Back to book club books! We read The Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell, for our latest book club and I was impressed. It is the author’s debut novel, but reads as though she has been at this novel thing for years.
Two sisters, Marnie and Nelly are trying to keep the deaths of their parents a secret. Unfortunately, the neighbor’s dog keeps digging up body parts in their backyard. Set in Glasgow, the girls struggle with the challenges of urban life, and the even deeper challenges of dead parents. Marnie knows that if she can just keep their deaths secret until she turns 16 (legal adulthood), everything will be alright. Which inevitably means that due to some set of bizarre circumstances, everything in fact, will not be alright.
The book is presented as a series of vignettes, alternating between the perspectives of Marnie, Nelly, and the neighbor Lennie. Sometimes this narrative format can seem redundant, because each “voice” will sound very similar, however in this case each perspective is well-developed and has its own unique characteristics. Nelly is off-balance and speaks with deliberate use of English phrases such as “old fellow” and “jolly well.” Marnie’s perspective is more all-encompassing and her sections can be quite long and detailed. Lennie’s vignettes read as though he is an elderly man, which is impeccable, seeing as that is his character. The distinctness of each voice is lovely and engaging.
Throughout the novel the girls have mixed feelings about their dead parents, which lends the book complexity. One moment Nelly is glad to be rid of her tormentor and the next Marnie is distraught at her loss. Lennie offers a variant perspective, which brings its own sadness and darkness, while balancing some of the girls’ emotions. Overall, the book presents a compelling picture of the Glasgow urban landscape and what it takes for two young girls to survive, both with and without their parents. The Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell would make a fine addition to a YA library collection, with its vibrant depiction of sisterhood and survival in the face of devastation.
This entry is a deviation from the book club books which I have been bending your ear about as of late. I began Grasshopper Jungle: A History, by Andrew Smith on my flight to the ALA Annual Conference about two weeks ago. Little did I know that one of sessions I was planning on attending would discuss this very novel. I had chosen it at random, flipping through the e-book selections available through my library. I did not make the connection that THIS Andrew Smith was THE Andrew Smith, of Winger (2013) repute. Also, until recently, I had not made the connection that THIS Andrew Smith, was also THE Andrew Smith, author of The Marbury Lens (2010), which I read several years ago solely because the copy housed in my local library’s YA collection is the only such book which contains a WARNING LABEL regarding the content. So, perhaps in light of the almost cosmic circumstances surrounding my reading of this book, it is appropriate that I write an epic blog post to discuss this bizarre and engaging novel.
Andrew Smith is not your typical YA author. History, which plays such an enormous role in his latest novel, has shown that Smith will not just push boundaries, but will chisel a hole in the heart of a trope, pack it with dry, acerbic wit and blasting powder, before blowing the whole thing to smithereens. This is why many many many, I repeat, many, critics (and parents) are not fans of Smith. He’s unabashedly vulgar. He’s prone to scenes of explicit violence. He scritches and scratches at dark topics, picking the scabs and revealing a story. Most of the time I don’t even LIKE what I read by him, but with Smith it is rarely the reading that affects me. Rather, its the niggling thought at a random moment in my day, brought on by a line or a phrase, or a scene, one that didn’t seem that important while reading, but now seems to reveal a glaringly, abrasively unavoidable truth, while I’m standing in line for coffee.
Grasshopper Jungle: A History is told by Austin Szerba, who is dedicated to writing down history, as it happens. Which is actually a feat given that in Ealing, Iowa nothing much happens that would perhaps normally be considered worthy of becoming recorded history. However, when the end of the world accidentally gets kicked off in Ealing, Austing finds himself battling an invasion of six-foot-tall praying mantises that are seemingly unstoppable. Also, Austin loves a girl names Shann Collins. Also, he loves his best friend Robby Brees. Austin just wants to figure out what that means, which becomes slightly more challenging in the face of the oncoming apocalypse.
Smith’s narrative voice is fascinating in Grasshopper Jungle. Austin comes across as genuinely confused, frustrated, scared, sad, horny, whatever. He smokes too many cigarettes, gets beaten up for being gay (which he’s not sure he is), and basically endeavors to understand what he should do at any given moment. This book less about the end of the world and more about the changes and shifts in Austin’s world.
The story’s progression is often impeded by Austin’s repetitive nature, his emphasis on all roads crossing beneath his pen. The level of repetition will no doubt turn some readers off, as will the language, casual and numerous references to sex, masturbation, homosexuality, and gore. However, the reason this book stands apart from the vast majority of the YA field, is its believeability. Unlike many current novels, there is nothing special about Austin, Robby, or Shann. Nothing unique about Ealing, Iowa. Nothing to court notice regarding family dynamics, the recession, or the townspeople. The genius (yeah, not my favorite term either, but applicable here) of Smith’s story is the plopping of something abnormal into perhaps the most normal of all situations, and then observing as the characters respond in a completely realistic manner.
Bizarre, unique, alarming, fascinating, over-the-top, wild, insane, and honest: all words used to describe Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle: A History. I will leave you with one more: Unstoppable.
Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a nominee for the Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults list, is the latest on the book club docket. Having never read the critically acclaimed book by Han, The Summer I Turned Pretty, I approach this novel very much from a blank slate standpoint. The story follows the life of Lara Jean Song as she enters her junior year of high school. At this juncture, Lara Jean’s very put together big sister, Margot, leaves to attend college in Scotland. Lara Jean finds herself in charge of the household and her little sister Kitty. As if those struggles weren’t enough, Lara Jean’s hatbox full of goodbye/love letters to five boys has disappeared and the letters have been sent! Chaos and some poor choices ensue.
I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. I was definitely expecting a synopsis of why Lara Jean had written these five boys and then endure an encounter with each. The reality of the book is quite different. The story is actually scaffolded around the three Song sisters and their relationships with their father, each other, and some boys. Don’t get me wrong, there’s boy drama aplenty, enough to satisfy the desires of teen readers, but the story is more rounded and genuine in its approach than I originally expected. Not all of the letters lead to an encounter with a previous crush, in fact one just gets “returned to sender.” This lends a touch of reality to the fanciful notion of unrequited love letters getting sent off into the ether and having to deal with the fall out.
That being said, I struggled with watching all of the poor choices made by Lara Jean. It wasn’t just character flaws that were balanced with positive attributes, rather the entire story was the reader cringing with every passing scene, from Lara Jean’s activities with a pretend boyfriend to completely falling apart in the face of a rumor. As such, it did seem that the ending was very abrupt, but was also disingenuous. It felt thrown together and did not reflect the depth and width of the novel as a whole. Now, perhaps this is understandable as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has a sequel coming, but it left me feeling unsatisfied.
Overall, as a novel to fulfill the desire for contemporary realistic teen fiction, the drama-filled To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before will fit the bill just fine.
Winner of the 2014 William C. Morris Award, charm & strange (2013), a debut novel by Stephanie Kuehn, relays the story of Andrew Winston Winters. The plot bounces between two time frames, the past and the present. In the present, Win is at boarding school in Vermont, shutting out most, if not all, of his fellow boarders, driven by the instinctual urge to hide his darkest secrets. In the past, Drew experiences druggings, violence, and perhaps hallucinations. It is these hallucinations, layered over Win’s memories, that drives him to unleash what he believes to be a wolf trapped inside himself.
charm & strange tantalizes readers with hints and leading information regarding how the main character became the withdrawn loner he is at school. Kuehn slips from past to present and back with surprising ease, never letting the reader any closer to the truth than the moment deems necessary. She builds Win’s story on readers’ assumptions, presumptions, and investigations, weaving together reality and fantasy, all while questioning the truthfulness of the main character and his memories and mental state. Another interesting layer is that Win’s family is fairly wealthy; Win even calls them “cultured” at one point. The reality that mental illness can hit anyone, at any level of the social/economic stratosphere is refreshing and grounded.
Unsettling in spades, Stephanie Kuehn’s charm & strange is an excellent YA novel, with an effectively unreliable (but relateable) narrator, realistic friendships, and the aftermath of cataclysmic trauma. The story will beguile readers and leave them with a prickle on the back of their necks and a cold tendril of truth in their minds.
Marcus Sedgwick won the 2014 Printz Award for Midwinterblood. I had not read a book by Marcus Sedgwick until this book came up for book club this week. Midwinterblood is split into seven stories each taking place on the mysterious island of Blessed. The main characters change for each tale, but the names Eric and Merle are consistent throughout, with spelling variations. In one tale Eric is the famous painter Eric Carlsson and Merle is a little girl who befriends him. In another, it is mentioned that Eric was Erika, and he and Merle were wealthy daughters of aristocrats who fell in love. The stories vary widely on content, but the two names/characters carry across the novel as a whole. With each story, readers learn more and more about the nature of Blessed and the story behind Eric and Merle’s continuous meetings.
The overarching theme of Midwinterblood is the question “Who else might I have been?” Sedgwick explores the possibility of living different lives, at different times, but having something remain constant, like love, regardless of the physical form of the person. I liked delving into and considering the possibility of how people could have lived (or continue to live) other lives. While I don’t think that people are actually reincarnated, I like the idea of looking at the variant paths that life can throw us down. A theory that the choices we make shape the look and feel of our journey, and with different choices or different circumstances, lives change.
Also, just to get this bit of personal preference out there, I am a big fan of chronological order . . . a big, big fan. So, Midwinterblood was not my favorite formatting, with its entirely backwards chronological progression, and its little addendum at the end. However, Sedgwick made a wise storytelling decision with the reverse chronology as it is very effective in illuminating just enough puzzle pieces in each story to keep the novel churning along. Overall, Midwinterblood is a successful novel in that it captures the reader’s attention and keeps it with dark twists and strangely effective interwoven tales. Less a story about romance, Midwinterblood tells the story of an island, and island where love rises and falls, over and over.
So, the semester is over, but the reading continues!!! Myself and some of my future library professional friends have decided that some sort of organized reading/sharing/discussion is in order. Thus, we have created the all-powerful Google Doc of book selections and hosting, and are ready set out on a summer book club adventure. We will be reading two books, every other week (approximately) . . . and our first book pair will be this year’s Newbery Medal winner – Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Kate DiCamillo) and Printz Award winner – Midwinterblood (Marcus Sedgwick). Posts delineating all of the feels will be added as I read the selections. Stay tuned!
I love poetry, and as such, was looking forward to reading the poetry selections for class. Of the four books/collections, I was most pleasantly surprised by Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War, by Helen Frost. I sometimes struggle to embrace novels written in free verse, as I think it is a fine line between writing a story and formatting it like a poem, and delving into writing a story with the intention of structuring it in poetry format(s). In the case of Salt, I thought the formatting choices Frost made were both adept and engaging, making me want to move from page to page in a rhythm. However, while reading, I considered if the story needed to be written in free verse and formatted distinctly to make it effective. And the answer I came to was no. The story was elegant and engaging, but I think it would have been just as effective if written and presented in prose, with “regular” novel formatting.
That being said, critically, while the story in Salt could stand alone, outside of formatting and verse/prose distinctions, Frost’s choice to create distinct formats for the voices of the two main characters successfully mirrors the loyalties and cultures of those characters in significant ways. The American flag imagery for James’ perspective and the Miami ribbon work imagery for Anikwa’s help the reader maintain each narrative flow, even when the boys are not sharing a scene together. Even the changing of sides, (sometimes James’ narrative is on the left and Anikwa’s on the right, sometimes it is the reverse) encourages the reader to consider what is the metaphorical “right side.” Who within the story is in the right? Who is in the wrong/left? The only major detractor I found in Frost’s book was the inclusion of the salt poems. While they do break up the general narrative, they feel forced and out of sync with the rest of the story. A better choice could have been to simply place a “time passed” notation on the pages between major plot events.
Overall, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War, by Helen Frost, engages readers in the events of the War of 1812 through strong storytelling and unique formatting. This book would be a solid addition to any library’s poetry or historical fiction collection.
March: Book One (2013), by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, is the first installment of a graphic novel trilogy about John Lewis’ involvement in the civil rights movement. Personally, I do not have a strong affiliation with graphic novels, nor do I seek them out as selections for my sparse amount of leisure reading time. That being said, I have done extensive research regarding the civil rights movement, and was thrilled to see this snap-shot of its history on our required reading list. As for the book itself, I love the cover, with its muted 60s palette, and wish the color would have continued onto the pages of the story. I also had some small issues regarding the presentation of women’s roles in the movement; the novel glided over some fairly significant female-led moments, such as the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As a history student, the blatant (and seemingly unnecessary) inclusion of Rosa Parks during the “present day” storyline touched on a nerve. For those not in the know, a young 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to move from her seat on the bus, a full 9 months before Rosa Parks did the same thing. Personally, these little details annoyed my historically accurate side, but generally failed to put me off of enjoying the novel as a whole.
Critically, March: Book One successfully transforms the usual civil rights movement narrative into a vivid and striking visual story. The choice to tell John Lewis’ story via graphic novel was excellent. The formatting draws different readers to the story, while sustaining quality substance and content. While at first less engaging than full-color images, the black-and-white drawings reinforce the segregation of blacks and whites in both subtle and understandable ways. Even young readers can pick up this book and sense the pulse and feel of the civil rights movement. The drawings successfully illicit strong reader emotions; from injustice, to anger, to triumph, but they also may deter some readers, who are used to the traditional novel format. This novel has set the bar quite high for the upcoming installments, and I do hope that the second or third book may include some color panels within the story.
March: Book One offers an excellent alternative story format and would function well to encourage reluctant readers to delve into the rich history of John Lewis and the civil rights movement.