lobbed into the rigid propriety and attitudes of their “superiors”, so when Aubrey disappears, Colette and Hazel fear the worst.

Both epic and intimate, the novel contrasts the minutely detailed horrors of the trenches with the exquisite intensity of love, particularly during an enchanting interlude when Hazel and James meet in Paris. None of the protagonists are unscathed by the war but, like me, I think many readers will be swept away by the glorious story and the message that, in the end, love conquers war and death.

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

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Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Dutton, 2018

Set in 17th century Rome, this harrowing and deeply emotional novel in verse is a fictionalized account of the early life of painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Her art is sold under her father’s name as no-one accepts that a woman can paint, but since her mother died, her father, resentful of her superior talent, is distant and harsh. So Artemisia is thrilled when Agostino Tassi is hired to tutor her, and it seems there might be a romantic attraction between them. But Tino is really a predator and rapes her.

Artemisia’s narrative verse is tight and focused when she is describing her painting, shatters during her ordeal, and is jagged with her suppressed fury at the inequity of her position.

Woven throughout are her mother’s stories of Susanna and Judith, biblical women who stood up to the oppression of men, and these women become figures of strength for Artemisia during the trial after her assault. She is able to find an outlet for her rage at the patriarchy and through painting them with her unique perspective.

The novel is adapted from the author’s play and an afterword gives some biographical information about Artemisia. Inexplicably it excludes the full story of her later professional and personal success, which I think does a disservice to readers who are likely not aware of the full story. Or maybe Ms McCullough is saving it for a sequel.

Includes resources for victims of sexual assault.

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.