The 15 of 2015

23 12 2015

I didn’t read much this year. For the first time in 5 years I didn’t reach my Goodreads Reading Challenge. I know, fuck goodreads a2015-04-01 16.00.31nd reading challenges, but I like to keep track of my reading and setting a challenge on Goodreads is the easiest way for me to do this. So, not a lot of quality reading time this year and even less time to keep up this blog of course.

Despite all that, here are my favorite 15 books of 2015 in alphabetical order (by author’s last name):

  • Mosquitoland (David Arnold): I’m a sucker for road trip books.
  • Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates): if you haven’t read this, why the hell not?
  • Zita the Spacegirl (Ben Hatke): kid and me loved this series.
  • The Return of Zita the Spacegirl (Ben Hatke): 3rd of the trilogy and very sad to reach the end of the series. We have now begun reading Cleopatra in Space and the Amulet series together.
  • I Crawl Through It (A.S. King): bold, beautiful and completely wacky, but very readable.
  • The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch: At the Edge of Empire (Daniel Kraus): I am still reading this, but it’s so good it would be on this list anyway
  • Perfectly Good White Boy (Carrie Mesrobian): not the first book I read of Mesrobian (that was Sex and Violence), but this is my favorite of hers.
  • Cut Both Ways (Carrie Mesrobian): Carrie is my new fake girlfriend.
  • I’ll Give You the Sun (Jandy Nelson): a good (yet predictable in hindsight) Printz winner. That being said, I really loved this book.
  • Challenger Deep (Neal Shusterman): hard man, very hard, but so good. I hope this gets some Printz love.
  • The Alex Crow (Andrew Smith): So pertinent. And also read this here.
  • Stand Off (Andrew Smith): Do I need to explain? Really? Do I? Okay: the Abernathy. Plus: Middle Grade spin off?
  • Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel): thank you, Janna Rosenkranz for the tip.
  • We All Looked Up (Tommy Wallach): Some good old fashioned apocalyptic fun. Brilliant!
  • The Martian (Andy Weir): never has a science-y book been more fun.

 

 

 





March-May Reads

25 05 2015

Books I read from March to May 2015:

Graphic novels2015-03-05 16.53.46

March Book Two ( by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell): more behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement with Congressman John Lewis. A must read for everyone. Huge hit with my students too. (****)

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl (by Ben Hatke): the kid and I read a couple of pages of this every night. We love Strong Strong and One J We are currently on the last Zita book… (****)

This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki: beautiful artwork, very evocative. The whole work oozes nostalgia. I loved this one, but I think it might be more of a critics’ favorite than a kids’ favorite. (****)

Non-fiction

IMG_20150509_153050[1]Rethinking Normal: a Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill and Some Assembly Required: The not so secret life of a transgender teen by Arin Andrews are the memoirs of two transgender teens who were also in a relationship for a while. It reads pretty much like a teen would write it, which definitely adds to the authenticity. But obviously these two memoirs are pivotal in understanding what transgender teens go through. Both books were featured in my Awareness Week display at school and checked out in no time. (both ***)

No choirboy: murder, violence, and teenagers on death row by Susan Kuklin. This book is raw and sad. How could it not? No sensationalizing, just harsh truth. (****)

Books in a series

Half Bad by Sally Green: first in a series of books about ‘witches’… not at all like Harry Potter, though. It has been a while since I have liked a “fantasy” thing, but it is basically adventure with witches but done well. A bit of a slump about 2/3 in, but still very worthwhile. Definitely a series to continue. (*** ½ )

The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson: 3rd in the Shades of London series. This one is better that The Madness Underneath, but still not as good as the stellar first book The Name of the Star. I do hope there will be a rocking conclusion of this series in book 4, though. (*** ½ )

Isla and the Happily Ever After: I have a soft spot for Stephanie Perkins since I saw her at Politics and Prose in Washington. Bonus is that she does contemporary romance really really well. Give me a Perkins and a Dessen and I’m a happy camper J. Isla and the Happily Ever After has the added bonus of giving us more glimpses of the characters of the other books. (***)

Standalones

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos: there are not enough music-related YA books. So if you pick this one up, make sure to pick up Yvonne Prinz’s The Vinyl Princess! These books make a great pairing. (***)

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin: Besides the fact that I could not stand the character (or the way she was being presented by all of the players in the story ) of Addison Stone – at all – this book is really well done: a faux-memoir, complete with photos and artwork and disclaimers etc. I really did look up if there was an ‘Addison Stone’ after a chapter or so 😉 (*** ½ )IMG_20150525_110557[1]

When I was the greatest and The boy in the black suit, both by Jason Reynolds. I am not a fan of the writing. In When I was the greatest, the narration was a bit too one-dimensional for my liking. And The Boy in the Black Suit just confirmed that Reynolds’ style isn’t my style. Both books were well-liked by kids in my class, though. (both **)

And we stay by Jenny Hubbard: A character’s poetry just always distracts me in a book (that’s a me-thing), even if there’s an Emily Dickinson theme throughout the story. The story of grief, recovery and friendship is great though. Hubbard’s style is very recognizable. I always like it when I can pick out a writer’s words from just a few lines. (*** ½ )

Invincible by Amy Reed. Amy Reed’s books are a hit with my teen girls. Beautiful and Crazy have a very high circulation and I am sure that it’ll be the same for Invincible. As for me, certain things are ‘believable’ – like how quickly Evie gets addicted and the behavior she displayed after the “miraculous” recovery – but other things were just too rushed. I don’t really think the Marcus character was necessary either. I would have liked to have seen more of the parents, sister and Kasey tIMG_20150525_110925[1]oo. This reads like a train, though, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. I do have to say that I was a bit disappointed to hear that this is not a standalone… (**)

Press Play by Eric Devine: this made me think of Joshua Cohen’s Leverage a lot. They’re both set a sports context, there are some brutal things going on ‘behind the scenes’ (here’s it’s the hazing and lacrosse, in Cohen’s books is bullying – and much worse – and football) and there really are no compromises in this book. It’s extremely honest and raw, and there’s a good voice, but the book is too long for me. (***)

How it went down by Kekla Magoon: This is such a pertinent story at this moment in time. Sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from two gunshot wounds. Tariq was black. The shooter, Jack Franklin, is white. No one seems to know exactly what was going on and everything has the need to share what they thing went down (there are more than 15 different ‘voices’ in the book). As I said, this book is every so important right now, but as a book, I felt it could have been ‘tighter’: some voices are indistinguishable, which (again) drags out the story a little bit. (***)

Top picks

The next two – although also standalones – deserve their own category:2015-04-01 16.00.31

We all looked up by Tommy Wallach: It’s not often I read a blurb and then read the book and I feel the blurb is *exactly* what the book is like, but in this case it is: “This Generation’s The Stand… at once troubling, uplifting, scary and heart-wrenching.”
Also, The Stand was one of my favorite books when I was the age of the characters in this book and often when a books is likened to The Stand, it ends up being a disappointment afterwards, or worse the book is dragged out over 2 or 3 or more books. But We All Looked Up definitely wasn’t a disappointment: a good story, great characters, drive, action, feelings, totally unpretentious writing… a “real book”, you know… Loved it! (*****)

I’ll give you the sun by Jandy Nelson made me miss my metro stop. That’s always a good thing… The writing is gorgeous, there was a great interplay between the words and the artwork (I read the UK edition). This definitely deserved all the accolades it got. It also got a (quick) translation to Dutch, but it doesn’t have any artwork, which is a pity. (*****)

On the surface We all looked up and I’ll give you the sun have nothing whatsoever in common, but they both made me fall in love with reading all over again. Both of these books have the capacity of making you forget about time and the world around you. The reading pleasure was high for me in these two books. And isn’t that why we read: to feel?

 

 





Read in November 2014

3 12 2014

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to in November. I also don’t have the time right now for more than sketchy impressions of the books I read, rather than the full reviews they rightfully deserve. So here goes nothing…

Power books by power women, or also: books that will kick your ass as they rightly should:

GloryOBrien

 1) Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (by A.S. King aka the most missed author at NCTE/ALAN 2014)

I really hope to write a longer review of this, because this book and this author so deserves all the praise! This is a veritable horror story too. And can I be shallow and say how much I love my signed copy? Look at it!! But seriously. Read this!ASKingNCTE2014

4 stars (but really, it already has 6 starred reviews!)

2) The Truth about Alice (by Jennifer Mathieu)

There’s definitely an overarching theme in my November reads and that is cruelty. In this particular case, it’s cruelty in the guise of ‘slut shaming’. The Truth about Alice is Jennifer Mathieu’s debut YA novel and I was completely and shamelessly sucked in by it.

I “loved” every bit of this book: the multiple perspectives, the ruthless investigation of stereotyping people (and characters in a book), the way it unflinchingly shows how boys and girls are seen and judged in a completely different light. I also “hated” everything about this book: the way the boys and girls are shown and how stereotypes are reinforced. How some people have (too) loud voices and others don’t have a voice at all.

This is such an important book. For boys and for girls. And not in the least: for the adults raising those boys and those girls.

4 stars

3) Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (by Meg Medina)

This is a book from the heart. It’s not a ‘nice’ story, though. On the contrary, Meg Medina wrote a harsh psychologically layered story about bullying and female relationships. It’s edgy – and I’m not even talking about that title (which, by the way kicks so much ass 😉 – and I’m sure not just girls will identify with Piddy Sanchez or possibly even the mysterious Yaqui Delgado. If there’s one thing that’s abudantly clear after reading this provocative little book then it’s that everyone has a story: the victim, but also the bully, even if we don’t know what that story is, as is the case with Yaqui Delgado. And more than being ‘just another bullying book’, what really stands out is Medina’s great rendering of female relationships.

3.5 stars

Power books by power men

1) Knockout Games (by G.Neri)

Based on true events, comes G. Neri’s Knockout Games. I read this one right before Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and what the two definitely have in common is the violence. This one is a ruthless book. Set in St. Louis it’s all about a knockout club, a group of middle and high school kids who basically get into random violence (knocking out random people on the street for the fun and thrill of it). When Erica is uprooted to St. Louis after her parents’ divorce, she gets mixed up with the game (she’s good with a camera) and its leader, K (Kalvin), the Knockout King.

The narrative and the language are very straightforward. There’s no needless fancy talk, which wouldn’t really fit with the book’s topic anyway. Also like Yaqui Delgado, I see this being liked by a younger audience (Yes, yes, I know: there’s violence. And sex. Bite me). There’s also the same trope of the outsider trying to fit in, which that age group really seems to appreciate a lot. In this case, the protagonist is the white Erica who moves to a predominantly African American neighborhood and who’s trying to keep her head above water after her parents’ divorce.

3 stars

nctereads1

2) He Said, She Said (by Kwame Alexander)

This is described as a ‘hip hop’ novel and the language use of esp. the male protagonist Omar or T-Diddy (I did the same eye-rolling as the female protagonist!) in the book also reflects this. However, I can’t really say I was into it all that much. I also don’t like hip hop, so maybe it’s that. The story is too stereotypical for my taste: a good looking star football player (a real “player” too, of course) and a studious and responsible girl. Of course they’re destined to meet. Mixed in with this tale of destined yet too good to be true romance is a fight for social justice at the local high school.

I don’t know, it’s all very much in your face. I just couldn’t see past the shallowness of it all (maybe that’s the point?) and I just like my stories more nuanced and my characters with a lot more depth.

2.5 stars

Graphic novels:

1)  The Silence of our Friends (by Mark Long)

This graphic novel – also drawn by Nate Powell – is another (historical) graphic novel/memoir in the same vein as March Book One. It’s not quite as powerful as March Book One, but I can see this being liked a lot by my reluctant readers who’re really into history and the Civil Rights Movement.

3 stars

2) The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (by Stephen Collins)

GET THIS BOOK NOW. GET IT! NOW! Absolutely brilliant graphic novel. What can I say? There’s the neat and orderly island of Here. The threat of a chaotic There. And there’s a *gigantic beard*. I repeat: there’s a gigantic beard. What more do you need? Brilliant artwork? It’s all there.

Gigantic Beard 1

Gigantic Beard 2

It’s the ultimate surrealist and eerily honest truth metaphor about the state of man in our current society (unfortunately it’s probably also the ultimate hipster book). This book is  awesome. Did I mention there’s a gigantic beard? That is evil?

5 stars

 

Up next: photo impression of NCTE/ALAN 2014





Re-read: As I Lay Dying (by William Faulkner)

18 08 2014

2014-08-18 14.07.14I read this the first time when I was somewhere between 16 and 20, I think. But to be honest, I understood fuck all about it then.

I only re-read it now, several university degrees later and after 2 more decades of reading (none in the least after reading Adam Rapp), and pheww… this book, this author: so far ahead of its/his time: structure, voice, topics, everything is so different from things that came before. And now I can see how much authors that came after him owe Faulkner.
Only now I can place this in the proper context.
What an overpowering book this is.





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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Grasshopper Jungle (by Andrew Smith)

26 02 2014

gj1I could say that Grasshopper Jungle made me think of Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram. I could say, that yes, there are echoes of Kurt Vonnegut. I could also say that if Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and Terry Gilliam ever thought about collaborating, they should give Andrew Smith a call. I could even say that if this doesn’t win the Printz next year, I’m going to use Pulse-O-Matic® showerheads on the Printz committee in ways they never thought possible.  But I’m not going to. Because I am bigger than that. And that is the truth.

Grasshopper Jungle is all Andrew Smith. In the acknowledgements of the book, Smith writes that he has been writing all his life, even when he never considered the idea of publication. He also writes that about two years ago he decided to stop writing – meaning: being in the business of writing, the actual writing of course, was not something he was about to stop. He goes on to say:

“I never felt so free as when I wrote things that I believed nobody would ever see. Grasshopper Jungle was one of those things.”

Grasshopper Jungle and Andrew Smith are why I don’t believe in book packagers or in all those so-called creative writing classes and programs.  I don’t think you can learn how to be(come) a writer. Sure, they can teach you some of the more technical things like writing arcs, and they can maybe even show you a few neat tricks with point of view and what have you, but they cannot teach you “how to be a writer”. You are a writer. And writers will write.

Also, if this were a film class, Andrew Smith would be an auteur – ‘author’ – whose creative voice infuses his entire body of work. What is Andrew Smith’s creative voice, I hear you ask? Balls, I tell you. History shows that balls are always involved in the creation of art in general and in the creation of great books more specifically. Balls and garden gnomes (obviously). And more than a healthy dose of ‘fuck you too, boxes’. You know what I mean.

Grasshopper Jungle is a real dynamo of a book. Good books are always about everything (p.76-332). And Grasshopper Jungle is a good book. It is not a book that lets itself be summarized in – “abbreviated to” – a few sentences.  I don’t even want to try and do that, but there’s the town of Ealing, Iowa. There is Austin Szerba and his two best friends, Robby Brees and Shann Collins, who he is both in love with and feels very confused about. And horny.  It’s also about “babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.” (p.8) Don’t go complaining to censors and stupid school boards afterwards that you weren’t warned about this. It also has awesome words like askance (p.279) and characters named Ollie Jungfrau (who gets erections when he kills aliens in video games, p.294 😉 ).

Grasshopper Jungle is so many different books: family chronicle, history book, historiography, coming-of-age,  science fiction,… It’s looking at history and writing history. Everything is connected and roads and genres keep on crossing at the point of Andrew Smith’s pen (p.368). The impact sixteen-year-old confused boys can have on the (end of the) world is enormous. And sometimes sixteen-year-old boys can be Gods. That is what history shows and that’s what Andrew Smith knows.

crazy amount of notes

crazy amount of notes

History also shows that books like Grasshopper Jungle can start wars: “Too many balls! Too many shits! Makes good Lutheran boys horny! Too many erections! Masturbation! Save our children! Who is this book for? This is not YA!” And shit like that.

History shows cats have great taste. I fucking love this book. There’s nothing I don’t love about it. It’s huge, it’s all-embracing. It fills in so many blanks. It’s so bold. The language and the rhetoric are absolutely perfect for what this book wants to be (and do to its reader). Rhetorically, for me there is a perfect balance between historiographic seriousness, formality and detachment, and a 16–year-old’s very personal and real and totally informal narrative voice.  Smith, man, seriously, … you should write more books just for yourself. And Michael Bourret can indeed not be thanked enough.

But most importantly: thank you, Andrew Smith, for your balls and for this book and for being unstoppable.

 

  • Grasshopper Jungle came out in the US on 11 February 2014, published by Dutton Juvenile / Penguin.
  • Grasshopper comes out in the UK tomorrow (27 February 2014), published by Egmont: @EgmontUK. Yes, I will buy that copy too, because it has some extra paragraphs apparently.
  • Follow Andrew Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack

 

PS. Some people say that Andrew Smith might have been high when he wrote this book. I know better. This one is for you, Andrew:

gj3

you know what it means





Reality Boy (by A.S. King)

10 11 2013

Everyone needs heroes. The type of super-person you can only hope to be one day. God- or goddess-like figures, with an almost completely unattainable public persona. When you’re a kid growing up, and your mom or dad stops being your personal hero, you start looking at the people who excel at something you would like to excel at too: a sports hero, a musical hero, a gifted writer, a talented speaker, maybe even a historical figure.

Enter the concept of “reality TV”, with its instant-made heroes and heroines. The types of shows where excellence is not so much a requirement as it is often an obstruction. There’s a “reality” program to hold everyone’s fancy, from ‘competitive’ reality TV shows like Survivor and Project Runway to reality shows about “lifestyles”, like Teen Mom, Supernanny or Extreme Hoarders. Reality shows on TV now also often include a level of audience interaction (e.g. Idol)[i]. Why do people watch these shows (btw, most people claim they never watch them, … yeah, right…)? Apparently, the human being’s innate need to feel superior is one of the major reasons for the success of these voyeuristic shows. People want to feel like they are better than other people (“look at them, thank god that’s not me!”)… and this is then used as the basis for TV networks to produce shows that – manipulatively so, because there’s very little ‘real’ about ‘reality’ TV – show people as they really are. Given the many suicides of people who once appeared on reality shows, it’s actually surprising that there’s no Suicide Show, I’m sure people would watch that too… to quench their immeasurable thirst for feeling superior.

realityboyWhen A.S. King returned from Ireland, that’s what she noticed about TV: for the sake of other people’s entertainment, people needed to suffer, and she came up with her own Survivor story: that of Gerald Faust. Faust… remember the guy who made a pact with the devil? The guy who wanted to have it all, worldly pleasures and unlimited knowledge but had to give his soul to get it? In Gerald’s case, it’s Gerald’s mother who turns over her soul to the devils of Network Nanny. The question, however, is: what power and what success does Gerald’s mom hope to achieve here? What sort of hero does she want to be? For Gerald it’s as clear as day: by turning him over to these outsiders, she will never be his hero.

A.S. King has proved before that she is the queen of the odd perspective (we’ve had pagodas, ants, …) but in Reality Boy, there’s only one perspective and there’s nothing frivolous about it. Instead, the point of view is an extremely claustrophobic one: we are inside Gerald’s head and only inside Gerald’s head. Gerald is very much obsessed by his own narrow world too, a world which includes a fantasy retreat, which he calls Gersday, his happy place where he doesn’t have a psycho sister and a weak-ass mother, but where he gets Snow White and ice cream instead. Until he meets Hannah, Gerald doesn’t see any way out of his world, real or fantasized. This narrow perspective has some obvious consequences (which as a reader, you have to take or leave): secondary characters are seen solely through Gerald’s (maybe) distorted lens, which results in a very black and white picture of e.g. Tasha and Gerald’s mother. This is a very ambiguous and ambitious route to take given the fact that Gerald himself doesn’t want to be seen from just one single point of view, namely that of a camera lens (or rather that of the editor’s cutting board) of a reality show of when he was only 5 or 6 years old.

There are many reasons why I loved Reality Boy as much as I did. For one, the way A.S. King describes how the walls Gerald has built around himself are slowly broken down by that one truly real and universal thing called love, without ever making this seem sappy or sentimental. Second, she never fails to include these tiny bits of strangeness that make her novels so unique (here it’s running away with the circus). There’s also King’s powerfully real language. It’s never more complicated than it should be. It’s never gratuitous. This woman can write. That’s what it comes down to: she is immensely and insanely talented as a writer.

But she’s also a keen observer of human behavior, something which makes her into an even better writer. And more than any other A.S. King book, I related to Reality Boy not as the teen I once was, but as the mother that I am right now. Yes, there was the obvious compassion with Gerald, and his almost desperate attempts at real communication, but it was more than that. Amy King sees through the bullshit and she has her protagonists go through all kinds of bullshit too, which always (ALWAYS) makes for an emotionally draining and intense reading experience. This book, for instance, absolutely reinforces my own belief that certain people should never ever be parents. Kids know more than you tell them, and Gerald is one of those kids. He knows his mother never loved him, not in the way she “loves” his oldest sister Tasha. He also knows his mother is too weak to change her life. He knows that his mother has surrendered any form of moral integrity she may have had before she let the cameras into their house. He knows that his life has always been a twisted mess of ugliness and he knows that he’s not the one who’s different or wrong or stupid or retarded or however he’s been called by people around him. And he is fucking angry because of this. And he should be angry because of this. Gerald has an inner rage that is so all-consuming that – even at age 5 – the only way he can express that anger is physically. At age 5 by crapping all over everything, at age 16 by punching people. Feeling like punching the crap out of that wall, kicking down that damn door, or throwing things out of the window? Of course, you’ve felt this too! Don’t be so damn politically correct: we have all felt like that at one point or other. And that is the way Gerald now feels all.the.time. It’s a miracle he hasn’t killed anyone (Tasha, his mother…) yet!

A.S. King does screwed up and horrifyingly realistic like no other. And even though this may sound odd, but it’s definitely a beautiful thing to read, time and again. I am fortunate enough to have a signed copy of Reality Boy and Amy asked what my demands are. Easy: I want more of this. Having no gift whatsoever as a writer myself, she’s sorta like my hero. Thanks, Amy!


[i] With newish media like YouTube, reality “shows”, are obviously no longer limited to television.








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