Two weeks and a day

15 Days Without a Head (NetGalley)
Dave Cousins
Release date: May 2013

Laurence Roach’s mom is single, depressed, alcoholic … and disappears one day without a trace. His six-year-old brother Jay can be hard to manage and sometimes acts like a dog, especially when he doesn’t want to mind. And so it falls to Laurence to hold it all together–but that’s a lot to ask of a fifteen-year-old. Still, he tries, terrified that social services would pry the family apart.

The laundry piles up; what little food left in the flat is soon gone; Laurence, late for school one too many times, risks a daily report. Then Jay’s babysitter and a nosy neighbor lady start to snoop. Laurence keeps up the ruse for a long fifteen days, with the excuse that Mum was working long hours. The boys come down with fever. They’re hungry–Monster Munch and lemonade for breakfast  no longer holds any appeal. Desperate, Laurence even dresses in Mum’s clothes, hoping to fool the bank into letting him withdraw money from a long-forgotten savings account opened by his nanna.

All the while, Laurence still believes that he can make it all better–Mum would return, stop drinking, get a new job–by winning a family holiday on the radio show Baz’s Bedtime Bonanza. Pretending to be his (dead) dad, Laurence answers trivia questions night after night, advancing in the game and fighting off challengers. And finally, a chance sighting and some lucky sleuthing leads him to the truth behind his mother’s absence … but no spoiler alert here.

Author Dave Cousins has great insight into the mind of a teen–those years of sometimes child, sometimes adult. His word play is a clever, yet poignant, with chapters titled Whensday, Blursday, Lieday, Thataway, and on to Doomsday and Madnessday, ending with Today. As in the novel’s title, the Roach boys are fifteen days without their mother. And Laurence chases the roaches that skitter across the kitchen, Jay telling him all the while, “A cockroach doesn’t die even if you chop its head off.” The question Laurence answers to win that all-expenses paid family holiday? “Which of the following UNFORTUNATE creatures will not die–EVEN if you remove its head?”

The Roaches don’t die either, surviving the almost-destruction of their nuclear family, perhaps even stronger than before. 15 Days is an insightful Young Adult novel about family struggles for teen readers.

Next up: It’s a snow day! It’s my birthday! And little Flavia DeLuce is calling me, calling me …

The slowing

Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker

My bookstore friend had a book for me–“imaginative premise”, she said, “I dreamt about it all night.” Then the suggestion that I just might want to consider it as a read-aloud for my classes. And she was right. Even the New Yorker raved about this debut novel in their August 6 issue, saying author Karen Walker “creates lovely, low-key scenes to dramatize her premise”–and it’s that premise that is so compelling. Imagine if the earth slowed on its axis, days growing longer, nights stretching on, magnetic field bending and twisting.

It was called “the slowing.” The world’s top scientists had no explanation, no solutions. In the beginning, all that could be done was to carry on. So eleven-year-old Julia–friendless, flat-chested, and still in so many ways a little girl–continued with the hell that was sixth grade. Her school adjusted start times by the day, trying to maintain the status quo; some neighbors slid into a new rhythm, gardening at midnight and sleeping at noon. Birds died in pairs or by dozens on lawns. Her mother began to stockpile food and suffer “the sickness”: fainting, insomniac, nauseated. Weather shifted and crops withered.

Finally, when light stretched on to nearly thirty-two hours, the president announced that Americans would revert to a twenty-four hour clock. And so Julia tells us, “light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night”– clock time was enacted. Blackout curtains became an essential and sleeping pill use skyrocketed. Not everyone fell into step and “real-timers” began to slip away into the desert, building “shadow communities” that followed a circadian rhythm for this new age.

Through this chaos, Julia lives out her own age of miracles–she becomes fast friends with her crush Seth, watches her parents’ love ebb and grow, and always takes in the dying beauty around her. Karen Walker presents the unimaginable, the idea that the home we call Earth could come to a horrific end, through the eyes of a girl standing on the edge of promise and hope. It is Julia who just might give us a glimpse of why we are here: Though the pace of the slowing had slackened over the years, it had never stopped. The damage had been done, and we had come to suspect that we were dying. But … we carried on. We persisted … we told stories and we fell in love. We fought and we forgave. Some still hoped the world might right itself. Babies continued to be born. 


Dip your toes into this one

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Ransom Riggs

Peculiar traits often skip a generation, or ten. Peculiar children are not always, or even usually, born to peculiar parents, and peculiar parents do do always, or even usually, bear peculiar children. Can you imagine, in a world so afraid of otherness, why this would be a danger to all peculiarkind?

Oh. My. Gosh. I started Miss Peregrine’s thinking (for some reason) it was magical realism–not one of my favorite genres but one that seems a staple of literary fiction. The jacket blurb stated the novel was “an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience … a spine-tingling fantasy … [for] anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.” Sounds a bit “Tiger’s Wife”-y, no? But what I got was Time Traveler’s Wife meets Harry Potter–and I was over the moon!

Jacob Portman is an ordinary sixteen-year-old with all the age’s inglorious traits: he is socially awkward and often lonely; his parents don’t understand him; he hates both school and his job. The one glorious constant in life, though, has always been his grandfather Abe Portman. Grandpa, who spent time in an orphanage after escaping the Nazis in Poland, regaled young Jacob with stories of fellow orphans: a girl who could fly, an invisible boy, and a boy who had bees living in him. And if it all sounded a bit outlandish, out would come a box of vintage, sepia-toned photographs. Sure enough, there were the (obviously staged, trick) photographs to prove it. And then there were the stories of invisible monsters whose tentacled tongues could snatch you up and crush you in their powerful jaws and Grandpa’s love of weaponry of all kinds and his many hunting trips.

(spoiler alert)
But long after Jacob dismissed Grandpa’s tales as “fairy stories” he receives a panicked call at work: “They’re coming for me, understand? I don’t know how they found me after all these years, but they did. What am I supposed to fight them with, the goddamned butter knife?” In a rush, Jacob leaves to ease his senile grandfather’s worries–and finds himself thrown into a world he didn’t even know existed. 

Grandpa’s dying words lead Jacob to a letter and a loop on the other side of an old man’s grave–September third, 1940. Cryptic, to be sure. But once Jacob unravels the clues he finds himself on a remote island off the coast of Wales, standing in front of the very real Miss Peregrine, surrounded by the peculiar children in her charge. Peculiar children–misunderstood, abandoned, and always suspect because of their odd powers–find refuge with a worldwide network of ymbrunes who keep them safe in time loops covering centuries. But are they really safe? For as Miss Peregrine tells Jacob, “…we peculiars are no less mortal than common folk. Time loops merely delay the inevitable, and the price we pay for using them is hefty–an irrevocable divorce from the ongoing present. As you know, long-term loop dwellers can but dip their toes into the present lest they wither and die. This has been the arrangement since time immemorial.”

So Jacob learns the truth about his grandfather–and himself–and must decide whether or not he will be the same man Abe was when those monsters do finally come. Again. Miss Peregrine’s is a novel rich with metaphor and symbol. The biblical Jacob wrestled with angels; this Jacob, monsters. His psychologist’s name is Dr.Golem Golan. The monsters are the Nazis–or aren’t they? I have no idea whether or not the novel is labeled as Young Adult fiction and it matters not. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a delight for any reader–peculiar or not.

When, not if

The Fault In Our Stars
by John Green

  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
                                     ~ Julius Caesar

Last month I heard author John Green on NPR and immediately added this book to my wishlist (link). And what should I see just a few days later, stacked atop one of my students notebooks but this novel?! “It’s the best book I’ve ever read.” isn’t a bad recommendation, coming from a sixteen-year-old. My copy of this tender read arrived the week of Valentine’s day, a gift from my sweetheart.

Sixteen-year-old Hazel and seventeen-year-old Augustus are in love–not very unusual as teenagers go. But how many teens meet in Cancer Kids Support Group? And how many girls won’t let themselves fall in love because they worry about the effect their death will have on their boyfriend? At that fateful meeting, Hazel squirms under Gus’s intense stare–with her portable oxygen tank and face swollen by a cancer trial drugs she doesn’t feel attractive. Gus, on the other hand, tall, muscular, and oh-so-cute appears to be the picture of health, albeit short one leg. His cancer was caught, amputated, and annihilated. Hazel isn’t so lucky–her prognosis is not if but when. 

Both teens have lived with death hovering close–and they see its shadow on the faces of their family and friends; it stands between them and high school and Friday night basketball games and all things normal. A loner and avid reader, Hazel reads and re-reads An Imperial Affliction, a novel which echoes her life philosophy. Because the book’s ending is unresolved, Hazel writes author Peter VanHouten again and again asking for answers. After reading the novel himself, Gus also writes VanHouten and receives an email from the writer’s assistant Lidewij Vliegenthart promising a meeting should they ever visit the Netherlands.

Gus uses his Wish to travel with Hazel (and Hazel’s mom) to meet VanHouten. While their visit with the author is disappointing to say the least, their days in Amsterdam are anything but. The young lovers tour Anne Frank’s home, share a romantic champagne dinner by the canal, and watch  life spinning around them– on roller blades, bikes, canal boats, walkers. Until, that is, the life in them starts to spin out of control.

No spoiler alert here. I had a hunch at what might occur, but even its realization was unsettling–I spent the last hour reading through a wash of tears, sometimes unable to see to read. (In fact, I might re-read the end when I have some distance.) The best read ever? Probably not. But a solid story, well-crafted, with enough soul to lend it some weight. Thank you, Esther!

Next up: By George by Wesley Stace–narrated by a ventriloquist’s dummy. Puppet? Mannequin? Whatever the case, who can go wrong with a beginning like that? 

Stay with this one

If I Stay
by Gayle Forman

Recommended on NPR’s “You Must Read This” feature, If I Stay is a young-adult novel that doesn’t read like one: the writing is evocative, the story isn’t maudlin, the romance almost (!) believable. The novel does have the quick-read characteristic of YA, though–no dense writing here. The premise, however, is heavy: a well-adjusted (maybe a bit too much?) family sets out on a snow day adventure and in the slip of a tire is involved in a fatal crash. Daughter Mia, the 17-year-old protagonist, walks along the side of the road and sees her mother and father, dead. Then she comes upon herself being frantically worked on by paramedics and loaded into a screaming ambulance. Is she dead, she wonders, as she climbs in to the ambulance and heads to the hospital?

Mia can’t feel her body, nor can she walk through walls and people like the ghosts she’s seen in movies; this sidelined Mia doesn’t feel pain. Caught in uncertainty, Mia watches, listens, and struggles to make sense of her new self. We watch her dear Gram and Gramp visit; we see friends and extended family arrive to hold vigil. And all the while, Forman takes us back and forth through Mia’s short seventeen years as she remembers … the birth of her brother, her punk dad’s transformation to retro hipster, her first kiss, summer at music camp, a Labor Day picnic. Never maudlin, Forman’s writing is clean and offers a beautiful elegy for a girl not yet dead.

Some of the health care professionals come off  a bit harsh and unfeeling; this would be a great read for student nurses and doctors. Forman is not pedantic–I worried throughout the book that it would turn into a treatise for pulling the plug as Mia’s family tried to make sense of her chances for recovery. I fretted that there would be a grand heavenly reunion with her family–which I hate in any young adult movie, song, or book, given the suicide rate among my often-depressed high school students. No, the choice to stay (or leave) was Mia’s. During a visit, Mia’s favorite nurse Ramirez encourages her grandparents to talk to her: “She’s running the show. Maybe she’s just biding her time. So you talk to her. You tell her to take all the time she needs, but to come on back. You’re waiting for her.”

And so we wait for Mia to decide.

[A word about the title of this post–in the tradition of many newer YA series, my paperback copy included a few pages of Forman’s sequel Where She Went. Run, don’t walk away from this book! It was everything awful about teen fiction–everything If I Stay was not.]