Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

To imitate this book’s brilliant execution of in medias res, we meet our protagonist, Sarah, moments after a car crash, as her mother dies from a gunshot wound to the head. Sarah hears dogs barking and races away, eluding capture through a death defying gymnastic vault and flip onto a roof, out of sight. (Sarah hears a voice in her head, “commit to the move…”) As she lies motionless, and silent, invisible from below, and soldiers and dogs pass back and forth, she sees a man on another roof…

The next day, Sarah climbs aboard the ferry her mother intended to take. She is safe. She has escaped. Then she sees the man from the roof, surrounded by soldiers – Nazis – asking for his papers. Sarah leaves her safety and, pretending that this man is her father, saves him. As these two characters learn and reveal more about each other, the reader gradually learns too. He is a British spy and Sarah – despite her blonde hair and blue eyes - is a Jewish German.

The voice in Sarah’s head creates fantastic tension and often offers enlightening flashbacks. It is a really effective narrative tactic.  All of Sarah’s talents and training become critical to the plan she forms with the spy.

 The relentless tension and pacing of this plot combines with deft character development, supported by fascinating facts from Nazi Germany. An author’s note (read by Matt Killeen himself, in the audio version) reveals that many of the most unlikely plot points are based in fact. Jewish children and other ordinary citizens played courageous and key roles in fighting Nazis in World War II. Both author and book make clear that democracies are fragile constructs and we, the ordinary citizens, are not powerless to defend but have a responsibility to support.

Young Adult Fiction Hardcover pr1305017
Audio CD pr2635152

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

I wonder if young readers ever feel inadequate after reading book after book about protagonist kids saving the planet? You know, the kind with kids who have death-defying heroics, extraordinary powers and intellect, “sleuth-y” skills or the perfect team of friends... In this contemporary juvenile novel, two unexceptional, young protagonists come through experiences that are world shattering only to them, but nevertheless important, and life altering.

Ben and Charlotte are good kids, with excellent grades. They know each other only through their online Scrabble games and their comments to each other through the platform of their games. When Ben moves up to middle school, the two guys he’s hung out with in elementary school have drifted away. Ben hasn’t thought too much about that. He’s close to his parents and doing alright, that is, until they tell him they’re getting a divorce. Suddenly he can’t relate to either of them. He can’t talk to them, and he realizes he has no one else, except Charlotte.

Charlotte has a best friend, Bridget. They’ve always been inseparable, with lots of inside jokes that didn’t include anyone else. In middle school, Bridget makes friends with other girls, who aren’t Charlotte’s friends. Little shifts occur between them, just as Charlotte’s father has a heart attack. He’s in hospital, and Charlotte feels overwhelmed, but she can’t talk to Bridget. Her neighbour, Magda – who she and Bridget used to make fun of – is kind to Charlotte, asking about her dad. Over the course of a few weeks, Bridget’s behaviour erodes Charlotte’s steadfast loyalty to her. Finally, Charlotte realizes that Bridget isn’t that nice to her anymore, and Magda is.

During this time, Charlotte works out for herself a few things about her dad and gains the courage to go and visit him in the hospital, for the first time. Ben works through events around his parents’ divorce, in similar ways, eventually making a new friend at school, and making peace with his parents. Charlotte and Ben don’t become inseparable, but they are there for each other, in small ways, at critical times. Many moments in this book remind me of awkward or awesome times in my own childhood. That is, Charlotte and Ben’s voices, experiences and quiet bravery, ring true. Recommend this book to any patron sitting alone, to kids new to a school or neighbourhood, to avid readers, science enthusiast girls, or Scrabble players.

Juvenile Fiction Hardcover pr1307222

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

The indisputable silver lining to the polarizing, political storm clouds raging over our neighbours to the south, and elsewhere, is that publishers are offering more support to the voices of diverse communities, especially Muslim authors. The debut novel Saints and Misfits is a fine example, tempered by the fact that the main character’s faith is only part of her story. Janna’s parents have divorced, she has a crush on a cute boy, she and a childhood friend are growing apart, she’s learning to define her selfhood in new ways, her brother has a new fiancé, her mother might be dating, etc. Janna struggles to accommodate many of these typical teenage challenges, while Muslim practices around clothing, how and when she and other women wear the hijab, aspects of dating, etc. also colour her thoughts and concerns. Her faith informs her selfhood, but never overpowers the narrative. This aspect of the novel augments the story with a mirror and a window for Muslim and non-Muslim readers, respectively. Then a peer attempts to rape her, dwarfing all of her other concerns. Janna’s story is moving! Excellent characterization, a pacey plot, compelling teenage dialogue and deft handling of Janna’s feelings and behaviour regarding her sexual assault, make it hard to believe this is a debut novel.

I highly recommend it and look forward to reading more books by Canadian author, S.K. Ali. 

Young Adult Fiction Hardcover pr1257672


The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Twin sisters Molly and Cassie are 17. Molly has never had a boyfriend and never kissed anyone. Cassie has dated and hooked up with many girls and always tells Molly all about it (usually she tells Molly TOO much about it, for prudish Molly’s liking). Cassie’s always excited, initially, but never been really serious about a romantic relationship. Then Cassie meets her dream girl - gorgeous, sophisticated, exotic Mina. For the first time, Molly’s outspoken, self-assured, courageous, invincible twin seems vulnerable and unsure. She is quiet and reserved and not sharing her feelings with Molly. There are glimpses of the old Cassie. She comes exploding into Molly’s room, June 26th 2015. The Same Sex Marriage Amendment Supreme Court ruling has been announced in the U.S. Cassie is over the moon and practically goes supernova when their two moms decide to get married. The twins jump into the wedding preparations, but their relationship is uneasy. While all of these events are unfolding, Molly starts her first job, meets a boy and quietly falls for him. While her feelings for him are growing, she withdraws from her family and Cassie. She feels vulnerable and unsure, and comes to understand what her sister has been feeling and, like Cassie, finds them very difficult to express. She feels both joyful and sad, recognizing a beginning and an ending.

There are many markers of excellent literature and, frankly, my expectations were very high, having read this author’s fantastic debut, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. But, one marker that always resonates with me is when a book expresses something that’s true, from my own experience. I am a twin. This book expresses exactly what it is like when, for the first time, a romantic relationship displaces the twin in your life. There is a moment when the definition of “we” changes from “my twin and me,” to “my boyfriend and me” (or in Cassie’s case, “my girlfriend and me”). It feels wonderful to fall in love. It is exciting, and joyful and impossible to share with your twin without hurting her. Shifting toward someone else is a shift away from her. Other sisters and brothers have similar experiences, I’m sure, but Ms. Albertalli captures exactly what that part of growing up is like for twin sisters, or what it was like for me, anyway.

Obviously, there are LGBTQ characters in this book, but the content about June 26th, 2015, same sex marriage, etc., forms a seamless part of the plot without becoming didactic. In a similar way, there is diversity in Ms. Albertalli’s characters, but this isn’t an issues novel. (Cassie and Molly’s family is Jewish and interracial, Mina is Korean American and pansexual, Molly takes medication for an anxiety disorder, her grandmother thinks she’s overweight, etc.) These and other details are just part of who these lovely characters are. There is much more to say about this book, but that’s enough to express that I loved it.

Recommend this book as an adult crossover novel, to romantic comedy and Jane Austen fans, to artists or nerds, or to astute readers looking for hilarious characters and witty dialogue and texting.

Young Adult Fiction Hardcover pr1232233 

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