Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Murray_skippyMurray, Paul. Skippy Dies. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Genre: literary fiction (for adults) (I argue: YA contemporary)

Summary: Howard (the coward) returns to teach at his alma mater, Seabrook College. Howard never achieved the fame and fortune that is expected of Seabrook graduates. Instead, he muddles through his life and relationships burdened with the secrets that would surely tarnish Seabrook’s reputation if they ever came to light. Before the school year is out, Howard is snagged into yet another school tragedy when the boy everyone calls “Skippy” mysteriously dies.

Critique: This book was not marketed as a cross-over that adults and young adults might enjoy, and I think that was a mistake. I lived in Ireland when this book came out. I saw teens gorging on the 600+ pages. I saw them swarm the author at readings around Dublin as if he were the new Rowling or Meyers!

The text plays (timidly) with fonts to indicate cell phone ring tones, hit songs, and other quirks of digitized teenage life. The point of view cunningly shifts from close third to second person whenever characters slip from sober to high. And Murray’s humor mingles the wry, dark, and tragic. Don’t be surprised if you laugh in the midst of bitter tears.

This book was short- and long-listed for nearly every UK book award, including the Mann Booker. And it’s no surprise why: rather than pooh-pooh the trials of teenage life and love, this book employs string theory, Irish folklore, and the complex mathematics to capture this devastatingly explosive time in all our lives. Suddenly, blazingly, staggeringly, readers realize the human heart is a complicated realm, regardless of your age! Where Murray might have been timid with fonts, he is unreservedly bold with contemporary issues like bullying, sexual molestation, and drug abuse.

Indeed, this book is not for the timid. No. It is for the brave parents, teens, and other readers who acknowledge life is not a safe haven, but a savage garden of good and evil, tragic and jolly. Those who enjoy John Green and A. S. King will adore Skippy Dies.

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I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Nelson_givesunNelson, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun. New York: Dial Books, 2014. Print.

Genre: YA

Summary: This story about twins, Noah and Jude, is told through their alternating perspectives from different points in time. Jude tells the “future” when she and Noah are 16 and totally estranged. Noah tells the past, when they are 13 and inseparable. They mystery circles around what drove them apart. The suspense radiates out of the question: will they be able to reconcile and restore their once magically aligned worlds?

(Certainly not the book you want to be reading if, like me, you find yourself estranged from your own soul-twin and mate, forever wondering if your worlds will realign and be even more magical than before.)

Recipient of a few awards you might have heard of: 2015 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature; 2015 Stonewall Honor Book; YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults; A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year; A Boston Globe Best YA Book of the Year…to name only a few.

Critique: The broken, fragment sentences that characterize the pulverizing teen voices of this novel are hypnotic. The romances singe and sizzle! The structure will stretch you across the most unbearable tenterhooks of tension as one narrative goes forward while the other probes back until they finally collide. The problem of perspective, its limited scope, our own ability to skew it, to keep ourselves preserved in the best light, is the pulse reverberating through the soul of this book, much as it is for Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. In both texts, devastating tragedies arise when people fail to see, understand, and accept a perspective that is not their own; to accept that they might have played the part of a villain without ever meaning to; that we are all capable (and guilty) of hurting worst the ones we love most; and that forgiveness is not only possible–it’s primal.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Rowell_eleanor-parkRowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. Westminster, MD: Listening Library Books on Tape, Random House, 2013. Print.

Genre: YA contemporary

Summary: It’s the 1980s. Eleanor is the new girl. She’s a chubby red head with a flamboyant style. Park is not new, but he occupies a shaky place in the pecking order of popularity because he’s half-Korean. His status as a social outcast hangs by a thread. Nonetheless, he shares his seat on the bus with the awkward new girl when no one else will. What buds is that first-ever romance we all remember from our own early years. It starts with music and quickly expands. But Eleanor cannot love Park as openly as she wants to. Her step-dad is abusive and controlling. He has spent most of her adolescence warping her ideas of affection. As a result, Eleanor repeats the cycle of fear, insecurity, abuse, apology, back to fear. If she cannot learn to love, she’ll ruin the best thing she’s ever known: Park.

Critique: The point of view alternates between Eleanor and Park. Sometimes this creates rapid-fire exchanges during the tensest or most romantically climactic moments. The reader gets a mix of diverging perceptions and coalescing emotions. If you’ve left adolescence, Rowell will rekindle for your all the feelings and physiological experiences of first love. If you’re still caught in the teeth of growing up, her book serves as a realistic road map. Either way, Rowell avoids all the clichés that usually haunt this category of teen fiction. No hearts throbbing or cheeks flushing here. Instead, bones melt, chests fold inside out. And the intensity flares from the simple firsts (not just sex): nudging fingers, holding hands, staring into another’s eyes for the first time with intensity. Where Rowell really shines is with Eleanor’s story of domestic abuse. Rowell paints the delicate lines of mental violence inflicted by Eleanor’s step-dad, Richie. She portrays the mom not as an idiot for staying, but as an intelligent woman with a broken spirit. For those who’ve known this existence, the book will prove hard to read. It will dance too close to home, but I urge you to reach the end, to seek the hope hiding in the smallest gestures and treasures.