Stitches: A Memoir
By David Small
W.W. Norton & Company; 329 pp.
The second graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award, David Small’s memoir of an unhappy childhood is the best David Lynch film David Lynch never made.
Using negative space, chiaroscuro and well-chosen slashes of gray, Small captures the perspective of his younger self, surrounded by towering, monstrous adults who literally gave him cancer, leaving him unable to speak for years. The sequences aren’t told so much as they are presented as lucid dreams, reflecting the fear, confusion and defiance of a child who doesn’t completely understand the world.
Small, principally known as a Caldecott-winning illustrator, makes a stunning debut into adult works with a book that’s the equivalent of a good therapy session—one that leads to a joyous catharsis as young David finally receives the comfort and understanding he so badly needs. In theory, it might not sound like a feel-good story, but in practice it’s one of the most uplifting works of the year. —Zack Smith
Goth Girl Rising
By Barry Lyga
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children; 350 pp.
Many authors write about the high school years they wish they had; Barry Lyga writes about high school as most people actually remember it. Like the late John Hughes, he sets all his stories at the same small-town high school, but where Hughes emphasized comedy, Lyga focuses on the hell that is the teenage mind—filled with insecurity, guilt and an attitude that combines self-hatred with hatred for everything else.
Goth Girl Rising is the sequel to the first book in this sequence, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, where the comic book fan of the title entered into a potentially dangerous friendship with Kyra Sellers, the Goth girl. Now back from a stay in the hospital, Kyra resumes her life of shocking people, stealing cars and arguing with her widowed father, while half-heartedly plotting an ineffective “revenge” against Fanboy, whom she sees as abandoning her.
Filled with topical details (Kyra spills out her insides in blank verse and unsent letters to author Neil Gaiman), Lyga writes teens so real that you wish you could tell them they just need to let go of their anger and bitterness. Luckily, they’re usually smart enough to figure this out for themselves. —Zack Smith
By Lev Grossman
Viking Adult; 416 pp.
Lev Grossman knows science fiction and fantasy. As a book reviewer for Time, he’s heavily promoted the idea that we live in a world where “the geeks have won.” But the geeks don’t exactly win in The Magicians, a look at the fantasies of childhood from an adult perspective.
The first part takes a group of teens through a school for magic, where the friendships and couplings play just as big a role as spells and potions. In the second half, they find themselves adrift after graduation, only to retreat into a Narnia-esque fantasy world where quests and dungeons don’t solve neuroses and insecurities.
The fantasy detail is as fun as the relationship material is insightful, and The Magicians offers a lesson for those who graduate from Harry Potter and its ilk: Fantasy can help you escape reality, but only you can escape your own faults. Now someone just needs to teach Twilight fans a similar lesson. —Zack Smith
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead Hardcover; 416 pp.
Nick Hornby’s already having a great year with his successful screenplay adaptation of Lynn Barber’s An Education, and he continues his streak with his latest novel, Juliet, Naked.
Combining the themes of music-obsessed males from High Fidelitywith the female protagonists of his more recent work, Juliet concerns a college professor obsessed with a reclusive singer-songwriter, the long-suffering girlfriend who dares to pen a negative review about his new disc of unreleased acoustic (“naked”) tracks, and the singer-songwriter himself, who likes this review and begins a correspondence with the girlfriend.
Though Hornby has fun satirizing obsessive fans and Internet culture, the book’s themes deal more heavily with the redemptive power of self-expression—whether it’s breaking out of a lifetime’s rut or being reminded that there’s still potential within you. And it’s also terribly funny. —Zack Smith