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Thank you to all of our readers for participating in our Online Teen Book Club these past years. We have enjoyed examining some fantastic young adult titles together. This will be the last Online Teen Book Club post, but readers can continue to comment on and participate in our polls for all of our previous book selections.

Happy reading!

 

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December Book Club: Boy 21 by Matthew Quick

Boy 21This month, we will be discussing a novel by author Matthew Quick, who is most known for The Silver Linings Playbookwhich was made into a movie that won several awards as well as lots of praise. He has actually written quite a few books, one of which is the title we will be looking at this month: Boy21.  Set in a poor neighbourhood that is divided by racial rivalries and crippled by violence and drug abuse, Finley has managed to find an escape from his bleak environment by focusing his attention on basketball. As the only white student on the basketball team, he is used to standing out a bit, but his unassuming and quiet manner has made it so he can coast through high school pretty easily. His goal is to graduate and find a way out of Bellmont, probably following his girlfriend, Erin, also a basketball star, to whatever college she gets a scholarship to attend. But his plans and his world are turned upside down when he meets Russ Washington, who goes by the name Boy21 and claims to be an extraterrestrial being. Russ has recently suffered a tragedy and has come to live with his grandparents. At the behest of his coach, Finley guides Russ through school and life in Bellmont, but by helping his new friend get better, he may be sacrificing his own future on the basketball team. Let’s get this discussion started.

What did you think of Boy21? While the novel has fanciful elements, like Russ taking on the persona of a space alien, it is very grounded in a tough reality that isn’t comforting or comfortable. Did you appreciate the gritty realism?

Before we even meet Russ, we know that he has suffered a terrible tragedy. His parents were both murdered, and he was institutionalized with PTSD after the event. He was once an amazing basketball player, good enough for the NBA without even having graduated high school, but now he avoids basketball entirely and focuses on outer space, believing that his parents are out there and will be coming to collect him very soon. This makes most people uncomfortable, including Finley when he first meets Russ, but despite his odd behaviour, Finley likes his new friend. He is a good person, standing by Russ even though he knows that Russ will likely take his place (and his basketball number) on the team. Underneath their friendship is the unspoken bond they share, because Finley has also experienced tragedy in his life. The reader finds out very late in the novel exactly what happened to Finley’s mother (and Finley himself) when he was very young. Both young men have found ways to protect themselves from the horrible things that happened to them: Russ retreats into the spaceman persona and Finley keeps silent. Why do you think Finley responded so positively to Russ? Why do you think Russ knew almost immediately that he could trust Finley? What did you think of their friendship?

Finley shares everything with his girlfriend, Erin, including his love of basketball. They practice and spend almost every waking moment together. The arrival of Russ changes the dynamic slightly, as the duo has become a triad, but Erin accepts Russ without too much difficulty. The thing that ends up coming between them is basketball, as Erin and Finley break up every season so they can concentrate on the sport they love without the distraction of romance. Even with their breakup, however, they are closely connected. Erin encourages Finley to try to keep his spot on the team, and her words have the desired effect, but then everything changes when Erin is the victim of a hit-and-run. Suddenly, basketball is not a comfort for Finley. When Russ tries to talk to him about it, encouraging him to take 10 shots, Finley realizes that the healing effect basketball used to have on him (and appears to have had on Russ) is not there. All he wants is Erin. Did you find the romance between the two convincing? Why do you think basketball stopped being important to him after Erin’s accident?

Coach Wilkins plays an important role in Finley’s life; Finley listens to Coach and obeys. When Coach asks him to look after Russ, Finley begins to experience his first feelings of doubt about his mentor. How can his coach ask him to do something that will potentially jeopardize his role on the team? He is conflicted about Coach’s request, but he still goes along with it, in part because of habit, but also because he wants to help Russ. Mr Gore, the guidance counselor, plays a different role in Finley’s life. When we first encounter Mr Gore, it seems like he has ulterior motives, almost like he’s digging for information on Russ. Finley doesn’t trust him, because he also seems to disagree with the way Coach is handling Russ. However, as the novel progresses, Finley’s opinion of the counselor changes, as does his impression of Coach. He begins to think that Coach cares more about what Russ can do for the team than for Russ himself. In the end, Russ agrees that basketball did help him heal, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the question of if Coach had the best motives for his behaviour. Do you trust that Coach was doing everything for Russ, or do you think he was being selfish?

Matthew Quick has written seven novels, a few of which fall into the young adult category. Now that you have read Boy21, do you want to read more by Matthew Quick?

That’s the end of this month’s post. Remember, you can share your thoughts on the book in the comments section. Don’t forget to vote for next month’s title!

November Book Club: The Third Twin by CJ Omololu

third twinLexi and Ava are twins who have been playing a game for years. When they were young and would get in trouble, they would blame Alicia, the name they  assigned their imagined third “twin”. When they got older, Alicia became the twin who went out on dates with guys Lexi and Ava would never be caught going out with, guys from the wrong side of town but who are easy on the eyes. Ava is the one who uses Alicia the most, dating lots of different guys. Lexi, the more serious sister, is so determined to get into Stanford that while her sister is out partying, she doesn’t have much of a social life. When Ava tells her to take a night off and go out with a guy as Alicia in order to let loose, Lexi decides she might as well. That’s when things get complicated. Because the date ends badly, with Casey refusing to take no for an answer, forcing Lexi to key him across the face. She hurries home and hopes she never sees him again; and then the police discover his murdered body in a parking lot. Lexi knows she didn’t do it, but the police begin circling; when all signs point to Alicia, Lexi has to wonder exactly what is going on, and if it is possible that her sister has taken the third twin to a very dark place.

The Third Twin is a spooky thriller from CJ Omololu that takes the reader on a wild ride filled with suspicion and mystery. As with all the best thrillers, every character comes under suspicion, and Lexi (and the reader) are left wondering who can be trusted. What did you think of The Third Twin?

Ava and Lexi look the same, but their priorities are very different. Ava isn’t very academically inclined, preferring instead to focus on having fun. She loves being popular and desirable, and she focuses most of her attention on those areas of her life. Lexi, on the other hand, is determined to make her father proud, intending to take over the family business after completing an MBA at Stanford. Even with these very different focuses, the twins are close, and Lexi has Ava’s back. When Ava decides to start using Alicia again in order to date guys she doesn’t deem worthy of her real name and life, Lexi doesn’t stop her. However this doesn’t mean their relationship is perfect; it’s actually a little bit strained. Even though Lexi seems to go along with what Ava wants, she doesn’t really like what her sister does. She asks her to stop, and Ava just ignores her. They set up general rules for being Alicia, but Ava ignores those, too. Ava seems to do whatever she wants, which must be pretty frustrating for Lexi. But Lexi lets her get away with so much, giving in and not really arguing with her sister, even when she disagrees. Because of all those factors, and the stress Lexi is under with the murder investigation closing in, do you think it was fair of Lexi to suspect Ava of setting her up?

Although Ava is the one with the more active social life, Lexi has two romantic interests in the novel: Zane and Eli. When she was younger, Zane was one of her best friends, and now he’s someone she trusts. Eli went out with Alicia/Ava a few times, so when Lexi meets him and is drawn to him, she decides to try on the Alicia persona again. I was surprised that Lexi was stuck in that strange kind of love triangle; her life had previously been so focused on school, that once her plans fall through, she suddenly explores this whole other side of herself. Why do you think she couldn’t call up Eli as Lexi, even though she had met him when she was not in character? And why do you think it took her so long to notice that Zane cared more for her than she had thought? Who did you like better between the two boys?

As the novel barrels towards its conclusion, there are loads of twists and turns. We discover who exactly is murdering all those teenagers, and there a few other secrets that come to light. In order to maintain a mostly spoiler-free post, I won’t reveal the two majors twists, but I wanted to know what you thought of them. Did you guess who the killer was before Lexi figured it out? And what about that other secret? Had you anticipated the arrival of Ruby?

I hope you liked the book! Don’t forget to share your thoughts and vote on next month’s title.

October Book Club: We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

We Are AllStewart and Ashley, two very different teenagers, suddenly find themselves sharing a house when their parents fall in love and move in together. Stewart, whose mother died not long ago, is a gifted thirteen year old who is relieved to finally see his father happy again. Sure, his life is about to change completely, but he’s always wanted a sister, and he’s determined to be positive. Ashley, on the other hand, is socially skilled but not so academically interested, and she is furious that her mother has gotten involved with another man, and even more so with the fact that she has to share her house with a kid she calls Spewart. Regardless of their differences, they are in each others’ lives and will have to figure out how to make things work. Susin Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules is a funny and heartwarming story about families, friends and standing up for what’s right.

Let’s get started. What are your first impressions of the novel? Did you like We Are All Made of Molecules?

This book is told through a divided narration, with both Ashley and Stewart narrating alternating chapters. In Stewart’s chapters, you get a dry and incredibly intelligent narrator who is comfortable with concrete facts and logic, but often fails to understand the human side of things. Ashley doesn’t really care about school or learning and is more concerned with the social side of things. She is at the top of her social ladder in school and she is determined to stay there; Stewart and the truth about her dad are two things that threaten her social standing. It is easy to like Stewart, because while he is socially awkward, his heart is in the right place. He misses his mother but is trying to move forward with his life as much as he possibly can.  Ashley, however, is a little bit harder to like at times. She is shallow and judgmental, and she has no sympathy for Stewart at all. She is also mean to her so-called best friend, Lauren, making herself feel better by making Lauren feel worse. While Stewart is the likable character, I want to know how you felt about Lauren. Did you dislike her the whole through the book? Do you think she changed? Were you sympathetic to her feelings?

Stewart arrives at Caroline and Ashley’s house hoping that he can bring as much of his mother as possible with him, however he settles for only three items: a few afghans that she knit, her collection of figurines, and one of her paintings. Even so, he finds it more difficult to feel like she is still a part of his life after they move. Every night, he lies under an afghan she made while she was sick and breathes in her molecules, attempting to summon the connection he used to feel before the move. When he tells Ashley about his ritual, we get the first glimpse that she has a compassionate side. She says to Stewart, “I can’t imagine what it must be like to have your mom go and die on you. So, I don’t know… Maybe, if I was in your shoes, I’d do some weird stuff, too.” Still, Stewart’s transition into his new home is not as smooth as he had hoped. He is deeply hurt by the removal of his mother’s painting from the living room, and he feels resentful that it is almost entirely his life that has had to change. How did you feel about Stewart and Leonard’s integration into Caroline and Ashley’s home? Did you think it was fair to ask them to leave most things behind? Could you understand why Caroline didn’t like having the painting of baby Stewart in the living room? One of the things that muddled the argument for me was when she declared the painting “not to her taste;” I think she would have been better had she said that it made her uncomfortable. What do you think?

Bullying comes up in many of Susin Nielsen’s books. In fact, Ashley played a rather villainous role in Dear George Clooney, Please Marry my Mom. In We Are All Made of Molecules, the bully is Jared, who seems to Ashley like the ideal boyfriend. He is handsome, sporty and very popular. The reader soon learns, however, that he is not exactly nice. He picks on Stewart and others; additionally, he is homophobic, which causes Ashley to feel torn because she is still struggling with her father’s recent announcement that he is gay. Even when she hears him utter homophobic (or “gayist,” as she says) slurs, she can’t quite believe that he is a bad guy. In the end, both Ashley and Stewart have the chance to stand up to him. Stewart has to be brave and defend Ashley when Jared has her in a compromising situation, and Ashley uses her social acumen to ensure that Stewart isn’t targeted by Jared. Stewart is able to stand up to Jared by remembering his mother and how she said “it is never okay to pick on someone who is smaller, or weaker, or more vulnerable than you. If it happens to you, or to someone else, you must always speak up.” Ashley decides to speak up because after failing to defend her father and Michael, creating havoc in her house, and seeing how deeply Stewart is hurt because of his cat’s disappearance. She also sees that Stewart, unpopular, nerdy Stewart, had made better friends in his short time at her school by being kind than she had her entire life. She decides to try to be more like him. Do you think that they were brave to stand up to Jared? Do you think, if placed in a similar situation, you would be able to do what they did?

On a final humorous note, Ashley freely admits she isn’t that into school and doesn’t really like reading. Consequently, she makes several amusing language mistakes. Some of my favourites were:
-Ashley saying she wanted to be constipated instead of emancipated.
-Ashley saying she feels like she’s being taken for “granite” instead of “granted”
-The phrase “doggy-dog world” instead of “dog-eat-dog world”
-And my ultimate favourite: “joie de beaver” instead of “joie de vivre”
What did you think of Ashley’s funny sayings?

That’s it for this month. Be sure to vote on next month’s title and share your thoughts in the comments section!

September Book Club: Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

vanishing girls

It’s time to discuss your pick for September, the devastating, page-turning, and thrilling Vanishing Girls.  Because it was such a strong book, let’s start with a very important question:

As sisters go, Dara and Nick couldn’t be any more different. Still, they have always been close. Dara looks up to Nick, the model older sister, but she also chafes against Nick’s boundaries. The tension between them worsens when Dara begins dating Nick’s best friend, Parker. When a terrible accident leaves Dara badly hurt and Nick basically unharmed, their relationship begins to fall apart. As Dara becomes more and more reclusive, a nine-year-old girl named Madeline Snow goes missing. Dara also disappears on the night of her birthday, and Nick, convinced that the two disappearances are linked, sets out to find her other half.

I can’t write this without spoilers: if you’re itching to read Vanishing Girls, please check it out before continuing, and come back with your thoughts!

The story is told from two different perspectives: Dara’s and Nick’s. Through flashbacks and fast-forwards, we get to see how the sisters’ lives have played out together, and how much the accident, Dara’s relationship with Parker, and their parents’ divorce has effected their relationship with one another. Dara is fiercely loyal to Nick and looks up to her, but she takes a lot of risks and doesn’t always seem to think about how Nick might feel. Nick adores Dara and would do anything to protect her, but she is also threatened by Dara’s self-possession, her independence, and by her relationship with a boy whom Nick also happens to be in love with. Lauren Oliver said in an interview with MTV news that “Having a sister is weirdly amplifying — you have a built-in friend, a built-in sympathizer, someone to share with and learn from — and eviscerating — you have a built-in competitor, someone who seems better, older, wiser, or just more loved.”

Strange things are happening around Dara and Nick, and I felt a constant sense of unease as the disappearance of Madeline Snow and the scandal involving photographs of underage girls surfaces: are they connected? Where is Madeline? Is Madeline’s sister hiding something? Nick’s job at FanLand and Dara’s reclusive behaviour adds an extra-creepy touch to the already ominous tone of the book.

Unfortunately (yes, this is a spoiler) Dara never gets to speak for herself in Vanishing Girls. The truth is that Dara has passed away in the crash that nearly took Nick’s life as well. In reality, Nick is suffering from acute post-traumatic stress following the accident. When we finally discover what has been happening, we realize that Dara’s voice is really Nick’s, and that Nick has been in the midst of a psychotic break and believes that her sister is still alive. What does her version of Dara say about Nick? Why do you think she responded this way to the tragedy and the events surrounding it?

One of my favourite passages from the book is the first paragraph: “The funny thing about almost-dying is that afterward everyone expects you to jump on the happy train and take time to chase butterflies through grassy fields or see rainbows in puddles of oil on the highway. It’s a miracle, they’ll say with an expectant look, as if you’ve been given a big old gift and you better not disappoint Grandma by pulling a face when you unwrap the box and find a lumpy, misshapen sweater.” With that, Lauren Oliver perfectly describes how it feels to live through something terrible, and to struggle to feel lucky that the outcome wasn’t worse. Looking back at the book, can you see how this fits in with how Nick feels about her sister’s death, or about her own life?

Dara and Nick’s relationship is at the heart of this novel, and the book has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the strong and complicated bond between sisters. The book is also thrilling, mysterious, and shocking. What really happened in this book is so much more tragic than we are led to believe, but there are some bright spots, like Nick’s rescue of Madeline Snow. How do you think Nick felt as she was solving the mystery of Madeline’s disappearance? Do you think that on some level, this may have helped her come to terms with losing her own sister?

If you have more thoughts about this book, please share them in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you!

August Book Club: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

speakWhen it comes to modern YA classics, there is no better example than Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Written in 1999, long before more recent books that deal with this topic, like Just Listen or All the RageSpeak is about a young girl who was raped at party over the summer and is now suffering the traumatic after-effects. This well-written novel has found its way onto countless school reading lists, and has opened up this previously taboo topic.

Speak begins with Melinda starting high school. A keen observer, she looks at the social landscape facing her and knows she doesn’t fit anywhere. Her ex-best friend has reinvented herself and now hates Melinda. She is alienated, uncomfortable and silent, barely speaking in any of her classes and growing increasingly silent at home. For the majority of the book, Melinda’s silence is unexplained. Something happened at a party, but the reader doesn’t know quite what it was. Melinda has closed herself off, pulling further within herself. Her parents are angry with her for refusing to communicate, and Melinda’s lips are scabbed, almost as if her keeping the secret of that night at the party is physically damaging her. The novel, divided into the different marking periods, chronicles Melinda’s deterioration and eventual recovery.

This book is a modern classic, and many schools put this title on readings lists. What did you think of the book? Do you think it deserves its reputation?

Melinda is isolated at school, and while she becomes friends with Heather, the new girl, Heather is always on the lookout for a better social standing. She wants to fit in, and she does what she can to improve her position in the school hierarchy, eventually cutting out Melinda when she becomes a liability. Heather gets angry at Melinda and says, “We were never really, really friends, were we? I mean, it’s not like I ever slept over at your house of anything.” She also says that Melinda is the “most depressed person” she’s ever met, and accuses Melinda of being no fun. It is only at this point that Melinda realizes she doesn’t want to be entirely alone, but Heather has clearly made up her mind. What did you think of Heather’s behaviour? Can you understand where she was coming from?

On the other hand, Heather seems to only want Melinda around when she needs something, which is especially evident when she shows up at Melinda’s house and tries to get her help decorating for prom. Did that encounter change the way you saw Heather? Why do you think Melinda was suddenly able to say no to Heather, when she had never expressed any opposition before?

Melinda sees herself as friendless, but Ivy and Nicole both seem to be quite friendly toward Melinda. Ivy encourages Melinda’s art, and Nicole is generally kind and eventually comes to Melinda’s rescue. Why do you think Melinda separated herself from those girls at the beginning of high school? At one point, Ivy, unaware of what has happened to Melinda, warns her about Andy, which helps Melinda feel like what happened to her was maybe not an isolated incident. In fact, when Melinda writes Andy Evans’ name in the bathroom under the heading “guys to stay away from,”  she gets an overwhelming response from other girls in the school. They write things  like, ” He’s a creep” and “He should be locked up.” By writing a warning, both to Rachel and the other girls in school, Melinda moves one step closer to finding her actual voice.  When she first shares what happened to her with someone, it is in writing (the note to Rachel). Melinda is trying to help Rachel, but her ex-best friend does not believe her. She immediately thinks that Melinda is lying because she’s jealous. However, even if Rachel says that to Melinda, she does confront Andy on prom night. She also reaches out to Melinda afterward. Did this make you sympathetic to Rachel?

One of the strangest and saddest parts of the book is the fact that Melinda’s parents have no idea what is going on in their daughter’s life. They know something is wrong with her, but they think she’s just being difficult. The same is true at school; Melinda almost never speaks, but no red flags are raised by any of her teachers. In fact, Mr Neck sees her as a trouble-maker and makes her life more difficult. The only teacher who tries to reach out to her and get her to open up is her art teacher, Mr Freeman, and he is the one she goes to when she is finally ready to tell someone what has been going on. Why do you think her parents weren’t more observant and aware of what was going on in Melinda’s life? Do you think they could have done something more to help her?

Speak is a very memorable book, regardless of if you liked it or not. It is an important subject, and this book helped draw attention to it. It also has an interesting and distinctive writing style. Would you read other books by the author?

Remember, share your thoughts in the comments section, and don’t forget to vote for next month’s selection.

July Book Club: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Saint AnythingSydney has always lived in the shadow of her older brother; when he was younger, it was his charisma and charm that grabbed the attention, but for the past few years, it has been because Peyton has been getting into trouble. Now that he is in prison after a drunk driving accident, Sydney hoped that her parents might finally focus on her, but instead, it’s just more of the same; her needs never seem to be as important as Peyton’s. As her school year begins, she has decided to get a fresh start at the local public school, a place where no one knows that she is Peyton’s little sister, a place where she can figure out who she is and what she wants. Before long, Sydney befriends Layla, and Layla’s entire family, including her brother Mac, and she starts to figure out where she belongs.

Saint Anything is another example of trademark Sarah Dessen – compelling stories, realistic characters, and a romance that is both sweet and uplifting. Let’s get right into it!

As a main character, Sydney leads the reader through the story of her life, letting us get to know her family and her fears. Since her brother has been imprisoned, her mother is fixated on Peyton’s life in prison, scheduling her days around talking to him and trying to ensure that he is comfortable and happy. She wants to show so much support for her son, but is unable to  realize that her daughter might also need some care. Whenever Sydney tries to speak to her mother, she gets shut down and told that Peyton needs them right now. This, understandably, doesn’t make Sydney feel very good, because she doesn’t understand why her mother can’t understand that Sydney needs h.  Do you think Sydney tried hard enough to make her feelings known? Why do you think her mother is so focused on Peyton? And what did you think of Sydney’s father? He seemed concerned about his wife’s fixation on Peyton, but he never said anything or tried to protect Sydney from the unfairness of the situation.

The dedication of the book reads “For all the invisible girls and for my readers, for seeing me.” Sydney is the invisible girl, but through the course of the novel, she finds someone, and a whole family of someones, who see her. Her feelings for Mac grow as she and Layla become good friends, but Layla is unfortunately preoccupied with the series of boyfriends who are not the best match. While Layla is otherwise engaged, Sydney and Mac develop their own friendship and eventually a loving relationship. He is protective of her, but not overbearing. Did you like the Mac and Sydney relationship? What was it about Mac that made Sydney feel safe, protected and valued?  Did you like their relationship? For me, the family issues were more compelling than Sydney’s relationship with Mac; what did you think?

One of the strangest parts of the novel was the presence of the unbelievably shady character of Ames, a friend Peyton met in a Narcotics Anonymous group. Sydney’s father and mother have grown to rely on Ames; they view him as a part of the family and trust him to look after Sydney. However, he makes Sydney feel uncomfortable. He is overly familiar, and he often seems like he is hitting on her. When Layla and Mac first meet Ames, they both immediately understand that Sydney is uncomfortable. In fact,  Layla says that he is creepy and finds a way to ensure that Sydney isn’t left alone with him. Why do you think Sydney’s parents couldn’t see what was so obvious to Layla and Mac? Thankfully, her parents eventually realize that Ames is using their family, and they finally protect their daughter from him. Did you find the Ames storyline compelling? How did it make you feel about Sydney’s parents? Did you find the escalation of Ames’ attention toward Sydney realistic?

Saint Anything covers a lot of ground, from family dynamics and dysfunctions, to self-esteem in relationships, and a lot more in between. In the end, what did you think of the book? If this is your first Sarah Dessen, would you read other titles by her?

As usual, please share you thoughts in the comments section.

June Book Club: Play Me Backwards by Adam Selzer

play meLeon’s life has not turned out quite how he expected it would. He went from being a rebellious middle school genius to a bit of a wastrel who probably isn’t going to graduate high school. He spends his free time at the Ice Cave, a rundown ice cream parlour with very few customers that serves as a home base for the similarly unmotivated teens of their Catholic high school. Leon didn’t seem to mind how his life was turning out until he gets a message from the girl he first fell in love with when he was fifteen, Anna B., who moved away to England and broke his heart. Suddenly, he sees his life through the eyes of this ideal girl, and he doesn’t like what he sees. Enter Stan, who calls himself Satan (and claims to actually be Satan); Stan gives Leon a series of tasks to help him with his problems. These tasks are random and seem unrelated to Anna, but as Leon completes them, he finds his life is changing in unexpected ways. Could Stan really be who he claims to be?

Play Me Backwards is an acerbic novel focusing on the realistic tribulations of a young man who is disappointed in himself but who doesn’t quite know how to move forward. Leon’s life has stagnated, and he doesn’t know how to make any changes. Through the tasks of listening to Moby Dick on audiobook and finding the elusive white grape Slushee flavour, Leon discovers that his life can change. How did you like the novel? Was it what you expected?

The book jacket of this novel makes a big deal of the Stan/Satan connection, and while it is definitely a major part of the book, it is more of a trope than anything else. What did you think of Stan’s contention that he was Satan? I was skeptical when I read it, but I loved that the book cast doubt on my certainty by having Stan’s suggestions result in so many positive changes in Leon’s life. By listening to Moby Dick, as commanded by Stan, he craves fish, which leads him to a fast food restaurant where he strikes up a conversation with the recently-dumped Paige. And almost just like that, Paige and Leon become an item. What did you think of the Stan/Satan plot? Did you believe that he was who he claimed to be?

Throughout the entire book, Leon idealizes Anna. No matter how many times other people tell him that a lot of the things she did were an affectation, designed to impress Leon, he still thinks of her as exceptional and almost too good for him. Why do you think Leon put Anna on such a pedestal? He also frequently compares the way he feels when he is with Paige with how he felt kissing Anna. Do you think Leon’s memories of Anna and their time together are reliable? Do you think it was fair of Leon stay with Paige while he felt that way about Anna?

On top of his romantic challenges and complications, Leon is also having trouble with school, with hundreds of detention hours to work off before he is allowed to graduate. When the novel opens, he isn’t dealing with those hours and has lazily resigned himself to not graduating at all. When Leon starts dating Paige, however, he ends up facing some of the problems head on, working off his detention deficit through yearbook work and finally taking his SATs. It is clear that Leon has been feeling lots of anxiety over his lack of focus/future, but why do you think it took dating Paige to finally make him act on that anxiety?

Leon is an interesting character because he is very smart, quite clever and seems like a funny and nice person. As the novel progresses, he becomes more and more comfortable with who he is, like when he decided that he liked that he fit in at the Ice Cave and didn’t want to try to find work elsewhere. However, oftentimes, it feels like he is a passive player in his life. He follows Stan’s directives even when he thinks they are nuts; he dates Paige even when he feels a bit ambivalent toward her, waiting for her to break up with him. Did you like Leon as a character? What was your favourite Leon prank?

Play Me Backwards is a funny book and the story was quite unexpected. Voting for next month’s selection is underway, and as usual, feel free to share any thoughts on this book in the comments section.

May Book Club: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

RazorhurstThe year is 1932, and there is a tentative peace in the crime-riddled neighbourhood of Razorhurst, located in Sydney, Australia. The two crime bosses, Mr Davidson and Gloriana Nelson, have established a type of truce. It is in this tense world that we meet Kelpie, a young girl who lives on the streets and gets by with the dubious help of the ghosts who populate the neighbourhood. No one else can see them, but they sometimes look out for Kelpie, helping her find food and teaching her to read, which is why Kelpie follows Tommy into a house that he promises has food she can steal. Except when she enters the house, she doesn’t find food; she finds a dead body and Dymphna Campbell, Razorhurst’s most popular working girl, standing over it. Told over the course of one day, Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier, follows Kelpie and Dymphna as they try to get themselves out of trouble and survive the vicious neighbourhood they call home.

Let’s jump right in! This is a violent but very memorable novel. E. Lockhart wrote: “Sure, it is shiny and chilly and bloody and sharp, like the razor of the title, but Larbalestier’s book is also magical and glamorous. Everything comes together in a surprising, gory, inevitable ending from one of the smartest writers in YA fiction.” The book has received pretty widespread positive reviews, but that doesn’t mean everyone liked it. Did you?

As readers, we first meet Kelpie, who is a tiny street urchin desperate to avoid authorities as she dreads the idea of being taken into state custody. Instead, she lives in the shadows, kept company by ghosts. She knows very little about her family except what Old Ma, the woman who once looked after her but who has long-since passed away, told her. The story would always change, however, so Kelpie isn’t even sure if what she knows is true. She has watched the violence around Surrey Hills, also called Sorrow Hills, for years, and she has managed to avoid getting into trouble. Snowy Fullerton, a razorman working for Mr Davidson, has kept an eye out for her, but she tries to stay away from the dangerous element in the neighbourhood. Of course, she knows who Dymphna Campbell is – everyone knows the most famous and desired chromo (slang for prostitute) in Razorhurst – but she has never imagined having anything in common with her! When their paths end up tangled, Kelpie finds her future tied in with Dymphna’s for reasons she doesn’t entirely understand. One of the main reasons she stays with Dymphna in the beginning is because she is certain that Dymphna will be easy to run away from, but also because the other people she encounter all seem more likely to call the police or send her to the orphanage. Why do you think Kelpie is so afraid of going into state custody? Her life on her own hasn’t exactly been great, so why is she so resistant to having the state look after her? Did you find Kelpie’s fear realistic?

Dymphna’s interest in Kelpie is obvious to the reader from the very beginning. Dymphna, like Kelpie, can see ghosts, but she has kept this dubious gift hidden and knows how to avoid revealing to ghosts that she can see them. While we know a lot of about Kelpie from early on in the novel, Dymphna is more of a mystery. Her story unfolds slowly. She is a well-known figure in the neighbourhood, but she hides her sad past; her father murdered her whole family and Dymphna would have died had she not defended herself, which resulted in her father’s death. Since that day, she can see ghosts, and her reputation for causing the deaths of any man who is with her has led to the rather unfortunate nickname “Angel of Death”. She is convinced that only she can save Kelpie from being driven mad by the ghosts around her. The young girl reminds her of the sisters she lost, so she is determined to save Kelpie from a terrible fate. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about Dymphna’s life, and while it is luxurious, it is not exactly enviable. What did you think of Dymph’s situation? Did you find her sympathetic as a character? Why do you think all the men she is with die?

As the novel barrels to its dramatic conclusion, we discover that Dymphna and Kelpie, who are so very different in many ways, are actually the exact same age. This revelation rocks both of the girls. For Kelpie, she looks at Dymphna as an adult, but since they are the same age, it forces Kelpie to look at her life and realize that she can’t live the way she has been living forever. Dymphna is also shocked because she thought Kelpie was so much younger. In fact, she’s more than a little upset at the revelation. Why do you think it angered Dymphna when she found out that Kelpie was also 16? Knowing Dymph’s age was shocking to many others, as well. Did knowing Dymphna’s age change the way you looked at her, in the same way it changed the way Palmer looked at her?

There is so much going on in this book, and we’ve barely scratched the surface! While there is so much more to talk about, we’re going to end this discussion with a look at the ending. All of the powers in Razorhurst seem to converge at the same time, and the inevitably violent upheaval forces our protagonists to make difficult choices. What did you think of the ending? Given the main characters’ lives up until that point, did you think the happy ending was realistic? Were you satisfied with the fates of our “heroes”?

That’s all for this month. Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

April Book Club: Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire

egg & spoon“Fairy tales do not provide absolutes. That’s why they’re essential nutrition.” – Gregory Maguire.

One could get lost in the fantastical, fairy tale world of Egg & Spoon, which follows two girls, a case of mistaken identity, and a lot of magic, all set in Russia in the early 1900s. Elena Rudina is a Russian girl living in the poor village of Miersk. Her older brothers have left (one against his will has been drafted into the Tzar’s army), and her father has passed away, leaving Elena to take care of her sick mother.

Ekaterina (Cat) is a wealthy young lady who is traveling by train with her Aunt Sophia, her Governess, and a Butler to meet the godson of the Tzar and hopefully to marry him (or, at least, that is her family’s hope for her). Russia is in trouble: the snow is supposed to be falling, but instead it is flooding. When Cat’s train comes through Miersk, the two girls meet and an adventure begins. Somehow Elena ends up on board and Ekaterina is thrown from the train and like that, the two girls switch places: Elena is treated as a girl about to become near-royalty, and Cat, left behind, finds herself first seeking help in Elena’s village, then stumbling onto the witch Baba Yaga’s doorstep.

Not everything is as it seems, and often characters behave in unexpected ways to help one another. Baba Yaga pretends to be ferocious and terrifying when she lures Cat into her hut on chicken legs (Dumb Doma), but she is one of the most motherly characters in the book, adopting Cat and taking her to find her Aunt. Madame Sophia, Cat’s nearly-blind aunt, forgives Elena for impersonating Cat, and shames Cat for not being willing to save her even though Elena’s parents took Cat in when they had nothing. Anton, the Prince, is not interested in marrying for political reasons, and prefers traveling incognito to exploiting his royal status.

Elena and Cat are opposite and yet in so many ways they are the same: girls whose parents are not available to them, who are trying to survive in situations that are not of their own choosing. Did you see similarities between Elena and Cat? What are their differences? Did you agree with Cat when she was ready to let Elena stay in prison? What would you have done if you found the Firebird’s egg? What wish do you think Elena would have made if she had grabbed the tail feather of the Firebird?

This book is a creative mix of history, folkore, and traditional fairy tale with some modern references thrown into the mix. There are a lot of themes which are familiar: mistaken identity, family, poverty and wealth,and choosing one’s own path. Cat, Elena, and Anton are all children, and they all struggle to some degree because they have paths chosen for them already. Do you think that they were happy with their lots in life? Baba Yaga, too, seems not to be happy with her station as an immortal witch, only truly seen by children but with no children of her own. Mewster is an indentured servant, and Dumb Doma is lonely for her own egg. Global warming is a constant threat in the world of Egg & Spoon, but the causes are very different (in this case, it’s a dragon who is heating the earth with his fire, unable to sleep for all of the noise of human suffering). Throughout the book, magic is threatened, perhaps by human indifference, or maybe something deeper, but magic and humans are deeply intertwined. The disappearance of the Firebird’s egg signals a major problem for humanity as well.

In this story, all of the eggs are precious. For the Immortal Hen they are her reason for continuing to live. For the Firebird, the egg is a second chance at life. To Dumb Doma, eggs are children. The Firebird’s egg is Elena’s only hope. For Cat, the Fabergé egg is a ticket to a good marriage and her parents’ approval. Where else do you see eggs appear in this story? What is the significance of the spoon? This is a difficult book to pin down: like the Matryoshka, there are many layers to the story that reveal themselves as we get deeper into this fairy tale world. What did you think about how the story was told? Did you feel like there was one single narrative or main character?

Please feel free to share your likes, dislikes, and thoughts in the comments section. We want to hear how you felt about this book!