I Crawl Through It, by A.S. King

I Crawl Through ItTrue story: I am so on board the A.S. King train that when I saw a pile of advance copies of this book at the library conference I went to this summer, I snagged one immediately, even though I already had a digital advance copy and basically no plans to read it in print. It’s just so pretty! And it’s by A.S. King! I wants it!

When I finally did get around to reading it, entirely digitally, I was… confused. I haven’t read all of King’s books (a situation to be rectified indeed!), but all of the ones I have read have followed a similar pattern: normal teenager, normal but slightly heavy teenager problems, weird magical realism element that may or may not directly affect the plot or story.

But in this book, and King acknowledges as much in the, um, acknowledgements (haaa), it’s all the weird, all the time, and it’s more like magical surrealism.

The main character, Stanzi, is our more or less normal teenage girl with unspecified-at-the-outset normal teenage problems. Her friends, on the other hand, are super weird. Gustav is building an invisible helicopter that Stanzi can only see on Tuesdays. China walks around literally (figuratively? figuratively literally?) inside out hoping maybe someone will ask her why. Lansdale has hair that grows when she lies, and so has very very very long hair. Also, there is a dude who hangs out in the bushes giving away crafted letters (like, As and Js and Qs and the like) in exchange for kisses and possibly other things.

So, weird people. Also weird situations. These teens go to a school where someone is calling in bomb threats every day, so the kids are constantly doing bomb-threat drills, and when they’re not wandering in and out of the building due to potential bombs they are taking standardized tests because that’s how the high schools do. And that helicopter I mentioned? Gustav and Stanzi end up taking a ride in it to a land of geniuses from which there are no departures.

And, let me be clear, I have not named all the weird things in this book. It is weird. But it’s also, as is to be expected from King’s books, a smart look into the lives of teenagers. All of the characters have their issues, and with those issues a need both to hide them and to share them with everyone else. But everyone else is so busy with their own issues that there’s not time to play those games until it’s nearly too late. Oh, teenagerhood, how I do not miss you. Of course, the parents in this book are all at least as weird as their kids, so that’s something to look forward to, I guess?

This is definitely not the book I was expecting, and I spent much of it with a look on my face approximating “What even is going on here?” But still it was fun and fascinating and it’s A.S. King so it was wonderfully written and I would definitely not recommend this as your first King book but if you’ve liked her others you will like this one.

Now to go work on her backlist some more until her next book comes out!

Recommendation: For lovers of the superest of super weirdness.

Rating: 8/10

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Everybody Sees the Ants, by A.S. King

Everybody Sees the AntsThis book had been sitting in my office for approximately forever, requested in a fit of “read ALL the A.S. King” and then ignored because I am terrible. But eventually I found myself without a million other things to read and I seized the opportunity to continue my magical King journey.

And I do mean magical — all of King’s books that I’ve read have a slightly supernatural feel to them, and this one is no exception. In this story, our protagonist, Lucky, dreams that he visits his POW grandfather and wakes up with items from his dreams littering his bed. Lucky also has some imaginary ant friends who wander around pointing out important things and saying things about other people, but who doesn’t? Hence the title, I guess.

But as usual, the magical part of the story isn’t really the focus; what we really have here is the story of a high school freshman who just wants to get through high school but is hounded on one side by school bullies and on the other by a school administration that cares more about Lucky’s poor taste than his daily struggles. Lucky’s parents aren’t any help as they’re busy ignoring the problems in their own relationship, and of course Lucky isn’t too proactive about talking to anyone either, figuring that the adults in his life should just understand what’s wrong without him having to actually tell him. But with time and a sweltering summer trip to Arizona to visit family, Lucky is able to see that he’s not the only person with personal and family problems and is able to see that he’s a pretty cool dude regardless.

I quite enjoyed this book, which so perfectly captures the awfulness of teenagerhood and also reminds the reader that everyone has problems that feel like the only problems that exist, and that solving those problems mostly involves facing them head on. I also enjoyed the POW storyline more than I thought I would at the start; the connections to Lucky’s life and story are strong and the resolution of Lucky’s quest to save his grandfather is as complex as it should be. There were a few simplistic bits, including a quasi-manic quasi-pixie definite-dream girl and some awkward fat shaming, but in a story narrated by a 14-year-old it’s a touch more allowable than usual.

Recommendation: For teens as well as adults who are safely past the traumas of teenagerhood.

Rating: 8/10

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, by A.S. King

Glory O'Brien's History of the FutureEarlier this summer, I had this grand plan to finally catch up on all of A.S. King‘s backlist, because I knew that Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future was coming out and I feel compelled to read things in order. So I read Ask the Passengers, which was her fourth novel but only my second of hers, and clearly this plan was not well thought out from the beginning but I had good intentions, and then I got caught up in all the other books that came out this summer and I was like, eff it, I’ll catch up later, give me my teenagers drinking dead bats.

Because, um, that’s kind of the thing that happens in this book. Not the only thing, obviously, but the thing that everyone’s talking about because weird.

There’s no real reason why Glory and her friend Ellie drink this bat, except that there’s this bat, see, and it’s dead and kind of mummified and there’s this beer, see, and it’s beer and makes all sorts of ideas seem good, and also Glory’s not really sure Ellie is her friend and she’s not sure what her future holds, having not applied to any colleges and having no plan for her “gap year”, and she’s got a dead mom and an absent-ish father and you know, you gotta try everything once, right?

And that, that right there, is why I am in love with this book. There’s the weird-pants conceit of the story, which is that Glory drinks this bat and starts seeing the past and future of every sentient creature she looks at (except for herself), but there’s also this completely realistic base for the story, in which people are people and they have issues and also Issues and they do things and stuff happens and sometimes it’s important.

But also I love the weird-pants part of the story, in which Glory sees people’s pasts and futures and realizes that a) everyone’s got a messed-up life, not just her, and b) that if she gets off her indecisive butt, she can help make the world a lot less messed up. Because as she looks into everyone’s future, she pieces together a world not dissimilar to the one in The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are legislated into, like, absolutely-last-class status and the country finally splits apart over the issue and there is war and horror and it’s… not great, is what I’m saying. And I’m not sure exactly when King wrote certain parts of this book, but some of the events she has leading up to this awful future have already, recently, come to pass and it’s a liiiiiittle creepy.

I know that at least my corner of the internet is saturated with anti-misogyny rants and pro-awesome-women posts, and it is possible that you are already like, I am not going to read this book that thinks all men are terrible, but let me assure you that this future business is just a small part of the novel, and that “we shouldn’t hate women” is not the only take-away from this story. Glory’s path leads to the realization that she is important in her own way that has nothing to do with her family and the legacy left by her mother’s suicide, that friendship is an imperfect science, and that life is more complicated than anyone wants it to be, among other small lessons learned. Her history of the future could just as easily be about climate change or racism or a world in which teens fight each other to the death, but I am both not surprised and happy that King chose ladies and their rights to write about. Though “A.S. King writes The Hunger Games” is a thing the internet needs to get on right away. I’ll be right here.

Where was I? Oh, right. Glory O’Brien is an awesome kid who is going to do awesome things, and I kind of wish she were real so I could say I knew her when.

Recommendation: For lovers of realistic but not too realistic teen fiction.

Rating: 10/10

Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King

Ask the PassengersA long time ago, I read King’s book Please Ignore Vera Dietz largely because I once shared a name with the protagonist but then it turned out to be super awesome and included a flow chart so even more awesome. Then King’s next book came out and I was like, I should totally read that, and then this one came out and I was like, I should totally read that, and then her next book came out… point is, I’ve put off reading her books long enough, so I am embarking on a quest to catch up. But not too quickly, or what will I have left to read?

I’m glad I waited this long to read Ask the Passengers, because as it turns out it is the book that I had thought or hoped that Speak would be, and it would have sucked to read Speak second. Both books deal with a girl with a secret (not the same secret), but where Anderson’s narrative is removed from the main character and we don’t really know what’s going on in her head, King’s gets right up in Astrid’s brain and gives us all the good thinky thoughts.

So Astrid is a New York City girl living in Podunkville, PA after her parents moved the family for reasons. Her small town is nice and all, but everyone is all up in everyone else’s business because that’s the traditional small town sport. Astrid’s more or less made her peace with this, but it does put a kink in her burgeoning relationship with another girl. Astrid’s girlfriend wants Astrid to come out as a flag-flying lesbian so they can date in the open, but Astrid isn’t even sure if she likes girls, plural, or just this one particular girl, or even this one particular girl, so could everybody maybe just give her a minute to decide?

I really loved this book, which pretty well encapsulated my teen angst over… every single thing that ever happened to me. I like that Astrid is smart enough to recognize all of the gossip and curiosity as the shenanigans that it is, but that, realistically, that knowledge is not as super helpful as it really should be. On the plus side, Astrid has old dead philosophers like Zeno and Socrates to turn to (the latter in an oddly literal way), as well as the titular passengers who fly over her town and who get their own brief narrative interludes as Astrid sends her love to them and they hear or otherwise receive it. It’s no talking pagoda but I’m still intrigued.

I absolutely love the way King writes her teenagers and even their parents, absent as they may so far be, and her way with words still keeps me somehow both glued to the pages and flipping through them as fast as I can to find out how things are going to play out. I am really excited to keep poring over her backlist, though come come October you’ll probably find me gushing about her upcoming book, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, which, with a name like that, I could not possibly turn down.

Recommendation: For anyone who has ever been an over-thoughtful teen and fans of John Green who want a little more magic in their lives.

Rating: 9/10