B as in…

10 08 2014

1) Brock and Barrington Stoke

Now, I’ve always liked Anthony McGowan and his wittier-than-witty sense of humor in books. Seriously, if you want to know how dark and twisted should be used in the same sentence as humor, go on an read *any* of his other books. I promise you there is no one like McGowan out there. But, I think Brock just made me like him even more! Brock was published by Barrington Stoke. On their website you can read that they are an “independent publisher dedicated to cracking reading. We know that every parent wants their child to become a reader, and every teacher wants their students to make the jump from learning to read to loving to read. Our books are commissioned, edited and designed to break down the barriers that can stop this happening, from dyslexia and visual stress to simple reluctance.” As a teacher I know how hard it can be to get reluctant readers to pick a book, a2014-08-05 12.15.20ny book… and often books that they might pick up are just books they have to read but don’t like anyway, or they pick it up because it only has X number of pages… as few as possible.

With Brock McGowan accomplishes a number of things at the same time, not in the least just telling a really greatand poignant story. McGowan does not compromise on integrity or heart in this book, which is what makes any of his other books also so memorable. Brock is the story of Nicky and his brother Kenny and their ‘adventure’ with a badger.  The brothers themselves don’t have an easy life as is made clear early on, but the story McGowan tells is not just a harsh one. This book is a perfect combination of dark and light, horrifying and sweet. A excellent read for a reluctant and basically any reader.

4 stars

 

2) The Boy in the Smoke or World Book Day…

In 2014 Maureen Johnson wrote a short little book called The Boy in the Smoke, especially for World Book Day. Bonus for Maureen Johnson fans is that this book is part of the Shades of London series and that it gives the reader an insight into Stephen Dene’s background. Stephen Dene is the lead detective of the Shades, of course, and the more interesting of characters from that set of books. The prequel is nicely done, nothing too special, but a sweet in-between thingie to keep you going until the 3rd book in this series comes out (scheduled for March 2015).

3 stars





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





The Waking Dark (by Robin Wasserman)

22 04 2014

wakingdarkThe town of Oleander is nothing exceptional… except for one thing, something brewing underneath the surface that one horrible day led to the most gruesome of things: The Killing Day. 12 people in the small Kansas town were killed by 5 other Oleander people. Four of them killed themselves afterwards, except for Cass whose suicide attempt failed. With no recollection of what happened, she’s put in an institution hoping that this means things will be buried forever.

But then, a year later, a storm came, the town of Oleander is put under military quarantine (for which you don’t exactly get a reason until…) and the distrust that had been plaguing the people of Oleander ever since The Killing Day is about to come to the surface once again… no more hiding, not for Cass, who’s now out of the mental institution, but not for the other group of ‘outsiders’ in the ‘normal’ city of Oleander either: Jule (the girl trying to escape her family reputation of meth addicts and meth dealers), West (the high school football star mourning his dead lover, Nick), Ellie (the religious zealot who’s trying to save all of their souls) and Daniel (who’s the son of a Preacher and has taken the care of his younger brother Milo upon himself as he sees his father suffering from his own personal demons) and a bunch of other teens, like Grace and Milo who all blend in and out of the story as you go along.

Wasserman changes focus so very often throughout her narrative that getting to the essence of a character was really hard. The book is told in the 3rd person, which here is a very distancing perspective, and which always prevents the reader from internalizing the often shocking things that happen to the characters or that the characters do themselves. Each of the protagonists has something that sets them apart, and each of them has baggage galore, so once the mayhem starts the book almost feels like an experiment in human behavior focusing on rage, violence and (im)morality of certain acts. Something to watch, rather than experience. It’s also the main reason why I never clicked with any of the characters, and there’s nothing worse than feeling indifferent about the fate of a character in a book.

The Waking Dark is very much set in a Stephen King horror tradition…that much is clear, from Wasserman’s own acknowledgements, to the blurb, to the marketing of this book, and also to the brewing menacing style of writing. However… Stephen King is more than just horror and style. For me, Stephen King is first and foremost a brilliant storyteller who manages to create a menacing universe, yes, but whose characters within that universe are so well-rounded that even at the creepiest of times, the characters (that I can care for or have actual emotions about) and the lavish plot always – always – win over style. “Style” is not so much secondary with King, as that it feels like he’s not even trying and it’s an integral part of the overall plot. It’s not that Wasserman is trying too hard in The Waking Dark, though. What bothered me the most is that the style becomes an impediment to the plot, the mystery and the characters. Ultimately the style drags out the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages, until you really have to look for the plot – which is there, for sure, but which should have been to the forefront and not in the background like it is now.

As for the ultimate resolution of the story? Well, I don’t think that this was Wasserman’s intention in the first place, and it shows… because when we get to the why, it’s not very… well, original. It’s just a bit of a cheap way out.

The Waking Dark is horror, but there’s much better to be found out there, not in the least in Stephen King’s magnificent oeuvre. However, if the Maine Master of Horror doesn’t shake your bones enough, try Daniel Kraus’s Rotters and Scowler or Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Passenger.





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

7 04 2014

Doll Bones (By Holly Black)

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

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

3 stars

 

Fangirl (by Rainbow Rowell)

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

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

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

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

2.5 stars

 

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

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

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

3.5 stars

 





The 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.








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