YA Summer Books With Depth: My Life Next Door and We Were Liars

Huntley Fitzpatrick, author of My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, gave a reading and talk at my bookshop last Thursday night.  I had a great time hearing about little real-life details which inspire her, and the writing process in general.  Huntley read aloud from her newest YA book, What I Thought Was True, which is a love story between a girl who works year-round on a New England island and one of those dreaded rich “summer boys.”  I haven’t read What I Thought Was True yet, but the piece she read aloud was funny and unexpected and sweet.

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But… wait a minute!  I don’t ever read novels with candy colored spines or pretty young people modeling beachwear in the sunset.  If I pick up a beach book, it had better feature a pistol duel between mutineering pirates, or some buried treasure, at least.  So why am I talking about realistic, romantic YA all of a sudden?

I’m thrilled that Ms. Fitzpatrick came to our bookshop because she was funny and interesting and started a great conversation with the audience.  But I’m also glad she came because it gave me a reason to pick up her first book, My Life Next Door, which otherwise I might never have read.  Hah… “might never have”…  I almost certainly would not have cracked the spine without an incentive.  And that would have been a big mistake!  Despite the swoon-y cover, My Life Next Door is actually an engaging story with thoroughly unique characters.  It isn’t one of the assembly-line summer romances which flood the shelves every season.  I couldn’t predict what would happen in each chapter according to some tired out pattern of insta-love, misunderstanding, dramatic rebellion, redemption.  The supporting characters and dramatic tension were a step above what I’d expected to find in a book of this genre, and I take back any judgements I foolishly made upon perusing the cover.  (Reminder to self: authors have no say in their book cover.  I guess international editions are even more surprising for the author, sometimes!)

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Samantha was brought up to dislike the Jarretts next door.  Her mother is an all-too-tidy conservative senator and demanding single parent.  So Samantha has heard no end of complaints about the Jarretts’ messy yard, their overabundance of children, and the general joyful ruckus going on across the fence.  Though she’s not spiteful by nature, Samantha watches the Jarretts from her balcony every night, where she imagines what it must be like within that lively house with such a close family.  Then, one day, Jase Jarrett climbs up her balcony and asks if she needs rescuing.  Typically, this would be the part of the book when I throw up my hands in dismay and shout “UGH!” to the heavens. But I kept reading because…well…  I liked Samantha.  I wanted to see how she would react. And I liked what she saw of the Jarrett family.  No better fuel for good stories like a big, rambunctious family, eh?

The main characters were likable and not melodramatic about their attraction.  Huzzah!  The “minor” characters got plenty of attention, and had really interesting back-stories and plot-lines of their own.  Double huzzah!  When speaking at the bookshop, Huntley Fitzpatrick  said that she sometimes noticed that Tim – Samantha’s best friend’s deadbeat but complex brother, and my own favorite character – kept running away with the story and threatening to become the hero.  I wouldn’t have been surprised.  She did such a good job of making sure that each and every character had their own developments to undergo in the course of this one summer.  Nan and Tim’s family life, Samantha’s mother’s troubling new campaign manager, and the side-dramas experienced in the Jarrett household were all crucial elements to Sam and Jase’s story.   That’s probably why I liked My Life Next Door so much: it was a book about how different people interact, and two of those people just happened to fall in love.  Take away the romance and the (refreshingly frank/realistic) sexual tension, and the story would still have been utterly readable.  Good job, Huntley Fitzpatrick!  Thanks for writing about teens in a way which neither trivializes them nor tries to make them so-edgy-it’s-just-silly.

While thinking about My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, I also remembered how much I liked E. Lockhart’s new book We Were Liars.  I read that one in the winter, so my thoughts aren’t quite so fresh in my head, but it would be a terrible shame not to recommend it here.

We Were Liars and My Life Next Door were each rather stressful reads in their own way, with moral conundrums all over the place. While Fitzpatrick’s book has social and political tension to keep things exciting, We Were Liars has a dark mystery at it’s heart.  The reasons for Cadence’s damaged memory are as foggy as the details from the summer of her accident.  She’s been kept in the dark about what happened, but upon returning to the family island she starts to notice that things are a little different.  Her mother and aunts aren’t getting along very well.  Her demanding grandfather is being particularly difficult.  And her friendship with her two cousins and Gat Patil – who she’s grown to probably-love after so many summers with “the Liars” – is weirder than usual.

Why don’t the three of them ever go to the new big house for meals or activities?  Why is there a new house in the first place?  In her uncertain absence, everything seems to have been thrown out of balance, and it just might be her fault.  Unfortunately, no one will tell her what happened.  So she’ll have to find out for herself, even if it means destroying the careful peace of the family’s island paradise.

There was quite a bit of buzz circulating book-world about We Were Liars, but I was determined not to have any set expectations when I read it.  But it’s hard not to make early judgements… as I find out again and again.  My first thoughts upon reading the book were along these lines:

“Ugh, rich people on fancy islands are the worst.”

“Has this family ever set foot into the real world?”

“I wish the patriarch wouldn’t be such an asshole about his grandson’s Indian friend.”

But then I realized something: I felt like I was on the island myself.  I felt like a part of Cadence’s weird family.  When she and her cousins explored the ocean or told secrets under the night sky, I wanted to be part of their group.  It got to the point where I felt like I had seen the island before.  I could describe each and every house to you, even now, months after reading. The setting is so typical of these beachy YA summer novels, but Lockhart sets the scene for her events so well that you’ll forget about any other book’s vague sandy paradise descriptions you’ve had to slog through.  We Were Liars is a short, fast book and nothing is ever a slog.

The plot really extends over two summers, while memories from several previous years filter in and out of Cadence’s reminiscence. The first year she met Gat.  Happy younger days. Distinctly less-happy present ones.  A dreamy atmosphere – brought about by the gaps in her memory as well as the idyllic setting – sets the stage for a series of revelations which come so subtly.  The characters sneak into your brain and heart without asking permission first.  We see everything through Cadence’s eyes, her family and their messed-up priorities, so her dawning horror becomes our own.  I didn’t realize how invested I’d let myself become in the story until I closed the book and realized that I was crying buckets in a not-so-adorable way.

All that initial eye-rolling and frustrated exclaiming was actually adept build-up to the heart of the novel, and now I see why Lockhart chose to make it difficult to muster up sympathy for parts of Cadence’s family.  When you do end up feeling for them, you feel a lot. So yes, We Were Liars got to me, and the book-hype was not disproven after all.

(Last summer, in my back-to-school phase, I reviewed Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, which was not as good as We Were Liars but still pretty fun.)

Two YA “beach reads” with unforseen depths below the surface, lying in wait for the venturesome browser: is it a miracle for this modern age?  A stroke of luck?  Did I just happen to pick up the right two sun-dappled covers because of sheer dumb luck?  I will admit that books like these don’t usually commandeer my attention, but even with no mutinous duels and very little swashbuckling they were very much worth the few hours’ perusal.  If anyone has suggestions of other great stories masquerading as trashy beach reads, please direct my attention to them at once!  I’m not necessarily ready to chart a course for a season of summer romance stories just ey, as I don’t like the sun and heartaches make me seasick.  But I’m willing to re-think my position on them, if there are others like My Life Next Door and We Were Liars waiting just over the horizon.  Please leave suggestions.

Be they cannons blazing, or passions; masts shattering, or hearts, I hope you enjoy your summer reading.

Book Review: The Islands of Chaldea by Dianna Wynne Jones

Star Ratings (out of 5 stars):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8 and up

Just to say: I read an advanced readers’ copy of this book, so some details may have changed by publication.

The Islands of Chaldea is a middle grade fantasy adventure which was nearly completed by Dianna Wynne Jones before her death.  (I’m still not over that tragedy.  Waaahh.)  Her sister, Ursula Jones, put the finishing touches on the book. That being said, the story-telling and sense of magic absolutely feel like something out of a Dianna Wynne Jones book, full stop.  This is a stand-alone novel, so anyone can start reading it without having prior knowledge of Jones’s impressive bibliography, and there’s no unresolved ending to trample our souls.  The plot and world-building in The Islands of Chaldea aren’t quite as impressive as in some of my favorite D.W.J. books, but it was an enjoyable read and brought me back to happy days reading this sort of book in the library when I was a 5th grader.  Any book which would have made 5th grade Sarah happy makes 23 year old Sarah happy, too.

It’s a fairly traditional story, described with Dianna Wynne Jones’s beautiful language. Aileen’s aunt Beck is a wise-woman of Skarr, and young Aileen will be one too.  That is, she’s supposed to become a wise-woman someday. When she doesn’t witness any magical visions at her initiation it looks like she might not have any special powers after all.  There’s not much time to worry about that, though, because Aunt Beck and Aileen are soon sent on a quest by the high king: a voyage across the great magical barrier to the island of Logra, where the prince has been held captive.  In order to get across the barrier, which has separated Logra from the other islands for political reasons largely unknown, Beck and Aileen will have to bring one individual from each island with them on their quest.  Joined by Aileen’s favorite whiny prince; a castle servant who got left on the wrong side of the barrier; an invisible cat; a sprightly man with an omniscient bird; and some artistic distant cousins, Aileen and Aunt Beck will do their best to find the prince and finish their mission.  Along the way they meet mythical figures reminiscent to the Tuatha De Danann; suspicious sailors; and magical monks, all the while weird weather and strange luck greets them at every turn.  Too bad there are people who don’t want them to succeed at all.  People like evil enchanters and a queen who likes turning people into donkeys, but also someone from Skarr who may be hoping they don’t ever make it safely home.

The not-so-merry band of heroes cover an awful lot of ground on their quest, so it’s no surprise that the world-building in The Islands of Chaldea was a bit rushed.  However, the setting here is quite similar to what we encounter in so many fantasy stories – a magical land heavily influenced by European geography and mythology – so the brief encounters with faraway lands aren’t necessarily hard to imagine.  I like how Jones pushed the similarity between typical old-timey fantasy worlds and our own world to the point of obvious parallels; with Skarr being so very much like Scotland (plaids and all), Bernica’s green hills and Leprechauns as Ireland, and the other British Isles represented as well.  Each island has an animal spirit associated with it, and those guardians had wonderful personalities of their own.  Even though Aileen and her companions don’t get a chance to thoroughly explore each island on their way to Logra, their quick but memorable encounters do make a strong impression.  It could be the authors’ ability to boil down the essence of a place into a few anecdotes which keep the pace moving so swiftly, or it could just be the sense of familiarity which would strike any reader of similar fantastical children’s books.  The former option seems quite likely, though, especially given Jones’s legacy of creating wonderful fantasy worlds which always have a twist or two to keep them unique.  (The Dark Lord of Derkholm, for example, bends the magical land with traditional fantasy creatures rules so very amusingly with its Earthly tourists.)  Chaldea isn’t nearly so inventive as some of her other settings, but the story staged on these islands is a traditional, comfortable tale.  The recognizable landscapes, one after another, still seem magical because of the adventures they host and the wonderful characters who dwell there.

The plot was pretty detailed but not so complex as other DWJ books.  I think that The Islands of Chaldea is aimed at a slightly younger crowd than my favorites of hers.  Books like Fire and Hemlock are packed full of legendary references and fairy-tale traditions, but featuring twisty plots which are staggeringly unique.  Her earlier works are so rich in detail, they invite multiple re-readings and have almost always surprised me with something new even years later.  This book is more up front, and the twists are more predictable. Compared to the Chrestomanci books, which are good for a similar age range of readers, the plot of the first 300 pages in The Islands of Chaldea is a little tame. The last few chapters of the book threw a whole bunch of action and twists into relatively few pages.  Things get nicely resolved – perhaps they even fall into place a little too nicely – but I felt that the conclusion was rushed, with so much complexity appearing all of a sudden. It’s the writing and the characters which make it such a likeable fantasy book, then.  Because it really is likable.  The descriptions are lovely, feeding our imaginations with the sights, sounds, scents, and atmosphere of Aileen’s surroundings without straying from the young narrator’s believable point of view.

The characters are just so much fun.  I want to be Aunt Beck when I grow up.  She’s snappy and impressive and looks really great in plaid.  Her relationship with Aileen is brusque but caring, and when their authoritative roles get reversed due to a curse gone wrong halfway through the adventure I found the ensuing character development to be quite satisfying.  Prince Ivar and his teenaged servant Ogo are banterous and amusing; they act as nice foils to the girls’ attempts to keep things in relative order.  The animals have wonderful personalities, too, and the various travelers who join up on the quest ensure that things stay interesting along the way.  Alas, the villains were a little underdeveloped, mostly appearing in the already-rushed end of the novel.  But Aileen’s personal journey as she tunes in to her own powers and the magic of her lands is the real pulse of The Islands Of Chaldea, and not so much the results of the quest itself, and she becomes a very interesting young lady by the story’s end.

I would say that it was an enjoyable escape into a good old-fashioned fantasy world, and will appeal to fans of Dianna Wynne Jones who still aren’t ready to say goodbye.  New readers will probably like The Islands of Chaldea as well, especially anyone who likes wise women who don’t stand for any nonsense (fans of Morwen in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, for example), or likes the traveling bits of high fantasy more than the political entanglements.  For older readers who want something a little more challenging and inventive, I would recommend Fire and HemlockHowl’s Moving Castle, or The Dark Lord of Derkholm. Really, pick up anything by the late and very great Dianna Wynne Jones, and you’ll have a magical experience ahead of you.  She was one of the best.

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

source: goodreads

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.

Pointe is Brandy Colbert’s debut novel: a realistic YA story focusing on a kidnapping. And ballet. And eating disorders. And high school. It’s about Theo, who had to face the challenges of the dance world and recovery without her best friend, ever since Donovan disappeared when they were thirteen. At first she thought Donovan might have just run away, only a few days after her boyfriend left without saying goodbye, which was confusing enough on its own. But years went by and when he didn’t return, Theo had to agree with everyone else that he must have been kidnapped.

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But all of a sudden, in her junior year, Donovan returns to the neighborhood. Between the media frenzy and the rush of memories about their mysterious last conversation so many years ago, Theo’s nerves are understandably frayed. Donovan won’t speak – about his kidnapping or anything else – and he won’t even see her. Theo’s life gets very hectic very quickly. At school, all her friends have opinions about the Donovan case, and old memories won’t stay buried. At ballet, the new pianist (who happens to be her friends’ dealer and a casual acquaintance from school) has broken the wall between Theo’s two separate worlds of dance and everything else. And when a new development in the identity of Donovan’s kidnapper comes to light, Theo has no choice but to question everything that happened between them when she was thirteen. Time is running out to separate memories from self-delusions, because the trial’s coming up and her testimony could change everything. With her own future in ballet to consider and uncertainty about Donovan’s experience weighing heavy on her mind, pressure from every aspect of Theo’s life threatens to take a toll on her physical health as well as her grasp on what has made her who she is.

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So, Pointe had a lot going on in it. There were so many subjects Colbert chose to deal with, I was worried that certain threads of the plot would have to be abandoned for the conclusion to work. And it’s true that the focus did jump around a little to much in the first few chapters of the novel. We read about Theo’s love fer dance, her recent experience at a recovery center for her anorexia, they dynamics of her friend group, and some intriguing hints about her previous relationships with Donovan and her ex.

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I was especially worried that the eating disorder would drop out of the picture without being thoroughly discussed, if not resolved. Too many YA books describe a character as anorexic as an easy fix; just to supply a set of pre-formed judgements to otherwise under-developed character traits. Other books glamorize the notion of starving one’s self past the point of fragility. As someone who has experienced firsthand how un-glamorous and challenging anorexia really is, I was relieved to see that the triggers and emotional responses were considered throughout all the external drama. Theo’s thoughts about food were certainly skewed, but since the majority of Pointe is told in the present tense of a first person point of view, her own rationalizations and justifications go hand-in-hand with all the unpleasant symptoms. Because the disordered thought patterns are so accurately portrayed – Theo works hard to hide her relapse and ignores the danger she’s in – I would caution anyone struggling with their own recovery against reading Pointe until such thoughts get a good bit of objective distance. Otherwise the whole eating issue was treated fairly well, though I do think that there could have been a few more details about the nasty physical repercussions of Theo’s self-enforced restrictions, just to remind readers now and then that it’s really awful to have your body eat itself out of desperation. Maybe that would have been veering near the edge of preaching, though, and Pointe strives (pretty successfully) to stay away from any obvious moral lessons in favor of a real, honest attitude towards the multitude of dilemmas.

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What about the other dilemmas, then? The most gripping layer of Pointe’s premise was always going to be the kidnapping, though the angle might be different than some readers expect. The victim himself doesn’t feature as an active character even when he returns. He appears in Theo’s memories and thoughts way more often than he does in the flesh, so we get a unique spin on the abduction narrative. I really liked how Theo couldn’t be sure whether Donovan meant to disappear or not, and refused to make a judgement for years until she could get a clearer picture of his intentions. Her reaction to learning that the suspect is someone she knows is actually the pivotal revelation in that storyline, not Donovan’s return. This twist ensures that Pointe continues to be a book about Theo more than anyone else: her own tangled past, her own conflicting fears, and her own big decisions. Big questions about consent and maturity get pulled into the limelight, but since most of the discussions about these topics come from teenaged characters talking naturally amongst themselves, Colbert has resisted the trap of letting Pointe turn into one of those books where problems are either fixed or trivialized with too much external intervention.

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The characters in general are pretty excellent, and nicely varied. One or two individuals were too over-the-top for my tastes: too slimy with money or unbearably vapid, but these weak links were mostly just the minor characters who filtered in and out of Theo’s school surroundings. Her closest friends were very likable, with witticisms a’plenty but also showing true friendly concern even when she doesn’t think she needs their help. I liked the portrayal of Theo’s family: her parents are mostly supportive and she clearly doesn’t want to hurt them with her own struggles. There can still be conflict and secrets without every adult functioning as the enemy, and Colbert showed that nicely. I also admired the fact that Theo and her parents are one of the only black families in their neighborhood, and while this obviously impacts her life, race never becomes her sole defining feature. She’s a ballerina who happens to be black, just like she’s a young girl who happens to struggle with a disorder, and a teenager who happens to have a secret. Three damn cheers for dancers of color taking center stage – and for popular YA novels with main characters of color, in general. I hope Pointe gets a whole lot of readers (and subsequently, publishers, etc) realizing that it’s easy to relate to any character who is written skillfully and who can illicit our sympathy. On that note, too, the ballet scenes are interesting without descending into insider-jokes and the like. I haven’t had one ballet-themed thought since I was about eleven, but rather than going on technical tangents the sport is just described as Theo’s artistic passion, and passion is – I hope – fairly universal.

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The pages of Pointe are absolutely stuffed with drama and angst, but the main character’s earnest struggles are what make it so readable. You could honestly take away the sometimes-melodramatic romantic entanglement, which didn’t add much to the story. I would have liked to read a little more about Donovan’s family and a little less about high-school assholes. But all in all I got thoroughly wrapped up in Colbert’s story, and read the book in pretty much one go. Read Pointe if you like realistic YA with true-to-life main characters. Theo doesn’t run around speaking in poetical jargon, and there are no tragic one-liners here. It’s a good book for anyone who likes the drama of mysteries but without the sleuthing, too.

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I would suggest that anyone under the age of 13 think carefully before reading this one, because the topics of anorexia, sexual assault, and drug dealing are portrayed quite frankly and without any tiptoe-ing around the harsh facts. Any ballerinas read Pointe? Please tell me what you thought of it, since I’m not familiar with that world. In the end, this was a really exciting debut novel and I love how Brandy Colbert pushed her material into new and different directions. You can bet I’ll be reading anything she might write in the future.