No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss

No Parking at the End Times

I was fortunate to attend ALA Midwinter this past weekend (and get out before the snow hit!). While there, I was talking with Greenwillow editor Martha Mihalick about what she was excited for coming up. Instantly, she put this book in my hands and talked it up. I’m so glad she did.

The premise here is that we have a girl, Abigail, whose parents sold their house, their belongings, and put whatever they could fit in their conversion van and drove from North Carolina to San Francisco. Why? Well, because Brother John predicts that the end of the world will happen on Christmas, and Abigail’s parents decide they need to be there for whatever comes next.

Notice the past tense in that paragraph? Yeah. End of the world? Didn’t happen. So Abigail, her parents, and her twin brother Aaron are in San Francisco: jobless, penniless, and homeless (unless you count their van). What are they to do?

That’s the opening scene of No Parking at the End Times [side note: WHAT A TITLE!].

So, really, what are they to do? Well, if you’re Aaron, you’re to realize what a joke your parents have become. You’ll sneak out at night and befriend some of the other homeless San Francisco youth, because you know that’s what you are: homeless and parentless, but not hopeless.

If you’re Abigail’s parents, you will continue with the one thing you know: Brother John and his church. Sure, attendance is down what with the lack of the ending of the world and all, but God has a capital-P Plan, and this is all part of it. So while you’re waiting on breadlines and hoping for a sign from the man upstairs, you will be sure to be at Brother John’s church daily, relying on his words for sustenance almost as much as you rely on the free coffee at the supermarket.

If you’re Abigail, you are caught somewhere in between. You don’t know about the whole God-having-a-Plan thing, but you’re also not sure that your parents are lost causes. Certainly, if there’s anything to hold on to, it’s each other.

…Right?

We follow our narrator, Abigail, as she tries to figure this all out.

This debut novel from Bryan Bliss [I know, I know; he spells his first name the wrong way] very smartly tackles issues of homelessness, faith, and morality. The publisher recommends grades 9 and up, but aside from some language and violence, I could see mature middle schoolers doing well with this one.

Of course, there’s a bit of an elephant here I should address: I am Catholic, and I teach at a Catholic school. How do I feel about this book on my shelves? The beauty here is that Bryan Bliss handles faith, God, and church in the way most of us see them. They can be a crutch to those who need them (e.g., Abigail’s parents, Brother John), but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important or not real. This book, as much as it is about Abigail learning to trust in herself, is about Abigail learning to distinguish between those who need God to be something He isn’t and those who simply need God. And it’s wonderfully done.

No Parking at the End Times comes out February 24 of this year. I recommend you check it out.

Rating:

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4 out of 5 fish!

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I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I'll Give You the Sun

This book took me a while, but in the best possible way. It was like a piece of red velvet cake that you eat slowly to make it last as long as possible. But then you see the end in sight, and you devour it all at once, trying to fill yourself up with its beauty. [We all agree red velvet cake is beautiful, right?]

This is about truth and beauty and art and reality and twins and love and despair. It’s about lying to yourself and to others and what happens as a result. It’s about family and what that word means. It’s about tragedy and how sometimes, bad things happen. It’s about the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s about the sun, which disappears for half the day.

The way Jandy Nelson ties things all together is almost — ALMOST — too far-fetched. But she stays just this side of the line. This is a masterful story, and the writing was wonderful. When I read the last word, a shiver I didn’t realize I was suppressing made its way through my spine to my extremities.

I know I haven’t said a thing about the plot here, but you should read this book. You should read it now. High school and up, though. Well, maybe mature middle schoolers. Whatever. Just read it.

My rating: 5 out of 5 fish.
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Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds

Wow. It has been a while since I reviewed a book on this blog. I’ve read a lot of good ones along the way. However, for whatever reason, none of them compelled me to write a blog post. There were a few I wanted to, but the words just didn’t come. Then Afterworlds came along. Something about this book is so. . .unique, it just had to be written about.

To begin with, it’s important that we realize that Afterworlds is actually two books in one. It is part Afterworlds, a novel written by fictional 18-year old Darcy Patel, and part the story of Darcy becoming a published author. These two stories are told in alternating chapters.

I won’t bore you with the details of either story, because, quite frankly, they’re good, but not the most interesting part of this book. The most interesting part is reading and watching Scott Westerfeld wield his pen and do magical things with this book.

First off, there’s the fact that the story-within-the-story is written by an 18-year old girl named Darcy, not a 51-year old man named Scott (who actually wrote the story). It’s also not only Darcy’s first published novel, but she wrote it in a month, and has spent a year revising it. I don’t know how he does it (probably because the man is a genius), but Westerfeld manages to create a novel (Darcy’s Afterworlds) that a publisher would take a chance on, but also reads like a debut novel from a teenage girl. By itself, it may not get a second glance from me, but the story is interesting.

Okay, I mentioned the story; perhaps I should talk about it a bit. The story of Darcy’s novel is of a girl named Lizzie (and yes, the fact that a girl named Darcy wrote about a girl named Elizabeth is addressed in the book). Lizzie is in an airport when 4 gunmen come in shooting up the place. A 911 operator suggests she play dead, so she does. Lizzie then discovers that she can sort of pass through between worlds — the overworld where we all live, and the afterworld where we go when we die. The story goes from there, there’s some paranormal romance type stuff going on, and she’s faced with difficult decisions along the way. You know, kind of like a debut novel from a teenage girl would read.

Then there’s the other half of Scott Westerfeld’s novel. The story of Darcy herself. As someone who has often been intrigued by the publishing world, I find this story fascinating. Darcy decides to postpone her freshman year of college to move to NYC and work on both Afterworlds and the sequel. She deals with her editor, her agent, and fellow writers. She finds love, and deals with being a young adult in the big city.

In this story, I can see Scott Westerfeld’s experience coming through. His experience as an author in the publishing world is evident, as he has been through the ins and outs of this process many times. Reading this book felt at many times like a veteran pulling up the curtain and poking a flashlight around for everyone to see what really goes on backstage. His experience as a writer comes through in ways I didn’t fully anticipate.

I have never written a book. I have a few I’ve started, but none I’ve seen all the way through. I imagine, though, that if I write a book and have it published, I would love to tell my readers certain things to look for — little pieces that I’m particularly proud of or that took a lot of effort on my part. Darcy, through Scott Westerfeld, gets this opportunity.

By telling us Darcy’s story of getting the book published, Scott Westerfeld can guide our thoughts on the book. We can see the connection between a ghost in Darcy’s book and a “ghost” from Darcy’s mom’s past. We can see how much work has gone in to the ending, so we will read it more eagerly, knowing what could have happened, or what was an earlier draft. We can even keep an eye out for a few words to make their appearance, as Darcy mentions they’d be good to use. How often does an author get to do this? Never. Never times. It’s a unique look into the mind of an author as she is creating the book — even if it is all entirely fictional.

That is the mastery of this book, and that is the genius of Scott Westerfeld.

I give this book a rating of 5 out of 5 fish, just for the flawless execution of the dual story-telling.
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Audio Book Road Trip #1: Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, narrated by Kirby Heyborne

Ants

I know, I know. I said I’d start Monday. I couldn’t wait.

The first book I listened to on my Manitoba road trip was Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, narrated by Kirby Heyborne. I really hit the ground running with this one.

Well, not literally running. I was driving. I mean, it was 1,234 miles to my destination (which I think is kind of cool) (this is really close to 1984 kilometers, which is also cool, as that’s the year of my birth). Anyway, I didn’t run. I sat. And I listened.

And what I listened to was phenomenal. I had given up on audio books for a little bit because I listened to some stinkers. Basically, if the narrator speaks in either a monotone the entire time or, like, like a valley girl chomping on her bright pink gum? With her fingernails matching her headband matching her gum color matching her lip gloss? And her sentences all sound like questions? I won’t like it. But this one was great.

First, a little plot music. Lucky Linderman is the fortunate hero of this tale. His family is. . .less than functional. His dad is the son of a champion MIA/POW supporter, as Lucky’s grandfather never came home from Vietnam. So this dad character has never really dealt with that fully, and doesn’t know how to be a father. He cooks (that’s his job), and. . .that’s about it. His mom swims. Like, 7 million laps a day swims. Lucky just goes through his day, doing what he can to ignore it all.

But Lucky has a bully. Nader McMillan (what a sweet bully name, right?). And one day, Nader picks on Lucky just enough that his mom can’t take it anymore. So they’re off to Arizona to visit her brother and his wife. Where they can deal with things. Which basically means she can swim 7 million laps a day in a different state, and Lucky can have a different male role model. As if that changes anything.

There’s something else, though: Lucky’s grandfather. Yes, he never came home from the war. But Lucky has been having meetings with him. In his dreams. There’s a very real nature to these dreams. Lucky decides it is his job to rescue his grandfather (which was also his grandmother’s dying request. Oh, by the way: his grandmother is dead).

So much more is going on (there’s a girl, among other things) that wouldn’t really fit in the context of a review. But here’s the thing. This story is layered and complex and all that. But more than anything, it’s just. . .it’s good.

A.S. King takes us on a journey through Lucky’s mind that is just so real it’s impossible to turn off. I mean, not that I had anything else to do but sit and listen, but I didn’t want to stop. This was so good at being a teenage boy’s perspective of life that I didn’t know A.S. King was female until after I got home and looked her up on Twitter. The book was just spot-on.

Without Kirby Heyborne’s narration, though, it might not have come alive as much. There was just this dry, teenage sarcasm dripping through my speakers. This was juxtaposed with intense teenage confusion, as Lucky often experiences this particular feeling. I can’t explain how good it was. Just go listen yourself.

I would recommend this book for anyone looking to try an audio book. It’s not too long (just under 8 hours), and will definitely hold your interest. Also, I think fans of John Green and The Perks of Being a Wallflower will enjoy the story.

My rating: 5 out of 5 fish. FishFishFishFishFish

 

The Strange Case of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

I have to be upfront with you. This review is not about The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Well, it is, but it’s really about the strange case of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. And it involves Ryan.

Ryan is a 7th-grade student of mine. I’ve known him for about a month now. Ryan, by his own admission, does not like to read. He’s read The Hunger Games and he liked it, but he’s not someone who will read something for him (not because his friends are reading it or there’s a movie coming out).

So one day, Origami Yoda comes into my classroom. Ryan’s ears perk up, much like Origami Yoda’s ears do. He is the first to check the book out.

THE NEXT DAY, Ryan says to the whole class that this book is the best book he’s ever read. EVER. READ. He’s not finished, but already there’s a waiting list growing.

THE NEXT NEXT DAY (actually, the following Monday, because the previous school day was a Friday), Ryan takes advantage of a pause in class to say the following to me: “I just want to thank you for buying this book, because I don’t like to read, and I love this book. A lot. And you have inspired me to read the series. Since you don’t have The Fortune Wookie, I’m going to go buy it.” [Side note: when one student asked him where he was going to buy it, he said Nicola’s Books. Support your local independent bookstores!] At this point, there’s a noticeable buzz in the classroom. Ryan’s classmates know he’s not really a reader. He’s way more concerned about sports (currently: football) than he is about reading. But he is taking the time out of class to sing the praises of a book? There’s gotta be something magical about this book.

And that brings me to my next Ryan-centered point. I am requiring my students to read from different genres this year. So, of course, they’re asking what genre Origami Yoda is. I say it’s realistic fiction. Ryan steps up and says: “Well, maybe. It depends. We don’t really know yet.” [Another side note: at this point in the conversation, Ryan is most of the way through Darth Paper Strikes Back. It’s also been less than a week.]

So now, in a week’s time, Ryan has gone from someone who doesn’t really read to someone able to intelligently discuss the genre qualifications of a book. Oh, and he asked me if I could pass on a note of frustration to Tom Angleberger (and his publisher). So here I shall do so. Ryan is upset that he cannot purchase these books on an e-reader.

I must revise my previous paragraph. In a week’s time, Ryan has gone from someone who doesn’t really read to someone able to intelligently discuss the genre qualifications of a book and is finding himself indignant over the ability to easily purchase the books he needs to feed his now insatiable appetite.

This book is a gem. I don’t know when I’ll see it again on my bookshelves.

 

Oh, did you want a review from me? We’ll go quickly. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is a book about a group of 6th grade friends, one of whom creates an origami finger puppet that looks like Yoda. This finger puppet then begins answering questions, many of which turn out to be right! The book itself is a series of testimonials about Origami Yoda, from those who believe and those who don’t. What is the truth? Read to find out you must.

My rating: 5 out of 5 fish. 

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

 

Wow. This one. . .this one is quite good. I’ve only read one other Maggie Stiefvater book: The Scorpio Races. That one was a Printz Honor Book, but something just didn’t quite click for me. Well, whatever didn’t work for me was not Stiefvater herself, because The Raven Boys just about blew me away.

The story revolves around not quite the raven boys (we’ll get to them), but Blue. Blue is a teenage daughter (I think she’s 15? 16? I remember reading it in the book, but I didn’t write it down) of a local psychic. And not only is her mom psychic, but a lot of others with this second sight live in their house. So it’s something Blue’s had around her her entire life. And, before you ask: yes, they’re really psychic. But more on that in a bit.

The thing is, Blue doesn’t have this gift.

No, Blue’s gift is even more interesting: she makes their senses stronger. She’s like the windex on a foggy window, or a juiced-up battery in a dying flashlight. She’s like BASF: “we don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” That’s Blue, but in the psychic realm.

Well, we’re thrown into the story because Blue is hanging out in what used to be a church on St. Mark’s Eve. With one of her psychic housemates. You see, on St. Mark’s Eve, those who are going to die in the next year are seen. Not a bad thing to know when your business is running a psychic house. The thing is, Blue — not psychic — sees someone that night. Gansey. But how could she see him? Well, there are only two reasons: either she’s his true love. . .or she killed him. And given a particular prediction about Blue, there’s a good chance it’s both.

Gansey is a raven boy, so called because of the logo on the sweaters of the preppy school they attend: Aglionby. He is quite interested in certain energies. Things psychics would know about. Can you see where this might be headed? Blue and Gansey (and his group of 4) are bound to cross paths. What happens once they do (it’s a touch slow until they do, but once they do, HOLD THE HECK ON)? You MUST read this and find out.

I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. Like The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, though, I wasn’t sure how to categorize it by genre. Is it fantasy? Well, sort of. Is it realistic fiction? Again, sort of. So I think I’m going to go ahead and create a genre just for books like this: realistic fantasy. Books that could take place in the real world, if just one small thing were true. And that small thing makes the world a vastly different place. Is there a name for this already out there? Probably. Please let me know what it is. But anyway, this book is total amazeballs.

Buy this one when it comes out September 18th. And then read it by September 19th.

My rating: big ol’ 5 out of 5 fish. 

The Waiting Sky by Lara Zielin

Do issue books bother you? Do you find yourself wishing they weren’t so in-your-face with things? We get it. Cancer sucks. Or yes, I see now that drugs are bad. I didn’t know that before. I’m so glad there’s a book on it now. I don’t mean to pick on issue books — they have their place. But I feel that they tend to be over-the-top and way too dramatic.

Well, guess what. The Waiting Sky is an issue book.

And I loved it.

We start out our story in the eye of the storm (and I use that metaphor on purpose). 17-year old Jane (not Janey) is remembering her mom’s words, pleading with her to come back home. Meanwhile, she is hunting down a tornado with her brother Ethan, and the rest of his tornado chasing team. The comparison between her mom and the tornado may come across as a bit heavy-handed (see over-the-top and dramatic from above), but it does work as a good extended metaphor.

You see, Jane doesn’t live in Oklahoma with her brother, chasing down tornadoes. She’s visiting him from her home in Minnesota, where she lives with her mom. Her alcoholic mom. Her alcoholic mom who recently drove Jane and her best friend, Cat, home from the mall. Drunk. And they got in an accident. A fairly serious accident. They drove away, not even knowing if anyone else involved was alive.

So now she finds herself in Oklahoma. Cat wants her to be there. Ethan wants her to be there. Jane wants to be with her mom. This is why I love this book. This book is about alcoholism. But it’s not about how terrible the disease is. It’s not about the dangers of alcohol and how it can destroy the mind and body if abused. Leave that to the PSAs. This book is about what alcoholism does to those who love those who have it. And it’s pretty spot-on.

Full disclosure time. Someone quite close to me is an alcoholic in recovery. I could not be happier with where this person is right now. But when things were bad, it was awful. Not just for this person, but for the close friends and family. All I wanted to do was be there and give this person whatever it was that was needed. But you know what was needed? For me to step away. For me not to know, at any given moment, if this person was sober or drunk — or even alive or dead. That tore me apart. This person needed to get better on their own, though, or else it was meaningless. I became edgy around alcohol, and couldn’t imagine how people could drink the way they did. I have healed, but it sucked. It’s almost worse now, looking back on it, than it was during that time, because I was fairly numb to it all.

Well, this is where Jane is. She wants to do nothing but be there for her mom. She wants to help pay the bills, even though she knows that a lot of that money is spent at the bar. She believes that’s at least better than her mom being evicted. And how could anybody else know what was the best thing for her to do? And my goodness, how could Ethan ever have a beer? As if leaving home to go to Oklahoma wasn’t bad enough, that’s like a slap in the face.

This book deals with all of that. It talks about Al-Anon (quick, show of hands: who knows what Al-Anon is?). It talks about dependency (though not with that term). It is about Jane searching for strength to make difficult choices — choices she doesn’t even know she has to make.

I must stop the review now. This is way too long. But if you’re looking for a book that deals with how alcoholism affects those around the alcoholic, this is the book for you.

My rating (perhaps a bit biased because the subject matter is so close to me):
5 out of 5 fish. 

 

 

P.S. Lara reveals a pretty big YA meme secret today on her blog.