March-May Reads

25 05 2015

Books I read from March to May 2015:

Graphic novels2015-03-05 16.53.46

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

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

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

Non-fiction

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

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

Books in a series

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

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

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

Standalones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top picks

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

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

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

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

 

 





Exam reads: one pass, one fail.

22 06 2014

My life next door (by Huntley Fitzpatrick)

Despite the butt-ugly cover (yes I am a sucker for good covers and this one is just too cheesy!), I liked this book quite a bit. It’s what one would call “a beach read” but in the best Sarah Dessen sense of the word: well-plotted, good characterization (protagonist Sam as well as the love interest Jase and his entire family), a summer romance, an all around satisfying contemporary read by an author who takes her time to tell a story. I like that. If this is what my summer will be like, reading-wise, I am a happy camper!

4 stars

 

the adoration of jenna foxThe Adoration of Jenna Fox (by Mary E. Pearson)

Very disappointing read…reads like it was ‘so 5 years ago’… by which I mean it’s a book that followed a certain trend (e.g. Matched, Beta, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer…) and the trend wasn’t a great one to start out with. It did start off intriguingly enough with a girl who woke up from a coma with no memories and who tries to put the pieces together again, but it soon goes down the hill of predictability. Those pieces of the puzzle, well, it’s not very hard to figure out for the reader what went on with Jenna as Pearson takes us along on a tour of medical science and bio-ethics. All very “issue-y” and all none too subtle. Nah, just a blah book, I guess.

2 stars

 





Noggin (by John Corey Whaley)

1 05 2014

Where Things Come Back would always have been a tough act to follow. Not only did John Corey Whaley’s debut novel win both the William C. Morris Award and the Michael L. Printz Award and was it as such a definite critics’ favorite, it was above all a novel which showed talent and ambition, while not forgetting to tell a great story, the premise of any good book. Whaley did this with such a keen insight and with such an innovative approach, fusing together an imaginative plot with the most outstanding use of voice that he managed to wow the critics ánd the cat… no mean feat indeed! Taking all of that into account, it’s hardly surprising that this cat didn’t think Noggin – that hard second book – lived up to its spectacular predecessor.

Noggin is about 16-year-old Travis Coates, who is terminally ill (cancer), decides to get his head cryogenically frozen only to be resurrected in the future when medical science allows this type of Frankensteinery… And so it happens that five years later Travis wakes up, with a head that is attached to a new body. Travis is still 16, but everyone and everything else around him is 5 years older. And even though it feels to Travis that he just went to sleep and was gone for a week or two, theNoggin reality of the thing is that things definitely have changed in those 5 years. So Travis is left to find out just how much of his past reality is still the present reality and if it no longer is, whether he can make it so again…

Noggin does share something with Where Things Come Back, of course, and that is Whaley’s adherence to the importance of making the best of every moment, but also the importance of grabbing that second chance once presented with it. Noggin will force you to look at your own life and evaluate the choices you have made, which really is a very relevant thing in any person’s life, and as such, obviously Noggin is not without its own merit!

However, take away the eccentric premise of the cut off head and all, and what you’re left with is not quite the earth-shattering book that Where Things Come Back really was. And even though it might be a bit unfair to read Noggin with another book ‘in mind’, I can’t read in a vacuum and pretend Where Things Come Back didn’t happen. And in that respect, I thought Noggin was a step back rather than forward for Whaley. While Where Things Come Back focuses on Cullen Witter, 17-year-old guy with the lost brother, it was also a book that was so refreshing and innovative in its execution, and a book that did things to that age-old genre of the coming-of-age novel. That is not a feeling I got when I read Noggin, and I read with my gut before I read with my mind.

The focus of Travis Coates’ new life is Cate and how to get his old girlfriend back, and Travis even almost becomes stalker guy to do so… and repeatedly so, which is another thing that knocked off a star for me: Nogging was just too long. Or rather, the book (and its message) wouldn’t have lost any of its strength if 50 or more pages about Travis trying to get Cate back had been edited out, which may sound harsh, but why hammer it in, when you could have condensed all of that to make it more powerful? That would have left space to explore Kyle (and his going back into the closet), to make Hatton (Travis’s new best friend) more than the hilarious side-kick stereotype, ànd to focus on the changed relationships in his own family.

If all of this made you think that I didn’t like Noggin, then you’re wrong. I did like it, I just didn’t love it the way I love certain other books. Despite its crazy premise, Noggin is contemporary realistic fiction, but rather than exploring that to the fullest, crossing boundaries, getting back inside of the box only to step out of line the next, both in terms of plot ánd voice ánd character depth (which Whaley definitely did in his debut), this is (just) a nice enough book about a boy trying to get a girl back. If this is me being harsh on John Corey Whaley, and me judging this particular book unfairly on its own, well then so be it, because I happen to know that John Corey Whaley is the author of Where Things Come Back, and Where Things Come Back rocked my socks off, and I know he can do that again… only he didn’t do it with Noggin.





Independent Study (by Joelle Charbonneau)

25 03 2014

independentstudyIndependent Study is the 2nd book in The Testing trilogy. The plotline is predictable: just more Testing like Catching Fire was just more Hunger Games but in a different arena. It’s almost formulaic dystopia: blend Divergent together with Hunger Games and you get The Testing. It features stereotypical main characters: (too) intelligent & perfect female main character who asks all.the.right.questions.all.the.time. There’s really nothing original or groundbreaking in this book what.so.ever. But it’s also highly entertaining, a fun ride (although lacking somewhat in the action department, which seems to be symptomatic of middle book syndrome) and a sure winner with reluctant readers. So yeah, Charbonneau sucked me in.





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.





My Friend Dahmer / The Darkest Minds

28 01 2014

Work, work and more work getting in the way of the most important stuff…

… reading. So: impressions of books, rather than actual reviews of books.

 

My friend Dahmer (by Derf Backderf)

my friend dahmerI was too young to experience the whole Dahmer-thing consciously. Obviously during my own ‘fascinated by serial killers’ phase (doesn’t everyone have one?), the name Dahmer was a chiller. Derf Backderf went to the same high school as Jeffrey Dahmer and after Dahmer got arrested, Backderf – a talented graphic artist – started to put his memories of his “Friend Dahmer” to paper in the form of his own artwork (in all seriousness, Dahmer really wasn’t “a friend” at all, that much is clear from this book).

Actually, Backderf already started to draw Dahmer when he was in highschool… Dahmer was a weird kid, who seemed to just exist and was a total social outcast at first, but then became an almost raving lunatic impersonating his mother’s interior decorator, and who ended up as the school drunk (which Backderf sees as a severe coping mechanism, especially after Dahmer discovers his sexual preferences) whom people tried to avoid at all cost.

Yes, people (adults) should have seen that something was off with Dahmer, but aren’t there tons of weird kids in a high school? How many of them end up as serial killers? It’s a telling fact that when Backderf was notified of the fact that one of his high school classmates was arrested for murdering all these people, his first guess *wasn’t* Dahmer, but another one of his classmates…

Anyone reading this book expecting a sensationalist account of Dahmer’s crimes, look elsewhere. My Friend Dahmer is all about Dahmer’s disturbing home life, Dahmer in high school and how he was perceived by classmates but also how he was used by his classmates. Backderf doesn’t just rely on his own memory, though, he also did a ton of research into Dahmer’s family and teenage life. Backderf is also quite insistent that his novel is not about ‘making excuses’ for Dahmer’s crimes. Yes, you can feel pity for Dahmer up until his first murder, but that’s where empathy and pity stop for Backderf. What Backderf is trying to do is finding reasons, or at least, contributing reasons for what Dahmer did.

My main ‘objection’ to this graphic novel / memoir has nothing to do with the artwork (which is really in line with the topic: quite expressionistic and slightly grotesque). It is with the amount of meta-text. OK, this is partly a memoir and partly a journalistic effort, but I didn’t actually need all the “explanations” to piece together what was going on in this novel. If what is written as meta-text is there to make the reader think about e.g. nature vs. nurture, well, even then, I didn’t need it. As I said, the drawings are quite expressionistic and tell a tale. Dialogue can convey a lot, and then meta-text is just too much. In other words, I think that Backderf is a much better graphic artist and illustrator than he is a writer… but, hey, that’s just me, right? James Ellroy seemed to dig this book a lot, so choose who you want to believe 😉

3.5 stars

 

The Darkest Minds (by Alexandra Bracken)

darkestmindsThis book combines a number of tropes that have been popular in the last couple of years: dystopian and/or apocalyptic madness, psychic or otherwise supergifted kids (sometimes even locked up), a romance that might be (or not) and a whole lot of running around that may or may not amount to anything. Rather than being wholly unoriginal, however, Bracken has enough talent to pull things together somewhat… But, despite the fact that it’s clocking in a hefty 488 pages, there are on the one hand elements at the heart of this book that clearly needed to be explored more (the weird disease IAAN that affects kids but not adults and why ‘governments’ don’t try to find the cause etc. etc.). At the same time, though, this book also could have used a big comb to weed out some of its needless inconsistencies and superfluous ‘running around scenes’… No, running around does not speed up the action but slows things down and it definitely did not increase the tension (messy comes to mind). This book – and this writer – shows a lot of promise but needs just that final push to get me on the edge of my seat…

3 stars

 








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