Book Review: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle

(img source: goodreads)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up. (Dark but not scary, though there’s some troubling emotional and domestic abuse.)

Be it known that I read an ARC of this book, so some details may change before publication.

Wow, guys, sorry for the reviewing slump lately. I’ve been bogged down in the mire of real life, and swimming through a swamp of Things Which Must Be Done. All marsh-y metaphors aside, I’ve been traveling, busy, and just generally uninspired. But The Accident Season was the sort of YA book that could tempt me out of such a slump. It’s a stand-alone contemporary with a bit of fantasy, easy to read and spooky, with good characters and an Irish setting. Honestly, how could I resist blabbing about such a story? The Accident Season is Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s debut novel, and it will be on bookshop shelves in August.

We’re dropped into events with a rhyme and a ritual. Costumed teenagers stomping their feet and chanting inside an abandoned house, being overtaken by some energy they share. It’s October 31st, and they’ve had a bizarre month. The prologue gives us a glimpse of where every strange injury and mysterious encounter will lead: to a party, and a fire, and some alarming revelations. Then the book really begins, and Cara tells us what brought them all to that moment.

The end of October is many things: Halloween, the night of an epic party, and the conclusion of “the accident season” which plagues Cara’s family. Every year, her mother pads all the corners in their house, unplugs the appliances, and makes everyone wear extra layers for the month’s duration. Bad things just happen from beginning to end: scraped knees, car accidents, dead uncles. While Cara and her ex-step brother Sam have just accepted this odd interlude in their otherwise normal high-school lives, Alice is quietly fierce about her skepticism. Even when the accident season batters Alice worse than the rest of her family, which Cara finds strange. There might be something hidden in their childhood memories that explains cool, polished, popular Alice’s propensity for injury, but no one’s thought to dig up those experiences to find out, not when it might be the Season’s fault.

Cara, Sam, Alice, and Bea – Cara’s tarot-reading and brazen best friend – throw their Halloween party in a beautiful abandoned house, and the night is set up to be magical. They’re dressed as these changeling-children Cara saw in what may have been a vision. Even the “haunted” house seems to want their company. The thing is, they found the house while searching for their classmate Elsie, a nervous girl who somehow appears in every single one of Cara’s photos, but hasn’t appeared at school all month. When bad luck from the Accident Season, the abandoned house’s history, and various romantic tensions between the group of friends clash at the end of the month, this might be an even worse accident season than the one that killed Cara’s uncle. Unless Alice is right, and bad luck hits them for more mundane – and therefore more distressing – reasons.

I like contemporary fantasy best when it is strong in one of two ways (or both!). Stories with strange magic and haunting settings like Fiendish drag me to an uncanny corner of our world, where the bent rules of reality are specific to some well-drawn location. Series like The Raven Cycle enchant me with characters who are so real, so intense, as they discover whatever wonderful and frightening things exist around them, it almost doesn’t matter what the plot may be; I would follow them anywhere. The Accident Season sort of falls into a happy medium between my two favorite styles, never quite excelling in either but still shining in multiple places.

I enjoyed reading a YA novel set in Ireland without too big a deal being made of the setting – it felt a little foreign to me, yet totally familiar at the same time. This is a story about people and what haunts them; it could take place almost anywhere, but Fowley-Doyle chose a great place for her characters. The river that seems to call to Cara, behind the school where they all smoke, even the streets of Cork (where they find a mysterious costume shop that I now wish existed) seemed real and effortless.

But the setting and even the supernatural side to the plot weren’t what drew me into the story so thoroughly. The characters and their secrets had me hooked from early on. Cara, Alice, and their mother are three very different women, but each of them has a hint of tragedy they’re trying to cover up, and it’s easy to empathize with their irrational fears or occasional coldness. Since the narrative is from Cara’s point of view, her family can sometimes seem frustratingly closed-off or unreasonable, but she never once loses her grip on the enormous amount of love that holds them all together. Sam isn’t technically her brother, but they grew up together and you can instantly tell how heavily they lean on each other for comfort and support. I loved their constant banter of “I’m not your sister.” “If you say so, petite soeur.” It came as no surprise to me that eventually Cara started to realize why she kept reminding them that they aren’t actually siblings. I usually get put off by romance, and this one could come off as really wrong, but her feelings in this case followed such a logical path and were explained with such heart, I couldn’t help but hope for her happiness. Bea, Cara’s best friend, is a hot shit. She looks to the tarot cards for answers but also refuses to lose her head when things get magical and freaky. When some of Alices’ relationships get dangerously fraught, Bea is there to help mend things with her blend of humor and sympathy.

There’s a sense of humor trickling throughout the whole novel – a witty back and forth that fits well with the Irish high school setting – but it’s not all fun and ghosts. Searching for Elsie opens the door to new sadness. Alice’s strange coldness stems from some nasty relationship problems that made my blood boil. And the history of Sam’s father and Cara’s dead uncle is truly wretched. But strong friendships and one stunningly crazy Halloween party keep things spinning back to life whenever sorrow threatens to take over.

So much of the tension in The Accident Season comes from misunderstandings and painful secrets within this group of friends, and while sometimes I was just begging Cara to wise up about the people around her, there were other developments that surprised and impressed me. Elsie’s appearances, the metaphorical fairy people Cara thinks she sees, and even the reasons behind all those accidents are interesting enough, but if I read this book again – and I think I might – it will be to walk along the river and explore the haunted house with Cara, Sam, Alice, and Bea again.

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Book Review: 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Toot-tootle-oo! (That’s that medieval trumpet sound of oh-hey-big-news, but you’ll have to imagine it sounding more impressive than the phonetic sounds I just typed out…)  The National Book Award’s long list for Young People’s Literature has been announced!  I’ve read three of the books already: Skink – No SurrenderBrown Girl Dreaming (I reviewed it here), and 100 Sideways Miles.  I really badly want to read The Greenglass House (after reading the Book Smugglers’ praise of it), Revolution, and Port Chicago 50.  In celebration of these books getting recognized – congratulations to one and all, by the way – I think I should write a quick review of 100 Sideways Miles, which I actually read on Thursday, not knowing it would be on the list.  I read an ARC of the book, but you should check out the hardcover if you can because the inside jacket has a cool little picture for curious peekers.

Star Ratings for 100 Sideways Miles

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 14 + (Lots of language, talk of sex)

Andrew Smith is a weird-ass writer.  He writes weird-ass books, and they’re not for everyone.  Personally, I think they’re pretty funny.  He has a talent for embodying the voice of a certain type of teenage boy, and he continues to do it well.  Those teenage boys are usually in wack-attack-y situations, think Grasshopper apocalypses and rough boarding school experiences, in some of his earlier books.  And the supporting characters tend to be really, erm, memorable.  100 Sideways Miles continues in this fine tradition, and will probably appeal to fans of John Green’s more outlandish novels or the surprisingly relatable books by Meg Rosoff.

I don’t really know how to go about describing the plot of 100 Sideways Miles.  Finn has seizures, sometimes, and he has an always-inappropriate best friend who has everyone in the palm of his hand, and he has a dad who once wrote a SciFi novel with a cult following.  He has a crush on this beautiful new girl at school, a powerful need to beak free from his father’s literary shadow, and a big scar on his back from when a dead horse fell from the sky and crushed him and killed his mother.  Finn measures time in distance, because in the space of one second the Earth hurtles 20 miles through space, so basically every little thing that happens on the surface moves very little in comparison.  Finn and Cade and Julia break into abandoned buildings, camp drunk, and make terrible dirty jokes.  Finn tries to find a way to free himself from his father’s book, because he feels like too much of that weird story about alien visitors coming to Earth and then eating people is based on him.  Or he’s based on it. Or something.

Even though everyone’s always worried about the possibility of Finn “blanking out” and getting hurt, he and Cade plan a trip to go see a college, but the trip doesn’t go as planned.  The become unlikely heroes, sort of, and come to understand life better, maybe.  The plot doesn’t matter so very much; it’s not what kept me reading.  I liked the strength of friendship between these two rather different boys, and the witty banter.  I’ll remember the occasional striking moment when all of Earth seems to slow down for just a second and make a little bit of sense, just because one confused teenage boy looks at how far it’s carrying us in the grander scheme of things.  There’s a lot of swearing, because that’s how high school boys can be honest with each other without sounding like utter tools.  There’s some awkward condom buying and bizarre sexual favors, because, um, hormones exist.  If it weren’t for the strange parallels to Finn’s father’s writing, or the weird turns of events near the end of the story, I would call this a very solid work of realistic teen fiction.  The stuff about “getting out of the book” seemed a little forced to me, and the pacing was slow in the beginning and then rushed at the end.  Still, it’s fun to read about the comical (and sometimes profound) interactions between characters in situations which are almost like the ones regular teenagers have to face all the time, just skewed a little to be surprising and entertaining.

Grownups aren’t entirely absent in 100 Sideways Miles, and some of them are pretty interesting (Cade loves to torture this one history teacher who dressed up like a Nazi to make history “come alive”, and eventually stresses the guy to death), but they’re not important.  Julia is a very realistic girl, not necessarily quirky or “special” or “not like other girls”. She is like other girls, for the most part, but she happens to be the one that Finn falls in love with.  I liked that.  She’s also black, and the two of them talk about that without making it a big issue.  I liked that too.  She has an unhappy event in her past which I thought could have been treated a little more thoughtfully, and their quick feelings for one another grew out of almost nothing, but I appreciated the natural interactions between the two of them.

Anyway, the relationship that matters most is that between Cade and Finn.  Cade is…well… he honestly steals the show a lot of the time.   Which is kind of the point: he makes people laugh and makes things happen and Finn is ok with that.  Aside from the distasteful jokes and his weird obsession with certain body parts, I can see why people like to be around Cade so much.  He keeps things lively.  And the friendship between the two boys is what keeps 100 Sideways Miles lively, too.  They look out for one another.  They humiliate one another, which made me laugh to remember how much of high school I spent cringing in embarrassment around my own friends.  People and conversations are what Andrew Smith is best at. Luckily, I think that there are plenty of teens who like those qualities to shine in the books they choose.  So this will be a book for them; the readers who write down quotes and see their friends as characters.

I’m still rooting for Brown Girl Dreaming to win the National Book Award, but I’m glad to see that Andrew Smith got some recognition for this fresh and entertaining book.  I’ll leave you with a quote I particularly liked, to prove that there are some real winners scattered throughout the text.  (It’s quoted from the ARC and may have changed slightly since publication.)

“Worry and regret are both useless weights that provide no drag.  They never did anything to slow down the planet for one goddamned second.”

And good luck to anyone who closes this book and would rather forget that the planet is careening through space at a sickening speed.  It took me hundreds of miles to even finish two sentences.  I think that however far the Earth takes you while you’re reading this book, it’ll be a trip worth taking.

Book Review: Conversion by Katherine Howe

Star Ratings for Conversion:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

This YA novel by Catherine Howe (author of The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane) is about quite a few subjects I like. Catholic school! Teenage hysteria! Mysteries! Witchcraft! Friendship! Katherine Howe took some fairly common subjects in YA and made them original through some plausible plot twists and good historical detail.

The story in Conversion unfolds in two different timelines. Most prominently, in modern times, are the events surrounding St. Joan’s Academy, where teenage girls are falling ill with no rhyme or reason. It starts out in Colleen’s homeroom, where the popular and (usually) utterly poised Clara suddenly dissolves into violent twitches and tics. Soon enough, Clara’s friends and then dozens of other girls fall victim to the strange disease which seems to defy all classification and remedy. A media storm and internal drama won’t let Colleen’s already stressful last year of high school continue on as usual, but she’s a focused and driven main character who tries not to buy into the sensationalism all around her. Until one of her own best friends gets sick. While the drama unfolds around her, Colleen is reading The Crucible for extra credit, assigned to her by the mysterious substitute teacher. She starts to see parallels between historical Salem and the events unfolding on the same land right now. Could the afflicted girls be faking it, or truly suffering from something outside their control?

source: youtube

Then there are “interlude” chapters throughout Colleen’s narrative, which take us back to 17th century Salem Village. Same place, different time, and an utterly dreadful chapter in American history. The interludes are told from Anne Putnam’s point of view: one of the girls who was instrumental in accusing the condemned women and men. In the aftermath of the infamous trials, after she’s had years to reflect on her actions, Anne Putnam wants to confess that their accusations were false. (This really happened, by the way.) She describes the events leading up to the girls’ testimonies: their lives at home, how the younger girls first came to act possessed, and the encouragements heaped upon them by devout authority figures. Anne wants to be understood, and maybe along the way she can come to understand what inspired her friends and herself to ruin so many lives. In the past and in the present, nobody has clear motives, and even the best intentions can lead to serious harm.

Being from Massachusetts myself, I already knew quite a lot about the witchcraft hysteria. But Howe describes it vividly – without unnecessary embellishment – so that even readers who are less familiar with the subject will become immersed in the action quickly. Katherine Howe is a lecturer in American Studies at Cornell, so I trusted that her portrayal of events would be laced with careful research, even if creative liberties changed the plot a bit. She actually drew inspiration from the mystery sickness in Le Roy, NY (2012), deciding to set it near Salem to show similarities to historical events. This was a neat touch, but the book is easily enjoyed even without that bonus fact. The Salem history is much more important. I really liked how Colleen’s teacher encouraged her to look at a character who was written out of Arthur Miller’s play, in order to get a clearer picture of the social and historical context of very real events. Enigmatic teachers are always a good addition to YA set in schools, and Ms. Slater is no exception.

It takes some creepy anonymous text messages and one nosy little brother to get Colleen really immersed in the similarities between her classmates’ behaviors and the famous trials, but soon enough she’s drawing conclusions that range from almost too easy (they must be faking) to utterly far-fetched (is one girl causing these afflictions with her mind?). Different theories seem likely as the disorder weaves its way through the girls at school, and I was never quite sure if the story would follow through with the occultish vibes which start to build. The uncertainty was a good thing, though. No one knows what’s going on; not the teachers, not the girls, not their parents, not the media. And it’s in the ways that people deal with potential disaster that we see how easily fear can take hold of an entire community.

The plot of Conversion was interesting, and the mystery took a suitably windy course to the (slightly anti-climactic) conclusion, but my favorite aspect of the book was definitely the main characters. Colleen and her friends aren’t saints or detectives, they just want to get through their last year of high school and find some certainty in their futures. Colleen is agonizing about college next year. Anjali’s intense relationships with both her boyfriend and her close friends are shaken when she gets sick. Deena is a beacon of sanity in tough times, but she has her own future to think about while everyone else loses touch with what matters. And Emma, Colleen’s oldest friend, is bothered by something secret and painful that Colleen can’t quite figure out. The other girls at school aren’t developed nearly as well as these four. I do wish Clara’s popularity had been explained a little better, and that punk-y “The Other Jennifer” had become a major character rather than just hovering in the periphery. There’s a bit of romance (surprisingly likeable romance!!), and some people aren’t nearly what they seem, but all these extra attachments are secondary to Colleen, Anjali, Deena, and Emma. Their worlds revolve around each other. Or so Colleen would like to think.

In books about school scandals, it’s easy to see how adults could be simple stereotypes filling in required roles. Some of the adults are rather shallow, but the teachers especially are sympathetic portrayals of people struggling to make the right decision when they’re in way over their heads. I love it when children’s and YA books make it clear that grown-ups are just as confused as kids are, only they’re often responsible for so much more than just themselves. The calamity at St. Joan’s brings out noble qualities in some characters, selfish ones in others, and the stakes just keep getting higher. Kind of like what happened in Salem, eh? I started reading Conversion because the plot caught my attention, but it was the characters who kept me reading.

I recommend Conversion to both teenaged and adult readers, especially those who like private school stories and small town drama. I really liked the historical interludes, but the modern story is compelling enough on its own that you don’t need a previous interest in the witch trials to read the book. Conversion takes a tense and sympathetic look at stressed-out teenagers in a weird situation without ever turning into an out-of-control melodrama. No matter if they’re lairs, cursed, or sick: you’ll want to stick with these girls ’til the end to figure out what’s going on.

Some books to read if you liked Conversion:

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

The Fever by Megan Abbott

A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi

The Witch Of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Summer Camp Rec: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (moving up from Diary of a Wimpy Kid)

Last post, I recommended Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern to anyone who loved The Fault In Our Stars and wanted a similar book to read this summer. But how about something for younger readers who are into faster, sillier books? There’s frequently a disconnect between the kids themselves and the Parents On A Deadline (gotta get books in the bags and the bags on the kids and get the kids in the car and the car to camp). That futile volley of

“Read something new.”
“But I like these books!”
“They won’t last you a day, pick something with more words,”

is a back-and-forth dispute which I can basically follow like a script by now. And the summer’s not even half over! One tenacious fellow finally asked me, “D’you have anything like Diary of a Wimpy Kid but harder?”.

I understand how Jeff Kinney’s series is fun reading. It’s not hard to relate to a humorously downtrodden narrator stumbling through the weirdness of social life. Haplessness loves fictional company. Plus, the illustrations break things up nicely for more reluctant readers who might get daunted by so many pages of just words. Yeah, it’s good to challenge your kid with books, but you want them to actually read the damn thing, too. Especially at camp, where everyone’s exhausting themselves with projects and socializing all day. Pick a book to get excited about when settling down for an hour.

So what could I give to kids who want funny narrators, self-deprecating humor, and illustrations in their books? Something for kids who have outgrown Wimpy Kid, but still told in the conversational manner Kinney does so well?

We have a winner: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

book cover

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian tells the story of Arnold’s first year at high school, and the misadventures therein. Here’s what’s up with Arnold Spirit Jr. (a.k.a. “Junior”): He wants to be a cartoonist. He’s small for his age, with a few birth defects which make him an easy target for bullies. After a disastrous first few weeks at the Spokane reservation high school, he leaves to go to the big all-white school twenty-two miles away. Arnold is a resourceful and determined young lad, and when he sets his mind to leaving he’s not going to let any guilt-tripping or bullying stand in his way. He’s also sarcastic and unapologetically astute with his opinions about himself and the people he knows, at least in his private diary. But at the high school, he’s pretty much the only Indian kid around, and kind of awkward to boot. Not everyone’s interested in making new friends. Most everyone there has more money than his family. Some people back home think that Junior is turning his back on his people by leaving the reservation for school, while the differences between his upbringing and his classmates’ marks him as an outsider in his new surroundings, too. Thus, “A Part-Time Indian”. Even some impressive basketball skills might not be enough to get him accepted, but he’s determined to find a place to belong against all the odds.

Since The Absolutley True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is about a high-school student, the subject matter in Alexie’s book is obviously a little more mature than those illustrated confessionals set in middle-schools. The book has actually been challenged and banned in a number of schools around the country for its portrayal of racism, alcoholism, sexual content, and offensive language.

[Sarcasm warning!] ‘Cause we can’t acknowledge that teenagers being wrung through a cycle of hormonal upheaval would ever swear or think dirty thoughts. Heavens forbid. And let’s do our best to ignore how tons of American conventions and icons make use of offensive Indian stereotypes. Junior dryly calls the white community out on common, ignorant displays of utter disregard for diverse cultural awareness. What?!? A kid mentioning the micro-aggressions he encounters every single day in his journal? How unexpected! And Junior’s life on the reservation is bleak? Oh dear! It’s almost as though the country has marginalized entire groups of people and then turned a blind eye to the ensuing difficulties. Can’t have that in our kids’ books, can we?!? [End sarcasm.] I’ll stop whining about ignorance and censorship now, before I get into full book-dragon mode. Suffice to say: Junior faces real issues in the book, and readers get exposed to important cultural perspectives on American attitudes which we should have re-evaluated centuries ago.

And did I mention that the book is funny? Because it might sound all biting and serious right now, but Junior is one hilarious narrator. He can laugh at himself and look back on mistakes as stories. Maybe that’s the part of him that wants to write cartoons. And he’s a thoughtful, sincere kid, too. People can be real jerks, purposefully or not, but he’s willing to see things from the other side and will admit when he’s been wrong to judge somebody. The diary-style format is great for these moments, because we get to watch his personality grow in real time.

Sherman Alexie is a fantastic writer and he’s not going to go all moralizing. No hitting kids over the head with tragic facts. Instead, he gives us a really likable hero on the sort of personal journey so many readers have had to face themselves. Things go wrong in Junior’s life, but he faces everything with strength and wit and good perspective. And when things do go right for him, its hard not to throw a victorious air-punch and shout “woo!” wherever you’re reading.

I think that The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian would be a good choice for kids who are going start high-school soon. Part of the appeal in reading these journal-style books is the camaraderie you feel with the main character. Moving to a more grown-up school can be really daunting, but with a friend like Junior paving the way they’ll know how to face any situation with a sense of humor and an eye to how every mishap can inspire a great story. This will probably be one of those books that gets passed from friend to friend at summer camp, until everyone feels like they’ve shared in Junior’s year of ups and downs. Between the easy language and the unflinching point of view, Sherman Alexie doesn’t talk down to kids or hide anything from them. He’s right at the perfect level, writing with warm respect and all the sharply poetic irony which shines in his writing for adults. (If you haven’t read any of his short stories yet, you’re missing out. Go read them now!)

So when somebody doesn’t want to branch out from the style of the Wimpy Kid diaries, but has outgrown that particular series, give Arnold Spirit Jr. a try. It could be like cramming a friend into a backpack and hearing his crazy life story whenever things get dull. That’s a weird image, but I think you get the point.

Screenshot 2014-07-06 21.36.52

Proof that Sherman Alexie is funny and kind of perfect. Look at the homepage of his website! (I might have a little brain-crush on the man. He loves local bookshops after all.)

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

source: goodreads

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.

Pointe is Brandy Colbert’s debut novel: a realistic YA story focusing on a kidnapping. And ballet. And eating disorders. And high school. It’s about Theo, who had to face the challenges of the dance world and recovery without her best friend, ever since Donovan disappeared when they were thirteen. At first she thought Donovan might have just run away, only a few days after her boyfriend left without saying goodbye, which was confusing enough on its own. But years went by and when he didn’t return, Theo had to agree with everyone else that he must have been kidnapped.

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But all of a sudden, in her junior year, Donovan returns to the neighborhood. Between the media frenzy and the rush of memories about their mysterious last conversation so many years ago, Theo’s nerves are understandably frayed. Donovan won’t speak – about his kidnapping or anything else – and he won’t even see her. Theo’s life gets very hectic very quickly. At school, all her friends have opinions about the Donovan case, and old memories won’t stay buried. At ballet, the new pianist (who happens to be her friends’ dealer and a casual acquaintance from school) has broken the wall between Theo’s two separate worlds of dance and everything else. And when a new development in the identity of Donovan’s kidnapper comes to light, Theo has no choice but to question everything that happened between them when she was thirteen. Time is running out to separate memories from self-delusions, because the trial’s coming up and her testimony could change everything. With her own future in ballet to consider and uncertainty about Donovan’s experience weighing heavy on her mind, pressure from every aspect of Theo’s life threatens to take a toll on her physical health as well as her grasp on what has made her who she is.

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So, Pointe had a lot going on in it. There were so many subjects Colbert chose to deal with, I was worried that certain threads of the plot would have to be abandoned for the conclusion to work. And it’s true that the focus did jump around a little to much in the first few chapters of the novel. We read about Theo’s love fer dance, her recent experience at a recovery center for her anorexia, they dynamics of her friend group, and some intriguing hints about her previous relationships with Donovan and her ex.

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I was especially worried that the eating disorder would drop out of the picture without being thoroughly discussed, if not resolved. Too many YA books describe a character as anorexic as an easy fix; just to supply a set of pre-formed judgements to otherwise under-developed character traits. Other books glamorize the notion of starving one’s self past the point of fragility. As someone who has experienced firsthand how un-glamorous and challenging anorexia really is, I was relieved to see that the triggers and emotional responses were considered throughout all the external drama. Theo’s thoughts about food were certainly skewed, but since the majority of Pointe is told in the present tense of a first person point of view, her own rationalizations and justifications go hand-in-hand with all the unpleasant symptoms. Because the disordered thought patterns are so accurately portrayed – Theo works hard to hide her relapse and ignores the danger she’s in – I would caution anyone struggling with their own recovery against reading Pointe until such thoughts get a good bit of objective distance. Otherwise the whole eating issue was treated fairly well, though I do think that there could have been a few more details about the nasty physical repercussions of Theo’s self-enforced restrictions, just to remind readers now and then that it’s really awful to have your body eat itself out of desperation. Maybe that would have been veering near the edge of preaching, though, and Pointe strives (pretty successfully) to stay away from any obvious moral lessons in favor of a real, honest attitude towards the multitude of dilemmas.

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What about the other dilemmas, then? The most gripping layer of Pointe’s premise was always going to be the kidnapping, though the angle might be different than some readers expect. The victim himself doesn’t feature as an active character even when he returns. He appears in Theo’s memories and thoughts way more often than he does in the flesh, so we get a unique spin on the abduction narrative. I really liked how Theo couldn’t be sure whether Donovan meant to disappear or not, and refused to make a judgement for years until she could get a clearer picture of his intentions. Her reaction to learning that the suspect is someone she knows is actually the pivotal revelation in that storyline, not Donovan’s return. This twist ensures that Pointe continues to be a book about Theo more than anyone else: her own tangled past, her own conflicting fears, and her own big decisions. Big questions about consent and maturity get pulled into the limelight, but since most of the discussions about these topics come from teenaged characters talking naturally amongst themselves, Colbert has resisted the trap of letting Pointe turn into one of those books where problems are either fixed or trivialized with too much external intervention.

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The characters in general are pretty excellent, and nicely varied. One or two individuals were too over-the-top for my tastes: too slimy with money or unbearably vapid, but these weak links were mostly just the minor characters who filtered in and out of Theo’s school surroundings. Her closest friends were very likable, with witticisms a’plenty but also showing true friendly concern even when she doesn’t think she needs their help. I liked the portrayal of Theo’s family: her parents are mostly supportive and she clearly doesn’t want to hurt them with her own struggles. There can still be conflict and secrets without every adult functioning as the enemy, and Colbert showed that nicely. I also admired the fact that Theo and her parents are one of the only black families in their neighborhood, and while this obviously impacts her life, race never becomes her sole defining feature. She’s a ballerina who happens to be black, just like she’s a young girl who happens to struggle with a disorder, and a teenager who happens to have a secret. Three damn cheers for dancers of color taking center stage – and for popular YA novels with main characters of color, in general. I hope Pointe gets a whole lot of readers (and subsequently, publishers, etc) realizing that it’s easy to relate to any character who is written skillfully and who can illicit our sympathy. On that note, too, the ballet scenes are interesting without descending into insider-jokes and the like. I haven’t had one ballet-themed thought since I was about eleven, but rather than going on technical tangents the sport is just described as Theo’s artistic passion, and passion is – I hope – fairly universal.

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The pages of Pointe are absolutely stuffed with drama and angst, but the main character’s earnest struggles are what make it so readable. You could honestly take away the sometimes-melodramatic romantic entanglement, which didn’t add much to the story. I would have liked to read a little more about Donovan’s family and a little less about high-school assholes. But all in all I got thoroughly wrapped up in Colbert’s story, and read the book in pretty much one go. Read Pointe if you like realistic YA with true-to-life main characters. Theo doesn’t run around speaking in poetical jargon, and there are no tragic one-liners here. It’s a good book for anyone who likes the drama of mysteries but without the sleuthing, too.

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I would suggest that anyone under the age of 13 think carefully before reading this one, because the topics of anorexia, sexual assault, and drug dealing are portrayed quite frankly and without any tiptoe-ing around the harsh facts. Any ballerinas read Pointe? Please tell me what you thought of it, since I’m not familiar with that world. In the end, this was a really exciting debut novel and I love how Brandy Colbert pushed her material into new and different directions. You can bet I’ll be reading anything she might write in the future.

Book Review: Talker 25 by Joshua McCune

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

In the not-too-distant future, America has a dragon problem.  No one knows how or why they arrived, but the enormous creatures destroy towns and eat humans.  The medieval fears weren’t myths after all, but instead of knights in metal armor, mankind now faces the threat with special military divisions and dragon-slaying reality TV.

Sporty, sullen Melissa Callahan has always hated the dragons; they killed her mother and present a constant threat to her military town.  When some friends convince her to join them on a prank – breaking into the “rez” and taking photos with the big blue dragon there – she unwittingly sets off a chain of events which will jeopardize her family’s lives and shatter her illusions about the war between man and monster.  Melissa can hear the dragons talking, and it’s hard to see a creature as nothing but scales and teeth when it knows your name and wants to chat.  Soon enough, she finds herself set up, trapped, and caught in a battle between a group of renegade pro-dragon insurgents and the military “D-men.”  Both sides want to exploit her talents as a “talker,” and every choice seems to drag Melissa deeper into moral quandary of deceit, double-dealing, and political turmoil.

This debut YA novel caught my attention for several reasons.  Most importantly, it’s been too long since I read a great new dragon book for teenagers.  I’ve got old favorites from elementary and middle school, and there are obviously some exciting adult fantasy books with plenty of dragon action. But what with the futuristic bent of Young Adult literature these days, my scaly friends have been unjustly ignored.  So when an action-packed, modern dragon story came into my sights, you can bet I sank my claws right into it.

I was also intrigued by the concept of dragons in America, set on a “reservation”, inaccurately thinking that this would be a story which featured Native American protagonists as well as dragons.  It’s old news that fiction for children and teens still needs way more diversity amongst characters and authors. A mythology largely inspired by European folklore transported to a modern American reservation could have been a really excellent blending of worlds, if written well.  Alas, though certain characters could conceivably have Native American heritage, the “reservations” had nothing to do with tribal lands.  The military-suburban town where Melissa lives and attends school is fairly commonplace for white suburbia, except for the fact that everything is painted black (since dragons have trouble seeing that color when looking from the sky for prey) and everyone’s parents are professionally invested in some sort of national security. The later settings of the novel — which include rugged secret hideaways, unreal reality TV sets, and terrifyingly remote military camps — are much more exciting than Melissa’s hometown but strangely less vivid.  McCune’s descriptive style definitely lost steam as Talker 25 progressed, though the plot was charged enough to keep me interested in how things would turn out.

My favorite part of Talker 25 was unquestionably the dragons themselves.  All the flying around and inter-species alliances were interesting enough, like a more inventive Eragon (with much better writing).  But it was the different voices for each draconian character, and the various personalities Melissa encountered as she navigated the frightening world as a “talker”, which really made a good impression.  Conversations between Melissa and the of-course-he’s-handsome rebel lad who befriends her sounded very canned  now and then.  Even amongst military personnel and the rock-stars of the dragon slaying media, dialogue felt stunted at times.  Luckily, this is not the case with the dragons.  Some really are bloodthirsty nightmares full of spiteful fire.  Some are old and tired, just wanting to be left in peace on their comfortable mountain tops.  Fans of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles will be pleased to meet more than a few devastatingly sarcastic creatures.  A few young dragons can only communicate through feelings and physical expression, and one baby in particular will probably win the hearts of even the most skeptical readers.  Human characters’ bonds with various dragon are significantly more emotional than their bonds with each other, in this book.  Maybe in the coming sequels I will care more about Melissa’s discoveries about her family, and perhaps in further books the fraught romantic elements might make a little more sense.  But based on McCune’s debut, I hope that he plays to his strength in future writing and gives us a lot more dragon dialogue and fewer formulaic human characters.

People will definitely be touting Talker 25 as “The Hunger Games with dragons,” and it’s not an entirely inaccurate label. This book checks off several themes which are getting pretty repetitive in popular, futuristic YA fiction. The violence against conscripted young people; the omnipresent government spooks; the teenagers working under captivity; the gore and mental trauma; even the shock-factor reality TV angle are all present here.  I found several of these elements to be rather unnecessary, though they did make way for some big plot points in the second half of the book, when style and pacing started to lag and something had to keep the story going.

Even though Talker 25 has trouble containing McCune’s energetic ideas, and despite some flaws with style and pacing, I had lots of fun reading this new futuristic YA adventure story.  It was gritty and stressful, and I’m intrigued enough to think that I’ll try to read the inevitable sequel.  My advice to would-be readers is this: try to see this debut novel as a modern fantasy story instead of just another grim teenage thriller with the odd magical creature thrown in.  If you focus on the dragons and the fresh take on knights training  for battle, then the gratuitous make-over scenes and underdeveloped government goons might just fade into background noise.  Because the dragons are great and the concept is fun. If you’re after an exciting series with a few unexpected twists then give McCune a try.  Ever since finishing the book I’ve been gravitating towards my collection of great dragon books from a decade ago, and if this starts a new scaly trend in YA fiction I’ll be happier than a hungry wyvern in a field full of slow-moving cattle.

Valentine’s Day Special: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

source: goodreads

Daniel Handler, please be my Valentine.  There’s not a single damn thing you’ve written that I don’t love.  This includes the new picture book 29 Myths On The Swinster Pharmacy, which was authored by some suspicious bloke named Lemony Snicket. (Snicket writes an awful lot like Handler.)  But today is Valentine’s Day, so here is a love story which implodes spectacularly before Valentine’s Day even comes around.  Talk about good timing!  But honestly, I don’t like romantic stories very much, so this is the best I could do upon remembering the date.  February 14th?  So that explains the sudden, raging success of Junie B Jones And The Mushy Gushy Valentine at my shop.  (If I had to give a more thematic recommendation, that would be the one.  Can’t go wrong with Junie B, but Daniel Handler is even better.)

Min Green and Ed Slaterton aren’t necessarily made for each other, but they fall in love and stumble around through a passionate high school romance until – quelle surprise! – they break up.  The book begins at the end of their story: Min is returning a box of relics from their relationship, and what we read is her long letter to Ed that goes with it.  Maira Kalman’s illustrations of each object – items like a file which meant to be baked into a cake, a weird spiky seed-pod thing, and a meaningful box of matches – are simple and interesting and make the reading process rather a joy.  Ed’s the basketball team co-captain.  His friends are jerks and he goes through life with the blinders of popular-senior-boy success blocking out a great deal of his surroundings.  Min has long been part of those surroundings, obsessed with old movies and drinking fancy coffee with her artsy friends.  But, she insists, she’s not actually artsy. She’s not good at art.  She doesn’t make good grades or like beer very much.  Yet, somehow, she and Ed start talking at a party. They start to date, stalk a possible movie star, insult each other’s friends, behave explicitly in parks, tell each other secrets, give each other weird gifts, and eventually break up.  Min’s bitter, tender, stream-of-consciousness letter is like one very long Tumblr quote, in the best of ways.  Open up to any page and you’ll come across something like this:

“And it wasn’t just us. It wasn’t just that we were high school, me a junior and you a senior, with our clothes all wrong for restaurants like this, too bright and too rumpled and too zippered and too stained and too slapdash and awkward and stretched and trendy and desperate and casual and unsure and baggy and sweaty and sporty and wrong.”

or this

“There are so many movies like this, where you thought you were smarter than the screen but the director was smarter than you, of course he’s the one, of course it was a dream, of course she’s dead, of course, it’s hidden right there, of course it’s the truth and you in your seat have failed to notice in the dark.”

It’s a surprisingly heartfelt story, and I don’t have much of a heart with which to feel.

Why We Broke Up is probably the most mainstream of Daniel Handler’s books: it distills all the sublime dialogue and weird adolescent energy so prevalent in The Basic Eight into something more realistic. In The Basic Eight, the teenaged characters are extravagant, and their lives go totally nuts as the plot gets weirder and weirder.  (Read my review of The Basic Eight here.  It was my favorite book I read in 2013.)   The opposite seems to be the case in Why We Broke Up.  Stylistically, the books are similar.  You’ll recognize your favorite weird Handler/Snicket-isms sprinkled throughout.  Big words.  Pretentious drinks.  Vintage pop culture.  Interesting food.  But Min, Ed, and the other characters just feel so vividly real, so tragically similar to the people you encounter on a daily basis – just with better one-liners.  Even the minor characters are excellent, and perfectly evoke the awkward balance teenagers almost always fail to strike between love, family, and friends.  And, since they’re minor characters in Daniel Handler’s capable hands, you know they’ll be witty and judgmental and possess obscure talents.  In this particular book, though, teenagers are distinctly teenagers even when they’re making igloos out of cubed eggs for an aging film star’s secret birthday party.

My favorite part of the book?  They steal a sugar dispenser at one point, to make a cake which requires stolen sugar.  That’s just one of the Various Fictional Details which make Why We Broke Up an indespensable part of the Handler/Snicket universe I love so much.  Adults in this book are almost entirely useless, and that never fails to make me happy.  We’ve got kids navigating the treacherous world of romantic nonsense guided only by their disobedient hearts and terrible judgement.  We’ve got nerdy references and sordid affairs. If you want more nerdy references and sordid affairs, check out the Why We Broke Up Project, in which many of my favorite writers and some hapless readers share their own tales of heartbreak, woe, and bad music.  Isn’t that what this holiday is all about?  So happy Valentine’s Day, readers.  Don’t screw it up.

Star Ratings for Why We Broke Up

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4  stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Some long overdue love for Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

What took me so long to read Their Eyes Were Watching God?

This is one of those books I think a lot of us read in high school, but I never did. I’d occasionally think “hm, I should read that,” when I was cooped up in the university library, but there was always something more academic demanding my attention. Well, no longer am I beholden to the rigorous demands of academia! I’m slightly beholden to the demands of staying on top of my Stacks To Read Before Publication, but no one’s giving me marks for those, at least. So I finally read Zora Neale Hurston’s book and fell in love with it.

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I finished it this morning, curled up in a sunny spot with my breakfast and cacao tea. It’s not a fast-paced book, but the language was so ridiculously beautiful it cut open my heart. The first few sentences of nearly every single chapter resonated with me in particular, for some reason. The novel’s opening paragraph has always been one of my favorite quotes, but I never read the rest of the book until now.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

Wow. There’s a lot of this book which made me stare into space and just…. wow. I could make a list of all my favorite passages but it would be only a few pages shorter than the whole book. I’m not a fan of stories about romantic attachment, usually, but even though Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie’s experiences married to three different men, the story is really about her. She’s a black woman in Florida only a couple generations after slavery was abolished, and she learns not to be afraid of following her own path, no matter how other harshly people choose to view her. There’s a whole cast of lively characters, really moving conversations, and a stunning tropical storm which tears through the Everglades and Janie’s life without warning or fairness. I love storms. I love snappy dialogue. I love deep, complex characters. I just loved this book, OK?  I don’t have any intelligent thoughts to share or clever observations to make.  But I’m so happy I finally read this and learned what all the fuss was about.  Zora, you’re the queen of sentence structure.

Maybe it’s better that I never had to read it for school, because sometimes that makes me resent a story. Instead, I just got sucked into Janie’s warm world, full of hardships but also friendship. I’ll probably be hearing her voice in my head for the rest of the day.

Four New Books from HarperCollins: The Bookshelf Pirate Has Dinner With Authors

People keep making the mistake of letting me out into public. A pirate on cold medicine in a restaurant full of book people: this situation had the potential to end in broken glass, spoiled endings, and elaborate apologies. But, for reasons which continue to befuddle yet flatter me, my coworkers and other literary grown-ups keep treating me like a real person. I got the wonderful opportunity to have dinner at Erbaluce – in Boston – with some fellow booksellers from the area, the lovely reps from HarperCollins, and four absolutely smashing debut authors. The food was amazing, the books sound fantastic, and as far as I can tell no one was physically injured in the course of the evening! At least, no one was run through with a cutlass or butter knife, and therefore I can call the night a success.

In a strange and delicious combination of musical chairs and literary speed dating, a knife was clanged against a wine glass in between each course to haul the poor authors out of their chairs and to a different end of the big table. This ensured that we got to speak to each of them for a part of the evening, and kept the waiters on their toes. (I should note that the staff at Erbaluce was so patient with us. They’re obviously enthusiastic about the food and the atmosphere where they work, and it was such a pleasant experience.) There was a really interesting mix of people; each of them had such a different writing experience to share and wacky areas of expertise gleaned from research and work and life. The books aren’t necessarily similar to one another in genre or purpose, but all four seem really interesting and I can’t wait to get started on the stack once I finish reading The Accursed.  Here are the books HarperCollins was promoting.

The book which intrigued me most, with its mysterious summary and a sinister atmosphere that practically leaked out of the pages, is called Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I’m certainly going to read this one first. I’m a grim little person and the very little I know about Bird Box makes it sound like just my cup of menacing and brackish tea.

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans. That’s what I hear from everyone who’s read it, anyway… Hugh Howey, author of Wool, says this about Bird Box: “A book that demands to be read in a single sitting, and through the cracks between one’s fingers” One thing I can say for sure is that no one seems to have read only a few chapters of this book. It’s of the dreaded “unputdownable” variety, the sort of tense and mind-blowing read – supposedly – which gets into your brain and shakes you awake at night.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers. While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories. Bird Box brings characters out of a boarded up house into an outdoors so dangerous you can’t look around you without going fatally mad. Damn it, I’m already desperate to find out more, and I haven’t even started the book yet!

An author willing to eat his own book. Photo from Josh’s twitter. (Note the fine photography skills of his portside dining companion.)

Josh Malerman was great fun to sit next to for the first portion of our dinner. He listens to horror movie soundtracks, is part of a band (I really hope we get to hear a sinister soundtrack to go along with Bird Box someday), and knew an awful lot about all things freaky and weird. I’ve got to say that it put me at ease to sit next to someone who would talk about about H. P. Lovecraft at my first-ever professional dinner. (At the last dinner party I attended, my dining companions were confused about my “halloween scarf” and no one had any opinions about haunted houses. This evening was way more fun.) Nice to let the inner demons out in public now and then. Josh and his fiancee were so interesting and full of creative energy; I envy their talent, and wish I could harness some of that artistic vigor. It sounds like the book has already been snatched up by the film world, too, and I’m intrigued to see what they do with a story which relies so much upon what is not seen and what is unknown. I can’t wait to read Bird Box and get stuck in a nightmarish world full of scenes to fuel my own sleep-screaming fests.

Smith Henderson, who used his years as a social worker to inspire Fourth Of July Creek, sat by me next when the wine glass was clanged and the appetizers cleared away. (My starter was a very good fishy broth with chunks of lobster and veggies.) If I recall correctly, it took him something like ten years to write this novel, but I get the feeling it will have been worth all the time and effort. Fourth Of July Creek will probably be the sort of book one person in Concord reads and then starts talking about to all their friends. We do love our stories of isolated weirdos and messed up families. So much fodder for book clubs and heated conversation!

Henderson’s book sounds like it will be a distinctly American and utterly fascinating read. Here’s the summary from HarperCollins:

After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face to face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.

But as Pete’s own family spins out of control, Pearl’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.

You may recall from my University years that I am really interested in wild children living in wacky environments. I spent six months dwelling on (and writing about/weeping over) literature portraying kids in volatile environments where adults are either nonexistent or irresponsible. So the premise of Fourth of July Creek really appeals to me. I’ve also been thinking about the wilderness, survival, and the strange world of inland America a lot lately. I have never been to the Midwest; the bookshelf pirate clings to various coastlines, and Montana seems as alien to me as Antarctica or Saturn. But it’s important that we broaden our horizons, and since there’s a really compelling story to sweep my imagination across the country, I think I’ll really enjoy this novel’s setting.

Smith has lived in conservative Montana but also Portland, I believe, and therefore he has a really good grasp on the area’s unique brand of weirdness both as a first-hand observer and a rational outsider. I trust him to portray the situations in his novel with integrity and vivid detail, because when we spoke I was entertained by the details and stories he shared with us about each of the very different places where he’s lived. He might not be good at guessing peoples’ weird fetishes after a few big glasses of wine, but he has an eye for human nature and a talent for turning little oddities into really amusing anecdotes. (Do I look like the cloven-hoof sort? Now I’m re-thinking the scull scarf decision…) I hope that his experience in social work will ensure that this novel’s characters are believable and complex as well as dramatic. I can see myself recommending Fourth of July Creek to people looking for a riveting airplane read or something diverting to bring on a camping trip. It comes out in June, but I want to read my advanced copy before the summer starts as a reminder that the USA can be a stage for all sorts of big bad drama and strange beliefs.

The Bees, by Laline Paull, might give Bird Box a run for its money as the most unusual premise from the evening. I know that there are tons of books with “bees” and “beekeepers” in the title on bookshop shelves these days. There are mysteries, family drama, and plenty of historical fiction. But The Bees is genuinely about bees, and I think that’s awesome. The story follows Flora 717, one lowly bee who climbs the ranks from sanitation worker, as she challenges the natural order of the rigid hive system. Themes of maternity, loyalty, and natural instinct will come up as Flora 717 uncovers the mysteries behind her hive and brings danger upon herself with each question.

While The Bees is Laline’s first novel, she has written several plays which have been performed in the United Kingdom. One of them, Boat Memory, is about the “native hostages” brought back to England on the Beagle, during a voyage with Charles Darwin. I really want to see this play. The intensity of investigation which has to go into writing about such cool bits of history must be similar to that which goes along with a sudden interest in Entomology. She told me about all the research which went into writing The Bees; how she wasn’t always interested in them but got drawn into the fascinating world after the death of a friend, and realized how much there was to learn about nature and ourselves in the study of these creatures. My family actually keeps bees and makes honey, so I bet I’ll be seeing our own white-boxed hives differently this summer in the aftermath of this novel.

They’re advertising The Bees as a sort of Handmaid’s Tale set in the natural world, but I bet it’ll be more unique than that. Laline Paull has written a book exploring a brutal social order, but to do so without including any major human characters is ambitious. Even in The Handmaid’s Tale, we can imagine ourselves into the situations without too much difficulty. It will take careful writing and very precise descriptions to bring most causal readers into a beehive and keep them invested in the characters, when most of us only think of the honey bees who make our tea so tasty when we’re walking through clover patches in bare feet. George Orwell managed to seize us by the hearts and minds in Animal Farm, but even that had a setting which would be familiar enough to most of us. We can cast ourselves in a horrible future, and we can understand the predicaments faced by unhappy allegorical farm animals. I am so excited to see how Laline Paull will bring us into the complex world of beehives and natural politics – with plenty of creative license, I’m sure – and make us follow the adventures of an insect with emotional investment and suspense.

The final author I spoke to on Thursday evening was David McCullough Jr., the only author at the dinner from around these parts. He had given the graduation speech at Wellesley High School in 2012, and made quite an impression on the graduates, the community, and then the country at large. McCullough is the son of David McCullough the famous historian and author, and he teaches English at Wellesley High School. You can read the transcription of his inspiring and refreshing commencement here.

His irreverent words of wisdom made such an impact that he’s now written a whole book elaborating on the ideas he touched on. You Are Not Special…And Other Encouragements is full of the sort of truth-bombs I wish my fellow graduates and I had been hit with upon leaving our (honestly rather snobby and unrealistic) prep school. He’s a preppy guy but he’s got a realistic view of the world, striking the right balance between recognizing teenagers as individuals and reminding them that so many other people are going through the same stuff and want the same things out of life. I do think that we’d all be a lot less depressed about the post-high school and post-college years if we had stepped out of those hideous graduation gowns knowing that our futures didn’t need to be so competitive and self-centered. I barely remember the graduation speech from my own High School experience; I think it was some laughably unhelpful extended juice-metaphor, since the guy owned some big beverage company or something. But if McCullough’s students keep in mind his suggestion that you don’t need success to validate your own worth, but should work hard and keep learning simply because you love what you’re doing, I think they’ll be more prepared for adulthood than many.

Here’s a quote from the speech itself, and the sort of advice I really hope will be in the book:

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.

Now that there’s going to be a book elaborating on his tough-love (but still loving) rally to intelligence and passion, I predict that a great many classes of 2014 will be getting book-shaped graduation gifts explaining how they aren’t special, with other encouragements. The book comes out in April and I intend to press it upon all those doting grandparents and starry-eyed relatives who believe that their special little someone is destined to step out of that crowded gymnasium and into all sorts of gratifying superstardom. If they read the book before they give it to the hapless new adult, I hope they’ll find some fresh perspective within the pages. The adults in these situations are so often the worst offenders at cultivating a desire for adoring recognition at every step of life, and it seems like David McCullough Jr, who has teenagers himself, has found a way to articulate this in a way which might actually shake things up without tearing things down. It was great to hear him swapping stories about favorite vacation spots with other locals at the table and telling us about his own (rather literary) youthful years. If You’re Not Special… and Other Encouragements is as earnest and clearheaded as he is in conversation, then there might be hope for the future go-getters and must-havers of the world.

I left Erbaluce nearly four hours after dinner began with my stomach full of chocolate hazelnut truffles and my mind swimming with anticipation. I have to know what is lurking just out of sight in Bird Box! I want to find out what the characters in Fourth Of July Creek seem to think the End Times entails, and how a rational hero might possibly deal with all that nonsense. I’ve got to see if The Bees convinces me to rise against social expectations I didn’t even know existed, and if nature turns out to be utterly cruel to poor Flora 717. And I’m curious to see if learning how very un-special I am proves to be encouraging after all, as I suspect it will.

Bird Box might actually bump The Brothers Karamazov off my To Be Read Next pecking order. I’m so impatient to get sucked into a story which twists my dreams and makes me nervous – it’s been far too long since I spent a disturbed evening jumping at noises with a book and my own messed-up subconscious. Far too long.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

I’m very grateful to HarperCollins for treating us to dinner and for introducing us to such creative and hard-working writers. I’ve been inspired to read faster, to get to these books sooner. I’m also feeling the writerly energies building up in myself again after a week of not writing much at all, due to this damned cold, which took all the salt and gunpowder out of my piratical thoughts and replaced them with congestion and a desire for naps. All four of these writers were so encouraging and helpful when I told them that I was currently slogging through a novel myself.

Now that I can picture faces and hear voices behind the names on the spines of these books, I know I’ll be really excited to see the first printing on our shelves in a few months. The bookshelf pirate will be keeping a weather eye out for those readers who need to read them, even if they don’t know it yet, themselves. By then, I hope to have read all four galleys and formed opinions of my own. If we’re lucky, those opinions will be of the “Avast! Read this now!” variety.

High School Books Part III: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

I loved this book so much I took selfies with it.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 16+

The Basic Eight was definitely my favorite of the three high school books I read last week.  In fact, I think it might be my favorite novel set in a high school of all time.  And I really like books about young people behaving badly, so that’s saying quite a lot.  I know that July’s not over yet, but I’d venture to say that this was the top book of my month.

The premise of The Basic Eight was exactly the sort of thing I love: a bitterly funny tale about the delusions of youth and shocking acts of violence, told with some really excellent narrative sarcasm.  Flannery Culp is part of a rather self-obsessed group of pretentious and creative friends – eight of them in total – who think that their dinner parties are the social events of a lifetime and who have a “Grand Opera Breakfast Club” which meets in the French classroom.  Their lifestyle, which starts out as merely decadent, soon spirals out of control when feelings of romantic betrayal seize control of our young narrator and she turns into a “murderess.”  The story is told through Flannery’s edited diary entries, which she prefaces and annotates from jail, in order to produce her own version of events as she tries to win the public’s sympathy; dispel rumors of satanic influence; and paint herself as the literary heroine of her own perceived drama.  Right from the novel’s beginning, we know that Flannery is in jail for killing a classmate, so the tension is carried by a truly magnificent cast of characters and a twisting plot.  What begins as a sharp satire of coming-of-age stories soon builds into a nightmarish storm of violence, wealth, and absurdity.  The fact that the novel’s major event is revealed straight away does not ruin the book’s momentum, either.  On the contrary, I found that the format lulled me into a false sense of security, and near the end of the book I actually slammed the book on the table and shouted, “WHAT?!?”.  The plot isn’t necessarily realistic, and the characters are  larger than life, but I was completely hooked by The Basic Eight a few pages in and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Some readers will recognize Handler’s sarcastic style reminiscent of his pseudonym Lemony Snicket from the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think that  The Basic Eight, as his first novel, was where he tested out some of his stylistic techniques.  A study guide follows some sections of Flannery’s diary, with a list of vocabulary words and questions like: “Is it rude to bring an uninvited guest to a diner party? Should you be excused if it’s your boyfriend? What if he’s dumb?”.  This trick in one of the more obvious instances in which Handler points out the ridiculous trends in high school, and books about high school, and the way the world treats high schoolers in general.  When the characters are involved in the play Othello, too, Flannery immediately points out the parallels between the play and the events in her own life in her commentary.  So many YA books hide literary allusions and parallels to whatever the characters have to study in their English class in the course of the narrative, and I love how Daniel Handler laughs at that trend by making it absurdly obvious.  The book is pretty scornful of how adults handle teenage troubles, and includes some absolutely laughable adults who try to analyze the group’s actions after the crime in an obvious parody of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and best-selling child psychologists.  I love it when books show how out of touch figures of authority can be with young people, and even though these characters are unrealistically inept the real-life associations are pretty on point.  The Basic Eight might be about a group of larger-than-life figures in an extreme situation, but it also deals with some very real problems that teenagers face in high school: feeling threatened by teachers, not knowing whom to trust, trying to keep up appearances when your whole world is falling apart.  Handler faces these issues with an arsenal of wit and cynicism, and I wish I had read this book when I was in high school myself.

I will only fail at explaining how funny this book was despite the grim subject, because I’m not a funny enough person to do the humor any justice at all.  Let me just say that I could not stop laughing.  I laughed when Flan and Natasha couldn’t find tomato juice so they made Bloody Marys with marinara sauce to cure their hangovers.  I laughed when the entire school had to fill out an anonymous survey about their relationship with Satan.  You will laugh at the egotistical group of friends but you’ll also laugh with them and around them and near them.  The San Francisco Chronicle compared the book to an inside joke, and even though I always felt one step behind the antics of the Basic Eight, I loved trying to catch up with the group of friends who I now feel like I know personally.  You will laugh even when blood is flying and kids are getting sick on way too much absinthe.  Handler’s sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I can’t get enough of his sardonic wit and clever style.

I would recommend The Basic Eight to so many people.  In fact, I’ve already shouted at three of my friends to go and buy it immediately.  I picked it up because in an interview Handler said that invented the name Lemony Snicket while he was researching the extreme conservative organizations who liked to get involved in “satanic panic.”  I’ve been a fan of his children’s books and his infectiously funny style of writing for over a decade, so I figured it was time to dive into the source. (I also recommend Adverbs, which is the only other of Handler’s adult novels which I’ve read.)  If you liked the self-aware and hilarious style of A Series Of Unfortunate Events but want a more grown-up story, buy this book.  I would also recommend The Basic Eight to high school teachers all over the country, because it actually serves as a good example of all sorts of literary themes and techniques. Flannery is the quintessential unreliable narrater: she’s completely untrustworthy but she also doesn’t trust her readers.  There are allusions to Shakespeare, opera, poetry, and classic literature all over the text.  The narrative structure in the novel is creative and intricate; Flannery’s editorial touches to her diary entries fade in and out depending on what she’s revealing, and there are moments when its difficult to separate her wiser (but incarcerated) later self from the earnest voice with which she writes as the events unfold. The structure keeps you on your toes and merits serious consideration, and I bet I’ll catch onto things I missed entirely when I read the book again.

If high school teachers were to assign The Basic Eight as summer reading, I think that it would have a generally positive reception from the students, and the fact that their parents might take offense at the subject matter just makes Handler’s observations all the more suitable.  At times the book was witty and charming, I could compare it to John Green’s Paper Towns, but then there are other sections which contain all the confused boredom and rage of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.  I heartily recommend it to fans of both genres.  I would recommend it to anyone who thought they were the only classy and intelligent person in their own school, because reading it gave me a chance to laugh at what a self-involved moron I had been in high school.  Really, if you want to read about high school this summer, just read this book.  I can’t wait to read it again.