Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Tour: How to Build a Girl

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In case my limited posting over the past couple of months isn't indicative enough, I'm here to tell you that actually being a librarian has, ironically, seriously hindered my reading habits. Without these book tour commitments, I wouldn't be posting at all, because I have barely been reading at all. The most I've read is a couple middle school books here and there, which are enjoyable and very relevant to my life right now, but I also really miss the frequent Kobo use I practiced earlier this year. Browsing the public library's eBook offerings, exploring an array of genres, crossing things off my 'to-read' list...ahhh, the life. That's one that has disappeared until May 27th.

Anyway, my most recent non-middle-grade book was Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl. And it was just the breath of funny, slightly crude, witty air to snap me out of middle school and back into the slightly vulgar adult world. [This is the hardest part of being an educator—censoring my language, stories, and references for a preteen audience. I'm not a very explicit person to begin with, but this is much harder than you'd think!]

This is the story of Johanna Morrigan in 1990, living in Wolverhampton, England (a boring industrial town, the opposite of cosmopolitan), and constantly embarrassing herself. Johanna has a sharp, mature sense of humor, but no one seems to appreciate it. She just doesn't seem to fit in in her world, so she decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde—embodiment of the hip counterculture movement, appreciated by peers, expert on underground music, and sex connoisseur. What follows are the ups and downs as Johanna navigates her youth with a vision of who she wants to be and a reality that doesn't always live up to it. It's the story of the constant reassessing and reinvention that you hope will eventually get you there.

My advanced reader's copy opened with a letter from Moran:

"As with all books ever, I've written it not so much hoping you like it...No—I hope you remember it, all over again. Being a teenager—those years where you veer wildly between believing you are a terrible nuclear accident, and thinking you might actually be here to save the world. How you don't know how to kiss, how you try to walk in a cool way. How you talk to yourself in the mirror—hoping your reflection is somehow wiser than you are. And it never is. How you build yourself—for the first time, but not the last."

One thing I am constantly reminded of/put in my place about in working with adolescents is that even if you're an adult that still feels like a kid, you are not still a kid. Just by virtue of having "been through it" already, our emotions and rationale and decision-making skills are so far ahead of actual adolescents. Every day I see the way middle schoolers process information and handle situations and how they deal with conflict and solve problems. And it is so much harder for them, because they don't have the experience doing it—-that's experience we've built by trial and error over a decade or more, and though you may not always learn from your mistakes, you're always learning from the situations. If you're almost 30 and you don't feel like an adult yet, hang out with some 14-year-olds, and you'll feel like one real quick.

And that's what this book does. As a teenager, I was pretty much completely opposite the main character of this book, but the little ways in which Johanna tried to find her way were so relatable. She does things out of character just to do them—it's a self diagnostic to see what, if anything, is revealed. I found this a really enjoyable character to follow and a very funny, entertaining read.

This post is a stop on How to Build a Girl's TLC Book Tour! [And regretfully, perhaps my last post until a major school holiday!] Visit the tour page to read more about the book and its author. This book's tour is almost over, so be sure to also catch up on what other bloggers are saying about it!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Book Tour: Ballroom

Here's what's unique about Alice Simpson's debut novel Ballroom: it almost feels like we're reading a collection of short stories. We're introduced to a group of characters, loosely connected by one commonality—Sunday nights at the Ballroom. We experience their lives in small doses, in particular moments that reveal their past and present and identify just who they are.

But instead of sharing only brief but detailed snippets of our characters' lives, Simpson continues beyond the limits usually imposed by the short story. In a novel-length narrative, with short chapters switching focus from one character to the next, we are given a complete look at several lives and the one thing they all share—a love of dance.

The time period is supposedly the late 1990s (according to the book jacket!), though with all the jumping back and forth between past and present, it's difficult to stay put in this particular moment. It's easy to see, though, that this is a moment in the past when times weren't so different from the present, but modern customs of communication haven't yet entered the picture—cell phones, emails, and texts aren't a social norm. The story revolves around six very different individuals who each find comfort in the weekly dances at the Ballroom. For each of these characters, dance represents everything they're looking for in life—love and excitement, a future of happiness.

Their lives all seem rather drab. Harry Korn is a crotchety old man, living with a fantasy of his young neighbor, Maria. Maria longs to be accepted as a professional dancer, hungry for the excitement it will add to her life. Angel, Maria's dance partner, has big dreams for his life, and the Ballroom provides the control and certainty that he's often lacking. Joseph longs for a wife but some serious mommy commitment issues always stand in the way. Sarah is desperate for the glamorous life found in old Hollywood films, and especially desperate for the passionate love story part of it. Gabe is the suave, sexy one that always seems to be in the distance—the one whose attention you desire because it means you are worth looking at. But beneath his aloof persona, he's got a troubled marriage and declining parents.

I say this book is like an extended short story because, ultimately, there is no real plot. The Ballroom is what brings all of these people together, but it's more of a backdrop to their lives than a backdrop to the story's action. There is no real action. I enjoyed the style of this book, because I do like the detailed character portraits that short stories often do so well. Despite my lack of sympathy for any of these characters (they had few redeeming qualities), I was drawn into their lives and curious as to how they ended up. Ballroom reminds us that an unremarkable plot doesn't mean that nothing is happening; it may be quiet on the surface, but individual lives are rarely so uncomplicated.

This post is a stop on the TLC Book Tour of Ballroom! You can visit the tour page to learn more about the book, its author, and find a list of the other tour stops. This tour is almost over, so if you're intrigued, be sure to read through the many great responses so far!