Category Archives: Young Adult

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

tatwdA 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).


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Filed under Fiction -- general, Young Adult

Genuine Fraud, by E. Lockhart

genuinefraudReading Lockhart’s We Were Liars was an amazing, almost overwhelming experience for me a couple of years ago, so I had high expectations for Genuine Fraud and picked it up as soon as it was available.

Genuine Fraud is a thriller, a genre I don’t normally read much because I don’t usually find them, well, all that thrilling. I was drawn into this book not only because I trusted the author, but because I found the main character, Jule, intriguing (though by no means likable — liking her is not the point) and I wanted to know how she got into the situation she was in as the novel opened, and what secrets she was hiding. The novel’s unusual structure — essentially the story is told in reverse chronology, each chapter taking us a little further back into Jule’s story to explain what happened — kept me turning pages through this quick read.

Because of We Were Liars, I expected a big twist at the end and kept trying to guess what it would be (thus making the plot even more complicated in my head than it actually was). But there isn’t one bit surprise reveal; there are a series of gradual reveals along the way that all add up to a genuinely intriguing thriller. 

The two main criticisms I’ve seen of this book are that 1) some of the things Jule gets away with are pretty implausible, which I think is true but also probably true of most mysteries and thrillers, and 2) it is not inspired by, but far too closely modelled on, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. As I haven’t read that book, I can’t comment on that, but I will say that if you cite another author’s novel in your afterword as being a major inspiration, you do need to at least make sure there are significant differences between your work and theirs. Otherwise, you might just want to say that your book is a modernized, gender-swapped retelling (told in reverse) of a classic thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re clear that’s what you’re doing.


Filed under Fiction -- mystery, Young Adult

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

THUGAngie Thomas’s excellent novel The Hate You Give came my way, as many good YA novels do, via a recommendation from my teenaged daughter. It’s a story about a sixteen-year-old African-American girl who is in the car with a boy — her best friend from childhood — when he is pulled over and shot by a white police officer in a traffic stop gone horribly wrong. As the only witness to Khalil’s death, Starr finds herself pulled into the centre of controversy and activism in her community.

Like many teenage protagonists in fiction, Starr is a bit of an outsider: she doesn’t entirely fit in with the white kids at her private school, though she has friends and a boyfriend there; she also no longer fully fits in with her childhood friends and extended family in her lower-income neighbourhood, simply because her parents have made it possible for her to attend private school. (This dynamic reminded me a little of the narrator in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

Starr is a vibrant, believable young woman whose fears and hopes are easy for the reader to identify with. It’s always hard, as a reader, to tell whether a writer is capturing a subculture accurately when it’s not your own subculture, but this certainly feels, to Old White-Lady me, like an authentic glimpse into the life of a black teenager in an American city right now. The language and pop-culture references are so contemporary that they will date the novel in a few years, but that’s not a bad thing: this is a novel very much of its specific time and place. It’s rooted in 2016-2017 America and the Black Lives Matter movement; this is the specific cultural moment that produced this story. This is particularly evident at the end of the novel when Starr, having finally spoken out publicly about Khalil’s death, says: 

“It’s about way more than [Khalil] though….

It’s also about Oscar.

I was reading this book on the same day the verdict was handed down in the Philando Castile case, finding the officer who killed him not guilty despite the horrifying video evidence. For the record, the list above, where Thomas integrates her fictional character into a list of real victims, was the exact spot where I started crying while reading The Hate U Give.

We’re long past the era (if we were ever really in it; I’m not sure) when readers can assume that a subject is treated with less complexity because the novel is targeted at teenaged readers. This YA novel delves deep into the gray areas around the black-and-white issue of young African-American men dying at the hands of police. Starr faces the covert racism of her white classmates who think they’re being progressive by organizing a day of protest over Khalil’s murder; she faces the real and constant threats of gang violence and drug abuse within her own community. Her uncle, a black police officer, is at once sympathetic to the stresses faced by his colleagues, and outraged by what one of them did to Khalil. Issues that, for many of us, are only theoretical because they are so removed from the communities where we live, take on human faces here. Like every great novel, The Hate U Give is not really about “issues” even when it is — it’s about people. Novels resonate because their characters feel like people we know, or can know. Starr brings us into her world, and into the horrible experience she has lived through, and readers are richer for making this journey with her.

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The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), by Lemony Snicket

unfortunateIt’s hard to believe I had never read this famously gloomy (and funny) series of kids’ books, nor had my children. They’re right in line with the sort of thing we had all over the house when the kids were schoolaged, and would have been a blast to read out loud, but somehow, having picked up the first one once or twice, I never really got into them. What convinced me to finally start the series was the recent TV adaptation starring Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, which  has such a lovely, gloomy, quirky tone that I watched it in a couple of days and then really wanted to go back to the source material (the TV series covers, I think, the first four books of a thirteen-book series, so presumably they’re planning three seasons? Not sure).

The books are, as the narrator warns over and over, incredibly gloomy — a lot of really awful things happen to the Baudelaire orphans. Most of them are cartoonish, like Count Olaf dangling Sunny from the top of a tower in a cage, so you don’t really feel the empathy you would in a more realistic story. But then occasionally something genuinely realistic happens, like when Count Olaf hits Klaus in the face and he has a bruise for days, and you think, this is really a story about child abuse, even though it’s cartoonish and often funny. The humour comes in the narrative voice, which constantly reminds us to put the book down if we enjoy stories with happy endings. I do enjoy stories with happy endings, and I’ve been warned enough that this won’t be one, but I’m probably going to keep reading anyway!

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Filed under Children's, Young Adult

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

lietreeThis was an absolutely intriguing book. It’s a YA novel, but more than compelling enough to hold the attention of this adult reader. The Lie Tree is set in Victorian England and told from the perspective of a young girl called Faith Sunderly. Faith’s father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is a natural scientist, and Faith wants to be a scientist too. She is fascinated by her father’s fossils and specimens, but keenly aware that she lives in a world that doesn’t encourage such interests in a woman. While Faith tries to impress and emulate her brilliant, distant father, her model for how to be a woman is her mother Myrtle, who uses her good looks and charm to cajole favours from men around her, and who tries to mold her daughter into a proper young lady.

When the Sunderly family arrives on the remote island of Vane, where her father has been invited to observe some excavations for new fossils, things take a sinister turn. The novel moves from being simply a well-developed piece of historical fiction to being a murder mystery with a strong thread of fantasy or magic realism. I’ve also seen it described as “horror,” but I didn’t find that it fit that description well. There’s no gore here, but plenty of dread, as Faith discovers and learns to use her father’s most shocking and carefully guarded discovery: the Lie Tree of the title.

What I really loved about this book is that it’s one of the rare times a writer of historical fiction really gets that “strong female character” thing dead right, and you know it’s right. Faith is everything a modern reader wants in a girl character: she’s brilliant, she’s rebellious, she hates the constraints her society places on women. But she also understands and, on some level, buys into those restraints. Hardinge totally avoids the trap of making Faith a twenty-first century girl in a Victorian dress. She is absolutely a real nineteenth-century woman, looking for a way out of the box her society has placed her in — but the reader never doubts for a second that that box is real, as real as Faith’s intelligence and ambition.

This is the kind of story where there are many twists and turns at the end; situations and people will not turn out to be what we thought they were. Most importantly, Faith’s view of the women in her world, including her mother, shifts as she comes to understand them better and see in a new light what is (and is not) possible for a woman.

My dearest hope for Faith is that she grows up to be Alma from Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (but with a less tragic love story, if she has to have one at all). There were, of course, Victorian women who managed to carve out a place for themselves in the world of science despite all the odds stacked against them, and once you’ve seen Faith Sunderly solve the mystery that engulfs her family on Vane, you can believe she will have the grit and tenacity to be one of those women.

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery, Young Adult

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

carryonI wish I could explain what Carry On is. It’s a young-adult fantasy novel and also a spoof on the young-adult fantasy novel. It’s a spin-off of Rowell’s novel Fangirl that doesn’t include any of the original characters and takes place in a totally different world. It’s a piece of fan fiction that is related to the Harry Potter series the same way the Fifty Shades of Gray books are related to the Twilight series, except that Carry On is really well-written.

In Fangirl, Cath is a fan-fiction writer. She’s writing a fanfic based on a series of books that bear a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter books, except that there are vampires too. And Cath’s wildly popular fanfic bears a strong resemblance to Harry-Draco slashfic, in that she’s taken the two (presumably straight) male leads of the original series, and written a romance between them. Carry On is that story, sort of — Rainbow Rowell has written the last book of a non-existent fantasy series that owes a heavy debt to a real fantasy series, and this shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does.

Simon Snow is an orphan with mysterious powers who attends a special school for kids with magical abilities, located somewhere in England. Sound familiar? It is and it isn’t Harry Potter — it’s Rowell celebrating all the things she loves about the series and also putting her own spin on the things she’d like to see done differently. At the heart of the story is Simon’s love/hate relationship with his roommate Baz, as well as, of course, an epic conflict that could destroy not only the magickal but also the Normal world. It’s smart, it’s funny, and I found it a real page-turner. 

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The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #1), by Rick Riordan

magnuschaseAfter dealing with the Greek gods in the Percy Jackson books, the Roman gods in Heroes of Olympus, and the Egyptian pantheon in the Kane Chronicles, Rick Riordan has a new series out, and it’s probably inevitable that he would look north to the colourful characters who populate the halls of Asgard.

This new book follows familiar territory for readers of Riordan’s books. Magnus Chase is a teenage boy who’s been homeless on the streets of Boston ever since his beloved mother died several years ago. Magnus never knew his dad, and as it turns out there’s a very good reason for that: his dad’s a Norse god. When an unfortunate encounter gains him an entry to Valhalla (and his own personal Valkyrie), Magnus learns the truth about his complicated family tree and, of course, learns that he has to save the world.

Riordan’s trademark humour, and his ability to weave ancient myths into the fabric of modern teen life, carries this book as it has all the others. I find these books very funny, enjoyable, and a great way for kids to learn about mythology. Fortunately there are enough polytheistic religions (with a history of human-god interaction to produce demigod children) to keep him busy for awhile. I’m hoping after Asgard, we’ll get to explore the gods and goddesses of Hinduism, which may give Riordan enough material to keep writing till he’s ready for his next reincarnation.

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Young Adult