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.

Story of a Girl (by Sara Zarr)

5 06 2013

variousszarrThe cat’s been hearing great things about Sara Zarr’s recent novel The Lucy Variations. Because I usually like to read books chronologically, I ordered both The Lucy Variations and Story of a Girl. And man, if Story of a Girl is anything to go by, The Lucy Variations is going to be such a great book! Because I loved Story of a Girl a lot, a lot, a lot! This is a “quick” read (seems almost deceptively easy), but it’s one of the most powerful little novels I’ve read in a while, and one that I will remember for a long time.

It’s about an uncomfortable topic, for sure: a 13-year-old (Deanna) caught in a car of a senior, both with their pants down, by her father… only to be called the school slut forever after. If this were the only thing Story of a Girl were about, it would already be hard to take in, but Zarr throws in a main character who – despite not wanting to be defined by her past – never really becomes an entirely lovable character either (and there’s a thing or two to be said about writing unlikable characters, right?).  Deanna is 16 now, and ever since that event she’s wanted to escape her past and the stamp she was given. That didn’t quite work out for her, though. At school she’s still that girl and her dad hasn’t even so much as looked at her since that evening.

Oh man, this book is such a punch in the face. I really really loved it! Deanna made a mistake when she was still just a kid… 13 she was, and messed up, and yes, taken advantage of… and of course she wasn’t responsible , but she sure as hell thinks she was. And now, 3 years later, she’s in love with the (only) friend who stood by her since then, but who happens to have a girlfriend who happens to be Deanna’s only other friend… Things get ugly and complicated, and Deanna doesn’t know how to respond to it all, and she acts the ways she acts, and… but it’s so incredibly honest and real that it’s hard to see fault in the way Deanna acts now, to me. It’s not that I feel sorry for her, it’s that I get why she is the way she is.

Compassion, selfishness, redemption, loyalty, truth. It’s about all of these things and more. If I love The Lucy Variations half as much as I love this book, it’s going to be one hell of a book!

Deadline (by Chris Crutcher)

22 03 2013

deadlineChris Crutcher has been around for so long now that has was already given the Edwards Award from the ALA in 1997, recognizing his “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature” and yet, his novels have long stayed under the cat’s radar. He would probably have stayed there, if I hadn’t been looking for books that in some way dealt with “sports”, to accommodate some really difficult readers… teenage jocks… As such I came across Joshua C. Cohen’s Leverage, Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast and Nothing Special, and also Chris Crutcher’s Deadline (2007).

Deadline has a premise that is at once commonplace and ingenious: what if you only had one year to live…and you knew it? That is what happens to Ben Wolf, the 18-year-old protagonist of Deadline, who during his annual routine physical, hears from his doctor that he’s suffering from a very aggressive blood disease. Instead of taking the pity road, Ben decides not to tell anyone. Not his parents, not his brother Cody, not his teachers, his coach, no one… Instead he is going to keep it a secret and live the last year of his life doing things he would otherwise never have done. He’s joining the football team (even though he’s actually really tiny!), goes after his dream girl Dallas Suzuki, and challenges his Civil studies teacher until he turns all shades of red because Ben wants to rename one of his town’s streets into Malcolm X Avenue.

And man, Crutcher has the teen voice down! Yes, there’s lots of angst going on (Ben’s dying, duh!), and soul-searching is an inevitability when you have a year to live. But in his search for truth, Ben manages to keep his humor – often brilliantly merged in his dream conversations with Hey-Soos… yes, that’s Jesus in Spanish… And if a cocktail of death and humor isn’t enough for you, what about the value of truth, book banning, civil (dis)obedience…?

The cat is really glad she found out about Chris Crutcher. Even though there are no “girl books” and “boy books”, books like Deadline are a lot easier to sell to reluctant male teen readers (who are definitely more abundant than reluctant female teen readers) than the next Sophie Kinsella or Nicholas Sparks bunk. Deadline comes highly recommended!

Skin Deep (by Laura Jarratt)

17 01 2013

Told as a dual narrative, Skin Deep is a cutesy contemporary romance that actually explores more than just first love. Jenna is 14 and is literally scarred for life after haviskindeepng been in a car accident that killed one of her best friends and disfigured a large part of her face. As a result of this, she has withdrawn from life because she can’t live with the way people look at her and be shocked, feel pity, etc… until she meets Ryan, a 16-year-old traveler, with baggage of his own. His mom has bipolar disorder, she’s an old New Age hippie, and travels around with her son on their narrowboat. Ryan not only has to live with his mom’s moods, but also with the intolerance of many town people against travelers (he’s often called gyppo, for instance, or people assume he’s only there to steal, get into fights…).

Jarratt also delves into hot teen topics like prejudice and being judged by appearances, peer pressure and even throws in a bit of a murder mystery in her debut novel. Seems like a lot to pull off all in one book, but Jarratt manages it adequately, turning out an emotional and honest book that the cat definitely sees as a clear winner with the middle-graders.  There’s nothing spectacularly new or exciting about Skin Deep, but a book doesn’t always have to be that way for it to be a solid read. And that’s exactly what Skin Deep is: solid.

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.

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