Saturday, July 31, 2010


Miller-Lachmann, Lyn. Gringolandia. Willimantic, Conn.: Curbstone Press, 2009. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2010)
Americas Award Honorable Mention

Daniel's life is pretty good, but not perfect. His mom is a grad student so there's not a lot of money, his sister is getting to the age where she's real angsty and annoying, and every year his mother heads a letter writing campaign to free his father from a prison in Pinochet's Chile. Still, Dan's pretty happy. He plays in a band, has a great girlfriend, and speaks with a sexy accent leftover from his Chilean childhood. Then Daniel's mother gets word that her husband will be released and allowed to join his family in America. That should make everything finally perfect. But when Daniel's father is released, he is a physically broken and psychologically scarred shell of the father Dan remembers.

Gringolandia opens with an Author's Note explaining the very real circumstances and events in Chile that lead up to what is experienced by the fictional characters in the book. A short bibliography for further reading is also provided. Usually this kind of thing goes at the end of the story when readers are more likely to be interested in picking up 4-5 books on the topic. I thought it was a weird choice to put the note and bibliography at the beginning...until I started reading.

Miller-Lachmann expects a lot of her readers, in a good way. Her author's note allows her not to take precious page space away from the story later. For example, we see Dan's father derisively call the States "Gringolandia" and refuse to learn English. We see the disdain he has for the USA and for his wife's choice to bring the family there. Miller-Lachmann doesn't tell us that his dislike (to put it kindly) for America is because the United States government helped Pinochet gain power in Chile. She trusts us to put two and two together, which she is only able to do because she explained Pinochet's rise to power in her opening note.

Because, let's be honest, not many Americans know that much about Chile and certainly don't know that much about what it was like to live through the turbulent times Dan and his family live through, hence the need for the author's note. I don't read a lot of historical fiction about specific events (which I guess this is, even though it makes me feel really old to call the decade in which I was born history), but much of the historical fiction published in the States of this type is about very well-known events. Even if the average American reader doesn't know the ins and outs of the actual event, they know the basics. Think about how much historical fiction is set during WWII or the French Revolution, or is about Anastasia Romanova. Gringolandia fills a huge gap. I can't think of any other historical fiction for teen readers about South America, let alone about Chile. In fact, a search in WorldCat for "historical fiction" and "South America" only returns 78 books, including duplicates for large print titles. "Historical fiction" and "Chile" returns 84, and those numbers don't even begin to touch on the intended audience of the titles.

Even if there were tons of titles about political prisoners under Pinochet, I think that Gringolandia would still stand out. Without repeating events, this story is told from three distinctive points of view: Dan's, his father's, and his girlfriend's. Dan's father, Marcelo, talks about what it was like in prison (and believe me, even the polite version presented here can get graphic), but the strong point in his narrative is his passion for a free Chile. He doesn't regret the actions he took that led to his arrest; he desperately wants to continue that work, regardless of the consequences, now that he's been released. He's also going through some serious PTSD that is tearing his family apart. His perspective is contrasted with Dan's. Dan doesn't really know what his father did (you can't be questioned about what you don't know), and he doesn't understand how his father could put himself and his family at such great risk for a cause. He certainly can't understand why his father doesn't want to just move on and make the best of things. Like his father, Dan has trust issues and a serious flinch in the face of policemen, but without the conviction that helps his father work through these issues. Courtney, Dan's girlfriend, is all fired up about what happened to Marcelo and what is happening in Chile in general, but she is also woefully naive. Semi-spoiler: There is a great scene when they all return to Chile. Courtney decides to join a women's protest and things go as wrong as humanly possible. From Dan's POV: "Courtney. I think she can't believe these [soldiers] will do anything to her--like her pale skin and blond hair are a Plexiglas bubble around her, keeping all the bad things away" (241). It's kind of the perfect way to describe her attitude throughout the entire book. End spoiler. Courtney breaks through to Marcelo when no one else can by believing whole-heartedly in what he believes in, guided by a simple sense of right and wrong and of fairness.

There is so much going on in this book along side of so much actually happening. I'm not going to lie, it's intense and not always easy to read. But it is so worth it! Not only will the reader learn about events not often discussed in American history classes, but they'll also get to know some ridiculously complex characters and watch them make impossible choices for themselves and the greater good.

I read Gringolandia as one of my PK books, but the fact that Courtney's dad's a pastor didn't even come up in my review. It's important to her character and back story, but not all that important to what is going on with her, Dan and Marcelo. The big PK moment is when Dan, her boyfriend and the person she is the most close to, says something at lunch implying that Courtney couldn't possibly know what he's going through at home. Her family and home-life are too perfect. This is followed by a one-line chapter from Courtney's perspective: "Dan doesn't know everything about me" (64). It could have been said by almost all the PKs I've read about in the last month.

Book source: Philly Free Library
Thanks to MissAttitude at Reading In Color for the recommendation!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bad Faith

Philip, Gillian. Bad Faith. Glasgow: Strident Publishing, Ltd., 2008. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Being the daughter of a One Church cleric has its perks. Cassandra and her family are above suspicion in the highly monitored religious society that England has become, if only just slightly. Unfortunately, every perk comes with a drawback. Most of the people Cassandra comes in contact with through her father's work are in the same situation, and some of them are above the law altogether. And everyone knows it.

How do you not love a book that starts like this:
Before I slipped on the mud and fell over the Bishop, our family didn't have a lot to do with murder.
A little, but not much.
When Cassandra literally stumbles onto the body of an important Bishop, her father's boss, she and her best friend Ming hide the body. They don't know who killed the Bishop, but they know someone in Cassandra's family is involved. Her family has been ruled by a complicated web of secrets that dates back to before her parents were even married. As more and more of these secrets come out into the open, Cass's world falls apart a little bit more. She has to deal with harboring her own secret about the location of the Bishop's body while she finds out all kinds of things about her parents and brother, tries to avoid a pack of school bullies with religion on their side, and deals with lingering memory and cognitive issues from being his by a car years earlier that just make everything more confusing and complicated. Oh, and she falls in love with her best friend Ming.

As if all that isn't enough for one girl to deal with, it's all happening in the middle of a theocratic dictatorship and her dad works for the church. One Church isn't like a church in the way that we think of it today; it's more an instrument of the state. There is a definite religion involved, and it seems like it is Judeo-Christian based, but I don't think it's supposed to be any religion that is recognizable today. Cass's father is practically a heretic because he still carries a cross from when he was a rector in a pre-One Church church. No one really believes in what the One Church preaches, they just all say that they do because it's illegal not to. Except Ming and his parents, and boy do they pay for it. As a consequence of their non-belief they lose a large property, Ming gets beat up at school constantly with no consequence other than being constantly suspended for "provoking" other kids, and Ming's parents are constantly being pulled in for questioning by the police. All in the name of the One Church. While some may read this as a book that is anti-religion, I think that Philip has done a wonderful job of making it a book that is anti-absolute power instead. When a large group of people above is the law while everyone else is constantly looking over their shoulder afraid of being watched or heard, things can never end well.

I didn't talk about it in my review, because it comes out late enough in the story to be a little spoilery, but sexual abuse is also present. Nothing is described in detail, but it's there, and it is perpetrated by a "celibate" religious man. This probably makes the book very controversial, but this person's status as above the law is the enabling factor in the abuse, not his perceived celibacy or religious role.

Book source: I bought it.
Bad Faith is not currently in print in the US, but it can be purchased (with free shipping, no less!) at the Book Depository.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Because of Winn-Dixie

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge! This week's book is:

DiCamillo, Kate. Because of Winn-Dixie. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2000. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

BCCB Blue Ribbon Book (2000)
New York Time Notable Books - Children's Books (2000)
Parents' Choice Awards - Fiction (2000)
School Library Journal Best Books (2000)
ALA Notable Children's Book (2001)
Josette Frank Award (2001)
Newberry Honor (2001)
SEBA Book Award - Children's (2001)
As well as a slew of state awards and a mention in 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up

My daddy is a good preacher and a nice man, but sometimes it's hard for me to think about him as my daddy, because he spends so much time preaching or thinking about preaching or getting ready to preach. And so, in my mind, I think of him as "the preacher."

Opal knows her daddy, the preacher, loves her, but she also knows his new church is the reason she's spending a lonely summer in a new town. Until the preacher sends her out for a box of mac n'cheese. When she gets to the Winn-Dixie, she finds the happiest dog she's ever seen frolicking and wreaking havoc in the produce section. To keep that happy dog from the pound, Opal gives him the only name she can think of in a hurry, Winn-Dixie, and takes him on home. With a dog who has a tendency to smile so big that it makes him sneeze, Opal has the courage to talk to people, including the preacher, and make some new friends.

Oh, Winn-Dixie. Anyone who's ever had a really friendly dog, especially a really friendly ugly mutt, will tell you that every outlandish and wonderful thing that happens in the book is totally possible. Well, maybe not, but having a good dog is great and Winn-Dixie is just who Opal needs to kick-start her new life in a new town. The preacher is too busy with his new church to be Opal's best friend until school starts in the fall, and Opal's mother is gone and has been for a while. The preacher doesn't like to talk about her or why she left. But once she has Winn-Dixie, Opal isn't alone anymore. She tries out her ideas on him, tells him what she wants, and pours out her heart to him in ways she probably couldn't with another human being, and Winn-Dixie just gives her his goofy smile and unconditional adoration in the way that good dogs will do. It gives her the courage to talk to the guy at the pet store (Winn-Dixie does need a collar), the woman at the library (who thinks Winn-Dixie is a bear at first glance), the town "witch" (whose yard Winn-Dixie runs into in search of peanut butter), and various kids from her daddy's church who are drawn to Winn-Dixie or make fun of her about him. And Winn-Dixie gives Opal the courage to talk to the preacher about her mother. When Winn-Dixie is done working his magic, Opal has a whole cadre of people who love her.

I wouldn't say that religion plays a huge role in Because of Winn-Dixie, at least not explicitly. Opal uses tenets of what her father teaches her both to her advantage and as goals to work towards. She gets to keep Winn-Dixie because he is "an unfortunate," and Christians are supposed to help the unfortunate. On the other hand, she has to be nice to pinch-faced Amanda because she not only goes to the preacher's church, but because something very sad happened to her in the past. And the preacher prays for a mouse that Winn-Dixie catches in the middle of his sermon but does not kill. :) Even though religion does not really factor into the storyline, this book is just as much about how Opal's relationship with the preacher changes as it is about a little girl and her dog. At the beginning of the book, in addition to calling her father "the preacher" in her head, Opal likens him to a turtle. He pulls his head back in his shell when things get hard to protect himself from everything, even his daughter. He's able to do that precisely because he spends so much time "preaching or thinking about preaching or getting ready to preach" (13). Throughout the course of the book, and with Winn-Dixie's help of course, the preacher learns not to shut out Opal but instead to open up to her.

Overall this is a sweet book. There's not a lot of action, but there is a lot of storytelling as Opal gets to know all of her new friends. It can be episodic at times, but it all comes together in the end.

Book source: Holy Spirit Library at Cabrini College
Thanks to Charlotte for reminding me about this book!

For folks who refuse to read dog books: This isn't Old Yeller. There are some tough moments, but nothing compared to classic "dog stories" or, you know, The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Notes on PK month

I'm going to take this opportunity to do a little housecleaning, starting with a warning:

Even if you've scheduled a bunch of posts in advance, you shouldn't just leave your blog alone for weeks at a time assuming that everything is going along as planned.

I didn't mean to leave a week and a half post-less! I also didn't mean to post almost a month's worth of PK book reviews with no explanations! So here we go, the post that I thought was scheduled for July 1st and an (almost) wrap-up all in one:

Earlier this summer, I made an epic library trip, the kind where you pick up a million holds AND a pile of stuff off the displays as well. When I got home and was organizing my loot into piles, I realized that I'd managed to pick up 3 very different books featuring PKs (Pastor or Preacher's Kids). Apparently even though actual PKs might be a very small part of the YA population, books about them aren't all that rare. Having a main character (or really important secondary character) whose family life revolves around the church can make for an easy entry into discussing religion without always moving into the realm of Christian fiction or the "problem" novel. After reading The Full Spectrum, a book of short autobiographical pieces by queer youth in which religion kept coming up as a central theme, I was interested in looking at how religion is treated in fiction written by adults for teenagers. Looking for books about PKs seemed like a good way to do that. Plus, July was coming up. My mom's birthday is in July, and she's a PK.

So July will be [has been] PK month here at lucy was robbed. I think I've managed to find a good range of books featuring PKs, including a paranormal romance and a dystopian novel as well as a slew of realistic fiction works. My reviews of these books [have and] will look more closely at the way that religion is presented in relation to the subject matter of the book as well as how the main characters' views on religion change throughout the course of the story. Religion can be such a touchy subject. By the time readers are teenagers, most of them know not to discuss it in mixed company (no politics or religion, right?), but that doesn't mean that they don't have questions about and struggles with the religion in which they've been raised or the religion they may be adopting. YA novels can be a great tool to open up discussion about religion or to just let teen readers know that they are not the only ones dealing with these issues. I know that I am looking forward to dissecting these books a little bit, and I hope you [have] enjoy[ed] looking through these books with me!

And Happy Birthday Mom! :)

Here is the list of books that I have reviewed for PK month:
Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson
The Dark Divine by Bree Despain
Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr
Simply Divine by Jacquelin Thomas
Nothing Pink by Mark Hardy
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Gringolandia by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Bad Faith by Gillian Philip

I realize that this list has all Christian protagonists (or they at least have Christian parents). I did make an effort to find books about the PK equivalent in other religions, but was unsuccessful. That doesn't mean that books like Does My Head Look Big in This by Randa Abdel-Fattah are not on-deck to be read/reviewed in the near future; they just didn't fit for PK month.

Thanks for sticking around, folks, and sorry for the week plus of silence!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Nothing Pink

Hardy, Mark. Nothing Pink. Asheville, N.C.: Front Street - Boyds Mills Press, Inc., 2008. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Rainbow List, Young Adult Fiction (2009)

Vincent has been praying, for as long as he can remember, to have the burden of homosexuality lifted from him. Every time his father leads an altar call, Vincent goes to the front of the congregation to be prayed over and have hands laid on him. It hasn't worked yet, but Vincent is not giving up. He knows God hasn't abandoned him; he can feel His presence. Vincent just needs to be patient and avoid temptation. Then Vincent meets Robert, at his father's new church of all places, and everything changes. As Vincent gives up praying for deliverance and spends more and more time with Robert and the two become more and more involved, Vincent still feels God in his life. Maybe all of these years he's been praying for the wrong thing.

Review: (kind of spoilery, but the ending is mostly what you hope it will be anyway)
Nothing Pink is a pretty straight forward coming out story. That said, it's a very well done coming out story. Vincent does a lot of struggling within himself, with the help of his strict Baptist upbringing, about his sexuality. He does everything he can to try to change himself including making out with girls, avoiding TV shows featuring guys in tight pants, and a whole lot of praying. But this is not the focus of the book. This all happens before the book starts, though it is alluded to throughout the beginning. The book actually starts on the day things start to get better, the day Vincent meets Robert. Even though Vincent still has doubts about the morality of his relationship with Robert and has to hide the extent of their relationship from his parents, this is mostly a happy book about Vincent's first love and eventual acceptance of himself.

A lot of Vincent's happiness with himself hinges on religion, or rather, God. His relationship with God factors largely into Vincent's life and the story. Vincent is moved by his father's sermons, hymns, and prayer. He acutely feels God's presence in his life. He is a devout and upstanding Christian, except for his sexuality. That's why he's so confused and hurt by God's lack of response to his prayers to be straight. As he becomes more comfortable with Robert and his relationship with him, he becomes more convinced that God is okay with it too. It's great. His parents, however, do not agree. When they figure out what's going on, they give him a talking-to that centers around this oft heard sentiment:
"We love you, Vincent...But God hates the sin of homosexuality, so we must hate it too, son."
To their credit, they never say that God hates Vincent, and they stress that they love him unconditionally, though Vincent doubts that their version of "unconditional" should count when they hate something that is so much a part of him. I did get the feeling that the mom, at least, would come around at some point after the end of the book.

During the talk with his parents and later when he is at church camp, Vincent does a lot of defending himself. In his own head. I love that he didn't have to stand up and be out and and proud right away or a spokesperson/defender of all people queer in his Baptist community. Sometimes that's all you can do, and it's great that Hardy provides this positive role model of someone who can only hold it together for himself but is still not weak. Outwardly, Vincent simply stops asking God to make him straight. Internally, he does a lot of building himself up, and that involves a lot of "God-talk." The religious over tones and general message of God loves the gays becomes a bit redundant and heavy-handed toward the end. This is definitely not a book for readers uncomfortable with Christianity. I appreciated the message, but it did kind of take over the book in a couple of places and pull me out of Vincent's story. But given how heavy-handed much of the anti-gay, religious literature can be, I had to forgive this repeated positive religious message.

Also, and this surprised me a bit, the book is set in the 70s. It's not overly obvious and so led to some confusing moments for me, such as when Vincent lists the TV shows he avoids and its clear that I should have recognized the titles. Other than that, only the feathered hair and continual Barry Manilow references tipped me off (and the title verso, which is where I got the actual decade of the setting from). And I do mean continual, with the Barry Manilow. You'll be singing Copa Cabana for days after reading this one.

Book source: Philly Free Library

Monday, July 12, 2010

Simply Divine

Thomas, Jacquelin. Simply Divine: A Novel. New York: Pocket Books - Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2006. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Divine is living the good life. Her mother is up for more than a few Grammy Awards; Jerome (her dad) is a little bit of a has-been, but people still recognize him from all of his action movies; and Divine herself is 15, popular, beautiful, and famous by association. Her biggest concerns are what to wear to events and whether she'll be allowed to attend the after parties. But living with that kind of fame and privilege has its drawbacks, such as everyone at school knowing, almost before Divine hears about it herself, that her father has been arrested for murder. As Divine's mother deals with this and a whole host of her own issues as well, she sends Divine away. Her mom says it's what's best for Divine, but how could moving, even temporarily, to a teeny town in Georgia to live with a preacher uncle and his family that she's never met be what's best? No malls, no friends, no Mom. Divine knows she's being punished, but for what? Her parents are the ones who were caught doing wrong.

Divine starts out as such a spoiled brat! All of the finery and ease that (her mother's) money has bought is simply owed to her. She can't imagine life without a personal assistant, bodyguard, and chef, mostly because she's never had to but also because she deserves to have people do for her. Not that she's actually done anything to earn the money that pays those people or done anything to justify the fame she enjoys. Her mom has. It made me hate her a little in the beginning. She's just so entitled and that bugs me. Luckily, for me at least, once Divine gets to Georgia her cousin Alyssa has absolutely no problem calling Divine out for her snobbery, general bitchiness, and trading in on her mother's name. And good for her! Alyssa, that is. She does her best to make Divine comfortable, the whole family does, but Divine is determined to be miserable in Georgia and drag everyone else down with her. Eventually, though, she starts to settle into life with her aunt, uncle, and cousins and generally becomes a much more likable person and character. And, really, she wasn't sooo bad in the beginning that I couldn't get into the book, and it was pretty obvious (in the way teenagers can be, not in a bad writing way) that a lot of her snobbery was to cover up insecurities about herself. But she still drove me a little bit nuts before she started chilling out.

One of the many things Divine has to get used to at her aunt and uncle's house is going to church. Though her daddy was also a preacher, Divine's mom does not have anything to do with the church now. Divine never has; that's just not the way she was raised. Her Uncle Reed's family attends the church he preaches in every Sunday. At first, waking up early on Sunday and sitting through a sermon causes problems for Divine; the girl is really not a morning person. As she starts to listen more often to what Uncle Reed is preaching, her problems change to focus on the act of forgiveness. How can she possibly forgive her father for what he's done to her and her mother? And why should she have to? Divine's internal struggle with forgiveness and her feelings about her father in general continue throughout the book. Her resentment about going to church does not, and she eventually becomes a Christian.

Religion is never forced on her by her family, nor is it really central to most of the book. However it is often present, particularly in the way that Uncle Reed and Aunt Phoebe raise and treat their children, including Divine. Especially with regards to Divine and Alyssa and boys. Both girls have boyfriends, but they are little more than names on a page. Given how little time they're allowed to spend with their boyfriends, this is not surprising. I expect that they, and the girls' relationships with them, will play a bigger role in the next book in the series, Divine Confidential, as the girls finally become old enough to be allowed to actually date.

But I have no doubt that the second book will be just as clean as this one. Even though it is a book with an extra-marital affair, drugs, sneaking around to meet up with boys, and even a murder, it definitely qualifies as a "clean read." I don't even remember any swearing. Yet it still manages to feel a bit edgy, probably because Divine's parents are kind of screw ups. With the help of her uncle, aunt, cousins, and God, Divine manages to move beyond her parents mistakes to star in a series that promises to be uplifting and cute while still tackling serious issues.

Book source: Philly Free Library
Thanks to MissAttitude at Reading in Color for the recommendation!

Simply Divine is only the first book in The Divine Series. The rest, so far, are as follows:
Book 2: Divine Confidential
Book 3: Divine Secrets
Book 4: Divine Match-Up
and the companion book: It's a Curl Thing, a Divine & Friends book

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Once Was Lost

Zarr, Sara. Once Was Lost. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2010)

  • Jody Shaw: Missing, presumed kidnapped. Focus of a community-wide search
  • Mom: Also missing, but in a different way. In rehab. Focus of no search but her own. And maybe mine.
  • Nick, Jody's big brother: Sweet, worried, disturbingly attractive, and suspect in his sister's kidnapping.
  • Dad, AKA Pastor Charlie: Comforting the Shaws. Comforting the community. Forgetting about Mom. Practically ignoring me.
  • Erin, youth group leader: Helping head up the search for Jody. Really wants to "be my friend" and spend time with Dad.
  • Vanessa, my BFF: Getting a little fed up with my mood and my secrets.
  • Me, Sam: Lost--not missing--in my family, in my town, in my faith. No one's looking for me, not even God.
Poor Sam. She needed a hug throughout almost this entire book, and not the one-armed youth leader kind. She sufferes from knowing a lot of people but being close to very few. She's also dealing with the absence of her mother, and her mother's long-time alcohol abuse, all alone. Her dad doesn't want to talk about the situation, or at least he doesn't want to talk about it with Sam, and Sam can't talk to anyone else about it either, not even her best friend Vanessa, without hurting her father's reputation. They just keep telling people her mom is "sick" and not letting anyone in the house. Luckily for Pastor Charlie's image, no one wants to come over anyway since it's August and their air conditioner is broken. When Jody is kidnapped, Sam is clearly upset (she's mad at life, not heartless), but it does give her something besides her mother and crumbling family to focus all of her energy/super-power-strength-worrying-skills on.

It's when the youth group is all gathered praying for Jody's safe return that Sam realizes that she doesn't know anymore if anyone's listening. How could a just and loving God let Jody be kidnapped? How could He let Sam flounder through her life feeling so abandoned and alone? Sam struggles through this by herself as well. A daughter who may have lost her faith could be more damaging to Pastor Charlie's reputation than a wife in rehab. But Sam's doubt isn't a rejection of God. She desperately wants to feel the closeness and comfort that her youth group friends feel, especially when she has such a lack of both in her day-to-day life. She just can't muster it, and so she feels isolated and wrong. Though Sam's situation would undoubtably be helped by talking to her church friends or youth leader, the fact that she doesn't feel she can go to them is ultimately realistic. Even if she had sought guidance, this is something so personal that she has to deal with it alone.

And she does, with the search for Jody, a budding relationship with Nick, fights with Vanessa, and unreturned voicemails left for her mother all buzzing in the background.

Though it is a heavy read, I highly recommend Once Was Lost, especially for regular youth group attendees.

Book source: Philly Free Library

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Dark Divine

Despain, Bree. The Dark Divine. New York: Egmont USA, 2010. Print. Dark Divine 1.
[Book cover credit:]

This is the epitome of the girl with a big brother experience: your best friend has a crush on your brother, you have a crush on your brother's best friend, and your brother and his bestie have no idea that you or your bestie exist. At least not in that way. Grace's situation is slightly more complicated. Her best friend, April, has a crush on her brother, Jude. Jude, not having a mean bone in his body, knows April exists and makes sure she and Grace get to hang out with him and the other seniors at least some of the time. Other than that, Grace is left completely out of the equation. Then Daniel comes back. Daniel, Jude's ex-best friend. Daniel, the guy Grace has been in love with since she was a little kid. Daniel, the only guy Jude wants no where near his little sister. The only person Jude can't forgive. The only person Jude has ever called a monster.

I was skeptical about The Dark Divine at first glance. It is a story featuring Grace Divine and her siblings Jude, Charity and James, Pastor's kids all. It seemed like a bit of overkill. And it's a paranormal romance. And when it first came out it inspired nail polish giveaways all over the blogosphere. But it's not cheesy, and it's not overkill. For a book about PKs there is surprisingly little to no religious overtone. Don't get me wrong, religion, the physical location of the church, and Christian mythology are all very important to the story. I really want to tell you why, but the best part about reading this story, for me, was not knowing anything about it, really, in advance. Just trust that Despain does not throw a ton of stuff at you without context. Everything that needs to be explained is, without an obtrusive info dump in sight.

On the surface, Grace is trying to figure out the cause of, and therefore mend, the riff between Daniel and Jude. Whatever happened between them caused Daniel to disappear for years and caused the whole Divine family to pretend he never existed. When he suddenly returns, Grace is drawn to him, and not in the magical "We have a future destiny/past connection with each other" kind of way, but in the "We grew up together and I've had a crush on your since time immemorial and now you're back and broody and angsty and muscle-y" kind of way. I love this about their relationship. The scenes that we've all come to know and love (maybe) in paranormal romances are there. Daniel and Grace have plenty of tense conversations where he tries to convince her that he is too dangerous for her, but these scenes are tempered with flashbacks to their childhood together and the kind of flirty banter girls the world over share with their brothers' friends.

But for all their normalcy, Jude cannot stand Grace around Daniel, and Grace can't resist him. She promises Jude she won't have anything to do with him, and then invites him over for Thanksgiving dinner. The worst part is that if it wouldn't make them total corndogs, Grace's best friend wouldn't be April; her best friend would be Jude. They are so close and Grace knows that she's hurting him by talking to Daniel. Forget the fact that she's falling in love with him. And she doesn't want to hurt Jude. What Grace does not know is what this hurt is really doing to Jude and, in turn, to Daniel. This is where they real story is, and this is what I've probably already hinted at too much. The outcome will not be what you expect.

Book source: Philly Free Library

ETA: The sequel, The Lost Saint, will be released in December!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Saving Maddie

Johnson, Varian. Saving Maddie. New York: Delacorte Press - Random House Children's Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Joshua sits in the choir while his dad preaches behind the pulpit. Just another Sunday until all the other guys start whispering and looking at the congregation instead of Pastor Wynn. They're looking at a woman in a really low-cut dress, too revealing for church. They don't point her out to Joshua; he's the preacher's son and wouldn't be interested. But he is, of course, and when he finally looks, he sees her. Maddie. She was his best friend a million years ago, when they were both kids and her father was the Assistant Pastor. Before her father took a lead pastor position out of town making their lives jump to different tracks. Because while Joshua is "too good" to do anything fun with the guys because he's a preacher's kid, Maddie, also a PK, isn't.

My mom always said that there are two kinds of PKs: those who follow the rules, act as a good example, and reflect well on their father [or mother], and those who rebel and do everything in their power to distance themselves from the ministry and the church. It was always made clear to me that my mother was the first kind of PK when she was young. The PK who helped me dye my hair black my freshman year of high school, on the other hand... That is neither here nor there, but I bring it up because Saving Maddie is all about the relationship between two PKs, Joshua and Maddie, who embody my mom's types perfectly.

Joshua Wynn has grown up being an example for other kids: The Wynn Boy. He doesn't seem to mind too much, except that he had to give up on his school's basketball team to lead the youth group and that everyone his age thinks he's some kind of prude. But even these things don't dampen his spirits, and he works very hard to keep his reputation. He has to; he's "Joshua Wynn, the preacher's son. ... a shining example of what [is] good and righteous and wholesome in the world" (28). More like some kind of super-hero than a real person, don't you think? It's not until Maddie comes back into his life that Joshua starts to object to the perceptions that other people have of him and the pressure that he is under, from his parents and the community, to do and be good. And no, he never liked that he gets left out of things because he's such a goodie-two-shoes, that he's the guy other kids hide their beer from at parties, but until Maddie comes along, it's as though he didn't know he could be any different. She opens up a world for him where he is not an extension of his father and his father's work.

Now, I've never been a PK, but I was raised by one, and I was definitely a goodie-two-shoes in high school who had more friends at youth group than at school. I think that Johnson has absolutely nailed that experience, or at least mirrored mine. The feelings and internal conflicts that Joshua goes through felt so authentic. His struggle to reconcile what he wants to do with what he's supposed to do with what everyone else is doing was ongoing. The lectures from his parents ("I'm not mad, I'm disappointed." -- the worst!) and the advice from his friends to just go for it (the BIG it, no less), were so familiar. And then there's Maddie, who seems so much more grown-up, experienced, and figured out than Joshua. Of course he falls for her! There is definitely attraction involved, but Joshua also gets one of those I-want-to-be-you crushes on her.

Saving Maddie is told from Joshua's perspective, so we don't get to see the inner workings of Maddie's head. Through her talks with Joshua, however, she becomes a fully realized and complex character. Something that makes up a large part of Maddie, and everyone else's problem with her, is that she is no longer religious. BUT she still has her faith. This disconnect between faith and religion is something that a lot of teens struggle with, not just PKs. Without going into great detail or getting bogged down in theology, Johnson makes Maddie an example of what it can mean to believe in God without participating in a specific religious tradition. She still considers herself spiritual and a Christian, but she doesn't go to church. Joshua sees her spirituality acted out in her life, rather than her Sunday attendance. It's a less obvious way of teaching-by-example than the kind of life he has been living, and while he may not change to be non-religious like Maddie, he definitely learns from her. Seeing how she acts out her faith in what she does rather than what she doesn't do gives him more choices for how he can show his. And he finally does that by sticking up for Maddie.

Because when Mom and Dad and everyone else saw Madeline, all they saw was the girl with the bad attitude and sexy body who didn't care about her faith or her family or even herself. The girl who threatened to sway me from the path of the righteous.

But when I saw Madeline, I saw a girl who prayed before every meal. A girl whose eyes shone with sadness every time her father was mentioned. A girl who desperately needed someone to tell her she was good.
While there is clearly more to Maddie than her lack of religion rather than her lack of faith, this is what stuck with me while reading. I think it will resonate with many other readers as well.

I could go on and on about Saving Maddie; there are at least half a dozen more quotes left in my notes. Johnson has done something wonderful here. He's managed to capture the PK experience, and the growing-up-at-church experience, so well! And he's managed to do it in a way that, I think, will be attractive and relevant to readers who've grown up without these experiences as well.

Book source: Philly Free Library