No-Spoiler Zone: Two Great 2009 Books

Sometimes it’s tricky to know how much to reveal when I’m recommending or reviewing a book. There are books where I can tell you the whole plot and it won’t ruin it for you; and there are others where even mentioning the book’s genre will give too much away and diminish the reading experience for whoever reads what I wrote.

Two of the most lauded titles of 2009, which also happen to be two of my favorite books from this year, fall into the latter category. Though the two are very different, they have this in common: while I was reading each book, I was fully inside its world. And as soon as I finished each of them, I wanted to go back to the beginning and immediately start reading again to see what I’d missed, and how the puzzle was put together.

Both titles could be categorized as interstitial—they don’t fit neatly into one literary genre. The first, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, is utterly grounded in its time and place, which is New York City in the late 1970's, but doesn’t have that remote, “this is how we did things then” sense that so many historical novels do. Rather, to me, someone who is the exact same age as the protagonist, Miranda, (twelve years old in 1978), the book has the feel of a contemporary novel actually written at that time, like something I could have plucked off the spinner of paperback books in the reading corner of my 3rd grade open classroom and then spent the whole day with.

Though it reads like 1970’s contemporary realism, When You Reach Me has more to offer than wry first-person narration and latchkey kids and seedy delis and an un-gentrified Upper West Side and a mom studying for her appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid (though those would be plenty for me). There’s a speculative fiction element that’s central to the book. You know within the first pages that something weird is going on, but it takes most of the book for the puzzle to all come together. And when it does, it’s immensely satisfying and sad and moving.

Liar, by Justine Larbalestier, is also set in New York City—in the present, this time—and also has a female, first-person narrator, and a family with a small apartment and without a lot of money. And you could also say it’s interstitial. But that’s about it for common elements. Unlike When You Reach Me, whose ideal audience would be kids in about grades 4 through 7, Liar is very much a teen or young adult novel, with darkness at its center. The narrator, Micah, tells us  right away that she’s a compulsive liar. But, she promises, in these pages she will tell the truth. Of course, most readers won’t believe that promise. And they’d be smart not to.

I wrote about Liar earlier this year, when the original cover design occasioned a fair bit of controversy  in the book world. I hadn’t yet read the book then, and now that I have, it’s hard to imagine it being released with the original cover. Although the book isn’t about race, the fact that Micah is African-American (or rather, mixed-race, since her mom is white) is an important aspect of her character, and having a white girl’s photograph on the cover of the book definitely would have misled me into thinking that she was lying about that, too. In fact, some of what Micah tells us—including her race-- is true (within the world of the novel, which is of course a big lie itself, if you count fiction as a lie). It’s just that you’re never quite sure what to believe…

I read a lot about kids’ and teen books, but I was lucky enough to come to both When You Reach Me and Liar with almost no knowledge of their contents. I’d wish the same for any reader of these books, though the longer they’re around—and I expect that both will be in print, and read, for a good long while—the harder that will be. So if you’re looking for a last-minute holiday present for a kid or teen who loves reading (or an adult who loves kid or teen books), my recommendation would be to buy them one of these titles. Tell them you heard it was terrific.

And don’t tell them anything else.

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Nice post!

If I was putting together a list of "Books that Knocked My Socks Off" from the last few years, then "When You Reach Me" would definitely be on it. So would "London Calling" by Edward Bloor. Haven't read "Liar" yet, though obviously I should, but "What I Saw and How I Lied" by Judy Blundell is another sock-knocker.

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