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

A Review of The Dogs of Balboa by Rose Christo

Self-published,  2014

The Dogs of Balboa Rose Christo

by REBECCA, August 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Reads Pt. 1: Celebrated Summer and This One Summer

by Tessa

 

Summer: anything can happen, freedom, transitional state of adolescence, blah blah blah. I just read a bunch of books set in summer! Two were more high schooly and two were more middle schooly, so I’ll cover them in two parts.

Celebrated Summer

Charles Forsman

Fantagraphic Books, 2013

celebratedsummerforsman

 

The cover copy calls this a “graphic novella” because it’s relatively short. I call it “self-aware nostalgia” because the narrator, Wolff, is thinking about this one time that he and his friend Mike took LSD and decided to drive to the beach from their small town in Pennsylvania (Forsman is from Mechanicsburg so I’m picturing there). But even as he’s recalling it he doesn’t think it’s magical. Yet he’s not feeling sorry for himself.

Forsman has a spare line that still manages to capture summer days that are unrelentingly hot and humid. Or maybe it’s the way he writes Wolff, who is drifting and so uncomfortable in his skin, but not ready to do anything about it, that is coming through in the atmosphere of the book. In the same way, the LSD in Wolff’s body warps his environment, so he stops knowing what’s inside and what’s outside:

celebrated2

 

More previews at Fantagraphics!

Forsman is really good at pacing his panels. Some of them unspool like frames of film, he always pauses for reactions that make the story flow as if it were in real time, giving conversations real pauses, and some, going off into pure abstraction, still follow their own logic.

I also really liked his The End of the Fucking World, and recommend it. And he runs(?) this comics press/distro called Oily that sells subscriptions and it looks pretty rad. Do more research about it than I just did here, on its site.

 

This One Summer

Written by Mariko Tamaki, Drawn by Jillian Tamaki

First Second, 2014

thisonesummertamaki

 

Hope I’m not scooping you on a review, Rebecca, because I know how much you loved Skim. (Regardless I’d like to read your review of this book, though).

I’m including This One Summer on the high schooly side of things even though it’s about two kids on the cusp of adolescence. Because Rose and Windy are obsessed with the high school/post high school kids at Awago Beach. Because it’s also nostalgic in a way, being that Rose is thinking back to previous summers compared to this one. And it has adult intrigue that Rose understands, but adults reading it will connect to on another level. I think that whatever age reads this book will get different things out of it, and it’s a book to keep coming back to to measure yourself against the feelings it gives you.

It’s gorgeous, no surprise, since Jillian Tamaki is fantastic and wonderful. It’s printed in blue inks, and the lines are brushstrokes. J. T.’s figures are simplified enough that eyes don’t have separate pupils and irises, but retain a sense of depth and weight in the space of the image, so a realism comes through. The backgrounds and splash pages are delicate, detailed, and finely observed, like obsessive studies for full on paintings, grounding the story in place.

The story is Rose’s summer at Awago Beach, where her family has been going forever. She has a beach friend named Windy, who’s a bit younger than her. This summer she has a crush on the video store clerk, he’s having drama with his maybe girlfriend, and her parents are not getting along. Her mom won’t go to the beach and she’s pushing Rose’s dad away. It’s a summer made of moments, and some of them will affect Rose in obvious, rememberable ways, and some of them are the kind that pass by and come back in embarrassment or with a laugh years later, or might never be remembered at all. Here we get to see them play out and wonder which are which. Mariko Tamki is fantastic and wonderful as well, writing another layered and immediate story, with characters that are perfectly themselves.

 

 

“It Was A Girl”: Lucy Christopher’s The Killing Woods

A review of The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

Chicken House (Scholastic), 2014

The Killing Woods Lucy Christopher

by REBECCA, February 24, 2014

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Emily’s dad has PTSD, so when he emerges from the woods one night with the dead body of Ashlee, a girl from Emily’s school, everyone points the finger at him. Damon, Ashlee’s boyfriend, has a feeling that something more is going on than meets the eye, and so does Emily. They need each other to figure out what really happened that night, but what if solving the mystery rips everything apart?

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Emily has always been close with her father, who taught her everything she knows about the woods behind their house. Even though he’s scared her sometimes, she is positive that he could never kill anyone—even if he were experiencing a flashback. Damon wakes up the morning after Mr. Shepherd carries Ashlee’s body out of the woods with no memory of what happened the night before or where Ashlee is, but everyone at school says Emily Shepherd’s father killed her. When Damon gets the chance to talk to Emily alone, he feels compelled to take it. He isn’t sure what he wants to ask her—just that he needs to talk to her. But what she has to say isn’t at all what he expects. Emily’s certainty about her father makes Damon doubt his own. Because he and Ashlee had been playing a game in the woods that night . . . and he can’t be sure of what he might have done.

The Killing Woods Lucy ChristopherThe chapters of The Killing Woods alternate between Emily and Damon’s perspectives as they both attempt to uncover the truth of what happened that night. The premise of the book really appealed to me—I’m a big fan of a reconstructing-the-past story, especially when it’s a psychological reconstruction. The woods are the perfect backdrop for this story: a foggy, eerie, living world that is both escape and threat. And it’s the book’s atmosphere that does the most work. It facilitates the story of the game that Damon, Ashlee, and their friends play in the woods and the connection that Emily feels to her family’s home even when it would be easier for her and her mother to cut ties and leave town.

The atmosphere was the only part of The Killing Woods that worked well for me, however. That isn’t to say it’s a bad book. It’s accomplished and competent, with nice prose and a plot that unfolds slowly and deliberately. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to make me care about these characters, who never come to life. Both Emily and Damon are the children of veterans (Damon’s father was killed in an explosion), and I’m willing to grant that there’s a certain amount of detachment that feels realistic, given their experiences with secondary violence. But we don’t learn anything about these characters beyond what they think about the mystery they’re trying to unravel. And that’s just not enough to sustain the novel.

The distance I felt from these characters was exacerbated by the perspective-switching from chapter to chapter. It’s Damon’s reconstruction of his part in the night Ashlee died that is the crux of The Killing Woods, so it’s his perspective that is required. Emily’s process of working through her feelings about her father is written as a counterpoint, but nothing much happens from her side, so her chapters feel baggy and repetitive—they flatten out the entire narrative structure of the book, removing the peaks and valleys that typify suspenseful narratives.

Lucy Christopher repeatedly cuts away from Damon’s perspective just as he’s on the verge of remembering something, so the chapter shifts read like commercial breaks—purposeful interruptions to extend and heighten the drama. And, while the mental work Damon does to reconstruct that night is mostly interesting, this purposeful stylistic heightening of drama undercuts what actual interest there is by irritatingly stretching it out to fill more space than its content requires. The Killing Woods is a 360-page book with what feels more like a 150-page story. And, while I usually love a slow reveal, this one was both unsurprising, in terms of plot, and unsatisfying, in that the characters don’t seem to be much different at the end of the novel than they were at the beginning. Though, of course, that might be because I never really felt like I knew anything about the characters to begin with.

Overall, The Killing Woods is a totally competent suspense novel, but one without much drama or interest. It definitely does not have enough meat for readers who are looking for a character-driven story, nor is it complex enough for readers who want a mystery novel.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher is available now.

“Good Books Are Always About Everything”: Grasshopper Jungle

A review of Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith

Dutton Books, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

by REBECCA, February 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

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

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

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

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

readalikes

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

WInger Andrew Smith

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

Stick Andrew Smith

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

The Marbury Lens Andrew Smith

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

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

Grasshopper Jungle Andrew Smith

An Amazing New Series: Gives Light

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

Self-Published, 2012

Gives Light Rose Christo

by REBECCA, January 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex & Violence, a Strong YA Debut

A Review of Sex & Violence, by Carrie Mesrobian

Carolrhoda Lab, 2013

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

by REBECCA, December 11, 2013

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Evan Carter has moved around a lot his whole life, bouncing from school to school as his father moves for work. And, though he never stays in one place long enough to make close friends, his transience (alongside his profile of The Girl Who Would Say Yes) lends itself to getting lots of action before he and his father move again and he deletes their phone numbers. But, when Evan finds himself at Remington Chase boarding school sleeping with the wrong girl, Collette, everything changes.

After Evan is violently attacked in the showers by his roommate and Collette’s ex-boyfriend, his father takes him to the family cabin in rural Minnesota to recover. Now, Evan is afraid all the time: every man threatens violence; every woman threatens to bring it upon him; he can’t even take a shower without being triggered. But Evan isn’t going anywhere, so, for the first time, he has to really get to know people—especially girls—more deeply than he has before. And what he finds is that perhaps his problems began long before Remington Chase.

I’ve been looking forward to Sex & Violence since February, when the seemingly always right about stuff Andrew Smith wrote about it on his blog. I love complex, fucked up, traumatized, smart, confused, flawed characters, so Sex & Violence seemed like it would be right up my alley. Also, I was uncharacteristically conflicted about the title—usually I know immediately whether I love something or hate something: it’s so descriptive, so literal, that it seems kind of silly, but at the same time, since “sex and violence” is kind of a cliché already, then maybe it’s kind of meta? Like, not a description-of-the-themes-of-the-book title, but the concretization of two themes as one to describe the way they’re necessarily entwined. Then I thought, hey, Rebecca, it’s really not that important; get on with your life/reading the damn book.

Sex & Violence by Carrie MesrobianBut, upon reading the book, the question of the title seemed important once again. Because Sex & Violence, despite its aggressive, titillating title, is a very quiet, subtle book, more like the white-on-white ghost of the shower tiles that haunt the novel than the vibrant blue and red at its center. The novel takes place in the space of Evan’s vulnerability, post-trauma, and Mesrobian attends to this vulnerability with such subtlety that, at times, we almost forget about it. But it’s then, right then, that it rears back into play: a muscular boy standing a little too close; taking a shower; the smell of a girl’s shampoo. Like Evan, we are forced to be hyper-aware of all the details that once seemed meaningless but are now fraught.

And that’s where my investment lay: with Evan and his interiority. The rest of the cast of characters, mostly other teens that Evan makes friends with, did nothing for me. They aren’t interesting or memorable—and I’m not necessarily sure that they need to be. Because I feel generous toward Sex & Violence I choose to read it that way: that Mesrobian is intentionally placing Evan in the unfamiliar waters of navigating the interpersonal relations that are normal to most of us. But, if I felt less than generous, or was less taken by the subtlety of her portrayal of Evan, I could easily write off the rest of the cast, especially Baker, the girl Evan has feelings for, who I think is, of everyone, supposed to interest us.

Sex & Violence is at its strongest in its quiet moments of introspection and its moments of dark humor, and that’s a tall order, I think, especially for an authorial debut. I really enjoyed the book, but more even than that, I’m exciting for more from Carrie Mesrobian, whose second novel, Perfectly Good White Boy, will be out from Carolrhoda Lab in 2014.

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Winger Andrew Smith

Winger, by Andrew Smith (2013). Ryan Dean West’s trials and tribulations at boarding school include: being a fourteen-year-old junior, being in love with his best friend, Annie, who thinks of him as a kid, and getting close to his gay friend on the rugby team, which brings about trials of its own. My full review of Winger (in which Ryan Dean inspires my new band name, “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”) is HERE.

Leverage Joshua C. Cohen

Leverage, by Joshua C. Cohen (2012). Leverage is a beautiful meditation on masculinity, violence, and the overlap between them. My full review of Leverage is HERE.

procured from: the library

Movie Review: How I Live Now

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

How I Live Now

by REBECCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Review of Made of Stars, by Kelley York

Entangled Teen, 2013

Made of Stars by Kelley York

by REBECCA, September 23, 2013

Hunter and his half-sister Ashlin have spent nearly every summer since they were kids at their dad’s house in Maine, with their best friend, Chance, the impulsive, whimsical, and mysterious boy they met at the creek. But after their cop father was shot and needed time to recover, it’s been a while since they were back, and since they’ve seen Chance. Now, in the winter after they graduate high school, both Hunter and Ashlin have put college or future plans on hold to return to their father’s house and take some time to figure things out. Since Chance always had a million excuses why they couldn’t talk on the phone or email, Hunter and Ashlin can’t tell him they’re coming to town, and both are desperate to see him, finally.

When they show up on his doorstep in November, a place they’ve never been allowed to go, they find that the stories Chance has always told them—about his parents’ frequent travel, their nice home, and his life—are lies. His parents’ trailer is run-down, his father violent, and his mother neglectful. How could they never have noticed the signs before? But when they finally catch up with Chance, he’s as captivating as ever and the three fall back into their familiar habits of spending every day together. Indeed, Chance nearly lives at their house. When Hunter’s girlfriend comes to visit for Christmas, though, Hunter has to confront the idea that maybe Chance has always meant more to him than just a friend—and that may mean more than he’s willing to admit.

Made of Stars is a near-perfect story: it’s simple, resonant, and beautifully characterized, and I loved every minute of it. The narrative shifts between Hunter and Ashlin’s perspectives, and it’s through their adoring eyes that we see Chance. Now that they’re eighteen, what was once a sibling closeness takes on a more adult intimacy, and Kelley York does a bang-up job of evoking the tension in this triangle. Chance is like a puppy—easily affectionate, loyal, and sensitive—and Hunter and Ashlin have different reactions to him. Ash realizes that she’s attracted to Chance and wants him to trust her. Hunter realizes that what he’d always taken for friendship may actually be love, and he wants desperately to protect Chance.

The contrast between the warm, familial scenes in Hunter and Ash’s father’s house and the hell that Hunter and Ash suddenly realize Chance has grown up in is gutting. It’s also lovely to see a half-sibling relationship in YA lit that’s close and supportive rather than competitive. Hunter and Ash live with their mothers across the country from each other, and they live for the summers when they get to be together, and with Chance. The idea that both Hunter and Ash have been unable to decide what to do with their lives after high school until they can get back to Maine and see Chance again runs subtly through Made of Stars.

After Hunter and Ash realize that Chance has hidden major things about his life, he’s recontextualized in their eyes, and they want to help him. Chance, however, just wants to forget about his life when Hunter and Ash aren’t around, and to enjoy the time they have together. When Chance’s mother is murdered, though, and Chance becomes a suspect, that becomes impossible. The helplessness that Hunter and Ash feel is tangible on the page, and is a beautiful counterpart to the joy they feel when Chance is around.

Hushed by Kelley YorkThe one critique I have of Made of Stars is simply that Ash and Hunter’s voices are never quite distinct enough, so when the perspective shifted, I often found myself looking back to see who was narrating.

As with the first book of hers that I read (and LOVED—see full review HERE), HushedMade of Stars is a book about relationships, and the interplay of the characters is the drama. It’s beautifully understated while still leaving me desperate to turn the page and find out what was going to happen next.

readalikes

Andy Squared by Jennifer Lavoie

Andy Squared by Jennifer Lavoie (2012). Twins Andrew and Andrea have always been the best of friends. When a new kid moves to their school from Texas, and Andrew realizes that his feelings for him may go beyond friendship, it changes his relationship with Andrea dramatically. My full review is HERE.

Stick by Andrew Smith

Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of the really wonderful Stick is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Made of Stars, by Kelley York, will be available October 1st.

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Steifvater

A Review of The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2013

The Dream Thieves The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

by REBECCA, September 16, 2013

I was so excited to read The Dream Thieves, the second in The Raven Cycle, because I adored The Raven Boys. I promise that this review will have no spoilers, since the book’s not out until tomorrow (though there are spoilers for The Raven Boys, in case you’ve not read it yet). The cycle looks like it’s going to be at least two more books, going by Goodreads, which shows untitled numbers 3 and 4 for release in 2014 and 2015.

The Raven Boys by Maggie StiefvaterThe Raven Boys was tightly-plotted and set in a world that was about 70% realist—there’s Blue Sargent’s family of psychics and scryers and a ghost. We met Blue, the only non-psychic in her family, and the eponymous Raven Boys, who attend the posh Aglionby Academy in Blue’s town. There’s Gansey, who is obsessed with tracing the ley lines in town with the hopes of finding Glendower, a Welsh king whose location will, the tales say, result in great favor. Adam is a local who feels constantly out of place in Aglionby because he’s poor and unconnected, unlike the rest of its students. Ronan is passionate and angry and hates Aglionby, though he stays out of loyalty to Gansey. Last and least is Noah, who, we learn, is a ghost, killed by his Aglionby roommate years before, who was also looking for Glendower.

Where The Raven Boys was a tightly-plotted, 70% realist first novel, The Dream Thieves is an expansive, 70% non-realist second. The Dream Thieves is a book packed full of ideas and featuring a piece of world-building that makes for limitless possibilities. Like The Raven BoysThe Dream Thieves is still heavy on character and atmosphere, but where the former was Gansey’s book, this one is Ronan’s.

When Ronan’s father was killed, he was disallowed from returning to his family home. Now things have begun happening, both in real life and in his dreams, that make him determined to return and solve the mysteries that his father’s death left behind. The plot about Glendower takes a bit of a back seat here to Ronan’s personal abilities, and I enjoyed the hell out of that. Ronan was the character I was most interested in from The Raven Boys, so I was thrilled to follow his journey. We get the introduction of a threatening new character, Mr. Gray, who is in Henrietta searching for something that intersects with the quest for Glendower, and Kavinsky, a Raven Boy who will change everything for Ronan.

The Raven Boys by Maggie StiefvaterLike I said, The Dream Thieves is chock-full of ideas. As such, it gets a little baggy in the middle, where I felt I was being re-introduced to themes and character traits. It couldn’t have been the first book in a series, certainly. As a second book, though, I found its meandering moments forgivable, particularly since the ideas Stiefvater is playing with really are shiny enough to justify diversions. As you can guess from the title and final line of The Raven Boys, this book is about stealing from dreams. So. Good. My favorite thing about The Dream Thieves is the way Stiefvater effortlessly juggles the effects of this concept, which includes every imaginable (dreamable) possibility.

Whereas the end of The Raven Boys pointed strongly to where the next book would go, The Dream Thieves raised the stakes of the story so much that I find myself totally unsure where the third book in the cycle will go. But I trust Stiefvater and I love these characters, so count me in for the ride, wherever it goes!

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Stiefvater will be available tomorrow!

Not Your Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield: Andy Squared

A Review of Andy Squared by Jennifer Lavoie

Bold Strokes Books, 2012

Andy Squared Jennifer Lavoie

by REBECCA, April 17, 2013

characters

Andrew (A1): popular at school (and with the cheerleaders), he just wants to play soccer and hang out with his twin . . . or, at least, he used to

Andrea (A2): more ambitious than her brother, she has their college careers all planned out for them and does not take kindly to changes in plans

Ryder: recently arrived from Texas, Ryder is a laid-back and generous friend, and totally crushing on Andrew

hook

Andrew and Andrea are twins who have always done everything together. When Andrew becomes close friends with new kid Ryder, Andrea can’t understand why he seems to be changing. He hasn’t dated a cheerleader in (gasp!) a month, he’s learning to ride horses, and now he’s talking about not wanting to play college soccer. Andrew, though, feels satisfied for the first time in his life. Which path will he choose—the one his twin has laid out for him, or the one he and Ryder are building together?

worldview

With only one letter separating them, the two Andys have it made: both popular at school, both talented soccer players, and part of a close, happy family, they’ve never had to think very hard about who they are or what they’re going to do. Andrea is busy planning for their future and Andrew is absently dating his way through the cheerleading squad when Ryder, nephew of local horse farmers, moves to their small, New York town. Ryder and Andrew are immediately drawn together. Ryder is the opposite of Andrew’s other friends: he’s laid-back and thoughtful, he doesn’t expect or judge anything or anyone. When Ryder tells Andrew that he’s gay, Andrew suddenly reevaluates his own assumptions about himself, realizing that perhaps the reason he only dates each cheerleader for two weeks isn’t because, as he’d always thought, they’re too clingy. As Andrew and Ryder start exploring a romantic relationship, people begin to suspect that Ryder might be gay and make trouble for Andrew by association.

horsies!Jennifer Lavoie’s Andy Squared sounds like your typical high school coming out story, but it really isn’t. Ryder is totally comfortable with his sexuality, although it’s not the first thing he advertises about about himself, and once Andrew realizes that he might be gay—or, at least, that he is attracted to Ryder—it isn’t a particularly big deal to him either (although he knows it likely will be to his friends and family). Rather, when he’s with Ryder, he finally feels like he’s connecting with someone on an intimate level, in contrast with the way he’s been “dating” cheerleaders but avoiding spending time with them.

Mostly, Andy Squared is a pretty chill story of how someone who has always gone with the flow learns that to really find out who he is he has to stop automatically doing what is expected of him. And it’s in these expectations that the angst of the novel comes out, because Andrew has always kind of deferred to Andrea about what they’ll do, so when he actually looks at the path he’s on, he realizes that perhaps he doesn’t want to just default to Andrea’s assumptions about their lives anymore. As someone who’s really close to her sister, I really responded to Andrew feeling torn between being true to himself and disappointing his sister. Although: Andrea, girl, you’re an insensitive asshole and you are not being a good sister; stop it right now.

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

Andy Squared isn’t a flashy book; it isn’t really voice-driven or experimental. It’s just really solid storytelling that has a believable and compelling plot, two charming main characters, and a pleasantly particular setting (horsies!!!). The setting was a high point for me, too, because you really get the feeling that Andy2 are total products of their environment, which makes their disagreements about college even more understandable. I don’t mean to sound like Andy Squared was boring or unremarkable—it isn’t at all. It just knew what it was and what it wasn’t and it didn’t try to do too much. I, for one, am a fan of that kind of nice, solid, realist story; it had the charm of, like, a What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or something.

In the last five or six years there has been such a heartening increase in both the number and diversity of queer characters that we’ve seen in YA fiction. Ryder and Andrew are cool additions to this list, then, because their sexual orientations don’t really play a large part in their lives. This is something we’ve seen in other YA books, but mainly in urban areas or in opposite-day settings where queerness is majoritarian; it’s not as common in a book set in a rural town.

All in all, Andy Squared isn’t a knock-your-socks-off gay romance, if that’s what you’re looking for, but I definitely recommend it for anyone in the mood for an easy read that includes horses, snow, wholesome families, and first loves.

readalikes

Gemini Bites Patrick Ryan

Gemini Bites by Patrick Ryan (2011). Judy and Kyle are twins who are always at odds. When Garrett moves into their already crowded home, they can’t figure out anything about him: is he a vampire? is he gay? He’s certainly mysterious and, of course, Judy and Kyle fight for his attention—Kyle because he’s actually interested and Judy because she wants to win.

Ghost Medicine Andrew Smith Ghost Medicine Andrew Smith

Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith (2008). I paired Gemini Bites and Ghost Medicine as readalikes because I found Andy Squared to be, in music-reviewspeak, a kind of Gemini Bites meets Ghost Medicine, the former for the twins, the gayness, and the punchiness, and the latter for the really slow, beautiful evocation of a rural landscape (and the horsies!—sorry, I have had, like, three conversations with people about horsegirls this week, so I’ve been thinking about HORSIES. Note, google image searching “horsegirls” does not pull up the kind of pics I was expecting, although it does pull up the kind of pics I should have been expecting). As usual, Andrew Smith’s prose is gorgeous and his characters tell a painful brand of truth.

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Andy Squared by Jennifer Lavoie is available now.

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