The Only Ones: a package tied up with a Möbius bow

The Only Ones

Aaron Starmer

Delacorte Press, 2011

characters

Martin Maple, raised in island isolation on mechanical milk
George, a Friend
Kelvin, an absent founding father
Darla, a go-getter with a monster truck
Lane, performance artist, keeper of her own secrets
Nigel, shadow leader of a not-so-Peaceable Kingdom
Chet, underestimated gardener
Felix, a different kind of weaver of webs
Henry, sneaky peanut roaster
Trent, small but responsible
Martin’s Dad & Mom, alive in absence

hook
Is the best leader for a recently deserted world a boy who has grown up without people?

worldview & intention achievement
The world in The Only Ones is our world, up until page 15. Then it is our world with one major difference: nearly every human in it has disappeared in an instant.   The realization of this is slow, however, because it’s seen through the eyes of Martin Maple, a young boy who has lived on a small island (possibly somewhere in New England) for his whole life.  His education consists of working on a machine with his father.  He doesn’t know what the machine is, just how it is put together.  He has one book of fantasy and sci-fi stories that keeps him entertained.

Two things occur to help Martin grow up. When Martin is 9 years old, he meets a friend.  He’s not supposed to have friends so George remains a secret.  George has access to books, and soon Martin treats George as his own personal librarian and not much else.  Not being socialized, Martin has a slippery grasp on what friendship requires.  Then, when Martin is 10, his father leaves to find the last piece for the machine. He doesn’t return–his empty boat washes up on shore on Martin’s 11th birthday.  The next summer, there are no summer people on the island.  Martin realizes that something is going on.  He’s not exactly lonely, but he does want to find his father.  So he leaves the island for the first time, almost 13 years old.

and Martin finds... parking lots. jk!

The world has been left to itself for a couple of years when Martin finds his first town.  He’s nearly eaten by a bear in a library.  Luckily, his upbringing gives him the instinct to escape and the wherewithal to steal the fox that the bear had in its mouth for his own meal.  This is when Martin meets Kelvin.  Kelvin looks like nothing more than a skinny kid in a cape, but he’s very self-assured.  He tells Martin that everyone on Earth has disappeared, except for the inhabitants of Xibalba.  By way of explanation he says:

“You know it’s actually spelled with an ‘X,’ but sounds like an ‘Sh,’ as in ‘Who gives a Xibalba?’ You just find it. Like the rest of them did.  You’ll know you’re close when you smell the nuts.” (34)

And (a bit incredibly) that’s what Martin does.

From this point on the book starts to come into its own, and its intentions become clearer. It’s part mystery, part exploration of society, part whimsical speculative fantasy.  What it surprisingly isn’t is a story of how the kids in Xibalba survive–they just loot towns with a monster truck (belonging to Darla, a nominal leader).

That’s a refreshing aspect for me as a reader–I’ve read many a survival narrative this year, and while I enjoy the permutations, it was refreshing to see this perspective.  At least at this point, they haven’t entered the territory of The Road because nothing apocalyptic has really happened, just something Rapture-iffic.  So the Earth is eminently plunderable.  Each citizen gets his or her own house and each contributes a skill to society, which therefore ends up being barter-based.  So basically what they’re left with is how to grapple with what happened to them.

There’s no way to know why everyone disappeared, or know how.  They have to come up with their own mythologies.  As we come to meet the inhabitants of Xibalba and their quirks (believe me, there are quirks galore), we also learn that there’s already some tragic history to the town.  Starmer drops little hints at this, simultaneously profiling characters, moving their individual arcs forward, and setting elements in place so that Martin becomes the catalyst of activity and hope in Xibalba, while bringing the plot around again to his mysterious machine.  He wants to tie everything together neatly and leave us knowing not only what happened, but what will happen in this world he’s built.

That’s a lot to do in one book, and what makes The Only Ones fall a little short as a reading experience is this ambition to create a neatly-folded Möbius strip of a book to give to the reader.  At the risk of ***SPOILING THE PLOT***, as I got further into it, I couldn’t help but compare it to the 2010 Newbery Medal winner, When You Reach Me, because of one certain similarity, and having this one come up short.  Because When You Reach Me didn’t try to explain everything. That’s totally unfair of me to do, I know.

While I would occasionally fall into the world of The Only Ones because of the tantalizing nature of the empty world and the delicious little details that Starmer writes into Xibalba as a place and into the citizens of Xibalba – the first piece of performance art that Lane shows Martin, for example, is wonderful to imagine, and wonderfully written — I couldn’t fully go there.  Violence happens in this story and it’s pretty unaffecting.

If I had to put my finger on it I’d say that the main culprit for this it would be the dialogue. Something about it is inauthentic — and maybe the fact that I can’t put my finger on quite what is an indication that it’s just my personal dealio.  It’s a little too much old-fashioned, a little too stylized, and then sometimes swerves into modern day interjections like “Mutha!” or describing something as “sweet” while simultaneously spouting things like: “Genuine issue, bona fide. A prophet. I kid you not. The one thing King Kelvin should have respected.” (74).  Or on the next page a character says “Whatever you fancy”.  Starmer is fond of shortening words for the indication of casual speech – Just sayin. Friggin. Tell ‘em. Everyone was a little too slick and quick to quip, ready to turn into a gangster’s moll or a Hardy Boy.

Aaron Starmer, I admire your guts. (photo by messtiza on flickr)

Would less stylization in speech have made it easier to swallow the premise? Probably not.  When Starmer does his big reveal, it’s a lot to swallow. I can’t help but say he’s set himself up for this by providing an explanation.  My first reaction was to think that it’s pretty impossible.  But it takes guts to put your plot out there with its little belly sticking up, waiting to be poked.  So overall I honor his bravery but have to say that if this were an amusement park ride it would be one that sounds really fun, starts off with a satisfying loop, has a stuttering finish, but would be worth recommending to friends nevertheless (unless they are really logical and picky people).

 

readalikes

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – I mentioned this in the review, so…. yeah. There’s one big similarity and it’s a spoiler for both books! I shall say no more.


The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness – Because it also has a naive boy going on a quest as a narrator and they’re both about Society. But this one is set on another world. And it may make you bite your fingernails.  Because it has nail-biting suspense–and it’s the first in a trilogy.

digressions & nitpicks

1. One of the things that made me want to read this book in the first place was the cover. I love night scenes with lighted elements. (When I got the book, I wasn’t such a fan of the silhouettes of the kids themselves. Somehow they managed to look like jerks, in silhouette. Which they weren’t, in the book.)  It’s drawn by Lisa Ericson, who doesn’t yet have a working website, but who does share a name with an instructor of seated aerobics!  What a nice surprise.

2. Some weird things I noted.  Or… let me nitpick about stuff.  On page 174 a character comes back from the dead to help out with stenography.  On page 185 woodgrain is referred to as fiery.  Actually “fierier”, which indicates to me that the author is used to thinking of wood in these terms. I kind of like that glimpse into his personal vocabulary. Similarly, on page 305 a smile is described as “impious” but from context I’d say that it should be “impish”.

I got this book from: the library

The Past’s So Scary I’ve Gotta Wear Shades: Witch Eyes

A Review of Witch Eyes (Witch Eyes #1) by Scott Tracey

Flux, 2011

By REBECCA, February 27, 2012

characters

Braden: with unique power and an unknown past, he wants to protect those he loves and stay out of the rest of it

Trey: handsome stranger whose feelings for Braden drag him into the middle of a war

Uncle John: Braden’s guardian and tutor in all things magic, with a few secrets of his own

Jade: rich, popular, and used to getting her way, she adopts Braden as a friend on his first day

Jason Thorpe: Braden’s long-lost (and very controlling) father, and the head of the Thorpe family

Catherine Lansing: creepily cold and calculating head of the Lansing family

Lucien Fallon: sleazy and mysterious Iago figure

Drew: neither Thorpe nor Lansing, he has powers of his own . . . but is he trustworthy?

hook

Braden flees rural Montana to the small town of Belle Dam, Washington. Once there, he attends high school for the first time, gets caught up in a feud between witch dynasties, accidentally releases some hellhounds, and starts falling for a compelling and infuriating boy . . . whom he might have to kill.

worldview

17 year-old Braden is a witch, but he also possesses a unique power: he can see through lies, see the past, and untangle spells just by taking off his sunglasses.

“The sunglasses were meant to keep my powers in check. With the ability to see the world as it truly was—not the filtered world that most people saw, but the true world—I soaked up everything like a giant sponge. Everything that has ever happened in a place, to a person, or because of an object leaves an imprint. The stronger the emotion, the more violent the death, the darker the spell, the impression will be likewise as strong.

My eyes—my power—was also my curse. Witch eyes, my uncle called them.” (7-8)

When a vision that he will cause his uncle’s death unless he leaves town brings Braden to his knees next to the milk in a local convenience store, he hops a bus to Belle Dam, his uncle’s hometown, in the hope of protecting him. But once he arrives in Belle Dam, Braden’s power (which he tries to keep under wraps) quickly makes him a sought-after tool by both the Lansings and the Thorpes, and no matter how badly he wants to stay out of their war, if he hopes to stop evil forces from destroying Belle Dam, he has to figure out which side he can trust.

Not quite the Capulets and the Montagues or the Starks and the Lannisters, the Thorpes and the Lansings are feuding witch families. As in any good feud, each family thinks the other is monstrous and dangerous, whereas they themselves are righteous and benevolent. And, as in any good feud, they’re both wrong. The book blurb reads:

“Braden must master his gift, even through the shocking discovery that Jason [Thorpe] is his father. While his feelings for an enigmatic boy named Trey grow deeper, Braden realizes a terrible truth: Trey is Catherine Lansing’s son.”

When I first read that blurb, I thought, “huh, you just gave away two pretty big-deal-seeming plot points, book blurb.” But, but, but, it’s all good, because the mystery of this book is not the interpersonal stuff at all; the mystery is about Grace Lansing, the town’s founder who, it is said, is the only other person besides Braden to ever have the witch eyes.

Braden’s task, then, is to figure out his own past and how it links up to the founding of Belle Dam, in the hopes of de-eviling it. This is an interesting mystery, and takes what could have seemed quite melodramatic (yes, there are Romeo and Juliet jokes made in the novel) and makes it just a regular obstacle to relationships and trust.

Belle Dam is a cool setting: it’s kind of like where you would be if The Secret Circle or The Vampire Diaries were set in one of Sarah Dessen’s towns. Witch Eyes is the first in a trilogy, so I’m sure we’ll get more of Belle Dam in the following books. On his blog, Scott Tracey tells us that sequels Demon Eyes and Phantom Eyes will be published in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

what was this book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

This is a good old supernatural mystery, which I love. Tracey does a good job of keeping the rules of magic consistent, but allowing magic to do surprising things. Braden’s gift, for example, exacts a price, leaving him with debilitating migraines in exchange for his view of the world without his sunglasses on to filter it. But certain magic also shows him what the world might be like without his witch eyes, which leads to . . . more mystery!

Braden’s a good protagonist: he feels responsible for the big things (protecting his uncle; keeping Belle Dam safe) but is also kind of a mess in the small things (communicating with the dead and fighting for your life really take a toll on one’s homework capabilities, and without a car, Braden constantly find himself stranded places).

The best thing about Braden, though, is that Scott Tracey has done the work to construct a tight plot, so Braden isn’t forced to do annoyingly contrived things to heighten the drama. That is, he isn’t blind to things that are totally obvious; he doesn’t make stupid decisions just to force the plot along; and he isn’t so stubbornly stuck in his own head that he misses obvious clues. Yay! (This may seem like faint praise, but it’s not! For me it’s the difference between a book I trust, that I can get lost in, and one that I feel is constantly about to give way, that I can’t escape into.)

The romance between Braden and Trey fits the book really well. Witch Eyes is set in a realistic world, except for the magical elements, and the focus is on unraveling the mystery. Accordingly, Braden and Trey’s developing relationship isn’t a swoony fantasy. They have friction at first: Braden is suspicious of Trey’s overprotective meddling and Trey is annoyed by Braden’s reluctance to accept his help. And, let’s not forget, they’re the sons of feuding enemies! So, their mutual attraction has just enough resistance to feel threatened, but there’s enough romance that it’s satisfying. I can’t wait to see where it goes in the sequels.

P.S., I’m always so impressed when characters can have a really amazing romantic moment and then push the other person away and be all, “ok, we need to figure out how to kill these hellhounds now.” Such self-control.

There were moments where the pacing could have been a bit better: a few moments of exposition drag a bit, and one climactic action scene doesn’t have quite the cinematic style that would have made it more emphatic, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to the sequels.

P.P.S. How’s this for perfect timing: Scott Tracey just posted this short story that is a tie-in to Witch Eyes. You should read it because it says this: “I fell in love, learned of my birthright, entered a loveless marriage, and manipulated a man to death before I would even graduate from college.” Well, that just makes me feel like a total underachiever.

readalikes

The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy by Sarah Rees Brennan (2010). Like Witch Eyes, this series features powers that are also curses, long-buried family secrets, grittiness. Of course, Nick is far more, um, cold than Braden.

The Dream Catcher trilogy by Lisa McMann (Wake, 2008; Fade, 2009; Gone, 2010). Janie gets sucked into people’s dreams the way Braden gets sucked into his visions, and both partner up with their boyfriends to get to the bottom of things.

The Secret Circle trilogy by L.J. Smith (1992). Small towns and witch families and feuds, oh my! See our review here.

procured from: the library

Keep the Pile Fed—Vintage Veronica

A Review of Vintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl

Knopf, 2010

by REBECCA, February 24, 2012

characters

Veronica: she finds herself among the detritus of vintage clothes, iced mochas, and solitude

Lenny, aka The Nail, aka Dead Boy Walking: kind and waifish reptile lover

Zoe: mean teen-sociopath who cows all who walk before her

Ginger: seemingly-unwitting sidekick/pale shadow of Zoe

Bill: Veronica’s ally at work, he lives by the Sacred Rules of The Pile

hook

Veronica works in the consignment section of a vintage clothing store the summer after her freshman year of high school. There she discovers pink flannel pajamas from the 1930s, a beaded dress that looks like a flag, and her first real friends. The question is: will she know what to do with them?

worldview

photo, Swank Underpinnings on Etsy

Vintage Veronica is a lot like the outfits Veronica likes to wear: from the ankles up, it’s all “tulle crinolines, full circle skirts, bolero jackets, silk dressing gown jackets, [and] beaded cardigans,” but this “girly stuff” is paired with “stuff like two-tone creepers and bricks, good clompy shoes that go with everything” (9). Most of what’s here is frothy, fun, shiny, and well-worn. If you’re an enthusiast of the “formerly-antisocial character meets new people and has her solitary ways complicated by social drama” plot line then this is right up your alley. At the feet of this familiar glitz, though, is a pretty sturdy (although also well-worn) story about the ways that our perceptions of ourselves can be so strong that we assume others share them, and never give them the chance to know who we really are.

Veronica’s consignment corner is upstairs, away from the bustling Dollar-a-Pound floor at “the largest vintage clothing store in the Northeast: THE CLOTHING BONANZA (HOME OF THE ORIGINAL DOLLAR-A-POUND!), otherwise known as THE STORE CAUGHT IN A TIME WARP!, according to the big neon-pink and black sandwich board sign out front” (6). “It is exactly like it sounds: a huge, towering heap of used clothes (known to those of us who work at the store simply as The Pile), spilling like a giant stain over most of the painted wood floor” (6). Speaking of metaphors, The Pile, in addition to contributing Bill’s philosophy of life, also provides the central metaphor(s) of the novel.

Veronica has been happy all summer, away from the Pickers—the hyper-enthusiastic customers who rummage through The Pile—in her own world, when she is “befriended” by Zoe and Ginger, who work in the retail section of the store. Now: Veronica relates story after story in which she has friends only to be abandoned by them in some horribly humiliating way, all of which are because she’s fat. Needless to say, she has developed quite a paranoia about trusting people, but when Zoe and Ginger seem to be sincere, she is willing to do almost anything to maintain their approval and friendship.

And this is where the novel lost me. Don’t get me wrong: I am sympathetic to the character that is so lonely that the promise of a friend feels like a lifeline. But. I find it unbearable to read about. Especially when the character who basically sacrifices her ethics and lies about their real feelings to keep the friendship of someone who is obviously a friend-eater is a pretty cool girl who is just a bit lacking in the self-esteem department. Veronica, I just want to shake you and scream: why do you even want Zoe to like you when she’s obviously a sociopath (no, seriously dude, she kills animals) and a mean person? I want to sit down with you and have an iced latte or whatever the hell you’re drinking and explain the glorious and not-often-enough used concept of saying: “no thanks, I’m not interested in [talking about this; doing that; being your friend].” I know, I know, it’s easy to say that when I haven’t been a teenager in ten years, but Veronica’s investment in Zoe’s opinion of her was really painful to read.

One of the many things that Zoe disapproves of is Veronica’s burgeoning friendship and romance with Lenny, aka The Nail (it gets explained), aka Walking Dead Boy, as Zoe and Ginger call him. Lenny and Veronica are totally into each other, but Veronica just can’t quite slip the pressure of the Zoes of the world and make peace with her feelings. Does Veronica and Lenny’s relationship glitter like one of Veronica’s vintage prom dresses? No. But it doesn’t quite clomp like her creepers either. There are sweet moments here, but nothing that breaks the mold.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

This is a slice-of-life story, mostly taking place in the store and the doughnut shop next door, and it does the cozy, my-work-friends-are-fun vibe well. My favorite character is Bill, The Pile Master, who gives us such wisdom as:

“Shit is shit.”

“Shit is shit?”

“Yeah,” says Bill, grinning proudly. “I made it up the first year I started running Dollar-a-Pound. I was in the john one day—”

“I think I’ve got it.”

“Yeah, but dig this. It’s a Sacred Rule of The Pile because it’s about clothes, but . . .” He pauses dramatically. Jeez, you’d think he was talking about reading tea leaves or tarot cards or something. His eyes are the most un-drooped I’ve ever seen them. “It’s not just about the clothes. Capeesh?” (188).

My experience has been that most young adult novels with fat protagonists are written from a really fat-negative perspective, whether it’s overt (the character hating herself and the author hating her weight) or slightly more subtle (a fat character tries to lose weight and is rewarded with a boyfriend when she does). Veronica is fat, as she tells us, and she has the attendant feelings about her size that come from living in our society, but overall Perl’s attitude here isn’t one of judgment or shame, which is extremely refreshing. Perl clearly cared about writing a book that wasn’t a narrative of Veronica trying to lose weight. Quite the contrary, Veronica takes pleasure in putting together her outfits (even if she does try to avoid crowds, since they make her feel like the magnetite of nasty comments) and altering clothes to fit her body. For further discussion of representations of fat characters in YA fiction, see, among others: Fat Girl Reading, Shapely Prose, and Rebecca Rabinowitz.

All in all, then, this was a fine read, super-quick and entertaining, but definitely mostly tulle.

personal disclosure

When I was thirteen or fourteen, my friends and I used to go to this internecine little secondhand store in Ann Arbor, where the guy who owned it would have us put up posters advertising the store in exchange for flannels and jeans (it was the mid-nineties). I picked up Vintage Veronica at the library mostly because I liked the cover (and because my love of Veronica Mars has instilled in me the hope that anyone named Veronica will be awesomeness personified). I kind of hoped that it would bring me back to my pubescent days of wandering rainy streets with a tape gun and a bag full of Sharpie-d signs on neon paper, visions of that perfect green-and-navy flannel dancing in my head . . . but, alack, alas, it wasn’t to be.

readalikes

Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen (1999). Extremely similar stories: heavy, loner protag with workout-queen mother gets summer job where quirky employees and summer romance help her become more herself.

Same Difference by Siobhan Vivian (2009). Vivian’s protagonist goes through a very personal transformation when she commutes to a summer art program in Philadelphia (yay!) from her suburban home in New Jersey. Check out my review here. And check out Tessa’s interview with Siobhan Vivian here!

The Fault in Our Stars: Tears are Cool

The Fault in Our Stars
John Green
Dutton Books, 2012

Characters
Hazel Grace Lancaster, permanently out of breath and depressed as a side effect of dying (and having cancer) but otherwise a sparkling and intelligent girl.
Augustus Waters, or Gus, one-legged, well-rounded, well-read.
Isaac, unlucky in love and health and still is a great friend.
Peter Van Houten, elusive author of a book that seems to read Hazel’s mind

Hook
Is it harder or easier to be in love when you’re dying?

Worldview
Hazel has cancer, but cancer isn’t the sum of her. Sure, the effects of it are the most noticeable things about her appearance–steroids make her cheeks puffy and she carts around an oxygen tank–but her particular lung cancer is stabilized by an experimental drug. Still, she can’t go to school without being exhausted, so she sits around her house watching America’s Next Top Model and reading. Until her parents talk to her about joining a Cancer Support Group. Which is where she meets Augustus Waters. Who becomes her first love.

Much like in Hazel’s self, the cancer and the love story are inextricably linked in The Fault in Our Stars. Things are both harder and easier for Hazel and Augustus because of this. It’s easier for their friends and family to believe the depth of their involvement because they’ve both been through a lot and so have more maturity than some teens. But it’s harder for them both to be involved because they can’t stop thinking about the extenuating circumstances and what they’re doing to their emotions, should one of them die. It’s easier for them to complete a possibly romantic quest because they have cancer, but harder to imagine where they’re going in life generally. And so on.

Intention Achievement
In other words, this is and is not a cancer book. I was caught off guard with it in an elevator in Dallas with 2 friendly passengers who asked: “What are you reading?”

“It’s a book about a girl with cancer…” I started out. They made scrunchy sad/empathetic faces, and I rushed in to say “But it’s not that kind of cancer book.”  Then I asked them what was in their take-home containers to diffuse the tension. (blue corn muffins, if you’re curious)

What I wanted to say is that it wasn’t a cheesy or melodramatic cancer book. It wasn’t a Lurlene McDaniel or Nicholas Sparks book. Or, it was built on that model but transcended it.  The only problem is that I’ve only seen A Walk to Remember. Which highlights the fact that if this weren’t a John Green book, I probably wouldn’t be reading it. So, I’d say this book achieves its intention, which is to be a good book, and in particular, a good John Green book. I happen to be a fan of John Green’s, so this is good news to me (and all the Nerdfighters).

Not John Green, LURLENE!

What makes a John Green book? It’s like a really good sandwich because it has all the right amounts of textures and flavors: there’s lightness, heaviness, crunchiness, softness, tanginess/saltiness, sweetness, and umami.  He’s got flow to his work, so even as he’s setting you up to sob like a little baby, as you will if you read The Fault in Our Stars, you can’t help but read along. It’s the best kind of bamboozling.

I’m not talking about the actual book so much because it’s hard to describe without giving stuff away. I don’t want to focus on the whole disease thing too much.  The reason I didn’t care that I was being manipulated to cry by John Green’s narrative is that it felt like feeling things instead of manipulation, and because I love a good love story.

When Hazel and Augustus meet, they are flirty but cautious, but can’t help hanging out with each other (after a great misunderstanding about a cigarette that shows Hazel’s pluck).  Their quiet excitement about finding each other is perfectly depicted. The exhilaration of meeting someone who gets you never gets old to read about.  The Fault in Our Stars has this in abundance. Here’s two quiet examples:

1.

“Our hands kind of got muddled together in the book handoff, and then he was holding my hand. ‘Cold,’ he said, pressing a finger to my pale wrist.

‘Not cold so much as underoxygenated,’ I said.

‘I love it when you talk medical to me,’ he said. He stood, and pulled me up with him, and did not let go of my hand until we reached the stairs.” (34).

This has the excitement of new hand-holding from someone  you just met, and dorky humor that happens when you like someone too much to care.

2.

“I drove Augustus’s car home with Augustus riding shotgun. He played me a couple songs he liked by a band called The Hectic Glow, and they were good songs but because I didn’t know them already, they weren’t as good to me as they were to him. I kept glancing over at his leg, at the place where his leg had been, trying to imagine what the fake leg looked like. I didn’t want to care about it, but I did a little. He probably cared about my oxygen.” (35.)

This is a great passage because it has attraction with all of its attendant over-self-awareness, or attraction tempered by Hazel’s knowledge that she’ll be hearing more of Augustus’s favorite band and get to the point where she will have his level of enthusiasm for them (aka anticipation!). I love that she admits she doesn’t like the music as much as he does – she doesn’t have to pretend to do that kind of stuff.

The Fault in Our Stars also has international travel and becoming aware of the falseness of your most cherished beliefs, getting over that blow, and moving on, and being a good friend to someone in a truly shitty situation (seriously – another thing that I loved was that Hazel came into her own as a friend to Isaac apart from his friendship with Augustus).  What else? The cover is great.

You will probably cry if you read this book. If so, I recommend getting this song stuck in your head. It’s one of my favorites from middle school and the lyrics are applicable to this story.

Readalikes

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
I haven’t read this yet, but many librarians stand behind it and it’s contemporary realistic fiction about a boy and his brother and his brother’s leukemia, so I’d say it’s a good fit.

70s butts!

That Was Then, This is Now by S.E. Hinton
This is a book that made me sob like a baby when I was a teen. Plotwise, it is a coming of age story, but otherwise has no other similarities to our book being reviewed. I did re-read it recently and couldn’t figure out which part exactly made me cry, but it’s still a good book. Click here for an S.E. Hinton valentine!

The Hub, YALSA’s blog, just published a great round-up of cancer fiction here!

Digression
Because John Green is so popular, people have Opinions about him and they’re usually extreme. The bad ones go like this: his characters talk like Dawson’s Creek (not like real people) and his girls are unrealistic.  I disagree on both counts.  Although Hazel’s outburst in support group the first time that Augustus comes is a little over the top, I’d point you to Fiona Apple’s outburst at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Furthermore, I’ve heard teens talk like his teens, except with more focus on manga and less on literature. Secondly, his girl characters are as realistic as any of his other characters, which is to say, very realistic.

John Green writes about love a lot, especially first love or right after first love breaks your heart. He describes having hopes about people, hopes that they are the people who will make you a more interesting person. He writes about the anger that happens when these people fail you. I think some people read it just as that: books about boys wanting magically quirky girls to save them, or a book about a diseased and quirky girl hoping a diseased and quirky boy can save her. Now, this could just be the fact that people want different things from their love stories, and there’s something off to them about the way crushes and breakups and love happens in a John Green book. But I refuse to write the characters off as “quirky”.

Take this quote from Hazel:

“My favorite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.” (33).

Yes! Right??? The quote about the book that speaks to you is SPEAKING TO ME. Meta.

Anyway, beside the fact that this quote reads my mind and says what I’m thinking better than I ever could, it demonstrates that Hazel is a girl who has more going on with her than being quirky.  If loving a book makes you quirky, god help us.  And many of the characters in John Green books know an area of arcane trivia or read books – is that what makes them quirky, or what makes them unrealistic?  If you say unrealistic, I’d argue that every book is a fantasy on that level, populated by people the author made up and wishes existed, and he hasn’t created the most egregious fantasy. If you say quirky, then there’s a comment on the A.V. Club review of the book that I think argues this better than I could because it uses source material (note: MPDG is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is a trope people like to throw at girl characters):

Lindsay Simms says “yeah, John does like his MPDG, but not in the way that most authors/writers/directors do. I’ve always viewed those girls (Alaska, Margo) as girls that you DON’T want to emulate, as opposed to in, say, Garden State, when Sam is shown with no faults.

To quote John, ‘What a treacherous thing, to believe that a person is more than a person.'”

In short, there will be people who like his books and those who don’t, and that’s okay. I guess I’m just declaring which camp I’m in and why.

I got this book from: the library

More Thrilling Than a Very Thrilling Thing From the Planet Yes!: Thirsty

Welcome to Sharing Our Snacks, in which Tessa and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Since T lives in Pittsburgh and I live in Philadelphia, we can no longer share an enormous middle-of-the-night bag of potato chips and tin of onion dip from Turkey Hill like we used to, so we had to find another way to share. You can recommend books to us, too—contact us!

A Review of Thirsty by M.T. Anderson

Candlewick, 1997

By REBECCA, February 20, 2012

characters

Chris: Vaguely Dissatisfied Teen Protagonist Awkwardly Turning Into a Vampire

Rebecca Schwartz: Crush, On a Pedestal

Tom: Douchebag Old Friend

Jerk: Poignantly Stupid and Loyal Old Friend

Paul: Chris’ Brother, Film Enthusiast

Mom & Dad: Chris’ Parents, Preoccupied and Concerned By Turns

Self-Proclaimed Avatar of the Forces of Light, aka Chet: Mysterious Stranger

Lolli Chasuble: Hilarious

Tch’muchgar: Vampire Lord and All-Around Bummer

Various and Sundry Children of the Melancholy One: Vampires

hook

Chris is turning into a vampire in a totally non-romantic way while he is also forced to be that most curséd of all beings, a teenager.

worldview

There may be vampires, but Thirsty’s world is not a fantasy in which goodness is repaid with goodness. In fact, being a good guy doesn’t count for anything. Or, in other words: realism.

When Tessa recommended Thirsty to me, she feared that her intense love for M.T. Anderson might prevent her from being objective, and wondered how I thought it stacked up against other vampire novels. I began reading Thirsty with this in mind, but soon decided that I didn’t think it belonged in comparison with vampire novels at all. The majority of vampire novels break down into categories based on perspective. Historically, vampires were portrayed as an outside threat (Bram Stoker’s Dracula); then, in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, stories are told from the perspectives of the vampires themselves. Most recently, the trend has been to view vampires from the perspective of one or two lucky initiates who are privy to their world (Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Annette Kurtis Klaus’ The Silver Kiss) or for vampirism to be a well-known fact to which only our narrator and a few other characters are sympathetic (L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series).

While Thirsty is also set in a world where vampirism is a well-known (and much-maligned) fact, this is no romance in which Chris’ emerging vampirism is seen as sexy or cool, nor is it an adventure in which he will flee his repressive circumstances to find a vampire community that will accept him. Instead, the entirety of Thirsty is set in the space of Chris’ transformation into a vampire, and this is totally horrifying. In fact, what Thirsty most reminded me of was the film District 9, which dealt with the similar revulsion of turning into something alien that you have no control over. That, then, is the heart of the novel. The main action, indeed, occurs because Chris is willing to do anything in an attempt to reverse his transformation. Throughout, he is alternately bored with his friends and his life or terrified of himself and what he might do. Reading Thirsty, Anderson succeeded in making me feel similarly claustrophobic and squirmy.

But the real prize for me is Anderson’s writing. Tessa tells me, “The way that he writes people’s inner monologues could be seen as unrealistic… but on the other hand I feel like the mix of deadpan dispassion and earnest obsession that creeps through it is kind of authentic.” I couldn’t agree more. Anderson’s prose is extremely flexible, ranging from lyrical description to amusing juxtaposition of the banal and the unexpected. This means that Thirsty shifts facilely from scenes of funny social drama to moments of poignant reflection to periods of grotesque desperation. You will thank me for a few examples:

Check out this gorgeousness:

“The leaves are so fragile, an infant green, they look almost frightened when they first cluster at the joints and elbows of the trees in the yard” (126).

And this hilarity in a letter from Lolli Chasuble:

“P.S. I don’t have a boyfriend right now. There was this guy I had a total crush on at school—he was a complete H-U-N-K-O-R-A-M-A—did I want to get inside his shorts! And he would have been mine, too, except that after the car crash his parents had him C-R-E-M-A-T-E-D!” (63).

And my favorite:

“‘It was a wicked good film,’ says Jerk, ‘but a little bloody. Bloodier than a very bloody thing from the planet Hemorrhage.’” (22).

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

I think Thirsty’s intention was to dramatize the all-consuming (literally, in this case) horror of being helpless against a force that you cannot control or understand. In that, it completely succeeds. Although the forces with which Chris contends are preternatural, Thirsty will speak loudly to anyone who has had the experience of thinking boredom was bad only to have it superseded by something worse, of not knowing who to trust, of feeling like their own body was turning against them, of feeling out of control or addicted . . . That is, most everyone.

If Thirsty has one weakness, it is that we are dropped into the middle of a character’s life at a moment when a major change has already begun, leaving Chris’ characterization a bit shallow and not allowing us to see the range of his relationships with the other characters as we might if the story took place over a longer period of time. Overall, though, this lack of deep familiarity with Chris feeds into the intense alienation that we experience when reading about his transformation into a vampire.

personal disclosure

It doesn’t take much to convince me to meditate on the total horror of becoming alienated from oneself. It does, however, take some fine-ass writing and great secondary characters to make me want to read about it in a high school freshman. Two fangs up.

readalikes

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (2010). Shares a slapdash approach to coping with the sudden revelation of that our protagonist is not merely human, as well as a keen eye for gruesome hilarity.

Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas (1996). Similar use of humor in a self-reflective main character who is going through some shit, from the man who would later bring us Veronica Mars. Mmm, I have to re-read that.

Procured from: the library

Poems in the Walls: Leave Myself Behind

A Review of Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates

Kensington, 2003

by REBECCA, February 16, 2012

Since this book was on my list of top Valentine’s Day reads, I thought I should do more than just tease you with its awesomeness.

characters

Noah York: Terminally literate teen with a heart of gold (and a knack for home reno)

J.D. Curtis: Sweet and clueless boy next door and Noah’s first love

Virginia York: Noah’s mother, a poet, a carpenter, and a study in extremes

Nellie Carlisle: Poet in the walls

hook

When your mother moves you from Chicago to a crumbling house in New England after your father dies and informs you that the two of you will renovate the house over the summer, you expect to be a little confused and a lot dirty. What you don’t expect is to find poems stashed behind the walls, love next door, and several long-buried family secrets. Especially not all at once.

worldview

Dear lord, do I love a home reno! There’s this moment in The Witching Hour where Michael Curry describes what he calls his “house movies” because they feature not just great stories and characters but also great houses: “Rebecca had Manderley. Great Expectations had Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion. Gaslight had the lovely London townhouse on the square. The Red Shoes had the mansion by the sea” (27). The Witching Hour itself is a “house book,” with its descriptions of Michael Curry’s renovations in the Castro as well as the Mayfair mansion itself. Well, I am a sucker for house books and Leave Myself Behind first caught my attention with these lines in the blurb:

“the very house he lives in is coming apart at the seams—literally—torn down bit by bit as he and his mother renovate the old Victorian. But deep within the walls lie secrets from a previous life—mason jars stuffed with bits of clothing, scraps of writing, old photographs—disturbing clues to the mysterious existence of a woman who disappeared decades before.”

As with most house books, Leave Myself Behind presents a house that is a world in and of itself.

Noah explains how people can be separated into types based on which part of a house they like the most (4). His mom, Virginia York (whom he introduces as “Mrs. Vagina Pork” to a man selling cleaning products door-to-door) is a kitchen person: “They don’t mind a friendly conversation about the weather, but if you ask them a serious question they hop up to take care of the boiling water on the stove or to get a loaf of bread out of the oven, and by the time they sit back down they’ve forgotten what you asked them” (4). Noah is a porch person: “Porch people also love late nights and early mornings, but we’re more likely to answer your questions than a kitchen person is, and we don’t mind if someone wants to sit on the steps with us as long as he never mentions the weather” (4). Literature, art, music, and cleverness are the things most highly valued by the characters, the things via which they connect and develop relationships. Yay.

In New Orleans, I took a photo of the tomb that the Mayfair Witches tomb was supposedly based on.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Leave Myself Behind is a coming of age novel in that we meet Noah at a moment of upheaval that leads to multiple realizations. Noah is a smartass, for sure, and like many intelligent teenagers, his observations are astute. Noah’s voice carries the novel, and it is funny, sincere, and lovely:

“There’s a note from Mom on the refrigerator.

            Noah,

            Up at Cassidy. Back soon. Take a look at the article on the counter. I pulled it off the Net this morning.

            —VY

Why does she initial her notes to me? I know who writes the damn things. Other kids have moms who actually sign their notes ‘Love, Mom.’ But the great Virginia York wants to make sure everything she writes is properly attributed” (99).

and

“I remember one time when I was about nine or ten and Mom was sitting on my bed, reading to me. The book was either A Tale of Two Cities or David Copperfield—she was always stuffing my head with Dickens even before I knew most of the words. I remember leaning my head on her shoulder and watching the words as she read them; once in a while I’d point at one of them and demand to know what it meant. She was usually willing to explain, but that night I think I must have interrupted her about fifty times in five minutes and she’d about had enough.

‘Just listen to the story, honey. You can get the gist of the words if you just listen.’

‘What’s “gist”?’

She sighed. ‘Do you want me to read to you or not?’

I grinned. ‘What does “read” mean?’

She finally figured out I was fucking with her and she laughed. ‘You stinker.’ She elbowed me lightly in the stomach. ‘Just shut up and listen.’

The floor creaked by the door and we both glanced up at the same time. Dad was standing there, watching us with a big smile on his face. I don’t know how long he’d been there, but he looked like he was seeing the face of God” (138-9).

Yates’ pacing is great: the first-person narrative revels in the moments of Noah and J.D.’s burgeoning relationship and lingers on Noah’s memories of his father, but neither relationship is sentimentalized. (Indeed, when Noah first meets J.D. he thinks he’s a bit of an idiot). And, of course, what’s a good drama without loads and loads of PAIN?! While Noah’s mother has no problem with him being gay, he and J.D. are bullied at school and by J.D.’s parents. As the mystery of the poems in the walls unfolds, Virginia’s ever-tenuous mental state begins to frighten Noah more and more, revealing a painful secret about her past. J.D., too, comes up against family secrets that might explain why his mother is so cruel to him . . . but you don’t have to take my word for it.

personal disclosure

This is the only book of Bart Yates’ that is shelved in the young adult section, but both of his other novels, The Brothers Bishop (2005) and The Distance Between Us (2008), are wonderful. The Brothers Bishop, in particular, is one of my favorites. Yates’ website says he’s currently at work on his fourth book. When it comes out, you should please buy it for me for Chanukah.

readalikes

I can’t think of a reader who wouldn’t like this book!

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron (2007). Like Noah, James Sveck is a smart kid trying to figure the world out. Unlike Noah, James Sveck is slightly clueless about people and more than a little annoyed by them. Check out the full review here to see why I am James Sveck!

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (2006). Bechdel’s graphic memoir tells the story of her coming of age against the backdrop of her family’s constant home renovation and through a love of books that rivals Noah’s.

Procured from: bought

Dirty Little Secrets: Don’t tell anyone, but teens have sex.

Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity
Kerry Cohen
2011, Sourcebooks, Inc.

review by Tessa

Characters
Girls who have sex, and the people who study them.

Hook
Teenage promiscuity is a Heated Topic. Kerry Cohen is the author of a memoir about her struggle with being what she calls a “loose girl” and this is her exploration of the wider experience of women and teenage girls with having sex–specifically why some girls have a lot of it, and why they feel bad about it and get stuck in harmful patterns of it.

Worldview
The tagline on the front of this book reads: “It’s not about when girls are having sex. It’s about why”. In general, Cohen sticks to the guns of this thesis, but she’s often co-opted by culture and her own past angst.

Intention Achievement
Lots of different groups of people freak out about teenagers having sex. When they’re having it. How often. What kind. I’m having trouble writing about it now, because I’m worried about people freaking out about me writing about teenagers having sex. So I have to applaud Kerry Cohen for writing as straightforwardly as she possibly can about teenage girls and sex, and for acknowledging that the sex is happening and will happen and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In the introduction she explains that

“this is not a book telling teenage girls not to have sex.  On the flip side, it’s also not a book that encourages promiscuity.  It’s a book about how we can all work together to find a way to let teenage girls top harming themselves with their sexual behavior. It’s a book–at its core–about girls’ rights and sexual freedom.”

For a nonfiction book aimed at (at least partially) the parental segment of the population, this is one of the shorter ones I’ve seen.  It’s about 190 pages. And yet, I think it could have lost about 30 of those and been even more effective at delivering its worldview.  Much of the introduction covers things that anyone who has thought about the subject of sexual identity and feminism has probably heard before.  For example, the first chapter ends with these musings: “a girl’s sexual maturity must be a paradox. Look, but don’t look. Touch, but don’t touch. In this way being a girl is invariably tied up with need and negation, and with how a girl must negotiate these opposing forces. For boys, it is entirely different.” True. And…?  But then again, I’m assuming things about the intended audience for this book. It’s not written towards teenagers, it’s not totally written towards parents, and it’s not really a guide for people working with teens.  It doesn’t prescribe antidotes to the problems it talks about, but it does provide an appendix of worksheets.  So if it is a book about how “we” can help teenage girls find sexual freedom, why isn’t it written for teenage girls in the first place?  And how am I supposed to go around using my new knowledge to help teenage girls?

Cohen wants a world where girls can have sex, or not have sex, and it isn’t a big deal, and no one is called a slut or a prude, and no one feels compelled to develop a process addiction wherein they have sex just for male attention.  She knows there’s no easy way to get there save through hard work involving the women who are already in this cycle. As for a way to talk to girls who are just starting their sexual lives, so they can understand the subtleties of feeling free to have sex, but not as a substitute for total emotional fulfillment.  Cohen is honest enough not to have One Answer, but that leaves a book that ends up feeling like a mishmash of anecdote and hopeful thinking. There’s a core of helpful and intelligent thinking in there, but it can get lost.

The thing about Cohen is that she has her whole history to contend with. She obviously feels one way about the sex she’s had, and the way it has shaped and damaged her. I don’t think she feels negatively about having sex, but the terminology of the book uses “promiscuity” as a bad word, describing girls who can’t separate the urge for sexual attention from their own sexual desires.  At times I forgot I was reading a book that was striving to create a neutral world of teenage sex.

Cohen uses a frank tone without dipping into overly jokey encyclopedic teenage health issues territory.  There are things in here that need to be talked about. And I challenge any woman who reads this not to see a little of herself in some of the stories.  It’s a great conversation starter, even just for a conversation between you, yourself, and… you.

Dirty Little Secrets takes a good-sized chip out of the anxious, frozen wall around teenage-girl sex talk, but it’s searching for a way to build a utopian society of sexual self-awareness while examining the entirety of current sexual culture, which leads to some murky ambiguity.  Even so, I’d like to see more books like this, and I’d like them to start discussions among their target audiences, so that the issues to tackle become smaller and smaller for future authors.

Readalikes

I assume this photo is by Tavi. Go to the site already!

Rookie Mag has the most honest writing from teenagers and young adults I’ve seen in a long time.  I guess it was hiding out in blogs and zines, and now a lot of it is in one place, thank you Tavi Gevinson and Jane Pratt.  In fact, they just published an article by a girl named Lexi, called “The Perfect Girl”,  about some of the very things that Cohen talks about:

“What my point is: society sucks. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation. I’m not allowed to be fat, but I’m not allowed to go on a diet either (or keep a food diary, for that matter). I’m not allowed to be dumb, but I’m not allowed to be smarter than a boy. I’m not allowed to do drugs or drink, but I’m considered boring if I don’t. I’m supposed to be an empowered woman, but if I ask for respect dudes will just call me an annoying bitch. Heck, if I wait to have sex I’m labeled a prude, but if I lost my virginity today there would be a lot of people thinking that slut.”

Body Drama by Nancy Amanda Redd

A cheerfully honest book to help girls through craziness of puberty

I got this book from: the library, after reading a review of it in Library Journal.

Have A YA Valentine!

A List of Our Top Reads for Valentine’s Day

by REBECCA & TESSA, February 14, 2012

Mike Mullin, author of Ashfall, recently posted an excellent piece on how YA books in which characters have sex (even if it’s offstage) are called “dirty” while those with violent content are not. In honor of Valentine’s Day, then, we at Crunchings & Munchings bring you our top reads for Valentine’s Day, divided into two categories: the Purely Romantic, and the Awesomely Dirty—”dirty,” as Mullin puts it, ” in the sense of rich, fecund, and fertile.”

The Purely Romantic

Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (The Seven Kingdoms, #1), 2008

Tessa says: There’s something about being an even match in fighting skills with your companion that makes me swoon. Although… I think there is sex in this book.  But it’s not described.

Brian Farrey’s With Or Without You, 2011

Rebecca says: The sweet, mature relationship is a great balance to the way sex becomes a weapon in the rest of the plot. You can check out a full review here.

E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver books: The Boyfriend List (2005), The Boy Book (2006), The Treasure Map of Boys (2009), and Real Live Boyfriends (2010)

Tessa says: In this series it was almost physically painful to me that the 2 romantic leads get together and be happy. To me, that spells romance.

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, 2011

Tessa says: I don’t even like horses, but these are the bloodthirsty kind. With an element of danger and mutual respect for one’s home and work, Stiefvater brings an intensity to Puck and Sean’s friendship that turns into more. Check out the full review here.

Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts, 2008

Rebecca says: Not much is more romantic than being forced to tell the truth about your feelings . . . and your past, especially to someone who liked you before you hid them.

The Awesomely Dirty

V. C. Andrews’ The Dollanganger Series: Flowers In the Attic (1979), Petals on the Wind (1980), If There Be Thorns (1981), Seeds of Yesterday (1984), and Garden of Shadows (1987)

Rebecca says: Come on, you know you love it—strange 1970s-Victorian prose, incest, creepy mom/dad role playing. What more could you want on Valentine’s Day? Oh, of course: ballet. Well, it’s got that, too.

Holly Black’s Valiant (The Modern Faerie Tales #2), 2005

Rebecca says: Not that there’s much sex here, but you can just tell that the characters are sexual beings. You know, underground. And there’s actual sword-fighting.

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, 2006

Tessa says: The quivering, stomach-destroying, ultimately exciting experience of doing “stuff” for the first time–it’s in here.

Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, 2006

Tessa says: Vizzini manages the heretofore impossible task of making (one definition of) getting to 3rd base seem sweet. Check out the full review here.

Bart Yates’ Leave Myself Behind, 2003

Rebecca says: One of my favorites—perfect blend of first-love, romance, drama, and a realistic amount of sex. Full review here!

So, there you have it! Curl up with one of these and when you wake up tomorrow it will all be over. And then come back here, where Tessa reviews our first ever nonfiction bookDirty Little Secrets, which deals with precisely the issues of “dirtyness” that we’ve undertaken here.

We leave you with one final Lurlene McDaniel-tastic YA Valentine:

Tell us what you’re reading on Valentine’s Day!

Plenty of Bandwidth (Talk Hard!): Sister Mischief

Review of Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

Candlewick, 2011

by REBECCA, February 13, 2012

In honor of Whitney Houston’s life, here is a book about the power of female musicians to change the world.

characters

Esme Rockett, aka MC Ferocious: “a Jewish lesbian lyricist” and a “smart, sassy, die-hard word nerd”

Marcy aka DJ SheStorm: Esme’s best friend and “the butchest straight girl in town”

Tess aka The ConTessa: the sweet “powerhouse of a vocalist and former super-Lutheran teen queen”

Rowie aka MC Rohini: “a beautiful, brilliant, beguiling desi chick on the stick” (I have no idea what “on the stick” means)

Mary Ashley Baumgarten: Tess’s ex-best friend, a bigoted mean girl for Christ

Pops: Esme’s dad, a super-supportive artisan with a passion for miniature houses and bacon

Drs. Priya and Raj Rudra: Rowie’s parents, mom a lover of food and poetry; dad a disciplinarian

hook

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.

worldview

This is a fun book: A group of four really different female friends; how they go through the trials of living in a small, conservative town when they aren’t conservative; the hilarity of that particular brand of hyper-Christian mean-girl; nerdy riffs on music; high school hijinks, first love in a tree house; the use of official media to push a political agenda; an awesome dad who treats his daughter like a real person—really, it’s all here.

“So, it turns out I’m gay, Pops.”

He looks hard at me, not upset, probably just checking that I’m serious. When he doesn’t say anything, I keep talking.

“Definitely a homo. Like, Same-Sex City, population Esme. Just a big gay, gay lesbian.”

He nods.

“Cool with me, kiddo. Eat a sandwich.” (17)

When I first saw the press for this book I was delighted by the juxtaposition of girls from suburban Minnesota throwing themselves into hip-hop, as well as by what seemed to promise a complex treatment of femininity (you had me at “butchest straight girl in town”!). Rather than complex, though, I found the novel . . . inclusive. Many different people and perspectives were represented (Tess’ generous and positive faith, Esme’s confirmation that she is a lesbian, Marcy’s aggressive anti-sentimentality, Rowie’s coping with her feelings for Esme alongside her ethnic identity). These characters challenge the views of their school’s predominantly SWASP (straight, white, anglo-saxon, protestant) population through their hip-hop, and the formation of Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, a combination of hip-hop discussion group and gay-straight alliance.

Goode takes on high school obsession and righteousness with tenderness and humor (we’ve all been there), and Sister Mischief, like Sister Mischief themselves, is optimistic about the power of music and words to change how people think. It’s not a naïve worldview, just a particularly teenage one. And I mean that in a good way. Esme and her friends are smart and savvy, and this makes their explicit desires to use hip-hop as a tool of change in their small, conservative, religious town laudable rather than laughable. Goode does a wonderful job of allowing them to express their beliefs with a conviction that is believable of thoughtful teens, but not obnoxious.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Sister Mischief is totally fighting the good fight. The book didn’t completely blow me away like I hoped it might, though. For example, while Marcy and Tess are well-sketched in the way they talk and act, they are clearly not the focus of the story, which seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity to really get at the complexities of female friendship, small-town shenanigans, and the inspiration behind their music. For that matter, Rowie, who gets far more time on the page, is seen mainly through Esme’s eyes—that is, seen mainly through crush-goggles. Even Esme didn’t feel totally fleshed out, which made the drama between Esme and Rowie less interesting than it might have been.

In truth, though, I think what made many of the scenes that might have been powerful or unique fall a bit flat is their proximity to the truly dynamic scenes about music. Goode, the back cover tells me, is a poet, and this is clear in her rhythmic language and great dialogue. The scenes of Sister Mischief performing build to a frenzy of empowerment and triumph that are truly powerful. Their rhymes are funny, positive, and vulnerable:

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to be bigger than one
Like I could up and make the earth revolve the sun
Something bout that wanting makes a girl feel invisible
Divisible: is it, though?
I wanna get physical
With an unfuckwittable
Visible mistress who
Feels my kind of blue
Listen, I don’t care who
Let’s screw through curfews
Show me who it is soon, is it you, is it you?
Girl of my dreams, cool as the moon
You gotta come soon ‘cause I wanna get with you, boo.
 
 So who says the homos can’t come out and drop bombs?
And who says I gotta look like these Botoxed white moms?
MC Ro and me got anthems to dance with
Wearin’ low-riders low and we got plenty of bandwidth
To transmit these messages you best not be messin’ with.” (341-2)

I’d love to see teenagers take a page out of these ladies’ book: sing and dance their hearts out, splatter the streets with ink, paint murals skyscraper-high, and generally throw their art at the world. And in this, I think, Sister Mischief most delivers on the dust jacket’s promise that we’re “about to get rocked by the fiercest, baddest all-girl hip-hop crew.”

personal disclosure

I often found the slang that Goode puts in the girls’ mouths humiliating, and when I began reading, this highlighted my anxiety that the girls’ passion for the culture surrounding hip-hop would not touch upon the really complicated issues surrounding race and class in regard to hip-hop. Here, however, I was relieved to find, Goode is absolutely aware of how Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie could come across as problematically coopting the historically black culture of hip-hop to rebel against their majority white, affluent suburb. Instead, Goode not only acknowledges this common cultural critique but, further, rehearses arguments for and against it, showing her characters to be not only savvy about the music and culture, but also about the extremely complicated issues of race, class, and gender that intersect in the reinterpretation of that music and culture.

readalikes

Books and movies in which a rag-tag group of sympathetic underdogs go up against an institutional Goliath armed with only their wit, conviction, and art and totally win:

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010). This book has a totally different tone, but a similar reverence for the power of public art to triumph over bullshit. Check back for our adoring joint review.

Pump Up the Volume (1990).

I am going to say something controversial. I think that folks who like dance movies will like Sister Mischief. Yeah, like Step Up 2 The Streets (yes, that’s how it’s really written) and Stomp the Yard. I know, these movies are usually melodramatic exercises in constructing ever-more ridiculous plots to make excuses for people breaking out into dance. I know, their treatment of socio-economic issues is usually nothing more than the bit of sandpaper used to scuff the bottom of a luxe 4-inch heel. But, like the climax of Sister Mischief, the feeling of triumph when those slo-mo leaps, flips, twists, and dips express the dancer’s passion always wells up in my throat.

Procured from: the library

My Hideous Proto-Progeny: This Dark Endeavor

A Review of This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book One by Kenneth Oppel

Simon & Schuster, 2011

by REBECCA, February 10, 2012

Awesome & relevant cover

characters

Victor Frankenstein: impulsive and mischievous teen with a taste for theatrics and daredevilry

Konrad Frankenstein: more docile and charming firstborn twin and Victor’s other half

Elizabeth Lavenza: adventurous and smart cousin-sister-friend of the twins

Henry Clerval: Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth’s best friend; many-phobia-ed budding playwright

Alphonse Frankenstein: the twins’ father, a liberal and a scholar

Julius Polidori: an elderly former alchemist with an underground laboratory

Dr. Murnau: cutting-edge scientist who awakes Victor’s interest in the natural sciences

Krake: Polidori’s lynx familiar

  lynxypoo!

hook

How far would you go and what would you risk to save your soul mate? When Konrad falls ill, Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry undertake a grand and dangerous adventure to save his life. Forever.

aw, twinsies!

yikes, twinsies!

worldview

As you likely guessed from the self-explanatory title, this is a story of Victor Frankenstein (that’s Dr. Frankenstein, to you, thank you, he worked hard for that degree in creative revivification) in his early years. As this is a prequel to Frankenstein, it takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, during the French Revolution. Now, before you say to yourself: self, I don’t appreciate when random authors think they can do whatever they like with the most perfect novel ever written—or, for that matter: self, I don’t dig historical fiction and I don’t understand why Frankenstein has all those glaciers in it—pause to consider several things.

First, This Dark Endeavor is a totally contemporary-feeling young adult novel, so it doesn’t feel like historical fiction at all, except in a bit of a Jacques-Tardi-adventure-punk way.

Second, for all that it has the word “apprenticeship” in the title, this is really an adventure story. It contains tree-climbing, animal-evading, death- and parent-defying shenanigans, and, yes, the wrestling of a giant prehistoric fish. Indeed, Victor isn’t really much for the old book-learning, even if he does become fascinated by the dark arts. He’d really rather explore things, or jump off of them. Konrad is the better student; perhaps even the better human being, Victor sometimes feels—and Victor often waits to see what Konrad’s response is before he knows how he feels. So, when Konrad suddenly becomes ill, Victor sees for the first time what it is to be truly alone (ah! “alone, bad; friends, good”—break my heart). Bereft and terrified, he will stop at nothing to save his brother.

Now, anyone who knows me at all knows that I have a vast soft spot for monomaniacs, especially when their pursuits aren’t purely selfish. While Victor begins the novel with nothing more than a curious spirit and a desire to “create something, some great work that will be useful and marvelous to all humanity,” his drive to save Konrad (or is that his only goal?) quickly enters the monomaniacal territory that Frankenstein readers will recognize (35).

The setting—the streets, forests, and lake of Geneva, and the Frankenstein family château—is well-drawn, but not belabored, as it is merely the backdrop for the adventures and discoveries that unfold. The real treat for me was watching the character of Victor emerge from an ordinary teenage boy to the driven, tormented man we know he will become. Oppel has a light touch, and he manages to create the circumstances for this development realistically and without preciousness as it regards Frankenstein. This was impressive, indeed, especially given that Oppel did indulge in multiple references to Shelley’s novel and its intertexts, which will likely tickle Frankenstein enthusiasts and pass benignly under the notice of others.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Oppel seemed interested in similar things about Victor’s life as I would be: what sparked his interest in science? how did that interest, ahem, grow to take on a life of its own? what’s the big f-ing deal about Elizabeth, anyway? is Victor actually super-smart or just deluded? There is no moralizing here, even when the Frankensteins’ liberal atheism butts up against Elizabeth’s Catholic tendencies; Oppel offers no answers to the budding questions raised about life, death, and nature. Nah, he’s too busy writing a fast-paced adventure story, even if the goal of that adventure is of the alchemical sort:

Elizabeth gave a shriek, for the answer had come from behind us. We all whirled to behold, standing in the doorway, Father.

“You’ve discovered the Biblioteka Obscura, I see,” he said, torchlight and shadow dancing disconcertingly over his craggy face. . . . “And would I be right in assuming, Victor, that you were the one to shake hands with the door?”

I heard Konrad chuckle.

“Yes,” I admitted, “and it very nearly crushed my hand!”

“No,” said my father, “it was not designed to crush the hand, just hold on to it. Forever.”

I looked at him, shocked. “Truly?”

“When I discovered this secret passage as a young man, no one had descended the stairs for more than two hundred years. And the last person to do so was still here. What remained of him, anyway. The bones of his forearm dangled from the door. The rest of his ruined body had fallen into the shaft.”

“We wondered if we’d seen . . . a finger bone down there,” Elizabeth said.

“No doubt I missed a bit”’ said father. (21)

In short, This Dark Endeavor is not such a dark endeavor, after all. Oppel’s companion novel has very little of Shelley’s doom and gloom “workshop of filthy creation.” It’s more a château of slightly besmudgéd creation. Oppel uses the details and backstory of Shelley’s original as a canvas on which he paints his own picture of a particular moment in which a group of teenagers come of age through their quest—a bit like a Stand By Me for the upper class 18th century set. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a superficial story, simply that Oppel doesn’t treat the material with such deference that he is afraid to have fun with it. The writing and pacing are deft, but not showy, and the story immediately engaging, even if it isn’t particularly complex.

personal disclosure

I feel honor-bound to mention that I worship Shelley’s Frankenstein. This, of course, made me delighted by the prospect of this novel, as well as dubious that it would be able to do much more than flesh out the backstory that Shelley already gave us. Also, I think I expected Victor to be something like a youthful combination of Snape and Heathcliff: a dark and brooding potions savant. I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case. One thing that I was particularly looking forward to in this book was the potential character development of my favorite Frankenstein character, Henry Clerval. While Victor is busy grave-robbing and corpse-knitting, Henry is, you know, writing poems and reading books, and probably wearing flowers in his buttonholes. So, while we do get a view of the teenaged Clerval, he’s not particularly developed and we miss out on seeing the seeds of their mutual love and admiration. Ah, well, perhaps in the next installment.

readalike

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (2007). Both books engage historical mysteries/quests for knowledge in appealing and unique ways.

Procured from: I received this book from the publisher and was in no way bribed or compensated to write this review.

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