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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: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Publisher’s description

we-are-okayYou go through life thinking there’s so much you need. . . . Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punch, We Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance to reconnect with the people you love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I love Nina LaCour. When this book showed up in my mailbox, I was delighted. Because here’s the thing: I’m going to guess I haven’t been alone in having a really hard time concentrating on a book lately. I started and abandoned a whole bunch of books in January. I read this until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Then the next morning, I read it while waiting for my doctor. For once, I wanted her to be running behind, because I was down to about twenty pages. I finished it later that same day, sobbing over my gummy candy and desperately hoping my kid would stay playing outside for a few more minutes so I could just keep on crying. It was exactly the book I needed to read at that moment in time. It’s a relatively quick read, and since it’s Nina LaCour, you know it’s going to be a deep and beautifully-written story. This is one of those books where I just don’t even want to say much of anything beyond OH MY GOD, GO READ THIS, IT’S STUNNING. I want the story to unfold for you like it did for me. I hadn’t so much as read the flap copy. I didn’t need to. It takes a while to figure out where the story might be going, and even once the pieces start to fall into place, it never feels predictable. This is, hands down, one of saddest books I have read in a very long time. But here’s how I mean that: you won’t cry all the way through. It’s not all doom and gloom. There is a lot of love and friendship to be found here. But Marin’s grief and loneliness will just destroy you.

 

And really, that’s all I’m telling you. The small summary up there of the plot gives you just enough of an outline to rope you in, but doesn’t reveal any of the really significant parts of the story. All you need to know is that this book will break your heart. But it won’t do it in a way that will leave you hopeless—I promise. A beautiful story of love, grief, and learning to heal. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525425892

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 02/14/2017

Book Review: The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu

carefulPublisher’s description

The girls of Devonairre Street have always been told they’re cursed. Any boy they love is certain to die too soon. But this is Brooklyn in 2008, and the curse is less a terror and more a lifestyle accessory—something funky and quaint that makes the girls from the shortest street in Brooklyn special. They wear their hair long and keys around their necks. People give them a second look and whisper “Devonairre” to their friends. But it’s not real. It won’t affect their futures.

Then Jack—their Jack, the one boy everyone loved—dies suddenly and violently. And now the curse seems not only real, but like the only thing that matters. All their bright futures have suddenly gone dark.

The Careful Undressing of Love is a disturbing and sensual story of the power of youth and the boundless mysteries of love set against the backdrop of Haydu’s brilliantly reimagined New York City.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I know better than to judge a book by its cover. But in the case of A CAREFUL UNDRESSING OF LOVE, you can look at it and make a completely accurate judgement: lovely cover, lovely book. Come for the cover, stay for the devastatingly moving story about love and loss.

 

Lorna and her four closest friends (Delilah, Charlotte, Isla, and her brother Cruz) are a package deal. The fact that they live on the same street and all have dead fathers would be enough to unite them, but it’s the traditions and beliefs of Devonairre Street that solidify them. It’s their Shared Birthday. It’s the keys around their necks. It’s the Curse: if a Devonairre Street girl falls in love with a boy, he will die. The proof is in all the widows on their street. Angelika, the 70-something head of their street, never lets the girls forget that love will only cause unspeakable pain. But Lorna and her friends aren’t entirely sure they buy into the Curse. They aren’t afraid of love—or they don’t want to be. Or maybe they don’t actually know how they feel about any of it at all. Lorna enjoys her boyfriend Owen. She likes to be around him. She likes to have sex with him. She knows she loves things about him, but that’s not the same as being in love. And she’s not sure that there’s any appeal for her in love, anyway. Look around.

 

When Delilah’s boyfriend, Jack, is struck and killed by a taxi, all of their relationships with the Curse and with being Devonairre Street girls change. For Delilah, it makes her believe. She aligns herself with Angelika and carries the guilt of having caused Jack’s death. It changes her, driving a wedge between Delilah and Lorna, who she now wants to save from love. Lorna’s mother thinks it’s time to stop going along with all of Angelika’s silly Curse nonsense. She begins to stand up to the street, breaking Angelika’s rules and giving Lorna the courage to think of the Curse and the traditions as something she can opt out of. But it’s not that easy, especially as revelations throw everything Lorna thought she understood into doubt. And untangling love from curses, grief and loss from life, proves to be more difficult than she could have imagined. It’s hard to try to move on with your life when you’re surrounded by a world  that won’t let you. How can you possibly live in a present when you are constantly reminded of your past and warned of your future?

 

Haydu has written a profound story examining grief, doubt, tradition, expectation, and identity. Haydu’s story brings up huge questions about sacrifice and protection, about truth and perception. We are asked to consider, right alongside Lorna and crew, if love if a decision. Lorna and her friends know grief and pain, but they are still young. They are still learning that loss and heartache are inherent in love. And they can’t protect themselves from that—not by chalking things up to a Curse, not by drinking certain teas, not by building cages around their hearts, not by anything. They don’t yet know that we are all Affected, that we are all Cursed. In their isolation, they don’t understand that everyone has lost loved ones, that everyone blames themselves. Thanks to the relentlessness of Angelika, the Devonairre Street girls feel like they are the only ones protecting themselves, denying themselves, and stumbling under the dizzying weight of grief and guilt. Lorna, Delilah, Charlotte, and Isla’s whole lives are filled with people making them feel Other because of this. They don’t yet understand these are the prices we pay for being alive, for being the survivors. Their search for this understanding, their stumbling for answers and finding new pain, is heartbreaking. This beautifully written story is not to be missed. A powerful and deeply profound exploration of love, tragedy, and life itself.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780399186738

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 01/31/2017

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Publisher’s description

history-twoFrom the New York Times bestselling author of More Happy Than Not comes an explosive examination of grief, mental illness, and the devastating consequences of refusing to let go of the past.

When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There are not enough positive words in the universe (this one or alternate ones) to convey how I feel about this book. I was torn between burning through it, so I could see what happens, and forcing myself to slow down, so I could be sure to read every single beautiful word. I absolutely loved More Happy Than Not, but I think it’s possible that I love this book more.

 

The novel begins with Griffin gearing up to go to Theo’s funeral. Theo is his ex-boyfriend, one of his best friends, and his first love. In an act of self-sabotage (or self-preservation), Griffin broke up with Theo when he moved to California over a year ago for college, but they’ve remained in each other’s lives. Griffin thinks of Theo as his once and future love. He figures Theo will find his way back to him at some point. That theory is obliterated when Theo drowns. Griffin unravels. Toggling between their history and the present (where Griffin is directly addressing Theo, who he believes is with him even in death and observing him), Griffin fills in every detail of their relationship and everything that happened after they broke up (though it’s a slow reveal).

 

As I read, I kept thinking of that Stevie Smith poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” specifically the lines “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.” I was thinking of it not in the context of what happened to Theo, but what’s happening with Griffin. As we get to learn more of Griffin’s story, both the history and what he’s currently experiencing, we learn that he’s a real mess. He’s keeping a lot back from everyone (including the reader). He’s doing worse than anyone realizes, for so many reasons. Even when it seems like he’s letting people in, coping a little, trying to process and heal, he’s not. And who can blame him?

 

Both the history and the present are riveting, unexpected storylines. Griffin and Theo’s relationship is powerful and complicated, especially once they break up. I loved seeing them get together and watching their close friendship morph into intense first love. They have loving, supportive families. The third member of their squad, Wade, barely blinks when the two start dating—he just doesn’t want to feel like a third wheel with his longtime best friends. When Theo begins to date Jackson while in California, Griffin tries to keep his cool, jealous, but figuring the relationship won’t last. After Theo dies, Griffin has the love and support of his family, Theo’s, and Wade, but it’s through Jackson that Griffin tries to seek solace. Though at first not really excited to get to know Jackson at all, Griffin realizes that he’s really the only person who can understand exactly how he feels. Plus, he believes Theo is watching him, and he thinks Theo would like to see him working so hard to get along with Jackson and to understand what they had.

 

Predictably, growing closer to Jackson and learning more about his time with Theo is agonizing for Griffin. It’s all hard to hear and pretty heartbreaking. Through this entire grieving process, Griffin is growing more and more heartbroken, learning things about Theo that hurt him and avoiding pretty enormous things that need to be dealt with. One of those things is Griffin’s “quirks,” as he thinks of them—really OCD and depression and the whole thinking Theo is currently with him somehow thing. Though surrounded by love and support, Griffin is hellbent on forging his own way through the quagmire of grief.

 

This profoundly devastating, heartbreaking, and brilliantly rendered look at love and grief will captivate readers. An absolute must-read. Bump this to the top of your TBR lists and be ready to not move until you finish it.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616956929

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 01/17/2017

#MHYALit: Writing a Therapy-Positive Book, a guest post by Marisa Reichardt

MHYALitlogoofficfial

Today we are honored to share a guest post by author Marisa Reichardt. You can read my review of Marisa’s book, Underwater, here. For an index of all of the posts in our Mental Health in YA Literature project, please visit our #MHYALit hub

 

 

I’ve been terrified to write this blog post.

 

I’m not an expert when it comes to mental health. What if I say something wrong? Or what if I say something truthful and real but it gets misinterpreted? But then I remember I had those same fears when writing Underwater. And it was exactly those fears that made me push myself.

 

So here I am.

 

Like my main character Morgan Grant in Underwater, I am not a stranger to anxiety. I am not a stranger to needing therapy. I am not a stranger to having emergency pills in my medicine cabinet for the extra rough days.

 

But it wasn’t always that way. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what was happening to me when I had a panic attack that was so bad I thought I was dying. I didn’t know because I didn’t talk about it. I felt like I couldn’t.

 

In the middle of my worst attacks, I would drag a sleeping bag into my brother’s room and sleep on the floor just so I didn’t have to be alone. Just so I could hear someone else breathing.

 

I was a teenager who needed therapy and didn’t have it.

 

When I was in high school, people didn’t talk about mental health the way they do now. So I accepted there was something inherently wrong with me. That there was nothing I could do about the way I felt. I tried to embrace what my mother and friends told me—that I was “too emotional” or just needed to “get over it” when it came to the things that triggered me. As a result, I kept the nervous energy inside of me until it manifested in stomachaches and throwing up at sleepovers.

 

But how did this all start for me? I think it was when my father passed away from cancer when I was in fourth grade. It was traumatic and terrifying and he was horribly and painfully sick for two years. I was too young to fully comprehend what was happening but since my brother was even younger, I somehow became the mature one. I was the one who could handle it. The one who had to be there for my sibling because my mom and dad were too busy dealing with the thing that would change our lives forever.

 

I was a kid who needed grief counseling and didn’t have it.

 

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I found therapy on my own. I talked. I began to heal. I tried things like biofeedback and meditation. But I am still seeking because therapy isn’t a one and done journey. Sometimes you have to find your way back to it. Life is dynamic and unexpected. This debut author experience has made it clear that I need to find someone to talk to again. And I will.

 

Because therapy isn’t a dirty secret.

 

The most important thing to me in writing Underwater was to write a therapy-positive book because therapy literally saves lives. I could’ve used it as a kid. I could’ve used it as a teenager. I’m glad I found it as an adult. But even though I’ve had my own personal experiences with therapy and anxiety, I knew it wasn’t enough for me to think I could tackle a whole book about it just because I’d been there. For Underwater, I interviewed a psychologist who works specifically with women and teen girls who struggle with anxiety and agoraphobia. Her feedback became crucial to me throughout the writing process.

 

The result was a book of my heart. I’m glad I wrote what scares me. I’m glad I took this journey with Morgan and got to know Brenda. My world became bigger. My understanding went deeper. Writing Underwater helped me feel less alone.

 

I hope it will help others feel less alone too.

 

Meet Marisa Reichardt

Marisa Reichardt_highresMarisa Reichardt is a SoCal native who has paid the bills by shucking oysters, waiting tables, peddling swimwear, tutoring, and writing. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her family and can usually be found huddled over her laptop in coffeehouses or swimming in the ocean. She has a Master of Professional Writing degree from the University of Southern California and dual undergraduate degrees in literature and creative writing from UC San Diego. Underwater is her debut novel. Find her online at her website marisareichardt.com, on Twitter @youngadultish, on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/YoungAdultish, and on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/marisareichardtbooks/

 

About UNDERWATER

Morgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. In order to move on, Morgan must learn to forgive-first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then, herself. But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school. When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside. Underwater is a powerful, hopeful debut novel about redemption, recovery, and finding the strength it takes to face your past and move on.

ISBN-13: 9780374368869

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 01/12/2016

#MHYALit: A Place Where I Know: Writing About Grief, a guest post by Hannah Barnaby

Today I’m honored to share with you a moving post by my former coworker and fellow Simmons College alum, Hannah Barnaby. I recently reviewed Hannah’s newest book, Some of the Parts, here on TLT. In my review, I wrote, “Barnaby’s novel is a devastating and powerful look at grief, guilt, and how to survive the aftermath of something that changes who you are. A must-read.” Hannah’s post today on grief is a fantastic contribution to our ongoing series on Mental Health in YA Lit. Visit the #MHYALit hub page to see all of the posts. 

 

I have experienced—fought, wrestled with, submitted to, overcome—both grief and clinical depression. But I have only written about one.

 

The protagonist of my young adult novel, Some of the Parts, is in the throes of grieving for her older brother. Tallie lost Nate a few months before the book opens, in a car accident for which she feels entirely responsible, and she wears her guilt like a lead necklace. She can’t let go. She doesn’t think she deserves to. And then she finds out that she might not have to—Nate was an organ donor, and one of his recipients reaches out to Tallie’s parents. Suddenly Tallie sees a way to alleviate her sadness: if she can track down the other organ recipients, she can prove to herself that Nate isn’t truly gone.

 

Is this rational? No. But neither is grief. And neither is depression.

 

My first bout with depression was during my senior year in high school. My parents were getting divorced and I was overwhelmed with plans for college and homework and extra-curricular stuff. About halfway through the year, I felt myself shutting down. I came home from school every day and got in bed. I slept until dinner, did my homework in a zombie state, and went back to sleep. This went on for weeks. Finally, my parents found me a therapist. Seeing her twice a week until the end of the school year was . . . well, frankly, it was a pain in the butt. I was tired of talking about myself and I was sure that my fatigue and sadness would pass on their own. I told myself—and my therapist—that I was just sad about my parents splitting up. “That’s not what this is,” she told me. And she was right.

 

Clinically speaking, depression and grief look a lot alike. Both involve many of the same symptoms: sadness, fatigue, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, poor concentration, guilt, hopelessness, unbidden memories. Martha Clark Scala, a psychotherapist in San Francisco, says, “Among the bereaved, these symptoms are usually mild or temporary. But these same symptoms may be more chronic or severe among those who are clinically depressed.” Scala also identifies some additional symptoms that may be signs of clinical depression rather than—or on top of—grief: worthlessness, exaggerated guilt, suicidal thoughts or plans, powerlessness, low self-esteem, agitation, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

 

I can attest to the fact that it can be difficult to tell grief and depression apart. I did eventually emerge from my high school depression, but it found me again in college. And again after graduation. It kept coming back, like a slow tide, and I learned to recognize it and how to ask for help when I needed it. But then something terrible happened.

 

In 1999, I was a graduate student at Simmons College in Boston. I had just started my second semester and I was given a part-time work study job to help with expenses. I was at that job—stuffing social work school applications into envelopes—when the phone rang at the desk where I was sitting. It wasn’t my desk. It wasn’t my phone. But the call was for me. It was my father, calling to tell me that my younger brother Jesse had died the night before, in a fire at his fraternity house.

 

What followed, as you can imagine, was a whirling blur of confusion and sadness and difficult things. And as my grief soaked into me, I thought, “Oh, I know what this is. I recognize this.” It felt just like my senior year in high school, my sophomore year in college, my post-college year. I was almost relieved, because I knew what to expect. There had always been an ebb and flow to my depression and so I waited for it to move. But it didn’t. Because this wasn’t depression at all, and it wasn’t until I named it something else that I understood: I would have to find a whole new way to cope with this. It was grief, and it had its own landscape altogether.

 

Eventually, I was able to go back to school and to work, and I felt the weight of my grief lessening as I moved forward. Depression had never been like that. Depression had followed its own calendar and it had never dissipated until it was good and ready, no matter what I was doing from day to day, and I think that was because it had no source the way grief did. My depression was like a cloud of gnats that appeared and disappeared with little warning; my grief, though, was born of one very specific loss. And in a strange way, I found that comforting.

 

In writing Tallie’s story, I came full circle in my own grief. I revisited every part of the emotional journey I took after my brother died and I dragged Tallie through it, too. Part of me felt terrible, doing that to someone else. (Even a fictional someone.) But the rest of me felt sure and strong, because I could tell her with certainty, “There is an end to this. There is a door ahead of us. We’ll walk through it together, and you’ll see—there is hope on the other side.”

 

Meet Hannah Barnaby

hannahHannah Barnaby is a former children’s book editor and bookseller, and was the inaugural children’s writer-in-residence at the Boston Public Library. Her debut novel, Wonder Show, was a Morris Award finalist in 2013. She lives in Charlottesville, VA with her family. You can find her online at www.hannahbarnaby.com and follow her on Twitter @hannahrbarnaby.

 

 

About Some of the Parts

some of the partsFor months, Tallie McGovern has been coping with the death of her older brother the only way she knows how: by smiling bravely and pretending that she’s okay. She’s managed to fool her friends, her parents, and her teachers, yet she can’t even say his name out loud: “N—” is as far as she can go. Then Tallie comes across a letter in the mail, and it only takes two words to crack the careful façade she’s built up:

ORGAN DONOR.
Two words that had apparently been checked off on her brother’s driver’s license; two words that her parents knew about—and never revealed to her. All at once, everything Tallie thought she understood about her brother’s death feels like a lie. And although a part of her knows he’s gone forever, another part of her wonders if finding the letter might be a sign. That if she can just track down the people on the other end of those two words, it might somehow bring him back.

Hannah Barnaby’s deeply moving novel asks questions there are no easy answers to as it follows a family struggling to pick up the pieces, and a girl determined to find the brother she wasn’t ready to let go of.

 

Book Review: Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby

Publisher’s description

some of the partsFor months, Tallie McGovern has been coping with the death of her older brother the only way she knows how: by smiling bravely and pretending that she’s okay. She’s managed to fool her friends, her parents, and her teachers, yet she can’t even say his name out loud: “N—” is as far as she can go. Then Tallie comes across a letter in the mail, and it only takes two words to crack the careful façade she’s built up:

ORGAN DONOR.
Two words that had apparently been checked off on her brother’s driver’s license; two words that her parents knew about—and never revealed to her. All at once, everything Tallie thought she understood about her brother’s death feels like a lie. And although a part of her knows he’s gone forever, another part of her wonders if finding the letter might be a sign. That if she can just track down the people on the other end of those two words, it might somehow bring him back.

Hannah Barnaby’s deeply moving novel asks questions there are no easy answers to as it follows a family struggling to pick up the pieces, and a girl determined to find the brother she wasn’t ready to let go of.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Let’s just jump straight to the last thing I wrote in my review notes: SO. GOOD.

 

Tallie’s not really sure how to get on with her life after her brother is killed in a car accident. She wants to try to return to normal, but it’s hard to say what that even means anymore. She thinks maybe relying on some self-selected rituals will help, but they’re not doing much. She knows everyone looks at her and sees death. She’s not the same person she was before her brother was killed—how could she be? Her best friends now completely avoid her, her parents are grieving in their own private ways, and Tallie’s holding on to so much grief, guilt, and anger that even pretending for a second that “normal” is possible is ridiculous. At least she has her friend Mel to distract her. Mel shows up when she needs a diversion and keeps her entertained with her brash ways and weird interest in taxidermy. Tallie’s not the greatest friend back to her, but she kind of gets a pass right now if she comes off a bit self-centered. Then there’s Chase, the new guy in town who has the odd hobby of maintaining a scrapbook full of tragedies as a way of memorializing people who will never have biographies written about them. He and Tallie become friends, though neither are completely honest with the other at first.

 

It would be enough to figure out how to navigate life after losing her brother, but when she learns that he was an organ donor, Tallie’s focus takes a new turn. Knowing there are pieces of Nate still out there in this world, Tallie becomes obsessed with contacting the recipients of his organs and stops at nothing to achieve this goal. Tallie lies and schemes, roping Chase into her plans, not really sure how things will pan out.

 

This gut-wrenching story is beautifully written. Barnaby writes so movingly about the very complicated experience of grief. Having lost my own dad in a car accident a few years back, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make it through the book and give it the full attention it deserves. But, like Tim Federle’s wonderful The Great American Whatever, the grief depicted here is so raw, nuanced, and compelling. Tallie’s a mess—we see that as the story reveals details we don’t immediately know and as her quest pushes her to the edges of what she can handle. Barnaby’s novel is a devastating and powerful look at grief, guilt, and how to survive the aftermath of something that changes who you are. A must-read. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the author and the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780553539639

Publisher: Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: 02/16/2016

Book Review: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

redstarFEDERLE, Tim. The Great American Whatever. 288p. ebook available. S. & S. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481404099.The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

Gr 10 Up –In the six months since his sister was killed in a car accident, Quinn has hardly left his bedroom. He hasn’t gone to school or talked to his best friend and has barely interacted with his heartbroken mother. He hasn’t turned on his phone, either, knowing the last text his sister sent before running a red light was to him. Urged on by his best friend, Geoff, Quinn reluctantly emerges from his isolation just in time to meet a cute boy, turn 17, rediscover his passion for writing screenplays, and uncover some big secrets about the people he thought he knew best. He also gets some advice from a former idol, a neighbor turned Hollywood screenwriter: forget the rules of what’s expected in a script and just write the truth. For Quinn, who seeks solace in his daydreamy scripts with imagined conversations and outcomes that he can control, this is a hard pill to swallow, especially as he’s learning some truths he’s not really sure he likes. Even under the weight of grief, Quinn’s conversational and charming narrative voice effervesces, mixing humor and vulnerability in typical Federle style. Quinn’s story is at turns sad, funny, awkward, and endearing as he figures out friendship, romance, coming out, and moving on. VERDICT Federle’s YA debut about life’s unscripted moments has wide appeal and is an essential purchase for all collections. Readers will be instant fans of the funny and honest Quinn.–Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

Book Review: We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description:

we are the antsFrom the “author to watch” (Kirkus Reviews) of The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley comes a brand-new novel about a teenage boy who must decide whether or not the world is worth saving.

Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens. Then the aliens give him an ultimatum: The world will end in 144 days, and all Henry has to do to stop it is push a big red button.

Only he isn’t sure he wants to.

After all, life hasn’t been great for Henry. His mom is a struggling waitress held together by a thin layer of cigarette smoke. His brother is a jobless dropout who just knocked someone up. His grandmother is slowly losing herself to Alzheimer’s. And Henry is still dealing with the grief of his boyfriend’s suicide last year.

Wiping the slate clean sounds like a pretty good choice to him.

But Henry is a scientist first, and facing the question thoroughly and logically, he begins to look for pros and cons: in the bully who is his perpetual one-night stand, in the best friend who betrayed him, in the brilliant and mysterious boy who walked into the wrong class. Weighing the pain and the joy that surrounds him, Henry is left with the ultimate choice: push the button and save the planet and everyone on it…or let the world—and his pain—be destroyed forever.

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

We first meet Henry when we read his words, the opening words of the novel: “Chemistry: Extra Credit Project. Life is bullshit.” Henry has spent the last year, if not the many years prior to it, too, honing his nihilism. Life is absurd and meaningless. We are insignificant and don’t matter. We’re just ants. So when he gets the chance to stop the world from ending, he really has to think it over. Why let the world go on? With all of the pain and misery and unfairness, why not let it all end? He’s looking at the big picture of things, sure, but this is also just about him. Is not wanting the world to go on the same thing as wanting to die? Is not believing the world–filled with so many mistakes and so much pain–deserves to go on the same thing as not believing that he deserves to go on? Is letting the world end just an extremely epic way to commit suicide? As we get to know Henry–grieving, lonely, guilt-ridden Henry–we see why he’s so conflicted over a question that might seem like it has an easy answer.

 

Henry has 144 days to get through before either saving the world or letting it end. A lot of those days are terrible. Thanks to his brother spreading the word that Henry had been abducted by aliens, he’s known around school as Space Boy. Since the suicide of his boyfriend Jesse, he doesn’t have any friends. He hooks up with Marcus, the school’s golden boy and a supreme bully, in secret, trying to fill the Jesse-shaped hole in his life. Marcus torments him, physically and verbally, but Henry keeps going back for more. He feels guilty for Jesse’s suicide and, maybe as a result, doesn’t seem to care very much about what happens to him or what the consequences might be. After all, if the world is about to end, why make things worse than they are? Why call out bullies, or think you deserve better, or think anything will change? Why want or hope? Nothing matters–right?

 

As you might expect, some things happen to Henry that make him have to think harder about both what he might ultimately do about the whole world ending thing and about actually living his life instead of just standing by while things happen to him. He meets Diego, a mysterious and complicated new guy with a troubled past. He starts hanging out again with Audrey, Jesse’s (and his) BFF. He starts to see the potential for change and for better lives with his mother and his brother. But none of these things means suddenly life becomes bearable. He’s still routinely assaulted and taunted. He’s still scared to get close to anyone. He can’t see how he can possibly be with Diego (who Henry thought was straight and who says the excellent line, “I like people, not the parts they have.”) when Diego wants to ignore the past and Henry doesn’t believe in a future. He’s still wracked with grief, guilt-ridden, hopeless, and just desperately sad. Everything–the entire fate of the world–ultimately comes down to whether or not Henry wants to go on living. 

 

Hutchinson’s latest book is a powerful look at depression, grief, guilt, families, bullying, hope, and the power to change. He shows us an extremely broken character, one who’s not convinced it’s worth it to even try to put the pieces back together, and really makes us wonder not only what will ultimately happen to the universe, but what will happen to Henry as he falls deeper and deeper into despair. Another fantastic book from Hutchinson, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Smart, funny, weird, and heartbreaking, this title will have wide appeal thanks to compelling characters, an offbeat plot, and fantastic writing. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481449632

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 01/19/2016

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