Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Laura Ruby's Bone Gap is another recent publication with a blurb from E. Lockhart, whose Ruby Oliver series, Printz Award-winning novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and latest hit We Were Liars make her a trusted voice in YA fiction. I did not know what to expect from Bone Gap. It was a recommended title on Amazon, and I ordered it along with preorders for May publications by Sarah Dessen, Jenny Han, and Robyn Schneider. It was completed unexpected: the gripping narrative, magic realism, and compelling characters. I read it in almost one sitting and wanted to share it with everyone I know who reads YA lit right after. 

Bone Gap is a town full of gaps. Things slip through the cracks, and so it's no surprise to the residents of Bone Gap when Roza disappears. She's not from there after all; she showed up one night, and no one thought she would stay. Teenager Finn O'Sullivan knows Roza well. She's been living with him and his older brother, Sean. Finn feels implicated in Roza's disappearance: he was the last person to see her, and he knows his brother can't forgive him for not trying harder to make her stay. But Finn is convinced Roza was kidnapped by a man who moves like the corn. No one believes him, especially because he can't describe him in any tangible way: "The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name. When he was little, they called him Spaceman. Sidetrack. Moonface. You. As he got older, they called him Pretty Boy. Loner. Brother. Dude." He's strange, weird, and a little distracted. Ruby writes, 
Eventually, though, they found out that there was a good reason for Finn's odd expressions, his strange distraction, that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person. A good reason he never looked anyone in the eye.
But by then it was too late, and the girl they loved most - and knew least of all - was gone.
Although the novel starts from Finn's point of view, it shifts slowly over the course of the novel. The reader finds Roza where Finn cannot, in a strange, shifting world that she's been taken to before. The novel unravels slowly, moving back and forth between the real and the unreal, slowly becoming more than a work of YA fiction. It rewrites Greek mythology, especially Persephone and Demeter. 

The characters are extremely compelling, especially a girl named Petey, who Finn falls for. Her mom owns several bee hives and has a honey company. She's the strangest looking girl in Bone Gap, but Finn doesn't know that. Small town America starts out realistic, but then becomes strange, and different, and mythical. Ruby's novel is one of the best I've read in a while, as mythology is layered across contemporary young adult experience.

Friday, June 12, 2015

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

The follow-up to Jenny Han's To All The Boys I've Loved Before was published at the end of May, and has the same fantastic cover art, design, and story as the first book. P.S. I Still Love You picks up right where To All The Boys I've Loved Before left off, over the Christmas holidays at the Covey household. Protagonist Lara Jean has just decided to try to have a real relationship with Peter Kavinsky, after pretending to date him for months. Lara Jean's younger sister Kitty had sent out five love letters that Lara Jean had written to guys she'd previously crushed on. One of them included her sister's not-so-ex-boyfriend. As a way to convince him she had a crush on him in the past, and not the present, Lara Jean starts a fake relationship with Peter, who has also received one of her love letters. But instead of creating awkwardness between them, Peter sees potential instead. Plus he's just broken up with his girlfriend Gen, Lara Jean's former best friend.

Lara Jean and Peter decide to date for real, but they still come up with a handful of rules and make a contract to guide their relationship:
Peter will not be more than five minutes late.
Lara Jean will not make Peter do crafts of any kind.
Peter doesn't have to call Lara Jean before he goes to bed at night, but he can if he feels like it.
Lara Jean will only go to parties if she feels like it.
Peter will give Lara Jean rides whenever she wants.
Lara Jean and Peter will always tell each other the truth.
The contract mimics the one they made to guide their fake relationship, when Lara Jean was bound to attending a certain number of parties with Peter.

But things don't run as smoothly in their real relationship. Not like in their fake one, when neither was as invested in the other. Now, someone has posted a video to Instagram of them in the hot tub on their school ski trip, and it's much more suggestive than Lara Jean would like it to be. It's become a meme, it's been sped up and slowed down, it's been mashed up with scenes from The Little Mermaid. Lara Jean is mortified, although she has a sneaking suspicion she knows who took the video in the first place. Peter's ex-girlfriend, Gen, who can't let him go.

Lara Jean is incredibly insecure about Peter's relationship with Gen, which seems to be ongoing, even though he's with Lara Jean now. He texts her, hangs out at her house, and embraces her in public. It's not until near the end of the novel that Lara Jean realizes, "I want to say, I never cared about your past. But that isn't true. It's only then that I realize: Peter wasn't the one who needed to get over Genevieve. It was me. All this time with Peter, I've been comparing myself to her, all the ways I don't measure up. All the ways our relationship pales next to theirs. I'm the one who couldn't let her go. I'm the one who didn't give us a chance."

In the middle of her turmoil with Peter, in steps John Ambrose McClaren, the last recipient of one of Lara Jean's love letters. He isn't at all like she remembers. She tells him he's changed the most out of all of their childhood friends. There is major potential between Lara Jean and John, and their connection was more interesting than Lara Jean and Peter's in the novel. There is a fantastic party at the retirement home that Lara Jean works at, where her and John come dressed in costume for a USO themed party - by far the highlight of the novel. And back are the generous descriptions of the cakes, cookies, and cherry turnovers that Lara Jean bakes for Peter and her family.

Jenny Han has said there won't be a third book to follow P.S. I Still Love You:

The book ends slightly indecisively, presenting a conclusion for the present and perhaps a difference conclusion for the future. Jenny Han writes an excellent YA romance, and I enjoyed getting to follow Lara Jean's story for an additional book.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

Vanishing Girls is the first novel I've read by Lauren Oliver, although my sister has read and enjoyed her Delirium trilogy, which was published a few years ago. Vanishing Girls is a YA thriller with a twist, which is hinted at by the presence of a blurb by E. Lockhart on the front cover of the book. Lockhart's recent novel, We Were Liars, is another book with a remarkable twist.

Vanishing Girls tells the story of Nick (Nicole) and Dara, sisters who are trying to find their way back to normal after a horrible car crash that left them damaged enough to necessitate months of recovery in the hospital. When they return home, they find themselves in the middle of a major event that is affecting their home town, Somerville: a nine-year-old girl named Madeline Snow has gone missing, vanished from the back of her sister's car while parked out front of an ice cream parlour. The stories are interwoven, presented by a variety of sources. Nick and Dara offer their own perspectives in chapters that alternate between "Before" and "After" the accident. There are also entries from Dara's diary, online articles about the missing Madeline Snow, photographs, and notes. These all work towards piecing together the mystery of Madeline's disappearance as well as helping Nick and Dara heal from their accident. 

Nick and Dara's lives have been slowly eroded. Their parents are in the middle of divorcing, and their father has moved out of the house: "For the first month or so after Dad announced he was leaving, Mom acted like absolutely nothing was different. But recently she's been forgetting: to turn on the dishwasher, to set her alarm, to iron her work blouses, to vacuum. It's lie every time he removes another item from the house - his favourite chair, the chess set he inherited from his father, the golf clubs he never uses - it takes a portion of her brain with it." And Nick can't make things work with Dara anymore. It was Nick who was driving the car the night she and Dara got into the accident, and since they've both returned home, Dara won't talk to her. This is complicated by the presence of Parker, Nick's childhood friend and Dara's boyfriend. He's the awkward thing between them, something one of them has and the other one doesn't. Nick explains,
Dara had just broken up with her latest boyfriend, Josh or Jake or Mark or Mike - I could never keep them straight, they cycled in and out of her life so fast. And suddenly, she would crash movie night with Parker, wearing short-shorts and a tissue-thin shirt that showed the black lacy cups of her bra. Or I would see them riding the scooter together in the freezing cold, her arms wrapped around his chest, her head titled back, laughing. Or I would walk into the room and he would jerk quickly backward, flashing me a guilty look, while she kept a long, tan leg draped across his lap.
Suddenly, I was the third wheel.
Nicks' mom insists that she work at Fan Land, an old amusement park a short bus ride away from their house, for the summer. It's a way to distract her from her problems with Dara, and to keep her both mentally and physically busy. What Nick doesn't plan on is working with Parker for the summer. 

Oliver deftly writes about the relationship between sisters. Nick navigates her way back to being Dara's best friend, while Dara leads Nick through a game that she made up: "It's called: catch me if you can." Meanwhile, the disappearance of Madeline Snow drifts in and out of the background, finally coming to intersect with Nick and Dara. 

It's hard to talk about a book like this without talking about the twist, which waits at the end of the story like a trapdoor, forcing the reader to go back and reconsider everything that's come before. 

Some of Oliver's writing is so poignant that she captures adolescence in a way that seems very right. I loved the switch in perspectives between Nick and Dara, and Dara's frank writing in her diary entries. It turns into a very different book two thirds of the way in, becoming a thriller instead of realistic YA fiction. I didn't mind, because Oliver's writing continues to remain consistent, especially in the small details that make up adolescent experience. I flew through Vanishing Girls, and am checking out the Delirium trilogy next!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt

I was lucky enough to hear Kimberly Willis Holt speak at the YA Literature Conference at Louisiana State University last summer. I read her books when I was in elementary and middle school, both Louisiana Sky and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, so it was fairly exciting to hear her talk about writing and her books during the conference. At a presentation at a Baton Rouge library, Willis Holt read an excerpt from a work in progress, which happened to be Dear Hank Williams. At the time, it was slated for publication in 2015, and it just came out a few months ago. 

Dear Hank Williams is an epistolary novel, although the letters are very one-sided: Tate P. Ellerbee and her classmates have been asked by their teacher to find a pen pal and write to him or her. Tate picks Hank Williams, since she routinely hears him singing on the radio as part of the Louisiana Hay Ride. She doesn't seem bothered that he doesn't write her back, but continues to tell him about her family and her life in Rippling Creek, Louisiana. It's just a few years since WWII ended (the book is set in 1948), and Tate's teacher's suggestion of the class writing to Japanese pen pals is not met favourably by everyone. Tate writes, "Mrs. Kipler's brains must have frizzled from her last perm. We just got out of a war with those folks. I'm not about to share my life with the enemy. I remember when I was four years old, the soldiers from Camp Claiborne marched past our house in the mornings. Aunt Patty Cake would have a pot of coffee ready for them. Before we saw them, we heard the stomp, stomp sounds of their boots pounding the road. When we did, we'd walk outside, Aunt Patty Cake with the coffee, Momma with the cups and cream, and me with the spoons."

She lives with her Aunt Patty Cake and her Uncle Jolly (they are brother and sister), who is consistently bringing home new women to date: "We know Uncle Jolly has had his heart broken when we discover sofa cushions scattered on the floor and Aunt Patty Cake's straight chair pointing legs up. He leaves a trail through the mess where he's staggered to his bedroom. Aunt Patty Cake calls it 'Jolly's Path of Heartbreak Destruction.'"

When Willis Holt spoke about the book, she said it was strongly influenced by her discovery of the Goree Girls, a women's singing group from Goree State Farm, a women's prison in Huntsville, Texas. They were popular, received fan mail, and got radio play. Tate's mother is a Goree Girl, although Tate pretends to Hank Williams that she is an actress in Hollywood. There are many secrets like these; Tate is an incredibly unreliable narrator. 

I didn't like Dear Hank Williams as much as Holt's other novels, mostly because there seemed to be so many surprised reveals that clashed with the truth as Tate told it. But the Louisiana setting, the epistolary format, and Tate's nuanced voice makes this book well worth the read. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Open Road Summer by Emery Lord

Author Emery Lord's debut novel Open Road Summer was published in 2014, and was followed up by The Start of Me and You in 2015. The Start of Me and You was highly recommended by author Robyn Schneider in a video when she raved about the love interest in the YA romance. The book was out of stock at the Lethbridge Chapters, so I picked up Open Road Summer and finished it in almost one sitting. 

Reagan O'Neill is joining her best friend Dee Montgomery on a 24-city-tour for the summer. Dee is a country music superstar who has just used her own breakup with childhood sweetheart Jimmy to fuel enough songs for a new hit album. Think Taylor Swift. Reagan shows up to the beginning of the tour with her broken arm in a cast and her bad-news boyfriend behind her and she's looking forward to a summer away with her best friend. 

But things change when a nude photo scandal lands Dee in hot water, her publicist scrambling for a way out. Enter Matt Finch, singer-songwriter, used-to-be member of the band The Finch Four, "a wholesome teen band that included his sister and two brothers. When we were in middle school, the band was a phenomenon. All three boys were sweet-faced, and they had hordes of screaming preteen fans. All the girls I knew wanted to be Carrie Finch, and they all wanted to marry Matt, the youngest and closest to our age." He's the perfect person for Dee to pretend to have a relationship with while he takes over as the opening act for the entire tour. He's just gone through a break-up of his own.

Lord has written song lyrics throughout the novel, some for Dee and others for Matt, many of which dredge up their previous relationships as writing works as a way to move through the aftermath. Reagan describes the title song from Dee's new album Middle of Nowhere, Tennessee as written for Jimmy:

Middle of nowhere, Tennessee,
Exactly where I want to be.
Our initials carved into the old oak tree,
And every road takes me back home.
Middle of nowhere, Tennessee,
Dancing on the porch, you and me.
This is where I was born to be,
No matter how far I may roam.

The behind-the-scenes of a country music tour include Dee donning a disguise to see Matt play at a bar, stopping at a local county fair, and zipping into gas stations to grab snacks. It's a fantastic romance, a not-quite triangle that combines Dee and Matt's fake relationship and the real relationship developing between Matt and Reagan. Reagan's voice and demeanour makes her one of my favourite characters in the recent YA novels I've read. She's been in trouble, she still gets in trouble, but she's incredibly self-aware about her actions and herself. Lord's writing is pitch perfect. There are so many similes that hang at the end of sentences, never falling into cliche. It's some of the best writing I've read in a YA romance. 

I just picked up The Start of Me and You today, and am looking forward to Lord's third novel, which was recently given a release date for 2016.  Open Road Summer is such an excellent summer read, and Lord is certainly an author I'll be watching for!

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Ring and the Crown by Melissa de la Cruz

It's now about a month into the Audiobook Sync summer reading program. Every week, two free audiobooks are available to download through the website: a YA title paired with a required reading title. Two weeks ago, Melissa de la Cruz's The Ring and the Crown was paired with Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts. I started with Sea Hearts, not realizing until about fifteen minutes in that I'd already read the book under its alternate title, The Brides of Rollrock Island. So I skipped over to The Ring and the Crown, which was published just last year. It was not what I was expecting at all. The book begins with two epigraphs, one from an Emily Dickinson poem and another from Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)." The combination of contemporary and historical weaves through the fantasy novel, which is the first in a series. 

The Ring and the Crown presents an alternate history. It's the turn of the century (1900), and war has just ended between the Franco-British Empire and the Prussian Kingdom. The Prussian prince, Leopold, used a very powerful and dangerous piece of magic, The Pandora's Box, to end the war, and now he's betrothed to the Franco-British dauphine, Marie-Victoria, in order to bring peace to both nations. Now, young titled adolescents are flooding London for the Season, each with a different reason for coming to the capital. 

The book trailer for The Ring and the Crown is fantastic at looking quickly at the many characters in the book. Book trailers can really walk the line between cheesy and cinematic, but I like this one for the way that it introduces its main characters:

There's Aelwyn, returning from Avalon to take her place in servitude to the new queen, her childhood friend Marie-Victoria. She's the Merlin's daughter, current magical advisor to the queen. Isabelle is the daughter of a titled French family, and because she was previously promised to Leo, she has come to London to dissolve their relationship so he is free to marry Marie-Victoria instead. Leo's younger brother Wolf fistfights his way across America, kept out of the war against the Franco-British Empire in case something happened to his brother. He comes to London to support Leo, and to determine where his future lies. 

Perhaps the most interesting character (and my favourite) was Ronan Astor, an American girl who comes to London with the intention of securing an engagement with a moneyed lord in order to save her family from bankruptcy. But on the ship to London, she meets an intriguing boy who she whiles away the time with. They never learn each other's true identity, going instead by Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights

The introductions to the many primary characters is extensive, made even moreso by the audiobook format. It felt like the story lines would never intersect, because so much time was building backstory for the individual characters. But eventually, everything began to come together: characters met, fell in love, and separated once they were all in London. Everything felt very neatly tied up at the end of the novel, and I'm curious to see where other books in the series will take these characters, or perhaps instead, whether other books will introduce new characters. The Ring and the Crown was an unexpected surprise of a book, and I loved listening to it as an audiobook. The world building is fantastic, and for characters like Ronan, it's so worth the read. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Denton Little's Death Date by Lance Rubin

Lance Rubin's Denton Little's Death Date presents a universe where everyone knows the date of their death, and 17-year-old Denton Little's death date is tomorrow. He might not know the exact time he will die, but somewhere in those twenty-four hours, his life will expire. As Denton explains, "People have known that tomorrow is the day I will die since I was born. Just like almost everyone else in the world knows the date when they will die, thanks to the group of doctors, scientists, statisticians, and astrologers led by the Nobel Prize-winning, featured-in-every-science-textbook-ever Herman Mortensky, who pioneered the field of AstroThanatoGenetics (ATG)." The reader tunes in on the day before the day he will die, as he wakes up disoriented and hungover in his best friend's sister's bed, with a sneaking suspicion that he has cheated on his girlfriend. 

Denton Little's Death Date has a limited amount of time to tell its story, less than forty-eight hours in total. From Denton's disoriented morning, to his 2 p.m. living funeral, to his Sitting (where he sits in the living room of his house with his family and closet friends, awaiting the moment he's going to die). He spends time with his girlfriend Taryn (who he did cheat on), his best friend Paolo, Paolo's sister Veronica, his dad, stepmom, and brother Felix. There's also a subplot involving Taryn's ex-boyfriend Phil, who Denton skewers during his eulogy,
"And, Phil," I continue, "I just want to say that I don't like you. I have this reputation for being such a nice guy, a really good guy, so people think I'll just put up with lameness. But I really don't want to. You're a tool. You were the worst part of being on the cross-country team, and I hope you excluded yourself from that nice thing I just said about everyone else on the team. Because it didn't include you. You suck."
As the day goes on, Denton discovers a mysterious rash with moving, red dots spreading across his legs, and slowly infecting some of the people who are close to him. Complications abound in the final hours of his life, as Rubin slowly unravels a governmental plot that places Denton at its center. There were so many laugh-out-loud moments in the first half of the book, but I found the governmental plot kind of took away from the humor, becoming more cliched as the novel went on (and setting up a sequel). I was so interested in the concept of "death dates," and of a teenager having known since the age of five that he was going to die before graduating from high school. It reminded me of the 2009 indie movie TiMER, where people can elect to be embedded with a matchmaking device that counts down the time until they meet their soul mate. Some characters have timers that end their count when they are 42; others are adolescents when their timer runs out. The idea that some events are fixed and immutable carries through both TiMER and Denton Little's Death Date

But I wanted to read more about that than a conspiracy plot. For a book about a boy who has a death date, in a world where everyone knows the day that they will die, I found myself feeling slightly cheated that he made it through the day without actually dying. The stakes weren't raised by the governmental plot; they were lowered. I also found the secondary characters became lost in the shuffle, especially a girl named Millie, who seemed to exist so that there was at least one teenage female character in the novel who wasn't having sex with Denton. 

Overall, I did enjoy Denton Little's Death Date, especially for the first half of the novel. The chemistry between Denton and his best friend Paolo is excellent, and Rubin creates fantastic dialogue that ping-pongs back and forth between them. I'll most likely pick up the sequel when it comes out to see where it picks up with the story, and for more of Rubin's hilarious writing. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider

I've recommended Robyn Schneider's first novel, The Beginning of Everything, to almost everyone I know. It begins with a scene depicting a kid getting accidentally decapitated at Disneyland while riding the Thunder Mountain Railroad (which I used to call "the Runaway Train" when I was little and lived close to Disneyland), but then unravels protagonist Ezra's belief that everyone has a major tragedy in their life, after which, everything changes. 

Extraordinary Means is a different kind of book than The Beginning of Everything, but carries much of the same style, topics, and discussions that were present in Schneider's first novel. 

Extraordinary Means is told from the dual perspectives of Lane and Sadie, who are both living at Latham House, a sanatorium in California for adolescents with tuberculosis. They wear bracelets that monitor the way that their body functions, alerting nurses and doctors when their stats are too low, but otherwise collecting data for a research team trying to find a vaccination that isn't resistant to the new strand of tuberculosis. The benefit of being at a sanatorium such as this is that they will be the first to try the new vaccination when it's available. While the reader is introduced to the sanatorium through Lane, who arrives on the first page of the book, Sadie has already spent months living in one of the small cottages. She's truly made it her home, and she's anxious to think about what exists for her back at home, if she'd ever able to leave.

Lane describes his first night at Latham House as wildly different from what he's used to. For one thing, he has to face the reality that kids his age die at Latham House, and not everyone hangs on waiting for a possible vaccination. He reflects, "My first night at Latham House, I lay awake in my narrow, gabled room in Cottage 6 wondering how many people had died in it. And I didn't just wonder this casually, either. I did the math. I figured the probability. And I came up with a number: eight. But then, I'd always been terrible at math." Lane is ditched by his tour guide on hist first day at Latham House, causing him to "fail" breakfast because he doesn't fill his tray with nutrition-rich foods. But Lane soon learns that he wasn't ditched at all. His tour guide was just another casualty of the disease. He has trouble adjusting to the new environment. He's an over-achiever, used to spending all of his free time studying and preparing for college applications. He's afraid his future is going to slip through his fingers if he actually "rests" like he's expected to do. He's also having trouble adjusting to being away from home. He notes, "I'm an only child, so the prospect of using the communal bathroom was pretty horrifying. Which is why I set my alarm that first morning for six o'clock, tiptoeing down the hall with my Dopp kit and towel while everyone else was still asleep."

Eventually, he gets taken in by Sadie and her friends, a close-knit group who sneak into the woods, turn off their health monitors, and seem like the right in-group to be a part of. While I loved Sadie's voice and always anticipated returning to her perspective, Lane seemed more developed over the course  of the novel, and I liked his transformation and what he had to say about his life before Latham House and his life after. Lane's realization largely has to do with the way he was working constantly towards a future without living his life day by day.  Latham House, where he's on doctor's orders to stop studying late (it's making him sick), changes all of that. Lane says, "Before I even knew what high school was, I'd already let my fear of not begin the best at it make me miserable. And I was starting to think that if I hadn't gotten sick, I would have done the same thing with college, rushing toward internships and grad school and a job. Somehow, without realizing, I'd made high school into a race toward the best college, as opposed to its own destination. It was only now that I hadn't done the same thing at Latham that I could see it, and I realized how unhappy it made me."

I really enjoyed Schneider's new novel, and what Lane came to understand about himself while he was at Latham House. I also liked the way the title was worked into the novel, and what the "extraordinary means" of this novel are. Schneider also includes an extensive author's note that describes her choice to make tuberculosis important to her novel. I'm looking forward to passing around my copy of Extraordinary Means, just like I did with The Beginning of Everything. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins

I've been eyeing Rebel Belle at the bookstore since it came out in hardcover last year, but didn't pick it up until last week when I saw it shelved next to its sequel, Miss Mayhem. It was a fantastic contemporary fantasy novel set in the Southern US, and was a hugely fun read. 

Harper Price is a high school junior at Grove Academy in Pine Grove, Alabama. She's SGA president and leads most of the committees at her high school (including the Academic Dishonesty Committee), causing her arch nemesis David Stark to mockingly call her "Pres." The year before, her sister was killed in a drunk driving accident, but Harper has managed to keep spinning the complicated plates of her life, despite her own personal tragedy. But on the night of the Homecoming Dance, Harper's perfect life suddenly changes, even though she's attending with her boyfriend Ryan, her best friend Bee Franklin, and Bee's boyfriend Brandon. Everything seems like it's going according to plan. She arrives late, giving herself just enough just enough time to arrive in style and collect her Homecoming Queen crown. Ryan's there with her: "He lowered his head and kissed me, albeit pretty chastely. PDA is vile, and Ryan, being my Perfect Boyfriend, knows how I feel about it." But when she goes into the girls' bathroom to apply Bee's "Salmon Fantasy" lipgloss (instead of her regular, "Coral Shimmer"), janitor Mr. Hall passes on to Harper magical powers that turn her into a Paladin: a mythical warrior charged with protecting one person. Soon after, she's nearly killed by the school's history teacher, Dr. DuPont, who attacks her in the bathroom. She narrowly escapes by stabbing him with the point of her four-inch heels. 

It's not until few days later that she figures out who she's sworn to protect. The aforementioned David Stark, who Harper happens to hate. She tries to avoid him, and when she can't, she can't keep her feelings to herself: "Then I realized who I'd bumped into , and immediately regretted my apologetic tone. If I'd known it was David Stark, I would have tried to hit him harder, or maybe stepped on his foot with the spiky heel of my new shoes for good measure." David is the ultimate hipster, with thick-framed black glasses, tight jeans, and oversized sweaters. The only reason she tries to stay on his almost-good side is because of his aunt, Saylor Stark,
And you especially needed to be polite to said douchebag when he happened to be the nephew of Saylor Stark, president of the Pine Grove Junior League; head of the Pine Grove Betterment Society; chairwoman of the Grove Academy School Board; and, more importantly, organizer of Pine Grove's Annual Cotillion.
Cotillion is next on Harper's calendar, and she doesn't have time in her schedule to pencil in training for how to be a Paladin, and how to save David's life if it comes down to that. Which it will. The final battle goes down during Cotillion, with Harper in her perfect dress, shoes, and makeup. 

Rebel Belle was such a fun, Southern novel. I love Cotillion and Homecoming, and Harper was right at the center of both. I flew through the book on the elliptical at the gym, and couldn't put it down. Harper is an excellent character; Hawkins draws out the voice of the well-liked over-achiever perfectly. I'm looking forward to picking up the sequel soon!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Truth Commission by Susan Juby

I have been a huge fan of Susan Juby since her Alice Macleod series, Alice, I Think; Miss Smithers; and Alice Macleod, Realist at Last. Juby is a Canadian author who writes YA and adult novels (and a memoir), and her books are some of my favourites. 

The Truth Commission was released this year and takes place at the fictional Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design in Nanaimo, BC. It focuses on high school student Normandy Pale, whose sister is acclaimed graphic novelist Keira Pale. Keira has effectively fictionalized the family life of the Pales, turning her sister Normandy into a cruel representation, and rewriting family events and stories.

The story starts when Keira comes back to live at home, and begins telling Normandy strange half-stories at night, all of which allude to why she mysteriously left art college to move back in with her family. Meanwhile, at school, Normandy and her friends Dusk and Neil decide to form "The Truth Commission," which requires them to ask questions of other students at their school that get to the bottom of gossip and rumour. Their first truth telling: finding out if student Aimee Danes got a boob job over the summer. They're surprised by how easily the truth comes when they ask. School truths get mixed up with home truths, and Normandy finds herself wading through both. 

As well, Normandy is writing her account of "The Truth Commission" as part of her creative nonfiction class at school; the manuscript is the final project that she's going to turn in for credit. She uses extensive footnotes as a tool for explaining how she uses elements like backstory, exposition, dialogue, and transition in her manuscript, proving to her teacher that she knows the rhetoric of creative nonfiction. There are also some illustrations added throughout the novel, all helpful for adding veracity to her account.

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in The Truth Commission. Juby's wry and quirky humour is on display, and this was the first of Juby's recent writing that really reminded me of the Alice Macleod series. On a recent episode of This Creative Life with Sara Zarr, YA novelist Gayle Forman (If I Stay) highly recommended The Truth Commission, and Jaclyn Moriarty has championed the novel as well. It's an excellent read, highlighting Juby's humour and offering a thoughtful examination of truth and storytelling. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Revenge, Ice Cream, and Other Things Best Served Cold by Katie Finn

Katie Finn continues her trilogy of novels about Gemma Tucker in Revenge, Ice Cream, and Other Things Best Served Cold (a fantastic title). It's the sequel to Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend which was released last year. Katie Finn is the alias of acclaimed YA novelist Morgan Matson, whose books I've talked about here already. The planned trilogy takes place in the Hamptons, where Gemma is staying for the summer with her dad. She's moved into a huge mansion that belongs to her dad's writing partner, Bruce, as they both get underway on an adaptation of the successful erotic vampire novel that is referenced frequently in the book. 

In Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend, a case of mistaken identity led to Gemma's summer getting off to a disastrous start. For the first few weeks of her holidays, she fell head-first into a revenge plan orchestrated by her childhood friend Hallie. Gemma purposefully broke up her father and Hallie's mother when they dated years ago, worried that their relationship would get in the way of her parents getting back together. This included spreading a horrible rumour about Hallie's mother, ruining her career as a novelist. Unbeknownst to Gemma, Hallie has been planning for years to get her back. 

Revenge, Ice Cream, and Other Things Best Served Cold picks up right where the first book left off: after Gemma's real identity is revealed, and her relationship with Hallie's brother Josh is put to an end. Finn does an excellent job summarizing the first book without taking too many pages away from the second book. There are so many books - particularly fantasy series - where there is little or no reminder about what happened in the previous instalment, which is sometimes necessary when there's a gap of 3-5 years between books. Finn summarizes in narrative form, rehashing scenes from the previous book to remind readers of where they will pick up with Gemma.

A few new characters have been added to the story. Gemma's best friend Sophie Curtis (who Gemma pretended to be in the previous book, after Sophie's name was written on her coffee cup) comes to stay for the rest of the summer, and so do Bruce's children, Gwyneth and Ford. Ford, who is suddenly more attractive than Gemma remembers him being. He's lost his braces, and is now a nationally ranked surfer. 

At first Gemma decides not to retaliate, but then thinks better of it. She gets a job behind an ice cream counter (in Morgan Matson's Since You've Been Gone, protagonist Emily scoops ice cream as a summer job, too), and enlists Sophie and Gwyneth in her plans. My sister said she had a huge amount of secondhand embarrassment reading about Gemma's plans for revenge, and I completely agree. The events escalate the night of Hallie's birthday party, setting up a perfect cliffhanger that the third and final instalment will work on resolving. It's a fun, quick read, and I'm looking forward to the resolution of the series next year. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale

Aside from Wendelin Van Draanen's Sammy Keyes mystery series, which is aimed at slightly younger readers (middle grade rather than high school) I can't think of too many YA mystery novels of the whodunnit variety. Kathleen Hale's No One Else Can Have You is a fantastic YA mystery, and Hale gained notoriety in 2014 for more than just her first novel. In an article for The Guardian, Hale admitted to tracking down and stalking a critic, who gave her book one star on GoodReads. The fallout led to the creation of the Twitter hashtag #HaleNo, as other authors, bloggers, and readers responded to Hale's article. Hale is originally from Wisconsin, and is engaged to the hilarious writer Simon Rich. 

No One Else Can Have You is firmly in the same category as Fargo, the 1996 film directed by the Coen brothers, and the 2014 reboot, a TV show on FX. Even the cover art bears similarity to both the movie and TV posters, knit detail of the title and the implication of murder. The novel is set in Friendship, Wisconsin, and the dialogue is peppered with "you betchas" and "doncha knows."

Kippy Bushman is the sixteen-year-old detective in the novel, and her quirky and abrasive personality means that she is probably not the best person to investigate the murder of Ruth Fried. Ruth was found in a corn field behind Kippy's house, murdered in a gruesome and horrific way. She was on her way to Kippy's house for a sleepover - the two were best friends. 

After Ruth's death, Kippy is given her diary with the job of censoring it for Ruth's mother. Basically, this means taking a Sharpie marker to any parts that allude to Ruth's sexual history. After transcribing a few messily- written entries, Kippy finds that she'd have to Sharpie through most of the diary in order to do a sufficient job. 

But Kippy also finds out that maybe Ruth didn't like her as much as she always thought she did. Many of the diary entries focus on Kippy as Ruth writes, "Kippy is so pathetic it makes me nauseous…If we lived anywhere else, like any place remotely interesting, I'd have way more options, and she and I wouldn't even know each other." Police sheriff Staake (pronounced "Steakey") immediately pins the murder on Ruth's boyfriend Colt, but Kippy thinks that's mostly because of the fact that Colt slept with the sheriff's daughter. Kippy ends up teaming up with Ruth's brother Davey, who is just back from fighting in Afghanistan, to find the real murderer. 

There are tons of laugh-out-loud lines in No One Else Can Have You. Kippy is a truly fantastic narrator and even the secondary characters add something great to the story. For instance, Kippy's dad Dom, a middle school counsellor who lounges around the house in bathrobes, even when Kippy has company. When Kippy requests a salad for supper, Dom's at a loss for how to make one (Friendship is a hunting town, and everyone has freezers full of meat). He throws a bunch of almost-veggies into a bowl: "First bacon bits, which we usually use on our baked potatoes, then cheese - lots of shredded cheese. He rips open a bag of frozen peas with his teeth, then goes to the pantry and gets canned tomatoes, and dumps those in, too. Before you can say 'Gross,' he puts the whole thing in the microwave, beeps in five minutes, then turns around with his arms crossed, looking proud." Even the Fried's dogs are characters, "some kind of Great Dane/Saint Bernard/werewolf hybrid." Kippy remembers, "the first time I came over, we pulled up in Mrs. Fried's truck, and my first thought upon seeing them was 'We might not be able to kill those things with the car.' I envisioned them bouncing off the fender, getting up, cracking their knuckles, and then diving through the windshield to eat our necks." Their names are Pasta Batman and Marco Baseball, causing Ruth to quietly explain to Kippy, "Davey and I named them when we were so young we were still a little bit retarded."

There was only one place where the novels lost me, when Kippy is placed in a mental institution with a third of the novel left. It seemed like a placeholder to press pause on the narrative, delaying the reveal of the murderer. But overall, No One Else Can Have You is a great YA mystery, with an unforgettable narrator in Kippy Bushman. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen's new book Saint Anything, was just released at the beginning of May, and already I've shared my copy a couple of times. I've been reading Dessen's novels since the 1990s, when That Summer, Someone Like You, and Keeping the Moon came out. 

Saint Anything follows Sydney, who's brother Peyton has just been sent to prison for drunk driving. He left a young boy paralyzed from the waist down, and Sydney is obsessed with the consequences her brother has left behind, seemingly immune to the fall-out of his accident. She decides to switch schools, moving from the prestigious Perkins Day to Jackson High School, a huge public school that she chooses because it enhances her anonymity. She doesn't want to be recognized as her brother's sister, and doesn't want to be connected to the accident. 

But when she attends Jackson High School, she doesn't end up being as anonymous as she hopes she'll be. She's quickly taken in by the Chathams, brother and sister Mac and Layla, whose family owns a local pizza place Sydney visits after school. The Chatham family seems magical to Sydney. Mrs. Chatham, who has MS, Mr. Chatham, Mac, and Layla, who work at the pizza place, and Rosie, a figure skater who has recently had difficulties of her own. Pizza and french fries factor heavily into this novel, as Sydney becomes a staple at the pizza place, and Layla crusades for the perfect french fry. 

Still, Peyton never disappears from the picture entirely. His weekly phone calls home assert his presence in their life. His old friend Ames, a recovered drug addict and alcoholic, also hangs around Sydney's house. He is the most unsettling character in the novel, and often "babysits" Sydney alone in the house when her parents are away. I had read an article Dessen wrote for Seventeen Magazine just a fews before Saint Anything was published. "I Thought Dating An Older Guy Was Cool - Until I Sensed That Something Was Very Wrong" is Dessen's account of her relationship with a twenty-one-year-old when she was fifteen. I didn't realize how much it would factor into her novel, and in fairly insinuating ways. 

I found myself so frustrated with the Sydney's family, especially her parents, who don't do anything that they should to keep Sydney safe and loved. Their complacency in Ames's influence on Sydney's life is hard to read at times. Which is certainly what Dessen intends, if her Seventeen Magazine article is any indication. 

I'll always look forward to the next Sarah Dessen book, and Saint Anything was no exception.