Meg Wolitzer received the attention of most of the top ten books lists of 2013 with her stand-out novel, The Interestings, which tells the story of a group of adults who befriended each other at an arts camp decades before. Now she is getting into the Young Adult literature game with her new novel Belzhar.
Jam Gallahue thought her life was perfect: She was very much in love with her handsome British exchange student, Reeve Maxfield. When Reeve dies suddenly, Jam is thrown into an emotional tailspin and is sent to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, yet highly intelligent teens.” At The Wooden Barn, Jam is surprised to be enrolled into a class called Special Topics in English. She’s even more surprised when there are only five students in the class.
The teacher, Mrs. Quennell, has hand-selected each of these five students to participate in the class because they’ve experienced a deep trauma: There’s Casey, bound to a wheelchair; Griffin, who is carrying a horrible secret; Mark, suffering from his parents’ divorce; Sierra, whose brother has gone missing; and, of course, Jam. The class is to study the work of Sylvia Plath for the entire semester. She gives each student a red leather journal and requires them to write in it twice a week. Jam is especially hesitant to write her feelings, but when she does, strange things start happening. Reeve appears and things are better than ever between them, but Jam knows their time is limited. Is she really able to connect with him again on the other side?
As each of the characters in Special Topics reclaim the part of the lives they are missing through the mysterious red journals, they meet in secret to try to get answers about traveling to the place they call Belzhar: What happens when the journal runs out of pages, and what happens if they never want to leave?
The obvious choice to pair with this novel is Silvia Plath’s classic The Bell Jar. The influence of Plath’s work is on every page, even beyond the group discussions of her work in the Special Topics class. Fans of Plath will be excited that a new generation of readers, through this novel, can discover her genius for the first time. Perfect for teens experiencing a tough break up or adults who remember those adolescent pangs, Belzhar speaks to the part of our hearts that have trouble letting go.
A.J. Betts' first U.S. published book Zac and Mia follows the sick lit trend popularized recently by the success of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. However, Zac and Mia are very different from Green’s characters in both personalities and stories. Zac is in isolation in a cancer ward after receiving a bone marrow transplant, when his life is made vastly more interesting as Mia moves into the room next door. On her first day in the ward, Mia comes in yelling at her mother and blasting pop music, causing Zac, a cancer veteran, to reach out with her through their shared wall, the only way he can while in isolation.
After knocking on the wall for a while and having nurses pass notes to the other, the two teens become Facebook friends. Then, they begin chatting each night at 3 a.m. when neither can sleep. Zac tries to reach out to Mia and help her come to terms with her diagnosis, but she keeps everyone at a distance, not even admitting to her friends that she has cancer. Their friendship ends abruptly when Mia goes into surgery, and Zac is released after his isolation finishes. They spend months apart until one day when Mia shows up on Zac’s doorstep, traveling across Australia to see him. Together again, Zac must try to break down the barriers Mia has been putting up her entire life and find out why she’s at his door.
Zac and Mia is an incredibly realistic book, featuring characters who face their cancer in vastly different, but equally realistic, ways. Betts has created characters that seem like they could be real teenagers, often unlikeable, but ultimately characters that you root for. Fans of The Fault in Our Stars will enjoy this new addition to the sick lit genre.
When it comes to comic books and graphic novels, Jeff Lemire is a 21st century Renaissance man. Hailing from Canada, he has been recognized numerous times for his prowess in both storytelling and artistry. Lemire has written and drawn most of his works completely on his own, but he also fares incredibly well when teaming up with other writers and inkers at DC Comics.
Lemire’s sci-fi brain bender Trillium is an eight-issue comic series published over the span of August 2013 to April 2014. In Trillium, adventurers Nika and William are torn from their worlds by occult magic and thrust together in an alien jungle on a foreign planet. Through this supernatural machination, the couple becomes intertwined, although they don’t realize it at first since they’re unable to communicate due to language disparities. Nika and William fight to understand each other while combing the flora and fauna in search of the rare trillium flower, which is thought to be the only possible cure to a sentient, space-travelling supervirus that has decimated humanity.
Trillium is confounding and strangely beautiful. Navigating dimensions with William and Nika is a thrilling experience with a rewarding narrative that endears readers to persevere. Throughout the series, Lemire toys with conventional comic layout standards and actually has readers flipping the book upside down and reading from back to front, conveying the disorientation the characters are feeling. Lemire’s signature mixed medium art style leaves each page messy and scrawled, evoking hysteria and tension. His ability to convey emotions through his characters’ faces is incredible; oftentimes it isn’t what’s said, but what’s left unsaid that resonates in Lemire’s works. The same is true of his 2008-2009 Essex County Trilogy, which has been praised as one of the best Canadian graphic novels of its decade.
There was a time when child sleuths were all the rage, when Nate the Great, Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift solved crime along with just being kids. John Allison has brought mystery solving-teens back, and they are wittier than ever. Bad Machinery: The Case of the Good Boy is based on a the daily "Bad Machinery webcomic. It's girls vs. boys as babies go missing and any number of large, hairy beasties may or may not be invading the neighborhood.
Representing the girls, there's Lottie, all attitude and puff jackets. Shauna is the brains. Mildred has just found an incredibly large, friendly dog who just so happens to drink from a cup.
On the boys' side, there is Linton, most notable for a profound lack of tact. Jack is the quiet one who attracts the ladies. Sonny is sort of like a human Golden Retriever.
John Allison once described his writing style as word mangling, and it starts with the very first page.
"It's perfectly natural for babies to be out in nature, Carol!"
"The babies are getting quite dirty."
"Stop FUSSING and help me make their gruel."
It's all sideways from there, as bullies, scouting, stinky younger siblings, and dogless families are navigated. There's a missing magic pencil and a case of arson. Everything is bounced through at a well-measured pace. Allison has been writing comics in this universe for well over a decade now, and he knows exactly what he wants to do with every panel. The art looks intentionally rough and energetic.
While the main story is found online, the book ends with six pages of supplemental material that won't be found anywhere else. They're the perfect, silly complement to an already high-quality print.
The third book in Jessica Spotswood’s The Cahill Witch Chronicles, Sisters’ Fate, wraps up the Cahill sisters’ story. Cate, Maura and Tess are three very powerful witches living in an alternate America in which anyone suspected of being a witch is locked away in an asylum, or worse, sentenced to death. The Brotherhood who control the country has continued life in the Puritan tradition, oppressing women and blaming witches for the country’s problems.
In Born Wicked and Star Cursed, Cate tried to protect her sisters from the Brotherhood and other witches who are jealous of their powers, but now because of the betrayal of one sister and the burgeoning power of another, Cate is conflicted about how to proceed. Cate eventually begins to work with a group of people resisting the Brotherhood, attending secret meetings and planning ways to change life in the country. When a fever begins to ravage New London and the witches are blamed, change becomes essential to preventing the deaths of witches and humans alike, bringing Cate and the other witches to make extreme choices.
At turns a nail-biting, action-packed story and family story about sisters who just happen to be witches, Sisters’ Fate is a satisfying conclusion to Spotswood’s series. Spotswood does a wonderful job creating flawed, interesting characters who fight for what they know is right until the very end.
Lish McBride, author of the teen series Necromancer, has come out with a new young adult novel titled Firebug. This preternatural pleasure is equal parts Twilight by Stephenie Meyer and Firestarter by Stephen King. Start with a young girl who has the ability to create fire with her mind, and mix in a love triangle and a sinister paranormal mob. The result is a fast-paced romp that’s hard to put down.
After Ava’s mother is killed by the Coterie, an organization that governs paranormal citizens, Ava is forcibly enlisted as a hitwoman by the same organization. Her talents and affiliations have limited her circle of friends to her guardian, Cade, and her two partners, Ezra and Lock. When the leader of the Coterie, a vampire named Venus, threatens her last remaining family, Ava balks and starts a fight that just may be too big to win.
Morris Award-nominated McBride created a page-turner in this first installment of her new series. The combination of action, drama and witty banter is sure to leave you wanting more.
Richard is going crazy. His 14-year-old cousin Malley doesn't want to go to boarding school. Now she has run off with some guy named Talbo Chock. Luckily for Richard, he crosses paths with Skink, the 72-year-old oddball protagonist in Carl Hiaasen's newest teen novel Skink: No Surrender. Skink has been around before. He is one of Hiaasen's most beloved characters first appearing in his adult novel Double Whammy over 25 years ago. Now he's back, just in time to dish out his own weed-whacking brand of integrity and justice.
Richard doesn't know what to make of Skink, the eccentric, one-eyed ex-governor of Florida. One minute Skink is burying himself in the sand waiting to catch Loggerhead turtle egg thieves, the next he's off to help Richard solve the mystery of Malley's disappearance. Richard and Skink’s swampy journey leads them into one white-knuckle situation after another, thankfully diluted with plenty of humor along the way. Road kill for dinner, anyone?
Hiaasen, a Florida native and columnist for the Miami Herald, has long been an advocate for the Everglades. This latest plot-driven adventure, told from Richard’s perspective, continues Hiaasen’s subtle brand of environmental awareness while skimming over the creepier aspect of the story: a teenage girl’s abduction by an older man. As with his previous books, nature — and man's disregard for it — pulse below the surface, as does the fact that imperfection is not, by itself, a bad thing. There's a place for even flawed superheroes, like Skink, when it comes to defending what's right. Marketed for teen readers, this latest effort, recently long-listed for the National Book Award, will appeal to the legion of Hiaasen fans who appreciate his popular brand of humor and zesty storytelling.
Wildlife is Australian author Fiona Wood’s first novel to be published in the United States. It tells the story of two high school girls on their wilderness term at an Australian high school. Sibylla and Lou’s elite school makes students spend one term at their outdoor education campus, living in cabins, going on solo hikes and learning to fend for themselves. Sib and Lou are thrown together in a cabin with a few other girls, and each have to deal with their respective relationship and friendship issues.
Sib has always been outside of the popular group, but a once-in-a-lifetime modeling gig puts her in the spotlight. Her newfound popularity catches the attention of the most attractive guy in her class, Ben. When the two start dating, Sib begins to worry about her inexperience in relationships because of pressure from her best friend Holly. The peer pressure leads her to question her relationship with Ben and eventually her existing friendships.
Lou, on the other hand, is a transfer student looking to start over after her boyfriend died in a car accident the previous school year. She keeps her distance from her fellow classmates, including Sib, until the situation between Sib and her friends escalates, and the two form a new friendship.
Ultimately a story about friendship, romance and growing up, Wildlife is a well-written novel that readers looking for a high school story with a twist will enjoy. Wood’s characters are highly relatable and fully realized — Sib, Lou and their fellow students all seem real, their issues ones many teens face.
Would you know a monster if you saw one? Are you sure? Sometimes these creatures are easy to recognize, such as a vampire, a harpy or even a kraken. Other times, they may look like high school students who play in a garage band that just so happen to also be demonic. Don’t forget the ones who appear to be ordinary people. To be on the safe side, you should read Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant.
A collection of 15 short stories, each author explores what it is to be monstrous. Whether it is a story about an actual supernatural entity, a human harboring an evil within or the horrors that lurk in the deep recesses of our own minds, no two stories address the aspect of being a monster in the same way. Some of the stories seem to be a retelling of a fairy tale or fable, while others are a refreshing new take on a folkloric creature. Link and Grant, known for their award-winning anthology Steampunk!, did an excellent job at bringing these various authors together and compiled their works into one cohesive book of tales that will leave the reader haunted, yet entertained. While focused on teenaged protagonists, this book is sure to appeal to adults who enjoy teen fiction or a wickedly good monster story.
So check under your bed, in the closet and deep within the shadows. You never know what kind of scary creatures may be lurking there. Just remember, you have been warned. Often, the monsters within are the most terrifying of all.
Adam Selzer brings life (and undeath) to the suburban Midwest with his young adult books set in Cornersville Trace, a fictitious neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, where the fantastic is not quite impossible. Selzer’s latest novel Play Me Backwards is a story of reinvention through satanic machination, only in the Trace, Satan isn’t a horned demon; he’s a teenage burnout.
Before his girlfriend moved to England, Leon enjoyed his life as a quasi-intellectual, roguish guy wrapped in adolescent love. Four bleak years later, Leon is realizing he has come unraveled. His grades are so bad that he might not graduate, his girlfriend Paige is only with him because she hates being alone and his job at the Ice Cave sucks because the place is a den of teenage lechery and nobody should ever buy ice cream there. At least he gets to work with his lifelong best friend and fellow underachiever Stan, who it turns out might actually be Satan. His folks just dropped the first “A” so he could go to private school.
Stan gives Leon some otherworldly advice as a pick-me-up: Listen to Moby-Dick on audiobook, seek out an elusive flavor of frozen slushee called “White Grape” and do whatever else the Dark Lord may require. Leon and Paige spend their free time driving from convenience store to gas station buying frozen drinks and changing CDs, which turns out to be pretty fun. Stan’s infernal intervention gives Leon hope that he could shape up and make something of himself, but doing so means leaving the teenage debauchery, Satan-worshipping and his former self behind.
Shamelessly allegorical and unabashedly funny, Play Me Backwards is great for readers who enjoy young adult fiction or alternative culture. Leon also appears in Selzer’s 2007 debut novel How to Get Suspended and Influence People.