Summer Reads Pt. 1: Celebrated Summer and This One Summer

by Tessa

 

Summer: anything can happen, freedom, transitional state of adolescence, blah blah blah. I just read a bunch of books set in summer! Two were more high schooly and two were more middle schooly, so I’ll cover them in two parts.

Celebrated Summer

Charles Forsman

Fantagraphic Books, 2013

celebratedsummerforsman

 

The cover copy calls this a “graphic novella” because it’s relatively short. I call it “self-aware nostalgia” because the narrator, Wolff, is thinking about this one time that he and his friend Mike took LSD and decided to drive to the beach from their small town in Pennsylvania (Forsman is from Mechanicsburg so I’m picturing there). But even as he’s recalling it he doesn’t think it’s magical. Yet he’s not feeling sorry for himself.

Forsman has a spare line that still manages to capture summer days that are unrelentingly hot and humid. Or maybe it’s the way he writes Wolff, who is drifting and so uncomfortable in his skin, but not ready to do anything about it, that is coming through in the atmosphere of the book. In the same way, the LSD in Wolff’s body warps his environment, so he stops knowing what’s inside and what’s outside:

celebrated2

 

More previews at Fantagraphics!

Forsman is really good at pacing his panels. Some of them unspool like frames of film, he always pauses for reactions that make the story flow as if it were in real time, giving conversations real pauses, and some, going off into pure abstraction, still follow their own logic.

I also really liked his The End of the Fucking World, and recommend it. And he runs(?) this comics press/distro called Oily that sells subscriptions and it looks pretty rad. Do more research about it than I just did here, on its site.

 

This One Summer

Written by Mariko Tamaki, Drawn by Jillian Tamaki

First Second, 2014

thisonesummertamaki

 

Hope I’m not scooping you on a review, Rebecca, because I know how much you loved Skim. (Regardless I’d like to read your review of this book, though).

I’m including This One Summer on the high schooly side of things even though it’s about two kids on the cusp of adolescence. Because Rose and Windy are obsessed with the high school/post high school kids at Awago Beach. Because it’s also nostalgic in a way, being that Rose is thinking back to previous summers compared to this one. And it has adult intrigue that Rose understands, but adults reading it will connect to on another level. I think that whatever age reads this book will get different things out of it, and it’s a book to keep coming back to to measure yourself against the feelings it gives you.

It’s gorgeous, no surprise, since Jillian Tamaki is fantastic and wonderful. It’s printed in blue inks, and the lines are brushstrokes. J. T.’s figures are simplified enough that eyes don’t have separate pupils and irises, but retain a sense of depth and weight in the space of the image, so a realism comes through. The backgrounds and splash pages are delicate, detailed, and finely observed, like obsessive studies for full on paintings, grounding the story in place.

The story is Rose’s summer at Awago Beach, where her family has been going forever. She has a beach friend named Windy, who’s a bit younger than her. This summer she has a crush on the video store clerk, he’s having drama with his maybe girlfriend, and her parents are not getting along. Her mom won’t go to the beach and she’s pushing Rose’s dad away. It’s a summer made of moments, and some of them will affect Rose in obvious, rememberable ways, and some of them are the kind that pass by and come back in embarrassment or with a laugh years later, or might never be remembered at all. Here we get to see them play out and wonder which are which. Mariko Tamki is fantastic and wonderful as well, writing another layered and immediate story, with characters that are perfectly themselves.

 

 

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Movie Review: Palo Alto

A Review of Palo Alto, written & directed by Gia Coppola; based on the short story collection by James Franco

Palo Alto Gia Coppola James Franco

by REBECCA, May 26, 2014

Palo Alto is the directorial debut of Gia Coppola (Sofia’s niece), based on the authorial debut of actor James Franco, and starring Emma Roberts (Eric Roberts’ daughter; Julia Roberts’ niece) and Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son). That is to say, it can no more escape a kind of in-group latitude and indulgence than can the characters it portrays.

Palo Alto James FrancoFranco’s collection, Palo Alto (2010), contains twelve stories, all with different first-person narrators, but which feature some of the same characters (such as April, Emma Roberts’ character). Coppola’s script is based on five of those stories—according to many reviews, the five least dramatic, as those not in evidence include murder and gang rape (a whisper of which filters into the film). As there’s little action, plot-wise, it’s the themes that tie the pieces of the film together: mainly the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for the female characters, the antisocial behaviors that the male characters’ privilege makes acceptable, and all the characters’ attempts to mask boredom with mood-altering stabs at fun.

Responses to the film have been understandably mixed. I felt a bit conflicted myself coming out of the theatre. On one level, I loathed the film. The characters are all unappealing, some because they’re boring, some because they’re sexual predators, some because they’re selfish and mean. The dialogue is banal and uncreative, with nothing but a vague mutual yearning between April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), to suggest that these characters are anything more than attractive but superficial blanks. However, despite this—or perhaps because of it—emotionally, I found the film affecting.

Emma Roberts Palo AltoWe are introduced to Emily, who is called a whore throughout the film, when she confesses, during a game of Never-Have-I-Ever, that she has never been in love. For the rest of the movie, she repeatedly reaches out to boys at school and at parties, attempting to use sex to seek the love she’s never felt. In contrast, sixteen-year-old April, who “tries to be good,” is the victim of her sexually predatory soccer coach (a grinning James Franco) for whom she babysits. She’s flattered by his attentions and returns them initially, only to be confused and terrified when he confesses his love to her, their relationship suddenly elevated to a level more threatening to her than sex.

Jack Kilmer Emma Roberts Palo AltoThe film, that is, portrays the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for these characters in no uncertain terms. What’s troubling, though, is that while the film seemed to critique this extension of rape culture, there were things that disabled the critique. The most troubling of these is the film’s singular use of voiceover, by one of the male characters (Fred), which seems to be taken directly from the book, describing how one of the characters subjects his girlfriend to a gang rape. It’s presented in the same manic, dreamy tone as the rest of the film, which places it on the same level as April staring dazedly out the car window into the California sun.

Thematically, then, the film was affecting, but Coppola’s style—dreamy pacing, close-ups of beautiful people looking forlorn, and a disjointed narrative frozen in one moment in time (which invites unavoidable comparisons with aunt Sofia’s)—refuses growth for the characters. The film’s aesthetic glorifies what it portrays by seeming content to linger forever in the suspended moment of this violence, this detachment, this adolescence. As such, I found it a truly upsetting and unsatisfying film. That isn’t to say that it had a responsibility to do something other than what it did; simply to say that I wasn’t interested in what it chose to do. According to a piece on Gia Coppola in the New York Times, James Franco actively wanted a woman to be the one to adapt Palo Alto because he thought it would “give the largely male-centered stories a more layered approach” (“Unto the Next Generation, Cinematically”). This sums up the film for me: it’s a narrative of sexual violence halfway repaired by the emotional depth Coppola lends it, but ultimately more troubling for the beautiful mask she puts on it.

“A World Without Fathers”: All Our Pretty Songs

A review of All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry

St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry

by REBECCA, March 3, 2013

hook

Beautiful, carefree Aurora lives every moment to the fullest and takes what she wants, whether she’s moshing at concerts, throwing elaborate parties in her mother’s crumbling Seattle mansion, or stalking her latest sexual conquest. Her best friend, our unnamed narrator, has always been content to be the moon to Aurora’s sun. They balance each other and they’re sure that nothing can ever come between them. But this summer they’re going to learn that everything in life has a cost‚ and that sometimes there’s no good choice to make when it comes to protecting the people you love.

review

I want to spend a second on the plot of All Our Pretty Songs, because I think the Goodreads blurb misrepresents it. And, although I’ll say more about it than I usually would, I don’t think it spoils anything—in fact, if I’d had a better idea of what the book was actually about, I would never have waited so long to read it!

Aurora is the daughter of a Kurt Cobain-esque figure who made it big and then died when she was a kid. Her mother, Maia, haunts the halls of their huge, crumbling house like a wraith, strung-out, leaving Aurora to do whatever she wants. Aurora and our unnamed narrator are a tight duo: they go to shows and parties together, hang out on the beach, and tell each other everything.

This summer, though, at one of Aurora’s parties, a beautiful musician named Jack shows up, and his music is irresistible and otherworldly. The narrator and Jack begin a romance, which surprises and delights her because people are always attracted to Aurora rather than her. But, as the narrator spends more time with Jack, Aurora drifts deeper into the world drugs and powerful industry people that her parents couldn’t escape. A world that will seduce Jack, too, though for very different reasons. In the end, the narrator has to go on a quest—but she isn’t sure if it’s a quest to find Aurora, or to find herself.

All Our Pretty Songs is a stunning debut by Sarah McCarry, with prose by turns lush and biting. It’s set in a realist Seattle, but, in a Francesca Lia Blockish kind of way, the city itself becomes a magical world in which music, art, clothes, and friendship create altered states that transcend realism. Then, of course, there’s the way that All Our Pretty Songs is an intertext with the Orpheus myth. Yep, as in, there is a Hades and a ferryman and other such familiar figures. I use the term “intertext” instead of “adaptation,” because:

1. An adaptation uses another story as its engine, whereas All Our Pretty Songs simply dips into the world of mythology to animate the stakes of the story, which are not the stakes of the Orpheus myth.

2. A knowledge of the myth in question does not completely give away the entire story (thank you, god, Sarah McCarry for not falling into that shockingly common trap!).

3. I hate adaptations and I love this book; so there.

Dirty Wings Sarah McCarry All Our Pretty Songs is, at heart, a story about intimacy: how it empowers us, but also makes us susceptible to grief; how it reveals truths about us, but can also distract us from discovering those truths about ourselves; and how, finally, it is a force far beyond our control. The narrator’s and Aurora’s intimacy is one of sisters, and it echoes the intimacy their mothers had before the aftermath of Aurora’s dad’s death divided them (their story is the subject of the second book in the series, Dirty Wings). The narrator’s intimacy with Jack is a revelation to her, since she’s never thought of herself as beautiful or lovable. And, as the story progresses, the narrator feels a greater intimacy with her mother as she finds herself replicating some of her mother’s struggles.

As I mentioned, I hate adaptations. I nearly never come away from them convinced that the adaptation was anything other than an uninteresting and unnecessary cheat in which the author took a narrative blueprint and danced all over it, either to lend legitimacy to their work or to avoid having to think up a narrative arc on their own. But All Our Pretty Songs completely earned its intertextuality with Greek mythology because it managed to cut to the heart of their power. The Seattle that the narrator, Aurora, their parents, and Jack live in is one in which music and art is a calling; an avocation. For them, it is worth sacrificing for—indeed, much of what they do already feels like they making sacrifices to it. Sex and drugs are just two of the ways they can both sacrifice and escape. It feels absolutely right, then, that music and drugs would narratively open up the visible world to the invisible just as they do figuratively.

It’s interesting to look at ratings of All Our Pretty Songs on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever because it’s one of the most equal distributions of opinions I’ve seen. I’m always intrigued by books where it’s split between half the people loving it and half hating it; that’s usually just an indicator of taste. All Our Pretty Songs is clearly a book that readers are ambivalent about, though. In some ways, I think it’s a very atypical young adult book, which might account for the spread: the audience it’s marketed toward isn’t expecting its slow dreaminess, or its focus on prose, or its meandering quality. And, to come full circle, I think the blurb (and the cover, which I think is a real mis-fit) sets readers up for a coming-of-age love triangle set in the Seattle music scene. And that’s definitely not what we get.

I’m incredibly excited by this debut and I can’t wait to read the second book. Are there places that feel a bit repetitive here or drag a little? Sure. But the prose is so lovely and the voice of the narrator so true that I was always compelled to read, sentence-to-sentence. If it’s not to your taste, you’ll know it in ten pages because, yes, that’s how the whole book is. But, if it is . . .

readalikes

War For The Oaks Emma Bull

War For the Oaks, by Emma Bull (1987).

Eddi McCandry just broke up with her boyfriend and her band in one night, and now she’s being chased by a dude who can turn into a dog. How much worse can things get?! Well, she could be a mortal caught in an epic, age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of the fey . . . and the dude who can turn into a dog could be forbidden to leave her side. Ever. But Eddi is a rocker and a badass, so she does what anyone would do in her position: she starts a new band—a band so good that maybe music isn’t all they’re making. My full review is HERE.

Violet & Claire Francesca Lia Block Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Ecstasia Francesca Lia Block Primavera Francesca Lia Block

Violet & Claire (1999), Weetzie Bat (1989), Ecstasia (1993), Primavera (1994), by Francesca Lia Block. Violet and Claire are a duo similar to the narrator and Aurora. All Our Pretty Songs is to Seattle what Weetzie Bat is to L.A. Ecstasia and Primavera have a Bachanalian/dystopian take on music’s power to create and destroy.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth, Hannah Moskowitz (2013). The line between realism and myth is blurred in Teeth, and the prose is beautiful. Check out my full review HERE, and my post on the genre of the Oceanic Gothic, of which I’m convinced Teeth is a part, HERE.

procured from: the library

All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry

Summer Reading Road Trip: Playing Tyler

Summer Reading Road Trip 2013Ahoy, summer readers! The folks at SparkPoint Studio are running a Summer Reading Road Trip. Each book on the list is set in a different city and state, so you can read your way across the country without gas-guzzling your way to a massive carbon footprint. Join in, and read your way from Massachusetts to Montana!

Today’s stop: New Haven, Connecticut for a Little Brother meets Ender’s Game adventure: Playing Tyler.

A Review of Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa

Strange Chemistry, 2013

Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa

By REBECCA, June 3, 2013

hook

Tyler’s dad is dead, his mom’s never around, his brother’s an addict, and his ADHD makes it hard for him to concentrate on anything but gaming. Ani designed a popular video game, was an internationally-ranked gamer, and started at Yale all by the time she turned sixteen, but she still feels like a kid. Someone wants Tyler and Ani for their skills, but what will they do when they realize they’re implicated in something that will have far greater fallout than a video game?

worldview

Ender's Game by Orson Scott CardTyler MacCandless just wants to fly. Maybe he can’t concentrate on anything at school, but in the flight simulation games, he’s a genius. After his dad’s death and his brother’s turn to drugs, Tyler’s mom can’t cope, so she buries herself in work. The only one Tyler can count on is Rick, who he’s known for years through a mentoring program. Rick sees Tyler’s potential and says that if he performs well while beta testing a new flight simulation training game then he’ll make sure he gets into flight school. Tyler is shocked when the new sim’s designer shows up at his house to set up the sim and it’s Slayergrrl (Ani), the creator of his favorite game, World of Fire!

At first the new sim seems boring—Tyler is just flying drones over miles and miles of road. But then, little by little, Tyler starts to think there’s more to the sim than just showing off his flying skills. Is it possible that the “sim” is actually linked to real drones in the Middle East? And why has Rick insisted that Ani can’t have any contact with Tyler? But Tyler and Ani can’t stay apart and as their relationship heats up, so do things in the sim. And soon they’ll have to confront Rick and put their lives on the line for their freedom.

Little Brother by Cory DoctorowT.L. Costa’s debut is a compelling read and, while the premise itself isn’t new, this is a comparatively realistic, circumspect take on the when-is-a-game-not-a-game phenomenon. It’s told in chapters that alternate between Tyler and Ani’s points of view, and Tyler’s voice is great. His ADHD causes him to think in short, declarative sentences and sometimes omits first person pronouns, kind of like Rorschach in Watchmen. Tyler’s a well-drawn character—his worry for his mother and brother, his difficulty expressing himself, and his love and awe of Ani make him sympathetic and likable. But he’s also naive, and his struggle between his general patriotism and the specifics of what he learns is happening in the sim provide enough contrast so that he doesn’t just seem like a stereotypical hero-caught-up-in-forces-beyond-his-control. He is also occasionally quite amusing. On his first date with Ani he realizes that he’s not as good at paying compliments as might have hoped:

“Her face looks like I stung her. Shit. My face heats up, burns. So many books. Can’t one just like fall on my head and put me out of my misery? Please?”

Ani’s voice is less compelling, less particular, but it’s really awesome to see a supersmart gamer and computer programmer whose character isn’t undercut by the author’s compulsion to frame her as either hypersexualized or terrifyingly sociopathic. Ani is just a sixteen-year-old with a talent for programming got involved in something shady, and she and Tyler balance each other well.

As for the plot, as I said, it’s not new, but Costa makes a good choice, I think, in making this a small-beans plot as opposed to a mega-conspiracy or an intergalactic fight to the death. The storyline of Tyler’s brother’s heroin addiction and Ani’s relationships (or lack thereof) with her roommate and the other Yalies turn what could be a dry, by-the-book execution of an interesting plot into a very enjoyable drama with some intrigue, some romance, and some well-done family drama. This is an understated book, but it doesn’t strike a false note. I’m looking forward to seeing what Costa writes next.

procured from: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa is available now.

Fat Kid Rules the World!

A Review of Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going

Putnam Juvenile, 2003

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. Going

by REBECCA, April 15, 2013

characters

Troy: this secret punk fan is paralyzingly self-conscious about being the Fat Kid

Curt: anything but self-conscious, he is an infamous, often-homeless and always-hungry punk rock dropout

Mr. Billings: Troy’s ex-military father who is by turns disapproving and supportive of Troy and Curt

Dayle: Troy’s fit, jockish little bro who seems like an asshole but might just need a little TLC

hook

Curt MacCrae startles Troy out of throwing himself in front of a subway train and demands that he is owed lunch in exchange . . . and that’s just the beginning. Soon, Troy finds himself one half of the punk band Rage/Tectonic, even though he can’t play the drums and hates anyone looking at him. Can Troy overcome his self-consciousness to embrace the musician inside? And can he save Curt from his own demons in the process?

worldview

As I began reading Fat Kid Rules the World, I kept thinking, “gosh, you know, this book is kind of reminding me of King of the Screwups for no apparent reason,” forgetting completely that the wonderful K.L. Going also wrote King of the Screwups. I mention this because Fat Kid Rules the World affected me similarly to King of the Screwups: I found myself really moved by the voice and consistently surprised by the incredible nuggets of wisdom that characters managed to smuggle in under the pretense of casual observation. Fat Kid Rules the World is Going’s first novel, and it’s the novelistic equivalent to what my friend, A—, refers to as “the perfect 90-minute movie”: it’s 183 taut, beautiful, disciplined pages in which every new scene adds layers to the characters and every bit of dialogue further fleshes them out.

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. GoingSeventeen-year-old Troy is 296 pounds and 6’1”, as he tells us in the second sentence of the novel, just before he tells us that he’s “trying to decide whether people would laugh if [he] jumped” in front of a subway train (1). “I’m not being facetious; I really want to know. Like it or not, apparently there’s something funny about fat people. Something unpredictable. Like when I put my jacket on and everyone in the hallway stifles laughter. . . . I don’t get angry. I just think, What was funny about that? . . . There’s got to be something, right? Right?” (1). Troy’s entire sense of himself is as The Fat Kid, so when the skinny kid on the floor of the subway distracts him long enough to prevent him from taking that “fateful step forward,” he’s shocked that anyone is even speaking to him. And thus, a friendship between Troy and emaciated, smelly, mismatched Curt is born.

Fat Kid Rules the World is set in early 2000s New York City and the descriptions of filthy subways, busted diners, and punk dive bars are the perfect backdrop to Troy and Curt’s adventures. Curt is a force of nature and he has set his sights on Troy. Troy finds himself doing things he’d never have imagined, but he can’t understand why Curt would want to spend time with him because he still can’t quite see himself as anything other than The Fat Kid. Slowly, as he meets some of Curt’s friends—like Ollie, who gives him drum lessons—and finds joy in drumming, Troy begins to imagine that there might be more to him than his weight. And it’s this realization that struck me the hardest.

There has been a lot of necessary discussion here and on other YA book blogs about the depictions of fat people in YA novels—see, in particular, Kelly’s excellent post, “Weight, Body Image & Body Portrayal in YA Books” over at Stacked. One thing that keeps coming up in these discussions is our dissatisfaction with authors who write fat characters as possessing no character traits except fatness; characters who have no particularity—as if they’re constructed from the outside-in, from the views of those who gaze upon them. In Fat Kid Rules the World, Going manages both to capture the incredibly damaging self-consciousness that comes from Troy hating his fat body for what he considers its limitations and the attention it garners and also to show the way that Troy can leverage his joys and talents against the messages that society gives us about weight, which he has internalized. And, most importantly, this isn’t the story of a character who finds himself by losing weight; it’s the story of a character who finds himself by losing himself in music.

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

DIY punkAt the heart of Fat Kid Rules the World is Going’s rather sophisticated thesis that the punk scene’s DIY ethos is the antidote to Troy’s sense that he is worthless by the standards of mainstream culture into which he has been indoctrinated. Because he’s fat, Troy dresses in the plainest clothes possible, to avoid drawing attention to himself; he has nothing up on his walls, as if he’s created a prison to punish himself; he keeps his love for a local punk band secret because he believes it’s at odds with being The Fat Kid. In short, Troy has stripped himself of any distinguishing features in an attempt to disappear:

“‘You have got to . . . I mean, really you should do something about this room,’ [Curt] says. ‘You’ve got nothing up here. No Big T trinkage or any such sort of thing. Where are the band posters? Where’s the graffiti?’ He frowns disapprovingly, then turns his gaze to me. ‘And you must spice up those clothes, man. Not for the sake of spiciness, per se, but simply because they’re not you. There’s no Big T in your big Ts.’

He’s cracked himself up and I stop long enough to stare at what I’m wearing. Bland tan pants. A T-shirt that reads DOG DAYS OF SUMMER.

‘There’s not much in my size—’ I start, but Curt interrupts.

‘Screw that,’ he says. ‘ You make your size. You make your walls. It’s not about what’s out there.’

Then what’s it about? I almost ask.” (50)

What it’s about, is Troy learning that just because he’s fat it doesn’t mean that he can’t claim the things he loves: “I am a participant. With one gesture I’ve moved from the world of imagination to the world of funky sweat stench and ear-ringing volume” (94). What it’s about, by the end, is Troy learning that he can turn his unique, and sometimes shitty, experiences into art. (I won’t ruin them for you, but chapters 70 and 71 are exquisite.) Troy doesn’t come to love his body, but he comes a little bit closer to accepting it as a part of him instead of renouncing it; he doesn’t get a major record deal and become a rock star, but he finds joy in self-expression; he doesn’t change the world for everyone, but he changes things for his brother and for Curt. If King of the Screwups hadn’t convinced me that I should make K.L. Going a must-read, Fat Kid Rules the World definitely has.

Fat Kid Rules the World movie Matthew LillardhackersMatthew Lillard (who also performed the audiobook of Fat Kid Rules the World) recently directed a film version, which I watched immediately after finishing the novel, and which I really disliked, unfortunately. It takes Going’s gritty, reflective story and translates it into a slick, toothless forming-a-band story that only gestures at the hard edges of the book. But I’ll give Lillard a pass because I love him so much as Cereal Killer in Hackers.

readalikes

Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues  his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.

King of the Screwups K.L. Going

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). Liam has made it, as far as high school life goes: he’s handsome, stylish, popular, good at sports, and fun. But everything he does disappoints and infuriates his businessman father. Finally, his father kicks him out of the house and Liam goes to live with his uncle, Pete. In a new school, Liam decides that maybe he can reinvent himself into someone his father could respect . . . and maybe even love? Adore this book!—check out my complete review HERE.

Sister Mischief Laura Goode

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats. Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: the library

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Secrets: Sketchy

A Review of Sketchy (Bea Catcher Chronicles #1) by Olivia Samms

Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2013

Sketchy Olivia Samms

by REBECCA, April 3, 2013

characters

Bea: 3 months sober, and with her sobriety has come the rather disturbing ability to draw what people see

Chris: Bea’s bestie at her new school, he’s sweet and accepts Bea, creepy powers and all

Willa: she was recently raped but won’t pursue charges for fear of having her own secrets exposed

hook

Bea is the oddball new girl in school, an outsider because of her reputation, her style choices, her addiction, and—oh, yeah—her power to draw whatever truths people are thinking. Girls in Ann Arbor are being attacked and the one who survived goes to Bea’s new school. Can Bea use her gift to draw the truth out of Willa? Will anyone believe her even if she can? And why is Bea so hell-bent on solving this case, anyway . . . ?

worldview

Ann ArborOk, so I can’t lie—my primary motivation in reading Sketchy was that it’s set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I grew up! And I’m really glad I did, because it was definitely a fun read. Sketchy finds Bea three months sober and dealing with her newfound gift as she starts Packard High School, a big change from the private, all-girls school she’d attended before rehab.

Since I grew up in A2, I couldn’t help but try and figure out where everything was taking place. It’s mentioned that Bea’s house is on the edge of University of Michigan’s campus, so I thought Packard High must be modelled on Pioneer High School; besides, Pioneer is close to Packard Road. The novel opens, however, with some boys finding Willa’s body when they go to smoke pot at the creek near school, which reminds me so much of Huron River Ratswandering across the street from Huron High School to the river . . . so, you know, I could be wrong. Further suggesting it may be modelled on Huron is that students call Packard High Packrat High, and Huron’s mascot is the River Rat, chosen, for anyone who’s interested, by a landslide write-in vote when Huron first opened. It was a reclamation of the term, originally derogatorily flung at those students who lived near the Huron River but were forced to attend Pioneer High because there wasn’t yet a second high school in town. Or, at least, that’s the story I always heard. I went to Huron, in case you were wondering. (Which is it, Olivia Samms; I need to know!)

Anyhoosier, Sketchy is set in a realist world—except for Bea’s power, of course. For anyone from A2, you’ll recognize landmarks like the Arboretum, North Campus, and frat row. But if you’re not from Ann Arbor, you’ll probably enjoy Sketchy anyway. Olivia Samms manages to get in a bit of the grittiness of addiction while still keeping it realistic in a teenage, college town context. We learn how Bea got into drugs in well-paced flashbacks, and we learn what her connection is to the current spate of girls who are taken, raped, and then killed. Well, killed except for one—Willa, who was left for dead—who crosses Bea’s path at Packard High.

Sketchy Olivia SammsBea is a talented artist (even when she’s not drawing the truth out of people), daughter of two artist parents, and seems like a pretty cool person when she’s sober and not extracting your deepest secrets. She sticks up for Chris when he’s bullied for being gay, and she honestly wants to help catch whoever is hurting people (and is willing to go to great lengths to do so). Sketchy is fast-paced, so we don’t get huge insight into Bea, despite her being our narrator, but I anticipate more of that as the series continues. I don’t mean that she isn’t a fleshed-out character—she is. It’s just that her narrative isn’t really about her; she’s the camera we see through.

The background of Bea’s family was particularly interesting—and it seems pretty clear that it’s something that will come into play more as the series continues. Bea is half black and half Italian, and issues of race come up, if superficially (for example, Bea has always been self-conscious about her hair, the texture of which prompted some of her classmates to call her “Chia Pet” and “Beaver-head” in elementary school). I’m always glad when a character’s race is something that an author attends to intentionally, although the stark terms of Sketchy‘s take on ethnic generalizations made me a tidge uncomfortable at times.

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

As a mystery, as I mentioned, Sketchy doesn’t really do it for me—that is, it’s pretty obvious who the attacker is and the whole thing is wrapped up quickly and tidily. But that was ok with me; I enjoyed the ambiance, and I was more interested in learning about Bea’s art and her family dynamic (and her outfits—girlfriend is a thrift store queen!) than the mystery itself. Further supporting the central mystery not really being the strength of the book is that Bea suffers from a case of the I-can-catch-the-killer-myself-no-problems!, often an unpleasant turn in YA mysteries.

Still, though, even with the mystery angle not really holding up (and some very stiff dialogue—I move that we stop pretending anyone refers to each other by name more than once a day, even if it seems like it’ll help keep the dialogue tags clear), I still enjoyed reading Sketchy and am curious to see who Bea “catches” as the series continues. I’m hoping we learn more about Chris, Bea’s bestie at school, who is self-conscious about being a bit of a scaredy-cat, but has made contact with a promising hottie by the end of the book, and about her father’s relationship with art. All in all, despite surface-level resemblances to other YA mysteries where the protag is aided by a special power, Sketchy felt like its own take, and it had just enough grit to keep things interesting.

readalikes

Beautiful Lies Jessica Warman

Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman (2012). This is a great YA mystery, and similarly atmospheric. “When one twin mysteriously disappears, the other immediately knows something is wrong—especially when she starts experiencing serious physical traumas, despite the fact that nobody has touched her. As the search commences to find her sister, the twin left behind must rely on their intense bond to uncover the truth” (from Goodreads). My full review is HERE.

Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMann Fade Dream Catcher Lisa McMann Gone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher trilogy by Lisa McMann (Wake, 2008; Fade, 2009; Gone, 2010). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review (thanks!). Sketchy, by Olivia Samms will be available on April 30th.

Whatever, punk rock: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada Imogen Binnie

Nevada

Imogen Binnie

Topside Press, 2013

review by Tessa, with comments from Rebecca

characters

in NYC

Maria Griffiths- still wants to write the ultimate zine that explains what it means to be a trans woman, but hasn’t yet. feels a little trapped in her union job at a bookstore. feels a little trapped in her head.

Steph – Maria’s increasingly distanced girlfriend

Kieran – a fellow bookstore worker and catalyst for life changes in Maria and Steph’s relationship

Piranha – an agoraphobic, pill-savvy and wise friend to Maria.

in Nevada

James – a boy stuck in the worst city ever and maybe stuck in a male body

Nicole – thinking her way out of Star City’s claustrophobic social norms, and an increasingly frustrated girlfriend to James

hook

Maria Griffiths is a little tired of everything—her job, her girlfriend, thinking about being trans. She is starting to think that her new life philosophy should be about irresponsibility.

nevada2

worldview

The first time the reader meets Maria, she’s being unsatisfactorily choked during sex by her girlfriend. Then she fakes an orgasm. To say she has intimacy issues would be an understatement. It’s like Maria wants to find intimacy but someone gave her a map that omitted it entirely, so how is she ever going to find it without some serious luck?

It’s not like Maria hasn’t done relatively well for herself. She’s union at her job, she’s really good at riding her bike, and she successfully figured out that she was transgender and transitioned. But life isn’t a series of radio boxes ready to be clicked, leading to fulfillment, and something’s missing for Maria.  She doesn’t know if she wants to be saying something to a wider audience or be left alone to make bad decisions.

Luckily or unluckily, her distance from her girlfriend Steph leads Steph to tell a little lie about cheating, which makes Maria start thinking about where her life is, and where her life used to be when she was growing up in small town Pennsylvania, getting high on heroin and passing out in crash-pad houses – knowing there was more out there — “There was a Borders and hour away and sometimes somebody would manage to get a zine onto their magazine rack, so she knew that there was more going on than classic rock radio and getting fucked up.” (27) – but not being able to escape yet.  She’s not making those bad decisions now, but she’s really not making any decisions—until some bad things naturally start happening, because the scale of Maria’s life tips just over into uncertainty, and she embraces it.

did this book achieve its intentions?

Have you ever, like me, wished you could have a real-time transcription of your thoughts?  Imogen Binnie’s narrative style is as close to that as I’ve found, except it’s not in first person. It’s like Binnie read Maria’s thoughts and wrote a journal of Maria in third person, and I find it is a very fun and effective way to get to know Maria.

Here is Maria thinking about what she wishes people knew about trans women

(and please note all quotes are from the ARC and could be changed when the final copy comes out NEXT WEEK woot!):

“It’s worth pointing out that trans women in real life are different from trans women on television. For one thing, when you take away the mystification, misconceptions and mystery, they’re at least as boring as everybody else. Oh, neurosis! Oh, trauma! Oh, look at me, my past messed me up and I’m still working through it! Despite the impression you might get from daytime talk shows and dumb movies, there isn’t anything particularly interesting there—although, of course, Maria may be biased.

She wishes other people could understand that without her having to tell them. It’s always impossible to know what anyone’s assumptions are. People tend to assume that trans women are either drag queens and loads of trashy fun, or else sad, pathetic and deluded pervy straight men- at least, until they save up they money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point we become just like every other woman? Or something. But Maria is like, Dude, hi. Nobody ever reads me as trans any more. Old straight men hit on me when I’m at work and in all these years of transitioning I haven’t even been able to save up for a decent pair of boots.

This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in Manhattan.” (10-11.)

This quote showcases Binnie’s lovely (not kidding) use of colloquialisms like “Dude” and her slipping in and out of “I” to “she”, and it showcases the way that being trans isn’t what the book is about. To me, that’s the hallmark of a good read – Nevada is a portrait of Maria at a crux in her life. Maria is trans and it informs the past and current course of her life, and she thinks about it a lot, so it’s not like it’s not in there. It’s just that the “issue” is in service of the character and not the other way around. So it’s not an “issue”, it’s a part of a person, just as cancer functioned in The Fault in Our Stars and class functioned in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and being a lesbian was part of Starting From Here, and how the encroachment of meth failed to function in A Plague Year.

Imogen Binnie

Imogen Binnie, photographed by Julie Blair/Topside Press

One of Rebecca’s favorite things about Nevada, and I’m inclined to agree, is how Binnie “evokes a really particular (and very self-conscious) demographic (microdemographic?). these are characters who are really familiar to me but I’ve really never read about them in another book. And I’m so glad there is now a book about them.”

One of the ways that I see this happening is how engaged Maria and the other characters are in literature, theory, and philosophy. They think about it so much it becomes part of their in jokes, as in this part of Kieran and Maria’s friendship:

“Kieran heard that Maria liked Kathy Acker so he started doing shitty Kathy Acker impressions at her and normally she responds with shitty impressions of James Joyce, who Kieran is really into. She’s supposed to say, Yes I say Maybe Whatever Yes Sure Fine Yes Whatever Sure, but right now it’s not like she even wants to talk to him. It’s stupid, anyway-he is supposed to be this End of Gender gender tough genderqueer radical, but was James Joyce working to undermine patriarchy. Kieran will talk about all the reasons that yes, Joyce was working to undermine patriarchy, but the actual answer was no, James Joyce was a patriarchal fuck and dead white man worship is a function of patriarchy. But fuck that conversation right now.” (31).

Much of Nevada is in Maria’s head. There are glimpses of other narrative voices, but hers is the main one.  (Binnie’s style also makes it a little more work than ussual to differentiate the nuance in each voice as well, which may be a drawback to some, but I enjoyed it so much I noted it and moved on). Reading Maria’s paragraph-long musings is bracing, funny, and hypnotic. At times in the book it’s like she and I were simultaneously looking up from her thoughts to realize that there was an entire world out there, with fresh air and ways to forget her obsessions, even though her obsessions are an interesting space in which to spend time.

nyc bookstore cart - by flickr user markhurst

nyc bookstore cart – by flickr user markhurst

Rebecca notes, sagely, regarding characterization, that “Binnie is ruthless in regard to her characters, which I love. We’ll read about maria’s thoughts about how she thinks Steph is oblivious of something and then twenty pages later, Binnie will show us a glimpse of Steph and it’s clear that Steph is actually totally aware. No character is safe from Binnie’s narrative’s edge and it’s a joy to see how incisively she understands her characters’ perspectives, and also how totally capable she is of seeing their weaknesses.”

Although Nevada is a novel about adults worrying about adult things, like possibly being fired and how they’re going to pay rent if they break up with someone they’ve been in a relationship for four years with, and how that also will affect their personality, it also contains themes that run through many YA novels. In some ways, Maria feels like she never had her adolescence because she was trying so hard to protect herself by suppressing herself, so her journey in Nevada is the journey of trying to make herself open up to adolescent experiences.

The plot is divided up into two parts—her crumbling but triumphant escape from New York City and a snapshot of her travels, presumably cross country travels.  It’s in this second part that Binnie shows Maria as she’s seen by another person—a probably transgender Wal-Mart clerk named James.

Through her interactions with James, Maria tries out the guise of mentor and the task of audibly explaining her experiences to an outsider to her world. And while the ending thankfully shies away from identity-road-trip conventions, it doesn’t eschew the connection that both Maria and James are looking for. I was left with the feeling that both of their lives were opening up a little more, that they were accepting other potentialities for their life, even if getting there would be uncomfortable or painful. I’d be happy to go along with them and find out what happens, but unfortunately, the book ends.

readalikes

I’m pulling these from books I’ve read, but please check out the great lists that are available on Goodreads on the subject of trans memoirs and fiction!

girl_original

Girl by Blake Nelson – for the evocation of a strong character through voice (and: girl in a state of life transition).

hard-love1

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger – While Wittlinger has other books specifically with trans characters, Hard Love’s theme of figuring out how to separate linked feelings is apropos for many of the relationships in Nevada.

a-e-4ever-Ilike-Merey

a + e 4ever by ilike merey – intimacy issues + exploring sexuality and gender performance + close friendship + the intensity of being a teenager = a messy, real graphic novel

Girls-Visions-and-Everything

Girls, Visions, and Everything by Sarah Schulman – Lila spends a summer purposefully wandering without purpose around New York, bearing witness to the way she and her friends live before it becomes unaffordable, getting into adventures and finding ways of loving people.

And Imogen Binnie has a blog, which can also be read.

I received this book from Topside Press with no expectations or remuneration on either side

If a Skippy Dies in a Doughnut House, does he make ripples in the multiverse?

Ohskippydies

review by Tessa

Skippy Dies
Paul Murray
Faber & Faber 2010

Warning: this review contains so many quotes. Here’s the first one as an epigraph.:

“You know, you spend your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking you about your career plans and your long-term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg — that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentists, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’.” (25)

Characters

Students
Daniel “Skippy” Juster – Sure, he dies, but there’s so much more to him.
Ruprecht “Blowjob” Van Doren – Skippy’s roommate and string theory obsessor.
Lori Wakeham (Frisbee Girl, Lollipop Lips) – trying to figure out what she wants in life and how to get it while also being the object of two boys’ fantasies.
Carl Cullen – I believe if you saw Carl he would have what is known as a flat affect – also cut up arms, a serious obsession with Lori Wakeham, and not enough EQ to know what to do with that obsession even if it were returned.
Geoff, Mario, Niall & Dennis – the main core of Skippy’s friends.

Teachers
Howard “the Coward” Fallon – haunted by his past, and sort of stuck there, too – he’s teaching history at the school he attended
Farley – friend of Howard, a sometime instigator and sometime voice of reason
Aurelie McIntyre- businesswoman turned substitute geography teacher, incidentally she’s pretty good-looking, just kidding, that’s not really incidental
Greg “the Automator” Costigan – really wants to bring the modern money into the school, and really wants the school’s current Director to quietly die and let him take over.
Father Green (Pére Vert) – archetypal scary priest

Pagan Influence
The White Goddess – something different to everyone, but relevant to all.

Hook

If a Skippy dies in Ed’s Doughnut House, does he make a sound (in the sense of being remembered by his friends, family and loved ones)?

an irish door from flickr user infomatique - it's in the town of Black Rock.

an irish door from flickr user infomatique – it’s in the town of Black Rock.

Worldview

Farley says:

“‘This is Biology. These kids are fourteen. Biology courses through their veins. Biology and marketing. …They want to hear it from an adult. …They want to hear it confirmed officially that for all our talk, the adult world and their subterranean sex-obsessed porno-world are basically the same, and no matter what else we try to teach them about kings or molecules or trade models or whatever, civilization ultimately boils down to the same frenzied attempt to hump people. That the world, in short, is teenaged.’” (63).

I say: This in-depth look at the lead-up to and fallout from the titular event, centered around an Irish Catholic school is concerned with how the world is for teenagers, and how it looks to adults working with teenagers, and how it is the same and different for both sets of people. And the nature of time and memory and how that makes history, and if human lives are unimportant or important within that gigantic concept.

by flickr user Cindy Funk

by flickr user Cindy Funk

What is this book’s intention? Is it achieved?

I’m going to answer the second question first: yes.

And as for intention, it’s better rendered in questions. So, Skippy dies. Why does he die? Is there a reason? How does it make his friends feel? How is it seen by the adults who came into contact with him? How did he see it?  Etc. The book serves to explore these questions and more (see previous paragraph).

I don’t really want to describe the mechanics of the plot because they will sound falsely mundane.

On the flap copy, I’m guessing much to the author’s chagrin, Skippy Dies is compared to Harry Potter AND Infinite Jest. That’s a bit much for any book, but I will say that it does have similarities to the latter. There are many characters in the book, and the book discovers their quirks as a friends discover the weird parts of each other’s personalities, which is to say it lets them emerge over time. They are described because they exist but they’re not presented to the reader on a Platter of Quirk. I felt the same way about Infinite Jest, except Infinite Jest had a much bigger scope and often was hyperreal.

What Paul Murray does so, so well, so amazingly well, with the narrative is accordion it in and out so that somehow it is simultaneously big (Irish mythology and folklore, string theory) and small (jokes about lucky condoms, usage of zombie voices) while also making loud pleasing sounds and not making the reader dizzy. And much like an accordion it has structures inside of it that make everything work and hold everything together (in my metaphor these are the big themes of the book: death, depression, history, the point of life).

Here’s a great example of the first thing. Ruprecht is talking to Skippy at the Halloween dance. He’s talking as usual about scientific theories, relating to the world through them – and Murray describes the scene in deadpan, hilarious detail. Small moments.

“‘Fascinating,’ Ruprecht muses to Skippy. ‘The whole thing seems to work on a similar principle to a supercollider. You know, two streams of opposingly charged particles accelerated till they’re just under the speed of light, and then crashed into each other? Only here alcohol, accentuated secondary sexual characteristics and primitive ‘rock and roll’ beats take the place of velocity.’

“Skippy has gone to replenish his punch. Ruprecht sighs quietly, and looks at his watch.

“Patrick ‘Da Knowledge’ Noonan and Eoin ‘MC Sexecutioner’ Flynn pimp-roll by, plastic Uzis tucked under their arms, the faint frisson of tension still detectable between them, the aftermath of a heated debate earlier today over who was going to come as Tupac, which debate Patrick won, meaning Eoin is now waddling along in a fat suit, dressed as Biggie Smalls. The squalling riff from Cream’s ‘Layla’ blasts from the speaker; in the DJ booth, Wallace Willis nods to himself: oh yes. ‘Flubber’ Cooke, who has come in his supermarket shelf-stacking uniform, explains to a sexy nun that while it’s part of his costume, the trolley is actually company property, so although he’d like to let her ride in it, he can’t.” (171-172).

by flickr user mryantaylor

by flickr user mryantaylor

Meanwhile, he opens many sections with spot-on descriptions of what it’s like to exist in Autumn. The descent. The universal Autumnal experience (I realize this is not universal to people who live nearer to the equator, sorry). Big things.

“Autumn deepens. A fresh chaos of yellow leaves covers the lane up to the school each morning, as if it’s been visited overnight by woodland poltergeists; after school, you make the return journey through a strange, season-specific gloaming, a pale darkness, spooked and paradoxical, which makes your classmates up ahead seem to fade in and out of existence. The hobgoblin shadow of Hallowe-en, meanwhile, is everywhere. The shopping malls bristle with pumpkins and skeletons; houses lie swathed in cotton-wool cobwebs; the sky cracks and fizzes with firework-tests of increasing rigour. Even teachers fall under the spell. Classes take odd detours, routines slowly vaporize, until by the late stages of the week, the rigid precepts of everyday termtime seem no more real, or even slightly less real, than the fluorescent ghosts glowing from the windows of Ed’s Doughnuts next door…” (157)

Turnip Jack O'Lantern from wikimedia, Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

Turnip Jack O’Lantern from wikimedia, Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

And sometimes big and small are in the same passage, as here, when the friends are giving Skippy advice on what to put in his text message to Lori:

“‘How about, instead of “if you want to meet up again”, you say “if you want me to sex you hard”,’ Mario says.

“It’s the end of the school day; they are walking down the laneway to the Doughnut House. In the dusk the world appears pale and exhausted, like a vampire’s been drinking from its veins: the thin pink filament of the just-come-on doughnut sign, the white streetlights like dowdy cotton bolls against the grey clouds, the soft hand-like leaves of the trees with the colours leeched away to match the asphalt.

“‘What have you got so far?’ Geoff asks.

“Skippy presses a button. ‘“Hi,”’ he says.

“‘It’s the only thing everyone agrees on.’

“Geoff frowns. ‘Actually, I’m not all that crazy about “Hi”.’” (264).

In an equally structured but subtle way, themes of the book recur as thoughts from different characters, framed in different ways, so as to fully exploit their themeyness.  Theme-itude.  One of the big themes is history and memory, because how are we humans to achieve immortality if not by being remembered, however inevitably inaccurate memory is.

Which is what Howard Fallon is trying to get at when he takes his history class on an unsanctioned field trip to a neglected monument for the Irish fallen of WWI:

“‘We tend to think of it as something solid and unchanging, appearing out of nowhere etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. But history, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.’” (556)

And what the Automator is also getting at, from a different perspective, when he chews Fallon out for doing this:

“‘Maybe you’re right,’ the Automator continues, ‘maybe the [school]book does leave a chunk of stuff out. And maybe in the future someone will dig it up, and make a TV documentary, and there’ll be exhibitions and pull-out newspaper supplements and people all over the country will be talking about it. But when they’re finished talking, Howard, then they’ll go back to their kitchens or their golfing holidays or whatever they were doing before. The “truth” as you put it, won’t change a goddamn thing.” (564)

Irish Recruiting Poster from Wikimedia Commons

Irish Recruiting Poster from Wikimedia Commons

And what the developer is trying to get out of agreeing to when he has to explain on TV why he still wants to put up condos over an ancient archaeological finding near Fallon’s house:

“‘So you’re saying it should be bulldozed,’ the reporter says.

“‘I’m saying we need to ask ourselves where our priorities lie. Because what we are trying to build here isn’t just a Science Park. It’s the economic future of our country. It’s jobs and security for our children and our children’s children. Do we really want to put a ruin from three thousand years ago ahead of your children’s future?’

“‘And what about those who say that this “ruin” gives us a unique insight into the origins of our culture?’

“‘Well, let me turn that question around. If the position was reversed, do you think the people of three thousand years ago would have stopped building their fortress so they could preserve the ruin of our Science Park? Of course not. They wanted to move forward. The whole reason we have the civilization we have today — the only reason you and I are standing here — is that people kept moving forward instead of looking backward. Everybody in the past wanted  to be a part of the future.” (574)

And the value of memory in history is what Fallon is trying to call upon as he inexpertly lends the depressed Ruprecht an ear and some advice:

“‘The book [a history of his dead son’s regiment in WWI] took [Kipling] five and a half years to complete. He found it extremely difficult. But afterwards he said it was his greatest work. He’d had a chance to commemorate the bravery of these men, and to keep the memory of his son alive. A man called Brodsky once said, “If there is any substitute for love, it is memory.” Kipling couldn’t bring John back. But he could remember him. And in that way his son lived on.’

“This parable doesn’t produce quite the effect he intended; in fact, he is not sure that Ruprecht, tracing Sprite-spirals on the table with a straw, is even listening. The youth behind the counter looks at his watch and begins to dismantle the coffee machine; an electric fan whirrs, like the smooth sound of time passing inexorably from underneath them. And the, not looking up, Ruprecht mumbles, ‘What if you can’t remember?’” (582)

All in only 20ish pages, tying together plot threads and characters with the poignant string of a well-wrought theme.  Don’t read my stupid metaphors. Read this book.

Readalikes:

If the awkwardness and reality of Freaks and Geeks met the bravado and partying of Skins (UK).

freaksandgeeks    +    skins

If the boarding school scenes in Infinite Jest met the faculty life of Lucky Jim

 infinitejest   +    luckyjim

Then you’d have Skippy Dies.

Oh and in case you’re interested in other books set in the closed school environment aka boarding school, we have 2 lists for you:

1. Boarding School Books

2. Boarding School Books Redux

Links of interest:

Neil Jordan is going to direct the movie adaptation?? I’m interested.

An interview with the author at Bookslut.

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

characters

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

hook

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.

worldview

John Orozco

gymnastics!

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?

readalikes

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

The principal supporting business now is rage*: A Plague Year

A Plague Year
Edward Bloor
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

Characters
Good Guys
Tom Coleman, a likeable square
Bobby Smalls, fighter against ableism
Arthur Stokes, Tom’s cousin
Wendy Lyle, daughter of a drug counselor

Bad Guys
Reg the Veg, man of many unredeeming qualities
Dorfman, football meathead par excellence
Mr. Lyle, super snob & hypocrite
METH

Hook
There’s a plague coming that you should be ready for. It will turn your town into a zombie-infested war zone.  But it’s not a virus. It’s meth.

Worldview
Popular literature has been said to reflect the fears of real life.  Edward Bloor makes an explicit connection between the zombie-lit craze and the epidemic of Meth use across the United States in his newest work of realistic fiction.

meth kind of does this to you. photo by Heather Buckley on flickr.

There’s nothing scarier than real life for Tom Coleman.  He lives in a small central Pennsylvania town and works at the Food Giant that his father manages (off the clock, natch, but his “wages” go into a college fund).  Then, over the course of a year, meth reaches the citizens of the town.  Robberies go up.  People get more short-tempered and stressed out. There are homeless, dead-eyed, shuffling corpses everywhere Tom looks.  They used to be his friends and neighbors.

Tom and the rest of his drug counseling group decide to take on the plague any way they can.

What is this book’s intention and is it achieved?
The only thing saving this book from being a one-dimensional afterschool special of a book is that Edward Bloor does realistic dread very well, and although his characters spout didactic dialogue they are, in other ways, realistic.

I was pretty square growing up.  I had a friend who took me to parties in high school and I refused to drink (or smoke, of course).  I had an intense period of religiousity in late elementary school and middle school–oddly enough, during the times that I was most into Metallica.  So maybe that makes it easier for me to believe in characters who are teenagers that voluntarily work for their parents after school, go to drug counseling groups to support their sisters, or generally try to be of service to their community.  But I also see teens like this in real life and in news stories, so that’s not so big of a stretch.

What makes reading this a bit of a cringer are the thematic parallels that get hammered home between the Black Plague in Europe and the meth plague of today.  Tom’s English teacher, Mr. Proctor (get it?) is doing a whole unit on this and it’s reflected in the conversations that go on between the kids in the counseling group.  I do like the fact that the group allows the story to open up honest conversation in the narrative, but the whole English class parallel ultimately hurts the story, pushing it farther into we get it already territory.  Meth isn’t a super-new problem, and I think the story would have gotten its scariness across to the reader without comparing it to the Black Plague.

blackened is the end / winter it will send / throwing all you see / into obscurity - james hetfield.

Without that subplot we have a book about a real problem, with all of its attendant societal ripples.  There’s a pervading sense of doom in Tom’s town, related very well through his journal — which is not actually a real-time journal, but a reconstructed journal.  (For the record, I like this conceit, because it allows immediacy without an overuse of too-casual language.)

The feelings ring true.  Tom is nervous because he loves his cousin but his cousin’s family are sketchy.  He doesn’t know how to defend his co-worker from mean-spirited pranks that take advantage of the co-worker’s Down Syndrome, or process the stress he feels coming from his parents about a lack of family finances.  He has a minor rebellion and a very realistic crush that involves a small but humiliating scene at a party in the bigger college town next to his.  So if you can get past the Message, you’ll find a book with a compelling heart.  But if it’s your first Bloor book, I’d say put it down and head straight for Tangerine.

Readalikes

Breathless by Jessica Warman
This is semi-autobiographical realistic fiction set in SW Pennsylvania, involving a girl who is shipped off to boarding school (or gets herself shipped off to boarding school? I can’t remember which), but can’t escape her love for and angst about her severely schizophrenic brother.  She’s also a competitive swimmer and her boyfriend is hot but sanctimonious.


Totally Joe by James Howe
A journal format narrative about fighting bullying in schools (specifically GLBTQ bullying)


Ellen Hopkins, particularly Crank and Glass – the wildly popular poem-novels that touch on issues that Hopkins has faced in real life – her son was addicted to meth and inspired her first books.


Breaking Bad.  Why aren’t you watching this amazing show already??

Disclosures & Digressions
I was kind of hoping this book would be about how meth creates real zombies.  I mean, it is about that, but in a realistic way.  I was hoping the meth users would become actually dead but unable to die because of the drugs.  And they’d have to eat the brains and blood of other meth users to keep themselves alive/drugged up.

*This is a line from the poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by Richard Hugo. It’s about a dead mining town. Click and read and weep.

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