100 Sideways Miles (by Andrew Smith)

5 11 2014

Look: here’s the thing. I don’t know much, but if there is one thing I know, then it is this: Andrew Smith is a 16-year-old boy.

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

So, OK, I don’t know what it actually is to be a 16-year-old boy, but I have lived with one for the last 18 years (because grown up men will always be 16-old boys, no matter how old they get) and I made him read[1] 100 Sideways Miles and here’s what he said:

  • Yes, it is fucking ridiculous to pee with a boner (in the morning) – something I had been wondering about for a long time too before I actually dared to ask my 16-year-old boy.
  • Yes, it’s fucking embarrassing to have your best friend buy a pack of condoms for you and people are overhearing the conversation – I guess this is a situation most similar to buying a pregnancy test for your best friend because – even though she claimed that yes, they’d obeyed Cade Hernandez’s number one rule (“Dude. Don’t be a dumb fuck. You have to use a condom. Only dumb fucks don’t use condoms.” (p.138)), ‘the condom broke’ – you now end up at the pharmacy (over-)emphasizing the fact that it is for your best friend, not for you… really, it’s not.
  • Yes, teenage boys think about boners and balls All.The.Time. Also, thinking of boners can give them a boner – but I knew that from Grasshopper Jungle, of course, but still, it’s always good to double-check your facts and sources.

Just this to say that Andrew Smith really gets how much of a teenage boy’s experience is linked to sexuality. How ridiculous would it be if this were not included in a book, featuring a male adolescent protagonist, right?

But I didn’t have to confirm everything with the 16-year-old boy I live with. Here are the things I knew myself:

First, it’s true about the eyes. Just like Finn Easton, I have heterochromatic eyes and just like with Finn, people hardly ever notice it, because they just don’t look. If they do notice and say something about it, it’s usually mid-sentence and a real conversation switcher. Some even think you’re an alien visitor from outer space[2].

Second, Andrew Smith is really really smart. You know how Finn is a boy with some serious problems, right? Not only is he a boy in a book, but he’s also a boy in a book in the book. See what Andrew Smith did there? Look, here’s Finn, he’s a pretty unique boy: he’s got heterochromia, which is pretty rare[3]. But add to that a dead horse fell out of the sky, killing his mother and leaving Finn with a very distinct :|: scar and some nasty seizures, and you get an epilectic with heterochromia. What are the odds, right? So, yeah, our Finn is a pretty unique individual.

But look, the boy in his dad’s book is also called Finn, and that boy in his father’s book also has heterochromia and a :|: scar on his back. Again, what are the odds? No wonder Finn has doubts about his whole existence: “Maybe it’s like that for all boys of a certain – or uncertain – age: We feel as though there are no choices we’d made through all those miles and miles behind us that hadn’t been scripted by our fathers, and that our futures are only a matter of flipping the next page that was written ahead of us.” (p. 1)

As always, beautifully done!

As always, beautifully done!

So here’s a boy who is most definitely not okay… Does he have a say in his own life? Is everything already scripted for him? Can he make his own choices? What would you do if the only thing you wanted was “to feel like a regular human teenage boy and do regular human teenage-boy things” (p.175), but your whole existence is overshadowed by another boy in a book who wants just that, and you basically feel trapped inside a book? If it involves seeing the world through distance and miles instead of hours and time, fact-finding expeditions, falling in love with a girl, a shadow play and a road trip with your  best friend, then you might be like Finn who is slowly trying to step out of the book…

Andrew Smith is definitely at his best when he talks about the confusion and awkwardness of 16-year-old teenage boys… And confusion may well be the universal default teenage state of being, of course, which is why hundreds if not thousands of (YA) books have obviously used that as their premise. Andrew Smith, though, is always capable of coming up with so many detours that there’s a difference to reading his books. He links one thing to another and he invites you to discover that these connections actually make sense. Why would you not link time to space? Why would you not take the unusual path? Why would you not talk about boys with heterochromatic eyes and epileptic seizures who lost their mom in a freak accident? It’s more than a premise or a gimmick, his willingness to challenge not just himself as a writer, but also us as readers, is what makes reading any of his books like a new adventure. 100 Sideways Miles is no exception to this.

And besides the fact that 100 Miles Sideways is  first and foremost a novel about a boy who’s trying to figure out what choices he has in life, the entire book actually also reads like a huge comment on ‘the coming-of-age’ story (for lack of a better word) and if you know a little bit about the way this book came to be, then you’ll see that Andrew Smith is taking the concept of ‘meta-story’ to a whole different level.  Stop messing with my mind, Smith. Continue messing with my mind, Smith. Exactly because he always has such honest, real, relatable and universal sounding protagonists and because this is so obviously an Andrew Smith book, his writing stands out and I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.

Look, I get it. Andrew Smith’s novels may not be for everyone. The small details, the quirks, the narrative detours, the repetitions throughout the writing itself … it’s something you dig or…not. I totally got on board with it[4]. But hey, some people don’t like dark chocolate and prefer Hershey’s. Who am I to judge that, right? I mean, I don’t like Hershey’s, but I sure do like me some Côte d’Or 70% Noir Intense. And although ultimately I don’t feel like 100 Sideways Miles tops Grasshopper Jungle (but nothing really does), it’s still Côte d’Or milk chocolate[5].

________________________

[1] Which he read during the Perigee moon, by the way. I kid you not!

[2] I don’t have the :|: scar on my back, but I have a similar looking scar right next to my eye – souvenir from a Mini Golf game when I was 13.

[3] Relatively rare, in any case. About 6 in 1000 may have a very mild case of heterochromia iridum , while the thing that Finn has (very distinctive, one eye green, the other blue) would be considered “very rare” (I read numbers of about 2 in a million but also “less than 200 000 people in the US”). I know me and one other girl who has it, so yeah, rare.

[4] Maybe that’s because even though outwardly I am the most organized person on the planet, in reality, if you could look inside my mind, you’d see it’s pretty much a free jazz record: all over the place and sounds likes complete chaos, try finding some structure in that! Something I recognize in Andrew Smith’s books, I think.

[5] Which is basically the (only) chocolate I always have in my kitchen cupboards.

 

Exclusive 100 Sideways Miles Blog Tour:

This review is part of Lady Reader’s Official 100 Sideways Miles Blog Tour. Please go and check out the other reviews:

LadyReaderBookstuff

 

 

There’s a great giveaway too:

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More about the book and the author:

100 Sideways Miles was published by Simon & Schuster. Buy it at your local Indie.

Drop Andrew Smith a line on his Facebook page or tweet him @marburyjack .

His website is at www.authorandrewsmith.com .

 

Finally, also huge thanks to Amy del Rosso @ Lady Reader’s Bookstuff. You’re Côte d’Or 70% Noir Intense!

 

Follow the tour:

 





Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders (by Geoff Herbach)

20 07 2014

Geoff Herbach has a thing with sports and ‘funny’ (intentional or not) male voices. In Stupid Fast, Felton was the boy ‘on the outside’ who suddenly came to the center of attention because of his athletic prowess. In Fat Boy vs the Cheerleader, Herbach once again has a look at ‘a boy on the outside’, Gabe ‘Chunk’ Johnson, a fat band geek who – after hearing that funding for summer marching camp is going to the new dance squad – decides to wage the war of the vending machine.

And although this book definitely has a couple of things in common with the Stupid Fast-trilogy, it’s more of a watered down version of ‘the funny’ and ‘the great male voice’ we are getting here – it’s like a Stupid Fast meets Glee ultralight.. And I have to say that I am more than just a bit disappointed.

Stupid Fast – Herbach’s debut – remains the strongest of his novels up to now, and with each consecutive book it seems to me that the narrative element that stood out the most in his debut, namely “the voice”, just gets watered down and doesn’t manage to grab me anymore. In Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders, we get Gabe’s voice as he is recounting the events that led up to where he is now, namely talking to Mr Rodriguez, an attorney. We’re not actually getting the dialogue here, but just Gabe’s responses, which takes a bit of getting used to at first, but which is just annoying after a good couple of chapters. This type of narration also just seriously stands in the way of actual character development.

The thing that irks me the most about this book, though, is once again the ‘absent’ (mom left) or ‘clueless’ (Gabe’s dad) parent trope. Instead we’re getting a grandfather who used to be a bodybuilder champion, and who serves as the voice of understanding, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve also seen him before in I’m with Stupid.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any interesting things about Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders. There’s a thing to be said about the name-calling that goes on (and one of the characters does say it), there’s bullying, there’s a whole lot about the social stratification at high school, there’s something about friendship and shifting allegiances and changes. All that could and should have been combined in a very interesting way, something Geoff Herbach managed to do in his debut, but hasn’t managed to do since in my opinion. Here everything just felt really fluffy and coincidental. All in all, I sincerely hope Herbach finds what’s missing soon, because I definitely loved the pants off of Stupid Fast and I refuse to believe that Geoff Herbach was a one-book wonder!





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.





Spanking Shakespeare (by Jake Wizner)

7 06 2014

20140607_140412Spanking Shakespeare is everything a certain R.G. over at Slate says an adult who’s reading it should be embarrassed about:

a)      It is to be situated in that genre “realistic fiction” about “real teens doing real things”, like say high school for a 17-year-old guy.

b)      It is escapist and offers “instant gratification”, there’s a whole lot of sex talk going on, see my a).

c)       It aims to be “pleasurable”, see my b).

d)      It sort of asks its readers to “immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life” but it is obvious we should “abandon the mature insights” that we “(supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Because adults clearly don’t know what it is to have hormones raging through their bodies, or to have sarcasm as a life-saving mechanism, or even what it is like to navigate between different relationships (friends, parents, potential girlfriends) or how to be embarrassed about something… anything.

e)      Its ending is “uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering” (here it is cheering). Spoiler alert: Shakespeare gets a girlfriend!

f)       Also, it does not have any “Weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love.” No it does not, but it has some great potty jokes, though… Oh and it has Shakespeare on the cover.

Spanking Shakespeare is a perfectly entertaining, funny escapist YA novel. I read it. I am not embarrassed about that.

And you know what, the next book I took up after Spanking Shakespeare was Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It’s also YA. It’s incredibly touching. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. And the next book I’m taking up? James Dashner’s The Scorch Trials. I do not feel embarrassed about that either.

I am 36. I read YA.





Something for the reluctant readers out there.

27 05 2014

Mojo (by Tim Tharp)

mojoTim Tharp scored a bit of a minor hit there when his The Spectacular Now got nominated for the National Book Award. It had a certain something that also James Ponsoldt (director) and Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (screenwriters) noticed. The result: a critically acclaimed indie-feeling film with the now almost omnipresent Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller.

Mojo, however, is a completely different type of story than The Spectacular Now. It reads a lot younger, for one. At the same time, it might appeal a lot more to reluctant readers because of its fairly straightforward whodunit premise.

In order to find ‘mojo’, Dylan starts investigating a case involving the disappearance of a rich and beautiful girl, Ashton Browning. His investigation brings him to a world almost unknown, that of an elite private high school and an underground club called Gangland. It’s also a spider web of lies and deceit and obviously Dylan gets caught up in it.

Mojo isn’t very ‘subtle’, and as such its plot is also rather predictable, the characters fairly one-dimensional, stereotypical even. But if the mystery doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat enough, Tharp has infused his book with a dose of healthy humor. It’s this mix of reasonably undemanding plot, a bit of mystery and a dash of humor that makes this an ideal book for lots of reluctant readers.

3 stars

 

Notes from the Blender (by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin)

notes from the blenderEven though the plot is completely different than Tim Tharp’s Mojo, Notes from the Blender might appeal to the same type of reluctant reader, and if nothing else, it will make you grin and chuckle at the sometimes silly and often confusing things its main characters experience. Notes from the Blender by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin, is the story of Declan and Neilly and how their respective separate family become a blended family.

Declan lost his mom about 6 years ago and has spent the time not getting over that. Now as a healthy teenage boy (!), he’s obsessed with (Finnish black) metal, violent videogames, doesn’t have a lot of friends and fantasizes about hot girls like Neilly. Neilly is in the in-crowd: she has a popular boyfriend, a best friend, goes to all the hip parties, is beautiful and the object of Declan’s obsession… sort of. Then Neilly finds out her boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend, so she’s now date-less for her father’s wedding ceremony – after her parents divorced, her dad’s now marrying another guy. And now her mom is also getting married again. As if things couldn’t get any worse, her now also pregnant mom is marrying Declan’s dad. Lives get turned upside down: new house, new family, new church, new people to hang out with… Things aren’t so hot for Neilly now and Declan too can’t stop feeling let down by his own father for trying to replace his mother. In a sort of reversal of Parent Trap (the movie is even referenced in the book) things get all complicated, but work themselves out by the end of it all…

Notes from the Blender is a fun little book, which – despite its complicated relationships and friendships – isn’t that complicated at all. And it has the kind of life-affirming message we wish everyone believed in: that love and family are positive things, in whatever size or form or blend they come.

3.5 stars





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!





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








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