Can you love being a pirate and still be a good person? Can you have done a terrible thing and not be completely guilty? Can you want to die and be desperate for something to help you live? The three young adult novels below explore why the answer to all of these questions can be “yes.”
Amy Fields, the self-destructive protagonist of Printz Award-winner Nick Lake’s thrilling and elegant new title, “Hostage Three,” likes “the idea of presenting sharp edges to the world.” The wealthy London teen has lost her mother to suicide; her banker father works all the time; her stepmother tries too hard; and she just failed an A-level exam. When the stepmother tells her that their family of three is taking a cruise around the world on the Daisy May, she has no choice but to go. They only make it to the Gulf of Aden before Somali pirates take over their yacht, and Amy becomes “Hostage Three.”
The 17-year-old is emotionally bereft, lonely, and guarded, and despite her obvious pain she believes that she is “kind of a numb person. Empty, like a hollow chocolate bunny.” But then she falls for a storytelling pirate named Farouz, and her way of looking at herself and the world shifts. Is he evil or is he a victim of an unjust world? Is their relationship love or an infatuation born of circumstance? Amy’s growing self-awareness is what allows her to question their affair.
Lake’s magnificent writing is full of stunning zingers. For human beings, the smell of blood is “a memory that we’re not even aware of.” And when Farouz walks away from her, Amy feels as if “the electricity left with him, like someone had pulled the plug on the world.” The ending is not the one Amy tricks readers into hoping for. However, it is the only one that fits.
Annabel Pitcher’s sophomore novel, “Ketchup Clouds,” is, like Lake’s book, a compelling read. Told almost entirely through the letters a British teen sends to a death-row convict in Texas, the simultaneously tragic and joyful story moves back and forth from the girl’s current misery and her memories of romantic love. “Zoe,” as she calls herself, writes to S. Harris because she believes that he’ll empathize with her suffering. “You killed someone you were supposed to love and I killed someone I was supposed to love, and we both understand the pain and the fear and the sadness and the guilt and the hundred other feelings that don’t even have a name in all of the English Language.”
Zoe describes how she fell into relationships with two brothers, Max and Aaron, but truly loved only one, and now one of them is dead, and she feels responsible. Her penultimate letter reveals which brother was lost not long before S. Harris’s May 1 execution date. The protagonist’s complicated family situation (her youngest sister, Dot, is deaf, and her mother has her own burdens on her conscience) adds another layer to Pitcher’s examination of guilt and its ability to wear the heart away like a stone under running water.
The epistolary structure of the novel causes confusion as Zoe leaps between her devastated present and her complicated but optimistic past, and there are jarring jumps between scenes. One moment Zoe is with Max on a bench by the river and the next she’s in her 9-year-old sister Sophie’s bedroom. Max’s breakdown over his father’s new marriage and the speed with which Zoe and Aaron profess their love for each other, both feel rushed. Nonetheless, readers will stay with Zoe because this book needs to be finished as much as she needs to complete her story.
Finally, Leila Sales’s energetic and warm new title celebrates the curious chemistry of friendship, the pull of family, and the transporting and transformative power of music.
In “This Song Will Save Your Life,” Elise Dembowski decides to kill herself on a Thursday afternoon. She spent the summer before her sophomore year studying how to be normal — reading blogs on fashion, watching reality TV, etc. Despite her hard work, her first day of school is a failure, so she goes to her musician father’s house and makes a suicide playlist. She cuts her arm only enough to demand attention. Seven months later, she’s still lonely and bullied.
The self-identified precocious teen’s life changes when she stumbles upon Start, an underground dance party in the warehouse area of Glendale, a city nine miles south of Pawtucket. There, she meets cool college students, falls into a pseudo relationship with the DJ, Char, and learns how amazing it feels to choose just the right song at just the right moment. Elise has a natural talent for DJing, so Char gives her a half-hour slot each Thursday. Start becomes her haven, her escape from high school. “I had once thought that I wanted to get revenge by dying. But getting revenge by living, and living well, was much, much sweeter.”
When reality, with all its complications, threatens the bubble she has created, Elise comes to understand that there is no “Handbook for Being a Real Person.” It turns out that a song alone cannot save a life — but a great playlist can be part of what makes it worth living.
By Annabel Pitcher
Little, Brown, 272 pp., $18
THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE
By Leila Sales
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $17.99
Chelsey Philpot’s debut YA novel, “Even in Paradise,” will be published in fall 2014. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseyPhilpot.