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I read this book because it won this year’s Printz Award for Young Adult Literature. Here I take a very small moment to note that the winners of all three of the ALA awards that I pay the most attention to – the Newbery, Printz, and Odyssey – were this year by and about males. I am torn between thinking that books by men are already over-recognized and over-reviewed, and thinking that having strong boy books could help combat the notion that only books for girls get published any more.

Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Cullen Witter, aged 17, lives in the small town of Lily, Arkansas. His best friends are his younger brother Gabriel and Lucas, a very popular boy who manages to spend large amounts of time with Cullen without altering either of their popularity scores (Cullen’s: dismal. Lucas’s: very high.) One of Cullen’s pastimes is writing down titles for books he might someday write, and the narrative switches charmingly between Cullen’s first-person casual narrative of passing events and his more formal and somehow funnier third-person reflections on what has just happened. Many things are happening. Cullen’s slightly older cousin has just died of a drug overdose. A man who seems to Cullen and his small gang clearly to be a charlatan has come to Lily claiming to have seen a living Lord God Bird, a very large woodpecker believed to be extinct. Many tourists follow, hoping to see it. Lucas sets Cullen up on a date with Alma Ember, a recent graduate of the high school, who left Lily, married, divorced, and returned. Even though Cullen has an enormous crush on the prettiest girl in school (of course already dating the biggest and meanest boy in the school) and feels odd dating an older woman, he agrees, in order to go on the double date that Lucas so clearly has his heart set on. And then Gabriel disappears into the blue, leaving everyone adrift. Weeks go by with no news, and the family and their friends struggle to carry on and to know whether or not they should give up hope. Alternating with this main story is the story of Benton Sage, a young man eager to please his uncompromising father, who tries and fails at mission work in Africa and then goes to college. He becomes obsessed with the apocryphal Book of Enoch, and involves his roommate in this obsession. The characters in the Lily, Arkansas part of the story seemed just slightly quirkier regular humans – Ada Taylor’s curse of having her boyfriends die off, for example. By contrast, something about the characters and the storytelling style of the Benton Sage plot line seemed a little stiff and unreal, so that for most of the book I thought that we were reading Cullen’s novel-in-progress. Then the stories intersected and I had to revise everything that I had thought about it. There are some very serious topics addressed here, like the balance of sanity and insanity in the face of extreme grief. “Where Things Come Back” seems to refer both to hoped-for returns like the Lord God bird, and the return of people like Alma who hoped to get out of Lily and end up coming right back home. Somehow, perhaps due to copious amounts of under-aged if not graphically described sex, and definitely Cullen’s sense of humor, the book manages to feel, if not light, a whole lot lighter than I’d expect a book with one missing and a couple of dead teens to be. These are topics that I normally try to avoid, but I found myself enjoying this book, rooting for the characters and hoping that Gabriel would come back.

Cross-posted to and .
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Usually, when the year’s Newbury-award-winning book is announced, I check to see whether I’ve read it or not, and add it to my mental “to read” list if I haven’t. I will note that a mental list is very good for avoiding stress and guilt for not keeping up with the reading, but not so good at actually getting the books read. This year, I put the Newbury and Caldecott books on hold right away, and am currently listening to one of the Odyssey books (for best childrens audio) with the boy. (The actual winner of the Odyssey, Rotters is all about corpse robbing, and therefore not for me.)

Dead End in NorveltDead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. It’s 1962 in Norvelt, a Pennsylvania town founded as a self-sufficient homestead community by Eleanor Roosevelt in the Depression. Now, in 1962, the original residents are slowly dying off – all women, as the men died of black lung from working in the mines much earlier.When I first started this book, about a boy named Jack Gantos growing up in the same town as author Jack Gantos, I was prepared for another thoughtful and moving but ultimately somewhat boring book about growing up in a slow, long-ago time. The start felt a tad slow to me, as young Jack gets in trouble for accidentally firing a Japanese WWII rifle that he hadn’t thought was loaded at the local drive-in screen. One of his major entertainments seems to watching war movies from his yard using binoculars. Maybe not boring for boys, but boring for me. The tension ramps up for Jack as his father orders him to mow down his mother’s treasured field of corn for feeding the poor, with the upshot that Jack is grounded for the summer. His big project is digging a bomb shelter and a runway for the old fighter plane his father is trying to fix up. This plane and destruction building the runway causes are symptomatic of the tension between Jack’s mother, who was born in Norvelt and loves it, and his father, who wasn’t and who considers it a dead-end town to be escaped. The only time Jack is allowed to leave the house is to help one of the original residents, the former town nurse, Miss Volker, type obituaries of the others as they pass, as Miss Volker is too arthritic to do so. Long ago, she promised to marry Mr. Spizz, the tricycle-riding town sheriff, when all of these ladies were dead, and he never lets her forget it. Additional color comes from the nosebleeds Jack gets whenever he is frightened, from his best friend Bunny, a fierce Small Person who is the daughter of the local mortician, and the unexpected death by truck of a strange Hells Angel. All of these elements weave together into a story that has lots of over-the-top gross humor combined with nostalgia and sorrow at the ending of a utopia as well as good old-fashioned kid fun. Spoiler – the old ladies turn out to be dying of unnatural causes, and somehow, this is mostly treated as something to laugh at. This treatment makes the book lighter for the grade-school readers it’s aimed at, but I still found the casualness the murders were treated with a little horrifying. For those who can get past this, this book has enough excitement to pull a reader in as well as enough meat to leave the reader with something to think about.

Cross-posted to and .
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book coverGoing Bovine by Libba Bray. Read by Erik Davies Sixteen-year-old Cameron Smith is a disaffected loner/stoner teen trying to skate through life with minimum effort. He knows he’s a disappointment to his family and doesn’t care much about the people he hangs out with at school. The place he feels most at home is Yubi’s, the record store in town, but even there he collects CDs from an artist that he finds ridiculous. Then his life takes a turn towards the grim and scary. As he’s biking home one night, he encounters fire giants and meets a dark and malevolent knight. Further, he’s diagnosed with mad cow disease. Soon he’s in the hospital struggling to stay alive. Apart from a few incongruities like having teens on the same corridor as senior patients, these hospital scenes and the run-around with doctors seemed all too familiar. Where was the humor and adventure I remembered from the reviews I read when this was first published a few years back? Then Cameron is visited by Dulcie, a punk-rock angel who had appeared to him without talking a couple of times previously. Dulcie tells him that the world is about to end – the fire giants and the black knight have come through a wormhole created by the mysterious Dr. X, who vanished some years ago. Only Cameron, with his rogue prion-influenced brain, can find Dr. X and convince him to close the wormhole and keep reality from ending. To get there, he’ll need to follow clues on billboards and personal ads and use his intuition. He’ll also need to take the patient from the next bed with him. He’d met Gonzo, a Mexican-American hypochondriac video-game obsessed dwarf at school. Dulcie gives him the temporary health he needs for the trip, and Cameron and Gonzo are off. The already somewhat trippy story gets crazier yet as they have one adventure after another. They meet a garden gnome who claims to be the god Baldur under a curse, join a happiness cult, and more. Every so often, the story flips back to the hospital, so that it’s not clear if the adventure is really happening, is a product of Cameron’s failing brain, or if we’re looking at parallel realities. Music from multiple fictional artists weaves in and out of the story, along with Disney world, snow globes, and the Buddha Cow. Going Bovine is hilarious, extremely profane, filled with adventure, deep thoughts, and some sex. It won the Printz award for teen literature when it came out, and rightly so. I was blown away by all the strands woven together to make a story that so perfectly captures both the beauty and the tragedy of life. I listened to this on audio. Erik Davies had a perfect sounding teen voice for Cameron, though his girl’s voices were somewhat less convincing. For the most part, though, the narration was convincing enough to suck me right into the story.

Cross-posted to and .


Aug. 22nd, 2011 02:26 pm
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book coverSmile by Raina Telgemeier. Smile is the true story of a girl navigating middle and high school with the dreaded braces. Already somewhat insecure, Raina is horrified when two of her front teeth get knocked out. The solution is oral surgery, braces, and even headgear at night. How can she even have a chance at looking cool? Along the way, she deals with band, an earthquake, starts to get interested in boys, and navigates the decidedly treacherous waters of friendship. Though it’s solidly set in San Francisco in the early 1990s, anyone who’s experienced middle or high school will find common ground with Raina. Here, the graphic novel format really helped the setting stay in the background while the characters stood out. This is a disarmingly honest story of a journey from insecurity to self-discovery, with braces. It is well deserving of its recent Eisner award.

Originally posted at .
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book coverAn Abundance of Katherines by John Green. Read by Jeff Woodman This has been on my reading list for a while, though, as our teen librarian thought I would enjoy it, and she has Magic Powers regarding knowing what books I will like. Our hero, former child prodigy Colin Singleton, is heart-broken, feeling like he has a hole in his gut. He has just been dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine. His best friend, Hassan, who doesn’t believe in dating at all, takes him on a road trip to help him recover. They wind up in tiny Gutshot, Tennessee, where they are hired to help with an oral history project for the factory there. They make friends with the owner’s daughter, Lindsay Leigh Wells, while Colin tries to make a mathematical formula to predict the future of relationships. Green makes the book thoughtful and very very funny, and I loved every minute of listening to it (except for one or two minutes when I knew that Colin was about to do something really stupid.)
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book coverThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Read by the author. I’m guessing that most of my readers don’t need me to tell them to read Neil Gaiman. That, and this book winning both the Newbery and a Hugo… but there it is. I read it and it was cool and now I feel like writing about it. The tale of Nobody Owens, raised by ghosts in a graveyard after the murder of the rest of his family, is still too dark for me to share with Lightning Bolt. However, Gaiman handled the opening murder scene delicately enough that a slightly older child probably would be ok with it. I liked the way he used characters that experienced fantasy readers would probably recognize without ever using the standard label. For example, Bod’s guardian, Silas, who is neither quite alive nor dead, is seen only by dark, doesn’t eat the same kind of food as Bod, and has unusually strong powers of persuasion. I loved the way the stories of isolated incidents at various points of Bod’s childhood built up stealthily into a plot. I appreciated that Gaiman didn’t settle for the easy resolution to the story. And I was smitten by his narration. I have heard some authors read their books quite badly, others passably. Gaiman ranks up there with some of the best professional narrators I’ve heard. Neil Gaiman rocks. But then, we knew that already.
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This is the first of three books I've recently read featuring women pregnant under unhappy circumstances or whose babies are threatened or both... probably not the best of choices for reading while pregnant, and I'm really not sure how it happened. Must find books with happier pregnancies next...

book coverTender Morsels by Margo Lanagan Here is a haunting retelling of the Grimm’s story of Snow White and Rose Red. It starts off in an extremely dark place as Liga Longfield, with a baby by her father and pregnant from a gang rape, is on the brink of suicide. She is granted her own personal paradise, where she can raise her daughters in peace and freedom. The older daughter, Branza, is blond and peaceful, while Urdda is dark and fiery. As the girls grow, they and Liga discover gaps in the barrier, as an unfriendly dwarf and then two bears who act like men – one friendly and one with clearer sexual intentions - come into the world and leave again. Urdda begins to chafe at the confines of the paradise as she grows older, and finds her own way out. Eventually, the alternate world breaks down entirely and Liga and Branza, too, are forced into dealing with the harshness of the real world. There’s a lot of thought here on the dark side of sexuality, as well as looking at what is too much pain and how healing can occur. It’s told in language that feels antique and rural, pulling the reader deeper into the tale. Tender Morsels was an honor book for the ALA's award for teens, the Printz. One could also look at Patricia Wrede’s Snow White and Rose Red for an entirely different (and lighter) take on the tale.
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book coverElijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis Christopher Paul Curtis, native of Flint, Michigan, is the king of taking a serious topic and telling a funny children’s story about it. In Bud, Not Buddy, for example, he tells the story of a black, motherless boy hitchhiking across Michigan during the Depression. If you were looking for a cheerful story, you might just turn the other way after reading that description. And you would be very wrong. It is a book to make you laugh out loud, even though the tough realities of the Depression are still there. Yes, it won the Newbery, and it deserved it.

But here we’re talking about Elijah of Buxton. Elijah is the first free-born child in the town of Buxton, Ontario, a refuge for runaway slaves. Elijah is a mischievous boy who tells the stories of his pranks in colloquial language. I expect I’ll want to listen to it soon, too, as the narration style would make for a great listening book with the right reader. The anecdotes, filled with the colorful characters and details of life in the town, build slowly in intensity. Then, the details that seemed unconnected come together, as Elijah finds himself crossing the border to the United States in pursuit of a thief who has stolen the funds meant to buy the freedom of an entire family. Still, the story is funny through most of the book, moving, captivating. I was left in awe of Christopher Paul Curtis once again.


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