Monthly Archives: February 2008

Unleashed, by Kristopher Reisz

UnleashedI think that Reisz has the potential to be a great writer.

Tripping to Somewhere was one of those books that’s flawed in ways that make it, for me, more exciting and more interesting than a lot of books that are technically better constructed. So I was half-excited when I saw Unleashed on the processing shelf – I didn’t even know he had a new book coming out. And a werewolf book at that!

Misty is a poor, biracial girl who has discovered the one ray of light in her dead-end life: magic mushrooms. Mushrooms that allow her and her friends to transform into wolves. Daniel is a little better off, by no means rich, but his family has scrimped and saved to allow him to get a college admissions counselor. He ends up bowing to family pressure and getting a fake ADHD diagnosis to get more time on the SATs and – eventually – admission to Cornell. They meet, strike up a romance, and soon Daniel is part of Misty’s wolf pack, torn between the freedom he finds there and the life his parents have planned for him.

There are a lot of fascinating themes and ideas here. There’s the decay in Birmingham, Alabama, the “rot-eater god” of the magic mushrooms, which is resonant and beautifully depicted. And there’s the conflict between wildness and civilization – which is much clunkier, I thought. The idea that the majority of people are shallow, civilized, boring and bored, is a dumb high-school conceit. It’s an utter cop-out. You can’t dismiss the majority of humanity as “hand-lickers” that easily.

Generally, the book is weighed down by lumps of exposition, way too much telling instead of showing, way too little subtlety. And it lacks the crazy, reckless energy that redeemed many of the faults of Tripping to Somewhere. Still, it did show flashes of brilliance. Still, I think Reisz will be a great writer someday.


How They Met, by David Levithan

How They MetIn Levithan’s junior year of high school, he got bored in physics class and wrote a Valentine’s story for his friends using the words in his physics textbook. He wrote another Valentine’s story the next year, and kept writing them, and many of these are included in this book of stories about love.

It’s a book of stories that manages to be both very, very David Levithan – tender, funny, sparkling prose, wise about love and teenage stupidity-about-love – and not at all monotonous. There’s good love, bad love, love everywhere in between, straight love, gay love, teenagers, old people.

 My favorites: “Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat” is full of ouch and wincing. “The Alumni Interview” and ‘The Good Witch” are honest about the angst of being gay in high school but they’re also really, really funny. In the former, Ian is having an alumni interview with his boyfriend’s father, who doesn’t know that his son is gay.

“What is the GSA?”
I tried to imagine him coming to one of our Gay-Straight Alliance meetings. I tried to imagine that he would understand if I told him what it was.

“GSA stands for God Smiles Always, sir,” I said with my most sincere expression.
“I didn’t know the high school had one of those.”
“It’s pretty new, sir.”
“How did it start?”
“Because of the school musical,” I earnestly explained. “A lot of the kids in the musical wanted to start it.”
“It was Jesus Christ Superstar, sir. I think we were all moved by how much of a superstar Jesus was. It made us want to work to make God smile.”

“The Number of People Who Meet on Airplanes” is just… awwwww. “Princes” is one of my favorites: a tangle of unrequited crushes at an elite dance studio, a dancer who wants to bring his non-existent boyfriend to his little brother’s bar mitzvah, the little brother who stands up for him.

“Without Saying” is perhaps the strangest story and perhaps my favorite. It is about love, and the writing of stories, and the intersections between those. What we have the power to invent.

Not all of the stories are great – I appreciate the inclusion of the stories Levithan wrote in high school, but I do find them rather slight – but it’s surprising how many of them are. And Levithan is the kind of writer who can still make me believe in love.

A Whole and Perfect Day, by Judith Clarke

One Whole and Perfect DayIf there are too many coincidences in your book, just call it Magical Realism!

Lily is the responsible, sensible one in a family she thinks of as completely dysfunctional. Her father left before she was born; her dreamy, unsettled older brother is estranged from the family after a fight with their short-tempered grandfather; the grandmother is normal enough except for her imaginary friend… and Lily is tired of being the responsible, sensible one. She decides that she wants to fall in love.

Her grandmother, meanwhile, wants to repair the rift in the family for at least long enough to have a celebration for her husband’s 80th birthday.

The story is told from a number of different viewpoints as it develops, bringing all three generations into an improbable series of symmetries, synchronicities, and coincidences. If you can suspend disbelief about them, it’s a lovely, charming, book – and more than that, those symmetries are so beautifully constructed (for example, in the way that both young women are horrified to discover they resemble the male authority figures in their lives).

But I’d be hesitant about giving this book to a teenager. It feels too delicate and studied, and at that age I really didn’t want to spend time reading about old people. It is definitely a book about Lily’s entire family, and it almost seems as if Lily herself (the only YA in the cast of characters) get short shrift.

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

Bad MonkeysJane Charlotte has been arrested for murder. But as she tells the psychiatrist, murder is her job. Or rather, her vocation. She works with an organization dedicated to making the world a better place, specifically with the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons.

 Bad Monkeys.

Well, that’s what she tells the psychiatrist. But it’s a weird story from beginning to end. She tries to grow pot in a community garden and gets arrested by someone named, literally, Officer Friendly? Jane Charlotte’s high school best friend is named Carlotta Juanita? When Dr. Vale tries to fact-check her story, there are some things that just don’t add up.

Like everything.

And yet, while it may be impossible to read this story as an entirely straightforward thriller, you also can’t read it as a story about a nutcase.

Or can you?

I don’t do drugs. I rely on books for my head trips. And this is a very good head trip of a book.

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray

Sweet Far thingThe gothic-Victorian-fantasy concludes, at last, with an 800-page behemoth of a book that is more of the same; it’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing. Boarding-school student Gemma Doyle has the power to enter a magical world known as the realms; she also has just bound the magic of the realms to herself, promising to make an alliance with the other creatures of the realms and share her magic. However, everybody is targeting her for her power now, both inside and outside the realms, and with all the complications in her life and her friends’ lives, she’s tempted to keep the power for herself for just a little longer.

Alas, I didn’t like it quite as much as the first two books. Maybe it’s the sheer length that makes its flaws stand out more. It’s one thing that the voice sounds a lot less authentic when I read it on the heels of a genuinely Victorian novel; it’s another when I find myself getting thrown out of the story by the anachronisms and moralizing and Social Problems. I don’t really want to be confronted with cutting and child abuse when I’m reading a girly-Victorian-gothic, and I’m irritated that Gemma is a 21st century liberal atheist feminist. I’m not saying there weren’t liberal atheist feminists in the 19th century, but their attitudes weren’t 21st century ones!

It wouldn’t be a historical YA novel without unnecessary cameos, but Oscar Wilde pops up just so the author can put lines in a character’s mouth: “True affection and love have a purity which shall always prevail over bigotry.” Admirable sentiment, but it doesn’t have a real motivation in the context of the story. That, and the speeches about war and peace, don’t belong to the time and place of the book. They seem too modern, too political, too Relevant.

Are all upper-class Victorian girls fated to be shallow twits with narrow corsets and narrow minds, or miserable and resigned, or miserable and rebellious? Somehow I can only think it has to be more complicated than that, and in this book it isn’t.

Still, there’s a lot of thrilling scenes, a lot of drama, a lot of adventure, and as a squealy-girly-book it’s a lot more satisfying than that other wildly popular squealy-girly-dark-romantic-paranomal trilogy (you know the one).

Emma, by Jane Austen

One of the disadvantages of being a fast and early reader is missing out on books that are, at 13 or 14, too long, too old, too formal, too boring, and not taking into account how much better they might be in ten years; they’re boring forever. (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I don’t think late or reluctant readers should be pushed too hard into reading the classics). I tried <i>Pride and Prejudice</i> in middle school, <i>Sense and Sensibility</i> a little later, and didn’t like either… and yet, as I grew older, I started to think I’d like Jane Austen. I liked Jane Austen movies, and I certainly liked <i>Clueless</i> (which was based on <i>Emma</i>) even after I outgrew high school comedies in general.

So, one more try, and I discover what everybody else sees in Austen: the wit, the language, the observations about society and human nature. Like this:

 She had always wanted to do every thing, and had made more progress
both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little
labour as she would ever submit to.   (That’s me).

Or this, which is also me:

“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve
years old.  I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at
various times of books that she meant to read regularly through–and
very good lists they were–very well chosen, and very neatly
arranged–sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule.
The list she drew up when only fourteen–I remember thinking it
did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time;
and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now.  But I
have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma.”

I liked this one very much.



Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out Of a Tree, by Lauren Tarshis

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a TreeEmma-Jean is very logical; she’s Data logical, Spock logical. Now, if Data had to be a middle-school-girl, his head would immediately explode from the sheer illogicality. Luckily for Emma-Jean, she’s a little bit too dense, too insulated from the viciousness of middle school, to really understand her own social status. (This feels realistic to me; at least, it mirrors my own middle school experiences). So Emma-Jean is odd and happy in her oddness until she comes upon Colleen Pomerantz crying in the bathroom, and decides to solve her problem by application of logic (and also Quark XPress; one wonders how Emma-Jean, who certainly would never stoop to software piracy, got such an expensive program, but we shall disregard that for the moment). It seems to work; it seems to work too well. Emma-Jean sets herself to solving more people’s problems.

I started the book ready to dislike it, to rather deeply dislike it. I just feel like there’s nearly no juvenile/young-adult literature that really understands nerd girls, and Emma-Jean’s voice did not feel real to me. It felt overly studied and somewhat contrived. She reminded me too much of a sitcom character rather than an actual girl. But then – well, I started to like Emma-Jean. Maybe I never believed in her voice, but I started to believe in her. Then all of a sudden I started crying. This isn’t always an endorsement; it’s more an indication of my own sentimentality than the book’s merits. But in this case, I don’t think there was anything sentimental about the sadness in the ending; it was a matter of the author slowly, carefully, building up a character and her reality until her feelings seemed as true as mine.