Best Scary Stories to Read at Sleepovers

Friends, it’s HALLOWEEN, the best holiday in October! You know how we celebrate Halloween here at Crunchings and Munchings? We have creepy sleepovers where we read scary stories; then in the morning, we have Halloween brunch where we make elaborate Martha Stewart Haunted House Cake and watch movies like The Craft  and Hocus Pocus!

Martha Stewart Haunted House Cake

Cake made in an overnight frenzy by Rebecca and S. Dubs!

We don’t know about the sleepovers that you attended in your youth, but ours often involved scary storytelling—more like urban legend-remembering—and they never went well. Sure, as tweens we weren’t that concerned with having a well-crafted plot arc in our stories, but it does help to bring about chills and frissons of terror. Maybe you’d like to put together your own super-scary Halloween Sleepover? Or perhaps you’d like to come to ours? You can really never be too old, we assure you. If so, here are some of our favorite scary stories to ensure you never get to sleep. But don’t worry, if you can make it through the stories, you get the cake!

compiled by Rebecca & Tessa

TESSA’S PICKS

#1: TAILYPO

Found in the Robert D. San Souci collection Short & Shivery: Thirty Chilling Tales and illustrated by Katherine Coville, this illustration and accompanying story haunted my sister and I for years and years. It’s only repeated exposure therapy and the wisdom of old age that allow me to look at it now. I scanned it so that all of you dear readers could understand.

Imagine a voice whispering through your walls, all night, after you chopped off and ate a snake-like tail that was conveniently sticking through a crack in your log cabin. The voice wants its tail back (or its “tailypo”, who am I to question the dialect of chimeras in the deep fictional wilderness). You can’t give it its tail back, you ate the tail! You know it. It knows it. You try to ignore it and go to bed, hoping for the sunrise. Instead you wake up to those GLOBES OF HORROR at the bottom of your bed.

The tailypo is being returned, doesn’t matter if it’s half digested.

lucy clifford new mother

#2 THE NEW MOTHER

You may know this story from its effective adaptation in Alvin Schwartz’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark under the title “The Drum”. It was originally published (in English, I have a vague recollection of my roommate telling me that there is a Russian version of it, but that’s hearsay) by Lucy Clifford in her Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise from 1882. (It’s free as an ebook on Google, so click click).

“The New Mother” is about two impressionable and unfortunately named children, Turkey and Blue-Eyes (Turkey is a fine name for a cat, but I draw the line at children.) Their goodness is tested by a girl they meet at the edge of town, who says she has such a thing as a pear-drum, with little people who dance inside of it. But she can’t show it to T & B-E unless they go home and behave as badly as they possibly can. No, they don’t understand, she tells them, you have to be positively evil.

The more they misbehave, the more their mother gets upset. Not just frustration upset, but really upset. Something really bad will happen if they continue their Pear-drum Campaign of Badness, she says. She will be replaced. With a new mother. One with glass eyes and wooden tail.

I think we all can see where this is going. Urgh, the feeling of consequence: your mother is really gone. You are alone, and here comes this new . . . not-quite human thing up the walk, to live with you.

#3 THE BOOGEYMAN

I just re-read this Stephen King short story, from the Night Shift collection, in order to re-assess it as an adult. Although my faster reading speed makes the story unfold more quickly and robs it of a little of of its power, it was so scary to me as a tween that I’m still a little afraid of closets. I spent many a night awake, sweating under an unnecessary bedspread, with my eyes averted but whole body attuned to whether or not the closet door. Might. Be. Opening.

I mean, let’s overlook the fact that Mr. King used “The Boogeyman” partially as a chance to do a character study of a guy who was bumbling and misogynistic and racist, and focus on some of the excellent, teasing descriptions:

“Last year wasn’t so good. Something about the house changed. I started keeping my boots in the hall because I didn’t like to open the closet door anymore. I kept thinking: Well, what if it’s in there? All crouched down and ready to spring the second I open the door? And I’d started thinking I could hear squishy noises, as if something black and green and wet was moving around in there just a little.”

Also: slithering.

#4 HAROLD

“Harold” is from Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, collected by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell 4EVA, no offense, Brett Helquist. Someone read it aloud at a scary story share a couple of years ago and it still made me want to physically run from the room. As if Harold were in a corner of it . . . and he suddenly grunted.

Again with the theme of something not human interacting with an uncanny intelligence with humans. It freaks me out.

“Harold” is also acting as a stand-in for all the Schwartz collections. They reign supreme!

#5 MONSTER

Kelly Link has a story called “Monster” and illustrated by Shelley Dick in this book called Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and some other things that aren’t as scary, maybe, depending on how you feel about Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Far, and one other story we couldn’t quite finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out.

Firstly, Kelly Link is a modern short story genius. I urge you to click on that link above where her name is and download Magic for Beginners from her site, if you haven’t read it yet. So this story is fun to read aloud. It’s about kids at camp, and about the monster that they meet in the woods. The monster is startling. The kids are funny. Kelly Link perfectly describes the cabinthink of a camp group, the finality of gossip, the way things instantaneously become The Way Things Are.

“‘There wasn’t any monster,’ Bryan Jones said, ‘and anyway if there was a monster, I bet it ran away when it saw Bungalow 4.’ Everybody nodded. What Bryan Jones said made sense. Everybody knew that the kids in Bungalow 4 were so mean that they had made their counselor cry like a girl. The Bungalow 4 counselor was a twenty-year-old college student named Eric who had terrible acne and wrote poems about the local girls who worked in the kitchen and how their breasts looked lonely but aslo beautiful, like melted ice cream.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

“Siren Song” from Ghostly Companions: A Feast of Chilling Tales by Vivien Alcock
: a boy gets a tape recorder for his birthday and through his taped diary entries we hear him discover children singing in the yard at night, their songs asking him to come out to play (hoooo, hoooo!)

“The Snipe Hunt” from Still More Tales for the Midnight Hour: 13 Stories of Horror by J.B. Stamper.
: a group of campers is sent on a wild goose chase (aka a snipe hunt). But one catches a snipe.

Now, on to Rebecca’s picks!

All My Best, Scary Tessa

REBECCA’S PICKS

Holy monkey brains, Tessa, I couldn’t agree with your picks more! Kelly Link is totally a short-story-genius, and I heard her read a few months ago and it was chilling and detached-sounding. The Scary Stories books (and especially the amazing illustrations) haunted my childhood too. The line “people can lick to” is one of the all-time scariest. So, I just got back from a week in New Orleans with C&M guest writer S. Dubs, who lives there. It really got my Halloween juices flowing. I’m not saying that we jumped the fence at Lafayette Cemetery #1 at midnight to light a candle on the Mayfair Witches’ grave, but I’m not saying that we didn’t.

So, without further law-breaking, here are my picks.

Clive Barker Books of Blood

#1. IN THE HILLS, THE CITIES, by Clive Barker

“In the Hills, the Cities,” is in Clive Barker’s collection Books of Blood, volume 1 (1984) and it’s one of my favorite short stories. It’s more creepy-bizarre-cool than it is scary, which would make it a nice breather for our so-far-totally-terrifying sleepover. Mick and his lover, Judd, are on vacation in Yugoslavia, looking for an historic church in the middle of nowhere, and realizing that their politics are . . . incompatible. They decide to drive down the valley of the Ibar and go see the hills. Duhn duhn duhn! Never have hills been so ominous! Well, I guess in The Hills Have Eyes, but this is quite different fare. Judd and Mick stumble upon a ritual contest between the cities of Popolac and Podujevo:

“Every single citizen, however young or infirm . . . all made their way up from their proud city to the stamping ground. It was the law that they should attend: but it needed no enforcing. No citizen of either city would have missed the chance to see that sight—to experience the thrill of that contest. The confrontation had to be total, city against city. This was the way it had always been. . . . Tens of thousands of hearts beat faster. Tens of thousands of bodies stretched and strained and sweated as the twin cities took their positions” (144-5).

Pretty Hate Machine Nine Inch NailsFor any Nine Inch Nails fans in the room, you might know “In the Hills, the Cities” for another reason: Trent Reznor borrowed one of Barker’s lines from this story for the song “Sin”: “I told you, I don’t want to see another church; the smell of the places makes me sick. Stale incense, old sweat and lies” (137). Also, though it’s not sleepover-length, you should totally read The Hellbound Heart (what the Hellraiser films are based on) by Barker, too.

Shirley Jackson the Lottery

#2. THE LOTTERY, by Shirley Jackson

I think “In the Hills, the Cities” would segue really well into another of my faves: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948). I sort of feel like anyone who has never read “The Lottery” should just stop reading this post right now and go read it—I envy you getting to experience it for the first time. It is one of the most subtle and masterful We Have Always Lived in the Castle Shirley Jacksonexamples of evoking terror from otherwise banal pastoral moments. Originally published in The New Yorker on June 26th, the story takes place on June 27th, as if with creepy prescience, and upon publication it received more hate mail than any New Yorker story in history (the mark of a winner, Shirley!). She lived in Bennington, Vermont for a time while her husband taught at Bennington College, and she reportedly was inspired to write “The Lottery” because she was thinking about the sinister underbelly of the idyllic small town.

Actually, I am of the opinion that everything Shirley Jackson touched turned to gold. Also check out The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Make sure not to miss this amazing cover by Thomas Ott, one of my favorite graphic artists!

Looking for Jake and other Stories China Miéville

#3. LOOKING FOR JAKE & FOUNDATION, by China Miéville

China Miéville is one of my favorite authors, and his short story collection Looking For Jake is a total treat. They’re all great, but the first two, “Looking For Jake” and “Foundation” are great to read out loud. Both are gorgeously textured stories of shifting, roiling, disappearing urban landscapes. In “Looking For Jake,” an unnamed narrator writes to Jake:

“It’s dark out here on the roof. It’s been dark for some time. But I can see enough to write, from deflected streetlamps and maybe from the moon, too. The air is buffeted more and more by the passage of those hungry, unseen things, but I’m not afraid. I can hear them fighting and nesting and courting in the Gaumont’s tower, jutting over my neighbours’ houses and shops. A little while ago there was a dry sputter and crack, and a constant low buzz now underpins the night sounds. I am attuned to that sound. The murmur of neon. The Gaumont State is blaring its message to me across the short, deserted distance of pavement” (13).

And in “Foundation,” a man speaks to buildings whose foundations are

“a stock of dead men. An underpinning, a structure of entangled bodies and their parts, pushed tight, packed together and become architecture, their bones broken to make them fit, wedged in contorted repose, burnt skins and the tatters of their clothes pressed as if against glass at the limits of their cut, running below the building’s walls, six feet deep below the ground, a perfect runnel full of humans poured like concrete and bracing the stays of the walls” (27).

Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber

#4. THE BLOODY CHAMBER, by Angela Carter

First published in a collection of the same name in 1979, “The Bloody Chamber” is a retelling of the Bluebeard tale. In Carter’s version, the girl who marries the Marquis (the Bluebeard character) is a pianist, and a blind piano tuner hears her playing and falls in love with her music. When the Marquis returns to find that his young bride has looked in the forbidden room and found his victims, her mother saves her. Long live moms! Badass. My absolute favorite Carter is Nights at the Circus (1984), which is too long to read at a sleepover, but which (along with Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love) so set the genre of weird-circus fiction for me that I’ve never been able to look at a circus book and not wish I were reading Carter. Also, I like to tell myself that Christina Aguilera’s video for “Hurt” is inspired by Nights at the Circus. God, I love that song.

#5. WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN, by Joyce Carol Oates

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (1966) is inspired by three real-life murders that took place in Tucson that same year. 15-year-old Connie gets picked up by a drifter who first acts charming, but then begins to threaten her family while getting her to do things for him as he describes to her exactly what is happening to her parents and neighbors . . . It’s creepy, with an inconclusive conclusion, and Oates signature insidious eerieness. For an extended creepfest, check out Oates’ Zombie (1995), told from the perspective of a Jeffrey Dahmer-esque serial killer.

My buddy Edgar Allan Poe

OTHER STANDBYS

There are certain people that I didn’t want to list above because, heck, I wouldn’t know which of their stories to pick. Edgar Allan Poe is a classic for a reason—one of my all-time favorite short story writers, and you really could add almost any of his stories to our sleepover. A few personal favorites = “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” As for H.P. Lovecraft, another classic, well, he was a racist, intolerant little shit, but some of his ideas are amazing. I actually don’t think they would read out loud that well, and many of them are pretty long, but dang are they bizarre, so go read them quietly in a cemetery or something.

Another standby for me is Harlan Ellison, who wrote so many kinds of messed up shit I wouldn’t even know where to begin. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is great, and “Midnight In the Sunken Cathedral” is one of my faves. Check it out if you like underwatery things:

“He marveled that, if he were indeed somewhere beneath the Bermuda Triangle, in some impossible sub-oceanic world that could exist in defiance of the rigors of physics and plate tectonics and magma certainties, then this subterranean edifice was certainly the most colossal structure ever built on the planet. A holy sunken cathedral built by gods” (Slippage, 356).

Roald Dahl! Holy childhood terrors, Batman. There is just something about this man’s imagination that got me all my soft, squidgy parts. The Witches is absolutely terrifying, but in terms of short stories, I’d have to nominate “Lamb to the Slaughter,” “The Landlady,” and “Royal Jelly.”

So, Halloweeners, what are you bringing to read to the sleepover?! Tell us in the comments.

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children Is the New Elvis Because They’re Both Gold!

A Review of Beautiful Music For Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Flux, 2012

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children Kristin Cronn-Mills

by REBECCA, October 29, 2012

characters

Gabe: shy Elvis devotee and aspiring DJ for whom the end of high school and a new radio show provide a chance to be himself, instead of being stuck as Elizabeth, as he was in school

John: Gabe’s next door neighbor, music mentor, friend, and all-around awesome guy

Paige: Gabe’s super supportive best friend since childhood

hook

As the blurb puts it, this story is about “the lives and loves of a teenage transboy music geek.” Gabe starts his radio show, “Beautiful Music For Ugly Children” under the mentorship of old-time DJ John, his first public(ish) identification as Gabe instead of Elizabeth. As Gabe sends his thoughts and his music out over the airwaves, a cluster of enthusiastic listeners begin paying homage to the show with impromptu art around town.

worldview

Star of the North! Gabe is a music-obsessed trans guy living in Minnesota, and Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is the story of Gabe coming into his identity at the end of high school. When I read the description of the book, I got really excited for what it might be, but was nervous about what it would be. Turns out, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is exactly the kind of book I was hoping it would be: a story about one of the many different ways to be a teenager coming into his own.

Cronn-Mills has written a story that any music nerd will identify with—indeed, the music was my favorite element of the book. The most influential person in Gabe’s life is his neighbor and mentor, John, who was the first person to play Elvis on the radio, but Gabe is nervous to come out as trans to John. Gabe talks to Elvis in his head, almost as if by confiding his fears and hopes to Elvis, he’s confiding them to John by proxy. John and Gabe’s relationship is, for me, the central relationship of Beautiful Music, even though he calls Paige his best friend. John is not only a music mentor for Gabe, he’s also in some ways a model for he kind of man that Gabe wants to be. While Gabe has told his parents that he wants to be called Gabe, they still ignore him and have pulled away, so Gabe’s fear of losing John in the same way looms large for Gabe.

What Would Elvis Do?

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children (I keep typing out the whole title because I love it so much) is breezily-written, full of music references and humor, and it’s fast-paced, despite not being an action-packed story. And it was this style that made the emotional resonance of the book really pop for me:

“My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. My parents think I’ve gone crazy, and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right. I’ve been a boy my whole life. I wish I’d been born a vampire or a werewolf instead, or with a big red clown nose permanently stuck to my face, because that stuff would be easy. Having a brain that doesn’t agree with your body is a much bigger pain in the ass. . . . Honestly, world, I don’t care what you think. Stick your issue up your ass.

Big talk, huh? I really don’t have much to bitch about. My parents love me—at least they used to, up until this last announcement—and nobody’s ever beat me up. But I also stopped trying to make people believe in me a long time ago. It was easier to hold it all in. But that’s almost over now. I can almost breathe” (8)

Now, by the end of the book, people have tried to beat Gabe up, and he has begun trying to make people believe in him. And, as you might expect, they go together.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

Pump Up the Volume "TALK HARD!"We love Pump Up the Volume here at Crunchings & Munchings, and Gabe’s radio show, “Beautiful Music For Ugly Children” (based on the comics Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, by Dave Louapre and Dan Sweetman) had a definite “Talk Hard” feeling to it that I really enjoyed. During a show dedicated to less-played B sides of popular records, Gabe, finally opening up to John’s imperative to talk, says:

“So, tell me, listeners . . . are you an A side or a B side? Are you a Top Forty hit, or an equally good yet potentially undiscovered gem?” “Then again, I think all of us have our A and B sides, even though digital music kind of wrecked that idea. . . . What about you—more A side or B side? Write it down somewhere, chalk it on the street. ‘I’m Ed, and I’m a B side!’ or ‘I’m Martha, and I’m an A side!'” (41-2).

Not long after, on the side of an abandoned warehouse, listener chalk “MITCH’S A SIDE = MITCH. MITCH’S B SIDE = SATAN!” and “BE RADICAL—CLAIM YOUR GROOVE” as Gabe instructed. And, just like that, the UGLY CHILDREN BRIGADE is born. Gabe’s show is important to people, and as his fans show themselves to be dedicated to carrying out his whimsical instructions, Gabe realizes that people do believe in him. With this new-found attention, however, comes scrutiny, and soon Gabe faces threats and violence.

Beautiful Stories for Ugly ChildrenFor me, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children succeeds as a coming of age story, particularly as it regards Gabe’s relationships with music and with John. But it is also important in that it isn’t just a story about being trans—it’s one that walks the difficult (and important, I think, in young adult fiction) line between fully inhabiting the fears and joys and challenges that are, for Gabe, specific to being trans, while still being explanatory enough about some things that Gabe’s story can be useful for folks who might be looking for information. That is, Cronn-Mills seems to assume that she is writing for a wide audience, and takes into account their differing needs.

There have been a hearteningly increasing number of YA books featuring trans characters in the last couple of years (check HERE and HERE for lists), but one of the things that I really appreciate about Cronn-Mills is that she has openly addressed the difficulty that some people have with her as a non-trans woman writing a book from the perspective of a trans teen. Indeed, she has openly addressed her own anxieties about the writing process, during which she questioned herself and discussed why, ultimately, she thought Beautiful Music was an important book for her to write. I feel like I’ve been talking about it a lot lately, but it seems more dire than ever that we, the YA literature community, really claim our own difficulties, desires, anxieties, and miss-steps.

Above all, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is a story about the passions and people that help us get through the day, and about the things we sometimes sacrifice in the process of being ourselves. Treat yourself to Cronn-Mills’ playlists for all the songs mentioned in the book while you check it out.

readalikes

Sarah Dessen Just Listen

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (2006). Dessen really gets the power of not just music, but radio. Owen uses his radio show as a way to communicate, and to feel like he is making his little corner of the world more beautiful. His show helps Annabel discover that she, too, wants to be in control of her world. A really delightful read, even for those who don’t think of themselves as being part of the Dessen crowd. You can check out my full review HERE.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010). A book about the power of art to bring people together despite their differences, by turns funny and poignant. Check out our 3-part joint review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Sister Mischief Laura Goode

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). 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. Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley, with no compensation on either side. Thanks, NetGalley! Beautiful Music For Ugly Children  is available now.

Alif the Unseen: Hack the Planet (and all connected realms)

Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters

Alif – teenage hacker, selling online anonymity to the highest bidder
The Hand – whatever mysterious part of the semi-dictatorial/monarchical government that wants to destroy the hackers and gain control of everyone’s secrets and therefore lives
Intisar – rich Arab girl who knows a little too much about ancient secrets (also is sort of stringing Alif along even though she’s arranged to be married)
Dina – Alif’s serious & smart neighbor & friend since childhood, pulled inadvertently into the political turbulence caused by his chosen profession.
Vikram – an out of this world underworld contact who sees fit to help Alif and not eat him, thankfully

Hook

Alif’s life is falling apart a little. The government’s men in black have found an advisor who actually knows what (s)he’s doing and all the best hackers are being shut down. It’s the worst possible moment for Alif, as his one true love totally broke his heart, then sent him a really old book called The Thousand and One Days that makes the Hand’s pursuit of him even more frantic. He’s got to find out how it all connects before he loses his mind or dies or a little of both.

Worldview

Alif’s world is never named, but it is populated with Muslims and Hindus and full of references to the class differences between Arabs and Indians and how Alif can’t get anywhere because he’s half one and half the other.  The reader can feel free to assume that it’s a fictionalized version of a general Middle East – it’s only described as “The Persian Gulf” — with all the political unrest and religious and cultural heritage that implies.

One of the things I loved about reading Alif the Unseen was how the world was immediately itself but never explicitly named, which gave it a real world grounding with a sheen of fairy tale.  The prologue opens the story in ancient Persia, with a conversation between a jinn and a manuscript writer, full of dankness and mysticism loaded with real dirt and organic necessity:

“‘Why?’ Reza had asked the creature desperately. ‘Why won’t you let him see you?’

In response, the thing had grown teeth: row after row of them, crowded together in a sickening grin.

. . . The thing seemed amused. It had appeared without a sound, and sat quietly within the confines of its chalk-and-ash prison at the center of the room, regarding Reza with yellow eyes. Reza suppressed a shudder. The sight of the creature still filled him with warring sensations of horror and triumph. When Reza had first summoned it, he had half-disbelieved that such a powerful entity could be held at bay by a few well-chosen words written on the floor, words his illiterate housekeeper could sweep away without incurring any harm whatsoever.”

After introducing the fact of the jinn, the book moves into the present, from one chalk word that traps a jinn so that it will have to come back night after night to tell its stories, to a device that can send as many words as one likes out into the world and never guarantee a response.  A reality grounded with a smartphone set up with a bypass of the “encryption installed by whatever telecom giant monopolized its patent. It displayed the fourteen text messages [Alif] had sent to Intisar over the past two weeks, at a self-disciplined rate of one per day. All were unanswered.”

Wilson smartly builds her world so that it doesn’t have to explain itself.  Dina knocks on Alif’s wall in an Arabic message – the Arabic script shows up within the text matter of factly and without footnote.  The reader is never told what “praying maghrib” means, what a chaiwalla is (though we can guess) or what article of clothing a thobe could be, in that annoying way that authors can insert a word in another language and immediately translate it, as if that’s how code-switching people speak, for the benefit of invisible readers watching their lives unfold. The references are part of Alif’s life, and he doesn’t have to explain them to himself. The reader can decide whether to look it up – it’s not there to make the narrative more “exotic”, it’s there because it’s his reality.

When Alif is thrown into the knowledge that his world and the world of the jinn both exist, it’s pretty rad. Pret-ty rad.

What is the book’s intention? Does it achieve that intention?

The back of my copy of Alif the Unseen (it’s an ARC, okay, so check the real thing out and make sure I quoted everything correctly) calls it “cyberpunk adventure with the enchantment of Middle Eastern mythology”.  Well, copywriter, I don’t know about “cyberpunk”. That puts me in mind of Billy Idol.

Alif combines a tense chase-based plot set in a society rife with baddie government spies and underground freedom fighters.  I’m glad that Wilson chose Alif as her protagonist – he’s a smart teenager with the misguided idealism of neutrality – he doesn’t care who uses his skills as long as they pay him.  He’s young and inexperienced enough that I can laugh at this line of his and still believe it would really come out of his mouth:

“‘You can’t marry this chode,’ he said hoarsely, ‘You’re my wife in the eyes of God if no one else.’”

Don’t judge the book by that line, by the way – it’s an example of good characterization through embarrassing dialogue.

So instead of a spy thriller set in the oh-so-trendy Arab Spring or an updated Kite Runner-esque allegorical knockoff, we get something so much better. A story with a conflicted narrator I can believe in, who has a real friendship with a real girl who lives a life according to religious beliefs that are portrayed in a real way, with respect but also through Alif’s slightly cynical teenage eye.  You can feel the years of friendship between Alif and Dina, and the ways that they have put the armor of stereotypes on each other as they grew up and a little apart, but how they can’t ever really believe that armor.  Alif lends Dina his fantasy novels (Philip Pullman!) and chats with her on his roof, and I could feel the comfortableness between them, and also the tiredness that had already sprung up from knowing where they were bound to go in life.

It’s Alif’s involvement with the studious, beautiful, and ultimately fickle Intisar that changes those courses, and sets them off through the city and into the blurred borderlands between worlds.  Along the way there’s a seriously ridiculous hacking scene that deserves top billing with the stuff that goes on in the classic movie Hackers, or even Lawnmower Man.  It’s forgiveable, because the rest of what Wilson writes is nimble and exciting. She argues culture and political morality through the reality of her characters and their world – sure, at a couple points the fabric of the story wears through a little and we see the bare philosophical points sticking through, but mostly I’d say that you’re in for a fun and substantial reading experience, one that’s probably unlike most of the other books published this year.

Disclosure

I wrote this review referencing an Advance Reading Copy, so any mistakes in quotation are mine, and you should buy a copy of the real book or get one from your library today.

Comment

Isn’t G. Willow Wilson a really cool name?

Readalike

Daughter of Smoke and Bone / Laini Taylor – similar mix of fun and meaty story with Issues Underlying, and the whole World Beyond This One

Some Thoughts About Gender in YA Dystopias

A Roundabout Discussion of, Among Other Things, Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)

By REBECCA, October 24, 2012

Crewel Gennifer Albin

If I had any doubts that the genre of Young Adult dystopian lit has become oversaturated to the point of soppiness, Crewel, a recent drop in the bucket, has erased them. But the fact that I found Crewel to be a thin and frustratingly ill-conceived book isn’t really the point. Every genre boom produces chaff and in fact Crewel is, at least, better-groomed than some. No, it isn’t Crewel‘s genre failings that trouble me. Or, it’s more accurate to say that Crewel‘s failings highlight a much more troubling concern with the genre.

In a recent post during Banned Books Week, “On the Pleasures and Necessities of Conversations About ‘Difficult’ Books,” I wrote that while I am 100% against banning books, one good thing sometimes comes from the process of challenging them: conversations about issues that make us uncomfortable. Further, I called for those of us who are anti-ban to take a page out of the banners’ book and discuss our own “difficult” reads. To that end, then: I am extremely uncomfortable with the trend of how gender is being portrayed in many recent YA dystopias. Specifically, I’m troubled by the way that in many recent YA dystopias, the oppression of women is made to seem normal through the use of retrograde gender stereotypes. In these novels, many of which are set in the future, women are treated as beautiful objects to be sold, controlled, shown off, or bred.

But (you may be thinking) we’re talking about dystopias—isn’t the whole point to magnify some current problem in our society and see what it would look like if it were all-controlling? Well, yes, that is the point. How (you might then ask) is a book like Crewel any different than a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes notions of surveillance and fear and builds a dystopia where those threats to privacy are pushed to an extreme in order to show their dangers?

We Yevgeny ZamyatinIt is different, and here’s why. Dystopian literature has, historically, been a progressive (if reactionary) genre that warns of the dangers of something or someone gaining too much power in society. At base, dystopias like We (1921), Brave New World (1931), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), show us how easily our individuality, autonomy, privacy, and free will can be taken from us if we fail to vigilantly protect them. They take currently nascent cultural trends and show how they could turn to full-scale threats if they became ascendant.

In contrast to this, the recent YA dystopias that I find so troubling have reached backward to thoroughly retrograde sexism and gender stereotypes and made them the natural state of things. Perhaps even more worrisome, this sexism is merely one element of society and, therefore, isn’t even the main point of the books. In Crewel, for example, the main point is that the entire citizenry is being controlled by a group of people in power. This places the book’s emphasis of what is wrong not on the oppression of women, but on the oppression of people, thereby making the sexism fade into the background.

Why do I find this so troubling, though? I mean, the oppression of women is a current political, social, and economic issue—it’s not like sexism is in the past alone and these books are trying to resurrect it to malicious ends. No, it troubles me because it naturalizes the oppression of women, making it seem like a state that societies automatically default to. When we publish (in 2012) scads of dystopian novels aimed at teens in which the oppression of women is the naturally occurring state of the future, and barely even worth mentioning in comparison with the real problems of the novels, what are we doing? We’re suggesting that it makes sense for us to read with that mindset; that it is logical for the oppression of women to be part of what we bring to each book we read. In other words, it asks us to import oppression into a genre that is historically a vehicle for progressive politics. And that makes me exceedingly uncomfortable.

There are several ways that Crewel’s shortcomings brought this into focus for me.

Brave New World Aldous HuxleyMost of the criticism that I’ve read about Crewel has highlighted the thinness of Gennifer Albin’s world-building. I agree that this made the book an unsatisfying read, but it was more pernicious than that. In Crewel, Adelice Lewys is discovered to be a Spinster, one of the women who have the talent to manipulate the fabric of the world (called Arras, cue rimshot). Controlling the threads of Arras ensures peace and prosperity for those who follow the rules and provides a chance to re-weave anything “deviant” or dangerous (homosexuality, resistance, etc.). But, unlike so many of the other girls who have the ability to spin and are thrilled at the chance to wear fancy clothes and have personal stylists who make them beautiful (you know, apparently the only things that females care about), Adelice’s parents have taught her to hide her talent because becoming a Spinster means that she’ll be taken away from them and become a tool of the Guild, the organization in power.

Things related to the oppression of women that are not addressed in the explanation of the world (that is, in the first 2/3 of the book): that only women have the talent to weave; the government-controlled standards of female beauty (Spinsters are highly sexualized, and often work as glorified escorts to powerful men, and non-Spinster women receive a cosmetics allowance from the government); the reason why everyone (except Spinsters, of course) must marry at 18; why women who can control the material of life and time itself would allow a Guild of men to control them (Albin recasting the powerful Fates as mere artisans). That this societal oppression of women isn’t the point of Crewel is made even clearer because the female characters that we meet (all Spinsters) absolutely don’t fit with it. Adelice, her friends Enora and Valery, and her peer Pryana, her nemesis Maela, and her mentor, Loricel, are all strong women.

Most importantly, what is never explained is how, in this future-ish world, we returned to gender dynamics that more closely resemble the 19th century than the present. Now, it’s easy to write this off as simply careless world-building (or holding back details for the rest of the series?), but what the lack of explanation for these elements of the world suggests is that the author assumes that her readers will have no problem accepting them as reasonable. My reaction to the world-building as a reader about 100 pages in was: “Um, so, basically this is a book where instead of the masculinized world of computer- or virtual-reality we’re in a feminized world of weaving, and so since weaving used to be done by women I’m supposed to just assume that all the rest of the sexism that went with that hundreds of years ago is present here? What the hell?” Providing no explanation for how a society backslid a hundred and fifty years in our treatment of women assumes that it’s something that doesn’t need to be explained because people will understand it implicitly. That is naturalization, and that is troubling.

1984 George OrwellNow, let me be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that Crewel is a horrible book that should be blamed for sexism. Rather, it is one example of a troubling genre trend. I don’t mean to suggest that Gennifer Albin believes we should oppress women. Rather, I imagine she likely intended to critique such oppression. I don’t mean to suggest that it is the responsibility of authors to produce books that promote equality for everyone. Rather, I think authors should create art and we should see it as multiple entries into a conversation. I don’t mean to suggest that there is some conspiracy in which authors are all trying to turn back the clock on the feminist movement. Rather, it seems most likely that the trend is publisher-driven based on what they think can sell. I don’t mean to suggest that we should blame people who want to read dystopian fiction for enjoying books that I find problematic. Rather, I want readers to discuss what they think about books on both the level of enjoyment and the level of critique.

My concern is that this trend of naturalizing the oppression of women until it is something of a dystopian knee-jerk will have wider-reaching results for young women than simple genre repetition. And that it means more than we might want to believe about what we are willing to accept along with our entertainment. To put it analogously: what if in 2013 major publishing companies publish 25 dystopian novels that all feature worlds where non-white characters are deemed lesser citizens and are segregated from white characters? And what if this bit of world-building is not the main issue of the books, but simply an incidental component of their dystopias?

Crewel aside, when we establish a trend in which oppression is able to be incidental and naturalized, we are doing much more than using a progressive genre to comment on contemporary social ills—we are, in some ways, creating reading mindsets that are in harmony with them. And we must certainly be willing to discuss the potential fallout.

What are your thoughts? Let’s discuss in the comments.

Slinging Lattes On Demon Wings

A Review of On Demon Wings: Experiment in Terror #5 by Karina Halle

Metal Blonde Books, 2012

By REBECCA, October 22, 2012

On Demon Wings Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

NOTE: On Demon Wings is the 5th book in the Experiment in Terror Series and this review contains spoilers for previous books in the series. If you haven’t already done so, check out my reviews of Darkhouse, Red FoxDead Sky Morning, and Lying Season before reading.

characters

Perry Palomino: A kick-ass (no, really, she knows martial arts) lady with a lonely heart and a yen for adventure

Ada Palomino: Perry’s fashionista little sister who quickly becomes MVP

Maximus: An old friend of Dex’s who sweeps in claiming some ghost-y know-how

Dex Foray: Mustachioed ghost hunter and all-around delightfully infuriating enigma

the hook

How can you escape the things that haunt you . . . if they’re inside you to begin with BWAH HA HAH!?!

worldview

Aaaaaaah! In On Demon Wings, Karina Halle’s fifth chilling installment of the Experiment in Terror series, fear moves from the outside in. In the first three books, Dex and Perry were filming episodes of their web ghost hunting show and were plagued by various ghosts, spirits, and unsavory beasties. In the fourth book, The Lying Season, shit got really personal, and ghosts from Dex’s past (and a girlfriend from his present) wreaked havoc on Dex and Perry’s fledgling relationship.

Cthulhu latte!

Cthulhu latte!

Now, several months after fleeing Seattle and strife with Dex, Perry has given up ghost hunting and taken a job at a coffee shop, trying to make normal (read: non-haunted) friends, hanging out with her sister, and whipping milk into a variety of concoctions for exacting customers. She’s messed up by the whole ordeal in Seattle, but she’s trying her damnedest to pick up the pieces. But, as always happens when we’re trying to scrape together the fragments of our shattered psyches, Perry begins feeling extremely ill, and seeing things, like girls at concerts with shark smiles.

Into this mess walks our good friend, Maximus, from Red Fox, Dex’s college buddy and former bandmate who took quite a shine to Perry. He’s just moved to Portland and wants to convince Perry to return to the show, with him instead of with Dex. Perry begins to feel worse and worse,  she is convinced that her house is haunted, and whatever is there is slowly driving her crazy.

what were this book’s expectations? did it live up to them?

On Demon Wings is the best kind of horror story: one where both the characters and the reader are, for most of the book, unsure whether the supernatural occurrences are real or not. But it’s with On Demon Wings that readers can be sure of one thing—that the Experiment in Terror series is one of most unique, spooky, and entertaining rides out there. Where The Lying Season shifted the plot arc that the first three books used, On Demon Wings breaks from it completely, and it is a perfectly calculated move. Instead of the controlled chaos we found in the first three books, and the high-energy, romantic chaos in book four, book five is mired deep in Perry’s psyche. Here is a dark, crawling pit of despair and fear into which Perry has fallen and she can’t get up.

Perry Palomino has fallen and she can't get up

Halle has taken her recipe of sexual tension + terror, added a heaping cup of heartbreak, a sprinkle of neuroses, and stirred it to a boil. In Dex’s absence, Maximus is the perfect leading man: comforting and take-charge (in a Southern kind of way), Maximus takes the pressure off Perry and worms his way into her confidence. It was sad to have an Experiment in Terror book where Dex was mostly absent, but it was a much-needed absence. In addition to feeling realistic in the scope of the series (which is gloriously long enough to leave room for a little leavening), Dex’s absence makes the reader feel as abandoned and at sea as Perry does, heightening the relief we feel when he arrives late in the book.

Practical Magic Alice HoffmanThe pleasantest surprise of On Demon Wings is that Ada finally gets a chance to live up to the promises of awesomeness the first four books made on her behalf. Even as their parents think that Perry is cracking up and Maximus proves that sometimes tall, handsome, Southern redheads aren’t all that they seem, Ada keeps a level head and refuses to give up on Perry. I love a good sisters-battling-evil-book, and Ada totally pulls her weight and looks out for Perry. Sisters!

Don’t worry your pretty little heads, though, Dex isn’t gone from On Demon Wings completely. He shows up, as Dex is wont to do, at a dramatic moment and, well, makes it more dramatic. And, of course, it ends on what we in the business would call a cliffhanger. Pfew, Perry really needs a vacation.

Old Blood Experiment in Terror Karina HalleSo, now you’re all caught up with the main books in the series. The sixth Experiment in Terror book—Into the Hollow—will be released this year (publication has been pushed back a bit). You can check out the cover reveal for Into the Hollow HERE. But, lest you fall over the cliff before it’s released, you should also check out Old Blood (EIT 5.5), the novella about Pippa, the “crazy clown lady,” and The Dex-Files (EIT 5.7), a novel composed of scenes from the series told from Dex’s perspective.

What has been your favorite Experiment in Terror book so far?

Looper is satisfyingly speculative.

photo by robert.molinarus on flickr

Reasons Why You Should Go Watch Looper Right Now

by Tessa
1. It does that delicious thing where the future is like today, only worse, but not ostentatiously, Johnny Mnemonically different. And it goes through the day-to-day of the future without being overly explanatory.  For example, the drug of choice in the future is ingested via eyedrops. No voiceover explains what it is or how it works, or even what people call it. Because there’s no need to.  (There is a voiceover that comes and goes but I wasn’t too annoyed, which is saying something because I really hate voiceover and I think it’s lazy.)

2. Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He’s got such a nice smile, and is a great actor. He talks just like Bruce Willis. (I kind of enjoyed how they sculpted his face to look like Willis, but in all the closeups you could see the pancake makeup on him).

photo by Gage Skidmore via flickr, hearts by me

3. It doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do. As far as the looping stuff. And it doesn’t rush to a violent climax just because that’s what movies do.  It doesn’t end with one long explosion boom boom crunch screech chase, but intercuts the violence with a thought out plot acted by characters with plausible motivations.

4. It answers the time travel question of: but doesn’t it change stuff? With: yes. And no. So it’s more about accepting the mutability of things than explaining hard and fast rules.  I’m sure there are plot holes, and I don’t care/

5. Paul Dano being a wobbly-voiced fuckup.

6. It feels entertaining but it has weight behind it. It’s long, but just long enough.

7. A four year old kid with the cutest chubby cheeks and some really great acting chops.

8. People’s motivations were not only plausible, but changed during the movie as their characters rethought themselves, like real people!

9. The script successfully incorporates the term “blunderbuss” into its worldbuilding.

10. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wardrobe.

Tessa’s post-Looper reading suggestions, in no particular order.

Parable of the Talent & Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Shadoweyes by Ross Campbell

Deadenders by Ed Brubaker & Warren Pleece

The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer

Finder by Carla Speed McNeil

I’m guessing… Philip K. Dick, although I haven’t read any of his books (yet).

Re-Read: Nowhere High Series. So ’90s!

A Review (kind of) of the Nowhere High series, by Jesse Maguire

Ivy (Ballantine), 1989-1992

Nowhere High series Jesse Maguire

By REBECCA, October 17, 2012

Sometimes I feel like Crunchings & Munchings really exists so that I can talk about all the ’90s-era books series that I loved so much as a kid but that never really slotted into “classic YA” enough that anyone talks about them (I won’t speak for you, Tessa, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the ’90s figure pretty heavily into your C&M joy too). In that tradition, then, today I bring you the Nowhere High series—a series that, as far as I know, none of my friends growing up ever read, making it impossible for me to describe any of their hair as being “the color of eucalyptus tree bark—sort of silvery brown” and have them know what I was talking about (6). Anyhoosier, the Nowhere High books were a staple of my ’90s childhood, but much to my shock, when I tried to look the books up to write this review, I saw that there were a seventh and eighth book in the series that I never read. I must get my hands on them immediately!

The deal is this: when TJ McAllister moves to rural Pennsylvania from L.A., he finds himself on the wrong side of a group of pants-snatching, mud-slinging dudes after his first day at Ernest Norwell (“Nowhere”) High. TJ soon meets Caroline Buchanan (Caro), the girlfriend of the school badass who doesn’t seem to care about anyone; Josh Hickham, one-time pants-stealer but artist at heart; Darcy Jenner, boarding school reject whose passion for pranks doesn’t fit with her good-girl image; Alison Laurel (Mouse), Caro’s childhood best friend with a passion for music and thrift store magic; and a few other misfits. They commandeer an abandoned railroad station on the outskirts of town and turn Split River Station into more of a home than most of them have. They are, so the cover of book one tells me, “Hanging out and holding on . . . together.”

This series has many of the things that I love about YA fiction combined with many of the things that I love about ’90s movies:

Foxfire gorgeousness!1. A hideout! Number one wish from middle and high school?: that I could have had an amazing abandoned railroad station hideout with my friends! (Well, maybe, like, number two wish.) Split River Station is awesome, and throughout the series all the characters run away to it, hook up in it, and break down in it.

The Breakfast Club2. A rag-tag bunch of misfits! My favorite thing about the series is that the characters are all so different that none of them would be very likely to be friends in high school—you know, The Breakfast Club vibe. “Looking around the cafeteria, [Caro] saw that the rest of the school was neatly divided into groups” (40-41). When they’re together at Split River Station, though, none of what is expected of them by social group matters. So Josh can just do his art, Darcy doesn’t have to be nice, Mouse isn’t a freak, Caro is more than her looks, and TJ . . . well, TJ is a freaking mensch and I’m sure he would be whatever social group he was in.

3. Small town life! Many of the best ’90s books and movies are about kids chafing against their small towns. And it seems to me that it’s mostly in small towns that the high school stereotypes are the strongest, since there isn’t much mixing or variety, so it makes sense that they are the settings for much angst. It’s the same in this small town in Pennsylvania. Everyone knows each other so it’s hard to get past reputations, and new kids stick out forever. In a way, actually, the first book in the series, Nowhere High, reminded me a bit of a 1989 (mid-Atlantic) version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, one of my favorite books of all time.No, really! I mean, obviously, it’s not anywhere near as good as The Outsiders, but there is a sense of desperation in the characters, and that shade of hard-edged girls and by-turns distant and violent guys that seems familiar from Hinton’s world. Especially Holly Vickers (such a good name!), the twin sister of one of the school bad boys—she smokes, chews gum loudly, fights, bullies people into dating her, and uses enough hairspray to fell a llama.

Nowhere High Jesse Maguire4. Early ’90s fashion! So, I’m going to do a whole post sometime soon about my favorite descriptions of fashion from YA lit (send me your nominations!) and Mouse in Nowhere High definitely ranks. Caro wears “a tank top, a big khaki shirt to go over it, and a pair of jeans. . . . She clipped on some earrings, pushed a couple of bracelets on, and pulled on a pair of boots” (62). Khaki shirt! Clip-on earrings! Mouse shops for the school dance at a thrift shop and she is clearly a master:

“Alison had unearthed a peasant blouse, heavy with old lace on the neck and sleeves, and an ancient cocktail dress with a stiff strapless bodice and a sequined skirt. Curious, Josh watched as she carefully folded the ugly bodice down and held the blouse up over the skirt. Then she took an old fringed shawl in green, gold, and brown, and with a quick twitch of her fingers, flung it about the skirt at a rakish angle—and suddenly there was a striking outfit” (143).

Supernatural Sam Dean Castiel5. Good, old-fashioned, interpersonal drama! Friends, I never thought I’d say it, sprung full-grown from the bookheads of Anne Rice and J.R.R Tolkien that I am, but I am a little para-super-extra-ed out. I’m sick of prefixes in general, as a matter of fact, and so returning to this mundane saga of pretty basic teenage problems was something of a palate cleanser. People have fights, feel inadequate, want to make art, get pregnant, fall in love, hope, eat, and not a whole heck of a lot else. It’s like I’ve been so supernaturaled-out that when I was rereading the series I kept thinking, like, oh, now TJ and Josh are going to turn out to be creatures and—no, wait, and ah, I bet Caro’s eucalyptus hair is really a Medusa—oh, yeah, not this time. And I didn’t miss it at all.

So, what are your all-time, top-five, desert-island ’90s reads? Inquiring minds want to know.

Pitch Perfect, or, How Anna Kendrick Is Taking Over the World

A Review of Pitch Perfect, directed by Jason Moore (2012)

by REBECCA, October 15, 2012

Pitch Perfect Anna Kendrick

Way back in July, as you may remember, I reviewed Step Up Revolution. Before the movie, I saw a preview for Pitch Perfect, which excited me to no end because a.) a cappella; b.) Anna Kendrick; c.) a cappella. So, in my review of Step Up Revolution, I mentioned that it terrified me to learn that Anna Kendrick could sing in addition to her ridiculous skills of subtle, awkward comedy because it seemed to find her poised to take over the world. Now, nearly three months older and wiser than I was when I wrote that review, I have learned that not only can Anna Kendrick sing, she is a Tony-nominated musical performer. To summarize: hot damn, Anna Kendrick.

Pitch PerfectAnyhoo, back to the movie (which is loosely based on a non-fiction study of competitive college a cappella groups by GQ editor Mickey Rapkin). In Pitch Perfect, Anna Kendrick plays Beca, a reluctant college freshman with a chip on her shoulder (divorced parents, poor dove) who really just wants to move to L.A. and be a music producer. She reluctantly joins the Bellas, an all-female a cappella group on campus, to satisfy her father’s promise that if she’ll just try and join in then he’ll help her move to L.A. at the end of the year if she still hates college. Beca produces awesome mashups and remixes of songs, but Aubrey, the type A leader of the Bellas, resists change, insisting on using the same tired songs they used last year. Pitch Perfect follows the Bellas through the stages of competition until finally, before the finals, the group decides to let Beca remix them into a triumphant climactic performance.

I really enjoyed the movie, even though the only other two people in the theatre were TALKING THE ENTIRE TIME WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE THE WORLD IS ENDING IT’S A MOVIE THEATRE SERIOUSLY I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. In spite of a nonsensical Stand By Me pie-eating-scene vomit gag and some questionable jokes, Pitch Perfect is definitely a solid entry into the young-people-develop-senses-of-self-through-competitive-art-making genre. It’s basically a white, a cappella version of 2007’s Stomp the Yard. I’m really interested in why all these movies that are really about finding and expressing yourself through art are framed around winning a competition for that art. Like all such movies, Pitch Perfect is really about Beca and the other Bellas learning to be confident in themselves despite parents’ pressure, social pressure, and the douchebaggery of their rival all-male a cappella group.

Pitch Perfect Anna KendrickI liked Anna Kendrick in this, mostly because she’s so understated in the way she plays Beca, who isn’t really all that likeable, even though she’s quite talented. I liked how she wanted to produce music rather than be a rock star or a singer. Sidebar: I’m a Rebecca, and as someone who has made a 30-year study of the name, I feel confident asserting that 99.7%  people either spell it Rebecca or Rebekah. Therefore, there is no reasonable explanation for the excision of Beca’s second c. Her father is a professor of comparative literature who teaches his daughter German; therefore I refuse to believe that he named her Rebecca and spelled it Rebeca. That would be ridiculous. So, I turn it over to you, Jason Moore, director of Pitch Perfect who also directed three episodes of Dawson’s Creek: why?

Pitch Perfect Rebel WilsonOne thing that actually kind of stood out about Pitch Perfect, in contrast to other similars, was that it’s  quite funny. It was written by Kay Cannon who writes for 30 Rock and New Girl, and there were some definite moments of hilarity (but not the puking—why the puking?). Notable among these are the character of Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), who speaks so softly she can barely be heard, but says things like, I set fires to feel alive; and Beca’s roommate who hates her. The always-wonderful Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, as the a cappella competition announcers were also a highlight (“Nothing makes a woman feel more like a girl than a man who sings like a boy”). There is a character who goes by Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) who makes a lot of fat jokes but seems to be pretty confident. I couldn’t tell, honestly, where the film came down in terms of fat phobia; the line between people laughing at her and laughing with her is definitely walked, but in a way that I at least found intriguing. I’d be curious to know what others thought about her characterization.

Pitch PerfectPitch Perfect took a little too long to get on board with Beca’s arrangements, so it misses a few chances to present what I was really there to see: awesome mashups and arrangements of songs. Indeed, the best scene—a kind of riff-off version of the improv game “Freeze,” where a category is chosen and each a cappella group tries to riff off the choice of the other, was delightful, but all too brief. Pitch Perfect had it’s Glee-esque moments of portraying the other competitors as cartoonish (a group called the Sock-a-pellas that sing with sock puppets), but it worked with the tone of the film, which is part absurdist one-liners and part running gags. The characterizations feel a bit thin and Beca’s friendship/romance with rival a cappella-er, Jesse, a little unnecessary. Still, while Pitch Perfect may not be, it still mostly rocks (there, that was it—my “pitch perfect” pun, since everyone else is doing it; I hope you enjoyed it). Now, how about them Whiffenpoofs?

The Year of the Beasts: I Turn to Stone When You are Gone

The Year of the Beasts
Cecil Castellucci & Nate Powell
Roaring Brook Press, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters
Tessa – starts the year out lucky, but the year’s events don’t follow this pattern.
Lulu – Tessa’s younger sister who seems to have nicer everything
Celina – Tessa’s best friend and a champion flirt
Charlie – Tessa’s crush, but he likes someone else very close to Tessa.
Jasper – Loner boy who hangs out in the woods.  Strangely attractive. Not that Tessa would admit it.

Hook
The carnival comes to town and after that night Tessa becomes a freak.  Is it all in her head? How can she stop everyone from turning to stone?

Worldview + What is this book’s intention and does it live up to that intention?

Tessa is forced to take Lulu along with her to the yearly fall carnival. She and Celina were supposed to spend all night sharing secrets and chasing boys – especially the pack of boys led by Charlie Evans.  The girls still fall in with these desirables despite Tessa’s little sister in tow. In an attempt to isolate herself with Charlie, Tessa suggests visiting the Curiosity Sideshow, where only two people are allowed in at a time. But Charlie gets in with Lulu as a partner. After that, Tessa’s world is thrown off balance.  She loves Lulu, but Lulu is eclipsing her in what feels like all aspects of her life – looks, boys, best friendship with Celina, and parental attention.

“Sometimes Tessa wished that she was the prettier sister. When Tessa looked at Lulu, she wondered why it was that Lulu got the better nose. The nicer legs. The shinier, straighter hair. Tessa worried sometimes that people felt sorry for her because she was not round-face, but made of angles. She dread that the truth might be that the arrangement of DNA hadn’t worked quite right on her parents’ first try for a baby, and she imagined that the combination of sperm and egg had worked better the second time around. Or worse, that maybe her parents had loved each other more when they had made Lulu.”

Before I got to buy and read this book I asked what my co-worker’s teenaged daughter thought of it. “She was afraid it was going to be about, you know, boys and does he like me, but it was more than that,” was her paraphrased answer (in a wonderful South African accent).  Boys  and Does he like me are Tessa’s focus as the book begins. Then, as her hopeful plans go awry and she’s left with regret and stifled jealousy, The Year of the Beasts reveals its true self. It’s about that creeping feeling when everything is going wrong and crumbling and no one else seems to notice.  When you don’t feel like you legitimately have anything to complain about but still feel like crying all the time and are composing whole perfect wounded rants in your head to say to no one.

Though not told in first person, the book achieves a wobbly reality in line with how Tessa must feel.  It alternates prose and comic chapters that, when read together, perfectly describe something that is part reality and part gritty parable.

Castellucci’s prose style is matter-of-fact about things and straightforwardly narrates situations that still end up with secret undertones.  It delves into lists of things that end up carrying emotional weight or revealing the thoughts of the characters who are looking at the things being listed. Its tone reminded me of fairy tales, especially the breezy Californian real world with a twist voice of Francesca Lia Block, where everyone possesses a kind of knowing, but everything remains mysterious despite it.  I can see it very much in this description from Beasts:

“Jasper Kleine . . . wasn’t with anyone because he was a loner. If he did hang out, he hung out with other lost boys. The ones who cut class and got high. The ones who rode their speedboats too fast on the river. The ones who had guitars and mountain bikes. The ones who wore pieces of leather tied around their wrists as if they had made a secret promise to themselves. These boys were the ones that everyone steered clear of because secretly everyone worried that strangeness was catching.”

The comic chapters are illustrated by the wonderful Nate Powell, who is no stranger to stories featuring people haunted by their own thoughts and obsessions. My first introduction to his work was Swallow Me Whole, a graphic novel about stepsiblings, schizophrenia, and family, among other things, and his most recent book, Any Empire, delves further into childhood and its wars and then twists time to connect real war with childhood. He draws with a fluid and sure line that always seems to imbue his characters with motion, even when they’re sitting at a desk or standing in a hallway. (There’s a gallery on his website).

In The Year of the Beasts he illustrates what appears to be a parallel story of Tessa’s, one where her hair is Medusa’s: made of snakes that can turn anyone who looks at her to stone. She stumbles through a school day trying to keep herself and the people around her intact, clearly hurting but not able to make herself tell her secrets.  In this reality, her sister appears as a mermaid and her crush a kind of minotaur.  It’s not clear how this connects to the prose reality until the close of the book, but it lets the reader follow emotional truths in a natural and evocative way. (Click on the link above to see previews).

What The Year of the Beasts has most in common with old fairy tales is that it goes to twisty, dark places.  It also has something in common with fables: Tessa learns a lesson at the end.  It’s not the one that I was expecting when I saw her cobbling together a secretive happiness midway through the book, and I’m not happy that she had to learn it the way she did.  But that’s her story, whether I like it or not, and it’s told beautifully.

Disclosure/Digression
I met Cecil Castellucci at a library event in 2006 or 2007 and she was really psyched to hear my name. So psyched that she wrote it down and promised to use it in a story. I’m not saying that this means that moment led to her naming this character Tessa. But I am going to choose to believe it for my own personal satisfaction about… having… a name?

Incidentally, Cecil Castellucci is funny and nice and really enthusiastic about comics. You should read her other books.

Readalikes

Weetzie Bat series / Francesca Lia Block

I’m feeling a lot of Witch Baby in Tessa’s character.

Lowboy / John Wray

I don’t know if this is a real readalike. It does concern a teenager who feels lost and isolated and has a personal crisis. Maybe I just want to read it again. But it came to mind, and it has a great cover with a drawing of a face.

Skim / Mariko & Jillian Tamaki

I could swear that Rebecca had recommended this book before, but I can’t find it. I’ll recommend it any number of times, just try me. Loss, friendship, and outsider status, set in a private school, which is a cousin to a boarding school. You know that we like those here at Crunchings & Munchings.

Carol Rifka Brunt Discusses Character-Building, Cheese, and the Mysteries of Love: An Interview

Today at Crunchings & Munchings I am joined by the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt, whose debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, knocked my socks off and then stole my heart! See my gushing review HERE. Born in Queens and raised in Pleasantville, New York, Carol now lives in Devon, England. She has been kind enough to answer my burning questions about Tell the Wolves I’m Home (and a few other things to boot). Carol, welcome!

Carol Rifka Brunt

First up, some questions about Tell the Wolves I’m Home.

Rebecca: Tell the Wolves I’m Home isn’t necessarily a young adult novel but it could be read as one. Were there books that were particularly important or influential to you as a teenager?

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'EngleCarol Rifka Brunt: I was such a big reader as a teenager. I frequented not just the library in my own town, but also the ones in neighboring towns. I loved The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, A Wrinkle in Time  and A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle. I remember not liking the third one as much because Meg and Calvin were too old by then. I was also (and still am!) a Judy Blume fan. Oh and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. It’s amazing to see the explosion of YA books now. We’re really living in such a rich time for children’s and young adult fiction. I envy kids and teens having so much choice.

R: One of the central struggles of Wolves seems to be June’s attempt to figure out which specific pieces of someone’s habits, tastes, and desires, make up the essence of who they are. I really identified with this approach to thinking about taste, and it seems quite apt in a kid like June whose tastes are so personal. Could you talk a little bit about why taste is so important to identity and relationships in Wolves?

CRB: I think, in a way, June is looking for the true person underneath tastes and habits. She starts out thinking she knows her Uncle Finn really well, that his habits and tastes are who he is, but gradually she realizes that those are external things. That we pick up out tastes from other people we know and (sometimes) love. Maybe there is no ‘true’ person to any of us, maybe our tastes and desires are who we are. I’m not sure June ever figures out the answer to this, but I think she does eventually see the beauty in the way our habits can live on, be carried along, in other people once we’re gone.

R: Since June’s and Toby’s relationship rotates around the missing center for both of them—Finn—it seems like it would be so easy to make Finn be a perfect, magical character whom they each idolize. Instead, you make him flawed and complicated. Toby and June, similarly, are deeply complicated characters who aren’t always elegant or likeable. Can you tell us a bit about how you built these rich characters?

CRB: I actually think Finn does come off as pretty magical and charismatic. In a way, he has to be very likeable to make the story work. Also, we’re seeing him through June’s eyes. He was always wonderful to June, so, naturally, she would see him as pretty close to perfect. As a reader, I think we can see more than June sees. His flaws are gradually revealed.

I don’t know that I consciously built any of the characters. June’s voice was there from the start and she revealed herself to me as I wrote. I hate to be flaky or mysterious about the process, but I really don’t know how the characters arrived on the page. I never do character profiles or anything like that. Sometimes I write a few pages in first person from other characters—I did this for Greta and Toby—to hear how they’d speak and to get their voice into my head, but beyond that it feels very intuitive. It’s only in the second and third drafts that I really start to think hard about each character’s motivations. Once I know that, I’m able to go back and make sure everything they say and do makes sense in that context.

R: You’ve mentioned the importance of the setting of 1980s New York to Wolves in other interviews. Why was this setting so important to the story? Did you consider any others over the course of the writing process?

Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka BruntCRB: Once I understood that Finn had AIDs, the 80s seemed the natural setting for the novel. When I think of all the dystopian fiction around at the moment, I’m always reminded how AIDS in the 80s had some of that feel. An unknown virus. Thousands dying. No cure. New York and San Francisco were the epicentres of the disease. Since I knew New York, I chose to set it there. Reluctantly.

I say reluctantly because I didn’t want to write anything remotely autobiographical, but I have to admit, once I settled into it, using a familiar setting made life a lot easier. I could really see so many of the places. Strangely, none of the book places really correspond to my real places. The woods of the book aren’t any specific woods I know, the school from the book looks different in my mind from my own school, I didn’t imagine their home town as my own, their house isn’t like mine. The locations are all composites.

I also wanted to play with the barrier between suburb and city. They’re so close, but when you’re from the suburbs, the city doesn’t feel like your place at all. You’re always a visitor, never a native.

R: Man, oh, man, first loves are notoriously intense and painful! June’s complex feelings for Finn are made all the more so because he is her uncle. Do you see Wolves as a first love story? What kinds of response have you gotten to the book’s treatment of June’s feelings for Finn?

CRB: Yes, I do see it as a first love story for June. Going back to question 2, I think I was interested in the idea of love that isn’t based around the external. I was thinking about the idea of love that comes from seeing the real person buried deep inside social contexts in which we live our lives. I wondered how we’re wired to be ‘in love’ with only certain people. A straight woman might adore everything about another woman, but still, something in her makeup would never allow her to feel romantic love for that woman. This feels like such a mystery to me, the way attraction is so beyond our control. Obviously, there’s genetic basis for it all, but in real life it still feels profoundly perplexing to me. I guess some people would call June’s feelings for Finn a crush, but to her it feels like real (and very embarrassing) love. I’m not sure even at my age I fully understand the difference between those two things.

I haven’t had anyone approach me to complain about June’s feelings or to say they found it an offensive thing to write about. I’m sure there are people who would feel that way and maybe if the book starts to get a broader audience, I’ll get some of that. I think a writer’s job is to tell an honest story.  I’m sure June isn’t the only person in the world who has ever fallen in love with somebody completely inappropriate. I see this as such an innocent, honest and tender book. I think perhaps I should be the one to be offended if people want to twist it into something ugly.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka BruntR: On the first page of the novel, June says, “I’m fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon” (3). Could you talk a little about your decision to tell this story in the near past, as opposed to in the present tense or when June is an adult looking back?

CRB: I was actually asked by my editor to consider doing just that—have a prologue and epilogue with the adult June looking back. Although it instinctually felt all wrong to me, I gave it a try. I think it’s so important for writers to be open to suggestions, not to get too precious about their work. An editor has a bird’s eye view of your work, something you’ll never have, so it’s always worth exploring any suggestions. The thing is, I think the story is very pure the way it’s told. It’s innocent. June is guileless and open. She can’t hide her feelings. I think that’s where the beauty comes from. If you start to step back from that you lose her voice and you start to get a whole different perspective on the events. I wanted to create something that had an element of rawness and immediacy with Wolves and I think that’s only possible by telling the story from a perspective close to the end of the events.

And now, a few questions and speculations about you, June, and cheese!

R: June’s obsessions (and I don’t mean that word negatively at all) with certain places, music, etc. were really important to her character. You’ve mentioned in interviews that June is not an autobiographical character, but I think most of us have similarly June-like obsessions. Did you have any obsessions as a teenager? How about now?

Choose Your Own Adventure Edward PackardCRB: The story isn’t autobiographical at all, but I have to admit that June’s obsessions are pretty autobiographical. I gave her a lot of my geeky teenage obsessions. I used to love Choose Your Own Adventure books, medieval fairs, The Cloisters, Mozart’s Requiem and the idea of being able to travel back in time. Like June, I always felt a bit out of step with the rest of the kids my age. I shared her fairly foolish notion that if I were in another time, somehow I would fit in better.

I think a lot of writers feel a bit like watchers, people on the fringe of things. I still feel that, but I think it’s no longer a painful thing the way it can be for a teenager. It’s just part of who I am. If I’m writing, that’s usually my obsession.

R: So, if June is fourteen in 1987, then she’d be in college in the early and mid-90s. Given her taste for all things medieval and requiem-esque, what do you imagine June would think of the grunge scene?

SoundgardenCRB: Well, since I gave June my geeky teenage things, I guess she could also share my musical tastes in college! I liked the Pixies, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Camper Van Beethoven, Mudhoney, Belly and the Breeders. I also listened to a ton of Tom Waits and Velvet Underground in those days. I think she would have liked the grunge idea. Less artifice and more substance than a lot of 80s music.

R: I have a theory that everyone has at least one hidden talent, no matter how random or seemingly useless. Will you tell us yours?

CRB: If I had one, maybe I wouldn’t be a writer. Whatever it is would certainly be easier. I do love baking and I used to make quilts. I wouldn’t say there was a lot of talent involved in my case. Oh, I do have a bit of a latent travel agent lurking inside me. I’m very good at planning excellent trips on a budget.

R: What is your favorite food or drink to make while writing?

CRB: I’ve mostly managed to abandon this unhealthy snack, but while I was writing the novel I was very fond of mini-poppadums with a little bowl of mango chutney to dip them in and a nice glass of diet Coke with lemon.

R: And, finally: cheese is very important to Tessa and me, so we’ve got to know: what is your favorite cheese?

CRB: Just one! Oh no. I definitely share your passion for cheese. I’d have to go for brie. I live in the southwest of England and there’s a brie they make fairly locally, in St. Endellion, Cornwall, that I adore. I like it melted on some good toast with slivered almonds broiled over the top. Mmmmmm.

So, there you have it, folks: one more cheese stop to add to my world-wide tour (Tessa, I’m looking at you!). Scads of thanks to Carol Rifka Brunt for chatting with us today, and I hope you all scamper right out and read Tell the Wolves I’m Home, my (totally informal because no one asks me these things) nomination for book of the year.

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