Monument 14: Sky on Fire – Emmy Laybourne

monumentskyOkay, Ms. Laybourne, you should totally take it as a compliment that I bought the second book in your Monument 14 series before I had even finished the first book. And then, without delay, I read the second book. Geesh, I haven’t even read Catching Fire yet. I should also point out that I don’t traditionally like post apocalyptic  fiction and sequels almost always irritate me. (Patrick Ness, you are totally excluded from this; you know how much I loved The Knife of Never Letting Go and the other books in the Chaos Walking trilogy.)

That said, I read Monument 14  in one breathless gulp and I read Sky on Fire just as quickly. I mean, come on, I couldn’t NOT find out what happened. But it’s going to be difficult to talk about any of it because – hello, spoilers.

Let’s just say this.

Dean goes from zero (he’s not really a zero, he just doesn’t have any confidence) to hero. His little brother, Alex, continues to act far older than his years. Niko is braver than any sixteen-year-old should have to be. Astrid turns out to be a lot more than a pretty face.  Oh, yeah, and the world has gone to hell in a hand basket.

The world outside the Greenway proves to be a lot more dangerous than any of the kids imagined and their mettle is tested on more than one occasion. Often the dangers aren’t environmental and there are plenty of creepy encounters with people who prove to be willing to kill to get what they want.

Kids in peril. A toxic wasteland. Crazy people on the loose. What’s not to love? And because Laybourne wisely decides to leave the confines of the Greenway, the reader gets to follow one group of kids as they try to make their way to the Denver Airport (and potential help) and one group who decides to stay in the superstore (and hope help finds them). It’s all pretty exciting stuff.

Okay, but then….the ending. (Which is not an ending because there’s a third book, Savage Drift) Can’t say I was a fan for a whole variety of reasons. Still, my issues are minor and even though I wasn’t as in love with Sky on Fire, I am totally in love with these kids and I will no doubt be joining them on the next leg of their journey.

Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne

monumentEmmy Laybourne doesn’t waste any time dumping her characters (or the reader) into the middle of it in her post-apocalyptic YA novel, Monument 14. Sixteen-year-old Dean and his thirteen-year-old brother, Alex are going to miss their respective school buses and they’re so frantic not to be late, they don’t even bother  to “stop and hug [their mother] and tell her [they] love her.” Of course, neither of them realizes that it might be the last time they will ever see their mother.

Dean’s ride to school is pretty much the same every day. He hopes that Jake, the high school football captain, and Braydon, the school bully, won’t notice him and he hopes, Astrid, Jake’s girlfriend, champion diver, scornful goddess, and girl of Dean’s dreams, will.  As he slinks down in his seat, Dean tunes into his minitab (I’m thinking like an iPod shuffle) and tries to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.

That’s when things go from the ordinary to the extraordinary. It starts to hail. Hard.

…suddenly the roof of the bus started denting – BAM, BAM, BAM – and a cobweb crack spread over the windshield. …Hail in all different sizes from little to that-can’t-be-hail was pelting the street.

Dean’s bus ends up on its side. He can see that his brother’s bus is still going and in fact the driver, Mrs. Woolly, has smashed right through the entrance of Greenway, a huge superstore. Dean is relieved that his brother is safe, but he’s also aware that things aren’t so good on his bus. His driver, Mr. Reed, “was pinned behind the wheel and blood was spilling out of his head like milk out of a carton.”

The students on Dean’s bus make it into the Greenway. In total, there are fourteen students who take shelter there, some as young as five. Mrs. Wooly sets out to find help, leaving the kids to fend for themselves, which they do by barricading themselves into the superstore.

At first it seems like fun. Astrid used to work in the superstore’s pizza place and she knows how to use the equipment. The kids can have any flavor of slushie they want. Then they watch the news. Seems like the hailstorm in Monument, Colorado is actually just a byproduct of a much more serious natural event. And to make matters worse, that event had caused a problem at the nearby NORAD facility which has leaked toxic chemical warfare compounds into the atmosphere. Scary things can happen if you breathe in the air.

Monument 14 steams along without wasting too much time. I don’t mean to imply that you don’t get to know or care for the characters, you do, but Laybourne doesn’t let the prose slow down the plot. This novel is driven by the kids’ and their need to survive. They’ve got it slightly easier than most, as they have supplies at their disposal – but they are also just kids. They are cut off from the outside world with no real idea what is going on or what has happened to their parents.

I couldn’t put the book down and I started the sequel, Monument 14: Sky on Fire  this morning.

The Watcher – James Howe

watcherThe Watcher was published in 1999 to much critical acclaim. James Howe is the well-known author of the over 90 juvenile and YA books including Bunnicula and The Misfits series. ( I read Totally Joe and was a big fan.)

There are three main characters in The Watcher: Chris, the golden-boy lifeguard, Evan, the fourteen-year-old on vacation with his younger sister and parents, and the girl who sits at the top of the steps leading down to the beach, watching.

The truth is, though, that they are all watching each other. For example, Chris notes that “he didn’t know how he knew she was watching only him and  not them. He could just feel it.” She’s watching him; he’s watching her.  Evan thought Chris was “the coolest guy on the beach” and secretly wished he could be just like him. The girl watched the families, “not pieces of families with only a mother or a nanny, but what she thought of as complete families with two parents and at least two children, preferably a girl and a boy.”

All three of these characters are on Fire Island, a popular beach resort near New York City. There is no reason to think they will ever cross paths, but they eventually do.

Howe is a straightforward wordsmith, and he creates compelling back stories for Chris and Evan. We know that Chris is at a crossroads, unsure of what to do now that he has graduated from high school. He feels the weight of his parents’ expectations, although we don’t understand exactly how much pressure he feels until much later in the book. As for Evan, he adores his little sister Callie and is doing his best to be a good big brother because he senses that there are things going on behind the scenes which might spell the end of his happy family.

As for the girl, we know nothing at all about her except that as she sits on the steps surveying the beach she is imagining a much different life for herself, one where she is a princess who has been separated from her true family.

I read The Watcher in one sitting. I can only imagine that when it was first published it would have caused quite a sensation. It’s easy to see why. Each of these characters is called upon to do something brave and Howe handles their stories without sensationalism or preaching. Young readers would certainly recognize themselves in these pages.

The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson

gargoyleI bought my copy of Andrew Davidson’s book, The Gargoyle when it was first published in 2008. I was working at Indigo at the time and this book had a lot of buzz. It actually sounded like a book I would be interested in, too – the story of lovers separated by hundreds of years. I started reading and about fifty pages in I just put the book down and never picked it up again…until last month when it was chosen for my book club.

We’ve all had the experience, I’m sure. A book doesn’t appeal to you, but a few weeks/months/years later you dive in again only to be swept away. Yeah, not so much. The impetus for finishing this book was definitely because it was a book club selection and as I said when we met a few nights ago, I can’t really decide what it was about the book that just didn’t work for me, but the sum of its parts just didn’t add up somehow.

The unnamed narrator is driving on a twisty mountain road, a bottle of bourbon wedged between his legs, when he loses control of the car, smashes through a guard rail and the car lands on its roof at the bottom of a steep embankment.

“A car crash seems to take forever, and there is always a moment in which you believe that you can correct the error,” our narrator thinks as he flies, weightless, through the air. He does survive, but he and his life are changed forever.

Our narrator is burned so badly that he “plumped up like a freshly roasted wiener, [his] skin crackling to accommodate the expanding meat.”  What follows is a graphic description of his burn injuries, perhaps too much information for the squeamish. I read a lot of horror/serial killer fiction, but even I found the catalogue of his injuries TMI at times. There’s a reason why he’s burned, though, and I get that.

Prior to his injury our narrator was a porn star. Yep – you read that right. By the time he graduated from high school, he had two skills: smoking drugs  and screwing his counselor. He didn’t figure he could make any money smoking dope, but he discovered he could earn some cash posing naked and “from there it was a short jump to $150 for photos involving sexual activity and – since you’re already for posing for stills, anyway- it makes a lot of sense to double or triple your income by acting in videos.”  Is this guy a likable character? Not particularly.

While recovering in the hospital, our narrator is visited by Marianne Engel who tells him that this is the third time he’s been burned. Thus begins their strange relationship. She visits him the hospital and tells him stories of lovers who have made great sacrifices for each other while also revealing to him, bit by bit,  how they first met – seven hundred years ago when she was a nun and he was a mercenary.

There’s a lot going on in Davidson’s book – perhaps too much. Whether you believe in Marianne’s tale or not, the book is overstuffed and could do with, I think, some judicious editing. I am all about  love that crosses time and space, but I just didn’t believe it here.

Leftovers – Laura Wiess

leftovers-coverBy the time you hit fifteen, there are certain survival lessons you’d better have learned.

That’s the world-weary voice of Blair Brost. She’s one of the two teenage narrators of Laura Wiess’s compelling YA novel, Leftovers. Blair’s co-narrator is Ardith. Although they are fifteen when they begin to tell their story, Ardith says they must “go back to eighth grade, which is when it all began.”

Blair is an only child. Her parents are lawyers; her mother is particularly ambitious and when she makes partner “she decides it’s time to buy  one of the big new, McMansions across town.” Blair isn’t interested in moving. She also doesn’t understand why her dog, Wendy, isn’t allowed to come. The dog is old and incontinent and Mrs. Brost says they’ve found her a new home, which isn’t exactly true.

Ardith lives with her alcoholic parents and older brother, a good-looking, charming snake.

You call your parents Connie and Gil, because they hate the heavy tags of Mom and Dad, and buy baggy, boring clothing so your mother won’t borrow them. Your hair is short because the guys like it long…

Blair and Ardith are trying to navigate the slippery terrain between childhood and adulthood and they don’t really have any positive role models. In fact, the only adult who takes any real interest in them is Officer Dave Finderne, a cop who finds them wandering home after a night at the pool.

Leftovers has elements of suspense. There are questions that need to be answered and readers will turn the pages quickly to find them. But this novel also cracks open the lives of adolescent girls, where the only way to survive is to know the rules:

Never bow before your tormentors.

Never let them know you’re vulnerable, especially when you are.

Never trust someone else to protect you, and never forget that every choice you make is on you.

Ardith and Blair are compelling narrators and their story is both heart-breaking and authentic. As both a mom and a high school teacher, I found Leftovers difficult to read (I just wanted to bring these girls home with me), but I think it has important things to say and it says them beautifully.

Highly recommended.

Help For The Haunted – John Searles

helpforthehauntedIn some ways, John Searles reminds me of Thomas H. Cook, an American mystery writer I greatly admire. Neither of them seem to have any interest in racing through plot points to the story’s denouement. Instead, like Cook, Searles lets us get to know the characters and takes his time layering the narrative. Help For The Haunted  is the story of Sylvie Mason and her unusual family. It is part mystery, part ghost story and part family drama.

“Whenever the phone rang late at night, I lay in my narrow bed and listened,” says 14-year-old Sylvie, the narrator of the story. Late night phone calls are a common occurrence in the Mason household. That’s because Sylvie’s parents, Sylvester and Rose, have a very unusual occupation: they help the haunted. People who feel they may be themselves, or have family members who are, possessed by demons seek them out and the Masons help with prayer. It’s not a lucrative business, people ” only occasionally enclosed a check to cover gas or airline tickets” but it is work that the Masons, particularly the father, feel strongly about.

The phone call that opens the novel is of a more personal nature, though. The Mason’s eldest daughter, also named Rose, has asked her parents to meet her at the church in town.  Rose has always been difficult and on this occasion she has been missing for three days. The Masons don’t want to miss this opportunity to reconcile with their daughter so, despite the blizzard, they head to the church, Sylvie in tow.

When Sylvie’s dad disappears inside the church Sylvie admits to “a prickly feeling of dread” and when her mother ventures inside to see what is taking so long, Sylvie drifts off to sleep only to be awoken by the sound of gun shots.

Searles manages a tricky narrative here. The present blends seamlessly with the past as Sylvie tries to unlock some of her family’s most closely guarded secrets. There is a compelling cast of secondary characters including her father’s estranged older brother, Howie; Sam Heekin, the reporter who wrote a book about her parents; Albert Lynch, the man currently sitting in jail for the murder of her parents.

Sylvie herself, despite her young age, is tenacious and resourceful. A year after the death of her parents, as the police put the finishing touches on their case against Albert Lynch, Sylvie starts to doubt what she saw in the church on that fateful night. New evidence shows that Lynch might, in fact, be innocent and it makes Sylvie question her earlier statement. But if Lynch isn’t the killer, who is?

Help For The Haunted is a literary page-turner. The whodunit isn’t actually as important as Sylvie’s journey from adolescent to adult and the demons, ultimately, are more human than you might think. Great book.

Off the Shelf – March 2, 2015

Listen to The Book Blahs: Off the Shelf

Okay, who’s with me that this has been the worst winter EVER? I know I was super cranky the last time I was on Info AM and I got started on Fifty Shades of Grey. What did that book ever do to me, except not entertain me.

Anyway, the weather keeps me inside except when I need the #stormchips and I am forced out of my nest of blankets to go shovel my walk and power through my driveway to get said chips. Winter is a really great time for reading, but I also suffer from a little bit of reader’s fatigue at this time of year. Lack of vitamin D. So I thought I would talk about the reading blahs OR how to shake yourself out of a reading slump. We all have them – all it takes is a couple of bad books and you end up thinking you’re never going to find that book magic again.

Books On The Nightstand has offered up twelve suggestions for breaking a reading slump:

Reread a favorite book: I think this is a terrific idea. I have one book that I read pretty much yearly and it never fails to make me both happy and sad. That book is called Velocity by Kristin McCloy. I bought it at The Strand in NYC in the 80s and it’s very special to me for a lot of reasons.

Switch genres: So if you generally only read one sort of book, perhaps switching genres might shake you out of your book doldrums.  

 Find a book that is hugely popular: I mean there’s a reason everyone and their dog was talking about The DaVinci Code and Gone Girl, right. (Except I can’t recommend The DaVinci Code and I think Gillian Flynn’s book Dark Places is vastly superior to Gone Girl.)

Shop your own shelves: This is an easy task if you’ve got a TBR shelf like mine. Take a look.

IMG_2013

 Don’t read — listen: This wouldn’t be my preferred method of beating the book blahs, but a great site like Audible might just shake things up for you.

 Let someone else tell you what to read: I don’t tend to subscribe to method one myself, except seven times a year when someone in my book club chooses our next read. (Andrew Davidson’s Gargoyle in case you’re interested.)

 Read with a friend: Book clubs!!!

 Go for the quick fix — read some short stories or essays: I read a lot of this sort of thing online as I am always looking for things to share with my students. You want short stories? Try Alice Munro, Stephen King, Raymond Carver.

Try YA: It’s really not just for teens. Honest.

Peruse the Reviews: Check out my reviews, visit Goodreads  or find a blogger you like. Kirkus is pretty handy, too.

Seek out fan fiction: But be warned – fanfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Some of it is amazing. Much of it is godawful. A lot of it is pornographic. Find a writer you like in a fandom you like and you’ll be a happy reader.

Step away from the books: You know what they say, a rest is as good as a cure. Sometimes a break to catch up on all your shows won’t hurt.

So, I went through a little bit of a reading slump when I read a couple mediocre YA novels in a row…and then BAM…I read an awesome YA book and I think it renewed my faith in the written word again.

The book that wowed me was called

charmCharm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

I actually suggested Jeremy Chaisson read this book on a recent visit to Indigo – I absolutely loved it. (Last check, he wasn’t grooving to it, but no matter.) This book is a William C Morris Debut award winner, if you care at all about pedigree. It’s the story of Win, a sixteen-year-old who attends a New England boarding school and who is so bottled up you just know he’s going to explode at any moment. He knows it too; he thinks something even more sinister is happening to him. Win’s story unfolds in the present and also in the past in sections called matter and antimatter. It’s almost relentlessly bleak, but for mature YA readers it is absolutely riveting reading.

testThis is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

Courtney Summers is a Canadian YA writer and this is the second book I’ve read by her and I am now a fan. The first book was Some Girls Are and it was about bullying times 1000, but the book I just finished by her is called This Is Not A Test and man, that was a ride I was not expecting. So Sloane is fifteen and she lives with her father in a little town somewhere in North America. Her older sister, Lily, has recently run away. The reader will figure out pretty quickly that her father is physically abusive and that would be enough for one book, but all it really does is create this impossibly complicated character who then has to survive….the zombie apocalypse. No joke. This Is Not A Test was my first ever zombie novel – I had NO desire to ever read them…I am more of a vampire girl…but this book was SO amazing: suspenseful and heartbreaking and filled with teen angst. So good.

keptinthedarkKept in the Dark by Penny Hancock

Finally, I read a book one stormy Sunday that I couldn’t put down. Not YA, but I thought I’d share it.  There might be some squick involved for some people, but I could not stop turning the pages. The main character is a 40-something woman called Sonia. She’s a voice coach, her husband is a lecturing neurosurgeon and her daughter is away at university. They live in a house by the Thames which her husband wants to sell, but it’s Sonia’s childhood home and she refuses to leave. The teenaged nephew of one of her friends stops by to borrow an album – yes, actual vinyl – and Sonia does something most peculiar: she gets him drunk, drugs him and locks him in her soundproof music room. To the outside world, Sonia is a functioning adult, but clearly not right in the head and the reasons for that are slowly revealed in flashback. Could not put it down, although I understand why it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Looking for more recs? Click on the ‘Highly recommended’ tag in the sidebar to look at books I’ve really enjoyed.

Happy reading!

This Is Not A Test – Courtney Summers

testThis is my second book by Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers and, that’s it:  I am a fan. I previously read Some Girls Are and I was totally taken with its unflinching look at what it is to be a teenage girl. It isn’t pretty, people.

This Is Not A Test has won a slew of awards including being named a  2014 OLA White Pine Honour Book, 2013 ALA/YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, 2013 ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, and  a  Kirkus New & Notable Books for Teens: June 2012. Trust me, the book delivers on every possible level.

Sloane lives in with her father  in Cortege. Her older sister, Lily, has left home and taken a piece of Sloane with her. It won’t take the reader very long to figure out that Sloane’s father is abusive. She tells us he burns the toast because she deserves it and when he reaches out to examine her face, Sloane flinches before she can catch herself. It’s no wonder that Lily has left, but the plan was that they were supposed to go together.

Based on the first couple of pages, it would be reasonable  to think that This Is Not A Test is a story about abuse, but you’d be so wrong. As Sloane is contemplating the burnt toast and the note her father has written to explain her absence from school, their front door starts to “rattle and shake.”  Someone is screaming for help and it is such a creepy event that as Sloane’s father heads to the door to investigate Sloane notes that he hesitates and she has “never seen him hesitate” in her life.

When Sloane’s father returns to the kitchen he’s screaming that they have to leave and he’s covered in blood. And then all hell breaks loose, literally.

Seven days later Sloane finds herself barricaded in Cortege High School with five other students: student body president, Grace, and her twin brother, Trace; Rhys, a senior;  some-time drug dealer and some-time boyfriend to her sister Lily, Cary and Harrison, a freshman who can’t seem to stop crying. The high school offers the six teens sanctuary while they wait for the help the feel sure will come. Unfortunately, the only announcement on the radio proclaims that “This is not a test.”

As the days drone on, Sloane and the rest of the trapped teens struggle to stay calm. They jockey for position, alliances are formed and they wonder what has happened to the rest of the world. It all makes for a riveting psychological drama because Summers has an ear for how teens speak and she doesn’t shy away from the fact that this scenario is relentlessly grim. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Except for the feeling fine part.

Sloane narrates this story and she is a sympathetic character. Even if she could get back home, what does she have to return to? No one knows about the abuse she suffered and without Lily she feels as though she has very little to live for. Thus, she has nothing to lose.

This Is Not A Test is my very first zombie novel. I’ve pretty much avoided them until now because, truthfully, they don’t really interest me all that much. If they were all as good as this one, though, I’d be a fan.

Apparently there is an e-sequel available, but truthfully, I thought the ending to This Is Not A Test was pretty damn perfect.

Highly recommended.

Faking It – Cora Carmack

faking itOn Feb 16, I did a column for CBC about New Adult Fiction, a category of fiction which targets the 18-25 age bracket and tends to be slightly more sexually explicit than a YA novel, but nowhere near as pornographic as Fifty Shades of Grey. I’d only read a couple of books that I would consider New Adult before I did the column, one I liked (Easy), and one I did not (Ten Tiny Breaths). Cora Carmack’s NA novel, Faking It, falls into the latter category.

First we meet Cade. He’s pining over Bliss. (Yes, all the names are this bad.) Although they never actually dated she’s Cade’s best friend and Cade feels as though Bliss is the one that got away. Every time he sees her with her new boyfriend, Garrick (told you), it feels “like a rusty eggbeater to the heart.”

He’s meeting them for coffee when the novel opens. Apparently, he’s a sucker for punishment. It’s at this meeting that Garrick tells Cade that he’s going to propose and Cade’s world  falls apart.

Enter Max. And her boyfriend…wait for it…Mace. They enter the very same café where Cade has just had his heart broken. Max is on her cell phone and she’s just discovered that her parents are not calling from Oklahoma, but from across town; they’ve made an impromptu visit and that puts Max in a bind. She has to come up with a suitable boyfriend, someone to make her look sensible and subdued, when clearly she is anything but. I mean, she has red hair! And tattoos! And piercings!!! Mace, despite being “gorgeous and a killer drum player” is not mom and dad boyfriend material. Max gets rid of Mace (not all that difficult all Max has to do is mention “parents” and Mace departs). That just leaves the problem of what to do about the boyfriend. That’s when she spots Cade. Despite the fact that he was “gorgeous, in that all-American model kind of way” Max normally wouldn’t have given him a second glance “because guys like that don’t go for girls like” Max. Thing is, he’s staring right at her.

Faking It is told in alternating first person narratives, so we get Cade’s point of view and then Max’s. That’s how we know that Cade has been watching her and how we know that he thinks she’s “bright.”(Her personality/aura/looks, not her IQ.) He also notices “no real connection between [Max and Mace].” When her eyes meet his it makes Cade’s “mouth go dry and stirred something in [his] chest. Stirred up other things, too.”  Um, wait a minute, didn’t you just have your heart-broken by that girl, Bliss, like five minutes ago? We’re only on page 20!

I am all about the slow burn and Faking It doesn’t seem to care about that. There’s an instant attraction between Cade and Max and soon they are bantering like Tracy and Hepburn, like with nicknames and everything. He agrees to be her date to Thanksgiving dinner and has no trouble playing the part of devoted boyfriend. In fact, he plays the part so well that Max’s parents invite him to Oklahoma for Christmas. Oh, what a tangled web.

Cora Carmack is a very popular, best-selling author and I have no doubt that for its intended audience Faking It hit all the right notes. For me, though, everything happened way too fast  and the over-the-top reactions to relatively minor obstacles and set-backs were just too much. I guess in that respect Faking It perfectly captures the drama of youth.

One more note: it’s biceps, people, even just in the one arm. Geesh.

Her and Me and You – Lauren Strasnick

her-and-me-and-you-366x550Alex and her mom have moved to Meadow Marsh to live in Alex’s dead grandmother’s house because “my favourite parent, Dad, had done some very bad things with a paralegal named Caroline.”

Faster than you can say trouble, with a capital T, Alex meets Fred and his twin sister, Adina. They’re  –  odd. Well, at least Adina is, but Alex is drawn to them anyway. Mostly she’s looking for an escape from the wreckage of her parents’ marriage and her mother’s subsequent nosedive into a bottle.

There’s not a lot of plot here – nothing much happens – but the triangle between Alex, Fred and Adina is almost immediately fraught with a weird and buzzing tension that Alex can’t quite get a handle on. One minute Adina is her bestie, the next she’s icing Alex out. To further complicate matters, Alex finds herself drawn to Fred, “his freckled face made [her] want to bake a batch of cookies. Down a gallon of milk.”

There’s also the problem of what Alex has left behind: her best friend, Evie, for starters has fallen in love and Alex felt “furious” about it. “Everything had changed so fast. Dad. Mom. Evie. Especially Evie.”

Her and Me and You is a relatively light-weight coming-of-age novel that is just better than average because despite the fact  that it has many of the standard YA realistic fiction hallmarks: divorced parents, absent parents, eating disorders, underage drinking, high school drama, it also has a compelling protagonist. Alex doubts herself in the way of all teenage girls, but she also has a wonderful capacity for growth and forgiveness. I liked that about her.

 Her and Me and You is a strangely compelling YA novel and I think it mostly has to do with how it navigates the tricky world of teenage relationships.