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.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (by Ned Vizzini)

18 11 2012

Ned Vizzini’s fictionalized account of his own short stay at a mental institution really is kind of a funny story. I don’t think a story about depression has been such a fun and uplifting read! Also, there are lots of good John Green & Stephen Chbosky vibes in this book!

Craig Gilner is the 15-year-old protagonist of this completely delightful book about depression, and coping with life. Craig attends the most prestigious (and hard to get into) private school of Manhattan, Executive Pre-Professional High School, but after having studied his butt off to actually get in, he finds the stress and pressure to perform too overwhelming and gets into a downward spiral of not eating, drugs, vomiting, not sleeping, anxieties, … depression. When he stops taking his prescribed meds he almost commits suicide but manages to stop himself just in time and checks himself into a hospital where he ends up in the adult psych wing, Six North. There he meets the other patients for whom life is an almost unbearable chore: Muqtada, his Egyptian roommate, Bobby who serves as a kind of mentor to Craig while in the hospital, Humble, Armelio,… and of course also Noelle, who, like Craig, is also just 15 and is staying at the hospital because she cut up her face with scissors and with whom he develops a more healthy relationship than the crush he had on his best friend’s girlfriend (Nia) outside the hospital.

It’s very easy for a book about depression to become a pity party of the poor little rich boy – because of course, that’s exactly what Craig is – but Vizzini completely overcomes this by his quick-witted writing, the totally relatable and believable characters and the great sensitivity with which he writes about a hard topic like depression. Craig doesn’t understand why he would be depressed. He has everything not to be: stable and supportive family, he is in a good school, has a few friends… an yet, he is. He even feels guilty for being depressed, which of course, makes him even more depressed… The pressure that Craig is under has indeed become a huge almost insurmountable obstacle for a lot a teenagers today: the need to perform, the pressure to get good grades, to have lots of extracurricular activities, the absolute necessity to get into a good college, to always do more and do better … All this leads to anxious teenagers, who – instead of trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be – have to live up to standards they never asked about: those of parents, friends, society… everyone else’s standard, except their own.

All of the characters – not just Craig – have a real ‘personality’, and despite the fact that they’re all in a mental hospital, I’m sure many people (not just teenagers) will recognize that life just is hard sometimes and that you don’t always know how to deal with that. So when Craig talks about his Anchors and his Tentacles, it’s not very hard to relate that to your own existence. Or when Muqtada finally responds to the Egyptian music because it makes him feel more at home, it won’t be hard for anyone with a certain sense of ‘longing’ to comprehend what he means.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is just a really comforting book. And it’s a book with the best message ever to teens: rather than doing and thinking and being what is expected of you, find what is in you, and life will sort itself out.

The Diviners (by Libba Bray)

24 10 2012

If there’s one undisputable thing about Libba Bray it’s that she writes and writes and writes like her life depends on it. Give her a pen, a typewriter, a laptop, a napkin, anything, and she will fill it with what’s inside that fantastically maniacal brain of hers. No wonder that her novels hardly ever clock in under 500 pages… Libba has things to share. On her blog, Libba recently confessed that she has “only one extreme sport in [her] and it’s writing. [She] plunge[s] into the unknown morass of [her] novels armed with some weird ideas, a handful of nascent characters, vague connections, a tingling in [her] Spidey senses, and the hope that it all comes to something.” It’s also been no secret that the cat feels the result of that brain effort has been a mixed bag: from the incredibly übertastic Going Bovine to the almost shockingly atrocious Beauty Queens. Clearly there must be something that – for the cat – works and something that just doesn’t work.

Her newest exploit, The Diviners, was a hit even before it reached the shelves. There’s also a great advertising spielgoing on, which – although probably necessary in this day and age of dwindling book sales (e- or otherwise),  you gotta grab’em any way you can, right? – seems as over the top as an author walking around Manhattan in a cow suit. So hypes get built, great expectations arise which may or may not be met once you finally get your hands on the book. Every time a novel is built up like this, it makes the cat very wary

But… luckily, Libba Bray hasn’t turned out another miss, but a a pos-i-tute-ly divine – although completely over-the-top (as per usual) – page turner! Just to be clear before we continue: the cat loved reading The Diviners! A fascinating and engrossing read. A mystery and a fantasy. And totally addictive! A definite 4-star book!

17-year-old Evangeline O’Neill (Evie) is sent from Ohio to New York City to live with her uncle, Will Fitzgerald, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult – aka The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. Although her parents intended for this to be a punishment for Evie, she can’t wait to escape her tiny hometown to the buzzing New York City, which is – in the roaring 1920s – the city of speakeasies, movie palaces, glamour and all that jazz…  Evie also has a secret,  a special ability (she can ‘read’ people), that may actually help her when New York City is being haunted by a mysterious killer. Besides Evie, there’s a string of other characters: Memphis Campbell, a Harlem boy who used to have the healing power, Sam, whose sleight of hand even lands him a job with Evie’s Uncle, Uncle Will, the mysterious Jericho who works with Will at the Museum, Theta Knight, the stunning Ziegfeld girl… Each of these characters has their own back story, and some are even more fantastical than the next.

Libba Bray has clearly done her homework, setting the 1920s NYC scene with panache and her usual effortless writing flair. She certainly has that down even to the slang used at the time. The story itself – with Evie at the core of it – has more tentacles than an octopus. Libba is throwing it all in, in true Libba Bray-style.  And yes, I do mean, all… and that of course, is a blessing as well as a curse. The Diviners is a book to lose yourself in. And the cat knows that she’ll get the same reaction from it as the one she got the other day with A Great and Terrible Beauty. Two girls come into the school library and one of them recommends A Great And Terrible Beauty to the other. Two days later the girl comes back and checks out both Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing. Once Libba’s got you, she’s got you and reading her words on a page comes natural. She’ll suck you in and you’ll believe anything she throws at you, because it’s just such a great and thrilling ride! Same thing with The Diviners: Libba is a generous story-teller. She leaves no stone unturned, no detail unwritten, no word unmentioned. And you’ve got to love her for it, because that’s exactly the appeal she has, and that’s exactly what makes this book such a fantastically fun (though creepy!) ride from start to finish. But, yes, it’s also her major flaw – it’s always been her major flaw. Usually this is something an editor weeds out, but I guess after six books, to weed out the over-the-topness, to weed out that one idea too many, to get rid of the excess and the extravaganza, would be like taking the Libba Bray out of a Libba Bray book. Like asking Stephen King not to write creepy stuff anymore. We don’t want that to happen.

The cat takes Libba Bray the way Libba Bray is: no bullshit detector/editor necessary. Libba literally writes on that edge. Just like we want more middle-finger writers, we want more edge-writers. And you know what, the cat doesn’t care if Libba churns out a stinker now and then (BTW, that’s not The Diviners!). She’s a writer with heart, and even when she crashes, you know she did it in the most spectacular way possible. And even that is better than reading the tons of lackluster middle-of-the-road stuff, the crowd pleasers, the panem et circenses that’s thrown at us everywhere you look.

PS to Libba: did you and MJ have a bet on who could write the creepiest murder story?

Cupcake (by Rachel Cohn)

14 04 2012

In this third and last installment of Rachel Cohn’s Cyd Charisse series, there isn’t a lot of new to discover for fans of either CC (Cyd Charisse) or Rachel Cohn. That doesn’t mean however, that Cupcake is a book you should miss, because this book proves that the Little Hellion is capable of growth … albeit not the type of growth that she may have expected herself.

Cyd Charisse has moved from San Francisco to New York where she stays in her bio-brother Danny’s apartment, looking for the perfect coffee, the perfect cupcake, only maybe a good culinary school (her mother’s plan, not hers!), but above all a way to deal with the whole Shrimp situation. Cyd said no to Shrimp’s marriage proposal at the end of Shrimp, and both of them decided on a clean break, with Shrimp being off to New Zealand, surfing and writing haiku, and Cyd in New York in search of some serious caffeination. When CC finally feels she’s on the right track, Shrimp turns up at her doorstep.

Though CC has not been able to shake off that brazen over-self-confidence of hers, by the end of the book she’s learned a little bit more about herself. Hopefully that means that she will be able to function without her True Love Shrimp… at least that is what Rachel Cohn seems to suggest, which is a big bonus, because no one, not even or especially not sassy Cyd Charisse should define themselves wholly through one other person. With Cyd Charisse, Rachel Cohn has managed to create a female character who the reader may not always like, but at least can respect for her total honesty and ‘do not settle for less’ attitude.

Strings Attached (by Judy Blundell)

26 02 2012

In Strings Attached, Judy Blundell yet again shows how much she likes the post-WWII era and gives this book a noir vibe not often observed in YA books. This might be slightly alienating for most contemporary teens, but the murder-mystery plot will probably draw in a bigger readership… that combined with the fact What I Saw and How I Lied won the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which will probably boost the sales of this exploit too. However, the book suffers from a disease often seen in the arts: mediocrity…

Kathleen ‘Kit’ Corrigan is 17 when she moves to New York City, to become the Broadway star she’s always hoped to become. Instead, she gets a job as a chorus girl in the Lido, a dubiously famous nightclub, in which the dancers are affectionately known as Lido Dolls. When she runs into Nate Benedict, the father of her (previous) boyfriend, who also happens to be a lawyer with some questionable mob associations, he offers to pay for an apartment. She soon learns that there are always ‘strings attached’ to everything as she has to keep him informed about what’s going on with his son in case he shows up in New York and occasionally has to pass on some information about some of the nightclub’s regulars. The story alternates Kit’s present in New York with her past in Providence, weaving an intricate maze of family secrets and mysterious connections.

The problem with Strings Attached is that there is very little originality going on in terms of story, despite this mysterious set-up, or that there’s very little likeability or depth in most of the characters, including Kit. Strings Attached is the type of book where you go ‘yeah, it was an OK book’ after you’re done reading it, but a week afterwards you forget you ever read it. For house-moving reasons the cat had to wait about 10 days to review this one, and she’d already forgotten what the name of the main character was…  A pity, because browsing through some of the pages to bring it all back made her realize that Blundell does have a knack for the time period, both in terms of sketching the general atmosphere and the setting. Moreover, the language she uses to do it, sounds fairly authentic too.

If there’s anything that Blundell is successful at, though, it’s showing how much of Kit’s life and her career prospects are dependent on the men in her life (either her (ex-)boyfriend Billy or his father Nate Benedict), a hot topic when you’re discussing the 1950s, but a plot thread that will undoubtedly make many women who read this book today want to scream at Blundell for choosing the anti-feminist road.

Just like in What I Saw and How I Lied the cat feels that Blundell wants to prove a little too much that she can be a serious writer too. The unfortunate drawback is that she didn’t succeed in her high ambitions and that we’re left with a book that’s just mediocre… And though mediocre is good enough for some, and to be honest, a lot of books suffer from this disease, the cat just doesn’t want to settle.

Monster (by Walter Dean Myers)

30 12 2011

With a body of work of more than 50 novels, a string of awards – not to mention the very first Michael L. Printz award for the novel at hand – in his honour, Walter Dean Myers is a giant in American children’s and young adult literature. His 1999 book Monster not only received the aforementioned award for excellence in young adult literature, it was also a National Book Award finalist, and a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book. Today, the novel is still discussed in classrooms all over the English-speaking world.

At the time of publication, this slender book mostly stood out because of its peculiar form: it is part movie script and part personal diary. In terms of the actual content, on the other hand , it doesn’t really tell an original tale – as one of the characters in the book says: “You’re young, you’re Black, and you’re on trial. What else do they [the members of the jury] need to know?” (p. 54) Indeed, in Monster, the reader sees things from the perspective of 16-year-old Steve Harmon who’s accused of being involved in a robbery and the consequent death of a drugstore owner in Harlem, New York, and who’s on trial for felony murder. Myers does not only focus on the trial itself (which Steve, a promising film student, has adapted into his very own movie script), but also on Steve’s prison experiences (personal diary format). Because of this particular mix Monster made the cat think of a perfect blend of Oz and Law and Order, two television shows which first aired in the 1990s, Walter Dean Myers’ Monster era.

Much like Oz, Steve’s prison experience emphasizes feelings of fear: fear of violence,  fear of being sexually assaulted in prison, fear of having to stay in prison, fear of having to deal. Then again, it is this process of introspection and taking responsibility that will lead Steve out of his cycle of fear: “Truth is truth. It’s what you know to be right,” Steve claims towards the end of the novel (p.135). The question as to whether Steve really is the monster of the title is left fairly unresolved by Walter Dean Myers, and as such it is the reader’s prerogative to make a decision one way or the other. It is this ‘open’ decision left to the reader which is still the most appealing element of the book today. The format itself may have lost some of its uniqueness, the story itself is (unfortunately) fairly mundane today, but the intentions and the guts that Myers showed with this book have stood the test of time.

Best Books Read in 2011!

28 12 2011

In almost no particular order, this is the cat’s list of favorite books, read in 2011. (Books marked * were also published in 2011)

Please Ignore Vera Dietz (by A.S. King)

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (by M.T. Anderson)

 Going Bovine (by Libba Bray)

The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian (by Sherman Alexie)

Everybody Sees the Ants (by A.S. King) *

A Monster Calls (by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay) *

Divergent (by Veronica Roth) *

Boy Toy and Hero Type (both by Barry Lyga)

An Abundance of Katherines (by John Green)

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares (By David Levithan & Rachel Cohn)

The Chocolate War (by Robert Cormier)

Boy Meets Boy (by David Levithan)

The Knife that killed me (by Anthony McGowan)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (by Brian Selznick)

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