Saturday, March 30, 2013
The Chocolate War is a classic of YA fiction. It's a classic of realistic fiction and has been cited numerous times by authors today as the book which inspired them to want to write and to write contemporary/realistic fiction that's at times brutal and gritty and at all times, honest.
It's been a few years since I've read it. In fact, it was the class in which I read the book where I met Kim (and we know where that story goes, as it's being written here). I think my reading of it now, many years later, will be way different and I'm eager to have that experience.
After talking with Liz and Leila, we decided we all were ready to give it a reread -- or in Liz's case, a first read. We thought we'd blog a little about it, too, including our first impressions, our reviews of it, and I know all of us have another idea or two up our sleeves, including watching the film and seeing how it does or doesn't do the book justice. I have some ideas in regards to contemporary YA I want to talk about, too, and how Cormier's classic has inspired so many other books.
But more than us reading and blogging about it, we wanted to open this up to anyone interested in joining in a read and blog along to Cormier's book. We're doing it May 12 through 19, and you're welcome to post as much or as little as you'd like to. We will have a kick off post on May 12 where anyone who wants to join in can drop a link to their posts throughout the week, and at the end, we'll highlight some of the posts we read. Yes, you can and should steal my graphic above if you want to join in.
If you are interested in joining but don't want to blog yourself or don't have a blog and would rather write a guest post, I am happy to host any and everything relating to the book or movie. Drop a comment here or email me and I'll set things up. We want this to be fun, so offer up anything you want to. Also note the hash tag for anyone playing along via Twitter.
We will, of course, post a reminder closer to the start date, but we're so excited about this, we wanted to get the word out early. And, bonus, you know you can now get the book as an ebook if you want to, right?
Let us know if you're going to join in!
Friday, March 29, 2013
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
It will be anything but easy.
A word of warning from here on out: this review is spoiler heavy. I can't review Liz Coley's Pretty Girl-13 without giving away what does and doesn't work. This is a psychological thriller, so much of the plot depends upon the plot twists and therefore, the spoiler-laden elements.
The book opens with a flashback to Angie, age 13, when she was kidnapped from the woods. It's from the third-person perspective but the way in which it's told, it's clear there is more than one voice telling the story. That's because Angie suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The trauma from her captivity forced her mind to compartmentalize the abuse, meaning that now, three years later, she's unable to piece together a full picture of what happened to her. She can hardly recall what's happening to her in the present because at any given time, one of the identities may be coming through stronger than another.
Angie's taken to therapy immediately and receives the diagnosis. While it terrifies her, she comes to realize that if she can channel the other voices through -- much as they scare her -- she can figure out what happened. There are a number of different voices brought up through Angie's therapy sessions and outside of therapy, including the Slut (she submitted to the captor sexually to keep him happy and quiet), the Girl Scout (she was the one chained to the small room and who would cook and do the captor's work for him outside the bedroom), Angel (the male voice who was full of anger and bitterness for being captured and treated as a prisoner against will), and others. There is one voice that breaks through at the very end of the book, which is that of the baby Angie bore for her captor. The same baby which happens to be the child Angie babysits for now in the real world. The coincidence there is, indeed, ridiculous.
As a reader, I knew what was going on by page three of the story. I think I've talked about how a lot of psychological thrillers are easy for me to guess the driving force behind the story, but this was one of the most obvious examples in a long time. There's more than one voice directing Angie when she's captured. Could it be anything other than compartmentalization? Maybe it's because I'm an adult and have read a ton of books like this or because I've watched so many of these stories play out in the real world. Maybe it's because my background is in psychology with an emphasis in adolescent development. I can spot the disorder quite easily. I could have accepted it, actually, had the story been stronger and more compelling. Unfortunately, in this case, it's not.
Following the diagnosis and therapy sessions (including a very experimental one), Angie is still working through adjusting to normal life again. As such, she has to choose where to go to school. She was supposed to be in 8th grade when she disappeared, and when she came back, she'd be in 11th. But because she doesn't want to reconnect and feel weird around her old friends, she chooses to start in 9th grade. She still connects with her old friends, though, and she learns they're not the same as they used to be. Did you read that? She went back to the same school she was known at for being the girl who went missing, and no one is any wiser! She doesn't change her name or anything. There's a little explanation for why she doesn't go somewhere new (price of a private school is too high and her parents won't be moving) and it's possible to buy into. What is impossible to buy into, though, is how there is absolutely no media attention. No one is trying to sell this story. No one is outing this girl. Why didn't her parents move? There's a small moment when Angie finds a scrapbook with news clippings, but beyond that, there is maybe one phone call for a press interview. When Angie returns, it's absurd to think there's no news crew, no people trying to make a buck, and no interest in telling the gripping story of a girl who went missing and suddenly appeared back.
Then there's a boy. Angie is, of course, falling in love with a boy at school. And it's through him she finds the security and comfort to tell the truth in the last part of the book. This is done through a tremendously underwhelming infodump, wherein we learn that Angie not only suffers from DID, but she also suffers from Stockholm Syndrome. That was the final straw for me as a reader in terms of believability. I hadn't even gotten to the surprise baby plot line. I haven't delved into the fact that Angie's mom is also pregnant, so there's a whole series of issues complicating Angie's return there. I also haven't mentioned the subplot with Angie's uncle -- he'd been making sexual advances on her for years prior to her being captured and taken, and it's when her DID is in deep treatment Angie can finally speak up about it. While there's something to be said about the uncle's role in her initial descent into compartmentalization, it was more of the One Thing Too Many trend that further made the story ridiculous. It's hard to develop a sense of character when they are little more than tools of syndroms and tools of their situations. What Angie experiences is horrific, and yet, as a reader I never once felt that because what was going on ranged from ridiculous to far-too-coincidental.
Pretty Girl-13 doesn't bring anything new to the table. It takes elements of a number of well-written novels on these issues and doesn't marry them successfully. The story of a girl taken and abused by a captor but who eventually makes her way out to tell the story? It was done well in Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl. The issue of DID was done in Brian James's Life is But a Dream to the extent that the main character's mental illness makes the reader question the entire story itself and all she experiences. Stockholm Syndrome is done expertly in Lucy Christopher's Stolen. And Nova Ren Suma manages to tell a tale of mental illness (not DID but a similar illness) in 17 & Gone and even more successfully uses the metaphor of fire to actually enhance the story and character, rather than simply using it as an exit from the story, as Coley does here. As far as familial sexual abuse, there's Mindi Scott's Living Dead Girl. In short: any of these titles tackle the subjects of Pretty Girl-13 in much more depth, honesty, and immediacy than Coley's title does.
One aspect of the book that did work quite well and I applaud Coley for was how Angie ultimately comes to work through her DID and make herself one complete Angie. This means that she accepts being Angie involves being part "slut," being part "girl scout," being part "Angel," and being part mother. She's a female who has the agency to express herself sexually if she wants, and she has the agency to be angry and violent if need be. The therapeutic technique used in the book doesn't require that Angie forget those other voices inside her. Instead, it forces Angie to embrace these voices as part of who she is. They're pieces of a whole. Her wholeness means she is a little bit of all those things.
Will this book find a readership? Absolutely. It's a sexy subject. It's unfortunate that rather than offering readers a full character and a full arc, we're given a list of challenges and info dumps meant to suffice for strong development. This is a debut, and it feels like one because it's sloppy, a little overindulgent, and misses the mark on crucial elements of story development. I felt cheated because I'd figured out the story from the start, but I felt further cheated the more I read. In concept, Pretty Girl-13 sounds appealing. It lacks in execution and for that, it's a disappointing and unsatisfying read.
Pretty Girl-13 is available now from Harper Collins. Review copy received from the publisher.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Trying to keep up with the debut YA novels being published each month? I've been keeping track, starting with January and February, linking reviews written by Kimberly and myself as they've published.
Here are this month's debut novels, followed by the descriptions via WorldCat and relevant reviews, if they've been published already. If I'm missing any titles that were traditionally published, feel free to leave a comment. I take debut to mean it's the author's first book, so if the author has published for a different audience in the past, they aren't counted as debut.
If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch: There are some things you can't leave behind... A broken-down camper hidden deep in a national forest is the only home fifteen year-old Carey can remember. The trees keep guard over her threadbare existence, with the one bright spot being Carey's younger sister, Jenessa, who depends on Carey for her very survival. All they have is each other, as their mentally ill mother comes and goes with greater frequency. Until that one fateful day their mother disappears for good, and two strangers arrive. Suddenly, the girls are taken from the woods and thrust into a bright and perplexing new world of high school, clothes and boys. Now, Carey must face the truth of why her mother abducted her ten years ago, while haunted by a past that won't let her go... a dark past that hides many a secret, including the reason Jenessa hasn't spoken a word in over a year. Carey knows she must keep her sister close, and her secrets even closer, or risk watching her new life come crashing down. Kelly's review.
Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley: Sixteen-year-old Angie finds herself in her neighborhood with no recollection of her abduction or the three years that have passed since, until alternate personalities start telling her their stories through letters and recordings. Kelly's review.
The Murmurmings by Carly Anne West: After her older sister dies from an apparent suicide and her body is found hanging upside down by one toe from a tree, sixteen-year-old Sophie starts to hear the same voices that drove her sister to a psychotic break. Kelly's review.
Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza: Sixteen-year-old Mila discovers she is not who--or what--she thought she was, which causes her to run from both the CIA and a rogue intelligence group.
The Nightmare Affair by Mindee Arnett: Being the only Nightmare at Arkwell Academy, a boarding school for "magickind," sixteen-year-old Destiny Everhart feeds on the dreams of others, working with a handsome human student to find a killer.
The Culling by Steven Dos Santos: In a futuristic world ruled by a totalitarian government called the Establishment, Lucian "Lucky" Spark and four other teenagers are recruited for the Trials. They must compete not only for survival but to save the lives of their Incentives, family members whose lives depend on how well they play the game.
Poison by Bridget Zinn: When sixteen-year-old Kyra, a potions master, tries to save her kingdom by murdering the princess, who is also her best friend, the poisoned dart misses its mark and Kyra becomes a fugitive, pursued by the King's army and her ex-boyfriend Hal.
Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson: After the death of her father in 1855, seventeen-year-old Sophia goes to live with her wealthy and mysterious godfather at his gothic mansion, Wyndriven Abbey, in Mississippi, where many secrets lie hidden.
The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar: When eighteen-year-old Margo learns she lost the lead in her high school musical to a sophomore because of a modern-day genie, she falls in love with Oliver, the genie, while deciding what her own wishes should be and trying to rescue him from an old foe.
Being Henry David by Cal Armistead: Seventeen-year-old 'Hank,' who can't remember his identity, finds himself in Penn Station with a copy of Thoreau's Walden as his only possession and must figure out where he's from and why he ran away
Bruised by Sarah Skilton: When she freezes during a hold-up at the local diner, sixteen-year-old Imogen, a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, has to rebuild her life, including her relationship with her family and with the boy who was with her during the shoot-out.
Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos: A sixteen-year-old boy wrestling with depression and anxiety tries to cope by writing poems, reciting Walt Whitman, hugging trees, and figuring out why his sister has been kicked out of the house.
OCD, The Dude, and Me by Lauren Roedy Vaughn: Danielle Levine stands out even at her alternative high school--in appearance and attitude--but when her scathing and sometimes raunchy English essays land her in a social skills class, she meets Daniel, another social misfit who may break her resolve to keep everyone at arm's length.
Monday, March 25, 2013
This week's post comes from librarian extraordinaire, Sophie Brookover. This lady knows her YA!
Sophie Brookover coordinates continuing education programs and manages social media for LibraryLinkNJ, The New Jersey Library Cooperative (do you have a great idea for a webinar or workshop for library staff? Please: let her know!) Now that she's not working in a library, she's a reader's advisor-at-large, offering a listening ear and quality reading suggestions to anyone who asks. You can find Sophie on Twitter as @sophiebiblio and co-hosting the #readadv chat (8 PM on the 1st & 3rd Thursday of each month) with the lovely Kelly Jensen/@catagator and Liz Burns/@LizB.
Back in ye olden times (aka the halcyon days of the late 1990s & early 2000s), I subscribed to a bunch of music magazines -- SPIN, Rolling Stone, Magnet and the late, lamented CMJ New Music Monthly. CMJ was my favorite for two reasons:
- It always came packaged with a new music sampler and
Saturday, March 23, 2013
It's time for the biweekly roundup of all things great and interesting on the internet! But first, if you missed earlier announcements, it's true that we finally joined the ranks of Facebook -- if you want to, go ahead and like us there. We're going to try to share not only our posts over there but also things we read that we think are interesting and worth sharing (that don't necessarily make it to the roundups here).
Now that that blatant self promotion is done, let's dive in:
- Starting with this piece because this is a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately, if you haven't noticed via previous link roundups: does it matter what books your library has? My short response to this is: yes, this, yes.
- "Browsing is fundamentally an act of independence, of chasing your own idiosyncratic whims rather than clicking on Facebook links or the books recommended by some greedy algorithm." This is The New Yorker on the art of browsing.
- I thought this piece was really interesting -- how many books do you need to sell in order to become an Amazon best seller?
- This is much less in the library and book side of links, but it really struck a chord with me and it's worth sharing. Rookie Magazine has an awesome and empowering piece about dealing with doubt. I especially like the part about how not making a decision is in and of itself a decision.
- A couple of interesting pieces popped up about Twitter and the way that Twitter does or does not promote or sell books. First, there's this perspective. Then there is this one. From a blogger and librarian perspective, when it comes to Twitter I can say that if I'm being told about a book from someone I don't know (especially if it's the author), I ignore it. If it's repeatedly told to me, I actively avoid it. The only thing that really influences my purchasing and my interest in a book via Twitter is if it comes from a reputable source -- and I am okay with authors who promote their own work and who share reviews they've gotten because I choose to follow authors who interest me in ways other than their own books. Because here's the thing: sometimes I don't read the books of the authors I follow, as it either doesn't interest me or simply just...time. But it doesn't mean I don't find what they share about their work -- and other things! -- interesting enough alone.
- While I don't agree with all of the points in this post, there are many I do agree with. It's about performance anxiety as a blogger. Where does it come from? What does it mean? Can you get over it? It's thought-provoking, and I'm sure many others have had these thoughts, too.
- This is one of the best pieces I've read in a while -- it's lengthy but completely fascinating (I love good long form essays and long form journalism more broadly). What's the story behind someone who is a ghost writer? Especially a ghost writer for a series like Sweet Valley High?
- Molly Wetta's post over at YALSA's The Hub blog on what it means to be a strong female character made me cheer. It's not always about the swords and the battles. Sometimes, it's the fight to just BE.
- A couple of older YA novels -- dare I say classics of realistic fiction -- have some news related to them. First, Rob Thomas's Rats Saw God is getting a new look. I feel like this has been discussed quite thoroughly already (I feel like I was talking about this a year ago). The other news is that Robert Cormier's novels, including The Chocolate War, are finally available as ebooks.
- Flavorwire offers up their top ten books for teenagers who are "outsiders," in response to Darren Shan's own list (which is linked in the piece, so I won't relink). I've only read one of these and it did nothing for me.
- In addition to killing off Reader, Google is killing off Frommer's printed travel guides. So, hm. Sorry librarians and everyone who likes their travel guides in print. Frommer's is one of the big names. Also, did you know Google owned them?
- Did you know the cover for Kirsten Smith's new novel Trinkets was created by teenagers? Melissa Walker has a really great cover story for it over at Barnes and Noble.
- Speaking of covers, how about YA book cover models who look a little like celebrities?
- If you haven't been reading Nova Ren Suma's "Haunted at 17" series, go to it. It's fantastic, and I think anyone who works with teenagers would not only love it in terms of reminding themselves about what is going on in the minds of 17 year olds, but I think this series would be so, so neat to share with your teens -- so many of the writers they know and read had the same struggles they're going through now.
- Angie Manfredi has a guest post over at the Teen Librarian's Toolbox about her favorite feminist author and why she loves her so much. (Spoiler: the author is Sara Zarr, and this post is so great).
- A piece from the PEW Research Center that explores the question "What should I read next?"
- I'm rounding out this round up with a piece that I have read over and over and thought about and really like. In light of the Steubenville case, in light of all of the other stories of rape culture, in light of the stories about women's rights, period, that have been a part of our world is this: I am not your wife, sister, or daughter. I am a person. I think it's important to think about the way women are framed -- rather than being a possession of someone else, they are themselves their own being. They can have roles as wife, as sister, as daughter, but they are now owned in those contexts.
Friday, March 22, 2013
Where Grave Mercy focused on Ismae, Dark Triumph focuses on Sybella, another assassin nun who's been sent on an assignment to the home of D'Albret, the sinister noble who conspired to kill Anne, the Duchess of Brittany, after she refused his offer of marriage. At the end of Grave Mercy, it's Sybella's warning that saves Anne's life. But her mission at D'Albret's home is not over.
Being sent to infiltrate D'Albret's home as a spy is horrifying enough (D'Albret is a special kind of evil), but for Sybella, it's torture. You see, soon into the story we learn that she is, in fact, D'Albret's daughter, and she's been privy to his violent proclivities since childhood. He's had at least half a dozen wives, and they all met untimely ends when they ceased to please him. If D'Albret were to find out that she was fathered by Mortain, then she would no longer be off-limits to him.
Sybella has been biding her time, watching D'Albret constantly, hoping to see the marque on him that would give her permission to kill him. Before she is able to see anything, she's given her official assignment: rescue an ally of the duchess who's been imprisoned in D'Albret's dungeon. That her mission is a rescue one, not a killing one, doesn't sit well with Sybella, who truly enjoys killing (this is something I love about her character). But the man she rescues interests her, and he throws her off-kilter by liking her even more when he learns what she is.
Ever since I was introduced to Sybella in the convent in Grave Mercy, I wanted to know her story. She was presented as quite unhinged initially, but able to heal slowly thanks to the friendships she eventually developed with Ismae and Annith. Having D'Albret as a father explains much of her psyche, and LaFevers writes her so well that I really felt Sybella's horror at being forced to live once more with the man who killed her mother and made her life a living hell.
A little of the mythology behind Mortain and his marques was revealed in Grave Mercy, and it's built upon here - and if you've read Grave Mercy, you won't be surprised to learn that the convent doesn't have it exactly right. A lot of the story involves Sybella grappling with what it means to be sired by Mortain, what it means to be a killer and not only be good at it, but enjoy it. I mentioned in my review of Grave Mercy that I loved that LaFevers made Ismae do the "bad thing" - killing people on order with little thought to the reason behind it. Here, she takes it a step further - Sybella not only does the "bad thing," she relishes it.
While I loved Ismae as a character, I'm much more intrigued by Sybella. Her sanity is a bit fragile, and she's sad and angry and overwhelmingly depressed, betrayed over and over by the people who should have loved her. She's had it rough, but she's still fighting to find a way to be happy. She's fascinating and I loved reading about her.
The other things that distinguished Grave Mercy are here, too: political intrigue, action, murder, romance, secrets, bad people who turn out to be good, good people who turn out to be bad. It advances the overall storyline involving Duchess Anne and also creates some intriguing possibilities for the future of the convent and its assassin nuns. It's just completely well-done, a worthy sequel (or "companion book," if you like), and will more than satisfy fans of the first. I can't wait for the third.
Review copy received from the publisher (via Kelly). Dark Triumph will be available April 2.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
As I've been working on writing my book and hitting these mental milestones (40,000 words felt like a lot, then it felt like a lot to rework my outline, then it felt like I'd hit a mountaintop at 55,000 words and counting), I've been thinking a lot about the way we talk about and promote books to readers.
Then in today's Shelf Awareness, I saw this about the "book grapevine." Click through and read it because it isn't long.
In short, the book gets great promotion on the ground level, then it gets promotion from a big-name person in the field or industry, that word gets to a reader who then suggests the book to, in this case, a book seller (and you can swap book seller for librarian or teacher or any other reader advocate), who then reads the book and they themselves do ground-level promotion of the title, too.
It gets the word about a particular book out there and does so fast. This is fantastic, especially for books that are really good (as is the book in this particular instance).
I blogged a few months ago about the value of and importance of good reader's advisory. One of the things I am striving for in writing my own book -- a guide for readers and librarians and teachers and anyone else who promotes books with readers -- is to make really strong reader's advisory recommendations. This means I have done a lot of reading, and not just of the books themselves, but I have kept my eye out on book reviews for titles I know I won't get to. These are books that pop up on my radar as titles that would reach a certain type of reader looking for a certain type of book. I read these reviews with interest, not only for the reviewer's take on the title, but also their own comparisons of the title. Because I love seeing how different people approach recommending books, too.
Thinking back on the idea of the "book grapevine" and thinking about how there are a lot of people who simply aren't big readers or who happen to take the chance to read a book outside their comfort zone for whatever reason, I wonder how many times we go for the very easy reach.
You know what I'm talking about.
The easy reach is that book which requires little thinking to recommend. It's the book that everyone is talking about or it's the book by an author who everybody knows or who is at least recognized as a "big name" within their respected genre.
Often, these are the books which do end up on best seller lists or are books that have a sizable chunk of publicity behind them or end up in the right hands at the right time and those right hands happen to be other leaders or well-known names in the genre who can then speak to the title's strengths and merits. These books have value to them and readers often find themselves loving them. Don't get me wrong on that.
But they're also easy reaches because they're the books that already have a stamp of approval on them, either through their marketing effort or through who has heralded them.
This isn't to say that easy reaches aren't good books for many readers. They often are. Many times, they can be an awesome introduction to a genre or an excellent way to lure readers in who may otherwise be reluctant for any number of reasons.
But book grapevine? I'm not so sure. It's not really a grapevine if the book is the easy reach.
The point of this post and the point of my thinking about it is that we need to be better about getting out of the comfort zone. Sure, know those best sellers. Know the books that your readers are asking for. But it's as important -- if not more important -- to know about those other books. The ones that aren't getting a lot of press for them or that are backlist titles and have sort of fallen out of the sphere of memory in light of those shiny new titles and those easy reaches. It's important to go beyond the end cap titles and explore the shelves. To browse. To discover.
Readers who become the best reader's advisors and the strongest advocates for reading and books are those who seek out the books which aren't the easy reaches. They're the ones who can see the value in those titles and know that they're the books which WILL reach many readers because of their strengths or accolades or the endorsement from well-knowns (Oprah, for example, or in the YA field it's someone like John Green). That's not to discredit the books or those speaking on their behalf.
It's just that they are easy reaches.
I challenge you to go out on a branch if you're a reader. Try something new. Try something that's been out for a few years. Try for a book that's a debut and not getting a ton of attention. Look for those books and read them, then think about the appeal factors in those books that would line up with what another reader would want. Recommend those books. Readers aren't always looking for the newest titles or the shiniest ones. Nor are they always looking for those easy reaches.
Sometimes a reader wants the right book for them. The more you read, the more you reach out, the more you explore, the easier it is to figure out that sometimes, it's not all about the Dan Browns, the Stephanie Meyers, or any other number of big name, easily recognizable authors. It's hard and time consuming but it is worthwhile. It's satisfying, both for you as a reader and those readers into whose hands you will press that just right title.
When you get beyond the buzzed titles and you instead work to meet reader with right book -- that's the true book grapevine. Because when that reader finishes the book, they'll pass it along to the next right reader, too.
Lauren never knew Abby before seeing the poster.
Then it's Fiona. Fiona, the girl whose parents owned the carriage house she and her mother lived in. Fiona, who used to babysit Lauren periodically, and who decided one night she'd had enough and she was leaving. Running away. Locking Lauren in the closet so she could get away. Causing Lauren emotional trauma and not to mention physical discomfort and embarrassment.
It was always Fiona, from the start. It wasn't Abby who was the first girl who went missing that Lauren knew she saw. Who haunted her.
But it's not just Fiona and Abby. It's Natalie. Then it's Shyann. And Isabeth. And Madison. And Yoon-Mi. Maura. Kendra. All of these girls -- all of these missing girls -- Lauren can talk to. She knows their stories. She knows where they are.
The thing they all have in common, all of the girls, is that they're 17.
And they're gone.
There's also the dream. The one which takes place in the same house Lauren grew up in, that she knows so well. Except now it's filled with these girls -- each of them has space in there. Each of them can talk to her. The house is warm. Smoky. Almost burning. Fiona always seemed to have a bit of control there. Even if it was Lauren's dream, even if she was the one walking and talking and experiencing, somehow she was still under Fiona's direction. As if Fiona was the person in charge of the house. As if Fiona was the person in charge of Lauren's thoughts.
What could go wrong when Lauren chooses, then, to reach out to the families of these missing girls? When she is herself turning 17 and worried that her fate is just like that of those girls she knows are missing. The girls she knows and sees.
Nova Ren Suma's 17 & Gone is a masterful exploration of the lines of madness. Paired with pitch-perfect prose that simultaneously propels the reader forward because of its fluidity and yet begs the reader to slow down and appreciate the singular choices in word and syntax, 17 & Gone is the kind of book you want to read at least twice. First, for the story. Second (and third and fourth) to see what parts of the story you missed the time before. What parts of the language, the turns of phrase, the evocative prose make those multiple readings and interpretations possible.
If you don't want to be spoiled, I suggest skipping down to the final paragraph. But before doing that, it's worth noting that I don't necessarily think this is the kind of book that can be spoiled because it is so rich in possibilities and in interpretations that one person's take isn't the singular means of understanding it.
17 & Gone is, at heart, an exploration of mental illness. Lauren suffers from schizophrenia. Or at least, that's what the psych ward wants to label her as, but they can't quite put that diagnosis on her. Because schizophrenia requires more than a series of episodes; it's the kind of illness that doesn't manifest the same way in every individual. In this case, Lauren's symptoms involve a few things. First, she fixates. These missing girls, the ones she believes she can see and talk to, are the product of her own research and fascination with the idea of missing girls. In other words, she's spent a long time looking around the internet for girls who have been labeled as endangered missings. She's learned their stories and absorbed them into her mind. They've become part of her. That she meets them in the house, the one she knows, is indicative of her letting them into her space. Into the world that is intimately hers.
But if only it were that simple. Suma doesn't make it easy, and that is why this book -- why her story telling more broadly -- is so stand out.
Fiona, the second girl who enters Lauren's mind, is actually someone Lauren knew in real life. She left an impression on Lauren. When Fiona chose to leave home, to run away with strange men, she caused trauma to Lauren that was long-standing. It happened in her own home. It happened in that intimate, safe space. That is why Fiona has control in the dreams, why it is she is the one running the operation. She's the one who contributed to the rift in Lauren's mind.
But if only it were that simple.
Fiona may not be one of those girls. One of the ones Lauren fixates on. What Suma forces the reader to do in this story is wonder: what's real and what's imaginary? What are the lines between the moments of mental insanity and the supernatural? The surreal? Is there maybe something to consider that people who suffer from such debilitating mental illnesses are themselves experiencing some kind of othering? Are they seeing and experiencing a world through an entirely different way than those who don't? Can they interact with ghosts? The specters? How is it we can know what is and isn't normal, what is and isn't stable anyway?
Because what happens when Lauren gets out of the psych ward is that she sets fire to the place where Abby was last seen. And she finds a relic belonging to Abby. Abby is still alive.
Lauren solves the mystery in the real world and found the missing girl. So. What about the others?
One of the biggest challenges with reading this book -- and it's a challenge that's not a criticism but a challenge of the story in and of itself -- is that Lauren is very hard to know. Because things aren't all right in her world and in her mind, readers are outside her thinking. They're in the position that her boyfriend and her mother are. Readers are, in a sense, powerless to figuring out what is really going on because Lauren is, too. Because she can't make sense of her world in the way that we do. At times, this is frustrating to the reader. You want to shake her and tell her to wake up. That what she's doing isn't okay. That meddling in the lives of people who are grieving isn't good. But the thing is, we don't even know the extent to which Lauren has done this. She shares the story of going and seeing Abby's grandparents. That is the only way we know she's done this. We don't know about the letters she's sent to other families.
She doesn't tell the reader because she cannot tell the reader. She cannot lead us through because she cannot lead herself through.
Suma's 17 & Gone could best be called magical realism, as it's grounded in our world and the experiences present in our world, but our world looks, tastes, smells, and works with a question of whether or not it is our world at all. This is a novel about being on the precipice of becoming an adult and moving toward that great unknown. To the world where girls are missing and ghost shaped and malleable and yet so fully formed, real, and there. There's then the question of whether it's a world where Fiona gets to direct or Lauren gets to be the one in charge. What of our histories can define us or mold us or ultimately offer insight into our deepest, darkest, toughest-to-access selves?
17 & Gone is a marvelous, sumptuous, literary novel that is not easy to forget. Readers who loved Suma's Imaginary Girls will see many similarities in story telling and be satisfied. It's a knock out of a book. This is a novel about what it means to be lost and what it might mean to be found. Suma leaves readers with more questions than answers, but that makes this book so damn special. That's what makes a reader want to go back, to experience again, and to reconsider the first thoughts they had. 17 & Gone is a book you want to talk about.
17 & Gone is available today. In full disclosure, Nova and I have a professional relationship -- she and I presented together at Kid Lit Con.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Remember last year when I blogged about how anyone can suggest titles for YALSA's award and selection lists? And I explained how to do it and why it's important?
Here's a reminder. Please read it if you haven't.
I wanted to put out a little more information about the committee I am a part of this year. As you may or may not know, I am a member of this Outstanding Books for the College Bound (OBCB). Here is our charge and on that site, you'll also see the list from the prior committee. If you are too lazy to click the link, it reads:
The OBCB is a committee that comes together only once every five years. So this list is updated every five years. Meaning -- there is a lot of stuff to read and consider for the list when it is revisited and revised.
But you can be a part of this process, and I BEG you to help out. If you know of books that fit the charge, that you think the committee should at least consider (and note -- it doesn't mean the title will ever be nominated but it will at least be looked at and considered), please suggest it here. I am focusing on reading books falling into a couple of the categories of our committee, Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences. I feel like I am getting a really neat education of stuff I have always been interested in and in things I never knew about before.
Who can suggest titles? Anyone who reads. You just cannot be the author of the book or related to the publisher/house. Details are on the form.
If you haven't spent a few minutes suggesting titles for any lists yet this year, get to it. I plan on sitting down one weekend and filling out a ton of suggestions for books I've read and loved this year. I urge you to do this, too.