Oh. Em. Gee! I didn’t even know this book was out until I saw something about the second book coming out this July. Even though I am not a huge graphic novel reader, I try to push myself to read at least a couple a year so that I can stay in touch with what it out there for my library patrons who do prefer graphic novels. Since I am also a huge fan of Scott Westerfeld’s work, especially the Uglies series, I figured it was a good bet that I would enjoy this one. I am happy to report that reading this was a lot more fun than work! 😉 In fact, I read this entire book in only three sittings because it was so hard to put down.
In Poughkeepsie, NY, there has been a Spill. No one really seems to know what exactly happened. They just know that it is no longer safe inside the Spill Zone. Military personnel guard the perimeter and people don’t tend to go inside except government scientists in hazmat suits. There are all sorts of weird things happening. Animals morphing into strange creatures. Inanimate objects moving around despite a lack of wind. And, in the words of Addison Merrick, the dead have become “meat puppets.” Though she was not in town when the Spill happened, he little sister was. Because they are allowed to stay in their home, which is inside the Spill Zone, Addison has taken to exploring and taking pictures she can sell to support her sister. But, how long will it be before her explorations take her too far?!?
Speaking of Westerfeld’s Uglies series… Check this out! (#squeeeeeeee)
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.
Jonny needed a new heart, but he wished someone else didn’t have to die just so he could live. Well… Truly live. He was technically alive while he was in the hospital, but it wasn’t much of a life being connected to a machine that acted as his heart. Though Jonny had made some good friends, he missed his life outside of the hospital and longed for a time when he would not feel sick and tired all the time. Besides, he hated to see his parents so worried. He wished he could just get a new heart so he could move on and start the rest of his life already.
Neve was sick of her twin brother. Leo was just so good at everything — music, school, making friends — and she felt like she was living in his shadow. Until she wasn’t. When Leo suddenly died from a freak accident while their family was on vacation, Neve realized she didn’t really want him gone, but it was a bit too late for that realization. The good news is that Leo had discussed his desire to be an organ donor and his parents followed through to honor his wishes. The better news is that his heart was a match for Jonny, who had a rare blood/tissue type that made finding a donor especially difficult. And while that all seemed to work out pretty well, the good news certainly didn’t take away the grief.
I don’t like spoiling plots, and I don’t really feel like I can say much more without ruining the experience for y’all. But, based on the book description it’s pretty obvious that Neve and Jonny meet up and help one another through this difficult stage in their lives. Readers who enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars and/or Somebody Up There Hates You should definitely check out Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart. Murray’s depiction of chronic illness and the stages of grief were spot-on, and this bitter-sweet romance is sure to stick with readers long after they turn the last page.
Michael, whose father is the leader of a group called Aussie Values, has always assumed that his parents’ stance on immigration was correct. They’d always been kind and loving toward him and his brother, so they were clearly just looking out for the best interests of natural-born citizens with their work in Aussie Values, right? Well… Then he met Mina, a Muslim refugee from Afghanistan, and he began to see things from her perspective. When Mina started to open up to Michael about her own experiences — including the horrific circumstances in which she fled her home, her time in a refugee camp, and her harrowing journey to Australia — he finally understood that the world was not so “black and white,” that not all Muslims are hate-filled terrorists, and that immigration was much more complex than his parents would have him believe. But, can his better understanding help him to encourage tolerance and acceptance? Or will his personal understanding and empathy for the Muslim community, and refugees in general, simply drive a wedge between him and his family?
Sadly, xenophobia (intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries) and Islamaphobia (dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims) are a world-wide epidemic. Far too many people find it easier to fall back on fear of the “unknown” than to educate themselves about what they and those “other” people have in common. Hopefully stories like this will help to personalize the struggles of Muslim people, particularly those who have been displaced by war and are only seeking a better life for themselves. #WeNeedDiverseBooks because we can only stamp out illogical fear and hatred with a better understanding of the people and the world around us.
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.
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.