Book –What happens when we die? Does Heaven await us in the afterlife, or perhaps the fiery pits of Hell? Maybe, our souls merely evaporate into the air, leaving no trace of our existence. Shall we meet the pearly gates or travel the River Styx?
Gabrielle Zevin explores this age-old question of what happens after life in her novel, Elsewhere. Imagine that you wake up in a strange bed, aboard a ship you’ve never seen before, embarking on a journey to a place you’ve never heard of, called Elsewhere. Fifteen year old Liz thinks she’s having a bad dream, until it finally hits her; she’s dead.
Dead and stuck in Elsewhere, all Liz wants to do is go back home, or at the very least find a way communicate with her family so they know she’s okay. But the afterlife has other things in store for her. In Elsewhere, people age backwards instead of forwards, and they return to Earth as infants. so Liz is placed in the custody of her late grandmother, a woman she has never known. This isn’t how it was supposed to be! Liz doesn’t want to build a new life growing young; she wants her life back. Maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the afterlife than meets the eye…
I adored this book as a teen, and still consider it one of my favorites today. The world of Elsewhere seemed like a fantasy to me, a quite intriguing hypothesis of what lies in store for us in death. A morbidly light read, with a fun cast of characters and a charming story.
Book – Imagine if you could taste someone’s emotions when you bite into a piece of cake, fresh from the oven. Maybe you’d taste your mother’s happiness at the success of a new recipe, or the local baker’s despair of his broken marriage. Would it be a gift? Or a curse?
Aimee Bender’s explores this whimsical idea in her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. On her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein is shocked to discover she has a taste for feelings after biting into a slice of cake baked by her mother. In that first bite, her world is shattered when Rose tastes her mother’s sadness and anguish. Her new-found “gift” sends her reeling from the impact of knowing too much about people’s hidden secrets. There is no escape from the emotions that assault her. In this magical coming of age novel, Bender weaves a sorrowful, yet hopeful tale of a young girl caught up in the sentiments of others, trying to find herself among them.
I thought this was a wonderful read, a simple yet fantastical story that is actually quite relatable. While the element of magic may not be found in our own lives, every family has its hidden secrets, the things we try to bury within ourselves. This novel allows us to consider what might happen if those secrets were revealed, as well as realize the burden they hold over us.
Book – Code Name Verity follows the World War II adventures of two young Scottish women. Sensible Maddie, who grew up in her grandfather’s bike shop, has a skill with machines matched only by her love of aeronautics. As a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force she mostly flies supply planes, but her missions become a lot more interesting once she meets Queenie, the girl with many names. Queenie is fearless and funny, brilliant and aristocratic—and a spy. Thrown together under extraordinary circumstances, it isn’t long before the girls form a fierce friendship. When Maddie’s plane is shot down over occupied France and Queenie is captured on a mission, however, both girls will find their strength, and their bond, tested to the limit.
Told through letters and documents written by both young women, Code Name Verity introduces two equally vivid lead characters whose affection for each other makes them jump off the page. Elizabeth Wein does an extraordinary job of building tension and maintaining the novel’s pace, making it hard to put down. Code Name Verity functions equally well as an action-packed war story and as a coming-of-age novel, but for me the absolute highlight is the friendship between the girls—perhaps the single best female friendship I have ever read. There are mentions of off-screen torture that may be uncomfortable for some, and readers are definitely advised to keep their tissues handy, but the depth of emotion and exquisite writing in this top-notch story make it well worth the ride.
Book – In The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise, Francis Wootten lives in Northern England and comes from a loving if dysfunctional family. His mother is tough as nails and his grandmother is the same. His father is absent, caught up in his new life elsewhere. His brother works on a magazine no one reads and raids their pantry on a regular basis along with his flatmate, Fiona. Quiet, reserved and a bit of a loner, it isn’t until his leukemia lands him in a hospital unit, that Francis makes a friend and finally falls in love.
I found myself far more interested and invested in Francis and his family than Amber. The Woottens were easier to care about and connect to while Amber was explained too often and shown too little. That said, Francis’ voice is a compelling one and the book was quite enjoyable. This would be a good read for fans of John Green, unique narrators, and strange family dynamics.
Book – The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is the coming of age story of Thea Atwell. She is 15, lives on a ranch in Florida with her parents and her twin brother, and is already an accomplished horsewoman and beauty. She has always been very close to her family and sheltered, as she and her brother are homeschooled and really don’t have any friends except for each other. Thea’s world is shaken when the Depression begins and she is sent away by her parents to an exclusive equestrian boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains as a punishment. We see her adjusting to her new school and making friends with privileged Southern belles as she tries to overcome her feelings of guilt and homesickness. The reader will keep turning the pages as the story slowly unfolds to reveal the reason for her banishment by her family from her beloved home. This is not a cozy read as it is full of scandal, sex and secrets. The book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus.
Graphic novel – Rue Silver is just an ordinary teenage girl. She’s got a great best friends, a boyfriend who’s in a band, a college professor father and a crazy mother. Who’s missing. Oh, and sometimes she sees things that can’t be real. No big deal. Okay, so maybe she’s not that ordinary. Her mother is a faery, which means that Rue isn’t entirely human, either. And her grandfather Aubrey has a plan – a plan that will wrest her town from the grip of the humans and leave it under the rule of Faerie. What happens to the humans who live there, well, Aubrey just doesn’t care. Rue cares. As much as she can.
The Good Neighbors (in three volumes, Kin, Kith and Kind) is a wonderful, eerie story about love, duty, and humanity. Rue goes from ordinary high-schooler to fully embracing her faerie heritage, with all that implies. Rue is culturally human, she grew up as a human, but she is fey too, and she finds it all too easy to leave human things behind. The story really belongs to her. The rest of the characters are more like stock fairy tale characters. It’s not a terrible flaw, given how fast-paced the story is. And, of course, Ted Naifeh’s art is stunning. The two-page spreads of faerie and human crowds are spectacular, and while the art never distracts you from the story, it definitely rewards a closer second (and third and fourth) reading.
Book – In 1686, eighteen-year-old country girl Nella arrives in Amsterdam to begin her life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She doesn’t know him well and finds his household strange and unwelcoming. His sister, Marin, runs the household and seems to lead a pious, austere life. The servants, Otto and Cornelia, are friendly, but cautious. In addition, Johannes is often absent and when he’s home, he’s preoccupied. Then, Johannes presents Nella with an extravagant wedding gift, a miniature version of their house. Nella is confused and overwhelmed by the gift, but with little to occupy her time, decides to begin furnishing it. She hires a miniaturist through the mail, and when the contents start to arrive, she is both fascinated and terrified. The miniaturist seems to be able to not only replicate their household down to the last detail, but also seems to be able to predict the future. As events begin to unfold, Nella struggles to figure out what’s real and what is an illusion. What I found most interesting about this book was the historical detail. Events transpire to illuminate both the lifestyles and attitudes of Amsterdam during this time period. The characters were interesting and complex. This story was full of secrets and intrigues and kept me guessing until the end.
Book – Lorrie Ann and Mia have been friends since they were young girls. Lorrie Ann seems perfect, the “good girl” from a bohemian and loving family. In contrast, Mia struggles to deal with her mother, who’s often drunk, haphazardly babysits her younger brothers and describes herself as having a “little black stone for a heart.” Despite their differences, the girls share everything and know everything about each other. Then, tragedy strikes Lorrie Ann’s family and events begin to spiral. As the story unfolds over the next fifteen years, Mia is forced to examine her beliefs about her friend, motherhood, families and about what it really means to be “good.” I found this debut novel to be thought-provoking and the characters were interesting. I reflected on the reliability of our memories and how the years and maturity can alter them. This book was realistic in that situations weren’t always resolved in the nicest or easiest way and different characters offered viewpoints, giving varying angles and “truths.”
Book – The Posts are going to Mallorca for a two-week vacation. Franny and Jim are celebrating their 35th Anniversary, but recent issues are casting doubt that they’ll celebrate their 36th. Their daughter, Sylvia, is happy to escape Manhattan for the summer to join them before she heads off to college. Bobby, her older brother, arrives with his girlfriend, Carmen, a fitness instructor who annoys the family. The guest list rounds off with Franny’s best friend, Charles and his husband Lawrence. When the guests are assembled in the luxurious villa, they begin to realize that their hopes and troubles have followed them to their holiday paradise. As the vacationers relax and explore the island, they discover truths about themselves and their relationships. I didn’t think I was going to like these characters as much as I did. Straub’s humor manages to be pointed, yet kind.Straub is also the author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Book – Straun, Ontario is home to twenty-one year old Megan Cartwright and her family. Megan has been the organizer of her household and primary caretaker of her family since she was a young girl. Her father is a banker and stays in his study when he’s home and her mother is caught up with the arrival of the newest baby. When Megan decides that it’s time she goes out on her own and leaves for England, the family is left without their safety net. Her older brother, Tom, has been driving the town snow plow and living at home since a tragedy involving his best friend. Her mother is increasingly vague and neglectful. The younger boys are fending for themselves. Her father refuses to acknowledge his family’s decline. Megan is unaware of the family’s turmoil as she struggles to find her own place in the world. When things finally come to a head, everyone must own up to their frailties and make difficult choices. I love the way Lawson captures family dynamics and small-town life. Her characters are flawed, but relatable in their struggles. Straun is also the setting for Lawson’s novel Crow Lake and some of the characters make a reappearance in Road Ends.