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.

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…

Ask the Passengers (by A.S. King)

27 11 2012

Dear Astrid,

I just wanted to send you this letter to tell you I got your message loud and clear! If any other person had said everything you said, it would sound corny as hell, but because it’s you, I know it came straight from your heart and that’s just something I love about you. Come to think about it, I know I don’t say it enough, so I might as well do it now, so here goes…

I love you because you’re just such a complicated and conflicted human being. At first when you told me that you sent your love to the passenger flying above, I was skeptical. Actually, not really skeptical, but more sad for you. Didn’t you have people around you to love? Who loved you back? What a sad sad planet if a 17-year-old awesome girl has to send her love to total strangers. I know you told me you feel estranged from your parents, your friends even, heck, even estranged from yourself, but this love sending thing, it sounded too Twin Peaks… But now that I know you better, it’s just who you are, you know? You don’t need it (even though you totally do, dude, hence this letter!), so you’re just giving it away! I couldn’t do it. You’re bigger than the people around you, and definitely bigger than me. Some people would call you messed up (hell, I did too before I knew you!), but they’re just wrong. You’re not messed up, you’re real and selfless, and all-accepting. Your spirit is indomitable, which is maybe what I most love about you.

I love you because you know what a hard thing it can be to make decisions, because you realize that even though these decisions really are about you and nobody else’s business really… they’re not just affecting you, but also the people around you. Some decisions need time. You need time. You need the time to make mistakes, you need to get lost, and then you need to find again, you definitely need to find the exit to the cave on your own and you have to decide whether you want to go back into the cave or not. And I want to give you the time to figure things out for yourself. You should never be pushed into something you don’t want to. I know how friends and  (especially!) parents can be, though. I mean, when you’re a teenager, you’re convinced your parents just won’t get it – Hello, they’re parents = nag, nag, nag = job description! So you want at least your friends to understand what you are talking about or, in your case, not talking about. You hope they will at least give you the time to become the person you really are. But when they start pressuring you into saying, doing and thinking in a certain way, the urge to just explode must be overwhelming.

And when you explode, you do it so well! I love you for that! All the time you behave so entirely noble, not wanting anything in return for the love you give people, but once you’ve reached that point of no return, phew… you just have to let it out, right? I loved the way you called your dad on his behavior. Such a great conversation with your dad… that definitely must have taken a lot of guts. Also, I have to say that I still love you despite the fact that you called your mom a bitch then. I know, I know, she really did behave like a bitch around you – I mean what’s up with the Mommy and Me thing, right? – but it’s still your mom, you know? I guess it’s a big no no to say that moms have favorites. But they so do. Anyway, I get the frustration. I felt your frustration, all those thousands of miles away, I felt it. Doesn’t she see how hard her behavior is on you?

I love you because at 17, you’ve totally figured out the boxes!  Wow! You know that my own peers haven’t figured out yet that boxes make you small? Not you, though, you defy the boxes. Even Kristina and Dee seem to need the boxes, but they just want to contain you again and in their world there are still fixed forms and their boxes are just as rigid as the “defined normalcy” they’re fighting in their own complicated way.  Actually,  that reminds me of this girl, Louise, I heard talking today. She’s just 2 years younger than you are, and smart as hell. She was in her English class, giving a presentation about “Love Your Body” (totally boss topic, btw!), and she’d been researching all of these advertisements, but the one that really caught her eye was this totally sexist ad with a caption like “Even a woman can do it” or some such nonsense, and she went into this long (but eloquent) rant about the word “even”. She rocked, dude! She got it too. About the boxes, I mean.

I love you, Astrid, because you are totally grounded in reality yet aren’t afraid to dream. You know that you are really going somewhere. I mean, motion is possible and you don’t take bullshit from these philosophers saying that there is no such thing (killer Humanities class, btw, you definitely have to send over your notes!). Love how you used their arguments to prove your own point and to rouse discussion !

Lastly, Astrid, I share your complete distrust of gossip – small town or big town. Gossip – like boxes – makes you small. And it doesn’t represent who you really are, just another label! I hate it when that happens. People just always assume they know everything about you – sometimes / often even without actually having talked to you.

So anyway, I’m really thankful you sent me your love. I just had to respond!  Here’s me sending you some love too!


Ringo the Cat

Girl lying on sand, reaching up to the sunPS. A.S. King, dude, I totally love you too because each and every time I read your books, you do something that so few authors can. Not only do you make me not want to stop reading, but your books start up a dialogue – so Socratic of you 😉 . I love that you make me think and respond!  And more than anything, you’re probably the only author who speaks to my brain and my heart with equal ferocity.

And I love your disregard for boxes too. I know “they” often call what you write “magical realism”, or they will call Ask the Passengers an Issues-novel, or an LGBT-novel. Whatever.  There’s just no other author who does what you do. You are right: you just write books. But what books they are!

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]?

Second Chance Summer (by Morgan Matson)

21 08 2012

After her very engaging debut novel Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour, Morgan Matson is back for more! Second Chance Summer has many of the same ingredients that made Amy & Roger so endearing and such a great, great summer/beach read (and I use this term with the greatest respect possible!): there is a flawed yet likeable main character, there is a life-changing story about loss, yet there’s a sense of optimism that permeates every page of this excellent sophomore novel.

Taylor Edwards and her family used to spend every summer at their summer lake house in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. That is, until 5 summers ago, when something happened that made Taylor run away from things, which is what she always does when things get hot. This summer, however, she will no longer be able to escape conflict and she’ll have to face her past, as her family have decided to spend this summer at the house once more. Taylor will be forced to confront the reality of her family life, her past (ex-boyfriend Henry and ex-best friend Lucy) and hopefully come out the better and stronger person at the end of it.

The strength of Second Chance Summer does not lie in its original plot (yes, all of the inevitables do happen), but in the careful treatment of its characters. Matson takes her time introducing Taylor and the rest of her family. She switches back and forth between this summer and 5 summers earlier to show how an individual can change over the years (what you found oh so important at age 12 may seem petty at age 17!) and how it’s never too late to fix what’s wrong and it’s never too late to get to know the people you are close to. The way that Matson treats her characters and the hopeful optimism of her stories made me think of Sarah Dessen, with which she also has a certain earnestness in dealing with emotions in common. Moreover, she also has that natural flow in the use of language and a dash of humor interspersed in the novel now and again.  What is most important here, though, is that I believe Taylor when she says that she doesn’t know how to confront a problem. I also believe Taylor when she says she’s done something incredibly wrong and Henry and Lucy should hate her for it (even as an adult you can see that it’s a typical teen reaction of blowing things way out of proportion). And I also believe Taylor when she is forced to take that second chance yet doesn’t really know how to…

Matson is definitely a writer who understands how to write believably about grief, loss and falling in love all over again. Second Chance Summer is the type of book that the adjective heart-breaking was invented for. This is a story about a girl meeting a boy. It’s a story about a girl and her grief … and it’s also a story about a girl growing up … And, for the cat, Morgan Matson doesn’t even have to wait until next summer to publish another one of these!

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