Summer Reads Pt. 2: Smile and The Book of Bad Things

by Tessa

It’s part 2 of my “books I’ve read this summer about summer” posts! Today I’m covering 2 dece reads for middle schoolers (and other people who read and like books). Unfortunately, both of them won’t be published until the end of August. Which is a great time to read books about summer in order to hold on to that summer feeling.

[Disclaimer: I'm reviewing Advance Review Copies of these books, so between now and when they're actually published, things could have changed in the book.]

Sisters

Raina Telgemeier

Graphix, 2014

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Raina Telgemeier is a godsend for realistic comics lovers who want to read stories about the middle school years. This is her follow up to her first book, Smile, which was about her totally falling on her face/mouth and having to deal with the messy dental aftermath of it for a long time, during her most awkward years.

This one’s about her sister. Actually, spoiler alert, it’s still about Raina and her feelings about her sister Amara. The framing is a road trip that she, her mom, her sister, and her little brother take, going from California to Colorado to visit family, and is punctuated by flashbacks that explain more about how the sisters grew to have their tense relationship, and why Raina won’t sit in the front seat of the van.

The flashbacks have a neat yellow filter on the pages, making it clear that the story is in the past. I wish all of the ARC I saw was in color, but that would be crazy expensive and I understand why it switched to black and white, but I’m glad I got a preview of what the coloring will be like (done by Braden Lamb, who does stuff for the Adventure Time comics!). The past sequences, with the filter, look like yellowed color photos, while the present sequences, and the present sequences capture the color of the late 80s, which is when I think this was set (maybe early 90s?), as does the fashion, of course.

Telgemeier’s writing and drawing makes me feel comfortable, like I’m reading a surprisingly interesting (and long) cartoon in a newspaper. Her family stories have the rhythm of a good sitcom, replete with punchlines and realistically wacky situations. I was so happy to slip back into those rhythms that I wasn’t bothered at first by the arc of the story. There is one scene at the end, though, that packed a big emotional punch, and it’s delivered by Amara. That made me realize that I didn’t know much about her. It’s a function of Raina not being allowed/distancing herself from Amara, so she doesn’t know what her sister is like. But it also leaves much of the book’s story obscuring half of what the book is about. It’s Sisters, not Sister, and it would have been a more powerful book for me if the big realization weren’t related to one sister not really being present in the story except as a mystery and antagonist to the other. This misstep in plotting won’t hurt the book with its core audience, though, and there are many solid scenes in there for fans to savor.

 

The Book of Bad Things

Dan Poblocki

Scholastic, 2014

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A colleague of mine brought this back from… BEA? And when I saw that it was middle grade horror and that SLJ compared it to R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and John Bellairs, I gladly took it off of her hands.

I’ve never heard of Dan Poblocki before, but he has written a lot of MG horror. Thanks for keeping the torch alight, Dan Poblocki. But you need to work on your tumblr.

The Book of Bad Things is about Cassidy Bean. She’s part of an exchange program in New York City, possibly part of a social work program, that lets her go and live with rich people in upstate New York during the summer. She’s visited one family, the Tremonts, for a couple summers, but this summer she’s arriving late to Whitechapel because the Tremonts took a while to say that Cassidy was welcome to come.

Something happened last summer to Cassidy and the Tremont’s son, Joey. They went out to the big house where Ursula Chambers, the town hermit lived. She yelled at them, and then later, Joey’s dog died, and for some reason, those two things became connected for Cassidy and Joey. Cassidy blamed herself for having the idea in the first place, and the summer seemed ruined.

Now she’s back with a new journal: The Book of Bad Things, where she writes down her fears and anxieties. Joey isn’t talking to her, and Ursula is dead. All her belongings are being raided by the townspeople, because Ursula didn’t have a family. Then, the people who took Ursula’s things start seeing her. And they start dying.

What I liked most about this book was that it wasn’t afraid to be scary and gruesome. It makes its characters question the line between reality and what they’ve seen in horror movies that feels more sophisticated to me than most horror setups in books for the younger set. Poblocki plays with the ideas of ghosts, zombies, psychic/emotional manifestations, and curses, and the real life scariness of hoarding, anxiety and hurt friendship. Sure, Cassidy’s narration is a bit stiff at times, but she’s a very serious girl, so it fits her. It also never states what race Cassidy is, so it’s possible to read her as black, which is important for many kids.

As an adult reader, I wasn’t terrified, but I can tell that if I had read this when I was a tween, it would have firmly lodged itself in my psyche.

 

 

 

 

Summer Reads Pt. 1: Celebrated Summer and This One Summer

by Tessa

 

Summer: anything can happen, freedom, transitional state of adolescence, blah blah blah. I just read a bunch of books set in summer! Two were more high schooly and two were more middle schooly, so I’ll cover them in two parts.

Celebrated Summer

Charles Forsman

Fantagraphic Books, 2013

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The cover copy calls this a “graphic novella” because it’s relatively short. I call it “self-aware nostalgia” because the narrator, Wolff, is thinking about this one time that he and his friend Mike took LSD and decided to drive to the beach from their small town in Pennsylvania (Forsman is from Mechanicsburg so I’m picturing there). But even as he’s recalling it he doesn’t think it’s magical. Yet he’s not feeling sorry for himself.

Forsman has a spare line that still manages to capture summer days that are unrelentingly hot and humid. Or maybe it’s the way he writes Wolff, who is drifting and so uncomfortable in his skin, but not ready to do anything about it, that is coming through in the atmosphere of the book. In the same way, the LSD in Wolff’s body warps his environment, so he stops knowing what’s inside and what’s outside:

celebrated2

 

More previews at Fantagraphics!

Forsman is really good at pacing his panels. Some of them unspool like frames of film, he always pauses for reactions that make the story flow as if it were in real time, giving conversations real pauses, and some, going off into pure abstraction, still follow their own logic.

I also really liked his The End of the Fucking World, and recommend it. And he runs(?) this comics press/distro called Oily that sells subscriptions and it looks pretty rad. Do more research about it than I just did here, on its site.

 

This One Summer

Written by Mariko Tamaki, Drawn by Jillian Tamaki

First Second, 2014

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Hope I’m not scooping you on a review, Rebecca, because I know how much you loved Skim. (Regardless I’d like to read your review of this book, though).

I’m including This One Summer on the high schooly side of things even though it’s about two kids on the cusp of adolescence. Because Rose and Windy are obsessed with the high school/post high school kids at Awago Beach. Because it’s also nostalgic in a way, being that Rose is thinking back to previous summers compared to this one. And it has adult intrigue that Rose understands, but adults reading it will connect to on another level. I think that whatever age reads this book will get different things out of it, and it’s a book to keep coming back to to measure yourself against the feelings it gives you.

It’s gorgeous, no surprise, since Jillian Tamaki is fantastic and wonderful. It’s printed in blue inks, and the lines are brushstrokes. J. T.’s figures are simplified enough that eyes don’t have separate pupils and irises, but retain a sense of depth and weight in the space of the image, so a realism comes through. The backgrounds and splash pages are delicate, detailed, and finely observed, like obsessive studies for full on paintings, grounding the story in place.

The story is Rose’s summer at Awago Beach, where her family has been going forever. She has a beach friend named Windy, who’s a bit younger than her. This summer she has a crush on the video store clerk, he’s having drama with his maybe girlfriend, and her parents are not getting along. Her mom won’t go to the beach and she’s pushing Rose’s dad away. It’s a summer made of moments, and some of them will affect Rose in obvious, rememberable ways, and some of them are the kind that pass by and come back in embarrassment or with a laugh years later, or might never be remembered at all. Here we get to see them play out and wonder which are which. Mariko Tamki is fantastic and wonderful as well, writing another layered and immediate story, with characters that are perfectly themselves.

 

 

Caught Between Two Worlds: Otherbound

A review of Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

Amulet (Abrams), 2014

Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

by REBECCA, June 11, 2014

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Every time Nolan Santiago closes his eyes, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a servant girl bound to a cursed princess in a world far from his own Arizona town. Amara has no idea he’s there. Until, one day, their worlds collide, and they realize that although all they want is to be rid of one another, their worlds are bound in a way that only working together can hope to untangle.

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Whee! I’ve been so, so bloody disappointed with all the YA fantasy I’ve been reading lately, so much so that I’ve started and abandoned five or six fantasies in the last month or so. I had high hopes for Otherbound, though, and I am so thrilled not to be disappointed. Corinne Duyvis‘ debut novel is impressive and original. But, most important to me, it has stakes—the lack of which in a number of books I’ve reviewed have been driving me wild with confusion and frustration lately.

Nolan Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Nolan, by Corinne Duyvis

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the deal. Nolan’s parents, teachers, and doctors all think he is epileptic, diagnosing his departures into Amara’s world as micro-seizures. He has tried medication after medication, but nothing seems to have an effect on the seizures—because, of course, they aren’t seizures. He’s been visiting Amara’s world since he was a kid. Indeed, one of his early experiences of Amara’s world, while he was riding his bike, was so distracting that he was caught under the wheels of a car and lost his foot. So, although he is invested in Amara, her fellow servant Maart, and Cilla, the princess they serve against their will, Nolan pays a huge price for his implication in their world. His parents struggle to afford medications that don’t help him, his teachers and classmates don’t even notice when he barely makes it though the day it’s so common, and everyone in town knows to look out for his seizures. Nolan’s life isn’t wholly his own even when he’s in his own world.

Amara Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Amara, by Corinne Duyvis

Amara was taken from her home as a child because of her mage-like ability to heal herself and tasked with safeguarding Cilla, the princess who escaped her family’s overthrow with a curse that will kill her if she spills even one drop of blood. Amara’s job is to absorb the pain of the curse into her own body, should Cilla accidentally spill her blood, since Amara can heal herself. She and Cilla have been bound together so long that Amara has trouble knowing whether her feelings for Cilla are hatred, pity, friendship, or perhaps something more like love. She has no idea that Nolan has been with her, looking through her eyes and feeling what she feels, until one day he manages to take over her body—to make her body run when she’s in danger but has passed out.

Cilla Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Cilla, by Corinne Duyvis

When Nolan is finally able to control Amara’s body enough to explain that he is there (servants in Amara’s world have their tongues cut out and communicate through sign language), Amara is horrified to realize that what she once thought were private thoughts, sensations, and feelings, have been observed. But she and Cilla may need the insights Nolan has, as a longtime observer, to discover who cast Cilla’s curse and how to break it so that she and Amara—and Nolan—have a chance at living free lives.

When I say that Otherbound has stakes, I mean that there are real personal risks to and for characters, both physically and mentally. But there are also stakes because of Duyvis’ worldbuilding. Duyvis uses the class system of Amara and Cilla’s world to raise questions about the ability of a servant and a princess to ever enter into friendship or love as equals. Ethnicities, in Amara and Cilla’s world mean different things than they do in Nolan’s, but power and race and gender and pain are all bound up in both. Yet Duyvis never falls back on allowing these to be demonstrative of any fixed meanings about characters, groups, or places.

Otherbound starts a bit slow, especially because it shifts between Nolan’s and Amara’s worlds so quickly, but as the mystery ratchets up and the stakes grow, it really takes off. There are twists and turns, but never red herrings or deliberate obfuscations for the purpose of confusing the reader. For me, Nolan’s was the more interesting story. While I was taken in by Cilla and Amara’s adventures, I cared more about the boy attempting to live a life split between two worlds, always struggling to reassure his parents and sister that, maybe, just for today, his seizure medication is working and they can watch a movie or practice Nahuatl together. Otherbound is a story about connections and the ways we become tethered together, implicated in each other’s lives whether we choose to or not.

Otherbound will appeal to fans of contemporary YA, queer YA, fantasy, and adventure stories. Oh, and you should check out Corinne Duyvis’ website to see more portraits of her characters (she went to art school—no, seriously, look at some of those gorgeous pencil drawings!). Duyvis is also an organizer of Disibility in Kidlit, which is an amazing resource for all things disability in YA.

Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

readalikes

Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMannFade Dream Catcher Lisa McMannGone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher series by Lisa McMann (2008–2010). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

Skin Hunger Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of MagicSacred Scars Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of Magic

A Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey (2007–present). Duey’s series (which I ADORE!) alternates quickly between perspectives in an attempt to solve a mystery of magic too. My full review of Skin Hunger is HERE. The third book in the series is slated to come out this summer.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis will be available June 17th.

“Don’t Open Your Eyes”: Bird Box Is Horror At Its Best

A review of Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Ecco (HarperCollins), 2014

Bird Box Josh Malerman

by REBECCA, June 4, 2014

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Something out there is making people crazy. When they see it, they lose their minds and kill. Others. Themselves. Everyone. Malorie doesn’t know what’s going on. Then, it’s later and Malorie hasn’t seen the world outside her house in four years. But today. Today she has to risk it. She has to take to the river to try and save herself. Today, she has to open her eyes.

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HOLY SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE, BATMAN!

Bird Box is told in chapters that alternate between the present, when Malorie and her two children are rowing down the river, trying to find safety, and the past, when a mysterious . . . something . . . has just begun to threaten humanity.

In the past, Malorie and her sister, Shannon, just moved in together and are ready to start a new life when the news begins reporting strange stories of mysterious deaths in St. Petersburg, Yakutsk, Omsk. Then, closer to home, in Alaska. No one knows what the cause is, but people are turning on each other, killing each other and themselves. Little by little, the panic builds. What is it? Is it a disease? An attack? An epidemic? Bit by bit, people become scared even to leave their homes, because it seems like the people affected are those who see . . . something.

Shannon is terrified, but Malorie has other worries. She’s just realized she’s pregnant, and that seems scarier than some vague threat out there. But when Malorie can no longer deny what’s going on, she finds a house with people who are helping each other survive. Together, she, Felix, Jules, Cheryl, and Tom survive. All anyone knows is that the madness can’t get you if you can’t see it. So they block up the windows and seal all the doors. They live off canned goods and develop elaborate systems to get water from the well behind their house without ever opening their eyes. Malorie comes to love and depend on her housemates. But soon she’ll have to give birth. And, slowly, something is creeping closer to threaten the safe house they have made. But is the threat from outside, or from within?

In the present, Malorie lives alone with Boy and Girl, her four-year-olds. There is a fog this morning, and so Malorie decides it’s finally time to go. Under cover of fog, she thinks they can make it to the river, and then, safety? She isn’t sure. All she knows is that she has trained her children from birth to hear with an acuity no children in the before could have. And it’s their ability she will have to rely on as they make the trip down the river. Because they have to do it without ever opening their eyes.

Bird Box is an absolutely beautiful and harrowing horror story. Debut author Josh Malerman (lead singer of The High Strung) has crafted a story that is incredibly creeping and suspenseful (at one point, I found myself standing in my kitchen, reading as my water boiled because I absolutely had to see what happened next, and nearly screamed when my cat brushed up against my leg). It is, for me, the most exciting kind of horror story: one that is all about atmosphere and mystery and dread.

bird box josh malermanAlternating between past and present ups the suspense, but it also instructs the reader that this isn’t a story about what happened next. We begin in the present, so we already know what happened (kind of). It’s about how it happened, and how the characters reacted to it. That is to say, it’s a book that’s as much about ideas and psychology as it is about fear. There are multiple theories about what is going on in the world, and Malerman allows these theories to resonate throughout the book, never giving any definitive answers but always showing us the material consequences. His prose is tight and declarative and perfectly echoes the way Malorie has come to think in this new world.

Because Bird Box is a novel about the threat of the invisible—of that which absolutely can not be looked upon—the characters spend a great deal of time experiencing the world without sight. In the hands of a lesser writer, I think, this could feel like a gimmick. Malerman, though, manages to make the reader feel as claustrophobic, vulnerable, and jumpy as the characters do. The fact that the whole mystery could be revealed merely by removing the blindfold adds a layer of temptation that is titillating.

When I first read the blurb, I was nervous that this would be one of those post-terrible-world-event books where the main character just wanted to make the world safe for her children, or feels hope because she has her children. Bird Box was the opposite. This isn’t a book about the horrors of pregnancy (though that whole giving birth thing is its own scary story). Rather, it’s about the guilt and horror that Malorie feels about raising two children who have never seen the world outside. Who have never seen anyone but her. She has to put their safety above their comfort if they’re all going to survive, and the ways in which she must deny her children their childhood resonate beyond a book of speculative fiction. These are children growing up in a war-torn land who must learn to survive instead of learning to play, and that’s not the stuff of fiction.

bird box josh malermanSome reviewers, I know, are disappointed that more of the questions that Bird Box raises are not answered. For me, the denial of answers to the reader has the powerful effect of making the readers as helpless as the characters. If we could see what they cannot, I think, the reading experience wouldn’t be nearly as potent. More literally, the reader is in Malorie’s position narratively: we look at word after word, waiting for the threat to reveal itself, and once it does we cannot look away. I often found myself covering the recto side of the book so that my eyes couldn’t wander ahead and see something they shouldn’t. The experience of the medium of storytelling itself participating in the creation of fear was extremely disconcerting.

The one weakness of the novel, for me, was the characters. Though we are in Malorie’s head (primarily), she never really came to life for me. I was still desperately rooting for her—because, as I said, the reader is in her position. Still, though, certain moments would have had more resonance if the characters were a bit more fleshed out. Indeed, the character who came to life the most was the scariest! (Which is kind of awesome.) Still, the lack of character development had one positive side effect, which is that it leant a sense of real unease to the house they all share since their relationships feel so tentative and contingent.

Bird Box is a wonderful debut and a truly chilling horror story. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Josh Malerman.

procured from: the library

 

Teenage Superspies, Codeword: Milkshake

A review of I Become Shadow, by Joe Shine

Soho Teen

I Become Shadow Joe Shine

by REBECCA, June 2, 2014

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“Ren Sharpe was abducted at fourteen and chosen by the mysterious F.A.T.E. Center to become a Shadow: the fearless and unstoppable guardian of a future leader. Everything she held dear—her family, her home, her former life—is gone forever.

Ren survives four years of training, torture, and misery, in large part thanks to Junie, a fellow F.A.T.E. abductee who started out as lost and confused as she did. She wouldn’t admit it was possible to find love in a prison beyond imagining, but what she feels for Junie may just be the closest thing to it.

At eighteen they part ways when Ren receives her assignment: find and protect college science student Gareth Young, or die trying. Life following a college nerd is uneventful, until an attack on Gareth forces Ren to track down the only person she can trust. When she and Junie discover that the F.A.T.E. itself might be behind the attacks, even certain knowledge of the future may not be enough to save their kidnappers from the killing machines they created.” (Goodreads)

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So, the above blurb gives the whole plot of the novel. Which is okay, I guess? Because, though I Become Shadow is an action book, it’s not really a mystery. The book is divided roughly into three parts. The first part is told retrospectively by Ren Sharpe, our protagonist. She tells us the story of how she came to be abducted at the age of fourteen and how she wakes up in the training facility where she’ll spend the next four years. She meets Junie—who, because the blurb doesn’t refer to as “he,” I assumed was a girl because, well, you know, his name is Junie, and was disappointed to find is, in fact, a boy—and begins her training.

The second third, which is the shortest piece, gives a kind of brief summary of the next four years: how Ren learns everything from mortal combat to defensive driving to techniques in surveilling her future target. Here, Ren and Junie must part ways. But DON’T WORRY! Of all the places in the whole world, they both end up in Texas. Finally, the third part covers Ren’s time at college protecting Gareth, until things get complicated . . . in exactly the way the blurb describes.

training montageI Become Shadow isn’t really a bad book. It just seems unsure what it’s supposed to be doing, a problem that is likely more one of publishing than writing. Because so much of the book (more than half) takes place at the F.A.T.E. center, you’d think that Ren’s trials there are the center of the novel, but they seem to be prodromal to her assignment. Okay, then, well, when we get to Ren’s assignment, you’d think that we were finally getting to the meat of things. But almost nothing happens in this section. Ren herself keeps commenting on how boring it is to watch a nerd (you know, like the blurb said), and, yeah, it’s boring to read about someone being bored watching a nerd. Then, in the very end of the book, the Big Plot is revealed (just like the blurb already told you it would be).

There is nothing that indicates I Become Shadow is the first in a series. But this has to be the first in a series, right? Because we end with everything revealed but nothing resolved. Did Soho Press tell Joe Shine to write a book that could be the first in a series but not commit to a second book? Did this start out as a longer story that got chopped in half? It’s really not clear. The result is a book that might be a very summary standalone or the diffuse first book in a series. Either way, though, it reads wrong in its apportionment.

DivergentIt’s not awful—there’s some intriguing worldbuilding that undergirds the creation of F.A.T.E. But that raises more questions than it answers (including the kind of annoying questions like, “but based on what you’ve said, why would this ever happen?”). The training sequences feel very similar to Tris’ experiences in Divergent: because Ren and the other future-Shadows are kidnapped because of circumstance not skill, they’re starting their training from nothing, so there are the now-familiar scenes of a normal girl learning self-defense stuff. Again, nothing terrible, just nothing galvanizing.

The real trouble, though, is the voice. I found Ren intensely irritating, and it’s her tone that drives the book. She thinks she’s funny and clever and unique and the other characters’ responses to her seem to uphold her uniqueness, while I sat there thinking, “seriously?” An example: Each trainee receives instruction from a voice piped through a speaker to them. When Ren responds to the voice, she calls him “Mr. Speakervoice.” When it’s time for Ren to graduate, the man behind the voice seeks her out because she’s apparently so unique and amazing and tells her that Mr. Speakervoice is “one of the best names I’ve ever been given that’s for sure [sic]. You’ve certainly been a fun one, Ren” (139). Seriously? That’s like naming your fluffy white cat Snowball—it’s a description of what the thing is. How could that possibly be the best name he’d been given? How, god, how?!

Also problematic: none of the characters have any personalities. Ren is supposed to be wry and snarky (or so her voice must be trying to imply), but we don’t know anything about her. She has also long ago accepted that she’ll never break free of F.A.T.E. to see her family again or live her own life. And she is injected with a serum that makes it so she can’t feel pain or fear death. You know, so she can protect her target more effectively. People, if you don’t have your own hopes, dreams, desires, and fears, and you can’t feel pain or fear death, you know what you are? BORING. Or, in literary terms, a character with no stakes whatsoever. Which makes you boring. And, since Ren didn’t care about her safety, fear anything, or worry about what was going to happen, I couldn’t either. So, it might seem like a great conceit in theory, but in practice it just flattens the story out completely.

All in all, the premise that underlies the creation of F.A.T.E. is the only interesting thing about I Become Shadow, and we get about two sentences about it. The characters are blah, and the story has no real stakes. Again, it’s not terrible or anything, but I was very aware the entire time I was reading it that it could have gone in so many interesting directions and seemed to choose the path of least resistance every time. I hate to be repetitive, but this is what I keep finding with Soho Teen’s releases: decent books that feel too thin and/or tortured into marketable shape to really excite me or do anything.

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I’ve read a lot of books recently that explore a similar kind of training/testing teens in their skills of fighting, surveilling, manipulating, killing, escaping, etc. Here are a few that worked better for me than I Become Shadow.

How to Lead a Life of Crime Kirsten Miller

How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller (2013). “A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer. Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear. Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?” (Goodreads).

The Naturals Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Naturals (The Naturals #1) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (2013). “Seventeen-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But it’s not a skill that she’s ever taken seriously. That is, until the FBI come knocking: they’ve begun a classified program that uses exceptional teenagers to crack infamous cold cases, and they need Cassie.

What Cassie doesn’t realize is that there’s more at risk than a few unsolved homicides—especially when she’s sent to live with a group of teens whose gifts are as unusual as her own. Sarcastic, privileged Michael has a knack for reading emotions, which he uses to get inside Cassie’s head—and under her skin. Brooding Dean shares Cassie’s gift for profiling, but keeps her at arm’s length.

Soon, it becomes clear that no one in the Naturals program is what they seem. And when a new killer strikes, danger looms closer than Cassie could ever have imagined. Caught in a lethal game of cat and mouse with a killer, the Naturals are going to have to use all of their gifts just to survive.” My full review is HERE.

The Testing Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing (The Testing #1) by Joelle Charbonneau (2013). “The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies–trust no one.

But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.” (Goodreads).

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. I Become Shadow by Joe Shine will be available on June 10th.

Movie Review: Palo Alto

A Review of Palo Alto, written & directed by Gia Coppola; based on the short story collection by James Franco

Palo Alto Gia Coppola James Franco

by REBECCA, May 26, 2014

Palo Alto is the directorial debut of Gia Coppola (Sofia’s niece), based on the authorial debut of actor James Franco, and starring Emma Roberts (Eric Roberts’ daughter; Julia Roberts’ niece) and Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son). That is to say, it can no more escape a kind of in-group latitude and indulgence than can the characters it portrays.

Palo Alto James FrancoFranco’s collection, Palo Alto (2010), contains twelve stories, all with different first-person narrators, but which feature some of the same characters (such as April, Emma Roberts’ character). Coppola’s script is based on five of those stories—according to many reviews, the five least dramatic, as those not in evidence include murder and gang rape (a whisper of which filters into the film). As there’s little action, plot-wise, it’s the themes that tie the pieces of the film together: mainly the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for the female characters, the antisocial behaviors that the male characters’ privilege makes acceptable, and all the characters’ attempts to mask boredom with mood-altering stabs at fun.

Responses to the film have been understandably mixed. I felt a bit conflicted myself coming out of the theatre. On one level, I loathed the film. The characters are all unappealing, some because they’re boring, some because they’re sexual predators, some because they’re selfish and mean. The dialogue is banal and uncreative, with nothing but a vague mutual yearning between April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), to suggest that these characters are anything more than attractive but superficial blanks. However, despite this—or perhaps because of it—emotionally, I found the film affecting.

Emma Roberts Palo AltoWe are introduced to Emily, who is called a whore throughout the film, when she confesses, during a game of Never-Have-I-Ever, that she has never been in love. For the rest of the movie, she repeatedly reaches out to boys at school and at parties, attempting to use sex to seek the love she’s never felt. In contrast, sixteen-year-old April, who “tries to be good,” is the victim of her sexually predatory soccer coach (a grinning James Franco) for whom she babysits. She’s flattered by his attentions and returns them initially, only to be confused and terrified when he confesses his love to her, their relationship suddenly elevated to a level more threatening to her than sex.

Jack Kilmer Emma Roberts Palo AltoThe film, that is, portrays the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for these characters in no uncertain terms. What’s troubling, though, is that while the film seemed to critique this extension of rape culture, there were things that disabled the critique. The most troubling of these is the film’s singular use of voiceover, by one of the male characters (Fred), which seems to be taken directly from the book, describing how one of the characters subjects his girlfriend to a gang rape. It’s presented in the same manic, dreamy tone as the rest of the film, which places it on the same level as April staring dazedly out the car window into the California sun.

Thematically, then, the film was affecting, but Coppola’s style—dreamy pacing, close-ups of beautiful people looking forlorn, and a disjointed narrative frozen in one moment in time (which invites unavoidable comparisons with aunt Sofia’s)—refuses growth for the characters. The film’s aesthetic glorifies what it portrays by seeming content to linger forever in the suspended moment of this violence, this detachment, this adolescence. As such, I found it a truly upsetting and unsatisfying film. That isn’t to say that it had a responsibility to do something other than what it did; simply to say that I wasn’t interested in what it chose to do. According to a piece on Gia Coppola in the New York Times, James Franco actively wanted a woman to be the one to adapt Palo Alto because he thought it would “give the largely male-centered stories a more layered approach” (“Unto the Next Generation, Cinematically”). This sums up the film for me: it’s a narrative of sexual violence halfway repaired by the emotional depth Coppola lends it, but ultimately more troubling for the beautiful mask she puts on it.

“Geekers Have To Geek Out”

A Review of Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach

Sourcebooks Fire, 2014

Fat Boy Vs. The Cheerleaders Geoff Herbach

by REBECCA, May 22, 2014

hook

It’s war in a Minnesota high school when the creation of a new dance team threatens the funding for band, which has come from the school’s pop machine (yeah, “pop”; this is Minnesota). Gabe (aka Chunk) is ready to take on the system—even if he has to do it one Mountain Dew Code Red at a time.

review

When I first read the premise of Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders it reminded me of a kind of The Chocolate War meets Pump Up the Volume meets Mean Girls. Well, maybe that’s just what I was hoping for.

The plot is simple. Gabe is the class clown, a role he embraces in the hope of staving off bullying by laughing at himself for being fat before anyone else can laugh at him. His mother left him and his dad and has never looked back. His two best friends don’t make him feel great about himself. The only thing he really enjoys anymore is high school band. And now, even that is being threatened when the school board redesignates the funds from the school pop machine for the new dance team, which is really just all the cheerleaders with a more expensive coach.

When his beloved band and marching band camp are threatened, Gabe decides he has to take action, so he bands together (heh) with the other Geekers, as he calls them, for various protests, letter writing, and playing of “Tequila.” (Sidebar: I think it should be considered a literary crime to even mention songs like “Tequila” by name in a book as they then immediately become lodged in one’s brain. Other offenders include: “The Macarena,” “The Chicken Dance,” “Feliz Navidad,” and any song that has ever been blared out the speakers of a neighborhood ice cream truck.) Along the way, Gabe makes new friends and realizes that if he wants to stop being thought of as a clown then he needs to stop acting like it’s okay to treat him like one.

This is a light, entertaining read, and who doesn’t like a story where geeks take on the man—or, in this instance, the pop machine. Geoff Herbach does a great job of evoking a small Minnesota town and I enjoyed that the scale here is realistically small. Gabe et al aren’t trying to bring down the government or anything. They live in a small town and so one of their teachers getting arrested for drunk driving is a huge deal that instantly goes Minnekota-viral on Facebook, etc.

My two favorite characters were Gore and RC III. Gore (Chandra) is a six-foot-tall goth girl who everyone fears because she once threatened to kill some kids who were mean to her (hence, “Gore”). RC III (also not his real name) is a newly arrived jock who’s kind of a big deal but likes hanging out with the geeks more than the jocks. They are the voices of reason in a group of otherwise overreactive characters, and perhaps that’s why Gabe likes them so much. “You shouldn’t call cheerleaders bitches,” Gore tells Gabe. “Why not?” he asks. “Look what they’ve done to us.” “You don’t have to be like them,” she says (161). It’s simple and it’s true and I like her.

Gabe plays the 'bone

Gabe plays the ‘bone

Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders brings up lots of interesting issues—class, race, body image, self-conception, emotional abuse, surveillance culture. And I give it credit for its themes, certainly, even if they are laid on a bit thick. The use of names as a thing that communicate our sense of self is nice: Gabe transitions from being called Chunk because he doesn’t like it, but Gore likes the nickname she was given and reclaims it, whereas RC III chose to name himself after someone he admires and simply asserts it as his name. There are some nice moments of commentary, too. For example, Gabe makes the point that, because he thought his money was going to the band, he feels good about buying and drinking four or five Mountain Dew Code Reds a day because he’s managed to convince himself that he’s winning (for band) even as he’s losing (by drinking so much pop). But, though it raises many interesting issues, ultimately, it doesn’t really dig into any of them so, in the end, it feels like the content is just to fill out a relatively predictable storyline. As a result, it’s not terribly satisfying. It would have felt meatier if the plot structured the book but wasn’t so very foregrounded.

The Scar Boys Len VlahosAnd I lay this at the feet of yet another narrative frame that totally backfires. I discussed this issue when I reviewed Len Vlahos’ The Scar Boys, which is written as a college application. Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders is written as a memo from Gabe’s attorney, which is being submitted as context for the case against him (for stealing money from the pop machine). This narrative frame was totally unnecessary, as there is no threat that Gabe’s going to go to jail or anything (he stole $17.75 in change). So, no reason for it. But it has a number of downsides. The first is the one I already mentioned: that such a device foregrounds the linear this-happened-then-this plot at the expense of character development and richness. I mean, how much are you going to describe people when talking to your lawyer? And, if this were a mystery or a crime story or an adventure story, then maybe foregrounding the plot would be fine. But, though it would be a great armature for a book about Gabe, as storylines go, it’s not quite unique or unpredictable enough to be The Focus of the novel.

In turn, this contributes to the theme tourism because there isn’t any reason for Gabe to delve deeply into any issue that isn’t directly connected to the plot. Sometimes Gabe will start to talk about something and then say, “Hey. Why are we talking about this, Mr. Rodriguez? Shouldn’t we be talking about how . . . how you’re going to keep me from going to jail or something?” (7) and sometimes feels the need to justify how things relate: “This totally has to do with the pop machine” (11). By drawing attention to how he’s shoehorning things in or where he’s cutting himself off, this narrative frame just highlights these superficialities.

Frankenstein Mary Shelley

The best narrative frame!

Finally, the kiss of death: I didn’t find Gabe to be a very pleasant narrator, either. He doesn’t have any interests besides band (that we hear about) and he’s very judgmental. I don’t feel like I know him well and the shifts in his character have to be taken on faith, since he simply asserts them. And the narrative frame didn’t help this either. Because every word is something Gabe’s saying to his lawyer, there’s no internal monologue. I hadn’t thought about it in quite these terms when I reviewed The Scar Boys, but it turns out that this is a huge problem for me, since what I like most about reading is getting to know new characters. In a third person narrative, we get to know those characters through what’s said about them as well as what they say and do. In a first person narrative, we get to know them by that unique voice that is unfiltered. But in a first person account to a lawyer, or in a college entrance essay? Despite (perhaps?) best laid plans, these narratives fail to engage me because their technique is neither narrative truth nor confession. And so I’m bored.

So, I discovered something about myself as a reader, and can make sure to cross off my list all YA novels with a narrative frame that means the story is being told to a grown-up. Well, it’s all about the lesson, no?

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Sister Mischief Laura GoodeSister Mischief Laura Goode

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). Also set in Minnesota! Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats. My full review is HERE.

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. Going

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (2003). Curt MacCrae startles Troy out of throwing himself in front of a subway train and demands that he is owed lunch in exchange . . . and that’s just the beginning. Soon, Troy finds himself one half of the punk band Rage/Tectonic, even though he can’t play the drums and hates anyone looking at him. Can Troy overcome his self-consciousness to embrace the musician inside? And can he save Curt from his own demons in the process? My full review is HERE

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach is available now.

Movie Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

A review of Only Lovers Left Alive, written & directed by the delightful Jim Jarmusch

only lovers left alive

by REBECCA, May 12, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive is a decidedly non-dramatic meditation on immortality and love. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are centuries-old vampires living in Detroit and Algiers, respectively. Adam is a somber musician who makes music that no one hears and collects vintage instruments while hiding from fans of the music he released when he was well-known. He’s depressed at the state of the world, which zombies—humans, that is—have polluted and detached from so thoroughly that even their blood has become poison. Eve is a dreamy appreciator of literature who lives in a home packed with books and hangs around with her buddy Kit Marlowe (yes, that Kit Marlowe) (John Hurt). When she talks with Adam and senses his depression, she comes to Detroit to reconnect with him. While there, Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), an irresponsible hedonist with a penchant for risk-taking behavior, comes to visit, throwing Adam’s routine into disarray.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 5.53.04 PMFrom the gorgeous and vertiginous opening shots of a camera spinning around Adam, Eve, and a record (music is their shared language), the stakes of Only Lovers Left Alive are clear. This is a film about perpetuity and how people connect over and over through time. It’s a film that glories in the aesthetic, and Jim Jarmusch lingers lovingly over Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s faces and hair the way only a lover would. They are dark and light, gloom and resignation, creator and appreciator.

Only Lovers Left AliveThere is no complicated plot; indeed, not a whole lot happens. But the non-drama perfectly echoes the sense of longevity of immortality—the sustained state where even the most dramatic happenings lose their urgency and even the most minute of difference in repetition can assert itself as beautiful. Adam and Eve are aesthetes and appreciators, and the film echoes this, too. The camera caresses the curve of a Gibson and the tangle of wires that Adam patches together with the same appreciation as the curve of the lovers’ cheekbones or the tangles of their hair. Attention, the film seems to posit, is the antidote to boredom; fascination to despair. And Adam and Eve are indeed fascinated.

This fascination makes Only Lovers Left Alive an incredibly poignant love story. Immortality is the premise that gives scale to their love, but it’s their respect for and fascination with each other that has sustained that love. With very little dialogue, Adam and Eve manage to communicate the connection they have through touch, gaze, and pointing out to one another the things that fascinate them. Jarmusch may be indulgent with his camera, but he shows amazing restraint with his script, giving us peeks of the characters and their histories but only hinting at the majority of their story. The effect is of a snapshot in time—a mere episode in lives so long we cannot conceive of them.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 6.39.04 PMAdam and Eve have changed their appearance over the years to match the world around them, but in the privacy of their homes they wear dressing gowns from the 18th century and speak about friends like Mary Wollstonecraft. Detroit and Algiers are on display as similar collections of old and new, of the deterioration and resurrection of art, culture, style, and taste. The grand Michigan Theatre, which is falling down around them, but will be reclaimed, is the logical analogue to Adam and Eve’s recursivity: they reinvent themselves each generation, the world they knew before swallowed up or torn down before it’s reincorporated into the next one. The film is melancholy in its meditation on humans’ ruination of the world and its beauty, but there is a necessary hope there, too. For one like Eve, who has seen these cycles so often, destruction and death are necessary for reinvention and new life. Adam hasn’t quite her scope, and he feels the losses more acutely.

only lovers left aliveOnly Lovers Left Alive was everything I wanted a Jarmusch take on vampires to be. Swinton and Hiddleston are perfect, beautiful casting, and the glimpses we get of Detroit and Algiers are the perfect atmospheres for the film. Add in the wonderful John Hurt as Kit Marlowe, who actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, Mia Wasikowska as a thoroughly charming vehicle of chaos, and the always delightful Jeffrey Wright as a stylized doctor, and it’s a pitch-perfect cast.

The only thing that irritated is the way these preternatural beings split down such traditional gender lines. The two men are creators—Marlowe a playwright and Adam a musician—and their lives are their work. The women are appreciators and consumers: Eve reads voraciously and supports Adam’s every endeavor, but creates nothing herself. Ava’s consumption is more literal; she chugs blood and makes demands, paying for them with a winsome smile.

only lovers left aliveMy favorite thing about all of Jim Jarmusch’s films is how he approaches the topic of each with such incredible respect and fascination. Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. Each element feels considered and selected, leading to a film that looks like a beautifully curated slice of life. It’s just that these lives have been going on for quite a while.

The Knife: September Girls Cuts To The Heart

A Review of September Girls by Bennett Madison

HarperTeen, 2013

September Girls Bennett Madison

by REBECCA, May 5, 2014

hook

When Sam arrives at a small beach town with his dad and brother for the summer he notices that something is strange about its other inhabitants—all beautiful blonde girls—but can’t quite figure out what. When he starts to fall for one of them, he’ll get answers he never could have imagined.

review

I’ve been meaning to read September Girls all year and now that it’s getting warm, I finally sat down with most poignant of beach reads. After Sam’s mother takes off, his father loses it, sinking into a drunken depression and then diving manically into the task of finding himself. That summer, he decides that he, Sam, and Sam’s collegiate brother, Jeff, should leave town and take to the beach, where they’ll stay until September.

Sam’s father quickly throws himself into searching for buried treasure with a metal detector, and Jeff treats him to lectures on how this is the summer he should lose his virginity, but Sam misses his mother and finds himself walking alone for hours in a landscape that never quite seems the same twice. He’s a little sad, a little bored, and a lot anxious about growing up.

“[Dad often told me] that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy—with vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair—but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next—ta-da!—a man, as if anyone would ever notice the difference.

Like you can just instantly transform like that. Like manhood is this distinct thing with actual markers and consequences. Well, maybe it is. But even if it is—if there is any person on this planet who actually knows what it means to be a man, anyone who could truly sum it up—I would guess my father to be among the very fucking last to have the tiniest clue.”

He’s self-conscious that he’s a virgin, knows that he looks skinny and unimpressive next to his brother, and isn’t particularly interested in doing anything about either. So, when the swarm of beautiful, voluptuous, blonde girls who work at every business in town seem to be interested in Sam, he’s understandably confused. Even if most of them don’t speak to him, he sees them staring, smiling, and paying a kind of attention to him that he’s never received. And, because he’s not an idiot, he’s pretty weirded out by it.

The first night they’re at the beach, Jeff and Sam see a girl washed ashore from the ocean pull herself to hands and knees and scuttle away into the dunes. And this is just the first of many strange and confusing things that they witness. Little by little, his brother starts to fall for one of the girls, Kristle (pronounced like Crystal), and he strikes up a confusing and intense friendship with another, DeeDee.

As he and DeeDee get closer, the secret of the girls—or the Girls, as Sam thinks of them—slowly comes into focus. They aren’t human; they come from the sea, cursed to live in human form for a limited time, and unable to leave the beach town. Call them mermaids if you like, but they have no gender. They merely assume the form that instinct tells them will be most beneficial to beings who arrive on land with nothing: young, beautiful, female, and blonde.

September Girls has been a wildly divisive book in terms of public reviews, with a number of 5-star raves and even more 1-star pans. Nearly all of the latter are given with reference to accusations of the book’s sexism and misogyny. I’m gobsmacked by this truly careless reading, and desperately sad that the book’s public reputation has been tainted by it because it couldn’t be further from the truth. To the contrary, September Girls engages with our widespread culture of sexism and misogyny—sex as power; trapped girls; sex as necessity; addlepated boys—and skewers it. (I won’t do a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations because The Book Smuggler’s review HERE does a great job of that.) Bennett Madison raises questions not only about gender, but about the power of narratives to concretize, challenge, reinscribe, and invert gendered tropes.

We have learned that we are beautiful. All of us. We are all beautiful. To those who may read this: we are more beautiful. No matter how beautiful you are, we are more. We just are. . . . We say this with no pride at all. We say it, maybe, with a little sadness. Our beauty is a gift that we have had no choice but to accept. . . . We were offered only beauty. We took it and we use it. It’s nothing special. It’s how we survive.

Since we have no word for beauty, we use the closest word we have. We call it the knife. Our beauty is only our knife. Our beauty is our only knife. It’s just a knife: rusty blade, ordinary handle. But it’s sharp. It does its thing. Nothing special.

When is nothing special the most important thing? When it’s the only thing. . . . We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with a sexiness that appears unconsidered. . . . So. We learn how to use our breasts, our asses, our eyelashes, our lips. We learn how to get what we want.

No. Not what we want. We never get what we want, do we? We learn how to get what we need.”

September Girls is a dreamy, beautifully-written meditation on how the unstructured time of summer allows for self-exploration and change that the school year makes impossible. Absent anyone from home who really knows him, Sam is on a scary but necessary journey to find out who he is. Part of that is figuring out what it means to engage with a gendered world (because such attitudes are, unfortunately, pervasive). Part of it is learning to appreciate himself. Part of it is learning how to be sad, how to be bored, how to admit to yourself that you aren’t special all the time.

Some have found September Girls a bit dull or slow-paced, but for me it perfectly echoed the feeling of standing in the surf, feet in the sand as the ocean drags it from under you. After each chapter told from Sam’s perspective is a section told from the Girls’ perspective (like the quote above), creating a give and take of ocean and land, and when Sam loses time it’s like the exhausted, lightheaded, salt-drenched moment when you fall asleep on the beach, too sun-drained and beach-blind to notice the hour.

September Girls is a beautiful piece of speculative fiction that’s as dreamy as the ocean and as rough as sand in your underwear. I can’t wait to read whatever Bennett Madison writes next.

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Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989). September Girls’ placiness reminded me of Block’s L.A.—something about the combination of heat and love.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). In Stiefvater’s tale, it’s horses that come from the sea, but it’s similarly dreamy, with harsh reality abutting the speculative. My full review is HERE.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz (2013). When Rudy leaves everything he knows to move to an island whose magic fish might be able to cure his brother’s cystic fibrosis he knows things will never be the same. What he can’t know is that he’ll meet someone who changes everything he knows about himself . . . and presents him with a life and death dilemma. How will Rudy choose between two people he loves? Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. September Girls by Bennett Madison is available now.

Cold Calls Makes Me Want To Hang Up

A Review of Cold Calls by Charles Benoit

Clarion, 2014

Cold Calls Charles Benoit

by REBECCA, April 24, 2014

hook

Three teenagers are each bullying someone at their schools. But it’s not because they’re bullies—or are they? It’s because they’re being blackmailed by someone else. Who are the villains when everyone’s a victim?

review

I read Cold Calls because the ARC cover touted it as Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast Club and I was like: sold. If by Pretty Little Liars they mean that it involves cellular telephones and if by The Breakfast Club they mean that people from different social circles interact, then I guess that’s an apt comparison. The similarities end there, however.

Pretty Little LiarsThe premise is simple: three students from different backgrounds and schools—Eric (the jock), Shelly (the religious emo girl), and Fatima (the bubbly smartypants)—are each being blackmailed by a mysterious caller, each forced to tease a student at their school, dump macaroni and cheese on them, and then post the video to YouTube. In the anti-bullying program that they must attend, Eric, Shelly, and Fatima meet and team up to figure out who their blackmailer is, why he or she is blackmailing them, and how to stop it.

the-breakfast-club-netflixI’m not sure how else to say it: Cold Calls is dopey. Well, I do know how else to say it. This is a book that lacks any characterization; therefore it lacks any stakes because we don’t care what happens to any of the characters. There are the most rudimentary of backstories sketched for each character, which vaguely relate to each of their “secrets.” (Note: in case it isn’t clear, my use of quotation marks around SECRETS is meant to indicate that these things are TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Oh, god, book, look what you’ve done: you’ve gotten me so upset that I’m starting to use all caps.) Because of the complete and total lack of nuance or character development, these secrets are ridiculous.

For example, my reaction to finding out Shelly’s (which is supposed to be traumatizing to her): You cannot possibly be that stupid. No, seriously. Wait, but a.) don’t you have the ability to google anything; b.) weren’t you forced to talk to an adult in the last year; c.) no one is that oblivious. What I’m supposed to feel (I assume): oh, you poor thing; guilt and shame are terrible; I feel pity for you. Eric’s secret is obvious on page two and totally dull. The only minutely interesting thing in the whole book is what Fatima is going through, which is that (spoiler alert; it’s her secret) she’s Muslim but is having doubts about her faith and knows it would really hurt her family to find out.

Cold Calls takes up bullying, a subject central to both the current imaginary and the world of young adult fiction. The idea of bullies being forced to bully is actually rather interesting. For one thing, it engages with the fairly accepted notion that many bullies act out because of ways that they have themselves been victimized. This, then, is a literalization (if a clumsy one) of that premise. Did we need a literalization of it, or did we all already know this? My vote’s on the latter, but hey, I understand the impulse.

urlHere’s the thing, y’all. The book has no characterization, no voice, the prose is purely functional, the mystery is both uninteresting and sewn up all of a sudden (this is problem-solving and misdirection of the “hey, look over there!” variety). Thus, there are no stakes for the characters, no stakes for genre or prose. Lacking any of these stakes, the only stakes the book could have would be ethical. I mean, surely a book published by a major publishing company (Clarion is Houghton-Mifflin’s children’s imprint) couldn’t be published without some stakes. But, though bullying is the central issue here, there isn’t even a scrap of meditation upon the topic.

It’s not that I want some kind of moralizing on the subject; quite the contrary. But Cold Calls takes up the mantle of a complicated issue and flattens it into the blandest of plot sketches. I imagine that there may be an audience for Cold Calls, but I am most certainly not it. Lacking interesting characters, voice, a unique plot, and any food for thought, Cold Calls read like the thinnest of premises tortured into a novel-length exercise in going through the motions of putting one scene after another. Any one of these things might have saved it—interesting characters make me care less about a blah plot; gorgeous prose is a delight to read even if the rest isn’t great; an amazingly creative plot excites me enough that the characters needn’t be so extraordinary. But, no. As Gordon Ramsay would say (I have recently been watching Master Chef and Master Chef Junior, as I wrote about earlier this week): what a shame.

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Want some actual mysteries? Here are three!

Beautiful Lies Jessica Warman

Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman (2012). Alice and Rachel are the rarest of twins—so identical that even their closest friends and family can’t tell them apart. When Alice disappears without a trace, Rachel knows that something is terribly wrong because, for the first time, she feels like their connection is broken. As the hours creep by, things become more and more unclear: what is real? where is Alice? and what secrets have the twins been keeping from everyone—and from each other? My full review is HERE.

White Cat Holly Black

White Cat (Curse Workers #1) by Holly Black (2010). Cassel is from a family of Curse Workers—they have the ability to change your life with a single touch—but he isn’t one. Cassel usually stays out of trouble, but when mysterious visitors come calling, it dredges up a past he’d like to forget.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009). When Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes that are clearly written my someone who knows her intimately she thinks she needs to take action to prevent something horrible from happening. But who is sending her these notes? And how?

received from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review (thanks!). Cold Calls by Charles Benoit is available now.

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