Book Review: Pulp by Robin Talley

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real.

Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity.

In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.

This remarkable book pulls off the tricky feat of making us care about characters in two separate narratives, with neither one feeling like filler or killing time before returning to the important part of the story.

In Pulp, we follow a contemporary storyline about a high school senior, Abby, who is out and proud and very matter-of-fact about how diverse and free her world is. Most of her friends fall somewhere within the queer rainbow, gay, bi, non-binary, and various permutations of all sorts. And it’s all good. Abby is part of a close-knit group of friends who delight in being politically active, attending rallies, fighting for justice, and making demands for society to be better than it is.

Abby’s life is not perfect, though. She still pines for her ex-girlfriend Linh, she’s stuck on her senior project, and her parents are doing a lousy job of hiding their inability to tolerate one another. She chooses the topic of her senior project at the last possible second, deciding to study lesbian pulp fiction of the 1950s and write her own version of these novels, inverting the tropes that were mandatory in the genre.

In the historical timeline, we meet Janet Jones, also a high school senior, whose life is highly regimented by her overly protective and rigid parents and their world of country clubs and social correctness. Janet stumbles across a lesbian pulp paperback, reads it, and realizes that these unnamed feelings of hers are actually shared by other people. She becomes desperate to connect with the author of one of these books, and at the same time, realizes that her feelings toward her best friend Marie are much more than just friendship.

The two narratives intersect in fascinating and unpredictable ways. Janet’s storyline is the more upsetting of the two for much of the book, largely because the world it shows is so hostile and repressive. Pulp does an excellent job of showing the terror of being gay at a time when there were no legal protections or rights for anyone who dared step outside the bounds of “normal”. Set during the Lavender Scare, this novel shows good, decent, hard-working people being hounded out of their families and jobs, spied upon, and having their lives ruined, all because of who they love and how they identify. Being closeted was a necessity, and the danger of discovery drove countless people to deny their own identities out of a desperation for survival.

Through Abby’s eyes, the awfulness of the 1950s for the LGBTQ community is especially vivid, as Abby’s modern perspective is challenged by her research into what others’ lives once were like. Seeing Abby come to realize the importance of the brave people who created new ways to live, form a community, and remain true to the themselves is quite beautiful.

I was less invested in the love story aspects of both Abby and Janet’s arcs, but very much loved getting to know them as people, to appreciate their challenges and strengths, and how each struggled in different ways and at different times to find themselves and to find a way to lead an authentic life.

Pulp is both a great novel and a great lesson on 20th century history. Reading about this chapter in LGBTQ history is moving and upsetting. The world has come so far, and there’s still a long way to go, but I think especially for the target YA audience, Pulp provides a fascinating and important perspective on social action, diversity, and identity.

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The details:

Title: Pulp
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: November 13, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #142: The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Foreshadowing
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Published: 2005
Length: 304 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

It is 1915 and the First World War has only just begun.

17 year old Sasha is a well-to-do, sheltered-English girl. Just as her brother Thomas longs to be a doctor, she wants to nurse, yet girls of her class don’t do that kind of work. But as the war begins and the hospitals fill with young soldiers, she gets a chance to help. But working in the hospital confirms what Sasha has suspected–she can see when someone is going to die. Her premonitions show her the brutal horrors on the battlefields of the Somme, and the faces of the soldiers who will die. And one of them is her brother Thomas.

Pretending to be a real nurse, Sasha goes behind the front lines searching for Thomas, risking her own life as she races to find him, and somehow prevent his death.

How and when I got it:

I bought this book several years ago from an online resale site.

Why I want to read it:

After reading Midwinterblood, I just had to read more by this author. I’ve read a few of his books now, and to be honest, I haven’t loved any nearly as  much as I loved Midwinterblood — but I keep trying! The synopsis of The Foreshadowing definitely caught my attention. World War I books are always harrowing, and I like the sound of the supernatural element combined with the war story.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Book Review: Fatal Throne

 

The tragic lives of Henry VIII and his six wives are reimagined by seven acclaimed and bestselling authors in this riveting novel, perfect for fans of Wolf Hall and Netflix’s The Crown

He was King Henry VIII, a charismatic and extravagant ruler obsessed with both his power as king and with siring a male heir.

They were his queens–six ill-fated women, each bound for divorce, or beheading, or death.

Watch spellbound as each of Henry’s wives attempts to survive their unpredictable king and his power-hungry court. See the sword flash as fiery Anne Boleyn is beheaded for adultery. Follow Jane Seymour as she rises from bullied court maiden to beloved queen, only to die after giving birth. Feel Catherine Howard’s terror as old lovers resurface and whisper vicious rumors to Henry’s influential advisors. Experience the heartache of mothers as they lose son after son, heir after heir.

Told in stirring first-person accounts, Fatal Throne is at once provocative and heartbreaking, an epic tale that is also an intimate look at the royalty of the most perilous times in English history.

Who’s Who:

* M. T. Anderson – Henry VIII
* Candace Fleming – Katharine of Aragon
* Stephanie Hemphill – Anne Boleyn
* Lisa Ann Sandell – Jane Seymour
* Jennifer Donnelly – Anna of Cleves
* Linda Sue Park – Catherine Howard
* Deborah Hopkinson – Kateryn Parr

Let’s be clear about something right from the start: This is young adult fiction, written by a collection of YA authors and aimed at a teen reader audience. So, claiming in the blurb that this is a book for fans of Wolf Hall? Not exactly a true statement.

Fatal Throne is broken up into six first-person narratives, one for each queen and written by a different author, interspersed with Henry’s viewpoints on and reactions to each of his queens. The stories are kept brief and dramatic, following the highs and lows of each marriage, each leading inevitably to a disaster of one sort or another.

While each queen is written by a different author, there’s a certain sameness to the tone. Without knowing it ahead of time, I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to tell that there were different writers for each piece of the story.

As for the stories themselves, they’re fast-paced and interesting, but I can’t say that they reveal anything particularly new or different. Here’s where I feel it’s important to again stress the intended audience. For YA readers who are unfamiliar with anything but the basics of these historical figures’ lives, the presentation of the queen’s lives through their own voices could be a very compelling way to get immersed in their stories and learn more about the women behind the throne.

But for anyone who’s already read either non-fiction or historical fiction accounts of Henry VIII and his six wives, Fatal Throne is merely a retread of very familiar events, people, and historical speculation.

Of the six queens, the presentation of Anna of Cleves here is perhaps the most interesting, showcasing her inner strength and her ultimate triumph in regaining control over her own life. The others are, of course, all tragic in their own ways. Catherine Howard is a touch more sympathetic than I’ve seen in other portrayals — here, she’s a silly 16-year-old who simply doesn’t grasp the significance of her own actions or where they could lead. Anne Boleyn, as always, is a fascinating woman, although some of her rough edges are smoothed out just a bit in Fatal Throne.

I did end up enjoying the book for its quick pace and dramatic approach to the storytelling, but in terms of true depth, an examination of the historical records, or new insights, there are plenty of other books I’d sooner recommend. That said, this could be a good entry point for a YA reader without prior familiarity with the subject matter.

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The details:

Title: Fatal Throne
Author: See synopsis for list
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: YA historical fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Surface Tension by Mike Mullin

 

After witnessing an act of domestic terrorism while training on his bike, Jake is found near death, with a serious head injury and unable to remember the plane crash or the aftermath that landed him in the hospital.

A terrorist leader’s teenage daughter, Betsy, is sent to kill Jake and eliminate him as a possible witness. When Jake’s mother blames his head injury for his tales of attempted murder, he has to rely on his girlfriend, Laurissa, to help him escape the killers and the law enforcement agents convinced that Jake himself had a role in the crash.

Mike Mullin, author of the Ashfall series, delivers a gripping story with memorable characters and all-too-real scenarios.

Surface Tension is a high-action suspense thriller about a 17-year-old boy, Jake, who stumbles into a domestic terror attack by accident — but because of a traumatic brain injury and corrupt law officials, isn’t believed when he tells his story. Thanks to his remarkably loyal girlfriend Laurissa, he persists in trying to uncover the truth while staying a few steps ahead of both the terrorists and the FBI agent who want to see him dead.

Meanwhile, the lead terrorist’s daughter Betsy is embroiled in the attack and the follow-up attempts on Jake’s life, but as she learns unpleasant truths about her father, she too realizes that he and his organization must be stopped.

Mike Mullin, who wrote the amazing Ashfall trilogy, excels at quick bursts of action and leaving the reader panting for more at the end of each chapter. This is a hard book to put down once you start. At the same time, I felt that the credibility of the plot got thinner and thinner as the story moved forward, until the climax and resolution seemed basically unbelievable. Add to that a tacked-on final chapter that makes it clear that this story isn’t actually over, and I wound up feeling somehow underwhelmed by the book as a whole.

It’s a fast, entertaining read, but the plot doesn’t really hold together in a way that makes a whole lot of sense. I stayed interested all the way through, but if there is a sequel, I won’t be bothering with it.

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The details:

Title: Surface Tension
Author: Mike Mullin
Publisher: Tanglewood
Publication date: May 8, 2018
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

My Thoughts:

What fun! The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is part silly adventure story, part surprisingly moving look into the life of a young man of privilege who suffers the constant abuse and humiliation of a cruel father and who can never fully pursue his true love, who just happens to be his best friend. Most of all, this is a light-hearted romp through Europe as our trio of heroes are pursued by highwaymen, pirates, alchemists, and other assorted bad guys during an accidental misadventure. Along they way, they each learn to share their inner hopes and fears, and dare to start envisioning a life other than the one planned out for them.

The characters are quirky and engaging, the narrative flows nicely, and the plot itself is quite tasty and exciting. And while there are some deeper thoughts on the role of women in that society, the lack of a place for people outside the norm, and the devastating impact of parental disapproval, there’s also bravery and sacrifice and love and romance, and it all makes for a delicious read.

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The details:

Title: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication date: June 27, 2017
Length: 513 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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Shelf Control #82: My Lady Jane

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: My Lady Jane
Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Published: 2016
Length: 491 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The comical, fantastical, romantical, (not) entirely true story of Lady Jane Grey. In My Lady Jane, coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have created a one-of-a-kind fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, featuring a reluctant king, an even more reluctant queen, a noble steed, and only a passing resemblance to actual history—because sometimes history needs a little help.

At sixteen, Lady Jane Grey is about to be married off to a stranger and caught up in a conspiracy to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But those trifling problems aren’t for Jane to worry about. Jane is about to become the Queen of England.

How I got it:

Downloaded the Kindle version from Amazon.

When I got it:

Last summer.

Why I want to read it:

Well… I was attracted to this book once I heard it was about Lady Jane Grey… although I admit that I’m skeptical about Lady Jane being the subject of anything that could be considered comical. Still, people I know and trust have recommended it, so I’ll attempt to put my doubts aside and give it a fair try.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Pearl Thief

Before Verity…there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In this coming-of-age prequel to Code Name Verity, we meet a much younger Julie — a privileged daughter of an aristocratic Scottish family, home for the summer from her Swiss boarding school. Julie and her siblings are converging on their late grandfather’s estate one last time as the grounds, manor house, and belongings are being either sorted for auction or repurposed into a boys’ school.

At the beginning of the summer, Julie is free-spirited and ready for fun. When Julie arrives earlier than expected (and ahead of her luggage), she grabs an old kilt that belonged to her brother and sets off to explore along the river that runs through their property — where she’s konked on the head and knocked unconcious.

As Julie recovers, she develops a connection with the Traveller family who rescued her, and begins to dig through her foggy memories to figure out who knocked her out, and what’s going on with the ancient and priceless Scottish river pearls that were a beloved part of her grandfather’s treasure trove.

Through Julie’s eyes, we get to know the family of Scottish Travellers and see the prejudice and cruelty they’re so casually subjected to, even by people Julie otherwise had respected. Likewise, through Julie, we meet a reclusive, disfigured librarian and gain an understanding of what it truly means to look beyond the surface.

The adventure and mystery of the story are quite entertaining, and there’s nothing here that would earn anything more scandalous than a PG rating. That said, Julie does explore her sexuality through a series of important kisses, and discovers that her orientation may be more complicated than she’d been prepared for. At the same time, we see the great love and loyalty that Julie is capable of, whether directed toward her immediate family, long-time acquaintances, or fast friends.

This is important to note, because of course this is Julie from Code Name Verity, and while The Pearl Thief is set earlier than that stellar book, it’s an interesting look at the young woman Julie was before her life was changed forever by World War II. In The Pearl Thief, Julie is still a half-formed woman, but she’s already well on her way toward establishing her outsized bravery, talent for mimicry and pretending to be someone else, keen mind that zooms in on details, and of course, the absolute devotion to her friends.

It’s not essential to have read Code Name Verity before reading The Pearl Thief, but I think it does add a great deal of meaning. Without the context of CNV, The Pearl  Thief is an interesting and entertaining adventure story, with a beautiful setting and a very neat interweaving of Scottish history and folklore within the more contemporary mystery plot. But having read CNV, The Pearl Thief is all above the above, plus.

It’s a beautiful look into the life of a young woman who we know will go on to be remarkable. For that reason, while The Pearl Thief itself isn’t a highly emotional story, reading it manages to be a moving experience. Here is Julie —  Queenie — in her early days, and it’s easy to see the roots of who she will one day be.

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The details:

Title: The Pearl Thief
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Honestly Ben

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.

Except…

There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

If you’ve read my blog at all in the last couple of years, then you’ve probably seen me rave about Openly Straight (review), Bill Konigsberg’s amazing, touching, funny, sweet story of a gay teen trying to recreate his life on his own terms. In Openly Straight, we see the world through the eyes of Rafe, as he enters private school determined to shed his previous life as THE gay kid — completely out, giving talks, mother head of PFLAG, etc — and just see what it feels like to be one of the crowd. However, things get complicated when Rafe falls in love with his best friend Ben, who is startled to discover his own feelings for Rafe. In a nutshell, Ben doesn’t know Rafe is gay, so he believes that they’re exploring new ideas and options and feelings together, and feels completely betrayed when he learns what Rafe has been hiding from him. Seriously, this book made me laugh and broke my heart and was just so powerful!

But then we were left hanging… what happened next?

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you to the author for creating this beautiful sequel! Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after the events of Openly Straight. In Honestly Ben, Ben himself is the narrator, and we start to see more deeply into Ben’s life and world, and to understand what drives him and what scares him.

Ben grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, where working hard and not embarrassing the family are the values drilled into Ben and his brother from a young age. And when Ben starts to shine as a student, he’s not praised, but warned not to get a big head. For all that, Ben does succeed, and lands a scholarship to Natick, the poor boy among rich peers, striving to fit in and to do well enough to earn a scholarship to college. Ben keeps his head down, and tries to be what everyone wants him to be — a decent guy, a good baseball player, a top student — fitting in, but not one to call attention to himself.

Ben’s feelings for Rafe changed everything he understood about himself. In Honestly Ben, he digs deeper. Is he gay? The label doesn’t seem to fit. Bi? He doesn’t think so. He’s never been attracted to boys before, and his fantasies are generally about girls. Is he, as he puts it, just “gay-for-Rafe”? After the initial anger wears off, Ben and Rafe cautiously inch forward with their friendship. Ben is thrilled to reconnect with Rafe, but it’s a struggle for him to understand what this means. At the same time, he’s also facing pressure academically that threatens his scholarship, and he struggles with learning the truth about a former student whom the school idolizes — for all the wrong reasons, as Ben discovers.

The book’s exploration of labels is deftly handled. One of the Natick boys comes out as gender fluid, which takes much courage on  his part, as well as a lot of explaining — but he’s determined to start living his authentic life. As Ben tries to understand himself in the context of a relationship with Rafe, even well-meaners try to push him into claiming an identity he’s not comfortable with. Why does he need to put a label on what he is? He knows who he loves — why isn’t that sufficient?

Ben’s eyes are finally opened by a girl he briefly dates, who gets him to start to understand what he loses by hiding behind a front that doesn’t reveal the real him:

I’ve been doing some reading. This woman talks about vulnerability, and she says that it’s basically the key to everything. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you exactly as you are, which is really hard, because when you’re vulnerable you can get hurt. Most people armor up with bravado or something, but those people are missing out, because without allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s tough to have, like, any emotional experience at all.

The characters are just as wonderful as in the previous book. It’s touching to see Ben’s life through his own eyes and to understand the constant pressure he feels to be what he isn’t. The writing is outstanding, conveying both the challenges and the joys of Ben’s ongoing experiences and really capturing the sense of wonder that comes with sex in the context of love.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book! It’s a wonderful look at the inner lives of teens, and for those who read Openly Straight (which, really, you must do), it’s a terrific reunion with characters we absolutely love and care about. Check it out!

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The details:

Title: Honestly Ben
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication date: March 28, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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The Memory Wall: New release celebration and author Q&A!

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There’s a fine line between real life and video games in this engrossing novel that’s part Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, part Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.

Severkin is an elf who slinks through the shadows of Wellhall’s spiraling stone towers, plundering ancient ruins and slaying mystical monstrosities with ease.

He’s also a character in a video game—a character that twelve-year-old Nick Reeves plays when he needs a break from the real world. And lately, Nick has really needed a break. His mother had an “incident” at school last year, and her health has taken a turn for the worse.

Nick is convinced his mother’s illness has been misdiagnosed, but no one believes him. His only escape is the online world of Wellhall, where, as the elf character Severkin, he can face any problem. But when Nick finds himself fighting alongside another elf who reminds him of someone he knows in real life, his worlds begin to collide. . . .

I’m so excited to share this sneak peak at The Memory Wall, the upcoming new release by Lev AC Rosen! The Memory Wall will be released September 13, 2016… and I encourage you all to stop right now, open up a new tab in your browser, hit up Amazon or your favorite online bookseller, and hit the preorder button. You can thank me later. (And now come back and finish reading my post!)

The Memory Wall is an unusual, surprising read — aimed at younger teens, but definitely appealing to grown-ups as well. Don’t be deceived by the cover. While the game and fantasy elements of this book are quite important, it’s the real-life Nick and his disintegrating family that are the heart and soul of the story.

For me personally, Nick’s family, school situation, and inner struggles are the most engrossing elements of The Memory Wall, but the in-game portions are equally well-written and have a propulsive energy all their own. As you’ll see from the Q&A below, it amazes me how well certain elements work together — elements that I never in a million years would have expected to fit into one book — but they really do come together in unexpected but really cool ways.

I’m really thrilled to be able to share this Q&A, but let me just add more note: Lev AC Rosen is an amazing writer who deserves much wider acclaim! Not only does he write great kids’ books (see my review of Woundabout here), but he’s also written two of my absolute favorite books for adults, All Men of Genius (which I read before I was a blogger, so no review… but maybe I’ll revisit in a future blog post) and Depth, which is just awesome (review here).

As a side note, I ended up asking Lev a bunch of questions that relate to the fact that I have a 14-year-old son who’s obsessed with video games. Just FYI.

Without further ado, I’m proud to present:

A Q&A with author Lev AC Rosen, author of The Memory Wall

Note: Mild (very mild) spoilers ahead…

Q:  I never would have guessed that Alzheimer’s, gaming, and the Berlin Wall could fit into a single book. Did you set out to write about all three of these elements from the start?

A: I’m a big believer in the idea that every book writes itself differently. Sometimes the whole idea comes to me fully formed, like a seed, and planting it lets that idea grow. Sometimes it’s more like assembling a puzzle from the pieces that are just floating around your mind.  For The Memory Wall, it was the latter – I knew I wanted to do a book about someone playing a video game, and use that as a story-with-a-story format, where the two stories could actually be pulled apart and still stand on their own. But the age group, the characters, the world, the Berlin Wall, Alzheimer’s – those all sort of snapped on, one by one, because they were already floating around in my head as things I wanted to write about.  Maybe puzzle pieces isn’t the right metaphor – maybe it’s more like trying on clothes. I had this body – video game, story-within-story – and I assembled an outfit on it from the clothes in the wardrobe of my brain – and that included Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall. The outfit just looked good. And I didn’t start writing until the outfit was assembled, because the outfit is the idea. Before that, it was just disconnected ideas. Once all the pieces were together, I had an idea, and then I started writing. So Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall were there from the moment I was typing. But the core was the video game, I guess.

Q: What was your inspiration for The Memory Wall?

A: Well, I just sort of answered the inspiration for the book part – I could talk more about my personal experiences with Alzheimer’s, or this great German film teacher I had in college, but I’m going to talk about those elsewhere and when I first read this question, I thought you were asking about the literal wall in the book, and I really want to answer that version of the question, because it’s not something I’ve been asked: This book is so much about history, and finding ways to preserve history – whether personal, or societal. Nick’s dad writes about Black history. His mom never talks about her own history in East Berlin. His mom is also losing her own history, and that means Nick feels he’s losing his history with her. So I was thinking about history, and the way we map it, and try to remember it – books, photos, dates, family trees. The ways we quantify history. And I wanted Nick, at some point, to (light spoilers) destroy that in some way. I wanted him to tear down the history he felt had been thrust upon him and realize that history – whether personal or societal – is something that changes all the time, depending on who you talk to, how you look at it. Sure, we can write down dates, map our great-great-grandmothers, but history lives in us. In stories, in memories. It’s not carved in stone. So the memory wall, in the book itself, is this sort of literally carved-in-stone family tree. And I’m trying to go spoiler-light here, so I’ll just say that it’s a history that is put upon Severkin, Nick’s in-game avatar. And when he realizes how his history – and everyone’s history, especially his mom’s – is more than names and dates, that it’s something more fluid than that, he gets to literally shatter the stone. That was satisfying. Plus, of course, calling it the memory wall ties into the Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall. But the original inspiration was that I wanted a family tree that could be destroyed in some way. Not to say that his history isn’t that, but to say it’s more than that.

Q: Race and identity are important elements for Nick and Nat, and this is also reflected in their in-game characters. What would you hope that kids reading the book would learn from this?

A: I don’t know if I’d say I want kids to learn anything, exactly. There was this article going around a while back, about a study saying that those who read fiction tend to have more empathy. Reading literally puts you in someone else’s head, so you learn how to do that with real people, too. I think of that whenever I’m writing, because that’s important. That books can change the world – and I don’t have many skills, so this is the thing I can do.  But to really expand that empathy, I need to have it, too. As an author, I can’t just write about people like me – I can’t just write about queer Jewish men from NYC. Besides being wildly limiting, it’s also boring, and isn’t what the world looks like. Authors have the responsibility to put themselves into the minds of different people from different backgrounds – and to do so respectfully. Because when we do that, our readers experience it as well. And that’s the important stuff. So, when I knew Nick had to have a background with strong historical elements, one mapped, one hidden, and I knew so much of the book was about duality – secret/exposed histories, game/real world – I decided Nick’s two sides of the family could be two races, as well. Luckily, I have multi-racial friends, and they were willing to talk to me, and give me books and essays to read so that I could explore that perspective as much as someone without it can. What I hope is that kids enjoy the book, and if they’re multi-racial, they see themselves in it, even if Nick isn’t really like them. And if they’re not multi-racial, hopefully they come out of it with a bit more understanding of the perspective of those who are. Which isn’t to say Nick represents all multi-racial people, but just that he is a fully fleshed out person who the kids can get behind.

Q: Were you at all tempted to have Nick’s mother not have Alzheimer’s, proving Nick right?

A: SPOILERS! This is a fantastic question, and yes. So much yes. I actually tried really hard to go in undecided. To be like “this could go either way.” But the more I realized how much Nick’s parents were keeping from him, the more I knew she had to have it. I did lots of research on Alzheimer’s, talked to doctors, and there are lots of things that look like Alzheimer’s – lots of things Nick could hold on to and say “it’s this, and this is so easily curable!” But the doctors can test for most of those. But I needed hope to be vibrant through the entire book. I needed to hope with Nick.

It’s interesting – people who have read it who have had personal experiences with Alzheimer’s – who have lost someone to it – never believe that Sophie has been misdiagnosed. They tell me they experienced so much of what Nick did, but as readers, they never doubt the diagnosis. Those readers who don’t have a personal experience with Alzheimer’s, though, think it’s possible Sophie has been misdiagnosed. So I feel like that’s a good balance to strike.

Q: As far as I know, most kids don’t play video games with their mothers. (Mine doesn’t!) I love this element of Nick’s relationship with his mom, and how their game connection was a part of their real-life connection. (Sorry, this isn’t really a question so far.)

A: I may be dating myself here, but my mom and I played Legend of Zelda on the original NES. I don’t know if she enjoyed it, or if she was just humoring her six year old, but I like to think she had fun. That being said, as I got older, and games got more complex, she didn’t play with me as much. But we both really liked Zelda. I think.

But Sophie, I think, besides wanting to humor her kid, took a real interest in this particular series because it’s supposed to have this background in myth and culture. And as an anthropologist, she could see those roots and point them out to her son, which I think, for her, gave the game more value. Plus, games are fun. I think she had fun, too – it’s just that her fun was colored by her academic background.

Q: I think most adults/parents these days automatically see video games as a waste of time or not healthy for their kids. The Memory Wall shows a lot of positives related to gaming. Do you think there’s a healthy balance? What are the positives you see in gaming for kids?

A: Well, everything in moderation. Sure, too much video gaming is bad. So is too much anything, really.  But do I think gaming is generally a good thing, or at least has the potential to be? Absolutely. When the printing press first made literature easily available, people freaked out about young people reading. It would make them imagine too much. They stopped doing what they were supposed to, like dueling and needlepoint and socializing, and instead had their noses in books all the time. THE  HORROR! Video games are another form of storytelling. Yes, it’s more interactive – button pressing, in game decision making, etc. Those choose your own adventure books had decisions, too, though. And, like with books, there are bad games out there. But generally speaking, games are great. There are stories told in games that can’t be told other ways, and some of those stories are truly beautiful. Can they be violent? Yes. So are movies. So are books. The thing I’d worry most about in video games is the treatment of women and sex. That can sometimes get a bit weird, I think. Women are sexualized (like in movies, TV), but when it becomes about pressing buttons to seduce a woman, that… is a little weird for me, especially if the player is a young man. Women don’t have buttons. Some games do it well. Some don’t. I think as long as you’re raising your kids to have a healthy respect for women and realize that like the violence in games, this “seduction” aspect is pure fantasy and sometimes dehumanizing, then it’s ok. And of course, watch for those game ratings.

But overall, I think games have the potential to have a really positive aspect on kids, by letting them explore worlds much larger than their own. Or just to solve puzzles or get good at button pressing – which isn’t a bad skill to have. For Nick, the game lets him essentially live out his fantasies and then deal with his reality. He gets to go on one last adventure with his mother – he gets to try to save her, and learn about her, and contextualize her in his fantasy world. And then (big spoilers), when it turns out he was living in a fantasy, he gets to punish someone for it. Because, I’d imagine Nick has a lot of anger at his mother by the end of the book. She lied to him. She kept her condition from him. She gave him hope when there wasn’t any. And Nick should feel angry about that, he should want to punish her in some way, but instead he gets to take it out on Reunne, who wasn’t trying to protect him, but was this malicious manipulator, feeding off his hope. And I think kids can do that with games. They can see symbols, see their own life, and in some way, express who they want to be. Sure, the chances of a kid today growing up to be a space marine are slim, but that kid gets to experience what that version of herself is. And hopefully, there are things she likes about that version of herself and can then work on bringing into her real self. Games can be empowering for kids in that way. And that goes for everything – space marines, or fashion designers on iPhone games.

Q: Do you feel the positives/negatives change based on the kind of game (i.e., role-playing fantasy vs first-person shooter games)?

A: It’s funny you use those two genres as examples because there’s such overlap between them now. I think genre does influence the scope of the game, and games with bigger scopes are often more interesting (though not always). Fighting games, for instance, give you one way of interacting in the world – you fight.  You push buttons, your avatar kicks, punches, etc. But the choice is always fight. A larger open world RPG, like the one Nick plays, or like Skyrim or Fallout, gives you more ways to interact – talk someone out of violence instead of fighting them, collecting items for someone so they won’t die, etc. So I think those games tend to have more positives because they offer a larger scope. Each genre has it’s own plusses and minuses, though. Japanese style RPGs, for example, which aren’t open world, and more streamlined, tend to play more like a movie with tactical fighting interludes – not many choices in those, either. And plenty of shooting games these days have massive online battle zones. That’s more like a big game of laser tag, to me. Other games are like really complex games of chess. But I do think that games with more choice and more things you can do within the world tend to have more value just because choice means more figuring out what you’d choose. And figuring out what you’d choose – being able to experiment with it and see the consequence, being able to do something really awful, just to experience it – that’s the good stuff in gaming, I think.

Q: Are you a gamer? Were you a gamer during your school years? And if so, any favorites? Anything that you particularly took from your gaming experiences as a kid?

A: Yes, and yes. When I was a kid, my favorite game was Final Fantasy 3 (6, really, but they called it 3 when they released it in the US).  I LOVED that game. It’s an amazing, epic story. My friend Liz and I wrote fan fiction about that game. Man I loved it. Still do. Great game. It was also one of my first experiences with Steampunk, so it was a big influence for All Men of Genius.

I think my modern favorite would be Bioshock, though. That is a brilliant story, too, beautifully done, so smart. It’s a shooter with RPG elements – and they’re remastering it for the PS4. Out soon, I think. If your son hasn’t played it, that would be a great one to get and be like “okay, I get to watch you play this because I hear it’s amazing.” That’s something parents are allowed to do, right? It’s just so smart, and has ties to US history and philosophy, like the game in The Memory Wall has ties to East Berlin. It was a game that really showed me how history can work in games, how games can relate to the real world and interact with them.

And Portal! While we’re on recommendations to watch your kid play, or even, in the case of Portal 2, play with them, I highly recommend Portal, which is a puzzle game that looks like a shooter. It’s really smart and funny. There are a lot of great games out these days. Lots of bad ones, too – that’s what happens when there’s more of anything, you get more bad, too, but lots of good ones. Plenty for tablets and phone, too. I loved Transistor. Beautiful piece of art. There’s so much good stuff out there. I could go on for ages.

Q: You’ve written books for adults and for kids. Do you prefer one or the other? What do you enjoy about each? Is your process different for adult vs kid books?

A: I don’t know. I don’t really think of them that way. I mean, I know the age of the kid I’m writing for, but I’m pretty much always writing for me.  Maybe 8 year old Lev, like for Woundabout, or 11 year old Lev, like Memory Wall, or 22 year old Lev, like All Men of Genius, or present-day Lev, like Depth, but I’m always writing for myself, somewhere on the spectrum. Like I said, I’m a big believer in the idea that every book writes itself differently, so it’s not so much about “writing for children” or “writing for adults” – it’s writing this book. That’s how I think about it. And the process, and what I enjoy varies depending on the sort of book it is.  For The Memory Wall I think I really enjoyed crafting the world of the game by using various influences based in East Berlin and Germanic myth. That was a fun. And I really liked being able to express Nick through Severkin. Using his avatar as a way to say things about him that maybe he couldn’t acknowledge about himself.

Q: Can you share a little about your next project or projects? Any chance we might still see a sequel to All Men of Genius or Depth? (I can’t get the images of a drowned New York out of my mind – please tell me there’s more coming set in this world!)

A: I’m a bit of a busy bee, flitting from flower to flower. I don’t stay in my lane long enough to do sequels much. All Men of Genius I had never intended one for, and then folks wanted one, and I tried my hand at it, but it didn’t feel right. Depth I’m more open to exploring sequels for because I had more of “mystery series” mindset going in. But sales aren’t really justifying it, plus my amazing editor left that imprint and I don’t know anyone else there. But I have been thinking of maybe writing a sequel and self-publishing it, just to see what that experience is like. But those are on the back burner. I have other projects right now – a too-long-to-be-a-short-story that’s sort of Greek Myth Noir. I’m trying to find a place for that, but it’s like “novelette” length, which is weird, and anything not a novel is outside my comfort zone, too. But I like it, and I need to do research on people who publish that length.  Or maybe that could be the self-publishing experiment. Then I have two finished drafts of books. Both YA. One is a fairy tale retelling, and a lot of fun, and the other is a contemporary sci-fi spy story about motherhood. We’re still putting together lists of editors to send those to. We’ll see what happens, but fingers crossed. And I’ve just started a period 1940s noir. That’s for adults. It’s… stranger than it sounds. Maybe? I’m sort of all over the place, like I said. Which I love about myself, even if it hurts my overall career. But sometimes I can get people to read something outside their usual zone, and that’s pretty awesome. That’s a good feeling.

Q: Are you sure I’m not a bad mother if I let my 14-year-old play Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty?

A: Well, with no other evidence, it’s hard to say. But if you’re worrying about it, and talking to him about it, probably not.

But seriously, if he has a PS4, go get the Bioshock Collection remaster that’s coming out the same day as my book. Sit him down and be like “I’ve heard this is amazing, but I’m awful at video games. Want to help me experience it?” and see what happens. The first one in the collection is really fantastic. The other two are good, too, but that first one. Yeah. Play Bioshock with your kid. That’ll definitely make up for any bad parenting.  😉

I can’t thank Lev enough for taking the time to answer my loooong list of questions!! Thank you, Lev — it’s a pleasure to have you here as a guest at Bookshelf Fantasies. Wishing you the best of luck with the release of The Memory Wall.

The Memory Wall will be released September 13th. Go get yourself a copy!

Available at:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble

To learn more about author Lev AC Rosen, visit his website at www.levacrosen.com

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The details:

Title: The Memory Wall
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: September 13, 2016
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Middle grade/young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

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Take A Peek Book Review: Paper Towns

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

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Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Who is the real Margo?

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life—dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew…

 

My Thoughts:

Oh, where to start? This was most decidedly a middle-of-the-road, “meh” sort of read for me. On the plus side, John Green is an indisputed talent when it comes to getting inside teen brains and portraying the shifting loyalties and tensions of teen friendships. On the negative side, I have very little tolerance for this type of tale, starring an every-boy main character — decent guy, not too remarkable, not part of the in-crowd — who is drawn to the oh-so-special wild girl, the one who can’t be pinned down, who acts out in crazy ways that are supposed to be a sign of just how special her specialness is.

I enjoyed the scenes of Quentin embarking on a crazy road trip with his best friends — a wild 24-hour drive up the coast on the trail of Margo’s confusing clues, with all sorts of escapades, close calls, and silly/manic rest stop shopping sprees. But… all this is in search of the elusive Margo, who, quite frankly, doesn’t seem to want to be found. And if she did want to be found, she made it next to impossible. I found it pretty hard to believe that the gang managed to decipher the obscure patterns that form a sort of roadmap to her — and further, I had a hard time seeing her all-night adventure with Quentin as something that he’d actually enjoy or go along with.

I loved The Fault in Our Stars and Will Grayson, Will Grayson — but Paper Towns had about the same effect on me as Looking For Alaska. Clearly, books about boy-next-door types falling under the spell of the elusive, magical, tormented, magnetic (etc, etc) wonder girl just don’t work for me.

Note: I picked up the e-book of Paper Towns a couple of years ago, and finally read it this month in preparation for a book group discussion. Who knows? Perhaps the amazing folks in my group will convince me that I missed something!

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The details:

Title: Paper Towns
Author: John Green
Publisher: Speak
Publication date: 2009
Length: 305 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased