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Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham

Mon, 2014-10-20 08:40

Today I review two books that have the potential to be wildly popular with teens–and wildly challenging for school librarians. Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham are media forces, women who excel in professions dominated by men. They both succeed through the sheer force of their personalities, and to some extent through their willingness to say outrageous things out loud.

Both of their books are best suited to the New Adult, college-age, early 20’s reader. But older teens are going to be attracted to them, as they are basically the misadventures of two girls growing up.

I’m going to start with How to Build a Girl, one of the most exciting books I have read this year. I can’t remember the last time I dog-eared so many pages in a book. Not just for the pitch-perfect voice and comedic timing, but also for the many beautiful coming-of-age moments.

But can I add it to my high school library’s collection? No. I hope teens find it–perhaps at their public libraries?–but I can’t hand it to them personally. Because the author goes a couple steps too far. It’s not the voice or the language, outrageous as they are. It’s certainly not the family dynamics or the good heart of its heroine, who even in her most raunchy moments retains a certain naivete and sweet determination to pursue her passions. If you read this book, you probably won’t agree with me–until the final quarter. And that’s when the graphic quality of the sex scenes goes over the top. Yes, they are followed by a most lovely denouement, where a girl gets to know and love herself–not the self she layered over her real self, but herself. Still, it’s too much for my community. 

But, if you serve teens in a more liberal community? Oh, please buy this. Please promote it. Readers will love this girl, and they will feel for her so deeply. She quotes the musical “Annie” in her first meeting with a group of hard-core rock music journal executives and expects them to get her humor! She is in some ways wonderfully self-aware, in others completely naive. Either way, she throws herself into situations completely beyond her experience. In the bathroom checking herself out before that first big meeting, “I can see where I have drawn Dolly Wilde on top of my own face–the two uneasily co-existing–but perhaps others can’t. If I walk and talk fast enough, maybe no one will notice.” That’s Dolly all over–fake it ’til you make it.

They will ache to read moments like this one. Sitting next to a co-worker on an airplane, she can’t let him know that it’s her first time flying. “I don’t want him to see what I look like when I do something for the first time. I dont’ want anyone watching me change. I will do all my changing in private. In public I am, always, the finished thing. The right thing, for the right place. A chrysalis is hung in the dark.”

Or cheer for the moment her roll as a vicious, feared critic ends after a trusted friend tells her: “You need to see loads of girls, screaming, because that’s what you are. A big screaming girl from the Midlands. You’re an enthusiast, Dolly. Come and enthuse. Come and be a teenage girl again. Come and be a fan.” I think about his saying that. His words are like Glinda’s kiss on my forehead. I’m an enthusiast who’s been pretending to be a cynic. But I have been correctly labeled now. I am for things–not against them. I must remember this. Mainly because this is more fun.”

And now for Not That Kind of Girl. It was an interesting experience reading these two books one week apart. I read How to Build a Girl first, and I can’t help but think that I might have been more impressed by Dunham’s writing if that hadn’t been the case. But after all of the life in Moran’s prose, all the bravado of her young protagonist, Dunham’s determination to paint herself as the most bumbling and awkward of all girls fell a bit flat.

Of course, Moran’s book is (presented as) fiction and Dunham’s is a book of personal essays. Maybe it isn’t fair to compare. I almost gave up on Not That Kind of Girl about a third of the way through, annoyed by the voice. But I picked it up the next day and read to the end. Then read the whole thing over again more carefully. Dunham is very smart and she’s a unique storyteller. She is talking directly to today’s young people and their experience. But it wasn’t a satisfying experience, and I’m still trying to figure out why. Is it because, despite all the personal stories, I finished feeling like I knew almost nothing about her? Is it because despite placing her book in a feminist context in the introduction, she gives only the barest glimpses of the successful businesswoman she has become? Maybe I’d like to be able to see the connection between her earlier life and what she has achieved?

Will teens agree? I did add Not That Kind of Girl to my library’s collection, because I want to see if Dunham approaches the popularity of Tina Fey and Bossypants, which was such a hit. So far, it’s been on display for a week and no one has picked it up. Maybe this really is more New Adult.

I leave you with two quotes, in which the books end with similar moments of acceptance:

Moran: “And some versions of you will end in dismal failure… Others will achieve temporary success…But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improve upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked. Until–slowly, slowly–you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day…until you stop having to think about who you’ll be entirely–as you’re too busy doing, now.”

Dunham: “Soon you will find yourself in more and more situations you don’t want to run from. At work you’ll realize that you’ve spent the entire day in your body, really in it, not imagining what you look like to the people who surround you but just being who you are. You are a tool being put to its proper use. That changes a lot of things.”

MORAN, Caitlin. How to Build a Girl. 341p. HarperCollins/Harper. Sept. 2014. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062335975.  

This hilarious, raw, profanity- and sex-filled novel is a gold mine of perfectly turned phrases that illuminate the pain and glory of growing up. Fourteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan lives with her parents and brothers in a council flat in a small town north of London. After humiliating herself on live television, she determines to reinvent herself. She will become a rock journalist and call herself Dolly Wilde. It doesn’t matter that she’s never been to a live show and can’t afford records. She borrows albums from the library and writes reviews and sends them to the editors of Disc & Music Echo magazine. They invite her to London for a meeting. Everything about Dolly is completely outrageous—her actions, words, outfit, makeup. And it works! She leaves high school and proudly uses her earnings to help support her family. Life is full of music, alcohol, and men who will sleep with her even though she’s overweight. She soon becomes notorious for her vicious reviews. The teen also wants to become legendary for having lots of sex, and she does. But by 17, Dolly realizes that she is losing touch with herself, and those realizations ring true and earned. This thinly veiled autobiography is wise and revealing and has a heart of gold at its core. Give it to mature teens and new adults with a high tolerance for profanity and graphic sex. Readalikes range from the poverty and family devotion of Angela’s Ashes (Scribner, 1996) to the bold sexuality of Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton, 2014).—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

DUNHAM, Lena. Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Women Tells You What She’s “Learned.” illus. by Joana Avillez. 265p. Random. Sept. 2014. Tr $28. ISBN 9780812994995. LC 2014029492.  

Dunham, writer, director, producer, and star of the TV show Girls offers a collection of personal essays in which she hopes to make her own misadventures useful to other young women. “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.” She begins with “Love & Sex,” in which she relates losing her virginity and her attraction to men who treat her badly. Dunham’s writing is self-deprecating, clever, and original, and touches upon deep topics, such as self-respect. Other entries cover summer camp, her first mindless retail job, and what she’s learned from her parents. She throws in humorous lists, such as “My Top Ten Health Concerns” (lamp dust and tonsil stones?). Among the compulsions, obsessions, and insecurities, readers get glimpses of the strong woman who is creating her own media empire. In “Body” Dunham shares what it’s like filming nude sex scenes, and why they’re important in the fight against media images that tell us “our bodies aren’t right.” She is upfront about her relationship with food and dieting, in serious and hilarious turns. The final essay, “A Guide to Running Away for Twenty-Seven-Year-Old Women” is about coming-to-terms with loving your work, becoming yourself, and choosing to settle with a person who is good to you as only Dunham could write it. Teens who watch Girls will consider themselves mature enough for the content, and the overall message is one they need to hear—we all deserve success in work and in personal relationships, even if we are not perfect.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

Categories: Library News

Poetry from the Streets

Wed, 2014-10-15 07:00

For teen in my community, in Vallejo, CA, mentioning Tupac Shakur is pretty much guaranteed to give you some credibility, and his book of poetry, The Rose That Grew from Concrete is one of our most read (and lost) poetry collections. So when I saw that David Tomas Martinez’s debut collection, Hustle, not only name-checks Tupac, but recounts much of the same street-lifestyle recounted by Tupac in his hip hop and poetry, I new it was bound to be a hit at my library.

The cover, with its stark, graffiti-style type face, doesn’t hurt either. Give this one to fans of poetry of all kinds, but especially teenage boys who will feel an instant connection to the life Martinez recounts.

MARTINEZ, David Tomas. Hustle.  84p. Sarabande. May 2014. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781936747771. LC 2013031026.

These energetic verses by a young poet from San Diego about growing up in a world of gangs will appeal especially to teenage boys. Martinez chooses unusual topics for his vivid, original poetry.  In “Calaveras,” he lyrically depicts the story of a car that wants to be taken and used as a getaway vehicle in a planned murder.  “A car wants to be stolen,/as the night desires to be revved.” Suspense builds as the boys run through a cactus field to evade the police and continue home to “only a hot bath and plate of papas fritas/from a grandmother’s hands.” Several entries are about the death of a school acquaintance. “Forgetting Willie James Jones” tells of Willie’s demise, which could have happened to any of the boys. “That was the season death walked alongside us all,/wagging its haunches and twisting its collared neck/at a bird glittering along a branch.” The narrator is sorry he wasn’t “in the car that drove by/and dumped death and sickle/ in the yard of Willie’s graduation party.” Readers will see how confused the boys are when they regret deaths yet want to participate in killing. The speaker wants to go to prison as others do to earn the respect of teens in his town.  “Tupac finally turned off/the life he left on/ in an empty Vegas street/ but he was always a winner/ around my block where people got shot.” Martinez is an unusual young poet to read with pleasure and to watch in the future.—Karlan Sick, Library Consultant, New York City

Categories: Library News

Malala Yousafzai Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Mon, 2014-10-13 07:00

I thought readers here might be interested to know, if they hadn’t heard already, that Malala Yousafzai has just been named a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is, of course, the author of I Am Malala–reviewed here back in December–which chronicles her struggle for education for girls in Pakistan, and eventual shooting by the Taliban at the age of 16. Now 17, she is the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize ever.

The Prize cites Malala and her co-recipient, Kailash Satyarthi “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

If you go our review, you’ll see that Angela was a bit ambivalent about the book itself, and I agree with her that it has its weaknesses, but there is no doubt that Malala herself is an extraordinary young woman–a genuine teen hero–and we offer her hearty congratulations for the Prize.

Categories: Library News

A Little Lumpen Novelita from Roberto Bolano

Mon, 2014-10-06 07:00

One of the greatest Latin American writers of the turn of the 21st Century, Roberto Bolaño has unfortunately only been known to English readers since his premature death, at the age of 50, to liver disease. His two most famous works here in America, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, are massive, complex novels filled with weighty themes and intricate plots. Fortunately for teens, then, the year before he died, he published this very brief, narratively straightforward novella which nevertheless contains many of the same themes and contrivances that make his longer work so enriching.

Coincidentally, A Little Lumpen Novelita also features a teenaged narrator and a strange-but-recognizable coming-of-age plot. There’s no question that Bolaño’s style, and refusal to resolve ambiguities will be off-putting to some readers, whether teens or adults, but I for one read it in a single sitting and have been thinking about it fairly frequently in the months since I first encountered it.

Note: I quite like the lovely photograph that adorns the English translation–but check out the original cover art.

BOLAÑO, Roberto. A Little Lumpen Novelita. 128p. New Directions. tr. from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Sept. 2014. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9780811223355.

Originally published in Spanish the year before Bolaño’s death, this perfectly titled “novelita” begins with a shocking, but ultimately misleading statement from the narrator: “Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime.” After her brother and she are orphaned as teenagers and left to their own devices, living in a small house in Rome, Bianca’s “life of crime” begins when her brother and two friends concoct a bizarre plan to rob a wealthy former movie star. Bianca is to seduce him and use her access to his house to find a hypothetical safe filled with riches. But the protagonist  never searches for the safe more than half-heartedly, and eventually comes to believe that it doesn’t exist. Instead, she forms a bond with the overweight, blind, aging man she is supposedly duping. Rather than a story of crime, this novelita is a classic, if off-kilter, story of teen dislocation: Bolaño captures perfectly the ennui and confusion of a teenaged girl being thrust into the world of work, money, and sex before she is able to understand it. And the extra layers of orphanhood, economic distress, and cultural differences help to magnify and clarify the decisions Bianca must make and their ultimate consequences. An excellent introduction to Bolaño for teens.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

Categories: Library News

Asian Identity

Mon, 2014-09-29 07:00

The Year She Left Us concerns the search for belonging and identity, both personal and cultural. Ari was abandoned in China as a baby, taken to an orphanage, then adopted by a Chinese American woman, Charlie, who raises her in San Francisco with the help of her sister and mother. Now Ari is 18 and angry, especially after a “heritage tour” to China. She’s told she should be grateful for being adopted into a family that looks like her, but she just can’t feel it and spirals into depression. Ari is the center of Kathryn Ma‘s debut novel, but her story intertwines with those of the other women–her adopted mother, grandmother and aunt–and turns into a multi-generational novel that some have compared to The Joy Luck Club.

Ma’s novel was inspired by a trip to China during which she stayed in a hotel where several international adoptions were being facilitated. “I began thinking about international adoption as a lens for looking at complicated questions of race, immigration, and the meaning of family. Would my main character, Ari, be one of the smiling babies I saw, or like the little girl crying as though her heart had broken?”

With Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird we move to the Japanese island of Okinawa, and a novel that moves back and forth between the present and the past. Both are times of war (WWII and Afghanistan) and both feature teenage girls who contemplate suicide. In the past, we have a pregnant 15-year-old who fears the approaching Invasion of Okinawa. In the present, an army brat in despair after her older sister is killed while serving in Afghanistan.

Having spent an idyllic part of her childhood living in Okinawa as an army brat herself, Bird is passionate about sharing the history and culture of the island, and particularly that of the WWII era which is little-known in the western world. More people were killed in the Battle of Okinawa than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, yet we never hear about it. Fortunately, this novel shares the island’s history in a way that both does justice to its horrors and remains engaging thanks to its fascinating characters.

Bird has written about teenagers before in The Gap Year and The Yokota Officers Club. The latter is also partly set in Okinawa.

MA, Kathryn. The Year She Left Us. 321p. HarperCollins. May 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062273345.  

Told in alternating chapters, this powerful debut novel recounts the story of four Kong women; Gran, Les, Charlie, and Ari. The title refers to the year that Ari, 18, spins out of control after a visit to the orphanage in China from which Charlie, her mother, had adopted her. Growing up in San Francisco and raised, as Ari says, by three mothers (“Four, counting the one who threw me away”), Charlie, her aunt Les, and her grandmother, there were early signs of Ari’s unhappiness and her unending search for a sense of belonging.  The teen is not alone in her search, for each of the Kong women have their own internal battles. As Les says, “to be a Kong woman was to be drawn straight into battle—sometimes with others, more often with oneself.” Ari returns home from her trip to China after a disturbing self-inflicted “accident” and is deeply troubled. She goes to Alaska in search of what might be an unlikely father figure but spends her time trying to avoid the “black ditch” that wants to suck her in. It is Gran’s trip to her homeland China, on her own quest, and her insistence that only Ari can come to her rescue, that begins to pull the young woman out of her deep despair. At times painful to read, this novel is ultimately about the power of family and reconciliation. Teens will be drawn in by the unique points of view of these four unforgettable women.—Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA

BIRD, Sarah. Above the East China Sea. 320p. maps. Knopf. May 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780385350112. LC 2013024336.  

Don’t let the pastoral cover fool you—inside is a compelling contemporary novel intertwined with a tragic historical fiction tale. This contemporary portion centers around Luz, who has grown up on military bases and is currently living with her (largely absent) mother in Okinawa, Japan. Her older sister was killed in Afghanistan just 13 days after she arrived there on active duty.  The parallel story is Tamiko’s—a native Okinawan who becomes a teenage nurse during World War II, but gets a rude awakening as to what the Japanese really think of their country cousins, the Okinawans. The stories intersect when Luz nearly drowns and believes she encounters a spirit that belongs to Tamiko. The bulk of the contemporary narrative takes place during the three-day festival of Obon, which honors the spirits of the dead. That Okinawa is so rich in heritage regarding these spirits allows the magical realism to be quite believable. The author also spent her youth at an Okinawan military base, as is relayed in the acknowledgements, and has researched the customs thoroughly. The parallel stories have immense teen appeal. Luz’s life as a military brat, her relationship with her sister and possible love interest Jake, and her search for her ancestors are resonant. But no less so is Tamiko’s life—forced to care for her mentally fragile older sister under horrific circumstances. All of the mysteries within the novel are solved, but one of the biggest isn’t uncovered until the final pages and teens will be turning pages quickly until it is.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

Categories: Library News

The Spark and the Drive

Thu, 2014-09-25 07:00

Wayne Harrison’s The Spark and the Drive is one of my favorite debut novels of the year, and like so many debut novels it appears to have been based on the author’s life. Like his young narrator, Harrison worked as an auto mechanic in Waterbury, CT and he uses that background for all it’s worth, making the reader smell the exhaust fumes in this novel which combines the coming-of-age of a young man, and the slow decay of an old industry. For anyone interested, Harrison has an excellent website with photographs of some of the book’s key elements, including the extremely important 1969 ZL1 Corvette.

HARRISON, Wayne. The Spark and the Drive. 272p. St. Martin’s. Jul. 2014. Tr. $25.99. ISBN 9781250041241. LC 2014000133.

In his fantastic debut novel, Harrison finds surprising resonances between his main plot of a fiery love triangle and an underlying paean to the great American muscle cars and the mechanics who maintained them. The heart of both stories is Justin Bailey, a young man who has put off college to work at the garage of his idol, Nick Campbell, one of the best auto mechanics in Connecticut. When Nick and his wife Mary Ann lose their young son to SIDS, Nick begins to make mistakes at the garage and draws away from those close to him. Mary Ann, desperate for intimacy, turns to Justin, and the two begin a passionate affair. Justin, who loves Nick as a father, finds himself torn between helping Nick regain his edge and hoping that his mentor will finally pull away altogether and leave Mary Ann. Set in the early 1980s, as smog laws and computers are bringing about the death of the American muscle car, and the end of careers of mechanics like Nick, the novel sets up a brilliant parallel to the love triangle as Justin finds himself caught in the middle at the garage as well. He is old and idealistic enough to love Nick’s old ways, but young enough to be able to surpass Nick in the new ways. Harrison’s lovingly detailed descriptions of engine mechanics are almost more gorgeous than his romantic plot. No knowledge of cars is necessary, but teens with an interest in engines should find this coming-of-age story especially poignant.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

Categories: Library News

Ghost Stories

Tue, 2014-09-23 07:00

Two ghost stories today, both more atmospheric than scary. We begin with the first adult novel from YA phenomenon Lauren Oliver. Before I Fall is one of my go-to recommendations, and was a huge hit with my high school bookgroup a couple years ago. And of course, there’s the Delirium trilogy, so I was quite looking forward to reading this one.

Rooms, releasing today, is certainly a more adult story. It is moody, contemplative, and full of rather unlikeable people. That said, it features a sympathetic teen character and it is a ghost story. Rooms may well appeal most to readers who enjoy a dysfunctional family story, because it is definitely that. Alcoholism, child abuse, neglect, divorce, it’s all there. The structure is intriguing (each section takes place in a different room of the house), as are the parallels that emerge between the lives of the Walkers and the former lives of the ghosts who observe them. Readers will genuinely want to know what happened to trap the ghosts in this particular house, and Oliver expertly keeps those answers a mystery until the very end.

Danica Novgorodoff‘s graphic novel, The Undertaking of Lily Chen brings together love, death, ghosts and gorgeous watercolors that evoke Chinese landscapes. Take a look at its striking official book trailer.

There seems to be some question as to whether this is adult or YA, but SLJ reviewing decided to place it as adult. (You might notice that the Printz blog has it on their longlist, so obviously this is still up in the air!)

OLIVER, Lauren. Rooms. 320p. Ecco. Sept. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062223197.  

After Richard Walker dies (an awful man, everyone agrees), his ex-wife and two children return to the house in Coral River, New York that they had left years earlier. Alice and Sandra, the ghosts trapped within its walls, are shocked by how much they’ve changed. Last they saw Trenton he was a beautiful boy; now 16, he’s an “awkward, gummy, sullen thing.” Minna, 27, has a habit of using sex with strangers as a panacea, and their alcoholic mother, Caroline, has put on quite a few pounds. Each section of the book takes place in a different room of the house, and is comprised of short chapters, told in first person from the ghosts’ perspective (observing, reminiscing and bickering), and in third person for each of the family members. In the Basement, Trenton considers suicide after being humiliated at a party. Richard’s memorial takes place in the Living Room. The story is punctuated by visitors—a pretty neighbor confronts Trenton in the Greenhouse (and later accidentally sets fire to the Attic during a séance), a lawyer arrives bearing Richard’s surprising will, and a new ghost appears. The spirits provide the most intriguing mysteries. How did they die? Why are they trapped in this house? Too many vague descriptions of what it feels like to be a ghost and unlikable (if not unsympathetic) characters marr this first adult offering from a hugely popular YA author. Still, teens may enjoy the mysteries and the occasional flashes of comedic timing in this mixed-bag of a dysfunctional family/ghost story.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

NOVGORODOFF, Danica. The Undertaking of Lily Chen. illus. by author. 429p. First Second. Mar. 2014. pap. $29.99. ISBN 9781596435865. LC 2013030816.  

“Parts of rural China are seeing a burgeoning market for female corpses….” With a small clipping pulled from a 2007 news story, graphic novelist Novgordoff grabs readers from page one. Readers learn about an ancient Chinese custom dictating that men must share their grave with a wife or risk a dark and lonely afterlife. Not only must Deshi bear the guilt of having killed his brother Wei, but Wei’s entire afterlife is in Deshi’s hands as now he must find Wei a dead wife by the end of the week. Thanks to high demand, the only corpse he can find is too old and rotten to do the trick. Fate seems to be on Deshi’s side when he meets beautiful, headstrong Lily who is on the run from her own arranged marriage, but turning her into a corpse bride turns out to be a bigger headache—and heartache—than he bargained for. Although the story is predictable, the plot takes a backseat to the illustrations—a spectacular homage to traditional Chinese watercolor paintings. With splashes of blue and gold, the art is clearly influenced by traditional paintings, but the characters themselves are modern. This juxtaposition is evident in the panels that uncover the roots of ghost marriages, while the alternating pages narrate the aftermath of Wei’s death. Teens will be able to sympathize with Deshi’s feelings of familial obligation, while also rooting for Lily, a fearless young girl who resists outmoded tradition. Hand this to those who appreciate skilled artwork or to any reader looking for adventure/romance.—Rachael Myers-Ricker, Horace Mann School, Bronx, NY

Categories: Library News

On the Road

Thu, 2014-09-18 09:17

All We Had is a road trip novel that follows a mother and daughter from Los Angeles to the East Coast. In Lucky Us, a family moves from Ohio to Hollywood, then back East to New York. There are two main appeal elements in these road novels. All We Had exemplifies the first–grappling to survive and find security. Lucky Us is about survival, but even more about the other element–reinvention. 

Annie Weatherwax is a sculptor and visual artist. All We Had is her debut novel, narrated by precocious 13-year-old Ruthie. Ruthie and her 29-year-old mother are drifters who end up in a small town in upstate New York when their old Ford finally gives out. Weatherwax characterizes her writing as “comic realism,” and uses the 2008 economic downturn as the novel’s backdrop. This small family is struggling just enough to be hit hardest by the recession. Last year my school had a “teach-in” on hunger in America, which focused on food insecurity. I cannot help but see this novel as an ideal literary example of this problem. For more, take a look at the Washington Post review, which focuses on this element in detail.

Katie Holmes is set to play the mother in a movie version of All We Had. It also marks her directorial debut. Josh Boone, director of The Fault in Our Stars, will adapt the script.

Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us is set in the 1940s, which gives this lively family story of continuous reinvention a wartime backdrop. NPR calls its half-sisters “as endearing and comically annoying as any you’ll find in contemporary fiction.” The older of the two teens wants to be an actress, and even does well in Hollywood for a brief time. She has the ability to make herself into whatever she needs to be to survive. Readers will be thrilled by the unpredictability and life to this story.

Other road trip novels? Don’t forget The Last Days of California, which we reviewed earlier this year.

WEATHERWAX, Annie. All We Had. 272p. Scribner. Aug. 2014. Tr $24. ISBN 9781476755205.  

At first blush, a story about a young girl and her mother making a road trip from Los Angeles to Boston with the last few dollars they have may seem like a repeat of other novels.  However, All We Had rises above that trend to highlight Ruthie’s journey from hopelessness to hope, from being with only her mother to finding a family in a way that readers will remember long after the last page. Ruthie is the only good thing Rita has going for her; she would do anything for her daughter. And that means anything – running out on landlords and lovers, making the move East (because Rita just knows that Ruthie is so brilliant she’ll shine at Harvard), and taking menial jobs to keep a roof over their heads. For all Rita’s sacrifices, it isn’t until they land in Fat River, Upstate New York, that either of them finds a family of sorts. It’s an odd family, from Arlene and Peter Pam to the Hansons and Miss Frankfort, but each of them reaches out to help the pair survive. Because, of course, just when things start looking up—a roof over their heads that they actually own, stability in schooling and work—things start going downhill, due to the financial reversals in this rust belt town. The struggle to build a successful life will resonate with students who have seen their families (and towns) suffer financial hardship.—Laura Pearle, Miss Porter’s School, CT

BLOOM, Amy. Lucky Us. 234p. Random. Jul. 2014. Tr $26. ISBN 9781400067244. LC 2013017648.  

After her mother’s death in 1939, 16-year-old Iris meets Eva, the daughter of her father’s mistress when Eva is abandoned to this family’s care. The father Eva knew only on Sundays and the occasional Thursday accepts her into their family and Iris and Eva become sisters. Iris, intent on pursuing her dream of becoming a Hollywood star, and Eva, equally intent on staying close to Iris, discover one day that their father is a cheat and liar, so they pack up and head west to follow Iris’s dream. The budding actress makes it into the movie business and encounters the rarified world of 1940s Hollywood. As the siblings meet interesting people and begin to make a life for themselves, their father joins them. Sex is the medium by which stars often progress and Iris discovers that lust and love aren’t always the same thing. After Iris is blackballed by her jealous girlfriend, the family heads to New York. Disguising themselves as a governess and an English butler, Iris and her father gain employment with the wealthy Torelli family. This quirky story is told in short chapters from differing character viewpoints. It is for older teen readers who can handle mature sexual themes. Adroit writing keeps readers willing to accept this eccentric and unconventional family for who they are and what they do. Eva is the glue that keeps the family together and readers will root for her all the way.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

Categories: Library News

A Whole Lotta Secrets

Mon, 2014-09-15 07:00

Today we begin with a psychological mystery then highlight two thrillers, one suspense-filled, another action-packed.

I am excited to recommend Tana French’s new Dublin Murder Squad novel to teen readers. I have enjoyed French’s novels since her 2007 debut, In the Woods. She is among the finest literary crime novelists writing today, and in The Secret Place she takes on the world of an all-girls boarding school and the intricacies of female friendships. This is not a book for readers who want fast answers and non-stop action. Rather, it takes the reader gradually deeper and deeper into the lives and minds of its subjects. I tried to make this clear in my review—it will reward patient readers who are attuned to detail and nuance. 

While part of a series, it definitely stands alone. This is particularly true for teen readers because the only relationships that continue from past books concern two of the detectives. Series readers will enjoy watching these two men struggle with their new circumstances, but new readers won’t miss the extra layer.

For your suspense thriller readers, and particularly those who enjoy a good serial killer book, we have The Butcher by Jennifer Hillier. This is one of those stories where supposedly the serial killer was stopped years ago but, yikes, they may have fingered the wrong man. Extra points here for the Seattle foodie scene and the twists and turns of both the central plot and the troubled romance between the two main protagonists.

In The Furies, we find a non-stop action thriller with a science fiction angle–turns out that witches are the result of a genetic mutation. Sarah’s review, below, does a great job of describing the reading experience here, and which readers will enjoy it and why.

FRENCH, Tana. The Secret Place. 451p. (Dublin Murder Squad). Viking. Sept. 2014. Tr. $27.95. ISBN 9780670026326. LC 2014004500.  

Four best friends boarding at the exclusive St. Kilda’s girl’s school outside Dublin are at the heart of French’s latest literary mystery. Chris Harper, a student at St. Colm’s, the neighboring boy’s school, was found dead on the grounds of St. Kilda’s. He’d been killed in the middle of the night, bashed in the head with a hoe. One year after his death, a St. Kilda’s student, Holly Mackey, brings new evidence to Stephen Moran, a young detective stuck in Cold Cases who yearns to work Murder. Moran seizes his chance, and takes it directly to the lead detective on the Harper case, Antoinette Conway. The Secret Place has multiple meanings. For one, it refers to the cypress grove where Chris’s body was found, which is also the place Holly and her three best friends, Julia, Selena and Rebecca, hang out late at night, sneaking out of the dorm using a stolen key. It was there that they all vowed never to date St. Colm’s boys. Now, a year later, intensive interviews by Moran and Conway reveal cracks in their sisterhood. This is a detailed psychological study of the players that slowly reveals the who and why of the murder. By including chapters that focus on the girls, in the past and present, along with chapters from Moran’s point of view, French achieves a stunning depth of motivation and consequence. She clearly understands the secrets and social dynamics of girls and the pure beauty of first love. Strong, patient readers will be entranced.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

HILLIER, Jennifer. The Butcher. 352p. S. & S. July 2014. Tr $25. ISBN 9781476734217. LC 2013047237.  

In the 1980s, policeman Edward Shank became a hero and eventually the police chief for gunning down “The Beacon Hill Butcher”—a serial killer who targeted young women. Now he’s moving into an assisted-living home and his grandson is given the family home. But Matt, an up-and-coming Seattle chef, makes a gruesome discovery in the backyard—something that makes him question his familial ties and his own sanity. Meanwhile, Matt’s girlfriend, Sam, is researching The Butcher for a true crime book because she believes he murdered her mother, two years after The Butcher was caught. As Sam arrives closer to the truth, she wonders if the discovery of her mother’s killer will be her own downfall.  Even though readers know the identity of the killer at the very beginning, Hillier fills the novel with mystery, suspense, and plenty of surprises. Even the love story is unexpected. Matt and Sam have their flaws, which make them feel more real, and the nonstop action is set firmly in the fascinating foodie world of Seattle. Matt’s emotional turmoil is scary and heartbreaking, and the troubled relationship between Matt and Sam will resonate with teens. Give this to readers who love fast-moving serial killer books like Geoffrey Girard’s Cain’s Blood (Touchstone, 2013) and Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers (Little, Brown, 2012).— Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

ALPERT, Mark. The Furies: A Thriller. 312p. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne Bks. Apr. 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250021359. LC 2013031726.  

John Rogers is depressed and lonely—but all that changes when he meets Ariel at a bar in Greenwich Village. He falls for her instantly, but their romantic tryst is interrupted by gunshots. John, a former gang member and military boot camp dropout, knows more about evading bullets than the average person, but Ariel is a professional. Ariel’s family are called the Furies—witches (but don’t call them that!) who have discovered the fountain of youth as a protein mutation that can only be passed through females. John is fine with Ariel’s explanations of the violence and her life story that spans hundreds of years—he’s in love. While many of the Furies’s male companions have initiated a rebellion, John is happy to leave his life behind and dedicate himself to Ariel and her family’s plan to save the world from evil. Readers who suspend their disbelief are in for addictive non-stop action akin to an all-night marathon of the television show 24. The reading level is low enough for quick reading, the action is fast, and the theory that real-life witches were behind many historical events is fascinating. Give this to fans of Michael Simmons’s Finding Lubchenko (Penguin, 2005), Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton, 2014), or any medical or shoot ‘em up thrillers.—Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

Categories: Library News

Unreviewed but not Forgotten

Fri, 2014-09-12 07:00

“Hey Mark” (a hypothetical reader asks) “how do you choose what you review around here?” Unfortunately, chance and timing play a big role. There are of course hundreds of books every year that could be reviewed on this blog that we simply never hear about or never get a copy of. But what about books that we are actively expecting, but authors we know and trust? Sometimes we don’t even get to those. In some cases, there are sequels to long or short running series that we simply can’t find anything new to say about. Other sequels we know will be popular but don’t live up to the originals. Then there are authors who have written some teen-friendly adult books but their new books don’t quite have the same appeal. And of course, sometimes, we just can’t get to a book in time for a timely review.

But the point of this post is not to lament this blog’s failures, but to celebrate the bounty of books available. Here are eleven books from ten authors that you should know about: none of them is for every teen, but there are definitely teen readers out there for every one of these.


Hallinan, Timothy, Herbie’s Game (Soho)

I reviewed the second of the four Junior Bender mysteries, and I read and quite enjoyed the third as well, but I didn’t see enough difference between the two to merit another review, so I skipped this most recent title. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot of teen appeal in these mysteries, especially for young film buffs, and I would recommend any of them unreservedly.

Mead, Richelle, The Immortal Crown (Dutton)

We ended our review of Gameboard of the Gods by declaring that fans would be “waiting for the sequels” but we nevertheless managed to miss this, the first sequel. If your teens love Mead and loved Gameboard, be sure to pick this one up.

Mishani, D.A., A Possibility of Violence  (Harper)

I was quite enamored of Mishani’s first Avraham Avraham mystery, The Missing File, and was particularly excited by the idea of a Hebrew mystery novelist. Unfortunately, I didn’t see quite enough teen interest in the first book to review the second, but if you’ve had a different experience, by all means take a look at this second in an ongoing series.

Wooding, Chris, Iron Jackal (Titan)

We absolutely loved the first two volumes in Woodin’s steampunky Ketty Jay series, and it’s kind of inexcusable that we managed to miss reviewing this third volume. But miss it we did, as it came out over six months ago here in the US (not to mention three years ago in Britain). Do yourself a favor and pick this one up, and keep your eyes peeled for the forthcoming Ace of Skulls, which came out in Britain last year.

Waters, M.D., Prototype (Dutton)

The first half of this two part series, Archetype, got a starred review and a place on our Best Books of the Year, so far list. We chose not to review this, the second half, because it simply does not live up to its predecessor. However, teens who loved Archetype will want to follow-up with this sequel.

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature, ed. Russ Kick (Seven Stories)

We’re way behind on this series. Russ Kick’s Graphic Canon came out in three parts, moving chronologically through the Western Canon from Gilgamesh to Infinite Jest, and now he’s back with a look at the canon of children’s lit. We reviewed the first volume, and (like Archetype) gave it a star and a place on our Best of the Year, so far list. But we missed volumes 2 and 3 completely, and this year we’re missing this volume on children’s lit. Don’t let our silence be your guide. Take a look at these fabulous renditions of some of the greatest stories in history!

Authors We Love:

Oates, Joyce Carol, Carthage (Ecco)

Oates, Joyce Carol, High Crime Area: Tales of Darkness and Dread (Grove)

One novel and one story collection this year: about par for the course for Oates. I haven’t had a chance to crack open either of these books, but as I said in my review of Evil Eye last year, I pretty much recommend any and all Oates to mature readers. There is always sure to be something provocative and creepy.

Powers, Kevin, Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (Little, Brown)

Powers’s The Yellow Birds was one of my favorite books of 2012, and we gave it a starred review and a place on our Best of the Year list. It was also a National Book Award finalist. Powers returns to his war experience for this poetry collection, which got good reviews and I expect to be great, but which I couldn’t quite fit into my reading schedule.

Walton, Jo, My Real Children (Tor)

Speaking of favorites, Jo Walton’s Among Others was a favorite of both myself and Angela–I can’t speak for Angela but I continue to recommend it to anyone and everyone I meet. A truly magical book, and another that made our Best of the Year list, this time in 2011. So we were both pretty excited to hear that Walton had a new novel out this year. And yet, no review. Angela read and loved it but found its teen appeal to be limited. For my part, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. But fans of Among Others should know that it’s out there and please let us know if you think it has teen appeal.

Webb, Wendy, The Vanishing (Hyperion)

We reviewed Webb’s second novel, The Fate of Mercy Alban, last year and this one sounds fabulously creepy, but yet again lost out to the vicissitudes of time–a January release and now too many other books piled on top to get to it.

Categories: Library News

Court Intrigue

Wed, 2014-09-10 07:00

Whence our fascination with royalty? Back in my high school American History classes, I used to joke that ever since winning the Revolution, Americans have been trying their hardest to make the President into a king–a joke I find less and less funny as we are treated to ever-expanding executive power and a seemingly inevitable flip-flopping of dynasties–Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama interregnum, Clinton(?).

Whatever the historical case, it’s obvious that we Americans love entertainment about monarchs, whether it is high-brown Oscar-winning films like The King’s Speech and Return of the King, or more lurid TV fantasies like The Tudors and Game of Thrones. I chose those examples advisedly as the interest in royalty seems well split between historical fiction and high fantasy. And–what do you know?–today we review one example of each.

In The Shadow Queen, we have a historical piece set in the court of The Sun King, Louis XIV of France, primarily featuring the theatrical players but never skimping on the court intrigue. In Half a King, we have a fantasy which recalls Game of Thrones, particularly everyone’s favorite character, Tyrion Lannister.

GULLAND, Sandra. The Shadow Queen. 321p. charts. glossary. Doubleday. Apr. 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780385537520. LC 2013013829.

In 1651 France, Claudette and her family struggle to survive as players in the Theater—reviled by society as outcasts even as they are loved for the entertainment they provide. Scraping a life together, they travel from village to village, entertaining nobility and villager alike. In one of these villages Claudette comes into contact with Athénaïs, the beautiful daughter of the Duke de Montemart. Life on the road becomes harder after Claudette’s father dies suddenly and the young heroine provides the stability her broken-hearted mother needs by taking on odd jobs around the theater, and watching over her mentally challenged brother. From behind the curtain one evening, Claudette again sees Athénaïs, who remembers their earlier encounter and takes Claudette in as her “personal attendant”. Athénaïs uses Claudette to help her plot her way through the affections of the Sun King: Louis XIV. The protagonist is forced to rely on her own acting skills to navigate the behind-the-scenes treachery that pervades the King’s Court. Students who love the theater will be fascinated by the history of the French theater presented here. Molière, Racine, playwrights, actors, stagecraft, and invention: all provide the backdrop and story within which Claudette lives. She finds out that not all acting is done on the stage, and must balance the often grotesque and surreal world of the Theater with the lavish—and often equally grotesque—world of Court.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

ABERCROMBIE, Joe.  Half a King. 352p. (Shattered Sea). Del Rey. Jul. 2014. Tr $26. ISBN 9780804178327. LC 2014017107

Yarvi, the son of the king, is training to be a minister, the king’s chief advisor. He unexpectedly finds himself thrust onto the throne after his father and brother are murdered. Yarvi is called half a king because of his disability—he has only one good hand, the other having just the stub of a finger. Yarvi’s jealous uncle lures him into a trap, planning to kill him so he can take Yarvi’s place on the throne.  He barely survives the assassination attempt; left badly beaten and needing to hide his identity,  the protagonist is found by a warrior and sold into slavery. He is forced to be an oarsman on a trading ship captained by a brutal drunkard. A shipwreck gives him and several other slaves the chance to escape. Yarvi was despised by his father and bullied by his brother, and never wanted to be king. Now his thirst for revenge and his toughening through surviving slavery and other trials drive him back to his homeland to claim his birthright. Though physically challenged, his wit and skills in languages and negotiating are strong, allowing him and his fellow slaves—who are surprisingly skilled at fighting—to handle the many obstacles between them and revenge. Fans of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones will no doubt think of Tyrion Lannister as they read about Yarvi.  Dramatic exploits, multiple betrayals, some elegant plot twists, and no shortage of humor make this a sure winner with fans of fantasy and adventure.—Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA

Categories: Library News

Exotic Global Settings

Mon, 2014-09-08 07:38

The Caribbean, Tasmania, Afghanistan… Sense of place and culture dominate today’s books, two novels and one collection of poetry.

Tiphanie Yanique is a native of St. Thomas who now divides her time between the Virgin Islands and Brooklyn. I enjoyed learning (from the author’s website) that both her mother and grandmother were librarians in the Virgin Islands. Her first novel, Land of Love and Drowning, is as much about the Virgin Islands as it is about three generations of the family on which it focuses. This sprawling book incorporates elements of magical realism, and effectively incorporates war, racism and civil rights as it weaves its way through the 20th century.

Past the Shallows takes the reader to the coast of Tasmania and another family, this one a trio of brothers dealing with a difficult father. This is also Favel Parrett’s first novel, and it has won acclaim in her native Australia for its spare writing, family dynamics, dramatic fishing scenes, and vivid ocean setting.

I am the Beggar of the World is a collection of poems from Afghanistan. More specifically, landays–two-line, 22-syllable folk poems by Afghani women, mostly anonymous. Translator Eliza Griswold interprets the poems for the reader, and the black & white photography that accompanies them only heightens the book’s power and physical beauty. For anyone studying Afghanistan, this collection offers unusual insight. For more about the book, The Christian Science Monitor and Slate both offer glimpses into its genesis, and Griswold’s introduction is available on Poetry Daily.

YANIQUE, Tiphanie. Land of Love and Drowning. 368p. bibliog. maps. Riverhead. Jul. 2014. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9781594488337. LC 2013044381.  

The Virgin Islands is the main character in this debut novel. Place and time are central to the novel’s chapters focusing on the lives of Captain Owen Bradshaw and his family. Saint Thomas, like its inhabitants, comes of age after it transfers from Danish to American rule in the early 1900s. Multiple narrators, each with his or her own distinct voice, tell the story of wealthy Captain Owen Bradshaw and his beautiful but “wild” wife, Antoinette; his daughters, Eeona and Anette; and his son Jacob by his mistress, the magical Rebecca. When Bradshaw’s ship sinks, taking the lives of his islander crew with him, the island and his family are changed forever. Each child searches for the love that seems just out of their reach. Eeona longs to escape the islands, Anette craves the security of a committed relationship, and Jacob falls in love with the wrong woman. History is reflected in their lives and times: when World War II breaks out, Jacob and his friends head to the mainland as soldiers only to face a racism that did not exist on the island; the changing world reaches the islands with the introduction of TV; the rise of civil rights on the mainland fuels a growing rebellion on St. Thomas for recognition of islander rights to their own land. Mature themes weave throughout these stories, including sexuality and incest. Recommend to teens who enjoy strong characters, a tumultuous historical time period, and a setting that embraces music, madness, and Caribbean magic.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

PARRETT, Favel. Past the Shallows. 238p. Washington Square Pr. Apr. 2014. pap. $15. ISBN 9781476754871.  

Three brothers deal in their own way with secrets, tragedy, and death in this coming-of-age novel. As the eldest and therefore the only one to have moved out, Joe is the most removed, while Miles feels the full responsibility of caring for his younger brother Harry, who is more concerned with candy than in putting food on the table. Each brother has a complex relationship with their father, who is bitter and resentful toward them. These authentic relationships will resonate with teens regardless of the sibling with whom they most identify. Although the novel starts off slowly, it builds gradually until the subtle tension explodes, much like a crashing wave. Those who enjoy a strong sense of place will delve into the unpredictable Tasmanian coast and the small town that lives off of it. The ocean scent practically radiates off the page with the images of surfing waves and fighting off sharks portrayed through lyrical language. For a family that has been pushed to the edge, fishing is a way of life and it often pushes the boundaries of what is considered ethical behavior and what is necessary for survival. This is recommended for fans of tense, evocative writing that sweeps readers to a foreign place.—Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan. tr. by Eliza Griswold. photos by Seamus Murphy. 150p. Farrar. Apr. 2014. Tr $24. ISBN 9780374191870. LC 2013035179.  

When Griswold, a poet and journalist, learned about an Afghan girl who burned herself after being forbidden to compose poetry, she and photographer Murphy traveled to Afghanistan to discover more. She found that the women know many traditional short poems by heart and create new ones to share. The verses, or landays, are part of an ancient tradition practiced in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The two-line poems cover any topic from love and marriage to drone strikes and violence, and are adapted to changes in the women’s lives. Some pieces are sad, such as one in which a young woman says, “You sold me to an old man, father./May God destroy your home; I was your daughter.” Some are racy: “Come, let’s lie here thigh to thigh./ If you climb on, I won’t cry.”  Some quite modern: “I lost you on Facebook yesterday./I’ll find you on Google today.” The competent translations and the brief explanations add to readers’ appreciation. The landays are presented in three sections:  Love, Grief, and War. The last section includes many upsetting photographs of dead soldiers. “May God destroy your tank and your drone,/you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.” Songs blame America for the destruction, although women realize that their lives are easier without the Taliban. Most young, urban Afghans have smartphones and play anti-American songs in case they are stopped; the phone might be smashed if a popular western song played. The story is complicated, but Griswold and Murphy have created a fascinating work.—Karlan Sick, Library Consultant, New York City

Categories: Library News

New Books from Three Popular Authors

Tue, 2014-09-02 07:10

Rainbow Rowell’s many, many teen readers are definitely not the target audience for her summer novel, Landline, but no matter. Rowell’s signature clever dialogue and snappy one-liners are in generous supply as one women tries to save her marriage. And while a failing marriage is not a favorite literary topic among teens, this novel also takes the reader back to the college romance that began it all.

I doubt many teens know Chris Bohjalian by name, but he has written more than a few books with plenty of appeal, including The Double Bind (which uses The Great Gatsby in twisty, original ways), The Light in the Ruins, and The Night Strangers. He seems to be constantly challenging himself, moving from genre to genre effortlessly. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is about a teenager who runs away after her parents are involved in a terrible accident. She faces homelessness, drug abuse, and prostitution, but also finds the possibility for redemption.

Emma Straub is going to be a new author for most young adult readers (though you may know her for last year’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures). I picked up The Vacationers toward the end of the summer mostly because I had heard such good things and thought it would be a light, quick vacation read for myself, partly because I had this niggling feeling that the potential for teen appeal was there. Well, I am so glad I did. It’s both one of my personal favorite reads of the summer and a great recommendation for teens. I would go so far as to say that this is 2014′s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which, after all, did end up winning an Alex Award. Both books are very funny, but they are also warm. It isn’t cruel humor. It’s truthful, respectful, and entertaining.

I think The Vacationers‘ appeal for teens lies in the pitch-perfect depiction of how it feels to be a teen living within a quirky family. Straub gets everything right — how embarrassing a mother can be to her teen daughter; the desire to keep the most personal things private warring with the need to tell someone; the mortification of making a mistake that is loudly displayed on Facebook; the yearning to become a completely different person once you leave parents behind and head to college.

Don’t miss it. The Vacationers was also just the book to tell my colleagues about on the first days of school when everyone asked what I read over the summer, or asked for new recommendations for them.

ROWELL, Rainbow. Landline. 308p. St. Martin’s. Jul. 2014. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781250049377. LC 2014008538.  

Georgie McCool writes for a TV sitcom in Los Angeles, and is supposed to go to Omaha for Christmas with her husband Neal and their two children . But she, along with writing partner and best friend Seth, have just gotten their big break from the network—a pilot for their own show, which is due on December 27. Neal packs up the kids and leaves without her, sending Georgie into a tailspin. (She thought he’d stay home too). She can’t face going into their house alone and goes home to mom.  Strangely, the landline in her old room connects her to a Neal from the past—right after college, during the holidays, on another occasion when he also left her to go to Omaha and it wasn’t clear if their relationship was over. Georgie knows that Neal showed up on her doorstep on Christmas Day to propose to her back then, but doesn’t know if her conversations in the present/past will change the future. Teens will miss some of the dated references to TV shows, movies, and music, as well as the experience of talking on a landline, but no matter. There’s enough witty dialogue, romance, and angst in Georgie’s relationship with Neal and sexy Seth (“He fell back against the closet, kicking it gently, then resting his foot against it like he was modeling orange chinos. (He was wearing orange chinos)”) along with fun subplots, such as the protagonist’s 18-year-old sister and a pizza delivery boy, to keep teens entertained with this enjoyable and light read.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, CA

BOHJALIAN, Chris. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. 288p. Doubleday. Jul. 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780385534833. LC 2013034613.  

Sixteen-year-old Emily is a high school junior in Vermont, an Emily Dickinson fan, the only child of only children, a girl with a only a few friends and some small impulse control issues. Then the nuclear plant—where her father is a lead engineer and her mother is the public relations office—has a catastrophic meltdown. Not only were both her parents onsite, and thus probably dead, but word soon leaks out that her father may have been responsible for the accident, due to being drunk on the job. Emily, certain she will be hated by the thousands who are now evacuating their homes, slips away from her teachers and classmates and sets out on her own. Now the teen is an entirely different person: she is known as Abby; she lives in a drug dealer’s apartment, or in various shelters, or in an igloo made of frozen bags of leaves; she earns quick money by “servicing” truckers at the truck stop or by stealing; she begins cutting herself. Then she meets nine-year-old Cameron, and although she never liked kids, she finds new purpose in taking care of him—until, that is, he becomes dangerously ill. Teens will be drawn into Emily’s story, which is compelling, tragic, and moving, with all of her bad decisions seemingly logical but motivated by her flawed understanding of situations.—Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County Library

STRAUB, Emma. The Vacationers. 292p. Riverhead. May 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781594631573. 2013037110.  

In this perfect concoction, family and friends come together for two weeks of summer vacation in an idyllic hillside villa on the island of Mallorca. Franny is a freelance writer who travels and writes magazine articles about the food of different regions. She’s also a determined cook and hostess, taking charge of every detail of the group’s comfort. But she’s not speaking to her husband, a magazine editor recently dismissed for sleeping with an employee only a few years older than their daughter, Sylvia. The teen cannot wait to start at Brown University in the fall, where she plans to become a completely different person. All she wants from this vacation is to lose her virginity and try to forget her best friend’s betrayal. Cue Joan (pronounced Joe-ahhhn), the gorgeous local college boy Franny has hired to tutor Sylvia in Spanish. Also in attendance, Franny’s best friend of 40 years, Charles, to provide comfort and counsel. Charles and his husband, Lawrence, are waiting to hear whether they’ve been chosen to adopt a baby boy, something about which Charles is secretly having second thoughts. Sylvia’s older brother Bobby and Bobby’s much-older girlfriend, Carmen fly in from Miami. Carmen has been trying to fit in with the family for years, but they don’t give her a chance. Straub fleshes out all of these characters, effortlessly illuminating their foibles and mistakes, mitigated by the grace of forgiveness and familial understanding. Just as a great recipe is balanced and spiced, so Straub mixes the stress and comedy of a family vacation spent in close quarters to delightful effect.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

Categories: Library News

Kill My Mother: A New Graphic Novel From Jules Feiffer

Fri, 2014-08-29 07:00

A brief account of my acquaintance with the work of Jules Feiffer:

I first became aware of Jules Feiffer through his phenomenal, and phenomenally funny, picture book Bark, George (1999). I didn’t know anything about the book or the author–I think my wife brought it home to read to the kids–but I immediately fell in love with it, and started reading it as often as I could at storytimes (both at home and at the library). A couple years later, it turns up, quite rightly in my opinion, as the ninth best picture book of all time on Betsy Bird’s Picture Book Poll for SLJ. I read a few other pictures books of Feiffer’s which were good but not great, and didn’t think much more about him.

Flash forward to January of this year. I’m looking for a book to listen to on my bike ride to work and somehow I stumble across a middle grade novel by Feiffer called A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears (1995), which turns out to be every bit as funny as Bark, George. But I still didn’t look into his career in more detail until I happened across his picture in a book about the history of comic books. It turns out he was a young (16-year-old) protege of Will Eisner, working on the famous comic The Spirit.  After working with Eisner, he went on to write comics for the Village Voice. My mind was suitably blown, first because he worked with one of the gods of comic books, and second because with the copyright dates of the first two books I read in the 1990s, I had no idea he had been writing and drawing since the 1940s.

Now I started paying attention, putting out interlibrary loan requests for his collections of comics from the Village Voice, as well as Tantrum, which can probably lay claim to being one of the first true “Graphic Novels” since it came out the year after Eisner’s Contract With God established that term. The comics are urbane and witty, in a very 60s Village Voice style, but what is clear is that Feiffer has an entirely unique style of drawing and sense of humor, and those are what have kept him going up through the present decade.

Which brings us to the work at hand. This year, Feiffer has come out with a new graphic novel, which hearkens back to his days with Eisner and The Spirit, with its noir trappings and intricate structuring. Read the review below, but suffice to say I think this is a fantastic read.  It is also, by the way, is the graphic novel I mentioned back in June as having been published too late in the year to make our Best of the Year, So Far list.

FEIFFER, Jules. Kill My Mother. illus. by author. 160p. Liveright. Aug. 2014. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780871403148. LC 2014005844.

Newly widowed and dealing with a young daughter determined to hate her, Elsie takes up a job with her husband’s ex-partner, now a private detective, in the hopes that he will help her solve her husband’s murder. Instead, she becomes embroiled in a case involving a femme fatale named Mae and her estranged sister; and when they get too close to the truth, Elsie’s boss ends up dead as well. Flash forward 10 years and these two families of women are still entangled: Elsie works for a Hollywood studio where Mae is managing an up-and-coming star; and Elsie’s daughter Annie—now the writer of a famous radio show—befriends Mae’s sister. In a complicated set of plot machinations, the entire cast ends up at a USO show on a small island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, and the soap opera–esque revelations begin to fly. It’s all just as silly as it sounds, as are the story’s hard-boiled, film noir trappings. But it’s also very funny and genuinely moving. Feiffer’s layouts owe much to his mentor, Will Eisner, but his spidery art and absurdist prose are all his own. Teens who have never encountered Feiffer’s style may find it off-putting at first, but the propulsive story should suck them in long enough to fully appreciate the his utterly unique talent.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA


Categories: Library News

The Invisible Circle

Wed, 2014-08-27 14:33

For the last nine months, I’ve been on a mission to get you all to read the great French mystery novelist Paul Halter (posts here and here) and today I’m back with another of his books. As I pointed out in that first post, his books are translated and published by a tiny house called Locked Room International and I had hoped to have a review of one of their non-Halter books, specifically The Killing Needle by Henry Cauvin. Translator John Pugmire makes the case that The Killing Needle‘s detective Maximillien Heller is the “French Sherlock Holmes” which is of particular note since it was originally published 16 years before the first Holmes story. Pugmire makes a strong case that Arthur Conan Doyle may have read The Killing Needle and taken ideas for Holmes from it. I didn’t find myself quite convinced–I didn’t see anything that couldn’t have been found in various other detective stories of the period, particularly Poe’s Dupin stories. But just because I wasn’t convinced doesn’t mean I’m right.  In the end I didn’t find quite enough teen appeal in that book to review here, but if you or your teens are intrigued by the Holmes angle, or just interested in more locked room mysteries, definitely take a look at The Killing Needle.

Meanwhile, today’s review is another Halter book, this one, as I say in my review, seemingly based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Just as in Christie’s novel, the characters are trapped on a small island as a mysterious killer goes to work, leaving only themselves as suspects. Another great mystery from Halter, perfect for fans of Christie looking to branch out.

HALTER, Paul. The Invisible Circle. tr. from French by John Pugmire. 152p. Create Space/ Jun. 2014. pap. $19.99. ISBN 9781497336834.

Halter, the French master of the locked-room mystery, tries his hand at a remake of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with a bit of Arthurian legend thrown in for good measure. Madge Pearson is summoned by her creepy uncle Gerry to a deserted island-castle in Cornwall where she finds several other seemingly unrelated guests. Her uncle declares the castle to be standing on the ground of the “real” Camelot, gives each guest an Arthurian nickname, and then proceeds to predict that one of them will kill him in an impossible fashion. Sure enough, Gerry is murdered and the guests are trapped on the island, convinced that one of them must be the killer. Perhaps because of the very small cast, Halter’s characterization this time out is much more nuanced, although as always the real treat is the seemingly impossible twists and turns of the mystery as it is solved, unsolved, and solved again.  Originally published in 1996, and set 60 years before in 1936, the novel has an air of timelessness while still nicely capturing the milieu of Christie’s and Dorothy Sayers’s great novels of the 1930s, and teen fans of those authors, or Halter’s other locked-room works, should love this one.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

Categories: Library News

Fabulous Debuts

Mon, 2014-08-25 07:00

It’s the end of August, and we still have quite a few reviews of summer books to share with you. So don’t let this somewhat clumsy grouping at all diminish your regard for the following three debut novels.

I start with 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas because, well, great title! And it really does suit for this time of year. Everyone’s busy, about to jump into fall. Enter this slim, delightful novel that feels a bit like a heartfelt sitcom. Also, I can’t remember the last time we had anything set in a jazz club, or starring a 9-year-old aspiring singer. The entire novel is set within a 24-hour period and takes place in Philadelphia, author Marie-Helene Bertino‘s hometown. It is a current Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, and the B&N site features a nice interview with the author. It will also make a great addition to your holiday book displays come December.

Next up is Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal, a Library Reads top pick. I can see recommending this novel to teens who loved The Help or The Secret Life of Bees. It also reminds me of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. The author was inspired by her love of New Orleans. As she worked to rebuild her home after Hurricane Katrina, she was determined to tell a story of the city and what makes it unique, including its culture and the mix of people who live in close proximity to one another. Read more on the author’s website. This is also a great choice for teens who love books featuring food, for Dollbaby is full of traditional New Orleans dishes.

And finally, for a complete change of pace, let Lauren Quick usher you and your teens into the Halloween season with The Quick, an engrossing, multi-layered, unpredictable Victorian vampire novel. Frankly, this is a spoiler, because it takes quite a while for the novel to reveal its monsters. But its twists and turns will be just the thing for horror readers, especially those willing to tackle a long novel like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which made a big splash with a few dedicated readers in my library when it came out.

BERTINO, Marie-Helene. 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. 272p. Crown. Aug. 2014. Tr. $25. ISBN 9780804140232. LC 2013048943.  

It’s 2 A.M. on December 30, New Year’s Eve Eve. Within the next 24 hours, Lorca must find enough money to pay off several fines levied on his jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas (among other problems: serving underage patrons, people living in the club, and illegal fireworks). Adding to the pressure is his son, who just wants to play with the house band. Later that day, Madeleine (who loves to sing, as did her deceased mother) is expelled from school because a bully ruined her caramel apple, and she—foul of mouth and fast of fist—retaliated; now all she wants to do is find The Cat’s Pajamas and sing, just as her mother did. The young woman’s teacher, Sabrina, feels somewhat responsible for not defending Madeleine, but is even more nervous about seeing Ben, who years ago was the worst prom date ever, and other high school friends at dinner. The three narratives intertwine as the day unfolds, and backstories for each are told in flashbacks and memories. By 2 A.M. on December 31, the protagonists’ paths converge at the club. As so often happens in life, the rhythm and pacing of these lives changes—sometimes things are resolved, sometimes left hanging. A great read for those who like realistic, slice-of-life fiction that doesn’t move at a fast pace but still manages to pack a lot in.—Laura Pearle, Miss Porter’s School, Farmington, CT

MCNEAL, Laura Lane. Dollbaby. 337p. Viking/Pamela Dorman Bks. Jul. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780670014736. LC 2013048523.  

This debut novel opens in 1964 when Liberty Bell (Ibby), just shy of her 12th birthday, is dumped by her mother at her unknown paternal grandmother’s somewhat rundown mansion in New Orleans. Ibby’s beloved father has just died and her mother, needing to “figure this whole thing out,” takes off without so much as a backward glance. Ibby is welcomed to her grandmother Fannie’s house by Dollbaby, who along with her mother Queenie, work for Fannie. So begins a remarkable eight-year period for Ibby. Fannie is eccentric, loving, and loyal, but unfortunately needs to make an occasional visit to the local asylum when her grief over past tragedies gets the better of her. She is a notorious sports better who makes quite a good living from her predictions, and hence is known all over New Orleans. Dollbaby and her family have tragedies of their own, but are a loving and solid force in Ibby’s life. They help her see and feel the racial unrest of New Orleans in the ‘60s, but also help redefine for her the concept of family. Teens will be drawn in by this well-crafted coming-of-age story with its plot twists and turns, flashbacks, secrets exposed, and exquisitely drawn characters. An engaging novel that is hard to put down.—Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District,  CA

OWEN, Lauren. The Quick. 523p. Random. Jun. 2014. Tr $27. ISBN 9780812993271. LC 2013018600.  

James and Charlotte are abandoned by their father at an early age, and James welcomes the chance to travel to the city to become a writer. But London has a dark side, especially in the men who are members of a secretive club, the Aegolius. While Charlotte is stuck nursing their aging great-aunt, James and his partner encounter vampires. James ends up in the middle of a vampire turf war in Victorian London, and Charlotte must try her best to save her brother. Luckily there are others who are studying and fighting the “undid,” so Charlotte is not alone.
 The Quick is not a quick read. The debut novel consists of excerpts from books about vampires, diary entries, and narratives about James and Charlotte, and the characters they meet. Some parts are stronger than others, but invested readers will want to know what happens to the siblings. Teens who love gothic novels will eat this up. These vampires brood and kill—no sweet love story here! Give this to those who enjoyed Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel (S. & S., 2010) and who are ready for a darker, more intellectual read.—Sarah B. Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

Categories: Library News

On the Cusp

Wed, 2014-08-20 07:11

High school is behind you, but you’re not quite an independent adult. Today’s reviews cover one book of essays and stories written during–and one graphic novel memoir written about–the college years.

Marina Keegan was a talented writer who died days after graduating from Yale. She had lined up a position as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker and was on her way toward a literary career. The Opposite of Loneliness is a collection of her writing, some of it originally published in the Yale Daily News.

Keegan was perhaps best known for fighting against the Wall Street recruiting machine that gathered up nearly a quarter of Yale graduates each year. She feared that the lure of money was derailing talented young people from following their passions, and she expressed that fear in her essay Even Artichokes Have Doubts, which is included in the collection.

Over Easy is a lightly fictionalized memoir of a life-changing period in Mimi Pond‘s youth. She was in art school but had run out of money, so she dropped out and got a real job–washing dishes in a diner in Oakland in the early ’70s. Pond is a cartoonist and humor writer. In addition to books, she has written for TV, including The Simpsons.

KEEGAN, Marina. The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories. 208p. Scribner. Apr. 2014. Tr $23. ISBN 9781476753614. LC 2013030131.  

Fans of HBO’s Girls will find a kindred spirit in the person of Marina Keegan. Sadly, this book, a collection of short stories and essays written before she turned 22, will likely be her only, as she was killed in a car crash just five days after graduating college. There is a sense of melancholy in most of the stories, of having to leave your youth behind and not feeling ready to join adulthood. Multiply that melancholia exponentially when you realize Keegan never got to experience adulthood herself. The very first entry is about a girl and the guy she is dating. They’ve never really defined their relationship and it was getting a little rocky when he dies in an accident. At the funeral, does she identify as his girlfriend or was she just a hookup that lasted too long? Even the two stories about women in middle age dealing with aging are still accessible to teen readers who can easily relate to underlying feelings of undesirability or being left behind. The last essay talks about how Marina would like to tell the universe “Here I am” before she dies. Though bittersweet, this collection accomplishes that feat and displays the talent she had to offer before her sad demise.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD

POND, Mimi. Over Easy. illus. by Mimi Pond. 271p. Drawn & Quarterly. Apr. 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781770461536. LC 2013464704.  

As a spectator, Madge admired the waitresses at the Imperial Café, “no-shit gals with names like Bea and Myrna, women who know about real life.” When Madge’s bank account runs out, the listless art school student sets aside her pencils and sketchbooks and dons an apron and order pad. The quirky diner staff and regulars she once spied on and sketched take on dimension as she gets to know them from the other side of the counter. Pond’s hazy green palette evokes the dreamy, aimless California of the 1970s. Her illustrations are unassuming but at times convey realism; readers will feel the grime on Madge’s hands as she wrestles to clean the Imperial’s unwieldy rubber floor mats. The graphic novelist’s narrative takes place in the middle territory after the age of the hippie fizzled but before the angry punk movement congealed. “The 60’s had been so exciting,” the protagonist reminisces, “but now the war was over and everyone was just treading bong water.” Despite the historical context, today’s young adults will sympathize with Madge, who feels she’s been dealt a bad hand by being born at a wrong time. Older teens about to accept the responsibilities of young adult life are sure to connect with the leap Madge makes from passive observer to active participant.—Rachael Myers-Ricker, Horace Mann School, NY

Categories: Library News

Two Books About Black Youth in America

Mon, 2014-08-18 07:00

Reading the titles of the books under review–a book about football, and a book about juvenile prisons–a lot of people would not immediately think that they are related, or that either has much to do with race in America. But both authors make persuasive cases that racism, specifically against young Black men is at the heart of their subject.

The more obvious case is that of juvenile prison. Nell Bernstein outlines the case in her introduction:

Juvenile incarceration is also one of the most glaring examples of racism injustice our nation has to offer. Studies based on confidential interviews have found that the vast majority of Americans go through a period of delinquency at some point during adolescence. Fully 80 to 90 percent of American teenagers have committed an illegal act that could qualify them for time behind bars, and one-third of all teens have committed a serious crime. Most, however, never see the inside of a cell, or even a police car. Of this group–the kids who get a pass–the overwhelming majority simply grow out of it. But the time they reach adulthood they are crime-free.

Black and brown youth, especially those from impoverished communities, face far different prospects than do their white counterparts on this front. Those living in poor neighborhoods are subject to what sociologist Victor Rios calls a “culture of control”–treated with suspicion and harsh discipline at school, on the street, and even in the community. They also face discrimination at every stop on the juvenile and criminal justice circuits. They are more likely than white youth who commit identical acts to be arrested; to be charged and detained rather than released to their families; to be sentenced to locked institutions; to be kept behind bars longer; and to be sent back more often. . . . These cascading inequities dramatically curtail the prospects of young people who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to educational and employment opportunities that serve as the bridge to secure and successful adulthood. (pp. 8-9)

Visiting some of these poor neighborhoods that Bernstein is describing, Steve Almond, author of Against Football, makes some very similar comments:

Their teachers saw them mostly as discipline problems. They had no positive male figures in their lives, no power in the world, no idea how to acquire any.

So I could understand why they were desperate to join a game that gave them a sense of purpose and direction, that earned them the approval and guidance of respected elders . . . a game that offered them a chance at riches and fame, however remote. They accepted the need to sacrifice. They had to learn strategy, cooperation, how to channel their aggressive impulses, how to evade or defeat the opponent. They understood that the game in question gave people tremendous pleasure, but that it wasn’t economically productive for the local community. And though they preferred not to think about this part, they knew that it came with considerable risks to their health.

Despite all this, some of them still wanted to sell crack cocaine.

Am I now suggesting that football is as bad for the African-American community as crack cocaine?


I’m just making the point that neither is a realistic solution to the crises that poor African-American boys face growing up in this country. In fact, they are distractions from the systemic inequalities that keep such boys locked in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. (ARC, pp 105-106)

In comparing football players to drug dealers, Almond’s point is that football is among the very few limited options available to black youth. And it is not one without consequences. He spends much of the first half of his book detailing the new medical knowledge we have about the damage concussions and sub-concussive hits have on the brain, especially young brains. What’s more, as a form of entertainment, he indicts football fans for becoming complicit in its cult of violence, and (perhaps) for participating in another kind of racism:

Yes, football attracts fans of all races and classes. Yes, players choose to compete and are well paid. But the power dynamics remain eerily familiar: a wealthy white “owner” presides over a group of African-American laborers.

. . .

Does football provide white Americans a continued sense of dominion over African American men? Do their huge salaries give us the right to pass judgment on them incessantly? To call up radio programs and yell about how they’re lazy or money-hungry or thuggish? Do we secretly believe they belong to us?

. . .

What does it mean that 95 percent of our most famous African American citizens are athletes? Or that, when we see a physically imposing African American in the lobby of a fancy hotel . . . we immediately think: football player.

I’m going to get hammered for asking these questions. Fine. Hammer away. But don’t pretend that’s the same as answering.  (pp 112-113)

That last sentence is perhaps the most important one in Almond’s book. Throughout the book, he makes provocative claims, not just about racism, but about violence, money, and more, and it is easy for a fan to brush aside his arguments. But brushing them aside, or even acknowledging them, without actually grappling with them, is different from proving him wrong. And that’s a lot harder to do.

Bernstein is similarly provocative in her book. And, like Almond, has much more to discuss than race. Her chapters on the origins of the juvenile prison comprise one of the most fascinating pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. And her ultimate goal is similar to Almond’s: abolition. Just as Almond is essentially calling for an end to football, Bernstein is calling for an end to juvenile prison. Neither one of these calls is likely to be heard, and one of the strongest reasons is laid out in the books themselves: the amount of money invested in these two enterprises. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think long and hard about the options our society appears to have set up for young Black men and what we do to participate in these institutions.

* BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Youth Prison. 319p. Free Press. Jun. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781595589569. LC 2013043709.

Bernstein outlines the history of juvenile “reform” schools, the rise and fall of  the rehabilitative model, and the reality of what happens behind bars to already traumatized teens: further physical, sexual, and mental abuse. The author takes a look at solitary confinement practices, “therapeutic prisons,” and juvenile reentry. Using solid teen developmental theory and research, United Nations findings, and trauma informed care, this title articulately sets forth the argument against the imprisonment of children. A passionate advocate for young people, Bernstein highlights teen voices and experiences throughout the book, adding humanity and insight to the statistics. Burning Down the House does for young people what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2010) did for adults: brings this issue to national attention. Readers meet influential adults such as Jerome Miller, who closed down the entire system in Massachusetts in the ‘70s, and Gladys Carrion, Chief Commissioner of  New York, who not only closed down 18 state facilities by 2012 and halved the number of incarcerated kids, but also diverted $74 million to support community-based alternatives to incarceration. Teens interested in history, social sciences, and one of the biggest issues facing young adults in the U.S. will find lots to love in this book.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

ALMOND, Steve. Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. 160p. Melville. Aug. 2014. Tr $22.95. ISBN 9781612194158.

Alex Award-winner Almond delivers a provocative if slightly uneven book. As the subtitle suggests, the author is a longtime devoted football fan, and he spends much of the first quarter of the book solidifying his football bona fides before beginning his onslaught of reasons that he feels he can no longer watch his favorite game. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the sport, in particular the NFL, will find little in the way of new arguments here—Almond spends chapters on concussions and sub-concussive hits; the game’s twisted monetary incentives, especially in college football; its cult of violence; racism; and its vexed relationship with the American institutions of capitalism and patriotism. But the sheer weight of the evidence Almond marshals is impressive and hard to ignore. Even when his arguments against the game seem strained, he is able to put the burden of proof squarely back on readers to disprove him with more than a simple dismissal. Particularly strong is his complete demolition of the argument that the mere popularity and fixity of the game in the nation’s consciousness somehow puts it above criticism. Many fans of football will react to this book with derision, and many non-fans will consider his points self-evident: both are wrong. These are arguments that deserve to be considered deeply and grappled with, and teens—who have not yet devoted their lives or opinions to or against the sport—are in a perfect position to take Almond’s  manifesto seriously.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

Categories: Library News

An Interview With George Pratt

Fri, 2014-08-15 07:00

On Wednesday, we reviewed Above the Dreamless Dead, edited by Chris Duffy, a graphic novel comprised of poems by the Trench Poets of World War I, and illustrated by contemporary graphic novelist.

As promised in that post, today we have an interview with one of the illustrators of that collection, George Pratt. Pratt is a painter and graphic novelist who has drawn for both Marvel and DC. In 1993, he won the prestigious Eisner Award for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist for the Wolverine: Netsuke series.

His first graphic novel, Enemy Ace: War Idyll, was also about World War I: it is an entry in a long running DC series about a fictional WWI pilot. I had a chance to ask Pratt some questions about his involvement with Above the Dreamless Dead over email. My questions, below, are in bold, with Mr. Pratt’s answers in regular type.

Can you tell us how you got involved with this project and how the poems were selected?

I was contacted by Chris Duffy whom I knew through working for Marvel and DC years ago. My interest in the project was totally because of my love for Wilfred Owen’s poetry. I asked Chris if I could work with the Owen material and he agreed. After sending him some work for them to use in their meetings with marketing, etc. He asked me if I’d like to do more than one of the poems. He sent me a list of poems, but I also suggested others and we met in the middle. Then they hit me up to do the cover which I was very happy to do as well.

One of my pet projects would be to illustrate the entire collection of Wilfred Owens poems. Not sequentially, but with single pieces, paintings, printmaking, etc.

In the notes to the book you mention that you’re a long-time fan of Wilfred Owen– were you aware of the other Trench Poets? What is it about Owen specifically that speaks to you?

Yes, I’ve been intimately familiar with many of the different war poets. My introduction to the Great War poets was through my research for my first graphic novel, Enemy Ace: War Idyll. I read so many books for that project, which I wrote and illustrated. Memoirs, histories, books of poetry, etc.

Speaking of Enemy Ace: War Idyll: are there any connections for you between the fictional DC world and the very real world of these poets who were writing at the time of the war?

Enemy Ace: War Idyll came about, curiously enough, through my interest in the Vietnam War. I was terrified of that war as a child. I was born in 1960 and that war was basically the dark backdrop of my childhood. Four or five years longer and I would have had to go. Even though my buddies and I were playing guns in our neighborhoods, the war still scared me. All of our fathers had been in World War II, sailors, infantrymen, bomber and fighter pilots, and we’d dress up in all the old gear and run around “killing” each other.

My father had books on WWII around the house and I was fascinated by it all and read many of those books, though, honestly it was the pictures that drew me to them. During art school I began to research the Vietnam War in order to understand it better for myself. One of the first jobs I got upon leaving school was as an illustrator for Eagle Magazine, a Vietnam Soldier of Fortune thing. There I met Jim Morris, himself a writer and a three-tour Green Beret in Vietnam. He was my editor and I became his pet artist. He gave me enough work to pay my rent and keep me in art supplies each month. He saw how interested I was and one day gave me the opportunity to use the phones and call some of his vet friends from ‘Nam and pick their brains about their experiences. This was about the time that movies about Vietnam began to trickle out.

But I wanted to say something of my own about Vietnam rather than just illustrate others’ stories. So I began to write a story about a Nam vet who had been a tunnel rat. But I felt I needed to be able to compare and contrast that with something else. Enemy Ace popped into my head for some reason or other and that started that ball rolling. In researching WWI I became hooked and haven’t been able to shake it.

Interestingly, Enemy Ace: War Idyll was published right at the beginning of the first Gulf War. I began to get letters from veterans, not only of that war, but from previous wars as well. The book helped them to deal with the things they witnessed. That was incredibly gratifying to hear. The book was translated into nine different languages, saw four American editions and was on the West Point Military Academy’s required reading list.

Does World War I have a particular fascination for you or are the setting of the two projects (War Idyll and Above the Dreamless Dead) coincidental?

I am totally fascinated by WWI, for a lot of different reasons. There’s the power of the subject and all that that encompasses, the breadth of the war, the parties involved, etc. There’s the visual impact of that time period for me. I love the way the uniforms looked, the thick wool and the way it hung on the figures, the clunky design of things and the trenches! Good lord, the trenches! The bleakness and desolate nature of it all. And yet, in reading the poems, the memoirs, etc. there still rises from those who experienced it a grace and unfailing hope for a better future.

World War One has followed me throughout my life, really, though I didn’t notice it at the time. My grandfather on my father’s side was in the First World War. The first piece I learned on the piano was a World War One piece. My English teacher in high school was the model for Howard Chandler Christy’s “I wish I were a man, I’d join the Navy!” poster. Etc.

I was fortunate to get to meet and speak with a veteran from that war when I was working on Enemy Ace: War Idyll. Frank Snell was speaking with a friend of his on a stoop just down the street from my apartment. I had no idea he was a veteran. But walking by one day I overheard them talking about the trenches. I stopped and introduced myself and Frank regaled me with stories of his time in the trenches. He was a machine gunner hooked up with an Australian unit. Machine gunners were the first in and the last out. The life expectancy was something like a week or two. He had been shot and gassed and had lived to tell about it.

I have been working on a World War One opus for quite awhile that I’d like to produce. It would be a serialized story about a young man, following him through his tour of the trenches. I’ve done some paintings for this project, but haven’t begun to do layouts for it. I did have a show of my First World War work in Belgium and France a few years ago. The gallery specifically wanted to do a show of that work and I was glad to have it shown in those two countries.

I was involved in a Romanian documentary about the war that was very interesting. Visiting Romania and walking the battlefield on top of Mount Cosna was amazing. Bullets still littered the site, as well as horseshoes, belt buckles, etc. Crazy.

I’ve also been working on a documentary about Harvey Dunn and his participation in the war, along with other artists. We’ve filmed in the bowels of the Smithsonian, where they have most of the work the Harvey Dunn produced, along with the other 7 artists America sent to the front. We’ve filmed in Ypres, Belgium at the Menin Gate. We’ve hit Polygon Wood, Sanctuary Wood, Dixmüde at the trenches there, as well as at artist Kathe Kollwitz’s son Peter’s grave. We’re still working on it and it’s been a fascinating ride.

I’m very impressed with your illustrations and your decision to make “the words . . . the most important aspect of the adaptation”. Since you weren’t aiming for conventional illustration of the poems’ actions, how did you decide what to draw?

I basically did pieces I felt would capture the futility of the conflict and tried to take it away from specificity or portraiture really. It was such an epic, sweeping war that engulfed so many, many lives that I wanted to touch on that sense of scope. I’m constantly trying to get my students to work at showing more by showing less, boiling down the visual so that the reader has to be an active participant rather than along for the ride. So I tried to work that in there as well.

Have you gotten a chance to read the rest of the book? Do you have any thoughts on how your fellow artists illustrated their poems?

I have not yet read the rest of the book but am excited to do so. I’m anxiously awaiting my copies! I know I’m going to be blown away by the different directions and techniques that others will be using.

I’ll be recommending this collection on my blog Adult Books 4 Teens. I wonder if you have any thoughts on what teens in particular might get from this project?

Well, I think everyone should read these poets for a number of reasons. One, that reading their words lets one know that we keep repeating our mistakes, that we seem not to learn to well from what’s gone before. Two, the writing is so incredibly eloquent and to the point. So beautiful, yet used to describe things so powerful and emotionally charged, some of it incredibly ugly really.

I hope that they’re as moved by these poems as I have been. I remember sitting on a bench in a B. Dalton booksellers in Manhattan surrounded by the throngs of customers in that store. I had pulled Wilfred Owen’s book of poems out and had begun reading. Those poems were like a punch to my gut. They took my breath away and I found tears quietly running down my cheeks. Like a quote from a Cat Stevens tune: “Sitting on my own, not by myself.”

Categories: Library News

Illustrating the Poetry of World War I, One Hundred Years Later

Wed, 2014-08-13 07:00

There are various dates given as the first day of World War I, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, to the first shots fired by Austro-Hungarian soldiers on July 28 to the August 4th declaration of war by the British Empire, signalling the truly world-wide stretch of the conflict. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that 100 years ago today, thousands of soldiers were being killed in the first weeks of one of the largest wars in world history.  Among those fighting in August 1914 was Siegfried Sassoon, one of the best of the “Trench Poets”–mostly British writers and poets who fought in the trenchs of the Western Front and wrote about their experiences, mostly in poetry but also in prose.

I first encountered the Trench Poets at age 19, in a course on Early 20th Century British Literature at UCLA, while a less epic, but still horrifying war was being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, if President Bush was to be believed, throughout the world). I was immediately taken with these poets, especially Wilfred Owen and his magnum opus “Dulce et Decorum Est,” a blisteringly anti-war poem which nonetheless manages to convey the longing of boys for combat. “Gas! Gas! Quick, boy!–An ecstasy of fumbling” remains one the best and most disturbing lines of poetry I’ve read. Metaphors and imagery taken from sex (like that “ecstasy of fumbling”) and nature permeate the poetry of the Trench Poets, as if they are trying to ward off the horrors of the mechanized war by comparing it to the most natural things they can think of.

Today’s review is of an incredible collection of the poetry of the Trench Poets–along with some baudy soldier’s songs–illustrated by some of the great graphic novelists and comic artists around. As I state in my review below, the illustrators have used a range of styles and angles on how to illustrate poems which are already complete in themselves. But it is very rare that any of them fail to add something to the already powerful words. These are perfect poems for teenagers trying to make sense of war and destruction, especially those teens who sense war’s inherent futility, in which so many of the Trench Poets believed. And the illustrations should be a perfect entree for teen into this important work.

For anyone whose interest is piqued by this review, come back on Friday for an interview with George Pratt, illustrator of three of the four Wilfred Owen poems included in the collection.

* DUFFY, Chris, ed. Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics. illus. by Various. 144p. First Second. Jul. 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781626720657. LC 2014029047.

In this haunting graphic novel, editor Duffy has collected 25 poems written during World War I—most by the so-called “Trench Poets,” men who fought and in some cases died in the trenches of Western Europe—and asked some of today’s finest comic artists to illustrate them. While the vast majority of the poems can be categorized as anti-war, their tones and styles range from the lyrical, contemplative verse of Thomas Hardy (at 74 years old decidedly not a trench poet) to the densely bitter barrages of Wilfred Owen. And the illustrations show a similar range of styles. Most of the artists opt for fairly traditional panelled cartoons, though the art can range from grittily realistic to more traditional comic mannerisms. And some artists, such as George Pratt and Stephen R. Bissette abandon panels entirely to create darkly expressionistic backgrounds for their spreads. In addition to the primary poems, Duffy includes several soldiers’ songs—popular, often bawdy, and irreverent songs sung by soldiers in the war—all illustrated in a jokey comic style by Hunt Emerson. The result of this hodgepodge of techniques and tones is nothing short of a masterpiece: at once a reimagining and reinterpretation of some of the great poetry of the early 20th Century for those who have already encountered it, and an ideal introduction to the facts and the literature of World War I for teens who have not.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

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