August 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Quirky Families

Mayra Lazara Dole’s Down to the Bone opens with a classic teenage nightmare: your teacher intercepts a love note. High school junior Laura quickly finds herself in a horrible situation -- not only is she embarrassed but the letter reveals her lover is another girl. She's sent home by her Catholic school with an edict not to return in the fall. Her mother is equal parts furious and disgusted and kicks her out. In the span of a single afternoon Laura finds herself abandoned by her family and almost all of her friends. When her girlfriend Marlena begs to keep her identity -- a secret she understands but it leaves her more alone. Just one day and Laura’s whole world turns upside down.

From that explosive opening chapter Dole takes Laura through a summer of challenge and discovery. She finds a home with her best friend Soli and her mother but the move from her family is gut-wrenching. Laura also struggles to find the acceptance in the Cuban American community that she has always taken for granted. Bit by bit she makes new friends to replace the old, teens who, like her, are not in traditional relationships. Her defining moment comes when she is able to be honest with Tazer, a new friend who defines himself as a “boi” someone who is genderqueer and identifies as a boy who likes girls. Tazer is a catalyst for Laura, forcing her to identify and accept who she is, and who she wants to be. The pressures on Laura by family and society to go the easy way and be who so many others think she should be nearly overwhelms her.

Dole has done an excellent job of taking a moment of teen embarrassment and upping the stakes in such a way that it is clearly devastating. She doesn’t give the reader any breaks with this novel, forcing you to work your way along with Laura through all the typical teen confusions and rebellions as she follows that age-old path of personally defining herself. The Cuban American culture is on full display here, along with its own fluid language and traditions that will entrance readers unfamiliar with this world. And for GLBT readers in particular, this will quickly become a book to treasure forever. Down to the Bone is an excellent choice for teenage girls looking for a charming coming-of-age story. Keep writing Ms. Dole; there are thousands of teen readers out there who need you.

Tony Abbott has written exactly the sort of mystery I love with The Postcard. It begins with teenager Jason who is looking at spending a big chunk of summer in Florida helping his father who is wrestling with his own mother’s death. Jason is a pretty straightforward guy (he introduces himself with “So my name is Jason and I think my family is splitting up.”) and less than excited about St. Petersburg. But he loves his dad and can see that he’s cracking under the strain. He goes down because it is the right thing to do and Jason is pretty that kind of kid.

The house is a typical Florida ranch, the weather is ungodly hot and the two of them have a ton of stuff to do to get the place ready to sell. Jason can’t help being curious about the grandmother he never knew, especially as his grandfather was never part of the family. The mystery plot starts to reveal itself when Jason discovers an old linen postcard of a Florida scene. It is clearly something his grandmother treasured but why this one thing would be a sentimental choice he has no idea. The postcard is on his mind when he finds something else odd, a 1944 issue of Bizarre Mysteries, an old pulp thriller. Soon enough Jason learns that one of the stories in the magazine could be about his grandmother and from that realization he begins following a modern trail of postcard clues that reveals his family’s history.

The last thing I want to suggest is that The Postcard is a musty dive through genealogy records because nothing could be further from the truth. Jason and his neighbor Dia find themselves tracking clues from an abandoned hotel to a St Pete tourist attraction -- the center of one of the biggest circus dynasties of all time. While some of those involved in the mystery of his grandmother would like the past to fade away there are others who are eager to see the truth revealed. In the middle of the all the detecting (which reminded me so much of a classic Three Investigators mystery in all the right ways) Jason still has to deal with his father and the collapse of his parent’s marriage. This seems to make his grandmother’s story that much more important and spurs him on as things get weirder.

The Postcard is a book I have not heard nearly enough about. It is a classic mystery but has a decidedly modern style. I also give Abbott a lot of credit for getting Florida so right; I know my Sunshine State and clearly so does this author.

Marsha Qualey’s Come in from the Cold is historic fiction set during the Vietnam War period; something you don’t see too often in YA literature. It’s also two coming-of-age stories that culminate in a romance that would appeal to male and female readers -- something I think might very well be unheard of. I really thought this book was lovely and think it would work really well for older teens studying the '60s, as well as adults who have an interest in the period.

Readers are first introduced to Maud whose sister, Lucy, has left home to join a radical anti-war group. When she chooses to die in a bombing, Maud and her father find themselves with a unique notoriety and uncertain how to express their grief. At the same time, in another part of the state, Jeff learns that his older brother, the town hero and a soldier, has received orders for Vietnam. Setting aside his own conflicted feelings about the war, he hopes for the best only to lose Tommy mere weeks after his departure. From these first two sections, readers begin to know the two teenagers who want to support the ones they love but are also struggling to find their way in complicated times. When they meet it is as part of the burgeoning anti-war effort. From there Maud and Jeff fall in love as America tries to find a way to fall apart and come together all at the same time.

Even though Cold is a relatively slim book, just over 200 pages, it read in many ways like an epic. Qualey artfully uses Jeff and Maud’s stories to show how complicated the '60s could be and the many shades of grey that existed within the peace movement. Interestingly, as the book was originally published in 1994, similarities between how teens felt in the 1960s and in the current Iraq War era abound throughout the book. Mostly though, Come in from the Cold serves as an original take on finding your way and an excellent look at recent history.

If you’re in the mood for a coming-of-age story that redefines the genre, then the recently reissued (by publisher-to-watch Flux) Wish You Were Here by Barbara Shoup is a must read. Following a year in the life of high school senior Jackson, the author covers an enormous amount of ground -- from treading the fine lines of his mother’s new marriage (along with new stepsiblings) to first love, a devastating accident and some major screwing up, Jackson has the sort of year one never forgets. There are so many things that Shoup does right in this book; it’s just fantastic that Flux has brought this title back after almost fifteen years. (And in case you’re worried, it’s not the slightest bit dated.)

From the beginning, the biggest problem in Jackson’s life is that his best friend Brady has run away. The two of them were inseparable and while Jackson isn’t unduly worried about Brady he is both hurt and angry. Brady didn’t flee a dangerous situation; he ran because he was sick of dealing with parents and school and all the requisite drama of each. That it was so easy for him to go disturbs Jackson to no end; if they were as good friends as he thought, then wouldn’t his buddy have done the right thing and said goodbye?

Brady is never far from Jackson’s thoughts as his mother's engagement to a nice guy with two kids upends everyone’s lives. Shoup really excels at her description of step-child life, and the difficulties Jackson faces as he continues to care deeply about both of his parents while trying to make room for a new family. His blundering into a sweet romance while on vacation seems almost formulaic but turns out to be much more. He finds himself falling into a relationship close to home that ultimately is more about Brady then anyone else, and it ends so badly that your heart will hurt. As one thing after another piles up, readers will witness how someone can fall apart if they pull too far away from the ones they love. Jackson can’t hold everything together and when Brady reenters his life just as he seems to be getting on track you will hold your breath to see if he can pull himself out of harm’s way in time.

This one is a classic, pure and simple. Readers should be of the high school variety due to some sex and drugs (and R.E.M.); consider this beach blanket reading of the smartest kind.

With Forever Rose the ever delightful and unorthodox Casson family returns in Hilary McKay’s final volume in this series. Longtime fans will enjoy seeing youngest sister Rose take center stage again, narrating the family’s ups and downs as they struggle with their mother’s lingering cold and looming deadline, sister Caddy who wanders in and out of their lives and is still not with “Darling Michael,” and the troubling intrusion of brother Indigo’s best friend David who seems to have ended up with no place to live -- other than the family living room. More than most of the Casson titles Forever Rose is a bit political with Rose leading a quiet revolution in the classroom against one very mean teacher and also hanging in there for a friend when things get sticky. There’s also a level of burgeoning self awareness for Rose that I thought was quite refreshing. She runs around trying to help her Mom, save David, overthrow her evil teacher and make Christmas the holiday it used to be, in spite of her exceedingly preoccupied family. All this running puts her in danger of being overlooked as the older kids get caught up in teenage pursuits. Things do get set in order though, even Caddy, and while the ending is certainly happy it is most definitely not sappy (perish the thought).

I have noted before that quirky family titles are a dime a dozen but that is not what McKay is writing when she visits the Cassons. These are decidedly modern versions of the sort of family stories enjoyed decades ago -- the Marches with a 21st century hipness and a lot less piety. New readers must start at the beginning with Saffy’s Angel but then keep on through all five books; McKay knows how to deliver on her promises and Forever Rose is simply a literary gift to all who love this wonderful family.

Finally, Matthew Loux’s Salt Water Taffy: The Legend of Old Salty is the sort of book that kids everywhere positively salivate for. It will work perfectly fine for boys or girls but boys in particular (as it is the “Adventures of Jack and Benny”) are going to LOVE this one. You’ve got two kids bored out of their minds on the summer vacation from hell in the boondocks of Maine. They meet lots of odd locals, discover a mystery about missing candy and hear the legend of the Old Salty who turns out to be the biggest lobster ever. This graphic novel is full of a story that is over the top with fun and completely irresistible. The black and white drawings leap off the page with an exuberance that matches the plot and the kids are just so funny and snarky that you can’t help but fall for their adventure. I laughed all the way through it and know that soon enough my six-year-old will be all over this one. Need some good clean fun for the younger set? Look no further, folks; I have it right here.

Until next month, I’ll be at chasingray.com writing about what I love to read and dropping in at guyslitwire.com to talk about books for teenage boys. Stop by and join the conversations.

Cool Read: I have two very different anthologies to consider this month: Starry Rift edited by Jonathan Strahan and Cowboy Stories from Chronicle Books with illustrations from Barry Moser. In Rift, Strahan has collected an excellent array of science fiction and fantasy authors to write for teens. You have some usual suspects here: Neil Gaiman, who uses a list format for “Orange,” a creepy story about sibling rivalry that is also very funny; Kelly Link with a first contact/superflu combination in “The Surfer” that manages to be a decent coming-of-age tale as well, and Cory Doctorow with “Anda’s Game” which is an excellent look at how gaming can be used for bad purposes. I do feel that he falters a bit by trying to make Anda’s struggle also about obesity and diabetes; both the threat of illness and the solution were far too pat and Anda’s attention was always more focused on the game than her health; the story would have been better served by not forcing that message, but it is still a great techno adventure of the type Doctorow excels at.

I liked Scott Westerfield’s colonization story “Ass-Hat Magic Spider” a lot and hope people can enjoy what he is saying here rather than wasting time wondering about a boy who likes Charlotte’s Web. Margo Lanagan said in the brief note for “An Honest Day’s Work” that it was partly inspired by whaling ports, but I kept thinking about Gulliver’s Travels; it’s creepy in the best possible way and classic Lanagan. Finally, Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Sundiver Day” is a very prescient view of siblings left behind in war; the SF twist is a good one but the emotion is what really comes through. There’s nothing in Goonan’s story that is out of place in 2008, other than the science which if it was here I’m sure some lost little sister somewhere would be trying to use. There are ten other stories in the collection by great writers like Ann Halam, Garth Nix, Ian McDonald and Alastair Reynolds. All in all it’s a wonderful introduction to many authors in the genre and comes highly recommended.

Swinging 180 degrees, Cowboy Stories contains mostly reprints and excerpts although there are a few new stories as well. Barry Moser’s engravings can not be over-praised here; he is a perfect artist for westerns and each of his full-page illustrations elevates the stories they accompany. As for the stories themselves, the classics are well represented starting with a chapter from Shane that would make anyone want to run out and read the book (and please also rent the movie). Larry McMurty is here with Lonesome Dove and there is short story from Louis L’Amour, “The Gift of Cochise.” This one includes a powerful female character and I will confess it was one of my favorites.

A bit of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage is here (of course) and also Elmore Leonard’s complete “Three Ten to Yuma” as well as Annie Proulx’s look at range life in “The Blood Bay” and Dorothy M. Johnson’s funny and unexpected outlaw tale (with another excellent female character), “I Woke Up Wicked.” This one made me think of Maverick a bit; it just had that sense of fun, even when things got serious.

There are 21 entries in this collection and as evident from those already mentioned, the range is immense. From Stephen Crane, Max Brand and O. Henry to excerpts of Judy Blunt’s memoir, Breaking Clean and Tom Groneberg’s Secret Life of Cowboys, the publisher has done an excellent job of bringing together a great mix of old and new. Any teen with an interest in Americana, the frontier or classic westerns is going to love this and I hope it finds a wide audience.