Liar by Justine Larbalestier

liarUsually an unreliable narrator creeps up on you.  You notice an inconsistency here and there, something about the story doesn’t feel quite right, you start to get suspicious.  It’s almost a game – you look for the clues that prove you’re being lied to.  But Justine Larbalestier changes the rules of the game.  It’s right there on the cover, staring at you in capital letters: LIAR.  There’s no need to look for the proof – it’s admitted from the first time you see the book.  But there’s a different game being played here.  It’s a game of teasing admissions and sly winks.  When Micah admits that something she said earlier in the novel was a lie, what do you believe?  The title puts the reader on notice – you’re on your toes looking for the truth from the very first sentence.  It makes for a frustrating reading experience in many ways.  But it’s that delicious, thought-provoking kind of frustration that I love.

Micah is a compulsive liar, just like her dad.  When she started at her school, she had everyone convinced that she was a boy for several days.  No one believes much of anything that she says anymore, if they pay her any attention at all.  But when Zach, a popular boy from Micah’s class, is found dead in a suspected murder, the eyes of the school are suddenly back on Micah.  Micah was Zach’s “after-hours” girlfriend – which comes as a shock to the unbelieving student body and Zach’s other girlfriend, Sarah. From these basics, Larbalestier leads us down some unexpected twists and turns.

Now, of course, any kind of plot description is not something you can take at face value.  Is any of what I just said true?  No idea.  Go ahead and dive in – see if you can separate fact from fiction.  And if you figure it out, let me know.  There’s also the question of why Micah lies.  She’s got her version:

“Really, according to the shrinks, I am angry at everyone.  Especially them.

I am all anger and resentment all the time.

Not one of them has ever suggested that maybe I lie because the world is better the way I tell it.” (pg. 266. Quoted from ARC – text may change.)

It’s an interesting question, and there are a lot of possible answers hinted at in the text.  But if the world really is better the way Micah tells it, I would hate to live in her world – this is a dark book.  Many of her lies stem directly from Zach’s death – this is not just a story about lying, but also a story about grief.  The reader is privy to Micah’s extreme reactions to Zach’s sudden death, and also gets glimpses of how his girlfriend Sarah and his best friend Tayshawn deal with the loss of a friend.  Their reactions are appropriately complex, often touching, and occasionally kind of creepy.

My favorite thing about this book is Micah’s uneasy relationship with her lying.  At times, I was absolutely convinced that she desperately wants to be able to tell the truth.  Sometime she believes her own lies, especially those lies that really do make her world easier for her to live in.  At other times her lies are manipulative, and sometimes they are just because she doesn’t feel like telling the truth.  She uses frank admissions about her previous lies as a way to throw the reader off balance, or as an attempt to gain trust.  It’s fascinating to watch, especially later in the book when she has dug deep into many half-truths and flat-out lies.  She begins keeping a tally of lies to the reader that she has admitted to:

“How many lies is that now?  I’m losing track.

But surely it’s not so big a lie, really?  I don’t think I’ll include it in the official tally.  It was just to Sarah and Tayshawn.  And you.

Now I’m telling the truth.” (pg. 284, reviewed from ARC)

Micah’s mind games are as internal as they are external.  Her machinations and her complex relationship with truth and lies made this book compulsively readable.

One more thing: this cover is gorgeous, no?  I love it on it’s own.  I love it a lot less after reading the book.  It’s a whole lot more playful looking than the book actually is, for one thing.  But also, it looks nothing at all like Micah – her very short hair, her mixed race, and her ability to pass as a boy are mentioned several times in the novel.  Unless Micah was lying about that, too…  One more thing to think about, I guess.  (Edited to add: this is definitely not the case!  If you haven’t yet, please read Justine Larbalestier’s thoughts on the cover of Liar here.)

Justine Larbalestier on the web.

Justine’s excellent blog.

Liar on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher.


Kendra by Coe Booth

kendraIt’s taken me a long time to read one of Coe Booth’s books.  Not because I didn’t want to – because I cannot pry them out of the hands of the teens in my library. A time or two I’ve tried to squirrel away our copy of Tyrell, but every time some teen girl will end up standing over my desk staring at the cover so longingly that I have to hand it over.  These babies do not stay on the shelves, and rightly so.  Just look at that great, high-urban-teen-appeal cover. And I was glad to find that what’s inside the cover lives up to it.

Kendra was born when her mom was only 14 years old.  While her mother Renee pursues a PhD at Princeton, Kendra is left at home with her strict grandmother.  She feels abandoned by Renee, who pretends that Kendra is her sister when they are around her college friends.  And while her Nana clearly loves her fiercely, the ways that she shows it are usually stifling.  Nana sees Kendra as a way to undo any mistakes she made with Renee.

Kendra is a heartbreakingly sweet, lonely girl.  She is so desperate for a real mother/daughter relationship with Renee, who constantly pushes her away.  Kendra’s relationship with her mother affect every part of her life, and her moods change depending on her last interaction with Renee.  When Kendra attracts the attention of Nashawn, a very attractive young man who she’s had a crush on for years, she has no one to confide in.  Her lecturing Nana is out of the question, Renee is never around when Kendra needs her, and Kendra’s best friend/aunt Adonna is also crushing on Nashawn – an added complication.  Things move fast between Kendra and Nashawn, and their relationship is secretive and messy.  With no real guidance from the important people in her life, Kendra makes some mistakes in judgment, both in her growing relationship with Nashawn and in her interactions with her family.

Booth’s character’s are complex in their motivations and actions, and in their realistic relationship with Kendra.  The family dynamic feels so true-to-life, both in the good and the bad.  I loved reading Kendra’s interactions with her completely charming young father, Kenny, who is doing his best to make an independent living and provide as much support as he can to Kendra.  The emotional connections between these characters are strong.

This is a novel that addresses a teen girl’s sexuality without pulling punches – we see both the terror and the pleasure that come out of Kendra’s first sexual relationship.  She is a smart, self-aware young woman who recognizes that she is not making good choices – she is just caught up in the moment, and caught up in getting attention from such a desirable young man.  She’s confused and elated and terrified all at the same time, and the reader is right there with her inside her head.  There is no question that older teens who are grappling with similar questions will relate to Kendra – as is evidenced by the empty spot on my YA shelves where Coe Booth’s books should be.

Coe Booth on the web.

Kendra on the web.

Friday Links

  • I’ve been enjoying Abby’s series on what librarians wish patrons knew about the library.  My favorite is this one on storytimes.
  • The New York Times gives a little insight into how the best-seller list works, and what being on the list can do for a book or author.
  • Love this article about the use of filtering and blocking software in schools and libraries.  The answer is not to block access to information.  The answer is to be an educator.
  • Neesha Meminger shares her thoughts on how the gender of an author affects a book’s cover, particularly in terms of books by South Asian women.
  • Turns out Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day translates well to twitter.  Made me giggle.
  • Booklights has a wonderful post up on the page design in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
  • You’ve probably all seen this Wall Street Journal article on YA lit’s “new” dark side by now.  There have been plenty of thoughtful reactions to the article, but my favorite was probably from the one and only Meg Cabot.  She has a lot to say about why kids choose to read what they do – and why she chooses to write what she does.  There are a lot of kinds of books for teens out there, and we need all kinds.
  • A YA author teaching how to throw a knuckleball?  This video couldn’t be any more up my alley.  Unless maybe Michael Northrop was  also baking a pie.  The money quote: “The knuckleball, like so many things in life, is all about letting go.”
  • Chasing Ray is putting together a One Shot focused on Southeast Asia.  I’m in!
  • Defining Young Adult Literature is tough.  Really tough.  Cheryl Klein takes a shot at it here, and I like what she has to say.  She’s looking for input – go add to the conversation!

48 Hour Book Challenge Wrap-Up

Total hours reading: 14.5

What I read:

  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier – Wow.  This was not what I expected it to be.  I think I loved it – but honestly, I’m still thinking about this one.  I’ll have more to say about it later.
  • Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson – Lonnie is such a delightful character, and it was a pleasure to re-visit him.  This is a big-hearted book.
  • Riot by Walter Dean Myers – Didn’t work for me.  Dialogue felt stilted, and I don’t understand why it’s in screenplay format.  I think you need a compelling reason to do that – otherwise it’s just a gimmick.
  • The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh – I liked the mythological aspects.  But the “quest” hit on one of my pet peeves – a kid who stumbles onto something that is his “destiny” without really taking any active role in seeking the destiny or the quest.
  • The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading by Charity Tahmaseb and Darcy Vance – Still have about 1/3 of this one left to read.  It’s been cute so far.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

fireThe protagonist of Kristen Cashore’s second book has a lot in common with Katsa, the main character from her debut novel, Graceling. Both are enormously powerful women who are terrified of using their own great talents, and even more frightened of having their powers exploited by others.  But the ways that their powers manifest is very different.  While Katsa’s Grace is extremely physical, and her struggle to hold herself back was always concerned mainly with her body, Fire’s struggle is primarily a mental one.  Fire is a monster, which means that she is unbelievable beautiful and can control other people with her mind.  She is the only human monster left in the Dells.  Fire chooses not to use her power, constantly fighting to keep from becoming like her father, who greatly misused his ability.  She must also deal with the suspicion, hate, and lust that her stunning beauty and her power inspire in others.  But her father’s machinations have left the country approaching war and ruin, and Fire’s reluctant use of her abilities may be the only thing that can save the Dells.

While I, personally, didn’t connect with Fire as well as I did with Katsa, that did not stop this book from being a rip-roaring good story.  (And really, is it much of a surprise that it is harder to relate to someone who is so perfectly gorgeous and powerful?)  And as much as I’m sad to have left Katsa and Po behind, it was delightful to meet this new group of wonderfully complex characters.  The royal family is a treat – every member constantly surprises with new layers.  And Prince Brigan rivals even my beloved Po as a love interest.

There is one holdover from Graceling – we meet King Leck as a boy.  His monstrosity, as a human who can control minds through his Grace, provides a foil for Fire’s humanity, as a monster who struggles to use her powers wisely and well.  I do wish we were given a little bit more insight into why Leck is so inhuman – I assume that it is just as a result of always being able to get what he wants.  But he is so extreme.  And since we only see him as a child through the eyes of his father, whose mind Leck has controlled for many years, the reader doesn’t come away with a very clear picture of how he becomes so warped.  Unlike the other characters we meet in Cashore’s worlds, Leck feels very one-note.

Cashore is masterful at using little movements and changes in posture and bearing to show a character’s thoughts.  It’s a little thing, but it’s done so consistently well – she’s got show-don’t-tell down to a science.  The little descriptions are constant, especially during dialogue between Fire and Brigan, but they never feel extraneous or distracting from the action.  Each character has their own little vocabulary of movement, just as they each have their own patterns of speech.  It’s just one example of the many ways that Cashore brings the characters’ subtext to the surface.  This was one of the things I enjoyed most about Graceling, and I was pleased to see it continue in Fire.  I think it’s one of the reason’s that her romances are SO good – we actually see them developing not just through words, actions, and thoughts, but also through the characters’ physicality.

Kristin Cashore is an enormous talent.  Once again, her book swept me away with wonderful characters, sweeping adventure, and a sizzling romance.  I will be waiting impatiently for Bitterblue, the third book set in this world.

Fire on the web.

Kristin Cashore on the web.

Review copy provided by the publisher at BEA.

The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King

dust of 100 dogsWhen you get inside the head of Saffron Adams, you’re not hearing just the thoughts of a teenage girl from Hollow Ford, Pennsylvania. There’s also Emer Morrisey, a bloodthirsty seventeenth century pirate. Oh, and 100 dead dogs.  Yep, it’s a busy place.  But the perspectives in this novel don’t end there!  We get to hear from a few people (and dogs) who aren’t prior incarnations of Saffron Adams, as well.  And one of those people isn’t nearly as nice as Emer Morrisey, the vicious pirate who enjoys popping out the eyeballs of her victims.

A.S. King weaves together the stories of Emer Morrisey, whose horrifying life leads her down a path of looting and piracy; Saffron Adams, a regular girl who has all the memories (and some of the very bloody impulses) of that seventeenth-century pirate girl; and Fred Livingstone, a truly unpleasant man whose life is somehow interconnected with Emer’s and Saffron’s.  As we learn about Emer’s very dark life and the childhood love that drove her, we also watch Saffron break away from her own fairly normal life as she pursues the treasure Emer left behind centuries ago.  Both stories are compelling, mainly because of the wonderful backstory and deep drive that come from Emer’s history.  I loved seeing the ways in which Emer’s past influenced Saffron’s smalltown Pennsylvania life.

King’s plotting is really well-done – the different storylines twist in and out of each other very pleasingly, and they all build towards a satisfying climax that finally brings the two main stories together.  As I was reading, I found myself very curious about A.S. King’s process as she wrote this complex narrative.  It’s a lot of balls to keep bouncing in the air, and she handles it with aplomb, keeping all the stories moving at a quick pace and dropping little hints to the reader about how they might connect together.  And the writing is as sharp and slightly twisted as Emer Morrisey herself.

One of my favorite parts of the novel were the short “dog facts” that are placed in between chapters, where Saffron shares some of the lessons she’s learned in her many past lives as dogs.  There’s some good advice for any dog-owner hidden inside this page-turning story – just one more reason to go pick up a copy!

The Dust of 100 Dogs on the web.

A.S. King on the web.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

catching fire(Don’t worry – this will be deliberately vague!)

Suzanne Collins knows how to deliver a punch to the gut. It’s certainly not the only trick in her arsenal – she’s great at the shivers creeping slowly up your spine, she can get your eyes to fly open in surprise along with the best of them, and she produces a mean whisper in your ear – both the bad and the good kind.  But on those big punches to the stomach, the ones that knock you right off your feet and leave you gasping for air, she’s at the very top of her game.

Something happens in this book that is devastating.  It is not the only punch Ms. Collins lands, but it’s definitely the knockout in her series of body blows.  The truly astonishing thing about this moment, and so many of the other surprises she delivers, is that while I NEVER would have anticipated it happening, looking back it seems almost inevitable.  It’s the mark of a truly great storyteller, and I have no hesitation awarding that title to Suzanne Collins.  If you had any reservations about whether a sequel to The Hunger Games could possibly live up to the first book’s brilliant developing storylines and nuanced characterizations, leave those worries at the door.  Catching Fire is exactly the book you hoped it would be – thrilling, thought-provoking, and absolutely devastating.

For all of you who, like me, have felt like the wait for this book has been almost interminable: I have some advice.  Don’t read it yet.  Please, for your own sake, wait as long as you possibly can.  No, I’m totally serious.  Because as bad as this wait has been, the wait for the third book is going to be a million times worse.  Five minutes after I finished reading, I said something that is very unrepeatable and threw my book at the wall.  (On that note, another warning: don’t read this book in a public place.  I’m still a little bit embarrassed.)  I hate Suzanne Collins for leaving me hanging.  But not as much as I love her for writing these books.

Catching Fire on the web.

Suzanne Collins on the web.

Review copy provided by the publisher at BEA.

May ’09 Reading Log


Middle Grade

Adult Fiction

Adult Non-fiction

Didn’t Finish

Currently Reading