Andrew Smith, Book Review, Brothers, Fiction, Young Adult

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith

Plot/Story:

Sixteen-year-old Jonah and his fourteen-year-old brother Simon are abandoned by their mother, left in their house without food, running water, or electricity. Their eldest brother is serving in Vietnam, with plans to return home soon, but they haven’t heard from him in months. The brothers soon realize that they have little chance of surviving on their own; so, with ten dollars and some spare clothes, they leave their New Mexico home and head west towards Yuma, Arizona, where their father is incarcerated and soon to be released. Not too far into their journey, the horse they have been riding on dies, so they are forced to make the rest of the journey on foot. At least, that’s what they should have done. Instead, brash Simon, never one to heed his older brother’s warnings, hails down a passing car which is being driven by an unlikely and unsavory pair, a sociopathic man and a pregnant teenage girl. At first glance, the man and the beautiful young girl seem like a couple of unlikely heroes. The boys soon realize, though, that their would-be hero is not what he appears. He has buckets of cash littering the trunk of his car. There’s a stolen Don Quixote statue in the backseat. Oh, and he also has a gun. But he’s not the only one packing heat. The question is: who will use his gun first, and why?


Characterization:

There are some ups and downs with characterization and character development. Some of the characters are well-developed and complex, particularly Mitch, the sociopath, and Matt, the eldest brother. The small glimpses into Mitch’s darker persona are spaced well and provide tantalizing precursors to the larger melt-down, which readers will anticipate but not be disappointed by when it finally arrives. Witnessing the boys’ elder brother’s descent into madness, caused by the horrors he is exposed to in Vietnam, is also intriguing; it adds complexity and character to the story’s sub-plot. I found Jonah, Simon, and Lilly less interesting, though they were the characters that received the most page time. Jonah’s deep, almost paralyzing infatuation with the girl comes about so quickly and without much explanation, making it difficult to believe (aside from a “teenage hormone” perspective). Simon’s anger toward his older brother is also near-immediately apparent, but it is there with little explanation or cause (Jonah seems like a decent guy and hasn’t done anything, that we know of, to make Simon mad at him). There’s the underlying “sibling rivalry” theme which works, of course, but the level of animosity the brothers have toward each other, particularly Simon toward Jonah, doesn’t really fit a “that’s what brothers do” kind of equation. We learn, later in the story, that there has always been conflict but developing that sooner, rather than forcing it to be assumed, could have helped the overall narrative. Still, the brothers’ relationship is engaging, tense and passionate, and ultimately resolved.       


Prose/Style:

The book is formatted as a third-person omniscient narration, but not really. It’s essentially from Jonah’s perspective, written after he has gained facts about events which he could not have witnessed in person, as well as narrating those events which he did witness first-hand. So, the feel of the narration is third-person omniscient because there is little question that everything written down has actually happened but, in actuality, the narration is limited. Because the portions of the novel pertaining to Matt, who is not physically present in the story, are written in epistolary form, Smith is able to get away with this somewhat; however, for the portions witnessed by Simon, Mitch or other characters, one does need to suspend analysis a bit and just let the story flow in order to enjoy it. Chapters are often headed with a character’s name, such as “Simon,” which helps the reader follow-along with who is saying what, when (although, ultimately, the entire story is Jonah’s map/journal).  Aside from the somewhat strange structure, I definitely enjoyed the language and the prose – both of which were appropriate to the age level and well-suited to the setting of the story and its tone. The pace is deliciously suspenseful, building slowly but with an almost liquid fluidity, like a syrupy trail winding its way through the desert: sticky, sweet, rich, and satisfying.      


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

One of the strangest things about the book is that it is difficult to completely like or completely hate any one of its characters (and this, incidentally, is one of the best things writers can do for their stories, in my opinion). There are complexities of personality – inner demons and better angels- associated with each of the characters, and it is up to the reader to practice compassion and understanding when dealing with them, particularly with the protagonist(s). Jonah, the narrator and main character, is not a typical hero. Mitch, the antagonist, is vile but also quite sad. Lilly is tragically desperate, seeking shelter wherever she can find it, with little concern for what it costs her. Simon is angry, tired of being treated like a child but not wholly prepared for the adult world he’s been thrust into, head-first. The book is about family and survival, it is about making difficult choices, sometimes between the lesser of two evils, and oftentimes it is about finding out how to recover after having made the wrong choices.   


Excerpt:

I pictured the first time we saw the girl, breezing past us in that Lincoln, blond hair whirling around her, her glasses tipped down, her smile, the stroke of her fingers. The teasing.

Simon tumbled the meteorite around in the sweat of his hand. I wondered what it would be like to look down at the earth, to fall, to burn brilliantly in the air like the image of the girl who passed by, kicking back dust like cosmic ash, and could she see that, now; was she up there above us?

I wondered.

We closed our eyes.

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Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Book Tour, Coming-of-Age, epilepsy, Fiction, Friendship, Young Adult

Review: 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

20493997Andrew Smith is a mad scientist. I imagine him, even now, sitting in his writing laboratory playing with every imaginable ingredient and coming up with another brilliant concoction of literary gold. This might sound like the delusions of a raving fanatic or a particularly creative reviewing mind, but considering Smith’s books continue to win universal praise and, more recently, critical notice and awards, perhaps it’s not so far from the truth after all.

100 Sideways Miles is another example of how brilliantly Andrew Smith can craft a totally readable, totally relatable, completely unique story. The main character, Finn, has been immortalized by his own father, a writer who has created a duplicate “Finn” in his fiction. The science-fictional Finn created by his father, and our fictional Finn (how meta!) are more than a little bit similar. They even share the same scars, the “real” Finn having earned his in a twist-of-fate accident involving a horse that falls from the sky onto Finn and his mother. The accident has lasting impact on Finn’s family, and in the way Finn sees the world (he begins to measure time in distance, for example).

In addition to Finn, who’s still a virgin in his late teens (the horror!), we meet Cade, the ridiculously-obnoxious-but-in-a-totally-loveable-way, Cade. He’s a bit of a big brother to Finn. Every day, he comes up with a new sexually-charged descriptor to attach to the shape of Finn’s scars, which might seem insensitive but is actually his way of helping Finn relax and feel less self-conscious about his body.

Aside from the two high school boys, there is, of course, a girl or two. Including “the girl,” Julia. Finn and Julia become star-crossed lovers; Finn, the epileptic local boy and Julia, the mysterious bombshell from 2,000 miles away (Chicago) who shows up in their small California town, without warning or explanation. The two quickly, and awkwardly, form an intense bond, one which will be tested when Julia returns to Chicago. Fortunately, Finn, Cade, and a road trip to end all road trips will return balance to the universe.

100 Sideways Miles is filled with humor, angst, confusion, sarcasm, and the typical teenagers’ point of view. This means the guys encounter situations involving drugs, alcohol, sex, and “foul” language. There’s also a “damn the man” attitude expected in any coming-of-age story (what are we if we don’t rebel against the last generation, at least a little?). All of this is treated realistically, though, without being gratuitous – it makes sense to the story being told and the lives these boys are living. And when you meet Finn, you’ll understand if he needs to curse once in a while.

Smith without a doubt knows how to spin a yarn. He gets into the minds of young people and shares their experiences, in their vernacular and on their own terms. He’s done this with Stick and Grasshopper Jungle. He’s done this in Winger and with In the Path of Falling Objects. He does it in Ghost Medicine and The Marbury Lens. And yet, he does it, somehow, in a completely innovative way, every time.

So, yes, Smith is a mad scientist. He is the Victor Frankenstein of contemporary young adult fiction, and we readers have become his insatiable monsters. Is the world finally ready for Andrew Smith? No matter. He hasn’t just arrived, he’s become ubiquitous. Ready or not.


If you’re interested in hearing more about 100 Sideways Miles and/or Andrew Smith, check out the book tour hosted by Amy of Lady Reader’s Stuff!

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Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Dystopia, Fiction, GLBT, LGBT, Science-Fiction, Young Adult

Thoughts: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

18079719Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

So, this is the way the world ends.  Not with a bang, but with a …uh… clacking-buzzing sorta sound? Yes, I think T.S. Eliot would be proud of Andrew Smith’s newest wasteland, which is to say, an average, all-American, small town in Iowa.  Of course, this small town just happens to be infested with gigantic, horny, insatiably hungry grasshoppers. Luckily, there is one historian present to witness and record the strange happenings that lead up to the end of the world: Austin Szerba.  Our narrator-historian is a corn-fed teenager just as horny and insatiable as the unstoppable grasshopper army. Okay, to be fair to the cannibalistic insects – Austin is probably hornier than they are.  But at least he doesn’t eat everybody. Young Szerba hilariously, but adeptly, graces his readers with the histories of a town, a family, a friendship, and the founding of a new world order.

Here’s the thing, though.  The premise of the book, as outlined above, might sound a bit ridiculous.  And, in spots, it’s far from believable.  This is because it’s rooted in science-fiction which, by its very nature, is not meant to be entirely realistic; yet, we know that much of science-fiction has indeed anticipated our actual scientific discoveries and technological advancements (anyone notice that Star Trek had tablets and wireless communication devices decades ago?). On the surface of Grasshopper Jungle, then, is an action-packed coming-of-age story with groovy, original and horrifying science-fiction elements.  Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find that Smith is asking some seriously profound questions about life, power, love, independence, and responsibility.

So, maybe mutated humanoids-turned-insects who breed like there’s no tomorrow (‘cause there ain’t, folks) isn’t your bag.  This book is still probably for you.  Why?  Well, because of everything else that Andrew Smith gives us in this book.

For example, we are saved from totally wigging-out over the nasty self-inflicted bug invasion at the core of the story by the presence of three very real, very believable, and very human protagonists who happen to be mired in a wonderfully messed up ménage à trois.  Robby loves Austin.  Shann loves Austin.  Austin loves them both.  It’s confusing and it’s painful.  It’s erotic and it’s maddening.  It’s teenage life in the Midwestern United States, where a young man is coming to terms with his sexuality, his family history, and, yeah, the realization that he just might be the destroyer of the world, the savior of it, and the chronicler of the whole damn thing, too. Holy shit.

What else can I say about this book?  Andrew Smith understands young adult males like few writers out there today.  He also has a superhuman ability to weave incredibly fantastical tales with deeply moving stories about the human experience and what it is like to grow up feeling different.  After Stick, and Winger, and so many other incredible books, it is impossible to deny that Smith has a cosmic connection with the teenage male psyche and all that comes with it.  So if you are prepared to enter that deeply disturbing, sometimes heartbreaking, but always hilarious world of the teen boy mind, then you will find no better avenue than this.


Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: Young Adult+

Interest: Science-Fiction, Coming-of-Age, Sexuality, LGBT, Friendship, Dystopia, Family, Fictional History. Midwest USA, Corn.


Notable Quotes:

“We never heard sirens in Ealing. It’s not that bad things never happened here, it’s just that nobody ever bothered to complain about it when they did.”

“History does show that boys who dance are far more likely to pass along their genes than boys who don’t.”

“I was on the conveyor belt toward the paper shredder of history with countless scores of other sexually confused boys.”

“Good books are always about everything.”

“History never tells about people taking shits. I can’t for a moment believe that guys like Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill never took a shit. History always abbreviates out the shit-taking.”

“History shows that an examination of the personal collection of titles in any man’s library will provide something of a glimpse into his soul.”


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Andrew Smith, Austen in August, Blog Post, David Levithan, David Shields, Helene Wecker, J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, Nancy Sommers, Personal, Shane Salerno, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Year In Review

Roof Beam Reader’s Best of 2013

Hello, Readers!

Since I surpassed my 2013 goal of 60 books read (I’m up around 64, right now, with 2 books in progress and likely at least 1 more to go) before year’s end, I thought I would take a cue from some of my favorite bloggers who are posting a “Best of 2013” list.

The list below includes a small selection of categories from which I’ve read this year, with one “favorite” spotlighted for each category.  These are books I’ve read in 2013, not necessarily books that were published in 2013.  I hope you enjoy!

Best Academic Text

15793484From Queer Theory and Feminism, to Linguistics, Rhetoric, and Film Studies, this was a year of heavily theory-based, academic reading, for me.  I read some incredibly interesting texts on the history of sexuality, the French Revolution, bibliographical and textual studies, and the creative writing process.  Of all of these academic texts, though, I think my vote goes to a short little book called Responding to Student Writers, written by Harvard Professor Nancy Sommers, whom I had the honor to meet and work with this summer.  As an English instructor (and, more specifically, a teacher of first year college composition), I found the suggestions, tips, tools, and resources in this booklet to be helpful, as was the CD of student interviews that came with it.  Nancy Sommers is a well-respected expert in the field, and for good reason.  If you are a teacher who often assigns essays/research papers, analyses, etc., then Sommers’ work shouldn’t be missed.

Best Book on Writing / Literary Theory

340793I read a number of books this year which would fall into the category of literary theory and/or “on writing.”  I thought it prudent, then, to mention some of these and to pick a “favorite” amongst a group of rather good texts.  These include, for instance. E.M. Forster’s groundbreaking Aspects of the Novel, Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Novel, Jim Powell’s graphic guide Postmodernism for Beginners, Judith Mayne’s brilliant collection of essays on feminist film studies, The Woman at the Keyhole, and Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird by Bird.  Of all the books that fit this category, though, my favorite overall has to be Virginia Woolf’s lecture series, A Room of One’s Own.  Anyone interested in writing, and particularly the historical connection of women and/or socioeconomic status to the process, should definitely check this one out.

Best Contemporary Fiction

13596166I did not read all that much contemporary fiction this year, which is not unusual (I tend to lean towards classics and/or academic texts).  Still, there were enough to be considered and I believe this is a popular category for many of my readers, so I thought I should name a few standouts. First is a wonderful collection of short stories by E.J. Runyon called Claiming One.  Another was the highly controversial but interesting Tampa by Alissa Nutting.   My favorite, though, had to be Stephen King’s Joyland.  Normally, King would probably be the stand-out in the horror/mystery/paranormal genre, and he certainly nailed it with Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining, but Joyland was much more akin to some of his earlier stories, such as “The Body.”  There was some suspense, some magical realism, and a bit of crime-thriller to it, but mostly it was a book about summertime, coming-of-age, and living life. I absolutely loved it.

Best Genre Fiction Book

15819028I read much more genre fiction this year than I did general fiction (other than classics, which will be addressed below), so I am excluding a general fiction category and simply focusing on those books which might be considered fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.  Of these, I have read a number of works, including The Gunslinger and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, both of which I highly recommend.  Also,  Inferno by Dan Brown, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Although Shirley Jackson’s book came close to taking the title, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by The Golem and the Jinni.  I finished it recently and have not had time, yet, to write & post a review, but it was a stunning piece of work.  There’s something of the old-fashioned Romantic wonder and awe of nature in this one – it is bits and pieces of Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson fused with contemporary narrative style. Loved it.

Best LGBT Book

17237214This is an important category for me.  As most of you know, I’m currently in my second year of Ph.D. studies in English, but I’m also about to finish my graduate certificate in LGBT studies.  That said, I have not limited this category to works “of literary merit.”  In this category, I considered books on theory, books which would be called “classics,” and also contemporary fiction, young adult, and whatever else. This made it a bit tough, as I had to choose from a range which included Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram (fantastic), Sexuality in Europe by Dagmar Herzog (fascinating), and Shine by Lauren Myracle (touching).  Others that deserve mention include Sodom on the Thames by Morris Kaplan, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  It was such a great pleasure to read so many awesome LGBT works of fiction and nonfiction this year.  The ultimate prize, though, has to go to the incredible Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan. This book touched my soul – it is a book that I felt had been missing from the conversation for far too long, and Levithan delivered it to us beautifully.

Best Nonfiction Book

18238043This is probably the largest category that I had to consider this year, with texts ranging from biography and autobiography to cultural studies, gender and sexuality, literary theory and criticism, and so much more.  It almost had to become separate categories, almost. Some of my favorites of the year included How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, Queer Theory by Annamarie Jagose, Vive la Revolution by Mark Steel, and Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich.  One of the books that I found most helpful, interesting, and readable was Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters.  When all is said and done, though, my absolute favorite nonfiction read this year was Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno.  If you settled for watching the documentary, then you are missing out on so much.  This biography, unlike others on Salinger, was in-depth, unbiased, well-researched, and revelatory in many ways.  Anyone interested in the life and works of J.D. Salinger should put this at the top of their list.

Best Work of Classic Literature

46133This was my second largest category to consider, and this final call was so difficult!  I love classic literature, so picking one book from such an incredible list of authors, periods, and subjects is almost impossible.  Some of the best of the year include O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, which shouldn’t be missed, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, which was a difficult but rewarding read, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams which was stunning, The Adventures of Don Quixote which was hilarious and which I enjoyed far more than I had anticipated. My favorite, though, goes to one of the first books I read this year and one which has stuck with me throughout 2013 – Orlando by Virginia Woolf.  It is poetic justice for Woolf, perhaps, that she has landed on this “best of” list twice, considering I used to vehemently refuse to read her books (I had one bad experience with her many years ago, and swore never to return!).  But Orlando is a stunning, daring epic.  She was disappointed with it (or, more accurately, with the supposed lack of focused attention she paid to it), but it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Best Young Adult Book

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith.  Not only was this the best Young Adult book that I read in 2013, but it was one of the best books I read this year, period.  The competition for this category was stiff, with books by Veronica Roth, Rick Riordan, David Levithan, Benjamin Saenz, Rick Yancey, Cassandra Clare, and Michael Scott to be considered. All of these books were enjoyable and some of them were downright incredible, but Smith’s Winger is a force to be reckoned with.  If you haven’t yet read this book, I would encourage you to read my review and see if it’s for you. Odds are, it is. I also highly recommend his other works, especially Stick, and I look forward to his next publication, Grasshopper Jungle, which is due out early in 2014.

Other Favorite Things

My favorite post of the year: On Horrors and Heroes

My favorite event of the year: Austen In August

My favorite review of the year: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

One blogger I couldn’t get enough of this year:  O of Behold the Stars

So, those were my favorites of 2013.  I am currently reading Ulysses by James Joyce and On What Grounds (Coffeehouse Mysteries #1) by Cleo Coyle, both of which I’m enjoying, for different reasons.  I plan to read one more this year – so that’s a possible three books I could add to this list of “favorites,” but let’s just leave them here as honorable year-end mentions, shall we?

What were YOUR favorite books this year?

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Andrew Smith, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Favorites, Fiction, Friendship, GLBT, LGBT, Loss, Young Adult

Review: Winger by Andrew Smith

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 36

Ryan Dean West is Winger, so nicknamed for the position he plays on the high school Rugby team.  He is fourteen years old and, being intellectually gifted, is already heading into his junior year of high school. He begins the new school year as a resident of Opportunity Hall, the “reject” wing of his school campus’s dormitories.  How did such a bright kid end up in exile?  Take one part smarty-pants, one part wild boy, and two parts bad judgment, and there you have it!  Living in Opportunity Hall with Chas, the school’s biggest bully, as a roommate sucks, but it is not the biggest of Winger’s problems.  And the fact that Chas’s girlfriend is totally lusting after him is bad, but still not the worst of it.  That one of Winger’s friends posts pictures of his band-aided scrotum on the internet and another is gay (how do you deal with that!?) definitely causes Winger some anxiety, but these are still not the worst of his issues.  No, the worst part is, he’s in love.  Not so bad?  Well, it is if you’re in love with your best friend.  And it’s really bad if your best friend is a girl two years older than you.  Two years might not seem like such a big deal to those of us who are now counting our birthdays in decades instead of years, but when you’re young, two years feels like a generation, especially when another guy, an older guy, your best friend, in fact, is competing with you for the same girl’s attention.  Winger is a classic coming-of-age story for the new era. It is smart, daring, honest, and dangerous.

One of my favorite things about Smith’s books has always been the characters.  Smith clearly knows and understands his characters inside and out.  No one in the story is there for the sake of being there – they are all integral to the story’s plot and progression, be it for comic relief, emotional growth, romance, sexual awakening, or whatever else.  Winger is no exception to this mastery.  The main character, Ryan Dean, is not the greatest guy in the world; in fact, he does some pretty lousy things.  But he’s growing up.  He stumbles and he learns.  He says stupid things, but reflects on them later.  We get annoyed with him, sometimes, but we root for him because we can see and remember our own journeys to adulthood reflected in his.  The bullies, too, Chas and Casey Palmer, are equally rounded – they are not all bad, and they are not just there because every protagonist needs an antagonist.  They have their stories and histories, too, and they are equally important to this world that Smith has created.  Although the story focuses on the students, Winger and his friends, Smith also captures the best and worst of adulthood.  There are teachers (Mr. Wellins!) who live in their own little obsessive worlds, trying to make their students see what they see in the things they love; there are absent parents and clueless mentors; there are even unlikely romances between creepy hall directors who ultimately let their residents down in the worst possible way.  This mixed bag of characters, their individualities, and their interconnectedness with one another and with the main story itself all help to create a story world that is believable and engaging, hilarious and terrifying – just like life.

When you have a favorite writer, the anticipation that builds when waiting to read his or her new book is a peculiar experience.  You know you love what they do, but part of you is always dreadfully afraid that the new book might disappoint.  When you’re a self-identified “reader,” there are few things more terrifying and heart-breaking than to be let-down by your favorite writer – it is a fear that few people can know or understand.  So, headed into this reading experience, having loved every single one of Andrew Smith’s published works to date, had me simultaneously nervous and excited.  I discovered Smith when I received an advanced copy of his book Stick from the publisher, for review.  Immediately after finishing it, I bought every one of his books.  And I’ve enjoyed all of them.  Smith has a distinct voice, a poignant style, and a raw and daring point of view.  It is remarkable, then, having already known what Smith was capable of, that Winger has blown my head right off.  Smith clearly cares deeply for this story – the language and style are creative and distinctive, without being distracting.  Smith understands people, but it takes a great storyteller to metamorphose that understanding into a readable, enjoyable story.  He does this in traditional ways, sure, but he also adds unique signatures to his prose and form.  For example, Winger carries on conversations with himself – something we probably all do – but has it ever been so realistically employed in prose?  I don’t think so.  The cartoons, too, add a fun element to the narrative, but also add to the reader’s understanding of the main character/narrator’s personality.  Sometimes his deepest feelings, though caricatured through comic, come across most pointedly in his drawings.  The dialogue, the jokes, the sarcasm, and the descriptions, too, are without flaw.

This year, I have been fortunate enough to have read some great young adult fiction from some of the most popular, award-wining writers.  Although the YA genre is not my particular specialty, I do enjoy it and read it often; in the last 5 months, I’ve read works by Rick Yancey, David Levithan, Lauren Myracle, Cassandra Clare, and Rick Riordan. I’ve enjoyed, to varying degrees, all of their books and have found much to praise about each writer.  But Andrew Smith stands unequivocally head-and-shoulders above the rest, and Winger is in a league of its own.  It is not uncommon to read blurbs and reviews that claim such-and-such book is THE book of the year – for whatever reason.  I have made a point, on this blog, to write my unbiased opinions of books, based on my own criteria – the things that work for me when reading a story.  I’m not sure I’ve ever, in a review, suggested that anyone go out and buy a book.  But there’s a time for everything, and this is that time.  Winger is the first book this year to capture my attention from the start and hold it to the end.  It’s the first story to tug at my heart, my soul, and my funny bone, and to make me believe that this story and the characters in it are real.  If you’re a lover of YA fiction or coming-of-age stories, or if you are, like me, someone who just loves a good story and will dabble wherever you need to in order to find it, then, for crying out loud, go experience Andrew Smith’s Winger.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: 13+ (Language, sexuality, violence).

Interest:  Coming of Age, YA, Boarding School, Friendship, Loss, LGBT, Bullying.

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was . . . things expand and contract – like breathing, but you could never fill your lungs up with the same air twice” (7).

“Getting through my world was like trying to swim in a pool of warm mayonnaise while carrying two bowling balls” (328).

“I wrote this all down, and I tried to make everything happen the exact same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it – real time – with all the confusion, the pressure, and the wonder, too” (411).

“Things get tough. And you’re supposed to grow up. And it’s all a bunch of bullshit” (411).

“It felt like it was going to snow, and the clouds hung so low and white that I couldn’t even see the tops of trees around me. It looked like there was a pillow over the face of the world” (423).

“Almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and, maybe, not having it” (438).

“The same words that make the horrible things come also tell the quieter things about love” (439).

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Addiction, Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Drugs, Dystopia, Paranoia, Violence, Young Adult

Review: The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 34

This review may contain minor spoilers.


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Poor Jack.  Sixteen years old and still a virgin.  Then, in one night, he has the opportunity to lose his virginity with the girl he likes, but chickens out; or, he can join his best friend in a threesome with his girlfriend, but he chickens out.  Later that night, he is picked-up by a doctor on a park bench and suddenly whether or not he remains a virgin may not be his choice, anymore.  Thus begins an incredibly wild ride, wherein Jack and his best friend, Conner, find themselves phasing in and out of two very different worlds.  In this world, they are inseparable, sharing a bond of love like that between two brothers.  In the other world, the hidden world seen only through the Marbury lens, they are mortal enemies – victims of entirely different circumstances and determined to survive, by any means necessary.  As Jack tries to balance between these worlds, he struggles with the fear and pain which were results of that horrible night with the doctor.  He meets a girl, tries to love her, but continues to drift away, like a junkie who can’t fight the desire for his next fix.   Jack and Conner, bound not just by their friendship but by what they did before their trip to London – what they did before they were introduced to Marbury, must find a way to come together in both worlds, or risk losing everything.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Usually, I am a fan of the characters in Smith’s stories.  He pays attention to characterization and character development because most of the stories (Stick and Ghost Medicine, in particular) are about the characters and their experiences.  The Marbury Lens, though, seems to be much more about the story and the bizarre worlds within it than it is about characters; because of this, I feel, the characters are lacking a bit.  Conner is probably the most likable and well-developed of the bunch.  Jack is interesting, but his back-and-forth perpetual decline seems permanently hopeless – if recovery or stability were ever a possibility (even if it turned out to be false hope or misleading), that would have added a great deal to his depth.  Jack’s parents are interesting in their absence, but his grandparents, in their presence, are shallowly evaluated.  Jack’s girlfriend, too, is rather dull – and their love story is not very believable, particularly considering the short time Jack & Conner spent in London, and how messed up Jack was (although, much of his time spent with the girlfriend is not shown to the reader directly, because he is simultaneously with her in the “real” world, while also with the boys in Marbury).  Perhaps the “real world” characters are less developed, though, because the intrigue is meant to be in Marbury.  Jack’s compatriots there, Ben and Griffin, are much more interesting, likable, and real than anyone, save Conner, who Jack might now outside of it.  Conner, of course, is present in both worlds, though, which might explain why he is the most interesting of them all.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The story is fast-paced, strange, and disturbing.  Its prose matches these elements in various ways.  To keep up with the pace (the boys are not in London very long, nor is Jack in Marbury very long, but much has to happen in this time), Smith has constructed the prose into small pieces, like tiny bursts of energy being detonated over and over again.  There are some slower moments, such as when Seth is telling his story through Jack, but these are few and far between, and are helpful in keeping the reader from feeling burnt-out or overwhelmed by the rapid-fire sequence of events, particularly the back-and-forth between “real” life and Marbury life.  The construction is also linear, but not, which reflects the strangeness of the story.  Jack will return from a short visit to Marbury (what seems like a few hours), only to find that days have passed in the real world, and he has no idea where he is or what has happened.  Photos, letters, text messages, voicemails and others’ memories will serve to fill-in the gaps for Jack. Ultimately, the pace, style, and construction of the work help to set its tone, which is dark and unrestrained.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Paranoia.  Guilt.  Addiction.  Self-abuse.  Violence.  These are the primary themes of The Marbury Lens.  At the beginning of the story, we find a classic case of “boy gets drunk and ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  He is abducted and nearly raped, two events which will remain with him forever.  But the true haunting comes from what happens when he and Conner find Freddie Horvath, the disturbing doctor, and decide to punish him for what he has done.  There is an exploration of cruelty to innocents – from Jack’s experience at the beginning, to Seth’s tale (a ghost who shares his story with Jack, and who suffers brutally for a so-called moral mistake he made when he was a boy, in the late-1800s).  Of course, Marbury itself is a place of violence and destruction, where all people are hunted down by monsters and brutally murdered and devoured.  What is most interesting, perhaps, is what makes it possible for Marbury to exist – what allows certain people to see through the glasses, when others see only blackness.  Jack, Seth, Freddie, Henry, and Conner – they all exist in both places.  They can all see Marbury, and the can see so because they all share one common, terrible experience. 


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: HS+
Interest: Violence, Guilt, Paranoia, Addiction, Dystopia, Multiverses, Escapism. 


 

Notable Quotes:

“Mind the gap.”

“What if the world was like one of those Russian nesting dolls?  What if we only saw one surface of it, the outside, but there was all kinds of other stuff going on, too?  . . . What if you had a chance to see a different layer, like flipping a channel or something?  Would you want to look?  Even if what you saw looked like hell?  Or worse?”

“. . . in Marbury there’s no doubt about the nature of things: good and evil, or guild and innocence, for example.  Not like here, where you could be sitting in the park next to a doctor or someone and not have any idea what a sick and dangerous sonofabitch he really is.” 


I read this book as a part of the Andrew Smith Saturdays event, hosted by Smash Attack , Not Now I’m Reading, Lady Reader’s Bookstuff and Roof Beam Reader

 

There is a read-along of The Marbury Lens currently taking place at Smash Attack Reads

The sequel to The Marbury Lens (Passenger) will be released on October 2nd, and I will definitely be getting a copy!

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Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Death, Family, Fiction, Friendship, Grief/Recovery, Ranching, Young Adult

Review: Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith

Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 32


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Ghost Medicine is Andrew Smith’s debut novel and, though there are some similarities to his later works (elements of danger, young protagonists, brotherly relationships at the core of the narrative), it is also quite a bit different.  The story is about Troy Stotts, a teenager who lives alone with his father and who is trying to deal with the loss of his mother.  He and his friends set out to have a summer of “Ghost Medicine” – a summer in where time stands still.  Troy works on the Benavidez ranch, owned by his best friend’s father.  The girl Troy is crushing on just happens to be Troy’s best friend’s sister, so a delicate balancing act beings, wherein Troy must figure out how to maintain his friendship with Gabriel while also building his relationship with Gabe’s sister, Luz. Joining this trio for a summer of danger and wild abandon are Tom Buller, a rough-shod ranch-hand youngin’ who is impossible not to fall in love with, and Chase Rutledge and his father, the deputy sheriff, one of whom harbors a violent anger toward Troy and his friends, the other of whom wants nothing but to retire with his full pension, even if that means lying about or ignoring his son’s misdeeds. It is a thrilling, precarious, life-changing summer – a summer none of them will ever forget.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Troy Stotts and Tom Buller might be two of my new favorite characters in YA fiction.  Tom Buller, especially, was impossible not to be attracted to; his primary characteristics include a hilarious sense of humor, a strong sensitivity, and a die-hard loyalty to his friends.  Troy, too, is incredibly loyal and brave, although a bit self-involved at times (he heads off for days at a time, and at all hours of the day/night, without much concern for how his Dad will worry).  Their friendship and the relationship they build with a lonely older woman, is indicative of what the summer of Ghost Medicine is all about: passion, freedom, and doing what’s right.  The two, together, are a joy to watch and, with the addition of Gabriel, Luz, Mr. Benavidez and other solid supporting characters, allows for a moving and entertaining story, progressing the plot in ways the narration does not always manage to do.  


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Smith is clearly a talented writer and storyteller and though this is his first novel, it demonstrates an understanding of language, pace, and tone that makes it clear to readers: “This is a writer.”  The story, though, does move rather slowly – it felt, sometimes, like swimming through molasses – liquid enough to move forward, but at a reduced pace.  Perhaps this is fitting, considering the story takes place in a dusty old ranch town, far from the nearest city.  Things are bound to be slowed down, here, and Smith’s prose does make the reader feel that.  Fortunately, the story does move forward without stalling, even if it is going slowly.  The characterization and the minor hints at danger and intrigue create just enough tension to keep things interesting, and keep the pages turning. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Perhaps the most interesting sub-elements of the plot are the various forms of “Medicine” that Troy creates, to suit certain situations that the boys (and Luz) find themselves in throughout the story.  Some Medicine makes them strong and some makes them disappear.  But the Ghost Medicine makes them have a summer that will last forever.  Troy is on the cusp of manhood and this summer is really the last between his boyhood and his adulthood – the story is not just about him coming to terms with the loss of his mother, but also with the loss of his innocence, his childish freedom.  His friends are on a similar path, except for Gabey who everyone seems hell-bent on trying to protect and to save from growing-up.  Unfortunately, the events of the summer do not spare anyone.  We all must grow up sometime.  


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: MG+
Interest: Friendship, Family, Coming-of-Age, First Love, Rural South, Ranching, Grief/Recovery, Loss, Death/Dying

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