Swimmers

Cover artAmy Bright’s novel Swimmers is surprisingly light considering the heavy subject matter. Suicide, drug addiction, and bullying all play pivotal roles in the plot.

What makes the book shine is the friendship between Hunter and Poppy. Misfits who have been pulled out of their troubled lives, the teen and young girl have a companionship that is complex despite how little they actually speak to one another. He has a grudging respect for the girl, not wanting to admit at first that he needs a kid’s friendship.

Where the novel is struggles is the”voice. It didn’t sound like a teenage boy’s perspective, especially not a drug using, rough, trouble maker. He also didn’t feel depressed, certainly not enough to commit suicide. His point of view was too jovial for that, his observations too comical, his awareness of himself too strong.  The parts when he was recovered were more believable than when he was on drugs or depressed.  Usually first person narration allows the reader to experience the story, but Bright may have been better off writing in third person since she failed to capture the inner turmoil.

Part of the story takes place close to my home. At first I was excited to hear the names of familiar places, however the description of Kelowna did not match where I know the Greyhound station to be.

A sound plot, and interesting characters, but dark subject matter needs to delve deeper into the gritty feelings to have full impact.

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what is real thirteen reasons whyMy beating teenage heart

Your Constant Star

In her novel Your Constant Star Brenda Hasiuk establishes three very distinct voices. Life filled with dysfunctional families, identity crisis, hormones, tempers, and loss is experienced and expressed by three young narrators. Character development is rich with motives and scars carefully crafted to form convincing people. This is a skill that’s essential to writing great teen literature. Hasiuk makes you think of her characters as people- not just plot devices.

Teen pregnancy is such a common theme in YA books that it’s almost cliche but Hasiuk succeeds in her storytelling by making it about more than an unplanned pregnancy. The strained relationships between the former neighbours (“sort of friends” as they put it), the family members and the couple are all complex.

The plot is not rife with action and adventure despite the thrill seeking nature of two of the narrators, but the characters grab you enough to make it a worthwhile book to ponder.

When Everything Feels Like The Movies

When Everything Feels Like The Movies by Raziel Reid is shockingly crude. I am by no means against sexuality being explored in literature for teens, and I especially think this can be important for gay teens who may not see their personal preferences reflected in their community. However, there is a difference between nice romantic coming of age stories, descriptions of attraction, awkward, disappointing or wonderful first experiences being described, and the trashy, disturbing writing found here. Characters who are only in middle school are carelessly having unprotected sex with many partners in this book and the author seems to (through the attitudes of all the characters and lack of consequences to them) brush off having multiple abortions and catching STDs as no big deal at all. The characters joke about all the dead fetuses in a way that made me feel sick reading it.

The protagonist is insufferable. It’s one thing to be flamboyant- but there’s a difference between being outgoing and comfortable being different, and being an obnoxious disruptive student. He tries to pick fights, which makes it hard to sympathize as much about the bullying that I would otherwise really feel sorry for him about. His obsession with makeup and shoes is painfully shallow- and I’d feel this way if he was a girl, I don’t have an issue with men choosing to wear what is traditionally worn by females.

What really bothers me about him though is his masochistic sexual pleasure he feels when insulted, harassed or threatened. It deeply disturbs me that his reckless behavior and crass speech is seen in flashbacks when he is inappropriately young. That he is said to talk about things like Lindsay Lohan doing lines of cocaine when he’s in Gr. 2, and performing sexual acts with a friend long before puberty is upsetting. I found myself extremely uncomfortable with a lot of the situations in the book, and I think a lot of parents will have issues with their teens reading this. Normalizing extreme promiscuity before high school is not something I like to see in youth literature. I can’t stand the way he is attracted to literally every guy and constantly flirts with or hits on everyone. Just to clarify this is not because he is gay that I feel this way. If he had a crush on one guy that would be entirely different. That he is so all over the place and pushy with guys who discourage him makes me dislike him in the same way I would dislike a character who was a player hitting on all the girls and not taking no for an answer. His combination of pushiness and low standards is extremely off-putting.

He goes out of his way to make people feel uncomfortable and even puts the guy he likes the most in embarrassing situations. His best friend is equally disturbing. She is bereft of morals, having sex at a very young age with older men who are in relationships and doesn’t mind at all that she’s breaking people up. She doesn’t show an ounce of self-respect and jokes about her drug use and bulimia. What bothers me even more is that her friends don’t show any concern for her unhealthy behaviour and I’m not even sure the author views it as unhealthy. If he does, this is not reflected in a way teens will pick up on.

I am always looking for good books with gay characters that I can recommend but this is definitely not one of them. Instead of positive role models who show that sexual preference is not such a big deal this book provides a sideshow freak of a character who I think will alienate readers.  A caricature of a stereotype like this one is probably offensive to homosexual readers and will not instill empathy in straight ones.

The ending is shocking, as intended. It makes me sad that these things happen but I don’t think the big feelings at the end of the novel make up for the rest of it. In fact even the ending is handled with such odd melodrama that it’s difficult to connect with.

I did not think the writing quality was worthy of awards, and wonder if the hype about it is because it stirs up controversy. I think it’s a shame because books like this make it harder to defend the controversial ones that actually have more substance, style, or positive gay role-models. I’m baffled by so much high praise for this novel, I feel like straight people are afraid that saying anything bad about it wouldn’t be politically correct. I can’t bring myself to promote such sensationalism.

Escape Velocity

I received Escape Velocity by Robin Stevenson as a submission for the YABA.

Forced to live with the mother who abandoned her at birth, Lou goes looking for truth in her mother’s fiction.

This book was somehow simultaneously extremely eloquent, and in plain language. The diction was perfect for this type of novel. I started off skeptical about the plot because science terms, druggie dads, and heart attacks are not things I enjoy reading about, but after the first chapter I was hooked. The novel is mostly about the relationship between Lou and the mother who abandoned her the day she was born. I thought Stevenson did a fabulous job of demonstrating how a teen’s identity or self-worth can be shaped by how others see them.  Lou is a strong character. Her mother isn’t very likable, but she’s fascinating to read about. I enjoyed the novel and think it could start some lively book club discussion about parenthood and family.

Accomplice

I received Accomplice by Valerie Sherrard as a submission from the publisher for the young adult book award.

This novel is borderline high/low with the vocabulary of an upper JR but YA level violence and mature subject matter. The diction is plain and unimaginative but the plot is well thought out.

The narrator’s experiences with drugs feels authentic and her ex-boyfriend’s controlling and abusive behaviour is in keeping with his unchecked addiction.The family and friends who disagree about how to deal with his addiction and crimes is convincing.

Even if you disagree with her choice to give him money for heroin, it’s hard not sympathize with her. Seeing him suffer in withdrawal and doing things he isn’t proud of as he tries to survive homelessness is heartbreaking given their history and she wants to believe him about rehab.

I expected more about the trial and her time in prison based on the title and synopsis but the story of how she was drawn into crime was a lot more compelling.

I don’t think this novel has enough style or oomph to win this award but I will be donating my copy to the Youth Junction and think that it’s a good influence for people who are in that crowd but not addicted themselves.

She said/She saw

*I received She Said/She Saw by Norah McClintock as part of my CLA Young Adult Book Award jury duties

In this novel Teegan witnesses the murder of two close friends but she pays so much attention to the boy who is dying that she doesn’t see the killer. The book is about how victims are often made out to be criminals, judged by what happens to them. The boys who die are criminalized, and Teegan is seen as cooperating with the killers when she can’t identify them.

The horrible treatment of Teegan by everyone at her school, including her best friend and sister is very upsetting but portrayed convincingly.

This was an upsetting book to read, not really my cup of tea (ok I don’t like tea either) but it was well done and brought up some interesting and relevant issues for contemporary teens.

 

What Is Real?

*I received What Is Real as part of my CLA YABA jury duties

Reading this book made me feel like I was on drugs. I’ve never actually done drugs, mostly because I like to be in control and the out of control nature of being on them terrifies me. It also reminded me of being very sick, you know when you’re fever is so high you get delirious or you’re in so much pain you can’t really process anything else…those feelings I’m familiar with and so I had a hard time enjoying the book, it made me dizzy picturing things through Dex’s perspective.

“maybe we laughed so much, we used up our quota” (131)

The most notable thing about the plot is that the narrator is completely unreliable. He’s high most of the time, and even when you understand what he’s saying you can’t be sure what he’s seeing is real. He’s also a compulsive liar, lying to himself almost as much as to others. The way he loses himself in drugs and depression is expertly portrayed,

“I’m shedding pieces of me like someone with some kind of invisible leprosy”. (37)

I think it’s easy to sink into the sadness of his situation, to feel his dreams slipping away.

“Feral’s addiction erased me” (63)

Despite the fact that the book was too drug riddled for me to enjoy very much personally I respect Karen Rivers for fabulous writing. There are some haunted metaphors I don’t think I will forget.

“So she left Dad and became someone else, someone unrecognizable.She morphed as easily as a caterpillar. But we were the cocoon that had to be torn open so she could become some kind of creepy, unrecognizable butterfly, flying away.” (21)

The abandonment issues kids of divorced families feel are beautifully developed in this story.

“this shitty town felt like a sweater I’d outgrown years ago that I was trying to pull back on and it wasn’t working” (66)

It’s very difficult to move back to somewhere you were nostalgic about and discover it’s not quite the image in your mind.

“from the outside it looked like the school is vomiting kids in fits and starts, finally spitting out the last few stragglers and then leaning over, done” (85)

Dex’s unusual interpretations of school as he sits watching it from the outside are really interesting. There is a scene where he is too physically hurt and depressed to get out of his car, so he sits there the entire school day and is horrified by the fact that no one notices him there. Apathy is a prevailing theme, and the reader is left feeling sick at the idea of no one helping Dex, no one noticing when he stops talking because he’s too depressed to keep up appearances anymore, no one noticing Tanis’ scars. The lack of action about the abuse of foster kids and a teenage boy expected to care for his suicidal paralyzed father will be shocking to some but this is the idea, that we need to be shocked out of our apathy.

This novel is not for everyone. Not everyone will be able to handle the way it jumps around, the way Dex frames everything with his imaginary camera- distancing himself from his life by turning it into a movie. But it is masterfully done and I’m curious about other books River has written.

YA Saves

Books for teens are often criticized by adults as containing too much dark or disturbing content (example of protest). I myself sometimes warn in a review that a book contains mature subject matter, because some people choose not to read that, and that is their choice. However, I strongly believe that there is a need for books with this content, and that people have the right to access it.

One of subjects that sends parents and censors into protests is sexual abuse. The thing is, I personally know a shocking number of people who were abused or raped before they were twenty. As much as we would like to think this never happens, it does, probably even more so because people are too embarrassed, afraid or ashamed to talk about it and the abusers aren’t stopped. Teens going through this or who have in the past need to know that they are not alone. They need to see that others have gone through a similar experience and survived, found a way to cope and move on. Books are a fantastic way for them to see this, and reading is a private enough activity that many will feel comfortable doing this before talking to someone. If these teens only saw happy teens with perfect lives in literature they would feel even more outcast, and likely be less likely to read since books would not ring true to them. It is my understanding authors of books about abuse get tons of letters thanking them for giving a person the courage to talk about what happened to them.

Teens who have never been abused can benefit from these books as well. Like Melissa mentions it creates empathy. I would also argue that it creates caution. I don’t want these kids to be afraid of everything, but I do want them to be aware that not everyone is trustworthy, that not every date you go on ends well and you need to avoid dangerous situations, and stand up for yourself. Teens who have never had any exposure to the idea of date rape are much more likely to be susceptible to it.

Drinking and drugs are another big topic to be protested. I understand why there is a drinking age and why parents often have a no tolerance stance, BUT preaching against drinking because it is illegal and irresponsible pretty consistently leads to some rebellious consumption. It is important that teens know to recognize their limits and understand the dangers of substance abuse, just in case they do break the rules and drink or experiment with drugs. Reading about people overdosing, drinking and driving, becoming involved in crime, or getting addicted can be disturbing but for the most part it doesn’t make teens want to go out and do the same – just the opposite. Teens who have read about fatal alcohol poisoning are more likely to get help for their drunk friend.

Suicide, depression and self-harm are also hot topics. Depression is often misunderstood or brushed off as being over-dramatic, especially with teens who are stereotypically moody.  If no one in their life has been depressed or understands the depth of their depression teens feel even more isolated and hopeless. Reading about suicide prevents more suicides than it causes (and  I would argue it doesn’t cause any because those people who kill themselves after reading a book about suicide were already thinking about doing it), it makes teens take their issues seriously and consider getting help. Ignoring an issue does not solve it, and reading about other people with the same issues can help.

Again, like I said about abuse, teens who have never been depressed or suicidal learning about what others go through is a positive thing. It won’t make them depressed, sad sure, but in cathartic empathy building way. They will be more likely to be compassionate towards those that are depressed and not take talk of suicide lightly. They could save someone’s life by recognizing the signs they became familiar with in a book.

Many teens struggle with suicidal thoughts because they don’t fit in. Maybe they are LGBTQ in a homophobic community,  maybe they disagree with the faith system their family follows, maybe they are the only one of their race at their school….Reading allows teens to relate to someone, to see themselves as a part of something, and providing access to books that help these minorities can make a difference.

I believe that libraries have the responsibility to continue to make books with controversial subject matter available to youth who may not otherwise have access to it.

Rules of Attraction

Today’s Review: Rules Of Attraction by Simone Elkeles

Rules of Attraction (Perfect Chemistry, #2)The Premise
Rules of Attraction is about Carlos, an ex-gang member who is sent to live with his brother to try to start a new life. At first he has no interest in following rules because he thinks his brother is conforming, abandoning his Mexican heritage and being whipped by his girlfriend. When Carlos is framed for drug dealing he is sentenced to live with a sponsor family and take part in after school therapy group for at risk teens.

This is a sequel to Perfect Chemistry but I didn’t read that I found that Rules of Attraction stands alone nicely

The Narrative

The chapters alternate between Carlos’ POV and the perspective of Kiara, the daughter of his sponsor parents. This is the most successful use of alternate perspectives I can remember reading. In Shiver it was an OK tool to see both sides but Sam and Grace (the characters in that story) did not provide the striking contrast that Carlos and Kiara do.

Carlos is hostile, suspicious, critical and stubborn. It’s very clear from his chapters how he feels about his situation. Carlos’ thoughts about the violence and poverty of the past are necessary to frame the story and explain his rebellious nature.  .

I think Kiara’s perspective makes this book more accessible for middle class or upper-class girls. I think a lot of the high school girls who read this won’t be able to relate to Carlos and the hostility of his POV, so seeing him through Kiara’s eyes helps them feel more connected to the story. 

Watching things unfold from both sides is a wonderful experience, especially because Elkeles avoids too much overlap.

Character Development

Even though I knew Carlos would be a tough guy who turned out to have a sweet side Elkele’s layering of his character was well written. The overall effect was predictable, but the intimate moments where he let down his guard were heart-renching! He felt like a real person, shaped by his experiences. He is incredibly flawed but an awesome person all the same. At first even though I felt bad for him I didn’t like him much. He was too cocky but at the same time had no ambition beyond maintaining his tough image. NOT someone I would normally be attracted to, but he won me over!

Kiera is someone I’d want to be friends with. She’s smart, self-conscious, a good sister, adventurous and brave. Carlos is surprised that she is not afraid to get her hands dirty when working on her car, cooking, hiking or playing sports.

Kiera’s father and Alex are the only two secondary characters that I felt were fully developed. Others like Madison (a girl interested in Carlos), and Brandon (Kiera’s brother) had some meat but many like Tuck were just token stereotypes. I think you get more about Alex in Perfect Chemistry.

Amazing things about this book

  • Carlos and Alex are proud of their Mexican heritage. Elkeles uses Spanish in their dialogue, talks about their homesickness for authentic Mexican food and they argue about what it means to be Mexican.
  • They are not exaggerating when they say the romance in this book is smoldering. The make out scenes are really sexy, the heat between the characters is believable
  • It does a good job at showing that moving and not wanting to be a drug dealer anymore isn’t always enough. I think people scoff at those who feel trapped in those situations, saying they could leave if they wanted, but the way Carlos is forced into the gang scene again is terrifying! Elkeles shows us the mindset of someone in that situation
  • The cover art is fantastic. I think I should make a mural or something out of gorgeous YA covers.
  • Carlos’ transformation doesn’t feel too forced. He doesn’t go from bad ass to good guy in a matter of pages, he makes connections with people, sees possibilities, dares to dream beyond the present because he’s given better options he hadn’t considered possible

Important to have in a library collection because

  • Deals with gangs, drugs and sex, and I think at risk teens or any teens really should be able to see these harsh realities in fiction. It’s also great for them to see that it’s not a dead-end if you want more
  • Diversity of characters. Mexican characters are prominent and gay characters are featured, I think having minorities represented in your collection is really important.
  • A female character who fixes cars and does typically masculine things while maintaining her femininity. I’ve gotten in a few feminist arguments this week haha so I’m happy to see a woman who doesn’t need to be rescued constantly in YA
  • This is going to popular and in demand, so libraries should respond to this demand

Fabulous book overall, even if I found the epilogue to be a bit much.