YA

Holiday Book Buying Guide 2015: For the kid in your life who's read everything else.

You know this kid, right? You give them a three- or five-book series for a birthday or the holidays and they burn through all of them in about a week? It's hard to keep up with kids like that, when buying books for them, but on the other hand? What a great problem to have.

So today I'd like to suggest a nice little series that hasn't been talked about much lately, so maybe it's something the voracious reader you know won't have encountered yet. That series is Lloyd Alexander's Westmark* trilogy.

Now, of course, Lloyd Alexander is fairly well-known as the author of the Chronicles of Prydain series. And those are good books too. But this three-book series offers a bit more for the slightly older reader (maybe 9 or 10 to 12 or 13?) to get their teeth into. In the first book, the kingdom of Westmark is in a bad way: its king is faltering under grief caused by the death of his daughter; his kingdom is effectively being ruled by the evil advisor Cabbarus; law-abiding people are being harrassed for no reason. In this atmosphere the orphan Theo, a printer's apprentice, finds his life turned upside down when his boss's shop is destroyed and Theo is forced to run. While on the run, he takes up with a con artist and his servant/friend, and eventually they chance upon an extremely talented young girl/street urchin named Mickle. Adventures ensue, and all is most definitely not what it seems when it comes to who the characters really are.

There are some fights and, especially in the second book in the trilogy (The Kestrel) some military battles, but nothing is described in horrific detail. Characters die, and tough choices are made, but in such a way that it shouldn't be too much for the younger kids to read. The pace moves right along and there's some humor, so these are even books that an adult could read to a kid or with a kid, and not mind it at all themselves.**

The third book is called The Beggar Queen***. And of course you can't find these books new****, but you can certainly find them online at Powell's Books.

*Although I see that Westmark won a National Book Award. So perhaps it is better known than I think. But, it won the award back in 1982. So maybe not.

**I read the whole series in a couple of days and really, REALLY enjoyed it.

***This is also a great series for girls. Mickle, the main female character, is all kinds of awesome.

****I take it back. I just checked and you can find them new at Amazon. I thought they might be too old.


Holy depressing books, Batman: The Chocolate War

Have you read this thing?

Okay, Robert Cormier's classic YA novel The Chocolate War was published before I was born. (God, it's getting rare to be able to say that about a book.) It's often listed on lists of classic books for teens, especially for teen boys, and it's still one of the most challenged books in libraries (it's number 3 on the list of top 100 banned books for 2000-2009). Because I'd heard of it so often, I think I read it somewhere in my mid- or late twenties, and I remembered that I found it interesting...

...but what I didn't remember is this book's ending.

This is all I'm going to say.

The plot is not complicated. Jerry Renault, who attends a private Catholic high school, is singled out by the school's secret society, The Vigils (along with some other students) for an "assignment" (the "assignments" are basically hazing). His assignment? To refuse to sell chocolates as part of the school's fundraising chocolate sale. But when the assignment ends...Jerry does something that no one expects. And at first it has some unexpected effects, but then...well, that's all part of the ending, which I'm not going to tell you.

But I can say this: not often does Mr. CR say "holy shit" (or the equivalent) when finishing a book. Both of us were stunned. It's a great book. It's a crushing book. But is it a book that should really be read by YAs? I just don't know.

What do you think?


Fiction Interlude: Divergent.

Yes, I know this purports to be a nonfiction blog. But I find this year that I have been in something of a fiction place. This is okay but not really working out--I've read a lot of fiction so far that has been "okay"--but certainly nothing special.

Another case in point of this phenomenon is Veronica Roth's super-hit Divergent. It's a Young Adult novel, written and published (I would guess) largely to cash in on the Suzanne Harris/Hunger Games popularity. This is another futuristic dystopia story, also featuring a female main character. In this society, people are organized into five factions: Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Candor, and Amity. The factions represent what their members think are the answers to society's problems: Abengation, for example, thought people were too selfish, so they practice selflessness; the Erudite thought people didn't think things through, so they focus on intellectualism; and so on and so forth. (A more thorough synopsis can be found at the book's Wikipedia page, but watch out for spoilers, of course.)

Beatrice, the main character, is born into the Abnegation faction, but when tested as a teenager to see which faction she might fit in with and choose, she learns that she is something considered "Divergent"--a person who could fit in several different factions. This is, evidently, a dangerous thing to be, so the woman testing her helps her keep it a secret, and she eventually chooses the Dauntless faction (which prizes courage above all else).

So she learns the new Dauntless ways, makes friends, is faced with the challenge of being accepted by the group so she doesn't have to wander "factionless," she falls in love*, blah blah blah. Perhaps it's because I have read The Hunger Games trilogy, as well as Lois Lowry's The Giver, too recently. This seemed like familiar territory. And that's really not what one is looking for in one's speculative or science fiction, is it? It was an okay read, but it really left me with just the one overwhelming impression: how hard would it be, I wonder, to pound one of these YA dystopian trilogies out? And make big bucks on the sales and movie rights?**

*Although, I must say, I thought the love story here was done better than the one in The Hunger Games. I was totally bored by the two male choices in that series, but the male protagonist here actually holds his own against the strong female character.

**I know, still pretty hard. But it does make one think.


A disappointing YA read.

The Giver
by Lois Lowry
Powells.com

When I worked in the public library, I always felt I should do a better job of reading and suggesting kids' and YA fiction titles. Every time I shelved Lois Lowry's novel The Giver, for instance, I thought, I should read this. The book was a Newbery award winner (in addition to winning many other awards)*, it got checked out a lot, and it was even a bit controversial.

But yet? I just never got around to reading it.

So when I came across the trailer for the forthcoming movie, I thought, this is it. It is time to start reading some kids' and YA "classics" so I know what CRjr and CR3 will be reading soon. So I checked it out.

And I was super disappointed.

Yeah, the story was compelling enough. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a futuristic society in which the community has found ways to keep from feeling much of anything, valuing "Sameness" and tranquility over the messier human emotions of anger, passion, and love (to name just a few). But of course, that tranquil surface belies not-so-tranquil things happening underneath, as Jonas starts to learn after he is chosen to be the community's next "Receiver," or repository of the community's memories from before the "Sameness."

But I was really, really disappointed by the ending. And there were several small plot points along the way that just seemed like lazy writing to me.** And yes, I was not surprised by most of the unpleasant secrets of the society, because I'm an old cynical lady (not an impressionable young YA) and because I've read a lot of dystopian fiction and none of it differs all that much. But still. I was underwhelmed.

*Don't read the summary of this book at its Wikipedia page if you don't want to read any spoilers.

**I'll try not to give away too much, but at one point the main character hides himself from heat-seeking radar (or whatever) by recalling his memory of "cold." Um, I don't think that's how that works. And that just seemed lazy to me in a work that is considered "science" fiction.


Finishing off the week with a depressing YA read.

For some reason, while I spent some time this week reading kids' and YA books, I started thinking about S. E. Hinton (of The Outsiders fame) and her novel That Was Then, This is Now. I read it a long time ago, and I remember it depressing the hell out of me. Now that I'm older and more jaded, I wondered, would I still find it as depressing?

I did.

The story, in brief, is this: Bryon and Mark are best friends, and because Mark has lived with Bryon and his single mother for some years (after his abusive parents shot each other--one of the first clues of the true downer nature of this book), they are really more like brothers. They spend most of their time hustling pool, trying to find money to live while Bryon's mother is in the hospital having an operation, and eventually (in Bryon's case) dating the older sister of a gentle, hippie-ish young teenager in their neighborhood.

I won't spoil the ending; I'll just say that eventually the hippie-ish kid has a bad LSD trip (the book was first published in 1971, when LSD was the scary drug of the day), and this calamitous event forces Bryon, when he learns that Mark is dealing drugs, to do something it seems he really ends up regretting.

All I can say about this one is, wow, brutal. I feel like I need a nice adult murder mystery or something to cheer me up after this one. I've actually never read (and still don't read) a lot of YA books. Are a lot of them this melodramatic?


Younger reading: Gorgeous.

Gorgeous
by Paul Rudnick

Powells.com

Either I'm just way more tired than usual, or I wanted to feel like I was flying through books again, but lately I have been reading (and re-reading) YA and kids' books. For the most part the huge boom in YA publishing has left me behind--I only have so much time for reading these days and it mostly still goes to nonfiction--but I have enjoyed big bestsellers like The Hunger Games trilogy and stand-alone titles like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. So when I saw that Paul Rudnick had a new novel out, I didn't let the fact that it was being marketed as a YA title stop me.

Rudnick is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for the Kevin Kline movie In & Out (and as a playwright). However, he is also the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, titled I'll Take It. It's a crazy hilarious book, about a young-ish New York City guy who agrees to drive his mother and his two aunts (he's a good Jewish boy, after all, who can't say no to his mother) on their tour through New England to watch the leaves change. What they get up to along the way will, I think, surprise you. At least it did me, in the best possible way.*

This new title, Gorgeous, is a modern-day take on the Cinderella story. Becky Randle has grown up in a Missouri trailer park with her monstrously obese mother, but when her mother dies, Becky finds a cell phone and a phone number for "Tom Kelly." The same Tom Kelly, it turns out, who is a world-famous fashion (and lifestyle, and fragrance, and etc.) designer. When she calls the number, the person on the other end offers to fly her, first class, to New York City, where she meets Kelly and he makes her a once-in-a-lifetime deal: let him make her three dresses, and those dresses will make her the most beautiful woman in the world.

Becky, who is a really great character, actually stops and thinks about whether or not that's something she'd even want. That is, until her best friend (another great character, named Rocher, yes, after the candy) tells her not to be an idiot and TAKE THE DEAL. She does, and watching Becky's life proceed after she becomes Rebecca Randle, Gorgeous Woman, is fascinating. It's a thoroughly strange and enjoyable little story, and it eventually includes British royalty (another reason for me to love it), but the real pleasure in this book is the characterization and dialogue. That said, I don't know if it's dialogue I would have appreciated as a true YA. Consider this conversation between Becky and Rocher:

"'So you mean if I want to marry the prince I should do what, play hard to get?'

'No, I'm not saying you need to be an A-plus, number one, slap-her-silly cocktease like Shanice Morain [a girl they went to high school with]. Even though that is how she got Cal Malstrup to ask her to prom, she just kept giving him these hand jobs in the equipment shed next to the football field and she kept telling him that sh'ed love to do more but that she was a good Christian girl and that it says in the Bible that good Christians can only have joyful intercourse in the back of a white stretch limo.'" (p. 134.)

Now, I think that is hilarious. But in high school? Or even younger? I just don't know.

Actually, I rather agree with the reviewer who wondered if this was really an adult book being sold as YA**, because it has young characters and because YA is what sells lately. But all of that aside: it certainly wasn't a dull read.

*Just thinking about this book again makes me want to go find it on my shelves and re-read it again, right now.

**Although I actually think this review does a better job of describing the inexplicable appeal of this book.


On Looking for Alaska.

AlaskaI have always held fond memories of reading John Green's first YA novel, Looking for Alaska. I must speak of it fondly more than I know, because recently my sister checked the book out and read it too. So because she was reading it, and because I've wanted to for a long time, I went ahead and re-read it.

A lot of the time I am a huge proponent of re-reading books. I think you always find something new in them or, more likely, you bring something new or changed in yourself to a familiar story. But sometimes, rarely, a re-read bites you in the ass.

It did this time. I still really liked the book--but I did not love it as much as I remembered. I don't know what has changed. I still think it is a very well-written and thoughtful book, so I think whatever has changed has changed in me. Perhaps as I age ever farther away from the YA demographic I am less able to even remember that time in my life and relate. That thought is as depressing as hell, but I'm not sure what else it could be.

I won't say much else about it, except to say that I think I'd still recommend it if you're in the mood for a good coming-of-age YA novel. And why would I say that? Because it contains lines like the following, written by the main character, when he is trying to figure out tragedy, suffering, and his own belief system:

"But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail." (p. 221.)

It feels like I've been failing at almost everything lately, so it was nice to read that. It's a heartening thought, no matter how far away from the YA demographic you are. In retrospect? I'm still glad I re-read it.


Fiction interlude: John Green

I am sneezing all over the place today, and I am blaming John Green for it.

FaultDid he give me the cold? Of course not. Was he responsible for me staying up way too late last week reading his new book The Fault in Our Stars?* Why, yes, as the author, he was. So because I didn't get enough sleep, my immune system was compromised, and now I have the mother of all colds.**

Luckily, Green's latest novel is about two teenagers who have cancer, so I'll say this: it puts my case of the sniffles in perspective. I won't bother with a plot synopsis; as with a lot of fiction (with the exception of thrillers and mysteries) the plot really isn't the point here. What is the point is that John Green can write a book about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love (even though one of them fights it) that somehow isn't a) melodramatic dreck, a la Jodi Picoult***, and b) makes you cry but then ends up leaving you feel somehow more hopeful than sad.

Is it is characters? Are they so intelligent, so imperfect and yet so charming, that you feel better just thinking that somewhere, somehow, teenagers who are this interesting and well-read (although preferably not suffering from cancer) really do exist? Or is it his prose?

"The only redeeming facet of Support Group was this kid named Isaac, a long-faced, skinny guy with straight blond hair swept over one eye.

And his eyes were the problem. He had some fantastically improbable eye cancer. One eye had been cut out when he was a kid, and now he wore the kind of thick glasses that made his eyes (both the real one and the glass one) preternaturally huge, like his whole head was basically just this fake eye and this real eye staring at you. From what I could gather on the rare occasions when Isaac shared with the group, a recurrence had placed his remaining eye in peril.

Isaac and I communicated almost exclusively through sighs. Each time someone discussed anticancer diets or snorting ground-up shark fin or whatever, he'd glance over at me and sigh ever so slightly. I'd shake my head microscopically and exhale in response." (p. 6.)

There's nothing fancy there but man, does it flow. It flows like that for 300 pages, so easy and pleasurable to read that you feel it would be almost churlish to stop. So you don't.

I really liked it. And it did leave me wondering, are there smart, kind, well-read teenagers still out there? Preferably ones without cancer? I wasn't able to find a whole lot of them when I WAS a teenager (although I did find a few, bless them) so it makes me wonder.

*Although in all fairness, I was really up because CRjr had a cold, and once I heard his congested breathing it got me worrying about fevers, influenza, etc. So I was really just kind of glad to have the Green book to at least give me something to do while I couldn't sleep.

**I'm fine. It's actually a very run-of-the-mill cold. I'm just being the mother of all babies about it.

***This book includes a jacket blurb from Jodi Picoult, which annoys me, but I suppose they're trying for adult women readers, even though the book is marketed as YA.


Finally getting books read from last Christmas.

MonstrumologistLast Christmas a very dear friend of mine sent us a gift package that consisted of books for my entire household--it was wonderful. Mr. CR read his book right away and CRjr had his book read to him, but for months I didn't get around to my gift, which was Rick Yancey's YA horror novel The Monstrumologist.

Then, at the end of this past summer, when I wasn't in much of a nonfiction mood, I decided it was time to read it. No particular reason, although I was embarrassed that I had waited so long (just like I'm also embarrassed that it took me so long to blog about it after reading it!).

The story is framed by two modern-day individuals discussing the diaries they have found, written by one Will Henry, who has died at the age of (according to what he told his fellow nursing home residents and doctors) 131. And what is in the diaries? Well, the tagline for the book is "there are monsters among us...and they must be found," and that pretty much sums it up. Evidently, as an orphaned lad, Will Henry stayed to live and work with his father's former employer, a monstrumologist (or, one who finds and deals with monsters). The monsters the two are following in this narrative are "Anthropophagi"--suitably ucky monsters with devouring teeth, superhuman strength and wiles, and eyes in their stomach.

It's a pretty creepy read (even for me, as a supposed adult), and it would be a very good atmospheric read around Halloween time. I enjoyed the book very much, although one part of it frightened me so much it actually gave me nightmares. (And it wasn't one of the parts with monsters--it was one of the parts where the main character visits a home for the mentally deranged--ick.)

I had only one minor complaint with the book, and that is that the monstrumologist calls Will Henry by his full name just a little too often. There's a lot of this type of exchange:

"'And find my boots, Will Henry.'

'Of course, sir.'

I hesitated, waiting for a fourth command. The old man called Erasmus was staring at me.

'Well, what are you waiting for?' the doctor said. 'Snap to, Will Henry!'" (p. 6.)

But overall, it's still just a good, spine-tingling read:

"With each step my heart beat faster, for in my mind's eye I saw it beneath the stairs, crouching on all fours upon the sweating stone floor, a headless beast with blank black eyes set deep in its shoulders and a mouth overflowing with row upon row of glistening teeth, the lion in the savanna brush, the shark in the reef shadows, and I the grazing gazelle, the juvenile seal frolicking in the surf. It would rise as I descended. It would reach through the open slats and seize my ankle with its three-inch barbs..." (p. 91.)

If you know any YA readers who enjoy being scared, this one might make a good Christmas gift. I know that it was a gift I very much appreciated and enjoyed.


A nice atmospheric read.

MonsterAlthough I didn't re-read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes for Halloween this year, I did read a YA novel that had kind of a nice autumn atmosphere. (Although it's atmosphere is decidedly not "nice"; it's both a bit scary and very sad, I just mean that the author did a nice job giving it an "autumnal" feel.)

I don't know where I heard about Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, but I'm really glad I brought it home. It's a fascinating little book (which is actually based on an idea by YA author Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could write it into a story) and it's beautifully illustrated by Jim Kay. It's set in Great Britain, and it's about a boy named Conor who has more than a few problems. His mother is sick, he's getting picked on in school, his father's left him and his mother to start a new family in America, and the grandmother he dislikes is about to come stay with him and his mother to help out. If that weren't enough, a monster comes for him. This is how the book starts:

"The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do."

"A monster, Conor thought. A real, honest-to-goodness monster. In real, waking life. Not in a dream, but here, at his window. Come to get him.

But Conor didn't run.

In fact, he found he wasn't even frightened.

All he could feel, all he had felt since the monster revealed itself, was a growing disappointment.

Because this wasn't the monster he was expecting.

'So come and get me then,' he said." (p. 9.)

It's an interesting book, the illustrations are beautiful, and it can be read in about an hour or so. I'd recommend it.


Graphic Novels: The challenge, part 1.

If you'll remember, a while back Beth challenged me (in the comments) to read ten graphic novels this summer. Because I have a deep, deep antipathy to being told what to do (ask my parents, siblings, spouse, and former employers), I bristled at the "ten" part of the challenge, but I did compromise and say I would read ONE GN, of Beth's choice. She was a good sport and made some suggestions--and they were good suggestions. So good that I read TWO whole graphic novels, and am still trying to track down the third. So today, part one of the graphic novel challenge.

Mercury The first of Beth's picks that I read was a small YA graphic novel titled Mercury, by Hope Larson. It's very much YA material; the protagonist is a teen girl (two teen girls, actually, as the story pivots back and forth in time between a current-day story and an historical one) experiencing some family issues, first love, and even a bit of witchcraft (or, more accurately, cases of "second sight") thrown in.

The modern story centers on Tara, a girl staying with her aunt and uncle and cousin in a fictional town in Nova Scotia, after her and her mother's home has burned down (and her mother is working a job on the other side of Canada). The historical story follows events in the life of Tara's ancestor, a girl named Josey, whose life is turned upside down when a gold prospector arrives at her family's farm to look for gold on their property, and eventually enters into a mining partnership with her father. Different events are causing upheaval in each girl's world: Tara is about to go back to high school after being homeschooled for several years, and Josey finds herself falling in love with the mysterious gold prospector.

So what happens? Well, the copy on the back cover takes it from there: "As Josey's story plunges into tragedy, Tara's emerges with the promise of gold." Because it's a YA novel, and a graphic novel at that, if you're so inclined, you'll be able to read the whole thing in not much longer time than it will take you to read this review, so that's all I'm going to say about the story. But as for the experience of reading the graphic novel:

I liked it. I did. It was a fast read; one of my favorite things about graphic novels is that it usually takes me all of a half-hour to read all but the longest ones. And I liked certain conventions of the art--about halfway through the book I noticed the page background on the historical story was black and on the modern story it was white, which was a nice touch (and I was dense not to notice it sooner). But...I didn't love it. The art was basic cartoon, simple but nothing special. Ditto with the story--interesting but not fascinating, and when I finished it, I had too many questions to feel satisfied. (Mr. CR read it too, and we concurred in our opinion that the book and story ended too abruptly.)

Part of the problem, I thought maybe, was that I am unused to reading fiction. After Mr. CR finished the book and I asked him my several questions, he finally opined, "I think you're supposed to fill in some of the story yourself." Oh man, I thought. I have become such a slave to nonfiction that I need everything spelled out for me in fiction too. That's no good! So I worried about that until, a week later, I read Anita Brookner's novel The Debut, and I didn't have any questions about that at all. (I mean, I had questions, but not the "am I missing something here" type questions...) So, ironically, in this graphic novel, spelled out in both pictures and text, I felt unsatisfied.

But all in all, for a YA graphic novel? Not bad.


A tale of two fictions.

Over the past week I've been trying to match the nonfiction I'm reading, book for book, with fiction. It's not working--the current count is three nonfiction titles, two fiction titles.

Historian The first novel I'm reading (well, listening to, as I do the dishes) is Elizabeth Kostova's title The Historian. It's a big old thick book which takes on the legend of Dracula, told from the multiple viewpoints (and during different time periods) of a historian's mentor, the historian, and his daughter. I wanted to like it, because it got a lot of good reviews, and the Lesbrarian* loved it. But I can't help it--I'm totally bored. I've been bored from the very first tape--and I'm only listening to the abridged version. (I do not believe in abridged books and would have preferred the unabridged version, but it wasn't available at my library.) It is so boring that I've actually started to make up my own dialogue for it. When the historian's love interest wakes up in the morning and discovers she has been attacked by Dracula, I supplied new dialogue: "Helen, you've been cheating on me with that mad fox Dracula, haven't you, you hussy?"**

In all fairness, I still have a tape to go; maybe that'll turn it all around. But the author simply takes too long to tell too little. Honestly, if I could tell modern fiction authors just one thing, it would be that you don't have to write a 600-page book to write a good book. Really.

Hunger The other fiction I've been reading is Suzanne Collins's YA novel The Hunger Games, which I loved. I had to summarize it for another project last week, and here's how I did so: "It’s set in a (maybe not too distant?) dystopian future, in which the ruling powers of Panem, ensconced carefully in their Capitol, keep the rest of the population under control by demanding 'tributes' from different regions of the country to compete to the death in the annual Hunger Games. The tributes are, of course, people’s children–every child between the age of 12 and 18 has their name entered in a drawing, and each region of Panem has to send a male and female tribute to the games. But when Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister is chosen, she does the unthinkable–and volunteers to enter the Games in her place."

I loved this book, and was happy to pass it along to Mr. CR, who blows through fantasy and science fiction at an alarming rate (and is thus difficult to keep fully supplied), and he also enjoyed it. In addition to liking the action part of the novel (which is rare enough for me; I usually prefer character-driven fiction to story-driven fiction), I loved the love triangle--both of Katniss's love interests are viable characters (unlike in Stephenie Meyers's Twilight books, which purport to feature a love triangle, but don't). And the best part? It's a very readable 374 YA pages. That's the way to do it!

*This post is dedicated to the Lesbrarian, who wanted me to read The Historian. Our tastes continue to be nearly exactly opposite! It's a wonder of nature, I tell you.

**Also, just once? I'd love to read a Dracula book where Dracula has a sense of humor. Really. I think you can be both evil and hilarious. In fact, I think a funny Dracula would be even more terrifying, in a weird sort of way.


Letting it all wash over.

My apologies for the continued quiet (cue crickets) here at Citizen Reader. This is a very novel situation for me; normally I am apologizing for things I've said, not for things I HAVEN'T said.

I have been back to reading, but I have not felt compelled to write about any of the reading I'm doing. That doesn't mean I'm not thinking about the blog, though. For instance, I am currently indexing a book titled In the Shadow of the Moon, by Francis French and Colin Burgess, about the space missions leading up to the moon landing. In one chapter, one of the astronauts muses about a spacewalk he took when his colleagues told him just to relax for a couple of minutes while they peformed experiments, and he used the time to observe the Earth and just let the entire experience wash over him. (How cool is that, by the way?) So, although I am not doing anything as cool as hanging out of a spacecraft in Earth orbit, I have been just letting a variety of readings and books wash over me.

This may not seem like a big distinction, but it is very different to read without formulating thoughts for "publication"*. I started this site in May 2008, and since then a lot of my reading has been enjoyed for itself, but has also been undertaken with an eye to what I thought about the reading, or how I would review it. That changes the reading experience, a little bit. I would like to ask some of the members of the dwindling field of book criticism if they feel writing about books for a living has significantly changed how they read.

So what's been washing over? Well, while still selfishly keeping most of my reactions to myself, I can nutshell the week in review:

I really enjoyed Chuck Klosterman's essay collection Eating the Dinosaur. I don't love him, love him, but I rarely find Klosterman dull, and I appreciate that. His concluding essay on Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) is a work of beauty, ruminating on technology, society, and how "not all crazy people are brilliant, but almost all brilliant people are crazy." See? You may not agree with it, but that's not a dull thought.

Ny400 A wonderful friend sent me the gorgeous illustrated history book New York 400, which is a history of the greatest city in the world. (I think it just barely edges out, in my personal list of top cities, Montreal and London.) I have been starting each morning this week by plugging in the tree lights (yes, I am resisting taking down the tree), having my fiber cereal (still not as exciting as Pop Tarts, but what's an old lady to do?) and reading this gorgeous book and looking at the pictures. Thank you, my generous benefactress (you know who you are).

While reading for indexing is not really the same as reading for fun, I would highly recommend French and Burgess's history title In the Shadow of the Moon. If you wait for the new edition being published this year by the University of Nebraska Press, you can also use its new index, created by yours truly!

I also plowed through Louise Rennison's British YA chick lit novel Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me? It's the last title in her Georgia Nicolson series, and it was worth the wait. Not only do I want to be British, I want to be a hilarious British teen like Georgia Nicolson. (I have in fact adopted one of her phrases, which makes Mr. CR nuts: when it's cold outside, I say "Brrr! Nippy noodles."

I also had the good fortune to be assigned to review the collection The Best American Magazine Writing of 2009 for Library Journal, and not to ruin the suspense of my review, but it's fantastic. The profile of David Foster Wallace (by Sam Lipsky) made me cry, and Chris Jones's feature "The Things That Carried Him," about the preparation for burial of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2007, pissed me off. (My opinion is: it's very nice that the army treats the bodies of deceased soldiers with respect, and carefully polishes the buttons on the uniforms of even the soldiers who are being cremated. But wouldn't the soldiers be better served if the higher-ups took a little more care with their bodies BEFORE they got killed? I ask you.) Any book that can elicit both of my personalities (Mr. CR's famous assessment of me is: "you have two moods: angry and weepy.") is, I think, a book worth reading.

So there you have it. Carefully unformed thoughts from a careless but highly enjoyed reading schedule. I think 2010 is going to be even more disorganized for me than last year, and I'm looking forward to it. Happy New Year to all of you!

*This is a blog, so we can't take it as seriously as things that are actually published. But I have to justify the time I spend here somehow, as it is not time when I am being an active salary-producing American citizen, so I call it a "publication" to kid myself.


I Capture the Castle fails to capture my heart.

For years people have been telling me I had to read the novel I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, immediately, if not sooner. And it's always been people I really respect, both as friends, and as readers.

So I finally did.

And I liked it. I read the whole thing, and pretty quickly, as I was interested in the story. (And you knew I'd be interested in a book set in Great Britain, ina falling-down castle.) But I've got to be honest: I didn't love it, love it. I didn't love it like I expected to love it.

Dodie The story is about seventeen-year-old Cassandra, and her rather unorthodox family life, living with her author father (who hasn't written a word in years), her beautiful sister Rose, her unconventional and artistic stepmother, her younger brother, and the hired hand (Stephen) who they don't actually pay. The story is good and is narrated by Cassandra in an appealing first-person voice; the family is on the brink of destruction from poverty, Rose is frustrated because she thinks she'll never meet a man to marry in their circumstances, Stephen is fruitlessly in love with Cassandra...and if that all weren't enough, two brothers who had been living in America suddenly show up as the heirs to a property next door. Hilarity doesn't really ensue, but Cassandra's love for and frustration with all of her family members makes for some nice comic touches.

God, that's a bloodless description, and as much as I liked the book, that's kind of how I feel about it. Just kind of average. What it HAS put me in the mood for is to re-read Dodie Smith's classic The 101 Dalmatians, which is largely set during Christmas and would therefore be a fun December read. So that's what I'm going to do.


A good graphic novel, but not one that I'm in love with.

I am a huge, huge Brian Fies fan.

His graphic novel Mom's Cancer is not only one of my favorite graphic novels, it is one of my favorite memoirs, and favorite books, full-stop. It was his take on his mother's battle with both lung and brain cancer, and a family story of how he and his siblings dealt with her illness. It was, of course, horribly sad, but it was also fantastic. The rare graphic novel that I loved without reservations, and in which the art and the text were easy to integrate, and which complemented each other.

So I was very, very excited to see that he had a new graphic novel out, titled Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? This one starts at the New York World's Fair of 1939, and charts the course of scientific and future discoveries and aspirations in different decades, including 1945, 1955, 1965, and 1975.

I did read the whole thing, but it turned out to be not for me.

Tomorrow This is no reflection on the quality of the work, which is once again very, very high. I love Fies's clean drawings, simple text, and how easy it is to integrate the two while reading. However, I have never been enthralled with science and progress* OR comics, which are two things that clearly had a big effect on Fies; in fact, this book is like an extended love letter to both. In fact, in between the chapters, Fies has inserted what appear to be classic comic books, titled "Space Age Adventures" and printed on what appears to be pulpy comic/newsprint pages. Unfortunately, the beauty of much of his work is lost on me, as I am not and never was a comic reader. (I am such a person of inaction that most action/adventure stories, which is what a lot of comics are, completely bore me.)

I was also a bit confused by the characters in the story, as Fies uses the same father/son pair in each decade, without the kid growing up for several of the first decades, which I found disconcerting. (He explains this in a foreword, commenting on the wonder of "comics time" which allows characters never to age or change.) Anyone else have this problem?

Still and all, though, Brian Fies is a super-talent. Immediately upon finishing this book I went and re-read my copy of Mom's Cancer, and appreciated him all over again. Give this one a try if you're interested in science or comics; I don't think you'll be disappointed.

*I am in fact usually quite cranky about both science and progress, although I am a fan of indoor plumbing.


Helene Hanff Appreciation Week: Queen of England

Before she became quite well-known for writing 84, Charing Cross Road, Hanff worked as a script reader and childrens' book author. Now, I can't say that her book for kids, Queen of England: The Story of Elizabeth I, was her favorite book of mine. For one thing, it was published in 1969, and it' was published by Doubleday, and all those educational kids books from the 50s and 60s share a quaintly dated feel.

But I still enjoyed it, and I read the whole thing. For one thing, the way she talked about her in other books, I think Hanff had a real love and appreciation for Elizabeth I, and I can respect that, because I do think Elizabeth I was a singular woman:

"On the morning of Palm Sunday--a chill, rainy March morning--Elizabeth was taken by boat across the river to the Tower of London. She stepped on shore, and saw stone steps leading up to an iron gate called Traitors' Gate. She stopped in her tracks.

She cried out that she would not go through Traitors' Gate. She was not a traitor. She was true and loyal to the queen...

The guards made her climb the stone steps. At the top step, she stopped again. She sat down on the wet stone step and said she would go no farther. She would not go into the Tower--too few left it alive.

A few friends had come this far with her. They now had to say good-by, and one man broke down and began to weep. At this, Elizabeth rose to her feet. She told the man to stop weeping.

'My truth is such,' she said, 'that I thank God my friends have no cause to weep for me.'"


New fiction crush.

Where has British author David Mitchell been all my life?

Swan His novel Black Swan Green is one that went in and out a lot at the library where I worked, and I always thought it had an interesting cover, but I never felt like bringing it home. For one thing, I think I kept getting him mixed up with Mark Danielewski, and I was definitely never interested in him (as I perceived he was one of those authors who did too much playing with language and form to appeal to me, like Salman Rushdie and Michael Chabon).

So why I just lately requested and checked out Black Swan Green I can't tell you (ah, I'm already getting so old, I've forgotten why I've requested half the books on my library "hold" list). But I'm so glad I did. I loved it. It's a coming-of-age tale (don't groan--those can be painful but they can also be very, very good) of a young teenager, living in the British suburban town of Black Swan Green, striving to make it through school without being ostracized because of his stutter, and watching the slow breakdown of his parents' marriage--although he doesn't want to believe that's what he's seeing.

It's hard to give you a flavor of what I mean, as this is a book that shines as a whole but doesn't offer up too many short, quotable examples. But I really liked the 13-year-old protagonist, Jason Taylor. It's very funny, but often my favorite novels feature male adolescent characters, which is ironic because I think of teen boys as completely foreign to myself and somewhat closer to animals than human beings (I've never been overfond of most teen girls, either, snotty as they can be, which starts to explain why I'm SO glad not to be in high school anymore). When teen boys are icky, they're very, very icky. But when they're likable? They're SO likable. Think Holden Caulfield. Think John Green's male characters in Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. Think Michael Cera's character on Arrested Development. See what I mean?

I'll leave you with one bit that I did find amusing, in which Jason is trying to figure out the related mysteries of girls and sex:

"Girls and girlfriends're worrying. Sex education's only about how to make babies and how not to make babies. What I need to know is what you do to turn ordinary girls like Sally from Blackburn into girlfriends you can snog and be seen snogging. I'm not sure if I really want to have sexual intercourse and I definitely don't want babies. Babies just poo and bawl. But not having a girlfriend means you're a homo or a total loser or both.

...I don't know whether or not I know the facts of life. You can't ask adults 'cause you can't ask adults. You can't ask kids 'cause it'd be all round school by first break. So either everybody knows everything but nobody's saying anything, or else nobody knows anything and girlfriends just sort of...happen." (p. 172.)

See what I mean? That's pretty good stuff for a coming-of-age novel. I hate to break it to this kid, but that's a lot what adulthood is like too. Everybody who knows nothing is talking a lot, and those who know something are keeping pretty quiet. Sigh. Have a good weekend, all.


It's that time, part two.

Cooper We're slated to get 9 to 12 inches of snow tonight; I can't say I'm looking forward to that. I AM looking forward to re-reading Susan Cooper's young adult/fantasy novel The Dark Is Rising, which I religiously do every December (as religiously as I read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes every October). My eventual goal is to have a perfect book for each month.

If yesterday was about enjoying this time of year, today is about its dark side. And I think a paragraph from early on in The Dark Is Rising gets it perfectly:

"It was then, without warning, that the fear came.

The first wave caught him as he was crossing the room to his bed. It halted him stock-still in the middle of the room, the howl of the wind outside filling his ears. The snow lashed against the window. Will was suddenly deadly cold, yet tingling all over. He was so frightened that he could not move a finger."

And this:

"The next day the snow fell, all day. And the next day, too.

'I do wish it would stop,' said Mary unhappily, gazing at the blind white windows. 'It's horrible the way it just goes on and on--I hate it.

'Don't be stupid,' said James. It's just a very long storm. No need to get hysterical.'

'This is different. It's creepy.'

'Rubbish. It's just a lot of snow.'

'Nobody's ever seen so much snow before. Look how high it is--you couldn't get out of the back door if we hadn't been clearing it since it started to fall. We're going to be buried, that's what. It's pushing at us--it's even broken a window in the kitchen, did you know that?....I don't care what you say, it's horrible. As if the snow was trying to get in.'"

I'm with you, Mary. That's exactly how it feels when it just keeps snowing.


Looking and listening.

This fall I read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes and John Green's Paper Towns at nearly the same time, and I was struck by the similarity between two passages in the books. I thought it was interesting what these two quotes had to say about looking at and listening to the world.

From the Bradbury:

"He was marbled with dark, was Jim Nightshade, a boy who talked less and smiled less as the years increased...The trouble with Jim was he looked at the world and could not look away. And when you never look away all your life, by the time you are thirteen you have done twenty years taking in the laundry of the world.

Will Halloway, it was in him young to always look just beyond, over or to one side. So at thirteen he had saved up only six years of staring." (pp. 40-41.)

And, from John Green's Paper Towns:

"That was perfect, I thought: you listen to people so that you can imagine them, and you hear all the terrible and wonderful things people do to themselves and to one another, but in the end the listening exposes you even more than it exposes the people you're trying to listen to." (p. 216.)

Hm. What do these passages say about too much looking at and listening to the world?


John Green does it again.

I have been waiting, waiting, waiting, for my copy of John Green's Paper Towns to come in at the library.

So when it came in last week I immediately started it, even though I've got about forty other books that are going to come due first that I should be looking at. It's not like I've been out partying, having a crazy good time lately, so I figured, what the hell? I've earned this.

Paper For those of you who don't know him (and why don't you? Sure, he's the author of books for teens--"YA" or "Young Adult" books for those in the book and library biz--and may therefore be under your radar. That is no excuse), John Green is the author of the fabulous YA novels Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and now, Paper Towns.

What's important here is not really the story, which can be nutshelled as follows: Quentin Jacobsen, who's harbored a longtime crush on his next-door neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman (known far and wide for her adventurous exploits and hijinks), is shocked when she shows up late one night to take him along on a night of pranks aimed at those who have wronged her (including her unfaithful boyfriend). Immediately thereafter, she disappears, and Quentin and his friends spend the rest of the book trying to find her. Want a better synopsis? Visit Bookshelves of Doom.

What IS important is the world into which Green dumps his readers, and his writing skill. In my opinion, Green is hands-down, one of the best writers at creating quirky characters you wish you could be or know (except, well, maybe with just a few fewer neuroses) since J.D. Salinger. Interestingly enough, when I read his books, I never particularly want to be or know his female characters, who are all somewhat troubled, offbeat, and brilliant but complicated young girls. I want to be his male characters, who always have an interesting group of friends and a thoughtful nature.

Case in point? Q is friends with Ben and Radar. Radar's parents just happen to have the world's largest ollection of black Santas:

"In total, Radar's parents owned more than twelve hundred black Santas of various sorts. As a plaque beside their front door proclaimed, Radar's house was an officially registered Santa Landmark according to the Society for Christmas.

'You just gotta tell her, man,' I said. 'You just gotta say, Angela, I really like you, but there's something you need to know: when we go to my house and hook up, we'll be watched by the twenty-four hundred eyes of twelve hundred black Santas.'" (pp. 22-23.)

That's right, black Santas. I love John Green.