I am on a significant roll with my YA and adult reading lately. When's the last time you could say that? When's the last time every book you picked up knocked you on your butt and made you holler on Facebook or DM the author or, in once case because I don't have any access to the author - yell at the author's agent about how good the book was? I mean, who knows agents?
Apparently, I do.
Each and every one of these books deserves a thoughtful in-depth review. And I expect we will see those reviews in the New York Times or Kirkus or the Guardian or somewhere else that hasn't yet employed me to write book reviews. From me, you're just gonna get a list and a couple paragraphs. Pollen. Makes me stupid. So here you go (in ascending order by audience):
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Bradbury
This has been out a while, and we listened to it a while ago, but it has really stuck with me. Siblings, evacuated from London prior to the Blitz, adjust to a better life than they have ever known. So - this is much more about the effects of an abusive childhood than it is historical fiction. Ada, the older of the two kids, had literally never been out of their one-room apartment - she was born with a clubfoot and their widowed, horrible mother made her stay inside.
Ada's deprivation includes not only malnutrition and lack of adequate clothing (she had no shoes at all), but also intellectual and emotional impoverishment. Her reactions to a suddenly word-rich environment, and to kindness, and even ordinary things like the physical contact of a handshake are thought-provoking and eye-opening. I especially recommend this book for adults and kids who want or need to understand more about kids they know who may have come from a traumatic background.
Get the audio. Read by Jayne Entwistle in her marvelous range of British accents and that slightly scratchy voice that reminds me of Glynis Johns.
It's All Your Fault by Paul Rudnick.
Imagine a Lindsay Lohan crossed with Miley Cyrus – a Disney sitcom princess turned into a teenage hot mess. Now imagine if that young woman had gotten the part of Katniss in The Hunger Games. You'd want to recruit her straitlaced homeschooled former best friend cousin to keep her out of trouble during a weekend of public appearances in New York City, right? Well I'm here to tell you that plan may not work out that way you'd hope. There will be hot guys and hot yoga, a vicious fangirl, a stolen car, a terrible dye job and a minor act of industrial vandalism (OMG industrial vandalism is SO FUN) before Caitlyn and Heller land in the clink.
Less hallucinogenic and better put together than Rudnick's previous book for this age group, Gorgeous, but similarly wild and funny and full of heart. And interestingly, the first of many on this list in which teenagers have a significant relationship with music/art. In this case, Caitlyn sings and writes most of the arrangements for her squeaky-clean family band, and one of the conflicts in the novel is whether she will overcome her anxiety enough to go to college to study music. There are a couple of good scenes that describe her feelings while singing in such a close, supportive ensemble, which makes a nice contrast to Heller, who is more of a soloist but who also finds her place harmonizing with the group.
The Bad Decisions Playlist by Michael Rubens. Aug 2.
On the first (or so) page of this book, Austin introduces himself by saying he is lazy and a coward but he will do anything if a girl is watching. As he tells us this, he happens to be high, standing in a canoe, carrying a valuable antique mandolin he has borrowed-not-borrowed from his mom's uptight boyfriend, about to serenade a bunch of cheerleaders and their scowling, beefy boyfriends.
Needless to say, the mandolin does not make it out of the first chapter alive.
If you are now or have ever been a teenager - or if you are now or have ever been the parent of a teenager - this situation will resonate with you, as will every succeeding situation in which Austin ignores instructions, tells utterly transparent lies, self-medicates, and/or fails to take into account the consequences of any of the above actions. It is SUCH A PLEASURE TO READ. This is a crystalline, smooth-flowing novel of ups and downs, very satisfying in the way that everyone gets basically what they deserve, and very reassuring to those of us who need to know that the lack of executive function during the teenage years is both common and probably not permanent.
And oh, the music. When Austin's long-lost dad appears on the scene, a seeming amalgam of Bob Dylan and maybe Dwight Yoakam, Austin gets a chance to record with him, working together to build Austin's frustrating fragments of verse and music into completed songs. One of the pleasures of this book is that Austin is a truly good musician - we get to experience that perfect-fit blend of comfort and adrenaline as you stand on stage just killing it as all your preparation and ability pays off.
My theory here - and I always have a theory - is that Rubens, who has worked for The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and now Samantha Bee's new show, is very familiar with working very fucking hard (and probably fast) with very talented people who also work hard, such that they consistently deliver hilarious and intelligent shit of such exceptionally high quality that it looks easy. That's exactly how it feels when Austin sings, and that's exactly how it feels to read this book.
Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King
Sarah goes downtown and fills out a form, changing her name to Umbrella. She switches to a new school, a school full of broken drywall and water damage, that she found after taking 4 random buses. She has lengthy conversations with a ten-year-old girl who is also herself.
Now, the extent to which Sarah does or does not actually do these things is beside the point. But she has definitely stopped going to her own school, and she has definitely stopped making art, and she has appreciably run out of fucks to give. This is all following an incident at school that she doesn't want to talk about, because, high on the list of the things she is not interested in doing anymore is being a teenage girl, and teenage girls get upset about stuff and people dismiss them as being "dramatic."
The incident at school is kind of beside the point too. The point has something to do with why her brother left town and doesn't call, and why her mother's middle finger is strong and toned from frequent use, and why past and future Sarahs keep showing up to roll their eyes at her or remind her of what she doesn't realize she's sad about.
Great. Three paragraphs, and could I get any more cryptic? Could I use more nonspecific language? It's not because I'm avoiding spoilers, but it's because - ugh here I am saying it again - the plot is sort of beside the point. The book is fiercely about learning how to see your life and, to some extent, about how twisted your perceptions can become when you can't.
NOT BESIDE THE POINT: I have recently concluded that parents need two rounds of therapy: the first round when the kids are babies/toddlers, in order to a) process your feelings about how you were parented b) give yourself a break about how you are not always 100% different from your parents and c) vent the rage and frustration of having babies/toddlers without harming yourself or others.
But the second round is what's pertinent here: you need another round of therapy when your kids become teenagers - because these moments, when they begin to come to grips with who they are and how they're going to handle the things life smacks them in the face with - will and probably should walk you back through the process and decisions you made at their age. I think this is the root of some of the friction between parents and teens: when grownups see their kids start thinking down a road that they themselves have traveled and which didn't work out so well - or when the kids react in a wholly different way that the parents are like WHAT ARE YOU DOING GET BACK HERE. Plus - you better believe they are looking at you in a clear new light, so it's probably a good time to figure out what they might be seeing.
The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle
Quinn Roberts has barely left his house in six months, ever since his older sister died in a fiery wreck. He and his mom are cocooned in their house, watching police procedurals (mom), wearing earplugs (Quinn), and eating Hot Pockets (both). One day, Quinn's best friend Geoff manages to pry him out of the house, all the way to a party - a college party - where he meets Amir, who loves movies and isn't into sports, and who thinks Quinn has a cute butt.
What follows is a summer week of courageous acts, dumb decisions, revelations, mourning, and a little tongue. And in a terrific book full of All the Feels, it was this line, oddly, that started me sniffling: "Leave it to a mom to solve any problem with a snack, and yet: They are always right about this." Quinn is a character who is just on the verge of being a sharp-eyed but empathetic observer of human nature and dynamics (in other words, Quinn's pretty much about to turn into Tim Federle), and it's really neat to spy him in this tentative space before he really clicks in.
Now, ok - Tim Federle says "fuck" in this book. Get over yourself. J.K. Rowling used the word "scrotum" in The Cuckoo's Calling. People have facets. And fortunately, Tim Federle's YA facet is considerably shinier than Rowling's grownup one. I'll go so far as to say I think The Great American Whatever is better than the Nate books, and kind of by a long chalk. And I really liked the Nate books. (Do the math...carry the one...that means I think this book is truly exceptional.)
I find the story here to flow more organically. Quinn, older and more aware of who he is than Nate is, doesn't need to define himself by describing other people and things with such a wealth of detail and simile as Nate does. Also, while Tim maintains a particularly insouciant relationship with coincidence ("I grew up on musical theater," you seem to hear him say. "Without coincidence, there would be no Broadway"), there's way less in this book. Nate's story is a Broadway fairy tale - Quinn's is a Pittsburgh coming-of-age with a couple lucky breaks, a much more natural story.
The Haters by Jesse Andrews
Speaking of magic realism. Three teenagers escape from jazz camp and hit the road to achieve rock stardom. The same blend of hilarious dialogue and authentic coming-of-age conflict as in Jesse Andrews's first book, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but I have to say, this book feels like it was kind of a lot of work to write. It's a bit labored. Not necessarily a bad thing, as being a teenager is, in fact, LABOR. But there are practical issues that this plot has to overcome: how do three middle-class 21st-century teenagers ACTUALLY run away? Given social media and phones and credit cards and the like? And how do you keep an adolescent road trip like this from becoming a desperate, destitute, pathetic attempt?
I am reading an account of the L.A. punk scene edited by John Doe called Under the Big Black Sun. In it, he and Jane Weidlin (Go-Gos) and Pleasant Gehman and others talk about fighting and playing and screwing and mostly just reaching for freedom and reacting against a culture that considered pop music with flute solos pretty darn great. We are talking 1977 through maaayybe 1986 here. I was a similarly unhinged youth making similar mayhem roughly ten years after that on the other side of the country (although I wasn't in a band and none of my friends got even briefly famous. A few died though, so there's that).
But how do you do that now? How do you wrestle your way out of the stultifying status quo - as the characters in The Haters try to - in 2016? You have to get rid of the cell phones and have access to a whole shitload of cash, and I'm sorry, but wangling those things into a plot is just too much artifice. The book begins to run slightly sideways, like an old car with a weird alignment problem.
I still really liked it - an ungainly Jesse Andrews novel is still miles and miles better than 95% of what else is out there.
With Malice by Eileen Cook
For example. Here's one in the massively overpopulated subgenre I'm calling Junior Gone Girl. Jill wakes up in the hospital after a car accident she doesn’t remember. She only has two questions: Can I still go on the school trip to Italy? and Where’s Simone? - her best friend. Turns out she’s already BEEN to Italy and Simone is DEAD. Not only that, but for some reason the Italian police think she might have intentionally caused Simone's death. Jill's point of view is interwoven with testimony and statements from witnesses in Italy and classmates at home as we all try to puzzle out what happened.
So you have to just ignore the whole ludicrous "She was driving and they think she crashed the car into a wall on purpose in order to murder the person in the passenger seat?" thing for well over half the book, because another piece of evidence will show up, evidence which in fact the Italian police would have had to disclose to her lawyer (la la la ignore that too) because actually the book is a fantastic depiction of the overheated emotional maze that is the close adolescent relationship.
Love, jealousy, dominance, fear - these things are all there as we collate conflicting accounts of their friendship. Unfortunately, also in attendance is a pierced-tongue Latina roommate who has been to juvie, and her cholo friend who uses his computer smarts to run wifi scams. And a faithless Italian lover, as well as a venal lawyer and uptight Christians. Yum, stereotypes!
The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Intertwined stories of four teens growing up in Alaska. Poverty and family drama, but also magnificent beauty and a sense of freedom roll through this book - like a scrappy, grimy little town with breathtaking mountains rising just behind it. This book reads like Cormac McCarthy but not as dark, and with a lot more women. And the art here is dance. I'm not going to say much more about it. It's populated by teens but it is for sure a great book for adults. It's short, just read it. Thank me later.
Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson.
Brooklyn in the late ‘60’s and early 70’s - Jackie Woodson has said of it "When we moved to Brooklyn, it was just like Sesame Street." And it still is, in this book - August and her best friends come from Martinique, from the South; they have red hair, thick black "Asian" hair, braids, beautiful Afros - but in this book, Jackie's first written for adults in a long time, we see that there were junkies and prostitutes on Sesame Street too, and and young men home from Vietnam, blank and haunted.
Most of all, she shows us the near-constant peril of being an adolescent girl in a neighborhood of unsupervised latchkey kids and underemployed young men. Not to mention, I mean, nothing special about Brooklyn in this regard - a general culture in which young girls are/were little more than treats or prizes. One girl's father tries to keep her on a high shelf in order to keep her pristine, while the boys (always older boys) that surround August and her friends call to them, whisper, flatter them into dark corners of the park.
It's such a vivid book. Woodson does excel at these immersive, bone-deep depictions of scenes she seems to see in perfect memory: an opened fire hydrant, DJs in the park, a woman walking past with an unfocused gaze and a halting gait.
Super short, a wrenching take on the struggle to be more than what your surroundings want of you.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay
A young teenage boy disappears into the woods and his mom and sister go crazy. As you would. But there’s crazy and then there’s CRAZY.
Without giving too much away - oh boy this is going to be hard - Elizabeth, the mom, feels like Tommy is trying to communicate with her from wherever he is. She keeps finding pages from a diary she never knew he had, pages showing up impossibly, in the middle of the floor in rooms nobody has been in. Neighbors keep seeing a shadow at the window. She gradually learns of an older guy Tommy and his friends had begun to hang out with in the nearby state park, at a boulder layered with folklore and rumors of sinister goings-on.
I was reading this book late one night when both of my cats suddenly jolted awake and rushed silently to the window. I froze, listening listening, despite knowing for sure that they were just being idiots. These cats react similarly to a leaf blowing across the porch. But no! I heard a shuffle and a thud. There was definitely something outside the window.
The three minutes that I spent immobile on the couch before forcing myself to go to the front door and check the lock are three minutes that I can charge plainly to Paul Tremblay's account. What is more, the icy, terrified sorrow I felt upon realizing what Tommy and his too-young friends had done, or had been goaded into doing, or didn't do and got blamed for because of their naive admiration of an older boy and his freedom - that awful mom moment, that belongs to him too. And that wasn't a raccoon.
Providence save our teenage kids - from us, from the world, from waking up to realize they are not who they want to be. Let them take hold of their gifts, and practice them, and let those gifts bring them into their futures. Meanwhile we can read, crossing our fingers and hoping that reminding ourselves of how it feels to be that age will make us ready to jump in and save them at the last moment, and grit our teeth and keep ourselves from jumping in til then.