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: The Freak Observer

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston. Carolrhoda Lab. 2010. Reviewed from uncorrected proof from publisher.

The Plot: Loa Lindgren has had a year of heartbreak and loss. Her younger sister died; one friend left town, another was killed in an accident. Her family is shattered first by the loss of a beloved child and next by the economic stress of job loss.

The Good: The Freak Observer is on the shortlist for the Morris Award. Which means, in a nutshell, that The Freak Observer has been recognized as one of the five best debut novels for YA, which means that yes, your library should have it. So if you weren’t sure about purchasing — do.

This also means that if you love YA literature, you should read this (and the other nominees) because, well, it’s one of the five best debut novels. Read it to both get a better understanding of what that means and also then to be able to weigh on the discussion of the Morris Award and what novels did or didn’t make it to the shortlist.

And the reason for all this talking about a book without talking about a book is, well, I’m going to be talking about the book and may include spoilers because for me, for The Freak Observer, the beauty and strength cannot be discussed without revealing either plot points or character growth that some people would prefer to discover on their own.

On with the book.

 At first, Loa Lindgren’s life seems harsh and brutal. “I have a little yellow green blush of bruise under my jaw. . . . I could raise my hand and tell the whole class what I learned about pressure and force when my dad clobbered me.” Ah, the reader thinks as the pages turn, this will be a book about an abusive family.

The reader would be wrong. Loa’s younger sister Asta died the year before from Rett Syndrome, a disorder where for the first eighteen months of a child’s life everything seems fine and then the child stagnates and regresses. For years, her parents took care of their daughter. Woolston paints a picture of a loving family despite the stress, a working class family where the father works hard and comes home at night and reads aloud to his family and his dying daughter. He names his daughter after the names in books he reads: Asta Sollilja. (Yes, I am the nerd who researched what book her father was reading….)

Loa’s father is not a violent man, he is a man moved to violence because he watched a beloved child die, he lost his job and sees his wife and daughter working to put food on the table, and he is moved to the violent act against Loa because she has come home in a police car after having witnessed a friend die in a truck accident which may be suicide. Loa thinks, “What’s the difference? Why am I not a dead girl? I don’t for a minute know. I look at my dad. He can’t let himself be sad. He can’t let himself be frightened. But I’ve forced this moment. The fear jumps out of his eyes and into me like a hot spark. ‘You could’a been the dead one.’ That’s when he hits me with the plunger, because I could have been the dead one. He hits me because it is easier to be angry than to be afraid. I could have been the dead one, but I’m not.” This is a story not of the toll that caring for an child takes on a family, it is the story of what happens to the family after that child who has been the center of the family dies.

Loa is studying science and physics, and “freak observer” is something she researches as a special extra credit project. Loa explains, “a Freak Observer pops into existence as a self-aware entity that makes its universe orderly.” Loa’s universe is far from orderly, hasn’t been orderly since her sister died. Loa struck up a “friends with benefits” relationship with a boy from the debate team but then he left for a better school. She then began hanging out with Esther and others from school, until Esther was hit by a truck. Loa is not fixed, going from here to there, not quite sure what to do. The Freak Observer begins the day after Esther’s death, with flashbacks to the previous year — perhaps, then, the Freak Observer who gives Loa order is the reader, the book, the telling of the story.

After her sister’s death, Loa cannot sleep, has nightmares. Loa’s family did their best. “So I started going to grief counseling at the clinic. It was useful. The first day I went in, my mom made sure everyone was clear on the project. The insurance would pay for six visits. The plan was to get me fixed up in six hours or, if that wasn’t quite possible, to make me stop screaming in the night.” In this one sentence, Loa and her family are captured: they care, they do what they can, they don’t have much, and there is humor.

Loa’s family is proudly working class. They live in the house her father was raised in, indoor plumbing only came the generation before, they don’t take hand-outs. Sometimes it seems there are only two socio-economic realities in young adult books: urban poor or upper middle class suburbia, with the occasional rich city kids thrown in for good measure. Loa’s family doesn’t have a lot, and I’m sure others would see them as the poor country folk, but they get by. One of the interesting things that Woolston does is to provide two parents who have incredible depth of character yet limit what we see about them to what Loa sees and wants to see. She is at times dismissive of them, of their relationship, but what she tells us reveals to the reader a couple who have had a rough time, have three children they love, lost one, and then got knocked down again when the local lumber mill let her father go. He doesn’t find steady work, but her mother works a shift in a nursing home that doesn’t pay benefits.

Now comes the part that fascinates me — and the reason for those spoiler warnings — by the end of the book, the mother (who is probably late 30s) goes back to school, moving with her children into university housing while the father stays at the house because someone has to make sure that the pipes don’t freeze. Before you think this is a divorce — “he kisses my mom on her eyelids and goes. Like I said, some great romance.” Oh, Loa, I want to say — that is a great romance. And it also is an interesting reveal about her parents. They may have been frozen by the death and dying of a child but they are finding their own way to go forward. Their way forward would not be significant to some, as Loa now sleeps on a sofa in the living room. But, to her little brother’s great excitement, they now live someplace that gets pizza delivery. They now live somewhere that allows Loa an opportunity, a new school, a new place, without the physical isolation of their country home. Before, she was physically and emotionally isolated; now, the physical is removed and that allows the emotional walls to slowly dissolve.

So, yes, in a way the plot of this book can be summed up: “and then the family moved to town.” Seriously, though, the real strength of the book is the fascinating character of Loa and the glimpses into the people around her. Any one of them is strong enough to support their own book, because each has their own story or motivation or damage and we only see glimpses, the glimpses that Loa knows, and part of Loa’s growth is when she realizes that people do things for reasons that are not all about her.

Is this a Favorite Book Read in 2010? Absolutely. The Freak Observer and Loa got under my skin in a way few books do. Even better, the more I thought about it while writing this review, the more I liked it. To me, that is a real strength of a book — how it sticks with you. How it continues to make you think after you finish reading.

So, for your teen readers, how to booktalk it? Give it to the ones who prefer literary works, your readers of Sonya Hartnett. The ones who read for character. When putting together lists and recommendations about economic diversity and people struggling in today’s economy — include this. And, needless to say, those readers who are looking for a book that will make them cry? Look no further.

Review: Revolution

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. Delacorte, an imprint of Random House. 2010. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: Andi Alpers, a senior, doesn’t belong anywhere and doesn’t care. After her brother’s death two years ago, her world fell apart. Her father, a Nobel winning scientist, always a worhaholic, moved out. Her mother’s grief registers itself in painting portraits of her dead son over and over. Andi’s about to be expelled from her expensive, prestigious private school but she doesn’t care. All Andi cares about her guitar and losing herself in her music with the occasional help of prescription drugs and a warm body.

Her father comes back into her life in “take charge, I can fix this” mode, as if Andi and her mother were another thing on his “to do” list. Her mother gets sent to a hospital and Andi is brought to Paris for her winter break, where her father can supervise her work on her ignored senior thesis. In Paris, Andi discovers the late eighteenth century diary of a teenage girl, Alexandrine Paradis, who was caught up in the French Revolution. Andi is captivated by the words of a girl her age. Twin stories unfold: Andi’s in the present day, Alex’s in the past, until the stories come together in a powerful ending that offers grace in a dark world.

The Good: Revolution is stunning.

The first section of the book, “Hell,” has an epigram from Dante: “And to a place I come where nothing shines.” Nothing shines in Andi’s life. Revolution begins with Andi’s privileged classmates (“a diplomat’s daughter,” “a movie star’s kid”) having a party. From the start, the connection is made between present day and the French Revolution with haves and have nots, an upper-class and underclass.

Andi’s grief over her younger brother’s death seeps through every page, every sentence, every act: “…and then I play. For hours. I play until my fingertips are raw. Until I rip a nail and bleed on the strings. Until my hands hurt so bad I forget my heart does.” Her grief is fueled by guilt for her role in her brother’s death as well as the breaking down of her family. “Rain washed away the blood long ago but I still see it. Unfurling beneath my brother’s small, broken body like the red petals of a rose. And suddenly the pain that’s always inside me, tightly coiled, swells into something so big and so fierce that it feels like it will burst my heart, split my skull, tear me apart.”

Andi’s father goes to Paris to visit and work with an old friend, a historian whose specialty is the French Revolution. Together, they are working on testing the alleged heart of Louis XVII, the “lost dauphin,” ten year old Louis-Charles, the child of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Did the child die, alone and broken and terrified? Or was he smuggled out for a dead child? Andi discovers a diary of a young girl, Alex, a poor actress who became companion to Louis-Charles. “They keep him in the Tower, a cold, dark room with one window, small and high. The guards are cruel. There is no stove to warm him. No privy. His filth piles up in a corner. He has no playthings. No books. Nothing but rats. What food he is given, he puts in a corner, to draw them off. He does not know his mother is dead and writes these words with a stone on his wall — Mama, please….   Once you were brave. Once you were kind. You can be so again.”

Andi works on her senior thesis, about a French composer who lived during the Revolution, reads the diary of Alex, wanders through Paris. Her Paris, the Paris of Alex, are told in wonderful detail. Past and present come to life. Andi’s music connects her with fellow Parisian musicians, including an attraction to handsome Virgil. Those relationships begin to anchor her in the present. At the same time, she is desperate to get home, to rescue her mother from the psychiatric hospital she’s been committed to, to not leave her alone.

The parallels: Andi’s privileged life, the privilege of the French aristocrats. Her brother Truman, dead at ten, a death Andi blames herself for. Louis-Charles, dead at ten, a death that Alex feels responsible for. Louis-Charles, imprisoned in a tower and denied any comfort or love; Andi’s mother, imprisoned in a hospital, an artist denied paints and brushes. The music, Andi’s own music and those she hears around her, tied to the past, to the musicians that came before, and her research into the French composer Malherbeau. The DNA found in people, the DNA of musical influence. It all works, comes together beautifully. My heart aches for Andi, wonders if she can forgive herself and become brave and kind again. I got caught up in Alex’s diary, with concern for that small boy, and wondered if Alex’s increasingly desperate and risky acts to try to let Louis-Charles know that he is not alone, he is not forgotten, he is still loved worked. Did they do anything? Did they ease her guilt, did it give hope? Does hope matter when the end of the story is a cold, brutal death?

Just because “the wretched world goes on, as stupid and brutal tomorrow as it was today,” do we have to be stupid and brutal? Or can we be brave and kind, no matter what the world brings?

About two-thirds through the book, there is a second section. “Purgatory,” again with a quote from Dante. Andi descends into a catacomb for a party with her new friends. And here, Donnelly makes a choice about the story that not everyone will love. I am personally torn as to what exactly happens, what it means. Andi is in a bleak place, unsure of herself and her place in any world, still seeking an end to the endless sorrow of her brother’s death. Whether what happens next is literal or not, real or a dream, Andi is given the opportunity to work towards redemption. The final chapters are “Paradise,” again Dante: “Till I beheld through a round aperture Some of the beauteous things Heaven doth bear; Thence we come forth to rebehold the stars.” Those of you who have read the book, let’s discuss that in the comments. Those of you who haven’t — don’t read the comments until you  have.

A revolution is an event: the French Revolution, the American Revolution. It is also a change in a way of thinking. This is Andi’s revolution.

A note on book design. I don’t have an e-reader; I’m not sure if e-books will replace physical books. I do know that the book design of Revolution shows the value of a physical object and how it adds to the book and is not merely a physical case to hold pages. In addition to the stunning artwork (a photograph of a modern girl, the painting of a 18th century girl, upside down, revolving) there is the red ribbon. Andi wears a red ribbon around her neck, holding a key that belonged to her brother; the surviving nobles of France wore red ribbons to remember those relatives killed by the guillotine.  The ribbon is glossy, raised, and the spine shows the key. The endpapers are blood red.

Oh, and for the historical fiction lovers like myself, there are acknowledgements and sources.

Because the language is stunning. Because Andi and Truman, Alex and Louis-Charles haunt me. Because I am still wondering at the difference between stupid and brutal, brave and kind, and whether it matters. Because my reservations about the book are about only a handful of pages, and those handful do not outweigh the seeking of braveness and kindness in ourselves. Revolution is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

Review: Mockingbird

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Reader Group. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Ten year old Caitlin’s older brother Devon is dead. Such a devastating loss would be hard for any child to understand. For Caitlin, it is even harder because she is a child with Asperger’s syndrome.

The Good: A child dying. Who understands that? Who knows why? How can anyone, adult, parent, friend, know what to do when faced with such a tragedy? It’s a community tragedy, because Devon was killed at school. Two other children shot a teacher, Devon, and another student.

Erskine takes that tragedy and makes it so much worse, because of how Caitlin processes the world around her. It’s not so much that sees the world in terms of black and white as that she wants to see it in black and white because “[i]t’s easier when things are black and white. . . . Colors are mushy and I don’t know where they end or what happens to them when they run into each other because they change. … When you mix red and yellow it might come out orange like the sun when it’s setting but when you mix red and yellow another time it might come out like a school bus and when you do it again it might come out like a hornet. It’s always different. You don’t know what to expect.”

Caitlin, who likes to know what to expect, is faced with that which has no road map. The loss of her brother, Devon. She loves books because they have answers, but even that can only give her so much. She learns about Closure, and knows she and her father need Closure, but no one can tell her a step by step way to achieve that.

Caitlin is also incredibly literal. She is the type of girl who hears “a part of Devon will always be with you” and thinks that the ashes from his cremation are now in the air and around her. Devon, a Boy Scout, had been working on his Eagle Scout project when he died. He was making a chest.  How did Devon die? A school shooter shot him in the chest. Devon’s Chest/ Devon’s Chest. Erskine makes this literal, as Caitlin at one point crawls into Devon’s chest and wishes to make his heart beat.

A Facial Expressions Chart hangs on the wall of the counselor’s office in school. It is there to help Caitlin decode what people are thinking. Already, she knows it is not always accurate. A mean person may smile. That Caitlin needs this extra step, needs to help develop those things to understand how others think and what others feel, does not mean that she is without feelings. Early on, she describes how “the gray of outside is inside. Inside the living room. Inside the chest. Inside me. It’s so gray that turning on a lamp is too sharp and it hurts. So the lamps are off. But it’s still too bright. It should be black inside and that’s what I want so I put my head under the sofa cushion where the green plaid fabric smells like Dad’s sweat and Devon’s socks and my popcorn and the cushion feels soft and heavy on my head and I push deeper so my shoulders and chest can get under it too and there’s a weight on me that holds me down and keeps me from floating and falling and floating and falling like a the bird.”

Caitlin needs help in both connecting with her own loss and realizing what her emotions mean and in having empathy for others. When she tries to help other children, it doesn’t end well because she does for them what she would want done for herself. This gets misinterpreted as being mean at its best and being weird at its worst. Part of Mockingbird is Caitlin working, really working, at achieving empathy. Yes, it is more difficult for her because of Asperger’s, but isn’t it difficult for others? The children in her class who think she is being mean and a weirdo — aren’t they also lacking empathy? Josh, a class bully, at one point is truly bewildered that people don’t like him. He thinks people hate him because his cousin was one of the school shooters. He doesn’t connect his own behaviour (being mean, pulling kids off monkey bars) to how he is treated. It isn’t just Caitlin with her Asperger’s who needs to work on emotions, and empathy.

Mockingbird is younger than the books I usually review here, but I wanted to read it and review it because it is one of the 2010 National Book Award Finalists for Young People’s Literature. Would Mockingbird have appeal for middle school readers? I think so. Caitlin is ten, and the rule some people go by is that readers don’t want to read about those younger than themselves. I think they will, depending on the story. Some teens like sad books, and want to read about things like loss and grief. They are aware that school shootings happen, and Mockingbird examines a community’s grief and loss without being either exploitative or graphic. Classmates and family and friends have Asperger’s, and Mockingbird gives a look into that perspective, showing it’s unique and different but not “weird.” Also, Mockingbird gets its title from To Kill A Mockingbird and while Erskine describes why in the book, someone who has read that book or seen that film will have a deeper appreciation of its meaning in this book.

How accurate is Mockingbird in it’s depiction of Asperger’s? In Erskine’s interview with Publisher’s Weekly, she reveals that her daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s. In an interview with Amy Brecount White, Erskine mentions the research she did. And there is some more information at a Penguin blog post. So I’d say that while it may not be accurate for everyone, what book is? It is accurate for some.

For another opinion entirely, Jonathan Hunt at Heavy Medal weighs in. I believe my favorite part is about Eagle Scouts.