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.

Something Like Normal (by Trish Doller)

4 01 2013

sthlikenormalTrish Doller’s 2012 debut Something Like Normal deals with a pretty sensitive issue: a young Marine (19 years old) who’s just got back from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. Travis may have left Afghanistan physically in one piece, he’s definitely suffering mentally – from PTSD – after he witnessed his best friend getting killed. Coming back home, though, has never felt so alien to Travis: his ex-girlfriend has hooked up with his brother Ryan who’s pretty much also confiscated his car; his father still thinks he’s worthless and it seems that his parents’ marriage is going the way of the dinosaur too. Mixed in with dealing with the effects that Charlie’s death has on him – Travis sees Charlie all through the book – and his changing family dynamics, is a romance, that of Travis and Harper, the girl he pretty much humiliated when they were both 14.

Something Like Normal is well written, and Doller definitely has the voice of Travis down. It sounds honest, a little raw, but always realistic. So no qualms about Doller’s ability to write a decent character. There’s nothing really wrong with Something Like Normal. The only pity is that it’s not really a book that sticks… The romance is not exactly a necessary aspect of the novel, to be honest. It’s also the weakest element of this book, with Harper being a fairly unbelievable love interest (what girl would hook up with a guy who pretty much ruined her reputation, resulting in her being called a slut by everyone in town since she was 14?). In fact it sort of distracts of the real highlight of this book : the way a young soldier like Travis deals with PTSD, the guilt and the grief he feels.

The fact that lots of elements are sort of touched upon but not really explored to the full is due to the brevity of this novel. Although Something like Normal is a decent enough debut, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that with a bit more attention and fleshing out, it could have been so much more.

Gone, gone, gone (by Hannah Moskowitz)

30 12 2012

gonegonegoneIn times when the cat has to tell students that “No, 9/11 was not the day that Barack Obama was elected president of the USA for the first time”, a book like Hannah Moskowitz’s Gone Gone Gone may serve as a perfect way to connect that (this) generation of teens with a past that they only know from the History Channel or from a old(er) relative musing about “Where they were when they heard about the Twin Towers” (getting the one and only Ringo the Cat, btw).

That being said, Gone Gone Gone is not about 9/11. It’s also not really about the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. Both of these events do provide the story with the perfect eerie-sounding atmosphere, an atmosphere of not really know what exactly is happening with the world you’re living in. Instead, Gone Gone Gone is about two 15-year-old boys, Craig and Lio, who are trying to figure out what their place in the world is and what they mean to each other.

Gone Gone Gone is alternately told from Craig’s and Lio’s point of view. They first met online, because Craig is an ambassador for his school, the type of kid that shows new students around. Lio recently moved away from NYC to DC, where Craig lives. After sort-of-but-not-really breaking up with his ex-boyfriend Cory, Craig has totally lost himself in taking care of his 14 stray animals, animals that escape after a burglary at his house. So Craig has to deal with finding back his animals, but he’s also trying to juggle the emotions of losing Cory (or not quite) after an event that is never made entirely clear and finding Lio (or not quite) and figuring out what Lio might mean to him. Lio, from his part, is also one messed up kid, even his therapist Adelle agrees… When he was 7, Lio and his twin brother Theo got leukemia. Lio survived. Theo died. Not only does he have to deal with being “a cancer survivor”, there’s also his fragmented family life to consider.

Rather than focusing her attention on an intricate plot, Moskowitz is the mistress of voice and characterization,… 2 characters to be more precise. She deftly uses the alternating point of view of Craig and Lio, giving both of them distinct voices. A criticism here could be that the other characters, such as Craig’s parents, or Lio’s sisters or Adelle, are not as fleshed out as they could have been.  To Moskowitz’s credit, it’s definitely something that works here. Of the two the cat preferred Craig’s voice, which was often very stream-of-consciousness-like, with Craig losing himself in his long even melodramatic sentences (not the negative kind of melodrama, though!). Even though Craig is 15, at times you get the impression he’s a very young sort of 15 (or maybe that’s just his almost OCD type of behavior concerning his animals), while at other times, he’s clearly the voice of experience.  Even then, it’s obvious that it’s a vulnerable sort of experience. Contradictory, yes, but flowing from Moskowitz’s pen (or errr keyboard…) it sounds very convincing. Lio’s voice, on the other hand, was often a lot whinier (despite his not talking) – an authorial choice, btw, that the cat can get behind, it just made it a lot harder to ‘like’ Lio the way the cat immediately connected with Craig as a voice and character.

Truth be told, I hadn’t really expected it (there are so many “new” voices in YA-land), but Hannah Moskowitz’s writing  definitely has a freshness to it that shows talent, conviction and a heart for character. The cat loves authors with a heart for their characters. Writing a great and intricately plotted story is one thing, but if you manage to give a character a voice so unique and special and flawed and true, then it shows you’re willing to go there as an author, and that is the hallmark of a true author.

Let’s Get Lost (by Sarra Manning)

26 12 2012

letsgetlostFor some reason, Sarra Manning has been flying under the cat’s radar for years… Her2004sophomore book Diary of a Crush 1: French Kiss has been in our library for a while now, it gets checked out regularly, but for superficial reasons, the cat never felt like reading it (1. Title of the book is off-putting, and 2. The cover doesn’t promise a whole lot of good…).  Then suddenly not one, but 2 Sarra Manning books kept on being recommended, and the cat is starting to get the feeling she’s made a mistake the size of the whole Sarah Dessen debacle

Let’s Get Lost was published after the Diary of a Crush trilogy. In it we follow 16-year-old Isabel Clark who’s feared at her school for being your typical Mean Girl. She doesn’t have friends either, but she’s got a gang of (not so faithful) minions, who she has to keep in check. It’s a girl eat girl world at high school, and after being bullied when she was younger, Isabel is not going to let herself be the victim again, especially not now that her mother has died. One evening at a party she meets 20-year-old college student Smith – like her also named after a character in a book and attending the Uni where Isabel’s father teaches – and hooks up with him. She convinces him she’s older, a lie which is (of course) going to catch up with her later on.

Even if the story of Let’s Get Lost isn’t the most original of stories and even though the protagonists are very reminiscent of other protagonists in books of this genre (contemporary YA romance), Sarra Manning’s take on it sounds fresher than e.g. in a book like Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF.  There’s a case to be made for the fact that Isabel is also just escaping the reality of her world (not coping with her mother’s death, dysfunctional relationship with her father) and using Smith in the way that Bianca was using Wesley. But the interactions between Isabel and Smith on the one hand, and Isabel and e.g. Smith’s friends on the other hand, read more like the interactions between Sarah Dessen characters than anything the cat has read in a while. And even though Sarra Manning’s protagonists are sexually a lot bolder than Dessen’s for sure (but clearly not as bold as Keplinger’s!), the similarities lie in the situation the protagonists finds herself in: she’s caught up in a web of her own lies, and has to find a way out of it in order to work through her problems.  And that is something she clearly needs to do before she can move on with her life.

Another reason for the freshness is the very distinct British setting. Sarra Manning is British, and the school setting, the going out scene, etc. all of that is clearly British and this is including the sexual boldness, the drinking and the smoking, which is always just a tad more matter-of-fact than many American contemporary YA romance novels. Teen angst is clearly something universal, but there are obvious (geographical, in this case) variations, and Sarra Manning is a good case in point for readers who like their Sarah Dessen and Caroline Mackler but want to try something more errr… edgy? Also, Sarra Manning’s language feels authentic, unforced (and non-amateurish) and all of this makes for a very enjoyable reading experience.

Once again, here’s a book that’s proof that you should never judge an author by a single book cover. Let’s Get Lost is a fresh take on an almost beaten down YA genre. I know that Sarra Manning has a ton of other books, and who knows, the cat may even give Diary of a Crush 1: French Kiss a try…

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (by Emily M. Danforth)

19 09 2012

The Miseducation of Cameron Post would be the cat’s entry for the William C. Morris award if she had a say in it. As a first break onto the YA – or any literary – scene it is definitely one hell of a statement, both topic-wise and literary wise. Giving us a brand new take on coming-of-age, Danforth introduces us to Cameron Post, who tells her story sometime after the event she’s narrating in the book, that of her finding her (sexual) identity.

At the age of 12, Cameron’s parents die in a tragic accident during a weekend trip up to Quake Lake. After the obvious initial shock Cameron can’t but feel relief…relief that now they will not find out that just the day before Cameron had kissed her best friend Irene Klauson. Having grown up in desolate, conservative, Miles City (aka Miles Shitty), Montana, Cameron is convinced that what happened to her parents is her punishment, and she no longer just feels relief, but also shame and guilt for having done what she did. Her parents’ death marks a shift in her friendship with Irene (the girls had previously been almost inseparable, the way 2 best friends can be in that innocent pre-teen stage of life). From then on the two drift apart – not just because Irene moves away to a fancy boarding school due to her family’s newfound richness – and Cameron tries to find solace in being cooped up inside, watching rental movies. The events surrounding Cameron’s first hesitant chaste kiss with Irene Klauson, her feelings for Irene before and after the kiss, the feelings of guilt and shame because of what happened to her parents are what determine the first part of the book. In the second part, Cameron’s aunt Ruth has moved in to take care of her. The kiss between Cam and Irene may have made Cameron feel guilty, the feelings which lie at the bottom of it don’t just disappear, and in the following years Cameron starts experimenting, mostly very innocently through the movies she rents (from Thelma and Louise to The Hunger). She also hooks up with Lindsey, a girl who comes to Miles City every summer for the swim competition. Contrary to Cameron, Lindsey is well aware of her sexuality, and seems to know all about the LGBQ-community (she’s from Seattle). In part 3 of the novel, things take a turn for the best and worst for Cameron when she gets to know Coley Taylor, a beautiful cowgirl who goes to the same church and youth group as Cameron. See, Aunt Ruth is a conservative person, conservative even in Miles City, and she has found God again (she’s a born again Christian), and she has Cameron join her when she attends Gates of Praise. Cameron has been in love with Coley ever since she first lay eyes on her. The two girls form a friendship, a friendship which of course gets complicated because Cameron clearly has romantic & sexual feelings for Coley, while Coley has a boyfriend and is (or seems) as straight as can be. Yet, the two girls bond, and when Coley’s boyfriend is away for the summer, they take their friendship to a new (sexual) level. But this is Miles City, Montana, and Coley exposes their relationship, overcome by feelings that she probably can’t explain herself, after which Aunt Ruth finds out, and ships Cameron off to “conversion camp”, God’s Promise… a de-gaying camp. God’s Promise is a religious school where Cameron is forced to face her sins, and where she will be “cured” of the sin of homosexuality. The stay and this camp and the way that Cameron has to deal with who she is forms the last part of the book.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is bulky book, closing in on shy of 500 pages, but it’s exactly this broad scope that renders the books its authenticity. Cameron’s voice is nothing if not real and authentic. From the way she talks about the period when she was 12 (1989) to the period at God’s Promise when she’s 17 (1993-1994), there’s a believability in what she tells us she felt at those times, and the way she behaves. Cameron may have been a good little girl at 12 (except for the shoplifting, of course), but over the years she starts to behave like any other teenager, experimenting with drugs, alcohol and yes , … sexuality. The only thing with Cameron, though, she doesn’t experiment with teens of the opposite sex, but of the same sex. And, yes, the conflicting feelings of being gay in an all-out conservative town isn’t lost on Cameron. She even ‘tries out’ her friend Jamie, despite the fact that she feels that it’s not how or who she is.

What makes this book also one of the truest around is the way the antagonists are portrayed. It would be very easy to put the blame on Aunt Ruth and the people at God’s Promise. But that’s not what happens. All of them are so completely and utterly convinced of what they are saying and doing that any form or trying to tell them otherwise is futile. So it’s like 2 parties talking/not talking to each other, and the only thing either of them say is “you’re wrong”. Cam is who she is, there is no changing, or de-gaying, or converting her, and Aunt Ruth, Reverend Rick and even Lydia are who they are, despite Lydia’s secular Cambridge (England!) education. After a particularly horrible event at God’s Promise, Cameron observes: “I’m just saying that sometimes you can end up really messing somebody up because the way you’re trying to supposedly help them is really messed up.” (p.399) This is the farthest that Cameron herself goes in condemning and blaming the others for sending her to the camp. And even though this might not sound all that militant, it definitely reinforces the feelings of frustration that she feels, and that you as a reader will feel about what’s going on not just with Cameron, but with and to so many other real teens who go – willingly or unwillingly – to these types of camps. In a side note, the conversation that Cameron and aunt Ruth have when Cameron gets to go home for Christmas and when they reflect on Cameron’s ‘healing’ process is probably one of the most lifelike conversations ever between a teen and an adult who’s supposed to be the person with all the control and power over said teen (p. 342-344): neither of them know what the other feels and they just can’t get out of that situation.

Apart from an honest exploration of a teen’s sexual identity, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is also descriptively a beautifully written novel, yes slow-moving, but oh so atmospheric because of it. The detailed descriptions of the rural Montana setting will draw you into an almost alien world if you’re – like the cat – not accustomed to the landscape Danforth is describing. Likewise, when Cameron describes how the other girls make her feel, for instance, it’s like she wants you bring home that experience as much as possible so that it feels not just the most natural thing ever, but also universal, because ‘hey look, this is all how we fall in love, how we experience first kisses,…’: “There’s nothing to know about a kiss like that before you do it. It was all action and reaction, the way her lips were salty and she tasted like root beer. The way I felt sort of dizzy the whole time. If it had been that one kiss, then it would have been just the dare, and that would have been no different than anything we’d done before. But after that kiss, as we leaned against the crates, a yellow jacket swooping and arcing over some spilled pop, Irene kissed me again. And I hadn’t dared her to do it, but I was glad that she did.” (p.10)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be hailed as a great LGBQ-novel, but it’s more than just that. It explores identity and sexual identity, yes, but in doing so in transcends that mere label, which could (but definitely shouldn’t) limit its exposure. It’s also just a beautifully written novel with a great protagonist who’s at a turning point in her life. And again, what is more engaging and beautiful in a piece of literature than a character finding his/her place in the world[1]?

This is not a test (by Courtney Summers)

18 08 2012

Sigh… I don’t think the cat will ever become Courtney Summers’ number one fan. After the OK effort of Some Girls Are and the only mediocre (at best) Cracked Up To Be, the cat still wanted to give Courtney Does Zombie a go. Zombie splatter seems to be a good enough means to combine a post-apocalyptic society with the daily musing of a teenager with a severe cause of personal trauma. This Is Not a Test, bring it on!

OK, so I’m going to start by stating the obvious: This is not a zombie book. Despite the fact that it deals with 6 teenagers thrown together by circumstance – and this ‘circumstance’ = zombie apocalypse – the author is quite adamant in not making this book be about zombies but about Sloane, the main character of This Is Not A Test, and what to do when everyone else just wants to survive, when you’d made the conscious decision not to go on living any longer, right about when the zombie apocalypse hit.  So Sloane has lost all the will to live, which probably explains why she’s such a boring character, I mean seriously, apathy much? All this is perfectly explainable through the harsh life that Sloane has led up to now, but it takes a lot out of the reader to stick with Sloane as protagonist. It’s hard to feel any sort of emotional connection to a depressed character that has seemingly no emotions of her own anymore and feels empty and dead inside…  We read over and over again how she has to battle those inner demons – sister gone, father gone (the reason for both is told only sparsely throughout the narrative) – let alone that there’s much enthusiasm or will for her to battle the outside demons!

Also the other character are not really that interesting to begin with. The main issue I had here is that they went on and on about the same damn thing over and over again. Trace hates Cary because he thinks he sent out his parents into an alley crawling with zombies, and he lets him know he hates him over and over again.  Harrison has no personality whatsoever, and the other characters let us know over and over again. Grace is just so … nice, and Sloane lets us know over and over again. I’m sure this is to establish “character” and “personality”, but these characters are just so bland, and I’d much rather have had some world-building… which we don’t get (they’re just cooped up in the school all the time).

There are some zombies for sure, and they’re mean and nasty but because there is very little moving about, there’s not really a lot of human-zombie interaction… which is why I say “This is not a zombie book”.  We also don’t know what happened for the zombies to be there in the first place. Color me curious, but the cat just wants to know! But that’s probably not just in this book, lots of zombie books/movies are just about “There are zombies,… how do we deal with them?”  rather than “There are zombies! What the hell happened?”

Now all this probably sounds like the cat didn’t like reading the book? That’s not particularly true. I did enjoy  (well to a certain extent at least) reading most of it and this is mostly because of the way that Courtney Summers writes. Courtney Summer’s prose is sparse and not off-putting in any way, and she can set mood and atmosphere…  But the cat has the same issues with This Is Not A Test as with the other Summers’ books: “ Yeah, it’s OK, for entertainment, and for as long as it lasts, but also, it’s you know, mèh… It’s not that great.” And there’s just something that irks you but you can’t really put your finger on it? That’s what I have with This Is Not A Test.

Drowning Instinct (by Ilsa J. Bick)

5 07 2012

Ilsa J. Bick’s Drowning Instinct is the second Printz contender the cat has read in as many weeks. Drowning Instinct, though, is a whole different ballgame than Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities. However, the voice of its protagonist/narrator is as powerful as the reach of Bacigalupi’s (geo)political ambitions (BTW, ‘drowning’ seems to be a keyword these days). Drowning Instinct is contemporary YA at its best. It’s set very much in the tradition set by a someone like Laurie Halse Anderson, introducing us to stories that are thoroughly character-driven, and delving into the deepest human emotions possible, wherever that may take you.

The book starts when Jenna Lord, 16, is dragged out of the water and Detective Pendleton (‘Bob’) gives her a tape recorder so she can give him her story… the truth, the truth, and nothing but the truth. Of course, that truth is an ugly one. At 16 Jenna is already deeply scarred, figuratively as well as literally. She’s just returned from an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital, courtesy of her cutting, a fire and a dysfunctional family life or all of that combined. She now has to attend Turing, because her emotionally demanding father (aka PsychoDad), insists this will be the best way to adjust to normal life again. This is where she meets Mr Anderson, who she claims is the way her story of the truth should start.

There are a couple of things that make of Drowning Instinct a captivating and thoroughly twisted read. First of all,  there’s the device of the unreliable narrator, used here in the best way possible. Jenna insists that in the complicated relationship between her (a student) and Mr Anderson (a teacher), she was not a victim…which is of course the first thing that pervy Bobby-o (Jenna’s words) would think of. And indeed to a certain extent (and up until the big reveal, which I’m not going to reveal!) we see that both characters are thoroughly messed up, and both need each other to fix them back to normal. On the other hand, there are a couple of things our unreliable narrator Jenna omits. For one, I don’t really recall Jenna actually mentioning Mr Anderson’s age… which of course, shouldn’t matter when we’re dealing with a student-teacher relationship, but my point is, Mr Anderson could be 24 (Jenna says he attended Stanford), he could be 30 or he could be 40. When someone of about 24 is in a relationship with someone who’s 36, no one thinks twice about this. But when one of the two is a minor – even ‘already’ 16 – and the other is an adult – even ‘only’ 24 – then things get complicated of course. I’m not saying that one is right and the other is wrong, but it’s the same sort of dynamic that plays all through the novel. The same is true when the relationship gets physical. Narrator Jenna careful skirts over that, because she feels it’s none of ‘Bob’s’ business. Who’s predator, who’s prey? Does Jenna find out, will the reader find out? It’s just such a thrill to see what (if anything) will be revealed by the (un)reliable narrator.

Also, the characters – and it’s not just the protagonists Jenna and Mr Anderson – in Drowning Instinct are of the type the cat loves best: they are complex, they’re messed up, there is never only a right or only a wrong, there are so many shades of gray here that it’s almost an expressionist landscape of pain, cuts, emotions added onto the canvas layer upon layer. Of course, Jenna only tells us what she wants to tell us about the other characters, but I liked the way Matt (Jenna’s brother who’s deployed in Afghanistan) and Danielle’s characters were used in the book, showing us that there are more broken people that just Jenna and Mr Anderson.

Lastly, there’s Ilsa J. Bick’s use of setting and space. The Wisconsin woods in which Jenna starts to run again is used so effectively that it’s almost a metaphor for the density of emotions that Jenna ànd Mr Anderson are dealing with. This is something which I also noticed in Ashes, where the woods are also almost a character of their own. Again, the mood of much of the book is enhanced by the setting, and this setting definitely has some filmic overtones. This really is how an author should use space to really show and to add meaning to the words on a page.

The cat loved Drowning Instinct, but she doesn’t think it will win the Printz. Is it good (“literary”) enough to win it? Probably (narrative voice, setting and pacing are stellar), but I don’t really know whether the Printz Committee would go for this particular topic right at this moment in time. I do think it’s Printz Honors material for sure.  Readers who liked Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy will find an equally as uncomfortable read in Drowning Instinct. There’s something about broken and flawed characters that make them so irresistible to read about, maybe because they make us feel less flawed, or maybe because we recognize ourselves in part of who they are. Either way, contemporary YA at its best, peeps. Read Drowning Instinct!

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