Review: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. Personal copy. Morris shortlist.

The Plot: James Whitcomb, sixteen, has nicknames for his parents: the Brute and the Banshee.

That may be all you need to know about his home life. But here’s some more: his parents threw his older sister out of the house. All James wants is for her parents to allow Jorie back in the house. Well, and for the school to un-expell her so she can graduate high school.

As for high school — well, James loves Walt Whitman poetry so Yawps a lot. He has been known to hug a tree. And then there’s the time when he tried to impress a girl, Beth King, by saving a bird and ended up getting hit by a school bus. Oh, and he managed to save a Tastykake wrapper. Not a bird.

He does have one friend: Derek.

And then there’s Dr. Bird. His imaginary therapist, who is a large pigeon.

Dr. Bird, Derek, Beth, Jorie — it’s not a lot of people, especially since one is imaginary, one is real but will be graduating soon, one doesn’t know he exists, another is missing. But it’s a start.

The Good: Oh, all the layers of plot that connect!

There is the mystery of why Jorie was expelled from high school. For James to figure out the mystery, he must learn more about Jorie. You’d think, with just one year difference between them, that he’d know his sister. And he thought he did. When Beth asks him about Jorie’s poetry, James discovers his sister wrote for the literary magazine and this starts James finding out more about his sister. To do that, James has to take a closer look at himself and his family.

The reader knows that if James calls his parents the Brute and the Banshee, his home life is not simple and happy. Whether the labels are that of an angry teen, or deserved, is revealed slowly. James doesn’t even quite realize, or acknowledge, the full dynamics of his family. James — like other teens — is recognizing the way his family works and his own role in it. Yes, they are deserving of the labels Brute and Banshee — but enough is shown of their own pasts to show how they ended up the way they are. And that they aren’t just their label.

What James wants is to get his sister back. This forces him into action, with one thing leading to another. His wanting to learn more about his sister’s poetry leads him to being involved with the literary magazine, using his own poetry and photographs. He wants to see a therapist, recognizing his own anxiety and depression needs more than in imaginary pigeon (even if Dr. Bird’s advice is sometimes good), but to do so needs a job, so starts working at a pizza place with Derek.

So one step in James’s life leads to more steps, that both open up his world but also result in James own personal growth, including the steps he takes for his own depression. And that those steps are more than “make friends, get out of your house, find a hobby” (all things that James does in fact end up doing) — they are meeting with a therapist (a real one) and using that.

This is a Favorite Book Read in 2014 — because of James and Jorie. And the yawps. And Roskos’s writing. And the way that therapy is shown, not as “the” answer, but as part of James’s life.

Other reviews: Stacked; Beth Reads; Miss Literati; Good Books, Good Wine; Author Interview at SLJ.


Review: Dark Triumph

Dark Triumph: His Fair Assassins, Book II by Robin LaFevers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Nantes, Brittany, 1489.

Lady Sybella is deep in danger and intrigue. Part of it is because she has been trained by the convent of Saint Mortain to be an assassin.

Part of it is because her current assignment means she is living in the household of the nobleman d’Albret, a cruel, vicious, power-hungry man who is intent on capturing Anne, Duchess of Brittany, and forcing her into marriage so he can control her lands and her money. She is working on the side of the supporters of the duchess, and risks all to signal to the duchess’s troops that d’Albret is about to attack.

It is a dangerous place to be: if d’Albret discovers what she has done he will have her killed.

Lady Sybella is playing a dangerous game, but she knew that when she received this assignment. She accepted it, hoping that it would give her the chance to kill d’Albret.


D’Albret is her father. And no one knows better how much the man deserves to die.

The Good: This is a companion/sequel to Grave Mercy. Grave Mercy was about Ismae, another teenaged nun assassin sent out to under orders of the convent to help protect the young duchess and Brittany. Dark Triumph is about one of Ismae’s friends; and the next book, Mortal Heart, will be about a third friend, Annith. The events in Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph overlap, against two larger stories: the politics and battles of sixteenth century Brittany; and the mystery of Mortain.

“Saint Mortain” is the church taking an old god, the God of Death; and as first Ismae and then Sybella discover, Mortain is no myth. He is real, and he is their father. As daughters of Mortain — true daughters — their skills are not just the training in knives and death and poison that the nuns have provided. Sybella can sense people around her, feel their heartbeats; and she also can see the marque, a physical sign that only his daughters can see, that show a person is marked for death by an assassin. She (like Ismae before her) discovers that while the convent’s purpose is to serve Mortain, the nuns may not know everything about Mortain.

I adored Sybella! She is quite the different character than Ismae, who was a peasant girl rescued by the convent. Sybella is instead a noble woman, but that money did not protect her from the darkness within his father and the poison within his household. As Sybella herself says, “I did not arrive at the convent of Saint Mortain some green stripling. By the time I was sent there, my death count numbered three, and I had had two lovers besides.” Sybella is tough and hard; she plays the game; she does what she has to do.

And yet — Sybella has a softer side, one that she hides to the world. She has managed to get her two younger sisters away from her father’s household, so they are protected in a way she was not. When she discovers a maid has brought her younger sister to work, she arranges to help the girls escape, knowing the risks to the two young girls. That Sybella is so intent on protecting these younger girls should be a clue to some of what Sybella herself has been subject to.

Sybella helps an important prisoner escape, a powerful knight nicknamed “Beast.” He is wounded and she finds herself escaping with him. During that flight, Sybella is, perhaps for the first time in her life, beholden to no one: not to her father, not to her the convent. Oh, yes, she still has to make sure Beast gets safely to the duchess, and she is hardly alone — but she is not in the convent being told what to do. She is not in her father’s house, playing a role.

I loved, loved, loved that Sybella rescues Beast. She does not need rescuing; she can take care of herself; she can fight. I love that Beast likes Sybella’s toughness, but also that what she does, she does well, and she enjoys it. In short: he respects her. Yes, as they are fleeing the countryside, hiding from d’Albret’s forces and the French, there is tons of action and adventure, but there is also a growing bond between Beast and Sybella. A bond, an attraction, that Sybella knows can come to nothing because she is a daughter of Mortain, and she has dark secrets — heck, she hasn’t even been honest with Beast that she is d’Albret’s daughter.

So, yes, I loved the Sybella and Beast romance. Because it’s between equals, and it’s about respect, and it’s about admiration, and it’s about — well. I don’t want to give anything away. But it’s also about people being human, and accepting that in others. (That may be code for, among other things, Beast not caring that Sybella isn’t a virgin.)

Oh, and by Sybella “enjoys it”: it’s not that she enjoys killing people. She enjoys that she does something well. And she knows, thanks to the marque and her service to Mortain, and her own fierce moral code, that she is not killing innocents. The marque tells her people are fated to be dead at her hand; the truth she learns about Mortain, as well as her moral code, means she isn’t killing for pleasure. She’s killing when necessary, to protect those she loves and those she is loyal to. And she enjoys that she can do that: protect and defend.

And I also love how Sybella is not a victim. Some pretty terrible things have happened in her life; a few things shocked me. She’s been hurt, and that means she has scars and trust issues. But — she is not a victim. She’s a survivor.

As I mentioned, a third book is coming next year. Ismae made cameos in this story, so I’m sure Ismae and Sybella will appear, but Sybella’s journey and growth are complete in this volume. What remains open, to be resolved, are the future of Brittany and the role of Mortain. As I sad in my review of Grave Mercy, this is a time period and a place I knew very little about and I loved learning more about it. I’m really curious as to how this is all going to get resolved!

Don’t bother counting the “loves”; the answer is yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Reading Rants; Wrapped in Books.

Review: Flora’s Fury

Flora’s Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confounded Their Friends, Astounded Their Enemies, and Learned the Importance of Packing Light by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Harcourt, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Final book of the trilogy.

The Series: Haven’t read this series yet? Then slow down, and — if you’re the type who dislikes spoilers — just read this quick series recap. As I wrote in my post about Alternate History, and  explained in my Beyond the Buzz post at Nova Ren Suma’s blog, in Flora Segunda : Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog, fourteen year old Flora is the daughter of a famous General and a mad father. Flora is a  smart, quick, brave, stubborn, a bit of a dreamer (she adores the heavily fictionalized tales of the famous Ranger, Nini Mo) but willing to work at what she wants. What she wants is to be like Nini Mo, rather than the obedient daughter who will join the military like the rest of her family.

Flora’s world is fantastic: it’s an alternate version of California, called Califa, with an alternate history where magic is real and where the Huitzil Empire is a world power. Her family is a military one and it’s been scarred by war: her father suffers mentally and physically from being captured and tortured, and there was another daughter named Flora lost in that war whom Flora is named after.

The series begins with a rather narrow focus: Flora Segunda and that House with a thousand rooms, concerns about her immediate family and friends and school. As the books progress, her world becomes bigger and her concerns become bigger. Flora is craving independence, like any teen; but as the story continues, Califa’s own independence grows in significance in the story.

There is magic and action; a complex world; hints of romance. Flora’s world is so complex that, having read the final book, I need to reread the first two in order to understand it all. There is humor, as the titles suggest, and they can read as mad-cap zany adventures, full of wit and quick references, action, pirates and thieves and hidden identities. Yet, lurking behind, there a serious undercurrent because this is not “just” about fun adventures and growing up, it’s also about a subjugated country, the scars of war, and the sacrifices one makes for the greater good.

So, if you’re looking for a smart, intelligent, unique action series; if you want a world unlike anything you’ve read; and if you prefer your series complete so you can read them all at once; then read the Flora books. Note that Flora’s story is just one from Califa. Wilce has also written several short stories set there, and the end of the trilogy clearly allows for more books to take place there. Oh! And Flora’s Fury just came out in paperback, so that’s another reason to get and read all three now.

Now, all that said, on to Flora’s Fury!

The Plot: In Flora’s Dare : How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room), Flora discovered that her mother is not her birth mother; her mother is the infamous Tiny Doom, executed by the Birdies (AKA the Huitzil Empire). One of Tiny Doom’s nicknames is Butcher, which is all you need to know about what Tiny Doom did on the battlefield. Flora also found out that Tiny Doom is still alive.

Flora, now sixteen, has had to keep these secrets and be the good daughter and good soldier the world (and her mother) expect to see, because otherwise someone may suspect her true heritage. Gone are dreams of being a Ranger or practicing magick, because doing that could bring the attention of the Birdies and if they realize she is Butcher Brekespeare’s daughter, they will take her and kill her. And if they realize Tiny Doom is alive, they will use Flora to find and kill Tiny Doom.

So Flora does what is expected, until she just cannot help herself. She needs to know where Tiny Doom is, so she practices a Blood Spell. Flora has her usual luck, which means a were-bear steals the map with Tiny Doom’s location. Flora is then ordered on a mission into the Huitzil Empire, to escort back the wife of an Huitzil Ambassador, an obvious ploy to kidnap Flora and use her as a hostage against her mother. It’s an order that cannot be refused; when pirates attack Flora’s ship, it’s almost a good thing. Except, you know, pirates.

And that’s just the beginning.

The Good: I love these books so, so much and I want you all to read them and love them. I think they are so unique, it can be hard to match them to a reader; it’s not like one can say, “oh this is like (a film/ TV show/ other series” as a quick pitch.

I love the world building is so deep. Magick is real and tricky and isn’t an easy fix; and Flora is hardly an expert at it. Califa’s struggle for independence (and dealing with it’s past) mirrors Flora’s own, yes, but at all times Flora is no more or less than what she is. A teenaged girl of spirit; heir to a great house; but not someone who alone can save the world because that is just not realistic.

I also loved how this was a world without gendered roles. Flora’s adoptive mother is a powerful general; her birth mother is the notorious Butcher. This is not about flipped gender roles; Flora’s father is also a soldier. Her best friend Udo may pay way too much attention to fashion, but he also wants to be a pirate and has his own strengths. Flora’s mother is a soldier and a mother; at the start of the story, she has an infant son who she nurses while she works.

Relationships are also interesting, but not front and center in these books. Flora has feelings for two different young men, but this isn’t something that is front and center (this is NOT a love triangle book). As mentioned, Flora discovers that her mother is not her mother; but she also finds out that her father is still her father and, well, everyone seems to be understanding and fine with that. Udo’s family is a famous love story: his mother fell in love with and married identical triplets.

Because I love the world of Califa almost as much as I love Flora. Because she does what has to be done. Because I now want to go read all the short stories about Califa. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Finding Wonderland; The Happy Nappy Bookseller; Bookshelf Bombshells.


Review: Wonder Show

Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Morris Finalist.

The Plot: Portia Remini has not run away from home to join the circus.

First, its’s a carnival, not a circus, and it’s called Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show.

Second, it was not home, not a home with parents or family. Parents and family left, long along, fleeing the dust and looking for work, and finally the last relative had enough and sent her to the McGreavey Home for Wayward Girls. She lasted there a few years before deciding she had to leave, to try to find her father.

And why not the Wonder Show? She’s a normal among freaks: the Wild Albinos of Bora Bora, the Bearded Lady, and others.

Will Portia find what she’s looking for? And will the McGreavey home let her go?

The Good: This is one of those books that I’m so grateful to the Morris Award for; it’s because this is a finalist I decided to read it and I’m so happy I did. It’s wonderful; a Favorite Book Read in 2013. And I usually hold of on that announcement until the end of the post, but this is that good.

On the sentence level alone, oh, so wonderful. I kept on wanting to copy out sentence after sentence, and began slow-reading to relish each one. Here, at the start: “Stories came easily to Portia. Lies came even more easily, and more often. The difference was in the purpose. The stories taught her to imagine places beyond where she was, and the lies kept her out of trouble. Mostly.”

And “She was careful with her apple tree. She did not ask too much of it.”

And, “women like Sophia are great rocks in the sea, weathered and worn but never broken.”

And, “she didn’t know yet. There are far worse things than witches. Worse than bears. Worse than the devil himself.”

And this is only page 23!! OK, here’s one more: “she wore an expression that was a mixture of hope and weariness, that said she was waiting for something better to come along but wasn’t holding her breath.”

Even aside from the quotes, the structure of the novel itself. I didn’t mention, yet, that it’s set in the late 1930s but that is because Wonder Show only hints at it in the start of the book. Talk of the dust coming and people having to leave for work, so it’s the 1930s, one thinks, but the confirmation comes later when Portia looks at a gravestone of someone who recently died and sees the year 1939. This is an example of the slow reveal of information, given only when it is needed and necessary, not before.

Another part of the structure is who tells the story, and when. Who says what when; when first person or third person is used; it’s significant, making more even more sense on reread on who says what when.

The slow reveal of information: for Portia, that is the problem. She doesn’t know what has happened to her father, and at the McGreavey Home she is driven to find her file, hoping that will tell her what she needs to know. When that doesn’t work out as she plans, she finds herself at the Wonder Show.

The Wonder Show; where Portia is a “normal” next to the “freaks.” The world of these carnivals is shown with depth, a place both where people are put up on stage to be gawked at while being a place where they could have independence, a way to earn a living, and acceptance from the others in the show.

For most of the book, Portia is fourteen; and I see this for readers seventh and above. Readers will understand that the “wayward girls” of the home Portia is sent to are typically girls who are pregnant and “wayward” because of their sexuality; but that is never spelled out  in the text. Instead, it’s a place for girls to be sent whose families don’t want them. There are a few things like that where the older reader will “get it” while the younger reader won’t.

Portia is fourteen; and she’s looking for family. Her earliest memories are about family, and while she says she leaves the Home to find her father, she is also finding family: the family of the Wonder Show.

Other reviews: A Patchwork of Books; Chasing Ray; Slatebreakers; Heavy Medal.



Review: Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. My review of the ARC. Audiobook: Listening Library, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group. Narrated by Lincoln Hoppe. 2011. Listened from copy from publisher.

The Plot: The late 1960s. Doug Swieteck’s father has moved his family to stupid Marysville in upstate New York. Doug is less than happy about this, and it doesn’t help that the locals see Doug and his older brother as thugs. As his eighth grade year progresses, Doug connects with the community around him: the librarian who shows him the plates of John James Audubon’s Birds of America; Lil Spicer, who offers him a cold coke and friendship; Mr. Spicer, who gives Doug a job delivering groceries that lets more people into Doug’s life.

Marysville may not be so stupid; Doug and his brother may not be thugs; and sometimes it’s enough that things are okay for now. “For now” keeps shifting through the book, through good times and bad: for every teacher who sees an easy target in the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, there is a teacher who sees Doug’s potential. His brother may come home from Vietnam with injuries, true; but he came home. It’s okay for now.

The Good: My review from 2011 says all that is good with Okay for Now. Listening to the audiobook emphasised all the strengths. Doug is a wonderful character, and Lincoln Hoppe perfectly captures his nuances and attitude. Over and over, I wanted to go into the pages of Okay for Now and rescue Doug. Rescue him from bullying teachers and abusive and neglectful family; luckily for Doug, he can take care of himself. It isn’t easy; the book begins with Doug having a huge chip on his shoulder. But, slowly, he lets people in and things change for the better.

I marveled at the wonderful structure of Okay for Now. Doug’s imagination is captured by the Audobon birds; he interprets what he sees based on his own life. Is a mother bird worried for her children? Or happy for them? He learns to draw, using the plates and friendly, knowledgeable librarian as guides. This expands his world, and Doug decides on a mission. Marysville has sold plates from the book; Doug will track them down and recover him. He may not be able to make his family whole, but he’ll make this book whole. Of course, along the way, Doug does make his life, including his family, whole. I just love the craft of this.

How reliable is Doug? That’s something I struggled with both in reading and listening. There are some things that I think he is oversensitive about, and I don’t think people are always as mean or rude or dismissive about him as he thinks. I think he both misinterprets things, but also believes some things are about him when they are not. For example, the teacher may simply not be calling on him. Or someone on his delivery route may be a bit distracted so not as attentive. It’s clear that when things are up for Doug, he’s up and sees the world in a positive light; but when things are down, it’s all dark and gray and rainclouds. Hoppe’s narration emphasizes this. As a matter of fact, this time around I was also more understanding of people like Coach Reed, because I’m not sure if Doug was always accurate about how Reed was treating him.

What didn’t change was my view towards Doug’s parents. Doug sees his mother as a lovely saint; and because Doug’s father’s treatment of his children was clearly not Doug misreading a situation, I just could not accept her passive acceptance of the situation. I kept getting angry as I listened. Clearly, though, that is more about me as a reader than the book itself.

But back to happy thoughts: there is a lot of humor in here! And some of it are in type jokes directed at the modern reader, such as a class discussion that ends with everyone agreeing that an actor could never become president.

Some great discussion about this title from Heavy Medal; reviews from Abby the Librarian; 100 Scope Notes.

Review: Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, Book 1) by Robin LaFevers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Brittany, 1588. Ismae, seventeen, was rescued years ago from her former life as the abused daughter of a turnip farmer to enter the service of the god of Death at the Convent of St. Mortain. As it is explained to her, the Christians call the old gods saints. Ismae is already marked, physically, as a daughter of Mortain and it turns out she has other natural talents, as well. She has a choice: if she wants, she can remain at the convent and be trained as a handmaiden of Death, learning all the ways that one can kill in service to Mortain. Ismae just has to promise obedience to those who serve Death.

Ismae says yes; and now she is embarking on her first tests, her first missions as an assassin. Mortain, whether saint or god, is there to protect Brittany and punish those who betray her. With neighboring France hungry to expand its borders, especially now that the old Duke is dead and his heir is a twelve year old girl, there are many who bear the mark of Mortain and who deserve death. Ismae just has to find them; and she finds them by following the orders of her convent.

An assassin’s job is clear: identify the target, confirm that he’s been marked, perform your task. Done. Ismae is prepared and eager.

Until Ismae is ordered to go to the court of the child duchess, to confirm the convent’s suspicions about who is a traitor to Brittany. Her guise? Mistress to a well connected man. Is Ismae, the farmer’s daughter, in over her head? Has the convent prepared her for court intrigue? And what happens when she does the last thing anyone would imagine — and begins to not only develop feelings for the suspected traitor, but also to question to convent’s wisdom.

The Good: You know, “nun assassins” is enough, isn’t it? (Or is it assassin nuns?)

It’s even better than that; because Grave Mercy is more, much more, than just a clever concept and quick book talk.

This is Ismae’s story, and she begins with her marriage three years before to a man as abusive as her father. She begins with the poverty and dirt of her early years; and how she was physically marked by the poison that her mother used in trying to get rid of Ismae before her birth. Once at the convent, she meets two other novitiates around her age, Annith and Sybella, and together they are trained by the sisters of St. Mortain. Having seen Ismae’s abuse, and the condition Sybella is in once she is at the convent, one can understand just why she agrees to enter the sisterhood of assassins. Not only that, but there are signs that are unmistakable that Mortain is real and powerful, signs beyond Ismae surviving poisoning as an infant.

Ismae’s background, then, is that of a peasant first and then of a protected schoolgirl. Yes, a schoolgirl who has been taught to fight, to kill, to poison; who has been taught “womanly arts” and history, but, admittedly, sometimes Ismae skipped those lessons. Still, all of that is lessons, and Grave Mercy takes Ismae to places beyond the classroom. It quickly becomes clear, at least to the reader, that while Ismae has been well trained as an assassin, the lessons on spying and intrigue were not as well learned. That is part of the reason that Grave Mercy is so terrific: Ismae is strong and bright and clever and talented, yes, but she is not flawless or all knowing or perfect. She is real.

The setting for Grave Mercy is the late sixteenth century, in a Europe where battles and wars were being fought for both independence and to create nations. Honestly, my knowledge of this time period in this geographical area was slim to none. The good news is that I needed no prior historical knowledge to follow along with what was happening, what was at stake, and who people were. The bad news is I may have Googled a bit to find out more about the history of the Duchy of Brittany and spoiled myself. Don’t do what I did, kids! The author’s website has some of the real history found in the book without giving away too many spoilers.

Yes, this is a work of historical fiction; it’s also an action adventure book (nun assassins, remember?) full of intrigue and poisonings and crossbows and knives and battles. It is also a romance, and because I didn’t read many reviews before beginning Grave Mercy (just enough to know a lot of people were loving  it) I was a bit surprised to find that out! Surprised in the best possible way because I loved the romance: a bit star-crossed, with two people committed to doing the right thing and unsure of whether the other person was quite trustworthy. Seriously, Ismae is the narrator and so of course we love her, but would you trust an assassin raised by nuns who is convinced that everything she does is guided by the hand of a god and that she never makes a mistake?

As the title indicates, this is the first in a series. But GUESS WHAT. You know how I love when books in a series are related to each other, rather than continuing one person’s story? Like Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles? THIS IS LIKE THAT. ONLY WITH NUN ASSASSINS. The second book is about Sybella; the third will feature Annith. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HAPPY THAT MAKES ME. Well, I guess using all caps gives it away. Not only do I look forward to learning more about Sybella and Annith, I get to learn more about Ismae by finding out how Sybella and Annith see her. Plus, what this means to you, dear reader, is that you can read Grave Mercy knowing that Ismae’s tale has been told in this one volume; and even if the story goes on, as it will be told by Sybella and then Annith, Ismae’s story is complete. As a reader, I like knowing that, while I also like knowing I will, no doubt, get a peak at Ismae in the future books.

Because nun assassins. Because Brittany in 1588. Because all the real-life people that are in it. Because of Ismae. Because of Gavriel (and I cannot believe I held back on saying how much I love Gavriel.) Because Mortain, whether as saint or god, is real. For all these reasons, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Book Smugglers (a joint review); Reading Rants; Stacked; Angieville.

Review: Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to The Wednesday Wars.

The Plot: Doug Swieteck and family have just moved to upstate New York. His abusive, drunk of a father mouthed off to his boss and got fired. The family packs up what it can and moved into a house Doug calls “the Dump” while his father gets a job with less pay. Doug’s attitude towards his new town? “Stupid Marysville.” “I hate this town. I hate that we had to come here.”  He doesn’t just have to fight his own initial bad attitude; it seems his family (at least, the men in the family — his father and older brother) — are quickly seen as thugs by the towns people, and Doug is a thug by association. Over the course of Doug’s eighth grade year, he gradually overcomes both his own bias and that of the locals.

The Good: The voice! Doug’s voice! I adored it, was swept away by it, not just in how Schmidt captures a thirteen year old with a chip on his shoulder trying not to be “that person” who strikes out in anger, but also how Doug reveals information. Look at that simple quote, above — “I hate that we had to come here” — and how in those few words we find out so much about Doug. It’s not the town he hates, but the fact that his father lost a job, that they had no options, that it’s a step down, that they “had” to do this. Again and again, Doug reveals information he doesn’t realize he’s revealing. It’s a thing of beauty, actually, to go through the book and find instance after instance of this.

Okay For Now is the story of a year in Doug’s life. On his first day exploring Marysville, Doug visits the library and discovers a book of Audubon’s bird illustrations. He is captivated it; he returns to it; he tries not to admit how he is fascinated by the portraits of birds. Doug’s interest in the illustrations — no, Doug’s falling in love with the Audubon prints — shows that Doug has depths he cannot admit to himself. He sees himself and his family and friends in the birds; he begins to draw, to learn how to look at things, to examine things closely; and realizes the importance of things and people being whole.

I laughed and cried at Doug’s experiences. His fortitude and strength in the face of challenges. His falling in love with Audubon’s bird illustrations. The way that Schmidt used the illustrations and Doug’s interpretations of the artwork throughout the novel. Doug’s dealings with teachers who (except for one) see him as nothing. I was swept away by the language.

From here on, spoilers.

Heavy Medal has discussed Okay for Now in the context of the Newbery criteria. It’s an interesting process, looking at a book in terms of awards. From a flat out, “will kids enjoy this book?,” I say the answer is yes. But for awards, one has to take that list of stellar books and go deeper. The main concerns with Okay For Now are not the voice or the setting, but rather the plot. A few things happen that some people just don’t “buy”; see Heavy Medal for details. I appreciate some of that; but, honestly, I don’t know sports so the use of Joe Pepitone, to me, is fine, a way to show some light and hope in Doug’s otherwise bleak world. Doug himself is so charming that as I was reading I believed everything he told me. It wasn’t until afterwards, thinking about it, that I began asking myself questions like “if Doug’s dad takes his $5 a week delivery boy money, how much did Doug make from the Broadway play and what is Dad doing with that?”

Here is where I have a couple questions of my own about Okay For Now, which I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

Coach Reed. He was a bully and abused his role as teacher. (By the way, part of my love for this book is how Doug uses names and, when he doesn’t like someone, stops using their names. I love when the Coach becomes “so-called gym teacher”.) I didn’t get why he was targeting Doug, other than because Doug’s family is poor so he knows there will be no parent banging on his door about it. Yes, I get that the Coach was in Vietnam, at the My Lai massacre, but I just didn’t see how that ties into trying to get Doug’s fellow students to gang up on Doug. As for Doug keeping the stats, are we supposed to think that Reed is illiterate? One strength of the novel is that Doug’s time in Marysville is spent beginning to see people as who they are and not caricatures; and people seeing him as a person, not a no good thug. Is that the case with Reed? I’d say yes, but while other teachers do things that are open to interpretation (calling on someone in class may or may not be personal), with Reed, Doug provides some very specific instances of Reed’s bullying. Honestly, I can excuse all of Reed’s pre-tattoo behaviour, but I cannot excuse the wrestling incidents. I also don’t get why Reed stopped. I bought the turnaround with the Principal, but not with the Coach.

Was Ernie Eco the thief? If so, did he set up Christopher? And was the father aware of it? For me, the ending was overly cryptic about what had happened. (But, I did read this in ARC so maybe the final copy was clearer.)

Which brings me to a point I have seen addressed elsewhere, the father. He’s a mean drunk, and while there is some possibility that he’s stopped drinking by the end (the description of the father at the end may be alcohol withdrawal) color me unconvinced. Betsy at Fuse #8 points out how the adult reader may view the ending as different from the child reader. I can live with that, in the sense of not seeing it as a flaw of the book but rather a matter of interpretation. Plus, as others point out at Heavy Medal, all we are promised is that things are “okay for now.” This is why I love smart conversations, critical conversations, about books; I don’t see the end as flawed because of the father; rather, I can identify my own issues (drunk abusive men don’t change overnight and I cannot believe that Doug’s father did); and then see whether it’s an issue for the book (he’s not supposed to be shown as “fixed,” rather, “okay for now”.) (Though in the fanfic in my head, Doug’s mother finally throws her husband out in time to prevent her three sons from becoming him and continuing to be hurt by him and opens some type of gardening shop.)

Review: My Misadventures As A Teenage Rock Star

My Misadventures as a Teenage Rock Star by Joyce Raskin, illustrated by Carol Chu. Graphia, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Who Alex is: “I’m fourteen years old. I’m a rock star.” Who Alex was: “Alex, short for Alexis. She’s a short, pasty, shy, greasy-haired kid with a face full of acne. The kids  in her middle school call her Zit Fit. She looks like she’s ten.” How did Alex go from the girl who wears “Unicorns are Cool” T-shirts to the girl who plays bass?

The Good: Oh, Alex. I confess at first I was a little irritated at young Alex, who narrates the story. “Wearing her best purple and pink matching outfit with a T-shirt that says UNICORNS ARE COOL“? Tragic. Of course the blond girls in the mall laugh at you! I laugh at you, Alex!

Alex’s older brother, Charles, is about to leave for college. Before he does, he gives her something that will change her life. “I hear my brother say that I could play bass for Tod’s band.” Alex is not yet the rock star — but Charles has pushed his younger sister on the path. It doesn’t happen overnight; at first, Alex is doing this to look cool, for her her crush Tod to like her. In a way, Alex is doing this for all the wrong reasons: her older brother is pushing her, she wants to impress Tod, she wants to be cool, she wants to transform herself.

At first, it works! Alex decides to change her looks, and it’s so different (combat boots, bobbed hair, thrift store clothes) that a cute skateboard boy, Stan, thinks she’s new to town and asks her out. She has a boyfriend!

But then — it works for real. Alex has only thought about initial, shallow transformation but what happens is a different, deeper transformation. Headache and heartache happen along the way, and Alex doesn’t realize what is happening, but along the way she starts to really enjoy the music, she likes being in a band, she finds her own music, she finds her own sound. In finding her own confidence, she goes from being the person who watches her skateboard boyfriend to being the girl who skateboards.

What I like about Alex’s transformation is that often, we get stories about girls who know what they want: to be in the band, to dance, to write, to be a scientist. A book or movie shows what happens as they succeed at what they desire. Not every fouteen year old (or any person of any age!) “knows” what it is they want, or has that desire and fixed dream. It’s refreshing to see a journey that takes place from doing something (playing guitar in a band) rather than the desire to do something (playing guitar in a band.) It’s like this — you can smile because you are happy. But smiling can make you happy. Alex, by acting strong and independent, eventually becomes strong and independent.

My Misadventures is a slim book; the story ends on page 87, with another twenty-odd pages on playing the guitar, writing music, and about the author and her band, Scarce. I admit, being used to longer tomes, I was at first a little frustrated by the minimalist approach the author took. I wanted more details! But then, it clicked: this book is not a how-to book. It is not a book that uses two hundred words when two will do. Raskin is a musician, and in a way My Misadventures is very much like songs. The chapters are called stories — Story #1, Story #2, etc. Each story has a title, like the songs on an album: “My First Combat Boots,” “Never Date Someone in Your Band.” Each story gets quickly to the core of what is going on in Alex’s life, what her concerns are, what she is doing. This book is about Alex, and the music, and the bands, but certain details just aren’t here. For example, Alex explains that “our band, the Painted Letters, started playing a couple of dances and parties.” That’s it. This is not the type of book that goes into the mechanics of how the band got those gigs, or the set up, or anything like that. Rather, it jumps right into what is important to Alex and matters to Alex, and focuses tightly on Alex and what she does.

Perhaps it’s because My Misadventures is about a girl joining her local music scene, but I was reminded of Girl by Blake Nelson. Except, of course, Andrea Marr was never in the band; both are about girls coming of age in the music scene. Both are about girls who find themselves, with a few missteps in the way. My Misadventures is for a younger crowd than Girl; there is some kissing but no sex, there is some drinking and pot-smoking by skaters and band mates but Alexherself joins the Straight Edge music scene (“there’s no drinking, smoking, or drug use of any kind, just good punk-rock music.”)

What I may have enjoyed best about My Misadventures is that while Alex begins with dreams such as “nice boobs,” “a boyfriend,” and “lots of friends,” — external markers — in the end what she has achieved is so much more. Instead of daydreaming inside her room of what her life should be, Alex is doing things. Skateboarding, making music. Those activities bring the friends. And — huge cheer — while there are boyfriends in the book, or boys she likes, the book doesn’t end with a boyfriend. This is not a “you need a boyfriend to complete you” book!

With it’s short chapters, short length, quick plotting and to-the-point storytelling, My Misadventures has “reluctant reader appeal” written all over it.

Links: An interview with the author, Joyce Raskin, at Chicktellectual.

Review: The Education of Bet

The Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. Houghton Mifflin. 2010. Copy provided by review.

The Plot: Nineteenth Century England. Elizabeth “Bet” Smith and Will Gardener are sixteen. Will is the nephew and heir of wealthy Paul Gardener, and Uncle Paul wants Will to the the education befitting his station in life. All Will wants is adventure — specifically, the adventure of joining the army! He gets sent home from boarding school after boarding school.

Bet, like Will, is an orphan. Unlike Will, she has no rich relatives — she is the child of a maid, and Paul Gardener, in a moment of kindness, offered her shelter when her mother died. Bet has been raised in a no-man’s land: not quite a servant, not quite family, always aware of her place. All Bet wants is the education Will takes for granted.

Bet comes up with a plan. Simple, brilliant, foolproof. When Will goes to school… it will really be Bet! It’s yet another new school, so no one will know what the real Will Gardener looks like. While she learns, Will will be free to join the army. She’ll put on one of Will’s suits, cut her hair, learn how to walk like a boy. What could possibly go wrong?

The Good: What could possibly go wrong, indeed. Let’s see….

Will has been “sent down” (or expelled) from three or four schools, which means that the school Bet is now at is not quite top-tier. Or second-tier. And while Will has coached Bet on how to stand, how to tie a tie, how to write, he didn’t quite explain to her the bullying, the meanness of the boys. Bet is totally unprepared for the social dynamics of an all-boys boarding school. Will, a semi-brother, always treated her as an equal, despite their social differences.  Bet doesn’t realize, well, that boys will be boys.

Bet is also totally unprepared for falling for her roommate, James, who, of course, thinks she’s boy.

The first half of the book was fun, as Bet tries to figure out this brave new world of boys that she is so unprepared for. She excels at school — loves the learning — but figuring out the bully culture of school? Not so much.

What really made me love the book was two specific moments, about half way through: the dance and sports. When Bet learns that there is a dance coming up she decides that she will attend. As Bet. So that she can dance with James. I just giggled through the entire comedy of errors (and yes, one of Bet’s loves is Shakespeare.) And as for sports — Bet, who was raised to sew and read quietly, whose desire is education, makes her initial decision on what sports to play based on the uniforms. Who doesn’t love the look of a cricket sweater?

I found myself initiailly underestimating Bet, much like those around her do. Bet is so sheltered, with her books and sewing, that it took me a while to discover just how impulsive she is. Perhaps it was because she never really had the opportunity until the moment to be Will came about. Also? Bet’s skirts and needlework hide a stubborn personality.  Her thought-out plan for becoming Will (cut hair, get suit) soon reveals itself as something not so well thought out — she didn’t factor in getting her period. Bet was so caught up in “look at me, I’m doing this, I’m going to school” that details like that? Didn’t occur to her. The same thing happens with her decision to go as Bet to the dance. She gets the idea, and nothing will dissuade her from carrying out her best idea ever: not little things like a dress, shoes, and, oh, having to be two people at once in the same place.

Review: They Called Themselves The K.K.K.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti,  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010).  Copy from a friend. Nominated for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

It’s About: “Boys, let us get up a club.” In May, 1866, six Confederate soldiers started a “social club.” Bartoletti explores how and why the K.K.K. originated, how and why it spread, and the steps taken to stop it. 

The Good: Putting actions within a context, giving an explanation for why and how something happens, can help us understand and, perhaps, help us prevent future actions and inactions.

It does not excuse.

Bartoletti explores the reason why the post Civil War South became the breeding ground for the hate and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. As the title says, the K.K.K. was a terrorist group, nothing more, nothing less, though at times those involved did believe that what they were doing was indeed “more.” One of the founders (who insisted it began as just a club) says that “the Klan gradually realized the most powerful devices ever constructed for controlling the ignorant and superstitious were in their hands.” The Klan was “transformed [from a] social club into a group of bogeyman who controlled the behaviour of the former slaves.” Bartoletti makes clear that “most freed people, however, weren’t fooled. They knew that the disguised Kukluxers weren’t dead masters or Confederate soldiers arisen from the grave. What frightened them were the well-armed, disguised white men who burst into their cabins, outnumbering their victims.”

They Called Themselves the K.K.K. proceeds to examine the multiple factors influencing the development of the Klan, from religious to education, from fear to power. It also related the stories of  those who stood up against fear and violence. Bartoletti expertly weaves together original sources, testimony, newspaper accounts, with plenty of photographs and illustrations. to paint a portrait of terrorism. It’s a nice mix of primary sources to tell a story, but also of judgment. For example, Bartoletti notes that the Klan founders insisted it began as just a social club, but then goes on to paint the climate of the times in such a way to make a convincing case that it wasn’t just grown men who liked to wear costumes, use passwords and codes, and play practical jokes that somehow became something more.

Bartoletti includes plenty of references at the end of the book, including a “bibliography and source notes” that delves into Bartoletti’s research process, including attending a Klan Congress.