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Review: New YA offerings from Suzanne Sutherland, Gavriel Savit, Lena Coakley and more Add to ...

Worlds of Ink and Shadow

By Lena Coakley, HarperCollins, 352 pages, $19.99

Some will see that this book is about the Bronte siblings and assume it has only niche appeal to fans. But don’t pass this one by. Your Bronte knowledge doesn’t need to be even at the Jeopardy $100 question level to enjoy it. Toronto author Lena Coakley has imbued the young Brontes with the fantastical power to enter their own stories, assume the roles of characters and essentially do anything they please (yes, Branwell Bronte does consider conjuring a brothel) – think the postpubescent Pevensie children being able to pull the strings in Narnia. It is a luscious, indulgent read about the addictive escapism of writing fiction, with Coakley making inventive and crafty use of her source material. This is part BBC miniseries and part literary Minecraft for the bookiest book lover.

Firsts

By Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, Thomas Dunne Books, 320 pages, $21.99

Seventeen-year-old Mercedes has sex with virgins, offering them instructional pointers to use with their girlfriends. Now, one always runs the risk that, when criticizing risky material, people will confuse criticism of the writing with criticism of the risk being taken. To be clear, the problem here is not the explicit sexual content; Mercedes takes pleasure and empowerment from her encounters and is a strong sex-positive character. The problem is that the plot spirals into a salacious soap opera, complete with a villainous spurned virgin, an engagement (in high school!), the return of a long-lost father, some bisexual rumblings, a rape, a pregnancy, a miscarriage – all delivered with a heaping dose of melodrama that precludes any serious discussion of Mercedes’s response to a previous sexual assault. Simultaneously titillating, thought-provoking and groundbreaking, but shakily executed.

Faerie

By Eisha Marjara, Arsenal Pulp Press, 152 pages, $14.95

This is another teen book about anorexia, but it is powerfully different and unabashedly more realistic than most. Eighteen-year-old Lila has constantly struggled to literally and figuratively fit in as the child of Punjabi parents in a culture that worships all things small and white. For much of the narrative, she looks retrospectively at her life from what is a truly dire place in a psychiatric unit. Readers spend months and months with her here and feel the never-ending fatigue of her secret exercise and food-disposal routines, not knowing if they are reading the memoir of a person or a ghost until the last pages. Faerie doesn’t succeed because of the subtle recurring metaphor for which the book is named (though it’s a fine metaphor), but rather for going to such a gruelling, tough place and staying there, unbudging.

Anna and the Swallow Man

By Gavriel Savit, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 240 pages, $23.99

There are two breeds of YA crossovers; most pick up adult fans who have an appreciation for teen fare, but far fewer are truly ageless. The latter describes Gavriel Savit’s debut novel, which should be read by anyone and everyone old enough to cook dinner unsupervised. The story is deceptively simple: Young Anna is left alone in Krakow in 1939 after her father is taken by the Germans. An impossibly mysterious, charismatic man takes her in and they try to survive the war as nomads. But Savit ingeniously uses this simple plot as a canvas to paint unforgettable images and some heart-fluttering metaphors, which only intensify in their resonance as the war grows more hellish. It is relentlessly affecting and crushingly beautiful. You will never forget this book.

Salt to the Sea

By Ruta Sepetys, Philomel, 400 pages, $24.99

Every author has a wheelhouse and Ruta Sepetys’s is venturing into the dimly lit corners of the Second World War. For the second time, she has sussed out a horrific tragedy that seems to have slipped from the public consciousness, illuminating it in a way that makes readers wonder how they ever thought they knew anything about the time period. It is 1945 in East Prussia and four teenaged refugees are making their way to the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship that will be attacked by the Soviets and sunk, killing well over 9,000 people. Sepetys skillfully rebounds between all four character perspectives, weaving together compact, knockout, cliffhanger chapters that build toward an emotionally explosive climax. This is historical fiction (not just YA historical fiction) at its very, very best.

Under the Dusty Moon

By Suzanne Sutherland, Dundurn, 268 pages, $14.99

Being the daughter of a past-her-prime Canadian rock star is a drag. Sixteen-year-old Victoria’s mom was the lead singer of Dusty Moon, a band that achieved success right around the Our Lady Peace level (big in Canada, not so big everywhere else). With her mom re-entering the spotlight, and a whirlwind of other changes afoot, Victoria is in for a seminal summer. Torontonian Suzanne Sutherland nails the unglamorous reality of the city’s sweltering summers with refreshingly true-to-life characters that have thighs rubbing together and that lament the discomfort of boiling streetcars. But while there are glimmers of realism, depth and emotion, the writing feels cursory and the dialogue feels superficial in many places. It is best likened to one of the more benign episodes of the classic Degrassi series – realistic, a bit awkward, but still charming.

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