Girls, girls, girls… (Fat Angie, Fangirl & Doll Bones)

7 04 2014

Doll Bones (By Holly Black)

Doll BonesIt’s a fact universally acknowledged that porcelain dolls are exceptionally creepy. From Holly Black – of The Spiderwick Chronicles, Modern Faerie Tales and much much more fame – I expected nothing if not a creepy old tale of a superweird doll scaring the bejeezus out of me. In that respect I didn’t get what I came for, because rather than a scary story, we’re actually getting a fairly standard middle grade road trip ‘adventure’ story of 3 friends, Zach, Poppy and Alice, who want to lay the bones of this creepy little doll to rest.

Maybe I just went into this with the wrong expectations, but I thought it was all fairly safely played and written, especially when it comes to the characterization of the three protagonists. This reads like an adventure book about friendship, but the characters making up that friendship aren’t pronounced enough to be wholly successful. Holly Black also merely touches upon some of the family dynamics, making this novel to only scratch the surface of much deeper things and in that respect, I think Doll Bones and Holly Black missed a few opportunities.

3 stars

 

Fangirl (by Rainbow Rowell)

FangirlLast year’s hit sensation was definitely Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (for a variety of reason, not in the least that it’s just a really great book!). So when Fangirl came out, I got an e-ARC, but didn’t get around to reading it BECAUSE I JUST HATE READING STUFF ON A SCREEN. Anyway, I finally got a hold of a print copy and… was disappointed with the outcome.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the concept of fandoms. Hell, I belonged to the X-Files Fandom way back when. Yes, that’s before the Harry Potter Fandom, on which Fangirl’s Simon Snow Fandom is obviously based. The main problem I have with the Fandom stuff in the book is that it’s all.so.incredibly.boring. Seriously, there’s nothing exciting whatsoever about the characters that Cath, the protagonist is obsessed with, Simon and Baz. Rowell introduces every chapter with extracts from either the ‘actual’ Simon Snow books, or with an extract from Cath’s fanfiction, but after one or two of those, I just couldn’t bring myself to actually read them anymore, because: SOoooo Boooooring.

This leaves the other aspect of this novel – which is obviously not just about fandoms and fangirling, namely the character part and Cath growing up into college as her own person and not an appendage of her twin sister Wren, and/or out of the fandom. There are a whole bunch of minor characters around Cath (like her twin sister Wren, the love interest Levi, her roommate, the writing partner Nick, her bipolar dad, etc. etc.), but I’d argue that also on this front Fangirl can’t bring what Eleanor & Park brought: real characters I could root for.

Add to that that this book is a way way too long (+400 pages) and dragged all the way until the end, which was then completely rushed, and you can safely say that I thought Fangirl was a big disappointment. I missed spunk in the main character, I missed sparks in the romance, and I missed guts in the writing.

2.5 stars

 

Fat Angie (by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo)

fatangieSpunk and sparks is not something I missed in e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s Fat Angie. And I’m sorry, Simon Snow Fandom, but a Buffy mention in the first couple of pages of any book will bring a smile onto my face, even if the main character of said book has to go through the worst of things on a daily basis: extreme bullying, a shitty home life… When KC Romance walks into Fat Angie’s life, things are looking up, even though Angie at first doesn’t really know how to react to a person who genuinely seems to want to be friends with her, rather than kick her when she’s down.

Fat Angie was one of the two winners of the 2014 Stonewall Book Award, along with Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Unlike that book, Fat Angie definitely has more literary spunk and where I felt Cronn-Mills’s book was first and foremost “an issues book about a very important topic that needed to be told”, to me  Fat Angie is an actual good book as well, regardless of topic or issues dealt with.

3.5 stars

 





The surrealist magic that is Shaun Tan’s mind.

30 03 2014

I’ve known of Shaun Tan for quite a while now without actually reading any of his (picture) books / graphic novels / masterpieces, but it’s only when you actually experience the almost achingly beautiful world of Shaun Tan that you will fully understand what people are raving about. In short, Shaun Tan is a graphic genius, whose imagination just knows no bounds and inspires readers to look beyond the ordinary and into the realm of the surrealist extraordinary.

The Arrival

In The Arrival he tells a tale (the tale) of immigration – completely wordless, yet as poignant as can be. In an extended metaphor – executed to perfection – Shaun Tan shows how an individual experiences arriving and living in a completely alien world. This book should be compulsory reading for any small-minded nationalist in any country around the world.

The Lost Thing

In The Lost Thing, Tan’s book that was adapted into a short film and won the Oscar for Best Animated Shortfilm in 2011, a boy finds a lost thing on the beach and wonders what to do with it. This sounds simple, and it also is, but Tan’s artwork makes this story both funny and dark, incredibly meaningful and absurd, and ultimately deliciously layered and complex.

The Red Tree

The Red Tree is nothing short of brilliant. A girl wakes up, feeling sad, lonely and desperate. In the most poetic of ways (look for the red leaf…) Tan and the girl show us what happens in those dark moments of self-doubt and helplessness… until… and this you have to see and read for yourself. This is an absolutely fantastic picture book.

Below are just a few examples of Shaun Tan’s brilliance:

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Independent Study (by Joelle Charbonneau)

25 03 2014

independentstudyIndependent Study is the 2nd book in The Testing trilogy. The plotline is predictable: just more Testing like Catching Fire was just more Hunger Games but in a different arena. It’s almost formulaic dystopia: blend Divergent together with Hunger Games and you get The Testing. It features stereotypical main characters: (too) intelligent & perfect female main character who asks all.the.right.questions.all.the.time. There’s really nothing original or groundbreaking in this book what.so.ever. But it’s also highly entertaining, a fun ride (although lacking somewhat in the action department, which seems to be symptomatic of middle book syndrome) and a sure winner with reluctant readers. So yeah, Charbonneau sucked me in.





Charm & Strange (by Stephanie Kuehn)

23 03 2014
Charm & Strange @Handelsbeurs, Ghent

Charm & Strange @Handelsbeurs, Ghent

Charm & Strange is a strange little book and for the longest of time I just couldn’t decide whether the book was on the good side of strange or the bad side of strange, but then something just clicked and from then on out, Kuehn managed to convince me with her oddly haunting psychological story of a boy gone wild (or did he?).

This is definitely a book you want to go into completely unspoiled, so suffice it to say that the story flashes back between the boy Drew – who’s angry and young (10) and spends a summer with his cousins – and the boy Win – who’s 16 and almost irreparably alone at a boarding school. Something is going on with these boys (who, yes, are the same person), and Kuehn manages to hold out until the very end for the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. By the time you have reached the end, the boundaries of psychological mystery have been explored and crossed, which is in large part due to Kuehn almost alienating prose.

Charme & Strange is Stephanie Kuehn’s debut novel and it’s not very surprising that a novel this ambitious in its execution was recognized with the William C. Morris Award. It’s an extremely brave (some would say frustrating) debut, which will instigate extreme reactions, I’m sure, but when a book stretches the possibilities of a genre the way Kuehn managed to do and does it successfully, keeping readers on the uncomfortable edge of their seat , then no amount of praise can ever be too high. Charm & Strange is a unique story. Highly recommended for brave readers!





March: Book One (by John Robert Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell)

21 03 2014

March Book One is a gorgeous piece of art and tells the incredibly inspiring story of Congressman John Lewis, one of the pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement.  The first installment of this graphic memoir focuses on the nonviolent actions of the younger John Lewis, especially hightlighting the desegregation of lunch counters. This is obviously a really important and inspiring story, which is already reason enough to buy this book, but phew… Nate Powell, man… he did such an awesome job: enormously evocative.

Too bad this was published as “Book One”, because I’d much rather have seen a big bulky memoir rather than (3?) separate little books. In any case, this is a book that deserves to be bought, read, told and shared. Get it now!

 

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The Dream Thieves (by Maggie Stiefvater)

16 03 2014

dreamthievesThe Dream Thieves is the follow up to Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, which was probably the cat’s biggest surprise of 2013: paranormal fantasy could actually be good, a (conventional) good old-fashioned bulky read, you know ? That is why I could not have been more disappointed with The Dream Thieves.

Even though I already had the feeling that Ronan would become an important character – and he is really the focus of The Dream Thieves – the way that this is done is… well, dull… as opposed to the wild and exuberant way in which his character deserved to be at the center of things.

Oh, this book is written well enough but plot and characters just couldn’t hold my interest here because it was soooo slow-moving and really isn’t furthering any of the elements of book 1. The Raven Boys was really an ensemble book. Yes, there was a girl protagonist (Blue) and a boy protagonist, (Gansey), but all the other characters weren’t really secondary… they really all played a pivotal role. That has definitely changed in The Dream Thieves, which is mostly about Ronan (as a dream thief) and when the other characters do appear they don’t really add anything to the overall plot. Their quests from The Raven Boys are almost ‘forgotten’ and they just seem to be filler characters, especially Adam and Noah, who could both be such interesting characters.

This one has all the stereotypical weaknesses of the middle book. Anyway, major major letdown and I don’t really know if I want to continue this series.





The Buffalo Tree (by Adam Rapp)

9 03 2014

thebuffalotreeIn 2005, Adam Rapp’s debut novel[1], The Buffalo Tree found itself in the midst of what the New York Times called a Culture War. This happened in the Muhlenberg School District, where – coincidentally – another book riot went on (and is still going on) at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. The petition that was started on Change.org by some of the students themselves, explains how books are being ‘red-flagged’ and how class and school libraries are at risk of losing many of its books because they might contain “inappropriate” content.

In the case of Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree – as is the case in most if not all instances of book challenges or attempted bans – the main issue is that those who want to ban it never actually read all the material they are protesting, and in the case of The Buffalo Tree, the school board only heard some passages taken out of context.

The Buffalo Tree has all the hallmark signs of “an Adam Rapp novel” and already show his mad talent. I’d previously read Punkzilla, The Children and the Wolves and 33 Snowfish, and each of those reading experiences left me shattered. Not just because of the harsh story of the kids in those books, but equally so by the unmistaken talent of Rapp as a word artist. Voice is his strength, and it’s no surprise then he’s also a playwright, and a really good one at that (even though I haven’t see any of his plays, I have no doubt believing that).

His experience as a playwright is all over those 3 YA novels, in which each character gets a very distinctive voice. In The Buffalo Tree, Rapp isn’t quite there yet, but it shows how good he is at having a character “be” that character completely, voice and all, enhancing the reality of that character from the inside out. And in Sura’s case – the 12-year-old boy who’s locked up in the Hamstock Boys Center for 6 months for stealing hoodies (car hood ornaments) – that means that he speaks tough, in a sort of juvy vernacular. It’s also Sura’s stream of consciousness perspective we get when the other Spalding juvies are described: Coly Jo, Sura’s (unfortunate) patchmate (cell mate) and Hodge and Boo (two juvy bullies). But like in other Rapp novels, it is fascinating to see how a kid like Sura views the adults of his surroundings: the cruel Mister Rose, Deacon Bob Fly, the resident ‘psychologist’ who’s intent on ‘getting through to Sura’, and none of them are seen in a positive light, except maybe for Sura’s mom, Mazzie – who got pregnant with Sura when she was 15.

Let’s face it, what happens in The Buffalo Tree is grim and hits you hard, but it’s a real world. Sura’s world in the juvy center and outside of the center is a bleak one: cruel, violent, abusive adults, and kids who may end up the same way as those adults, or kids who do not find the inner strength to overcome their situations. That too is something certain teens experience every single day. Every day is a battle for Sura and even after his release that feeling stays with him: “You get that old feeling back up in your bones”, but the hopeful thing to keep in mind here, that even though he might still get that feeling, he’s out.

Is a book with an almost naturalistically drawn story reason enough not to allow teens to have the ability to read this? OK, so that’s the most absurd question ever, which is why I can only respond with an Elle Horowitz original: “So, OK. The Attorney General says there’s too much violence on TV, and that should stop. Even if you took out all the violent shows, you could still see the news. So until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.” And if you don’t believe Elle, then read this. Also, it’s really great to hear that there are students willing to support what they believe in and say: “We refuse to be idle,” they say in their petition. “We need to show them that young adult literature is a life-changing thing for young people to be exposed to. We won’t stop until every book on every shelf of our school is saved.”


[1] (I found 1990 on Wikipedia for the first time this was published, making Rapp 22 at the time!








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