Two Co-reviews: Our Favorite Freaks of Nature

h1 March 10th, 2008 by Eisha and Jules

Jules: Well, hello there on this Monday. I’m going to take a break from Nonfiction Monday today, as Eisha and I are trying to get caught up a bit here on reviews of a couple titles from last year. For no particular reason, other than sometimes just being slow, we have yet to talk about these two YA titles that we dug and dug hard.

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Last August saw the release of Robin Brande’s first novel, Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, released by Alfred A. Knopf. This “ambitious YA debut” (Publishers Weekly) was met with critical acclaim and was chosen as a 2008 ALA Best Book for Young Adults; a Fall 2007 Book Sense Children’s Pick; and a 2008 NCSS/CBC (National Council for the Social Studies and Children’s Book Council) Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies.

The novel tells the story of high school freshman Mena Reece. She’s cleared her conscience by doing what she considered the right thing (regarding a young man named Denny Pierce) by her friends, her church, and her family — but, as a result, none of them are speaking to her. Needless to say, her school year is not starting off well (“My life might really improve if I could just stop feeling so committed to the truth”). She does make one friend in her science lab partner, Casey, who happens to be brilliant as well as, Mena comes to realize, funny and cute and entirely not afraid to be himself. Since her former best friends have cut her off (“Ahh, that’s sweet—you made a new little gay friend already,” one of them tells her snidely), Casey’s pretty much all Mena has right now. And when her science teacher, Ms. Shepherd, begins a unit on the topic of evolution, Mena finds herself both fascinated by and caught up in a new controversy between those former best friends from the conservative church her family attends and those aligning themselves with Ms. Shepherd, trying to keep intelligent design from being taught in the school. As a result, Mena undergoes her own personal evolution, as she considers the subjects of religion, science, indoctrination, faith, freedom, and much more.

Even though that book summary is not terrifically detailed, we still must warn anyone reading this who has yet to read the book that some spoilers are included below.

So, Eisha and I both consider Robin a friend, which means you just might question our ability to remain impartial about her first novel. But we think we’re capable of that impartiality and assume our devoted readers would know that about us by now (that we don’t make up crap and throw around compliments in reviewing, just to be liked). Plus, Robin’s far from a wuss and could take the heat if, say, we didn’t like it. Plus anyway, it turns out that the book is good (what is that prayer that Liz has when she’s reading the novel of someone she knows: Please let it be good. Please let it be good? I think that’s it).

And, oh yeah, one more thing: No one pays us to blog. We do this for fun, so we can review any book we want. Rock on. Onwards and upwards then . . .

Since we’re two 7-Imp’ers, we thought we’d approach this review by listing the seven best things about this book, just for fun:

  1. Jules: Eisha, I’ll start with the memorable opening.

    I knew today would be ugly.

    When you’re single-handedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies. Fine.

    It’s just that I hoped my first day of school—of high school, thank you, which I’ve only been looking forward to my entire life— might turn out to be at least slightly better than eating live bugs. But I guess I was wrong.

    Hoo boy. Drama. Intrigue. High stakes. Throw in a bit of humor. Who could put that book down?

  2. eisha: Religion. Let’s hear it for a novel with an intelligent, sensitive, likable, and terribly funny protagonist who also happens to be Christian. I love the whole religious spectrum presented here, actually. You’ve got the thoughtless, mean God-Squad bullies and the pompous jack-ass pastor representing the worst that a Christian can be. Then you’ve got her friend, Bethany, who is (as Mena describes her) “actually filled with the Holy Spirit,” although she lacks the ability to question authority and think for herself. You’ve got Mena’s parents, who aren’t really evil but seem to be using religion as a parenting crutch to keep their daughter out of trouble. And then you’ve got Mena and Ms. Shepherd, who don’t think that having faith and having a brain are incompatible. We see it all through Mena’s eyes, but I appreciated that we still got a taste of so many points of view.
  3. Jules: Word, Eisha. I like that spectrum, too. I like how the Horn Book review put it: “A surprising twist at the end makes room for God in what had seemed to be a rigid standoff between blind faith and scientific fact.” That surprise revelation from a certain key character gave the novel an added layer of depth that, if missing, would have left everything a bit too black-and-white. Or, as Booklist put it (sorry, I’m being my usual review-nerd self), “the tale is rescued from turning into a catchall antifundamentalist screed by providing an unusually appealing supporting cast.” Bottom line is that Robin doesn’t condescend to her readers — and could have if she hadn’t provided these religous gray areas (or also hadn’t shown all sides of Mena’s mother, as she did. I loved the “Son of a bitch!” moment in the car after that awful scene at Mena’s church: “hearing my mother use the SOB word was about as close to mutiny as I’d ever known”). And, you know, with the first whiff of condescension in children’s or YA lit, we’re both turned off and tuned out.

    I think this book would be such a perfect gift for a young teen who is exploring questions of religion and spirituality — not so much the ever-questioning one who has already indulged an interest in World Religion, say, but that student who has been raised to follow a particular set of beliefs within a particular sect but then finds him or herself with questions that aren’t exactly encouraged (as Mena starts to question the Adam and Eve portion of the Bible within her conservative church, though all the while never wavering in her faith). Robert Heinlein once wrote, “{a} long and wicked life followed by five minutes of perfect grace gets you into Heaven. An equally long life of decent living and good works followed by one outburst of taking the name of the Lord in vain—then have a heart attack at that moment and be damned for eternity. Is that the system?” (I’ve always liked that so much that it’s been committed to my memory, though I did look it up to verify I got it right). I thought of that when Mena says, “why should a good person living out in the jungle, who’s never heard of Christ, have to go to hell while some child in Alabama or Nebraska who was baptized but who grows up to do despicable things gets to go to heaven?” This is heavy stuff for the more philosophically-minded teen, just beginning to sort out his or her own beliefs.

  4. eisha: Funny. I am a big fan of Robin Brande’s blog, like everyone else in the world, because that woman is so dang funny. Turns out she can carry it for a whole novel. Original witticisms like “quivering hunk of weeniness” abound. Really, though, was there ever any doubt?
  5. Jules: Casey! I read this around the same time I read Gabrielle Zevin’s Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, and I just kept thinking, wow, good year for Duckie-like, supersmart, hot-in-a-decidedly-not-cool-(which-is-very-hot)-way protagonists. Not that there’s a Blane to Mena’s Duckie here (like there was for Naomi — Ace and Will — in Memoirs), but that he has that essential Duckie-ness. He embraces his individuality and his nerd-ness (“he is kind of cute in a non-classic, nerdy sorty of way,” as Mena puts it at the beginning of the novel). He’s smart and funny and blazingly himself. Or, as Mena thought about Ms. Shepherd when watching her talk about the Ebola virus in class one day, “wacky, there’s no doubt. But maybe wacky in a good way.”
  6. eisha: Puppies. Twelve adorable black Lab puppies. With distinct personalities. Too bad the novel isn’t illustrated, but Ms. Brande does a pretty good job conveying the cuteness anyway.
  7. Jules: The very believable coming-of-age that occurred in this coming-of-age novel. I love Mena’s metamorphosis from not-so self-assured to knowing who she is and what she believes. My heart broke slightly at the end of chapter twelve when she thought — after talking to Casey about their project — “{t}his guy is way too much of a brain for me. I think I’m in over my head. What’s going to happen when he finds out I’m so average?” Oof! Heart-breaking, but who hasn’t thought that before? Especially teen girls. But then there’s this loveliness at the end:

    This is how I view it: I’ve spent years with Teresa and the other church kids, perfectly content to be part of their species. I saw no reason to change. Then something happened—Denny Pierce happened—and something inside me started to mutate. It’s been painful to shed my skin or grow gills or whatever you want to call it, but now here I am, this new creature, and I don’t fit with my old species anymore.

    If you look at it strictly scientifically, it doesn’t mean I’m good and they’re bad or vice versa. It just means we’re different . . . All of us out here are mutating and adapting and doing our best to survive . . .

    . . . I’ve decided that from now on, I’m just going to go forward and be what I am. Stop looking back and wondering what went wrong. Nothing went wrong. This is how it’s supposed to be . . .

    I’m proud to be a freak of nature. It’s what gotten me this far . . .

    I love it. Seven cheers for freaks of nature! And Robin’s first novel . . . and to whatever she brings her readers next.

Last but not least, Eisha, I’m actually still reading this next book — Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb by Kirsten Miller, released last year by Bloomsbury — but thought we could talk a bit about it, since a) it’s taken me so long to get to it and b) you have read it as well as the first one, which I never read, and c) I LOVE IT (so far — and I know, I know, I shouldn’t review before having finished, but that’s one reason I’m doing this with you, not to mention chatting about books with you is fun).

For anyone living under a rock who hasn’t heard about the books, the first one, Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, was released in 2006 (also Bloomsbury) and tells the tale of twelve-year-old Ananka Fishbein (who would probably also be happy to be called a freak of nature). She discovers an underground room in the park across from her New York City apartment and meets a mysterious girl called Kiki Strike who claims that she, too, wants to explore the subterranean world. In this sequel, Ananka Fishbein (now fourteen years old), Kiki Strike, and the other Irregulars (the troupe that combs the underground world) encounter a Chinese mummy, a ghost, trained squirrels, and old enemies as they try to stop an art forgery ring and safeguard the secret streets hidden beneath New York City (that summary comes straight from the official Library of Congress title summary, since — as I mentioned — I’m not entirely done with the book yet myself).

I love this second title — thus far — for all the reasons the first book was praised so: It “celebrates the courage and daring of seemingly ordinary girls,” as School Library Journal put in their review of the first book; I love the guidebook-type endings to each chapter (which I assume are in the first one, too?); the dialogue is snappy and the writing concise; the action-adventure moments are exhilaratingly fun and the plot is well-paced; and Kirsten Miller has one slammin’-good style.

What did you love about this second title, and am I missing a whole bunch by not having read the first?

eisha: Oh, yeah, I totally loved the —

Wait, you haven’t read the first Kiki Strike book? DUDE. Serious. PUT IT ON THE VERY TIP-TOP OF YOUR JENGA-PILE-O-BOOKS RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

Okay, sorry, didn’t mean to yell. But I can’t even imagine how the second one makes sense without reading Inside the Shadow City. What’s great about the The Empress’s Tomb is how well it picks up where the first one left off, and the great premise Miller devised to reassemble the crack team of ex-Girl Scout prodigies for another escapade into New York City’s seamy underbelly. What’s also great is that you get to learn a lot more about Oona, who was fabulously mysterious in ITSC. I hope it’s a sign of things to come. It’d be cool if each new book in the series focuses on a different member of the Irregulars.

As you mentioned, Kirsten Miller has a knack for style and plot. Ananka is the perfect character to narrate these novels — her deadpan sarcasm melds nicely with the noir-ish settings and classic-crime-caper escapades. This one delivered all that, for sure… but I think it’s hard to top the first novel for sheer coolness. The whole concept of a secret underground New York is just so tantalizing, and it was so thrilling to be along with the gang as they explored it for the first time. There’s just no way to repeat that, but that’s not a criticism of Empress’s Tomb. This book does exactly what a good sequel should do — it fleshes out the characters a little more, takes them to new places, and leaves them with plenty of room to grow. And in one sense it even improved a bit on the first one — I think the writing is tighter, and there are fewer unnecessary snarky asides from Ananka (she’s fun, like I said, but once in a while it can feel a little interrupty to the flow).

Bottom line: yeah, this book rocks, but if I were you I’d put it down and read the first one, and then it’ll rock even more.

Jules: Now, see, that’s one reason I wanted to go ahead and chat about this book with you. I am considering doing what you suggested, but I will attest to the fact that I think Miller does a fine job of explicating former goings-on for anyone reading this book who did not also read the first. But, sure, I think the book’s concept is so original that I am finding myself wanting to stop and re-read the first. Hey, that just means more time in the world Miller’s created, and that’s not a bad thing.

Thanks for chatting books with me again, Eisha. I’m going to throw in a short round-up of other reviews of these two titles, since we’re so terribly behind on our own discussion about them. I’m sure to leave someone out, but I’m just going to list a few for anyone who might want to read more reviews. And if anyone wants me to add their review to these lists, email me. The lists are, by no means, comprehensive — nor do I intend them to be — but I’m happy to add to them.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature:

The Empress’s Tomb:

7 comments to “Two Co-reviews: Our Favorite Freaks of Nature”

  1. Probably my favorite review of Robin’s book will always be Bill Coughlan’s… hearing from a guy about a novel that some might mistake as just a girl’s story was really cool.

    Have you seen the UK covers for Empress’ Tomb? Interesting…

  2. I thought about pretending I didn’t read this, but then everything you said about Casey and Mena being proud to be who they are reminds me that I’m not supposed to fake it, either. So I read it! And I love it! Thank you, Jules and Eisha! I love that you teased out so many elements of the book and gave this such a thorough, thoughtful review. And yes, I admit it’s a little weird because we do happen to know each other, but then that’s what the landscape is like when you’re an author and a blogger in the kidlitosphere. I’m not going to not be friends with people who might accidentally read my books, or who write books that I’m going to read. I assume we will all be honest with our opinions. That’s what makes this whole thing work.

    Thanks a million. And to include my book in the same post with the marvelous Kiki Strike! Whoot!

  3. Woo-hoo! I love love love both of these titles.

  4. There was another Duckie type as well– that nice boy, Sebastion, in Parrotfish by Ellen Whittlinger. And I feel strongly there were more, but can’t think of them right now. I guess the first viewers of Pretty in Pink are now just the right age to be writing their own books…

  5. I loved Robin’s book. It’s one of those books I kept highlighting because I loved what Mena had to say. Poignant and funny.

    As for the Kiki Strike books…total coolness.

    Great co-review!

  6. Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature made me laugh *and* think. I love that about the book, and about Robin herself.

    I don’t want to shout, but Eisha’s right about the first Kiki Strike, Jules. It’s a must-read.

    It’s always so much fun when you two do co-reviews.

  7. Thanks to you all. I love co-reviewing, too. WOOT. There. I shouted this time.

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