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

The Giver (by Lois Lowry)

8 10 2013

The_Giver_CoverMore than 25 years after its initial publication, Lois Lowry’s The Giver still holds up as a decent initiation into dystopian MG or YA fiction. However, at the same time, it seems more of an ‘important work’ than a ‘great work’.

There’s no denying that Lowry’s vision in The Giver is still contemporary. The string of dystopian YA novels – Hunger Games, Divergent, to name just the two most obvious series – that has been so incredibly popular with teens in the last so many years proves this. But the book itself – as a standalone, that is – doesn’t really feel very ‘completed’. There’s a more than sufficient build up in the book, fairly slow even, as Lowry introduces her readers to most aspects of the Community and its rules as a rationalization of things to come. Once Jonas meets the Giver, though, the book rushes towards a conclusion, which in and of itself is meaningful (though obviously to be taken with a big grain of symbolism), but I can’t shake the impression that there was more to be done with this book.  It’s true that the picture that is painted here is very black and white (no pun intended, btw), and doesn’t really allow for many shades of grey or color… despite the many issues that are raised! There’s some blatant moralizing going on in this book too, which obviously needs to be put in a certain context, which Lowry in this book does not really provide (maybe she does that in the sequels?).

Anyway, undoubtedly, this is an important book: a book that many a contemporary dystopian MG or YA book (series) shows allegiance to in some way. It may have been newish in 1993 – although Orwell wrote much of the same in his 1984 (in 1949!), obviously – but as far as dystopian MG/YA novels go, there are series out now that far surpass Lowry’s The Giver!

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (by Chris Crutcher)

20 05 2013

SFFSBChris Crutcher is a giant in American YA literature, having won the Margaret A. Edwards Award already in 1997. By that time he already had 8 publications under his belt (not counting individual short stories), but much of the Award was probably because of the vital Staying Fat for Sarah Burnes (1993), in which everything that makes Crutcher into..err Crutcher is present: a focus on sport, the supporting role of the coach/teacher in a teen’s life, the responsibility of the parents as the teen grows into adulthood and of course, the friendship between teens. Also, he does not shy away from what one would call “issues”: abuse, abortion, intellectual freedom… it’s all there in Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.

Initially connected through their common outcast status, Eric (who was fat) and Sarah Byrnes (who has horrible burn scars in her face because of an accident that occurred when she was 3) have been friends since forever.  Once Eric – or ‘Moby’ as he came to be called – discovered swimming, he started to slim down. He stayed fat for an entire year because he feared he’d lose Sarah Byrnes’ friendship, if he suddenly wasn’t anymore, but Sarah Byrnes is a tough kid, who doesn’t care about that at all! That’s why it’s so painful for Eric to see how this tough person who didn’t let her ugly face (his and her own words) get the better of her, just stopped speaking one day and is now in a hospital, where she just sits and stares catatonically… Eric knows something else is going on and wants to find out before it’s too late.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes shows the personal growth of not one (main) character (Eric), but of several. Obviously there is Eric, but Crutcher includes an important storyline of Mark Brittain whose insistence on what is right(eous) and moral, and what isn’t, has landed him in big troubles. Now he has to take responsibility for his actions, actions which may have been instigated by the pressure he’s been under since he was born! It’s not hard to see why a topic like religion – always a hotbed of controversy USA! – is not often tackled in a YA novel, but to his own credit, Crutcher does it, and even has the decency to show us the different sides of the argument (although the “liberal” point of view is clearly the implied better option!). If you don’t agree with the implied message, you might take offense here (and judging from the many challenges this book has received, I’m guessing a lot of people have!), but the cat didn’t one bit. Chris Crutcher totally Judy Blumed his way into the cat’s favor!

And another poignant question, though, might be: given the fact that this was published in 1993, when today’s teens weren’t even born, does it pass the test of time? And, yes, it’s true, the kids today may not get all the references in the book. They might know about Rocky Balboa and The Far Side, but I don’t see them getting the winks to Raymond Burr, Leave it to Beaver or even Scarface. That being said, the book surpasses its temporal allusions and is definitely worth being called “a classic”. It’s the type of story that sticks. It’s about being more than what people would usually call “your shortcomings”, or “your handicap”. It’s about getting challenged and true friendship and loyalty and looking beyond the obvious, the apparent, the superficial… If that’s not contemporary, I don’t know what is!

Twenty Boy Summer (by Sarah Ockler)

9 11 2011

The notoriety that Sarah Ockler gained after the whole Republic school library book banning affair sets Twenty Boy Summer up as this hugely controversial book about sex, sex, sex, oh and more sex. And a bit of sex too. And yes the premise of the book, to which the title refers, is indeed a sexual one. Read the rest of this entry »

Forbidden (by Tabitha Suzuma)

5 06 2011

OK, first things first: the cat is not squeamish about taboo subjects in YA-fiction. On the contrary. Whenever an author tries to do something different, be it in style or by the whackiness of a book’s content, or even by putting up an apparent language barrier, the cat’s the first to give this type of thing a chance. So taboo subject, not an issue here… However, when everything you get is melodrama, uncomfortably cheap puppy-dog dialogue, and unsympathetic, not to mention irresponsible characters, then the cat would rather leave it… Unfortunately that’s exactly what Tabitha Suzuma gave her with her latest apparently overly raved about Forbidden. A big fat, pffffffffRead the rest of this entry »

My Sister’s Keeper (by Jodi Picoult)

2 12 2010

First, I don’t go looking for these multiple POV stories, but somehow they all just ended up on my plate these past few weeks. Second, before anyone asks, I didn’t see the movie, nor did I know there even was a movie made of Jodi Picoult’s novel about a 13-year-old girl looking for medical emancipation from her parents. It’s not like I would consciously watch a Cameron Diaz movie! Read the rest of this entry »

The earth, my butt and other big round things (by Carolyn Mackler)

28 11 2010

I love witty titles. And when the story lives up to the title, then this cat is a happy err…bunny. Such is the case with Carolyn Macker’s The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things. As a slightly bulky cat, it’s refreshing to read about a teenage girl, who’s well, let’s just say it…fat and discovers that no one is perfect and that skinny should never be the norm.

Unlike her mother, a psychologist specialized in dealing with adolescent problems,  Virginia Shreves never uses any euphemisms to describe her appearance. Not only that, unlike probably many other overweight teenagers in a world obsessed by scrawny, skeletal models, Virginia is experimenting: with her body (references to self-harm), with her sexuality (the book starts with her blooming relationship with Froggy Welsh the Fourth), with her character as a good girl (dying her hair, getting a piercing, …). It’s what every other adolescent does, of course, but in a world of thin, the fat girl’s desires are taboo. Virginia, for instance, refers to the Fat Girls Code of Conduct, basically a list of rules set out to make the fatties amongst us invisible to the rest of society.

Besides dealing with her own teen hormones, Virginia has to try to come to terms with the idiosyncrasies of her family. Her brother Byron,  who she’d always put on a pedestal, despite the fact he’s never really paid her much respect, is accused of a horrible act at his Columbia dorm house. Her father never made a secret of his preferences for thin women (try feeling good about yourself when your father gushes over the Kate Mosses and Keira Knightleys of the world). Her mother is the Queen of Denial when it comes to the problems within her own household, favoring curing other broken teens.

This book deals with some serious issues (besides the self-harm, there are references to bulimia, and there’s date rape and the consequences for both victim and perpetrator), but it’s never in your face, and Carolyn Mackler never gives you the impression that she’s judging people. Instead we get Virginia who has to face the problems in her teen universe, and who discovers that not every problem can get a solution and that not everything can or should be perfect. Virginia’s journey into self-discovery will give you a boost of confidence. With Virginia you’ll be ready to face the earth, your butt and other big round things!

%d bloggers like this: