Tag Archives: General Fiction

Author Interview with Stephanie Kuehnert
Author Interviews
November 20, 2009 posted by Nikki

Author Interview with Stephanie Kuehnert

Stephanie Kuehnert’s new book, Ballads of Suburbia, is our Book of the Month here at yaReads. We think Stephanie is a pretty amazing story teller and is a breath of fresh air in the world of Young Adult fiction. She deviates from the regular YA formula and her books are confronting, edgy, and real. It’s great to see someone pushing the boundaries. She was kind enough to answer some of our questions about Ballads, for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

If you had to choose a ballad that fits your own life story what would it be?

Okay, this is seriously the hardest question anyone has ever asked me! It’s hard for me to choose just one because different phases of my life had different songs. I guess, I’d have to say “The Young Crazed Peeling” by The Distillers though. There are things that don’t apply literally (I’m not from Melbourne, I didn’t have an abusive dad, though my mom does blame herself for me growing up troubled a bit), but it’s basically to me about getting through your rough teenage years where you’re bored and troubled and as Brody sings “you can wash it all down, swallow your story, get smacked up, yeah and go down in drum roll glory,  but it won’t solve it, committing self inflicted crime.” And then you’re “liberated from those sad side city streets”, find love, speak truth, and  “it hit me, I got everything I need. I got freedom and my youth.” Basically my troubled youth ended well, and gave me a gift of creativity, and I finally did find good love.

You’re obviously heavily influenced by music. What are your top three bands/artists of all time?

Nirvana, Hole, and Social Distortion, all of whom I discovered between the ages of 12 and 14.

Where does your musical influence come from?
Somewhere around age 10 or so music became as essential to me as food, water and air. I got into the Beatles first, through my parents. Then we got MTV and I started getting into alternative rock like REM, Jane’s Addiction, Depeche Mode and Faith No More as well as heavier stuff like Metallica and Megadeth. I had a couple friends who were always discovering new bands first, like one of them got Nirvana’s first album Bleach right before Nevermind came out and they got huge. One of them got stuff from a cool older cousin. That was where I heard Hole’s first album and I remember that friend brought the first Nine Inch Nails album to my 12th birthday party and we were like “The devil wants to f*** me in the back of his car?!?” BAD-ASS! But really it was Nirvana that had the hugest influence. Something about how Kurt Cobain screamed, it just soothed all that hurt inside and I wanted more music like that. So I bought bands’ albums that he mentioned in interviews. That’s how I discovered the Sex Pistols. Nirvana and The Sex Pistols were my two favorite bands in junior high and from there I went on to discover more punk. Punk gave me voice and a sense of release. It all comes from that.

Now for Ballads, how long did it take to write?

Actual writing time probably 2 years, but I wrote a really, really crappy book when I first started the creative writing program at Columbia in 2000/2001 called The Morning After. It had some of the same characters from Ballads, but it was a fictionalized version of my own life and that was not what I wanted to do. I had something to say about suburbia and I wanted to do it justice and find the write structure for it. So I shoved that manuscript in a drawer and went on to write my first published novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. In the middle of doing that, while I was in grad school, I took a class with Joe Meno and he did this whole lesson on ballads and that was when I realized I needed these confessional type ballads for my suburbia book. Still, I finished writing IWBYJR and then came back to Ballads in 2006. I need a lot of stewing time for my books. But the ballad structure was exactly what I needed. I wrote the book fast. I think the only scene from The Morning After that made the cut though was when Kara and Adrian meet.


Did you make a conscious decision to kill of Maya, or did the story kind of write itself that way?

I knew Maya was dead when I met her. Ballads, unlike IWBYJR, I wrote linearly. I wrote that epilogue first and when Kara had that vision of Maya, I saw her too and I knew that Maya was dead. I knew how she would kill herself too, but I had to discover the whys through the writing, let Maya slowly reveal them to me.

A lot of the characters in Ballads (Liam and Kara especially) say that love is for suckers, yet they both end up falling for the people they’re messing around with. Do you think that people can have no-strings attached relationships like they were both aiming for?

Kara’s story is not as uncommon as society would have us think. Why do you think teens (and people in general, I suppose) turn to self-mutilation, drugs and substance abuse to help solve their problems? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself and I would say no. I had a couple Adrian style relationships when I was younger and always got emotionally involved and got hurt. Now I’m a very emotional person so that is just me, but when I’ve seen other people do it, it seems like someone always gets hurt too.

Kara’s story is not as uncommon as society would have us think. Why do you think teens (and people in general, I suppose) turn to self-mutilation, drugs and substance abuse to help solve their problems?

Because as a society we don’t communicate well. That’s kind of the whole theme of Ballads, the whole tragedy of it. If parents had talked to children or children had talked to parents or other trusted adults or each other, things might not have happened the way they did. I hope this story creates a dialogue and gets people talking so fewer kids suffer in silence like the characters in Ballads and like I did as a teen too.

If Kara’s parents had stayed together, do you think she would have gone down a different road, or do you think she was destined to learn life’s lessons the way she did?

Well, it depends. If they stayed together for the right reasons and actually created a healthy environment, then maybe things would have been different. But “staying together for the kids” and creating this unhealthy silence wouldn’t haven changed things. Also Kara had other issues. She felt isolated and friendless, she might have still gone down the same path because of that. I don’t think anyone is destined for anything, there are always choices, but there are also always multiple factors that shape why we act the way we do.


Do you think Adrian will ever clean himself up?

Um, I don’t know. Part of me wants to hold out hope. Part of me is cynical because I have friends (ex-friends really) who are still in the throes of addiction and it seems like they will never come out. Adrian’s a lot like them because he just doesn’t care. If you don’t care enough to save yourself, you’re pretty much screwed. No one can save you but you.

For all those people out there who live by the motto “once a drug addict, always a drug addict” what do you have to say to that?

Depends what you mean by that. If it’s like a negative thing, like people can never turn their lives around, I think that is bullshit. There are always choices and opportunity for change. But it is a fight to overcome an addiction. I struggled with self-injury and even though I haven’t cut in eight years when a friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident last year, it took unbelievable willpower not to go back to old ways of running from pain. So yeah, you are always an addict in that sense where it’s not like you can just indulge again without consequences. But you can start fresh and turn your life around.

What would be your advice to teens reading Ballads that might be following a similar path as Kara?

Find someone trusted to talk to. Friends are good, but finding an adult is important too. There is no shame in therapy. My life didn’t turn around until I seriously started going to therapy. That combined with my art–my writing–helped me through my darkest times. Art is the best escape– no hangovers, no regrets, no scars. Finding some form of art–music, writing, painting, photos, film–to express yourself with is the best way to begin to heal. Along with talking. Talking is so necessary.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a few different things. It takes a while for the ideas to formulate so I do more than one thing at once until I really get going. I’m working on a book about a teenage girl and her alcoholic, still-teenage-acting mom trying to grow up and finally put down roots somewhere together. Then I’m working on a book with paranormal elements, that involves mythology and rock ‘n’ roll.

Book Reviews
November 10, 2009 posted by Nikki

Ballads of Suburbia – Stephanie Kuehnert

Kara hasn’t been back to Oak Park since the end of junior year, when a heroin overdose nearly killed her and sirens heralded her exit. Four years later, she returns to face the music. Her life changed forever back in high school: her family disintegrated, she ran around with a whole new crowd of friends, she partied a little too hard, and she fell in love with gorgeous bad-boy Adrian, who left her to die that day in Scoville Park….

Amid the music, the booze, the drugs, and the drama, her friends filled a notebook with heartbreakingly honest confessions of the moments that defined and shattered their young lives. Now, finally, Kara is ready to write her own.

The blurb featured above doesn’t even come close to doing Ballads of Suburbia justice. This is not your regular dose of girl-meets-bad boy-but-finds-her-way-back-to-the-right-side-of-the-tracks kind of YA fiction. There is nothing censored, dusted over, or left out of this novel. I’m not even really sure you could classify this one as YA. Having said that, I think its something all angsty teens should read, and not because it has a ‘drugs are bad’ message, although it does, in a round about kind of way. Mostly, because it’s so real and I reckon there is a whole bunch of teens wandering around suburbs just like Oak Park, feeling just like Kara does, thinking there’s no escape. Ballads is a tale about choices and how those choices can affect us for the rest of our days.

Kara’s decent into darkness essentially starts when her parents split up. They moved to the suburbs so they could live out their happy all-American fantasy of being a perfect family, only it didn’t quite work out that way. Not even close.

Kara is hurting and she’s looking for someone, something to make it all stop. Her quest takes her to fairly innocent places at first. Alcohol, cigarettes, a bit of pot. And it works, for a while, but soon enough, the pain starts to push through the mask and she knows she’s going to need something new.

Enter Adrian. Who needs drugs when you’ve got Adrian? He’s sexy, badass, and he likes Kara. No one has ever liked her before, not in that way. Who wouldn’t be pulled in by his trance? Before long, though, it becomes obvious that Adrian is bad news. He’s into hard drugs and he’s unapologetic about it. Soon the high of being around him isn’t enough either, and Kara jumps on the junkie wagon.

What I loved about Ballads is that the narrative does not, in any way, lay blame on Adrian for Kara’s drug use. Although she goes through some seriously messed stuff, Kara makes a choice, a whole bunch of them actually, and the narrative recognises that the reason Kara becomes addicted to heroine is because she allowed herself to. She didn’t need Adrian’s influence – hell some could argue that he didn’t ever actually influence her to use, but he certainly never tried to stop her – her pain and despair was so great that if she hadn’t gotten it from Adrian, I’m certain she would have found it elsewhere.

Kara’s problems essentially started at home, though I don’t entirely believe its fair to blame her problems on her parents, either. For me, it seemed that Kara is the kind of girl that was always going to at least dabble in illicit substances. Would she have taken it to such extremes if her family life had been more stable? Who knows. It’s impossible to say, but there are plenty of kids from well adjusted families that end up as heroine junkies. For some, I think it comes from within. Ballads acknowledges this and lays it all out on the table, judgment free. I bet that every single person will take something different from this novel, and that’s why I think everyone should read it.

This one comes with one hell of a warning folks. If you’re looking for something warm and fuzzy, don’t read this book. If you’re looking for a teen romance that takes a walk on the wild side, don’t read this book. If you’re looking for something that ends up all good and well in the end, then don’t read this book. If what you’re looking for is a real life read that will break your heart, fill your eyes with tears, and force you to face the hard questions head on, then this is absolutely, most definitely the book for you. If you’re looking for a book with complex and deep characters, then this is the book for you. If you’re looking for a read that will keep you thinking long after you finish the last word, then Ballads of Suburbia is a must-read for you.

Kara’s tale is a raw, hard-hitting lesson on just how much guts it takes to fight your way from the dark side into the light. Stephanie Kuehnert’s effortless prose and outstanding imagery will leave you standing front and center, right in the middle of all Kara’s chaos.

Be prepared to have your beating heart ripped right out of your chest.

Rating:: ★★★★★

P.S – If you’ve never known someone that’s affected by drugs the way Kara and some of her friends in this book are, I hope that you can look upon her story in a non-judging way. And if you, or someone you love has been kissed by drugs, then I hope you can take something of Kara with you into your days. Her story is more than just a fictional tale.

Cycler – Lauren McLaughlin
Book Reviews
November 27, 2008 posted by Nikki

Cycler – Lauren McLaughlin

Meet Jill – she’s on a mission. Prom is coming up and she is determined to bag herself the perfect date. But Jill is harbouring a big secret that could not only destroy her chances of showing up to prom on the arm of a hottie, but could also ruin her entire life.

Meet Jack – his parents don’t like him much, but he’s misunderstood. They keep him locked up in his bedroom so he can’t cause any trouble, but Jack is tired of being their prisoner. And anyway, he has his sights set on a girl, and he can’t very well capture her attention sitting in his bedroom, can he?

But Jack and Jill share a common problem that might stop them both from achieving their goals. Unbeknownst to all, they actually share the same body. For four days out of every month, Jill sprouts man bits and transforms into Jack. And Jack is all boy.

The concept is original. How many novels have you read where the female protagonist turns into a boy when she should be having her period? For me, this is the first. The story is narrated through both Jack and Jill’s perspectives, so readers get a chance to get inside both their heads. While they’re both so different, essentially they want the same thing: love. Will their gender mutation problem hinder their individual quests?

If you’re into the whole girl-meets-boy, girl-gets-boy type of story then Cycler is definitely a novel you’ll enjoy. Jill is awkward in her pursuits for love and is a character that I’m sure many teenagers all around the world will relate to. You’ll laugh with her, you’ll feel her pain, and mortification too. She’s a very real, three-dimensional character. Interestingly enough, even though he’s the cause of most of Jill’s problems, readers will undoubtedly also fall hopelessly in love with Jack. He’s a victim of circumstance and forgiving his poor behavior is an easy task.

As the novel closes, Jack and Jill appear no closer to a resolution than they were at the beginning of the novel. I can’t help but wonder (and hope) that McLaughlin is planning a sequel. Jack and Jill’s adventures seem far from over.

Cycler is quirky, funny and highly creative. Cycler is a standout debut novel that Lauren McLaughlin should be proud

Rating: : ★★★½☆

Before I Die – Jenny Downham
Book Reviews
November 26, 2008 posted by Nikki

Before I Die – Jenny Downham

This book comes with an extreme tear-jerker warning attached to it. If you spend your entire reading experience blubbering, don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Suffering from leukaemia, sixteen-year-old Tessa only has a few more months left to live. She has compiled a list of ten things she wants to do before she dies. More than anything else she wants to lose her virginity, so her friend Zoey takes her out clubbing one night to see if she can help make Tessa’s wish come true.

As Tessa works her way through her list she meets Adam, her next-door neighbour. On the brink of death, Adam makes Tessa feel more alive than ever before. What could a nineteen-year-old boy possibly see in a dying, cancer-ridden girl? Believe me when I say, more than you think.

Adam’s character is so real, so mature. Readers will fall in love with him from the very first moment he is introduced into the story. He becomes Tessa’s life force as he injects a new enthusiasm, a new desire to live just that little bit longer. Adam’s devotion and attentiveness, his adoration for a dying girl completely restored my faith in teenage boys everywhere.

But don’t be fooled, this is not one of those stories where everything works out in the end. The title itself indicates that Tessa will in fact pass on. I don’t feel like I’m giving away any crucial plot elements by divulging this, if anything, I’m preparing you for the inevitable. And I think that if you approach this book knowing that your beloved protagonist is not going to make it through, her experiences, her emotions and revelations become all the more important.

I cried, I laughed and then I cried some more. Before I Die is a beautifully written tale that readers everywhere will enjoy.

Rating: : ★★★★☆

Exit Here – Jason Myers
Book Reviews
November 18, 2008 posted by Nikki

Exit Here – Jason Myers

Powerful. Dramatic. Utterly compelling.

These are the words that come to mind when I think of Jason Myers’ novel, Exit Here. It is the very, very messed up story of nineteen-year-old Travis Wayne. Travis is mixed up in some pretty serious stuff. He’s into all kinds of drugs, drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, he doesn’t work, and he just flunked out of college. Sounds bleak huh? Well, I wish I could say that is the worst of it, but I’d be lying.

There is nothing warm and fuzzy about this read, so if you’re looking for something feel-good, this is the wrong book for you. Yet, it is definitely a novel that I think everyone – teens and parents alike – should experience.

When Travis comes home for the summer, his father hopes he can convince him to go back to school and make another go of it. But as soon as Travis rolls back into town, he falls back into old habits, hanging around his old buddies doing the same old thing: smoking, taking drugs, drinking and taking more drugs. And then there is Laura – Travis’s ex-girlfriend. He desperately wants to get back together with her, but first he needs to figure out what went wrong with them in the first place.

The drug taking in this book goes way beyond the realms of recreational usage, and there are many lessons to be learned from it. It is hard to say whether Travis’s problems arise because he is a heavy drug user, or whether he became a heavy drug user because of his problems. What I like about this positioning, though, is that is forces the reader to try and understand Travis a little more, and about half way through the book I found myself comparing aspects of my own life and my own personality with his. Even though we have very little in common, I can still identify with him on some level.

Because Travis and his friends are ultimately ‘cool’ kids, their drug taking is a little glorified. But make no mistake, Exit Here projects a very clear message that taking drugs leads to all kinds of trouble. Readers just have to watch Travis’s sister’s storyline unfold, or the horrific events that occur as a direct result of Cliff’s – Travis’s best friend – drug abuse. I felt uncomfortable throughout my entire reading experience because I knew, I had a sinking feeling, that Travis and his friends were going to meet a horrible demise.

And I was right.

Exit Here is powerful and compelling because its so believable. While not based on a true story, as the events unfold, the reader can’t help but ask if some small aspect of this story might be true. Travis’s voice is convincing, and at no point in the reading process did I find myself becoming bored with his thoughts, or uninterested in his actions. I recommend this book to all.

Rating: : ★★★★★