Review: The Little Woods

The Little Woods by McCormick Templeman. Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Cally Wood, sixteen, is a transfer student at the exclusive St. Bede’s Academy. She’s starting the middle of junior year.

Cally has a secret, one she doesn’t want her new friends to know. Ten years ago, her sister Clare disappeared. The loss devastated the family: her father died, her mother drinks, and Cally became “that girl,” the girl whose sister went missing. Cally doesn’t want to be “that girl.” Especially at St. Bede’s. Because it was at St. Bede’s that Clare went missing from her bed, the night of a terrible fire. Clare was visiting a friend, and both she and the other girl were never seen again. Everyone believes they died in that fire.

At St. Bede’s, Cally struggles to find her place among groups of friends that have already formed. It’s hard to be a new girl, especially one that has started mid-year. Along the way, she keeps hearing about Iris, a girl who ran away in the fall. The girl who used to sleep in her dorm room.

Cally suspects that Iris didn’t run away. There are campus rumors that Iris was murdered. As Cally realizes that the rumors may be true, she also begins to wonder — could what happened to Iris be connected to what happened to Clare?

It’s Good: I love mysteries. This is a great dual mystery (what happened to Iris? what happened to Clare?) as well as the additional question of whether these two disappearances are linked. St. Bede’s is physically remote; it also bans cell phones and has very limited Internet. In addition to putting certain limitations on how and when people discover information (for example, Cally can’t just do an Internet search on Iris or Clare or other things), it means The Little Woods is a variation of the country house mystery, where the physical location of a crime creates a very closed pool of suspects. An assumption that somehow Clare’s and Iris’s disappearances are linked closes that circle even more. For me, at least, that meant that The Little Woods became not so much a who-done-it but a why-did-they-do-it.

I love boarding school stories — love, love, love. One thing I like about Cally at Boarding School is she is such a slacker. She repeatedly shares how lazy she is. She tests well without studying much and likes it that way. Why, then, St. Bede’s? Bluntly, it’s an escape, more a running away than a running to something. Yes, Cally realizes that she it also means the chance to get into a better college, and perhaps find out more about Clare’s disappearance, but her primary motivation is that she’s not at home. This motivation (and lack of motivation about other things) explains why Cally seems to be such a slacker once she is actually at St. Bede’s. And it explains why she doesn’t hit St. Bede’s running, either as a student or as detective. Cally is not Veronica Mars at Boarding School.

That Cally is not Veronica Mars is part of the reason I really liked her. Yes, she’s smart. Yes, she’s curious about what happened to Iris. Yes, she wants to know what really happened to Clare, torn between believing Clare died in the fire or that something else happened. But she’s also trying to get along with her roommate, making friends, maybe even a boyfriend. Cally’s investigation doesn’t really begin until a body is found in the woods near the school (the “little woods of the title”)

I loved how Clare was her own person, with a combination of not caring what other people think and not thinking about other people. Part of it is being shy; part of it is not knowing the social codes at her new school.

Here’s what I mean: Cally’s first day of her new school. “I brushed my teeth, pulled on a black T-shirt and my shorts even thought I knew it was too cold for them. Somehow I’d already managed to lose my brush.” Or, here when a bunch of her friends are headed to the local town on a free Saturday: “It wasn’t exactly like I’d been excluded, but I hadn’t been invited either. Did everyone need an invitation, or was that just me? Was I socially reticent to the point of phobia? Would a different girl simply have invited herself along?

One last thing: while there is a whisper that the disappearances may have an “other” explanation — the book jacket reads, “unexplained disappearances. suspicious deaths. there’s something wrong with the woods behind St. Bede’s Academy” this is not a “the fairies did it” book. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but much as I enjoy a good mash-up, I like a mystery to be a mystery with the answer not to be fairies or ghosts or time loops. Usually (but not always) that is a short cut to a logical explanation.

Ok, now the really last thing. I loved the language in The Little Woods. The writing just, well, made me happy. Funny and observant and smart. A bit selfish, because she is sixteen. “I didn’t have tons of experience with team sports. I enjoyed watching them on TV with [my cousin] Danny, and i wasn’t exactly bad at them, but my phenomenal laziness had prevented me from excelling at any.” “The awful thing was that despite the genuine horror in the auditorium that morning, an overwhelming atmosphere of excitement accompanied it. A few girls started crying, but it was immediately clear that they were not supposed to, and they worked to staunch the flow. There was danger in unrestrained outbursts of emotion.”

Bottom line? It’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews and interviews: Attack the Stacks; Interviews: With Camille DeAngelis; With Nova Ren Suma.


Review: My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. Abrams Comic Arts. 2012. Personal copy. Graphic Novel. Alex Award Winner.

It’s About: A graphic novel memoir by Derf Backderf, a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer. This is not the story of a serial killer; it is a look at the childhood and teen years of Jeffrey Dahmer, before his first murder. (Note: nothing graphic is shown in My Friend Dahmer.)

What was Dahmer like, then? Were there signs of the serial killer he would become? And if there were, why did no one do anything?

The Good: Of course, I had heard of My Friend Dahmer. Read the reviews. And, as some of you who follow me on my Twitter feed know, I watch TV shows about real and fictitious serial killers. And yet — despite the Alex Award — I was still hesitant.

Then I heard Backderf speak at ALA (both at the YALSA Coffee Klatch and the Alex Awards program) and I changed my mind.

My Friend Dahmer is about Jeffrey Dahmer, and Backderf didn’t rely solely on his memories in writing this. He also did extensive research, showing the reader more about Dahmer than what the teen Backderf knew or suspected. (This is part of what intrigued me: the extensive research for the book).

But, My Friend Dahmer is also about a time and a place, the late seventies, that is a different world than the world that today’s teens would know. The fathers went to work, the mothers stayed home. A combination of baby boomer teens and the seventies recession meant overcrowded schools. While I’m a good eight or so years younger than Backderf and his classmates, there was still something so familiar about the setting and time he describes, down to schools having designated smoking areas for both students and teachers. And that also made me quite interested in My Friend Dahmer.

Teenage Dahmer “was the loneliest kid I’d ever met,” Backderf explains. Backderf proceeds to be brutally honest about himself and his friends, in a way that time allows. Backderf has real friends (Neil, Kent, Mike) and together they are fascinated by the eccentricities of Dahmer. Dahmer is a loner but he also does strange things: he “threw fake epileptic fits and mimicked the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy.” Backderf and his friends are amused by this (at one point Backderf also observes they were bored in the suburbs with little to do).

Later on, Dahmer also comes to school drunk and drinks continuously at school.

Do Backderf and his friends say anything? No; they had no idea that Dahmer was already being haunted by dark sadistic fantasies. (The author is clear that for any pity he feels for Jeff, that ended with the first murder.) Because of Backderf’s research, the reader (and the adult Backderf) knows what is going on in Dahmer’s head. It’s a bit jarring, the contrast between watching Dahmer lay in wait to kill someone and then being in the classroom with his friends who think he’s just being different.

Backderf’s defense, and it’s a good one, is that they were typical teenagers and self-absorbed and had no idea. Actually, it’s more than a defense: it’s a clear eyed look at how teens thought, how he as a teen thought. I appreciated that he neither downplayed nor exaggerated the time period. (Note to people writing memoirs or stories told about their teen years: yes, sometimes time must pass to be truly honest about that time period.) But where were the adults? Why did his antics go uncommented on at school? How did he get away with being drunk for about two years of school? I wondered — what could be excused by the time period, and what by adults ignoring the obvious because it’s easier?

Other reviews: Wrapped Up In Books; The Hub Interview with Derf Backderf; Bookshelves of Doom.

Review: Jersey Angel

Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Guest post about this book at this blog by Beth Ann Bauman.

The Plot: It’s the summer before Angel Cassonetti’s senior year of high school. “Summer has begun, and I am filled with hope.

Angel just wants to have fun: spending time with her friends at her home on the Jersey Shore, going to parties, working part time at her father’s business, taking care of her younger half-siblings.

The problem is it seems that those around her are wanting, well, more. Joey, her on and off again boyfriend, refuses to continue the drama of breaking up and making up and says “no” when she wants to start things up again. Inggy, her best friend, who is also good at school and from a family with more money, is already full of college plans.

Inggy’s boyfriend, Cork, is always around. If Angel doesn’t mean to hurt Inggy, and if Inggy never finds out, it’s OK, right?

The Good: Trying to figure out the synopsis was tough, because Jersey Angel is not a very plot driven book. It’s pure character driven, by one of the more remarkable girls I’ve met in a young adult.

As pointed out in Bauman’s guest post, “Here was a rebel girl, one who unapologetically likes sex, doesn’t want to be tied down, and knows college isn’t for her.

Angel likes sex, and Angel doesn’t connect sex to love. At one point, her mother tells her, “There’s love, Angel, and there’s sex. And there’s a whole lot more sex than love.” And this pretty much is Angel’s own code.

The problem is — and yes, I use the word “problem” deliberately — are the boys. First, Joey. Why does Angel keep breaking up with him? “It’s true: Joey and I break up a lot. I guess I like my freedom too much, but for me it’s always only a time-out so I can feel like I’m back in my life with all the possibilities. I like possibilities. But after a time-out, I’m always ready to come back.” Joey isn’t ready, though, and wants more from Angel than she’s ready to give.

So Joey begins seeing someone else, and Angel enjoys her possibilities. Some of those boys are unattached, like Angel. So, still not a problem. One of those boys is not: Cork. Her best friend’s boyfriend. And this is one reason I really like Jersey Angel: it’s up to the reader to understand just why Angel does this. Angel is not very self-reflective; she wants those possibilities. She’s also always optimistic, or, as Joey says about her, “you’re waiting for a bus and you’re sure it will come.

This means that the reader sees what Angel does not: that Angel loves Inggy, that Inggy is Angel’s best friend, Angel doesn’t want to lose her to college, yet Angel is also jealous, and competitive, and conflicted about all those feelings. The result? Sleeping with Cork both connects Angel and Inggy, and lets Angel take something from Inggy. Without Inggy ever realizing it. Without, really, Angel realizing why she is doing what she’s doing. She just thinks, well, that she and Cork are having fun. To the extent she thinks about Inggy, she thinks — well. She won’t find out till we’re old. She’ll understand. It won’t matter.

And here is another reason I love Jersey Angel: this is always firmly Angel’s story, so it really only matters what this means, or doesn’t mean, to Angel. When I got to the end, I thought, anyone else would have made this Inggy’s story: a story about a girl with dreams, leaving her shore town behind, having bigger ambitions than those around her, balancing wanting to stay with wanting to leave. Her boyfriend’s and best friend’s betrayal would become known, and would be a catalyst for Inggy to move towards her future.

This is not Inggy’s story.

Instead, it’s Angel’s. Angel, who isn’t overly ambitious, to be honest, and doesn’t come from ambition. Her mother, through luck and family ties, owns three houses by the shore and rents out two to cover their bills. (For the record? This isn’t that uncommon. Local families with long roots in these shore towns have houses in the families for generations, rent them out, and live in towns they wouldn’t afford to be in otherwise. Sometimes they don’t own multiple homes; rather, summer comes and the family moves into the garage apartment while the big house is rented out.) Her father runs the family-owned marina.

What does Angel want to do after graduation? Not to be too spoilery here, but part of what is great about Jersey Angel is it’s not that type of book. Angel isn’t inspired to do what Inggy does and buckle down to her studies. Angel doesn’t suddenly realize she wants to be a doctor or teacher or actress. Angel doesn’t suddenly realize she’s in love with this boy or that. It’s more Angel sorting out, a bit, her feelings and what she wants, while staying true to herself — that girl who always believes the bus is coming.

I think part of the reason I adore Angel is that I’m the sort who doesn’t believe the bus will come until it’s right in front of me, and I’ve asked the driver twice if it is indeed the bus I want.

A more personal reason I like Jersey Angel? Because, while different names and geography is used, this Jersey Shore is clearly “my” Jersey Shore, and seems to me a mix of various Ocean County shore towns. I mean, bennies! And Zeppoles! and slices!

Other reviews: The New York Times; Reading RantsBibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf; Uniquely Moi Books.

Review: Aristotle and Dante

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR. 2012. Copy from library. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Summer, 1987. Angel Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is fifteen, and it’s the start of another lonely, hot summer in El Paso. Bored, he goes to the local swimming even though he can’t swim.

“I can teach you how to swim.”

With those words, Ari meets Dante Quintana, also fifteen. And makes a friend. In some ways they are opposites — Ari is quiet, Dante talkative and confident. But they make each other laugh.

Through ups and downs, good times and bad, even long distance, their friendship endures and grows. Ari still feels alone, though; and when Dante tells Ari that Dante prefers kissing boys, Ari isn’t sure what to do. Or how he feels. Or what he wants.

The Good: Another terrific selection by this year’s Printz committee!

Ari tells the story, and oh, Ari is so — alone. He has such barriers up. Why? He has parents who love him, yes, but his father, a Vietnam Vet, is not a talker and Ari craves communication. Perhaps that explains part of the reason he likes Dante, because Dante and his family are talkers and huggers.

Ari’s family holds secrets, secrets that are danced around. His father’s nightmares from Vietnam. Ari’s older brother, now in prison, whose name and crime are never mentioned. Other secrets are ones that Ari doesn’t even guess at, but the secrecy colors his life and is part of the reason Ari isolates himself.

Aristotle and Dante is not just about the friendship between young men; it’s also about family. And love. And acceptance. And connections. And good people trying to do the right thing. And it’s the power of meeting someone, and being known, and kissing, and holding hands.

I also loved the diversity in Aristotle and Dante; both boys are second or third generation Mexican American. Dante talks about not being as Mexican as Ari, because Dante’s skin isn’t as dark. Mentions are made about the amount of Spanish that is (or isn’t) spoken at home, food that is eaten. Dante is the only child of a college professor and a psychologist; Ari’s parents are a high school teacher and mailman, and Ari is the youngest of four with several nieces and nephews. So there is diversity in terms of the main characters being Mexican American, but also in terms of what being a “Mexican American” means.

Dante likes boys; this is shown gradually, over the course of the book, as Dante himself comes to realize it. I don’t want to get spoilery here, but — well, here’s the thing. Sometimes, I watch movies with my mother and she turns to me and she asks, “I don’t want to know how it happens, but will this have a good ending? Will it be OK for that character?” And so I won’t tell the details, and I won’t say it’s easy, but I’ll say — it’ll be OK for Ari. It’ll be OK for Dante. It’ll be more than OK. And when I cried at the end of this book, it was in part happy tears.

The secondary characters are also so fully drawn that even when they are on the page for only a short time, I feel like I know them. That they are as real as Ari and Dante; but of course, it is Ari and Dante, and especially Ari, that is known best. And oh, the quotes! Because this is Ari’s story, all are him talking. “But love was something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.” “When do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?” “Maybe I wanted too much.” How could I not love Ari?

One last thing. As the story of Ari’s older brother was gradually revealed, as well as the depth of the impact of his crime and loss on the family, I had some “well what about thoughts” about Bernardo. In book print in my reading journal, I have “BUT WHAT ABOUT BERNARDO??” written down. I sternly told myself, this is Ari’s story, don’t be so demanding as a reader. And then — and then — what Aristotle and Dante delivered to me. It was perfect.

The combination of language; Ari; Ari’s beautiful family; Dante; and the warmth and goodness and compassion, even in the presence of hate; for all of these, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Teach Mentor Texts; Librarian of Snark; SLJ author interview.

Review: The White Bicycle

The White Bicycle by Beverley Brenna. Red Deer Press. 2012. Printz Honor Book. Library copy.

The Plot: Taylor Jane Simon, 19, is in France for her summer job, being a personal care assistant for her friend Luke Phoenix’s younger brother, Martin Phoenix.

Unfortunately, Taylor Jane’s mother has tagged along. It only makes sense; Penny Simon’s mother just passed away, leaving some money, so why not spend it on traveling? All the better because Penny is dating Alan Phoenix, father to Luke Phoenix and Martin Phoenix.

A summer job in France is something anyone would want! For Taylor Jane, though, it means even more. It means the chance to add something to her resume, to make more money than she would in her part time job at the bookstore, to possibly get a better job, which means independence.

Independence is what any 19 year old wants, right? And isn’t her mother’s coming along on Taylor Jane’s trip evidence enough that her mother is too involved?

The White Bicycle is the third and final book about Taylor Jane Simon, a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome.

The Good: First things first: while The White Bicycle is part of a trilogy, you do not have to read the other two books in order to read and enjoy and understand this book. The proof of that statement is that I have never read the other two books, and I simply adored The White Bicycle.

As I’ve said in the past, much as I like reading a book before it gets an Award nod, I also like being able to read something new after it has that recognition. Here, to be able to read The White Bicycle asking “why a Printz Honor.” I suspected, going in, that part of it would be because the narrator, Taylor Jane, has Asperger’s Syndrome and that her way of telling the story would be unique and fresh. I was right; but Taylor Jane’s voice was so much more than that. It was funny; it was insightful; it revealed a different way of looking at the world; and it was full of yearning.

Here, from the first few pages. Taylor Jane has just recounted a dream about going someplace on a white bicycle, and it’s pretty symbolic of independence and life. She muses, “I do not know whether this is really a dream or a nightmare. My mother would say it is a nightmare because it has unhappy parts in it; but so does life, and life is closer to dreams than nightmares.”

Taylor Jane explain what being an adult is and is not: “I used to be waiting for boyfriends but now I know that I don’t need a boyfriend to be an adult. Then I waited for a job, but now I now that just having a job doesn’t make you independent.” This, then, is the second great thing about The White Bicycle: exploring what it means to be an adult and to be independent, and doing so without it being tied to a “thing” such as dating or a job or even knowing what one wants to do with the rest of one’s life.

The third thing that made me sit up and go, “yes,” was the way the story was told. You all may realize by now I love when stories aren’t linear in fashion. Taylor Jane is writing this all down, and yes, it’s about her summer in France, but she also shares various memories of her childhood. Several of them are from the time before she received a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome; which means it includes the years at school when Taylor Jane was seen by teachers as stupid or spoiled or a trouble maker. It’s insightful, to see her point of view for what caused meltdowns or other instances. It was also heartbreaking, because I recognized what her mother had to be going through in those years without an answer and only blame. Even if Taylor Jane doesn’t realize it, it’s easy for the reader to see just why her mother is now over protective. It’s also to see that her mother is not without reasons to still be involved in her daughter’s life. The trip to France has multiple plane changes and a few issues (missed connection, lost luggage) and I’m honestly not sure how Taylor Jane would have navigated them alone.

A final reason to love The White Bicycle: it shows how a mother’s over involvement can damage a relationship. Taylor Jane grows increasingly resentful over her mother telling her what to do and not do. At the same time, she misses the things she and her mother used to do together for fun, such as watching movies.

Oh, I said a final but there are many more reasons — such as the Phoenix family and their love, understanding, and acceptance of Taylor Jane. The setting of the south of France, and I want to go to there right this minute! The instances were people other than Taylor Jane are shown to have trouble with change: her mother’s concerns about driving in France, Luke Phoenix and his place in the family. So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2013.  Thank you, Printz Committee!

Other reviews: The Horn Book; Booklist; Bibliophile; Story Carnivores; Author Interview at By Word of Beth;



Review: In Darkness

In Darkness by Nick Lake. Bloomsbury. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: A young man is trapped in darkness: one minute he is in his hospital bed, the next the building is rubble around him and he is alive but there is no way out. He will tell you a story, his story, of how he came to this place, of the people he killed, of the things he’s done. Call him Shorty; it’s not his name, but it’s what his friends call him.

Shorty struggles, to find a way out, to not succumb to thirst or hunger or fear.

That is “now.” There is also “then,” the stories about another man of Haiti: not a young teen, not lost boy, but, instead, a grown man named Toussaint l’Ouverture, the slave who will free Haiti in the late eighteenth century.

The stories flip back and forth, between a teen surviving in modern-day Haiti and the man who led the Haitian Revolution.

The Good: Much as I love being able to cheer about a well-loved book getting recognized by the Printz Committee, I also love being able to read a book thinking, why this one? Why did the Printz Committee give this book an Award or an Honor?

In Darkness was awarded a Printz Award; and one of the first reasons I can see for this happening? The multiple meanings “In Darkness” has. Shorty is in literal darkness, trapped following the 2010 earthquake, but he is also trapped in the darkness of his life: the gangs, the violence, the lost friends and family, the death, the poverty. Likewise, Toussaint will face his own challenges, his own darkness, in his time, as he leads his country to freedom.

The structure of In Darkness is also terrific. There is the alternating between Shorty’s story Now and Toussaint’s Then, telling two stories at once. Not only are there sometimes parallels between the two; Lake makes a bold decision to have the two be aware of each other. Something happens (more on that below) and both are half-aware of the other. Toussaint, seeing the future, doesn’t understand all he sees but latches onto one thing: black men and women are free.

The language: Shorty’s and Toussaint’s stories are told differently, with the language indicating their different time periods, their knowledege, their worlds.

While “learning new things” is not a reason for a book to get a Printz nod, it is a reason for me to like a book. Here, I learned much more than I knew before about the history of Haiti, as well as Haiti today. It is clear that Shorty’s story is being told from his own, unique perspective and his own loyalties.

“Something happens”: part of what is explored in Haiti is vodou and the role of vodou in history and culture. I liked how vodou was treated not as some type of supernatural/magical/mystical force, but as a religion. As a religion, some people believe and others are skeptical.

Other reviews: The Happy Nappy Bookseller; The New York Times; Charlotte’s Library.

Review: The Butterfly Clues

The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison. Egmont USA. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: In the year following the death of her brother, Oren, Penelope “Lo” Marin has been looking, searching, for something. She explores far from home, taking buses, going farther and farther away from her safe home and school. “Safe” — safe only in that her mother is a shadow of herself, since Oren died, and her father never comes home from work, and friends, what are they? Lo wouldn’t know. Lo is searching . . .

What Lo finds is a murder. Sapphire, nineteen year old stripper, has been killed, and Lo is drawn to the girl, to finding out who killed her, and she cannot explain why or stop. Just like she cannot stop knocking a certain number of times before entering a room, or having numbers that are good or bad, or collecting / taking items that then need to be set up just so in her room. Sapphire, a girl Lo has never met, is dead, and Lo cannot let it go.

A butterfly charm owned by Sapphire, a street artist named Flynt who may or may not know Sapphire, clues upon clues, as Lo finds out more about Sapphire, her brother, and herself.

The Good: I adore mysteries. Just adore them. The challenge faced by most YA writers is, how to get the teen into the mystery? Especially a murder mystery?

Lo is wandering around Cleveland when shots are fired. She runs, discovering later that she has overheard the murder of Sapphire. This, then, is what starts her obsession with finding out more about Sapphire, finding out who killed her.

Lo is alone and lonely, with several barriers set up between her and her classmates: her father’s job means the family moved frequently; Oren’s death; and Lo’s own obsessive-compulsiveness. I hesitate to label Lo, when The Butterfly Clues is very careful to not use any labels. Certain numbers are good, others are not; Lo has to rap or knock certain sequences when nervous, or when entering a room or a car; she is compelled to take (yes, steal) certain items and collects many things. Her collections have to be in certain numbers, and certain groups, and certain sequences, and those requirements may change. Lo has no choice in doing these things. The Butterfly Clues is a bit vague as to whether Lo’s parents realize the extent of Lo’s compulsions. Her mother is in a fog since Oren’s death; her father seems to believe that Lo can just stop; therapists are mentioned, but did Lo go to them because of Oren’s death or her own problems?

What I love about The Butterfly Clues is that it is not about obsessive- compulsive disorder; it’s about a girl who happens to have it, and whose brother died, and who is now investigating a murder. Her OCD may be part of why she cannot quit the investigation, true; it may be why she pushes herself into risky situations, such as applying for a job at the strip-club where Sapphire worked; but it’s a part of Lo who she is, always, not something to be “fixed” and not the point of the story. At the same time, it is entirely the point of the story because most other people would not have taken the risks Lo ends up taking.

Other great things about The Butterfly Clues: the setting, Cleveland, including both the suburb Lo lives in as well as the gritty city she explores. Lo’s complicated family, from her distraught mother to her brother’s problems to their constant moving. Her deep sense of loss and guilt from Oren’s death. That Lo’s OCD is presented so matter-of-factly, a part of her. The group of artists that Lo meets, including Flynt, who she is both attracted to and afraid of, because what will he think about her compulsions? And what is his connection to Sapphire?

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Someday My Printz Will Come; Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Review: Come See About Me

Come See About Me by C.K. Kelly Martin. Smashwords. 2012.

The Plot: Leah’s boyfriend, Bastien, is dead. Since the police knocked on their apartment door, telling her about the accident, Leah has barely been able to function. University classes, her part time job, her friends, all fall by the wayside as she tries to live with her loss.

Bastien’s Aunt Abigail, a widow, understands Leah’s all consuming grief and offers Leah a retreat: to live rent-free in a house she owns. It offers Leah a type of vacation, a break from having to think about anything other than herself and her hamster — and what she’s lost.

Leah, who still hears Bastien’s voice in her head even though it’s been months since his death, is shocked and surprised when she finds herself physically attracted to and wanting someone new, a young man named Liam. Liam, like Leah, is taking a vacation from his “real life”. Neither is looking for a “relationship” but both need companionship.

The Good: Leah’s grief over her loss is intense; so intense that even though Come See About Me starts months after Bastien’s death, it is still as fresh and raw as if it was that day, that hour, that she found out Bastien, her first love, her first lover, was dead. I confess, I was relieved about when Come See About Me started; it would have been too much, I think, to experience Leah’s loss in anything other than flashback.

Bastien is dead and Leah can barely function or concentrate. The offer of Aunt Abigail’s unused house is an escape from Leah having to make decisions about her future or to return home; it’s an oasis, allowing her Leah to just be. Little is required of her except taking care of herself, keeping the house in good enough order so if Abigail visits she is not overly concerned, and taking care of her hamster, Armstrong. Leah is lucky to have a rent-free place, and watches her bank account, wondering what to do.

Come See About Me is not so much about Leah getting over or past Bastien’s death, but about Leah trying to figure out a new life without him, without being part of a couple. Her steps into a Bastienless future are small, but significant because of how long it takes her to get there: friendship with neighbors, a part-time job.

And Liam. Liam begins as just a young man Leah sees around the town of Oakville. And then, one night — not love. Leah looks at Liam and wants him: physically wants. The jolt of desire, desire not for love but to be touched and touch, rocks her. Like Leah, Liam is in Oakville to escaping his past; like Leah, he is looking for nothing more than a connection without commitment.

Leah isn’t looking for love; she’s looking for sex. Bastien was her first and only lover, and Leah’s wanting Liam shocks her in its intensity. The words used to describe her interactions with Bastien are blunt and matter of fact, just as her wanting him is blunt. Leah has shut herself away from life and people, yes, and it’s her body that first reaches out to another and is ready for another, before she can emotionally or mentally acknowledge her need for another.

Other things I liked about Come See About Me:

The setting, Oakville. It’s as important to Come See About Me as any character or event; by the end of the book, I knew its lakes and pubs and stores. When I went to the book website, I found that Oakville is an actual place outside of Toronto! Part of me wants to go visit, to see the places Leah saw.

The casual diversity throughout the book. Bastien is black; Leah’s best friend is Korean-Canadian. The older couple next door are lesbians (amusingly, Leah doesn’t at first realize their relationship).

The writing: “the future felt both distance and so certain that it didn’t seem to require any consideration.”

The author writes about how Come See About Me is New Adult in a terrific post explaining the background of the novel, the decision not to make Leah either a teen or a thirty-something. (If New Adult is new to you, check out my posts on New Adult).

Other Reviews: Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Stacked; Early Nerd Special; Book Overdose.


Review: Girl of Nightmares

Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake. Tor Teen. 2012. Sequel to Anna Dressed in Blood. Reviewed from library copy.

The Plot: Months ago, the ghost Anna Korlov sacrificed herself to save Cas Lowood. His friends and family tell him: she’s gone. Gone wherever it is that ghosts go. Cas wants to believe them, except he keeps seeing her ghost; and she’s in pain.

Cas doesn’t care what his friends and family say. He’s going to find a way to save Anna, to bring her back, no matter what the cost.

The Good: Cas’s mission to hunt and kill dangerous ghosts, like his father before him, is explained in Anna Dressed in Blood, as is how he meets Anna Dressed in Blood, a dangerous ghost. How Anna is both a dangerous murderous ghost and the girl of Cas’s dreams and the ghost who saves him is explained in Anna Dressed in Blood.

Cas’s friends, Carmel and Thomas, want to be supportive of Cas. Problem is, the girl Cas is in love with is a ghost and that ghost is gone wherever it is ghosts go. Thomas is a psychic, from a family of psychics, so in a way he has no choice but to go along with ghost hunting Cas. That said, his grandfather is one of the many warning Cas to leave Anna be. Carmel, on the other hand, is neither psychic nor ghost-hunter, and is there because they are her friends. It’s a bit much to ask, of friends, to not just put themselves in danger hunting dangerous ghosts but also to try to bring back one of the most dangerous ghosts — Anna.

Cas kills ghosts using his athame, a special type of knife. In pushing his mentor, Gideon, for answers, Cas discovers his athame, and ghost-hunting is more involved than he thought. Has a deeper history than he thought.

Girl of Nightmares wraps up the story of Anna Dressed in Blood, while introducing a broader world, including chilling Order of the Biodag Dubh. There is action, adventure, supernatural aplenty, but it’s also an examination of choice. Cas, Thomas, and Carmel, Gideon, even Anna, all have choices to make, and, needless to say, they aren’t easy choices. What is the right thing to do?

Anna Dressed in Blood was about finding and not killing a ghost; Girl of Nightmares is once again about finding a ghost, only this time, it’s not so simple as finding a haunted place. Once again, Cas has to fight the supernatural; he also has to rely on both Carmel and Thomas. He can’t do it alone, no matter how much he thinks he can.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Chasing Ray, for her Bookslut column; Bookshelves of Doom at Kirkus.

Review: Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye. Penguin Books. 2012. Personal copy. Vacation reads, a series of adult books reviewed before holidays for your vacation reading.

The Plot: Christian has returned home, returned from the United States to Germany, to a place that is no longer the dark, small town he remembers but instead is a place of vacation homes and brightness. Retired, away from Germany for decades, he returns after the death of his mother.

He sees friends from his past: Martin, Alex, Linde. Their past holds secrets, the types of secrets that people in small towns know about but do not talk about. “Our secrets in Hemmersmoor were always open and always kept safe.”

An old man has returned to his childhood home. Come, let him and his friends tell you their secrets.

Be warned: these secrets are dark.

The Good: I’m not sure what I thought Your House is on Fire was going to be; oh, I knew it was about secrets, about what had happened to these adults as children, I expected twists and turns and  to be scared and horrified.

Still, knowing all this, I didn’t expect — I couldn’t know —

Christian says at the beginning, “I have returned, but not to the village I once left. That village doesn’t exist anymore, survives in only my memories and dreams.” I was thinking something like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story or Stephen King’s IT would follow. Both of those books are lighthearted romps with puppies and unicorns in sunny fields of rainbows and daisies compared to Your House is on Fire. I thought this was going to be creepy; it is, but it so redefines creepy that I’ll be frugal about how I use that word in the future.

I began, thinking ah, Christian is the main character because he begins the story. He lets us know hints of some of the secrets that will come (Alex’s time in jail, Linde’s scarred face, deaths in Christian’s family). After the prologue, though, there are a series of small chapters, each with a different narrator (Martin, Christian, Linde, Anke) telling a different story of themselves and their town, starting with when the children are seven. “Time is of no importance,” the reader is told — and Your House is on Fire tells us how true that can be.

Kiesbye never gives the reader a year, but he gives clues. The talk of two Germanys, of wars, of televisions and trainers in the present, let the reader know that this story is taking place after World War II, with these children born in the end days of that War. Lurking unsaid over this tale of tangled secrets, dark desires, darker actions is the bigger secret, unspoken but known, of the town’s role in that war and what lies behind the town.

The first story, told by Martin, is the story that let me know I’d fallen into a rabbit hole, had no idea what was up or what was down or what would happen next. Martin, only seven, is telling about the town’s fall Thanksgiving festival and the yearly contest for best stew, best roast, best baked goods. I settle in, and get what I expect in Martin’s story told from seven year sensibilities and then — wait, what? What just happened? No, it couldn’t, it didn’t go there — And Martin, almost innocently, always matter of factly, continues on almost as if he didn’t share watching a horrible crime.

This is a horror story, make no doubt about it. Is it a supernatural one? I think not, even though there are references to ghosts and witches, to folk lore believed as truth, to curses. It can be read as a place where belief makes old wives tales real; or it can be read, as I do, with ghosts and witches being used to try to understand a confusing world where a prior generations actions and inactions, no matter how much kept secret, tangle up the lives of the village’s residents and even children cannot escape.

The sins of the parents, though, is too easy an answer for what happens in Your House is on Fire. Christian, Martin, and the others have free will, after all — and what is most surprising to me is how long they disassociate themselves from their own actions. Perhaps this is also merely a reflection of the war years and the aftermath, the ability to not take ownership.

Have I been clear enough that I adored and loved this Your House is on Fire? I did; it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013; and I want others to read it. I love what is said and unsaid; I love the language. I love the hints that this is fairy tales made real, that this is history, that this is a Twilight Zone town made real. I love that it’s a story tightly told without any extra words. I loved the unflinching look, almost without judgment, at the darkness in people. I love how much is left up to the reader. I love how unsettling it was. Word of warning — if you need to “like” characters to read a book, then this is not for you. 

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Author Interview at CarolineLeavittville; Jenn’s Bookshelves.