August 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

A Bookish Sort of Girl

I have been struggling lately with how to sort into columns the books I review for Bookslut. It’s easy enough to put together something along the lines of “historical fiction” or “mysteries,” but I worry that I limit the audience that will read this column if I insist on such strict genres. If you are a mystery fan will you even consider the sci fi column? And the same is true for sci fi fans who might shy away from a column called “young adult drama.” And what do I do with a historical fiction that is an alternate history, and thus really sci fi? And what if I read a book that I know a ton of readers will enjoy but I don’t know what to call it or where to put it? This whole column thing is a lot more complicated than it looks -- trust me.

So this month I’m breaking out of the confines of strict categorization and trying to find some new ways to entice readers. I decided to do this because I found myself reading the most curious stack of books, a collection of titles that had nothing technically in common other than a reliance on a certain type of very bookish heroine. In the past I would have separated them by time period or genre but at one point I remembered what a bookish sort of girl I was and how happy it made me to discover protagonists who had the same love or respect for books that I did. (To be honest, I still feel this way.) So this column is all about bookish girls, and the intriguing lives they lead in a very diverse collection of books.

In At the Sign of the Star, her first title about then twelve-year-old Meg Moore, author Katherine Sturtevant does an outstanding job of capturing the feel of 17th century London and the life of a bookseller’s daughter who dreams of the day when she could become a bookseller (or even an author) herself. Meg is fortunate enough to lead a somewhat unorthodox life; because her father is a widower and she is an only child he is not that concerned about raising her as a typical girl. But all of that changes when he remarries and his new wife ushers into Meg’s life all the expectations that a young woman must have for adulthood -- namely getting married and having a ton of babies. Ultimately the new mother and daughter find a middle ground they are comfortable with, and Sturtevant manages to make the life and times of a girl in 1677 both relevant and enchanting to readers. She also creates a character that holds great promise for the future, and returns to Meg’s life with a follow-up title released earlier this year, A True and Faithful Narrative.

In the second book Meg is now sixteen and desperate to postpone the inevitability of marriage. She still clings to dreams of bookselling and writing although young men are starting to become a definite part of her life. This time around Sturtevant explores another aspect of 17th century life when the older brother of Meg’s close friend Anne is captured and imprisoned by North African pirates when returning home from Italy. Meg finds herself in a unique position to help raise money to pay his ransom, but when Edward eventually returns he is not the young man he was before he left and his feelings about Algiers and the life he had there are not what anyone expected. Meg is determined to help Edward work through his past and decides to write a book about his ordeal in a manner that was not uncommon in London at the time. But what she thinks happened to Edward -- and thus what she thinks readers will want to know -- is not what Edward feels or believes. Meg is forced to learn the value of truth in telling a story, while still managing to keep a reader’s attention in the process.

Sturtevant has managed to craft another fascinating look into the life of a young woman who was driven to push boundaries at a time when such a thing was both frowned upon and actively hindered. Meg does not have the most unreasonable of dreams; she simply wants one day to run the family business. But in 1681, and with a new half-brother posing a financial threat to all she hopes for, becoming a bookseller is as likely for her as going to the moon. How she manages to confront and deal with that reality, as well as a whole host of other questions that Edward demands she consider, makes for another most enjoyable reading experience from this very talented author.

In Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, Cornelia Englehart is laboring under a heavy case of not fitting in. Her problem is that her parents are world-famous pianists and although her father is basically out of the picture, her mother Lucy is an ever-present source of endless comparison and competition. Cornelia is not a musician and does not want to be one; her idea of a good time is looking up long and complicated words in one of her many dictionaries and then dropping them for major effect in uncomfortable moments. Everyone else wants her to be a gateway to Lucy, or at least glamorous and famous like Lucy, but Cornelia doesn’t want to be that person.

She just wants to be Cornelia and if her mother would stop traveling long enough to realize that, then both of them might be a lot happier.

Into this messed up little family drops the very famous writer Virginia Somerset and her enormously entertaining stories about her long ago adventures with her three sisters. Virginia moves in next door and along with her friend and “houseman” Patel, she immediately sees something in Cornelia that is original and appealing. In spite of their great age difference the two become friends. That is when Cornelia learns about the Somersets and starts to find a way to be both bookish and brave at the same time.

Author Lesley Blume does an interesting thing with Cornelia by telling the contemporary story of Cornelia and Virginia while also jumping back over the decades to reveal the fun sort of chaos the Somerset girls inflicted upon places like Paris, Morocco, and India. The sisters were women ahead of their time, determined to fearlessly meet the world on their own terms and not accept someone else’s definition of who they should be. By appreciating the stories Virginia tells (and it’s impossible not to fall in love with the Somersets), Cornelia finds ways to appreciate her own quirky self. She also finally gets brave enough to tell her mother just who she needs for her to be, which allows Lucy to step up to the plate and turn out to be the cool mother she was always capable of being.

What I would like to see in the future is a book about the Somerset sisters, because while Cornelia is an engaging heroine (she has a thesaurus collection for heaven’s sake!), the Somersets have the kind of wild and wonderful adventures that girls of all ages would do well to hear more of. They meet Picasso, see the ghost of King Arthur, and strike a blow for women’s rights in England. They also aren’t afraid to be both physically brave and deeply intellectual.

In a very different title, Phoebe Bernstein is bookish only when it comes to her beloved rock collection, which she spends a great deal of her time enhancing and maintaining. The collection was started with her dear Uncle Bradford when the fifteen-year-old narrator was much younger. But as The Glow Stone begins, author Ellen Dreyer reveals that Bradford has suddenly died after a brief illness and Phoebe’s mother wants no memories of her dead brother to fill her house. The rock collection will have to be boxed up and put away and it seems that Phoebe’s collecting habits, as well as her dedication to a book called Rocks and Minerals, are similarly destined for the back of the closet. It’s a bit too much for any grieving teen to take, and when a surprising opportunity for adventure shows up Phoebe can’t resist. What happens while she is caving with her Aunt Erica is beyond anyone’s expectations, and it is only rocks and Uncle Bradford that will save Phoebe in the end.

There are big ideas at work in Glow Stone and Dreyer does a great job of balancing the emotions of a grieving family and the intense adventure found in the cave that Phoebe and Erica choose to explore. I’m not sure what I expected to happen in this book -- Dreyer gives some clues at the beginning but keeps readers guessing until the end. At its heart, though, is a brave and smart girl who loves her family and loves her rocks. I couldn’t resist Phoebe; she’s a true original and Dreyer had me pulling for her all of the way.

It was oddly prescient that as the Miami School Board would begin banning books about Cuba I started reading one, A Girl Like Che Guevara. Teresa de la Caridad Doval’s coming of age novel is set in 1982 and follows teenage Lourdes as she tries to emulate the life of her hero. A bookish girl from the beginning, Lourdes reads largely about how to be a good communist and her favorite book is Che’s Journal. Doval’s book is not a primer on social revolution, however; it is in fact a universal story about what to do when your family is falling apart, when you don’t fit in anywhere, and when all of those hormones that have been nicely bottled up inside you suddenly decide to spill out at the most inconvenient of times.

Lourdes is biracial, something that places her in a less than favorable position in Cuban society. Combined with her ethnicity, Lourdes must also contend with two grandmothers, one of whom is a devout Catholic and while the other practices Santeria. Her father is a scholar while her mother is trying desperately to be what everyone wants her to be. They spend a lot of time standing in line for food because the grand revolution isn’t going so well when it comes to getting meat on the table. All of this means that while Lourdes has some typical teenage concerns, her family has issues that far outweigh her own. And then, just as she begins to get a handle on what’s going on at home, Lourdes is sent off to the “School in the Fields,” a camp in the countryside that is part of a nationwide project combining study and work for all secondary and high school students. She will be there for four months to contribute her efforts to the tobacco harvest. Of course nothing that happens at camp is the way the Cuban authorities would want it (let alone Che Guevara), but Lourdes perseveres and tries to make her way through the wonder that is adolescence while sleeping in a bunkhouse full of sweaty and horny teenage girls every night.

Yeah, there’s a lot of wondering around outside and meeting the boys after the tobacco picking is done. (And more than a few moments that take place without the boys around.)

There is a lot to like about A Girl Like Che Guevara. Lourdes is a likeable and recognizable character; one of her strongest points is how much she is like every other teenage girl around the world and how easily western readers of all nationalities will identify with her. By demystifying so much of Cuban teenage life, Doval has done a great thing here -- she does not make Cuba out to be a promised land but she doesn’t make it part of the Axis of Evil either. Lourdes wants to emulate her hero and keeps reading about him and talking about him to everyone who will listen. But she can’t help wondering just what Che would do if he was in her situation, how he would feel about the decisions her parents are making or what he would think of how decidedly un-Marxist so many of her Marxist teachers actually are. Would he still believe in the revolution if it meant freezing on a hillside doing a job that doesn’t need doing? “What would Che Guevara do?” wonders Lourdes, again and again. And by asking that question she opens up her entire country to curious readers and makes us learn all over again how much we are alike, how much we all wonder just what we should do.

For a classic American tale with a British twist, look to author Marilyn Sachs -- founder of the San Francisco branch of the Jane Austen Society -- and her novel, First Impressions, is just a wonderful love letter to all things Austen, but mostly to Pride and Prejudice. Main character Alice has problems with Austen, largely because of the way in which she treated middle sister Mary in Pride. As a middle child herself, Alice knows what it is like to be ignored, or even worse, taken for granted, and she feels that Austen has treated Mary badly. Her English teacher does not agree however and sends Alice home for winter vacation with an assignment “do-over.” She has to reread the novel also rethink this whole idea that Mary is the victim in one of the greatest novels ever written.

If she doesn’t, it’s a C+ for a straight A student, something this rather traditionally bookish heroine is not willing to accept.

In rapid order Alice finds her life taking a lot of Austenesque turns that no one could have predicted. She heads off to the local mall for Christmas shopping and runs into Kevin, a guy she has always known but never noticed in any seriously romantic way. But the two begin talking about presents and Austen and before she knows it there is something there, something that wasn’t there before but now seems so large and all-encompassing that Alice does not know how she missed it in the past.

She has a crush, and wonder of wonders, Kevin seems to be having one as well.

There is still the matter of the assignment however and Alice soldiers on, taking Kevin along with her as she re-imagines Mary as a bit more proactive, or at least less whiney. It seems like the best way to fix things for the character she most identifies with would be to just change the plot and make Mary a more likeable person. But soon enough Alice realizes (with a little help from Kevin) that you need characters like Mary to propel the story along for everyone else -- to make some things happen. And just as her fictional life seems to be falling into place, Alice sees that the real world around her is twisting and changing in ways that seemed beyond impossible only a few weeks before. All of this culminates in changes both in the way Alice sees her friends and family and the way in which they see her. It makes for a most Jane Austen style ending and a quite satisfactory one all around for the reader.

The best thing about First Impressions is how small the story is -- there are no big dramatic issues here, just a girl who feels lost in a big, busy family, and who projects her own issues into the book she is assigned to read in school. It’s not Austen’s fault that Alice is frustrated by Pride and Prejudice; it is Alice’s fault that she hasn’t done a thing to transform her own life into the vision she would like it to be. It’s a universal problem for teenagers, but through rereading the classic, Alice realizes both what she needs to do and how she can help a few other people she cares about to make some positive changes as well.

Mostly though, the kick here is all the parallels from Austen’s great work. Sach has done a marvelous job of making Pride and Prejudice both accessible and even inviting for teen readers and she deserves a lot of credit for that. First Impressions is both smart and funny, and Alice and Kevin are dead-on perfect for two typical teens who are long on book smarts but unclear on the whole dating thing. I thought their romance was lovely to read and all in all found this to be a clear winner that stands out above similar tales of the (very confused) heart.

Finally, Kiki Strike. Okay, I’m just going to say it right out -- buy this book! Buy it for every young girl you know who moons around the house wanting to change her hair, her style, her life or the world but never seems to get beyond picking out a new color of nail polish. Buy it for the ones who liked Nancy Drew and Harriet and Meg Murray but wanted something a bit edgier; something that wasn’t so much the book their mother’s generation knew best. Buy it for the ones who are dying their hair blue out of desperation and scorning the teen magazines out of anger. Buy it for the ones who listen to Tori Amos and wish they understood what the fuck she was singing about.

First and foremost, Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City is an adventure story about some very unique girls, a map, and an unknown, long abandoned “city” far below New York City. It’s not a fantasy -- there are no trolls or faerie changelings here but there is a historical mystery and a lot of cloak and dagger moments. The best parts though are the moments in which these misfit girls find each other and become friends. They are an awesome bunch and easily defeat stereotypes about what a girl can be.

It all begins for Ananka Fishbein when she is looking out her window one night and sees a sinkhole open up in the park across the street. She slips out the door to get a closer look and finds an old and abandoned underground room. Stranger still is the section of floorboards that reveal a whole other room below that -- a room that leads into an underground world that no one seems to know anything about. Ananka has little time to investigate before the authorities arrive on the scene but she does see a very short, white-haired figure -- person? -- in the room with her. This is the beginning of Ananka’s new life of adventure and the moment she meets the mysterious Kiki Strike.

Kiki knows about the Shadow City, a world constructed beneath New York City and used for all manner of nefarious purposes in the past. Now it is largely forgotten by everyone, but not her -- although she won’t say why she knows about it or what she hopes to gain from it. Ananka becomes part of Kiki’s plan to map the city because 1) she already knows a bit about it from her nighttime visit and 2) her family possesses a killer library about everything you would ever need to know about anything:

Stacks of books lined every room, some seeming to hold up the walls and others balanced so precariously that they threatened to topple and bury us all in an avalanche of accumulated wisdom. Every closet had been converted into a miniature library of sorts, each devoted to a particular topic. In the bathroom, there were books on the history of plumbing, Roman sewers, aquatic reptiles of North America, coprolites and Freud. The kitchen cabinets stored scholarly tomes covering the use of poison throughout the ages and medical texts devoted to scurvy, gout and flatulence.

Forced by the absentmindedness of her perpetually enrolled student parents to navigate this labyrinth of knowledge on her own, Ananka has made it to the age of twelve as an expert on at least five subjects: “giant squid, human sacrifice among the Aztec and Maya, carnivorous plants, alien abduction and Greek mythology.” This makes her a rather singular and fairly odd girl but with the vast literary resources at her disposal, she is perfectly suited to assist on the Shadow City mapping project. When things start to happen (lots of rats, the Chinatown mafia, snarky rich teenagers out of control, and displaced royalty with an ax to grind), Ananka proves to be far more than just the girl who knows where to find everything, and Kiki is revealed to be the stuff of legends.

Kiki Strike is Kirsten Miller’s first novel and she has a done a great job of writing an edge of your seat thriller that is both brilliantly original and also whip smart. There is nothing about Kiki’s crew of brainy adventurers to suggest anything other than it is great to be a girl. Miller has fun here -- writing outside of every clichéd box you can imagine -- but she always keeps things just within the shade of believability. Could a group of girls really do what the Bank Street Irregulars accomplish? Who knows -- but what a blast it would be to try.

Cool Read for August
Here’s new feature where I get a brief chance to share a book that YA readers might be missing because they aren’t marketed directly to this age group. This month check out Borrowed Time, the first in a new graphic novel series from Oni Press. Created by Neal Shaffer and Joe Infurnai, Borrowed Time follows the life of Taylor Devlin. After the ship he is on is lost in the Bermuda Triangle, Devlin finds himself living just out of sync with regular time in a strange new world that seems populated with people who have no rules, and who don’t seem too worried about getting back to the world that does. It’s hip and dark and brings a wholly original vision to an old mythology. Check it out!