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

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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!





The Impossible Knife of Memory (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

18 05 2014

Noggin & The Impossible Knife of MemoryI have never known a Laurie Halse Anderson novel to be a disappointment and The Impossible Knife of Memory – published 15 whole years (already!) after the seminal Speak – is also anything but! On the contrary, it shows once again that Anderson can put her mind to something – in this case ‘dealing with PTSD’ – run with it, make the topic her own, mold it and shape it into an impeccably written novel, containing convincing characters. Characters who are anything but perfect, characters who do questionable things, but who are incredibly believable and real.

17-year-old Hayley Kincain has been homeschooled for a long time because her father’s restless mind didn’t allow him to stay put. Now, though, her father decides it’s best to settle down again so Hayley can graduate from school like the rest of her peers. This however, does not tell the entire story. Hailey doesn’t really want to deal with her memories, memories that involve a dead mother, a dead grandmother, an evil alcie stepmother Trish, but most importantly an ex-military father who’s suffering from PTSD and who she is basically taking care of. A daughter performing a parent’s duty and keeps the fact that she’s suffering from it a secret for the outside world.

Through some flashbacks, the reader gets to see some of the horrors that Hayley’s dad went through during his deployment in Iraq, a deployment which now causes severe trauma. Some of this is not easy to read, nor should it be. This is an incredibly serious issue and the reader gets to see it all. All of Hayley’s father’s experiences influence Hayley and the way she interacts with the people around her, who she considers to be zombies. As a result, Hayley doesn’t really have a lot of friends. There’s Gracie, the girl she knew ‘from before’, but now there’s also Finn, a boy who shows a real interest in her. Hayley doesn’t really understand this herself but she slowly lets him into her complicated life. With his help Hayley starts recognizing certain things about her life and the people in it, what she needs and what her dad needs. At the same time she starts to realize she might not be the only one dealing with difficult (home) issues. It’s also great to see different types of relationships in a novel, not just boy-girlfriend (which there also is, of course), but also father-daughter, stepmother-stepdaughter, friend-friend and a few more.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is one my favorite 2014 reads so far, no question about that. For all the horrible things and the darkness it contains, there’s something incredibly hopeful and at times even funny about it too. Anderson has a knack for infusing her (main) characters with a certain wit that lights up their sentences. Not that it ends all sunflowers and daisies, of course, because issues like PTSD or broken relationships don’t just heal miraculously. The Impossible Knife of Memory confirms Anderson as a go-to author: powerful story, true characters, stellar writing, wit, emotion and a dash of romance? If only more books could deliver on all of those points!





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!





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





Maggot Moon (by Sally Gardner) – Carnegie Medals and Printz Honors and all that.

16 02 2014

maggotmoonMaggot Moon is a book you “have to” like. It would be considered a) bad taste, b) having no heart and c) “not knowing your stuff”, if you don’t like this book. Well, that’s just not how it works with the cat. Yes, this book won both the Carnegie Medal and a Printz Honor, which should mean a lot, I guess, but I don’t find it a particularly “likable” book. Is this a good book? Yes, for sure because it definitely has more than its share of literary and other merits (it’s “well done”), but I can’t say that I “liked” it very much. And this for the very simple reason that the connect between protagonist, Standish Treadwell, and me, the reader, just wasn’t there.

Maggot Moon is that novel that would be hard to categorize at first. Is it a historical novel? Yes and no. Is it a dystopian novel? Yes and no again to that. Semi-historical ‘alternate outcome of history’ dystopian adventure story would be a good way to describe its setting. The year is… not mentioned for a long time, until you finally learn that it’s 1956. Before that, what you did know is that Standish lives in a society that’s dividing its people into Pure and Impure and people like Standish and his Gramps end up in Zone 7, the zone designated for outcasts and impures. Standish could be living in any totalitarian regime that won a war, but saying he lives in an age in which Nazi Germany “won” the war wouldn’t be a stretch. Almost starving, doing the best he can to survive, Standish goes to a school where the kids are treated brutally. Standish has found solace in the one true friend he’s made, Hector. That is, until something happens and Hector disappears. Standish’s story is also the story of a the race to the moon, the race between important nations that want to put the first man on the moon, and of course the Motherland has gone all-in in this too.

Maggot Moon is lauded almost universally because of its very distinct narrative voice. Standish has a (learning) disability. Although this is not explicitly stated in the book, reading one interview with (or listening to) Sally Gardner and you know the authorial intent here was to give Standish the voice of someone who has dyslexia. In the book this is cause for him to be called ‘stupid’ by a.o. his brutish teacher because he can’t read and write the way a 15-year-old is supposed to, and it’s in part the reason why he lives in Zone 7. That and the fact that he has heterochromia, an “affliction” the cat also “suffers” from. This, obviously is not a serious illness or anything, it just makes you stand out. It’s also one hell of a conversation stopper, you could be in the midst of a conversation with someone and then they’d just stop mid-sentence exclaiming: “You’ve got two different eyes.”  Is this a rare thing? Well, that depends. About 6 in 1000 may have a very mild case of heterochromia iridum , while the things that Standish has (very distinctive, one eye blue, the other brown) would be considered “very rare” (I read numbers of about 2 in a million but also “less than 200 000 people in the US”). Anyway, in Standish’s world it could very well be just one more sign of impurity and a reason to fear for your life. Anyway, the point of view is ‘unique’ in that the reader experiences everything through the (very polished prose, I might add) of a kid with a learning disability. This point of view leads to awkward phrasing sometimes, but also – obviously – to near poetic language because Standish has a very unique way of seeing things in his head. It’s just the words that come differently to him, which means you get metaphors like “doubt is a great worm in a crispy, red apple” or the beating of Standish’s heart is like “an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.” Yes, that’s all very nice and poetic.  And yes, I do recognize the literary quality of all of this.

But at the same time I cannot shake the feeling that there’s almost too much authorial presence here: it’s Sally Gardner writing pretty sentences, and writing short concise chapters, and making you believe that this is how Standish thinks and experiences everything. In other words, I couldn’t really go along with the “this is Standish’s voice”. To me it felt more like “this is Sally Gardner showing us that Standish thinks and speaks like this”. That being said, I do recognize the “quality” of this book even though it prevented me from fully getting into the book.

And then there are the illustrations in the margins (the rats, the maggots etc.)… a nice find, yes, but absolutely not developed enough, I thought. This part of the book could have made this book stellar (no pun intended)  and then it would have had a much greater impact (think A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay). Now, I felt myself not really looking at them anymore after a few chapters… a mere distraction, rather than an integral part of the story, which I personally think they could (should) have been.

Maggot Moon is a book that is destined to have mass appeal, lots of cross-over potential here… It’s a book for people who loved A curious incident of the dog in the night-time and Wonder. It’s a book for people who like dystopian novels and a book for people who love historical World War II novels.  It’s also a book that I can see ‘grown-ups’ telling their kids they should read (and like). For the cat it’s a book that does have its literary merits but that has some definite flaws as well, flaws which prevented me to fully ‘get’ or ‘like’ this book.





Burger Wuss (by M.T. Anderson)

11 02 2014

Satire and wit is what this little book – M.T. Anderson’s 2nd book (1999), by the way – has in common with Feed (2002). Another very characteristic element in Anderson’s writing is always ‘style’, as in I like to ‘do things with it and challenge the reader’. In both Feed and the 2 Octavian Nothing books, style and language were absolutely stellar. In this book, however, it all reminded me a bit too much of an “exercise” in style. Although style and language didn’t wholly work for me here, Burger Wuss did show the beginnings of an author who likes to take a different approach to writing for a teen audience. If you like Anthony McGowan’s works Hellbent, Henry Tumour or Hello Darkness, pick this one up as well!

burgerwuss








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