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





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.





End of summer reads

31 08 2013

Due to severe time constraints (beginning of school year), just a few quick notes on…

 

Drama (by Raina Telgemeier)

This is a solid middle grade graphic novel. Loads of fun and absolutely great for reluctant readers. If you love theater, Broadway productions, girls experiencing a first crush, teens learning about responsibility, then this is the book for you!

drama3.5 stars

Ask me no questions (by Marina Budhos)

Ask Me No QuestionsAlthough this is a book about an important topic (illegal immigrants and the way Muslims were treated after 9/11), it felt too much ‘in your face’.  This is because of the repetitiveness of a lot of what is going on in the book. Unfortunately, this book is very predictable too, which wouldn’t have been the worst thing ever, if at least characterization had been dealt with less stereotypically and the pacing had been better. I’m sure it will appeal to quite a few teens, though, as this is a very fast read (plus it’s only about 150 pages). But yeah, not a master piece… Why is it so damn hard to find a really great book about a significant historical event that doesn’t come off as well… preachy?

2.5 stars





The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (by Jacqueline Kelly)

26 08 2013

evctBaffled. That’s what I am. I don’t understand how The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate could have been a Newbery Honor book…? I thought it was flat, uninspired, boring even. The one character I wanted to know more about (the grandfather) wasn’t developed at all, and Calpurnia or Callie and her so-called evolution? A token character who has a flat storyline that’s really going nowhere. Not a real person at all, but a way to prove a point: “See, adults, this is what kids should read.” I’m not wild about this one at all. If you want Newbery Honor material with a historical slant with real characters: get Gary D. Schmidt’s stuff and he’ll even throw in some humor!





In the path of falling objects (by Andrew Smith)

28 07 2013

itpofoBooks about road trips usually invoke a great leisurely feeling, but in the case of In the Path of Falling Objects, there’s very little holiday fun to be had. However, what it lacks in overt cheerfulness,  it well makes up for in creepy allure and terrifying pull. This is the 4th Smith novel the cat has read in a short time, and if it weren’t for the absolutely captivating language which seems to be a constant and the clear Smith excellence it exudes, you would think it was written by a different person: such a variety in genres and topics! Clearly Andrew Smith is an author who doesn’t want to get pinned down on one particular thing or genre or topic,… which shows he is not afraid to take risks and is an author who likes to get everything out of his obvious talent. His most recent exploit Winger is one of the best contemporary YA novels, if not the best contemporary YA novel, of 2013. The Marbury Lens and Passenger are creepy sci-fi/horror genre-benders. And here he’s serving up a (historical) road novel? What is this guy not capable of pulling off?

After their mother abandoned them for some guy in Georgia or Texas, and all supplies at their house are used up, Jonah and Simon leave their house in New Mexico to find their father, who’s getting out of prison, in Arizona. After their horse has died (!), the two brothers, who have nothing but each other, get picked up by a couple, Mitch – only a couple of years older than the 16-year-old Jonah – and the beautiful and alluring Lilly. Jonah immediately senses that something strange is going on with Mitch, and doesn’t really want to get into the Lincoln. Simon, on the other hand, no longer wants to be just the little brother, and actually resents the way in which Jonah has been acting like the responsible adult in their relationship, rather than a big brother. This is part of the reason why he feels drawn to Mitch and insists on riding along with these two strangers (and the tin man in the backseat). This is the start of the road trip from hell, because Mitch really turns out to be a total psycho.

And then there’s Lilly, the girl who’s accompanying the disturbing Mitch. Partly desperate, partly survivalist, she has an enormous pull over the two brothers and over Mitch. This intensifies the tense relationship the siblings already had before they met Mitch and Lilly … and not in a good way. She is also a catalyst for some of Mitch’s volatile behavior towards the siblings and total strangers they encounter along the way…  The emotional freefall of all these protagonists is mirrored by the story of Matthew, the oldest brother, who’s missing in Vietnam and whose heart-breaking letters to Jonah we get to read as well.

In the Path of Falling Objects is what I imagine a Shakespearean Western would be like: a tragic story in a dry and dusty setting with tragic main characters and an incredible magnetism that draws you in slowly at first and then all at once.  Every character in this book is falling in his/her own way, but because of its raw realism, the saddest part of this novel was by far the storyline involving Matthew who we only know through his letters.  In the Path of Falling Objects  isn’t perfect – it’s quite heavy on the symbolism, which might put off some readers – but if there’s one thing that is clear, then it is that YA hardly ever gets as intense as with Andrew Smith. Highly recommended!





Tell the Wolves I’m Home (by Carol Rifka Brunt)

23 03 2013

tell-the-wolves-im-homeAlong with 9 other novels, Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m home is a 2013 Alex Award winner. For those not in the know, the Alex Awards are given to “ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” Last year, for instance, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was one of the winners and the year before Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist also made the list.

It’s 1986 and 14-year-old June Elbus grows up in New York with her older sister Greta – who she’s slowly drifted apart from – and her accountant parents. Not having inherited her parent’s love for numbers, or her sister’s acting talent or outgoing personality, June has always found solace in her Uncle and godfather Finn, a talented and well-renowned artist. Now, however, Finn is dying of AIDS. One of his last wishes is to paint his two nieces and his sister in a painting he will call “Tell the wolves I’m home”. When the inevitable happens, June is overwhelmed with both grief and the memory of her strong feelings for her Uncle. When she meets Toby, Finn’s boyfriend who the rest of her family blames for Finn’s death, they soon form a friendship. Together they mourn Finn and provide each other with the support they can’t get anywhere else.

Set in New York in the 1980s, with the AIDS epidemic at its frightening peak pivotal to a clear understanding of the novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home might at first glance not be an easy sell to young adults looking for a quick fix. However, the combination of an enchanting and memorable main character (June tells the story retrospectively) and a heart-breaking family (and love) story will win over many of them.

Brunt has created a complex family history here, and obviously the story is tragic and will have many a reader reach out for that box of Kleenex on the bedside table. Is this the best book the cat’s read this year so far? No, not by a long shot. However, the book is suitably tearjerky and Carol Rifka Brunt clearly has talent setting mood and developing character. The book’s pacing, on the other hand, could have been better and clocking in at 400 pages (paperback edition), it’s just meandering along a whole while to its inevitable conclusion and when a book starts to drag and becomes repetitive, you know it’s really just too long. That being said, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a solid debut novel by a very promising author!








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