I don't read much YA fiction. I know that the genre has changed a lot, going from not existing at all to now being for adults and not just teens, but whenever I've read books specifically marketed as YA, I tend to find that they just don't hold the same weight as so-called "adult fiction."
This doesn't mean that they can't be well written or have interesting, developed characters (though in my experience this is generally not the case). YA is like the candy, the empty calories that are fun and tasty enough but don't really fill you up the way a true meal, like a literary fiction book, will.
But when a new book by Marisha Pessl comes out, it doesn't matter who the audience is supposed to be—that's a book I'll be buying.
My first experience with Pessl was Night Film, and when the advance copies came in at our bookstore, I just knew I had to have it. Such a striking cover, the bare bones of the plot instantly spoke to me, and flipping through, I could see the hints of the multi-media pages and I was smitten.
It did not disappoint. Pessl has a strong, enticing voice, does not shy away from the dark moments, and goes to interesting places with her characters. I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics soon after and though it didn't sing to me like Night Film, I could see why people were captivated by it.
And it is easy to see now, with this newest book, why Pessl would be interested in YA. Special Topics centers around a group of young adults too and Pessl obviously has a bit of a lock on that demographic. And yet, that book was not called YA and is still not marketed to younger readers. Why is that? The themes do not seem too complex or too explicit compared to some other YA books. Is it too long? Just better writing? What is it that makes a book YA?
I'm not sure I'll ever really be able to answer that question, but unfortunately, it is a category that, for me at least, the marketing is not working. I have been burned before and I will continue to shy away from books branded with this label.
All this to say that I bought Pessl's latest book with no hesitation, but I did begin it with a little trepidation. I didn't know what to expect: would her writing be different? Dumbed down? Would the plot be less complex or interesting?
The short answer is no.
Right away, her voice is apparent. And it is obvious throughout the book that she didn't change her writing style at all—this is Pessl through and through. Similar to her other two books, it is written in first person, with one main protagonist as our guide throughout.
Without spoiling the plot at all, there is a repetitive nature to some sections of the book, and I found them to drag, sometimes unnecessarily and to the detriment of the plot.
The main character Beatrice is a bit thick, honestly, and I wanted more from her. She seemed to mostly react to everyone around her rather than make decisions, which is my least favorite type of character. Action is a must.
The rest of the characters were paper-thin wisps of tired stock elements. I think the group of five (and then six once we start discussing Beatrice's boyfriend who mysteriously died) is a bit too much for the book to handle.
The plot itself ends up being more of an investigation of said mysterious death, which I couldn't quite wrap my head around the logic of that being the locus that will solve their predicament. It felt like a forced way to rehash an old storyline.
I read the book in one sitting; it is definitely short and compulsive enough to read right through. I think people who enjoyed books like If We Were Liars will be fans of the strangeness and dreamy propulsion of this book, but it didn't quite move me the way I've come to expect a book by Pessl to.
In the end—if forced to categorize it—I would call this a YA book. Though it has shades (sometimes a bit blatant) of The Secret History, If We Were Villains, and Pessl's own Special Topics, I think this book definitely caters toward younger readers. It is still an enjoyable read, and fans of her work and mysteries in general will enjoy this one.
And, there is another book on the way from Pessl, so even if this one wasn't for you, there is more to come.
Lately I was lucky enough to read both of Erik Therme's latest books, and even luckier, he let me ask him a few questions about himself, his writing, and the books! Here is the first in a two part review and interview series. Find the second one on Mortom here.
In Resthaven, a group of young girls venture to an abandoned nursing home to explore and do a scavenger hunt, but the place ends up not being as empty as they thought. Once they find they are locked inside, the real hunt begins—for a way out and for a way to stay alive.
The mission is doomed from the start: none of the girls really get along, from haughty, dominant, mean girl Jamie who is obviously in control; to mild-mannered, nervous Anna, who just wants Jamie to like her; to silent and closed-off Wren; to flighty, friendly, easy-going Sidney; and finally, to our protagonist Kaylee, who’d prefer to be anywhere but here and has a tendency to stick her foot in her mouth and alienate people.
The perfect storm, really.
The teen dialogue is fast-paced and not too overwhelming. While not always true to life—teens aren't that witty, are they?—I found it extremely fun to read and it was an interesting peek into these girls' internal lives. It reminded me of a heightened reality sort of dialogue, like that of the film Heathers.
The interactions between the girls is the reader's first point of contact, immediately hitting you and drawing you into the story. From there, you are just on board for the duration—keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times, please.
By the time we make it to this creepy, abandoned retirement home, all the personalities are established, but also some sad back-stories and some obvious self-doubt that is boiling just beneath the surface. Ah, to be a teenager.
It only gets more interesting from there, as though unlocking the front door also unlocks something in the girls and unleashes a torrent of emotions, secrets, and insecurities.
They fight, they split up—every horror fan is screaming NO! NO! NO!—and the adventure, or the horror, truly begins.
I really can't say much more without giving away some juicy plot twists! I hope that is enough to spark your curious appetite.
While the book is mostly about young teen characters, I wouldn’t necessarily say it is strictly for a YA audience. It would probably resonate well with kids that age, though I won’t presume! As far as adult fiction goes, I found it a perfectly engaging, speedy read.
And now, for a special interview with the author, Erik Therme!
Shelf Stalker: What are you currently reading?
Erik Therme: I just finished Serenity (Craig A. Hart), which is a fast, fun read that leaves you buzzing for more. I’m currently reading The Broken Ones (Sarah A. Denzil), which is just as excellent as her first novel, Saving April.
SS: Can you choose three favorite authors? Why those authors?
ET: Stephen King has always been at the top of my list, as I basically learned to write by reading his work. I’m also a big fan of Gillian Flynn, who creates the most amazing (albeit dark) characters that you love/hate to root for. Last, but certainly not least, is Joshua Gaylord, who has written one of my favorite books of all time: The Reapers Are the Angels. His prose is borderline poetry, and I would happily read this man’s grocery list if he published it. Yeah, he’s that good.
SS: I think it’s probably a fantasy for all of us crime buffs or amateur ghost sleuths: a neat abandoned building that we could skulk around in the dark. What made you want to write this story?
ET: I have two teenage daughters, and I wanted to write something they could relate to. I’m also a big fan of scary movies, and it was a ton of fun to employ a creepy, abandoned building as a backdrop for the story.
SS: How long did it take you to write this book? Was this the first book you ever wrote? What made you want to become a writer?
ET: I’m not a very prolific writer, and it easily takes me two years to finish a novel. I began writing stories when I was in my teens, and—to date—I’ve completed four novels with a fifth one in the works.
SS: The dialogue for the girls is so fun—fast-paced, witty, and enjoyable. It is really the aspect that draws you into the story. How did you discover their voices?
ET: Fortunately, I had heavy inspiration: Kaylee is based on my 17-year-old (who was 15 when I started the book), and Anna, Wren, and Sid are loose composites of her friends. Jamie, I’m happy to say, is not based on anyone that we know.
SS: What was your experience like publishing this book?
ET: Unique, to say the least. Resthaven wasn’t a good fit for my primary publisher (Thomas & Mercer), so I entered the book into the Kindle Scout program. Scout is basically a “contest” where authors upload their manuscripts to a website, and from there, readers vote on whether or not they believe the book “deserves” to be published. Thirty days later, the Scout team makes a decision, and Resthaven was fortunate enough to earn a publishing contract.
SS: And finally, are you working on anything new currently?
ET: My third novel, Roam, is going through the editing process and will be released in February 2017. The story follows a young man who believes he’s being haunted by his dead father, and the only way he can redeem himself is by “saving” someone else. It’s a very character-driven story and very different from Mortom and Resthaven. Readers can follow me on Amazon to be notified when the book is released.
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Man, oh man. Maybe it's goodbye to the age of the zombies and hello to the age of demonic possession.
Seriously. This stuff is popping up everywhere and it seems to be culturally relevant again. Well, "again" probably isn't the best way to put it. I think exorcism plots have always been relevant, at least since The Exorcist thrust its ugly head onto the scene in 1973 and scared the living bejesus out of everyone. I think we all know why it's scary.
But the reason for the continued relevance? These movies (and books) tend to revolve around children and can usually be read as a metaphor for puberty, that changing status from child to adult that cannot be stopped. Like a force of nature, it consumes the child and often spits out this unrecognizable, sometimes violent, and often difficult creatures that are so hopped up on their own hormones and spite they don't know what they've turned into.
A true coming-of-age narrative to warm your soul, right?
But, oddly enough, that's exactly what Hendrix has pulled off here. It's nothing short of a heartening and rewarding story of true friendship despite strange circumstances and daunting barriers—not unlike Spielberg's E.T. which coincidently figures prominently in how Abby and Gretchen became friends in the first place in Hendrix's book. I gotta re-watch that movie. The ending gets me every time.
But I don't think that raging hormones are the only fear that exorcism narratives bring up. There is also the fear of the children going astray by way of drugs, sex, rock-n-roll, or whatever the equivalent of the day might be. My Best Friend's Exorcism is set at the end of the 80s, and I don't think that's by accident.
The 80s were a time of great furor about a variety of things that kids were dipping their toes into. Of course, there were drugs and music, both of which feature in this book. Heavy metal music (although that's not what our heroes are into that, they are more the "Total Eclipse of the Heart" variety) especially was seen as devilish, and I'm sure you've heard of the Satanic panic, yep, that swept the nation in the 80s. People worried that hordes of devil worshippers high on drugs were out to kill indiscriminately. Of course, exorcisms are innately religious, so the duality between God and the devil is an important one to keep in mind.
Other scares: the game Dungeons & Dragons was heavily protested by religious parents and institutions for having demonic characters—some even thought it might play a part in occult initiation. Poor nerd kids. Violent video games (that we would probably just laugh at now) were also under fire. Parents were worried that these games would tell kids it's okay to kill and that they would bring on murder sprees.
(Unfortunately, that is something we've seen in recent years with other media: James Holmes at the Aurora theatre premiere of Batman, the girls who stabbed their friend for Slender Man, and more recently, a horror graphic novelist who drained his own girlfriend's blood, similar to a serial killer in his own book. Look if up if you don't believe me—or don't... But the continuing debate is, are violent movies and video games and other media really to blame for this?)
Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It) did actually have an uptick in the 80s, in the form of cluster suicides (later parodied in the brilliant Heathers, if you didn't already catch that reference). Kids weren't dropping like flies or anything, but the fact that it so saturated the media and pop culture shows that it was something we violently feared and didn't know how to control.
Most importantly (to me), the 80s brought the golden age of the slasher film. These films weren't really protested as much as dismissed and denigrated. Oh, sure, they had plenty of hate-mail, but as long as the blood-n-gore conformed to the MPA ratings, all you could do was ban your kid from seeing them, and hope they wouldn't find a way to sneak behind your back. But they sculpted a generation of horror viewers and creators and continue to define what we think of as horror, for better or worse.
Sorry for the history lesson, though I hope it was interesting! That stuff isn't represented per se in the storyline of My Best Friend's Exorcism, but it is all there in the undercurrent and so culturally relevant that I think it's worth bringing up. All that was to say that horror was brewing in the 80s and the time was ripe for poor, sweet, innocent kids to get sucked in, some way. And exorcism narratives represent that loss of innocence.
Abby is our narrator throughout and her best friend Gretchen begins acting strange after she gets lost for a night in the woods. Abby knows Gretchen like she knows the back of her own hand, so she knows something is wrong, but no one else seems to share her concern. At least, they don't seem to think that something else has taken over Gretchen's body. Her other friends drop Gretchen like yesterday's gossip and somehow Gretchen's parents think that Abby is the cause of the change in their daughter and ostracize her.
It's an intriguing, witty, and often tense mix of Mean Girls and Scream where you don't quite know who to trust, cliques are reorganizing daily, and you aren't sure who is going to make it to the end of the story.
Abby is determined to figure out what's going on with Gretchen and drag her back from whatever hell she's writhing in, even if it means that Abby is going to have to make some sacrifices along the way.
Beyond totally nailing the high school world without making it cliche, Hendrix also throws in a lot of other complex situations. Class structure, for one. Abby's family is poor in comparison with all her friends at her private school, including Gretchen. It doesn't take long for them to pick Abby off the social ladder once things start going downhill—like a bug they always wanted to squash, like the "which of these doesn't belong?" in the picture.
Hendrix also takes on parental relationships with their teens. Though parents (and adults in general) are mostly absent from the book, when they show up, they show up strong and you can see shades of where they have been and their own horrors and demons that they've lived through.
Though Abby is not possessed, she goes through a trial and transformation all her own. One that would make anyone grow up. I found her a strong, sharp-witted, humorous main character with a compelling voice and an interesting battle. You thought high school was hard, but you never dealt with demonic possession!
I almost didn't pick up this book because although I really liked the idea of Horrorstor--Hendrix's debut, a haunted house narrative set in an IKEA knockoff type store—the execution was less than solid and I felt that the writing needed a lot of work. Hendrix has grown a lot since then and is really playing on this modern cultural thread of horror that people are really into, as shown by the phenomenal Scream TV show on MTV and Ryan Murphy's (of American Horror Story) answer to that, Scream Queens. I even dug the new Ash vs. Evil Dead TV show—a great updated homage with all the same Bruce Campbell joie de vivre and gore.
All those shows have this modern irreverence, this clear flippant attitude: Yeah, they live in the twenty-first century, so what? Killers can adapt too, so why keep making the same shlock over and over? Why shouldn't the same apply to books?
That's what Hendrix is thinking, and I'm right there with him. If you're interested in more modern exorcism books, check out my previous post on the great Paul Tremblay's book, A Head Full of Ghosts, now in paperback.
As I said, the age of exorcisms has come upon us. There's plenty to be terrified about our teens getting into right here in the modern age, whole worlds on the internet where they can grow up in their bedrooms without ever having to sneak out the window. And that's a scary thought.
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I'm pleased to announce that this post is part of the author's blog tour! If you are interested in following Michael on the tour, here's a quick schedule of events and link to pages!
5/23--Girl Who Reads and Clash Magazine
5/24--Alternating Current and Irresponsible Reader
5/27--Rainbow of Books
If you had all the time in the world, what would you do? I see that list forming in your mind: places you'd like to go, books you want to read. Maybe you'll finally finish restoring that old car or get that garden planted.
I didn't tell you—there's a catch. You have all the time, so much time in fact, that time literally doesn't move. It is even slower than those last few dragging hours of school before summer vacation, when you swear the second hand on the clock keeps going slower and slower and the sweat is sticking to the back of your legs and it's going to hurt when you have to rip yourself off the chair and you can basically watch the dust pile up on the bookshelves and what are they trying to teach you today anyway? Slower than that. Imagine that time has stopped entirely—it's totally frozen. The only only problem is, everyone else is frozen too. Everyone except for you.
That's the situation Duck finds himself in at the beginning of this book.
I found Duck to be a very interesting character. He's at a turning point in his life, balancing between childhood and adulthood. Duck is definitely not very mature yet, and he doesn't want to be, but he is being thrust into these very serious situations. He's had a falling out with one of his friends. He has to choose where to go to college, which is a huge step for deciding a future, but also it might mean moving away from his best friend who forms a large part of his identity. Most importantly, his mom has just lost her battle with cancer, a battle that he was fighting with her.
You grow up when you are faced with things like that. But in the face of the world freezing, Duck doesn't set out to face his problems, he continues to avoid them with some wild shenanigans about his hometown of Washington DC.
I think in the world of the book, the frozen state of things is very real, but it is also a metaphor for the stasis of Duck's life. He doesn't know where to go without guidance from his friends and especially from his mom. He doesn't know what's next for him and he certainly isn't ready for it. The freezing is a stay of execution from having to make these decisions.
I couldn't help but laugh when he takes a visit to the museum. It is the perfect representation of the frozen world: all these taxidermy animals posed in natural positions in dioramas—that's what Duck sees everywhere now, a frozen museum scene of people getting coffee, driving cars, walking, watching TV, doing anything and everything, but at the same time, doing nothing. I guess at least at the museum things are supposed to be still...
The book is written with a light, irreverent tone that is very catchy. It's easy to like Duck, easy to ignore that he is ignoring his problems even as they are revealed through flashback scenes. I also enjoyed the asides—the guide to your frozen world sections—where Duck instructs readers on what to do if this ever happens to them. It reminded me a bit of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The book has some action in it too! There's a mystery to be solved, but whether or not Duck will get around to it is anyone's guess—he's got plenty of time after all.
How will he go forward with life? What if there is no forward? Ever? Tomorrow is Thursday, people. If the world froze tomorrow and you were the only sentient being left moving, would you feel good about the way you left things?
And now, an interview with Michael Landweber!
SHELF STALKER: First, a few warmup questions. What are you currently reading?
MICHAEL LANDWEBER: I’m in between books right now if you’ve got a recommendation. But some recent books I’ve enjoyed include The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and the Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.
SS: I'd recommend Adam Haslett's newly released Imagine Me Gone if you are in the market for a good literary fiction book. You can even read a review right here on my blog! Can you choose three favorite authors? Why those authors?
ML: Kazuo Ishiguro. I highly recommend Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro’s use of language and his ability put yearning and fallibility on the page is amazing.
Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried is a shotgun blast of a book. It is a devastating portrait of war and the soldiers who fight them. For me, it broadened my perspective on what a short story can be.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude taught me that the magical and the real could thrive together on the same page. His writing and the worlds he creates are so grounded that anything that happens, no matter how unusual, feels true.
SS: If you could pick one book to read again for the first time, what would it be, and why?
ML: Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky. I read that book in high school and remember being stunned and confused by it. It was a difficult read. But it opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing the anti-hero and ways to explore the morality of indefensible actions. I haven’t reread it since. I suspect that if I read it today it would be like reading it for the first time. As an adult, my take on Raskolnikov will certainly be more nuanced. Or maybe less. I don’t know. OK, you just convinced me to put this on my summer reading list.
SS: And here’s one that’s a segue into the book: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
ML: That’s a tough one. The temptation is to be like Superman who has so many different superpowers that they had to invent Kryptonite to give him any weakness. But that’s cheating. I think I would want to be invulnerable. It would be pretty cool to never worry about getting hurt, no matter how stupid you are being.
SS: Turning to your book, the first thing I’m wondering is where the idea for this narrative came from. Can you tell me about that?
ML: This is an interesting question because I honestly can’t pinpoint where the idea came from. It just kind of grabbed onto my brain and wouldn’t let go. I was drawn to the themes inherent in the concept. From the start, this idea has been a way to explore the boundaries of human morality when there are no external checks on behavior. In other words, if you knew no one was watching and you would never get caught, what would you do? That was the question I wanted to explore.
SS: The main character, Duck, is not only physically stuck in a frozen world, but he also seems to be stuck in this limbo moment in his life—that moment between childhood and adulthood. Really, he’s still a kid (and definitely still acts like one) but these adult responsibilities are beginning to pile up on him and he doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. Can you talk more about Duck? Do you think he is representative of most kids around that age?
ML: I think that Duck is representative of most teenagers. Obviously his circumstances are unique, not only because time has stopped, but because his mother has cancer and his father suffers from a mental illness. That’s a lot for him to deal with that most teenagers don’t face. But I think what is universal is Duck’s uncertainty about the future. It is a common feeling for teenagers on the cusp of living alone for the first time in their lives. Even when you’re lucky enough to have adults there helping guide you, that is a tough transition. It is a period marked by insecurity and often unfortunate choices. Duck is probably a little more conservative in his choices that most teenagers would be. But he is a cautious person, which is in part a direct result of dealing with both his mom and dad’s illnesses. But I think that confusion about one’s place in the world and concern about what is expected of you in broader society outside the bubble of your childhood is a common thing for teenagers.
SS: Duck also basically runs the show in terms of characters in the book. What was your process for writing a book with such a small cast?
ML: The first step in my process was to ask myself why I thought it was a good idea to write a book with such a small cast. After all, in the scenes where time is stopped, Duck is basically in a one-man show. But once I decide to write a story, no matter how challenging or inadvisable it might be, I follow it through to the end. With this book, I knew that it would only work with flashbacks. Duck’s backstory needed to have motion even if the world didn’t. Duck’s voice was also key since he was the reader’s sherpa into this odd world. In my view, that meant he had to be interesting and funny and intelligent and just a little bit tragic. Or at least he had to be sarcastic. Deeply sarcastic.
SS: And as a part two to that question, could you tell me about your writing process in general?
ML: My writing process has changed over the years. I used to write for 4-5 hours at a time, usually late at night. Even though a fair amount of time was spent staring at the wall waiting for words to come, I still managed to churn out stories and even drafts of novels relatively quickly. Of course, a lot of the material that I wrote in my younger days is locked in a drawer never to see the light of day. Now, I tend to write in shorter, more concentrated bursts of 1-2 hours. It can be any time of the day when I don’t have other obligations. I only work on one project at a time. I don’t outline – I just start at the beginning and write through to the end. I keep some notes at the end of the manuscript in progress to remind me where I’m going, but otherwise it is just me and the blank page until I have a first draft. I am not a fan of revising; I find it painful. But of course I do it and it usually takes three drafts before I am comfortable sharing the book with others. I also like to write with really loud music blasting whenever possible.
SS: How is the setting of Washington D.C. important to the book?
ML: I’m often guilty of setting my writing about places I’ve never been. Actually, that’s a bad habit I’m trying to break. I live in Washington, DC, so from the research perspective it saved me a lot of time to set it here. I already know the geography and the sights and what the culture is like (which is not necessarily what you see on cable news). And I needed a setting that would be compelling even if time stopped. Duck is writing a guidebook, after all. The White House and Congress and the Smithsonian museums were all fun places to set a teenager loose with no supervision. But on another level, I wanted the reader to believe that the entire world was frozen, rather than this being an isolated thing. When the capital of the free world isn’t moving, you’ve got to think that time is stopped everywhere.
SS: If you were the only person moving in a world where time stopped, what would you do first? (I’ll admit: I stole this one from your “reading guide” at the back!)
ML: Honestly, I’d probably panic and then look for someone to rescue me. But I think what I’d really enjoy if time stopped and I was the only person moving would be to have nothing to do but write my next book. Of course, I’d have to write it all out longhand. So I guess the first thing I would do would be to find an office supply store and steal a lot of spiral notebooks.
SS: And finally, are you working on anything new currently?
ML: I’m in the middle of the first draft of a new novel. It is set in the near future in a world where teleportation is a commercial form of transportation. Keeping with my books so far, it is another family drama with an unusual twist.
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.