15 Best Debut Young Adult Novels

A List of My All-Time Favorite Young Adult Debuts!

I have had the pleasure of reviewing a number of really excellent novels by first-time authors lately, which has gotten me thinking about debut novels. There is a certain particular pleasure in reading an author’s first novel (even when it’s not the first novel of theirs I read). It is a combination of a few things—things that I feel about listening to an artist’s first album or (to a lesser degree, since film is such a collaborative medium) seeing a director’s first film, but feel most strongly with books.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

the best debut ever!

First, there is the feeling of meeting a new friend—someone who has the potential to stay with you long into the future. (This happens to me in the inverse, too: when I have my first encounter with an author and fall in love, only to look them up and find that they have a whole catalogue of works that I can fall into.) There is that new-person zing of excitement, but also a kind of anticipated pride/curiosity/delight in seeing what awesomeness they might come up with in the future. (Or there’s the delicious threat that they might never write anything else, à la To Kill A Mockingbird, and you will be left with only the perfect gem of a one-hit-wonder.)

Second, there is—sometimes, and I don’t mean to romanticize this, but I do think it’s there—the sense that a first novel is perhaps a particularly personal story to the writer; something that they felt compelled to write. Of course, in less-good debuts, this phenomenon can manifest as crappy faux-fiction featuring an idealized version of the author . . . But in wonderful debuts, I do get the sense that I’m getting some kind of less-mediated access to the author’s ideal book. As if, when they looked at all the things they could write in the whole world, they felt compelled to write this particular book. Welp, there, I went and romanticized it anyway. But sometimes romanticizations are also true.

Finally, debut novels (naturally) come out of nowhere! That means that I read them with no expectations about voice, no assumptions about the relationship between the author and the art, no presumptions about genre or style, and, best of all, no one else’s voice in my head telling me what to think about them. I’m relieved of the anxiety I feel when I pick up the newest book by a favorite author—the voice that says, “I’ve loved everything they’ve ever written; what if this one is a huge disappointment?!” I hate to be disappointed.

So, here are some Young Adult debuts that definitely do not disappoint. Yes, I am drawing an admittedly arbitrary line by what I mean by Young Adult for the purposes of this list. I’ve also decided to keep the list pretty contemporary—like, since the sixties contemporary. I mean, otherwise the damn Brontës would have overrun the list. There are a few choices that would really not be considered YA for most purposes, but which I find it necessary to include. I’ll explain why when I get to them. Naturally, I had to reign it in—in the comments, tell me your favorite YA debut novels!

15 Best Debut Young Adult Novels (in no particular order)

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (2012). I called Tell the Wolves I’m Home my favorite book of 2012, and I stand by it. This is an exquisitely-written book that introduces us to unforgettable characters. There’s 14-year-old June, who spends her time tramping through the woods and pretending she’s in medieval times. There’s June’s uncle Finn, a painter dying of AIDS with whom June is in love. And there’s Finn’s partner, Toby, who reaches out to June after Finn’s death. The story is as heartbreaking as the prose is beautiful. My complete review is HERE, and I had the pleasure to interview the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt about her authorial debut, first loves, and her favorite cheeses HERE!

The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt

The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt (1992). The Blindfold is one of those that I wouldn’t necessarily say is primarily a YA book, because its main character is a young graduate student, but I still think it belongs on this list because of its concern with coming of age, and finding identity. Iris, our protagonist, is a Midwesterner living in New York. She is hella broke, and takes a series of strange jobs as a result, the strangest of which is to whisper the descriptions of objects into a tape recorder and deliver them to a man who might be a murderer. Along the way, she meets a cast of super interesting characters, makes some bad decisions about who she dates, and begins wandering the streets of New York dressed as Klaus, the male character in a German story she is translating. A truly unique book.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997). I feel like “when did you first read Harry Potter?” might be my generation’s “where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” I first read Harry Potter the winter after it was published in the U.S. (1998, I guess?). I was in high school, and my mother had heard about it on NPR. She (adorably) suggested that maybe we should try to read it as a family. So, one night that winter, we read the first few chapters aloud. I was lying on my back on the floor, next to the fireplace. I was constantly sleep-deprived in high school, so I think I was asleep within about ten pages. I denied it, of course, but didn’t get around to actually reading the book until that summer. And the rest, as they say, was history. (In case you’re interested, my parents and sister and I did actually eventually read the first three or four books aloud, which was really awesome. One night when I was home from college in the summer, there was a power outage and each of us wrote our own first chapter of the fifth book, before it came out, and then we read them out loud. It was pretty spectacular, just saying.)

Darkhouse Experiment in Terror #1 by Karina Halle

Darkhouse (Experiment in Terror #1) by Karina Halle (2011). Every single book in Karina Halle’s excellent Experiment in Terror series (the 7th comes out this summer) is amazing. I stumbled onto this series through a series of internet wormholes and I’m so freaking glad that I did. Perry is wandering around an abandoned lighthouse, contemplating how her life hasn’t turned out like she wanted. Before long, she’s being chased by a mysterious spirit and running smack into Dex Foray, who will become her partner in an online ghost-hunting show, “Experiment in Terror.” But which is scarier: that Dex is the most infuriating person she’s had the frustration of being attracted to, or that she seems particularly . . . receptive to the world of hauntings that she finds herself in? This is both a dynamite debut and the start to a series that just gets better and better. My complete review of Darkhouse is HERE.

Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer

Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer (2010). Here is another novel that probably wouldn’t be primarily considered YA fiction. Children of the Sun is told through two parallel storylines. James is a writer who becomes obsessed with a former leader of the British neo-nazi party who later came out as gay. As he reconstructs the story of this particular neo-nazi leader, he is led down a secret history of the gay far-Right, which begins to threaten him in the present. In the other storyline we follow 14-year-old Tony, who falls in with skinheads in the 1970s and must, consequently, hide his sexual orientation. In Tony’s story, we meet Nicky Crane, the leader whose story James is uncovering, and the storylines merge. This is a book that never got much press when it was published in the U.S., and I have no idea why because it’s really brilliant. Not only was it a real eye-opener for me, in terms of getting access to an entire subculture and national history, but its treatment of the intersection among masculinity, queerness, politics, and music is incredibly nuanced and insightful.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992). Speaking of secret histories! I’ve written HERE about The Secret History and its bizarre imitator/plagiarizer, The Secret Diaries by Janice Harrell (1994). Donna Tartt’s novel is like the epitome of debuts. She came out of nowhere and didn’t write another novel for ten years. The Secret History is the story of a group of close friends at Hampden College (a fictional Bennington, which Tartt attended, with buddy Bret Easton Ellis). They are a close-knit group of Greek scholars that is infiltrated by newcomer, Richard, a transfer student from California. Richard quickly falls under their thrall and finds himself obsessed with them. But, of course, there are currents running beneath the surface of their friendship, and by the time Richard knows what he’s implicated in he’s too deep to cut them loose. It is one of those rare books that succeeds at being so good that it can give away the big secret at the very beginning: they kill one of their friends. There, I haven’t ruined anything; it’s that freaking good.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (2006). Although Bechdel drew/wrote the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” for almost twenty years, Fun Home is her debut graphic novel (well, graphic memoir). It tells the story of Bechdel’s childhood, with her father, who was an English teacher, a decor enthusiast, an aesthete, and, as she learned later, gay. When Bechdel goes to college and realizes she’s a lesbian, she connects with her father via the novels she is reading for her lit classes and finds new common ground. While she is in college, her father dies—he is hit by a truck in what might be a passive suicide. Bechdel’s narrative is gorgeously recursive, circling back to the core issues—family, queerness, aesthetics, literature, gender, and love—in chapter after chapter, chipping away at them from a different angle each time. Fun Home‘s prose is as beautiful as its art.

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989). I just featured Weetzie Bat in “Top 5 Badass Chicks of YA Lit, In Honor of Women’s History Month.” As I said about Weetzie there: 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. 

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000). A difficult book to summarize, House of Leaves tells the story of a photojournalist who moves his family into a house with a curious condition: the inside is bigger than the outside. At first, this seems like a mere curiosity, but when his two children wander off somewhere inside it . . . well, he has to follow, and record what he finds in the depths of the house on Ash Tree lane. In a parallel storyline that shares the page, a tattoo artist becomes obsessed with the story of this journey. But as any good tattoo artist should know, sometimes ink is more than ink, and not every story stays put on the page. One of the most intriguing and existentially terrifying books ever. I read this one my freshman year of college when I was living in a dorm that had an outside door to the bathroom as well as an inner door, forming a brief antechamber of that you had to walk through, which, at night, when I was reading House of Leaves in my room, was pitch black and in which, thus, I became totally convinced I would get lost forever as I ran there for brief pee breaks before I sprinted back and jumped under the covers.

Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates

Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates (2003). In Bart Yates’ awesome debut (everything he’s written is wonderful), Noah and his mother, a temperamental poet, have just moved to a small town in New Hampshire from Chicago after the sudden death of Noah’s father. As they fix up the sprawling house they’ve moved into, Noah and his mom find secrets hidden in the walls—mason jars with jewelry and old clothes, poems, and bones. As they try and put the pieces to this mystery together, Noah is also falling in love with the boy next door. But the end of summer brings consequences far more devastating than anyone could have expected, and Noah’s mother seems to drift further and further away, demolishing the house and leaving Noah worried for her safety. My complete review is HERE.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964). I also featured Harriet M. Welsch in “Top 5 Badass Chicks of YA Lit, In Honor of Women’s History Month.” As I said there: 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.

The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek

The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek (2006). Like DarkhouseThe God Eaters is proof that self-published work can be truly amazing. The God Eaters is a delightful genre mash-up: it has the setting and adventure of an old Western, some cool science fiction elements that merge with magic, a mythic quality that I won’t spoil, but which has to do with the gods of the title, and the grand love story of a romance. Ash and Kieran have been imprisoned because a corrupt, theocratic government wants to study their “talents” (powers)—Ash is an Empath and Kieran can kill people with his mind. They manage to escape, and set off on an epic adventure to outrun the people who would turn Kieran’s talent into power for themselves. Along the way, they hop trains, kick ass, have epic gunslinger-style standoffs, and fall in love. This is some great world-building and two amazing characters, and Hajicek’s writing is spot-on. My complete review is HEREThe God Eaters is nearly always e-shelved under “gay romance,” which has tragically limited its audience. It’s a great romance, yes, but that is only one small element of this awesome adventure.

Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice

Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976). Okay, so I know we make a lot of fun of Anne Rice, but Interview With the Vampire is a really amazing debut. And, while I know many people would never shelve it in the YA section, I think we all know that, like, everyone who is majorly influenced by it is in their teens. Right? I mean, if you read Interview With the Vampire for the first time after the age of, say, sixteen, you’re not going to like it that much. Because it’s melodramatic and overwrought as all get out. But, if you have the unique pleasure of reading it before your organ of irony gets too swollen by adult tastefulness, you are one of the lucky ones who got to experience the explosion of the awesomest vampire novel ever. Don’t get me wrong: Dracula is amazing, but it’s not so much about vampires, really. Interview With the Vampire taught me about history, it introduced me to the Wonderfulle Worlde of Velvet & Candles, and it really contributed to making us receptive to the emo vibe, if you know what I mean (you know what I mean).

With or Without You by Brian Farrey

With Or Without You by Brian Farrey (2011). With Or Without You is a sneak-attack book; it kind of comes up from behind you and gets you right between the ribs when you thought it was still a block away. Best friends Evan and Davis just need to make it through the summer after high school before they are getting the hell out of town—away from the kids who beat them up for being gay and away from the families that don’t care about them. But Evan has been secretly dating the really-has-his-shit-together Erik for almost a year, and he can turn to him when things get rough, or to his art. Davis, on the other hand, desperate for community and for love, falls in with a group of kids who are out to take respect from anyone who won’t give it to them. But Davis is in even deeper than Evan had imagined—and he’s not sure if he’ll be able to get him out before something far worse than a beating happens. With Or Without You‘s strength is in Farrey’s restraint: this could have turned melodramatic, but instead it’s a slow burn, beautifully characterized and devastating.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967). The Outsiders was probably the most important book of my childhood. You can check out my thoughts about it in “Finding My Inner Greaser: An Homage to The Outsiders.” Um, talk about a debut that came out of nowhere! S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was a 15-year-old high schooler in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it was published her freshman year of college. It was informed by the feuding classes at her high school, the Socs and the Greasers, and inspired by a friend of hers who was jumped on his way home from the movies. The story goes, in fact, that Hinton didn’t even think about publishing the book until the mother of a friend read it and got in touch with a publisher on her behalf. I can’t lie: I totally wrote an Outsiders-derived “novel” in a neon green notebook (with an enormous, square pencil—where the hell did I get that thing?) as an 11-year-old, as I’m sure many of you did. There’s something about it that, I think, makes writing a novel seem important and achievable. Whereas some debuts are so good as to intimidate, The Outsiders seems to demand a response, to beg us put our micro-stories out into the world.

So, that’s me done. Tell me your picks for best debut YA novels in the comments!

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“If It Weren’t For You Meddling Kids!”: 15 Days Without A Head

A Review of 15 Days Without A Head by Dave Cousins

Flux, 2013

15 Days Without a Head Dave Cousins

by REBECCA, April 24, 2013

characters

Laurence Roach: a very responsible 15-year-old; he takes care of his little brother and takes his mom’s shifts at work when she’s too hung over to go

Jay Roach: Laurence’s little brother; he’s obsessed with Scooby Doo and likes to pretend he’s a dog

Mum: drinks to forget her troubles and then drinks some more, she is overwhelmed and unsatisfied, though she loves her sons

Mina: the white knight who sweeps in and lends a much-needed hand in all things

hook

When your mom goes out to work one day and doesn’t come back, what do you do? You make sure no one finds out and puts you and your little bro in foster care. And you try to win an all-expenses-paid trip on a radio quiz show, of course.

review

15 Days Without a Head Dave CousinsSo, it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that I’m a real sucker for the “parents have abandoned us so now we have to figure out how to keep it together” plot, and 15 Days Without A Head, the debut novel by Dave Cousins (published in 2012 in the U.K.), is no exception. Laurence and Jay Roach’s mother is an alcoholic who is totally dissatisfied with her crap jobs cleaning offices and working at a chip shop (it’s set in England), and one day when she leaves for work she simply doesn’t come back. Fifteen-year-old Laurence has to take care of Jay, find a way to pay for food, and go to school himself, which is no easy feat. So, when Jay tells him that roaches (with whom they share their name as well as their apartment) can live with their heads cut off, Laurence really identifies with them. He knows he has to find their mother or he and Jay will end up in foster care. And then, at a fair one day, he’s sure he senses her nearby, and thus begins his quest to find her and convince her to come home.

15 Days Without A Head does everything right. Cousins manages to take subject matter that could have been maudlin and instead get the tone perfect. Laurence is freaked out, annoyed, and desperate by turns, but everything is presented with a matter-of-factness that never veers into the sentimental, a sense of humor that lightens the whole novel, and a view of the world that’s very fifteen-year-old.

“I wondered what the kids at school would think when I just vanished, then realized that half of them probably wouldn’t even notice. To think that you could leave somewhere, and nobody would even realize you’d gone, because they never noticed you were there in the first place. That’s hard.”

He is convinced that if he can win a holiday from a radio quiz show that it will solve all their problems, but since you need to be eighteen to enter, he pretends to be his dead father and imitates the Scottish accent of one of his teachers:

“I heave open the door of the phone box and take a gulp of air. I’m soaked in sweat, but I can’t help grinning. I did it. Three down, only seven more to go. If I can stay in for ten days I’ll win the holiday. If there’s anything that is going to cheer Mum up enough to stop her drinking, it’s a two week, all-expenses-paid holiday in the sun.”

15 Days Without a Head Dave CousinsLaurence has to keep Jay calm, telling him that their mother will be back soon, and as her absence continues, Laurence starts getting desperate. He obviously loves Jay a lot, but Jay is getting harder to handle, and then he gets sick. Laurence obviously needs help, and Mina is just the girl to provide it. She and Laurence meet in school and later at the fair and she is a damn good friend, even if she is a new one. She’s the only one Laurence can confide in, and she offers really practical solutions, eventually playing the Velma to the brothers’ Shaggy and Scooby in the mission to get their mother back. (She also convinces Laurence that he doesn’t make a very convincing woman when he dresses up in his mother’s clothes and wig to try and take out money at the bank—now that’s a real friend!)

This is a really solid read: well-plotted, well-written, good voice, and just the right number of twists and turns (do you think Laurence wins the all-expense-paid trip? read the book and find out . . .). The gritty reality of a 15- and 6-year-old living for weeks in a roach-infested apartment, hungry, dirty, and ill is balanced by the warmth of their relationship and the hijinks that the search for their mother provides. Plus, I love a good siblings-sticking-together book!

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Forbidden Tabitha Suzuma

Forbidden, by Tabitha Suzuma (2010). Brother and sister Lochan and Maya are the eldest of five siblings with a mother who drinks a lot and is rarely around. They have to work hard to keep the family together, dodging concerned adults and finding food, all while staying on top of their studies—oh, and falling in love with each other. Wonderful book about a tough subject—check out my complete review HERE.

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick, by Andrew Smith (2011). Here is a different kind of book about brothers. 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 the really wonderful Stick is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 15 Days Without A Head by Dave Cousins will be available on May 8th.

5 Reasons You Should Watch Hemlock Grove!

A Review of Hemlock Grove, Season 1, created by Eli Roth & based on the book by Brian McGreevy

Netflix, 2012

Hemlock GroveNetflix debuted its third original series on Friday: Hemlock Grove, a tale of a small town with big secrets. Now, nearly every news outlet and reviewer has panned Hemlock Grove. However, lest you find yourselves without my opinion on the matter, here it is: I TOTALLY ENJOYED IT!

Hemlock Grove is set in a small Pennsylvania town where girl has just been violently murdered—torn apart by . . . is it an animal? a crazed killer? We don’t know. But, in the crosshairs of the rumor mill surrounding the murder are the newly-arrived Peter and Lynda Rumancek, a Romani mother and son who the suspicious town calls filthy gypsies, and the Godfrey family, most notably to-the-manor-born Roman, who uses his beauty to get what he wants (and, when that doesn’t work, his gaze, which compels obedience), his mother, Olivia, the “most beautiful and hated woman” in Hemlock Grove, and his sister, Shelley, a lurching, seven-foot-tall girl who can’t speak and glows with strong feeling. The first murder, of course, is no isolated incident; they are occurring every full moon, giving rise to rumors that it’s a werewolf committing them—and that Peter is the werewolf.

Is Hemlock Grove the smartest, least misogynist, most disciplined, least derivative, and most sex-positive show that’s ever aired? Em, no. But it has a totally awesome opening credits sequence. And here are five reasons why I think Hemlock Grove is totally worth watching.

1. Genre Feast! If you’ve ever read Crunchings and Munchings or met me (or, really, talked to me for, like, two minutes) then you know I am a fool for genre; especially interesting combinations of genre. Well, Hemlock Grove has . . . all of them, really. Its main genre is a kind of horror-light supernatural mystery. It’s a werewolf story, complete with its own set of werewolf lore, from a Romani perspective, and what is probably my new favorite human-to-wolf transformation method. Hemlock GroveIt’s gross and cool and the effects are done really well. Then, there’s the small-town gothic, one of my favorite genres. Hemlock Grove is a creepy place, complete with secrets, cliques, only one high school (which we all know can tip any show into horror!), and an eerie combination of woodland and broken-down industrial wasteland. In addition, there are definite notes of the fairy tale, the 18th-century novel (hello, Shelley, anyone? p.s., she lives in the attic . . .), and good, old-fashioned camp. There is also a bit of a science fiction twist: Godfrey tower, the town’s only skyscraper, houses secret medical experiments, run by the sociopathic Dr. Pryce (yet another nod to classic horror). This storyline is less developed, presumably to keep our interest for season two . . .

2. Binge! Netflix has gotten a mixed response to their experiment of releasing all the episodes of their original programs at once—folks seemed to love what it did for House of Cards and hate what it did for Hemlock Grove. Well, I say, bless you, Netflix, for finally acting on the behalf of people like me who would rather wait a year to be able to watch a whole season of a show at once, rather than wait around week-to-week and watch one episode at a time. Now, the critiques of this strategy are that without the necessity to compel an audience to come back each week, Hemlock Grove writers and producers were not nearly as disciplined with their cliffhangers and structure as they would otherwise need to be. But I really liked the feeling of chugging through all at once, not just because I am a binger, but because many episodes picked up exactly where the last left off, giving it a novelistic  or filmic feeling. Also, it allowed them to avoid one of my all-time pet peeves of serial tv: when the “previously on” recap totally gives away what’s going to happen in the episode based on what clips from previous episodes they show. WHY, for the love of god, has no one solved this problem, yet, I ask you!? But Hemlock Grove doesn’t need to do this, so I was never taken out of the story. It uses flashbacks where necessary, which aren’t the most graceful thing ever, in terms of filmmaking, but totally serve their purpose. And, at thirteen episodes, it was the perfect length for a weekend binge (#don’tjudgeme).

Hemlock Grove3. Depressed Industrial Town! Hemlock Grove‘s setting is a small town in Pennsylvania that used to be home to a booming steel industry, a downturn in which threw the town into a depression, only saved by Roman’s late father, who turned to the biotech industry, but in the process laid off many people in town. This made the Godfrey family many enemies and resulted in huge, abandoned factories and broken-down machinery for bored teenagers to smoke in, have sex near, and search for bodies in. It also created a stark disparity of wealth between the Godfreys and nearly every other family in town, especially the Rumanceks. Roman wears tailored overcoats, does a lot of drugs, drives a fancy sports car, and has perfectly coiffed hair while Peter is scruffy, with long fingernails, vaguely dirty hair, persistent two-day stubble, and grimy jeans. Class, then, is always subtext in Hemlock Grove, and while the show does a shitty job with gender, it’s more savvy in terms of economy. Plus, abandoned industrial shit is awesome-looking.

4. Wacky Casting! One thing that amused me about Hemlock Grove was the fact that its casting directors clearly didn’t give a good goddamn about realism in terms of casting, so the show is kind of accent soup. But it really worked out well (except for Famke Janssen who plays Olivia Godfrey, doing a British accent like she was barely even trying). Peter, played by Landon Liboirin, is charming and not smarmy and doesn’t overdo things, for the most part. I do not know what is in the water over in Sweden, but Roman is played by Bill Skarsgård, another in the seemingly endless line of extremely beautiful children sired by Stellan Hemlock GroveSkarsgård. Like, seriously, I’m starting to think that every time I clap my hands a Skarsgård cheekbone sharpens. Anyhoo, Roman is totally delightful as the mercurial heir apparent: he’s fucked up for sure, and you can see exactly how he got that way. He also does my favorite thing a character can do, which is that he sometimes makes really terrible decisions and sometimes makes really good ones. Because, you know, that’s what people do. Also delightful is first-timer Nicole Boivin as Shelley, who is expressive when not speaking, but also really touching and funny in her voice-overs as she writes Jane-Austen-inspired emails to her uncle (Dougray Scott!). But the you’re-awesome-why-weren’t-you-in-every-scene award goes to the always-amazing Lili Taylor, who plays Peter’s mother. Ah well; maybe next season.

Hemlock Grove Brian McGreevy5. A Real, Season-Long Plot! Hemlock Grove is based on the novel by Brian McGreevy, who also wrote some of the episodes. As such, the whole season was already plotted out for the creators/writers. This is such a good thing, I think, because with so many elements at play (genres, mystery, murder, relationships), Hemlock Grove is a mixture that could quickly have gotten out of hand and turned crazy. And if there’s one thing I will argue to anyone about the show it’s that it does not go off the rails, plot-wise. There are definitely things that aren’t tied up completely or explained fully—possibly because we’ll get more about them in the next season, if they make one—but for the most part, this is a well-plotted show. It’s not particularly tight, which has been a critique of the show but which I found thoroughly enjoyable: this is a show that sits back and stretches its legs, sure the next thing will happen pretty soon, not a show that chases every speck of dust. It’s not particularly invested in action, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t suspense. There is; it comes from having a mysterious plot instead of trying to building a cliffhanger before every commercial break. So, for me, the fact that the show was confident in where its material was going allowed for it to take the long way, something that gave the show texture and mood, even if it didn’t make every second count. I was never bored and I felt like I got the time to get to know the characters.

So, there you have it: five reasons I really enjoyed Hemlock Grove! There are, of course, negatives as well, and it will likely come as no surprise that they’re nearly all to do with misogyny. The show—and I don’t know if this is the book or creator Eli Roth—just can not stop punishing women for having sexual desire, so that’s a total bummer. There is a plot point (no spoilers) that goes Hemlock Grovetotally unacknowledged, but which makes me feel wretched for still liking Roman. Olivia Godfrey/Famke Janssen is a “strong and beautiful woman,” which apparently now is synonymous with a cold borderline sociopath with incestuous tendencies where her son is concerned. I’m so deathly sick of this character (and Famke Janssen seems to play her in 4/5 of her movies). I haven’t read the novel that Hemlock Grove is based on in order to know how much of that is the show’s interpretation of the character. Either way, I want to go on record as providing future novelists/tv and film creators with the following cheat sheet:

It is possibly for women to be strong without being evil; it is possible for women to be evil without being sociopaths; it is possible for women to be strong and evil in ways that are not fixated on their children!

SO, have you watched Hemlock Grove? What did you think? Are you going to watch it? Why or why not? 

Not Your Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield: Andy Squared

A Review of Andy Squared by Jennifer Lavoie

Bold Strokes Books, 2012

Andy Squared Jennifer Lavoie

by REBECCA, April 17, 2013

characters

Andrew (A1): popular at school (and with the cheerleaders), he just wants to play soccer and hang out with his twin . . . or, at least, he used to

Andrea (A2): more ambitious than her brother, she has their college careers all planned out for them and does not take kindly to changes in plans

Ryder: recently arrived from Texas, Ryder is a laid-back and generous friend, and totally crushing on Andrew

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Andrew and Andrea are twins who have always done everything together. When Andrew becomes close friends with new kid Ryder, Andrea can’t understand why he seems to be changing. He hasn’t dated a cheerleader in (gasp!) a month, he’s learning to ride horses, and now he’s talking about not wanting to play college soccer. Andrew, though, feels satisfied for the first time in his life. Which path will he choose—the one his twin has laid out for him, or the one he and Ryder are building together?

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With only one letter separating them, the two Andys have it made: both popular at school, both talented soccer players, and part of a close, happy family, they’ve never had to think very hard about who they are or what they’re going to do. Andrea is busy planning for their future and Andrew is absently dating his way through the cheerleading squad when Ryder, nephew of local horse farmers, moves to their small, New York town. Ryder and Andrew are immediately drawn together. Ryder is the opposite of Andrew’s other friends: he’s laid-back and thoughtful, he doesn’t expect or judge anything or anyone. When Ryder tells Andrew that he’s gay, Andrew suddenly reevaluates his own assumptions about himself, realizing that perhaps the reason he only dates each cheerleader for two weeks isn’t because, as he’d always thought, they’re too clingy. As Andrew and Ryder start exploring a romantic relationship, people begin to suspect that Ryder might be gay and make trouble for Andrew by association.

horsies!Jennifer Lavoie’s Andy Squared sounds like your typical high school coming out story, but it really isn’t. Ryder is totally comfortable with his sexuality, although it’s not the first thing he advertises about about himself, and once Andrew realizes that he might be gay—or, at least, that he is attracted to Ryder—it isn’t a particularly big deal to him either (although he knows it likely will be to his friends and family). Rather, when he’s with Ryder, he finally feels like he’s connecting with someone on an intimate level, in contrast with the way he’s been “dating” cheerleaders but avoiding spending time with them.

Mostly, Andy Squared is a pretty chill story of how someone who has always gone with the flow learns that to really find out who he is he has to stop automatically doing what is expected of him. And it’s in these expectations that the angst of the novel comes out, because Andrew has always kind of deferred to Andrea about what they’ll do, so when he actually looks at the path he’s on, he realizes that perhaps he doesn’t want to just default to Andrea’s assumptions about their lives anymore. As someone who’s really close to her sister, I really responded to Andrew feeling torn between being true to himself and disappointing his sister. Although: Andrea, girl, you’re an insensitive asshole and you are not being a good sister; stop it right now.

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

Andy Squared isn’t a flashy book; it isn’t really voice-driven or experimental. It’s just really solid storytelling that has a believable and compelling plot, two charming main characters, and a pleasantly particular setting (horsies!!!). The setting was a high point for me, too, because you really get the feeling that Andy2 are total products of their environment, which makes their disagreements about college even more understandable. I don’t mean to sound like Andy Squared was boring or unremarkable—it isn’t at all. It just knew what it was and what it wasn’t and it didn’t try to do too much. I, for one, am a fan of that kind of nice, solid, realist story; it had the charm of, like, a What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or something.

In the last five or six years there has been such a heartening increase in both the number and diversity of queer characters that we’ve seen in YA fiction. Ryder and Andrew are cool additions to this list, then, because their sexual orientations don’t really play a large part in their lives. This is something we’ve seen in other YA books, but mainly in urban areas or in opposite-day settings where queerness is majoritarian; it’s not as common in a book set in a rural town.

All in all, Andy Squared isn’t a knock-your-socks-off gay romance, if that’s what you’re looking for, but I definitely recommend it for anyone in the mood for an easy read that includes horses, snow, wholesome families, and first loves.

readalikes

Gemini Bites Patrick Ryan

Gemini Bites by Patrick Ryan (2011). Judy and Kyle are twins who are always at odds. When Garrett moves into their already crowded home, they can’t figure out anything about him: is he a vampire? is he gay? He’s certainly mysterious and, of course, Judy and Kyle fight for his attention—Kyle because he’s actually interested and Judy because she wants to win.

Ghost Medicine Andrew Smith Ghost Medicine Andrew Smith

Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith (2008). I paired Gemini Bites and Ghost Medicine as readalikes because I found Andy Squared to be, in music-reviewspeak, a kind of Gemini Bites meets Ghost Medicine, the former for the twins, the gayness, and the punchiness, and the latter for the really slow, beautiful evocation of a rural landscape (and the horsies!—sorry, I have had, like, three conversations with people about horsegirls this week, so I’ve been thinking about HORSIES. Note, google image searching “horsegirls” does not pull up the kind of pics I was expecting, although it does pull up the kind of pics I should have been expecting). As usual, Andrew Smith’s prose is gorgeous and his characters tell a painful brand of truth.

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Andy Squared by Jennifer Lavoie is available now.

Fat Kid Rules the World!

A Review of Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going

Putnam Juvenile, 2003

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. Going

by REBECCA, April 15, 2013

characters

Troy: this secret punk fan is paralyzingly self-conscious about being the Fat Kid

Curt: anything but self-conscious, he is an infamous, often-homeless and always-hungry punk rock dropout

Mr. Billings: Troy’s ex-military father who is by turns disapproving and supportive of Troy and Curt

Dayle: Troy’s fit, jockish little bro who seems like an asshole but might just need a little TLC

hook

Curt MacCrae startles Troy out of throwing himself in front of a subway train and demands that he is owed lunch in exchange . . . and that’s just the beginning. Soon, Troy finds himself one half of the punk band Rage/Tectonic, even though he can’t play the drums and hates anyone looking at him. Can Troy overcome his self-consciousness to embrace the musician inside? And can he save Curt from his own demons in the process?

worldview

As I began reading Fat Kid Rules the World, I kept thinking, “gosh, you know, this book is kind of reminding me of King of the Screwups for no apparent reason,” forgetting completely that the wonderful K.L. Going also wrote King of the Screwups. I mention this because Fat Kid Rules the World affected me similarly to King of the Screwups: I found myself really moved by the voice and consistently surprised by the incredible nuggets of wisdom that characters managed to smuggle in under the pretense of casual observation. Fat Kid Rules the World is Going’s first novel, and it’s the novelistic equivalent to what my friend, A—, refers to as “the perfect 90-minute movie”: it’s 183 taut, beautiful, disciplined pages in which every new scene adds layers to the characters and every bit of dialogue further fleshes them out.

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. GoingSeventeen-year-old Troy is 296 pounds and 6’1”, as he tells us in the second sentence of the novel, just before he tells us that he’s “trying to decide whether people would laugh if [he] jumped” in front of a subway train (1). “I’m not being facetious; I really want to know. Like it or not, apparently there’s something funny about fat people. Something unpredictable. Like when I put my jacket on and everyone in the hallway stifles laughter. . . . I don’t get angry. I just think, What was funny about that? . . . There’s got to be something, right? Right?” (1). Troy’s entire sense of himself is as The Fat Kid, so when the skinny kid on the floor of the subway distracts him long enough to prevent him from taking that “fateful step forward,” he’s shocked that anyone is even speaking to him. And thus, a friendship between Troy and emaciated, smelly, mismatched Curt is born.

Fat Kid Rules the World is set in early 2000s New York City and the descriptions of filthy subways, busted diners, and punk dive bars are the perfect backdrop to Troy and Curt’s adventures. Curt is a force of nature and he has set his sights on Troy. Troy finds himself doing things he’d never have imagined, but he can’t understand why Curt would want to spend time with him because he still can’t quite see himself as anything other than The Fat Kid. Slowly, as he meets some of Curt’s friends—like Ollie, who gives him drum lessons—and finds joy in drumming, Troy begins to imagine that there might be more to him than his weight. And it’s this realization that struck me the hardest.

There has been a lot of necessary discussion here and on other YA book blogs about the depictions of fat people in YA novels—see, in particular, Kelly’s excellent post, “Weight, Body Image & Body Portrayal in YA Books” over at Stacked. One thing that keeps coming up in these discussions is our dissatisfaction with authors who write fat characters as possessing no character traits except fatness; characters who have no particularity—as if they’re constructed from the outside-in, from the views of those who gaze upon them. In Fat Kid Rules the World, Going manages both to capture the incredibly damaging self-consciousness that comes from Troy hating his fat body for what he considers its limitations and the attention it garners and also to show the way that Troy can leverage his joys and talents against the messages that society gives us about weight, which he has internalized. And, most importantly, this isn’t the story of a character who finds himself by losing weight; it’s the story of a character who finds himself by losing himself in music.

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

DIY punkAt the heart of Fat Kid Rules the World is Going’s rather sophisticated thesis that the punk scene’s DIY ethos is the antidote to Troy’s sense that he is worthless by the standards of mainstream culture into which he has been indoctrinated. Because he’s fat, Troy dresses in the plainest clothes possible, to avoid drawing attention to himself; he has nothing up on his walls, as if he’s created a prison to punish himself; he keeps his love for a local punk band secret because he believes it’s at odds with being The Fat Kid. In short, Troy has stripped himself of any distinguishing features in an attempt to disappear:

“‘You have got to . . . I mean, really you should do something about this room,’ [Curt] says. ‘You’ve got nothing up here. No Big T trinkage or any such sort of thing. Where are the band posters? Where’s the graffiti?’ He frowns disapprovingly, then turns his gaze to me. ‘And you must spice up those clothes, man. Not for the sake of spiciness, per se, but simply because they’re not you. There’s no Big T in your big Ts.’

He’s cracked himself up and I stop long enough to stare at what I’m wearing. Bland tan pants. A T-shirt that reads DOG DAYS OF SUMMER.

‘There’s not much in my size—’ I start, but Curt interrupts.

‘Screw that,’ he says. ‘ You make your size. You make your walls. It’s not about what’s out there.’

Then what’s it about? I almost ask.” (50)

What it’s about, is Troy learning that just because he’s fat it doesn’t mean that he can’t claim the things he loves: “I am a participant. With one gesture I’ve moved from the world of imagination to the world of funky sweat stench and ear-ringing volume” (94). What it’s about, by the end, is Troy learning that he can turn his unique, and sometimes shitty, experiences into art. (I won’t ruin them for you, but chapters 70 and 71 are exquisite.) Troy doesn’t come to love his body, but he comes a little bit closer to accepting it as a part of him instead of renouncing it; he doesn’t get a major record deal and become a rock star, but he finds joy in self-expression; he doesn’t change the world for everyone, but he changes things for his brother and for Curt. If King of the Screwups hadn’t convinced me that I should make K.L. Going a must-read, Fat Kid Rules the World definitely has.

Fat Kid Rules the World movie Matthew LillardhackersMatthew Lillard (who also performed the audiobook of Fat Kid Rules the World) recently directed a film version, which I watched immediately after finishing the novel, and which I really disliked, unfortunately. It takes Going’s gritty, reflective story and translates it into a slick, toothless forming-a-band story that only gestures at the hard edges of the book. But I’ll give Lillard a pass because I love him so much as Cereal Killer in Hackers.

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.

King of the Screwups K.L. Going

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). Liam has made it, as far as high school life goes: he’s handsome, stylish, popular, good at sports, and fun. But everything he does disappoints and infuriates his businessman father. Finally, his father kicks him out of the house and Liam goes to live with his uncle, Pete. In a new school, Liam decides that maybe he can reinvent himself into someone his father could respect . . . and maybe even love? Adore this book!—check out my complete review HERE.

Sister Mischief Laura Goode

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats. Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: the library

5 Reasons to make Night of the Comet the next 80s movie you watch

If you’re the type who needs convincing, here are some

Reasons Why You Should Watch Night of the Comet (1984)

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screenshots and review by Tessa

 

1. You’re sick of the classic 80s movies.

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Ok so, Night of the Comet isn’t OBSCURE – it has a whole fan site devoted to it. It was shown at an art museum. But it’s not on the level of Weird Science or other stuff that would automatically get namechecked in, say, Ready Player One. I’m getting old and I need to branch out into lesser-known fare from the 80s in order to satisfy my craving for 80s movies. Often this means watching the quality of the film degrade, in plot or acting or both, trying to find some small part of the film to make it worth watching (usually the clothes and/or hairstyles). Not so here.

 

2a. You like Linda Hamilton doppelgangers.

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Catherine Mary Stewart has the big blue eyes, strong jaw, tawny hair, and toughness of Linda Hamilton. Her character, Regina, is the daughter of a military-career-obsessed father. Her mom is dead and her stepmother is mean. She’s learned to take care of herself as much from her dad as from his absence –  and gets fun where she can take it – like keeping the top 10 slots on her favorite video game at work (a movie theater) filled with her initials. Her only deep bond is with her younger sister, so she has a protective and friendly side as well.

 

2b. Sisters!

noc31samandreg

 

It’s great to see loving sisterly relationships portrayed. Regina and Samantha are totes believable as siblings. Regina has the older sister leading her way into the world thing down, where she makes mistakes and worries about her sister. Samantha, being the younger sister, is more carefree . She’s happy to be a sardonic blonde cheerleader type – tough & bubbly – and she wants to make her own decisions but kinda enjoys being in the protected zone. And R&S are close enough in age that they are also friends and can razz on each other without it becoming big drama. Except in the case of boyfriend-poaching which, if they both survive the cometpocalypse, will probably become a deep seated neurosis for Samantha in her adult life.

Overall, the main peeps were well-written and came off as characters. The zombies and the stepmom were pretty much evil though.

 

3. You’re into great 80s fashion.

 

I’ll start at the boots:

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And raise you legwarmers and spandex:

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Finishing with the irresistible shopping-at-the-mall-cuz-everyone-in-the-world-is-dust-or-zombies montage

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4. You want a post-apocalyptic movie that is as silly as it is gritty.

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The premise of the movie is that the Earth is in the path of a comet’s huge elliptical orbit – not the actual comet, but its emanations or whatever. The last time it hit earth the dinosaurs died, but everyone thinks that’s a coincidence. Most people are outside watching the comet when it passes through, and are pretty much instantaneously dried out and turned to dust.

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The ones who were partially exposed become zombie-like. They go a little crazy and kill and eat people, but they can also talk and reason, up to a certain point in the progression of… whatever it is. A virus? A bacteria? An environmental thing? It’s transmitted through the air. People who weren’t exposed at all are okay… or are they?  Some selfish scientists are trying to figure it out.

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The scientists also like legwarmers.

The actual science is, as you may expect, vague, and its resolution is in keeping with that vagueness. Scientific clarity isn’t really the point – the setup is a great background for seeing empty city streets and setting up alternately silly and scary situations, but with a SPOILER ALERT happy ending — that has our characters totally not worried about things like gas, and continuing to put things in the trash as if there were garbage collection still happening.  Walking Dead it ain’t.  Still, the zombies are scary – there aren’t very many, but the fact that they retain brain function for a while makes them trickier to deal with.  And the human characters can also be scary – Doris, the stepmother, punches Samantha in the face, and the scientists give off a vibe that made me feel uneasy – like they were losing their minds but they didn’t know it, and so had to be watched at all times.  There’s even a plot twist that faked me out and made me think that the writer/director was really being gutsy.

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5. You want a soundtrack chock full of smooth 80s jams.

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Everyone is constantly listening to the radio on giant boomboxes or in their car, and the songs are uniformly full of spiraling saxophones and pulsating keyboard chords. (The shopping montage features a non Cyndi Lauper version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.)

BONUS: Because empty cities are a little thrilling.

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The Culling: A Supercharged, Action-Packed Adventure

A Review of The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos

Flux, 2013

The Culling Torch Keeper #1 Steven dos Santos

by REBECCA, April 10, 2013

characters

Lucian “Lucky” Spark: smart and forced to grow up too soon after losing his parents, he will do whatever it takes to protect his little brother, Cole

Digory Tycho: strong and dependable, he is working with the resistance against the bloodthirsty government that controls things

hook

Every year, The Establishment recruits five citizens to face The Trials, with their loved ones as the Incentives for their success. When Lucian tries to take things into his own hands to protect his brother, he finds himself a Recruit, fighting for his brother’s life, and Digory, who seems desperate to protect him, is a Recruit right along with him. What mysteries is The Establishment hiding, and how can Lucian and Digory have any hope of being together when they may have to kill each other to save their Incentives?

worldview

Ok, so I’ve read reviews that call books or movies “supercharged” and always thought it was a really stupid word . . . until I read The Culling. There is just something about it that seemed amped-up, dynamic . . . well, supercharged.

The world of The Culling is a grim one. The Establishment controls every element of the lives of those living in the city through military presence, information-repression, disease, and poverty. Then there are The Trials: if you win, you have the chance to be an officer of The Establishment; if you lose, the people you love the most will die. When The Culling begins, Lucian is attempting to gain an audience with the prefect of the city, who came from his neighborhood, to try and protect his little brother, Cole, when he finds himself thrown headfirst into The Trials alongside the very person he’s attracted to: Digory Tycho, a highly capable member of the resistance with a heart of gold, at least where Lucian is concerned.

The Trials are sick, dude! I mean, like, messed-up in an awesome, eerie, Steven-dos-Santos-please-be-my-creepy-friend kind of way. The worldview of The Culling in general is one in which you cannot trust anyone, everyone will betray you, and people have been forced to do things for survival that leave psychological scars as well as physical ones. I admired dos Santos’ ability to present the truly harrowing consequences of The Trials, in which the Recruit who comes in last in each round must choose which of his or her two Incentives to kill. There are definitely some surprises there that were very well-handled. In short, The Culling reads like a highly creative action movie—very fast-paced but with just enough detail to everything that you absorb the world in passing, as opposed to lingering in it.

As the first book in a series, I thought The Culling did a nice job of planting a lot of seeds, any of which could be taken up in the rest of the series. The fast pace purposely values action over depth of world-building and I didn’t find this a fault, but rather an intentional artistic choice. I would have been equally satisfied by a slower-moving book with deeper world-building, but the pace here really was compelling. I’m not usually one to care overly much for speed, but I literally could not put the book down. Like, I had to go to work and was reading while I peed, reading while I walked to the trolley, reading on the trolley, which makes me carsick, and reading in the elevator up until the moment I walked in the door of work.

The characters are great: Lucian is smart and stubborn, resentful of ever needing Digory’s help, but so desperate to save his brother that he feels he has no choice. Digory could have fallen into the strong, savior stereotype, but his political ideals make him far more interesting. The other three Recruits are all excellent, too. There’s Cypress, who is cold and controlled in response to the traumas in her life; Gideon, the boy who seems pretty together, but is revealed to have more of a stake in his Incentives than anyone could possibly know; and Ophelia, who is fucking terrifying.

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

The Culling Steven dos SantosNow, I’ve read several reviews of The Culling that were negative, denouncing it for being similar to The Hunger Games, and I do see the similarities, plot-wise, but I’m very much hoping I can dispel the notion that these plot similarities are the heart of The Culling. Yes: The Culling shares with The Hunger Games trilogy a deep horror of a totalitarian government, the suspicion that under such a regime its citizens are mere pawns who think they have a chance of winning their freedom but who are always already merely fulfilling a preordained role, and the understanding that in a world where adults are necessarily enslaved by the system, wanting to protect someone innocent from harm is the most powerful impetus to fight, even if you don’t believe you can win. What they share, then, is the kind of deep structure that produces genres and subgenres. The Hunger Games and The Culling are part of the same subgenre of dystopian literature—a subgenre that predates the former and will, I’m sure, postdate the latter. Mkay, done.

The reason I was so excited to read The Culling in the first place is that it’s one of the few pieces of YA speculative fiction that I’ve come across where the author’s intention was that being gay wasn’t going to be the point of the story. There has been a lot of talk lately about how some people believe the next phase of queer visibility in the literary community is to have queerness be simply a fact of a character, as opposed to an occasion for comment about struggle. I don’t think that normalization into non-issue signals progress per se, but I’m glad that people are at least talking about the issue.

Anyway, I was curious what dos Santos’ take was going to be and I came away pretty impressed. My suspicion of the ideal of framing queerness as being so normal as to be invisible is that it elides very important material consequences of struggle. In the world of The Culling, being gay doesn’t seem to be an issue, but rather than eliding struggle, the commonality of being gay simply shifts the threat (Lucian is almost victimized by prison guards who call him “pretty boy”), not invisiblizing it. Furthermore, I was really glad to see a novel that depended on a regime of totalitarian control, as opposed to knee-jerk gender conservatism, to construct its dystopia.

I’m not a very patient person, so I’m kind of cursing myself for reading The Culling when I will now have to wait at least a year to find out what happens next. I highly recommend that you curse yourselves too, and check out this truly supercharged dystopia. Flux, you’ve done it again—my hat’s off.

readalikes

The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Catching Fire The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Mockingjay The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, of course (2008-2010). Nuff said about this, I think.

Girl in the Arena Lisa Haines

Girl In the Arena by Lisa Haines (2009). This compelling book explores a neo-gladatorial society, complete with its culture of violence, through the eyes of one girl who has to fight not only for her freedom but for her family as well.

procured from: I received an ARC of The Culling from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. The Culling by Steven dos Santos is available now!

“Ask Laura Ingalls Wilder If You Don’t Believe Me”: Girl Unmoored

A Review of Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer

Fiction Studio Books, 2012

Girl Unmoored Jennifer Gooch Hummer

by REBECCA, April 8, 2013

characters

Apron Bramhall: insightful, and honest, in the aftermath of her mother’s death, her quirkiness is making her life harder

Dad: Latin professor who cares about Apron, but is desperate to please M, his new girlfriend

Mike: the nephew of Apron’s neighbor and owner of a local flower shop, Mike plays Jesus in a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar and is so kind that Apron wonders if he and Jesus are actually related

Chad: Mike’s boyfriend, who immediately connects with Apron and her problems, but has problems of his own

hook

It’s Maine in the summer of 1985 and thirteen-year-old Apron Bramhall’s heart is broken. Her mother died; her father is living with M, the nurse who cared for her mother and hates Apron; her best friend Rennie dumped her to hang out with popular Jenny; and it’s almost summer, so she’ll have nothing but time to think about how love just seems to cost too much to be worth it. Enter Mike and Chad, who recognize a kindred spirit in Apron and give her a job working at their flower shop over the summer. But the job turns into a deep connection with Mike and Chad, who are dealing with their own heartbreaks.

review

I entered the world of Girl Unmoored, the debut novel by Jennifer Gooch Hummer, with no expectations whatsoever and only the vaguest sense of what the book was about, and I’m glad I did. Girl Unmoored sees the world through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Apron, whose combination of insight and naiveté result in a wonderful and poignant voice. Apron’s life has sucked lately, and really all she wants to do is play with her guinea pig, The Boss, and read the Little House on the Prairie books.

“I had read every book in the series by the time I was eight, and a hundred times over since then. I have to sneak them now, though, otherwise my dad says, ‘Aren’t we a little past those, Apron? I mean really. How about some Moby-Dick?’ But the truth was that Laura Ingalls Wilder was the nicest girl I’ve ever not known. Rennie would throw me under a bus for a piece of chocolate.”

Little House in the Big Woods Laura Ingalls WilderIt’s Apron’s voice that is the real gem of Girl Unmoored: “Being this close to Mike made the cramp in my heart loosen up a bit, like little shingles were falling off of it.” For the first third of the book or so, Apron’s unique perspective is engaging and revelatory, and the tone is light, even with Apron’s troubles. As the book continues, though, shit gets pretty serious: Apron’s dad’s benign neglect ceases to feel benign, M’s passive distaste for Apron gets pretty active, and the mysterious disease from which Chad is suffering (mysterious to Apron, not to the reader) turns harrowing. Jennifer Gooch Hummer writes with a light hand that allows for this subtle shift from a summery, quirky tale of a small town to a truly heartbreaking story of a girl who has to figure out how to grow up and how to love without a traditional support system.

Girl Unmoored is a pretty quiet book, plot-wise, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Hummer is masterful at excavating the emotional core of every situation and achieves a subtle and deep vision of what is going on around Apron that she is aware of but cannot totally understand. The tone is pitch perfect and the characters layered and sympathetic. Despite the sunniness and charm of the setting, Girl Unmoored’s worldview is a realistically grim one: everyone has it rough and everyone is selfish and everyone wants someone to save them but knows that no one will. But that, Apron seems to decide by the end, may be the price of love: that you bear the burden of remembering it, in all its exaltation and all its grief, even after the ones you love are gone.

“I looked back at all those people I didn’t know and thought about how small your heart is but how big of a space it takes up. And how, even though you can’t see it, that heart space grows so quietly across a room or up some stairs in someone else’s living room, that even if you never step foot in it again, the air in there is changed forever.”

Girl Unmoored is like a cold glass of lemonade in the summer, the sourness of heartbreak  sweetened by beautiful prose making it impossible not to gulp it down, and impossible not to feel the sting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry; you’ll pour yourself another glass. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

readalikes

Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (2012). As you may remember, Tell the Wolves I’m Home was my favorite book of last year. Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Girl Unmoored share a time period and a basic plot,  but are incredibly different in tone. If the former is a cold, desolate New York January, then the latter is a hot, claustrophobic, coastal July. If you like one, though, chances are you’ll like the other, and both are wonderful. You can read my complete review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home HERE, and an interview with the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt HERE.

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

The Freak Observer  by Blythe Woolston (2010). Like Apron, Loa has just suffered a death in the family and, like Apron, Loa observes things that others overlook. Though Loa is older, they share a dark and poetic view of the world that they express matter-of-factly. You can read Tessa’s complete review of The Freak Observer HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of Girl Unmoored from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer is available now.

Smörgåsbord: Lunchtime Links

collected by Tessa

Sometimes I can’t blog about what I’m reading, for various reasons. But what I can do is point you towards good things to read instead!

Commemorative Portrait of Damodarji II (1797-1826) Performing the Ceremony of the Offering of Food to the Seven Images (Sapata Svarup ki Utsava) in 1822India, Rajasthan, Nathadwara, circa 1822-1850 via lacma.org

Commemorative Portrait of Damodarji II (1797-1826) Performing the Ceremony of the Offering of Food to the Seven Images (Sapata Svarup ki Utsava) in 1822
India, Rajasthan, Nathadwara, circa 1822-1850 via lacma.org

1. This article by Kelly at Stacked, and the links within: Discussing Sex, Sexual Assault, and Rape: A Resource Guide. So important to keep talking about. And well written.

2. Related: Cosplay Does Not Equal Consent

3. Rookie Diaries – These are actual teens talking about their actual lives, and they rule.

4. I just found this blog through another vintage illustration blog, and it makes me really happy! My Vintage Book Collection.

5. Help me pick what to read next! I’m trying to work through books that I put on my to-read list in 2008. Tell me what to read next in the comments if you’re feeling helpful.

onceuponatime

Once Upon a Time on the North – Philip Pullman

Fantasy adventure in a world I already love. Armored bears. Political intrigue.

howdoesitfeel

How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America – Moustafa Bayoumi

A trusted friend gave this five stars – an oral history of Arab-Americans in the outer boroughs of NYC.

demonsinthespring

Demons in the Spring – Joe Meno

illustrated shorties.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Secrets: Sketchy

A Review of Sketchy (Bea Catcher Chronicles #1) by Olivia Samms

Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2013

Sketchy Olivia Samms

by REBECCA, April 3, 2013

characters

Bea: 3 months sober, and with her sobriety has come the rather disturbing ability to draw what people see

Chris: Bea’s bestie at her new school, he’s sweet and accepts Bea, creepy powers and all

Willa: she was recently raped but won’t pursue charges for fear of having her own secrets exposed

hook

Bea is the oddball new girl in school, an outsider because of her reputation, her style choices, her addiction, and—oh, yeah—her power to draw whatever truths people are thinking. Girls in Ann Arbor are being attacked and the one who survived goes to Bea’s new school. Can Bea use her gift to draw the truth out of Willa? Will anyone believe her even if she can? And why is Bea so hell-bent on solving this case, anyway . . . ?

worldview

Ann ArborOk, so I can’t lie—my primary motivation in reading Sketchy was that it’s set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I grew up! And I’m really glad I did, because it was definitely a fun read. Sketchy finds Bea three months sober and dealing with her newfound gift as she starts Packard High School, a big change from the private, all-girls school she’d attended before rehab.

Since I grew up in A2, I couldn’t help but try and figure out where everything was taking place. It’s mentioned that Bea’s house is on the edge of University of Michigan’s campus, so I thought Packard High must be modelled on Pioneer High School; besides, Pioneer is close to Packard Road. The novel opens, however, with some boys finding Willa’s body when they go to smoke pot at the creek near school, which reminds me so much of Huron River Ratswandering across the street from Huron High School to the river . . . so, you know, I could be wrong. Further suggesting it may be modelled on Huron is that students call Packard High Packrat High, and Huron’s mascot is the River Rat, chosen, for anyone who’s interested, by a landslide write-in vote when Huron first opened. It was a reclamation of the term, originally derogatorily flung at those students who lived near the Huron River but were forced to attend Pioneer High because there wasn’t yet a second high school in town. Or, at least, that’s the story I always heard. I went to Huron, in case you were wondering. (Which is it, Olivia Samms; I need to know!)

Anyhoosier, Sketchy is set in a realist world—except for Bea’s power, of course. For anyone from A2, you’ll recognize landmarks like the Arboretum, North Campus, and frat row. But if you’re not from Ann Arbor, you’ll probably enjoy Sketchy anyway. Olivia Samms manages to get in a bit of the grittiness of addiction while still keeping it realistic in a teenage, college town context. We learn how Bea got into drugs in well-paced flashbacks, and we learn what her connection is to the current spate of girls who are taken, raped, and then killed. Well, killed except for one—Willa, who was left for dead—who crosses Bea’s path at Packard High.

Sketchy Olivia SammsBea is a talented artist (even when she’s not drawing the truth out of people), daughter of two artist parents, and seems like a pretty cool person when she’s sober and not extracting your deepest secrets. She sticks up for Chris when he’s bullied for being gay, and she honestly wants to help catch whoever is hurting people (and is willing to go to great lengths to do so). Sketchy is fast-paced, so we don’t get huge insight into Bea, despite her being our narrator, but I anticipate more of that as the series continues. I don’t mean that she isn’t a fleshed-out character—she is. It’s just that her narrative isn’t really about her; she’s the camera we see through.

The background of Bea’s family was particularly interesting—and it seems pretty clear that it’s something that will come into play more as the series continues. Bea is half black and half Italian, and issues of race come up, if superficially (for example, Bea has always been self-conscious about her hair, the texture of which prompted some of her classmates to call her “Chia Pet” and “Beaver-head” in elementary school). I’m always glad when a character’s race is something that an author attends to intentionally, although the stark terms of Sketchy‘s take on ethnic generalizations made me a tidge uncomfortable at times.

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

As a mystery, as I mentioned, Sketchy doesn’t really do it for me—that is, it’s pretty obvious who the attacker is and the whole thing is wrapped up quickly and tidily. But that was ok with me; I enjoyed the ambiance, and I was more interested in learning about Bea’s art and her family dynamic (and her outfits—girlfriend is a thrift store queen!) than the mystery itself. Further supporting the central mystery not really being the strength of the book is that Bea suffers from a case of the I-can-catch-the-killer-myself-no-problems!, often an unpleasant turn in YA mysteries.

Still, though, even with the mystery angle not really holding up (and some very stiff dialogue—I move that we stop pretending anyone refers to each other by name more than once a day, even if it seems like it’ll help keep the dialogue tags clear), I still enjoyed reading Sketchy and am curious to see who Bea “catches” as the series continues. I’m hoping we learn more about Chris, Bea’s bestie at school, who is self-conscious about being a bit of a scaredy-cat, but has made contact with a promising hottie by the end of the book, and about her father’s relationship with art. All in all, despite surface-level resemblances to other YA mysteries where the protag is aided by a special power, Sketchy felt like its own take, and it had just enough grit to keep things interesting.

readalikes

Beautiful Lies Jessica Warman

Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman (2012). This is a great YA mystery, and similarly atmospheric. “When one twin mysteriously disappears, the other immediately knows something is wrong—especially when she starts experiencing serious physical traumas, despite the fact that nobody has touched her. As the search commences to find her sister, the twin left behind must rely on their intense bond to uncover the truth” (from Goodreads). My full review is HERE.

Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMann Fade Dream Catcher Lisa McMann Gone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher trilogy by Lisa McMann (Wake, 2008; Fade, 2009; Gone, 2010). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review (thanks!). Sketchy, by Olivia Samms will be available on April 30th.

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