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.

Gorgeous–Paul Rudnick (May 2013)

*NOTE–I read this book as an Advance Reader’s Copy…it was just recently released to booksellers*

When Becky 9780545464260_p0_v4_s260x420Randle’s mother dies, Becky discovers a small ring box with just a New York City phone number inside.  Thinking this might be her ticket out of East Trawley, Missouri, Becky calls the number and finds herself on her way to New York to meet with the mysterious designer Tom Kelly.  Kelly offers Becky a proposition–if she allows him to make her three dresses, he will turn her into the most beautiful woman in the world.  What follows is a hilarious romp through high fashion, royalty, and the power of beauty–both outer and inner.

Thoughts– I picked this ARC up from the Scholastic rep at TLA, and given the two blurbs on the cover (Dave Sedaris and Meg Cabot), I was STOKED to read it.  After its early May release date, I began seeing all the raves about it on Twitter from authors, bloggers, and friends whose opinions I definitely value.  I started reading it with very high expectations…and was kind of disappointed at first, to be completely honest.  I didn’t really think Becky was all that great of a narrator, I had absolutely no clue what was going on with Tom Kelly, and it took me a good 50 pages to get used to the hyper-realistic, satirical tone of Rudnick’s writing.  I just didn’t get it.

And then all of a sudden–it clicked.  The story kicked into high gear, every other page had a legitimate LOL, “OMG, I can’t believe he wrote that!” moment (or two or three), and I began to really care about what happened to Becky, Rocher (named after the candy, natch), Prince Gregory, and even smarmy old Tom Kelly.  I very rarely literally laugh out loud at books–it’s usually more of a sardonic smirk–but this book had me cracking up with its banter and over-the-top antics.  Rudnick is really at his best when he’s crafting scenes solely for comedic relief, like many of those between Becky and Rocher, and you can definitely see his roots as a satire writer in Gorgeous.*

Two little caveats for me about this one:  One, the story is pretty pat and predictable, but when it’s this much fun, I pretty much don’t care about that.  Two, there is an exorbitant amount of use of the F-word and other swear words in this book.  And listen–I worked at an inner-city high school for 5 years, and The Departed and Dazed and Confused are two of my favorite movies.  I’ve also been known to use “colorful language” myself a time or two…or perhaps more than that.  It takes A LOT for me to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…that’s maybe too much cussing,” and this book did.  I mean, I don’t ever need to see the C-word in print.  Ever.  That being said, I did see how Rudnick was kind of using that language as a characterization device (it’s mostly Rocher saying those things), and so I get it.  I just think it was maybe a bit too much…and would probably offend those with more delicate sensibilities.

Overall, I found Gorgeous hilarious and a fun summer read; it’s a perfect pool- or beach-side book to make you laugh and maybe think a little, too.

*He writes a column for Entertainment Weekly (my favorite magazine OF ALL TIME) under the pen name Libby Gelman-Waxner, and it’s HYSTERICAL.

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.

The Fifth Wave–Rick Yancey (May 2013)

*NOTE–I read an advance uncorrected proof of The Fifth Wave.  It was released on May 5th.*16101128

First, they wiped out the electrical grid.  Next, the oceans rose and destroyed the coasts.  Then came plague–the Red Death.  Finally, the Silencers.  What do the Others have planned for the 5th Wave?  Cassie Sullivan doesn’t know; she doesn’t even know if there are any other humans left to fight with her.  But what she does know is that if her little brother Sammy is alive, she must do everything she can to fulfill her promise and find him.

Thoughts– As I said on FB yesterday, HOLY SMOKES.  When I got to the end of The Fifth Wave, I felt such relief–not because I didn’t like it or I was in such a hurry to get to the end, but because I was so tense the entire time I was reading.  The tautness of this sci-fi/thriller is incredible; I read the entire last 2/3 of the book in one sitting and when I finished, I shut the cover and just sat there for a moment trying to relax.  Yancey’s plot moves along at a rapid fire pace, and you care so much about the fate of the characters that you just turn the pages as fast as you can. (I know some of you are all, “Lauren, I know you flipped to the end.  YOU ALWAYS DO.  And it’s true; I did…but honestly, it didn’t slow me down much this time around!)

I was really surprised by how emotional I felt during my reading; maybeit was getting to see the story from the different main characters’ POVs as Yancey alternates between three or four different narrators/perspectives, maybe it was that I was just so worried about 5 year old Sammy because I kept thinking of my 5 year old, or maybe it was that the book is just that good, but I felt like I was on the verge of tears the entire time.  I don’t typically read a lot of sci-fi (Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow being the exception) and I didn’t expect to get that connected to the storyline and the characters, but I totally did.  I was incredibly invested in Cassie’s relationship with the mysterious Evan Walker and in her search for Sammy, and I hope Yancey continues at the same pace for the rest of the series.  I also think that my connection to this particular story had to do with the overtones of Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games that I saw in The Fifth Wave.  The child soldiers and their training paralleled Card’s Battle School, and Cassie’s determination, grit, and sheer desire to SURVIVE reminded me so much of Katniss.  I found these echoes not to be derivative, rather they just reminded me what was great about those two books and how Yancey was taking familiar sci-fi tropes to a different place.

While I found The Fifth Wave to be an riveting book, I did have two kind of major issues–the use of present tense and the conclusion.  I understand why authors use the present tense; it ratchets up the tension by making the action totally immediate for both the characters and the reader, and it creates an intense narrative pace.  I JUST DON’T LIKE IT.  I feel like I’m sitting watching that part of the Oscars where they’re giving out the award for screenwriting, and they do that bit wherein they read part of the script aloud and show it on the screen.  Few are the present tense books that don’t feel like movie scripts to me, and this book wasn’t one of them.  My other issue (and my friends who have also read it feel the same) is the ending.  I know a series has to have a set up, and the conclusion of the first book has to lead into the next one, blah blah blah.  I just didn’t like it.  I thought it was too tidy and too quick…just not my style.

Another important thing for some of y’all–I thought this book was SCARY.  Like, I read it during the daytime and read something else at night.  I’m a wuss, yes, but if you are too, be advised.  You might also go check out www.thefifthwaveiscoming.com; it’s pretty cool.

Siege and Storm–Leigh Bardugo (June 2013)

*Note–I read t14061955his book as an advance uncorrected proof*

Book 2 in Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, Siege and Storm takes readers back to the land of the Grisha a short time after the battle on the Unsea, picking up with Alina and Mal’s journey to get themselves as far away from Ravka as possible, a journey that unfortunately ends when they are discovered and recaptured by the stronger (and more evil) than ever Darkling.  With the help of Sturmhund, a mysterious privateer, Alina escapes from the Darkling and returns to Ravka on a quest to find the other Morozova amplifiers and save the country from civil war.  Struggling with the ambition that comes with growing power, Alina finds new alliances and further troubles in the wake of devastation the Darkling has left behind.

Thoughts I was so excited to win an ARC of this book and then I had to wait over a month to read it! (Grad school and whatnot…) The wait definitely paid off.  All of the wonderful world-building and characterization from Shadow and Bone are present in Siege and Storm, but because it’s the second book in the series there is way, WAY more action.  So much happens in this book and I don’t want to give any of it away (especially since it won’t be out for another month or so), but I will say this–there’s romance, terror on the high seas, deeper and darker magic, swoony guys, and a helluva cliffhanger.  I really liked how much growth Alina experienced over the course of the book, and the relationship struggles she and Mal went through seemed completely realistic and authentic to me.  I also enjoyed learning more about all the court intrigue at the Big Palace, and the introduction of another complicated man into Alina’s life.

My only complaint, and it is very minor, is that I wanted MORE OF THE DARKLING.  He’s my favorite character in the series, although Sturmhund is now a close second, and he doesn’t appear in the flesh as often in this book.  Plus, he’s pretty much the embodiment of pure evil this time around…but I’m still holding out hope that he can be redeemed in book 3.  It could happen–look what JK Rowling did for Draco Malfoy!

Overall, I was extraordinarily pleased with Siege and Storm–it totally lived up to my extremely high expectations.  I think Leigh Bardugo has created such an intricate and fantastical, yet still accessible, world, and her characters are so complex and nuanced.  I can’t wait to see how she wraps it all up in Book 3, but unfortunately it won’t be out until 2014!

PS. I’ve tweeted back and forth with Leigh Bardugo a few times and she is super nice…plus if you follow her on Twitter or Pinterest, she’s always posting cool art and quotes related to the world of Ravka.  FUN.

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.

My All-Time Favorite YA Books…this list goes to ELEVEN.

That’s right, this list goes to 11.  Why, you ask? Because I said so.  (The mom in me obviously comes out to play every now and then…)  Here’s my eleven all-time favorite YA books–each of them is a reread for me.  In the case of some, multiple rereads.  You should read them…because I said so.

1.  Rats Saw God, Rob Thomas (the one who writes Veronica Mars, not the singer)–This book is what would happen if you took My So-Called Life, set it in suburban Texas and made Angela a dude who does a lot of drugs.  Good for those of us with 90s nostalgia and a love of grunge music (there’s even a reference to the death of Kurt Cobain–something I remember SO clearly from HS).

2. Looking for Alaska, John Green–An obvious pick, I know…but I really, really love this book.  I always recommend that people start here instead of The Fault in Our Stars when they want to “see what all the John Green hype” is about.  He won a Printz Award from YALSA for this one, and I think it was well-deserved.  Miles “Pudge” Halter leaves his public school for a private boarding school in rural Alabama where he meets Alaska Young.  All hell breaks loose in Miles’ world.  Prepare yourself for laughter and tears…lots and lots of tears.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3.  The Song of the Lioness Quartet, Tamora Pierce–The first truly YA books I ever read as a kid.  I still re-read them on a regular basis.  Alanna wants to be a knight but, bummer, she’s a girl.  So she switches places with her twin Thom, dresses like a boy, and heads to the palace.  Magic, fighting, swords, and thievery ensue.  Plus, in book 2, she gets the most awesome pet cat EVER.  I just recommend Pierce in general.  I’ve loved each of her series–no one writes better female fantasy protagonists.

4. Dreamland, Sarah Dessen–This is definitely much “darker” than Dessen’s usual YA romances, but it’s hands down my favorite.  Caitlin is such an authentic, flawed teenager, and you just can’t help but root for her, even when you’re screaming “He’s not just a ‘bad boy’!  He’s abusive! And controlling! And getting you involved in drugs!” at her.

5. The Jessica Darling series, Meg McCafferty–Some people say the last 3 books of this series are “new adult” but since I don’t believe that’s actually a thing, I’m gonna say all 5 are YA.  I mean, Anne Shirley gets to grow up, go to college, get a job, have babies, raise them, and send two of them off to war, and we STILL call that series “children’s lit”–can’t Jessica Darling and Marcus Flutie have a happy ending and it still be YA?

6. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, E. Lockhart–Feminism, boys, secret societies, basset hounds, Bentham’s panopticon, boarding school.  All these things factor into this awesome, brilliant book.

7.  Beauty Queens, Libba Bray–What if the plane on the TV show “Lost” was filled with teenage beauty pageant contestants?  What if there was a giant conspiracy to kill them all?  What if Miss Texas went native and started running around naked and talking to snakes?  Best satire I’ve ever read.  Hilarious, thought-provoking, and innovative. 

8. Stotan!, Chris Crutcher–Another golden oldie from my younger years.  It’s about a boys on swim team.  In Washington State.  Who do some sort of crazy training program named after the Stoic philosophers and the Spartan warriors.  There is absolutely no reason I should like this book (usually I prefer to ogle swimmers, rather than read about them), but I adore this book.  Crutcher’s writing is so accessible and to the point.  Love all his other books too.

9. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card–The only truly science fiction title I love…I just wish OSC’s political and social beliefs weren’t so abhorrent to me.

10. Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson–Melinda doesn’t talk.  Anderson takes you inside her brain to find out why.  (the seasonal structure of this book is wicked awesome…just thought I’d add that)

11. Anything by Meg Cabot.  That’s right–I’ve read ’em all. Cabot’s never going to win a Printz award, but damn.  She writes some compulsively readable books.  Great humor, fun romance, smart girls.  What’s not to love?

So that’s my eleven.  I could think of more, and I’ve certainly read a lot of newer titles that have the potential to make this list, but these are tops today.  Check them out if you haven’t…I think there’s a YA book for just about anybody on this list.

How I Live Now–Meg Rosoff (2004)

Rosoff, Meg.  How I Live Now.  Wendy Lamb Books, 2004.  194p.  Grades 8 and up.  Realistic Fiction.  (2005 Printz Award).

Daisy, a fifteen year old New Yorker, is sent to stay with cousins in the British countryside at the outbreak of World War III.  Just as she is settling into her new life (and a new romance with her cousin Edmond), the cousins receive word that their diplomat mother has been stranded in Oslo due to a bombing and terrorists begin attacking the UK.  Although limited at first to the major British cities, the war soon spreads to the rural areas and Daisy finds herself on a trek for survival with her youngest cousin Piper.  This haunting novel is told in a unique first-person style and presents a terrifying, yet ultimately hopeful, vision of a near-future rent by the destruction of war.

Thoughts- When I first started reading How I Live Now, all I could think was how unrelentingly weird this book was.  I was having a hard time pinning down the main character, and even though I knew it was intentional, I could not for the life of me figure out what was going on with all that first-person, present tense, run-on sentence narration.  Luckily, I pressed on and was rewarded with not just a great adventure story but also a poignant (albeit unusual) love story as well.  That strange narration was indeed showing the reader something important—although I didn’t figure out what until two-thirds of the way through—and as Daisy spent more time amongst her British cousins and the edge of her character was honed by the trauma and hardships of war, I felt like I understood her more and more.

All of this is to say that while the stylistic choices Rosoff makes are often odd, they are purposeful and elevate this story to another literary level.  She takes what could be just another post-apocalyptic, dystopian journey novel and turns it into a poignant examination of family, love, and loyalty in times of great distress.  There is one sticking point to the story, however, and it comes from the romance between Daisy and her first cousin Edmond.  For me, it was at first a little too Flowers in the Attic and incestuous, but by the end of the book, I totally bought how two people so isolated from society and thrown together in such extraordinary circumstances would fall in love, societal mores be damned.  I think it’s a testament to Rosoff’s skill as a writer that their relationship is believable and even something to root for, despite its awkward and possibly unsavory beginnings.

How I Live Now was another Printz winner that seems to have a limited readership—fans of dystopias might pick it up, but it takes a pretty dedicated reader to look past the stylistic quirks and utterly grim storyline to see the beauty and hope of Rosoff’s tale.  Additionally, I find it to be a book for older readers due to its intense themes and details.  I’ve recommended it to several booklovers that I know and no one seems to have had quite the same reaction I did, but I’m going to continue to talk it up anyway because I think it is a really powerful book with important things to say.

 

The Dark Knight Returns–Frank Miller (reprint 2002)

Miller, Frank.  Batman:  The Dark Knight Returns.  DC Comics, 2002.  224p.  Grades 7-12.  Graphic Novel.

Faced with rising crime in a ravaged Gotham City, middle-aged Bruce Wayne makes the decision once again to become the vigilante Batman and to attempt to save Gotham from itself.  Widely considered one of the seminal works of the graphic novel format, The Dark Knight Returns follows Wayne as he faces old foes like Harvey Dent and the Joker and creates alliances with a new Robin and Superman.

Thoughts I wanted to like this book so badly.  I LOVE the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan movie versions of Batman, and I knew that much of their respective visions came from the Miller comics.  Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get into it—for one thing, I was confused almost the entire time I was reading.  I had such a difficult time figuring out who was speaking, what was happening in real time and what was in the past, and what exactly the storyline was that I almost gave up on reading it altogether.  I did soldier through, however, and though I don’t necessarily feel like I was rewarded for this, I do feel like I gained some insight into the world of comics and why this series is considered to be such a landmark achievement.

In terms of just understanding the comic book world, I felt like I learned how to read the panels more effectively as I struggled through The Dark Knight Returns.  In some ways, comics require a greater level of reader participation than traditional print formats because you have to look at the drawings, figure out which character is speaking in the captions (The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t really have dialogue bubbles like some comics), and synthesize the story all at the same time.  My confusion about which character was which stemmed, I think, from my lack of overall knowledge about the genre in general.  This book panders to no one; either you know who’s whom or you figure it out or you just don’t read any further.  Prior knowledge is expected of the reader, and Miller plows along with his story, with or without you.  I think this demanding quality as well as the high level of ambiguity present in The Dark Knight Returns is what makes this book such a seminal work in comics/graphic novels.  Bruce Wayne/Batman’s ambivalence about his behavior and his situation, the fine line between heroism and vigilantism, the role of the government in “helping” citizens—these are much deeper themes than what the general public expects from a comic book.  I can definitely see how Frank Miller paved the way for sophisticated narratives in graphic novels, like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series or Joss Whedon’s illustrated continuation of his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” saga, and opened the eyes of many naysayers who just saw comics as “kid stuff.”

The Dark Knight Returns definitely has a teen audience, but I question how wide of a readership that audience actually is, primarily because I found this book to require so much background knowledge.  Teens with a pre-existing interest in comics or graphic novels will really enjoy it, and it might work well in the classroom if you were doing a graphic novel unit or (even better) teaching a content-area elective on the graphic novel format.