TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN
by John Green
Given his struggles with mental illness, John Green is able to provide a piercing insight into the challenges faced by protagonist Aza, a 16-year-old who is beset with anxiety issues.
Intrusive thoughts about bacteria and infections as well as the fact that she does not feel in control of her destiny make daily life in Indianapolis a battlefield for her. Throw in the fact that her father has died and she's got a lot to deal with.
Injected into this mix is Davis, who Aza hasn't seen for years after they struck up a friendship at summer camp. Davis' billionaire father has gone missing and Aza's friend,
Daisy, decides they should chase the $100,000 reward for finding him.
As you would expect, a romance ensues between Davis and Aza, complicated by the fact he is paranoid about people liking him for his wealth and she has a meltdown about bacteria invading her body every time they kiss.
But the pair share a bond, which is tested by her fluctuating mental health and the revelations about Davis' father. As Aza makes clear early on, her story won't have a tidy, happy ending but she does have the support of a caring mother and her quirky, nerdy friends.
Green, who wrote (among others) the bestsellers The Fault in our Stars and Paper Towns, is a deft hand when it comes to capturing teenage friendships, but his characters do seem wise and philosophical beyond their years with an unusual appreciation of high-minded poetry and literature. When Aza and her friends aren't trying to work out the meaning of life, they are consumed with subjects such as Star Wars and astronomy.
Green is at his best when detailing Aza's frequent descents into madness, manifested in her obsession with a callus that she keeps breaking open on her finger, cleaning then bandaging it obsessively.
For those who have had enough of stories about teenagers struggling with mental illness, this book will be an unrewarding read, despite the fact that Green writes beautifully and with depth of emotion.
The sense that Aza will never break free from her downward spiral makes for a hard slog even though the warmth of her relationships with Daisy and Davis helps to lighten the mood.
BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS RIGHT BUT EVERYTHING IS WRONG
by Erin Donohue
(Escalator Press, $25)
Young Kiwi writer Erin Donohue's empathetic and optimistic debut novel follows the decline and recovery of Caleb, who is trying to finish his last year of high school as he battles depression and anxiety. It's a brave and moving book from Donohue, a former ballet dancer who has fought anorexia. While Caleb has withdrawn from those around him, he is an observant narrator, so the story is about what is going on inside his head but is also grounded in the everyday. When Caleb is at his lowest, his friend, brash, boisterous Casey, turns up. They have a strange love/hate relationship that keeps Caleb going. Never patronising or cliched, this is an inspirational read.
NEVERMOOR: THE TRIALS OF MORRIGAN CROW
by Jessica Townsend
This first book strikes a whimsical tone in what looks likely to be an entertaining fantasy trilogy from Aussie author Jessica Townsend. As a cursed child, Morrigan Crow is destined to die at 11 and is blamed for things that go wrong in the town of Jackalfax. But her destiny changes when Jupiter North appears and takes her to Nevermoor where she has a chance to join The Wundrous Society. Morrigan is enjoyably bolshy and outspoken no matter what. Jupiter introduces her to a new world, populated with delightful, eccentric characters. But there is also serious business at hand, with a fight looming against the dark forces mustered by Ezra Squall.
by Sarah Crossan
Irish writer Sarah Crossan credits the inspiration for this book to a documentary she watched as a teenager about a death-row prisoner. Joe Moon travels from New York to small-town Texas to be with his brother, Ed, who is facing execution after being found guilty of murdering a cop. Told in verse, this story is spare but punchy as 17-year-old Joe gets himself set up in Wakeling and re-establishes a relationship with Ed, who he hasn't seen in 10 years. Frequent flashbacks flesh out the brothers' messy family life — delinquent, alcoholic mother and absent father — and we learn why Joe admires Ed, who was his protector. Not an easy read but a rewarding one.
THE LONELIEST GIRL IN THE UNIVERSE
by Lauren James
(Walker Books, $19)
Born on a spaceship sent off to populate a new planet, teenager Romy is now in sole command after telling Nasa that the rest of the crew has died. Alone in space for the last five years and almost 20 years into a 50-year trip on The Infinity, she gets a message to say another faster spaceship has launched and will join her. Through email exchanges with the commander of The Eternity, she starts to build a relationship with him, becoming excited about his arrival. The space log format lends itself to Lauren James' page-turning style and she has crafted a satisfying sci-fi psychological thriller with a scary twist.