Sunday, April 10, 2016

Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House by David Mitchell is a fantastic work of horror set between the 1970s and the present. Although I've never read The Bone Clocks (the only other Mitchell book I've read is Black Swan Green), Slade House is meant to be a companion novel, and Guardian reviewer Liz Jensen writes, "Think The Bone Clocks’s naughty little sister in a fright wig, brandishing a sparkler, yelling 'Boo!'" I read Slade House a couple of months ago, but only thought to write about it now. Last night I was reading Kenneth Oppel's new middle grade novel, The Nest, a gothic horror story, and it reminded me so much of Slade House. I remember thinking that Slade House read a lot like YA, and then it turned out that a middle grade novel jogged my memory of it. 

Mitchell's latest work is a ghost story, one set in the gothic Slade House, an aging mansion that only appears once every nine years. Interconnected stories take place in 1979, 1988, 1997, 2006, and 2015, and focus on characters such as a young boy, a police officer, a female college student, and a reporter. Slade House lures in a new victim through its small iron door that branches off of Slade Alley. It's only discoverable when it needs to be, and when its time for someone new to come inside. Two ghosts, twin siblings, orchestrate elaborate fantasies inside Slade House, choosing a narrative that is most likely to draw in the person they are looking for. The stories offer the reader a variation on a theme, and while the first story seemed very Neil Gaiman-esque, the tone changes with each nine-year cycle. 

While I always associate October with horror - and it's probably when I read most of the horror novels I stock up - Slade House is the kind of book to read on a summer night, when you're sunburned and tired and mosquito-bitten, and it's dark outside later and later. It's also often a very funny novel, taking comedic turns and engaging with references, a combination that makes the novel extremely readable. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Haters by Jesse Andrews

Somehow, my branch of Canadian bookstore Chapters had a copy of Jesse Andrews's new novel The Haters last week, despite the fact that it's "book birthday" is today. But I didn't have an opportunity to start reading it until last night, and when I did, I read it all the way through, in-one-sitting style. The Haters is Andrews's sophomore novel, following up on the incredibly popular Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (and like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Haters already has a cinematic quality to it, and also experiments with the screenplay dialogue throughout. It's easy to imagine The Haters in movie form). 

The Haters focuses on best friends Wes and Corey, who are attending a two-week summer Jazz Camp. Chapter One is entitled, "We Didn't Know Jazz Camp Would Be This Many Dudes" and shows jazz camp orientation from Wes's perspective,
Dudes were trying with all their might to be mellow and cool. Everywhere you looked, a dude was making a way too exaggerated face of agreement or friendliness. And every ten seconds it was clear that some dude had made a joke in some region of the auditorium, because all the other dudes in that region were laughing at that joke in loud, emphatic ways.
They were trying to laugh lightheartedly but it was unmistakably the crazed, anxious barking of competitive maniacs. (1)
Jazz camp attendees have to audition for one of five bands that are ranked from most skilled to least skilled: the Duke Ellington band, the Count Basie band, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, the Woody Herman band, and the Gene Krupa band. Wes and Corey make Gene Krupa, along with one of the only girls at the camp. Ash (short for Ashely) is a guitarist, and Wes is immediately into her. Also in Gene Krupa is Tim, an annoying guitarist who Wes watches do a brilliant solo: "The most sensitive, brilliant mind in the room seemed to belong to an unignorable scumbag. But that should not have been surprising. That's just how the music world works a lot of the time" (30). Wes and Corey love music, and they love to hate on it. Wes's memory of Corey hating on Kool and the Gang is kind of heartbreaking; when Corey doesn't like the band that Wes absolutely loves, it kind of ruins his own love of it. 

Later, Wes and Corey leave the jazz camp campus with Ash to get high-end sushi after a successful jam session, and the three immediately get in trouble with the camp staff. After that, Ash has no trouble convincing Wes and Corey to leave with her and tour as a band across the southern states. Her rationale? "I do like jazz some of the time. But I don't think any of the jazz I like was played by someone who went to jazz camp" (37). They leave their phones behind at camp (so they can't be traced by GPS) and set off in Ash's mom's car looking to book a gig. What follows is their road trip into the southern states, and pages are crowded with their conversations. They debate band names (Air Horse, Thundergarment) and try to come up with a slogan ("work hard, play hard" is vetoed after Ash describes it as "the philosophy of being a relatively high-functioning alcoholic"). 

Like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Andrews experiments with form and style. Dialogue between Corey's mom and dad and then Wes's mom and dad duels on several pages. A "Courtship Initiation Sequence Checklist" occurs on page 261. Screenplay dialogue appears frequently, and these back-and-forths between Wes and Corey (and also Ash) are some of the funniest in the novel.

The Haters is the perfect read for when you're up late at night, and a little bit tired, so that all of the jokes and funny moments hit harder than they would in the daytime. The Haters is a really funny book, with laugh-out-loud moments as good as those Louise Rennison consistently delivered in her Georgia Nicolson series. I didn't know I was looking for a YA book about a band tour until Andrews wrote one. Other YA band books that come to mind are Don Calame's Beat the Band  and K. L. Going's Fat Kid Rules the World, but The Haters is a much different book from those. The music references are endless and cover a wide range of genres and styles, and many serve to root the contemporary setting. The Haters is a fantastic book, completely funny and entertaining. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner rotates between three primary characters - Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Dill's father is a local preacher who handles poisonous snakes and drinks arsenic with his congregation. He's recently been imprisoned; not for these unconventional practices, but instead for possession of child pornography. Dill is living in the aftermath of his father's crimes, saddled with the name of his father and the legacy of his grandfather, known as The Serpent King. While the novel is told from an omniscient point of view, Dill's story is the one that continuously comes into focus, and roots the direction of the narrative. At the beginning of the novel, he seems content to continue living in his small town for the rest of his life, paying down his parents' legal debts. But his aspirations soon grow wider, aided by Lydia's belief that he should attend college. When this new path is opened for him, he understands "nothing makes you feel more naked than someone identifying a desire you never knew you possessed" (82). Dill is hemmed in by the inescapable pressures of religion, and especially as embodied in his family. His mother doesn't want him to go to college and when Lydia asks him how it went when he finally tells her, he says, "And how do you think? She went, 'Sure, Dill, go off to college and have fun and learn about evolution and pay tuition and go to class instead of working, and I'll hold down the fort here and it'll be cool.' No. She crapped herself, obviously" (179). 

Lydia is ready to escape small-town Tennessee. Her dad is a dentist and she lives in one of the nicest houses in town, and has always had aspirations to leave the South behind her. Lydia spends much of her time working on her blog, Dollywould, which focuses on fashion and vintage clothes. Her interests are much different than those of her classmates. For example, she has a copy of Donna Tartt's The Secret History in her Prius, a car that she's nicknamed Al Gore. Later, she buys a secondhand copy of her favourite book, Patti Smith's Just Kids, at Riverbank, their favourite used and new bookstore. She reads The Diary of Anais Nin at their high school cafeteria table. Her path in life and her personal convictions are strengthened by viewing everything she knows she does not want out of life in the town that she was raised in. 

Travis was my favorite character. He reads to escape his small town and is obsessed with a Game of Thrones knockoff series called Bloodfall. He spends time on message boards dedicated to the series, and it's here that he meets a teenage girl named Amelia, who is as into the books as he is. Travis is an imposing teenager at 6 feet 6 inches and 250 pounds, and wears the same outfit nearly every day. Dill watches him leave his house to join him and Lydia on a trip to Nashville, observing, "He wore his signature black work boots, black wranglers, and baggy black dress shirt buttoned all the way up. Around his neck, he wore a necklace with a chintzy pewter dragon gripping a purple crystal ball - a memento from some Renaissance festival." He also carries a staff, which Lydia is constantly on his case about. He has a devastating home life; his brother Matt was killed in an explosion while serving in the U.S. Army and his father has become even more abusive since Matt's death. 

The Serpent King is an unexpected novel, one that gives readers characters to care about. Heartbreaking moments are mixed in with truly satisfying moments, as Dill, Lydia, and Travis consider what their lives will look like when they aren't trapped by their small town high school. It's been a while since I've read a novel the whole way through in one sitting, but that's what I did with The Serpent King. It's Zentner's debut novel, and I'm looking forward to watching for his next publication. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

I Crawl Through It by A. S. King

A. S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz is one of my favorite books, and I've tried to stay current with King's subsequent publications. The last one I read was Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, where protagonist Glory can see into the future after digesting a mummified bat. King's YA novels are stand-outs in this category of literature, and her newest novel, I Crawl Through It (2015) is no exception. 

Four characters are suffocating under anxieties associated with over-testing, bomb threats, school drills, and loss. There's Gustav, who is building an invisible helicopter in his garage, built from a $50,000 kit gifted to him by a character called the bush man. Stanzi is obsessed with dissections, and the book even includes a hand drawn diagram of a recent frog dissection that she's completed. She wears a lab coat every day, and is hopelessly in love with Gustav. China has recently turned herself inside out. She's a walking, talking organ, trying to figure out her life after being raped by her ex-boyfriend. Lansdale tells lies constantly, and her hair grows longer with every lie she tells (King describes it as the Pinocchio of hair). Her father keeps acquiring new wives (and stepmoms for Lansdale) and it's getting to be too much. 

King's novel dives into surrealism, as characters take on the metaphorical qualities of their anxieties and pressures. However, it is also deeply rooted in the reality of over-testing and high school violence and shootings, and King shows police dogs entering the school, alarms sounding, and students streaming out the building on a daily basis. For vacation, Stanzi's parents take her the sites of major violence, for example, to Columbine and Sandy Hook. 

China is a budding poet, and it's her poetry that also roots the novel in realism. When she thinking about Irenic Brown, the boy her raped her, she writes a poem called "Some Boys Have Tricks":
We believe them like
we believe the weatherman
when he predicts snow
and when he's wrong, we shrug
and blame ourselves for ever believing him. 
When the novel becomes overly surrealist, its teenage characters make comments that remind readers of their stark reality, and what it's like to be a teenager. Stanzi's parents, for example, are largely absent from the first three quarters of the novel. When Stanzi returns home from school, it's to the same note left for her in the kitchen: "Gone to bed. TV dinner in freezer. Make sure you turn out the lights." But her parents aren't really in bed. Stanzi doesn't reveal the reality of their location until a third of the way into the novel. She says, 
More specifically, they're at Chick's Bar, which is just down the street from our house. Two hundred and twelve steps, to be exact. Architects built the community this way. With bars. And playgrounds. They're near each other so parents can watch their kids fall off the swing set from their barstool and then try to sober up on the way to the hospital for clavicle X-rays.
King's novels are always surprising, innovative, and interesting, and I'm excited to see the follow up to I Crawl Through It.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

The first time I encountered writing by author Kekla Magoon, it was through her collaboration with Ilyasha Shabazz on X: A Novel, a YA novel based on Malcolm X's teenage years. X was a featured audiobook through Audiobook Sync last year, a program that pairs a YA and required reading title every week between May and August, and provides them free of charge for download. I enjoyed listening to X. It was an immediate story with language that was evocative of the time period - through the Great Depression and WWII. How It Went Down is the first novel I've read that is solely authored by Magoon. 

How It Went Down balances the perspectives of eighteen characters who are somehow affected by the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson by a white man, Jack Franklin. In the Reader's Guide at the back of the novel, Magoon noted that she initially had written from about thirty viewpoint characters, but limited these to eighteen as the drafts progressed. While some of the characters witnessed the shooting, no two perspectives are alike, and media reports further distort the differing versions of events. The novel was very reminiscent of other multiple perspective books like Siobhan Vivian's The List - which is related by eight high school girls who appear on a list posted at their school - or Karen Hesse's Witness - a verse novel that explores racism in a Vermont town in 1924, and the ways the townspeople are implicated in one way or another. How It Went Down is very contemporary in terms of its focus, and Magoon has stated that is does have a "ripped from the headlines quality to it." She continues, "Tariq Johnson's fictional death certainly bears similarity to Trayvon Martin's real-life murder, as well as dozens of other wrongful or controversial shootings have have occurring in recent years."

The novel focuses largely on a handful of teenage characters who knew Tariq. There's Jennica, who witnesses the shooting and attempts to resuscitate Tariq using CPR. Tina is Tariq's younger sister, who has a developmental disability, and relates her observations in verse. Tyrell is Tariq's best friend, who worries Tariq has recently joined the Kings, the neighbourhood gang who has been trying to recruit him for years. Reverend Alabaster Sloan has been waiting for an opportunity to advance his political career, and Tariq's murder is the platform he chooses to stand on. 

Magoon balances her character perspectives, and each voice is distinct from the others. The characters consistently interact with another as Magoon reveals their complicated relationships, background, and present contexts. How It Went Down is an incredibly powerful book, and I look forward to searching out Magoon's other novels.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, of fashion blog Go Fug Yourself, wrote two YA novels between 2011 and 2013: Spoiled and Messy. Both focus on teen protagonists and Hollywood culture, and were published to great acclaim. Their newest collaboration is a little less YA and a little more NA (New Adult), and rather than focusing on Hollywood celebrity, they focus instead on royal celebrity. 

The Royal We is a thinly veiled fictionalization of the real-life relationship between Prince William and Kate Middleton. Here, they are Nick and Rebecca Porter (Bex), and the novel begins with their meeting at Oxford and carries them through to their eventual engagement. The engagement is not a surprise. In fact, the novel opens with Bex stating, "If you believe my unauthorized biography, The Bexicon, Nick fell in love with me at a pub on my first night at Oxford, and angels burst into song while rose petals fell from the sky." She is already deeply entrenched in royal celebrity at the beginning of the book, and the focus of the story is instead on building the ups and downs of their relationship, which spans from their auspicious meeting in an Oxford dorm to several years later, when they're in their mid-twenties. Bex has just traveled to Oxford to attend Pembroke College for a term, leaving her family back home in Iowa. Her family has achieved some success through her dad's invention of the Coucherator, a couch with a refrigerator in the bottom. 

While Cocks and Morgan stay fairly close to the real-life material they have to work with - Bex has a sister named Lacey, who is also in the headlines, while Nick's younger brother is Freddie - they do also take opportunities to invent new material and context for the romance narrative. It's also a fascinating look at royal celebrity, both the lifelong scrutiny Nick has received, and new fame Bex experiences by association. For example, Nick tells her, "I feel like I have to be so careful all the time. I have a non-hilarious conversation just once, and then the next day the papers write that I'm 'Nick the Prick,' because I wasn't grinning like a madman. But if I'm having too much fun, I'm a drunken lout." 

Nick and Bex start out as friends; everyone tells Bex that he'll never marry an American. But slowly their romance develops and Bex is whisked into a new world, where she has to worry about paparazzi and gossip blogs. And if Nick really won't marry an American, what happens to the years she's investing into dating him secretly?

The Royal We is an incredibly fun book, not just for the way it mirrors the real-life relationship of Will and Kate, but also as it invents new material and fleshes out secondary characters. But for anyone with any familiarity with the way Will and Kate's relationship tracked from college to the wedding, the novel creates a lot of entertainment by presenting a series of references that do have real-life significance.