Monday, May 30, 2011

Shine by Lauren Myracle

 "What I knew was this:  Once upon a time, everything changed.  Now things had to change again.  Someone needed to track down whoever went after Patrick, and that someone was me."

Shine is unequivocally Lauren Myracle's best book to date, and it's a huge leap forward for an author who is already extremely popular, especially among tweens and younger teens. Myracle is largely known for a style that is funny, warm, playful and consistent, a style where happy endings are virtually guaranteed.  Shine is not at all like that.  Instead, it's psychologically and morally probing.  It's suspenseful and deeply absorbing.  It's piercing and compassionate.  It's nuanced and mature and very obviously written from the heart of a true artist. 

Shine takes place in a small Southern town steeped in secrets, tightly-knit loyalties and below-the-surface cruelties. At the centre of the story is Cat, who has retreated into herself since her older brother's friend assaulted her at age 13.  As a child, Cat's best friend was Patrick, but as a teenager she has distanced herself from him entirely, even though "losing Patrick was almost the same as losing myself."  Now Patrick is in a coma after having been beaten to a bloody pulp at the late-night gas station where he works, and for Cat, this is simply too much to bear.  She is consumed with the need to uncover Patrick's attacker, to "look straight into the ugliness and find out who hurt him, and...yell it from the mountaintop."  The assault on Patrick is assumed to be a hate crime, since Patrick is openly gay (in fact, he is the only out person in this community, as far as I could see) and he is found with the words "Suck this, faggot" scrawled in blood across his chest and a gas pump duct-taped into his mouth. 

Cat's unrelenting quest for the truth disturbs many people and places her in increasing danger.  Already intelligent, she becomes almost hyper-observant and soon realizes that even people whom Patrick considered friends may have wished him harm.  What I loved most about Shine was the way that Cat kept digging deeper and deeper and really thinking about the people around her, their histories and relationships and what they might or might not be capable of.   Cat becomes increasingly adept at seeing beneath the surface of people, noticing the aggression and nastiness hiding underneath the friendship.  Through Cat's determination and growing understanding, Myracle shows us the value and the cost of fighting intolerance.

Here's a fan-made video recommended by the author herself:

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Good, The Bad and The Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone

Tanya Lee Stone's The Good, The Bad and The Barbie deserves all the love it's getting.  Stone's a great writer and writes the kind of non-fiction that kids will read for fun.  This book mines a rich vein since Barbie dolls have been so iconic and yet controversial in our culture.  Stone gives us the history of both the doll and of the points of view surrounding the image of womanhood she represents.  The two things about The Good, The Bad and The Barbie that I found most interesting were the anecdotes of how people had played with their Barbies as children, and the way various artists and film-makers have used her as creative inspiration.  Did you know that there is an annual Altered Barbie Exhibition in San Francisco each year, which "includes music, films, and performance art, as well as paintings and sculpture"?  Wild.

Here are some of my favourite quotes and images from the book:

"My neighbor and I always had Barbie parties together because she had a ton of them, including a princess Barbie.  At least, I thought she was a princess, but it's hard to tell because she was always missing her clothes.  We usually ended up marrying her and were both her wives.  It's kind of funny that as a child, a polygamist, nudist, homosexual lifestyle was obviously the best one, and I doubt anyone could have convinced me otherwise."

"How did I--the daughter of a feminist and working woman, myself a future with my Barbie?  I took off all her clothes and sent her looking for love.  My Barbie got around...and it wasn't just me.  To walk into the bedroom of any of my Barbie-owning friends when I was little was to face a sordid truth.  'You want to play Barbie?' she would ask innocently and gesture.  Off in the corner--a bucket of large-breasted, pants-less women."

"Our naked Barbie collection did not go completely unnoticed.  At four, my son, who was not allowed to have a toy gun, found the treasures.  When he was playing with friends, he'd grab a naked Barbie, bend her at the waist, and shoot."

 Brooklyn artist Margaux Lange uses dismembered Barbie body parts to create a Plastic Body jewellery line, which has been showcased in galleries and museums.

Queen-Size Barb is an altered doll by Deborah Colotti, whose fascination with Barbies has led to a whole series of altered dolls.  She says, "Rather than trying to make myself as frozen and superficial as a doll, I decided to make Barbie more like me." 

I've just discovered that if you do a google image search on "altered barbie" you can come up with some pretty weird stuff.  Crucified Barbie, anyone? Zombie Barbie?  "Kiss" (the rock group) Barbie?  How do people get these ideas, anyway?
But I must admit I quite liked this one--"Take Flight" Barbie by Christine Webb. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

"'Wait--did you--you just yawned!'  The vampire's arms, raised over his head in the classic Dracula pose, dropped to his sides.  He pulled his exaggerated white fangs back behind his lips.  'What, imminent death isn't exciting enough for you?'

'Oh, stop pouting.  But, really, the widow's peak?  The pale skin?  The black cape?  Where did you even get that thing, a costume store?'

He raised himself to his full height and glared icily down at me.  'I'm going to suck the life from your pretty white neck.'

I sighed.  I hate the vamp jobs.  They think they're so suave.  It's not enough for them to slaughter and eat you like a zombie would.  No, they want it to be all sexy too..."

Paranormalcy had me glued to the pages right from the start.  It's Kiersten White's first book and the beginning of a trilogy, and it's a crazy fun read.  What I loved about it most was Evie, the central character.  She's got a hilarious, wicked tongue on her, but she's also quite strong and perceptive.    The plot is energetically paced, and the twists and turns of the story are imaginative and satisfying.

Evie is a teenage operative at the International Paranormal Containment Agency, where she has grown up (she was found, abandoned, as a baby and taken in by the IPCA when she was eight).  She has the unique ability to see through paranormal glamour, so that, for example,  she can see the shriveled corpse inside the hunky vampire, or the breathtaking faerie inside the human disguise.  When a shapeshifter named Lend breaks into her agency and is captured, she becomes interested in what she sees underneath--he is almost invisible, like "a person made of water and a hint of light".  While befriending Lend, Evie also has to deal with Reth, a faerie who wants to manipulate her in ways that she is drawn to and distrusts at the same time, and Vivian, a mysterious amoral killer who claims that Evie is her sister.  When the IPCA is destroyed, Evie and Lend go on the run, and Evie discovers that she's not who she thought she was. 

The only thing I don't like about this book is the cover.  I can't see Evie wearing a dress like this--it's all wrong for her--and the model's face is too generically pretty and blank.  The Evie in my imagination jumps off the page with her character and chutzpah.  I don't think she looks like this at all.

Recovery Road by Blake Nelson


"This is not going to be easy, whatever happens between us. But I let myself love him anyway.  I let myself love him with all my heart.  I give myself that.  I tell myself I deserve it."

What struck me most when reading Blake Nelson's latest novel, Recovery Road, was the sense of truthfulness about it.  There is an observant quality to this book which, considering the subject matter,  is almost ruthless.  I don't mean that in a sensationalistic way, because this book is anything but sensationalistic.  Instead, it digs deep and grapples with the grinding struggle of recovery, the boredom and disappointment and sense of loss and ineptness that can accompany it, and the never-ending, daily choices that either support or wreck the recovery process.  It's incredibly convincing.

The story opens with teenage Maddy in a halfway house for recovering addicts.  She's one of the few young people there--most of her roommates are middle-aged women with lives that are alien to her.  It's not entirely clear what her primary addiction is--she's definitely an alcoholic but seems to also have more than a passing acquaintance with various drugs.  She's a hard partier and, according to the clinic psychiatrist, has anger issues.  This opinion seems to be supported by her high school nickname, "Mad Dog Maddie", although Maddie herself dismisses it. 

"She tosses her notebook on her desk.  'You know there's a saying.  "If you meet three assholes in a day, you're the asshole."  Do you think that could be true?' 
'That I'm the asshole?  No!  Are you kidding me?'
She stares at me. 
'No way,' I say.  'I am never the asshole.'"

Maddie's stay in the clinic is boring and uncomfortable.  She makes two friends, one named Trish,  who has a lot in common with Maddie but carries the additional burden of having paralyzed her best friend in a drunk driving accident.  The other is Stuart, who is floundering with his life but to whom Maddie feels a strong connection.  He's cute and charismatic, and he and Maddie make out a few times before Maddie's psychiatrist orders them apart (romantic relationships are against the rules in rehab).  They vow to continue their relationship once they are both released, and it is the thought of this that keeps Maddie hopeful about the future.

As the story progresses, we begin to understand a few things.  Maddie is very smart.  Stuart, maybe not so much.  Maddie has a supportive family--not perfect, but supportive.  Stuart is estranged from his Mom and eventually becomes estranged from his Dad as well.  Maddie has a goal--to get into a good university.  Stuart's goals are not so clear.

Nelson excels at portraying the many small decisions Maddie must make to sustain her new life, and the almost robotic quality she sometimes takes on while making them.  She must disengage from all of her old school friends, even if it means she hides in the library during lunch.  When Stuart invites her to come live with him and his father, she turns him down, even though she's afraid of the growing distance between them.  She is relentlessly driven to achieve high grades, although this has never been her priority before.  She even goes to summer school.  She is astute enough to realize that she needs a new focus if she is going to break her old party-girl habits, and she just pushes herself through, no matter what the cost.  Stuart, meanwhile, drifts in and out of jobs, drifts over to a new girlfriend, and finally drifts back into addiction.  He is, in the end, a counterpoint to Maddie's story of cautious but determined redemption. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Scumble by Ingrid Law

"We had to wait until my birthday came and went.  We had to see if anything exploded, caught fire, or flooded before committing to a long-haul trip across four states in the minivan.  In my family, thirteenth birthdays were like time bombs, with no burning fuse or beeping countdown to tell you when to plug your ears, duck, brace yourself, or turn tail and get the hay bales out of Dodge." 

Scumble is a companion to the immensely popular Newbery Honor book Savvy, about a special family whose members all develop a magical talent on their 13th birthdays.   These talents, or savvys, as the families call them, are kept dead secret from the outside world and range precariously from the sublime to the ridiculous.

"My mom's side of the family had always been more than a little different.  I doubted there were many people with a time-hopping great-aunt, a grandpa who shaped mountains and valleys out of land pancake-flat, and a mix of cousins who ranged from electric to mind-reading to done-gone vanished--poof! I'd even had a great-uncle who could spit hailstones like watermelon seeds, or gargle water into vapor and blow it out his ears.  When Great-uncle Ferris turned thirteen, his savvy had stunned him with a sudden, sunny-colored snowstorm inside the family outhouse, toppling the small shack like an overburdened ice chest that rolled down the hill with him still inside it."  

13-year-old Ledger's brand-new savvy seems more like a curse than a talent.  Instead of the phenomenal running speed he had hoped for, suddenly machinery falls apart whenever he's around.  His frazzled parents leave him for the summer at his Uncle Autry's ranch, where they hope he will learn to scumble, or control his savvy.  ("Scumble" is a term from the visual arts, meaning to blend colours together or mute bright colours with a thin overlay of semi-opaque pigment).  Ledger's summer is certainly eventful--for one thing, he catches the prying eye of thirteen-year old Sarah Jane Cabot, ace reporter for the Sundance Scuttlebut, who immediately senses a mystery surrounding Ledger and his family.   And for another, his uncle may be about to lose the ranch.   But most importantly, he discovers something unexpected about himself--he is, in fact, an artist. 

There are some pretty good reasons that Savvy and Scumble have been so popular, I think.  Law is so inventive, and the savvy families she writes about are a lively and intriguing bunch.   Her writing style is rooted in the American tall-tale tradition and she really makes it work.  Scumble reminds me of those great Grandma Dowdel stories by Richard Peck.  Everything that happens is a little unexpected, a little unbelievable, but in the end, happily, it all fits together.    

Matched by Ally Condie

Hard on the heels of The Hunger Games comes a whole crop of scary-future-society teen fiction,  Matched being one of the more high-profile dystopian reads of the year.  To me, the cover looks more like a lighter paranormal read--I think the girl in green looks like a genie in a bottle. When you read the story you realize she's meant to be a rebel in a big-brother style society.  She doesn't break free on the cover or in the story, completely, either.  It's hard to fight city hall.

Matched is a more subdued book than Hunger Games or the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, which I personally feel are the recent benchmarks for dystopian teen fiction.  In Hunger Games, the point of view is squarely with people who are suffering under a cruel dictatorship and are fully aware of it.  They may not feel empowered to do anything about it, necessarily, but there's no doubt in their or the reader's minds that they're being oppressed.  In Matched,we are shown an extremely controlled society from the point of view of the so-called beneficiaries (if we were in the Hunger Games world, the equivalent would be the people of the Capital).

The heroine of Matched is Cassia, a young woman about to meet the spouse who is chosen for her by the Matching Department of her society.   To her surprise, her match turns out to be Xander, her longtime best friend.  While Xander is delighted with their match, Cassia becomes gradually less enthusiastic after seeing evidence that she may have had another match, her neighbour Ky, who cannot legally be partnered with anyone because of his low social status.  Cassia and Ky begin to develop a relationship based on small, subtle acts of rebellion, such as touching each other or memorizing forbidden poetry.   But even as Cassia begins to question the level of control her society exerts on her and the loss of intellectual and emotional freedom that goes with it, she is torn by the awareness that the system works well for a lot of people.  Her parents are happily married and have good jobs, and the world she lives in is safe and stable.

1984, the dystopia that spoke to me when I was a teen, features an impoverishment of the English language by the government ("newspeak") in order to prevent dissent ("thoughtcrime").  Similarly, in Cassia's world, history, culture, and knowledge are continually being pruned out of existence by government workers so that only scraps of  the past remain.  Bureaucratic committees have selected 100 officially sanctioned poems, books, paintings, historic events, and so on to represent the whole of human creativity and memory, and knowledge of all other works is forbidden.  In Matched, the poems of Dylan Thomas, particularly "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", become symbols of all that has been lost, much as the works of Shakespeare symbolize the loss of culture in Brave New World. 

But Cassia is ultimately emotionally rather than intellectually driven.  Her epiphany comes when she realizes that "...the statistics the Officials give us do not matter to me.  I know there are many people who are happy and I am glad for them.  But this is Ky.  If he is the one person who falls by the wayside while the other ninety-nine are happy and fulfilled, that is not right with me anymore."   Once Cassia has decided this, however, her path is not so clear.  How do you stand up to a society which provides so much, and is so good at hiding what it takes away?

Matched is apparently the first volume of a trilogy.  Volume 2, Crossed,  will be released in November 2011.  Until then, here's an author interview with Ally Condie. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

No Such Thing As Dragons by Philip Reeve

A growl bubbled softly, deep in the sound box of the creature's chest.  The eye it aimed at him was sulfur yellow.  It opened its mouth, and its teeth were icicle white and sharp as nails and its tongue was a pink spike.  As it launched itself off the crag toward him, Ansel saw the long tail lash out behind it, striped like a serpent and frilled with feathers. 

Philip Reeve's new fantasy story, No Such Thing As Dragons, really reminds me of many of the classic British children's books I read in my youth, authored by writers  like E. Nesbit or Frances Hodgson Burnett or Andrew Lang, writers who stretched my vocabulary not just because they wrote in a particular dialect but also because they were so highly literate themselves.  You can tell by reading any of Reeve's books that his magnificent sense of imagination is firmly buttressed by an accomplished command of the language of story.    He is a vigorous and skilled writer, and has given us here an adventure that would read aloud wonderfully well.

It took several hours for them to make their way around the lake to the crags on the far side.  There they picked up the path that Else's father had told her of.  Faint and faded, it dropped giddily down slopes of scree and shale into a steep-sided valley.  Spikey crags crowned with starved-looking clumps of pine thrust out into the valley, and at their feet lay the glacier.  Ansel had not quite believed it when Else and Brock talked about it--a river of ice, creeping forever down the mountain.  Yet there it was, vast and cold, hatched all over with crevices and chasms, and though he could not see it moving he could hear it:  the faint grinding and grumbling as it dragged its way over the rocks, and sometimes a crisp icy crack from the fractured surface.  

The plot is classic and straightforward.  Ansel is a 10-year-old peasant boy in a large family, who stopped being able to speak at age 7,  when his mother died.  His mercenary father sells him to a passing dragon-killer in need of a servant who isn't a blabbermouth.   The dragon-killer is in fact a fake--he carries a crocodile skull around with him to persuade frightened villagers that he has freed them from dangerous fire-breathing wyrms. But he confides early on to a frightened Ansel, "There's really no such thing as dragons".   To him, it's all a big, profitable show.  Ansel's master Brock is headed for a remote village where the villagers are convinced that the dragon who lives in the nearby mountain has awakened.  So great is their fear that they have dragged a village girl up the mountain and left her tied up in the frigid cold as a sacrifice to the great beast.  When Ansel, Brock and a wandering priest make their way up the mountain, they discover that dragons may not be so imaginary after all. 

This is the kind of fantasy that grounds itself in a sense of reality.  I like the way the dragon is conceived as a natural creature, with natural behaviors related to other animals, rather than a mythological beast.  Ansel is convincing as a quiet, sensitive boy in a rough world, gradually coming into is own.  This is a fine addition to the canon of British fantasy adventure for young readers.