Whatever Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen is an author who aspires to express what her readers are feeling. She writes to an audience of teenage girls about the challenges of maintaining equilibrium in the face of adversity. The appeal of her books lies in the first person narrative voice of genuine and likable characters who work through their own reactions to difficult events in their lives. While she does not shrink from difficult subjects, neither does she indulge in shock value. Her steadfast message is one of the value of being real, forgiving, and true. This, and her natural writing style, make her books suitable and of interest to girls as young as middle school and enjoyable reading for their parents as well.
In this book, Dessen’s latest and seventh novel for young adults, seventeen-year-old Mclean tells the story of her reaction to her parents scandalous divorce. She struggles with a loss of identity, resentment, and disorientation. After several moves with her dad, a consultant for a restaurant chain, she lands in a town where the people she encounters begin to help her bring her life back into focus, if not to stability. For Dessen fans, it is another visit to her emotionally satisfying fiction; for those new to her writing, probably the first of many.
Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly
Jennifer Donnelly has written a book in an authentic teen voice in the tradition of Holden Caulfield that is highly educational, both about music and about the French Revolution. The narrator is a teen girl in her last year at a prestigious New York prep school. She has recently suffered a family tragedy and is tormented by what she views as her responsibility for that tragedy. Her often absent father whisks her away to Paris, thinking it would be good for her to get away.
In Paris, Andi discovers an old diary hidden in a secret compartment in a centuries-old guitar case. She has in her hands the guitar and the diary of another teen girl who lived during the French Revolution. Though all Andi can think of is leaving Paris and her father, as she slowly reads this diary she gets drawn further and further into the life of Alexandrine, her eighteenth century counterpart, until she is, in fact, there on the streets of revolutionary Paris. Even for readers new to the story of the French Revolution, Donnelly’s account is thorough and illuminating.
The second major theme of this story is music, specifically, the tradition of music that passes from the earliest classic composers all the way down through modern rap music. Andi is a serious musician; in fact, her music is all that keeps her together for most of the novel. Her musings on styles and compositions throughout this story should be of great interest to any teen interested in music.
Teens of both genders, both young and old, will like this book. It is history, it is music, and it is the pursuit of personal strength in the face of the worst of odds.
Strings Attached by Judy Blundell
For many years, author Judy Blundell wrote under a pen name as a writer for hire. Then, a few years ago, she wrote a book simply because she wanted to write it. Her agent read it and suggested she put her own name to it. That book, What I Saw and How I Lied won the National Book Award in 2008. In March of 2011, she published her second book under her own name–Strings Attached. Both books are narrated by a teen girl seeking mental and physical independence from dysfunctional adults in a dark atmosphere full of anxiety, post-WWII. In both, the girl fumbles in her perceptions of truth, wises up, and makes the hard choices.
While the first book takes place mainly in Florida, the second one is set in New York where small town Kit Corrigan aims to make a splash on the big stage. However, it is much harder than she expected and she agrees to accept help without fully questioning why the help is offered. Inevitably, the true reasons unfold…
For teen girls tired of the same old genres–fantasy, paranormal, dystopia, teen angst–these noir thrillers are a refreshing change. The setting in post WWII enhances the mystery and highlights the timeless theme of yearning for independence followed by loss of innocence. The author’s extensive story-writing experience and her thorough research of the time period make an entertaining and satisfying read. Suitable for and of interest to girls from eighth grade on up.
Matched, by Ally Condie
Dystopias typically exist in a future world where some kind of organizational force tries to control a population whose flaws nearly destroyed life in a previous time. That organization and that control, however, tend to painfully crimp the human spirit. In Matched, the first book in a trilogy, the Officials attempt to control every aspect of an individual’s life: what they eat, what they wear, who they marry, where they live, where they work. By doing this, they intend to eliminate disease, strife, and unhappiness.
But, of course, it doesn’t work. The individual’s desire for freedom is stronger than the desire for bland happiness, as it turns out, and as we all know too much power in the hands of the few tends to corrupt. In Matched, a seventeen-year-old girl has been officially “matched” with her intended husband, but there seems to be a catch–a second intended has somehow slipped into the picture which conspires to cause her to question the life the Officials have arranged for her. Once that question arises, the desire to make her own choices and pay her own dues can no longer be corraled.
For a dystopic novel, this story has an unusual sweetness. There is a lot of kindness and genuine caring among the characters. The depiction of two young people falling in love is very tender; the conniving of the Officials almost takes a background role. I think middle school girls who like books about relationships will want to read this book and the theme of independence and making your own choices is strongly appealing to young teens. It is not a challenging read by any means and may appeal even to reluctant girl readers.
Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick
Yes, this is a page-turning thriller centered on a fourteen-year-old boy and a really, really bad guy who threatens him and his sister and has quite likely taken the life of both his parents. And on a Colt Single Action Army, 1873 model revolver. The setting: a lone cabin across a frozen lake from a hard scrabble mining town in the bitter cold of the artic north.
But it is also a story about the gifts parents give their children to help them survive when they are on their own. In this case, Sig’s parents gave him very different gifts: his father gave him knowledge of the real world so that Sig could be able to survive whatever harshness he might encounter; his mother gave him a concern for the health of his own inner spirit so that his soul could survive the same. As it turns out, Sig will draw on both of his parents’ gifts to create a third option when his choice becomes to take a life or lose his own.
As such, this novel reads ninety percent thriller and ten percent fable. In fact, by the end, I was somewhat reminded of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Written, of course, for young adults of today. Though this story features a male protagonist and a revolver, I think both genders would enjoy it from middle school on up. However, the bad guy is convincingly bad–his violence explicit and his sexual predation implied–which makes it more appropriate for the older, better-read teens.
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” begins this memoir. Having just turned eighteen (the age when your identity is still up for grabs, in the author’s words), Strauss accidentally hit a girl riding a bike and killed her. He was forever changed.
With incisive honesty, Strauss lays bare in this memoir what he spent half a lifetime being unable to dredge up into the light. He takes readers along on this journey into the inner-most workings of his own experience, to the lonely place where the person in the throes of trauma exists. Without sentimentality, he simply nails the precise truth of the effect an unfortunate few seconds had on him.
Though not written for teens, Half a Life is a book that will interest them for it is ultimately about them and who they will become. In fact, I wish there were more books like it because it offers so much for the teen reader: life-enhancing information and superb writing that is at once demanding and entertaining. Though it reads more like a long essay than a novel, this short book is nevertheless a page-turner, albeit one that benefits from frequent reflective pauses. Teens of both genders who like getting deep into the lives of others and who like a mental challenge should really enjoy this book.
Freefall by Mindi Scott
This is a story about a sixteen-year old boy who makes the choice to step back from the slippery edge of heavy drinking and shallow romance that took the life of his best friend. He does this largely with the strength of his own inner voice and aided by what he learns in a class in communication and by the good fortune to encounter true love.
Seth is a protagonist who is easy to like. Even at his darkest moments, he maintains an open mind, he is kind to his friends, and he directs his thoughts toward the light. The reader feels comfortable following him through the turbulence of his high school life because he is such a good guy. Even though the reader feels confident that Seth will continue to move in a better direction, author Mindi Scott manages to maintain a delicate but steady tension that keeps the pages turning.
Content and themes in this book are appropriate for high school readers and I think boys and girls alike will enjoy this book. They will recognize the high school life it depicts and they will gain from its positive message. Mature middle school readers will also enjoy this book–drinking and sex are gracefully handled.