Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

I wasn’t sure if debut author Elizabeth Wein could get me again after her heart-wrenching and wonderful debut, Code Name Verity, but I snatched up an egalley as soon as the offer crossed my email inbox. If you haven’t read CNV, do yourself a favor and go get it right now: it was one of the best books I read in 2012.

At first, I was worried that this story was just a boring romance set during World War II, a companion to Code Name Verity but without that book’s incredible emotional impact, but midway through comes the gut punch. Like Maddie in Verity, Rose is a pilot. In fact, she’s flying Air Transport Auxiliary planes with Maddie. Unlike Maddie, Rose is an American, flying for the British because of her English uncle’s government connections. Events start 8 months after the conclusion of Maddie’s story, and that much closer to the end of the war. Rose is frustrated, because although she is contributing to the war effort, she is still just a transport pilot, unable to directly impact the war. Another female pilot has just died, and Rose must write the accident report because she was there. She thinks that this pilot might have died not due to a malfunction with the plane or incompetence, but because she was trying to knock a flying bomb out of the sky.

D-Day is about to happen, so planes, people and supplies are being moved over to the Continent in preparation for the great offensive that would lead to the end of the war. Rose gets to fly to Paris (and buzz the Eiffel Tower) because she often flies her uncle around on his mysterious missions. It is after this flight that the real story starts. On her return flight, Rose sees a flying bomb and decides to try a taran–to knock it out of the air. She does this but gets found by two German planes and forced to land in territory still occupied by German forces. This is where Rose’s story goes to the same emotional level Wein expertly created in Verity, as Rose is now a prisoner of war and sent to Ravensbruck.

Of course, being in a concentration camp is horrible, and Wein details Rose’s work, fellow prisoners and fears. This book is another must read and I can’t wait to find out what subject the author will tackle next.

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Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story

I first encountered David Foster Wallace my freshman year of college, beginning, like so many others, with the easy introduction: the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It was 1997, and my then-boyfriend Matt had somehow come out of small town South Dakota with this yellow and grumpy covered book and the decidedly intimidating-sized Infinite Jest. Though I admit I could never make it through Everything and More, the math book, and didn’t bother with Signifying Rappers, I’ve devoured most everything else he published, including reading IJ 3 times. When I first heard about DFW’s suicide, it was the most personally wrenching “celebrity” death I’ve ever experienced. I was surprised at the strength of my heartache.

I knew that DT Max’s biography would be a personal must-read as soon as I heard about it, though it took me a few months to get to it: first I had to get over my trepidation about ruining an idol, and then I had to wait for the holds list at the library. Finally it arrived and I could begin.

Wallace’s writing’s brilliance for me was always in the specificity. He could capture precisely emotion and situation, in a way that resonated with my own experience. I’ve never struggled with mental illness or drug addiction (or international espionage), but he could always put me in the places like I was there, feeling the existential dread or anguish or anhedonia or whatever. The challenge in his biography would be for Max to find that same kind of entrĂ©e into the life of a clearly effed up individual, which he did with manifest care, sourcing from DFW’s many letters, his papers in various archives, and interviews with friends and family. DFW’s relationships, addiction, teaching career and mental illness are intertwined with his creative process and his doubts and successes. Wallace was a notorious exaggerator (creative nonfiction, emphasis on the creative), and Max is careful to separate what can be verified from what Wallace self-reports.

There are a satisfying amount of footnotes.

As I was reading, I really wanted to revisit each of Wallace’s works as Max covered their creation process. How long has it been since I dove into BIWHM or SFTINDA, Oblivion or Consider the Lobster? Is it time to start my 4th read of Infinite Jest? Now that I’m done, though, the emotional gut-punch at the end of Wallace’s life, and thus of his biography, has made me feel a little too fragile to attempt that, at least right now. Instead, I think I’ll try one of the Wallace-l list serv’s favorite’s I’ve never gotten to, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Or maybe a complete left turn to some of the ALA’s 2013 Youth Media Award winners and honorees. Or maybe I should read some DeLillo; I’ve never done that.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (CBR4 #7)

Robopocalypse: it’s like World War Z, but for robots. Wilson is well positioned to pen this future war, having already penned the advice bookHow to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself from the Upcoming Rebellion. Entertaining, all things considered, but it feels thin compared to the multiplicity of viewpoints in WWZ.

Life: an Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet (CBR4 #6)

Mal Peet, from what I can tell, is somewhere in his 60s, too young to have been around during World War II. However, that war’s legacy seems to have made a significant impact on him as it was central to his 2007 novel Tamar, and also makes a significant appearance in his new book Life: an Exploded Diagram. The examines three generations of a working-class family in Norfolk, England. Grandmother and religious fanatic Win, bewildered mother Ruth and vaguely disappointed father George, and striving artist son Clem’s lives are intertwined with Luftwaffe bombings and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

From helicopter shot panorama to macro lens detail, Mal Peet’s prose zooms from clinical analysis of global crisis to the minutia of Clem’s artistic and sexual development. Several narratives are intertwined, as grown-up Clem covers his family’s history as influenced, more or less directly by historical events. Ruth goes into labor to birth Clem because of the trauma of a German bomber flying over their cottage. Clem is terrified of dying a virgin, which he fears he might do in a global nuclear war precipitated by the USSR putting nuclear missiles in Cuba. When Clem meets and starts a romantic entanglement with Frankie, the daughter of the local landowning gentleman, his lens on the world changes. No longer is he just a scholarship boy at the local grammar school, forced to wear terrible uniforms and teased mercilessly, but a guy who makes out a lot with a really hot girl and who starts seeing the world as an artist even as they are groping their way towards each other both figuratively and literally.

One of my favorite things about this book is the scope of the narrative. How did John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy experience of lack thereof affect a boy in rural England? How did grandmother Win’s prudishness and disapproval affect decades of Ruth and George’s marriage? The narrative spans the years from World War II to 9/11 and using the multi-generational family story in conjunction with history shows how one person’s life has components from so many areas–the idea behind the subtitle. Clever.

Though Clem is the narrator and the central character, the other main characters are complex and interesting. Ruth’s discomfort with her own body and with sex is a direct result of her mother’s disapproval. George is stuck with Ruth and Win because of Ruth’s pregnancy, but is able to make his own life despite their parochial resistance to change. Frankie, though an object of worship for Clem, is also a girl with sexual agency tempered by misinformation and rumor. She is driven by desire but hampered by learning about sex from her classmates who provide tips and facts of dubious accuracy.

The teenage years are obviously formative. The interests and opportunities in this time shape our adult selves and having adult Clem narrate, as a somewhat-impartial third party shows that impact in his grown-up life in New York City, years and an ocean away from his upbringing. I don’t think this book would appeal much to younger teens, but I’d heartily recommend Life: an Exploded Diagram to older teens and to adults of any age.

(Library book)

CBR4 #5 Legend by Marie Lu

(Wow, that writing on Thursdays thing lasted a whole month. I’m actually [sadly] kind of impressed with myself. I’ve been reading books for an award I’m judging and didn’t really want to write about them before that’s announced, but that’s not for a while yet. When I was told that my last review is going to appear on CBR’s parent page probably tomorrow, I figured I should maybe have some new content up for the presumably rabid readers who will come this blog’s way after that post. Right? Sure.)

As is evident from my previous reviews, I read a lot of YA. I’ve read and loved the Hunger Games (going to the movie tomorrow aaaaaahhhhh). Of course, at the library, you can’t get a copy of the Hunger Games for a couple of months. Waiting lists are a bitch, eh? A lot of people only want to read that particular book, but if you’ve got someone who will accept a substitute, you could do a lot worse than Legend. It’s also dystopian, this time set in a future US that’s split into two perpetually warring nations. In The Republic (located in the Western part of the current country), all children must submit themselves to The Trial on their 10th birthday, and their score will determine everything about their futures. Narration switches back and forth between two teenagers who were on opposite ends of the Trial’s results spectrum. June had the only perfect score in the history of the trial. At 15, she is poised to graduate from University and go on to a certainly stellar career in the Republic’s military. Day, on the other hand, failed his trial and has gone on to a fugitive life of crime. When Day’s little brother comes down with the Plague, Day does the only thing he can think of to try save him–break into a heavily guarded hospital/research lab to try to steal some Plague Cure. It is that ill-fated raid that makes June and Day’s paths cross. Day is injured and trying to escape when he kills June’s beloved older brother Matteas (spelling is a guess, an audiobook hazard). June’s first post-college task is to track down day and exact her revenge. Naturally, both of them learn things about the Republic and each other that soften their perspectives.

The book is a well-told version of well-trod ground. There’s some plausible futuristic technology, like omnipresent jumbotrons and guns that know who fired them. Even though there’s nothing too surprising being done by the awful Republic, June and Day are sympathetic characters and it’s a pleasure to watch them develop into more complex people. As I mentioned, I listened to the audiobook. Chapters alternate between the two main character’s perspectives and the readers do a good job with the rocketing emotions and actions of these two teenagers. Sequel expected this coming fall; I know I’ll be reading it.

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (CBR4 #4)

It is May 1996, and Emma and Josh are juniors in high school. They’ve been neighbors and best friends forever, or at least until last November when Josh misread some signals and tried to kiss Emma. Oops. They are tentatively reestablishing their friendship now, and Josh brings Emma an AOL trial disk that he got in the mail for her to install on her brand new computer. At this point, fewer than half of high school students had been on the internet. When they finally get online (45 minutes of installation time later), they find the normal stuff they’d expected, like chat, but they also find this strange page with a blue bar across the top called Facebook.

Emma is able to use the email address she’s just created to log in to Facebook, and she starts seeing her own wall and posts from 15 years in her future. They both can’t believe that people would put the kind of stuff they’re seeing on the internet–why does anyone care what someone else had for breakfast? In this future, Emma lives in Florida, is married to some guy and also unemployed. Josh is married to the hottest girl in school who’s up to this point never given him the time of day. These futures are completely surprising to both of them but it’s Emma who takes steps to try to change this future where she’s unhappy. This gets them into a spiral of checking future Facebook and changing what they would’ve done to get them to that future.

The story is told in alternating chapters by Josh and Emma, each set of chapters written by one author that gives them each a distinct voice. As a person who graduated from high school the same year as Emma and Josh, I can report that they also capture pretty perfectly the way I felt about the wonders of the internet at that time–I used to use my dad’s PINE email to send stuff to my friends who’d already graduated and were in college. This book is also an insightful look at how ridiculous the idea of Facebook actually is when you look at it with unobsessed eyes. For today’s teens, who’ve always known the internet, this book could potentially connect them with us old fogeys.

So, a charming story of a friendship and how relationships and actions have repercussions we can’t imagine. Much lighter than Jay Asher’s first book (which I also loved), Thirteen Reasons Why, but still one I read in pretty much one sitting. You should probably read it right now.

(Library book)

Everybody Sees the Ants by AS King (CBR4 #3)

I first heard of A.S. King when her 2010 second novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz got a Printz Honor Award (the Printz being the American Library Association’s teen book award). You can read my CBR3 review of it by clicking here. When I saw Everybody Sees the Ants on the new books shelf, I had to pick it up because Vera was so great.

Lucky Linderman doesn’t really feel lucky. His dad spends too much time at the restaurant where he’s a chef; his mom spends most of her days swimming endless laps; Lucky has been relentlessly bullied by Nader McMillan since they were both seven and Nader peed on Lucky’s shoes in a public restroom. Nader is pretty categorically a terrible person, and his torments aren’t just limited to Lucky. After an incident at the pool (Nader takes exception to Lucky rescuing a girl’s bikini top from the bottom of the pool and buffs his cheek on some cement), Lucky’s dad won’t do anything (where Lucky’s swimming mom is a squid, his dad is a turtle) and Lucky’s mom decides she can’t take it any more. Mom and Lucky hop on a plane for Arizona where they’ll spend a few weeks with Uncle Dave and Aunt Jodi.

Oh, and interspersed with all of this, plus backstory of the Nader/Lucky relationship, are the years and years of dreams Lucky has had where he’s trying to rescue his Vietnam War POW grandfather Harry from a prison camp in Nam. Lucky has been having these dreams since he was 9, sometimes waking up with an item from his dream in his hand, like a bamboo stake or a handful of chicken nuggets. Lucky’s also followed around by ants who commentate on his every move, editorializing with tiny M16s or whatever.

One of the things I really like about this book, as opposed to many YA novels, is that the adults are complex characters. They don’t just appear out of the sky to be prohibit stuff or advise things, they are people with problems and neuroses, who are trying to help and trying to let Lucky figure things out on his own. Both of King’s novels I’ve read have a wonderful sardonic tone. Neither Lucky nor Vera are really getting what they want out of life (if they were, they might not be good protagonists), and the first person narration lets the reader really get inside that feeling and how they deal with it. You can tell they’re born from the same authorial brain, and it’s one I’ve really enjoyed getting to know.

(Library book)