Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu

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Originally reviewed in School Library Journal, March 2017.

Gr. 9 & Up – Yu’s debut, realistic fiction young adult novel is set in upstate New York at Camp Ugunduzi, a wilderness therapy camp for troubled teens. The quickly-paced story is told in alternating points-of-view between five unique campers, just introduced and grouped together during the four week long camp. Clarissa, suffering from OCD, wants to get better and experience some “normal” teen activities. Andrew, whose eating disorder caused the band to break-up, is guilt-ridden and longs to get better. Ben, unable to separate fantasy from reality, prefers to go through life pretending to be in a movie, complete with voice-overs. Cold, unfeeling Stella has been to camp before, and doesn’t want to be back. Mason, narcissistic and full of himself, feels he has no problem, but is merely surrounded by idiots. Thrown together with no social media or daily luxuries, the teens find themselves getting comfortable with each other, despite initial trepidation. Perhaps one thing they all share is annoyance at the counselors: middle-age, hippie Josh and overbearing, prude Jessie. When tragedy strikes midway through camp, the teens’ progress and outlook are tested. The emotionally-charged, yet hopeful ending will encourage understanding and empathy to even the most reluctant readers. Background material is added piecemeal, as characters think back to the situations which brought them to camp. The characters are diverse, balanced well between male and female, and appealing to readers of both genders. The story includes mature language and content (i.e. underage drinking and smoking). At times raw and heartbreaking, the language is realistic, which teens will appreciate. VERDICT – Recommended as a first purchase for teens. Humorous scenes throughout will delight readers, despite the heavy subject matter.

 

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Without Merit by Colleen Hoover

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Without Merit is due for publication on October 3, 2017.

Merit, a 17 year old senior in high school, has quite the interesting life. Merit’s family of seven is quite possibly the most oddly dysfunctional family I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about in a book. Merit and her twin sister, Honor, do not share any special twin connections or abilities to read each other closely. In fact, they barely have anything to do with one another and are like polar opposites. Their brother, Utah, only a year older than the twins, appears as perfect and wholesome as they come, which drives Merit crazy. Their rarely-present, laid back father lives with his second wife, Victoria, who was his younger mistress and the reason his first marriage failed. Their son, Moby, provides some rare moments of happiness to those around him, despite his mother monitoring his every move rather than allowing him to just be a curious four year old. The only family member that Merit feels a connection with and wants to spend any time with is Moby, who is easy to love. Here’s the real kicker: Merit’s mother, who is also a Victoria, lives in the basement and refuses to leave due to her social anxiety and general sickness following a struggle with cancer a few years prior. Merit, Honor, and Utah take turns bringing her meals and checking on her. Talk about a strange living arrangement!

Perhaps the oddest thing about the Voss family is that they all live together in an old converted church, which they have named Dollar Voss, because it is split into four living quarters. And the reason they are living in an old church all boils down to the fact that their atheist father, Barnaby, didn’t like the old Pastor’s Labrador retriever, Wolfgang, barking at all hours of the night. Therefore, he bought the church out from under Pastor Brian, forcing he and his dog to move out and leave Barnaby with peace and quiet – or so he thought. The Voss household, readers will find out, is anything but quiet.

Merit is out finding used trophies for her collection one day, when she meets Sagan. The initial meeting leaves her feeling something she hasn’t ever felt before – happiness and excitement. Any hope she has fizzles, however, when she finds out that Sagan is Honor’s boyfriend. Of all the luck! Merit, who has never been in love before, has to fall hard for her twin sister’s boyfriend. What’s worse is when she realizes that Sagan is living in the room right across the hall. Though she tries to avoid him and ignore her feelings of attraction, its impossible.

Meanwhile, Merit stops attending high school unbeknownst to her own father. She goes for days without speaking to anyone in her household, and they hardly notice. She doesn’t think there is anything out of the ordinary about her behavior; she’s just doing what feels right for her situation. After a serious suicide attempt, Merit’s family and Sagan encourage her to seek help. Near the end of the story, Merit realizes that she has depression, which makes sense to readers who have been seeing the signs in Merit’s behavior since the beginning. This story is a unique look at how the affects depression can change an entire family. Hoover does a wonderful job of bringing light to mental illness without focusing completely on the issue. She brings it into the story to add another layer to an already heartbreaking, yet moving story of a family sticking together no matter the obstacles.

Despite all of their faults and mistakes, Merit’s family members are lovable in their own way, as readers learn more about why they are what they have become. When Merit takes the time to look at them with a new perspective, thanks to some help from heartthrob, Sagan, who lives across the hall, and energetic, Luck, her stepmother’s younger brother, she realizes that maybe she is part of the problem. And things she thought were true about Utah, her father, her mother, her stepmother, Honor, and even Sagan weren’t exactly the way she pictured. Sagan and Luck help her to have the courage to seek help, and her relationships with them are stronger for it.

 

 

Hoover’s young adult, stand-alone novel is best for a mature audience due to language and references to drug usage. Though it alludes to sexual scenes, the romance is not explicit in any way. Fans of Liane Moriarty and JoJo Moyes will enjoy Colleen Hoover’s novels. Without Merit, in particular, would be enjoyed by teens and adults alike. This was my first experience with a Colleen Hoover novel, and I look forward to reading many of her other books.

Thank you to Atria Books for the advanced review copy.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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Holding Up the Universe will be published on October 4, 2016.

If you thought Violet & Finch from Niven’s All The Bright Places were unforgettable characters, wait until you meet Jack & Libby. Much like with All the Bright Places, Holding Up the Universe is written with chapters alternating back and forth between the two main characters, Jack and Libby. The story moves along quickly in this manner, and I found myself unable to stop reading, finishing the entire book in an evening.

Libby is a strong female character, but also a major target for bullying because of her weight. Once the world’s fattest teen, she had to be cut out of her house and rescued. Due to grief & depression from the sudden, unexpected death of her mother, Libby became so large that she was physically unable to move from her bed. Now after therapy and rehabilitation, Libby is half the size she used to be, starting her junior year of high school with a new confidence and determination to make it through and enjoy the experiences. She knows there will be bullies and name calling, just as there always was when she was younger, but its how she responds to them now that shows readers (and Jack) just how much she has truly grown.

Jack is everyone’s favorite classmate, favorite teammate, favorite friend, etc. He’s a likable guy who appears to have everything going well for him. However, he is carrying around a burdensome secret that is threatening to upset the somewhat normal aspects of his life. He has a rare genetic disorder called prosopagnosia, in which he is face-blind, or unable to recognize facial features, even of those people he sees everyday (his family and best friends). To make matters worse, his father is cheating on his mom with one of his teachers, causing Jack to be awkwardly, and unwillingly involved. Jack is coming to a crossroads where he has to decide whether to tell anyone his secret, or to watch his comfortable lifestyle and friendships crumble around him.

When Jack and Libby’s path collide in a peer-pressure induced bullying incident, they end up in a group doing community service together. As they spend more time together and start to lean on each other for support, knowing that they both are fighting a battle and that life is tough, they become stronger together. Readers will absolutely love this pair of characters – Jack for his charm & quick wit, and Libby for her no-nonsense attitude and healthy dose of sass. I certainly did.

It’s clear that Niven thoroughly researched prosopagnosia, helping the story to seem very real. Niven’s writing style is versatile. Readers will be laughing hysterically on one page and crying for the characters on the next. She also has a knack for transporting her readers into the halls of high school, causing them to reflect on their own experiences as they go through some of the same situations with her uniquely crafted characters. This is a beautiful story about embracing oneself, flaws and imperfections included, and realizing that everything is far from perfect, but perfectly okay.

Thank you to Random House for the early review copy. 

The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter

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This is a heartbreaking, raw story of mental illness and how it can systematically unravel the bonds between a family. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the story, but it was so much more than a young adult coming-of-age story. Of course, there is some young romance and dating involved, but poor Cassie was forced to grow up so early in her life, and was therefore wise beyond her years. For these reasons, the plot is more mature than some young adult novels, and adults would enjoy it as much as teens.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot because you will enjoy it much more learning the story as I did – in bits and pieces of Cassie’s past as she remembers them, discovering moments that have been hidden or repressed in her own memory.

Cassie was placed in a mental institution by her mother, out of the blue, and against her will at the age of 15. She spent two and a half years there, with no support from her family and most everyone believing that she was lying. Even the therapist assigned to her, Dr. Meeks, didn’t believe her or support her. When she turns 18, she emancipates herself and leaves the institution to attend college at her mother’s alma matter. Her only regret is leaving the only true friend she has ever had, James, behind at the institution. Readers get the truth behind why Cassie was at the institution in snippets and flashbacks of her life and tumultuous relationship with her mother. At times, it is hard to read, to imagine what Cassie went through all her life. Once I read the full story of what all happened to her, when she finally revealed it to Liz, near the end, tears streamed down my face.I felt so horrible for Cassie, yet so proud of her ability to carry on and try to find herself. This is a beautiful story, and a unique look at mental illness and perception. Not everything is as it seems.

I was intrigued by the title of this book, and after reading it, I couldn’t think of a more fitting title. Drowning doesn’t always have to be in the literal sense of drowning in water. Unfortunately, as young Cassie is well aware, she spent most of her life drowning.

This is a debut novel and it packs a huge emotional punch. I’ll not be forgetting Cassie or her story any time in the near future. I hope Kletter writes many more stories. I highly recommend this book, if for nothing else but a reminder to everyone to have compassion and empathy for others.

Fans of We Were Here, Everything, Everything, and All the Bright Places will surely enjoy this novel.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

I picked up this book because I had been hearing quite a bit of buzz about it on social media. Like any good librarian, I have to read something for myself, especially when everyone seems to have read it or want to read it. I think it’s a great first novel by Jessica Knoll, even though the writing is much darker, blunt, and vulgar than I’m used to reading. The story portrays an honest, and gruesome, picture of just how destructive bullying can be to the lives of both children and adults of all ages. When the reader first meets Ani (born TiffAni), he or she would think Ani has everything – a fulfilling and great paying job, a handsome and very wealthy fiance, and a bright future all set up for her.  Her only worry seems to be a constant battle with trying to keep weight off of her 104 pound frame, all the while thinking she is overweight. However, once Ani’s background is revealed little by little, the readers understands why she feels and acts the way she does. Her brash and crude demeanor starts to fit her situation. The story moved along quickly, and I enjoyed the mysterious aspect as Ani’s past was revealed. I wasn’t a huge fan of the vulgar language used in the story, but I can overlook it to say that this was a good read. I finished it in just a few days. This book would appeal to fans of Gone Girl, and/or The Girl on the Train.