Out of the Easy–Ruta Sepetys (2013)

Grow11178225ing up as the daughter of a New Orleans prostitute hasn’t been easy, and Josie Moraine longs to leave the Crescent City and attend college on the East Coast.  Unfortunately, her careful plans begin to unravel when she becomes caught up in a murder investigation that threatens her tenuous relationship with her mother, the bond she has with the madam Willi Woodley, and ultimately, her life.  Set in the New Orleans of 1950, Sepetys’ second historical novel sumptuously brings to life the contradictions, beauty, seediness, and conflicts of the Big Easy.

Thoughts– I bought this book a while ago after hearing rave reviews from my friends who got an ARC of it at TLA, but I’d been unable to read it because of the Printz Award project I worked on during the second half of the spring semester (Note–when you decide to read all of the Printz winners, be prepared to read until your eyes cross).  It was definitely worth the wait.  There were many things I loved about Out of the Easy, particularly the setting, characterization, and optimism of Sepetys’ story.  For me, everything came together into a great package with an ending that seemed satisfying (unlike so many of the series novels in YA right now) and yet left a tiny door open for a sequel (we can only hope!).  Of course, Josie would be in college in a sequel, so that would make it “New Adult,” right?  Whatever that is…but I digress.

The specificity of the setting held me from page one; obviously, Sepetys did her research, and she does an amazing job evoking 1950 New Orleans with her careful attention to detail (LOVED all the descriptions of clothing!) and the references to particular places.  If you weren’t familiar with New Orleans before reading this book, you would be afterward…or at least with the city in 1950.  The intricate feel of the book also extends to the characterization–each character introduced seems authentic and intriguing; I’d love to read more about the other women working for Willi, Willi herself, Josie’s romantic interest Jesse, her close friend and fellow bookstore employee Patrick, even the gangsters Josie’s mother runs with.  Sepetys gives all of these characters distinct features, personalities, and desires, and I felt like she was committed to honoring even the small subplots built into her story with grace and a deft hand.

I think (especially because I’ve been trying to read palate-cleansers after the darkness of the Printz winners) that the thing I appreciated the most about this book was its optimism.  Josie is in a difficult situation –her life has been filled with ugly things than many children do not have to experience–but she remains hopeful that she can be more than what people expect of her.  She forges ahead with her plans for college, sometimes using just her sheer force of will, and in the end, she gets what she’s striving for, a chance to change her circumstances and her life.  I really liked the hopeful note the book ended on, even with some of the disappointments Josie faces.  It felt honest and true to me, AND it left  a smile on my face.  I look forward to catching up with Ruta Sepetys’ other book, Between Shades of Gray, and to seeing what else she has in store for her readers as the years go on.

My Go-To Recommendations for “Grown-Up” Books

Most of my friends know I’m an obsessive reader, so I get a lot of people asking for book recommendations.  Not all of these people are as enamored with YA lit as I am, and I like to have some “grown-up” books to suggest for them.  I’ve read (and loved) all of these, and they’re books I consider major crowd-pleasers–ones I can recommend without a lot of knowledge about what someone likes to read because just about everyone will like them.

Here goes:

1. The Secret History, Donna TarttSoooo…this is a weird book.  Amazing, but weird.  It’s set at a fictional college in Vermont (based on Bennington College–where my cousin Luke went!) and centers on a group of students who have fashioned themselves into a sort of Bacchanalian cult.  Somebody dies during one of their revels, and the book is a little like a reverse mystery novel.

2. The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield–The best non-19th century Victorian novel ever.  Even people who hate things like Jane Eyre like this book.  It is also pretty weird.  If you’re already sensing a theme to this list, you’re probably correct.  I’m a weirdo and I like crazy stuff.

3. The Magicians, Lev Grossman–Harry Potter/Narnia for grown-ups.  Seriously.  There’s a wizarding college, and the characters go through a portal into a magical world.  There’s also a sequel, The Magician King, that’s sitting on one of my shelves right now, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

4. People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks–She won the Pulitzer for March, but I like this one better.  History, religion, war, illuminated manuscripts, book restoration–what more could you ask for?

5. The Time-Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffeneger–An epic love story with a time-traveling protagonist.  So beautiful and brutal.  This book ripped my heart out and stomped that sucker flat.

6. Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer–Awesome non-fiction that combines a true crime mystery with the history of the Mormon church.

7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks–More non-fic, this time dealing with the ramifications of poverty, biomedical ethics, and illness.  I’ll be honest, I kind of skipped some of the science-y part to get back to the narrative about Henrietta, but I still think it’s very accessible to the average reader.

8. Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger–The book is SO much better than the movie and totally different from the show.  It is a quintessentially Texas book.  My only complaint is that they talk about the cheerleaders but not the drill team–what Texas high school doesn’t have a drill team?

9. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn–All the buzz last summer about this book was totally justified.  It’s great and has a killer ending that made me throw the book across the room.

10. The Help, Kathryn Stockett–Yes, there are definitely problematic aspects to this book, but it’s still a great read.  And the movie of this one is actually really good, too.

11. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold–Don’t watch the terrible movie.  Read the beautiful book.

I know a lot of folks have already read many of these–there’s a reason they make good, general “You should read THIS” recommendations.  If you haven’t, you should definitely check them out.  Happy reading!

Eleanor and Park–Rainbow Rowell (2013)

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Rowell, Rainbow.  Eleanor and Park.  St. Martin’s Griffith, 2013.  336p.  Realistic Fiction (maybe Historical? Are books set in the 1980s considered historical now?)

Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park tells the story of two very different teenagers who discover an extraordinary love in that most ordinary of places–a school bus.  Eleanor is the new girl at school; big, redheaded, with a figure “like a barmaid” (her words), Eleanor has moved back in with her mother, her abusive stepfather, and her four siblings after a year of sleeping on a family friend’s couch.  Park is the local; half-Korean, into music and comic books, forever a member of the almost-popular crowd, Park doesn’t expect anything much to come of having to share his seat on the bus with this unusual newcomer, except maybe a little embarrassment.  Throughout the course of the school year, Eleanor and Park’s relationship deepens from friendship into something much, much bigger, reminding readers of the intensity, absorption, and frequent futility of first love.

Thoughts– I finished this book two days ago, and I’ve been trying to process it ever since.  My thoughts and feelings about it are complex because, on the one hand, I really loved Rowell’s writing style, the setting, the details, and the character of Park; on the other hand, I felt very perplexed by the tone and the character of Eleanor.  I wanted so badly to say, “Home run!  This is a Mary Poppins book* for me!” and I can’t.  What I can do is try to tease out both the stellar qualities and the difficulties I found in Eleanor and Park.

First, the awesome:  Rainbow Rowell is a badass writer.  Her prose is filled with quirky little nuances and references that breathe so much life into the characters and provide little puzzles for the reader if, say, you don’t get the reference.  Also, the setting is incredibly well-done.  A lot of times in realistic YA fiction, the setting is just a backdrop for the story; you don’t really get much world-building.  That is SO not the case here–you feel like Marty McFly gave you his Delorean and plopped you down smack in the middle of Omaha, Nebraska circa 1986.  Every detail of the setting and time period is so pitch-perfect…I vividly remember the perms, frosted lipstick, and music of the 80s, and I think Rowell nails almost everything.  She does a particularly good job with the character of Park; it’s easy to see why Eleanor falls so hard for him.  Park is a complex, achingly real teenage boy, and I especially liked the shifting narrative between the two main characters because it allowed us into his head, something that doesn’t often happen in YA romances. (Usually the entire book is from one or the other partner’s perspective.  While this makes it easy to swoon over great male characters, like Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Starsit’s nice to see both sides of the story every now and then).

Now for the less awesome:  I have to say, straight up, I just didn’t like Eleanor very much.  I wanted to so, so desperately because I mostly loved the book otherwise, but I just didn’t get her.  At all.  I felt like maybe the reveal as to WHY Eleanor behaved the way she did towards Park in the beginning happened too late in the narrative for me.  Or maybe my lack of experience with the things in Eleanor’s life kept me from connecting with her as a character.  I still am not sure, but I know it cast a shadow over this book for me.  In addition to my difficulties with Eleanor, I had trouble with the overall tone of the book.  I felt this sense of impending doom THE ENTIRE TIME I WAS READING.  I knew an ugly cry was coming for me, and it was like a weight on my brain that I just couldn’t shake.  I kind of thought I was missing something because I had read so many great reviews talking about how wonderful the romance was between Park and Eleanor, but I just couldn’t help thinking to myself, “This is going to end badly.  I just know it” and that kept me at a distance.

By now you’re probably thinking, “Dude. Lauren. Just tell us whether we should read it or not.”  So–you should read it, especially if you like the heartbreaking thing John Green has going on in a lot of his books.  I did very much enjoy Rowell’s writing, and it was fun to be back in a time before Web 2.0 and cell phones and all the tech-y things we have going on today.  Also, I want to say that just because a book is problematic for me doesn’t mean it’s “bad,” per se.  Obviously, it made me think, and that’s always a good thing.  And the sentence-level writing is just so very glorious.  I’m about to read an e-galley of Rainbow Rowell’s upcoming book Fangirl, so I hope to post a glowing review (one where I just adore everything) for that one–I guess we’ll see!

*”practically perfect in every way”…if you don’t get the reference, then your childhood was obviously lacking in coolness.

In Darkness–Nick Lake (2012)

Lake, Nick.  In Darkness.  Bloomsbury, 2012.  352p.  Grades 9 and up.  Realistic/Historical Fiction.  (2013 Printz Award).

Fifteen year old Shorty is recovering from a gang-related gun shot wound in a Haitian hospital when the devastating earthquake of January 2010 hits.  Toussaint L’Ouverture is the fifty-four year old leader of Haiti’s eighteenth century slave rebellion.  The lives of these two men and the fate of the country they love are intertwined in an intoxicating mix of history, voodoo, brutality, and hope to create this complex and nuanced novel about the power of place, individuality, and joy in the midst of tragedy.

Thoughts-   This was the last book I read for the semester and I thought there was absolutely no way it could possibly be better or more deserving of accolades than Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.  I was wrong (I enjoyed Verity more, but I ended up thinking In Darkness was the better book).  In Darkness is maybe the best example of interwoven narrators that I’ve ever read…and that’s saying a lot because I was really crazy about John Corey Whaley’s work in Where Things Come Back.  The transitions between Shorty and Toussaint are so smooth and the connection between the two narrators so imaginatively established that I didn’t even need the “Then/Now” chapter tags to discern what was going on—it all seemed completely seamless and logical to me.  I loved how Lake set up laid all the groundwork for readers to understand modern and historic Haitian religion, culture, and language and then linked those two time-periods together through the characters of Shorty and Toussaint.  I also loved how much I learned about modern Haiti (beyond just what I saw on the news post-earthquake) and about the 18th century slave rebellion (I knew L’Ouverture’s name but that was about it)—both men’s stories were so fascinating and finely drawn.

My one real criticism of the book is the lack of translation.  I read French but while Haitian Kreyole has its roots in French, it is a different beast altogether.  Lake does some paraphrase for the reader—he’ll write something in Kreyole and then give a brief description of what was said—but some of the words and phrases are never translated.  Some of these have enough context clues or appear often enough to discern their meaning (“anpil” and “moun” spring to mind), but many remained completely indecipherable to me.  I think some footnotes or a glossary would really have helped out a lot, and I know teens would struggle with the language as well.  Other than that and the somewhat hard sell of the L’Ouverture storyline, I think In Darkness has a lot of characteristics that make it really appealing to teens—it centers on an event in recent memory, it references musicians and pop culture touchstones teens will be familiar with, and it moves along at a ripping pace.  Despite my initial misgivings, I definitely ended up seeing why the Printz committee deemed it the most distinguished writing for young adults in 2012.

Postcards from No Man’s Land–Aidan Chambers (1999)

Chambers, Aidan.  Postcards from No Man’s Land.  Speak, 1999.  320p.  Grades 9 and up.  Realistic/Historical Fiction.  (2003 Printz Award).

Told through the alternating narration of Jacob Todd, a British teen visiting Amsterdam for the first time to commemorate his grandfather’s involvement in the Battle of Arnhem, and Geertrui Van Riet, the nineteen year old Dutch girl who cared for and hid Jacob’s grandfather after the battle, this complex novel deals with the issues of euthanasia, sexuality, friendship, first love, independence, and memory in its exploration of the repercussions of war and loss.  While Jacob discovers the wonders of Amsterdam and begins what seems to be an enduring love affair with the city, he struggles with the nature of Geertrui’s relationship to his grandfather, his own confusion about sexuality, and the intersection of these problems in the other young people he meets—his cousin Daan, Daan’s friend Ton, and a teenaged girl named Hille.

Thoughts- This novel was my least favorite of the Printz Award winners that I read this semester, mostly because I thought Chambers was just trying to stuff too many issues and themes into the story.  Looking at the annotation above, I can count six major topics discussed in Postcards, and honestly, I think those are just the tip of the iceberg.  That many “big ideas” combined with the alternating narration of Jacob and Geertrui as well as the shifting time periods (not to mention the random survivor narratives from the Battle of Arnhem that are seemingly thrown into the last third of the book) seemed unwieldy to me and kept the book from being “great” for me.   I found myself racing through the Geertrui passages in an attempt to get back to Jacob’s narration because I found his character and his storyline so much more interesting than hers.

One thing I definitely appreciated about this book was the ambivalence all of the characters felt towards each other, towards the war, and towards society in general.  I felt that truly mirrored both the modern teen experience and the historical experience of young people during World War II.  That overarching ambivalence was, for me, the most authentic aspect of Postcards from No Man’s Land.  I can easily see teen readers relating to Jacob, not for the circumstances he finds himself in but for the struggles he has to discover his own sense of self.  Conversely, I think teen readers might struggle with the structure and pacing of this book.  It was sloooooow for me, and while sometimes that works in a novel’s favor (like in Going Bovine), it can be a major detraction too.  If I hadn’t been reading this book as a part of a larger project, I might have just put it down and moved on to something more to my taste; I think many teens would probably feel the same way.

 

Code Name Verity–Elizabeth Wein (2012) SPOILERS

Wein, Elizabeth.  Code Name Verity.  Hyperion, 2012.  343p.  Grades 9+.  Historical Fiction.  (2013 Printz Honor).

A British spy captured by the Nazis in Occupied France and a pilot in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force tell the story of their friendship in this gripping, emotionally charged novel.  With a unique diary-like narrative format, Code Name Verity weaves together historical facts, adventure, and the magic of finding a true friend to create an unforgettable story of two regular girls caught up in the extraordinary circumstances of World War II.

Analysis- This was definitely one of the best books I read this semester…maybe THE best.  I felt like everything in Code Name Verity fit together in perfect harmony—the voices of Julie and Maddie, the carefully researched history of the WAAF, the giant twist in the middle, the hidden clues in Julie’s narration—it all worked so well for me and just made the novel sing.  I kept myself away from spoilers and did not skip to the end of the book (which I almost always do) in order to preserve the narrative drive and then raced through Julie’s portion only to find myself continually flipping back and forth during Maddie’s narration.

The best thing for me about this novel was the friendship between Maddie and Julie—a friendship I don’t think is typical for YA lit or literary depictions of women in general.  The two young women in this book are loyal to each other, and though they both admire characteristics the other possesses, they never stoop to back-stabbing or jealous behavior.  They are NOT “mean girls,” and to me they depict a truer reflection of real friendship than most stories about women do.  Additionally, I really enjoyed learning about a lesser-known part of the British war effort during World War II, the skills need for piloting, and the Nazi regime in France during the Occupation—all things I could tell Wein spent a great deal of time and effort researching.

As I have mentioned before, I love a book that forces me to work, one that is a puzzle, and Code Name Verity really does.  I think I’d need to read it again to truly absorb all the nuances of the storyline and to untangle all the threads Wein manages to weave together.   Because of its complex narrative structure, the sophisticated literary allusions (particularly those pertaining to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan), and the age of the protagonists, I think this book would be most appreciated by older teens although advanced young readers, especially ones with an interest in World War II, might also enjoy it.

The Diviners–Libba Bray (2012)

Bray, Libba.  The Diviners.  Little, Brown, 2012.  578p.  Grades 6-12.  Historical Fiction/Fantasy. 

Dreaming of being a flapper and roaming the bustling streets of Roaring Twenties’ New York City, Evie O’Neill is elated to find herself “exiled” from boring Zenith, Ohio.  Upon her arrival in the Big Apple, she promptly has her pocket picked and finds herself on the doorstep of her uncle’s museum—the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, aka “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.”  Thrilled to be reunited with her longtime pen pal Mabel, Evie is less than thrilled about her living situation with stodgy Uncle Will and his strange assistant Jericho…that is, until she gets swept into the middle of a serial killer investigation where her unusual “abilities” (ie. supernatural powers) factor heavily into the nature of the crime.  Equal parts murder mystery, historical novel, and ghost story, the first entry in Bray’s Diviners series richly evokes 1920s New York and sets up a sprawling epic story to come.

Thoughts- This was the most difficult annotation I’ve ever written simply because condensing The Diviners down to one paragraph was practically impossible.  Bray’s novel is incredibly sprawling and contains more sub-plots, characters, and research than anything else I’ve read in recent memory.  It is an immense book that simultaneously wraps the reader in a fascinating (and, in my opinion, well-concluded) murder mystery/ghost story AND sets up an entire four book series.  All of the hallmarks of Bray’s outstanding writing are here—fantastic world-building, multi-faceted characters that just jump off the page and into your heart, whip-smart dialogue, and that always-winking ironic twinkle in her narrative prose.  Admittedly, The Diviners starts slowly (something I find to also be characteristic of Bray’s writing) and the use of 1920s lingo can grate on the nerves.  To me, though, these flaws are greatly outweighed by the strength of the narrative that keeps you reading compulsively FOR 578 PAGES (!) and the depth of characterization that makes these possibly antiquated characters seem authentic and contemporary.

So why did I keep turning all those pages?  For starters, the world-building.  It is flawless.  Bray obviously did her research not just on the physical space of New York City in the 1920s but also on the current events of the time, the history of religion in early 20th century America, and the racial politics brewing across the country.  Next, the characters.  There are SO MANY characters in this book and somehow every single one of them seems like an actual person and not just a two-dimensional placeholder.  Although Evie is the main character, the reader is also introduced to other “diviners” in the city like Memphis, Theta, and Sam as well as Evie’s Uncle Will, best friend Mabel, Will’s bizarre assistant Jericho, and the evil, evil ghost Naughty John.  I found each of the characters distinct and finely drawn, and I hope to find out more about them all (except that freaky ghost!) in books to come.  Finally, my favorite thing about The Diviners and, honestly, about all of Bray’s books is the humor and irony found in the dialogue and narration.  Not only do her characters each have their own distinct voice and humor but the actual narration is funny as well…not a lot of authors manage that.

As for the criticism of the pacing, length, and overuse of lingo—I think those are legitimate concerns.  The book IS slow to start and very, very long.  For me, that slow-to-build pace worked as did the complexity of the narrative.  The length won’t shock teen readers familiar with fantasy, and I think they’ll appreciate that Bray’s not dumbing down her story for anyone.  The most common complaint I’ve read/heard about The Diviners is the language, and I’ve heard it A LOT.  Here’s my take on it—the character that most frequently uses those flapper-isms is Evie, and her use of them (and Bray’s) is purposeful.  Quite simply, she is trying to create a new persona for herself.  Evie is trying to be the carefree, Daisy Buchanan-esque creature that she sees as the epitome of sophistication, but because she’s just a teenager, she overdoes it a little.  I didn’t feel like Bray was shoving all that lingo down my throat; I thought she was using it for characterization purposes and, in my opinion, it works.

I would recommend The Diviners to anyone looking for a creepy, thrilling read—especially readers who loved her Victorian series that began with A Great and Terrible Beauty or those looking for a read-alike for Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series.  I also think that with the new Gatsby movie coming out this summer, quite a few teens will be looking for things set in or about the 1920s, and with its sumptuous attention to detail and wonderful sense of time and place, this novel certainly hits that mark.

 

Keeping the Castle–Patrice Kindl (2012)

Kindl, Patrice.  Keeping the Castle.  Viking, 2012.  261p.  Grades 6-12.  Historical Fiction.

Seventeen-year-old Althea Crawley, tasked with saving her family’s ancestral (and crumbling) castle, must find a suitable husband—soon.  Unfortunately for her, the pastoral village of Lesser Hoo is not exactly teeming with possible suitors.  That is, until Lord Boring and his cousin Mr. Fredricks arrive and become the targets of affection for Althea and her odious step-sisters.  Written in impeccable Regency style and filled with gentle humor and wit, this novel is a perfect match for lovers of Jane Austen and Patrice Kindl alike.

Thoughts- So. Much. Fun!  Keeping the Castle is fluff…but it’s really, really well-done fluff.  Kindl follows a typical romance novel plot—boy and girl meet, girl says she doesn’t like boy, girl slowly comes to the realization that boy is wonderful, and they end up together.  Despite these tropes, Kindl manages to inject a lot of personality into all of her characters (especially Althea), and she makes the village of Lesser Hoo and its inhabitants so interesting and loveable that the weakness of the plot is pretty much a moot point.

One aspect of this novel I found to be extremely charming is the way Kindl keeps so many characteristics of Regency writing while still creating a story for modern readers.  The dialogue in Keeping the Castle sounds very period, and the plot conventions will be familiar to readers of both Jane Austen and romance authors like Georgette Heyer.  That being said, this book still feels contemporary to me.  You quickly adjust to the somewhat archaic dialogue, and the plot moves along at a fast pace, much like most contemporary YA romances.  I do think the book speaks more strongly to readers who have some experience with Austen’s writing, but I could also see it working as a bridge between current romance fiction and the classics.

The primary reason I think Keeping the Castle rises above its almost formulaic plot is the characterization.  All of the major characters (Althea, Lord Boring, Mr. Fredericks, the step-sisters) are finely drawn, fleshed-out people; most of all, they are funny without being caricatures.  I would recommend this book to someone looking for a fun, frothy romance or maybe to a teacher trying to find starter material for a unit on one of Austen’s works.