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

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Sharing Our Snacks: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! 

Sharing Our Snacks

I recently requested some recommendations from R, and (among other things) she said:

I’d love to know what you think of Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr. I really liked it (it’s like a short, tight little gem), but don’t remember it that well, in the way some books just skate over my brain. I think you’ll like the writing and the way it’s poignant, but not gushy, but I don’t know whether you’ll find enough to dig into to really like like it.

Well, R, I didn’t just like like Sweethearts, I became smitten with it. I fell in love with it for its mind and I fell hard. Which is funny, because I loved it because it knows how weird and hard love is, and how love operates in friendship, and how hard it is to tell those things apart sometimes.

Sara Zarr Sweethearts

Sweethearts

Sara Zarr

Little, Brown and Company, 2008

review by Tessa

Characters

Jenna Vaughn (Jennifer Harris): transformed herself from a lonely girl that mean kids called “Fatifer” to become someone who no one could make fun of.

Cameron Quick: Jennifer’s only friend, presumed dead

Ethan, Katy & Steph: Jenna’s new friends and first boyfriend, unaware of her past

Hook

Jenna’s past is dead and so is the boy who shared her worst experiences and left without saying goodbye. Only, neither are dead and now Jenna has to deal with what that means.

Worldview

Jenna grows up as a girl who can’t fit in and is vulnerable to those who persecute the vulnerable and perpetuate in building the walls around her, thus guaranteeing that she can’t fit in, and so she ends up with a peculiar worldview.  Between elementary and high school, her life has changed so as to be almost unrecognizable. Her single mother found a good partner, finished nursing school, and moved them to a new part of town, allowing Jennifer to escape classmates with conceptions of her as “Fatifer”: the chubby girl, the girl with dirty clothes, the girl who cries at everything, the comfort-eater, the secret thief of small things, whose only friend left town without even telling her and was rumored to have been run over in California. She sets goals for herself, disciplines herself to fit into “normal” clothing sizes and smile all the time. And it works.  There are new friends and a first boyfriend and things run smoothly.  She tries to leave her sad self behind, but of course everything feels fake to her because she’s not letting herself feel anything.

And she’s never told anyone about who Cameron, her only friend, really was. How he gave her a note that said he loved her. How he built her a dollhouse for her birthday. How he really listened to her. And how on that birthday something scary and strange happened with Cameron’s dad (no, it’s not what you’re thinking right now).  Now that she’s turning 17, this memory keeps returning, little by little.  And as though summoned by that memory, Cameron himself returns. Not from the dead, but from California.

photo by flickr user Bellafaye

photo by flickr user Bellafaye

What was this book’s intention and was it achieved?

Sweethearts is an intense portrait of a girl’s mind at the intersection of memory and reality, attachment and growth, when she has to figure out who she wants to be from who she thought she was. Zarr succeeds wildly at this. Like a good flaky pastry, Sweethearts  is compressed but has lots of layers to add texture (and lots of butter to add depth of flavor).

Jenna has been repressing her feelings for so long and acting like everything is okay that, although lots of dramatic things are in play in the plot and character development, the narration is not melodramatic. Jenna is not shrill but she is tense and remains in control by assuming the illusion of being calm, so her voice reflects that calm – in fact, she’s stronger than she realizes so that calmness is not all an illusion.

Zarr gets the nervousness of the haunted so right, and then brings back the ghost to make things extra interesting. And here’s where, for me, it turned from a good book into a great one. Because this is not a destined-for-love story. Some of the realest moments are when Jenna is trying to figure out why Cameron is back, how he found her, and how far she should go to help him, and his behavior frustrates her or weirds her out. She wants to be nice to him, be friends with him, but she’s not sure what his deal is or how she even feels about him.  For example, she finds him sleeping in her car one morning and isn’t sure whether to be freaked out or offer him breakfast (both), or when, her family having taken him in temporarily, he doesn’t come home for dinner and Jenna feels responsible for her mother’s worry, and then angry that her mother never worried about her in the same way when she was growing up and alone for dinner.

It all comes back around in Sweethearts, like the past is cycling over and over in Jenna’s head, until she can properly mourn it.  And it’s seeing Cameron grown up and the same but not really that helps Jenna do this. Her experience with the Cameron of now puts into relief the difference between the love she’s play-acting with Ethan, who thinks he’s a charmer but is just shy of being way too possessive, and the terrible complicatedness of real love – not total romantic love, but love built from a bond that is part powerful friendship and part caring in the face of the meanness of life.

“I think about how there are certain people who come into life and leave a mark. I don’t mean the usual faint impression. …And I don’t just mean that they change you. …I’m talking about the ones who, for whatever reason, are as much a part of you as your own soul. Their place in our heart is tender; a bruise of longing, a pulse of unfinished business.”

Just like Rebecca said, “a short, tight little gem”.  And perfect for a New Year’s read, with its themes of growth and its direct style that makes it a quick read that can stay with you.

I also enjoy that the adults in Sweethearts are human, involved (for better or for bad in different cases) in their kid’s lives, and there’s a good stepfather character.

Dear Diary: A Review of Skim, A Graphic Coming of Age Story

A Review of Skim by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki

Groundwood Books, 2008

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

by REBECCA, December 19, 2012

“Dear Diary, today Lisa said, ‘Everyone is unique.’ That is not unique!!”

Skim is a teenage Japanese-Canadian Wiccan goth in Catholic school in Toronto in 1993. Basically, I feel like all I need to do is write that one sentence and everyone will see why they want to read Skim. Skim is written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (cousins!). The writing is dry, it’s thoughtful, it’s lyrical, and it’s a little bit angry; the art is gorgeous: a variety of pen and ink images with sweeping black washes, detailed landscapes, smug expressions, and the kind of minimalism that only the truly self-assured narrative can pull off.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

Skim’s only real friend is Lisa, but as Skim begins, Skim is feeling disillusioned with Lisa, and thinks everything she says is annoying. Around the same time, one of her classmates’ ex-boyfriends kills himself and her whole school falls into a kind of exaggerated mourning. Skim finds herself slowly falling in love with, Ms. Archer, her mysterious, flowy-skirted, tea-drinking rambling-house-living English teacher.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

One of the things I like best about Skim is the way that the words and images are in tension with one another: the words will be bitter and aggressive while the image is calm and minimalist, or the words will be wry and sarcastic while the image is depressing and sad.

“I had a dream/ I put my hands/ inside my chest/ and held my heart/ to try to keep it still”

Also, I really love that none of the characters are pretty—they all have blank expressions and turned-up little noses and wonky eyebrows. It lends the book a level of realism and specificity.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

Skim is a beautiful coming of age story: sexuality, race, body image, gender, spirituality, friendship—this is a book that has it all. I can’t overstate how beautifully paced, drawn, and written this book is. I highly, highly recommend it.

That Voice Inside My Head: A Review of Skinny & A GIVEAWAY

A review of Skinny, by Donna Cooner

Point (Scholastic), 2012

Skinny Donna Cooner

By REBECCA, September 7, 2012

hook

15-year-old Ever can’t make a move without hearing the voice inside her head—Skinny, who she imagines looks like a “goth Tinker Bell” (3)—that tells Ever that because she weighs 300 pounds she is disgusting, ugly, and unlovable. Skinny’s voice tells her that her mother, now dead, is the only one who could ever love her, that her crush could never reciprocate, that her step-sister, Briella, hates her, and that her best friend, Rat, only stays with her out of pity. Skinny’s voice even drowns out Ever’s own voice, telling her she can’t audition for the school musical even though she loves to sing, because people would make fun of her. So, when she is approved for gastric bypass surgery, Ever embraces it. But afterward, when Ever begins to lose weight, and people who have always avoided her are suddenly everywhere, how can she tell who likes her for herself and who just wants to be part of some kind of reality-tv-transformation? And can she hold on to the people who have always been there for her, or will she lose them too?

worldview

Skinny‘s worldview begins and ends with the territory of Ever’s mind and Skinny’s voice. We see each scene through Ever’s very limited, self-conscious perspective and Skinny’s comments to Ever intrude on those scenes like they do in Ever’s mind. Despite her obvious intelligence and her scorn for superficiality, Ever’s worldview is almost entirely occupied by her appearance and the appearances of others. Skinny’s voice equates beauty and thinness with the right to exist unquestioned in the world, the right to be loved, and the right to follow your dreams.The question that dogs us in the first half of the book, then, is what will Ever feel like after she has lost weight post-gastric bypass? Will Skinny disappear on the flip side?

Skinny Donna CoonerI’ll come right out with it: I picked Donna Cooner’s book up at BEA (Book Expo America) where it was featured in the YA Editors’ Buzz Panel (are we still using the word buzz?—ridiculous; but I kind of like it) and was pretty unconvinced before I even started reading. I am always apprehensive to read YA books featuring a fat protagonist because so often they are fat-shaming, food-punishing Cinderella stories in which the fat character can only succeed (in life, in friendship, in looks, in love) by losing weight. At the same time, though . . . it’s a topic that feels personal to me and has the power to evoke a strong response when I’m reading—sometimes negative and sometimes positive. Further, editor Aimee Friedman mentioned that Cooner herself underwent gastric bypass surgery, so I thought perhaps she would bring a particular perspective to the issue.

But . . . it didn’t, really. Ever’s approval for surgery felt extremely sudden and, while she does consider the potential scary downsides of the surgery, her decision to have it seems more like a decision to chop off your hair and get a makeover rather than to undergo a life-altering procedure. Ever’s father clearly wants to be able to snap his fingers and have his daughter be a “normal” weight—out of love, sure, but it all felt a bit creepy to me, particularly because Ever is so young and, I would imagine, her body is still changing.

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

The Phantom of the OperaBut the surgery isn’t so much the point of Skinny. Cooner’s intention, I think, was to show the ways that self-consciousness is free-floating and extends so far beyond merely our physicalities that a physical change isn’t enough to change the way we feel about ourselves and how we can relate to the world. In this, Skinny really succeeds: anyone who has felt crippled by self-consciousness will recognize Ever’s manic vacillation between feeling successful and feeling hopeless. The persistence of Skinny’s voice forces Ever to confront the fact that Skinny’s voice is her own thoughts aimed like missiles at all her softest, most sensitive spots.

My favorite thing about Skinny is Rat, Ever’s best friend. He’s a smart, nerdy, tech-kid who cares deeply for Ever (even when she’s totally mean to him) and appoints himself her personal coach when she is recovering from surgery and trying to exercise. He makes a chart of her weight, her exercise goals, and the inspirational show tune that Ever chooses to represent the week.

Wicked musicalAnd it’s here that Skinny pissed me off: Ever is obsessed with musicals and she measures her progress in freaking show tunes! You know what that means? (Well, besides that she has great taste.) It means that she has a personality. A unique personality + passionate tastes + a wacky best friend + a lot of smarts should mean that Ever is a complicated, interesting character. In reality, though, the fact that Skinny‘s worldview is limited to/filtered through Skinny’s voice means that Ever is only her body. Cooner clearly has a picture of Ever that goes beyond what we get, which, ultimately, can be summed up by a few stereotypes: Ever feels like the cliché of the angry fat girl who feels smarter than all the pretty people and hates everyone because she experiences humiliation in front of them, so she keeps them at a distance.

DreamgirlsThat isn’t to say that Skinny is all negative, though, certainly. In the end, we get a definite glimpse of the ways in which Ever might be able to give herself a more interesting kind of makeover—one where she revises her relationship with herself to see herself as someone with talents and qualities that deserve more attention than her exterior. And, although that move comes too late to truly enjoy it in this novel, it’s a gesture in the right direction and I was genuinely moved by it.

So, although it wasn’t really my bag, I think Skinny is a book that will be powerful and meaningful for a lot of readers who are struggling with similar issues of self-confidence and self-consciousness. And, therefore, I want to give you a copy!

GIVEAWAY

Skinny will be released October 1st, but I want to give one reader the Advanced Reading Copy that I got at BEA! Fill out the form below and your name will be entered into the Reaping for your district . . . um, I mean, that is, uh, entered into the drawing! Remember to leave your email address so I can contact you. I’ll announce the winner a week from today!

procured from: BEA, in ARC form, with no compensation on either side

Note, September 14: And the winner of our giveaway is Joli. Congrats, Joli, and thanks to everyone who entered!

Happy Friday the 13th!: Dead Sky Morning

A Review of Dead Sky Morning (Experiment in Terror #3) by Karina Halle

Metal Blonde Books, 2011

By REBECCA, July 13, 2012

Happy Friday the 13th, Crunchers and Munchers! Both the fear of Fridays and the fear of the number 13 have been around for a while. Put them together and you get a whole new slew of folks with what is know as friggatriskaidekaphobia (Frigga is the Norse goddess for whom Friday is named) or paraskevidekatriaphobia—that is, fear of Friday the 13th. Apparently one effect of this phobia is the loss of between 8 and 9 million dollars in business on Friday the 13ths. Notable people who died on Friday the 13th include Chet Baker, Tupac Shakur, and Julia Child—now that is the cooking show with a theme song that I want to see! Here’s a bit of horror in honor of the day. Read on, if you dare.

Dead Sky Morning Karina Halle Experiment in Terror

NOTE: This is the third book in the Experiment in Terror series, so you should read the first two books first! They are amazing! Here are my reviews of books 1 and 2: Darkhouse and Red Fox.

Also, Karina Halle wrote a short story called “The Benson” that is Experiment in Terror # 2.5 that can be read between Red Fox and Dead Sky Morning. You can download “The Benson” for FREE here, although it’s certainly not necessary to understanding Dead Sky Morning.

characters

Perry Palomino: A kick-ass (no, really, she knows martial arts) lady with a lonely heart and a yen for adventure

Dex Foray: Mustachioed ghost hunter and all-around delightfully infuriating enigma

Ada Palomino: Perry’s fashionista little sister with questionable taste in boys

and more creepies that you’ll have to read about . . .

hook

The weekend of her 23rd birthday finds Perry and Dex filming the next episode of “Experiment in Terror” camping on an island off the coast of British Columbia that used to serve as a leper colony. Perry is haunted not only by spirits of lepers past but also by an “anonymous” commenter on the EIT website who seems to hate her. Dex . . . well, it turns out that Dex has his own problems, and they’re spelled J-E-N-N.

worldview

As I mentioned in my reviews of Darkhouse and Red Fox, I began the Experiment in Terror series attempting to guard against freaking myself out by only reading them during the daylight hours. While that worked for Darkhouse, by the time I was halfway through Red Fox I knew I’d be reading once the sun had set. By the time I got to Dead Sky Morning, I was reading it in the middle of a freaking thunderstorm (that was back in the Spring, before the East Coast turned into a tropical wasteland) at 3am because IT’S SO GOOD I COULDN’T STOP!

Dead Sky Morning is the darkest of the three books so far and, as you know if you read the first two, that’s really saying something. For one thing, Perry has admitted her feelings for Dex to herself. That means that she (and the reader!) is able to absolutely marinate in the feelings of simultaneous attraction (love) and repulsion (he has a girlfriend and still flirts with Perry) that Perry feels for Dex. So, already the backdrop for the supernatural part of the book is a little tortured. On top of that, the majority of Dead Sky Morning takes place on D’Arcy Island, so Perry and Dex are totally alone, upping the sexual tension/torture factor astronomically.

D'Arcy Island

D’Arcy Island

At the turn of the century on D’Arcy Island, Chinese lepers were contained and then abandoned by the government (no surprise there), which dropped off supplies (and coffins) every now and again, but finally allowed some 50 people to die and then tried to cover it up. Needless to say, that’s a lot of potential creepyness for Perry and Dex to mine for the next episode of “Experiment in Terror.” However, when their boat is sabotaged, stranding them alone on the island, Perry and Dex get a lot more than they bargained for.

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

Holy rotting corpses, Batman, Dead Sky Morning is amazing. Intention #1: to write a super scary book. Success! Intention #2: to make me fall more in love with Perry and Dex than ever before. Success! Intention #3: to up the stakes in their relationship to the point where I wanted to rip my own face off because I couldn’t immediately start the sequel. Success! Well played, Ms. Halle. Well played.

So, firstly, I think the plot in Dead Sky Morning is the most interesting so far. The true story of the abandoned lepers, the lack of available info on the history of the island, and the revelation of what went on there are all captivating. Halle also does an amazing job slowly and subtly building the creepfest atmosphere of the island itself, not to mention it’s, er, otherworldly inhabitants.

“Now that D’Arcy Island was close enough to make out the little details, the nausea I was feeling down below was starting to creep up my throat again.

It looked like any other island that you’d see in the Pacific Northwest. But the strange part was, you knew it wasn’t. Even if no one had told me what had gone on there, the feeling of dread that washed over me, the animosity that just reeked out of the island’s pores, was unmistakable.

. . . From what I could see it didn’t look like much was out there. We were close to the island but not close enough to be hitting any rocks. But the water was rippling like a few opposing currents were working the surface.

. . . We were pretty much in the slight cove and the shore wasn’t too far away. I could make out the individual branches of the fir trees, the glowing green of the ferns nestled at the bottom sparkling in golden rays of sunlight, the smooth shapes of the rocks that made up the shoreline. Seagulls darted to and fro and with the sound of the motor at a minimum, I could hear the waves rolling the rocks in a rhythmic manner. It seemed so peaceful, so idyllic but . . .

Someone was watching us” (114-116).

Alongside the battle to film material for the show and also not die, Perry and Dex slowly come apart at the seams. Perry starts acting like she’s wearing the ring of doom around her neck (nerd alert), picking fights with Dex and generally being bloody, and Dex, for all his promises to keep Perry safe, is acting as if he thinks maybe it’s Perry  who’s crazy. Seriously, the stakes are really raised here, and Perry and Dex’s relationship is put to many a test.

personal disclosure

So, after wanting to punch myself in the face after reading books 1 and 2 in the series because I didn’t plan ahead and therefore had to wait to read the next installment, I went ahead and ordered the 4th Experiment in Terror book, Lying Season, right when I started Dead Sky Morning so that it would arrive in a few days, just in time for me to take it on vacation. This was both so that I could read it immediately, and also because I wanted to capitalize on sharing a room with my mom, thus lessening the fear factor. But, but, but, Amazon totally screwed me and delayed shipping Lying Season until I’d already left on vacation, depriving me of a desperately needed sequel and leaving me totally high and dry on the book front when I unexpectedly finished my plane book on the first day of the trip. This led to me wandering the streets of Charleston begging people to help me find a bookstore. Anyway, it was bad news, even though I eventually found a bookstore, read Emma Bull’s wonderful War For the Oaks (you can read my review here), and got to have Lying Season waiting for me when I got home. But still, it was stressful. The point is: do yourself a favor and learn from my mistakes.

readalikes

The Forest of Hands and Teeth Carrie Ryan

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (2009). First of all, such a totally awesome title. Mary lives in a fenced-in clearing in the forest where she and the other townspeople keep watch for when The Unconsecrated come. If they break the skin, you’re infected and become one of them—the only way to keep safe, the Sisterhood insists, is constant vigilance. But when The Unconsecrated breach the walls, Mary learns that their little clearing isn’t the last stronghold on earth; there is a world beyond these trees . . . if she can only reach it.The Marbury Lens Andrew Smith

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith (2010). When California teenager Jack dons the strange glasses given to him by a stranger in a London pub, he is transported to Marbury, a war-torn land where he must fight for his life and the lives of his friends. Love, love, love—my review is here.

Locke and Key Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriquez

Locke and Key, volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (2008). This graphic novel tells the story of Keyhouse, a New England mansion (on Lovecraft Island, in case you weren’t sure horrible things were going to happen) where doors open into different worlds. After the Locke family patriarch is brutally murdered, his bereft family returns to his childhood home and begins to delve into its mysteries. Gorgeous color!

procured from: bought

Doctor, the Experiment Is A Success!: Red Fox

A review of Red Fox (Experiment in Terror #2) by Karina Halle

Metal Blonde Books, 2011

By REBECCA, May 11, 2012

Red Fox Experiment in Terror Karina Halle


NOTE: This is the second book in the Experiment in Terror series. You can check out my review of the first book, Darkhouse, here.

characters

Perry Palomino: A kick-ass (no, really, she knows martial arts) lady with a lonely heart,  a yen for adventure, and a seemingly limitless collection of concert tees

Dex Foray: Mustachioed ghost hunter and all-around delightfully infuriating enigma

Maximus: An old friend of Dex’s who shines some light on Dex’s mysterious past

The Lancasters: Owners of the ranch in Red Fox where Perry and Dex want to film

Bird: Rancher and all-around good guy, Bird is Perry and Dex’s guide to life (and death) in Red Fox

the hook

Perry and Dex survived shooting their first episode of Experiment in Terror and are now off to the little town of Red Fox, New Mexico where a Navajo couple are being tormented by scampering animals, a rainfall of stones, and the mutilated corpses of farm animals. Things between Perry and Dex are as . . . tense as ever, and now there is an old friend of Dex’s thrown in the mix. Will he come between them, or make them closer than ever? And why does trouble seem to follow Perry wherever she goes . . . ?

worldview

My cat, Dorian Gray, haunted by Red Fox

Yay, Perry and Dex are back! So, if you read my review of Darkhouse, the first book in the series, you know that I love Perry and Dex. When I finished Darkhouse, I smashed up against the terrible realization that I would now have to wait a week for the second book to be delivered once I feverishly ordered it. My apartment sounded something like this: “Gaaahooonooo! Idiot! Why didn’t you—gah! Damnit, Rebecca! Damn you, Karina Halle, for making me addicted” followed by a plaintive “mrow” from the cat as I slammed the book down in desperation.

And Red Fox is, I dare say, even better than Darkhouse. The characters are more solidified and their interactions have bigger stakes. Perry has finally been offered a promotion at work, but gets fired when she asks to work part time to accommodate filming the show on the weekends, so she’s feeling a bit fragile and pathetic. Dex is still dating Wine Babe Jenn, but clearly just as taken with our gal Perry as ever. Halle is truly a master of the I-love-you-you-total-infuriating-asshole-I-hate-you dynamic and it’s pure delight. With a healthy helping of terror, of course. The tip to film in Red Fox comes from Dex’s college friend (and former bandmate), Maximus, a tall, strapping, redheaded, flannel-wearing ghost whisperer. Dex and Max have had a falling out, causing tension among the three of them: tension of the hey-there! variety between Maximus and Perry, and the I-know-what-you-did-in-college variety between Maximus and Dex, even as Perry and Dex’s sexual tension grows astronomically.

Leap Year Amy Adams Matthew Goode

Hmm, we seem to be married . . .
Image: nerdgirltalking

This all plays out against the exciting backdrop of what Will Lancaster thinks are poltergeists on his ranch in Red Fox. Halle totally evokes the creepiness of the rural, Southwestern setting with its long stretches of dusty road, sudden animal encounters, and treacherous rocky landscape. As it seems clearer and clearer that they are not dealing with poltergeists but with something out of a Navajo mythology, the threats to Perry and Dex come from all sides. But that just means they have to scoot closer together. In bed. Because they have to pretend to be married for the sake of propriety like in that movie Leap Year with Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. Just saying.

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

Fox

I am scary
Image: Nicole Duplaix, Nation Geographic

Where Darkhouse seeded the notion that maybe, just maybe, Dex is mental and shit is all in his head, Red Fox lets you know he’s mental and that it’s not all in his head. Dude, Red Fox is scary—and it ain’t just the ghosties! One of the things I like the most about this series is the way that Halle weaves together all the different scaries instead of relying only on the supernatural. So, you’ve got your supernatural scary, sure, but then there’s also the fear of loving someone who may not love you back; the fear that people you trust may betray or even kill you; and the terrible garden-variety fear of encountering a bunch of drunks in a bar of an evening. Red Fox is the total package.

“My eyes flickered open. Something had woken me up . . . Then I felt something brush up against my foot . . .

I took a deep breath and slowly turned over.

I felt the life being sucked out of me.

There was an animal sitting at the foot of the bed, just six feet away, on top of my feet . . .

It was a fox. I couldn’t see it clearly but I knew that’s what it was. A fox, about the size of a collie, sitting on its hindquarters, ears creating a pointy silhouette. It looked right at me. Its eyes were a hazel color but they didn’t glow like a normal animal. They locked with mine. It was like looking into the eyes of someone I knew.” (90)

personal disclosure

So, I’ve been reading this series like a madwoman, y’all—it is addictive and each book just keeps getting better! When I was reading Darkhouse I was careful: I relegated my reading to daylight hours because I live alone and have super gruesome nightmares anyway, so I didn’t want to totally freak myself out. Then, with Red Fox, I couldn’t make myself stop when it got dark, so I huddled under a really big blanket and made my cat sit with me so I wouldn’t be too scared. By Dead Sky Morning, the third in the series (review coming soon!), I was reading it at 3am during a violent thunderstorm right before I went to bed. And that, my friends, is the spiral of addiction. Cheers.

Perry Palomino Red Fox Experiment in Terror

BONUS! This just in: after you read Red Fox, you can check out Halle’s re-writing of one of the scenes in the book from Dex’s perspective posted here on What the Cat Read!

Spotted: 10 Reasons You Should Watch Gossip Girl

By REBECCA, April 27, 2012

Gossip Girl

Okay, so I came super late to Gossip Girl. Yeah, I had a friend or two who watched it. And I knew what it was, sure: a superficial show about a bunch of privileged kids with nothing better to do than talk about each other and swap lip gloss colors. Right? Right! And yet, so very, very WRONG! I stand before you humbled by the power. The power of Gossip Girl.

So, I have compiled the following list of reasons you should watch Gossip Girl if, like me, you have either a.) operated under the assumption that it wasn’t worth your time, or b.) have had it on your list and just needed a little shove into the upper East Side.

Or, for those of you who were on it from go, maybe this list will remind you that, oh, look, global climate change likely has us in for a hellish summer—what better way to spend it than inside with air conditioning, a frozen cocktail, and Gossip Girl?

Without further ado, here are 10 Reasons You Should Watch Gossip Girl!

Veronica Mars Kristen Bell1. Kristen Bell. I wouldn’t necessarily say that everything is better with Kristen Bell’s presence. Nope, I just double-checked on IMDb and I can confirm: Everything Is Better With the Presence of Kristen Bell. It’s like, actually, all the times when I thought to myself, “self, this show Gossip Girl is probably crap,” myself should have said, “shutup, RP-G—it has Kristen Bell in it.” Even though she’s only voice-over, she manages to seem like she knows everything and yet could be anyone. That, my friends, is talent.

[Sidebar: once, my friend A— tricked me into seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall (ok, she didn’t trick me; I was writing my dissertation and she basically had me at “want to go to the mov—”). When we got there and I realized that it was a romantic comedy in which I was going to have to watch people be laughed at for humiliating themselves I was un-pleased. However! Within like 14 seconds of Kristen Bell coming on camera, I was laughing. (Well, and then there was that thing with the puppet musical of Dracula that just slayed me.)]

Sugar Cookies xoxo

Image: Whipped Bake Shop, Philadelphia

2. Relatedly, the signoff “xoxo, Gossip Girl.” This is one of the most addictive and delightful inventions of the information age. The “xoxo, —” provides an email salutation that is simultaneously warm and suggests a shared cultural milieu,  but isn’t overly intimate and can always be explained away as a GG citation were the recipient to feel it intrusively intimate. Besides, Kristen Bell’s snarkly little “you know you love me. Xoxo, Gossip Girl” is about the best ending to a tv episode ever. It works no matter what the state of the cliffhanger. Because we do love her!

3. Incestuousness. Among the core cast, that is. I love when even the cast photos make it clear that a show is going to have all the cast members sleep together.

Gossip Girl Queer as Folk The L Word 90210

America's Next Top Model

Hmm.

Seriously, though, sometimes it’s infuriating to see a show where the couple combos just keep flip-flopping: it’s like, what, show, do you not have the budget for a new character—go to a coffee shop and meet someone. But in Gossip Girl, with the familial expectations of marriage, the incredible elitism, and the suspicion of people being after them for their money, the inter-relating actually makes sense. And it’s kind of cool to see a model of how a small group of people can be friendly after dating, rather than the character having to leave the show.

Blair Waldorf

Image credit: Colormecourtney.com

4. Fashion, of course. Unlike many teen shows where fashion isn’t mentioned and the designer clothes, coiffed hair, and high heels are supposed to just be naturally occurring, in Gossip Girl fashion is talked about, aspired to, and expected. This is so much more realistic (narratively), and it actually acknowledges the time, money, and effort that it takes to look put together, much less stylish. My particular favorites in the fashion department are Blair and her school cronies. Blair’s gowns are stunning, and her school clothes (dictatorially echoed on her ladies in waiting) are like British school boy uniform + Godard waif + Marie Antoinette + money.

Gossip Girl Blair Waldorf Gossip Girl Serena Van der Woodsen Blair Waldorf

5. Champagne. It’s as effervescent as the nightlife and as fizzy as the fashion. The folks of Gossip Girl remind us that it doesn’t have to be New Year’s Eve or a wedding to pop the cork on some bubbly. And, especially with summer coming, Gossip Girl has inspired me to pair my YA with a bit of the Brut, thank you very much. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go get a bellini.

6. What I called the Random Appeal Factor in my list of 10 Reasons You Should Be Watching Make It Or Break It.  I’ll just be honest. I’m really not the intended audience of Gossip Girl. I mean, I’m like the anti-Gossip Girl. But I LOVE it. And then one night my sister was hanging out, and we were all, what should we watch while sipping whiskey, petting the cat, and brainstorming how to topple capitalism? Well, Gossip Girl, obviously. I was in the middle of season 2, and I just popped it on, telling my sister we’d change it if she didn’t like it. By three minutes in, she was like, “wait, pause it and tell me EVERYTHING about EVERYONE.” And I did. And then she kept calling me after work and after hanging out with her friends, all, “oh, yeah, hey, um, I’ve got like 48 minutes before my next thing—you wanna watch an episode of Gossip Girl?” Yes. Yes, I do.

7. Blair. Sure, it’s “Serena” that gets whispered in the opening credits; sure, it’s Serena’s return that whips the upper East Side into a tizzy in the first episode; sure, dudes seem to find her irresistible. But who cares about Serena when the HILARIOUS Blair Waldorf is in a scene? Oh, Blair, you are so crazy. You’re insecure, entitled, uncompromising, spiteful, vindictive, petty, and dictatorial. And HILARIOUS.

I have discussed my love for monomaniacal characters here and here, and Blair definitely makes the list. And that’s why I actually love her; because despite her many, many horrible qualities, she is a hella hard worker who goes after what she wants and is willing to appear ridiculous to get it. And, as Chuck remarks to Blair, “you don’t get nearly enough credit for your wit.”

8. Chuck. Chuck Bass. Chuck Basstard. Mother Chucker. Speaking of monomaniacs with extremely questionable ethics! Ok, Chuck, I hated you in the beginning of the show because I have a soul and you treat women like disposable party favors. And yet, despite finding every element of your politics despicable, with each passing 42 minutes I found myself more and more delighted by you. Dude, you are fucked up. And hilarious, ambitious, smart, and resourceful. Plus, you can say things that would sound ridiculous coming from any other character/actor. (In response to why he should be chosen for a position: “Because I’m Chuck Bass.”) Chuck Bass, you diabolical, screwed-up fiend.

Chuck Bass Evil Genius

9. Chuck and Blair! If you look up “synergy” in the dictionary, you will find the equation “Chuck+Blair.” Okay, you won’t; you will find something like “the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements” (dictionary.com). Or, as George Orwell would put it, 2+2=5. These two superpowers are each formidable on their own. But whenever they join forces, it’s seismic. Their scenes are far and away the best written scenes on the show, and it’s worth the price of admission just to see them glower at each other, admire their own and each other’s craftiness, and dress impeccably.

[slight spoiler for Season 1:]

“Blair: Do you . . . ‘like’ me?
Chuck: Define like.
Blair: You have got to be kidding me.
Chuck: How do you think I feel? I can’t sleep! I feel sick, like there’s something in my stomach . . . fluttering.
[disgusted]
Blair: Butterflies? Oh no, no, no, no no.
[horrified]
This is not happening!
Chuck Bass: Believe me no one is more surprised or ashamed than I am.
Blair Waldorf: Chuck, you know that I adore all of God’s creatures and the metaphors that they inspire, but those butterflies have got to be murdered”

Image: January Jones Prints on etsy

10. Scheming, Plotting, and General Mischief Making via Gossip Girl. Okay, so ordinarily, I’m not a fan of lying and scheming on shows—it so often feels like the writers couldn’t create drama without a convenient “misunderstanding” that leads to plotting, etc. But, in Gossip Girl, the scheming seems so much a part of the characters and the world they’ve been raised in that it all makes sense (we even see how Upper-East-Side-itis can be contagious . . .). Despite all their money and connections, there is so little that these teenagers have control over in their worlds that they seem to crave the tiny pops of control that they get when they reveal something via Gossip Girl or use it to punish someone else, even if they know they’re inviting retribution.

Image: Blue Ribbon General Store

These people use Gossip Girl to measure their social cachet, perpetrate retribution on one another via truth and lies alike, and air confessions and grievances. And they variously describe Gossip Girl as ally and threat. As Gossip Girl points out at one point, though, it is only through the very active participation of each person who sends tips to Gossip Girl or acts in accordance with her tips that she has any power to destroy their lives or tell their secrets. As my sister astutely pointed out: even though they would be better off if they simply didn’t play the game, it’s like a very well-orchestrated self-destruction that they all participate in because they believe momentary notoriety and the upper-hand are the only forms of capital they have.

And so, the scheming, lying, vicious truth-telling, innocent acts caught on camera from the wrong angle, incidents of omission, and flat out manipulation creates drama, yes, but it’s a dynamic and dangerous drama, even when it’s based on lies and misunderstandings.

So, there you have it. Have I missed your favorite (or most hated) thing about Gossip Girl? Your favorite Chuck- or Blair-ism? Let me know in the comments!

Hell Yeah, Perry Palomino!: Darkhouse

Sam Winchester Supernatural

Review of Darkhouse: An Experiment in Terror #1

Metal Blonde Books, 2011

By REBECCA, April 23, 2012

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle  Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

characters

Perry Palomino: A kick-ass (no, really, she knows martial arts) lady with a lonely heart and a yen for adventure

Dex Foray: Mustachioed ghost hunter and all-around delightfully infuriating enigma

Ada Palomino: Perry’s fashionista little sister with questionable taste in boys

Matt & Tony: Perry’s dude-brah cousins

Uncle Al: Perry’s uncle and owner of the darkhouse who believes it’s evil

hook

John Henry Fuseli The NightmareTwenty-two year old Perry Palomino is marking time as a receptionist, unsure what she wants to do with her life, and preoccupied by horrific nightmares. When she meets mysterious, camera-wielding Dex in her uncle’s abandoned lighthouse one night, she senses that things might start to change. But when she joins forces with Dex and returns to the lighthouse as a ghost hunter, she doesn’t imagine that she will find herself living her own nightmares . . . while she’s awake.

worldview

Portland Oregon White Stag signPerry’s had a rough time: her self-esteem is shot because she was heavy in high school and people are horrible, she has a history of depression and drugs, she can’t decide what she wants to do with her life, she’s currently living back home with her parents in Portland, and she’s a crap receptionist. Oh, and she may or may not be able to communicate with the dead. We’ve all been there, right?

But, is Darkhouse realism + ghosts? Or an unreliable narrator? One of the things I most enjoyed about the book is that Halle sets up the fact that Perry has used a lot of drugs and that Dex struggles with mental health, which allows for the possibility that this is a world in which ghosts are real. But it also keeps open the possibility that Perry and Dex are engaged in a tense folie à deux that could break open at any moment.

Pike Place Market SeattleSpeaking of Perry and Dex! Dex has a girlfriend in Seattle, but he’s obviously into Perry, and rightly so: she’s a brave, smart, sexy smartass. Perry isn’t sure what to think about Dex. It isn’t that she likes him, precisely . . . right? But she feels drawn to him even as she finds him infuriatingly private and a bit patronizing. Add a generous helping of terror, the dark, feeling like you might be going insane, and a shared taste in music, and, well, cue the tension, folks!

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

Supernatural Dean Winchester scaredDarkhouse is legit scary, y’all. Not unpleasantly scary, but like one of the scarier episodes of Supernatural scary. Like, maybe that episode in the abandoned mental institution. What I like so much about the scary-factor, though, is that it isn’t all the time. (I was a bit creeped out when, at one point, I googled “Darkhouse” and what came up was a SPEARING supply store.)

“As I stood there on the cold, hard tiles, I felt the presence of someone behind me. Strange, I didn’t see anyone when I came in, nor did I hear the door open or close behind me.

A creepy feeling swept over me. I remembered the dream I had. Suddenly, I felt inexplicably afraid.

I hesitated at turning around. In my ‘overactive imagination’ I thought I would see something horrible, but I did it anyway.

There actually was someone there sitting on the white lobby couch. It was an old lady who looked like she was trying disastrously hard to be a young lady. She must have been about eighty, wearing a red taffeta dress adorned with tiny pom poms and outlandish makeup smeared across her face. . . . and most disturbing of all, red lipstick that was half on her lips and half on her teeth. She sat there smiling broadly at me. Frozen, it seemed, or locked in time. . . .

I walked quickly inside [the elevator] and hit the close button before anything else. I looked up at her as the doors closed. She was as still as ever, the wide, maniacal-looking grin still stretched across her face. Her eyes, white and unblinking, did not match her smile” (10-11).

The scary scenes are scary, but then there are other scenes—family scenes, twentysomething angsty scenes, funny scenes—that are the meat of the character-development and world building. This makes for such an enjoyable read because you can really sink into the different moods of each scene without white-knuckling the book and holding your breath during the humor because you’re convinced that the book is about to go “gotcha!” and do something terrifying, like in real life a horror movie.

My favorite scene takes place early in the novel, in a gas station as Perry and Dex are driving to the lighthouse to shoot the first episode of their ghost hunting show (which is called “Experiment in Terror”). Perry runs into a friend from college and a boy she knew in high school who make her feel like shit. It’s a short scene, but it establishes both Perry and Dex’s characters so well, and gives us a glimpse into the extent of the damage that Perry sustained due to the fact that a large number of people are nasty jerkfaces.

The writing is cinematic, particularly in the action sequences, and the dialogue is funny and snarky, immersing you in the story from the first scene.

Red Fox Experiment in Terror Karina HalleDarkhouse is a great read and an awesome start to a series—I was forced to immediately buy the second book because it was addictive (see my full review here). I love that Perry is in her early twenties and Dex his early thirties. It’s definitely YA, but it’s a really nice change to have characters with different options and a bit more life under their stylish nineties belts. And, of course, I love a good scary story. I can’t wait to read what happens next! (Here are the reviews of books 3 and 4 here and here.)

readalikes

Dream Catcher Trilogy Wake Lisa McMann  Fade Dream Catcher trilogy Lisa McMann  Gone Dream Catcher trilogy 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.

The Marbury Lens Andrew Smith

The Marbury Lens (The Marbury Lens #1) by Andrew Smith (2010). When California teenager Jack dons the strange glasses given to him by a stranger in a London pub, he is transported to Marbury, a war-torn land where he must fight for his life and the lives of his friends. Love, love, love—my review is here.

Draw the Dark Ilsa J. Bick

Draw the Dark by Ilsa J. Bick (2010). Christian’s parents disappeared when he was young, and ever since he has sketched obsessively, trying to remember his mother. But Christian has a nasty habit of drawing the thoughts of the people close to him. When Christian finds himself near an old man whose thoughts contain terrifying secrets, Christian’s drawings threaten to uncover an unsavory chapter in the story of his small town.

personal disclosure

Karina Halle is a music journalist as well as a novelist (Metal Blonde Books, ya know?)—indeed, the title of the series, “Experiment in Terror,” is from a track by Mike Patton’s (other) band, Fantômas (taken from the title of an early 1960s horror movie). Karina has interviewed Chris Cornell and Liz Phair and hung out with Slayer, which automatically makes her likely to be quite awesome (and like maybe she would appreciate the story of how I almost died at a Slayer concert in Detroit). In fact, you can check out a (super good) playlist for the Experiment in Terror series here. The point, dear friends, is that although there isn’t much explicit music-talk in Darkhouse—we know that Perry is into music from her Bad Religion and Alice in Chains t-shirts, etc.—the book still evoked a really musical feeling to me, almost as if the mood it set spun a soundtrack in my mind. And I love that. So, without further ado, the song that Darkhouse most evoked for me? Pantera’s “Cemetery Gates”:

Procured from: birthday present (thanks mom and dad!)

Keep the Pile Fed—Vintage Veronica

A Review of Vintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl

Knopf, 2010

by REBECCA, February 24, 2012

characters

Veronica: she finds herself among the detritus of vintage clothes, iced mochas, and solitude

Lenny, aka The Nail, aka Dead Boy Walking: kind and waifish reptile lover

Zoe: mean teen-sociopath who cows all who walk before her

Ginger: seemingly-unwitting sidekick/pale shadow of Zoe

Bill: Veronica’s ally at work, he lives by the Sacred Rules of The Pile

hook

Veronica works in the consignment section of a vintage clothing store the summer after her freshman year of high school. There she discovers pink flannel pajamas from the 1930s, a beaded dress that looks like a flag, and her first real friends. The question is: will she know what to do with them?

worldview

photo, Swank Underpinnings on Etsy

Vintage Veronica is a lot like the outfits Veronica likes to wear: from the ankles up, it’s all “tulle crinolines, full circle skirts, bolero jackets, silk dressing gown jackets, [and] beaded cardigans,” but this “girly stuff” is paired with “stuff like two-tone creepers and bricks, good clompy shoes that go with everything” (9). Most of what’s here is frothy, fun, shiny, and well-worn. If you’re an enthusiast of the “formerly-antisocial character meets new people and has her solitary ways complicated by social drama” plot line then this is right up your alley. At the feet of this familiar glitz, though, is a pretty sturdy (although also well-worn) story about the ways that our perceptions of ourselves can be so strong that we assume others share them, and never give them the chance to know who we really are.

Veronica’s consignment corner is upstairs, away from the bustling Dollar-a-Pound floor at “the largest vintage clothing store in the Northeast: THE CLOTHING BONANZA (HOME OF THE ORIGINAL DOLLAR-A-POUND!), otherwise known as THE STORE CAUGHT IN A TIME WARP!, according to the big neon-pink and black sandwich board sign out front” (6). “It is exactly like it sounds: a huge, towering heap of used clothes (known to those of us who work at the store simply as The Pile), spilling like a giant stain over most of the painted wood floor” (6). Speaking of metaphors, The Pile, in addition to contributing Bill’s philosophy of life, also provides the central metaphor(s) of the novel.

Veronica has been happy all summer, away from the Pickers—the hyper-enthusiastic customers who rummage through The Pile—in her own world, when she is “befriended” by Zoe and Ginger, who work in the retail section of the store. Now: Veronica relates story after story in which she has friends only to be abandoned by them in some horribly humiliating way, all of which are because she’s fat. Needless to say, she has developed quite a paranoia about trusting people, but when Zoe and Ginger seem to be sincere, she is willing to do almost anything to maintain their approval and friendship.

And this is where the novel lost me. Don’t get me wrong: I am sympathetic to the character that is so lonely that the promise of a friend feels like a lifeline. But. I find it unbearable to read about. Especially when the character who basically sacrifices her ethics and lies about their real feelings to keep the friendship of someone who is obviously a friend-eater is a pretty cool girl who is just a bit lacking in the self-esteem department. Veronica, I just want to shake you and scream: why do you even want Zoe to like you when she’s obviously a sociopath (no, seriously dude, she kills animals) and a mean person? I want to sit down with you and have an iced latte or whatever the hell you’re drinking and explain the glorious and not-often-enough used concept of saying: “no thanks, I’m not interested in [talking about this; doing that; being your friend].” I know, I know, it’s easy to say that when I haven’t been a teenager in ten years, but Veronica’s investment in Zoe’s opinion of her was really painful to read.

One of the many things that Zoe disapproves of is Veronica’s burgeoning friendship and romance with Lenny, aka The Nail (it gets explained), aka Walking Dead Boy, as Zoe and Ginger call him. Lenny and Veronica are totally into each other, but Veronica just can’t quite slip the pressure of the Zoes of the world and make peace with her feelings. Does Veronica and Lenny’s relationship glitter like one of Veronica’s vintage prom dresses? No. But it doesn’t quite clomp like her creepers either. There are sweet moments here, but nothing that breaks the mold.

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

This is a slice-of-life story, mostly taking place in the store and the doughnut shop next door, and it does the cozy, my-work-friends-are-fun vibe well. My favorite character is Bill, The Pile Master, who gives us such wisdom as:

“Shit is shit.”

“Shit is shit?”

“Yeah,” says Bill, grinning proudly. “I made it up the first year I started running Dollar-a-Pound. I was in the john one day—”

“I think I’ve got it.”

“Yeah, but dig this. It’s a Sacred Rule of The Pile because it’s about clothes, but . . .” He pauses dramatically. Jeez, you’d think he was talking about reading tea leaves or tarot cards or something. His eyes are the most un-drooped I’ve ever seen them. “It’s not just about the clothes. Capeesh?” (188).

My experience has been that most young adult novels with fat protagonists are written from a really fat-negative perspective, whether it’s overt (the character hating herself and the author hating her weight) or slightly more subtle (a fat character tries to lose weight and is rewarded with a boyfriend when she does). Veronica is fat, as she tells us, and she has the attendant feelings about her size that come from living in our society, but overall Perl’s attitude here isn’t one of judgment or shame, which is extremely refreshing. Perl clearly cared about writing a book that wasn’t a narrative of Veronica trying to lose weight. Quite the contrary, Veronica takes pleasure in putting together her outfits (even if she does try to avoid crowds, since they make her feel like the magnetite of nasty comments) and altering clothes to fit her body. For further discussion of representations of fat characters in YA fiction, see, among others: Fat Girl Reading, Shapely Prose, and Rebecca Rabinowitz.

All in all, then, this was a fine read, super-quick and entertaining, but definitely mostly tulle.

personal disclosure

When I was thirteen or fourteen, my friends and I used to go to this internecine little secondhand store in Ann Arbor, where the guy who owned it would have us put up posters advertising the store in exchange for flannels and jeans (it was the mid-nineties). I picked up Vintage Veronica at the library mostly because I liked the cover (and because my love of Veronica Mars has instilled in me the hope that anyone named Veronica will be awesomeness personified). I kind of hoped that it would bring me back to my pubescent days of wandering rainy streets with a tape gun and a bag full of Sharpie-d signs on neon paper, visions of that perfect green-and-navy flannel dancing in my head . . . but, alack, alas, it wasn’t to be.

readalikes

Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen (1999). Extremely similar stories: heavy, loner protag with workout-queen mother gets summer job where quirky employees and summer romance help her become more herself.

Same Difference by Siobhan Vivian (2009). Vivian’s protagonist goes through a very personal transformation when she commutes to a summer art program in Philadelphia (yay!) from her suburban home in New Jersey. Check out my review here. And check out Tessa’s interview with Siobhan Vivian here!

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