1. It's told entirely in e-mails. As a writer, I understand that yes, this is a gimmick. I have a high-gimmick tolFIVE THINGS ABOUT THE 52-HERTZ WHALE
1. It's told entirely in e-mails. As a writer, I understand that yes, this is a gimmick. I have a high-gimmick tolerance, though, as long it doesn't get in the way of my emotional or intellectual enjoyment of a book. With 52, it worked for me. It might not for you, though, so I'm putting it right here as #1. Full disclosure. Emails.
2. With that out of the way, I can tell you that I found the two main characters of this book — a disenchanted, heartbroken film student and a socially challenged, maybe-Aspergers whale lover — revoltingly charming. Both of them have terrible things happening in their lives — fractured relationships and public humiliation — but the conceit of e-mail-chapters means it is funneled through their wryly self-deprecating and dutifully factual voices, respectively. The novel is ultimately uplifting without being saccharine. I know I use the word big-hearted a lot to describe the books I love, but it fits this little novel well.
3. There is some deft portrait-making in this book. 52 doesn't have a lot of words to do it in, since there's no description and a fair number of characters sending e-mails, but I nonetheless felt I knew all the parties involved. It is nothing like SOME DAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU, apart from also possessing a narrator named James, but it touched me in the same way. I felt I'd met real people.
4. My teen years were populated by many non-teens, and I appreciated that this teen novel was populated by non-teens as well. It made what could be a rather claustrophobic contemporary into a roomy narrative.
5. There are really not any whales in this book. I mean, there's one, but he spends a lot of the book dead, so don't get excited. Spoiler? I just want you to be prepared if you're coming for the whales. Come for the whale, stay for the human dysfunction....more
Technically this little volume is part of Tales of Outer Suburbia, if memory serves, but if you can find it in this little hardback version, it is verTechnically this little volume is part of Tales of Outer Suburbia, if memory serves, but if you can find it in this little hardback version, it is very agreeable. It works on so many levels — I read it to my kids, who are 8 & 9, and we giggle and talk about metaphor. ...more
Possibly I am biased, because the author (Jackson Pearce writing as J. Nelle Patrick) was sitting across from me in my squashy office chair while shePossibly I am biased, because the author (Jackson Pearce writing as J. Nelle Patrick) was sitting across from me in my squashy office chair while she wrote this. I'm fond of both Jackson and that chair.
Possibly I am biased because we brainstormed about this book and The Dream Thieves as we loitered in my kitchen with the 4,000 cups of coffee who died to make both of these books possible.
Possibly I am biased because you always like books you saw being born on your living room floor*.
But it's more possible that I really wanted something historical with a hint of magic; something that didn't feel like an assignment; something with a moose in it.
This is that book.**
*This is unpalatable **Also, if you don't believe me, believe Kirkus, anyway, because they gave it a starred review.
Before I say anything else, let me get this out of the way: Jennifer Donnelly, don’t read this.
I know that she might be, because even though authors oBefore I say anything else, let me get this out of the way: Jennifer Donnelly, don’t read this.
I know that she might be, because even though authors often say they do not read their reviews, I am an author and have secret knowledge of author-behavior and know that this means that they often do.
This is not a bad review, but I don’t want Jennifer Donnelly to read it because I want one day for us to sit together at a conference and be best friends and talk about dead people, prose, and minor chords. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that, much less something as untidy as her looking at me and thinking of this Goodreads review and hissing “I’ll show you ambitious, Stiefvater.”
So Ms. Donnelly (Jennifer, really, because in the future, we’re friends, or at least fond peers), please stop here.
All right, so I never understood by what reviewers meant by “ambitious.” I assumed it meant the reviewer was a condescending jerk. I hope that is not me. Because I’m going to say it. This is a big, sprawling, ambitious novel that has its eye on a lot of different things. Before I read it, people told me it was a fantasy, and an edgy contemporary about grief, and a historical romance. It is none of those things, but it is some of all of those things. It tells the story of Andi, a present day grieving Brooklyn teen, and it tells the story of Alex, a pyrotechnic teen living during the French revolution, and it also tells the story of a dead prince’s mummified heart, and it also tells the story of a French composer who seems to like both Beethoven and Radiohead, and the story of a rapping taxi driver with a heart of gold.
It’s this book’s ambition that keeps it from being absolutely perfect. It tries for all of those things, and some of those things it nails, and some of them made me make my mouth small. But it’s also its ambition that makes me okay with its imperfection. Because the reason why I have so many things to talk about and pick apart is because it gives me so many things to talk about and pick apart. It’s a glorious thing to pull back the layers. In many ways, I think it’s a great readalong with CODE NAME VERITY — another ambitious book with lots of layers to pick at.
What else do I want to say about this book? Because I want you to pick it up — I want everyone to. I want writers to, because I think it will make them better writers, and I want readers to, because I think it will make them better readers. I want everyone to, so I can have someone to talk about the cleverness of it, right down to the title. I want to talk about how wise it is when it comes to war.
I suppose I will say this, then: stick with it, in the beginning. Andi is in a terrible place, and she is not the easiest person to like. That’s the point. And I’ll say: ignore all the covers. They are all ridiculous and none of them is remotely interesting until after you’re read the book. What else? Probably ignore the cover copy too. It is not that it is a lie — it’s just that it’s untrue. It doesn’t reflect the reading experience at all.
Here, in fact. That’s a good way to end this thing, whatever it is, because it surely isn’t a review. I will finish with the cover copy I would write for this book instead:
Andi Alpers is a sad and terrible person after her younger brother dies. She goes to a snotty school that makes her sadder and more terrible. Her father, who is a geneticist, brings her to France to be sad and terrible there while he analyzes a crusty old French heart to see if it belongs to a sad and terrible French princeling. She finds a happy and glorious old guitar from the revolution, and a sad and terrible journal from selfsame time period, and also meets a happy and glorious rapping taxi driver with a heart of gold. There are kisses, decapitations, house parties where house = catacombs, and a lot of classical guitarists playing a lot of minor chords.
My work here is done. Jennifer Donnelly, are we friends yet? ...more
Aw, Brenna. Fair confession: she's my critique partner, so I saw this manuscript when it was just an infant. But it's lovely and creepy and you'll likAw, Brenna. Fair confession: she's my critique partner, so I saw this manuscript when it was just an infant. But it's lovely and creepy and you'll like it, too.
Serial killers (a little), ghosts (a little), and love (a little). ...more
I'm an unashamed lover of movies as well as books, and I have a special place reserved in my black heart for movies that feel like books and vice versa. Nick Hornby and John Green generally live in this zone for me, with characters and plots both walking a fine line between quirky and unbelievable. Jackson Pearce elbows her way into this realm with Purity. In it, Shelby promises her dying mother that she'll listen to her father, love as much as possible, and live without restraint. Innocent-enough promises in theory, but in practice, they lead to all sorts of capers and crises involving best friends, sex and church ladies. The combination of Pearce's humorous voice and the novel's bite-sized length make it easy to hand to most everyone. Like Hornby's and Green's books, I would pick it up for the light and breezy concept, and remember it for the surprisingly poignant character relationships....more
My relationship with high fantasy — fantasy set in another world — has always been tumultuous. Actually, I'd like to refer you to the first item on this list. Everything I said about historical fiction also applies here. Which is why, despite multiple recommendations, I let this debut novel about a half-dragon, half-human girl sit unread on my desk for five months. I'll admit I very much wanted to remain a curmudgeon, but the thorough world-building and specific characters won me over. This city of austere dragons and emotional humans felt complete, as if I could turn down any number of alleys and never find the seams showing. At 480 pages, the novel is satisfyingly plump with politics, religion and prejudice — and a restrained but edifying measure of love. It also has a healthy dose of music (I was unsurprised to discover Rachel Hartman was a fellow admirer of medieval polyphony), and I find I'm very interested to see what Hartman writes next. Teens and adults alike will love to creep down the magical streets of Seraphina's city. I certainly did....more
1. This is the first five star review I've given that is five stars for how I would've viewed this book as the target audFive Things about Endangered:
1. This is the first five star review I've given that is five stars for how I would've viewed this book as the target audience. This book is an upper YA, and although I enjoyed it, it would've made my eyes huge with wonder and shock as a fourteen year old unaware of the history of the Congo. I'm quite pleased to imagine it making its way into the hands of teens now, though. It's one of those books that makes you look at your own culture a little differently; makes your world a little stretchier.
2. This book is not for everyone. Bad Things happen. I mean, it is not Little Bee, which caused me much rocking and moaning in the corner. But it is not The House at Pooh Corner either (I first typed that as the House at Poo Corner, which would have been a very different sort of book. Possibly one that would make me rock and moan). I've previously recommended Lucy Christopher's Stolen and Ruta Sepatys' Between Shades of Gray, and I'd say it would definitely appeal to folks who liked both of those. Definitely it has that gritty sense of place and history that seems to evade Pooh Corner.
3. This book is about bonobos. They are apes. That means they have no tail. We also have no tail. Bonobos, as you can see, are quite like us.
4. Tigger is not in this book. Unless he is a bonobo. Man, I really enjoy saying that word out loud. Go ahead. Try it.
5. This book reminded me a little bit of those old-fashioned adventure stories I read growing up. There's something a bit timeless about the telling of it, about the girl-and-an-animal element, about the questing-for-safety. Something familiar. It's not a book that changed my life now. But it would've changed my life then, and for that, five stars....more
I’ll confess right up front that I’m not usually a big historical fiction fan. I realize this seems somewhat hypocritical of me, as I was a history maI’ll confess right up front that I’m not usually a big historical fiction fan. I realize this seems somewhat hypocritical of me, as I was a history major in college and adore history, but a lot of times, I find historical fiction more impenetrable than a primary source document. The characters either don’t feel like real people to me, or they feel like modern people to me. I get distracted by historical info-dumps and bored by epic scale machinations. Basically, I like my historical fiction very personal and very intimate. So when I got sent a copy of Code Name Verity, I thought, okay. I’ll read twenty pages and then I’ll give it to my sister.
But my sister has not yet gotten this book, because I don’t want to let it out of my house yet. I adored it.
1. First of all, I believe it. The people feel like real people to me, and the details feel like real details. ARE they real details? Possibly not. We all slip up on our research sometimes, but man, this stuff feels genuine. The main character’s best friend is a pilot, and that part I knew was real even before I read that Elizabeth Wein had a pilot's license. I could feel the real-life love and knowledge of flying seeping through the pages. It was grand.
2. It doesn’t feel like anything I’ve read before — certainly not in YA. Not just in genre or in subject matter, but just . . . the characters are unique and specific people and the situations they’re in are unique and specific. It feels like I looked through a tiny window into a real life, and that’s just not something you can cut and paste.
3. As with all my favorite books, it rewards the careful reader. If an author can make me gasp once, it’s likely that novel is ending up on my favorites shelf. If an author can make me gasp THREE TIMES, either the author is making me read their novel underwater or it’s really cleverly done. This one’s really cleverly done. It was a three-gasper. When was the last time I read a three gasper? I don’t remember. Maybe when I read THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST underwater . . . Now, that said, CODE NAME VERITY is not a fast read. If you go into it expecting to whip through it in an evening or even two, you’re not doing it justice. Give the characters some time to infest your heart.
4. It’s hard, but not harrowing. This is worth pointing out, because the central premise is that the narrator has been shot down over occupied France and is now being tortured for her confession. It could be awful. Sort of like BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, which I also loved, but would never read again because of how hard it was. This book, on the other hand — not only does it have so many lovely and sweeping moments, but it’s also surprisingly funny. I laughed out loud several times. Thought when I tried to explain to Lover why I was laughing, I invariably failed. LOVER: I thought you said she was being tortured? ME: Yeah, but, the Hitler line, it . . . never mind.
5. It stuck with me. This, to me, is the Holy Grail of novels. I love some novels and forget them the moment they’re out of my sight. Other novels I love and then they become part of me for days or weeks or forever. I will be reminded of them at the strangest moments. CODE NAME VERITY does more than stick with me. It haunts me. I just can’t recommend it enough. I can’t even make this recommendation funny. I love it too much. ...more
1. So. This book takes place in Lily, Arkansas, but it could take place in Nowhere, Virginia, as well, a placeFive Things About WHERE THINGS COME BACK
1. So. This book takes place in Lily, Arkansas, but it could take place in Nowhere, Virginia, as well, a place I am well acquainted with. It takes place in a small town the same way that my life took place in a small town — not in a surface way, not in a Hollywood way, but in a way that touches every bit of your life. Not good or bad, really, just . . . grit and dust and gross gas stations and lots of church. I appreciate that it feels effortlessly real, not like Whaley is trying to convince me that it’s real. It just is what it is.
2. This book is about a guy sighting an extinct species of woodpecker in Lily, Arkansas. Actually, it’s not. That is there, but it’s subtext and it’s delightful. The reappearance of the Lazarus woodpecker stands for everything that Lily, Arkansas needs and everything that Lily, Arkansas wants. Well done, Book.
3. This book is actually about Cullen Witter and the day his brother Gabriel goes missing. I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too. Whatever. I’m not normally a terrible person — okay, that’s a lie, I am a terrible, jaded person — but I really didn’t care about Gabriel’s fate when I opened this book. I was not really in the mood to read a quiet book about a boy coping with his brother’s disappearance. In fact, before picking it up, I informed one of my friends that all I wanted to do was read a book about helicopters, guns, and magic and I didn’t have a book that fit that description in my house, so I guessed I’d just read this one. This book had such an uphill climb in winning my affection. Even when it made me laugh in the first two chapters, I resented it. “How dare you make me laugh, quiet book? Do you have any helicopters? Any guns? Any magic? No? THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT. Shut up!” The book did not shut up. And it turned out, I didn’t need any helicopters or guns or even any magic.
4. There are weird chapters from other people’s points of view. Again, I began my dialogue with the book. “Book, why are you telling me these things? Aren’t we supposed to be in Arkansas right now? Shouldn’t we be going home now?” I am here to promise you that those chapters not only eventually make sense, but also dovetail so delightfully with the main text that I was left saying only “well played, Book. Well played.”
5. It doesn’t really matter what this book is about. It’s a good book about a good kid and it’s a good story told remarkably well. In the last third, I thought there was no way that Whaley could really finish this in some way that I’d both believe and like, and . . . he did. So. Well played, Book. Well played....more