Tag Archive: death


I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

Released May 26, 2015.

This is the first YA novel by Priest, a well-known fantasy author for adults, and it’s a treat. May and Libby have been friends for years, the best of friends after meeting in fifth grade on a playground. The two of them wrote comics together about Princess X, a katana-wielding heroine. But then one day, Libby was gone, dead after a car crash from a bridge. Three years later, May has returned to their hometown and notices an image of a princess holding a katana on a sticker, a sticker that is brand new. May tracks down the image to a web comic where she realizes there are real similarities to the story that she and Libby had created. How can that be? And how strange is it that some of the stories seem to have messages only May could understand hidden inside of them?

There is a real joy in finding a book that does digital life so very well. The online elements of the story and the web comic are clear and make perfect sense. The hacking and dark net also work well in the way they are portrayed where there is information to be found but often it’s not legal to access it. That aspect alone, so often mismanaged in novels, is worth this read. But add to that a determined friend who quickly believes that her dead friend is still alive, an online and real life quest for information, horrible bad guys, and the exploration of Seattle both above and underground. It’s a book that is a searing fast read thanks to its pacing and the need to find out the truth.

The online comics are shared as comic inserts in the book, and were not completed in the galley that I have. The first couple of comics were available and add to the drama of the book. The mix of words and images works very well here with Priest using it both to move the story forward and to show the drama and appeal of the comic itself.

Smartly written with great characters and an amazing quest for the truth, this book is satisfying, surprising and impressive. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

dead i know

The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner

Aaron has just gotten a job at a funeral home with a man who is happy to give him all sorts of opportunities like a new suit, help with getting a driver’s license, and even invites him to eat meals with his family. But Aaron has too much to hide to trust his new boss. Mam is slipping deeper and deeper into dementia, often forgetting who Aaron is. The two of them live together in a camper where their neighbors are violent. Aaron also has a recurring nightmare that happens every time he falls asleep, so he tries not to sleep. When he inevitably does, he sleepwalks. As Aaron finds stability in his job with death, his tenuous control of his life starts to fall apart. The question is when Aaron will be able to face the truth of his past and whether it will be before it destroys him entirely.

Brilliant. This winner of the 2012 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers is an amazing read. Gardner creates a tense mystery yes, one that keeps the pages turning. At the same time though, the book is immensely poignant as a young man learns to trust others, figures out that sometimes people just do good for others for no other reason, and starts to trust himself too. It is a story of a person realizing that they are good at something, seeing a future where there was none, and finally being able to see their past clearly, dealing with the things they buried long ago.

Aaron is an incredible hero at least in part because he is so very human. From his lack of speech to the depth of his thoughts, he is trapped in his own head much of the time. As he works with the death around him, handling dead bodies, attending funerals, and putting together caskets, he finds that the dead are not the problem. It is the emotions of the living that are too difficult for him to handle, and that includes his own.  The secondary characters are equally well drawn, with no one as a caricature, even the police officers.

A beautiful book, one that is tragic and hopeful all at once, that combines death and life into one amazing read. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

question of miracles

The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold

Iris and her family have just moved to Corvallis, Oregon where Iris longs for sunshine and warm weather but is constantly faced with falling rain. Iris is struggling with the death of her best friend and has very little interest in making new friends or exploring her new town. Iris meets Boris and the two slowly become friends despite the fact that Boris is a messy eater, breaths through his mouth all the time, and wants Iris to play Magic all the time. But Boris is also fascinating to Iris because his birth could have been a real miracle that the Vatican is investigating. Iris wants to know how some people get miracles and others don’t. And what’s with the haunting presence she feels in the cupboard under the stairs where her best friend’s tennis racket rests? Is it possible that there is another miracle about to happen and Iris will be able to contact her friend?

Arnold does a simply beautiful job of writing this novel. Her crafting of Iris’ world and family is done with a gentleness and detail that is inspired. And through it all, readers will feel the chill of the constantly falling rain, the loneliness of the tennis racket under the stairs, and the sorrow that leads Iris to fall asleep early often. Arnold also shows in imagery over and over again the impermanence of things. From snow angels that are stepped on to eggs that don’t hatch, she crafts moments of fragility that show the uncertainty of life.

At the same time, she uses intense moments of comfort and being together with others that are warming and stand brightly against the cold wet weather that Iris finds herself trapped in. Those moments show such hope for Iris in a way that is tangible and realistic. Arnold also allows readers to see Oregon through Iris’ eyes for the most part. While there are these moments of light and warmth, snacks and hot chocolate, readers will start to see the beauty of Oregon and the wonder of the rain only when Iris herself starts to lift out of grief. The entire process is done over time and very realistically.

Beautiful writing that is poetic and filled with imagery yet easy to read and understand, this book will speak to fans of Kevin Henkes. Appropriate for ages 9-12

Reviewed from library copy.

fourteenth goldfish

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Released August 26, 2014.

Eleven-year-old Ellie loves doing puzzles, because the pieces fit together so neatly.  She doesn’t like change at all, like the way that her best friend Brianna never talks with her anymore.  She lives with her mother in a tiny house with the garage filled with costumes from her job directing high school theater.  Her mother wants her to find her own passion, but Ellie isn’t sure that she has one.  Then something very strange happens, and her grandfather comes to live with them.  But he’s not really himself, instead he’s thirteen years old again!  Now Ellie has a “cousin” Melvin who goes to school with her but dresses, talks and thinks just like her grandfather.  Could he really have found the key to eternal youth?  This is the classic story of growing up, mixed with someone who is trying to grow down.

Holm’s signature light touch is a large part of the success of this novel.  Dealing with big issues like aging, death, and growing up, Holm manages to keep the tone light enough to make the reading great fun.  She mixes science into the story, clearly displaying her own interest in the subject, but also making sure that the science is just as readable as the story.

She populates her story with great characters from the dramatic mother to Ellie herself who readers will relate to quickly and easily.  Melvin is my favorite character in the book, written for pure delight as a great mix of teen boy and aging man.  In particular, I love that Holm kept him wearing the same clothes, talking to his daughter in the same way, and relating with teens he meets as if he didn’t resemble them in the least.  He’s a brilliant character, a wonderful grandfather, and profoundly funny.

Grab this as a great book to share in a classroom, it has lots to discuss but is immensely readable and serves as a clever entry point to science fiction reading.  Also, get this into the hands of Holm fans who are ready for something beyond Babymouse.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House and Edelweiss.

vanishing season

The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson

After her mother lost her job in Chicago, Maggie and her parents move to Door County, Wisconsin to a home they have inherited.  Just as they move to the peninsula, teen girls start to disappear and are found floating in the water.  Maggie misses her best friend and all of the activity of Chicago, but she is also taken in by the quiet and the beauty of Door County.  She quickly makes friends with the unusual girl next door, Pauline, who is beautiful, wealthy but also ignores both those facts and is downright childlike most of the time.  There is also Liam, a boy desperately in love with Pauline, though Pauline just wants to remain friends forever.  Maggie enters their world of canoe rides, building saunas in the woods, bonfires and marshmallows, that is interrupted as the winter comes with more deaths of teen girls.  Soon a curfew is imposed and no one is allowed to travel on their own.  Maggie can still hang out with Liam and Pauline, but the isolated peninsula begins to become even more separated from the rest of the world.  Add to this a voice in the novel that speaks of death, of being dead, and you have a haunting teen read.

Anderson’s prose is incredible.  She has written a book where it is all about isolation, winter, and death.  Yet at the same time it is rather desperately and fragilely about life too.  There is warmth, first love, beautiful friendships, and the wonder of nature.  It is a novel of contrasts, one that hints at a ghost story but is not overtaken by it.  It is a book about love, but it moves beyond that as well, turning to life and death eventually.

As I said, Anderson’s writing is beautiful.  She captures moments with a delicacy and poignancy that makes even the smallest moments of life spectacular.  Here is one example from Page 61 in the digital version of the ARC:

If I could show you the lives of the people below me – the colors of what they all feel heading into this chilling, late fall – they’d be green and purple and red, leaking out through the roofs, making invisible tracks down the roads.

She plays with perspectives in the novel.  Maggie’s story is told in third person, while the voice of the ghost, as seen in the quote above, is told in first person.  Anderson is not afraid to create a book filled with tiny pieces that come together into one full work by the end.  She writes without the need for action to carry the book forward, instead capturing a place and a time with an eye for detail and discovery.

Haunting and wildly beautiful, this quiet book is not for everyone but those who love it will love it desperately.  Appropriate for ages 14-16.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HarperTeen.

secret hum of a daisy

The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer

Grace can’t stand being near the river, because that’s where she found her mother’s body.  It was right after they had argued about moving once again.  Grace wanted to stay where she finally felt at home, but her mother wanted to move again.  Now Grace has been sent to live with her mother’s mother, a grandmother she has never known.  She only wants to return to the family she and her mother had been staying with last, but she has to come up with a plan to escape.  In the meantime, Grace starts to find clues to a treasure hunt, similar to the ones her mother did for her every time they moved to a new town.  Is it her mother creating a final path for her daughter to find a home?  Or could it be that Grace is just seeing patterns where there are none?

Holczer shows great depth and richness in this her first book.  In this character-driven novel, she excels at the relationships she builds between her vividly drawn characters.   Grace is a character in search of a place to call home, but unable to see a home when it is right in front of her and unable to register the love being shown her.  She is complicated in a very organic way, her reactions honest and true.  The same is true of the grandmother character who radiates frankness but also regret for what happened over the years with her daughter.  She is a very complex adult character, particularly for a book for middle grade students. 

Holczer’s writing itself is straight-forward, allowing a sturdy framework for these character to relate to each other within.  The writing rings with confidence and Holczer asks deep questions about death, what dead people can communicate to the living, and what makes a family.  The answers are not simple and are not easily arrived at.  They come about very naturally and one must wait to see what the truths are and where the characters will arrive in this beautifully paced novel.

Rich, organic and special, this middle grade novel offers us all a view of what a second chance at family can be.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Penguin.

and we stay

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard

Emily has been sent to a private board school in Amherst so that she doesn’t have to face all of the questions at her public high school.  Her boyfriend, Paul, brought a gun to school.  Emily is sure that Paul never meant to hurt her, though he did threaten her with the gun.  She is also sure that he never planned to kill himself with it, though that is what he did.  At her private school, she doesn’t quite fit in.  She doesn’t wear the right shoes and her reluctance to talk about what happened and why she is there mid-term doesn’t lead others to get closer to her.  Emily finds herself more and more interested in Emily Dickinson whose home is in Amherst.  She starts writing poems herself, putting her grief and confusion on the page in poems that she plans to never share with anyone.  But as the days go by, she becomes closer with her room mate and other girls on campus, including one of the teachers.  It is now up to Emily to figure out how much she is willing to share of her own role in Paul’s death.

Hubbard’s writing is crystalline and brilliant.  She captures the stunned nature of sudden loss with clarity and understanding.  Emily could easily have become and inaccessible character to readers as well since she is prickly and shut down.  Instead though, Hubbard creates a space around Emily for readers to understand her and feel her pain.

A large part of this is through her poems which honor Dickinson, follow her structure and voice closely at times, and other times reveal Emily’s soul in brief lines that shine.  These poems serve as islands in a sea of pain and grief.  They are concrete and dazzlingly good.  They are bright with hope as one can see in each one Emily moving forward toward the future after putting her pain on the page. 

Beautiful writing, a strong heroine, and plenty of poetry make this a very unique and exceptional book about loss and suicide.  Appropriate for ages 14-16.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and NetGalley.

ketchup clouds

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Zoe stays up late at night and writes to her pen pal, a Texas death row prisoner who murdered his wife.  He is the only one with whom she can share her dark secret:  she too killed someone.  Zoe slowly reveals her story, including her own role in a boy’s death and living with the aftermath of having done it.  Zoe’s story is one of being drawn to two boys, using one against the other, and the startling result of her betrayal.  It is a story of love that is beyond the expected, first romance that is tortured but desperately real, and the wounds left behind that are impossible to heal.

Pitcher, author of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, has returned with a beautifully written second novel.  She lays bare Zoe as a character, giving her the space to reveal herself in all of her remorse and conflict.  Here is one of my favorite passages in the book:

I’d do anything to forget.  Anything.  Eat the spider or stand naked on top of the shed or do math homework every day for the rest of my life.  Whatever it took to wipe my brain clean like you can with computers, pressing a button to delete the images and the words and the lies.

But perhaps what Pitches does best in this novel is to build tension and doubt.  Throughout the book until the final reveal, readers do not know which of the boys died.  Pitcher writes in a way that lets readers fall for both of them for different reasons, so that either one’s death is a grand tragedy and something to destroy lives. 

This is a book that is burning and compelling.  It is a book that is beautifully honest, vibrantly written.  This is Zoe’s heart on a page in all of its wounds and glory.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital copy received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

where do we go when we disappear

Where Do We Go When We Disappear? by Isabel Minhos Martins and Madalena Matoso

I recently reviewed My Neighbor Is a Dog, another new book by this author and illustrator duo.  In this book, the question of where people and things go when they disappear is explored thoroughly.  The result is a book that asks big questions and attempts to answer them or at least provide a framework to answer them.  The book begins with people disappearing and the idea that you must be missed in order to disappear, so disappearing takes two.  Then it moves on to other things that disappear like sunshine and clouds, socks and puddles, snow and noise.  It ends with the fact that everything disappears, even the most solid things like rocks over time will disappear. 

Translated from the Portuguese original, this book is thought provoking and fascinating.  Martins manages to right a book about big questions that answers them in a way that is exploratory and insightful and doesn’t turn quickly to a religious answer.  Instead she stays in the questioning place, allowing different ideas to surface and be discussed.  She does not provide any easy answers, meeting children right where they want the discussion to stay, where it leads to more and more questions.

Matoso’s illustrations are vibrantly colored and filled with strong shapes.  They appear to be block printed which adds to the organic feel.  She uses negative space brilliantly.  One example is her snow image with the background white and the flakes cut out circles that merge directly into the white and stand out against the other bright objects.

Challenging, thought-provoking and a book that will inspire discussion and help children find their own answers.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

more than this

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Released September 10, 2013.

After Seth drowns, bones smashed against rocks, muscles clenching in the icy water, he wakes up.  He is naked except for some bandages and very weak, but most disturbing, he is back in England at his childhood home.  A home that contains many of the worst memories of his life, except for his most recent ones.  There is no one else around, even the insects are silent and no birds or planes fly overhead.  Seth is completely alone in a world that is covered with dust and dirt.  Seth can’t sleep either because whenever he does, memories sweep over him, specifically ones that he would prefer to never remember and it’s as if he was living them all over again.  Is this the afterlife?  His own personal hell?  Seth has to first figure out how to survive and then start finding answers.

Ness creates a world, a hell, an afterlife, a future that is breathtakingly haunting.  It is profoundly empty, amazingly personal, and intensely confusing.  Readers who enter this book will be taken on a journey that is astonishing.  It is a puzzle that they will solve along with Seth and the answer will be astonishing.  I don’t want to give things away because the book is such a journey to the truth.

Ness writes powerfully of first loves, suicide and having to life with one’s decisions.  Seth’s death in the water is described in great detail, each moment captures, each pain explored.  As the memories flash into his head, the reader starts to understand what drove Seth to kill himself but also other deep truths about Seth and his life. 

Complex, gritty and profoundly beautiful, this book is a wonder of writing.  It is beyond inventive, taking readers to a place they never expected to find.  You are in the hands of a master storyteller here in one of his best books yet.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.

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