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:

Theme Throwdown: SWIMMING

Swim the Fly by Don Calame
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

A Theme Throwdown pits two books with similar themes against each other in a totally subjective, non-scientific battle for supremacy. The inaugural TT features swimming, though really both books are ultimately about friendship and varying degrees of sacrifice.

Swim the Fly by Don Calame
Matt Gratton and his two best friends, Sean and Coop, always set themselves a summer-time goal. This year’s? To see a real-live naked girl for the first time. As far as Matt is concerned, they’d have better luck finding the lost city of Atlantis. But seeing a girl in the buff starts to seem like child’s play compared to the other summertime goal Matt sets for himself: to swim the 100-yard butterfly (the hardest stroke known to God or man) in order to impress Kelly West, the hot new girl. So what if he can’t manage a single lap, let alone four? He’s got the whole summer to perfect his technique. What could possibly go wrong? [from Goodreads]
Author: Website | Blog
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release date: 2009
Source / Format: Purchased / Hardcover
Buy it at Powell's, my local independent bookstore

Last summer I went through a boy book phase. I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Spanking Shakespeare, Sprout, Slam, and Swim the Fly all in the matter of a couple of weeks. Never have I understood the mind of a teenage boy so clearly. Believe me, it's a messy place in there. I've tried to pace myself a little better since then.

Swim the Fly is funny. And gross. If you loved American Pie then you'll probably love Matt and his friends and their quest to see a naked female. It had me cringing from embarrassment, gagging at descriptions, and laughing out loud at the predicaments these kids create for themselves during summer swim team.

But it also has a serious message of determination and persistence. Matt really challenges himself and is the better for it. Hardly a better swimmer, but definitely a better person.

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
There's bad news and good news about the Cutter High School swim team. The bad news is that they don't have a pool. The good news is that only one of them can swim anyway.

A group of misfits brought together by T. J. Jones (the J is redundant) to find their places in a school that has no place for them, the Cutter All Night Mermen struggle to carve out their own turf. T. J. is convinced that a varsity letter jacket—unattainable for most, exclusive, revered, the symbol (as far as T. J. is concerned) of all that is screwed up at Cutter High—will be an effective carving tool. He's right. He's also wrong.

Still, it's always the quest that counts. And the bus on which the Mermen travel to swim meets—piloted by Icko, the permanent resident of All, Night Fitness—soon becomes the cocoon inside which they gradually allow themselves to talk, to fit, to bloom. [from Goodreads]

Author: Website
Release date: 2002
Source / Format: Purchased / Kindle e-book
Buy it at Powell's, my local independent bookstore

This was my one and only true boy book for the summer of 2011. I guess I overdosed last year.

Whale Talk was my first Chris Crutcher book, but won't be my last. I was introduced to him when I read a letter he wrote about the book ban faced by one of his novels. He's feisty.

And so are his characters. They are deeply wounded, but also deeply caring. The protagonist, T.J., is smart and athletic; he's fairly popular and has an uncomplicated (monogamous) sexual relationship. That's the surface. Underneath, he's aware of being "other" --one of only a few non-white people in his small Washington town. He's hot-headed and his seemingly-altruistic plan to have his mis-fit swim team all receive letter jackets is at least 50% revenge on the town jocks.

The secondary characters are all well developed. While each is fighting his own demons (and there sure are a lot of demons!), by the end of the novel, there's a sense of peace and acceptance. The climax is a dramatic, unexpected tear-jerk. The wrap-up is sweet and hopeful, but not overly sentimental.

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
Not as laugh-out-loud funny, but Whale Talk has real heart. You can't go wrong with this award winner.

Other books about SWIMMING:

Other books to consider: