Friday, July 18, 2014

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer

Selwyn Academy is a prestigious arts high school in Minneapolis, and it has been overtaken by a reality competition show called For Art's Sake, destroying, in the opinion of protagonist Ethan and his friends' opinions, the soul of the school. So when they begin to study Ezra Pound's Cantos in English class, they decide to try a little poetic revolution consciousness raising activity and publish a series of poems, dubbed "Contracantos," poems critical of the program and its affects on the school.

But the show's hold is insidious and far-reaching, further than even Ethan and his friends imagine, and betrayal threatens to bring the whole enterprise down.

I picked up this book after reading a review on Bookshelves of Doom and also because a YA book with Pound at its core that's funny? How on earth would that work out? I went to a Pound conference this spring, and I did not leave with the sense that he would make a great basis for a humorous novel. It took me a little while to get into the novel, but I'm glad I stuck with it because Ethan! Ethan you precious creature! I love Ethan, the protag. He's hilarious and self-aware and nerdy and much smarter than he gives himself credit for and also totally oblivious. He's a rich and interesting character, and his friends Jackson and Elizabeth are also great characters. I would love to have kids like this in my class, although I would seriously have to step up my teaching game.

As noted in BoD's review, this book is chock full of literary references, but I also loved that the story did not exist in some weird pop culture void. I always find it weird when characters will mention that they are so into some band, but no band is even mentioned. My favorite scene in the whole book is when Ethan, Jackson and Elizabeth are breaking into the school to do some stuff I won't spoil. They come to a door with no key hole, and Elizabeth says something like, "The solution is obvious,*" and Jackson points at the door and says, "Alohomora!" I must admit, I lol'd.

I also appreciated that Hattemer didn't gloss over the controversy of Pound's life relative to his work. At the conference I went to, a good deal of lip service was paid to this question: how do we read an author's work in the context of his/her life? Should we read a work with this context in mind, and how much weight should we give to that context? It was really cool to see the characters grapple with this, and I hope that, through the book, kids who might not get to read Pound in school can start to ask these questions.

Despite the slow (for me) start, I am really glad I kept with this book, and I hope it finds its way into the hands of all the vigilante poets out there.

*I returned my copy of the book to the library and didn't write down the quote exactly. My bad.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Boy in the Smoke by Maureen Johnson

So, we have seven looooong months until The Shadow Cabinet, book three in Maureen Johnson's Shades of London series is out. Seven looooooong months until we know how The Thing plays out, or at least, until we have our hearts wrecked on the rocks of fiction, our souls battered little coracles tossed on the wild seas of fiction. If you were a lucky lucky person, you could have had a little morsel of story to tide you over in the World Book Day novella The Boy in the Smoke which tells the story of how Stephen Dene gained the ability to see ghosts and how he was recruited to be the leader of the spook squad at the heart of Shades. But I was not a lucky person. The novella was not released in the US because apparently we hate books or something. I was a sad, unlucky little girl.

Until I went to Cardiff.

Normally, just being in Cardiff would have been boon enough. I got to go to the Doctor Who Experience. I got to visit the affront area and see the Millennium Center and the big waterfall sculpture thing that we all know is the secret entrance to the Hub (although I did NOT get to meet up with Jack). I got to see Ianto's Shrine (tea boy!) and Cardiff Castle. It was awesome! But the cherry on the top of my awesome sundae was wandering into the Waterstone's by my hotel and finding on the shelf a lone copy of The Boy in the Smoke. And it only cost me a pound! One. Pound!

Spoilers follow, so read no further if you want to wait for the book to be available in the US.

We know from the Shades books that Stephen gained the ability to see ghosts after he tried to kill himself, but now we know who stopped him, and it is a super duper bittersweet story. And we get to read about the first ghost Stephen zapped with a Terminus, a creepy-ass little ghost girl whose mother drowned her after she shoved her baby brother into a fire. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have read this story right before bed, because I had a helluva time getting that creepy-ass ghost girl out of my mind. Still, my appetite is thoroughly whetted for the Shadow Cabinet.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton

Baldur the Beautiful, one of the gods of Asgard, was supposed to rise from the dead and bring his light to the world, as he had done for thousands of years. But this year, he does not rise. His ashes were stolen. Soren, a young berserker who fights the madness, and Astrid, a teenage seer, go to find him and return him to the halls of the gods. But of course, when your path falls in with gods, your fate is twistier than the World Snake that circles the Earth.

So that's the basic plot of The Lost Sun, but let me tell you. Wow. This book is book crack. This is the book I've wanted since I read American Gods over ten years ago. Gratton creates a world in which the gods of Asgard and their laws govern America (the United States of Asgard in this series), more openly than in Gaiman's book, and I'm not gonna lie -- it's a world I kind of want to live in.

There is so much awesome at work in this book. First, I love me a good alterna-USA story (like Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child series, minus the totally unsatisfactory tidy wedding at the end, spoiler). It's like a treasure hunt to find the real-world correlations to the world-building of the novel. Idaho even makes a cameo, with the characters stopping, I think, in the USAsgard version of Pocatello. I turn into Buddy the Elf when things like that pop up. Pocatello! I know that! I lived there! (Like in The Daughter of Smoke and Bone, when Karou makes a pit stop in Boise! I lived there, too!)

I loved the exploration of fate in this book. Soren lives under a terrible shadow. The berserker rage that lives in him caused his father to slaughter a bunch of innocent citizens in a shopping mall, and Soren fights his perceived fate tooth and claw, and when he becomes reconciled to his fate, it's not really his fate, but to himself that he becomes reconciled (not going to spoil how this happens), and of course, when we accept our fate, we don't truly roll over and let the gods take our lives. We accept ourselves. Like me wearing shorts (and today, a sleeveless blouse in public!), it's not a rolling over to die (although it is really hot, and it's just 10 AM). No, I've decided to cast of shame and fear. And it's strange how much I'd rather fight blood rage than stranger's opinions.

The best part of this book for me, though, was the messiness of the gods. I wrote a story once about Hera, and what made the story for me was that I realized the gods of the Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons (and probably all world myths) are not pristine beings separate from the world of humans, not sterile and abstract. Gods and goddesses are humans, but just MORE. One of the things I find so dissatisfying about Christianity is how sterile God and Jesus are, and I don't think that's how it's meant to be. I mean, we pay so much lip service to Jesus becoming human, but then things are ruined because he becomes a perfect sacrifice, and humans are only perfect in imperfection. How can you take a perfect abstraction into your messy human heart? I'm not sure how this happened, because I feel like if Jesus and a Christian God (big beard, James Mason voice) are real, they are face-palming so HARD at how STUPID we are. The messiness of the gods of Norse, Greek, Roman mythology makes them so much more vital to me (I should say, Mom, if you're reading this, I'm not setting up an altar to Loki, don't worry. Tom Hiddleston, maybe, but those CHEEKBONES!); it's the mess that makes me take the struggles of Soren and Astrid to heart, to rejoice in their triumphs and mourn their losses like my own. Like Shadow, in American Gods, Soren's sacrifices to be the best man he can be makes me believe that if ever there were a heaven, it would be people with the likes of these characters, while the priests and bishops will be left out in the cold. Well, that's probably unfair because I don't really know what is in the heart of other people. Fiction affords us this privileged that doesn't really extend to other people.

I'm only holding off ordering the next book in the series, The Strange Maid, because I'm gonna see if my fave indie in Boise has it when I visit next week (and I still have four? Five? Books I bought in the last week), but I'm certain it will be polished off as quickly as this book (which my library had, thankfully).

P.S. If I were going to dedicate myself to a god, it'd totally be Snotra, the goddess of prudence*, according to Wikipedia.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Books Do

Books are dangerous. That's why we have to protect the vulnerable and innocent from them, right? Protect children from profanity* and sex and questions and ideas. Because we can't have anyone getting ideas, now can we?

Today I bought two pairs of shorts, the first on-purpose shorts I bought in at least twenty years (putting my back in junior high). I also bought five sleeveless shirts, and I intend to wear these clothes out in PUBLIC. I think I have finally stopped being ashamed of my body and the space I occupy. I'm not totally satisfied, but I think I'm not ashamed anymore, and I think books are, in a very big way, responsible for this.

As you know, I've read some great, kind of devastating stories in the last few weeks, and two characters that I have taken into my heart in are Eleanor from Eleanor and Park and Astrid from Ask the Passengers. These girls are totally kick-ass heroines, but not in my usual way of thinking of kick-ass as girls who literally kick ass, like Alanna, but girls who are making their messy ways through a messy life, forging their own paths, even though the way is difficult or dark. They aren't going to allow themselves to be pushed along the current with no say in their course. They have some big rocks in the current, especially Eleanor, but they go on ahead. Surely I can put on a pair of fucking shorts as temperatures top 90?

Books give me dangerous ideas, like I'm worth more than the bit of bare flesh the shorts expose. My comfort is worthwhile. My body is not the sum of who I am, but it's not something to be dismissed or dictated by someone who is not me. It's very difficult to remember this sometimes, especially in light of things like the Supreme Court's decision yesterday in the Hobby Lobby case or the myriad other attacks women face. My twitter and FB feeds and bookshelves are full of people who remind me that my worth is not equal to my weight or my body parts, even if that idea is attacked daily. And if I'm not proud of who I am, I'm not ashamed, and that's a pretty big fucking deal, I think.

I wonder if I had Eleanor and Astrid when I was in high school if it would have taken me til my mid-30s to stop feeling ashamed. I wonder if my beloved students will push away the shame heaped on them and toss it a big ol' middle finger as they walk away. I wonder if my future daughter (if I ever had one) will walk more lightly than I did.

If they get their hands on books that show them many different ways to be (and you can be sure I'll do my damnedest to make that happen), I think we girls have a fighting chance to focus on whatever we choose and not what's forced on us in ignorance.

*Whenever a book is challenged based on "profanity," I imagine the challengers standing in the hall next to me during the passing period, listening to the the words that come out of my beloved students' mouths, students who will tell you they don't really read, and I laugh and laugh and laugh.

Monday, June 30, 2014

TBR Backlog

I am home, safe and sound from my wanderings around Ireland and the UK. I bought a LOT of yarn, since that is my current obsession, but I also managed some literary fangirling. We got to see a performance of a Renaissance domestic tragedy called Arden of Faversham put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company (starring my favorite DS, Sharon Small of Inspector Lynley) as the cheating wife of the title character. It is an anonymous play about a woman and her lover as they conspire to bump of the woman's husband. As a tragedy, you know that everyone is going to die, and it's pretty spectacular. We also got to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet by The Lord Chamberlain's Men, a newish all-male company who perform in  Renaissance dress. It was a neat production, lots of food for thought, and I am not gonna lie, it's not too hard to watch lithe and handsome young men perform for you.


I managed to read three books while on vacation. We had a lot of time on trains, and I am quite lucky to not get travel sick. As you know, I read E. Lockhart's We Were Liars which left me absolutely wrecked. Gutted at Starbucks in Dublin. I had brought two books with me, and I wasn't ready to dive into Rainbow Rowell's Attachments right after the devastation of Liars, so I went to a couple bookstores in Dublin. I picked up Rowell's Eleanor and Park, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth, and David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing. I thought about picking up some Irish books, but instead, I went for books that have been languishing on my TBR list for ages. Plus, they were all paperbacks. I have been waiting for some of these books to be out in paperback, but it looks like paperback is de rigeur in Europe, so it made packing a bit easier. In fact, I very nearly bought The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves as well since they were in attractive paperback volumes, but I decided to buy a massive knit sweater instead. I picked up a copy of The Boy in the Smoke, a companion to Maureen Johnson's Shades of London series and not currently available in the US, in Cardiff, and in Oxford, I snagged a copy of AS King's Ask the Passengers, another deep cut from the TBR list.

I started E&P in Ireland, but I took my time reading it because I felt potential devastation coming on, and in fact, I only finished it while I was in Heathrow Airport yesterday morning waiting for our flight home. It was really excellent. It's a love story between the two titular characters set in Omaha in 1986. You know this isn't going to be a twee happily ever after book, and I think if I hadn't been so totally destroyed by Liars, this book would have wrecked me. It's a beautiful and painful story about first love between Eleanor and Park. Eleanor has just moved back to Omaha after her stepdad, a real piece of work, had kicked her out of the house for a year. Eleanor's homelife is, too put it mildly, not good. And to make things worse (as far as teenage life goes), Eleanor cannot (and will not) make herself blend in with the crowd. When she gets on the bus, the only open seat is next to Park, a kid who's spend a lot of time and social currency to blend in and fly under the radar. And then Eleanor sits beside him and everything changes. The novel is bittersweet in the best ways. It's a beautifully real, and beautifully realized story of first love.

In the middle of reading E&P, I devoured Ask the Passengers. I hadn't meant to buy it, but I foolishly left E&P at my friend's house the day I went to Oxford. I had nothing to read on the train ride over, and when we passed Blackwell's, a well-known bookstore in Oxford, I stopped in to see what they had. I'd been looking for another copy of Boy in the Smoke so I could give one to my friend Jen (sorry, J, you'll have to just borrow mine), but got this instead. It's about Astrid, a teen living in the "perfect" small town of Unity Valley, New York. Astrid is keeping a lot of secrets, but the biggest is that she thinks she might be gay. The story is about Astrid's quest to figure out for herself who she is and what, if any, labels she'd like to wear. While there is a lot of drama in this coming out story, it doesn't end in total tragedy, which I really like. Everyone asks Astrid for answers, and she allows herself to give the best answers she can when she can (to the great exasperation of her family) but to know that the answers might evolve as she does. I really Astrid. She's smart and determined to find her own answers, but she's not going to go with what's convenient just to stop the talk of the town, even when it gets pretty bad. This book had some devastating moments, but because Astrid manages to keep her head up, even when it's incredibly difficult, I was buoyed by the story.

I'm reading Attachments now, and I just picked up The Lost Sun, the first book in Tessa Gratton's United States of Asgard series, which I have heard MANY wonderful things about. I'm also going to read The Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida, inspired by my trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Summer is looking very good indeed.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Guys, it's no big deal or anything* but I am currently in Cardiff, Wales. I just saw this and flipped my shit. Probably because I got up at 3 AM because I had an early flight from Dublin to Cardiff and not at all because I'm obsessing over The Raven Boys. It's totally the flight**.

* It is totally a big deal.
**I'm absolutely obsessed.

Edited 6-30-2014 to add another photo and to squee a little bit in reminiscing. Squeeee!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Okay, here is my entire review of this book.




This book is a beautiful punch in the face. Read it.

The end.

(If you're into knowing plots and things, look at Goodreads or Amazon, but really, just read this.)

Edit: It's been a few hours since I finished the book, and I can already tell that this gut-punch of a book will not soon leave me. It ranks up with How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff in that regard. It's incredible.