Review: Out of Reach

Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos. Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rachel, sixteen, is on a mission. To find her older brother, Micah. Micah, 18, is a meth addict. One night, he didn’t come home. When Rachel gets an email saying Micah is in Ocean Beach, an hour away, and in trouble, she prints it out and puts in a drawer. Waits a week, studies it, wonders if it’s a joke. Finally she tells Micah’s friend Tyler, who asks her — what is she going to do?

She’s going to go to Ocean Beach. See if she can find her brother and bring him home. Tyler comes along, and together, they will search the streets for Micah. What if she waited too long? What if she can’t find him?

The Good: Out of Reach takes place over the twenty-four hours that Rachel and Tyler go in search of Micah. During that time, Rachel thinks back on what has led her, what has led Micah, to this point.

The structure of this novel matters, because it is about such an intense subject matter: Micah’s addiction to meth. By showing his use only through Rachel’s flashbacks, Out of Reach keeps the focus on the true point of the story: not Micah, not meth, not addiction, but what addiction does to family members.

Arcos shows the complexity of Rachel’s feelings: wanting Micah home, but wanting a healthy, non-addict brother. Guilt over the delay in responding to the email, guilt over not telling her parents about Micah’s escalating drug use, guilt even over being the “good” daughter to Micah’s “bad” son. It’s not just guilt; it’s also anger. Rachel “decided that when we found Micah, I would ask him, ‘why?’ but no matter what answer he gave, I knew I’d still want to punch him in the face.”

Out of Reach shows the impact of Micah’s addiction on the rest of the family, but even then, the focus is tight: a day in Rachel’s life. In a way, this makes the tragedy of what has happened to the Stevens family easier to handle, because it is told by Rachel after the fact — after the use, after hearing that “Micah claimed he used as an artistic experience, saying that he connected with the universe when he was high,” after the rehab not paid by insurance, after discovering that Micah has spent his college fund on drugs. It doesn’t lessen what has happened to this family and Rachel, but it makes it a bit easier to handle because it’s all things Rachel already knows, has already processed. What Rachel hasn’t processed, and what this book is about, is realizing that physically and emotionally and mentally, Micah is “out of reach” of his family and nothing any of them do or say can change that.

Out of Reach is about Rachel emotionally and mentally processing the loss of her brother; this internal journey is shown via the external journal Rachel takes with Tyler, driving to Ocean Beach and going street by street, block by block, looking for a trace or sign of Micah. She takes this journey with a good friend of Micah’s. This provides the tentative romance, more light flirting than anything else. It doesn’t detract from the seriousness of what is going on with Micah — rather, it is another external example of the internal road to healing and wholeness that Rachel is on. It’s OK to have have feelings for a guy, to have an ice cream cone, even if her brother is missing, even if her brother is addicted.

I can see why this is a National  Book Award finalist: the tight plotting, the careful balance of showing the horror of what Micah’s addiction without having Micah’s journey and story take over his sister’s story, Rachel’s’ own journey in processing what Micah means to her and what his loss has done to her. This is Arcos’s debut novel, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on the Morris shortlist.

Review: Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rownie is one of “grandchildren” of the witch, Graba, children she’s collected to run her errands. His mother is dead; his older brother, Rowan, brought Rownie to Graba knowing the shelter she offered was better than nothing. Now Rowan is missing, and Rownie is looking everywhere for him.

Rowan was an actor, something illegal in the town of Zombay. When Rownie finds an acting troupe made up of goblins, he finds out that they knew Rowan. Can the goblins help him find Rowan? What causes a human to change into a goblin? And will Graba let Rownie go?

The Good: One of the good things about reading the National Book Award Finalists after they’ve been announced is that I read from a place of, “why this book? what made this special?” It also makes me read outside my “same old, same old.” The bulk of my reading is usually young adult, so it was nice to be pushed into reading a middle grade book for younger readers.

With Goblin Secrets, quite a few things made my list for “why.”

There is the world building in Goblin Secrets: and what a world! There is magic and science. Graba is a witch, with gearwork legs shaped like chicken’s legs. She uses magic to move her house around. (I know! A twist on Baba Yaga!) Goblins were once human, and now that they are changed operate under different rules than humans. Humans acting is disallowed, both because it is frowned upon to pretend to be something you are not but also because there is real power in wearing a mask. Rowan was discovering that power, and it may be the reason he is now missing. Perhaps, overall, what I liked best about Goblin Secrets was its mix of familiarity (goblins and witches and curses) and originality (coal made from hearts, gearwork legs and soldiers, dangerous pigeons). I’m reminded of the books I loved as a child, the ones that gave me enough for my imagination to wander in the world even after the story was done.

The magic — this is a magic both real and magic created by belief. Yes, when Rownie puts on a mask he feels different and acts different and there is power. But it’s not perfect power: at one point, Rownie loses that magic when being pursued: “the charm was broken. The Grubs had broken it with a look and a smirk, without even trying.” What at first seems to be just a quirk in a fairy tale (acting is outlawed) turns out to be have more serious and sinister meaning. Not everything is explained; it’s Rownie’s world, and things are the way they are.

And Rownie: finally, Rownie, who Gaba says is eight but Rownie himself is sure he is closer to ten. So young, to be practically on his own. Living with Graba means a roof over his head, and errands to run, but it doesn’t mean food or comfort. His brother was all Rownie. The adventures he goes on once he meets up with the goblins: the risks of illegal acting, hiding from Graba, running from her “Grubs” (her “grandchildren”), saving the city of Zombay. I can easily picture him running through the streets as his oversized coat billows out behind him.

I said “finally” and I lied. As I put this review aside for a few days, different parts of the book came back to me. The other characters, from Rownie’s “sister” Vass who is being taught to be a witch by a witch jealous of any competition; and the goblins themselves, full of secrets and knowledge: Patch, Semele, Essa, Thomas, Nonny. The plays and the masks; the town and the river. A real ending, not a start of a trilogy. An examination of family: brothers Rowan and Rownie; Graba’s “grandchildren”; the goblins.

Other reviews and links: Enchanted Inkpot interview; Heavy Medal review; The Book Smugglers; the book website.

Review: Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Cambodia, 1975. Arn, eleven, lives with his sisters and brother. The family is poor, yes, but they are close and have each other.

The are about to lose even that.

The Khmer Rouge seize power. Arn and his family and other inhabitants of the cities are sent into the country to work rice fields. It is part of Khmer Rouge’s politics and attempts at social engineering, but all Arn knows is that the Khmer Rouge kill people for any reason and no reason; that anyone who is educated is a target; that people are dying. That anyone, including Arn, could be next.

The children are separated from their families; like the other former city dwellers, they work long hours growing rice and only eat what they can grow. Luck touches Arn when the soldiers ask for musicians and Arn volunteers. It’s risky: attention from the Khmer Rouge often means death.

Arn’s goal is to survive, and despite the death and horror and killing around him, he does, day by day, moment by moment. Will he survive? And at what cost?

The Good: Never Fall Down is the fictionalized story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who, like Arn, survived the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields; became a musician and kept those around him alive; was a boy soldier. Chorn-Pond is now a humanitarian. At the end of the book, in addition to an Epilogue about what happened to the characters, McCormick relates Chorn-Pond’s involvement in the writing of the book,  her own interviews with people in Chorn-Pond’s life, the decision to make his life story a novel rather than a work of non-fiction, and the method the story is told.

When Arn leaves his aunt, she tells him, “Do whatever they say. Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blows one way, you blow that way. It blow the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” He listens to her, and her parting gift to him — to bend, to survive no matter what — saves his life. It also puts him in terrible situations, as witness to the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnam invade the country, Arn fears them more than the Khmer Rouge so he takes up a gun, fighting on the behalf of the Khmer Rouge, even though he is a child himself. He takes up a gun, yes, but he has little choice — he has to follow the wind to survive.

Arn’s story is chilling. It is one of physical survival, day in, day out, with little food and comfort. It is also about mental and emotional survival. He’s torn from his family, so remakes his family, looking at those around him as his brothers. Arn is not sentimental about this, and while he takes risks to get extra food, for example, it is always calculated risks. This group that he soon looks at as people he needs to care of, who care for him, who are substitute brothers and father, become necessary for Arn’s own survival as a human being.

What Arn does, and does not do, is told in a rather matter of fact way. Yes, Arn is horrified by the things he sees but at the same time, “in just one day a person can get use to seeing dead body.” Each day, each month, there is more for Arn to get used to. Along the way he has to maintain his sense of self, to not become what he sees around him, and in addition to the “brothers” he helps is the music he learns. The Khmer Rouge may want music for their own political purposes, but it gives Arn a goal, a community, connections. As the reader learns at the end of the book, part of Chorn-Pond’s humanitarian work includes founding the Cambodian Living Arts group to preserve traditional Cambodian arts.

One thing that terribly impressed me was how this story is told. In some ways, I was reminded of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, because of the way the child’s point of view is always maintained and not influenced by adult remembrances. During Never Fall Down, one is always in the moment with Arn. Nothing is softened because of the passage of time; no wisdom is shared from the future Arn who knows how things will work out. And, only the details that matter to Arn are told. For example, the last couple of chapters are about teen-aged Arn finding a home in the United States. As an adult reader I had so many questions — but McCormick doesn’t answer them, instead keeping the story strictly to how Arn sees things and what matters to him.

I confess, even though this book was recommended to me by several people, I avoided reading it until it got the National Book Award Finalist nod. I knew Never Fall Down would be an emotional read, and I wasn’t ready for it. I am around Arn’s age; I remember reading about this in the news and magazines but I don’t remember any books for children about it. I am so thankful it was named a finalist, giving me the push I needed to read it. Yes, it is heartbreaking. Yes, it relates some terrible things. Yes, the way people treat others is distressing. Death and bodies and killings. Arn survives; Arn triumphs; but it’s not in expected ways. I can see why this is a finalist. In one word: Arn, because Never Fall Down gives Arn a voice, and it’s a spellbinding voice that cannot be ignored. I’m also adding it to my Favorite Books Read in 2012.

Reviews and links: Reading Rants review (which includes link to an interview with McCormick and Chorn-Pond, including Chorn-Pond playing Cambodian music); The New York Times Review; NPR Author interview; TeenReads review.

National Book Awards Finalists

One of my obsessions that has developed in the past few years is reading every one of the National Book Award Nominations for Young People’s Literature before the Award is announced.

Those who are unfamiliar with the NBA can check out their website.

Very briefly: judges who are authors select a shortlist of finalists, announced in October; the winner is announced at the gala in November. This year’s Young People’s Literature Judges: Susan Cooper, Daniel Ehrenhaft, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Gary D. Schmidt, Marly Youmans

This year’s Finalists (information from the NBA website):

William Alexander, Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)

Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach (Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)

Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down (Balzer+Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Eliot Schrefer, Endangered (Scholastic)

Steve Sheinkin, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press)

Notice anything? Yep, I haven’t read any of them yet!

When is the winner announced? Wednesday, November 14, 2012

So, if I’m going to be tracking down copies of the books, reading them, and reviewing them by then, I better get busy!

If you’re looking for either motivation to read the books, or a bit of an extra having read them, check out SLJ Speaks to National Book Award Finalists.

How many of the books have you read? Do you plan on reading them all before the winner is announced? What do you think of this year’s finalists?

Who Will Win?

November 16 is the National Book Awards Ceremony in New York City. On my bucket list: to one day attend. In the meanwhile, I’ll have fun following along on Twitter.

First, a recap of the five nominated titles in the Young People’s Literature Category:

Chime by Franny Billingsley (Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, Inc. ). From my review: “Oh, I loved this book. I agonized over putting together the plot description because it seems inadequate. I considered just cutting and pasting the publisher’s description but that didn’t seem to capture Chime, either; not in the “I have sixty seconds to sell this book to you. Here’s why to read it” way I wanted. The best one liner I’ve seen so far is from Reading Rants: “If Tender Morsels had a love child with Madapple, and My Sweet Audrina was the midwife, it might turn out looking like Franny Billingsley’s crazy good new fantasy, CHIME.” The only thing I’d add to that is “and set in a world like The China Garden.”

My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson (Marshall Cavendish). From my review: “There is a difference between a depressing book and a book where sad things happen; this is not a depressing book. Yes, things are lost; Luke’s name is not easy, and neither is his time at the school. There is also love, friendship, kindness, and survival. Not just survival, but triumph.”

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers). From my review:Inside Out & Back Again is a novel in verse. I usually think of novels in verse as books with less details, because, well, there are less words; and I look at them as books where the emotions that need to be conveyed are best told in verse. What surprised and impressed me for Inside Out & Back Again was just how much about Ha’s life in Vietnam, at sea, and in Alabama are given: the lotus seeds and rice cakes to celebrate Tet, a brother who dreams of being Bruce Lee, a family of five living on one mat, the frustrations with learning English.”

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books). From my review: “Imagine — a fifty two hour work week is a “win” for the labor movement. I am thankful to not live a hundred years ago. Before the reader can feel smug about “now” being better than “then,” Marrin informs the reader of current factory conditions in other countries that are far from safe. “Short memories are dangerous, because they allow greed to take control.” There are no simple answers; but there is knowledge, such as the information that Marrin provides in Flesh & Blood So Cheap.”

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). From my review: “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.”

The Judges: Marc Aronson (Panel Chair), Ann Brashares, Matt de la Peña, Nikki Grimes, Will Weaver.

National Book Awards

I have become the type of person that, when the National Book Award Finalists are announced, I have to read them all.

OK, not all-all. I mean the Young People’s Literature Finalists.

This year, there are six titles.

Chime by Franny Billingsley (Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, Inc. ). My review.

My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson (Marshall Cavendish)

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)

Shine by Lauren Myracle (Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS)

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Judges: Marc Aronson (Panel Chair), Ann Brashares, Matt de la Peña, Nikki Grimes, Will Weaver.

The plan: read the books I haven’t read yet; review; and write a wrap up post before the winner is announced on November 16.

If you’re familiar with the NBA, you may be saying, “six? I thought there were usually five finalists.” Well, yeah. That’s covered in Oops! National Book Awards Unveil Six YA Finalists at School Library Journal and National Book Award finalists announced – with an extra title at the LA Times.

All I know is six books I’ve heard good things about (or read and liked) are on the finalist list. Six authors got the good news about being finalists. And now the five/six issue is taking away from what would otherwise be an exciting time. So, what I’m going to do is what I usually do when reading for a list like this: read the books I haven’t read yet, thinking, what about this book made it worthy for the list? What are the strengths of this book? Why do I think it appealed to the judges? Then I’ll post my reviews and look forward to see which one gets the nod!

National Book Awards

The five National Book Awards, Young People’s Literature finalists. For more on the Awards process, see the NBA website. One thing to note: when talking any award, each one is different, from the nomination process to the make-up of the selection committee to the criteria to the selection process. Comparing awards and finalists can be fun, but bottom line, often it’s comparing apples, pineapples, and pine trees.

November 16 is the National Book Awards Teen Press Conference, which will feature all five Young People’s Literature Finalists at the Schomburg Center of The New York Public Library.

November 17th is the National Book Awards Dinner & Ceremony. You can follow the events on Twitter at NationalBook.

A recap of the five finalists:

Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown & Co.)

From my review: “Ship Breaker is breathless, non stop action, with barely room to breathe. Getting lost in ships, hurricanes, deadly infections, knife battles, and that’s just the first third! The world-building is done so seamlessly that it’s not noticed. Along the way, much is given to the reader to think about. This is set in the future, but all the big questions are about our today: the divide between the haves and have nots, the ecological impact of actions, the use of child labor, as well as questions about loyalty, choice, and fate.”

Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group) – NBA Interview

From my review: “A child dying. Who understands that? Who knows why? How can anyone, adult, parent, friend, know what to do when faced with such a tragedy? It’s a community tragedy, because Devon was killed at school. Two other children shot a teacher, Devon, and another student. Erskine takes that tragedy and makes it so much worse, because of how Caitlin processes the world around her. It’s not so much that sees the world in terms of black and white as that she wants to see it in black and white.”

Laura McNeal, Dark Water (Alfred A. Knopf) – NBA Interview

From my review: “I was reading this on the train, and I was surprised to discover I had lost track of time as I was drawn into Pearl’s world and Fallbrook. Luckily, I did not miss my stop! . . . In addition to the beautifully written setting and descriptions, Dark Water is full of metaphors and connections — the types where it is left to the reader to connect the dots. McNeal respects her readers enough to know that they will figure it out.”

Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown
(Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) – NBA Interview

From my review: “Reese feels like he has no choices. But does he? And if he believes he has no choices, does that mean that once he’s released something will happen and he’ll just wind up back in Progress? If he believes fighting is freedom, will he ever be free? Myers brings you into Reese’s world and the limitations, offering no easy answers. I read somewhere that any good book ends not with an ending but a beginning. Lockdown ends with the beginning of Reese’s life.”

Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer
(Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) – NBA Interview.

From my review:  “I love the Gaither sisters! I love how they stick up for each other in public, yet get mad at each other in private. I love how they have this thing where they don’t just finish each others sentences — when taking on someone, they converse as if one, a solid family unit.”

Young People’s Literature Judges: Laban Carrick Hill, Kelly Link, Tor Seidler, Hope Anita Smith, Sara Zarr

Who will win? I have no idea. Both One Crazy Summer and Ship Breaker are on my favorite books read in 2010 list. So, obviously, I’m hoping for either of those books. One Crazy Summer dares to allow a flawed parent to not just exist, but to be loved by her children. Ship Breaker warns of a nightmare future where life has little value, but that makes living all the more important. Though I remain unconvinced that Pearl and Amiel love each other in Dark Water, I am convinced they are rea and the setting — I still think I was there, in California, as the fires burned. Reese from Lockdown stays with me, also; long after the book is over, I hear his voice . While only are in Reese’s world for a few weeks, I am caught up in wondering about not just Reese’s future but that of his sister and friends. And Caitlin in Mockingbird breaks my heart, with her wanting to connect, to be a friend, but not quite being able to. E.M. Forster said, “only connect,” and in her own fashion that is what Caitlin wants to do. Isn’t that what we all want?

Why these five books, then? The National Book Awards is decided by authors, and authors view each other’s work with a different lens than readers. The way these authors have created settings you can see, feel, touch; the way you think you can pass any of these characters on the street; the use of images, metaphor, symbolism — each book is distinctive in its own way. Being finalists shifted three of these books (Dark Water, Lockdown, and Mockingbird) to the top of my “to be read” pile, and I’m glad I read them all.