Tag Archives: illness

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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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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Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

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ms-bixbyMs. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2016

Taking a sharp turn away from the fantasy action of Sidekicked and The Dungeoneers, Mr Anderson has written an impressive and moving realistic novel.

Sixth grade teacher Ms. Bixby announces to her class that she is sick and will have to leave before the end of the school year. But she leaves sooner than expected, and there’s no chance to have her planned Last Day shindig, so Topher, Steve, and Brand decide to take the celebration to her in hospital instead.

Most of the book takes place over the course of the day that the three boys bunk off school, and follows their quest to gather all the items to make the event perfect. Narrated in turn by each boy, we get to know them, and understand their relationship with their teacher and why they are all so individually motivated to make this party perfect. Ms Bixby has entered each of their lives in different ways and made them feel special, and very gradually we find out how and why.

As a warning, the title of the book has a double meaning, but it is sad without being maudlin. The author has perfectly pitched his sixth graders – still innocent and goofy but also taking on the beginnings of adult responsibilities. Funny and sweet without being syrupy, I would highly recommend Ms. Bixby for upper elementary/lower middle school fans of realistic fiction.

The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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the-scourgeThe Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed The Mark of the Thief series, and quite liked, though not as much as many did, the historical fiction A Night Divided. But my favorite JAN by far is The False Prince, and I’m excited to say that The Scourge is almost as good in some ways and even better in that it’s a one-off!!!

Like The False Prince, the setting is an imaginary country in a sort of 16th/17th century. This time, the country is Keldan, with the population acrimoniously divided into town dwellers and the River People. The country is being ravaged by the Scourge, an incurable plague, which has so far only hit the towns. But when River People Ani and Weevil are picked up to be tested, it’s discovered that they are both infected and they are sent to Attic Island – a colony for Scourge sufferers that nobody ever leaves.

Ani is our narrator and is a typically feisty Nielsen protagonist – one who just can’t keep her mouth closed or her head down. Though not quite a female version of my beloved False Prince Sage/Jarod with his delicious snark and unreliability, it’s good to have a female action hero and one who can lead, as well as just get herself in and out of scrapes. Weevil (terrible name – sounds like a Disney sidekick) is the cooler headed of the two, and is also a love interest.

The plot rips along, and though I could see the big twist coming, it was a good one and well-executed. There is a balanced mix of tension and action, and the backdrop of the tension between the two Keldan cultures gives an interesting overlay of social injustice.

And did I say it all wraps up in one book? Hooray. The downside is that the support characters don’t really have room to develop, and it would be nice to have seen more of Della, the initially snooty townie sent to the colony with Ani.

This is JAN at her peak and I would happily press this into the hands of any middle school reader.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

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highly illogical behaviorHighly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Dial, 2016.

In Highly Illogical Behavior, Whaley (Where Things Come Back, 2012, and Noggin, 2014) has done an exceptional job of creating an authentic character who has a mental illness that is integral to the plot, but makes this an appealing and witty YA coming of age novel, rather than an ‘issue’ book.

16 year-old Solomon Reed has not left his house for over three years – he’s agoraphobic and prone to panic attacks. But fellow teen, and amateur psychologist, Lisa Praytor remembers his last day at school when he submerged himself in a fountain, and is determined to meet him so she can ”fix” him and write a scholarship winning essay about her experience with mental illness. Unaware of Lisa’s ulterior motive, Sol quickly finds the pleasure of having a friend, and this is increased when Lisa’s handsome and easygoing boyfriend, Clark, starts coming along too.

Told alternately from Sol and Lisa’s third person points of view, this novel quickly builds up a portrait of thoroughly and realistically complicated teens on the verge of adulthood. The characters of the white central trio are beautifully illuminated as they play board games, watch movies, and discuss Star Trek: The Next Generation. As their friendship deepens, their trust in each other grows, but the shaky foundations on which it is built looms just offstage.

The plot flows in both predictable and unexpected directions, as Sol starts to break out of his “quiet and mundane” life, and though the question of the trio’s future, together and singly, is never far from their thoughts, it is rarely tackled upfront. There is a climactic scene, but the book closes with many strands not tied up, or ever explained, and feels a little messy, just like life.

The novel’s tone, flawed but lovable characters, and plot arc are reminiscent of John Green, and should have wide appeal to teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC

Just My Luck by Cammie McGovern

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just my luckJust My Luck by Cammie McGovern
Harper, 2016.

After the exceptionally good YA novels Say What You Will and A Step Toward Falling, both featuring protagonists with physical and/or mental disabilities, Ms McGovern has now successfully turned her sights on middle graders, with the quiet and sweet Just My Luck, narrated by a character who has family members with these challenges

4th grader Benny Barrows has his own struggles with spelling, math and friendships, as well as coping with the demands of an autistic brother, and now his father has suffered a brain aneurysm, which Benny feels partially responsible for, and is still not his old self.

Benny is an observant and thoughtful kid, and seeing the world through his narration gives readers an opportunity to appreciate a life full of personal and family problems: “The one thing you’ve learned in fourth grade is that you’re bad at everything that comes easily to other people.” But Benny is as stoic as his mother who holds the family together financially and more importantly, emotionally: “You don’t think you could ever, in a million years, handle it, and then it happens and you do.”

Benny has a talent for making stop motion videos with his Lego minifigs, and he uses this as a way of expressing his feelings, as Yoda, for example, says “People you still are, though look different you do.” He is also inspired by Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard, and while Debbie Reese will doubtless not approve, it does at least come with a warning about negative stereotypes from Benny’s mom.

The plot culminates in a Barrows family carnival to raise money to pay some of the father’s medical bills, and they find that friends, neighbors, and classmates have been eager to pitch in and support the Barrows, but did not know how to do it. It seems a little unrealistic, however, to think that the $600 raised will do anything other than make a very small dent in the healthcare costs.

The author has used her experience working with mentally challenged kids to craft a modest book full of thoughtful wisdom, which will appeal to kids who have enjoyed Cynthia Lord’s Rules.

A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby

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TasteForMonsters-CCVR-1A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, September, 2016.

I am a big fan of MJK’s standalone books (and not so long ago we had an MJK week at bibliobrit), and though they are all very different, they share an excitement and specificity about a historical setting, as well as creatively introducing different speculative elements, all wrapped up in an intensely human story.

And he keeps getting better! A Taste for Monsters is a story of redemption set in a wonderfully drawn late 19th Century London, with a Gothic mood, and supernatural elements drawing from the spiritualist ideas of that era.  17 year-old Evelyn Fallow gets a job as maid and companion for Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man, at the London Hospital in the East End. This coincides with the horrific Whitechapel murders, attributed to the never-identified Jack the Ripper, and when the victims start haunting Joseph, Evelyn feels it is her task to bring peace to the ghosts.

Educated and intelligent (and fictional) Evelyn narrates with the formality and seriousness of a Victorian novel (though, thankfully for YA readers, without the longueurs), but her true heart, and her devotion to Joseph bring her alive off the page. Evelyn herself is a victim of ‘phossy jaw’ (phosphorous necrosis) caused by working in a match factory, which means her lower face is severely disfigured, and she has been victimized and reviled on the streets:  “The harsh words and violence had eaten away at my soul just as the phosphorous had my bone.” Her empathy with Joseph, her work at the hospital, and her quest to dispel the ghosts develop a self-confidence and gutsiness in Evelyn that provide the spine of the novel.

As in The Lost Kingdom, Kirby mixes real-life and fictional people. As well as Joseph Merrick, the novel also weaves in the murder victims, the patronizing Dr. Treves, Henry Sidgwick, the founder of Newnham College, and stern but fair Matron Luckes. Joseph, who we only see through Evelyn’s eyes, changes from the ‘monster’ that his physical appearance suggests, to becoming a kind, valiant and sensitive gentleman as she gets to know him. Her growing protectiveness of his physical and emotional health allows Evelyn to realize that her own scarring does not define her, and that a person’s true nature, whether monster or not, is internal and not indicated by their looks.

Kirby has a masterful hand with the telling historical detail. Evelyn’s trips on the new underground railway and her expeditions into the grimy, frighteningly unprotected streets, contrast with the bustling sanctuary of the hospital, and both provide an authentic setting. Of course somethings resonate with today – the public has a paradoxical tabloid taste and revulsion for monsters, and the East End Jewish population is demonized and scapegoated. The author also revels in the contemporary patois, and though sometimes the meaning isn’t always clear, it’s easy to get the gist. One bravura passage has Evelyn and the other maids describe a salacious gossip as “an old haybag”, “a vile church-bell”, and “a blowsabella”.

The novel’s plotting and pacing, along with the character development, are so impeccable, I was just a little disappointed that Evelyn’s climactic epiphany seemed a tad too slick and easy.  Nonetheless, the ending itself is satisfying and feels complete.

Teens who enjoy a mix of history and fantasy will surely love this, but it’s also worth trying with fans of straight historical fiction like Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace (Bloomsbury, 2011).

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.