Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr (a review in which Caroline... is back).

At the age of nine, social outcasts Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick are best friends. What begins as a companionship of necessity soon becomes an inseparable bond. Cameron is Jennifer’s only friend, the one person who understands her. Until she goes over to Cam’s house the first time, and sees what his life at home is really like. Until he disappears. Until a kid at school tells Jennifer that Cameron is dead. Until she goes home crying and tells her mother… who doesn’t contradict her.

Eight years later, Jennifer Harris is dead too, reincarnated as Jenna Vaughn- pretty, popular, dating, and happy. Cameron Quick has been an overwhelming presence in her memory, but that’s all he is to her. A memory. Impossible to let go of, but hard to recall entirely, also. Until, that is, a very much alive Cameron re-enters Jenna’s life, intent on resolving the unfinished business between them.

I’ve long held a fascination with the concept of childhood sweethearts. It’s one of the few clich├ęs that never gets old with me (be honest, you know you love some of them too). Admittedly, there are personal reasons for my fixation with kid romance, but I also just think there’s something pure and sweet about love existing before hormones. Plus, come on, it’s adorable. So that is why I initially picked this story up. But while Sweethearts is not the fluffy romance I was expecting, it did not disappoint me in the slightest. Upon turning the last page, I was surprised and refreshed and longing for more.

Sara Zarr has some serious skills in the areas of dialogue and imagery. The descriptions are astute, well-worded, and downright pretty without ever being ornate. Above all, it is fluid and continuous; the words never become stilted or awkward. Zarr’s prose does an excellent job of moving the story foreword; despite the fact that the plot is simple and not incredibly fast-paced, I read this book in one sitting and never felt compelled to put it down.

I’m a character girl, and I had mixed feelings about the cast of Sweethearts. Jenna and Cameron are both incredibly well-developed, but most of the supporting characters were two-dimensional at best. Jenna’s friends and family were entertaining and for the most part likable (or dislikable, depending on which they were meant to be), but they fell a little flat to me. But the best fiction teacher I’ve ever had once said that you only need two characters to make a story, and Jenna and Cameron are characters in the best sense of the word. The supporting cast just could have been a little bit deeper, especially considering how often they appear in the book.

Sweethearts is not a romance, but it is very much a love story. The poignant, beautiful, frustrating thing about Cameron and Jenna’s connection (for both characters as well as for the reader) is that it is too much. It’s the kind of love that no “relationship” can fulfill. Being friends is not enough, being like brother and sister is not enough, and being together wouldn’t be enough either. It’s incomplete; paradoxically overwhelming and insufficient.

Reading the book has a similar effect on me. It’s unfinished business. I flipped the last page both longing for more and feeling completely overwhelmed. That had something to do with the frustratingly open ending, but it was more the book as a whole. I had a lot to read, but I didn’t want to leave the world of Jenna and Cameron for anyone else’s- I was too wrapped up to move on. I wanted more of the story. I literally sat in my room and thought about the characters and what happened to them and what continues to happen to them for hours. And that’s why I wrote this review. I haven’t written one in quite some time, not because I haven’t been reading or because I haven’t read anything worth reviewing, but because I have not been this caught up in a book in a very long time.

4.5 cups for Sweethearts.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert

Ballads. Truly genuine, gut retching ballads of punk that convey emotions of love and loss. Songs that tell a story through music and lyrics. These are the kind that Kara McNaughton likes. So when she comes across a notebook deemed "Stories of Suburbia" that holds newspaper clippings of strange and sometimes tragic events from suburbs across the country as well as personal stories of the moments her friends' lives changed, she gives them the ever-appropriate name of "ballads" and later becomes the keeper of the book. The one rule: don't read someone else's ballad until you've written your own. The problem is, Kara never could figure out what her song was about before she left at the end of her junior year to escape the problems she'd been facing in Oak Park, Chicago.

It all starts with an epilogue that serves as the prologue, set four years later when Kara returns for the first time to face the music and see her best friend Stacey, who started it all unknowingly at the beginning of her freshman year of high school. Kara finally tells the tale of her first three years of high school, and what happened with her and her friends. She talks about Stacey, who tries to win the affection of many guys, hoping to find one who will take care of her the way her parents never did; Maya, an eccentric redhead who has a theory about everything, including what type of cigarettes people smoke, and is very outgoing but who has problems talking about her mother's suicide; Cass, Maya's cousin, who drops acid in the hopes that it will help her deal with her brother's abandonment and her mother's depression; Adrian, who started the notebook and has issues with being adopted and how his birth parents react to him; Christian, who seems like a generally nice guy but is still torn up about his mother's death and his father sleeping around; and Liam, Kara's little brother, who idolized Johnny Cash until he was made fun of for it, and used to idolize his big sister until she let him down too many times. And there's even Quentin, whose ballad we never read, but who plays a crucial role in Kara's relationships.

Kara's story wouldn't be the same without all these people around her. Stacey, who moves to a different school right before their freshman year starts Kara's downward spiral. Kara feels abandoned and begins high school as a loner, spending her time on the couch with Liam, watching music videos and going to the occasional concert in between cutting herself when things get too hard to bear. Maya, who takes Kara out of this slump and introduces her to Scoville Park and the "misfit" kids that hang there. From that moment on, Kara spends the summer and school year going to parties, drinking, taking hits, and eventually winding up in the park, puking from a heroin overdose and almost dying right there. She survives and is able to realize this is the time for leaving Oak Park and all her problems behind in order to get clean.

Reading this spectacular second novel from Stephanie Kuehnert, I remembered what it's like for a novel to capture you tightly and to not let go. I fell, instantly, back into the poetic and sharp writing that I loved so much the first go around with I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. The language is not wasted. Not a single word is superfluous and every sentence has its role. Stephanie is a wordsmith if I ever met one.

Besides the writing and language, there were many other things I enjoyed about Ballads. The characters--harsh, honest, eccentric--resonated and their ballads were poignant. Even the littler characters were fully developed and oustandingly and brilliantly written. Cass was the strongest of them all. She deals not only with her problems, but with those of her cousin Maya, her mother, her friends, and Quentin, who she becomes really close to throughout the novel. Wes, her brother, tells her before he leaves to take care of everyone for him because she is a guardian angel. So she tries. Even through her failures, she keeps going. Even when she's at her most vulnerable and she's collapsed in front of a friend strung out on heroin, she fights through it. Her character is powerful and provides a constant throughout.

I also enjoyed Stephanie's use of editing and restraint. She didn't "clean up" the novel and remove the profanities or the truths of the drugs, but she didn't put more than was necessary. There are so many tales of teendom and experiments with drugs that overdo it, the writers believing that, to make the story real, they have to include every profanity they can come up with and make every other scene one of teens shooting up or downing a jack and coke. The difference here is that Stephanie knows what makes a story real. It's in her. You can tell that when you read Ballads. She didn't have to live Kara's life to write it honestly.

Ballads of Suburbia is angsty, severe, mesmerizing, and incisive. I stayed up hours into the night, becoming myself a nocturnal creature, because I couldn't bear to put it down. I wanted to at so many moments, but I couldn't. That's what makes this novel so spectacularly hypnotizing and captivating--there are ballads that you just don't want to read because they're too real and you feel like it's your friend you're reading about, but you just can't stop because they are so real and honest. I admit to shedding tears multiple times, feeling as if I was a part of it all, just as I admit to smiling when things were going well.

It's hard to part ways with this novel, but I'm sure I'll come back to it later. I almost did already. I turned the last page and thought to myself "I want to read this again. Right now." I could have just then. Ballads of Suburbia deserves the full 5 out of 5, though I didn't expect any less from Stephanie Kuehnert.


p.s. You should pre-order this book if you're interested. Or go out an buy it asap. It's set to be released July 21. You can get it at your local bookstore (order it now or wait until it's released), or pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, or Borders. Also, to get a taste, you can read the first chapter here!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Our book club? Surely you must have the wrong one?

Caroline and I just recently became co-presidents of our school book club. The "torch" (an imaginary one, I might add, to make it easier to split in two) was passed to us in the last weeks of school by the current and graduating president who just happened to be a friend as well. She picked us because we were the only ones who came to meetings (when we had them) and because we're just awesome.

This is exciting enough in itself (we have control!!! mwahahahaha!), but even more exciting is the news I received when I got home today from spending a few days at a friend's house. Apparently, this guy is interested in writing about our book club in an article he's doing about book clubs in the area and he wants to ask me a few questions. I'm really hyped about this but completely nervous. I don't know what I'll say or what he'll ask. Besides the fact that our book club isn't the best. This past year, we bought one book, ran out of money, and had to use the school's supply of books. This didn't last long and no one read them. The president even forgot the name of one of the books because none of us bothered to read it. Not even her. At meetings, we didn't talk about the books, just discussed what we would do next and what we were doing in drama club (she also happened to be the drama club president which held meetings the same day as book club). So Caroline and I have no idea how to run the club. We just know we want it to be better. We don't even have the books picked out for this year yet.

I'm calling him later today to set up a time to talk, but I'm hoping to have an idea of the books we'll be reading this year when he interviews me. If you have any suggestions, please put them in comments. Keep in mind they have to be appropriate for school (though we did read It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini last year, which includes attempted suicide and drugs so it doesn't have to be too clean, just no explicit scenes) and not be too focused on religion as we go to public shool. But please do leave suggestions. There are too many books out there for us to just choose a few without help.


p.s. Also, maybe we could make this a public thing, where we set up a chat at the end of the month and members of the book club from our school and anyone else who wants to join via the internet (you'd have to buy the book yourself or have read it, of course) could talk about it. We'll see when school starts back up in August if this is a good idea.