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.

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Book Review: Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up. (Drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll.)  Adults will really like this one, too.

I don’t understand old music, or teenage crushes, or Australia. These are not my areas of expertise. But Girl Defective got to me, even though it was about all of those mysterious things. Skylark Martin lives with her little brother Gully (short for Seagull – their mother liked birds) and Bill, her “analogue” Dad (who gets mopey when he drinks), in St. Kilda, where the summer is hot and things aren’t as simple as they seem. A dead girl, a wayward friend, sinister rockstar parties, and two boys looking for very different answers turn St. Kilda into the setting for an understated mystery that can never really be solved.

Sky “used to be such a sweet kid.” I feel bad for each and every teenager who has ever had to react to that loaded statement. She takes care of Gully, who has some social behavior issues and always sports a pig snout on his face to disguise his facial expressions. Gully wants to be a spy, and treats everyone he likes as though they were secret agents. Sky wants to be like her friend Nancy, a wildcard of a girl who is three or four years older and sometimes speaks as though she were living in a black and white movie, then at other times hooks up with famous musicians and looks right through her young friend. Sky wants to be like Nancy, and at times it seems like she might want to be with Nancy, too. And who could blame her? With her magnetic personality and crazy schemes, Nancy’s hard to resist. From the start of Howell’s new-ish YA novel, Sky is torn between the growing need to indulge in some misguided teenage shenanigans and her long standing duty to look after Gully and keep an eye on her dad, too. So when tragi-hot” Luke starts working for her father and plastering some girl’s face all over town, our candid narrator has a lot of trouble deciding what (or whom) she wants, let alone how she would even go about getting it.

Bill Martin owns a record shop that doesn’t get much business, and a great deal of the book’s action takes place amongst the vinyls and cardboard cutouts at the quirky shop. It’s the sort of place you can picture straight away. There used to be one in every major town, and now shops like these are getting rarer and rarer. Simmone Howell writes about Bill’s Wishing Well record shop so lovingly, with an eye for the silly details which make a place special. Since Sky and Gully’s mother left them to go become an experimental pop star in Japan, the record shop is sort of like another parent to them, and maybe the only reliable fixture in their lives. Descriptions of the regular customers were funny and a little sad; very true to life.

A good balance is struck in the retro vibe of Girl Defective. There’s a pleasure taken in remembering the vintage, but the narrator always keeps her head above the waves of nostalgia that keep her dad from really living in the moment. The internet plays a part in their adventures (in fact, a weird party-photo website is one of the creepier and more memorable details in the uncovering of weird circumstances), and most of the characters are able to separate their artistic interests from real life. Those that can not struggle to function in the real world. Gully’s not the only one living in a fantasy, but at least he has Sky to look after him.

As times get tough and the record store is threatened, Sky daydreams about ways to keep it afloat. She’s also started daydreaming about Luke an awful lot, even though he’s an interloper at the store and might keep her from getting the recognition she deserves for all that responsibility. And Mia Casey, Luke’s dead sister, also takes up a lot of space in her brain. The tragic circumstances of Mia’s death don’t sit entirely well with Sky. So while Agent Gully Martin investigates the ne’er-do-wells who through a brick through the shop’s window at the beginning of the book, Sky tries to put together some sort of explanation to ease her own concern. But finding answers is hard for Sky and Luke when Gully needs constant watching, Bill seems to be hiding something big, and unreliable Nancy keeps leading Sky into troublesome situations without helping her friend get back out of them again.

Gully might think he’s a secret agent, but there’s a reason the title doesn’t read “Girl Detective.” Most of the mysteries in this book go unsolved, or have unhappy answers like: people make mistakes and situations can be dangerous. Sky’s quest for Mia Casey is just a distraction, a way to keep her mind occupied. The real story, here, is about how Sky’s perception of her town changes. The dark underbelly of St. Kilda’s doesn’t resemble those Film Noir movies Nancy loves to quote. Nothing is black and white. The sometimes-hilarious and sometimes-distressing interactions between the Martin family and the people Sky meets are where the real plot can be found. I liked how certain characters seem all cool and tough but turn out to be hiding embarrassing depths of immaturity. I also liked how peoples’ reasons for lying, or pretending, or hiding sometimes ended up being entirely understandable. The creepy concerts, secret parties, and gross landlords were enough to keep this story under pressure. Nancy’s caprice and Gully’s eccentricity ensure that Sky’s year will be interesting.

I liked Girl Defective even though it ended without some personal growth instead of swift justice. It’s a good, realistic YA book that could easily be enjoyed by adults. Especially old rockers and people who have convinced themselves that the old days were better. Sky’s internal narration were spot-on for a teenage girl questioning everything she thought was obvious. The other major characters were fun, too, especially the predictably unpredictable ones. Very short chapters and a conversational writing style make Girl Defective the sort of book you can blow through in an afternoon. The plot might be a little slow for teen readers who want their mysteries to be explosive and the drama to be clearly defined, but I ended up enjoying the lifelike mess of experiences Sky goes through in St. Kilda’s. No one’s home town is normal, and nothing really makes sense when you’re just turning sixteen. At least Skylark has got some entertaining company and good tunes to get her through.

Book Review: Bird by Crystal Chan

source; goodreads

I had absolutely no idea what to expect with Bird when I sat down to read it over the weekend.  It could have been a ghost story.  It could have been a heart-wrenching tale of family tragedy.  It could have been silly, or mystical, or preachy, or boring.  I chose to just dive right in and see what happened.  Bird not a terribly long book, and as it’s written for middle grade readers I was able to get through it in one evening.  It turned out to be quite different from any of those adjectives, though I’m not sure which ones would fit better.  Personal, maybe, or truthful, or heartfelt.  I don’t usually like to use the term heartfelt.  It sounds sentimental most of the time.  But this is the sort of book you feel in your heart, though I was happy that the author doesn’t try too hard to reach inside your chest and prod that bloody muscle into pieces.  Jewel’s narration is poignant enough without much meddling.  Even though Bird had its slow moments and got a little introspective for my tastes, I found myself watching Jewel’s family and friendships build themselves up from near breaking with devoted interest, and cheering inwardly for every small victory along the way.

Jewel’s grandfather didn’t murder her older brother John, but he did give him the nickname “Bird” and joke that the little boy could fly.  So, when Bird actually did jump from a cliff and die — at the same hour as Jewel’s birth — Grandpa got the blame.  Jewel’s dad believes that his father called unwanted attention from duppies, which are ghosts and tricky spirits common to their native Jamaican folklore, by bestowing the unusual nickname.  Now Jewel is twelve and her home is still rife with silence and tension, so many years after the accident.  Her grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since Bird died, and the old man exudes anger and sadness from behind his closed door and closed mouth.  Jewel’s father insists that she learn about duppies and how to avoid them, while her mother insists that spirits don’t exist and wishes Jewel would focus on the real world.  So much goes unsaid in Jewel’s household, it’s no wonder she sometimes feels like Bird’s memory matters more than she does; the living sister who never met her brother but feels his presence everywhere.

When Jewel meets a boy named John perched in her favorite tree, she can’t decide if it’s coincidence, fate, or something a little magical which has brought them together.  John claims to be staying with his uncle in the small town, but some details of his story are puzzling and vague.  His appearance quickly catches the attention of everyone in Jewel’s family.  Her mother really smiles for the first time in many years when she talks to Jewel’s new friend.  Her father gets suspicious.  And Grandpa gets furious,vigorously duppy-proofing the house and making it clear that John’s not welcome near his family. But John understands Jewel’s passion for geology — a passion her family disregards entirely– and together they manage to have fun in the moment rather than dwelling on tragedy.  So she isn’t ready to give up her new-found friendship just because the grandfather who has never spoken to her sees a trickster ghost in John’s appearance.  Nor is she willing to question the strange discrepancies in John’s stories about himself, until it might be too late to ask.

Bird is a story about belonging and forgiveness.  As Jewel and her family try to work through the memories which are burdening their present, Crystal Chan shows how what we choose to believe in can change the way we see life, the afterlife, and the people who make life worth living in the first place.

For all its talk of ghosts and untimely demises, Bird is not a fantasy at all, nor is it much of a wild ride.  The entire tone is resolutely true to life, which makes Jewel’s father and grandfather even more interesting as characters when they dwell on the superstitions of their heritage.  I think that one of my favorite things about Bird was the inclusion of Jamaican folklore, and the way it blended or clashed with reality.  The writing might be realism, but names hold just as much power here as they do in fairy-tales, and there’s always a little hope of magical intervention as long as characters believe in it.

Jewel’s mother is partially Hispanic, but doesn’t speak Spanish, and her father is Jamaican, so our young heroine sort of stands out in her Midwestern town.  Chan handled the mix of cultures pretty well; all the vivid details about heritage served to give the characters memorable personalities rather than just appearing like forced “fun facts” scattered throughout the text.  Jewel’s mixed race background in a predominantly white town was mentioned with a matter-of-fact and candid honesty I very much liked about the character.

John, too, voices some really poignant observations about the nature of belonging.  In the way he brushes off any awkward questions about his being adopted by a white family, and then the true frustration which he eventually reveals, the novel shows that even kids whose parents pay them plenty of attention can feel legitimately alienated.  One moment which really stuck out to me was when John explained to Jewel that he acts cheerful and nonchalant about his background because no one wants to hear his real opinion about it.  There’s a lot in Bird about how hard it is to live up to adults’ warped expectations, especially when you’re young and full of life with not enough living going on around you.

At the same time, the hardships grown-ups have to face are treated fairly.  When Jewel and her Grandpa finally find a way to communicate, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders, a weight I didn’t even realize had descended upon me while I read.  Grandpa was definitely my favorite character, even though he wasn’t very likable for the majority of the book.  For a man of very few words, he had such an emotional history and it was wonderful to watch Jewel’s perceptions of him change over the course of the novel.

Bird is a sort of quiet, detailed, sensitive novel.  Kids who need action and peril to hold their interest in a story would find it hard to race through the pages.  There’s death, and a few near-misses, but not much in the way of swashbuckling or saving the world.  Instead, Jewel and John and the small cast of other characters are trying to salvage and re-build their own little worlds, pursuits which are equally important.  Fans Kate DiCamillo’s more serious books and Sharon Creech will enjoy Bird, and follow Jewel’s discoveries with sympathy and interest.  I’m recommending it to thoughtful kids and to their parents, too, because Bird is full of moments which shed light on how the living — and the dead — from very different generations sometimes struggle to see things as they truly are.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing : **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up.