“Two brothers. One psychopath. A beautiful girl. The road trip from hell.”

A Review of In the Path of Falling Objects, by Andrew Smith

Feiwel & Friends, 2009

In the Path of Falling Objects Andrew Smith

by REBECCA, August 11, 2014

hook

Brothers Jonah and Simon have left their home in New Mexico to try and find their father, who’s in prison in Arizona, and their older brother, who’s off fighting in Vietnam. One day, tired, hungry, and scared, younger brother Simon hitches them a ride with a beautiful girl and a man who terrifies Jonah. What happens next is why your parents told you never to hitchhike.

review

The reason I love Andrew Smith’s books so much is that, no matter what story he’s telling, his characters are always a particularly potent combination of vulnerable and reckless that makes me want to read about them doing anything. In In the Path of Falling Objects, it’s Jonah and Simon. They’ve never spent more than a few hours apart and their relationship is intimate and codependent even when it’s fractious. Because they’re close in age and have always been in each other’s pockets, this road trip—their first journey away from home—catalyzes them to reject some of the things that make them similar and try on new possibilities. Especially younger brother, Simon, who sees something in Mitch, the man who picks them up, that appeals to him.

In the Path of Falling Objects is told primarily from thoughtful Jonah’s perspective. Jonah, who has always felt responsible for Simon and feels so doubly now that their brother is off at war, can tell that something is off about Mitch from the minute he stops for them, but there’s something about Lilly, the beautiful girl riding shotgun, that calls to him. So, when Mitch reveals the true depths of his psychosis, it’s not just Simon Jonah wants to protect.

Set in the southwest against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, In the Path of Falling Objects is also great historical fiction. Interspersed with the chapters of Jonah and Simon’s journey are the letters that their brother, Matthew, writes to Jonah from Vietnam. As the brothers travel farther and farther from home, Matthew’s letters reveal increasing terror and depression in response to wartime conditions. These letters, and glimpses into other characters’ perspectives, give background on what Jonah and Simon’s life was like before their mother left them alone, with no food and no money, in New Mexico.

In the Path of Falling Objects Andrew SmithAs always, Andrew Smith’s writing is beautiful and his pacing is dynamic where it should be and lingers in all the right places. I felt Jonah’s helplessness to protect Simon—from Mitch and the world he ushered in, but also from the person he fears Simon may want to become. I felt his love for Lilly, even when he knows that it’s perhaps misplaced. I felt his desire to be a good person always at war with his desperate loyalty to his brother.

I didn’t need the short sections told from Mitch’s perspective as he spiraled further and further into madness, but they didn’t go amiss either. In the Path of Falling Objects is a beautiful book about the things we do for siblings—for better or for worse—and the things we do because of them. By the end of the book, though their road trip has ended, you really get the sense that they are only poised on the edge of real change. It’s a bold ending, emotionally, but feels like the only one I’d want for Jonah and Simon.

That Was Then, This Is Now S.E. HintonThere’s a scene in S.E. Hinton’s Tex (1979) in which Tex and Mason pick up a hitchhiker who pulls a gun on them and holds them hostage. The hitchhiker is Mark, one of the main characters from That Was Then, This Is Now (1971). Though this is never explicitly stated, Tex’s English teacher (who dated Mark’s brother in That Was Then, This Is Now), mentions that she knew the hitchhiker. Because of this scene, I was thinking of Tex all throughout In the Path of Falling Objects. For the obvious reason that Mark and Mitch share some characteristics. But also because the ending of In the Path of Falling Objects made me imagine that Jonah and Simon might be the parents of characters in Smith’s later books, even if unidentified as such . . .

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Stick Andrew Smith

Stick, Andrew Smith (2011). Stick feels to me like a companion novel to In the Path of Falling Objects. Fourteen-year-old Stick has always had his brother, Bosten, to look out for him, but when their abusive father learns that Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home. Once Bosten leaves, Stick takes his dad’s car and sets out to find him, thinking he headed to Aunt Dahlia’s house in California. Without much money or any connections, Stick finds himself in, erm, sticky situations (sorry!), which he handles because he has no other choice. My complete review is HERE.

Tex S.E. Hinton

Tex, S.E. Hinton (1979). I love all of S.E. Hinton’s books, but sincere, volatile Tex reminds me a bit of Simon in In the Path of Falling Objects.

procured from: bought

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Asher’s Fault: A Quiet Coming-Of-Age Novel

A Review of Asher’s Fault by Elizabeth Wheeler

Bold Strokes Books, 2013

Asher's Fault by Elizabeth Wheeler

by REBECCA, October 14, 2013

“The day fourteen-year-old Asher receives a Minolta camera from his aunt Sharon, he buys the last roll of black-and-white film and takes his first photograph—a picture of a twisted pine tree. He’s so preoccupied with his new hobby he fails to notice his dad’s plan to move out, his increasing alienation from his testosterone-ridden best friend, Levi, and his own budding sexuality. When his little brother drowns at the same moment Asher experiences his first same-sex kiss, he can no longer hide behind the lens of his camera. Asher thinks it’s his fault, but after his brother dies, his father resurfaces along with clues challenging Asher’s black-and-white view of the world. The truth is as twisted as the pine tree in his first photograph.” (Goodreads)

Asher has a lot going on. He’s falling in love with photography, but he isn’t quite sure what appeals to him about it so much. His father has moved in with another woman and seems to have abandoned him. His best friend, Levi, has joined the football team and they don’t have anything in common anymore. And all of that is before he experiences the tragedy of his brother’s death. At church one day, Asher meets Garrett, the new kid in town, and goes with him to the local pool with his brother in tow. In the bathroom at the pool, Asher and Garrett share a sweet kiss that clues Asher in to parts of his sexuality that he’d never recognized. At the same time that Asher is getting his first kiss, though, his brother drowns in the pool.

Asher’s Fault is, first and foremost, a quiet book, which I like. It’s about one boy’s coming of age against the backdrop of his parents’ divorce, his brother’s death, and his growing distance from his friends. Asher’s sexuality is not at the forefront of the novel, though there is certainly the implication that he connects the first stirrings of his homosexuality with not preventing his brother’s death. The guilt Asher feels, though, is shared by others, so this connection is a character trait not an authorial indictment.

Minolta_Maxxum_Panorama_Elite_w_35-70_f3.5-4.5The details of Asher connecting with the world through the lens of his camera are strong, as is Asher’s slow realization that his family situation is more complicated than he originally thought. It’s also nice  to see a character—especially a queer character—who was raised religious and for whom religion is important, who isn’t totally messed up and traumatized because they were taught that their sexuality is sinful. All in all, Asher’s Fault is well-written and I definitely enjoyed it.

Still, though, it felt like there were some things missing; it almost read like a condensed version of a larger, more detailed story. I was shocked, at one point, to learn that a year had gone by with no indication. Since some of the chapters are preceded by a parenthetical description of a photograph, I wondered if this flashbulb skipping ahead in time was a purposeful narrative choice to echo photography, but it’s not consistent enough to feel purposeful. There are also some blank spots in terms of Asher’s character; I felt a bit like he wandered around in a mild fugue state, which might function as an indication of his grief and guilt over his brother’s death, but really just seemed like a bit of stiff characterization. I enjoyed a small family mystery that unfurled in the final quarter of the novel, but it felt more like slipping in backstory than something that moved the plot forward.

While I definitely enjoy a slow burn, I didn’t get as full a sense of these characters as I wanted at all. Garrett, who seemed like he would be a main character, disappeared after the kiss, and Asher mostly has superficial interactions with schoolmates. Again, realistic, sure, but not terribly compelling, and I think the lack of a real friend for Asher deprived the author of some great chances to show us his growth as a character.

Elizabeth WheelerThe structure is a bit inconsistent, too. The book opens with what seems like it will be a frame narrative: “I might as well have been blind for the first fourteen years of my life. . . . After what Dad did, you’d think she’d get it. . . . Take the day I got my old-school Minolta, for instance.” But then, rather than moving to the present and returning to the frame story at the end, it turns out not to be a frame at all; instead, we move forward from there. So, there’s a knowingness to the beginning—the suggestion that this is being written from the far future, where the character is wiser and has something to say—that promises insights and closure that aren’t delivered throughout the rest of the book.

Asher’s Fault is a debut novel, and I’d definitely be interested to see Elizabeth Wheeler‘s next effort. It was a fast, enjoyable read, even if it had some rough spots. You can check out some of the photographs described in Asher’s Fault on her website.

procured from: I received an ARC of Asher’s Fault from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Asher’s Fault by Elizabeth Wheeler is available now.

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

A Review of 15 Days Without A Head by Dave Cousins

Flux, 2013

15 Days Without a Head Dave Cousins

by REBECCA, April 24, 2013

characters

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

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

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

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

hook

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

review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

readalikes

Forbidden Tabitha Suzuma

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

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick, by Andrew Smith (2011). Here is a different kind of book about brothers. When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of the really wonderful Stick is HERE.

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

The Culling: A Supercharged, Action-Packed Adventure

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

Flux, 2013

The Culling Torch Keeper #1 Steven dos Santos

by REBECCA, April 10, 2013

characters

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

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

hook

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

worldview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

readalikes

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

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

Girl in the Arena Lisa Haines

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

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

Heck Yeah, Covens! Moonset #1

A Review of Moonset (Legacy of Moonset #1) by Scott Tracey

Flux, 2013

Moonset Scott Tracey

by REBECCA, April 1, 2013

characters

Justin: our protag, he is a bit awkward and a bit sweet and mostly goes with the flow

Jenna: Justin’s twin, as confident and demanding as he is chill, she is desperate to learn magic so they can protect themselves

Malcolm: the eldest brother in this motley crew, he’s buff and pretty uninterested in the whole magic thing

Cole: the hyper, jokey brother

Bailey: the youngest, she is sensitive but powerful

Quinn: a Witcher, the green berets of magic, he is a protector and possibly an ally?

Ash: the brash, entitled girl in their new town who takes Justin under her control wing

hook

Justin, Jenna, Malcolm, Cole, and Bailey are the children of the Moonset coven, the most infamous terrorists in the magical world. As the children of treasonous criminals they are suspected by other witches and the magic they’re taught is limited. But now they have been attacked and moved to a small town in New York where things keep trying to tear them apart, but they don’t have the knowledge to defend themselves. What happens when the power you need to defend your family might just be the power that turned your parents to the dark side?

worldview

The setting of Moonset is one in which the magical world keeps itself secret from the rest of the world. Witches are taught magic in school, and covens are highly controlled by bureaucracy. It is a setup similar to Harry Potter only instead of the boy who lived, Justin and his siblings are the kids of the coven that killed. The word “moonset” is synonymous with terrorism, treason, and evil, so when Justin and his siblings find Moonset’s symbol popping up all over the new town where they’ve been relocated they know that nothing good is coming. After being attacked by a wraith as they were moved from their last school, they sense that there is something in play that they (and the people who are supposed to be looking out for them) know nothing about. And, since people are too scared that they’ll go dark side if they learn magic, they can’t exactly protect themselves. What is clear, however, is that Justin and his siblings are not their parents . . . and maybe their parents weren’t exactly what they thought either.

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

Scott Tracey Witch EyesMoonset is a fun read. I love Scott Tracey’s other series, Witch Eyes, which I review HERE and HERE. As I mention in these reviews, Tracey writes books that, to me, read cinematically—or, I should say, televisually—and Moonset is no different. This means, really, that reading Moonset is kind of like watching a CW show, in the best possible way (I love the CW, as I’m sure you know!), and this book is the first eight episodes of the season. You know, the first episode starts with the siblings walking trepidatiously into their new school and we see how they left their old school in brief flashbacks; then we get one episode that fills in the back story of each of the siblings and teases some stuff about their history together; then, just as we think we know what the main conflict is, the scale of things changes. Like, good tv, is what I’m saying.

But I think that, like a juicy tv show, which is better watched all at once, Moonset, the first in Tracey’s new series, might be more satisfying if I could read the whole series at once. That isn’t to say that Moonset isn’t an enjoyable read—it absolutely is. It’s just that this first volume feels introductory, especially in terms of character, even though the plot is definitely complete. Tracey has a knack for making me love or hate characters immediately upon meeting them (well, ok, maybe I do that with people in real life too . . . ). I liked Malcolm immediately—he’s the sturdy, a bit removed from it all, oldest brother—and hated Ash the first moment she opened her mouth. I think I’m supposed to like Malcolm, and I think maybe Ash is supposed to be polarizing, but in a way that’s realistic; we’ve all seen the nice people who are really attracted to the Ashes of the world, who are flippant, over-confident, demanding, and expectant in a way that (I guess?) seems intriguing and exciting. I found her obnoxious and mean, but I suspect others will be charmed by her version of I-don’t-mind-making-you-feel-uncomfortable-because-we-both-know-you’re-attracted-to-me. But again, I enjoyed my dislike of her because it was very realistically evoked.

The Secret Circle L.J. SmithJustin is sweet and, for the most part, even-tempered, a counterpart to his twin, Jenna (my sister’s name!). Jenna reminded me a bit of a Faye from The Secret Circle (the books, not the show, fortheloveofgod) type; she is fierce and will do whatever it takes to feel like she and her family are safe. Justin, though, seems to be the one that is being targeted by whatever force is messing with the siblings. And, as the threat grows, Justin begins to see that Jenna might be right—maybe they do need to find a way to learn magic so that they can protect themselves. But, as Justin begins to walk down that path, he finds himself wondering where the line is between power and corruption, and questioning whether he trusts himself not to follow in Moonset’s footsteps. This is a plot that is always interesting to me: the temptation of a power you know could turn you evil weighed against the necessity to gain that power for a good reason.

Moonset definitely follows hallmarks of the genre, but Tracey isn’t trying to hide those predictabilities—rather, he seems absolutely comfortable with them, using them to structure the plot and then getting out of the way as his characters take it home. His writing, as always, is fast-paced and at times quite amusing:

“Jenna could take a perfectly simple math problem like 2+2 and wind up with an answer equaling the square root of paranoid.”

“‘Figures she’s a Meghan,’ Jenna muttered . . . ‘I’ve never met one that wasn’t a raging bitch.'”

“Christmas had come to Carrow Mill, and it had vomited all over our house.”

But he also has moments of understated beauty and insight:

“Ash buried her head against my chest, and that moment of comfort sparked a lifetime of habits.”

I didn’t love Moonset as much as I love the Witch Eyes series, but I’ll definitely keep my eye out for the next in the series.

readalikes

Scott Tracey Witch Eyes Demon Eyes Scott Tracey

Witch Eyes and Demon Eyes by Scott Tracey (2011 & 2012), of course. Braden flees rural Montana to the small town of Belle Dam, Washington. Once there, he attends high school for the first time, gets caught up in a feud between witch dynasties, accidentally releases some hellhounds, and starts falling for a compelling and infuriating boy . . . whom he might have to kill.

The Secret Circle L.J. Smith The Secret Circle L.J. Smith The Secret Circle L.J. Smith

The Secret Circle series by L.J. Smith (1992). Ok, so the CW failed us on this one, not that I still didn’t watch the whole thing, obvsly, but Smith’s series is one of my all-time faves (check out my review HERE). Similar feeling: new town, new school, witchy powers, and the threat of coven infiltration. Delightful!

procured from: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. Moonset by Scott Tracey will be out next week.

First Loves = Wicked Hard: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

A Review of Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

Simon Pulse, 2010

Forbidden Tabitha Suzuma

by REBECCA, March 25, 2013

characters

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

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

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

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

hook

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

worldview

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

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

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

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

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

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

readalikes

Hushed Kelley York

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

The Brothers Bishop Bart Yates

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

procured from: the library

Half My Head Is Quiet: Stick, by Andrew Smith

A Review of Stick by Andrew Smith

Feiwel and Friends, 2011

By REBECCA, August 10, 2012

Stick Andrew Smith

characters

Stark (Stick) McClellan: Born with only one ear, Stick is used to hearing the world a little slant

Bosten McClellan: A high school junior with a temper who wants to be free of his father

Emily Lohman: Stick’s best friend, who shows him how a family could be

Aunt Dahlia: Stick and Bosten’s great-aunt who lives in a cozy bungalow in California and introduces them to the wonders of surfing, sleeping in, and Evan and Kim Hansen

Evan & Kim Hansen: Twin surf angels who take Stick and Bosten under their wetsuited wings

hook

14-year-old Stick has always had his brother, Bosten, to look out for him, but when their abusive father learns that Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home. Once Bosten leaves, Stick takes his dad’s car and sets out to find him, thinking he headed to Aunt Dahlia’s house in California. Without much money or any connections, Stick finds himself in, erm, sticky situations (sorry!), which he handles because he has no other choice.

worldview

Saint Fillan's cave

Saint Fillan’s cave

Stick and Bosten’s cold, perfectionist mother and violent, exacting father have turned their house into an army barracks. There are rules to follow—the boys can’t have hair longer than half an inch, must always tuck in their shirts, can’t wear pajamas, can only shower on the weekends—and consequences if those rules are broken. Not only beatings, but being locked for days in what Stick calls St. Fillan’s room, the spare bedroom that is bare except for a sheeted cot and a bucket. Both Stick and Bosten, though, are warm, hungry for love beyond each other’s. Bosten is in love with his best friend, Paul, who runs hot and cold on him, and Stick feels awed and humbled by the love his best friend, Emily, shows him. The world of Stick, then, contains two extremes of love—the depths of joy that can come from intimacy as well as its poisonous inversion when intimacy is used as a weapon.

Mr. Zogs Sex waxThe structure of the book was particularly interesting: it’s kind of  folded in half. It’s divided into three sections, where the first is about Stick and Bosten’s life in Washington, the second about their visit to California to stay with Aunt Dahlia, and the the third the journey from the former to the latter, again, when Stick makes the same journey to follow Bosten. I bring this up because it facilitates one of my favorite thing about both Stick and Andrew Smith‘s work more generally (you can check out my review of The Marbury Lens here), which is that his novels take us to many different places, but each of them feels like the novel’s home when we’re in it. When Stick is in Washington, and the brothers are going to basketball games, getting into fights, and going to school in the damp chill, I feel fully sunk in that world as a reader; same with when they’re surfing in bright California. Then, when Stick travels to California to follow Bosten, the genre of the book really changes, from being an interpersonal drama to being a kind of adventure-quest-thriller. It doesn’t feel like a shift at all, though, but rather a natural outgrowth of the world and characters to which Smith has introduced us.

did this book live up to its intentions?

Stick Andrew SmithA thousand times, yes. Stick is a book that has so many things going for it that it’s hard to know where to begin. Wonderful characters who have deep relationships with each other? Check. Stick and Bosten’s conversations are as elliptical and offhand as tight siblings’ can be. Serious emotional and physical threats that bring out those characters’ depths and fears? Double check. Stick and Bosten’s father is chilling, but in a human way, so he can’t be written off as exaggeration or romanticization. Similarly, some of the people that Stick meets on his way to California (about which, obviously, I’m being quite vague, because I don’t want to give things away) exemplify the kind of terrifying way that the world feels out of your control at 14. Still, Stick is a survivor, so strongly drawn is he to get to California and make sure Bosten is all right (you might remember that I featured Stick in my list YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse.)

Stick is also a beautiful exploration of very different types of masculinity. Throughout the book, we get many examples of how Stick and Bosten’s father thinks men should be, down to his conviction that men don’t wear pajamas or use shampoo. Bosten and Stick don’t agree with their father’s notions, but, as Stick says, they never even thought about the rules. It’s just the way things are. Being gay does not, of course, align with their father’s notions of how a man should act (although, further, we get hints that perhaps these rules are as much for Mr. McClellan to clarify for himself how he feels he must be as they are for his sons). Throughout Stick, then, Stick is exposed to multiple models of all the other ways to be a man there are besides his father’s, some violent, some desperate, some generous.

Stick is a wonderfully-written, exciting, and moving story about brothers, about need, and about the many ways we can rescue each other. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

personal disclosure

I love love love books where siblings are best friends because my sister and I are planning to take over the world! Also, I love the cover of this book so much.

readalikes

Brothers Bishop Bart Yates

The Brothers Bishop by Bary Yates (2005). A totally amazing book about brothers, love, obligation, sex, archaeology, and the ocean.

Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). The voice in Punkzilla is extraordinary. I sort of feel like Bosten and Punkzilla would meet and Bosten would adopt Punkzilla because he would remind him of Stick.

My Heartbeat Garret Freymann-Weyr

My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr (2002). A short and lovely book about the relationship between Ellen, the older brother that she adores, and his best friend and lover.

procured from: bought

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