June 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Funny How Things Change

< tr>
There were several aspects of Melissa Wyatt’s impressive Funny How Things Change that stood out for me including her protagonist, teen Remy Walker and the unique setting of a small town in West Virginia. I honestly can’t remember the last time I read anything about West Virginia that wasn’t part of a joke. Remy has heard his fair share of insulting comedy about his home and is pretty sick of it but more importantly, he doesn’t know what to do with the idea that he is supposed to want to leave West Virginia simply because most people do. Remy’s struggle with leaving versus staying – which is wrapped tightly around the plans of his longtime girlfriend who is going away to college – is the basis of the book’s conflict. How he resolves his dual love for his town and Lisa makes for a traditional coming-of-age tale but what Remy does and why keeps Funny How Things Change firmly on the cutting edge of realistic teen fiction. He is, quite simply, a 21st century hero for every teen who is tired of doing what is expected and longs instead for the peace of their own private Idaho.

When the book opens it is clear that Remy’s family has lived on the same mountain just outside the town of Dwyer forever. He and his father have a trailer where running water is a temperamental amenity and décor not a high priority. It works for them but not Remy’s mother who moved away years before. Both parents remain supportive of their son however; the mountain is just not for everyone and that’s okay. The overriding question is how much it means to Remy.

As Lisa builds her romantic castles for their future, it slowly becomes clear that her vision is not one Remy shares. The presence of an artist who has a summer commission to paint murals on water towers across the state complicates things a bit – not because Remy falls in love with Dana but because he likes her and, as his father points out, if Lisa was “the one” then Remy would not be so interested in hanging out with Dana. In other words, if you’re going to leave home, shouldn’t you at least be sure that you’re leaving for the right reasons and the right girl? The problem is that Remy isn’t sure and the more he worries about that, the more he realizes that he has never been sure about anything when it comes to his future.

There is nothing expected or ordinary about Funny How Things Change other than Remy Walker who is very much an “everyman” who could well be considered the voice of a generation. With so many conflicting perspectives thrust upon them many of today’s teens find themselves lost in the chaos of those who think they know better. Wyatt knows this and more importantly she respects the value of each of the choices a teen can choose to make, including not going to college. She has written Remy as a character brave enough to take a step back and see the big picture and in Dwyer, on Walker Mountain, with what he has known forever, he has his moment of clarity. Readers will cheer for his decision and also gain a new found respect for the beauty that can sometimes be found at home (especially in West Virginia).

Both Frances O’Roark Dowell and Siobhan Vivian have recent titles that focus on friendships at a crossroads. As one girl looks to dating and the more traditional aspects of school life for direction, the other leans toward interests of a more creative and individual nature. In Dowell’s The Kind of Friends We Used to Be Kate and Marylin are struggling as they enter the seventh grade; Marylin embraces the cheerleader life while Kate pursues a dream of becoming a girl guitar player. In Vivian’s Same Difference the stakes are higher for Emily and Meg who face a crossroads the summer before their senior year. Meg is in love with Rick and wants Emily to have a relationship as well. Surprisingly (even to her), Meg decides to forgo dating and attend a college-prep art program in nearby Philadelphia. She finds herself drawn to the eclectic group of people she meets there and pulls away from Meg’s conventional plans. In both cases the girls must decide how important their friendships are, and what they are willing to sacrifice to keep them intact.

As Dowell has proven in her other novels, most notably the recent Vietnam-era drama Shooting the Moon, middle grade literature is an area she understands with stunning precision. Written in shifting voices, Friends follows Kate’s acceptance of her lack of popularity and decision to pursue music and songwriting. Marylin, who has become a cheerleader almost by surprise, is certain that being “in” is the best choice, but finds herself conflicted by some of the baggage that comes along with it (like the sudden possessive interest of the JV football team). Her choice to run for student government forces decisions that are counter to what she thought she wanted and presents a way for the two girls to stay close, even as they make separate friends.

There are a lot of ways that Dowell could have written a predictable story about social status and rebellion. Yet, at every crucial plot turn she resists making Marylin and Kate typical characters. Kate is not a loner but not a joiner. Having said that, she misses Marylin and wants to have friends -- she just wants to be herself while she has them. Kate finds a way to do this through a creative writing club that introduces not only another music lover, but writers of all sorts who support her efforts and persuade her that writing is a significant way to spend her time. This is crucial for Kate as otherwise she would likely have further isolated herself from her family and become convinced of a lower self worth. Dowell makes it clear with Kate that it’s good to find your own way but it’s a lot easier to accomplish that when you have your own tribe for support.

Marylin is a surprising character who avoids becoming a classic vapid cheerleader cliché and reaches out instead to others who resist the middle school status quo. The cheerleaders themselves are a well-written bunch. Everyone from the queen bitch, to those who just happen to be smart and pretty while still being nice, and the one who is willing to fit in any way she can even though she isn’t sure why. Marylin’s choice is a valid one as it involves far more than just being popular; it also includes her recently divorced parents, smart little brother and a lot of memories about what matters. In the end, she and Kate both, along with several other supporting characters each of whom are given single chapters to reflect on the pressure of growing up, become very engaging characters who manage to reflect the confusion of so many young teens while also remaining thoroughly original.

In Same Difference Siobhan Vivian initially enters into familiar YA territory by writing about Emily and Meg in the language of privilege. The girls live in “mini mansions,” the symbols of their friendship are charms from Tiffany’s, and Meg’s boyfriend drives a new truck while the girls linger in their bikinis by backyard pools. (No summer jobs for them.) This is a set-up that moves the book dangerously close to forgettable territory but fortunately, Emily leaves for art classes in the city and makes friends with the wildly unpredictable Fiona who seems to be a “real” artist. There are questions about Fiona and what she suggests about art. Emily isn’t sure if she is good enough but also isn’t sure if she even knows what good enough looks like. Her choice to focus on her art is a blow to Meg who saw it as a passing interest (which is what Emily initially thought it was as well). Meg’s relationship with Rick escalates and she wants is for Emily to be part of that life of happy couples. Meg doesn’t understand what all this art business is about, or what Emily wants to do with it and no one is sure how to react as Emily becomes increasingly focused. The plot turns on the question of what being an artist means and Emily’s choice will mean to her and to Meg.

There is a moment early on in the book when Fiona tells Emily, “I bet you have no idea how fake your smile looks,” that perfectly sums up what Vivian is trying to say in this novel. Indeed, Emily is not herself anymore because she doesn’t know who that person is, and while Meg is very happy. Emily does not see happiness in making the same choices. This is unexpected -- there is nothing in her life that makes anything other than finding a nice guy and going to school key points of her future. (Almost a 21st century version of the film Mona Lisa’s Smile.) It is not that Emily is smarter or even bolder than Meg; she just wants something else and while Fiona is not the best example of that mysterious other she is still a crucial guide on the path to finding it.

Charles R. Smith writes about a significant summer that starts out as just the same old thing is his buddy novel Chameleon. Set in the L.A. neighborhood of Compton, Smith follows the trials and travails of four friends preparing to enter high school. The narrator, Shawn, is a bundle of typical teen confusions: he is excited about what high school might bring but also terrified by its sheer size. Shawn also has an awesome crush on a longtime school friend, Marisol which renders him nearly incapable of speech in her presence (and is a great source of hilarity for his friends). There is a lot of basketball, a lot of trying to figure out what to do everyday, a lot of pooling money for food and some lucky run-ins with Marisol and her friends in Chameleon as Shawn and his buds wander through long hot summer days filled with few plans and many daydreams. Where things get complicated is that Compton is a place fraught with peril for teenage boys as two warring gangs zealously guard their turf and their colors on nearly every corner. Shawn has been on the receiving end of gang violence in the past and he and his friends find it again this summer but the book is not a gang novel, it is a firmly and most successfully a buddy novel, and any teenage boy will find much to identify with in Shawn’s thoughtful observations of family, friendship and young love.

Charles R. Smith is best known for his books for younger children, most impressively the biography in poems, Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali, illustrated by Bryan Collier. (It’s a stunner -- be sure to look it up.) Chameleon is his first YA novel and although it came out last year I have not heard a lot of buzz about it on the blogs. I had a few trepidations about reviewing the novel as my Caucasian suburban female upbringing gives me little basis to judge the merits of a novel involving four African American teen boys who dodge gangs in Compton. I honestly had one of those moments where I wondered if this was a book I should even attempt to review. I found many reasons to care about Shawn and his friends and I very much wanted to know what was going to happen to them as their summer continued. Shawn’s divorced parents, both of whom care about him deeply, were a pleasure to read about and it was particularly gratifying to read Smith’s long discussions between parent and child. This is a kid who knows he is loved and that makes his life so much easier to navigate. It was also nice to read about his friends and their siblings; one has a brother in the navy, another a sister with a track scholarship to college (the other boys are all in love with her) and another a brother who seems to be slipping into the drug lifestyle with a local gang. Smith portrays the people of Compton (including the folks in the neighborhood, the park and on the courts) with great care. Shawn sees the world around him – all of it – as he shoots baskets, trades jokes and nearly faints at the mere site of Marisol. This neighborhood is not a perfect place but it’s one with plenty of hope and possibility as long as you make your choices with care. That’s a valid point in pretty much any teenager’s life and a big part of why I fell in love with Chameleon and knew I had to write about it. Most highly recommended.

With A Map of the Known World author Lisa Ann Sandell has crafted an unpredictable story about the death of a sibling. Teenage Cara misses her brother Nate who died in a car crash of his own responsibility. She is sorely conflicted though by how difficult he was in the period leading up to his death and can not easily forgive his often selfish behavior. The reality of losing Nate is that he was not easy to love in the end, and dueling feelings of grief and guilt plague her, while also tormenting her parents whose marriage is now falling apart. Cut adrift from the family she thought she had, Cara turns to her unusual style of collage art, and crafts vivid imaginary maps of the world around her. It is after she enrolls in an art class and discovers from her brother’s best friend Damian that Nate was also an artist that she begins to heal. The problem is that her parents are stuck in a deep slough of despair and frustration that they can’t seem to get out of, no matter how hard it makes life for them. And she’s falling hard for Damian who her parents blame for Nate’s death. That’s not a conversation she’s looking forward to having with them either.

Sandell is a pro at creating strong female characters as readers of her Arthurian novel, Song of the Sparrow, are aware. Her first foray into prose finds her playing with the theme of redemptive art, while looking at a family in the aftermath of a complicated tragedy that doesn’t seem to know how to get past the event. The point here is not getting over Nate’s death but living with it and his fault in it. That is what Cara wants to do and uses her art to try and accomplish it but her parents in many ways even hinder her process. As she delves deeper into who Nate really was and tries to understand what caused him to break so deeply from his family, she also discovers how much they had in common. She hopes this common ground will be enough to persuade her parents to respect her choices and understand a bit better why Nate made his. She hopes for a way to make them notice her again and remember they had two children, and only lost one. Readers will be hard pressed not to care deeply for all of the characters, including, most surprisingly, Nate.

Tanita Davis seamlessly blends contemporary and historic storylines in her fascinating novel, Mare’s War. The initial hook for readers is the drama raised by teens Octavia and Tali when they learn they will be accompanying their caustic grandmother on a cross country trip. The girls are far from pleased and see themselves as sacrificial lambs offered up by their parents who don’t want “Mare” to make the drive (she insists on driving) alone. They bicker, whine and complain at first (often depicted by Davis in postcards sent along the way) but as Mare tells the story of when she first left home the girls discover someone they barely recognize in their grandmother’s epic tale. It is this story which provides the stunning second plot to the book and introduces another set of characters in a strange situation.

Through the course of her narrative Mare describes what it was like to grow up in the 1940s in a single parent household while fearing her mother’s boyfriends. After her younger sister went to live with an aunt she decided to set out on her own and joined the Women’s Army Corps. Mare was looking for adventure and for a way out. She’s also black, which meant a whole different version of the military than the history books share. Moving back and forth across decades we see that young love has not changed, facing your fears is still a common trial and being honest with yourself is the surest way to find happiness. Tali and Octavia start to see Mare as someone they can identify with – someone real. By the end of the book their relationship with her is transformed which should resonate very loudly with any teenager.

As much as I could see the value of the Tali/Octavia plot line, it was with Mare and her friends in the WAC that the book really came alive for me. Davis has created a wonderful group of young women and set them down in a war that so many books and movies and documentaries have barely considered. She gives us real live girls serving their country in a unique way, but beyond the war, which all too often overshadows everything else in books. Davis has created thoroughly entertaining characters that just happened to live in the middle of it. It’s a cliché to say she brings history alive; the larger truth is that she makes it real. Set aside the textbooks and go driving with Mare and the girls; they’ll give you a ride into young adulthood you won’t soon forget.

Finally, Clay Carmichael’s Wild Things took me by surprise. It begins as a riff on a traditional story -- young orphan girl saved from foster care by an unknown relative, both of them carrying baggage from their past. I expected the book to go down traditional well worn pathways (Annie, anyone?) but Carmichael confounded me at every turn. Zoe doesn’t screw up looking for attention and she isn’t some cloying moppet. Uncle Henry is a metal sculptor of all things and his very real pain and frustration over his wife’s death permeate the story. Henry’s friends are fresh and engaging and bring Zoe along in their abundant love and respect for each other. And then there is the wild boy in the woods, the white deer and the classmate who seems like a first rate ass but maybe isn’t. Oh and grandma, who is a real piece of work all by herself.

Page by page, and this is a real page-turner, I fell hard for Wild Things. Zoe and Henry come together in a gradual and believable way that is never forced or foolish. Zoe finds herself becoming part of a larger community of decent people who care about her and she also learns to reach out and make some friendship choices that prove her own widening view of the world. This is, at its essence, a book about family. It’s the kind of family that chooses to do the right thing and help each other and take care of each other. Until next month you can catch me at my site, chasingray.com or over at guyslitwire.com where it's all about book recs for teen boys.

Cool Read: Max Frei’s The Stranger is an international bestseller that took Russia by storm. Mad curiosity over what literary sensation the Russians love was enough to make me want to read this book. Apparently the Russians like fantasy -- really well written fantasy -- and The Stranger is a great blend of that genre and hardboiled mystery with some thrills and It’s a Mad Mad Mad World fish out of water comedy thrown in. It’s an utterly original title that any fan of the surreal (adult or teen) will enjoy.

Max Frei, the same as the author, is a “twenty-something loser” who is drifting through life with nothing exceptional to share other than odd sleeping patters. At night he is a chronic insomniac while during the day sleep comes with ease. He remembers his dreams with deep clarity and many times finds himself in a world with an old world European sensibility where he enjoys wonderful meals at a certain sidewalk café and chats with a man named Sir Juffin. As the book opens Max discovers that he can travel to this parallel world, and live in the “City of Echo.” Sir Juffin makes him a member of the Department of Absolute Order, a group of secret agents tasked with solving magical crimes. It is here that Max’s nocturnal habits are much needed and he finds himself battling all manner of demonic creatures and wizards gone bad along with the rest of the department. Max makes friends, proves capable of great bravery and even become Death after a mix-up with some major magic. While all of the mysteries are serious (even the one with magically animated evil dolls ala Chucky), Frei’s humor comes through with every word. Readers will find themselves enjoying Max’s adventures without ever fearing for him or the denizens of Echo. There are fatalities but also romance (secret agent style) and the surprising domestication of cats and swimming in multiple bathtubs. Frei excels at his world building and brings Echo alive in the best combination of 19th century Austria and futuristic steampunk delights. Frei has a series of books set in Echo and hopefully there will be more of Max’s adventures to come for English readers. This is irresistible reading. He’s smart, savvy and funny; an everyman hero we can all believe in.