Merry Christmas, Esteemed Reader! I know I have already wished you a Merry Christmas, but is there such a thing as too much merriment wishing? No, I think not. If you disagree, I have no doubt you shall soon be visited by three ghosts, and that should sort you out.
I’m sorry to have missed you last week, but be assured your Ninja would never abandon you. Though this will be my last post of the year, I’ll be back and better than ever in 2011, when we’ll return to regular literary agent interviews, Book of the Week posts, and interviews with some of today’s best (and certainly coolest) writers. So look forward to that and in the meantime click the links to check out the back catalogue of all the amazing guests we’ve had.
So what have I got planned for you for this last Book of the Week post for the year the week before Christmas? A Middle Grade novel about Santa and/or reindeer and/or cutesy elves and/or magical snowmen, perhaps? An analysis of The Grinch that Stole Christmas? Nope, I’ve got something even better: a hard-hitting, edgy YA novel about a grim subject matter that has nothing to do with holiday cheer (perhaps three ghosts will soon be visiting the Ninja).
Don’t you look at me like that, Esteemed Reader! Did I mention it’s a hard-hitting, edgy YA novel by Courtney Summers. Well, that’s different then, isn’t it? I’m a huge Courtney Summers fan and I got my free copy of her newest novel two months before it came out so long as I promised to review it this week (Fall for Anything comes out today, just in time to be the perfect gift for the reader in your life). How could I resist? I’m only human and as such cannot be expected to deny the temptation of new beautiful Courtney Summers prose! Not only that but I have emailed her and she has emailed me back and we are totally Facebook friends. To heck with Christmas, I need me new Courtney Summers!
I’ve been a fan of hers ever since her amazing debut novel Cracked Up To Be (click here for my review) and she was one of the first authors to face the 7 Questions and she helped start it all (thank you, Facebook friend!). You don’t have to wait until Thursday this week, Esteemed Reader. You can read my interview with Courtney Summers right now (or just after the review). Through Courtney, I met literary agent Amy Tipton, who was the first agent to appear on this blog and who inspired me to ask literary agents if they wouldn’t mind answering 7 Questions now and again. Through Amy, I also met the wonderful Amy Reed, author of Beautiful. My copy of Cracked Up To Be cost me fourteen bucks and literarily changed my life (also one of the best reads I’ve ever had).
I know I’m already running long and the review hasn’t really started, but I’m hoping to sell you on Courtney Summers as much as on Fall for Anything. If you haven’t read her, do it now. Don’t wait. Because she is going to be a literary superstar (even more so than she already is). She is the Stephen King of gritty YA and I’m convinced her work will come to define the genre. I haven’t reviewed her second book, Some Girls Are, but add it to your list as it is also amazing.
My dream is to read a Courtney Summers’ book about teenage angst and zombies: The Teenage Walking Dead, or Night of the Living Prom, or Are You There God, It’s Me, A Zombie, something catchy like that. Some Zombies Are, perhaps? I have been asking Courtney to write this book for two years now and I need your help, Esteemed Reader, to take this campaign viral. So if you see Courtney on Facebook or at her blog, drop her a line and let her know of the growing audience of zombie-hungry fans. It’s only a matter of time before we convince her, and then an insightful and beautifully written zombie novel will be ours.
Okay. I’m going to actually talk about Fall for Anything now, so I guess I better toss up my warning:
This week’s book is actually edgy YA and is filled with adult language and adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.
You hear that, younger readers? I love you and I hope you come back in 2011 when we get back to Middle Grade fiction, but for now, scram. Those of you still reading, I assume you’re old enough for a mature (not really) discussion of a book with more adult themes and subject matter. Here are the opening lines to start us off:
My hands are dying.
I keep trying to explain it to Milo, but he just looks at me like I’m crazy.
It’s attention getting, no? It’s thought provoking and catnip to a certain kind of reader such as myself. I’m curious and I want to know more. But just in case you’re not the sort of reader who finds a quirky opener like that intriguing, Summers—wait, this is my Facebook friend we’re talking about—Courtney makes sure to hook you twelve lines later:
It’s the hottest summer Branford has seen in something like ten years, but I haven’t been able to get my hands to warm up since it happened.
Altogether now: since what happened? And like that, Courtney has her readers hook, line, and sinker. True, we’re not yet involved with the characters and caught up in the story, but we will be and Courtney has made a promise: this story is about something important, something so urgent it could kill a person’s hands, and if we stay with her she’ll tell us about it. This is what master craftsman(woman?)ship looks like and if you write YA fiction and haven’t read Courtney Summers, shame on you.
Our first person narrator and protagonist is seventeen-year-old Eddie Reeves, daughter of S.R., the noted artistic photographer who took the artistic photograph world by storm and then walked away from it all for a quiet life in Branford. And the thing that’s happened, minor spoiler of the first few chapters, is that Eddie’s famous father has leapt off a building and taken the pavement by storm. Wait, is there a more insensitive way I could have put that? No, I don’t think so.
As it happens, I don’t think so very much of S.R.. I know he’s a fictional character, but I hate suicides, and sadly I’ve known some and some children whose parents have thrown in the towel. As for parents who commit suicide and leave their children behind? There’s a special place in hell. Oh, I know I should be empathetic and humble in my lack of understanding, in my inability to grock the fullness of such cowards’ decisions. But I’m a fairly imaginative guy and I have a real hard time imagining the circumstances in which leaving a child with that scar would be acceptable. Noble self sacrifice, of course, but that’s not the same thing at all.
Can you imagine a situation in which a parent has killed himself and left his daughter behind for which the details of that parent’s particular situation would make the act acceptable, Esteemed Reader? It would take a lot of imagining. And that’s the problem.
More on that in a minute, but first I’d just like to share a truly excellent bit of description. Courtney doesn’t reveal S.R.’s suicide even a shade as bluntly and callously as I have. Here is the memorable way in which Courtney tells us that Eddy’s father is dead (we don’t know about the jumping until later) that puts the focus of his death solely on its impact to our protagonist:
Mom wordlessly opens her arms and gestures me forward. My heart inches up my throat and I go to her, burying my face in the housecoat. It’s starting to smell less and less like him and more like her.
The main focus of Fall for Anything is Eddy’s obsession with understanding why her father did what he did. At the halfway point of the novel, she heads off on a scavenger hunt for clues to this mystery. I won’t spoil the book for you, but Eddy doesn’t know, or at least, doesn’t accept what we already know without reading any further: this isn’t going to end well. Remember, I’ve already ruled out self sacrifice as a motive, so what are the chances Eddy is going to find a satisfying why behind her father's suicide? Understand that and you’re halfway to understanding what Fall for Anything is really about.
As for the whole hands-dying thing, it’s a really interesting metaphor that does not have a specific cause. Remember in Spider-man 2 when Spidey kept mysteriously losing his powers at the same time he was losing belief in himself and his role as a hero? The hands thing is kinda like that. Was it necessary for me to bring up Spider-man? Of course not, but it’s Christmas and all that suicide talk was bringing me down. Grab some eggnog and let’s talk craft.
Deep thoughts or no, emotional resonance or no, a writer worth her salt knows she owes her reader a good story if she wants them to review her next book (she may not after that taking the pavement by storm bit). Courtney delivers the emotional resonance and the deep thoughts. Of course she does. I’ve been thinking about this book nonstop since I read it and it is truly moving.
Part of that, to be fair, is the circumstance of the plot—a girl seeking information about her father’s suicide is a plot that lends itself to emotional resonance if handled by an expert like Courtney Summers. The metaphorical truths and insight to the human condition are something only Courtney can provide, but the potential for emotional resonance is inherent in the set-up.
Here’s the thing about tears, and you will shed some by the end of the book: tears have to be earned. The secret of Stephen King books is not the monsters, it’s the characters. Just as King earns his screams by getting his readers invested in his characters and their circumstance, so does Courtney earn her tears.
Every character in Fall for Anything is intricately drawn and believable. This is no fluke. I’ve watched Courtney create these sorts of characters with a skill so precise it appears effortless for three novels. I don’t know how she does it or I’d tell you, but she does do it consistently. And that’s why I can’t wait until those same characters are undead and hungry for brains.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the focus of this book would be on Eddy and her scavenger hunt for clues. Courtney knows better and the majority of Fall for Anything focuses on everything but that. Despite its grim subject, Fall for Anything is a page turner. There is conflict throughout and plenty of suspense.
Eddy has to deal with her mother and her mother’s best friend, who doesn’t like Eddy and in trying to help the family makes life more miserable. Eddy might just be falling in love with her best friend while at the same time she is falling for a new boy. Oh, and the new boy is a mysterious Edward Cullen bad boy type who likes to photograph murders that may or may not be staged and graphic acts of sex that might just involve him. Fun stuff that keeps those pages turning without obscuring Courtney’s true focus.
I have to stop now. This review is very long, but I promise not to write another long one this year:) I’ll sum it all up by saying: buy this book. If you’re a writer, and odds are good that you are since you’re reading this blog, study this book. Buy Cracked Up To Be and Some Girls Are and study those books. If you’re still not convinced, you can read the first five chapters of Fall for Anything here. And do stop by Courtney’s blog and let her know we demand teenage zombies.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Esteemed Reader. We’ve had a lot of good times this year and I can’t wait to see you again in 2011. I’ll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Fall for Anything:
Milo grins and I realize how long it’s been since he’s actually really smiled at me and that makes me feel worse, but good. But worse.
I catch sight of myself in the mirror and realize my father will never see me like this. I am becoming a person my father will never get to know.
Mom and Beth are downstairs. The sun is dipping into the horizon and neither of them has seen me all day. Neither of them has come for me. I’m afraid I’ll never forgive my mother for all the times she didn’t come for me. But whatever.
This is the part where Beth yells at me when I step through the door.
This is the part where Mom cries on me after Beth is done yelling at me. Normal. It’s so depressing how these things become normal.
Four windows line the left side of the school and, I’m sure, the right of it. The windows are broken or boarded up or missing altogether. The entrance is foreboding. The left door has been boarded up. The right door has been ripped off its hinges and rests next to the building, like it’s waiting for someone to put it back on.
I see hints of the ruin inside.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.