The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake (9781368048088)
Lyric, Maine was the ancestral home of Violet’s family, established by her great-great-great-grandmother who survived a shipwreck. Now Violet has been sent there after a wreck of her own, created when she partied too much and almost lost her brother Sam to suicide. Stuck in the small town, she finds a volunteer job at the local aquarium. That’s where she meets Orion, a gorgeous boy her age who knows all about marine life and how to run the cash register, skills that Vi can only dream of having. Orion’s best friend is Liv, who happens to be obsessed with the Lyric shipwreck and can’t wait to meet Violet, a direct descendant. Things get more complicated as Violet tries to help Liv and Orion move forward in a romantic way, Violet tries to avoid romance herself and along the way makes the best friends of her life.
I must admit this was one of the hardest books to summarize. There is so much here that all fits so beautifully into the novel but can’t be easily explained. There is the power of music, the impact of nature, the importance of dreams, the vitality of connection to one another, and the continued reverberation of loss and grief. All of that is here in these pages, written so beautifully that it aches. There are some cliches like Violet shaving her head, but those disappear into the richness of the book, becoming references and anchors to other stories rather than taking up too much space here.
The writing is exquisite, the emotions on the page are allowed to be raw but also often are hidden from view behind banter or fights about other things. Violet’s bisexuality is shown organically and openly, something that is simply there and innately understood by the reader. Mental illness is treated much the same way with panic attacks, depression, and anxiety all included in the story, important to the plot, but never gawked at.
Beautiful, powerful and full of feeling, this book is amazing. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson (9781534431515)
Hutchinson, author of several amazing novels for teens, shares a memoir of his teen years as he grapples with being gay and having depression. Hutchinson is open from the beginning of the book that it involves a suicide attempt. He states it with great empathy for both the reader and for his younger self. That tone of self-understanding plays through the novel, never allowing himself to become overly self-deprecating. Hutchinson speaks as a person engulfed in a society telling him that because he was gay, he was broken, focused only on sex, and would live a short life probably because of AIDS. Though he had a wonderful best friend, he could not see a future for himself. Along the way, he started to self harm, started smoking to gain a boy’s attention, and sunk deeper and deeper into depression and self loathing. The spiral is filled with pain and darkness, but the book is ultimately filled with hope and a way forward into life.
It is no surprise to his fans that Hutchinson has written a moving and deep memoir. However, it is amazing how far he is willing to explore his life as a teen, how open he is about all of the things he was feeling and experiencing, and how much he shares in these pages. He bares his entire soul here, in the hopes that it will help someone else find their way out of darkness too. I guarantee, it will.
Hutchinson shares how small decisions, individual conversations, new crushes, and tiny moments shape our lives. He is honest about how he damaged several relationships in his life, how he continued to be absent and self-absorbed, and how that too changed as he dealt with his depression. While it is a book of hope, it is also one about the hard work it takes to come back from the brink, how friends and family can help, and how some questions are simply too hard to ask.
Brave, fierce and incandescent. Appropriate for ages 15-19.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee (9781481476560)
Will has discovered that walking the streets of Los Angeles helps him stop thinking about the tragedies in his life. After his father’s suicide, he is trying to find a new rhythm to his life and it seems to be filled with long walks, ones that keep him from being at home too much or visiting the places he went with his father. When Will is home, he works to perfect his father’s cornbread recipe, but nothing seems to improve it at all. Then there is the other thing that he is avoiding, his best friend Playa was raped at a party. Will has no idea how to help her or make it better. So he takes his job at the Dollar Store and turns it into a way to reach out into the world and make connections with Playa and others. Small acts of kindness that allow him to break through the walls he has placed around himself, if he dares.
This book is steeped in sadness to profound that you almost expect your skin to come away tinted with blue. McGhee captures those traumas that are so deep that one cannot deal in a normal way, but only manage to escape in whatever way is possible. In the middle of this sadness is the amazing character of Will, a boy searching for connections while refusing to see those right in front of him. A boy who sees moments of awe and humanity in people that almost bring him to his knees. McGhee shows us all of these with a tenderness that honors his pain and also brings hope.
The writing here is beautiful. Written in small bite-sized pieces accompanied by calligraphy on the opposite page done in gentle grays, these small moments are magnified and made into important life events, as they are. And yet, the importance is an everyday one, a day-by-day one. That is the hope here.
Tender, profound and tragic, this book for teens is cathartic and hopeful. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.
Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach (InfoSoup)
Parker spends his time in hotels, watching people and stealing from them. He hasn’t spoken in five years. That’s when he meets Zelda, a girl with silver hair and a wad of hundred dollar bills who just leaves her purse behind at the table. Parker takes her money but then realizes he has left his notebook behind, a place where he records his stories and also that he uses to communicate with others. When he goes back, Zelda is holding it. Soon the two of them are talking about life and death, a conversation where Zelda claims to be much older than Parker, and not by just a few years. Parker wants to save Zelda at the same time that Zelda wants Parker to not waste his life. The two together set off on a series of adventures that may just prove that life, no matter how long it is, is worth living well.
Told in the first person, the framework of this novel is that Parker is writing an essay to get into college. That structure alone speaks volumes throughout the novel even as readers are just getting to know Parker and Zelda, since Parker agrees to apply to colleges. The writing throughout is just as rich and thoughtfully done as that framework, allowing these two incredibly unique characters to come fully alive. The book asks deep questions and dances along dark lines, yet it is entirely a delight to read and keeps lightness even as it asks the most difficult of questions.
The two main characters are phenomenally written. Parker’s lack of speech becomes much more than a device, informing readers about his deep pain and the way in which he has truly shut himself off from life. Zelda too is complicated, she is playful and light and then by turns also filled with a resolve that life is not worth continuing. Parker’s short stories are also a source of amazement in this novel and Wallach has quite a way with them, offering even more insight into relationships in the novel. It is all so gorgeously done.
A rich, complicated and exceptional novel for teens, this book handles grief, suicide and questions of how to live your life in a wondrous way. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
I Was Here by Gayle Forman (InfoSoup)
The author of the very popular If I Stay series returns with another winner of a read for teens. Cody is betrayed and shocked when her best friend commits suicide by drinking poison. Meg had always been the adventurous one, the smart one, the one that Cody relied on. When they graduated from high school, Meg headed off to a private school on a full scholarship. Cody was left behind in their small town and as time went by the two drifted apart. Now it is up to Cody to head to Meg’s college apartment and gather her things to bring back to Meg’s family, a family that was very much Cody’s too. While she is there, Cody discovers that there is a lot that Meg was keeping from everyone back home. There is a bunch of missing emails on Meg’s computer as well as an encrypted file that is in her computer’s trash. As Cody starts to piece Meg’s last months together and solve the mystery of what caused her death, she also grows closer to Meg’s roommates and to a boy who may have broken Meg’s heart. Cody has to figure out what caused Meg to take her own life and also how Cody can go on without her.
Forman’s writing is pure comfort reading. Her writing is solid and strong. Here she creates a small town girl longing for big city life, but it goes far beyond that. As Cody starts to understand Meg, she also starts to understand herself and the mother she has long dismissed. At the heart of the book is of course suicide, and Forman there too manages to make it about more than a tragedy. It is about the inevitable guilt and blame that surrounds a loss like this. The ways that you return again and again to the pain and the ways you manage to deny it for awhile. The story arc is wonderfully fractured, showing the starts and stops as Cody deals with different stages of grief.
Cody is a great protagonist, one who slowly begins to see who she is as the novel progresses. At first she is what she sees herself as, just a shadow of a person without Meg around. Yet as she starts to choose her own path and see her way forward, she shifts and grows. She is a person who is not desperate for a boyfriend, but desperate for the truth of what happened to her best friend. Unable to stop following the mystery, she is also clearly and wholly in denial, creating a tension that carries the entire book forward.
When great authors create more great works, it’s a beautiful thing and this is one beautiful read. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Finch and Violet go to the same high school but don’t move in the same social circles. So when they both find themselves at the top of the school’s bell tower one day, it’s a chance for that to change. Finch is a boy who flirts constantly with death, thinking about different ways to kill himself and researching suicide statistics. He’s known as “Theodore Freak” by his classmates and has a couple of close friends but that’s it. Violet moves among the popular kids at school, but lost her older sister in a car accident the year before, something she’s having problems coping with. The two of them start working on a school project together since Finch tricks Violet into agreeing. For the project, they travel the state of Indiana finding unique places to visit and leaving small things behind. As they travel, the two become closer and more honest with one another about what they are going through. Violet begins to come out of her grief and live more, but something different is happening to Finch.
Niven creates a movie-like novel here with scenes that comes to life complete with cinematography in your mind. There are iconic moments throughout the book, thanks to the plot of them moving from one unique spot to another. Moments that stand out as important and vital even as they are happening, moments that disguise but also highlight what is happening to the two main characters. There is a moment in the middle of the book where things switch and change starts to happen for both characters, but in opposite directions. There is a sense of loss at that moment, of being unable to save someone that echoes suicide right then and there. It is beautifully done.
The two main characters are brilliantly written as well. The sorrowful Violet who can’t see her way towards trying at school or connecting with others at all and who finds her light in Finch that moves her forward. The clever and sarcastic Finch who steeps himself in dark thoughts but flares alive, sleepless and awake, desperate never to fall into the trap of sleeping for days or months again. He is a deep character, fighting being bipolar on his own.
Niven writes with a simple beauty that will appeal to teens, especially as they explore these complicated subjects. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King
Glory can’t see a future for herself. She has no plans once she graduates from high school, not applying to any colleges. Perhaps she is just like her dead mother, who committed suicide four years ago. It’s the reason that Glory has only eaten microwaved food years, since her father won’t replace the oven her mother used to kill herself. Glory can’t even seem to get along with her best friend who lives across the road in a commune. It was there that they found the desiccated bat that they mixed with water and drank. It was a decision that changed Glory’s life because now when she looks at other people she can see their future, and it’s a future that is filled with civil war, hate of women, and horror. As Glory sees everyone’s future but her own, she starts to slowly explore the family secrets that surround her and even her own way forward.
King is amazing. While the cover may compare her to John Green, she is has a voice that is entirely unique and her own. King has created here a book that mixes photography with philosophy. Glory speaks the language of film, pre-digital and more physical and tangible. She uses light meters and ties the numbers she uses directly to her life: “By shooting the darkest areas three zones lighter, you turned a black, lifeless max black zone 0 into a zone 3. I think, in life, most of us did this all the time.” King also embraces a fierce and beautiful feminism in this book. It’s the feminism that we all viscerally crave, one that speaks to the power of girls and women, a feminism that can save us from ovens.
Glory is such a strong character. I love that she is cool and real, and yet she feels that she is the most awkward, unsexy and unreal person in the world. That is such a teen feeling, a feeling of hiding and being masked and fake. King captures it beautifully. Glory grows throughout the book, emerging from behind all of the barriers that she has set up for others before they can meet who she really is. The problem is that she is also hiding from herself.
Strong, beautiful, feminist and fierce, this book is one inspiring read for all of us who hide and need to be found by ourselves. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Nest by Esther Ehrlich
11-year-old Chirp has grown up in the 1970s exploring the coasts and woods of Cape Cod and particularly watching the birds and learning all she can about them. Her home life has been stable and warm, but now things are shifting. Her dancer mother is no longer able to dance because of the pain in her leg. She’s also having balance problems. The family tries to continue as normal but when her mother is diagnosed with MS, it throws her mother’s mental state into chaos. Unable to deal with the diagnosis, her mother falls into a deep depression. Through it all, Chirp is slowly making friends with the boy who lives in her neighborhood, someone she had always feared in the past. As their friendship grows, her family falls further and further into distress while Chirp fights to keep her own personal equilibrium. Unable to cope any longer, Chirp and her new friend form a desperate plan.
Ehrlich captures a family both on the brink of crisis and then moving fully into complete dysfunction. Through it all, the characters react as humans rather than stereotypes. Readers will be caught up in the turbulence of these lives, the hope as things seem to improve, and the devastation as they continue to fail. Ehrlich guides the story with a steady hand, allowing the characters to come to life on the page and react as honestly as they can. She also makes sure that this is shown through Chirp’s point of view, something that both protects young readers but also allows the sudden changes to be even more powerful.
Chirp and her humor and unique point of view keep this book from sliding too far into tragedy. She is inventive, creative and has her own passions for birds and nature that crop up throughout the book. Joey, her new friend, has a complicated family life and also a spirit all his own. He is a male character we rarely see in books, a boy who turns away from becoming a bully to become a friend, all on his own without adult intervention. Her family is complexly drawn too, from the older sister who wants to escape to a different family to her father who is desperate to keep his family together and continues to be loving in the most difficult of times.
Written with a strong new voice, this debut novel is filled with rich characters who come together just to survive. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
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.