Fiction Review: “The Carnival at Bray” by Jessie Ann Foley

Chicago Authors, Debut Novel or Collection, Fiction, Young Adult No Comments »

Carnival_at_Bray_FrontCoverRECOMMENDED

“There will be time to do the responsible thing.” Those words will echo with readers long after they finish “The Carnival at Bray,” the debut novel by local writer and English teacher Jessie Ann Foley. The responsible thing: sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch—a Chicagoan transplanted via her mom’s whirlwind remarriage to a man from the windy shores of Ireland—just going to school. Not going to the Nirvana concert in Rome, like her Uncle Kevin wants her to. Especially not with the boy she just met, Eoin, who can hold her so close when they dance. It’s 1994, before cell phones and Facebook, and everything is possible.

So there’s romance and music, staples of YA fiction. Dysfunctional family complete with bartender single mother and rock star uncle who’ve never really grown up? Check. Protagonist transported to strange and unfamiliar place and not entirely sure she likes it? Yep. But the specificity of place, whether it’s Chicago, Ireland, or Italy, carry this book to places far beyond the expected. The curls of ham on a pizza, the smell of goat pee in the morning, a nun’s wimple taking on the exact shape of cabbage—these moments spring off the page. Even the minor characters of Bray, Ireland, are sketched with fondness, as Maggie makes friends with a wily ninety-nine-year-old farmer and confidences in a scholarly yet steadfast English teacher nun. And for all the implausibility of the escape Maggie plans to undertake, there’s the endless plausibility of the working-class Chicago family dynamic, full of contradiction and throbbing expectation, that drives her to Rome. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Belzhar” by Meg Wolitzer

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After her first love dies, Jam Gallahue’s parents enroll her in a school for the “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teen to recover from her emotional distress. So begins Meg Wolitzer’s new young adult novel, “Belzhar.”

So deeply in love was Jam that she’s not able to function as she did before. “Reeve was different from the boys I knew—all those Alexes, Joshes, and Matts. It wasn’t just his name. He had a look that none of them had: very smart, slouching and lean, with skinny black jeans hanging low over knobby hip bones.” Wolitzer fans dubious of forays into young-adult literature should breathe easily: that sentence doesn’t end with “and he was a vampire.”

While Wolitzer seems like the quintessentially adult writer, from the sharp wit of “The Wife” to the ambitious, decades-spanning “The Interestings,” she’s acutely aware of that that teenage soul is nothing if not fraught with drama. More like her fairy tale-ish “The Uncoupling,” Belzhar treads fearlessly into fantasy. Jam’s school isn’t an institution, this is no “Girl, Interrupted,” although that is close to what’s happened to our young heroine.  Every student in the school is dealing with emotional problems and, presumably, has very wealthy parents to bankroll their child’s emotionally sheltering private education.

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Fiction Review: “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart

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WeWereLiars

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In “We Were Liars,” Cadence Sinclair and her mother go to the Sinclair’s private island, just as they’ve been doing for years. Her mother’s sister, her grandfather, and her cousins converge on this private paradise, each family to their own manor house. The oldest cousins and a friend of the family, Gat, are best friends and are known as the Liars. The younger cousins are The Littles, not yet involved in the intrigue of teenagers. This summer is different from before because seventeen-year-old Cadence is recovering from a memory loss that occurred on the island two years ago. She woke up without her clothes, on the beach with a head-wound and no memory of what had happened. Since then she’s felt abandoned by her friends and at a loss with her stiff upper lip family.

Written by E. Lockhart, a Printz honoree and National Book Award finalist, “We Were Liars” is a young adult book that will appeal to both teenage and adult readers. Lockhart’s characters are thinly disguised figures from “King Lear.” Cadence’s mother and two aunts stand in as Lear’s daughters, squabbling over who has the largest beach house and which grandchild is likely to get the largest inheritance. Cadence’s grandfather is the King Lear figure, growing ever more senile and infirm. If reading about wealthy, white New Englanders isn’t your cup of tea, consider, at least, that it’s based on Shakespeare. Cadence’s propensity to refer to her mother as “Mummy” does grow tiresome. But her affaire de cœur with the unrelated Liar, Gat Patel, brings a much-needed balance to this story. Gat’s sense of social justice doesn’t allow the Sinclairs to forget that their carefree summer vacation rests on the shoulders of their tireless servants or that he, as the brown visitor, is never fully accepted by the patriarchal figure. Read the rest of this entry »

Veronica Roth’s “Allegiant” and the YA Dystopia: The End of the World as We Know It

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By Megan Kirby cover_allegiant

Take the bus to Navy Pier on a dreary afternoon. Buy an overpriced ticket for the Ferris Wheel and ride alone to the top. Look out over the lake and imagine it drained and muddy, a stretch of grey marshland. Look back toward downtown and imagine the buildings cracked and broken.

This is the Chicago of Veronica Roth’s massively popular teen dystopian trilogy, “Divergent.” Roth grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and went to school at Northwestern University in Evanston. After orbiting the city her whole life, she set her series to the rattle of El cars in the shadow of the Willis Tower. At only twenty-five years old, Roth released the final installment to her trilogy: “Allegiant” went on sale October 22.

Combined sales for “Divergent” and “Insurgent,” the trilogy’s first two titles, passed a million last summer, and both books spent significant stretches on the New York Times Best Sellers list. A “Divergent” movie, filmed largely in Chicago, will be released March 21.  

Roth is one of the latest success stories capitalizing on an end-of-the-world trend—these days, grim, survivalist covers dominate the YA shelves. Most of these books follow similar setups. Some vague tragedy occurred in the past, war or sickness or famine, and survivors must build in the aftermath. Totalitarian governments rise up. Conformity and obedience are rewarded; rebellion is severely punished. Through this wreckage, a hero rises from the youngest generation. Adults are to blame for corruption and betrayals; past generations have failed. Salvation lies in youth. Read the rest of this entry »

How Bullies Think: Leslie Stella Talks Teens, School Violence and “Permanent Record”

Author Profiles, Fiction, Young Adult No Comments »

By Sarah Cubalchini lesliestella

Leslie Stella’s “Permanent Record” follows teenage boy Badi Hessamizadeh, an Iranian-American in post-9/11 America, who wishes to be a normal high-school student. After an incident with blowing up the school’s toilet, Badi is encouraged to attend a new school, where his name is stripped down to Bud Hess and he tries to get involved by writing for the school newspaper. But when mysterious threatening letters appear in the school newspaper, Badi’s troubled past and his much hated nickname, “towelhead,” come back to haunt him, and to prove his innocence, he must find out who’s the one writing all the letters.

After writing three adult novels, what inspired “Permanent Record?”
The idea first emerged as adult fiction about ten years ago. I wrote the book with the same setting (a Chicago private school) and some of the same characters, but from the perspective of a teacher who no longer appears in the book. (Badi, the protagonist in “Permanent Record,” appeared in that version, but as a supporting character.) That version didn’t work for a variety of reasons, so over the years and in between other projects, I rewrote it twice. I was drawn to something in that story over and over, and finally I had to figure out what it was. I realized what I had liked about the earlier versions were not the adult characters and their stories, but the teens. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Last Good Halloween” by Giano Cromley

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RECOMMENDED lastgoodhalloween

Around the halfway point of Giano Cromley’s debut novel, “The Last Good Halloween,” protagonist Kirby Russo is told by his reserved sidekick Julian that “I just realized this is like that Ferris Bueller movie.” Kirby quickly assures Julian that “What we’re doing is nothing like that movie,” but you can’t blame him for the comparison. After all, “The Last Good Halloween” is set in the eighties and features two young guys and a girl skipping school for a drive in the most cowed of the three’s father’s prized automobile. (In this case the drive is on Halloween 1988 and the car a 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner.) But as Kirby says, unlike Ferris they’re “on a mission,” and anyways Kirby’s grand rebellion much more resembles that of another smart-mouthed teenager’s: Holden Caulfield.

Kirby Russo is a member of that long line of literary protagonists that have come in the wake of JD Salinger’s most famous creation. Just as Holden calls everyone out as phony, Kirby refers to the majority of his parental figures by their first names, save for his actual father, whom he refers to as “Original Biological Contributor.” Also like Holden, Kirby takes a certain pride in his middling academic performance and claims not to be that smart. This is because Kirby is the kind of wounded asshole who you can’t help but feel bad for even as he willingly alienates the people he wants, and needs, to take him seriously. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Doomed” by Chuck Palahniuk

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RECOMMENDED doomed-us

In researching for his trilogy of books, loosely structured on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and potentially considered his first foray into young-adult literature, “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk drew upon Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” for inspiration. The play, itself an existential precedent to the John Hughes’ film “The Breakfast Club,” is the source of the quote “Hell is other people;” easily the central theme of the trilogy’s first book, “Damned.”

In “Doomed,” Palahniuk returns to the metaphysical odyssey of thirteen-year old Madison Spencer (deceased), and finds that, like with hell, other people are what make purgatory as well. Back on Earth as a ghost, Madison finds herself caught up in the plots and machinations of ancient super-nature and good old human selfishness. Satan’s on the move, like he always is, to bring the inferno to Earth, all the while assuring Maddie that she’s not only a part of his plan, but the whole of it. And being a ghost who can visit the living isn’t that great, as the poor girl’s ludicrously liberal-elite parents are just as insufferable as ever. Even dead grandma turns out to be a downer. Can Madison save the world from infernal retribution? Does she want to? Should she really? Read the rest of this entry »

Really Late Bloomer: Sam DiMatteo Makes his Debut as a Children’s Author at Seventy-Seven

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There’s a community of retired people at Mather’s Cafe in Norwood Park. Some take exercise classes, some take computer classes, some bide their time in the cafeteria. Some, like Sam DiMatteo, write books.

DiMatteo worked for twenty-two years as a mechanic at Procter and Gamble. His mentor once told him, “You’ll never reach your full potential here. You’re creative, and they’ll never let you express it.”

When he retired he got an associate degree and took creative writing classes. He took photographs and took up painting. He’s also a laughing yoga instructor at Mather’s. Read the rest of this entry »

Young Broken Hearts: Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler on “Why We Broke Up”

Author Profiles, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Young Adult No Comments »

By Kelly Roark

In “Why We Broke Up,” Min drops a box of objects on her ex-boyfriend’s doorstep to explain their incompatibility.  Their brief love affair exemplifies the universal pathos of young love and heartbreak.  Inspired readers are encouraged to visit the companion tumblr and leave their own break-up story.  We recently spoke with Daniel Handler (also known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, which he used for young adult “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books) and illustrator Maira Kalman about young-adult literature, being ready for sex and the hooker scene in “The Catcher in the Rye.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Sigh” by Marjane Satrapi

Book Reviews, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Young Adult No Comments »

Marjane Satrapi is best known for her autobiographical graphic novel work, “Persepolis,” which was later made into a film. Her latest project, “The Sigh,”  goes in a new direction: Rather than stories from Satrapi’s life, “The Sigh” is a fairy tale about a woman in a fantastical world who’s trying to save her lost love. It’s told as an illustrated story rather than a work of sequential art.

The eponymous sigh, which begins the story, summons a magical creature, Ah the Sigh, from the Kingdom of Sighs. Rose, a merchant’s daughter, follows this creature back to its realm where she meets and soon loses a prince.

The story builds in traditional fairytale style with one important difference. Instead of allowing herself to be held hostage by her strange world, Rose becomes an adventurer who moves the story forward. Unlike Rapunzel or Cinderella, she’s not a damsel in distress waiting for a man to save her. Instead, Rose sets out to rescue her prince and ends up helping a number of families by saving their sons and husbands from various magical predicaments along the way. Read the rest of this entry »