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Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, Art by Maira Kalman — A Review

Why We Broke Up tells the story of a doomed high school romance between Min, an art-house cinema obsessed, sugared-coffee-guzzling misfit named for the Roman goddess Minerva and Ed, the dreamy serial monogamist co-captain of the basketball team (Go Beavers!).  As the title suggests, the reader knows from the outset that the budding romance, narrated by Min, is fated to implode in a few short weeks.  Min recounts their story through a description of the significance behind each item in a box of relationship mementos she is preparing to leave with a thud on Ed’s doorstep.  While each object’s explication leads to its own independent reason for the destruction of the relationship, the real mystery of the book is not why the couple broke up, but what made them fall for each other in the first place.

so obscure!

Min’s constant obscure film references are at once alienating and endearing, giving the reader their first glimpse into what Ed sees in her.  Like Ed, we want to be part of her avant-garde and screwball comedy-filled world, to understand each reference and say “yes, how apt, this moment in your life is like that scene between those characters.”  As a reader I had to hold myself back from writing down the film titles thinking “Maybe I’ll watch them all and then re-read it.”

Min is, in a way, the classic outsider character.  She has three main friends, people who “get” her, but most of the other characters are always calling her ‘different.’  Usually it’s implied that this difference is a good thing, particularly when contrasted with the girls Ed normally dates, who I actually ended up feeling sorry for after all the ways in which they are basically called dime-a-dozen.  Whether this is intentional or not, it serves to remind us that even though these girls may not be ‘different’ in the way that Min is (not liking the taste of beer, not wearing the ‘slutty’ version of a Halloween costume, being bored out of her mind at Ed’s basketball games), they have suffered through the same emotions, the same infatuation and rejection at the hands of Ed Slaterton that Min has.  When it comes to experiencing heartbreak, Min is not special.

and they seemed like such a good match!

As the non-narrator, Ed feels like a dramatically less developed character, something which may be an intentional depiction of the fact that Min has convinced herself she ‘knows’ him, when really she has only a vague idea of what Ed is actually like.  In the first hundred pages Ed is not only brutally dull, but also, kind of a jerk, always rubbing Min’s friends, and the reader, the wrong way with his sense of entitlement, lack of boundaries and adolescent jock homophobia.  I couldn’t help but get the sense that although his interest in Min at first seems genuine, the only real interest she could have in him is the shine of dwelling in high school obscurity and then suddenly finding herself on the arm of the popular boy.  To risk committing Min’s own reader-alienating over-referencing act; there is something very Rory and Dean (Gilmore Girls) about the start of the relationship, if Dean had been a bit of a dick.  Min is quick to mention a previous boyfriend, but her obvious romantic inexperience and naiveté feels like an air-raid siren going off, the reader just wanting to shout the relationship version of “duck and cover!”

One aspect of Ed’s story that is never fully explored is the implication that his mother is suffering from a terminal illness.  We never meet the mother, but Ed’s extremely likeable, hip sister has moved home to help run the household and care for her.  Although this portion of the plot should help instill some sympathy for Ed’s character, it fails to, as, throughout the novel, he never expresses any deep emotions about this or other issues in his life.*

As the story goes on the reader finally begins to see the little connections, the sweetnesses, the “you understand this when no one else did”s of the relationship, but they still feel one-sided, the truth being that Min just isn’t interested in any of the things that Ed enjoys and, most of his participation in things she enjoys seems equally begrudging.  Although I’m a firm believer in the adage that Opposites Attract, I also believe that to stay together, those opposites need to share at least some common interests, or, to channel Min’s referencing act again, a Doc Ock and Rosalie Octavius (Spider-Man 2) style fascination with what they can learn from each others’ differences.  Without these qualities, one can’t help but think that Min and Ed’s attraction is, well, mainly physical.

me in high school, what’s not to love?

I come to Min and Ed’s story as a woman about to emerge into her thirties, remembering the little false loves of my high school experience, before the advent of geek-chic or t-shirts sporting the slogan “talk nerdy to me.”  I come to it with the memory of the self-convincing, the moments of “maybe he meant that” of “maybe he would be worth it.”  As the clever tagline and blurbs on the book’s jacket suggest “Min and Ed’s story of heartbreak may remind you of your own.”  In my experience, the real heartbreak of high school love stories isn’t generally two people leaving each other, it’s at least one of the people realizing how much they have deceived themselves, something Ed and Min’s story has in spades.

It would be easy to look at Ed and Min’s story and call it simple, pointless infatuation, a quirky outsider girl falling for a popular bad boy who she, stereotypically, gives everything to, only to find herself horribly betrayed.  As a, somewhat, older woman, my heart has the mothering impulse, wanting to tell Min and other high school girls that it’s not worth it.  But, in the end, I don’t think the message of Why We Broke Up is “don’t give your heart away,” or “don’t give your heart away too quickly” or even “don’t lose your virginity to a meat-headed jock.”  Rather, I think the message is something more complicated.  That, for most of us, having our hearts crushed is unavoidable.  That someday, it will happen.  And you may hate the person who crushed it and spend the rest of your days regretting every second you spent with them, but that this coronary pulverization is part of the metamorphosis that helps us reach adulthood.  Realizing how much we can kid ourselves, how much we can risk and lose to another, helps us realize who we actually are and what, in a healthy relationship, we want to hold on to.  Daniel Handler’s novel isn’t the best written YA book I’ve read this year (Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan), or even the one that is most truthful about the human experience (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green), but it is the one that most made me look back at my high school and undergraduate selves with understanding, camaraderie, and thanks.

Incidentally, the novel has also spawned an interesting tumblr:

*An interesting follow-up project might be to tell the story of Why We Broke Up from Ed’s point of view.  I can’t help but think there is more going on in his side of the tale than boredom and hormones.  While Min is clearly the wronged party and depicting the story from only her viewpoint makes it more relatable for those of us who have had similar experiences, my mind is still nagged by the two-dimensional nature of Ed’s character.  Jerk or not, I wouldn’t mind getting to know him a little better.


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Pegasus by Robin McKinley – Bad Cover, Smart Book

I will start by saying that I love Robin McKinley’s books.  At ages twelve and thirteen The Blue Sword was second only to the work of Tamora Pierce in my heart.  As an adult I still rate Deerskin as one of the best fairy tale adaptations ever written and Sunshine as the best vampire novel I have ever read.  Traditionally the covers on McKinley’s work have been very appropriate, drawing in exactly the type of reader who would be likely to enjoy the cadence of her language, the gentle interweaving of steely characters and adventurous plots.  Imagine my dismay when I was confronted with the British cover for Pegasus, with its ridiculously out-of-context tagline, also the first line of the book: “Because she was a princess she had a Pegasus.”

Faced with this cover it took some determination to order in my copy of Pegasus, particularly given the looks I was receiving from my non-YA-reading bookseller colleagues.  Nevertheless, I trust Robin McKinley not to let me down.  She didn’t.

The trouble with this cover design for Pegasus, particularly with the misguided use of the first sentence of the book as a tagline, is that it projects entirely the wrong image of the novel.  This is a cover that twines one curl around its finger while wearing a fluffy pink dress and carrying a basket of kittens.  While this doesn’t make it a bad cover per se, it does make it a bad cover for this book.  Pegasus is just not that type of story, the main character, the princess Sylviaanel (Sylvi) is not that type of princess and the pegasi* in the novel are not pretty winged horses.

Anyone reading past the incongruous first line of the novel will discover that in addition to being about friendship and family, Pegasus is mostly a story about history and power, politics and culture clash.  The somewhat Catalogue of Ships-esque beginning, which recounts the history of Sylvi’s land and the treaty created between her ancestors and the pegasi, would be enough to turn off most readers who expect what the cover promises.   In truth, Pegasus is more like a YA version of The Left Hand of Darkness in its presentation of a human befriending a member of a different sentient species and attempting to understand and internalize a culture and mindset that is fundamentally different from their own.  A more appropriate cover might have shown Sylvi in her training garments, shortsword in hand, the main Pegasus, Ebon, at her shoulder with his intelligent eyes gazing out and wings half-raised in defense.

What makes human-pegasus connection in the novel difficult is the inability of the two species to properly communicate with each other.  With the exception of the human magicians and the pegasi shamans, few can understand more than a word or two in each other’s languages.  Although this is partly due to the incompatibility of the mostly telepathic and gesture-based pegasi language with human speech, it quickly becomes apparent that something else may be to blame.

In Pegasus, when royal humans turn 12 they are ceremonially and magically bound to one pegasus.  This binding is meant to both symbolically strengthen the alliance between the two species, and to allow the two individuals to converse slightly more effectively.  When Sylvi is presented with her bond-mate Ebon, the pair discovers that they can communicate fluently within their minds.  While one would expect this unprecedented discovery to be an instant blessing, the reality of the novel is much more complex.  The inability of the two species to communicate has completely shaped the humans’ culture, including the determination of which magicians receive the highest prestige as translators.  Sylvi and Ebon’s surprising talent is a threat to their species’ way of life and their friendship has immediate powerful opponents as a result.  With so much at stake both between the two species and within the human kingdom, the novel dances between ethnography and courtly intrigue, in some ways like a melding of Ellen Kusher’s adult fantasy novels and Patricia Wrede’s YA.  The result is unique among teen novels in a way that I found rather delightful, but which may also present challenges when it comes to finding the right readership.

The reason why this novel’s mis-match of cover to content needles me so badly is that it may keep potential new McKinley fans from ever picking Pegasus up.  Likewise, those individuals who do examine Pegasus based on what the cover promises may never read past the stumbling block of the history section the novel begins with.

All I can say is, I take solace in the fact that many teen readers are less put off by a bad cover than twenty and thirty-something booksellers are.

*Different sources I’ve encountered have suggested that the plural of Pegasus is either “Pegasus” or “Pegasuses” but McKinley uses the more elegant “Pegasi.”

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Love Percy Jackson? Meet Matiu Douglas

Rick Riordan has garnered a lot of deserved attention over the past six years for his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  The Percy books came along at just the right time; when Harry Potter was on his way to victory and parents were thinking “What books can I get them hooked on next???”  When 12-year-old Percy discovers that the Greek gods are alive and well, and one of them is his father, it doesn’t take long for him to get sucked into a world where myth meets reality.  Full of awesome monsters, gods (both good-natured and not-so-good-natured) and heroes, the Percy series is chocka with fantastic adventures and a really fun cast of characters.  As a bonus, the reader doesn’t even need to know anything about Greek mythology at the start; Riordan walks you through it in a completely unobtrusive manner.  One of the things that makes the series so special is the mash-up of the mythical and the modern, in some ways reminiscent of urban fantasy novels geared towards an older audience (Melissa Marr, Emma Bull, and Charles De Lint all come to mind).

For fans of Percy Jackson, New Zealand author David Hair hits all the same positive targets, but in a slightly different and awesomely Kiwi way.  In The Bone Tiki (as well as the subsequent novels The Taniwha’s Tear and The Lost Tohunga) the real world and the world of myths exist alongside each other, with some individuals able to make the transition between the two.  As an honorary New Zealander (I’ve had my residency for a wee while now), I love that Hair’s take on the mythical world of New Zealand encompasses all of the figures of both Māori and Pākehā tradition.  As the series continues some European mythology also comes into play.

The characters in Hair’s series have the same flavour as those in Percy Jackson,  Harry Potter or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer; a close group of friends with different strengths centered around a young main character, in this case Matiu Douglas (Mat), whose supernatural abilities reveal a greater destiny.  Sometimes Hair’s use of character archetypes hampers the story (I’d like to see more authors break away from using the traditional know-it-all unattractive girl sidekick who, later on in the series, suddenly decides to change her hair or clothing and, good golly, how did we never realize that she’s actually pretty!), but generally speaking, this framework has been used multiple times because it works.  We see ourselves in at least one of the characters in the group, and we see our friends in the others.  These types of books are popular precisely because, in a very Bastian from The Neverending Story kind of way, we want to see ourselves in the characters, to become them, if only for a few hundred pages.

"Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?"

One of David Hair’s strengths is adding complexity to the good vs evil dynamic.  Although everything in Book One is fairly cut and dried (we know who the baddie is and dagnammit, we’re gonna git ‘im), by Book Three we start to see some of the ‘evil’ characters as victims of circumstance.  In addition, every time that the main character, Mat, uses magic to fight, he draws on the same type of harmful power that has corrupted the evil magicians he battles.  As a result, Hair’s books are really about human beings’ potential for both good and evil.  Most of the characters who seem to be pure good or pure evil are those who live on as mythical versions of their original selves, brought to life only by the things that people remember about them.  In Mat’s world, if a historical person is reviled by modern society, after death they reappear in the world of myths as someone who could only be reviled, losing all the good qualities that individual may have originally possessed.  In this way, Hair also comments on humankind’s propensity for distorting the past through memory; his representation of our complex capacities for both good and evil sits alongside his acknowledgement that while we are all capable of both, we only want to view others as one or the other.  All this is wrapped up in a very cool adventure story with lots of fighting and magic.  What more could readers 11-14 ask for?

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Why Libba Bray is Only Getting Better


I should admit that I have read Libba Bray‘s work a bit out-of-order.  I started last year with her Printz award-winning Going Bovine and only this year got to her more widely known Gemma Doyle trilogy.  Beginning with Going Bovine set up a bit of an unrealistic expectation for Bray’s earlier novels.  One of the great strengths of Bovine is the humour.  Bray somehow manages to take a presumably tragic circumstance, a teenage boy discovering that he is going to die of Mad Cow Disease, and construct a novel that is not only thought-provoking and touching but, genuinely and consistently funny.  In this novel Bray also accomplishes one of the most difficult tasks in YA literature, writing a convincing teenage male voice without making him sound whiney, egotistical, or emo to the extreme (I’m looking at you Rowling).   In short, Bray creates a teenage male character that the reader can fully respect and, by the end of the novel, even love.  Only a few other YA novelists, that I am aware of, have had equal success with this task (notably including John Green, David Levithan, Sherman Alexie, and Peter Cameron).  The fact that Bray is a woman makes this accomplishment somewhat more impressive still (although, having spent most of my teen years hanging out almost exclusively with dudes, I have no doubt that writing an authentic teenage male voice does not require one to have ever been a teenage male).

Suffice it to say, after having read Going Bovine, the Gemma Doyle books came as a bit of a surprise.  Historical fiction has never really been my thing, but I figured that the fantasy component would bring the Gemma books into my realm of interest, sort of like Patricia C. Wrede’s Sorcery and Cecilia.  But, the truth is, the young women in the novels were, by and large, disingenuous, catty, selfish, and well, just the kind of people I want to grab by the shoulders and shake; many of the same qualities that have driven me crazy in teenage male characters.  Now, these traits may be historically accurate, and even totally justified, in a time period when teenage girls’ futures comprised whatever they could bag in the marriage market, however, they hardly ingratiate the reader.  I’m sorry to say that after reading all of the Gemma books I was starting to think that Libba Bray couldn’t write an endearing female character as well as she could a male one (I should possibly take this opportunity to say that I did love the way the trilogy ended for Gemma, it reminded me of my favorite moments with Jo March).  However, with the release of Beauty Queens, Bray has proved me oh so very wrong. 

Beauty Queens not only evokes all of the positive character-associated emotions in the reader that the Gemma trilogy fails to, it also manages to revive satire, a literary genre that I had thought was, well, pretty dead.  What makes Beauty Queens so great?  First off, the premise is fantastic – a private jet of teenage beauty pageant contestants crash-lands on a remote jungle island where, unbeknownst to the young women, an evil cosmetics corporation is planning to supply a megalomaniacal dictator with heaps of weapons.  The result is something like Lord of the Flies meets “America’s Next Top Model,” gruesome yet hilarious deaths at the hands of jungle creatures, etc. also feature prominently.  The best part of Beauty Queens is the fact that as the novel progresses and the make-up veneer is wiped away, each young woman begins to let go of the corporate cookie-cutter beauty image they have cultivated to win the competition and begins to reveal who they really are.  The whole novel is a fantastically funny yet completely effective indictment of the standards society sets for the young women of today.  In short order the girls are hunting and gathering their own food, constructing their own shelter, and generally kicking ass, in heels no less.  Beauty Queens also drives home the point that female beauty and femininity itself comes in many forms, all of which are legitimate, regardless of whether or not the person embodying feminine beauty is genetically female (this reminded me of model Andrej Pejicwho has recently become an icon of feminine beauty in the fashion world, although he is, of course, male).  Basically, Beauty Queens uses a ludicrous premise and the ensuing opportunities for hilarity to address most of the major social and personal issues surrounding being a teen who is female in modern society.  And, my god, does she do it brilliantly.  All I can really say is this:  judging by how the strength of her work has grown exponentially with the release of each new novel, I can’t wait for Bray’s next one.  It’s going to be a doozy.

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