Review: Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). 2011. Personal copy. (Hardcopy Dutton, a member of Penguin Group  (USA) 2010.

The Plot: Anna’s mostly absent father has decided that Anna should spend her senior year at boarding school in Paris, France. Anna is not pleased about leaving Atlanta, her friends, her crush-almost-a-boyfriend, her mother and younger brother. She will be leaving home soon enough for college, to study film; why leave now?

All because her father (a successful novelist whose books feature family values and tragically dying love interests) has decided it’s a good idea.

Oh, if you’re wondering whether Anna speaks French, the answer is no. She’ll be at the School of America in Paris, so it’s  not as if she needs to know it for school. Did I mention that she’s the only new senior?

Lucky for Anna, she quickly meets some fun and cool new friends. Among them is the super cute Etienne St. Clair (bonus points — he has a British accent). St. Clair quickly becomes one of her best friends. Sometimes she wonders if it could be something more, except he has a girlfriend and she has that crush waiting in Atlanta. A lot can happen in a year.

The Good: I loved this book! Love, love, love, and right away went out and bought the companion, Lola and the Boy Next Door, but am saving that for vacation later this summer.

There are so many things to love, I’m afraid I’ll forget one. Or, in talking about one, not give enough credit to another.

First thing to know: this is a romance, and it’s all about the connection and missed opportunities between St. Clair and Anna. He has a girlfriend; she has a possibility; and it just goes from there. Major points to Anna, in that while she falls in  like with St. Clair right away, once she learns about his girlfriend she backs away. I’ve written before about how I’m tough on romantic triangles. Here? It’s so perfect — As I said, Anna does her best to keep her emotions in check, due to St. Clair’s girlfriend. So let’s take a look at her: Ellie, who graduated from the School of America in Paris the year before. She is conveniently away, so that Anna does not have to see St. Clair and Ellie being a couple. Also, Ellie is good friends with the crew Anna is now close to, so they all have good things to say about Ellie. Because St. Clair and Anna cannot be together, or even admit their attraction to each other, they instead become friends. Which, I loved.

The reason behind St. Clair’s romantic conflict (flirty/attracted to Anna, staying with Ellie) ends us being something I excuse in a teen (St. Clair, like Anna, is a high school senior) but would be less forgiving of an adult. Why? Because part of this book is also about coming of age; of growing up. Anna, thrust into the world a year before she expected, has to make new friends and figure out how to navigate a strange city with strange food, not knowing the language. More than that, though, Anna also learns about things like forgiveness; how she appears to others; and whether its better to be with someone just to be a couple or to be alone. St. Clair is figuring that out, also. Is it better to be with someone you’re comfortable with, or to take a chance on the new girl? But what if the new girl is making a big deal out of her maybe-boyfriend-at-home? Anna and the French Kiss handles this dilemma beautifully, so that the book is about Anna and St. Clair’s relationship, yes, but also about them both growing up enough to have a relationship. (Hello, this is a romance, which to me means happy-ever-after, so that is so not a spoiler.)

Oh, and when I say “appears to others,” what I mean is the inadvertent signals sent as a result of self-absorption and thinking “its all about me.”  Sometimes, people don’t say “hi” in the cafeteria not because they don’t want to say hi to you, but because there are so many things going on they don’t see you. It’s the misunderstandings caused from thinking you know what someone else is thinking, so doing something, and therefore giving unintended signals.

I love that Anna didn’t want to go to Paris. By the second chapter, I wanted to be in Paris, walking those streets, eating that food, visiting the sites. Anna is a film buff, and in Paris she discovers tons of theatres that show American films, including older ones, so she gets to see on the big screen what she had only seen on the TV before. One thing I loved about Anna and the French Kiss: she has a film website, and we don’t read her posts. I appreciated that because it would have detracted from the book.

The supporting cast is all three dimensional, whether it’s the friends she left behind or the new ones she makes in Paris. Each has their own story, and it’s all woven together beautifully.

What else? St. Clair — who Anna eventually calls Etienne — is a great book boyfriend. He is funny and British but not perfect. In addition to the girlfriend, he (like Anna) has a less than perfect father figure. A controlling father’s impact on his child was very realistically drawn; and Etienne’s reactions (like Anna’s to her father) are perfect, and especially perfect for someone Etienne’s age. Oh, another thing — for those who like their relationships to be other than cookie cutter film couples: Etienne is shorter than Anna! Also, Anna has a gap between her two front teeth. It’s those little details that make the characters “real.”

Anna and the French Kiss is sweet, and warm, and fun, and happy-making. I literally smiled my way through it. Because I am still smiling; and because I like knowing there is love and happiness and goodness in the world, and Anna and Etienne and their friends reminded me of that, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Librarian by Day by Melissa Rabey (who, on Twitter, wisely said this is a hug in book form); Leila Roy at the Kirkus blog; Reading Rants; Angieville; GalleySmith; Stacked Books.

Review: Picture the Dead

Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin & Lisa Brown. Sourcebooks. 2010. Paperback, 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Jennie Lovell’s loved ones left to fight in the Civil War: her twin brother, Tobias; her fiance and cousin, Will Pritchett; and her other cousin, Quinn, Will’s brother. She knew the moment Toby died: could feel it. She never suspected Will’s death, not until a wounded Quinn came home and told them his brother Will had died. Jennie wishes she could feel Will’s presence the way she does Toby’s

Will’s grieving parents, Jennie’s Aunt and Uncle, seek out a photographer who can capture the images of departed spirits. Jennie begins getting strange messages – is it Will? What is he trying to tell her?

As Jennie struggles with the loss of Toby and Will, she also struggles for her future. Her Aunt and Uncle had never looked kindly or generously on their orphaned niece, and now her position is even more precarious. To make matters even more confusing, Quinn has returned from war a changed man. It’s not just that he’s physically injured: he seems almost a different person. War changes a man, he explains. Would falling in love with Quinn be a betrayal of Will?

The Good: “A ghost will always find his way home.”

So, so good! I love when historical fiction is about something I didn’t know, or is set during a unique time. Picture the Dead is set in Massachusetts during the last days of the Civil War. In addition to taking a look at spiritualism and the use of photography to capture spirit images, it also takes a frank look at the soldiers who fought, revealing details about their lives and survival I’d never heard before.

Jennie’s position in the family is unique: she is the orphaned niece they have to take in, and neither aunt nor uncle is really happy to do so. Aunt Clara is hideous, and at first I thought Uncle Henry’s flaw was weakness that tolerated, thus allowing, his wife’s nastiness. The further I read, the more I realized that Aunt Clara was at least honest in her dislike of her niece.

Gradually, Jennie’s role becomes more and more servant-like. As someone with no education, money, or connections, someone whose only male protectors (Toby and Will) have died, she has few options. “I must find a way to rescue myself,” she realizes early on, but what, exactly, can she do? Is she truly feeling an attraction to Quinn, or is she looking at him for security?

Jennie may hate her situation, but I adored this look at someone who is caught between upstairs and downstairs. Jennie sensed when her brother died; it’s because of this that she is open to the possibility of spiritualism connecting her with Will. She doesn’t understand what she’s being told, but she believes it’s messages from beyond and she’s resolved to follow them. Jennie’s beliefs are wonderfully shown: “For if memory is the wave that buoys our grief, haunting is the undertow that drags us to its troubled source.”

Picture the Dead is told in part scrapbook format; specifically, Jennie’s scrapbook. Lisa Brown’s illustrations show the photographs, drawings, even newspaper clippings that make up Jennie’s scrapbook. I love how Jennie puts together the scrapbook, how she gathers what to put in it.

Picture the Dead is also a mystery. I won’t say, exactly, what the mystery turns out to be, because that is part of the fun of this book — trying to figure out what is going on, what people’s motivations are, and what type of future Jennie can create for herself.

Other reviews: GalleySmith; Librarian By Day; Small Review. Also, check out the ghost stories at the Picture the Dead website.

Review: Every Little Thing In The World

Every Little Thing In The World by Nina de Gramont. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division. 2010. Library copy.

The Plot: Sydney Biggs, sixteen, is a good girl. That’s what she tells herself. She also tells herself that her mother is over-reacting about Sydney and her friend Natalia “borrowing” Natalia’s parents’ car to go to a party, despite both girls being grounded. And there was the time she pretended to be at Natalia’s and stayed overnight at her ex-boyfriend’s. And her mother’s reaction to Sydney’s grades slipping is a bit over the top. What else is Mom over-reacting about? Sydney quitting the swimming team. And sneaking away to spend a weekend with Natalia, Natalia’s boyfriend, and Sydney’s kind-of boyfriend.

Sydney’s divorced parents are disappointed and angry, and that’s why Syd now finds herself spending a month at Camp Bell Wilderness Adventure, canoeing in the wilderness.

Actually, Sydney doesn’t mind. A month away from her parents? A month away from the not-quite boyfriend? A month to not have to think about anything?

A month to not have to think about being pregnant?

If her parents are unhappy with staying out late, drinking, and lying, imagine how they’d feel if they found out she’s pregnant.

The Good: Every Little Thing In The World is a sensitive, thoughtful look at young teen facing a difficult decision. What should she do about her pregnancy? For Sydney, going away to Camp Bell is the perfect escape, rather than the punishment her mother thought it would be. Things get more complicated than she wants when her best friend, Natalia, comes along. Yes, Natalia is her best friend; but Natalia has her own issues and secrets to work through. Syd knows that any help or advice Natalia offers is based on Natalia’s own hopes and fears, rather than what Sydney wants or needs.

Sydney comes from a complicated place, and one of the things I adored about this book is none of those complications were fixed. Her life is messy, and it remained messy. Her mother, hurt by her divorce and struggling to make ends meet, is not as warm or open as she once was. Her father is so tied up in living the “perfect” life with his new family that he doesn’t see the damage he inflicts on those around him. Syd’s the poor girl at a rich private school, and Sydney is well aware that she is the only one at her school who doesn’t have nice clothes or endless spending money. The reader realizes well before Sydney that Sydney’s problem is not a pregnancy: it’s being too passive in her own life from fear of disappointing those around her. She had sex with someone without using a condom, because she was afraid of what he’d think of her for asking. She’s content for Natalia to always be the star, and to get the boys Natalia isn’t interested in.

Camp Bell becomes a place where Sydney can assert herself; not just in what will happen to her body and this pregnancy, but also in her own future, in creating new patterns and ways of being.

I have one mini-rant. I truly despised Syd’s father. Okay, maybe despise is to big a word. When Sydney was young, he became obsessed with eating healthier. The obsession grew and mutated into other areas, such as a conviction that oil will soon run out resulting in the culture crumbling. Sydney, a young teen when she first heard this, had such bad nightmares that visitation was temporarily ended.

Sydney, musing on her stepmother and mother: “Kerry still spent half the day doing what my mother had gotten divorced to avoid: making elaborate, organic meals from scratch. They were never ready when my father walked through the door, and he always heaved a sigh of disappointment at the the world’s inability to measure up to his high ideals.” Kerry, who before her three children in three years had been a trim athlete, now weighs almost two hundred pounds, a form of rebellion against her husband’s “high ideals.” Is her father realistic? Yes. I still wanted Kerry to pick up her kids and leave, to do something about her youngest’s permanent diaper rash, or to at least stop hiding her secret stash of “forbidden” food.

Let’s add this on a positive note. The canoeing group involves eight teens (four girls, four boys) and two counselors. I love the relationships that develop between Syd and her fellow campers. Yes, there is a cute boy who Sydney likes and who likes Sydney. Sydney’s growth isn’t just internal; it’s shown in how she interacts with others. And that cover? That is Sydney by the end of the book: strong and confident, becoming her own person.

Other Reviews: Stacked; Steph Su Reads.

Review: Solitary

Solitary: Escape From Furnace 2 by Alexander Gordon Smith. Sequel to Lockdown. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2010.

The Plot: At the end of Lockdown, Alex and his friends escaped the underground prison, Furnace, by blowing up a wall and throwing themselves into an underground river.

Alex knew it wouldn’t be easy to escape Furnace. What he didn’t realize was how many dark, bloody secrets Furnace hid, it its underground cells and laboratories. He didn’t realize there could be something worse than recapture.

The Good: Just like Lockdown, the first book in this five-book series, the action is nonstop and breathless. Yes, I think you need to read these books in order. In all honesty, I could easily see these five volumes being printed up in one volume, it’s that type of story. For those who haven’t read Lockdown, Smith provides enough detail to quickly get the reader caught up on what is going on: Furnace is a horrible prison, Alex and his friends have escaped, prisoners are the subjects of terrible surgeries and experiments that turn them into monstrous creatures, “rats,” “dogs, “wheezers,” “blacksuits,” whose only purpose is to cruelly control the prison population. Got it? Good. Actually, not very good for those who have to live it.

Solitary is full of action. As the title implies, Alex is ultimately caught and thrown into the “hole,” solitary confinement. Smith can even make solitary confinement action packed. Alex is not the sort of person to sit quietly and contemplate his lot in life. He’s someone who acts rather than reflects. Even when he is forced to, well, think about what he’s done and why he ended up in a place like Furnace, those dreams and memories aren’t quiet and low-key.

Oh, Alex. As you may remember, Alex was a criminal, just not a murderer. He was framed for the crime that brought him to Furnace. One thing that is admirable about him is that he does not deny his actions and his past: “I’m not a good person. . . . I stole from the people I loved, and took the things that meant the most to them.” Even as Alex owns his past and his actions, there is sympathy for him. Furnace is a hell that no one deserves. Here in this immoral place, Alex faces hard moral choices and makes the “right” decisions, or, rather, the least “wrong” one. He’s not perfect, but as his actions show, he isn’t as bad as he thinks.

Given the harsh subject of the book (teens are imprisoned and turned into monsters), it’s a bit odd for me to say this is a fun series but it is. First, it’s never overly gory; there is just enough detail shared to know what’s going on, to know what is being done to the boys, to understand their hardships, without it being over the top. Second, whatever the boys did to get sent to Furnace, what’s being done to them is so much worse that they are  heroes you can cheer. The tight bonds they form with each other add to it; as I mentioned in my review of the first book, Alex isn’t afraid of his emotions. He isn’t afraid to be afraid; he isn’t afraid to cry. He just doesn’t let those emotions get in the way of his goal: Escape From Furnace.

All five volumes are already available in the UK. If you do not like spoilers, do not look this series up on the Internet! Do not even look at the titles for the next volumes

Review: StarCrossed

StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce.  Scholastic. 2010. Library copy.

The Plot: A robbery gone bad means Digger, sixteen, must flee her home city of Gerse. One lie leads to another, and the next thing she knows, Digger is going by the name Celyn and is a lady’s maid to a young, shy noblewoman, Merista Nemair, living in luxury, deep in the country. It should be a sweet setup: clothes, food, a soft bed, people who don’t keep an eye on the coins and jewlery and other small things Celyn secrets away. Problem is, Digger likes Merista and her family even if they are “nobs.”

Things get more comlicated when another “nob,” Lord Daul, discovers her secret and blackmails her into spying for him. Digger is annoyed, inconvenienced, and feels conflicted about betraying her friends; or, rather, the people who think she’s a trusted friend. It’s worse than she thinks.

Less than twenty years ago, there was war between religious factions and the winners banned magic. The “Greenmen” hunt out those who are born with magic, those who practice it, they bribe neighbors and torture suspects. Digger is just a thief, and she has no magic. She does have a gift she keeps well-hidden: the ability to sense magic in others. Other than evading the Greenmen, she doesn’t care about the war or factions. Until she realizes that spying for Lord Daul is more serious than she realizes; the risks are higher. It’s nothing less than a possible magical rebellion, and Digger is caught in the middle of it.

The Good: Digger/Celyn is fascinating; a girl who has taken care of herself by being a pickpocket and thief. A girl who hides many things: who she was before she became a thief. Who she is now. Digger has only two loyalties: to Tegen, her partner, who died in that ill fated robbery; and to herself. She is smart, she is talented, she takes care of herself. Meeting up with Meri and her family changes that. Meri, four years younger than Digger, is so trusting, so nice, so sweet. Meri’s family, too, accepts Digger. No; they accept Celyn, and her story of running away from a convent. That should have been a clue, that Meri’s family was willing to take in a runaway from the religious faction controlling the country.

I have always had a soft spot for stories about thieves, especially those who turn out to have a heart of gold. Bonus points when the thief happens to be a girl.

Bunce has created a country and a geography with a complex religion; or, rather, complex religions with multiple gods. Religious intolerance and persecutions take place against not only followers of one god defeating the followers of another, but with those followers securing their power through the “Greenmen,” a quasi police force dedicated to discovering magic. Magic has to be hidden; magic has to be stamped out; magic has to be destroyed. Digger and Meri are of the generation born right after the war; Meri’s parents, Lord Daul, and their friends are the ones who fought a war, lost (or won), and have been living with the consequences.

Digger has secrets she is reluctant to share, so I won’t share them here. StarCrossed is her journey, from caring about herself, about the next meal, the next job, to — reluctantly — caring about others.

One last thing: about the cover. Covers showing parts of a person’s face isn’t unusual for books. What I like about StarCrossed‘s cover is that it makes sense that Digger is half behind a door, hiding, only showing part of herself to the reader.

Review: Tell Me A Secret

Tell Me A Secret by Holly Cupala. HarperTeen. 2010. Audiobook by Octopuppy. 2010. Narrated by Jenna Lamia. Reviewed from audiobook from author. Available from Audible.

The Plot: Miranda — Rand — is the good daughter. Xanda — dead Xanda, whose name isn’t spoken aloud by her family — was the bad daughter, the daughter of late nights and fast boys and cars, until the accident that took her life five years ago. Xanda had secrets that Rand could only wonder at; Xanda had a life that seemed exotic and wonderful. Who Xanda was, and her death, has shaped Rand and fractured her family. Rand was twelve then; she is now the age Xanda was.

Five years later, Rand has a secret of her own.

She’s pregnant.

This secret will force Rand and her family to finally look at the truth about themselves, about Xanda, and about her death.

The Good: Rand tells the story, and Jenna Lamia, the audiobook narrator, does a terrific job of conveying Rand’s confusion and hopes and fears. The reader does not always get the whole story. For example, in Rand’s eyes, Xanda seems the perfect older sister: perfect in a “she’s too cool to live” way. This, however, is not the whole story, not the whole Xanda, and glimpses of the real sister bleed through Rand’s thoughts and memories.

Rand broke my heart. No, that’s not right. It’s not that Rand broke my heart; honestly, at times I just wanted to give her a shake and say “snap out of it!” (More on that later). What broke my heart was just how many people failed Rand, especially the people that Rand should have been able to rely on. It would have been nice if the people in her life, her parents and friends, had supported her, been there for her, helped her. But, then, this would have been a different book. Instead, it’s a book about secrets and the damage they do, especially the secrets about ourselves that we keep from ourselves. Rand may think her secret is her pregnancy, but the real secret is she’s not being honest with herself about her choices, the choices she made in living up to the image of a dead girl.

Rand keeps much to herself, not in an unfriendly way but in a not sharing what she’s thinking or feeling way. Maybe that is her nature. Maybe it’s because her mother raised her children with a “be careful what the neighbors will think” attitude, so Rand keeps her true self secret so that the neighbors will only see her outer self. Whatever the reason, Rand often stays silent when she could speak up and should speak up. Take, for instance, her boyfriend Kamram and her pregnancy. She loves him; she doesn’t know how to tell him. So she doesn’t. She delays, and delays, and delays. And because of that, she also distances herself from him. On the one hand, she tells the reader about her love for him and their wonderful relationship, and on the other, Rand also says it’s been almost a week since she’s spoken to him. Rand doesn’t seem to be able to put the pieces together, that either she and Kamram are not the couple she thinks they are, or that she is sending him mixed signals about what she thinks and feels. He’s not a mind-reader, I wanted to tell her. Thinking about him, loving him, wanting him, is not enough if you’re not calling him. I understood why she didn’t; I understood why she delayed. Understanding Rand just made it that much worse.

It would have been easy for Tell Me A Secret to be all about how family and friends fail Rand. Tell Me A Secret takes the harder road, the better road, by making the failures mutual. This is not a sob-fest about poor, pregnant Rand (even though I did cry at times because of all that happened to poor, pregnant Rand. Hey, I don’t have a heart of stone!). Rand doesn’t always realize it, and the reader may take some time for recognition to sink in, but Rand isn’t innocent, and not just in getting pregnant or delaying telling anyone. She does a few things that really shifts the perception of what happened, so that some of what her friends did and did not do make more sense. And here is what I liked best about Tell Me A Secret (if one can say “like” about something so sad): people fail Rand, and Rand fails herself, and Rand fails others, and it’s an endless cycle, it seems, of expectations and being let down. It would be nice if people were always kind and compassionate and understanding. It would be nice if people could see beyond their own needs and hurts and wants. But that’s not the world that Rand lives in; and I’m sure that for many readers, it’s not their world, either. By the end, Rand doesn’t let these failings define herself; she doesn’t let it control her future.

Review: Carter’s Big Break

Carter’s Big Break by Brent Crawford. Hyperion. 2010. Brilliance Audiobook. 2011. Narrated by Nick Podehl. Reviewed from audiobook from Brilliance.

The Plot: Will Carter survived his freshman year — he’s got his friends, he’s got his girl, and he even passed all his classes. Sweet! What could be sweeter? How about starring in a movie? You heard me right! In this sequel to Carter Finally Gets It, Carter finds himself starring in in a movie with teen sweetheart, Hilary Idaho.

The Good: Carter, Carter, Carter. As with the first book, I listened to the audiobook narrated by the brilliant Nick Podehl. Podehl does such a terrific job of channeling Carter that I sometimes thought I was carpooling to work as the book played. He captures Carter’s attitude, his bravado, his sweetness, and his general, inevitable tendency to be a total dumbass. Just as important, Podehl had me laughing so hard I was crying. Carter is — well, he’s a teenage boy. He sometimes talks before he thinks. Acts before he thinks. He is often clueless. But, underneath the friendly insults with his friends and his fumbling romance with Abby, he is a good, sweet boy (who would hate me saying so).

I was a little hesitant about the sequel, because it seemed to be a literary equivalent of  The Brady Bunch Hawaiian Bound. Carter’s strength is that he is a typical teenage boy in a typical suburb. Really, I wondered, does it have to have that, well, surrealness added to what is otherwise a very grounded in reality book? Silly me; I  should have paid more attention to the author’s website. See, here’s the thing: Brent Crawford is an actor. Carter’s Big Break is full of details that show Crawford knows the business, and not just from sitting in a movie theatre watching a film. His portrayal of teenage actors and producers and others related to movie making further reflect his insider’s knowledge. At the same time, Crawford doesn’t take the business too seriously; part of the fun is Carter screwing up and the movie director misinterpreting and believing Carter is the next Daniel Day-Lewis or Marlon Brando.

Carter lives in the type of town where a bunch of teenage boys get on their skateboards and bikes and don’t come home until dinner. Despite the Hollywood in this book, the best moments are still ones about friendship, about Carter’s family, about his love for Abby. About Carter’s tendency to do and say the absolute wrong thing. While listening to Podehl, it was easy to picture Carter and his friends — so easy, that I began to wish that these books would be turned into a TV series.

Because sometimes, you just need to laugh so much it hurts. Because Carter is like so many teens, trying to be tough and mature and to know all the answers. Because at the end of the day, there is a bit of dumbass in each of us. This is a Favorite Book  Read in 2011.

Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Scribner. 2010. Personal copy.

Part of my “holiday reads” for grown ups. What better Halloween author than Stephen King?

The Plot: Four stories.

In 1922, a man who loves his farm decides that his wife is what stands between him and a happy life farming. He involves his son, and winds up losing and he wanted to hold onto.

Big Driver is about the victim of a violent rape who decides to take justice into her own hands. The victim happens to be a writer of cozy murder mysteries and discovers that difference between real life and fiction.

In Fair Extension, a man makes a deal to have everything he ever wanted, and part of what he wants is his “best friend” to not be successful. It’s schadenfreude taken to an extreme level. What’s the price paid for such a deal?

Finally, the woman in A Good Marriage believes she has a good marriage, and the proof is the long marriage, the two successful children. What’s a good wife to do when she realizes her husband is a serial killer? 

The Good: Each of these four stories has a vaguely supernatural air about it. The story with the strongest supernatural quality, 1922, can also be read as a psychological horror story — the Tell Tale Heart. Only with rats.

I enjoy Stephen King’s books; when I compare books I read to him, it’s a very big complement. If I had to pick only one author that would still be read a hundred years from now, it would be Stephen King. For all that, for all that I love The Stand and The Shining and his other books, I think it’s his short stories that are his most powerful. Building a world in hundreds of pages? Easy, you have hundreds of pages! Building that same world in a handful of pages? Now that is talent. King writes horror, and I enjoy the horror he writes, but some of his most terrifying writing has not been about vampires and killer cars but about the loss of a child, the death of a sibling. These are the types of stories in Full Dark, No Stars. They scare the reader because they hold up a mirror to show something the reader doesn’t want to see, a window into what they fear is happening in the house next door.

What is really scary, for each of the stories, is not the ghosts or devil or other fantastical elements — it’s the everyday aspects of the stories. A man angry at his wife, who convinces his son to take sides, concerned only with “winning” his child, “winning” his farm, and is so focused on hurting his wife in order to “win” that he doesn’t realize the hurt he inflicts on his son and himself. A woman, beaten, raped, left for dead, who doesn’t want to go through life labelled a victim so takes the law into her own hands. The jealousy and resentment one feels towards one friends. And, the dilemma being between a rock and a hard place: expose a husband’s crimes and destroy the lives of your children who will forever be known as killer’s kids. All of those are about the real fears and temptations and choices people face. This is why Stephen King is a magnificent writer: because he gets into people’s heads, is fearless about showing the good, the bad, the gray, the dark wishes and dark choices.

In the Afterword, King writes that “I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. i want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief.”

The book has been set aside, and now the thinking . . . . It is not fearing a vampire child floating outside the window; it is fearing at what point one loses ones soul because they delight in the downfall of another. It is in discovering the consequences of taking a wrong detour. What would one do to survive?

Review: Guardian of the Dead

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. Little, Brown. 2010. Personal copy.

The Plot: Ellie Spencer, 17, literally runs into her crush Mark Nolan one day and he says two things that will change her world. “I like your laugh” and “do you know what you are?”

Ellie’s world at her Christchurch, New Zealand boarding school and had been safe and predictable: studying, hanging out with her best friend Kevin, neglecting her tae kwan do.

It’s not safe anymore. There is Mark Nolan, with his cryptic words and unexpected appearances; there is the beautiful and strange woman who takes an almost proprietary interest in Kevin; there is the Eyelasher murderer. Most dangers of all is Ellie’s growing suspicion that myth and magic are real — and deadly.

The Good: I love stories about the power of story, and the power of belief in story.

Guardian of the Dead begins as a boarding school story. Ellie, 17, left behind as her parents travel the world celebrating her mother’s remission from cancer, has distanced herself from her old friends (she chose a boarding school in Christchurch New Zealand far from her hometown in the North Island) and interests (Tae Kwan Do). Even her choice of best friend is safe: Kevin is popular and handsome, but is only interested in friendship. As Kevin brings a reluctant Ellie into his circle of friends, the reader would think, “oh, that’s what kind of story that is.”

Except the reader knows that Mark Nolan has told Ellie not to go out alone after dark — and she forgets the conversation, forgets he liked her laugh, only remembers (but doesn’t know why) that she’s not supposed to go out alone after dark. Well, that’s strange.

And it only gets stranger.

The action and plot of Guardian of the Dead is straightforward: the patupaiarehe, while long lived, are not immortal. A handful of the few remaining patupaiarehe decide to regain their lost immortality at the expense of thousands and thousand dead. Ellie and her friends are all that stand in the way of the patupaiarehe.

I love Ellie. Her isolation and loneliness, fueled by the emotional turmoil caused by her mother’s illness and now being the new girl at school, is raw and a believable. Ellie feels out of place, not just as the new girl, not just as a daughter whose family has suddenly shifted with her parents away, but also as someone unsure of herself. A significant part of Guardian of the Dead is about Ellie’s beginning to let other people in (Kevin, Mark, Kevin’s friend Iris) and become more comfortable with herself. Part of it is Ellie recovering emotionally from the family’s struggle with cancer, and that recovery is helped along  because Ellie discovers hidden truths about herself and her world that give her strength and purpose and meaning. The hidden truths are the discovery that myths and legends are real; because this takes place in New Zealand, it’s the mythos of the Maori that figure prominently in Guardian of the Dead. As Mark explains to Ellie, “they’re real places to the patupaiarehe. They make them real out of their belief. But if you go in and you don’t know what you’ll find, you could find yourself in any kind of place. You bring your own history, your own mythology with you.” And, as Mark’s initial reaction to Ellie shows (“do you know what you are“), Ellie’s involvement is more than a bystander who happens upon the unbelievable. Ellie’s knowledge of her place in the world of magic and belief.

The setting is New Zealand. My knowledge of New Zealand is mainly The Lord of the Rings and Heavenly Creatures. Healey does a terrific job of creating the world of New Zealand for someone who has never been there. One thing I wondered, if the copy published in New Zealand was as full of details about geography, history, and culture or if it was a there for the benefit of people like me. Healey provides a detailed afterward about the Maori mythology she uses in Guardian of the Dead. Those interested in her research process and use of cultural consultants in revising her story can read more at her blog.

Review: Real Live Boyfriends

Real Live Boyfriends (Yes, boyfriends, plural. If my life weren’t complicated, I wouldn’t be Ruby Oliver) by E. Lockhart. Delacorte, an imprint of Random House. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Ruby Oliver is now a senior and has a real! live! boyfriend! Everything is terrific, until Noel goes away to visit his brother for the summer and starts acting strange and distant. Ruby handles the situation with her typical Rubyness, which means plenty of humor with the occasional heartbreak.

The Good: Ruby Oliver was first introduced to the world in The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, Ruby Oliver). Ruby was fifteen, suffering from panic attacks, and had just started seeing a therapist. Her school was full of ex-boyfriends and ex-friends. I know, that sounds heavy, but The Boyfriend List was laugh out loud funny because of Ruby, and how she told the story, and her wide range of pop culture references. The Boyfriend List was also a very clear look at high school social politics, of friendships and frenemies and boys and boyfriends.

Next came The Boy Book (A Study of Habits and Behaviors, Plus Techniques for Taming Them). Ruby was now a junior and while less isolated and lonely than in The Boyfriend List, she is still sorting out the complicated emotional baggage ex-friendship brings. Ruby narrates, and part of the joy of each book is how the reader observes things Ruby doesn’t.

The Treasure Map of Boys: Noel, Jackson, Finn, Hutch–and me, Ruby Oliver continued Ruby’s junior year. Ruby (as the titles indicate) continued to be boy obsessed and continued to be sorting out her relationships with family, friends, and boys. Part of Ruby’s charm is her self-absorption,  and her growing awareness of being less self-centered and also of taking ownership of her actions and their consequences. Not in a “deal with the bad consequences” way, no; but in a “don’t pretend you drift through life and stuff just happens way.” I made the infinitely stupid comment in my review of the third book that Ruby’s story felt done.

Ha.

Which brings us to the fourth Ruby book, Real Live Boyfriends. Ruby is a senior and has a real! live! boyfriend! One thing I like about Ruby is how she projects and reacts to things and doesn’t always see the full picture. While the reader doesn’t know why Noel starts acting differently around Ruby — or, rather, stops acting in the way Ruby expects a real live boyfriend to act — the reader can see that some of what is going on is that Ruby has a clear vision in her head of what should be and what should not be. Which can be a bit tricky for those who aren’t in her head. Ruby has to work out two things: one, speaking up about what is happening insider her head and vocalizing her fears and disappointments instead of pretending everything is OK, as well as realizing that how she processes things and interacts with people is not the same way others process and interact and that is OK.

What really struck me with Real Live Boyfriends is how much I’d been taken in by Ruby’s boycraziness and loneliness and wanting friends that somehow I had stopped viewing Ruby’s panic attacks as something serious. This book really hit home that what this quartet of books is about is teens and mental health. This may be one of the few young adult novels out there that honestly addresses mental health issues in a way that is not message-driven and does not make the mental health issue the point of the book. Ruby’s panic attacks are part of who Ruby is, not the sole thing about Ruby.

As is obvious from the start of this, the Ruby books are best read in order. Not because of them being sequential and building on one another, which they are and do; but, rather, because combined they tell one story, of Ruby, as she matures and grows over the course of three years. It’s a true coming of age work and as I closed the book I wished that there was an award for best series, because the strength of some stories are not in their individual volumes but rather in the complete story. I don’t mean to say that the individual books aren’t strong — they are wonderful — but the true magic and genius of what Lockhart has done is revealed by looking at Ruby over the course of the entire series.

And now, for some quotes because I just adore Ruby’s voice:

Even though I know there is no such thing as a happy ending [7], a little part of me thought I had found one . . . . Even though having a real live boyfriend didn’t solve my mental problems or fix my family. Even though life wasn’t a movie. It still felt like a happy ending. It did. Until eight weeks later. [7 You can’t have an ending. It’s impossible. Because unlike in the movies, life goes on. You’re never at the end until you die.” I wasn’t sure how to replicate the footnotes, but wow, I love how Ruby views her life through movie lenses even as she knows that is foolish.

Which brings me to “but life is not a movie, as I continually forced to acknowledge.”

Me too, Ruby. Me too.