Gem and Dixie have only ever truly had each other. And, since Gem was the older sister, she has always been more like a mom to Dixie. Their dad left town a long time ago — after their mom finally got sick of his drinking, drugging, and cheating on her and kicked him out. And though their mom was technically around, her presence didn’t count for much. She, too, struggled with addiction and rarely spent her wages on necessities like food. Because Dixie was pretty and popular, she didn’t worry too much about going hungry. Gem, on the other hand, was socially awkward and often felt the pangs of hunger — both physical and emotional. Despite the fact that they still needed each other as much as ever, the girls were growing apart. And then, their dad announced that he would be coming back. Dixie, who had always been somewhat sheltered from the reality of their situation, was elated to think that her father might come back and make everything better again. Gem, nevertheless, feared that his return to Seattle would mean nothing but more trouble.
I think this book was great for a couple of different reasons. One, it was a very realistic portrayal of neglect. Many people seem to think that neglect it is preferable to other forms of abuse, but I don’t think people realize just how damaging neglect can be. To read about Gem and Dixie’s experiences without gaining a little empathy would be extremely difficult. Second, I think this book might provide some much-needed hope to readers who have experienced or are currently experiencing neglect in their own lives. These kids need to realize that they are not alone AND that there is help out there for them. Though this book doesn’t play off as “happily ever after,” and perhaps *because* of this imperfect ending, I definitely think this is a good book to add to bibliotherapy lists for teens who are dealing with a history of neglect and/or family members who struggle with addiction.
Although I loved this story, I understand that it may not be for everyone. It jumps back and forth between the past and the present, and there are multiple points of view, so some readers might not be able to follow so easily. Plus, there isn’t much in the way of action and adventure, which might turn some people off. But there is love, and loss, and yearning, and learning about self and family and friendship. So much emotional depth! I hadn’t really heard anything about this book before I saw the audiobook was immediately available for download via my local library, but I did recognize Jenny Downham’s name because I recalled sobbing my eyes out as I read Before I Die. (I often search and see which YA titles are “available now” rather than searching specific titles because I like to find hidden gems and, well, I am impatient!) So, yeah… I decided to give it a go. And, boy am I glad I went for it!
Katie is seventeen and she is struggling with several things. First, and foremost, she is struggling with her sexuality. Not only is she not totally sure how she identifies, but she is being bullied at school because of it. On top of that, she has an overbearing mom (Caroline), who often needs her to help care for her special needs brother (Chris). And, as if that all wasn’t enough, she also discovers that she has a grandmother (Mary) whom she never really knew and who now requires a place to live and constant care because she has Alzheimer’s and her long-time partner/caregiver (Jack) just died of a heart attack. When Katie decides to record stories in a memory book, to try to help preserve Mary’s memories, she discovers so much more than family history and secrets. She uncovers a variety of reasons her mother is so up-tight and the realization that “truth” varies greatly with perspective.
Henry and Rachel were best friends. And they were falling in love. But neither of them was brave enough to admit it out loud. Henry found it much easier to fall back on dating his on-again-off-again girlfriend Amy. And Rachel took a chance on a love letter placed inside one of Henry’s favorite books. This idea was kind of brilliant, actually, since Henry’s family owned a book shop called Howling Books which was well-known for its letter library. (The letter library was a room full of books that were not for sale but rather left there for people to read, leave notes in the margins, and even exchange letters with other readers.) When Rachel moved away and Henry never replied to her letter, she assumed that he didn’t care. But, little did she know he never received her letter.
A few years later, after Rachel’s brother Cal died and she dropped out of school, she moved back to town. She was sent to live with her aunt so she could get a job and try to move on with her life. When the job her aunt originally lined up fell through, though, she ended up getting Rachel a job at Howling Books. Amy had just dumped Henry, and Rachel was silently grieving the loss of her younger brother, so the tension was pretty thick, but they both decided to try and make it work. After all, Rachel was hired because the shop was going to be sold and Henry’s father wanted/needed her to catalog the letters in the letter library. I really enjoyed the samples of letters people had left one another. And I also loved how true-to-life these characters were. Their feelings rang true, their interactions were painfully realistic, and the evolution of their relationship was very believable. I recommend this book to fans of All The Bright Places and/or Eleanor & Park.
Contrary to popular belief, heroes are not always perfectly behaved and villains are not always evil. In fact, heroes sometimes act out of spite or self-interest, and villains sometimes act selflessly to help other people. In this story, both the Renegades and the Anarchists are comprised of prodigies — people with special powers, much like the X-Men — but their vastly different ideologies have placed them on opposite sides of the hero-villain spectrum. The Anarchists honestly believe that society would fare better without so much governmental oversight and interference, i.e. with anarchy. The Renegades, on the other hand, think that they are doing society a favor by overseeing everyone and bringing back law and order. Though both sides think their way would be best for the greater good, neither side seems capable of seeing the other side’s point of view.
Enter Nova, aka Nightmare.
Nova was raised by her Uncle Ace [the leader of the Anarchists] after the Renegades failed to protect her family. Nova has been consumed by a desire to avenge their deaths for as long as she can remember, but none of her plans seem to work out. Luckily, the Anarchists have an alternate plan that just might work. Because the Renegades don’t know Nightmare’s true identity, the Anarchists decide to send Nova to Renegade try-outs so that they can use her to gather intel and take down the Renegades from the inside. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Nova, who takes on the Renegade name of Insomnia, to start to feel conflicted. Not only does she start to fall for a guy who is a part of the Renegades, but she starts to see *why* the Renegades operate the way they do and that their methods actually have some merit to them. What’s a girl to do?!?
People often talk about “wrestling with vipers” as a metaphor for dealing with difficult people or situations. And, while Dill has had to face down plenty of “vipers” at school, he has also come face-to-face with actual poisonous snakes in his father’s Pentacostal church. After his father was sent to prison — not for endangering the welfare of his congregation with snake handling and poison drinking, but for charges of child pornography — Dill’s life only got more difficult. He and his mom had to figure out how to run their household and tackle the family debt without their main provider… And Dill’s mom literally blamed him for his father’s imprisonment. On top of the fact that his mom actually thought he was to blame, sharing his father’s name seemed to make the townspeople think he shared his father’s penchant for perversion. Thank goodness Dill had two good friends, Lydia and Travis, who stood by his side regardless of how the rest of the community treated him.
Other than hanging out with Lydia and Travis, Dill’s only escape was through music. And he even had to keep that a secret, since the only music his parents found acceptable was Christian music. (His ability to create so-called Christian explanations for the names of bands and artists was masterful, though, so he still managed to listen to bands like Joy Division.) The problem was that escaping into music and spending time with his friends weren’t helping as much anymore, since his senior year was being overshadowed by fear of the future. How could he possibly manage after Lydia went away to college — especially if she started to forget about him? Would he and Travis still be as good of friends without Lydia in the mix? And would he ever find a way to truly make himself happy while he still felt compelled to “honor his parents” and work to pay off their debts instead of going away to college to plan for a better life for himself? If you enjoy reading novels by John Green, A.S. King, and Sara Zarr, I highly recommend you check out Jeff Zentner.
Because I enjoyed Dashner’s Maze Runner series, and am not-so-patiently waiting for the theatrical release of Ready Player One (by Ernest Cline), I thought this seemed like an audiobook I should probably check out. I mean, what’s not to like about a fast-paced technological thriller, right?!? Much like in Ready Player One, a lot of this story took place in a virtual world. Rather than just using goggles and gloves to connect to that virtual world, though, the people in this story use “coffins” that provide their bodies with physical sensations to make it feel as if they are actually experiencing the sensations (both pleasure and pain) of the VirtNet.
Michael is a gamer who spends more of his time in the VirtNet than in actual reality. And, who can blame him? Most of his friends are people he has never met in real life, and his hacking skills mean that he can be better, faster, and stronger with only a few lines of code. Rumors begin to circulate about a “bad” hacker who is using his skills to trap people in the VirtNet against their will, which causes the victims to suffer brain damage and memory loss in real life. Shortly after meeting a girl who claimed to be a victim, Michael was contacted by someone from the government who asked him to use his hacking skills for good by tracking down the perpetrator. Sounds simple enough, right? Yeah… Definitely not! If you want lots of action and adventure set in a high-tech virtual world, you’ll definitely want to read this one.
Growing up in Bed Stuy, NY, meant being surrounded by a lot of “bad” stuff. Ali knew about the criminal activity all around him — from fencing stolen goods to prostitution to dealing and using drugs — but he wan’t into any of that. His thing was boxing, hence his nickname. It wasn’t because he actually liked fighting or anything, though, but because he liked training. In fact, Ali wasn’t really into sparring at all and didn’t do particularly well in the ring. Aside from boxing, he mostly just wanted to hang with his friends, Noodles and Needles. Obviously, those are not their real names, but I’ll let you read the book to get the back story of how they got those nicknames. I will also leave most of the plot out of this review because I don’t want to spoil anything. Just know that there are plenty of teachable moments about family, friendship, loyalty, and choosing to rise above your surroundings.
I think what I liked the most about this story was how the author acknowledged the seedier side of urban life without glorifying crime and violence. Much like Greg Neri’s Ghetto Cowboy, this book laid out all the best reasons kids should aim higher and also showed that it is possible to come back from bad choices instead of simply giving up.