When I was nine or ten-years old my father took my brother and I to visit Weeki Wachi, on the west coast of Florida. The only thing I remember about that trip -- along with a day spent on the glass bottom boats at nearby Silver Springs -- was the mermaid show. The mermaids at Weeki Wachi performed in a huge glass tank and although I’m sure they were just good swimmers in fishtails with a talent for holding their breath and using air hoses, it was a magical show. There used to be mermaid parks as roadside attractions througout the East Coast but those days are largely gone now. Weeki Wachi is still open, but most of the old places have disappeared, swallowed by Mickey and Universal and other far glitzier but somehow less magical attractions. The mermaids were so mysterious and so cool. I desperately wanted to be one.
Beth Mayall must have had a similar childhood experience because her new book Mermaid Park celebrates this classic form of entertainment. Set at the Jersey Shore, Mermaid is about 16-year-old Amy Rush, a high school swimmer with more than a few family issues. She fights her sister night and day, her stepfather is a bit of an ass and her mother is too busy being in love to notice that Amy is falling apart. None of these issues are exceptional or even unusual but while on vacation at her mother’s old stomping grounds, a town called Wildwood, Amy snaps. This angry episode results in a summer alone with a family friend in Wildwood and a surprising job at the nearby Mermaid Park. It is the best summer of Amy’s life (and yes, there is a boy, too), and the things she learns at the Park go far beyond what she ever imagined.
There are a lot of things this book could have been: clichéd, sophomoric, silly, and immature. The issues Amy is facing are not of the transcending sort, and she shouldn’t have found herself on the path to new truths and revelations after what amounted to little more than a loud fight with her sister. But things can happen in the most unexpected ways as Mayall is clearly aware, and the clarity that Amy receives while testing herself with the mermaids makes the book’s grand conclusions both deserving and right. Mermaid Park is the best type of “girl” book for many reasons but mostly because Mayall knows that her readers aren’t stupid and they aren’t blind romantics. She has created a character in Amy who is not questioning how to get a boy, but how to change her life. And by giving Amy salvation at the Mermaid Park she has crafted a beautiful love story to a place that has been long forgotten.
There are many things to like in Mermaid Park and the setting is just the one that captured my heart. Read the book, and you will find something to equally capture your own.
Love, Cajun Style has the all the appearances of a young adult version of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but don’t take that as a hint that it should be read lightly. It was a bit of a surprise to me that I liked this book so much, although any woman with a few close girlfriends will feel pretty much the same way after spending some time with Lucy, Evie and Mary Jordan. On the surface it seems like life in Sweetbay, Louisiana is all about boys and swimming in the Gulf and eating crawfish étouffe, but author Diane Les Becquets has a lot more going on in this book then it seems. In short order Lucy finds herself in a very uncomfortable position with a man who should know better and must face a lot of questions about her parents, her best friends and the new boy in town. I kept thinking I knew what she was going to do and what Evie or Mary Jordan would have to say but Les Becquets is all about subtle surprises with her writing and never once did she disappoint me with a cliché or half-assed turn in the plot. Although not a lot happens in Love, Cajun Style, the many small significant moments add up to an amazing slice of small town life. I really felt for these characters, adults and teens alike, and hoped the best for them as the events of the summer unfolded. Les Becquets made me care about them, and she made me care about life in Sweetbay.
As for what happens during the book, well, there’s a wedding and a show and a new art gallery opens. There’s skinny dipping and an unfortunate incident with chiggers (all of you Southerners know what I’m talking about here). Love is in the air from one end of town to the other, but it’s not all the same kind. There is first love, lost love, rekindled love, long missing from your life love, and maybe this was all a mistake love. (Not to mention what-the-hell-is-he-thinking love!) Even though this book was written for teenagers, it is not all about teenager love. Adults figure prominently in the storyline and they are the interesting kind of adults that made me reminisce about My So-Called Life. Lucy’s parents in particular are central figures and spark several exchanges, including my favorite:
“You know how once in a while we’ll get us a cold front? The kind that comes along in January or February and brings all sorts of weather?”
“Are you and Mama having a cold front?” I asked.
Daddy still held his arm around my shoulder. “Cold fronts down here never last very long.” He smiled, rubbing his hand over my hair and messing it up a little.
I tucked my head against him. “Maybe instead of sitting here cutting a bonsai tree, you and Mama ought to go home and build a fire.”
Very cool dialogue; and a very cool father/daughter moment too.
I hate to call Love, Cajun Style a great coming-of-age story because everybody says things like that for any book about a teenager growing up. But keeping that time in your life in mind, that time when you want to hold on to the moment forever, hold on to your friends, to your family, to the neighborhood and town you have known all you life, will go a long ways towards explaining what this book is all about. Perhaps the best thing to know about it is that it will make you smile, and more than once maybe even laugh out loud. I had a good time reading Love, Cajun Style and the first thing I did when I was done was pass it on to my niece. That’s probably the best compliment I can give it; I knew it was a pass-along book from the beginning.
I read my first Nick Earls book, 48 Shades of Brown a few months ago and I was struck then by how effectively he honed in on all the nervousness and complication that fills the head of the average teenage boy. With After Summer he proves that he clearly knows what he is doing and can write a story about growing up and figuring life out from the male perspective better than anyone else on the young adult market today. Most importantly though, as Who Weekly blurbs on the book’s jacket, “Buy a Nick Earls novel and you need never be sad again.” That nails what Earls does with his books: he tells a great story, reaches deep down inside the heads and hearts of his characters, and without getting all After School Special on us he gives his readers a story that will not solve the problems of the world but will engage the readers on every level and certainly bring a smile to their faces upon completion. The Times says Earls “gives Nick Hornby a serious run for his money,” which is high praise indeed. Consider books that are smart and classy for the younger set and you are firmly in Earls territory. Of course once you arrive you won’t want to leave, but that’s not really a problem for happy readers, is it?
In After Summer Alex is waiting to hear about his university acceptance and slowly losing his mind from a combination of dread and anticipation. He is vacationing with his mother on the Australian coast, desperately trying not to think about the future. It seems like the 17 days he has to wait will drag by predictably: bodysurfing, reading, watching cricket. He’s trying not to be driven crazy by his mother (difficult for any teenage boy) and lose track of time as much as possible. The whole thing is killing him, but there’s not a lot of other things to do. And then he meets a girl, a girl who won’t at first even tell him her name, and Alex’s whole life takes a most amazing turn. Suddenly it seems as if those 17 days on the coast could become the most significant days of his life, and change everything about how he sees both his future and his family. All of this is, of course, because of a girl.
Alex is a great character to read about and sympathize with. He is as mixed up as the rest of us but not afraid to show it or share it. He would love to know just what he should be doing with his life instead of doing what seems to make sense to most people while utterly confusing him. His mother is funny, his neighbor kind, his father struggling to make up for lost time. In short, Alex is living the kind of life that most of us have. The girl is the classic free spirit. Her family is hysterical, her future is grounded in what she loves and while she clearly is not enjoying a charmed existence, she does at least seem to grasp that life is most important for living, and all the rest will take care of itself. This viewpoint helps Alex to reconsider decisions he has made in the past and also opens him up to all sorts of future possibilities, which certainly must include the girl. After Summer is another charmer from Nick Earls and he has certainly convinced me that I should spend more time living and less time worrying. His books are witty and fun and, dare I say it, endearing. The guy can write, and if you’re looking for a great teen author then you can’t do much better than start with him.
Finally, I read the most startling book recently, one that defies genre description. Midnight Blue seems like more of a fantasy then anything else. There is a magical hot air balloon ride, a boy born from shadows and a world that seems familiar to young Bonnie, but isn’t quite right. It is not her world and that is the only thing she is sure of. It is a good place, but it isn’t hers to keep. Oh yeah, and that’s a very bad lady -- a very, very bad lady to deal with. She is in fact the purest and deepest form of evil that Bonnie can imagine and she is relentless. She is everything that all of us should be afraid of.
Pauline Fish has won a great deal of acclaim for Midnight Blue and it was a finalist for the British Whitbread Prize. I have no idea why it is not more well known in the U.S. -- it is the first true successor to A Wrinkle in Time (one of my all time favorite books) that I have come across. There are so many great moments in this book, from the beginning when Bonnie is firmly in her world but struggling against an intolerable family situation, to the introduction of the great and mysterious Michael, an extraordinary inventor, through her visit to the “other place” where she meets Arabella and finds a peaceful home. The villain in Midnight Blue is outstanding and easily recognizable -- she could and does exist in a less malevolent form in worlds everywhere. The decisions that Bonnie must come to, and the great bravery she must exhibit, as she struggles to rescue Arabella and her family are truly impressive. Every step of the way, Fisk ratchets up the tension and demands that Bonnie rise to the occasion. This is how you save the world, someone’s world, and Bonnie can not hide away in her fears. She must accomplish great deeds, because it is only greatness that will save them all.
And the ending is just about as good as it gets. I love it when a great books gives you an ending that exceeds your every hope. The comparison with A Wrinkle in Time holds true until the very last page, something I was very grateful to see. Fisk has spoiled me a bit with Midnight Blue and I will find it very hard to read another fantasy/coming of age novel that will touch me in the same way.
Four books, lots of teenagers, many questions. These are all winners people, no matter what your age. These books, are the very real deal.
After Summer by Nick Earls
Midnight Blue by Pauline Fisk
Love, Cajun Style by Diane Les Becquets
Mermaid Park by Beth Mayall