December 2007

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Cabinet of Wonders

For your holiday browsing pleasure I have evinced with the typical categories and decided instead on a literary “cabinet of wonders.” You will find a little bit of everything in this month’s column; the only thing the titles have in common is that I found them a joy to read. I hope you do as well.

It’s not often that I read a book that manages to surprise me from beginning to end, but that is exactly the case with Matt Ruff’s wholly and utterly original Bad Monkeys. The narrative begins with Jane Charlotte under arrest for murder, a murder she freely admits. She discusses her guilt with Dr. Richard Vale, a psychiatrist who has been appointed to find out if she is totally nuts. Jane agrees to tell Vale the story of how she ended up under arrest, but she makes it clear that it is a long story, and one he is unlikely to believe. And then she starts talking, and Ruff’s roller coaster ride of a novel begins.

It turns out that Jane was involved early on accidentally with a covert operation by an ultra secret organization loosely called “Bad Monkeys.” They hunt down bad people and kill them, simple as that. After her accidental run-in with a pedophile/serial killer Jane ends up being watched by the group who eventually recruit her. Bit by bit she tells Vale of her assignments while hinting at various personal problems along the way. He listens, asks pointed questions from time to time and when her story strays from the truth known about her life, he forces some hard answers. Jane complies, but never directly, and then slowly but surely the story unfolds with the reader unaware all the while if Jane really is crazy or not.

There were a lot of reasons Bad Monkeys impressed me, but mostly it was the sheer audacity of the plot -- and the fact that Ruff pulled it off in such fine style. The reader does not know whether to root for Jane or hope that Vale sends her away forever and the revelations about her past and especially her childhood only muddy those waters more as the story progresses. Part science fiction, part thriller, with elements of police procedural (minus the police of course), family drama and even humor thrown in, Bad Monkeys is both deliciously subversive and outrageously savagely brilliant. The inclusion of a sexual hint or two as well as some violence means it is only for the high school crowd, but I’m certain they will love it. Boys and girls are fair game here; don’t let them pass this one by.

I am sorely tempted while writing about the thoroughly delightful novel Click to focus on the novelty of one complete story being written by ten different authors. This has done before, to varying degrees of success, but all too often it is the trick that overshadows the tale and reviewers spend far more time writing about how seamlessly (or not) the individual chapters fit together then dwelling on the tale itself. As my initial interest in Click was based more than a bit on the authors involved (from Tim Wynne-Jones to Margo Lanagan and David Almond), I thought I would ultimately focus in my review on their ability to work together. But really this is not a book about ten different authors, it’s about two young people who receive powerful gifts from their grandfather upon his death and the way those gifts change their lives. Part mystery, part family drama and part fantasy, Click is a dazzler and proof positive that these writers can always tell a good story, even when it is their job just to tell a little bit of it.

The story opens from Maggie’s perspective and follows her initial reaction to the death of her photojournalist grandfather, “Gee.” He has left her a wooden box and small shell collection, with a note that issues a secret challenge. Maggie is devastated by her grief -- nearly paralyzed with it -- and the puzzle presented gives her something to think about other than missing Gee. As she discovers the box’s secret it sets her on a lifelong quest that takes her around the world. Linda Sue Park thus sets up the chapters that follow brilliantly and gives the authors a ton of ideas to play with.

Maggie is not the book’s only protagonist however, as her brother Jason also receives a gift, in his case a camera, and it dramatically changes the course of his life. There are also several chapters from Gee’s life, written from the perspective of young people he has met along the way, whose interactions ultimately are part of the gifts given to Maggie and Jason. In the end readers will have received a full look at one family, and also an intriguing glimpse at just how many lives a single person might lead.

One of the really interesting bits about Click (aside from the fact that all royalties from the book’s sale will benefit Amnesty International) is that the story moves around the globe allowing the authors to write about places they are intimately familiar with. Margo Lanagan has a chapter set in Australia, Roddy Doyle writes one set in Ireland and Ruth Ozeki has a World War II entry from Japan. All together the group provides a very eclectic and international mix that works beautifully with the story they have created. In the end readers will find themselves drawn into the lives of Maggie, Jason and Gee and the stories they have to tell about living creative lives that touch so many others.

Tanith Lee’s novella Indigara is a blend of science fiction, mystery and adventure that is unlike anything I’ve read for YA in recent months. It’s funny and irreverent and manages to satirize all things Hollywood without being trite or silly. It’s also a roller coaster ride of a novel set on another planet, with a family that will be all too familiar to anyone who has ever had self-obsessed sisters and preoccupied parents. Overall I found it to be a story that combined fun and thrills and should receive a positive response from even the most science-fiction cautious reader.

Primarily told from the perspective of fourteen-year old Jet, Indigara is set on an Earth-like planet at some point in the distant future when technology might have advanced a lot but every teenage girl still wants to be a star. Stuck tagging along after her older sister’s “Ollywood” dreams, Jet and her robot dog Otis are bored beyond belief. In the midst of a lot of teen hysteria, they leave their hotel room one night in search of the mystery about the town’s subterranean service world, the Subway. A mixture of industrial complex, movie warehouse and suburban mall, the Subway is host to various stories of missing actors and monster sightings. In a funk over being ignored, Jet drags Otis along on some late night wanderings to see if there is any truth to all the legends. They quickly find themselves in a set of very human scary circumstances that climaxes with a literal drop down the Subway’s version of rabbit hole. That’s when Jet discovers Indigara and must find her way back home.

I really liked how Lee played with the issue of old movies and broken celebrity dreams with this story and found Jet to be a believable intergalactic punk version of Harriet the Spy. The family scenes are hysterical and provide ample reasons why anyone would go out in the night looking for adventure (or at least some sanity). Sci Fi fans will enjoy Indigara a lot, but it has real potential to break through to any reader interested in an unusual mystery with a healthy dose of fantastic adventure. Package this with Connie Willis’s excellent recent novella D.A. (from the always wonderful Subterranean Press) and you just might convince your favorite middle grade reader to start checking out the SF section of their favorite bookstore.

Sherman Alexie has most deservedly won the National Book Award for his debut young adult title, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and I am likely just one more reviewer in a long line who will heap praise upon him for this outstanding coming-of-age story. There are a couple of things though about Absolutely True Diary that really made it stand out for me that I have not seen written about in other places. While Alexie has clearly written a funny story about a wry teenager who is wise beyond his fourteen years, it is not the humor amid great pathos that made me love his book. What appealed to me is how he made Arnold Spirit, Jr.’s story so universal. This is a kid from the Spokane Indian Reservation who has lived a life of immense poverty and, due to a birth defect, no small amount of physical difficulty and yet any kid who has ever felt like they don’t fit in is going to identify with and embrace Arnold. His story might be about Indian vs white, drunk vs sober, poor vs rich, but it is also simply about wanting vs not having and hope vs despair. Most average fourteen-year-olds (and former fourteen-year-olds) are going to know Arnold from the first page of the novel, and the more they read, the more they will see themselves in his story.

What also impressed me about the book is that this is the story of a Native American teenager and how his struggles directly relate to his ethnicity. Native characters do show up occasionally in YA lit, but it is rare to see modern reservation life with all its pain and sorrow addressed so directly -- or to see it written about with such deep and powerful humor. It is obvious that Alexie knows what he is writing about, but that he can write about it and make his readers both laugh and cry at the same time is a tribute to the honesty in which he willingly faces his own life and the lives of the people who continue to live on the Spokane Reservation. He provides his readers with a rare peek inside reservation life with Absolutely True Diary and gives nonnative readers in particular a look at just how Native Americans live in their corners of America. Consider this: "Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams."

Or this:

Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.

But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death.

There is nothing inherently noble about the Indians in Alexie’s novel, not even their tragedies. There is only acute and bone crushing poverty and hopelessness and a sort of confusion about life and purpose that is likely alien to all Caucasian readers. Ethnically I am French Canadian and Irish but other than a childhood of Catholic Church and powerful fear of God, along with a sentimental love for the Montreal Canadians and a traditional family weakness for alcohol, I can not tell you what it means to be either of those things. Arnold feels the pull of his heritage however, just as he comes to terms with the fact that he must pull away. It is a terribly difficult position to be in at any age, let alone as a teenager. Reading about his struggle may well help non-Native Americans understand why suicide rates among reservation teens are skyrocketing, and why Sherman Alexie’s book is a critical light in a darkness that threatens to be all-encompassing.

I would be remiss in reviewing Absolutely True Diary if I did not mention the delightful addition of Ellen Forney’s illustrations. Her work makes the book that much more accessible to readers and proves entertaining at every turn. She and Alexie have created something magical in this novel and I hope that it reaches thousands of teenagers, Native and non-Native alike, who will learn more about themselves and each other through this thoroughly engaging work.

With The Hearts of Horses Molly Gloss has written what a first seems a very quiet observation of a single life in a remote ranching section of Oregon during the period of the First World War. Teenage Martha has arrived in a far-flung community offering to break horses, apparently a not entirely unheard-of proposition for young women of the time. While the time period and Martha’s chosen occupation are interesting I was uncertain just how Gloss was going to stretch one young woman’s horse-breaking techniques out for nearly three hundred pages. But then Martha meets one family who hires her and gives her a place to stay and she finds herself with the prospect of a “circle job” where she will train over a dozen horses spread across multiple ranches. In this way she slowly makes friends and finds herself gradually drawn into the lives of everyone she meets.

And just like that, in the most subtle way possible, readers will discover a deeply heartfelt novel about a group of people who connect and intersect with Martha Lessen and her deep love for horses. The author does an amazing job of flowing from one family to the next, while never leaving Martha’s narrative behind. She visits one family and gains insight into their lives, and then as she leaves, Gloss allows the reader to peek further into what is going on behind those doors. There are financial struggles, illness, worries over distant family members and, because this is during war, concerns for one ethnically German family who falls prey to the baser instincts of some of the community. (German in WWI, Japanese in WWII, Muslim today; some things about humanity never change.) Through it all, Martha, who has tried to hold herself aloof and apart, finds that she cares more and more for the people she works for; she cares about many of them as much as she cares about their horses. In the end it is an accident, more than one death, and a sweet romance that lures her into changing her plans for the future and finally finding the place where she truly belongs.

Quite clearly The Hearts of Horses is a no-brainer for any teenager with the slightest interest in horses. Gloss has done an enormous amount of research into the subject for the book and readers will enjoy learning about Martha’s indirect but very successful method of horse training. There is also a lot here about independence and holding on to your dream -- even in a place and time when that was not so easy. (Not to mention for a gender that was rarely given the opportunity to pursue dreams.) Honestly, this is a book that I want to press in the hands of anyone looking for a good, well-written story. There are no gimmicks, just a lot of people with a lot of questions and a year in which change happens -- as it will in real life and good fiction. Martha is transformed as much as the animals she works with and the people around her all find their lives upended, in ways big and small, as the months go by. I cared a lot about these characters. Read the first chapter, and I promise, Martha will belong to you from that moment on; you just won’t want to let her go.

Kirsten Miller hit one out of the ballpark with her first book, Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City and along with her many other new fans I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of its sequel, The Empress’s Tomb. This time around the adventure is a bit more serious and less splashy while the girls face a crisis from within as doubt and mistrust prey upon the Irregulars. Visits to the underground labyrinth known as “the Shadow City” still form a big part of the plot but this second book is more about Oona, the group member who has always resisted revealing her home address and family situation to her friends. Oona’s secrets blow up early on in Empress and the ramifications of her deceptions (which are very large indeed) are felt for the remainder of the novel. The questions become not only about the bad guys this time around (and there are certainly some of them) but also about the friends and just what it means to be an Irregular.

There was a lot of tearing around under New York City in the first book and that lack of break-neck action and mystery might make Empress a less favored book by readers. I certainly enjoyed all of Kiki’s strangeness in Shadow City but I found the difficulties the girls had with their parents and each other to be much more realistic this time around. Don’t worry that the series is becoming pedestrian -- with a major plot point hinging on a mummy that could not be further from the truth -- but this is a more serious story. Ananka in particular is torn between saving her friends (and some endangered animals and stolen children) and keeping her parents happy, a task that becomes more and more impossible with each turning page. One never hears about how girl detectives explain all those long absences and late nights to the folks at home in most books, but Miller addresses those issues in Empress along with a host of other details that all too often get lost in the “gotcha” moments. This gives the series more depth and realism I think, and makes all the amazing moments (and they are still here) that much more enjoyable to read.

Finally Justin Richards offers a breakneck adventure for older teens with The Chaos Code. Boys in particular will find a lot of appeal here as they follow the action along with Matt Stribling whose archaeologist father has gone missing. After walking into his father’s ransacked home, Matt quickly finds himself the target of a strange attack and everything only gets more mysterious when he arrives at his aunt’s house for help. Old family friends know more than they are saying and the man who hired Dr. Stribling hints at trouble and offers assistance, but hardly seems the sort worth trusting. From the rain forest to Denmark and great points of antiquity, The Chaos Code combines ancient maps, modern computing and mythical monsters to put together a thriller with elements of modern action flicks and B movie moments. Matt is smart but not brilliant, and thus utterly believable while his new friend Robin is so clearly more than what she seems that readers will wonder for half the book just what is her story -- and then shake their heads when they find out. Richards has a real page-turner here and adding the very real exploits of Percy Fawcett, Aleksandr Kolchak and others makes it that much better. This is perfect vacation reading; produce it as soon as you hear the words “I’m bored!” Immediate positive results are promised.

I’m off to my own holiday reading now. Be sure to stop by my site, chasingray.com, for the Twelve Days of Christmas recommendations. Joyeux Noël to you all!

 

Cool Read: Two fabulous titles for your holiday pleasure this month. First up is John Farndon’s new encyclopedia of wonders: Do Not Open. This is the sort of over-the-top collection of strange occurrences and unsolved mysteries that will directly appeal to any curious reader. Beautifully designed with illustrations that shift from comics to modern typography to lushly colorful artwork that fills the page from corner to corner, Do Not Open is a bound collection of lingering questions. Some of the subjects include Cheyenne Mountain, the Knights Templar and the coincidences between the assassinations of presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. What happened to the lost crew of the Mary Celeste? Was there a conspiracy behind the sinking of the Titanic? And what exactly is “Dark Matter”? All of this and more is addressed by Farndon in a pop culture, eccentric and thoroughly hip matter. The book is compulsively readable and from the first glimpse of its boxed cased and Warholian cover, it can not be resisted. For the ten and up crowd who think they know everything, this is the perfect gift.

In a similar although more vintage vein, I also love what Candlewick has done with Explorer: A Daring Guide for Young Adventurers. Written by “Sir Henry Hardcastle” (Founder of the Society of Intrepid Explorers of course), this interactive homage to the days of Victorian exploration includes pop-ups and letters all aimed at instructing readers in the ways of traveling into the unknown. Historic figures such as Hiram Bingham, who discovered Machu Picchu, Stanly Livingston and Henry Morton and Howard Carter are all depicted along with compelling bits of information about their travels. There are lists of supplies you will need, famous shipwrecks, legendary lost treasures and dangers found specific to certain parts of the world. It’s a quick overview of a lot of history but with the wonderful combination of color drawings, sketches and photographs (as well as the many booklets and a small game), Explorer is sure to draw readers in. This one has such a wide appeal I can’t think of a curious kid who wouldn’t be intrigued -- or even a teenager who secretly wishes to find the far corners of the earth. Glorious adventure -- how can you ever pass it up?