Sharing Our Snacks: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! 

Sharing Our Snacks

I recently requested some recommendations from R, and (among other things) she said:

I’d love to know what you think of Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr. I really liked it (it’s like a short, tight little gem), but don’t remember it that well, in the way some books just skate over my brain. I think you’ll like the writing and the way it’s poignant, but not gushy, but I don’t know whether you’ll find enough to dig into to really like like it.

Well, R, I didn’t just like like Sweethearts, I became smitten with it. I fell in love with it for its mind and I fell hard. Which is funny, because I loved it because it knows how weird and hard love is, and how love operates in friendship, and how hard it is to tell those things apart sometimes.

Sara Zarr Sweethearts

Sweethearts

Sara Zarr

Little, Brown and Company, 2008

review by Tessa

Characters

Jenna Vaughn (Jennifer Harris): transformed herself from a lonely girl that mean kids called “Fatifer” to become someone who no one could make fun of.

Cameron Quick: Jennifer’s only friend, presumed dead

Ethan, Katy & Steph: Jenna’s new friends and first boyfriend, unaware of her past

Hook

Jenna’s past is dead and so is the boy who shared her worst experiences and left without saying goodbye. Only, neither are dead and now Jenna has to deal with what that means.

Worldview

Jenna grows up as a girl who can’t fit in and is vulnerable to those who persecute the vulnerable and perpetuate in building the walls around her, thus guaranteeing that she can’t fit in, and so she ends up with a peculiar worldview.  Between elementary and high school, her life has changed so as to be almost unrecognizable. Her single mother found a good partner, finished nursing school, and moved them to a new part of town, allowing Jennifer to escape classmates with conceptions of her as “Fatifer”: the chubby girl, the girl with dirty clothes, the girl who cries at everything, the comfort-eater, the secret thief of small things, whose only friend left town without even telling her and was rumored to have been run over in California. She sets goals for herself, disciplines herself to fit into “normal” clothing sizes and smile all the time. And it works.  There are new friends and a first boyfriend and things run smoothly.  She tries to leave her sad self behind, but of course everything feels fake to her because she’s not letting herself feel anything.

And she’s never told anyone about who Cameron, her only friend, really was. How he gave her a note that said he loved her. How he built her a dollhouse for her birthday. How he really listened to her. And how on that birthday something scary and strange happened with Cameron’s dad (no, it’s not what you’re thinking right now).  Now that she’s turning 17, this memory keeps returning, little by little.  And as though summoned by that memory, Cameron himself returns. Not from the dead, but from California.

photo by flickr user Bellafaye

photo by flickr user Bellafaye

What was this book’s intention and was it achieved?

Sweethearts is an intense portrait of a girl’s mind at the intersection of memory and reality, attachment and growth, when she has to figure out who she wants to be from who she thought she was. Zarr succeeds wildly at this. Like a good flaky pastry, Sweethearts  is compressed but has lots of layers to add texture (and lots of butter to add depth of flavor).

Jenna has been repressing her feelings for so long and acting like everything is okay that, although lots of dramatic things are in play in the plot and character development, the narration is not melodramatic. Jenna is not shrill but she is tense and remains in control by assuming the illusion of being calm, so her voice reflects that calm – in fact, she’s stronger than she realizes so that calmness is not all an illusion.

Zarr gets the nervousness of the haunted so right, and then brings back the ghost to make things extra interesting. And here’s where, for me, it turned from a good book into a great one. Because this is not a destined-for-love story. Some of the realest moments are when Jenna is trying to figure out why Cameron is back, how he found her, and how far she should go to help him, and his behavior frustrates her or weirds her out. She wants to be nice to him, be friends with him, but she’s not sure what his deal is or how she even feels about him.  For example, she finds him sleeping in her car one morning and isn’t sure whether to be freaked out or offer him breakfast (both), or when, her family having taken him in temporarily, he doesn’t come home for dinner and Jenna feels responsible for her mother’s worry, and then angry that her mother never worried about her in the same way when she was growing up and alone for dinner.

It all comes back around in Sweethearts, like the past is cycling over and over in Jenna’s head, until she can properly mourn it.  And it’s seeing Cameron grown up and the same but not really that helps Jenna do this. Her experience with the Cameron of now puts into relief the difference between the love she’s play-acting with Ethan, who thinks he’s a charmer but is just shy of being way too possessive, and the terrible complicatedness of real love – not total romantic love, but love built from a bond that is part powerful friendship and part caring in the face of the meanness of life.

“I think about how there are certain people who come into life and leave a mark. I don’t mean the usual faint impression. …And I don’t just mean that they change you. …I’m talking about the ones who, for whatever reason, are as much a part of you as your own soul. Their place in our heart is tender; a bruise of longing, a pulse of unfinished business.”

Just like Rebecca said, “a short, tight little gem”.  And perfect for a New Year’s read, with its themes of growth and its direct style that makes it a quick read that can stay with you.

I also enjoy that the adults in Sweethearts are human, involved (for better or for bad in different cases) in their kid’s lives, and there’s a good stepfather character.

A Boarding School Tale That Packs a Punch: The Tragedy Paper

A Review of The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013

The Tragedy Paper Elizabeth LeBan

by REBECCA, December 12, 2012

characters

Tim Macbeth: a self-aware albino kid who transfers to the prestigious Irving School for the second semester of his senior year

Vanessa Sheller: a popular student at Irving, she and Tim meet cute on their way to school, but she has a boyfriend . . .

Duncan: a year behind Tim and Vanessa, Duncan’s path crossed theirs last year at a critical moment and he is now living with the consequences

the hook

When Duncan arrives at school for the start of his senior year he finds a series of cds in his room recorded by the room’s previous occupant, Tim Macbeth. On those cds, Tim recounts the story of how he first met Vanessa, their secret relationship of whispers and glancing touches and walks through the woods. As the story proceeds, Tim’s and Duncan’s stories begin to converge, approaching the tragic event that changed both of their lives.

worldview

Tim and Vanessa meet when their flight from Chicago is delayed. Tim is extremely self-conscious about his albinism and Vanessa is clearly used to getting what she wants because of her beauty, so they end up sharing Tim’s hotel room for the night, where they connect over playing in the snow. When Tim learns that Vanessa is a student at Irving School, where he is headed for the first time, though, he knows that their connection will never be able to continue, since he’s generally treated like a freak and she’s clearly popular and charismatic.

And he’s right—once they’re at school, Vanessa (obligatory possessive boyfriend in tow) clearly wants to spend time with Tim but isn’t willing to risk her social standing to do so. Tim, who once yearned for new friendships and challenging classes, finds himself living for the moments he and Vanessa steal and never asking for more that she gives him. Tim’s story plays out against the backdrop of a school English class assignment: the tragedy paper, which asks Irving seniors to write about the concept of tragedy as it plays out in life and in Greek tragedies they read in class.

Greek Tragedy MaskThe Tragedy Paper is a beautiful book, but not a subtle one. And I think, actually, that its lack of subtlety is one of its strengths. In a less assured hand the story of a tragedy told alongside the story of writing about tragedy would feel as proscriptive and melodramatic as the drop of a cartoon anvil. However, Elizabeth LaBan manages to turn what could be melodrama into a sincere (and at times realistically banal) excavation of the question of what is tragedy. The meat of the tale is told by Tim via the cds he records after The Tragedy Paper‘s tragedy has unfolded (no spoilers, I promise) and after he’s been thinking about the tragedy paper for nearly a whole semester. As such, Tim recounts his story in terms of the tenets of tragedy itself: its structure, its fatal flaw, and the magnitude of events that precipitate it.

And it’s this notion of magnitude that turned The Tragedy Paper into a dark, character-driven story as opposed to a tragedy itself (and that’s absolutely a positive thing). Tim attends to the seemingly insignificant details of his daily existence from the other side of the tragedy, so he knows which ones ended up being significant even though he couldn’t know that at the time. In this way, he’s the ultimate author, only instead of trying to subtly foreshadow, he comes right out and announces to Duncan (who’s listening) what moments were significant. This builds The Tragedy Paper’s eerie sense of foreboding—the notion that we can never know until later which tiny decisions we make will end up changing our lives, or ruining them. And it’s this sense of tragic magnitude that haunts Duncan, slowly eating away at him all year as he listens to Tim’s story unfold, waiting until the moment he will finally appear in it.

Of course, this all plays out against the backdrop of a boarding school with the typical delights of teachers who really care about the material, arcane rituals and secrets, and a snowy New York winter. And you all know how much we at Crunchings and Munchings love boarding school stories.

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

I think The Tragedy Paper was really Tim’s story, even thought it was given to us through Duncan’s reception of it. As secondary readers of Tim’s story, then, we get to see its effect on Duncan—how he asks out his long-time crush Daisy because he listens to Tim mourn not taking a chance with Vanessa; how he begins to look at his own decisions in terms of their magnitude within Tim’s tragedy. I think, then, that Elizabeth LaBan’s intention was that of many good authors (and some of us paranoid souls): to show the way that each miniscule decision we make propels our lives forward into a new trajectory, and that it is only by looking backward that we can see where the catalysts were. Tim’s story, and The Tragedy Paper more generally, is an excavation of those moments when things change; the moments we can never change, but can perhaps locate on our personal maps—can perhaps point to after the fact and say, there you are. And it is beautifully done.

The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich NietzscheIn terms of character, I really liked Tim. As a narrator (I hope I’ve made clear) he could be really annoying. But he’s extremely sympathetic. Albinism isn’t a condition that I’ve seen portrayed often in fiction, and Tim’s feelings about and actions around his albinism are really interesting and quite understandable. I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to like Vanessa or not. On one hand, since we only see her from Tim’s perspective, I wondered if we were supposed to worship her as much as he did; on the other hand, since we don’t get to hear her explanation for why she wouldn’t be with Tim, I wondered if we were supposed to dislike her?

Well, I loathed her the way I always loathe characters who care more about their social standing or their calm social waters than they do about other people. I know it’s not smiled upon to admit this, especially because we’re talking about teenage characters, but I have absolutely no respect for someone who thinks someone is awesome and refuses to be seen with them or is embarrassed for anyone to know they like that person. Seriously, I think it’s despicable. Of course, it also produces really great stories, this one included, so it’s totally necessary in that respect.

The Tragedy Paper Elizabeth LeBanDuncan’s a nice vehicle for the story because he’s clearly so affected by it and we don’t get much of his personality beyond it. I could have done without his crush, though, Daisy, because it’s never explained why he likes her so she seems completely generic.

The book’s tragedy, which the story builds toward, works well. It’s not so hideously dramatic that it seems unrealistic, but didn’t feel anticlimactic either. The Tragedy Paper is a very well-written, well-crafted drama with a great protagonist. There is nothing superlative about it, which is what I liked so much: it is not trying to be anything other than it is. In fact, the cover (which I love) would be a great thing to judge the book based on: it’s lyrical and beautiful and tense, but not overblown or flashy. And that’s exactly what it should be.

personal disclosure

I was particularly delighted to read in LaBan’s acknowledgements that she was really influenced by S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as a young reader. The Outsiders (something of a tragedy paper in its own right) gets a subtle shout-out at the very end . . .

readalikes

The Secret History Donna Tartt

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (1992). One of my all-time favorites, this is set on a college campus, but feels like a boarding school. It’s also an exploration of Greek philosophy, although with quite different results. I write more about it HERE.

Looking for Alaska John Green

Looking For Alaska, by John Green (2005). Another boarding school tale where a boy falls in love with a charismatic girl. John Green is a master.

The River King Alice Hoffman

The River King, by Alice Hoffman (2000). A creepier, more atmospheric boarding school tale, also about an isolated student who is trying to make sense of what has happened.

procured from: I received an ARC from NetGalley (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. The Tragedy Paper will be available January 8th.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: But When?!

A Review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron

Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2007

By REBECCA, June 22, 2012

Someday This Pain WIll Be Useful To You Peter Cameron

characters

James Sveck: smart, sensitive James hates people his own age, dog parks, and “dead, meaningless language” like nice to meet you, too

James’ mom: thrice married, she owns an art gallery and is very particular about things

James’ dad: into keeping up appearances, he wants to be supportive but just ends up pissing James off

James’ grandmother: One of the few people James likes, she encourages him to think about lunch instead of woes

John: a co-worker at the gallery and James’ first crush

Dr. Adler: James’ therapist (mandated after a slowly-revealed incident), she is very therapist-y

hook

It’s the summer after high school and James is working at his mother’s art gallery in Manhattan. His pretentious sister is dating a professor named Rainer Maria, his mother ditched her newest husband during their Vegas honeymoon, his father believes that he should never order pasta as a main course in a restaurant because it isn’t manly, and about the only people James can stand are his grandmother and his coworker, John. This is James Sveck’s life, and it’s kind of going to shit.

worldview

I cannot overstate how brilliant the voice of this book is! James Sveck’s (I love that name) voice is awesome, yes, but Peter Cameron’s tone throughout the book is hilarious, smart, and deliciously pathos-soaked. The tone borders on satire, but this is an effect of seeing the world through James’ eyes, I think. James is a very sweet, intelligent guy who would likely be considered to over-analyze the world. Rather, I think, James simply does not take it as a given that things that are important simply because of their established value; instead, he tries to figure out what he really wants, what he thinks is really important. He does not, for example, have any interest in going to college because he hates people his own age and believes he can learn more by reading on his own; he doesn’t see any reason to come out to his family as gay because it’s not like anyone comes out as being heterosexual.

My inclination here is to quote you huge sections of the hilario-genius of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You to convince you of its amazingness . . . but I’ll just give you medium-sized chunks, instead. In this scene, James’ sister has decided to begin pronouncing her name with a hard-g sound and their mother has returned from her honeymoon sans husband:

“‘Gillian!’ my mother said. ‘Please.’

‘It’s Gillian,’ said Gillian.

‘What?’ my mother asked.

‘My name is Gillian,’ said Gillian. ‘My name has been mispronounced long enough. I have decided that from now on I will only answer to Gillian. Rainer Maria says naming a child and then mispronouncing that name is a subtle and insidious form of child abuse.’

‘Well, that’s not my style. If I were going to abuse you, there’d be nothing subtle or insidious about it.’ My mother looked at me. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘why aren’t you at the gallery?’

‘John didn’t need me today,’ I said.

‘That is not the point,’ said my mother. ‘John never needs you. You do not go there because you are needed. You go there because I pay you to go there so you will have a summer job and learn the value of a dollar and know what responsibility is all about. . . . Please remove that plate,’ she said to me. ‘There is nothing more disgusting than a plate on which a fried egg sandwich has been eaten'” (8-9).

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

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a character piece, and James’ thoughts and observations make up the meat of the story. But Cameron is amazingly deft at sketching even the minor characters, so the atmospheres of the Manhattan art scene, James’ father’s office building, James’ therapist’s waiting room, and an ill-fated class trip to D.C. are totally realized.

In the partner’s dining hall of Jame’s father’s office (after James’ dad instructs him that pasta is not a manly option), James informs his father:

“‘I can’t bear the idea of spending four years in close proximity with college students. I dread it.’

‘What’s so bad about college students?’

‘They’ll all be like Huck Dupont.’

‘You’ve never met Huck Dupont.’

‘I don’t need to meet him. The fact that his name is Huck and he got a full hockey scholarship to the University of Minnesota is enough for me.’

‘What’s wrong with hockey?’

‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘if you like blood sport. But I don’t think people should get full scholarships to state universities because they’re psychopaths.’

‘Well forget Huck Dupont. He’s going to Dartmouth. You’re going to Brown. I doubt they even have a hockey team'” (34).

It’s not all fun and semantics, though. James behaves badly on the Gent4Gent dating site, and has to go to the therapy mandated after the terrible D.C. incident, which is interspersed in flashbacks. All in all, I really have nothing but good things to say about Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: Cameron is a hell of a writer; the story is engaging and moving; the characters are funny, ridiculous, clueless, and sad. It’s a perfect slice of a teenager’s life, and James Sveck is a character that I think about often—indeed, he feels so real to me that I can imagine more and more books that follow him as he gets older. Probably (at least a little bit) because . . .

personal disclosure

. . . It is truly uncanny how much the landscape of James’ mind resembles my own at certain moments in this book: “I see,” James’ therapist says. “I hate when people say ‘I see.’ It doesn’t mean anything and I think it’s hostile. Whenever anyone tells me ‘I see’ I think they’re really saying ‘Fuck you'” (87). I almost feel that by recommending it I’m saying, here, read about me!, which seems super self-involved. Mostly, though, I was just really delighted to read a character whose thought processes and obsessions kind of a little bit seemed familiar, if at times neurotic. I don’t remember what made me pick the book up. I had read a few other of Cameron’s novels, but didn’t remember that at the moment. Probably I just liked the title, and I was doing this summer program in Ithaca and I didn’t know anyone yet, so obviously I was hanging out at the library and Barnes and Noble.

I went back to the room I was subletting, which had no air conditioning and was right off both the kitchen and the laundry nook (translation: the fires of hell could not burn hotter), and started reading, and I did not put the book down until I had laughed and cried my way through the whole thing. My room also had a door opening into the bathroom, so whenever one of the other people who shared the house came down to use the bathroom I would muffle my laughter/tears so they couldn’t hear me. This is a major reason that I live alone. Anyhoosier, that was the same summer that I read The Hunger Games, and James Sveck absolutely held his own alongside Katniss in my memory.

readalikes

When You Don't See Me James Timothy Beck

When You Don’t See Me by Timothy James Beck (2007). The writing team of Timothy James Beck (2 Timothys, a James, and—you guessed it—a Becky) have a series called Manhattan, which comprises a loosely-connected set of characters, and this is the fourth in the series, but it can totally be read as a stand-alone. 19-year-old Nick Dunhill left his parents and twin bro in the Midwest to come live with his uncle in NYC, where he struggles to get by and get over being a little traumatized in the wake of a 9/11-related subway incident. When You Don’t See Me tracks Nick through multiple jobs and friendships, as he learns what (and who) he wants, and figures a boatload of stuff out in the process.

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston (2010). The Freak Observer is more brutal than Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, but Loa, like James, is a merciless observer and truth-teller about the people she meets and the things she experiences. A totally gorgeous book with a truly unique protag + bonus points for best cover ever. Read Tessa’s review here.

Leave Myself Behind Bart Yates

Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates (2003). Noah and his mom start to renovate a dilapidated house after Noah’s father dies suddenly, and Noah falls in love with the boy next door while his mother slowly loses it in the background. Noah is smart and snarky, and I feel like if he and James met in real life they would either fall in love instantly or decide that they hated each other before falling in love later. You can read my full review here.

procured from: bought in Ithaca

The Silver Kiss: A Pre-Twilight Vampire Love Story Done Right

A Review of The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause

Dell, 1990

By REBECCA, May 18, 2012

Silver Kiss Annette Curtis Klause

characters

Zoë: feels like she’s floating through life until she meets Simon

Simon: a vampire seeking revenge is drawn to Zoë’s sadness

Lorraine: Zoë’s best friend, loyal but a bit oblivious

Zoë’s mom: dying

Zoë’s dad: sweet and overwhelmed

Christopher: a young boy unnaturally attached to his grisly teddy bear

the hook

Zoë’s mother is dying of cancer and Zoë feels like she’s merely going through the motions, walking through the park alone late at night even though the news reports a string of local murders. Then she meets Simon, a mysterious boy who tries to convince her that he’s a vampire. But that’s ridiculous, right? Because vampires don’t exist.

worldview

Annette Curtis Klause‘s The Silver Kiss is, first and foremost, an atmosphere piece. Zoë’s mother is dying slowly, and Zoë is wasting away right along with her—she can’t eat, she can’t concentrate, and she has nothing to say. So she takes long walks at night and, you know, generally acts like someone whose mother is dying. Simon is a vampire whose own mother was murdered, cursing him to an eternal life of loneliness. When he sees Zoë at the park one night, Simon recognizes her loneliness. She is “pale as the milk of death, thin and sharp like pain” (19).

Stephanie Meyer Twilight Bella Swann Edward CullenThere is no psychic connection (or shocking lack thereof) between Simon and Zoë, no insta-love, and no notion that “vampire” is just another high school clique designation. No romance, really, in the way that we might find it in any of the dozens of vampire-human-love-stories littering Amazon today. When I say that The Silver Kiss is an atmosphere piece, I mean that the feelings of loneliness and despair aren’t there to facilitate romance; they are the story, and the comfort that Simon and Zoë provide for each other is necessary, but can’t stop death or cure loneliness.

Louis Brad Pitt Interview With the Vampire

image: Web Parkz

I first read The Silver Kiss in middle school. So, this was in the mid-nineties, and the only vampire story I had ever read was Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire. Maybe I even read them the same year. In any case, it was a totally unique story, and I was really taken with the horror of being immortal. Of course, in Interview With the Vampire, Rice gets at the pain that immortality can bring, but that book has such a sweeping view of history and a lot of awesome stuff happens, too. But in The Silver Kiss I was really aware of how sad and lonely it would be to be a teenager for hundreds of years.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

The Silver Kiss Annette Curtis Klause

Delacorte Twilight-ed the cover!

I think Klause is smart in the way that she constructs this book: there is a plot—a solid, creepy plot—but that plot is the backdrop for the real focus of the novel, which is the way that we can only feel alive when we feel seen and recognized by the people we love and who love us. Simon is stuck permanently at the age that is most dynamic for other teenagers, and he has no one to see him change even if he could. Zoë has the potential for change—she’s growing up; her best friend is moving, etc—but she feels that she has lost the one person who saw her best: her mother. Both turn to each other not out of some swoony, fatalistic romance, but because they see their own loneliness reflected in one another.

Sure, this isn’t the subtlest of relationships, but if you can get past the (realistically, I think) melodramatic language, the comfort they promise each other is poignant and meaningful.

“What puzzled him was why she had panicked when she answered the phone. She must have guessed his thoughts. Her lips tightened, her gaze lowered. ‘I thought it might be about my mother,’ she said. ‘She’s dying.’

It was a terse confession, perhaps in return for his own rambling tale. . . .

‘You’ll let me come again?’

‘Why?’ Her hand went to her throat.

It made him feel ashamed. He stooped to pick up his T-shirt. ‘To talk,’ he muttered. ‘Just to talk.’

‘What have we to talk about?’ It sounded like a denial.

He took a stab in the dark. ‘Death,’ he said.

Her eyes grew large and stricken, but she nodded. ‘Yes.'” (128-9)

Blood and Chocolate Annette Curtis KlauseKlause is also the author of the awesome Blood and Chocolate (1997)—which was made into a very uneven movie with Agnes Bruckner, Hugh Dancy, and Olivier Martinez—about a werewolf who has to choose between staying true to the laws of her pack and her growing feelings for a human boy. I mention Blood and Chocolate because Klause knocked out a vampire book and a werewolf book, both featuring female protagonists, long before vampires and werewolves were YA superfoods, and she did so in the spirit that I most appreciate the conceits: a.) as good old-fashioned genre fiction, and b.) as a meditation on the real conflicts that being different and feeling alone can cause, especially when you’re a teenager.

The bottom line: The Silver Kiss is what you wanted Twilight to be, fifteen years before the genre was glutted. The entire plot line with Christopher (a super creepy child vampire) and Simon is also totally gripping, but I don’t want to give anything away.

personal disclosure

I have a confession to make: as you can see from the scanned-in pic of my copy at the top of this review, I stole The Silver Kiss from the Clague Middle School Library. I know, I’m so ashamed. I apologize to the many other students whose chances to read it were ruined by my inconsiderate actions. Consider this review my way of giving it back to them.

readalikes

Sara Zarr Sweethearts

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr (2008). While nothing alike in plot, Sweethearts is also the story of a relationship that is based in deep feeling, but isn’t typically romance-y. Jenna and Cameron were outcasts together when they were friends; but when Cameron disappears, Jenna thinks that part of her is gone for good—for better and for worse. But when Cameron comes back into Jenna’s life, she is forced to face the truth about both of them.

The Hanged Man Francesca Lia Block

The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block (1999). Laurel’s father has just died and Laurel is starving herself to avoid facing her feelings and her past. The Hanged Man reminds me of The Silver Kiss in tone: kind of floaty and detached, but beautiful.

So, there you have it! Do you have a favorite pre-Twilight vampire romance? Let us know in the comments!

Sharing Our Snacks: The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston

 

Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Rebecca recommended this book to me with no explanation as to why.  She just knows I like pictures of internal organs, I guess.  Check out our other shared snacks here.

You can recommend books to us, too—contact us!

 

 

The Freak Observer
Blythe Woolston
Carolrhoda Lab, 2010

review by Tessa

Characters
Loa Lindgren: has a lot on her plate, and even more on her mind
Corey: Loa’s absent friend, in more ways than one.
Esther: Loa’s accidentally (?) dead friend
Asta: Loa’s formerly ill, now dead sister
Jack: successfully friendly with Loa, has found therapy in the ceramics department.
The Bony Guy: Death. Haunts Loa.

Hook
What does it feel like before things gets better? That’s where Loa Lindgren is now. Luckily for us, her inner narrative is bleakly funny and sprinkled with observant details, even as she wades through a swamp of grief, depression, and PTSD.

Worldview

one interpretation of The Bony Guy

The Freak Observer starts with Loa’s recounting of the accident that kills her friend Esther. Esther runs out into the road along a curve and gets hit by a truck. Loa’s parents, in a cold and almost practical reaction, are mad at her for missing work because of it. Now Loa won’t get more hours at the Cozy Pines retirement home. They need the money because her father is out of work.

But this isn’t the worst of Loa’s problems.  Her sister Asta recently died from a genetic disease that left her unable to care for herself, and this is what really broke up Loa’s world.  She has terrible nightmares where Death haunts her, and crippling attacks of panic from her PTSD, but no money for therapy.

A third layer of the book concerns Corey, a boy who functioned as Loa’s friend, escape from the rest of the world, debate partner and sometime sex buddy.  He is gone, abruptly leaving for school in Europe.

Loa is left alone to trudge through each day.

What was the book’s intention? Was it achieved?
The description on The Freak Observer’s jacket simply says that it’s “about death, life, astrophysics, and finding beauty in chaos.” And that’s a smart move on their part. Because writing out all those things that are going on in Loa’s life during the course of the book make it sound like a total slog to read.  And it’s the opposite of a slog. It’s a fast ride through a tunnel, bursting out on a view of a city lit up at night.

a chicken!

Blythe Woolston has given Loa Angela Chase levels of introspection, but a darker sense of humor, and more poetic observational skills. For example, one of the first ways we learn about Esther is through a story about the first time Loa saw her as a kid, ending with this statement: “Esther is dead now. She was a defender of puppies and whacker of pigs, and now she is dead.” (4). And she watches everything in her life in that way, with a little detachment, but with care.  She takes the time to mention that “Chickens don’t always cluck…. When they are happy, they sort of hum–they chirp–they purr. The chickens are all around my mother waiting for her to make them happy. They are singing to her in their chicken way.” (19).  

Reading The Freak Observer is visceral in that it’s like looking at something’s insides.  It’s fascinating and vulnerable and bloody.  It’s for good reason that the (kickass) cover features a large photograph of a (human?) heart.  And the first person narration is used to full effect. Since Loa is narrating, the reader sees the world that Loa sees, and interprets people according to her views of them.  It also serves to stretch out terrible moments, like this one:

“…I didn’t see the rest of the picture right away.
Then I saw Esther.
My first thought was
Her heart has fallen out of her body.
I didn’t know that could happen. I didn’t know what to do. So I just froze there on the cutbank.
I don’t know how to put a heart back into a body.
It was the only thought I had, and it wasn’t very useful.
It seemed like a long time, but it wasn’t really, because Abel was right behind me, and he pushed me out of the way. I slid down the bank in the loose dirt and rocks. Then I just sat there where I fell. I watched Abel while he grabbed his sister and tried to make her be alive.
I could see that her heart hadn’t fallen out. The muscle on her arm had been torn away from the bone. It was just a lump of muscle. Her heart was safe inside her, but she was still dead.” (12-13).

Most wonderfully, this is a book about living with loneliness, done undramatically, as when Loa observes that:

“I’ve known a lot of people, grown up with people, and done stuff with people. I know what color their bedrooms are and if they like to eat a dill pickle before they go to sleep. I watched people outgrow sweatshirts. …But friendship is something more than breathing the same air or touching the same basketball.  Not much more, maybe, but something.” (74).

or when she remembers her dead dog Ket, saying: “I still miss Ket and the way he used to look at me like he wanted to know what I wanted him to know. It is the sort of look that can easily be mistaken for love.” (191).

But this isn’t a good book just because it describes those feelings and realizations so perfectly.  It’s a great book because it lets Loa grow and gives her a little relief and it does it naturally. None of the bad things about Loa’s life feel overwrought, and none of the better things feel like plot devices.That’s what good realistic fiction should be. I’m so glad that Rebecca recommended this little gem for me.

Readalikes


If I Stay
Gayle Forman
First person narration, heartwrenching subject matter. This one’s a little more forced in tone and execution but I didn’t care because I was too busy gulping it down and trying not to weep.  Mia narrates her days of trying to decide whether to stay in her broken body or die, after a car crash kills her parents.


Looking for Alaska
John Green
There’s something about the truthfulness of Loa’s voice that reminded me of John Green narration.  And they both have black covers with one lone photographic element. And there’s death in this one too.


Andromeda Klein
Frank Portman
I won’t lie, this book is hard to get into.  I almost stopped reading it. So in that way it’s nothing like The Freak Observer. But what it does have in common is a complex, loner girl protagonist who is rewarding to get to know and who feels real.

Disclosures & Digressions

Digression: Can I just say how impressed I was with Woolston’s dream descriptions? Usually dreams in fiction are such bald allegorical crap. Not so here.  Let me quote:

“The Bony Guy likes disguises.
I am watching a late-night show. There is a guest who tried to pay for a cruise with a  glossy photograph of the host. The host declares that it ought to be as good as money. It is a picture of him. people like him better than any of the guys on the money,don’t they? The audience applauds wildly. Then he has a quiz for all of us. Question 1: Would you watch a bunny rabbit eat some lettuce? Question 2: Would you watch a bird peck something dead by the side of the road? Question 3: would you watch dogs eat a live donkey? The audience applauds wildly.” (92-93)

Disclosure: Blythe Woolston sat at a table with me and other librarians at ALA last summer for 5 minutes to shill her books, and she was very personable.

Procured from: the library

Adorable, homeless, angsty Justice: Shadoweyes, Vol. 1

Shadoweyes, Vol. 1
Ross Campbell
SLG Publishing, June 2010

Review by Tessa

Characters
Scout, aka Shadoweyes – a surprise shapeshifter
Kyisha, BFF of Scout, but not putting up with her shit.
Sparkle, upbeat and unlucky Pony Master
Noah, Kyisha’s boyf, with his own opinions about how to be a vigilante

Hook
It’s the year 200X. Humanity lives in a giant, cobbled together trash heap.  Scout finds herself suddenly able to transform into a bulbous-headed, harpoon-tailed, adorable blue creature: Shadoweyes.  Finally she can fight injustice the way she was meant to.

Worldview
Shadoweyes opens with a long view through deep space, past an asteroid and broken satellites orbiting a planet with a barren surface, towards a buried bridge, leading to a Blade Runner-esque city named Dranac, all looping highways and jumbled buildings, with trash stuffed in all the crevices.  This could be Earth’s future, or its past, or not Earth at all.  But the people of Dranac are distinctly humanoid (with cyberpunk style).

Scout and Kyisha are busy hanging out and designing Scout’s Crimewatch persona – there are apparently neighborhood groups dedicated to fighting petty and violent crime, which tells you a lot about how much the governmental structure must care about its citizens. Once the name “Shadoweyes” is decided on, they leave on their first patrol and notice a man being menaced by a brick-wielding youth.  In short order, Scout gets knocked out by said brick, Kyisha punches the dude, and a week or so later a recovering Scout goes into her bathroom and transforms into a little blue creature with a tail and light-sensitive eyes.  She can change back, but it’s really painful.

Drakan looks like this but with way more buildings and garbage everywhere.

For Scout this is a perfect opportunity to fight crime, but she doesn’t know what the hell is going on.  Does this have anything to do with the brick or is it something that was waiting to happen to her, stuck in her genes?  As it gets harder and harder for her to change back, she decides to leave home and become a full-time vigilante.  Only Kyisha knows who she really is.

Then Scout saves someone half-dead. Someone who promptly kidnaps one of Scout’s classmates, the unbelievably peppy Sparkle.  And although she’s sick of being homeless and hungry, Shadoweyes now has a real goal to achieve. And an excuse to visit her mom.

What was the book’s intention and was it achieved?
One of the things I loved about reading Wet Moon, Ross Campbell’s other slice-of-life graphic series about a subtly creepy town in the Deep South was its matter of fact depiction of goth/industrial/emo kids of all shapes and sizes.  It was like all the token characters in TV or wherever had gotten together to create a real life for themselves (without realizing they were living right next to the set of True Blood and some of that otherworlidness was bleeding into their world.)  The same can be said of Shadoweyes, but the goth aesthetic seems less notable in a cyberpunk setting.  The characters care about what they look like, but they don’t seem to be consciously dressing to be part of a subset.  Maybe that’s what everyone looks like.

Another thing that I really like about Campbell’s way of settling us into the world of Shadoweyes is how he inserts information about the society without just outright making it part of a voiceover.  Within the first couple pages we know that Kyisha has a serious peanut allergy and that Scout has asthma, which clues the reader in to the possible environmental effects of living in Dranac, without totally spelling it out.

Although the story of a weaker person (class-wise and, in this case, physical strength-wise) gaining superhero powers isn’t new, it has a renewed strength here. It has grittiness via its setting and heart via its characters, and even humor, as when we see a view of Shadoweyes’ lair, covered with newspaper clippings of her exploits, and one particularly large headline reads: “Shadoweyes helps student with biology homework.”  While the plot moves along at a quick pace, it mostly focuses on the emotional turmoil of becoming Shadoweyes–with, admittedly, a long conversation in the last issue of the collection between Shadoweyes and Sparkle that could have been shortened or used the graphic format to better effect.  There are hints of more exciting conflicts to come, though, especially between Noah, Kyisha’s boyfriend, and Shadoweyes, as their views of when to let a bad guy go differ.  I’m excited to see where this leads.

Readalikes

Malinky Robot: Collected Stories and Other Bits
Sonny Liew
Image Comics, August 2011
If you dig the gritty collapsed-society feel of Dranac, check out the world of Malinky Robot.  There’s more gentle humor in here as Atari and Oliver try to suss out the pleasures of life at the bottom of society. The cover copy hints at this when it describes the stories as “featuring stinky fish, philosopher-labourers, and summer rain.”

The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury
Brandon Thomas & Lee Ferguson
Archaia Entertainment, August 2011
For the lovers of strong female superheroes, we have Miranda Mercury. She carries on her family’s legacy of space heroism. She kicks major ass!  A complex sci-fi swirl of buried intentions rides along on sharp lines as the plot twists and sizzles.

The Never Weres
Fiona Smyth
Annick Press, February 2011
A speculative work from a Canadian author! I could take or leave (alright, leave) the narrator character, but if you focus on the story of a infertile human race a century in the future and one teenage girl who loves art and has a mysterious past, then you’ll find an imaginative work with an art style that called to mind Keith Haring, a little bit.

Disclosures & Digressions
I noticed on some Goodreads reviews of this volume that some people have a beef with Campbell’s faces – that they’re all the same or that they’re expressionless.  Obviously I don’t hold those views, but I’ll just say that if you really want to see cookie cutter, expressionless faces, you should read Birds of Prey: Endrun.  It’s a prime example of why I get frustrated when I try to get into reading the main superhero canon, and why I find Campbell so exciting.

Links
Ross Campbell is all over the internet!
Livejournal: http://mooncalfe.livejournal.com/
Deviantart: http://mooncalfe.deviantart.com/
Standalone page: http://www.greenoblivion.com/
Shadoweyes: http://www.shadoweyes.net/
Tumblr: http://mooncalfe.tumblr.com/
Oni Press Artist Page: http://www.onipress.com/creator/rosscampbell

I got this book from the library.

Photo by flickr user yakobusan
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