Category Archives: YA

The Loser’s Bracket by Chris Crutcher

Unless you are playing during March Madness where a lose is an automatic ejection from further play, there are two pathways to winning a basketball tournament. You can win your way to the top spot, or you can lose and play the other losers into the winner’s circle.

That’s the way Annie Boots prefers to win, by playing the other losers then besting the winning team in Loser’s Bracket by Chris Crutcher. This route may take a little longer, but it gives her a better chance of meeting up with her family. Perhaps her life is a metaphor for the loser’s bracket, since her deadbeat mom, Nancy can’t quite get her act together enough to keep her dysfunctional family intact. Annie ends up in a foster home where the Howard’s (Momma and Pop) are able to provide her a decent lifestyle. Unfortunately, her slightly older sister Sheila is not so fortunate, being bounced between foster families until she became a parent herself. Little Frankie seems as messed up as his mom and his quirky habits also make him an unlikely candidate for a loving home.

Despite Annie’s assured pathway to success, she can’t forsake her biological family, even if Pop pushes her to do just that, but if her mom or sister just show up at a game, then who can blame her for meeting up with them. The draw of blood is just too strong and no threat can keep them apart, even though everyone agrees that Nancy is a bad influence with her frequent shoplifting and drug use. Sheila isn’t much better and often foists Frankie off on her sis. Luckily Momma doesn’t mind and even has a bunch of playthings stashed away for his frequent visits. They just have to watch for meltdowns where he smears his excrement as if it were caulking, a little habit which is less than endearing. Both Annie and Frankie inexplicably need that link with their birth mothers to stay whole, even though a fresh start would be better for their mental health.

Chris Crutcher has the pulse of today’s youth, so when you find his name on any book, you know that it will be a worthwhile read. He creates complex scenarios reflecting the tangled, mixed up lives of the average teen, many from families which also have a convoluted trajectory. While the main characters in this book are white, Annie’s friends represent the diversity found in the average urban high school. There needs to be more YA books which reflect the nitty gritty of teen life and not the dream family dynamics, which even when their flaws are portrayed are still too far from the norm.

Crutcher, not afraid to show the underside of life including the warts, still finds a pathway to a realistic, yet hopeful conclusion. Warning: This one is full of four letter words reflecting the language commonly heard outside of public settings. Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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I’ve Lost My Way by Gale Forman

By the time a child graduates from high school and reaches the magic age of eighteen we give them the right to vote, access to the armed forces, and the title of adult. Perhaps the term of Young Adult would be more accurate. Whatever the name, these youngsters are still children tied to the apron strings of their parents, just playing acting at the game of grown up until such time as they are able to actually grow into the role.

In I’ve Lost My Way, Gale Forman takes the lives of three such individuals who are facing the cusp of adulthood and all the issues which go along with the job description. Each encounters a dilemma which will affect the direction of their entire future. Not only do they need to deal with their personal issues, but wrapped up in the process is their relationship with their parents and the changes which will occur as they pull away from the family nest to pursue their own future path.

This however is just one day where their lives accidentally intersect in New York’s Central Park and they develop the sort of friendship with a youthful exuberance that can make a difference. Only the young can enjoy the camaraderie of strangers, as they come to each other’s rescue not knowing the whys and wherefores on a life changing day. Freya, a singer on the cusp of greatness, faces a glitch in her future plans, while Harun is looking for a way to escape an inner secret which he knows will lead to turmoil with his parents. Then there’s Nathaniel, armed with a backpack and a map, far from home and overwhelmed by the hustle of The City. Through their own voices we find out their backstories and what has brought them to this current moment in their lives. This diverse, unlikely trio discover the joy of an unencumbered friendship which doesn’t judge, but uplifts each of them at the lowest moments of their eighteen to nineteen year existence.

A smoothe read, easily completed in one sitting (you won’t be able to stop yourself from finishing this one), with a set of strong characters and a somewhat open ended conclusion which makes anything possible. As an aside, I’m giving a shout out to fans of Tolkien who value the sanctity of his Lord of the Rings – Ms Forman, Nathaniel’s actions could easily be considered sacrilege. Please, honor the ring!

Five stars and a thank you to both Netgalley and Edelweiss for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Leanne Oelke

17 year old Jane Sinner should be enjoying her senior year of high school, but a traumatic incident has her constantly looking over her shoulder and second guessing the furtive glances of her classmates making it impossible for her to emotionally face their suppositions. Thus begins Nice Try, Jane Sinner where the author, Leanne Oelke, provides an interesting option for a main character suffering with depression and other mental health issues. Constantly skipping school, however, is not one of the acceptable choices, so by mutual agreement an alternative is suggested – a special program at the local community college where she can finish up high school and even take some college classes. Jane’s parents are so desperate to restore some normalcy to their daughter’s life that they agree to her demands of moving out and rooming with a friend near the campus. Little do they know that the place Jane chooses to live (sans said friend) is The House of Orange which is a Big Brother style set up filmed for the Internet with a used car as a prize for the last man standing.

Jane doesn’t have to worry about her past while attending class at Elbow River Community College, so she can relax and focus on her goal of “winning” the prize. For someone who shrinks from attention, she surprisingly doesn’t mind (too much) the invasive cameras which indiscriminately film her actions. She even forms an alliance and develops a friendship of sorts with her fellow contestants. A self-proclaimed psychology major, Jane sets out to administer a negative stimulus whenever one of her obnoxious housemates raids her personal dorm-style fridge – a nightly occurrence. Her aggressive, competitive style along with her sarcastic sense of humor and sardonic wit make her popular with an audience whose growing viewership leads to a spot for the reality show on a local tv channel along with a corporate sponsorship, complete with a scholarship and a cash award.

Complications include the fact that Jane cannot legally consume alcohol (at least not on tape) since the drinking age in the province of Alberta in Canada is eighteen. Even though she partakes the forbidden beverage off camera, the after effects of her imbibing is evident in the footage. This could lead to problems for everyone involved especially since the producer, a fellow student, assumes she is of legal age (probably because she lied on the application). It also becomes harder for Jane to keep the truth hidden from her parents as more and more viewers tune in to watch and she finally has to come clean with her younger sister who is pissed that Jane doesn’t visit home more often.

Oelke has the main character tell her story uses a journaling style with a conversational dialogue imitating lines of a screenplay, including a bit of imaginary dialogue and a few inner psychotherapy sessions where Jane unsuccessfully attempts to psychoanalyze her own uncooperative self. The addition of some explanatory narrative nicely rounds out the plot making this book a fast paced, entertaining read despite the 400+ page length.

The cast of characters from her “new” life (along with her diverse fan base) plus those high school friends she occasionally sees, as well as her family and the members of the youth group she’s promised to attend each week, provides an extensive list of names to keep track of that’s just long enough for an annotated list of “cast members” to be helpful.

My major complaints were the melodramatic and over the top conclusion to the competition and the way Jane’s little sister is portrayed – more like a whinny twelve year old instead of her slightly more mature age of fifteen. Kudos, however, for dealing with the topical issue of teen depression, along with the adolescent angst of discovering ones own identity (separate from that of their parents) which includes questioning ones faith in God and searching for the answer to the age old query “what do I do next?” Oelke provides a possible answer in an ending which promises a positive future for someone that needs a happily ever after.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Art of Losing Yourself by Katie Ganshert

If you enjoy Christian books with a capital C, then you might like The Art of Losing Yourself by Katie Ganshert, but don’t expect a squeaky clean story. This novel deals with issues such as alcoholism, failed relationships, sex before marriage, teen drinking and drug use, and swearing. Yet interspersed between these “sinful” behaviors are various scriptures and reflections about God and Jesus (which at times become a bit preachy). It’s easy to see why the main characters have doubts about their religion when they can relate better to the Book of Job than to the Gospels.

Two estranged half sisters end up together battling their personal demons. Carmen, a successful meteorologist on a local news channel, is numbed by her inability to have a child, lashing out while keeping her distance from a loving but clueless husband. Gracie is compulsive in her actions reflecting her anger at the world, but she gets a fresh start at a new high school and even begins to make friends despite her negative attitude.

Yet life is not fair and this is definitely not a fairy tale as even simple solutions are unattainable. Despite the hard work and dedication towards setting things right, more often than not failure is the result. Watching the hypocritical achieve their desired outcomes without a struggle, the sisters each wonder about God and why he doesn’t seem to be there for them.

A series of “coincidences” leads one sister to save the life of the other, but there is no resolution to their dilemmas, just more questions.

Three stars for an interesting, though depressing read.

Thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

For This Life Only by Stacy Kade

Jacob Palmer is a PK or Pastor’s Kid and has difficulty living under the family strictures requiring him to always be on his best behavior since the neighbors might be watching and judging his actions. To make matters worse, his twin brother Elijah is on the fast track to follow in the steps of both his father and grandfather to become the pastor at the local church which has become a family legacy. Needing to get away from another night of scrabble with his parents and young sister Sarah, Jace takes off to hang out with his friends, bumming a ride off his twin. Making it an early night so as not to break curfew, he has to call Eli to pick him up after he accidentally gets doused with a cup of beer (can’t let his dad know he’s had a sip or two). On the way home the car spins out on a patch of ice and their vehicle goes over the bridge killing one boy and almost taking the life of the other.

Even as he physically begins to mend, life for Jacob will never be the same. No longer able to throw the ball, his goal of a college sports scholarship is out the window. That’s the least of his worries as he has to adjust to a new family dynamic with broken parents and a traumatized baby sister as he carries the guilt of his brother’s death on his shoulders and tries to avoid the well
meaning platitudes of his classmates and the community.

Inexplicably Jacob finds himself seeking comfort from the school pariah, the daughter of the psychic who lives across the street from the church with the garish neon sign which makes his dad fume. This girl is off limits even to his friends since they hold her responsible for losing the state championship when two seniors were suspended based on her allegations of sexual harassment. Yet Jace sees a different side to the once hated Thera and, through her, starts to view life via a different lens.

For This Life Only by Stacy Kade is a powerful story dealing with some heavy topics such as sexual abuse, faith and religion, death and grief, loyalty and rejection. Kade shows a realistic snapshot of a family trying to deal with a senseless loss.

While there’s a lot going on with various subplots, unfortunately many of the characters aren’t fully developed and the story doesn’t quite gel. A further complication is the quick but confusing resolution leaving out some pertinent details which prevent the reader from attaining a fulfilling closure. While many YA books tend to be too wordy and need a little editing, this one could have easily added another fifty pages to properly wrap things up instead of using an epilogue to try and put a bow on a slightly incomplete story.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on my blog, Gotta Read.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt

Gary D Schmidt must have lived in Ancient Greece during a former life since he has developed the concept of tragedy into an art form in the new YA book, Orbiting Jupiter. Get out the hankies, this one is a real tear jerker. The parenting gene will go into overdrive as we read about motherless Jack whose father gets his jollies by beating up his only son. Then, while accompanying his dad on a plumbing job in an upscale neighborhood, Jack meets Madeline. After that the thirteen year old walks seven miles each way in all sorts of weather to spend time with this girl who quickly inhabits his heart. Then one day she kisses him and they end up together in the biblical sense. He gets caught and is sent away for his sins, first at one facility and then to a real killer institute. Inbetween times he discovers that Maddie has become pregnant and then that he has a daughter called Jupiter, named after their favorite planet.

All this information comes out later, but in the beginning of the story we meet Jamie and his folks who have decided to welcome Jack as a foster child into their home on an organic farm. Jack, who rarely speaks and remains skittish after some ugly events back at the home, gradually opens up as he interrelates with the farm animals and responds to the true affection provided by the Hurd family.

Yet it’s a long road from damaged to healed, and not smooth sailing for any of the participants as Jack seeks a path to wholeness through the idea of reuniting with his baby daughter. There is no sugar coating to the injustices found in bureaucracy or the nastiness of middle schoolers when they discover a weakness in a fellow student. Jack has too much baggage to be readily accepted by his peers although his abilities are recognized by some caring adults (finally a positive voice about the role of teachers in the life of their students).

This story is told through the voice of twelve year old James Hurd who grows to care for his “roommate” and continually demonstrates that he has Jack’s back, in the face of dangerous or threatening situations. Even though this story evolves around kids, don’t expect smooth sailing or happy endings.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this book, but the plot reads more like my favorite soap opera where evil awaits around every corner with little pockets of hope for positive outcomes in impossible situations. Contrived might be a good word to describe this heart breaker. Also, Orbiting Jupiter is almost too short with some events occurring so rapidly that the reader can’t get a grip on what’s happening until it’s all over, in spite of anticipating this very outcome.

Although written for a YA audience, Orbiting Jupiter will appeal to the younger crowd, especially when they see it is less than two hundred pages. Well written, but easy to read, Schmidt doesn’t dumb down his dialogue and tackles some issues rarely talked about but of concern to young teens. Four stars.

Thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Hit Count by Chris Lynch

Teenage boys are the hardest audience to convince that reading fiction books is worthwhile. While girls will be happy with almost any topic, boys are much harder to please. Hit Count by Chris Lynch is the perfect novel to scratch that itch. It should be on the shelf of every high school library.

This book evolves around a family with two teenage boys, a mother, and father. Both sons are obsessed with football. The older son Lloyd Brodie, although tough, never advances beyond the Jayvee level and quits his Senior Year. It’s all downhill from there, as he drops out of school and spends his time smoking pot and bumming around the house. The reader isn’t sure if his denseness is drug induced or due to brain injury, but the author portrays him as a pathetic loser jealous of his successful little brother. In contrast, Arlo, 6′ 2″ and 240 pounds, is driven to succeed where his brother failed. He redoubles his efforts, training twice a day throughout the year with his best friend Dino so he can make the Varsity team in his Sophomore year. Once on the team, Arlo discovers he loves the violent contact necessary for the linebacker to do his job. Coach Fisk admires his determination, but sometimes has to bench his star player to keep him from harming himself. Arlo resents these time outs wanting to get back on the field and do some damage to the opposing team. He even gets aggressive during scrimmages with his team mates. Before long Arlo gets the nickname Starlo due to his stellar moves which leads to the team’s winning record.

The meaning of the term Hit Count evolves throughout the book. At first it refers to Arlo’s list of future accomplishments he would like to achieve. Many of the items are easily crossed off prior to his Senior Year in High School. Then the Hit Count is the number of people Arlo successfully targets to smash, until finally he considers himself to be a walking Hit Count. In the end, Coach Fisk reveals the correct definition. A hit count is used to limit the frequency of repetitive head trauma and concussions to improve the safety of youth athletes in competitive sports. Arlo’s mother keeps “The File” full of articles and photographs which both sons are forced to read to remind them of the dangers of concussions and sub concussive injuries prevalent in contact sports. While Arlo’s dad is proud of his son’s power and success on the field, Arlo’s mom refuses to attend the games and watch her son be clocked as he pulverizes the other teams roster. She cringes when reading the nickname Starlo in the local newspaper, intuitively knowing that such a designation is only earned after brutal actions. Eventually Arlo’s girlfriend Sandrine (Sandy) comes to agree and refuses to have “contact” with her boyfriend until the season is over.

What will appeal most to boys, besides the violence found in contact sports, is the graphic details of the game. Lynch rakes us through Arlo’s thoughts as he trains and plays his favorite sport of football. For me, it was a little excessive and upsetting (I’m a mom who is grateful my son got his varsity letter in golf and that her daughters got their letters in bowling and swim) even though I could understand his obsession to be the best and his need for the extreme workouts necessary to build his body into tip top shape. While the gratuitious violence was necessary to advance the plot, it still made me want to yell “stop” or “enough”. So in a way, this book was painful to read, especially after each head trauma episode. While Chris Lynch presents Arlo’s thoughts and feelings in excruciating detail (completely necessary to get the point across to the reader), I was surprised the ending was so brief. I wanted a little bit more about this kid I had spent over 300 pages getting to know. It should at least have had an epilogue. Four stars.

Thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.