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

hook

“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.

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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.

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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.

5 Reasons You Should Watch Master Chef Junior!

Master Chef Junior

by REBECCA, April 21, 2014

First things first, because this is an elimination show, be careful of going to the homepage for the show because it’ll spoil the finale.

See that adorable, food-smeared child holding what looks like a restaurant-quality dessert? Well, whereas usually that would imply that the annoying child just shoved their face in someone’s beautiful dessert, in Master Chef Junior, it means they freaking made it.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you might be thinking: I hate reality shows about children because they are always either victimized by their parents’ ambition, or independent psychopaths who will surely grow up to be bullies and serial killers. HOWEVER, Master Chef Junior is not like that! My sister and I watched the whole thing a few weeks ago—it’s only seven episodes, so it’s a great mini-marathon show—and it is bloody amazing. So, here are five reasons why you should definitely check it out!

1. Expertise! There are few things I love more than watching people who are brilliant at something execute that thing well. I love cooking shows because you can see every step of what people do: you can see them brainstorm ideas; you can see them make mistakes and have to fix them; and you can see them receive feedback on them. I’m a pretty good cook/baker and I know there is no way I could ever be on a food competition show. I just don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of recipes or the time management skills to cook that fast. The regular Master Chef (a competition of adult home chefs) is impressive enough to me for both those reasons.

mc jr 4When the experts are children, it’s mind-blowing. These are 8-13 year-old kids and they are cooking at the same level as the adults on Master Chef. To see an eight-year-old with professional knife skills . . . well, actually, it’s a little creepy. But, no, it’s amazing. And it isn’t only that they’re experts on a technical level; they’re also incredibly knowledgeable about food, which allows them to create unique, diverse, sophisticated, restaurant-quality dishes. Y’all, it’s seriously amazing!

2. Competitors With Heart! In most competition shows—certainly in Master Chefthe competitors talk a lot of shit. They’re nasty and cutthroat and they refuse to acknowledge the talents of their competitors as if it could, in some way, lessen their own. Not in Master Chef Junior. Almost more surprising than the incredible culinary skill these kids have is their amazingly positive attitudes toward one another. They encourage one another, they say lovely things about each other’s work, they cry when competitors leave because they’re friends, and they help calm each other down when they’re stressed out. I think this was actually my favorite element of the show. I hate to sound all from-the-mouths-of-babes, but it’s incredibly inspiring to realize that at a young age, kids don’t just assume that they have to cut people down to elevate themselves. This also made the show so much more pleasant to watch because there was none of the yelling, complaining, and other garbage that so often goes with the truly amazing cooking.

131004masterchef-junior1_300x2063. Young Adults Rule! There is an episode where the contestants take over a restaurant and have to work in the kitchen, cooking all the food for the restaurant. It’s a real challenge because it’s not just about having the ability to cook. It’s about expecting 8-13 year-olds to work together, take instruction, delegate, move quickly, all of it while being yelled at. And, man, they are amazing. After the diners have eaten their food and raved about it, when those kids come out from the kitchen and they see who cooked it, you can see every one of those diners reevaluating everything they’ve ever thought about what young people are capable of.

4. Appreciation of Food! In a culture where kids are stereotyped as being either picky or addicted to junk food, it is so refreshing to see kids who are delighted by bok choy in a delicate ginger sauce or put fresh arugula on a cheeseburger. And it’s not only about whether these ingredients are to the kids’ personal tastes, but about the appreciation of each ingredient that they demonstrate. They work hard and truly honor food, showing how important it is to give kids access to fresh ingredients. I hope that every person in charge of school lunches, programs that bring food into neighborhoods and schools, and policymakers watch this show and see what kids can do when they’re given access to food and cooking instruction—even if that instruction is in the form of the Food Network.

jrmc_104-elim_03315. Self-Motivation! A few of these kids have family members who have restaurants, but most of them learned to cook from family members or they figured it out for themselves. When the chefs ask them if they’ve ever made things before, many of them speak about how they cook for their families three or four days a week. I love this approach to kids contributing to their families. Rather than just doing chores, this approach allows kids to explore their passions and also be responsible for providing for their families, whether they’re trying out gourmet dishes with exotic ingredients (for those whose families have access and cash) or whipping up homestyle comfort foods and elevating basic ingredients.

And, bonus, if you’ve ever seen chefs Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich on the regular Master Chef then you know that they can be exacting, blunt, and intimidating. To see them interacting with kids is at times funny and at times touching (Graham Elliot is as nice as always).

You can watch Master Chef Junior on Hulu HERE.

In the end, even if you’re not a fan of cooking shows in general, the show has a lot in common with YA novels I’ve reviewed that are about teens with obsessions and skills through which they express themselves or, sometimes, into which they escape. Here are a few.

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The Sea of Tranquility Katja Millay

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay (2012). Two people in pain who find each other and express themselves through their obsessions, Nastya through baking and Josh through woodworking. My full review is HERE.

With or Without You Brian Farrey

With or Without You, Brian Farrey (2011). Evan is used to getting beat up for being gay and used to having parents who don’t understand him. He can deal with all of it as long as he has an escape plan after high school and his painting. Evan has studied the techniques of all his favorite painters and he painstakingly imitates their styles in the expression scenes from his own life. My full review is HERE.

Interview with J.C. Lillis, Author of We Won’t Feel a Thing!

by REBECCA, April 16, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

Friends, enemies, and those totally indifferent to me, hello! It is my total pleasure to welcome the delightful J.C. Lillis back to Crunchings & Munchings for an interview on the heels of her sophomore release, We Won’t Feel a Thingwhich I reviewed on Monday.

GIVEAWAY: J.C. is offering one lucky reader a free e-copy of We Won’t Feel a Thing. The form is at the end of the interview. Thanks for joining us, J.C.!

REBECCA: The idea of two best friends/beloveds deciding to use a self-help program to rid themselves of their love is so awesome! How did you come up with the idea?

J.C.: Thanks! Yeah, it was inspired by an offhand comment a friend of mine made to another friend who was having a difficult time. He told her that her life would be so much easier if she just learned to engineer her emotions. And he was a scientist, so of course we started joking about it: “oh, watch him actually start his own Emotional Engineering program.” The David Kerning character and his WAVES program started to evolve from there, and then David bumped into Rachel and Riley, and the story started to cook.

REBECCA: One of my favorite things about the book is that Rachel is a grammar and syntax nerd. Being one myself, I was delighted every time Rachel mentally deleted an apostrophe or corrected a malapropism. Are you a grammar enthusiast? Do you have a grammatical, syntactical, or linguistic pet peeve?

J.C.: I am, but I’m definitely not as obsessive about it as Rachel is. If I passed by a specials chalkboard advertising “chocolate croissant’s,” I’d probably be able to keep walking.

Oh geez, I have so many pet peeves. I share Rachel’s hatred of “impact” used as a verb; say something like “the economy impacted sales” and all I can think about are problematic wisdom teeth. All business lingo rubs me the wrong way. Just these smug, snappy idioms people whip out like a secret handshake, to feel important—herding cats and making it rain and drilling down to the granular level. And this is a pretty common peeve, but I am forever raging about “it’s” in place of “its.” It’s become such an epidemic that even autocorrect sticks the apostrophe in, like SLOW YOUR ROLL, AUTOCORRECT. Let’s consider context, shall we?

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisREBECCA: Your first novel, How To Repair a Mechanical Heart, which I adored, found you creating a fandom. In We Won’t Feel a Thing, you create two different self-help programs. Can you talk a little bit about what appeals to you about creating these worlds-within-worlds?

J.C.: I love this question. I’m sitting here like “yeah . . . why DO I do that?” I think it’s because I’ve always struggled to feel like I belonged, and I’ve had very intense obsessions with things that sometimes aren’t appreciated by many others (in my fandoms, I’m forever the queen of unpopular ships). So the idea of a little society or system devoted to an obscure pursuit or interest has always been compelling to me. I’m also the kind of person who needs to feel in control of things, whether it’s my workload or my emotions or my body, so I’m drawn to characters who invent systems and strategies to impose order on the untamable.

 REBECCA: The love story in How To Repair a Mechanical Heart was between two boys. When I first saw the blurb for We Won’t Feel a Thing, I was a tad nervous because heterosexual love stories so often wind up reinforcing gender stereotypes. Not only did We Won’t Feel a Thing not do that, but Riley and Rachel’s genders also felt very fluid. I don’t mean to say that just because they weren’t stereotypical they were somehow unfixed; more that I was interested in the ways that it felt kind of like they could have been any combination of gender-identified people. What are your thoughts on this issue in general? Was gender something you were actively thinking about here?

don't gender me!

don’t gender me!

J.C.: You’re the second person who’s made that comment, and I love that you felt that way. Some of that was natural and kind of arose from the type of person I am. I’ve never felt especially feminine or masculine in the traditional sense. I remember I had this rag doll as a kid; it had no hair or clothing, it was just the outline of a person with friendly facial features stitched on. I loved this doll, and I remember feeling annoyed and unsettled when people would ask “Is that a boy or a girl?” I hated that I had to pick, because neither option really felt like the truth. To this day I’m always attracted to people who combine traits we’re conditioned to think of as “male” and “female,” and I think I live comfortably in that gray area, too.

So yeah, it was partly automatic, but I was also very conscious of the approach to gender in WWFaT. I think l’ll probably hear some of “oh, Riley’s the ‘girl’ in the relationship,” which—like you indicated in your review—is sort of reductive and stereotypical. I wasn’t really aiming for a straight-up gender-role reversal; I was more interested in depicting two young people whose personalities both color outside traditional gender lines. I mean, Rachel and Riley have been isolated in their private “kingdom” for a good bit of their lives, so I feel like they don’t even see those lines at all. That felt freeing to me as a writer. I think back to the very first fictional relationships that captivated me—like, Frog and Toad or Bert and Ernie. I don’t remember giving gender a thought; it was their specific personalities and their interactions that jumped out at me and made them special. I wanted to recapture that with the Rachel/Riley relationship. I’m glad it worked for you!

REBECCA: We Won’t Feel a Thing is your second novel, but if I remember correctly from your first interview with us, you had the idea for it a long time ago. What was it like to revisit an older idea? Was your writing experience different, having had a first novel under your belt?

J.C.: Yeah, these characters have been with me since like late 2003. (I’d written three other novels before that, all of which will mercifully never see the light of day.) I finished the first draft and then set it aside for a while—I was pregnant at the time and very anxious about motherhood, so I needed a break. I wrote about half of another book when my daughter was a baby, and then I got the idea for HTRaMH and decided to run with it.

That first version of WWFaT was wildly different. And at first, when I decided to go back and revise it, I was naively optimistic. I just thought oh, I’ve already put one book out there, so this’ll be easy. I’ll tighten the beginning, cut stuff here and there, tidy it up and get it out in six months. But then when I changed the beginning, everything started to change. I ended up keeping maybe 5% of the original text. In some ways it was even harder than starting from scratch, because it was this constant process of letting go of stuff I liked from version #1 that just didn’t fit or make sense anymore. Talk about killing your darlings. It was a darling bloodbath.

 REBECCA: You have a job and kids, right? How do you balance all that with writing? And what are the things that make you excited enough about a story that you want to make time for it?

J.C.: Oh man, it’s hard. It never stops being hard. I was just talking about that with a friend this weekend. A lot of times you feel like you’re doing everything, and none of it particularly well. Honestly, it’s just a “one day at a time” struggle . . . some days you manage to pull out a great idea at work and laugh with the kiddo at bedtime and write five good pages before you conk out, and other times the whole day’s just a wash. I think the key is learning to forgive yourself and be okay with the fact that your book might take longer than you hoped. Writer moms: It’s okay if you don’t write every day, or if you can’t write as fast as other people. You’ve got a lot going on. Years from now, you won’t look back and say “wow, I wish I’d gotten Book X out six months earlier.” You’ll only regret making yourself sick trying to work full time, be a mom, and still produce a book a year. Everyone works at a different pace, and that’s fine. Know what you can handle, and go easy on yourselves.

As far as staying passionate about a story—if you start with an idea and a character that make you vibrate with excitement, that’ll help carry you through the tough times in the Cave of Eternal Revision. If I get bored, sometimes I take whatever actors I’m crushing on at the moment and mentally cast them in my book, and that keeps it fresh and fun (and helps me hear the dialogue better, as a bonus).

REBECCA: Ha! I love that idea! Relatedly, I know a lot of our readers are also writers. You had great things to say about your experience with indie publishing in our last interview. Do you still feel as good about it? What advice do you have for someone writing books who may not want to go the traditional publishing path?

J.C.: I love being indie; I definitely think it was the right option for me and my weird little books. :-) You know, it has its pluses and minuses like everything else. Sometimes I feel a little frustrated by how difficult it is to spread the word about your stuff and attract new readers, especially when you have a shoestring marketing budget and another full-time job you’re committed to. I know there’s so much more I could be doing, and I always end up mad at myself: I should be tweeting/blogging more! I should’ve sent ARCs to more bloggers! If I just organized my time better, I’d have time for X and Y and Z . . .

But the reality is, none of us are superheroes. (At least I don’t think so. If you are, don’t tell; I might step on your cape.) I do what I can manage, and overall the whole indie adventure has been a tremendous experience. There’s nothing better than getting a tweet from a stranger who found and loved your book. I’ve managed to build up a nice readership little by little, and I love that I can still write back to every person who’s kind enough to reach out to me.

As far as advice: I’d say just put in the time to inform yourself about your publishing options, and if you decide to go indie, come on over to Twitter and join the writing community there. We’re a lot of fun, we’re generous with advice and support, and we’ve got your back. There’ll be tons of ups and downs as you figure out which choices are best for you and your book (because seriously, it’s different for everyone), but they’ll be much easier if you’re on the same roller coaster with your writer buddies.

REBECCA: Are you working on anything new (crosses fingers)?

AmadeusJ.C.: Oh yeah, I’m always working on something! Actually, I’m taking a short break right now—WWFaT took a lot out of me and I kind of just need a month to stare at a wall (and catch up on reading. And fangirl over Game of Thrones). But yes, I’ve got my next idea all cued up. It’s about female friendship, but it could possibly turn into romance, depending on where the characters lead me. It’s about the rivalry and deepening relationship between two ambitious pop-star hopefuls; I’ve been calling it Amadeus with young female singer-songwriters, though that’s probably too glib. The cool part is that Brandon and Abel from HTRaMH are going to be side characters. It’s set ten years after their Summer of Love, so you’ll see what’s happened with them in the interim and where their relationship stands now. I can’t wait to get started!

REBECCA: Aaaahhh! Amadeus is one of my favorite movies and I love anything to do with music! Um, oh my god, a Brandon and Abel sighting? I could not be more delighted! Thanks so much for joining us, J.C.!

J.C.: Thank you so much for having me on your blog! It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.

WIN AN E-COPY OF WE WON’T FEEL A THING!

All you need to do is fill out the handy form below and then (for fun!) leave us a comment telling us which better describes you (and why, if you are so inclined). Are you: 1. A fierce grammar nerd, or 2. A sensitive (and possibly anxious) artiste? Or, since binaries are bullshit, 3. An evil genius who will someday engineer an insidious self-help program? The giveaway will stay open for two weeks; I’ll announce the winner here on April 30th!

UPDATE: I have chosen the winner of an e-copy of We Won’t Feel A Thing by a highly scientific process (writing your names on pieces of paper, dumping them in my cat’s favorite cardboard box, and then letting her choose one with her paw) and the winner is MIGUEL!

We Won’t Feel A Thing: A Different Kind of Love Story

A Review of We Won’t Feel A Thing by J.C. Lillis

Self-published, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

by REBECCA, April 14, 2014

I am delighted to be reviewing We Won’t Feel A Thing on the blog today. Check back on Wednesday, when the mega-delightful J.C. Lillis will be joining us for an INTERVIEW and a GIVEAWAY!

hook

Riley and Rachel are best friends who have just found out something horrible: they’re in love. With each other. But with Rachel headed for New York next year and Riley going to California, they know that all their love can lead to is heartbreak. So, they do what anyone desperate to fall out of love with their best friend would do: they sign up for WAVES, a self-help program that promises they’ll be back to just friends in six easy steps. But sometimes, as the blurb says, “when you fight love—love fights back!”

review

diagramming sentencesRachel and Riley are not only best friends, they live together with Riley’s parents and share everything—a room that’s partitioned only by a sliding door that is never closed, a clock with a ceramic mermaid queen and king, and one of those close friendships where you know just what the other one is thinking. Rachel moved in with Riley’s family when they were eight and they’ve been inseparable ever since. Rachel wields her red pen like a weapon, diagraming sentences into submission. “This was her favorite thing: caging an untamed sentence, pinning down subject and verb, making all the other words fall in line around them . . . She shot lightning bolts of prepositional phrases from her scepter.” (Note: so for-the-love-of-god excited for a character who corrects phraseologies like “you’ve got another thing coming”!) Riley is sensitive and anxious, most at peace when he’s working on his mosaics: “he always trusted that with work and time and patience, the thousands of pieces would mirror the picture in his head.”

cupcake of truth!

cupcake of truth!

Now, though, Rachel and Riley each have a secret to share with the other: Rachel that she’s gotten into college in New York City and plans for Riley to come with her, and Riley that his aunt has invited him and Rachel to come live in a coveted suite in her motel in California, a dream they’ve both had since they were eight. That afternoon, Rachel and Riley go with Riley’s parents to a DERT seminar—Dyad Enhancement through Revelation of Truth—and, after eating too many truth cupcakes, accidentally blurt out the truth: they are not just best friends, but also in love. THE HORROR!

Upon fleeing from the DERT seminar after this revelation, they run into another self-help guru, David A. Kerning (a delightful reference to the space between letters in typography—somehow the combination of Rachel’s editorial sense and Riley’s mosaics). David promises that with his experimental Forbidden Love Module, he can help them. “DERT is a menace, as you’ve seen. Fortunately for the world,” he says, “my collective and I have devoted the whole of our enormous brainpower to the science of destroying Gary Gannon and everything he stands for.”

Thus begins a hilarious and touching story of what happens when you’re willing to try almost anything to avoid the pain of love.

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisWe Won’t Feel A Thing is J.C. Lillis’ second novel. Her first, How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, was pretty much the most adorable book I’ve ever read, not to mention one of the awesomest explorations of how fandom can provide a vehicle for figuring out some deep-ass personal stuff. Like How To Repair A Mechanical HeartWe Won’t Feel A Thing is a love story set against the backdrop of passion for other things, delightful characters, and prose that made me laugh out loud (at work, where I was not supposed to be reading).

I am not much for your generic love story, particularly love stories about nice-looking, straight, white kids. There has to be something else in order for me to be interested. But here’s the thing: We Won’t Feel A Thing is not so much a love story as it is 1.) an exploration of how romantic love is based deeply in friendship, and 2.) an excavation of how truly terrifying love can seem. We Won’t Feel A Thing opens with a fairy tale: “Once there was a boy and a girl with a kingdom in their room.” Like all good fairy tales, this is the safe, comfortable world of prepubescence, where fantasy is make-believe and a boy and a girl can live together in peace. Also like any good fairy tale, with love comes threat: the terror of losing friendship, childhood, safety, and self.

This is such a threat, that Rachel and Riley (mostly Rachel—Riley follows her lead) are willing to go to any lengths to allay it. The book, then, is an excavation of their love in the form of an attempt to ameliorate it, a brilliant plot device that turns the love story inside-out, pairing each revelation of Rachel and Riley’s simpatico with their despair and frustration that it’s still there. This turns what could be a twee romance into an emotional adventure that strikes a perfect balance of comedy and drama.

mosaic waveJ.C. Lillis is the master of a particular kind of character + detail pairing that makes everyone in her novels feel alive. Rachel’s passion for grammar perfectly expresses her desire to control things around her, and the comfort she takes from knowing the rules that govern things and enforcing them. It is no wonder, then, that love—that uncontrollable and unwieldy force—would scare the shit out of her. Riley’s anxiety is explicit. “He told himself the fear was just one more entry in his Index of Senseless Worries, right after #378 (flash mobs), #379 (brown recluse spiders), and #380 (the dreaded DERT seminar they’d be marched to that afternoon).” Where Rachel breaks apart sentences to prove her mastery over their parts, Riley does the inverse: putting together disparate pieces of glass and ceramic to create something whole and beautiful. Their anxieties and coping mechanisms are in complementary distribution, and that is how their love works too.

Rachel gripped the waiter’s vest. ‘Did you know,’ she said, ‘that if you hooked my brain up with his brain, you’d be able to watch one long continuous movie of our life?’

‘How beautiful.’

‘I remember all the details he forgets. He remembers mine.’

‘You’re fortunate. Both of you.’

‘We are not. No no no.’ Rachel shook him by the lapels. ‘We’re extremely unfortunate. You have no idea.’

‘What’ll we do this year?’ Riley gulped the last of his coffee and poured another cup. ‘Who’re we going to be without each other?’

[The waiter] pointed heavenward. ‘You don’t believe you’ll be . . . reunited?’ . . .

‘We’re not sure of anything,’ said Rachel. Which was the truth.'”

As in How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, where Lillis created an entire fandom, in We Won’t Feel A Thing, she creates two self-help programs, both of which are quite funny. “Welcome to DERT!,” they’re greeted at the seminar by a cavegirl with a clipboard, “You’re late, so I’ve prejudged you as rude and selfish. May I have your consent forms?” And, “Thank youuuu . . . I hate your purse. It reminds me of my mother.” At dinner the next evening, armed with the DERT@Home box, Riley’s parents have a Splatter Session:

‘Is there any white bread?’ Mr. Woodlawn asked, taking a swig of strawberry milk . . .

‘I hate that,’ Mrs. Woodlawn said.

‘What?’ Mr. Woodlawn blinked, a forkful of peas midway to his mouth.

‘The way you ask me if there’s any bread, as if it’s somehow my responsibility to know.’ She drummed her hands faster. ‘Also, I hate that you drink strawberry milk. It’s emasculating.’

She balled up a pink paper napkin and tossed it at her husband’s face.”

strawberry milkIn a hilarious sub-plot, Riley’s parents embrace the DERT program of calling out truth with such aplomb that they end up in their basement, throwing mud and truth at each other. These scenes of his parents’ marriage breaking up are the backdrop to Rachel and Riley’s conviction that love can only lead to pain, but are also hilarious.

The last thing I’ll say about We Won’t Feel A Thing is how much I appreciate the gender dynamics here. One of the reasons I generally find heterosexual love stories unsatisfying is that they often go hand-in-hand with very stereotypical gender profiles. J.C. Lillis not only avoids this, but she has written, in Rachel and Riley, two characters who don’t need to be any one gender at all. It isn’t that gender roles are swapped (which still reinforces them), but rather that there are no markers of gender that matter here. Rachel and Riley like qualities about each other, and it’s those qualities that make up their characters. There were some murmurings on Goodreads when the blurb for We Won’t Feel A Thing first went up that people were disappointed because this wouldn’t be another queer love story, like How To Repair A Mechanical Heart. It is, though. It’s not a homosexual love story, but it’s a love story between characters full of queer potential.

We Won’t Feel A Thing is a delightful book, as well as a feather in the cap of independent publishing. I would put it up against any release from a major publisher in every category—prose, plotting, characters, cover, and copy editing (Rachel would be proud!). I cannot wait to see what J.C. Lillis comes up with next.

Remember, J.C. Lillis will be joining us for an interview and a giveaway on Wednesday, so join us then!

readalikes

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan (2010). Like We Won’t Feel A ThingWill Grayson, Will Grayson is a story that’s equal parts hilarity and heartbreak set against a backdrop of art and music that propel the plot forward. Tessa and I joint review Will Grayson, Will Grayson HERE and HERE.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead Liar & Spy Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me (2009) and Liar & Spy (2012), by Rebecca Stead. Rebecca Stead’s latest two books share a certain quality with We Won’t Feel A Thing—a combination of true vulnerable sincerity and a sense of the absurd. Also featuring boy-girl besties, these middle-grade-ish reads capture a similar spirit. My full review of Liar & Spy is HERE.

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. Lillis

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, by J.C. Lillis (2012). But of course you have to read Lillis’ first book, the story of Brandon and Abel, fans who set out on a road trip of Cons for the sci-fi show Castaway Planet and end up falling in love. It is a complete and total delight. My full review is HERE and our interview with J.C. Lillis about the book is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the author (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. We Won’t Feel A Thing by J.C. Lillis is available now!

5 Reasons I’m Provisionally Enjoying Star-Crossed (and a few reasons I’m not)

A Review of Star-Crossed, created by Meredith Averill

The CW, 2014

Star-Crossed

by REBECCA, April 10, 2014

Star-Crossed, as the title suggests, is a science fiction Romeo and Juliet. Ten years ago, in 2014, an Atrian starship crash-landed in a small town in Louisiana. Six-year-old Roman (Romeo) takes shelter in the shed of Emory (Juliet) when the shooting starts, and they form a bond in the few minutes before soldiers rip them apart. After a bloody battle, the Atrians are interned in a camp called the Sector. Now it’s 2024 and, as the result of an integration program that has long been in the works, seven teenage Atrians are going to begin attending a human high school, to test whether Atrians and humans have the potential to integrate.

romeo-and-julietSo, I’ve mentioned before how much I generally loathe adaptations. There is NO reason why this needed to be an overt Romeo and Juliet—in fact, it really hampers what Star-Crossed can do by telegraphing what are going to be the major issues and stakes of the show. I will say it again. I just do not understand why people cut off narratives at the knees like this?! In the case of Star-Crossed, it seems likely that either the CW thinks sci-fi is low art and needed a little cultcha or that they worried that sci-fi would turn off their core teen female audience unless they very overtly announced that it would be a romance. Either way, it was a stupid move. Also, can we please agree that, in 2014 (and definitely in 2024), Romeo and Juliet is really not the only text that comes to mind when we think about people from different worlds whose social situation dictates that they not be together. In fact, it’s become something of a cliché at this point—a story that’s concretized into utter predictability. So, yeah. WHAT THE?

Tami-Julie-friday-night-lights-4533494-2560-1920More bad news. Emory, played by Aimee Teegarden, aka Julie Taylor from Friday Night Lights, has the unfortunate fate of being a really boring character. No idea why they’re writing her like this when most of the other characters are more interesting, but Emory is completely blah and has no real chemistry with Roman, or with Grayson—yeah, sorry, they’re going with that whole love triangle thing, at least for a little while. (Grayson is played by Grey Damon, also from Friday Night Lights, and another character, Zoe, is played by Dora Madison Burge, who played Becky on Friday Night Lights, so while you’re thinking how boring Emory is, what a bad actor Grey Damon is, and how much makeup they’ve slathered on poor Zoe, you can just close your eyes and think of how good Friday Night Lights was).

That bad news aside, Star-Crossed has, so far, been a pretty enjoyable watch, if you go into it eyes open. I mean, it’s a CW show, so. Here are a few reasons I’ve enjoyed the first eight episodes.

1. Civil Rights Conversations. The morning the Atrian 7 start school with the humans their bus pulls up to the school where there is a mass of protesters who harangue them and throw things at them. It’s a citation of the morning the Little Rock 9 enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Little Rock 9 star-crossed

As in any aliens-landed-on-earth tale, there are people who believe that the Atrians are a threat to earthlings, those who are fascinated by their culture, and those in between. Emory and her best friends, Julia (a delightful Malese Jow, who played Anna on The Vampire Diaries) and Lukas (Titus Makin Jr. who was one of the Warblers on Glee) are excited to befriend the Atrians, but there are many who antagonize them from the beginning. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but, to my mind, any show that is having explicit conversations about the ways that fear of the unknown leads to prejudice, which leads to violence, which leads to retaliation, which leads to war, is succeeding, at least in some small measure.

The Atrian 7 disagree about what integration means, too. There’s one scene where the Atrian 7 are lectured about how they have to be a model minority, which some embrace and some revile. Roman, at one point, thanks Julia and Lukas for helping him and Lukas replies “We minorities have to stick together,” and Roman says, “You guys are minorities?” (they’re non-white); Lukas replies, “Before you got here.” So, there are some useful conversations going on, and I hope things will get more complicated as the show goes on.

2. The Atrians! Once you get over the fact that the Atrians look exactly like humans except for their tattoo-like birthmarks and the fact that they are all OVERLY ATTRACTIVE, the Atrian 7—well, we only know four so far—are pretty delightful characters. Roman (our Romeo) is played by Matt Lanter, who I’ve never seen in anything (though he did play Edward Sullen in a satire of Twilight-esque movies that apparently exists?) but who I find strangely compelling. No, not just because he used to be a model. There’s something natural and straightforward about the way he plays Roman, which turns a character that would otherwise be chokingly goody-two-shoes into one who seems mature and interesting.

Teri & Drake

Teri & Drake

Sofia (Brina Palencia) is the wide-eyed, human-loving optimist who wants to make human friends because she doesn’t fit in that well with the Atrians. Teri (Chelsea Gilligan) is her opposite. She’s a fierce, badass fighter who doesn’t take any shit. Her mother is the leader of an Atrian splinter group that is willing to use violence to overthrow humanity. Last is Drake (Greg Finley), a bruiser who wants to be tough, but isn’t quite sure where his loyalties lie.

3. Plants. The Atrians’ main sources of power, as well as their main weapons, are plant-based, and one tribe of Atrians is particularly skilled in that regard. Cyper, for example, is a plant that can both heal and kill, and if humans found out about its properties when mixed with Atrian blood, they’d kill for it. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve decided that this was inspired by the centrality of herbs in Romeo and Juliet. Even if it’s not true, it’s an interesting choice.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.40.18 PM4. Pansexuality! In a show that is based on Romeo and Juliet and, therefore, pretty much tells us who the main romantic drama will concern, we learn that Atrians are pansexual, which at least opens up some possibilities for the plot going forward. I mean, we were all pretending that Roman and Drake were together anyway, right?

5. Star-Crossed. Come on. That’s actually a really excellent name for a show that is about Romeo and Juliet and aliens who came from SPACE! (I can’t think of a fifth thing that’s actively good.)

SO, have you all been watching Star-Crossed? What do you think? Do the good things make up for the dopey CW-elements, or will these violent delights have violent ends?

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