In the female-dominated world of YA, it's crucial to recognize awesome books featuring male protagonists--especially when female authors have pulled off the work of imaginatively entering the inner world of the teen male.
I grabbed Split (by Swati Avasthi) on an impulse and didn't have many specific expectations, but halfway through, I was reading the author's bio. Avasthi, a woman, writes persuasively from a male perspective, something I admire extra much because I worked hard at it for The Knife and the Butterfly. Here's the scoop, cribbed from the Goodreads listing:
Sixteen-Year-Old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother Christian with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father’s fist), $3.84, and a secret.
He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind—his mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret.
At least so far.
Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. First-time novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you’ve said enough, after you’ve run, after you’ve made the split—how do you begin to live again? Readers won’t be able to put this intense page-turner down.
The plotting of Split is excellent, with each thread of the story propelling the action forward. There's a count-down dimension that ups the tension considerably. The book has a wildly upbeat ending for a book about domestic violence, but it's an ending that is earned by the protag's incremental growth through the course of the novel.
This is a great recommendation for fans of Chris Crutcher--the voice of the novel reminded me of Whale Talk. Readers who've loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower might also connect well to the narrator.
It's a rare thing, maybe, for an author to celebrate her book being locked up. But in this case, going to lock-up means being freed to find a new audience--and getting my book into the Michigan Reformatory library.
I stumbled across the fabulous and quirky Prison Reviews by Curtis Dawkins, who writes for BULL Men's Fiction. I loved the stories that lead into the reviews--which sometimes have to do with his experience in prison, sometimes not--and Curtis is a smart and uncompromising critic.
I had my publisher send The Knife and the Butterfly in hopes of getting a prison review, and Curtis rocked my world last week by writing a review of the novel that is fabulous and unlikely in equal parts. A taste of the unlikely:
Surprises are like those scared animals—you have to surprise them by hiding your desire to catch them. You have to wait patiently for them to wiggle through an unseen crack while your mind drifts to dinner. Your hand is cramped from holding the binder twine tied around the stake propping open the oak barrel and your hungover, trap-builder buddy is snoring under a tractor out back. If the critters know you’re waiting, they’re gone, and it might be a coon’s age before they show their anxious faces in those parts again.
And a taste of the fabulous:
That’s why this book is important. “Important” may be a term used too often in blurbs and reviews (it should only be used when the book could truly save lives), but it’s one I don’t think I’ve used in a review before. It’s easy to see these abrasive youngsters dying on the news and dismiss them as somehow deserving of their bloody death. But, as The Knife and the Butterfly makes clear, they have grandmothers and little sisters who love and will miss them—Regina and Meemaw are two of the most touching characters I’ve read about in a long time. The gang-bangers only want what everyone else wants. They only want to leave their mark on the world—in this case that mark takes the form of tagging the buildings and boxcars in Houston with spray-paint, which serves as a perfect metaphor for the transitory nature of all of our marks.
Check out the whole review. And while you are at it, think about sending Curtis a book yourself. He has a wish list of books he'd like to read and review, but he is also open to surprises, as seen above. All books get a second life in the Michigan Reformatory library for use by other inmates. Notice that books must be sent directly by the publisher or a vender and must be new.
(Note: this is part of my "If I were a librarian" fantasy in which I would always have ideas for the next great book to hand to a reader.)
I read Anne Frank's diary several times as a preteen, but Sharon Dogar offers something new here with a book that imagines what life in the annex--and after--might have been like for Peter van Pels. I loved how Dogar showed the evolution of their relationship, especially how she got inside what it might have been like to be forced together in a way, to know that this might be the only chance at love. Apparently there has been some fuss about Dogar sexualizing Anne Frank, but I think that objection has more to do with what people don't want to think about teens--and their own children--than to do with any inconsistencies between Dogar's portrayal and the Anne of the diaries. For more, please read my post, "Teens are (sexual) people, too."
Still, the most powerful part of Annexed for me comes in Part II, which imagines Peter's experience in the camps. The narration is choked with numb despair, but it is beautiful and gripping.
Finally, a word about shyness: I appreciated how Dogar captured Peter's personality and worldview, how she gave him a powerful, distinct voice in spite of his difficulty expressing himself to others. The narrative pulses with his will--and his right--to live.
A minor issue: The only gripe I had was with the chapter headings (e.g. "Peter Dreams of Lisa," "Peter Is in Love with Anne"). They seemed unnecessary and intrusive, but perhaps that wouldn't be the case in a paper book rather than in audio; the reader's eyes might fly right past these markers. Speaking of: I listened to Annexed on audiobook, and it's wonderfully produced with a large cast. Usually I don't like "performed" audiobooks, but here it works.
Why ANNEXED is a good pairing for NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which I reviewed here: NO CRYSTAL STAIR also draws on real-life documents to tell a story of struggle, although it's a quieter, less dramatic narrative (the life story of influential Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux). Readers who are fascinated by fiction inspired by real events will love NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which draws on and weaves in actual documents from Michaux's life. This weaving of fact and fiction is more subtle in Annexed, but the dynamic is similar.