Overdue update (August reads)

5 09 2014

A long overdue update about books read in August.

The disappointments:

  • Crazy (Amy Reed): Even though it gives an insight into a important mental health issue (bipolar disorder), it’s not done very convincingly. The book is told in emails between Connor and Izzy, which is a poor choice of narrative device to tell this particular story, because it gets in the way of real character development and it actually hinders the plot advancement. The result is a fairly predictable course of events. It also doesn’t really help that the main characters are…well… dull.
    2.5 stars
  • California (Edan Lepucki): mCaliforniaore dullness… I got Californa mainly for the Colbert Report / Amazon / Sherman Alexie reason. The hype about this book was huge, it helped Edan Lepucki immensily, but the book itself…meh…I’m not too wild about it. It’s the story of Frida and Cal in a post-apocalyptic world that seems to just be… It looks like something environmental happened, but there’s hardly any world building so it’s all a bit sketchy.
    The main problem with this book though is that it seems thoroughly underdeveloped: the characters are dull and need fleshing out, the plot is not really going anywhere and meanders its way towards a sort of non-conclusion, there’s a lot of talk about actions that have been taken / are being taken but that we never get to experience being taken… if that makes sense? No? Don’t worry, the book itself makes very little sense as well. And nothing gets any sort of satisfying explanation because the reasons mentioned to do something are all so very arbitrary (like the whole Containment – Children bit: doesn’t make sense). A poor man’s The Road, I guess?
    2.5 stars

Onto the better stuff…

Picture book classics

  • Robot Dreams (Sara Varon): a wordless picture book about a dog and his robot-friend. This picture book classicsis a timeless and universal tale of the search and need for finding a connection and friendship. I also adore Sara Varon’s visual style. It’s so soft and easy-looking. My kid loves it as much as I do (Odd Duck is probably my kid’s favorite book).
    4 stars
  • The Dark (by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen): I think Jon Klassen’s Hat-books are a stroke of pure genius, but what he does here with Lemony Snicket is equally brilliant: a variation on a child’s age-old fear: fear of the dark. Really not to be missed!
    4 stars

Great YA books

  • 17 & Gone (Nova Ren Suma): I have to say that me liking this book came as a bit of a surprise. I liked – didn’t love – Imaginary Girls, but 17 & Gone is such a step up from that, in my opinion. Yes, I did guess from the very start what was going on, but despite that I continued to be enthralled by what was going on with Lauren and her visions of the lost girls. The main reason for this is Nova Ren Suma’s lush writing: her sentences are more than words on a page. They’re vibrant and have a sense of urgency that is mesmerizing and just urge you to keep on reading. Definitely the surprise of the summer.
    4 stars
  • We Were Here (Matt de la Peña): I have to say that I have completely fallen for Matt de la Peña’s books. I liked Mexican Whiteboy a whole lot, but I have to admit that I fell a bit in love with We Were Here. We Were Here is about a boy Miguel who’s sent to Juvi for a crime he’s doesn’t reveal, but which obviously haunts him. There he meets 2 ‘companions’ in Mong and Rondell. Three teens, each with baggage aplenty on a ‘road trip’ to Mexico. This story of (especially) Miguel and Rondell is the stuff classics are made of and it’s done so well. We Were Here really made me think of Of Mice and Men, a book that is also referenced in the story. We Were Here really broke my heart in the exact same way as Steinbeck’s classic did. I can’t wait to hear Matt de la Peña speak at NCTE’s Annual Convention in November!
    4.5 stars



Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (by Benjamine Alire Sáenz)

10 06 2014

Aristotle and DanteAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the most poetic, most beautiful, book I have read all year. It is so many things at the same time: a book about friendship, a book about family, a book about love, a book about heart, a book about secrets, a book about truth, a book about what it means to discover the secrets of the universe.

This book is such a special thing, the language deceptively simple, which renders it so powerful and a book for all ages. Every word of every sentence is meticulously placed and makes the reading so natural and the whole experience of reading this book so powerful and magical at the same time.

In a vague attempt to lay out the plot: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Ari (Aristotle) Mendoza, a loner and an angry boy. It is summer 1987 and Ari meets Dante Quintana, who is completely unlike Ari. Dante is open and joyful and he teaches Ari how to swim. It is a meeting that will evolve into a friendship and this friendship is something that will change both of their lives forever, in ways neither of them could have foreseen.

And even though the friendship between the two boys is the focus of the story, there are so many other elements in the book that just shine, not in the least the way in which the grown-ups are not described as ‘obstacles’ in the process of growing up (as is sometimes the case in certain YA novels), nor are they nuisances of magically absent, no: they are very much there. Also, most things are just so obvious in this book, it’s not really about putting things into question for the sake of it, but about discovering things, discovering things that Ari had hidden in himself for a long time. There are so many things going on – yes, this is about Mexican-Americans and how to reconcile different lifestyles, yes this is about sexuality, yes this is about a family with a dad who’s a war veteran and a son who is in prison, etc. – but it is all treated in the most normal way possible, like “this is how things are, let’s find a way to ourselves again, navigating through all that”. Of course there are also struggles and fears but these struggles and fears happen in lots of families and they may happen to all boys who are trying to find a way to their soul. And family and friendship formed the much needed anchors to confront the struggles and fears that Ari had. As such, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe describes both unique and very individual struggles and fears, but has an unmistakable universality as well, something which is the hallmark of true Literature.

For all those people out there who say that YA (or MG or…) doesn’t have any depth, for all those people out there who say that YA does not have any meaningful characters, for all those people out there who say that YA is not Literature, you are Wrong with a capital W. With Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe I have, yet again, a book here that completely overturns your biased little minds.

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 Pigman (by Paul Zindel)

18 09 2013

pigmanThe Catcher in the Rye is often pinned down as one of the early traces of what we now call Young Adult Literature. Not only do lots of contemporary YA writer try to convince you of the importance of this quintessential piece of literature (e.g. it’s more than casually referenced on Frank Portman’s King Dork, and in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and John Green has almost made it his mission to stress its importance. Contemporary coming-of-age owes Salinger lots and lots, there’s no denying this. However, contemporary realistic YA wouldn’t be what it was without Robert Cormier either, and contemporary realistic Middle Grade literature wouldn’t be what it is today if it hadn’t been for Paul Zindel.

In 1968, The Pigman was published for the first time… yes, I am afraid to say it took me this long to discover that gem of a book! I have to thank A.S. King once again, because she’s mentioned the book numerous times. But then again, I grew up with Thea Beckman, Jan Terlouw, Annie M.G. Schmidt, and English children’s fiction only came to me at that age by way of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl… go figure!

What a difference The Pigman is compared to this! And despite the age of the book, it doesn’t feel dated at all… It’s still fresh and the themes are so universal that they will appeal to many contemporary readers, children, middle grades, young adults and adults!

There’s guilt, there’s death, there’s dealing with dysfunctional families. And we get all of this and more in a neat 160-page package, cleverly told in alternating points of view: one boy, John Conlan (a bit of a handsome rascal, who has real issues with authority) and one girl, Lorraine Jensen (the sensitive ánd sensible girl, completely neglected, even abused by her mother, who – in John’s words, needs a good dosage of self-confidence).

This book must have been a hit when it came out – a sign of the times, 1968, for sure but at the same time it completely transcends the era in which it was written.  A true masterpiece!

Okay for Now (by Gary D. Schmidt)

8 04 2013

okayfornowGary D. Schmidt is soon becoming a cat favorite. His The Wednesday Wars was refreshing in its almost classic – some would even call this old-fashioned – uplifting and educational approach to children’s and teen literature, and Okay for Now follows that same trend and yet again it is a brilliant and touching book with a slew of memorable characters (Mrs Windermere!) .

Featuring Doug Swieteck, a character who first appeared in The Wednesday Wars, Okay for Now is equally as layered, equally as entertaining, and possibly even more moving in its emotional depth than TWW. Again, Schmidt skillfully weaves together such a bunch of different elements that it’s almost surprising how he manages to bring them all together in the most satisfying of ways. There is graphic art (by way of Audubon’s drawings of Birds of America), literature (through Doug’s reading of Jane Eyre), American history (Doug’s brother is a Vietnam veteran) and America’s main pastime (baseball!).

The Wednesday Wars was a Newbery Honor book in 2008, and it’s a damn shame the same didn’t happen for Okay for Now (maybe because it echoes that book so much – stylewise, voicewise, genrewise? Still… robbed, I tell you, robbed!). However, it was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist and just deserves to be read! Don’t miss it!

BTW, watch this YouTube video in which Schmidt talks about Okay for Now! Spot the typewriter! There’s a thing to be said about doing things old school!

Stupid Fast (by Geoff Herbach)

9 01 2013

StupidFastCover.jpgMan, this is what I’m talking about! Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast hooked the cat from the very first page, all courtesy of Felton Reinstein’s great stream-of-consciousness narration. The type of book you put in the hands of reluctant readers, knowing they will come back for more!

Felton Reinstein is 15 and used to be just another scrawny kid, with no social life to speak of. He just has one real friend Gus, and a back history that would make any sane person depressed. At the age of 5, he found his father hanging from the garage ceiling. Now, though, his life is totally out of control and he is telling us about it in an almost feverish one-night diary-style narration. We learn that he’s grown more than 7 inches in 8 months, and doesn’t know where all the body hair keeps coming from and whether he will ever stop eating! His only friend Gus is out of the country for the summer, and Felton’s mom makes him take over Gus’s paper round, something he really doesn’t want to do. But then he discovers that Gus’s house has been let out to talented pianist Aleah and her father. And to top it, his mom, Jerri, who’d always been a non-typical mom, completely checks out mentally on him and his younger brother Andrew, and he can’t really figure out why. Almost accidentally Felton discovers that one of the side effects of his enormous growth spurt is that he is now stupid fast. This will prove to be the ideal way to get rid of the stress that this crazy summer is giving him, and – besides Aleah who he develops a crush on – the only way to stay sane and to deal with his mother’s mental breakdown. His speed gets him noticed by the jocks and the sports coach at his high school, though, and everyone is convinced that Felton has it all to make it as a D-I football player… Meanwhile, Felton finds all of this crazy and unbelievable.

Stupid Fast is so many things at once. It’s first of all the story of a boy who is literally growing up to become a man. Seldom have the physical changes of a boy turning into a man been described so aptly in a YA novel. The awkwardness of puberty that Felton feels because of these changes is also the reader’s awkwardness. All props here go to Herbach’s natural talent for capturing the confusing mess of going through puberty so well (and what a breath of fresh air to read about this from a male perspective for once!). Secondly, it is the story of a boy who always had to struggle socially to ‘belong’: weird hair (Jewfro), weird family (he has to call his mom Jerri), weird friends… Felton was the type of kid who looked at the town honkies (a word Felton and Gus use to describe the popular kids) with both disdain and fear, but who now gets to be friends with the people who used to call him “Rein Stone” and “Squirrel nuts”… and he has to admit that they’re really not that bad after all and that he might have been too quick in judging them. It’s also the story of a boy falling in love with a girl for the first time. And now there’s this fantastically talented, beautiful girl who likes him despite and even because of all his weirdness. Finally, it’s also the story of a family slowly falling apart, and a boy figuring out what to do about that.

There are several elements that make Stupid Fast work so brilliantly, but the most outstanding thing must be Felton’s voice, which is stupid funny. Even though Felton has pretty much given up his dream of being a comedian because he thinks he’s not funny enough, his almost too honest observations about the things around him, are seriously hilarious at times. The brilliant mix of a sincerity (almost embarrassingly so) and humor makes Felton’s voice reminiscent of for instance Junior’s voice in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. And also just like Sherman Alexie’s book it combines life-changing events and serious emotions with humor. And that is what makes both books into such hits! That, and of course the fact that it has heart, it’s smart, it’s fresh, it’s compelling. Definitely a must read!

The Piper’s Son (by Melina Marchetta)

13 10 2012

The Piper’s Son, published in 2010, is a sort of companion/follow up novel to Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca (2003). It features characters which also appeared in Saving Francesca and even though it’s not an absolute requirement that you have read it too, it might help to get some of the back story of some characters in The Piper’s Son.

The Piper’s Son is set 5 years after the events in Saving Francesca and Marchetta has made Tom Mackee  (who “want[s]  to be the first male in the Mackee family to reach 40 and still have a liver) and his aunt Georgie the focus of this razor-sharp, character-driven literary tour de force.  Tom Mackee has reached rock bottom.  It’s two years after his uncle Joe got blown to bits in a London tube station and he also lost the girl he had a one-and-a-half-night-stand with (Tara Finke). Tom is angry, Tom is sad, Tom is lonely, Tom’s an asshole. Tom is everything you don’t wish your friend, brother or dearest to be. He is completely broken and it doesn’t look like he wants to get fixed or healed, and it doesn’t really look like he can. After pretty much getting kicked out of his apartment, he moves back in with his aunt Georgie, who has her own set of problems: pregnant by her ex-boyfriend of 7 years, Sam, she doesn’t only have to deal with the fact that she’s 42 and pregnant for the first time, she also has to relive all the complicated emotions of anger and confusion she felt all those years ago after Sam’s betrayal (he got a kid, Callum, with another woman). On top of that there’s her family (both the living and the dead members of it) to deal with. Tom, of course, but also her alcoholic brother Dom who left his own family, but wants to get back in. Both Tom and Georgie suffer from the stubbornness that is a key Mackee-Finch family trait and that now also threatens to be the main obstacle for any possibility to recover from their past and their grief.

Although The Piper’s Son starts out as a tragedy full of heartache, it’s also an incredibly warm family portrait that is described with such raw honesty and intensity, that it will make you sad when you have to leave the family at the end of the book. There’s nothing dysfunctional about this family or about this bunch of friends: this is exactly the way families with a past interact or friends with history relate to one another. This is how they function, and this is what they have to get through to get closure and a future. And although there is so much bleakness, self-destructive behavior and drama in these characters’ lives, there’s also humor, and there are these great lifelike scenes, emails and conversations (the dialogue is absolutely outstanding!) in the book that will make you smile and laugh and wish you could have been there with them.

If there’s any author that can convince even the most reluctant and skeptic of adult that YA is more than “books for kids”, and is proper Literature with a capital L, then it’s Melina Marchetta. If you still think otherwise after reading The Piper’s Son, then you’re either  a) one of those old white men who decides what people should read or b) a complete nitwit, or (the cat’s favorite) c) a total doofushead.  You’re beyond saving.

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