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

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

Scholastic Press, 2013

The Dream Thieves The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

by REBECCA, September 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oy Vey: Heck Yes, Proxy!

A Review of Proxy (Proxy #1) by Alex London

Philomel, 2013

Proxy by Alex London

by REBECCA, July 22, 2013

hook

As a Patron, Knox has and does anything wants, as if there were no consequences to his actions. Because there aren’t. Well, not for him. Syd is Knox’s Proxy: any transgression of Knox’s is taken out of Syd’s hide. It’s been this way since they were boys, and Syd has learned to deal with the nerve-spasming pain of shocks, the beatings, and the manual labor. But when Knox kills a friend, Syd’s punishment may as well be a death sentence. But there are things brewing that are larger than Knox and Syd. In this future, where everything has a price, two boys will set out to see if they can take down the system.

worldview

denver-skylineIn the world of Proxy, the city where Syd and Knox live (where Denver once was) is considered the only real seat of civilization left on the continent, and the Proxy system the only thing preserving that civilization. The barrier between wealthy Patrons in Upper City and Proxies in the trash heap of Lower City is as wide as it is literal, and Syd and Knox both know that their positions are fixed. Knox has to live up to his father’s bloated corporate legacy and Syd has to play by every rule he’s given if he hopes to live out the last two years of debt that he incurred when he was rescued as an infant—then maybe he can have a life that’s a little more of his own making.

Knox has all the latest gadgets and he and his friends spend their time hacking, drugging, teching, and partying. Syd can fix anything, and lives in a tiny room off Mr. Baram’s shop. The day Proxy opens, Knox steals a sports car and takes it for a deadly joyride, and Syd tries to concentrate at school, but gets outed by his teacher in front of the whole class, including his crush. Both boys are feeling pretty rough, and things only go downhill from there.

Proxy by Alex London and my cat

I was trying to show you how the cover is metallic, but look at my cute cat.

Proxy‘s world is vividly rendered and Alex London deftly implies volumes about its rules and textures within a few chapters. Nothing is wasted; nothing is left unexplained. There are the typical markers of class divide, from the food to the technology, but it all feels particular to this world and—Hallelujah!—it’s a world that isn’t based on a set of suicide-inspiring misogynistic stereotypes, thank you Alex London.

Indeed, gender is something that Proxy gets very refreshingly right. It’s not the point of the story, but there are characters of all types, genders, and sexual orientations here, and reading it made that place in my heart that is defensively tensed when I start every new book unclench a little.

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

After Syd finds out he’s been sentenced to pay the debt for a life taken, Syd, Knox, and a friend set out on a cross-country journey that is part rebellion, part quest, and part desperation. I’m not saying much about the plot because it’s a joy to watch unfold and I don’t want to ruin anything. Suffice it to say, it’s fast-paced without sacrificing detail, and shies away from annoyingly predictable choices even when it hits its comfortably in-genre stride. There are risks, there are stakes, and it all feels worth it.

Proxy isn’t a perfect book. It starts out alternating between Syd and Knox’s points of view, but once they meet, each chapter combines their POVs, which is confusing and, I think, a missed opportunity for learning more about their characters, which, while they definitely develop over the course of the novel, are more based in attributes than in voice. But I hope that will develop in the sequel. The writing is solidly invisible and despite the few weaknesses, Proxy soars.

Proxy by Alex London and my cute cat!

And now she is being sucked into the book. Noooooo!

In a market glutted with dystopias, Proxy is a very unique book and a really fun read, despite its grim subject matter. There are a lot of awesome details that I’ve not mentioned, like a strand of Jewish mysticism, some awesome biotech stuff, a rebel movement (always my favorite part of dystopias!), and some definitely snappy patter. My favorite detail: in this society, orphans are named after literary characters, a demonstration of how little value books have in Proxy‘s present), so there are shout-outs to famous lit all over the place—Syd’s full name is, tellingly, Sydney Carton, the Charles Darnay look-alike from A Tale of Two Cities. Delightful.

It’s also wonderful to find a gay character of color in a major YA dystopia. While we’re seeing more and more complex queer characters, race is something that YA dystopias have mostly left alone, except when it’s majorly stumbled. Alex London writes race and class into the world of Proxy and it’s much appreciated. Can’t wait for the sequel!

Not convinced? You can download the first three chapters of Proxy for free HERE.

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The Culling by Steven dos Santos

The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos (2013). Speaking of there being more queer characters in YA fiction, I loved The Culling, which I try hard not to call the gay Hunger Games because that makes it sound derivative, but really it’s like the gay Hunger Games in all the best ways! My full review is HERE.

Magic to the Bone (Allie Beckstrom #1) by Devon Monk Magic in the Blood (Allie Beckstrom #2) by Devon Monk Magic in the Shadows (Allie Beckstrom #3) by Devon Monk

The Allie Beckstrom Series by Devon Monk (2008-2012). The Allie Beckstrom books aren’t necessarily similar to Proxy in terms of plot or style, but Devon Monk’s urban fantasy series is based in a similar proxy system. In this world, set in an alternate Portland, every act of magic exacts a price from the user, and the wealthy (and the immoral) offload that cost onto people who have contracted to take it or have been forced to do so. The series went off the rails a bit after the first few books, but it’s a lot of fun and doesn’t often crop up in YA circles, since Allie Beckstrom is in her early twenties.

procured from: bought! That’s how excited I was to read Proxy. And I’m glad I did, because the cover is gorgeous.

We Don’t Need No Thought Control: Deviant

A Review of Deviant by Helen FitzGerald

Soho Teen, 2013

Deviant by Helen Fitzgerald

by REBECCA, June 10, 2013

Abigail Thom has been living in foster homes and dodging trouble in Glasgow nearly her whole life. When her mother dies, leaving Abigail a mysterious letter, a wad of cash, and a plane ticket to L.A. to go see a father and sister she never knew existed, Abigail thinks that a ticket out of Glasgow may be the only good thing her mother ever did for her. GlasgowWhen she arrives in L.A., though, Abigail quickly realizes that things are more complicated than she could have imagined. In addition to trying to find her place in a new country and a new family, Abigail soon realizes that her new-found sister is has discovered something—something people are willing to kill to keep secret. And now Abigail is right in the middle of it.

L.A.When we first meet Abigail, all she wants is to get the hell out of Glasgow. She’s organized, smart, savvy, and has perfected her “robot mode” over the years—a detached affect that accompanies all stressful or emotional situations. When she gets news that her mother has died, all she really feels is a slight pang of regret for a life she might have led. She’s grateful for the chance to go to America and start over, and excited to meet Becky, the older sister she never knew she had. Becky is rich, privileged, beautiful, and full of life, and from the moment Abigail meets her she realizes how much she’s longed for someone she can feel a connection to.

This first third-or-so of Deviant reads like a gritty contemporary YA. Abigail is a sympathetic character who combines the appeal of a street-smart badass with the vulnerability of someone who has longed for a family and is, therefore, willing to do almost anything to fit in. Her contrast with Becky is particularly poignant, and Helen FitzGerald does a subtle job of showing moments where Abigail sees who she might have been had she lived her sister’s life.

Deviant by Helen FitzGeraldBut then Becky takes Abigail along with a few of her friends as they graffiti the back of a freeway sign, and Abigail realizes that Becky is part of a group that the L.A. media has called vicious vandals. Their stencil is of a group of zombielike teenagers (on the cover), and each time they do it, they tag it with a letter. Abigail is furious, thinking about the trouble she could get in if they were caught, whereas Becky and her friends have powerful parents who can set things right for them. But . . . something seems a bit off about one of Becky’s friends, and Becky is so secretive about what the letters might mean. Abigail is happy to ignore the weirdness around her, though, because she’s so happy to be getting to know her sister. This second third of Deviant starts the mystery percolating.

Finally (no spoilers), things escalate, and Abigail realizes that what Becky and her friends are pointing to with their graffitied letters is larger than she could have imagined, and has the possibility of harming not only her newfound friends but millions of teenagers around the world. Shit gets serious, y’all, and the final third of the book is action-packed and tightly plotted. It also takes on a science fiction shade, but it’s subtle enough that it could be real, which is awesome.

Deviant is a book that’s doing several things simultaneously, and it’s doing them all well! This is a well-plotted mystery that is actually a mystery. Not that I only like books where I can’t figure out the mystery, but many YA mysteries are bit light on the mystery, if you know what I mean. Deviant, by virtue of beginning with a solid, character-driven family story, backs into its mystery, and it’s the better for it. Details from the first part of the book become important to the mystery later, and though the plot is tight, there is a lot of room for things to be filled in later, or for the reader to imagine. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be the first in a series, even though it read like it was winding up for one. The ending is wide open in a way that seems to set up a sequel, but it isn’t unsatisfying as a standalone, either.

I really enjoyed Deviant and, more than anything, it read like an extremely confident novel. Helen FitzGerald doesn’t overdo any one element, be it character, explanation, or prose style. And, bonus, it’s a really wicked class critique. It unfolds quickly and with panache, and I was definitely left wanting more—I’ll let you decide if that’s a strength or a weakness.

procured from: I received a copy of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Deviant, by Helen FitzGerald, will be available tomorrow.

5 Reasons You Should Watch Hemlock Grove!

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

Netflix, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Monster Of A World”: The Twelve-Fingered Boy

A Review of The Twelve-Fingered Boy (book 1 in The Incarcerado Trilogy) by John Hornor Jacobs

Lerner, 2013

The Twelve-Fingered Boy John Horner Jacobs

by REBECCA, March 18, 2013

characters

Shreve: juvie’s 15-year old fast-talking, savvy candy dealer with a heart of . . . gold-ish

Jack: Shreve’s new roomie is young, quiet, vulnerable, and clearly drawing some sinister interest

Mr. Quincrux: the sinister interest (and the best name award goes to!)

hook

Shreve’s got things pretty much figured out at Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center: when to sell, where to avoid, who to sweet talk, and how to keep a low profile. When his new roommate, Jack, shows up, though, everything Shreve knows goes to pot. Jack may have six fingers on each hand but that’s nothing compared to the fact that he seems to have superpowers. And when Mr. Quincrux and associates show up with the ability to invade minds and control what people do, Jack and Shreve make a break for it, trying to outrun them on a cross-country chase. There’s only one little wrinkle: ever since Mr. Quincrux rooted around in Shreve’s noggin, Shreve has found that he can do the same . . .

worldview

The Twelve-Fingered Boy is my absolute favorite kind of book: it’s set in a gritty, realist world but has elements of unreal powers. This is the best of both worlds, for my money, because the gritty realism provides the occasion for strong prose and complex characters, and the special powers provide an opportunity for fun, creative genre twists and turns. The Twelve-Fingered Boy is told from Shreve’s perspective, and he is an eminently likable chap. He’s a cocky smooth talker who is also sensitive and insightful. He’s a smartass who takes Jack under his wing and protects him. And, in the second half of the book, he wrestles with his own relationship to power.

John Hornor Jacobs’ prose is strong, making for insightful characterization, varied dialogue, fast-paced action, and contemplative interior monologues:

“On the inside, where all the wards were orange, everyone tries to be different. Some with crazy dos, some wearing earrings, the more desperate scratching tats on their hands with black pen ink and needles. Kids talk big, walk big, kick out their chests, tell jokes in overloud voices, laugh hard at unfunny jokes. They try to put a stamp down on themselves. They want to define who they are, and who they aren’t, by drawing lines in an ever-changing sandbox.

But the ones who are different, the ones who really would stand out if their differences were known to the general pop, well . . . they don’t want to be different at all. They want to be just like everybody else. The boys so desperately trying to be different, well, if they get a whiff of something truly foreign, they’ll destroy it. Nothing that different can be allowed to exist, to prove that they’re all alike.”

I love this exchange between Shreve and his mother:

‘Moms?’

‘Honey, why do you have to call me that?’

‘What?’

‘Moms. You used to call me momma.’

‘It’s just one of those things, Moms.’

‘I don’t like it. It’s like you’re saying I’m . . . I don’t know . . .’

‘More than one.’

‘Yeah, like that. Like I’m more than one person.’

We’re all more than one person. But I don’t say that.

‘Okay, momma. Okay.'”

When Mr. Quincrux tries to “recruit” Jack for his talents, Shreve sticks up for him and everything goes to hell. They run away from the detention center because they know Quincrux will stop at nothing to get them. Jack, who doesn’t even really know what his powers are, is terrified that he will hurt someone and Shreve has suddenly developed powers of his own—or has he merely unlocked the door on powers that everyone has? The Twelve-Fingered Boy paints a complicated picture of Jack and Shreve’s relationships with their powers, and it’s a relationship that only gets more complicated as the story continues.

‘How did you do it? . . . You did the same trick Quincrux and the witch did.’

I think for a bit. I can’t come up with an answer for him.

‘I don’t know, Jack. Maybe something transferred into me when Quincrux . . . ‘

I don’t know any other way to say it, and it hurts to admit it, even to Jack.

‘When he raped me. I think part of him, his residue or something, was left behind.'”

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

Because I received The Twelve-Fingered Boy as an ARC, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a standalone novel until I got to the last page and looked it up on Goodreads. Which is a good thing: the world and characters are fully developed and there wasn’t even a hint that we were in a “first act” type first book in a trilogy. Sure there were things that weren’t entirely explained, but I assumed that was because it’s a fast-paced book. However, the second I learned that it was the first in a trilogy, I got excited—no, not just because that meant there was more to come (although, YAY! there’s more to come!). It was because it’s very clear that John Hornor Jacobs is interested in asking questions the permutations of which this first novel could only begin to explore.

Once Shreve discovers he has the ability to (to shorthand it) read and change minds, he and Jack use it as a purely practical tool: to get money, food, hotels, and transportation. It’s necessary for their survival and dead useful for flying under the radar. Little by little, though, the boundaries of these powers become permeable and Shreve is forced to ask a number of questions that have been lurking in the back of his mind since he first acquired them: what does it mean for a kid who has grown up powerless to suddenly have so much power? when you know that your power comes from someone evil, how do you know you won’t become evil? what are your responsibilities as a result of that power? etc.

All in all, I’d say The Twelve-Fingered Boy absolutely lives up to its intentions: gritty realism, an interesting adventure, a seesaw of power and corruption, the posing of ethical dilemmas, friendship, a dynamic and creepy turn . . . it’s got it all. And with two more books to come, I’ve no doubt that The Incarcerado Trilogy will impress.

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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.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Last Night I Sang To The Monster by Benjamine Alire Sáenz (2009). This is one of the more beautifully-written books out there. Sáenz is also a poet, and it absolutely shows in his command of prose. The combination of such gorgeous prose and a difficult story, narrated by a character who is dealing with the aftereffects of some horrible events adds up to a book that changed the way I thought about first-person narratives. My full review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of The Twelve-Fingered Boy from the publisher (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. The Twelve-Fingered Boy is now available!

Lisa Jenn Bigelow: “Put your characters through the wringer!”

Today at Crunchings & Munchings we’re proud to welcome Lisa Jenn Bigelow, author of Starting From Here. It’s a new contemporary fiction title that we co-reviewed/discussed on Wednesday (click through to find out what it’s all about).  She joins us today to talk about how coming out is still hard to do, diversity in YA fiction, the dreaded “dead dog book”, and where to eat in Pittsburgh.  Yay!

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

C&M: I really liked that this was a story about the way kids’ lives can be really hard when they don’t have money. Can you talk a little bit about why it was important to you to portray characters that had material concerns as well as social concerns?

LJB: I grew up in a working class neighborhood. Both my parents had higher education, but they were in the minority. And while we always had enough money, we were careful, and I grew up hyperaware of how much things cost. When I got to middle and high school, several affluent neighborhoods joined the mix, and social tiers became obviously tied to economics. The popular kids, the preps, the student council, many of the athletes—they were from the rich (by my hometown’s standards, anyway) neighborhoods. You couldn’t not notice that.

I think well-off kids are the norm in YA books, and when money’s an issue, often it comes out as abject poverty. I wanted to represent the kids around the corner from me, the kids on the line between being “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s an underrepresented segment of the American population. Especially in today’s economic climate, I think those kids are the majority.

lisa jenn bigelow and carly

Photo by David Sutton

C&M: There have been more and more queer characters in YA books being published in the last few years. Have you noticed any trends (or types, or stereotypes) that have begun to emerge within these books? Did you find yourself trying to embrace/resist/complicate any of these with your own characters?

LJB: On the whole, I think we’re moving away from stereotypes and toward greater diversity. We’re seeing more queer girls and trans characters. We’re seeing more characters of color and different cultures. We’re seeing more stories that move beyond the “coming out” sub-genre. We’re seeing more genre fiction—fantasy and science fiction and even historical fiction—starring queer characters.

One of my favorite trends is the growing recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender. Characters aren’t so quick to label themselves. They’re more comfortable following their hearts without taking a hard line on whether a particular attraction makes them gay or bi or what-have-you. That’s something I really liked about Very LeFreak, by Rachel Cohn, which stars a girl who might best be described as pansexual—if she were one to care about labels.

very lefreak rachel cohen

In Starting from Here, Colby identifies strongly as gay, but the two girls she’s involved with don’t want—or aren’t ready—to label themselves that way. I want teens to know that it’s totally okay not to. I think it’s more important to simply feel what you feel at any given moment and to accept those feelings without judging yourself or worrying about “what it makes you.”

C&M: What do you think of the cover? I’m super into it – no generic photograph of a person staring off into the middle distance — and it reminds me of the iconic David Levithan covers. I especially like how the truck is pink and the heart is yellow. Did you have any input on it?  Were you hoping for a certain vibe from the cover?

LJB: The cover’s awesome—no thanks to me. My nightmare was actually that the cover would be a stock photo of an empty country road with one of those yellow diamond-shaped road signs with the title printed on it. So I was thrilled with what the designer came up with. I think it’s very appealing and distinctive from the slew of stock-photo-girl covers out there. I do love that it evokes David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and also the hardcover edition of Lauren Myracle’s Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks—two great books by two of my favorite authors.

peace love and baby ducks lauren myracle  boy meets boy david levithan

C&M: Starting From Here is set in rural-y Michigan. What’s your connection with the area and why did you decide to set it there?

LJB: I grew up in the Kalamazoo area—technically in Portage, which is a smallish city just south of Kalamazoo proper. It has one huge, commercial road running through the center of town, but drive a mile or two to either side, and you basically end up in the country. Cornfields, trailer parks, lakes and nature preserves. My own neighborhood was right near the commercial center, but over the course of eighteen years, I got a feel for just about the whole town. It’s all remained very vivid to me, plus I get a refresher course every time I visit my parents.

The culture of the area is just as important. When Starting from Here was on submission, there were actually editors who expressed confusion as to why Colby had qualms about coming out to her father. I think that’s cosmopolitan New York talking. Anyone who follows the news should know that in most of America (including New York), coming out can still be a dangerous thing. Coming out can mean being harassed, ostracized, disowned, assaulted, or even killed. Kalamazoo County may have gone Blue in the 2012 presidential election, but Southwest Michigan is, overall, a pretty conservative area. Things have changed for the better there since I was a teen, but I wanted to reflect the reality that things are still far from perfect.

kalamazoo michigan

Kalamazoo by Dave Sizer on flickr (creative commons)

C&M: Mo the dog is a huge part of the story, and in some ways the heart of the story (please forgive me for that cheesy phrasing). Rebecca and I, as devoted cat owners and animal lovers, were both very touched by Mo’s inclusion. So we wanted to thank you for showing the responsibility and love that pet ownership entails! Although, thankfully, this is not a dead dog story, those types of stories are notoriously divisive. Where do you come down on the Old Yeller issue? Do you have a dog?

LJB: Funny you should bring up Old Yeller. The very first chapter of the very first draft of Starting from Here had Colby talking about how she’d read that book over and over again, until she didn’t have any tears left. That’s how I feel about “dead dog books” at this point in my life. I read Where the Red Fern Grows, as well as various other tearjerkers, so many times when I was a kid, but I got to a point where I was tired of crying. Maybe because real life seemed hard enough.

this dog will lighten the mood. by RollanB on Flickr

Now whenever I pick up a dog book, I flip to the last page—something I normally don’t do—to see if the dog makes it to the end alive. If it doesn’t, forget it. I’ve had to say goodbye to three dogs in my life, and it’s terrible. I still tear up when I think about my dog Carly, who died a year and a half ago–she’s the German shepherd mix in my official author photo. She was more neurotic than the average dog, but I loved her to pieces.

I adopted another dog last fall—another shepherd mix, incidentally. Her name is Saffy, and while she’s middle-aged, she’s very energetic and loves fetch and going in Lake Michigan. She’s also a total cuddle. Now I’m searching for a second rescue to make us more of a pack.

Anyway, that was actually the initial inspiration for Starting from Here: I wanted to write an “anti-dead dog book.” A book that kicks off with an awfully close call but doesn’t end in tears. A book that shows how a dog can save someone’s life simply through love, no fatal acts of heroism required.

C&M: Colby’s trust issues get worse and worse and she eventually reaches a breaking point. I thought it was a really truthful portrayal of a character with a lot of love to give and a fear of being hurt. It’s a fine line when you have one of your characters do hurtful things to the people around them and to themselves, but Colby is never unlikeable. Did you ever feel bad about putting her through that process?

LJB: Will I sound callous if I say “not really”? That’s how the novel-writing game is played: put your characters through the wringer! I guess the hardest thing was making Colby convincingly self-absorbed. She feels like the world is out to get her, when it was obvious to me (as it will be to readers) that isn’t true. If I knew her in real life, I’d want to give her a good shake. But we’ve all been there, and I hope readers can make that connection.

The most emotional scenes for me to write were, unsurprisingly, when Colby hits bottom. But they were also some of the most satisfying. I figured that if I could make myself cry—me, the puppetmaster, the one person who should be immune to emotional manipulation—then those scenes would touch readers, too.

C&M: Does your work as a youth librarian influence your writing, and if so, how so?
LJB: As a youth librarian, I’m immersed daily in books for young people. I read reviews of them, purchase them, read them, review them, discuss them, suggest them. All these activities have given me a strong awareness of what’s being published (which is far beyond what you are likely to see on the shelves of a big box store), what kids like to read, and what reviewers and award committees are looking at. On the one hand, it makes me read–and therefore write–more critically; on the other, I’ve become more generous in my definition of what makes a “good book,” because as a librarian you have to accept that it’s different for everyone. Above all, being a librarian gives me perspective. There are so many very good books out there that don’t get starred reviews, don’t win awards, don’t make the bestseller list, and go out of print within just a few years. A lot of that is luck; it’s just how the business is. So you just have to hope your book will find its readers and touch their lives before it fades away. And libraries, which treasure books as long as they have the shelf space, play an instrumental role in that.

BONUS QUESTION:

Tessa: Tell me about your favorite place(s) to go in Pittsburgh!

LJB: You’re making me nostalgic. I went to Carnegie Mellon University, which doesn’t have a particularly nice campus but is a great home base for what Pittsburgh has to offer. For ice cream, I have to go with Dave & Andy’s. For pizza, the Church Brew Works. My friends and I loved Sree’s Foods for Indian. Sree himself ran a food cart next to campus and was a kind and generous man. He died last year, unfortunately.

one of the buildings at CMU, taken by Flickr user jiuguangw

I could go on all day about food—have I mentioned Bloomfield Bridge Tavern makes tasty pierogi?—but onward. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a beautiful old building, and I checked out many a YA book from it while I was in college. Bonus, the art museum is right next door. I also love Pittsburgh’s wooded parks, especially Schenley and Frick. The best part of Frick Park is Hot Dog Dam, a swimming hole for dogs. So cute!

Tessa: Those are indeed all wonderful Pittsburgh places.  Thank you for visiting, Lisa, and giving us thoughtful answers and a great book to read and recommend.

10 Reasons Why Switched At Birth Is Totally Worth Watching

ABC Family’s Switched at Birth Exceeds My (Meager) Expectations

By REBECCA, July 9, 2012

Switched At Birth ABC Family

Again and again the Netflix robots would suggest that I watch an ABC Family show called Switched at Birth; again and again I would ignore them. I mean, sure I totally gave five stars to Make It Or Break It (and wrote a glowing review of it here) but that didn’t mean I wanted to watch some schlocky soap opera knockoff! Right?

Well, actually, it kind of did mean that.

The premise is this: Bay Kennish has grown up in a wealthy and privileged white family with an older brother and a private school education. Daphne Vasquez has grown up with her Latina mother and grandmother in a working class neighborhood; she went deaf at a young age and attends a deaf school. The two families discover that Bay and Daphne were (everybody!) switched at birth, and thus begins the difficult negotiations of everyone involved.

I began Switched at Birth with the lowest of expectations—it was a total I’ll-watch-20-minutes-of-this-while-I-eat-breakfast endeavor. But . . . um . . . I was a little bit hooked. I mean, obviously, it’s no Make It Or Break It or Pretty Little Liars, but, well, ABC Family is rocking my world these days, folks. So, here you go. Here are 10 reasons why Switched at Birth might well prove worth your while. (Switched at Birth is available on Netflix and Hulu now.)

Downton Abbey1. Worlds Collide! I am a big fan of the worlds collide phenomenon. This can take many forms but nearly always produces delightful drama. You’ve got your called-upon-to-do-something variety, like in Downton Abbey or The Princess Diaries, when someone is put in the position of being obliged to something they never expected. You’ve got your random-people-trapped-together variety, like in The Breakfast Club, 12 Angry Men, or The Parent Trap! Switched at Birth is of the meet-the-parents variety, like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, The Family Stone, or Father of the Bride. Obviously many of the following categories fall under this one, but let’s just say that an ex-pro baseballer and an ex-alcoholic hairdresser don’t actually have much that they agree on.

2. Deaf Cultures. As you might imagine, there are things that are wrong with the show’s portrayals of deaf communities and some of the actors’ sign language (or so I’ve read), etc. Still, it is one of the only tv shows in history to ever feature not just a deaf character but multiple deaf actors (and this is what finally convinced me to start watching it). Daphne’s character (played by Katie Leclerc, who is hard of hearing and has Ménière’s disease) both signs and speaks, and her best friend Emmett and his mother, Melody, who are deaf and only sign, are played by Sean Berdy and Marlee Matlin, both of whom are deaf. For me, the spectrum of experiences that these characters can portray was the most interesting part of the show. There is plenty to say about this—check out Jace Lacob’s article about deafness on the show here.

3. Class. The Kennishes are rich (dad was a pro baseball player and now owns a chain of carwashes—living the dream, yo) and the Vasquezes struggle to get by. So, class is a constant issue for Switched at Birth, whether it’s giving a gift or talking about college. Bay and her brother are privileged in every way and it’s really nice to see a show that points up the kind of assumptions that come with such an upbringing and the way they’re challenged when Bay is suddenly around people who did not grow up wealthy. For example, Bay can’t understand why a guy she starts dating wouldn’t want her to give him a wad of cash to fix his truck, and the Kennish parents seriously stick their feet in their mouths talking to Regina (Daphne’s mom) about why she “chooses” to do things certain ways. The most dramatic expression of this occurs when the Kennishes wonder whether it might have been Regina’s negligence (she used to be an alcoholic) and/or her economic situation that caused Daphne’s childhood meningitis to render her deaf. A very satisfying representation of what might actually happen if you had two families from very different class contexts trying to raise their kids.

Bay Kennish Switched at Birth4. Bay! Bay Kennish is played by Vanessa Marano—you may know her as Luke’s surprise daughter on Gilmore Girls. She has both moments of extreme spoilt obnoxiousness and delightful sensitivity and I like me a well-rounded character. She’s always felt like the odd one out in her family—she’s an artsy brunette in a sea full of blondes who wouldn’t know a Redon from a Rodin from a writing desk. She does Banksy-esque graffiti around town and dresses really cute and has luxurious hair and a vulnerable-seeming lisp and she learns sign language and I just like her even though she’s a drama queen.

5. Daphne! It’s rare when a show has two main characters that are (sometimes) in opposite camps and I like them both. Daphne is super sweet and cheery, but she’s also very no-nonsense and honest. If Bay is a drama queen, Daphne’s a stage manager: she tries to understand everyone’s point of view and be respectful of them, but in the end she’s gonna do what she’s gonna do. What I like most about Daphne’s story arc I won’t tell you because I don’t want to spoil anything. Let me just say that sometimes even sweethearts get pushed too far, mkay? Also, for like 85% of the time she’s onscreen I was looking at Katie Leclerc and thinking, “how is it that you are not related to Evangeline Lily?” Right?!

Emmett Sean Berdy Switched at Birth6. Emmett! Emmett is described on the show as a “deaf James Dean”—he rides a motorcycle and wears a leather jacket, but he’s been besties with Daphne since they were little kids. He is a sweet guy, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and when hearing people act like idiots about his deafness he totally messes with them. He plays the drums and becomes (kind of) friends with Bay’s brother when they drag him in to sub for their drummer at the last minute. Badass. Major drama between Emmett and his mom (Marlee Matlin), Emmett and Daphne, and Emmett and Bay. He’s definitely one of my favorites.

7. Ethnicity. When Bay finds out that she’s not white but Latina, she becomes fascinated by trying to figure out what that means for her and her art. She is also troubled by what she suddenly realizes are some very real prejudices that she hears her parents and grandmother voice. Having never thought much about race or ethnicity (she attends private school where class completely eclipses either), Bay is finally in a position to think about how they affect her personally. Since Bay is an artist, she also looks to long-time idol Frida Kahlo for some guidance. For Daphne, her ethnicity has always been deeply connected with where she grew up. When she moves out of her old neighborhood and some of her old friends learn about the switch, they think she’s not the same person anymore.

8. Identity. The question “what if” hangs heavy over Switched at Birth, and is asked in many contexts. Daphne wonders if perhaps she would never have been deaf if she’d been raised by the Kennishes; Bay wonders what her art would have been like if she’d had a different life, etc. At times these musings are a bit trite, but the moments where the question isn’t spoken but rather stumbled upon are the strongest. Especially between Bay and Daphne there are some great moments that involve guilt, jealousy, desire, curiosity. Basically, this show takes the classic teenage search for identity and turns the volume up on it.

Blue Crush Kate Bosworth Michelle Rodriguez9. Creator Lizzy Weiss. I should have known that Switched at Birth would be kind of good the second I IMDBed it and saw that creator, writer, and producer Lizzy Weiss is the genius behind the screenplay/story of Blue Crush, one of my fave oceanic movies of all time. Kate Bosworth is so badass in that movie! Oooh, ooh, omigosh, not to mention that Michelle Rodriguez is in Blue Crush (before she got her adorable teeth fixed)—Michelle Rodriguez who was later on Lost with Evangeline Lilly. Coincidence? Who knows; I don’t think the creators of Lost quite figured that detail out.  Also, Lizzy Weiss wrote an episode of that MTV show Undressed—remember? The one where that dude couldn’t have sex with his girlfriends without his sock puppet talking about it? Yeah.

Blue Crush

10. ABC Family-ness. This is, above all, a really easy, visually-appealing, highly-consumable show of the variety in which ABC Family specializes. I don’t know how exactly the network went from being an arm of the evil Pat Robertson empire and then a wimpy Disney mouthpiece to having awesome original programming like Pretty Little Liars, Make It Or Break It, Kyle XY, Bunheads, and Switched at Birth, but all I can say is: this one-time hater is a total convert. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that maybe if ABC Family had answered my prayers to make L.J. Smith’s The Secret Circle series into a tv show then it wouldn’t have totally sucked and broken my heart.

So, what do you say? For those of you who’ve seen Switched at Birth, have I just publicly humiliated myself? For those who haven’t, are you intrigued? I can take it!

YA Book Ratings: Just Another Brick in the Wall

Why YA Book Ratings Are Not Just A Terrible Idea, But An Insidious & Sinister One

By REBECCA, May 25, 2012

Censorship by Eric Drooker

As some of you have likely seen, this week has ushered in the threat discussion of whether YA literature needs a rating system. Sarah Coyne, a professor in the “department of family life” at Brigham Young University, conducted a study of the 40 bestselling children’s books on the New York Times‘ list in June-ish, 2008, and found—gird your loins, friends—more than 1,500 “profane words”! For this reason, in addition to her sense that some of these books, were they to be made into movies, might receive R ratings, Coyne believes that a rating system on book jackets should be instituted. To be clear, Coyne states that she thinks “banning books is a terrible idea,” but believes that “a content warning on the back” would “empower parents.”

So, with that in mind, today I want to talk about some of the things that we’re really doing, implying, accepting, and dictating when we implement “ratings systems” and “content warnings.”

Types of Normal1. Normalization. First and most importantly, any system of evaluation or rating necessarily tells us what we are supposed to think is normal. To rate something is to place it closer or farther away from what the person doing the rating believes is normal. If you are a reader, it tells you what you are supposed to be able to handle, what you are supposed to want, or what you are supposed to fear based on huge generalizations that someone has made about the demographic they think you belong to. The words, behaviors, or situations that fall under the category of “content warnings” tell us that we should judge those words, behaviors, or situations as outside the normal realm of what a certain demographic—in this case, the young adult demographic—should embrace. This translates into huge swathes of behaviors, desires, fears, and experiences that readers are told are abnormal, just by looking at the jacket of a book.

More insidiously, what of the things that are tacitly coded as being normal and appropriate because they are not included in content warnings and they do not cause a book to be rated “mature”? Things like fat phobia, limited expressions of beauty, patriarchy, tokenizing, and the choking invisibility and systematic obliteration of many identities, cultures, and worldviews? As if teenagers aren’t already struggling enough with wondering if their thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears are normal! Do we really want to infect even the places they go for answers with judgements about how they stack up to these vague and arbitrary norms?

Speak Laurie Halse Anderson2. Ab-Normalization. Because let’s be honest: it’s not swear words that are really at stake here, right? If we think of which things are going to make the list of “content warning” or bump a book into “mature” territory, we are talking about precisely the things that are most difficult for many teens to think through, cope with, or get help with via other avenues: abuse, gender identity, religious doubt, myriad desires, shitty or controlling parents, incest, drugs, eating disorders, rape, death, passion, obsessive friendships, cruelty, shame. That means that the teenager who was raped last year and is browsing in the Young Adult section in the library might pick up Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and be told by the content warning, “rape,” on the book that what he or she experienced is something that should not be freely talked about, but rather must be warned against. Check out LHAnderson’s awesome blog post on how YA lit about such topics saves lives here and Lucas J.W. Johnson’s post about the YA Saves phenomenon here, including an amazing array of tweets using the #YAsaves hashtag testifying to how books like Speak helped them heal:

#YAsaves

#YAsaves

The Trouble with Normal: Sex Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life Michael WarnerAnd where do we draw the line, anyway? Will “homosexuality” be a content warning, and thus implicitly placed in the same category as “rape” or “extreme violence”? It seems likely that those who would want a ratings system would want it to be. And what about a content warning of “violence” or “crime” on a book about a teenager whose class background puts her in violent situations or necessitates theft or crime to get by? These stories will contain warnings, suggesting to readers that the people who live such stories, too, are to be warned against.

Who Watches the Watchmen?3. Who Watches the Watchmen? And who are these people that decide what is normal and what should be warned against, anyway? And what recourse have we once those ratings or warnings are printed on our books? To say nothing of the detrimental monetary effect that certain ratings or warnings could have on sales by the authors who write wonderful, important, risky books, what of the concomitant pressure on those same authors to write different books? What if publishers, fearing the bottom line, had discouraged Andrew Smith from writing Stick, Tomas Mournian from writing Hidden, Sapphire from writing Push? Everybody loses! Here again, we are in the position of handing over the power to decide what is normal to . . . whom? Industry execs? A morality brigade? A crew of concerned parents? Well, yes, actually: parents.

YA Saves tshirt!4. Parental Guidance. A ratings system is nearly always said to be in service of parents deciding what is appropriate or suitable for their children to read. As Coyne states, the goal of such a system is to “empower parents.” Bypassing the obvious fact that many of the readers of YA fiction are not young adults, the notion that rating systems are about parental guidance has several problems. First (and most foundational), the logic behind such systems suggests that we should only be concerned with kids who a.) have parents and b.) have parents who give a particular kind of shit. (This seems totally illogical, given than so many teens read books looking for answers or ideas about things because they don’t have adults that they feel they can trust.) But this means that it would be a rating system explicitly geared to a specific, small group of people. This, of course, means that such a ratings system would likely be organized around what that small group of people would find desirable and appropriate. And, you know what we call it when one small social, religious, or political faction is able to dictate what is appropriate for the rest? We call it totalitarianism.

Further, what’s really at the root of the notion that we should hand the reins to parents is the extremely conservative belief that children should believe what they were raised to believe rather than making up their own minds; that they should replicate the political and social beliefs of their parents. This nuclear familial structure is, in and of itself, an inherently conservative one and has, of course, had a normalizing cultural force. But the second that it steps outside of itself and begins to dictate art and literature to people outside its structure it has, in my opinion, grievously overstepped.

Crunchings and Munchings! We talk about books!5. We Have the Technology. As it happens, we already have ways that concerned citizens can look at what books contain without emblazoning books with scarlet letters: Goodreads, Common Sense Media & Parental Book Reviews (if one is of that type), and wonderful YA book blogs like those in our blogroll all provide huge amounts of information about books. Further, they contextualize content that ratings systems and content warnings can only ever isolate and stigmatize. So, whether you are a creep who wants to brainwash everyone into thinking like you, a genuinely concerned citizen who wants to suit the book to the reader, or a rabid reader with specific desires about what you read and super self-actualization about your limits, you all want more information, not less. Oh wait, the only one who actually does want less (and easier-to-control) information is the creep.

Comics CodeOne-letter/number ratings or one-word content warnings don’t actually inform—they rather assume. Assume that the powers-that-rate are reading the book the way the readers will. Assume that readers are similar rather than different. Assume that young readers should be warned away from potentially challenging material rather than guided through it or encouraged to read it, think about it, and ask questions about it. Assume that books are quantifiable and summarizable based on content rather than that the reading experience is complex, affective, and personal.

So, for me, what underlies the question “is it time to rate young adult books” isn’t whether or not I think we should help parents buy better birthday books for their kids. What underlies the question is the desire of certain people to tell us what is normal, what is acceptable, what we can handle, what we should want, what we should fear, and whom we should love. And to that my answer is clear: go fuck yourselves.

You're just another brick in the wall

What do you think? Sound off in the comments!

Spotted: 10 Reasons You Should Watch Gossip Girl

By REBECCA, April 27, 2012

Gossip Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sugar Cookies xoxo

Image: Whipped Bake Shop, Philadelphia

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

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

Gossip Girl Queer as Folk The L Word 90210

America's Next Top Model

Hmm.

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

Blair Waldorf

Image credit: Colormecourtney.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck Bass Evil Genius

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

[slight spoiler for Season 1:]

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

Image: January Jones Prints on etsy

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

Image: Blue Ribbon General Store

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

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

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

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