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.

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.

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.

The White Darkness–Geraldine McCaughrean (2005)

McCaughrean, Geraldine.  The White Darkness.  Harper Teen, 2005.  373p.  Grades 7 and up.  Realistic Fiction.  (2008 Printz Award).

Shy and withdrawn, Symone “Sym” Wates spends most of her time mentally conversing with her imaginary friend and alter ego, Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, one of the members of Robert Scott’s doomed Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica, and imagining what it would be like to explore the vast white darkness of the South Pole.  She gets an unexpected surprise when her deceased father’s business partner, Victor Briggs (known to Sym as Uncle Victor), announces that he is taking her first to Paris and then on to an Antarctic tourist expedition.  Unbeknownst to Sym, Uncle Victor is maniacally obsessed with the theories of John Symmes and plans on sacrificing her to his psychotic beliefs on the treacherous terrain of Antarctica.   Sym’s eventual escape from Uncle Victor and her desperate journey out of the frozen frontier are fueled by the truth about her childhood and the “companionship” of Captain Oates, forcing both the narrator and the reader to determine the fine line between reality and madness.

Thoughts- When I finished this book, I actually said to myself, “What the hell just happened?  That was NOT the book I expected it to be.”  For one thing, I expected it to be boring.  I mean, a girl and her uncle in Antarctica?  SNOOZE.  For another, I thought I’d have a nice, normal narrator who was totally trustworthy.  And I thought it would be slow.  I’m not really sure why these were my expectations for The White Darkness, but they were…and they were all completely blown to smithereens.  Turns out, it’s not a boring book at all—in fact, Antarctica is totally fascinating.  Deadly, completely inhospitable, and immense, the continent itself is an actual, pivotal character in the book, and it’s SO mesmerizing.  Also, Sym?  She’s possibly one of the most untrustworthy narrators I’ve ever encountered…between her and Cameron Young from Going Bovine, it would be a toss-up as to who had the more vivid hallucinations.  Cameron hallucinates his cross-country road trip, but Sym has been talking to Titus for YEARS.  As for the pacing, The White Darkness rips along at breakneck speed and expects its readers to follow along or get left behind in the snow.

I adored this book and it totally took me by surprise.  Sym, Uncle Victor, and the Bruchs are all such vivid characters and the setting so unique that it probably could have been even less tightly plotted and I still would have been totally on board with McCaughrean.  I’ve seen the now-familiar “too hard, not accessible, not appealing to teen readers” complaint attached to this book, but I have a hard time believing that readers who gave The White Darkness a chance wouldn’t completely entranced by it.  I think it would be an amazing classroom read (I love to teach about untrustworthy narrators!) and is currently at the top of my recommendations list.

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.

 

The First Part Last–Angela Johnson (2003)

Johnson, Angela.  The First Part Last.  Simon Pulse, 2003.  132p.  Grades 6 and up.  Realistic Fiction.  (2004 Printz Award).

Sixteen year old Bobby decides not to place his daughter Feather up for adoption and to face life as a single parent after complications arise during his girlfriend Nia’s pregnancy and delivery.  Through his first person narration and an alternating “Then/Now” structure, Bobby shares the failures, triumphs, and day-to-day struggles of his first few months as a teen father as well as the complicated family dynamics that arise from his decision to keep the baby.

Analysis- This book had the perfect storm of YA writing—great pacing, excellent characterization, an accessible style, and authentic themes and plot events.  It is, in my mind, the most accessible of the Printz winners, along with Walter Dean Myers’ Monster.  I thought the alternating “Then” and “Now” chapters moved the story along at a good clip and upped the level of reader participation by fracturing the timeline of Bobby, Nia, and Feather’s story somewhat.  As far as the characterization goes, all the major characters in the novel seem fully fleshed out and many of them seem to subvert common stereotypes about urban teens and teen parents in particular.  Bobby’s first-person narration gives readers insight into the fear, exhaustion, and elation he feels at the awe-inspiring responsibility of being a father, and he truly becomes a multi-dimensional person in the reader’s eyes, not just a cipher for some message of the author.

Johnson’s writing style is clear, easy to read, and almost poetic in its spare style, and I think it would be really appealing to teens, especially reluctant readers who might shy away from more convoluted writing styles.  I also think the contemporary setting and authentic plot would make this book particularly attractive to teen readers.  I would recommend this book to just about anyone, and I really hold Johnson up as an example of an author who can say a lot with very few words.  Although one of the more conventional Printz winners, The First Part Last stands out for its clarity of style, accessibility, and engaging characterization—qualities sure to speak to educators, parents, and especially teens themselves.

 

A Step from Heaven–An Na (2002)

Na, An.  A Step from Heaven.  Speak, 2002.  154p.  Grades 8 and up.  Realistic Fiction.  (2002 Printz Award).

Told in a series of short vignettes, this debut novel tells the story of Young Ju, a young Korean girl who immigrated at the age of four to the United States.  Young Ju initially believes the US will be an idyllic place, a “step from heaven,” but the realities and hardships of immigrant life, family turmoil, and her father’s alcoholism and abuse shown reveal the truth about the difficulties of life in a new country.  Na’s lyrical prose illuminates the story of Young Ju’s life from her early childhood in Korea all the way to her celebrated graduation from an American high school and preparations for her departure to college, and the novel’s spare style matures along with the narrator further depicting her growth and maturation.

Thoughts-   I am of two minds about this particular Printz Winner.  On the one hand, I see the elegance and skill of Na’s writing; the English teacher in me swooned over the sentence-level writing.  Her prose is gorgeous—lyrical and evocative, conveying hard truths with a masterful shifting of narrative maturity that mirrors the physical growth of her narrator.  On the other hand, this book does not feel definitively “teen” to me like all the other books I’ve read this semester.  It feels like adult literary fiction, the stuff teachers think kids should read rather than what they actually want to read.  Additionally, it basically has no plot…and I know lots of adults who won’t read a book like that, much less teenagers.

I admire the way Na creates a specific, detailed world that speaks not only to the Korean immigrant experience but also to the universal experiences of childhood and loss of innocence, yet I still wonder how this novel is received among teens.  I appreciated this book on a technical level, but it didn’t really MOVE me in any significant way, and I think that is an important quality in a YA novel.  Teens don’t want to read something that doesn’t touch their lives or open their eyes in some way, and I’m not sure A Step From Heaven is dynamic enough to do so.