Books Read in March

It was quite a prolific reading month. I’ve found that YA novels are a bit like potato chips- you can’t stop at just one.

“Feathered” a YA novel by Laura Kasischke

Oh, he is not a human.

Three midwestern girls fly off to Mexico for spring break where they can experience boys, exotic drinks and a foreign land all without the shelter of their parents. Two of the girls’ friendship is tested as they accept a ride from a stranger to explore the Mayan ruins and the danger they are in is slowly revealed. Kasischke’s prose is as lush as the landscape she describes and the suspense is precisely wrought.

What I learned: Prose that borders on poetry combined with a close observation of the characters and setting creates an eerie tale that allows you to almost forget the real news story it may or may have been based on.

“Wintergirls” a YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson

So she tells me, the words dribbling out with the cranberry muffin crumbs, commas dunked in her coffee.

Determined to stay in control as her life disintegrates around her after the divorce of her parents, remarriage of her father and, most recently, the death of her former best friend, Lia descends into the dark world of anorexia. It’s a world she is comfortable in. A world where girls can gather on-line to encourage each other to stay the course. To stay strong. Strength is measured in calories denied and calories burned. In addition to anorexia, Lia flirts with cutting as a way to release the pain she carries. The story mesmerized me as a writer but as a mother of teenage girls it also terrified me.

What I learned: A story written deep within the mind of its character can shine a light on the darkness for its readers, letting them feel seen and heard if only by a fictional character.

“Living Dead Girl” a YA novel Elizabeth Scott

This is how things look: Shady Pines Apartments, four shabby buildings tucked off the road near the highway.

This was a tough read. Really tough. It’s the story of Alice,a fifteen-year-old girl who was abducted from a field trip to an aquarium when she was ten. She learns to endure the pain, the humiliation, the absolute loss of power. If you’ve ever read about a real life abduction that took place over years and could not fathom how the child never managed to escape, Alice’s story will give you a chilling look into the dynamic between the child and her captor.

What I learned: Terror can best be revealed in simple, stark prose.

“Blackbox” a YA novel by Julie Schumacher

Elena’s older sister, Dora, is diagnosed with depression and admitted to a hospital. During one of their visits Dora whispers “save me” to Elena and Elena takes the request seriously. As her parents begin arguing more and more, Elena is determined to do whatever she can to save her sister. It’s a beautiful story of sisters and a big step in shining a light on mental illness.

What I learned: Sometimes a one sentence chapter can be the most powerful.

“Grass Angel” a YA novel by Julie Schumacher

Summer camp, Frances Cressen understood, was for kids–not their parents.

Frances can’t wait for summer camp with her best friend, Agnes, but Frances’ mother has other plans. She wants to take Frances and her younger brother, Everett to a commune ion Oregon for the summer, maybe longer. After refusing to go, Frances watches in disbelief as her mother drives away with Everett, leaving her to live with Aunt Blue in her house by the graveyard. A stranger is renting her house, camp is not what she expected it and Frances is still stunned that her mother left her behind not to mention kids at camp are telling her stories about the commune where her mother it leading Frances to do some of her own research.

What I learned: Choices define and reveal characters. It’s essential, as a writer, to put your characters in situations and see what they choose to do.

“The Patron Saint of Butterflies” a YA novel by Cecilia Galante

“Please tell me what to do,” I whisper, staring at the crucifix on the wall.

This novels alternates chapters between Agnes, who is determined to become an actual saint, and her best friend, Honey, who is determined to break away from the confinement of the  commune where she was born and where her mother abandoned her. Agnes’ grandmother shows up for an unexpected visit and learns of a dark side of commune life. Afraid for their safety she takes the girls and Agnes’ brother away from Mount Blessing. Being out in the real world where Wal-Mart is overwhelming and a Big Mac unknown, the girls’ friendship is tested especially as more lies are revealed.

What I learned: Alternating chapters between the two main characters acts as a prism through which the story is told, revealing more than one side of the story.

“Before I Fall” a YA novel by Lauren Oliver

They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.

What a great first sentence! Talk about starting in the middle of things. Well, it worked on me. I checked this book out of the library at 4:00 in the afternoon and finished it by 11:00 that night. I could not put it down. It’s the story of the day that sixteen-year-old Samantha Kingston dies, then proceeds to live that same day over and over. Seven times, in fact. What would you do if one day was your last day? How would you live your life? Samantha tackles these questions and more in this beautifully written, complex and thoroughly engaging novel.

What I learned: An intriguing premise combined with lovely writing and a complicated character equals a book you can’t put down.

“Freaky Green Eyes” a YA novel by Joyce Carol Oates

Later, I would think of it as crossing over.

After an incident at a party, Franky Peirson discovers a secret part of herself she calls Freaky Green Eyes, a part not afraid to see or say the truth, unlike Franky. When her parents separate and her mom disappears, Franky wants to believe her sports celebrity father. She wants to believe that her mother just took off. It’s easier to believe this than what Freaky green Eyes is actually true. Another page turner.

What I learned: Structure is critical to the suspense of a story. Oates revealed exactly what was necessary and only when it was necessary and she did it in a way that made the suspense near pitch perfect.

“Big Mouth & Ugly Girl” a YA novel by Joyce Carol Oates

It was an ordinary January afternoon, a Thursday, when they came for Matt Donaghy.

In the aftermath of school shootings across the country, any remark, with or without context, is taken seriously. Matt Donaghy, who has always been a big mouth, finds this out when he is taken out of class by two detectives who question him about threatening to blow up the school. Ursula Riggs refers to herself as Ugly Girl, is the unlikely heroine in Matt’s story. She is the one person who heard what Matt actually said. The one person who can help him.

What I learned: Teenage characters can be richly layered instead of mere stereotypes.

“Taking the Leap- Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears” by Pema Chödrön

As human beings we have the potential to disentangle ourselves from old habits, and the potential to love and care about each other.

In my efforts to watch much less TV, I have been reading a spiritual/inspirational book while I eat my breakfast. This was the first one and what a lovely way to start the day. I found myself underlining many, many passages. It felt like she was speaking directly to me. This is a book I will turn to again and again.

What I learned: It’s all about being in the present and not using our usual vehicles to escape what we deem unpleasant.

“What I Didn’t See and other Stories” stories by Karen Joy Fowler

For her birthday, Norah got a Pink CD from the twins, a book about vampires from her grown-up sister, high School Musical 2 from her grandma (which Norah might have liked if she’d been turning ten instead of fifteen), an iPod shuffle plus an Ecko Red T-shirt and two-hundred-dollar darkwash Seven Jeans–the most expensive clothes Norah had ever owned–from her mother and father.

We travel far and wide in this eclectic and fascinating collection of stories from a horrifying reform school to an archaeological site in Egypt to the Congo to tunnels in Vietnam. Two stories explore Lincoln’s assassination from the point of view of Booth’s family and friends. The expanse of Fowler’s imagination is inspiring.

What I learned: To let your natural curiosity lead your writing. No telling where you (or your reader) will end up.

“Sunset Park” a novel by Paul Auster

For almost a year now, he has been taking photographs of abandoned things.

Set against the bleak economy following the 2008 financial collapse we follow several characters who are connected through Miles Heller. Miles disappeared from his life over seven years ago. He finds himself in the position of needing to abandon his new life, once again which leads him to his old life. He ends of squatting in an empty house in Sunset Park with a group of young people led by Bing, the one person Miles had kept in touch with. Then there’s his mother, a celebrity who is back on Broadway, his father who’s struggling to keep his marriage and publishing house afloat, Pilar, the girl he is in love with. There is so much more that goes on in this novel but that is the bare bones of it. The story is incredibly layered, rich and bittersweet.

What I learned: That endings need to feel inevitable even if it’s not how we pictured it. This one does exactly that.

“Making Toast” a family story by Roger Rosenblatt

The trick when foraging for a lost tooth in coffee grounds is not to be misled by the clumps.

I stumbled across this little gem of a book while visiting a small indie bookstore, The Bookbug, in Kalamazoo. It caught my eye because I had recently read a book he wrote about teaching a writing class. This is the much more personal story of his adult daughter’s unexpected death and the decision he and his wife made to move in with their son-in-law to help care for their three young grandchildren. I was drawn to this book since my sister went through a similar experience after the death of her husband when her in-laws moved in with her and her sixteen-month-old daughter. The story mesmerized me not only because of my sister but because his writing is just so clear, honest and bare. As E.L. Doctorow wrote on the cover blurb, “Written with such restraint as to be both heartbreaking and instructive.”

What I learned: That it is possible to write to write a beautiful yet heartbreaking story without ever resorting to melodrama or self -pity.



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