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Book Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Publisher’s description

ra6New York Times bestselling author Adam Silvera reminds us that there’s no life without death and no love without loss in this devastating yet uplifting story about two people whose lives change over the course of one unforgettable day.

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure—to live a lifetime in a single day.

In the tradition of Before I Fall and If I StayThey Both Die at the End is a tour de force from acclaimed author Adam Silvera, whose debut, More Happy Than Not, the New York Times called “profound.”

 

Amanda’s thoughts

they bothI am an extremely impatient person. I really am. So the fact that I can make myself read in order of publication date, even when a book I am dying to read shows up at my house long before it’s due out, is a miracle. I am super impatient, but I am super duper organized and a fan of systems, which I guess trumps my impatience. Still, the closer I got to September books, the more desperate I grew to read this new book by Adam Silvera. I absolutely loved his previous books, History is All You Left Me and More Happy Than Not. I think I loved this new book even more than the previous two.

 

Imagine a world where everything is exactly the same as it is now, except there’s this company called Death-Cast that calls you up on the day you’re slated to die and alerts you to this fact. Both Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio get this call in the early hours of September 5th. No one has ever avoided their death. The title is They Both Die at the End. There is no doubt where this story is headed. And while the idea of the story is pretty clear—live your life to its fullest on this last day while ruminating on wasted opportunities and lost potential—watching the characters do this was an absolute joy. Their day was not predictable, and even in places where it kind of us, it still was surprising and delightful, in spite of the incredibly dark notion of their impending deaths lurking around at every moment.

 

Puerto Rican Mateo and Cuban-American Rufus meet through the Last Friend app, an app designed to help you meet up with someone to spend your last day with. Their connection is immediate, intense, and one that deserves far longer to play out than the time allotted to them. Rufus, a bisexual foster kid, has really only had fellow foster kids Aimee, Malcolm, and Tagoe to turn to since his parents and sister died not long ago. And he can’t spend his last day with them for complicated reasons involving the police and a nameless gang. Mateo has really only ever had his dad, who is in a coma (his mother died in childbirth), and his best friend Lidia, who he doesn’t want to die in front of. Neither Mateo nor Rufus could have possibly expected to find such a powerful match on their End Day. Together, they struggle with the guilt and pain of both living and dying all while falling in love at the absolute worst time. On their End Day, they laugh, dance, sing, “skydive,” share their stories, say goodbyes, witness others’ End Days, cry, hurt, heal, and live.

 

The chapters alternate between Mateo and Rufus, with many brief chapters about the lives of those that surround them—their friends, people at the Death-Cast call center, the nameless gang, and others—showing how Rufus and Mateo’s lives were linked with their own. Every chapter is bursting with life and plans and regrets, and every chapter brings us one step closer to that inevitable ending. Told with warmth and humor and so much love, Silvera creates a stunningly powerful examination of what it means to really live your life. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Mateo and Rufus, but isn’t that how life always works?

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062457790

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 09/05/2017

Book Review: Boy Seeking Band by Steve Brezenoff

Publisher’s description

ra6Great music and great friendships aren’t always in harmony. Terence Kato is a prodigy bass player, but he’s determined to finish middle school on a high note. Life has other plans. In eighth grade, he’s forced to transfer from a private arts school to a public school, where the kids seemingly speak a different language. Luckily, Terence knows a universal one: music. The teen sets out to build a rock band and, in the process, make a few friends. From the acclaimed author of Brooklyn, Burning and Guy in Real Life comes a fresh, funny, genuine novel about enjoying life beyond the opening act.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

boy seeking bandThere’s a lot to like about this book, but the major thing that stands out to me is this: this is a great book for reluctant/struggling readers who want something that looks/feels “older” than they might normally read. While this is about 8th graders, and could easily be a YA title with not much tweaking, kids 10 and up could comfortably read this book. The cover, plot, and deeper issues the story touches on all make this appealing for both fans of middle grade and fans of younger YA.

 

Minneapolis teen Terence has spent a few years attending an arts school, but now is at Franklin Middle School, a public school, after his mom died and he and his father moved across town. There’s no money anymore for the private school tuition and Terence’s dad is in rough shape, debilitated by grief and, understandably, not doing the greatest job parenting or helping Terence grieve or adjust to his new school. Terence, who plays bass, joins the school jazz band, but they’re not up to his standards, so he bails, searching instead to form his own band. Terence is just a bit of a music snob, something that really comes to light as he auditions people for his band. Before long he’s joined by other musicians, and while they sound great and really seem to click, Terence repeatedly makes it clear that this is just a band—he’s not looking for friends at Franklin. Like, he actually, repeatedly says out loud that he does not want friends. Sure, buddy. Whatever you say. It’s clear that Terence is struggling to work through his mother’s death and all the changes that came after, but he absolutely does not want to talk about it with his new friends (sorry, bandmates) to the point that he freaks out on them if they begin to show the tiniest bit of compassion to him.  In fact, things with the band fall apart, thanks to Terence, just when the Wellstone Music Battle of the Kid Bands is coming up. Terence’s band is being buzzed about at school and they seem like real contenders for the battle, but Terence’s anger and grief, and insistence on going it alone, may get in the way of their potential success. 

 

Brezenoff excels in creating interesting characters. Though Terence holds everyone at a distance, including the reader, the depth of his complicated feelings is clear. He’s surrounded by other people who show there is more to them than what they seem. BOY SEEKING BAND is a well-written look at the ways grief can change a life. Packed with music references, this will appeal to a wide range of readers, but especially to anyone who loves music as much as Terence does. A great addition for both middle grade and young adult collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley

ISBN-13: 9781496544629

Publisher: Capstone Press

Publication date: 08/28/2017

Book Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Publisher’s description

inexplicableFrom the multi-award-winning author of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe comes a gorgeous new story about love, identity, and families lost and found.

Sal used to know his place with his adoptive gay father, their loving Mexican-American family, and his best friend, Samantha. But it’s senior year, and suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and realizing he no longer knows himself. If Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

This humor-infused, warmly humane look at universal questions of belonging is a triumph.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Because I read in order of publication date (the only way I can manage my towering TBR pile), there are certain books that sit on my shelf for MONTHS and kind of taunt me from their spot. This is one such book. Given my absolute adoration of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, my expectations for this book were high. And I was not let down.

 

I am a big fan of quiet books. Give me good dialogue and interesting characters and I’m in. I don’t need a big plot. I don’t need big things to happen. To me, there is nothing more compelling or more of a “big thing” than just teenagers living their teenage lives–figuring out who they are, changing, finding their people, hurting, loving, and growing. That’s plenty. That’s everything. And for 450 pages, I was so wrapped up in the lives of Sal, Sam, Fito, and their families. Sal and Sam have been best friends forever. It’s never been romantic between them; they’ve always been like brother and sister. Sam knows Sal better than anyone. But lately, Sal feels like he’s changing. He’s developed a quick temper that manifests when he’s righteously angry and trying to protect those he loves. For the first time ever, he’s lashing out and getting in fights. He starts to wonder about his biological dad—maybe he was angry and a fighter. Maybe Sal is acting like him. But his wonderful father, Vicente, is calm and loving and open. Sal wonders about nature versus nurture. He wonders who is he really like. He wonders who he really is. His Mima, his father’s mom, is dying. Heartbroken that he’s about to lose someone he loves so dearly, Sal also ruminates on life, death, and everything that comes in between. Sam is a steadying force by his side, but she has her own terrible things going on. The pair take Fito, a gay classmate who’s had to survive on his own for a long time, into their fold, and together the three lean on each other and on Sal’s dad (and eventually on Vicente’s new boyfriend) while they redefine what “family” means.

 

Beautifully written and told, this is an unforgettable look at life, love, loss, grief, friendship, and family. Vicente may win the award for Best Parent in a YA Book 2017. The friendship between Sal, Sam, and Fito is profoundly moving and rich. Fans of Aristotle and Dante who are eagerly awaiting the sequel will be happy to have another wonderful work from Sáenz to tide them over. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544586505

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 03/07/2017

Book Review: Breakaway by Kat Spears

23848184Publisher’s description:

When Jason Marshall’s younger sister passes away, he knows he can count on his three best friends and soccer teammates–Mario, Jordie, and Chick–to be there for him. With a grief-crippled mother and a father who’s not in the picture, he needs them more than ever. But when Mario starts hanging out with a rough group of friends and Jordie finally lands the girl of his dreams, Jason is left to fend for himself while maintaining a strained relationship with troubled and quiet Chick. Then Jason meets Raine, a girl he thinks is out of his league but who sees him for everything he wants to be, and he finds himself pulled between building a healthy and stable relationship with a girl he might be falling in love with, grieving for his sister, and trying to hold onto the friendships he has always relied on. A witty and emotionally moving tale of friendship, first love, and loss, Breakaway is Kat Spears at her finest.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

First of all, let me say that for the most part I liked this book. That said, I don’t like the tag line on the cover. No one really wins anything in this story, but they sure all lose and lose and lose. And yeah, the story has soccer in it, but it doesn’t account for much of the plot. The tag line and cover may help draw in readers that otherwise wouldn’t gravitate toward this book, but to me they aren’t a great fit.  ANYWAY. Pet peeves aside, let’s move on.

 

This is not a light story. There is very little hope. Bad things pile upon bad things. Characters make crummy choices, act like jerks to each other, and overlook/can’t properly deal with some dark stuff that’s going down. Their friendships get strained and fall apart. You like books that show the crappy lives some teens have? You’ll love this one.

 

Race and class play big roles in this book. Jason lives with his mother in a small apartment. He sleeps on the sofa bed, contributes what he can to help pay bills, and repeatedly mentions being poor and being hungry. Mario’s parents primarily speak Spanish. Jordie’s mom is Vietnamese. Jordie’s family has a lot of money, a fact that increasingly drives a wedge between Jordie and his other friends. Jason’s possible love interest, Raine, also comes from a family with a lot of money. Jason doesn’t see how it could ever possibly work out between them when Raine’s privilege and resources will send her down a path after high school very different than the one Jason is imaging he will go down. There are divorced parents and dead parents. There is drug addiction, alcoholism, death, abuse, and mental illness. I firmly believe no book ever has “too many issues,” just that some books present a lot of issues and don’t deal with them well. Spears navigates all of the issues in the characters’ lives skillfully, presenting what feel like very real (if very bleak) lives. Their friendships and other relationships are complicated by all of the factors and issues listed above.

 

This moving (and depressing) story takes a hard look at how friendships strain and how friends fail each other (and themselves). The ending will be annoying to some people–there’s no real closure, we have no idea what will happen to any of the characters or their relationships, and the sense we’re left with is one of sadness and hopelessness. This is the reality for these characters, Spears seems to say. Being briefly brought back together by a tragic event is likely not enough to reunite them as real friends or help them change the paths they’re on. I’m good with that kind of ending, but I know many readers (particularly the teens I know) are not. Pair this one with Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not for another look at grief, poverty, and changing friendships.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250065513

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 09/15/2015

 

 

Book Review: The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg

porcupineThere are some books that you finish and think, well, that’s it—I can’t pick up another book today. Gotta let this one sit. Bill Konigsberg’s The Porcupine of Truth is one of those books. In fact, I suspect I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come. This was the 65th book I read this year, and it stands out as easily being in my top ten so far.

 

Carson and his mom relocate from New York to Billings, Montana for the summer. Carson hasn’t seen his dad for 14 years—not since he was 3—and now his dad, a longtime alcoholic, is dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Caron’s mother, a therapist/school counselor, dumps him at the zoo when they first arrive in town, where he runs into Aisha, an intriguingly funny girl around his own age. It turns out Aisha isn’t just hanging out at the zoo—she’s been sleeping there since her dad kicked her out of their house for being a lesbian. Her dad wanted to send her away to a religious program to “make” her straight, but Aisha would rather live on the streets than suffer through that. Carson and Aisha instantly bond and he invites her to stay with his family. When they start to clean out flood-damaged boxes in the basement storage, they uncover some interesting details about Carson’s father’s family that don’t exactly match up with the story he’s been told. Carson knows his grandpa (also an alcoholic) took off when his dad was just a kid, but doesn’t know much beyond that. He and Aisha start to put some pieces together and decide to embark on a road trip to see if they can uncover the truth… and maybe meet his grandpa.

 

On their road trip they follow in grandpa Russ’s footsteps, tracking down the same people he stayed with as he went west. Throughout Wyoming, Utah, and California, Carson and Aisha have many deep and profound (as well as silly) conversations about family, faith, and choices. Early on Carson notes that he doesn’t believe in God. Aisha isn’t a fan of the things people do in the name of Jesus—she bonds with Carson’s dad over this, too. They decide they believe in plenty of things other than God—waffles, strawberries, and The Porcupine of Truth, their made-up deity. On their journey, they meet and have intense conversations with a spiritual couple, a narrow-minded Christian, a Mormon couple, and a man raised Jewish but who has lots of questions and sees lots of options for faith and belief.

 

Here is the part where I talk about some spoilers, okay? Because this book is so important and I want to tell you why. So if you intend to read it—and you should—and don’t want to know what happens near the end, just stop reading this review now. Know that the book is wonderful—I laughed and cried in equal parts. The writing is brilliant and the story will stick with you.

 

Are you sticking with me? Ready for the spoilers? Okay.

 

When Carson and Aisha get to San Francisco, they track down a man named Turk who may have known Russ. When Carson finds this now elderly man, he is in for a big surprise: Turk was his grandpa’s lover. Another shock? His grandpa died in the early 80s from AIDS. When he finds this out, standing in front of an AIDS quilt, he loses it. Everything that follows is profoundly moving. What was a good book became a great book in the last 100 or so pages. For those of us who were adults or even children in the 80s, we remember seeing the initial stories about AIDS, reading about the panic and fear, understanding that, generally speaking, it was a death sentence. And it never becomes less powerful or upsetting to see a personal story of life in the shadow of AIDS. Many teen readers might not fully understand the history behind AIDS (going back to it being called GRID and understanding how severely it ravaged the gay community) or have seen or read some of the documentaries or stories adults are more familiar with. This look at what it meant to be a gay man at this period of time will be deeply moving for readers of all ages. For Carson, he came to Billings with only a rather icy mother who talked to him like he was one of her patients. Weeks later, his father is back in his life, his mother understands now what he needs from her, and he has a new grandpa (Turk) and sister (Aisha).

 

This story of family—both the one we are born into and the one we can choose to make—is not to be missed. Konigsberg packs so much into this story, and his characters, all damaged and flawed, struggle with HUGE questions. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It left me wanting to know more about all of the characters’ pasts and their futures. Masterfully written and intensely moving, this is a road trip book unlike any other. Be ready to laugh, groan, and cry as you follow Carson and Aisha on their (literal and metaphorical) journey.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780545648936

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 5/26/2015

 

Book review: Vanished by E.E. Cooper

In E.E. Cooper’s Vanished, Kalah is left to put together the pieces of a mystery after one of her best friends disappears and another commits suicide.

 

Kalah, a junior, is newly best friends with seniors Beth and Britney, who have a long history of fighting and making up. Kalah and Beth have been hooking up, unbeknownst to Britney (and to Kalah’s boyfriend or anyone else, for that matter). Kalah feels closer to Beth, but Beth has a history of not getting involved or attached, so it’s hard to know how she really feels about Kalah. Britney is moody, jealous, and controlling. She’s extremely concerned with her image, going so far as to lie about getting into every Ivy League school she applied to. Kalah knows this new friendship is fragile, but she’s desperate to reconcile her public and private self and show who she really is. She intends to tell Beth how she really feels and what she wants (to be with her) on the night of Beth’s 18th birthday. But that plan goes away when Beth disappears to get some “space.”

 

Kalah is devastated that Beth left without even so much as a goodbye. She’s also, rightfully so, extremely worried, but Britney gives the impression that she knows more about Beth’s disappearance and that it’s fine. In fact, nobody seems super alarmed that she’s gone. She’s 18, she wanted some space, she’s clearly fine, let it go. Things become murkier when Jason, Britney’s boyfriend, is taken in for questioning after eyewitnesses report seeing him arguing with and then making out with Beth. Kalah isn’t sure who or what to believe, a feeling that intensifies when Britney leaves a suicide note and disappears. No body is found, but she’s presumed dead. Kalah tries desperately to get in touch with Beth, but when she finally hears back from her, she starts to wonder if maybe the truth of all of this is far more complicated and insidious than anyone could imagine.

 

There is a lot going on in this book beyond the main plot. Kalah repeatedly references her anxiety and OCD, and talks about having spent some time in therapy and the various ways her therapist helped her learn how to cope with these things. Her mother suggests she go back to therapy after all of this happens, an idea Kalah is resistant to. Kalah also has never been attracted to a girl before and doesn’t know how to tell anyone about it, or if she wants to. When she does tell her brother and her mother that she loved Beth, they are kind, loving, and sympathetic. This book also features lots of odious adults—nosy reporters, and oversharing and pushy officer, and absent or terrible parents (particularly Britney’s racist mother).

 

The ending of the book leaves a lot of room for interpretation—do we believe the story Kalah has put together or the one presented to her—and ends on a total cliffhanger. The pace of the book really ramps up about halfway through and manages to sustain the suspense and mystery all the way to the last word. My only real quibbles with the book are the slow start, the too similarly named main characters (Beth and Britney—took me a while to keep them straight), and the less well-developed secondary characters. It’s also hard to feel like we really know Beth or Britney because they both spend much of the story gone—they’re really gone before we get to see much of them. Over all, though, this a was a compelling read, one that will be a hit with fans of suspense stories and plot twists. An easy recommendation for a wide audience of readers. 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS

ISBN-13: 978006229390

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 5/12/2015

Series: Vanished Series #1

Book Review: Invincible by Amy Reed

In Amy Reed’s Invincible, things are looking pretty grim for 17-year-old cancer patient Evie. She’s back in the hospital after breaking her leg, which of course sucks, but at least she has acerbic Stella and sweet Caleb to keep her company. They are her hospital-world best friends. In her outside world, it seems unlikely that Evie, a cheerleader, would be best friends with Stella, who is in an all-girl punk band. In her outside world, she’s best friends with Kasey, a fellow cheerleader, and dates Will, who has doted on her during her illness. When Evie learns her Ewing’s Sarcoma has metastasized and is now in her marrow, she feels like it’s her job to still keep smiling and not letting on how she really feels even as it appears the end is near. The next steps and treatments are extensive and only have a 4-7% survival rate. Evie decides she would like to stop all treatments—she is ready for this to be over. And then the unthinkable happens: she gets better. Evie suddenly has the bloodwork of a healthy kid. There is no cancer anywhere in her body. Evie is allowed to go home—not to die, as she had been planning to do, but to live.

 

Evie knows she should be grateful to be given this second chance, but going back to “normal life” proves to be very hard. She’s not the same person she was before her cancer. If she’s not Cancer Girl anymore, who is she? Why is everyone acting like it’s so normal that she’s back home, acting like she should be able to just slip back into her old life, despite what she’s been through, despite what she’s seen? Everyone is polite, grateful, and endlessly kind. Evie hates it. She begins abusing her pain pills not for her physical pain, but for the deep emotional pain she constantly feels. She tries to get back into the routine of school and her friends there, but it just feels impossible. As they make small talk about things Evie missed, like what the theme for prom is this year, Evie thinks, “I can’t believe I came back from the dead for this.”

 

Before long, Evie has to make a break from her old life. She ends her relationship with Will and begins to see Marcus, a boy she met in a dark tunnel, of all places. She starts smoking pot, drinking, and taking more and more of her pills. She’s able to hide what she’s up to for a long time, but eventually her parents figure out her drug use and realize she’s a mess. Evie doesn’t care. Nothing they say or do matters to her. She keeps sneaking out, running away, and getting high. She hides her pill addiction from Marcus, who has his reasons for warning her to stay away from pills and hard drugs. She spirals for a long time, eventually alienating everyone in her life. She hates herself, but doesn’t even know where to start cleaning up her many messes. It’s not clear whether Evie will be able to get a grip before she self-destructs, and readers are left with a cliffhanger ending—an ending that (bravely) ends right in the middle of a sentence.

 

Readers who insist on likeable characters might not like this book. Evie is a wreck. I scowled through most of the book. It’s hard to watch Evie make truly terrible choices over and over again, to watch her suffer in silence. She is mean—cruel even—and manipulative. But we shouldn’t have to like her—we should just have to find her interesting enough to keep reading. And I couldn’t put this book down. Just when it seems like Evie has made enough crappy choices and caused enough pain, Reed pushes her ever forward, letting her get to a darker and darker place. Pair this book with Julie Murphy’s Side Effects May Vary for two intriguing looks at how to live after you’ve already accepted death. 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
ISBN-13:  9780062299574
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 4/28/2015