Great Graphic Novels Noms 2015: Memoir and Contemporary Stories

by Tessa

Read about this series of posts here.

FUN FACT: All of the selections today are by writer-artists (one person writes and draws the book). They are the singer-songwriters of the comics world.

eldeafocover

El Deafo

Cece Bell, writer and artist

Amulet Books

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I’d heard lotsa good things about this one.

My Reality: All the praise is deserved. It’s a mildly fictionalized memoir about Cece Bell growing up with deafness, outside of the Deaf community – it’s about feeling awkward because she’s afraid she looks so different and because of the challenges of navigating a world that doesn’t always make the allowances it should for a lip-reading child, and it’s also about basic growing up stuff: friendships, family, school. Bell has a good ear for social detail and her chronicles of trying to find a true friend and feeling lonely will win her many readers (I hope). And she’s also funny.

Will teens like it?: Yes. Fans of Raina Telgemeier and The Wimpy Kid/Big Nate will be into this for sure.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

ElDeafo_TXT_page1

allstarcover

All Star

Jesse Lonergan, writer and artist

NBM ComicsLit

Anticipation/Expectation Level: None. I knew nothing about this going in.

My Reality: Great realistic fiction which I think sometimes is thin on the ground in the comics world, especially for the high school level. All Star is squarely high school oriented. It’s not the baseball story that the cover may lead you to believe it is. It’s about the golden boy becoming aware of his golden boy privileges and trying to do the right thing. I’m always fascinated to read about fictional or nonficitonal characters trying to do the right thing. (All Star may seem autobiographical but it’s not). Lonergan writes clean, beautiful action pages that made baseball not so boring even for me. His characters are exaggerated – a little boxy like Jeff Lemire’s but more like walking skeletons.

Will Teens Like it?: Teens might not get all the cultural references going on, but hopefully that won’t turn them away from the story.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yeah.

Art Taste:

154-All-Star

tomboycover

Tomboy: a graphic memoir

Liz Prince, writer and artist

Zest Books

Anticipation/expectation level: I got a personal recommendation for this from several people whose taste I trust.

My Reality: Loved it! Prince doesn’t try to tamp down on the ambiguity of her feelings about how she wants to be in the world. Because these go against culturally built up norms for gender expression she struggles with how she feels about girly things, how she has been taught to think about being a girl, and how she feels comfortable and if that has to fit into a gendered behavior. But it’s told as a story that is open, using a black and white, thin-lined style that I think of as “refined sketchbook cartoon” – really accessible and enjoyable for a huge age range.

Will Teens Like It?: I put this on display on Tuesday and a teen immediately picked it up.

Is it “great” for teens?: YES.

Art Taste:

tomboyjedi

T0724

I Think I Am In Friend-Love With You

Yumi Sakugawa, writer and artist

Adams Media

Anticipation/Expectation Level: I had read this on Tumblr or something before it was published. I thought it was cute to a point.

My Reality: I like how the format: small and square, with one text panel and one picture to each spread, makes the reading go more slowly. More like a picture book for adults. Sakugawa has a very appealing drawing style. The narrator of this book is a of a monstery design, sort of a cyclops Cousin It. She draws with a thin, textured pencil line, with a good eye for design. While I have experienced friend crushes and support the idea of more talk about the importance of friend-love and friendship as sustaining relationships, I feel like this book is more about friend-crush desperation. A reviewer at Rookie reads it as an exchange between the crusher and crushee, but I see it as a long declaration from the protagonist to an oblivious friend crush. A declaration that would make most people uncomfortable because it lacks confidence. And it is steeped in the social media world of today, and those references will become dated and take away from the chance of this being a classic book with a universal message. So I can’t fully get behind this as a great book but I do think it is cute and harmless – even maybe confidence building?

Will Teens Like it?: Yeah, this is built for sharing on Tumblr.

Is it “great” for Teens: I don’t know. I see it more as a novelty picture book?

Art Taste:

friendlove2

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Summer Reads Pt. 2: Sisters and The Book of Bad Things

by Tessa

It’s part 2 of my “books I’ve read this summer about summer” posts! Today I’m covering 2 dece reads for middle schoolers (and other people who read and like books). Unfortunately, both of them won’t be published until the end of August. Which is a great time to read books about summer in order to hold on to that summer feeling.

[Disclaimer: I’m reviewing Advance Review Copies of these books, so between now and when they’re actually published, things could have changed in the book.]

Sisters

Raina Telgemeier

Graphix, 2014

sisterstelgemeier

 

Raina Telgemeier is a godsend for realistic comics lovers who want to read stories about the middle school years. This is her follow up to her first book, Smile, which was about her totally falling on her face/mouth and having to deal with the messy dental aftermath of it for a long time, during her most awkward years.

This one’s about her sister. Actually, spoiler alert, it’s still about Raina and her feelings about her sister Amara. The framing is a road trip that she, her mom, her sister, and her little brother take, going from California to Colorado to visit family, and is punctuated by flashbacks that explain more about how the sisters grew to have their tense relationship, and why Raina won’t sit in the front seat of the van.

The flashbacks have a neat yellow filter on the pages, making it clear that the story is in the past. I wish all of the ARC I saw was in color, but that would be crazy expensive and I understand why it switched to black and white, but I’m glad I got a preview of what the coloring will be like (done by Braden Lamb, who does stuff for the Adventure Time comics!). The past sequences, with the filter, look like yellowed color photos, while the present sequences, and the present sequences capture the color of the late 80s, which is when I think this was set (maybe early 90s?), as does the fashion, of course.

Telgemeier’s writing and drawing makes me feel comfortable, like I’m reading a surprisingly interesting (and long) cartoon in a newspaper. Her family stories have the rhythm of a good sitcom, replete with punchlines and realistically wacky situations. I was so happy to slip back into those rhythms that I wasn’t bothered at first by the arc of the story. There is one scene at the end, though, that packed a big emotional punch, and it’s delivered by Amara. That made me realize that I didn’t know much about her. It’s a function of Raina not being allowed/distancing herself from Amara, so she doesn’t know what her sister is like. But it also leaves much of the book’s story obscuring half of what the book is about. It’s Sisters, not Sister, and it would have been a more powerful book for me if the big realization weren’t related to one sister not really being present in the story except as a mystery and antagonist to the other. This misstep in plotting won’t hurt the book with its core audience, though, and there are many solid scenes in there for fans to savor.

 

The Book of Bad Things

Dan Poblocki

Scholastic, 2014

bookofbadthingspoblocki

A colleague of mine brought this back from… BEA? And when I saw that it was middle grade horror and that SLJ compared it to R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and John Bellairs, I gladly took it off of her hands.

I’ve never heard of Dan Poblocki before, but he has written a lot of MG horror. Thanks for keeping the torch alight, Dan Poblocki. But you need to work on your tumblr.

The Book of Bad Things is about Cassidy Bean. She’s part of an exchange program in New York City, possibly part of a social work program, that lets her go and live with rich people in upstate New York during the summer. She’s visited one family, the Tremonts, for a couple summers, but this summer she’s arriving late to Whitechapel because the Tremonts took a while to say that Cassidy was welcome to come.

Something happened last summer to Cassidy and the Tremont’s son, Joey. They went out to the big house where Ursula Chambers, the town hermit lived. She yelled at them, and then later, Joey’s dog died, and for some reason, those two things became connected for Cassidy and Joey. Cassidy blamed herself for having the idea in the first place, and the summer seemed ruined.

Now she’s back with a new journal: The Book of Bad Things, where she writes down her fears and anxieties. Joey isn’t talking to her, and Ursula is dead. All her belongings are being raided by the townspeople, because Ursula didn’t have a family. Then, the people who took Ursula’s things start seeing her. And they start dying.

What I liked most about this book was that it wasn’t afraid to be scary and gruesome. It makes its characters question the line between reality and what they’ve seen in horror movies that feels more sophisticated to me than most horror setups in books for the younger set. Poblocki plays with the ideas of ghosts, zombies, psychic/emotional manifestations, and curses, and the real life scariness of hoarding, anxiety and hurt friendship. Sure, Cassidy’s narration is a bit stiff at times, but she’s a very serious girl, so it fits her. It also never states what race Cassidy is, so it’s possible to read her as black, which is important for many kids.

As an adult reader, I wasn’t terrified, but I can tell that if I had read this when I was a tween, it would have firmly lodged itself in my psyche.

 

 

 

 

“A World Without Magic or Miracles”: The Sea of Tranquility

A Review of The Sea of Tranquillity, by Katja Millay

Antisocialite Press, 2012/Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), 2012

The Sea of Tranquillity Katja Milla

by REBECCA, January 15, 2014

Though I got an ARC of The Sea of Tranquility more than a year ago, I put off reading it because I was worried it would be one more story of a high school romance that gave the characters past traumas instead of character development, insecurities instead of plot. The blurb sounded intriguing, but like it could go either way:

I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.” (Goodreads)

It turns out, The Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay’s amazing debut, was everything I was hoping it would be. First off, it’s not a romance, genre-wise—as in, it’s not a book where the narrative arc is set by romantic developments between the characters. It’s good, old-fashioned literary realism that happens to feature teenagers but could just as easily be marketed as adult literary fiction. Told in chapters that alternate between Nastya and Josh’s perspectives, this is a story about how our scars and traumas of the past affect our present.

F5B7633BF84D4E55BB7A4D9FA3BE1B7DBefore she was attacked, Nastya only cared about playing the piano perfectly. When she moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new school all she wants is to disappear. She dresses to keep people at arm’s length and, if that isn’t enough, she hasn’t spoken in over a year. Josh’s entire family has died, one by one, and he spends his time woodworking in his garage to shut the world out. Both are buried in worlds of their own making. Josh is convinced that if he lets anyone in he won’t be able to bear it when they leave him. Nastya is eaten up with the poison she feels toward the world and knows that speaking might let it out; and she needs it, because someday she plans to have her revenge.

What happened to Nastya to end her piano career is revealed slowly, petals unfurling throughout the book, and the facts of her attack aren’t particularly important. The point is that it changed her worldview and her voice is boiling over with vitriol and fear. The only way she manages to keep it together is exercise and baking. Every night, when her aunt and all her neighbors are asleep, she runs until she can’t run any more. One of those nights, her run takes her to a garage lit against the night: Josh’s. Slowly, in silence, they learn to be more comfortable with each other, to trust one another when they aren’t able interact with others.

The characterization in The Sea of Tranquility is spot-on. The characters’ circumstances aren’t wholly unique—there are certainly other books about a girl remaking herself after an attack, or about a boy shutting the world out after the death of his family. Still, they are particular in just the way good litfic manages. Nastya is hiding a whole life behind her heavy makeup and her silence and Millay strikes just the right balance between what Nastya reveals to the reader but keeps from Josh and what she lets him know.

At first, Josh’s character seems less complex than Nastya’s, as if he’ll be the proverbial safe-haven character, the warmly lit garage where she can land. But Millay does a masterful job of slowly revealing, as he gets more comfortable with Nastya, who Josh is when he’s not clenched so tight that no emotion can escape. Also, I love anything about an expert, and the scenes about Josh’s woodworking were awesome. The only friend Josh has is Drew, school golden boy with a perfect family and not a care in the world. Though they don’t acknowledge each other at school (to allow Josh to maintain his invisibility), Drew’s family is all Josh has left. Some of the most interesting dynamics occur when Drew is in the picture. Rather than being obnoxious, Drew is hyper-conscious of his picture-perfect life and behaves as if he can bring Nastya and Josh into it.

Little by little, everything that Nastya has slowly built in her new home unravels—after all, its foundations were so very tenuous—and both she and Josh have to face the fact that scars don’t go away. And sometimes, they don’t even heal. The Sea of Tranquility is long for YA (about 450 pages) but it never drags. The prose is beautiful and (one of my favorite things) Josh’s and Katya’s voices sound very different, and both are galvanizing. If you’re in the mood for a piece of beautifully-crafted psychological drama, The Sea of Tranquility is definitely for you. I can’t wait to see what first-time author Katja Millay comes up with next.

readalikes

Forbidden Tabitha Suzuma

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma (2010). Lochan and Maya have been acting like parents to their younger sibs ever since their father left. But, now, things have gotten really bad. As their family spirals out of control, Lochan and Maya turn to each other for support and care, and begin to realize that their feelings of love are romantic as well as familial. Can they keep their family together and still have a chance to be together when everything seems to be against them? My full review is HERE.

Made of Stars Kelley York

Made of Stars by Kelley York (2013). Hunter and his half-sister Ashlin have been friends with Chance since they were all kids, but haven’t seen him in a few years. Now, back together, they realize that there are things about Chance they’ve never realized. And they will change everything. Great character-building from a great author. My full review is HERE.

procured by: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility is available now.

Hello, Jessica Darling!: Sloppy Firsts

A review of Sloppy Firsts (Jessica Darling #1) by Megan McCafferty

Broadway Books (Random House) 2001

Sloppy Firsts Jessica Darling #1 Megan McCafferty

by REBECCA, January 16, 2013

characters

Jessica Darling: our protag whose bestie Hope just tragically abandoned her when her family moved away

Marcus Flutie: a guy at school who seems to see the Jessica Darling who isn’t so darling

Bridget: Jessica’s childhood bestie who turned boring

Manda & Sara: the other 2/3 of the “Clueless Crew” (with Bridget), they’re Jessica’s superficial default friends

Hy: a newcomer to Pineville from New York, Hy seems like she could be a real friend, until she becomes queen bee of the Clueless Crew

Scotty: one of Jessica’s oldest friends, he has a crush on her but she couldn’t care less

Jessica’s mom: sensitive basket case who seems to think Jessica should be a totally different person

Jessica’s dad: obsesses over Jessica’s running because he has no other way to connect with her

Paul Parlipiano: Jessica’s dream boy, he is a senior who she has never spoken to but worships completely

hook

When your best friend—the only person in the whole world who understands you, the only person in the whole world that you can stand to be around—moves away, leaving you at the mercy of parents who don’t get you, faux-friends who you hate, a crush so massive and unrealistic that you have no control over it, and a strange boy who seems to see you in a way that only your best friend ever has, what the hell do you do? Well, you can’t do anything, obviously, except keep a journal for the rest of us to read and send desperate missives to your absent bestie.

worldview

Holy realism, Batman. I hadn’t realized how long it’d been since I’d read a good old-fashioned first person realist high school fiction, but Sloppy Firsts is absolutely that. So, I originally bought this book for my sister for Chanukah one year (it was one of eight books that I can no longer differentiate among, but they were all in this vein) and never read any of them. But then a few weeks ago I was visiting my parents and had finished the books I brought with me, so I ransacked the bookshelves that are now an orphanage of all the books that my family has left behind over the years, and I found Sloppy Firsts (such mixtures of liquid leftovers were called Jungle Juice in my day; no idea what the kids today are calling it).

I kind of feel like the Jessica Darling books are one of those series that everyone who loves YA lit has read except for me (although I’d never heard of it when I bought it for my sis, or I’d surely have read it before I gave it to her). So, I think it’s long overdue that I check out the series containing the mysterious loner guy that Forever Young Adult compares every mysterious loner guy to. However, I’ll admit that I didn’t expect to be particularly interested in Sloppy Firsts. It just it isn’t the kind of book that I usually gravitate toward; still, I enjoy one every now and again and, luckily for me, I was at my parents’ house and was therefore in the mood for it because at my parents’ house I am fifteen again.

Sloppy Firsts is written in the form of a daily play-by-play of Jessica Darling’s life, interspersed with the occasional letters and emails to her best friend, Hope. Jessica’s voice is really wonderful, and that was the strongest element of the book for me. It was truly a joy to get inside Jessica’s head: she’s funny and self-deprecating and harsh and embarrassing. Most of the fun (for me) of a narrative like this one is the small revelations that the characters have in the course of their daily lives:

‘Regardless of who you invite,’ Bethany said, breaking the silence, ‘You should be more concerned about the part in your hair than you are about wearing it up.’

‘What do you mean? My part is just fine,’ I said, immediately looking in the mirror for a confirmation. My hair was tucked back, curling just under my earlobes, with a silver barrette clipped to the right side of my head to keep my bangs from falling into my eyes. Same as always.

‘Well, sure, it looks fine in the mirror.’

‘And that’s fine because that’s what I look like.’

‘No it isn’t,’ she laughed.

Then she sprung the bit of big sister torture she’s probably been saving for years.’

I knew that numbers and letters were backward in the mirror, but I never thought the same principle could apply to faces. I never realized that what I see in the mirror is my reverse image. Bethany positioned me in from of a set of mirrors that bounced off each other in a way that let me see the reverse of my reverse image—which is what I really look like.

What a shock. Bethany was right. I do part my hair on the wrong side. . . . I always thought that I didn’t photograph well, but it turns out that’s how I appear to others. I tried holding my hand mirror up to the bathroom mirror so I can get ready for school with my real face in mind. There’s nothing I can do about my nostrils. But I’ve been trying to use styling goop, a paddle brush, and a hair-dryer to train my part to hang a left instead of a right, but it’s just not working. The part is already sixteen years in the making” (34).

Sloppy Firsts Megan McCaffertyThere is interpersonal drama, sure, but as you’d expect, Sloppy Firsts is mostly friendships, crushes, fights, and self-discoveries. What sets it apart from so many of the other contemporary realistic YA novels that I’ve read is that Jessica’s main friendship takes place off-screen, so most of the portrayals of friendship that we get are of Jessica with the Clueless Crew, who are truly heinous in their intense and boring superficiality, and with Scotty, the cause of which I never did figure out, since he seems mostly to just play video games and be boring. And Jessica seems to think the same because he just kind of fades out of the book. In short, this is mostly a book about anti-friendships (Jessica is too apathetic about the Clueless Crew for me to even designate them as frenemies; plus, they don’t know that she hates them).

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

As such, I think one of Sloppy Firsts’ main intentions is to show the importance of a best friend/partner in crime. We never get to see Hope’s responses to Jessica, but we really don’t need to. It’s clear that they have that kind of enviable best friend relationship where they worship each other and their differences perfectly compliment one another. Really, the book is sort of a love letter to Hope, only in the negative. Throughout the course of the novel, Jessica grows more and more depressed and dissatisfied and lonely without Hope. That’s a dynamic that I think most of us can relate to. Moments of the description of their friendship are so right-on that it made me really miss all of you lovelies who live far away from me:

Hope,

Exactly one year ago today, I sprinted the last 100 yards to win a cross-country meet against Eastland . . . I was feeling proud and happy. I rented Heathers at Blockbuster and was looking forward to what new insights/analysis we would come up with in our tenth VCR viewing. I got ready to make bowls of Chubby Hubby—mine topped with Cap’n Crunch, yours without—when you arrived for our Friday Night Food and Flick Fest. . . . You didn’t burst through the kitchen door cracking a joke about the Clueless Crew or doing a dead-on imitation of one of Christina Aguilera’s white-girl soul riffs or bearing a construction-paper-and-glitter gold medal that you’d insist I wear on my chest all evening. Your face was sad and serious in a way I hadn’t seen since Heath died. I knew something was wrong. Then you said it.

‘We’re moving to Tennessee.’

As horrible and impossible and all-other-ibles as the news was, I knew it was true. You put the ice cream back in the freezer so it wouldn’t melt, and I cried for hours.

Today I dug past layer upon layer of dinners and foil-covered leftovers in the freezer. I found that pint of Chubby Hubby covered in flowery frost, unopened, uneaten. And I cried all over again.

I still miss you.” (188)

As Jessica’s dissatisfaction with her life increases, she notices that the mysterious stoner at school, Marcus Flutie, seems to see her for who she is, unlike the Clueless Crew (and all her teachers)—that is, as “Notso” (as in “not so darling,” according to her father). Her burgeoning relationship with Marcus is the one thing that Jessica feels she can’t tell Hope, because Marcus did drugs with Hope’s brother, who overdosed (catalyzing her family’s move). Marcus is a solid character, but I must admit that I didn’t find him swoony the way a lot of other reviewers seem to. He just seems like an actually cool, smart person who doesn’t play games. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know they’re not thick on the ground in high school, but still. Most important, he makes Jessica face some hard truths about herself so that she can (hopefully) be a little more self-possessed in the next book (which I’ll definitely read).

Just Listen Sarah DessenLike I said, I wasn’t expecting to care for Sloppy Firsts much, but I ended up definitely enjoying it. I think my main causes for dissatisfaction with the book are things that are simply not to my taste. I was pretty uninterested in everything that happened in the book (except one thing, which I won’t spoil) because they seem detached and a bit arbitrary. In Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen (review HERE), for example, the narrative is concerned with the similarly everyday happenings of a high school girl. In Just Listen, though, all these happenings are tied together by overarching themes (music, the difference between appearance and depth, honesty, the fallout of an event we don’t know about, etc.), which make them seem completely necessary to the heart of the story. This is just taste, though; I imagine some people will really enjoy the journal-esque style of Sloppy Firsts.

I also didn’t care about Jessica much. I didn’t dislike her or anything, and at times I was definitely interested in her thoughts. But, while she’s clearly smart and observant, her particular brand of insight feels canned. It’s like she gives the smart version of banal observations: “Brides are evil. They are so hell-bent on looking better than everyone else that they pick out bridesmaids’ dresses that no one could possibly look good in” (31); “What always pissed me off about her whole perspective spiel was that she was writing off my feelings at that moment” (181). So, yeah, I wasn’t head over heels about her.

My main complaint is that McCafferty had the opportunity with Jessica to avoid common misogynistic and sexist tropes (since Jessica is, after all, supposed to be smart and considers herself separate from the Clueless Crew), but she absolutely doesn’t. There is a moment when Sara expresses relief over Jessica’s hopeless crush because “I’m just happy you’re not a lesbo” (156), and Jessica is affronted at the idea (“I mean, me? A vagitarian?”). Also, McCafferty attributes totally misogynistic thoughts to Jessica in what is, perhaps, the way that infuriates me most: the essentialization of “female” qualities and the collapse of being female with being overly sensitive in an intrinsically negative way. More than once. Which is a huge strike against the book for me. “I’m being such a girl right now. I have no right to be jealous” (142). “Then I could stop being such a girl and just move on already” (185). It’s bad enough when authors are sexist; it’s worse, in my opinion, when authors sneak misogyny into characters who are otherwise pretty righteous. By having Jessica, a smart, strong character, denigrate being “a girl” McCafferty teaches a whole new generation to equate “girl” with “over-sensitive,” “hyper-reactive,” “obsessive,” and “irrational.” Great. Thanks.

So, all in all, Sloppy Firsts was a well-written drama that I enjoyed, but wouldn’t stand behind in terms of its inherent politics. I’m intrigued enough by Jessica’s voice that I want to read the next one (and because Tessa liked it better), but it’s not the kind of thing I’d necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a breezy, sincere portrait of the troubles of teendom, better written than many, but without any gravitas.

Oh, and for fans: Sloppy Firsts is, apparently, being adapted into a movie.

procured from: found at my parents’ house and stolen for the plane ride home

So, what did you think of the Jessica Darling series? Tell me in the comments!

Sharing Our Snacks: Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

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

Five Flavors of Dumb

Antony John

Dial Books, 2010

dumb_215

review by Tessa

Rebecca tacked this title onto her email of Sharing Our Snacks ideas, saying it was “a book I really, really wanted to like but just didn’t.”  If she hadn’t suggested it I may not have picked it up – not for any reason, but just because… just because. But I’m glad that I did. Now I can more enthusiastically booktalk it to people who are looking for music-related realistic fiction.  I even made this collage last night in its honor, using only models from the Crate & Barrel Catalog, foil from Trader Joe’s honey-mint patties, fine-point Sharpies, and my interesting magazine picture backlog (which honestly needs replenishing). Oh, and a phrase from a rad Nikki McClure calendar.:

5flavorsofdumb_001

Accordingly, my review will also be collage-y.

BASIC PLOT (courtesy of Antony John’s author site):

“Piper has one month to get a paying gig for Dumb—the hottest new rock band in school.

If she does it, she’ll become manager of the band and get her share of the profits, which she desperately needs since her parents raided her college fund.

Managing one egomaniacal pretty boy, one talentless piece of eye candy, one crush, one silent rocker, and one angry girl who is ready to beat her up. And doing it all when she’s deaf. With growing self-confidence, an unexpected romance, and a new understanding of her family’s decision to buy a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, Piper just may discover her own inner rock star.”

I’ll get the CONS out of the way first:

Rebecca, I feel you. Five Flavors of Dumb is uneven. It tackles many issues – deafness, Deaf culture, feeling like an outsider among outsiders, navigation of cool, taking on job responsibilities, figuring out who in your band is undermining everything, understanding music history, tough sibling relationships, tough parent relationships, estranged friendships, uhh… I think those are the main ones.

So, to cover those things requires a lot of plot, and the plot gets lost sometimes. There’s a whole mystery involving an anonymous internet commenter sending Piper and Dumb around Seattle to learn about the deep, dark side of being a famous musician, and while the trips are intriguing, the mystery itself gets dropped for so long I found myself wondering if it had been forgotten.   Time shrinks and expands in weird ways throughout the story (I should’ve taken notes on this so I could back my assertion up, but I didn’t and I apologize).

Finally, one must brace oneself to suspend their disbelief when reading Five Flavors of Dumb, because the premise of trying to become a band manager to make money for college is a thin one. However, a book about applying to scholarships and making a budget would not be as interesting or dynamic. So. I understand.

So we can get to the PROS:

The good news is that John gets the emotions down, and the ins and outs of familial, friendly, and romantic relationships were more than enough to keep me reading.  For me, the pros outweighed the cons and I enjoyed reading about Piper and even found her world believable (despite the exception mentioned above.)  In order of importance to me:

– PARENTAL PAIN

Piper’s dad has an emotional IQ of zero when it comes to his oldest spawn.  This guy! I wanted to invent a pinching machine to follow him and pinch him whenever he did or said something blockheaded or particularly carelessly hurtful, and believe you me he would be covered in tiny bruises after about 10 minutes.

It’s an achievement to portray very darkly abusive parents and caregivers, for sure, but I sort of think it’s an even bigger achievement to portray the everyday slights, the subtle emotional abuse, that can go on in a family. Is abuse too strong a word? I don’t think so. Piper is shut out from being appreciated as a person and she is made to feel lesser than because of her preference for using ASL and because her parents STOLE HER COLLEGE FUND WITHOUT CONSULTING HER.  But of course she still reaches out for love from her dad and mom, and it’s heartbreaking to see the ways it isn’t returned as her parents are caught up in providing for her baby sister.

– SIBLING LOVE

Piper does love her baby sister and she struggles with trying not to feel jealous of the cochlear implants and the attention that baby Grace is getting, in a realistic way. And she loves her brother, but they’re not over-the-top besties. They squabble but ultimately have each other’s backs in a way I find familiar, being a sister myself.

– TAKE-CHARGE-ITIVENESS

Piper tackles her problems practically and speaks up when she feels she’s being underestimated, despite also feeling like an outsider because of her hearing impairment and being without her moved-away best friend who can’t even bother to get on Skype once in a while. I like that about her and I like seeing how she tries to solve her problems without trying to become a tough chick stereotype.

– BAND DYNAMICS

There should be more portrayals of being in a band, and how much work it is to make a song and play together and deal with 2, 3, 4 or more personalities and ideas of how to make money. And how awesome it feels when it comes together.

– MUSIC HISTORY

The bits of the book where Piper investigates the history of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix are fascinating. I put down the book and did more research about Hendrix afterwards. (That’s why I tried to have her holding a record album in the collage, even though it’s impossible to tell that it is supposed to be a record – also to reference a very poignant scene with her dad.)

In Conclusion

Despite its uneven flow, Five Flavors of Dumb had emotional depth, brought out the history of its setting, and showed what it’s really like to try to work as a group. And so I’d recommend it to other readers wholeheartedly.  Does that speak to any of your feelings of meh, Rebecca? I’m curious to know if you remember more about why you weren’t into it.

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.

Dear Year, Thank You for Entertaining Me.

by Tessa

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

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

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

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

1. Subtlety in Speculative Fiction & Movies

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

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

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

2. Three Cheers for Realistic Fiction

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

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

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

3. Funny Books!

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

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

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

4. Getting Back to the Classics

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

5. Great Series

  

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mention: Weird Graphic Novels.

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

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

xo.

Boarding School Books Redux

by Tessa

While I’m a public school girl, I did enjoy the boarding school-like atmosphere of several successive summer camps that culminated with four weeks at a camp that actually did require uniforms and really was a boarding school during school months.

See if you can spot me:

I can say that R.’s well-laid out conclusions about the appeal of such spaces and their stories, listed in last Friday’s post, were borne out even in that short time.

I’ll leave a list of summer camp books for another time (and I promise you it will include the Babysitter’s Club).  For now, consider this list an addendum of evidence as to the power of the boarding school as setting.

Fantasies

The Tapestry Series / Henry H. Neff

Yes, this is an American Harry Potter type story–Max McDaniels discovers his (Irish) magic heritage and is sent to Rowan Academy in Virginia, where he has adventures and also finds that a great evil is awakening in the world, but also its own thing. Neff incorporates the whole world much more widely than Rowling and goes in a different direction with his evil–Max is fighting demons instead of a twisted human, and his journey is much closer to the questing of Finn McCool.  Neff actually abandons the boarding school format in Book 3 (but still read it, because there’s a scene with a creeping thing a well that is just fantastic).

And I see that a fourth book is coming out this October. Word.

The Magicians Series / Lev Grossman

The Magicians is set in a world where everyone knows about Harry Potter, the series. And then our mopey, can’t-get-his-shit-together protagonist, Quentin, finds out that there really is a school of magic, and that he has a chance to get in. But magic is much more scary and complicated than wand-waving, and graduation is even more complicated than magic. Or, it’s even more complicated when you know you have magic and you have to figure out if it even means anything in the long run.

Mysteries

Gemma Doyle Trilogy / Libba Bray

Gemma Doyle is orphaned and taken from her home in India to Spence Academy, where she uncovers a secret world and a secret about herself. And a cute boy.  It’s a tart, fun historical mystery with equal parts bitchery and girl power.

Sure, the third book is flawed and maybe you’d be better making up your own ending, but the richness of the world that Bray invents still makes it something I’d recommend reading.


Or if you want a boarding school mystery set in London with both historical and supernatural elements, but don’t want to read this, you could dive into The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. It’s got Jack the Ripper and quite a cliffhanger. (It looks like the second book, The Madness Underneath, will be published next year.)


Books of Fell / M.E. Kerr

Or there’s always the option of a prep school mystery involving a secret society, seen through a townie outsider’s eyes. . .  It’s set by the ocean, too.

Infinite Jest / David Foster Wallace

There are really two boarding schools here – the Enfield Tennis Academy and the recovering addicts of Ennet House.  AND SO MUCH MORE. As Publisher’s Weekly described it:

“set in an absurd yet uncanny near-future, with a cast of hundreds and close to 400 footnotes, Wallace’s story weaves between two surprisingly similar locales: Ennet House, a halfway-house in the Boston Suburbs, and the adjacent Enfield Tennis Academy. It is the ‘Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment’ (each calendar year is now subsidized by retail advertising); the U.S. and Canada have been subsumed by the Organization of North American Nations, unleashing a torrent of anti-O.N.A.N.ist terrorism by Quebecois separatists; drug problems are widespread; the Northeastern continent is a giant toxic waste dump; and CD-like ‘entertainment cartridges’ are the prevalent leisure activity. The novel hinges on the dysfunctional family of E.T.A.’s founder, optical-scientist-turned-cult-filmmaker Dr. James Incandenza (aka Himself), who took his life shortly after producing a mysterious film called Infinite Jest, which is supposedly so addictively entertaining as to bring about a total neural meltdown in its viewer.”

Two bookmarks are required to read this, and yet I still wished it were longer.

Realities


Breathless / Jessica Warman

Breathless also works the outsider perspective, but as a coming of age tale, no mystery but the mysteries of human socialization and family dynamics. I’ve recommended it here before. Because it’s really good. Katie’s a girl with a talent but she comes from a family with their own problems, and she has to work out from under the feeling that she doesn’t deserve good things in life.

Prep / Curtis Sittenfeld

I pointed out in my home library post that this book was a life-changer for me. People either love Lee or want to slap her because they’re frustrated with her. I identified with her way too much for comfort, which ended up being a helpful psychological journey where I worked out some issues via the story. What made that possible was Sittenfeld’s excellent, incisive characterization and writing that drops you into prep school without calling attention to itself, but doesn’t hide its skill. In that way it’s very much like the voice in Girl.


Withering Tights / Louise Rennison

And yet, not all boarding school books are total angst fests. Tallulah Casey, the girl who narrates Withering Tights, does fret about things when she starts her first year of Performing Arts College in brooding, moor-y rural England.  But it’s the kind of fretting that sets up slapstick-y gags and hilarious misunderstandings.  Withering Tights is the start of a new series, so it’s a good go-to for breaks from Infinite Jest.

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