Review: Roomies

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: It’s the summer after high school graduation, and EB and Lauren are both looking forward to college.

EB is looking forward to leaving her small New Jersey beach town, her mother, her circle of friends and their expectations.

Lauren isn’t planning on going far from her San Francisco home, but she is still going to live at college. Leaving loving parents and many younger brothers and sisters, she looks forward to privacy.

Which is why Lauren requested a single.

Instead, she gets a roommate: EB.

Over the course of the summer, EB and Lauren exchange emails, gradually getting to learn more about each other — and themselves.

The Good: This is the exact type of book I wanted to read in high school, wondering and worrying about college.

Roomies is told from the points of view of both EB and Lauren, both what they’re thinking and the emails they exchange. There are misunderstandings — Lauren at first believes that EB is more well off than she is. EB thinks Lauren’s delays in response are personal. They not only grow to know each other better, but also to be more honest. The honesty is two-fold: yes, being more honest and real with each other in their emails, but also being more honest and real with themselves.

It’s not that either EB or Lauren have been lying to themselves; it’s that they are both still growing, both still becoming.

For EB, it means that the tight group of friends she has is suddenly too tight. They boy she is dating no longer feels right. She feels distant from her best friend. She meets a new boy, and that brings another level of complication. Her mother is busy with her own life. EB knows she is about to leave her town to start her own life at college; she just didn’t realize how emotionally she’d begin leaving before leaving.

For Lauren, her life has been tied up in her family. Yes, there’s been school and she’s been serious about her studies, enough to win a scholarship. And she has a best friend. But she hasn’t been someone going to parties; when she’s not working, she’s helping to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. Forget privacy; Lauren has rarely had time to think about herself, let alone be by herself. Lauren had thought college would be when she was free to think of herself, and she surprises herself by falling for a boy. Suddenly, Lauren’s life isn’t as simple as it had been.

I love how Roomies is three stories: EB’s story, Lauren’s story, and the story of the two of them beginning to forge a relationship. As a reader, we can see the bigger story that neither of them can see, and that is part of the fun. And “fun” includes some cringing, when someone says something thoughtlessly cruel or judgmental and just not really meaning it, or meaning how it was taken.

One other thing, which is a bit funny: EB is from New Jersey. A beach town. Called Point Pleasant. Have I mentioned that my family is from the Jersey shore? A town called . . . . Point Pleasant. I KNOW. I actually went “oh no” when I read this, because it’s a bit tough to read (or watch) fiction set in a place you know. (See: viewing of the TV series, Point Pleasant.) The good news: no one pumps their own gas! Better news: there are just enough real and accurate details to give one the flavor of the town, without being overwhelmed by unnecessary details. (Oh, and in case you were wondering…. EB doesn’t say whether it’s the Beach or the Borough.) (About five of you got that.) (No, I didn’t graduate from either Pt Beach or Pt Borough but my mom taught at the Beach.)

Other things I liked about Roomies: how race is talked about. Both EB and Lauren are white; the boy Lauren is interested in is black. This isn’t an issue, but it is something that is talked about. The parents have their own lives, in different ways. Lauren has five younger siblings, the eldest who is only six, and her parents are always tired or stretched for money. They are trying, and want what is best for Lauren, but, they are tired. And busy. Meanwhile, EB and her mother have been on their own since her father left the family. He left her mother for another man; but he also left EB, moving across the country to start a new life that didn’t include her. Her mother has made some choices about who she dates that seem rooted in her own insecurities and loneliness. All of these adult issues are always part of the proper background of EB’s and Lauren’s stories, shaping the lives of their daughters, but doing so without overwhelming or taking over.

Even though Roomies ended just as college began, this felt very much like a college story because it’s about EB and Lauren beginning to move away from their high school selves. It captures that mix of wanting to leave and not wanting to leave; wanting independence and fearing it. And figuring out just what independence means. Because of that (and, well, because Pt. Pleasant!) this is a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Other reviews: StackedBook Brats; Nerdy Book Club; Cite Something.

Revisited: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. Little, Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

As promised in August, this is my spoilerific post about Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. At this point I assume knowledge: you read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock; you read my initial review; and/or, you don’t care about spoilers.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is not about a shooting. While I take Leonard and his pain seriously, I don’t think he’s a murderer or a killer. At the same time, I think he was lucky — had he access to a better gun, had he any experience with shooting guns, he may have become one. But, he didn’t. And this is not a story about Leonard almost killing a boy. It’s about Leonard being alone, and depressed, and suicidal, and having no one and no resources to help him battle that.

As much as I adored this book, and as much as I don’t think books should be messages or morals, the ending is almost not enough of a resolution for me. As I mentioned in my review, Leonard is alone, depressed, and isolated. Since the entire book is his point of view, often the view we get of other characters is not how they truly are but rather how he sees them. For instance, it’s clear to me that he wants Lauren to be his Manic Pixie Dream Girl or his Stargirl, someone who somehow saves him, but she turns out to be a real flesh and blood girl and that doesn’t happen. Yet, all along, one wonders just how much Lauren is like the person he describes to the reader.

And Leonard’s mom! Leonard reveals so few actual details (and I’m someone who notes timelines and such when reading) that while it’s clear she has physically and emotionally checked out on her son by moving to New York City and running a business, it’s unclear the time line on this. Did she leave him at fourteen? Fifteen? Last month? Since Leonard’s father has left the country and the government has seized their assets, and since his mother’s background is fashion, her choice of work and workplace makes sense. Yes, she is self involved and doesn’t realize the depression her son is in; yes, she seems to have dismissed ahead of time what could help him  (she’s a “we’re not the kind of people who need therapy what would the neighbors think and it doesn’t work anyway” type); but I also wonder at what parts Leonard leaves out. Especially at the end, when she refers to “stunts” of Leonard that he himself has not told us about.

It’s not that she isn’t awful. I just wonder if she is as awful as Leonard paints her.

Asher Beal. Why does Leonard want to kill him? I was expecting bullying. I was expecting the betrayal of a lost best friend.

I was not expecting to find out that Asher was molested and raped by a beloved uncle, and that his twelve year old response was to in turn molest, abuse, rape, and manipulate Leonard for a two year period.

The horror of that is almost beyond my comprehension, and the horror I feel is both for Leonard and Asher.

Part of what scares the hell out of me about young adult books such as Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is the nightmare situations that some teens have to endure. Some adults deal with this horror by believing, ban the book. Out of sight, out of mind, and they can continue believing that kids’ lives are sweet and wonderful and trauma free. Me, I want these books for teens, for a variety of reasons. And I want them for adults as a reminder that this is the truth for some teens.

Back to Asher and Leonard. Part of Leonard’s anger at his mother is she didn’t realize the abuse was happening. Instead, if anything, she thought her son was gay. Which, you know? I can almost understand. I don’t tend to think of kids doing this to each other, when I think of abuse. And it’s further muddied by Asher being a victim, also.

Herr Silverman becomes Leonard’s lifeline. By seeing Leonard. By offering him a realistic hope, if that makes sense, in the advice of “not letting the world destroy you.” This, then, becomes Leonard’s ending: the last future letter he writes to himself is one that encourages him to believe in a future.

What I wish, though, is that it had been a bit more clear that Leonard needs more than letters to himself. Oh, there is a hint that more will happen. Herr Silverman has contacted Leonard’s mother, who both says they are not the type of people who need therapy but can afford any medicine Leonard needs. So, maybe, despite that contradiction, after the pages of the book he will get more help. Because as it is, I don’t think that Leonard just throwing away the gun, and telling someone about Asher, and writing himself a letter is enough to combat his isolation and depression.

What’s funny, though, is I also don’t like insta-cures for such complex issues. And yes, part of this is just Asher’s personality so shouldn’t be “fixed.” And I’m glad there was no easy answers offered at the end. So I’m not quite sure what more I do want, at the end.

So, your thoughts? On Leonard? His classmates? His mother? Asher?

Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. Little, Brown. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Tana wakes up after a party to a house filled with the dead.

She is one of three survivors: the others are her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, and strange vampire, Gavriel. As the sun slowly sets, the vampires who killed everyone else, bit Aidan, and tied up Gavriel, crawl out of the basement.

Tana makes a quick decision:  no one gets left behind. She escapes, taking Aidan and Gavriel with her.

Aidan is infected. If he drinks blood, he’ll become a vampire. Tana decides the only logical thing to do is to take Aidan and Gavriel to the nearest Coldtown, a place where vampires and the infected – and those humans unfortunate enough to be trapped behind the walls.

All Tana has to do is drive a hungry infected teen and a hungry vampire to the nearest Coldtown and get them safely inside. She’s also going to go inside with them: Aidan may be an ex, but he’s still her friend, and she’ll do everything in her power to stop him from drinking human blood. So she’ll go in to make sure he stays human. And Gavriel — there are a lot of questions there, but she figures, if the other vampires are after him, there has to be something there worth saving.

The problem is, Coldtown is a lawless place run by vampires. It’s dark and dangerous. Once you get in, it’s almost impossible to leave.

Almost. They haven’t met Tana yet. She’s determined to do the impossible: save Aidan, help Gavriel, and return to her father and sister.

The Good: Holly Black has created a wonderful vampire world in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. Vampires used to be hidden, remaining the subject of myth and legend, until one vampire broke the rules. The result wasn’t only the loss of secrecy, it was also the spread of vampirism. People were bit and infected. Once they drank human blood, they became vampires themselves. Very few were able to withstand the compulsion and remain human. Locking the infected in basements and hospitals didn’t work, so a handful to towns were designated “coldtowns” — towns just for vampires. The vampires were locked in, along with any humans unfortunate enough to be stuck in the towns when the walls wents up.

Everyone loves a vampire — the darkness, the danger, the eternal youth, the power. The vampires of Coldtown realize that, and realize that they need blood, and realize that all they need to do is convince humans to enter the Coldtowns willingly. Reality TV shows, live from Coldtown, making it all seem sexy and glamorous and exciting. The vampires are stars — safely behind walls, except for those few so swept out by the wonder of it that they believe they are different and unique enough to enter a Coldtown a human and become one of those stars. As I read about the parties being shown and the clothes worn, about the whole odd society of humans, vampires, and infecteds within Coldtown, I wondered — how much had the vampires created out of the myths of vampires? How much would they have done anyway? Did the vampires allow human stories to influence how they portray themselves?

Tana doesn’t see the wonder of it all, probably because as a child she saw what vampires were really like. Her mother became infected; her father locked his beloved wife up, thinking if they only kept her from drinking blood all would be well. It didn’t end well. Tana’s sister, Pearl, was too young to know her mother or remember the details of her death. Pearl watches the reality shows, online and on TV, entranced. The power and pull of the vampires is also shown by two siblings Tana meets, “Midnight” and “Winter” who are entering Coldtown in the hopes of becoming vampires. (Because of the food supply issues, this is actually not a very likely thing to happen. The last thing the existing vampires want is losing a source of food AND having another hungry mouth within the Coldtown.)

Tana is one of those characters who — well, let me put it this way. If I had been Tana, this would have been an entirely different story because I would have run as fast as I could once I woke up in a house full of my dead friends. I’d have saved myself first, sending help. So yes, I kept on yelling at the book “don’t do that, that’s too dangerous, it’s not worth it.” Except, of course, it was. Tana is simply braver than me. And more forgiving because I really couldn’t stand her ex, Aidan. Or, perhaps, not so much forgiving as someone who has lost people — her mother and a house full of dead friends — so will do anything to save the few survivors, no matter how annoying and self centered and selfish they are. It’s perhaps even a bit selfish of Tana, how she holds close those she wants to save. Selfish, because she doesn’t want to lose people, and selfish because it’s driven by the guilt from her lost mother. Selfish, because she’s not asking what it is that Aidan wants.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown also has terrific plotting: how things fit together is, at times, almost like a layered puzzle box. How the people and things fit together, how it all works out. It’s not just that Tana helping Gavriel turns out to be more significant than anyone could guess. (Well, except the reader of course, who realizes that a vampire being hunted by other vampires has to have a pretty unique backstory). It’s not just what ends up happening with Winter and Midnight and Aidan and even Pearl. It’s how all that works together as a whole. Brilliant.

This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because while I’ll never be the heroine in Coldtown, I love visiting in the safe pages of a book. Because The Coldest Girl in Coldtown starts with a mass murder of a roomful of teens, and those are not the last deaths we’ll see. I love a book where the stakes are real!

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; YA Bibliophile.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Leonard Peacock

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. Little, Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: It is Leonard Peacock’s birthday.

No one remembers.

He has wrapped up four gifts, to give to his four best friends.

And he is bringing his grandfather’s handgun to school.

Today is the day he will shoot Asher Beal, and then himself.

But first he will give the gifts to his friends, and tell us his story.

The Good: There are two questions that haunt the reading of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Why does Leonard want to kill his former best friend? And will he?

The “why” is revealed gradually, during the twenty four hours of Leonard’s birthday. Why did Leonard and Asher change from childhood best friends? Why is Leonard now the school outcast and Asher the popular teen who bullies others?

Leonard will break your heart; at least, he broke mine. Yes, Leonard’s planning to kill someone. And then kill himself. Wanting to murder another, that should be horrifying. And it is. But along the way — well. This is one of those books and reviews where I struggle with spoilers, because I both want people to read and uncover what happens on their own, on Leonard’s time frame, but then I also want to discuss what does or does not happen.

So, as I have done with a few other books, I’m splitting this into two reviews, one non-spoilery and one with more spoilers.

The non spoiler way: yes, what Asher did was terrible and horrible. What was also terrible and horrible for Leonard was how alone he was. and still is. How few people there are in his life.

Leonard’s father has skipped the country, fleeing criminal charges (he’s a former rock musician who owes the government money); his mother has decided to put herself first, moving into New York City and leaving Leonard alone in south Jersey to take care of himself. Those four people who has left good-bye gifts for? A neighbor, a classmate, a local girl, a teacher. And for each, in a way, what they mean to Leonard is more than what Leonard means to them. Because of how alone Leonard is.

Without spoilers, let me say how wonderful his teacher is. Herr Silverman teachers Holocaust studies and German; he is one of the few adults Leonard respects. Herr Silverman gets the important role that a teacher can play in someone’s life. “At the beginning of every class he greets all of his students at the door, shakes everyone’s hand on the way in, smiles at you, and looks you in the eye.” What the teacher is doing is creating a moment: a moment for each of those teens, whether they realize it or not, whether they need it at that moment or not, where that student matters. Is real. Is seen.

Leonard respects very few people: I confess, at one point I got a little irritated at Leonard. So much negativity! So much cynicism and a belief that he knows more, sees more, is better than those around him. At that point, I have to say — I could understand why Leonard didn’t have more friends. Is this Leonard being a typical teen? Or is it a defense mechanism, to be the first to judge and reject when one fears judgment and rejection? Or is it something more?

Here’s a bit of what I mean about Leonard’s world view: “Just as soon as you take the first step toward getting to know someone your own age, everything you thought was magical about that person turns to shit right in front of your face.” Better to never know anyone, to never be disappointed! Better to be alone…. or is it? And a little more, to show when I was a bit impatient with Leonard: “It’s a depressing reality, how my classmates make love to their ignorance.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is as much about Leonard slowly realizing the need to have other people in his life as it is about the need to destroy the person who hurt him so deeply, and then destroy himself. Part of what Leonard does is his write himself letters from his future self; it’s something Herr Silverman recommended, a personal “it gets better” with a side of “this shows you what you want, so figure out how to get there.” Want to understand Leonard’s attitude? His future has love, yes: a wife, a daughter, a father in law. But it’s in a post-nuclear world where the small family is isolated, tending a lighthouse.

Leonard wasn’t always this way. (Or was he? He’s telling the story, so who knows? He does mention, about being a kid, “I was already weird back then, and people were starting to notice more and more.“) He talks about when he and Asher were still friends, and how as eleven year olds they got on their bicycles and just rode with total freedom and no destination, leaving their town behind: “It felt like we were embarking on an amazing, forbidden adventure. I remember Asher leading the way through all of these towns we’d never been to before even though they were close by and I remember experiencing a sense of freedom that was new and alive and intoxicating. . . . That day buzzed with possibility.” And that moment — seeing the child that saw possibility, then reading the broken Leonard.

There is so much more I want to say. And I’ll have second post. But to wrap this up: Yes, it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because Leonard was so achingly real. Because this is about the impact people have on others, even when they don’t realize it. Because some people are so alone. Because Forgive Me always stays true to how Leonard sees the world and other people. Because it’s a tribute to the good that teachers do, not by testing but by being teachers.

Other reviews: The Book Pixie; Perpetual Page Turner; Author Interview at Book Page.

 

Review: Wise Young Fool

Wise Young Fool by Sean Beaudoin. Little, Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Ritchie Sudden is locked up for ninety days. He’s about to tell you why he got here. Well, eventually.

Ritchie is about to tell you about his senior year. And how he and his best friend, Elliot Hella, started a band.

And he’s going to tell you about the hottest girl in school, Ravenna Woods.

And maybe a bit about his Mom, and his Mom’s girlfriend, Looper.

But not Beth. At least, not yet.

It’s a boy, and a guitar, and music, and a band, and best friends.

And it’s about surviving those ninety days — and so, yes, Ritchie will let you know, eventually, why he’s in there. What happened.

But first, he’s going to tell you about the band. Every band needs a name, right? How does Sin Sistermouth sound?

OK, then. How about Wise Young Fool?

The Good: Loved, loved, loved Ritchie. The book begins at Progressive Progress, where Ritchie is serving his ninety days: “The air would taste like angst, except there is no air. The silence would sound like fear and pain, except there is no silence.” And then Ritchie is telling us about the day before senior year, when he and Elliot Hella went to buy Ritchie’s electric guitar, and, as Ritchie explains, “a band is dying to be born.”

And how, I wonder, did this great kid get from here to there, from point A to point locked up?

Ritchie is funny and smart. I’m sure his teachers have said, endlessly, that he doesn’t work up to his potential. Here, early on, Ritchie describing Elliot’s current, elderly stepfather: “Lawrence shrugs and nods, practically a living memory, a dream of tweed suits and chalkboards and differential equations, like Russell Crowe in that movie where he’s not a gladiator.” How can you not love Ritchie?

Sometimes, I forgot where Ritchie was. The ninety days. Instead, I got swept into Ritchie’s year of forming a band and deciding on a name (and oh, the endless band name debates!) I got pulled into the drama of Ritchie wanting one girl while hooking up with another and not quite knowing what to do next, except to ignore phone calls. (Let me add: while Ritchie is in love (or is it lust?) with one girl, and ends up sleeping with another because, well, she’s there, and this is always told from Ritchie’s point of view, both Ravenna and Lacy Duplais are fully formed characters, with their own wants and needs and story arcs that aren’t about Ritchie.) And I wondered about Beth, Ritchie’s older sister.

Beth is dead: and Beth’s death, and the aftermath, and what happened before are things that Ritchie reveals gradually. Let’s just say, his father took off and started a new family. And now his mother is with Looper. And Ritchie hates to drive. One of the things I loved about Wise Young Fool is how little, really, I ended up knowing about Beth, or Ritchie’s mom or dad. By the end, I knew more about Looper, his mom’s girlfriend, than any of Ritchie’s other family members. Why? Because, of course, Beth died. And it’s easier for Ritchie to talk with Looper, because she is part of his after-Beth life. Which reminds me of another thing I liked about Wise Young Fool: how little the adults mattered in the story, yet, still, were present and there. This is always Ritchie’s story, a story of a teenager learning to deal with a tremendous loss and still enjoying life, and friends, and music. Always, the music.

A quick note about the names: in addition to the dual-story going on (Ritchie serving his time, and Ritchie’s senior year that led up to his serving time) this is also structured as a “found manuscript” : “Three years ago, a very curious manuscript was turned in to our offices. . . .  we have still found no trace of the town, friends, or high school Ritchie refers to below.” While it’s an interesting thing to bring into a book discussion, it also tells the reader to look at Ritchie’s humor and wordplay in the names he gives his friends, family and town. Even Ritchie’s own name, “Ritchie Sudden” (rich sudden? suddenly rich?), his friend El Hella; a teacher is called Miss Menepausse; his home town is Sackville, just to point out a few.

Because even though I haven’t been in a band, and have no musical talent whatsoever, yet got what music meant to Ritchie, and what that band meant to him. Because Ritchie was so awesome. Because Ravenna and Lacy have full stories, even though this is always Ritchie’s own. Because Looper and his Mom is an awesome couple. Wise Young Fool is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews and links: Wise Young Fool Trailer; Bewitched Bookworms.

 

Review: The Lucy Variations

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr. Little, Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Eight months ago, Lucy Beck-Moreau stopped playing the piano.

Teens do that all the time, right?

Except Lucy Beck-Moreau, 16, isn’t your typical teen. She was a concert pianist, who was in Prague for a major event when she decided “no more.” No more traveling, or practicing; no more private lessons; no more recordings; no more playing the piano.

Instead, she’s going to school like a regular teen, hanging out with her friends Reyna and Carson.

At home, her equally talented younger brother continues his lessons, showcases, and competitions, doing what Lucy did at age ten.

Eight months have passed, and Lucy begins to think about playing again. But what would that mean? Her grandfather believes there is only one right way to play: to be your best and do your best by competing on the national stage. If you’re not that level, why bother?

What does Lucy want to do?

The Good: Oh, Lucy. She’s the type of character I love because she is so real. She quit rather dramatically and her family reacted equally dramatically, with everyone being very “so you don’t want to play, FINE, that means never playing again, FINE” and retreating to their different corners.

Lucy’s family is rich. Very rich. Rich enough to have private tutors, both for piano and for school, and to travel to all those competitions and showcases. I love how Zarr can write books set in different socioeconomic settings and for each one, it feels real and accurate. Lucy is rich, and has creature comforts, and yes, a certain level of indulgence, but she isn’t spoiled or annoying. Probably because one thing The Lucy Variations is clear about: the amount of work and sacrifice that playing piano at her level takes.

I don’t know anything about playing the piano. Never had lessons; we never had a piano. It doesn’t matter; I understood what Lucy saw in music and playing and that is what matters. I also liked how Lucy liked, well, being “that” Lucy and wasn’t always sure how to handle that. “It could be hard to find the line between sharing credentials in an effort to fit and showing off.” And later, “she did like that part. Being somebody. Even if it meant certain people were jealous or thought she was too young to get the attention she did. . . . But in places like this, she knew she mattered.”

So, that’s the obvious story: teen quits playing piano and has to figure out whether piano, and music, will be a part of her future and what that future will look like. With a side of some delicious family dynamics: equally talented younger brother; rich, controlling, gruff grandfather; a less-talented mother devoted to her children’s success and her father’s dreams; and a non-musical father who is a bit of an outsider in his own family. “Decisions were made the usual way, Grandpa Beck steamrolling over everyone, aided by her mother, her dad standing off to the side letting the whole thing happen.”

But. But. But. Yes, that is great and wonderful but there is something else going on here. A look at a young woman and sexuality that is nuanced. And I don’t mean sex.

See, Lucy has this habit. She gets crushes on male authority figures. At the start of The Lucy Variations it is her English teacher; as the story moves on, it shifts to her younger brother’s piano tutor, Will. Her reasons are complex, and while a friend makes an observation about why Lucy does this, it’s also left up to the reader to decide. Lucy has always been in situations where she requires adult level approval (with teachers, with audiences, with judges) so that transfers, a bit, to how she views teachers and other authority figures. She’s also been around adults more than her peers, so has a natural affinity for being around adults. I could also argue that the combination of domineering grandfather and removed father has to do with her seeking approval and acceptance from these older men. There is also something to be said for Lucy picking “safe” men for the object of her affections: older, authority figures, sometimes married (and in the past, gay). She can explore the feelings and emotions but part of her always has to know that nothing will happen. Frustrating, perhaps? But also safe because she never has to deal with the reality of a relationship.

Lucy is a great mix of young and old, like many teens. I’ll try to minimize spoilers. But Mr. Charles, her English teacher, illustrates how a good teacher handles these types of crushes, struggling for the balance between being an appropriate mentor and teacher, and yet keeping the necessary distance and lines. In other words, he realizes at all times that Lucy’s emotions are real and fragile and to be respected, yet, at the same time, they are the feelings of a young teenager who is his student. He knows it’s not about him. It’s great that Lucy is allowed her feelings and her wants, but it’s safe because, bluntly, Mr. Charles is a grown up who is not about to fool around with a sixteen year old just because they “like” him.

Will is the tutor for Lucy’s brother. And here is another interesting character and relationship study. Gus views any type of relationship between Will and Lucy as a betrayal, because Will is his teacher. Yet, Lucy is exploring returning to music, Will respects that, and a friendship develops between Will and Lucy. If you’re a grown up reading this book, alarms go off, and with good cause. (Though, this is not “that” type of book.) Lucy denies wanting to hurt her brother, or to compete with him, but she doesn’t put the brakes on her friendship with Will. And is Will encouraging Lucy, or leading her on? Lucy knows what she’s doing, yet doesn’t know. When her friend Reyna confronts her on whatever it is that is happening with Will, Lucy denies it, but at the same time, Lucy does know she wants more from Will than the texts they are exchanging.

I can see I’m doing that being wordy thing where I just love how Lucy’s emotions are explored and respected, and so want to go on and on about it, so I’ll stop now. And just add, that Lucy’s relationships alone would be reason to make this a Favorite Book Read in 2013. The other reasons: Lucy’s family. Lucy’s own feelings towards music, and why she quit. And Lucy trying to determine just who she is, and what makes her happy, it’s just terrific. And the resolution, which is the best kind of ending that is actually a beginning.

Other reviews: Slatebreakers; Stacked; The New York Times; Interview at Stacked; Zarr’s Guest Post at the Kindle Blog.

Review: Rapture Practice

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler. Little, Brown & Co. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

It’s About: Aaron Hartzler’s memoir about growing up in an ultra-religious Christian family. It is funny; touching; rebellious; believing; and loving.

The Good: I have a bit of a fascination with religion, especially those that say they have the answers. In a world that is at times messy, and unclear, how reassuring to have, well, a guidebook telling you what to do. I watch shows like 19 Kids and Counting or Polygamy USA and wonder, what about the kids who aren’t satisfied with such a black and white worldview? What happens when that guidebook doesn’t work for you?

Rapture Practice is about one of those kids.

Hartzler writes with love and honesty and respect for his parents, their religion, and the way they raised him and his siblings. His parents do everything they can to have young Aaron and his siblings follow the path of his parents, including keeping such secular things as popular music, television, and movies out of their lives and having all the children attend strict Christian schools.

Young Aaron believes: “when I say we believe that Jesus is coming back, I don’t mean metaphorically . . . I mean literally, like glance out of the car window and, “Oh, hey, there’s Jesus in the sky.” Yet as time goes by, he cannot help but question; cannot help but have questions that his parent’s doctrine doesn’t answer.

Such as, what is so wrong with popular music? Or movies? Why does his father not see that the messages found there can be about love, or friendship, or forgiveness? Is watching the movie Pretty Woman really a danger?

As Aaron grows, he begins to do more and more things that he knows his parents would disapprove of; or, worse, be disappointed by, because disobeying them, and rebelling against them, is the same as rebelling against Jesus. He knows that he shouldn’t, but he does — he goes to movies. He listens to rock music. He dreams of becoming an actor. He pays attention to the clothes he wears. He watches TV at his friends’ houses. He tries a beer. He kisses girls. He drinks. He does all the things his parents don’t want him to. And yet — yet he wants to please his parents. He wonders why he has to pick; why he has to lie.

Some things I cannot emphasize enough: just how funny Rapture Practice is. And just how loving Aaron’s parents are. This is not a memoir about abusive religious parents. Aaron’s parents love him and want what is best for him; they believe and they want Aaron to believe. They have created a warm, loving, caring family. Rapture Practice is one reason I like non-fiction, because this type of complexity, that Aaron’s parents can be both loving and restrictive, warm and controlling, is something hard to find in fiction. Aaron’s moment of coming of age is not embracing independence by moving on from his family; rather, it’s the recognition that he has to accept them as they are in the same way that he desires to be accepted by them.

Part of Aaron’s high school years includes relationships with girls. It’s part of what could get him in trouble with his parents and his school, because saving oneself for marriage is something taken very seriously. Yet, it’s also part of what Aaron does to fit in, to hide from himself and his parents and his friends that he may like boys. It’s heartbreaking, reading how Aaron sits through classes about the abomination of homosexuality, and his take away is a that the two guys shown kissing are look like him; “it looked like they were nice guys who were nice to each other.” Kissing girls hides this the world, and from himself. But as I said, see the humor even here, in that the very film whose point was to show Aaron just how wrong being gay is instead ended up being one of the series of things leading him to the recognition that he likes boys; and that people who are gay weren’t so different after all. So it’s sad and it’s funny; and I want to say to Aaron, it’s going to be OK; and I’m glad that since this is a memoir, it’s a built in spoiler that it gets better for Aaron.

Yes; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because it is warm and wonderful and full of joy; while at the same time, showing just how damaging narrowness can be.

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; The Nervous Breakdown Interview; Lambda Literary Review; Book Riot; Leila Roy (Bookshelves of Doom) at Kirkus; The Librarian Writer.

Review: Game

Game by Barry Lyga. Sequel to I Hunt Killers. Little, Brown & Co. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: In I Hunt Killers, Jazz helped capture a serial killer. It was his father, the infamous serial killer Billy Dent, who taught Jazz the ways of killing, not thinking for a moment that Jazz would decide to help the police rather than continue in Dear Old Dad’s line of work.

Jazz is trying to deal with the fallout from I Hunt Killers when the New York Police Department shows up on his doorstep, asking the seventeen year old to use his unique skills to help them catch the Hat-Dog Killer.

Jazz caught the Impressionist because he was a serial killer imitating Billy Dent’s crimes, under the guidance of Billy Dent. The Hat-Dog Killer started killing before Billy escaped from prison; with no connection to Billy’s crimes, can Jazz help?

Turns out, Jazz can. His girlfriend Connie insists on not being left behind; his best friend Howie stays behind to help care for Jazz’s grandmother. And turns out, Dear Old Dad is also in New York….

Start reading. And then lock and double lock your doors.

The Good: Needless to say, you should read I Hunt Killers first. Done? Good.

Moving the mystery to New York City is smart: first of all, just how many serial killers can Lobo’s Nod have? Plus, Billy Dent is too smart to return to his hometown. Or, rather — Billy Dent has too much unfinished business. He has other things to do….

But this isn’t about Billy, is it? Because the Hat-Dog Killer started while Billy was still in prison. Because they’ve found DNA on the victims and it doesn’t match Billy’s. No, the Hat-Dog Killer is a new killer for Jazz to hunt, with the help of Connie and Howie.

Let me just say: the hard part of any teen mystery is why is it a teen investigating? Game‘s solution, that only Jazz has been trained from birth by a serial killer, is simple and chilling at the same time. Also, with Mom dead (body never found, but it’s assumed she’s one of Billy’s many victims), Dear Old Dad an escaped convict, Gramma suffering from dementia (and just general racist meanness), there’s no one telling Jazz “no”. Now, there are people telling his friends “no” so their need to be some creative solutions there to the “why are their parents letting them investigate serial killers” problem.

Let me also say: I think that Connie’s and Howie’s being friends with Jazz, and their involvement in the capture of the Impressionist, leaves them a bit over-confident and under-afraid of what they are getting involved in. It’s one thing when the mystery happens in your back yard; it’s another when you go to find it. I find their actions and motivations believable, but I still wanted to sit them down and say WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?

Connie; another good thing about this series is the diversity in the characters. Jazz is white; his girlfriend is black. This is both just a part of who they are, but also an interesting plot point because, see, Billy Dent killed plenty of women but never one who was black. Is Jazz attracted to Connie because she is “safe” since she doesn’t look like any of Dear Old Dad’s kills? Do Connie’s parents dislike Jazz because he is white, or because he is the son of Billy Dent?

One more thing: yes, the murders are nasty stuff, but it’s nasty stuff described in a line or a paragraph. It doesn’t go on for pages and pages, like some adult serial killer fiction books do. So it’s intense, and it doesn’t pretend that the killing is anything but brutal, and it doesn’t romanticize murders, but it also doesn’t go on and on and on in step-by-step detail.

The good news is the Hat-Dog Killer mystery IS resolved by the end of the book. This is a mystery, after all, and that matters. (Yes, I am still not over the ending of the first season of The Killing). The bad news? Certain other plots were introduced and the way those plots were left, well, yes, the term “cliff hanger” would be appropriate.

One more thing: you know how sometimes I skip to the end to reassure myself that certain characters don’t die, so I can continue to read with less tension? Well, that totally backfired on me. Darn you, Barry Lyga!!

Other reviews:  YA Love; Makeshift Bookmark.

Review: When We Wake

When We Wake by Karen Healey. Little, Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: “My name is Tegan Oglietti, and on the last day of my first lifetime, I was so, so happy.” And Tegan, sixteen, was happy. No, her life wasn’t perfect or flawless. Her father, a soldier, had died when she was little. But she had a best friend, and a boyfriend, and a brother and a mother and her music and free running and all that goes away when she dies.

She wakes up in 2128 and it’s all gone. She died, and she thought her donor card meant her organs would be used to keep others alive, but instead her body was used to test cryonics and it worked because now, over a hundred years later, she’s alive. She’s the first  person who has been woken up and she’s in a government lab and everyone she knew is dead.

The world is a very different place, and it’s not just that no one knows who the Beatles are. Australia is not the country she remembered, and it’s not just the climate or slang that has changed. It’s the Australia for Australians movement that bars any type of immigration; it’s the fringe religious group convinced Tegan has no soul and should kill herself; it’s the secrets being kept from her about what the cryonics project is really about.

Tegan is more than a body. She refuses to be bossed around, to be treated as if she is owned by the government. She insists on trying to have a life, again; she goes to school, makes friends. But the secrets are still there. Tegan’s not content to just go with the flow; she’s the type of girl who asks questions and will follow the truth no matter what.

The Good: “We all begin with our past.”

Where to start? Let’s start with Tegan, and the way she shares that one perfect day to show how happy she was in the past. Tegan is a great, nuanced character. That shared day allows us to see Tegan at her best; or, at least, what she thinks of as her best. Both conventional and unconventional; both going with the status quo but also questioning; valuing friendships and love. When her life ends, and her new life begins, we, like Tegan, have a reference point of who and what she was, as she tries to rebuild her life. We understand what she mourns. I liked Tegan, and I rooted for her, and admired her dedication to doing the right thing, not the easy thing.

Then there is how the story is told: yes, Tegan is telling the story, and it’s clear it’s a little bit after the events in When We Wake, but this is not straightforward narrative. At one point, Tegan tells us something she learns about her future world and accepts it and so did I, as the reader, but then Tegan as narrator tells us: “I can’t believe I was such an idiot.” So, she is letting us know — not all we are reading is to be trusted. This is not just about Tegan’s rebirth into a strange new world; it’s about Tegan realizing there’s more she doesn’t know than simply how to use the toilet. (Don’t ask.)

OK — the toilet. First, though, Tegan is sixteen in 2027. Even her “present,” her “now” is our future. This allows things to be familiar enough — just as there is enough familiar between 1999 and 2013 that certain things are the same, as familiar to the reader as to Tegan. Her love of the Beatles, the foods her mom cooks. Somethings are different: the weather has gotten worse and warmer, for example. Why even set it in the future? Partly, it’s to have the scientific and medical knowledge available to freeze Tegan but not to have enough knowledge to wake her up any sooner. Partly, it’s to set the stage for what Tegan discovers about the future in terms of the military, environment, and government.

Oh, and about the cryonics. I was super-creeped out that Tegan signing her donor card meant this happened to her. I perhaps got a little bit over-obsessed about what it means, exactly, to donate one’s body for science and the complications.

So. The toilet. Who would think that in just over a hundred years toilets would be that different? But think back a hundred years, and yes, the little things and the big things have changed. The Beatles? No one has heard about them. I loved discovering the world along with Tegan. There are good things about the future and for a while Tegan thinks that her old friends and family helped make the world a better place. Tegan tries hard to adjust, to create a new life, to understand why it’s happening…. And why is it happening?

As Tegan learns more about the present, she realizes that while some prejudices are gone (Tegan herself is white, but her new and old friends are a diverse group) others have replaced them. (One funny thing: her new friends assuming she shares the prejudices of the past.) There is no perfect world. And  yes, I’m dancing around the secrets she discovers, so that you can discover them with her. It’s both about the way the world is now and why she was brought back, and then what she is willing to do when she learns the truth.

Healey is from New Zealand and When We Wake is set in Australia. Australia is the center, and it is refreshing for a book not to be US-centric. This becomes even more true when more is revealed about current world politics. Short version: the USA is not at the top of the heap.

When We Wake works as a standalone, Tegan waking up like Sleeping Beauty. There will be a sequel, from the perspective of a different character.

Other reviews: Book Smugglers; Far Beyond Reality; Forever Young Adult.

 

Review: Bossypants

Bossypants by Tina Fey. Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2011. Audiobook narrated by Tina Fey (Little, Brown 2011). Listened to audiobook, borrowed from the library. Vacation reads (aka, when I talk about books for grownups and post them before holidays. St. Patrick’s Day counts.)

It’s About: Tina Fey writes about her life.

The Good: Tina Fey writes about her life. Or, rather, in this case because it’s an audiobook, Tina Fey talks about her life, so it was like I was carpooling with Tina Fey for a week and she never shut up and it was AWESOME.

It’s Tina Fey’s book, goshdarnit, so she writes what she wants to — about different things in her life, primarily about her career but also some personal anecdotes as well. This is not a linear autobiography, but rather a story of a journey to being the creator and star of 30 Rock.

So, yes, this is funny; and it shows the path to where she is now. You want some laughs, you want to find out how she got into the TV business, you’ll enjoy this book.

I wasn’t going to read this book; oh, yes, I appreciate Tina Fey’s work, but it’s not like I was a fangirl. Then Sophie Brookover told me I had to read this, not just read but listen to Bossypants, because of what Tina Fey says about gender and being a working woman and working hard and being accomplished and sexism. And, well, when Sophie tells you to something, you do it.

And now I am a fangirl. Because yes, Tina Fey is funny and I laughed myself silly but even better, Tina Fey is smart and observant and knows how to explain just what is wrong and why and what to do about it, about work and life and feminism and careers and everything. And much as I loved carpooling with Tina Fey, now I want to buy the book so I can mark it up for all the quotes I’m going to be using forever.

Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.” This, this, this. Who cares. Just do. your. thing.  Note she’s not saying to be quiet, she’s not saying not to do your stuff, she’s saying don’t waste energy on closed ears and don’t let that stop you from your path. Tina Fey (I’m sorry, we’re not friends so I cannot call her Tina) also makes terrific points about women being bosses: not because women are better or smarter or more compassionate but because being the boss means you can do your thing.

And this: ““My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.” Of course, the trick here is determining whether the person is indeed between me and what I want to do. And note again, the reason to be in charge — to control who you work with. Or who you don’t.

And this, about the falseness and reality of competition: ““This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. “You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.” Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.”

And, finally, (and finally only because otherwise I’d be quoting the entire book) when someone talks to you in a way that is demeaning, insulting, or bullying (her context is being called the c-word but I think it works in other areas): “A coworker at SNL dropped an angry c-bomb on me and I had the weirdest reaction. To my surprise, I blurted, “No. You don’t get to call me that. My parents love me. I’m not some Adult Child of an Alcoholic that’s going to take that shit.”

So. Yes. Read this book. And of course it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.