Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: One-Off Fantasy/Magical Adventures

by Tessa

Read about the whys of this series here.

Possibly my favorite genre of comics, and one of the larger lists to be culled from the nominations this year – graphic works are suited for describing the fantastic if done well, and there’s a lot of fun and variety in these selections, so if yo u find your attention waning partway through, please take a break and come back to appreciate the back end of the list with fresh eyes.

singnoevil

Sing No Evil

JP Ahonen, writer

KP Alare, artist

Abrams

Anticipation/Expectation level: Another one I’m on hold for – excited to read this! Although the comics I’ve read about people in bands are usually disappointing, this one looks like it could be fun.

Art Taste:

singnoevilpreview

giganticbeard

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

Stephen Collins, writer and artist

Picador

Anticipation/Expectation level: Based on the title, pretty high?

My Reality: It’s one of those gentle stunners of a book that is somewhere closer to adult picture book on the graphic novel spectrum. A fable-like story about an island named here where everything is in its place, surrounded by a sea that leads to There, an unknown place of frightening chaos. An inhabitant of the island has one hair on his chin that goes haywire, causing problems for all of the island’s society and culture.

The text is gentle, with a sure tone and an almost-rhyming feel. It is very rhythmic and I sang part of it to my cats as part of their integration therapy. The art is penciled, with a sense of lighting that adds to the otherworldliness and gravity of the story. Collins balances the softness of his pencils and the lulling of his words with the helplessness of the unknown that lurks beneath both. It is a treat.

Will teens like it?: Yes, it doesn’t have an immediate hook apart from the great title, but it’s not hard to get into and provides its own rewards.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes – much like The Arrival, this is the kind of book that isn’t marketed towards teens but would be great to use in a book club, to introduce to an arts loving teenager or foist upon a book club with success, because there’s not really an impediment to getting something from it other than the thought that it might not be like what one is used to reading.

Art Taste:

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

BUZZV1_-_4x6_COMP_FNL_WEB_large

Buzz!

Ananth Panagariya, writer

Tessa Stone, artist

Oni Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: It looked fun, but I knew nothing of it going in. I like the name Tessa.

My Reality: Like Hicks’ and Shen’s Nothing Can Possibly Go WrongBuzz! is a solid entry into the teen high school slightly off adventure comic market. It’s easy to pick up off the shelf and recommend because it’s a new concept (underground spelling bees) running on standard tropes (outsiders who used to be insiders take on powerful conglomerate with the help of a talented newbie, betrayal from sort of within happens). And there’s nothing that is objectionable unless you object to a hint of magic. The action starts quickly and escalates quickly and the art is dynamic, hitting a spot between Faith Erin Hicks and Brian Lee O’Malley (as does the tone of the story). In short: fun.

For me, the action was a bit too quick and I never felt any resonance with the characters or their struggles, everyone was a bit too blithe. However, I don’t really count my feelings as meaning much because I’m not the ideal audience for this book. I don’t think it’s meant to be resonant, and I don’t think it has to be to be a successful comic. In fact, as a teen services librarian I wish for more of these fun, one-off books for my shelves.

Will teens like it?: Yes.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

buzz_panels

breathofbones

Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem

Steve Niles and Matt Santoro, writers

Dave Wachter, artist

Dark Horse

Anticipation/Expectation level: I’v always been a fan of golems.  I was interested to see what this book would do to distinguish itself in the saturated WWII market. (Pretty sure there are even already books about golems in WWII).

My Reality: A straightforward tale, as far as a tale about using a Golem against Nazis goes. A boy loses his father to World War… One, I think. Or two. Anyway, enough time that he grows up a bit in between. He’s waiting in a small village with his grandfather and other elderly people, all Jewish or mostly Jewish. He’s still waiting when a plane crashes outside of town. This is bad, because it is an Allied pilot who will bring scrutiny from Nazis. There is barely enough time to flee, so his grandfather entrusts  him with the secret of golem-making, and makes a Golem.

In keeping with the folsky, mythical vibe of the Golem, the tale is focused on the elemental parts of the story: good over evil, nobility over greed, sons discovering their strength in the absence of fathers and father figures. The Golem itself is elemental: the protection of earth and faith. The historical detail of the story adds another layer of pathos and dignity. And the art is gorgeous: detailed, black and white with a nice flowing sense of space and shadow, highlighted by brushy washes of grey and black. Unfortunately, by focusing on the elemental parts of the story, the story ends up being kind of forgettable. It’s evocative during reading, but might fade from the mind over time, merging with other golems or other WWII tales.

Will teens like it?: I can see some teens liking it.

Is it “great” for teens?: It’s good. I don’t know if it crosses over to great. For teens. But I bet someone else could argue it.

Art Taste:

bobtag1p3

lilychen

The Undertaking of Lily Chen

Danica Novgorodoff, writer and artist

First Second

Anticipation/Expectation level: High, because I read Slow Storm and Refresh, RefreshI loved those books and was excited to read a longer work with a more clearly defined plot from Novgorodoff.

My Reality: If The Undertaking of Lily Chen were a movie it would be a fast talking movie in the mold of 30s and 40s flicks and it would be a farce, only set in China and having to do with a less-loved son finding a corpse to bury with his dead, too-venerated older brother. It’s a strange mix but one that works – Novgorodoff is good at finding the groove in uneasiness.

The main story is a chase/road trip type format, with Deshi Li dealing with the abrupt and violent end of his brother (by his hands), his place within his family, and his desperation to find a corpse or someone to murder to become a corpse bride. He runs into Lily Chen, who is brassy and adventurous in contrast to Deshi’s sad and anxious mode. She is trying to get to Shanghai from the poor countryside by any means possible. She becomes Deshi’s target and companion. The story, as it is, is not the strongest part of the book. The central idea of the ghost marriage as an impetus is interesting, but not enough to sustain the whole book – that would fall on Deshi’s shoulders, and he never really proves himself as a main character. Lily, being the titular character and the more naturally active person, is compelling, but so concerned with her movement away from her past that it’s hard to admire more than her gumption.

What really pulls everything together is the art. Sweeping, melancholy vistas of mountains. Twlight and dawn-light. Out of body experiences. Novgorodoff mixes delicate watercolors with pen-line shadows and outlined characters, the exaggerated with the realistic, creating a world slightly beyond the real.

Will teens like it?: Yes. It’s intriguing and well-paced.

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes  – the shortcomings of the characterization are balanced out by the art and themes that emerge near the end.

Art Taste:

lilychen lilychen2

MoonheadCoverFull

Moonhead and the Music Machine

Andrew Rae, writer and artist

Nobrow Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: I like Nobrow.

My Reality: This hit all the sweet spots for me. Palpable depictions of awkwardness that lead to heartwarming scenes of celebration of being weird. Joey Moonhead has a moon for a head. No one talks about it, but he and his family are the only ones who are visibly different from all the other humanoids. Joey is out of it and kind of shy, but he wants to build a music machine for a talent show. His first attempt is pitiful but he is discovered by a new friend – a ghost-person, dresssed in a sheet, who is kind of a musical genius, and he blows off his long time buddy to pursue the dream.  I found it to be relatable, a story that has been told, but a heartfelt, personal take on it that works. Rae’s art is all clear lines with a great sense of storytelling beats through the pacing of the panels. And he draws great creatures.

Will teens like it?: Teens might think it’s too weird or off their usual path, but I bet they would like it if they gave it a chance. Or they might think its message is too simple.

Is it “great” for teens?: I think it’s great!

Art Taste:

Moonhead_Page14-600x402

moonheadpreview

downsetfightcover

Down Set Fight!

Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, writers

Scott Kowalchuk, artist

Oni Press

Anticipation/Expectation level: Verging from neutral to vaguely wary about sports content.

My Reality: Down Set Fight! is unapologetically a book about fighting. To be specific, it’s about a football player who is most famous for fighting on field and has abandoned his career and aged into being a high school coach. Until mascots start seeking him out to fight him. (There’s also a back story with his sleazy dad.) The fun the writers had dreaming up the mascots is readily apparent, and although there’s a mystery element to the plot, it is really all about Chuck fighting mascots and figuring out why they want to fight him. It’s all done with a sense of whimsy and over-the-top violence that isn’t gruesome or realistic in anyway, and I admire that.

Will teens like it?: You could sell this to a teen.

Is it “great” for teens?: I don’t know if it’s great. I’m on the fence.

Art Taste:

pachyderms

BEAUT_DARK_cover-full

Beautiful Darkness

Fabien Vehlmann, writer

Kerascoët, artists

Drawn & Quarterly

Anticipation/Expectation level: Read a preview of this last year and really, really wanted to read it.

My Reality: Possibly one of the best books I’ve read, period. It is beautiful and terrible – terrible in the sense of being deeply frightening. Or maybe the right word is horror, or is there a word of witnessing the consequences of bad decisions or acts of god(s) and being struck by the impassive blankness of nature? It’s that. There are very visceral moments in here that will stay with a person.

So, the book is about these tiny fairy-ish people who emerge from the body of a dead girl in a forest. It’s not clear who they are or how they ended up in the body but they now have to survive in the forest. Some are oblivious to the dangers, some scheme to get power, some try to help out, some go out on their own. The team of Kerascoët is the perfect choice to illustrate this world, with their sure, delicate pen lines and richly colored, realistic backgrounds.

Why should I say more when you could be reading this book?

Will teens like it?: Yes. It might scar younger readers, but will also fascinate them.

Is it “great” for teens?: I mean… it’s great.

Art Taste:

BEAUTIFUL-pg61-817c1

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Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: Sci-Fi

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reading these here.

I had 4 sci-fi titles bunched up together. Two of them are not going to make it to my eyes in time.

ringworld

Ringworld, an adaptation of the sci-fi classic by Seven Seas, could not be procured even through my library system’s excellent ILL department, and I don’t think I’d like it enough to spend money on a digital copy. I would if I were actually on the committee, but luckily I don’t have to. It sounds like a cool idea, and I am tempted to read the original prose novel.

rust3

I am sad that my library does not have Rust V.3: Death of the Rocket Boy, by Royden Lepp, because it’s been out since May of 2014. This is a series, originally published by Archaia, that I’ve been following since it first came out. Each of its volumes has made it onto the Great Graphic Novels list, and last year the 2nd volume was in our top 10. I want to read the next (last?) installment of this story in an alternate historical time about a jet-pack/boy and his adventures in Canadian farmland. But I’m willing to bet that it makes it on the list again this year. I would buy a copy but it wouldn’t make it to me in time. Bad planning, me.

But anyway, on to what I did manage to read:

boom_woods_v1

The Woods Volume 1: The Arrow

James Tynion IV, writer

Michael Dialynas, artist

BOOM! Studios  

Anticipation/Expectation Level: It was on my radar but I didn’t know anything about it other than the cover looked cool.

My Reality: I had so much fun reading this. In many ways it’s very much a classic high school adventure, but the high school is suddenly transplanted to an alien planet with an extra-mysterious conspiracy added in (I will say no more about that). There’s a survival/road-trip element as a group of the students head out with a super-smart loner at their head, following him because he says he knows whats going on and because the scene inside the school itself is turning into a shitshow, with the gym teacher using all of his Machiavelli against the go-getter Student President, with the principal as a pawn between them. The jocks, nerds, and everyone in-between have roles to play. It gets heavy in a couple of places, but mostly maintains its humor within the tense situations. I loved the coloring here – very purply and saturated.

Will Teens Like It?: Yes, I can see myself booktalking this one for summer reading or something.
Is it “great” for teens?: yes.

Art Taste:

dinosaurnow ourfuture

alexada_tp_v1

Alex + Ada Volume 1

Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, writers

Jonathan Luna, artist

Image

Anticipation/Expectation Levels: Pretty much the same as The Woods.

My Reality: Yay! This is speculative sci-fi that explores technology, identity, AI, android rights, loneliness, responsibility, and grandmothers who mean well. Luna’s style of drawing is perfect – very realistic and flat, with an eye for subtle changes in facial expressions. I almost feel like Alex is too good to be true, but I have to remind myself that there are guys out there who wouldn’t be total creeps in this situation. And he may change in the following issues. If you can’t tell from the cover and my rambling, Alex is gifted a robot companion by his grandma because she thinks he is being depressed for too long after his breakup. Alex is weirded out that Ada, the android, has no opinions and defers to his wants and needs. So he decides to figure out what to do about it.

Will Teens Like it?: Yes

Is it “great” for teens?: Yes.

Art Taste:

AlexAda03_mnchmnch

“Don’t Open Your Eyes”: Bird Box Is Horror At Its Best

A review of Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Ecco (HarperCollins), 2014

Bird Box Josh Malerman

by REBECCA, June 4, 2014

hook

Something out there is making people crazy. When they see it, they lose their minds and kill. Others. Themselves. Everyone. Malorie doesn’t know what’s going on. Then, it’s later and Malorie hasn’t seen the world outside her house in four years. But today. Today she has to risk it. She has to take to the river to try and save herself. Today, she has to open her eyes.

review

HOLY SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE, BATMAN!

Bird Box is told in chapters that alternate between the present, when Malorie and her two children are rowing down the river, trying to find safety, and the past, when a mysterious . . . something . . . has just begun to threaten humanity.

In the past, Malorie and her sister, Shannon, just moved in together and are ready to start a new life when the news begins reporting strange stories of mysterious deaths in St. Petersburg, Yakutsk, Omsk. Then, closer to home, in Alaska. No one knows what the cause is, but people are turning on each other, killing each other and themselves. Little by little, the panic builds. What is it? Is it a disease? An attack? An epidemic? Bit by bit, people become scared even to leave their homes, because it seems like the people affected are those who see . . . something.

Shannon is terrified, but Malorie has other worries. She’s just realized she’s pregnant, and that seems scarier than some vague threat out there. But when Malorie can no longer deny what’s going on, she finds a house with people who are helping each other survive. Together, she, Felix, Jules, Cheryl, and Tom survive. All anyone knows is that the madness can’t get you if you can’t see it. So they block up the windows and seal all the doors. They live off canned goods and develop elaborate systems to get water from the well behind their house without ever opening their eyes. Malorie comes to love and depend on her housemates. But soon she’ll have to give birth. And, slowly, something is creeping closer to threaten the safe house they have made. But is the threat from outside, or from within?

In the present, Malorie lives alone with Boy and Girl, her four-year-olds. There is a fog this morning, and so Malorie decides it’s finally time to go. Under cover of fog, she thinks they can make it to the river, and then, safety? She isn’t sure. All she knows is that she has trained her children from birth to hear with an acuity no children in the before could have. And it’s their ability she will have to rely on as they make the trip down the river. Because they have to do it without ever opening their eyes.

Bird Box is an absolutely beautiful and harrowing horror story. Debut author Josh Malerman (lead singer of The High Strung) has crafted a story that is incredibly creeping and suspenseful (at one point, I found myself standing in my kitchen, reading as my water boiled because I absolutely had to see what happened next, and nearly screamed when my cat brushed up against my leg). It is, for me, the most exciting kind of horror story: one that is all about atmosphere and mystery and dread.

bird box josh malermanAlternating between past and present ups the suspense, but it also instructs the reader that this isn’t a story about what happened next. We begin in the present, so we already know what happened (kind of). It’s about how it happened, and how the characters reacted to it. That is to say, it’s a book that’s as much about ideas and psychology as it is about fear. There are multiple theories about what is going on in the world, and Malerman allows these theories to resonate throughout the book, never giving any definitive answers but always showing us the material consequences. His prose is tight and declarative and perfectly echoes the way Malorie has come to think in this new world.

Because Bird Box is a novel about the threat of the invisible—of that which absolutely can not be looked upon—the characters spend a great deal of time experiencing the world without sight. In the hands of a lesser writer, I think, this could feel like a gimmick. Malerman, though, manages to make the reader feel as claustrophobic, vulnerable, and jumpy as the characters do. The fact that the whole mystery could be revealed merely by removing the blindfold adds a layer of temptation that is titillating.

When I first read the blurb, I was nervous that this would be one of those post-terrible-world-event books where the main character just wanted to make the world safe for her children, or feels hope because she has her children. Bird Box was the opposite. This isn’t a book about the horrors of pregnancy (though that whole giving birth thing is its own scary story). Rather, it’s about the guilt and horror that Malorie feels about raising two children who have never seen the world outside. Who have never seen anyone but her. She has to put their safety above their comfort if they’re all going to survive, and the ways in which she must deny her children their childhood resonate beyond a book of speculative fiction. These are children growing up in a war-torn land who must learn to survive instead of learning to play, and that’s not the stuff of fiction.

bird box josh malermanSome reviewers, I know, are disappointed that more of the questions that Bird Box raises are not answered. For me, the denial of answers to the reader has the powerful effect of making the readers as helpless as the characters. If we could see what they cannot, I think, the reading experience wouldn’t be nearly as potent. More literally, the reader is in Malorie’s position narratively: we look at word after word, waiting for the threat to reveal itself, and once it does we cannot look away. I often found myself covering the recto side of the book so that my eyes couldn’t wander ahead and see something they shouldn’t. The experience of the medium of storytelling itself participating in the creation of fear was extremely disconcerting.

The one weakness of the novel, for me, was the characters. Though we are in Malorie’s head (primarily), she never really came to life for me. I was still desperately rooting for her—because, as I said, the reader is in her position. Still, though, certain moments would have had more resonance if the characters were a bit more fleshed out. Indeed, the character who came to life the most was the scariest! (Which is kind of awesome.) Still, the lack of character development had one positive side effect, which is that it leant a sense of real unease to the house they all share since their relationships feel so tentative and contingent.

Bird Box is a wonderful debut and a truly chilling horror story. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Josh Malerman.

procured from: the library

 

Teenage Superspies, Codeword: Milkshake

A review of I Become Shadow, by Joe Shine

Soho Teen

I Become Shadow Joe Shine

by REBECCA, June 2, 2014

hook

“Ren Sharpe was abducted at fourteen and chosen by the mysterious F.A.T.E. Center to become a Shadow: the fearless and unstoppable guardian of a future leader. Everything she held dear—her family, her home, her former life—is gone forever.

Ren survives four years of training, torture, and misery, in large part thanks to Junie, a fellow F.A.T.E. abductee who started out as lost and confused as she did. She wouldn’t admit it was possible to find love in a prison beyond imagining, but what she feels for Junie may just be the closest thing to it.

At eighteen they part ways when Ren receives her assignment: find and protect college science student Gareth Young, or die trying. Life following a college nerd is uneventful, until an attack on Gareth forces Ren to track down the only person she can trust. When she and Junie discover that the F.A.T.E. itself might be behind the attacks, even certain knowledge of the future may not be enough to save their kidnappers from the killing machines they created.” (Goodreads)

review

So, the above blurb gives the whole plot of the novel. Which is okay, I guess? Because, though I Become Shadow is an action book, it’s not really a mystery. The book is divided roughly into three parts. The first part is told retrospectively by Ren Sharpe, our protagonist. She tells us the story of how she came to be abducted at the age of fourteen and how she wakes up in the training facility where she’ll spend the next four years. She meets Junie—who, because the blurb doesn’t refer to as “he,” I assumed was a girl because, well, you know, his name is Junie, and was disappointed to find is, in fact, a boy—and begins her training.

The second third, which is the shortest piece, gives a kind of brief summary of the next four years: how Ren learns everything from mortal combat to defensive driving to techniques in surveilling her future target. Here, Ren and Junie must part ways. But DON’T WORRY! Of all the places in the whole world, they both end up in Texas. Finally, the third part covers Ren’s time at college protecting Gareth, until things get complicated . . . in exactly the way the blurb describes.

training montageI Become Shadow isn’t really a bad book. It just seems unsure what it’s supposed to be doing, a problem that is likely more one of publishing than writing. Because so much of the book (more than half) takes place at the F.A.T.E. center, you’d think that Ren’s trials there are the center of the novel, but they seem to be prodromal to her assignment. Okay, then, well, when we get to Ren’s assignment, you’d think that we were finally getting to the meat of things. But almost nothing happens in this section. Ren herself keeps commenting on how boring it is to watch a nerd (you know, like the blurb said), and, yeah, it’s boring to read about someone being bored watching a nerd. Then, in the very end of the book, the Big Plot is revealed (just like the blurb already told you it would be).

There is nothing that indicates I Become Shadow is the first in a series. But this has to be the first in a series, right? Because we end with everything revealed but nothing resolved. Did Soho Press tell Joe Shine to write a book that could be the first in a series but not commit to a second book? Did this start out as a longer story that got chopped in half? It’s really not clear. The result is a book that might be a very summary standalone or the diffuse first book in a series. Either way, though, it reads wrong in its apportionment.

DivergentIt’s not awful—there’s some intriguing worldbuilding that undergirds the creation of F.A.T.E. But that raises more questions than it answers (including the kind of annoying questions like, “but based on what you’ve said, why would this ever happen?”). The training sequences feel very similar to Tris’ experiences in Divergent: because Ren and the other future-Shadows are kidnapped because of circumstance not skill, they’re starting their training from nothing, so there are the now-familiar scenes of a normal girl learning self-defense stuff. Again, nothing terrible, just nothing galvanizing.

The real trouble, though, is the voice. I found Ren intensely irritating, and it’s her tone that drives the book. She thinks she’s funny and clever and unique and the other characters’ responses to her seem to uphold her uniqueness, while I sat there thinking, “seriously?” An example: Each trainee receives instruction from a voice piped through a speaker to them. When Ren responds to the voice, she calls him “Mr. Speakervoice.” When it’s time for Ren to graduate, the man behind the voice seeks her out because she’s apparently so unique and amazing and tells her that Mr. Speakervoice is “one of the best names I’ve ever been given that’s for sure [sic]. You’ve certainly been a fun one, Ren” (139). Seriously? That’s like naming your fluffy white cat Snowball—it’s a description of what the thing is. How could that possibly be the best name he’d been given? How, god, how?!

Also problematic: none of the characters have any personalities. Ren is supposed to be wry and snarky (or so her voice must be trying to imply), but we don’t know anything about her. She has also long ago accepted that she’ll never break free of F.A.T.E. to see her family again or live her own life. And she is injected with a serum that makes it so she can’t feel pain or fear death. You know, so she can protect her target more effectively. People, if you don’t have your own hopes, dreams, desires, and fears, and you can’t feel pain or fear death, you know what you are? BORING. Or, in literary terms, a character with no stakes whatsoever. Which makes you boring. And, since Ren didn’t care about her safety, fear anything, or worry about what was going to happen, I couldn’t either. So, it might seem like a great conceit in theory, but in practice it just flattens the story out completely.

All in all, the premise that underlies the creation of F.A.T.E. is the only interesting thing about I Become Shadow, and we get about two sentences about it. The characters are blah, and the story has no real stakes. Again, it’s not terrible or anything, but I was very aware the entire time I was reading it that it could have gone in so many interesting directions and seemed to choose the path of least resistance every time. I hate to be repetitive, but this is what I keep finding with Soho Teen’s releases: decent books that feel too thin and/or tortured into marketable shape to really excite me or do anything.

readalikes

I’ve read a lot of books recently that explore a similar kind of training/testing teens in their skills of fighting, surveilling, manipulating, killing, escaping, etc. Here are a few that worked better for me than I Become Shadow.

How to Lead a Life of Crime Kirsten Miller

How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller (2013). “A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer. Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear. Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?” (Goodreads).

The Naturals Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Naturals (The Naturals #1) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (2013). “Seventeen-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But it’s not a skill that she’s ever taken seriously. That is, until the FBI come knocking: they’ve begun a classified program that uses exceptional teenagers to crack infamous cold cases, and they need Cassie.

What Cassie doesn’t realize is that there’s more at risk than a few unsolved homicides—especially when she’s sent to live with a group of teens whose gifts are as unusual as her own. Sarcastic, privileged Michael has a knack for reading emotions, which he uses to get inside Cassie’s head—and under her skin. Brooding Dean shares Cassie’s gift for profiling, but keeps her at arm’s length.

Soon, it becomes clear that no one in the Naturals program is what they seem. And when a new killer strikes, danger looms closer than Cassie could ever have imagined. Caught in a lethal game of cat and mouse with a killer, the Naturals are going to have to use all of their gifts just to survive.” My full review is HERE.

The Testing Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing (The Testing #1) by Joelle Charbonneau (2013). “The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies–trust no one.

But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.” (Goodreads).

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. I Become Shadow by Joe Shine will be available on June 10th.

The Culling: A Supercharged, Action-Packed Adventure

A Review of The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos

Flux, 2013

The Culling Torch Keeper #1 Steven dos Santos

by REBECCA, April 10, 2013

characters

Lucian “Lucky” Spark: smart and forced to grow up too soon after losing his parents, he will do whatever it takes to protect his little brother, Cole

Digory Tycho: strong and dependable, he is working with the resistance against the bloodthirsty government that controls things

hook

Every year, The Establishment recruits five citizens to face The Trials, with their loved ones as the Incentives for their success. When Lucian tries to take things into his own hands to protect his brother, he finds himself a Recruit, fighting for his brother’s life, and Digory, who seems desperate to protect him, is a Recruit right along with him. What mysteries is The Establishment hiding, and how can Lucian and Digory have any hope of being together when they may have to kill each other to save their Incentives?

worldview

Ok, so I’ve read reviews that call books or movies “supercharged” and always thought it was a really stupid word . . . until I read The Culling. There is just something about it that seemed amped-up, dynamic . . . well, supercharged.

The world of The Culling is a grim one. The Establishment controls every element of the lives of those living in the city through military presence, information-repression, disease, and poverty. Then there are The Trials: if you win, you have the chance to be an officer of The Establishment; if you lose, the people you love the most will die. When The Culling begins, Lucian is attempting to gain an audience with the prefect of the city, who came from his neighborhood, to try and protect his little brother, Cole, when he finds himself thrown headfirst into The Trials alongside the very person he’s attracted to: Digory Tycho, a highly capable member of the resistance with a heart of gold, at least where Lucian is concerned.

The Trials are sick, dude! I mean, like, messed-up in an awesome, eerie, Steven-dos-Santos-please-be-my-creepy-friend kind of way. The worldview of The Culling in general is one in which you cannot trust anyone, everyone will betray you, and people have been forced to do things for survival that leave psychological scars as well as physical ones. I admired dos Santos’ ability to present the truly harrowing consequences of The Trials, in which the Recruit who comes in last in each round must choose which of his or her two Incentives to kill. There are definitely some surprises there that were very well-handled. In short, The Culling reads like a highly creative action movie—very fast-paced but with just enough detail to everything that you absorb the world in passing, as opposed to lingering in it.

As the first book in a series, I thought The Culling did a nice job of planting a lot of seeds, any of which could be taken up in the rest of the series. The fast pace purposely values action over depth of world-building and I didn’t find this a fault, but rather an intentional artistic choice. I would have been equally satisfied by a slower-moving book with deeper world-building, but the pace here really was compelling. I’m not usually one to care overly much for speed, but I literally could not put the book down. Like, I had to go to work and was reading while I peed, reading while I walked to the trolley, reading on the trolley, which makes me carsick, and reading in the elevator up until the moment I walked in the door of work.

The characters are great: Lucian is smart and stubborn, resentful of ever needing Digory’s help, but so desperate to save his brother that he feels he has no choice. Digory could have fallen into the strong, savior stereotype, but his political ideals make him far more interesting. The other three Recruits are all excellent, too. There’s Cypress, who is cold and controlled in response to the traumas in her life; Gideon, the boy who seems pretty together, but is revealed to have more of a stake in his Incentives than anyone could possibly know; and Ophelia, who is fucking terrifying.

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

The Culling Steven dos SantosNow, I’ve read several reviews of The Culling that were negative, denouncing it for being similar to The Hunger Games, and I do see the similarities, plot-wise, but I’m very much hoping I can dispel the notion that these plot similarities are the heart of The Culling. Yes: The Culling shares with The Hunger Games trilogy a deep horror of a totalitarian government, the suspicion that under such a regime its citizens are mere pawns who think they have a chance of winning their freedom but who are always already merely fulfilling a preordained role, and the understanding that in a world where adults are necessarily enslaved by the system, wanting to protect someone innocent from harm is the most powerful impetus to fight, even if you don’t believe you can win. What they share, then, is the kind of deep structure that produces genres and subgenres. The Hunger Games and The Culling are part of the same subgenre of dystopian literature—a subgenre that predates the former and will, I’m sure, postdate the latter. Mkay, done.

The reason I was so excited to read The Culling in the first place is that it’s one of the few pieces of YA speculative fiction that I’ve come across where the author’s intention was that being gay wasn’t going to be the point of the story. There has been a lot of talk lately about how some people believe the next phase of queer visibility in the literary community is to have queerness be simply a fact of a character, as opposed to an occasion for comment about struggle. I don’t think that normalization into non-issue signals progress per se, but I’m glad that people are at least talking about the issue.

Anyway, I was curious what dos Santos’ take was going to be and I came away pretty impressed. My suspicion of the ideal of framing queerness as being so normal as to be invisible is that it elides very important material consequences of struggle. In the world of The Culling, being gay doesn’t seem to be an issue, but rather than eliding struggle, the commonality of being gay simply shifts the threat (Lucian is almost victimized by prison guards who call him “pretty boy”), not invisiblizing it. Furthermore, I was really glad to see a novel that depended on a regime of totalitarian control, as opposed to knee-jerk gender conservatism, to construct its dystopia.

I’m not a very patient person, so I’m kind of cursing myself for reading The Culling when I will now have to wait at least a year to find out what happens next. I highly recommend that you curse yourselves too, and check out this truly supercharged dystopia. Flux, you’ve done it again—my hat’s off.

readalikes

The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Catching Fire The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Mockingjay The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, of course (2008-2010). Nuff said about this, I think.

Girl in the Arena Lisa Haines

Girl In the Arena by Lisa Haines (2009). This compelling book explores a neo-gladatorial society, complete with its culture of violence, through the eyes of one girl who has to fight not only for her freedom but for her family as well.

procured from: I received an ARC of The Culling from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. The Culling by Steven dos Santos is available now!

Letter to My Younger Self: Read Slake’s Limbo!

A Review of Slake’s Limbo by Felice Holman (1974)

Slake's Limbo Felice Holman

by REBECCA, February 25, 2013

I first mentioned Slake’s Limbo in my post “YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse: A List of Books That Teach Us How To Do Important Stuff,” in the section on how to Survive Urban(-ish) Perils. I hadn’t read the book when I wrote that post, only heard about it, so I’ve been keeping an eye out for a copy ever since. The other day—bless the Fates!—I found a copy in perfect condition at a used book store in town. It’s a really skinny book, so I almost overlooked it, but it was like it was waiting for me. Total time it took to read? Oh, maybe an hour, spread out because I kept it in the kitchen and read it while waiting for bread to toast, etc. But, man, did it pack a punch. And, while I think I might be too old to experience the “favoriteness” that I would have felt about this book if I had read it when I was ten or eleven—that glorious age of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish—I still thought it was wonderful.

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanThirteen-year-old Aremis Slake is bullied at school and abused by his aunt, with whom he lives. Finally, one day, a group of bullies from school are chasing Slake and he ducks into the subway to escape them. He rides the trains idly all day and finally realizes that there’s no reason he needs to go back to his life at all. So he doesn’t. He finds a little alcove in a subway tunnel and lives there, reselling newspapers for money, ducking beneath the turnstiles to ride the rails, and making friends with a rat.

Slake’s Limbo is written in 1974, so there’s a very particular feel to the atmosphere of subterranean New York City. Its version of New York reminded me a little of Harriet the Spy‘s, written ten years earlier. There is the grit and dirt of the city here, certainly (far moreso than in Harriet’s Upper East Side), but also that air of more-innocent-times that seems to cling to narratives set before the eighties. Slake becomes acquainted with several regular newspaper customers on the train platform and even their interactions feel of another time. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of very contemporary YA novels recently, but I’m feeling the distance between now and then a lot lately . . .

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanAs I said, this is a very slim book—about 115 pages in my copy, with its (very) 1986 cover illustration—and maybe that’s why its lyricism hit me. We are told everything about Slake, a narrative device that is frowned upon. Yet, it’s a very personal book, and the description of Slake’s spaces takes his interiority. I kind of think that this is the same story that we might read in an Adam Rapp novel, say, but written from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. The heartbreak is all here, but its stated baldly and without sympathy as opposed to being expressed through action. Yeah, I think Slake’s Limbo and Punkzilla (2009) should be book friends.

Also, did I mention that the prose is 70% concrete and 30% feathers?:

Just before he awoke, it seemed, Slake would dream that a bird had come to the sooty window, open just enough to keep him from asphyxiating . . . that it had come to the sill and perched there, perilously near the inner edge so that it might, at any moment, fall or fly into the room. In his fear that this small creature of the air might blunder into this hostile place, Slake would open his mouth to cry out. As he did so, the bird woud lean forward and land in Slake’s mouth. Then Slake swallowed it. Slake would awake, gagging (7).”

Slake escapes from the hostility of his above-ground home and into a subterranean room of his own. Never good at anything in his life, he quickly finds himself quite capable of surviving, making enough money to eat, learning the routes of all the trains, even feeding a rat hungrier than himself. I can’t tell you precisely what made Slake’s Limbo so compelling to me, exactly. It’s simple, clean, and lovely, that’s all. I will now go to the library and try to check out everything else that Felice Holman has ever written.

Note: there is an audiobook version of Slake’s Limbo read by Neil Patrick Harris! How delightful.

readalikes

Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues  his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.

Stick 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 Stick is here.

Skellig David Almond

Skellig by David Almond (1998). This is short British novel about a young boy whose sister is sick and who finds a bird-man-angel dripping with bugs in his shed, so of course I love it. The bird-man-angel eats Chinese food, for god’s sake. Skellig is a very simple story, but its elliptical quality makes it haunting and very re-readable.

Have you read anything by Felice Holman? How do I not know her? Please advise.

La Isla Bonita! Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

A Review of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Scholastic, 2011

Beauty Queens Libba Bray

by REBECCA, November 14, 2012

characters

too many Miss Teen Dreamers & their Enemies to name!

hook

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

worldview

Beauty Queens Libba BrayI confess: despite thinking the premise sounded pretty hysterical, I avoided Beauty Queens for months because of its cover. No matter how many glowing reviews I read that praised its social commentary, its diverse cast, and its great writing, I just kept thinking, Great. Another skinny white girl in a bikini. Until I ran into a friend who said he had the same concerns but that the book was great (thanks, P—!). So I (finally) gave it a chance, and holy stockings, Batman, am I glad I did!

I have to confess another thing: I don’t like comedy that much. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m not entirely humorless or anything; it’s just never my first choice. However, within two pages I could tell that I was reading a book that was really taking seriously the power that comedy can have as social commentary. Here’s the first passage that convinced me that Beauty Queens was going to be super funny:

“‘Hi. I’m Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, and I’m Miss Teen Dream Texas, the state where dreams are bigger and better—nothing against y’all’s states. I’m a senior at George Walker Bush High School and I hope to pursue a career as a motivational speaker.’

There was polite, automatic applause. A dazed girl beside Adina said, ‘I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff.’

Miss Texas spoke again: ‘Okay, Miss Teen Dreamers, I know we’re all real flustered and everything. But we’re alive. And I think before anything else we need to pray to the one we love.’

A girl raised her hand. ‘J.T. Woodland?’

‘I’m talkin’ about my personal copilot, Jesus Christ.’

‘Someone should tell her personal copilot that His landings suck,’ Miss Michigan muttered. She was a lithe redhead with the pantherlike carriage of a professional athlete.

‘Dear Jesus,’ Taylor started. The girls bowed their heads, except for Adina.

‘Don’t you want to pray?’ Mary Lou whispered.

‘I’m Jewish. Not big on the Jesus.’

‘Oh. I didn’t know they had any Jewish people in New Hampshire. You should make that one of your Fun Facts About Me!'” (7)

Bray manages to pull off truly exquisite satire. The world of Beauty Queens isn’t quite a realist world; more like a reality TV world, in which some things are aided by the magic of editing and special effects:

“‘My head kinda hurts,’ Miss New Mexico said. Several of the girls gasped. Half of an airline serving tray was lodged in her forehead, forming a small blue canopy over her eyes.

‘What is it?’ Miss New Mexico checked to make sure her bra straps weren’t showing.” (8).

Drop Dead Gorgeous Kirsten DunstThe pacing of the book is extremely well-done. The tone is consistent throughout—sharp and funny but humanizing—but the book begins exactly where one would imagine: with the hilarity of the Teen Dreamers trying to survive on an island, fighting over flavored lip glosses and exalting in how the island’s lack of food is a great diet opportunity. From there, it moves to character development, and relationship building that makes the reader love some of the characters and love to hate others. Finally, it builds to full scale revolution, with the Teen Dreamers (and some mysterious pirates) working together to full-on topple an international conspiracy, nbd.

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

I can’t say enough times how skillfully Bray turns humor to the task of social commentary. The book’s clearest intention, I think, was to show how much people are able to grow when they find themselves in . . . unexpected situations. And Bray isn’t afraid to be a little cheesy about it. A large and diverse cast of characters stuck on an island together challenge each others’ expectations and encourage them to fully embrace their individualities.

Heathers Wynona RyderAnd while the Teen Dreamers are busy bringing out the best in each other, the audience slowly realizes that, although the joke is on the beauty queens for being, well, beauty queens—perhaps one of the groups of people that we still seem able to mock and stereotype without self-censure—by the end we are looking at one of the most diverse groups of teens to be found in a young adult novel. A black Teen Dreamer and an Indian Teen Dreamer go head-to-head trying to 0ut-non-white each other; a transgendered Teen Dreamer falls in love with a pirate; a Jewish Teen Dreamer plots . . . some stuff. And more.

“‘You think there might be cannibals here? Mary Lou whispered. . . .

‘Did you hear that?’ . . .

‘It came from over there!’ Shanti pointed to a copse just beyond the ring of totems. The sound came again: a grunting. Something was moving through the bushes. . . .

A willowy girl wrapped in a singed navy blanket stepped out into the open, moaning. Her skin was the same deep brown as the carved figures.

‘I’ll try to communicate,’ Taylor said. She spoke slowly and deliberately. ‘Hello! We need help. Is your village close?’

‘My village is Denver. And I think it’s a long way from here. I’m Nicole Ade. Miss Colorado.’

‘We have a Colorado where we’re from, too!’ Tiara said. She swiveled her hips, spread her arms wide, then brought her hands together prayer-style and bowed. ‘Kipa aloha.’

Nicole stared. ‘I speak English. I’m American. Also, did you learn those moves from Barbie’s Hawaiian Vacation DVD?’

‘Omigosh, yes! Do your people have that too?’

Petra stepped forward. ‘Hi. I’m Petra West. Miss Rhode Island. Are you okay?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. A little sore and scratched up from where I got thrown into some bushes, but no contusions or signs of internal bleeding.’ Nicole allowed a small smile. ‘I’m pre-pre-med.’

Shanti frowned. She’d hoped to have the ethnic thing sewn up. Having a black pre-pre-med contestant wasn’t going to help her. She covered her unease with a wide smile” (13-14).

Anyhoo, as I hope you can tell, since I just keep quoting huge swathes of Beauty Queens’ hilarity, this is a unique novel that does a lot of fun and interesting stuff with genre, language, and character. It may or may not appeal, depending on taste; but it absolutely, 100% achieves what it sets out to do. Enjoy!

readalikes

Honestly, not really. I mean, Beauty Queens kind of feels like what would happen if Heathers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Lost had a baby and then put it up for adoption and it landed in a group home with a bunch of awesome badasses and learned how to fight. Then, when it got placed with a middle-aged couple that tried to stereotype it, it blew up its pearls in the microwave like Paige from Pump Up the Volume, without ever breaking a nail.

procured from: a kindle gift (thanks, mom!)

The Year of the Beasts: I Turn to Stone When You are Gone

The Year of the Beasts
Cecil Castellucci & Nate Powell
Roaring Brook Press, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters
Tessa – starts the year out lucky, but the year’s events don’t follow this pattern.
Lulu – Tessa’s younger sister who seems to have nicer everything
Celina – Tessa’s best friend and a champion flirt
Charlie – Tessa’s crush, but he likes someone else very close to Tessa.
Jasper – Loner boy who hangs out in the woods.  Strangely attractive. Not that Tessa would admit it.

Hook
The carnival comes to town and after that night Tessa becomes a freak.  Is it all in her head? How can she stop everyone from turning to stone?

Worldview + What is this book’s intention and does it live up to that intention?

Tessa is forced to take Lulu along with her to the yearly fall carnival. She and Celina were supposed to spend all night sharing secrets and chasing boys – especially the pack of boys led by Charlie Evans.  The girls still fall in with these desirables despite Tessa’s little sister in tow. In an attempt to isolate herself with Charlie, Tessa suggests visiting the Curiosity Sideshow, where only two people are allowed in at a time. But Charlie gets in with Lulu as a partner. After that, Tessa’s world is thrown off balance.  She loves Lulu, but Lulu is eclipsing her in what feels like all aspects of her life – looks, boys, best friendship with Celina, and parental attention.

“Sometimes Tessa wished that she was the prettier sister. When Tessa looked at Lulu, she wondered why it was that Lulu got the better nose. The nicer legs. The shinier, straighter hair. Tessa worried sometimes that people felt sorry for her because she was not round-face, but made of angles. She dread that the truth might be that the arrangement of DNA hadn’t worked quite right on her parents’ first try for a baby, and she imagined that the combination of sperm and egg had worked better the second time around. Or worse, that maybe her parents had loved each other more when they had made Lulu.”

Before I got to buy and read this book I asked what my co-worker’s teenaged daughter thought of it. “She was afraid it was going to be about, you know, boys and does he like me, but it was more than that,” was her paraphrased answer (in a wonderful South African accent).  Boys  and Does he like me are Tessa’s focus as the book begins. Then, as her hopeful plans go awry and she’s left with regret and stifled jealousy, The Year of the Beasts reveals its true self. It’s about that creeping feeling when everything is going wrong and crumbling and no one else seems to notice.  When you don’t feel like you legitimately have anything to complain about but still feel like crying all the time and are composing whole perfect wounded rants in your head to say to no one.

Though not told in first person, the book achieves a wobbly reality in line with how Tessa must feel.  It alternates prose and comic chapters that, when read together, perfectly describe something that is part reality and part gritty parable.

Castellucci’s prose style is matter-of-fact about things and straightforwardly narrates situations that still end up with secret undertones.  It delves into lists of things that end up carrying emotional weight or revealing the thoughts of the characters who are looking at the things being listed. Its tone reminded me of fairy tales, especially the breezy Californian real world with a twist voice of Francesca Lia Block, where everyone possesses a kind of knowing, but everything remains mysterious despite it.  I can see it very much in this description from Beasts:

“Jasper Kleine . . . wasn’t with anyone because he was a loner. If he did hang out, he hung out with other lost boys. The ones who cut class and got high. The ones who rode their speedboats too fast on the river. The ones who had guitars and mountain bikes. The ones who wore pieces of leather tied around their wrists as if they had made a secret promise to themselves. These boys were the ones that everyone steered clear of because secretly everyone worried that strangeness was catching.”

The comic chapters are illustrated by the wonderful Nate Powell, who is no stranger to stories featuring people haunted by their own thoughts and obsessions. My first introduction to his work was Swallow Me Whole, a graphic novel about stepsiblings, schizophrenia, and family, among other things, and his most recent book, Any Empire, delves further into childhood and its wars and then twists time to connect real war with childhood. He draws with a fluid and sure line that always seems to imbue his characters with motion, even when they’re sitting at a desk or standing in a hallway. (There’s a gallery on his website).

In The Year of the Beasts he illustrates what appears to be a parallel story of Tessa’s, one where her hair is Medusa’s: made of snakes that can turn anyone who looks at her to stone. She stumbles through a school day trying to keep herself and the people around her intact, clearly hurting but not able to make herself tell her secrets.  In this reality, her sister appears as a mermaid and her crush a kind of minotaur.  It’s not clear how this connects to the prose reality until the close of the book, but it lets the reader follow emotional truths in a natural and evocative way. (Click on the link above to see previews).

What The Year of the Beasts has most in common with old fairy tales is that it goes to twisty, dark places.  It also has something in common with fables: Tessa learns a lesson at the end.  It’s not the one that I was expecting when I saw her cobbling together a secretive happiness midway through the book, and I’m not happy that she had to learn it the way she did.  But that’s her story, whether I like it or not, and it’s told beautifully.

Disclosure/Digression
I met Cecil Castellucci at a library event in 2006 or 2007 and she was really psyched to hear my name. So psyched that she wrote it down and promised to use it in a story. I’m not saying that this means that moment led to her naming this character Tessa. But I am going to choose to believe it for my own personal satisfaction about… having… a name?

Incidentally, Cecil Castellucci is funny and nice and really enthusiastic about comics. You should read her other books.

Readalikes

Weetzie Bat series / Francesca Lia Block

I’m feeling a lot of Witch Baby in Tessa’s character.

Lowboy / John Wray

I don’t know if this is a real readalike. It does concern a teenager who feels lost and isolated and has a personal crisis. Maybe I just want to read it again. But it came to mind, and it has a great cover with a drawing of a face.

Skim / Mariko & Jillian Tamaki

I could swear that Rebecca had recommended this book before, but I can’t find it. I’ll recommend it any number of times, just try me. Loss, friendship, and outsider status, set in a private school, which is a cousin to a boarding school. You know that we like those here at Crunchings & Munchings.

Half My Head Is Quiet: Stick, by Andrew Smith

A Review of Stick by Andrew Smith

Feiwel and Friends, 2011

By REBECCA, August 10, 2012

Stick Andrew Smith

characters

Stark (Stick) McClellan: Born with only one ear, Stick is used to hearing the world a little slant

Bosten McClellan: A high school junior with a temper who wants to be free of his father

Emily Lohman: Stick’s best friend, who shows him how a family could be

Aunt Dahlia: Stick and Bosten’s great-aunt who lives in a cozy bungalow in California and introduces them to the wonders of surfing, sleeping in, and Evan and Kim Hansen

Evan & Kim Hansen: Twin surf angels who take Stick and Bosten under their wetsuited wings

hook

14-year-old Stick has always had his brother, Bosten, to look out for him, but when their abusive father learns that Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home. Once Bosten leaves, Stick takes his dad’s car and sets out to find him, thinking he headed to Aunt Dahlia’s house in California. Without much money or any connections, Stick finds himself in, erm, sticky situations (sorry!), which he handles because he has no other choice.

worldview

Saint Fillan's cave

Saint Fillan’s cave

Stick and Bosten’s cold, perfectionist mother and violent, exacting father have turned their house into an army barracks. There are rules to follow—the boys can’t have hair longer than half an inch, must always tuck in their shirts, can’t wear pajamas, can only shower on the weekends—and consequences if those rules are broken. Not only beatings, but being locked for days in what Stick calls St. Fillan’s room, the spare bedroom that is bare except for a sheeted cot and a bucket. Both Stick and Bosten, though, are warm, hungry for love beyond each other’s. Bosten is in love with his best friend, Paul, who runs hot and cold on him, and Stick feels awed and humbled by the love his best friend, Emily, shows him. The world of Stick, then, contains two extremes of love—the depths of joy that can come from intimacy as well as its poisonous inversion when intimacy is used as a weapon.

Mr. Zogs Sex waxThe structure of the book was particularly interesting: it’s kind of  folded in half. It’s divided into three sections, where the first is about Stick and Bosten’s life in Washington, the second about their visit to California to stay with Aunt Dahlia, and the the third the journey from the former to the latter, again, when Stick makes the same journey to follow Bosten. I bring this up because it facilitates one of my favorite thing about both Stick and Andrew Smith‘s work more generally (you can check out my review of The Marbury Lens here), which is that his novels take us to many different places, but each of them feels like the novel’s home when we’re in it. When Stick is in Washington, and the brothers are going to basketball games, getting into fights, and going to school in the damp chill, I feel fully sunk in that world as a reader; same with when they’re surfing in bright California. Then, when Stick travels to California to follow Bosten, the genre of the book really changes, from being an interpersonal drama to being a kind of adventure-quest-thriller. It doesn’t feel like a shift at all, though, but rather a natural outgrowth of the world and characters to which Smith has introduced us.

did this book live up to its intentions?

Stick Andrew SmithA thousand times, yes. Stick is a book that has so many things going for it that it’s hard to know where to begin. Wonderful characters who have deep relationships with each other? Check. Stick and Bosten’s conversations are as elliptical and offhand as tight siblings’ can be. Serious emotional and physical threats that bring out those characters’ depths and fears? Double check. Stick and Bosten’s father is chilling, but in a human way, so he can’t be written off as exaggeration or romanticization. Similarly, some of the people that Stick meets on his way to California (about which, obviously, I’m being quite vague, because I don’t want to give things away) exemplify the kind of terrifying way that the world feels out of your control at 14. Still, Stick is a survivor, so strongly drawn is he to get to California and make sure Bosten is all right (you might remember that I featured Stick in my list YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse.)

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. Being gay does not, of course, align with their father’s notions of how a man should act (although, further, we get hints that perhaps these rules are as much for Mr. McClellan to clarify for himself how he feels he must be as they are for his sons). 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.

Stick is a wonderfully-written, exciting, and moving story about brothers, about need, and about the many ways we can rescue each other. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

personal disclosure

I love love love books where siblings are best friends because my sister and I are planning to take over the world! Also, I love the cover of this book so much.

readalikes

Brothers Bishop Bart Yates

The Brothers Bishop by Bary Yates (2005). A totally amazing book about brothers, love, obligation, sex, archaeology, and the ocean.

Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). The voice in Punkzilla is extraordinary. I sort of feel like Bosten and Punkzilla would meet and Bosten would adopt Punkzilla because he would remind him of Stick.

My Heartbeat Garret Freymann-Weyr

My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr (2002). A short and lovely book about the relationship between Ellen, the older brother that she adores, and his best friend and lover.

procured from: bought

Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, (2012)

By REBECCA, July 23, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Beasts of the Southern Wild for months, now, and I am thrilled to report that it did not disappoint.

The film is based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.” Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 5 when she auditioned, and beat out thousands of other Louisiana locals) lives with her father, Wink, on a Louisiana island called The Bathtub, on the wrong side of the levy. Hushpuppy’s mother left years before, and her father (played by Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who happened to own the bakery next to the casting offices where director Behn Zeitlin often bought bread) is ill and drinks all the time. When violent storms threaten to flood The Bathtub, many locals pack up and head out, leaving a small cadre behind, who have to survive in the wake of the flood, which kills animals and plants, and floods their homes.

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and the AurochsHushpuppy narrates the film and both the script and Wallis’ performance are haunting in their emotion and simplicity, as is Dan Romer’s score, which reviewers have compared to a kind of stripped-down Arcade Fire. Guided by her voiceover, we experience the events of the film through Hushpuppy’s eyes: after her teacher tells the children about the aurochs, great beasts trapped under the ice, Hushpuppy incorporates the aurochs into the landscape of The Bathtub, finally identifying as a beast herself in sympathy with them; when Hushpuppy hits her father, we see him fall down, as if the fury and hatred she feels toward him actually have the power to slay him. Beasts is magical realism, then, inasmuch as Hushpuppy’s reality is our access point to this world.

Waterworld Kevin Costner

Waterworld

More interesting, though, are particularities of the film that aren’t magical but are composed from a hodgepodge that seems almost post-apocalyptic: Hushpuppy and Wink putter through the floodwaters in a boat made out of the bed of a blue pickup truck atop floaters, grabbing fish straight from the water for food; they live in ramshackle huts that appear to be constructed of layer upon layer of detritus gathered from their surroundings; in the evenings, they drink and socialize with the other denizens of The Bathtub, eating crabs, shrimp, and crawfish by the bucketful and knocking back liquor as the waters lap their feet.

Despite its overwhelming critical success (it won this year’s Grand Jury Prize in drama at Sundance) Beasts of the Southern Wild has been criticized for what some see as a kind of cultural tourism in which the lives of poor Southerners are exoticized and made magic, rendering them curiosities instead of complex characters. While I recognize the impulse behind this critique, I found the film’s genre—a kind of magical realism meets regional adventure piece—to argue against it. Rather than using Hushpuppy, Wink, and the other inhabitants of The Bathtub to generalize about a group of rural Southerners, Beasts uses the intricacies of the region itself to portray one particular coming of age story. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy works to make her personal mark and archive her existence, drawing her story on the wall of her cardboard box hiding place and speaking it to us in the voiceover: “In a million years,” she tells us, “when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and WinkSimilarly, Beasts has also been held up as an example of a director aestheticizing poverty, as the film finds exquisite beauty in scenes dominated by dirty, broken places, and muddy, hungry people. This critique is by no means a new one, and rests, it seems, on the troubling assumption that just because a place is poor it is necessarily immune to beauty. Further, this critique seems to reveal an anxiety on the part of viewers that they might find the suffering of others beautiful, be it Wink’s ever-further protruding cheekbones that catch the dim light like a wood carving in Beasts, or those of the concentration camp prisoners in Schindler’s List. Rather, the cameras of Beasts’ director and cinematographer seem to unfailingly find precisely the beauty of The Bathtub and its inhabitants that makes Wink and the others who stay cling so ardently to their home, despite the attempts of all forces to drive them from it. It is beauty, yes, but a fierce and treacherous beauty that betrays all attempts to control it—a sublime beauty, like the cleaving of the immense glaciers that Hushpuppy imagines frees the aurochs from their icy prisons.

Beasts of the Southern WildNot tourism, then, nor aestheticization, but a kind of joyful tramp—as only children can—through the mud connecting Hushpuppy’s home, her school, a much-maligned rescue center, and a floating paradise of catfish and women that brings Hushpuppy a kind of peace, finally allowing her to return to The Bathtub on her own terms rather than her father’s, a pack of fierce and loving girlfriends around her.

At its most explicit, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a critique of the institutionalized blindness to the populations of certain regions and the hypocrisy of rescue-efforts that value the lives they would choose for those people over the lives those people choose for themselves. More subtly, though, it’s a story of how we make our own homes and our own histories despite—or perhaps because of—the attempts to obliterate them. Does it have moments of sentimentality? Yes. Echoes of other films with innocent or young protagonists? Sure. But Beasts is very much its own movie. I highly recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild, whether you’re in it for its politics, its story, its beauty, or its characters.

 

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