“Nothing Cool About Being Young”: Last Night I Sang To the Monster

A Review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Cinco Puntos Press, 2009

By REBECCA, March 30, 2012


Zach Gonzalez: Smart, sensitive teenager who is afraid to feel, with good reason

Rafael de la Tierra: Zach’s roommate and surrogate father

Sharkey: Zach and Rafael’s roommate; not sold on the therapy process

Adam: Benevolent therapist in rehab

Amit: Zach and Rafael’s roommate after Sharkey

Mr. Garcia: Inspirational English teacher from before rehab

Santiago: Zach’s vicious older brother


When Zach wakes up in rehab he has no idea how he got there . . . or where he was before. How can he figure it out when he doesn’t want to remember?


“The tree’s name is Zach” (136)

When Last Night I Sang To the Monster begins, Zach has a plan: he’s going to get A’s in school, get a scholarship, and “go to Stanford or Harvard or Princeton or Georgetown or one of those famous schools where all the students were very smart. And very happy. And very alive” (15). But something goes wrong, and Zach ends up in rehab, frozen and dissociated. The novel follows what happens in between. Zach admits that he’s an alcoholic, like his father, but even while he relates pieces of his story to Adam and his therapy group he shies away from the incident that landed him in rehab like a sore tooth. Last Night I Sang To the Monster, then, is a slow excavation of Zach’s story as his sobriety and sense of safety let him see clearly.

image: expressivehearts.com

As you might imagine, this book being set in a rehab facility, Last Night I Sang To the Monster doesn’t present a rosy view of the world. Each character has a difficult story to tell. Still, as you might also imagine, in a novel dedicated to characters trying to improve their lives, hope abounds. More important, though, is that Sáenz’s prose is stunning. So, in the prose, as well as in the story itself, is a sense that art—especially using art to communicate—is still worth something.

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

Sáenz tried to fold back the layers of Zach and display, finally, the heart of the character. Zach says:

“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser.

I keep seeing a newspaper being tossed around in the wind. And then a strong gust comes along and the newspaper is thrown against a barbed wire fence and it gets ripped to shreds in an instant. That’s how I feel. I think God is the wind. It’s all like a game to him. Him. God. And it’s all pretty much random. He takes out his pen and starts writing on our blank hearts. When it came to my turn, he wrote sad. I don’t like God very much. Apparently, he doesn’t like me very much either” (11).

Because Zach narrates the novel, the audience is as in the dark about what brought Zach to rehab as he is. This builds the tension really subtly so that as readers we put the pieces back together with Zach. In this way, it is a kind of mystery that we try and solve along with him, each piece of backstory, dream, and desire providing one more clue. Bit by bit, without the warmth of alcohol, Zach is forced to acknowledge the warm feelings he is developing for others: his therapist, Adam, his roommate, Rafael, and the members of his therapy group.

Unusual for many young adult novels, Zach is the only teenager in Last Night I Sang To the Monster. Because he is in rehab, there are characters of all ages, so the novel doesn’t fall into any of the romantic stereotypes of rehab sometimes found in post-The Bell Jar novels. In fact, realistically, nothing really happens. It’s a true testament to Sáenz’s prose and pacing, then, that Last Night I Sang To the Monster absolutely captivated me from the epigraph—a (misquoted) line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing-Tree”—to the final paragraph.

personal disclosure

I’m kind of a sucker for novels written by poets (which Sáenz is)—the prose is so controlled and intentional. I was reading Last Night I Sang To the Monster on the train coming home and there were passages that made me very glad that I was sitting along and wearing sunglasses, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t, I mean: I cried.


Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999). Another novel in which teen trauma takes away the protagonist’s ability to communicate; in this case, her ability to speak.

With or Without You by Brian Farrey (2011). Like Last Night I Sang To The Monster, With or Without You is great contemporary realism that features a sensitive male protagonist placed in dangerous situations. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but you can read the full review here!

Under the Wolf, Under the Dog by Adam Rapp (2004). Or, really, any of Adam Rapp’s novels. Steve Nugent is in a “facility” for addicts and suicidals, but he doesn’t really belong in either group. Like Zach, he needs to reconstruct how he ended up here in order to move forward.

Procured from: the library


The principal supporting business now is rage*: A Plague Year

A Plague Year
Edward Bloor
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

Good Guys
Tom Coleman, a likeable square
Bobby Smalls, fighter against ableism
Arthur Stokes, Tom’s cousin
Wendy Lyle, daughter of a drug counselor

Bad Guys
Reg the Veg, man of many unredeeming qualities
Dorfman, football meathead par excellence
Mr. Lyle, super snob & hypocrite

There’s a plague coming that you should be ready for. It will turn your town into a zombie-infested war zone.  But it’s not a virus. It’s meth.

Popular literature has been said to reflect the fears of real life.  Edward Bloor makes an explicit connection between the zombie-lit craze and the epidemic of Meth use across the United States in his newest work of realistic fiction.

meth kind of does this to you. photo by Heather Buckley on flickr.

There’s nothing scarier than real life for Tom Coleman.  He lives in a small central Pennsylvania town and works at the Food Giant that his father manages (off the clock, natch, but his “wages” go into a college fund).  Then, over the course of a year, meth reaches the citizens of the town.  Robberies go up.  People get more short-tempered and stressed out. There are homeless, dead-eyed, shuffling corpses everywhere Tom looks.  They used to be his friends and neighbors.

Tom and the rest of his drug counseling group decide to take on the plague any way they can.

What is this book’s intention and is it achieved?
The only thing saving this book from being a one-dimensional afterschool special of a book is that Edward Bloor does realistic dread very well, and although his characters spout didactic dialogue they are, in other ways, realistic.

I was pretty square growing up.  I had a friend who took me to parties in high school and I refused to drink (or smoke, of course).  I had an intense period of religiousity in late elementary school and middle school–oddly enough, during the times that I was most into Metallica.  So maybe that makes it easier for me to believe in characters who are teenagers that voluntarily work for their parents after school, go to drug counseling groups to support their sisters, or generally try to be of service to their community.  But I also see teens like this in real life and in news stories, so that’s not so big of a stretch.

What makes reading this a bit of a cringer are the thematic parallels that get hammered home between the Black Plague in Europe and the meth plague of today.  Tom’s English teacher, Mr. Proctor (get it?) is doing a whole unit on this and it’s reflected in the conversations that go on between the kids in the counseling group.  I do like the fact that the group allows the story to open up honest conversation in the narrative, but the whole English class parallel ultimately hurts the story, pushing it farther into we get it already territory.  Meth isn’t a super-new problem, and I think the story would have gotten its scariness across to the reader without comparing it to the Black Plague.

blackened is the end / winter it will send / throwing all you see / into obscurity - james hetfield.

Without that subplot we have a book about a real problem, with all of its attendant societal ripples.  There’s a pervading sense of doom in Tom’s town, related very well through his journal — which is not actually a real-time journal, but a reconstructed journal.  (For the record, I like this conceit, because it allows immediacy without an overuse of too-casual language.)

The feelings ring true.  Tom is nervous because he loves his cousin but his cousin’s family are sketchy.  He doesn’t know how to defend his co-worker from mean-spirited pranks that take advantage of the co-worker’s Down Syndrome, or process the stress he feels coming from his parents about a lack of family finances.  He has a minor rebellion and a very realistic crush that involves a small but humiliating scene at a party in the bigger college town next to his.  So if you can get past the Message, you’ll find a book with a compelling heart.  But if it’s your first Bloor book, I’d say put it down and head straight for Tangerine.


Breathless by Jessica Warman
This is semi-autobiographical realistic fiction set in SW Pennsylvania, involving a girl who is shipped off to boarding school (or gets herself shipped off to boarding school? I can’t remember which), but can’t escape her love for and angst about her severely schizophrenic brother.  She’s also a competitive swimmer and her boyfriend is hot but sanctimonious.

Totally Joe by James Howe
A journal format narrative about fighting bullying in schools (specifically GLBTQ bullying)

Ellen Hopkins, particularly Crank and Glass – the wildly popular poem-novels that touch on issues that Hopkins has faced in real life – her son was addicted to meth and inspired her first books.

Breaking Bad.  Why aren’t you watching this amazing show already??

Disclosures & Digressions
I was kind of hoping this book would be about how meth creates real zombies.  I mean, it is about that, but in a realistic way.  I was hoping the meth users would become actually dead but unable to die because of the drugs.  And they’d have to eat the brains and blood of other meth users to keep themselves alive/drugged up.

*This is a line from the poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by Richard Hugo. It’s about a dead mining town. Click and read and weep.

10 Reasons You Should Be Watching Make It Or Break It

By REBECCA, March 26, 2012

Y’all, tonight is the premier of the third season of Make It Or Break It and I’m so excited! Oh, what’s that? You don’t watch Make It Or Break It / You’ve seen the commercials and thought it looked insipid? Well, here are 10 reasons why you should be watching (with NO spoilers for seasons 1 and 2). Note: the first two seasons are available on Netflix Instant and on Hulu, so catch up and come on over!

So you've seen Stick It—now what?

1. Friends, this show is set in the majestic, heart-stopping, hilarious world of gymnastics. Who doesn’t secretly wish they could do gymnastics? Picture it: you’re walking home from work past the park where those kids skateboard and you do an effortless flip on the curb or the back of the park bench. You want to avoid your downstairs neighbors, so you open your kitchen window, grab the branch outside, do some giant circles, and dismount into their makeshift herb garden. You vault over that obnoxious motorcycle that always straddles two parking spots. And the next time you’re an exasperated plus-one at a wedding and the DJ tries to make you catch the bouquet you back up to the corner of the parquet-square dance floor and do a tumbling pass right into the wedding cake! No? Just me? Ahem.

2. Make It Or Break It is a sports show. You know, just like Friday Night Lights! . . . Really, though: it has all the great personal drive, inspirational speeches, competition, pushing oneself to the limit. The girls are working toward the 2012 Olympics, so as the first and second season continue, the competition stakes get ever-higher.

3. It’s like a dance movie, only much, much longer! You get all the great elements of a dance movie in every episode: costumes and makeup; the awesome camera-work that accompanies people flying through the air quickly; the drama of someone practicing something and then seeing whether they can do it when it counts; injuries; and the staple of any dance movie: you have to dance it out (only in Make It Or Break It it’s gymnastics it out. Comme ça:

4. Musical training montages. Enough said. But, okay, I’ll say more. These aren’t your lame wind sprints and pushups, okay? These are badass flips, ponytails flying and sparkly leotards stretching. These are laps, but . . . in handstands and rope-climbing. And all of it is set to an upbeat power-pop soundtrack.

5. Drama! Holy sweaty leotards, Batman, is there drama. There’s Lauren Tanner, the sociopathic daddy’s girl who seems driven by the forces of evil to cause pain, discomfort, and shame wherever she goes. Lauren does, however, say some hilarious things: “How much of a Christian can she be? The woman wears Dolce & Gabanna!” There’s Kaylie Cruz, Lauren’s best friend, who isn’t quite as perfect as she seems, but is still the perkiest thing you’ve ever seen. Lauren and Kaylie have trained at The Rock (that’s the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Club) together since they were tiny, cartwheeling kids, and share everything . . . except a certain male gymnast. Then there’s new girl, Emily Kmetko, who taught herself gymnastics on playgrounds and at the YMCA—will she upset the triumvirate of Lauren, Kaylie, and . . .

6. Payson Keeler! She gets her own place on the list because she is so wonderful. She’s so mature and honest and determined and kind and no-nonsense and totally not obnoxious about the fact that she’s the top ranked gymnast at The Rock. Seriously, you wish you had a friend like Payson to keep you honest. And she will call you out.

7. This is kind of a cross between a regular high school show and a boarding school story. The girls don’t go to school because they train for 29 hours a day, so the gym is the place where they are always together. It’s a seething, roiling mess of hormones, desire, jealousy, and fear. So, basically like high school. But unlike a boarding school story, they live at home, so there is additional parent-drama. This is good because it allows for storylines that involve the parents, siblings, and coaches as well as the gymnasts.

Taking Twister to a whole new level

8. What I’ll call the Random Appeal Factor. You know how unpredictable taste is. My sister and I are, in different ways, about as far from the demographic this show targets as it’s possible to be. And we both love it. Call it what you will—suspense, pathos, bathos, pretty people, upbeat music, Colorado, smoothies, ABCFamily conservative moralizing—just call it!

9. Great and varied secondary characters. One of the nice things about Make It Or Break It is that it is a large cast. I think that always makes me more forgiving of a show because when one story line starts to feel claustrophobic there is a mechanism to switch really quickly to something else. Now, I won’t reveal who a lot of these secondary characters are because they appear in response to extremely dramatic and spoilery things. But I can say that one secondary character is played by Candace Cameron Bure—you know, D.J. Tanner from Full House—and she’s dating Steve Tanner (Lauren’s dad). Now, come on, you know they had to do that on purpose. See? Funny.

10. You have a week to kill before Game of Thrones is back. No, I’m just kidding. Reason number 10 that you should be watching Make It Or Break It is . . . Coach Sasha Beloff. Sasha is a former Olympic gymnast who is pulling an A-River-Runs-Through-It in the middle of nowhere. When Lauren’s dad goes to find him and coerce him into being the coach at The Rock, Sasha says he isn’t interested in gymnastics anymore, and we get the following humorous exchange. Note: In addition to being an awesome coach, a kickass human being, and also quite handsome, Sasha is occasionally very funny. This is the only time Lauren’s dad is funny, though, so don’t get used to it.

Sasha: “You think I left England to compete in Romania because I want money? Who do I look like, David Beckham?”

Lauren’s dad: “Yes, actually, you kind of do.”

And he kind of does.

Yes, as a child I briefly took gymnastics and yes, I harbored vague desires of being a gymnast despite going through puberty around age 11. But you don’t have to have been a tumbling tot or think that the Olympics are the only time sports channels are bearable because you might catch a glimpse of a sparkly leotard or a full twisting double layout to be delighted by Make It Or Break It.

So, which Make It Or Break It character are you? Tell us in the comments. Then watch the show to see if you should be insulted!

I Found My Thrill On Dragon’s Tooth Hill: Elsewhere

A review of Elsewhere (Borderlands #1) by Will Shetterly

Harcourt, 1991

By REBECCA, Friday, March 23



Just Ron: Newly arrived in Bordertown, Ron has some growing up to do, but a good heart

Mooner: Half-elf and ersatz leader of Castle Pup, he’s charisma + recklessness + pride

Wiseguy: Mooner’s twin, she’s a badass and a fierce defender of Castle Pup

Florida: Mysterious little girl who just showed up one day . . .

Mickey: Human owner of Elsewhere bookstore, she ushers Ron into life in Bordertown

Goldy: Co-worker at Elsewhere and crusader for love through books

A Few of the Crew at Castle Pup . . .

Leda: Dreamy elf addicted to peca, the Dragon’s Milk, she also has a royal pedigree

King O’Beer: Will’s roommate, he and Sparks (their third roommate) are both in love with Mooner

Strider: Beautiful, regal elf, he seems like he’d be a dick but he totally isn’t

Sai: Resident mature, non-idiot, she is also Bordertown’s middleweight boxing champ


When you arrive in Bordertown, the city that stands between The World and Faerie, where spellboxes power motorcycles and gingerbread cookies beg not to be eaten, it isn’t very wise to piss off anybody.


image: humanoddity.blogspot.com (Annette Kurtis Clause)

When Ron Starbuck runs away to Bordertown in search of his older brother, Tony, the first things he does are get kicked off a moving train, call a pair of half-elven twin bikers “pointy-eared dinks,” and chuck a rock at them. Not a good first impression. But Mooner  takes pity on Ron and soon he is zooming through the streets of Bordertown on the back of Mooner’s motorcycle, past “a ruined church that twisted around itself as if magic had brought it to life and someone had barely managed to kill it before it could slither away,” and along the Mad River that smelled “thick and soporific, sweet and fetid like sweat or blood or the beach after a storm,” (15) into Soho, where “something drifting from across the Border reminded [Ron] of waffles and orange blossoms,” and, finally, to Castle Pup, collective house extraordinaire (16).

Everything in Bordertown is cobbled together, carved out and layered atop of what used to be “any damn city in the World”—“Its soul changed, not its shape” (14). Thus, Elsewhere is a delightful romp through an urban landscape repurposed by teenagers and unpredictable, motley magic. Will Shetterly is a master at world-building through description; he’s also one of a fabled few who can use physical description well—in a way that shows how a combination of a character’s born physicality and choices of presentation can give some (limited) insight into her personality.


“wore a black leather jacked draped with chains, a gray Danceland T-shirt, and dirty purple chinos tucked into low blood-red boots. When she came near, I saw that her skin was as pitted as Mooner’s. His made him look dangerous. Hers made her look vulnerable as well, which made her look even more dangerous” (20).


“wore torn blue jeans, black cavalier boots, and a ruffled white silk shirt open almost to his waist. His white hair was tied at the back of his head like a samurai’s. His features were elvishly perfect: high cheekbones, flaring eyebrows, lips that seemed ready to laugh, eyes the color of smoke.

I didn’t hate him immediately. I pitied him. There are three desirable things that a guy can have: height, looks, and brains. The odds of getting all three are so slim that he probably needed help tying his shoes” (21-2).

Shetterly’s descriptions of Bordertown are Elsewhere’s worldview, too. In a city where places and possessions are hodgepodge and magic lives in the cracks of worldly pavement, things are not what they seem. Except when they’re exactly what they seem. Every scene of this novel is packed with delicious atmosphere, funny and smart dialogue, action, and, of course, magic.

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

I first read this book when I was around twelve or thirteen, and it’s absolutely one of my favorites. Each character—even those who appear for only a page or two, and there are many of these—is an individual, and we can read backstory in those brief sketches. This makes the place of Bordertown feel incredibly alive. The cast of central characters, too, is extremely well-drawn, each carrying the mark of her life in every action.

Characters make bad choices and do wonderful things; they are infuriating and lovely. There is not only magic, but also hair-cutting, cooking, dancing, and lots and lots of love, requited and un-. Shetterly shows the mundanities of life in a magical place, and he clearly shows Bordertown’s problems as well as its pleasures. This is one of the novel’s biggest successes, for me: gangs of elves war with humans and halfies; Castle Pup is threatened with a choice between folding from a lack of access to funds and turning itself into a business to stay afloat; King O’Beer and his boyfriend run into Elsewhere to escape a group of gay bashers; throughout the city, kids are addicted to peca and the water of the Mad River; magic backfires and harms people; magic intentionally harms people. The problems of any city run throughout Elsewhere, and Shetterly shows what permutations they might take in a place like Borderland.

Elsewhere is an original novel, but it inhabits the world of Bordertown that was originally created by Terri Windling in the anthologies Borderland (1986), Bordertown (1986), and Life on the Border (1991). Shetterly and Emma Bull (they’re married) contributed the story “Danceland” to Bordertown, and Elsewhere grew out of that story (as did Emma Bull’s 1994 Bordertown novel, Finder). You can read it here.

As Terri Windling explains here, in the late 1980s she was commissioned to create a “shared world” anthology for young adults—a world, that is, that could be built and then opened up so that other authors, like Will Shetterly, could write stories in that world. The setting she proposed, of course, was Bordertown, which she describes as “a modern city at the edge of a mysterious, magical realm—a border city where runaway children gather to create new lives for themselves . . . sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously (reminiscent of Real Life teen meccas such as Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s).” The books gained a cult following in the 1980s and early 1990s, spawning, among other things, Borderland parties and raves. Count. Me. In.

Elsewhere is a wonderful read: great characters, awesome writing and—I saved this one—a little mystery that twines slowly through the book like a bike with a semi-busted spellbox. And, at the end, when Ron’s smart mouth pisses off the wrong person, magic turns him into something he could never have imagined. Check out Shetterly’s sequel, Nevernever, to find out what happens to Ron, and whether he can reverse the curse.

Note: in 2011, a new anthology set in Bordertown was published, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner and featuring stories by such YA delights as Cory Doctorow, Jane Yolen, Will Shetterly, Annette Curtis Klause, Cassandra Clare, Terri Windling, and Neil Gaiman.

You can read Cory Doctorow’s story, “Shannon’s Law,” here.

And, hey, want to write some fanfiction or make some art in the world of Bordertown? Here are the guidelines.

personal disclosure

The reason I picked this book up at a library book sale in Ann Arbor many moons ago is that I adore the cover. I guess I can see why someone might think it was ugly, but I challenge that person to a boogie-off at Danceland.



Ecstasia by Francesca Lia Block (1993). In this prequel to Primavera (1994), members of a popular band live in a magical world where youth and fun are the most valuable commodities; one by one they are driven underground or out of the city, some for love, and others by addiction.

The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar (1992). If Elsewhere is punk with elves, then this is elfpunk—well, fairypunk.

The Modern Faerie Tales by Holly Black (Tithe, 2002; Valiant, 2005; Ironside, 2007). Black’s trilogy also delves into the grittiness inherent in the seeming beauty of fey mythos.


And, of course, if you just like the world, anything in the Bordertown oeuvre.

procured from: a library book sale long, long ago (best $1.50 I’ve spent, not counting that one coffee that one time)

The Death-Ray: With Great Power…

The Death-Ray
Daniel Clowes
Drawn & Quarterly, 2011
(originally printed in Eightball #25, 2004)

Andy, goes through more than the normal adolescent changes.
Louie, aggro sidekick to Andy’s passive hero

Being an orphaned inheritor of nicotine-activated superpowers and a Death-Ray doesn’t always lead to teams of mutant friends with whom to fight built-in villains. Sometimes it just leads to moral quandries.

If you set a superhero story in the world that Daniel Clowes’ characters populate, then you have to take out the “super” (unless you add “-awkward” onto the end of that), and put quotes around the “hero”.  Andy’s world may have enough fantasy in it to allow him his transformation, but otherwise we’re in a realistic late ‘70s high school setting, getting a look at the life of adolescent boys, with all of the cursing that implies.

Andy is a quiet, unmuscled boy with a pugnacious friend, Louie. Louie’s the type of guy who, after besting a classmate in number of pull-ups completed, offers a handshake and a “no hard feelings”, and when the classmate doesn’t respond, develops a lifelong burning hatred towards the guy.  Andy spends his days  fantasizing about the woman who cleans the house he shares with his grandfather and typing letters to his girlfriend, Dusty, who he met when he lived in California, full of the stuff you write when you don’t know how the heck to write a letter to someone you care about: “I guess I don’t have a lot in common with most other kids. I don’t really like rock music or a lot TV shows.  Louise listens to Punk rock with I hated at first until he explained it to me. …I love you so much. Why are we so far apart? I saw ‘Rocky’ finally, which was good like you said.”  From what Clowes shows us, Dusty is pretty much unresponsive.

One day, Louie peer pressures Andy into taking a puff of a cigarette, and Andy’s life is changed forever.  He can suddenly rip books in half (until the nicotine wears off) and beat up the guys that get on Louie’s nerves.  And his dead father also left him the legacy of a gun that makes things disappear.  The book follows Andy as he wrestles with what to make of such power, and how the only person in whom he confides reacts to the knowledge as well.  Because once you know you can right wrongs permanently, it gets harder to figure out the scale of right and wrong.

Intention Achievement

For me, the hallmark of a Clowes story is that people talk a lot and they say things that are just this side of weird, but not so weird that you couldn’t imagine overhearing someone having the conversation in a coffee shop or diner.  It’s like his books are populated with the best character actors around – more subtle than in Twin Peaks or a John Waters movie, but with the same underlying current of moroseness. I think the first time that I saw an excerpt of his work it was an exchange between two guys in a car and one was talking about how he had a valve in his stomach out of which he had to offload ketchup.

Putting the trope of superpowers into this world works really well. There are really funny teenage-boy moments, and really sweaty moments of existential dread, often marked by a change in the coloring or shading of the panels, as you can see here:

(There’s also sample pages up at Drawn and Quarterly!)

Clowes plays with the format of the book just like he plays with the concept of superpowers – many of his strips take the form of a full-color Sunday comic, but where the title panel would be there’s just a standalone portrait or scene – the word CIGARETTE? with Louie offering Andy his first smoke, and Andy saying “No, thanks”

Unlike most superhero comics, this follows Andy from adolescence to middle-age, and we see how  he has wrestled with a power he can turn on and off – and how it has affected his personality. Because the power (if not the Death-Ray) is connected with smoking, he can treat it like an addiction. I’m harping on it probably a little too much here – the metaphor isn’t overused in the book. It’s a tall but slim book, and Clowes is a master of brevity and characterization.  So I’m going to try to follow his lead and stop blathering on–if you like Clowes already, you’ll like this, and if you’ve never read him, this would be a good place to start.

Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence / Paul Feig

Feig was one of the main writers and co-creator of Freaks and Geeks, and this is one of two books that he’s written detailing excruciating moments from his teenage years.

Disclosures & Digressions

I kind of love the endpapers, which feature this:

I got this book from: the library, but I’d like to buy it.

Mr. Popularity: King of the Screwups

A Review of King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

Harcourt, 2009

By REBECCA, March 19, 2012


Liam Geller: handsome, popular, and extremely sincere, he just wants his dad to love him

Allan Geller: Liam’s father, he is cruel and judgmental and totally screws Liam up

Sarah Geller: Liam’s mother, a boutique-owner and former model

Darleen: Girl next door, totally uncharmed by Liam no matter what he does

Uncle Pete: Liam’s uncle, an aging glam-rock dj who lives in a trailer near his boyfriend and close friends/bandmates:

Eddie: Pete’s friend/bandmate, owner of a local clothing store

Dino: Pete’s friend/bandmate, burly police officer

Orlando: Pete’s boyfriend/bandmate, a high school teacher and down-to-earth guy


Liam has made it, as far as high school life goes: he’s handsome, stylish, popular, good at sports, and fun. But everything he does disappoints and infuriates his businessman father. Finally, his father kicks him out of the house and Liam goes to live with his uncle, Pete. In a new school, Liam decides that maybe he can reinvent himself into someone his father could respect . . . and maybe even love?


When I first read the blurb for King of the Screwups I thought that it would be something of a comedy of manners—you know, handsome popular boy tries to be nerdy but everything backfires because he’s so cool. Kind of like the scene in Mean Girls when Regina wears her tank top with nipple-holes cut out and the next day everyone’s wearing them? Anyway, I was prepared to be a little bit charmed by this. BUT: that is not at all what King of the Screwups is. It’s so much better.

For as long as Liam can remember, he’s disappointed his father. He hasn’t gotten good grades, he’s more interested in fashion than in school, he gets caught making out with a girl on his father’s desk, etc. Liam’s father is nothing but nasty to him, constantly making him feel inadequate and unworthy of being his son. What becomes clear as these episodes accrete is that Liam’s father has been extremely emotionally abusive, not only criticizing Liam’s behavior but also leaving him with the sense that anything he tries will surely fail.

Liam’s uncle, Pete, is instrumental in encouraging Liam that his father is an asshole and that he is capable of succeeding at things. Don’t worry, though: this is not a kind of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy story in which Pete’s only function is to prop up Liam’s ego. Rather, Liam and Pete’s relationship is great: they help each other, worry each other, and bicker, in just the right ratio. All of K.L. Going‘s characters are rich and well-developed, but I found Pete and his friends particularly successful. They’ve been friends since high school, are in a long-standing glam-rock band, and they clearly hang out all the time. They have the easy manner and shorthand of people who have been friends for a long time, and their comfort with each other throws Liam’s discomfort with himself into high relief.

Oh, Liam, what am I going to do with you? You’re so clearly screwed up from a lifetime of your suckfest dad ragging on you, but you have so much to offer. I want you to be a fashionisto and make the world better through style! But I don’t want you to hang out with people who only love you because you’re beautiful and cool, like the lamers at your school. You aren’t shallow or anything, you just really love aesthetics. And that’s ok! Maybe you and your mom could run the boutique together . . .

When Liam moves in with Pete, we get to see what a sweet kid he is. His attempts to try and be unpopular are sincere and kind of desperate—that’s how badly he wants to prove to his father that he’s not a screwup, and prove to Darleen that he doesn’t just skate by on his looks. He tells Darleen:

“You have just made a lot of assumptions and . . . suppositions . . . and enacted a discriminating ritual based on wrong, er, information. I am not popular at all, actually. I’m really very unpopular. Wildly unpopular” (84).

And he really tries to be. Predictably, the things that Liam does in an attempt to be uncool get recoded as cool. Going does an admirable job in these scenes: this is not just an exposure of the construction or hypocrisy of cool; it’s the exploration of how Liam is as helpless and out of control in the face of his popularity as the members of the AV club are in their unpopularity.

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

“Just a derangement of the tear duct. Nothing sinister, I assure you.”

Listen, y’all: I’m not sure what was with me, but I wept my way through this book. Liam consistently reaches out to people only to have them dismiss him; people value him for superficial reasons; he is so genuine, but people think he’s glib; he does totally put his foot in his mouth; and the scenes in English class . . . the book just killed me. In a good way.

“‘I just hope you aren’t trying to be someone you’re not [Pete says]. That’s something I’ve always tried not to do. A lot of people say, hey, why do you live in a dumpy old trailer in a small hick town, but you know what? That’s me. I like my job; I like my friends; I like my band . . . and you’ve got to be true to what you like. No one else.’

I nod, but the whole time Aunt Pete’s talking I’m thinking about the red dress, wondering why he doesn’t wear it anymore if he’s so liberated. If there’s one thing I actually know about, it’s clothes, and Aunt Pete’s boring old T-shirts and jeans are not him” (89).

Liam uses the vocabulary of fashion to give insights into characters and into his own moods and intentions throughout the book. This is such a smart tactic on Going’s part: it reveals Liam’s character and thought-processes while also providing great descriptions and avoiding easy clichés. Overall, King of the Screwups was not only a success but, in O.W.L. terms, far exceeded my expectations.

image: etsylojewelry.blogspot.com

King of the Screwups is a great addition to contemporary YA realism: interesting characters that you have not seen before, complex psychologies, sadness, humor. And the prose is good. Nothing flashy, just very assured and compelling writing. My favorite thing about Going’s prose is that, although Liam is the narrator, the writing feels very objective—that is, it’s first-person that reads like third-person. I never found myself annoyed with Liam’s blindness, even when it was clear that he was misjudging a situation. And, for all that it’s a really emotional book, it isn’t sappy.

The end of the book felt a little rushed—it moves right from a very quick comedown after the climax to a very short epilogue—and I think it could have done with a few more chapters for pacing. Also because I was desperately sad that it was over.

personal disclosure

kitty!: Dorian Gray

Confession: while writing this review I was looking through the book, trying to find examples of scenes to show you all how great it is and I got so caught up in it that I forgot I was supposed to be skimming for an example and ended up reading like 50 pages. Then my cat jumped on top of the book and started licking my glasses, so I got back to business. In any case, here is a glimpse, much though the cat tried to prevent me from sharing it with you. Part of what I like about King of the Screwups is how each scene flows into the next, so you feel like you’re right there with Liam. Liam is asked to write an essay in English class about what the best part of his summer was:

“Crap. There’s no way I can write about that. My summer sucked. There was no best part. I got grounded immediately, and Mom was going to take me to Milan for a fashion show but Dad said no. Actually, I heard them fighting and what he said was, ‘It’s not worth going all that way just to take Liam.’

I’ve got to think of something, so I write, ‘The best part of my entire summer was the party at Mike’s house.’ Then I erase it because actually I got drunk, ended up sleeping with Andrea, who later told everyone it had been a mistake. . . .

I chew the top of my pencil and decide I hate essays. . . . Eventually, I write, ‘The best part of my entire summer is when I went to Hawaii to see my friend Julio.’ Only, when I got home I overheard Mom talking to Dad and she said, ‘You only sent him to Hawaii because you don’t want to look at him anymore.’ I erase that too.

Then I put my head down on my desk” (75).


Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010). Although King of the Screwups is in no way as funny as WG,WG (nor is it trying to be), they both feature dudes who are down on themselves and need some serious TLC. Insert a “don’t go chasing waterfalls” joke of your choice here (did I just really date myself?).

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman (2010). Bruiser has the opposite problem as Liam does; this is the mysterious story of a boy who can never have friends.

Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.

procured from: the library

“Don’t Think, Just Dance”: Bunheads

A Review of Bunheads by Sophie Flack

Little, Brown (Poppy), 2011

By REBECCA, March 16, 2012


Hannah: Ballet dancer increasingly conflicted about dedicating her whole life to dance

Jacob: Meet-cute “spontaneous” dilettante who wants to show Hannah the world (of NYC)

Zoe: Hannah’s frenemy; super-rich dance-type with an eye for couture and a nasty streak

Bea: The nice one, and Hannah’s partner in . . . conversation and healthy snacks

Daisy: New addition to the MB and a poster-girl for eating disorders

Matt: Balletomane extraordinaire, he woos H with pricey gifts and low demands on her time


Hannah has dedicated her life to the prestige of the Manhattan Ballet to the total exclusion of a life outside the theatre—I mean, she can’t even finish Frankenstein, although props for good taste. When she meets Jacob, a non-dancer, she begins to question whether it has all been worth it, amidst grueling training, harsh competition, and a veritable treasure trove of lycra.

Photograph: Carla Portugal


This is a dance book, so the world is the theatre. Hannah moved to Manhattan when she was 14 (she is 19 when the book begins) and has done nothing but dance ever since. She’s never had a boyfriend or friends who weren’t dancers; she’s never even been as far South as Chinatown. Everything that she and her friends do and talk about is in service of becoming stronger, getting thinner, getting a good part, being promoted to soloist. Occasionally peppered in are some mentions of boys, clothes, and gossip. This makes for competitive ladies with very uncompromising views about food, exercise, performance, and personal lives. They recognize that what they do pushes their bodies and minds to extraordinary and often painful limits, but they value the pain and scorn those who don’t have such single-minded focus and dedication:

“‘You’re a dancer, and you’ve got social currency. Why waste it on a college guy? Pedestrians go to college.’ In the world of ballet, pedestrian is the word for a normal person. It’s somewhat derogatory, especially when Zoe says it” (91).

This is, in other words, a world that you’re either interested in or you aren’t. I saw Bunheads at the library and picked it up mainly because I love musicals and dance movies (and because I thought the title was amusing). As such, I imagined that I would be Bunheads‘ ideal audience. As it turns out, I like dance movies because they are melodramas that don’t simply have melody they also have dancing!—danceodramas. Besides, there is always dancing on fire escapes and triumphal boo-yah posing in the faces of bullies, the self-satisfied, or a panel of judges who don’t think you deserve to be a dancer because you’re a welder, just . . . for example.

The obvious problem with a dance book, then = no dancing. No visible dancing, just peri-dance business, which was not very interesting to me, although I think it could have been. And, lest you think this merely bespeaks a lack of interest in the details of how things are done on my part, you should know that I read the bullet-pressing, head-cheese-making, meat-smoking, sugaring scenes in the Little House books on an annual basis. With glee. There was something so matter-of-fact about the way the world was portrayed here that it didn’t quite allow for the kind of world-building that is required of books set in unfamiliar contexts just as in those set in made-up worlds. There are a few great descriptions of how the girls smash their toe-shoes in the doors to break the boxes, which results in a dressing room door that doesn’t close properly. I’m not exactly sure why the rest of the details didn’t bring the world to life, but they didn’t, quite. So, without the head-spinning, foot-tapping delight of dance in the book, it is more accurate to describe Bunheads as a basic romance- and realization-plot set against the backdrop of a very stressful job that occasionally sounds rewarding and glamorous.

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

Since this is the story of a year in Hannah’s life when she realizes that there are other things in the world than ballet, Bunheads gives us glimpses of the contrast between the Manhattan Ballet and the world outside its walls. Sophie Flack does a good job of painting Hannah’s exhaustion, pressure, responsibility, fear, and desperation, to show how it’s possible for such a curious young woman to be so incredibly cut off from the world. The main drama here isn’t the question of whether Hannah will choose to date Jacob or Matt, or whether Jacob will finally get sick of Hannah’s total lack of time or willingness to compromise her schedule. The essential drama is Hannah figuring out whether ballet is enough for her if it means sacrificing all her other interests. This is a very big decision and one I think many of us can relate to, so I’m totally sympathetic to that decision-making process. But, well, it ain’t real dramatic.

Rockwell Kent, Moby Dick

It could have been, though. The biggest impediment for me in caring about any of the characters in Bunheads was that they are not much more than dance-machines. Oh, Hannah is clearly interested in things—in addition to her attempts to read Frankenstein, after Jacob compares her drive to dance with Captain Ahab’s monomania, she orders Moby Dick online (good luck fitting “Cetology” in between rehearsals). But even she is . . . well, boring. That is to say, she never makes interesting comments or has interesting conversations, seemingly because she has nothing to talk about but ballet. One of the best things about Bunheads, then, is that I reached the end of the book hoping that Hannah might be able to become as interesting as she has the potential to be.

Similarly, her dancer friends are pretty flat: there’s the mean one, the nice one, and the young one. I couldn’t really care about them enough to pay  attention to which one was talking—but I didn’t have to pay attention: if it was mean, it was Zoe; nice, it was Bea; about bingeing, purging, or being dissatisfied with herself, it was Daisy. And, the thing is, I didn’t get the sense that Hannah even cared much about them. Matt, the high society ballet fan who dates a different company member each year, was sleazy and disgusting and I couldn’t help but judge Hannah for accepting anything from him, even as I tried to tell myself that maybe she was just naïve as opposed to mercenary. Still, I could totally understand why he was appealing in his total lack of demands on her, in comparison with Jacob.

Ah, Jacob. Bunheads’ clearest intention seemed to be showing how Jacob was a catalyst (or at least an inspiration) for Hannah’s revived interest in the world. Now, don’t get me wrong, he’s fine. Still, though, just a brief sketch of a type: sweet, open, artistic, into film, and has cultivated a brag-network of quirky rooftops and views all over New York City. That is, he’s a character we’ve definitely seen before.

Photograph: Dane Shitagi

Overall, Bunheads is a totally competent novel—well-paced, capably-written, and with enough sparkling moments that it feels worthwhile to read on—it just didn’t compel my attention. This was mainly, I think, because the characters’ lack of anything non-dance related makes them seem like twelve-year olds experiencing everything for the first time (kisses, uncertainty, Brooklyn). The writing reflects this, explaining things to the reader as if she were similarly inexperienced. For most readers, the ideas and experiences that are interesting or novel to Hannah will seem obvious and banal. Still, I think it will certainly appeal to some, and Flack’s expertise with the material of a dance company is clear.

personal disclosure

The main thing that interested me about Bunheads was Sophie Flack, herself. Flack was a dancer with the New York City Ballet and seems to have written an extremely autobiographical novel (Hannah, the acknowledgements tell me, is Flack’s sister, and her partner’s name is Josh). Flack retired from dance in 2009 (and now studies English at Columbia) and published Bunheads in 2011; whether or not it is the novel for me, that’s wicked impressive. Moreover, I’d definitely be interested in seeing what she writes next now that the autobiographical novel is out of the way.


Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (2006). Dessen’s protag deals with a modeling career she’s not sure she wants anymore, and learns to be honest from a musical love interest. Ignore the embarrassing cover—it’s really good.

Audition by Stasia Ward Kehoe (2011). Like Hannah, Sarah moves to NYC to single-mindedly pursue dance, but also discovers a passion for writing and must choose which path to take.

Dance Academy. Rather entertaining Australian dance show that I may or may not have watched on Netflix instant all in one shame-filled, unproductive day.

Procured from: the library

Sharing Our Snacks: The Juniper Game

Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Since I live in Pittsburgh and R lives 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!

The Juniper Game

Sherryl Jordan

Scholastic, 1991

Dylan, totally ready to find himself
Juniper, naively quirky
Marsha, don’t call her Mom
Niall, a “gypsy”
Kingsley, BMOC
Johanna, free spirit

What a feeling it is to find someone who “gets” you!  Especially when you’re a shy boy and she’s a beautiful, independent girl, and especially when it involves something as exciting as time travel. That is, until things stop being polite… and start getting real.


Gorgeous, socially savvy, vivacious and Medieval-things obsessed Juniper needs a partner-in-crime to go further in her explorations of psychic phenomena. Conveniently, there’s a new boy in school, Dylan Pidgely, who is a talented artist and on the same wavelength as Juniper. Now, if only everyone would stop worrying about their intense connection with each other and the 15th century that makes them ignore homework, disapproving boyfriends, babysitting duties and imploding families for days at a time!  Uh-oh – did that lady from the past actually see them?
Rebecca recommended this book to me because

“it’s a YA book that has quite a different backdrop than others of its sort, and I think you’ll appreciate the way a lot of ‘real-life issues’ are touched on subtly, even though they’re not the main story. More than that, though, this book (for me, and keep in mind that I first read it as a kid) captures the kind of potentially self-destructive obsession with a quest for fantasy or a life you think should be yours that I think might mean something to you. I’m not sure if you’ll love Juniper or hate her, but I can totally picture you dating a younger gypsy man with a caravan when you’re like 40.”

Ha! Thanks, Rebecca. I look forward to my Cougar Caravan phase of life. (I somewhat unwisely just googled “cougar caravan” and the 2nd image result was the teaser poster for Sex and the City 2.)

I was pretty psyched to read a young adult book from 1991.  Like watching movies from the 80s or 70s, there’s just no faking the atmosphere of something created in a different cultural milieu–not just the fashions or the slang, but the whole product ends up being slightly “other” – familiar, but distant.  For example, I don’t think that a novel today would use the modifier “huskily” for someone’s dialogue.

I’ve noticed that the characters in YA books from, say, before Y2K have a higher level of honesty when talking to each other. There’s just generally less secret-holding as a plot point. Parents and kids talk about their feelings more with each other.  For instance, Juniper’s mom calls Juniper out on some of the shitty ways she treats Dylan, and Dylan, on his end, has several talks with his dad about his parents’ still-new separation.  I’m sure there are many contemporary examples you could throw at me, and please do, but I also think that it was more of a thing for kids and adults to try to be real with each other and talk things over in books coming out of the 70s and through the 90s.
And, as R. mentioned, this book has a different take on its supranatural events.  I hope it goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of contemporary YA novels and genre books, but many of the paranormal romance books have settled into a pattern, and books written before that genre-pattern was set in place that deal with similar issues are that much more exciting to read.

meditation room at the UN

Not only does this book not offer a traditional power-reveal or love triangle, it also deals with time travel in a way that I haven’t seen or read about before (for extensive coverage of this, I recommend reading the timeslip reviews at Charlotte’s Library).  What starts as simple ESP exercises turns into meditative traveling to time, because everything is NOW and nothing is past and present. This was satisfyingly mystical and yet grounded in… hippie theories?  What Freud called airy-fairy stuff?  It had more of a background than most stories, but less than Michael Crichton’s Timeline, I guess is what I’m saying.

intention achievement
Although my synopsis was tongue-in-cheek, I really did enjoy reading The Juniper Game. For the reasons mentioned above, and because it really captures some key things about growing up: the levels of friendship that fluctuate between people, the manic episodes of laughter between friends, the regret for being blind to your parents being real people, the anger at your parents for not seeing you as a person.  At the same time it fulfills teenage fantasies — parents indulgently allowing drinking and a medieval-times-obsessed girl who sleeps in a bedroom with a straw covered floor and is super-popular at school and not socially awkward.

One very important element of the story is finding a world where you fit. Dylan is an awkward kid to begin with and you can tell that he loves his family but they’re kind of boring to him. He’s waiting to find a place to be himself, so he can finally be himself. And then Juniper shows up.  She lives in a house that sounds like a modern architect reinvented the log cabin with her mom, who she refers to as “Marsha”.   Marsha dates a back-to-the woods guy named Niall.  (He lives in the aforementioned gypsy caravan). They kiss each other and talk about making love in front of the kids. There’s a meditation room in the house, and Juniper basically gets to indulge her obsessions however she’d like, which lets her be a truly creative and self-directed young lady and also oblivious as to when she’s being selfish.

caravan by tomylees on Flickr

But the thing is, Dylan doesn’t care that Juniper sometimes sounds impatient with him, or doesn’t acknowledge their friendship at school, or the fact that she has more fun with Dylan than with her suave but short-tempered boyfriend, Kingsley.  He’s found somewhere to geek out, somewhere to be comfortable.  He’s found his cool friend – this is a term my friend Liz introduced me to in high school. She insisted that I was her cool friend – the friend she was excited to introduce her other friends to because it made her look better — but I was equally convinced that she was mine.  But there’s a darker interpretation.  The cool friend is also the friend you might let walk all over you a little bit, because you’re a little insecure of your place in the relationship, because although you have fun with them, you don’t feel as cool as the cool friend.  So as I was reading The Juniper Game, that experience really rang true to me.

I also think it was successful as a portrayal of the dangers of the mystic.  When things get hairy near the end of the book, the terror is real, and it’s powered by the fear of the unknown. Dylan and Juniper have messed with uncharted territory, so when they are pulled deeper into the adventure than anticipated, it’s really scary. I felt like anything could happen. Even though I was pretty sure that things would turn out okay.


The Books of Fell by M.E. Kerr – for a similar classic-era YA style and another unattainable girl.

Things Change by Patrick Jones A very realistic treatment of obsession between two people and the rotten things that can emerge from it.

The Brood by David Cronenberg – What happens when you mess with forces beyond your control through experimental anger therapy

Espers – this Philadelphia band would probably be the ideal soundtrack for medieval time travel

disclosure / digression
1. Rebecca – I couldn’t help but imagine you reading this as a teen and wanting to be Juniper, and it was great.
2. Sometimes books put me in mind of the music that should be their representative, apart from Espers, Belly is the band for The Juniper Tree, specifically the song “Dancing Gold” from the Baby Silvertooth EP.
3. But the other song that was constantly in my head while I was reading this was an old folk song called either The Juniper Tree or Old Sister Phoebe, sung very nicely by the Seegers on American Folk Songs for Children. You can check out the description and lyrics here, and I’ll just note that their interpretation of why it’s a juniper tree gives me an interesting interpretation of why Marsha may have named her daughter Juniper.

Jack Is An Arrow and That Hole Is Marbury: The Marbury Lens

Review of The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

Feiwel and Friends, 2010

By REBECCA, March 12, 2012


Jack Whitmore: Self-contained protagonist with nary an annoying teenage quality in sight

Conner Kirk: Jack’s exceedingly loyal and horny best friend

Wynn & Stella: Jack’s indulgent grandparents

Freddie Horvath: Jack’s kidnapper

Henry Hewitt: Portal to Marbury

Ben & Griffin: Jack’s friends and fellow warriors in Marbury

Nickie: Jack’s meet-fugue love interest in London

Seth: A friendly ghost


A sphincter-clenching journey through the war-torn desolation of Marbury as it converges with the equally chilling aftermath of Jack’s abduction as he tries to outrun the experience in London.

Here’s the blurb:

“Sixteen-year-old Jack gets drunk and is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is kidnapped. He escapes, narrowly. The only person he tells is his best friend, Conner. When they arrive in London as planned for summer break, a stranger hands Jack a pair of glasses. Through the lenses, he sees another world called Marbury.

There is war in Marbury. It is a desolate and murderous place where Jack is responsible for the survival of two younger boys. Conner is there, too. But he’s trying to kill them.

Meanwhile, Jack is falling in love with an English girl, and afraid he’s losing his mind.

Conner tells Jack it’s going to be okay.

But, it’s not.”

worldview or, in this case, worldsviews

Were I a blurb-writer who needed to convey the tone of the novel as compared to others, The Marbury Lens would prompt me to use words like “unflinching” and “fearless” to describe how it approaches Jack’s kidnapping and its aftermath. Such descriptions have become clichéd to the point of meaninglessness, though, and seem to simply suggest that the author succeeded in writing about a potentially upsetting subject with the same ability as they might write about a pleasant one. It’s more accurate to say that Smith explores a world in which occurrences make ripples in characters’ lives, changing the way they approach the world around them. That is, Jack undergoes a trauma and afterward he sees the world through the lens of that trauma. This is a dark book, but dark because it’s about abuse, war, violence, betrayal and love, not dark because it is hopeless.

The Marbury Lens is the kind of book that makes me a fierce champion of young adult literature. I picked the book up in the library while waiting to meet a friend because I absolutely adored the cover (by Rich Deas, creative director at Feiwel and Friends). By the time my friend showed up, I was two chapters in and had already checked it out. I began reading, that is, with no expectations. The strong voice of the first-person narrator struck me from the first page; it had a tone of what I can only call resignation in beginning to tell what would clearly be a difficult story. Unlike many young adult novels, which seem to slavishly embrace teenspeak, avoiding language or ideas that might seem unrealistic in the mouths of their teen characters, The Marbury Lens uses Jack’s first-person narration as a tool: because Jack questions what is real, we must necessarily see things from his perspective, but because it is written retrospectively, that perspective is mature and natural. For example:

“I am going to build something big for you.

It’s like one of those Russian dolls that you open up, and open up again. And each layer becomes something else.

On the outside is the universe, painted dark purple, decorated with planets and comets, stars. Then you open it, and you see the Earth, and when that comes apart, there’s Marbury, a place that’s kind of like here, except none of the horrible things in Marbury are invisible. They’re painted right there on the surface where you can plainly see them” (3).

But Jack is not moving from London to Marbury. He is living both at the same time. The story of life and war in Marbury happens alongside Jack’s experiences in London, and is just as vivid. It’s part harrowing survival story and part gruesome horror; the prose is gorgeous and revolting. Many reviews of the book—even the plot blurb above—suggest that Marbury is all in Jack’s mind; that it is a reaction to the trauma of being kidnapped and sexually abused. Rather, the relationship among Jack’s different narratives, as he tells us at the outset, is complicated and unclear, nested within one another, but always touching. Elements of the worlds bleed into one another, roiling in an awesome mess of violence, pain, desire, addiction, fear, and friendship.

“And I see Jack as a kind of an arrow shaft that shoots through every layer,” Jack narrates, “simultaneously, the point directly piercing the exact center. I think everyone’s an arrow like that, too, aiming into their own centers” (282). This notion that each person’s reality is made up of a cross-section of multiple, abutting dimensions is a wonderful device for the fantastic elements of the book, certainly. But it’s also an elegant way to think about how the pain or trauma from one experience in Jack’s life can reverberate through multiple layers of his experience.

Smith’s characters are very well-crafted and various. Jack is complex and vulnerable, even while his voice is at turns self-recriminating, furious, and terrified. Conner, Jack’s best friend, is cocky, horny, and fiercely loyal to Jack, and the scenes in which Conner attempts to support Jack while neither of them have any idea what to do about their situation are particularly well-rendered.

As the novel continues, the walls among the different worlds begin to crumble and we are less sure which world things belong in. At the same time, Jack begins a romance with Nickie, a girl he meets in London. The simple and straightforward feelings that Jack and Nickie have for one another highlight the complex and uncertain relationships that Jack has with each other character, from the mother who birthed him on his grandparents’ kitchen floor and the ghost whose story crosses his own, to the man who kidnapped and abused him who, Jack thinks, did something to his brain.

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

The Marbury Lens asks what it would feel like to suddenly become aware that the world you have thought to be all-encompassing actually breaks apart quite easily to reveal another world touching it. For me, this was an unqualified success. The way the book is written manifests this for the reader. The story begins unfolding in California, setting the scene for the world we are familiar with being reality. Then, slowly, it begins moving back and forth between London and Marbury, making the reader as uncertain as Jack is about how much time has passed in either one. Finally, the addition of ghost-Seth’s story expands the scope of how many worlds might lurk beneath the conscious surface of what we thought was a singular reality, calling that reality itself into question.

Smith never panders to the reader by explaining the complexities of the story, and he doesn’t need to: his writing is so compelling and his narrative so mesmerizing that is a pleasure (albeit sometimes a painful one) to be pulled from one dark world to the next.

While The Marbury Lens absolutely holds up as a stand-alone novel (and, indeed, when I read it I didn’t know there would be more to the story), the sequel, Passenger, is coming out in the Fall of 2012, according to Smith’s blog.

personal disclosure

I can’t recommend this book highly enough—it is absolutely one of the best young adult books I’ve read. I feel quite impotent to convey how gobsmacked by it I was. In fact, if there is something that I could have written that would make you want to read it, pretend that’s exactly what I did write.

One of the things that I really appreciate about The Marbury Lens, and about Smith as an author/speaker/mentor, is that he’s particularly interested in writing books with male characters and in fostering literacy and writing in young men. This isn’t, of course, to suggest that this limits his audience in any way—rather that he has clearly taken an interest in purposely targeting an audience that is personal and meaningful for him and directing resources toward that audience.


Skin Hunger (A Resurrection of Magic #1), by Kathleen Duey (2007). These books both glory in the details of dark and eerie worlds in which characters must confront (and often exceed) their own fears or assumptions to progress. You can read my enthusiastic review of Skin Hunger here.

The House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000). Worlds within worlds, questions of sanity, gorgeous descriptions of scary things.

Rumble Fish, by S.E. Hinton (1975). I found Jack and Rusty James to be hopeful and vulnerable in similarly appealing ways.

And, of course, any other book by Andrew Smith. They’re all wonderful and we’ll be reviewing more in the future.

Procured from: the library—but loved it so much that I immediately bought a copy! Also, check out our list of other books that we first got from the library but loved so much we had to own them here.


Stormy Weather: A Reading List For When It’s Apocalyptic Outside

Friends, has global climate change got you down? Not sure why you haven’t made more stews this winter? Well here’s a list of books featuring apocalyptic weather that you can hunker down and hibernate with or carry outside to read in the unseasonable warmth!

You may know the story of how Mary Shelley came to write the unparalleled Frankenstein. But did you know that it owed a huge debt to just such an apocalyptic-seeming weather event as some of us are having right now?

In the summer of 1816, a young Mary Shelley and her lover, Percy Shelley, went to visit Lord Byron and John Polidori at Byron’s home on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. For kicks, the friends decided they would have a contest to see who could write the awesomest supernatural story. You know, like you do. So, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Byron, incidentally, wrote a fragment of a vampire story that Polidori would later turn into The Vampyre (1819), one of the first vampire novels in English. Read: this savant-packed drunken ghost-fest is responsible for Twilight. Just saying.

Lynd Ward, 1934

Lynd Ward (1934)

Anyhoo! That year, due to the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before, temperatures were so low, and the summer so rainy, that the Shelleys et al couldn’t enjoy the outdoor leisure activities they had planned, so they resorted to, you know, composing multiple master-works of English literature. The “Year Without a Summer,” also called “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death,” a much better moniker in my opinion, may have prompted (some readers believe) Shelley’s framing of Frankenstein by glaciers.

Without further ado, here is our LIST OF APOCALYPTIC WEATHER YA (and a special treat at the end!):


on the realistic / speculative end

Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows

Classic, touching graphic narrative of post A-bomb life for an older married couple.

Saci Lloyd, Carbon Diaries 2015

Diary entries from carbon-rationing Britain.

Mike Mullin, Ashfall (Ashfall #1)

There’s a supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park. No- there really is.  What happens when it explodes?

Michael Northrop, Trapped

So you’re in school and it starts to snow. It makes you feel all cozy until you start to realize it’s snowing really hard and it’s too dangerous to leave.  It snows for a week. The pipes freeze.  It seems like no one is going to come to get you. And you’re surrounded by your classmates the whole time.

Susan Beth Pfeffer, Life As We Knew It

A meteor passes close to Earth – and knocks the moon out of its normal orbit and closer to our planet.  Things get messed up real quick. Miranda keeps a diary as the days pass. (There are 2 companion novels to this book.)

Terry Pratchett, Nation

A volcano explosion creates a tsunami that wipes out Mau’s village. He has to form a new nation… with a shipwrecked girl and a foulmouthed parrot.

Jo Treggiari, Ashes, Ashes

In a post-apocalyptic New York City, as the weather rages out of control, Lucy is pursued by the deadly Sweepers and falls in with a band of survivors led by the mysterious Aidan.

Will Weaver, The Survivors

After the volcanoes explode the world changes. Then people start to try to get back to normal. But what’s normal now? A girl and her brother attempt to define it for themselves.

on the fantasy / science fiction end

Julie Bertagna, Exodus (Exodus #1)

Ice caps melting! Flee the destruction! What’s this? A mysterious hot boy named Fox? What’s that he’s saying about cities in the sky?

Allegra Goodman, The Other Side of the Island

Honor just wants her parents to behave themselves now that the family has been moved inside the weather-controlled dome of Island 365.  But mom and dad don’t want to follow the Earth Mother’s rules and they disappear – or are disappeared.  Now Honor is the one who has to break out of proscribed life to find out where they are and what her society is really all about. See the full review here.

Frank Herbert, Dune

Dune is (mostly) set on a desert planet called Arakis – water is a tightly controlled and monetized commodity.  The desert also yields a mystical substance called Spice and is home to a tribe of people called Fremen.  The struggle between plant life and the encroaching desert is one cog in the churning machinery of the plot of Dune and the six books that make up its sequence.

Walter Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

What does our civilization look like to those who are left to interpret it generations after we are gone?

Chris Wooding, Storm Thief

Storm Thief is set in a “city of chaos, lashed by probability storms that re-order the world wherever they strike.”


Caroline Starr Rose, May B.

Trapped in a snowy cabin in Kansas, May has to survive by herself. This novel in verse may want to make you read up on The Year Without Summer, which happened in 1816 or “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”, and was triggered by a volcanic explosion in Sumbawa, in Indonsia among other factors. (This event also inspired Frankenstein.)

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Abdulrahman Zeitoun survived Katrina and helped many other survivors in his canoe. So why is he being arrested? A true story.

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Ninth Ward

A middle-grade, award-winning look at Katrina.

Paul Volponi, Hurricane Song

Volponi takes you into the Superdome in the aftermath of Katrina through the eyes of a jazz musician’s son.  If you’re looking for a tense atmosphere in your realistic fiction, this one’s for you.

Jame Richards, Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood

Ok, so this disaster was caused by neglect of a dam by a group of rich people, but I had to include it because I’m a Western Pennsylvanian.  The story of the Johnstown Flood is made all the more dramatic because it probably could have been prevented – but it already includes a giant wall of water racing 14 miles through a valley and ending up in Johnstown, where the debris got caught on a bridge and promptly caught fire. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the United States up to that point – our own little apocalypse. Take a look at the facts here.


Kate Evans, Weird Weather: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About Climate Change But Probably Should Find Out

I’m a huge fan of graphic non-fiction because I’m a visual thinker, and pages of facts, howe’er interesting, tend not to stick as well as pages of illustrated facts.  I hear one of the narrators here is a mad scientist, too. Not a bad choice for learning about a depressing subject.

Cody Lundin, When All Hell Breaks Loose

Maybe you’ve watched the excellent show Dual Survivor, where Lundin, sockless lover of “Ma Earth” is paired with an ex-Army sniper and sent out into various wildernesses?  It’s classic Odd Couple stuff that could teach you how to not die when the big one comes.  And Cody has written two books, for those of you without cable or without friends without cable.

Bonus: films

Melancholia, 2011, dir. Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier doesn’t make the happiest or most woman-friendly movies. I’d say this one is meanest to HUMANITY and not women, and it’s gorgeous.  The most gorgeous depiction of crushing depression and impending DOOM that you’ll ever see. Starring Kirsten Dunst!

Take Shelter, 2011, dir. Jeff Nichols

Encroaching schizophrenia or visions of what is to come – oily rain, flocking birds, and violent attacks. What’s a man to do but build an underground storm shelter? Michael Shannon knocks it out of the park.

2012, 2009, dir. Roland Emmerich

Completely believable global cataclysms. At least, that’s what my friends say who’ve seen this.

The Day After Tomorrow, 2004, dir. Roland Emmerich

I’m sorry, but this is when Jake Gyllenhaal started to lose his Donnie Darko shine.  Speaking of apocalyptic films…

Deep Impact, 1998, dir. Mimi Leder

Armageddon, 1998, dir. Michael Bay

Michael Bay ensures that you “don’t wanna miss a thing”

Waterworld, 1995, dir. Kevin Costner

I can’t say it better than IMDB: “In a future where the polar ice caps have melted and most of Earth is underwater, a mutated mariner fights starvation and outlaw ‘smokers,’ and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find dry land.”

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,  1984, dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Once again, IMDB comes through: “In the far future, man has destroyed the Earth in the “Seven Days of Fire”. Now, there are small pockets of humanity that survive. One pocket is the Valley of Wind where a princess named Nausicaä tries to understand, rather than destroy the Toxic Jungle.” And warns you not to get the old US release entitled Warriors of the Wind.

What are your favorite books and movies about apocalyptic weather?

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