(This piece was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Oct. 18, 2014)
As school begins, I always think of how my children as teenagers, gave up reading for pleasure because of coursework demands. Many of the books they were assigned were existential reads that they cared little about and didn’t care to discuss. I’ve been remembering this often as I’ve listened to some incredible new YA audios, many of which would engage adults as well.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (book from Delacorte, audio from Listening Library, 6 hours, 27minutes)
Lockhart’s book is chock full of twists and turns that make it a gripping, fast, surprising read/listen. The heroine is 17-year-old Cadence Sinclar Eastman, the daughter/granddaughter of a family so wealthy they own an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Narrator Ariadne Meyers’ portrayal of the heroine is, at first, certain and candid as Cadence reveals ugly realities about her overproud family. She harshly judges her haughty, bigoted, manipulative mother, aunts and grandfather as do the rest of “the Liars.” The “Liars” are the next generation, who have grown up together, relishing each other’s company every summer on the exclusive island. But as teens, they question the greed and biased principles of their elders. There is a sureness in Cady’s voice, but that soon fades as Meyers reveals an opposing view of Cady. She suffers crippling headaches and is gripped by a tragedy that lurks at the edges of her unstable mind. As Cady unlocks the truth, Meyers’ expression of her pain is raw. The impact of Cady’s realizations will be just as shocking to listeners who may immediately return to Meyers’ poignant rendition of this haunting story to puzzle out how Lockhart constructed this dramatic story.
If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Algonquin Books, audio from Highbridge, 5.25 hours)
Sahar is a 17-year-old Iranian whose childhood love for Nasrim has blossomed into a hidden lesbian affair that could get the girls executed. Negin Farsad’s accented narration adds a convincing tone borne out by the emotional strength she uses to portray Sahar’s mix of feelings. Farsad’s timbre makes it clear how Sahar’s passion for Nasrim, her fear of fatal consequences, and despair about Nasrim’s pending marriage make the young girl decide her only course of action is to undergo a sex change which surprisingly is legal in Iran. Listeners might also experience Sahar’s blindness because of Farsad’s excellent characterization of the rich, spoiled Nasrim who seems flirty, selfish and superficial. These two portraits make for growing tension and poignant contrasts as Sahar struggles with the difficult potential solution she’s considering. Farsad gives a believable picture of Sahar’s complexities, her burgeoning awareness of and growing compassion for Iran’s outsiders as well as her eventual emotional transformation.
Panic by Lauren Oliver (book from Harper, audio from HarperAudio, 8.25)
This is a book perfect for teens seeking fast-moving fiction. Reader Sarah Drew’s brisk narration immediately sets the tone for this fast-moving, action-filled story of teens immersed in a series of potentially-deadly contests. These young adults live in a poor town and all those competing in these challenges have different reasons for needing the $67,000 prize. The plot focuses primarily on four teens, their stories told in alternating chapters by Heather and Dodge. Drew develops equally convincing portraits of all the characters, their lives and their evolving relationships. Their story lines have an emotionally involving quality and Drew draws you in, but just as quickly she returns to the rapid pacing as a new challenge is announced. Drew paces perfectly, dramatizing ever scarier situations with heightening emotions so that they escalate right to the end.
The Things You Kissed Goodbye by Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegen Books, Blackstone Audio, 8.5 hours)
Sixteen-year-old Bettina has a rigid Greek-American father who has always told her to kiss every hardship away. That becomes impossible with the increasingly complex situations she faces. Lauren Fortgang expresses each emotional change from Bettina’s delight at discovering real love to her deep grief at a sudden heartbreak. Fortgant realistically registers Bettina’s mounting concerns as her confusion becomes disbelief and finally horror at the escalating brutality of the boyfriend who once provided freedom from her strict home. Discovering real love with an older man, Cowboy, she struggles to hide the truth from others and from herself until it’s tragically too late. Fortgang shows her gift for achieving convincingly real characterizations for each of the many minor characters as well. She imparts their layered essential qualities. For example, Bettina’s father’s patriarchal annoyance has an edge of protection, her mother’s timidity is steeped in caring, and Cowboy’s hesitancy is flavored with love for her. These strengthen Bettina’s characterization, the plot and make the conclusion all the more heartbreaking.