Nightstand Reads: Christopher Barzak, author of “Before and Afterlives,” shares what he’s reading

Christopher Barzak will be reading from his recent collection of short stories, Before and Afterlives, on Wednesday, June 25th at the Central Library on Level 4, Room 2 at 7:00 p.m. His novel One for Sorrow was recently made into the film Jamie Marks is Dead, starring Liv Tyler and Judy Greer. Christopher was kind enough to share what he’s been reading in advance of his visit.

Image of Christopher BarzakMost recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction, both because I love the teen perspective in fiction in general (it’s so up close and personal, very intensely emotional, and in the best cases, hard edged) and because I am a jury member for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy for a third year in a row. But despite reading a lot of YA in recent years, I’ve also been reading a lot of classic genre fiction, like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Invisible Man, as part of an ongoing writing project of mine (writing short form retellings of classic genre fiction). So the three books I’m going to recommend are all connected to those two spheres I’ve been reading within recently.

Just Finished: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. This is a family saga that feels a lot like Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, and a bit like Allende’s House of the Spirits. I wasn’t sure if it was a YA novel at first, mainly because the tone was so stately, very aged, like a fine wine. By the middle of the book, I had changed my mind. The story dwells on romantic relationships, largely those of younger characters, and while the book doesn’t dwell on romance in the way many YA books do (with a sometimes heartrending hysteria) it does traffic in its own intense emotions. The language the book uses to delve into that emotional intensity is that of magical realism. Replete with signs, symbols, omens, portents and magical transformations, this book examines young love and life from a lovely slant perspective.

Recently Finished: Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith. This is a stylistically interesting YA novel that has appeal to an upper range of readers as well as teens. It’s kind of a gonzo scifi/horror premise, mostly in the background, handled deftly, with humorous historical anecdotes about the narrator’s ancestor, and containing a complex boy-boy-girl love triangle, which never overwhelms but trucks along in a natural way instead of hitting the reader over the head. The humor of the book was sharp. The style was fresh. It’s perhaps one of the first YA novels I’ve come across that is “fashion forward” in terms of its styling of language and structure. I think that’s a huge win for YA books in general. The voice was entirely unique amid a flooded field of present tense “I do this, and then I do that. I think about such and such and how so and so would hate me if…”. I hope for m
ore interestingly stylized YA books like this that break up the static present tense voice that has dominated in the presentation of YA narrators over the past decade.

About To Begin: Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd. This is a biography of the novelist Charles Dickens, written by one of our most amazing literary biographers. Ackroyd brings a love of language to the subjects about which he writes, and nowhere is that more evident than in his summation of the life of Dickens, who becomes larger than life, like one of his own characters, within the first ten pages. I’m about a quarter of the way through and I find myself jotting down interesting details and notes for my own purposes. If you want to see behind the curtain of one of literature’s greatest figures, this is where it’s at.

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