Book Review: In Sight of Stars

D28AB999-0844-4F41-A53A-C20EF6636097

Polisner, Gae. In Sight of Stars. Wednesday Books, 2018.

Note: This is a review of an advanced, uncorrected proof.

Many YA releases discuss mental illness in a frank but positive way. Some examples include John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down and Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls. Gae Polisner’s most recent publication, too, sheds light on tough topics like suicide and self-harm, but leaves the reader feeling hopeful.

In Sight of Stars features teenaged protagonist Klee (pronounced “Clay”), a high school senior and burgeoning artist. Klee’s artistic abilities were inherited from his father, an artist-turned-attorney. Klee, unfortunately, is the first to discover his father’s body following his violent suicide. Feeling numb and directionless, Klee moves with his stoic mother to the community of North Hollow.

In North Hollow, Klee begins a relationship with the beautiful but flighty Sarah. But Klee grows aggravated with Sarah’s elusiveness and is troubled by an accidental discovery regarding his parents’ marriage. Thus begins a series of events that lands Klee in a juvenile psychiatric ward nicknamed the “Ape Can”. Through the help of wise Dr. Alvarez and a mysterious nun with dwarfism, Klee recounts his haunted past and prepares to deal with his now complicated present. Will he make amends with Sarah and his mother? Will he untangle the mystery of who his father truly was?

Having read Polisner’s The Memory of Things—a book centered on the events of 9/11—I can say with certainty that the author describes the bustle and beauty of New York in a way that few writers can. I loved The Memory of Things, but In Sight of Stars is by far my favorite of Polisner’s books. The action felt fast-paced, the flashbacks were bitingly painful, and artwork was described so viscerally that I found myself Googling painting after painting.

In my view, the book’s one flaw is that the surprise or turn regarding Klee’s father felt predictable. I guessed the outcome early on; I would assume that younger readers would be able to connect the dots as well. Also, for teachers looking for appropriate read alouds, this book has a sizable amount of sexual content.

Overall, though, I truly enjoyed In Sight of Stars and can see a number of uses for this text in the classroom. Teachers who are touching on psychology or art related issues would perhaps be most interested in Polisner’s novel, but anyone hoping to start conversations about life after trauma should pick up a copy as well.

Book Review: Truly Devious

trulydevious

Johnson, Maureen. Truly Devious. Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.

So much of my life takes place at school. There are some weeks where I feel as though I’ve spent more time within the cinderblock walls of my classroom than at home with my husband and dog. Because of this, I’m often attracted to books where the action unfolds within a school—the Harry Potter series, for example, or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.

I can now add a new—and fabulous—book to that list: Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious, the first book in a forthcoming series.

Ellingham Academy is a unique boarding school in Vermont, established in the 1930s by the wealthy and altruistic Albert Ellingham. Elaborate and secluded, Ellingham Academy aims to attract gifted students who need more time to focus on their individual gifts—inventions or creative writing, for example. Albert, his wife, and small daughter even live on campus. Albert is a fan of board games and riddles, and believes learning should be more like a game. This comes back to haunt him as both his wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. The kidnapper leaves a chilling singsong letter signed “Truly, Devious”. Despite monetary exchanges, Albert’s wife and daughter never return home. His wife’s body washes ashore; his daughter Alice’s whereabouts remain unknown. Although an anarchist is arrested and charged with the crime, most believe the man was innocent.

In present day, Stevie Bell is both nervous and excited to have been admitted to Ellingham Academy. Stevie is a true crime buff—she listens to a large number of crime podcasts, ravenously reads detective novels and criminology books, and is a fan of most detective shows. Her most fervent dream is to someday work for the FBI, and her cold case of choice is the Ellingham case. Her interest in Ellingham Academy is not purely academic—she wants to closely study and solve the crime. But when one of Stevie’s classmates is found dead, Stevie realizes her powers of deduction are needed in a different way. Is the killer among Stevie’s classmates? Will Stevie make progress in solving the Ellingham kidnapping case?

I am usually not a fan of mysteries, but Truly Devious pulled me in immediately. Ellingham Academy is a brilliant setting—visually idyllic but with a dark past. Albert, too, is something like Willy Wonka in that his properties are full of hidden passages and tiny intricacies. And though Stevie is both gifted and brave, she has moments of vulnerability and anxiety that soften her character and make her relatable. The mystery aspects of the novel, too, were nicely paced and believable.

My only real complaint about Truly Devious was that there was a broad cast of characters and keeping track of the students and faculty often made me want to take notes of my own. The adults, especially, were only sporadically mentioned, and I often had to go through the book to remind myself of which teacher was being referenced.

Still, I was enthralled by Truly Devious and am now eagerly awaiting the sequel. Many students are passionate about crime and forensics, and I can foresee this novel being popular choice among the student body. The novel also touches on topics that are worth discussing—fame, plagiarism, and political disagreements.

Book Review: We Now Return to Regular Life

wenowreturntoregularlife

Wilson, Martin. We Now Return to Regular Life. Dial, 2017.

One of the most chilling books I’ve ever read was Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life. Dugard was abducted as a child, then imprisoned inside the home of her abductor for eighteen years. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted and even bore two children during the time of her captivity. I was in awe of her strength and perseverance.

One thing I didn’t consider, though, was how Jaycee’s reappearance rocked her family and how difficult it must have been to assimilate into her previous life. These are topics that are explored further in Martin Wilson’s YA contemporary fiction novel, We Now Return to Regular Life.

The past three years have been hellish for Beth Walsh as her brother, Sam, went missing on a seemingly innocuous summer afternoon. He told Beth he was going to ride his bike to the mall with his neighbor, Josh, but failed to return home hours later. Despite exhaustive searches on foot, pleas to the public, and false leads, Sam was never located. Beth tries to begin her life anew by joining the soccer team, making new friends, and spending as much time away from home and her grieving mother and stepfather as possible. However, while studying with a friend, Beth receives a phone call she never anticipated: her mother tells her that Sam has returned home. Will he be the same mischievous little brother that Beth remembers? What happened to Sam in his three-year absence?

Josh feels an enormous amount of guilt regarding Sam Walsh’s disappearance. He was with Sam the day he went missing, but abandoned him when the two began arguing. Josh shares all of this with the police, of course, but what eats him inside is the bit of information he keeps secret: as Josh walked back home, alone, he was approached by a strange man in a white truck. The man offered to give Josh a ride home, but Josh fled and hid in a neighbor’s backyard until the man drove away. Josh later decides he was overreacting, and decides to keep the event a secret. But when Sam returns home after three long years, Josh is gutted to learn that the strange man in the truck was Sam’s captor. Will Josh ever come clean to Sam about keeping important information from the police? Will Sam forgive him? Will the boys repair their friendship?

We Now Return to Regular Life has a unique plot, and Beth and Josh’s dual narration gives readers a complete picture of how Sam’s disappearance and reappearance rattles a family and community. The book also discusses masculinity. Many of Sam’s former friends express disbelief that a boy could be abducted and sexually assaulted. Many of the same friends avoid or refuse to speak to Sam, believing that he is a freak or that he somehow enjoyed his kidnapping. These parts of the novel were difficult to read, but I felt they were important and worthy of discussion.

I have only nit-picky complaints regarding the book. I expected the media to have a larger presence in the story—news vans are parked around the house when Sam first returns home and there is one televised interview, but very little coverage is mentioned afterward. Also, the appearance of Beth and Sam’s biological father was much too brief. I desired more exploration of their broken relationship

Overall, Wilson’s novel would be a smart addition to a classroom library. The book explores the ways human beings grow and heal from trauma, which will unfortunately be relatable to a number of students.

My Favorite Book(s) of 2017

favorite read of 2017

2017 has been a great year for Young Adult fiction.

I’ve read a wide variety of books—from contemporary romance to fantasy to dystopia. YA authors have tackled important social issues, created new and exciting worlds, and spurred fandoms and film franchises.

It’s been such a great year for YA fiction that I simply couldn’t narrow my favorite 2017 read down to one. It was a struggle, even, to narrow it down to two.

So, without further ado, I am pleased to announce my favorite books of 2017: John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down and Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current.

Green’s newest book is all about vulnerability. Turtles All the Way Down presents the gritty reality of mental illness, a reality that extends beyond the narrator’s adolescence. The pacing is perfect, the dialogue smart and funny. During my entire read, I just kept thinking, “Yes. I’ve missed this.”

Tolcser’s pirate adventure manages to weave in moments of humor and fantastic feminist themes. The surprises and plot twists felt genuine. The characterization in Song of the Current was so well done that I was sad to leave Caro and company. As I am normally not a fan of pirates nor fantasy, Tolcser’s novel has been my most pleasant surprise of the year.

Honorable mentions include Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls.

I will, unfortunately, have less time for reading in 2018. I will be working on the completion of my thesis for my MFA, and this coupled with full-time teaching will mean that a once-per-week book review might be a bit of a stretch. I am still planning on reading and reviewing plenty of YA books; however, the blog posts might not be as frequent. I still hope you’ll continue to read my little blog.

Here’s to plenty of great books in 2018! What were your favorites this year?

Book Review: Truthers

truthers cover

Girard, Geoffrey. Truthers. Carolrhoda Lab, 2017.

I should preface this review by admitting that I’m not fond of 9/11 conspiracy theories. I usually find them far-fetched, so much so that I initially resisted reading Geoffrey Girard’s Truthers despite the many Instagram posts and glowing reviews I found online. I was then able to meet Girard at the Books by the Banks Festival in Cincinnati. Not only was he friendly and personable, but I also learned that he was a fellow teacher. This latter bit of information persuaded me to give Truthers a try.

Sixteen-year-old Katie Wallace has spent much of her adolescence caring for her mentally ill and drug addicted father. When police and a social worker inform Katie that her father has been placed in a psychiatric hospital, she isn’t surprised. During her first visit with him, Katie’s father shares shocking information—he claims that Katie isn’t his biological daughter, and, even more staggering, her mother was a victim of a government orchestrated 9/11. He claims he took Katie from her mother’s arms before officials sent plane passengers to their certain death.

His claims spur Katie to frantically seek the help of an attorney. A high-profile lawyer says she’ll take Katie’s case if she’s able to prove that some of her father’s radical ideas have merit. What follows is a spiral of researching and investigating, leading Katie to uncover facts and coverups that surprise her. Amid her research, she meets teen prodigy Max, who challenges many of the theories while providing his hacking expertise. But Katie can’t shake the feeling that she’s wading into dangerous territory. Is she being watched? Will her actions have repercussions? Will she find the right information to free her father? Where is her biological mother?

Girard’s prose is masterful and suspenseful. From the beginning of the Truthers to the end, I felt a growing paranoia for Katie and many of the other characters in the novel. I was truly invested in the mystery at the core of Truthers, and my determination to uncover the next big plot twist kept me up late at night. Girard has obviously done his research as evidenced by the inclusion of many court cases, theories, and timelines; there’s even a works cited page at the book’s end.

Along the same vein, the abundance of information is perhaps the book’s weakest attribute. There are moments the text feels dense with figures, facts, names, and events. I would assume that teen readers, largely unfamiliar with some of the specifics of 9/11, might find themselves overwhelmed.

Most students are interested in conspiracy theories, so I could predict that Truthers would be a popular choice in a classroom library. No matter your feelings on the Truther movement, Katie’s end goal is admirable and involves something we ask our students to do every day—to back up claims with evidence.

Book Review: Girl Online

girl online cover

Sugg, Zoe. Girl Online. Keywords Press, Atria. 2014.

As an adult, I like to pretend that I was never an awkward pre-teen or teenager. The proof is inescapable, however. My mother recently found an old photo from a glamour shot session–sequined blazer, big hair, and too much rouge.

So, in short, I know a little something about being awkward.

That’s why I found the synopsis of Zoe Sugg’s Girl Online appealing. The protagonist is clumsy, unsure, and very relatable.

Fifteen-year-old Penny Porter seems to continually find new ways to embarrass herself, whether it’s falling in a pothole, knocking over a display, or inadvertently telling the boy she likes that she has fleas. And there’s an alarming new development in Penny’s life–following a serious car accident, Penny has panic attacks. Her only moments of true peace and security come from being with her family, best friend Elliot, and sharing her thoughts in a blog entitled Girl Online. Despite her lackluster popularity in the “real world”, Penny has a slew of readers who encourage and uplift her.

After a particularly painful incident at Penny’s school, her parents make an announcement–they will be traveling abroad to New York City to help coordinate a wedding at the Waldorf Astoria and they want Penny and Elliot to come along. The distance and glamour of New York are just what Penny needs to heal from her embarrassment. While helping her mother with wedding preparations, Penny meets Noah, the grandson of the wedding’s caterer. With his dimples, Brooklyn accent, and ability to calm her when she is anxious, Penny begins falling for Noah almost immediately. But she knows that soon she will have to return home to the UK. Will she and Noah be able to maintain a long-distance relationship? Why does Noah rarely go out in public? And as the popularity of Girl Online grows, will Penny be able to keep her identity a secret?

There were great little details and moments of humor that endeared this book to me–Sugg’s descriptions of New York at Christmastime, the contrast between UK and America, and Penny’s tendency to say the wrong thing in times of duress. Although relationships in YA romances sometimes feel forced, Noah and Penny’s chemistry was palpable and believable. Blog posts and text messages are interspersed throughout the chapters, and they provide a nice break from the narration. Overall, Girl Online is a quick, enjoyable read.

I felt the immense popularity of Penny’s blog was somewhat far-fetched; the insertion of more blog posts would have possibly helped the reader see what made it attractive to so many readers. And Megan, Penny’s “frienemy”, was so thoroughly evil that she felt flat.

This will be a beloved addition to a classroom library–not only is it a high interest text, but the author, Zoella, is a popular vlogger on YouTube. More importantly, this book could possibly provide comfort to students struggling with their own anxiety. Girl Online is a nice reminder that the teenage years can be awkward, but they can be amazing, too.

Book Review: Little & Lion

little and lion cover

Colbert, Brandy. Little & Lion. Little Brown, 2017.

As a high school teacher and avid reader, I’ve become familiar with the continuously growing roster of popular YA authors. It’s rare—and therefore extremely exciting—for me to come across an unfamiliar author. While reading the YA anthology Summer Days and Summer Nights, I saw many names and writing styles I knew—Veronica Roth, Cassandra Clare, Lev Grossman. But my favorite story came from an author I’d never read: Brandy Colbert. I went to Amazon and quickly purchased her latest novel, Little & Lion.

Suzette is a proud member of a diverse, blended family: she’s close to her stepfather, Saul, and stepbrother Lionel. She and her mother even convert to Judaism, though, as an African-American, Suzette must deal with her share of insensitive questions. She and Lionel (nicknamed “Little” and “Lion” respectively) share a unique bond, one that is tested when Lion has a strange, violent outburst. Lion is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and while he struggles and tries a myriad of medications, Suzette’s parents worry that she is too preoccupied with her brother’s health. They send her away to boarding school in Massachusetts.

When Suzette returns home for the summer, many things have changed—her brother appears to be in better health, while she is reeling following an abrupt, messy breakup with her roommate, Iris. Suzette lands a part-time job at a florist where she feels a pull toward her tattooed, spunky co-worker, Rafaela. But when Lion meets and expresses an interest in Rafaela, Suzette feels conflicted. This is further complicated by a secret Lion shares with Suzette alone: he is shirking his medication. Will Suzette find the courage to tell their parents? Will Lion function without the assistance of his medication? Will Suzette stay with her family in LA or return to the boarding school in the Fall?

Little & Lion inspires the reader to think about family—how they come in many shapes and sizes, and how the family we choose often means more to us than a biological connection. It also highlights the helplessness a family member feels when someone they love struggles with mental illness. Suzette, too, is a fantastic protagonist. Her feelings of devotion and concern are often at odds with her feelings of jealousy and resentment, which makes her relatable and human.

I struggled with the characterization of Rafaela—I couldn’t decide if she was bold and unpredictable or just a troublemaker. Some of her actions seemed rash and unkind and caused me to dislike her almost immediately.

I could certainly see using passages from Little & Lion to springboard conversations about mental illness or blended families. The book would likely be a popular and relevant choice in a classroom library. I can’t wait to read more of Colbert’s work—her clear, honest writing style will be attractive to both teenage and adult readers.