Thursday, August 11, 2011

The verse novel experiment: KARMA (Cathy Ostlere) and IDENTICAL (Ellen Hopkins)

Guys, I've been converted.

Somewhere along the way in my YA readership experience, I decided that I "didn't like" verse novels. To be fair, that may have been in high school, after I was assigned to read a really depressing, slow-moving, and semi-boring verse novel, and I decided that ALL verse novels must be depressing, slow-moving, and semi-boring.

Forgive my ignorance.

Way back in April, the delightful Cathy Ostlere wrote an excellent guest post on writing novels in verse, and I read an excerpt from her novel, KARMA ... and loved it.

The imagery! The lyricism! The emotion! The gorgeous, gorgeous details!

I knew I had to break my verse novel embargo. And when I do something, I do it right. So I doubled up on the verse novel awesomesauce with an audiobook of Ellen Hopkins' IDENTICAL.

I loved them both for very different reasons and highly recommend them.

Without further ado...

KARMA by Cathy Ostlere

KARMA just didn't let me go. I was unfamiliar with the backstory -- 1984 India, and the riots and political instability after Indira Gandhi's assassination -- but what drew me in were the characters and the writing.

One of my all-time
favorite covers.
Ostlere's words just flow along the page, and free verse was the perfect choice to highlight the urgency of the story. It's by no means a short book, but I flew through the pages, mesmerized by Maya's journey.

I love Maya. She's multicultural -- of Indian heritage, born and raised in Canada, half-Hindu and half-Sikh -- but she's a multidimensional, fully realized 15-year-old girl whose multiculturalism is just a part of who she is. She has crushes on boys, she's betrayed by her best friend, she wrestles with her parents' expectations, and she struggles to discover who she is in a ridiculously confusing and contradictory world. I connected with her immediately.

Her mother commits suicide, and she must bring her ashes to India with her grieving father. And then riots break out, and she's separated from her father in a foreign, dangerous place. Her traumas have only just begun.

Then we meet Sandeep, the other narrator, who speaks when Maya can't. I love Sandeep. He's impulsive and funny, charming, loyal, and desperate to prove himself. His family dynamics leap off the page, and his parts of the dual narration expose another layer of Indian culture and tradition, giving the reader a nuanced view of life in India during such a bloody, complicated, and divided time in its history.

Ostlere paints a vivid portrait of Maya and Sandeep's struggle to reunite Maya with her father and the development of their tentative love for one another in the midst of turmoil.

Do yourself a favor, and read this gorgeous, epic novel.

IDENTICAL by Ellen Hopkins

Wow. Certain parts of IDENTICAL were so difficult to listen to that I considered switching to the radio in my car, just so I could breathe and escape for a minute. It may have been the most difficult book I've ever read -- even surpassing Elizabeth Scott's harrowing but incredible LIVING DEAD GIRL.

But if you're up for handling the subject matter, then IDENTICAL is an incredibly worthwhile read. (Or listen, as the audio version is excellently narrated -- however, I do think you lose some of the impact and beauty of the printed free verse.) IDENTICAL centers on identical twin sisters, Kaeleigh and Raeanne, who alternate the narration of their supposedly picture-perfect lives.

In reality, their manipulative, controlling, alcoholic and OxyContin-addicted father has been molesting Kaeleigh since she was nine, and Raeanne's chosen to cope with the knowledge and her father's favoritism via drugs, sex, and bulimia. Their mother has abandoned them, emotionally and physically, in favor of her political career, and the girls' lives spiral further and further toward total disintegration.

Hopkins tackles the topic of incest without reservation. Kaeleigh and Rae have suffered so much psychological trauma and dysfunction since childhood that it's unsurprising they turn to cutting, eating disorders, promiscuity, and drug and alcohol abuse to escape. You want to scream at them to TELL SOMEONE, but you're so deep in their minds that you understand why they feel trapped in their world.

IDENTICAL is raw and disturbing, painful and powerful -- but Hopkins leaves you with shreds of hope. It's one of those stark, gripping novels that you'll never forget reading. A book you can't say you enjoyed reading, but you're glad you did, even though it took some time to pull yourself from its depths.

This book is not for everyone, but there are readers out there for whom this book will be a lifeline, and I respect Ellen Hopkins for telling this story -- I can't imagine how difficult it must've been for her to write.

Ok, guys! What do you think? Are you verse novel fans? Which ones do you recommend? Have you reviewed either of these? Leave it in the comments!


  1. Oh, I loved 'Karma' .. I think it was the first verse novel I've read. I've read a couple since then, but I didn't really care for them. 'Karma', though? So awesome. I think it just worked so well, and the poetry was really beautiful.

    My gripe about some other verse novels I've seen is that the writing is basically like normal paragraph writing except it's separated into poetry form... so then I think "why didn't you just write it like normal?"

    Surely there are other great verse novels out there, I just haven't experienced them yet.

  2. I've never been a 'fan' of verse novels, but I've never not been a fan either. I mostly had no real opinion of them. That is, until I read Karma. Then I decided that verse novels can be incredible and evoke tremendous amounts of emotion.

    Like Ashley, it bothers me when verse novels are just in poetry form, but the writing is basically a paragraph broken up. I've come across a few books like that, but for the most part, the verse novels I have read, have been very good. Karma being one of my all-time favorites. There aren't enough fantastic words to describe all the things Cathy Ostlere made me feel with her book.

  3. I haven't read a verse novel yet. But I will be reading one soon for my blog. I'm a bit nervous about whether I'll like a novel in verse, but you're giving me the courage to try it. Thanks.

  4. I admit, before I'd ever read a verse novel, I was wary of them. I ended up with my first verse novel by mistake. I had bought The Sound of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell and when I got it and looked in it I was like, "What the heck?" But I read it anyway and loved it! Karma is on my wishlist and I have read Identical. That book was just so...WOW! Definitely agree with you. And if you're curious, I did review it on my blog ages ago (before I was much good at reviewing) if you'd like to see it:

    Excellent post!


  5. I just talked about verse novels at my local SCBWI schmooze this week. I know they aren't for everyone, but I'm thrilled when readers, especially those who aren't so sure about the format, give them a whirl.

    In a lot of ways, verse is an experiment in telling a story in its most honest form. Not all (or even many) stories work best this way, but when they do, it's magical. When readers are willing to experiment with different styles, I think the world becomes more open, accessible, and real.

  6. Thanks for the great comments, guys. I'm really feeling the verse novel love! I replied to each of you individually via email.

  7. Karma has been on my shelf for almost a year. I had no idea it was so good. I've never seen a review on it. I will be bumping this one up the list.

  8. I absolutely love verse novels. My favorite is Impulse by Ellen Hopkins. As you know from Identical, she is fabulous. You should give her other books a shot too. Some other verse novels that I would recommend are The Day Before and Chasing Brooklyn by Lisa Schroeder and You Are Not Here by Samantha Schutz. She also wrote a memoir written in verse.

    I didn't realize that Karma was written in verse. With you recommendation, I will check it out.


  9. I've read a few verse novels -- Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, The Trial and Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryant. And most recently Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, which was stunning.

    Also looking forward to Caroline's verse novel!

    And btw, anyone in the Philadelphia area take note: Ellen Hopkins is coming to Chester County Book & Music Company on Mon Sept 26 to sign her newest book, PERFECT (which means I should get busy reading something by her).

  10. Identical is not only my favorite book by Ellen Hopkins (who is also my favorite author) but it's also one of my favorite books of all time. The way it's written is so gripping, every sentence has you dying to find out what's going to happen next. Although it's not much of an action thriller, Identical keeps you on the edge of your seat with it's twists and turns. Even though the plot is a bit complex, Hopkins makes it clear to see what she's trying to say with her images of metaphors and similes, her symbols and hidden messages. One of my favorite things about Identical is that it's written in free lance poetry so that the story is rhythmical in a subtle way, beautiful and captivating like poetry, yet comprehensible enough for readers who are used to novels to understand.


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