Summer reading doesn’t always have to be beach reading*, no matter what all the marketing in bookstores says. We don’t have to be lazy and start reading trash–we can instead just plow through what’s been building up in our reading lists all year. I’ve read quite a bit this summer, but started and never finished much more (as usual).
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
What’s This About? Belzhar focuses on a high schooler named Jam Gallahue. After her boyfriend Reeve dies, her parents send her to live at The Wooden Barn in Vermont, which is a boarding school for troubled teenagers. Jam is accepted into Special Topics, which is an English class with only five students. They read only one author the whole semester, and this year it’s Sylvia Plath. But there’s much more to the class than at first meets the eye.
Review: Honestly, I only picked this up at the library because I knew of the author and I had been reading The Bell Jar. I cannot decide whether I liked this book or not. I loved the writing style (I’m a sucker for good writing), and the characterization of Reeve. This book pulled me in, but I thought that the build-up was a mite slow. The ideas were interesting, but towards the middle it became repetitive. I just wish it had been more of a mystery and less of a dwelling on the past kind of thing. I know I should have been wondering how Reeve died while I was reading, but it felt like the author paid so little attention to the issue that they had forgotten it.
This is an excerpt that explains nothing about the book and gives nothing away, but that I thought I would include because it was so funny.
“We lay around talking about how we’d be the prisoners of our parents for only a few more years, and then we’d be liberated. I said, ‘But what if being on our own is too hard? My mom makes all my meals. I don’t even know how to do anything like that. I only know outdoor stuff. But I still want freedom.’
He said, ‘We should learn to cook, man.’ And I said ‘Yeah.’ We made a plan that we would get together and teach ourselves to cook 3 things: eggs Benedict, pan-fried steak, and chicken any style. We talked like this until really late. And then he left, and I went to bed.”
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
What’s This About? This is a science-fiction novel marketed towards adults, but that is something I think most middle schoolers can handle. The protagonist, San Diego native and sixth grader Julia, offers an insightful look into an eerie scientific phenomenon dubbed “the slowing”. The earth begins to rotate more slowly, so that eventually the light part of the day extends to 24 hours. All this happens during an important time in Julia’s life: middle school, which Walker calls “the age of miracles”. Julia’s parents’ relationship withers as hers and her soon-to-be friend Seth’s blossoms. Friends are separated. Gravity is affected. Crops begin to die. And the people of Earth have to make the most of what could easily be their last chance.
Review: This book is not your usual science-fiction. Instead of there being all-out war, Julia goes about becoming a teenager as she normally would, which can be surreal in itself. The slowing becomes just a thing in the distance that yes, is affecting things, but which isn’t turning the world into an apocalyptic dust pit with zombies and murderers and aliens. It is beautiful and lyrical and introspective. It’s the kind of book where the writing is so perfect that even the tiniest scene is memorable and where I can re-read it over and over and never get tired of it. I cherish this book–the writing is meticulous, and the cover’s pretty amazing, too! 😉 This is honestly one of those books where I can’t give it all the honor it deserves in one measly paragraph, or even in a whole essay, but everyone needs to read.
American Girls by Alison Umminger
What’s This About? In American Girls, a teen, Anna, purchases a plane ticket to Los Angeles to stay with her older sister for the summer using her mom’s girlfriend’s credit card. But her sister is a struggling actress, not quite the A-lister Anna imagined. Soon enough, her parents discover her missing and come up with a compromise: Anna can stay in L.A. if she can find a job and pay her way back home. She engulfs herself in a study of the Manson girls, and begins to notice things she never would have before. Between an ongoing mystery, friendships with stars, and grisly details of a murderous group of unloved girls, Anna’s summer is suddenly much more interesting.
Review: I had high expectations for this book. I wanted an in-depth look at the Manson girls, but I ended up getting a mystery that didn’t really hold my attention and that wasn’t resolved very well. I also got some cheesy romance and a dash of best friend rivalry. Meh. I thought the Manson girls would be the main focus in the book, but all there was about them were facts and the occasional lament about how they just wanted attention. Book reviews and the book flap explain how Anna draws parallels from the Manson girls to herself, but they were more of an afterthought. There was so much else going on! Props to Umminger for trying to incorporate history into something light-hearted, but without the incomplete Manson element, American Girls would have fallen utterly flat.
Written in the Stars by Lois Duncan
What’s This About? Written in the Stars is a collection of Duncan’s earliest published work, written from the ages of 13-23. It includes fourteen stories and short paragraphs afterwards by Duncan that discuss her inspiration for each story. She also includes the age she was when each work was published, which is good for young writers to see. I hope one of my short stories is published by the time I’m 13!
Review: This versatile collection was great. Even though most of the stories were published in magazines like Seventeen and American Girl, not all of them were about love. One that is particularly moving is about a soldier coming home and not being able to connect with his family or friends. In a time when the only stories marketed towards girls were frilly and fantastical, it is important to see the impact Duncan had on teen fiction by creating fresh, smart stories. It was also really interesting to be able to read her earlier realistic fiction, as Duncan is now famed for her mystery thrillers like I Know What You Did Last Summer. Also included in the collection was a story titled “P.S. We Are Fine”, which ended up being Duncan’s inspiration for her book Hotel for Dogs, which is now a movie produced by Dreamworks and Nickelodeon.
Read, read, read in these last days of summer! Let me know what you’ve been reading in the comments below!
*1: Who even invented the concept of “beach reading”?! Yeah, I’m on some sand, better read some tabloid-like fic’ that goes in one eye and our the other! Whip out that Jane Austen! And who says you’re going to be on the beach all summer long?