NaNoReadMo Round-up

readallthebooks

Inspired by the insanity that is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, I set a goal to recommend or review a book every day of November. As I do so often when I get excited about something, I totally overcommitted. The first rule of goal setting is to set a realistic, if challenging, goal. Turns out reviewing every day was just not realistic for me. I never expected myself to read and recommend a book a day, but I saw this as a chance to work through the backlog of books that I hadn’t gotten around to reviewing yet. However there were not enough books to sustain me through November, even with the handful of books I read throughout the month. So I fell short of my goal by kind of a lot.

But! But! I did turn out 11 reviews and 1 story in addition to a couple of random posts, which averaged out to about one post every other day. That is WAY more than I’ve blogged ever in one month and I really felt like I was starting to get into a good habit. While I didn’t meet my exact goal, I feel pretty good about what I accomplished. Maybe the lesson here is to lot let my reading backlog get so backed up in the first place, spread those reviews throughout the year a little better.

Here’s a round-up of all the reviews from this month:

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers
The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire LeGrand
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Punkzilla by Adam Rapp
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Winger by Andrew Smith
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

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NaNoReadMo: Winger

winger

Winger
Andrew Smith
Simon & Schuster
May 2013

At Pine Mountain boarding school in Oregon, all the trouble teens – pretty much exclusively ready-for-a-fight boys on the rugby and football teams – live in Opportunity Hall, including 14-year-old junior Ryan Dean West, also known as Winger for his position on the rugby team. Winger deals with pretty typical teenage boy stuff – peer pressure, to which he always gives in; ladies and the horndog thoughts they evoke for him; getting friend-zoned by his BFF Annie; and fighting with his friends and teammates. When he alienates his two best friends, his new best friend is Joey, a gay senior and captain of the rugby team. Winger questions the way people treat Joey because he is gay. He even has some thoughts that he realizes border on homophobic and he quickly corrects his “messed up” way of thinking. The school year goes along with Winger experiencing romance, misadventures, the occasional hangover, and sometimes even school work. Everything for him comes to a screeching halt after the Halloween dance when life and its inevitable tragedies brings Winger’s antics to a pause. Winger likes to draw so the book is sprinkled through with his comics, most of them quite funny. He also has the habit of rating women’s attractiveness on these ridiculous made-up scales, like “five out of five steaming bowls of chowder on the Ryan Dean West In-Flight-Entertainment-Things-You-Don’t-Mind-Burning-Your-Tongue-On Heat Index” (pg 124 in the Kindle version). This may come across as misogynistic, but it is fitting with Winger’s teenage preoccupation with sex.

Warning: this book has almost no plot. There are several storylines goes on – will Winger get the girl(s)? Will he get out of O Hall? Can he repair his relationship with his friends? – but no real overarching problem or conflict that binds it all together. What saved me from writing this book off as a slice-of-life boarding school story was the ending, which got very serious very quickly. Winger, who narrates in the first person, alludes to something bad happening later on in the year, but the light tone of the entire book up until the last couple chapters makes the tragedy that much more of a surprise. But that’s how life is, right? We rarely see tragedy coming. I really felt like this book conveyed that sudden shock when terrible things happen, the feeling that you’ve been blindsided.

Andrew Smith was caught in a social media dust up last spring, criticizing his writing (or not) about female characters based on an interview with Vice. After reading Winger, the only Andrew Smith book I’ve read, I can see how people would take issue with the female characters and Winger’s thoughts about them. However, I found it fit with the character in this case and I never think that an author’s characters speak for the author’s personal beliefs or feelings. If you want to read about the controversy, read this article on Vice.

Winger has a sequel for Ryan Dean’s senior year called Stand Off.

Read alikes about boarding school

Bloomability by Sharon Creech
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

NaNoReadMo: Punkzilla

punkzilla

Punkzilla
Adam Rapp
Candlewick
May 2009

Jaime, aka Punkzilla, is a 14-year-old runaway on a road trip from Portland, Oregon, to Memphis, racing against time to see his older brother Peter, aka P, who is dying from cancer. Told in a series of letters addressed to P but kept, most likely permanently, in his notebook, Jaime rehashes the last few months of his life – escaping the military academy his parents sent him to, living as a homeless teen, doing meth and other drugs, stealing electronics and committing other petty crimes to survive – and his current road trip across the country. On his way he meets all manner of people in encounters that range from scary – getting mugged in a men’s restroom and later preyed upon by an adult sexual predator – to formative – falling in love and losing his virginity to a girl with Lupus and striking up a friendship with a transgendered man named Lewis. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is full of run-on sentences, swearing, anecdotes, soul searching, and identity questioning, Punkzilla presents in a raw and unflinching way the kind of teen that society pushes to the margins and largely pretends doesn’t exist, and it will have you rooting for him to make it to his brother and through life all the way.

As someone who grew up relatively sheltered and privileged, Punkzilla had passages that I found hard to read and others that made me plush but in a way that makes you feel more alive when you come out at the other end of it. Since I first read this book, I have come to work with teens who have similar issues to Jamie – homelessness, criminal history, abuse, and drug addiction, among other things. I so appreciate books like Punkzilla both for providing me a small window into harsh realities and for giving me something that I can hand these kids that’s not another sugarcoated teen problem novel full of “first-world problems.” They may not be the most uplifting or best selling (through Punkzilla did get a Printz honor), but books like this are so important when we talk about teens seeing themselves in the books they read and feeling that their stories are represented.

Read alikes:

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Keesha’s House by Helen Frost
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
 by Hunter S. Thompson

NaNoReadMo: All the Light We Cannot See

all the light

All The Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Scribner
May 2014

The coastal city of Saint-Malo, France, is a stronghold of the Germans in the early 1940s. The book begins with the Americans dropping flyers and then bombing the city where blind teen Marie-Laure hides in her great uncle’s house. She possesses a priceless, possibly cursed gem that that the Nazis, one Nazi operative in particular, would kill to get their hands on. In another part of the city, Werner Pfennig, a orphaned teenage engineering prodigy in the Nazi army, is trapped in the basement of a hotel the Germans were using as a base. Their stories, which the reader gets in chapters alternating between their earlier lives as World War II ramps up and the 1944 bombings of Saint-Malo, couldn’t be more different but both have led them to Saint-Malo where they make choices based on years of loss, forced resiliency, unanswered questions, and questionable decisions but also hope and the possibility of setting things right.

The young characters’ nearly manic obsession with things was something that really stood out for me in this book. Marie-Laure learns about mollusks from her father’s colleague at the National Museum of Natural History, a subject that turns into an emotional and physical refuge when she and her father move to Saint-Malo and a grotto full of sea snails is the only place she can escape the fear that rules the city. Werner and his sister Jutta are captivated by radios – Jutta for their ability to let her hear news and broadcasts from around Europe, sometimes illegally, and Werner for the way they work, the engineering and physics that make radios possible. Werner has a charming but often bullied best friend, Frederick, who has extensive knowledge of and a relentless fascination with birds. It is incredible the amount of depth such singular passions bring to the characters. It also is a testament to the characters’ youth, the compulsion to collect and discover and tinker that many adults don’t allow themselves to give into, especially with war looming among the other pressures of adult life.

While the book was narrated in the omniscient third person, much of the book was focalized through Werner and Marie-Laure, and I just loved to read Marie-Laure’s experience with blindness. It was such an unusual, all-encompassing character trait. Calling it a “character trait” seems trite but I wouldn’t even call it a disability based on the book because it was rarely presented as a disability. With some help from her father, Marie-Laure was an incredibly capable young woman who had nary a shred of self pity about her loss of eyesight at an age when she was old enough to appreciate having been able to see. There were a couple of descriptive passages that were told through Marie-Laure’s experience but that read every so briefly as though certain objects were being seen. Otherwise I was very impressed by Doerr’s writing of a blind teenage girl and constantly reminded of the things I take for granted as a fully sighted person.

As you can tell from my book reviews, I rarely read adult books and even more rarely take the time to review them on this blog. All the Light They Cannot See may be written and published for adults, but I think there is a lot here that teen readers and readers of teen books can enjoy. It was also surprisingly “clean” for an adult book – limited swearing, almost no sex, and isolated instances of graphic violence, which is totally appropriate considering the time period. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ends up in high school curricula or at least on summer reading lists.

Read alikes:

Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers
Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak

NaNoReadMo: When I Was the Greatest

when I was the greatest

When I Was the Greatest
Jason Reynolds
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
January 2014

Ali, who lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with his mother, Doris, and sister, Jazz, is an amateur boxer and pretty good kid considering his circumstances. He often takes care of Jazz while his mother is at work, and he befriends the brothers next door, Needles and Noodles. Noodles always seems to be looking for trouble – stealing, fighting, skipping school – but Noodles, who has Tourettes Syndrome, just wants to knit with the needles that Doris gave to him to help him focus and control his symptoms. Ali struggles with doubts about his boxing abilities, and Noodles and Needles deal with absent parents and where their next meal will come from, but otherwise they run wild in their neighborhood, causing pretty low-stakes trouble. That is until their friend Tasha invites the boys to an adult party, with alcohol and everything, and even Noodles couldn’t have expected the trouble they get into.

Urban fiction is a genre that I don’t think gets nearly enough love. In my work as an outreach librarian in Boston, I work with a lot of Black and Hispanic teens, particularly in Boston’s juvenile detention centers, who want to see themselves, their neighborhoods (or one similar to them), and their problems reflected in the books they read. Critical acclaim and writing comes secondary to the story, the setting, and their ability to relate to the characters. When I Was the Greatest, with its strong first-person narrative, realistic setting complete with tenement apartments, absentee parents, bodegas, and gangs, provides the best of both worlds. Also, Noodles, Needles and Ali get into trouble but not that much trouble, making this a great introduction to urban fiction for younger YA readers and uninitiated adults alike.

Read alikes and other good urban fiction for teens:

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
The Contender by Robert Lipsyte
Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older (urban fantasy!!!)
The Bluford High series by various authors

NaNoReadMo: We Were Liars

liars

We Were Liars
E. Lockhart
Delacourte Press
May 2014

Growing up, Cadence Sinclair Easton spent summers on her grandfather’s private island in Cape Cod where each person in the Sinclair family – the grandfather and his three daughters – has his or her own home. Cady roamed the island with her two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and friends and eventual love interest, Gat – a crew known as “The Liars” – visiting the houses, hanging out at the beach, and watching her mother, aunts, and grandfather get drunk and bicker about money, real estate, inheritance, and broken marriages. For two years following her 15th summer, she has not been allowed to go back and is suffering from debilitating migraines and amnesia. She knows something happened that last summer on the island but the combination of memory loss and painkillers for her migraines leaves her unable to piece together what happened. When she returns to the island to rejoin The Liars, things seem like they might go back to normal, but as Cady starts to remember what happened in that 15th summer, she knows nothing can be the same again. Because of the first-person narration by Cadence, the reader comes to the realization along with her, an ending that will make you question everything you just read and compel you to turn around and reread We Were Liars, looking for hints.

I read this book after being a big fan of E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, but other than being about rich New Englanders (which, as a Bostonian, I feel I can especially appreciate), the books have very little in common. We Were Liars feels so dark right from the beginning, and while you can’t put your finger on it, something always feels a little off. It makes sense since we are getting the story from the point of view of an obviously ill, overprotected, and wholly unreliable narrator. Seriously, Cady might be the most questionable narrator I’ve ever read.

Cady’s family is not the kind of endearingly quirky rich people that Frankie’s family is; the members of the Sinclair family are pretty awful people actually, from the racist grandfather all the way down to the bratty kids so protected by money that they can’t even contemplate the consequences of their actions. They remind me of this quote about the Buchanans in The Great Gatsby – “They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they made” (chapter 9 of The Great Gatsby).

We Were Liars has been optioned for a movie. They have only just recently announced who would be adapting the movie script that E. Lockhart wrote based on the book, so there is no telling how long it will take to come to the screen. I can’t wait to see the sets – the island, the houses, the Cape!

Read alikes:

Placebo Junkies by J.C. Carleson
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

NaNoReadMo: The Thief

thethief

The Thief
Megan Whalen Turner
HarperCollins
December 2005 edition (originally published in 1996)

The king of Sounis’s magus – his closest advisor – believes he knows the location of a mythical stone, Hamaithes’s Gift, that will grant its owner sovereignty over the neighboring kingdom of Eddis. Lacking the skills it will take to retrieve the stone, the magus chooses Gen, a known thief who is in the Sounis dungeons for stealing the king’s signet ring. Gen can earn his freedom back if he is successful in getting the stone; if he doesn’t, it is back to the dungeon. Gen, the magus, and a few companions set off, crossing treacherous terrain and pretty much bugging the crap out of each other. They reach the location where the stone is rumored to be – a temple to the Greek-esque pantheon of gods in this world that is hidden by a river and very rarely accessible. Gen only gets a handful of tries at a couple hours each in terrible conditions. The scenes in the temple are pretty suspenseful, so you’ll have to read it yourself to find out if he is successful. Either way, in the end it turns out the only thing more mysterious than the stone is Gen himself.

For better or worse, The Thief has several hallmarks of classic high fantasy – an epic journey by an unlikely band of companions, indulgent setting descriptions of dramatic landscapes, vaguely medieval kingdoms, mystical polytheistic religion, and the possibility of magic or, at the very least, divine intervention. While I like this style of fantasy to a point, but it also has its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to kids. It takes a long time to get to relatively brief bursts of action, which are broken up by a lot of word building and description. The Thief also has the Tolkein-like feature of keeping the story going long after you think the main plot has ended. It pays off in the end but can make the book feel like a drag in the final 50 pages or so. Fast-moving, plot-driven fantasy like the Percy Jackson books and even the super deep world of Harry Potter have mostly put high fantasy for children out of vogue with young readers unless they are very advanced or very patient readers. But if high fantasy is your jam, The Thief is the real deal and there are three more books in the series.

Read alikes:

Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander
The Dark is Rising 
by Susan Cooper
The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King