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.

 

 

 

 

Cold Calls Makes Me Want To Hang Up

A Review of Cold Calls by Charles Benoit

Clarion, 2014

Cold Calls Charles Benoit

by REBECCA, April 24, 2014

hook

Three teenagers are each bullying someone at their schools. But it’s not because they’re bullies—or are they? It’s because they’re being blackmailed by someone else. Who are the villains when everyone’s a victim?

review

I read Cold Calls because the ARC cover touted it as Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast Club and I was like: sold. If by Pretty Little Liars they mean that it involves cellular telephones and if by The Breakfast Club they mean that people from different social circles interact, then I guess that’s an apt comparison. The similarities end there, however.

Pretty Little LiarsThe premise is simple: three students from different backgrounds and schools—Eric (the jock), Shelly (the religious emo girl), and Fatima (the bubbly smartypants)—are each being blackmailed by a mysterious caller, each forced to tease a student at their school, dump macaroni and cheese on them, and then post the video to YouTube. In the anti-bullying program that they must attend, Eric, Shelly, and Fatima meet and team up to figure out who their blackmailer is, why he or she is blackmailing them, and how to stop it.

the-breakfast-club-netflixI’m not sure how else to say it: Cold Calls is dopey. Well, I do know how else to say it. This is a book that lacks any characterization; therefore it lacks any stakes because we don’t care what happens to any of the characters. There are the most rudimentary of backstories sketched for each character, which vaguely relate to each of their “secrets.” (Note: in case it isn’t clear, my use of quotation marks around SECRETS is meant to indicate that these things are TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Oh, god, book, look what you’ve done: you’ve gotten me so upset that I’m starting to use all caps.) Because of the complete and total lack of nuance or character development, these secrets are ridiculous.

For example, my reaction to finding out Shelly’s (which is supposed to be traumatizing to her): You cannot possibly be that stupid. No, seriously. Wait, but a.) don’t you have the ability to google anything; b.) weren’t you forced to talk to an adult in the last year; c.) no one is that oblivious. What I’m supposed to feel (I assume): oh, you poor thing; guilt and shame are terrible; I feel pity for you. Eric’s secret is obvious on page two and totally dull. The only minutely interesting thing in the whole book is what Fatima is going through, which is that (spoiler alert; it’s her secret) she’s Muslim but is having doubts about her faith and knows it would really hurt her family to find out.

Cold Calls takes up bullying, a subject central to both the current imaginary and the world of young adult fiction. The idea of bullies being forced to bully is actually rather interesting. For one thing, it engages with the fairly accepted notion that many bullies act out because of ways that they have themselves been victimized. This, then, is a literalization (if a clumsy one) of that premise. Did we need a literalization of it, or did we all already know this? My vote’s on the latter, but hey, I understand the impulse.

urlHere’s the thing, y’all. The book has no characterization, no voice, the prose is purely functional, the mystery is both uninteresting and sewn up all of a sudden (this is problem-solving and misdirection of the “hey, look over there!” variety). Thus, there are no stakes for the characters, no stakes for genre or prose. Lacking any of these stakes, the only stakes the book could have would be ethical. I mean, surely a book published by a major publishing company (Clarion is Houghton-Mifflin’s children’s imprint) couldn’t be published without some stakes. But, though bullying is the central issue here, there isn’t even a scrap of meditation upon the topic.

It’s not that I want some kind of moralizing on the subject; quite the contrary. But Cold Calls takes up the mantle of a complicated issue and flattens it into the blandest of plot sketches. I imagine that there may be an audience for Cold Calls, but I am most certainly not it. Lacking interesting characters, voice, a unique plot, and any food for thought, Cold Calls read like the thinnest of premises tortured into a novel-length exercise in going through the motions of putting one scene after another. Any one of these things might have saved it—interesting characters make me care less about a blah plot; gorgeous prose is a delight to read even if the rest isn’t great; an amazingly creative plot excites me enough that the characters needn’t be so extraordinary. But, no. As Gordon Ramsay would say (I have recently been watching Master Chef and Master Chef Junior, as I wrote about earlier this week): what a shame.

readalikes

Want some actual mysteries? Here are three!

Beautiful Lies Jessica Warman

Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman (2012). Alice and Rachel are the rarest of twins—so identical that even their closest friends and family can’t tell them apart. When Alice disappears without a trace, Rachel knows that something is terribly wrong because, for the first time, she feels like their connection is broken. As the hours creep by, things become more and more unclear: what is real? where is Alice? and what secrets have the twins been keeping from everyone—and from each other? My full review is HERE.

White Cat Holly Black

White Cat (Curse Workers #1) by Holly Black (2010). Cassel is from a family of Curse Workers—they have the ability to change your life with a single touch—but he isn’t one. Cassel usually stays out of trouble, but when mysterious visitors come calling, it dredges up a past he’d like to forget.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009). When Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes that are clearly written my someone who knows her intimately she thinks she needs to take action to prevent something horrible from happening. But who is sending her these notes? And how?

received from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review (thanks!). Cold Calls by Charles Benoit is available now.

Gone Home: a chat.

In which Evan and Tessa discuss a new video game that they played together and really liked. (So did other people – it is a 2013 Finalist for Excellence in Narrative from the Independent Games Festival as well as getting an Honorable Mention for Excellence in Audio and Seumas McNally Grand Prize!)

screenshot from Varewulf.wordpress.com

screenshot from Varewulf.wordpress.com

Tessa: So, Evan. I learned about Gone Home via a Rookie Mag Saturday Links list in March. I think I talked to you about it, or you noticed that I liked its Facebook entity, or something. Did you hear about it somewhere else, or did you hear about it through me?

Evan: I heard about the game through you mentioning it to me. I remember us talking about a video game to play together while I was playing Bioshock: Infinite and you brought up Gone Home. I don’t really follow video game news or play many games these days so I’m pretty blind when it comes to 99% of new releases. After you mentioned it I watched a trailer and the game started to intrigue. I love adventure games and the idea of interactive stories. As somebody that doesn’t really play video games, what made you interested in Gone Home?

Tessa: It was the whole atmosphere of the game – the 90s riot grrrl bands, an empty house, the sound of rain on the roof and windows. Although I grew up during the riot grrrl phase, I never got to be one (instead, I described myself as a riot nrrrd), so I felt like this could be my chance to play one in a video game.
from Jenny Woolworth's Riot Grrrl Diary

from Jenny Woolworth’s Riot Grrrl Diary

As it turns out, you get to play the sister of someone who becomes part of the scene, so I still didn’t get to fulfill my fantasy. Maybe there will be a game based on Blake Nelson’s Girl in the future. One can hope.

Also, we’d been talking about finding a video game to play together and this one looked like it wouldn’t require so many hand-eye coordination skills. I’m not a huge gamer because I kind of suck at using video game controls. Even when I did play NES during my youth, I would get too into the game and hobble myself with a combination of physical enthusiasm (jumping when my character should jump) and mental terror (what if my character does not make it across that chasm?), so the experience was exciting but terminally frustrating.

So I spend my free time doing things at which I can improve.

What I’m saying is I’m glad you’re into board games.

Is this the time that we declare that this discussion might get spoilery? And do you want to describe your first impressions of the game/the basic plot?

the last game system Tessa seriously played, a.k.a. the point at which you can stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers

the last game system Tessa seriously played, a.k.a. the point at which you can stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers

Evan: Definitely. What makes Gone Home special is the story and it’s pretty impossible to discuss the game meaningfully without discussing what happens in it. Despite my desire for blogging fame I’m going to make an impassioned plea that if you are interested in Gone Home that you should navigate away from this page, log in to Steam, download Gone Home and play it. Then come back here and read.

How to know if this is something for you? If you’re interested in interactive storytelling, video games with rich atmosphere and expertly crafted characters, if you’re interested in exploring a creepy house and looking for the clues to a mystery then you’ll probably dig Gone Home. You will not be killing anything or solving complex puzzles, you will be experiencing a story. Go play it.

With that out of the way, in Gone Home you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21 year old woman returning home from a European trip in 1995. While she was away her family moved to a large mansion outside Seattle. She arrives home on a dark, rainy night to find a note on the front door from her younger sister and nobody home. As Kaitlin you’re trying to find out what happened to your family by exploring the mansion.

I fell in love with this game almost instantly. The set-up is really juicy. The game tosses you into this scenario with almost no background and plays on your lack of knowledge rather effectively. Mechanically the game is really simple. All you can really do is walk around, pick up objects, rotate them, and read various notes and letters left behind. There are lots of details to dig into in the house. It was fun to just go slow and search for a little tidbit of information that would reveal more of the story.

What are your feelings about the very beginning of the game? Did you have any expectations for how the game would play or what it was about beyond the basic premise?

Tessa: I was really into the game from the beginning, too. From the menu, actually, which I found out was done by Emily Carroll, an artist whose work I’d previously admired in comics form (especially in a creepy story in the Explorer: The Mystery Boxes collection). It turns out her wife (Kate Craig) is one of the game designers, so Emily illustrated the start page,along with in-game maps, and the font is based on her handwriting (more info here):

How great is that? The dusky sky lit by some illumination – the setting sun? The one light on in the whole rambling house emerging from the trees, with the door left slightly open – it’s not clear whether in neglect or invitation. The image works against the usual connotations of the word “home”, and then “gone” takes a double meaning. So the atmosphere is apparent immediately.

The game itself opens with Kaitlin seeing her family’s new house for the first time. It’s raining. The enclosed front porch is lit by a lonely lamp, and she has to find the key (our first task as players).

I personally find it difficult to imagine that anyone in the world doesn’t like the idea of exploring a big old empty house, so I was already into it. And then when she finds a Christmas themed duck, and a text box proclaims “Good ol’ Christmas Duck”, I was delighted.  There was humor, familiarity, character, history.

As you can see from the screenshot below, the graphics in Gone Home aren’t trying to fool you into thinking that it’s anything but a video game. It isn’t Final Fantasy-level…rendering? I don’t know what the word is.

Not to say that creating a game didn’t take lots of love and work, but they don’t have to, because the strength is in the story. Your brain attaches to the story that you’re building through exploration and smoothes out the edges of what you’re seeing, so it doesn’t end up mattering. It feels real.

I didn’t have any expectations about how the game would play, but I did somehow expect that it would have a creepy angle.  And there are some moments in there that pander to that expectation – but this isn’t a murder mystery or a tragic story.

As much as I want to play a video game where I explore a haunted house, I’m glad that my expectations weren’t met, and impressed that they were fooled with by the game designers – not just the stories of the parents, which I thought could go in a couple different directions, but the back story of the house’s original owner, especially a blown light bulb in particular.

That story I hope requires some further digging. I’d like more than the hints we have now.

What did you think of the game experience compared to your other video gaming experiences? Do you think it lends itself to more than one play?

Evan: The title screen is super impressive. It feels like the cover to a book, which is appropriate because Gone Home feels like an interactive book. I’m glad you mentioned the Christmas Duck and the textbox joke. There were lots of great little moments like that in the game. I especially liked when you find a condom in your parents bedroom and the text description of it is just “Eww.” I loved all the items you could interact with. I liked finding tapes to put in stereos or playing records that you find. All those little things add to the character of the house.

Good point on the “horror” elements of the game. They are definitely there to subvert the expectations of the player. Gone Home is a game that is boldly about ordinary people. I listened to a great extended interview with one of the game’s creators (Steve Gaynor) on the Qt3 Games Podcast, and he explained that those moments are in the game to help ground it in reality. For example if you find a teenage girl’s ghosthunting journal in a video game the expectation is that at some point of the game you’ll be seeing ghosts, but if you found one in somebody’s house in the real world you would just think it was the result of kids having fun and not assume that the house is haunted.

As you begin to piece together more and more information from exploring the house you begin to realize that your younger sister Sam has met Lonnie, a young woman at her new high school. As the two girls bond and become friends they realize they are in love with each other. The moments that build up to this realization are beautifully detailed. When you find a key piece of information you hear Sam’s voice reading her diary. These were some of the most moving portions of the game. The voice actress playing Sam was great. The V.O. diary filled in big pieces of the story, but there’s a ton of details to be found by looking at items, reading notes, and rifling through drawers. You get to see a lot of items that Sam and Lonnie bonded over: riot grrl cassette tapes, a ticket stub to pulp fiction, SNES game cartridges, VHS recorded episodes of the X-Files. I loved finding all those details. It gave me a real sense of who all of the characters were without even interacting with them once.

I really have to applaud how this game features a real, loving lesbian relationship that wasn’t sensationalized or sophomoric or all about sex. Maybe this is my lack of current videogame playing speaking, but I can’t think of another game that approaches love with this level of maturity and believability. You develop a very strong emotional bond with Sam and her struggles to hide her relationship from her parents, or her struggling to find herself and realize who she is.

Sam is the heart of the the story and is the main character of the game, but there are great story arcs for the parents as well and you get to know them to a great level of detail. You get the sense that real people live in the house and they are just away. Ironically Kaitlin (the character you are controlling) is probably the least developed character in the game. I think that’s an asset of the game because it lets you insert yourself emotionally into the story with a greater ease.

I’ve never played a video game like Gone Home before. Genuinely. I think most games emphasize thrills and intensity over quieter story moments. I think there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but Gone Home feels like a gigantic leap forward in what a video game can do with narrative.

The replayability of the game is an interesting discussion to have. It has been one of games aspects that has drawn some criticism. There’s nothing variable about the game other than the order you find items, so once you find everything in the house it won’t change on subsequent plays. So if you want to come back to Gone Home and have a different experience you probably won’t play the game more than once.. But I could certainly envisions people playing the game again to revisit the story. I think the reason replayability has been so hotly contested is because of the video game medium. People don’t criticize books or movies because they don’t inherently offer different experiences when you revisit them. Yet people do read certain books and watch certain movies more than once. That said there is a lot to discover in the game. I’m positive there are still details we haven’t found yet, so there is a reason to come back until you’re sure you’ve explored every nook and cranny of the house.

What are your thoughts about the story? Were there any specific moments of the game that you found especially moving or fascinating?

Tessa: I like your comments about replayability in games vs. in books or movies. If you’re measuring Gone Home by the standards of an adventuring, quest type game, it will fail. Because it doesn’t belong in the genre. It’s definitely a storytelling experience. But while Gone Home has a rich world, I’m not sure it can be judged yet on the level of things like a book, as far as equating replaying and re-reading.

Sam’s and Lonnie’s relationship isn’t played as a huge twist, and I like that. Gone Home is really mining the theme of discovery and self-discovery. You can see it not just with Sam, but also with the parents, and to a superficial extent with Kaitlin, coming back from time abroad.

And I love the way it plays with the idea of home – not just the house space, but the idea of the people that give us the feeling of being home. Home is a deceptively simple idea, but one that carries different experiences for everyone and can be counted on to hit some emotional chord. I can’t praise the game designers/creators enough for the way they created both a home and an unknown space. As Edgar Albert Guest so colloquially says,

“Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;

Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ livin’ in it”

So I do think the game succeeds in atmosphere and thematic elements, and I believe you when you say it is a giant leap forward in depicting  a realistic first love between two teenage girls. But I’m not sure if it has enough meat in the story to draw me back again once I discovered everything in the game. Sam & Lonnie’s story is sweet, and open-ended. I’d probably end up yearning for more instead of re-enjoying it ,although it might be something that I pulled out from time to time to revisit the environment, though, or to play with a new person.

I also hope its success paves the way for more games like this.

 

 

Summer Reading Road Trip: Playing Tyler

Summer Reading Road Trip 2013Ahoy, summer readers! The folks at SparkPoint Studio are running a Summer Reading Road Trip. Each book on the list is set in a different city and state, so you can read your way across the country without gas-guzzling your way to a massive carbon footprint. Join in, and read your way from Massachusetts to Montana!

Today’s stop: New Haven, Connecticut for a Little Brother meets Ender’s Game adventure: Playing Tyler.

A Review of Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa

Strange Chemistry, 2013

Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa

By REBECCA, June 3, 2013

hook

Tyler’s dad is dead, his mom’s never around, his brother’s an addict, and his ADHD makes it hard for him to concentrate on anything but gaming. Ani designed a popular video game, was an internationally-ranked gamer, and started at Yale all by the time she turned sixteen, but she still feels like a kid. Someone wants Tyler and Ani for their skills, but what will they do when they realize they’re implicated in something that will have far greater fallout than a video game?

worldview

Ender's Game by Orson Scott CardTyler MacCandless just wants to fly. Maybe he can’t concentrate on anything at school, but in the flight simulation games, he’s a genius. After his dad’s death and his brother’s turn to drugs, Tyler’s mom can’t cope, so she buries herself in work. The only one Tyler can count on is Rick, who he’s known for years through a mentoring program. Rick sees Tyler’s potential and says that if he performs well while beta testing a new flight simulation training game then he’ll make sure he gets into flight school. Tyler is shocked when the new sim’s designer shows up at his house to set up the sim and it’s Slayergrrl (Ani), the creator of his favorite game, World of Fire!

At first the new sim seems boring—Tyler is just flying drones over miles and miles of road. But then, little by little, Tyler starts to think there’s more to the sim than just showing off his flying skills. Is it possible that the “sim” is actually linked to real drones in the Middle East? And why has Rick insisted that Ani can’t have any contact with Tyler? But Tyler and Ani can’t stay apart and as their relationship heats up, so do things in the sim. And soon they’ll have to confront Rick and put their lives on the line for their freedom.

Little Brother by Cory DoctorowT.L. Costa’s debut is a compelling read and, while the premise itself isn’t new, this is a comparatively realistic, circumspect take on the when-is-a-game-not-a-game phenomenon. It’s told in chapters that alternate between Tyler and Ani’s points of view, and Tyler’s voice is great. His ADHD causes him to think in short, declarative sentences and sometimes omits first person pronouns, kind of like Rorschach in Watchmen. Tyler’s a well-drawn character—his worry for his mother and brother, his difficulty expressing himself, and his love and awe of Ani make him sympathetic and likable. But he’s also naive, and his struggle between his general patriotism and the specifics of what he learns is happening in the sim provide enough contrast so that he doesn’t just seem like a stereotypical hero-caught-up-in-forces-beyond-his-control. He is also occasionally quite amusing. On his first date with Ani he realizes that he’s not as good at paying compliments as might have hoped:

“Her face looks like I stung her. Shit. My face heats up, burns. So many books. Can’t one just like fall on my head and put me out of my misery? Please?”

Ani’s voice is less compelling, less particular, but it’s really awesome to see a supersmart gamer and computer programmer whose character isn’t undercut by the author’s compulsion to frame her as either hypersexualized or terrifyingly sociopathic. Ani is just a sixteen-year-old with a talent for programming got involved in something shady, and she and Tyler balance each other well.

As for the plot, as I said, it’s not new, but Costa makes a good choice, I think, in making this a small-beans plot as opposed to a mega-conspiracy or an intergalactic fight to the death. The storyline of Tyler’s brother’s heroin addiction and Ani’s relationships (or lack thereof) with her roommate and the other Yalies turn what could be a dry, by-the-book execution of an interesting plot into a very enjoyable drama with some intrigue, some romance, and some well-done family drama. This is an understated book, but it doesn’t strike a false note. I’m looking forward to seeing what Costa writes next.

procured from: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa is available now.

Heck Yeah, Covens! Moonset #1

A Review of Moonset (Legacy of Moonset #1) by Scott Tracey

Flux, 2013

Moonset Scott Tracey

by REBECCA, April 1, 2013

characters

Justin: our protag, he is a bit awkward and a bit sweet and mostly goes with the flow

Jenna: Justin’s twin, as confident and demanding as he is chill, she is desperate to learn magic so they can protect themselves

Malcolm: the eldest brother in this motley crew, he’s buff and pretty uninterested in the whole magic thing

Cole: the hyper, jokey brother

Bailey: the youngest, she is sensitive but powerful

Quinn: a Witcher, the green berets of magic, he is a protector and possibly an ally?

Ash: the brash, entitled girl in their new town who takes Justin under her control wing

hook

Justin, Jenna, Malcolm, Cole, and Bailey are the children of the Moonset coven, the most infamous terrorists in the magical world. As the children of treasonous criminals they are suspected by other witches and the magic they’re taught is limited. But now they have been attacked and moved to a small town in New York where things keep trying to tear them apart, but they don’t have the knowledge to defend themselves. What happens when the power you need to defend your family might just be the power that turned your parents to the dark side?

worldview

The setting of Moonset is one in which the magical world keeps itself secret from the rest of the world. Witches are taught magic in school, and covens are highly controlled by bureaucracy. It is a setup similar to Harry Potter only instead of the boy who lived, Justin and his siblings are the kids of the coven that killed. The word “moonset” is synonymous with terrorism, treason, and evil, so when Justin and his siblings find Moonset’s symbol popping up all over the new town where they’ve been relocated they know that nothing good is coming. After being attacked by a wraith as they were moved from their last school, they sense that there is something in play that they (and the people who are supposed to be looking out for them) know nothing about. And, since people are too scared that they’ll go dark side if they learn magic, they can’t exactly protect themselves. What is clear, however, is that Justin and his siblings are not their parents . . . and maybe their parents weren’t exactly what they thought either.

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

Scott Tracey Witch EyesMoonset is a fun read. I love Scott Tracey’s other series, Witch Eyes, which I review HERE and HERE. As I mention in these reviews, Tracey writes books that, to me, read cinematically—or, I should say, televisually—and Moonset is no different. This means, really, that reading Moonset is kind of like watching a CW show, in the best possible way (I love the CW, as I’m sure you know!), and this book is the first eight episodes of the season. You know, the first episode starts with the siblings walking trepidatiously into their new school and we see how they left their old school in brief flashbacks; then we get one episode that fills in the back story of each of the siblings and teases some stuff about their history together; then, just as we think we know what the main conflict is, the scale of things changes. Like, good tv, is what I’m saying.

But I think that, like a juicy tv show, which is better watched all at once, Moonset, the first in Tracey’s new series, might be more satisfying if I could read the whole series at once. That isn’t to say that Moonset isn’t an enjoyable read—it absolutely is. It’s just that this first volume feels introductory, especially in terms of character, even though the plot is definitely complete. Tracey has a knack for making me love or hate characters immediately upon meeting them (well, ok, maybe I do that with people in real life too . . . ). I liked Malcolm immediately—he’s the sturdy, a bit removed from it all, oldest brother—and hated Ash the first moment she opened her mouth. I think I’m supposed to like Malcolm, and I think maybe Ash is supposed to be polarizing, but in a way that’s realistic; we’ve all seen the nice people who are really attracted to the Ashes of the world, who are flippant, over-confident, demanding, and expectant in a way that (I guess?) seems intriguing and exciting. I found her obnoxious and mean, but I suspect others will be charmed by her version of I-don’t-mind-making-you-feel-uncomfortable-because-we-both-know-you’re-attracted-to-me. But again, I enjoyed my dislike of her because it was very realistically evoked.

The Secret Circle L.J. SmithJustin is sweet and, for the most part, even-tempered, a counterpart to his twin, Jenna (my sister’s name!). Jenna reminded me a bit of a Faye from The Secret Circle (the books, not the show, fortheloveofgod) type; she is fierce and will do whatever it takes to feel like she and her family are safe. Justin, though, seems to be the one that is being targeted by whatever force is messing with the siblings. And, as the threat grows, Justin begins to see that Jenna might be right—maybe they do need to find a way to learn magic so that they can protect themselves. But, as Justin begins to walk down that path, he finds himself wondering where the line is between power and corruption, and questioning whether he trusts himself not to follow in Moonset’s footsteps. This is a plot that is always interesting to me: the temptation of a power you know could turn you evil weighed against the necessity to gain that power for a good reason.

Moonset definitely follows hallmarks of the genre, but Tracey isn’t trying to hide those predictabilities—rather, he seems absolutely comfortable with them, using them to structure the plot and then getting out of the way as his characters take it home. His writing, as always, is fast-paced and at times quite amusing:

“Jenna could take a perfectly simple math problem like 2+2 and wind up with an answer equaling the square root of paranoid.”

“‘Figures she’s a Meghan,’ Jenna muttered . . . ‘I’ve never met one that wasn’t a raging bitch.'”

“Christmas had come to Carrow Mill, and it had vomited all over our house.”

But he also has moments of understated beauty and insight:

“Ash buried her head against my chest, and that moment of comfort sparked a lifetime of habits.”

I didn’t love Moonset as much as I love the Witch Eyes series, but I’ll definitely keep my eye out for the next in the series.

readalikes

Scott Tracey Witch Eyes Demon Eyes Scott Tracey

Witch Eyes and Demon Eyes by Scott Tracey (2011 & 2012), of course. Braden flees rural Montana to the small town of Belle Dam, Washington. Once there, he attends high school for the first time, gets caught up in a feud between witch dynasties, accidentally releases some hellhounds, and starts falling for a compelling and infuriating boy . . . whom he might have to kill.

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

The Secret Circle series by L.J. Smith (1992). Ok, so the CW failed us on this one, not that I still didn’t watch the whole thing, obvsly, but Smith’s series is one of my all-time faves (check out my review HERE). Similar feeling: new town, new school, witchy powers, and the threat of coven infiltration. Delightful!

procured from: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. Moonset by Scott Tracey will be out next week.

First Loves = Wicked Hard: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

A Review of Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

Simon Pulse, 2010

Forbidden Tabitha Suzuma

by REBECCA, March 25, 2013

characters

Lochan: between his crippling social anxiety, the responsibility of caring for his siblings, and the late-night studying he does to keep his grades up, Lochan is kind of a mess, and the only one he can count on is Maya.

Maya: Maya is friendly and upbeat, generally taking her family responsibility in stride, and she would do anything to protect Lochan.

Kit, Tiffin, & Willa: teen Kit has started to rebel and challenge Maya and Lochan’s authority, Tiffin only cares about playing soccer, and Willa knows more about secrets and lies than any five year old should have to.

note: I like this cover, especially the red background, which is an uneven wash, like red paint swiped over black, but . . . am I the only one who automatically assumes that any shape (here, a heart) that is made out of barbed wire automatically indicates that a book will be set during the Holocaust? Just me, then? . . .

hook

Lochan and Maya have been acting like parents to their younger sibs, Kit, Tiffin, and Willa, since their father left five years ago, working hard to keep their family from being split up. Only a year apart, they have always been best friends, partners.  Their mother, an alcoholic, has always been irresponsible and capricious, but now things are getting really bad. She is holed up across town with a younger man, trying to pretend she doesn’t have children, and has begun disappearing for weeks at a time without leaving any money for groceries or school uniforms. 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?

worldview

Forbidden is set in contemporary, real-world London, and for Lochan, Maya, Kit, Tiffin, and Willa, that’s a world full of real-world material concerns: can they convince their mother to give them enough money for groceries before she spends it all on booze? whose turn it is to cook, clean, do laundry? will Lochan and Maya be able to convince Tiffin and Willa’s teachers to call them if there’s trouble, instead of their mom? how can they possibly find time to care for their siblings and still excel in school? and, perhaps most dire, how will Lochan and Maya ever be able to make others accept their relationship when half the time they can’t accept it themselves?

Forbidden Tabitha SuzumaTabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden is a beautifully-written excavation of family and romantic relationships and the ways they cannot help but impact one another. The character development is particularly well-done and Suzuma uses the length of the novel (about 450 pages) to show the intricacies of their relationships. Bit by bit, as their material conditions worsen, Lochan and Maya’s stress amps up, fraying their relationships with their siblings and drawing attention to them in ways that could be dangerous.  “I wonder how it is possible to hurt so much when nothing is wrong,” Lochan wonders (160). Suzuma is particularly deft in her use of these practical stressors to build suspense. Lochan, for example, has such social anxiety that he is unable to speak in school. The scenes in which he must do so are gutting reminders of his inability to express himself or communicate with people outside his family. Such scenes track Lochan’s relationship with Maya—the more he is able to express his feelings for her, the better able he is interface with the world, and vice versa.

Although there is suspense, and certainly dread—will the siblings be able to stay together? will anyone find out about Lochan and Maya’s relationship?—in terms of genre, Forbidden is strictly a realist novel. For all that it has the potential makings for a sprawling, gothic tale of incestuous siblings rioting in a rambling, run-down house, it doesn’t set even a toe in that genre.

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

My friend A— told me she finds that there are books about incest that are trying to show how awful it is and books about incest that are trying to show that it can be ok, and that Forbidden is the latter. I absolutely agree. Between Lochan and Maya, they go through just about every feeling you can imagine on the subject: I am disgusting for feeling this way; I can’t help feeling this way; why shouldn’t I feel this way; people won’t understand; maybe there’s something truly wrong with me, etc. Indeed, upon occasion, their rehearsals of these arguments feel a bit more for the readers’ benefit than their own. Still, while Forbidden is the story of a deeply loving and caring consensual sibling relationship, it never attempts to suggest that there are not problems with Lochan and Maya’s relationships, even for them.

Forbidden Tabitha SuzumaOverall, I found Forbidden a deeply satisfying and beautiful novel that did everything I want contemporary realist YA to do. I think Forbidden dragged a tad in the last quarter and might benefit from losing a few repetitive scenes. I have only one real reservation, though—more of a suspicion, really. The narrative alternates between chapters from Lochan’s perspective and chapters from Maya’s and, while Lochan is a very specific, nuanced, unique character, Maya is significantly less so. As such, the chapters from Lochan’s perspective utterly captivated me, while those from Maya’s served more to move the story forward or, in their best moments, to give us more of a window on Lochan. Because of this marked difference, I found myself wondering whether Suzuma felt anxious about (or was advised against) telling the story from Lochan’s perspective alone because it could have had the possibility of making him seem predatory, or of causing the reader to doubt that Maya was truly a consensual partner in their romantic and sexual relationship. Lochan explains to Maya that people would always look at them and see that he is older and male and assume that he was taking advantage of her (“Maya, come on, think about it. I’d be automatically seen as the abuser and you as the victim” (361)). I got the sense from the uneven characterization of Lochan and Maya that perhaps Suzuma was concerned about just this issue. The dual perspective made the narrative a bit less effective for me, especially since, in the final quarter of the book (excepting the end), the alternation of perspective seems arbitrary, as if the story were just being split up evenly. That decrease in effectiveness added to my sense that perhaps there was a motivation for the decision beyond the formal. If anyone who has read Forbidden has thoughts on this, I would love to hear them in the comments.

readalikes

Hushed Kelley York

Hushed by Kelley York (2011). While the stories don’t have anything in common, Hushed is also the tale of the intense (and sometimes disturbing) power that relationships can have over us. Antisocial Archer’s childhood best friend, Vivian, manipulates him in more ways than even he is aware of. When Archer meets Evan, who seems to like him just for himself, he is torn between the draw of two powerful relationships. My full review is HERE.

The Brothers Bishop Bart Yates

The Brothers Bishop by Bart Yates (2005). I love Bart Yates (my review of his YA novel, Leave Myself Behind is HERE). The Brothers Bishop is about two brothers who are very close but total opposites, forever connected by growing up under the thumb of their terrifying and infuriating father. Serious, misanthropic Nathan likes his privacy in the beach house he inherited. Outgoing golden boy, Tommy, draws people to him without even trying. When Tommy shows up for a weekend visit with his boyfriend and two friends, the brothers revisit family secrets and make catastrophic mistakes, all against the backdrop of the ocean that laps the nearby sand.

procured from: the library

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

madnessunderneath

The Madness Underneath

Shades of London 2

Maureen Johnson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Review by Tessa

Characters

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

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

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

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

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

Hook

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

Worldview

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

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

nameofthestar

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

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

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

Does this book live up to its intentions?

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

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

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

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

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

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

Readalikes

Want more ghost-exploring?

Try Karina Halle!

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

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

Witch Eyes

Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey

peregrineriggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

greatandterriblebeauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

possessed   Consumed
Possessed / Consumed by Kate Cann

Romance Under the Spanish Moss: a Safe Haven movie review

A Review of Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallström (2013)

Safe Haven

Friends, I have to come clean with you about something. My name is Rebecca and I . . . I have really been looking forward to seeing the latest Nicholas Sparks movie.

So, last night my sister and I made the pilgrimage and, well, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Julianne Hough plays Katie, a woman running from a violent past, who ends up in small town North Carolina. There she meets Alex, a widower with two kids. And the rest is romance history. I haven’t read the novel Safe Haven, so I can’t comment on it as an adaptation, but I did think Hallström did a nice job: the romance was understated and believable (if a little flat), the setting beautifully evoked, and Katie’s past legitimately sinister.

Safe HavenMy favorite thing about Safe Haven (besides Katie’s house), though, was Julianne Hough. I have no idea whether she’s a good actor or she was just being herself, but either way, I found her very refreshing. So many romance couples are swoony and cutesy, but even in the face of small town hospitality and romance Hough was wary, a little skittish, self-preservingly impolite, and has a great husky voice. We’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about the disturbingly thin line in some YA romances between romantic beau geste and stalkerish creepiness. In light of that, I found Katie’s character’s negative reaction to Alex’s beau geste (even though it wasn’t intrinsically creepy) particularly refreshing, especially in a genre that usually isn’t. Josh Duhamel as the grieving widower was good, too—he didn’t overplay any of the emotions, but he’s sweet, sincere, and endearingly unsuave.

The dialogue is actually pretty good, except for the notable, and unfortunate, exception of the scene where Katie and Alex declare their love. But, you know, those scenes are pretty awkward in real life too. The drama is legitimately engaging. And director Lasse Hallström, true to form, really plays the small moments well: numerous shots of feet going from place to place, hands touching in the sand. And there are a few “twists,” which are pretty predictable, but add to the dynamics of the film.

In short, Safe Haven is a well-made, well-paced romance that manages to infuse a predictable plot with some legitimate suspense—so, as long as you’re not expecting anything more than that, you probably won’t be disappointed. I wasn’t.

Obsidian, and Some Thoughts on the Genre of Paranormal Romance

A Review of Obsidian (Lux #1) by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Entangled Teen, 2011

Obsidian Jennifer L. Armentrout

by REBECCA, February 11, 2013

characters

Katy Swarz: thoughtful book blogger Katy doesn’t take shit, but can’t quite resist Daemon, even when he’s shitty

Daemon Black: the infuriating and handsome alien boy asshole next door, Daemon is wary of Katy at first, but then drawn to her

Dee Black: Daemon’s twin, she and Katy are fast friends and she runs interference between Katy and Daemon

hook

When Katy’s mom moves her to rural West Virginia the summer before senior year after her dad dies, all she wants is to make some new friends, write her book blog, and recover. So, of course she would move in next door to aliens caught in an epic battle between cosmic good and evil. And of course one of those aliens would be an overly attractive shithead who breaks her laptop!

genre!

Katy’s world has been small lately. After her father died, her mother withdrew into herself and started working all the time, leaving Katy alone a lot. Katy started a book blog that lets her reach out and connect with people, and she’s poured all her energy into it. She’s chill and a bit shy, but smart and confident, so when she realizes that her next door neighbors are teenagers her own age she decides to make nice. Her first meeting with grouchy-pants Daemon sets the tone for their relationship: he’s overly attractive, obnoxious, condescending, and (of course) convinced that Katy is attracted to him (which, of course, she is).

Onyx Jennifer L. ArmentroutDaemon’s sister, Dee, is a sweetheart who befriends Katy right away. However, something weird happens every time Katy goes into town with Dee or tries to sit with her at lunch in the school cafeteria; people stare at them and seem hostile toward one or the other of them for no reason that Katy can tell—after all, she doesn’t even know anyone. One night, though, Katy is attacked outside the library and Daemon comes to her rescue with . . . special powers. Finally, he and Dee can’t keep their secret anymore: they are aliens and whenever they use their powers around a human it leaves a mark on that human that their enemies can see from far away. The only way to protect Katy from the enemy? Guess. No, I’ll wait. Yes, you’re right: it’s for Daemon to never leave her alone and vulnerable.

And thus unfolds a familiar romance/action plot line: Katy and Daemon frustrate one another, but are drawn together in the face of a common enemy.

I have been meaning to read Obsidian ever since I met the lovely Judith and Ellen from I Love YA Fiction at BEA this year, because it’s the book that made them start blogging. Now, one of my favorite things about talking to friends who care as much about books as I do is that sometimes we totally disagree. So, I’ll admit it, I approached Obsidian with great trepidation simply because the genre of YA paranormal romance isn’t my usual cuppa. But I just couldn’t resist a book that inspired some of my favorite people to start blogging (and that has 4.4 stars on Goodreads), so I dove in.

It was fun to read about Katy’s book blogging and I can totally see how it would be the inspiration for Judith and Ellen! But, alas, that’s about all I liked about Obsidian.

Let me be clear: I think that probably for folks who really enjoy the genre of YA paranormal romance, Obsidian will do the trick. It has a not-totally-unreasonable plot, some legitimately developed characters and fun secondary-characters, a not-overdone setting, sexual tension between Katy and Daemon that lasts for the whole book (that’s a thing people like, right?), a nice mom, and it’s a series. Also, it isn’t badly written at all—the prose is totally serviceable. So, all that (along with the many, many positive reviews I’ve read) suggests that Obsidian is the kind of thing that people who like that kind of thing will like. You know?

With or Without You Brian FarreyBut, if I didn’t already know it, Obsidian really showed me that the genre isn’t to my taste. And so I’ve been thinking about what, precisely, is the very thin line that divides “paranormal romance” from books that I do like. I enjoy a good romance plot, for sure, including several I’ve reviewed here: With Or Without You by Brian FarreyJust Listen by Sarah Dessen, The God Eaters by Jesse HajicekThe Scorpio Races by Maggie StiefvaterDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates, etc. And I definitely have no problem with the paranormal, as the above list will certainly testify.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone Laini TaylorSo, what’s the difference between a paranormal romance and a book like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which contains a paranormal romance? The biggest difference, for me, is that in paranormal romance (as in its mother genre, romance) the central goal of the book is to tell the story of two people entering into a relationship with one another and chronicling the obstacles to the success of that relationship—a success that is, by virtue of the genre, guaranteed. A book like Daughter of Smoke and Bone definitely has a romance plot, but it’s much more than just a backdrop against which the romance plays out. That difference, though, is, for me, the difference between a book that I enjoy and one that I find pretty boring. Daughter of Smoke and Bone or The Scorpio Races or Leave Myself Behind are larger than their romance plots—their scope is bigger and their stakes are higher. In a paranormal romance, the largest stakes are in the relationship between the two main characters—even when there is a cosmic alien battle between good and evil. This is to differing degrees, certainly, and some paranormal romances (and series) are more intricate and detailed than others. In Obsidian, though, if you took away the romance element you wouldn’t be left with anything; the conceit of the book is generic and flimsy without it.

Hush, Hush Becca FitzpatrickAgain, I don’t mean this as a critique of the genre—far from it. Genre conventions are powerful predictors of taste, though, and readers who like a genre like it because of its conventions, not in spite of them. I’ve realized, in reading Obsidian (and other paranormal romances, like Hush, HushNevermore, and Fallen), that one of the conventions of the paranormal romance genre that I dislike in particular is the way that love or attraction are abstracted (metaphorized?) as an otherworldly connection. By this I mean that often in these books our protagonist (usually a girl) sees a boy she thinks is attractive and feels drawn to him for reasons she can’t explain. I’m annoyed by the resulting tendency of these books to equate attraction—that is, being physically drawn to someone—with love. (Note: hey, friend, I can explain why you feel drawn to him . . .)

In Obsidian, for example, Katy finds Daemon super attractive, but she cannot stand his personality (with good reason, because he is a grade-A jerkface). She wants to make out with him; she feels warm and flushed whenever he’s near; she thinks he smells good. Katy: that’s called being attracted to someone. But in the genre conventions of the paranormal romance, attraction—lust—(a totally normal part of life) is transmuted into an-inexplicable-force-drawing-us-together-across-time-and-space-that-must-surely-be-meaningful.

And part of me kind of thinks that the genre of YA paranormal romance in particular developed out of a resistance to portraying teenagers as lustful, preferring, instead, to render lust meaningful and, thus, romantic. Because the only real difference between feeling drawn to someone because you want to bone them and feeling drawn to someone because they are secretly connected to you by a werewolf mating bond . . . is genre.

Southern Gothic Delight: A Density of Souls

A Review of A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice

Pan Books, 2000

A Density of Souls Christopher Rice

by REBECCA, February 6, 2013

characters

Stephen Conlin: Branded “FAG” at the start of high school, Stephen is a tough cookie!

Meredith Ducote: Stephen’s former best friend who turns popular mean girl (for a little while) but has troubles of her own

Greg Darby & Brandon Charbonnet: Stephen and Meredith’s childhood friends made villainous by age

Jordan Charbonnet: declared too perfect for his own good by a college girlfriend, Jordan and Stephen make an unlikely couple

hook

Once, as kids, Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon were inseparable, playing on the streets of their New Orleans neighborhood. As they start high school, though, Greg and Brandon become popular football players, Meredith becomes part of the in-crowd, and Stephen is bullied for being gay by people at school, including his ex-friends. Five years later, after high school, Stephen has a new life and hasn’t spoken to Meredith, Greg, and Brandon in years. When a shocking explosion kills multiple people in a New Orleans club and a series of violent events unfold, the former friends find themselves forced back into each other’s lives.

worldview

Lafayette CemeteryOh, Southern gothic, I love you so! I first read A Density of Souls when it first came out in 2000, which was my senior year of high school. I’d never been to New Orleans at the time and—I can’t lie to you, friends—really I only picked it up because Christopher Rice is Anne Rice‘s son and I was curious about what craziness Anne Rice’s kid would spew out. But, though I picked it up with impure intentions, I loved A Density of Souls within the first ten pages. I am such a sucker for a story about intense childhood friendships that go awry, and these friendships definitely go awry.

Stephen is the main character, here, though we get chunks of others’ stories (including Stephen’s mom as a young girl). After high school, Stephen lives with his mom (his dad killed himself years ago), goes to school, and has begun dating. He’s made a life for himself despite being tormented in high school. One night Stephen is at a bar with a friend when someone blows it up. As if shit’s not hard enough, right Stephen!? Anyhoo, this act sets into motion a series of events that brings Meredith back into Stephen’s life and introduces Stephen to Jordon Charbonnet (such great New Orleans-y last names!), Brandon’s older brother and bona fide overly-attractive person.

New OrleansThe tone of A Density of Souls is what I most appreciate about it. When I say it’s a Southern gothic, I mean more in the Truman Capote sense than in the William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor senses of things. That is, this isn’t a gloomy, sinister creepshow. Its Southern gothicness is subtle—more about manners, pathos, and family secrets, drippy trees and dirty water. And it’s delightful. I think a lot of people would put Christopher Rice in the “guilty pleasure” camp, in that his writing is . . . unapologetically lush. But I think it’s beautiful, as long as you like that sort of thing. I mean, I hate to make the comparison, but in a way, his descriptions of New Orleans do really remind me of mommy Rice a bit, in that they caress a New Orleans that they both obviously love.

“Beneath a sky thickening with summer thunderheads, they rode their bikes to Lafayette Cemetery, where the dead are buried above ground. The four of them flew down Chestnut Street, their wheels bouncing over flagstones wrenched by the gnarled roots of oak trees. They passed high wrought-iron fences beyond which Doric and Ionic columns held up the façades of Greek Revival mansions, their screened porches shrouded in tangles of vines” (3).

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

Christopher Rice (and I say this having read all of his books except his most recent, which, frankly, looks uninteresting to me) is fascinated by writing about the way the secrets we protect most fiercely have a way of erupting into our relationships and either ruining them or strengthening them. His thesis across four books seems to be that if a relationship is worth anything then it can absorb your deepest, darkest secrets, and if it crumples under their weight then it wasn’t worth much to begin with. I feel pretty comfortable endorsing that calculus. Right? Anyhoo, A Density of Souls is a story about the different ways those secrets affect the relationships in Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon’s lives.

Rice is a legitimately good writer, and his evocation of interpersonal dynamics in only a few lines of dialogue works particularly well for this book, which is pretty short and manages to tell a number of stories, but isn’t at all dense. In that way, it is very un-Anne-Rice-esque and reminds me more of a Breakfast at Tiffany’s or something.

“After three weeks of seing each other, at just the moment when Stephen felt he had written enough love poetry to hand Devon a stack of messy loose-leaf pages, Devon showed up at his house one afternoon and announced that Stephen was a ‘cold, emotionally withdrawn person suffering from only-child syndrome,’ and their relationship was over. He offered evidence. ‘A week ago we went to see a movie. Before the movie you purchased a pack of Dots. You consumed the entire pack without offering me any. In the middle of the movie, I rose and went to purchase my own pack. When I sat down, the first thing you asked me was, “Can I have some Dots?”‘

Devon paused, allowing his indictment to settle over Stephen. In response, Stephen picked up a copy of Reports from the Holocaust by Larry Kramer off the nightstand and hurled it at Devon’s head. . . . Stephen received a memo printed on the stationary of the Tulane University administrative office where Devon was working part-time. RE: Your Emotional Issues . . .

Stephen did not call Devon. Instead, he delivered a case of Dots to the door of Devon’s dorm room” (114-115).

DotsAll the interconnections among people strengthen the feeling that Rice evokes of an inescapably, at times claustrophobically, tight-knit Garden District, and sets the scene well for the backstories of Stephen’s mother and the Charbonnet family.

A Density of Souls is great story-telling against the well-wrought backdrop of contemporary New Orleans. I made my mother read it when we were in New Orleans together a few years ago (you know, for thematic resonance) and she really enjoyed it, too. So, there you have it: an intergenerational two thumbs up!

readalikes

The Snow Garden Christopher Rice

The Snow Garden by Christopher Rice (2002). The Snow Garden is Rice’s second novel and I really like it also. Set on a college campus, two close friends realize that although they were immediately drawn together they each have reinvented themselves in an attempt to leave dark pasts behind. When a professor’s wife dies in a car accident one night, it threatens to expose an intricate web of lies that has captured both friends.

The Secret History Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992). One of my all-time favorites, this is set on a college campus, but feels like a boarding school. I write about The Secret History and a ’90s series that totally rips it off HERE.

Mysterious Skin Scott Heim

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim (1995). A beautiful, intense book about what it means to excavate your own secrets, especially when you’ve hidden them from yourself. Awesome movie adaptation by Gregg Araki, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

procured from: bought, long ago

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