September 16, 2011

Two-in-One: Portland Authors

A Need So Beautiful by Suzanne Young
Putting Makeup on Dead People by Jen Violi

I love Portland (and its vicinity); it's a great place for book lovers. Powell's is my local bookstore, and Wordstock is my annual reading festival. Portland is home to a bunch of awesome publishers and lots of cool writers. (And that's just a small sample.)

So it makes sense to me to celebrate local authors with my first two-in-one book review. Since both Suzanne Young and Jen Violi live in Portland, they also had book events here this summer when their books were released. I think hearing the authors read from their own work is magical; no one loves these words as much as they do. 

And now, the first reviews from The Book Tramp...

A Need So Beautiful by Suzanne Young
We all want to be remembered. Charlotte's destiny is to be Forgotten...

Charlotte’s best friend thinks Charlotte might be psychic. Her boyfriend thinks she’s cheating on him. But Charlotte knows what’s really wrong: She is one of the Forgotten, a kind of angel on earth, who feels the Need—a powerful, uncontrollable draw to help someone, usually a stranger.

But Charlotte never wanted this responsibility. What she wants is to help her best friend, whose life is spiraling out of control. She wants to lie in her boyfriend's arms forever. But as the Need grows stronger, it begins to take a dangerous toll on Charlotte. And who she was, is, and will become--her mark on this earth, her very existence--is in jeopardy of disappearing completely.

Charlotte will be forced to choose: Should she embrace her fate as a Forgotten, a fate that promises to rip her from the lives of those she loves forever? Or is she willing to fight against her destiny--no matter how dark the consequences. [from Goodreads]

Publisher: Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins
Release date: June 21, 2011
Source / Format: Purchased / Hardcover, signed
Buy it at Powell's, my local independent bookstore

Sometimes books don't live up to their hype. That can be especially true when the people doing the hyping are close to the story or close to the author. I had heard a lot this spring and summer about Suzanne Young's new book. I read positive things from author Hannah Moscowitz and blogger Sara Gundell of Novel Novice, both of whom are friends with Suzanne. So while I wanted to be amazed by the book, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

But a few things seemed positive: the premise sounded really original--not your typical fallen angel story. Also, it's set in Portland and it's always fun to see if authors really get your city without resorting to hipster stereotypes. (*cough*Portlandia*cough*)

I was actually really surprised by how much I loved A Need So Beautiful. It read fast, didn't flag in the middle, and surprised me several times. Charlotte's Needs are both dramatic life and death issues, and smaller, quieter acts of kindness that were powerfully affecting.

I appreciated that Charlotte had an established romantic relationship. So much of YA is "can I find true love" that it's rare to explore what happens later, when the characters are faced with challenges. Harlin is a diamond in the rough--all the attraction of a bad boy on a motorcyle without any real danger. He's hot and sweet at the same time.

I wasn't blown away by the ending. I had guessed Harlin's secret by page 200 and I didn't ever really doubt Charlotte's choice, but the end was still rich and satisfying. Suzanne Young has created a new mythology that explores the concept of light and darkness without being overwhelmingly religious. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Putting Makeup on Dead People by Jen Violi
In the spring of her senior year, Donna Parisi finds new life in an unexpected place: a coffin.

Since her father’s death four years ago, Donna has gone through the motions of living: her friendships are empty, she’s clueless about what to do after high school graduation, and her grief keeps her isolated, cut off even from the one parent she has left. That is until she’s standing in front of the dead body of a classmate at Brighton Brothers’ Funeral Home. At that moment, Donna realizes what might just give her life purpose is comforting others in death. That maybe who she really wants to be is a mortician.

This discovery sets in motion a life Donna never imagined was possible. She befriends a charismatic new student, Liz, notices a boy, Charlie, and realizes that maybe he's been noticing her, too, and finds herself trying things she hadn’t dreamed of trying before. By taking risks, Donna comes into her own, diving into her mortuary studies with a passion and skill she didn’t know she had in her. And she finally understands that moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting someone you love.  [from Goodreads]

Author: Website | Twitter 
Publisher: Hyperion
Release date: May 24, 2011
Source / Format: Purchased / Hardcover, signed
Buy it at Powell's, my local independent bookstore

Oh, how I wanted to love this book. Just look at that cover! It totally subverts the half-a-girl's-face trend we see on YA books all the time. Also, the author was totally charming when I attended her Portland reading and signing event. And the subject of losing a parent hits close to home for me, since I was eighteen when my mother died of breast cancer. The parts of this book about the loss of Donna's father had me in tears.

But mostly the story just didn't sit quite right with me.

In many ways, this book seems written for *me* -- the 40-something me who lost a parent when I was a teen. And I shouldn't have to point out that I shouldn't be the main audience for a teen book. Putting Makeup on Dead People feels like an adult book masquerading as YA. It feels ... nostalgic. I even had to go back and look to see whether it was written in past or present tense, it felt so reflective. (It's written in present tense, but I can't shake the feeling that the entire story is a look backwards.)

The book is set in Dayton, Ohio, presumably in the present day. But Donna, the main character, reads a printed catalog and applies to mortuary science school by filling out a paper application and dropping it off at the college. She writes her essays on the computer, but doesn't do any research online. Yet she also uses a mobile phone.
At once point Donna muses "should I stay or should I go now?" -- a line from the Clash song released in 1982 (though admittedly still rather popular.)

The character names also feel dated. Donna, Patty, and Becky? Jim, Tim, and Charlie? Those could be my group of (40-ish) friends.

Perhaps Jen Violi did this on purpose. Sometimes technology and current musical references can quickly date a book. But I know from her author event that this book was originally written as connected short stories spanning main character Donna's entire life. It was only later that it was re-conceived as a YA book focusing on the teen-friendly themes of differentiating yourself from your parent(s) and finding your true path.

At this same event, the author mentioned that she's currently working on another YA novel. Perhaps with the teen voice in mind from the beginning, it will feel more authentically YA. While PMoDP fell short of being a compelling teen read, the ability of the writing to tug my emotions means that I'll be giving her next book a try.

Other books by Portland authors:


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