The Weight of Feathers

weight of feathers

The Weight of Feathers
Anna-Marie McLemore
St. Martin’s Griffin
September 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
William C. Morris Honor

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Almendro where we lay our scene…

Like the Montagues and Capulets or the Hadfields and McCoys, the Corbeaus and the Palomas are two feuding families in very close proximity, jockeying for turf and fighting with each other over tragedies that happened before some of them were even born. Every summer the Corbeaus and the Palomas, both nomadic families of performers, cross paths in Almendro and old grudges flair. The Palomas cost the Corbeau’s grandfather his steady job (the only one in the family) at the nearby chemical plant; the Corbeaus killed a Paloma uncle; the Palomas ruined the forest where the Corbeaus perform; a Corbeau raped a Paloma, etc., etc. The children of these families have been raised to hate each other through these stories and through family lore about black magic. One summer when a disaster strikes Almendro, two of the children – Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau – are unexpectedly thrown together, not realizing who the other is. Lace is kicked out of her family for fraternizing with a Corbeau, and in an effort to reverse some perceived black magic while also keeping her identity secret, Lace ends up working for the Corbeaus and, of course, falling in love with Cluck who is also an outcast in his own family. Everyone in this book has a secret and they surface one by one as Cluck and Lace navigate their own romance under the shadow of their families’ history.

While the comparison to Romeo and Juliet is an obvious one, it turns out the feuding families and star-crossed lovers are the end of that comparison. The Weight of Feathers is neither as tragic nor as straight-forward as Romeo and Juliet. The families’ performances – the Corbeaus do a kind of tight-rope walking act in trees while wearing wings and posing as fairies and the Palomas’s show is their daughters pretending to be mermaids in the lake – the belief in black magic and the supernatural, and the unusual birthmarks that run in both families give the story a dark, whimsical quality. The writing is a little melodramatic for my taste, particularly the passages that build up Lace and Cluck’s relationship. And those names. I didn’t think this was possible, but I also felt like the writing was overly sensory. Everyone and everything smells or tastes or feels like something – sometimes like multiple things – all the time. It started to feel like there was never an interaction where people simply see and hear each other and then move on. Sensory descriptions are necessary in creative writing but in this case it was so over the top to the point of being distracting.

I’m begging you to read this book as an e-book with translation available. There are French and Spanish phrases throughout and very few of them are translated in the text. If I had not been reading in the Kindle app, it would have driven me crazy! That being said, I enjoyed testing out my high school Spanish and French and seeing how much I could remember on my own.

Read Alikes

The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern
Swamplandia by Karen Russell

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Bone Gap

bonegap

Bone Gap
Laura Ruby
Balzer + Bray
March 2015

In the small, cornfield-surrounded town of Bone Gap, Illinois, beautiful and foreign Roza mysteriously appears in the farmhouse of Finn and Sean O’Sullivan and after a few months disappears again under mysterious circumstances. Finn, known as Moonface and Sidetrack by the townspeople for his strange demeanor, was the only person to witness her kidnapping but cannot seem to recall enough of the incident to provide a good description of the kidnapper. Sean, like half the town, was in love with Roza and is finding it hard to forgive his younger brother for his lack of helpfulness in the investigation. Meanwhile Finn falls in love with fellow strange teen Petey, the daughter of the local beekeeper, who discovers the reason for Finn’s spaciness. Strange occurrences abound – Finn finds a beautiful horse in his barn which he takes for midnight rides with Petey to what seems like the other side of the proverbial veil. Roza, who narrates many of the chapters from her captivity, is moved from a house to a castle to a beautiful garden that are all able to magically transform. Can these fantastical, enigmatic happenings help Finn find Roza and repair his relationship with his brother, Petey, and the town? Or will he forever be the moonfaced kid with the missing link to an unsolved mystery hidden somewhere in his memory?

This book is so hard to pin down, especially while you are reading it. Looking back after finishing the whole thing, it fits into the coming-of-age, mystery, romance, myth/fantasy/horror genre – which is to say that it pretty much defies genre. Basically it is everything I hoped Swamplandia! would be when I impressed my YA expectations on that adult novel (HUGE mistake, by the way). The writing is beautiful and strange and sometimes that is the only thing you have to hold onto as you think to yourself “what is even going on right now?! No, actually, I don’t care. I’m just going to keep reading these beautiful words.”

{slight spoiler alert ahead!!!}
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This book was a finalist for a National Book Award, I imagine both for the writing and for the topical young-woman-gets-kidnapped, boy with disability saves the day. There’s an illuminating and awesomely crit-lit-esque interview with Laura Ruby on the National Book Awards site.

Read alikes

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

NOT Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (not that you shouldn’t read it. You should. Just prepare to be traumatized and schooled on how adult literature differs from YA.)

Update: Bone Gap won the 2016 Printz Award for most distinguished book for Young Adult published in 2015. Well deserved!

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

Ava Lavender

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Leslye Walton
Candlewick
March 2014

When Ava Lavender is born, crowds gathered both to pray and to witness such a strange occurrence, a baby born with wings. With Ava’s birth, Leslye Walton plops readers into the center of a story that starts with Ava’s family’s whimsical and tragic past and stretches all the way into Ava’s childhood and teen years. It starts with her great grandparents immigrating from France with their three children to face many romanticized hardships in “Manhatine.” Ava’s grandmother enters a loveless marriage that at least allows her to leave New York and lands her in a small neighborhood in Seattle with a strange past of its own. The real story, which I will admit takes quite a tad to long to get to, belongs to Ava who has been narrating this history of her family, and her part of the story no less romantic or ultimately tragic than that of her ancestors. As a child in the 1950s, she and her twin brother, who seems to have some kind of developmental delay though it’s never quite cleared up, are sheltered by her mother, not allowed to venture out beyond their yard for fear of how the other people in the neighborhood will treat them. When Ava starts to flirt with the religious zealot boy next door, she gains the confidence to sneak out with her best friend Cardigan to hang out with other teens. Things go well at first – Ava even starts to fall in love – but an obsession with her wings and the possibility of having his own real live angel has her neighbor wanting Ava all to himself.

I just cannot get over the strength of the writing and whimsical imagery that makes this book a wonderful example of magical realism. Characters can smell emotions, turn forever into birds, disappear into thin air, be born with wings (but never learn how to use them), and it’s only ever treated as quirky, or witchcraft at the most. Lines like “They didn’t notice how the clouds gathered and the rain fell in such torrents that the rats of the city flipped the cockroaches onto their backs, stepped aboard, and floated down the streets on tiny arthropod rafts” are tucked away in the folds of the story, like delightful little surprises. At the same time there are parts so heartbreaking that you can’t even save your crying for the end of the book. It’s a really impressive debut novel that Leslye Walton will have a hard time topping. I hope she does all the same.