June 2007

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Girls, This is Your Summer Reading List

When I was growing up I absolutely lived for the summers. Even though it was crazy hot in our un-air-conditioned Florida house, I still couldn’t get enough of all those days stretching out ahead of me with nothing to do (other than the obligatory household chores, of course). This was of course before parents scheduled, micromanaged or otherwise concerned themselves overmuch with keeping little Tommy and Sally busy, busy, busy. My brother and I watched an obscene amount of '70s television, hit the beach as often as we got a ride, and practically lived at the local library. I could get all nostalgic here if I’m not careful, but there was something very cool about being able to read as many books as I wanted for three blissful months. I read on the patio, the sand, and the couch. This was what summer should be: go to the movies every weekend (matinees of course), rarely put on any shoe other than flip flops, and read until your mother thinks your eyes will bleed (they never did but she had her concerns). In the spirit of those memories from long ago, I have put together a “girls, get your beach blanket reading here” list. I’ve got some science fiction, an edge-of-your-seat thriller, some cheery teen chick lit, a kick ass piece of historical fiction, and the occasional coming-of-age story. It’s supersized, fully loaded and all about the girls. Enjoy, and watch some stupid TV for me, okay?

In her new novella, D.A., Connie Willis has created a very engaging teen heroine who ends up in the last place she wants to be. Theodora Baumgarten plans to apply to UCLA and enjoy a nice academic experience that is firmly set on the ground. She finds herself suddenly rocketing into space, however, when she is accepted into the IASA space academy -- the place every single one of her classmates wants to be but Theodora never applied to. Her parents are thrilled, her best friend Kimkim (world’s greatest hacker) is mystified, and her highly competitive classmate Coriander, who has been preparing for the academy’s entrance exams basically since birth, is royally pissed off. Before she even knows what the hell is going on, Theodora is off to space and the Robert A. Heinlein space station (nice touch Ms. Willis). Once she gets there it is all about trying to keep her food down as she adjusts to the new environment. In the meantime she does everything she can to get a hold of Kimkim and figure out just how this monumental mistake could have happened. The big problem, though, is that the academy folks don’t think it’s a mistake, and they have some mysteriously manufactured paperwork to back that up.

You have to love Theodora. I mean that, you read this book and, whether you have ever read sci fi in your life or not, you will love this girl. She’s tough and determined and committed to getting her butt back down on terra firma immediately if not sooner. She also has Kimkim helping her out, which is no small thing, as the very impressive conspiracy that landed her in outer space slowly gets uncovered. Honestly, this book has to be one of the better ones I’ve come across for readers who are trepidatious about reading sci fi. It’s reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s “R is for Rocket” in that the story is grounded in thoughts and feelings that anyone could understand, just set in the future. It’s a perfect choice for the teenager eager to get out of their reading rut; kudos to Ms. Willis for finding a story that will get them interested early.

As a limited edition from Subterranean Press D.A. might seem a bit pricey, but consider the JK Potter cover and illustrations as part of the lush package. I am a long time customer of Sub Press and I promise this publisher does not disappoint. Once Willis gets you hooked with this one be sure to check out Bellwether and Doomsday Book, other excellent books she has written for adults that teen readers will enjoy.

Geraldine McCaughrean got all sorts of attention from the press last year for her sanctioned Peter Pan sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet. For my money, though, it was her recent YA thriller, The White Darkness, that everyone needs to be reading. This Antarctic adventure has all sorts of danger and madness to accompany its very exotic setting and has to be one of the most startling teen books I have read in ages. It is certainly the only one to constantly name drop a famous dead British explorer and feature a protagonist with an abnormal affinity for all things polar. That McCaughrean manages to tell her tale without ever losing the voice or sensibilities of 14-year-old Sym is both impressive and surprising. The action could have easily overtaken the teenage drama here, but it didn’t. In fact the author has done an outstanding job of keeping her heroine thinking like an adolescent, something that must have been hard to do when it would have been so easy just to go all Lara Croft and beat the hell out of the bad guy. But that’s not what the average teenage girl can do, and so what happens to Sym must happen slowly, and the reader just has to watch her hang on tight and survive.

The plot for White Darkness is both simple and elegant. Sym, her widowed mother and her “Uncle” Victor are on their way from England to Paris for a surprise holiday. Her mother loses her passport and agrees to let Sym continue along with Victor, but it very quickly becomes clear that he has not been up front about his plans for the trip. Sym finds herself agreeing to do some very weird shopping and then getting on an airplane for a flight south. Soon enough she is boarding a Russian ship that has been chartered by a tour group to Antarctica, and somehow both she and Victor are already registered. Rather than recoil in terror, Sym is thrilled, as she has long had an affinity for all things about the icy continent. Her knowledge of Antarctica is deep and thorough and most clearly exemplified by her choice of an invisible companion: Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, a member of Robert Scott’s 1910 doomed South Pole expedition.

Yes, Sym sees dead people, but at least she knows Oates is dead. He’s just kind of her personal sounding board. He’s not real; she knows he’s not real, but when the tour group makes landfall and Uncle Victor starts getting some wild ideas -- and then the radio is sabotaged, the satellite phones go missing, and pretty much the whole group gets suddenly sick -- Sym’s ability to “call on” Titus Oates might be the only thing that keeps her alive. As it turns out, Victor has been working a plan for a long long time that will make him famous and change everything we think we know about Antarctica. He just has to prove his wild theory is correct and to do that, he has to leave the tour base behind and travel hundreds of miles out onto the ice. Victor doesn’t plan to make this trip alone, you know; he’d like a little company.

There are so many moments of scientific and literary brilliance in The White Darkness that the reader will likely become used to such a smart style of writing and begin to expect it everywhere. At one point, the author name drops the Brontes to give Sym some courage. Consider this passage:

The Bronte sisters invented a whole town full of people, didn’t they? -- Glasstown -- and wrote stories about in microscopically small handwriting. Anything rather than be cooped up in a gloomy rectory in the middle of a god-awful moor: Glasstown.

Anything rather than share a school-bus ride with Maxine and her huge repertoire of filthy jokes. Glasstown.

Anything rather than remember Dad lighting bonfires from my books, to keep imaginary jackals away from our windows. Glasstown.

Anything rather than drive over a frozen sea, with people who are not what they seem toward a gaping hole in the Earth.

Of course, Glasstown. Why not bring that particular literary allusion to a teen audience? It was invented by children, why not let more children know about it? Why not the Brontes along with Robert Scott? And why Titus Oates? Because, as Sym explains, “He is everything, everything, everything I ever admired and wanted and couldn’t have. He is everything I needed and couldn’t find in real life. Of course he is. That’s why I invented him.”

A stark realization to get in the middle of ice, but a coming-of-age moment all the same.

The White Darkness packs a nonstop plot, steadily growing tension, and an impressive array of characters into one killer story. It’s taut, it’s gripping, it’s for sure all things a thriller should and must be to succeed. The fact that the hero is an exploration-obsessed teenage girl who knows more than most about the many ways she might die rather than survive gives the whole book just more of an edge. I’m a polar freak myself, so this book was a no-brainer for me, but I’m not alone in my deep respect for what Ms. McCaughrean has accomplished here. Climb inside the head of a wickedly weird and brave girl in The White Darkness and then hold on tight as she takes you along on one very wild ride.

I first reviewed Margo Rabb’s delightful Missing Persons girl detective series that was published a couple of years ago. When her new novel, a “story cycle,” came my way I was eager to see what new work she had to share. Cures for Heartbreak could not be more different from the adventures of the Shattenberg sisters, and yet the author’s voice is still undeniably the same. Rabb is here but this time the story is one of sorrow and survival and just how hard it is to be a teenager grieving for her mother.

There is no way of getting around the fact that Cures is a book about death. In the very beginning, we meet 15-year-old Mia, whose mother is diagnosed with cancer and then dead 12 days later. Through the interconnected stories that follow, Mia learns to deal with not only her own sadness, but her father’s grief, the strange new relationships she finds herself forming with her sister and her friends, and the bizarreness of life with a single parent -- which includes dating (God help us all!). Sometimes Mia is smart and capable and sometimes she makes a misstep or two -- in other words, she navigates this life she never wanted with all the confusions and questions that anyone would find themselves dealing with. It is the very fact that she seems like everyone else that makes her so endearing, though. Everyone who has ever lost anyone will identify with Mia, and empathize with her anger, fear and frustration. All is not sorrow, however; there is the wonderful Sasha to get to know, big sister Alex becomes remarkably cooler as time goes by, and Mia does start to figure out how to live in a world where people die. Until death has reached in and ripped out your particular heart, you don’t have a clue about it. Mia survives, but more importantly she proves to be a truly shining protagonist in a book that fearlessly reveals what sorrow is while still managing to give readers a thing or two to smile about. How she managed to do all of this in one cohesive story is a testament to Rabb’s writing ability, and proof that her own journey through grief gave her lessons that she clearly took to heart.

Booth’s Daughter turned out to be a real surprise for me. I knew from the jacket copy that it was historical fiction and based on the life of Edwina Booth, daughter of the 19th century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth and niece of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. I expected to read about what it was like to grow up as the close relative of a notorious person, but author Raymond Wemmlinger, who is the curator and librarian at the Hampden-Booth Theatre, did not write that sort of book. What he has done is concentrated far more on the career of Edwin Booth, a man who was basically the Brad Pitt of the mid-to-late 19th century, and what it was like for Edwina to be the daughter of such a larger-than-life personality. While the motivation behind John Wilkes’s deadly act against President Lincoln is certainly part of the story, it is far more about Edwina and her father. I found Booth’s Daughter to be a quite captivating read from beginning to end, and one of the more poignant historical novels I have read in awhile.

From the beginning Edwina’s life is quite different from what most of us can imagine. Her father is famous but her uncle’s infamy has elevated all of the Booths to a public position. Her mother died from an illness when she was very young and, although her stepmother Mary has filled that role for years, she has developed what was often termed at the time a “nervous condition.” In blunter terms, Edwina fears Mary is slowly going mad and, when stricken with tuberculosis, her health degrades very rapidly. Edwina must fill the role of wife to her father; she must be at his side when meeting the press or planning a new theater engagement or traveling to Europe. She is his companion and, as Edwin’s life is very nearly overwhelming for all those around him, Edwina finds herself feeling as if she is being crushed. Through careful questioning of her father’s family and close friends she learns this was something her Uncle John Wilkes felt as well.

As she grows older Edwina finds herself loving two different men at two different times, and through her visions of life as a wife and mother, she begins to pull away from her father’s sphere. Ironically, it is not John Wilkes who overshadows Edwina’s future, but Edwin, and if she wants a life of her own, it is her father she will have to face.

Edwina lived at a time when a woman’s life was almost always dominated by men, first her father and then her husband. Edwin Booth was not a monster, but he was very used to getting his own way and surrounding himself with those who adored him. In such an atmosphere it was nearly impossible for other creative souls to thrive. While Wemmlinger does not know what pushed John Wilkes, and no one ever will, he gives his readers a lot to think about. This book should be mandatory reading for any teen studying the death of Abraham Lincoln; it is the first time I have gained anything more than the most cursory understanding of John Wilkes Booth. More importantly, though, it is an outstanding look at a very famous American family and provides readers with a most engaging young heroine to navigate through some truly historic waters.

In a lot of ways Maureen Johnson’s Girl at Sea is the perfect summer novel. Seventeen-year old Clio is on her way to Italy to spend four weeks of forced quality time with her divorced father, and even though she would much rather be at home working in the local art store with the very appealing Ollie (where she can get a killer discount to further her own artistic ambitions), she is trying hard to make the best of it. It helps that she will be living on a boat and hanging out with Elsa, who is fun and cool in spite of being both Swedish and beautiful, and there is also Aidan, who is sexy and smart and oddly compelling. Her father is acting like a total troll, there is the near fatal run-in with jellyfish, and the fact that everyone knows what they are looking for out there on the water except for Clio, but still -- it’s Italy!

I really liked that Johnson went to such depths in creating Clio’s back story. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for the tension between father and daughter here, and the fact that they involve a large tattoo on Clio’s arm, a board game the two of them invented, and a near-death diving accident makes the narrative incredibly rich. The two of them have a lot of stuff to work out, and they do butt heads repeatedly until they get through all of their “stuff.” They are on the trail of historical mystery involving a sunken something of major importance, which makes it a little difficult for Clio and her dad to get down to family business, but slowly it happens, and readers will enjoy seeing the evolution of their relationship.

Girl at Sea is a kick, a light historical mystery nicely blended into a modern coming-of-age tale/romance that gives readers some underwater archaeology along with its father-daughter reconciliation story. It’s an irresistible sweetheart of a novel and should be plenty popular on pool decks this summer.

Edward Bloor’s recently reissued Crusader contains two mysteries as well as a major dose of social commentary and manages to be a kicking family drama, as well. It’s a big book (484 pages), but is a compelling read from beginning to end. At its heart is 15-year-old Roberta, a teen who hopes to one day be a journalist, but has to satisfy herself with writing articles for the newsletter at the sad little Florida mall where her family runs a virtual reality arcade. Her mother is dead, her father spends his time dating the catty assistant mall manager, and her uncle and cousins all have their own multiple problems to deal with. What reads initially as a look at some basic suburban angst (though it’s not too often you deal with a family who all work at a mall) slowly develops into a whole heck of a lot more in each succeeding chapter. Before you know it, Crusader is tackling issues of hate crime, environmentalism, honesty in journalism and political promises. In other words, this is a book that transcends many genre definitions and ultimately rewards its readers with a great big huge family story well worth sinking their teeth in.

In the beginning Bloor takes us through Roberta’s life and her job at the mall with her cousins Kristin and Karl. The three of them work at Arcane, which is owned by their two fathers. Roberta’s father is preoccupied with anything that doesn’t involve work (mostly his girlfriend) and her Uncle Frank is overwhelmed with pressure to keep the business, located in a struggling mall, from going bankrupt. The three kids are mostly oblivious to all this and, along with two other teenagers who work there, “Hawg” and “Ironman,” they try to sell the Arcane experience to customers while also steering different minorities away from different games. Asians aren’t sold games that have dead Asians, African Americans can’t play games that have dead Africans, and on and on. The new game, “Crusader,” is about the Holy Crusades, which involves the killing of a lot of Middle Eastern people. This insults Sam, an Arab American who runs the nearby electronics store. Sam also happens to be the target of numerous hate-related acts of vandalism and is looking for suspects. He thinks he finds one among the group at Arcane, and his suspicions set in motion a chain of events that push Roberta into an act of calculated courage and also manage to help her unravel the mystery surrounding her mother’s violent death.

Everything does not work out happily in Crusader, and prices must be paid for bigotry and cowardice by more than one character. No one is flawless in this novel, even Roberta, who keeps her head in the sand far too long. Ultimately she does pull on inner reserves of bravery and is absolutely brilliant when push comes to shove. In the end she proves herself to be one fearless woman and a very inspiring teen heroine.

Crusader is a complicated book; there are a lot of themes in here and Bloor tackles a long list of society’s ills as Roberta navigates her way through both current events and those in the long-neglected past. I have read some reviews that suggest Bloor bit off more than he could chew -- that some of the plot elements or characters could have been removed to streamline the story. But honestly, while I can see how it could be shortened, I don’t think it needs to be. I sank into this book and lost myself in Roberta’s world with all its questions and confusions. There is a lot of real life in this book, and as someone who grew up in the land of strip malls (ain’t Florida grand?), I can certainly attest to the accuracy of everything Bloor had to say about that aspect of Roberta’s life. Mostly I enjoyed Crusader because it made me think and because so many of the characters change and grow through the events in the story. It’s a fascinating novel, and the secrets Roberta uncover lead eventually to an amazing revelation concerning her mother’s death that I never (and I mean never) saw coming. It’s a novel with a lot of heart and I highly recommend it.

I expected Laura Bowers’ debut, Beauty Shop for Rent, to be a sweet coming-of-age story set in an at-home beauty parlor. All comparisons to Steel Magnolias would be likely denied by the author but come on -- what else could you do with this premise? Doesn’t mean the book still couldn’t be a pleasant read, but I was pretty confident where it was all going to end up.

When, oh when, will I ever learn?

So yes, it’s a beauty shop, yes, Abbey Garner’s great-grandmother has been running it out of other half of her duplex for a zillion years, and yes, most of the customers are your classic salt of the Earth. Abbey comes from a long line of women who got pregnant very young, had unfortunate marriages, and struggled from one paycheck to the next. She has decided to rise above any possible genetic habits in that department and dedicates her time to saving a lot of money and ignoring all potential boyfriends. So far, so good, but then her buddy Mitch gets harder and harder to consider just a friend and her great-grandmother gets the opportunity to retire when someone new arrives in town with a lot of fresh ideas. This is enough to shake up Abbey’s life a bit but nothing major -- nothing nearly as cataclysmic as when her mother shows up.

Beauty Shop for Rent is first and foremost about family, specifically Abbey’s immediate family. There are her parents, who had to get married very young and then spent several unpleasant years together as everything unraveled. Her mother still needs Abbey, but only sometimes and always on her own schedule. As for her father, Abbey will not forgive him for walking away years before. To her, he took the easy way out, and she can’t forget that. It’s easier to occasionally take care of her mother than forgive her father so that is how she lives. She works hard and she enjoys her great-grandmother and the family she has built with her and she thinks about Mom and Dad as little as possible. That works until Mom is on her doorstop, and then Abbey has to deal with all that confusing ugly family history. This is when the story at the heart of Bowers’ book unfolds and it is one very honest, most wonderful read. The whole teenage Steel Magnolias thing would have been fine but this is way better, trust me.

I received a copy of Sarah Grace McCandless’s The Girl I Wanted to Be on the recommendation of author Jamie S. Rich, whose graphic novels I have been a big fan of for years. I thought the McCandless title would be primarily a high school romance; the protagonist is freshman Presley Moran, who receives advice from her senior heartthrob cousin Barry and her young aunt Betsi on how to be popular.

What readers have in this book is a very impressive drama about how being thoughtless or selfish when dealing with the feelings of others can result in catastrophe. It’s about putting your trust in the wrong person and also about parents who so easily accept that their child is okay when clearly they are not. Mostly though, it is just about families and how royally fucked up most of us are.

Presley is the sort of protagonist that most teens will fall for right away -- she is only 14, which as we all know is a horrible age to suffer through, and nothing looks right or feels right. Barry is her idol and, even though he is missing his recently deceased mother very much, he seems to have it all together. He’s popular and good looking and on the occasions when he gives Presley his attention she feels like her world has stopped. She certainly has a crush on him, but it’s a coolness crush, an, “Oh to be like Barry or associated with Barry or seen with Barry” kind of high school crush. And on top of everything else, Barry is a nice guy, so he cuts Presley a lot of slack and tries to help ease his little cousin into the high school world. Along the way she becomes friends with his teammate Jack and begins to find a spot in the social structure. But there is something odd that she begins to notice between Barry and her aunt Betsi (Barry is a cousin on her father’s side, Betsi is an aunt on her mother’s); a closeness or familiarity between them that didn’t used to exist when Barry’s mother was alive. The family all credits Betsi with helping Barry work through his grief, but Presley begins to wonder if there is something more than that between the two of them. And because she looks, she knows everything when the earth drops out from underneath the Moran family.

I don’t want to be melodramatic, but I also don’t want to give every single plot point away. And Girl is a very dramatic story -- it’s intense and brutal and demanding of the reader. McCandless is showing her readers serious things that happen, things that don’t seem bad, but in the long run they are not good for everyone involved. What she is saying is that you can not play with someone’s heart, not when they don’t realize it is only a game and not when they never even knew it was just playing in the first place.

Someone has to be the grown-up, that’s just how it is, and for the Morans, when they realize what has happened, it is too late to fix the damage -- it is far too late to clean up the mess.

The Girl I Wanted to Be is a wonderful book for teens. It tells an unusual story that still has plenty of familiar elements, and it is very well written; McCandless puts herself in the mind of Presley with an ease that is daunting for other writers to read. She shows us the story through Presley’s eyes and you wonder right along with her what you would do, what anyone could do, to stop the crash that is slowly taking Barry down. Meg Cabot has blurbed the book referring to McCandless as, “a writer to watch,” and I couldn’t agree more. After this book, I can’t wait to see what she does next (and thanks to Jamie for making sure I read it!).

Cool Read: While you’re enjoying the water this summer be sure to check out Tracking Trash by Loree Griffin Burns. This excellent entry into the “Scientists in the Field” series follows the work of several oceanographers who tracked flotsam and jetsam to learn more about ocean currents. Heavily illustrated with photographs and easy-to-understand maps, Burns writes about floating sneakers and rubber duckies and what their arrival on the western coast of the U.S. tells scientists. She also explores the dangers of “ghost nets” and the people dedicated to removing them from the ocean floor.

The thing that shocked me the most about Tracking Trash was the revelation that out in the Pacific Ocean there is a, “floating garbage dump that is as big as the state of Alaska.” Comprised of mostly plastic debris, it is one of the most glaring examples yet of our devastating impact on the planet’s fragile ecosystem.

Informative, compelling and exceedingly well written, Tracking Trash is for any reader interested in marine biology and studying the oceans. Don’t miss this one if beaches are your thing; it’s a wonderful nonfiction read.