Just Listen (by Sarah Dessen)

7 03 2014

justlistenFinishing up on Grasshopper Jungle is a hard thing to do, probably like coming off a drug cold turkey… so any book following that would have been, well… a letdown. That’s why I played it a bit safer and decided to pick up a book that I knew beforehand I would at least like. Didn’t need to love it, but like would have been good… which lead me to Sarah Dessen. And I got exactly what I expected from Just Listen. There was nothing in this book – which actually has a bit of a Speak-vibe, btw – that I didn’t expect, which means, that yes, although Dessen is definitely following a formula, her writing and character development is up to par – as per usual. Just Listen isn’t the best Sarah Dessen (I’m still very much in love with The Truth About Forever), but it’s Sarah Dessen, you know?

Next up? Adam Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree.

Scowler (by Daniel Kraus): to horror or not to horror.

19 01 2014

scowlerHere’s something completely different! Prepare to be horrified. And probably disgusted and sickened a little too. And definitely prepare to have your ideas of “horror and YA” be amended. Daniel Kraus’ Scowler is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.

Daniel Kraus confirms his talent for writing the true psychological (and physically revolting) horror that he also used in Rotters. And just like in Rotters, the reader should not expect Kraus to compromise. This is a ‘take-no-prisoners’ story which takes the reader to the most extreme situations imaginable. Think of Stephen King’s The Shining and/or Silence of the Lambs type horror and you might get close to what Ry Burke – the 19-year-old protagonist – is going through here.

Ry lives with his mother Jo Beth and younger sister Sarah at the family’s dying and secluded farm in Iowa. It’s 1981 and Marvin, Ry’s father is in prison for inflicting the worst possible abuse on his wife ánd son. It’s taken years for Ry and his mother to somewhat recover, and now Ry’s mother feels it’s time to move on and she’s finally decided to pack up so they can move into town.  However, before they get to leave, a stranger calls at the farm… and this man who turns out to be an escaped convinct, and who also brings them the worst possible of news about Marvin Burke.

Marvin’s ‘return’ coincides with the 1981 August meteor shower and meteorites fall from the sky onto the Burke farmland. The return of Marvin forces Ry to go back into his own past and relive the events of what happened in 1971 and 1972. This story is then told in flashbacks. We learn about the horrible things Marvin did to Jo Beth and Ry, and how Ry found some kind of coping devices in 3 old ‘toys’: Mr Furrington, a stuffed animal, a Jesus Christ figurine and Scowler, an ugly and twisted hunk-typed thing.

The things that Marvin did to Jo Beth are truly horrific, and it’s obvious that Marvin is just an all-around psychopath. But Kraus doesn’t leave it at that. What is the more interesting question here is the effect having a psycho-dad has on Ry. What did Ry have to do to save his mother in the past? What did Ry have to do to cope with the trauma afterwards? And what does Ry have to do now that Marvin is back with revenge on his mind? To truly take care of his mother and little sister, Ry will have to face the darkness that is in him and decide whether to use this darkness against Marvin or not. In this, the 3 ‘toys’ (the Unnamed Three) are significant. Once they were actual toys to Ry, but over time they have become different aspects of his own personality, and some of those aspects may be too horrible for Ry to revisit.

Just like Rotters, Scowler is a truly disturbing read. However, I’d argue that it’s not horror for horror’s sake. Despite its horrifically realistic and gory imagery, it’s also a brilliant example of characterization.  Ry’s search for his own self is a scary journey for the reader, and it will lead Ry as well as the reader into unknown territories of his own mind, a point where the conscious and the subconscious collide, where the real and the sur-real merge. And it’s not just the characterization of Ry that is done well here. I  especially liked how Jo Beth is equally convincingly drawn (the metaphor of the dress is almost heartbreaking).

Scowler is a brutal book, by an unflinching author, as the best authors tend to be. This is a book by someone who dares to go where very few YA authors dare to go. For anyone who likes Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series* and Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Passenger, Daniel Kraus’ work is a must read!


* didn’t review the last one, but here’s a nice thing:finaldescent

Reality Boy (by A.S. King)

10 11 2013

Everyone needs heroes. The type of super-person you can only hope to be one day. God- or goddess-like figures, with an almost completely unattainable public persona. When you’re a kid growing up, and your mom or dad stops being your personal hero, you start looking at the people who excel at something you would like to excel at too: a sports hero, a musical hero, a gifted writer, a talented speaker, maybe even a historical figure.

Enter the concept of “reality TV”, with its instant-made heroes and heroines. The types of shows where excellence is not so much a requirement as it is often an obstruction. There’s a “reality” program to hold everyone’s fancy, from ‘competitive’ reality TV shows like Survivor and Project Runway to reality shows about “lifestyles”, like Teen Mom, Supernanny or Extreme Hoarders. Reality shows on TV now also often include a level of audience interaction (e.g. Idol)[i]. Why do people watch these shows (btw, most people claim they never watch them, … yeah, right…)? Apparently, the human being’s innate need to feel superior is one of the major reasons for the success of these voyeuristic shows. People want to feel like they are better than other people (“look at them, thank god that’s not me!”)… and this is then used as the basis for TV networks to produce shows that – manipulatively so, because there’s very little ‘real’ about ‘reality’ TV – show people as they really are. Given the many suicides of people who once appeared on reality shows, it’s actually surprising that there’s no Suicide Show, I’m sure people would watch that too… to quench their immeasurable thirst for feeling superior.

realityboyWhen A.S. King returned from Ireland, that’s what she noticed about TV: for the sake of other people’s entertainment, people needed to suffer, and she came up with her own Survivor story: that of Gerald Faust. Faust… remember the guy who made a pact with the devil? The guy who wanted to have it all, worldly pleasures and unlimited knowledge but had to give his soul to get it? In Gerald’s case, it’s Gerald’s mother who turns over her soul to the devils of Network Nanny. The question, however, is: what power and what success does Gerald’s mom hope to achieve here? What sort of hero does she want to be? For Gerald it’s as clear as day: by turning him over to these outsiders, she will never be his hero.

A.S. King has proved before that she is the queen of the odd perspective (we’ve had pagodas, ants, …) but in Reality Boy, there’s only one perspective and there’s nothing frivolous about it. Instead, the point of view is an extremely claustrophobic one: we are inside Gerald’s head and only inside Gerald’s head. Gerald is very much obsessed by his own narrow world too, a world which includes a fantasy retreat, which he calls Gersday, his happy place where he doesn’t have a psycho sister and a weak-ass mother, but where he gets Snow White and ice cream instead. Until he meets Hannah, Gerald doesn’t see any way out of his world, real or fantasized. This narrow perspective has some obvious consequences (which as a reader, you have to take or leave): secondary characters are seen solely through Gerald’s (maybe) distorted lens, which results in a very black and white picture of e.g. Tasha and Gerald’s mother. This is a very ambiguous and ambitious route to take given the fact that Gerald himself doesn’t want to be seen from just one single point of view, namely that of a camera lens (or rather that of the editor’s cutting board) of a reality show of when he was only 5 or 6 years old.

There are many reasons why I loved Reality Boy as much as I did. For one, the way A.S. King describes how the walls Gerald has built around himself are slowly broken down by that one truly real and universal thing called love, without ever making this seem sappy or sentimental. Second, she never fails to include these tiny bits of strangeness that make her novels so unique (here it’s running away with the circus). There’s also King’s powerfully real language. It’s never more complicated than it should be. It’s never gratuitous. This woman can write. That’s what it comes down to: she is immensely and insanely talented as a writer.

But she’s also a keen observer of human behavior, something which makes her into an even better writer. And more than any other A.S. King book, I related to Reality Boy not as the teen I once was, but as the mother that I am right now. Yes, there was the obvious compassion with Gerald, and his almost desperate attempts at real communication, but it was more than that. Amy King sees through the bullshit and she has her protagonists go through all kinds of bullshit too, which always (ALWAYS) makes for an emotionally draining and intense reading experience. This book, for instance, absolutely reinforces my own belief that certain people should never ever be parents. Kids know more than you tell them, and Gerald is one of those kids. He knows his mother never loved him, not in the way she “loves” his oldest sister Tasha. He also knows his mother is too weak to change her life. He knows that his mother has surrendered any form of moral integrity she may have had before she let the cameras into their house. He knows that his life has always been a twisted mess of ugliness and he knows that he’s not the one who’s different or wrong or stupid or retarded or however he’s been called by people around him. And he is fucking angry because of this. And he should be angry because of this. Gerald has an inner rage that is so all-consuming that – even at age 5 – the only way he can express that anger is physically. At age 5 by crapping all over everything, at age 16 by punching people. Feeling like punching the crap out of that wall, kicking down that damn door, or throwing things out of the window? Of course, you’ve felt this too! Don’t be so damn politically correct: we have all felt like that at one point or other. And that is the way Gerald now feels all.the.time. It’s a miracle he hasn’t killed anyone (Tasha, his mother…) yet!

A.S. King does screwed up and horrifyingly realistic like no other. And even though this may sound odd, but it’s definitely a beautiful thing to read, time and again. I am fortunate enough to have a signed copy of Reality Boy and Amy asked what my demands are. Easy: I want more of this. Having no gift whatsoever as a writer myself, she’s sorta like my hero. Thanks, Amy!

[i] With newish media like YouTube, reality “shows”, are obviously no longer limited to television.

Double take (October 2013)

23 10 2013

Two authors proved this week that they’re among the cat’s favorites: Chris Crutcher and Anthony McGowan.

Hello Darkness (by Anthony McGowan)

hellodarknessWith Hello Darkness McGowan shows just how much of a ‘funny’ serious writer he is. The topic of this book is no joke, though. Johnny Middleton has had some serious (mental) problems in the past and he’s still being bullied because of them. And right at this time, there’s a killer on the loose at his school. Not just any ordinary killer: a vicious take no prisoners miscreant who’s killing off the weakest of the weak: the school’s animals, from stick insects over hamsters to chickens! Whodunnit? That is the question! Because of his past, Johnny’s prime suspect number 1, but he’s hell bent (get it, get it?) on proving that someone else at school – Queen or Lardie? Or maybe even the evil vice-principal? – is responsible for these heinous crimes! In true noir style (including the wise cracks, the incredibly cool similes, the (middle school) femme fatale…), McGowan leads us along in Johnny’s quest for truth… but the truth is an elusive and ambiguous concept when you have to rely on a narrator with ‘issues’, like Johnny who forgets his meds once in a while.

Anthony McGowan is funny! He really really is! And this book, which is just the right amount of twisted and dark, puts him up there amongst the best contemporary British authors!

Oh and look at that gorgeous cover!

4 stars


Whale Talk (by Chris Crutcher)

whaletalkCrutcher’s Whale Talk dates back to 2001 and is trademark Crutcher: highly readable, a tad funny, sad at times, sports-oriented and not holding back on the more controversial issues of our time: multiculturalism (our protagonist T.J. is the biological son of a white mom and a half African-American / half American-Japanese father), abuse, racism, bullying, gun violence… you name it, it’s there, all blended together in the most realistic and believable of ways. Never gratuitous! It’s obvious that book banners never read the books they challenge or ban!

Despite being a great athlete, T.J. has always refused to join any of the sports teams at his high school. This has angered the sports coaches, who pride themselves on “school spirit” and the athletic prowess of the school’s sports teams. But T.J. (whose real name is “The Tao Jones”, by the way) is no stranger to hard challenges, and with the help of John Simet, his English teacher, he decides to start a swim team even though the school… has no pool. T.J.’s goal: to earn the letter jackets that are the envy of every sports buff at his school. To accomplish this, T.J. recruits the outcasts of the school, including Chris Coughlin, an intellectually disabled student (who’s been bullied by some of the most vicious jocks, like Mike Barbour) Dan Hole (who prefers to speak in multi-syllable words), bodybuilder Tay-Roy, the one-legged Andy Mott, the non-talking Jackie Craig and the obese Simon DeLong.

Crutcher’s book and Crutcher’s language is powerful! When we’re introduced to Heidi, for instance, the black girl whose stepfather abuses her in such a way that she tries to wash off her black skin with steel wool, we’re shown what truly evil people are capable of. Why would you want to challenge or ban a book like this? Whale Talk is a book that promotes open-mindedness and tolerance. It doesn’t promote profanity (despite the language used) and it doesn’t promote racism. Rather it shows what hardships people have to go through, and the situations in the books may make you feel uncomfortable – they should! – but they’re real (Crutcher has long been a teacher for at risk kids,  and a therapist).  So this book: absolutely necessary and a must read for everyone with a heart.

4 stars

Ghost Medicine ( by Andrew Smith)

16 10 2013

GhostMedicinePBAndrew Smith never disappoints. And there are some very good reasons for that: Andrew Smith never plays it safe and never compromises on what he thinks his story needs. His debut novel, Ghost Medicine sets this unflinching tone already.  And that’s exactly why he is an Author to admire: authenticity and integrity!

Ghost Medicine tells the story of 16-year-old Troy Stotts. After his mother died, he and his father have drifted apart. Troy turns to his horses, and to the mountains, for solace. Luz, the girl he’s always been in love with, manages to track him down up in a cabin in the mountains, and brings him back. Luckily, Troy also has two best friends, Gabe – the son of the rancher that Troy works for, and Luz’s sister – and Tom Buller, who can help him cope with the loss and together they go through the summer that will make them into who they are. But as with any Smith story, there’s an evil and brutal truth lurking, one that will mark the boys forever.

Andrew Smith’s fundamental love for the natural world and horses is an asset here, as the setting of Ghost Medicine is what makes this an almost transcendental experience to read. This is contemporary Western done at its very very best! Added to that is a most intriguing and tragic story of 3 boys who each deal with their own personal damages.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (by Matthew Quick)

6 10 2013

fmlpMatthew Quick’s star has been on the rise since his debut, The Silver Linings Playbook, was made into a movie, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The Silver Linings Playbook, though, was written with an adult audience in mind, and to me, it’s by far Quick’s weakest book. In my opinion, his strength clearly lies in Young Adult fiction: Sorta Like a Rock Star, Boy 21, and now Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, all three are so overpowering, and leave an indelible mark long after the last line is read. And Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, especially, is a warning, a mirror and a gem of a book all at the same time. There’s no one who should not read this book!

I have to admit: I was thrown off by Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. It wasn’t because I didn’t expect a good book from Quick – because I did! It was because, despite the incredible compassion in this book (something that was also present in his two other YA books), what stood out initially was the despair in Leonard Peacock’s young life. Usually, there’s that glimmer of hope that lifts Quick’s book from being completely despondent despite the very bad things that have happened to the main characters (like how Tiffany manages to break through to Pat in SLP or how Amber Appleton is really sorta like a rock star just by being who she is). But Forgive Me, Leonard Peocock just threw me off. I didn’t really see that glimmer of hope immediately. Leonard Peacock is depressed. Leonard Peacock wants to kill his former best friend and then commit suicide. He is intent on doing that. That’s how things are. There’s nothing that can change his mind. No, there’s no one that can change his mind.  He’s gone far beyond that point already. This is the day. The day he’ll walk into his school with his grandfather’s P-38 pistol.

But then, it’s there… that spark. Leonard wants to say goodbye to the people that have done right by him in some way before killing himself. People that mean something to him: his old next-door neighbor, a boy from school who’s a wonderful musician, a weird bond with the home-schooled Christian girl Lauren, a high school teacher… Slowly the reader uncovers the events that led Leonard to his drastic decision, and it’s not a pretty history. It’s a story of neglect (by his mother), it’s a story of abuse and bullying.

Leonard Peacock, whose voice is insistent, cocky even, is not an easy character to love: he almost intentionally scares off the readers, hellbent on proving that he’s got all the right reasons for his drastic decisions about other people’s lives and his own. And Leonard does get preachy too, enough to put off a lot of readers, I’m sure, but it works. I believed Leonard’s pain. It’s part of Quick’s plan to write his protagonist as real as possible. The footnotes he includes, the letters from the future with his (yes, scary) vision of the future, they all aim at establishing Leonard’s character. And Leonard is definitely a struggling protagonist: struggling with his past and his future. It should come as no surprise either then, that Leonard questions Lauren’s blind faith in religion – religion and faith has always been an important element in Quick’s writing.

Lots of YA writers want to get into the heads of the teens they are writing about and for. Very few of those writers can actually write authentic characters. Matthew Quick gets it. Those feelings of isolation from the world – such an universal theme in many a teen’s life – and the feelings of being abandoned by the very adults who are supposed to take care of them… that is what Matthew Quick excels at. But he is not stuck in the isolation and hopelessness. Even in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Quick shows he’s an optimist at heart. Leonard has some people around him who could give him hope, even though he doesn’t always believe it himself. But if he lets them, if he accepts what some people around him can do for him… then there may be infinite possibilities after all.

Stick (by Andrew Smith)

17 08 2013

stickAndrew Smith is definitely one of the fiercest voices in YA at the moment. From several interviews, I get that he’s not all that happy with his books being labeled one way or the other, because he doesn’t write his books with a particular audience in mind, but I’ll be damned, this is some of the best YA literature there is, my friend, and you should be proud of that.

Stick is a perfect example of this: it’s both heartbreaking and sad on the one hand, and comforting and hopeful on the other.  Stark McClellan is 13. Born with just one ear and unbelievably tall for his age, he’s mostly called Stick. Luckily he can rely on his older brother Bosten, who literally fights some of his battles, and his best friend Emily who just takes him the way he is, just because that’s how Emily is. Perfect. The bond he has with Bosten and Emily is the only beautiful thing in his life. Kids are cruel and Stick gets bullied, a lot, for his otherness.  But that’s nothing compared with the ugliness and cruelty that the brothers have to endure at home. However, more than a book about abuse, this book is about relationships, how they were, how they change, how they are now, but most especially about the bond between brothers. About the support they give each other and the way love really can be an unconditional thing.

What Smith excels at is characterization. Stick is awkward and innocent and unsure, the way all 13, almost 14-year-olds can be. And Andrew Smith absolutely nails this teenage voice. This is a real kid, you know? He’s not brighter than most teens you know, he’s not quirkier than most teens you know, he’s not more of a smart-ass than most teens you know. He’s just taller. And the way you get to see the world is entirely through Stick’s eyes. He thinks every family has rules the way his family has rules. He thinks the abuse is absolutely normal, and is how problems are dealt with in families. But when you read his voice, and you get inside his head, you know that everything this kid is going through is wrong, and you’re aching for him, and you’re yelling at some of the other characters: “OPEN YOUR EYES! BAD THINGS ARE HAPPENING TO THIS KID!” And it’s weird that they don’t see it, but you know that that is how it goes. Abuse often goes unnoticed by people’s immediate surroundings, and it’s hard to see the positive side of things, because you KNOW that what Bosten, Stick’s older brother, says is true: “things don’t make people the way they are…they just are.”

And that’s the second thing that makes Andrew Smith different from a lot of other contemporary YA writers: his willingness to take his readers to places they are not comfortable with. [i] And I’m not talking about “teens having sex” or “teens drinking” and other normal teen behavior that stupid grown-ups who don’t actually read the books often object to. I’m talking about a discussion of inherent (a)moral human behavior, a hot pickle if ever there was one. I can think of 2 other YA writers who are as uncompromising in their attitude towards moral ambiguity as Andrew Smith, Adam Rapp and Rick Yancey, coincidentally also two writers who people (mostly people who hardly read any YA) often almost accuse of not writing real YA. Sigh. Smith doesn’t really elaborate on why the parents are abusive, or how it came about, but Bosten obviously sums it up: “things don’t make people the way they are…they just are.” And in The Marbury Lens Smith does offer us a deeper insight into how people get screwed up, of course, and it’s actually interesting to ask the question: what will Stick grow up to be like? And Bosten?  Will things just … be for them?

The cat owes A.S. King lots and lots! If it hadn’t been for her, I’d never even have heard of Andrew Smith. So thanks, Amy!  Andrew Smith now belongs on the cat’s list[ii]: I’ll read anything these people publish!

[i] It’s also why the ending came a bit too soon (or too late, depending on how you look at it), because I didn’t quite buy into how fast Bosten did what he did at the end, and also the way the actual ending was a bit too sweet… Silver linings are good. Stick and Bosten deserve and needed a silver lining, but I would have liked it not to be that ‘quick’… this was a rushed ending.

[ii] Adam Rapp, A.S. King, Barry Lyga, John Green, Sarah Dessen. I might also throw in M.T. Anderson and Gregory Galloway.

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