March 31, 2006

The Unfavorite Twin

I haven't posted in a while, for which I apologize. I have a backlog of reviews to write, now, because I've been reading like crazy. (Funny, that's sounding like a familiar litany...) Here's the first.

I recently borrowed a friend's much-loved, battered, worn copy of Jacob Have I Loved, a classic Newbery winner by Katherine Paterson which, I'm ashamed to say, I hadn't read before.

The funny thing is, reading the blurb on the back of the book, I could see why it hadn't appealed to me as a young adult. Two sisters, one of whom everyone loves, the other of whom—the narrator, Louise—is overshadowed. Life in a very small town on a very small island in the 1940s. A coming of age in which Louise finds that her childhood dreams of being a waterman like her father "did not satisfy the woman she was becoming." These things did not interest me as a young adult. I was much more interested in, as I recall, dragons, magic, suspense, and ESP.

Jacob Have I Loved contains none of these, and so it passed me by. But realistic, historical, and coming-of-age stories are a lot more interesting to me now, as a reader and a writer, so I was very excited to plunge in. Kathleen, who lent it to me, said it's one of her all-time favorites, intriguing me further.

I wasn't disappointed. This book depicts life in a time and setting that's unfamiliar to me as a modern urban reader, bringing it to life through loving, vivid, detailed description. I learned about boats. I learned about island weather. I learned about the changing role of women during and after wartime, and how this might affect someone growing up in a place where things don't change very quickly. There might not be any dragons, but there's a big storm, a crush on a MUCH-older man, and a sinister grandma, not to mention a family secret or two. I was surprised I enjoyed it so much. I still don't think I would have been interested as a teenager—just speaking of myself here—but I'm really glad I picked it up now, as an adult.

Overdue News Tidbits

The International Children's Digital Library looks like a fun way to browse children's books in digitized form. There are a lot of really cool-looking images from early 20th-century books and even earlier. As more and more books from around the world are added to the library, it seems like this could turn into a great resource, not only for seeing what's been published, but also for getting ideas and inspiration.

The ALA has released its list of the 10 Most Challenged Books of 2005. What fascinates me are the books that seem to crop up in this context again and again over the years: Judy Blume's Forever, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. Apparently Captain Underpants has joined that illustrious list. But plenty of young adult authors are up in arms about this, and have formed a blog called AS IF! Authors Support Intellectual Freedom. Be sure to check it out--members include Chris Crutcher, Jeanne DuPrau, Laurie Halse Anderson, David Levithan, Gregory Maguire, Scott Westerfeld, and dozens of others.

Read about the latest Newbery and Caldecott winners, Lynne Rae Perkins and Chris Raschka.

March 29, 2006

Desert Dreams: The Writer is Inn

Casa Libre en la Solana: I've never in my life gone away for a writing retreat. I don't have kids, I don't have pets that need walking (my snake, actually, periodically forgets that I exist, and vice versa); I have a pretty low-maintenance life, so I keep thinking that I don't need to "get away." But one of our cool Mills poets pointed out this place, and now I think I need to go.

This was what a couple of MFA's came up with who wanted not to let go of what goodness they had gotten from their writing immersion. A movable feast, a revolving door of a writing group, this is a not-for-profit writing refuge that looks wonderfully sunny and warm and nurturing in contrast to my cluttered office, the dark clouds outside my window, and the email that keeps sliding into my in-box.

Which would be less trouble, to unplug the phone, or fly to Tucson?

March 27, 2006

Words about waiting, writing, and revising

It's been a few weeks since I've put out any official update on the *S.A.M. situation and, since he's safely out of town now at the Bologna Children's Book Fair, I thought I'd let everyone know that as of last Friday I'm not in the process of... waiting. For more instructions on...more revisions. Yes, that's more waiting for more revisions. It's the story of my life.

Actually, the waiting is good - this time it's waiting for an 'editorial guidance' letter from a house which is willing to work with me on a novel they feel has potential, and since both of us are on the same page of wanting to see this through, I think in all likelihood that I will soon ("months-and-months-later" kind of soon, because publishing time is like eschatological time on a different sliver of the space-time continuum) have a contract that is a good fit for myself and for the house.

It's been a pretty up-and-down process. Friends who have been helpful and supportive through the beginning excitement have begun to express dismay over how many times I've been asked to edit. Someone asked me plaintively if it's really like doing work on a cadaver and if it's like that, they don't want to do it. Ever.

In considering - and taking back- (it's not like autopsy, I just meant it hurt less now!) my rather drama-diva moanings about this, I realize that I believe this process has been worthwhile. a.) because it's worthwhile seeing what other people have to say about your work, so the guidance/edit process is worth it, and b.) because it wouldn't have been worthwhile had it come earlier than now because my work wasn't ready. That might seem like something odd to say, but considering that I quit my last full-time job almost ten years ago now, I realize it has taken me that long to write and write and write and practice and try to hone my craft.

How crushed I would have been, as a writer, if I'd had so many people telling me "change this, change that," at the beginning. I am so thankful that I had no agent at the start of all of this. I am also deeply grateful for the sharp and priceless grit of my master's program and my writing group, because in these last years, I've been too busy writing to spend too much time submitting and revising for the eyes of the market. Instead, I've sought the appreciation of the eyes of my readers, and worked on honing my craft.

It's crucial time, I think, this writing time. Literary magazines and conferences all talk about market, market, market. We get hives and hyperventilate over the almight submission letter, the query letter, the acquisitions editor over at so-and-so. We over-emphasize product in this world -- we always want an end result, to the point where we commodify art into something that has dollar $ign$ all over it. We even commercialize ourselves as writers -- we barely want to hold our heads up and admit audibly (much less loudly) that we're writers unless we've had something published in the last five minutes. A vein in our head throbs that we're only as good as our last sale. It's amazing the things we tell ourselves don't matter -- stuff published in high school, college newpapers, collegiate literary journals, stuff published for work or church communities -- we devalue our little 'hobby' down to where in the end all that matters is a publishing contract and a fat cheque. (I know we have help with that - the way people regard our occupation comes into it too, yes.) I don't quite know how to stop that, but I want to go on record as making an attempt, at least, to buck that particular trend. I'm making it my daily mantra to say Je suis un auteur.

I've been a writer since my first Author's Convention in the first grade, where I took home a framed certificate for Best Story. I've been a writer since I used to draw conversation bubbles in the J.C. Penny's catalog (with special stories told by the ladies in bras and underwear - really hysterical stories, now that I think about it. Uses of irony, early on!). I've always been a writer. And, as long as I write, I'll always be a writer.

...and now I shall climb down from my soap box.

(*Of course, the secret agent man!)

Now, here's something exciting from our SCBWI NORCA list-serv that goes right along with my thoughts today. Historical fiction author Susan Lindquist is going to be speaking at the SCBWI Summer Intensive June 24th at Fort Mason on novel revision! She'll be covering such writer thoughts as:

o I loved writing the first draft. It was creative, and fun. But now I’m overwhelmed by the thought of revising. Where do I start?

o An editor sent me a revision letter that I: a) don’t understand; b) don’t agree with; c) is so long and involved that I feel like giving up before I even begin; or d) all of the above.

o I’ve been thinking up ways not to revise just to make it easy.

o My critique group said they love my book, but I still feel it needs work.

o My critique group said the book needs work, but I love it just the way it is.

o I’ve begun revising but feel like all I’m doing is making things worse.

o I know the basics of editing, but now I realize that editing isn’t the same as revising. How do I do that?

o I don’t know what’s good and what’s not. I’ve lost my perspective and objectivity.

o I’m pretty skilled at fixing little stuff, but can’t seem to get a handle on the bigger picture.

o I’m stuck. I keep revising the same scene over and over and can’t seem to move forward.

o Sure, there are weak spots in the book, but if I’m lucky, maybe no one will notice.

o I’ve had a draft hidden in the back of my file cabinet for longer than I can remember. Maybe I’ll pull it out and revise it, but . . .

The purpose of this workshop is to learn how to revise without losing the essential bits of your story. At the conference, Susan promises to teach you to develop a revision plan that will fit your project and personality, so you can go home with tons of tips and tricks that will carry you through to “The End.” To enroll, send a check made out to SCBWI for $85 ($95 for non-
members) and name, address, e-mail address to: 2912 Diamond St., #326 San Francisco, CA 94131. Fee includes box lunch! Send questions to:

Susan Hart Lindquist is the author of three middle grade novels:
WALKING THE RIM (Boyds Mill Press), WANDER (Delacorte), and SUMMER SOLDIERS (Delacorte). She has been on the faculty at a number of conferences, including the Big Sur Children’s Writers Conference, the SCBWI Asilomar Conference, and the William Saroyan Writers Conference. She is a former instructor at the Institute of Children’s Literature and a recently retired SCBWI Regional Advisor.

Colt Trammel: Under Construction

It's not your typical sports book, because we never see the protagonist play -- but baseball still figures largely in A.M. Jenkins' Out of Order. The season is just six weeks away, and Colt Trammel might not get to play, not unless he brings his grades up to a C average, according to his rather out-of-patience mother. Colt's still dreaming of baseball, however, and gets out there to play every time he can. It helps him to forget everything else that's going on -- that school -- especially English and geometry -- are getting harder and harder, that the girlfriend he's adored since middle school is flouncing off mad at him again, that his little sister's getting better grades than he is, and that the new girl at school rubs him the wrong way.

The novel portrays jocks in a somewhat stereotypical fashion -- telling big stories about their sexual prowess in the locker room, making up things to do to animals (they put a cat in a freezer), seeing girls as bleeding hearts with teary-eyes, or... as whores who should put out. Because the author strives to withhold judgment, a lot of times the protagonist's low-impulse control behavior leaves him a bit difficult to like. The story has the ring of truth, however.

Jenkins is often praised for writing 'real' characters for people who need to see that their lives are "normal;" my only real wish is that this character had received help for what was obviously a learning disability - it seemed odd with as affluent and aware as his parent seemed to be, and with all of the attention (negative) that he had from teachers that he had not even an actual tutor, except one he found himself to help him pass a test. (It would also be good to see a male student with learning disabilities portrayed as a good kid for once, too, but that's wishful thinking.)

Protective Coloring

Boy Proof, by Cecil Castellucci is another one of those really sensational novels that you read and feel that the characterization is so detailed, and the narrative voice so real that you think, "Hey. I know her!"

Readers who have ever felt alienated for their smarts, style of dress or tastes can truly identify with Egg, aka Victoria. E/V is a card-carrying sci-fi fanatic. She lives, eats, and breathes fantasy and science fiction films, dresses like her favorite character from Terminal Earth, and longs for the day when she can blow off the two-bit world of high school and be the brilliant sage she is, doing special effects stuff with her father and standing on top of the world. And Egg is brilliant, if not a little insecure and arrogant. She pushes hard to be at the top of her class, and allows just about zero contact with people whose G.P.A. is much lower than her own. After all, they've got nothing in common anyway. Egg's socialization skills are decidedly rusty. She likes everything to be the same (with herself as the acknowledged top of the heap), so when a new guy Max comes to school and gets into her space, and is maybe as smart as she is... there's trouble.

The problem with life in high school, though, is that it's sort of a collaborative effort. You kind of need people, even the people who don't get you, to get along and fulfill your dreams. It's painful, embarrassing, unfulfilling and disappointing sometimes to let other people in -- they don't understand your art and don't see your vision, but that's life, right? The quirky/brilliant people fit in as much as they can, and when they can't, they fly solo. It's just the way high school goes. Or so Egg thinks.

Actually, it's scarier when someone does understand. Someone like Max. Suddenly all the protective camouflage in the world doesn't make you boy-proof.

Author Castelliucci based her characters on people she knew growing up in New York City, and her L.A./show business language from her present life in Hollywood gives a behind-the-scenes authenticity.

March 23, 2006

Caged Bird

If he could figure out why everything always conspired against him, Luke would be a lot happier. It's not really his fault... I mean, his parents just smother him, and they're always on his case about wrestling. They think he's going to get hurt, and they always want to talk about this one accident he had -- they won't let it go. And his girlfriend - wow. She's so great he wonders why she's with him. Of course, when they break up, it's tough, but he was kind of expecting that to happen, right?

But, there's nothing really going on in his life, so when his English teacher asks him to write a journal for an assignment, Luke really has no idea what to write. Yeah, he was published once - he wrote a poem called The Falcon, but it's just a poem. He's not really a writer. Writing doesn't really do anything for anyone.

...and then it does.

Conscious choice and consequences are the central themes of Jackie Koller's coming-of-age novel. Sometimes self-consciously, the novel shows the subtle ways a person can become self-destructive, and ends on hopefully and positively.

Kevin Brooks' Gray Rainy World (Our 100th Post!)

I don't know what it is, but every Kevin Brooks novel I've read has left me feeling more than vaguely disturbed. The man messes with the mind! I think it might be because the author's "day jobs" left him time to consider the stranger and more macabre aspects of the universe -- as a crematorium handyman, a postal worker, gas station attendant, and ticketmaster at the London Zoo, Brooks gained those truly keen glimpses into the little stories people act out in public... and the drudge work brought forth a brilliant and suspenseful thriller called Kissing the Rain.

"Moo" Nelson's life is one long barrage of filthy weather. He calls it 'the rain;' the taunts that fall down on his head as he goes to school, slumps in classes, walks the halls, trudges into the cafeteria, and when he slinks off home. His name is Michael, but no one ever calls him that, not even his parents. It's "Moo," it's oinking and grunting, it's "Hey, Fat Boy," and it's pity glances and it's spite and it's school. What makes it worse is that Mike isn't as bright as he could be; he is inarticulate, hears things wrong, and his poor reading skills give him the sense that everyone is smarter -- and thinner than he is.

Mike escapes from the dull drudgery in his village by eating, and every day, after school, by standing on a bridge above a two-lane highway. The bridge is his spot in the world, where movement washes thoughts from his head, washes away conflict, words, people. He can watch traffic, spot cars, entertain himself for hours on end. He experiences something like peace on the heights of the bridge, until one day he sees what looks to be a road rage incident... and inadvertently witnesses a murder.

Suddenly, Mike Nelson is a man in the spotlight. People want to talk to him. People like the police, first of all, and then the policeman's son, who is suddenly keeping him "safe" at school instead of beating him up. Then the police commissioner comes by, and lawyers start calling. Cars appear outside of his house, and his school, and someone is watching him. People like Mike's sort-of friend, Brady, want to know what happened -- and strangely, all this attention makes the rain...just...stop. Mike is some kind of celebrity. Or, maybe not.

In a true portrait of adolescent arrogance and short-sightedness, Mike's sort-of friend, Brady, takes a gamble on getting some of Mike's attention and fame, and soon it becomes clear that this is no longer a game. The novel ends on a razor's edge -- is there a single choice now that will make everything right? Or isn't there?

*This novel is currently being cast as a film directed by Peter Howitt, whose credits include Laws of Attraction, Johnny English, and Sliding Doors.

Seeing the Sights

Magical realism for young adults isn't exactly new - most fairytales could also be listed in that genre - and modern magical realism is the foundation of author Susanna Vance's Sights.

The strangely named 'Baby Girl' is born after eleven and a half months inside her Mama, and comes with teeth. Also, she's delivered not by (who would have had something to say about that eleven month thing), but a veterinarian. He remarked that she had the same gestation as a walrus. If that's not odd enough, then there's Baby Girl's gift - The Sight. Too bad it wasn't too useful to tell her that her father would hate her so much that he'd try and kill her over, and over, and over again, the first time when she is only months old.

When Bettina, Baby Girl's mother, finally wakes up and realizes that her daughter's life has already hung by a (snapped) thread too many times, the two of them make a break for it, and share a lovely summer in a town hours and hours away from the broken down trailer and the angry man who had dominated their lives for so long. They set up as business partners - Bettina sews formals and Baby Girl does readings with the fittings. Things can't go on entirely peacefully, though; eventually the past catches up with them, but ultimately, the situation is resolved through the strange and loving people they've linked hands with in their new community.

It's a strange and fey little book, but a fun one. I came away with questions about character motivation, but overall, the magic isn't pressed into service to fill in too many holes in the plot, and Baby Girl's is an enjoyable narrative voice to fill an afternoon.

March 20, 2006

It's "Lord of the Flies" in the Mall: Naomi Wolfe on Chick Lit

The New York Times Book Review had an article about "chick lit" last week, and people from all over wrote in this week to talk about it. (You can read the review, but need to register - it's free and it's once, and the article is well worth it.) I love, love, love the article, because Naomi Wolfe says so articulately all of the things that I've complained about so long -- that "chick lit" is disturbing less because of its redundant sexual content, but more because the sexuality is aggressively normalized - and now, almost commercialized and sold like a product. Wolfe agrees that it's not the sex. She says,

"The problem is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out,
conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be
meaningful to teenagers. The books have a kitsch quality — they package
corruption with a cute overlay."
Amen to that. Pastel covers with cookie-cutter glamour girls on the cover. Not too much hip, not too much bust -- just flat enough, refined enough, vanilla enough. Yee haw. And author Cecily von Ziegesar told an interviewer once that she sees her books as aspirational? Yikes, people.

You know how adult chick lit has the Jimmy Choo/Prada thing going? Enter Palm V's, fancy cell phones, Coach leather bags, and Mom's carpooling Lexus. Product placement galore, and God help you, poor stupid 13-year old, if you've never heard of Juicy Couturé.

I think I get so riled up about all of this because there was a culture of exclusion throughout everyone's adolescence (instead of the Pretty Committee, my home town's b-girls we called The Saditty Committee), but the rules get harder and harder to follow every generation, and there are fewer and fewer kids who feel happy, relaxed, satisfied with themselves, and in control of their world. How's that going to cut down on the craziness in our society? Wolfe points out that instead of trying to remake the world for their brave new selves, the new heroines of chick lit do their best to squeeze more quickly into the glossy and banal world of their parents -- and be just like them, only moreso. Yee haw.

I hope for success in the YA genre if for no other reason than that it will PROVE there are some girls who don't buy that chick lit thing one bit.

What NOT to do if you're an aspiring author...

I was listening to this NPR piece today on the closing arguments of the Da Vinci Code trial, and my ear was caught by a passing mention of some of the stranger denizens of the courtroom circus. (Warning: I'm about to change metaphors with the speed and grace of a passing freight train.)

Apparently, not only is the court liberally laced with opinionated conspiracy theorists, there's also a fair sprinkling of would-be thriller authors brandishing copies of their manuscripts in the hopes that one of the many publisher's representatives called to testify will agree to take on their work. I can't imagine what predatory yet completely delusional state of mind someone must be in to think this is a good idea, but it certainly put a most amusing image in my head.

It also made me feel a little better. After all, I would never stoop that low (and I give you permission to smack me upside the head if I ever start talking about it). In fact, I actually feel pretty confident that I can eventually get a book published the usual way. I breathed a sigh of relief that I'm not yet at the point where I feel driven to prostrate myself in a totally inappropriate setting just to avail myself of a -50% chance to get some publisher's attention.

Now here's something new and cool.

It's Jacket Flap, the best and most extensive database of statistics and information on children's book publishers. This searchable website helps writers check out the publishers that are publishing new authors and that publish titles in the writer's category of work. It also tells stuff like number of titles per year, number of new authors published, and number of titles published by category, which is more important in larger publishing houses. A little more research on a writer's part yields that all-important information about agented or unagented manuscripts, slush pile rules, and more. Together with some good info from our friend Google, a children's writer has some great tools at their disposal.

This site is really primo -- it's updated regularly and the information is kept current by the book publishers. Site's users are encouraged to participate and are bribed with Amazon gift certificates for keeping the site up-to-date. It also has children's book news, which is really nifty -- industry updates and everything. A lot of the information requires you to be a logged-in member -- but that's free and relatively painless.

I'm really kind of excited about this! I can't find information about the number of printings runs per new novel or any of that deeper information, but it's something individual publishing house websites will have. Jacket Flap is still a great tool to have on hand.

Muddy Gray

It's one of those high school things -- he says, she says, and nobody really says what happened. See, Clinton Cole was in the area. For all we know, he did it. Daria Bickell may be slow, but she's fast enough to say she saw something. Everyone knows she doesn't lie. The bottom line is, Alex Crusan, the HIV-positive kid that everyone knows Clinton Cole hates is in the hospital, and somebody beat the heck out of his little car - and his windshield - with a baseball bat.

But who?

And, how'd Alex get HIV, anyway?
Is he really 'innocent' like he wants everybody to believe?
What does that mean?

Some pretty deep thoughts in Fade to Black, by Alix Flinn.

March 17, 2006

Monday's Child is Fair of Face... Thursday's is muddy

Surreal and haunting are two of the words that best describe Australian author Sonya Hartnett's novel Thursday's Child. A tale of a tattered family surviving an unforgiving and exhausted land on the grace of neighbors, the blending of history with magical realism, and the mythical metaphor of a world above and below the radar of most people renders the sometimes implausibly strange storyline into a seamless tale which occasionally uses wry humor and desolate truths to describe the tumultuousness of growing up.

Harper Flute is the third born child, and older sister of James Augustin Barnabas Flute, called Tin for convenience. At the birth of the last child, elder sister Audrey is keeping close to Mamma, Devon is helping Papa, and Harper is called on to take the smallest brother away from all the fuss in the house. Spring rains have made the banks of the river soft, and only a miracle keeps a tragedy from happening as the banks cave in. Harper is convinced that her brother Tin is touched and destined for great things.

Narrated solely through Harper's eyes, this novel depicts family struggling to survive soldier settlement deprivations, poverty, an unforgiving landscape, war-scarred psyches and classist despair. And while dirt and death are close neighbours, the tale bears a peculiar optimism that one finds in children who don't understand how poor and bad off they are. The central characters are truly odd, if not oddly likable - they somehow have the reader cheering for them even as their stupid choices cause everything around them to deteriorate. And then there's the brother, Tin, whose preternatural ability for digging sees him live amid a labyrinth of underground tunnels.

The enigmatic Tin doesn't talk, doesn't seem to be quite human, doesn't eat with the others, and rarely comes inside. He tunnels. Beneath the house the smooth brown dirt is a rabbit warren of holes and rooms and who knows what, and it's a wonder that the house doesn't sink into it. Nobody seems to be able to stop the little boy, who is only small when he begins. The omnipresent and interfering neighbors gather close with their opinions and prognostications, but Tin digs on.

Much of what Harper depends on in life -- her father's strength, her mother's care, her brother and sister's presence, even the house itself -- is eventually shown to be as trustworthy as sand. Everything comes down around her ears, and it is only by the tremendous will of those surrounding -- and a tremendous stroke of luck -- that the family is able to rise. Stubbornness and resilience is the theme of the novel, and though the ending might annoy you greatly, this is an enjoyable different tale of the Depression.

March 16, 2006

Environmental Secrets

A disturbing yet beautiful book, Janet McNaughton's haunting The Secret Under My Skin is hard to describe. It's another dark future tale, but told in a way that incorporates greater detail about the environment, government responsibility and limitations, and the actions of the few to care of the greater good.
The novel takes place 2368, where the world has been poisoned by some type of environmental disaster commonly known as a "technocaust." Living in this world is Blay Raytee, called Lobelia September, former 13-year-old street kid and now the ward of a model social welfare project, also known as a government sponsored workcamp. Doomed to a life of scavenging in a landfill in the summers and growing hydroponic food in the winter, Blay is a quiet girl who does her best to keep her head down, cause no dissent and make no waves. Her life wouldn't be so bad except for a couple of things: one, that the workcamp is a scary place. On purpose. There are gangs within, and if the kids don't rough you up, the wardens just might. Blay is lonely for another reason, one that she doesn't share. Other kids have memories of their parents and their lives before, memories of who they are. But Blay has almost nothing. Fragments of memory, unanswered questions, and feelings of alienation trouble her.

Her ability to disappear into a story, and her ability to read saves her, and Blay is chosen to become the tutor of Marrella, a spoiled but beautiful girl suffering from her own chemical malady from a community outside the ravaged cities. Blay and Marrella live in the home of Erica and William Morgan. William, who is Master of the Way struggles to teach Marrella to read the land and its secrets, but it soon becomes clear that, although Marrella was chosen because of her sensitivities to environmental toxins, it is Blay who has the magic. The magic spills out of her, and changes her. Will she be content to let the world lie as she has found it? Blay wants to reach out and take hold of her life, but she's only a nobody from nowhere. Maybe she isn't worthy.

After a time, Blay starts to piece together the fragments of her memory, finds the answers to her questions about herself and her parentage, and learns about the secret under her skin.

May 2006, HarperCollins is coming out with the SEQUEL to this thoughtful, deeply interesting book, so pick this up soon!

The Mouse that ROARED. At seven.

Wow, now here's a first. Okay, it's not the first time an author's work has been banned, but um, she's ...Seven. The New York Post reports that home-schooled and multi-lingual Autum Ashante's poem "White Nationalism Put U in Bondage" was seen as a bit, um, excessive for the Westchester middle and high school in Peekskill, where she was asked to perform. She's a poet, and has already shared the body of her work at the Manhattan African Burial Ground and on television. But, there's nowhere like school districts to help artist get their work banned, and it was the school performance that tore it.

You'll have to make the call as to whether Ms. Ashante is only parroting what she hears at home in her heavy and dramatic blank verse -- how many times does a seven-year-old get to use the word 'paradigm' in her poetry? (How often do you?!) -- and you may disagree with her only addressing certain students with her call to action and pride - I know I do - but no matter what you think of her personally, it's pretty ironic that it took a SCHOOL to shut her up, a school to make phone calls to parents, a school to apologize for the words of a 7-year-old, just in case her art offended. Open wide the halls of learning, that all may enter in... and maybe be offended and sue.

Of course, now she's got visits scheduled with Al Sharpton. And may I just say that New York will now never hear the end of this? Be careful of mice with keyboards.

March 15, 2006

Humiliation? Zits? Junior High shame has "No Effect"

It's a story of that weird time before boys get to be Boys - when they are still skinny, zit-faced and nervous, and not yet the swaggering, obnoxious high schoolers they will become... It's a story of the heartbreak and humor and humiliation of being a boy in junior high. No Effect is a sweet, emotionally observant boy story about... Wrestling, of all things. While I'm not a fan of Hulk Hogan et al, this novel makes high school wrestling seem like a sport with a bit of heart.

Skinny, lightweight little eighth grader Tyler has had his share of take-downs lately. First, his Dad died last year, and he had the worst asthma episode of his life. He hardly remembers the funeral, because he was in a drugged out haze. His Mom's gone mental with the protectiveness, and his best friend, Lymie, thinks he's a chick magnet.

Going into his last year of junior high, Tyler wants to begin to make his mark - to alert the legions of girls that he's on his way, but because of his asthma, his Mom says "no way" to his going out for a sport like wrestling. When he finally talks her into it, he regrets it -- the coach is a sadist.

Things take a strange turn when Tyler's science teacher has a stroke -- right in front of him -- and dies on the way to the hospital. Then the coach freezes on the floor, turns purple, and squeaks "Doctor!" while showing them an exercise during wrestling. With old teachers dropping like flies and new ones cropping up every period -- including his cool next door neighbor Chuckie, who is filling in for the wrestling coach -- Tyler is beginning to believe that his year is a little jinxed.

And then comes Miss Williams, the last substitute teacher - and Tyler believes he's in love.

The last of a funny and heartening trio of books about Tyler and his best friend/best enemy, Lymie, Daniel Hayes' novel about all the things that bounce against an adolescent boy is both amusing and heartfelt, capturing the growing up years of a nice, if delusional, kid named Tyler.

Grief Visualized

I picked up Paul Hornschemeier's Mother, Come Home mainly in order to add to our very short list of graphic novels, but I was surprised and touched by this quick-reading gem of a story.

I was first attracted by the spare, flat, simply-colored drawing style that reminded me immediately of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The melancholy, introspective tone also seemed a nod to Ware's graphic novel classic. However, where Hornschemeier really comes into his own is that he is taking a cryptic look back at an autobiographical event--the tragic loss of his mother when he was seven--and turning it into something that is beautiful, almost poetic, both visually and verbally. It has the feel of an older writer looking back on his childhood, but it also captures the sensation of a young boy who doesn't yet fully understand death or grieving. There's a feeling of distance, of numbness, conveyed in the spare writing and muted color palette, making the unexpected ending all the more shocking.

This didn't take long to read, but I found myself flipping back through it again, just to think and absorb and appreciate the hidden depths that lurk between the words and images. An excellent example of what the graphic novel form can accomplish. Just keep a tissue box nearby.

March 13, 2006

Monday Musings

The oddest things occasionally drift past as flotsam and snag on a twig of memory in my brain.

I was retrieving something from a friend's house the other day, and his children tend to act like all adults are visiting celebrities, and youngest son was climbing my leg and asking, "Did you ever hear of a fish called Seaweed?" as if it was a children's book that I had somehow missed. He made up the story, right then, to tell me all about it, three confident years old, and full of himself, happy to interrupt his father speaking to me, and to generally disrupt all adult conversation entirely, but I was captivated, because suddenly, his scrunched up little face reminded me...

...when I was nine, his father called me Seaweed. As suddenly as I remembered that, I suddenly 'remembered' a whole story to tell. "You started this," I accused the child's father, but he had no idea what I meant.

Actually, lots of things started 'this.' Enforced silence, internalized rejections, working things out, seeking greater expression. Someone asked me the other day when I "knew" it was my life's destiny to write. Oh, yeah, because this person is somewhat freakocious (thanks, a.fortis, for the encouragement of more imaginary words in the world), my first thought was to just do some sighing and eye rolling (life's destiny!? Come on!), but now I, too, want to know when I first knew I wanted to do this. As early as I can recall, it was about four ... when my mother would tell me to shush now, her ears needed a break. She would hand me a piece of paper and a pencil,and tell me to write everything I needed to tell her for now.

And so I still am.
I am writing everything I need to tell her, not that she'll understand if/when she reads it.
I am writing everything I need to tell her about myself. It is in puzzles and mysteries; others will 'get it' before she does, but I am writing everything I need to tell her, tell you, tell the universe; sky-writing, Pony Express, signal flares, crop circles; the messages keeps coming.

I only hope that I get through.

Taking Shape

Aubrey is gifted, an up and coming mage and of the finest talent seen in the kingdom for years. His enigmatic master, Cyril, sends him to learn what he can from Glyrenden, a powerful shape-changer about whom Aubrey has heard very little, except Cyril's worried warnings. Sorcerers can be precarious, petty and dangerous in their power, admittedly, but Aubrey is open hearted and genuine. Surely nothing could harm such a generous, loving, open-hearted fellow as himself.

He truly believes this, too, right until he comes to the ramshackle piles of dust and stones the oddly malevolent Glyrenden calls his palace, meets his shambling, inarticulate manservant, Orion, his nervous, incomprehensible maidservant, Arachne. And then there's Lilith, the shapechanger's wife.

The mythological
Lilith is portrayed as a monster, and one who is of great harm to young males. The Shapechanger's Wife isn't someone I expect poor hapless Aubrey to survive. But he more than survives Lilith, her strange household, the power-hungry, overconfident Glyrenden, and their strange village. Aubrey changes things -- and himself.

This book tackles some deep questions about love,including asking the question,Do we love something more for what we have made it, for its usefulness to us, or do we have the strength within ourselves to love it for itself, independent of our needs or even our input? Can we ever free those we love from our desires for them, and let them be what they are, and still love them? A quick afternoon read with some really important themes to explore.

Beware the PK's: Dangerous Pastor's Kids

The Salem Witch Trials are a snippet of American history which writers never seem to tire of exploiting. For all its popularity, few people know, however, that the trials were themselves not an isolated incident, but that witch-hunting was a "sport" that took place all over Europe and spilled into the Americas only later on. As Europe and the Americas battled between old ways and new, old political structures of Kings and priests and the new hunger for democracy, even religion got in on the act, making a change over from a pantheist pagan worldview to a monotheistic Christian one. Unfortunately, Christianity was a deadly harsh and narrow world view as take on by the Puritans, and brooked no opposition from anyone who clung to old traditions. Another telling of a tragic and horrible story, Julie Hearn's The Minister's Daughter uses a strange brew of fantasy and historical fact to present a fresh angle on Massachusetts in the 1640's.

Nell is a Merrybegot; a wonderfully lyrical name for a fatherless child conceived on Mayday, a time of year when the veil between the worlds thins and magic is celebrated. Merrybegots are special to the world of humans and fairy, and protected, so Nell's life has been relatively happy, though she knows little or nothing about her parents, and lives with her only surviving relative, her grandmother.

The new Puritan minister and his daughters don't smile on the Merrybegot; they actually don't smile on much of anyone or anything. Nell and her cunning woman grandmother are frowned on from the very start. Nell's grandmother feels a change coming to the village, with the arrival of a new minister, and begins to pack her teachings into her granddaughter's agile brain as fast as she can; watch for Piskies, learn the herbs which heal a flatulent stomach, cure bruises or dull the pain of a rotting tooth. Walk swiftly, be handy, and keep your head up: you're a Merrybegot, and you've nothing to give you shame.

Nell puts little-girl ways behind her, and in time she is ministering to both fairies and humans. She runs afoul of the minister's eldest daughter, Grace, and her jealous and sickly younger sister, Patience, but has no time to worry about them -- there are people to help, and her first calling is as healer. When the inevitable occurs, due to a tangled tale of jealousy and unwanted pregnancies in the Minster's manse, Nell sees real evil for the first time. Not in the harmless Piskies and forest dwellers, but in her fellow man, those who speak against her, and those who remain silent about the monstrous happenings within their community.

The third-person narrative uses flashbacks from 1992 given by Patience to cement the feeling of historical accuracy, creating a disturbingly realistic story (even with the inclusion of Piskies), and provides an enormously chilling and horrifying conclusion to this piece of vividly told fantasy-fiction.

Adventures in the Deep

She lives her life in EXCLAMATION POINTS and big, theatrical sighs. Her name is Birdie Sidwell, and of course you know her, don't you? I mean, everybody does. She's had this horrible life, you know. She had asthma. She got a plain old PC for her birthday, not the orange Mac she wanted. Her best friend is totally popular, but really, her life's the pits -- so that makes her bossy and sarcastic, and her best friend's Mom -- whoa. Good thing Birdie's parents are taking her to the Caribbean for a year, where she can be her colorful and fabulous self while they all rest up from their strenuous normal lives. Good thing Birdie will have new people to talk to, new adventures to have, right? I mean, something will finally happen in her life, after all, she's been writing stories about adventures for all of her thirteen years, so it's about time she has some!

Birdie should have been careful what she wished for.

She lives her life in silence, in the steady rhythms of routine, in the cadence of wind, swells, and the sea. She hasn't got anything else, anyone else, not anymore. Her nomadic parents have turned from being world-class sailors into being world-class drunks. When they lost first her newborn brother, then her older sister to the sea, they seemed to have lost all hope, and all reason to live. Sixteen years old, Morgan has been captain of her parent's large sailboat for years, while her parents drift deeper into drunkenness and despair, tying up at dubious portside towns, making deals with thieves, partying away their funds, and forgetting that they have one last child left. Desperate with loneliness, Morgan makes a break for the sea, where she silently communicates with Oona, her sister she lost, for guidance, and tries to stretch her mind to encompass that enormous loss. "Set your own course," has been her parent's only rule, and so Morgan does. In time, she begins to heal, but she runs across Tricky Nicky, a dangerous man who knows she has no legal rights to her parents boat, and no papers. Nicky's out to steal her boat -- and maybe something more.

Told in a tensely layered, chapter-by-chapter alternating point of view, Susanna Vance's Deep proposes a dizzying reach between two girls vastly different -- one with real troubles, one with troubles imagined -- and brings them together in a riveting tale of dangerous people and daring escapes that keeps you page-turning until the story is through. An excellently suspensful read.

March 10, 2006

Psychotic Obsession: Uglies

The American cult of beauty is an media phenomena that most of digest with our Barbies at an early age. By the time we're twelve, many of us are already dying for our own subscription to Seventeen magazine, and by 17, we're already in a permanent state of body dysmorphia, and the madness escalates apace. Scott Westerfeld's novel, Uglies takes our societal exces just one tiny dystopian step further -- what if adolescence was a State acknowledged stage of ugliness? What if the entire nation were required mandatory cosmetic surgery at the age of 16?

Tally Youngblood wants desperately to be a beauty. Her best friend Persis, only three months older than she, has already been taken for his operation, and she is lonely, mortified, and bored. She thought they'd be best friends forever, but he hasn't even been back to see her! She's tired of waiting for beauty, and she misses her friend.

Caught sneaking back the New Pretty Town where Persis now lives (as opposed to Uglyville where she lives in a State-run dormitory), Tally meets another Ugly who gives her a glimpse of another life. She, Tally, doesn't have to become a beauty. She could stay Ugly, stay herself, her new friend Shay says. But that makes no sense! The surgery actually helps society, everybody knows that; when everyone is physically "perfect," nobody misses out. Everyone's looks are based on a symmetrical, statistical average that just makes real what everybody knows -- that people with giant eyes are charismatic, convincing, and are afforded advantages by their peers; in the twisted logic of New Pretty Town, imposing this surgery on all creates an egalitarian basis for society. No one is heeded merely because she is beautiful; no idea is disregarded because it originates with someone who is ugly. That's what Tally's taught in biology, anyway, and Tally is a believer. She wants to be pretty. She needs to be.

She loves Shay, though, and when Shay decides to find a town called 'Smoke,' out in the Wilds away from New Pretty Town, Tally promises not to tell where she has gone. Except that the State doesn't appreciate Shay going away... and Tally isn't ever going to be beautiful until she tells where her friend has gone. The State that used to be the giver of every good thing has a dark side. There are the Special Circumstances Pretties, who are superhuman, and super fast. The Wilds aren't as bad as she's been told, and the surgery isn't as benign as it seems. In the end, Tally's... going to have to make a choice: give up Shay's whereabouts, and be beautiful, or be Ugly forever.

The first is a trilogy, Uglies is an arresting adventure, which parallels and parables the the psychosis of adolescent insecurities and mocks the American obsession with physical beauty. I got a pretty good idea of what the next novel might cover -- the ending is a great cliffhanger, and Westerfeld named Tally's friend Persis... Iliou Persis is the Greek phrase for "the sack of Illion," and it is a story fragment that comes in Greek mythology just before the story of the fall of Troy. Persis seems that it might be another name for 'fall' or destruction... With that delicious Greek mythological hint hanging, I can't wait to read the next in the series, which is called, ominously, Pretties...

Paternal Pugilists, Boxing Brothers

Australia is bringing us a slew of writers who introduce a whole new kind of teen to American YA fiction. On the bare edge of the working class, these teens hover on the verge of adulthood, seeming harder and more independent than American teens, sometimes even while living at home. They seem to have loads of attitude, loads of friends, access to loads of beer, and a deep and fierce affection for their own little tribes.

Fighting Ruben Wolfe, by Markus Zusak, is a novel about the Wolfe tribe, a family of six just barely making it. Since Dad's accident, he's been out of work for almost five months, and morose -- a midlife crisis of confidence that's threatening to land the family in the street. Mom's working herself into the ground doing two jobs, and Sarah's working too, only she's coming home drunk more and more often, and getting a name for herself around town. Dad's quiet desperation is reaching a fever pitch - he's just about to sign up for the dole. He won't let the oldest son, Steve -- the family's perpetually clean 'white sheep' help out. Steve is working hard, moving up -- and moving out. Losing him, slowly losing Sarah, the Wolfes aren't the tribe they used to be. Ruben and Cameron, the youngest of the family, are watching their family losing the fight. With only pride and loyalty to bind them together, they're hard on each other - and outsiders. When Ruben bloodies a classmate for calling his sister a whore, the brothers find their way into a whole new fight for respect -- boxing.

With realistic detail and some of the most compelling, thoughtful, funny and sweet 'lights-out' sibling dialogue I've read, the brothers develop onto the page: the scummy fight promoter, their battered fellow boxers, the echoing warehouses where the fights are held, the pain of busted lips and bruised cheekbones layered onto the fear of losing. The empty-headed girls surging toward the winners to shower them with adulation and offers of something more proves that the world around the Wolfe boys is larger -- and seedier -- than they ever knew. Cameron and Ruben want something -- but it's not just money anymore, and for Ruben, it's not even just willing females. Fighting everything at once - within and without - the brothers have to face and fight their own personal foes. When the last punch is thrown, they are never again the same.

Culture and Change

Norwegian author Mette Newth is Chair of the Norwegian Society for Writers of Literature for Children and Juveniles and Principal (or President) of the Oslo National College of Art. As a Norwegian adult, writing about the lives of children outside of her culture, Newth is very aware of the limitations and potential problems with writing historical fiction. Whatever issues Newth faces in her writing, credibility is clearly not one of them. The characters in her work are seen clearly, the situation, based on fact, depicted realistically, and the style of her prose is poetic and beautiful.

In The Transformation, Navarana, a young Inuit woman, saves the life of Brendan, one of the monks sent by the Holy Church in the fifteenth century on an expedition to rescue the remnants of the Christian community in Greenland. The culture clash is immediate, and almost comical. Navarana believes that the earth is a mother, that the seasons of cold have extended because of the trickster Raven, and that the village shaman, The Old One, has knowledge that will help she and her young sisters survive. Brendan, meanwhile, recites the words of his brother priests, now long dead in the punishing winter cold, and hauls around a wooden crucifix, murmuring the rosary, while the Inuit quietly eye the wooden cross as fuel. When Brendan and Navarana are sent out on a quest, their disparate points of view come together in an inevitable fashion, and Newth expands an intriguing dialogue to include the best from both cultures, both faiths, and both ways of life which concludes on a hopeful note, leaving the reader longing for the survival of both.

A quiet book with deep concepts, this book might not be for everyone, but a deeply thoughtful person who occasionally wonders about past civilizations will really enjoy it.

March 08, 2006

Coming Down From the Clouds

Eloquent and elegant New York Times columnist and fiction writer Joyce Maynard spoke last October at the Valencia Street Books very successful LitCrawlYA event organized by Tea and hosted by our sister site's very own a.fortis. I was disappointed not to hear her, but I put her book, The Cloud Chamber on my list of Must Reads. This book is as carefully spun out as a spider's web, and is about the most fragile of things; the dynamics of human interaction. What pushes us over the edge, and what destroys us? What saves us, or causes us to be able to forgive? Maynard is a true thinker, a reader of people, and a careful crafter which makes her a valuable and amazing writer. This is her most recent book to date in the YA category, and I plan to read back to some of her older work.

Nate comes home from school to see a trio of police cars at his home. He sees bloodhounds, hears the barking of the dogs, his mother standing stiffly, shivering, sees the farm hand, muttering to a uniformed officer, and then his father, face bloody, held up between two men, moaning, stumbling from the fields into an ambulance. Like a house of cards goes over with a single, giddy exhalation, all that Nate relied on and cared about is gone in a single breath. He has no idea how what has happened will change his entire world -- the security and comfort of both home and community, gone in but an eyeblink.

If only he can win the Science Fair and create a cloud chamber, Nate knows he can pull things back together. Somehow he'll get to his father, and his father, the big dreamer, the optimistic, opportunistic, impulsive and impervious hero will rally once again, and set things right. He'll send Mom smiling again, save Junie's birthday party; save the farm. If only Nate can win first place at the Science Fair, and take his sister, Junie, with him, to the regionals three hours away, together they'll find the hospital where they're hiding his father. And once they get there, everything will change. Everything. It has to.

Family - the insights of his crazy little sister Junie, the solidity of his Poppa, the shaking of his mother's hands - drive Nate to dig deeper inside himself to become a man sooner than he ever believed he could. Friendships lost and found along the way help Nate to see the world around him with clearer eyes. Though he longs to fling his troubles all on his father, to make him account for his vanished childhood, at the end of the telescope, Nate finds only a thin man instead of a god, and must take the next big steps in growing up and taking on the world. Themes of redemption, forgiveness, optimism and perseverance thread throughout the storyline, taking the reader on an emotional coming of age journey.

Described as both a hopeful and sad book, this novel hits just the right balance between the two, and is masterfully written.

Lives nasty, brutish, and short - but depicted beautifully

The Fated Sky

Historical fiction is often tricky to write, but Henrietta Branford's The Fated Sky, is a masterpiece of amazing detail and no nonsense realism that gives readers a snapshot of the short and brutal lives of the Vikings. This novel was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and is DEFINITELY for older readers. This short book is a treasure of detail, and I look forward to reading more of Branford's work.

Ran, named after the goddess of the sea, is unloved by her mother, who mourns the death of her father and brothers who have perished at sea. When a handsome and darkly reeking stranger from her mother's past relieves her of her grieving widowhood, Ran nervously leaves behind her beloved grandmother and familiar home to follow Vigut and her mother to visit family up the coast for the annual winter sacrifice. Horrifically, the family is attacked by wolves on the way, and Ran's mother sickens, and dies. Enraged Vigut blames Ran, and turns her life over to a priest of Odin. She is found pleasing to the dark god, and due for sacrifice.

Ran's fate is in the hands of bloody minded, vengeful priests, but her destiny lies elsewhere.

(Little did I know, when I picked up this novel, that Branford is one of the foremost children's fiction writers in the UK, and every year there is a Henrietta Branford Writing Competition and The Branford Boase Award given to other able young writers 18 and below.)

Ah, the 80's teen: Pregnancy Scares, Prom Dates, and Waterbeds

The Year of Sweet Senior Insanity

Sonia Levitin has written books that have moved on since this one, but I read it because it was one of those in the public library that screamed 'teenager!'

I really don't like the word 'teenager.' It seems to define an eighties sensibility that includes Judy Blume, ABC After School Specials, and the "Just Say No" campaign. Sure enough, on the surface, this novel appeared to have all of those elements. (The sort of hideous cover didn't really help disabuse me of that idea, either, but -- it was published in 1982, so we consider the source and move on.) I read it, though, and was mildly surprised.

Lying on the sand the summer before their senior year, friends Leni, Angie and Rhonda make plans for next June. By then, they'll be done with school, have their lives on a roll, and take a trip to Hawaii, to live it up, and celebrate who they are. It's a tantalizing thing to look forward to, but life... happens. Little do they know that during their Senior year, nothing is going to go as planned.

The novel, in the style of a host of other Blume imitators , is supposed to be about sex, more specifically, losing one's virginity. It's brought up on page 7, and continues to be a thematic element all throughout the book. Growing up, to these teens, is equated with that -- not having a job, not having a home, not making good choices, good grades or emerging unscathed from high school -- just that. Having sex. Leni's afraid she's never going to grow up, while Rhonda's already ...'mature.' Angie doesn't want to do anything risky at all. She plans, instead, to marry right after high school. Leni thinks that's the most awful and boring thing she's ever heard. She's torn between psychoanalyzing Rhonda, envying Angie, and trying to push herself into something she's not really ready for (or is she?) at all. See, she's met this boy... well, really, he's not just a boy, he's a college man. And he's outside of all her experiences. Leni desperately wants him, and her bouts of weeping into her pillow and general 80's era 'teenager' mopiness finally get her what she wants: Blair Justin.

Unfortunately, she really doesn't have time for her own love life. Leni, the 'Kewpie' of her high school (which is a sort of all-in-one head cheerleader, all-team mascot and homecoming queen) is juggling through the maddest scramble of her life -- trying to balance a relationship with her increasingly difficult mother, trying to take care of her grandmother, whose memory and independence is failing, trying to keep up with her grades, her job, and her little brother -- and her boyfriend, a college man who moves from UC Berkeley to UCLA to be close to her, and be independent... and demanding. Leni plans the prom, stars in the prom, attends all the high school games to smile, smile, smile and cheer, cheer, cheer, crams for tests, reads every novel for English in CliffNotes, stands on her head to elevate her grades, and finds out that having a sexy, hunky, manly boyfriend... isn't all that.

The end of the novel is surprising, considering the beginning premise, and is almost unbelievably mature. Levitin was an early pioneer of novels that were about personal freedom and exploration, and teenagers making choices - even responsible ones.

Of Rebel Angels, Confused Victorians and Shadowy Orders

Ah, Christmas!
The ladies of Spence Academy are ready for the holidays, as we revisit curious 16-year-old Gemma, mercurial, snobbish and wealthy Felicity and woebegone Ann at their gothically ruined, dark and realistic Victorian finishing school. Gemma, as we first met in Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty has had a 'wild' upbringing in India, living with her beautiful and mysterious mother, whose death she foretells in a horrible vision, which leads her to be entangled in the truth about her mother's shadowy past, and those of her fellow classmates of the class of 1871 at Spence Academy for Young Ladies. In Rebel Angels, Gemma is still haunted by visions, only this time they include three women in white, who seem to be telling her... something, if only she could figure out what they mean...

As always, readers are sucked in by Libba Bray's extremely 'pitch perfect' characterization of English young girls in the Victorian era, their pettiness and embarrassments and small triumphs in the social realm. The three girls are still in an uneasy friendship, as Felicity is still power hungry, grasping for a larger share of the power she senses that Gemma possesses, and Ann, for moments of beauty and splendor to enliven her otherwise dull expectations of lifelong servitude. The dramatic tensions among the three continue to propel the novel along (that is, at times you wish to soundly slap all three of them, so you are continually engaged).

Though Rebel Angels was a long sequel (560 pages as opposed to 432 in the first novel), I read it quickly, all in one sitting, because there is a lot of light, frothy Victoriana to ingest, and that doesn't take much thought. Bray did not miss the mark in her second book in that regard; she includes danger, suspense, mental hospitals, holiday balls and 'lunatic' parties; handsome young men, swooning dances, absinthe and dance cards.

I enjoyed Bray's depiction of Bedlam, the hospital for the insane, as I have read extensively about the work done there and on the revels that went on -- wealthy people paying for the opportunity to socialize amongst the insane. I do believe that the asylum was not all beauty and light and clean, mildly eccentric patients as Bray depicted it; there were sadly deranged people there, also squalor, filth, mockery and some truly 'creative' forays into psychiatry that involved metal instruments, dubious drugs, chains, and bore holes in skulls... but it was good to see the novel tries to at least be in the neighborhood of historical fact. As for the rest, there are still plot elements which bear further scrutiny.

In my mind, the shadowy 'Order' and all of the magical plot elements that follow, are the weakest elements of the story, which is too bad, since much more time is spent on them in this volume. Magic is sometimes used to cover issues in the plot that could not have been contrived otherwise, which is, to my mind, a bit of a cheat. Somehow, the roots and shoots of the whole mysterious Order thing I cannot yet grasp -- perhaps it will come more clear in the third book? What does Bray mean with her preface from Milton and Paradise Lost? Doesn't she know better than to tempt English majors to assign more meaning than was intended? ;)) -- but I do give high marks for Bray's red herring in the matter of Circe; good readers will assume that they can figure out who's who, but they will be in for a surprise.

The character of Kartik, the Indian boy who is characterized as a love interest (why? Because he's male? Because he has soulful eyes? What do we actually KNOW about his personality except he represents the familiar - and apparently the ignorable? Again, there's a huge and wonderful discussion on colonialism that keeps getting missed by mere millimeters...) reappears, and Gemma at least this time is able to come to grips with her infatuation - but only until she chases him away with the unthinking comment that exposes her level of comfort with him ...and her disregard for him as an eligible male.

Gemma's father's continuing laudanum addiction, her brother's subsequent humanization as a struggling medical intern intent to cure him, her mother's legacy as a blithe and beautiful woman who captivated them all makes Gemma a girl worth watching. As she grows older and takes on more of the duties as head woman of her newly formed Order, hopefully Bray will be able to allow her character to remain true to the Victorian era in which she places her, and to conclude the trilogy (?) on a resounding note with all loose ends tied up and thoroughly explained.

March 07, 2006

Changes UnFurling

If you haven't had a chance to visit our companion blog, ReadingYA: Readers' Response, lately, you might want to cruise by and check out the latest changes to the site.

This means: YES!! We've finally unFurled categories on Readers' Response, thanks to If you look in the sidebar, you'll find that you can browse our reviews not only by Author's Last Name but also by genre: Girl Books, Mystery, Problem Novels, and so on.

You might even notice that there's a ratings system for our pages on Furl. I ought to warn you that it's imperfectly implemented. What that means is, T. has been faithfully using it and I have been a slacker. What can you do? Anyway, enjoy, and hope you find something new to add to your reading list!

March 06, 2006

Not Quite Fast Enough

I don’t normally gravitate towards "edgy" fiction, but when I saw Kate Cann's trilogy Hard Cash, Shacked Up, and Speeding at the library, I got a little curious about what the British take on edgy YA fiction might be.

The story is told from the viewpoint of sixteen-year-old Rich, who lives with his working-class parents while attending "college" (no real U.S. equivalent to this—we'd be in the last two years of high school, while in the U.K. they start on a more focused course of study and prepare for exams and possibly university). In Hard Cash we find out that Rich—for no apparent reason other than being from a poor family—has a huge chip on his shoulder about being poor and is obsessed with money and status. So much so that, in this first installment of the trilogy, I could find few, if any, redeeming qualities to his character.

The only other thing on his mind seems to be getting it on with this idiotic, empty-headed, utterly bitchy, but gorgeous girl at his school, named Portia. He even begins to realize how irrational this is, but his obsession continues, and she feeds into it almost willingly, because she wants to be the center of attention. It becomes really grating very quickly, this whole dynamic. I began to wonder why I should have any sympathy for this character at all, when he showed only the very rare glimpse of worthwhile behavior. Rich's own family boils down to angry, controlling father; feckless, worn-out mother; and resentful, bratty younger brother; so maybe he learned it from somewhere. Only Nick and Barb, who serve as surrogate parents, are likeable in this book. And Bonny, a potential love interest, but I don't want to give too much away.

Honestly, the only thing that kept me reading this book at times was the fact that the writing was very, very good. I really bought what a jerkwad this guy was, and the dialogue and interactions were skillfully done and occasionally hilarious. I just couldn't stand him; and by the end, he didn't exhibit enough of a change in character for me to justify having spent so many pages on him.

By then, though, I was admittedly curious about what was going to happen to him, because some plot threads were left undone. So I went on to the second book, Shacked Up. And here I was pleasantly surprised. Shacked Up was just so much better, plot- and character-development-wise. Rich actually learns something from living on his own; he starts to see Portia for the horrid bitch she is; and his roommate Bonny, his boss Nick, and Nick's unconventional but happy family all start having a positive influence on him. He shows that there's more to him than superficiality. But he ends up needing to make a choice between keeping the gorgeous but awful Portia or kind Bonny who really needs a good friend and a place to stay.

The second book was so much better that I went on to finish the trilogy. The third installment, Speeding, involves Rich, and Bonny, and things they learn from and about each other as they get to know each other on a real, rather than superficial level. Rich starts to realize a lot of things about himself that he had no idea even existed (nor did I, for that matter, after the first book pretty well established him as a total jerk). Then they find out that Bonny's best friend has been sucked into a cult, unwillingly, by her domineering boyfriend. The two rush off to try to rescue her, learning even more about their relationship in the process. Very exciting.

I kind of see this trilogy as a series of relationship novels cleverly disguised as edgy guy fiction. For me, the first book—though it did set things up for the remaining two—was clearly less fully developed than the other two. But maybe that first book was aimed to attract male readers with limited interests, since it focuses mainly on questions like "how am I going to get Portia to go out with me?" and "how can I earn more money so I can attract Portia and get her to go out with me?" And then those readers would go on to the other books and actually—like Rich—learn something. But that first book annoyed me because of the character's total lack of depth, and because nobody's actions seemed to have really serious consequences. I'm so glad that changed in the rest of the trilogy. I ended up truly getting caught up in the story, and cheering for Rich in the end. If you can fight through your utter annoyance at Rich in the first book, the other two will be worth reading.

March 02, 2006

A WritingYA Call to Arms

Okay, everyone--y'all know Wikipedia, right? The user-driven online encyclopedia that anyone (and I mean anyone) can edit?

Well, regardless of how you might feel about Wikipedia in general--and I know my feelings are certainly mixed--I'm going to request any loyal and knowledgeable YA fans to PLEASE go take a look at their entry on Young Adult Literature. Please consider helping to flesh it out, improve their examples and definitions, add more resources, or what have you. Because it's rather bare-bones--one might even dare say incomplete--and could use some help.

Multiple Developments - Far Too Many. (Warning: Spoilers.)

Now, I know that I tend to be hard on books that are 'issue' books, because it's so very difficult to write a non-character driven book and make it interesting. Marlene Perez has given it a shot in her 2004 novel, Unexpected Development. This premise of the novel is clearly illustrated on the cover - it's meant to be a book about a girl with a larger chest.

This novel works on a number of levels. The protagonist, Megan, has a pretty horrible summer job with a lecherous boss and mindless tourists wanting pancakes and leaving bad tips. The character has some very realistic moments as a teen, including some horribly real interactions with her mother, who is juggling her second set of twins and is straddling being both the mother of teens and the mother of toddlers. Love interest Jake Darrow is drawn convincingly, and Megan's since-grade-school crush on him comes across very clearly. However, I believe this book attempts to be about too many issues, thus doing justice to none; many of the subjects broached are left dangling awkwardly, are shallowly explored, and incomplete.

My first difficulty with the story comes from the structure. It is told in a sort of recent past tense, where the main character is required to write a "What I Did Last Summer" type of essay to her teacher. To begin with, I find it difficult to believe that a student essay would include details of a first sexual encounter, even if, as the ubiquitous Mrs. Westland promises, no one is going to read it but her. The details that follow in the novel encourage the reader to suspend disbelief that any seventeen year old would be willing to divulge that much, especially to a teacher.

My next issue comes when Megan first encounters Peter Fenton, the one-dimensional older "paper villain" whose pawing of then freshman Megan earned him two weeks detention. I was more than surprised by this; in a public school, being caught by a teacher pinning a young girl's arms above her head and opening her blouse while she weeps and struggles would mean time in Juvenile Hall; that's assault. In a private school, or a religious school where teachers and faculty often try to downplay outside interference, I could see a teacher handing out detention. But in public school? Yet the character extols the trustworthiness of the wonderful Mrs. Westland, who saved her so long ago from this heavy-handed troll's advances. I doubt Mrs. Westland did him a favor, as later in the novel, he predictably attempts to rape Megan. His Villainous Guy status almost takes on comical proportions, and you expect him to have twirly moustaches, speak with a thick accent, and tie her to a railroad track. "I always get what I want," he grunts, like a teen aged Neanderthal. Unbelievably, no one seems to notice his knuckles trailing to the floor. Yes, he gets away with it again. I realize that happens in real life, but it seems to beg the question of whether or not the novel is encouraging readers to report things anyway, or...what?

The male characters in Unexpected Development are plentiful, yet faceless. Megan's father is bland and shadowy, her brothers are nearly indistinguishable, yet they are the same age as her boyfriend, and friends of his. The spotlighted characters in the story are oddly lit; best friend Jilly comes across as strangely detached from boys her age because of her steady, Lyle, with whom she is already, at seventeen, ready to settle down into contented couplehood. The pair are already engaged. Jilly is unbelievably convenient as a writer's foil - the reader doesn't have her issues or sexuality to deal with, and she also has a conveniently empty house and plenty of extra bedrooms for best friends and their boyfriends. Her absentee parents, her heartache from a bitter and alcoholic stepmother are only briefly skimmed over. She is never unhappy, and always fulfilled. The entire novel is a stage set for Megan's life.

Another secondary issue the novel deals with is Megan's boss, Mr. Cooper, and his affair with the under-aged Susi. Mr. Cooper touches Megan's bra straps, watches her work, and blocks her entry and exits from buildings. He brushes past her, and is generally a lecherous yuckfest. Megan gives him no encouragement, but no one else (including the INCREDIBLY DENSE Susi - apparently dressing like a hoochie means you're also quite stupid) seems to notice what he does, and that he does it to everyone. Jilly's father owns the restaurant, but Jilly believes that no one would believe her word over Mr. Cooper's - so no one even tries to talk to qualified and attentive adults about what's going on at the pancake house. Later, in what is meant to be a caring and courageous move, Megan tells Susi's mother what's going on with Susi, and Mr. Cooper is arrested. Telling something to save someone else, then, is clearly more important than saving yourself. "You never know who people will love," Jake says of Mr. Cooper, bafflingly. Indeed.

Finally, there are the issues that bookends the novel - Megan's bosoms. Only, it's less about the breasts, and more about the girls who has them. Jilly, Megan's best friend expects that she and Jake are into it hot and heavy the very first time they're alone together for more than five minutes, despite the fact that Megan believes that he is still with his steady girlfriend. Megan's mother constantly warns her about "girls like you," yet never explains what that damning statement is supposed to mean -- nor does Megan ask. Girls like you? What about them??? Further, Megan spends the night with this boy and I suppose because she is telling the story to her Mrs. Westland, the character glosses over what it means for someone who is so uneasy about her physical attributes to allow herself to be undressed and touched and seen.

There was so much material on Megan's experiences, personal history, family history, and her reaction to negative attention to her body to be delved into that was left undiscovered. This was disappointing, especially since the character claimed that she had 'blossomed' in the fifth grade. That richness of emotional exploration was ignored in favor of focusing on externals and surfaces -- Megan's first sexual experience, her bosoms being a sexual thing, and the sexual complications she observes and encounters one summer. That was unfortunate, shallow and passive; just a little more work could have really strengthened the story arc and cleared out much of its conflicting and unnecessary storylines, delivering a clear and precise emotional pay off as Megan finally meets a boy who likes her for her, not her breasts. Unfortunately, without more backstory, we don't know the 'her' that Jake is supposed to like. Their solely sexualized encounters, in which he hardly speaks to her, but insists that he's been 'thinking about her for a long time;' his very recent break-up with a long-term girlfriend, and their squabbling just confused issues. The novel limps to an ambivalent end.

(And can I just snipe a little about that bra on the cover? No one, and I mean no one who has as large a chest as we are led to believe the character has (although she has actually exaggerated it -- and its importance -- to herself) can wear a bra with such a plunging décolletage and such microthin straps, okay? It's a very clever cover and all, but it's definitely was just meant to get books off the shelves.)

Read it? Join the conversation!

March 01, 2006

A Real Hoot

I'm definitely wondering what took me so long to pick up Carl Hiaasen's Hoot, considering I'd been meaning to read it for ages and had heard all about how it was a bestseller, and a Newbery Honor Book, and blah blah blah. Maybe it had just been overhyped for me, but I wasn't in a rush to go check it out.

Well, this was very wrong and silly of me. I know that now. At first, the idea of a story set in Florida with lots of local flavor and quirky characters...well, for some reason that didn't grab me. But from the very first page of Hoot, when hapless Roy gets his face smushed into the bus window by a bully boy named Dana, I couldn't stop reading. The characters cracked me up, and how could I resist a mystery with an environmentalist agenda? Roy, who only recently moved to Florida from Montana, finds himself curiously drawn to the plight of a mysterious boy he sees fleeing from the bus stop that morning he's getting his face whomped against the window. From there, he's drawn into a monkey-wrenching plot that involves a pancake restaurant, endangered owls, and a really entertaining cast of characters. Hiaasen's sense of humor really shines through in this book, and keeps you laughing as you get deeper into the mystery.

I enjoyed it so much, is it any wonder I went on to read Hiaasen's second YA book, Flush? Another Florida-set mystery with an environmental twist, Flush is a little more edgy, there's a little more danger...but it's still suffused with that quirkiness and humor that Hiaasen just seems so darn good at.

Noah's dad has just been jailed for sinking a casino boat that was illegally dumping its sewage into the ocean, causing beach shutdowns and polluting the water. However, his protest seems to no avail, nothing was proven, and all it does is make Noah's dad liable for damages and bring tension into their family. Noah, along with his younger sister Abbey, is determined to get to the bottom of things and restore their dad's image in the media, in town, and (most importantly) with their mom--even if it means consorting with the usual bizarre cast of characters. This book is a bit of a thriller, too--the casino boat's owner is just plain bad, and Noah and his sister have to put themselves in some real danger to have an effect on the outcome of this case.

I had so much fun reading these, I'm determined to check out some of Hiaasen's thrillers written for adults. I had no idea I'd enjoy them so much. Very highly recommended.