Traveling With Books: the Agony and the Ecstasy

by REBECCA, February 27, 2013

Edinburgh Edinburgh

 

Friends, Tessa and I are jetting off to grand old Edinburgh! Woohoo! Make sure you check back on Friday for Tessa’s post on Edinburgh books!

Travel poses the classic book dilemma. It’s such a good feeling to read an amazing book while being in an amazing place with an amazing friend! So I always want to make sure I bring the right books for the trip. Hence, the dilemma (trilemma?):

1. Do I bring one really long book that will last the whole trip and take up the least amount of space in my bag? I like to pack really light and there’s nothing more frustrating than lugging around five books you never get around to reading. But, but, but . . . what if  you bring the WRONG book and are stuck with only one thing to read and you’re not in the mood for it. AGONY!

2. Do I bring four or five books that span genres and moods, secure in the comfort that I have the book on hand for any possible book-mood, but weighed down by the very weight of my options?

3. Or do I just bring my kindle, giving myself the most options possible and not adding any unnecessary weight, BUT facing several  potential travel-reading pitfalls?:  a.) I won’t be able to use my kindle during takeoff and landing on the flights (like, six flights, total). b.) I absolutely refuse to use my kindle when sitting in a super-quaint, old-timey tea shop because the presence of such technology would be an affront to my sense of aesthetics and my desire to pretend that I have been swept back in time! c. Most importantly, I won’t be able to use a train ticket stub or the business card from a whiskey distillery tour as bookmarks and leave them in the book so that I can be reminded of my trip any time I pick up the book in the future.

So, what’s a girl to do?! What are your book-packing strategies? Advise me in the comments!

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Letter to My Younger Self: Read Slake’s Limbo!

A Review of Slake’s Limbo by Felice Holman (1974)

Slake's Limbo Felice Holman

by REBECCA, February 25, 2013

I first mentioned Slake’s Limbo in my post “YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse: A List of Books That Teach Us How To Do Important Stuff,” in the section on how to Survive Urban(-ish) Perils. I hadn’t read the book when I wrote that post, only heard about it, so I’ve been keeping an eye out for a copy ever since. The other day—bless the Fates!—I found a copy in perfect condition at a used book store in town. It’s a really skinny book, so I almost overlooked it, but it was like it was waiting for me. Total time it took to read? Oh, maybe an hour, spread out because I kept it in the kitchen and read it while waiting for bread to toast, etc. But, man, did it pack a punch. And, while I think I might be too old to experience the “favoriteness” that I would have felt about this book if I had read it when I was ten or eleven—that glorious age of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish—I still thought it was wonderful.

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanThirteen-year-old Aremis Slake is bullied at school and abused by his aunt, with whom he lives. Finally, one day, a group of bullies from school are chasing Slake and he ducks into the subway to escape them. He rides the trains idly all day and finally realizes that there’s no reason he needs to go back to his life at all. So he doesn’t. He finds a little alcove in a subway tunnel and lives there, reselling newspapers for money, ducking beneath the turnstiles to ride the rails, and making friends with a rat.

Slake’s Limbo is written in 1974, so there’s a very particular feel to the atmosphere of subterranean New York City. Its version of New York reminded me a little of Harriet the Spy‘s, written ten years earlier. There is the grit and dirt of the city here, certainly (far moreso than in Harriet’s Upper East Side), but also that air of more-innocent-times that seems to cling to narratives set before the eighties. Slake becomes acquainted with several regular newspaper customers on the train platform and even their interactions feel of another time. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of very contemporary YA novels recently, but I’m feeling the distance between now and then a lot lately . . .

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanAs I said, this is a very slim book—about 115 pages in my copy, with its (very) 1986 cover illustration—and maybe that’s why its lyricism hit me. We are told everything about Slake, a narrative device that is frowned upon. Yet, it’s a very personal book, and the description of Slake’s spaces takes his interiority. I kind of think that this is the same story that we might read in an Adam Rapp novel, say, but written from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. The heartbreak is all here, but its stated baldly and without sympathy as opposed to being expressed through action. Yeah, I think Slake’s Limbo and Punkzilla (2009) should be book friends.

Also, did I mention that the prose is 70% concrete and 30% feathers?:

Just before he awoke, it seemed, Slake would dream that a bird had come to the sooty window, open just enough to keep him from asphyxiating . . . that it had come to the sill and perched there, perilously near the inner edge so that it might, at any moment, fall or fly into the room. In his fear that this small creature of the air might blunder into this hostile place, Slake would open his mouth to cry out. As he did so, the bird woud lean forward and land in Slake’s mouth. Then Slake swallowed it. Slake would awake, gagging (7).”

Slake escapes from the hostility of his above-ground home and into a subterranean room of his own. Never good at anything in his life, he quickly finds himself quite capable of surviving, making enough money to eat, learning the routes of all the trains, even feeding a rat hungrier than himself. I can’t tell you precisely what made Slake’s Limbo so compelling to me, exactly. It’s simple, clean, and lovely, that’s all. I will now go to the library and try to check out everything else that Felice Holman has ever written.

Note: there is an audiobook version of Slake’s Limbo read by Neil Patrick Harris! How delightful.

readalikes

Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues  his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.

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.

Skellig David Almond

Skellig by David Almond (1998). This is short British novel about a young boy whose sister is sick and who finds a bird-man-angel dripping with bugs in his shed, so of course I love it. The bird-man-angel eats Chinese food, for god’s sake. Skellig is a very simple story, but its elliptical quality makes it haunting and very re-readable.

Have you read anything by Felice Holman? How do I not know her? Please advise.

Ready Player One is Sci-Fi Potato Chips

readyplayerone

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

Random House, 2011

review by Tessa

Characters

Wade Watts / Parzival – our hero – a teenager living in a stack of mobile homes in future Oklahoma City who has nothing else to live for but figuring out the OASIS fortune scavenger hunt.

James Halliday – reclusive genius and co-coder of OASIS. He left the wiliest will ever – solve his puzzles and find the Easter Eggs embedded in OASIS and you’ll receive his forturne.

Aech – Wade’s best and only friend in OASIS and a fellow gunter (Easter Egg hunter)

Art3mis – Wade’s super crush who is also trying to beat him in the hunt.

The Sixers – Unethical employees of a corporation that wants to take over OASIS and use it for their greedy goals.

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2

Hook / Worldview

OASIS – a fully immersive online world – has, by 2044, pretty much become the world. The outside world sucks, and it’s free to join OASIS, so there’s no reason not to spend as much time as possible there.  It was invented by a sort of Steve Jobs-like dude named James Halliday. Being an extremely socially-averse person, he left no heirs when he died. What he did leave was a series of puzzles and tests inside of OASIS that, when solved and unlocked, would lead to the biggest Easter egg of all time – his fortune.  They are represented by 3 keys and 3 gates – copper, jade, and crystal.

And because Halliday was obsessed with the culture of his youth in the 1980s and wished everyone else would be, the keys and gates have everything to do with the 80s. So the egg hunters, or gunters, are basically experts in 80s pop culture.  Four years go by after Halliday’s death, and no one shows up on the scoreboard. Until one day, someone does. An avatar named Parzival, who is actually a teenager in Oklahoma City.

Once the first key is found and the first gate opened, Parzival is quickly followed in his feats by Aech, his best friend and a clever gunter, and Art3mis, a snarky girl gunter and blogger who Parzival has been crushing on hard for years.  Oh, and the evil Sixers who exploit the loopholes in the rules of the game so they can win and take over OASIS, turning it into billboardmoneyland.

WHO WILL WINNNN?

220px-Ready_Player_One_cover

Does this book achieve its intentions?

As you can probably tell from the description, Ready Player One is a book written by a geek, for geeks, with much love for geek culture. It concerns a quest, so that means built in suspense, and Cline’s chops as a screenwriter guarantee that the journey from copper to crystal key is smooth and hits all the tried-and-true suspense/tension points.

Accordingly, the response has been pretty huge. Enough so that Cline was able to buy himself a DeLorean and customize it, and get a seven-figure book deal for his sophomore novel (and also a seven-figure deal for the movie rights??). Wil Wheaton narrated the audiobook version of Ready Player One. Cline created his own Egg Hunt in real life (with the prize being another DeLorean). It’s brain candy for a certain audience.

And I guess that audience isn’t me. Sure, I devoured Ready Player One in a weekend and wanted to know what would happen to Parzival, Aech, and Art3mis (and two other players who were clearly created to be meaningfully killed), but I never stopped feeling like I was reading a series of tropes, and ones that weren’t very creatively put down on the page.

I can't stop seeing that door as being a sculpture of a leaping dolphin.

I can’t stop seeing that door as being a sculpture of a leaping dolphin.

Cline doesn’t stop to think that the reader might want to figure it out his or herself. Or that (s)he might already know some of the stuff he’s saying. He just explains it and goes on to make another reference to the 80s.  I couldn’t even enjoy the nice romance between Parzival and Art3mis, and the fact that Art3mis probably has my BMI so I could identify with her, because the romance was so unwavering and neatly wrapped up – even its rough spots were predictable.

Although OASIS is a giant universe, it lacks depth. After finishing Ready Player One I felt the same way I used to feel as a teenager after staying up too late drinking too many cans of Squirt and mechanically crunching on Bugles or Doritos or whatever–the kind of snacks that companies build mechanical mouths to test for the sweet spot of crunchiness so that they are wickedly addictive.  A temporary pleasure with no real substance.

I would read a fact put forth in the book, like the halls of Wade’s virtual school being no swearing zones, so kids were automatically muted when they used profanity, and immediately wonder – how did no kid hack that yet?  Or, why hadn’t the kids developed new insulting slang to work around the restrictions?  And the universe was so culturally homogenous – I’m not sure if it was because the book is written from Wade’s POV and he hangs out with other gunters and only thinks of the 80s, so all the book provides is planet after planet and person after person based on or obsessed by the 80s – and mostly video games and movies from the 80s. No art, very little music, and the usual suspects of fantasy books. Where were the other subcultures? The black-and-white planet where people dance like Fred Astaire?  And what about the outside world?  It seems less over the top than the world of Idiocracy but less realistically scary than Ship BreakerEveryone in it has just given up – no protesters, information about no neo-hippies forming hopeful communes.

I guess I expected something more complex than a movie pitch disguised as a novel.  So to answer my question, yes, the book achieved its intentions but did not satisfy my expectations.  But whose fault is that?

Romance Under the Spanish Moss: a Safe Haven movie review

A Review of Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallström (2013)

Safe Haven

Friends, I have to come clean with you about something. My name is Rebecca and I . . . I have really been looking forward to seeing the latest Nicholas Sparks movie.

So, last night my sister and I made the pilgrimage and, well, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Julianne Hough plays Katie, a woman running from a violent past, who ends up in small town North Carolina. There she meets Alex, a widower with two kids. And the rest is romance history. I haven’t read the novel Safe Haven, so I can’t comment on it as an adaptation, but I did think Hallström did a nice job: the romance was understated and believable (if a little flat), the setting beautifully evoked, and Katie’s past legitimately sinister.

Safe HavenMy favorite thing about Safe Haven (besides Katie’s house), though, was Julianne Hough. I have no idea whether she’s a good actor or she was just being herself, but either way, I found her very refreshing. So many romance couples are swoony and cutesy, but even in the face of small town hospitality and romance Hough was wary, a little skittish, self-preservingly impolite, and has a great husky voice. We’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about the disturbingly thin line in some YA romances between romantic beau geste and stalkerish creepiness. In light of that, I found Katie’s character’s negative reaction to Alex’s beau geste (even though it wasn’t intrinsically creepy) particularly refreshing, especially in a genre that usually isn’t. Josh Duhamel as the grieving widower was good, too—he didn’t overplay any of the emotions, but he’s sweet, sincere, and endearingly unsuave.

The dialogue is actually pretty good, except for the notable, and unfortunate, exception of the scene where Katie and Alex declare their love. But, you know, those scenes are pretty awkward in real life too. The drama is legitimately engaging. And director Lasse Hallström, true to form, really plays the small moments well: numerous shots of feet going from place to place, hands touching in the sand. And there are a few “twists,” which are pretty predictable, but add to the dynamics of the film.

In short, Safe Haven is a well-made, well-paced romance that manages to infuse a predictable plot with some legitimate suspense—so, as long as you’re not expecting anything more than that, you probably won’t be disappointed. I wasn’t.

Oceanic Gothic: A List of YA Books That Live In Dark Waters

by REBECCA, February 18, 2013

Oceanic Gothic

I’ve called a few times for a new sub-genre: oceanic gothic! I think of oceanic gothic as a sub-genre that takes on all the darker or more overwhelming aspects of deep water. Sure the ocean can be a sun-soaked paradise of surfing and Mai Tais. But, more interestingly to me, the ocean is a prime example of the sublime—something that makes us aware of our tininess, our insignificance, our contingency in the face of its vastness. Something so overwhelmingly, incalculably wide, deep, and teeming that we feel our very sense of identity blown open in the face of it.

And that overwhelming sense of the sublime is one of the mainstays of gothic literature: the twisting halls of the crumbling gothic castle that you feel like you could get lost in forever, the inhuman strength of monster against which you can never win, the vast unknowability of the spirit world, the endless immortality of the creature that has seen and experienced more than you ever can, and more. But while many a classic gothic novel has been set in a crumbling castle or a wind-swept moor, and many a gothic update has been set in a crumbling boarding school or wind-swept Forks, Washington, historically, the ocean hasn’t seen much gothic action, if you will, and I think that’s a real missed opportunity. After all, there’s something doubly intriguing about a gothic setting can also be so bright and shiny (surfing, Mai Tais). Then, when the sun sets, or even when you’re the only one on the beach or in the water, it can turn so suddenly sinister.

So, here is a provisional list of some YA oceanic gothics—I’m sure there are more that we could add to the list, so be sure to tell me in the comments!

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth is an oceanic gothic winner—bonus points for having a cover that is the perfect combination of oceanic (fish scales) and gothic (a heart made out of fishhooks)! It is the story of an isolated island where people go as a last resort because its fish are rumored to be magically restorative to people who are dying. Our protag, Rudy, moves there with his parents and little brother who has cystic fibrosis. Once there, dark secrets of the island and its magic fish (and a fishboy) are revealed. The descriptions are gorgeous:

 

“At night the ocean is so loud and so close that I lie awake, sure it’s going to beat against the house’s supports until we all crumble onto the rocks and break into pieces. Our house is creaky, gray, weather stained. It’s probably held a dozen desperate families who found their cure and left before we’d even heard about this island. We are a groan away from a watery death, and we’ll all drown without even waking up, because we’re so used to sleeping through unrelenting noise.”

The Dead-Tossed Waves Carrie Ryan

The Dead-Tossed Waves (The Forest of Hands and Teeth #2) by Carrie Ryan

The Dead-Tossed Waves is the sequel to The Forest of Hands and Teeth (review HERE). Gabry lives between a forest and the ocean, both of which are teeming with the dead. I mean, there’s really nothing more oceanically gothic than an ocean swarming with zombies, right?

“And there’s no one waiting for me, no one who knows me. No one to share my life and experiences with. It’s me and the ocean, the tides and the lighthouse and wave after wave folding time to the shore.”

Also, The Dead-Tossed Waves is a legitimately good sequel—not too similar to the first, but not too far removed either. It’s really a great setting.

Two by Kirsty Eagar:

Saltwater Vampires Kirsty Eagar Saltwater Vampires by Kirsty Eagar

I haven’t read either of these books by Australian YA author Kirsty Eagar, but it seems very clear to me that she could be the very maven of oceanic gothic. From Goodreads:

“He looked to the sky, praying for rain, a downpour, some sign from the heavens that he should refuse the abomination contained in that flask. But all he saw was the bloated white face of the moon smiling down on him . . . And the sky around it was cold and clear and black. They made their circle of blood. And only the moon witnessed the slaughter that followed.

For Jamie Mackie, summer holidays in the coastal town of Rocky Head mean surfing, making money, and good times at the local music festival. But this year, vampires are on the festival’s line-up . . . fulfilling a pact made on the wreck of the Batavia, four hundred years ago. If their plans succeed, nobody in Rocky Head will survive to see out the new year.”

Night Beach Kirsty EagarNight Beach by Kirsty Eagar

This one, in particular, appeals to me. From Goodreads: “Imagine there is someone you like so much that just thinking about them leaves you desperate and reckless. You crave them in a way that’s not rational, not right, and you’re becoming somebody you don’t recognise, and certainly don’t respect, but you don’t even care. And this person you like is unattainable. Except for one thing . . . He lives downstairs.

Abbie has three obsessions. Art. The ocean. And Kane. But since Kane’s been back, he’s changed. There’s a darkness shadowing him that only Abbie can see. And it wants her in its world.” Gaaaahhh! Yes, please.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races is one of my favorite novels of the last few years (check out my review HERE for my feelings about the book as well as the story of how it caused me to cry audibly on an airplane). It’s also a different kind of oceanic gothic—it’s less on the creepy or sublime side of things and more a dark, intrinsically somber view of island life.

As have mentioned elsewhereThe Scorpio Races is a book that features the sea in all its many permutations: sublime, cradling, dangerous, alien, cleansing. Every November, on the shores of Thisby Island, men race the wild horses that rise up from the toiling waters—only one man may win, but many may die, bloodied and broken by their mounts, or dragged under the water with them, unable to resist their otherworldly call. Yeeeeeeessss!

Monstrous Beauty Elizabeth FamaMonstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty is on my to-read list for sure, and it seems pretty clear that it can be filed under oceanic gothic, right? From Goodreads: “Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.

Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.”

Need more proof? There are underwater doll graveyards!

Well, friends, what oceanic gothic YA novels am I missing? Tell me in the comments!

Panther Baby, slip some radical literature under the tree, for me.

pantherbaby

Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention

Jamal Joseph

Algonquin Books, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters

Jamal Joseph –
Cuban-American orphan growing up in late 60s NYC with revolution in his family tree (though he doesn’t know it)

Noonie Baltimore –

The strong-willed woman who ends up raising Jamal and showing him love, discipline, and self-respect

The Panther 21 –

Black Panther members from NYC who are arrested in 1969 on trumped-up charges of conspiracy and kept in jail without bail.

Hook

Worldview

Jamal Joseph was born out of wedlock to a Cuban woman who decided to move to New York City and get an education. To do this, she gave Jamal (then called Eddie) up for foster care.  His foster parents got sick, and Jamal was then raised by Noonie and Pa Baltimore. Noonie was the housekeeper for Jamal’s foster parents. They made sure he went to school, respected his elders, and in Pa Baltimore’s case, learned a bunch of fun swear words from cursing out the TV news.

Jamal is very aware of the political situation in the US as far as the fight for civil rights is concerned. So when Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated, he goes out to the streets to protest. Shop windows are broken and the police show up, indiscriminately chasing anyone around, shooting at them, and claiming they’re “looters”. Jamal is running from the police for this reason when he runs into a phalanx of 20 or so men in fatigues and berets, calmly walking the streets. They surround him and tell the policemen that they’re exercising their constitutional right to free assembly. The police leave them alone. Then they tell Jamal to run home so he doesn’t get killed. These are the Black Panthers. Jamal, duly impressed, goes to a meeting as soon as he can. He’s 15 years old.

By the time he’s 16 he’s risen in the ranks of the Panthers, spoken out at school against the way that history is being taught, and clashed with Noonie about his new, radical afterschool activities. Then he becomes part of the Panther 21 – accused of planning to bomb buildings.  Sure, he was taught to clean and put together an M-16, but the conspiracy charges are simply not true.  It doesn’t matter. He’s in jail.

And that’s just the beginning of Jamal Joseph’s journey.

Jamal Joseph speaking about the Black Panther 21 case on the green at the University of Vermont - Burlington, Vermont - 1971 photograph by Roz Payne http://www.newsreel.us/panthers/index.htm

Jamal Joseph speaking about the Black Panther 21 case on the green at the University of Vermont – Burlington, Vermont – 1971 photograph by Roz Payne http://www.newsreel.us/panthers/index.htm

What is the book’s intention and is it achieved?

Panther Baby is Jamal Joseph’s story, told from his point of view and with his biases, and that’s how I like it. It leaves the door wide open for further reading about the Black Panthers and the even more militant Black Liberation Army that Joseph was a part of later, in the 70s/80s.

Joseph doesn’t try to hide the parts of being a radical that weren’t so great, but he doesn’t apologize for his politics either, and that’s admirable. He shows the good he did, the prejudice he was up against, and the benefit of having pride and taking power back from a society that tried its hardest not to allow certain people to have any.

Much of Joseph’s story is about navigating codes and roles. He talks about being a man and what that means, which is different from being a black man, which is different from the variations on being a black man representing toughness on the streets. And then he goes into the codes of behavior in prison, and how he successfully and unsuccessfully tries to navigate that world without using violence and without being taken advantage of.

Apart from being a thrilling life story, there’s a lot here to think about and discuss. His personality shines through, and I can guess that even now Joseph hasn’t given up the thought-provoking life.  He’s a questioner and he’s an activist.

Unlike many memoirs, Panther Baby doesn’t waste time dithering around. Joseph cuts to the chase and his story packs a punch. To mix metaphors. I could even see a reader wanting more.

Readalikes

rockandriver

The Rock and the River / Kekla Magoon

The Time: 1968 The Place: Chicago  For thirteen-year-old Sam it’s not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older (and best friend), Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever.  Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick’s bed, he’s not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore.” – from the publisher site.

OCS

One Crazy Summer / Rita Williams-Garcia

I know from Jumped that Williams-Garcia is a master of voice, so I expect that all the praise heaped on this title is well-founded.  From the NY Times review by Monica Edinger: “Mothers. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them. Yet 11-year-old Delphine and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern have done just fine without theirs. Cecile, a poet, walked out on them just after Fern was born. Now, in the summer of 1968, their father, with the reluctant agreement of their grandmother, has decided that the three girls need to leave their Brooklyn home to spend a few weeks with their mother in Oakland, Calif., to get to know her. …Cecile brusquely takes them to her sparsely furnished stucco house; sends them to pick up a Chinese take-out dinner, which they eat on the floor; and then pretty much ignores them. The next day, wanting them out of her way, she directs them to the Black Panther People’s Center.”

colvin

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice / Phillip Hoose

Colvin was a teenager who was part of an earlier fight for civil rights – she refused to give up her seat on a bus just like Rosa Parks, but was deemed too unstable to base a landmark case on.

mapofireland

Map of Ireland / Stephanie Grant“In 1974, when Ann Ahern begins her junior year of high school, South Boston is in crisis — Catholic mothers are blockading buses to keep Black children from the public schools, and teenagers are raising havoc in the streets. Ann, an outsider in her own Irish-American community, is infatuated with her beautiful French teacher, Mademoiselle Eugenie, who hails from Paris but is of African descent. Spurred by her adoration for Eugenie, Ann embarks on a journey that leads her beyond South Boston, through the fringes of the Black Power movement, toward love, and ultimately to the truth about herself.” – from Goodreads description

If anyone has any good non-fiction recommendations about the Black Panthers, lemme know!

 

Reader, I Married Him: Retellings of Jane Eyre

A List of Contemporary Young Adult Retellings of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

by REBECCA, February 13, 2013

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, and everyone knows that nothing says romance like confining your wife to the attic and then dressing up like a fortune teller to spy on your governess. In the spirit of romance, then, here are some Young Adult retellings of Jane Eyre (all plot descriptions from Goodreads).

Jane April Lindner

Jane, April Lindner

Forced to drop out of an esteemed East Coast college after the sudden death of her parents, Jane Moore takes a nanny job at Thornfield Park, the estate of Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star on the brink of a huge comeback. Practical and independent, Jane reluctantly becomes entranced by her magnetic and brooding employer and finds herself in the midst of a forbidden romance. But there’s a mystery at Thornfield, and Jane’s much-envied relationship with Nico is soon tested by an agonizing secret from his past. Torn between her feelings for Nico and his fateful secret, Jane must decide: Does being true to herself mean giving up on true love?

Jane Slayre Sherri Browning Erwin

Jane Slayre, Sherri Browning Erwin

“READER, I BURIED HIM.” A timeless tale of love,  devotion . . . and the undead. Jane Slayre, our plucky demon-slaying heroine, a courageous orphan who spurns the detestable vampyre kin who raised her, sets out on the advice of her ghostly uncle to hone her skills as the fearless slayer she’s meant to be. When she takes a job as a governess at a country estate, she falls head-over-heels for her new master, Mr. Rochester, only to discover he’s hiding a violent werewolf in the attic—in the form of his first wife. Can a menagerie of bloodthirsty, flesh-eating, savage creatures-of-the-night keep a swashbuckling nineteenth-century lady from the gentleman she intends to marry? Vampyres, zombies, and werewolves transform Charlotte Brontë’s unforgettable masterpiece into an eerie paranormal adventure that will delight and terrify.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey

When her widower father drowns at sea, Gemma Hardy is taken from her native Iceland to Scotland to live with her kind uncle and his family. But the death of her doting guardian leaves Gemma under the care of her resentful aunt, and it soon becomes clear that she is nothing more than an unwelcome guest at Yew House. When she receives a scholarship to a private school, ten-year-old Gemma believes she’s found the perfect solution and eagerly sets out again to a new home. However, at Claypoole she finds herself treated as an unpaid servant.

To Gemma’s delight, the school goes bankrupt, and she takes a job as an au pair on the Orkney Islands. The remote Blackbird Hall belongs to Mr. Sinclair, a London businessman; his eight-year-old niece is Gemma’s charge. Even before their first meeting, Gemma is, like everyone on the island, intrigued by Mr. Sinclair. Rich (by Gemma’s standards), single, flying in from London when he pleases, Hugh Sinclair fills the house with life. An unlikely couple, the two are drawn to each other, but Gemma’s biggest trial is about to begin: a journey of passion and betrayal, redemption and discovery, that will lead her to a life of which she’s never dreamed.

Ironskin Tina Connolly

Ironskin, Tina Connolly

Jane Eliot wears an iron mask. It’s the only way to contain the fey curse that scars her cheek. The Great War is five years gone, but its scattered victims remain—the ironskin. When a carefully worded listing appears for a governess to assist with a “delicate situation”—a child born during the Great War—Jane is certain the child is fey-cursed, and that she can help. Teaching the unruly Dorie to suppress her curse is hard enough; she certainly didn’t expect to fall for the girl’s father, the enigmatic artist Edward Rochart. But her blossoming crush is stifled by her own scars, and by his parade of women. Ugly women, who enter his closed studio . . . and come out as beautiful as the fey. Jane knows Rochart cannot love her, just as she knows that she must wear iron for the rest of her life. But what if neither of these things is true? Step by step Jane unlocks the secrets of her new life—and discovers just how far she will go to become whole again.

Dark Companion Marta Acosta

Dark Companion, Marta Acosta

Orphaned at the age of six, Jane Williams has grown up in a series of foster homes, learning to survive in the shadows of life. Through hard work and determination, she manages to win a scholarship to the exclusive Birch Grove Academy. There, for the first time, Jane finds herself accepted by a group of friends. She even starts tutoring the headmistress’s gorgeous son, Lucien. Things seem too good to be true. They are. The more she learns about Birch Grove’s recent past, the more Jane comes to suspect that there is something sinister going on. Why did the wife of a popular teacher kill herself? What happened to the former scholarship student, whose place Jane took? Why does Lucien’s brother, Jack, seem to dislike her so much? As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove—and what she would risk to stay there . . .

A Breath of Eyre Eve Marie Mont

A Breath of Eyre, Eve Marie Mont

In this stunning, imaginative novel, Eve Marie Mont transports her modern-day heroine into the life of Jane Eyre to create a mesmerizing story of love, longing, and finding your place in the world . . . Emma Townsend has always believed in stories—the ones she reads voraciously, and the ones she creates. Perhaps it’s because she feels like an outsider at her exclusive prep school, or because her stepmother doesn’t come close to filling the void left by her mother’s death. And her only romantic prospect—apart from a crush on her English teacher—is Gray Newman, a long-time friend who just adds to Emma’s confusion. But escape soon arrives in an old leather-bound copy of Jane Eyre . . .

Reading of Jane’s isolation sparks a deep sense of kinship. Then fate takes things a leap further when a lightning storm catapults Emma right into Jane’s body and her nineteenth-century world. As governess at Thornfield, Emma has a sense of belonging she’s never known—and an attraction to the brooding Mr. Rochester. Now, moving between her two realities and uncovering secrets in both, Emma must decide whether her destiny lies in the pages of Jane’s story, or in the unwritten chapters of her own.

Jenna Starborn Sharon Shinn

Jenna Starborn, Sharon Shinn

Jenna Starborn was created out of frozen embryonic tissue, a child unloved and unwanted. Yet she has grown up with a singularly sharp mind—and a heart that warms to those she sees as less fortunate than herself. This novel takes us into Jenna Starborn’s life, to a planet called Fieldstar, and to a property called Thorrastone—whose enigmatic lord will test the strength of that tender and compassionate heart.

Did I miss any? Tell me in the comments!

Obsidian, and Some Thoughts on the Genre of Paranormal Romance

A Review of Obsidian (Lux #1) by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Entangled Teen, 2011

Obsidian Jennifer L. Armentrout

by REBECCA, February 11, 2013

characters

Katy Swarz: thoughtful book blogger Katy doesn’t take shit, but can’t quite resist Daemon, even when he’s shitty

Daemon Black: the infuriating and handsome alien boy asshole next door, Daemon is wary of Katy at first, but then drawn to her

Dee Black: Daemon’s twin, she and Katy are fast friends and she runs interference between Katy and Daemon

hook

When Katy’s mom moves her to rural West Virginia the summer before senior year after her dad dies, all she wants is to make some new friends, write her book blog, and recover. So, of course she would move in next door to aliens caught in an epic battle between cosmic good and evil. And of course one of those aliens would be an overly attractive shithead who breaks her laptop!

genre!

Katy’s world has been small lately. After her father died, her mother withdrew into herself and started working all the time, leaving Katy alone a lot. Katy started a book blog that lets her reach out and connect with people, and she’s poured all her energy into it. She’s chill and a bit shy, but smart and confident, so when she realizes that her next door neighbors are teenagers her own age she decides to make nice. Her first meeting with grouchy-pants Daemon sets the tone for their relationship: he’s overly attractive, obnoxious, condescending, and (of course) convinced that Katy is attracted to him (which, of course, she is).

Onyx Jennifer L. ArmentroutDaemon’s sister, Dee, is a sweetheart who befriends Katy right away. However, something weird happens every time Katy goes into town with Dee or tries to sit with her at lunch in the school cafeteria; people stare at them and seem hostile toward one or the other of them for no reason that Katy can tell—after all, she doesn’t even know anyone. One night, though, Katy is attacked outside the library and Daemon comes to her rescue with . . . special powers. Finally, he and Dee can’t keep their secret anymore: they are aliens and whenever they use their powers around a human it leaves a mark on that human that their enemies can see from far away. The only way to protect Katy from the enemy? Guess. No, I’ll wait. Yes, you’re right: it’s for Daemon to never leave her alone and vulnerable.

And thus unfolds a familiar romance/action plot line: Katy and Daemon frustrate one another, but are drawn together in the face of a common enemy.

I have been meaning to read Obsidian ever since I met the lovely Judith and Ellen from I Love YA Fiction at BEA this year, because it’s the book that made them start blogging. Now, one of my favorite things about talking to friends who care as much about books as I do is that sometimes we totally disagree. So, I’ll admit it, I approached Obsidian with great trepidation simply because the genre of YA paranormal romance isn’t my usual cuppa. But I just couldn’t resist a book that inspired some of my favorite people to start blogging (and that has 4.4 stars on Goodreads), so I dove in.

It was fun to read about Katy’s book blogging and I can totally see how it would be the inspiration for Judith and Ellen! But, alas, that’s about all I liked about Obsidian.

Let me be clear: I think that probably for folks who really enjoy the genre of YA paranormal romance, Obsidian will do the trick. It has a not-totally-unreasonable plot, some legitimately developed characters and fun secondary-characters, a not-overdone setting, sexual tension between Katy and Daemon that lasts for the whole book (that’s a thing people like, right?), a nice mom, and it’s a series. Also, it isn’t badly written at all—the prose is totally serviceable. So, all that (along with the many, many positive reviews I’ve read) suggests that Obsidian is the kind of thing that people who like that kind of thing will like. You know?

With or Without You Brian FarreyBut, if I didn’t already know it, Obsidian really showed me that the genre isn’t to my taste. And so I’ve been thinking about what, precisely, is the very thin line that divides “paranormal romance” from books that I do like. I enjoy a good romance plot, for sure, including several I’ve reviewed here: With Or Without You by Brian FarreyJust Listen by Sarah Dessen, The God Eaters by Jesse HajicekThe Scorpio Races by Maggie StiefvaterDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates, etc. And I definitely have no problem with the paranormal, as the above list will certainly testify.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone Laini TaylorSo, what’s the difference between a paranormal romance and a book like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which contains a paranormal romance? The biggest difference, for me, is that in paranormal romance (as in its mother genre, romance) the central goal of the book is to tell the story of two people entering into a relationship with one another and chronicling the obstacles to the success of that relationship—a success that is, by virtue of the genre, guaranteed. A book like Daughter of Smoke and Bone definitely has a romance plot, but it’s much more than just a backdrop against which the romance plays out. That difference, though, is, for me, the difference between a book that I enjoy and one that I find pretty boring. Daughter of Smoke and Bone or The Scorpio Races or Leave Myself Behind are larger than their romance plots—their scope is bigger and their stakes are higher. In a paranormal romance, the largest stakes are in the relationship between the two main characters—even when there is a cosmic alien battle between good and evil. This is to differing degrees, certainly, and some paranormal romances (and series) are more intricate and detailed than others. In Obsidian, though, if you took away the romance element you wouldn’t be left with anything; the conceit of the book is generic and flimsy without it.

Hush, Hush Becca FitzpatrickAgain, I don’t mean this as a critique of the genre—far from it. Genre conventions are powerful predictors of taste, though, and readers who like a genre like it because of its conventions, not in spite of them. I’ve realized, in reading Obsidian (and other paranormal romances, like Hush, HushNevermore, and Fallen), that one of the conventions of the paranormal romance genre that I dislike in particular is the way that love or attraction are abstracted (metaphorized?) as an otherworldly connection. By this I mean that often in these books our protagonist (usually a girl) sees a boy she thinks is attractive and feels drawn to him for reasons she can’t explain. I’m annoyed by the resulting tendency of these books to equate attraction—that is, being physically drawn to someone—with love. (Note: hey, friend, I can explain why you feel drawn to him . . .)

In Obsidian, for example, Katy finds Daemon super attractive, but she cannot stand his personality (with good reason, because he is a grade-A jerkface). She wants to make out with him; she feels warm and flushed whenever he’s near; she thinks he smells good. Katy: that’s called being attracted to someone. But in the genre conventions of the paranormal romance, attraction—lust—(a totally normal part of life) is transmuted into an-inexplicable-force-drawing-us-together-across-time-and-space-that-must-surely-be-meaningful.

And part of me kind of thinks that the genre of YA paranormal romance in particular developed out of a resistance to portraying teenagers as lustful, preferring, instead, to render lust meaningful and, thus, romantic. Because the only real difference between feeling drawn to someone because you want to bone them and feeling drawn to someone because they are secretly connected to you by a werewolf mating bond . . . is genre.

Southern Gothic Delight: A Density of Souls

A Review of A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice

Pan Books, 2000

A Density of Souls Christopher Rice

by REBECCA, February 6, 2013

characters

Stephen Conlin: Branded “FAG” at the start of high school, Stephen is a tough cookie!

Meredith Ducote: Stephen’s former best friend who turns popular mean girl (for a little while) but has troubles of her own

Greg Darby & Brandon Charbonnet: Stephen and Meredith’s childhood friends made villainous by age

Jordan Charbonnet: declared too perfect for his own good by a college girlfriend, Jordan and Stephen make an unlikely couple

hook

Once, as kids, Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon were inseparable, playing on the streets of their New Orleans neighborhood. As they start high school, though, Greg and Brandon become popular football players, Meredith becomes part of the in-crowd, and Stephen is bullied for being gay by people at school, including his ex-friends. Five years later, after high school, Stephen has a new life and hasn’t spoken to Meredith, Greg, and Brandon in years. When a shocking explosion kills multiple people in a New Orleans club and a series of violent events unfold, the former friends find themselves forced back into each other’s lives.

worldview

Lafayette CemeteryOh, Southern gothic, I love you so! I first read A Density of Souls when it first came out in 2000, which was my senior year of high school. I’d never been to New Orleans at the time and—I can’t lie to you, friends—really I only picked it up because Christopher Rice is Anne Rice‘s son and I was curious about what craziness Anne Rice’s kid would spew out. But, though I picked it up with impure intentions, I loved A Density of Souls within the first ten pages. I am such a sucker for a story about intense childhood friendships that go awry, and these friendships definitely go awry.

Stephen is the main character, here, though we get chunks of others’ stories (including Stephen’s mom as a young girl). After high school, Stephen lives with his mom (his dad killed himself years ago), goes to school, and has begun dating. He’s made a life for himself despite being tormented in high school. One night Stephen is at a bar with a friend when someone blows it up. As if shit’s not hard enough, right Stephen!? Anyhoo, this act sets into motion a series of events that brings Meredith back into Stephen’s life and introduces Stephen to Jordon Charbonnet (such great New Orleans-y last names!), Brandon’s older brother and bona fide overly-attractive person.

New OrleansThe tone of A Density of Souls is what I most appreciate about it. When I say it’s a Southern gothic, I mean more in the Truman Capote sense than in the William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor senses of things. That is, this isn’t a gloomy, sinister creepshow. Its Southern gothicness is subtle—more about manners, pathos, and family secrets, drippy trees and dirty water. And it’s delightful. I think a lot of people would put Christopher Rice in the “guilty pleasure” camp, in that his writing is . . . unapologetically lush. But I think it’s beautiful, as long as you like that sort of thing. I mean, I hate to make the comparison, but in a way, his descriptions of New Orleans do really remind me of mommy Rice a bit, in that they caress a New Orleans that they both obviously love.

“Beneath a sky thickening with summer thunderheads, they rode their bikes to Lafayette Cemetery, where the dead are buried above ground. The four of them flew down Chestnut Street, their wheels bouncing over flagstones wrenched by the gnarled roots of oak trees. They passed high wrought-iron fences beyond which Doric and Ionic columns held up the façades of Greek Revival mansions, their screened porches shrouded in tangles of vines” (3).

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

Christopher Rice (and I say this having read all of his books except his most recent, which, frankly, looks uninteresting to me) is fascinated by writing about the way the secrets we protect most fiercely have a way of erupting into our relationships and either ruining them or strengthening them. His thesis across four books seems to be that if a relationship is worth anything then it can absorb your deepest, darkest secrets, and if it crumples under their weight then it wasn’t worth much to begin with. I feel pretty comfortable endorsing that calculus. Right? Anyhoo, A Density of Souls is a story about the different ways those secrets affect the relationships in Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon’s lives.

Rice is a legitimately good writer, and his evocation of interpersonal dynamics in only a few lines of dialogue works particularly well for this book, which is pretty short and manages to tell a number of stories, but isn’t at all dense. In that way, it is very un-Anne-Rice-esque and reminds me more of a Breakfast at Tiffany’s or something.

“After three weeks of seing each other, at just the moment when Stephen felt he had written enough love poetry to hand Devon a stack of messy loose-leaf pages, Devon showed up at his house one afternoon and announced that Stephen was a ‘cold, emotionally withdrawn person suffering from only-child syndrome,’ and their relationship was over. He offered evidence. ‘A week ago we went to see a movie. Before the movie you purchased a pack of Dots. You consumed the entire pack without offering me any. In the middle of the movie, I rose and went to purchase my own pack. When I sat down, the first thing you asked me was, “Can I have some Dots?”‘

Devon paused, allowing his indictment to settle over Stephen. In response, Stephen picked up a copy of Reports from the Holocaust by Larry Kramer off the nightstand and hurled it at Devon’s head. . . . Stephen received a memo printed on the stationary of the Tulane University administrative office where Devon was working part-time. RE: Your Emotional Issues . . .

Stephen did not call Devon. Instead, he delivered a case of Dots to the door of Devon’s dorm room” (114-115).

DotsAll the interconnections among people strengthen the feeling that Rice evokes of an inescapably, at times claustrophobically, tight-knit Garden District, and sets the scene well for the backstories of Stephen’s mother and the Charbonnet family.

A Density of Souls is great story-telling against the well-wrought backdrop of contemporary New Orleans. I made my mother read it when we were in New Orleans together a few years ago (you know, for thematic resonance) and she really enjoyed it, too. So, there you have it: an intergenerational two thumbs up!

readalikes

The Snow Garden Christopher Rice

The Snow Garden by Christopher Rice (2002). The Snow Garden is Rice’s second novel and I really like it also. Set on a college campus, two close friends realize that although they were immediately drawn together they each have reinvented themselves in an attempt to leave dark pasts behind. When a professor’s wife dies in a car accident one night, it threatens to expose an intricate web of lies that has captured both friends.

The Secret History Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992). One of my all-time favorites, this is set on a college campus, but feels like a boarding school. I write about The Secret History and a ’90s series that totally rips it off HERE.

Mysterious Skin Scott Heim

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim (1995). A beautiful, intense book about what it means to excavate your own secrets, especially when you’ve hidden them from yourself. Awesome movie adaptation by Gregg Araki, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

procured from: bought, long ago

Play Me A Song!: Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater

A Review of Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie (Books of Faerie #2) by Maggie Stiefvater 

Flux, 2009

Ballad Maggie Stiefvater

by REBECCA, February 4, 2013

           Ballad is the sequel to Lament, the first in the Books of Faerie series. Check out my                review of Lament HERE!

characters

James Morgan: bagpiping prodigy James has had the crap stomped out of him lately, isn’t speaking to his best friend, and is starting a new school where he doesn’t know anyone. And the school year hasn’t even started yet.

Nuala: a half fairy who must feed on the genius of humans, she has her sights set on James.

Mr. Sullivan: James’ English teacher . . . and, it turns out, much, much more.

Deirdre: James’ erstwhile best friend (and crush), she is also the cloverhand who has drawn Nuala and the other fairies to her and James’ school.

hook

“Music prodigy James Morgan has joined his best friend, Deirdre, at a private conservatory for musicians. James’ almost unearthly gift for music has attracted the dangerous attentions of Nuala, a soul-snatching faerie muse who fosters and feeds on the creative energies of exceptional humans until they die. Composing beautiful music together leads James and Nuala down an unexpected road of mutual admiration . . . and love. Haunted by a vision of raging fire and death, James realizes that Deirdre and Nuala are being hunted by the Fey and plunges into a soulscorching battle with the Queen of the Fey to save their lives” (Goodreads).

review

Lament Maggie StiefvaterBallad picks up soon after the events of Lament leave off. Ballad, though, is a very different book. Different setting (music conservatory Thornking-Ash), different characters, and different narrators (James and Nuala).   James, still distraught over losing Deirdre to Luke Dillon and almost being eviscerated by the fairy queen, is at sea in his new school. There is no music teacher who has anything to teach him on the pipes, he doesn’t know anyone, and he’s depressed. Also, he hears mysterious music emanating from a mysterious and otherworldly horned creature. Into this mess, enters Nuala, who offers to make James’ musical gift even more otherworldly (in exchange for his life force, of course, no big deal). James turns her offer down, but Nuala keeps hanging around and though they begin antagonistically, they are increasingly drawn to each other.

I admire Maggie Stiefvater for doing a series where the focus totally changes from the first book to the second. I really like James as a character and I was excited to read a story from his perspective. Ballad felt like it could be a stand-alone novel in some ways. And, bonus, Thornking-Ash is a boarding school. And you know how we feel about boarding school books!

Ballad Maggie StiefvaterI love music and was really taken with the premise of Ballad. But it was a slow starter for me—I think because I didn’t really like the character of Nuala. Nuala just wasn’t a character who really came alive for me. The narrative shifts back and forth from Nuala’s perspective to James’ and Nuala’s sections just fell a bit flat, especially in comparison to James, whom was a great, complex character. I loved seeing the hints of James that we saw in Lament really get filled out here. Little details, like the way James writes on his hands, came together beautifully with the cosmology of the book (but I won’t say how), and it’s just such little details that make me such a fan of Stiefvater’s work.

It was interesting to think of Ballad as a rehearsal of some of the themes that come so to life in Stiefvater’s most recent book, The Raven Boys, which I loved (full review HERE). The sections of the book that involve Mr. Sullivan and James’ roommate trying to figure out what’s going on with fairy magic reminded me so much of The Raven Boys.

Requiem, the third in the Books of Faerie series is forthcoming next year. To quote Maggie Stiefvater, “currently, the first two words of the rough draft are ‘Luke Dillon.’”

procured from: the library

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