What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

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What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, July, 2017.

We are in very familiar territory here. Again. It’s a two-hander – a girl and a boy, each with an ‘issue’ (Kit’s father recently died in a car crash, David is on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum), meet up, become friends, and then maybe more. Not much new to see here.

The main characters are appealing and well written, and the author digs into their emotional depths with skill. The support characters are almost entirely peopled from TV and movie high schools – and the author mentions this often enough for it to, almost, be a sly wink. David’s family is feels straight out of some soapy TV dramedy – say This is Us. Kit’s homelife, on the other hand, feels more off the beaten track, as her Indian mother sinks into depression and despair.

The plot follows its expected route, as Kit and David get to know each other and both credibly find themselves changing as a result of this relationship. There’s a couple of unexpected swerves, the mean kids mostly get their comeuppances, and there’s even a makeover scene, though maybe not quite what you’re expecting.

The author’s note mentions “lots of research” though nothing specific is detailed. I assume this is on the autism spectrum but, as David notes, quoting a well-known aphorism, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. I have to say, he feels a bit like a caricature of a kid with autism, though with much of the inconvenient stuff rubbed off.

So this has been something of a negative review, which actually doesn’t seem entirely fair, because I did enjoy the novel. It’s easy to read, the characters are engaging and I was rooting for them, the tensions in the plot are nicely balanced, and the pace is brisk but not rushed. It’s not going to change the world but it will give you a pleasant afternoon.

Thanks to Delacorte for the review copy.

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Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

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Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley
Knopf, June, 2017.

My stars! It’s another white heterosexual teen two-hander and yet, even as I roll my eyes at the format, I really enjoyed this Australian romance with a little edge.

Our narrators are Henry, who thinks he’s in love with the self-centered Amy but we know that he isn’t really, and Rachel, who left town three years ago thinking that Henry was in love with Amy and had rejected her declaration of love. A year ago, Rachel’s beloved younger brother, Cal, drowned and she is still getting over it when her Aunt suggests she comes back to Melbourne. And guess where her aunt has got her a job – at Henry’s family’s bookstore. The romance is utterly predictable though charming and funny.

There are some elements, however, that lift this novel above run of the mill romances. Rachel’s grieving over her brother doesn’t just go away and I felt the weight of his death on her. And then there is the Letter Library in the bookstore, where people are encouraged to leave each other notes in books that are not for sale or for borrowing. It’s a lovely idea and fits with one of the themes of missed connections. And it allows the author to show off a bit of erudition and introduce us to some books that we might not have come across otherwise – both modern and classic.

I warmed to the characters starting with the star-crossed narrators themselves, Henry and Rachel, who are endearing, smart, and (mostly) credible and the requisite quirky friends and siblings are all likable, if of a type.

It’s a book about letting go and moving on, and all the main characters do that in some shape or form, and it is a bit of a weepy. However, not everything turns out entirely perfectly, so the author can’t be accused of glossing over everything.

I do have a couple of quibbles. Henry and Rachel are meant to be recently graduated high schoolers but they felt older to me – as though the author had written this about an early to mid-20’s couple but then realized she’d do better with a YA audience so just changed their ages. Also, I assume the Internet works the same in Australia as it does here, so I found Rachel’s ability to keep her brother’s death a secret a bit hard to believe.

Nonetheless, a reader looking out for an easy reading romance that isn’t too syrupy could happily end up with Words in Deep Blue.

Thanks to Knopf for the review copy.

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2017

Kara Thomas’s second psychological mystery builds on all the good things from her debut, The Darkest Corners (2016), and resolves all the issues I had with that book. In short, it’s a thrillingly menacing and atmospheric chiller in which none of the characters are quite who they seem to be.

High school senior Kacey has only recently arrived in Broken Falls, Wisconsin, moving in with her dad and his blended family after one too many blow-ups with her single mom’s endless stream of boyfriends. She makes friends and becomes the third leg of “BaileyandJade and Kacey.” All in all, she can’t quite believe how easygoing her new life is.

But then one night Bailey goes missing and at first the local police show little interest – just another teenage runaway. But Kacey and Jade start digging up evidence that points to a local boy with a grudge against Bailey.

Once again Ms Thomas brilliantly evokes the milieu of a white working class town: Most of the highschoolers have no escape and are trapped there for the rest of their lives, the lucky few can’t wait to get out. The heavy snows adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the local tall tale about a murdered family piles on the eeriness.

The plot is perfectly paced; layers are gradually peeled off the emotional lives of the characters exposing the depths of their pain and desperation, gradually leading to a wildly twisty (and for me, unpredictable) denouement.

Ideal for teens who like a side of creepy with their mysteries.

Thanks to Delacorte/Random House for the review copy.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, 2017.

Angie Thomas’s much buzzed about debut novel is an absolute tour de force.

16 year-old African American Starr Carter lives in a black neighborhood and codeswitches when she goes to her mostly white high school. But when she witnesses her best friend Khalil being killed by the police, she realizes she needs to be the real Starr.

The author has given Starr a voice that shows her intelligence, her humanity, and her awareness of her position in two camps, not wholly accepted in either. As the only witness to the shooting, Starr has to go through a lot in terms of legal proceedings and she also grows personally when she realizes what her actions mean to the neighborhood and to her friends, both at home and school, as she searches for justice for Khalil and all the other “hashtags” like him.

The author skillfully and meticulously paints a portrait of a neighborhood that is economically run down, riddled with gangs and drugs, but still is a loving and supportive community. Even better than that, she draws characters that are wholly human – complex, conflicted, and ambiguous.

Despite the obvious temptations to make this a black and white (no pun intended) ‘issue’ novel, the author lets none of the characters, black or white, off the hook for their actions or attitudes. Khalil is a drug dealer, but the author also looks at the economic and social disadvantages that lead to drugs and gangs. Similarly, she exposes some of Starr’s white schoolfriends for their deep-rooted racism, but her white boyfriend is an ally. She explores the intensely paradoxical feelings that Starr’s parents have – they want to be part of their community, but also want their children to be safe and have the educational advantage that their school gives them.

The book title comes from Tupac, and refers to the harvest that racism reaps, both for black and white communities. My only minor grumble is the novel slips a little into didacticism for a couple of pages when Starr’s dad lectures her on her inheritance as a black person, but it just about stays in character.

Sometimes I feel a little cynical about hot books on hot topics but I believe The Hate U Give genuinely transcends any category and is an extraordinarily good novel. I think teens (and adults) will find it thought-provoking, insightful, and stunningly of the moment.

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We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

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We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Dutton, 2017.

This quiet and delicate realistic YA novel about grief and family, is something of a change in direction for Ms LaCour, more character-driven with little in the way of plot, and with an exquisitely textured setting.

A freshman in college in New York state, narrator Marin is staying by herself in the snow-bound dorms over the long Christmas break. Her best friend from San Francisco, Mexican-American Mabel, is visiting her for a few days, but she has little else planned. Over the course of Mabel’s visit, the events of the previous summer are gently unfolded, and the reasons for Marin’s isolation and despair are poignantly revealed.

Slight but powerful, the novel centers on the subtly drawn Marin and Mabel. The young women were once lovers but now are struggling even to communicate. Initially their conversations are strained, staccato, and awkward but gradually start to flow as they relax back into their friendship. Interspersed are flashbacks to vignettes of Marin’s homelife with her grandfather and memories of her dead mother.

While keeping the reader drawn in, the author is in no rush for Marin to tell her story, and allows her to move slowly and organically out of the dark towards the light.

(Slightly grumbling note. The high school that Marin and Mabel go to is the one my daughter actually goes to – Convent in San Francisco. However, all their teachers are nuns, which is not the case at all. Why use the real name of a school if you’re going to make stuff up, why not just make up a name too?)

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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.

Prom: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge

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promProm: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge
Twenty-First Century, 2017.

Psychotherapist Zimmerman Rutledge looks at one of the American teen’s rites of passage: the prom. Starting with traditional proms from their beginning as middle-class versions of the debutante ball, the book then briefly examines changing cultural attitudes since then, and how this has affected prom.

However, the author’s intent is also to show that prom is not stuck in the unenlightened 1950’s, and there are chapters about how proms are now integrated and (mostly) welcoming to LGBTQ couples, and photographs to reflect this.

Prom fashion is a central theme, though there is a scarcity of photographs of many of the dresses described, including in a section on how fabulous dresses need not cost a fortune.

The author tries hard to moderate the perception of prom’s weighty significance with a rather-longwinded chapter of tips and not always rosy reflections from twenty-somethings; and there is advice on dealing with the pressures that can lead to a challenging experience, along with helpful resources.

Though there are few nonfiction books on this topic, a mismatch between the style of the book (chatty tone, large font) and the age of the intended audience make this a discretionary purchase for libraries but it may be of interest to some teens.