Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Blast From the Past: Melvin Monster by John Stanley

Any fan of retro comics has gotta love Drawn and Quarterly's reprint of the first three Melvin Monster comic books. Part of The John Stanley Library series, this book reflects Drawn and Quarterly's high production values. The cover is elegantly textured, the pages are sewn in, the paper is thick and smooth. You get the feeling that this book is meant for collectors, not kids. But I'm not one to let that stop me--I took this beauty home to Ewan last night and we read the whole thing in one sitting, at his insistence. And big sister Katrina was hanging around listening in, too.

What a hoot! Here's the back blurb:

"Melvin is a good little monster boy who just wants to be helpful, go to school, and do as he's told--all things that are forbidden in the town of Monsterville. His days are spent trying to avoid getting eaten by his pet crocodile Cleopatra and tricking the local teacher witch, Miss McGargoyle, into accepting him into The Little Black Schoolhouse. Everything he does disappoints his parents, Baddy and Mummy! And it only gets worse when the monster collector discovers poor little Melvin."

It sounds like it could be a bit cutesy but it's not at all. My favourite character is Melvin's guardian demon, Damon, who is frankly a bit of a prima donna. The eternally optimistic and hungry Cleopatra is great too. And the only word for Melvin himself is irrepressible.  Here are some samples:

By the way, I never realized how prolific a writer John Stanley was. Not only did he create Melvin, but he also wrote the long-running Little Lulu series and the Nancy and Sluggo cartoons, as well as writing scripts for many other famous characters. Genius. Sheer, inexhaustible genius. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Never Too Much Supernatural Romance: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

I have been a follower of Kaleb Nation's quirky blog TwilightGuy for about a year now. Today I popped in and found out that he's just launched ShiverGuy, a new blog which will give us a male perspective on reading Shiver. I'm looking forward to hearing his thoughts.

I can see why Shiver has been so frequently compared to Twilight. It's a romance between a quiet high school girl and a haunting, tormented werewolf. It touches all the same chords. And, as Kaleb pointed out, it's popularity is snowballing much like Twilight's did. However, to me it stands very much apart from all the Twilight wannabees in the teen book world right now. Shiver is truly a book that stands on its own merits and would have found a rapt audience even without Twilight paving the way.

I found Shiver to be a more introspective book than the adrenaline-charged Twilight. Stiefvater's writing style is quiet and poetic. The language is so beautiful I found myself re-reading certain passages just to linger over the sound and imagery. The care Stiefvater obviously takes with the craft of writing is mirrored by her character Sam, the werewolf love interest in Shiver, who introduces Grace to the poetry of Rilke and writes love songs for her.

Stiefvater's characterization is subtle and interesting. Sam and Grace tell their stories in alternating chapters, and their relationship feels intimate in a way that I don't often experience when reading teen fiction. Heroes and villains are equally humanized by the end of Shiver. Stiefvater's depiction of the wolf world is just as complex. In many ways Sam and his pack seem more attuned to the natural world than Meyer's werewolves, and it calls to them more inevitably. It is wrenching to watch Sam fight for his humanity, and fascinating to see how some of the other werewolves adapt to and even embrace their cycles of change.

There is one scene in Shiver that I found truly disturbing, involving Sam's parents and his memories of their violence towards him when, as a young child, he first became a wolf. This scene, which is recalled twice, makes me hesitant to recommend this book to the tween crowd who lapped up Twilight. I think Shiver is a more mature story, for a slightly older audience.

Here is a link to Stiefvater's beautifully created trailer video for Shiver. (She's an artist and musician, too--a ridiculous amount of talent for one person to have.) I think it captures the mood of the book. Enjoy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier is creating quite a niche for herself writing smart, funny, relatable stories for the tween girl crowd. Katrina and I both zoomed through her adaptations of the Babysitter's Club series, which were so much fun. Her latest book, Smile, is written in very much the same style, but as an added bonus, is in colour!

Unlike BSC, Smile is based on Raina's own life. Specifically, it begins when she loses two front teeth in a fall, and ends several years (and many dental visits) later. It is a saga of false teeth and braces. Gum surgery also rears its ugly head. It's also about family, friends and boys. It's about looking weird just when how you look starts to matter to you. In other words, the stuff of normal, everyday, middle-class girl life.

The world of teen fiction can be intense, but Smile feels like a breath of fresh air. It's light, understanding and makes you laugh. Often. At things you might have gone through yourself. Like Bill Watterson, Jules Feiffer or Jeff Smith, Raina Telgemeier has a gift.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hamlet and Ophelia: A Novel by John Marsden

"What the fuck do you want?"

Australian teen writer John Marsden gives us a masterfully in-your-face prose retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet. I haven't read the original version for a few decades now, so I can't comment on how precisely Marsden's version follows it, but all the main plot points are certainly represented (murder, ghost, procrastination, madness, and a surfeit of gruesome deaths). Marsden's retelling is very accessible, but he's also made this story hot. This is a Hamlet who prowls around the castle at twilight watching women undress, and an Ophelia who imagines what Hamlet looks like naked, and moans and writhes in her bed at night. Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia is highly sexually charged, but also highly frustrated (something many teen readers will no doubt sympathize with).

And yes, something is still rotten in the state of Denmark. Treachery, corruption, and decay abound. Marsden captures the right brooding, moody atmosphere, seething with undercurrents of repressed emotion. He closely adapts much of Shakespeare's original wordplay, which adds richness to the reading experience. The juxtapositioning of these passages with Marsden's own highly contemporary style jolts the reader and adds to the story's edgy quality.

"There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio, or in mine, but somehow we are expected to make it all intelligible, to carve statues from air and books from bark. It is too much. This is the proper work of gods and we are not gods, indeed all of our human errors come from the vain belief that we are."
"Here's your ball," Horatio said.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I'd Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio

The blog Seven Impossible Things turned me on to Dorothee de Monfreid, picture book illustrator, a few weeks ago, and I'm glad. I took I'd Really Like to Eat a Child home to Ewan (age 6) and it was a big hit with us both.

This droll book has fun with two common picture book tropes--finicky eating and comparative sizes. Achilles is a young crocodile whose parents are trying to get him to eat a banana for breakfast. Nothing doing. Today he wants to eat a child. His parents try to talk him out of this crazy notion ("What an idea, my little Achilles!...children don't grow on banana trees, only bananas do, and that's what I have for breakfast!") and even bake him a big, yummy chocolate cake to distract him, but Achilles is steadfast. It's child or nothing.

As a stubborn, hungry Achilles wanders down to the riverfront, teeth gleaming, he spots a child! What he doesn't figure out is that this kid is about four times his size, so when he bares his teeth and goes "raah!", his intended victim playfully catches him by the tail and gives him a tickle. Coochie coochie coo! How undignified. Undeterred, Achilles escapes and decides to go eat the bananas so he can grow...and when he's big, then he will eat a child!

I love characters with ambition. Hilarious.

This book was originally published in France under the title Je mangerais bien un enfant.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford

"See that guy?" Anne pointed out a schlub sporting a cardigan and shaggy sideburns. At his side stood a surprisingly perky brunette. "That's Clayton. He's the head of the Neurobiology department. His wife is a bed stylist."...
"What's a bed stylist?" I asked.
"She works for homewares, when they shoot their catalogues," Anne said. "Her whole, entire career consists of arranging the beds so they're artfully crumpled in the pictures. Like someone just had great sex in them."
"That's her job?"
"For real."
We snickered...

Well, I just want to know why no one told me this job existed when I was thinking about my career options!

Actually, the bed stylist is pretty typical of the characters we meet in How to Say Goodbye in Robot. "Quirky" is a word that comes up a lot when people are describing this book. I mean, look at the telephone on the cover. What teen in their right minds would be using a phone like that? Oddball teens, that's who. Teens who don't fit in with the crowd. Loners who are disparaged by their families and peers with names like "ghost boy" and "robot girl". Unlikely friends who communicate with each other partly via a late-night talk radio show on an oldies station. Where we, incidentally, get to know plenty of quirky old folks too.

It's Myrna. I believe in ghosts, Herb. I swear to God, one night when my late husband was in the hospital, not recuperating from his third and fatal heart attack, I was lying alone in my bed, and the ghost of Elvis came to comfort me. I use the word comfort as a euphemism, Herb. I'm sure all the ladies out there know what I'm talking about...

But I digress.

What makes How to Say Goodbye in Robot so real and good is that layered under its quirks and irony is an understated sadness. The story captures the complicated friendship of high school students Beatrice (robot girl) and Jonah (ghost boy). These two aren't very experienced at having friends; Jonah in particular hasn't made a new friend since third grade when his mother and twin brother were killed in a car accident and he withdrew from the world in grief. Somehow, Bea and Jonah find sympathetic spirits in each other. Ultimately, though, their closeness isn't nearly enough to save Jonah when he undergoes another devastating loss. In the end he simply disappears, leaving robot girl haunted by his absence.

I must admit the ending made me cry.

Standiford writes just beautifully here. The helplessness of loss is evoked so well. The family dynamics are heartbreaking. Relationships are broken; some heal, others don't. Even treasured friendships can be fragile.

Someday, I tell myself, the memories will fade away. Catso will just be a toy. A lock of white hair won't make me jump. I'll stare at the picture of the boy in the Casper mask, struggling to remember why I loved him.
That's how I imagine it, anyway.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Girl Power?: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Matthew had called her harmless. Harmless. And being with him made Frankie feel squashed into a box--a box where she was expected to be sweet and sensitive (but not oversensitive); a box for young and pretty girls who were not as bright or powerful as their boyfriends. A box for people who were not forces to be reckoned with.

Frankie wanted to be a force.

Frankie Landau-Banks has a mind like a steel trap. She comes from a monied family and is getting an excellent education at an ivy-league private boarding school called Alabaster High. She has also, very suddenly and recently, turned pretty. Pretty enough to attract a popular, handsome and affectionate boyfriend. Life should be good, no?

Well, actually, no. Frankie is dissatisfied. Very dissatisfied. She loves her boyfriend Matthew but realizes early on that he, as she puts it, underestimates her. Worse, he excludes her from significant parts of his social and intellectual life (such as it is). When Frankie realizes that he and his coterie of male friends are part of a secret club that her father had once belonged to, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, she rebels against being left out of the old boy's network-in- the-making. Inspired by her class in "Cities, Art and Protest" and her reading of Michel Foucault (I told you she had a good brain) she decides to infiltrate the group. This is when the story really gets cooking.

Frankie manages to wrest control of the Loyal Order from its Alpha Dog, anonymously taking on a brilliant and utterly subversive leadership role. She also manages to locate the Society's secret and long-missing Disreputable History of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds by decoding the clues in the Society's oath of allegiance. She organizes a spectacular series of pranks and protests which Matthew and his friends obediently carry out, never suspecting who they are taking orders from. And she leads the real Alpha Dog on an increasingly frantic search to see who has usurped his identity.

This book has been described by some as a girl-power comedy, but I didn't read it quite that way. I found Matthew's reaction when he discovers in the end what Frankie has done quite ugly. In fact, I felt all along that Matthew was all wrong for Frankie. He was never going to "get" her, and he never really wants to. The misogyny these boys display without ever realizing it (or being called on it, until Frankie comes around), is unsettlingly convincing. In a comedy they would learn their lesson, but here they remain unchanged. Only Frankie grows in this story.

Complicated Deceptions: Liar by Justine Larbalestier

I was born with a light covering of fur.
After three days it had all fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of many omissions and lies.
My father is a liar and so am I.
But I'm going to stop. I have to stop.
I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.
That's my promise.
This time I truly mean it.

I've just finished reading Liar and I have to stop and catch my breath. Justine Larbalestier's latest book is freaking amazing!

First of all, there's the intricately crafted plot. Presented to us by Micah, our narrator, in three sections:

1) Telling the Truth
2) Telling the True Truth, and
3) The Actual Real Truth

Each section circles back on the others, adding layers of detail which confuse and alter the storyline until it resembles a kaleidescope. This is a story in which anything is possible, but nothing is certain. And when I say anything is possible, I mean anything. Is Micah a compulsive liar, or is she crazy? Why do her parents reject her? Is she a killer? Is she actually human, or is she something else altogether? Not to give anything away, but let me just say that the more Micah's story accretes, the more bizarre and riveting it gets. Micah may be the ultimate unreliable narrator, but she gets under your skin all the same.

Then there are all the rich themes. Truth versus fantasy. Identity. The complications of the female body. Sexuality and its link to the feral. Guilt. The uneasy relationship between love and aggression. This book takes them all on superbly, darkly, entertainingly. And the ending is so satisfyingly open.

This is what I thought would happen. This is what could have happened. This is what did happen.