Far Far Away–Tom McNeal (June 2013)

16030663*I received this as an e-galley from Netgalley.com in return for my honest review.  WARNING–there are slight spoilers.*

Jeremy Johnson Johnson has been hearing voices since he was a small child; in fact, he hears one in particular every day.  The voice is that of the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of the famous Brothers Grimm and the narrator of Far Far Away.  Jacob watches over Jeremy, helps him with his schoolwork, provides advice that Jeremy’s indigent father cannot, and attempts to protect him from a menacing force called “the Finder of Occasions.”  Despite his best efforts to protect Jeremy, things spiral out of control once Ginger Boultinghouse enters the picture and sweeps Jeremy up into her unique brand of merry mayhem.  Whether or not these characters will find their “happily ever after” drives the narrative of this brief but moving modern fairytale.

Thoughts–Where do I start with this one?  This book was, in a word, queer.  Not queer in the LGBTQ sense, but queer as in odd.  Disquieting.  STRANGE…but in a good way.  It is full of magical realism, dark happenings, references to history and fairy tales, and reflective passages.  It doesn’t rush; rather, it ambles along and unfolds its unique story in its own winding way.  The style isn’t necessarily for every reader, but I thought it really worked to serve the story and found it quite charming.  It takes a while to adjust to the narrative voice of Jacob Grimm with his antiquated vocabulary and syntax, not to mention the whole breaking of the fourth wall thing that’s going on, but once you make the adjustment, you can’t help but love Jacob and hope that he is able to cease his ghostly wandering.

All of the other characters are equally charming–Jeremy Johnson Johnson with his double name and his soon-to-be foreclosed on Two-Book Bookstore (it only sells Volumes 1 and 2 of his grandfather’s autobiography), leggy Ginger Boultinghouse with her mischievous smile, Jenny Applegarth and her sun-kissed shoulders–McNeal really has a knack for creating whimsical characters and making his readers care about them.  For me, the quirky characterization, especially their awesomely weird names (Dauntless Crinklaw, anyone?), was one of the highlights of this book.  It helped to create a fairytale atmosphere without actually placing the story firmly in “once upon a time” land; the setting is definitely modern, although it took me a while to realize it was happening in the US, and with the exception of Jacob’s presence, decidedly non-magical.

That lack of magic is what took me the most by surprise.  I was expecting a “Once Upon A Time” (the TV show) kind of moment to happen where the characters were swept off to Far Far Away, and *SPOILER ALERT* it never happens.  Terrible and wondrous things take place, and the story is just as dark as many of the Brothers Grimm’s tales, but it all happens in the real world.  The combination of the magical realism, modern-day setting, and the fairytale elements is unsettling but somehow perfect.  I was very, very impressed at how well McNeal juggled all these elements and kept them all aloft the entire time.

I LOVED this book; however, I don’t necessarily think it will speak to every reader.  It has a very Gaiman-esque quality to me–if you like American Gods or Coraline, this might be the book for you.  Also, you need to give this story time and space.  It was not a book I read in one night or even in two nights; it took me a while to get a hang of the narrative style, and once I did, I wanted to savor it bit by bit.  Far Far Away made me wonder, wish, and dream…just like a great fairytale.

*A final note–I thought this book skewed kind of young for YA…Jeremy is 15 but seems younger, and it just felt young to me.  That being said, some very scary stuff goes down that might now be appropriate for all young readers.  Although, we call Coraline a kids’ book, and that book terrifies me as an adult, so just use your judgement with younger kids.

The Summer I Became a Nerd–Leah Rae Miller (May 2013)

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Ever since a traumatic costume competition in middle school (cosplay turns out to not be the best idea), Maddie has hidden her love of comic books, superheroes, and sci-fi/fantasy and turned herself into the perfect stereotype of a “popular girl.”  When Maddie starts hanging out with Logan, a classmate whose parents own the local comic shop, she struggles to maintain her carefully constructed, stridently non-geeky façade and falls head over heels for not only the world of comic conventions, live-action role-playing games, and college radio but also for Logan himself.

Thoughts–This might be the fluffiest book I’ve read since last summer…not that it’s necessarily a bad thing.  The Summer I Became a Nerd follows a very predictable romance plot and traffics in some extraordinarily typical tropes, but I found it fun and VERY fast read.  Like, “I started this book at 9pm and finished it by midnight” fast.  And you know, sometimes you just want to read something that doesn’t take all your brain cells and isn’t too taxing on your emotions…kind of like when I watch Homeland and then have to watch reruns of Friends to cleanse my mental palate.  This book was a definite palate cleanser, and I liked the amount of detail and love for the geek subculture Miller wove into the story.

What I didn’t like so much was all the emphasis placed on how Maddie has been trying to hide her “nerdiness” from everyone in her small Louisiana town for basically her entire high school career, mostly because her primary method of hiding was to become a cheerleader.  This is one of my least favorite YA tropes ever–the nerd kids are secretly cooland the cheerleaders are not-so-secretly one-dimensional, superficial fluffheads–because it pits one group of kids against the other and totally ignores that *newsflash* EVERYONE is complex and EVERYONE has dimension.  Some cheerleaders think deep thoughts and some nerds are obsessed with appearances, and WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING BOTH A NERD AND A CHEERLEADER AT THE SAME TIME??????  I do think Miller tries to address this issue somewhat, especially once Maddie decides to openly hang out with Logan and discovers that some of the “popular” people she’s been surrounding herself with do, in fact, like “nerdy” things as well.  I just wanted the author to stretch a little more.  Maybe that’s asking too much from a summer read, but I don’t think so.

I did love all the attention Miller paid to the nuances of geek culture and how descriptive she was when it came to things like the live-action role-playing and the comics store.  I also thought she did a good job of weaving in the “shop local” message of small town life; I would have liked to see the town more fully realized, more of a character in the story, but that’s probably just my personal affinity for “setting as character” coming out.

Overall, I’d recommend The Summer I Became a Nerd to readers looking for something light-hearted, fast-paced, and fun to read this summer.  The chemistry between Logan and Maddie is great, and it has some very funny parts (the antics at the role-playing games spring to mind).  If you like floofy, escapist romances, you’ll eat this one up.

The Raven Boys (Book 1 of The Raven Cycle)–Maggie Stiefvater (2012)

470_2512676Despite coming from a family of clairvoyants, Blue Sargent believes she herself has no psychic abilities; that is, until she sees the ghost of a teenage boy while aiding her mother in the annual St. Mark’s Eve “march of the soon to be dead” (for lack of a better term on my part…).  The boy appears to be from the local private school, Aglionby, and all he tells Blue before he disappears is his name–Gansey.  As a rule, Blue stays away from the “Raven Boys” of Aglionby,  but once she meets Gansey (alive this time), she is inexplicably drawn to him and his circle of mysterious friends Adam, Ronan, and Noah.  This attraction poses a bit of a problem for Blue as she has been told her entire life that she will kill her true love with a kiss, and now that she’s entangled in the mysteries of the Raven Boys, the reality of this predicament slowly becomes clearer and clearer.

Thoughts—  I adored this book, particularly the characterization, sentence-level writing, attention to detail, and the slow unwinding of the plot.  And damn, does it have a hell of a cliffhanger at the end!  Stiefvater’s greatest strength, in my opinion, lies in the depth of her characterization.  All of the characters seemed so fleshed out, so complex, so real, and I think that’s sometimes difficult to pull off in a book that deals with the paranormal.  Often the characters’ magical abilities or otherworldly characteristics are the only distinguishing features, but that is certainly not the case here.  I particularly loved her depiction of the Raven Boys (Ronan is my favorite and I know he’s a big part of Book 2–YAY!) and their complex relationship with each other.  They’re so fallible and their friendship is so decidedly imperfect, but they genuinely care for each other, and I think this depth of relationship is rarely seen in regards to boys in YA lit.

Also, Stiefvater is just a hell of a writer.  The sentence-level writing is so good, I almost broke out my English major pencil and started underlining.  I did tweet Maggie Stiefvater with some quotes about the descriptions she puts together because I could not contain my enthusiasm.  (Luckily she sent back an equally enthusiastic response!)  Here’s just a few examples:  “And everywhere, everywhere, there were books.  Not the tidy stacks of an intellectual attempting to impress, but the slumping piles of a scholar obsessed.”  “April-bright trees” “Below them, the surface of the world was deeply green, and cutting through the green was a narrow, shining river, a mirror to the sky.”  SERIOUSLY?  All I did was flip to random pages–there’s badass descriptions on almost every single one.  And the attention to detail is incredible.  Some might think it weighs the prose down unnecessarily, but for me, it really added a lot to the world-building and characterization, both things I think are incredibly important in the first book of a series.

My last little bit of adulation has to do with the plotting of The Raven Boys.  Generally speaking, I am not hugely concerned with plot; I frequently like books and movies that meander around and don’t really go anywhere (Dazed and Confused, for instance), and the unusual pacing of this novel didn’t really bother me.  I have talked with some friends that felt like it was a slow read and that there was too much set-up for the rest of the series, but I didn’t find it to be that way at all.  I liked how the plot slowly unwound and how Stiefvater kept dropping more and more background clues and hints at further mysteries for her readers to find.  Plus, the big reveal about one of the Raven Boys and the cliffhanger at the end were spectacular and worth the wait, in my opinion.  I can see where others might find some of the writing a little dense or hard to follow, but I never really felt that way.  I pretty much loved it all…especially Ronan.

Read-alikes: Beautiful Creatures by Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

A Really Awesome Mess–Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin (Egmont, July 2013)

(Note:  I received an ARC of this book at TLA Annual Conference in exchange for my honest review.)

Justin and Emmy have both arrived at Heartland Academy at rock bottom–Justin is recovering from having a stomach full of Tylenol pumped out as well as being found in a seriously compromising situation with a girl he didn’t really know and Emmy has just been kicked out of school for threatening a boy who was bullying her on Facebook–but neither one seems to think he/she belongs here.  Despite their initial discomfort about being forced to “deal with their issues,” both Emmy and Justin reluctantly become a part of a support group filled with teens as equally broken, flawed, and struggling as them.  Although the group coalesces around the idea of breaking out of Heartland for just one night, it eventually morphs into a ragtag family that enables all its members to achieve some self-discovery and to make some true friends.

Thoughts— I picked up this book at TLA based on the recommendation of the Egmont rep at the YA publisher’s presentation, and I was definitely not disappointed.  Cook and Halpin follow a format familiar to readers of dual author YA books–alternating chapters between Emmy’s narration and Justin’s–and I thought they did an excellent job finding the distinct voice of each character and maintaining the continuity of that voice even as the characters grew and began to come to terms with their issues.  Both Emmy and Justin are engaging narrators with sharp wits and seriously sarcastic voices, and I was particularly struck by the nuanced way Cook and Halpin dealt with Emmy’s disordered eating and Justin’s attitude towards sex.  It would have been easy to slip into stereotypes about those issues, but this story doesn’t do that at all.  The discussion of these admittedly heavy issues never feels message-y or didactic; it just feels real.

In addition to Emmy and Justin, the authors have crafted the most wonderful motley crew of fellow “inmates” at Heartland.  From the selectively mute Jenny to pathological liar Mohammed to damaged Diana, all the supporting characters in A Really Fine Mess really add something to the narrative and don’t just function as placeholders or blank faces in the support group.  In fact, the only characterization that felt a little thin to me was that of the adults (a common complaint in YA fiction); some of them felt just a little too pat or perfect for me.  The only really memorable adults for me were Tina, the group’s facilitator, and Justin’s negligent dad.

I think the best thing about A Really Fine Mess is how emotionally resonant and evocative it is.  Cook and Halpin really take the time to examine Emmy, Justin, and some of the supporting characters’ motivations and the source of their behavior in a way that seems authentic.  Additionally, I felt very invested in the fate of each teen–by the end, I really wanted to see all of them succeed and move forward with their lives.  My only complaint would be that the novel ends on a slightly false note…it’s maybe just a little too tidy of a package.  Not that it’s a completely happy ending, but that it all works out slightly too well.  After wrestling with the complexities of mental health, eating disorders, adoption, and child abuse, the upbeat ending just rang kind of false for me.  It wasn’t too off, however, to keep me from really enjoying the book and heartily recommending it to other readers.

Readalikes: Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach