The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – SALT TO THE SEA

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the first discussion of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club of this year! We’ll have one each quarter and instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’ll be reading a book for the first time right along with you.

This first book is from an author with the most generous spirit and all the talent to make a reader lose themselves in any world she creates. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I read her debut novel BETWEEN SHADES OF GREY. I was lucky enough to hear her speak in person about her experience researching and then writing this story. It was gut-wrenching. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. She put all of that into her story, and let me tell you. It’s a book well worth reading.

So is her latest book. I won an advanced copy on Goodreads, which was awesome – free books, yay! (If you had my book habit you’d totally understand.) Even so, I would’ve bought this book myself if I hadn’t won it.

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

 

SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

Published by: Philomel

Release Date: February 2, 2016

Genres: YA, Historical Fiction

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Plot Summary:

In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
A tribute to the people of Lithuania, Poland, and East Prussia, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Ruta Sepetys here.

Follow Ruta on Twitter here.

Follow Ruta on Facebook here.

This is such a fascinating tale that grips you right from the opening pages. Sepetys has a way of finding different angles to shed light on familiar periods of history in enlightening and intriguing ways.

Here’s a look at the first chapter:

joana

      Guilt is a hunter.

My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant

child.

It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.

      I quickened my pace and caught up with our small group. The Germans would march us off the field road if they found us. Roads were reserved for the military. Evacuation orders hadn’t been issued and anyone fleeing East Prussia was branded a deserter. But what did that matter? I became a deserter four years ago, when I fled from Lithuania.

      Lithuania.

      I had left in 1941. What was happening at home? Were the dreadful things whispered in the streets true?

      We approached a mound on the side of the road. The small boy in front of me whimpered and pointed. He had joined us two days prior, just wandered out of the forest alone and quietly began following us.

     “Hello, little one. How old are you?” I had asked.

      “Six,” he replied.

      “Who are you traveling with?”

      He paused and dropped his head. “My Omi.”

      I turned toward the woods to see if his grandmother had emerged. “Where is your Omi now?” I asked.

      The wandering boy looked up at me, his pale eyes wide. “She didn’t wake up.”

      So the little boy traveled with us, often drifting just slightly ahead or behind. And now he stood, pointing to a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow.

      I waved the group onward and when everyone advanced I ran to the snow-covered heap. The wind lifted a layer of icy flakes revealing the dead blue face of a woman, probably in her twenties. Her mouth and eyes were hinged open, fixed in fear. I dug through her iced pockets, but they had already been picked. In the lining of her jacket I found her identification papers. I stuffed them in my coat to pass on to the Red Cross and dragged her body off the road and into the field. She was dead, frozen solid, but the thought of tanks rolling over her was more than I could bear.

      I ran back to the road and our group. The wandering boy stood in the center of the path, snow falling all around him.

      “She didn’t wake up either?” he asked quietly.

      I shook my head and took his mittened hand in mine.

      And then we both heard it in the distance.

      Bang.

Don’t you just love the imagery of “a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow”? There are so many different ways she describes the winter weather, you feel it as you’re walking through the scene with the characters.

With this well-crafted story which not only creates vivid scenes that immerse you right into the bitter cold of Eastern Prussia in 1945, but shows you this world through the lives of four fascinating and complex characters, we not only get caught up in their struggles, but in the mystery that slowly draws them all together.

The Discussion:

The book is told from four points of view, each character with a different reason for fleeing from something. Three of them are crossing the open, dodging the Germans from one direction and the Soviets from another, trying to find safe passage out of the country on a ship, one doomed for tragedy. One is already on the ship, trying to avoid doing much of anything – hiding in plain sight.

Here’s the scene when the three crossing all come together for the first time:

florian

     Others had beaten us there. A teetering collection of weathered horse carts was tucked beyond the brush, a sober portrait of the trek toward freedom. I would have preferred an abandoned site, but knew I couldn’t continue. The Polish girl pulled at my sleeve.

     She stopped in the snow, staring at the possessions outside the barn, evaluating the contents and whom they might belong to. There was no evidence of military.

     “I think okay,” she said. We walked inside.

     A group of fifteen or twenty people sat huddled around a small fire. Their faces turned as I slipped in and stood near the door. Mothers, children, and elderly. All exhausted and broken. The Polish girl went straight to a vacant corner and sat down, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest. A young woman walked over to me.

     “Are you injured? I have medical training.”

     Her German was fluent, but not native. I didn’t answer. I didn’t need to speak to anyone.

     “Do you have any food to share?” she asked.

     What I had was no one’s business.

     “Does she have any food?” she asked, pointing to the Polish girl rocking in the corner. “Her eyes look a bit wild.”

     I spoke without looking at her. “She was in the forest. A Russian cornered her. She followed me here. She has a couple of potatoes. Now, leave me alone,” I said.

     The young woman winced at the mention of the Russian. She left my side and headed quickly toward the girl.

     I found a solitary spot away from the group and sat down. I lodged my pack against the barn wall and carefully reclined on it. It would be warmer if I sat near the fire with the others but I couldn’t risk it. No conversations.

     I ate a small piece of the sausage from the dead Russian and watched the young woman as she tried to speak with the girl from the forest. Others called out to her for help. She must have been a nurse. She looked a few years older than me. Pretty. Naturally pretty, the type that’s still attractive, even more so, when she’s filthy. Everyone in the barn was filthy. The stench of exertion, failed bladders, and most of all fear, stunk worse than any livestock. The nurse girl would have turned my head back in Königsberg.

     I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to look at the pretty girl. I needed to be able to kill her, kill them all, if I had to. My body begged for sleep but my mind warned me not to trust these people. I felt a nudge at my feet and opened my eyes.

     “You didn’t mention she was Polish,” said the nurse. “And the Russian?” she asked.

     “He’s taken care of,” I told her. “I need to sleep.”

     She knelt down beside me. I could barely hear her.

     “What you need is to show me that wound you’re trying to hide.”

Once they all come together on the ill-fated ship, you know their troubles are far from over. Intense and fast-paced, Septeys keeps you turning the pages to the end to find out what each of these characters is hiding and how they will survive, if they will survive. I loved the unique take on such an important period of history, brought to life in a brilliant way. I hope you enjoyed reading it, too.

So…what’s next?

 Next Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

Published by: Scholastic

Release Date: April 28, 2015

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

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Plot Summary:

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. HELEN OF TROY AND PARIS. ROMEO AND JULIET. AND NOW . . . HENRY AND FLORA.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.

Follow Martha on Twitter here.

Follow Martha on Facebook here.

Follow Martha on Tumblr here.

 

I met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at the SCBWI LA conference last summer and have been looking forward to reading this book ever since. I can’t wait to discuss it with you all next time!

We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs in early summer. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)

Happy reading!

The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – BEAUTY QUEENS

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the fourth discussion of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club!

Returning to this right now is just what my creative spirit needs. Let’s talk books! And what better book than this one, the uplifting tale of beauty queens surviving on a deserted island, left to fend for themselves and discover what they’re really made of.

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

 

beauty queensBEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray

Published by: Scholastic Press

Release Date: May 24, 2011

Genres: YA, Contemporary, LGBT

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Plot Summary:

Teen beauty queens. A desert island. Mysteries and dangers. No access to e-mail. And the spirit of fierce, feral competition that lives underground in girls, a savage brutality that can only be revealed by a journey into the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Oh, the horror, the horror! Only funnier. With evening gowns. And a body count. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Libba Bray here.

Follow Libba on Twitter here.

Follow Libba on Tumblr here.

Follow Libba on Facebook here.

I love the voice of this book! Libba Bray is hilarious and so talented at taking the absurd and making it funny while at the same time forcing us to look at an issue closer, with discernment.

Let’s peek at the opening and first chapter:

(It starts with a disclaimer, er, a word from your sponsor):

     This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this. According to the U.S. Department of Unnecessary Statistics, your chances of dying in a plane crash are one in half a million. Whereas your chances of losing your bathing suit bottoms to a strong tide are two to one. So, all in all, it’s safer to fly than to go to the beach. As we said, this book begins with a plane crash. But there are survivors. You see? Already it’s a happy tale. They are all beauty queen contestants. You do not need to know their names here. But you will get to know them. They are all such nice girls. Yes, they are nice, happy, shining, patriotic girls who happen to have interests in baton twirling, sign language, AIDS prevention in the animal population, the ancient preparation of popadam, feminine firearms, interpretive dance, and sequins. Such a happy story. And shiny, too.

     This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading. If you should happen to notice anything suspicious in the coming pages, do alert the proper authorities. Remember, it could be anything at all – a subversive phrase, an improper thought or feeling let out of its genie bottle of repression, an idea that challenges the status quo, the suggestion that life may not be what it appears to be and that all you’ve taken for granted (malls, shopping, the relentless pursuit of an elusive happiness, prescription drug ads, those annoying perfume samples in magazines that make your eyes water, the way anchorman and women shift easily from the jovial laughter of a story about a dog that hula-hoops to a grave report on a bus crash that has left five teenagers dead) may be no more consequential than the tattered hem of a dream, leaving you with a bottomless, free-fall feeling.

     This is the sort of thing we are warning you about.

     But let’s not worry, shall we? There’s nothing to worry about. Though there is the threat of a war, it happens in the background, in snippets on the nightly news between ads for sinus medicines. It’s none of our concern. This is a happy story…

Chapter One

 “Are you all right?”

The voice was tinny in Adina’s ears. Her head ached, and she was wet. She remembered the plane pitching and falling, the smoke and screams, the panic, and then nothing.

“Am I dead?” she asked the face looming over hers. The face had apple cheeks and was framed by a halo of glossy black curls.

“No.”

“Are you dead?” Adina asked warily.

The face above her shook from side to side, and then burst into tears. Adina relaxed, reasoning that she had to be alive, unless the afterlife was a lot more bipolar than she’d been led to believe. She pulled herself to a sitting position and waited for the wooziness to subside. A gash on her knee was caked in dried blood. Another on her arm still seeped. Her dress was ripped and slightly scorched and she wore only one shoe. It was one half of her best pair, and in her state of shock, finding the other became important. “Can you help me find my shoe?”

“Sure. I saw some in the water. I hope they’re not leather,” the other girl said in an accent flat as a just-plowed field. She had huge, blue, anime-worthy eyes. “I’m Miss Nebraska, Mary Lou Novak.”

“Adina Greenburg. Miss New Hampshire.” Adina cupped her hands over her eyes, looking out toward the sea. “I don’t see it.”

“That’s a shame. It’s a real nice shoe.”

“Roland Me’sognie,” Adina said, and she honestly couldn’t figure out why. She didn’t care about the stupid brand. That was her mother’s influence. Shock. It had to be the shock.

“If I can find my suitcase, I’ve got an extra pair of sneakers in there. I’m a size eight.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I like to be helpful. It’s sort of a Nebraska thing. My pageant sponsor says I’ve got a real good chance at Miss Congeniality this year.”

“Miss Congeniality represents the true heart of the pageant,” Adina found herself repeating from the Miss Teen Dream manual. She vaguely remembered that she used to make a gagging motion at that, but she was too dazed for snarkiness just now. Dazed because, yes, when she’d been looking for her shoe, she’d seen dead bodies in the water. Lifeless bodies.

This may appear to be your average story about a bunch of  beauty queens whose plane crashes leaving the survivors stranded on a deserted island with no plug-ins in sight, but as with all of Bray’s books, there is so much more depth and discovery underneath it all. A commentary on girl culture at its very core and a must-read for every young woman (and every young man! Insight is always wise to pursue. Besides, the male perspective is explored).

The Discussion:

The book is told from several points of view, each of the beauty queens gets to tell their tale, along with some interspersed commentary from The Corporation. When a new POV is introduced, we first get to review the character’s Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page. It’s fascinating to watch how each young woman’s view of herself changes – or the way she thought she should present herself to the world changes – as the experience on the island changes each of them.

Take this example:

Name: Adina Greenburg

State: New Hampshire

Age: 17

Height: I resent this question

Weight: I really resent this question.

Hair: Brown. Obviously.

Eyes: Also brown. Also obviously.

Best Feature: My intellect

Fun Facts About Me:

*I hate high heels. Walking in high heels for eight hours a day should be forbidden by the Geneva Convention.

*I am applying to Brown, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia.

*I was voted Most Likely to Figure Out Who Really Killed JFK.

* My mom is married to Alan, aka, Stepfather #5. He is a complete tool. No, you have no idea.

* My favorite Corporation TV show is the news. If you can call it that.

*My platform is Identifying Misogyny in American Culture. It’s all about helping girls ID the objectification of women when they see it. You know, like when girls are asked to parade around in bathing suits and heels and get scored on that.

*The thing that scares me most is falling in love with some jerkwad and ending up without an identity at all, just like my mom.

*I intend to bring this pageant down.

*You will never see this.

Adina only entered the contest to bring it down, so when she finds herself stranded on the island with her fellow contestants, she’s living in a nightmare scenario. She is such a hardcore, girl-power feminist in the beginning, yet as she gets to know the other girls beyond their platforms, she comes to embrace her softer side, and realizes that this doesn’t make you weak.

What’s also fascinating is watching how the young women use their pageant talents to help them survive. Of course, in the beginning some of them still have their sights set on winning the contest…

“For as long as we’re here, we need to survive. You know, build some shelter, find reliable food and drinking water. We need to organize.”

Taylor’s hand shot up, “Taylor Rene Hawkins of the great state of Texas! Permission to speak!”

“What fresh hell is this?” Adina muttered. “Granted.”

Taylor took back the baton. “Miss New Hampshire is right.”

“You’re agreeing with me?” Adina blurted out. “What are the other signs of the apocalypse?”

“You’re out of order, Miss New Hampshire. I’ll issue a warning. Next time it’s a penalty.” Taylor stood and paced with the baton cradled in her arms like a winner’s bouquet. “You know what I’m thinkin’,  Miss Teen Dreamers?”

“What?” Mary Lou asked.

“That was rhetorical, Miss Nebraska. I’m thinkin’ that when we do finally get rescued, we want them to find us at our best. And what could be better and more in line with the Miss Teen Dream mission statement than having them find that we have tamed and beautified this island? It’s like extra credit. And you know how the judges love extra credit.”

The island soon shows itself to be hostile and not so easily tamed. The young women who’ve broken up into two groups – the Lost Girls and the Sparkle Ponies (no, YOU’RE seeing parallels to LORD OF THE FLIES) – fight for survival harder than ever, even holding contests for best personal arsenal design.

After a long day of working hard on their creative survival skills, the young women open up around the campfire.

Miss Montana stared into the fire. “Sometimes I just want to go in a room and break things and scream. Like, it’s so much pressure all the time and if you get upset or angry, people say, ‘Are you on the rag or something?’ And it’s like I want to say, ‘No, I’m pissed off right now. Can’t I just be pissed off? How come that’s not okay for me?’ Like my dad will say, ‘I can’t talk to you when you’re hysterical.’ And I’m totally not being hysterical! I’m just mad. And he’s the one losing it. But then I feel embarrassed anyway. So I slap on that smile and pretend everything’s okay even though it’s not. Anyway.” Miss Montana pasted on an embarrassed half smile. “Sorry for the rant.”

“Why do you have to be sorry?” Nicole asked.

“Well…I don’t know.”

“Why do girls always feel like they have to apologize for giving an opinion or taking up space in the world? Have you ever noticed that?” Nicole asked. “You go on websites and some girl leaves a post and if it’s longer than three sentences or she’s expressing her thoughts about some topic, she usually ends with, “Sorry for the rant’ or ‘That may be dumb, but that’s what I think.'”

“I say sorry all the time. The other day, this lady bumped into me with her grocery cart, and I said I was sorry,” Mary Lou said, shaking her head.

Shanti raised her hand. “I move we officially ban the word sorry from our vocabularies while we’re here.”

“I second that, if that’s okay,” Petra said, grinning. “If not, sorry.”

“I third it. Sorry.”

“I just scratched my nose. Sorry.”

“I just scratched my ass. Sorry.

“I’m getting up to stretch my legs. Sorry.

“Sometimes I just want to burn down all the rules and start over,” Mary Lou said. Everyone waited for the punch line of “sorry,” but it never came.

The young women continue thrive while learning how to survive. They discover they are stronger than they thought.

The girls had lost track of how long they had been on the island. During the daylight hours, they dove into the surf with abandon, emerging tanned and sure-footed, as if they were selkies who had let their timidity float out on the tide like a false skin. Only Taylor remained vigilant in her pageant work, getting up every morning, rain or shine, to go through the paces of her routine, from first entrance to talent to final interview.

“When we get rescued, I guess I’m the only one who’ll be in fighting form,” she’d say while circle-turning and practicing a stiff wave.

“I’ve been thinking about the boys who crashed on the island,” Mary Lou said to Adina one afternoon as they rested on their elbows taking bites from the same papaya.

Lord of the Flies. What about it?”

“You know how you said it wasn’t a true measure of humanity because there were no girls and you wondered how it would be different if  there had been girls?”

“Yeah?”

Mary Lou wiped fruit juice from her mouth with the back of her hand. “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”

Adina gazed out at the expanse of unknowable ocean. “Maybe.”

There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. All those rules and shalt nots. They were no longer waiting for some arbitrary grade. They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping.

They were becoming.

They were.

The girls are thrown a curveball when a boatful of reality TV teenaged pirates show up and test their newfound girl power. If you thought it was interesting before the guys showed up, whew! You ain’t seen nothing!

Such an entertaining way to delve into the complex issue of gender roles and society influences. This book really makes you think. And I love a book that makes me think. I looooove Libba Bray. Once you read any of her books, I’m sure you will, too.

So…what’s next?

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

saveyou_bgI WILL SAVE YOU by Matt de la Peña

Published by: Delacorte Press

Release Date: October 12, 2010

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

 

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Plot Summary:

Kidd is running from his past and his future. No mom, no dad, and there’s nothing for him at the group home but therapy. He doesn’t belong at the beach where he works either, unless he finds a reason to stay.

Olivia is blond hair, blue eyes, rich dad. The prettiest girl in Cardiff. She’s hiding something from Kidd—but could they ever be together anyway?

Devon is mean, mysterious, and driven by a death wish. A best friend and worst enemy. He followed Kidd all the way to the beach and he’s not leaving until he teaches him a few lessons about life. And Olivia. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Matt de la Peña here.

Follow Matt on Twitter here.

Follow Matt on Facebook here.

This book wrecked me and, yet I’m coming back for seconds. If you’ve never read a book from this author, he’s one to get to know. Not only is he a fantastic guy in person, he does fantastic things for his readers. He’s not only heavily involved in the We Need Diverse Books project, his first picture book LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET won the 2016 Newbery Medal. Trust me, this is one author to follow.

As the end of the year will be pretty busy for me, I suggest this one as reading on your own. We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs next year with a new theme and fantastic new books. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)

Happy reading!

The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the third discussion of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club!

This third installment is taking full advantage of the title “relaxed & groovy” as April was just too hectic for me to manage everything, what with the amazing SCBWI spring conference and then the nonprofit I work for hosted its annual Walk for Autism the very next week, I was worn out by the end of the month. I took most of May to regroup and refocus. So I let this go. It’s important to know your limits, I say. Now, I have all the time in the world to talk about this latest fabulous book!

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

 

aristotle-and-dante-discover-the-secrets-of-the-9781442408937ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Published by: Simon & Schuster

Release Date: February 21, 2012

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, LGBT

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Plot Summary:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.(Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Benjamin Alire Saenz here and here.

Follow Benjamin on Twitter here.

The way Sáenz paints with language gets me every time. He uses evocative language so well to hit right to the heart of the emotional moment of every scene. And his characters Ari and Dante are just the greatest. I loved this book even more the second time around.

Let’s peek at the opening:

     One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke. In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was the same. I threw off the sheets and lay there as the heat poured in though my open window.

     My hand reached for the dial on the radio. “Alone” was playing. Crap, “Alone” a song by a band called Heart. Not my favorite song. Not my favorite group. Not my favorite topic. “You don’t know how long…”

     I was fifteen.

     I was bored.

     I was miserable.

     As far as I was concerned, the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky. Then the sky could be as miserable as I was.

     The DJ was saying annoying, obvious things like, “It’s summer! It’s hot out there!” And then he put on that retro Lone Ranger tune, something he liked to play every morning because he thought it was a hip way to wake up the world. “Hi-yo, Silver!” Who hired this guy? He was killing me. I think that as we listened to the William Tell Overture, we were supposed to be imagining the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding their horses through the desert. Maybe someone should have told the guy that we weren’t ten-year-olds anymore. “Hi-yo Silver!” Crap. The DJ’s voice was on the airwaves again. “Wake up, El Paso! It’s Monday, June fifteenth, 1987! 1987! Can you believe it? And a big ‘Happy Birthday’ goes out to Waylon Jennings, who’s fifty years old today!” Waylon Jennings? This was a rock station, dammit! But then he said something that hinted at the fact that he might have a brain. He told the story about how Waylon Jennings had survived the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. On that note, he put on the remake of “La Bamba” by Los Lobos.

     “La Bamba.” I could cope with that.

     I tapped my bare feet on the wood floor. As I nodded my head to the beat, I started wondering what had gone through Richie Valens’s head before the plane crashed into the unforgiving ground. Hey, Buddy! The music’s over.

     For the music to be over so soon. For the music to be over when it had just begun. That was really sad.

This novel is beyond fantastic. You know who Ari is right from the start. You feel for him and wish his day were going better.

The Discussion:

The simple summary above doesn’t begin to do this story and this beautiful, complicated relationship justice. Aristotle, or Ari as he prefers to be called, isn’t just another angsty teen with anger management problems. He lives in a house filled with silences. His dad came back damaged after returning from Vietnam without the words to talk about it. Ari, for his part, wants nothing more than to hear from his dad. His older brother went to prison when Ari was very young and even his pictures have been banished from the walls. The silence of his absence is deafening. Ari is a big thinker. He’s always wondering about how the world works and why things are the way they are. Like in this passage:

I wondered about the science of storms and how sometimes it seemed that a storm wanted to break the world and how the world refused to break.

Dante has completely different problems. For one thing, he’s not Mexican enough. Compared to Ari, who is just the right combination, Dante thinks he’s too light-skinned and too into art and reading and doesn’t really like anything that “real” Mexicans like. Except for menudo, which Ari says makes him a real Mexican. He also gets along with his parents too well. And he’s afraid of disappointing them (they way he’s disappointed Ari) because he likes boys. Dante over-shares his feelings, where Ari keeps his hidden, even from himself.

Dante talks about everything.

Until Dante, being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural. Not it my world, they weren’t.

I went home and looked up the word ‘inscrutable.’ It meant something that could not easily be understood. I wrote down all the synonyms in my journal. ‘Obscure.’ ‘Unfathomable.’ ‘Enigmatic.’ ‘Mysterious.’

That afternoon, I learned two new words. ‘Inscrutable.’ And ‘friend.’

Words were different when they lived inside of you.

 

Ari struggles with sharing his thoughts. When he gets sick with the flu and Dante visits him, they end up talking about Ari’s brother. Afterwards, Ari feels like he’s betrayed his family and pushes Dante away. He then starts writing everything in a journal.

 

-I have always felt terrible inside. The reasons for this keep changing.

-I told my father I always had bad dreams. And that was true. I’d never told anyone that before. Not even myself. I only knew it was true when I said it.

-I hated my mom for a minute or two because she told me I didn’t have any friends.

-I want to know about my brother. If I knew more about him, would I hate him?

-My father held me in his arms when I had a fever and I wanted him to hold me in his arms forever.

-The problem is not that I don’t love my mother and father. The problem is that I don’t know how to love them.

-Dante is the first friend I’ve ever had. That scares me.

-I think that if Dante really knew me, he wouldn’t like me.

 

That is something I could connect with – a fear I had when I was young (and maybe not so young) – and I knew how lonely Ari felt. And why he pushed Dante away.

Another defining moment in the story is when Ari and Dante witness some boys shooting a BB gun and they kill a bird. Dante confronts them in anger and Ari chases them away before they can hurt Dante. They both come away from the confrontation with new insights about each other.

 

After the boys sit in silence, Ari asks, “Why do birds exist, anyway?”

He looked at me. “You don’t know?”

“I guess I don’t.”

“Birds exist to teach us things about the sky.”

 

Dante cries over the dead bird and asks Ari to help him bury it.

 

I was harder than Dante. I think I’d tried to hide that hardness from him because I’d wanted him to like me. But now he knew. that I was hard. And maybe that was okay. Maybe he could like the fact that I was hard just as I liked the fact that he wasn’t hard.

 

Later, Ari saves Dante’s life when he stops in the road to rescue a wounded bird after a storm and a car swerves around the corner. Ari is hit in Dante’s place. This changes and deepens their relationship in surprising ways.

Dante wants Ari to forgive him. He says he done with birds. Everyone thinks of Ari as a hero. Ari tells Dante there’s nothing to forgive and he acted on reflex – he didn’t even think about it, he just did it. No one should treat him like a hero. Whenever they, Ari gets angry.

One morning, Dante decides he’ll be the one to give Ari his sponge bath.

 

Dante’s hands were bigger than my mother’s. And softer. He was slow, methodical, careful. He made me feel as fragile as porcelain.

I never opened my eyes.

We didn’t say a word.

I felt his hands on my bare chest. On my back.

I let him shave me.

When he was done, I opened my eyes. Tears were falling down his face. I should have expected that. I wanted to yell at him. I wanted to tell him that it was me who should be crying.

Dante had that look on his face. He looked like an angel. And all I wanted to do was put my fist through his jaw. I couldn’t stand my own cruelty.

 

Dante then moves away for a year. Both boys struggle to figure out who they are without the other. They experiment with things – kissing girls, taking drugs, drinking – and they discover some secrets of the universe. When Dante returns, they are fast friends, again. Ari is welcomed back by Dante’s family with more affection than Ari is comfortable with.

 

“I’m sure I’ll disappoint you someday, Mrs. Quintana.”

“No,” she said. And even though her voice could be so firm, right then her voice was almost as kind as my own mother’s. “You’re so hard on yourself, Ari.”

I shrugged. “Maybe that’s just the way it is with me.”

She smiled at me. “Dante’s not the only one who missed you.”

It was the most beautiful thing an adult who wasn’t my mom or dad had ever said to me. And I knew that there was something about me that Mrs. Quintana saw and loved. And even though I felt it was a beautiful thing, I also felt it was a weight. Not that she meant it to be a weight. But love was always something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.

 

The summer progresses, and after a family tragedy strikes, Ari comes to understand another secret of the universe.

 

I just drove. I could have driven forever. I don’t know how I managed to find my spot in the desert, but I found it. It was as if I had a compass hidden somewhere inside of me. One of the secrets of the universe was that our instincts were sometimes stronger the our minds…Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer morning could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder.

 

Ari comes to realize maybe he didn’t just respond as a reflex when he saved Dante. Maybe there was a bigger reason. Okay, no more spoilers. I promise.

The voice, the plot, the setting all worked together in harmony and kept me firmly engrossed in the world of Ari and Dante. I hope you enjoyed reading this month’s book as much as I did, and that you maybe kept a box of kleenex close by near the end. Well worth it, I say.

 So…what’s next?

July’s Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

beauty queensBEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray

Published by: Scholastic Press

Release Date: May 24, 2012

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, LGBT

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Plot Summary:

Teen beauty queens. A desert island. Mysteries and dangers. No access to e-mail. And the spirit of fierce, feral competition that lives underground in girls, a savage brutality that can only be revealed by a journey into the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Oh, the horror, the horror! Only funnier. With evening gowns. And a body count.(Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Libba Bray here.

Follow Libba on Twitter here.

Follow Libba on Tumblr here.

Follow Libba on Facebook here.

This book is more than just a pretty face. Every young woman* should read the wisdom imparted within these pages – for no other reason, in the unlikely event that she is stranded on a deserted island with a bunch of savage beauty queens. Libya Bray is a genius at turning the absurd into the astounding. I’m so looking forward to reading this book, again! I know you’ll love this one.

*(and every young man! Insight is always wise to pursue. Besides, there is a male perspective shown here as well…)

The next meeting of this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs will be the last week of July. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional.)

Happy reading!

March Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the second discussion of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club! I’m enjoying the excuse to re-read some of my favorite stories and to talk about why I like them. I hope you’ll tell me whether or not you like the books we’ve read. (It’s really okay if you don’t!)

March’s book is one that I would seriously love to shove into everyone’s hands and watch them read.

March’s Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

Every Day cover

EVERY DAY by David Levithan

Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Release Date: August 28, 2012

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Romance, Fantasy

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Plot Summary:

Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl.

In his New York Times bestselling novel, David Levithan introduces readers to what Entertainment Weekly calls a “wise, wildly unique” love story about A, a teen who wakes up every morning in a different body, living a different life.

There’s never any warning about where it will be or who it will be. A has made peace with that, even established guidelines by which to live: Never get too attached. Avoid being noticed. Do not interfere. It’s all fine until the morning that A wakes up in the body of Justin and meets Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. From that moment, the rules by which A has been living no longer apply. Because finally A has found someone he wants to be with—day in, day out, day after day.

With his new novel, David Levithan, bestselling co-author of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, has pushed himself to new creative heights. He has written a captivating story that will fascinate readers as they begin to comprehend the complexities of life and love in A’s world, as A and Rhiannon seek to discover if you can truly love someone who is destined to change every day. (From author’s website.)

Learn more about David Levithan here.

Follow David on Twitter here.

This novel is beyond fantastic.

Let’s peek at the opening:

Day 5994

I wake up.

      Immediately I have to figure out who I am. It’s not just the body – opening my eyes and discovering whether the skin on my arm is light or dark, whether my hair is long or short, whether I’m fat of thin, boy or girl, scarred or smooth. The body is the easiest thing to adjust to, if you’re used to waking up in a new one each morning. It’s the life, the context of the body, that can be hard to grasp.

      Every day I am someone else. I am myself – I know I am myself – but I am also someone else.

      It has always been like this.

      The information is there. I wake up, open my eyes, understand that it is a new morning, a new place. The biography kicks in, a welcome gift from the not-me part of the mind. Today I am Justin. Somehow I know this – my name is Justin – and at the same time I know that I’m not really Justin, I’m only borrowing his life for a day. I look around and know that this is his room. This is his home. The alarm will go off in seven minutes.

      I’m never the same person twice, but I’ve certainly been this type before. Clothes everywhere. Far more video games than books. Sleeps in his boxers. From the taste of his mouth, a smoker. But not so addicted that he needs one as soon as he wakes up.

      “Good morning, Justin,” I say. Checking out his voice. Low. The voice in my head is always different.

      Justin doesn’t take care of himself. His scalp itches. His eyes don’t want to open. He hasn’t gotten much sleep.

      Already I know I’m not going to like today.

Not your average story right from the start. And it just gets better. This character Leviathan has created is amazing. The situation he’s put this character in, switching lives every day, allows ‘A’ to comment on the human condition in a unique way and offer up fantastic insights. Here’s one near the beginning of the book:

I know from experience that beneath every peripheral girl is a central truth. She’s hiding hers away, but at the same time she wants me to see it. That is she wants Justin to see it. And it’s there, just out of my reach. A sound waiting to be a word.

Leviathan’s character ‘A’ sees more about humanity because of the way he lives, the way he experiences life.

The Questions and Possibly Some Answers:

How ‘A’ lives cannot be an easy thing to adjust to, how would you cope with losing your identity every day? Or changing bodies every day?

It’s hard enough trying to figure out who you are living life as an average teen, can you imagine not having anything to ground you to reality? No home or family to retreat to when you have a bad day? Not even a familiar vessel to call your own?

This story really gets down to the essence of what makes us human, doesn’t it?

I am a drifter, and as lonely as that can be, it is also remarkably freeing. I will never define myself in terms of anyone else. I will never feel the pressure of peers or the burden of parental expectation. I can view everyone as pieces of a whole, and focus on the whole, not the pieces. I have learned how to observe, far better than most people observe. I am not blinded by the past or motivated by the future. I focus on the present, because that is where I am destined to live.

A tries to tread lightly in the lives of each person he becomes – to do no harm is the first rule. Then love comes into the picture and A abandons his carefully constructed rules.

It’s one thing to fall in love. It’s another to feel someone else falling in  love with you, and to feel a responsibility toward that love.

A hijacks the next day’s body, Nathan, to see Rhiannon again. When Nathan wakes up remembering details of what happened this leads to trouble for A.

Still, A continues to pursue his love of Rhiannon. A tries to find a way to see Rhiannon every day, and to make her see him as the same person inside, even though the body outside changes every day. No matter what body type or gender, no matter how far A must travel, or how complicated that makes life for the person A has taken over, A must see her at all costs.

It’s fascinating to see A possess so many different types of people. When A wakes up in the body of an addict craving a fix, the pursuit of Rhiannon is put on hold as the physical craving is so overpowering, nothing else gets through.

It is a mistake to think of the body as a vessel. It is as active as any mind, as any soul. And the more you give yourself to it, the harder your life will be. I have been in the bodies of starvers and purgers, gluttons and addicts. They all think their actions make their lives more desirable. But the body always defeats them in the end.

We also get to see A reflect on religion from a unique perspective when one body goes to church and another meeting with Rhiannon is made impossible.

I have been to many religious services over the years. Each one I go to only reinforces my general impression that religions have much, much more in common than they like to admit. The beliefs are almost always the same; it’s just that the histories are different. Everybody wants to believe in a higher power. Everybody wants to belong to something bigger than themselves, and everybody wants company in doing that.They want there to be a force for good on earth, and they want an incentive to be a part of that force. They want to be able to prove their belief and their belonging, through rituals and devotion. They want to touch the enormity.

It’s only in the finer points that it gets complicated and contentious, the inability to realize that no matter what our religion or gender or race or geographic background, we all have about 98 percent in common with each other. Yes,  the differences between male and female are biological, but if you look at the biology as a matter of percentage, there aren’t a whole lot of things that are different. Race is different purely as a social construct, not as an inherent difference. And religion – whether you believe in God or Yahweh or Allah or something else, odds are that at heart you want the same things. For whatever reason, we like to focus on the 2 percent that’s different, and most of the conflict in the world comes from that.

The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common.

If only everyone could navigate through life with this open-minded perspective, right? The author has weaved so many of these great observations on humanity into the story that it’s just a delight to read.

Now at some point, you may start to think that A has quite a wonderful view of life, and maybe it might even be pretty cool to be able to change lives every day, but then as Rhiannon comes to understand A’s life more and really tries to grapple with A’s reality, she challenges this perfect view.

A tells her:

It’s so hard when you’re in one body to get a sense of what life is really like. You’re so grounded in who you are. But when who you are changes every day – you get to touch the universal more. Even the most mundane details. You see how cherries taste different to different people. Blue looks different. You see all the strange rituals boys have to show affection without admitting it. You learn that if a parent reads to you at the end of the day, it’s a good sign that it’s a good parent, because you’ve seen so many other parents who don’t make the time. You learn how much a day is truly worth, because they’re all so different.

She responds to him:

But you never get to see things over time, do you? I don’t mean to cancel out what you just said. I think I understand that. But you’ve never had a friend that you’ve known day in and day out for ten years. You’ve never watched a pet grow older. You’ve never seen how messed up a parent’s love can be over time. And you’ve never been in a relationship for more than a day, not to mention for more than a year.

I loved these contrasting views on life. So wonderful to think about what gives life meaning, what makes it fuller.

There were some many other amazing conversations like this in the book, I could talk about this story forever!

I really shouldn’t go any further unless I want to give away the ending, and I really don’t want to do that – but ahhh! didn’t it just make you weep?

Another Day coverI hope you enjoyed reading this month’s book as much as I did. Leviathan recently published a companion book that came out late last year called ANOTHER DAY, which tells Rhiannon’s side of the story. How great is that? I can’t wait to read it!

 So…what’s next?

April’s Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

aristotle-and-dante-discover-the-secrets-of-the-9781442408937ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Published by: Simon & Schuster

Release Date: February 21, 2012

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, LGBT

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Plot Summary:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.(Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Benjamin Alire Saenz here and here.

Follow Benjamin on Twitter here.

Ignore the fact that this book has so many award stickers on the cover it’s ridiculous. Don’t let that intimidate you. This book is a damn good read. From the very first page, I stopped to reread passages that took my breath away, that made me want to hug this book to me and never let it go.

Here’s the first passage that stopped me in my tracks:

“As far as I was concerned, the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky. Then the sky could be as miserable as I was.”

And that was just the writer getting warmed up and talking about the weather. He gets deep and breaks your heart with his words. And you want to thank him for it.

Trust me, you WANT to read this book!

The next meeting of this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs will be the last week of April. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional.)

Happy reading!

First Rule of Book Club

Unlike Fight Club, you actually CAN talk about Book Club…and the book, right?

That’s the whole point of joining a book club; to gather in a social setting and discuss all things literary to our hearts’ content. I recently joined an online book club started by YA author Colleen Houck after receiving an invitation through her Goodreads page. I’ve never been in a book club before and I thought it might be fun. I also thought it would help introduce me to books I wouldn’t normally find on my own and maybe we’d have some stimulating conversations about great stories.

For the month’s selection, we read, THE SHADOW PRINCE, by Bree Despain.

The Shadow PrinceHaden Lord, the disgraced prince of the Underrealm, has been sent to the mortal world to entice a girl into returning with him to the land of the dead. Posing as a student at Olympus Hills High—a haven for children of the rich and famous—Haden must single out the one girl rumored to be able to restore immortality to his race.

Daphne Raines has dreams much bigger than her tiny southern Utah town, so when her rock star dad suddenly reappears, offering her full tuition to Olympus Hills High’s prestigious music program, she sees an opportunity to catch the break she needs to make it as a singer. But upon moving into her estranged father’s mansion in California, and attending her glamorous new school, Daphne soon realizes she isn’t the only student in Olympus who doesn’t quite belong.

Haden and Daphne—destined for each other—know nothing of the true stakes their fated courtship entails.  As war between the gods brews, the teenagers’ lives collide. But Daphne won’t be wooed easily and when it seems their prophesied link could happen, Haden realizes something he never intended—he’s fallen in love. Now to save themselves, Haden and Daphne must rewrite their destinies. But as their destinies change, so do the fates of both their worlds.

A pulsating romance of epic proportions, Bree Despain’s The Shadow Prince will leave her fans breathless for the next book in the Into The Dark series. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

What this summary doesn’t tell you is how Despain took a new look at the Persephone Myth and explored the idea of her not being a victim where Hades merely kidnaps her against her will and drags her down to the Underworld, but rather where she sees an opportunity to take her own future in her hands a make a conscious choice about her destiny. Set in a modern day world with different characters and a few obvious twists, of course.

We discussed this and many other thoughts and insights about the book with Bree Despain in a live author chat as part of our book club. It was such a wonderfully dynamic discussion that made the experience of the story so much richer. I am now totally hooked on this book club. I may join even more and end up needing a support group for addicts of book clubs.

What about you?

Have you had any experience with book clubs, live and in person or online?

Learn more about Bree Despain here.

Follow Bree on Twitter here.

Follow Bree on Tumblr here.