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.





Midwinterblood (by Marcus Sedgwick)

20 04 2013

mwbTwo souls who long to be reunited through time is in short what Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood is about. It all starts on the mysterious Blessed Island in the year 2073 with journalist Eric Seven visiting the island and intent on writing a story about a place where apparently no children are born and people are rumored to live forever. On Blessed Island he meets a young woman, Merle, who he feels strangely drawn to although he doesn’t quite know why. At the close of the first tale, the reader ends up with more questions than answers, questions that are slowly answered by going back in time… seven times, until we get to the beginning of their destined love.

As per usual, Sedgwick’s prose is sparse and seemingly simple, which gives it its unsettling and haunting feel that most people call “gothic” (and after all, this is not just a book of love, but also one with quite a lot of violence, blood, death…). Somehow, Sedgwick always manages to give his books an almost poetic quality and Midwinterblood is no exception to this. I’m sure that Sedgwick will be accused of trying to outsmart himself with his attention to structure, genre, language and mood. But that’s not taking into consideration how engrossing this book (and many other of his books) really is: you just can’t stop reading and that’s the mark of a true artist right there.

Any Sedgwick book needs to be savored rather than devoured, though. His atmospheric prose is of the type that lingers. Blending the contemporary (e.g. the use of present tense alternated with the use of past tense for the narration of the 7 tales) with the traditional (these stories are what gothic horror tales would have been like at the heyday of “the gothic novel”!), he is so unlike many present-day “fantasy” writers, who churn out formulaic fantasy fodder. Sedgwick, on the other hand is – to use Aidan Chambers’ words – a true author and not a writer and he’s obviously not concerned with pleasing a certain type of audience, but rather in producing a work of art. Revolver, Blood Red, Snow White, Midwinterblood… all of these share this common urgency. And it works! It works for kids, it works for teens, it works for adults!





Short Cuts

11 03 2013

I Will Save You (by Matt de la Peña)

i will save youKidd Ellison has the worst of lives. Away from the mental facility Horizons where he ended up after his mother killed herself (after she killed her abusive husband), he now lives in a tent on the beach, employed by Mr Red. In I Will Save You Matt de la Peña plays with narrative timelines as the reader has to figure out the links between Kidd and Olivia, Kidd and Mr Red, and especially Kidd and Devon, a guy Kidd met at Horizons but who now also turns up at the beach.

The book actually starts at the end of it all, when Kidd somehow pushes Devon off of a cliff, and then goes back to tell the entire story in flashback, memories, dreams and notebook entries (Kidd writes in his philosophy of life notebook). This disjointed chronology may throw you off at times, but it actually enhances the sense of desperation Kidd feels. The only thing this broken and vulnerable kid wants it to save Olivia, but when the mysterious Devon arrives and starts his devious schemes, everything Kidd wants is threatened. Even though you know from the start that something is up with Devon – there are clear hints throughout the book – I’m sure some readers will still be shocked at the ultimate twist at the end of the book.

I was a bit surprised to see this listed as a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, because it’s not exactly a “quick read”. On the contrary, it really does require some effort from the part of the reader. I don’t see my reluctant readers picking this up ‘quickly’. In any case, I Will Save You is a deeply moving and engaging book about a boy with an extremely troubled past and whose future is far from bright. Definitely one of the saddest books in a long time…

4 stars

 

My Swordhand is Singing (by Marcus Sedgwick)

my swordhand is singingMarcus Sedgwick is a cat favorite. One of the only writers to successfully publish work for children and young adults, his foray into the ‘darker’ genres is remarkable. In My Swordhand is Singing Sedgwick takes on the myths of the vampire. In his version of the age-old myth, there are no melodramatic romances. There are also no shining and sparkling über-creatures and irresistible doe-eyed maidens. Instead, Sedgwick focuses on the folktales that have been told all over the world, all through the ages. He sets his story in the 17th century in the dead of winter somewhere in Eastern Europe. We get the story of a father, Tomas – a drunk – and his son Peter, both woodcutters and not liked by the villagers where they have settled. In this tale we get gypsies and the evil of the Shadow Queen. In this tale we get the ‘hostages’ (vampires), who’re only after one thing and it’s not making out with the living!

Sedgwick’s horror is so different from the fantasy horror that is usually associated with Vampire stories these days. If anything, it looks like for once we get a writer who has done his homework researching ancient folklore instead of romanticizing it. My Swordhand is Singing is by no means Sedgwick’s best work, but it already shows what this unique writer will attempt in later books too: a focus on setting (eerily so), an interest in the past, and gothic-like retellings of old tales.

3.5 stars





Rotters (by Daniel Kraus)

6 01 2013

rottersWhen Joey Crouch’s mother suddenly dies, Joey is uprooted from Chicago to a small rural town in Iowa to live with a father who doesn’t even have the same last name as him. Life is hard on Joey, who was in Chicago a straight A student and loved to play the trumpet. Things take a turn for the worst, when Ken Harnett not only doesn’t pick him up from the station but also ends up being the town pariah – he’s nicknamed the Garbageman! The harsh circumstances at Harnett’s cabin – no food, no bathroom, no washing machine, no electronics – are nothing if not shocking, but at Bloughton High, Joey soon becomes the school pariah too (he can’t escape the horrible stench that is all over his father’s shack), bullied by the jocks (who start calling him ‘Crotch’) and a crueler than cruel biology teacher. He even loses the only friend he had in Chicago, Boris, who tells him not to call him again.  Because Joey wants to know what his father is up to at night, he decides to follow him and discovers his father’s secret: he’s a grave robber! Almost begrudgingly Harnett takes on his son as an Apprentice. From then on Joey sort of leads a double life. By day he goes to school, trying to keep up his straight As (as a sort of promise to his mother), but at night he accompanies his father on his job… a job that Joey describes in every minute horrific stinking decaying detail. And as horrible and disgusting everything is in the book… as a reader you’re almost spellbound: you want to know what is going to happen next with Joey and the Diggers, but also with Joey and his life at school. The juxtaposition of these two worlds also begs the question which hell is worse: that of the grave robbers or that of Bloughton High School.

The best way to describe Daniel Kraus’ writing is compelling. We experience everything from Joey’s almost authorial voice, which succeeds in both creating a certain distance between the reader and what is going on in the book (grave robbing, not your average teenage pastime, right?), but at the same time there are such incredible details about the machinations of e.g. digging a hole, robbing a grave, decaying bodies etc, that this voice is almost hypnotizing you and urging you to dig deeper (sorry!) into the story of the Diggers. Almost so much so that you can smell the stench!

Rotters is definitely not for the squeamish… it’s a true horror story, unflinching in its execution, uncompromising.  Although the book does sag a little bit at times, and is probably also a tad too long, it proves what an excellent world-builder and storyteller Daniel Kraus is. And even though Rotters deals with some seriously disturbing things, there’s a tragic truth to be learned here about the value of human life and human dignity – at all levels!

 

Also, here’s a bonus:

2013-01-03 11.39.03





Lessons from a Dead Girl (by Jo Knowles)

7 10 2012

Leah Greene is dead. But there are none of those ‘speak no ill of the dead’ niceties in Jo Knowles’ 2007 debut novel Lessons from a Dead Girl. Instead Knowles recounts the disturbing ‘friendship’ between 18-year-old Laine and Leah up until Leah’s death.

Leah has always been the beautiful, popular girl and Laine never quite understood why she would take an interest in her back in 5th grade. But she does, and a very twisted sort of relationship ensues between Leah and Laine. Leah is definitely a bully and an enforcer, and forces Laine to play secret closet games (“just for practice”) which make Laine feel very confused, embarrassed, and eventually also guilty. Yet, she’s too weak and too meek to speak out and she is being dehumanized by Leah without consciously realizing that this is what is going on.

Knowles sketches the context in which such a friendship  between two girls could arise, and she also convincingly suggests why Laine never said anything to anyone. The role of victim is a very complicated one, and that clearly doesn’t only apply to Laine.

It’s hard, though, to connect with either of the characters, not because of the fact that Laine or Leah are so different from you or me or anyone else, but because of a distinct linguistic aspect of this disturbing portrait of abuse. Knowles uses the present tense as a clear way to put distance between the reader and the protagonists.

Lessons from a Dead Girl addresses many issues that are probably very real in a teenager’s life: how to form friendships, the importance of sexuality, the dynamics of power and control and finally abuse. However, the writing itself isn’t that spectacular and the plot isn’t that fleshed out, and the cat often got the feeling that Knowles was trying to get too much in, in not enough pages. This one is going to be categorized as a good first effort.





Where Things Come Back (by John Corey Whaley)

14 08 2012

Birds, boys and a writer bursting with healthy literary ambition and you get yourselves this little prizewinner. Where Things Come Back is the type of book that takes you totally by surprise.

Cullen Witter is 17 and lives in Lily, Arkansas, a small Southern town where nothing exciting ever happens. The only thing on Cullen’s mind is escape,  from his town and from the people in it. But then Cullen has to identify the body of his cousin Oslo (who died of a drug overdose) at the morgue, and things are seemingly set into motion, especially when on top of the grief his family is now dealing with, some ass-hat ornithologist claims he’s seen the long thought to be extinct Lazarus woodpecker. When completely out of the blue Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel goes missing, Cullen finds it surprising and frustrating that the entire town of Lily seems to think that some stupid bird is more important than looking for his kid brother. In a secondary plotline, we meet the young Benton Sage (BEEN-TONE SOG!), who’s a missionary in Ethiopia, and whose story brings in a religious aspect into this slender novel (228 pages). I’m sure this may prove to be a challenge for some readers (Angels and the Book of Enoch, say what?), but it’s worth keeping an open mind because the two plotlines (they are told alternately) somehow merge in the most surprising of ways.  Even though you know they will somehow be linked, once they finally do, it’s such a gasping experience!

However, besides reading a very cleverly plotted novel, what probably led to Where Things Come Back winning the Printz (deservedly so!) is the outstanding use of voice in this novel. Cullen’s voice in particular is something else alright: alternating between 1st and 3rd person narration, you feel close to Cullen and removed from him at the same time. Shifting between the two narrative points of view (within 1 plotline) makes you question what you read and you never quite know what to believe (which is majorly important for the ending!). Cullen is one messed up kid, alright – who wouldn’t be if you had to identify your cousin who OD’d, your brother has gone missing, you have girlfriend issues and the town is only thinking about some stupid ass-hat bird that probably doesn’t even exist anyway! The third person POV intensifies this feeling even more with Cullen often pretending to fight zombies and going off in his own world, dreams and nightmares are nothing if not escape… Also: talking to/about a certain Dr Webb? Who is this guy and why is Cullen talking to him like some ass-hat Holden Caulfield I ask you? I mean, Cullen seems to have lost so much already that it’s hard to imagine a place where things come back for him. But that’s exactly what this book is also about: not just about things that got lost (birds, brothers, cousins), but about the potential of things coming back, and like John Corey Whaley says on his website: second chances.

There is so much going on in this little book (the symbolism!), but what really shines through is what an incredibly original spin John Corey Whaley gives the great genre of the coming-of-age story, which is – as some may argue – the true YA literature as it traces the experiences of a teen growing up into adulthood, with things being taken from them and things coming back to them, and deciding which things to hold on to. If this is what John Corey Whaley can do in his debut, then I’m more than a little bit excited to find out what will be next!





Fear (by Michael Grant)

15 04 2012

Anyone who’s made it this far with Michael Grant’s Gone series will not be surprised nor disappointed with the 5th (and penultimate!) book in the series. Grant yet again delivers his trademark stylistic story-telling elements: alternately focusing on major and minor characters, displaying the strengths and weaknesses of each, while submitting them to some of the most terrifying of events. As such he is able to come up with another blood-pumping, nerve-wrecking, heart-stopping thrill of a ride, with a pleiad of mutant or otherwise gifted characters until finally everything comes together in the hallmark climax of the book, and what a climax it is this time!

In many ways Fear is no different from any of the other Gone books. Freaks and geeks? Check! Fights and battles? Check! Strife and conflict? Check! However, there are definitely a few ways in which this book is at least slightly working towards the end game, and for the very first time maybe, it is obvious how much of a mindfuck life in the FAYZ has been to the protagonists.

For one (and maybe finally!), some of the major characters seem to be showing significant changes in their ways of thinking about themselves and their role in the FAYZ. The most obvious character here is Astrid. Though she never had any real mutant powers, Astrid had always been this proud – even snotty and arrogant – character, who wasn’t just the brain of the bunch, but also the goody-two-shoes conscious of the “good guys”. In Fear we learn that her experience with Little Pete at the end of Plague has changed her so much that for the first time she has lost confidence in her motivations as being morally right… Astrid, on the other hand, is also the first character to realize that in what they are experiencing, what she has done is just what had to be done, and morally right or wrong – her biggest fear was always to do the morally wrong thing – is not applicable, and she is consequently the first one to overcome her fear.

Sam also – who is literally afraid of the dark, the worst fear to have when the FAYZ is changing, and everything is getting darker and darker – is facing some truths about his role in the FAYZ. But the same is true for all of the major players in the FAYZ: Caine, Dekka, Quinn, Diana…  And to make matters even more gruesome, it seems that Michael Grant has upped the ante when it comes to his evil  characters… not wanting to spoil anything here, but Penny is one crazy psychotic bitch! Also, Fear, even more than any of the other books, is not for the faint of heart with a few brutal deaths that will definitely shock the high-and-mighty Meghan Cox Gurdons out there (something involving coyotes and toddlers).

If there is any criticism at all about this book, then it is probably this: yes the shock-meter is almost through the roof, but that’s not always in the service of advancing the story (Michael Grant really doesn’t hold back, I’ll give him that!). And even though there are definite differences between this and the previous books, and even though most of the characters have indeed grown as characters, it is indeed about high time that Grant comes with a conclusion to the whole series. It is nice that he let us see what is outside the FAYZ, but maybe he could also have focused more on that aspect of the storyline, than on yet again a new character that will either kick the bucket a few pages later, or will turn out to play no role whatsoever anyway. Also, Diana’s superspeed-growing baby? :::insert big sigh::: Did you really have to go all Twilight on us here?

Anyway, don’t let me spoil your fun, because despite these minor foils, Fear is still up there with the best of dystopia books, and if brutal, sadistic, evil, mutant powers meets fantastic, gasp-worthy, unbelievable adventures is your thing, I wonder why you haven’t started reading the whole Gone series yet??








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