By Karen M. McManus
This book is literally The Breakfast Club, but if someone killed Anthony Michael Hall (and if Anthony Michael Hall had a real mean streak). Simon, the victim, wrote a gossip blog, revealing secrets about his classmates. He’s killed before he can post a new piece, while in detention with the four classmates he wrote about. Of course, those four are an over-achiever, a delinquent, a queen bee, and a jock.
Which could have been a little too clichéd except that the chapters all rotate through the four teenage suspects in their own voices. It is just so clever because it is pretty much a locked-room mystery, but we get to read the thoughts of all the suspects and truly none of them seem to have done it. As the book goes on, in addition to being a real stumper of a mystery, the characters become more complex and sympathetic, and I don’t want any of them to have done it.
They all have their own different struggles, which are naturally not helped by being suspected of murder. But the investigation turns their lives around in such a way that each one has to discover how to be true to themselves, and that’s very satisfying to read, too.
A quote from one of the chapters really captured the feeling of the book for me: “I guess we’re almost friends now, or as friendly as you can get when you’re not one hundred percent sure the other person isn’t framing you for murder.”
By Lianne Oelke
This book should be terrible. The premise is that a high-school dropout goes to community college and enters the college’s “Big Brother”-style reality show, which sounds agonizing, right? I hate both coming-of-age stories and reality shows, but I loved this book!
The saving grace is Jane Sinner, herself. Told in first person through a series of journal entries, including screenplay-like dialogue, Jane has a dry cynicism that gives hard-boiled detective characters a run for their money. The publisher description compares Jane Sinner to Daria, which is perfect and also explains why I loved her so much.
So, I was definitely invested in her, but I also got so caught up in the stupid reality show! It’s relatively low-stakes since it is created by another student at the college on a shoestring budget (he is putting his 5-year-old VW Golf up as the final prize). Jane mostly signs up for the free housing.
The author does a really good job of including the mundane (but very humorous) details that really bring the characters and story to life. At the same time that Jane Sinner is trying to get her life back on the rails, the other contestants have their own motives, the producer and film crew have their ambitions, and the various staff and students of the college interact with the show in their own ways.
Basically everyone involved is flawed but also just so human that I ended up caring for all of them, even while they were all quite literally competing with each other.
By Angelo Surmelis
I missed posting this in Pride Month, but this can just as easily be read for Gay Wrath Month instead! This is a semi-autobiographic coming-of-age story about a seventeen-year-old boy in the months after the summer he realized without a doubt he is gay. Coming from a very strict and orthodox Greek family, his domineering and abusive mother is very much not okay with it. Like, performing-an-exorcism not-okay.
Surmelis does a particularly good job of capturing how overwhelming large groups of people, particularly teenagers, can be, all talking over each other and shifting topics constantly, which is both an impressive literary feat and difficult to read. I was having minor anxiety while at the same time appreciating his skill.
Also, authentically, the protagonist describes himself as a geek and a loner, who doesn’t fit in, though he has several close friends, and an even wider circle of pleasant acquaintance from school. As someone who truly isolated herself in high school, this used to make me sort of resentful, but I think it actually just goes to show that most of us feel isolated and out of place in high school, regardless of our relative popularity.
The scenes of abuse are difficult to read, and thing that got to me in particular was how many adults saw and looked the other way. I remember that from My Friend Dahmer, too; that author wrote that there were so many adults that saw Dahmer’s decline and did nothing. Luckily, this book ends much more happily. I kept flipping to the author’s photo in the back to reassure myself that he looked so handsome, happy, and cared for.
By various authors
I’ve been having a bit of a reading crisis lately. I’ve started three different books and can’t seem to get past around the midway point. It’s not the books’ fault – I mean they aren’t stellar or anything, but there wasn’t any clear reason for my lack of interest. My best explanation is just that the news has been so inundating and depressing lately, and I can’t seem to stay off twitter, and I’m just all worn out.
So, I figured I’d recharge with a fluffy collection of short stories! Just a bunch of cute first romantic meetings sounds comforting, right? Well, I didn’t exactly get what I was looking for. They for-sure cover the meet part, but most of the authors seem to have forgotten the cute part. About half (okay, only a quarter of them, but it felt like half) the stories feature someone in mourning for a dead loved one, like only through grief are they vulnerable enough to accept love, and it is a real bummer.
On the plus side, they mixed it up with good diversity, in ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, so that’s something at least. Here’s some cold, hard data:
- Short stories included in anthology: 14
- Stories involving grief over the death of a loved one: 4
- Stories featuring high-school bullying: 3
- Stories with a main character older than 25: 0
- Stories that my cranky old self actually thought were cute: 3.5*
(none of the death or bullying ones)
*3 stories were straight-up super cute, and one had a very interesting premise, but the characters themselves weren’t super engaging.
By Emily Lloyd-Jones
This was a tough read honestly. It is a moderately well-written YA fantasy novel with a great title and an interesting premise. Demons are real and will grant wishes for people in exchange for a body part. Small requests cost a finger or toe, and they go up to a hand or foot, to an arm or leg. The body parts appear to get taken in a supernaturally clean amputation, and there doesn’t seem to be much lasting physical pain to the process.
Our protagonist, Dee Moreno, is desperate for the money to pay the tuition for her boarding school, which is the only thing that keeps her out of her parents’ abusive home. It seems likely this would have cost her a foot, or an arm at most, but unfortunately for her, she meets a demon who transacts only in hearts. Which of course sounds appalling, and everyone is appalled, but here’s the thing: he takes the heart on a two-year contact, during which Dee must run errands for him. Admittedly, they are life-endangering, supernatural errands, but after two years she gets her heart back. Which sounds like a much better deal than losing even a toe for life.
She joins four other teenagers, who have also lent out their hearts to run this demon’s errands, and of course one of them is a quirky, sensitive artist boy. Dee spends a fair amount of time mulling over her heartless state, though it doesn’t seem to prevent her from falling for the obvious romantic lead, and I spend a fair amount of time mulling over how I’d probably lend out my heart for two years just for the favor of not having to feel anything for two years. Which made me feel old and sad, but is probably not ultimately the book’s fault.
(I do still fully blame the book for telling, but not showing, any real consequence to being ‘heartless.’ Every time the book emphasized the awfulness of it all, I kept thinking how angry I would have been to have given a limb without knowing that the heart was an option.)
Waaaay back in 2012, I wrote a review about the first book in a new YA fantasy/mystery trilogy by Maureen Johnson. I really liked The Name of the Star but at the time the rest of series wasn’t out yet. Books two and three are now available, and I recommend tracking those down for a good supernatural mystery. Johnson’s latest book is also a mystery, but it takes a slightly different, non-fantasy angle on things. Truly Devious follows two different story threads–in the present day teenager Stevie, a true crime aficionado, is starting the year at an exclusive and unusual boarding school that was the site of a notorious crime in the early 1900s. She wants to solve the historical crime, but gets swept up into a present-day mystery. But while we watch Stevie try to figure out what is going on in her world, we are also following actors in the original mystery and slowly uncovering what actually happened when the wife and daughter of a wealthy industrialist were kidnapped.
The downside of Truly Devious is that it ends on a cliffhanger with basically no resolution, and there isn’t even a publication date for the next one. This is clearly going to be a single story told over several books, but who knows when it all might wrap up. But this was a quick read with an engaging story and it would be perfect to read on a dark and rainy evening, since it’s a little creepy but probably won’t keep you up at night.
Also, Maureen Johnson is super fun to follow on Twitter (@maureenjohnson), where she is very funny and also posts lots of cute pictures of her dog. Plus, she just edited a YA essay compilation called How I Resist that looks really inspiring, that I may have to go track down.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Creepy, on-going mystery
You might also like: One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus is a fun teenagers-solve-a-crime story, and if you’re looking for a quirky boarding school book, Looking for Alaska by John Green is a classic. The recent TV show about the Getty kidnapping called Trust also gets at quite a few of the period-piece thriller aspects of this. But considering that this is the story of someone obsessed with true crime, my main recommendation is the podcast My Favorite Murder, in which two mystery-obsessed women tell the stories of famous crimes to each other. Just this morning I was listening to an episode this morning about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which feels like it was a bit of an inspiration for the historical crime in this book.