Sex & Violence, a Strong YA Debut

A Review of Sex & Violence, by Carrie Mesrobian

Carolrhoda Lab, 2013

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

by REBECCA, December 11, 2013


Evan Carter has moved around a lot his whole life, bouncing from school to school as his father moves for work. And, though he never stays in one place long enough to make close friends, his transience (alongside his profile of The Girl Who Would Say Yes) lends itself to getting lots of action before he and his father move again and he deletes their phone numbers. But, when Evan finds himself at Remington Chase boarding school sleeping with the wrong girl, Collette, everything changes.

After Evan is violently attacked in the showers by his roommate and Collette’s ex-boyfriend, his father takes him to the family cabin in rural Minnesota to recover. Now, Evan is afraid all the time: every man threatens violence; every woman threatens to bring it upon him; he can’t even take a shower without being triggered. But Evan isn’t going anywhere, so, for the first time, he has to really get to know people—especially girls—more deeply than he has before. And what he finds is that perhaps his problems began long before Remington Chase.

I’ve been looking forward to Sex & Violence since February, when the seemingly always right about stuff Andrew Smith wrote about it on his blog. I love complex, fucked up, traumatized, smart, confused, flawed characters, so Sex & Violence seemed like it would be right up my alley. Also, I was uncharacteristically conflicted about the title—usually I know immediately whether I love something or hate something: it’s so descriptive, so literal, that it seems kind of silly, but at the same time, since “sex and violence” is kind of a cliché already, then maybe it’s kind of meta? Like, not a description-of-the-themes-of-the-book title, but the concretization of two themes as one to describe the way they’re necessarily entwined. Then I thought, hey, Rebecca, it’s really not that important; get on with your life/reading the damn book.

Sex & Violence by Carrie MesrobianBut, upon reading the book, the question of the title seemed important once again. Because Sex & Violence, despite its aggressive, titillating title, is a very quiet, subtle book, more like the white-on-white ghost of the shower tiles that haunt the novel than the vibrant blue and red at its center. The novel takes place in the space of Evan’s vulnerability, post-trauma, and Mesrobian attends to this vulnerability with such subtlety that, at times, we almost forget about it. But it’s then, right then, that it rears back into play: a muscular boy standing a little too close; taking a shower; the smell of a girl’s shampoo. Like Evan, we are forced to be hyper-aware of all the details that once seemed meaningless but are now fraught.

And that’s where my investment lay: with Evan and his interiority. The rest of the cast of characters, mostly other teens that Evan makes friends with, did nothing for me. They aren’t interesting or memorable—and I’m not necessarily sure that they need to be. Because I feel generous toward Sex & Violence I choose to read it that way: that Mesrobian is intentionally placing Evan in the unfamiliar waters of navigating the interpersonal relations that are normal to most of us. But, if I felt less than generous, or was less taken by the subtlety of her portrayal of Evan, I could easily write off the rest of the cast, especially Baker, the girl Evan has feelings for, who I think is, of everyone, supposed to interest us.

Sex & Violence is at its strongest in its quiet moments of introspection and its moments of dark humor, and that’s a tall order, I think, especially for an authorial debut. I really enjoyed the book, but more even than that, I’m exciting for more from Carrie Mesrobian, whose second novel, Perfectly Good White Boy, will be out from Carolrhoda Lab in 2014.


Winger Andrew Smith

Winger, by Andrew Smith (2013). Ryan Dean West’s trials and tribulations at boarding school include: being a fourteen-year-old junior, being in love with his best friend, Annie, who thinks of him as a kid, and getting close to his gay friend on the rugby team, which brings about trials of its own. My full review of Winger (in which Ryan Dean inspires my new band name, “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”) is HERE.

Leverage Joshua C. Cohen

Leverage, by Joshua C. Cohen (2012). Leverage is a beautiful meditation on masculinity, violence, and the overlap between them. My full review of Leverage is HERE.

procured from: the library


Back To School, Young Adult Style

by REBECCA, September 18, 2013

my so called lifeNo matter what age I am, September is Back To School month. The smell of new pencils + paper + too much hairspray  is in the air, summer is over (thank god!), and the start of a new year makes it seem like anything’s possible. I love that feeling. So, since I don’t get to start school, being long past that age, here is a list of my all-time favorite Back To School YA!

Harry Potter by J.K. RowlingOne of my favorite YA tropes is the Starting A New School trope! The Harry Potter books are perhaps the greatest Starting A New School books ever, because the new school Harry’s starting is a school of WITCHCRAFT AND FREAKING WIZARDRY. I find Starting A New School books so satisfying because the reader gets a crash course in what may as well be a whole new world—new social landscape, new rules, new potential disasters, etc. It also capitalizes on what is, for most of us, a pretty familiar feeling: the self-consciousness that comes from not knowing where you’re going to fit in. In the Harry Potter books, there’s also, of course, the anxiety that comes from knowing that in addition to having to start school and learn that magic exists, you also have an evil nemesis who wants you dead. Now that’s first-day anxiety for you.

If Harry Potter is the most exciting Starting A New School series, my favorite has to be The Secret Circle series. As I wrote in my plea for people to read this amazing series even though the CW made an abysmal show based upon it, Cassie’s experience starting a new school has all the components that make the experience both so dramatic and so banal. Starting a new school always necessitates:

The Secret Circle by L.J. Smitha.) An evaluation of who the character is and who she wants to be, sometimes resulting in delicious tension when she decides to reinvent herself but some event causes her old traits to out.

b.) The anthropological assessment of the new school—you know, what clique does the mysterious soul in your math class belong to; who, exactly, eats at the tables by the windows during lunch; does the fact that the intimidating girl in your writing class can cause spontaneous combustion mean she’s part of a local coven . . . you know, just the usual.

c.) The shaking up of the status quo. Every time a character arrives in a new social setting, she necessarily changes it; it’s like the observer effect. Naturally, some people welcome change while others resist it. This creates . . . drama!

Winger by Andrew SmithAs we have well established on Crunchings & Munchings, we love boarding school books, and they are often the most dramatic of the Starting A New School books, since that experience is not just about school but about life too. One of my favorite books of the year, Winger, by Andrew Smith, is a wonderful boarding school book. It’s not strictly a new school, since Ryan Dean West attended it the year before, but it may as well be, because this year he’s been put in a new dorm (for trouble makers), which changes his whole experience and his friend group, giving him a new best friend (not to mention some new enemies). The Tragedy Paper, by Elizabeth LaBan, tells the story of Tim Macbeth, a recent transfer to boarding school, and what leads to a tragedy that a returning student writes about a year later. In Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg, Rafe is a teenager who’s been openly gay since 8th grade, but is sick of being The Gay Guy. He decides to go away to boarding school where no one knows him and decides that he simply won’t mention being gay. It’s a great book about how much the stories we tell about ourselves impact how we’re perceived.

The Secret History by Donna TarttThough the New School in question is a college rather than a high school, The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (one of my favorite books EVER), is a perfect Starting A New School book because Richard Papen, who moves from bland suburban California to attend a small liberal arts college in Vermont, is such an outsider. Through his eyes, even the styles of jeans his new classmates wear are unfamiliar. Janice Harrell’s The Secret Diary series, which, as I discuss HERE, is a near-total ripoff of The Secret History set in high school, is also a satisfying Starting A New School book. Joanna, like Richard Papen, starts a new school and immediately falls in with a tight clique of students who are hiding a terrible secret.

Twilight by Stephanie MeyerWhatever I think about the Twilight series (and most of it is unflattering), the first book is a great Starting A New School book because of Bella’s relationship with Edward. I thought the movie did a particularly good job of capturing that confluence of new school weirdness and my-lab-partner’s-a-mind-reader weirdness. Of course, it would have been more interesting told from Edward’s point of view, which would then make it an Interesting New Student book. I was curious to read Midnight Sun, the retelling of Twilight from Edward’s perspective . . . until I read it and it was really boring. Sidebar: being able to read minds would totally change the way you view the world; why doesn’t anyone get it right?

Wonder by R.J. PalacioIn Jennifer Lavoie’s Andy Squared, twins Andrew and Andrea Morris have always shared everything—including their future plans—or so they thought. When new student Ryder arrives from Texas, he changes Andrew’s life and shows him that his future isn’t as set in stone as Andrea has made him think. R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is told from multiple perspectives, making it both a Starting A New School book (for Auggie) and an Interesting New Student book (for everyone else). Auggie, born with a facial deformity, has always been home schooled. When his parents convince him to try out school for the first time, Auggie has a lot of new experiences, but his classmates’ experiences are just as significant. Other Back To School hybrids include Siobhan Vivian’s Same Difference, featuring a teen from suburban NJ who attends a summer art school program in Philadelphia and Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface, in which Val and Chloe are new to each other, forming a close friendship because they’re the only ones who think their NYC prep school classmates are lame.

So, what about you? What are your favorite Starting A New School and Interesting New Student books? Tell me in the comments!

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Steifvater

A Review of The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2013

The Dream Thieves The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

by REBECCA, September 16, 2013

I was so excited to read The Dream Thieves, the second in The Raven Cycle, because I adored The Raven Boys. I promise that this review will have no spoilers, since the book’s not out until tomorrow (though there are spoilers for The Raven Boys, in case you’ve not read it yet). The cycle looks like it’s going to be at least two more books, going by Goodreads, which shows untitled numbers 3 and 4 for release in 2014 and 2015.

The Raven Boys by Maggie StiefvaterThe Raven Boys was tightly-plotted and set in a world that was about 70% realist—there’s Blue Sargent’s family of psychics and scryers and a ghost. We met Blue, the only non-psychic in her family, and the eponymous Raven Boys, who attend the posh Aglionby Academy in Blue’s town. There’s Gansey, who is obsessed with tracing the ley lines in town with the hopes of finding Glendower, a Welsh king whose location will, the tales say, result in great favor. Adam is a local who feels constantly out of place in Aglionby because he’s poor and unconnected, unlike the rest of its students. Ronan is passionate and angry and hates Aglionby, though he stays out of loyalty to Gansey. Last and least is Noah, who, we learn, is a ghost, killed by his Aglionby roommate years before, who was also looking for Glendower.

Where The Raven Boys was a tightly-plotted, 70% realist first novel, The Dream Thieves is an expansive, 70% non-realist second. The Dream Thieves is a book packed full of ideas and featuring a piece of world-building that makes for limitless possibilities. Like The Raven BoysThe Dream Thieves is still heavy on character and atmosphere, but where the former was Gansey’s book, this one is Ronan’s.

When Ronan’s father was killed, he was disallowed from returning to his family home. Now things have begun happening, both in real life and in his dreams, that make him determined to return and solve the mysteries that his father’s death left behind. The plot about Glendower takes a bit of a back seat here to Ronan’s personal abilities, and I enjoyed the hell out of that. Ronan was the character I was most interested in from The Raven Boys, so I was thrilled to follow his journey. We get the introduction of a threatening new character, Mr. Gray, who is in Henrietta searching for something that intersects with the quest for Glendower, and Kavinsky, a Raven Boy who will change everything for Ronan.

The Raven Boys by Maggie StiefvaterLike I said, The Dream Thieves is chock-full of ideas. As such, it gets a little baggy in the middle, where I felt I was being re-introduced to themes and character traits. It couldn’t have been the first book in a series, certainly. As a second book, though, I found its meandering moments forgivable, particularly since the ideas Stiefvater is playing with really are shiny enough to justify diversions. As you can guess from the title and final line of The Raven Boys, this book is about stealing from dreams. So. Good. My favorite thing about The Dream Thieves is the way Stiefvater effortlessly juggles the effects of this concept, which includes every imaginable (dreamable) possibility.

Whereas the end of The Raven Boys pointed strongly to where the next book would go, The Dream Thieves raised the stakes of the story so much that I find myself totally unsure where the third book in the cycle will go. But I trust Stiefvater and I love these characters, so count me in for the ride, wherever it goes!

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Stiefvater will be available tomorrow!

Why Aren’t You Reading… The Tapestry Series by Henry H. Neff?


by Tessa

Maybe you’re already reading this series, about a boy named Max who finds out that he’s the son of an Irish mythological figure, and goes to magical boarding school in America (not in that order) and then the world irrevocably changes because the wrong book gets into the wrong allegedly-demonic hands,  in which case RAD, can we chat about it together?

BUT – I’m guessing that lots of people haven’t – at least it hasn’t been written up in the many places that I go to hear about books. Granted, there are way more places to go read about books that it’s just not possible for me to visit. There are a couple of reasons that may explain this – the series is older middle grade and the first two books read very much like American Harry Potter, so I feel as though it may have been dismissed as reductive in some people’s minds.

There are some very compelling reasons (I hope) to give The Tapestry series a second look if you weren’t into the first book or a first look, if you haven’t  yet heard of it.


– Irish mythology!

Ever since I read The Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland, collected by Jeremiah Curtain, I’ve been into the meandering, tough, hyperbolic, funny stories from that country. Even though I know I’m mispronouncing all the names when I read it in my head. Max finds out (spoiler alert?) that he’s the sun of Lugh Lámhfhada, an Irish god associated with the sun and athleticism, which means he’s the half-brother of Cúchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, which is why he’s known as the Hound of Rowan (Rowan being the American Hogwarts stand-in here). Not that you have to know anything about Irish mythology to read the series, I just enjoy that Max has a grounding in a mythology that exists outside of the books.

Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain via Wikipedia

Cuchulainn Slays the Hound of Culain via Wikipedia

This also means that Max is a real badass. He’s full of Old Magic and a member of the Red Branch (magical CIA type people) and although he wields the Gae Bolga, a sword/spear embedded with the terrifying bloodlust of Cúchulainn, he’s a pretty thoughtful kid thrust into a world where he has to make life or death decisions for, like, the entire human race.

Actually there are 3 children of Old Magic in this series. They all have their own strengths, and their own secrets. The magic is well spread out among the students and teachers and the political intrigue is well done.

– Totally epic, metal demons

Demons are a big part of this series. They are trying to infiltrate Rowan to steal a powerful book that can rewrite REALITY ITSELF… and they eventually do. But they don’t turn the world into a stereotypical hell. It becomes more feudal, and more pastoral. But still with tentacled horrors that live inside wells and terrorize families. As the present becomes the past… with demons, things are correspondingly more epic. It recalled the lyrics of metal bands such as the brutal (read:rad) Absu. This is from a song off of 2009’s Absu:

The old woman of Nippur
Instructs Ninlil to walk the banks of Idnunbirdu
She thrusts he magic (k)
To harvest the mind of the great
mountain-lord Enlil

The bright-eyed king will fall to your anguish
His soul lures the hexagonal room
He who decrees fates – his spirit is caught
His soul lured to the hexagonal room

A silk veil strewn over you
Your face is the cosmos
You hide it in shame

I admire an author who is not afraid to change the entire nature of the Earth. Neff does it and pulls it off without becoming too lost in the large canvas he’s created.

A new kind of adversary

Astaroth is the main antagonist, although the political intrigues of the demon world shift around during books 3 and 4. He’s firmly not in the Eye of Sauron all seeing all evil all the time camp. He’s an activist godlike figure. Like if NoFace from Spirited Away had all the powers of Old Testament God but not all the wrath – Astaroth pretends he’s a softy but really the world is just his plaything. He’s doing it for humanity’s own good. He thinks humanity is better without choices. His face is an always-smiling white mask.

an imagining of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) - via Wikipedia

an imagining of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) – via Wikipedia


– The first book is deceptively Harry Potter-like (with a dash of Riordan’s The Olympians)

I dunno, this isn’t a huge con for me, but it’s worth noting. Also, if you read the first book and were not into the Hag “humor”, it is much diminished in the others.

– The illustrations can take away from the story sometimes.

I hate saying this because Henry Neff is the writer AND illustrator, so these are the representations of the images that inspired the story that I enjoy reading so much… however, there have been times when seeing the illustrations takes the wind out of the much creepier thing I was thinking of in my brain, inspired by the prose.

– His website uses Papyrus as a title font.


Obviously the pros are much stronger than the cons, so what are you waiting for?

And My New Favorite Book Is: Winger!

A Review of Winger by Andrew Smith

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Winger by Andrew Smitha

by REBECCA, May 8, 2013


Ryan Dean (yes, that’s his first name): 14-year-old junior at a posh boarding school and winger on the rugby team, he’s in love with his best friend Annie and not sure he’ll live through the year rooming with Chas, the biggest bully on the team

Annie: thinks Ryan Dean is aces, but often calls him a “little boy,” activating his desire to kill everything

Joey: rugby captain and all around delightful human being, Joey dispenses sage advice and tries to discourage Ryan Dean from fucking up his life, all while dealing with the fact that being a gay rugby player makes some people pretty dang uncomfortable


As anyone who reads the blog knows, I am a huge Andrew Smith fan. I think he is one of the most consistently amazing authors working today, young-adultish or otherwise. (I review Stick HERE and The Marbury Lens HERE.) Thus, I’ve been looking forward to Winger since Smith first announced it on his blog because a.) it’s an Andrew Smith book, duh, and b.) it’s a boarding school book, a setting that lives at the heart of some of my all-time favorite books.

Well, Winger scores a solid five out of five snort-laughs on Rebecca’s goddammit-I-can’t-read-this-in-public-because-I-will-humiliate-myself-and-scare-the-parents-of-small-children index of reading reactions! (you’ll get it once you read the book). Note: “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”—yes, that is a quote from the book—will be my new band name. We will be a death metal klezmer band and we will serve pastrami finger sandwiches at our concerts. Come early and come often.

Winger by Andrew Smith illustrated by Sam BosmaWinger manages to be both hysterically funny and gut-wrenchingly sad, and it has illustrations to boot (done by Sam Bosma, who also did the gorgeous back cover).

Ryan Dean’s humor is always paired with desperate humiliation or neurotic dread, making every paragraph a complicated portrait of a fascinating character. I loved getting to know him and I even (embarrassingly) found myself thinking, at one point, “hot damn, I can’t wait to see what an amazing grown up Ryan Dean is going to be.” For me, the true triumph of the character is in Smith’s willingness to risk his likability by doing things like exposing his feelings about how he thinks about Joey:

“I suddenly felt really awkward being here, in my bed, alone in my room, with a gay guy. And then I immediately got pissed off at myself for even thinking shit like that, for doing the same kind of crap to Joey that everyone else did, ’cause I knew what it felt like too, being so not-like-all-the-other-guys-here. And I don’t mean I know what it felt like to be gay, because I don’t, but I do know what it felt like to be the “only” one of something. Heck, as far as I know, there’s just got to be more gay eleventh graders than fourteen-year-old eleventh graders, anyway.

I wondered if it bothered Kevin Cantrell, though. Joey and Kevin had been roommates for two years, and no one ever talked shit about Kevin or wondered if he was gay, because everyone knew he just wasn’t.

I am such a loser.”

This kind of character detail is so difficult to pull off, even though Smith always makes it seem effortless. These are the details that make his characters—even the minor ones—so vivid. “Seanie slipped me a folded square of paper with flowers and hearts drawn on it, and said, ‘Here. Read this. I wrote you a haiku about how gay you are for sitting next to Joey for two classes in a row.’ . . . ‘Nice,’ I said. ‘In Lit class I’m going write you a sonnet about how nothing could possibly be gayer than writing your friend a haiku.'” Sean, incidentally, is one of my favorite characters, with his creepy sense of humor and the immense number of hours he pours into hacking other students’ facebook pages even when no one notices.

Annie shares Ryan Dean’s best friend card with Joey, and Ryan Dean is totally in love with her. The growth of their relationship wasn’t the most interesting element of the story for me, but Ryan Dean’s perspective on the feelings of first love (and his hilariously out-of-control hormones) make it more than appealing to read.

Winger by Andrew Smith, illustrated by Sam BosmaNo, for me the thing that Andrew Smith does best—and Winger is certainly representative of this—is think through the knotty cluster of questions about masculinity, sexuality, bravery, vulnerability, trauma, and hope. The questions about masculinity that Winger thinks through are particularly nuanced and interesting because of the friendship between Joey and Ryan Dean, the former the strong, handsome, respected captain of the rugby team who is also gay, and the latter a boy who is much younger and smaller than the other boys he goes to school with. It’s masterfully done.

The boarding school setting really lets all these issues marinate, and gives it a kind of un-modern feel (cell phones, facebook, et cetera, are not allowed on campus). Ryan Dean has been moved to a dorm for troublemakers this year because he stole a teacher’s cell phone to call Annie one weekend, so he’s rooming with Chas Becker, who he fears might kill him, and is separated from the friends he roomed with the year before, Sean and JP. This shift in Ryan Dean’s social circle encourages some changes for him and necessitates others, so the book finds him at a really dynamic moment.

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

Winger by Andrew SmithTo be totally honest, I feel like now I’m just kind of talking out of my ass, looking for something to say that will make you read Winger, but the truth is that I don’t have anything else to say that isn’t just gushy chatter or would spoil something, so I’m going to stop, and just quote you some more amazingness. The fact is: Winger lives up to and surpasses every expectation. Winger is fucking stellar; Andrew Smith has once again created something that has moved me immensely; reading Andrew Smith makes me embarrassed for every single one of us out there who isn’t as honest as his characters are, me included; I look forward to having a conversation about the ending after everyone’s read it; godspeed ye to the bookstore.

Here, Chas makes Ryan Dean play poker with him, Joey, and Kevin, and Ryan Dean has never had beer before:

“As Chas began dealing the cards out, all these things kind of occurred to me at once:

1. The taste. Who ever drinks this piss when they’re thirsty? Are you kidding me? Seriously . . . you’ve got to be kidding.

2. Little bit of vomit in the back of my throat. It gets into my nasal passages. It burns like hell, and now everything also smells exactly like barf. Nice. Real nice.

3. I am really scared. I am convinced something horrible is going to happen to me now. I picture my mom and dad and Annie (she is so smoking hot in black) at my funeral.

4. Mom and Dad? I feel so terrible that I let them down and became a dead virgin alcoholic at fourteen.

5. For some reason, Chas, Joey, and Kevin are all looking at me and laughing as quietly as they can manage.

6. Woo-hoo! Chas dealt me pocket Jacks.”

and this:

“I saw [Chas] turn his face over his shoulder and look at me once, and I’ll be honest, it scared me. I considered scrawling a makeshift will on the back of a napkin, but as I took mental inventory of my life’s possessions, I realized no one would want them anyway.

I was as good as dead now.

Images of my funeral again: both Annie and Megan looking so hot in black; Joey shaking his head woefully and thinking how he told me so; JP and Chas high-fiving each other in the back pew; Seanie installing a live-feed webcam in my undersize casket; and Mom and Dad disappointed, as always, that I left this world a loser alcoholic virgin with eighteen stitches over my left eye.”

Gaaaaaawwwwd! Read this book, y’all. Don’t make me step on your testicles and then write a haiku about it.


The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan (2013). The Tragedy Paper is also a boarding school book that excavates the intricacies of friendships, growing up, and being different. My complete review is HERE.

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). While the premises are totally different, Winger reminded me of K.L. Going’s tone in King of the Screwups. Ryan Dean and Liam share a kind of hilarious hopelessness when things go wrong. And, like Winger, King of the Screwups is both really funny and totally gutting. Read my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of Winger from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Winger by Andrew Smith will be available May 14th. Which leaves you just enough time to go read ALL of Andrew Smith’s other books.

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


The Madness Underneath

Shades of London 2

Maureen Johnson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Review by Tessa


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


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


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.


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.


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


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs


A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray


The Diviners by Libba Bray

possessed   Consumed
Possessed / Consumed by Kate Cann

A Boarding School Tale That Packs a Punch: The Tragedy Paper

A Review of The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013

The Tragedy Paper Elizabeth LeBan

by REBECCA, December 12, 2012


Tim Macbeth: a self-aware albino kid who transfers to the prestigious Irving School for the second semester of his senior year

Vanessa Sheller: a popular student at Irving, she and Tim meet cute on their way to school, but she has a boyfriend . . .

Duncan: a year behind Tim and Vanessa, Duncan’s path crossed theirs last year at a critical moment and he is now living with the consequences

the hook

When Duncan arrives at school for the start of his senior year he finds a series of cds in his room recorded by the room’s previous occupant, Tim Macbeth. On those cds, Tim recounts the story of how he first met Vanessa, their secret relationship of whispers and glancing touches and walks through the woods. As the story proceeds, Tim’s and Duncan’s stories begin to converge, approaching the tragic event that changed both of their lives.


Tim and Vanessa meet when their flight from Chicago is delayed. Tim is extremely self-conscious about his albinism and Vanessa is clearly used to getting what she wants because of her beauty, so they end up sharing Tim’s hotel room for the night, where they connect over playing in the snow. When Tim learns that Vanessa is a student at Irving School, where he is headed for the first time, though, he knows that their connection will never be able to continue, since he’s generally treated like a freak and she’s clearly popular and charismatic.

And he’s right—once they’re at school, Vanessa (obligatory possessive boyfriend in tow) clearly wants to spend time with Tim but isn’t willing to risk her social standing to do so. Tim, who once yearned for new friendships and challenging classes, finds himself living for the moments he and Vanessa steal and never asking for more that she gives him. Tim’s story plays out against the backdrop of a school English class assignment: the tragedy paper, which asks Irving seniors to write about the concept of tragedy as it plays out in life and in Greek tragedies they read in class.

Greek Tragedy MaskThe Tragedy Paper is a beautiful book, but not a subtle one. And I think, actually, that its lack of subtlety is one of its strengths. In a less assured hand the story of a tragedy told alongside the story of writing about tragedy would feel as proscriptive and melodramatic as the drop of a cartoon anvil. However, Elizabeth LaBan manages to turn what could be melodrama into a sincere (and at times realistically banal) excavation of the question of what is tragedy. The meat of the tale is told by Tim via the cds he records after The Tragedy Paper‘s tragedy has unfolded (no spoilers, I promise) and after he’s been thinking about the tragedy paper for nearly a whole semester. As such, Tim recounts his story in terms of the tenets of tragedy itself: its structure, its fatal flaw, and the magnitude of events that precipitate it.

And it’s this notion of magnitude that turned The Tragedy Paper into a dark, character-driven story as opposed to a tragedy itself (and that’s absolutely a positive thing). Tim attends to the seemingly insignificant details of his daily existence from the other side of the tragedy, so he knows which ones ended up being significant even though he couldn’t know that at the time. In this way, he’s the ultimate author, only instead of trying to subtly foreshadow, he comes right out and announces to Duncan (who’s listening) what moments were significant. This builds The Tragedy Paper’s eerie sense of foreboding—the notion that we can never know until later which tiny decisions we make will end up changing our lives, or ruining them. And it’s this sense of tragic magnitude that haunts Duncan, slowly eating away at him all year as he listens to Tim’s story unfold, waiting until the moment he will finally appear in it.

Of course, this all plays out against the backdrop of a boarding school with the typical delights of teachers who really care about the material, arcane rituals and secrets, and a snowy New York winter. And you all know how much we at Crunchings and Munchings love boarding school stories.

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

I think The Tragedy Paper was really Tim’s story, even thought it was given to us through Duncan’s reception of it. As secondary readers of Tim’s story, then, we get to see its effect on Duncan—how he asks out his long-time crush Daisy because he listens to Tim mourn not taking a chance with Vanessa; how he begins to look at his own decisions in terms of their magnitude within Tim’s tragedy. I think, then, that Elizabeth LaBan’s intention was that of many good authors (and some of us paranoid souls): to show the way that each miniscule decision we make propels our lives forward into a new trajectory, and that it is only by looking backward that we can see where the catalysts were. Tim’s story, and The Tragedy Paper more generally, is an excavation of those moments when things change; the moments we can never change, but can perhaps locate on our personal maps—can perhaps point to after the fact and say, there you are. And it is beautifully done.

The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich NietzscheIn terms of character, I really liked Tim. As a narrator (I hope I’ve made clear) he could be really annoying. But he’s extremely sympathetic. Albinism isn’t a condition that I’ve seen portrayed often in fiction, and Tim’s feelings about and actions around his albinism are really interesting and quite understandable. I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to like Vanessa or not. On one hand, since we only see her from Tim’s perspective, I wondered if we were supposed to worship her as much as he did; on the other hand, since we don’t get to hear her explanation for why she wouldn’t be with Tim, I wondered if we were supposed to dislike her?

Well, I loathed her the way I always loathe characters who care more about their social standing or their calm social waters than they do about other people. I know it’s not smiled upon to admit this, especially because we’re talking about teenage characters, but I have absolutely no respect for someone who thinks someone is awesome and refuses to be seen with them or is embarrassed for anyone to know they like that person. Seriously, I think it’s despicable. Of course, it also produces really great stories, this one included, so it’s totally necessary in that respect.

The Tragedy Paper Elizabeth LeBanDuncan’s a nice vehicle for the story because he’s clearly so affected by it and we don’t get much of his personality beyond it. I could have done without his crush, though, Daisy, because it’s never explained why he likes her so she seems completely generic.

The book’s tragedy, which the story builds toward, works well. It’s not so hideously dramatic that it seems unrealistic, but didn’t feel anticlimactic either. The Tragedy Paper is a very well-written, well-crafted drama with a great protagonist. There is nothing superlative about it, which is what I liked so much: it is not trying to be anything other than it is. In fact, the cover (which I love) would be a great thing to judge the book based on: it’s lyrical and beautiful and tense, but not overblown or flashy. And that’s exactly what it should be.

personal disclosure

I was particularly delighted to read in LaBan’s acknowledgements that she was really influenced by S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as a young reader. The Outsiders (something of a tragedy paper in its own right) gets a subtle shout-out at the very end . . .


The Secret History Donna Tartt

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (1992). One of my all-time favorites, this is set on a college campus, but feels like a boarding school. It’s also an exploration of Greek philosophy, although with quite different results. I write more about it HERE.

Looking for Alaska John Green

Looking For Alaska, by John Green (2005). Another boarding school tale where a boy falls in love with a charismatic girl. John Green is a master.

The River King Alice Hoffman

The River King, by Alice Hoffman (2000). A creepier, more atmospheric boarding school tale, also about an isolated student who is trying to make sense of what has happened.

procured from: I received an ARC from NetGalley (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. The Tragedy Paper will be available January 8th.

Boarding School Books Redux

by Tessa

While I’m a public school girl, I did enjoy the boarding school-like atmosphere of several successive summer camps that culminated with four weeks at a camp that actually did require uniforms and really was a boarding school during school months.

See if you can spot me:

I can say that R.’s well-laid out conclusions about the appeal of such spaces and their stories, listed in last Friday’s post, were borne out even in that short time.

I’ll leave a list of summer camp books for another time (and I promise you it will include the Babysitter’s Club).  For now, consider this list an addendum of evidence as to the power of the boarding school as setting.


The Tapestry Series / Henry H. Neff

Yes, this is an American Harry Potter type story–Max McDaniels discovers his (Irish) magic heritage and is sent to Rowan Academy in Virginia, where he has adventures and also finds that a great evil is awakening in the world, but also its own thing. Neff incorporates the whole world much more widely than Rowling and goes in a different direction with his evil–Max is fighting demons instead of a twisted human, and his journey is much closer to the questing of Finn McCool.  Neff actually abandons the boarding school format in Book 3 (but still read it, because there’s a scene with a creeping thing a well that is just fantastic).

And I see that a fourth book is coming out this October. Word.

The Magicians Series / Lev Grossman

The Magicians is set in a world where everyone knows about Harry Potter, the series. And then our mopey, can’t-get-his-shit-together protagonist, Quentin, finds out that there really is a school of magic, and that he has a chance to get in. But magic is much more scary and complicated than wand-waving, and graduation is even more complicated than magic. Or, it’s even more complicated when you know you have magic and you have to figure out if it even means anything in the long run.


Gemma Doyle Trilogy / Libba Bray

Gemma Doyle is orphaned and taken from her home in India to Spence Academy, where she uncovers a secret world and a secret about herself. And a cute boy.  It’s a tart, fun historical mystery with equal parts bitchery and girl power.

Sure, the third book is flawed and maybe you’d be better making up your own ending, but the richness of the world that Bray invents still makes it something I’d recommend reading.

Or if you want a boarding school mystery set in London with both historical and supernatural elements, but don’t want to read this, you could dive into The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. It’s got Jack the Ripper and quite a cliffhanger. (It looks like the second book, The Madness Underneath, will be published next year.)

Books of Fell / M.E. Kerr

Or there’s always the option of a prep school mystery involving a secret society, seen through a townie outsider’s eyes. . .  It’s set by the ocean, too.

Infinite Jest / David Foster Wallace

There are really two boarding schools here – the Enfield Tennis Academy and the recovering addicts of Ennet House.  AND SO MUCH MORE. As Publisher’s Weekly described it:

“set in an absurd yet uncanny near-future, with a cast of hundreds and close to 400 footnotes, Wallace’s story weaves between two surprisingly similar locales: Ennet House, a halfway-house in the Boston Suburbs, and the adjacent Enfield Tennis Academy. It is the ‘Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment’ (each calendar year is now subsidized by retail advertising); the U.S. and Canada have been subsumed by the Organization of North American Nations, unleashing a torrent of terrorism by Quebecois separatists; drug problems are widespread; the Northeastern continent is a giant toxic waste dump; and CD-like ‘entertainment cartridges’ are the prevalent leisure activity. The novel hinges on the dysfunctional family of E.T.A.’s founder, optical-scientist-turned-cult-filmmaker Dr. James Incandenza (aka Himself), who took his life shortly after producing a mysterious film called Infinite Jest, which is supposedly so addictively entertaining as to bring about a total neural meltdown in its viewer.”

Two bookmarks are required to read this, and yet I still wished it were longer.


Breathless / Jessica Warman

Breathless also works the outsider perspective, but as a coming of age tale, no mystery but the mysteries of human socialization and family dynamics. I’ve recommended it here before. Because it’s really good. Katie’s a girl with a talent but she comes from a family with their own problems, and she has to work out from under the feeling that she doesn’t deserve good things in life.

Prep / Curtis Sittenfeld

I pointed out in my home library post that this book was a life-changer for me. People either love Lee or want to slap her because they’re frustrated with her. I identified with her way too much for comfort, which ended up being a helpful psychological journey where I worked out some issues via the story. What made that possible was Sittenfeld’s excellent, incisive characterization and writing that drops you into prep school without calling attention to itself, but doesn’t hide its skill. In that way it’s very much like the voice in Girl.

Withering Tights / Louise Rennison

And yet, not all boarding school books are total angst fests. Tallulah Casey, the girl who narrates Withering Tights, does fret about things when she starts her first year of Performing Arts College in brooding, moor-y rural England.  But it’s the kind of fretting that sets up slapstick-y gags and hilarious misunderstandings.  Withering Tights is the start of a new series, so it’s a good go-to for breaks from Infinite Jest.

What’s So Great About Boarding School Books? Everything!

A List of Boarding School (and Boarding School-esque) Young Adult Novels

Harry Potter  J.K. Rowling Harry Potter 2 J.K. Rowling Harry Potter 3 J.K. Rowling Harry Potter 4 J.K. Rowling Harry Potter 5 J.K. Rowling Harry Potter 6 J.K. Rowling

By REBECCA, September 21, 2012

On Monday, our guest reviewer S. Dubbs reviewed Vampire Academy, reminding me of the complete and utter delight of boarding school books and reminding me that I’d been intending to a post about them. Here ’tis.

But why exactly is boarding school such a potent setting for young adult novels? Let’s find out!

1. A recipe for success!

A. Take several hundred people at the most developmentally volatile moment in their lives.

B. Put them in very close quarters for school, eating, sleeping, grooming, dating, leisure, mischief-making, escapism, experimentation (sometimes even in the same room as each other).

C. Make these quarters totally isolated from the rest of the world, allowing their inhabitants to feel as if it is the whole, entire world.

D. Throw in a heaping cup of lust, a dash of self-loathing, a sprinkle of jealousy, and a level cup of anxiety and stir until combined, being sure to stand back in case the entire thing EXPLODES, splattering hormones all over your recently cleaned kitchen!

2. No Parents = New Personalities!

Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me GoWithout their families around, boarding school characters’ personalities are up for grabs. Instead of being tied to who they always were growing up, they can create new personae that are totally different from who they were at home. For some characters, this means they get the opportunity to be who they really are and express themselves without the threat or censure of familial expectation. For others it means they can decide who they want to be—and, while this sometimes seems childish or affected, I think it’s often a mechanism for teens who are still exploring who they are to try on different potential versions of themselves. (Sarah Dessen’s non-boarding school novel, What Happened to Goodbyeis an extreme example of how this can happen.)

The Liar Stephen FryIn The Liar, Stephen Fry’s hilarious and gorgeously written homoerotic homage to boarding school classics like Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (awesome in it’s own right, really!), Adrian Healey learns, among other things, the incredible importance of toast.

Or, they could be like the students in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, who don’t have any parents and develop their entire personalities surrounded only by their peers.

3. Intense Friendships!

Jo Walton Among OthersWhen people are trying to figure out who they are, they look to their peers in order to copy what they like and distance themselves from what they don’t. In boarding school novels, characters have no one except their peers, and they get a lot of exposure to them. This swirling mess of identification, disidentification, the desire to express themselves, and the desire to be understood lead to some of the most intense friendships ever! Sometimes this is about wanting to be like someone, like in Kathe Koja’s Headlong, where the arrival of new student Hazel changes everything for boarder Lily. Or, it can be the literal I-would-die-for-you of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

Sidebar: I will go ahead and assert that, legion though boarding schools in fiction are, Hogwarts is far and away the awesomest boarding school ever.

The flip side of these intense friendships, of course, is staggering isolation. In Jo Walton’s wonderful Among Others a young girl’s truest friends are the characters in the science fiction and fantasy novels she so loves.

3. A Motley Crew!

Looking for Alaska John GreenSpeaking of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, one of the best things about boarding school is the total randos who end up there. There are the people who are there because it’s prestigious, or because their parents don’t like them or want them around, or because their parents love them but are too busy to raise them, or because they were dumped there as charity, or because they convinced their parents to send them there. The list goes on, but no matter how you slice it, it’s an interesting subset of random folks, usually without the great roommate-matching skills of the Sorting Hat.

A Little Princess Frances Hodgson BurnettSometimes you might find love, like in John Green’s Looking For Alaska. Sometimes you might find yourself drastically downgraded from near-princess status to an attic room and a mop and bucket, like my favorite childhood boarder, Shirley Temple Sarah Crewe, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. P.S., has everyone seen Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess, starring Liesel Matthews (who, apparently, is heir to the Hyatt fortune and did theatre after college)? Because it’s awesomely gorgeous, similar to his Great Expectations, aesthetically.

4. Politics and Secret Societies!

The Mockingbirds Daisy WhitneySince boarding schools feel like their own worlds, they are often hotbeds of social and political unrest. Or social and political complacency that one brave character smashes wide open. Such is the case in one of Tessa’s faves, E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and in Daisy The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks E. LockhartWhitney’s The Mockingbirds. In Disreputable History, Frankie is excluded from her boyfriend’s boys-only secret society and so she becomes a pranking criminal mastermind in order to topple patriarchy! Speaking of secret societies, in The Mockingbirds, Alex is date raped and, rather than stay silent and preserve the reputation of the school, she turns to The Mockingbirds, a secret society dedicated to “righting the wrongs of their fellow peers.” Also, did I mention, SECRET SOCIETIES!?

5. Mysteries and Long-Buried Secrets!

The Divine Economy of Salvation Priscila UppalMkay, this is my favorite thing about boarding school novels. What is it about an isolated setting crawling with teenagers (and, let’s not forget, teachers in various stages of despair and despotism) that makes for murder, accidental death, and their coverups? Seriously, if I ever had a kid I would never let it go to boarding school for fear that it’d be murdered, “disappear”, or be subjected to some creepy initiation rite, like in Priscila Uppal’s The Divine Economy of Salvation. In Sheila Kohler’s Cracks (a “crack” is a crush—it’s set in South Africa), the members of a boarding school swim team are infatuated with their swim instructor, and vie for her favoritism when they’re not tormenting other students. When a new student comes along and becomes her new favorite, shit gets out of control.

One of my favorite books of all time, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, is not strictly a boarding school novel because it’s set in a college (Hampden, based on Bennington college where the author went). But because Hampden is a very small school in the middle of nowhere Vermont, it feels a lot like boarding school. (I write about The Secret History HERE, too, in a review of The Secret Diaries, which are really a not-very-different adaptation ofTartt’s novel.)

Picnic at Hanging Rock Peter WeirIn Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (made into a killer movie by Peter Weir!), a group of girls go for a picnic at Hanging Rock (it’s set in Australia) on Valentine’s Day, 1900. Three of the girls and one teacher mysteriously disappear while climbing the rock. One girl is later found, but has no memory of what happened, and another girl returns in hysterics but cannot explain why. And, in googling Picnic at Hanging Rock just now, I have learned the following, which delights me to no end: apparently independent theater company Breaking Bread Theatre is planning a musical of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Most importantly, in Weir’s film the costumes are amazing! They all wear these great white things (above)!

6. Potential to be Diabolical Training Grounds!

Skin Hunger A Resurrection of Magic 1 Kathleen DueyWhile long-buried secrets abound in realist boarding school novels, we can’t forgot that sci-fi and fantasy have their own style of boarding schools. In Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger, the first book of one of my favorite YA series, Hahp is one of nine boys sent to a school for wizards that’s about as different from Hogwarts as a decapitation is from a paper cut. And there is no guarantee that any of them will ever graduate. And, in case it wasn’t clear, by “graduate” I mean “live.” You can check out my full review of Skin Hunger HERE.

Ender's Game Orson Scott CardAnd, of course, what would a list of boarding schools be without . . . yes, you guessed it: BATTLE SCHOOL! In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, children are monitored from an early age to see if they are eligible to attend the highly prestigious Battle School (you know, in space) and train to fight the next Bugger War. Ender Wiggin is one such launchie, and his time in Battle School combines all the most stressful and harsh things about realist novels’ boarding schools only, in addition, he is TRAINING FOR BATTLE. Come on, that is so much harsher than homework, no?

So, there you have it: the glory of boarding school novels, from Hogwarts to the Hegemon. What about you—what are your favorite boarding school novels? Tell me in the comments!

Buffy Meets Katniss . . . In Boarding School: Vampire Academy

A review of Vampire Academy (Vampire Academy #1) by Richelle Mead

Razorbill (Penguin), 2007

Vampire Academy Richelle Mead

A special guest review by S. Dubs, September 17, 2012

Crunchers & Munchers, it is my delight to bring you a guest review by the lovely and mysterious S. Dubs! S. is something of a cross between Scarlet O’Hara and Mata Hari (yeah—they’re almost the same name and don’t try and tell me that’s a coincidence). She has recently relocated to the Big Easy, where she divides her time between dirty jazz clubs and questionable sports bars. That’s when she isn’t reading young adult literature and watching Supernatural. Sam. Because obviously that was your next question. Welcome, S. Dubs! —Rebecca


Rosemarie Hathaway: Our plucky heroine, Rose is a dhampir—half-human, half-vampire— in training to be a royal bodyguard for her Moroi (i.e., good vampire) best friend, Lissa.

Vasalisa Dragomir: Rose’s best friend and the last living member of the royal Dragomir line.  Beautiful, kind, but slightly unstable. The object of Rose’s unwavering loyalty, the two have a special bond in that Rose can “read” Lissa’s thoughts and feelings (though Lissa can’t read Rose).

Christian Ozera: A snarky outcast who is shunned by his peers for the sins of his parents. The fact that that he is delightfully sarcastic and tends to tell hard truths doesn’t help his social standing. He and Lissa form an unlikely connection.

Dimitri Belikov: A super hot, super badass Guardian—a dhampir bodyguard for the Moroi.  He is tasked with tutoring Rose in battling Strigoi (i.e., evil vampires). As will happen during mock combat, sparks between the two fly.

Mia: Obligatory Mean Girl, and obstacle to Rose and Lissa’s re-entry into Vamp Academy popular society. In their absence (see below), she has become the Queen B. and isn’t ready to give it up.


Rose and Lissa have been on the run for two years, trying to escape a mysterious but very real threat to Lissa’s life.  They are found and returned to St. Vladimir’s Academy, a boarding school for Moroi—a race of vampires who are born (not made, as the Strigoi are) and eventually die—and dhampirs, who train to become Guardians, defenders of the Moroi against their enemies, the Strigoi. Rose and Lissa now have to face the consequences of their unsanctioned flight, reintegrate into the socio-political vipers’ nest that is high school, and uncover the threat to Lissa’s life is and how to stop it. NBD.


Vlad the ImpalerRichelle Mead turns to the vampire legends of Eastern Europe (Romania, specifically) and Russia to help create her world of warring vampire races: the Moroi, “living” vampires who wield magic and drink blood, but don’t kill their ‘donors,’ and the Strigoi, who give up their magic and morals for true immortality by killing their victims when they take their blood. Moroi blood is the Strigoi’s favorite snack so, to protect themselves, the Moroi hire dhampir bodyguards. As half-human, half-Moroi, dhampirs have a mix of human and vampire qualities: they are super strong, have fast reflexes, can go out in the sun, don’t drink blood, and, oh yeah, can’t reproduce with other members of their species.

Max Schreck as NosferatuFor me, this biological sidebar is one of the more interesting aspects of Mead’s particular take on the vampire legend. Dhampirs can’t make babies with other dhampirs and so, in order to perpetuate their race, they must reproduce with Moroi (the offspring of a Moroi/dhampir coupling is always a dhampir child). But the Moroi tend to want to marry and make Moroi babies with other Moroi, so there are a lot of single dhampir mothers around. In fact, there seem to be two occupations available to dhampir women: Guardian or baby mama. Guess which one Rose chooses? (She herself is the daughter of a famous Guardian mother and unknown and absent Moroi father, and has plenty of mommy issues and daddy issues to deal with throughout the series.)

Basically, the Moroi and dhampir live in a mutually beneficial arrangement, though dhampirs are socially subordinate to the Moroi, who have a ruling aristocracy of twelve royal families.  However, the main worldview of Vampire Academy is boarding school and all the delightfulness that this entails (mainly teens running around with minimal and/or ineffective adult supervision for large swaths of time which allows them to participate in various madcap adventures).

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

Living under a rock!Unless you have been living under a rock for the past ten years, you know that the market is glutted with vampires.  So what makes Vampire Academy so special?  Honestly? Not much—though I do like the Old World Russian flavor of Mead’s particular take on vampire society (itself not super original, but well-executed here). If I had to pick one intention, I would say that Mead is after entertainment, and on that front she delivers.  There are some interesting moral and political quandaries raised throughout the series, which give the books a bit of added depth, but overall they are just fun to read.

Buffy the Vampire SlayerMead’s characters are gratifyingly complex, her Rose Hathaway the anti-Bella Swan. Indeed, Rose is Buffy-meets-Katniss and neither of them at the same time. She is quippy, hot-headed, impulsive, moral (but comfortable with grey areas), loyal, strong, simultaneously practical and a romantic.  And she (along with the rest of the main characters) grows over the course of the series, rather than becoming a stronger version of a one-dimensional self (*cough* *cough* Bella).

Mead’s dialogue is fun and funny, and the overarching plot arc has lots of delicious teen angst to propel you through the series.  And, despite the overt dualism of “good” vs. “bad” vampires, Mead offers a realistically complex view of the world in which the good and the bad mix on an individual and social level and people are always more complicated than they first appear.

Frostbite Vampire Academy 2One of the things I most appreciated about the novel is the way that Mead deals with sexuality: sex is both something that just happens and a big deal. Rose is an alluring individual and she knows it. What’s more, she takes pleasure in being found attractive, without being (too) obnoxious about it. She has a basically healthy self-image; she can be self-deprecating, but she generally likes herself and understands her value, which is plural. (Side note: I kind of hate the cover art for the whole series, but the model on the first novel’s cover looks uncannily like a young Angelina Jolie, which is actually a fairly good correlative for Rose’s appeal.)  As urban** fantasy/paranormal romance, the novel could easily dwell on the racy and/or romantic and there’s definitely an entertaining amount of that going on. But, like the best young adult works out there, the primary relationship is friendship:

“Lissa and I had been best friends ever since kindergarten, when our teacher had paired us together for writing lessons. Forcing five-year-olds to spell Vasilisa Dragomir and Rosemarie Hathaway was beyond cruel, and we’d—or rather, I’d—responded appropriately. I’d chucked my book at our teacher and called her a fascist bastard. I hadn’t known what those words meant, but I’d known how to hit a moving target.

Lissa and I had been inseparable ever since.” (8)

The bond between Lissa and Rose is the stuff of fantasy—and not just because it involves a mystical psychic connection.  Theirs is a do-anything-for-each-other relationship, one that pushes both of them outside of their comfort zones and contributes to the aforementioned personal growth/character development.

[**The series actually ends up spanning quite a geographical range, but the primary action takes place at St. Vlad’s Academy, which is in The Middle of Nowhere, Montana.  So anti-urban fantasy?]

personal disclosure

Succubus Blues Richelle MeadI discovered this book through reading Richelle Mead’s adult urban fantasy series about the adventures of Georgina Kincaid, Succubus. Both series were guilty pleasures/secret shames, until I remembered that I was pretty shameless in my tastes and started telling all my friends about them. There are some real similarities between Rose and Georgina and if you like one (and are of an age to enjoy both adult and young adult fiction), there is a good chance you will enjoy reading about the other.  But I am new to this whole book review thing, so hit me up in the comments if you have read either series and want to fangirl and/or disagree with me (or suggest a good read-alike!).

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