Book Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Amanda Hardy is new to Lambertville, Tennessee.  Determined to have a fresh start for her senior year, she wants to make friends and fit in.  But she’s harboring a secret and a past that threaten to disrupt her new life, and she’s determined to keep her secret safe so that she can remain safe.  But she doesn’t bank on meeting Grant Everett, and she doesn’t plan on falling in love with him.  Grant seems different, and the two have an undeniable connection. She wants to share everything with him, but she’s not sure she can share the one thing she wants most to tell him: she used to be Andrew Hardy.

Hailed as one of the best YA books of 2016, Meredith Russo’s debut novel about a trans girl trying to make a new life for herself after a brutal attack has earned its extensive praise. This novel offers trans teens and adults a story that is at once sweetly romantic while also very believable, grounded in enough realism without ever veering into the horrifically tragic. The novel offers enough friction in the plot to offer readers insight into the real dangers that Amanda faces as a girl without ever overwhelming the narrative.  There’s good writing here, although at times the dialogue feels a bit clunky, and the exploration of new friendships helps flesh out the narrative beyond the typical romance.

The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging and interesting, and this is a necessary novel for all readers.  It’s one to stock your shelves with and push into the hands of teens.  There’s lots to discuss here as well, and it’s going to garner those discussions.  Highly recommended.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Flatiron Books: 2016. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

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Pax is a fox, rescued when he was a tiny kit after his family was killed.  Peter, his “boy,” rescued him. He’s lived in domesticity with Peter ever since, and the two are inseparable.  But war is coming, and Peter’s father has enlisted, which means Peter is being shipped off to live with his grandfather. Pax is left by the side of the road, hundreds of miles from where Peter ends up. Determined to make it back to each other, each one embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Sara Pennypacker’s moving story about a boy and his fox is a heartbreaking page-turner of a novel.  Interspersed in the beautiful prose are black and white illustrations from Jon Klassen, and these help bring the story right off the page. Told in alternating chapters by both Peter and Pax, the story remains grounded in reality even though one of the book’s narrators is a fox.

Beautifully paced and artfully told, Pennypacker allows the reader insight into the horrors of war not through the eyes of Peter, but through those of Pax, who sees woodland creatures blown up by mines.  The underscoring of how far-reaching the terrors of war can be is done successfully, with subtlety and grace.  Because so few of the characters in the story are actually named, the book feels very much like a fable.

Every moment in this novel feels real, and authentic, and emotionally resonant. It’s a sad story that is also full of hope, and it is one that begs to be read by young readers as well as adults. Kids will want to talk about this one, so be ready for hard questions about life and death, war, and much more.

Highly, highly recommended.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Balzer + Bray: 2016. Library copy.

Book Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

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Jackson is 12 and his family has just taken in a new foster child.  Joseph is 14 and has already been to prison and fathered a child.  He wants nothing more than to find his daughter, named Jupiter, whom he has never met before.  As Joseph starts to visualize a future with Jackson’s loving family, his past catches up with him in the most cataclysmic–and tragic–way imaginable.

Schmidt’s writing takes a serious turn in this sparse, beautifully haunting novel that will have readers glued to the page until the book’s upsetting end.  Jackson’s no-nonsense narration helps keep the novel grounded, even when Joseph’s story threatens to veer into melodrama.  Although the novel begins as a redemption tale, Schmidt offers readers no pat, happy endings here.  The result is a gut-punch of a novel with just a tinge of hope for the future.

Like Schmidt’s other books, the characterization is wonderful in this one.  Both boys develop throughout the course of the novel, with Jackson’s ideas about his own morals developing as he gets to know Joseph.  Although Jackson seems like an old soul for a 12-year-old, the narration is sparse enough to seem authentic.  The result is a knockout of a novel, engrossing and emotionally resonant even as it’s unbearably sad.

Lovely, haunting, and one that readers will want to talk about as soon as they finish.  Give this one to savvy middle-grade readers and YA fanatics alike.  It’s got broad appeal for a wide range of readers and will spark great conversation.  Highly recommended.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books: 2015. Library copy.

Book Review: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

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Matthew’s mom is dead and his dad is a total wreck.  Just when Matt thinks he can’t handle any more hard stuff in the world, he meets a girl who has dealt with a great deal more than Matt can even imagine–and she just might have some stuff to teach him.  As he navigates his own grief as well as his father’s, Matt starts falling for this girl and learning lessons about life, love, and growing up.

If there’s one thing Jason Reynolds does well, it’s bring a neighborhood to life on the page.  That’s on full display here in his latest offering for teens, and it makes for a rich, immersive read.  Matthew’s voice is authentic, making for a narration that is both compelling and at times searingly real.  A slow burner, like all of Reynolds’s novels, this is one that will stand out to teens who like their stories a bit gritty but wholly real.

Matthew works as a narrator largely because of Reynolds’s skill with his prose.  He also knows Matthew really well and allows his grief to simmer on the page.  As Matthew finds solace in attending funerals at the funeral home he starts working in, his healing process begins, and readers take that journey with him.  The result is a largely successful exploration of what it means to move on after a significant death.

The supporting cast of characters are fairly well fleshed-out, too.  They help bring the Brooklyn neighborhood to life, and provide valuable insight into Matthew and his world.  This is a character-driven novel about slice-of-life Brooklyn, and it is a gem of a novel.  Reynolds is an author to watch, and his storytelling only gets stronger with each offering.

Hopeful, uplifting, and emotionally resonant.  This is a title to keep on the shelves, for sure.  Recommended.

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds. Atheneum Books for Young Readers: 2015. Library copy.

Book Review: The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

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Linus is 16, a runaway, and living on the streets of London when he gets abducted  by a strange man in a van.  When he wakes up, he finds himself in an underground bunker.  He’s alone, but there are other empty bedrooms.  Soon, those bedrooms are filled by people who were taken just like him.  They’re being watched and punished.  There is no escape.  As time passes, the people in the bunker come to the horrifying realization that they may have to result to the absolute worst possible outcome if they have any chance of survival.

Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary is a disturbing read.  This is not a title for every reader, because Brooks doesn’t shy away from the harshest aspects of human life and death and that includes some pretty horrific gore.  But the book is beautifully written in sparse, haunting prose, and the pace is whip-fast, guaranteed to glue readers to every page as they race to find out the fate of the characters trapped underground.

There are certainly parallels to be made here to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (this might be lost on most teens, but there it is), and the book examines existentialism through its various characters.  This is going to work best for sophisticated readers who are able to stomach violence and introspection in equal doses.  It is, at times, simply brilliant.  It is a novel that demands to be reread to pick up on the details of plot construction, character development, and insight into humanity.

Readers who finish this one will be haunted by the characters and the book’s overall message.  It’s one that will garner a lot of discussion, which is good, because there’s lots to think and talk about within the book’s pages.  A winner of the Carnegie medal, this is a must-read for anyone who can handle the suspense, the horror, and the darkest parts of what makes us human.  Highly recommended.

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Carolrhoda Lab: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Infandous by Elana K. Arnold

Sephora and her mother live in the seedier part of Venice Beach, California.  Raised by an obscenely beautiful mother, Sephora has always felt like a small character in the fairy tale of her mother’s life, and she’s always felt lucky about that.  Now that Sephora is 16, she’s ready to be the star in her own story.  But sometimes, fairy tales don’t turn out like the Disney stories.  When Sephora meets Felix, things take a turn for the completely unfathomable.

This is a gut-punch of a novel, but readers should know that from the start.  Seph’s narration is matter-of-fact but beautifully written, and she warns readers that things “don’t really turn out the way they do in fairy tales. I’m telling you that right up front, so you’re not disappointed later.”  This is not posturing on her part: Seph is hiding some dark secrets that are causing her a great deal of pain.  As she relates her experiences over the summer, she reflects on a fling she had with an older man and juxtaposes this with the relationship her mother is starting with a much younger one.  Her jealousy over her mother’s relationship with this new person is palpable, and her feelings about not being the center of attention with her mother is authentic.

Interspersed in the story are Seph’s own retellings of famous myths and fairy tales.  She relates these stories in language both raw and rich, and the content of the stories serves as foreshadowing–or at least hints–of what Seph herself is hiding.  These stories blend beautifully with the novel’s overarching narrative, and readers will be riveted by them (as well as disturbed, which is largely the point).

There are strong parallels here to Lolita, and they work so well within the story.  This is a rich, nuanced, and multi-layered portrayal of a family with its share of secrets but also an abundance of love.  It’s an emotional read, and it isn’t for the faint of heart.  Older teens will gobble this one up and want to talk about it afterward.  One of the best books of the year, hands down.

Highly, highly recommended.

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold. Carolrhoda Lab: 2015. Library copy.

 

Book Review: The Truth Commission by Susan Juby

Normandy Pale and her friends start a “truth commission” as a way to find out the secrets at their school.  As part of a “creative nonfiction” piece for her school, Normandy details the drama and events over the course of a year as she attempts to step out from under her artist sister’s shadow as well as discover the truth about the human experience.  The truth commission goes swimmingly well until it leads them to Normandy’s own sister, who is hiding some pretty huge–and damaging–secrets.

Susan Juby’s ambitious fictional story of Normandy Pale is a knockout of a novel, guaranteed to win legions of fans, especially those who are literary geeks themselves.  Using Normandy’s creative nonfiction school project as her narrative device, Juby crafts a story that is funny, heartbreaking, smart, and sneakily provocative.  One of the best books of the year, this is one that readers will want to talk about long after they’re done reading.

Juby employs a whole host of literary devices to tell Normandy’s story, including footnotes (which tell their own hilarious, sweet story), flashbacks, cliffhangers, and more.  Literary trope geeks will delight in how many different devices are used here, and because Juby is so good at what she does, these thing add to the story instead of distracting from it.  These devices, combined with the story’s provocative themes about the nature of truth and gossip, about what should be or can be kept private in the world of oversharing and social media, make this a thoughtful, layered read.

Multi-dimensional characters and truly nuanced portrayals of family dynamics make this a rich read as well.  Normandy’s relationship with her family changes as the truth commission forces her to give a closer look to how her parents enable her sister Keira’s behavior.  They’re all tied up in it because everyone needs something from someone else, and there are no easy answers to be found here.  It’s a fascinating look at the dysfunction of families and how we can be blind to our own failings.

On the whole, this is a title with enormous teen and adult appeal.  It’s a novel that lends itself to multiple re-reads, and is guaranteed to add more to think about each time a reader completes it.  Recommended.

The Truth Commission by Susan Juby.  Viking Books for Young Readers: 2015.  Library copy.