Monday, June 30, 2014

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Laura and Tom McNeal's Crooked is one of my favorite YA books of all time. I looked back through my book reviews and was so surprised that I haven't written about it yet here. Crooked is about Amos and Clara, and their perspectives duet in a complementary back-and-forth to tell the story. But after I read Crooked, I didn't really search out any other books by Laura and Tom McNeal. I think I read Zipped, but missed Crushed. Tom McNeal writes several books on his own, without his wife Laura, and Far Far Away is his latest. I had heard about it, and had seen the striking cover on display a few times at Chapters. It was a reminder of how much I had liked Crooked and I thought I would give it a try.

Far Far Away follows young teenage protagonist Jeremy Johnson Johnson, who lives in the strange and quiet town of Never Better. He lives with his father over a bookshop opened by his grandfather, which only stocks his grandfather's autobiography. Jeremy's attic room is filled with books, especially the fairy tale stories that his mother loved. In fact, his mother's fate is straight out of a fairy tale: when she takes a bite of a fabled cake, she falls in love with the first person she sees and leaves Jeremy and his father in Never Better while she takes off to Canada. The fairy tale theme makes fitting the narrator of this novel: the ghost of Jacob Grimm, who talks to Jeremy and tries to figure out what will help him to move on to where his brother is. He dedicates himself to Jeremy, helping him write tests and answer questions, and also keeping an eye out for the Finder of Occasions, a mysterious individuals who is searching for the right occasion to bring harm to Jeremy. 

For me, the tone just never felt right for this book. I've seen it described as "timeless" by several reviewers, but it was that attempt at "timelessness" that was so frustrating to me. It is very keenly set in a contemporary time and place, yet there are aspects of the language, characters, and plot that are so clearly not contemporary, and I found that those two forces continuously tug-of-warred. I like fairy tales and I like unconventional narrators, but not in the way that they were presented here. 

But reading Far Far Away reminded me of just how much I loved Crooked, and once I dig my old copy out, I'm going to give it a re-read and post a review here instead. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Since You've Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Morgan Matson's Since You've Been Gone has my favorite cover art of any spring or summer publications I've seen out this year, and was the reason I picked it up at the bookstore a few days ago. I didn't think I knew anything about Matson when I bought the book - really, it was all about the cover art. But I started to fill in the pieces in a coincidental way, before I'd even started reading. 

My sister actually got to Since You've Been Gone before I did, because unlike me, she was actually quite familiar with Matson. Matson's second book, Second Chance Summer, is one of my sister's favorite books, and as soon as she saw Matson's name on the cover of this new book, she wanted to read it right away. Meanwhile, I had been doing some research on road trip YA books - Paper Towns, Going Bovine, Lost at Sea, and As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth - when I came across the recommendation of Matson's first novel, Amy and Roger's Epic Detour. Matson's identity as a YA author came together in fairly short order, and all through this new publication, Since You've Been Gone. Since finishing the book, I've also learned that Matson also writes under the name "Katie Finn," so that the new publication Broken Hearts, Fences and Other Things to Mend is actually another one of Matson's books. I've seen the cover all over the place in different bookstores, and added it to my Amazon wishlist a few days ago (Matson's books have really good cover art). 

Since You've Been Gone was a perfect book to read at the beginning of the summer, because it's really a summer book. It takes place between June and August, neatly wrapped up in that hot handful of months. Emily is excited about the summer she's going to have with her best friend Sloane, a teenage girl who moved to town a few years ago and yanked Emily out of her shy, quiet routine. Now the two of them are a package deal, making sure that they get summer jobs at the same place and making plans for parties at the Orchard. But this year, Sloane isn't going to be spending the summer with Emily. She disappears suddenly in June, leaving Emily with a list of thirteen things to do without her. They include straightforward instructions ("go skinny-dipping" "steal something") and also quizzical imperatives ("55 S. Ave. Ask for Mona" "Penelope"). Unable to do anything else about Sloane's disappearance, Emily dutifully begins making her way through the list, hoping that by the time she gets to the end she will have her best friend back. 

But the list does something that Emily isn't expecting. Instead of closing off her world - she feels like she'll be lost without Sloane - it actually opens it up again. She becomes friends with several unlikely candidates, including Frank Porter, the A+ student at her school who is working at an indoor climbing wall for the summer, despite the fact that he's terrified of heights. Slowly, Emily's new friends help her work her way through the list. But will Sloane be waiting at the end of it?

I loved Since You've Been Gone. It had the feeling of a Deb Caletti or a Sarah Dessen book, something you know is going to be a good read by the author name alone. And you know it's going to be at least a little bit of a romance, and a little bit of a find-yourself book, and a little bit of a summer adventure. I'll be reading Second Chance Summer next (which I know my sister has), and then I'm going to get to Amy and Roger and the new Broken Hearts. Matson will be one of the authors whose new publications I will watch out for year after year. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Feed by M.T. Anderson

M.T. Anderson was another of the many authors at the NCTE conference in Boston this past November. I always feel like I read a fair amount every year, but that doesn't really do anything to diminish the books on my wishlist, where three of Anderson's books have been hanging out for the past few years: the two volumes of Octavian Nothing and Feed. One of my favorite aspects of the NCTE conference is that fact that for any author speaking at the conference, their publisher brings in a selection of their books to sell. I met M.T. Anderson after his panel discussion, and picked up all three books that I'd been wanting to read, and have slowly been reading them over the last few months. 

Feed was one of those books that I'd heard a lot about (buzz, recommendations, good things!), but didn't know much about (plot, setting, content!). I zipped through it once the story got going, a mix between dystopian and sci-fi with a teenage twist. The book is set in a future where citizens are implanted with a chip that consistently feeds in entertainment, music, news, others' memories, information, and advertising. When protagonist Titus and his friends head to the Moon for a night of partying, their feeds are compromised and they end up in the hospital to recover. For the first time in their lives, their feeds go quiet as the hack into the digital system is investigated by doctors and other agents. When they are in the hospital, Titus connects with Violet, a teenage girl who hasn't had her feed for as long as Titus and his friends have. And when she leaves the hospital, she discovers that her feed hasn't been fixed. Not entirely. It continues to malfunction and compromise her health and her life. 

For all of the opulence and expense described in Feed, the technological improvements and development are not at all benign. There is mass pollution happening, and Titus describes the way that he and his friends have developed lesions all over their bodies from the atmosphere. But rather than seeing the lesions as a mark of the poisonous environment, Titus's friends instead wear their lesions like accessories, even cutting fake ones in across their necks and shoulders. Consumerism and advertising (and Anderson's critique of both) are at the heart of the novel, heightened by the feed, the perfect tool for the dissemination of product placement. 

Anderson's representations of Titus and his friends are outstanding and inventive, especially Titus's best friend Link, who is a clone of Abraham Lincoln.There is also Quendy, a teenage girl who competes with Calista (Link's girlfriend) throughout the novel, plastering herself with lesions when Calista cuts extras into her skin. The teenage characters are products of their situation, and they do not change or grow from the beginning to the end of the novel. Titus lets Violet down utterly. Their consumption only increases as the environment fades, and the economy starts to crumble. It's the futuristic version of The Great Gatsby, a replication of the 1920s before the crash of the 1930s. 

The writing in this book is vivid, adopting a futuristic slang and structure. And it comes with one of the best opening lines in YA literature: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck" (3). And the chapters titles are pretty great, too. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

I unexpectedly took a short hiatus from updating this blog at the beginning of the year. I was on a roll with book reviews after NCTE in November. It's hard not to be. You pick up so many new books that are really some of the best being published for teenagers and you don't want to do anything else except for write about them and share information about them as much as you can. But I sort of hoarded my NCTE haul this year. By which I mean instead of reviewing the books I read, I just read them. And I know I made some sort of justification for just reading: "Think about the time you'll save by just reading and not writing a review! That's like an extra eighth of a book!" It was kind of ridiculous. And, as a result, I have a huge backlog of books that I've read over the last few months that haven't ended up on this blog, but instead have just been shelved or shared person-to-person. 

Boy 21 by Matthew Quick is one of those books that I should have written about here right away, but because it was sandwiched between my reading of two of Quick's newer publications - Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and The Good Luck of Right Now - I didn't get to writing about it. But it is an incredible book, one that I still think about off and on, even though I read it last December. When I was standing in line at NCTE waiting to purchase Boy 21, I talked to a teacher who told me it was the most oft-stolen book in her high school English classroom. Her students loved the book so much that they would just keep it after she lent it to them. So she was replenishing her supply at NCTE, buying a few extra copies for her classroom. It's really that kind of book, one you want to keep your own copy of because even the physicality of the book is meaningful. 

Boy 21 is about Finley, nicknamed White Rabbit for being the only white kid on his high school basketball team. He wears the number 21 - it's his number, the one on the back of the jersey that gives him some way to identify who he is and what he cares about. He's in his last year of high school, and then he plans to escape Belmont, the run-down neighborhood controlled by the Irish mob, where drugs, violence, and rivalries define most of day-to-day life. But all of his plans change with the arrival of Russ, a basketball phenom who moves to Belmont after his parents are murdered. Russ only answers to the name Boy21 (21 was his former jersey number), and he's more than a little affected by his family tragedy. Finley's coach asks him to befriend Russ and help him to adjust to life in Belmont, and Finley agrees. He knows to do what his coach tells him to, and he knows that a player like Russ will help their team immensely. His friendship grows with Russ - as much as it can - but Russ is also a threat: will he take Finley's place on the team? Worse than that, will he take his number?

Quick's writing is impeccable, and the story is heartbreaking. The violence in the community is palpable, and both Finley and his girlfriend Erin are drawn into it daily, even though they don't want anything to do with it. The Irish mob is more than just background noise in this coming-of-age story. It inches its way into Finley and Erin's lives, and threatens to break them apart. Russ - Boy21 - is an amazingly conceived of character, and Finley's sense of responsibility to him (even when it means losing his place on the team) speaks so much to the type of characters Quick can write. And the small revelation at the end reverberates through everything that came before, reshaping the story. Matthew Quick continues to be one of my favorite contemporary authors, and his young adult and adult books consistently end up on my own best of lists.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Pena

I have been lucky to enough to see YA author Matt de la Pena speak twice now: once at the 2013 NCTE conference in Boston and then recently at the beginning of the month at the YA Lit conference at Louisiana State University. de la Pena was publicizing his newest YA novel The Living at NCTE, and I wasn't able to make it to the exhibition hall when he was selling and signing his other books. So I picked up The Living, and read The Living, but apparently did not review The Living here (I will!). Luckily, his other books were available for sale at Louisiana State University, and I was finally able to pick up a copy of Mexican Whiteboy, which had been on my book wishlist for years

Mexican Whiteboy focuses primarily on protagonist Danny, although the perspective routinely changes to examine the community in National City, where Danny moves to live with his Dad's family for the summer. Danny's dad is Mexican and his mom is white. Danny's identity is split between both of them, and, as a result, he feels too Mexican for the private school that he attends in San Diego, and too white for National City. de la Pena writes,
And Danny's brown. Half-Mexican brown. A shade darker than all the white kids at his private high school, Leucadia Prep. Up there, Mexican people do under-the-table yard work and hide out in the hills because they're in San Diego illegally. Only other people on Leucadia's campus who share his shade are the lunch-line ladies, the gardeners, the custodians. But whenever Danny comes down here, to National City - where his dad grew up, where all his aunts and uncles and cousins still live - he feels pale. A full shade lighter. Albino almost. (2)
But Danny has something special. He can pitch like no one else can, his long arms giving his pitch a ninety-five-mile-an-hour power. He disrupts the hierarchy of the neighborhood when he shows off what he can do when he's playing baseball, seriously pissing off Uno, who's partly in love with Danny's cousin Sofia. But Danny's not consistent. Sometimes his pitch will fly straight and do just exactly what he wants it to. But other times it's unpredictable, and he can't control what happens to the baseball as it flies towards home base. 

Part of the reason Danny's moved to National City for summer is to be closer to Mexico, where his dad is. Danny wants to save up money over the summer and book a flight down there, and show his father just how much he's turning into the kind of man he'd be proud of. We see glimpses of what Danny believes his father wants to see through the letters Danny puts in the mail, exaggerating aspects of his life in National City with his family and making up stories that he thinks will impress his dad. 

Mexican Whiteboy is a powerful book. The writing is hopeful and poetic - I underlined more phrases in this book than in any other I've read recently. The language shines; it's tactile and real and repeats itself inside your head, vocalizing the dialogue. And the characters are so likable, even when they're not doing likable things, even when they're doing the last thing that you want them to. The book is about a community as much as it's about Danny and his family, and about place and language and connection.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare

I didn't get around to reading The Mortal Instruments series until last summer, when I binge read all five of them: City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels, and City of Lost Souls. My sister had recommended them (and she already owned all five) and I finally got around to reading them during two weeks of holidays when I had the time to get through the entirety of the fantasy series in a fairly short amount of time. They all blended together, and it was amazing to have that kind of immersive reading experience. 

City of Heavenly Fire begins where the series left off with City of Lost Souls: Sebastian is still trying to bring about the destruction of the Shadowhunters, and it's up to Clary and Jace to do what they can to stop him. They know Sebastian better than anyone, which is more terrifying than it is helpful. They know what he's capable of, and the lengths he will go to destroy the world. 

Since it's been a year since I read the fifth book, I spent the first 100 pages of the book trying to remember what had come before. I kept asking my sister, "Why aren't Clary and Jace brother and sister again?" and I'm pretty sure that was covered in book two or three. The year of lag time between publications was just enough to make me forget much of what had happened in the last few books. I hadn't thought much about it until now, but it always surprised me that I never had that problem reading Harry Potter. Even though there were years (sometimes several) between publications, I was never struggling to remember where Rowling left off with the characters, and what had happened in the last book. I think it has something to do with the school-year formula of Harry Potter. Readers always return to Harry's story in the summer, right before he starts back at school. It's a familiar structure that is easy to relate to, and it's a way to start each book off fresh without losing anything that came before. Harry Potter doesn't have that feeling of where-are-we-now that happens sometimes with other series. 

Making it even more difficult to jump right back into the story was the fact that City of Heavenly Fire begins not with Clary, Jace, Isabelle, Alec, and Simon, but with Emma Carstairs, a new-to-me character (if she had appeared in the books previously, I couldn't remember!). Emma's part in the story is small, but well-developed in the 700-page book. By the time we get to the end, it's clear that Emma is about to become the protagonist of Clare's forthcoming series, The Dark Artifices, which will take place at the Los Angeles Institute. I found Emma to be an incredibly compelling character, and I enjoyed returning to her story and perspective even when much of the action was happening somewhere else. But I did feel sort of duped when I got to the end of the book and realized that Emma was only in the story to set up a new series. If she's taken out of City of Heavenly Fire, there is not much missed in terms of plot development. Only future plot development. 

But overall, I enjoyed Clare's final book in The Mortal Instruments series. So much that I finished it in two days, and I think it's a longer book than any that came before it.

More than anything, it's the dialogue that I read this series for. The exchanges between Jace and Simon especially are my favorite in this installment. Clare is so good at writing believable dialogue between teenage characters - even though the genre is fantasy, the exchanges between characters keep the book rooted in reality, especially a teenage reality. If there's one reason I know I'll re-read this series again, it's for the dialogue. And because of that, I know I will be looking for the publication of Clare's new series in 2015, to see where Emma Carstairs ends up, and what her story will look like. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

I can't take credit for knowing about the new comic Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. My friend Matt Schneider shared the title with me last winter, when Zdarsky was featured in an Atlantic article about his interaction on Facebook with the local Applebee's. You can read the Atlantic feature here, which compiles some of the Facebook messages that were sent back and forth between Zdarsky and Applebee's. They're absurdist and hilarious, and so worth the read. 

Zdarsky tells Atlantic writer Megan Zarber that the project started when, "I noticed my parents both 'liked' a photo of a hamburger on our hometown Applebee's facebook page. I thought it was funny so I joined in, like one big happy family celebrating this hamburger photo. But then I started digging deeper on the page and noticed it was, well, pretty barren of comments. It just seemed like whoever was in charge of their social media kept putting up new photos and trying to engage conversation and was left with a whole lot of nothing. So, I started chiming in." 

So I found out about Chip Zdarsky first, and then I found out about the comic he illustrates, Sex Criminals. I downloaded the first issue, which was free online, and then somehow managed to wait until the first five issues were collected into one volume. 

I just picked up the trade paperback over the weekend from local comic book store Kapow Comics in Lethbridge, AB. I zipped through in an afternoon and loved it so much that I re-read the first issue, even though I'd already read it twice on my iPad. The comic is about Suzie and Jon, two people who thought they were alone in the world until they found each other. Because they can both do something that no one else can: when they orgasm, they freeze time. And what do they decide to do with that frozen stretch of time together? They rob banks. Suzie wants to save the library that she works at, which is slowly running out of funding. So they practice being criminals together, working towards robbing the bank that Jon works at. 

Sex Criminals is an incredibly addicting story: it's part romance, part comedy, part sex education, with a little sci-fi to tie it all together. It just started up again in June, and the next issue is out from Image Comics on July 16th. And this time I don't think I'm going to be able to wait for the trade paperback. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin has consistently been one of my favourite writers, ever since I read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac. She is also well-known for Elsewhere, a book about a teenage girl who dies and becomes obsessed with keeping track of her family's post-her life. So obsessed that she can't move on, stuck firmly in a present that doesn't belong to her anymore. In addition to young adult and adult literature, Zevin is also an accomplished screenwriter. Her screenplay Conversations with Other Women was made into a movie in 2005 and starred Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart.

I can't remember how, exactly, I found out about her new adult novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I have a hunch that it was a book recommended on Amazon based on my other browsing interests, but I'm not sure that it was. But somehow the book ended up in one of my orders, and arrived a few days ago. I sat down last night and started the book in the early evening. I can say that I literally finished it in one sitting, because I did not move from the couch even once in the few hours it took to read the book. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one of my favourite books of the year. It's the kind of book I want to buy for Christmas and birthday presents for other people, and the last book I felt that way about was published in 2011: Your Voice in my Head by Emma Forrest (I think I've bought and given away at least a dozen copies of that book).

I'll start with the structure of the book, because I don't want to say too much about the content. I started reading without knowing anything about the plot: it's hard for me to skip over the synopsis on the book jacket (I want to know what I'm getting in to!), but I was in such a hurry to start this book that I just…started. Reading with that kind of blank slate was incredible. It's so rare that I don't read a book review before reading a book, or get a book recommendation, or hear about a new publication word-of-mouth. I love having access to that sort of paratextual material, but sometimes I miss the surprise of venturing into a book that I don't know anything about.

In Zevin's book, the chapters are named after short stories as varying as Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter," Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." And each chapter is prefaced with bookseller A.J. Fikry's recommendation of the short story, and the reason why he likes it. So the prefaces to the book chapters become a sort of short story recommendation, from fictional bookseller to reader. But they go farther than that. They set up the chapter, and allude to what is to come in the rest of the book: for example, Fikry's short story write-ups introduce new characters, further the development of old ones, and give away important elements of the plot. Zevin shows that we can know people through what they read, and give us a glimpse into why they read. 

A.J. Fikry, the protagonist of this novel, owns Island Books. It's located on a small island on the east coast, and Fikry lives above the store in a small attic apartment. He recently lost his wife, and he's slowly trying to drink himself to death. The arrival of a new sales rep for Knightley Press marks a change in the quiet life of A.J. Fikry. Fikry is unhappy and devastated by the loss of his wife, and, as a result, he is immeasurably rude to Amelia (the book rep) as she tries to tell him about the new books in the catalogue. Fikry responds,
How about I tell you what I don't like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they should't be - basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major tragedy to be distasteful - nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children's books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. (13)
Of course, all of these disliked books and more make an appearance at some time in the novel, when they are recommended, read, and loved (sometimes by Fikry himself). And Fikry's life slowly becomes a story itself, full of larger than life characters, surprising events, and small moments of empathy. Zevin's new novel is about sharing a love of reading, and the way books can change lives. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry will be a book that I'll be recommending for the rest of the year, a perfect examination about why we read and the stories we choose to share. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

A few years ago when my first novel for young adults was published, I met with book pages editor Alisha Sims at the Lethbridge Herald to publicize my book launch. While I was at the Lethbridge Herald offices, Alisha asked if I would be interested in reviewing a book for the newspaper, and she showed me the review copies that had been sent from different publishers. I ended up choosing a copy of Code Name Verity (which had a much different cover than it does now, and I think that the re-release cover is much more appealing than the original that I own), and I ripped through the book in one or two sittings. I am a sucker for WWII books (Postcards from No-Man's Land and Daniel's Story started me on that path) and Code Name Verity is set during its height, concerned mostly with events in 1943. 

Queenie, a Scottish-born special operations operative, is taken by the Gestapo when she accidentally looks for traffic the wrong way when crossing a street in France. She is bound, tortured, and questioned, and her lack of identification papers do not make her story any more plausible. Queenie writes her story down, and believes that as long as she continues to write, she will be kept alive. She starts off writing on the clean, creamy hotel stationary, but soon her story spreads across recipe index cards and a prescription pad for a Jewish doctor. These fragments are all she has, and the power of storytelling is evident (her Gestapo captor calls her Scheherazade after the character in One Thousand and One Nights, telling stories to keep from being executed). She is also under the strict watch of Anna Engel, who translates Queenie's confession for Captain von Linden. 

Queenie's account largely details her friendship with Maddie, a young woman who is a pilot and also Queenie's best friend. So much of the focus is initially on Maddie, that it takes a few chapters to understand that the character "Queenie" in the account is the captive writer herself. The book is carefully, intricately plotted, which is why it is so difficult to talk about in a review - to begin unravelling one thread of the plot means giving away the entirety of another. 

So why am I writing about this book now? The incredible YA Sync program has been releasing a free download of a young adult audio book every week (paired with a free download of an adult audio book) and this past week the available YA title was Code Name Verity. I remembered loving the book when I read it, but I couldn't remember many specific details about it - that's a problem I have with some of the books I love the most, that I speed through them too fast to remember character names and plot, setting and lines. I'm just left with that inarticulate feeling that you get from a truly good book. 

I was so excited for the opportunity to revisit Code Name Verity, this time as an audio book. The audio format made me love the book even more, and made me appreciate much about it that I hadn't in my first read. The references to Peter Pan and the Darlings seemed even more carefully woven throughout, or else I was more audibly attuned to them when listening to the story. And hearing that final "Kiss me, Hardy" line delivered audibly was a million times more affecting (and devastating) than I ever heard it delivered in my head. 

I am so looking forward to next week's YA Sync release, Matthew Quick's Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I think that the audio of that book will be so affecting and creative, and I'm looking forward to sharing another audio book review once I've listened to it, too. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Marcus Sedgwick's Printz Award-winning novel Midwinterblood was another book that I ear-marked at the recent YA literature conference at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. It had been on my list for a few months, but talking to other teachers and librarians who had just read it gave me the extra push to add it to a big Amazon order.

I have been following Sedgwick's work since I read My Swordhand is Swinging, which was by far the most frightening vampire book I had ever, and have ever, read. Even though I love other books with a vampire theme - I read Anne Rice through middle and high school, loved Holly Black's The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and ripped through the Twilight Saga - nothing has never come as close to instilling that exact brand of terror that Sedgwick's does. I think it was in part its Medieval/1600s setting, the Black Woods feel, and the complete lack of romance that nudges its fear factor into a new territory. It was an incredible book, and I still recommend it as a solid October/Halloween read.

So Midwinterblood was certainly on my radar, not just because of Sedgwick, but also because the book won the Printz Award this year, and I am always a sucker for a Printz Award winner or Honor book.

Structurally, Midwinterblood is an impeccable story. It begins in the near future of 2073 as Eric Seven journeys to the remote island of Blessed in order to research and write a journalist feature. The inhabitants of Blessed are said to live lives longer than anywhere else in the world, and Eric sets out to discover their secret. But when he arrives, he starts to feel a strange sense of deja vu, and he feels as if he recognizes a local woman named Merle. He's seen her face before, and he believes that if he could only remember, he could make everything make sense. Eric Seven's story is short, spanning just enough time to give readers a sense of the island and the characters who will keep reappearing throughout subsequent stories. Because these stories are linked, starting in 2073 and counting backwards to 2011, 1944, 1902, 1848, the 10th century, and then to "Time unknown." Eric and Merle (and other residents of Blessed) are characters in every story, although their ages change, their relationship to one another changes, and history reconstructs accordingly.

I was more and more engaged as time moved backwards and the story of Eric and Merle developed, nuanced, and formed into a centuries long love story (and what various kinds of love are showcased, spanning different permutations of relationships and family). My favorite story is a story within a story: in "The Unquiet Grave", a new caretaker is telling a bedtime story to a pair of children, who listen raptly, slowly understanding that the story they hear is a ghostly, heartbreaking one. Another, "The Painter," is about a child's relationship to a painter who lives in a remote part of the island that she walks to with her mother:
They set off for home, taking a different way back.
'I always prefer a walk that goes in a circle,' Bridget explained to her daughter. 'Don't you?'
Merle hadn't thought about this before.
'I don't know. I think I like there-and-back walks too.' (136)
As their souls reunite in different ways, Eric and Merle live out a collection of lives that fit into a series of stories. The mystery of their rebirth is told in part through all of the stories, although Eric feels their connection more than he can explain it:
Maybe he knows nothing. Maybe it's just that he feels it all, but whatever is happening to him, he understands that he lived before. He lived other lives, in different times. And why not? It's something he has often wondered about, sitting on the train in the morning, looking from the corner of  his eye at the other commuters, wondering why.
Why am I not living that person's life? That man, there, with the sharp suit and the slightly stupid tie? Or that scruffy guy with his headphones? Or that woman, a little pregnant? (259)
While the book is devoid of a solid teenage character, it sits comfortably as YA lit, and won one of the most prestigious awards for that category of literature. But it is a book for everybody, a good crossover choice that teenagers and adults would enjoy equally. It's appeal as a text to use in high school English classes was clear in my edition: there are a series of reading and discussion questions at the end that emphasize its "teach-ability" and just how much is layered throughout. For structure alone and the way these stories and their characters interact with one another, it makes an excellent text for a high school classroom. But outside of the classroom, what is the draw for teenage readers?

Perhaps it is the remarkable emphasis on storytelling, and the way that it circles through time periods. I keep returning to the story that comes mid-point in the book, my favorite, "The Unquiet Grave." It's the story-within-a-story format that seems so YA, layered deep and necessitating some active reading for full immersion. It reminded me of the Sandman volume by Neil Gaiman World's End, that layers stories within one another. That format desires a sustained attention, one that trusts that the author will lead a reader out from under the structural layers without losing the story. And teens, more than anyone, are willing to invest in story, especially one that will carry them to the center of it, and then gently show them the way out.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Who Am I? 4 Books About Amnesia and Forgetting

Amnesia is the focus of so many young adult and adult books - describing a character's identity is one thing, but what happens when that character doesn't know who they are either? These four books detail amnesia, forgetting, and memory.

1. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin
When Naomi runs back into her high school to retrieve a yearbook camera, she falls down the cement steps and hits her head hard enough that she gets amnesia. As if being a teenager wasn't hard enough, now Naomi has to figure out who she used to be, and discover who she is now. There are hints about her past along the way - a food diary in her bedroom, birth control pills in her nightstand - but Naomi has to decide if she wants to be her past self, or instead become someone new. 

2. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
After having a fall, almost forty-year-old Alice thinks she's twenty-nine, still married to her husband Nick, pregnant with their first child, and blissfully in love. Instead, the reality is that she and Nick are separated, she has three children, and she is in a new relationship. The last ten years of her life have simply disappeared. Moriarty is an exceptional writer, and Alice is interesting, intriguing, and at times heartbreaking as she negotiates her old life and her new one.  

3. Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss
Before The History of Love, Krauss wrote Man Walks into a Room, in which a man doesn't remember anything about himself. Samson Greene is found in the desert near Las Vegas, unsure of who he is. When he is finally reunited with his wife, he learns that he's an English professor at Columbia, and that a tumor is applying pressure on his brain. 

4. Being Henry David by Cal Armistead
Being Henry David is a YA novel about a teenager who wakes up at Grand Central Station with no idea who he is. The only clue to his identity is a copy of Thoreau's Walden, which he is reticent to part with. Somewhere in the book, he believes, is the key to who he is, and the reason for the feeling of dread he can't escape. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

Because I am currently working on my PhD in English through the University of Alberta, I get to make up lots of excuses to read books that I might not have otherwise read. Part of my dissertation is on Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman's Why We Broke Up, a book about the break-up of two teenagers named Min Green and Ed Slaterton. Min is writing Ed a novel-length letter and is dropping off a box full of items on his front doorstep: an umbrella, bottle caps, movie tickets, and more (much is accumulated over the course of a relationship). And she's telling the story of how these items contributed to their break up. When I was working on a dissertation chapter about the book, I ordered a box of books by both Handler and Kalman. Although I've pretty much exhausted the Lemony Snicket publications (one of the first book reviews I ever wrote was for the first three books of A Series of Unfortunate Events), the only book I'd ever read that was authored under Daniel Handler's real name was Why We Broke Up. So I loved putting some other books in an Amazon basket, receiving the shipment in the mail, and then reading a pile of great books.

One of those books was The Basic Eight, which was Handler's first novel, published in 1998. I don't know what I was expecting - Handler writes in such a varying voice in all of his publications, from A Series of Unfortunate Events to Why We Broke Up - but The Basic Eight went above them all. What a book! It had something in common with Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as well as some of the feeling of E. Lockhart's new We Were Liars. It's something to do with the privilege, the absent parents, and the intelligent, caring, precocious teen characters that links these books together. 

Protagonist Flannery Culp is recounting her senior year of high school, journal entry-style, and what a disastrous year it was. She begins on the wrong foot when she travels to Italy for the summer, and sends a regrettable series of letters and postcards to Adam, a boy at her high school. The last one, scribbled on the back of a postcard, is the one that begins all the trouble during her senior year, and it's also the one she wants to take back. She writes to him, "Listen what my letters have been trying to tell you is that I love you and I mean real love that can surpass all the dreariness of high school we both hate, I get back from Italy late on the night of the Saturday the 4th call me Sunday. This isn't just the wine talking" (5). When she gets back home, Adam doesn't call. But everyone knows that someone has been sending him crazy love letters all summer. And Flannery isn't about to admit to that.

Flannery is building up to telling us about the night in October when everything changed, when the tabloids started calling her a murderer, and began inviting her friends on day time television programs to talk about Flannery and her mental state. It's a hilarious book at times; devastating at others, especially as Flannery begins to crack, and her memory splinters. There's a Fight Club/The Bell Jar revelation near the end of this brilliant book, one that puts everything in question, and complicates Flannery further.

Then there are the stylistic choices that Handler has added. He ends some chapters in an SAT-style format, with questions interrogating the content of Flannery's writing, and a vocabulary list of words she's used. Handler asks readers to think critically about Flannery's account, and to start questioning her veracity long before Flannery attempts to. I loved The Basic Eight. Next on my Daniel Handler reading list: Adverbs and Watch Your Mouth.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

The first book I read by Kate DiCamillo was Because of Winn-Dixie, a book about a young girl named Opal who moves to Naomi, Florida with her preacher father. When she goes to the local Winn-Dixie grocery store, she acquire a big, messy, lovable dog that she names accordingly; Winn-Dixie, who becomes her key to belonging to the new town. It's a beautiful book with a brilliant voice. And Scholastic's website for the book is so interactive, allowing readers to explore the town with book excerpts and through reader's theater. Kate DiCamillo is one of a handful of writers who writes a powerful story set in the southern United States (along with Kathi Appelt and Kimberly Willis Holt). But since Because of Winn-Dixie, I haven't read much more by DiCamillo, even though I loved that story so much. 

This year's Newberry Award wining Flora & Ulysses changed all that, and has made DiCamillo hit the top of my list again for summer reading. I'm a little late to reading Flora & Ulysses, which came out in 2013. It was published by Candlewick Press (based out of Sommerville, MA), which has developed into one of my favorite publishers of books for young people over the past several years. It's a hybrid novel, alternating between text and image, and that image alternates between a one-page illustration and several comic book style panels. 

Flora consistently draws on her knowledge of comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!, which she reads obsessively and shares with her father. When she witnesses a squirrel getting sucked up into a Ulysses vacuum cleaner that has gone out of control (a present from her next door neighbor to his wife, one she is not thrilled about), Flora utilizes what she's learned from comic books to determine what to do next. 

The encounter with the vacuum cleaner has utterly changed the squirrel, who Flora dubs "Ulysses" after the vacuum cleaner. For one thing, he can fly. For another, he has super strength. And finally, he can write poetry, which he composes at night on the typewriter that belongs to Flora's romance-novel-writing mother: "Poetry. He liked the word - its smallness, its density, the way it rose up at the end as if it had wings" (76). Ulysses, Flora determines, is a superhero. 

The book follows Flora and Ulysses on an unconventional adventure, populated by heroes and villains, sidekicks and supporters. The villain, for example, turns out to be Flora's mother, who wants nothing to do with the squirrel. In fact, she designates the job of "disposing" of the squirrel to Flora's father, who unwillingly takes a sack and a shovel from his ex-wife:
"There's a squirrel," repeated her father.
"The squirrel is not well."
"There's an unwell squirrel."
"There's a sack in the garage. And a shovel."
"Okay," said Flora's father. "There's a sack and a shovel. In the garage."
At this point, there was a very long silence.
"I need you to put the squirrel out of its misery," said Flora's mother.
"How's that?" said her father.
"For the love of Pete, George!" shouted her mother. "Put the squirrel in the sack, and then hit him over the head with the shovel."
Flora's father gasped. (73)
DiCamillo is so good at making devastating moments poetic, quiet, and adaptable. Like the fact that Flora's parents are divorced. Flora lives with her mother, and sees her father at scheduled times. He lives in an apartment building owned by Mr. Klaus, the landlord, and his evil cat, also Mr. Klaus. For example, Flora's recantation of the moment when her parents discussed getting their divorce,
Flora: Are you and Mom getting divorced?
Flora's Father: Who says we're getting divorced?
Flora: Mom.
Flora's Father: Is that what she said?
Flora: That's what she said.
Flora's Father: I wonder why she said that.
And then he started to cry. (86-7)
And all the while, the overarching structure of a comic book ties it all together. At times, Flora imagines words floating over characters' heads, speech balloons and narrative exposition just like in the comic books she reads. At other times, we see Ulysses flying through the air, showing his strength, or battling with the cat, Mr. Klaus. I wish it hadn't taken me quite so long to get to this book, but coming now, right before the summer, gives me a chance to revisit DiCamillo over the next few months and read a few of her other books that I may have missed. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira was a title recommended on Amazon after I placed my last order. And, unfortunately, it was too late to go back and add it to my shipment, so I had to wait until I could pick up a copy at Chapters last week. While YA authors Laurie Halse Anderson, Jay Asher, Gayle Forman, Siobhan Vivian, and Lauren Myracle supply blurbs for the back cover of the book, I was more interested by the blurb that appears on the cover: The Perks of Being a Wallflower author Stephen Chbosky's enthusiastic recommendation, "I simply loved this book. Love Letters to the Dead is more than a stunning debut. It is the announcement of a bold new literary voice." I don't think I've read a book like The Perks of Being a Wallflower until I read Love Letters to the Dead. The similarities are astounding, and one of the easiest book recommendations for a teen reader who liked Perks would be Love Letters. And while Perks's Charlie writes his letters to a friend, Love Letters's Laurel addresses her letters to dead musicians and celebrities including Judy Garland, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and Heath Ledger. Honestly, at times it seems as if the only difference between Perks and Love Letters is the gender of the protagonist: Charlie is male, Laurel female.

Laurel's impetus for writing her letters comes from a high school English assignment at her new school: her teacher, Mrs. Buster, asks the class to write one letter to a dead person. Laurel completes the assignment - she addresses her first letter to Kurt Cobain - but she doesn't hand it in. The letters are too personal, and they get to the heart of what happened to her older sister May a few months before. She died, and Laurel was with her when it happened. Laurel's letters are specific to her relationship with May, to her experience at her new school (she started at a high school in her Aunt Amy's zone, so she wouldn't have to attend the same high school that May had), and her new friends and relationships. One of these relationships, and maybe the most important to Laurel, is with Sky, an older boy at school who has the Jordan Catalano vibe going on (many of the exchanges between the two read like a script from My So-Called Life, and so if you're missing that show, this might be the book for you). This book feels so much like a 1990s book (like Perks was), that I was thrown every time there was a contemporary reference, like to Amy Winehouse, or to The Dark Knight, and other pop culture in the last few years. It has the feel of something older, more nostalgic and plaid-covered.

Dellaira's writing shines throughout, especially her descriptions of Laurel's anxiety, depression, and uncertainty since her sister died. For example, Laurel describes, "My heart was about to spring out of my chest. I was trying hard to keep it in, because I didn't want it to land on the asphalt at her feet, next to the golden ring someone had dropped in the crack. And I really didn't want to cry" (200-201). Or when she is writing to Heath Ledger, and expressing how his death affected her:
I first got to know you from that movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and I always remember that scene where you jump up on the bleachers and sing "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" to the whole girls' soccer team to capture the heart of the girl you like. But after that, even though you got a lot of offers, you wouldn't do any more teen movies. Instead, you ate ramen noodles in your apartment and waited. You didn't just want to be famous, you wanted to be true to yourself. And eventually you got more roles, better ones, and you became the kind of grownup that made growing up seem okay, like you don't have to lose your spirit in order to get older. You became the kind of father that any daughter would have wanted to have. When they found you in your apartment, dead from too many pills, I really did think it was an accident. I don't think you meant to go. (210)
Laurel weaves her own story of loss with that of celebrities and musicians: those who have lost, have been lost, and have become the loss in others' lives.

I'm usually a reader who always wants more at the end of a book, an extra chapter, an epilogue, or an afterword. But I found myself wishing that Love Letters to the Dead ended without an epilogue, and had stopped instead with the hopeful, if inconclusive, last words, "I know I wrote letters to people with no address on this earth. I know you are dead. But I hear you. I hear all of you. We were here. Our lives matter" (313). The epilogue undoes the careful work of the series of letters, and although Laurel carries with the theme (the epilogue is a letter to another dead person, her sister May), there was something simple yet heartbreaking in the anonymity of Laurel's letters, addressed to Jim Morrison and Judy Garland, that I didn't feel in the same way when May became the addressee. I liked the uncertain hope that Laurel ended with before the epilogue, the understanding that things would be different, but that she would keep on going and living and hoping regardless.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

I think I can count on one hand the number of times that I've bought a book at an airport, even though I travel pretty frequently. I usually travel with a bag of books, and running out of something to read doesn't happen too often. But major delays on two flights recently meant that I ended up in one of the Houston Airport bookstores just a few days after the release of Stephen King's new book Mr. Mercedes.

Mr. Mercedes starts off with a conversation between two strangers standing in line for a job fair at the City Center - a man and a woman with her baby. They're early  - and desperate - and so even though the job fair doesn't start until the morning, there is a long snaking line of unemployed hopefuls taking their position in the middle of the night. The first few in, they think, are guaranteed jobs. But they don't ever make it inside. A grey Mercedes crashes into the lineup, killing eight people and maiming many others. It's a horrific scene, so shocking in the moment that no one sees where the Mercedes goes after, and no one ever finds the man who perpetrated the massacre.

The book picks up years later and focuses on Bill Hodges, the retired detective who was investigating the the "Mr. Mercedes" case. He's been spending the long days of his retirement sitting in front of the TV and putting on weight. He's also considering committing suicide. He's come to understand that his life isn't going to get any better, and it isn't going to change. That is, until he receives a letter in the mail from the self-described Mr. Mercedes, taunting Bill out of retirement. His lengthy letter is filled with typos, evidence that he was the one who drove the Mercedes into the line at the City Center, and an admission that he has no desire to kill anyone again. But Bill Hodges is not so sure.

The letter is just enough to bring him out of his retirement, and to begin making inquiries into the case, reopening it on his own terms, and his own time. It's a detective novel at its heart, although there are still queasy instances of the horror that King is so well-versed in. Bill is soon joined by some unlikely allies, and together they work to bring Mr. Mercedes down before he can instigate another massacre.

I really enjoyed Mr. Mercedes. It was the perfect airplane book, compelling and horrifying, and I finished it just a few days after I got home. One of my favorite parts of the book came at the end, when Bill Hodges identifies a roadie who's wearing a Judas Coyne t-shit: Coyne, the protagonist of Heart-Shaped Box is one of my favorite characters in literature. And Coyne belongs to King's son, Joe Hill. I love that kind of intertextuality, when fictional characters cross over books, especially books by a father and his son. Mr. Mercedes was an incredibly satisfying read, and an unpredictable one.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner was another book that I was seeing pop up on many "best of" lists for 2013 (now you know how I get most of my book recommendations!). The cover art is stunning, and communicates succinctly the tone, content, and aesthetic of the story. 

The first thing you should know about These Broken Stars is that it's a boy-girl book. That is, it's told through two perspectives, and one of those perspectives belongs to a boy and the other to a girl, and they alternate chapter by chapter. The protagonists here are Lilac and Tarver. Laura and Tom McNeal's Crooked is one of my favorite books that does this, alternating chapters between a female and male protagonist. There is also a section running throughout that details Tarver's debriefing. These short, one-page sections are stacked between each perspective chapter, and they largely keep the mystery of the story alive as Tarver blatantly lies his way through his debriefing. The reader can clearly see the story taking Lilac and Tarver in one direction, while Tarver makes sure to revise the narrative during his interview. 

Tarver begins the story. He is traveling on board the Icarus, a huge spaceship that can hold up to 50,000 people. And it's packed to the brim. Although Tarver would never find himself on such a luxurious ship in any other moment in his life, his circumstances have changed recently and made him of interest to the rich, powerful, and influential. He is considered a war hero, even though he is still a teenager. He returned home a decorated soldier, and was given passage on the new ship as a reward. He observes those around him, and acutely understands that he still stands apart from everyone else traveling on the Icarus. For example, different from Lilac LaRoux, daughter of the most powerful man in (seemingly) the explored universe. When Tarver fails to recognize her as such, he ends up having a frank and genuine conversation with Lilac on board the ship. She's charmed by him much more than she expects to be, and the two find themselves drawn inexplicably to one another. Lilac is on board the ship because her father designed and built it.

The setting is gorgeous, especially when Tarver sets the scene in the first few pages:
For all their trendy Victorian tricks, there's no hiding where we are. Outside the viewpoints, the stars are like faded white lines, half-invisible, surreal. The Icarus, passing through dimensional hyperspace, would look just as faded, half-transparent, if someone stationary in the universe could somehow see her moving faster than light. (3)
Their time on the Icarus does not last. The book basically takes on the Titanic meets sci-fi, as the Icarus inevitably goes down, slipping out of hyperspace and crashing on a deserted, mysterious planet. Tarver and Lilac are the only survivors (Lilac saves them both by showing off her electrical skills when they are hurtling toward the planet in an escape pod). The planet is not like any other planet that Tarver has been on, and his military duty has taken him to plenty. It's not terraformed in the way that he's used to; in fact, growth on the planet has been accelerated, and there are plants and large animals that shouldn't be here. As they journey across the planet - seeking out the fallen Icarus - they find out that the planet holds a secret deeper and darker than they could have imagined, one that might prevent them from ever returning home. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

When I saw The Fault in Our Stars last week, there were about a handful of trailers beforehand, most of them based on YA novels. The Maze Runner was one, and If I Stay was another. The thing about trailers is they tell you a little bit about the movie you're seeing: it's like Amazon's "if you like this, then you'll like THIS." The movie equivalent uses trailers, suggesting that if The Fault in Our Stars is your thing, then maybe two other YA books to movies will appeal, too. Sometimes it backfires. I'm always so worried when there are a slew of trailers before a movie that I think are nothing like the movie I'm seeing, but someone thinks they are, so maybe the movie I'm seeing isn't really what I think it is?

I'd never read Forman's If I Stay, even though it came out a few years ago, and so the movie trailer functioned like a book trailer. The movie comes out in August, so I figured I had some time to read the book before I'd go to see the movie. I ended up downloading If I Stay as an audio book. It clocks in at five hours, about the same length as John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. It's read by Kirsten Potter, who transitions between the present and the past, as protagonist Mia moves back and forth through time. 

The book starts out on a snow day, a lazy, stay inside weekday that Mia, her brother Teddy, and her parents take off. They live in Oregon, where even the slightest dusting of snow constitutes school closure (Mia's father is a teacher, and it's not hard to convince her mom to skip with them, too). After a big, greasy breakfast, they get in their car and drive to visit their grandparents. Only, on their way there they get in a horrific car accident that kills Mia's mother and father instantly. Mia wakes up by the side of the road and stands up, apparently untouched. But then she spots her own body by the highway, and she sees the paramedics arrive and attend to her. She watches the aftermath of the accident, and follows her body to the hospital, into surgery, and then into the ICU.

While she keeps track of her body in the hospital, Mia recalls her relationship with the most important people in her life - her mom, dad, brother Teddy, boyfriend Adam, and best friend Kim - entering elaborate flashbacks that compose her life before the accident. Only 24 hours pass between the beginning of the book and the ending, and these flashbacks provide the bulk of the novel. Mia's memory is meant to help her make a decision, and to decide whether or not she will let go of life. 

I loved listening to this book in particular through audio book format. Mia's grand question is whether she will stay - living on while her family is gone - or if she will let go. It's the kind of book that I would rush through to get to the resolution at the ending. Pacing is my favorite aspect of audio books - there's no rushing ahead, there's no accidentally flipping to the last page and reading the last line. Audio books facilitate moving through the story at an even, steady, contemplative pace. Which is the reason I have balked against them for so long - I like the freedom of skim-reading a page. Now, it's the reason I'm looking forward to continuing to download and listen to audio books. As well, Mia's passion for playing the cello is at the heart of the book, and her growth as a musician. One of the benefits of the audio book format is that cello music was utilized between chapters, emphasizing the sound that Mia was so drawn to. 

If I Stay will be released later this summer as a movie, and you can view the trailer here:

Friday, June 13, 2014

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

There is nothing better for book recommendations than a conference on YA literature. While I was in Baton Rouge, LA last week, I kept a running list of book titles and authors on my phone, adding five or six books to it every day. The YA lit conference at LSU was composed of two keynotes each day presented by an author and an academic, a selection of workshops in the mornings, and breakout sessions in the afternoon. All of these options for learning about and engaging with YA lit were compounded by author readings and receptions in the evenings. My list grew, and on the penultimate day of the conference I put together a sizable Amazon order, timing it right so I'd get home to a big box of books.

E. Lockhart's We Were Liars was by far the most talked about book at the conference. It was cheer-leaded most enthusiastically by conference organizer and professor Dr. Steve Bickmore, and it was one of the first books that made the shift from Amazon Wishlist to Amazon Order when I had a chance to act on all of the recommendations. I read We Were Liars in one sitting, and finished it late last night. 

We Were Liars takes place on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts, anchored by four family estates: Clairmont, Red Gate, Cuddledown, and Windemere. The island belongs to the Sinclairs, an old and moneyed family that summers together, traveling in from New York, Burlington, VT, and Cambridge, MA. Harris Sinclair oversees his family: his three daughters and their collection of dogs and children. Cadence (Cady for short) is Harris's oldest granddaughter, and she recounts the summers from when she was fourteen to seventeen on the island. The summer provides the only opportunity for her to reconnect with her two cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, an almost cousin (his father is in a new relationship with Johnny's mother). Together, the four of them are the Liars.

Their lives are opulent, their summer lives even more so. Lockhart details the rich food and drink served by nameless staff, the endless games of tennis, access to private beaches and long stretches of ocean, and huge houses filled with expensive and beautiful things. Cady's descriptions of life on the island are engrossing and poetic: "That first night, I cried and bit my fingers and drank wine I snuck from the Clairmont pantry. I spun violently into the sky, raging and banging stars from their moorings, swirling and vomiting" (16). She captures the untouchable mythology of the Sinclair family, the stories that are told and retold and whispered about them, the Sinclairs, and the summer of her fifteenth year when everything changed. 

We Were Liars often feels timeless, even though there are technological markers - iPhones and iPads - that set it firmly in the present. Lockhart communicates a sense of out-of-place and out-of-time, using the mythology of the Sinclairs and fairy tale structures to make the island a place removed. And then there is another device that reminds readers of the contemporaneity of the book. So often YA books have references to the classics in them: books like Perks of Being a Wallflower, where Charlie's English teachers passes him titles such as The Great Gatsby, Naked Lunch, and Catcher in the Rye. The references validate canonical texts, and acknowledge that teens reading YA books could also read the classics. But something different happens in We Were Liars. The books that are referenced throughout - those that Cady and her cousins are reading - are not only classics, although Tom Sawyer, Being and Nothingness, and others are there. They are contemporary, they are YA, they are popular titles for teenage readers. While Diana Wynne Jones makes an appearance - Cady gives away her copy of Charmed Life - I was more interested in the presence of Australian author Jaclyn Moriarty. Gat gives Cady a Jaclyn Moriarty book ("I'd been reading her all summer") and inscribes it with "For Cady with everything, everything. Gat" (116). References like these validate YA literature, and acknowledge that teens reading We Were Liars may also have read Jaclyn Moriarty. 

I loved We Were Liars. It reminded me of Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight, which I haven't written about yet but I'm planning to, and The Bell Jar, a strange mix of reality and non-reality barely distinguished from one another.  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

I had been hearing about Robyn Schneider's The Beginning of Everything since January - it was appearing on all of the "best of" YA book lists from 2013, its bright yellow cover page with a winding orange roller coaster always standing out as a visual synopsis of what was between the covers. I bought it just a few days before leaving for Louisiana and the YA lit conference at Louisiana State University. I was thinking that there was no better book to read in anticipation on a conference that was all about books for teenagers than something like The Beginning of Everything. But my sister beat me to it. She started reading it a day before I left, and she insisted that there was no way to put it down after starting it. She said, "A kid gets decapitated a Disneyland, and you can't really leave it on that kind of cliffhanger." True. So I waited a week, and then read it almost in one sitting. 

There's definitely a reason that the book has the alternate UK title of Severed Heads, Broken Hearts...

The Beginning of Everything really does start off with a decapitation at Disneyland. Ezra Faulkner goes to Disneyland with his best friend Toby Ellicott, Toby's mother's attempt at rocketing her misfit son into middle school popularity by sending a group of his "friends" there for his birthday party. When they get there, they go on the Thunder Mountain Railroad, a runaway-train-style roller coaster. Toby and Ezra sit in the back of the car, while the rest of the group sits in the front, and so when a 14-year-old boy from Japan stands up in his seat just before the train careens through a "low-ceilinged tunnel" and he is instantly decapitated, it affects Toby and Ezra differently than their other friends, 
What the news reports didn't say was how the kid's head sailed backward in its mouse-ear hat like some sort of grotesque helicopter, and how Toby Ellicott, on his twelfth birthday, caught the severed head and held on to it in shock for the duration of the ride. (3)
Ezra's point in rehashing this story is that he believes that everyone has a moment in his/her life that changes everything. A personal tragedy, and after which, everything that is going to happen is going to happen. Disneyland was Toby's tragedy - after it happened, he became an outcast; Ezra became popular and the two drifted apart. But The Beginning of Everything focuses on Toby's tragedy. After catching his girlfriend cheating on him at a party in his junior year of high school, Ezra leaves abruptly and is hit by a car that has blasted through a stop sign. He ends up in the hospital, his knee completely shattered, necessitating his use of a cane throughout his senior year at high school. Most importantly, the accident destroys his tennis career: its the reason he's popular at high school, the reason he has the friends that he does, and the way he's convinced he'll get into a good college. His life is changed utterly, and he starts his last year of school in a very different place from where he ended his junior year. The accident, he's convinced, is his personal tragedy.

What it does, however, is unwittingly bring him and Toby back together as friends. He ends up joining the debate team, the one that Toby heads, and joining Toby's group of friends at lunch instead of sitting with his own - athletes, jocks, and the popular girls (including his ex-girlfriend). And in joining the debate team, he meets Cassidy Thorpe, a new girl at school who has an unclear past. Cassidy used to debate, although she insists she won't do it anymore. Instead, she wants to help Ezra get better at it, and so the two become friends as Cassidy tries to teach Toby just how, exactly, to drop in quotations from canonical novels and poetry into his debates:
"There's this poem," Cassidy finally said, "by Mary Oliver. And I used to write a line from it in all of my school notebooks to remind myself that I didn't have to be embarrassed of the past and afraid of the future. And it helped. So I'm giving it to you. The line is, 'Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?'" (114)
Ezra finds out who he is in the aftermath of his own personal tragedy, and begins to navigate the space between his past and future - two very different sides of a coin. He goes on overnight debate trips; flashes Morse code out his window to Cassidy, who lives across the park; avoids his ex-girlfriend; and ultimately learns what it means to recover and move on. As Ezra describes near the end of the book, "I wondered what things became when  you no longer needed them, and I wondered what the future would hold once we'd gotten past our personal tragedies and proven them ultimately survivable" (333). There's no question of why this book was considered a "best of 2013" on so many lists. An interesting and surprising premise (I can't think of any book ever that has started out with a Disneyland decapitation) evolves into the meaning of tragedy, change, and moving on, as Ezra Faulkner leads readers through his truly transformative senior year of high school.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick

I was introduced to author Matthew Quick through the movie adaptation of his adult novel, The Silver Linings Playbook. I still haven't read that book, although I've slowly been making my way through his other publications since January: Boy 21; The Good Luck of Right Now; Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock; and now Sorta Like a Rock Star. I was lucky enough to see Quick speak at the NCTE Conference in Boston last fall, and while two of his new YA book were on sale at the conference, it's taken me a bit longer to get a hold of Sorta Like a Rock Star (only one Chapters bookstore in all of Alberta has ever had a copy show up as being in stock - in Edmonton - and I finally just ordered it in from Amazon this week). 

Sorta Like a Rock Star is about seventeen-year-old Amber Appleton, a high school student living with her mom in a big yellow school bus nicknamed Hello Yellow. Their belongings are stuffed into garbage bags and stowed in the space under the bus. Amber's mother is a school bus driver, working four hours a day on the school bus route, and then going out to the bars at night. Her mission? To meet a man who will take in her and her daughter, since her last boyfriend ("A-hole Oliver") kicked them both out of his apartment months ago. Luckily, Amber can take some refuge at Donna and Ricky's house - Donna is a high-power lawyer that Amber emulates (she wants to go to Bryn Mawr like Donna did), and Ricky is her son, who is autistic. Ricky is one of Amber's friends, and together (with three other high school boys), they form "Franks Freak Force Federation," named after Mr. Franks, whose marketing classroom at the high school is a refuge for them.

Amber makes the most of her life, following a daily routine that takes her first to Donna's house to shower and make breakfast, and then to school, and then to either visit the Korean Divas for Christ, to battle Joan of Old at the Methodist Retirement Home, or to take her dog, BBB, to visit Ms. Jenny, the small Italian Greyhound that belongs to Vietnam war vet Private Jackson. 

Amber expresses missing her absent father - Bob - who disappeared from her and her mother's life when she was still a baby. And despite her relentless hope and optimism, she is never far from understanding the devastation of her situation:
I cry a lot when I am alone, probably because I am a chick and all, but maybe because I'm not strong like Donna, and I think about stuff too much - like, for example, sometimes I get this idea that my dad has really been watching over me the past seventeen years sorta like a guardian angel or something, only he's really alive and waiting for me to earn the right to have a dad. and once he sees me doing enough good, he's going to run up behind me and surprise me with a big old fatherly hug, picking me up off the ground and spinning me around like in the damn movies. Sometimes, after I have done something pretty kick-ass, I turn around really quickly, because I sorta believe that he might be there ready to hug me. But he never is. (87)
When Amber's tentative hold on her rocky life flails - her life changed utterly one night - she has to rediscover what hope is, and find a way back to her radical optimism. Quick's book bounces back and forth between funny and sad, placing Amber at the center of this story to conduct readers' emotions as they react to her life, her homelessness, her hope.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

YA Sync, Audio Books, and YA Literature

I recently attended and presented at an amazing conference on YA lit at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I love opportunities to meet up with other teachers, librarians, and students who LOVE YA lit, and share their interest in it by passing on information, book recommendations, and teaching strategies. Teri Lesesne provided one of the most intriguing recommendations for staying on top of YA lit this summer in her keynote address for the conference. She talked about YA Sync, a project designed to "sync YA literature into your headphones."

Basically, every week throughout the summer months, YA Sync releases two audio books a week for download: one is a YA title, and the other is an adult, canonical title. The two audio books are free to listen to, although you do have to download a (free) audio book platform on your phone, iPad, or computer. 

This week, Cristin Terrill's All Our Yesterdays is paired with an audio production of Julius Caesar. I received a copy of Terrill's book at the ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE) Conference in Boston last fall, along with a number of other books that I've been reading since then. But I haven't gotten to Terrill's book yet, but the novelty of carrying the audio for it around on my iPhone has made it so much more accessible to get to right now. 

Generally, I haven't listened to many audio books. When I was in undergrad, I would listen to M.C. Beaton's murder mysteries while I was going on long runs, but I think I only made it through about three or four books before I switched to music. When I accidentally forgot to cancel my free one-month subscription of Audible, I ended up having credits for five free audio books. I bought as many of Neil Gaiman's as I could, since his reading voice is remarkable, and I've listened to each of them once. I also bought Emma Forest's Your Voice in My Head, a memoir I devoured in one sitting, and have listened to about three times since on audio. But still, the books I purchased as audio books were all books that I had read in print form first. I had never chosen audio book format over print book. 

Cue John Green and The Fault in Our Stars. I was so excited to read Green's book when it was published in 2012, that I flew through it. I did Harry Potter-style reading, the kind where you fly through because you know the story is going to be that good. And, as a result, I missed a lot of detail, because I think Green's books are meant to be read more slowly, or at least I find I read them better when I take my time. Just months later, my friends would talk about certain parts in the book, and I would have no idea what they were talking about. I couldn't remember hardly anything about it. So three months ago, I started listening to The Fault in Our Stars as an audio book, and it completely changed my experience of the story. I couldn't speed read through - I had to follow the pace of the reader. When I went to see the movie when it came out this past weekend, I remembered so much more, and was able to anticipate all the good, important parts. I loved the experience of listening to it as audio. 

Now I've started If I Stay by Gayle Forman, a book I've been meaning to read for a while now, but have just never picked up at the library or bookstore. Now it's keeping me company on all of my commutes, and I'm flying through it - without missing anything. 

I'm anticipating so many of the YA Sync books that are going to be released this summer. Next week it's Elizabeth Wein's WWII novel Code Name Verity and a few weeks after that we're getting Matthew Quick's Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I loved both of these books, and I'm so excited to have a reader navigate me through the structure of Quick's novel, which is almost equally composed of prose and footnotes. 

But I'm also excited for all of the books that I haven't read yet, because it means I get to encounter them for the first time through audio.You can find the summer schedule here, so you don't miss any over the next few months.