Lisa Jenn Bigelow: “Put your characters through the wringer!”

Today at Crunchings & Munchings we’re proud to welcome Lisa Jenn Bigelow, author of Starting From Here. It’s a new contemporary fiction title that we co-reviewed/discussed on Wednesday (click through to find out what it’s all about).  She joins us today to talk about how coming out is still hard to do, diversity in YA fiction, the dreaded “dead dog book”, and where to eat in Pittsburgh.  Yay!

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

C&M: I really liked that this was a story about the way kids’ lives can be really hard when they don’t have money. Can you talk a little bit about why it was important to you to portray characters that had material concerns as well as social concerns?

LJB: I grew up in a working class neighborhood. Both my parents had higher education, but they were in the minority. And while we always had enough money, we were careful, and I grew up hyperaware of how much things cost. When I got to middle and high school, several affluent neighborhoods joined the mix, and social tiers became obviously tied to economics. The popular kids, the preps, the student council, many of the athletes—they were from the rich (by my hometown’s standards, anyway) neighborhoods. You couldn’t not notice that.

I think well-off kids are the norm in YA books, and when money’s an issue, often it comes out as abject poverty. I wanted to represent the kids around the corner from me, the kids on the line between being “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s an underrepresented segment of the American population. Especially in today’s economic climate, I think those kids are the majority.

lisa jenn bigelow and carly

Photo by David Sutton

C&M: There have been more and more queer characters in YA books being published in the last few years. Have you noticed any trends (or types, or stereotypes) that have begun to emerge within these books? Did you find yourself trying to embrace/resist/complicate any of these with your own characters?

LJB: On the whole, I think we’re moving away from stereotypes and toward greater diversity. We’re seeing more queer girls and trans characters. We’re seeing more characters of color and different cultures. We’re seeing more stories that move beyond the “coming out” sub-genre. We’re seeing more genre fiction—fantasy and science fiction and even historical fiction—starring queer characters.

One of my favorite trends is the growing recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender. Characters aren’t so quick to label themselves. They’re more comfortable following their hearts without taking a hard line on whether a particular attraction makes them gay or bi or what-have-you. That’s something I really liked about Very LeFreak, by Rachel Cohn, which stars a girl who might best be described as pansexual—if she were one to care about labels.

very lefreak rachel cohen

In Starting from Here, Colby identifies strongly as gay, but the two girls she’s involved with don’t want—or aren’t ready—to label themselves that way. I want teens to know that it’s totally okay not to. I think it’s more important to simply feel what you feel at any given moment and to accept those feelings without judging yourself or worrying about “what it makes you.”

C&M: What do you think of the cover? I’m super into it – no generic photograph of a person staring off into the middle distance — and it reminds me of the iconic David Levithan covers. I especially like how the truck is pink and the heart is yellow. Did you have any input on it?  Were you hoping for a certain vibe from the cover?

LJB: The cover’s awesome—no thanks to me. My nightmare was actually that the cover would be a stock photo of an empty country road with one of those yellow diamond-shaped road signs with the title printed on it. So I was thrilled with what the designer came up with. I think it’s very appealing and distinctive from the slew of stock-photo-girl covers out there. I do love that it evokes David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and also the hardcover edition of Lauren Myracle’s Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks—two great books by two of my favorite authors.

peace love and baby ducks lauren myracle  boy meets boy david levithan

C&M: Starting From Here is set in rural-y Michigan. What’s your connection with the area and why did you decide to set it there?

LJB: I grew up in the Kalamazoo area—technically in Portage, which is a smallish city just south of Kalamazoo proper. It has one huge, commercial road running through the center of town, but drive a mile or two to either side, and you basically end up in the country. Cornfields, trailer parks, lakes and nature preserves. My own neighborhood was right near the commercial center, but over the course of eighteen years, I got a feel for just about the whole town. It’s all remained very vivid to me, plus I get a refresher course every time I visit my parents.

The culture of the area is just as important. When Starting from Here was on submission, there were actually editors who expressed confusion as to why Colby had qualms about coming out to her father. I think that’s cosmopolitan New York talking. Anyone who follows the news should know that in most of America (including New York), coming out can still be a dangerous thing. Coming out can mean being harassed, ostracized, disowned, assaulted, or even killed. Kalamazoo County may have gone Blue in the 2012 presidential election, but Southwest Michigan is, overall, a pretty conservative area. Things have changed for the better there since I was a teen, but I wanted to reflect the reality that things are still far from perfect.

kalamazoo michigan

Kalamazoo by Dave Sizer on flickr (creative commons)

C&M: Mo the dog is a huge part of the story, and in some ways the heart of the story (please forgive me for that cheesy phrasing). Rebecca and I, as devoted cat owners and animal lovers, were both very touched by Mo’s inclusion. So we wanted to thank you for showing the responsibility and love that pet ownership entails! Although, thankfully, this is not a dead dog story, those types of stories are notoriously divisive. Where do you come down on the Old Yeller issue? Do you have a dog?

LJB: Funny you should bring up Old Yeller. The very first chapter of the very first draft of Starting from Here had Colby talking about how she’d read that book over and over again, until she didn’t have any tears left. That’s how I feel about “dead dog books” at this point in my life. I read Where the Red Fern Grows, as well as various other tearjerkers, so many times when I was a kid, but I got to a point where I was tired of crying. Maybe because real life seemed hard enough.

this dog will lighten the mood. by RollanB on Flickr

Now whenever I pick up a dog book, I flip to the last page—something I normally don’t do—to see if the dog makes it to the end alive. If it doesn’t, forget it. I’ve had to say goodbye to three dogs in my life, and it’s terrible. I still tear up when I think about my dog Carly, who died a year and a half ago–she’s the German shepherd mix in my official author photo. She was more neurotic than the average dog, but I loved her to pieces.

I adopted another dog last fall—another shepherd mix, incidentally. Her name is Saffy, and while she’s middle-aged, she’s very energetic and loves fetch and going in Lake Michigan. She’s also a total cuddle. Now I’m searching for a second rescue to make us more of a pack.

Anyway, that was actually the initial inspiration for Starting from Here: I wanted to write an “anti-dead dog book.” A book that kicks off with an awfully close call but doesn’t end in tears. A book that shows how a dog can save someone’s life simply through love, no fatal acts of heroism required.

C&M: Colby’s trust issues get worse and worse and she eventually reaches a breaking point. I thought it was a really truthful portrayal of a character with a lot of love to give and a fear of being hurt. It’s a fine line when you have one of your characters do hurtful things to the people around them and to themselves, but Colby is never unlikeable. Did you ever feel bad about putting her through that process?

LJB: Will I sound callous if I say “not really”? That’s how the novel-writing game is played: put your characters through the wringer! I guess the hardest thing was making Colby convincingly self-absorbed. She feels like the world is out to get her, when it was obvious to me (as it will be to readers) that isn’t true. If I knew her in real life, I’d want to give her a good shake. But we’ve all been there, and I hope readers can make that connection.

The most emotional scenes for me to write were, unsurprisingly, when Colby hits bottom. But they were also some of the most satisfying. I figured that if I could make myself cry—me, the puppetmaster, the one person who should be immune to emotional manipulation—then those scenes would touch readers, too.

C&M: Does your work as a youth librarian influence your writing, and if so, how so?
LJB: As a youth librarian, I’m immersed daily in books for young people. I read reviews of them, purchase them, read them, review them, discuss them, suggest them. All these activities have given me a strong awareness of what’s being published (which is far beyond what you are likely to see on the shelves of a big box store), what kids like to read, and what reviewers and award committees are looking at. On the one hand, it makes me read–and therefore write–more critically; on the other, I’ve become more generous in my definition of what makes a “good book,” because as a librarian you have to accept that it’s different for everyone. Above all, being a librarian gives me perspective. There are so many very good books out there that don’t get starred reviews, don’t win awards, don’t make the bestseller list, and go out of print within just a few years. A lot of that is luck; it’s just how the business is. So you just have to hope your book will find its readers and touch their lives before it fades away. And libraries, which treasure books as long as they have the shelf space, play an instrumental role in that.

BONUS QUESTION:

Tessa: Tell me about your favorite place(s) to go in Pittsburgh!

LJB: You’re making me nostalgic. I went to Carnegie Mellon University, which doesn’t have a particularly nice campus but is a great home base for what Pittsburgh has to offer. For ice cream, I have to go with Dave & Andy’s. For pizza, the Church Brew Works. My friends and I loved Sree’s Foods for Indian. Sree himself ran a food cart next to campus and was a kind and generous man. He died last year, unfortunately.

one of the buildings at CMU, taken by Flickr user jiuguangw

I could go on all day about food—have I mentioned Bloomfield Bridge Tavern makes tasty pierogi?—but onward. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a beautiful old building, and I checked out many a YA book from it while I was in college. Bonus, the art museum is right next door. I also love Pittsburgh’s wooded parks, especially Schenley and Frick. The best part of Frick Park is Hot Dog Dam, a swimming hole for dogs. So cute!

Tessa: Those are indeed all wonderful Pittsburgh places.  Thank you for visiting, Lisa, and giving us thoughtful answers and a great book to read and recommend.

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“Pink Is Not Pink”! Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

A Joint Review of Starting From Here, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Amazon Children’s Publishing (formerly Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books), 2012

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

by TESSA and REBECCA, November 28, 2012 (Happy Birthday to Rebecca’s dad!)

It is our total delight to announce that Lisa Jenn Bigelow will be joining us on Friday for an interview about her debut novel, Starting From Here! Be sure to check back for a chat about Michigan, dogs, and love!

Sixteen-year-old Colby Bingham’s heart has been broken too many times. Her mother has been dead for almost two years, her truck driver father is always away, her almost girlfriend just dumped her for a guy, and now she’s failing chemistry. When a stray dog lands literally at her feet, bleeding and broken on a busy road, it seems like the Universe has it in for Colby. But the incident also knocks a chink in the walls she’s built around her heart. Against her better judgment, she decides to care for the dog. But new connections mean new opportunities for heartbreak. Terrified of another loss, Colby bolts at the first sign of trouble, managing to alienate her best friend, her father, the cute girl pursing her, and even her dog’s vet, who’s taken Colby under her wing. Colby can’t start over, but can she learn how to move on?”

After both reading Lisa Jenn Bigelow’s debut novel, which she was lovely enough to send us, we decided that we wanted to have a little Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia book club about Starting From Here, so the following joint review is brought to you via g-chat. Woo-hoo, technology.

Tessa: Hello

Rebecca: Hi!

[long period of talking about weird things, including cookies, toilets, and Scotland]

R: Anyhoo, wanna talk about Starting From Here?

T: Yes. Let’s start out by talking about the basic plot.

R: Sure. I really liked that it started with a breakup as opposed to a crush; it had romance and relationships in it, but the structure was totally not the structure of a romance, and the main relationship is with the dog!

Michigan!T: Yeah! Colby starts out being broken up with by the girl she’s obsessed with [Rachel], and she’s really bummed. So the book kind of fakes you out at the beginning, because I thought it was going to be a pining-after/getting-over book. And it is, but it’s much deeper than that. Colby works through more issues that are brought up by the breakup—family issues, self-esteem issues. But I feel like it’s a fast, almost light read nonetheless, because it has love and hopefulness. I read it in a day. Would you agree?

R: Yeah, it’s interesting that you call it light—to me, it was really quiet. Definitely fast. I, too, read it in a day and it flowed really well, so I read it quite quickly. There’s nothing out of place, no sticking point that tripped me up or made me put the book down. I think that for me, the emotional core of the book (whether I think of it as Colby’s relationship with the dog, or her dad, or her girlfriends) was about Colby’s depression, and, like depression, I felt like I just slid right down into the book and had to read until I came out the other side.

T: Oooh, good description. Yeah, Colby has a relatively good support system, except her dad isn’t around. But her friends can’t save her from herself.

R: Totally. I thought it was a really brilliant description of depression (whether or not we mean that clinically or not) because it built slowly, thing piled on thing, until Colby just couldn’t bring herself to move or change or pull herself out. But Bigelow never says, like “Oh, Colby’s depressed”; it’s just part of her psychic landscape. It felt very real to me, and very relatable.

T: Yes, and so when she hits rock bottom it’s so heartbreaking. And so frustrating that she can’t talk to her dad—I feel like a lot of teenagers (including myself) feel like this around their parents, but with Colby it’s amplified because she knows how important her dad’s job is and she feels like she can’t protest how much time he spends doing it. Plus she can’t find the words or the space to come out to him:

“Even when we spent the day under the same roof, I felt like we were sealed in a crystal bubble. It looked so easy to reach out and touch each other, but there was only so close we’d get before—crack!—knocking each other back.” (187)

This is also mirrored way earlier in a school dance scene—Colby feels so alone!

“I was aware of a girl standing solo across the room trying to catch my eye. . . . I didn’t want to dance with them, bump shoulders with them, feel them soft and vulnerable through their shirts, hoping the negative space in our hearts would somehow add up to a positive.” (84)

R: Yeah, her relationship with her dad was my favorite part (besides the puppy). My favorite part of it is when she tries to get him to buy the pink big rig.

“If dad bought his own rig, he was in this for good. Instead of getting a short-haul job, he’d keep working extralong weeks driving from one end of the country to the other. I’d come home each day with no one to talk to, no one to hug me, no one to just sit on the couch with who remembered and missed Mom the way I did. . . .

‘Tell you what, Bee,’ Dad said, looking up at me, ‘Why don’t you pick one out. What color do you think I should get?’

‘Pink,’ I spat out. . . . Get pink.’

‘I can’t get pink. I’d be laughed off the road. I don’t even know if I could find one. Even lady drivers—’

‘You said I could pick.’ I stared him down, by arms folded across my chest. ‘Promise you’ll get pink, to remember me when you’re on the road. That’s the least you can do.’

For a moment Dad looked—ashamed? Guilty? Both, I hoped. . . .

Dad shook his head, but he said, ‘All right, Colby. I promise.’” (127-8)

It’s such a perfect moment because you can imagine everything that might be going on in his head—trying to please his daughter; being willing to sacrifice for her; knowing something’s wrong but not knowing what; not knowing what to do to make her happy; dreading having to drive a pink truck, etc. And then he actually finds one, and tells her that pink is pink because he doesn’t know the exact shade, she’s like “pink is not pink” (198) and tells him to do whatever he wants since he always does. Broke my fucking heart.

T: Yes, all those things—subtle awkwardness and love between a parent and a kid. I was so happy to read adult characters who were fully fleshed out. Even the vet’s husband wasn’t a two-dimensional character. He could so easily have been “laid off angry dude,” but he had more behind him, and he wasn’t even in very many scenes!

R: Totally. I think that’s one of the things that made it a quiet book for me: each character is really fully fleshed out, but it’s done in such a beautifully economical manner that the book is really bare bones. I feel like every thing I learn about someone is one more pebble in the bowl of them, but there’s nothing that doesn’t do a lot of work. Also, I know it sounds simplistic and superficial, but I love that Colby was a total tough guy whose favorite color was baby pink.

T: Good point.

R: What did you think about Colby’s friends and girlfriends?

T: I felt like as a reader I was seeing more of how Colby saw Rachel than how Rachel actually was. So she remained on a pedestal or tucked away as a painful ideal. I liked how Van was like a brother to Colby, or even a cool aunt. And Amelia . . . I don’t see their relationship lasting after high school, but I liked seeing their appreciation for one another unfold. You?

R: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly about Rachel—we never got to know what the big deal was about her (which seemed very realistic to me); we just knew she broke Colby’s heart. Van did seem super brother/aunt-ish, which I liked because Bigelow didn’t work too hard to portray their relationship; it just was, and it clearly had been for a long time. As for Amelia, I don’t know: I couldn’t tell if Colby’s feelings were about Amelia or about Colby being lonely. I could believe either, and both seem right. Or maybe it was a combination of both.

T: Maybe it was just about feeling good about being with someone who felt good to be with you. I can get behind that.

R: Me too!

T: Let’s talk about Mo. Were you a dog person before this book?

R: I feel about dogs the way I feel about other lives I could have lived: I don’t see one ever just existing in my life as it is now, but I think if I’d ever taken a slightly different path then maybe one could. I think dogs are beautiful and cute and I love how loyal they are, but I’ve never really been a dog person, per se. I think part of it is that I’m afraid of the commitment; partly that I think they smell bad unless you bathe them constantly (which I’m too lazy to do); and partly that I may not think I’m worthy of the kind of unconditional love they give you. What about you?

T: I feel similarly. Only recently have I become more dog-positive. I used to just like them but not want to really hang around them, but I’ve met several very cool dogs, and now I like hanging around them (and petting their soft bellies, if they are Pitbulls). But I still can’t see myself owning one, mostly because I feel like I’m too lazy. And because it’s hard to tell if you’ll get a dog that has a dog smell, or one that likes to lick your hands too much. But this book definitely made me more of a dog person. It also helps that I own a cat and could identify with that kind of quasi-maternal love and responsibility

R: Yes. I think I might like a dog if ever I find myself living with a lumberjack in a cabin in the woods and the dog can mostly live outside and like, I dunno, chase sticks and stuff, and only come inside to lie in front of the fire. Dogs seem happiest when they have a purpose, so I think that would be a nice way to have a dog. As I mentioned to you earlier, when I was reading about Mo needing surgery at the vet’s, Dorian [my lovely cat] was sitting on my lap, and I was straight-up sobbing and clutching at her fur, so I definitely felt the pet relationship hard.

INTERLUDE: Tessa’s cat, Turkey, and Rebecca’s cat, Dorian Gray, are totally adorable!
Turkey! Dorian Gray

T: I also liked that it showed all the facets of having a pet. I’m used to seeing dogs as quest-companions in YA books. They’re supernaturally loyal, already trained, and basically understand English. You don’t see the work that goes into getting a dog to adapt to a habit.

R: Absolutely! (Another reason I don’t know if I could have one.)

lumberjackT: (I can see you living the lumberjack life, btw)

R: Yeah? I think I could learn to love it. After all, freshly-cut wood is totes one of my love potion smells, à la Harry Potter!

T: ha ha!

R: I loved the end of the book—I won’t say any more because of spoilers, but I really liked it.

[chat devolves into spoilery personal discussion about our feelings about the end of the book, families, and Scotland.]

T: Anyway, I’m glad we’re in agreement about the fact that people should read this book!

R: Yes! I can’t wait for your interview with Lisa on Friday!

T: It’s going to be great—she’s so nice!

R: ta

T: bye!

R: ❤

You have just enough time to gobble down Starting From Here before you join us right here on Friday for an interview with Lisa Jenn Bigelow!

We received these books from the author (thank you!), with no compensation on either side. Starting From Here is available now.

All I Want For Chanukah Are These Snazzy YA Reads!

Eleanor & Park Rainbow Rowell Winger Andrew Smith Paper Valentine Brenna Yovanoff

by REBECCA, November 26, 2012

As I write this, it’s the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving, which means that it’s the time for cursing my father for making me drink so much this weekend thinking about what holiday gifts we want! In the spirit of turning our backs on giving thanks and preparing to say “thank you!” for the gifts to come, here is a list of the books I’m hoping some lovely Chanukah fairy might send winging my way. Sure, I know some of these won’t be out in time for Chanukah, but a girl can dream, no?

So, wipe that turkey off your face, recycle all those empties, and join me in lusting after some delicious stories! (Plot descriptions from Goodreads.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

I love me some Neil Gaiman, and I can’t wait for this one. Primal horror, family drama, and unknown ancient powers? I’m in.

It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed—within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.”

The SIn-Eater's Confession Ilsa J. Bick

The Sin-Eater’s Confession, by Ilsa J. Bick

Chanukah has come early via NetGalley on this intriguing tale. I really enjoyed Bick’s Draw the Dark, so I can’t wait for this one.

People in Merit, Wisconsin, always said Jimmy was . . . you know. But people said all sorts of stupid stuff. Nobody really knew anything. Nobody really knew Jimmy. I guess you could say I knew Jimmy as well as anyone (which was not very well). I knew what scared him. And I knew he had dreams—even if I didn’t understand them. Even if he nearly ruined my life to pursue them.

Jimmy’s dead now, and I definitely know that better than anyone. I know about blood and bone and how bodies decompose. I know about shadows and stones and hatchets. I know what a last cry for help sounds like. I know what blood looks like on my own hands. What I don’t know is if I can trust my own eyes. I don’t know who threw the stone. Who swung the hatchet? Who are the shadows? What do the living owe the dead?”

How to Lead a Life of Crime Kirsten Miller

How To Lead A Life Of Crime, by Kirsten Miller

This looks awesome; plus the cover looks kind of like the opening sequence of Stick It. Dudes, it’s not called gym-nice-tics!

A meth dealer. A  prostitute. A serial killer. Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear.

Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?”

Paper Valentine Brenna Yovanoff

Paper Valentine, by Brenna Yovanoff

Number one, this cover rocks my world. Number two, I loved the subtle creepiness of The Replacement, and can’t wait to read Yovanoff’s latest.

The city of Ludlow is gripped by the hottest July on record. The asphalt is melting, the birds are dying, petty crime is on the rise, and someone in Hannah Wagnor’s peaceful suburban community is killing girls. For Hannah, the summer is a complicated one. Her best friend Lillian died six months ago, and Hannah just wants her life to go back to normal. But how can things be normal when Lillian’s ghost is haunting her bedroom, pushing her to investigate the mysterious string of murders? Hannah’s just trying to understand why her friend self-destructed, and where she fits now that Lillian isn’t there to save her a place among the social elite. And she must stop thinking about Finny Boone, the big, enigmatic delinquent whose main hobbies seem to include petty larceny and surprising acts of kindness.

With the entire city in a panic, Hannah soon finds herself drawn into a world of ghost girls and horrifying secrets. She realizes that only by confronting the Valentine Killer will she be able move on with her life—and it’s up to her to put together the pieces before he strikes again.

Teeth Hannah Moscowitz

Teeth, by Hannah Moskowitz

I’m a Hannah Moskowitz fan, but more importantly, this is a gay mermaid story. Can’t wait!

Rudy’s life is flipped upside-down when his family moves to a remote island in a last attempt to save his sick younger brother. With nothing to do but worry, Rudy sinks deeper and deeper into loneliness and lies awake at night listening to the screams of the ocean beneath his family’s rickety house.

Then he meets Diana, who makes him wonder what he even knows about love, and Teeth, who makes him question what he knows about anything. Rudy can’t remember the last time he felt so connected to someone, but being friends with Teeth is more than a little bit complicated. He soon learns that Teeth has terrible secrets. Violent secrets. Secrets that will force Rudy to choose between his own happiness and his brother’s life.”

Winger Andrew Smith

Winger, by Andrew Smith

Anyone who reads Crunchings & Munchings knows I love Andrew Smith—check out reviews of Stick and The Marbury Lens HERE and HERE. He has three books coming out in the next year and a half or so (yay!) but I’m particularly intrigued by Winger because it sounds like it shares some thematic interests with one of my favorite movies, The Reflecting Skin.

Fourteen-year-old Ryan Dean West may be the smartest 11th grader in school, but there are some things he just doesn’t get. He’s convinced that the woman living downstairs is a witch—out to destroy his life; believes the girl he’s in love with only sees him as some kind of pet; and wonders why his best friend—the only voice of reason in Ryan Dean’s life—likes other boys more than girls. A funny, sometimes dark, part-graphic YA novel about fitting in, and the consequences that can occur when big deals are made over small differences.”

Moonset Scott Tracey

Moonset, by Scott Tracey

From the author of the Witch Eyes series, which I really like (reviews of the first two in the series HERE and HERE) comes this new series about a group of young witches!

Justin Daggett, his trouble-making sister, and their three orphan-witch friends have gotten themselves kicked out of high school. Again. Now they’ve ended up in Carrow Mills, New York, the town where their parents—members of the terrorist witch organization known as Moonset—began their evil experiments with the dark arts one generation ago.

When the siblings are accused of unleashing black magic on the town, Justin fights to prove their innocence. But tracking down the true culprit leads him to a terrifying discovery about Moonset’s past . . . and its deadly future.”

Eleanor & Park Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Kelly over at Stacked has really sold me on this eighties period piece! Great cover, too.

“Bono met his wife in high school,” Park says.
“So did Jerry Lee Lewis,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be,” she says, “we’re sixteen.”
“What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Shallow, confused, then dead.”
”I love you,” Park says.
“Wherefore art thou,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be.”

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.”

So, what about you, my desirous friends? What tasty morsels are on your Chanukah lists?

Dear Year, Thank You for Entertaining Me.

by Tessa

It was just around this time last year that Rebecca and I were seriously working on our as-yet-untitled blog, and it’s the perfect time to say that I’m thankful that it became real. So thank you, Rebecca, for having the idea and being the best blog-mate & book discussor, and for moving to my home state so we could hang out more. (I know, it was because of your sister, but leave me my delusions).  Thanks also for making my to-read list so much longer. Seriously, I feel comforted knowing that if I hit a reading slump I have Rebecca-recommended books to rely on.

And thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has read, visited &/or commented on our posts at Crunchings & Munchings. It’s exciting to be a part of the discussion.

I am also thankful for the many books I got to read this year, some of which I reviewed, and some of which I just enjoyed. And some of which I decided to not say anything about so as not to be rude.  They were all fun in one way or another. But I’m going to call out a few types in particular.

Are you looking for gift ideas for your loved ones?  Consider ALL OF THESE as possibilities:

1. Subtlety in Speculative Fiction & Movies

It’s possible that my definition of speculative is broader than other people’s. But I feel like a book that delivers a subtle promise of a world not quite aligned with ours, but in all other respects exactly like it still counts, and that’s why Burn for Burn worked for me, and why I’m not comfortable calling it paranormal just yet.  And why I lurrrved The Scorpio Races with its island out of Anne of Green Gables–but with carnivorous horses.  I am so glad that R. did it justice in her review. Alif the Unseen illuminated a world of Middle Eastern violence and a second world just overlapping it, to great effect.

Shadoweyes was a speculative graphic novel that hit it out of the park as far as future iterations of the world and young adult struggles were concerned, nodding to its inspirations but keeping it real and fresh as far as what society would really be like (violent, diverse, but still with shows about sparkly ponies to become obsessed with).  On the middle-grade end of the spectrum, the secret society fighting a diabolical mind control plot in The Mysterious Benedict Society was exactly what I needed to read and charmed the dickens out of me.

And let’s not forget Chronicle and Looper, two very worthwhile speculative movies from very recent times, that go with the human story first instead of being all spectacle. And the most fun I had writing a post this year was about an old favorite: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s not a subtle movie, but I did speculate as to why anyone would try to remake it and why it could never be as good..

2. Three Cheers for Realistic Fiction

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

I’ve always loved switching off between speculative worlds and immersive portraits of real lives that could never be mine, and this year didn’t disappoint. The Fault in Our Stars knocked it out of the park.  Past Perfect helped me through a hard time in my life. A book we’re reviewing next week, Starting From Here, was a lovely surprise that I read in a day. Oh, and The Freak Observer made me sad and hopeful in all the best ways.

Also, I read three books of realistic fiction that deserve their own category:

3. Funny Books!

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

It’s Kind of A Funny Story, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson all had moments where I actually loled. Not that other books that I read didn’t have humor in them (Past Perfect was also very funny), but these in particular had globs and globs of humor.  Maybe not globs. Icing layers?

(Can I also add that it kind of perturbs me that I find these 3 books so funny, since they all have boy protagonists? Is this some kind of unconscious gender bias on my part?)

4. Getting Back to the Classics

In my job I don’t always give myself time to go back to books that I remember and love, but Crunchings & Munchings gives me a legitimate excuse to do just that.  So I had a wonderful time re-exploring Girl, the Dark is Rising sequence, and Remember Me, as well as rounding up my favorite scary stories and boarding school books.

5. Great Series

  

I mentioned Burn for Burn and the Mysterious Benedict Society above, and they totally count, but I also read other parts of series or finished up series this year that were intriguing and satisfying in turn – ones that I couldn’t find a way to blog about.

Dustlands by Moira Young I read Rebel Heart last week. It’s the sequel to Blood Red Road, a story set in the far future in some unnamed desert where a tough, closed-off girl has to fight her way to her kidnapped brother. In Rebel Heart we learn more about the world, and the girl, Saba, learns more about how she can betray herself and be herself. It’s like if Monsters of Men and the Hunger Games had a baby and you could tell that the baby got the best traits of both of them but was its own wonderful thing.

Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore  I’m a total Graceling realm fangirl and Bitterblue came out this year. It was probably one of the most satisfying fantasy novels I’ve read this year, or in the past couple of years. The lady knows what she’s doing. I love them so much I can’t really talk about them.

Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau I finally finished this series!  I’m constantly recommending it to people, because it’s all-ages and covers a lot of ground as far as worldbuilding and subject matter go.  It starts underground with a kind of ramshackle utopia gone stale, then goes aboveground and has its characters become the outsiders learning to survive in a homesteading situation, then goes into the past with a little story about what happens right before the world irrevocably changes, in an oblique and tense way, and then goes back to the future for the last book, which is the most hopeful and the least believable. I’m glad I read all of them.

The Diviners by Libba Bray – I wasn’t sold on the romance in this book, and it seemed more coincidental than fated that all the characters who mattered happened to run into each other and become friends/acquaintances/lovers over the course of the book, but it reminded me of The Alienist by Caleb Carr and captured a certain feeling, of a new cultural movement that is sparkly and exciting but also comes with feeling a little lost, that I loved. And there are creepy moments galore.

Honorable Mention: Weird Graphic Novels.

I don’t mention many of the graphic novels I’ve been reading and loving on here much, because most of the time they are aimed squarely at the adult market, and I don’t disagree with that designation.  But I’ve read so many fun, weird-ass graphic novels this year. Filled with crust punk courier mice, psychadelic wordless lands, a president who accidentally becomes a penis, an opus about quietly philosophical birds (and the people who feed them donut crumbs), AND MORE. And I’m so happy that they exist.  So if you ever want any recommendations, send me an email.

And finally, I am thankful for my Turkey on this Thanksgiving.

xo.

Books I’m Thankful I Read This Year!

A List of the Top 5 Books I’m Thankful I Read This Year

by REBECCA, November 21, 2012

Wednesday Addams Family Values

Wednesday pretty much sums up American Thanksgiving in Addams Family Values, that paragon of cultural critique:

“You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans, and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the road sides, you will play golf, and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They have said, ‘Do not trust the Pilgrims, especially Sarah Miller.'”

Not wishing to pass up an opportunity for thankfulness, however, there are abso-turkey-lutely some books that I’m wicked thankful for having read this year. Now, I’ve read a boatload of delightful and wonderful books, but there are a few that have . . . changed the way I think about things, or broadened my horizons about the work that books can do. And so, I celebrate you, books!

Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

In my review, I went ahead and declared that Tell the Wolves Im Home was the best book I read this year, and I haven’t regretted that assertion yet. Brunt really raised the bar on both characterization and prose. The book is also a moving and much-needed portrait of a YA character who is dealing with not only love and loss, but strong romantic feelings for her beloved uncle. An all-around gorgeous book that I would recommend for nearly anyone. Check out my full review HERE, and our interview with the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt HERE, and learn about her writing habits, hidden talents, and favorite cheese!

Stick Andrew Smith  The Marbury Lens Andrew Smith

Stick (and The Marbury Lens) by Andrew Smith

I didn’t actually read The Marbury Lens this year, so it’s cheating to put it on here, but I have to cite it because it was my introduction to Andrew Smith, who I think is likely my favorite YA author currently producing work. I did, however, read Stick this year, so I’ll just let both of them stand in for Andrew Smith on this list. Smith excites me because his stories and prose are so raw and vulnerable. Reading them makes me feel like I am being given the gift of a very important and private story confided in me by a friend. He is also, for me, the YA author whose work is considering masculinity in the most interesting and varied way. For my money, anything of his you pick up will be one thousand per cent worth it, and we are lucky that he has several books forthcoming! My full review of The Marbury Lens is HERE, and my full review of Stick is HERE.

Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater  Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

This was a book that taught me to be a more patient and appreciative reader. Its beautifully-paced story unfolded like a flower, and I savored every word. Check out my full review of The Scorpio Races HERE. It is one of the most delicate, salty, magical stories I’ve ever read. Its slow beauty changed the landscape of YA fiction, and I hope it’ll open up the market to welcoming a new kind of super-natural novels, ones more about atmosphere and the materiality of other worlds than about action, thrills, or easy alternative worlds. I also loved The Raven Boys, the first in Stiefvater’s new Raven Cycle (my review is HERE).

Last Night I Sang To the Monster Benjamin Alire Sáenze

Last Night I Sang To the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This is one of the more beautifully-written books out there. Sáenz is also a poet, and it absolutely shows in his command of prose. The combination of such gorgeous prose and a difficult story, narrated by a character who is dealing with the aftereffects of some horrible events adds up to a book that changed the way I thought about first-person narratives. Like Andrew Smith, Sáenz made me feel like I was reading the intimate story of a dear friend, and (by the end) a friend I had the privilege to watch grow up. Check out my full review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster HERE. I’m super excited to read his forthcoming YA book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Darkhouse Experiment in Terror Karina Halle review Red Fox Experiment in Terror Karina Halle review Dead Sky Morning Experiment in Terror Karina Halle review Lying Season Experiment in Terror Karina Halle review On Demon Wings Experiment In Terror Karina Halle review

Experiment In Terror series, by Karina Halle

On a slightly lighter note (I guess my narrative inclinations are pretty clear, huh?), I’m totally thrilled that this year brought me the Experiment in Terror series, which is an independently-published horror-romance series by prolific thrillster and music journalist Karina Halle! The series is super creepy and contains scads of angst and drama, so it’s not so much a lighter note, I suppose . . . but this series is a helluva fun read and, if you like the thrills and chills, I highly recommend it. Check out my full reviews of each book in the series by clicking the images above.

And, most importantly, I’m so thankful for the wonderful new friends I’ve made through writing this blog—all the bloggers and authors and readers I’ve chatted with on Twitter and in the comments of this blog and others, and all the folks I met at BEA this year. Most of all, though, I’m thankful for by dear friend and blog-mate, Tessa! Thanks for taking this adventure with me, T!

So, there you have it, my friends! Some books I’ll be thinking of thankfully as I shove turkey and stuffing into my face. How about you? What books are you thankful for this year?

A Review of Hushed by Kelley York

Entangled Publishing, 2011

Hushed Kelley York

by REBECCA, November 19, 2012

characters

Archer: a thoughtful loner who will go to any lengths for Vivian, the best friend he adores

Vivian: a beautiful manipulator with a troubled past and a cruel streak where Archer is concerned

Evan: the sweet new guy, who likes Archer and wants to have a real relationship

the hook

Archer and Vivian have been best friends since they were kids. Now, in college, Vivian is really Archer’s only friend, and their relationship is on her terms. Archer goes along with it because something horrible happened to Vivian . . . and he thinks he might be able to make it right. But will trying to make Vivian happy cost him the only person who’s ever really loved him?

worldview

Yowza! I believe that this is what those in the biz would call a “dark” book. For Archer, the world begins and ends with Vivian, his best friend—he’s comforted her, laughed with her, lusted after her . . . and killed for her. Indeed, he’s not sure he even knows who he is outside of his co-dependent relationship with Vivian. Until, one day, he meets Evan, a sweet guy who goes to school with him and lives in his apartment complex. Evan is steady, calm, and (despite Evan’s anti-social awkwardness) seems to like Evan for who he is, which most people do not. As Archer begins spending more time with Evan, he slowly comes to realize that whereas perhaps when they were kids they had a real friendship, now Vivian guilts and manipulates him, while she has relationship after relationship with horrible, abusive men.

Hushed could easily have gone the route of melodramatic soap opera with its murders and its entangled relationships. Instead, it’s a dark portrait of the lengths to which guilt and love can push us, and the work it can take to untangle ourselves from the people we love. Kelley York‘s writing is straightforward and clipped, providing the perfect counterbalance to the sensational subject matter.

Archer’s character was, for me, extremely sympathetic even though—and this is the part that impressed me—I didn’t want him to kill anyone. Sometimes authors make murderers very sympathetic because they’re doing something that needs to be done, exacting justice where none would exist without them; it’s much harder, though, to build up the psychology of a character enough that the reader is on their side even while wishing they would not exact their version of justice. I began the book not sure at all that I would end up in that camp (the murder happens on the first page, so I’m really giving nothing away here). But Archer was, for me, quite appealing. Rarely has a character better demonstrated that sometimes being loved really can make people willing to try and do better.

Hushed was a great combination of genres: it’s set in a realist world, and it has an element of suspense and action, but it’s not a mystery or a thriller; it’s mainly a contemporary drama about relationships, but they’re so intertwined with the suspense that it has that great love in the trenches feel to it.

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

The relationships really are the core of the story. Archer and Vivian’s messed up relationship feels very authentic to me, as does the turns it’s taken to become twisted where once it was nourishing. Archer’s relationship with his mother is also really interesting, though I won’t say anything more for spoilery reasons. But if Archer’s relationship with Vivian is the one that’s crippling him, miring him in the past, his relationship with Evan is the one that pulls him forward, offering him hope not only for the future, but for himself as a person. Although undoubtedly appealing, Evan is the kind of character that could come off a bit too-good-to-be-true-vanilla-generic. He’s a sweet guy who swims a lot and is close with his family; he sees through Archer’s loner façade to the loving person within; etc.

But, Even transcends these qualities because of the depths he’s willing to go to for Archer. The pacing of their relationship was my favorite thing about Hushed, and I think York made a really smart choice by having it build extremely slowly. When they first meet there is the inkling of an attraction between them, but Archer is so focused on his habitual desire for Vivian that it barely registers for him. He wonders why Evan doesn’t pick up on his usual I-vant-to-be-alone terseness, and wonders why Evan wants to hang out with him. Little by little, though, as he comes to believe that Evan enjoys him, he begins to allow himself to enjoy Evan, too.

Their friendship builds to a romantic relationship slowly, but with no zigs and zags. There are impediments (*cough* Vivian *cough*), sure, but there is never, for example, any discussion of or crisis around sexual orientation, which was awesome. That was one of the things that felt most realistic to me: the fluid shift of hanging out with someone you like, to depending on them, to spending all your time with them, to developing romantic and sexual feelings for them. What was even better was that no one in the book discussed Archer’s relationship with Evan in terms of his sexual orientation either, even Vivian. And that is something that I’m so happy to see in a YA book.

All in all, Hushed was a real sleeper hit for me. I’ve wanted to read it for a while because the premise intrigued me, but it never quite jumped in front of my car. Then, I was just in the mood for it and it was so solid and quiet and compelling! It was a fast read, but had a lot of grit to it—you know, in a good way, like Tom Waits’ voice. And it has plot twists galore, believe me; I just didn’t want to give anything away. This is Kelley York’s first novel, and it’s impressively assured and effortless. I’m also excited to read her forthcoming book, Made of Stars.

readalikes

The Talented Mr. Ripley Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr. Ripley series, by Patricia Highsmith (1955). In a way, Archer reminded me a little of what I imagine Tom Ripley might have been like at 18. I adore Highsmith’s series, and I think they’d have a lot to say to a reader of Hushed.

With Or Without You Brian Farrey

With Or Without You, by Brian Farrey (2011). 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 check out my full review HERE.

Stick Andrew Smith

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.

La Isla Bonita! Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

A Review of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Scholastic, 2011

Beauty Queens Libba Bray

by REBECCA, November 14, 2012

characters

too many Miss Teen Dreamers & their Enemies to name!

hook

One contestant represents each state in the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant. When the Miss Teen Dreamers’ plane crashes, stranding them on a desert island with nothing but the contents of their makeup bags and their wits, some rise to the occasion and some, well, friends, some sink. Throw in a global conspiracy, young love, the sun, and several tons of hair removal product, and Beauty Queens is one explosive read.

worldview

Beauty Queens Libba BrayI confess: despite thinking the premise sounded pretty hysterical, I avoided Beauty Queens for months because of its cover. No matter how many glowing reviews I read that praised its social commentary, its diverse cast, and its great writing, I just kept thinking, Great. Another skinny white girl in a bikini. Until I ran into a friend who said he had the same concerns but that the book was great (thanks, P—!). So I (finally) gave it a chance, and holy stockings, Batman, am I glad I did!

I have to confess another thing: I don’t like comedy that much. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m not entirely humorless or anything; it’s just never my first choice. However, within two pages I could tell that I was reading a book that was really taking seriously the power that comedy can have as social commentary. Here’s the first passage that convinced me that Beauty Queens was going to be super funny:

“‘Hi. I’m Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, and I’m Miss Teen Dream Texas, the state where dreams are bigger and better—nothing against y’all’s states. I’m a senior at George Walker Bush High School and I hope to pursue a career as a motivational speaker.’

There was polite, automatic applause. A dazed girl beside Adina said, ‘I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff.’

Miss Texas spoke again: ‘Okay, Miss Teen Dreamers, I know we’re all real flustered and everything. But we’re alive. And I think before anything else we need to pray to the one we love.’

A girl raised her hand. ‘J.T. Woodland?’

‘I’m talkin’ about my personal copilot, Jesus Christ.’

‘Someone should tell her personal copilot that His landings suck,’ Miss Michigan muttered. She was a lithe redhead with the pantherlike carriage of a professional athlete.

‘Dear Jesus,’ Taylor started. The girls bowed their heads, except for Adina.

‘Don’t you want to pray?’ Mary Lou whispered.

‘I’m Jewish. Not big on the Jesus.’

‘Oh. I didn’t know they had any Jewish people in New Hampshire. You should make that one of your Fun Facts About Me!'” (7)

Bray manages to pull off truly exquisite satire. The world of Beauty Queens isn’t quite a realist world; more like a reality TV world, in which some things are aided by the magic of editing and special effects:

“‘My head kinda hurts,’ Miss New Mexico said. Several of the girls gasped. Half of an airline serving tray was lodged in her forehead, forming a small blue canopy over her eyes.

‘What is it?’ Miss New Mexico checked to make sure her bra straps weren’t showing.” (8).

Drop Dead Gorgeous Kirsten DunstThe pacing of the book is extremely well-done. The tone is consistent throughout—sharp and funny but humanizing—but the book begins exactly where one would imagine: with the hilarity of the Teen Dreamers trying to survive on an island, fighting over flavored lip glosses and exalting in how the island’s lack of food is a great diet opportunity. From there, it moves to character development, and relationship building that makes the reader love some of the characters and love to hate others. Finally, it builds to full scale revolution, with the Teen Dreamers (and some mysterious pirates) working together to full-on topple an international conspiracy, nbd.

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

I can’t say enough times how skillfully Bray turns humor to the task of social commentary. The book’s clearest intention, I think, was to show how much people are able to grow when they find themselves in . . . unexpected situations. And Bray isn’t afraid to be a little cheesy about it. A large and diverse cast of characters stuck on an island together challenge each others’ expectations and encourage them to fully embrace their individualities.

Heathers Wynona RyderAnd while the Teen Dreamers are busy bringing out the best in each other, the audience slowly realizes that, although the joke is on the beauty queens for being, well, beauty queens—perhaps one of the groups of people that we still seem able to mock and stereotype without self-censure—by the end we are looking at one of the most diverse groups of teens to be found in a young adult novel. A black Teen Dreamer and an Indian Teen Dreamer go head-to-head trying to 0ut-non-white each other; a transgendered Teen Dreamer falls in love with a pirate; a Jewish Teen Dreamer plots . . . some stuff. And more.

“‘You think there might be cannibals here? Mary Lou whispered. . . .

‘Did you hear that?’ . . .

‘It came from over there!’ Shanti pointed to a copse just beyond the ring of totems. The sound came again: a grunting. Something was moving through the bushes. . . .

A willowy girl wrapped in a singed navy blanket stepped out into the open, moaning. Her skin was the same deep brown as the carved figures.

‘I’ll try to communicate,’ Taylor said. She spoke slowly and deliberately. ‘Hello! We need help. Is your village close?’

‘My village is Denver. And I think it’s a long way from here. I’m Nicole Ade. Miss Colorado.’

‘We have a Colorado where we’re from, too!’ Tiara said. She swiveled her hips, spread her arms wide, then brought her hands together prayer-style and bowed. ‘Kipa aloha.’

Nicole stared. ‘I speak English. I’m American. Also, did you learn those moves from Barbie’s Hawaiian Vacation DVD?’

‘Omigosh, yes! Do your people have that too?’

Petra stepped forward. ‘Hi. I’m Petra West. Miss Rhode Island. Are you okay?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. A little sore and scratched up from where I got thrown into some bushes, but no contusions or signs of internal bleeding.’ Nicole allowed a small smile. ‘I’m pre-pre-med.’

Shanti frowned. She’d hoped to have the ethnic thing sewn up. Having a black pre-pre-med contestant wasn’t going to help her. She covered her unease with a wide smile” (13-14).

Anyhoo, as I hope you can tell, since I just keep quoting huge swathes of Beauty Queens’ hilarity, this is a unique novel that does a lot of fun and interesting stuff with genre, language, and character. It may or may not appeal, depending on taste; but it absolutely, 100% achieves what it sets out to do. Enjoy!

readalikes

Honestly, not really. I mean, Beauty Queens kind of feels like what would happen if Heathers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Lost had a baby and then put it up for adoption and it landed in a group home with a bunch of awesome badasses and learned how to fight. Then, when it got placed with a middle-aged couple that tried to stereotype it, it blew up its pearls in the microwave like Paige from Pump Up the Volume, without ever breaking a nail.

procured from: a kindle gift (thanks, mom!)

Sister Magic IS Practical Magic!

In Which I Discuss Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (1995) & How I Came to Love Practical Magic, directed by Griffin Dunne (1998)

Practical Magic Alice Hoffman   Practical Magic Sandra Bullock Nicole Kidman

by REBECCA, November 12, 2012

Many moons ago, I’m thirteen or fourteen, and I get this book called Practical Magic from the Saturday morning library book sale for twenty-five cents because the first sentence of the blurb reads, “For more than two hundred years, the Owens women had been blamed for everything that went wrong in their Massachusetts town.” Magic, witches, persecution, stuff going wrong: sounds great! And it is great. The writing is beautiful, the multi-generational family drama well-wrought, the characters interesting, and the atmosphere exquisitely . . . well, atmospheric.

Fast forward a couple of years: I’m sixteen, and the movie version of Practical Magic comes out, starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I see it; it’s awful; I forget about it.

Fast forward a few more years: I’m nineteen or so, in college, and home visiting my parents over the holidays. My sister and I have recently grown into being friends, since I left the house and she’s grown up a bit, and Practical Magic comes on TV during a lazy afternoon when my parents are at work and my sister and I are slobbing around in our pajamas. She thinks the movie looks good; I tell her that I’ve seen it and it’s terrible, but that the book is good and she should read it. We watch it anyway.

And we love it. It’s funny! It’s sad! It’s magical! It’s a love letter to everything about being sisters! And I couldn’t have really appreciated it until my sister and I became best friends.

Practical Magic houseAfter realizing that my sister was actually the magic ingredient in my enjoyment of the movie Practical Magic, I went back and re-read the book. And, actually, the sister-magic is far less pronounced in the book than in the movie—perhaps that’s why my enjoyment of the book didn’t hinge on that relationship. But it was just as good as I remembered it being; and rarely has the title of a book quite so aptly described what was inside.

Since watching Practical Magic with my sister ten years or so ago, it’s become something of a favorite sister-movie for us, and so I don’t watch it critically any more—sure, I can still see why it’s not a very good movie, but it’s got just the right mix of feel-good stuff to make it a win. Especially the actors, who are pretty perfectly cast (except Aidan Quinn). Yeah, I’m talking to you, Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest!

Alice Hoffman’s novel, however, is a legitimately good book. I think it often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, because it gets lumped in with the rest of the Alice-Hoffman oeuvre (many of which I know I’ve read, but can’t tell apart from one another) as well as with a sub-sub-genre of women-oriented, garden-magic-y books that spiked in the mid-nineties. And that’s a real shame, because Practical Magic is definitely Hoffman at her best. Themes and characters that are teased or made precious in her other novels are perfectly modulated here. That isn’t to say that I don’t like other of Hoffman’s books—there are several that I enjoy a lot. But Practical Magic reads to me as if it were the one book she most wanted to write, so when she did, it all came together perfectly.

House from Practical MagicFor those of you who have seen the movie (whether you loved or hated it), the book is significantly different. The biggest difference is that the film cuts out most of the second half of the book, in which Sally’s kids are teenagers and Gillian comes back to live with them, which is some of the best stuff in the book. Sally and Gillian’s response to the girls growing up is the centerpiece of the second half of the book, and really emphasizes the story of three generations of sisters: the aunts, Sally & Gillian, and Antonia & Kylie.

Hoffman’s storytelling is the perfect combination of practical and magic itself, beautifully crafting gems that reveal each character:

“One beautiful April day, when Sally was in sixth grade, all of the aunts’ cats followed her to school . . . There was Cardinal and Crow and Raven and Goose. There was a gawky kitten named Dove, and an ill-tempered tom called Magpie, who hissed at the others and kept them at bay. It would be difficult to believe that such a mangy bunch of creatures had come up with a plan to shame Sally, but that is what seemed to have happened, although they may have followed her on that day simply because she’d fixed a tunafish sandwich for lunch . . .

On this morning, Sally didn’t even know the cats were behind her, until she sat down at her desk. . . . Sally shooed them away, but the cats just came closer. They paced back and forth in front of her, their tails in the air, meowing with voices so horrible the sound could have curdled milk in the cup. ‘Scat,’ Sally whispered when Magpie jumped into her lap and began kneading his claws into her nicest blue dress. ‘Go away,’ she begged him. . . . A panic had spread and the more high-strung of Sally’s classmates were already whispering witchery. . . .

A boy in the rear of the room, who had stolen a pack of matches from his father just that morning, now made use of the chaos in the classroom and took the opportunity to set Magpie’s tail on fire. The scent of burning fur quickly filled the room, even before Magpie began to scream. Sally ran to the cat; without stopping to think, she knelt and smothered the flames with her favorite blue dress. . . . Sally stood up, the cat cradled in her arms like a baby, her face and dress dirty with soot. . . .

Sally cried for two hours straight. She loved the cats, that was the thing. She sneaked them saucers of milk and carried them to the vet on Endicott Street in a knitting bag when they fought and tore at each other and their scars became infected. She adored those horrible cats, especially Magpie, and yet sitting in her classroom, embarrassed beyond belief, she would have gladly watched each one be drowned in a bucket of icy water or shot with a BB gun. Even though she went out to care for Magpie as soon as she’d collected herself, cleaning his tail and wrapping it in cotton gauze, she knew she’d betrayed him in her heart. From that day on, Sally thought less of herself. . . . Sally could not have had a more intractable and uncompromising judge; she had found herself lacking, in compassion and fortitude, and the punishment was self-denial, from that moment on” (9-13)

So, whether you read it for the sister-magic, the cats, the eccentric aunts, the glorious descriptions of food, the New England architecture, the small town life, the gorgeous old house, the romance, the coming-of-age, the actual magic, or the lovely prose, I have no doubt you’ll find something in Practical Magic to tickle your fancy.

What are your favorite sister-magic books? Tell me in the comments!

10 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching Suburgatory

by Tessa

I’d finished Breaking Bad. The new New Girl was under Hulu embargo. I watched all of Don’ Trust the B*tch in Apt. 23 when I visited Rebecca (it counts as bonding, ok?). Make it Or Break It was sadly cut short in its prime. I still am resisting Gossip Girl for some reason. What was I to do with my “turn off the brain” time?

Then I read an article about Suburgatory. Which I can’t find right now. But it does exist, because it’s too boring of a reason to make up. I felt compelled to watch it, because A. the girl’s name is Tessa, and I have to scrutinize all bearers of my name who appear in popular media B. the article compared it to the WB’s Popular, which I remember liking and should watch again and C. it’s on ABC which is apparently home to all shows that I will become addicted to.  But what, you may ask, is the particular appeal of this show?

1. A Gilmore Girls-style family pairing

In no way are Tessa and George fast-talking homebody small-town bffs like Rory and Lorelai, but they are a father and daughter who have grown up with only each other, have their own inside jokes, and, because George has moved Tessa out to the richie-rich suburbs of Chatswin, NY, they have a us-against-the-world vibe going on. It’s touching to see and a little different than some of the nuclear family stuff or blended family stuff you see on sitcoms.

2. Suburb satire

The cafeteria offerings.

Everyone in Chatswin is obliviously ridiculous and the set designers and writers aren’t afraid to go over the top, while keeping everyone human.  After all, we’re supposed to see why Tessa feels like she’s an alien but also see how she can get used to the Chatswin bubble. So the water fountain in the school has fresh lemons and limes in its holding tank, and prime rib and sushi for lunch. There ends up being a pet kangaroo for one of the characters. Dallas, the lonely wife who commissions a skylight from George only to become his first new Chatswin friend and a strange kind of mother figure for Tessa, opens up a store that sells only crystal, as in blocks of crystal etched with portraits of loved ones, crystal chef hats, and crushed crystal called “Tears from Heaven.” The Halloween episode this season is about “The Witch of Chatswin” who ends up just being… a feminist.  And the bumbling, self-absorbed, but genuinely enthusiastic guidance counselor, Mr. Wolfe, comes out to the student body by saying something like “I’m gay, which means I will now be driving a Mazda Miata.” I think the best part about the absurdity of Chatswin is that it’s not all in your face suburb satire all the time. It comes out in one-off jokes and sub-main plotlines, and no one reacts to it except for Tessa and George, which heightens the feeling that this is real life for these people.  It doesn’t stop to explain itself and that’s funny.

3. A great cast

Although I think Jane Levy is cute as a button, droll, and good at stomping around like a real teenager, she still seems a little too old to be believable. Luckily, the good attributes outweigh the weirdness, Jeremy Sisto and the other main cast members are great (more on that later), and George and Tessa’s next door neighbors played by are Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell. Jay Mohr plays Dallas’ oft-travelling husband who is mainly worried about shoes being worn in the house while he’s gone. Mr. Wolfe is played by Rex Lee from Entourage; I don’t know if that means anything to anyone but he’s really funny on this show. Tessa’s next door neighbor and best friend comes to us from Weeds, and even though I’m sad to see that she lost her normal body to become thinner and blonder as the seasons progress, she’s still hilarious and a treat every time she’s on screen, so it hasn’t affected her character. And she did just graduate high school (omg) so I shouldn’t judge at all because bodies are still settling into themselves and forget I said anything.

4. Jeremy Sisto acting funny.

Sisto has played so many douchey characters that it’s surprising to see him play a dad. A normal, slightly neurotic single dad who attempts to make his daughter break a date by planning a surprise board game night with her friends.

And it works! Except when he tries to date Alicia Silverstone. I didn’t buy that at all.

5. The Mean Girls aren’t really mean.

Dalia, the daughter of Dallas and what passes for Tessa’s nemesis, is clearly modeled on Paris Hilton, with her blonde hair, eyes ringed with smudgy black eyeshadow, and deadpan delivery of all her lines, often ending with a crisp “bitch.”  Her minions are, as so often is the trope, foolish followers. No one, though, is really following them, and no one is really their target. (Except for one instance in the pilot episode, and I think the writers realized their misstep after that).

Most people at Chatswin High have their own money and social status, which makes for an almost neutral playing field.  We catch glimpses of nerdy characters, but they are clearly preoccupied with their AP classes, and Tessa, who often interacts with and is therefore insulted by Dalia, has too much self-esteem to let it effect her. Dalia’s insults are more because she has no etiquette or filter between her brain and her mouth, rather than a desire to hurt anyone. If anything, she just wants people to go away because she’s so solipsistic, not have a crowd of worshipers following her. It’s kind of refreshing.

6. Awkward neighbor is not really awkward

Lisa might be my favorite character on Suburgatory. She starts out being a flustered girl who wears a cream-color based palate, accented with tiny flowers, bullied by her controlling mother. Early in the first season we have this exchange at the end of a forced neighborly dinner between the Shays and the Altmans:

Lisa: May I be excused? I’m having a terrible time.

George: What about dessert?

Sheila: Lisa can’t have dessert.

George: Whu-uh, Why not, the sugar?

Sheila: No.

But she slowly takes a page from her own mother’s book and uses it to rebel against her tyrannical reign. And I don’t think it’s all due to Tessa’s Manhattan influence. You can just tell that that spark was living inside of Lisa, waiting to start burning. Everything she says has this undercurrent of plotted derangement, and there’s no episode about how she’s afraid to get a boyfriend. She just gets one, no angst, and proceeds to gross Tessa out with her PDAs.  (And her boyfriend, Malik, is also a funny character. He’s mostly a well-rounded dude who is very into the school paper, but is also part of a Medium fan club and will very occasionally be seen to dress like Patricia Arquette.)

Lisa is disgusted by high fives.

7. Cheryl Hines rocks her character, and has the best accent.

Cheryl Hines plays Dallas, and she imbues the stereotype of a bored trophy wife with real charm.  Then she subverts the stereotype by being a happy-go-lucky loon, not at all weighed down by the grim business of beauty. And she has the weirdest accent that is not southern, but sort of is. If a voice could be “tangy” that would be Dallas’s voice. Here’s the first time we get to hear it:

8. Alan Tudyk’s crazy smile.

9. Jane Levy plays a kind of reverse teenage Carrie Bradshaw/Daria/Cady from Mean Girls hybrid and it somehow works.

Ostensibly Jane Levy’s Tessa is the crux of Suburgatory. It’s her life that is being upended and her voiceover that delivers the Carrie Bradshaw-like homilies at the end of the episode. As you can tell, though, the show is about much more than Tessa.  Instead of a woman embracing the big city and writing about it, Tessa is forced to embrace the suburbs and live… about… it. And instead of being fashion obsessed and finding herself she’s obsessed with being true to herself and not caring about fashion (her outfits are still cute).  She wears motorcycle boots and skirts and plays the outsider/observer, but she’s also not so invested in that role that she won’t become involved in the world of Chatswin. And she’s not too cool — in fact, when she goes out of her way to define her coolness it ends up making her look dorky, and that’s very endearing.  For instance, her favorite band plays at her 16th birthday party and for the first song it’s just her rocking out on the dance floor, with that face that means that you’re REALLY FEELING THIS SONG more than ANYONE ELSE, and when a poetry class is being taught by a tattooed teacher, Tessa trips all over herself to try to be the star pupil, creating a monster of a mother poem in the process.

the I’m Feelin’ It face

Which leads me to my last reason–

10. Because if there’s going to be a character named Tessa on American TV, I’m cool with this one.

Washington D.C., Young Adult Style

A List of 5 Young Adult Books Set in Washington D.C.

map of Washington DC

by REBECCA, November 7, 2012

Bones!So, the only thing I’ve ever liked that involved Washington D.C. was Bones . . . Oh, and the conspiracy theories about Lincoln’s assassination aren’t without interest. And I guess the Smithsonian isn’t bad. Well, anyway, as it is the first day of the new presidential term and all (woot, woot), here are five YA books set in D.C.

Capital Girls Ella MonroeCapital Girls, by Ella Monroe (2012)

These seem to be Gossip Girl, only set in D.C. instead of NYC. In Capital Girls, the first book in the Capital Girls series, “we meet four young women, best friends forever, who must navigate life as the children of some of the most powerful people in the nation. With that life comes not only awesome vacations, beautiful clothes and A-list parties, but also scandal, heartache, danger and the ever-present paparazzi who seem to have a knack for catching them when they’re up to something bad!” (Goodreads)

The President's Daughter Ellen Emerson WhiteThe President’s Daughter series, by Ellen Emerson White (1984)

I read the third book in the series, Long Live the Queen, in my youth (and loved it), but only learned this year that it was part of a series. Anyhoo, I still need to read the first two, but in the third one, Meg, the President’s daughter gets kidnapped and is a total badass. I include it in my List of Books That Teach Us To Do Important Stuff. Here’s the description of the first book, from Goodreads: “Sixteen-year-old Meghan Powers likes her life just the way it is. She likes living in Massachusetts. She likes her school. And she has plenty of friends. But all that is about to change. Because Meg’s mother, one of the most prestigious senators in the country, is running for President. And she’s going to win.” Also, can we talk about how the cover of the newly released edition of this book basically IS Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth?

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Ann BrasharesThe Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, by Ann Brashares (2001)

I haven’t read these books, but I did see the movie of the first one with my mom in Chicago and enjoyed it. Chances are, you know the drill, but here’s the description from Goodreads: “Carmen got the jeans at a thrift shop. They didn’t look all that great: they were worn, dirty, and speckled with bleach. On the night before she and her friends part for the summer, Carmen decides to toss them. But Tibby says they’re great. She’d love to have them. Lena and Bridget also think they’re fabulous. Lena decides that they should all try them on. Whoever they fit best will get them. Nobody knows why, but the pants fit everyone perfectly. Even Carmen (who never thinks she looks good in anything) thinks she looks good in the pants. Over a few bags of cheese puffs, they decide to form a sisterhood and take the vow of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants . . . the next morning, they say good-bye. And then the journey of the pants—and the most memorable summer of their lives—begins.”

All-American Girl Meg CabotAll-American Girl series, by Meg Cabot (2002)

From Goodreads:

“Top Ten Reasons Samantha Madison is in Deep Trouble
10. Her big sister is the most popular girl in school
9. Her little sister is a certified genius
8. She’s in love with her big sister’s boyfriend
7. She got caught selling celebrity portraits in school
6. And now she’s being forced to take art classes
5. She’s just saved the president of the United States from an assassination attempt
4. So the whole world thinks she is a hero
3. Even though Sam knows she is far, far from being a hero
2. And now she’s been appointed teen ambassador to the UN
And the number-one reason Sam’s life is over?
1. The president’s son just might be in love with her.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You Peter CameronSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, by Peter Cameron (2007)

While the majority of the book is set in New York City, James Sveck (our delightfully overthinking protagonist) has landed himself in therapy because of an incident that occurred on a school-related trip to Washington D.C. He’s sent there as one of two New York representatives in a youth government seminar, and winds up neck deep in gross teenage specimens, including Sue Kenney, the representative from Pennsylvania who tells James that she’s so excited for the evening because she gets to wear her evening pajamas. “What are evening pajamas?” James asks. “Oh, you don’t know? I thought you would, coming from New York City and all. They’re an alternative to formal gowns. A sort of tunic worn over flowing pants” (109). Aaaaaahhh! You can check out my review of Someday This Pain HERE, in which I gush about how wonderful the book is and meditate on how James and I are clearly the same person.
So, there you have it. Tell me which D.C. books I missed in the comments.

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