Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler

hunger“Lisabeth Lewis didn’t mean to become Famine. She had a love affair with food, and she’d never liked horses (never mind the time she asked for a pony when she was eight; that was just a girl thing).  If she’d been asked which Horseman of the Apocalypse she would most likely be, she would have probably replied, “War.”  And if you’d heard her and her boyfriend, James, fighting, you would have agreed.  Lisa wasn’t a Famine person, despite the eating disorder.”

This is the story of how an anorexic seventeen-year-old became one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, along with Death (bearing a strong resemblance to Kurt Cobain) and their companions Pestilence and War.  One day-actually, the same day of her attempted suicide- the delivery man shows up, bearing a set of scales.  She accepts the scales, and finds herself newly employed as Famine, complete with menacing horse waiting for her in the garden.  (Ok, well, he’s not so menacing-he prefers eating pralines to shedding blood, but Lisa’s not your typical Famine, either).

Lisa’s new job takes her far away from her troubles at home: a concerned boyfriend, a self-destructive friend, her constant struggle with food.  As Famine, she sees firsthand the devastation of hunger, and learns about her terrifying new powers.  Famine, it seems, not only has the power to kill and destroy, but also heal and nourish.  Is it possible that Lisa’s job as Famine will give her the strength to recover from her eating disorder?

Friends, I’ve read a lot of books about eating disorders.  Most of them follow the same girl gets sick-girl denies sickness-girl forced into treatment-girl gets better arc; it’s not necessarily a bad plot, but the focus on disordered eating behaviors and calorie counts and weights can be triggering and counterproductive.  This is absolutely not one of those books, though-it is definitely shortlisted for Shanna’s “Great Books about Eating Disorders that Won’t Make You Nuts with Incessant Calorie Counts” Prize.  Kessler infuses the novel with gallows humor, witty dialogue, and great twists.  What I loved most was the underlying message, delivered in the least preachy way possible: Lisa finds that she must care for herself so that she can care for others.  This short, clever novel is one that will appeal to reluctant readers, fans of fantasy, and anyone who’s struggled with similar issues.

Happy reading!

Author’s website: http://www.jackiemorsekessler.com/

Kessler, Jackie Morse.  Hunger. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2010. 177 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

If you liked this book, she’s got two more in the Riders of the Apocalypse series:

Rage

Loss

and another one coming soon!

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Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

“’Hannah, where was I last night?’ I whispered.

‘What are you talking about, you idiot?’

‘Just help me out. What was I doing last night?’

‘You tried to pay me to IM Bethany and convince her to go out with you. And then you took a shower that was so long you emptied the hot water tank.’

Oh. That.

‘Thank you,’ I said.

I couldn’t have done it.  It wasn’t me. Good. Sometimes I scared myself, because once you’ve thought long and hard enough about doing something that is colossally stupid, you feel like you’ve actually done it, and then you’re never quite sure where your limits are.”

Tyler is on probation for his Foul Deed: defacing school property.  That might not be so bad, but when combined with a rocky relationship with his Corporate Tool Father, the social trials of high school, and his mad crush for the beautiful Bethany, Ty’s struggling.  Worse still, when Bethany drinks too much at a party, and pictures of her get plastered on the internet, Ty is the logical suspect: after all, they were sort-of dating, and he already did something stupid and ended up on probation.

He didn’t do it, but nobody believes him. He gets beaten up, placed on an informal in-school suspension, and ostracized.  The police take his computer.  His father sends away applications for military school.  And Tyler?  Well, he ends up in his dad’s bedroom, with a handgun in his mouth and little to keep him from taking his life.

Just like the stamp on the first page says, “This is not a book for children.”  But I think it’s a book everyone should read: not only because of the very relevant topics (bullying, suicide, internet privacy), but also because of the skillful writing.  Laurie Halse Anderson is a genius with voice.  Perhaps anyone could put together a book about bullying and how much it sucks to be a teenager sometimes, but not many writers can craft such believable, sympathetic characters.  Ty is angsty, hormonal, tender, brave, and terrified by turns.  He’s also wickedly funny, and that’s the best part of this book.  That’s where I think Anderson’s strength lies: she creates great characters, and the first-person perspective allows readers to really get to know them through their thoughts.  Ah, I love it!

This book is a great combination of traditional coming-of-age elements, family drama, and an interesting, believable storyline.  I think you’re going to really love it.  If you’re fans of other realistic teenage problem books like Anderson’s novel Speak, or Matt De La Pena’s Mexican White Boy, this is one you shouldn’t pass up.  Also, it won the ALA Best Book for Young Adults, as well as being chosen as an ALA Quick Pick.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://madwomanintheforest.com/

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Twisted. Viking: New York, 2007. Ages 15 and up. 250 pp.

Identical by Ellen Hopkins

“At ten it isn’t exactly

easy to separate

good touch

from bad

touch,

proper

love from

improper love,

doting daddy from perv.”

Kaeleigh and Raeanne are identical twins: beautiful, wealthy, well-dressed, living in a large house in a prestigious area.  Their father is a respected judge, and their mother is on her way to winning a seat in the Senate. Of course, (remember, this is an Ellen Hopkins book), nothing is as nice as it appears.  After a devastating accident when the twins were young, their father begins drinking, abusing prescription medication, and sexually abusing Kaeleigh.  Their mother spends more and more time on the campaign trail, feigning ignorance of the situation at home.  The girls try to compensate for the devastation in the family in various ways: Raeanne sleeps with guys to get drugs, using sex, drugs, and alcohol to medicate herself.  Kaeleigh binges and forces herself to vomit, and cuts herself in the shower.  Both girls despair of ever being whole again.

I can’t say much more, because I don’t want to give anything away.  The ending is surprising, and felt slightly contrived, but after problems with the scope and nature of Raeanne’s and Kaeleigh’s, that is understandable.   It’s hard to resolve such trauma in the space of a single story, and I don’t feel like the ending will be objectionable to younger readers.  Furthermore, I think Hopkins handles the emotional fallout of sexual abuse in a very realistic way, which makes up for the ending.

 This is a novel in unrhymed verse, and many of the poems are shaped to look like hearts, letters, and other designs.  However, it still reads quickly, and the arrangement doesn’t interfere with ease-of-reading.  That said, the topics do.  This book was so disturbing that I was compelled to finish it in the space of seven tense hours.  I just wanted to get through it, so that I could be free of it.  Compelling isn’t the half of it: once I started, I had to finish.

I know that Ellen Hopkins is a wildly popular author, and readers are constantly clamoring for more, and any book that makes young people want to read is a winner with me.  Yes, please! If you love books about tough stuff, this one may be for you.  Hopkins is undeniably a skilled writer, and her novels fill an important space in the YA lit world.  When we refuse to address certain topics, it creates a shroud of shame around them, which is why I applaud authors who don’t shy away from tricky subjects.  However, I would recommend this book only to very mature readers, due to the graphic content.  We’re talking incest, drugs, bulimia, self-injury, BDSM, alcoholism, and date rape.  This isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com (Right now, it’s currently under construction, but you can look her up on Facebook, if you want!)

Hopkins, Ellen. Identical. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2008. 565 pp. Ages 16 (a mature 16) and up.

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

“Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Cherokee and Witch Baby huddled on the pink bed and cried. Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplin boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and a Duck, a Slinskter Dog, and a movie to dance in.”

Weetzie Bat is a sparkly, quirky, delight-of-a-character. She wears improbable combinations of old prom dresses, feathered headdresses, and sugary make-up, and spends all her time appreciating her world, Shangri-L.A. (It’s sort of like the 80’s club scene with a little 50’s Hollywood influence).  She and Dirk, her gay best friend, spend their days eating Oki-dogs, the “wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hotdog and pastrami burritos”, cruising the beautiful city in his vintage Pontiac, looking at the ocean, and recharging at Dirk’s grandma’s colorful house of love.

When a genie appears and grants Weetzie three wishes, she wishes for loves for her and Dirk, a house for them to live in together, and a happily ever after.  This is the fantastic story of the wishes coming true! (But I value you and your skepticism, friends, so please don’t think that “happily ever after” is presented here as “there-is-no-suffering”.  I don’t buy that, and neither would you.  That said, it’s still a happy book). Also in the book, there is a baby, and then a Witch Baby, a death, some panicking, and a triumph. I like how it’s not too easy to predict the flow of the story, but that it doesn’t seem strained, either.  Nice!

Do you remember Girl Goddess #9?  Yes, the really good collection of short stories I reviewed not too long ago-the one that made me want to read everything else the author wrote?  Well, this is the book that started Francesca Lia Block’s storytelling career, and it’s really lovely. In the tradition of Stargirl and Sorta Like A Rock Star, Weetzie Bat shimmers with individuality and sincerity and I know you are going to love her!

This is a very short book, but full of heavy topics (AIDS, suicide, drinking) as well as fun things like magic (really-there’s a genie!), love, old movies, palm trees, and hot dogs!  ALA picked it right up and awarded it the Quick Pick and the Best Book honors, so you can’t really go wrong there.  Better still, if you love it, there are more: Goat Girls and Beautiful Boys, so you can look them up right after you finish!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.francescaliablock.com/

Block, Francesca Lia. Weetzie Bat. New York: HarperCollins, 1989. 109 pp. Ages 14 and up.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

“Miss O’Brien looked at me-I didn’t see her looking at me but I knew she was.  She wanted to know who I was.  Who was Steve Harmon?  I wanted to open my shirt and tell her to look into my heart to see who I really was, who the real Steve Harmon was.

That was what I was thinking, about what was in my heart and what that made me.  I’m just not a bad person.  I know that in my heart I am not a bad person.”

Hi from library school in Montreal, friends! Look what I have for you: a fast read, an incredible story, written by an author you should definitely get to know, if you don’t already. You are going to go crazy about this one!

Steve Harmon got mixed up in some bad business.  Felony business.  He’s a 16-year-old who grew up in Harlem, and he agreed to be the lookout for a friend who was planning to rob a drugstore.  The robbery went south, the owner was shot and killed, and Steve finds himself looking at 25 years to life in prison if he is convicted.   The story follows his trial, from his own perspective.  He talks about prison, and his deepest fear: everyone looks at his brown face and hears about the crime, and thinks he is a monster.  Deep inside, he’s afraid that everyone might be right.

See all those shiny medals on the cover?  Those are the biggies: Printz, National Book Award Finalist,  and Coretta Scott King award.  Plus, Walter Dean Myers has been awarded the Margaret Edwards Award, the one given to honor lifetime achievement.  That’s only handed out to one author, once a year.  Big stuff, guys!  Of course, there are amazing books and authors that go unrewarded out there, too, but the awards are a great guide if you’re not sure what you want to read.

So, awards aside, the beauty of this book is its gritty story, simpler language, and unconventional format (a pastiche of journal entries and film script).  The format makes it especially appealing to ELLs, or older students who may need a really good hook and a fast-paced read, as well as anyone not looking for a straight-up, novel-style read. ( However, while it may be a quick read, Myers definitely does not sacrifice emotional impact or plot.) I finished it over the course of a week, but that was because I was interrupted by an international move, and after the furniture-assembling, apartment-cleaning, grocery-st0re-finding-missions, and hours-long Skype phone calls, all I could do was read for a few minutes and fall asleep with my cheek smashed into the pages.  Thanks for being patient-I really did want to get this finished and share it with you!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website :http://www.walterdeanmyers.net

Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. 281 pp (but it reads quickly!). Ages 13 and up.

Girl Goddess # 9 by Francesca Lia Block

“They like to dance together better than dancing with boys because they can be more sexy and free and not worry that the boy is feeling self conscious.”–Pixie and Pony

“The most beautiful people are the ones that don’t look like one race or even one sex.” — Winnie and Cubby

“No other kid at my school lived with two women who slept in the same bed and kissed on the lips all the time.”   –Dragons in Manhattan

” I am bringing lost girls back from underground.” -Orpheus

My beautiful sister brought me this book back from San Francisco, and I am in love with it, an unashamed crush that makes me want to fly kites and sing enthusiastically and leave positive body image decals in fitting rooms.  Yeah, it is that good!  Have I ever steered you wrong, my dear friends?

This is a collection of nine short stories, which I was already inclined to love, because I believe the short story is so often overlooked as a genre, and it is a great way to entice readers who are, perhaps, intimidated by a longer format, and disdainful of the shorter, though often more opaque, poem.  Isn’t that sneaky?  Besides,  this collection is stellar.  The stories all center around girls and young women, all told with a lush, almost magical, voice.

La’s poet mother is dead, Tuck has two mothers, Winnie is in love with her boyfriend Cubby, who loves other men, and Pixie and Pony are the best friends to ever grace the pages of a book.  These are their stories: full of sparkly hope, growth, and language that makes you think of paintings and constellations and water glinting off the ocean.  You can finish the book in a few hours, but you will probably want to hold on to it for days.  If you know a girl, or you are a girl, (I am pretty sure that is everyone. Just sayin’!) you should read this book.  Here’s why: this collection is special because it returns the magic to femininity and celebrates that power inherent in young women, the strength that society so often likes to overlook .  What I loved most was the contrast of the setting (often a gritty city landscape) and the tapestried beauty of the characters’ inner dialogues and relationships with others.  The stories are straightforward in plot, and feel like little snapshots in a photo essay entitled “Being a Person”.

Francesca Lia Block is the author of many amazing books, including Weetzie Bat and The Rose and the Beast.  She won the Margaret Edwards lifetime achievement award, which is actually code for Super Amazing Goddess Writer Who Makes the World Better Just By Existing.  Everything she has ever written is now on the top of my to-read list, and I am mailing this beautiful book to a friend who is going to love it, as long as she promises to mail it to someone else after she is finished.

On a side note, do you remember when I reviewed The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, and someone described it as “magical realism”?  I loved Bender’s style, and Francesca Lia Block gives me the same feeling.  I think you will like it!

On an even more unrelated side note, I got my student visa and am leaving for McGill in Montreal for library school this week!  Oh sweet goodness, I am going to be a librarian!

Happy Reading (and I love you)!

Author’s website:  http://www.francescaliablock.com/

Block, Francesca Lia.  Girl Goddess #9. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. 181 pp.  Ages 13 and up.

Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn

“I wanted to talk, wanted to tell Tom everything, things I’d never told him or anyone.  Not only about my father, but about me and Cat, that sometimes I felt so out of control with her.  But about my father too, how afraid I was of becoming like him.”

Nick is a wealthy teenager, with the cars and clothes to match, and a life that seems pretty perfect on the outside.  But now, he’s in court, slapped with a restraining order and mandatory anger management classes.  He’s there because he beat his girlfriend.  He blackened her eye and bloodied her nose.  Before that, he hurled insults, manipulated her emotions and demanded her compliance.  He made her afraid.  Now, he’s telling the story in a series of journal entries required by his anger management counselor.

It’s an all-too-common refrain: Nick learned violence at the feet of his father, who, in turn, learned it from his.  To his own grief, Nick cannot seem to control his anger, and takes it out on his lovely girlfriend, Caitlin.   The book explores his complicated emotions: he is terrified of losing her, wracked with inadequacies, hates himself for hurting her, and feels compelled to keep her close by attempting to control who she sees, what she wears, and where she goes.  On top of all that, he is trying to hide his own father’s abuse from his friends and teachers.

Oh, friends! This was a tremendously wrenching read for me! Nick’s honesty is raw, and his recounting of the abuse is brutal.  I was up at midnight last night, crying over some of the horrible things he said to poor Caitlin, and then crying even more because you can’t just write him off as a horrible person and hate him.  That’s the genius of this book:  Alex Flinn reveals Nick’s inner thoughts and motivations for his behavior. He’s multi-dimensional, rather than just abusing his girlfriend because he gets pleasure from her pain.  He’s not a straight-up monster.  That’s not how it works.  He is an abused teenager who does not know how to stop the cycle.  It’s heart-breaking.  It’s realistic.  And it is so, so painful.

This is not a long book, but the intensity of the voice was so hard for me to take that I spent a few days reading it.  This book falls into one of those categories like Laurie Halse Anderson’s books Wintergirls or Speak: they are hard to read because of the trauma and the grief they call up in the reader.  That’s powerful writing!  And because of that, Breathing Underwater won the ALA Best Books and Quick Pick awards, and about a huge list of other honors, too.  It’s not easy (emotionally) to read, but it’s worth it, and we should all be grateful there are authors willing to tackle difficult subjects from every perspective.

Alex Flinn has written a sequel, Diva, from Caitlin’s perspective.  It (and every other book she has written!) is on my to-read list.   I’ll let you know!  And if you have copies of any of them, please send them my way!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.alexflinn.com

Flinn, Alex. Breathing Underwater. New York: HarperTeens, 2001. 279 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

“Connor had known other kids at school who disappeared over the past couple of years.  One day they just didn’t turn up.  Teachers would say that they were ‘gone’ or ‘no longer enrolled’.  Those were just code words, though.  Everyone knew what they meant.”

The Heartland War is over now, a bitter battle over the sanctity of life.  As per the new agreement, life begins at conception and cannot be tampered with until a child reaches the age of thirteen.  However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, parents can choose to have their children “unwound”, by sending them to a “harvest camp” and having all of their organs  donated to others.  That way, life doesn’t technically stop; the teen keeps living, albeit in the bodies of many other recipients.  If you are not able to raise your baby until he or she reaches the age of thirteen, you can “stork” it: leave it on someone’s door stop and run away.  Finders, keepers, according to the law.

Unwind is the story of three teens.  Connor has behavior problems, and his parents have signed the unwind orders because they just can’t handle him acting out anymore.  Risa is a ward of the state, a piano player who simply wasn’t talented enough to be allowed to continue living (what with budget cuts and all, there isn’t enough money to invest in anyone but the most skilled).  Lev is a tithe, a child who was born to be a sacrifice under the tithing code, where ten percent of all wealth is given to the government.  They are all slated to be unwound, when Connor initiates a series of events (bus crash, human shield, lots of confusion) that allows all three of them to escape.  The three must then navigate the underground world of escaped unwinds, learning how to survive without drawing attention to themselves.  If they can make it until their eighteenth birthdays, they are home free.  But it certainly won’t be easy…

This futuristic tale is riveting; built around an interesting concept and driven by strong, complex characters.  Shusterman creates an elaborate world of these characters, and each one of them is interesting enough to merit a personal story.  His universe is populated by the Clappers, a dreaded terrorist group, a wizened antiques dealer whose shop is a front for the unwind version of the Underground Railroad, and an eccentric who creates a large-scale shelter for unwinds in the middle of the Arizona desert.  Everyone’s got a back story, and Shusterman lets us all in on it, which I absolutely love.  Even though it is a complicated world, with a lot of unfamiliar political and social situations, it is still very accessible to readers. That’s a tricky balancing act for many writers.  I really enjoyed that the story was not predictable, either.  I was expecting a daring escape, but there is just no way to guess where Shusterman will take readers next.  Awesome!

Unwind won two of the big awards:  it’s an ALA Best Book, as well as a Best Book for Reluctant Readers.  It also won about a billion state awards, including a placement on the Oklahoma Sequoyah Award list (my home state, folks!).  This is a fast-paced, engrossing read that covers heavy topics like the definition of human life, reproductive rights, politics, the ethical concerns of organ donation for profit, and governmental power.  I think you’re going to love it!  And if you do, you’re certainly in luck, because there’s going to be a movie version released, and also, Shusterman has written a ton of other incredible books!  So, while you’re waiting for the movie, you might want to try his crazy-popular Skinjacker series, which includes the books Everlost, Everwild, and Everfound.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.storyman.com

Movie website: http://unwindmovie.com

Shusterman, Neal.  Unwind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 335 pp.  Ages 13 and up.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

“We held hands when we walked down the gingerbread path into the forest, blood dripping from our fingers.  We danced with witches and kissed monsters.  We turned us into wintergirls, and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone.”

I debated whether to review this book or not.  I’m still not sure if I’ll leave this post up, or take it down in a few days.  The problem with books covering eating disorders is that a lot of readers migrate to them for their triggering effects, to garner the strength to continue their disordered eating patterns.  I know; I was there.  I lost seven years of my life to it.  I know the books well.  And readers who are seeking this book to further their illness will find it anyway, with or without my review.

This raw, challenging story relates Lia’s struggle with an eating disorder.  Her best friend, Cassie, recently died alone in a hotel room, a victim of a ruptured esophagus brought about by bulimia.  Both girls suffered from eating disorders, and perversely encouraged the behavior in each other.  Now Lia is haunted by Cassie’s ghost, who continues to encourage her in her downward spiral.  On the night of her death, Cassie called Lia thirty-three times, but Lia didn’t pick up, and now the guilt is destroying her.  Lia starves, fights with her family, stays awake miserably at night, trying to stave off Cassie’s image in her mind.  It’s not pretty.

But, with Laurie Halse Anderson’s storytelling prowess, it is skillfully and mesmerizingly told.  I’m reviewing the book because I think it’s different from other eating disorder stories, in that she focuses much more on the mental processes involved with anorexia, as opposed to a triggering recitation of calorie counts and weights.  While those elements are certainly present in the story, the majority of the text is consumed with Lia’s tortured mental machinations, and readers are transported into the nightmarish territory of her brain.

Blank pages, pages of orders that Lia gives herself, such as “Must. Not. Eat” repeated over and over, and her actual thoughts (scratched out in the text, but still legible), followed by what she feels she must think, all combine to create a very realistic portrait of the despair of grief and starvation, without glorifying it.  Like I said, I’ve been there.  It’s not a pretty place, and Anderson is clear with the message.   While I am still ambivalent about the subject matter, because I know it is so often misused by those struggling with similar issues, I am reviewing it because Laurie Halse Anderson is a master storyteller, and this is an excellently written book, that (to me), was careful to avoid exalting the illness.

It ain’t pretty, but it rings pretty true.

Happy Reading! (Actually, with this book, I feel like I can’t really say that, so I’ll amend to: Read it if you must, because it’s the best of all the books out there when it comes to a realistic portrayal of an eating disorder.)

I’d like to close with a quote from another reviewer, Jezebel: “Read without discussion or supervision, Wintergirls could indeed be triggering. But read as part of a conversation — or, perhaps, read by parents and other family members — the book could help make some teens’ worlds a little less dark”.

Author’s website: http://madwomanintheforest.com/

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Wintergirls. Penguin Books: New York, 2009. 278 pp. Grades 10-12.