Tag Archives: tragedy

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
HarperCollins, 2018.

Very occasionally I will read a book that just affects my mood for several days and this is one of them. Rising 8th grader Claudia Coleman returns from a summer with her grandmother, ready to see her best (and only) friend Monday so they can get back into their groove ready for school. Only Monday isn’t there. Claudia, against her parents’ rules, goes to Monday’s house on the wrong side of town only to be fobbed off by her mother. And that pattern persists – all the adults that Claudia talks to express concern but then do nothing about it. Even when Claudia goes to the police, she is dismissively shown a board covered with missing black girls and told not to waste police time if her friend isn’t really missing, and we are told that social services didn’t follow up requests for an investigation either. The theme, skillfully shown not told, is that the disappearance of black girls happens but nobody much cares.

As the novel moves back in time, we learn much more about the girls’ friendship and mutual dependency. Claudia depends on Monday to help her hide her learning disability and Monday spends time with Claudia’s family, so unlike her own broken one. There are already cracks showing in their friendship – Monday is much more interested in boys than Claudia is, and will do anything to make herself visible leading to some intense drama at school. In the present, Claudia quietly starts to find her own way, though never letting go of her quest to find Monday. She makes connections with some girls at her dance school and, after her grades plummet, gets help with her dyslexia.

Claudia’s desperation and frustration about her lack of agency in searching for her friend is what stayed with me from this wonderful and wrenching novel. Her kind and loving parents do their best to help her but there is so much they don’t know or don’t seem to understand, though they are not quite as clueless as they first appear.

While focused on Claudia and Monday, the novel also tackles some other substantial issues. The neighborhood in Washington DC where Monday lives is in upheaval as the gentrifiers want to evict the tenants and turn the neighborhood into something more pleasing to middle class white people. This puts tremendous pressure on an already ragged community, stressed by poverty and drugs.

One minor quibble: The novel has a complicated (and to me, unnecessary) time scheme and twist that goes with it. It didn’t add anything for me and just made things a little more complicated than I felt they needed to be. But that doesn’t in any way detract from this completely absorbing and important novel and I shall most certainly be seeking out Ms Jackson’s first novel Allegedly.

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Someone Else’s Shoes by Ellen Wittlinger

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Someone Else’s Shoes by Ellen Wittlinger
Charlesbridge, 2018

Everything is out of joint for 12 year old Izzy Shepherd: her father, who now lives with his new wife in Boston, doesn’t seem to pay any attention to her anymore, and her uncle and his 10-year-old son Oliver are staying with her and her mother after Aunt Felicia killed herself. Now the reputedly mean 16-year-old Ben Gustino is staying in their basement while his father, her mother’s new boyfriend, is out of town and his mother has left them in live in California.

Initially Izzy is a bit of a pill about this, as you might expect any tween to be – all the changes imposed on her and out of her control are upsetting. It’s only when Uncle Henderson disappears, and she, Ben, and Oliver run away to search for him, that she starts to develop empathy for the situations of the other two and realizes that though her life is tough, Ben and Oliver have it much worse. As she and Ben bristle at each other, they bond over their shared desire to lessen the load for Oliver and realize that they have much more in common than was apparent.

At the start, Izzy (who is white as are all the other main characters) is trying out new identities as she feels herself becoming invisible to her friends who are suddenly much more interested in boys and clothes. She buys some silver shoes that are too small for her. Without overflogging the metaphor, Wittlinger uses shoes to show that you have to be both comfortable with yourself and that walking in someone’s else’s shoes is a gift. By the end of their roadtrip, Izzy has new sneakers and realizes “What a great thing it was to have shoes, finally, that fit”

Izzy is an aspiring comedian and as she relaxes more with her new family, her gift shows and she finds the power to make people laugh can be cathartic, though her touchpoints of Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen Degeneres feel a little dated (And as a Brit I have to tell you that Jerry Seinfeld is also just not very funny).

The adults are realistically shown as broken by the loss or separation from their spouses and can be selfish, make mistakes, and fail to understand what is going on with their children, though ultimately (and don’t forget that this is a middle grade book) their hearts are in the right place. Izzy’s mother, in particular, seems a bit clueless, not realizing the burden her daughter is under or the troubles that Oliver is having at school. Her expectations seem unreasonable to Izzy and maybe even to us – why is she so much more sympathetic to Oliver and Ben? It’s only the kids who appear to understand the weight they are all carrying and that the face people present to the world may not be who they really are.

This is a decent book about loss and empathy that will appeal to middle grade readers who enjoy sad realistic stories with (not necessarily entirely credible) happy endings.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
Delacorte Press, September 2018.

Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old gothic horror Frankenstein story is given a YA feminist update in this stirring retelling from the point of view of 17-year-old Elizabeth Lavenza, a minor character in the original tale. White (And I Darken series) largely hews to the original tale, albeit told through a lens in which smart women are suppressed and trapped by contemporary norms, but deftly twists the ending to bring a whole new light to our understanding of the characters.

At the age of five the orphan Elizabeth is brought into the Frankenstein household to befriend and, it emerges, to help socialize the out of control genius Victor. Elizabeth sees this as a way of assuring a safe future for herself and makes herself look “fragile and sweet, incapable of harm and deceit” while chafing at being forced into this subservient and dependent role. Years later when Victor cuts off all contact with them while he is studying at Ingolstadt, Elizabeth pursues him there, scared that he has abandoned her, but is horrified at what she discovers.

Elizabeth reveals far more perception, emotion, and intelligence than her society allows her and her narration has the elegant formality of the 19th century while flowing swiftly, moving between the past and present. Though the reader will probably be aware of the monstrous experiments that Victor is undertaking, Elizabeth’s dawning realization is artfully drawn.

This novel happily stands alone for those who have never read the original; however, those who have read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece (or have read the Wikipedia précis like I did) will thrill to the subtle and profound changes the author has made.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

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The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017.

In 2013, agender white high school senior Sasha fell asleep on the bus on their way home from school in Oakland. Black teen Richard was also on the bus, and, egged on by friends, used his lighter to set fire to Sasha’s skirt. Dashka Slater’s enormously thoughtful and well-written book (staring life as an article in the NY Times Magazine) looks at the before and after for both victim and perpetrator.

Short chapters move between Sasha and Richard and move between narrative and background information. Starting with the two young men’s backgrounds, the author shows that though both teens have loving families and close supportive friends in common, their differences are stark: Sasha’s family is comfortably off, he attends an independent school and has Asperger’s; Richard comes from a poor family and has lost many loved ones to murder.

It is never clear why Richard committed this terrible act – he tells the police it’s because he’s homophobic, but it’s not clear if he actually is or if he even understands what it means. Many people in the book put it down to him being a 16 year-old boy and all the lack of foresight that goes with that. It certainly appears that he had no thought of the implications or seriousness of his act.

Slater creates empathy for both her lead protagonists, though I found myself more engaged by Richard’s story than Sasha’s. Sasha, apart from the obvious physical trauma of being set alight and the pain of recovery, appears to be relatively unscathed by the attack and takes a sanguine and rational attitude as he heads off to MIT where he seems to settle in socially and intellectually. Richard, on the other hand, is tried as an adult  for committing a hate crime, though is able to serve his time in a juvenile facility. In fact it is likely that he will be released this year, having been a model inmate and used the time to study.

Ms Slater gives illuminating chapters on such contextual topics as the vocabulary of gender, sexuality, and romantic inclinations, and she explains clearly and concisely the judicial system including a sympathetic section on restorative justice. Her journalistic background shows in her exemplary use of sources including interviews, video, public records, and Richard’s two heart-twisting letters of apology that were not given to Sasha’s parents until fourteen months after they were written.

This is a short book and a quick read but provides rich material for thought, discussion, and even action.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Balzer + Bray, 2018

The author creates an extraordinary world in this genre-mixing alternate history set after the Civil War.

After the battle of Gettysburg, the dead started rising and attacking the living, so the war between the states turned into the war against the restless dead. The country has turned into autonomous walled city states on the East coast and defended homes and towns elsewhere. The ruling Survivalist party believes that the reason for the dead rising is that the Civil War changed the “natural order” and that only by having White Christian men at the top and everyone else knowing their place would  America be made “safe again”.

This means that the “Negroes” (the official term, less official words used are “darkies” and “coons”) though enfranchised have been forcibly put through combat training school and made to work protecting individuals and cities. Seen as disposable, like animals, and often poorly equipped, they are slaves in another guise, while being told they should be grateful for being taught.

Our protagonist, 17-year-old Jane McKeene is about to graduate from the presitigious Miss Preston’s combat academy. She is dark-skinned and a typical feisty YA heroine who acts before she thinks and is thoughtful, smart, resourceful, and curious. She has her own code of loyalty and self-protection, and while it leads her into some difficult scrapes, the reader is always on her side. Of course she gets into trouble and she, her classmate and nemesis Katherine, a light-skinned beauty, and multiracial Jackson are forcibly sent to Summerland, a new model town which is being built as a model for shambler-free (ie undead-free) settlements everywhere. There are some dark secrets in Summerland and Jane is just the person to uncover them, all the while battling the ever-evolving restless dead.

The characters are all vividly and generously dimensional and there is plenty of thought-provoking parallels to contemporary American society wrapped up in an exciting adventure punctuated with some horrific zombie (though that word is never used) slaying. As the book ends, Jane and her companions are headed off on a new quest and, presumably, for a sequel.

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

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Broken Things by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2018.

Lauren Oliver has switched between realistic fiction and sci fi, but the common thread is always young women pushed to their limits. I’ve been a fan since Delirium way back and I think this new one is a perfect encapsulation of Oliver’s talents as a creator of credible and nuanced characters, sharp plotting, and an atmospheric setting.

Five years ago in Twin Lakes, Vermont, 13 year-old Summer was murdered in an apparently ritualistic way. Her two best friends, Brynn and Mia were suspected but never charged, as was her boyfriend Owen. Since then, as they’re still seen as the “Monsters of Brickhouse Lane”, Brynn has hidden away in unnecessary rehab facilities, Mia has withdrawn, and Owen’s family moved abroad.  But now on the five year anniversary of her death, the teens are all back in town and starting to work out who the real murderer was.

So far, so Kara Thomas which in itself is an excellent recommendation. Layering on top of this, the murder seems to be linked to an old children’s fantasy book called The Way into Lovelorn which the girls were obsessed with and wrote a sequel to, and which seemed to have come to life for them.

The narrative is split between Mia and Brynn and Then and Now, and a picture is built up of lonely “broken” girls on the fringes of their communities: Summer was with a foster family, Mia got so anxious she couldn’t speak, and Brynn expressed her rage through fighting. But together they made sense and Lovelorn helped them to do that. But when adolescence hit Summer and Brynn, Mia felt excluded and Summer’s attraction to older boys left the other two behind and Lovelorn is abandoned.

As with her previous realistic novels, the author does an excellent job of vividly drawing an insular small-minded community, and the pressure that brings on teen girls who don’t conform and the murder mystery on top of this works well.

The plot is neatly worked out as the teens (all significant characters in this book are white) unearth clues, both in real life and in the fanfic they wrote. A satisfying resolution is reached without stretching credibility, and both Mia and Brynn are on the road to dealing with their lives now that the weight of suspicion is off them and they can reach closure about Summer’s death.

Perfect for teen readers who enjoy mystery and/or realistic novels with a side of creepiness.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Little Do We Know by Tamara Ireland Stone

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Little Do We Know by Tamara Ireland Stone
Hyperion, 2018

Stone explores complex aspects of faith and trust in this respectful, character-driven novel. White seniors Hannah and Emory had been best friends for 17 years but, after a shattering argument 3 months ago, have not spoken to each other since. They go their separate ways – Hannah to her father’s church school and Emory hanging out with her boyfriend Luke – until one night Luke has an accident and everything changes for all three of them.

Hannah’s family is deeply Christian and so was she, but now she is questioning this blind faith and she looks for alternatives. Religion has not been a factor in Luke and Emory’s lives, but after his near-death experience Luke starts finding comfort in it.

Hannah and Emory are distinct and fleshed-out narrators in alternating short chapters as they gradually unpeel what happened three months ago to drive them apart and what is happening now that might bring them back together. As they deal with the secrets that can undermine even the closest relationships, they also find the glue that keeps friends and families together.

Ideal for teens interested in unusual and unexpected ideas.