I loved this book, and I think it's mostly been missed. I am fairly sure it hasn't been reviewed on any other blog, and I haven't seen it talked about anywhere. It's one of those quiet little books that often slips through the cracks - just the kind of book that an independent bookseller will take to heart and put out into the world. So I'm taking it to heart and putting it out into the world, and I hope some of you will pick it up.
Junebug is almost thirteen, and she spends every summer at the Blue Moon Playhouse, a summer stock theatre that her parents own. Her dad is the director (and sometimes the star), her mother designs costumes, and her sister is stepping into her first major role. And Junebug? She's been just about every sort of backstage worker there is, and is longing to tread the boards herself.
Even more than that, however, she's longing for her family to return to normal. Her mother's moved out of their house and back in her mother's house, three miles away on the other side of the farm where Blue Moon sits. Her parents let them choose where they would spend the summer. Stella and Junebug, both theatre-mad, chose to stay at the Playhouse, while their brother, Beck, always more interested in farming than acting, went with their mother. Junebug's father has cast himself in the leading role in every play and seems to be eyeing up one of the leading ladies. Stella's moved into her role as a teenager fully and no longer seems interested in spending any time with her younger sister or doing her share of the chores they are supposed to split.
And to top it all off, Junebug's father agreed to take on an intern - a weird boy named Trace with a stutter - and has given Junebug the task of "showing him the ropes." He seems to be an endless resource of theatrical knowledge, which Junebug considers mostly useless and annoying, and privately nicknames him Thespis. Her father makes things even worse when he suggests giving Junebug's properties job to Trace for one of the plays, leaving Junebug with...nothing. Her mother's left, her father hardly talks to her, her sister ignores her, her brother's elsewhere, the Playhouse has smaller audiences than ever, and the new intern takes over the last part of her summer that was going well. Junebug's familiar, comfortable world seems to be collapsing, and she doesn't like it one bit.
It will take a lot of changes for Junebug to begin to recognize her world again.
Henson navigates those changes, Junebug's varying moods, and the dynamics of a family in trouble deftly. The book is written partially in a clever manner that never feels contrived. Several times in each chapter, passages like this appear:
HERE'S HOW I SEE IT:The curtain falls for the night on my huge Broadway hit. Flowers rain down on my head. Friends gather in my dressing room after the show to congratulate me. Fans wait for me outside the stage door."Ms. Cantrell, you were magnificent tonight!""Ms. Cantrell, you are an inspiration!"I try to sign as many autographs as possible before my agent hurries me to my waiting car."Ms. Cantrell must rest now," she says to the crowd. "You must understand. The play is so very demanding."My driver takes me home to my hip downtown loft. There are flowers everywhere, from my countless admirers. There are close friends everywhere - actors, directors, artists - and we sit up all night long, talking about life and art and theater.HERE'S HOW IT IS:The house is dark and empty. And so I go through every room."Lights up!" I command in a Coleman voice, flipping switches, illuminating every dark space.I hate the dark.In the kitchen I search the fridge and cabinets, hungry as any MARINER alone on a storm-tossed sea, but (alas, alack) the shelves are bare, except for some old milk and moldy cheese and an inch of peanut butter.
When I began reading, I feared that this stylistic choice might quickly get on my nerves. I was relieved to find out it was just the opposite. Junebug is unhappy for a lot of this book, and also does a decent job of making some of the people around her unhappy. The book could have been pretty depressing. However, she has a real flair for the dramatic (a combination of her background, of course, and of being almost thirteen) so her literary histrionics often lighten the mood considerably.
Henson also has Junebug introduce each new character in a fun, theatrical way:
RAY MONDELLO, character actor; round and jolly; a "hail-fellow-well-met" (that's Shakespeare for "cool dude").COLEMAN, one name only; a light in the dark, Dad calls her, because she was named for a lamp, but also because she's like a lighthouse on a stormy sea; as Stage Manager, she is the one who keeps everything running smoothly during the show.
I'm a big fan of books set in the theatre. I was in the majority of the school shows from 5th grade on, and during the summer between my junior and senior years, a new summer theatre for young people started up. I attended for two years before becoming first an assistant director and then a director, and when the theatre became year-round, I performed many, many roles there, both onstage and off. Henson gets the theatre stuff dead-on right, which is no surprise - she spent a great many of her childhood summers at a summer stock theatre. You definitely get a full picture of what the experience is like, in a very accessible way.
Order the book from an independent bookstore!
Don't do what I did. Don't read this and WINTERGIRLS back to back. The heart isn't meant to take so much. There's only so much room inside your brain and your heart to hurt with these characters, and both of these books - well, they make you hurt. Not in a bad way, you understand, but in the way that really good writing does, the way it crawls into you and around you and curls up in your lap and raps on your head with its knuckles and whispers into your ear so that weeks later you are still thinking about passages like this:
Yet in these moments of silence and loneliness, it's as though I've stuck my toe in the cold, cold ocean. And I get caught, turned upside down in a riptide as my mind skips over to him all of its own volition. Then comes the instant when I lose my breath and feel the freezing water tumbling, battering, covering me, and it's the most painful tug of my heart, an aching hollowness that never stops, as I remember over and over, like the never-ending waves of the ocean, that I won't ever see him again. He's gone.
Cora's brother Nate was killed in a car accident six months and twenty-three days ago, and her family is...gone. She and her mother and father exist as three separate people, each breathing in the air of their own separate pain. There are no family meals, no family conversations, no shared family pain. Cora's about to start high school and her entire world has fallen apart. She's about to start high school as Nathaniel Bradley's little sister. It's bad enough being the daughter of parents whose son died, every single minute of every single day, trapped in the house with their overpowering sadness. Now I'll be the girl whose brother died.
And it is as bad as she thinks it will be. She sees Nate's ex-girlfriend practically upon arrival, and a teacher tells her in front of the entire class that he's sorry for her loss. Rachel, her best friend, doesn't seem to know how to act around her anymore, and is newly obsessed with boys and being accepted by a group of girls Cora and Rachel have always called the Nasties. Cora thinks her one oasis will be the advanced art class that she placed into - until she walks into the room and sees Damian Archer. Her brother's best friend. The passenger in the car Nate crashed in the accident that claimed his life.
How can she be in an art class with Damian Archer?
As the weeks pass, though, Cora and Damian form an uneven bond out of their shared pain, and it is from Damian that Cora learns some real truths about her brother - some truths that tell her she never really knew him, and make her pain both worse and better. Somehow Cora needs to find the strength to pick up the pieces of her life, and hopefully help to put her family back together in the process. Her mother seems to see her only as something to be protected at any cost, while her father has all but withdrawn from the family altogether.
Cora hatches a plan to show everyone the truth about who Nate really was, to exonerate Damian of any blame in her brother's accident, to help liberate her family from some of their crushing pain, and to set her own feet on the path toward the future she has begun to crave.
During the summer, a free map of the world arrived in the mail. Cora hung it in her room and began to dream of escaping the pain and horror of her daily existence. This morphed into what would be her primary artistic outlet: the creation of her own maps, elaborate imaginings of where she might run to were she able to run. She decides to map her own world, Nate's world, the world that they knew both separately and together, and hopes that the map will eventually lead her --and all of them -- home.
It is hard to do this book justice. It is hard to explain to you with my insufficient words just how magnificently Sandell has crafted this story. When you are in Cora's house with her family, you are aching for them. With them. Even her simplest words are evocative - when Cora's father arrives home every night, one of the first aural clues Cora gets to his presence is the clink, clink, clink of three ice cubes as he mixes his first gin and tonic of the night. If this were a fantasy novel you would call what Sandell does "world-building," but the world she builds could be real. It feels real. She has crafted exquisite internal and external lives for Cora. It is not something many authors are good at. Good is, again, an insufficient word for what Sandell has done here.
This is, for me, one of the best novels of the year so far. It is one of the best things I have read in the last several years. I will pass this book on to friends and warn them that they will hurt mightily right along with Cora and her family, but that in the end, her map will guide us to a resolution that is more than satisfying.
Savannah's finally met the guy of her dreams, but it seems like the world is conspiring against them. Savannah's asthma has her in and out of the hospital, and her mother's refusal to tell her bosses about it has their family in and out of poverty. Jackson's father died, and his mother expects him to give up his dreams of college and painting and be the man of the house. Just when they figure out a way to be together, Savannah's offered a semester away for gifted students - but can she leave Jackson now? Separately, the air closes in around them - together, they feel like they can breathe freely. Will their love survive if they're apart?
This is sort of written in dialect - they're Southern, so it's written in accents. It annoyed me at first (dialect usually does) but this really is a good book and I was eventually able to get over it. Dialect doesn't bother a lot of people, and I don't expect it to have any effect on a reader's enjoyment of the book - not everyone's a freak like me! It's got a nice strong family structure with Savannah and her mom and brother. Her mom also does a nice job of keeping Savannah close and giving her some freedom, which is especially impressive considering how fragile Savannah's health can be. Often a parent's impulse is to hold tighter rather than the opposite, but the mom lets Savannah live the life she can, which is refreshing.
I should also say that a lot of books revolving around teens having/being allowed to have more grownup relationships often make me roll my eyes. I know two couples who met in high school who are still together (and ended up married); the odds are hugely stacked against it. So usually when I find a book where the general mood or foreshadowing indicates that the author believes these characters will remain together, I find it impossible to believe. Something about Savannah and Jackson's story, however, made me believe that these two crazy kids might just have a chance to make it.
Older content: Savannah and Jackson attend a party where people are drinking, smoking pot and skinny dipping, but they don't do any of that. They do indulge in one session of heavy making out but nothing further than that.
Pub Date: April 16, 2009
One of the best things about Rick Riordan's PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS series being such a massive hit (beyond the fact that they're just great books) is that now there are lots of other Greek mythology-based books, too. I enjoyed last year's THE NIGHT TOURIST, based on the Orpheus myth - the story of a boy named Jack who ends up on a journey to the Underworld searching for his missing mother. It was more serious than Percy (although it did have its lighter moments) and included a lot of references to hidden spots below New York, a subject that has always fascinated me (abandoned subway stops and that sort of thing).
Jack's story continues in THE TWILIGHT PRISONER, and this time Marsh is weaving in the Persephone myth. Jack's back at school and back in his normal life, but for some reason he's still seeing ghosts. This is not only bothering him, it's interfering with his clumsy attempts to get his Latin Club-mate and friend Cora to see him as...something more. In a misguided moment he decides to impress her by leading her to the mouth of the Underworld, but Cerberus is on the hunt for him and they end up having to cross over.
As soon as they enter the Underworld, they run into Euri, Jack's friend from the first novel (who still hasn't crossed over to Elysium, where ghosts go to be forever once their issues with their former lives are resolved). Euri seems annoyed by Cora and is behaving oddly, haunting a strange man and refusing to explain herself to Jack. She agrees to help them, though, and the trio goes on a mad run through New York - both above and underground - so that Jack and Cora can return to the world of the living before three days have passed. If they do not, they will have to stay in the Underworld forever.
This clever take on a familiar tale will have you wondering which myth Marsh plans to tackle next. I think this book is better than the first, and look forward to a third (if one is planned). Marsh weaves the mythology in a very subtle manner, making it an accent rather than the complete focus of the tale, and manages to create a version of the Underworld all her own.
Pub Date: April 7, 2009
Two things kept running through my head while I was reading this.
1. This is what it must be like to be inside a teenage boy's head.
2. Teenage boys are jackasses. Hilarious, predictable, often meaning well but totally failing jackasses.
Will Carter is 14 and entering his freshman year of high school, and he is totally desperate to lose his virginity. Or at least kiss a girl. Or at least talk to a girl without his pesky stuttering problem acting up. He's on the football team because he's been playing since he was a kid, but his ADD keeps him from paying very close attention so he's just not very good. His friends are those typical teenage boy friends who will have your back one second and then mock you mercilessly in front of the whole team the next. They've all got eternal foot-in-mouth disease, and it comes back to haunt them time and again through the course of this book.
Watch Carter and his friends screw up one relationship after another, embarrass themselves at sports practices, stuff seven or eight people in a two-seater car, run from the cops, get mocked in school and ultimately get just what they deserve - and, in some cases, just what they want.
CARTER FINALLY GETS IT is written in some of the most perfect voice I have ever read in a YA book. It's like Nick Hornby without the angst. There's a lot of older content here - some language, Carter's obsession with boobs, some offscreen sex (not Carter), some drinking (again, not Carter - he thinks beer is gross). Mostly, though, this book is just hilarious. I LOVED it. Reading it reminded me of what I like about the HBO show ENTOURAGE: the guys are jackasses, but deep down they've got decent hearts. In the end, you root for them to win. I was rooting for Carter all the way.
Pub Date: April 2009
(I'm reading spring books now for my old bookstore, so a lot of the upcoming entries will be for books that aren't coming out for a looooooooong while.)
12 year old Libby Ryan comes from beef stock - her family owns a cattle farm in Nowhere, Indiana, breeding and raising cows for the beef market. Libby's brother used to show prize steers at the county fair, and now that he's off to college it's up to Libby to step up and try to win the Grand Champion ribbon her brother never managed to capture. When the contest is over, however, the animal will be sold, and Libby doesn't know if she can bear to see him go. To make it even worse, her mother has talked her into entering the Beef Princess pageant. Her closest competition in both contests? The obnoxiously named (and obnoxiously behaving) Precious, Lil, and Ohma Darling, scourges of the middle school and pageant winners for the last several years. Can Libby and her best friend, Carol Ann, stand up to the terrible trio at last? Will Libby bring home the prize her family covets? And how will she say goodbye to the steer that she has, against her father's advice, treated like a beloved pet? This first novel is a funny, lovely portrayal of how one girl finds her footing as she navigates the the waters of a world that's changing as she's growing older.
LOVE this book. It's great for the girls who loved THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB. There is always room for another nice book for middle grade girls, and this one is not only nice but well plotted, well written, and funny. The voice sounds like a 12 year old girl and Libby and Carol Ann's friendship is one that girls will wish they had (or, perhaps, it will make them feel lucky for having one like it). There really isn't anything to dislike about this book - the family relationships are solid but flawed in a believable way; none of the characters speak in a way that's too old for them; the humor is wry and age-appropriate. And no inappropriate content whatsoever.
(If I had to pick something to dislike, it's the font on the cover - I hate the font. But I love the picture.)
Publisher: Random House
Pub date: April 14, 2009