In this very high-concept young-adult novel, a group of high school friends is torn apart after the mysterious death of their golden boy, Jim, in a possible suicide near the end of senior year. Or rather, one of the group — Jim’s girlfriend, Beatrice — is torn away from the rest of the group, retreating into her private grief while the other four members of the group remain close. At the end of her first year of college, Beatrice meets up with the other four, and a second tragedy at the end of that night traps all five young people in a time loop. They are doomed to relieve the last few hours of their lives over and over until they can agree on which one of them will survive — and only one can make it out alive.
This contrivance is used to explore the five characters and how they react to the situation. The ways in which they deal with the time loop will be familiar to anyone who’s seen any film or read any book that deals with the premise of repeated time or repeated lives — they try to escape, then they immerse themselves in hedonistic pleasure, then they finally settle down to seriously trying to solve the problem presented by the loop. One of the group, Martha,, convinces everyone that in order to get out of the loop, they need to solve the mystery of Jim’s death, and so they become obsessed with conducting an investigation, eventually learning that they can travel back to relive different days. When they finally get back to relive the night Jim died, all the pieces are in place for them to finally break out of the Neverworld Wake. Or rather, for one of them to break out.
I read this in a day; it kept the pages turning and kept me engaged in solving the mystery of Jim’s death and waiting to see how/if/who would survive at the end of the novel.
This was a sweet teen novel that started out as a fairly light romance with a relatively engaging love triangle, and took a much more serious and interesting turn partway through. Maya is a 17-year-old Indian-American girl who dreams of going to college in New York City and learning to make movies, while she struggles against the expectations of her more traditional Indian parents. She’s also torn between two guys — an attractive Indian guy who would be the perfect match from her family’s point of view, and a boy from school she’s had a longstanding crush on who finally notices her.
All those typically teen concerns fade into the background when a terrorist attack focuses hate on the Maya and her family. Suddenly she has to deal with much bigger issues, and they threaten the life she’s trying to build for herself.
I love young adult stories that explore a diverse range of teenage/high school experience, and I loved this one particularly because it explored the world of an Indian-Muslim teen who doesn’t wear hijab and whose family doesn’t attend the mosque regularly — because I think it’s important to remember that there’s not just one template for what it means to be a Muslim immigrant in North America, and the more varied flavours of experience we get represented in stories, the better we’ll know one another. This was a quick and enjoyable read.
This is a wonderful new YA novel by the author of, and set in the same community as, bestseller The Hate U Give. While On the Come Up is not as obviously tied to specific current events as T.H.U.G. (which dealt with the aftermath of a police officer shooting an unarmed black youth), it is a very timely coming of age story in which racism, poverty, violence and the struggle to find your own path and express your own creativity is explored through an engaging and likeable main character and a rich supporting cast.
Thomas may be drawing on her own autobiographical story here a little bit, since she herself was a rapper before she was a bestselling author, and the novel focuses on 16-year-old Bri, a talented young rapper who dreams of making it big. In a family and a neighbourhood rife with poverty and constantly threatened by gang violence, Bri discovers there are many possible paths to “making it” — and she has to decide what that’s going to look like for her. She is thrust unwillingly into the public eye when she is targeted by the security guards at her school in an incident of racial profiling — and has to decide if she can use that incident to propel her music career, and what she will do with the platform she’s unexpectedly been handed.
Thomas has a gift for creating characters so vivid, so believable and real that they pull middle-aged, middle-class white ladies like me into the world inhabited by girls like Bri and their friends and families. I could not put this book down and raced through it in barely more than a day. Yes, the novel has important things to say about racism and politics — but it’s also so incredibly well-written, enjoyable and entertaining that there’s no sense of it ever feeling preachy or didactic. I can’t wait for what she writes next.
This YA fantasy, first in a planned series, is based in a fantasy-world version of Nigeria and the magical system is rooted in Nigerian mythology. This made Children of Blood and Bone a really appealing read, because I’m always interested in fantasy that’s set in something other than a vaguely-medieval-Europe and that draws in elements of other cultures.
However, while I really appreciated that aspect of it, I did find that beneath the cultural diversity this was a fairly standard and predictable fantasy, featuring a small band of teenagers (conveniently paired into romantic couplings) fighting against deadly odds to collect a group of three esoteric artifacts and take them to a significant spot before a key deadline to unlock ancient magic. There are a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming, which is great, but I wish the plot and characterization had been as fresh and original as the setting.
This historical YA fiction is an interesting romp through early 18th-century Europe through the eyes of a young “rake,” Henry “Monty” Montague, who is on his Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and his sister Felicity, who is (very reluctantly) on her way to finishing school in France. Monty, Percy and Felicity are all outsiders in their own ways, people who, for various reasons, do not fit neatly into the mold of upper class English life in the 1720s. Monty is the narrator here (I’m excited to learn there’s a coming sequel in which Felicity, who is a great character, is the focus). While he has all the traditional marks of the dissolute young man of his era (drinking, gambling, whoring, inciting parental disapproval) his real crime, the one that makes his father threaten to disinherit him, is that he is, in modern terms, bisexual — the inappropriate people with whom he’s caught in bed are just as likely to be male as female, and that simply will not do.
(There’s a possible diversion I could get into here about historical views of same-sex relationships, which I think could have been explored with a bit more nuance than is done in this novel, but I realize this is a YA novel where the focus is on adventure and I understand that some of the complex social history has to be skimmed over a bit. I tried not to get too caught up in the absence of some of the nuances I wondered about — like about what types of same-sex activity were considered acceptable, though secretive, in all-male environments like boys’ schools, as opposed to what was considered shameful and forbidden).
The trio’s Grand Tour quickly goes off the rails when an object Monty casually (and spitefully) picks up turns out to be tremendously valuable. This thoughtless theft leads to an encounter with highwaymen, which ends up with Monty, Percy and Felicity on the run. The twists and turns of their adventures include alchemy, piracy, and maybe even a little necromancy. It’s a fast-paced adventure that also touches on some serious topics — mainly, the question of how people in the past who didn’t fit neatly into society’s social, sexual, racial and gender categories managed to survive, and maybe even carve out spaces in which to thrive. I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.
A new John Green book is always going to be a treat for me, as well as for the teenaged reader in my house, because we’re big John Green fans. Turtles All the Way Down, coming five years after his blockbuster hit The Fault in Our Stars and carrying all the weight of expectations that accompanies the next release after a huge bestseller. It does not disappoint.
Turtles is told from the point of view of Asa Holmes, a 16-year-old girl who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (as does the author himself). It’s rare to see a depiction of mental illness, especially an anxiety disorder, as raw, unsparing, and honest-feeling as this one. Asa feels like a prisoner of her own thoughts, unable to escape them and wondering who she even is if her mind is invaded by thoughts she doesn’t want and can’t control. Everything else in her life — her relationship with her loving but worried mom, her friendship with best friend Daisy, and her attempts to solve a mystery surrounded a cute guy who might be a possible boyfriend — is pushed to the side and subverted by anxious thoughts that Asa can’t escape.
This novel is hard to read at times, just like it’s hard to live inside a brain that seems determined to sabotage itself. But the novel is also often funny, always insightful, and ultimately hopeful and life-affirming — though it’s not a hope cheaply bought. Both John Green and Asa Holmes are realistic about the fact that narratives of mental illness are not simple “I was sick and then I got better” stories. Reality is harder and sometimes uglier — but it’s beautiful, too. And so is this book.
(Btw, for those who like podcasts, you can hear a great discussion between me and my daughter Emma, who is an insightful and incisive 17-year-old reader, on this episode of my Shelf Esteem book podcast where we discuss this and other YA novels we’ve read lately).