Review: All Our Pretty Songs

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Two girls, best friends since they were born. Sharing so much: heartaches, family, music. They are not identical, no, but rather they complement each other. “Aurora breaks hearts, and I paint pictures.” Aurora drinks her nights away, knowing her best friend will always be there to make sure she gets home again. Then there is the show where the two girls meet Jack. Beautiful, talented Jack.

Jack and his music will change everything.

The Good: This book can be read two different ways. Which I love.

The unnamed narrator (and how much do I love that we never learn her name) are the daughters of two former best friends. Cass (the narrator’s mother) and Mia (Aurora’s mother) were much like their daughters: living for music, for shows, for the moment, and for musicians. Aurora’s father became famous, and then died, leaving shattered family and friends. Mia has money but she also floats around in a daze of drugs and alcohol. Cass knew she couldn’t get sober and be around Mia, so she picked sober. Cass and her daughter have been struggling financially ever since.

That is the background, all happening before the book, before the summer the girls turn seventeen. Despite their mothers’ estrangement, despite the difference in finances, the girls remain the best of friends. All they really need is each other; together they go to clubs and stay out late. Aurora is the wild child, the golden girl who everyone wants to be and to be with — including the narrator. The narrator offers loyalty, love, fidelity, but she knows she doesn’t shine like Aurora. “People like Aurora don’t have to live with consequences.

And then — Jack. And who is Jack interested in, who does he want? The narrator. She loves Jack, he loves her, and she tries to fight that insecurity and jealousy that makes her wonder about Aurora, and why Jack didn’t pick Aurora, — if I were Jack, she thinks, I’d pick Aurora.

I don’t want to call this a triangle: it’s deeper and more complicated than that. A “triangle” would diminish that.

I love the narrator’s relationship with Jack. Aurora is her best friend and a soul mate; but Jack is a lover, the one who makes her feel things she’s never felt before. Her love, her passion, her desire was so wonderfully shown.

And her poor mother, Cass! Cass, who in some ways is seeing herself as a teenager and what do you do when your daughter follows in your footsteps? How do you tell her to say no when you, yourself, said yes yes yes at that age? Cass is doing her best to be a good mother, and her sacrifices have included the friendship and financial security of being Mia’s friend.

What happens next is one of two things. It depends on how you want to read it.

In one, dark creatures from before time still lurk around our world, offering deals to those willing to make trades. They want Aurora; they want Jack. The narrator is determined to save those she loves from hell. “None of the creatures from that world understand the way human emotions work. They’re all mimicking what they see in us. They can’t create things. They can only steal from us. They’re forever crossing over to wreak havoc because they’re jealous.

In the other, well, those creatures and deals aren’t real. What is real? Drugs and ambition, and that addiction is as real a hell and temptation as any devil. That someone who lives for music will do whatever is needed for that music. And anything else is a hallucination of drugs and need. And those creatures? Those are us, the consumers of other’s crafts.

Either way? And textually, there is more to support the first reading — either way, I love, love, love this book. I love how the narrator loves both Aurora and Jack, and how her insecurity is based not so much in how she views herself as how she views Aurora.

And, I like the way race figures into this book. The narrator is white; Aurora and Jack are not. Neither is the narrator’s boss, Raoul. At one point, the narrator is talking about her love and concern for her friends and Raoul brings skin color into the equation, pointing out her privilege and how her wanting to “save” them is partly her deciding what she wants for Aurora and Jack matters more to her than what Aurora and Jack want for themselves and how she cannot know what it is they want and need: “Look at her. Look at both of them. Do you ever think about what a curse it might be, to look like that? To know that no matter what you were made of, no matter what you did with your life, no one would ever see past your face? Your skin?” 

The narrator’s reaction is, but I love Jack! And I love Aurora! She wants to save them! And Raoul asks her to think about what it is he has said, and what she’s still saying. And this is why I like my theory that there are no real dark creatures and hell, just life, because what Jack is choosing is not a deal with a devil for his music, but rather, he is choosing a life where his music comes first, over love. 

And — the ending!

I love this book; I love the writing; I love that it’s the reader’s choice as to whether or not to believe that Cass is a witch; I love the complicated look at love and lust, ambition, family. So, yes a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Bonus: The paperback copy I read included a sample chapter for McCarry’s next book, Dirty Wings, due out Spring 2014. It’s the story of Mia and Cass as teens.

Other reviews: Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; author guest post at YA Highway; author interview at X O Jane.


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: The Thing About Luck

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Summer Miyamoto’s family has had bad luck the past year. Summer got malaria and was very sick; her grandmother is having painful back problems; her little brother’s only friend moved away. That doesn’t count things like flat tires. Or her parents having to fly to Japan to help take care of elderly relatives.

Summer and her brother, Jaz, are left with their grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. Bills must be paid, and money earned for the mortgage, so her grandparents are coming out of retirement to work the harvest. From May to October, the family will travel. Her grandfather will drive a combine, her grandmother will cook for the workers, and Summer will help her grandmother, watch over her younger brother, and do her homework.

The bad luck continues. Efforts to help Jaz make more friends backfire, Summer’s grandmother is demanding, and Summer begins to worry that her grandparents are no longer physically able to work the harvest. Can their bad luck change to good?

The Good: What a perfect middle grade book. Summer, 12, is a sympathetic heroine. When she got annoyed and frustrated with her younger brother and grandparents, I was right there with her. When she was embarrassing herself in front of her crush, I blushed for her. When she figured out a way to help her family, I cheered.

I also love how wonderfully balanced The Thing About Luck is, perfectly balanced as mirror and window. Summer is such a typical twelve year old, that readers will be able to identify with her. What may not be so typical? Her old-fashioned grandparents. Her grandmother, who hides her feelings with a brusque exterior. Her younger brother, whose anger issues shape how the family interacts with him. Her parents leaving for so long. And, of course, working the harvest. With the assistance of Julia Kuo’s illustrations, the whole process of “harvesting” a farm is explained. This is not an easy or simple job. It takes work and coordination. Anyone reading this book is going to look at their loaf of bread differently. And they may also think, “yes, I could run that combine…” because, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kadohata shares tons of details and explanations of why and how a harvest works.

Because Summer is telling the story, certain details are left out when Summer doesn’t know or it doesn’t matter. Take Jaz as an example. Jaz’s only friend just left. His grandparents decided the answer is to have a LEGO party, inviting all the boys in Jaz’s class. Invitations are sent. Only three say yes. No one shows up. (As an aside, the planning of the party perfectly illustrates the family dynamics. The grandparents doing what they think is right, as opposed to what the parents were doing. How the four individuals talk to each other and plan what happens. It’s a great opening chapter.)

At first it just seems that, well, Jaz has no friends. Slowly, over the course of the book, we learn more about Jaz. It’s more than him being “invisible” to others, the type of shy, introverted kid who has a tough time making friends. “Why doesn’t anybody like me?” he asks his sister. (Books about kids who don’t make friends easily and want friends and don’t have them, that’s my soft spot and it just makes me so sad.) And that’s when Summer mentions to the reader, “He had such a bad temper that when he was angry, he sometimes banged his head on a wall or whatever was handy. And he was weird because he would do things like one time he started singing a song in the middle of a test.

As Summer observes, her mother thinks the singing is cute, “but I doubted the kids in his class thought it was cute.” Later, Summer says that Jaz has been taken to doctors and there is no real diagnosis for Jaz, or at least not one her parents like. Instead, Summer is told to not make her brother angry.

It’s hard to know what, really, is Jaz’s story because this is Summer’s story and whatever she tells us is limited to her knowledge and world view. And that is part of why this is a perfect book because while I, as an adult, have questions about Jaz, most twelve year old readers won’t. What they will know is how unfair it feels that a younger sibling (or cousin or friend) “gets away” with things. Or that there is always a kid in class somehow like Jaz, who doesn’t fit in or has quirks. And they won’t care if it is or isn’t OCD or ADHD, etc. etc.

I loved how class and socioeconomics was addressed in The Thing About Luck. Summer’s family gets hired to work the harvest by people who own the combines. While Summer’s parents may want to go into business on their own one day, financially that would be tough. They are clearly the workers. Probably all you really need to know is that her grandparents, despite obvious poor health, are doing the work of people 40 years younger than themselves in order to make the money needed to pay the bills. Also – -and this is tossed off, as not important to Summer but the readers get it — Summer and her brother share a bedroom, small enough to require bunk beds.

The Parkers (the family they work for) are above them on the food chain, but they have to answer to the farmers who hire them. During the harvest, people are living in cramped trailers, eating meals together. How they all interact is fascinating to watch, especially considering the group of workers will be together, like a family, for several months. Don’t get me wrong, the Parkers are nice and friendly. They take the chance of hiring Summer’s grandparents. But it’s also their business. It’s not charity.

Summer’s grandparents were born in Japan; her mother, as well as Summer and her brother, were born in America. Details about their Japanese heritage, and what that means, are woven through the book. Some of it is when her grandparents talk about their own childhoods. Her grandmother is the group cook, so there’s also talk about food. And now, of course, I want to eat shabu-shabu. It’s not just Summer and her family; some of the workers on the team are Irish, and there’s a reference to craic that made me laugh.

The only problem I had with this book? It ended! Oh, don’t get me wrong — great ending. Perfect journey for Summer. But I want more!

Other Reviews: Twenty By Jenny; The New York Times; SonderBooks.

Review: Picture Me Gone

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin. 2013. Library copy. National Book Award short list.

The Plot: Twelve year old Mila and her father, Gil, are in New York, visiting her father’s friend and his family.

Or, rather, were supposed to be. Matthew has disappeared, and Mila and her father came anyway, and it is beyond awkward being in the house with Matthew’s wife, Suzanne, and baby son. Suzanne suggests that Matthew may be hiding at his cabin in upstate New York, so these two Londoners set off to see if they can find Matthew.

Mila learns a lot on this impromptu road trip with her father — about Matthew. About her father. About herself.

The Good: OK. Heads up. Two things.

First: I loved this book.

Second: The only way to talk about this book is to talk about the book in its entirety. So, yes, massive spoilers. I feel a bit guilty about that, because part of what I loved about the book is how it is told. Mila tells the story, and she boasts about how clear eyed and observant she is — and she is — but she shares certain information on her own schedule, as she deems it important. And, for all her powers of observation, she can also only tells us what she knows when she knows it.

Matthew’s disappearance is a mystery, and it’s a mystery that Mila solves, but I wouldn’t call Picture Me Gone a mystery. I wouldn’t add that little label to the spine. Instead, I’d say this is a book about secrets. Secrets kept and told, and what that means. And it’s about the biggest secret of all, that mysterious thing called “growing up.”

So, for me to get into the why I loved this, I want to talk about those secrets and what Mila tells us and when and what Mila discovers.

Mila is twelve. She’s a cherished only child. Her parents have their own lives and own love, so it’s not that she is made too important in their lives. Rather, it’s just important enough. I won’t say she’s spoiled, but she has the self confidence and self assurance that such a child has. And she is observant, and part of that may be because of who her parents are: both over 40 when she was born, her father is now close to sixty. He is a translator, so words and intent matter to him. A mother is a musician. Here, an early look at how Mila thinks: “This picture [of her father’s childhood dog] fills me with a deep sense of longing. Saudade, Gil would say. Portuguese. The longing for something loved and lost, something gone or unattainable.

Or Mila thinking about how Matthew has disappeared on his family: “The actual running away does not strike me as particularly strange. Most of us are held in place by a kind of centrifugal force. If for some reason the force stopped, we might all fly off in different directions. But what about the not coming back? Staying away is frightening and painful. And who would leave a baby? Even to me this seems extreme, a failure of love.

Up until the past year, she and her best friend Cat played involved make believe games involving spies and secrets. As Picture Me Gone starts, Cat is no longer her best friend, and instead is hanging out with other, older kids. It’s the start of Mila no longer being a child; and also the start of her beginning her journey out of childhood.

Here is the example of Mila saying what she thinks is important when she thinks it’s important. She mentions Matthew’s disappearance; she talks about Suzanne and the new baby and another son, Owen, who Mila met the last time she was in New York. That first night, Mila is given Owen’s room to sleep in, with all his things around her. At first, given the ages — Owen is a few years older than Mila — I think there is some story of a second marriage.

No. Owen is dead; had died three years before, when he was twelve. Mila says this so matter of fact, as if we knew. But, of course, the reader doesn’t. How Owen dies is also told on Mila’s timeline. It’s not that she was keeping secrets from the reader.

Talking about secrets — Mila and her father go to Matthew’s remote cabin and discover another secret. An old friend of both Matthew and Gil. A woman, Lynda. Not just any woman: a woman who, for a time, came between the two men. Lynda is with her fifteen year old son, Jake. A woman who Matthew is letting stay in his cabin, someone he sends money to. Mila, observant, quickly picks up on the reality that Jake is Matthew’s son; and that, since Jake is the age Owen would have been, Matthew had gotten both his girlfriend and his wife pregnant at the same time.

And then Mila finds out that it’s not the first time Matthew has disappeared. He disappeared after Owen’s death. In a car accident. Matthew was driving. Secrets and secrets, but so far, they are all other people’s secrets that Mila is discovering. Oh, she sees her father look at Lynda and realizes there was something once, between them. And seeing them, and meeting them, Mila begins to think of herself as someday not being a child. “Who will I grow up to be like? I wonder at what point a child becomes a person. . . . I can’t imagine living a real life, or how I’ll ever be an adult. . . . I cannot picture me grown up. I cannot picture me any different from the me I am now. I cannot picture me old or married or dead.

Mila discovers another secret, and it shatters her. And the secret — well, basically, it’s a lie. A lie both her parents have told her. A lie that, in all honesty, I don’t see as that big of a deal but to Mila, Mila who is twelve and believes in her parents, Mila who has been so privileged in her type of family: that there is even a lie shakes her faith in everything. Picture Me Gone is about that moment, of realization, of parents not being perfect; of things being bigger than oneself; of not being the center of the universe; and of growing up. “We are all woven together, like a piece of cloth, and we all support each other, for better or worse. Gabriel is just a baby but eventually he will see the world and his father as they are: imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love.” And it’s not just about seeing the world: it’s Mila realizing that what she does or doesn’t do matters. “I will not always be happy, but perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will be spared the agony of adding pain to the world.” And it’s that realization, as the book ends, that marks Mila leaving childhood.

So, yes. A Favorite Book Read in 2013. It’s amazing, I love Mila, I love the language, I love how and when we are told things. (I wish there were punctuation to be clearer about dialogue, but that’s a minor point.) But, it’s not going to be easy to booktalk this one. Any suggestions?

Other reviews: Teen Librarian Toolbox; Things Mean a Lot; The New York Times.


Review: Just One Day

Just One Day by Gayle Forman. Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Books. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Allyson Healey is on a trip to Europe, a special present from her parents for having done so well in high school. She, along with her best friend, are on a Teen Tour, speeding from one place to another.

A chance meeting with a young Dutch actor leads to an uncharacterstic for Allyson whirlwind day in Paris. When he disappears after they spend the night together, she is heartbroken, returning home to college.

College is not what Allyson had hoped it would be; or, rather, it’s more what her parents had planned than what Allyson wants.

What does Allyson want? As Allyson tries to figure that out, she realizes she needs to go back to her worst, and best, day ever and find out what really happened.

The Good: Allyson! Oh, Allyson. I cannot tell you how much I adored Allyson.

Why? Because she is so real: she is young, and immature, and unsure, and doesn’t realize it. As I read this, and saw just how distanced Allyson was from herself, it almost hurt in it’s truth and rawness.

Allyson may be a high school graduate, but she is one with parents so controlling that Allyson doesn’t realize she has never had the opportunity to be herself. To figure out who she is or what she wants. Part of it is because Allyson is an only child; part of it is because she has the ultimate helicopter parents; and part of it is because Allyson has always been the good daughter and doesn’t realize that this type of “good” isn’t doing anyone, including herself, any good.

Some examples: the unasked for gift of a trip to Europe. Allyson is grateful, of course; but it’s not anything she asked for, or said she wanted, or had any input in. Her parents have decided Allyson wants to be a doctor, so her college courses are selected by them to make that happen. Her mother sees clothes she thinks are perfect for Allyson and buys them for her.

And yes, Allyson is lucky and fortunate to have the opportunities, to have the things, but the one thing she doesn’t have? Is herself. The last day of her trip, that spontaneous day with Willem, was the first time she began to think of herself, of what she wants to do or likes.

When Allyson gets to college, it doesn’t go well. She doesn’t really make friends, she doesn’t do well in her classes, she doesn’t decorate her dorm room. Part of it is depression, part of it is being lonely, part of it is starting to realize that how her parents have defined her is not who she is — and for that last part, she doesn’t know it. She doesn’t know that is why she doesn’t decorate her dorm room with the things they have selected, why she cannot bring herself to care about the classes they have selected. Part of it is Willem’s rejection of her has hurt her deeply. Now at college, she doesn’t quite know how to connect or make a friend.

Thanks to a college counselor, who has seen other students like Allyson, Allyson begins to figure out who she is, what she likes, what she wants. I love this — a true “coming of age” book. It’s not crisp and clean and easy. Sometimes, when I’ve read one too many young adult books in a row, I wonder at just how many of these teen characters have their acts together when in “real life” the process of becoming oneself takes much longer. Just One Day takes a clearer, more honest, true look at that process.

Willem’s role in Allyson’s journey is important because his disappearance is part of what pushes her. It’s a puzzle to be solved; it’s a mystery to be answered; and, yes, it’s a person she wants to find because their connection was real and true. Or, at least, it was to her.

If you’re wondering why, in the age of Google, it was easy for Willem to disappear from Allyson’s life. She didn’t have a cell phone (or, rather, hers wasn’t working properly in Europe.) Willem early on gave Allyson a nickname, Lulu, and didn’t know her real name. Allyson didn’t know his last name. Allyson at first was too hurt and embarrassed by his leaving her to look for him. (I’m sure other reviews will go on and on about the love story here, but to me, the more fascinating story is Allyson’s own personal growth.)

What else? Allyson’s high school best friend, Mel, is similar to Allyson, except Mel is more deliberate and knowing in her own journey to figuring out who she is. It’s interesting to see Mel pop up every few months, to see what Mel is “trying on” in terms of hair and clothes and music. I also think most adults know, from the first time that Mel is introduced, that this is the type of high school friendship that probably won’t survive college.

Allyson’s mother. I tried really, really hard not to hate Allyson’s mother. It’s her mother, more than her father, who dictates Allyson’s choices. She’s doing it out of love, yes, but it turns out there is more than that. Enough for my hate to be softened with pity. Allyson’s grandmother — her mother’s mother — also shows up, during a holiday, and WOWZA. There are some real family dynamics here, and by “real” I mean people pushing each other’s buttons.

Because it’s a realistic look at how some teens experience their first year of college. Because, even when it was the Teen Tour, but more so when it was not,  I loved the parts where Allyson traveled. Because of who Allyson is becoming and her bravery in picking something other than the safe path of her parents’ expectations. For the friends she meets along the way. Because I love Allyson, in all her awkwardness and innocence, this is a Best Book Read in 2013.

I am also eager to read the sequel/companion book, Just One Year, which will be from Willem’s point of view. Since I view Willem as more of a necessary catalyst to Allyson’s growth than a love interest, I’m eager to see what that book will be like and how it may change my perception of Allyson.

Other reviews: Alexa Loves Books; Smash Attack Reads; Queen Ella Bee Reads; Stacked.





Review: The Infinite Moment of Us

The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle. Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. 2013. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: It’s the summer after high school graduation.

Wren is a good girl, who has always done the right thing, especially when it comes to her parent’s expectations. Come fall, she’s supposed to be going to college and starting pre-med. But is what her parents want what Wren wants?

Charlie’s background is much less privileged than Wren’s. He tries to forget his past (the neglect and abuse) and instead focus on what he has now: a foster family who loves him. A safe place to call home. He, too, has college plans. Can he leave his past behind?

Wren and Charlie have been classmates for years, but it’s not until graduation that they connect and fall in love.

The Good: Looking for a book with love, romance, and angst? The Infinite Moment of Us is perfect.

Some spoilers here, but I promise, I’ll keep the mild. Wren and Charlie have sex. They have sex because they are high school graduates, and it’s the magic of summer, and they are in love and lust with each other and with the sheer wonder of being in love and being loved. The Infinite Moment of Us doesn’t fade to black when it happens. I’ve seen more than one review call this today’s Forever by Judy Blume, and I think it’s an apt shortcut to explain what The Infinite Moment of Us is about and the content.

I love how responsible Wren and Charlie are — they talk about birth control, for instance.

The Infinite Moment of Us, like Wren and Charlie themselves, is about more than sex. It’s about Wren, and Charlie, and how they try to work out what it means to be a couple.

Wren has a secret: not from us, or from Charlie. From her parents. She doesn’t want to start college in the fall. She wants time to find out who she is. She wants to take a gap year and volunteer with a program called Project Unity. More than want: Wren has already deferred admission to college by a year to participate in Project Unity.

Charlie’s secret is a bit more complex. Secret isn’t even the right word. Charlie’s past means that he is incredibly loyal to his foster family and friends. If something happens to his younger brother, or his ex-girlfriend texts, he is out the door to help them. Yes, I did say ex-girlfriend. Charlie doesn’t love her — is no longer involved with her — but emotionally, he is there for her as a friend. He was abandoned as a child and he will not abandon a friend.

See what is happening there? The conflict is both internal for both characters (Wren yearning to discover herself, Charlie wanting security) and external (Wren’s parents, Charlie’s ex) and the conflict is never a flaw in either of them. It’s natural, it’s organic, it’s understandable, and it’s not impossible.

I loved how The Infinite Moment of Us is about class, without being about class, and touching on possibly the last time that people from two such different backgrounds would share space and time. Wren and her friends Tessa and P.G. are fairly well off financially. P.G. may have the biggest house; but Wren has never had to work a part-time job. Wren is privileged, no doubt. I wouldn’t say she is spoiled, but she is often unaware of her privilege. And, yes, while a high school graduate she is still young in some ways. Wren has been protected — part of her yearning for Project Unity is she realizes this and wants to get beyond it and she fears going straight to college would be just more of high school.

Charlie is a foster child, now in a loving family, but not before. He still carries that, emotionally. His current family is wonderful, terrific, loving. They also don’t have much money. Charlie works, and has for a few years. Like Wren, he is smart. He’s going to college. But, because of his background, he doesn’t always fit with Wren. She’ll say something that to her is a joke, or expects shared knowledge, and Charlie doesn’t get it. I loved how The Infinite Moment of Us illustrates those subtle issues of class. It’s also there in how Wren doesn’t understand Charlie’s connections to his family and friends.

Speaking of class, Charlie’s ex, Starrla, could easily have been a caricature. Instead think Tara from Friday Night Lights, only without any support system to help her along. That’s Starrla. In a way, Charlie was lucky to have had such a bad mother, because he got out. Starrla is still stuck with hers. The girl has problems, problems that Charlie cannot fix — but there was just something about that girl that I rooted for her. I understood why Charlie wouldn’t just stop taking her calls. (As a matter of fact, Starrla fascinates me so much, and I am so worried about her, that I want her to have her own book.) Wren’s continuing lack of sympathy for Starrla illustrates just how removed Wren is from any background that is not her own.

And there is a shooting range. How many books have teens visiting a shooting range? And while it’s not that type of book, that The Infinite Moment of Us shows responsible gun ownership made me happy.

There is so much more I want to say. Like how I loved the resolution. And how Wren and Charlie are two good kids. I love books about good kids. And both are smart and kind. They aren’t perfect, but I also loved them for that, also. I loved how they were both also allowed to be immature at times because hello, both are still becoming who they will one do be. So, yes, it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Confessions of a Book Addict.

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: Jersey Angel

Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Guest post about this book at this blog by Beth Ann Bauman.

The Plot: It’s the summer before Angel Cassonetti’s senior year of high school. “Summer has begun, and I am filled with hope.

Angel just wants to have fun: spending time with her friends at her home on the Jersey Shore, going to parties, working part time at her father’s business, taking care of her younger half-siblings.

The problem is it seems that those around her are wanting, well, more. Joey, her on and off again boyfriend, refuses to continue the drama of breaking up and making up and says “no” when she wants to start things up again. Inggy, her best friend, who is also good at school and from a family with more money, is already full of college plans.

Inggy’s boyfriend, Cork, is always around. If Angel doesn’t mean to hurt Inggy, and if Inggy never finds out, it’s OK, right?

The Good: Trying to figure out the synopsis was tough, because Jersey Angel is not a very plot driven book. It’s pure character driven, by one of the more remarkable girls I’ve met in a young adult.

As pointed out in Bauman’s guest post, “Here was a rebel girl, one who unapologetically likes sex, doesn’t want to be tied down, and knows college isn’t for her.

Angel likes sex, and Angel doesn’t connect sex to love. At one point, her mother tells her, “There’s love, Angel, and there’s sex. And there’s a whole lot more sex than love.” And this pretty much is Angel’s own code.

The problem is — and yes, I use the word “problem” deliberately — are the boys. First, Joey. Why does Angel keep breaking up with him? “It’s true: Joey and I break up a lot. I guess I like my freedom too much, but for me it’s always only a time-out so I can feel like I’m back in my life with all the possibilities. I like possibilities. But after a time-out, I’m always ready to come back.” Joey isn’t ready, though, and wants more from Angel than she’s ready to give.

So Joey begins seeing someone else, and Angel enjoys her possibilities. Some of those boys are unattached, like Angel. So, still not a problem. One of those boys is not: Cork. Her best friend’s boyfriend. And this is one reason I really like Jersey Angel: it’s up to the reader to understand just why Angel does this. Angel is not very self-reflective; she wants those possibilities. She’s also always optimistic, or, as Joey says about her, “you’re waiting for a bus and you’re sure it will come.

This means that the reader sees what Angel does not: that Angel loves Inggy, that Inggy is Angel’s best friend, Angel doesn’t want to lose her to college, yet Angel is also jealous, and competitive, and conflicted about all those feelings. The result? Sleeping with Cork both connects Angel and Inggy, and lets Angel take something from Inggy. Without Inggy ever realizing it. Without, really, Angel realizing why she is doing what she’s doing. She just thinks, well, that she and Cork are having fun. To the extent she thinks about Inggy, she thinks — well. She won’t find out till we’re old. She’ll understand. It won’t matter.

And here is another reason I love Jersey Angel: this is always firmly Angel’s story, so it really only matters what this means, or doesn’t mean, to Angel. When I got to the end, I thought, anyone else would have made this Inggy’s story: a story about a girl with dreams, leaving her shore town behind, having bigger ambitions than those around her, balancing wanting to stay with wanting to leave. Her boyfriend’s and best friend’s betrayal would become known, and would be a catalyst for Inggy to move towards her future.

This is not Inggy’s story.

Instead, it’s Angel’s. Angel, who isn’t overly ambitious, to be honest, and doesn’t come from ambition. Her mother, through luck and family ties, owns three houses by the shore and rents out two to cover their bills. (For the record? This isn’t that uncommon. Local families with long roots in these shore towns have houses in the families for generations, rent them out, and live in towns they wouldn’t afford to be in otherwise. Sometimes they don’t own multiple homes; rather, summer comes and the family moves into the garage apartment while the big house is rented out.) Her father runs the family-owned marina.

What does Angel want to do after graduation? Not to be too spoilery here, but part of what is great about Jersey Angel is it’s not that type of book. Angel isn’t inspired to do what Inggy does and buckle down to her studies. Angel doesn’t suddenly realize she wants to be a doctor or teacher or actress. Angel doesn’t suddenly realize she’s in love with this boy or that. It’s more Angel sorting out, a bit, her feelings and what she wants, while staying true to herself — that girl who always believes the bus is coming.

I think part of the reason I adore Angel is that I’m the sort who doesn’t believe the bus will come until it’s right in front of me, and I’ve asked the driver twice if it is indeed the bus I want.

A more personal reason I like Jersey Angel? Because, while different names and geography is used, this Jersey Shore is clearly “my” Jersey Shore, and seems to me a mix of various Ocean County shore towns. I mean, bennies! And Zeppoles! and slices!

Other reviews: The New York Times; Reading RantsBibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf; Uniquely Moi Books.

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.