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

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

minnowbly

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
Stephanie Oakes
Dial Books
June 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
William C. Morris Honor

Seventeen-year-old Minnow Bly is about as much an outsider as a teenage girl can be. A former member of a cult that lived isolated in the woods for more than a decade, she has no hands (they were cut off at the wrist while in the cult), no education, and is now in a juvenile detention center awaiting parole. What happened to this girl to land her in prison with no hands and great uncertainty about her future? In chapters that alternate between her present in the detention center and her past in the cult’s homestead, Minnow tells her story to Dr. Wilson, a counselor and government investigator who is trying to solve the mystery of the demise of the Kevinian cult and the death of its leader and self-proclaimed Prophet – you guessed it – Kevin. In exchange for information, Dr. Wilson offers to vouch for her at the parole hearing that could either free her or land her in adult prison for a long time. Questions about Minnow abound – what did she do to end up in detention? How did she escape the cult? What happened to her hands? How can she even function in the world when she hasn’t been a part of society since she was five years old? The answers come slowly and mount in suspense until the climactic, violent end of the past that led to her present situation. Minnow is introspective and comes across a little too mature considering she’s been living off the grid with a bunch of religious zealots for most of her life. Ironically she has opportunities and experiences in juvenile detention that she never had before – everything from making a best girlfriend to learning to read – prompting Minnow and the reader to think about the meaning of freedom and whether imprisonment is only about your physical surroundings. The ending is wide, WIDE open, so if you like your endings wrapped up tight, you might find the ending unsatisfying or infuriating.

I really enjoyed this book. I was addicted from the start. I’m fascinated and horrified, as I think a lot of people are, by cults, and Stephanie Oakes builds some mythology around the Kevinians that really makes them come alive. The book is set in Montana and captures the sort of folksy religiosity of the American West (people in their scripture have names like Chad, for example). I also saw some parallels with the Fundamental Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an unofficial and broadly condemned relative of the Mormon/LDS church – polygamy, child brides, old-fashioned dress, isolation, a Prophet who doesn’t practice what he preaches. To learn more and probably head down an Internet wormhole, google Warren Jeffs; Colorado City, Arizona; or FLDS.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly received a William C. Morris Honor for a book of distinction written by a first-time published author. As I read, I had to ask myself why it didn’t win the award, which went to Simon vs the Homosapiens Agenda. I came up with a few reasons. First, there were a few times I really had to suspend belief in order to keep on reading, especially in the detention center. As part of my library outreach job, I go to juvenile detention centers once a month and some of the stuff in this book would never happen there. Ever. Maybe things are different in Montana? I don’t know, but the book lost some credibility there for me. Second, Oakes brought up some big issues, mostly in the detention center, that either didn’t get fully fleshed out or were solved way too easily – things like prison rape and intimidation, solitary confinement (which Obama recently outlawed for juveniles in federal prison), and being manipulated by other inmates, particularly in Minnow’s case. And third, again, Minnow just reads as way too savvy for a person who has been isolated and fed lies for most of her life. I don’t care how rebellious she was in the cult; it doesn’t convince me that she can handle herself that well in juvenile detention.

Read alikes

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
The Walls Around Us
 by Nova Ren Suma

Shadowshaper

shadowshaper

Shadowshaper
Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books
June 2015

In the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, Sierra Santiago passes the time painting murals, hanging out with her tight-knit Puerto Rican family, and partying with her friends. One day her mural starts to shed tears and her abuelo, a recently bed-ridden stroke victim, comes out of his half coma and starts mumbling “lo ciento” – “I’m sorry.” Soon after, Sierra finds herself the target of attacks by some zombie-like creatures. An enchanted photograph, some research, and a couple of dates with sexy loner and artist Robbie lead her to the conclusion that she and many of her family members are shadowshapers, people who are able to control spirits by giving them form through art, basically causing their art to literally come alive. Robbie, also a shadowshaper, shows her how to use her power and it soon becomes clear that she has a natural talent for shaping. However, Dr. Wick, an academic who studies the supernatural, including shadowshaping, seeks to destroy the shadowshapers and take all their power for himself. Sierra must find a way to stop Wick and save her powers, her friends and family, and herself in order to take her destined place among the shadowshapers.

Shadowshaper is the urban fantasy I didn’t know I wanted until I read it. Beyond the story, which is fresh and suspenseful, this book has some serious meat on its bones. Themes covered include art as power, gentrification, gender equality, body image, cultural diversity, colonialism, and on and on. Sierra, the narrator, is strong yet insecure, street smart but not jaded, artistic and modern and impeccably written. I had to remind myself that a man was writing this character! I think he was a teenage girl in a past life. Read chapter 12 and you’ll know what I mean.

Daniel Jose Older has set the bar for contemporary urban fiction. I’ll be book talking the shit out of this book at my juvenile detention visits from now on.

Read alikes

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

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!

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: 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