Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Young Adult (page 1 of 5)

I Kissed Shara Wheeler – Casey McQuiston

I’ve been kicking-my-feet-in-the-air excited to read I Kissed Shara Wheeler ever since I read Casey McQuiston’s last novel, One Last Stop. It’s their first Young Adult novel (their previous ones having been… well, adultier), so I knew I wasn’t going to get as much spice, but I still had the feeling it would be a magical read.

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If you like your teenage characters bored, queer, and not a little bit Extra(TM), I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the book for you. Just take a gander at this premise: Chloe Green is in a fierce fight for class valedictorian, when suddenly her main rival plants one on her in an elevator… then disappears. Chloe does a little B&E at her house, only to discover that she’s not the only one Shara Wheeler kissed. She’s also left behind a maddening series of clues as to her location, and all three kiss-ees are going to have to work together to track her down before graduation.

So, this is a story of unlikely alliances, transcending clique boundaries in a religious Alabama high-school. Chloe is the only openly-queer girl at Willowgrove and she compensates for her outsider status with academic achievement. Smith is Shara’s long-time quarterback sweetheart who runs with the jocks and the cool kids. Rory is the boy next door who’s hobbies include writing emo songs on his guitar and breaking school rules. They all kissed Shara Wheeler, and they’re all desperate enough to work together to follow her trail.

See? I wasn’t kidding when I said the characters and the plot are Extra(TM) – but given that I Kissed Shara Wheeler is about teenagers in a small town with nothing better to do, it feels understandable (if not always totally realistic).

It’s like a queer Paper Towns at first (which McQuiston openly admits to, alluding to John Green’s best-seller with a similar plot on page 45). It has a much younger vibe than McQuiston’s previous novels; clearly, they made a conscious choice to skew this story younger, rather than just writing a book with less sex and slapping a Young Adult label on it. It focuses less on the romance and more the journey of self-discovery that comes alongside Shara’s scavenger hunt.

That’s the thing about popular kids. They don’t have the type of bond forged in the fire of being weird and queer in small-to-medium town Alabama.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler (Page 4)

I Kissed Shara Wheeler feels like McQuiston’s most overtly political novel (despite the fact that their debut, Red, White & Royal Blue, was literally set in the White House). McQuiston manages to depict both radical queer joy in found families and living one’s truth, and the very real prejudices and pressure that LGBTIQA+ kids face to stay in the closet. The setting is what amplifies it – deeply Christian, deeply Southern, where (in the real world) many teachers are actually forbidden by law from responding to kids’ questions about gender and sexuality or providing them with reading materials that might help them.

Even though Chloe Green and co. clearly struggle with the deck stacked against them in their homes and at school, McQuiston keeps the tone positive and joyful. The only thing that jarred a little for me was having I Kissed Shara Wheeler explicitly set in 2022 with no mention of the pandemic at all. It would’ve completely changed the Mood of the book, I grant you, and it would’ve up-ended the high school experience of the characters… but it still felt strange. I personally think it would’ve made more sense to shift the story back to 2019 to alleviate that dissonance while retaining its contemporaneity, but that’s just me.

It didn’t detract much from what was otherwise a lovely reading experience. I Kissed Shara Wheeler would be the perfect pick for fans of Sex Education on Netflix, or anyone who considers Taylor Swift’s Mastermind their personal anthem. I’m even surer now than I was before that McQuiston has a great, long career of writing queer romances ahead of them.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Kissed Shara Wheeler:

  • “It’s like a lesbian John Green book” – Novalea Patton
  • “When you put it up you can’t put it back down. You need to know where is Shara.” – Kayla Smith
  • “If you love gay disasters, friendships where they’re all gay, and a little bit of mystery, then I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the perfect book for you.” – RL

All The Things We Never Said – Yasmin Rahman

Young Adult books have never shied away from the tough topics, but it’s become even more noticeable over the last decade or two. Case in point: All The Things We Never Said, a young adult novel about an online suicide pact. Steel yourself, because this is going to get dark.

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All The Things We Never Said is prefaced by an Author’s Note. Yasmin Rahman generously reveals that she – like her main character – experienced depression in her teenage years, and grew up in a very traditional Bengali Muslim family. It’s a kind heads-up for the reader about the content of the book, and includes directions to resources for help if needed.

There are three main characters. Mehreen is the one at the fore: she’s sixteen years old, and experiencing depression with a side of panic attacks. She calls it the ‘Chaos’, the feelings that take over her mind and body. She’s finding it difficult to function, and even more difficult to ask for help. So, she joins MementoMori, a website that promises to match people who wish to die by suicide with “partners”. The site provides a date and a “method” of death, and a set of instructions for preparatory tasks. (Yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck.)

Mehreen is matched with Cara and Olivia, two girls of roughly the same age who have their own stuff going on. Cara was inured in a car accident ten months prior to the start of All The Things We Never Said, and now has to use a wheelchair to get around. That doesn’t bum her out as much as her mother’s constant hovering and refusal to talk about the accident (which also took the life of Cara’s father). Olivia’s chapters are written in a free verse style, which gives her a very different voice to Cara and Mehreen. Olivia’s life looks perfect from the outside, with more wealth and privilege than you could poke a stick at, but she’s being abused by her mother’s boyfriend and she can’t see a way out.

The three girls begin meeting, as instructed by MementoMori, to plan for their deaths and make arrangements. They bond quickly, of course, but in an ironic twist, their new supportive friendships alleviate a lot of their distress and have them re-thinking their plans to die. Unfortunately, MementoMori won’t “let” them back out of the pact, and sends them increasingly harassing messages and emails, encouraging them to “follow through”. (YUCK!)

There’s a lot of very teenage logic and behaviour in All The Things We Never Said, so it feels realistic in that regard, if not very relatable to an adult-adult reader. The tunnel vision of the characters’ adolescence is clearly amplified by their mental health struggles. The adults in their life are shown to be fairly clueless, and it’s understandable why Mehreen and co. wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching them for help. So, it’s pretty convincing emotionally, if frustrating in an old-head-on-young-shoulders way.

It should be clear by now, but just in case: anyone picking up All The Things We Never Said should know ahead of time that it contains 13 Reasons Why-style explicit exposition of suicidality, self-harm, and sexual abuse. It’s very dark, especially for the Young Adult category. The attempts at comic relief didn’t quite land, though it did have a neat and hopeful ending (so it didn’t end on too depressing a note, I guess).

I thought All The Things We Never Said would be more of a thriller, a la A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder, with plucky teen protagonists teaming up to bring down the evil genius behind the MementoMori website. It’s nothing along those lines. It’s more of a cautionary tale with A Message(TM), about the importance of friendship and support for teenagers dealing with depression and anxiety. Whether or not it’s worth reading I suppose depends on what exactly you’re looking for, and what you can handle in terms of triggers.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder – Holly Jackson

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder: what a sexy title! Holly Jackson nailed it with her debut, a young adult mystery novel that I’d call Veronica Mars meets Sadie.

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The story is framed as a high school project for Pippa, a budding Murderino. Five years ago, a girl in her local area was killed (presumably, because a body has never been recovered); Pippa thinks the wrong man was accused of the crime. Her teacher has tried to dissuade her from using this particularly horrific subject for a school project, but Pippa forges ahead anyway. The “production log” for her project becomes like a journal, recording the rest of her POV directly, while the narrative is otherwise third-person.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder is set in the fictional town of Little Kilton (in the original UK edition, anyway). The victim of the crime that Pippa investigates is Andie Bell, a 17-year-old town sweetheart. Everyone believes that Andie’s boyfriend, Sal, is the one who killed her – but Andie’s not so sure.

What really happened to Andie Bell on the 20th April 2012? And – as my instincts tell me – if Salil ‘Sal’ Singh is not guilty, then who killed her?

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder (Page 20)

Jackson quickly establishes herself as queen of the mic-drop. Every single one of the early chapters ends on some kind of cliffhanger. First, it’s Andie approaching Sal’s brother and telling him she believes his brother is innocent, and she thinks she can prove it. Next, it’s a clue in the circumstances of the discovery of the crime. It’s a really effective way of hooking the reader in, and keeping the pages turning.

I really liked the banter between Pippa and her besties, Lauren and Cara. They’re the least infuriating teenage girls I’ve read about in a long time (which is no short order). Their dialogue was snappy, believable, and made me chuckle on more than one occasion.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder starts to get a bit overcomplicated about two-thirds of the way through, though. There are a lot of players, and a lot of criss-crossing connections between them. Jackson did her best to feed exposition into the narrative, but the whole I Know What You Did Last Summer-element just muddied the waters too much.

I also want to lodge an official complaint about a devastating dog death, in the latter part of the book. It was needlessly cruel, and had me chasing my own puppy around the house demanding snuggles.

I did pick the “real” culprit(s?) fairly early on, so the “big reveal” at the end of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder wasn’t much of a surprise. Also not a surprise: the sequels. All of the primary mysteries are resolved, but Jackson left plenty of stones unturned for future books. It’s now the first in a series of three novels and one novella (see: Good Girl, Bad Blood, As Good As Dead, and Kill Joy).

Apparently, BBC Three has picked up the rights to a television adaptation of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder, and they’ve got a script and producers lined up and everything. So, keep your eyes peeled, because it’ll probably hit your screens soon.

All told, I didn’t love the dog death and at times it was A Bit Much, but A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder was otherwise a fun and compelling read, probably the best young adult mystery I’ve read in recent memory.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder:

  • “I literally stopped listening to this book so I could watch a British woman in booties play the glass harmonica on face book… This book was so poorly written I couldn’t go back to listening to it… So I watched the glass harmonica lady 2x and then tried to figure out how to get my audible credit back… Trying to get the credit back was the most exciting thing about this book.” – Phil & Mel
  • “If you have a moral compass, do not let your young teens read this.” – Mom

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post – Emily M Danforth

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post has one of the best opening lines ever (“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”). Plus, this Penguin edition is absolutely gorgeous, with sprayed edges in the colours of the Pride flag. I didn’t know much else about it when I picked it up, but hey: that was enough to convince me!

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It turns out, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is a coming-of-age young adult novel. The titular character, Cameron, is a 12-year-old girl living in rural Montana in the early ’90s (actually, in Danforth’s hometown of Miles City). The story begins the summer Cameron’s life veers wildly off course.

Her parents die suddenly, tragically, in a car crash (NOT a spoiler, see the opening line!). To her great shame, Cameron’s first reaction upon hearing the news of their death is relief. Earlier that day, she had been kissing her best friend Irene (and shoplifting with her, too, but that’s by the by). That might not seem like a shocking secret to be hiding in today’s day and age, but in early ’90s rural Montana? You can understand Cameron’s fervent fear of discovery.

The coincidental timing – of Cameron’s sexual awakening and her parent’s death – makes for a tangled mess of emotions, one that she struggles throughout the novel to untangle. Cameron doesn’t just kiss Irene, she kisses other girls too, and even falls in love with one of them. The guilt she feels over her attractions is compounded by the influence of her new guardian, born-again conservative Aunt Ruth.

Things go from bad to worse when Cameron is unceremoniously outed by the straight girl with whom she had fallen in love. Aunt Ruth “has no choice” but to send Cameron to God’s Promise (blegh), a religious boarding school (conversion camp) that promises to “cure” her (pray away the gay).

So, here seems as good a point as any to mention a few things. First off, big time trigger warnings for The Miseducation Of Cameron Post: death, grief, conversion “therapy”, self harm, and internalised homophobia.

Secondly, if you’re not familiar with conversion “therapy”, this explainer from the Australian Human Rights Institute of UNSW describes it as “a pseudoscientific practice whereby an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to methods of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which is instigated by individuals with the aim of changing their sexual orientation and / or gender identity”. Danforth has said that The Miseducation Of Cameron Post was inspired by the 2005 case of Zach Stark, a young adult who was sent to one such conversion camp after coming out to his parents. Some Australian jurisdictions have outlawed these programs, and momentum is growing for a nationwide ban; of course, the state of play is more dire in other parts of the world. If you want to know more, see if your local LGBTQI+ action groups have any resources.

Okay, now back to the story. Ironically, at God’s Promise, Cameron finds the kind of queer community she was missing back in Montana. Danforth stops short of depicting any gory physical abuse at the hands of the camp’s staff, but it’s clear that Cameron and her new friends are suffering and struggling with the pseudo-therapeutic “treatment” the staff provides. It was a really interesting approach on Danforth’s part. The pastor and his staff aren’t typical “monsters”, and it’s not always easy to hate them; sometimes, they seem to genuinely care for their charges and believe that they’re doing what’s best for them. That makes for confused emotions and allegiances in the reader – a good reflection of the main character’s own journey.

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is, in a sense, a “coming out novel”, but it’s much darker and less trope-y than that label implies. Cameron’s sexual identity isn’t reduced to a one-off forbidden Sapphic love affair, born of two people with undeniable chemistry who just happen to be the same gender. Cameron is deep-in-her-bones queer, and she seems to have a knack for finding girls who are just as curious-slash-scared as she is, even in rural Montana, even at conversion camp.

The prose is tactile, well-paced, and rich without being overwhelming. Danforth gradually adds layer after layer, and shows remarkable restraint in relaying a highly emotive story. She also writes in a kind of quasi-nostalgic style that shits me no end when it’s written by/for straight men, but resonates so hard for me when it’s written by/for queer women; maybe that’s a relatability thing? I’m conscious of my own biases as a reader, and this is probably one of them.

Of course, because The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is good and interesting and actually reflects the lived experiences of some young queer people, it’s been banned any number of times, most notably in Delaware in 2014. A school board removed it from the district’s summer reading list, citing “inappropriate language” as the reason – ha! Disingenuous tools. Danforth’s response to the news was perfect, so I’ve reproduced it in full here:

“I’m proud that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is now in the company of so, so many novels that have been banned and challenged and censored throughout history—many of them among my all-time favorites, the very books that shaped me as a reader, a writer, and a person. It seems that everyone except you knows that censoring, or even attempting to censor a book, only makes it more appealing to curious readers, which certainly seems to be true in this case. I’m honored to be told that dozens of local readers have already begun seeking out my novel, something they almost certainly wouldn’t have done before you made this completely unnecessary decision.”

Emily M. Danforth (author of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post)

All told, I loved The Miseducation Of Cameron Post – it’s a difficult read at times, but an immersive and impressive one, a must for fans of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. While it’s billed as a young adult novel, and I’m sure there are plenty of teens who get a lot out of it, I think it will actually resonate most for adult-adults, the ones who actually grew up during or before Cameron’s adolescence. Speaking as one of those, my hat goes off to Danforth, and I look forward to reading more from her.

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

Junior (aka Arnold Spirit) is a budding cartoonist-slash-basketball player who has lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation for all fourteen years of his life (so far). In The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian, he describes the series of circumstances that led up to him deciding to transfer to the all-white high-school miles away, instead of the Indian high-school closer to home, and what that means for his life and his loved ones.

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Junior was “born with water on the brain” (the way his family has always described his condition, known to most of us as hydrocephalus). He wasn’t expected to survive the emergency surgery to drain it, but he did. He now lives with several physical disabilities, which have been compounded over time by his limited access to healthcare. Though he mentions his disabilities from time to time, they’re not a major part of his story. That’s the first check in The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian‘s column – how often do you read a story about a character who lives with a disability but isn’t defined by that disability?

He tells his story diary-style (accompanied by fantastic illustrations, in real-life contributed by Ellen Forney). He describes his home life (troubled), his friendship with Rowdy (dysfunctional), and his confusion about the way the world works, and his role in it.

When Junior decides to attend the all-white high-school 22 miles away, his community is split. His family – though poor and unreliable – support him the best they can. Rowdy, however, is enraged, and the schism that appears between him and Junior is the major conflict throughout the course of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. They have very little contact once Junior transfers, only really seeing one another on the basketball court (an already-fraught situation, given that poor Junior has to play against his former schoolmates in his new team’s colours – yes, symbolism, etc.).

Junior has a lot of insight into racial injustice and poverty for a fourteen-year-old, but given his life circumstances, it’s completely believable. Over the course of the year depicted in his diary, he suffers a lot of personal tragedies – many related to alcohol abuse. You might think that would make The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian a real bummer, or at least yet-another grim perspective on the problems faced by non-white communities, but Alexie (via Junior) is careful to keep the tone frank and hopeful. Even when things are demonstrably shit, Junior makes a point of noting the silver linings.

Speaking of Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is famously semi-autobiographical. Like Junior, Alexie was born with hydrocephalus and grew up on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, raised by and around people with severe alcohol addiction. The story actually started out as a memoir, but Alexie’s editor convinced him to make it a young adult novel. He has since said: “If I were to guess at the percentage, it would be about seventy-eight percent true.”

And here’s how you know The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is good: heaps of people want it banned. Seriously, it’s up there with The Satanic Verses for controversy. It was the most-frequently banned and challenged book in the United States from 2010-2019, and has appeared in the top-ten list of banned and challenged books almost every year since then. And boy, do its critics have a laundry list of complaints: offensive language, cultural insensitivity, “anti-family” content, “anti-Christian” content, depiction of bullying, depiction of gambling, depiction of racism, depiction of violence, sexual references, references to drugs and alcohol… I could go on. Basically, there’s nothing in this book that the wowsers didn’t take issue with EXCEPT the one thing I think ACTUALLY warrants it: big-time trigger warning for dog death in Chapter 2!

It’d be nice to leave it there, but unfortunately, there’s a really big issue that has to be addressed in any conversation about The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian: the #MeToo allegations raised against Sherman Alexie in 2018. Ten different women reported inappropriate and harmful behaviour perpetrated by Alexie: sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, and other forms of relational mistreatment. They alleged that Alexie traded on his power in the literary scene to lure women and silence them. As a result, several organisations and institutions removed Alexie’s name from awards and other honours, and the young adult literature community generally stepped back from the golden boy.

Alexie released a written statement acknowledging that he “has harmed” others, and that “there are women telling the truth”, with a partial apology. I’ve read and re-read the statement, and I’m afraid what sticks with me more than his apparent expression of regret is his determined efforts to discount and discredit the woman who first raised the allegations publicly, Litsa Dremousis.

So, unfortunately, we have another great book with wide appeal written by a man who turns out to be a bit of a shit. It’s a real shame how often this happens. The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian was a good young-adult read, but art does not and cannot exist in a vacuum.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian:

  • “Great book. I didn’t want to purchase this but my dog ate my sons and it was the schools, so I had to replace it.” – Natalie
  • “Laugh your bottom off funny” – Gopher Hunter
  • “This book is not just for kids, I am an old person , a dO laugh so much h that I wanted my husband to read this ., And how true of what he wrote, I’ve mermaids like his story. Cookbooks” – 711/2
  • “Shame on Scholastic for putting this on their reading list! Disgusting book!” – Donna Johnson
  • “My book smelled like cat pee!!! So did the package! I sprayed it with lysol because I needed it for school the next day it’s fine now.” – Felicity Burkhead
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