Cold Calls Makes Me Want To Hang Up

A Review of Cold Calls by Charles Benoit

Clarion, 2014

Cold Calls Charles Benoit

by REBECCA, April 24, 2014


Three teenagers are each bullying someone at their schools. But it’s not because they’re bullies—or are they? It’s because they’re being blackmailed by someone else. Who are the villains when everyone’s a victim?


I read Cold Calls because the ARC cover touted it as Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast Club and I was like: sold. If by Pretty Little Liars they mean that it involves cellular telephones and if by The Breakfast Club they mean that people from different social circles interact, then I guess that’s an apt comparison. The similarities end there, however.

Pretty Little LiarsThe premise is simple: three students from different backgrounds and schools—Eric (the jock), Shelly (the religious emo girl), and Fatima (the bubbly smartypants)—are each being blackmailed by a mysterious caller, each forced to tease a student at their school, dump macaroni and cheese on them, and then post the video to YouTube. In the anti-bullying program that they must attend, Eric, Shelly, and Fatima meet and team up to figure out who their blackmailer is, why he or she is blackmailing them, and how to stop it.

the-breakfast-club-netflixI’m not sure how else to say it: Cold Calls is dopey. Well, I do know how else to say it. This is a book that lacks any characterization; therefore it lacks any stakes because we don’t care what happens to any of the characters. There are the most rudimentary of backstories sketched for each character, which vaguely relate to each of their “secrets.” (Note: in case it isn’t clear, my use of quotation marks around SECRETS is meant to indicate that these things are TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Oh, god, book, look what you’ve done: you’ve gotten me so upset that I’m starting to use all caps.) Because of the complete and total lack of nuance or character development, these secrets are ridiculous.

For example, my reaction to finding out Shelly’s (which is supposed to be traumatizing to her): You cannot possibly be that stupid. No, seriously. Wait, but a.) don’t you have the ability to google anything; b.) weren’t you forced to talk to an adult in the last year; c.) no one is that oblivious. What I’m supposed to feel (I assume): oh, you poor thing; guilt and shame are terrible; I feel pity for you. Eric’s secret is obvious on page two and totally dull. The only minutely interesting thing in the whole book is what Fatima is going through, which is that (spoiler alert; it’s her secret) she’s Muslim but is having doubts about her faith and knows it would really hurt her family to find out.

Cold Calls takes up bullying, a subject central to both the current imaginary and the world of young adult fiction. The idea of bullies being forced to bully is actually rather interesting. For one thing, it engages with the fairly accepted notion that many bullies act out because of ways that they have themselves been victimized. This, then, is a literalization (if a clumsy one) of that premise. Did we need a literalization of it, or did we all already know this? My vote’s on the latter, but hey, I understand the impulse.

urlHere’s the thing, y’all. The book has no characterization, no voice, the prose is purely functional, the mystery is both uninteresting and sewn up all of a sudden (this is problem-solving and misdirection of the “hey, look over there!” variety). Thus, there are no stakes for the characters, no stakes for genre or prose. Lacking any of these stakes, the only stakes the book could have would be ethical. I mean, surely a book published by a major publishing company (Clarion is Houghton-Mifflin’s children’s imprint) couldn’t be published without some stakes. But, though bullying is the central issue here, there isn’t even a scrap of meditation upon the topic.

It’s not that I want some kind of moralizing on the subject; quite the contrary. But Cold Calls takes up the mantle of a complicated issue and flattens it into the blandest of plot sketches. I imagine that there may be an audience for Cold Calls, but I am most certainly not it. Lacking interesting characters, voice, a unique plot, and any food for thought, Cold Calls read like the thinnest of premises tortured into a novel-length exercise in going through the motions of putting one scene after another. Any one of these things might have saved it—interesting characters make me care less about a blah plot; gorgeous prose is a delight to read even if the rest isn’t great; an amazingly creative plot excites me enough that the characters needn’t be so extraordinary. But, no. As Gordon Ramsay would say (I have recently been watching Master Chef and Master Chef Junior, as I wrote about earlier this week): what a shame.


Want some actual mysteries? Here are three!

Beautiful Lies Jessica Warman

Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman (2012). Alice and Rachel are the rarest of twins—so identical that even their closest friends and family can’t tell them apart. When Alice disappears without a trace, Rachel knows that something is terribly wrong because, for the first time, she feels like their connection is broken. As the hours creep by, things become more and more unclear: what is real? where is Alice? and what secrets have the twins been keeping from everyone—and from each other? My full review is HERE.

White Cat Holly Black

White Cat (Curse Workers #1) by Holly Black (2010). Cassel is from a family of Curse Workers—they have the ability to change your life with a single touch—but he isn’t one. Cassel usually stays out of trouble, but when mysterious visitors come calling, it dredges up a past he’d like to forget.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009). When Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes that are clearly written my someone who knows her intimately she thinks she needs to take action to prevent something horrible from happening. But who is sending her these notes? And how?

received from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review (thanks!). Cold Calls by Charles Benoit is available now.


Fists Up: Phoenix Island

A review of Phoenix Island, by John Dixon

Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster), 2014

Phoenix Island John Dixon

by REBECCA, February 5, 2014


Carl Freeman beats up bullies to protect the underdog and it’s landed him in trouble. A foster kid who no one will miss, he’s shipped off to Phoenix Island to be “rehabilitated,” military-style. But Phoenix Island is no rehabilitation; in fact, the people there are like nothing he could have imagined.


“A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble, using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a terminal facility, it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States and immune to its laws, the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. Sentenced to stay until his eighteenth birthday, Carl plans to play by the rules, so he makes friends with his wisecracking bunkmate, Ross, and a mysterious gray-eyed girl named Octavia. But he makes enemies, too, and . . . endures a string of punishments. . . . But that’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the Chop Shop: a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.” (Goodreads)

I’m deleting the rest of the blurb because I really, really wish that it didn’t GIVE AWAY the twist of the entire second half of the book. What were they thinking? Anyway, you can read the rest on Goodreads if you want it spoiled for you, but I’d highly recommend reading Phoenix Island without it.

Phoenix Island is John Dixon’s first novel and is the inspiration for CBS’ upcoming show, Intelligence, to which it seems to bear only a passing resemblance, but which I’m still curious to check out. Either way, Phoenix Island is an interesting, fast-paced read and I hope it doesn’t get looked over in the public’s rush to watch Josh Holloway.

G.I. JaneThe first half of the novel is about the trials and tribulations that Carl faces when he arrives on the island along with a bunch of other end-of-the-liners. Like any good military school, people are expected to follow stupid orders, are denigrated for having individuality, and are generally forced to follow the kinds of rules that would make me go on a killing spree. Carl doesn’t like it there, either. Most of all, he hates Parker, the idiotic drill sergeant who torments anyone who steps out of line, and has taken a particular dislike to Carl, whom he calls Hollywood, seemingly because in expressing an opinion, Carl must be a showboat; ergo, a movie star? Who knows; the guy’s a first-rate toolbag.

What quickly becomes clear to Carl is that Parker and the other powers that be on Phoenix Island can do anything to them, including kill them, and no one will ever know about it. When Carl finds a diary entry from a kid who used to live on the island hidden away, he realizes that he and the other kids are about to begin the next phase of their training—a phase where many of them will die, and some of them will never be the same again. And I’m not going to say anything about what happens after that because, again, I think it’s a real mistake to go into it knowing the plot of the second half.

Beauty Queens Libba BraySo, here’s the deal. This is a compelling read with an interesting plot. It’s well-paced and the reveals are done skillfully. However, it is was an extremely frustrating read for me in precisely the same way that being on Phoenix Island is a frustrating experience for Carl: there’s simply no recourse for these poor kids, and no good option. They are living in a world of lose-lose, and for anyone who was lucky enough not to grow up that way, it is infuriating to be forced to occupy a space where every option is a bad one. In fact, I spent a lot of the time while I was reading this book thinking about how incredibly lucky I was not to feel the way Carl and the other orphans (not to mention large numbers of real people) feel. (I also spent a lot of time thinking how awesome it would be to do a compare-contrast read of Phoenix Island and Beauty Queens . . .)

Lord of the Flies William GoldingThere’s no gaming the system on Phoenix Island; no success that helps you and no failure that saves you. It’s a claustrophobic world of torment exactly like I imagine the military to be. There are a number of scenes that are reminiscent of Lord of the Fliesin that the kids are pitted against one another and choose to sacrifice one another to save themselves instead of attempting to stand together. There is also a bit of Ender’s Game to Phoenix Island, in that Carl is being watched and, despite what I’ve said about there being no gaming the system, he manages to act in a way that brings him to the attention of the one person with the power to take him out of the game—even if that does deposit him smack dab in the middle of another one.

I enjoyed Phoenix Island even when it got gritty and disgusting (like, bugs crawling into wounds, sharks eating corpses, noses smashing disgusting). Dixon, his bio informs me, used to be a Golden Gloves boxer, and his fight scenes are some of the best I’ve read. He manages to capture both the feeling of fighting and it’s strategy in a way that feels very realistic and indicates things about the characters. The plot takes a sharp left in the second half, but this later plot is clearly what we have been leading up to. It’s an interesting choice and the way it plays out looks like it’s gearing up to be the first in a series, so I imagine the later books will balance out the slightly-awkward first versus second half issue of pacing.

The major issue with the novel for me was the lack of character development. Dixon relied on the characters’ actions to communicate nearly everything about them—Carl defends bullies, so he’s our de facto hero, etc.—rather than giving them much internal complexity. His use of third person limited POV doesn’t do him any favors in this regard. For the most part, we follow Carl, but Dixon’s third person isn’t revelatory; rather, it’s mostly factual, so I don’t feel like I know much even about the main character.

Ender's Game Orson Scott CardThe sudden, clumsy intrusion of Octavia’s POV seven chapters into the book exacerbates this problem. It is clearly done out of necessity, as the reader needs to know things that are happening while Carl is elsewhere, but because Octavia’s character isn’t terribly developed and she’s only used as a pair of eyes to see through when Carl’s not around, it is jarring and unsatisfying. It also creates a problem when Carl and Octavia interact because sometimes the narrative voices seems unsure whether to default to Carl’s POV as the majority of the book does or take an opportunity to make it more balanced and go with Octavia so she gets more screen time. Either way, it feels forced and would have worked better if Octavia were at all developed as a character.

The lack of character development puts Phoenix Island firmly in the category of plot-based action story, for me, but it was a solid plot-based action story with just enough perversity to hold my interest. I’m hoping we get some better character development in the rest of the series.


Insignia S.J. Kincaid

Insignia (Insignia #1), by S.J. Kincaid (2012). Fourteen-year-old Tom Raines trails after his itinerant gambler father, hustling virtual reality game rooms to pay for their hotels. He wants to be important, to be respected, but even his school teacher thinks he’s going nowhere fast. That all changes, though, when a military higher-up recruits Tom to an elite military academy to train him as a strategist for the war (World War III). But in a world run by corporations and microcomputers, how will Tom know what he’s really fighting for? My full review is HERE.

Beauty Queens Libba Bray

Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray (2011). In some ways the opposite of Phoenix Island—a lot of characterization; a LOT of satire; a LOT of hilarity—Beauty Queens is also about a group of people stuck on an island who must contend with evil overlords who want to change the world for the ahem not-better. My full review is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for my honest review. John Dixon’s Phoenix Island is available now.

Phoenix Island John Dixon

Morsels: Delightful little things I’ve recently read.

by Tessa

There are few things more miraculous to me than a really good picture book. It must be economical in prose and relatively bold in picture, but immediately suggest a whole world and character, or cast of characters. It has to have details that mark it as a unique thing, but carry a universal message so it can be quickly resonant to its readers. Comfort and novelty in a well-designed, beautiful package.

I just read a slew of good, short books. Some are picture books, some are books with  pictures. But they all share a talent for attention-catching. Here are my morsels:

1. Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon


I was tipped off to this title by super-librarian Betsy Bird’s Fuse No. 8 review on SLJ. As usual, her review covers all the bases illuminatingly, but I’ll add my personal likes.  The basic plot is that Herman and Rosie love similar things (Herman: “potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean” Rosie: “pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape. . . and watching films about the ocean.”), and live near each other. They both are sustained by their music and their routines despite feeling sort of lonely. . .until things fall apart. Will they find each other?

I’m not a NYC-fetishiser, but I do enjoy a city-in-the-winter, lonely-in-a-crowd vibe, and this captures it. Gordon’s palette ranges from bright blue piercingly sunny winter days to muted brown snowy nights. Nothing’s ever too bright; he brings the duality of neon and worn down floorboards of ajazz club to the picture book. He plays around with the page, repeating formats occasionally, but not over and over. Because the story is about 2 characters who are experiencing similar life journeys (and who obviously must meet by the book’s end!) there’s a lot of mirroring going on, in a seamless fashion. The art itself is full of collage and faux-scribbly elements, with a base of watercolory wash.

2. Fata Morgana by Jon Vermilyea


Koyama Press and I both described this as “a feast for the eyes” . . . independently! Actually, I said “visual feast” and they said “feast for the eyes and mind”. Potato potahto. The day after I read this I looked up what Fata Morgana means, and listen to this: according to the Oxford Dictionary of Weather, 2nd ed. (by STORM DUNLOP!!), Fata morgana is a specific type of mirage, “in which the image of the actual surface appears in the form of a wall. The effect occurs when the temperature profile has an inflection, but is also relatively gentle. The atmosphere exhibits lensing properties but these are astigmatic, resulting in a redistribution of brightness within the image, often creating the effect of light and dark arches, and distant buildings.” and, according ot the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 2nd ed., comes from “a mirage seen in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily and attributed to Morgan le Fey, whose legend and reputation were carried to Sicily by Norman settlers.” And if you don’t know, now you know.

Jon Vermilyea‘s Fata Morgana is a wordless, mostly plotless book of not-quite-psychadelic fever dreamscapes. So I’d say the title is apropos. Vermilyea’s cartooning suggests the weight of its characters. It has a real density to it, and he covers every landscape with intertwining details that push to the forefront of the page, forming a wall of round, drippy lines forming trunks and faces and bridges and who knows what. The coloring is bright, mixing pastels with bold, almost neon tones. It’s disorienting at times, and my only wish is that it were a series of fold-out posters so the gutter hadn’t gotten in the way.

3. The Bramble by Lee Nordling & Bruce Zick


Fun fact: It turns out that Lee Nordling was the comic strip editor for Nickelodeon’s Rugrats comic. It’s not apparent right away, but after knowing that, I can see the influence of the Rugrats in the human characters of The Bramble. But the kids in this story skew more towards older picture books. They could exist anywhere from the 70s to now, and that’s what I like about them, with their skinny limbs, bulbous noses, and giant heads.

The Bramble is printed in blues and browns, and concerns a boy, Cameron, who bravely tries to make friends by crashing a game of tag, but is obliquely muscled out of his notions of friendship by the other boys refusing to play along with him. Instead, they just shout “You’re It!” over and over. Dehumanizing, no? Funnily enough, there’s a giant bramble patch right at the edge of the park. A creature is spying on the failed tag game, and Cameron catches a peek of it. In its haste to hide itself, it leaves its necklace behind. So Cameron follows it into the Bramble to return the necklace.

Thus follows a not-so-vaguely Wild Things type adventure. Cameron ends up defeating a weird sentient blob/tongue/wave thing by using the same bullying Tag tactics that were used by him, which endears the creatures of the Bramble to him and makes him more confident and able to leave the Bramble and befriend the bullies.

Clearly I have issues with that part of the story. What resonated with me was the wordless sequences where Cameron opened himself up to rejection, was rejected, entered a new, strange situation, and this time found acceptance. The emotional tone was spot on there, and it’s worth taking a look at the book just for that. I’m excited to see more picture books take a darker tone at times, since the shelves can sometimes feel glutted with pastel bunny love fests (they have their place, for sure,  but shouldn’t be the only thing out there.)

4. The Hole by Øyvind Torseter


“The Hole has simple, expressive drawings created by pen and computer, and there’s a hole punched right through the book, so it exists in real life, even if it can’t be explained.” – Enchanted Lion Books description

So, apparently Enchanted Lion Books has been around since 2003 and I’m just learning about it via The Hole. Now I have a whole backlist to discover!

The guy in The Hole has moved into an apartment. It has a hole, and the hole keeps moving. Of course, the hole is not moving, the drawings are moving. But the drawings are reality, if the reader accepts it, so the hole is moving. We see the dude realize what’s happening, call someone about it, capture the hole, and take it somewhere (I won’t spoil it, ha ha.) The one simple conceit is magical in and of itself, and Torseter’s simple lines and open spaces make it more charming, like you’re watching someone drawing the story for you (very Harold and the Purple Crayon!) There are some good photos of the art at the Brain Pickings review.

5. Hilda and the Troll by Luke Pearson


Hilda’s been around a while. This is the Flying Eye Books edition of Nobrow’s Hildafolk. Luke Pearson also wrote and illustrated Hilda and the Bird Parade and Hilda and the Midnight Giant, the former I’ve read and really liked, the latter of which I am looking forward to reading. He says that The Midnight Giant is “a follow up to Hildafolk, my 24-pager of one year ago, but it’s more of a reboot than a sequel and is hopefully the first of a series of albums exploring the same world.”

I had no trouble reading them out of “order” – Hilda is a self-assured girl and goes about her world so matter of factly that I couldn’t help but folow with a sympathetic attitude. (As in, my brain tuned into her vibes or something).

In this adventure, Hilda goes out to draw rocks, finds a troll rock (a troll that is in rock form), puts a bell on its nose for safety, and falls asleep instead of getting back to her house. The troll wakes up, and Hilda has to find her way home and also find a way to make things right with the troll. Trolls hate bells and she has set it up for eternal torment, because its arms can’t reach the bell on its nose to remove it.

The magical Scandinavian world here is a delight. It’s our modern world, but a more tuned into things like trolls and horned foxes and tree men. I love Hilda -she’s serious about her self and her interests, and still realistically a kid. She learns to see a bit more about her assumptions in this book, and her carelessness, and in the Bird Parade this learning continues. And she knows the value of being cosy in a rainy tent:


I hope all of you have something nice to read while sitting on a couch or in a tent, watching the snow fall or the rain drizzle or the breeze blow things around.

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


Sara Zarr

Little, Brown and Company, 2008

review by Tessa


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


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.


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.

I’m Doing Backflips Over . . . Leverage!

A Review of Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen

Dutton Books (Penguin), 2011

Leverage Joshua C. Cohen

by REBECCA, December 24, 2012


Danny: a small fry gymnast, he just wants to fly under the football bullies’ radar long enough to get a scholarship

Kurt: new to school and the football team, he uses his strength to protect him from his past

Studblatz, Miller, and Jankowski: football bullies who make life hell for pretty much everyone

Tina: was in the same youth facility as Kurt, she sticks up for the bullied and wants to support Kurt if he’ll let her


Danny and Kurt should be enemies, according to Oregrove High’s social dynamics: Danny is a gymnast and Kurt is a football player, and the two do not mix except when the football players are kicking the gymnasts’ asses. But when three members of Kurt’s team take things way too far, Danny and Kurt form an alliance that might be the only way to survive.


John Orozco


Danny is a talented gymnast, but is small for his age and tries to stay out of the path of the football team. When he sees the new kid walk into math class bulging with muscle, he thinks he’s found yet another bully. But Kurt isn’t at all what Danny expects: he’s grown his hair long to hide the gruesome scars that mar one side of his face, and he can hardly speak without stuttering. Both Danny and Kurt feel free and focused while they’re involved in sports, but helpless when they aren’t: for Danny, this helplessness is due to his size, and for Kurt it’s due to his stutter and his scars. Studblatz, Miller, and Jankowski are the three biggest, meanest football players at Oregrove High and they terrorize the gymnasts. When they begin a prank war and the gymnasts retaliate, they escalate their bullying to such a level that lives are in danger and Kurt is forced to choose sides.

People, I loved this book! It clocks in at over 400 pages, and yet I really didn’t want it to end. I finished it on Friday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Leverage is a totally engrossing and totally horrifying story of the power dynamics among the athletes of Oregrove High. This isn’t simply a book about bullying, although it is that as well. It’s a complicated portrait of many different responses to differences in power (be they physical, mental, social, societal, etc.). Leverage is told in chapters alternating between Danny and Kurt’s points of view. Kurt, for me, was the more interesting character. Having been moved around a lot and suffered Friday Night Lightsabsolutely horrific abuse when he was younger, Kurt has built up his physical strength to ensure that he’ll never be at the mercy of anyone else (physically) ever again. The details of his past unfold slowly and subtly throughout the novel, alongside his feelings of intense frustration about his stutter and people’s perceptions of him because of it. I think Joshua C. Cohen made a really good choice to pair the revelation of Kurt’s abusive past with his physical and mental relationship with football, his teammates, and their actions. His character, of them all, feels incredibly well-developed and well-psychologized, without ever edging into the melodramatic.

Danny’s feelings are more straightforward—he’s afraid of being bullied, so he avoids it, even when that means not sticking up for someone else being bullied—but Cohen was smart again, I think, to avoid making Danny the scrappy hero:

“A new round of laughter erupts as dozens of football players’ fingers start pointing at Ronnie and me. We’re the smallest on the team and, they assume, the weakest. . . . Ronnie steps closer like he wants my company, but all I want is to get farther away from him. I hate him at that moment, hate feeling like they think we’re the same. We’re not the same. Ronnie’s a punk freshman who just started gymnastics. I’m aiming for state champion in high bar. I’m going to be a full-ride scholarship athlete one day. We’re not the same” (42-3).

Reading Danny’s character made me conscious of what has become one of the recurring character tropes of YA lit recently: the small or weak kid who stands up to enormous threats despite the near guarantee of being hurt. I mean, I knew that was common but, lest I ever forgot how much power recurring tropes have in the way I view the world, I have to admit that I found myself disliking Danny precisely because he didn’t conform to this brand of self-sacrificing heroism. In fact, I really had to check myself about that, since the last thing I believe I should be doing is blaming the victims of bullying for not being more “heroic”!

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

FootballI won’t say anything about the actual plot of Leverage because I don’t want to give anything away, but Cohen does a really amazing job tracking the way that the football players’ bullying amps up slowly, until it leads to an incident that is so far beyond bullying that it becomes something else. Cohen frames Studblatz, Miller, and Jankowski as creatures that are out of control—creatures whose monstrosity is inherently un-understandable even to themselves. And it’s there that Leverage really got me. Of course it’s useful to examine bullies’ behavior and try and understand what causes it in order to try and stop it (in real life). But Leverage seems to be operating from the more interesting worldview that bullying (in all its permutations) is a natural byproduct of a power differential and, therefore, takes place in almost every social interaction. Some of the gymnasts, including Danny, tease Ronnie for being religious and sincere, and later fail him in a really major way; the football players bully each other and tease Kurt for his stutter, his appearance, his lack of money; Miller’s father bullies him; the football players insult a girl because of her ethnicity; Tina threatens a football player, etc.

In its panoramic view of bullying, Leverage poses questions about aggressive behavior we might not be so keen to answer: Would I beat people up if I were physically stronger? How can we reward aggression in sports and not expect it to spill over into the athletes’ lives? How can we teach the distinction between culturally prized hyper-masculinity and unacceptable aggression? Do I blame the victims for being weaker, or different, or not fighting back? Would I risk my own safety to come to the aid of someone who’s going to be hurt no matter what?

superbowl-cat___02Leverage is also, I must not forget to mention, a sports book (obviously), and it has all the great stuff I love about sports books/movies: awesome action sequences (Cohen was a gymnast and the descriptions of doing tricks really ring true), glorious descriptions of overcoming pain, outrunning fear, and throwing yourself into the fray, and deep investigations of what it means for your body to be the instrument of your success. I love that the alliance between Danny and Kurt is between football and gymnastics: the extremely different types of athleticism and stamina that the sports value are reflected in the characters. Also, hi: gymnastics; get with the program!

Who are the monsters? Who are the victims? Who is implicated? Who is beyond reproach? Who enables? Who helps? Who harms? Who hides? How sure are we of the line between any of these? And how much can any of us outpace the assumptions that others inscribe on us? Leverage barrels straight at these questions and never flinches away from them. Although I found the ending predictable, it was predictable because it was inevitable, which feels better. I can’t wait to see what Joshua C. Cohen brings us next.

personal disclosure

Leverage Joshua C. Cohen

Leverage Joshua C. CohenI was reading Leverage first on a BoltBus and then on the New York subway and because of that could not help but be very, very aware that if you didn’t know this was a young adult book, or a sports book, then its cover really makes it look like it is about fisting. Which is fine, but still, I became slightly self-conscious. Anyhoo, I actually love this cover: it’s so simple and stripped down, and I love how the word LEVERAGE is colored so that RAGE is in red. I like it so much more than the paperback cover (right) but now wonder if they changed it because someone came in and said, hey, y’all, this is a young adult book so maybe we want to move away from the fisting?


Girl in the Arena Lise Haines

Girl in the Arena by Lise 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.

Stick Andrew Smith

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

Stotan! Chris Crutcher

Stotan! by Chris Crutcher (1986). A Stotan is a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan, and their swim coach expects nothing less of them during the intense week-long training. During that week, four friends learn to push their bodies further than they ever thought they could go, and learn about each other in the process. A sporty classic!

procured from: the library

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

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

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

By REBECCA, September 21, 2012

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

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

1. A recipe for success!

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

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

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

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

2. No Parents = New Personalities!

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

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

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

3. Intense Friendships!

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

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

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

3. A Motley Crew!

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

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

4. Politics and Secret Societies!

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

5. Mysteries and Long-Buried Secrets!

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

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

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

6. Potential to be Diabolical Training Grounds!

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

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

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

Chicken is Chickens!: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

A Review of Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), 2012

By REBECCA, August 20, 2012

Rebecca Stead Liar & Spy


Georges (the S is silent): lovely, observant, sincere (but not saccharine) seventh-grader you totally want to be friends with

Safer:  a coffee-swigging, super-observant, home-schooled spymaster and dog-walker

Candy: Safer’s younger sister, she occasionally does recon spy work for the cause

Pigeon: Candy and Safer’s older brother who is very avian-oriented

Bob English Who Draws: an unexpected school friend, he knows all about spelling reform

Georges’ dad: communicative, and supportive dad who is always up for Chinese food, yay!


When Georges moves in to his new Brooklyn apartment, he quickly joins Safer in a building-wide surveillance of the mysterious Mr. X, who Safer says must be evil. His dad lost his job, his mom is always at the hospital where she works, and a gang of boys at school have painted Georges with a target, so he likes hanging out with Safer . . . until Safer’s spy demands start to go a little too far.


Georges has only moved twelve blocks away from the house he and his parents were forced to move out of when his father lost his job, but it gives him totally different vantage point on his Brooklyn neighborhood. Georges’ neighborhood, school, and apartment building are the world of Liar & Spy and Georges moves through them with familiarity and affection, observing delightful things and thinking delightful thoughts:

“We’re playing volleyball, with an exclamation point. Ms. Warner has written it on the whiteboard outside the gym doors: Volleyball!.

The combination of seeing that word and breathing the smell of the first floor, which is the smell of the cafeteria after lunch, creates some kind of echo in my head, like a faraway shout.

In the morning, the cafeteria smells fried and sweet, like fish sticks and cookies. But after lunch, it’s different. There’s more kid sweat and garbage mixed in, I guess. Or maybe it’s just that, after lunch, the cafeteria doesn’t have the smell of things to come. It’s the smell of what has been” (3).

Georges’ voice is strong and extremely relatable—I totally wish I lived in his apartment building and would get to chat with him in the lobby or the basement. It’s a world where things are both rife with mystery and shockingly clear; where kids’ play has complete power and yet is powerless against larger fears and threats. Every character feels fully-realized, even the gym teacher or a girl with a crush who appear for but a few sentences, which makes me feel like I live in this world, too, and am merely hearing the story of someone else’s view of it.

When You Reach Me Rebecca SteadLike Stead’s previous novel, When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy is about middle-school-aged kids, but is plenty rich to appeal to older audiences, for sure. For a short novel (180 pages in my copy), Liar & Spy covers a lot of ground. The plot isn’t complicated, but it’s a book with a lot of components, all of which feel like they are in their right place. It’s the same feeling I had when reading When You Reach Me (which I love love loved): that I was reading a book by someone who really knew what she was doing. Stead makes it feel effortless. Pre-teen boys, a potential serial killer, bullying, how taste works, spelling reform, candy, the nesting habits of parrots, umami, phobias, home-schooling, Brooklyn restaurants—all the pieces orbit each other like a perfectly balanced mobile, and at the end you realize that without every one of them it wouldn’t be the same beautiful whole.

Plus, did I mention it’s wicked funny? It is. Here’s a story from Safer and Candy’s brother, Pigeon, who doesn’t eat birds:

“‘So one day when I was totally little, Mom, Dad, and I are driving along this road up in Connecticut and we see these cows. And I’m like, what are cows for? I mean, what do they do, you know? And Mom’s trying to give me the easy answer, so she tells me, “Cows are for milk, remember? Cows give us milk.”

‘But then Dad pipes up, “And meat.” And I’m like, “What do you mean, meat?” Then he tells me that hamburgers are cow meat. And this lightbulb goes on in my head, and I start thinking about all the foods we eat, and I’m asking, what about dumplings, and what about bacon—and they’re telling me, pork dumplings are from pigs, blah blah blah. I was real interested in all of it. It’s one of those things you remember—you’re just a little kid, and you’re finally clueing in to the real world, you know? And so then I say, “What about chicken? Where does chicken come from?” And right then this other lightbulb goes on in my head, and I start screaming, “Chicken is Chickens?”‘ (62-3).

what are this book’s expectations? does it live up to them?

Harriet the Spy Louise FitzhughYes! (that was the second question first, but I got really excited.) In a lot of ways, Liar & Spy kind of reminded me of what it might be like to be friends with an altera-verse Harriet the Spy. It’s not that the book is similar to Harriet the Spy, but that Georges’ experience being friends with Safer feels like glimpses into what Sport might feel like hanging around with Harriet when he really wants to be playing baseball (or, in Georges’ case, watching it) instead.

I think, too, that there is something about the experience of growing up a kid in New York (my mom is a Brooklyn kid, like Georges, although Harriet lives on the Upper East Side) that tinges books set there. The kids’ relationships with neighborhood-ishness really appeal to me (I love placey places). They approach a neighborhood Chinese restaurant or the newsstand at the entrance to a certain subway stop with the same particular ownership and favoritism that non-city kids would the park on the corner, and for whatever reason I find the idea of a kid having regular interactions with the people who run these places really delightful.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884

So, throughout Liar & Spy, we get the feeling that there are things going on in the background that aren’t addressed head-on (you know, like in real life). This gives a real richness to the book, and also prompts the kind of questions that might feel trite in a novel with older characters, but feel exactly right in a novel with middle-school-aged characters. Georges is named after Pointillist Georges Seurat, his parents’ favorite artist, and like the Seurat poster hanging in Georges’ living room, at the end of Liar & Spy, you can look back at the big picture of the book and see all the little pieces come together, and it’s really lovely. Stead masterfully embeds hints to what is going on that make sense when looked back on.

Liar & Spy is available NOW!

personal disclosure

I had the pleasure of getting my book signed by Rebecca Stead at BEA, and she was extremely lovely and gracious, and liked that our blog was called Crunchings & Munchings because she, too, loves Gurgi. I feel this needs to be said because I have a particular dread of meeting people that I admire, for fear that they will be disappointing. Check out this post over at Rookie on the topic.

Rebecca Stead rocks!


Skellig David Almond

Skellig by David Almond (2000). Like Georges, Michael, the protagonist of Skellig, has recently moved into a new home, where he meets a home-schooled girl who teaches him new things. Michael finds a bird-man-angel who eats Chinese food dripping with bugs in his shed. It’s a short, simple story, but has an elliptical, fantasy quality (what is the bird-man-angel? what is really wrong with Michael’s baby sister?). Lovely and lyrical.

What They Always Tell Us Martin Wilson

What They Always Tell Us by Martin Wilson (2008). Brothers James (a senior) and Alex (a junior) are close in age but not in much else—James is an outgoing overachiever and Alex has withdrawn into depression and is questioning his sexuality. But when the brothers make friends with their oddball 10-year-old neighbor, they find common ground they didn’t know they had.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009). I know maybe it’s cheating to put an author’s own book on the readalikes list, but in the case of When You Reach Me, I’ve included it because although the books share very little in terms of plot they are very close in style and worldview, so I think someone who liked one would really enjoy the other. Also, seriously, this book is amazing. I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling it. Don’t read anything about it; just read it. Now. It’s short. I swear you’ll thank me.

procured from: ARC from the publisher at Book Expo America

Chronicle (de una muerte anunciada)

Dir: Josh Trank
Writer: Max Landis (son of John Landis!!!)

review by Tessa

Chronicle  opens on a black screen. The buzz of something electronic.  A hard bump against an unexpectedly closed door, the rattle of a doorknob, and a man’s voice, already angry, barking “Andrew?  Andrew! Open this door.”

Andrew appears behind a camera mounted on a tripod, pointing at the mirror mounted on the locked door.  He refuses to open it, accuses his father of being drunk, and tells him that he’ll be taping everything from now on.

And he does, starting on his ride to school the next day with affable cousin Matt, through the hallways where his camera gets made fun of for being too old, and on the bleachers where he eats lunch alone.  He introduces each scene to an imaginary audience, sounding proud and unsure at once. “This is where I eat. . . This is my school. . . “ But we can see on his face as he reviews the footage that he is happy to be involved in the filming and creation of something:

Until his dad comes in the room. Andrew’s face immediately closes off.

And his dad slaps him around, pushing him off his chair – payback for not opening the door the night before.  Later we hear his dad pleading with the pharmacy to give him a discount on the pain pills that Andrew’s mother needs – she’s painfully dying of cancer in the next room.

It appears that this is a representative capsule of Andrew’s life. His Matt semi-reluctantly invites Andrew to a party in an abandoned building and advises him to leave the camera at home.  Of course Andrew doesn’t, accidentally films the wrong girl’s butt, gets spit on by her meathead boyfriend, and ends up crying in the grass.  It’s more touching filmed than it sounds, less stereotyped.  The documentary style, deft editing, and above average acting skills have already  elevated this beyond a cautionary bullying tale.

And then, Andrew’s camera provides him with an in. The extremely popular Steve Montgomery


has found something, along with Matt.

A hole in the ground, filled with a weird buzzing energy.

Inside the hole, something that glows and pulses and messes with the camera. Something overwhelming.

The next time we see Andrew, Matt, and Steve, they’re goofing around in the backyard throwing baseballs at each other. . .  from impossible angles. Andrew stops one right in front of his face, using only his mind.  Not only is this an incredible secret, it’s Andrew’s ticket to having real friends and feeling like he can be himself around two other people on Earth.  Soon the boys are hanging out all the time, making fun of how often Steve’s girlfriend calls him and leaves angry, suspicious voicemails, and eventually taking their powers from Legos to parking lots and toy stores.

Until one day, this happens:

The thing to remember is that this isn’t a Marvel Universe. These are teenage boys, and like all teenagers, their brains are still growing – particularly in the prefrontal cortex, where good decision-making happens.  So instead of getting costumes, thinking about responsibility, and fighting crime, these guys just goof around.  The only problem is that even though Andrew now has friends and some confidence, he still is suffering from abuse, probably PTSD, and grief.  And when the world continues to show him uncaring and injustice, he reacts like a teenager would.  But now he’s not just a teenager anymore.

Rent for the great effects and stay for the emotionally resonant story.

Keep your eye out for Chronicle 2, as well.


Project X / Jim Shepard

Shepard nails the weirdness and sadness and  funniness in the voice of two middle school boys obsessed with a Plan, and masters the yawning gap of reason as well as the push of invented reason behind inevitable violence.

Attack the Block

Group of prepubescent London thugs finds themselves in the middle of an alien attack and must find out what courage really is – more great, old-school effects, and FUNNY.

Carrie / Firestarter

Stephen King knows from telekinetic rage. Read the books AND watch the movies.

The Art of Figuring Things Out: With Or Without You

A Review of With Or Without You by Brian Farrey

Simon Pulse, 2011

By REBECCA, May 28, 2012

WIth or Without You Brian Farrey


Evan: Sweet, talented Evan wants to paint, be a good friend, and a good boyfriend—but all that doesn’t leave much time to figure himself out

Davis: Evan’s best friend, he is so used to being bullied or ignored that he jumps at the chance for attention and empowerment, no matter what the cost

Erik: Evan’s boyfriend, Erik is a sculptor, a nursing student, and a total mensch

Sable: He arrives on the scene and begins preaching a rather extreme brand of gay empowerment . . . but it turns out that’s not all he’s preaching

Shan: Evan’s sister and sometimes ally


Evan and Davis are bullied, beaten-up for being gay, and have crappy parents. But senior year is finally over and all they have to do is get through the summer before they can move to Chicago and leave it all behind like they’ve planned for so long. But Evan has a wonderful boyfriend that he can’t tell anyone about and Davis has fallen in with Sable, a mysterious and charismatic alpha dog, and Evan feels like he doesn’t even know him anymore. Suddenly, the future seems very, very uncertain.


With or Without You is an amazing, character-driven novel with a totally unique story. Brian Farrey’s prose is beautiful and manages to skip from love to fear to exhilaration without a false note. It’s definitely one of the best YA novels I’ve read, and an important book, too, I think.

Edvard Munch The ScreamEvan paints to escape—he studies the techniques of his favorite painters obsessively, until he can mimic it. Using windows as his canvas, Evan paints ordinary objects in these famous styles, rendering his everyday world through other artists’ eyes. This is how he meets Erik, the best boyfriend ever, who is also an artist—he sculpts with found objects, transforming them into beautiful creations.

But although Erik has been the best boyfriend ever for almost a year, Evan is paralyzed at the idea of telling anyone about him—even Davis. What Evan doesn’t tell anyone is that in that year, he has been remade as surely as the objects in Erik’s sculptures or the objects in his own paintings: for the first time he values himself—physically, mentally, and emotionally. This year of Evan and Erik’s relationship unfolds gradually, in flashbacks. Meanwhile, in the present, With or Without You opens with Evan and Davis getting gay-bashed. In his anger, Davis brings Evan to the first meeting of a group called Chasers, led by Sable, who invites the group to “learn what it means to be gay! Stop being a doormat!”

As Davis gets in deeper with Sable and the Chasers he seems to be constantly in danger and Evan seems to be living two different lives: one in which he is a scared kid, trying to keep Davis safe from the danger he suspects the Chasers of; and another in which he is in a mature, loving relationship that helps him grow and learn about himself. It’s this tension that makes With or Without You so beautiful, though. Evan is slowly outgrowing his old self and it’s an uncomfortable, scary, and joyous process:

“Crying will give him all the wrong messages. Crying will say, Don’t you understand? I’ve been laughed at my entire life and when you express this much confidence in me, it chokes me and I’d run but there’s nowhere to go because you’re the only place I’ve come to know.

I don’t cry. I will later.

It’s an odd sensation to get what you want and still feel terrified. Inside, aspiration accelerates, blurring everything I know. Outside, my face slackens, resolve masquerades as rejection. Erik sees the battle behind my eyes, the uncertainty in my posture. I watch as his shoulders slowly deflate” (88).

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

Georgia O'Keeffe Ram's HeadThis is a really important book. It is an exploration of relationships, of the terror and thrill of first love, the bittersweetness of outpacing a friendship, and the emotional aftermath of bullying and physical violence. All of this is, of course, enough to make it an important entry into contemporary YA fiction. But it’s the storyline about the Chasers that makes With or Without You really extraordinary.

Without giving too much away, in case folks don’t know what Chasers are, Sable preys on the insecurity, fear, and anger of Davis and the other Chasers, using it to convince them that their problem is that they don’t know what it really means to be proud gay men. To learn to identify with gay history, Sable says, they must learn the phases it went through: revolution, liberation, identification. To learn about revolution, they orchestrate a fight, which Evan participates in to protect Davis.

“‘Now you know how they felt during Stonewall,’ Sable says, propping himself up on his elbows. I follow suit. ‘You know what it feels like to say, “Fuck this shit. I’m sick of it!” You know what it feels like to totally stick it to the people who’ve been sticking it to you forever. And it feels great!’

He shouts the last word and it echoes off the concrete courtyard in front of the observatory. It did feel great. So how can I feel great and still feel like shit?” (193).

Stonewall Inn 1969 Mattachine SocietyIn his quest to teach his followers about what it meant to be gay in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Sable also calls their attention to the ways that gay assimilation is, in his view, the opposite of queer power. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” Sable asks Evan. “No, let me guess: House. Yard. Wearing some stud’s ‘commitment ring.’ Going out for cocktails with your coupled gay friends, talking about how great it is to be monogamous and happy and shit” (195). When Evan asks what would be wrong with that, Sable replies that “you have been bullshitted by society into thinking that’s what you should want. You see Mommy and Daddy all happy . . . with their house and their kids and they’re a loving couple and you think, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So that’s what I want too'” (195).

I think it is a bit unfortunate that the revolutionary ideas in the book are only in the mouth of Sable. In this way, ideas about non-monogamy, alternative family structures, and radical empowerment that are rarely found in YA fiction are aligned with an extremist villain who uses them in the service of harm. Still, it’s a really smart look at how (for the most part) it isn’t politics or desires that are good or bad, but to what ends they are deployed. In this vein, running parallel to Sable’s “education” about gay life and history, Evan learns about the AIDS epidemic from one of Erik’s patients who is the last of his group of friends still alive, and this education increases his desire to work towards a world safe for love and sex.

personal disclosure

I just really think people will love With or Without You! Great characters, a lovely romance, friend dynamics, a creepy and vaguely cult-y leader, beautiful writing, personal discovery and growth, and a super interesting plot.


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.

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.

procured from: the library, but then I bought it because I knew I’d want to re-read it.

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