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book review

Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling

By Tony Cliff, First Second, 272 pages, $20.50

This is Vancouver-based comics creator Tony Cliff's second book featuring Delilah Dirk, an early-19th-century heroine with a penchant for adventure, justice and spot-on sarcasm (reading the first instalment is not necessary to enjoy this one, but it's just as raucously delightful). This time around, Delilah's mojo is threatened by flying bullets, sabotage at the hands of a corrupt British Major and … her mother. Neither a tomboy nor a vixen clad in skintight leather, Delilah is admirably fierce and unapologetic – although there is a small, strategically placed cutout on the front of her dress that is a tad gratuitous. But, over all, Cliff's style is sweeping and cinematic, with spread after jaw-dropping spread of beautifully constructed panels. This is all guts, grit, gusto and giggles for readers on either side of the YA age range.


By Jenny Downham, Scholastic, 384 pages, $21.99

The most dependable laundry list of issues in contemporary realistic teen fiction are struggles with sex, school and substances. But British author Jenny Downham takes on something that is rare in YA, but all-too-common in life: sharing a home with a grandmother that has Alzheimer's. Seventeen-year-old Katie lives with her mother, brother and previously estranged grandmother, Mary. Mary's failing memory precludes independent living, and Downham's portrayal of the slippery, erratic and unfocused tendencies of the ailing brain resonate deeply. The inclusion of Mary's flashbacks to her own teen years lend some intrigue to the plot, while also establishing her as a grandmother that young readers can actually connect with. Teen books need not always revolve around teens and this quiet, hopeful intergenerational story is the quintessential modern-day family saga for adolescent readers.

Symptoms of Being Human

By Jeff Garvin, Balzer + Bray, 352 pages, $21.99

Riley is a teenager who identifies as gender fluid. What does that mean? Riley says it best: "It's like I have a compass in my chest, but instead of North and South, the needle moves between masculine and feminine." As a coping mechanism, Riley starts an anonymous blog that snowballs into something unpredictable and exposing. Considering the subject matter, potential readers likely have one question: Does debut novelist Jeff Garvin get it right? While that answer may vary with the gender experiences of individual readers, this is undoubtedly a compelling story. The characters aren't just "dealing," but are funny, perceptive and self-aware. When Riley feels a wave of dysmorphia, the descriptions of anxiety and panic attacks are unnervingly authentic. Yes, it does feel as though Garvin is pushing an agenda at times – but it's one of tolerance and acceptance.

Rebel of the Sands

By Alwyn Hamilton,Viking Books for Young Readers, 320 pages, $24.99

Just six months ago, I wrote in this column that "YA Westerns are a rare breed." Not any more. Since then, a handful of strong, complex, gun-slingin' gals have entered the teen book scene and Toronto-born debut author Alwyn Hamilton brings us one more – but with an original twist. Sixteen-year-old Amani Al'Hiza is an orphan living in a dead-end desert town and, to avoid a pending marriage to her icky uncle, she plans to use her cunning, marksmanship talent and new friendship with a mysterious foreigner to escape. It's Lonesome Dove meets Aladdin, but with a barbed-tongued, restless girl in the driver's seat. The blending of Western tropes with the magical intrigue of One Thousand and One Nights brings danger from every angle, both in the form of mortal men and supernatural jinni.

Finding Hope

By Colleen Nelson, Dundurn, 232 pages, $12.99

Hope's half-brother, Eric, is addicted to meth and has been kicked out of the family home. While she does her best to secretly keep supporting him, her acceptance into an out-of-town boarding school means he's on his own. Things also start to go south for Hope when she is targeted by a vicious group of girls at her new school. Told in alternating perspectives and very brief chapters, the pace will propel readers to the end to find out how these two fare. But while a meth addiction and bullying are tough topics, they need not be portrayed with quite the heavy hand Nelson employs; Eric's addiction can feel inaccessibly and one-dimensionally bleak, while Hope's cluelessness about the mean girls is minorly infuriating. Still, this is a well-plotted, fast-moving little angst tornado of a read.

The Serpent King

By Jeff Zentner, Tundra Books, 373 pages, $21.99

Three best friends are living out their senior year in a tiny Tennessee town named for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Dill is a musician with a father in jail for possessing child pornography (not for handling venomous snakes in his work as a Pentecostal minister), Travis is a gentle giant obsessed with fantasy books and Lydia is an alternative fashion blogger. And, Holy Dinah, this is one uber-lovable trio. While there is some of the Dawson's Creek effect (their endless fast-talking wit sometimes borders on unbelievable), the combination of the "clear eyes, full hearts" Southern earnestness mingled with the eerie creepiness of Winter's Bone and a tragic turn of events in the final third of the book makes for a totally addictive read. This one's a real heart worm – it'll wiggle in deep.