“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

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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.

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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.

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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!

Caught Between Two Worlds: Otherbound

A review of Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

Amulet (Abrams), 2014

Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

by REBECCA, June 11, 2014

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Every time Nolan Santiago closes his eyes, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a servant girl bound to a cursed princess in a world far from his own Arizona town. Amara has no idea he’s there. Until, one day, their worlds collide, and they realize that although all they want is to be rid of one another, their worlds are bound in a way that only working together can hope to untangle.

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Whee! I’ve been so, so bloody disappointed with all the YA fantasy I’ve been reading lately, so much so that I’ve started and abandoned five or six fantasies in the last month or so. I had high hopes for Otherbound, though, and I am so thrilled not to be disappointed. Corinne Duyvis‘ debut novel is impressive and original. But, most important to me, it has stakes—the lack of which in a number of books I’ve reviewed have been driving me wild with confusion and frustration lately.

Nolan Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Nolan, by Corinne Duyvis

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the deal. Nolan’s parents, teachers, and doctors all think he is epileptic, diagnosing his departures into Amara’s world as micro-seizures. He has tried medication after medication, but nothing seems to have an effect on the seizures—because, of course, they aren’t seizures. He’s been visiting Amara’s world since he was a kid. Indeed, one of his early experiences of Amara’s world, while he was riding his bike, was so distracting that he was caught under the wheels of a car and lost his foot. So, although he is invested in Amara, her fellow servant Maart, and Cilla, the princess they serve against their will, Nolan pays a huge price for his implication in their world. His parents struggle to afford medications that don’t help him, his teachers and classmates don’t even notice when he barely makes it though the day it’s so common, and everyone in town knows to look out for his seizures. Nolan’s life isn’t wholly his own even when he’s in his own world.

Amara Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Amara, by Corinne Duyvis

Amara was taken from her home as a child because of her mage-like ability to heal herself and tasked with safeguarding Cilla, the princess who escaped her family’s overthrow with a curse that will kill her if she spills even one drop of blood. Amara’s job is to absorb the pain of the curse into her own body, should Cilla accidentally spill her blood, since Amara can heal herself. She and Cilla have been bound together so long that Amara has trouble knowing whether her feelings for Cilla are hatred, pity, friendship, or perhaps something more like love. She has no idea that Nolan has been with her, looking through her eyes and feeling what she feels, until one day he manages to take over her body—to make her body run when she’s in danger but has passed out.

Cilla Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Cilla, by Corinne Duyvis

When Nolan is finally able to control Amara’s body enough to explain that he is there (servants in Amara’s world have their tongues cut out and communicate through sign language), Amara is horrified to realize that what she once thought were private thoughts, sensations, and feelings, have been observed. But she and Cilla may need the insights Nolan has, as a longtime observer, to discover who cast Cilla’s curse and how to break it so that she and Amara—and Nolan—have a chance at living free lives.

When I say that Otherbound has stakes, I mean that there are real personal risks to and for characters, both physically and mentally. But there are also stakes because of Duyvis’ worldbuilding. Duyvis uses the class system of Amara and Cilla’s world to raise questions about the ability of a servant and a princess to ever enter into friendship or love as equals. Ethnicities, in Amara and Cilla’s world mean different things than they do in Nolan’s, but power and race and gender and pain are all bound up in both. Yet Duyvis never falls back on allowing these to be demonstrative of any fixed meanings about characters, groups, or places.

Otherbound starts a bit slow, especially because it shifts between Nolan’s and Amara’s worlds so quickly, but as the mystery ratchets up and the stakes grow, it really takes off. There are twists and turns, but never red herrings or deliberate obfuscations for the purpose of confusing the reader. For me, Nolan’s was the more interesting story. While I was taken in by Cilla and Amara’s adventures, I cared more about the boy attempting to live a life split between two worlds, always struggling to reassure his parents and sister that, maybe, just for today, his seizure medication is working and they can watch a movie or practice Nahuatl together. Otherbound is a story about connections and the ways we become tethered together, implicated in each other’s lives whether we choose to or not.

Otherbound will appeal to fans of contemporary YA, queer YA, fantasy, and adventure stories. Oh, and you should check out Corinne Duyvis’ website to see more portraits of her characters (she went to art school—no, seriously, look at some of those gorgeous pencil drawings!). Duyvis is also an organizer of Disibility in Kidlit, which is an amazing resource for all things disability in YA.

Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

readalikes

Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMannFade Dream Catcher Lisa McMannGone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

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

Skin Hunger Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of MagicSacred Scars Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of Magic

A Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey (2007–present). Duey’s series (which I ADORE!) alternates quickly between perspectives in an attempt to solve a mystery of magic too. My full review of Skin Hunger is HERE. The third book in the series is slated to come out this summer.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis will be available June 17th.

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

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“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)

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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.

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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.

“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

45 Days: Suicide Notes, a Novel

A review of Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford

HarperTeen, 2008

Suicide Notes Michael Thomas Ford

by REBECCA, February 3, 2014

hook

Fifteen-year-old Jeff wakes up in a psych ward on New Year’s Day, committed for 45 days of therapy. But it’s a total mistake, because Jeff wasn’t actually trying to kill himself; not really. And, obviously, it’s the other kids in the ward with him who are crazy. Right?

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Michael Thomas Ford’s Suicide Notes takes place over the course of Jeff’s 45 days in the psych ward, and the backstory of how he ended up there is revealed slowly, as he gets to know the other kids in the ward with him, talks to his therapist, Dr. Katzrupus, whom he calls Cat Poop, and eventually confronts his parents. Like the circumscribed ward in which Jeff finds himself, Suicide Notes is a book that knows its limits. It tells a very particular story and does it well, but it’s a bounded story; one that doesn’t attempt to break those boundaries, but instead takes advantage of them to explore its small scope.

Girl, Interrupted Susanna KaysenOne of the things Suicide Notes does best is show how Jeff moves, psychologically, from being in denial about his suicide attempt at the beginning, to finally accepting not only what he did but why he felt the need to do it. When we first meet Jeff, he’s cloaked any vulnerability in aggressively smart-ass banter. He listens to the other kids in his therapy group with pity, thinking how messed-up they are. There’s Alice, who set her molester on fire, Juliet, who’s delusional, Bone, who doesn’t say anything, and Sadie, who was saved from a suicide attempt by a stranger. Jeff insists he doesn’t belong there, but little by little, he realizes that they don’t seem crazy, either.

Jeff makes friends with Sadie, since they both are up late at night, and, as they get closer, he finds himself thinking about his best friend, Allie. When Jeff’s sister tells him that Allie hasn’t asked about his absence from school, Jeff is forced to consider what role Allie and her boyfriend, Burke, had to play in his feelings the night he tried to kill himself.

After Jeff has been in the psych ward for two weeks, two new kids come: Martha, a twelve-year-old who has been through horrific trauma, but seems to take a shine to Jeff, and Rankin, a jock-y football player. It’s Rankin’s confusing behavior that finally shakes loose the fears and feelings that Jeff hasn’t been able to acknowledge. When Jeff finds himself in over his head with Rankin, he is forced to confront his suicide attempt and everything that led up to it.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden Joanne GreenbergSuicide Notes follows in the footsteps of novels like I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1964) and Girl, Interrupted (1993). As I said, it’s a small, short, focused novel, and Jeff’s voice is the star. He is hard to like at first, since he keeps people—himself included—at such a distance. As he warms to himself, though, I did too. The other characters are a bit sketchy, whether because they’re not particularly developed or because Jeff only encounters them in an artificial way, during group therapy. Similarly, Jeff’s life outside the psych ward is sketchy, and we only get the briefest of descriptions of who he was in that context. All of this, combined with the book’s short length, makes for a slice-of-life feel. We learn a lot about some things and virtually nothing about anything else. This approach seems to match Jeff’s experience of being in an unfamiliar place where he feels out of sync with his real life, but it also left me wanting to know more about Jeff—more particularities about who he was, instead of just what he felt. 

Suicide Notes kind of set the standard of the new generation of teen psych ward fiction that would follow. And, as such, it’s a solid, enjoyable, and touching read. But, while it’s a solid starting point, it just doesn’t have the wow-factor of a novel like Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, which has a similar narrative structure of using the group therapy setting to reconstruct memories, or the staying power of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. That doesn’t make it a bad book at all—it’s a basic book, and it does what it does very well.

readalikes

Last Night I Sang To The Monster Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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

It's Kind of a Funny Story Ned Vizzini

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini (2006). Inspired by the author’s own brief stay in a psych hospital, It’s Kind of a Funny Story tells the story of Craig, whose anxiety and depression as he attempts to get into prep school make him want to kill himself, and lead to him checking himself into a psych hospital instead. See Tessa’s complete review HERE.

OCD Love Story Corey Ann Haydu

OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu (2013). Bea knows she’s a bit messed up—ever since “the incident” last year, she’s been seeing a therapist—but she thinks she’s got things pretty much under control. Heck, she even met a boy at a school dance recently! But now Dr. Pat wants her to join a therapy group for teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. As Bea starts a relationship with Beck her own OCD begins to spiral out of control. My full review of the wonderful OCD Love Story is HERE.

procured from: the library

In Honor of MLK Day, Books About Fighting Oppression

A List of Books With Messages of Fighting For Social Justice

martin luther king jr martin luther king jr

by REBECCA, January 20, 2014

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and in its honor I’ve compiled a list of YA books about fighting injustice and oppression, both the small scale and large.

Proxy Alex London

Proxy (Proxy #1), by Alex London (2013)

As a Patron, Knox has and does anything he wants, as if there were no consequences to his actions. Because there aren’t. Well, not for him. Syd is Knox’s Proxy: any transgression of Knox’s is taken out of Syd’s hide. It’s been this way since they were boys, and Syd has learned to deal with the nerve-spasming pain of shocks, the beatings, and the manual labor. But when Knox kills a friend, Syd’s punishment may as well be a death sentence. But there are things brewing that are larger than Knox and Syd. In this future, where everything has a price, two boys will set out to see if they can take down the system. Great commentary on the crux of class and race in capitalism’s trash-economy with a kick-ass gay protag of color. My full review is HERE and the sequel comes out this Spring.

The Rock and the River Kekla Magoon

The Rock and the River (The Rock and the River #1), by Kekla Magoon

“The Time: 1968. The Place: Chicago. For thirteen-year-old Sam it’s not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older (and best) friend, Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever. Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick’s bed, he’s not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore. Sam wants to believe that his father is right: You can effect change without using violence. But as time goes on, Sam grows weary of standing by and watching as his friends and family suffer at the hands of racism in their own community. Sam beings to explore the Panthers with Stick, but soon he’s involved in something far more serious—and more dangerous—than he could have ever predicted. Sam is faced with a difficult decision. Will he follow his father or his brother? His mind or his heart? The rock or the river?” (Goodreads).

Shadoweyes Ross Campbell

SHADOWEYES Ross CampbellShadoweyes, vol. 1, by Ross Campbell (2010)

In a dystopian society, humans live on garbage heaps and there isn’t much protection for those who can’t protect themselves. One day, Scout becomes able to turn into a blue superhuman creature with claws and the ability to protect the downtrodden. Along with her best friend, Kyisha, Scout embraces her new form and tries to protect her neighbors from those who would take advantage of them. For Scout, this means everything from stopping muggers to befriending her offbeat classmate Sparkle . . . and rescuing her. Tessa’s full review is HERE, and you can read Shadoweyes on Campbell’s website HERE.

Moxyland Lauren Beukes moxyland Lauren Beukes

Moxyland, by Lauren Beukes (2008)

Moxyland “follows the lives of four narrators living in an alternative futuristic Cape Town, South Africa. Kendra, an art-school dropout, brands herself for a nanotech marketing program; Lerato, an ambitious AIDS baby, plots to defect from her corporate employers; Tendeka, a hot-headed activist, is becoming increasingly rabid; and Toby, a roguish blogger, discovers that the video games he plays for cash are much more than they seem. On a collision course that will rewire their lives, this story crackles with bold and infectious ideas, connecting a ruthless corporate-apartheid government with video games, biotech attack dogs, slippery online identities, a township soccer school, shocking cell phones, addictive branding, and genetically modified art. Taking hedonistic trends in society to their ultimate conclusions, this tale paints anything but a forecasted utopia, satirically undermining the reified idea of progress as society’s white knight.” (Goodreads)

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (2012)

Shy trans guy Gabe is a huge music fan (Elvis in particular) and an aspiring DJ. The summer after high school, Gabe gets the chance of a lifetime from his musical mentor, John: a chance at his own radio show, “Beautiful Music For Ugly Children.” In high school, Gabe was stuck as Elizabeth, hiding who he really was. On the air, though, Gabe is able to be himself and let his B-side play, inspiring others to do the same. With his newfound attention, though, come threats, and Gabe must decide whether to stand by his message of radical acceptance or go off the air. My full review is HERE.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling (2003)

Possibly my favorite Harry Potter book! At the end of book four, Voldemort returns. Now, in response to those rumors, the Ministry of Magic is threatened by Dumbledore’s power at Hogwarts. In Ron, Harry, and Hermione’s fifth year at Hogwarts, the Ministry sends Delores Umbrage to check Dumbledore’s power. Little by little, she strips away the students’ rights, including the ability to meet in groups or use magic to defend themselves, so the gang forms Dumbledore’s Army to teach themselves. I think this book is such a genius installment in the series, because it takes a brief break from the direct threat of evil overlord Voldemort and turns to the bureaucratic evil that occurs as a result of fear of evil, and can be just as oppressive.

Santa Olivia Jacqueline Carey

Santa Olivia (Santa Olivia #1), by Jacqueline Carey (2009)

“Loup Garron was born and raised in Santa Olivia, an isolated, disenfranchised town next to a US military base inside a DMZ buffer zone between Texas and Mexico. A fugitive ‘Wolf-Man’ who had a love affair with a local woman, Loup’s father was one of a group of men genetically-manipulated and used by the US government as a weapon. Loup, named for and sharing her father’s wolf-like qualities, is marked as an outsider.

After her mother dies, Loup goes to live among the misfit orphans at the parish church, where they seethe from the injustices visited upon the locals by the soldiers. Eventually, the orphans find an outlet for their frustrations: They form a vigilante group to support Loup Garron who, costumed as their patron saint, Santa Olivia, uses her special abilities to avenge the town. Aware that she could lose her freedom, and possibly her life, Loup is determined to fight to redress the wrongs her community has suffered. And like the reincarnation of their patron saint, she will bring hope to all of Santa Olivia.” (Goodreads)

The Chocolate War Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (1974)

Cormier’s often-banned book is a classic now, but was rather radical in its time. At Trinity, Jerry’s school, there is an annual fundraiser and all the students sell chocolates. As part of a hazing ritual, Jerry is told to refuse to sell chocolates for ten days. This is bad enough, in the eyes of the Brother Leon, the chocolate-zealot in charge of the sale at Trinity. But, after ten days, even though his hazing is over, Jerry keeps on refusing to sell chocolates. And what started as a silly prank turns into a full-scale civil disobedience. Tessa’s full review is HERE.

Little Brother Cory Doctorow

Little Brother (Little Brother #1), by Cory Doctorow (2008)

Hacker Marcus and his crew are gaming in the wrong place at the wrong time—in San Francisco after a terrorist attack. After being taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security, they’re placed in a secret prison and interrogated mercilessly. After their release, Marcus realizes that the city has become a police state, with limited access to internet resources, surveillance of private citizens, and civil liberties violations up the wazoo. Marcus sets out to free the people (and the information), bending his not inconsiderable skills toward taking down the DHS himself. Awesome example of kids using the resources available to them to change the world. And Doctorow practices the freedom of information he preaches; you can download Little Brother HERE.

Catching Fire Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2), by Suzanne Collins (2009)

While Mockingjay (The Hunger Games #3) takes the Rebellion as its subject, I’m more interested in the political messages in Catching Fire. [Spoiler alert, in case there’s anyone on the planet who hasn’t read it or seen the movie] Rather than depending on a hero, as in so many YA dystopias, in Catching Fire, the Rebellion recognize the effect that Katniss can have on their efforts and realize that they must preserve her so she can serve as their symbol after the quarter quell is over. Tributes from multiple districts unite against the Capital to do so, risking their own lives to get Katniss out of the arena. Bloody genius.

Inside Out Maria V. Snyder Inside Out Maria V. Snyder

Inside Out (Insider #1), by Maria V. Snyder (2010)

“I’m Trella. I’m a scrub. A nobody. One of thousands who work the lower levels, keeping Inside clean for the Uppers. I’ve got one friend, do my job and try to avoid the Pop Cops. So what if I occasionally use the pipes to sneak around the Upper levels? The only neck at risk is my own . . . until I accidentally start a rebellion and become the go-to girl to lead a revolution.”

And, finally, for our little brothers and sisters in struggle:

A is for Activist Innosanto Nagara

A is for Activist, by Innosanto Nagara (2012)

A board book for the next generation’s fight for justice.

Let’s keep dreaming a better world into being, my friends.

Rose Christo Talks about Native American and Queer Lit, Folk Metal, and Cheese!

It’s my pleasure today to welcome Rose Christo, author of my favorite new series, Gives Light, to Crunchings & Munchings!

Rose Christo Gives Light

 

 

reviewed the first book in the series on Monday, and am really excited to get the answers to some burning questions about Gives Light, music, and cheese. Welcome, Rose!

 

 

 

REBECCA:  Skylar’s muteness seems central to his relationships with people (who knows sign language, who can understand his facial expressions, and who treats him like he’s a child, etc.). He’s our narrator, so we know what he’s thinking, but were there challenges in writing Skylar’s character? Particularly in his interactions with others?

ROSE CHRISTO:  I think the narrator being mute came naturally.  When I was a kid I had problems with selective mutism, so I know what it feels like to want desperately to communicate with the people around you but to be unable to. Since the narrator couldn’t talk, it gave other characters the opportunity to project onto him. There’s also the fact that you have to choose to believe him when he tells you what he feels instead of relying on his dialogue. He’s had time to reflect on events, and he filters things out.

REBECCA:  Skylar and Rafael’s relationship is so magical—complicated and effortless at the same time. A topic that comes up on Crunchings & Munchings all the time is how notoriously difficult first loves can be. Do you see Gives Light (the book and/or the series) as a love story?

ROSE CHRISTO:  I love love. I love family. Family trumps romance every time but I think when you really love someone they become your family anyway. I guess it’s a love story, but at the same time it’s really about two boys who lost core parts of their families in the same tragedy but find them again in each other.

REBECCA:  History looms large in Gives Light, both Shoshone history and characters’ personal histories. The rich, vivid detail with which you render daily life and joy on the reservation feels so present, though. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship between history and presence in the book?

ROSE CHRISTO:  Oh, thank you. I think it’s easy to forget that America isn’t even 300 years old yet; her “history” was just a few generations ago. It was my grandpa’s grandpa who escaped the Bear River Massacre. My grandpa, Kookum’s second husband, he was born in the Saline Valley, which California snatched illegally in the 1950s and only returned to the Panamint Shoshone in increments long after he’d passed away. He died without getting to see his home again. The kids in the story are Plains Shoshone, but the issues are the same, and ongoing. History isn’t just the past. Everything that happens today is a chain reaction put in motion by the generations before us; everything we do today creates the world the next generation has to live in. Does that make any sense?

REBECCA:  It absolutely makes sense. The present we live in is always also someone else’s future and someone else’s past, and they’re inextricable.

Although YA lit is bringing us more diversity all the time, Native characters and settings still aren’t common bookstore fare. What are your thoughts about the state of Native representation in YA lit? What do you think is important that we see in the future? Do you have any favorites that you might recommend to interested readers?

ROSE CHRISTO:  One thing I think is really bad about Native characters in YA, or in any medium, is that they’re almost always used in this poverty porn kind of way. There’s this belief that we’re particularly abject and destitute but like any community we have Zitkala Sa American Indian Stories Legendsour goods and our bads. 11% of us are unemployed; but that means 89% of us aren’t. 22% of us live in poverty, and that’s by no means a happy number; but if you think for a moment, that means almost 80% of us are doing pretty well. Where’s that 80% in our media representation? Why do we constantly see the worst case scenario? We’re good and we’re bad, we’re rich and we’re poor, we’re smart and we’re stupid. Our community’s one of the fastest growing communities in America right now. I’d definitely like to see more visibility, as well as more parity.

Zitkala Sa (Lakota) is my favorite NDN author.  Not only was she the first Native American novelist but she also penned the first American opera back in 1910 (The Sun Dance).  Check her out, I think you’ll fall in love.

REBECCA:  Similarly, what about queer YA lit? Skylar and Rafael move from friendship to romance without facing too much hostility on the reservation, and Gives Light is important, I think, in talking about the ways in which culture/ethnicity and queerness inform one another. What are your thoughts about the state of queer representation in YA lit? What do you think is important that we see in the future? Do you have any favorites that you might recommend to interested readers?

ROSE CHRISTO:  This one time I went to a bookstore in my college town and immediately I noticed two things. First was that the queer lit was shoved all the way in the back of the store, in the dusty section no one looked at twice. Second was that almost every book I picked up in that section had some really sad plotline: kid gets bullied, kid gets disowned, kid gets AIDS, kid internalizes homophobia . . .  These are very real Carmilla J. Sheridan Le Fanuissues. But I want LGBT folks to be able to read books about themselves where they aren’t reviled, but cherished, adored. Show me a queer couple whose biggest problem is that they can’t stand one another’s furniture. Show me a queer couple whose computer has been hacked! Not because they’re queer, but because one of them’s a politician! Or a secret agent! In an ideal society you shouldn’t be treated differently just because of who you’re in love with. Maybe you like monster trucks and you also like a guy named Steve. I don’t see how they intersect at all, unless Steve happens to be a whiner baby who won’t let you go to the rallies on Sundays. Literature follows changing attitudes. I guess I think that if we’re going to make the kind of society we want to live in, literature is a good place to start.

The first LGBT-themed book I ever read was Carmilla.  God, it’s just the darkest, most beautiful story written on paper.  I can’t believe J. Sheridan Le Fanu got away with it in his time.

REBECCA:  Rafael’s particular and strong tastes delighted me. Do you share his love of drawing, tattoos, or power metal? (I have a sneaking suspicion that you do, because your Goodreads bio says “I used to have all my favorite metal bands listed here until I realized nobody cared about them. Then, I cried.” Well, I care about them (and am a fan myself) and would love to know!

EluveitieROSE CHRISTO:  Rafael’s the son I wish I had. I don’t like art, tattoos creep me out, fairy tales are stupid, but metal? Folk metal! Why’d you get me started on metal? Eluveitie and Moonsorrow are the best but there’s also Ensiferum, Korpiklaani, Finntroll, Suidakra . . .  Aztra are those five kids who show up at political protests with molotovs, Haggard is if every classical genius in history ditched the harpsichords to play death metal, Panopticon are a great folk/black metal band from Kentucky. “Bodies Under the Falls” gives me chills every damn time, you can practically feel the wailing of the empty ghosts echoing in your veins. Speaking of black metal, CoF wasn’t always so corny, Dusk & Her Embrace is an auditory masterpiece, pure, lyrical evil.  At Sixes and Sevens, another masterpiece, Atlantis in your headphones.

Lacuna Coil Unleashed MemoriesYou know Lacuna Coil? [R: Yes, love them!I wrote to Andrea as a kid, when I was going through a messed up time and needed some guidance from an adult. He wrote back to me. Not just once, but several times. And he was in Italy, and he was on tour. I will never forget what he did for me.  I will never not love metal. I don’t know what a Goodreads bio is but I guess they got that right.

REBECCA:  I’m so glad I asked (and so charmed to know that about Andrea from Lacuna Coil)! So, can you tell us a little bit about what your experience with self-publishing has been? How did you choose to go that route, etc.

ROSE CHRISTO:  Writing is fun, but I never treated it seriously until my best friend asked if I could write him some stories where gay characters get to be heroes. This relates back to [the above discussion of queer lit], I think—he was at this dark place and he just wanted to see himself portrayed as normal for once, instead of this perpetual pariah. I started writing for him and at some point, I can’t remember when, he told me to publish the titles for kicks. Everything I write is with him in mind. If he likes it, it’s a keeper. If he doesn’t, it never sees the light of day.

REBECCA:  I have a theory that everyone has at least one hidden talent, no matter how random or seemingly useless. Will you tell us yours?

nebulaROSE CHRISTO:  Ha! I’m really good at physics. I was going to be a physicist until I thought, “That’s not going to help my community.” If you show me a picture of a nebula I can probably identify it. I have favorite nebulae and that’s really nerdy. Uh, I got second place in the National Latin Exam a few years back, so if you ever find a time machine please call me. I make good tea? But I hate tea. Yuck.

REBECCA:  What is your favorite food or drink to make while writing?

ROSE CHRISTO:  My dad’s family are mostly Plains Cree from Box Elder but my mom’s side were all Irish Travelers, so this leads to really weird combo dishes, like pumpkin spice frybread with hot cabbage sodmay. The last time I cooked sodmay while I was writing the tomatoes came out pitch black. I still need to replace the smoke detector. Two of them, actually. Damn.

REBECCA:  Mmmm, pumpkin spice frybread sounds amazing! Finally: cheese is very important to Tessa and me, so we’ve got to know: what is you favorite cheese?

ROSE CHRISTO:  Commod cheese. There was this tribal building on the Fort Hall rez that handed out giant blocks of commod cheese to the families that fell on hard times. Even if I were fabulously wealthy I think I’d be buying that stuff in bulk. Melt it and put it on frybread and you’ve got yourself a five star meal. I wish I could give you some right now.

REBECCA:  Oh my god, I wish you could too. Rose, thanks so much for being willing to chat about Gives Light! I loved the series so much and I’m so excited to get to spread the word.

ROSE CHRISTO:  Thank you very much for reading my stories. That’s amazing to me, and it’s really humbling.

Check out Rose Christo’s entire Gives Light series. I promise you will be wowed!

Rose Christo Gives Light Rose Christo Looks Over gives Light Rose Christo St Clair Gives Light  Why The Star Stands Still Rose Christo Gives Light

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!

Happy New Year! YA Books About Starting Over

by REBECCA, January 1, 2014

Friends, it’s New Year’s Day! Today, some people are struggling through the first day of a new year of “giving up caffeine” or “working out” or whatever. Cough *suckers* cough. But why on earth would I do those things when I could read about other people making changes? Here are 10 books about starting over and making changes—may they inspire us all.

Same Difference Siobhan Vivian

1. Same Difference, by Siobhan Vivian

Emily is a girl from suburban Jersey who thinks she has her whole life planned: she’ll spend the summer sipping frappuccinos with her childhood best friend, then they’ll go to the same college. That’s until she attends a summer art program in Philadelphia and meets a whole group of people who share her love of art. She spends the summer learning about herself and realizes that she wants different things than she ever imagined. Check out the complete review HERE! and C&M’s interview with the lovely Siobhan Vivian HERE!

Beauty Queens Libba Bray

2. Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

One contestant represents each state in the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant. When the Miss Teen Dreamers’ plane crashes, stranding them on a desert island with nothing but the contents of their makeup bags and their wits, some rise to the occasion and some, well, friends, some sink. Throw in a global conspiracy, young love, the sun, and several tons of hair removal product, and Beauty Queens is one explosive read.

King of the Screwups K.L. Going

3. King of the Screwups, by K.L. Going

Liam has made it, as far as high school life goes: he’s handsome, stylish, popular, good at sports, and fun. But everything he does disappoints and infuriates his businessman father. When his father kicks him out of the house, Liam goes to live with his uncle, Pete. In a new school, Liam decides that maybe he can reinvent himself into someone his father could respect . . . an unpopular kid. But it turns out that being unpopular isn’t as easy as Liam hopes—in fact, it’s just one more thing for him to screw up. Full review is HERE.

The Truth About Forever Sarah Dessen

4. The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen

After her father died, Macy was at sea and used her relationship with her über-practical boyfriend to feel safe. The Truth About Forever takes place over a summer in which Macy decides to stop playing it safe and start taking risks to be herself. Macy gets a new job at the chaotic catering company and enjoys late-night truth-telling sessions with Wes and lazy evenings with her new friends. Wes shows Macy that sometimes you have to learn to tell the truth to someone else to be able to see it yourself.

The Secret Circle L.J. Smith The Secret Circle L.J. Smith The Secret Circle L.J. Smith

5. The Secret Circle series, by L.J. Smith

When Cassie is forced to leave sunny California for the island of New Salem the summer before her junior year she thinks her biggest challenge will be to overcome her shyness and make new friends at a new school. Little does she know she will be caught up in something she doesn’t understand and end up fighting for her very life, bwah-hah-hah. Also, P.S., she’s a witch. HERE’s why you should read it!

If I Stay Gayle Forman Where She Went Gayle Forman

6. If I Stay & Where She Went, by Gayle Forman

After a car accident kills her parents and brother, Mia is in a coma with only her boyfriend, Adam, and her ipod connecting her to the world. As Adam plays her the music that means so much to her, we learn about the life Mia might be leaving and the choice that was in front of her: follow her passion to Julliard across the country, or stay with Adam on the West coast?

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

7. Teeth, by Hannah Moskowitz

When sixteen-year-old 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? My full review is HERE.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children Kirstin Cronn-Mills

8. Beautiful Music For Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Shy trans guy Gabe is a huge music fan (Elvis in particular) and an aspiring DJ. The summer after high school, Gabe gets the chance of a lifetime from his musical mentor, John: a chance at his own radio show, “Beautiful Music For Ugly Children.” Whereas in high school, Gabe was stuck as Elizabeth, hiding who he really was. On the air, though, Gabe is able to be himself and let his B-side play, inspiring others to do the same. Will Gabe have a new life as a DJ, or will haters get him down? My full review is HERE.

How I Live Now Meg Rosoff

9. How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

Daisy’s family in Manhattan is falling apart, so she goes to stay with cousins in a ramshackle farm outside of London for the summer. Just as withdrawn, neurotic Daisy starts to warm to her cousins, London is attacked and war breaks out. Without any adults around, and with no power on the farm, Daisy and her cousins develop an extremely close relationship. But nothing this perfect could last forever, and as the war creeps ever closer, Daisy and her cousins’ lives will never be the same.

Openly Straight Bill Konigsberg

10. Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg

Rafe has been out since 8th grade, and it’s never been much of a problem for him. Except, he kind of always feels like people see him as “the gay guy”—even his friends. So, when he transfers to an all-boys school, Rafe decides not to mention that he’s gay. It’s not that he wants to go back into the closet or anything, just that he wants to feel like a normal guy. It’s a whole new life. But when he starts getting close to Ben, he realizes that starting over isn’t as easy as he thought it might be.

So, friends, I wish you a wonderful New Year, whether you’re starting over or only want to read about it!

Contemporary YA for Dog Lovers

A Review of Meeting Chance by Jennifer LaVoie

Bold Strokes Books, 2013

Meeting Chance Jennifer Lavoie

by REBECCA, December 23, 2013

Y’all, it was an apocalyptic 67 degrees here in Philly yesterday, so I thought I’d go with a summer book for today’s review, even though the weather called for a list of Snow Day Reads a mere week ago.

Aaron Cassidy was attacked by a dog when he was a kid, leaving him with visible scars and a deep-seated phobia of dogs. After he gets his driver’s license, though, he decides to conquer his fear by volunteering at the local animal shelter. There, he meets two new friends: Finn, a volunteer who supports Aaron when his other friends have ditched him, and Chance, a pit bull whose scars mirror Aaron’s own. With Finn’s help, Aaron sets about overcoming his fears and learning that sometimes the things we fear are the things that we need the most.

At base, Meeting Chance is a really sweet book about a guy learning to overcome a fear and have compassion for what caused that fear. When Aaron first shows up at the animal shelter even the sound of a dog barking sends him into fits of terror. Little by little, fellow volunteer (and crush) Finn gets Aaron comfortable around puppies and able to be in the same room with dogs. When the police drop off a pit bull that they rescued from being attacked by other dogs, Aaron reacts with fear at first, but quickly identifies with the dog, who he names Chance, and comes to love love love him.

Andy Squared Jennifer LavoieSo, on that level, Meeting Chance succeeds. But that’s not quite enough to sustain a novel-length read, and Meeting Chance feels rather thin. This is something that I’ve found with Bold Strokes Books‘ young adult publications in general. Still, Jennifer Lavoie’s first book, Andy Squared, although the exact same length (a short 264 pages), had better character development and thus felt much more substantial.

For example, there is a sub-plot that involves Aaron’s relationship with his friends. Aaron came out to his parents and friends a while ago, and while his folks didn’t give him any grief about being gay, his two best friends were pretty freaked out and they haven’t been close ever since. Soon after Aaron starts volunteering, one of his ex-buds begins to bully one of the other kids in Aaron’s gay-straight alliance and rejects Aaron explicitly. Lavoie uses this situation to draw a parallel between Aaron getting over his fear of dogs and Aaron’s friends getting over their freaked-outness about him being gay. Aaron’s friends aren’t very well-drawn characters, though, so, in addition to the parallel plot feeling a bit contrived, I found myself hoping that Aaron would just dump them because, homophobia aside, they were both boring and one was a jerk.

But I think it’s really a question of categorization; that is, I think Meeting Chance is simply better suited for a younger audience. If I think of it as a book for high school freshman instead of an audience that’s the same age as Aaron and Finn (a junior and a senior) then it’s more successful. Finn was a more developed character, and the inner workings of the shelter were interesting. Overall, a sweet read for a young reader who loves dogs.

readalikes

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

 

Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow (2012). Colby’s mom died two years ago, her girlfriend just dumped her, and her long-haul trucker dad is never home. When a dog is hit by a car right in front of her, Colby rushes to save it, and realizes that even though she’s afraid to have her heart broken again, maybe loving someone else is exactly what she needs. My full review of Starting From Here is HERE and our interview with author Lisa Jenn Bigelow is HERE.

Vintage Veronica Erica S. Perl

Vintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl (2010). Like Aaron, Veronica doesn’t have any friends and is about to learn some lessons about life and herself through her summer job. My full review is HERE.

 

procured from: I received an ARC this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Meeting Chance by Jennifer Lavoie is available now.

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