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!

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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!”

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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!

“Good Books Are Always About Everything”: Grasshopper Jungle

A review of Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith

Dutton Books, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

by REBECCA, February 10, 2014

hook

Best friends Austin and Robby didn’t mean to get their asses kicked by the local yahoos. Austin didn’t mean to fall in love with both Robby and his girlfriend, Shann. And Austin and Robby certainly didn’t mean to witness the beginning of the end of the world. But it all happened. That’s history. And that’s the truth.

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Our narrator, Austin, tells us, “good books are always about everything,” and Grasshopper Jungle certainly comes close (76). One day, Austin and Robby get beat up; that night the kids who did the beating accidentally let loose a plague of six-foot-tall praying mantises on the town of Ealing, Iowa. In between attempting to fight these laboratory-made “Unstoppable Soldiers” before they take over the world, Austin has to do battle with his own hormones, is concerned that maybe something’s wrong with him because he’s in love with both Robby and Shann, and untangles the history of his Polish ancestors to understand the vagaries by which he ended up in Ealing, Iowa, fighting Unstoppable Soldiers, in love with his two best friends.

The Chocolate War Robert CormierGrasshopper Jungle also contains: one oft-shitting dog, multiple grinning lemur masks, a house with doors that lead nowhere, the acute anxiety of losing one’s balls, a real dynamo of an Iowa name, one small-town gay bar, The Chocolate War, a heck of a lot of corn, a heck of a lot of semen, and one of the more awesome main characters out there.

There is nothing I can say about the delightful plot of this spec-fic romp that will really matter, so I won’t describe it any more. Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith writes in his acknowledgements, is a book that he felt free to write because he believed no one would ever see it. It certainly reads that way: free to explore its own obsessions; free to cross genres and evade expectations.

Austin is smart, caring, and hyper-aware of his own libido, and it’s his obsessions that drive the book (alongside, you know, those six-foot-tall praying mantises). Austin is also an historian of his own life, daily chronicling the truth of everything that he experiences. He is necessarily aware that there is no way to accurately record everything, since that record would be longer than experience itself. Something is always necessarily left out, jettisoned like the extra consonants in the Americanization of his family’s Polish names (Szczerba –> Szcerba). As you might imagine, then, this is a book about connections—those among people and those across history. Crux, revision, elision, repetition: these are the modes of history.

The narrative is recursive, zig-zagging back and forth through space and in time to show those connections. It is a quivering, vertiginous take on the story that unfolds in the present, hatching from the constellation of history like the bugs of the novel’s title. As in all of Andrew Smith’s novels, the prose is perfectly suited to the subject matter, by turns lyrical and taxonomic, lending poetry to Austin’s repetitive cataloguing of people, places, and themes.

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

This lemur might be able to kill a 6-foot-tall bug.

Grasshopper Jungle is hilarious, disgusting, sexy, and bizarre. If ever you doubted that history could describe the intimacy between a six-foot-tall praying mantis and a sixteen-year-old boy, this book will assuage it. Austin’s worldview is oriented to history, and he tells the truth, even when those are not the same thing. Indeed, it’s in the gaps of official history that lives are lived and personal histories played out. So, as Austin watches a major historical event unfold before his eyes (the end of the world, NBD), he turns ever backward, pulling himself through time to excavate this world event from his family’s personal history. But this is not fatalism; this is just the consequence of paying attention to details, connections, and the ways we cross our own stories, even as we live them.

In addition to being an interesting treatise on history and a smashing end-of-the-world story, Grasshopper Jungle is a real dynamo of a love story. Austin’s love for both Robby and Shann causes him grief—does it mean he’s gay? bisexual? how can he love them both without hurting anyone? Even with very few words, Smith communicates the dynamic between Robby and Austin and, particularly moving, Robby’s reaction to the realization that he might have a chance at romance with Austin in addition to friendship. Austin’s attention to the romances of his ancestors and the problems that being gay posed for some of them gives him context for his feelings, if not answers to the questions they pose.

Anyone who reads C&M knows Andrew Smith is one of my all-time favorite authors. His books are smart and tender and they tell truths. Grasshopper Jungle lives up to every promise Smith’s oeuvre has made, and it does it all while wearing lemur masks, fighting enormous bugs, and constantly contemplating the uses for semen. Beat that.

readalikes

I really can’t think of any readalikes for Grasshopper Jungle, so I’m just going to make an impassioned plea that you read all of Andrew Smith’s books. Here, I’ll help you get started:

WInger Andrew Smith

Winger (2013). From my review: “Winger scores a solid five out of five snort-laughs on Rebecca’s goddammit-I-can’t-read-this-in-public-because-I-will-humiliate-myself-and-scare-the-parents-of-small-children index of reading reactions! (you’ll get it once you read the book). Note: “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”—yes, that is a quote from the book—will be my new band name. We will be a death metal klezmer band and we will serve pastrami finger sandwiches at our concerts. Come early and come often.” Check out the full review HERE.

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick (2011). From my review: “Stick is also a beautiful exploration of very different types of masculinity. Throughout the book, we get many examples of how Stick and Bosten’s father thinks men should be, down to his conviction that men don’t wear pajamas or use shampoo. Bosten and Stick don’t agree with their father’s notions, but, as Stick says, they never even thought about the rules. It’s just the way things are. Throughout Stick, then, Stick is exposed to multiple models of all the other ways to be a man there are besides his father’s, some violent, some desperate, some generous.” Check out the full review HERE.

The Marbury Lens Andrew Smith

The Marbury Lens (The Marbury Lens #1) (2010). From my review: “The Marbury Lens asks what it would feel like to suddenly become aware that the world you have thought to be all-encompassing actually breaks apart quite easily to reveal another world touching it.” Check out the full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith will be available tomorrow!

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

The Top 10 Greatest Halloween Episodes of TV!

My So-Called Life Halloween My So-Called Life Halloween

by REBECCA, October 16, 2013

I love holiday episodes of television. The fantasy world on the screen intersects with our mundane world during those episodes, as if the pull of shared seasonal moments is too strong to resist. Since I don’t usually watch tv in real time, though, one of my favorite things to do in the weeks leading up to Halloween is watch Halloween-themed episodes. Whereas Christmas and Chanukah and Thanksgiving episodes tend to revolve around family dynamics and issues, Halloween is nearly always a friend-centric holiday, making it perfect for Young Adult tv shows. But, since Halloween is the ultimate day of becoming someone we’re not, especially in terms of dressing up and acting childlike, it creates perfect opportunities for a YA feel even in adult tv shows.

1. My So-Called Life, “Halloween” (1994).

My So-Called Life HalloweenThis is, without a doubt, my favorite Halloween episode of tv; it really hits all the high points. Characters’ costume choices reveal insights into their personalities, like when Rickie decides to dress as Brian Crakow and comments, “I thought this Halloweek I’d be everyone else.” There’s an actual supernatural happening, in which Angela is visited by the ghost of Nicky Driscoll, a greaser who died in the gym on Halloween in 1961 (she got his book in English class, where every good haunting is born). Then there’s the parents’ humiliating storyline where Patty (gag me with a spoon I hate her) dresses as Rapunzel, and the poignant one where Danielle dresses as Angela because she can’t decide whether she wants to understand her or mock her. All in all, it’s grade-A Halloween.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Halloween” (Season 2, 1997).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer halloweenBuffy and her friends get their Halloween costumes from Ethan Rayne’s shop, and the costumes are magicked so that each one turns into the costume she’s wearing. Buffy is a meek damsel, so she can’t do anything; Zander is an army guy who, in an amusing twist later in the season, still remembers some of his army training; Willow is a ghost. This is a fun literalization of the idea that people become what they dress like. Also it’s fun to see Buffy, who’s usually such a badass, be scared of things, while Zander, who’s usually scared, gets to be capable.

3. Supernatural, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester” (Season 4, 2008).

SupernaturalThe day before Halloween, Sam and Dean are investigating a man who dies from swallowing razor blades in candy and a girl who was bobbing for apples at a costume party and was boiled by the water, and realize they’re dealing with a witch who’s trying to raise Samhain. When Sam and Dean confiscate the dude’s candy to check it for supernaturaly things, there’s an amusing gag in which Dean eats ALL the candy. A fun episode and, bonus, it guest stars Ashley Benson, of Pretty Little Liars fame, a very spooky show—and, Ashley Benson is almost the same name as Amber Benson, who stars in Buffy. See what happens on Halloween?!

4. Roseanne, “BOO” (Season 2, 1989).

roseanne halloweenRoseanne did a Halloween episode every season after this one, god bless it, and they’re all pretty awesome. This is one show that’s an exception to the Halloween-is-for-friends theme I mentioned above—Roseanne and Dan are both obsessed with Halloween, and they spend the episode trying to one-up each other on pranks. They have their living room set up as a tunnel of terror for trick-or-treaters, but really Roseanne and Dan are mostly trying to scare each other. Roseanne forever!

5. Bones, “Mummy in the Maze” (Season 3, 2007).

BonesBones and Booth are investigating a mummy found in a haunted maze. Soon, another body shows up, and it seems like the person has been scared to death. The whole gang dresses in costume for the annual Jeffersonian Halloween party, so when Booth and Bones are called away to try and find a missing girl, they have to go in costume. Booth is a nerd squint and Bones is Wonder Woman and it’s amazing. Favorite moment: Booth and other FBI types are trying complicated systems to explain how to find the mummy in the maze and Booth is getting super annoyed. Then Booth realizes the maze is made of hay bales and just knocks the whole thing over.

6. Will & Grace, “Boo, Humbug” (Season 1, 1998).

Will & GraceSuch classic shenanigans! Jack begs Will and Grace to go with him to the Village, but they hate Halloween and are planning on having an Ingmar Bergman film festival at home. Jack begs Karen to go with him instead (and I think this is the episode where they really become friends—one of the greater tv alliances in recorded history). Just as W&G are pouring the wine, Will’s boss shows up and dumps his kids on Will, so he and Grace have to take them trick-or-treating. Hijinks ensue and W&G rediscover their childlike glee. Meanwhile, everyone in the Village thinks that Karen is a drag queen and worships her, which is really only her due.

7. Pushing Daisies, “Girth” (Season 1, 2007).

Pushing Daisies "Girth"Really, nearly every episode of this delight kind of seem like Halloween. Ned (Lee Pace, I love you) hates Halloween, because as a child it was the day he found out that his father had gotten a new family after sending him to boarding school. Emerson and Olive are on the case of a ghost-jockey and ghost-horse that are haunting other jockeys. Turns out, Olive used to be a jockey (amazing backstory choice since Kristin Chenoweth is so tiny) and is therefore in danger of being killed too. In a poignant ending, Chuck dresses up as a ghost and trick-or-treats at the aunts’ house. God, why is this show SO good?!

8. Grey’s Anatomy, “Haunt You Every Day” (Season 4, 2007).

Grey's AnatomyGrey’s Anatomy doesn’t usually do much in the way of Halloween episodes, but I really like this one because it’s more about a Halloween feeling than the holiday itself, although, there are some amazing Halloween moments, including when the boy born without ears goes to Sloan and trick-or-treats for ear surgery. In this episode, Meredith is carrying around her mother’s ashes in a bag and is trying to decide what to do with them, but can’t make the decision—her mother haunts the halls of the hospital and the decisions Meredith makes. The theme of haunting continues in a particularly creepy and interesting instance of a man who is convinced that his foot is “dead” and needs to be cut off.

9. Gossip Girl, “The Handmaiden’s Tale” (Season 1, 2007).

Gossip Girl The Handmaiden's TaleRemember when Blair and Nate were still dating! Well, Blair has arranged an elaborate scavenger hunt at the Halloween Masked Ball. Because it is a MASKED BALL, naturally cases of mistaken identity and disguise abound. In a show where appearance is everything, the opportunity to be mistaken for someone else is a dangerous one, and one that creates opportunities for people who are willing to take them. Bwah ha ha.

10. Beavis and Butthead, “Bungholio: Lord of the Harvest (Butt-O-Ween)” (Season 6, 1995).

Beavis and ButtheadI just found myself transported back to the moment I first saw Beavis and Butthead (sixth grade) and everyone (well, everyone whose parents didn’t immediately force them to stop watching it) was talking about it at school the next day, trying to figure out if they were using real words or just making stuff up. Sadly, my poor mother waged an epically losing battle against the phrase “that sucks” for years, which she can lay firmly at Beavis and Butthead‘s feet. Except they’d probably tell her, “shut up, dumbass.” Anyhoosier, this episode is 1990s MTV Halloweenery at its finest. B&B are watching a horror movie when trick-or-treaters show up at their door. When they realize they, too, could go trick-or-treating and get free candy, they take to the streets. After being dismissed for not wearing costumes, Butthead pours melted cheese all over himself and goes as nachos. Meanwhile, Beavis eats all the candy corn, and is transformed into Cornholio. Somehow, B&B end up at a farm, where they variously turn into zombies, are suspended on meat hooks, and are chased with chainsaws. Oh, the nineties.

So, there you have my picks for the 10 best Halloween episodes of TV. Tell me yours!

Movie Review of Geography Club & Thoughts on Queer YA Film

A Discussion of Geography Club, directed by Gary Entin; written by Edmund Entin, based on the novel by Brent Hartinger

Geography Club

by REBECCA, July 24, 2013

Q Fest, Philadelphia’s annual queer film festival, has just ended, and among all the great indie films and shorts, I also got a chance to see Geography Club, based on Brent Hartinger’s YA novel of the same name, which came out a decade ago. Hartinger’s novel was one of only a few YA novels featuring queer characters at the time, and its rarity is often held in contrast to the decade-long expansion of queer YA fiction that would follow it. I remember reading Geography Club when it came out and found it a fun, charming read, if nothing particularly deep or surprising. It blended together in my mind with Alex Sanchez’ Rainbow Trilogy (2001-2005); the cover of the first in the trilogy, Rainbow Boys, I just realized, features a baby Matt Bomer:

Geography Club by Brent Hartinger Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez Order of the Poised Oak by Brent Hartinger

One thing that’s interested me in watching the increase in queer characters in YA lit has been the inevitable (and welcome) shift from every book that is about a queer teen being a coming out story to the presence of books like Alex London’s Proxy and Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens—stories that begin from the premise that there’s more to being queer than just realizing it and informing others of it. That is: a queer character no longer necessitates the structure of a problem novel, where coming out structures the main drama of the narrative. And this, I think, is a development in publishing more than writing. There have always been people writing awesome, complex queer characters; there just haven’t always been people who were willing to publish them. For a list of my favorite queer YA reads and to-reads, check out my guest posts over at Housequeer: “Queer Young Adult Fiction To Curl Up With,” and “More Queer Young Adult Fiction To Curl Up With: My To-Read Edition.”

GleeAnyway, watching Geography Club had me thinking about why, in 2013, Hartinger’s novel would be the book to get the green light. In a film festival full of (for better and for worse) searching, experimental, and unique films, Geography Club stood out as the slickest, most easily consumable, mainstream film in the bunch. In large part, the film is firmly on familiar ground for anyone who watches Glee: it’s a feel-good story of attractive, non-threatening gay and lesbian high schoolers who have straight best friends and are figuring out who they are and what role their sexual orientations play in their lives. So, it makes sense that this would be the kind of movie that a studio would want to make: in a way, it doesn’t matter that it’s queerness that is the central struggle for these characters; this struggle results in the same dramatic action as another coming of age struggle would.

I don’t say this to dismiss the film at all—to the contrary, it’s nice that we are now able to have films featuring queer characters where their queerness is pretty . . . normal. Rather, I say it to point out that YA film, in 2013, is still about a decade behind YA publishing when it comes to the kinds of stories it’s able/willing to tell. And this isn’t really surprising, considering that the sheer material requirements for a film (money, bodies, time, space) are much greater than that of a book. Still, I hope that the awesome queer YA lit that’s come out in the last five or ten years—not to mention the enthusiasm about it that readers have expressed—will inspire the YA film powers that be to take some more risks on stories that don’t all follow a coming-out narrative structure.

Geography Club is a sweet, well-made feel-good film. The acting (particularly the adorable Cameron Deane Stewart as Russell and Andrew Caldwell as his manic, girl- and junk food-obsessed bestie) is solid, and there are some really funny moments. It’s a well-paced and self-assured movie, and was exactly the kind of confection I wanted to watch on a hot summer Sunday afternoon. But, just like Hartinger’s novel, it’s not a story that will stick with me, nor is it one that shows us anything we didn’t already know. And, for me, despite being sweet and funny, that makes it a bit of a disappointment.

What do you think? What are the queer YA books you’d love to see come to the silver screen? Tell me in the comments.

Holy Nerd-Con Love, Batman! How to Repair a Mechanical Heart

A Review of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis

Self-published, 2012

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis

by REBECCA, June 3, 2013

Friends, it is my pleasure to announce that the author of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, the lovely J.C. Lillis, will join us on Wednesday for an interview and a GIVEAWAY! Make sure you check back then!

Brandon and Abel are huge fans of Castaway Planet, a science fiction show, and their nemeses are the CadSim shippers—fans who believe that Cadmus and Sim, the “dashing space captain Cadmus and dapper android Sim” who are the show’s two main characters, will end up together by the end of Castaway Planet, and who write fan fiction about it. After all, Cadmus and Sim are Brandon and Abel’s biggest crushes ever. So, they set out on a six-week odyssey with their friend, Becca, to attend Castaway Planet conventions and prove once and for all that the space captain and the android are not in love . . . but they get more than they bargained for when they find themselves in the sights of the fanfic community. Could they ever make an RL romance work, or is their relationship  destined to self-destruct?

People: I think How to Repair a Mechanical Heart is the most adorable book I’ve ever read, and I don’t mean that in an infantilizing way, but in an I-want-to-have-sleepovers-with-it-every-Friday kind of way. This is YA nerdqueer at its most charming. (Also, it’s so delightful to find such an amazing gem that is also self-published!) Abel is confident and flirtatious (“This RV is like, nine months pregnant with awesome“) and Brandon is still working through residual (and paralyzing) Catholic guilt about being gay. Yet, their shared Castaway Planet obsession and vlog brought these two opposites together. This results in some absolutely hilarious nerd-talk, as well as some super poignant heartache. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart is told from Brandon’s perspective, so his battles with his religion and his sexuality are particularly poignant:

“Abel Charges after me. Grabs my arm by the bakery case. He does it like it’s nothing, like he doesn’t even realize his hand is there, and meanwhile my arm is zapping hot panicked messages to my brain: he’s touching me I’m being touched don’t move don’t breathe act normal be Sim.”

and

“‘Brandon, it’s time you knew. Your mother has a crush on an android.’

They all crack up, Mom and Dad and Father Mike the loudest of all. Coffee sours in my stomach. If a nice little anxiety disorder wasn’t programmed into my motherboard, I’d say So do I and watch them implode.”

Anyone with love for geek or fan culture will read How to Repair with a warmed heart and giggle, because in addition to being about coming out, coming of age, and finding love, How to Repair a Mechanical Heart is an absolute love letter to geek culture. And, where some books about geek culture are mocking it out of the sides of their mouths, How to Repair unabashedly wallows in its own geekiness.

“She throws back her head and releases an unholy screech, loud enough to chill the collective blood of the Social Media conference two ballrooms over.

Everyone freezes. The guy chatting up Bec breathes holy shit.

Abel leans close. ‘Omigod,’ he hisses.

‘I know.’

‘We were there, Bran. We were there when Bree LaRue melted down in Cleveland. Historic.'”

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart by J.C. LillisGeek culture here includes real person shipping; that is, as I mentioned, there are some folks who decide to write fiction about Abel and Brandon themselves. This element of the book is particularly interesting to me—the notion of fans caring so much that they will intercede in order to bring about a different course of action, and the line between character and persona being blurred. (Supernatural, seasons 4 and 5, amiright?) J.C. Lillis clearly knows how the fan community works and she brings it all to bear in the amazing fictional chatrooms of the ABANDON (that’s Abel + Brandon, y’all) shippers:

“sorcha doo: if they get together global warming will stop and wars will end and kevin will love me again.

amity crashful: hey_mamacita are you here?? we neeeeeeeed you.

hey_mamacita: OMG SOBBING AND SHAKING AND VOMITING RAINBOWS. LIKE WHAT IS THIS LIFE EVEN.

amity crashful: your last fic made me cry like a bb

hey mamacita: LISTEN: it’s not fic anymore. okay? It is PROPHECY. i mean SHIT ON A SHINGLE, SON it is SO CLOSE to happening and I don’t give a porcupine’s bumhole what maxie & her minions at Cadsim think. . . . THINGS. HAVE. EVOLVED.

amity crashful: omg I worship you. Never stop saying words.”

and, later,

retro robot: OMG mamacita that is eerie. I love you so much.

sorcha doo: mamacita u give me life.

hey_mamacita: THIS HAS TO HAPPEN. WE WILL WRITE IT INTO BEING.

When even the chat room personas have unique and intriguing voices, you know it’s gotta be good. And it is! There are wonderful characters here, as well as a truly fun road-trip-structured plot. There is humor, there are tears, there are snacks. There is fighting, there is making up, there are costume balls. And, after you’ve read the book, check out these character extras on J.C. Lillis’ website . . .

Indeed, I don’t want to say much more because J.C. Lillis has such wonderful things to say about the book and its many fascinations. So, check back here on Wednesday for our interview with her and for your chance to win a copy of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart!

And My New Favorite Book Is: Winger!

A Review of Winger by Andrew Smith

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Winger by Andrew Smitha

by REBECCA, May 8, 2013

characters

Ryan Dean (yes, that’s his first name): 14-year-old junior at a posh boarding school and winger on the rugby team, he’s in love with his best friend Annie and not sure he’ll live through the year rooming with Chas, the biggest bully on the team

Annie: thinks Ryan Dean is aces, but often calls him a “little boy,” activating his desire to kill everything

Joey: rugby captain and all around delightful human being, Joey dispenses sage advice and tries to discourage Ryan Dean from fucking up his life, all while dealing with the fact that being a gay rugby player makes some people pretty dang uncomfortable

worldview

As anyone who reads the blog knows, I am a huge Andrew Smith fan. I think he is one of the most consistently amazing authors working today, young-adultish or otherwise. (I review Stick HERE and The Marbury Lens HERE.) Thus, I’ve been looking forward to Winger since Smith first announced it on his blog because a.) it’s an Andrew Smith book, duh, and b.) it’s a boarding school book, a setting that lives at the heart of some of my all-time favorite books.

Well, Winger scores a solid five out of five snort-laughs on Rebecca’s goddammit-I-can’t-read-this-in-public-because-I-will-humiliate-myself-and-scare-the-parents-of-small-children index of reading reactions! (you’ll get it once you read the book). Note: “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”—yes, that is a quote from the book—will be my new band name. We will be a death metal klezmer band and we will serve pastrami finger sandwiches at our concerts. Come early and come often.

Winger by Andrew Smith illustrated by Sam BosmaWinger manages to be both hysterically funny and gut-wrenchingly sad, and it has illustrations to boot (done by Sam Bosma, who also did the gorgeous back cover).

Ryan Dean’s humor is always paired with desperate humiliation or neurotic dread, making every paragraph a complicated portrait of a fascinating character. I loved getting to know him and I even (embarrassingly) found myself thinking, at one point, “hot damn, I can’t wait to see what an amazing grown up Ryan Dean is going to be.” For me, the true triumph of the character is in Smith’s willingness to risk his likability by doing things like exposing his feelings about how he thinks about Joey:

“I suddenly felt really awkward being here, in my bed, alone in my room, with a gay guy. And then I immediately got pissed off at myself for even thinking shit like that, for doing the same kind of crap to Joey that everyone else did, ’cause I knew what it felt like too, being so not-like-all-the-other-guys-here. And I don’t mean I know what it felt like to be gay, because I don’t, but I do know what it felt like to be the “only” one of something. Heck, as far as I know, there’s just got to be more gay eleventh graders than fourteen-year-old eleventh graders, anyway.

I wondered if it bothered Kevin Cantrell, though. Joey and Kevin had been roommates for two years, and no one ever talked shit about Kevin or wondered if he was gay, because everyone knew he just wasn’t.

I am such a loser.”

This kind of character detail is so difficult to pull off, even though Smith always makes it seem effortless. These are the details that make his characters—even the minor ones—so vivid. “Seanie slipped me a folded square of paper with flowers and hearts drawn on it, and said, ‘Here. Read this. I wrote you a haiku about how gay you are for sitting next to Joey for two classes in a row.’ . . . ‘Nice,’ I said. ‘In Lit class I’m going write you a sonnet about how nothing could possibly be gayer than writing your friend a haiku.'” Sean, incidentally, is one of my favorite characters, with his creepy sense of humor and the immense number of hours he pours into hacking other students’ facebook pages even when no one notices.

Annie shares Ryan Dean’s best friend card with Joey, and Ryan Dean is totally in love with her. The growth of their relationship wasn’t the most interesting element of the story for me, but Ryan Dean’s perspective on the feelings of first love (and his hilariously out-of-control hormones) make it more than appealing to read.

Winger by Andrew Smith, illustrated by Sam BosmaNo, for me the thing that Andrew Smith does best—and Winger is certainly representative of this—is think through the knotty cluster of questions about masculinity, sexuality, bravery, vulnerability, trauma, and hope. The questions about masculinity that Winger thinks through are particularly nuanced and interesting because of the friendship between Joey and Ryan Dean, the former the strong, handsome, respected captain of the rugby team who is also gay, and the latter a boy who is much younger and smaller than the other boys he goes to school with. It’s masterfully done.

The boarding school setting really lets all these issues marinate, and gives it a kind of un-modern feel (cell phones, facebook, et cetera, are not allowed on campus). Ryan Dean has been moved to a dorm for troublemakers this year because he stole a teacher’s cell phone to call Annie one weekend, so he’s rooming with Chas Becker, who he fears might kill him, and is separated from the friends he roomed with the year before, Sean and JP. This shift in Ryan Dean’s social circle encourages some changes for him and necessitates others, so the book finds him at a really dynamic moment.

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

Winger by Andrew SmithTo be totally honest, I feel like now I’m just kind of talking out of my ass, looking for something to say that will make you read Winger, but the truth is that I don’t have anything else to say that isn’t just gushy chatter or would spoil something, so I’m going to stop, and just quote you some more amazingness. The fact is: Winger lives up to and surpasses every expectation. Winger is fucking stellar; Andrew Smith has once again created something that has moved me immensely; reading Andrew Smith makes me embarrassed for every single one of us out there who isn’t as honest as his characters are, me included; I look forward to having a conversation about the ending after everyone’s read it; godspeed ye to the bookstore.

Here, Chas makes Ryan Dean play poker with him, Joey, and Kevin, and Ryan Dean has never had beer before:

“As Chas began dealing the cards out, all these things kind of occurred to me at once:

1. The taste. Who ever drinks this piss when they’re thirsty? Are you kidding me? Seriously . . . you’ve got to be kidding.

2. Little bit of vomit in the back of my throat. It gets into my nasal passages. It burns like hell, and now everything also smells exactly like barf. Nice. Real nice.

3. I am really scared. I am convinced something horrible is going to happen to me now. I picture my mom and dad and Annie (she is so smoking hot in black) at my funeral.

4. Mom and Dad? I feel so terrible that I let them down and became a dead virgin alcoholic at fourteen.

5. For some reason, Chas, Joey, and Kevin are all looking at me and laughing as quietly as they can manage.

6. Woo-hoo! Chas dealt me pocket Jacks.”

and this:

“I saw [Chas] turn his face over his shoulder and look at me once, and I’ll be honest, it scared me. I considered scrawling a makeshift will on the back of a napkin, but as I took mental inventory of my life’s possessions, I realized no one would want them anyway.

I was as good as dead now.

Images of my funeral again: both Annie and Megan looking so hot in black; Joey shaking his head woefully and thinking how he told me so; JP and Chas high-fiving each other in the back pew; Seanie installing a live-feed webcam in my undersize casket; and Mom and Dad disappointed, as always, that I left this world a loser alcoholic virgin with eighteen stitches over my left eye.”

Gaaaaaawwwwd! Read this book, y’all. Don’t make me step on your testicles and then write a haiku about it.

readalikes

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan (2013). The Tragedy Paper is also a boarding school book that excavates the intricacies of friendships, growing up, and being different. My complete review is HERE.

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). While the premises are totally different, Winger reminded me of K.L. Going’s tone in King of the Screwups. Ryan Dean and Liam share a kind of hilarious hopelessness when things go wrong. And, like Winger, King of the Screwups is both really funny and totally gutting. Read my full review HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of Winger from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Winger by Andrew Smith will be available May 14th. Which leaves you just enough time to go read ALL of Andrew Smith’s other books.

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

Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

madnessunderneath

The Madness Underneath

Shades of London 2

Maureen Johnson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Review by Tessa

Characters

Rory Deveaux, transplanted private schooler, ghost-interacter-and-destroyer

Stephen Dene, head of the secret ghost division of the London Police

Callum & Boo, the other two members of the secret police squad

Jazza, Jeremy & Charlotte – school friend, boyfriend, and frenemy

Jane – a mysterious and almost supernaturally calming therapist who provides her services for free

Hook

The Ripper-emulating ghost re-terrorizing London has been destroyed, but not without weird consequences.

Worldview

In The Name of the Star, Rory learns that the world is a little different than the normal world we all live in. It’s still normal, but some people can see and interact with ghosts–as long as you have the natural inclination and add a near-death experience into the equation.

Rory’s a fish out of water, being a ghost-seer, and a fish out of water, being a Louisiana native trying to hack it in a London boarding school for her senior year. Her snarky sense of humor helps her deal with all the weirdness being thrown her way, as well as her natural curiosity. Occasional drama-free makeout sessions don’t hurt, either.

nameofthestar

However, the situation of figuring out the ghost-mystery-murders almost seems easier than the situation of picking herself up in the aftermath of the murders. Rory is failing school after spending time with a therapist and her parents in Bristol. She’s now a human terminus – her touch destroys ghosts – and the police want to use her as a clean-up tool for London’s ghostly lurkers, since the original diamonds used for the purpose went kaput. But she doesn’t know how she feels about being the post-Grim Reaper Reaper. Worst of all, she can’t confide in her friends, her boyfriend, or her parents about what’s really going on in her life.

On top of it all, the ghosts around London, especially around Rory’s school, are upping the ante on being angry and causing bloodshed. Rory thinks it might have something to do with what the area used to house, who was buried there, and maybe the crack that opened up in the earth when the faux-Ripper got terminated.

Then she’s fortuitously led to a laid-back, rich woman named Jane who’s been helping stuck-up Charlotte deal with her own Ripper trauma. Jane practices for free, always has brownies to offer Rory, and finally Rory can almost relax. Or should she?

Does this book live up to its intentions?

Johnson writes delicious hook-y adventures and her sense of humor is one that I enjoy. The Madness Underneath has all of these qualities and some shivery moments, too.  I admired Rory’s feistiness in the face of depression and loved getting back to the foggy, twisty streets of her neighborhood.  Johnson is very good at writing place – enough detail but not too much – and I could effortlessly picture where Rory was going (even if I can’t stop picturing Rory as Alexis Bledel).

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

The Madness Underneath definitely a second novel in a series of more than two books. Rory’s in transition and trying desperately to ignore that she might be in free fall. She tries to be normal but her life is breaking into some pretty clear paths. She has to decide what she wants and why, from boyfriends to future career plans. But there doesn’t seem to be space to think.

If anything, the book moves too fast, and, like The Name of the Star, drops off at a really crucial moment. The mystery that starts the book gets solved pretty quickly by Rory and the ghost squad, and then just as quickly is subsumed in a new, bigger mystery with sinister implications – really intriguing, culty, conspiratorial ones.

Then Johnson jabs us with two big knocks of the Plot Fist and closes the book. It happens so fast I don’t even know what I think of those developments yet.

Maybe I should’ve waited another year or so to read 2 & 3 in succession.

Readalikes

Want more ghost-exploring?

Try Karina Halle!

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

For the same traveling-in-a-new-place-and-discovering-otherworldy-things feel, try these:

Witch Eyes

Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey

peregrineriggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

greatandterriblebeauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

possessed   Consumed
Possessed / Consumed by Kate Cann

Two Middle-Grade Mysteries with Ageless Appeal: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire!

whocouldthatbe

“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” All The Wrong Questions #1

by Lemony Snicket

Art by Seth

Little, Brown and Company 2012

mr_mrs_bunny_cover

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire!

by Mrs. Bunny, translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath

art by Sophie Blackall

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012

reviews by Tessa

Lately, even with the weather soaring to climate-change induced heights instead of wintery lows, I’ve still been craving cozy reading.  For me that usually means something funny, fast, and in a genre.  I really  hit the jackpot this week and last, with two middle-grade-marketed mysteries that could be read and enjoyed by anyone except maybe for babies, who knows what babies are thinking.

who even knows. from Open Clip Art library

who even knows. from Open Clip Art library

The only thing you have to ask yourself is: do I want to be reading something atmospheric and silly or aggressively silly?  For the former there’s “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, the first in the All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket (illustrated by Seth) and for the latter, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire! by Mrs. Bunny, translated from Rabbit by Polly Horvath and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

Seth! Seth! Seth!

Seth! Seth! Seth!

“Twice I almost fell asleep thinking of places and people in the city that were dearly important to me, and the distance between them and myself growing and growing until the distance grew so vast that even the longest-tongued bat in the world could not lick the life I was leaving behind.” (21)

“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” brings back Snicket in top form, but this time he delves into his own sad and action-packed past, reviewing all the wrong questions he’s asked throughout his life, and presumably leading to tragedy and further mystery.

We find him, at the opening of the story, (you can preview the first chapter here) in a greasy tearoom at a train station, saying goodbye to his parents at the age of 13 and going to act as an apprentice of some sort to someone.  The mystery begins at once, for he does not get on the train. A woman with wild hair drops a note on his lap, giving him five minutes to meet her out front in her roadster–but he must leave through the bathroom window.  Evidently prepared for this, Snicket finds the ladder stowed in the bathroom and exits, but is not prepared to be whisked out of the city to a new destination.

There’s someone in the city waiting for Snicket to help investigate important things in the sewer system, but there isn’t a way for him to go back. He’s now apprenticed to S. Theodora Markson, ranked 52 on the list of as many people with whom it was possible to apprentice, and on his way to Stain’d by the Sea, a seaside town no longer by the seaside.

Seth's illustrations add to the considerable atmosphere of the book.

Seth’s illustrations add to the considerable atmosphere of the book.

Markson and Snicket pass deep wells where giant needles dip in and out, harvesting ink from frightened octopi, the last of their kind.  A bell rings and Snicket is told to wear a silver mask because of “water pressure” although there is no water around. It’s just a taste of the confounding and lonely things to come. He finds that they will be investigating the burglary of a statue of a legendary sea creature–said to be taken from the home of one prominent family in town by members of the other prominent family, and yet the two families are not enemies.

Along the way there are the usual vocabulary lessons (“bombinating”, “hawser”), dryly specific advice, but not as much advice as the Snicket who narrates The Series of Unfortunate Events dispenses. “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” is about a much less assured Snicket at a much more malleable time in his life.  He’s probably still smarter than his mentor, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t acting a little impulsively and having melancholy adolescent feelings about things, as opposed to the older and more settled in inevitable sadness voice from the previous series of Snicket books. There are even two possible romantic interests and a hint that we will learn about some Snicket family members. For me this meant extra emotional depth in a quick read, just as I had hoped for and expected. The mysteries just keep begetting more mysteries, like a man whose hat is filled with men wearing hats containing ever tinier men with hats and so on. In other words: delicious complications!

Readalikes:

Just go back and re-read Series of Unfortunate Events, as I plan to. Or start on the Mysterious Benedict Society series, by Trenton Lee Stewart, which has a similar tone and feel.

Mr. & Mrs.!

Mr. & Mrs.!

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire! has very little melancholy (unless you’re severely inclined to it) and, perhaps in its place, a lot of silliness. Fierce silliness. Unselfconscious silliness.

I admit that I initially checked this book out because of Sophie Blackall, being a huge fan of her art. And it took me a bit to get into the story, which starts out with the human side of things, explaining 5th-grader Madeline’s world, where she’s the square living with a Canadian commune of benign, marimba-playing, luminaria-loving, monarchy-disdaining hippies (including her parents, Flo and Mildred).  The descriptions came off as odd and forced-whimsical with a whiff of mockery, without being charming. I’ll get to the bunnies and then make my decision, I thought.

Luckily for me, the second chapter introduces Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. They are a couple set in their ways but given to impulse, and with a great bantering style. And the second page of the second chapter stops to note that

“Marmots, of course, were the bane of many a bunny’s existence. With their constant whining and tendency to matted fur, no one wanted to live around a marmot. Except perhaps another marmot. And sometimes not even they.”

a marmot, provided by Wikimedia

a marmot, provided by Wikimedia

I used to make zines for my sister, and one of them had a nice large picture of a marmot. I’d intended to make this an ad for the organization M.A.R.M.O.T. but could not think of a phrase to fill out the acronym. Now, any book that understood the comic possibilities of marmots was one that I would definitely have to read.

Good thing, because Mr. & Mrs. Bunny may not be great detectives but it’s fun to follow them as they bumble along with gumption.  As a couple, they don’t come off as a stereotype of an old bickering married pair, although they have been married for a long time and they do bicker.  There’s something about them that still seems fresh. It could be that they are scatterbrained. It could be that when Mrs. Bunny starts poking Mr. Bunny in the side for emphasis, she continues to do so because it’s fun, and then Mr. Bunny pretends not to notice but saves the retaliatory pokes for later, when she won’t expect it – and later in the narrative where it’s funnier to see brought up again.

It’s also a jumbled world where Foxes can learn to speak English in order to decode recipes for making food of rabbits, where bunnys can drive cars and build villages with freestanding Olde Spaghetti Factories, just like human towns, but clearly have their own bunny priorities like too much fursweating under a waterproof cap, or being called in front of the dreaded Bunny Council.

I laughed and/or smiled many times to myself while reading it, especially for the parts where the ongoing joke about Madeline having a gigantic bottom came up.  I even laughed in public while reading alone at a bar. That alone makes a it recommend-worthy, I think, and the mystery itself is solved in an escalating way filled with madcap rubbery red herrings all over the place.  There’s even a couple phrases of Fox to be learned from it, and also how to hypnotize a marmot.

Readalikes:

M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales series (start with Whales on Stilts!) is pretty close in humor, although a bit more absurd.  And you’d do well to also read Maryrose Wood‘s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, also delightfully illustrated by a talented person, Jon Klassen.

PLEASE LEAVE YOUR SUGGESTIONS FOR WHAT M.A.R.M.O.T. STANDS FOR IN THE COMMENTS. Prizes possible.

Dear Year, Thank You for Entertaining Me.

by Tessa

It was just around this time last year that Rebecca and I were seriously working on our as-yet-untitled blog, and it’s the perfect time to say that I’m thankful that it became real. So thank you, Rebecca, for having the idea and being the best blog-mate & book discussor, and for moving to my home state so we could hang out more. (I know, it was because of your sister, but leave me my delusions).  Thanks also for making my to-read list so much longer. Seriously, I feel comforted knowing that if I hit a reading slump I have Rebecca-recommended books to rely on.

And thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has read, visited &/or commented on our posts at Crunchings & Munchings. It’s exciting to be a part of the discussion.

I am also thankful for the many books I got to read this year, some of which I reviewed, and some of which I just enjoyed. And some of which I decided to not say anything about so as not to be rude.  They were all fun in one way or another. But I’m going to call out a few types in particular.

Are you looking for gift ideas for your loved ones?  Consider ALL OF THESE as possibilities:

1. Subtlety in Speculative Fiction & Movies

It’s possible that my definition of speculative is broader than other people’s. But I feel like a book that delivers a subtle promise of a world not quite aligned with ours, but in all other respects exactly like it still counts, and that’s why Burn for Burn worked for me, and why I’m not comfortable calling it paranormal just yet.  And why I lurrrved The Scorpio Races with its island out of Anne of Green Gables–but with carnivorous horses.  I am so glad that R. did it justice in her review. Alif the Unseen illuminated a world of Middle Eastern violence and a second world just overlapping it, to great effect.

Shadoweyes was a speculative graphic novel that hit it out of the park as far as future iterations of the world and young adult struggles were concerned, nodding to its inspirations but keeping it real and fresh as far as what society would really be like (violent, diverse, but still with shows about sparkly ponies to become obsessed with).  On the middle-grade end of the spectrum, the secret society fighting a diabolical mind control plot in The Mysterious Benedict Society was exactly what I needed to read and charmed the dickens out of me.

And let’s not forget Chronicle and Looper, two very worthwhile speculative movies from very recent times, that go with the human story first instead of being all spectacle. And the most fun I had writing a post this year was about an old favorite: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s not a subtle movie, but I did speculate as to why anyone would try to remake it and why it could never be as good..

2. Three Cheers for Realistic Fiction

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

I’ve always loved switching off between speculative worlds and immersive portraits of real lives that could never be mine, and this year didn’t disappoint. The Fault in Our Stars knocked it out of the park.  Past Perfect helped me through a hard time in my life. A book we’re reviewing next week, Starting From Here, was a lovely surprise that I read in a day. Oh, and The Freak Observer made me sad and hopeful in all the best ways.

Also, I read three books of realistic fiction that deserve their own category:

3. Funny Books!

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

It’s Kind of A Funny Story, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson all had moments where I actually loled. Not that other books that I read didn’t have humor in them (Past Perfect was also very funny), but these in particular had globs and globs of humor.  Maybe not globs. Icing layers?

(Can I also add that it kind of perturbs me that I find these 3 books so funny, since they all have boy protagonists? Is this some kind of unconscious gender bias on my part?)

4. Getting Back to the Classics

In my job I don’t always give myself time to go back to books that I remember and love, but Crunchings & Munchings gives me a legitimate excuse to do just that.  So I had a wonderful time re-exploring Girl, the Dark is Rising sequence, and Remember Me, as well as rounding up my favorite scary stories and boarding school books.

5. Great Series

  

I mentioned Burn for Burn and the Mysterious Benedict Society above, and they totally count, but I also read other parts of series or finished up series this year that were intriguing and satisfying in turn – ones that I couldn’t find a way to blog about.

Dustlands by Moira Young I read Rebel Heart last week. It’s the sequel to Blood Red Road, a story set in the far future in some unnamed desert where a tough, closed-off girl has to fight her way to her kidnapped brother. In Rebel Heart we learn more about the world, and the girl, Saba, learns more about how she can betray herself and be herself. It’s like if Monsters of Men and the Hunger Games had a baby and you could tell that the baby got the best traits of both of them but was its own wonderful thing.

Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore  I’m a total Graceling realm fangirl and Bitterblue came out this year. It was probably one of the most satisfying fantasy novels I’ve read this year, or in the past couple of years. The lady knows what she’s doing. I love them so much I can’t really talk about them.

Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau I finally finished this series!  I’m constantly recommending it to people, because it’s all-ages and covers a lot of ground as far as worldbuilding and subject matter go.  It starts underground with a kind of ramshackle utopia gone stale, then goes aboveground and has its characters become the outsiders learning to survive in a homesteading situation, then goes into the past with a little story about what happens right before the world irrevocably changes, in an oblique and tense way, and then goes back to the future for the last book, which is the most hopeful and the least believable. I’m glad I read all of them.

The Diviners by Libba Bray – I wasn’t sold on the romance in this book, and it seemed more coincidental than fated that all the characters who mattered happened to run into each other and become friends/acquaintances/lovers over the course of the book, but it reminded me of The Alienist by Caleb Carr and captured a certain feeling, of a new cultural movement that is sparkly and exciting but also comes with feeling a little lost, that I loved. And there are creepy moments galore.

Honorable Mention: Weird Graphic Novels.

I don’t mention many of the graphic novels I’ve been reading and loving on here much, because most of the time they are aimed squarely at the adult market, and I don’t disagree with that designation.  But I’ve read so many fun, weird-ass graphic novels this year. Filled with crust punk courier mice, psychadelic wordless lands, a president who accidentally becomes a penis, an opus about quietly philosophical birds (and the people who feed them donut crumbs), AND MORE. And I’m so happy that they exist.  So if you ever want any recommendations, send me an email.

And finally, I am thankful for my Turkey on this Thanksgiving.

xo.

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