The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory
Laurie Halse Anderson
Viking Juvenile
January 2014

Hayley Kincain is having a hard time adjusting to her new school, which isn’t hard to understand since her and her dad, Andy, have spent the last 5 years in her father’s big rig, never settling in one place for too long. Eventually they settle down in Andy’s hometown of Belmont so Hayley can go to a normal high school and maybe even get into community college. But getting settled only makes them realize that no amount of attempted normalcy can help them leave their troubled past behind; Andy is suffering from PTSD after serving in Iraq and Hayley has flashes of buried memories she has trouble piecing together. She’s not alone in her troubles though. Her BFF Grace’s family is being torn apart by divorce, her boyfriend’s sister is a drug addict who is tearing his family apart, and to Hayley all the kids at school are “zombies” without individuality and preying off each other’s insecurities. Everything comes to a head with Hayley’s father and his inability to cope with not only his own condition but his relationships and people around him, putting himself and Hayley in danger.

There’s no denying that Laurie Halse Anderson is an excellent writer and generally accepted as reigning queen of the problem novel. However, for me there is a fine line that any author walks in teen problem novels between just enough problems to be interesting and diverse and being bombarded with problems everywhere you turn – drugs, alcohol, suicide, bullying, divorce, cutting, poverty, war. I get it; teens and their parents have problems. I’m not going to assume my own high school experience is representative of the norm because I know it wasn’t typical. I went to an upper-middle-class public school full of Mormons who formed groups like the Virgin Lips Club to help each other resist the temptation to kiss people (I can’t make this stuff up). But when a book has 5 main characters – adults and teens – and all of them have multiple problems of this sort all within the time frame of the book, I can’t help but get pulled out of story to ask myself if this level and sheer variety of messed up is even believable.

I do have to hand it to LHA that she doesn’t make everyone suffer for their shortcomings and she certainly doesn’t preach. Her characters can smoke weed or party in a quarry or pop pills they found in their mother’s medicine cabinet and no one has to die or end up in juvie or drop out of high school. Because sometimes teens do reckless things and a lot of the time it turns out fine. Despite all the many problems flying around in this book, the focus and the consequences of actions remain on Hayley, which is where they belong. I also appreciate that this book addresses the rampant PTSD and other mental health afflictions that affect so many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I’m glad a high profile and capable YA author is choosing to shed a light on this problem.

Last note: Hayley has blue hair in this book, which is awesome, and her boyfriend, Finn, calls her Miss Blue, which is adorable.

TL;DR – These teens have problems, like, a LOT of problems. LHA is a great writer who few too many problems in this one, but I’m glad she is addressing and acknowledging veteran PTSD.

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Ashes: A non-zombie zombie novel

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Ashes
by Ilsa J. Bick
Egmont USA, 2011

Confession: I’m not really into zombie books. I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or World War Z, nor have I had the urge to. That is about to change. ..

Chicagoan and suicidal cancer patient Alex goes camping alone in Michigan to deal with some personal issues and the death of her parents. When an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) rips through the area and beyond, killing the middle aged, sparing the elderly, and changing most children and teens into flesh-eating zombies, Alex, along with former soldier Tom and 8-year-old orphaned camper Ellie, runs for her life, trying to reach civilization while avoiding the “changed.” Despite losing almost everything she has, Alex reaches the aptly named town of Rule, an ultra-religious town/“cult” controlled by a quorum of old men and their families. Alex finds safety, love and even a job in Rule, but she feels trapped, waiting to be offered up as a wife and baby-making machine to dark and moody Chris while Tom and Ellie are out in the world somewhere. When she finds out Rule’s horrific secret, she realizes arranged marriage is the least of her problems. Alex’s journey includes a few fitfully gory scenes, suspenseful brushes with death and, of course, a love triangle. The writing is well paced, and while the book is split into formal parts, the narrative naturally breaks into two pieces: life in the wilderness and life in the town. Lots of ethical questions are raised throughout to keep you asking what you would do in Alex’s situation. Teens and adults alike are bound to get hooked on this first book in a planned trilogy.

I describe Ashes as a zombie book, but it is not really as simple as that. The great thing about Ilsa Bick’s zombies, which they are never actually called in the book, is that they aren’t the undead; they’ve just been “zapped” and their erratic behavior and taste for human and animal flesh are a side effect of the EMP. It begs the question: can these zombie-esque kids be saved? I was always under the impression that one the zombie apocalypse happens, we’re all just going to have to buckle down and figure out how to deal with the hoards, either by killing them or containing them. The undead are still pretty much dead. This book offers a hope that there is a chance things can go somewhat back to normal.

In case the changed don’t change back, Alex is one bad ass daughter a doctor and a cop who both happened to teach her the handiest aspects of their jobs in the event of a zombie invasion. She always seems to have some other skill up her sleeve, whether it is loading and shooting guns, stitching up gaping wounds, surviving in the woods with hardly any supplies, or riding horses. Luckily in the book her talents come across as being more awesome than convenient.

A real problem I had with this book was the sheer number of unanswered questions at the end, and it got me thinking. Is there an acceptable threshold for loose threads and dangling plot lines at the ends of a book? Shouldn’t the author have to answer at least a couple questions by the end? Throw us a bone here! However, I already have the sequel Shadows on hold at the library, so I guess Bick’s sadistic lack of answers worked in the end. It comes out on September 25, but at the rate we get books at the library, I should have it by November.

This old house: a review of House Held Up By Trees

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House Held Up By Trees
by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Candlewick, 2012

In Ted Kooser’s House Held Up By Trees, a man fights against nature to keep his perfectly manicured lawn, armed only with a push mower and some diligent plucking to keep the surrounding trees from creeping in.  Nature, as it has a tendency to do, outlasts the man who grows older, along with his children, and eventually abandons the house and lawn, allowing the trees to grow, elevate and protect the house in their branches.

Jon Klassen’s illustrations in muted browns, greens, yellows, and reds convey the stark contrast between the natural wild tangle of the woods and the orderly expanse of the artificially bare yard.  Working with Ted Kooser’s beautiful text – full of repetition and rhythm – the illustrations also draw a similar line between childhood and adulthood; the two children are fully depicted and always near the forest, while the father and the children as adults are often headless, torso-less, or facing away into the flat horizon rather than toward the woods.

I found myself surprised by how much I felt for the house in this book and was satisfied with its rise to glory in the end.  It went from perfectly kept and protected from nature to abandoned, dilapidated and vandalized to finally ascending on the shoulders of the very thing the owner tried to protect it from in the first place.  While initially the old man seems to be the protagonist, as the narrative goes on, the house takes on the roll of the main character and I would argue even the woods is a main character of sorts.  The two rise above adversity, quite literally, in the end.

One Crazy Good Book

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia (New York: Amistad, 2010)

When sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern travel from New York City to Oakland to visit Cecile, their estranged mother, they are not sure what to expect. They certainly don’t expect to find a reclusive poet and artist who dismisses the girls daily to attend a summer camp run by the Black Panthers and walk the streets of Oakland unsupervised. Delphine, the oldest and the narrator, spends the novel assuring the girls’ safe return to New York while keeping Vonetta and Fern entertained and well fed. She also longs to know why their mother abandoned them in the first place. The greatest strength of the narrative lies in the sisters, their interaction with each other, their individual personalities, and how they each change over the course of the summer. A surprisingly light exploration of race, culture, and family relations in late 1960s San Francisco Bay Area, One Crazy Summer is a novel that is full of heart and in which Williams-Garcia gracefully toes the line between a happy and a realistic ending.

One Crazy Summer has been receiving a lot of Newbery buzz, which is one of the reasons I chose to read it in the first place. I’m not about to have a replay of last year when When You Reach Me won and I hadn’t even read the thing. Always good to cover your bases. What I enjoyed most was the relationship between the three sisters. Being from a family of all girls myself (there are 5 of us!), I saw in Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern the same dynamics I had with my sisters. They also seemed to follow the family-order stereotypes: Delphine, the oldest, is responsible, protective of her younger sisters, and at risk of growing up before her time; Vonetta is the typical middle child, starving for attention and creating drama to have people look at her; and Fern, the baby, is more carefree, sassy, and not afraid to stick up for herself. Granted the characters are, thankfully, more complex than these trite descriptions, but I am undecided how I feel about the girls fitting into the psychological family-order catagories so neatly. Does this lend a sense of realism? Obviously I saw my family in their interactions and personalities. But I also think an author may fall into the trap of making characters too stereotypical. I could somewhat predict that Delphine would at some point get the “don’t grow up too fast” talk from her mother and that Fern would have to let go of some of her childish tendencies (like losing her doll and getting over it).

Speaking of Fern’s doll, Miss Patty Cake, did anyone else catch the reference to The Bluest Eye? Miss Patty Cake is white and Crazy Kelvin points out to her that her doll does not look like her: “Are your eyes blue like hers? Is your hair blond like hers? Is your skin white like hers?” (66). Luckily Fern is not as consumed as Pecola Breedlove with her doll’s appearance and does not base her own self-worth on how her doll looks. However, I thought it was a nice connection and apt for the themes of the book.

Sucking away my reading time

Fat Vampire, by Adam Rex (New York: Balzer + Bray, 2010)

Doug Lee is a 15-year-old boy dealing with 15-year-old boy problems: fitting in at school, surviving crushes on girls, fighting with his friends. As if being a 15-year-old boy wasn’t hard enough, Doug is also a vampire which comes with its own set of challenges: living forever as a chubby and awkward teenager, figuring out where to get blood without hurting anyone, wooing the Indian exchange student who might be on to his secret, and avoiding a reality TV vampire hunter whose ratings depend on catching Doug. This is not your Twilight vampire story.

What a great premise! Unfortunately, the b00k was downhill from there with confusing plot details, cliched characters, forced humor, and an ambiguous, unrewarding ending (and beginning, come to think of it). While I could appreciate Rex’s efforts to subvert the vampire genre and some successful moments of goofiness characteristic of Rex’s work, this book took me far too long to read because it was ultimately not that enjoyable.

I was such a fan of Rex’s after The True Meaning of Smekday (one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and sci-fi to boot!) that I feel doubly disappointed that I didn’t like Fat Vampire more. I had been looking forward to reading this book since I heard about it at the  ALA Midwinter meeting in January when the publisher ran out of galleys. Perhaps the anticipation was just too much? I also think a big part of Rex’s appeal in his other work comes from his incorporating illustrations to compliment the text, something conspicuously absent from Fat Vampire. The cover art does rock, however.

As a non-“Twihard”, I wanted a vampire book that makes fun of vampire books, but Rex’s offering ended up being less of a parody than I had hoped. So now I am hitching my vampire-mocking wagon on another book I saw on Readergirlz, Bloodthirsty by Flynn Meaney (New York: Little Brown Books for Young Readers/Poppy, 2010), a book about a boy who pretends to be a vampire to get girls. Here’s hoping it goes over better than Fat Vampire.