Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick (InfoSoup)
Claire isn’t having a good year. She is being teased at school by not only a mean girl but by a boy who has been picking on her for years. She loves her dance classes, but her friends are moved into high school classes while she is left behind with the little kids. Her brother is perfect in every way, so Claire has to disappoint all of the teachers that had him once they see her work. Then Claire’s life really turns upside down and sideways when her father collapses at home. Claire is the only one there and has to call 911 and get him help, riding along in the ambulance. Suddenly the father who was always dancing, singing and joking can’t do any of those things anymore. As Claire’s life really starts to fall apart, Claire has to figure out how to see the humor in it all again for both herself and her family.
Sonnenblick has returned with another of his amazing teen novels. As always, it is written with incredible skill. He manages to take tragic scenes and make them very funny, even those in emergency rooms. He also takes great moments of humor and gives them incredible heart as well. Throughout, there are tears and laughter that mix in the best possible way. The writing is intelligent and screamingly funny, giving readers the chance to see the humor in it all long before Claire realizes that it is still OK to laugh.
Claire is a very human protagonist with her own sense of humor and ability to laugh at herself. She is also flawed, sometimes self involved and other times seeming to be selfish just because she is protecting herself from hurt. Her relationships with family and friends are richly drawn in the novel, including those with people she is figuring out how to deal with. While things aren’t magically fixed (thank goodness) Claire herself manages to solve many of the problems herself.
A pure joy of a novel filled with pathos, tears and lots of laughter. Appropriate for ages 11-15.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
Beetle Boy by Margaret Willey
Charlie Porter never expected to have a girlfriend who cared this much for him. Enough to bring him into her home after he had surgery on his Achilles tendon and care for him while he could not walk. But now Clara is starting to ask pointed questions about Charlie’s childhood and his family, questions that Charlie does not want to answer. Clara knows that Charlie was once billed as the world’s youngest author and sold story books about beetles. She also knows that he has nightmares every night that usually involve screaming. She doesn’t know though that Charlie’s dreams are filled with huge black beetles or that the books he sold were not really his own stories. She doesn’t know that his mother abandoned him, that his father forced him to sell books, that his brother hated him then and still does for abandoning him. She knows so little, but can Charlie open up and let her see the truth about him without her leaving him entirely?
Willey paints a tragic and painful look at a young man continuing to wrestle with the demons of his childhood. At 18-years-old, Charlie continues to dream about his past and to live as if it is his future as well. The book shows how difficult dysfunctional and neglectful childhoods can be to escape, even after one has physically left if behind. Willey manages to create a past for Charlie that does not become melodramatic. She makes it painful enough but not too dramatically so.
Charlie is a very interesting protagonist. He is not a hero, because he is too damaged to be called that. He is certainly a survivor, wrestling with things that will not let him go or let him progress. He is frightened, shy, and can’t see a future for himself. He is a tragic figure, one that readers will root for entirely, but also one that drips with anger, shame and sadness. One of the best parts of the novel is the end, which does not end neatly or give a clear path for Charlie. The ending has hope, but continues the complexity of the issues that Charlie faces. Perfectly done.
A brilliant and powerful look at neglect and abuse and the long shadow it casts over a life. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Carolrhoda Books and Netgalley.
Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian
Evan had always been the new kid at school, but he found advantages to that. In each new school, he knew just which girls would be the ones to say “yes” and have sex with him. That all changes when he picks the wrong girl at a private school in North Carolina and ends up savagely beaten in a boys’ restroom. Evan’s father, who has been absent physically and emotionally since his mother’s death when he was a child, moves them to a lakeside cabin in Pearl Lake, Minnesota. As his body starts to heal and scars start to form, Evan also has to deal with the damage to his mind. He can no longer take showers because they evoke the same terror as the attack. And even sex is so mixed with guilt and fear that it holds little appeal. Pearl Lake is quiet but also filled with teens who know everything about one another but nothing about Evan, and that’s just the way he likes it. Or is it?
This novel looks deep into what happens psychologically after a physical trauma. Mesrobian handles dark issues with a certain tenderness, yet never shies away from the trauma itself. While details of the attack are shared in snippets throughout the novel, they are not lingered over and sensationalized. This is far more a book about a boy who survives and grows, combined with the agonies of change along the way.
Evan is a wonderfully flawed protagonist. The book begins just before the attack but with a prologue that foreshadows what is going to happen. Evan is entirely detestable at this stage, a boy who screws girls just for fun, feeling little to no connection with them emotionally. He convinces himself he is right about the way he is treating Collette. Then early in the book, the attack comes, and Evan is transformed in a matter of pages into a character worthy of sympathy. This sort of complexity runs throughout the novel which provides no easy answers but lots to think about.
Another great character is Baker. She is a smart senior who is sexually active and even describes herself as sexually aggressive. She and Evan almost immediately form a friendship that deepens over the summer. She stands as one of the most honest and beautifully written teen girls I have read in a long time. I love that she is not scared of expressing her sexuality, that her life doesn’t fall apart because of it, and that she is still feminine, smart and kind. Amazing characterization!
This novel asks tough questions, changes underneath you, demands that you think and never gives concrete answers to the questions it asks. Beautifully written, complex and brilliant. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Recovery Road by Blake Nelson
Madeline is in rehab at Spring Meadows. She has been moved to the halfway house where they are allowed to go to a movie once a week. What starts as a protest and a joke, becomes a habit for Madeline even after her only friend at rehab leaves. She meets Stewart there, a gorgeous boy who is also at the halfway homes. The two of them connect immediately and even though there are strict rules about associating with the opposite sex, they manage to start a relationship. Madeline leaves rehab to continue high school, leaving Stewart to finish his time in rehab. Now the question is whether their relationship live without the intensity of rehab and in the cold light of real life.
Nelson has captured the intriguing mix of boredom and intensity of rehab. He explores addiction and recovery with an unflinching honesty that forces readers to see the reality of the situation. Through his two main characters of Madeline and Stewart, readers can see the different paths that recovery can take.
I don’t want to make this seem like a clinical look at recovery. Rather, it is filled with emotions and connections and failures and humanity. It is that humanity that makes the truth so brutal at times. Madeline is a great protagonist: a person who has made many mistakes but is striving to fix their impact on her future.
One quibble I have about the book is the sudden change of Madeline’s opinion about going to college after high school. While it is a choice that makes perfect sense, her rapid change of a strong opinion happened a bit too quickly for me. I found myself thinking about how it would have made much more sense delayed by a chapter or two as Madeline continued to grow and learn.
This is a superior book about addiction and recovery that is honest and human. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
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