At the heart of Oates' riveting and poignant story of three teenage girls in crisis is the notion that a "secret can be too toxic to expose to a friend."
In part 1, it's mid-December of their senior year at Quaker Heights Day School, a prep school in an affluent New Jersey suburb. Merissa, "The Perfect One," has just been accepted early admission at Brown, with more good news to come. When she desperately needs a release—from the pressures to succeed, hypocrisy and her parents' disintegrating marriage—she secretly embraces cutting. Part 2 flashes back to 15 months earlier, when smart, funny, edgy, unpredictable Tink, a former child star, transfers into their junior class and changes everything. Part 3 picks back up in the winter of their senior year and focuses on Nadia, who falls prey to sexts and cyberbullying. Tink's suicide is revealed early on, and yet she remains a believable and critical touchstone for Merissa and Nadia, part of the girls of Tink Inc. The author is a master at portraying the complex, emotional inner lives of these teens, and their contemporary adolescent voices and perceptions (and misperceptions) ring true. The psychological dramas, though numerous, are deftly handled. What appears at first to be a bleak worldview does in fact make room for healing, change and standing up for what's right.
Intense, keenly insightful, nuanced and affecting.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
A is a 16-year-old genderless being who drifts from body to body each day, living the life of a new human host of the same age and similar geographic radius for 24 hours. One morning, A wakes up a girl with a splitting hangover; another day he/she wakes up as a teenage boy so overweight he can barely fit into his car. Straight boys, gay girls, teens of different races, body shapes, sizes and genders make up the catalog of A’s outward appearances, but ultimately A’s spirit—or soul—remains the same. One downside of A’s life is that he/she doesn’t have a family, nor is he/she able to make friends. A tries to interfere as little as possible with the lives of the teenagers until the day he/she meets and falls head over heels in love with Rhiannon, an ethereal girl with a jackass boyfriend. A pursues Rhiannon each day in whatever form he/she wakes up in, and Rhiannon learns to recognize A—not by appearance, but by the way he/she looks at her across the room. The two have much to overcome, and A’s shifting physical appearance is only the beginning. Levithan’s self-conscious, analytical style marries perfectly with the plot. His musings on love, longing and human nature knit seamlessly with A’s journey. Readers will devour his trademark poetic wordplay and cadences that feel as fresh as they were when he wrote Boy Meets Boy (2003).
An awe-inspiring, thought-provoking reminder that love reaches beyond physical appearances or gender.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
A girl in love with the theater tells the story of her first great love in the form of a script.
The entire tale unfolds as a present-tense confessional addressed to the titular (and never-named) “you” by her best friend, the dramatic Phyre. Phyre sets her scenes by describing what “you” is doing or telling “you” about what has happened in her absence, folding in snippets of dialogue. The action takes place over the course of the fall semester, as Phyre falls head over heels for Mia, their charismatic new theater instructor. It’s a textbook crush: Phyre seeks out opportunities to catch Mia alone and then muffs them (her running criticism of her social gambits is hysterical), and she interprets the slightest gesture as freighted with meaning. Her fascination is so intense she barely pauses to wonder that the object of her desire is a woman, instead throwing herself wholeheartedly into her exhilaration. The direct-address/script format works beautifully for her story; her self-absorption is so extreme that she can’t see what’s going on with “you,” but readers do, in those bits of dialogue Phyre records but does not reflect on. The play within a play that Phyre stars in (under Mia’s direction) is a tad metafictively obvious, but the device does introduce action and an intriguing and revelatory subplot.
Though hamstrung by a depressingly chick-lit-y cover, this total-immersion emotional experience is one readers will both recognize and thoroughly enjoy.
(Fiction. 12 & up)
Though dealing with the recent death of his mother, Cam and his father are trying to make the best of a difficult time. Currently unemployed and virtually penniless, Cam’s father buys him the only birthday present he can afford: a cardboard box. From the get-go, it is apparent that this is no ordinary cardboard: It comes with a list of rules, which Cam’s father casually dismisses. In an attempt to make the bland box more exciting, his father fashions a cardboard man, a boxer he names Bill, who undergoes a Pinocchio-like transformation and becomes a loyal friend. The animated man catches the interest of menacing Marcus, a well-off, wide-eyed, fish-lipped bully, who steals the cardboard for his own malicious intent. When Marcus’ plans go horribly, terribly awry, he discovers that he needs one thing that money can’t buy: a friend to help him. TenNapel’s story is edge-of-your-seat exciting, but what really drives home this clever outing are the added complexities and thought-provoking questions it asks of its reader, specifically examining what constitutes “good” and “bad,” and how to change how one is labeled. The result? An exceptionally seamless blend of action and philosophy, two elements that usually do not mix easily; TenNapel handles this masterfully.
To the recent crop of strong debuts in an overcrowded literary arena add this series opener, a tale of demonic possession and a centuries-old family trade in exorcism.
Life in Mia’s loving, if overprotective, Italian-American family is upended when a horrifying demon enters and nearly kills her. After Giuliano Della Torre and his grandson Emilio, long-estranged relatives from Milan, arrive and drive it out, they talk Mia’s reluctant parents into letting her return to Italy with them. For her safety, she’s sequestered in the family’s home and adjacent candle shop. Studying Italian history and language, Mia comes to love her family (including some of its ghosts) and heritage, even the scary bits, but she increasingly resents confinement, longing to explore this rich new world. Cliché-free characters—patriarch Giuliano, his wife Laura, gorgeous Emilio and his sister, Francesca, especially—appear to have lives of their own beyond serving the needs of the plot. The demons themselves are haunting, multifaceted creatures that are both pathetic and extremely dangerous; the evil they project is complex and pain-ridden. Fortunately Mia demonstrates a strong gift for the family trade, which, like the novel’s other elements (the food will have readers salivating), is portrayed in exquisite, affectionate detail.
This one goes to the head of the class.
(Fantasy. 12 & up)
Scotty’s world is turned upside down when an accident leaves her brother severely injured, an acquaintance dead and Scotty feeling responsible.
In the fall of Scotty’s junior year of high school, it appears all she has to worry about is reading Anna Karenina and the homecoming dance. Scotty, who has been a vegetarian since last year’s visit to a dairy farm, describes her reality: “My life is like tofu—it’s what gets added that makes it interesting.” The most unusual thing about Scotty is her autistic, 7-year-old brother, Keone, who likes to steal cookies and run naked through the neighborhood. Her father and stepmother handle her brother without fanfare, as does Scotty, so it was normal for her to take him to the doctor and return home on the train. It is there that a tragic accident leaves Scotty injured, Keone in a coma and two students dead. Suddenly, levelheaded Scotty, healing from the physical injuries, cannot let go of the guilt she feels about the loss of one student in particular. It is only when she finds a way to reconcile two of her friends and open herself to the attention of another that she takes tentative steps toward emotional peace. Printz Award winner Johnson (TheFirst Part Last, 2004) tells this moving story of grief and guilt with clarity and unsentimental honesty. Scotty, with her rich interior life, is realistically drawn and surrounded by a cast of well-rounded secondary characters.
A wonderfully crafted and deeply satisfying novel, full of detail that provides texture and meaning.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
He failed to save his twin brother through alchemy, but young Victor Frankenstein eagerly delves back into the sinister sciences in this sequel to 2011’s This Dark Endeavor.
Three weeks after Konrad’s death, Victor plucks a mysterious box from the still-warm ashes of the books of the Dark Library. Demonstrating tremendous hubris, Victor aims to return Konrad to the living world and still win Elizabeth, Konrad’s grief-stricken love and the boys’ childhood friend. When Victor uncovers a way into the spirit world, he finds that Konrad is in neither heaven nor hell but in an alternate version of the house, where eons collide, a ravenous mist lurks outside, and groans arise from below. Elizabeth and Henry Clerval soon join Victor on his journeys to the other realm and on his mission to build a body for Konrad, based on ancient drawings and monstrous bones discovered in caves beneath the castle. As in the first book, the trio realizes the high cost of their quest too late. Victor is a fascinating if sometimes unlikable character, ambitious, brooding, reckless and obsessive in his pursuit of knowledge and power; Printz honor winner Oppel skillfully portrays him as both a troubled teen and the boy who would become Frankenstein. Addictions and lustful encounters add another layer of sophistication to the gothic melodrama.
A standout sequel and engrossing ghost story.
(Horror. 14 & up)
Jamie lives in a bizarre world, where a sister can die in a bombing, and the only way to bring Mum and Dad together is by auditioning for Britain’s Biggest Talent Show.
Five years after her death, Rose remains foremost in his parents’ minds, “living” in her urn on the mantelpiece. His parents barely know Jamie, nor are they able to recognize Rose’s twin, Jasmine, as an individual. Capturing the confusion of an optimistic but sensitive child navigating a tough situation without guidance, Jamie’s narration is by turns comic and painful. His only friend is Sunya, whose headscarf billows behind her like a superhero cape and who helps Jamie fight the class bully. Yet Jamie cannot tell Sunya how his parents have abandoned the family: his mum to an affair; his dad to alcohol. The fact that Sunya is Muslim and therefore, according to Jamie’s dad, responsible for Rose’s death, is a brilliant counterpoint and an issue that Jamie must work through. Each character is believably flawed, and readers anticipate the heartbreaking scene when Jamie’s plans for a family reunion fail. However, the final triumphant chapters of this striking debut demonstrate that even as Jamie’s sorrows increase, so too, does his capacity for understanding, courage and love. Mum is gone, but Dad may recover, and Jasmine and Sunya are in Jamie’s corner.
A satisfying conclusion to ghostly Anna’s terrifying story comes with more heart-thumping suspense and clever quips as Cas tries to save her from an undeserved, dreadful fate.
In the outstanding Anna Dressed in Blood (2011), the ghost, Anna, saved Cas, the ghost-killer, by dragging the voodoo monster, Obeahman, down into Hell. Now she’s back, asking Cas to rescue her, and he’s determined to do it despite all advice to the contrary. This sequel takes Cas and his friends to Britain and a secret cult that wants Cas’ athame, the magical knife that kills ghosts. There he meets Jestine, who believes she should be the next athame warrior, although unlike Cas, she wants to kill ghosts whether or not they’re dangerous to humans. She joins Cas for the final showdown against the Obeahman, who ate both Cas’ cat and his father and now holds Anna hostage. Blake provides enough background explanation to bring new readers into the story, but for full appreciation, readers should start with book one. This new author has a serious talent for action but also for delicious dry humor (“I’ve sort of been slacking off in my voodoo studies. I’ve got trigonometry, you know?”). The exciting conclusion leaves the coast clear for a whole series starring Cas or for something entirely different, whatever the author wishes. Either way, Stephen King ought to start looking over his shoulder.
Pulse-pounding thrills leavened with laughter.
(Paranormal thriller. 12 & up)