By Kate Blair
Dancing Cat Books, 180 pages, $14.95
In 16-year-old Talia Hale's London, the only sick people are criminals. A minor misdemeanour may warrant contracting the flu while embezzlement might mean tuberculosis. Innocent citizens remain totally healthy as their illnesses are transferred directly to felons via blood transfusion. When Talia's father runs for prime minister, she begins to see the deeply disturbing side of this medical tyranny. While bigger ethical questions are certainly touched on, this is an undeniably poppy dystopia. The ending is too neat and tidy, a major character is convicted of a crime under dubious circumstances (seemingly just so readers can glimpse the transferral process) and a romance that blossoms near the end feels unnecessary. But even with some narrative simplicity and minor clunkiness, this is a solidly engaging debut from Kate Blair.
Weird Girl and What's His Name
By Meagan Brothers
Three Rooms Press,336 pages, $23.50
High school is a time of first love – not just for other people, but also for pop culture. In Meagan Brothers's latest, it is 2008 and best friends Lula (weird girl) and Rory (what's his name) are completely and utterly obsessed with The X-Files and the show's main characters, Mulder and Scully. Protagonists with fierce fandom tendencies can fail hard with readers who don't share the affinity, but Brothers overcomes this by using the ambiguity of Mulder and Scully's relationship as a brilliant parallel to Rory and Lula's own complex friendship. While they are struggling with their sexuality, they still feel mysteriously and inextricably linked to one another, just like Mulder and Scully. What could have been a niche novel only for X-Philes is a quirky, thoughtful illumination of identity formation and the difficulty of assigning labels to love.
These Shallow Graves
By Jennifer Donnelly
Delacorte Press, 496 pages, $23.99
Jennifer Donnelly has the market cornered on lush, light historical fiction for teens and her new novel, set in 19th-century New York, is another dependably entertaining offering. It is the story of Jo Montfort, a well-to-do 17-year-old who is restless with her status in society as a female and longs to become the next Nellie Bly. When her father suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances, she teams up with a young journalist named Eddie to suss out the truth. Much of Jo and Eddie's investigation teeters on cozy mystery status with each chapter ending in rather predictable cliffhangers and CSI-style one-liners (characters noting they have stumbled "into something a lot worse than horse manure" and such). But Donnelly writes easy, buttery prose and the pages fly by. An ideal vacation read.
By Martine Leavitt
Groundwood Books, 184 pages, $14.95
Calvin is a schizophrenic teenager who sees, hears and speaks to a "real" tiger named Hobbes. Calvin believes he will be cured only if he hikes across Lake Erie in the middle of winter to meet Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson and persuade him to write one last comic. But his solo mission is foiled when his childhood friend Susie insists on coming on the trek. Calvin's deranged quest dips in and out of reality and is a deeply illuminating look at mental illness that involves readers without making them voyeurs, as many YA books on this topic tend to do. And in the midst of Calvin and Susie's quirky banter and deeply rewarding philosophical exchanges is the mounting threat of the elements and the pair's decreasing odds of survival. A rewardingly bizarre, tightly focused and absorbing original.
Not If I See You First
By Eric Lindstrom
Poppy, 316 pages, $21.50
Debut author Eric Lindstrom takes a big risk writing from the perspective of a totally blind teenaged girl, but it pays off in a big way. As a child, Parker Grant lost her eyesight (and her mother) in a car crash. Since then, she has become fiercely independent and self-protective with a barbed-wire tongue and wicked sense of humour. Her armour cracks, though, when someone from her past re-emerges and painful memories surface. But no matter the circumstance, she never hesitates to educate people about her visual impairment. Some readers may find her trademark brusqueness didactic, but Lindstrom balances this by also revealing her insecurities and fears. Indeed, Parker is the most lovable porcupine of a protagonist and her journey is an immersive, genuine experience of living without sight.
By C.K. Kelly Martin
Dancing Cat Books, 256 pages, $14.95
Authentic portrayals of teen sexuality are few and far between with many writers cueing too quickly to the "camera fade out" tactic on intense physical moments, or glossing over the discomfort and awkwardness that can follow intense physical moments. But Ontario author C.K. Kelly Martin unabashedly portrays the hormonal realities of being 16 and 17 in this dual narrative of second cousins Ivy and Lucan. Martin does not shy away from the messier realities of young love, including a laudably prolonged and uncomfortable description of an STI and the strange and unwelcome places sexual attraction can blossom (namely, with a second cousin). Careful to not portray adolescence as an extended romp, she also includes the more monotonous parts of being underage, bored and frustrated. This is for readers who want their protagonists firmly and convincingly grounded in contemporary reality.