Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness first came to my attention with the Chaos Walking trilogy.  I loved even the titles: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer,  Monsters of Men.  To me these titles seemed mysterious, unusual  and thought-provoking.  I soon decided that those qualities could be used to describe the books as well.  And they were challenging--reading them was a commitment, a journey that you had to expend some effort in making, but one that rewarded you with the depth and impact of the writing.  His next project, A Monster Calls,  reminded me of  Susan Cooper's famous The Dark is Rising series, not so much thematically but in the superb characterization of ancient supernatural creatures that are tied somehow to the natural world.  I loved the idea of a storytelling monster, but a serious one, not one you felt safe with.  I also loved Jim Kay's earthy illustrations, which were such a moody complement to the text.  It was an easier read for a younger audience, but I found it a tremendously powerful book and I was so chuffed when A Monster Calls became the first book in history to win both the Carnegie medal (for writing) and the Kate Greenaway medal (for illustration).

All of this is to say that I'm definitely a Patrick Ness fan.   I began reading More Than This feeling pretty confident that I was in the hands of a master storyteller who would take me to places I wasn't expecting to go.  With More Than This, Ness is back to writing for an older teen audience, and he's returning to the dystopia genre. Here, Ness's dystopia, unlike many others that we've seen for teens recently, is very solitary, and a lot of the hero's journey is internal.  In fact, we're well into the book before we realize we're reading a dystopian novel at all. The first half reminded me strongly of the existentialist novels I read in my late teens, especially by Camus and Sartre. It's hard not to think of No Exit, particularly as it's not at all clear through most of More Than This whether any of the characters are alive or dead.  At first it seems pretty unambiguous;  the first line of the prologue is "Here is the boy, drowning" and the last line in the prologue is "He dies."  As in No Exit, Seth, the main character, believes at first that he is in hell, and he certainly believes he deserves to be there.  But he still needs to eat and sleep, and he can still be injured and feel pain, so is he really dead? We the readers are constantly kept off-balance--where is Seth, really?  Why is he alone?  Why did he wake up wrapped in bandages?  Are Regine and Tomasz, the two other teens he eventually meets, real, or are they creations of his mind?  Who is hunting them, and why?  And while all this is going on, we're quietly having our hearts broken by the memories Seth gradually recovers of his life on earth, and by the stories of Regine and Tomasz's memories as well.  I think one of the things that makes Ness such a strong and moving writer is the depth of character he can build, and the unflinching way he has of laying bare the darkness that humans can create for each other,  whether they mean to or not.

After I read More Than This, I watched a talk by Ness where he expresses the belief that yearning is the primary emotional state of the teen experience.   It's an interesting idea, and you can certainly read the book as an expression of that thought.  As Seth says, "If there really is more to life, I want to live all of it.  And why shouldn't all of us?  Don't we deserve that?"

There's no trailer for More Than This, but here's the official book trailer for A Monster Calls:

And here's Patrick Ness talking about writing for teens:


Friday, June 21, 2013

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

"He looked me in the eye.  His eyes were a translucent blue. He looked kind.  I didn't want to look away.  I realized that not being the gay kid here allowed me more access.  I wasn't supposed to hold eye contact with jocks back in Boulder.  It was understood:  They accepted me, and I didn't freak them out with eye contact.  Here, no such contract had been made." 
Rafe is out, and his family's fine with it.  So's his school.  His teachers.  His soccer team.   His mother threw an embarassing coming-out dinner for all his friends when he came out, and now she's the ultra-enthusiastic president of the local PFLAG chapter.  His teachers turn to him when they need a minority perspective.  He gives "I'm a gay kid" talks at other high schools.  He's sick of all this inclusion and acceptance, because it makes him feel two-dimensional.  He doesn't want gay to be the only thing about him people respond to, but this is how he's beginning to feel:

                                                          "GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY 
                                                          GAY GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY
                                                         GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY 
                                                        GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY
                                                       GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY..."

 Rafe decides he wants to start over as a whole person, and so, in spite of the bewilderment of his parents and best friend, he transfers to an all-boys boarding school, where he decides, not to go back in the closet exactly, but just to not mention his orientation.   He has a great time.  He plays sports.  He makes friends.  He goofs around.  He takes a writing class.  He pretends his best friend Claire Olivia is an ex-girlfriend.  He falls in love with Ben.  Oooooops!

"I didn't tell him I was gay because I didn't want anything to come between us."

It's the falling in love part that's awkward.  Ben's straight, but they develop an intimate friendship that seems to suggest other possibilities.  The thing is, the longer Rafe goes without telling Ben about his orientation, the more it seems to matter.  Rafe's dilemma is how to communicate his inner truth without being reduced to a label, and while this  book doesn't offer any ideal solutions, it does in the end suggest that honesty is the best policy. Rafe's a very likeable character and Konigsberg has a great ear for dialogue, but what I liked best about Openly Straight is how deftly Konigsberg balances the tone between light and serious.  This book feels like it would be very readable for teens of all genders and persuasions who are interested in issues around constructing an identity that's in keeping with your own deepest sense of self.  


Invisibility by David Levithan and Andrea Cremer

"I am like a ghost who's never died." 
Invisibility is only a superpower if you can turn it on and off at will.  Otherwise, it's not such a blessing.  Stephen has been invisible from birth, although he doesn't know why.  His parents know, but they won't tell him.  He lives alone since his mother has recently died and his father has left to live a more normal life and start a new family (luckily for Stephen, his father still pays for his apartment and living expenses).  He's used to living on the fringes of life, not going to school, not having friends, having to dodge people on the street if he goes for a walk.  Then one day, while he is in his apartment hallway, the grocery bag of his new neighbor breaks, and groceries spill out all over the floor.  As she's scrambling to pick things up, she looks up and snaps "Are you really going to just stand there?  Is this fun for you?".  And so an utterly stunned Stephen meets Elizabeth, the only person on earth who can see him.

Invisibility is a story of magic and romance set in New York by one of my favorite teen authors (Levithan) and Andrea Cremer,  bestselling author of the Nightshade series.  Levithan must be great to work with, since this is the fourth novel he's co-written (two novels with Rachel Cohn and one with John Green).  There's a very cute picture of David and Andrea cozying up to each other on the back flap.  

This was such a fun read, but it tugged at my heart a little as well.  Levithan can do that.  I was sucked in by Stephen's description of the ephemeral nature of his one childhood friendship:

"And then there was Ben, who moved away.  Ben, the only friend I've almost had.  When he was five and I was ten, he decided to have an imaginary friend.  Stuart, he named him, and that was close enough to my name, Stephen, for me to play along.  He'd invite me to dinner, and I'd come along.  He'd move to hold my hand in the park, and I'd take it.  He'd bring me to kindergarten for show-and-tell, and I would stand there as the teacher indulged his whim, nodding along to whatever Ben said about me.  The one thing I couldn't do was speak to him, because I knew that hearing my voice would spoil the illusion.  Once, when I knew he wasn't listening, I whispered his name.  Just to hear it.  But he didn't notice.  And by the time he turned six, he'd outgrown me.  I couldn't blame him.  Still, I was sad when he moved away."

It turns out that Stephen is invisible because his grandfather is a curse-caster, and he cursed his daughter when she left him to go to college.   Nice, right?  Elizabeth can see him because she was born with the rare ability to see curses.  You'd think the fact that Elizabeth and her brother Laurie are the only people in Stephen's life --except for the escaped father--would make the Stephen and Elizabeth romance a bit claustrophobic, but somehow it doesn't.  Perhaps it's because Elizabeth isn't yet entangled with school and other friends (she's new in town, and it's summer).   It's sweet how Stephen and Elizabeth fall for each other and what that means to them both.  We feel that Stephen isn't the only one who's being seen for the first time.     I  also like Elizabeth's close relationship with her ally and kid brother, Laurie. It's refreshing to see such a positive, I've-got-your-back sibling relationship.  

One thing I did notice is that Stephen's voice is pretty much exactly the same as the voice of A, the protagonist of Levithan's previous book Every Day.  That's not really a complaint, just an observation.

Here's a trailer from Penguin Books:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Lucy Variation by Sara Zarr

"In Lucy's house, childhood, like grief, was an episode merely tolerated.  An inconvenience and an obstacle to the real work of life;  proving to the world and to yourself that you weren't just taking up space."

The Lucy Variations explores some interesting ideas around art and competition.  Lucy Beck-Moreau is a gifted young pianist whose rich and cultured family place tremendous pressure on her not to waste her talent.  In the Beck-Moreau household, this means not just driving yourself towards ever-increasing artistic accomplishment, but also winning at performance competitions.  To Lucy's grandfather, the Beck-Moreau patriarch,  absolute discipline and commitment mean that Lucy is expected to perform at an international competition in Prague even though she has just learned that her beloved grandmother has died in her absence.  When Lucy walks off the stage, her grandfather is furious.  She is barred from playing ever again, and her young  brother Gus becomes the focus of the family legacy.

As the plot plays itself out,  Lucy defies her grandfather and begins to play again, privately, trying to re-connect to the joy of music. She also tries to protect Gus from carrying the weight of too much expectation.  This is a quiet book without a lot of incident, but the situation Lucy is placed in really drew me in.   Zarr's writing is elegant and nuanced, and her gift for complex characterization makes everyone in this book feel authentic and dimensional.  Lucy is a striking protagonist, very mature in some ways yet still clearly not an adult.  Lucy has to figure out what she has missed by dedicating herself to piano to the exclusion of all else, and she has to decide for herself what the responsibilities of being an artist might involve. For Lucy, the most compelling question is, does she still want to do it?   Does she still love it that much?

" The  metronome on top of the piano ticked steadily;  Lucy fought off the urge to throw a pillow at it...That sound.  Tick tick tick tick.  A slow adagio.  A death march.

She didn't know how Gus could stand it.  Spending day after day after day after lonely day in this room, with this old woman. 

Everything good (tick) is passing you by (tick) as you sit here (tick) and practice your life away (tick)."

Many of the adults around Lucy aren't very good at boundaries (neither is Lucy for that matter), and it takes Lucy a while to figure out whose support is disinterested, whose is not, and how much it matters.   I like what the Horn Book reviewer says about The Lucy Variations:  "the novel's strength is Zarr's unflinching attention to the gray areas of Lucy's life, where adults are fallible, decisions are reversible, and passions can guide you forward or lead you astray."  Like most of Zarr's work, The Lucy Variations is an absorbing book for thoughtful readers. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Medusa Jones by Ross Collins


"'Pleeeaase can I turn them to stone?' Medusa begged.  
"It's not the polite thing to do, dear.' said Medusa's Mom. 
 'They're not polite,' Medusa said.  'They were mean about my hair again today.'
'Sticks and stones, Medusa,'  said Medusa's mom.  'You can't go turning everyone who's mean about your hair to stone.'
'Gran did.'  Medusa scowled.
'Gran is insane and lives in a cave.  Your father and I didn't raise you like that...'"

Medusa Jones is "a gorgon, but apart from that, pretty normal.".  Not that it's easy having snakes for hair.  Medusa's snakes turn back the pages of the books she's reading if she turns them too quickly,  and fight for the warmest spot when she goes outside.  They writhe around under her hat, bite the local hairdresser until his hands puff up like balloons, and make Medusa a target for the local bullies (the nasty Perseus, the dumb-as-a-log Theseus and the worrywart Cassandra).  It's so annoying, having powers and not being allowed to use them!

This book's straightforward underdogs-prove-stronger/braver-than-heroes plot (Medusa and her friends end up rescuing the scared-stiff "champions" on a field-trip-gone-awry on Mount Olympus) is really just a foil for some mighty funny characterization.  Medusa, her friends Chiron and Mino (the minotaur), the mean teacher Miss Medea, and the mythical heroes-turned-schoolyard-bullies are all played off each other for lots of laughs.  This easy chapter book reads aloud well and plenty of pictures add to the atmosphere.   

Medusa and friends greeting sour-faced Miss Medea.

Medusa wants a haircut, but her snakes aren't so keen.

Medusa and her three-headed puppy, Cerebus.

Monday, December 31, 2012

What Happened to Ivy by Kathy Stinson

"I could ask him now.  I could ask him:  Did you drown her? Did you plan it, like I planned the worms?  Did you know when you helped her into her bathing suit...what you were going to do?  Or not till you carried her into the water and made her laugh one last time?"

What Happened to Ivy is a great example of the kind of book that's not getting published as much these days, but which I think is still welcomed by many young readers--what librarians refer to as "the problem novel".  Not in that the book itself is a problem--but in that the book presents a problem, often some kind of ethical issue, as its main underpinning, and explores it deeply enough to expand the reader's understanding of the issue's  emotional and  philosophical complexities.  Such as, in this case, euthanasia.  Although What Happened to Ivy is fiction, it bears a strong resemblance to the real-life Robert and Tracy Latimer case, in which a Canadian parent was convicted of killing his disabled daughter in 1993 because of her pain management and quality-of-life issues.  This case generated huge controversy for many reasons, but I think most of all around the issue of consent;  euthanasia generally involves adults who are able to make their wishes known, but in this case the victim was a minor who had never expressed any desire to die. 

Stinson's fictionalization gives us over to the point of view of David, a young teen with an even younger sister, Ivy, who has cerebral palsy, just as Tracy Latimer did.  The first half of the book takes us through what it's like to be part of a family which includes a person with neurological disabilities.  Ivy consumes a lot of family focus, leaving David feeling frustrated and invisible sometimes--this family operates in a near-constant state of crisis, and his needs will always come in second to his sister's.  On the other hand, sometimes he's too visible, being out in public with a sister who's frankly embarrassing.  Ivy drools, she wears a diaper, she's loud, repetitive and hard to understand.  She has violent seizures and has had multiple painful surgeries. She can scare away other kids, leaving David isolated.  But Ivy can also be joyful, communicative and very loving, and when she has a seizure in a lake and drowns, despite being with their father, David is devastated.  He's even more devastated when his father admits that, instead of rescuing her,  he deliberately let Ivy go.  

Despite being a pretty easy read, this is a thought-provoking book.  Was Ivy better off dead?  Was failing to save her an act of love or an act of emotional exhaustion, and does the motivation even matter?  Was Ivy capable of making her own decisions about life?  How do we, as a society, value people with complex disabilities and how successful are we in offering their families support?  What Happened to Ivy succeeds in presenting Ivy as a person of value, whose family, both before and after her death, has no easy choices.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Bride's Story; A Manga Series by Kaoru Mori

"Acclaimed creator Kaoru  Mori (Emma, Shirley) brings the nineteenth-century Silk Road to lavish life, chronicling the story of Amir Halgal, a young woman from a nomadic tribe betrothed to a twelve-year-old boy eight years her junior. Coping with cultural differences, blossoming feelings for her new husband, and expectations from both her adoptive and birth families, Amir strives to find her role as she settles into a new life and a new home in a society quick to define that role for her. Crafted in painstaking detail, Ms. Mori’s pen breathes life into the scenery and architecture of the period in this heartwarming slice-of-life tale that is at once both wholly exotic, yet familiar and accessible through the everyday lives of the rich characters she has created."
From Yen Press, the English-language publisher's web site.

Kaoru Mori's exquisite depiction of culture is, for me, the most compelling part of the still ongoing series A Bride's Story.  Created in Japanese, volumes 1, 2, and 3 have recently been published in English, and volume 4 is forthcoming in 2013.  A French translation is available as well.  Mori apparently specializes in historical fiction, and is most famous in the West for her award-winning series Emma, about a young maid in Victorian England.  A Bride's Story is set in an unnamed area along the  Silk Road, and in volume 3 it becomes clear that we are close to Russia.  In case you, like me, only have a fuzzy idea of where the Silk Road lies, here's what YoYo Ma's Silk Road Project has to say about it:

"The historical Silk Road comprised a series of land and sea trade  routes that crisscrossed Eurasia  from the first millenium B.C.E. through the middle of the second millennium C.E. The intersections among people from diverse cultures along the way promoted an unprecedented sharing of commodities, ideas, arts, sciences and innovations."

My husband Doug thinks the story is probably set in Mongolia or Kazakhstan, so I'll go with that.  It's a bit frustrating though--Mori seems to have done a huge amount of research, considering the intricate, almost photographic detail of the art.  Would it kill her to name the people she's depicting?

In volume 1 of A Bride's Story we meet Amir, an adult woman, and her husband Karluk, who has probably just hit puberty.  Some reviews have mentioned a discomfort with this, and I can see why, although it is clear that they have not consummated their relationship yet.  I think the difference in ages makes an interesting twist; this is obviously one of many cultures where marriages are arranged in terms of tribal alliances and not necessarily personal preference, but stories of older men and younger brides are more common.  Amir's a strong protagonist; she's an expert horsewoman, a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and is pretty resourceful with a stewpot.  The story shows a tremendous respect between her and her young groom;  although Amir and her adjustments to a new family are a focus in the series,  we also see Karluk struggling a bit to grow into his adult role as husband.

In some ways Karluk is still a child. 

Amir and Karluk relaxing together. 

Amir's amazing hunting skills. 

Looking good on a horse. 

The things we women will do to impress a man...

In volume 2 we see Amir's rather boorish male relatives arrive to take her back, hoping to ally themselves more strategically by marrying her off to another, more powerful family.  Amir refuses to go, now making a deliberate choice to remain with Karluk and his tribe, who unhesitatingly fight to keep her in one of the saga's more exciting turn of events.  (It's partly exciting because they don't look like they'd be such good fighters.) In volume 3 a western linguist and anthropologist, Mr. Smith, becomes a more major character and takes over the point of view for a time, taking us away from Amir and Karluk in his wanderings and adventures.  Some people have complained about the the meandering, picaresque storyline, but I think that's a little unfair;  we haven't read the whole story yet.  Besides, my favourite parts aren't necessarily the ones that further the action.  I think the best parts are the ones that highlight things like handing down traditional skills and crafts through the generations (woodcarving, cooking, embroidery).  We're really shown not just how intricate and meaningful the work is, but how long the skills take to master.

A young boy learns carving at the hands of a master artisan. 

A full-page close-up of a carving in progress.

The teaching process. 

A Bride's Story depicts material culture with loving attention to detail every step of the way, but it also depicts family culture with great sensitivity.  Amir's marriage literally takes her away from her birth family and into a new extended family community.  Unlike Amir's birth family, her marital family seems very warm and supportive. I enjoyed meeting all the characters, from the children to the elders.  I really loved the scene in book 3 where Tileke, a young girl who only likes embroidering hawks (embroidery is very important here, as you may have guessed by the clothing illustrations), is shown patterns associated with her maternal ancestors many generations back.  All the women gather to pass on their family heritage and inspire a member of the youngest  generation with their personal and collective memories.   There is certainly a power structure in this family, but it seems based on respect and it doesn't feel like anyone's being squashed.   This stands in contrast to some other families we see peripherally, where family power structures are used to benefit men at the expense of women.  Mori's not afraid to show us the range of experience possible in the culture she's depicting, but so far at any rate, her storyline emphasizes the positive.   I'm looking forward to following the rest of this series as it unfolds.
Amir's new family.