Book Review: Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

Jamie Henry’s sister Cate has been in a juvenile detention center for two years, since the night she burned down a barn with horses and a classmate inside.  The classmate survived (albeit very hurt), the horses did not.  Since then, Jamie has tried to live life as normally as possible, dealing with his own anxiety issues.  But now Cate’s out, and she’s coming for him, telling him it’s time to face the truth.  But Jamie isn’t sure what truth she means.

Kuehn’s latest offering is a gripping, absolutely riveting thrill of a novel.  From the onset, readers will be find Jamie’s narrative compelling, his voice authentic, and the slow-burn of the story absolutely unforgettable.  This is a knockout of a novel, and despite the fact that many readers will extol or lament the ending, the novel as a whole is as strong as can be.  This is not a case where the ending makes the book.  The book makes the book, because it’s really that good.

From the start, readers will know that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.  Jamie is a classic unreliable narrator, and while he has moments of sympathy, he’s also kind of a dick.  All of this works perfectly, and Kuehn’s grasp of the character and his affectations make this a hell of a read.  Readers know that Jamie isn’t telling the whole truth, either because he doesn’t want to or because he literally can’t, but there are clues in the text to help them figure it out alongside Jamie.

A great example of a look at mental illness from inside the mental illness, this book stands apart from others of similar ilk because it’s so exceedingly well done.  Tight pacing, excellent plotting, and a firm grasp on the prose makes this a quick read, but one that demands a second or third, much closer reading.  Readers are going to want to go back and look for clues they missed the first time around.  And they’re going to want to talk about them.  Because this is a book that demands to be discussed.

Absolutely engrossing and horrifying.  Recommended for teens and adults alike.  This will make a great discussion book, and is guaranteed to haunt readers for a good long while.  One of the best of the year.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu

Tabitha’s friends think she’s changed, and they’ve dropped her like a bad habit.  Tab isn’t exactly sure how she’s changed, except that her boobs got bigger and she started to get attention from dudes.  Lonely, Tab seeks solace in carrying on a secret relationship with Joe, who already has a very public girlfriend.  Then she stumbles upon an online community called Life By Committee.  There, members spill secrets and complete Assignments.  As the Assignments raise the stakes, Tab wonders if she’s going too far.

Haydu is an author to watch.  She proved that with her debut, OCD Love Story, and she does it here again, creating a fully-realized female protagonist who makes mistakes, feels authentic, and is absolutely memorable.  Although the ending might feel a little too convenient for some readers, this is still an ultimately satisfying–and completely riveting–story about growing up.

What works here is how deeply Tabitha becomes entrenched in her feelings about everything happening in her life.  She’s lonely, and she’s really attracted to Joe, the boy who already has a manic-pixie-dream-girl girlfriend, so when he spills his secrets to her during online chats, she wants their thing to be the Real Deal.  But he isn’t totally present for her, and her parents are dealing with a new baby on the way and her dad’s chronic pot-smoking tendencies, so even though they seem like good parents, they aren’t totally there, either.  Because of this, her discovering an online community in which she can spill her secrets and feel connected to other people at the same time makes total sense.  It’s easy to see how this becomes her distraction from her life’s problems.

The novel really takes off once Tab becomes enmeshed in LBC.  There’s a lot of great stuff to talk about with other readers here, including how social media plays a role in our lives, how things like spilling secrets to strangers rather than friends can be so alluring, and how far is too far when it comes to taking on a dare or a challenge to live life.  Haydu isn’t afraid to make things uncomfortable for her characters or the readers, and the book is all the more authentic for it.  It can be hard, at times, to watch Tabitha make increasingly poor choices, but it never feels forced.

While some might think that the novel’s climax is a bit too much (like, straight out of a movie, too much), others will devour it.  The one faltering step here isn’t enough to keep this book from packing a serious punch.  Highly recommended–this one will stimulate discussion.

Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu. Katherine Tegen/Harper Collins: 2014. Library copy.

Mini Reviews of (non-YA) Books I’ve Been Reading

In my unscientific analysis, I’ve read more adult novels in the past 6 months or so than in many, many years.  I don’t always feel like reviewing them fully (this might change, as I really am running out of YA novels to review here), but I do like talking about them sometimes.  Here are a couple good-to-great ones I’ve read lately.

Watch How We Walk by Jennifer Lovegrove

Narrated by a young girl and then also her older self, this novel follows the interpersonal dramas of a devout Jehovah’s Witness family as they deal with an overbearing father, an increasingly checked-out-of-the-faith mother, and an older sister who has entered her rebellious teenage years.   It is sparsely written, very compelling, and has a haunting feel to it throughout.  It is an incredibly sad story with very little hope in it.  There’s mental illness at play, as well as the questioning of faith, the questioning of self, and much more in between.

This is definitely an adult fiction title, but there might be some teen appeal here, especially for savvy, sophisticated readers who like their endings depressing and ambiguous.


(ECW Press, 2013, Library Copy)

Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas 

This one was read for book club and was actually my pick for the month.  I’m not saying there’s a trend here, but this one is also about a family where the mother (who is maybe an undiagnosed case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder) has wreaked havoc on her three children’s lives.  Rose, the eldest, ran away, Violet comes down off a bad trip to find herself committed, and Will, the youngest, is home schooled and fully under his mother’s spell.  It’s a hell of a ride, and it’s nearly impossible to put the book down once it gets going.  Although the ending might be a bit melodramatic for some readers, it’s definitely an engaging and fascinating read.

It was the most well-received book our book club has read.  That’s a point of pride for me (the librarian in the group).

(Crown, 2013, Library Copy)

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Arguably the best of the bunch in this post, this searing novel by Roxane Gay (it’s getting a lot of press/good buzz, and deservedly so) is narrated by a Haitian-American woman who gets kidnapped in Haiti by a group of men who extort her wealthy father for ransom.  Instead of paying the ransom immediately, she is held for nearly two weeks.  This is the story of her before and after, and it is not for the faint of heart.  But it is beautifully written, beautifully rendered, and absolutely unforgettable.  Excellent.

It is purely excellent.

(Grove Press, 2014, Library Copy)

Book Review: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

Amy was born with cerebral palsy and can’t walk without a walker or talk without a computer voice box.  She can’t even completely control her facial expressions.  All of these things have largely alienated her from her peers.  When she decides to hire student helpers for her last year of high school, her mother is reluctant, but Amy is persistent.  She wants Matthew, a student at the school who is struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, to be one of her helpers.  As the two become enmeshed in each other’s lives, a deep friendship forms, and the two of them wonder if they could ever be more.

Let’s get this out of the way: Cammie McGovern’s debut is garnering comparisons to John Green and Rainbow Rowell, but this is a novel that doesn’t need those comparisons.  This one stands well enough on its own.  Comparisons like that only do it a disservice, and may actually alienate readers who might otherwise read and love it.  McGovern’s debut is smart, heartfelt, and absolutely original.  One of the best books of the year, this is a must-read for fans of contemporary YA.

Both Amy and Matthew are remarkably well-drawn characters.  Amy is smart, funny, and fiercely independence, despite the physical limitations imposed on her body.  Her realization that she’s been kept at a distance from her peers for the entirety of her schooling forces her to confront the fact that she needs to learn how to relate to people her own age, and her attempts to do so feeling achingly authentic.

Matthew’s obsessive-compulsive disorder is also sensitively written, and his personality as a kid who cares but lacks direction feels very realistic.  The two have an immense chemistry that leaps off the page, and their rapport is guaranteed to hook readers early on.  Neither character is defined by their diagnosis, and this means that the characters are full, real people.  What McGovern does so well is create real suspense between the two characters as they tentatively search out what their relationship could mean.

The normalization of each character’s disability makes this book a standout when it comes to inclusion lit.  The romance, the wit, and the excellent characterization of the book’s leads make this one a must-have for the summer.  Although the book is slightly over-plotted and some of the secondary characters could be fleshed out a bit more, these are easy nitpicks to overlook.  Buy this one.  Highly recommended.
Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern. HarperTeen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Book Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

Lara Jean Song writes letters to the boys she falls in love with.  They’re kind of love letters, but she usually waits until she’s fallen out of love with the boy to write them a letter.  Instead of sending them, she keeps them in a hatbox her mother gave her before she died.  In the letters, Lara Jean tells the boys everything she wants to say but never would, and she takes comfort in the fact that they are private.  But then the letters get mailed, and Lara Jean’s world spins out of control in the aftermath.

Jenny Han’s latest offering is that kind of perfect read that can be devoured in a single sitting.  Part romance, part coming-of-age, and part love-story to the bond of sisters, this is a remarkable and remarkably welcome addition to the contemporary YA world.  The novel’s planned sequel means readers won’t get complete closure when the book ends, but for the most part makes for a satisfying conclusion.

Lara Jean’s voice is incredibly young, and while that might be initially jarring for readers used to savvier, much more sophisticated teen voices, it actually ends up working quite well.  She’s a girl who loves her family and prefers to spend her time at home, knitting and baking.  Her relationships with her two sisters are done extremely well, especially when it comes to her interactions with her younger sister, Kitty.

While some of the secondary characters could definitely be given more depth (Josh barely works as a love interest because he’s about as exciting as plain oatmeal), the book’s compelling story arc and authentic narrator in Lara Jean make it easy to ignore the character shortcomings.  Readers who love their romances light will enjoy this one.

Highly recommended.  Fans of Sarah Dessen and Stephanie Perkins will find something to love here, if they haven’t already devoured Han’s Summer series.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. Simon & Shuster: 2014. Purchased copy.

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Theo has been doing a lot better since returning from being away.  She’s eating again, and dancing again.  She’s dating boys who are almost good for her, and her future is looking up.  But then Donovan, her childhood friend, returns home after living with his kidnapper for over four years.  His return–and the revelation of who took him–makes Theo start reliving the past.  She’s haunted by what happened, and the role she played in it all.

Without a doubt one of the strongest debuts in recent memory and absolutely one of the best books of the year, Brandy Colbert’s excellent, haunting, gorgeous novel about a girl who struggles to find balance in her life after it’s completely upended is something you don’t want to miss.  Absolutely compelling, beautifully written, and wholly memorable, this is a knockout of a book.

Pointe tackles an immense amount of subjects and topics, but it does so with a kind of rare grace.  In a lesser author’s hands, the sheer amount of ground this novel covers would feel like too much stuffed into the book, but it works well here.  Colbert is able to weave together the many issues in a seamless way, making her characters fully realized and startlingly authentic.  By combining Theo’s past and present, readers are presented a full picture of who Theo is and how she became that girl.  It’s amazingly well done, and Theo is the kind of complicated, smart heroine that makes complex novels like this one so good.

Colbert also fleshes out the characters who inhabit Theo’s world, making the story that much richer. She has two devoted best friends, present, loving parents, and other supportive adults in her life.  But she also has secrets, and those cause her a great deal of shame.  Her oftentimes tortured inner monologue never feels like too much, though: Colbert’s characters are flawed but very human.

There’s a great deal more to the story, but it’s best left to the readers to discover it.  With Pointe, Colbert has crafted a novel that is compelling, empathetic, and sharp.  Theo is a memorable, strong character, and her story is a fascinating one.  Although the book doesn’t end with all the loose ends tied up, it does end on a hopeful note, making Theo’s journey all the more satisfying.

Highly, highly recommended.

Pointe by Brandy Colbert. Penguin: 2014. Purchased copy.


Book Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Cady Sinclair’s family is wealthy, and they intend to stay that way.  They reunite each summer on her grandfather’s private island.  There, his three daughters and their children–Cady’s cousins–live out a life that’s close to a fairy tale.  After a summer apart from her cousins, Cady returns once again to the island to sort out family secrets and come to terms with the darkest parts of their pasts.

The less readers know going into this story, the better.  Coming up with a summary that doesn’t spoil the book’s plot was one of the more difficult tasks this reviewer has undertaken recently.  Dark, complex, and unbelievably haunting (this book is one that will stay with you for a long, long time), We Were Liars marks a departure from Lockhart’s other books (all of which are very good).  Fans of her previous works might like this one, but should be warned that it is very, very different.

There are many remarkable things about Lockhart’s book, but her ability to create a cast of characters that are complex and undeniably human is one of the more striking aspects of this novel.  Instead of simply tearing apart the Sinclair family and their destructive, all-consuming greed, Lockhart allows the reader to see that they are fully human characters, full of love and full of flaws.  This helps make the book’s foreshadowed tragedy all the more searingly painful when it happens.

This is a brutal story.  It’s going to divide readers, to be sure.  But it’s also incredibly beautiful, thoughtful, and compelling.  Highly recommended.  It’s likely to generate a lot of discussion for teens and adults alike.  Absolutely memorable.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Delacorte: 2014.  ARC read for review.

Book Review: Capricious by Gabrielle Prendergast

Ella’s 11th grade year was kind of a disaster, what with the controversial photo she took that wound her up in all sorts of trouble, her mother’s eating disorder relapse, and the hate crimes on campus.  Now that summer is on the horizon, she hopes that things will improve.  She’s back with Samir, but they’re keeping it a secret.  The problem is, she’s also sort of seeing David (but not fully committed to the concept of him as boyfriend).  Unable to resist the urge to be different from the masses, Ella faces new challenges and lessons as she realizes that her actions definitely have consequences–and she can hurt people more than she realizes.

This follow-up to Prendergast’s excellent Audacious offers readers more of Ella’s complex, authentic world.  Told in gorgeous, sparse verse, the novel picks up where the last left off, but it should work for readers who haven’t read the first just fine.  Unlike many verse novels, Prendergast uses the format to great advantage here, playing with form and length to mimic Ella’s emotional ups and downs.  It’s damn near perfect.

Ella is a complex character, fully realized, and Prendergast’s respect for her and her growth is apparent on every page.  She allows her characters to make mistakes and learn from them, all without ever judging them.  There’s a great deal of nuance here, especially with regard to belief systems and how they can change as people change.  Instead of falling into didacticism, Prendergast remains in tight control of these explorations.

The result is a sensitive, absolutely compelling gem of a novel.  It’s memorable, moving, and well worth a reader’s time and investment.  Definitely recommended to fans of the first novel, but also for new eyes.  Prendergast is an author to watch.

Capricious by Gabrielle Prendergast. Orca Books: 2014. E-galley accepted for review via publisher.

Book Review: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Salva Dut is 11 years old in 1985 when the war in Sudan tears him from his family.  One of the “lost boys” of Sudan, Salva travails the African continent in search of his family and safety.  After spending years in a refugee camp, he finally gets the chance to move to America.  Nya is 11 years old in 2008 and travels with her family as the seasons change so they can be near water.  She makes multiple trips a day to a pond hours from her house so that they can survive.  These two children’s lives with intersect in ways they never dreamed possible.

Linda Sue Park’s sparse narration makes this beautiful, hopeful novel one to remember.  The bare minimum approach to the narration makes the novel’s dual stories move along at a fast pace, perfect for readers of all ages (and especially well-suited to readers who have short attention spans).  Both Salva and Nya are compelling characters,and Park does an admirable job of allowing them to have their own unique stories and motivations.

Interweaving true-life historical details (the character of Salva is based in part on the life of a real Sudanese lost boy) with fictional ones, Park creates a novel that is grounded in history but has a timeless feel to it.  By including the more modern story of Nya, Park helps readers bridge the gap between the war-torn Sudan that Salva experienced with a more contemporary perspective.  Readers of all ages should be moved and astonished by the resilience of these character’s and the novel’s realistic yet hopeful tone.

Surprising, moving, and definitely a book that should be in libraries and classrooms all over the place.  Although the novel occasionally treads the line of providing too much context, Park’s control over the prose and the narrative keep it from ever truly intruding into the story.  This is a gem of a book.  Highly recommended.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Clarion Books: 2010. Borrowed from Oyster.

Book Review: Ink is Thicker Than Water by Amy Spalding

Kellie Brooks has always had a family that looks a little unusual.  Her hippie mom and tattoist step-dad are part of it, but she also has an adopted older sister and a younger half-brother.  Then there’s her dad, who seems to always want Kellie to achieve more than she is.  Kellie feels completely average and perpetually stuck in between her family.  Her place in her family is even further unsteady after her sister meets her birth mother and her best friend starts hanging with people who are much cooler than Kellie is used to.  When she reconnects with Oliver, an older guy she hooked up with at a party, she realizes that relationships are work–and they can get intense pretty fast.  How can she balance everything in her life when it all seems so precarious to begin with?

Fans of Amy Spalding’s sweet, contemplative The Reece Malcolm List won’t be disappointed by her follow-up novel about family, different kinds of relationships, and finding yourself.  Ink is Thicker Than Water cements Spalding as an author who knows her contemporary YA stuff, and this thoughtful and authentic novel is sure to satisfy fans of realistic fiction.  Memorable, funny, and heartfelt, this is an excellent addition to any YA collection.

This is a small novel, but it works with its material well.  Nothing about Kellie’s experiences are exactly earth-shattering, but everything she experiences is authentic to her situation.  She’s a completely normal girl, dealing with normal life stuff, and it’s exceedingly well done.  Spalding is a good enough writer that everything Kellie experiences helps shape her view of herself, her family, and her role within the context of the world around her.

There’s great care taken with characters here, and while readers might not always understand all of their choices (just like Kellie doesn’t), there’s never a moment where it feels inauthentic.  Spalding isn’t afraid to let her characters screw up and be flawed, and that makes for a richer reading experience.

A truly standout novel about change and growing up on the small scale, this is one that opens itself up to great discussion.  Highly recommended.

Ink is Thicker Than Water by Amy Spalding. Entangled Publishing: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.