Whatever, punk rock: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada Imogen Binnie

Nevada

Imogen Binnie

Topside Press, 2013

review by Tessa, with comments from Rebecca

characters

in NYC

Maria Griffiths- still wants to write the ultimate zine that explains what it means to be a trans woman, but hasn’t yet. feels a little trapped in her union job at a bookstore. feels a little trapped in her head.

Steph – Maria’s increasingly distanced girlfriend

Kieran – a fellow bookstore worker and catalyst for life changes in Maria and Steph’s relationship

Piranha – an agoraphobic, pill-savvy and wise friend to Maria.

in Nevada

James – a boy stuck in the worst city ever and maybe stuck in a male body

Nicole – thinking her way out of Star City’s claustrophobic social norms, and an increasingly frustrated girlfriend to James

hook

Maria Griffiths is a little tired of everything—her job, her girlfriend, thinking about being trans. She is starting to think that her new life philosophy should be about irresponsibility.

nevada2

worldview

The first time the reader meets Maria, she’s being unsatisfactorily choked during sex by her girlfriend. Then she fakes an orgasm. To say she has intimacy issues would be an understatement. It’s like Maria wants to find intimacy but someone gave her a map that omitted it entirely, so how is she ever going to find it without some serious luck?

It’s not like Maria hasn’t done relatively well for herself. She’s union at her job, she’s really good at riding her bike, and she successfully figured out that she was transgender and transitioned. But life isn’t a series of radio boxes ready to be clicked, leading to fulfillment, and something’s missing for Maria.  She doesn’t know if she wants to be saying something to a wider audience or be left alone to make bad decisions.

Luckily or unluckily, her distance from her girlfriend Steph leads Steph to tell a little lie about cheating, which makes Maria start thinking about where her life is, and where her life used to be when she was growing up in small town Pennsylvania, getting high on heroin and passing out in crash-pad houses – knowing there was more out there — “There was a Borders and hour away and sometimes somebody would manage to get a zine onto their magazine rack, so she knew that there was more going on than classic rock radio and getting fucked up.” (27) – but not being able to escape yet.  She’s not making those bad decisions now, but she’s really not making any decisions—until some bad things naturally start happening, because the scale of Maria’s life tips just over into uncertainty, and she embraces it.

did this book achieve its intentions?

Have you ever, like me, wished you could have a real-time transcription of your thoughts?  Imogen Binnie’s narrative style is as close to that as I’ve found, except it’s not in first person. It’s like Binnie read Maria’s thoughts and wrote a journal of Maria in third person, and I find it is a very fun and effective way to get to know Maria.

Here is Maria thinking about what she wishes people knew about trans women

(and please note all quotes are from the ARC and could be changed when the final copy comes out NEXT WEEK woot!):

“It’s worth pointing out that trans women in real life are different from trans women on television. For one thing, when you take away the mystification, misconceptions and mystery, they’re at least as boring as everybody else. Oh, neurosis! Oh, trauma! Oh, look at me, my past messed me up and I’m still working through it! Despite the impression you might get from daytime talk shows and dumb movies, there isn’t anything particularly interesting there—although, of course, Maria may be biased.

She wishes other people could understand that without her having to tell them. It’s always impossible to know what anyone’s assumptions are. People tend to assume that trans women are either drag queens and loads of trashy fun, or else sad, pathetic and deluded pervy straight men- at least, until they save up they money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point we become just like every other woman? Or something. But Maria is like, Dude, hi. Nobody ever reads me as trans any more. Old straight men hit on me when I’m at work and in all these years of transitioning I haven’t even been able to save up for a decent pair of boots.

This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in Manhattan.” (10-11.)

This quote showcases Binnie’s lovely (not kidding) use of colloquialisms like “Dude” and her slipping in and out of “I” to “she”, and it showcases the way that being trans isn’t what the book is about. To me, that’s the hallmark of a good read – Nevada is a portrait of Maria at a crux in her life. Maria is trans and it informs the past and current course of her life, and she thinks about it a lot, so it’s not like it’s not in there. It’s just that the “issue” is in service of the character and not the other way around. So it’s not an “issue”, it’s a part of a person, just as cancer functioned in The Fault in Our Stars and class functioned in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and being a lesbian was part of Starting From Here, and how the encroachment of meth failed to function in A Plague Year.

Imogen Binnie

Imogen Binnie, photographed by Julie Blair/Topside Press

One of Rebecca’s favorite things about Nevada, and I’m inclined to agree, is how Binnie “evokes a really particular (and very self-conscious) demographic (microdemographic?). these are characters who are really familiar to me but I’ve really never read about them in another book. And I’m so glad there is now a book about them.”

One of the ways that I see this happening is how engaged Maria and the other characters are in literature, theory, and philosophy. They think about it so much it becomes part of their in jokes, as in this part of Kieran and Maria’s friendship:

“Kieran heard that Maria liked Kathy Acker so he started doing shitty Kathy Acker impressions at her and normally she responds with shitty impressions of James Joyce, who Kieran is really into. She’s supposed to say, Yes I say Maybe Whatever Yes Sure Fine Yes Whatever Sure, but right now it’s not like she even wants to talk to him. It’s stupid, anyway-he is supposed to be this End of Gender gender tough genderqueer radical, but was James Joyce working to undermine patriarchy. Kieran will talk about all the reasons that yes, Joyce was working to undermine patriarchy, but the actual answer was no, James Joyce was a patriarchal fuck and dead white man worship is a function of patriarchy. But fuck that conversation right now.” (31).

Much of Nevada is in Maria’s head. There are glimpses of other narrative voices, but hers is the main one.  (Binnie’s style also makes it a little more work than ussual to differentiate the nuance in each voice as well, which may be a drawback to some, but I enjoyed it so much I noted it and moved on). Reading Maria’s paragraph-long musings is bracing, funny, and hypnotic. At times in the book it’s like she and I were simultaneously looking up from her thoughts to realize that there was an entire world out there, with fresh air and ways to forget her obsessions, even though her obsessions are an interesting space in which to spend time.

nyc bookstore cart - by flickr user markhurst

nyc bookstore cart – by flickr user markhurst

Rebecca notes, sagely, regarding characterization, that “Binnie is ruthless in regard to her characters, which I love. We’ll read about maria’s thoughts about how she thinks Steph is oblivious of something and then twenty pages later, Binnie will show us a glimpse of Steph and it’s clear that Steph is actually totally aware. No character is safe from Binnie’s narrative’s edge and it’s a joy to see how incisively she understands her characters’ perspectives, and also how totally capable she is of seeing their weaknesses.”

Although Nevada is a novel about adults worrying about adult things, like possibly being fired and how they’re going to pay rent if they break up with someone they’ve been in a relationship for four years with, and how that also will affect their personality, it also contains themes that run through many YA novels. In some ways, Maria feels like she never had her adolescence because she was trying so hard to protect herself by suppressing herself, so her journey in Nevada is the journey of trying to make herself open up to adolescent experiences.

The plot is divided up into two parts—her crumbling but triumphant escape from New York City and a snapshot of her travels, presumably cross country travels.  It’s in this second part that Binnie shows Maria as she’s seen by another person—a probably transgender Wal-Mart clerk named James.

Through her interactions with James, Maria tries out the guise of mentor and the task of audibly explaining her experiences to an outsider to her world. And while the ending thankfully shies away from identity-road-trip conventions, it doesn’t eschew the connection that both Maria and James are looking for. I was left with the feeling that both of their lives were opening up a little more, that they were accepting other potentialities for their life, even if getting there would be uncomfortable or painful. I’d be happy to go along with them and find out what happens, but unfortunately, the book ends.

readalikes

I’m pulling these from books I’ve read, but please check out the great lists that are available on Goodreads on the subject of trans memoirs and fiction!

girl_original

Girl by Blake Nelson – for the evocation of a strong character through voice (and: girl in a state of life transition).

hard-love1

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger – While Wittlinger has other books specifically with trans characters, Hard Love’s theme of figuring out how to separate linked feelings is apropos for many of the relationships in Nevada.

a-e-4ever-Ilike-Merey

a + e 4ever by ilike merey – intimacy issues + exploring sexuality and gender performance + close friendship + the intensity of being a teenager = a messy, real graphic novel

Girls-Visions-and-Everything

Girls, Visions, and Everything by Sarah Schulman – Lila spends a summer purposefully wandering without purpose around New York, bearing witness to the way she and her friends live before it becomes unaffordable, getting into adventures and finding ways of loving people.

And Imogen Binnie has a blog, which can also be read.

I received this book from Topside Press with no expectations or remuneration on either side

Spring YA Releases To Get Excited About Reading In the Park

The Top 10 Books I’m Looking Forward To This Spring!

by REBECCA, March 27, 2013

Spring, you capricious bastard, I’m ready for you to bring all the smells back and give me a perfect month of open windows before true summer ruins my life. Also, I’m ready for you to bring me these 10 books to read outside in you.

All quoted blurbs from Goodreads.

Nevada Imogen Binnie

Nevada, Imogen Binnie (Topside Press)

Tessa and I are both really excited about Binnie’s novel and will have a review (and perhaps an interview) soon!

“Nevada is the darkly comedic story of Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York City and trying to stay true to her punk values while working retail. When she finds out her girlfriend has lied to her, the world she thought she’d carefully built for herself begins to unravel, and Maria sets out on a journey that will most certainly change her forever.”

Born of Illusion Teri Brown

Born of Illusion, Teri Brown (Balzer & Bray)

Basically, all I want in my entire life is to be a blues singer in a speakeasy in the 1920s.

“Anna Van Housen is thirteen the first time she breaks her mother out of jail. By sixteen she’s street smart and savvy, assisting her mother, the renowned medium Marguerite Van Housen, in her stage show and séances, and easily navigating the underground world of magicians, mediums and mentalists in 1920’s New York City. Handcuffs and sleight of hand illusions have never been much of a challenge for Anna. The real trick is keeping her true gifts secret from her opportunistic mother, who will stop at nothing to gain her ambition of becoming the most famous medium who ever lived. But when a strange, serious young man moves into the flat downstairs, introducing her to a secret society that studies people with gifts like hers, he threatens to reveal the secrets Anna has fought so hard to keep, forcing her to face the truth about her past. Could the stories her mother has told her really be true? Could she really be the illegitimate daughter of the greatest magician of all?”

Moonset Scott Tracey

Moonset (Legacy of Moonset #1), Scott Tracey (Flux)

I love Scott Tracey’s Witch Eyes series (review of Book 1 HERE and Book 2 HERE), so I’m really excited about this first installment of his new series.

“After the terrorist witch coven known as Moonset was destroyed fifteen years ago—during a secret war against the witch Congress—five children were left behind, saddled with a legacy of darkness. Sixteen-year-old Justin Daggett, son of a powerful Moonset warlock, has been raised alongside the other orphans by the witch Congress, who fear the children will one day continue the destruction their parents started. A deadly assault by a wraith, claiming to work for Moonset’s most dangerous disciple, Cullen Bridger, forces the five teens to be evacuated to Carrow Mill. But when dark magic wreaks havoc in their new hometown, Justin and his siblings are immediately suspected. Justin sets out to discover if someone is trying to frame the Moonset orphans . . . or if Bridger has finally come out of hiding to reclaim the legacy of Moonset. He learns there are secrets in Carrow Mill connected to Moonset’s origins, and keeping the orphans safe isn’t the only reason the Congress relocated them . . .”

Openly Straight Bill Konigsberg

Openly Straight, Bill Konigsberg (Arthur A. Levine Books)

“Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He’s won skiing prizes. He likes to write. And, oh yeah, he’s gay. He’s been out since 8th grade, and he isn’t teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that’s important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time. So when he transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret—not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate breaking down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben . . . who doesn’t even know that love is possible.”

Weather Witch Shannon Delany

Weather Witch, Shannon Delany (St. Martin’s Griffin)

Ok, so, technically, this is published four days after the end of Spring, but I had to include it because it’s about sisters and set in Philadelphia (where my sister and I live!). And that seems like a good reason to me.

“In a vastly different and darker Philadelphia of 1844, steam power has been repressed, war threatens from deep, dark waters, and one young lady of high social standing is expecting a surprise at her seventeenth birthday party–but certainly not the one she gets! Jordan Astraea, who has lived out all of her life in Philadelphia’s most exclusive neighborhood, is preparing to celebrate her birthday with friends, family and all the extravagance they might muster. The young man who is most often her dashing companion, Rowen Burchette, has told her a surprise awaits her and her best friend, Catrina Hollindale, wouldn’t miss this night for all the world! But storm clouds are gathering and threatening to do far more than dampen her party plans because someone in the Astraea household has committed the greatest of social sins by Harboring a Weather Witch.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (William Morrow Books)

I’ve been looking forward to Gaiman’s newest for a while now and, after hearing him read from it this weekend, I’m officially psyched. It’s haunting, banal, and lyrical—just the way I like it. Also: THAT COVER.

“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 Lucy Variations Sara Zarr

The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

What can I tell you—I’m a huge sucker for a piano story.

“Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. The right people knew her name, her performances were booked months in advance, and her future seemed certain. That was all before she turned fourteen. Now, at sixteen, it’s over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. That leaves her talented ten-year-old brother, Gus, to shoulder the full weight of the Beck-Moreau family expectations. Then Gus gets a new piano teacher who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy rekindle her love of piano — on her own terms. But when you’re used to performing for sold-out audiences and world-famous critics, can you ever learn to play just for yourself?”

Winger Andrew Smith

Winger, Andrew Smith (Simon & Schuster)

As anyone who’s read Crunchings & Munchings regularly sure knows by now, there is not a good goddamned thing that Andrew Smith writes that I don’t love. I am, of course, incredibly excited about this, the combination of Andrew Smith and one of my (and Tessa’s) favorite things: boarding school books. Plus, I’m told there are “hand-drawn infographics and illustrations.”

“Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy. With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.”

Yellowcake Margo Lanagan

Yellowcake (stories), Margo Lanagan (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Yellowcake brings together ten short stories from the extraordinarily talented Margo Lanagan–each of them fiercely original and quietly heartbreaking. The stories range from fantasy and fairy tale to horror and stark reality, and yet what pervades is the sense of humanity.  The people of Lanagan’s worlds face trials, temptations, and degradations. They swoon and suffer and even kill for love. In a dangerous world, they seek the solace and strength that comes from family and belonging.”

White Lines Jennifer Banash

White Lines, Jennifer Banash (Putnam Juvenile)

“A gritty, atmospheric coming of age tale set in 1980s New York City. Seventeen-year-old Cat is living every teenager’s dream: she has her own apartment on the Lower East Side and at night she’s club kid royalty, guarding the velvet rope at some of the hottest clubs in the city. The night with its crazy, frenetic, high-inducing energy—the pulsing beat of the music, the radiant, joyful people and those seductive white lines that can ease all pain—is when Cat truly lives. But her daytime, when real life occurs, is more nightmare than dream. Having spent years suffering her mother’s emotional and physical abuse, and abandoned by her father, Cat is terrified and alone—unable to connect to anyone or anything. But when someone comes along who makes her want to truly live, she’ll need to summon the courage to confront her demons and take control of a life already spinning dangerously out of control.”

What Spring releases are you looking forward to? Tell me in the comments!

First Loves = Wicked Hard: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

A Review of Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

Simon Pulse, 2010

Forbidden Tabitha Suzuma

by REBECCA, March 25, 2013

characters

Lochan: between his crippling social anxiety, the responsibility of caring for his siblings, and the late-night studying he does to keep his grades up, Lochan is kind of a mess, and the only one he can count on is Maya.

Maya: Maya is friendly and upbeat, generally taking her family responsibility in stride, and she would do anything to protect Lochan.

Kit, Tiffin, & Willa: teen Kit has started to rebel and challenge Maya and Lochan’s authority, Tiffin only cares about playing soccer, and Willa knows more about secrets and lies than any five year old should have to.

note: I like this cover, especially the red background, which is an uneven wash, like red paint swiped over black, but . . . am I the only one who automatically assumes that any shape (here, a heart) that is made out of barbed wire automatically indicates that a book will be set during the Holocaust? Just me, then? . . .

hook

Lochan and Maya have been acting like parents to their younger sibs, Kit, Tiffin, and Willa, since their father left five years ago, working hard to keep their family from being split up. Only a year apart, they have always been best friends, partners.  Their mother, an alcoholic, has always been irresponsible and capricious, but now things are getting really bad. She is holed up across town with a younger man, trying to pretend she doesn’t have children, and has begun disappearing for weeks at a time without leaving any money for groceries or school uniforms. As their family spirals out of control, Lochan and Maya turn to each other for support and care, and begin to realize that their feelings of love are romantic as well as familial. Can they keep their family together and still have a chance to be together when everything seems to be against them?

worldview

Forbidden is set in contemporary, real-world London, and for Lochan, Maya, Kit, Tiffin, and Willa, that’s a world full of real-world material concerns: can they convince their mother to give them enough money for groceries before she spends it all on booze? whose turn it is to cook, clean, do laundry? will Lochan and Maya be able to convince Tiffin and Willa’s teachers to call them if there’s trouble, instead of their mom? how can they possibly find time to care for their siblings and still excel in school? and, perhaps most dire, how will Lochan and Maya ever be able to make others accept their relationship when half the time they can’t accept it themselves?

Forbidden Tabitha SuzumaTabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden is a beautifully-written excavation of family and romantic relationships and the ways they cannot help but impact one another. The character development is particularly well-done and Suzuma uses the length of the novel (about 450 pages) to show the intricacies of their relationships. Bit by bit, as their material conditions worsen, Lochan and Maya’s stress amps up, fraying their relationships with their siblings and drawing attention to them in ways that could be dangerous.  “I wonder how it is possible to hurt so much when nothing is wrong,” Lochan wonders (160). Suzuma is particularly deft in her use of these practical stressors to build suspense. Lochan, for example, has such social anxiety that he is unable to speak in school. The scenes in which he must do so are gutting reminders of his inability to express himself or communicate with people outside his family. Such scenes track Lochan’s relationship with Maya—the more he is able to express his feelings for her, the better able he is interface with the world, and vice versa.

Although there is suspense, and certainly dread—will the siblings be able to stay together? will anyone find out about Lochan and Maya’s relationship?—in terms of genre, Forbidden is strictly a realist novel. For all that it has the potential makings for a sprawling, gothic tale of incestuous siblings rioting in a rambling, run-down house, it doesn’t set even a toe in that genre.

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

My friend A— told me she finds that there are books about incest that are trying to show how awful it is and books about incest that are trying to show that it can be ok, and that Forbidden is the latter. I absolutely agree. Between Lochan and Maya, they go through just about every feeling you can imagine on the subject: I am disgusting for feeling this way; I can’t help feeling this way; why shouldn’t I feel this way; people won’t understand; maybe there’s something truly wrong with me, etc. Indeed, upon occasion, their rehearsals of these arguments feel a bit more for the readers’ benefit than their own. Still, while Forbidden is the story of a deeply loving and caring consensual sibling relationship, it never attempts to suggest that there are not problems with Lochan and Maya’s relationships, even for them.

Forbidden Tabitha SuzumaOverall, I found Forbidden a deeply satisfying and beautiful novel that did everything I want contemporary realist YA to do. I think Forbidden dragged a tad in the last quarter and might benefit from losing a few repetitive scenes. I have only one real reservation, though—more of a suspicion, really. The narrative alternates between chapters from Lochan’s perspective and chapters from Maya’s and, while Lochan is a very specific, nuanced, unique character, Maya is significantly less so. As such, the chapters from Lochan’s perspective utterly captivated me, while those from Maya’s served more to move the story forward or, in their best moments, to give us more of a window on Lochan. Because of this marked difference, I found myself wondering whether Suzuma felt anxious about (or was advised against) telling the story from Lochan’s perspective alone because it could have had the possibility of making him seem predatory, or of causing the reader to doubt that Maya was truly a consensual partner in their romantic and sexual relationship. Lochan explains to Maya that people would always look at them and see that he is older and male and assume that he was taking advantage of her (“Maya, come on, think about it. I’d be automatically seen as the abuser and you as the victim” (361)). I got the sense from the uneven characterization of Lochan and Maya that perhaps Suzuma was concerned about just this issue. The dual perspective made the narrative a bit less effective for me, especially since, in the final quarter of the book (excepting the end), the alternation of perspective seems arbitrary, as if the story were just being split up evenly. That decrease in effectiveness added to my sense that perhaps there was a motivation for the decision beyond the formal. If anyone who has read Forbidden has thoughts on this, I would love to hear them in the comments.

readalikes

Hushed Kelley York

Hushed by Kelley York (2011). While the stories don’t have anything in common, Hushed is also the tale of the intense (and sometimes disturbing) power that relationships can have over us. Antisocial Archer’s childhood best friend, Vivian, manipulates him in more ways than even he is aware of. When Archer meets Evan, who seems to like him just for himself, he is torn between the draw of two powerful relationships. My full review is HERE.

The Brothers Bishop Bart Yates

The Brothers Bishop by Bart Yates (2005). I love Bart Yates (my review of his YA novel, Leave Myself Behind is HERE). The Brothers Bishop is about two brothers who are very close but total opposites, forever connected by growing up under the thumb of their terrifying and infuriating father. Serious, misanthropic Nathan likes his privacy in the beach house he inherited. Outgoing golden boy, Tommy, draws people to him without even trying. When Tommy shows up for a weekend visit with his boyfriend and two friends, the brothers revisit family secrets and make catastrophic mistakes, all against the backdrop of the ocean that laps the nearby sand.

procured from: the library

Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

madnessunderneath

The Madness Underneath

Shades of London 2

Maureen Johnson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Review by Tessa

Characters

Rory Deveaux, transplanted private schooler, ghost-interacter-and-destroyer

Stephen Dene, head of the secret ghost division of the London Police

Callum & Boo, the other two members of the secret police squad

Jazza, Jeremy & Charlotte – school friend, boyfriend, and frenemy

Jane – a mysterious and almost supernaturally calming therapist who provides her services for free

Hook

The Ripper-emulating ghost re-terrorizing London has been destroyed, but not without weird consequences.

Worldview

In The Name of the Star, Rory learns that the world is a little different than the normal world we all live in. It’s still normal, but some people can see and interact with ghosts–as long as you have the natural inclination and add a near-death experience into the equation.

Rory’s a fish out of water, being a ghost-seer, and a fish out of water, being a Louisiana native trying to hack it in a London boarding school for her senior year. Her snarky sense of humor helps her deal with all the weirdness being thrown her way, as well as her natural curiosity. Occasional drama-free makeout sessions don’t hurt, either.

nameofthestar

However, the situation of figuring out the ghost-mystery-murders almost seems easier than the situation of picking herself up in the aftermath of the murders. Rory is failing school after spending time with a therapist and her parents in Bristol. She’s now a human terminus – her touch destroys ghosts – and the police want to use her as a clean-up tool for London’s ghostly lurkers, since the original diamonds used for the purpose went kaput. But she doesn’t know how she feels about being the post-Grim Reaper Reaper. Worst of all, she can’t confide in her friends, her boyfriend, or her parents about what’s really going on in her life.

On top of it all, the ghosts around London, especially around Rory’s school, are upping the ante on being angry and causing bloodshed. Rory thinks it might have something to do with what the area used to house, who was buried there, and maybe the crack that opened up in the earth when the faux-Ripper got terminated.

Then she’s fortuitously led to a laid-back, rich woman named Jane who’s been helping stuck-up Charlotte deal with her own Ripper trauma. Jane practices for free, always has brownies to offer Rory, and finally Rory can almost relax. Or should she?

Does this book live up to its intentions?

Johnson writes delicious hook-y adventures and her sense of humor is one that I enjoy. The Madness Underneath has all of these qualities and some shivery moments, too.  I admired Rory’s feistiness in the face of depression and loved getting back to the foggy, twisty streets of her neighborhood.  Johnson is very good at writing place – enough detail but not too much – and I could effortlessly picture where Rory was going (even if I can’t stop picturing Rory as Alexis Bledel).

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

The Madness Underneath definitely a second novel in a series of more than two books. Rory’s in transition and trying desperately to ignore that she might be in free fall. She tries to be normal but her life is breaking into some pretty clear paths. She has to decide what she wants and why, from boyfriends to future career plans. But there doesn’t seem to be space to think.

If anything, the book moves too fast, and, like The Name of the Star, drops off at a really crucial moment. The mystery that starts the book gets solved pretty quickly by Rory and the ghost squad, and then just as quickly is subsumed in a new, bigger mystery with sinister implications – really intriguing, culty, conspiratorial ones.

Then Johnson jabs us with two big knocks of the Plot Fist and closes the book. It happens so fast I don’t even know what I think of those developments yet.

Maybe I should’ve waited another year or so to read 2 & 3 in succession.

Readalikes

Want more ghost-exploring?

Try Karina Halle!

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

For the same traveling-in-a-new-place-and-discovering-otherworldy-things feel, try these:

Witch Eyes

Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey

peregrineriggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

greatandterriblebeauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

possessed   Consumed
Possessed / Consumed by Kate Cann

“What Ifs Are As Boundless As the Stars”: Maggot Moon

A Review of Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

Hot Key Books, 2012

Maggot Moon Sally Gardner

by REBECCA, March 20, 2013

characters

Standish: Standish Treadwell can’t spell his name but, according to his best (and only) friend, he is “a breeze in the park of imagination” (4).

Hector: smart, handsome, and confident, Hector protects Standish and stands up to bully teachers.

Gramps: Standish’s grandfather, he has cared for Standish since his parents “disappeared” years before.

Maggot Moon Sally GardnerThe back of the book told me very little about plot, characters, anything really. It was tantalizing, suggestive. I picked a copy up at Waterstones when Tessa and I were in Edinburgh the other week and, mostly, I was just taken by the awesome cover and the intriguing title. Here’s what the cover of my copy says: “What if the football hadn’t gone over the wall? What if Hector had never gone looking for it? What if he hadn’t kept the dark secret to himself? What if . . . ? Then I suppose I would be telling myself another story. You see, the what ifs are as boundless as the stars,” which is the entire text of chapter one (the book is made up of 100 short chapters and sparsely illustrated).

Here’s the thing about Sally Gardner’s amazing Maggot Moon. That brief passage actually is the plot of the book (yeah, I know; why else would it be on the back of the book) and I’m so freaking glad that I didn’t know anything else about it going in. So, I’m not going to tell you much about the plot either. And even though the plot is awesome, it’s really not the star of the book. That would be characters.

Maggot Moon Sally Gardner

an illustration from Maggot Moon

Standish Treadwell is dyslexic (although that’s not the book’s term; it’s Gardner’s, who is a longtime spokesperson), which causes his teachers and peers to think he’s stupid and pick on him. Standish has a unique and resonant perspective. We see the world through his eyes, and goddamn if his isn’t one of the most beautiful voices I’ve read in YA lit. When Hector and his parents move in next door to Standish and Gramps, they become fast friends. Hector is everything Standish isn’t: good at school, confident, and admired. Together, he and Standish carve out a tiny space for themselves—a fantasy world where

“we were driving round in one of those huge, ice-cream coloured Cadillacs. I could almost smell the weather. Bright blue, sky blue, leather seats blue. Hector in the back. Me with my arm resting on the chrome of the wound-down window, my hand on the wheel, driving us home for Croca-Colas in a shiny kitchen with a checked tablecloth and a garden that looks as if the grass was Hoovered” (6).

(Croca-Cola is just one of several Standish-isms.) When the story begins, Hector has recently disappeared and Standish is at loose ends, daydreaming about Cadillacs during school and trying to figure out where his friend has been taken. And, more importantly, why.

Maggot Moon Sally GardnerMaggot Moon begins with all the hallmarks of realist fiction, but it is shot through with resonances of the darkness running just below the surface of the schoolroom and Zone 7. This is a dystopia in the literary sense of the word. And it is glorious. The plot of Maggot Moon just keeps getting more and more interesting as the short and lyrical chapters fly by, building to a satisfying and gutting climax and conclusion (that I won’t tell you anything about)!

Maggot Moon won the Costa Children’s Book Award for 2012, and well-deserved, I say. I want to give it the award for . . . um . . . well, I guess the Costa award will have to do. E-books aren’t something of which I’m much enamored—mostly because they haven’t utilized their technology well—but the e-book for Maggot Moon is an interactive, multi-touch ibook, which Gardner hopes will give readers some insight into the experience of dyslexia. It’s pretty awesome, as you can see hereMaggot Moon has been my introduction to Sally Gardner, and I cannot wait to get my grubby little paws on more.

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When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead  Liar & Spy Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me (2009) and Liar & Spy (2012) by Rebecca Stead.

How I Live Now Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004).

The Knife of Never Letting Go Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008).

“Monster Of A World”: The Twelve-Fingered Boy

A Review of The Twelve-Fingered Boy (book 1 in The Incarcerado Trilogy) by John Hornor Jacobs

Lerner, 2013

The Twelve-Fingered Boy John Horner Jacobs

by REBECCA, March 18, 2013

characters

Shreve: juvie’s 15-year old fast-talking, savvy candy dealer with a heart of . . . gold-ish

Jack: Shreve’s new roomie is young, quiet, vulnerable, and clearly drawing some sinister interest

Mr. Quincrux: the sinister interest (and the best name award goes to!)

hook

Shreve’s got things pretty much figured out at Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center: when to sell, where to avoid, who to sweet talk, and how to keep a low profile. When his new roommate, Jack, shows up, though, everything Shreve knows goes to pot. Jack may have six fingers on each hand but that’s nothing compared to the fact that he seems to have superpowers. And when Mr. Quincrux and associates show up with the ability to invade minds and control what people do, Jack and Shreve make a break for it, trying to outrun them on a cross-country chase. There’s only one little wrinkle: ever since Mr. Quincrux rooted around in Shreve’s noggin, Shreve has found that he can do the same . . .

worldview

The Twelve-Fingered Boy is my absolute favorite kind of book: it’s set in a gritty, realist world but has elements of unreal powers. This is the best of both worlds, for my money, because the gritty realism provides the occasion for strong prose and complex characters, and the special powers provide an opportunity for fun, creative genre twists and turns. The Twelve-Fingered Boy is told from Shreve’s perspective, and he is an eminently likable chap. He’s a cocky smooth talker who is also sensitive and insightful. He’s a smartass who takes Jack under his wing and protects him. And, in the second half of the book, he wrestles with his own relationship to power.

John Hornor Jacobs’ prose is strong, making for insightful characterization, varied dialogue, fast-paced action, and contemplative interior monologues:

“On the inside, where all the wards were orange, everyone tries to be different. Some with crazy dos, some wearing earrings, the more desperate scratching tats on their hands with black pen ink and needles. Kids talk big, walk big, kick out their chests, tell jokes in overloud voices, laugh hard at unfunny jokes. They try to put a stamp down on themselves. They want to define who they are, and who they aren’t, by drawing lines in an ever-changing sandbox.

But the ones who are different, the ones who really would stand out if their differences were known to the general pop, well . . . they don’t want to be different at all. They want to be just like everybody else. The boys so desperately trying to be different, well, if they get a whiff of something truly foreign, they’ll destroy it. Nothing that different can be allowed to exist, to prove that they’re all alike.”

I love this exchange between Shreve and his mother:

‘Moms?’

‘Honey, why do you have to call me that?’

‘What?’

‘Moms. You used to call me momma.’

‘It’s just one of those things, Moms.’

‘I don’t like it. It’s like you’re saying I’m . . . I don’t know . . .’

‘More than one.’

‘Yeah, like that. Like I’m more than one person.’

We’re all more than one person. But I don’t say that.

‘Okay, momma. Okay.'”

When Mr. Quincrux tries to “recruit” Jack for his talents, Shreve sticks up for him and everything goes to hell. They run away from the detention center because they know Quincrux will stop at nothing to get them. Jack, who doesn’t even really know what his powers are, is terrified that he will hurt someone and Shreve has suddenly developed powers of his own—or has he merely unlocked the door on powers that everyone has? The Twelve-Fingered Boy paints a complicated picture of Jack and Shreve’s relationships with their powers, and it’s a relationship that only gets more complicated as the story continues.

‘How did you do it? . . . You did the same trick Quincrux and the witch did.’

I think for a bit. I can’t come up with an answer for him.

‘I don’t know, Jack. Maybe something transferred into me when Quincrux . . . ‘

I don’t know any other way to say it, and it hurts to admit it, even to Jack.

‘When he raped me. I think part of him, his residue or something, was left behind.'”

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

Because I received The Twelve-Fingered Boy as an ARC, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a standalone novel until I got to the last page and looked it up on Goodreads. Which is a good thing: the world and characters are fully developed and there wasn’t even a hint that we were in a “first act” type first book in a trilogy. Sure there were things that weren’t entirely explained, but I assumed that was because it’s a fast-paced book. However, the second I learned that it was the first in a trilogy, I got excited—no, not just because that meant there was more to come (although, YAY! there’s more to come!). It was because it’s very clear that John Hornor Jacobs is interested in asking questions the permutations of which this first novel could only begin to explore.

Once Shreve discovers he has the ability to (to shorthand it) read and change minds, he and Jack use it as a purely practical tool: to get money, food, hotels, and transportation. It’s necessary for their survival and dead useful for flying under the radar. Little by little, though, the boundaries of these powers become permeable and Shreve is forced to ask a number of questions that have been lurking in the back of his mind since he first acquired them: what does it mean for a kid who has grown up powerless to suddenly have so much power? when you know that your power comes from someone evil, how do you know you won’t become evil? what are your responsibilities as a result of that power? etc.

All in all, I’d say The Twelve-Fingered Boy absolutely lives up to its intentions: gritty realism, an interesting adventure, a seesaw of power and corruption, the posing of ethical dilemmas, friendship, a dynamic and creepy turn . . . it’s got it all. And with two more books to come, I’ve no doubt that The Incarcerado Trilogy will impress.

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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.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Last Night I Sang To The Monster by Benjamine Alire Sáenz (2009). 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. My full review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of The Twelve-Fingered Boy from the publisher (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. The Twelve-Fingered Boy is now available!

Where is my boundary-respecting romance? Crazy, Stupid, Love. and This Lullaby

by Tessa

I believe that people should be free to read, listen to, and watch what they want, as long as people weren’t harmed in the production of the stuff being read, watched, and listened to. I also retain my right to be offended by the culture that is reflected in such entertainment items, and my impulse to go and blog about it.
So please don’t take this criticism as a call to censor the stuff I’m criticizing.

On the way back to the States last Wednesday I decided to indulge in the inflight entertainment system. I picked a romantic comedy that I’d heard of called Crazy, Stupid, Love. mostly because a former very personable America’s Next Top Model contestant was cast in a minor role and I wanted to support her in some intangible way. And the rest of the cast was respectable: Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone.  And it had received good reviews. They called it “touching“, “honest,” “satisfying, mature” “smart and heartfelt“, “consistently engaging“… and I could go on.

220px-CrazyStupidLovePoster

Crazy, Stupid, Love.  isn’t absurd or awkward enough to be funny and its ideas of love are mostly repulsive instead of romantic. The throughline of the picture is the idea that if you love someone enough you’ll fight for them, and in doing so find yourself. On its face, not the worst philosophy on which to base an ensemble romantic comedy.  Unfortunately, the result is a jumble of people at best ineffectively expressing themselves and at worst engaging in stalking and harassment.

I need to summarize the movie in painful detail to make it clear why I hate it. SPOILERS.

Steve Carrell’s character’s wife (Julianne Moore) wants a divorce because, as a couple, they can’t connect with each other anymore. She’s slept with a guy at work (Kevin Bacon). Steve Carrell rolls out of a moving car so he doesn’t have to hear her rationalizations and slinks away to drink in bars and mutter about Kevin Bacon. He mutters so much that Ryan Gosling hears him. This bar is Ryan Gosling’s usual spot for chatting up ladies and taking them home. He feels bad for Steve, so he does a makeover montage, slaps Steve’s face a lot, and teaches him how to pick up women, starting with Marisa Tomei, who Steve sleeps with and never calls again. This works wonders for Steve.

MEANWHILE, Steve’s kids have a babysitter (Analeigh Tipton). His 13 year old son (Jonah Bobo) is in love with her. She catches him masturbating. He apologizes but says it’s okay because he was thinking of her, and their age gap won’t matter in a little bit. She is appropriately horrified. He continues to send her gross text messages and proclaim his infatuation in front of the whole school. He also is mean to Kevin Bacon when Kevin Bacon goes on a date with his mom. He is operating on the assumption that love means one soulmate, and that means if you’re in “love” and your object of “love” doesn’t accept that, you should not listen to them and plow on regardless because love conquers all.

ALSO there’s this girl (Emma Stone) who is dating a clueless lawyer who doesn’t appreciate her. When he doesn’t propose to her and in fact expresses doubts about whether he wants to be that serious, she dumps him and seeks out that hot guy who hit on her in that one bar one time (Ryan Gosling). Against their intentions, they make each other laugh and want to have conversations with each other, and soon are boyfriend and girlfriend.

BUT, TWIST! She’s Steve Carrell’s daughter. And he can’t deal with the fact that his daughter is dating this cad who very generously helped save him from a terrible depression and regain his confidence. He decides instead never to speak to his daughter again as long as she’s dating this dude she really likes and who is serious about her. It even ruins his chances of reconciling with his wife who seems to maybe miss him?

HOWEVER, seeing his son make a graduation speech about how love is not worth it, because the babysitter has made it clear that she was in fact in love with Steve Carrell this whole time by taking a nude photo that she never sent but her parents found, makes Steve Carrell realize that his son is wrong now, but right previously, that he still needs to fight for his one true love whom he met in 5th grade. He interrupts his son’s speech to make his own speech, which the audience seems to find heartwarming instead of slightly deranged, and this speech even warms the babysitter’s heart. She slips the son one of those nude photos after the graduation and implies that he was right all along, maybe in a couple years he’ll be a stud and his persistence will have paid off and isn’t life wacky?

And I guess Steve Carrell forgave Ryan Gosling?

END

illustration by Laura Mardon, CC licensed on Flickr

illustration by Laura Mardon, CC licensed on Flickr

Reasons to hate this movie:

1. It tells us that persistence is a sign of True Love, through the wisdom of a 13 year old who should know better.

2. It tells us that True Love is destiny and can never be broken, and there’s one perfect person for everyone.

3. Steve Carrell’s character is wishy-washy and unself-aware in an almost boring way – he’s hung up on his wife’s infidelity, quickly falls for the double standard of being disgusted by the same one-night-stand behavior from Gosling that allowed him to start feeling a little human again. I’m sure these are pretty universal character traits, but they’re so rote as to be yawn-inducing – aren’t we beyond this yet? Can I see something a little different from a sad-sack recent divorcee? He’s got legitimate pain but processes it selfishly and then doesn’t own up to that, and his redemption isn’t self-discovery as much as retreating to an old version of himself that feels comfortable, because he can’t stand the pain of trying to be a new person.

Reasons to like this movie:

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s scene where they first go home together and share real laughter and Ryan Gosling says “They’re pants for my calves. Calf-pants.”

After watching the whole movie I was reminded of my reaction to a Sarah Dessen book I read last fall. Rebecca, a fan of the Dessen, suggested her for a Sharing Our Snacks post, or possibly a joint discussion, because “she’s extremely formulaic in a way that usually makes me hate someone, but in the ones of hers I liked (Just Listen,The Truth About Forever, and Lock & Key) even though I could tell they were formulaic, I found myself so impressed by the formula that I didn’t care.”

thislullaby

I read This Lullaby and The Truth About Forever and did enjoy them both, for the reasons R. mentions.  But I couldn’t help but like This Lullaby against my better judgement. Its love interest, Dexter, starts out in his pursuit of the protagonist, Remy, by demonstrating textbook signs of a narcissistic, controlling stalker, and no one seems to notice or care. Haven’t they read The Gift of Fear yet?

Things I hated about Dexter, listed in chronological order

Interaction One:

When he first accosts Remy in the dealership he “plop[s] down hard” in the chair next to her, “knocking [her] sideways against the wall; it was jarring and [she] hit [her] elbow on the modling there, right in the funny bone.” (10). He smiles at her although she is visibly angry about it  and pretends that nothing is wrong, instead asking “‘How’s it going?’” and when she asks what his problem is, and has to elaborate because he pretends not to know what the problem is, by saying “You just slammed me into the wall, asshole.”(11) He sidesteps her direct confrontation by admonishing her use of foul language.  In fact, he doesn’t acknowledge it until he’s told her that he saw her across the room and felt chemistry with her, and it was only his enthusiasm that caused him to bump into her – as if this is excuse enough.  She tells him directly to “‘Go away.’” (12) and he just smiles and tells her that the song that’s playing will be “their song”.  When she tries to ignore him and catch someone else’s attention he grabs her hand and writes his name and phone number on her palm.

But we’re supposed to side with Dexter because Remy is so cynical & impervious to LURVE that her attitude is out of line. Remy is “such a hard-ass” (48) according to her co-workers.  She’s damaged by her past choices–after all, she places bets on the length of her mother’s marriages, how heartless of her.

So Dexter is totally justified in being a creepy stalker to get through her terrible facade. According to the book.

Interaction Two:

Remy is at the bar. Dexter comes up behind her, brushes up against her, whispers in her ear, and includes his drink with her order even though she is clearly not happy to see him. She tells him “You are not with me.” (33) and he replies “…not technically. But that could change.” He tells her that he’s in a band and will write a song for her. She is not impressed and tells him to not call her a “chick.”  Then he says “I think you like me” and she responds “I really do not.” (34)

At this point, a normal person with a clear sense of boundaries would leave her the hell alone. But Dexter is not that person. After she pointedly does not introduce him to any of her friends, and walks off telling them to ignore him so he’ll lose interest, he says “Oh, ye of little faith. I’m just getting started.”

Yes, and I am getting started on documenting your behavior so I can file a restraining order against you. Seriously? This is your romantic protagonist?

He sits down at the booth, uninvited, and tells the group how he met Remy, who asks him AGAIN if he will go away (35). He gets up, not because Remy asked him but because the band is ready to play. He asks Remy: “I’ll see you later?” She responds “No.” He says “Okay, then! We’ll talk later.” (36).

Warning signs! Warning signs! Here’s a guy who ignores your direct, stated requests for him to leave you alone. He has demonstrated that he has no interest in who you are or what you care about, because he’s in a delusional fantasy world where you two are meant to be together. He doesn’t want to talk to you and get to know you, he wants to force himself on you and talk about himself.

Hearsay interlude, or, Remy cannot escape Dexter even when he is not there.

One of Dexter’s bandmates shows up to her salon to apply for a job. He tells Remy: “He’s still talking about you.” She says “Why? He doesn’t even know me.” Fair question! the guy says “Doesn’t matter. You’re  officially a challenge. He’ll never give up now.” (51-52).  Remy is not a person. She is “a challenge”.

feel free to picture Dexter this way, as Google interprets "scary guy" (drawing by fortes on Flickr)

feel free to picture Dexter this way, as Google interprets “scary guy” (drawing by fortes on Flickr)

Interaction Three:

Dexter’s band is playing at Remy’s mom’s wedding. Remy spies on him from behind a Dumpster and thinks maybe he’s kind of cute even if he is “annoying”. She is apparently ignorant of the warning signs of abusers, probably because it’s not covered in health class. But before she can go over to him some girls come out of the back door to flirt with him, and she leaves before she hears his answer to “Do you have a girlfriend?” assuming that she knows how he’s going to finish his sentence, because she is apparently stuck in a badly plotted teen movie.

Anyway. Both she and Dexter are conveniently stranded at the end of the reception. She goes over to him and sits down so she can call a cab. They’re actually kind of having a real conversation, but then he decides to force her to eat cake. She has to refuse FIVE TIMES in a row.

Then they actually talk to each other and he doesn’t try to force himself into her cab. And at this moment, she starts to like him. Probably because he’s not being a total creep.

But… but then he gets her to give him a ride in her car (86) and deliberately sticks fries on her gearshift when she tells him she has a no-food policy in the car, like a toddler.

Re-reading these parts to remember them, I feel angry at myself for continuing to read the book and enjoying part of it. I should have thrown it across the room after the second interaction. But originally I wanted to continue reading to see if Dexter was revealed to be the abuser he clearly was. HINT: HE IS NOT. THEY END UP FALLING IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER.

And yet, there are many different kinds of romantic relationships depicted in This Lullaby (not even going into the non-romantic ones)

Relationship map:

Remy + Jonathan
Remy + Dexter
Remy + her past
Lissa + Adam
Chloe + singlehood
Chris + Jennifer Anne
Remy’s Mom Barbara + Don
Remy’s Mom Barbara + Remy’s Dad
Drummer + Coffee Shop Manager

And they’re dealt with realistically. So much so that I went on to read more Sarah Dessen, and I will continue to read her books and enjoy them.

This Lullaby really makes me uncomfortable and challenges my commitment to saying that books don’t have to teach lessons, especially young adult books. Because I really wanted this book to give Dexter a smackdown. I wanted it to clearly state how much of an ass he was being, how wrong his behavior was, and to punish him for it.

Remy doesn’t condone his behavior but she does give him a pass and she looks beyond his wrongheaded attention-grabbing tactics, and Dexter ends up having some good qualities.  This Lullaby doesn’t come down either way on the issue of how Dexter and Remy meet. And there is a large part of me that wants a big warning sign slapped on the front saying “THERE ARE BETTER WAYS and DEXTER IS THE EXCEPTION”, but I also know that that wouldn’t solve the problem. I’ll just imagine that Dexter grows up and finds less scary ways to talk to women.

Every time I see entertainment reflecting the way popular culture accepts this kind of behavior as romantic it makes me sad. Can someone recommend me some better alternatives?

Top 5 Badass YA Chicks, In Honor of Women’s History Month

Two Sisters’ List of  YA Lit’s Badass Chicks Who Are Non-Violent and Don’t Have Special Powers

Women's History Month

by REBECCA & JENNA (she’s my sister!)

In honor of March being Women’s History Month, my sister and I bring you our own version of history—a list of the characters from our own personal history who define badassness. While there are, of course, a huge number of possible contenders, we decided to narrow the playing field in two ways. First, to characters whose badassness comes from inside of them, unaided by any magical powers (disqualifying such incontrovertible badasses as Hermione Granger). And, second, to characters whose badassness manifests in their strength of character and not in their strength of arms; that is, to characters who are non-violent (disqualifying the badassest badass Katniss Everdeen). 

Furthermore, these are characters whose badassness actively inspired Jenna and me as kids. There are few more important effects of young adult literature than showing our young readers that they have the capacity to be excellent, strong, badass women! So, without further ado, here are our picks for the top five badass chicks of YA lit without special powers and who are non-violent:

Harriet the Spy Louise Fitzhugh1. Harriet M. Welsch, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964).

Harriet the Spy is a bold adventurer. She sees the world as an endlessly fascinating parade of characters and she wants to observe them all. She is smart and analytical and teaches herself to draw conclusions based on observation and imagination rather than assumption and generalization. She believes in telling the TRUTH! And when telling the truth alienates her friends, Harriet learns two important lessons: that most people can’t handle the truth about themselves, and that, in the long run, her friendships are more important than the truth. And when she realizes this last truth she makes it right by apologizing, addressing the harm she has caused, and takes the risk that she won’t be forgiven. She is a fucking AMAZING role model because she can admit when she’s wrong and has the tenacity to keep writing, incorporating what she’s learned into her art. Goddammit, Harriet the Spy, you are the ultimate badass.

Little Women Louisa May Alcott2. Jo March, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868).

Another writer, no surprise. When people expected her to dream of being a wife and a mother, Jo just wants to be a writer and create her own worlds. She is fiercely loyal to her sisters (even though they’re mostly unbearable) and dreams of writing a world where they can, as it were, shuffle off their mortal coils—or at least their corsets and societal expectations—and be villains, pirates, lovers, and heroes. She befriends the little lost boy next door, sells her hair to pay for her mother’s train ticket, and moves by herself to New York City to follow her dream of being a writer. She masters the pulp fiction market, transcending stereotypes about women not being able to write anything but sentimental fiction. But then, she takes the ultimate risk: she writes a novel that is raw and personal to her, and one that ran the risk of being seen as sentimental fiction. And she KILLED it. Thank you, Jo, for writing the ultimate book about sisters. And being a badass.

Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block3. Weetzie Bat, Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989).

Weetzie is  a different kind of badass. She doesn’t stand up to social injustice or right wrongs. Rather, Weetzie dreams magical dreams in the ordinary world, and by doing so, she makes that world magical. She is a badass because she isn’t afraid to look at a world rife with limitations, problems, frustrations, and pain, and still see in it possibility, beauty, hope, and love. And that takes an immense amount of faith in people, energy to work toward a better world in her own way, and the vision to try and turn it into what she sees in her glitter-soaked, rose petal-encrusted, vintage silk-draped dreams. Besides, she spits in skinheads’ faces at concerts. Weetzie’s strength is in the way she turns the world into art and her art into the world she imagines. And while it might not be as clear-cut a badassness as some, it is equally important. Thank you, Weetzie, for bringing beauty’s excess to the world and being FIERCE about your conviction that we need it.

A Wrinkle In Time Madeleine L'Engle4. Meg Murray, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962).

Meg Murray is my favorite nerd. She is awkward and funny-looking, unable to control her temper, and easily frustrated. At least at the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time. But as she is called upon to go on an adventure (or, really, a rescue mission), Meg eventually saves her brother, her father, and her friend. She is a total badass because she turns all of her weaknesses into strengths. Her stubbornness is what allows her to resist the forces of homogenization that cripple her more moderate partners. Her anger allows her rescue her father by cutting through what holds him. Her awkwardness makes her accustomed to feeling like an outsider, so she is able to go against the conformity and politeness that the others find so distasteful. Meg Murray weaponizes her weaknesses and turns them into the tools that let her survive and flourish. Is there anything more badass? ROCK ON, Meg Murray.

To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee5. Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960).

To Kill A Mockingbird is our mom’s favorite movie, and most people, whether in the movie or the book, look at Atticus as the savior. And Atticus is great; he is. But Atticus is a grown man, with power, influence, intelligence, and the respect of his community. Not that that makes doing the right thing easy; but it helps. But Scout is a kid. And she has is an innate sense of right and wrong and the stubbornness to resist falling victim to the unjust beliefs of her town. She doesn’t change her values to fit in even when kids tease her and Jem because their father is defending Tom Robinson, and she has deep, deep empathy for people who are different than her, like Boo Radley and Dill (based on Truman Capote!). She is a generous reader of the human condition, unless you’re screwing with her family, and then heaven help you. It’s clear that Scout will grow up to be someone extraordinary.

So, there you have it, fellow celebrators of the history of women—or, as we like to call it, HISTORY. Our top five badass ladies of YA lit. They all had a profound effect on me and on Jenna. And, interestingly, Weetzie Bat is the most contemporary read in the bunch, and that’s from 25 years ago, and of the five, three of these are from the 1960s, and the fifth from a hundred years before that. That’s some history.

What badass ladies of YA lit influenced you growing up? Tell us in the comments!

Goth Girl Vampire Comic? Heck Yes!

A review of Dark Ivory, by Eva Hopkins and Joseph Michael Linsner

Image Comics, 2011 (originally published 2010)

Dark Ivory Eva Hopkins Joseph Michael Linser

by REBECCA, March 11, 2013

characters

Ivory: dissatisfied New Jersey high schooler with a love of gothy dance clubs and a healthy fascination with the undead

Samson: Ivory’s best friend, a super responsible writer-by-night/Borders-employee-by-day and constant reality check for Ivory

Xander: Gateway drug to the vampire world

Sally: Ivory’s sympathetic grown-up friend with a vampire boyfriend, Esque

hook

From Goodreads: “Ivory is a frustrated goth girl who escapes from her everyday world by sneaking out to dance at night. Her best friend Samson is always there to help her keep her feet on the ground. As Ivory’s club world fills with attractive, vampiric strangers, she thinks it would be so cool to be like them—until it happens. Be careful what you wish for . . .”

review

I found Dark Ivory at Forbidden Planet in Edinburgh when Tessa and I were there last week. I hadn’t heard of it, but I mean, a comic about a goth girl who is into vampires? Obviously I had to get it. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Dark Ivory Linsner HopkinsIvory doesn’t get along with her family and is bored by school, so at night she takes the train to New York and dances into the wee hours at goth clubs with her friend Sally. One night, after a fight with her mother, she is dancing in her own world when she’s approached by a handsome man named Xander who gives her a private invite to an exclusive club. Distracted, as she’s walking to catch the train home, Ivory comes across a girl whose neck has been cut and is bleeding on the street. Ivory is terrified and runs home, thinking how it could have been her. And everything only gets creepier from there. When she goes to the exclusive club with Sally, she takes a pill and has the most vivid hallucination . . . or is it a hallucination? Is Ivory becoming a vampire? Suddenly, it doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as she might have imagined.

Dark Ivory was originally published in four issues, collected in this volume with an image gallery by artist Linsner and an introduction by author Hopkins. It is a pretty straightforward comic, and, for me, the art is the strongest element. It’s full color and very detailed, which matches the vivid subject matter really well. I love black and white work, but this story definitely needed the amplification of color, and I really appreciate Linsner’s bright palette, as opposed to the kind of stereotypically dark and limited palette that a “goth-y” comic could use. Bright purples, greens, and reds dominate here, and I especially like the use of color in the pages that show Ivory’s daily life, like this one, depicting a typical morning of Samson driving Ivory to school (what a mensch):

Dark Ivory comic

and this one, the recollection of Ivory and Samson’s (appropriately angsty) first meeting:

Dark Ivory comic

 

The relationship between Ivory and Samson was a really nice contrast to the supernatural elements of the book. And, while Dark Ivory is only four issues long, it manages to do a fair amount of world-building, including its own vampire mythology, even if its only gestured to. The ending is a bit abrupt, but it follows, and it enables the reader to imagine all the future adventures that Ivory will go on to have.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko TamakiAll in all, Dark Ivory will definitely appeal to the reader who found her own ways to escape the workaday life of high school (or dreamed of doing so) as well as to the vampire fans in the room. Ivory’s interest in goth clubs and vampires is decidedly not the depressed, searching attraction of other notable comic “goths” like Skim, in Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s excellent Skim (see my review HERE). Rather, it’s born of an active love of dancing and the aesthetics of the subculture, which makes it a joyous portrayal, despite the, erm, rather serious repercussions of Ivory’s engagement.

Always thrilled to discover a new comic!

 

 

In Which Tessa and Rebecca Compose a Poem in Scotland!!!

Today (now yesterday) we went to an amazing place: Cramond, a seaside village outside of Edinburgh. There, we walked to Cramond Island, which can only be reached during low tide. Unfortunately Thankfully, we were not stranded on the island where we would meet some reclusive Highlander who had come to the island because there was a price on his head . . . nope, that didn’t happen even a little bit. But it was still beautiful and amazing. And after our trek, sea-sprayed and sandy and quite chilled, we stumbled into the Cramond Inn, where we had drinks and overheard the bartender, who was, like, fourteen, tell another patron that the place had been a pub for 400 years, and that the building was even older. Yowza.

Cramond

Anyhoo, befuddled by (one) drink (each) and sea-fresh air, we composed the following ridiculous poem as an ode to our Scotland trip so far. We traded off line by line until we simply needed to stop and buy salt and vinegar crisps so we could make it to the bus back to Edinburgh. So, here you go. We’ll be back with more actual book-related things soon. If you feel like you want to nominate this poem for a Nobel prize or something, we don’t mind. Really, we’re just in it for the art.

Oh, Aye:

An Exquisite Corpse Style Poem from a 400 Year Old Inn in Cramond, Scotland,

by Tessa and Rebecca

Down the close, the cracks get smaller,
crazes cleaving like cauliflower.
 
If our muscles with bubbles were carbonated,
we’d float up ourselves, kilted & wig-pated.
 
A beer, a cider, a winter beach or
the terror of some long walled-up creature?
 
Old men’s speech like moss ribbons curled
up on themselves, clods dropping off the bottom when their laughs unfurl.
 
The tide comes in, the gulls all cotton,
but all I see is a muddy dog-bottom.
 
If we’re wet, we’ll shake ourselves free of it ’til we’re all dog-sweat
and a double dog body branch to signify the tree of it.
 
Where’s your shuffle? The muscle now barnacle-striated,
young pip-pip birds turn their heads without knowing how they were created.
 
On a tie-dyed winter crumble beach
that high nor low tide ever reaches.
 
The bus turns to the side, promising a crunch.
You can’t see the front, don’t know what’s open for lunch.
 
But don’t retreat, don’t have a panic,
it has blown you oceanic.

 

You’re welcome!!!

Then, Tessa drew a picture of her current hero, James Boswell, whose diaries she’s obsessed with. I thought he looked like he needed to be wearing daisypants, so I added some daisies to his pants:

James "J-BOZ" Boswell

After that piece of literary history was composed, we went to catch the bus back to Edinburgh and met the biggest cat ever! We named it Cramond (obviously) and pet it a lot.

Cramond!

See you stateside . . .

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