June Reading Recap

There were some good ones this month, guys!

1. Baby’s in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles in Hamburg – Arne Bellstorf

I’ve always been a big Beatles fan, but I never knew tons about the band’s earliest days. Thanks to my Beatles-obsessed 10 year old brother, I had learned a few tidbits about Stuart Sutcliffe, but had no idea about his star-crossed romance with photographer Astrid Kircherr. A friend of mine got a sneak peek at this book before it came out and raved about it, so I checked it out from the library as soon as I could.

The book follows Astrid as she meets the Beatles at a seedy Hamburg club and falls in love with Stuart. Both struggle with love, life, and the desire to express themselves artistically. Those of you who know the story will know that it does not end happily, but it’s a lovely story nonetheless. The gorgeous, bold black and white artwork captures the mood perfectly. It’s both dynamic and energetic, but also conveys more subtle emotions. A lovely, romantic story, but so, so sad!

2. It’s Kind of a Funny Story – Ned Vizzini

Confession: I saw and loved the movie version of this before picking up the book. I remember seeing this book at BN when it first came out, but ultimately rejecting it because it sounded too depressing. A suicidal teen checks himself into a psychiatric hospital? No thanks, I thought.

I’m glad I gave this book another chance. While the first half of the book is pretty sad, the novel as a whole is heartwarming and humorous. I was surprised by how funny it actually was! It tells the story of 15 year old Craig Gilner’s struggle with depression. Craig’s ambition and perfectionism basically renders him stagnant once he realizes that he’s utterly average. You maybe thinking wah wah first world problems….but no. Vizzini writes in such an unpretentious, honest way that Craig’s physical and emotional turmoil feel downright unbearable. Moments of humor keep the story from being completely tragic and ultimately make it feel authentic. You’ll cheer for Craig and his quirky fellow patients as they make baby steps toward recovery.

3. Island of the Blue Dolphins – Scott O’Dell

(isn’t this cover super weird?)

I really had no desire to read this book. I remember disliking it when I read it in 6th grade. We had to read a lot of it out loud as a class, and it irritated me that none of my classmates could pronounce “abalone” and there are abalones galore in this book! Anyway….I picked it up again in preparation for my panel at the Children’s Literature Association conference. Someone on my panel was presenting a paper on it and I wanted to see how it related to my paper.

The story, loosely based on actual events, chronicles Karana’s life on the Island of the Blue Dolphins after she is left behind by her tribe. While the plot was not super interesting to me (it’s a lot of Karana building this, hunting that and feeling happy, with very little mention of her thoughts and feelings) as I read, I became engaged as I thought about this book from a more critical perspective. The overly simplistic language with which Karana expresses herself, as well as the fact that we get very little insight into her emotions struck me as racist, as did the fact that the forced relocation of her people is presented as a happy occasion and not one of sadness. Overall, this wasn’t the most entertaining read, but it provides some interesting food for thought.

4. Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan (audio)

I read this book a couple years ago and had mixed feelings. It’s about two teenage boys who both happen to be named Will Grayson. Each author writes from the perspective of one Will Grayson and the story bounces back and forth between them in alternating chapters. John Green’s Will Grayson realizes he has feelings for a friend and he doesn’t know what to do about them, and David Levithan’s Will Grayson is closeted and depressed, and his only happiness in life is chatting online with his dream guy (or so he thinks). I liked the book overall, but I struggled with it because David Levithan’s Will Grayson was so gosh darn annoying and unlikable. I decided to give the book another chance when I found out that the audio version had musical numbers. Musical numbers!

Despite being narrated by two Will Graysons, the star of this book is Tiny Cooper (bff to John Green’s Will Grayson, and love interest of David Levithan’s Will Grayson) a very large, very gay, and very theatrical guy. Like the rug in The Big Lebowski, Tiny Cooper ties the whole book together. Throughout the novel, Tiny is writing a musical about his life. Tiny’s musical numbers are fabulous and being able to actually hear them was so much fun.

5. Beauty Queens – Libba Bray

This was another one I read in preparation for the CHLA conference. The premise of the book is so intriguing: A plane full of teen pageant contestants crashes on a (seemingly) deserted island and the girls must try to survive. The book is an interesting postmodern satire that bounces back and forth between the girls’ stories and commercial interruptions by “The Corporation,” which seeks to perpetuate patriarchal ideas about femininity and sexuality.

Bray satirizes the culture of beauty pageants and the media’s infatuation with beauty, youth, sexual purity and consumerism, and though she does this successfully, the satire is so over the top preachy that it becomes increasingly difficult to bear. Though the messages of the book are positive, couching them in fun postmodern antics does not negate the excessive didacticism. This book was funny and interesting, but I struggled to stick with it.

6. The Flight of Gemma Hardy – Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a retelling of Jane Eyre that takes place in the 1960s in Scotland. The author, Margot Livesey, is actually a professor at my boyfriend’s grad school and he took 2 creative writing workshops with her. I was eager to check out her writing, especially because I love Jane Eyre, and this book came highly recommended by several people.

This was a lovely, beautifully written story. I enjoyed the the parallels to Jane Eyre (although I thought the Bertha Mason surprise equivalent in this story was slightly less shocking than the original) but overall I thought this was a great read.

7. Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein

Verity, a British spy, gets captured by the Gestapo in France in 1943. She offers to collaborate with the Nazis by telling her side of the story.

OMG you guys. This book is SO GOOD. I don’t want to say too much about it because I don’t want to spoil anything, but man oh man….good stuff.

My favorite thing about this book was the unreliability of the narrator, Verity. Her story is a forced confession to the Gestapo, and though she claims to be telling the truth, it’s always difficult to tell how honest she’s truly being. I also loved the literary allusions–references to Faust, 1001 Arabian Nights, and Peter Pan–were perfect. This book reminded me a bit of Holes by Louis Sachar as well as Harry Potter in the way that minor details and figures pop up later in the story and turn out to be super important. The book really rewards close reading. Excellent writing, thought-provoking, and a plot that completely sucks you in. Highly recommend this one!

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