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”

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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”

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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

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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 »

Revisiting the Funhouse: A Review of “Idaho Winter” by Tony Burgess, and a Bit of Something Else

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By Eric Lutz

This is the first sentence of my review of “Idaho Winter” by Tony Burgess—perhaps the most Barthian work of hardcore metafiction to be released in recent memory. A book review is meant to give the reader an idea of what the book in question is about and how well the author went about writing it.

Unfortunately, this is difficult to do with “Idaho Winter,” as it is, by design, insulated from outside criticism. The occasional tense shifts might be unintentional, sure. But they also might be purposeful, meant to develop an “author-as-character” who isn’t such a great author. So, too, might explain the novel’s excessive alliteration and noticeable overuse of the words “poor” and “sickly.” Or take an awful, redundant description like this: “A monstrous leech. I dropped my leg back down. Not a normal leech.” That could be, yes, awful and redundant. But a reviewer, like myself, calling it such runs the risk of seeming not in on the joke.

Therefore, any criticism I would want to level against “Idaho Winter” is really more of a criticism of the genre as a whole. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Girl Who Applied Everywhere” by John J. Binder

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Young Adult 1 Comment »

Finally, someone had the courage to write about the unsung privileged elite and the horrors they bear as they apply for the top universities in the world. Too long have they suffered in silence and born the agony of merely attending schools like Northwestern or the University of Chicago when they don’t get into the Ivy league.

John J. Binder, a Chicago author, writes of three high school students in a fictional western suburb, Oak Stream. Sarah, a middle child apparently incapable of making a decision, is the main character.  Her friends Rob and Carrie are her loyal, nerdy friends.  “There had been a few dates for Sarah and Carrie starting in the eighth grade, but the boys found them a bit overwhelming and largely stayed away. Rob’s off the wall sense of humor was the best girl repellent known to man and Sarah’s wit did nothing to help her with the boys either. Although the outside world did not always understand them, they understood each other and appreciated the bond they had forged.

Sarah, crippled with indecision, applies to the 100 top schools in America, as well as her “safety,” the University of Illinois. Rob has a gimmick of his own and applies first as Rob Taylor and then legally changes his name to “Running Elk Taylor,” indicates his Native American heritage on his application, and applies to the same schools again. Carrie’s a legacy at MIT and her mother won’t hear of her going anywhere else. Read the rest of this entry »

In His Blood: Why filmmaker Daniel Kraus is penning horror novels like “Rotters”

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By Alex Baumgardner

Most modern horror writers look eerily normal. Perhaps that’s one of their best weapons—a disarming countenance that makes them appear more like a member of the local PTA and hides the twisted slant on everyday life. Daniel Kraus is no different. The 36-year-old author’s boyish face rests below a receded widow’s peak, and gives little hint to his macabre sensibility.

The idea for his second book, “Rotters,” came to him in a moment when he was more or less running for his life. While working as a videographer at an NBC affiliate in North Carolina, he was fleeing a hurricane in the station’s news van when he caught a glimpse through the window of a flooded cemetery.

“The torrential rains had made it into a swamp almost,” he says. “And I had this flash of an image of a bunch of guys battling through the mud, trying to get to something that had maybe been loosened by the rain. I thought wow, that’s kind of an exciting, sort of gothic image. And that sort of stuck in my mind for ten years.”

“Rotters” was released by Random House in April, and has already been praised by horror heavyweights like Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” and famed young-adult writer R.L. Stine. It’s the story of a Chicago teen sent to live in rural Iowa with his absentee father, and is somehow pulled into grave robbing. These are the types of ideas that flow through Kraus’ head on a daily basis, finding the beauty and the horror in the mundane and seemingly trivial. A transplant from Iowa himself, Kraus grew up loving horror. He’d stay up late to watch “The Twilight Zone” with his mother and pen volumes of horror stories in notebooks, having always found something thrilling in the grotesque. From a young age he dreamed of becoming a novelist, but in the decade after that moment at the cemetery a fledgling filmmaking career was getting in the way. Read the rest of this entry »