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

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

Feiwel & Friends, 2009

In the Path of Falling Objects Andrew Smith

by REBECCA, August 11, 2014

hook

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

review

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

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

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

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

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

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

readalikes

Stick Andrew Smith

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

Tex S.E. Hinton

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

procured from: bought

“I Used to Think I Was a Good Person”: The Dogs of Balboa

A Review of The Dogs of Balboa by Rose Christo

Self-published,  2014

The Dogs of Balboa Rose Christo

by REBECCA, August 4, 2014

hook

While walking home one day, fifteen-year-old Michael Mirez sees a sexual assault and runs away in fear. Over the next year, Michael self-destructs, endlessly punishing himself for not stepping in to do more. Now, Noah Flattery, the boy Michael saw assaulted shows up at Michael’s school, and Michael sees his chance to try and make it up to him. But what starts as a relationship of guilty protection becomes so much more, and Michael isn’t sure if he can handle it.

review

Gives Light Rose ChristoAn important thing to know about the world: there is a series called Gives Light, written and self-published by the inimitable Rose Christo and, before you do anything else, you should read it. I’m telling you this because I want to improve your quality of life. (Also, you should check out our interview with the very smart and funny Rose Christo HERE.)

Whew, okay. Now that we’ve taken care of that, let’s talk about The Dogs of Balboa, a book that has a similar tone and dynamic to the Gives Light series—and what a welcome dynamic it is!

Our narrator is Michael Mirez, whom we come to know as a responsible kid who loves his older brother, Joel (who joined the army at eighteen), and sisters, respects his father, a terse Spanish lawyer, and feels protective of his mother, a wheelchair-bound former-reindeer-farmer from Lapland. Michael is kind and funny, and thinks of himself as a good person. All that changes when Michael sees a boy being raped by two men in an alley. Michael wants to intercede, but, terrified, runs to his best friend, Tamika’s, house and calls the police instead. After that day, Michael never lets himself off the hook again.

Michael’s opinion of himself changes drastically that day, and he doesn’t believe he deserves anything good in his life. His guilt even causes him to fail his sophomore year. He spends his time in Joel’s room, confessing things to him that he can’t say out loud. How everywhere he looks he sees the personal failure that’s come to define him. Rose Christo has a way with this kind of character. Her portrait of Michael’s guilt and trauma over what he witnessed and his reaction to it are exquisite.

The boy from the winter alleyway crept back into my head. I almost vomited. Truth was, that boy was always in my head. Mostly he lingered toward the back somewhere, just out of sight. It was whenever I was in danger of thinking something really hypocritical—or relaxing, even for a moment—that he made his comeback, that he reminded me I didn’t deserve respite and he wasn’t going away. He was never going away. What had happened to him was never going away. If I had just said something. If I had just opened my mouth.”

earth5Then, on the first day of Michael’s (second) sophomore year, he runs into a beautiful Native American boy smoking in the bathroom and everything changes. Because it’s the boy he saw in the alley that day a year before. And suddenly, all Michael wants in the whole world is to keep this boy—Noah—safe. It begins with Michael walking him to and from school, where they develop a rapport. Michael notices that sensitive, jumpy Noah seems to feel safe around him. But this only serves to heighten Michael’s fear that he cannot ever truly keep Noah safe; that he’d already let him down too severely.

Almost without noticing it, Noah and Michael begin spending all their time together, where they realize they’re both fascinated by space—planets, constellations, black holes. But, no matter how close they get, Michael sees every interaction as pointing out his own failure; as pointing out that he doesn’t deserve to be happy.

“A part of Noah was stolen last winter. Noah wanted to go to space to get back to himself, the unmovable, indomitable part of himself that stood still with the ethers while the earth shook. I wanted to go to space to get away from myself. I wanted to stop being Michael. Noah stood his ground while I ran away.”

The closer they get, the less Michael feels he can bear to lose Noah’s friendship, so he avoids telling Noah that he is the one who witnessed his attack. But the closer they get, the more Michael feels like he’s assaulting Noah all over again by enjoying his friendship without confessing. And, little by little, Michael is beginning to question whether his feelings for Noah stop at friendship . . .  because he’s beginning to feel something very much like love.

The image of the violent practice that gave this book its title

The image of the violent practice that gave this book its title

The Dogs of Balboa is pitch-perfect; a poignant and chilling exploration of the horror of suddenly proving to yourself that you aren’t who you thought you were, and the horror of living with the aftermath. Michael, it’s clear, did nothing wrong. But after being confronted with a version of himself that he found lacking, he is unable to live with that self. Noah has his own version of events, but Michael isn’t sure he’ll ever be able to revise his opinion of himself. Christo is a master at character-building through voice and reaction, and Michael and Noah are no exception. They are delightful, complex characters who each possess something that the other one desperately needs.

As with all her novels, Christo’s secondary characters—Michael’s siblings, Noah’s sister, their friends from school—are fully-developed and help build the world. The Dogs of Balboa explores multiple different cultures, from Michael’s mixed heritage and Noah’s Native American household, to the large Gujarati population at their school.

The Dogs of Balboa reminded me of Gives Light in some ways. An unlikely friendship between two boys that’s based on unconditional protection on one side and unconditional acceptance on the other; issues of guilt and redemption; trauma, both person and cultural; and sexual assault. But this isn’t a rehashing of Gives Light by any means, merely a very worthy and very welcome follow-up. The Dogs of Balboa is a beautiful book you won’t forget.

readalikes

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012). When Aristotle and Dante first meet, they seem an unlikely pair. Aristotle is angry at the world, with a brother in prison and frustrations around every corner, and Dante is thoughtful, with academic parents and a paranoia that he’s not Mexican enough. But Ari and Dante quickly become inseparable, and this story of their relationship is a gorgeous testament to the ways we sometimes need someone unlikely in order to discover ourselves.

How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis

How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, by J.C. Lillis (2012). Psh, y’all, J.C. Lillis’ debut novel is a masterpiece of the friends –> boyfriends genre. Like The Dogs of Balboa and Aristotle and Dante Discover the UniverseHow to Repair a Mechanical Heart features two opposites who form a close friendship. Brandon and Abel have a fan vlog about their favorite tv show; now, they are embarking on a journey to see the show’s appearance at comic-cons across the country . . . and a journey of lurve. My full review is HERE and our interview with the so-delightful J.C. Lillis is HERE.

procured from: bought, as I will with EVERY Rose Christo book that comes out!

The Knife: September Girls Cuts To The Heart

A Review of September Girls by Bennett Madison

HarperTeen, 2013

September Girls Bennett Madison

by REBECCA, May 5, 2014

hook

When Sam arrives at a small beach town with his dad and brother for the summer he notices that something is strange about its other inhabitants—all beautiful blonde girls—but can’t quite figure out what. When he starts to fall for one of them, he’ll get answers he never could have imagined.

review

I’ve been meaning to read September Girls all year and now that it’s getting warm, I finally sat down with most poignant of beach reads. After Sam’s mother takes off, his father loses it, sinking into a drunken depression and then diving manically into the task of finding himself. That summer, he decides that he, Sam, and Sam’s collegiate brother, Jeff, should leave town and take to the beach, where they’ll stay until September.

Sam’s father quickly throws himself into searching for buried treasure with a metal detector, and Jeff treats him to lectures on how this is the summer he should lose his virginity, but Sam misses his mother and finds himself walking alone for hours in a landscape that never quite seems the same twice. He’s a little sad, a little bored, and a lot anxious about growing up.

“[Dad often told me] that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy—with vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair—but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next—ta-da!—a man, as if anyone would ever notice the difference.

Like you can just instantly transform like that. Like manhood is this distinct thing with actual markers and consequences. Well, maybe it is. But even if it is—if there is any person on this planet who actually knows what it means to be a man, anyone who could truly sum it up—I would guess my father to be among the very fucking last to have the tiniest clue.”

He’s self-conscious that he’s a virgin, knows that he looks skinny and unimpressive next to his brother, and isn’t particularly interested in doing anything about either. So, when the swarm of beautiful, voluptuous, blonde girls who work at every business in town seem to be interested in Sam, he’s understandably confused. Even if most of them don’t speak to him, he sees them staring, smiling, and paying a kind of attention to him that he’s never received. And, because he’s not an idiot, he’s pretty weirded out by it.

The first night they’re at the beach, Jeff and Sam see a girl washed ashore from the ocean pull herself to hands and knees and scuttle away into the dunes. And this is just the first of many strange and confusing things that they witness. Little by little, his brother starts to fall for one of the girls, Kristle (pronounced like Crystal), and he strikes up a confusing and intense friendship with another, DeeDee.

As he and DeeDee get closer, the secret of the girls—or the Girls, as Sam thinks of them—slowly comes into focus. They aren’t human; they come from the sea, cursed to live in human form for a limited time, and unable to leave the beach town. Call them mermaids if you like, but they have no gender. They merely assume the form that instinct tells them will be most beneficial to beings who arrive on land with nothing: young, beautiful, female, and blonde.

September Girls has been a wildly divisive book in terms of public reviews, with a number of 5-star raves and even more 1-star pans. Nearly all of the latter are given with reference to accusations of the book’s sexism and misogyny. I’m gobsmacked by this truly careless reading, and desperately sad that the book’s public reputation has been tainted by it because it couldn’t be further from the truth. To the contrary, September Girls engages with our widespread culture of sexism and misogyny—sex as power; trapped girls; sex as necessity; addlepated boys—and skewers it. (I won’t do a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations because The Book Smuggler’s review HERE does a great job of that.) Bennett Madison raises questions not only about gender, but about the power of narratives to concretize, challenge, reinscribe, and invert gendered tropes.

We have learned that we are beautiful. All of us. We are all beautiful. To those who may read this: we are more beautiful. No matter how beautiful you are, we are more. We just are. . . . We say this with no pride at all. We say it, maybe, with a little sadness. Our beauty is a gift that we have had no choice but to accept. . . . We were offered only beauty. We took it and we use it. It’s nothing special. It’s how we survive.

Since we have no word for beauty, we use the closest word we have. We call it the knife. Our beauty is only our knife. Our beauty is our only knife. It’s just a knife: rusty blade, ordinary handle. But it’s sharp. It does its thing. Nothing special.

When is nothing special the most important thing? When it’s the only thing. . . . We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with a sexiness that appears unconsidered. . . . So. We learn how to use our breasts, our asses, our eyelashes, our lips. We learn how to get what we want.

No. Not what we want. We never get what we want, do we? We learn how to get what we need.”

September Girls is a dreamy, beautifully-written meditation on how the unstructured time of summer allows for self-exploration and change that the school year makes impossible. Absent anyone from home who really knows him, Sam is on a scary but necessary journey to find out who he is. Part of that is figuring out what it means to engage with a gendered world (because such attitudes are, unfortunately, pervasive). Part of it is learning to appreciate himself. Part of it is learning how to be sad, how to be bored, how to admit to yourself that you aren’t special all the time.

Some have found September Girls a bit dull or slow-paced, but for me it perfectly echoed the feeling of standing in the surf, feet in the sand as the ocean drags it from under you. After each chapter told from Sam’s perspective is a section told from the Girls’ perspective (like the quote above), creating a give and take of ocean and land, and when Sam loses time it’s like the exhausted, lightheaded, salt-drenched moment when you fall asleep on the beach, too sun-drained and beach-blind to notice the hour.

September Girls is a beautiful piece of speculative fiction that’s as dreamy as the ocean and as rough as sand in your underwear. I can’t wait to read whatever Bennett Madison writes next.

readalikes

Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989). September Girls’ placiness reminded me of Block’s L.A.—something about the combination of heat and love.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). In Stiefvater’s tale, it’s horses that come from the sea, but it’s similarly dreamy, with harsh reality abutting the speculative. My full review is HERE.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz (2013). When Rudy leaves everything he knows to move to an island whose magic fish might be able to cure his brother’s cystic fibrosis he knows things will never be the same. What he can’t know is that he’ll meet someone who changes everything he knows about himself . . . and presents him with a life and death dilemma. How will Rudy choose between two people he loves? Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. September Girls by Bennett Madison is available now.

We Won’t Feel A Thing: A Different Kind of Love Story

A Review of We Won’t Feel A Thing by J.C. Lillis

Self-published, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

by REBECCA, April 14, 2014

I am delighted to be reviewing We Won’t Feel A Thing on the blog today. Check back on Wednesday, when the mega-delightful J.C. Lillis will be joining us for an INTERVIEW and a GIVEAWAY!

hook

Riley and Rachel are best friends who have just found out something horrible: they’re in love. With each other. But with Rachel headed for New York next year and Riley going to California, they know that all their love can lead to is heartbreak. So, they do what anyone desperate to fall out of love with their best friend would do: they sign up for WAVES, a self-help program that promises they’ll be back to just friends in six easy steps. But sometimes, as the blurb says, “when you fight love—love fights back!”

review

diagramming sentencesRachel and Riley are not only best friends, they live together with Riley’s parents and share everything—a room that’s partitioned only by a sliding door that is never closed, a clock with a ceramic mermaid queen and king, and one of those close friendships where you know just what the other one is thinking. Rachel moved in with Riley’s family when they were eight and they’ve been inseparable ever since. Rachel wields her red pen like a weapon, diagraming sentences into submission. “This was her favorite thing: caging an untamed sentence, pinning down subject and verb, making all the other words fall in line around them . . . She shot lightning bolts of prepositional phrases from her scepter.” (Note: so for-the-love-of-god excited for a character who corrects phraseologies like “you’ve got another thing coming”!) Riley is sensitive and anxious, most at peace when he’s working on his mosaics: “he always trusted that with work and time and patience, the thousands of pieces would mirror the picture in his head.”

cupcake of truth!

cupcake of truth!

Now, though, Rachel and Riley each have a secret to share with the other: Rachel that she’s gotten into college in New York City and plans for Riley to come with her, and Riley that his aunt has invited him and Rachel to come live in a coveted suite in her motel in California, a dream they’ve both had since they were eight. That afternoon, Rachel and Riley go with Riley’s parents to a DERT seminar—Dyad Enhancement through Revelation of Truth—and, after eating too many truth cupcakes, accidentally blurt out the truth: they are not just best friends, but also in love. THE HORROR!

Upon fleeing from the DERT seminar after this revelation, they run into another self-help guru, David A. Kerning (a delightful reference to the space between letters in typography—somehow the combination of Rachel’s editorial sense and Riley’s mosaics). David promises that with his experimental Forbidden Love Module, he can help them. “DERT is a menace, as you’ve seen. Fortunately for the world,” he says, “my collective and I have devoted the whole of our enormous brainpower to the science of destroying Gary Gannon and everything he stands for.”

Thus begins a hilarious and touching story of what happens when you’re willing to try almost anything to avoid the pain of love.

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisWe Won’t Feel A Thing is J.C. Lillis’ second novel. Her first, How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, was pretty much the most adorable book I’ve ever read, not to mention one of the awesomest explorations of how fandom can provide a vehicle for figuring out some deep-ass personal stuff. Like How To Repair A Mechanical HeartWe Won’t Feel A Thing is a love story set against the backdrop of passion for other things, delightful characters, and prose that made me laugh out loud (at work, where I was not supposed to be reading).

I am not much for your generic love story, particularly love stories about nice-looking, straight, white kids. There has to be something else in order for me to be interested. But here’s the thing: We Won’t Feel A Thing is not so much a love story as it is 1.) an exploration of how romantic love is based deeply in friendship, and 2.) an excavation of how truly terrifying love can seem. We Won’t Feel A Thing opens with a fairy tale: “Once there was a boy and a girl with a kingdom in their room.” Like all good fairy tales, this is the safe, comfortable world of prepubescence, where fantasy is make-believe and a boy and a girl can live together in peace. Also like any good fairy tale, with love comes threat: the terror of losing friendship, childhood, safety, and self.

This is such a threat, that Rachel and Riley (mostly Rachel—Riley follows her lead) are willing to go to any lengths to allay it. The book, then, is an excavation of their love in the form of an attempt to ameliorate it, a brilliant plot device that turns the love story inside-out, pairing each revelation of Rachel and Riley’s simpatico with their despair and frustration that it’s still there. This turns what could be a twee romance into an emotional adventure that strikes a perfect balance of comedy and drama.

mosaic waveJ.C. Lillis is the master of a particular kind of character + detail pairing that makes everyone in her novels feel alive. Rachel’s passion for grammar perfectly expresses her desire to control things around her, and the comfort she takes from knowing the rules that govern things and enforcing them. It is no wonder, then, that love—that uncontrollable and unwieldy force—would scare the shit out of her. Riley’s anxiety is explicit. “He told himself the fear was just one more entry in his Index of Senseless Worries, right after #378 (flash mobs), #379 (brown recluse spiders), and #380 (the dreaded DERT seminar they’d be marched to that afternoon).” Where Rachel breaks apart sentences to prove her mastery over their parts, Riley does the inverse: putting together disparate pieces of glass and ceramic to create something whole and beautiful. Their anxieties and coping mechanisms are in complementary distribution, and that is how their love works too.

Rachel gripped the waiter’s vest. ‘Did you know,’ she said, ‘that if you hooked my brain up with his brain, you’d be able to watch one long continuous movie of our life?’

‘How beautiful.’

‘I remember all the details he forgets. He remembers mine.’

‘You’re fortunate. Both of you.’

‘We are not. No no no.’ Rachel shook him by the lapels. ‘We’re extremely unfortunate. You have no idea.’

‘What’ll we do this year?’ Riley gulped the last of his coffee and poured another cup. ‘Who’re we going to be without each other?’

[The waiter] pointed heavenward. ‘You don’t believe you’ll be . . . reunited?’ . . .

‘We’re not sure of anything,’ said Rachel. Which was the truth.'”

As in How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, where Lillis created an entire fandom, in We Won’t Feel A Thing, she creates two self-help programs, both of which are quite funny. “Welcome to DERT!,” they’re greeted at the seminar by a cavegirl with a clipboard, “You’re late, so I’ve prejudged you as rude and selfish. May I have your consent forms?” And, “Thank youuuu . . . I hate your purse. It reminds me of my mother.” At dinner the next evening, armed with the DERT@Home box, Riley’s parents have a Splatter Session:

‘Is there any white bread?’ Mr. Woodlawn asked, taking a swig of strawberry milk . . .

‘I hate that,’ Mrs. Woodlawn said.

‘What?’ Mr. Woodlawn blinked, a forkful of peas midway to his mouth.

‘The way you ask me if there’s any bread, as if it’s somehow my responsibility to know.’ She drummed her hands faster. ‘Also, I hate that you drink strawberry milk. It’s emasculating.’

She balled up a pink paper napkin and tossed it at her husband’s face.”

strawberry milkIn a hilarious sub-plot, Riley’s parents embrace the DERT program of calling out truth with such aplomb that they end up in their basement, throwing mud and truth at each other. These scenes of his parents’ marriage breaking up are the backdrop to Rachel and Riley’s conviction that love can only lead to pain, but are also hilarious.

The last thing I’ll say about We Won’t Feel A Thing is how much I appreciate the gender dynamics here. One of the reasons I generally find heterosexual love stories unsatisfying is that they often go hand-in-hand with very stereotypical gender profiles. J.C. Lillis not only avoids this, but she has written, in Rachel and Riley, two characters who don’t need to be any one gender at all. It isn’t that gender roles are swapped (which still reinforces them), but rather that there are no markers of gender that matter here. Rachel and Riley like qualities about each other, and it’s those qualities that make up their characters. There were some murmurings on Goodreads when the blurb for We Won’t Feel A Thing first went up that people were disappointed because this wouldn’t be another queer love story, like How To Repair A Mechanical Heart. It is, though. It’s not a homosexual love story, but it’s a love story between characters full of queer potential.

We Won’t Feel A Thing is a delightful book, as well as a feather in the cap of independent publishing. I would put it up against any release from a major publisher in every category—prose, plotting, characters, cover, and copy editing (Rachel would be proud!). I cannot wait to see what J.C. Lillis comes up with next.

Remember, J.C. Lillis will be joining us for an interview and a giveaway on Wednesday, so join us then!

readalikes

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan (2010). Like We Won’t Feel A ThingWill Grayson, Will Grayson is a story that’s equal parts hilarity and heartbreak set against a backdrop of art and music that propel the plot forward. Tessa and I joint review Will Grayson, Will Grayson HERE and HERE.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead Liar & Spy Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me (2009) and Liar & Spy (2012), by Rebecca Stead. Rebecca Stead’s latest two books share a certain quality with We Won’t Feel A Thing—a combination of true vulnerable sincerity and a sense of the absurd. Also featuring boy-girl besties, these middle-grade-ish reads capture a similar spirit. My full review of Liar & Spy is HERE.

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. Lillis

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, by J.C. Lillis (2012). But of course you have to read Lillis’ first book, the story of Brandon and Abel, fans who set out on a road trip of Cons for the sci-fi show Castaway Planet and end up falling in love. It is a complete and total delight. My full review is HERE and our interview with J.C. Lillis about the book is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the author (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. We Won’t Feel A Thing by J.C. Lillis is available now!

5 Reasons I’m Provisionally Enjoying Star-Crossed (and a few reasons I’m not)

A Review of Star-Crossed, created by Meredith Averill

The CW, 2014

Star-Crossed

by REBECCA, April 10, 2014

Star-Crossed, as the title suggests, is a science fiction Romeo and Juliet. Ten years ago, in 2014, an Atrian starship crash-landed in a small town in Louisiana. Six-year-old Roman (Romeo) takes shelter in the shed of Emory (Juliet) when the shooting starts, and they form a bond in the few minutes before soldiers rip them apart. After a bloody battle, the Atrians are interned in a camp called the Sector. Now it’s 2024 and, as the result of an integration program that has long been in the works, seven teenage Atrians are going to begin attending a human high school, to test whether Atrians and humans have the potential to integrate.

romeo-and-julietSo, I’ve mentioned before how much I generally loathe adaptations. There is NO reason why this needed to be an overt Romeo and Juliet—in fact, it really hampers what Star-Crossed can do by telegraphing what are going to be the major issues and stakes of the show. I will say it again. I just do not understand why people cut off narratives at the knees like this?! In the case of Star-Crossed, it seems likely that either the CW thinks sci-fi is low art and needed a little cultcha or that they worried that sci-fi would turn off their core teen female audience unless they very overtly announced that it would be a romance. Either way, it was a stupid move. Also, can we please agree that, in 2014 (and definitely in 2024), Romeo and Juliet is really not the only text that comes to mind when we think about people from different worlds whose social situation dictates that they not be together. In fact, it’s become something of a cliché at this point—a story that’s concretized into utter predictability. So, yeah. WHAT THE?

Tami-Julie-friday-night-lights-4533494-2560-1920More bad news. Emory, played by Aimee Teegarden, aka Julie Taylor from Friday Night Lights, has the unfortunate fate of being a really boring character. No idea why they’re writing her like this when most of the other characters are more interesting, but Emory is completely blah and has no real chemistry with Roman, or with Grayson—yeah, sorry, they’re going with that whole love triangle thing, at least for a little while. (Grayson is played by Grey Damon, also from Friday Night Lights, and another character, Zoe, is played by Dora Madison Burge, who played Becky on Friday Night Lights, so while you’re thinking how boring Emory is, what a bad actor Grey Damon is, and how much makeup they’ve slathered on poor Zoe, you can just close your eyes and think of how good Friday Night Lights was).

That bad news aside, Star-Crossed has, so far, been a pretty enjoyable watch, if you go into it eyes open. I mean, it’s a CW show, so. Here are a few reasons I’ve enjoyed the first eight episodes.

1. Civil Rights Conversations. The morning the Atrian 7 start school with the humans their bus pulls up to the school where there is a mass of protesters who harangue them and throw things at them. It’s a citation of the morning the Little Rock 9 enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Little Rock 9 star-crossed

As in any aliens-landed-on-earth tale, there are people who believe that the Atrians are a threat to earthlings, those who are fascinated by their culture, and those in between. Emory and her best friends, Julia (a delightful Malese Jow, who played Anna on The Vampire Diaries) and Lukas (Titus Makin Jr. who was one of the Warblers on Glee) are excited to befriend the Atrians, but there are many who antagonize them from the beginning. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but, to my mind, any show that is having explicit conversations about the ways that fear of the unknown leads to prejudice, which leads to violence, which leads to retaliation, which leads to war, is succeeding, at least in some small measure.

The Atrian 7 disagree about what integration means, too. There’s one scene where the Atrian 7 are lectured about how they have to be a model minority, which some embrace and some revile. Roman, at one point, thanks Julia and Lukas for helping him and Lukas replies “We minorities have to stick together,” and Roman says, “You guys are minorities?” (they’re non-white); Lukas replies, “Before you got here.” So, there are some useful conversations going on, and I hope things will get more complicated as the show goes on.

2. The Atrians! Once you get over the fact that the Atrians look exactly like humans except for their tattoo-like birthmarks and the fact that they are all OVERLY ATTRACTIVE, the Atrian 7—well, we only know four so far—are pretty delightful characters. Roman (our Romeo) is played by Matt Lanter, who I’ve never seen in anything (though he did play Edward Sullen in a satire of Twilightesque movies that apparently exists?) but who I find strangely compelling. No, not just because he used to be a model. There’s something natural and straightforward about the way he plays Roman, which turns a character that would otherwise be chokingly goody-two-shoes into one who seems mature and interesting.

Teri & Drake

Teri & Drake

Sofia (Brina Palencia) is the wide-eyed, human-loving optimist who wants to make human friends because she doesn’t fit in that well with the Atrians. Teri (Chelsea Gilligan) is her opposite. She’s a fierce, badass fighter who doesn’t take any shit. Her mother is the leader of an Atrian splinter group that is willing to use violence to overthrow humanity. Last is Drake (Greg Finley), a bruiser who wants to be tough, but isn’t quite sure where his loyalties lie.

3. Plants. The Atrians’ main sources of power, as well as their main weapons, are plant-based, and one tribe of Atrians is particularly skilled in that regard. Cyper, for example, is a plant that can both heal and kill, and if humans found out about its properties when mixed with Atrian blood, they’d kill for it. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve decided that this was inspired by the centrality of herbs in Romeo and Juliet. Even if it’s not true, it’s an interesting choice.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.40.18 PM4. Pansexuality! In a show that is based on Romeo and Juliet and, therefore, pretty much tells us who the main romantic drama will concern, we learn that Atrians are pansexual, which at least opens up some possibilities for the plot going forward. I mean, we were all pretending that Roman and Drake were together anyway, right?

5. Star-Crossed. Come on. That’s actually a really excellent name for a show that is about Romeo and Juliet and aliens who came from SPACE! (I can’t think of a fifth thing that’s actively good.)

SO, have you all been watching Star-Crossed? What do you think? Do the good things make up for the dopey CW-elements, or will these violent delights have violent ends?

Noggin: You Only Live Twice

A Review of Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster), 2014

Noggin John Corey Whaley

REBECCA, April 7, 2013

hook

“Listen — Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn’t. Now he’s alive again. Simple as that.

The in between part is still a little fuzzy, but he can tell you that, at some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado. Five years later, it was reattached to some other guy’s body, and well, here he is. Despite all logic, he’s still 16 and everything and everyone around him has changed. That includes his bedroom, his parents, his best friend, and his girlfriend. Or maybe she’s not his girlfriend anymore? That’s a bit fuzzy too.

Looks like if the new Travis and the old Travis are ever going to find a way to exist together, then there are going to be a few more scars. Oh well, you only live twice.” (Goodreads)

review

Noggin, John Corey Whaley’s second novel, is a perfectly executed book. Just because a book starts out with a sixteen-year-old getting his head chopped off and then sewn onto another dude’s body doesn’t mean that Noggin isn’t a sensitive-as-hell story of teen angst. Like most really good premises, rather, the head-on-another-dude’s-body is both the catalyst for an interesting plot and a metaphor for teen alienation.

phrenologyTravis Coates was dying of cancer. He’d been sick for a long time and was just about to give up when a scientist approached him about donating his body (well, his head) to science, suggesting that, in fifty or sixty years, when medical science had progressed, they could reattach Travis’ head to a healthy body and give him another chance at life. Travis, in an attempt to give his parents at least some hope that this wasn’t the end of the road, agreed. After all, what does he have to lose. Well, his head (yes, I’m going to keep doing that).

Instead of sixty years, however, Travis is brought back to life after five. So, instead of awakening to a world where he can actually start over, he finds himself back in his old life, only everyone else—his parents, his best friend, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Cate—has moved on.

So, we have the story of Travis’ reaction to being only the second human ever brought back to life through head reattachment and all its physical and social complications. And, alongside it, we have the story of Travis trying desperately to re-inhabit an old life that has moved forward without him, and finding, eventually, that he has to create a new one.

“It was sort of like my head had been photoshopped onto someone else. . . . Just so you know: yeah, shit got weird. Imagine most of you is suddenly someone else, and this is the first moment of privacy you’ve gotten. The weirdest part, I guess, wasn’t seeing my new chest or stomach or legs. It wasn’t turning around to see that someone else’s ass was there below someone else’s back. And, surprisingly, it wasn’t the moment I dared to just go for it and take a good, long look at my new dick. Sure, it was weird, but it wasn’t disappointing at all, to be quite honest. The weirdest part, truly, was realizing that I’d been doing all this . . . with hands that were different from my hands, with hands that had never touched Cate or knuckle-bumped with Kyle or opened my locker at school” (26).

Because Travis is sixteen, the people he most wants to see are Kyle and Cate, neither of whom contact him soon after he wakes up. When he does get in touch with them, we get some of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel. For Kyle and Cate, it has been five years since their best friend died, so Travis’ reappearance in their lives stirs up some deep waters—including the fact that Kyle told Travis a secret before he died, thinking he would take it to the grave, and now Travis is back. For Travis, though, it’s only been a few days since he last saw Kyle and Cate, and their absence feels like they’ve been suddenly ripped away.

As Travis starts back at school again, he slowly rekindles his relationships with Kyle and Cate, who is now engaged to another man. Sixteen-year-old Travis’ attempts to win back twenty-one-year-old Cate’s affection feel incredibly real, including a great moment where Cate tells him to stop acting immature and he explodes at her, yelling that he isn’t being immature—he’s being sixteen.

Five years is a perfectly awkward time gap with which Whaley has cursed Travis, because the people who love him haven’t changed enough to start with him anew, but have changed enough that they cannot slide back into their relationships easily. And, though the voice of Noggin is quite funny, it’s a really melancholy story about how relationships change and the ways that we can neither rewind nor fast forward, but must each always live only in our present. As much as Travis wants to reconnect with the Kyle and Cate who were his dearest friends, he has to build new relationships with them if he hopes to have any at all.

Winger Andrew SmithWhaley’s prose is pitch perfect—snappy and funny and dripping in angst. Tone-wise, it reminded me a bit of Andrew Smith, one of my all-time favorite authors, and I have a feeling that Travis Coates and Winger‘s Ryan Dean West and Grasshopper Jungle‘s Austin Szerba would all be friends. Especially in the scenes where we see Travis’ life with Kyle and Cate before he died (the first time), Whaley does a great job of showing us why Travis would be so sad to lose friends like them, because they’re straight-up great.

In one amusing scene, Travis’ parents take him shopping for back-to-school clothes, since they donated his after he died, and Travis is confused by the skinny jean trend:

“These are pretty tight,” I said, walking out to model a pair of jeans for my mom.

“It’s the style.”

“I don’t understand. I can hardly move.”

“Do you want to try a bigger size?”

I tried the bigger size, and even though they were easier to button, they still hugged me all weird around the thighs.

“Are these girl jeans, Mom?”

“No, Travis. I told you. It’s what everyone wears now. Boys and girls.”

“We can just take him over to J. Crew and get him some more grown-up clothes, don’t you think?” Dad suggested. . . .

“He’s not a grown-up, Ray. He’s sixteen. He’s not going to school dressed like an accountant.”

“Yeah, Dad. I’ll go to school dressed in tight pants like a girl or I won’t go at all” (53).

When I say that Noggin is a perfectly-executed book, though, I don’t just mean that Whaley does a good job making the most of a cool and wacky concept (which he does). I also have to talk about one of his stylistic choices. The last sentence of each chapter becomes the title and topic of the next chapter. So, the last sentence of chapter 2 is “How could it feel like nothing had changed at all when I wasn’t me from the neck down?” and then chapter 3 is titled “From the Neck Down,” and describes Travis’ new body, part of which I quoted above. I love the way this concatenation resignifies a concept from one chapter and makes it the subject of the next. It’s as if Whaley sutures the body of one chapter onto the head of the next, making them so inextricable that the reader can’t do anything but read on, move forward. This stylistic enactment of Travis’ head being attached to another’s body delighted me every time it happened.

Noggin is exactly the kind of book I want to hand to anyone who thinks speculative fiction means books that are driven more by concept than by heart (well, head—and I’m out!). While its emotional stakes will feel deep and familiar, Whaley gets at them in a way that you have definitely never read before.

readalikes

Winger Andrew Smith

Winger (Winger #1) by Andrew Smith (2013). Ryan Dean West, our narrator, is a fourteen-year-old junior in high school who’s in love with his best friend, Annie, and making new friends on the rugby team. Like Travis, he’s dealing with being younger than his peers (though not for such arcane reasons) and having to renegotiate who his friends are. ADORE Winger! My full review is HERE.

King of the Screwups K.L. Going

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). Another awesome novel with a character who’s trying to start over. Liam Gellar is a popular kid whose dad thinks he’s a screwup. When he gets in trouble and moves in with his gay, glam rock DJ uncle, he decides that in order to make his dad proud, he’ll have to give himself a makeover: as an unpopular kid. But it’s not as easy as Liam thinks to be unpopular, and he finds himself screwing up even that. King of the Screwups is also similar in tone, with its great mixture of humor and melancholy. My full review is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. John Corey Whaley’s Noggin will be available tomorrow.

“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

An Amazing New Series: Gives Light

A Review of Gives Light (Gives Light #1) by Rose Christo

Self-Published, 2012

Gives Light Rose Christo

by REBECCA, January 6, 2014

Friends, today I’m reviewing Gives Light, the first in the Gives Light series. I’m thrilled to announce that the author, Rose Christo, will be joining us on Wednesday for an interview about the book. Check back!

Sixteen-year-old Skylar St. Clair has been mute since his mother died eleven years ago and he was injured. After his father disappears unexpectedly, Skylar goes to live with his only remaining relative, a grandmother he has no memory of, living on Nettlebush, a Plains Shoshone reservation. “Adapting to a brand new culture is the least of Skylar’s qualms. Because Skylar’s mother did not die a peaceful death. Skylar’s mother was murdered eleven years ago on the Nettlebush Reserve. And her murderer left behind a son. And he is like nothing Skylar has ever known” (Goodreads).

People, alert, alert: Gives Light is the first in a four-book series. I started the first book one afternoon and by the next evening I was forcing myself to take tea break after tea break just so that the series wouldn’t end. In short, Gives Light (well, the whole series) was an utter joy.

Skylar, our narrator, is a wonderful character. He’s sensitive and kind, and he’s been through a lot. Because he doesn’t speak, Skylar is used to feeling disconnected from people. It never really bothered him; in fact, he’s always been kind of relieved not to have to talk about himself or his past. But when Skylar meets Rafael Gives Light, everything changes. Rafael is intense, moody, and everyone on the reservation keeps their distance from him. Because Rafael is the son of the man who killed Skylar’s mother and left Skylar mute.

As Skylar and Rafael strike up a tentative friendship, they realize they have a connection unlike anything either of them have ever experienced. Skylar feels understood even without speaking and Rafael finally feels accepted and at peace with someone. Little by little, their friendship becomes the most important thing in Skylar and Rafael’s lives, and slowly turns into love. Their relationship is a total joy to read: they’re goofy, tender, sweet, and insightful, each of them seeing a side of the other to which the outside world isn’t privy.

Their relationship plays out against the backdrop of Nettlebush, and the reader gets to experience it right along with Skylar, who had lived there as a child, but remembers little about it. It’s a huge change for him and one of my favorite things about the book is the detailed descriptions of the different parts of the reservation, and the preparation of food and crafts. But while Skylar finds himself relaxing into the routines of his new home, it’s the people of Nettlebush who really change Skylar’s life. They accept him, though he’s been living outside the reservation, and they give him a place among them.

Gives Light Rose ChristoGives Light is a love story, but not only between Skylar and Rafael. It’s also about these characters love and respect for their history, and Christo deftly weaves the stories and customs of the Shoshone people into their daily habits. Every dance learned or recipe taught is a piece of culture explained, a piece of history preserved for the future. It’s also a story about how Skylar and Rafael learn to love themselves, for their own dark histories are the current running beneath Gives Light, and they both have a lot to heal from. This makes Gives Light my favorite kind of love story, too: it isn’t a story in service of getting two people together, but a story about lots of different issues and relationships. There is a ton going on in this book (and in the series) and it’s Skylar and Rafael’s relationship that is the constant—the one thing they can count on as the outside world challenges them.

Gives Light is a beautiful and fascinating read with complex, fully-developed characters, fascinating descriptions of Plains Shoshone culture, and extremely interesting discussions of race, ethnicity, history, and politics. Rose Christo’s prose is lovely. And did I mention this is only book one in an amazing series?!

It’s such a joy to find a book by a self-published author that is truly amazing, and I’m so happy to review it here, in the hopes that others will love it as much as I did.

Join us back here on Wednesday when we’ll be chatting with author of Gives Light, Rose Christo!

Movie Review: How I Live Now

A Review of How I Live Now, directed by Kevin Macdonald, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now

by REBECCA

Meg Rosoff’s 2004 novel How I Live Now has been made into a movie and I totally didn’t know about it until five seconds ago. Yay!

If last week’s Ender’s Game adaptation made one big mistake that ended up gutting the whole story, How I Live Now makes small, smart decisions every step of the way. Within the first three minutes, I was completely and utterly sold on the world, the aesthetic, and the characters.

How I Live Now Meg RosoffHow I Live Now is the story of Daisy (Saoirse Ronin), who lives in New York City and has come to England for the summer to stay with her cousins, whom she’s never met, because her father is having a new baby. Her cousins live in a ramshackle old rural house with lots of woods, hills, creeks, and animals, and Daisy quickly falls in love with it, and one of them—her cousin Edmund. Soon, though, war breaks out and the cousins are separated, always trying to escape and come back home, to be together.

Our introduction to Daisy was pitch-perfect and effortless, managing to capture the attitude of Rosoff’s narrative voice, even without using heavy voice over (take a note, Ender’s Game). Saoirse Ronin, bless her, is a magnificent Daisy, never afraid to be nasty and moody, but always with a core of vulnerability. Basically, I would watch her eat cornflakes or, like, do something else that’s super boring, because that’s how compelling she is, as always. Also, she is an accent genius.

how i live nowThe contrast between the hardness of Daisy’s fresh-from-NYC aesthetic and control-freak attitude and the soft, wildness of her cousins’ run-down home, their trips swimming and running through woods and fields is beautifully done. The film captures the beauty and peace of their home in just the right way, so that when the war comes, the audience is as sad to lose it as Daisy is.

How I Live Now doesn’t shrink from showing the grisly moments of the war, either, which elevates it above any concerns I may have had that it would be yet another slick capitalization on YA dystopia-fever. Just like the book, this is truly a movie that thinks about the effects of war, on both the ravaged countryside and the psyches of Daisy and her cousins as they traverse it.

how i live nowIn addition to the beauty of the film, I was struck by its masterful balance of sound and quiet. The credits are very in your face and loud, bopping to the tune of Daisy’s music, and Daisy’s own inner-voices drown out any other silence. The scenes in the country house, on the other hand, are quiet at base, but punctuated by very specific noises—the call of Edmund’s hawk, the gush of a waterfall—that are just as loud as Daisy’s music, but peaceful enough that she doesn’t need the din of those inner voices. There are long stretches of the cousins’ journey back to one another without dialogue, too, and scenes of carnage that speak for themselves.

In Rosoff’s novel, the story is told retrospectively, and though we don’t have much of a frame, the film manages, in addition to dramatic immediacy, to capture precisely the tone of wisdom and dreaminess that would accompany a tale told from a point looking backward. How I Live Now might be my favorite YA film adaptation to date. 

Gone Home: a chat.

In which Evan and Tessa discuss a new video game that they played together and really liked. (So did other people – it is a 2013 Finalist for Excellence in Narrative from the Independent Games Festival as well as getting an Honorable Mention for Excellence in Audio and Seumas McNally Grand Prize!)

screenshot from Varewulf.wordpress.com

screenshot from Varewulf.wordpress.com

Tessa: So, Evan. I learned about Gone Home via a Rookie Mag Saturday Links list in March. I think I talked to you about it, or you noticed that I liked its Facebook entity, or something. Did you hear about it somewhere else, or did you hear about it through me?

Evan: I heard about the game through you mentioning it to me. I remember us talking about a video game to play together while I was playing Bioshock: Infinite and you brought up Gone Home. I don’t really follow video game news or play many games these days so I’m pretty blind when it comes to 99% of new releases. After you mentioned it I watched a trailer and the game started to intrigue. I love adventure games and the idea of interactive stories. As somebody that doesn’t really play video games, what made you interested in Gone Home?

Tessa: It was the whole atmosphere of the game – the 90s riot grrrl bands, an empty house, the sound of rain on the roof and windows. Although I grew up during the riot grrrl phase, I never got to be one (instead, I described myself as a riot nrrrd), so I felt like this could be my chance to play one in a video game.
from Jenny Woolworth's Riot Grrrl Diary

from Jenny Woolworth’s Riot Grrrl Diary

As it turns out, you get to play the sister of someone who becomes part of the scene, so I still didn’t get to fulfill my fantasy. Maybe there will be a game based on Blake Nelson’s Girl in the future. One can hope.

Also, we’d been talking about finding a video game to play together and this one looked like it wouldn’t require so many hand-eye coordination skills. I’m not a huge gamer because I kind of suck at using video game controls. Even when I did play NES during my youth, I would get too into the game and hobble myself with a combination of physical enthusiasm (jumping when my character should jump) and mental terror (what if my character does not make it across that chasm?), so the experience was exciting but terminally frustrating.

So I spend my free time doing things at which I can improve.

What I’m saying is I’m glad you’re into board games.

Is this the time that we declare that this discussion might get spoilery? And do you want to describe your first impressions of the game/the basic plot?

the last game system Tessa seriously played, a.k.a. the point at which you can stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers

the last game system Tessa seriously played, a.k.a. the point at which you can stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers

Evan: Definitely. What makes Gone Home special is the story and it’s pretty impossible to discuss the game meaningfully without discussing what happens in it. Despite my desire for blogging fame I’m going to make an impassioned plea that if you are interested in Gone Home that you should navigate away from this page, log in to Steam, download Gone Home and play it. Then come back here and read.

How to know if this is something for you? If you’re interested in interactive storytelling, video games with rich atmosphere and expertly crafted characters, if you’re interested in exploring a creepy house and looking for the clues to a mystery then you’ll probably dig Gone Home. You will not be killing anything or solving complex puzzles, you will be experiencing a story. Go play it.

With that out of the way, in Gone Home you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21 year old woman returning home from a European trip in 1995. While she was away her family moved to a large mansion outside Seattle. She arrives home on a dark, rainy night to find a note on the front door from her younger sister and nobody home. As Kaitlin you’re trying to find out what happened to your family by exploring the mansion.

I fell in love with this game almost instantly. The set-up is really juicy. The game tosses you into this scenario with almost no background and plays on your lack of knowledge rather effectively. Mechanically the game is really simple. All you can really do is walk around, pick up objects, rotate them, and read various notes and letters left behind. There are lots of details to dig into in the house. It was fun to just go slow and search for a little tidbit of information that would reveal more of the story.

What are your feelings about the very beginning of the game? Did you have any expectations for how the game would play or what it was about beyond the basic premise?

Tessa: I was really into the game from the beginning, too. From the menu, actually, which I found out was done by Emily Carroll, an artist whose work I’d previously admired in comics form (especially in a creepy story in the Explorer: The Mystery Boxes collection). It turns out her wife (Kate Craig) is one of the game designers, so Emily illustrated the start page,along with in-game maps, and the font is based on her handwriting (more info here):

How great is that? The dusky sky lit by some illumination – the setting sun? The one light on in the whole rambling house emerging from the trees, with the door left slightly open – it’s not clear whether in neglect or invitation. The image works against the usual connotations of the word “home”, and then “gone” takes a double meaning. So the atmosphere is apparent immediately.

The game itself opens with Kaitlin seeing her family’s new house for the first time. It’s raining. The enclosed front porch is lit by a lonely lamp, and she has to find the key (our first task as players).

I personally find it difficult to imagine that anyone in the world doesn’t like the idea of exploring a big old empty house, so I was already into it. And then when she finds a Christmas themed duck, and a text box proclaims “Good ol’ Christmas Duck”, I was delighted.  There was humor, familiarity, character, history.

As you can see from the screenshot below, the graphics in Gone Home aren’t trying to fool you into thinking that it’s anything but a video game. It isn’t Final Fantasy-level…rendering? I don’t know what the word is.

Not to say that creating a game didn’t take lots of love and work, but they don’t have to, because the strength is in the story. Your brain attaches to the story that you’re building through exploration and smoothes out the edges of what you’re seeing, so it doesn’t end up mattering. It feels real.

I didn’t have any expectations about how the game would play, but I did somehow expect that it would have a creepy angle.  And there are some moments in there that pander to that expectation – but this isn’t a murder mystery or a tragic story.

As much as I want to play a video game where I explore a haunted house, I’m glad that my expectations weren’t met, and impressed that they were fooled with by the game designers – not just the stories of the parents, which I thought could go in a couple different directions, but the back story of the house’s original owner, especially a blown light bulb in particular.

That story I hope requires some further digging. I’d like more than the hints we have now.

What did you think of the game experience compared to your other video gaming experiences? Do you think it lends itself to more than one play?

Evan: The title screen is super impressive. It feels like the cover to a book, which is appropriate because Gone Home feels like an interactive book. I’m glad you mentioned the Christmas Duck and the textbox joke. There were lots of great little moments like that in the game. I especially liked when you find a condom in your parents bedroom and the text description of it is just “Eww.” I loved all the items you could interact with. I liked finding tapes to put in stereos or playing records that you find. All those little things add to the character of the house.

Good point on the “horror” elements of the game. They are definitely there to subvert the expectations of the player. Gone Home is a game that is boldly about ordinary people. I listened to a great extended interview with one of the game’s creators (Steve Gaynor) on the Qt3 Games Podcast, and he explained that those moments are in the game to help ground it in reality. For example if you find a teenage girl’s ghosthunting journal in a video game the expectation is that at some point of the game you’ll be seeing ghosts, but if you found one in somebody’s house in the real world you would just think it was the result of kids having fun and not assume that the house is haunted.

As you begin to piece together more and more information from exploring the house you begin to realize that your younger sister Sam has met Lonnie, a young woman at her new high school. As the two girls bond and become friends they realize they are in love with each other. The moments that build up to this realization are beautifully detailed. When you find a key piece of information you hear Sam’s voice reading her diary. These were some of the most moving portions of the game. The voice actress playing Sam was great. The V.O. diary filled in big pieces of the story, but there’s a ton of details to be found by looking at items, reading notes, and rifling through drawers. You get to see a lot of items that Sam and Lonnie bonded over: riot grrl cassette tapes, a ticket stub to pulp fiction, SNES game cartridges, VHS recorded episodes of the X-Files. I loved finding all those details. It gave me a real sense of who all of the characters were without even interacting with them once.

I really have to applaud how this game features a real, loving lesbian relationship that wasn’t sensationalized or sophomoric or all about sex. Maybe this is my lack of current videogame playing speaking, but I can’t think of another game that approaches love with this level of maturity and believability. You develop a very strong emotional bond with Sam and her struggles to hide her relationship from her parents, or her struggling to find herself and realize who she is.

Sam is the heart of the the story and is the main character of the game, but there are great story arcs for the parents as well and you get to know them to a great level of detail. You get the sense that real people live in the house and they are just away. Ironically Kaitlin (the character you are controlling) is probably the least developed character in the game. I think that’s an asset of the game because it lets you insert yourself emotionally into the story with a greater ease.

I’ve never played a video game like Gone Home before. Genuinely. I think most games emphasize thrills and intensity over quieter story moments. I think there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but Gone Home feels like a gigantic leap forward in what a video game can do with narrative.

The replayability of the game is an interesting discussion to have. It has been one of games aspects that has drawn some criticism. There’s nothing variable about the game other than the order you find items, so once you find everything in the house it won’t change on subsequent plays. So if you want to come back to Gone Home and have a different experience you probably won’t play the game more than once.. But I could certainly envisions people playing the game again to revisit the story. I think the reason replayability has been so hotly contested is because of the video game medium. People don’t criticize books or movies because they don’t inherently offer different experiences when you revisit them. Yet people do read certain books and watch certain movies more than once. That said there is a lot to discover in the game. I’m positive there are still details we haven’t found yet, so there is a reason to come back until you’re sure you’ve explored every nook and cranny of the house.

What are your thoughts about the story? Were there any specific moments of the game that you found especially moving or fascinating?

Tessa: I like your comments about replayability in games vs. in books or movies. If you’re measuring Gone Home by the standards of an adventuring, quest type game, it will fail. Because it doesn’t belong in the genre. It’s definitely a storytelling experience. But while Gone Home has a rich world, I’m not sure it can be judged yet on the level of things like a book, as far as equating replaying and re-reading.

Sam’s and Lonnie’s relationship isn’t played as a huge twist, and I like that. Gone Home is really mining the theme of discovery and self-discovery. You can see it not just with Sam, but also with the parents, and to a superficial extent with Kaitlin, coming back from time abroad.

And I love the way it plays with the idea of home – not just the house space, but the idea of the people that give us the feeling of being home. Home is a deceptively simple idea, but one that carries different experiences for everyone and can be counted on to hit some emotional chord. I can’t praise the game designers/creators enough for the way they created both a home and an unknown space. As Edgar Albert Guest so colloquially says,

“Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;

Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ livin’ in it”

So I do think the game succeeds in atmosphere and thematic elements, and I believe you when you say it is a giant leap forward in depicting  a realistic first love between two teenage girls. But I’m not sure if it has enough meat in the story to draw me back again once I discovered everything in the game. Sam & Lonnie’s story is sweet, and open-ended. I’d probably end up yearning for more instead of re-enjoying it ,although it might be something that I pulled out from time to time to revisit the environment, though, or to play with a new person.

I also hope its success paves the way for more games like this.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: