Joyland – Stephen King

joylandAlthough I devoured Stephen King as a teen and young adult, it’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read a King novel (Bag of Bones, which I loved). I decided to give Joyland a go and it was like settling into a comfortable pair of slippers. (I know, it’s ridiculous to compare the Master of Horror to a pair of comfy slippers, but I’m talking more about that feeling of just knowing that you are in really good hands – which you always are with King.)

Joyland is not a horror story really. It’s the story of Devin Jones, a college student who takes a job at Joyland, a Disney-style amusement park (I imagined Family Kingdom at Myrtle Beach, S.C., which I visited once as a teen) in North Carolina.  Devin tells the story of his summer and autumn at Joyland through the lens of late middle age. He says

That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy. I can say that, too.

Devin’s unhappiness stems from his recent break-up with his first serious girlfriend, Wendy. Devin has an inkling that their relationship has run its course when Wendy doesn’t even hesitate to encourage him to take the job at Joyland, even though it means that they will be separated for the summer. “It’ll be an adventure” she tells him, without realizing just how much of an adventure it’ll actually be.

Devin meets a cast of interesting characters at Joyland and in the little seaside town he calls home while he works there. Characters like Lane Hardy (who shows him the ropes around the park) and Rosalind Gold (the resident fortune teller who makes a couple of astute predictions about Devin’s future) and Emmalina Shoplaw (who owns the boarding house where Devin rents a room and who tells him about the murder associated with Joyland’s  Horror House) add a bit of local character to the story.  Other characters, like Mike and his mother, Annie, have a more profound impact on Devin’s life.

Devin Jones calls that summer “the last year of my childhood” and he is right. King expertly balances the story’s nostalgic look back, and his protagonist’s bittersweet reminiscences (“I still want to know why I wasn’t good enough for Wendy Keegan”). Joyland is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a murder-mystery. Both aspects of the novel will keep you turning the pages.

Blacklands – Belinda Bauer

blacklandsTwelve-year-old Steven Lamb, the protagonist of Belinda Bauer’s debut novel Blacklands, lives with his mother, Lettie, his grandmother and his little brother, Davey,  in a small English village called Shipcott.  Steven spends his time out on the moors digging holes. He’s looking for the body of his mother’s brother, Billy, who had been killed by pedophile and serial killer, Arnold Avery, eighteen years earlier.  Avery had never given up the location of Billy’s body (or that of two of the other children he’d killed) and Steven thinks if he can find the body, it might bring closure for his perpetually grim and unhappy grandmother and his own mother, who has had to live under the weight of the tragedy her whole life.

Everything in Steven’s young life is miserable. Not only is his home life unhappy (even though he loves his family), he only has one friend at school (and it’s a relationship of convenience more than anything) and he’s constantly bullied by the “hoodies,” three lads who make it their mission to pick on him in and out of school. Even the teachers don’t know him. So Steven is a relatively solitary kid whose only goal is to find Uncle Billy so that “everything would change. [His nan] would stop standing at the window waiting for an impossible boy to come home; she would start to notice him and Davey, and not just in a mean, spiteful way, but in ways that a grandmother should notice them – with love, and secrets, and fifty pence for sweets.”

But Blacklands isn’t just Steven’s story; it’s Arnold Avery’s story, too. He’s rotting away in prison and, trust me, time spent with him isn’t so we can know his story and empathize with him. He’s reprehensible –  a cunning deviant with a predilection for sexual torture and murder. He’s been a model prisoner because “model prisoners wanted to be rehabilitated, so Avery had signed up for countless classes, workshops and courses over the years.” It had all paid off, too, because two years earlier he’d been moved from a high-security prison to Longmoor Prison, a low-security facility.

So when he receives Steven Lamb’s first letter, a plea for help in finding Billy’s body, Avery begins to dream of escape.

Blacklands was the 2010 winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award for Crime Novel of the Year.  It works on multiple levels – as a story of what grief does to a person and how that legacy trickles down to poison all who come after, as a coming-of-age tale, and finally, as a can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough thrill-ride. Bauer manages the tricky shift between Steven and Avery with finesse and the whole story races, with only a couple minor missteps, towards an inevitable and  thrilling denouement.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

There’s been a lot of excitement in the house over Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games.  Both of my kids have read it and have been harassing me to read it, which I finally did. I have to say – I loved it as much as they did. So we thought we’d talk about the book a little..

Mallory: This book takes place in post-apocalyptic North America. The people of North America had attempted a rebellion against the government, but weren’t successful. So, the government split them into 13 Districts, and each year as a punishment,  every child ages 12-18 in every District has their name put into the Hunger Games. They draw two names from each District and those people must compete against kids from other Districts in an arena. It’s a fight to the death; last one standing wins. Basically, the main character, Katniss Everdeen from poor District 12 takes her sister’s place to go into the Games.

Christie: That’s a great summary, Mallory. It’s a terrific premise for a book, not altogether dissimilar from the 1987 film The Running Man.  Of course the stakes are a little higher in the book especially since the players are just kids.

Mallory: Katniss is 16 when she went to into the Hunger Games, so she was one of the older kids competing. Imagine how hard it would be if you were just 12, trying to kill 17 and 18 year olds. Katniss is such a great character, and Collins did an incredible job building her up. Every moment of the book I was so scared because I loved Katniss and didn’t want her to get hurt.

Christie: I agree, Mallory. I loved Katniss from the very start of the novel. She’s resourceful, mature and brave. When we first meet her, she demonstrates her willingness to break the rules to provide for her family. She’s a good hunter, she wastes nothing and you get the sense that she could handle herself in just about any situation. But she’s not the only admirable character in the novel. Who else did you like, Mallory?

Mallory: Well, I must say that I love Gale, Katniss’ best friend, and Prim, her sister (who were introduced at the very beginning of the novel). But as the novel progresses, we meet many more amazing characters, some that we love, and others that we hate. Like, Rue, a contestant in the Games who I adored. What about you?

Christie: I’m with you, Mal. All the characters were really well drawn – even characters you don’t get to know very much about, like Cinna and Thresh. As you get to know some of the other Tributes (contestants), it’s impossible not to get attached and what’s remarkable is that Katniss feels admiration for some of these people too, even though she knows she might have to kill them to stay alive. The Games themselves were very exciting, didn’t you think?

Mallory: Well yeah! They were amazing! What an incredible concept for a book. I wish I had thought of it first, because it’s just so clever. Everything about the Games seems so real, so legitimate. She doesn’t make them seem like a board game, or something you play. Collins really gets it across to you that the Hunger Games are about fear, and death, and despair. The Games are so scary, that you just feel really sad for the Tributes, even if they are merely characters that came out of Collins’ mind.

Christie: Beyond the suspenseful plot and characters, Collins has created an interesting and scary future-world and, for me, the writing was crisp and readable – a nice change from a lot of the Young Adult fiction out there. How does this book compare to other books you’re reading, Mallory?

Mallory: Honestly, The Hunger Games isn’t really comparable to the books I’ve been reading because it’s just so different, and that’s what I love about it. Most YA Fiction out there at the moment is either about vampires or rich girls with dirty secrets. Sure, I like Twilight, and books like Pretty Little Liars, but The Hunger Games sets itself apart from all the generic and boring books.

Christie: A lot of kids I teach are reading it (or have read it) and I’d say 99% of them have loved it. And for my money – this book is heads and tails better than the Twilight series.

Mallory: My school is having the same Hunger Games craze too! Most of my friends (I’d say 85%) hate to read, and will only force themselves to open a book if it’s absolutely necessary. But surprisingly, a ton of them have read The Hunger Games (girls and boys) and they loved it! The book has been passed around the entire grade 8 french immersion population, and instead of gossiping at lunch time, we all discuss our favourite parts. It’s a nice change.

Christie: Well, I guess that makes it unanimous, then. The Hunger Games: loved by boys, girls and moms!

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

Well, we’re back with another mother/daughter review.  This time we’re going to talk about The Adoration of Jenna Fox. It tells the story of a young girl, Jenna, who wakes up after having been in a coma for a year. Her parents tell her she’s been in a terrible car accident and it’s taken this long to recover.  The thing is, Jenna doesn’t remember very much about her life before the accident.

There were all sorts of clues  about what this book was going to be about. I had it figured out pretty early on, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book. How quickly did you figure out Jenna’s story, Mallory?

Mallory: Well, I was pretty clueless at the start. I thought she was just a girl who’d woken up from a coma- and everything was normal. But near the middle of the story, I started to put things together and by the end, I’d already figured it out.

Christie: Pearson does an excellent job, though, of stringing the reader along. Under normal circumstances, waking up from a long coma would be disorienting. Jenna doesn’t even live in the same state as she had before the accident. Her friends aren’t there. Nothing is familiar. Strangely, her grandmother (who is living with them) is almost hostile. Plus, Jenna is also trying to cope with being a teenager and that’s all complicated by this 12 month hiatus from her own body.

Pearson does something else in this novel which seems to be popping up more regularly in fiction – she’s included some poetry which has been written by Jenna. What did you think of that, Mal?

Mallory: To be honest, I didn’t like the poetry. I’ve never been a massive fan of poetry and I didn’t really look forward to the regular poetry pieces that were scattered throughout the whole book. They were interesting, but I think the book could have done without it. All the pieces in the book were more or less the same. They were either about Jenna not remembering words or her being confused. It bored me; I’m sorry.

Christie: No need to be sorry. LOL

The Adoration of Jenna Fox reads like a mystery/thriller. You really race along trying to get at the novel’s center because even if you think you’ve figured Jenna’s story out, there are all sorts of little pieces that have to be fit together.

Mallory: Yeah, I agree. The whole book (like the cover art) is like a puzzle. You need to take all the little events and clues and piece them together. Some pieces may not fit, and then you have to start over. Because I have no patience at all for puzzles, I didn’t try to figure out the book at the start because I just end up angry and frustrated. But everything makes perfect sense in the end.

Christie: I’m not sure how Mallory feels about this, but I liked how this book made me think about what makes us human. I liked the way it echoed  Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is obviously a much more sophisticated novel, but Pearson’s book is a terrific book for its intended audience. I think it would be a great novel to teach. What was your overall feeling about it, Mal? Would you recommend it to your friends?

Mallory: Unfortunately, barely any of my friends care about reading, and they absolutely hate reading in class. But, if more of my friends read, I’d recommend this. I don’t know if this matters to you, Mom, but a huge part of a book- to me at least- is the characters. I need to fall completely in love with the characters and that makes the whole reading experience so much better. An example would be Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. I probably mention this book wayyy too much,  but I’m obsessed. The first time I read this book I felt like I was a sister to all the characters. I loved them all, and my heart was bursting out of me whenever they were in danger. This is how I want to feel about a book, and I honestly didn’t feel that for Jenna Fox. If I had, I would’ve liked the book a lot more, but during the read I didn’t really care what happened to her. This disappointed me because it wasn’t me who was making the decision to not care for Jenna; it was just the way Pearson developed her main character.  Rosoff took nearly half the book to develop all of her characters, and it took me three words to become attached to Daisy. I wish every book could be like How I Live Now, but overall this book was good. Not amazing. But good.

Christie: Wordy much? That’s my kid- talking about character. It makes the book nerd (and English teacher) in me  swoon with delight.

I guess I liked this book a little more than you because I could see it from a couple different points of view. I understood Jenna’s mom, for example, and her motivations. I understood the grandmother…and as I have a daughter who is minutes away from being a teenager, I sort of got that perspective, too. It’s a great book for discussion…but it’s hard to discuss without giving stuff away…and we don’t want to do that.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Just Listen is my first Young Adult novel by Sarah Dessen, although I was certainly aware of her name. She’s always on Best Books for Young Adults lists and so I figured that, as a teacher of young adults, I should at least see what all the fuss was about.

It also gave Mallory and I another opportunity to share a book. She read this one a couple weeks ago, but I was in the middle of something else which I had to finish first.

I’ll let Mallory start by telling you a little bit about the novel.

Mallory: This book is about a model named Annabel Greene.  She’s the youngest of three girls and both of her older sisters are models, too. Even though on the outside it would seem as though Annabel’s got it all (the looks, the best friend, the beautiful house, basically a charmed life) she’s actually going through some pretty serious things. For one thing, her middle sister, Whitney, has an eating disorder that weighs down the whole family. Secondly, Annabel’s best friend is no longer speaking to her. In fact, no one is speaking to her. This is a book about how Annabel learns how to express her true feelings about things.

Christie: That’s a good summary of what the book’s about.  One of the book’s main points is about how appearances can be deceiving. Annabel often comments about the glass house her architect father has built and how people slow down when they drive by. What they might see is a family sitting down together to dinner, but Annabel knows that it’s much more complicated than that.

Did you like the book?

Mallory: Yes, I liked the book. I’ve read a couple of books before this one about eating disorders. They’re pretty scary, but this one seemed easier to read. Instead of describing everything Whitney does to deprive herself of food, it explains how even though she’s beautiful, she’s still struggling with her appearance. I really liked that part of the book. What about you?

Christie: Well, what I liked was that Whitney’s struggles were only one part of the book. What I liked was how Annabel struggled to make her own voice heard. Something horrible has happened to her (something I found sort of easy to guess at), but she isn’t able to say anything. Instead, she lets her former best friend, Sophie, treat her badly.  It isn’t until Owen, the school’s misunderstood ‘thug’ (by reputation only) befriends her, that she allows herself to be more assertive.

Mallory: I agree. Owen seemed to open up something that Annabel didn’t even know was inside of her. Even though she and Owen only talked about music, she was allowed to express her opinion (mostly about her hate of techno) without any repercussions. And I too predicted the reason for the fallout  between Annabel and Sophie. But I knew all along that Annabel was the real victim, not Sophie. She just didn’t know how to explain the truth.

Christie: There are lots of novels out there that deal with these subjects: eating disorders, failed friendship, parents who don’t understand their kids (although I have to say that the adults in this novel were decent)…what do you think Dessen did well in Just Listen?

Mallory: The main thing that I loved about Just Listen is the way Dessen built up her character’s personalites. By the end of the book I knew that Annabel was a complicated person on the inside, Owen was extremely misunderstood, and Sophie was crazy- basically a wildchid. She made it so clear who each one of these people were. It makes a book so much more enjoyable when you feel like you know the characters. Like they’re your friends.

Christie: I agree. I think Annabel’s voice was well done here. And I have to admit that I fell in love with Owen from the very beginning. I guess I have a soft spot for big, hulking, slightly off-center guys.

Mallory:  I must say that I also knew that Owen wasn’t a ‘thug’ or anyhing that people had said at the start. I always try to see the character in a couple different ways before really deciding if they’re the good guy or the bad guy in a book. I didn’t really have to do this with Owen. He was the quiet, music-lover that was stereotyped for his height and tough persona. Just by Dessen’s description I could tell that Owen was protective, but gentle. And I loved his lttle sister from the very moment her name was mentioned. Mallory. That says it all.

Christie: So – overall..would you recommend this book?

 Mallory: One of my friends is a Sarah Dessen fan and she raved about this book when she saw me reading it at school. She pulled out Dessen’s novel Someone Like You and said “You must read this when you’re done.” I think she basically recommended it for me. But I would like to add that if you can sympathize with the characters in this book, and the situations that they’re in, you’ll love it. It has a moral, it teaches a lesson, and it’s a great read for young adults. I’d definitely say that if you’ve never heard of Sarah Dessen you need to read this book- and check out her other books as well. They look very promising. 

Christie: I don’t disagree. I think she’s topical. The writing is generally crisp. The characters are well drawn. Young adults could do far worse. 

Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp

Well, Mallory and I have read another book – this time a story I remember reading (and loving) when I was about Mal’s age. I stumbled across Jane-Emily when I was ‘shopping’ at Book Closeouts and couldn’t resist. It’s a story about a little girl, Jane, who goes to visit her paternal grandmother after her parents are killed in a buggy accident. She’s accompanied by her 18 year old aunt, Louisa. Her grandmother is kind but stern. She’s had some tragedies in her life – the recent loss of Jane’s father, of course, but also the death of her beloved husband and young daughter, Emily. Emily appears to have some unfinished business at the house.

I remember this book as being really creepy, but let’s face it, that was 35 years ago. I wonder how it compares to some of the books Mal’s read. What did you think, Mallory, did you find Jane-Emily scary?

Mallory: No. Not at all. It wasn’t scary, but I loved the way the story took place in 1912. I love books that take place in the past. What about you?

Christie: Well, I have to agree with you, Mal. Not scary at all. In fact, I have to admit to finding the book a little slow-moving. It’s just a novella, only 140 pages, but it moved fairly slowly. I think I remember it as being slightly more action-packed. I did like how atmospheric it was, though. Do you know what I mean by that?

Mallory: Umm… I think you might be talking about the feeling each day brought as it passed in the book. If I’m right, then yes, I did. I liked the way each moment seemed a little care-free or relaxed. It is summer vacation, remember.

Christie: You’re close. Atmosphere is the way the story makes you feel…so, for example, Clapp took her time making you feel the heat of each summer day – when it was hot, you knew it was. Remember how they were always going to sit in the shade of the tulip tree? And when they went up into the attic, there was this sense of foreboding, like they might discover something awful and they did – remember?

Mallory: Yeah, I do remember what poor little Jane found. That wax doll with the melted face. Emily sure seemed like a nice little girl, right?

Christie: Well, I guess that’s the difference of 35 years. This isn’t a splashy book. There wasn’t any violence or anything graphic, but as  a ghost story I think it was okay. How does it compare with other creepy stories you’ve read?

Mallory: I think the romance in this book overshadowed any ‘creepy’ parts. As for a comparison- the book The Enchanted Attic by M.D Spenser forced me to read it only in daylight. Literally. And truthfully, (and I’ll only admit to doing this once) I read nearly all of Jane-Emily at night with a little reading light. I didn’t even shiver.

Christie: Busted.

Mallory: I’m going to deny anything you accuse me of. ;). I recommend Jane-Emily to  to readers who can’t handle a huge scare- and who prefer more ‘mild’ creepy books. But I must say, this novella paints a gorgeous picture of summertime in your head. And I think every ludic reader loves a book that does that!

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff  has been on my tbr shelf for a few months. Coincidentally, a friend gave a copy of the book to my 12 year old daughter, Mallory, for Christmas. We decided it would be cool to read the book at the same time and then share our thoughts about the novel here. This is actually something I’d like to do on a semi-regular basis because there are a lot of YA novels I’d like to read and Mallory is a voracious reader. In any case, we’ll start with this book and see how we make out.

I’ll start by letting Mallory tell you a little bit about herself:

Hi, everyone! I’m a grade seven student in french immersion. Besides reading, I enjoy drawing, dancing, (I study ballet and modern dance ten hours a week), and hanging out with my friends. I do love to read. Some of my favourite books are: Airborn, Skybreaker, A Little Princess, The Twilight Saga, Little Women, and The Little House on the Prairie books.

Thanks, Mal. So, I’m going to let Mallory tell everyone what How I Live Now is about.

Mallory:  Basically,  How I Live Now is about a teenage girl named Daisy who goes to England to live with her cousins after her father remarries. Once she’s there, two life-changing things happen: she falls in love with her cousin, Edmond, and war breaks out.

Christie: That’s it in a nutshell, Mallory. But this is a pretty remarkable book; it’s certainly not like anything that I’ve ever read before. What did you like about it?

Mallory: You know how when you read you can hear the author’s voice? Well, this book had the strongest voice of any I’ve ever read. Meg Rosoff created an incredible character, and when Daisy spoke she could make you believe anything.

Christie: I think Mal’s touched on the main reason this book is so wonderful. Daisy is a breathless, intelligent, self-deprecating, emotional fifteen-year-old girl whose personal world has been turned upside down….and then she has a catastrophic war to contend with.

When she arrives at the airport and meets her cousin, Edmond, she tells the reader “Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looked like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night, but aside from that he’s exactly like some kind of mutt, you know the ones you see at the dog shelter who are kind of hopeful and sweet and put their nose straight into your hand when they meet you with a certain kind of dignity and you know from that second that you’re going to take him home? Well that’s him.” (3)

The whole story spins out of Daisy’s amazing brain and everything that happens to her is skewed by her needy intelligence.

Mallory: Her relationship with Edmond was really interesting to me. At first, I thought it was sort of freaky because I couldn’t imagine falling in love with my cousins. But after the war starts, and things get more complicated, I began to believe, like Daisy did, that they were meant to be together- related or not.

Christie: The war certainly made the story interesting. What did you think of the way we didn’t really know too much about who was fighting whom?

Mallory: When I was reading any bits where the war is described- my mind was never thinking of who was fighting or what they were fighting for. Mostly the whole time I was on edge with fear for Edmond and Daisy and whether they would make it through.

Christie: I was worried for them too, but I thought it was really interesting to see this war through Daisy’s eyes. Even though she didn’t really understand the hows and whys, she was able to articulate how people were affected by the fighting and the deaths she witnessed were horrific.

Mallory: I agree. Daisy seemed to be in the know and completely out of it at the exact same time- but it didn’t seem to matter. I was just wondering, what were your thoughts on Isaac and Osbert, who didn’t seem to play a big role in this story. And about Piper, who did.

Christie: We should tell people that Isaac is Edmond’s twin, Osbert is his sixteen-year-old brother and Piper, his nine year old sister. Their mother, Daisy’s Aunt Penn, goes off to Oslo very early in the book, leaving the children on their own. I think that’s one of the interesting aspects of this book – how these kids have to fend for themselves when the war is relatively distant and how all that changes when it suddenly shows up in their back yard. You’re right, though, Isaac and Osbert don’t really have a large part to play although Isaac does have an impact at the novel’s conclusion. Piper, on the other hand, is extremely important and I think gives Daisy a reason to go on. She’s a great character.

Who should read this book, Mal?

Mallory: Well, this book is suggested for 12 and up- but it’s a pretty intense read. It might not appeal to everybody, but if you’re a strong reader, and aren’t easily upset or offended, I recommend this book. Before I read How I Live Now, The Twilight Saga were my favourite books. I stayed faithful to them for a long time, and was almost positive that I’d never find a book (or series) that was better. How I Live Now was a pleasant surprise. It ended up overtaking Twilight by a longshot- and it’s now the reigning champ.

Christie: That warms my heart, Mal because, as you know, not a fan of the sparkly vampires! Now we have to decide what we’re going to read next. Stay tuned!