Review: Relish

Relish: My Life In The Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Relish is a memoir/coming of age book about food and cooking, told in a graphic novel format.

The Good: It’s a memoir. And coming of age book. About food. And cooking. In a graphic novel format. What else do you need to know about how great it is?

Knisley starts with childhood memories, and Relish takes her all the way after college, and the focus, of course, is food. And it’s all kinds of food, from creme brulee to oysters to foie gras to boxed macaroni and cheese, frozen dough croissants and fast food burgers and fries.

Recipes and remembrances of food are woven through Knisley’s story: of being a city kid in Manhattan, until her parents divorce and she moves with her mother to the country. Knisley is at first a reluctant country girl, but eventually grows to appreciate her new home — especially the new, fresh food. Significant trips and vacations, choices for school, what art means to her — all of these are part of Relish, which is much about relishing life as it is about relishing food.

Be warned: Relish will make you hungry! There are recipes and food advice (such as why not use the store bought croissants in a tube?), plus just tons of talk about fresh vegetables and eggs from chickens and croissants and cheese….

Relish will also make you laugh. Knisley has a great way with words: “my parents moved to New York City in the late seventies, where they lived the kind of Manhattan life that has since migrated to Brooklyn.” And, of course, a great way with pictures. I loved the panel where a frustrated and angry young Lucy tries to hail a cab to take her back to Manhattan — as her mother doubles over in laughter, because of course there are no cabs to be had.

The illustrations also make the recipes friendlier — at least to someone like me. Never more than a couple of pages long, the recipes from Spice Tea to Pasta Carbonara seem to be something even I could make because, hello, pictures!

I think perhaps one of my favorite sections is the part about Knisley and her mother raising chickens. Because I know a thing or two about chickens and what they are really like and all the eggs and the animals that eat them. That aren’t us.

Because while food is obviously important to Knisley, it’s clear that it’s part of her life, not her Life. Because Relish made me hungry and made me laugh. Because I just want to hang out with Knisley, and ask her what cheese goes best with Fig Balsamic Vinegar. Because I want to pick up copies to give to everyone. Because Relish shows the depth of graphic novels. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Reading Rants

 

Review: The Opposite of Hallelujah

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab. Delacorte Books for Younger Readers, Random House. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Caro Mitchell’s older sister, Hannah, left home eight years ago, when Caro was eight. Hannah was nineteen; it’s not unusual for kids to have older sisters go off for college or to make their way in the world. So why has Caro, at best, pretended to be an only child? Or, at worst (like four years ago, when she was twelve), say her sister was dead? Because Hannah didn’t do what most older siblings do: leave home to live her life in a way people would understand. Hannah joined the Sisters of Grace convent, a contemplative order where the only direct contact members have with family is a half-hour meeting via an iron grill. How do you explain that to your friends? Luckily, Caro doesn’t. Hannah is far away.

Until the phone call comes. Hannah is leaving the order; Hannah is coming home. Caro isn’t happy about it. She barely remembers Hannah. Caro reacts poorly to Hannah’s return, and ends up creating trouble with her friends and boyfriend. Neither Hannah nor their parents are dealing with Hannah’s return much better. Caro realizes that she needs to understand — to understand both why Hannah left the convent and why Hannah joined the convent in the first place. These are questions that Hannah and their parents don’t want to think about, so Caro is left on her own to try to sort out what happened.

The Good: I adored Jarzab’s first book, All Unquiet Things. In my review, I called it “pure brilliance.” I was so excited to hear about Jarzab’s second book, The Opposite of Hallelujah, but I was afraid, also. A second book can be like a second date: what if the guy isn’t that funny, cute, or smart after all? I almost didn’t want to request a copy from NetGalley. Wowza, I am so, so glad I did!

Caro’s life seems almost perfect: good friends, a cute boyfriend, doting parents and then Hannah comes back and ruins it all. Caro and Hannah barely know each other; not only was Hannah in the contemplative community, Caro refused to go for the half-hour visits for the past few years. I’ll be honest: at times I thought Caro was being a spoiled brat about Hannah, and lacking in any type of empathy about Hannah’s homecoming. When I reread my review for All Unquiet Things, I saw this: “Jarzab does something that is quite daring for a book: she makes characters unlikable.  . . . [I]t is because they each are at times unlikeable that the book is so strong. They are not perfect; they are human; they have failings.” That, in a nutshell, describes the two Mitchell sisters and it is why this book is so wonderful. Caro and Hannah are painfully honest in their reactions to situations, and sometimes, what people do is less than perfect.

While there is a bit of a mystery here (why Hannah entered not just a convent, but a contemplative convent) this is more a story of family, and a coming of age, as Hannah’s return forces Caro to grow up. Or, rather, it forces her to think outself her narrow world of only daughter. One minute Caro’s practically an only child; the next, there is someone else in her house, someone with her own history and memories with the family that have nothing to do with Caro. It’s not just that Hannah is her sister who has returned; it’s that Hannah is eleven years older, so there is eleven years that had nothing to do with Caro. As Caro admits, “I’d never liked being reminded that my family had once existed quite happily without me in it.” That may be ugly, but it’s honest and raw and honesty is what I want in my books. The beatuy of The Opposite of  Hallelujah is how Caro moves beyond that initial response.

I have to say, I am usually hesitant about books that deal with religious themes. I’m picky; I don’t want a religious tract pretending to be fiction, but I also don’t want a book where religion is not something smart people do because, well, smart people are too smart for religion. Those are extremes, yes, but as I said — I get leery.

The Opposite of Hallelujah treatment of religion, belief, and religious people is almost perfect. Hannah’s reasons for joining, and leaving, are treated with respect and sympathy; the complexity of religious life is shown.

Just as wonderful as the sensitivity with which The Opposite of Hallelujah treats the subject matter is the language. I know I’ve made this sound intense — religious convents and returned sisters, families and secrets and ugly feelings — but it’s also funny and insightful. Here is Caro, on an ex (and haven’t we all felt this way?): “It was amazing how differently you saw some people once the fog of flattery and attention had burned away.” Caro has good friends; there is an interesting love interest; and the full story of Hannah broke my heart. This, at the end, is why I adored this book: “The past doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t have to define your future.”

For all these reasons, The Opposite of Hallelujah is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: YA? Why Not?

Review: Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield. Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Group USA. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: The night of graduation, Rebecca’s boyfriend James breaks up with her. It’s a preemptive move; Rebecca, school salutatorian, is headed off to college when summer is over. James, drop out, is staying behind in their small town.

The next day, not far from the field where James told Rebecca it’s over, a body of a young woman is found.

No one knows it yet, but it’s Amelia Anne Richardson.

Two stories are entwined: that of Rebecca’s summer after high school. She is desperate to leave behind her small town and their small minds, yet doesn’t want to lose James. Amelia’s story is that of the months before her body is found: a college senior just discovering a whole new world, a world she cannot wait to enter.

Amelia’s story ends one way. How will Rebecca’s story end?

The Good: Dual stories! Love it. “The night before Amelia Anne Richardson bled her life away on a parched dirt road outside of town, I bled out my dignity in the back of a pickup truck under a star-pricked sky.”

Rebecca is a girl trapped in her small town, who has always been crystal clear about what she wants: to leave. “Trapped” is a strong word: it’s the town where her parents live, no more or less, and they are supportive of her dreams for college. There is no pressure from them to stay or to return. When I first began reading, I wasn’t sure what to make of James; it’s the night of graduation and James breaks up with her right after they have sex. Already, in my head, I painted a picture of James as mean, or cruel, or abusive; and Rebecca as dating a local boy just “for now,” with hurt feelings and pride, no more, no less.

I was wrong. Rebecca loves James; he loves her. The break up was more a declaration, by James, that he knows she is going to be leaving him behind come Fall and become that guy, that high school boyfriend left behind in the rear view mirror. Rebecca isn’t stupid; she realizes that, also, and it’s colored some of her interactions with James in the past year. She wants to go; she doesn’t want to lose James. He doesn’t want to hold her back; he doesn’t want to lose her. For various reasons, he is stuck in the town with no choice about his future. The knowledge this is the last summer haunts every moment together or apart, as, too, does the dead girl haunt Rebecca.

The reader knows her name, Amelia Anne Richardson. The reader knows her story. In some ways, it’s similar to Rebecca’s own story. Amelia, at college, is discovering a new path for herself, acting, not business, and it opens up a world and future she didn’t even realize she wanted. Like Rebecca, she will be leaving something known behind. Like Rebecca, there is a boyfriend, and this young man, like James, realizes that his girlfriend’s dreams may not include him. The main difference is that Amelia is so eager to have her life start, while, suddenly, Rebecca — I don’t want to say she isn’t sure. She wants to go. She just seems to be putting herself into a type of emotional limbo. It’s as if she realizes that her childhood is being left behind, and suddenly, she doesn’t want that to happen.

Rebecca is an interesting character; as I said, for some reason, at the beginning I didn’t realize the depth of her connection to James. Despite that, Rebecca wants to leave her small town and I liked that. Both Rebecca and Amelia are unapologetically ambitious in what they want to do. Here is Rebecca: “[I]t wasn’t just about getting away. It was about not coming back. It wasn’t just the size and sensibility of this place that made it unbearable, but its pull — the weird magnetism that could sap your ambition, clip your wings, leave you inert and fascinated and sinking ever deeper into the choking quicksand of small-town life.”  As the summer unwinds, as Rebecca faces some choices, I wondered — how much of what she does, or doesn’t do, is driven by this? About making sure she wouldn’t go back?

They mystery of the dead girl by the road; for most of the summer, not even her name is known. The reader knows more, knows her alive, knows her as Amelia, and as Amelia’s life moves to the time and place of her death, I kept wondering: who did she end up there? And why? Rebecca wonders about this dead girl, whose body was found not to far from where she and James were together. I had half-guessed parts of Amelia’s death; was surprised by others; and was also stunned by Rebecca’s role.

What I adored most about this book? The sentences; Rebecca’s observations; the way she told her story. “Innocence can only last so long, especially that kind that comes from growing up sheltered by quiet neighborhoods, immaculate concrete sidewalks, so much nothingness for miles around. . . . Same faces, same streets, day in and day out, eyes that never witness anything more desolate than those empty, gravel-strewn county roads.” Or, this: “our knowledge has no memory. We have always lived here; what we know has always beens.”

Because of the language; because of the complexity of James; because of Rebecca herself; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Review: Summer in the City

Summer in the City by Candace Bushnell. Sequel to The Carrie Diaries (2010). Balzer & Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Summer in the City picks up right where The Carrie Diaries left off: seventeen year old Carrie Bradshaw is in New York City for a summer writing program. She’s just been mugged and has called the only number she has, a cousin of a semi-friend. Carrie goes with Samantha Jones to a party, and thus begins Carrie’s introduction to New York City in the 1980s.

The Good: If The Carrie Diaries was about Carrie becoming a writer, Summer in the City is about Carrie becoming a New Yorker. Her pocketbook may have been stolen within her first half hour in New York, but Carrie doesn’t hold that against the city. Instead, she plunges into life in the city in a way that is fearless, admirable, bold, and, at times, risky.

Carrie says yes to everything, it seems, accepting any invitation, going to any party, embracing life. She knows very few people in New York, so, also, when it comes to people (whether its friends or potential love interests) she plunges forward, following up on even the most casual “call me.” Carrie builds a family around her, a family of friends, because she isn’t afraid. Or, rather, she is afraid: afraid of being just like everyone else. Afraid of returning home a failure. Afraid of time ticking relentlessly by.

Carrie only has a few months before she has to leave for her freshman year at Brown, and, to be honest, she’s more interested in enjoying the city than in her writing. As time ticks down on her limited time, she concentrates more on her writing, hoping that if she writes a memorable play it will convince her father to let her forgo Brown and instead stay in the city.

As I mentioned in my review of The Carie Diaries, this is a prequel to the book, not the HBO series and movies. At Salon, a 1996 review reminds readers what the original Sex and The City book (not movie) was about. Yes, I read Summer in the City looking for references to Sex and the City — but the book.

Carrie is just out of high school, and her summer is magical; New York City is her playground, and she plays. She has disappointments and heartbreak, yes, but we all know that Carrie will become a New Yorker. It’s fun to see just how that happens.

Enjoy this series? The CW has picked it up as a TV series for the fall. 

Other reviews: Reading Rants; EW’s Shelf Life Author Interview.

Review: Wanderlove

Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: What better way to reinvent oneself than travel? Bria Sandoval, 18, does just that, following a bad break up and disappointing college decisions. Carefree travel, seeing new places, meeting new people — heck, maybe she’ll even follow her friends’ advice and pursue a random, no-emotions-invested hookup with some cute guy who means nothing.

Perhaps all you need to know about Bria’s personality is that the way she implements her plan is by signing up for a guided tour.

Yes. An eighteen year old on a guided tour of South America.

I don’t have to tell you that she’s the youngest person, by far, on the tour — the brochure of young, smiling people lied. So now Bria is stuck, stuck on the tour much like she was stuck in her old life. Wishing for something different, wishing to be as carefree as the grungy backpackers she sees.

When Bria meets Starling and Rowan, two backpackers who invite her along on their journey, Bria decides to leave the safe, organized, structured tour and take a chance: a chance on traveling, a chance on life, a chance on friendship with two strangers, but, most important, a chance on herself.

The Good: I defy you to read this book and not want to immediately head out for the airport and go somewhere, anywhere, just go.

I have never been to the places Bria, Starling, and Rowan go to: Guatemala and Belize. Thanks to Wanderlove, I feel like I’ve been there and I also want to go, to see for myself the places Bria sees, to try the food she tries. Wanderlove is a love letter to those places. It is also a love letter to the spirit of traveling, to having all your belongings in one backpack and going where the day takes you, to a certain way of traveling. One of the best things about it, is it does so in an inclusive way. Oh, yes, Bria looks at these backpackers as free and cool and wonderful, and, well, idealizes them. As time goes on, she starts to see them as people; real people, with flaws.

Bria is not punished for her choices; and oh, I loved that so. much. The plot device of a teen girl being punished for seeking freedom (here, backpacking in Guatemala and Belize) by being assaulted, raped, or imprisoned is one that is all too often seen in books or film. Sorry if I just spoiled this for you, but Bria’s journey does not end up dark. Wanderlove isn’t glib or naive about the dangers of traveling; Bria’s camera gets stolen, for example. But it doesn’t over-emphasize such risks to the extent that the inadvertent message becomes, “stay home and be safe.” The message, if any, is “travel and be safe.”

Starling and Rowan become Bria’s travel mentors: what to do or not to do when traveling. (Letting your bag out of your sight? A “not to do.”) Rowan is about two years older than Bria, Starling a couple years older than that, and the two are experienced backpackers. They pass along their wisdom and experience to Bria, just like someone did with them when they started out. Bria is a “good girl” trying to break out of that mold and be “bad”; while Rowan is a bad boy, trying to resist the temptations that got him into trouble. I loved these two, all the more so because both are fully drawn. Bria imagines a life and past for both of them, part of her romanticizing of them and backpacking, and I love when she learns the reality to their lives and their relationship with each other.

Part of what Bria is running from is a bad boyfriend and distant parents. Bria is telling the story, and I have to say, I’m not sure what the true story is about her parents. What I like is that Bria herself begins to realize that how she sees things may not always be quite right.

Oh, and the bad boyfriend. Let me rant for a second. He’s the classic Nice Guy Who Is Bad. He doesn’t hit her, but the emotional games he plays with her — ARGH. I HATE men like that, especially because (like with Bria) the people around him think “oh, he’s such a Nice Guy.” Rowan may be a “Bad Boy” in that he made a few poor life choices, but he doesn’t play mind games. To me? That’s a nice guy, not whether or not someone lives in a perfect house with a good family and gets into a nice school and says “please” and “thank you” to parents.

Funny, but all this and I haven’t mentioned the art! Bria is, well, was, an artist. Yes, it has to do with the ex. No, it’s not what you think. Well, maybe it is; I guess it depends on how well you know those types of guys. Wanderlove is about Bria rediscovering her love for art, and as she does so, she shares her art with the reader. I love it!

More not to be spoilery but I have to say it: Rowan and Starling both have strong personalities. So strong, that given Bria’s personality, I wondered whether the book would be about Bria finding herself or finding a version of herself shaped by Rowan and Starling. Rest assured, that does not happen, and instead Bria decides, for herself, who she is and what she wants to be — not what boyfriends, parents, or friends want.

One last part: much as I was swept away by the backpacking method of traveling, I know that is not for me. Even when I was younger and did some traveling, I was never quite as carefree as the Rowans and Starlings of the world. In part, my own temperament: I just cannot imagine not being traditionally employed, with health benefits, for such a time period. Another reason? I need clean bathrooms. No, really. There is, of course, a happy medium between a sanitized tour and the way Rowan, Starling, and Bria travel. I’d like to think, from the way the story progresses, that they wouldn’t judge me too much!

Because Wanderlove let me live an experience I will never, ever, have in real life. Because Bria is a passive teen who takes charge of her life. Because Bria isn’t punished for becoming a doer. Because I half-fell in love with Rowan, even though I’m so over sensitive Mr PonyTail men. Because I want to embrace, a bit more, that Wanderlove philosophy, even if my traveling is to North Carolina for a family vacation. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

The wanderlove website, which has some gorgeous photos of “the places that stick in your heart.” From the website: “wanderlove is about celebrating our favorite places, and experiencing each other’s. take a photo, or find a photo (one you’ve taken yourself & have the rights to) of your favorite place. it could be a place you’ve traveled to, long ago or recently; a special spot in your neighborhood, city or town; or even in your house or backyard. be as creative as you want. include a few sentences about why the place is special to you – why you *get* it, why it sticks in your heart.”

Other reviews: Stacked Books; Sophistikatied Reviews; I Like These Books (guest post by author).

Review: Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC and final copy from publisher. My teaser.

The Plot: Min Green and Ed Slaterton have broken up. She gives him a box: a box, full of objects from the time they dated, from October 5 to November 12. The arty girl (no, don’t call her that) and the jock. Along with the box is a letter, Min’s letter to Ed, explaining — why we broke up. Explaining to Ed, explaining to herself, why they got together and why they broke up.

The Good: This is Min’s story, her long, glorious, honest letter to Ed about how and why they got together, and fell in love, despite — or maybe because of — being so different. Ed, a jock, popular; Min, who loves old films and coffee with friends.

Min sends a box of objects to Ed; and I love that Min does this, that she is the girl who holds onto these items and then sends them Ed and I wonder — will Ed read the letter? Will he go through the box and match the things to the letter, remember as she remembers? Or will the box go into the closet, under the stairs, in the trash?

Each object, each bottle cap and note, is illustrated in full color by Maira Kalman. (More on the book design and the ARC at my teaser). The final copy is gorgeous; the paper, thick and fine and smooth, deserving of Kalman’s illustrations. The attention to detail is stunning –under the jacket, the book cover is scattered rose petals. The endpapers (front and back both unique) are the beginning and end of the story. I first read this in advance review copy; my second time was the final book. Having all the artwork, and all the artwork in color, didn’t just make the book prettier. It also added an element of wonder, of guessing, of wondering just what is the significance of the item shown. Some have great meaning; others do not; and that is part of the reality of life and love and adds to the depth of the book. Sometimes a protractor is just a protractor.

Why did Ed and Min break up? Like the films Min loves, on one level, the reason is surprising and unexpected. On another, the romance is doomed from the start, with all the clues and reasons laid out from the beginning, making one wonder not why they broke up but why they managed to stay together for as long as they did.

Min and Ed are in two different cliques and two different worlds. Since Min is telling the story, it is always her point of view, and Ed’s world of basketball and bonfires and beer seems almost a cliche at times. Min cannot help revealing clues to show that Ed’s life is as three dimensional as her own; because, really, otherwise would she ever have given him a second look? And is her old films and coffee clique any less cliche? But back to Ed —  Min goes to a couple of basketball practices, playing the role of good, supportive girlfriend, and Min tells it to the reader and Ed to say, look what I did, I went to your boring practice, for you I was almost one of those girls who go to practice just to watch their boyfriends. While this is never a book about Min learning to appreciate basketball, the reader sees just how much Ed’s life and identity revolves around basketball, that it takes time and effort and work for him to be co-captain, and the reader wonders, even though Min never does, if a team gives Ed the support and family he doesn’t have at home. Handler gives the reader enough so they can see things Min does not. Or, rather, that Min cannot, because she is both trying to figure out who she is and also working through the hurt of her breakup.

And Min — oh, Min. Min, with her love of movies, not just any movies but old movies. Don’t bother IMDB’ing the films and stars she mentions, because they are films just for the book, vaguely familiar, but not quite. Min loves films and sees her world through them, views life, sometimes, as a film, creating events and parties as if it were a scene. (Ruby Oliver would approve.) It is clear that, even though Min may not realize it, that she watches the films in part to be The  Girl Who Watches Old Films. Refreshingly, Min is no mini expert, has yet to learn terms like avant garde because until a friend lends her a book, she hasn’t read about or studied film. I like how even though this is about how Min and Ed broke up, it’s also about Min growing as a person as shown by her learning more about movies.

I confess, after reading Why We Broke Up and put it back on the shelf, I think about Min and Ed as if it were real. What crazy party scheme is Min thinking up now? Doe Ed still drink his coffee the same way Min does? And because of that — because I care both about Min and Ed — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: The Piper’s Son

Today the One Shot World Book Tour is: Book City! The list of participating blogs is over at Chasing Ray.

I’ve chosen a city I’ve never been to, but, because of the author’s books, I feel like I have: Sydney, Australia, as depicted in Melina Marchetta’s book, most recently, The Piper’s Son.

So, here is my review; and don’t forget to head over to Chasing Ray for the complete list of books in this Book City tour!

The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Candlewick. 2011. Candlewick on Brilliance 2011. Read by Michael Finney. Reviewed from audio from Brilliance.

Do I double dip? Yes, I double dip. I reviewed The Piper’s Son in February; and just listened to it on audio. So, this is the audio review.

The Plot: For those who don’t click through to my original review, two years ago Tom Finch Mackee had it all: a girl he’d spent one and a half wonderful nights with; good friends; a large, loving family. Now, he’s pursuing oblivion through drugs and alcohol and hasn’t spoken to family and friends in months.

Two years ago,  his Uncle Joe was alive. Two years ago, Joe hadn’t been blown up on his way to work. Two years ago, the family hadn’t buried an empty coffin.

Can Tom find his way — if not back to who he was two years ago, can he find his way to a Tom who doesn’t hide from the grief and pain of Joe’s loss, and his family splintering, and of messing things so badly with Tara Finke that she and their mutual friends can barely say hello to him?

The Good: While, for me, Tom’s emotional journey of putting his life back together, still broken but together, is what resonates with me. For others who, say, may want more action? Here’s the pitch: Two years ago Tom had a one and a half  night stand with a girl he loved and after, treated her so badly that not only won’t she talk to him, she has left the country. When you’ve treated someone horribly, is it possible to fix it?

Finney’s Australian accent emphasizes the setting of The Piper’s Son; the slang, the city, even the music. It’s the city setting — Sydney, Australia — that made this my pick for this One Shot – Cities tour. The Piper’s Son was on the shortlist for the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature, (alas, it didn’t win)and their judges comments explain perfectly why I picked this for its city setting: “This is the eagerly awaited sequel to Saving Francesca, and Marchetta creates a fresh and vibrant story that focuses on Sydney’s inner city suburbs and the life of a young and out of work musician, Tom Mackee. Homeless and haunted by the death of his favourite uncle in a terrorist bombing in London, Tom desperately seeks to put his life back together by re-establishing ties with his aunt, his friends, and his long separated father. For him, it is a long and very hard road. Marchetta’s insightful narration and wonderful cast of characters take her readers on an always fascinating ride through the gritty, pulsating streets of the city’s inner west. The story culminates in an emotional and memorable conclusion.” More on the inner city inspiration at this interview with Marchetta.

Tom’s parents and their friends made a deliberate decision to remain in Sydney’s inner city instead of move out to the suburbs, a decision led by his father, Dom: “All the people they wanted in their lives lived within a ten-mile radius. Her brother Dom had started the vow of not moving away from each other just because they’d be able to afford bigger houses in the outer suburbs. “Let’s stick together, no matter how poky our houses are,” he had made them all promise. “Better to be able to pick up each other’s kids and hang out together than have bigger backyards and rumpus rooms.”

The neighborhood, the Sydney neighborhood, is as much a character in The Piper’s Son as any person. So much so, that someone later observes that Tom himself has never moved out of it, always living within a few blocks of friends and family. “You could draw a line around the parameters of your world, Tom.”

Things I noticed about The Piper’s Son this time around: the craft of the book, how it’s all put together, how Marchetta weaves the past and the present together, and her use of different points of view to tell the whole story.

Coming of age books are usually about independence; in the hands of another, The Piper’s Son would be look at how people failed Tom, cast those adults as villains, and ended with Tom in a new place, with new friends, and a new direction in life. Marchetta recognizes that life is messier and more complex than that; people failed Tom, and each other, because each, individually, was so torn apart and hurt by Joe’s death that they could barely take care of themselves let alone anyone else. The Piper’s Son is about the role of community in one’s life; for Tom to mature, to grow, he has to once again become part of a community of friends and family. The goal is healthy interdependence, not independence. The friends and family that grow around the Finch Mackee family is so wonderful, funny, and loving, that even though sadness and hurt and grief have touched them, and none of them have had an easy time, I still want to go to their homes, hang out over a bottle of wine, laugh as the children play in the garden. If I’m every in Australia, I want to walk these Sydney streets.

Yes, this remains a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

And yes, I listened to this on the way to and from work and cried every day.

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.

Review: Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever.

Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever. by Caissie St. Onge . Ember, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Meet Jane Jones. Mild mannered high school student who is secretly a vampire! A mild mannered vampire, that is. If you think being a vampire means you’re one of the cool, rich kids? Think again. Jane’s not rich. She’s pretty average. Moving all the time to keep her secret identity from being discovered means she has no real friends. She got vamped along with her entire family, so she is forever their protected, teenage daughter even though she really is decades old. And worst of all? She’s allergic to blood. No, really.

The Good: St. Onge offers an over the top, humorous look at vampire cliches. It takes an average girl and shows that, after becoming a vampire, she is … still an average girl.

Vampires are rich? Meet Jane Jones and family. Decades ago, before being turned into vampires, her family was living in the Oklahoma panhandle. Combine the Depression with the Dust Bowl and you have a poor, starving family before they were vamped who become a — wait for it — poor, starving family afterwards. Jane and her vamped-at-ten brother always look young, never grow old, so her parents can never hold a job for longer than a handful of years. Otherwise, people will talk about the children who never age. This nomadic life doesn’t lend itself to any type of investments or career building. The Jones lived poor, died poor, and are living dead poor.

Vampires need blood? True. Because Jane and her family don’t want to kill, they have to find other means to get blood. In a way, they are still starving because they refuse to just go out and feed on people. Making it even worse is that Jane is allergic to all blood, except for a very rare, very expensive blood type. Since it’s hard to obtain, Jane can only drink a few sips at a time. Don’t even ask about the allergic reaction she has when she does drink most types of blood.

Vampires are cool? Some are…. but why would the cool vampire kids want to hang out with the poor vampire who can’t even eat properly?

When Jane learns about a possible vampire cure, all this comes into play. Jane would get to grow up! She would get to eat real food! She could develop real relationships! Maybe not be cool, but at least have friends. The downside? It’s expensive. If Jane goes pursues obtaining the cure, she may have to leave her family. Things get even more confusing, and her choices even more difficult, when Jane discovers something surprising about her family’s past.

If some of this sounds serious — trust me, it’s not! Or, rather, it is, but in the best possible way: the honesty and seriousness that is the best part of comedy and humor. If the appeal of the vampire is the exotic, and changing into something better and smarter and sexier, St. Onge reminds us: it’s not that easy. We are who we are.

Links: Caissie St. Onge is a comedy writer for television (I know! so cool!). Here’s an interview with the author by Jane Devin.

Edited to add: as pointed out in comments, I used the wrong last name for author. I apologize for my error.

and edited again for a big “thanks” for being understanding about the mistake and letting me know!

Review: Tofu Quilt

Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell. Lee & Low Books. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Poems tell the story of Yeung Ying growing up in Hong Kong, from age five to twelve.

The Good: The poetry is simple but not simplistic; a tremendous amount is conveyed in a handful of words.

Yeung Ying first learns the power of story, of words, in several ways: as a small child, memorizing poetry brings the reward of dan lai, a special custard. She writes letters for her grandmother, is read stories by her teachers, and an older cousin says she could be a writer when she grows up. In short but powerful poems, one year a teacher makes her believe her dream is possible by saying “great work” and displaying her poetry while another teacher crushes her by calling a story the “worst story in the class.” Luckily, another year brings a teacher who praises her work and restores her confidence leading to Yeung Ying submitting a story to a paper. It is accepted: she is on her way.

Tofu Quilt is not just the story of a girl becoming a writer; it is also about a girl getting an education. Set in the 1960s, Yeung Ying’s family is repeatedly told by family and friends that educating a girl is a waste of money. The money could be spent elsewhere, Yeung Ying could be working to bring in money. Yeung Ying’s mother stands up repeatedly for her daughter, providing the schooling that makes it possible for Yeung Ying’s dreams to come true. While sexism is the primary reason for relatives counseling against the wisdom of educating a girl, another reason is that Yeung Ying’s family doesn’t have much money. Her father is a tailor and some times, work is good, like when American soldiers come over from Vietnam. Other times, not so much. Russel relates the family closing the door to avoid gossips seeing what they are and aren’t eating, and the “tofu quilt” her father makes from leftover fabric scraps.  

At the same time, Russel is portraying the worlds of Hong Kong and China. Yeung Ying writes letters for family members, because they cannot get visas to travel to see each other. Other details of life and politics are provided, creating a vibrant look at Yeung Ying’s world.

What age? I would recommend this to readers from third grade to sixth. The language, and Yeung Ying’s age, makes this appealing to the younger age group, while the topics (education, sexism, writing, career) have an appeal to the older readers.