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:


 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


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

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.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (by Kirstin Cronn-Mills)

20 12 2012

bmucGabe was born as Elizabeth, but he’s always known that he’s a boy. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children sets out to be a bold book, by an author who definitely doesn’t shy away from tough topics like transgender kids. And although there is no doubt whatsoever that this topic – or Issue, for lack of a better word – is incredibly relevant in contemporary (high) school life[1], a book is not (or should not be) just “about an issue” and unfortunately that is exactly what’s wrong with Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.

The main culprit for that is firstly the clear intention of Cronn-Mills to educate her audience. Proof of that is also for instance the author’s note at the end of the book explaining the whole spectrum of transgenderism. Interesting to know, yes, but it gives away that Cronn-Mills is more interested in educating her audience than really grabbing a reader with unique characters and a great story.

This is even enhanced by the disjointed writing. Gabe’s narration feels forced somehow. There’s very little that made the cat really care for Gabe as a character. Sure, the things happening to him are singular, sure it’s a disgrace that there’s so much misunderstanding and hatred out there against transgenders, resulting in bullying and even physical violence. But the feeling you get is that it’s something “the reader absolutely has to sympathize with because it’s a bad thing that is happening to transgenders”, rather than that “it’s goddamn awful that Gabe who’s such a great person has to suffer all of this. I mean, come on people!”. What I want to say is that there’s a whole river between what the author wants me to feel about the main character and what the cat actually feels about the main character.

On top of that (and it’s a result of the mediocre writing) the problems that Gabe encounters (relationship issues, bullying, the problems his parents experience because of his transgenderism, the radio show, etc.) all feel like “And first this. Then this. Then that…” . There really isn’t any natural flow to the story. The tensions between Gabe and his parents, for instance. Gabe tells us that his parents find it difficult to accept who he is, but there’s very little interaction between Gabe and his parents for the reader to believe that… Also, when there actually is interaction, they keep on calling Gabe Liz, and Gabe doesn’t call them on it (I think he only does that once). Secondly, the DJ contest. Gabe is a self-proclaimed music nut. However, why does he connect with the songs on his show? The DJ contest itself is also glossed over in a mere paragraph or two, and never did Gabe discuss the relevance of the songs he chose. The main highlight of the music angle of the book were the chapter titles (all outlaying who was the new Elvis and why…).

Seriously, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is probably an important book because of its topic. I’m sure lots of transgender kids will relate to or at least recognize what Gabe goes through. But as a piece of writing, a published book, it doesn’t really hold up, never transcending the label of LGBT or Issues book, which is a total pity. Other authors, like David Levithan or Emily M. Danforth prove that such a thing really is possible.

[1] According to this website, gender related bullying is staggeringly high: 9 out of 10 LGBT youth reported being verbally harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. There’s also a clear link between gender related bullying and suicide amongst LGBT youth.

Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Story (edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones)

1 04 2012

Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones have collected author stories, essays and poems with a common theme: bullying. The result is not just this book, but an online project, which you can find on their website Dear Bully and on Facebook. As a statement against bullying this book is a definite winner: respected YA writers (Alyson Noel, Lauren Kate, A.S. King, R.L. Stine, Lauren Oliver…) telling their own stories of being bullied, bullying others themselves, or just letting it happen, shows that bullying was and is a much bigger problem for growing teens than it may look for the adults in their lives.  As such, this book can be a great help for teens who are being bullied, if only as a token that “no, you are not alone” and “yes, it gets better”.

On the other hand, you have to be honest and say that from a literary point of view, this collection of stories is flawed… despite the fact that that wasn’t the first intention of the editors and writers here. Though there is a common theme, the literary quality is only scattered throughout with only a handful of memorable texts (R.L. Stine, Carolyn Mackler, Lauren Oliver, Cecil Castellucci). At its worst, the stories definitely get repetitive, and maybe even too same-ish, which is not something the topic should allow for, but the book does manage to end on a high note: the letter Carolyn Mackler received from a girl after she had read her book The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things (which in itself is one of the greatest girl empowering books!), and Mackler’s reply to this letter.

There is safety and comfort in numbers, is what the overall message here seems to be: we too got through it, and so will you. Here is our statement and support to you. And though this may be true, for the many kids experiencing bullying on a daily basis right now, it’s a bit of a mute argument. But still, there is much to admire here and the fact that so many authors showed their more vulnerable side, either as bully or the one being bullied is the added bonus.

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