When I heard about The Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda (Hyperion, 2009) during Book Expo, I had my doubts. A book about a girl Templar? I'd already read three Templar books this year and none of them were terribly appealing. A girl who spends her days training to hunt ghuls, as the job of the modern Templar is to protect humanity from the supernatural? Eh, I'd seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It sounded like a recipe for disaster, but I was so very wrong.
It works. Oh my, does it work. It's absolute proof that good writing can conquer all.
The premise: Billi (short for Bilquis) SanGreal has trained all her life to be a member of the Knights Templar, who work underground in the 20th century as demon hunters. Billi is nearing the point where she will swear fealty to the Templars forever. Despite the Templar training, she is still completely recognizable as a teenage girl at odds with her strict father after her mother's death. Billi's oldest friend is Kay, a powerful Oracle who couldn't fistfight his way out of a paper bag. For the past year, Kay has been honing his psychic powers in Jerusalem, and he's come back with some pretty annoying abilities. Billi, frustrated with Kay and wanting to get away from the Templars, falls for Michael. Michael is smart, hot, and interested in Billi. In fact, he's almost too good to be true.
Kay and Billi discover that Kay has drawn the Angel of Death to earth via a cursed mirror, and that means trouble for humanity. Kay is a great psychic, no doubt, but we're talking the Angel of Death, bringer of everyone's favorite of the Ten Plagues. It's the biggest, most evil thing Billi and the Templars have ever fought, and they don't know if this is a battle they can win.
Why you'll love it: With a girl who can kick some serious demon booty at the center of the plot, it would have been easy for this to be another sassy supernatural book with a pink cover. Chadda instead takes a more serious tone, crafting a stubborn and admirable character in Billi. There's barely a technology reference to be found; there are mentions of a cell phone but this book could take place anytime after 1999 or so. I was very impressed by Chadda's use of language, too. He's foregone slang in favor of plain yet effective dialogue, classic plot lines, and well-paced action scenes. The names of the Templars are a tribute to Arthurian legends: Gwaine, Percival, Kay, Arthur, etc. Templar history is covered without being dumped on the reader, and it's delivered in a way that might even inspire readers to learn more about the Templars. In terms of topic this is a timely book, but it's one that's going to last. Diversity, adventure, sexual tension, some pretty good insults, and family angst never go out of literary style.
The attraction: Southern settings and first-person narration that will blow you away.
Knights of the Hill Country (Knopf, 2006). I didn't read this until it was nominated for a spot on Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, and then I couldn't shut up about it. I can take or leave sports books, generally. I figured this would be another football hero story, maybe with some girl angst. There is a football hero story and girl angst, but to label this book with only those words would do it a great injustice. Using slow pacing and subtle details, Tharp lays out the story of Hampton Green, whose greatest successes come on the football field. He's part of the five-time championship Kennisaw Knights and has a talent and instinct for the game. Everyone in town expects that Kennisaw will win another state championship, but Hampton knows something they don't: His best friend and fellow teammate, Blaine, is fighting an injury that could end his football career. This knowledge and the pain make Blaine increasingly bitter, to the point where he's not afraid to get in fights and engage in behavior unbecoming of a Knight. Blaine means the world to Hampton, who is also trying to deal with his mother's new boyfriend, but Hampton doesn't know how much longer he can rein Blaine in.
The Spectacular Now (Knopf, 2008) is...spectacular. I reviewed this last December and you can read my thoughts here.
What draws Tharp's books together, and what makes me squee in my authorcrush, is the way Tharp captures everyday emotions and the subtleties of boys who participate in seriously un-subtle behaviors. Hampton, for all he can do on the football field, is insecure in his academic and social abilities. Sutter tries to hide his insecurities in loud, drunken behavior. Both characters, however, think and feel deeply about their friends and families. These are the type of books I'm absolutely dying to see more of: Emotionally invested stories with male main characters. Tharp's books (somewhat like Christopher Krovatin's) understand that teenage boys, crude and stinky as they may be, also feel a range of emotions that deserve to appear in YA fiction. Emotions are not things to be afraid of in guy-centric YA, and Tharp understands that. He knows that for a book to make an impact and stay there, it has to hit the heart. So, basically, if I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I'd want to write like Tim Tharp.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial, 2008) is a book I only read because of peer pressure. Everywhere I went, it seemed that people were talking about it. It's not the sort of book I seek out: epistolary, historical, some romance...those are three of my strikes. Because I am a literary lemming, I got out my library card and requested it. Skipping the flap copy, I dove right in.
Picture it: London, 1946. Juliet Ashton is a writer who made a name for herself writing columns under a pen name for the London Spectator. She's proud of her success, but a series of letters to her editor, Sidney Stark, show that she's at a crossroads. What should she write next? While Juliet ponders this, she receives a letter from a Mr. Dawsey Adams of St. Martin's Parish, Guernsey. Dawsey has a book of Juliet's, a collection of essays by Charles Lamb, and he just had to write to see if she knew where he could get more of Mr. Lamb's work.
A book that revolves around people who love books has to be good, right?
The letters between Juliet and Dawsey evolve into Juliet's correspondence with the members of the Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society, which formed not as a literary society but as a cover for a group of people being out after curfew on their German-occupied island. Through their letters, Juliet learns that the people of Guernsey survived near-starvation and being cut off from the news during the war. In much the way that people form friendships over the internet today, Juliet forms bonds with the readers (and writers) of Guernsey. Her letters to her publisher and best friend are observant, funny, and inspiring. Guernsey goes on to become the idea for Juliet's next book, and the people are the kind of friends she's wanted all her life.
Before I read this book I couldn't have found Guernsey on a map, but now I'm intrigued by its story. For me, this was a "good writing trumps all" book, because even though I'm not the average reader of women's fiction or historical fiction, I stayed with this book because of the voices. The way Juliet fell in love with the people of Guernsey reinforces the power of the written word. The peripheral characters were most interesting for what they didn't relate to Juliet as much as what they did. (And I loved the character who wanted to be Miss Marple and decided she would knit and observe the world.) Books brought these people together, and books are how they relate to each other. That is something anyone who loves to read, librarian or not, can understand.
Sometimes a book just walks into your life at the right time.
First, I saw this tweet on the Kirkus Twitter. The most tragically overlooked book of 2008? If Vicky Smith says it is so, then it's probably true.
Second, my husband was working from home one day and over lunch we got into a discussion of Project Runway. Though I can't sew a stitch, I love clothes and I always enjoy seeing the PR challenges. He, being, well, a guy, can't understand the PR allure.
"Why make these crazy clothes that aren't even practical?" he asked.
"I like to think of the PR challenges more as art, and art doesn't always have to be wearable."
"But what's the point of clothing that isn't wearable?"
The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem (Harcourt, 2008) tackles just this kind of question. It's set on an island in a time that is, well, right about now. The people of the island formed their government and society around a book: A Frugal Compendium of Home Arts and Farme Chores by Capability C. Craft (1680) as Amended and Annotated by the Island Council of Names (1718-1809). On the island, occupation and name are the two most important things in the world. Your surname comes from your occupation, hence the island has names like Carpenter and Glazer and Potter, but no Weasley, Malfoy or Chang. Things in nature are named for their function, too. A bee, for example, is a Honeybug, and a maple tree is a Sap Tree.
In the midst of all this practicality is Medford Runyuin, who was rescued from a shipwreck as a baby and raised by Boyce Carver. Boyce has taught Medford the carving occupation, which Medford enjoys. His talent at carving, however, is also Medford's biggest shame: He's using his carving talents to make things that have no purpose. Useless Objects, they're called on the island. Useless Objects cannot have names, and making Unnameable things is grounds for exile.
Enter the Goatman. (Come on, do I really have to say anything else? There's a Goatman!) Thanks to his wanderings, Medford knows that this is not the first time a Goatman has come to the island. Revealing this knowledge is...you guessed it, a really good way for Medford to get kicked out of the only home he's ever known. Only it's not so easy to hide a Goatman who can control the wind.
Kirkus was totally right about The Unnameables. I hadn't heard of it before I read that tweet, and it was tragically overlooked. Booream's characters live in modern years but they speak, for the most part, like they're still in 1809. It's a third-person MG allegory, a look at what can happen if we all forget that the arts are just as important a part of life as the practical things. The language can be a little hard to get through at first, but readers who stick with it will enjoy Medford's company and his sense of humor. It reminded me a lot of The Giver, with the adolescent transition into a career and the one boy who is separated from his peers by his simply having emotions.
Though I might be the last person on the planet to read Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick, I've been a fan of Skurnick's Fine Lines feature at Jezebel almost since it debuted. Fine Lines is one of those terrific ideas where you read it, kick yourself, and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" For non-Jezebel readers, Fine Lines is a weekly feature that recaps a classic YA novel from the 1960's, '70's, or '80's (I know, right? Genius!), and Shelf Discovery is the book of recaps. It also has guest contributions from authors including Meg Cabot, Cecily von Ziegesar, Jennifer Weiner, and Margo Rabb.
Skurnick, the original Book Thief, writes from her personal collection of vintage YA novels, dividing the book into chapters like "She's at that Age: Girls on the Verge" and "You Heard it Here First: Very Afterschool Specials," highlighting ten books per chapter, give or take. Because this book is a memoir and not an analysis of reading, Skurnick recaps the books that are near and dear to her heart...which are also books that are near and dear to the hearts of many Gen X women. Those are the people Skurnick speaks to, rather than the librarians and academics of YA literature. Reading her writing makes me feel like I'm talking to a really cool, smart friend who understands how much these books formed our worlds when we were teens (and younger). We're older and wiser now, and we can look at things like Harriet Welsch's growing empathy in Harriet the Spy and the ultimately bleak endings of Blubber and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit with an eye for literary technique, but ultimately, we are still ten years old and reading these books, reacting to them viscerally and re-reading with hunger. Reading Skurnick makes me unafraid to giggle and gasp and OMG as I read Go Ask Alice and Flowers in the Attic. I confess I've only read about half the books in Shelf Discovery, but Skurnick's writing makes me want to go pick up many more. (Except Island of the Blue Dolphins. No force on this earth will ever make me believe that book is anything but deathly boring.)
After I read, I got to thinking about the roles that parents, friends, and imagination play in these novels of decades past. The part of me newly indoctrinated into the children's publishing business wonders how many of these books could be published today, just as they are save for a few technology and fashion updates. Then again, in some of these books, technology updates would wreck the plot. A lot has changed in terms of pop culture, technology, parenting, and the idea of independence, which are all things that govern the background of YA literature. The books in Shelf Discovery all give indication as to some of the people who are writing, editing, and selling YA today. Which gives me hope for the genre. Well, not just hope...knowledge that a passion for books will pass on to future generations.
Now what I'd really love to see a the version of Shelf Discovery in 2020.
Lately I have this crazy way of picking out books to review: If it looks interesting, I pick it up. I'm a bit of a crime buff and I usually read nonfiction when reading adult books. That brings me to today's review, for Methland by Nick Reding.
For four years, Reding tracked the effects of meth in Oelwein, Iowa, which has been referred to as the meth capital of the world. Of course, about 70 other towns have this distinction, too, but this is Oelwein's story. Many of Oelwein's residents work in agriculture, and came to meth because it gave them the stamina to last through multiple shifts in agriculture factories, shifts they needed to stay afloat financially. Meth has two properties that make it a problem that can swallow a small, economically disadvantaged town: It's easy to make and one of the most addictive substances on the planet. Reding doesn't spare a lot of details about meth's effects on the body and what can happen when meth manufacturing goes terribly wrong. (Given that meth manufacturers make meth from cold pills and hazardous chemicals with highly flammable residue, this occurrence is not uncommon.) Reding's protagonist is Nathan Lein, a county prosecutor who deals with the fallout from local -- which becomes national and international -- drug use and trafficking.
Even though I have never lived in a small town or known anyone affected by meth, I felt the desperation Reding writes about in terms of small-town economies and how the battle against meth is constantly uphill. Oelwein was home to one of the country's first meth empires, built by a woman who couldn't kick meth even after years in federal prison. What makes this book a success is Reding's appeal to the heart rather than to the mind. He shows readers how laws meant to stop the production of meth have done practically nothing. He makes us feel the strain on Oelwein's population and knows that there's no one singular cause for its meth problem. In parts I wanted more, but I also realize that it's hard to fit four years' worth of research into one 275-page book.