Category Archives: contemporary

The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

the-beauty-that-remainsTRIGGER WARNING!
Autumn’s best friend, Tavia, died in a car accident. Shay lost her twin sister, Sasha, to a long battle with leukemia. And Logan’s ex-boyfriend, Bram, died by suicide. If you have lost someone close to you, this book is very likely to re-open your own emotional wounds. What may simply have been a “tear jerker” for other readers actually brought me back to my decades-ago loss of my own best friend and the guilt I felt long after her passing. I think that, perhaps, Ashley Woodfolk was a little too good at depicting heartache and grief that come with such a loss. /sigh

Though the three of them lost people in very different ways have different aspects of their identities that set them apart — Autumn is adopted and Korean-American, Shay is black, and Logan is gay — their lives are similarly torn apart by both grief and guilt. They think back about the things they regret saying, the things they regret doing or not doing, and all of the “what ifs” eat at them as they struggle to move on with their own lives. As the story progresses, the characters’ stories begins to overlap and, not surprisingly, come together.  Not only does this book do a fantastic job of showcasing the realities of living through grief, but it does so with a diverse cast of characters.  I look forward to seeing what else this debut author will write in the future.

Happy Reading!

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Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

gem-and-dixieGem 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.

Happy Reading!

Run, Hide, Fight Back by April Henry

run-hide-fight-backWhen a mass shooting breaks out at a Portland mall, the people inside have three choices — run, hide, or fight back…  And, since there are several shooters armed with semi-automatic weapons, the wrong choice will likely lead to death. When Amina decided to shut herself into the store where she worked, hoping that the metal security gate would provide enough protection, she didn’t close herself in alone. There were six teens inside, and they would all have to work together to try and get out alive.

It’s a diverse group of teens, so I thought of this as kind of like The Breakfast Club written as a thriller.  And, I have to admit…  Although I loved how this story kept me on the edge of my seat, I am not sure I will be able to go into a shopping mall for a while.  (I thought No Safetly in Numbers was traumatizing at the time, but this is so much more realistic and terrifying.)

Happy Reading!

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

unbecomingAlthough 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.

Happy Reading!

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton

neanderthalCliff Hubbard was probably the biggest loser in his school, both literally and figuratively speaking.  He was 6’6″, 250 pounds, and had a physique that earned him the nickname Neanderthal.  And, ever since his brother Shane killed himself, his life at home had become increasingly terrible as well.  So, how did he end up getting a girlfriend and becoming friends with the über cool and extremely popular quarterback, Aaron Zimmerman?  Well, it all started when Aaron met God.  After awaking from a coma, which resulted from a drunken boating accident, Aaron Zimmerman claimed that he had met God and that God had entrusted him with a list of tasks to complete in order to make Happy Valley High School a better place.  And The List, as it was often called, apparently required the assistance of Cliff Hubbard.

While I don’t think there are a ton of teens out there who will suddenly be called upon by God with specific lists of ways to make their own schools suck less, I think it is entirely possible that this book could inspire greatness.  And although the circumstances of HVHS might not align exactly with the circumstances of every high school, readers can certainly draw some parallels between The List and the ways they could reach out and help out people in their own schools and communities.  I highly recommend that Nerdfighters who want to end Worldsuck check this book out when it’s published in May.

Happy Reading!

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

words-in-deep-blueHenry 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.

Happy Reading!

Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart by Tamsyn Murray

second-hand-heartJonny 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.

Happy Reading!