Book review: ‘The Tragedy Paper’ by Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy PaperTim Macbeth is used to attention — just not the kind he’d want. As an albino teen, it’s rare that his appearance doesn’t set off a wave of stares and whispers. At the encouragement of his mother and stepfather, switching to a prestigious New York boarding school to finish his senior year seems like a chance at a fresh start . . . but whether or not he has any fun, Tim already has his college career hand-selected and waiting for him. He just has to get through the next few months.

Then he meets Vanessa Sheller. On a snowy night in Chicago, a canceled flight pushes two strangers together in a shuttered airport. Unused to being treated “normally,” especially by a beautiful girl, Tim questions everything about their time together — but never the way he’s starting to feel about her. When the two are surprisingly reunited at the Irving School, Tim assumes he’ll go back to feeling marginalized and alone. That Vanessa, so popular and lovely, will forget all about him.

But she doesn’t.

Elizabeth LaBan’s The Tragedy Paper is an arresting, heart-in-your-throat young adult novel that clamped its hooks in me the way only the best teen fiction can do. Though I could draw similarities between the novel and John Green’s Looking For Alaska, LaBan has penned a story that is wholly her own. We’re given an entertaining, heartbreaking and fast-paced beginning and middle, a book I really couldn’t put down . . . and maybe that’s why I wound up feeling let down and conflicted by the close. But we’ll get there.

So my description, written as carefully to avoid spoilers as I could, fails to mention the second of our two narrators: Duncan. A semester after Tim’s story unfolds, we know some Terrible, Rotten, No Good, Very Bad Thing has happened — and it’s Duncan who feels awful about it. Tim records the full, unedited story of his hidden life with Vanessa for Duncan to find and . . . hopefully release his guilt? Understand why things went down as they did? Forgive himself? Maybe all of the above.

So Duncan’s story is told in real time, and Tim’s is a recollection of the past. I was fully immersed in both worlds, though I tended to favor Tim’s storytelling (and his plot line was simply more interesting). I spent most of The Tragedy Paper, so named for a thesis all seniors must complete for English class, trying to figure out Duncan’s role in this Terrible, Awful Thing that transpires. Beyond that, he was a little dull.

But that’s not entirely Duncan’s fault. It’s just that Tim is so intelligent, wry, endearing — charismatic precisely because he believes that’s something he’ll never be. As he recalls the evening he spends with Vanessa in Chicago, I could feel the raw and gut-wrenching emotion Tim experiences at being so close to something he believes he’ll never have. Though he doesn’t believe he’s obsessed with his appearance, Tim’s albinism influences every aspect of his life. It makes him feel so distinctly “Other” that he fails to connect with friends — anyone aside from his family and teachers. That separateness is exactly why I believe he falls so hard for Vanessa. It’s all so very “Gatsby”-esque, you know? She is the physical embodiment of a life he’ll never have.

So how to explain her feelings?

Vanessa is a puzzling character. For one, she has a boyfriend. Not that, you know, that’s a huge thing to change when you’re 17 — but the boyfriend, of course, is a jerk. Tim stands in stark contrast to Patrick, the brutish jock who decides early on that his girlfriend’s associations with the new albino kid just aren’t going to work. I spent most of the story waiting for a big blow-out, on edge and nervous about where LaBan was taking us.

I can’t fully express how sucked into this story I was until the final chapters, friends, and maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time coping with the eventual truth. As Duncan finally discovers — and reveals — what happened during an ill-fated senior prank, I got angry. Confused. Disappointed. Not because I couldn’t handle the truth — because I couldn’t help but rage, That’s it? THAT’S IT?

Because seriously. Seriously. We’ve just traveled 300-ish pages with Duncan feeling all guilty and sick and sorrowful for something that happened and Vanessa being all cute but flighty and Tim revealing in pieces and puzzles what actually happened on one snowy evening at the Irving School and I thought, “OMG, something crazy and terrible is going to happen!” but then . . .


Do I still recommend The Tragedy Paper? Absolutely. LaBan’s writing is strong and affecting and interesting. Tim is such a unique, excellent character — vulnerable, tough, worldly, brave, as stupid in the face of love as any of us. Despite feeling like someone had popped my “Go Tim!” balloon by the close, I was too drawn into the novel to rate it anything less than four stars.

Fans of John Green, realistic teen fiction, boarding school settings and strong first-person narration will find plenty to love in LaBan’s novel. The overarching idea of “tragedy” — what is a tragedy? what’s not a tragedy? — was compelling, too, and provided a fascinating lens through which to view the story. Was the conclusion truly a tragedy? Was it avoidable? If it was avoidable, is that what truly makes it a tragedy? Or was it all just . . . meant to be?

I have so many questions, so many talking points since finishing . . . and this isn’t a story I’ll get out of my head anytime soon.

4 out of 5!

Pub: January 8, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Then and now: Young adult books I wish I’d read as a young adult

When I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, I began what I now refer to as my “difficult years.” I know I joke about the attitude and my unwillingness to wear Halloween costumes, for example, but this was more than that. This was growing up and being home on my own, being apart from my sister and parents, no longer spending after school hours with my grandparents. This was a seismic shift in my world.

I don’t remember everything I read in high school. I know that, late in the game, I discovered Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen,  newcomers on the young adult fiction scene at the time (am I dating myself? Hello, 2001!). Always a voracious reader, I did lose myself in Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, one of my all-time favorites, and began to discover works from Shakespeare and Jane Austen. But nothing really stuck.

The first book I remember changing my world — and the book I credit with reawakening my love of literature — is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. It completely encapsulated so many of my feelings about family, loss, identity and guilt. If I’d read The Namesake as a teenager, I might have seen several key events unfolding in my life a little differently — but that book hadn’t been written yet. And neither had Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a novel about a young woman grappling with her father’s sudden death. All of these subjects, while sometimes morbid, helped me process my own conflicting emotions about loss and grief.

While I was fortunate to never lose a close relative or friend as a teenager, other losses were suddenly everywhere. A friend who suddenly stopped calling, stopped sitting at our designated lunch table. Others who moved away, leaving a ragged hole where their friendship once filled my life. A loss of time with my family; a loss of identity when I entered high school, a different one than my long-time best friend. The little losses stacked upon themselves, creating a mountain under which I was buried.

But I got through it. No one emerges from adolescence completely unscathed, but I relied on my family and extracurriculars like theatre to channel my energy and move through it. And books — amazing, amazing books — allow us to see shades of our own experiences in others, and to realize that we’re not alone with our troubles. That’s why YA fiction is so important: it provides a magic mirror into which teens and young adults can fall, experiencing life as someone else or just purely escaping the moment. The ability to see our own thoughts reflected back to us through a book is what makes reading so worthwhile to me.

Here are a few books I never read as a teen — because they didn’t yet exist; because I never found them — but wish I had.

Fat Cat by Robin Brande
Published in 2009

Catherine Locke — ace science student, budding anthopologist — is exactly the type of role model you’d want for a teen girl: funny, independent, intelligent, sassy, forward-thinking. She’s the friend you’d love to have and the student you’d dream of teaching.

But in addition to being a whiz kid and hard worker, Cat faces all the “typical” struggles of being a teenager: the search for acceptance and friendship; being the odd one out in groups; ridicule and self-consciousness about weight and appearances; and, ultimately, the sting of first love. Or unrequited love.

Reading this book at 24, I still found so many awesome lessons to be gained — and think my 14-year-old self would have really loved this one. Cat would have been my hero.

artichokes_heartArtichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee
Published in 2008

Along the same lines as Fat Cat, Suzanne Supplee’s masterful, gorgeous and deeply poetic novel really struck a chord with me. Rosemary works hard, gets great grades in high school and rarely gives her mom a hard time, but her most definable characteristic is, first and foremost, her heavy frame. Rosie finally commits to losing weight, sure, but this is a story about way more than her quest to become thin.

What struck me most about this novel — then and now — was the tender, honest way Supplee portrays a very traumatic event: the critical illness of a parent. Having gone through something similar and grappled with a thousand and one emotions, I saw so much of myself in Rosie — and consider her one of my most favorite characters in all of YA fiction. Buy this one for the teen girls in your life, but don’t pass it along without reading it yourself.

abundance_katherines An Abundance Of Katherines by John Green
Published in 2006

When I fell in and out of love for the first time, I would have benefited from reading some of Green’s prose about a broken-hearted teen boy burnt out on endless (ill-fated) relationships with girls named Katherine. And this novel boasts one of my favorite lines from any book, ever:

“I don’t think you can ever fill the empty space with the thing you lost. … That’s what I realized: if I did get her back somehow, she wouldn’t fill the hole that losing her created.”

I completely believe that had I read that line at 19 or 20 years old, I could have been saved years of wondering and grief after that relationship ended.

True story.

north_of_beautifulNorth Of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
Published in 2009

When I was gathering novels to donate to flood-ravaged schools in Nashville, this was the first one I grabbed. I can’t think of a more inspirational book than this one, the story of a young woman born with a birthmark across one cheek and a strong love of maps, compasses and art. Terra wants nothing more than to escape the controlling, abusive grip of her maniacal father, and find a free and clear space in which to create her artwork.

Being “branded” with an indelible mark on her face, it’s not until she meets Jacob, a Goth teen of Chinese heritage adopted by a loving American family. Under Jacob’s watchful eye, Terra emerges from the dark corners of her mind enough to bolster up her mother and take the trip of a lifetime. Suddenly, she can move forward and be stronger. She can be better and do more.

Terra is another fantastic role model — a young woman I both sympathize with and for while wishing I could channel some of her strength. This book was so exquisitely written and so moving, and it’s one of those books I wish I could read all over again . . . for the first time. One of my top reads of 2009, it’s not to be missed.

sloppy_firsts Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
Published in 2001

Oh, Jessica Darling — my hero. A snarky writer, a cynical teen with a soft spot for one unexpectedly fantastic bad boy, a difficult but loyal friend, sister and daughter.

What would my high school years have been like had I read Sloppy Firsts when it was first published my sophomore year? Well, Jess would have been even more of a role model than she already is — being both lovable and prickly, all rolled into one. In so many ways, I feel like Jess is already a real friend.

Of course, I would have spent all my time looking for my own Marcus Flutie. And maybe those hours were better spent trying to pass AP exams.

Book review: ’13 Little Blue Envelopes’ by Maureen Johnson

13_littleAfter the early death of her adventurous (and eccentric) Aunt Peg, Ginny embarks on a trans-Atlantic romp that brings her from London to Greece, Rome, Copenhagen (and back again) by way of instructions in thirteen envelopes written by Peg to recreate her own travels through Europe. Worried that her beloved niece has been too quiet and shy for far too long, Peg develops the envelope adventure as a way to bring Ginny to a totally new place — and give her the ride of her life — after she is no longer there to guide her into adulthood.

I really enjoyed Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes, though I felt as though there was a disconnect between Ginny and everyone around her. Because the book was told in third person and we weren’t privy to Ginny’s private thoughts, the book seemed to amble along and keep us totally separate from our main character. She seemed numb — someone emotionally stunted. And after she meets boisterous and talented actor Keith in London, we only find out she’s somehow interested in him through a letter she writes to her best friend . . . a person we never actually meet. It was just a whole lot of telling and not enough showing for my taste. At the end of the novel, I still felt like I didn’t really knew Ginny at all.

But that being said, I can’t say I didn’t like this book . . . I really did. I loved the glimpses of European cities, especially the ones I’ve visited. Y’all know me well enough to be sure my little heart was palpitating at Ginny’s adventures in England and the friendship she strikes up with Richard, a man from Peg’s past.  Aunt Peg’s letters were really interesting, and I found myself reading compulsively to see where they would guide her next. The characters she met along the way were fun.

This was definitely an easy read — I finished it fast. Perfect for a car or plane ride. I would have liked a little more resolution at the end of the novel — what happened with the love interest? that was just it? and what’s going to happen to Ginny now? — but my fun reading about the international locations saved it for me.

3.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 159514191X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Booking Through… Friday: Reading resolutions

booking_through_thursLet’s go Booking Through Thursday — on Friday! I was running around yesterday and didn’t get to answer one of my favorite prompts . . .

Any Reading Resolutions? Say, specific books you plan to read? A plan to read more ____? Anything at all? Name at least ONE thing you’re looking forward to reading this year!

I have so many books waiting in my TBR stack and keep adding more and more titles to it . . . but there are many books getting ready to come out this year that I’m really looking forward to reading! I got incredibly excited when I saw Sarah Dessen has a new book coming out in June, Along For the Ride. She’s one of my favorite young adult authors — or just authors in general — and I can’t wait to get something new from her. Closer to the home front, the last installment of Meg Cabot’s incredibly popular Princess Diaries series comes out this Tuesday, Jan. 6 — Princess Diaries X: Forever Princess. I’m saving up my Borders Bucks to put toward that! I also recently acquired several books from my wish list on BookMooch, including Laurie Notaro’s The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death. Can’t wait to start there!

I’m participating in a few book challenges this year, so I’ll probably be reading more young adult than normal. I’m really into contemporary fiction, a little romance and a smidge of non-fiction, but I really want to start writing young adult fiction . . . that’s a writing goal for 2009! So to be a great young adult writer, I’m going to have to really know the genre. I’ve been reading YA since I was . . . well, a YA myself! But I didn’t look at it from the perspective I will be now. Plus, YA books are just fun!

Book review: ‘Cracked Up To Be’ by Courtney Summers

To say I couldn’t put down Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers is definitely an understatement. In a little more than five hours, I had devoured the entire novel. I’m a fast reader, sure, but nothing like this — and not usually until two in the morning. On a work night. On the day I have five projects to complete.

But I just couldn’t help it.

High school senior and former popularity queen Parker Fadley is a young woman so obsessed with perfection it nearly destroys her. After one terrible night the previous summer, Parker is forced to reconcile with a decision she made that she believes affected the lives of so many others. Seen now as a “bad egg” by her school community and on constant suicide watch by her parents, friends and guidance counselor Ms. Grey, Parker must decide whether she will continue to try and seal everyone out — her ex-boyfriend Chris, her parents, her former friends — or try to allow healing and, in turn, love to filter in. The arrival of Jake, the new student from California, helps her to deal with her defense mechanisms and uncover the truth of what happened one delirious summer evening.

Quite honestly, this book was outstanding. I was hooked from the second I started reading a few nights ago, though I could only get about 10 pages in before bed. Last night when I picked it up again I devoured the entire novel in a few hours — I was up until two in the morning, unable to put it down. We figure out Parker’s story — basically why she’s fallen out of popularity, given up her post as head cheerleader and wanders around like an angry zombie, making frequent if unwanted trips to the guidance counselor — in bits and pieces, the past revealed through her filter at varying intervals. Parker is such a real, faceted, complicated but winning individual, and I absolutely loved her relationship (or lack thereof) with Chris, Becky and Jake. Though she protests loudly through the novel that she only wants to be left alone, we know that couldn’t be further from the truth. We all love her anyway.

Books set in high school can often dissolve into cliches or be riddled by stilted prose. Summers’s writing is succint, moving and deliberate. It doesn’t feel like there’s a word that out-of-place. As I went on the emotional journey of reconciliation with Parker, I felt like maybe I was reconciling something, too. The ending did catch me by surprise, but was wholly satisfying.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough — in fact, I can’t really think of anything I disliked about it. While it was definitely a dark tale with some disturbing revelations, everything about it was totally addictive. Hopefully first-time novelist Summers, who lives in Canada, will continue to produce such winning, emotionally evocative work.

Just a word of caution: this is classified as “young adult” but, like many YA books, it deals with many complex and often upsetting issues. I wouldn’t recommend passing it along to any younger teens — I would say 15 is a good starting place. Like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, this novel will draw you in by telling the story in pieces, all of them eventually filtering together like a large, warped puzzle. But that puzzle is probably a little intense for younger readers.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 031238369X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Blog
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program

Book review: ‘Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist’

Another late night for me, finishing up Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist — a young adult novel co-written by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. I had reasonably high expectations of this short novel after reading many glowing reviews all over the place! And, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

We meet two 17-year-olds on the brink of major life changes — Nick, the straight bassist of a “queercore” band who’s desperately attempting to get over his relationship with high-maintenance Tris; and Norah, the daughter of a powerful record exec out for the night with best friend (and perpetual drunk) Caroline in New York City. Nick’s band (the name of which is not entirely appropriate for a little friendly blog like mine!) is playing a gig downtown and we open in the novel with Nick’s thoughts running rampant — Is Tris here? What is she doing here? Is she with someone?

Enter Norah, an innocent bystander at the club trying to keep one eye on Caroline and another on Nick’s performance. While instantly attracted to him, Norah is trying to recover from the recent re-ending of her own relationship — and not really looking for someone new. All the same, Nick feels compelled to not look like a schlub in front of his ex as Tris makes out with her new model-like boyfriend — and he promptly asks Norah to be his “five-minute girlfriend.” When she accepts, bewildered, he plants a giant kiss on her. Enter electricity.

The rest of the book flows through like a modern-day fairytale, I suppose. If you know the surreal quality of the movie “Penelope,” you’ll see what I mean. Nick and Norah journey around Manhattan “falling in and out, and maybe in and maybe out” of love several times. They journey to a strip club featuring provocative nuns (yes), eat at a diner, walk all around the city, sit idly by as Nick’s old car refuses to take them home and hold hands as the first few pink rays of sun begin to light the morning. The tension between them, they explain, is electric — they feel it underneath their fingernails, behind their eyes. It’s all-consuming.

They forget about Tris; they forget about Tal. Norah’s best friend Caroline is left to meander her own way home with two of Nick’s bandmates. They become dead to the world and only alive to each other.

About halfway through the book, I started to feel like maybe it was getting just a little too far-fetched . . . two teenagers wandering alone around the city with barely any money — and no one concerned about where they are and what they’re doing, traipsing around the city with strangers in the middle of the night? But I guess that’s just my own maternal instincts kicking in! Norah does check in with her father later in the book, so that made me feel better. I don’t really know what was up with Nick’s parents; they’re not really a presence in the story.

But putting my nurturing instincts aside, I definitely felt a little swept up with those nacent feelings of young love, lust and want bubbling up inside them. Wanting to know each other — wanting to know everything about each other. Wanting to share yourself with someone so completely, they know every little tiny piece of your thoughts, dreams and ambitions. Suddenly wanting to be more — and wanting to be better — for them. Because they’re now here. And that’s exactly how Nick and Norah come to be Nick & Norah.

Because, as Nick’s friend Dev explains in the story, love isn’t about want-need-sex-pain-heartbreak . . . it’s about wanting to hold hands. And speaking highly of The Beatles, Dev explains:

‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ First single. Fucking brilliant. Perhaps the most fucking brilliant song ever written. Because they nailed it. That’s what everyone wants . . . Not a marriage that lasts a hundred years. Not a Porsche or . . . a million-dollar crib. No. They wanna hold your hand. They have such a feeling that they can’t hide. Every single successful song of the past fifty years can be traced back to ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ And every single successful love story has those unbearable and unbearably exciting moments of hand-holding. Trust me. I’ve thought a lot about this.”

And the novel is sprinkled with little stories like that — little moments of illumination. There are several others that struck me and made me say, “Huh. Yeah. That’s really true.” I wish I’d had a highlighter with me!

The only thing that distracted me a bit from the actual story was the constant, constant cursing. In some cases I can see it was humorous or necessary in some way, but in so many other situations, it was just a little ridiculous. It was like taking a really decent movie — a really funny movie — and throwing in all this blood and gore out of nowhere to add “spice” to the script. I’ll be interested to see how the movie handles many of the “adult” issues the characters grapple with in the book.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 037584614X ♥ Purchase from AmazonRachel Cohn’s Website
David Levithan’s Website

Personal copy purchased by Meg