How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
In this novel, a young woman whose darkness has been a long time coming connects with a once happy family that has recently experienced the sudden and devastating death of the father. The widow has invited the pregnant un-wed 18 year-old into her home with the intent of adopting the baby when it is born. Her daughter, in her last year of high school, thinks her mother has lost it. All three are so busy trying to save themselves from their own grief that almost no communication takes place. Aptly named, this story follows to resolution the dictum, “The life you save may be your own.”
Told in alternating perspectives of the two teen girls—Mandy and Jill—both the main and the supporting characters gradually emerge as complex and appealing individuals. Mandy negotiates with herself as she tries to both ditch her unfortunate childhood and to make better decisions for the new life she will bring into the world. Jill uses hostility as best she can to shut out others in her quest to numb the loss of her father. They are as different as two teens can be; their only common ground is the mother’s generosity and sorrow that holds them in an embrace. The magic of this story is how the author slowly brings them together to resolve the underlying and yet most gripping conflict in the plot, which is the question of the quality of life that awaits the new baby.
Zarr’s books, while clearly targeted to the teen girl audience, also fit well into the category of “If it’s good enough for a teen to read, it’s also good enough for an adult to read.” In fact this is a great book for mother and daughter to share.
The Fox Inheritance, by Mary E. Pearson
This is the sequel to The Adoration of Jenna Fox as reviewed earlier. It follows the two friends who were in the same car crash that killed Jenna Fox. While Jenna’s parents had been able to salvage enough of her to bioengineer her back into life, Locke and Kara had only their minds preserved for 270 years. Now they have been brought to life by an evil genius who wants to use them as floor models for a business that offers a new life to those about to die.
While Adoration reads like a psychological or medical thriller, Fox is much more of an action page-turner. Kara and Locke must escape their creator into a world void of anybody they know and vastly changed. A cross-country chase ensues with spy technology and real goons on their trail. They seek Jenna, who is still alive, and resolution to the question of who they are now.
Both books are both thought-provoking and exciting to read. Girls from middle school on up will like both books and boys will certainly like the second one, so it’s worth a chance to start them with the first one.
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.
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.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
High school kids often find themselves struggling with parts of their life that 1) they don’t fully understand or even know that much about, and 2) affects how they embrace aspects of growing up, sometimes in confusing or harmful ways. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky tells the story of just such a high school girl. Besides also being a very readable and well-told tale, this makes it a valueable story for high school girls who wrestle with their own ghostly demons. As many of my students have told me, reading how others handle life situations helps them in handling their own.
That said, this is a mature tale, most suitable for the older teen reader, girls primarily, but thoughtful boys will like it also. It is told from perspectives alternating between several of the central characters. The plot centers on the girl who physically survives her mother’s murder/suicide jump from the roof of a building and who, understandably, is bumped around for years by the emotional damage. Yes, it is a harsh, tragic story, but amidst the lost, broken souls there are angel spirits who make all the difference.