Either the Beginning or the End of the World, Terry Farish

I just checked the archives, and according to my own tags, I only read two YA books in 2016, and two in 2015. I couldn’t believe it was true, so I went to my next source – the Kindle library on my phone – and according to that, I must have mistagged at least one post last year. Depending on whether or not I consider Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series to be YA, which I’m on the fence about, I could possibly count up to three more, but I was still shocked. I consider myself to be both an advocate for and great lover of Young Adult fiction, and yet apparently, I now read more memoirs, biographies, and poetry than I do YA! Without a doubt, mystery and urban fantasy still claim the top spots, but without data, I would have put YA right up there with them. I don’t when that shift started taking place (apparently, sometime in 2014), but it does explain why it took me longer than I expected to get through Farish’s new book.

51rvex-bhvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_She is an absolutely brilliant writer. The poet in her blends stunningly with her work with immigrant and refugee communities in New Hampshire to create stories that are as unique as they are powerful. Her book The Good Braider remains in my top twenty more than five years after reading it. Either the Beginning or the End of the World is no less lovely. Written about a young woman growing up on the New Hampshire seacoast with her father, a struggling fisherman, Sophea finds herself falling in love with a PTSD vet just as her estranged Cambodian mother and grandmother make their way back into her lives.

I have many friends who have made trips over the last decade to Cambodia. To a person, each has told me what a spectacular and heartbreaking country it is – not because of any ongoing poverty, or awe-inspiring landscape, or charming handicrafts made in quaint villages – but because it had an entire generation forcibly and violently disappeared. This had led to an unprecedented sense of community between the people who live there; one man told me that if he was fortunate enough to get a job, it was only right he share that work with a brother or cousin or uncle – if he didn’t, he might have more, but that man would have nothing. Always, he told me, we’d like more work, but it’s better to share what we have.

Farish winds the brutal history of the country into her book with subtle power. Her protagonist is a girl on the brink of independence, a young woman who has little concept of her own past, much less that of an entire people. She has been raised by her American father, but she comes of age with her Cambodian family, and their presence in her life, while often a frustration and betrayal for her, is all the more powerful to me in the America we live in today.

The Bad Decisions Playlist, Michael Rubens

I’ve been a fan of Michael Rubens since my friend Ruby first recommended The Sheriff of Yrnameer four years ago. His first book was a complete win for me – a hilarious space opera that I recommended to all my sci-fi/fantasy loving friends – that I now keep on tap for waiting in doctor’s offices or at the mechanic’s when I need a mental boost.

His second book, on the other hand, a YA novel called Sons of the 613, put me through the emotional wringer. Rubens has a gift for humor, but like most comedians, he is deeply in touch with the raw underbelly of the human experience. Both Sons of the 613 and The Bad Decisions Playlist flirt with laughter, but in the spirit of truthful YA, are grounded in disaster and pain.

25897672This makes sense to me. Adolescence is a shit show, and anyone who claims otherwise just doesn’t remember how hard it is to have everything shaken up and shaken hard all at once. I say this as a person who was well-adjusted, a successful student, close to my parents, and blessed with wonderful friends – I had so much, and yet I remember so much pain. I lost friends to illness and car accidents. I was treated horribly by boys who had seemed so kind. I watched in terrified silence while girls all around me starved and purged and did anything and everything possible to make themselves fit in. I still remember sitting in my psych class one morning and seeing my friend come in late, her head completely shorn of her beautiful black curls – she had spent an hour cutting them off with safety scissors in the bathroom at 7am for reasons too personal to share, even all these years later.

High school is a gauntlet. There’s no free pass. There’s no person pretty enough or popular enough to escape the human condition. And Rubens’ Playlist recognizes that. His protagonist is a stoner with an abundance of talent and a bad attitude – honestly, I hated him for about ninety percent of the book. I kept flashing back to my experience reading The Catcher and the Rye in high school, and how I wanted to punt Holden Caulfield for being such a whiny, narcissistic jerk. I didn’t understand then how deeply troubled and unhappy Caulfield was, or how his perception of the world could be the same as many of my classmates, because for me, adults had always been safe, helpful. For all the pain I felt, I always had the protection of a family who loved and supported me.

I’m not seventeen anymore. I met too many people in college who hurt me and themselves because they hadn’t received the care they needed for mental illness, for abuse they’d suffered, for wounds left too long untended. Then I spent too many years teaching and working with both young children and teenagers not to have seen a whole spectrum of caregiver behavior that floored me with its apathy, ignorance, and anger. I’ve witnessed too much suffering now not to know how or why some teenagers choose to numb themselves with drugs, alcohol, casual sex.

Austin Methune is an ordinary teenager. He’s hurting, he’s lonely and a little lost. He’s struggling with his relationship with his mother, and he doesn’t see the big picture. He cares more about impressing girls than he does just about anything else, and although much of this book is a love story, the part of Austin’s journey that was most powerful to me was his development of empathy and his ability to overcome his own buffoonish self-interest to become a good friend.

I like love stories, but I love friendship. People relying on others, trusting them, becoming vulnerable and allowing them to witness it? That is a love worthy of adolescence. That is a love that is fierce and bright and true. Learning that there’s more to friendship than just showing up to smoke weed and talk about girls is a story worth telling because being a kid is hard, and being a teenager is basically impossible. Friends are the lifeline. They show up for the hard stuff, and they are family if the whole blood relations thing doesn’t pan out.

Rubens gets that. He understands how complicated it is to be a teenage boy – as evidenced in his last two books – and instead of running from that, or sugarcoating it, he embraces it. He says, “It’s ok. I know this is messy, and that you might be a little bit of an asshole, but you’re still loved. Your story is important, and your voice should be heard.”

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley

Although the mother of one of my oldest friend gifted me both The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword for my birthday a few years ago, the books had ended up on my to-read shelf and I’d basically forgotten about them until we hosted our annual pancake party back in February. These books have such unassuming little spines, and although they’re readable in a day (I know, because I read Hero in less), I just hadn’t felt compelled to dive into that kind of fantasy novel until a new friend noticed them and began haranguing me to read them. 

I’m not exaggerating when I say that every time I saw her, she brought up the books, asked me if I’d read them yet, and then demanded to know why I hadn’t. Apparently, they were such a huge inspiration to her when she was a child that it was physically painful to think that I owned the books but hadn’t prioritized them. (And trust me, I understand that feeling – when I recommend a book or series to a friend and find out they haven’t started reading immediately, it bothers me because I know – even if they don’t – just how much awesome they’re missing out on!) We talked about how hard it had been for us to find fantasy novels with strong female protagonists, as well as how rare it was to find books with heroines that were also well written and appropriate for a younger audience. 

I survived by branching out and borrowing just about anything and everything from my local library that featured women, regardless of genre, but for her, that wasn’t a satisfying solution. Consequently, knowing that these two books existed and could be reread whenever she needed a reminder that women could have agency in YA fantasy was a cornerstone to her identity as a reader. 

I’d like to say that these discussions were the only motivation I needed to finally read these novels, but the truth is, I just wasn’t feeling good the other day, and I wanted to lay on the couch and read a paperback. The Hero and the Crown was the right size for the purpose (meaning it wouldn’t hurt my hand to hold it open while I lay on my side trying to will this baby’s feet out of my lungs). I wasn’t particularly in the mood for fantasy, but I figured if I hated it, I could always take a nap instead. 

You may have gathered by this point that I expected, if not to hate it, then at least to be underwhelmed by the book. I’m not sure why I felt I would be (especially given that I’ve enjoyed McKinley’s work in the past), but my expectations were sensationally low. It was with great surprise, then, when I realized a few hours later that I had become so engrossed in the story that I had not only neglected to pick up my prescription from the pharmacy, but also my husband from his train.

It wasn’t that the book was so perfect that I couldn’t pick apart some structural flaws, because I could. Occasionally, I made note to myself of sections where solutions were overly simplified or tasks too easily won; nevertheless, I found myself loving the book. I could completely understand why this story would appeal deeply to a girl on the brink of adolescence. It’s not a love story, although it has some tender moments in it, but is instead a call to arms for a young woman who has felt isolated and estranged from both family and country her entire life. 

Aerin’s successes stem from her willingness to understand and unwind tasks that come much more easily to those around her, as well as from her compassion for those whose suffering is much greater than her own. She’s no saint though, and the story is never cloying, even when it tugs at the heart. Her victories also come with a steep price, a truth we often learn more keenly as adults than we do as teens. 

What stuck with me most though was how pure the experience of reading this book was. I felt transported, not into Aerin’s world, but back to my own youth, to a time when I could enjoy such a story with unbridled enthusiasm. I’m weeks, or maybe even just days away from transitioning from daughter to mother, and yet I can still open a book like this and return to a simpler time. It’s such a peace-filled gift to have discovered on my very own shelf.

For more about Robin McKinley, head here.

Alice in Zombieland, Gena Showalter

I know we’re only two days away from a three-day long weekend, but the last week has been a real slog of post vacation blues. Usually this is a condition I suffer, at most, a day or so, but I have not been able to let go this time. I crave more sun! More family time! More hours to lazily read zombie novels while the waves crash at my feet!

Yes, while on vacation, I finished the two books I’d brought (unheard of!) and ended up downloading one at random from my Amazon wish list. As is the case with many of the titles collected there, I couldn’t remember where I had tagged it from or what it was about; all that mattered was that it looked like just the right level of popcorn fiction for the occasion at hand. Judging by the quick three-day turn around (read exclusively on beaches or while waiting for my turn to scrub sunscreen-cemented sand off), it was the right choice.

Now, this is not one of those books I’d blithely recommend to just anyone. First of all, it has a teen romance element I was neither expecting nor particularly enamored with. Secondly, it’s about zombies. Now, personally, I love a good zombie book. While I often find television and movie depictions of the genre too intense, I find the right novel, laced with a healthy dose of humor, to be intriguing. (For example, I’m more of a Shaun of the Dead fan than The Walking Dead.)

It’s not an area of fiction where I’ve generally found much traction. While vampires, werewolves, and otherworldly spirits have long dominated the shelves, zombies seem to continuously slip by on the reader popularity scale. I think I’ve only reviewed one other even remotely similar title here, and that was a few years back now. I’m certain some of you are genre aficionados and will be able to point me toward some great titles, but it still stands that as far as monster fiction goes, the pickings are rather slim.

It was with great joy, then, that I discovered Alice. Although the character is flawed in some very realistic adolescent ways, the writing was never less than compelling. The pacing was perfect for such a story, and even when I rolled my eyes at descriptions of muscle-bound teenage delinquent zombie hunters, I was also completely hooked. The kids Showalter was describing – burn outs and troublemakers and victims of great tragedies – did seem like the perfect army to fight the undead. They had that ideal combination of ridiculous unflagging energy and young bones that could take brutal beatings and realistically recover in a few days or weeks.

The end result was a guilty pleasure that practically had “vacation reading” stamped on the cover. I didn’t even have to break a sweat to finish this before we flew home, and it was the perfect companion to that brief bit of summer I glimpsed during this interminable winter.

 

For more about Gena Showalter and the White Rabbit Chronicles, head here.

Girl on a Wire, Gwenda Bond

Normally I don’t get very much reading done in November, but I spent most of the month squeezing chapters of this book into my crazy schedule. I even allowed myself to read it before bed, and while I know many of you are probably avid pre-bed book lovers, I never read then. I’m not one of those people who likes to read until they fall asleep, mainly because I have never in my life fallen asleep reading. I didn’t even fall asleep reading in college when I was doing way too much on way too little sleep. It just doesn’t happen for me. My husband actually tried reading to me from a financial document he was looking over in bed the other night, and after he was done (and out like a light), I was completely wired.

Words do not relax me. Books are much too thrilling. Admittedly, I have the same problem with watching tv or movies. Some of my friends will nap with the television on (or even in the theatre!), but I can’t do it. No matter how tired or sick I might be, stories are exciting, and my brain will not allow me to miss a beat. Let me reassure you, Girl on a Wire did not put me to sleep. Not even a little bit. Every night I had to force myself to turn off the light and put away my kindle. Then I would lay in bed thinking about the story and the characters and how long it would take me to finish if I just kept reading through the night…

It was a vicious cycle. I only allowed it to continue because I didn’t have any other time to read, and Bond’s story was just that good. I’ve never been a huge fan of the traditional circus, but I absolutely love Cirque du Soleil and Cavalia (if you’re not aware, Cavalia is a beautiful horse show; I share their philosophy on training below because I generally do not approve of animals being forced to perform, but it truly was obvious during the show that the trainers adored their horses and treated them gently with love and respect). Bond manages to capture the purest, most exciting parts of those shows in her novel.

I was completely captivated by the young protagonist, a wire walker names Jules, and her antagonist/love interest Remy, a trapeze artist. They both come from old circus families with a sordid rivalry between them (the novel is based very loosely on Romeo and Juliet). The reader travels with them through one season of the circus, and I found myself desperately wishing to see their tricks for myself. Bond creates such an authentic experience of their lifestyle that I both wanted to reach the end of the story but also longed to continue living in their calloused, sparkling, death-defying world just a little longer.

The novel itself is a mystery, an untangling of old hurts on a backdrop of mind-boggling artistic and athletic feats.  For me though, the most satisfying part was not the resolution of that mystery, but the world in which such a story could even exist. The stakes are inevitably high right from the start because each of her performers must constantly push the boundaries of safety and sanity in order to succeed. Even without subterfuge and regrets, every act holds the possibility of disaster, and Bond plays with that tension beautifully. She doesn’t have to overstate the obvious – that this could all end very sadly indeed – because it’s there already in each sharp intake of breath as we watch her balancing act unfold.

 

For more about Gwenda Bond, head here.

 

From Cavalia.net: Cavalia’s productions have made an indelible mark on the world of live entertainment with their one-of-a-kind homage to the age-old bond between human and horse. Our equine performers are the heart and soul of every Cavalia show. We are committed to nurturing them and prioritizing their comfort and well-being. The Cavalia approach is based on training methods designed to ensure the horses enjoy training with us and performing on stage. Trainers pay close attention to the horses to ensure that every request is adapted and respectful of what they are ready to offer. Our philosophy is rooted in patience, trust and deep-seated respect. This genuine sense of caring and authenticity is inevitably what resonates with our audiences.

Geography Club, Brent Hartinger

Geography Club was a book I picked up over the summer knowing full well that it was aimed at an audience much younger than me. I’m comfortable reading books meant for YA and even MG audience, and I would say this one falls somewhere in between. It’s definitely a novel I would have picked up and enjoyed in sixth or seventh grade, and as an adult, it’s a little light on the drama for me.

Part of me couldn’t help but feel that it’s a good thing though. The possibility of stumbling across a sweet, coming of age book that deals with the struggle of being a LBGTQA teen is slim. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard kids that I’ve worked with complaining about the fact that all the books that even tangentially represent them end with depression, critical injury, or death. While those books are certainly important (because sadly, those stories do represent the reality for too many teenagers), it is not the only story by a long shot.

When I was in high school, I had at least a dozen friends who had come out, not just to close friends and family, but to the school community. They were as happy as any other kid I knew, which is to say…some of the time life was good, and some of the time, it sucked. Relationships went south. Friendships were built over common interests and then allowed to slip away. Classes were hard or a snap or an escape from a difficult home life. Basically, everyone I knew, regardless of orientation, was just really busy. Rehearsals, soccer practice, Junior World Council, swim meets – endless hours, all filled to the brim.

Looking back, I feel exhausted for my younger self, but in the moment, it was ordinary. And honestly, I was less concerned with who wanted who than I was with meeting deadlines. Well, that’s not true. In locker rooms and green rooms and class rooms, we stuffed our entire social lives into five-minute between-the-bell increments. “Love” could rise and fall over the course of a single day.

This is not to say I don’t expect that relationships were harder for some of my friends than they were for me. I just don’t recall bullying being linked specifically to sexual orientation. I also don’t remember the teen mothers or the hearing-impaired students (our school had inclusive programs for both) being singled out, although it would be impossible to believe it didn’t happen. To me though, it seemed like bullying was targeted at a certain type of kid, a person who, through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, was an easy victim; in Geography Club, that kid’s name is Brian Bund.

While it’s critical to have stories about the Brian Bunds of the world (he’s actually my favorite character in this book), I also like finding a novel that’s focused less on the more on the ordinary foibles of adolescence. Yes, Russel Middlebrook is a gay teenager struggling with the decision to come out, but he’s also casually cruel in order to protect himself. He’s a clueless jock, and he’s a guy dying for acceptance when the only thing he believes sets him apart is also the thing he fears people knowing.

When it comes to deciding what sort of person he’s going to be, Russel has to choose between remaining silent in the face of hatred, or taking a stand. It’s not a cavalier decision to make, no matter how simple it may seem at a distance. I found myself often thinking of a well-known quote from a speech by Martin Nieöller that my best friend’s parents had up on their fridge throughout my childhood:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I remember wondering whether I would speak out to protect someone at great risk to myself, and I saw, over and over, how I did not. It’s incredibly hard to stand against bullies, against a frightening majority, especially during the fragile years of adolescence when everything seems impossibly significant. It gives me hope, even all these years later, to read about teenagers who choose to do it, who set an example of confidence in compassion. It doesn’t require perfection, but it does mean taking a risk, then living with the consequences.

For more about Brent Hartinger, go here.

To learn more about LAMDA Literary arm, head here.