July 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Summer Adventures

One of the things I love about summer reading is the opportunity to disappear into an excellent adventure story. While I have certainly enjoyed more than few years hanging out with Dirk Pitt, as outlandish as those books might be, it is the more realistic or possible adventures that I find especially appealing. For MG and YA readers these are Harriet the Spy stories; adventures that anyone can have if they step out of the box (not that spying on your neighbors is advised but you get the idea). Here then are some excellent books with adventures a little closer to home; or at least ones that don't involve having to discover the Titanic or something equally dramatic on a continuous basis.

Richard Jennings' Ghost Town has a very engaging premise: teen Spencer and his postmistress mother are the last two residents of their dying town, Paisley, Kansas. Left to his own devices, Spencer starts using his deceased father's camera to record life in their abandoned town. Things take a strange turn when the images of past residents show in the developed pictures. Spencer considers that perhaps he has a "ghost camera," and contacts the owner of a catalog he receives in the mail: Uncle Milton's Thousand Things You Thought You'd Never Find. Thus begins a correspondence between Milton and Spencer on cameras, fruit that looks like famous people and the poetry of Spencer's imaginary friend, Chief Leopard Frog. From there the book takes off in a dozen different directions which include the return of the girl next door who Spencer crushes on, the Fed Ex delivery man who stays for dinner, more ghostly pictures, the poetry magazine with a reporter on the hunt for Chief Leopard Frog and incredible fame and yes, fortune. There are so many unexpected twists and turns to Spencer's life over the course of the book that the reader will be fairly dazzled by the changes.

Jennings could have written Ghost Town as a farce, a silly example of teen lit with an emphasis on the quirky and downright weird. But he explains why Spencer does the things he does and also devotes several passages to the phenomena of abandoned towns, explaining why they grow in the first place and what happens to them once they die. In this respect, Spencer is an unofficial urban historian thrust into the spot because, financially, he can't leave (his mother still has that job even though neither one of them know why the post office hasn't closed) and personally, because he loves Paisley. After all the discussion of railroads, factories and economic development, Spencer still sees the intrinsic value of "hometown." By documenting what remains, he conveys to the readers just how valuable that sense of place can be and why it is, to him, worth saving.

Ghost Town is one of those books with huge appeal that is essential to libraries everywhere. It's a perfect summertime book: an excellent source of both laughs and nostalgia, and some mighty smart writing with a protagonist who is as ordinary as they come but also downright amazing. Plain and simple, I loved this book and can't recommend it enough.

It was the title of Dene Low's debut novel that first drew my attention: Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone: The Entomological Tales of Augustus T. Percival . The Victorian era setting and immediate introduction of a problem (Uncle Augustus inadvertently swallows a beetle which then makes him crave bugs and begin to act like them as well) makes this book an excellent choice for those intrigued by how all those real intrepid lady explorers started out (although I doubt a bug eating guardian was a problem Karen Blixen had to deal with). Mostly, it is just a very fun mystery with a touch of romance, a lot of running around London following up on clues, and chasing the bad guys. Amelia Peabody has nothing on Petronella and with the added bug bits, the humor is truly off the scale.

The biggest accomplishment Low has here is the tone she sets and maintains throughout the novel. While Uncle Augustus's antics become increasingly odd, and after the introduction of Petronella's stuffy aunts and cousins family drama can not be ignored, the narrative never strays from its wide open focus on solving a kidnapping that has international implications. Petronella is determined to maintain her cool while also keeping an eye on her best friend's big brother, the ever luscious Lord James Sinclair. A lady might be dealing with an uncle who is catching moth, a coming-out-party that ends in calamity, but she shouldn't forget to be smartly dressed just in case an appealing young gentleman should arrive. Petronella perseveres through a ransom exchange late at night, the sudden disappearance of her best friend and the annoying intrusive curiosity of some truly despicable family members. Her adventures were a joy to read. I can't wait to see what comes next. (And fans of Nancy Springer's Enola Holmes who are looking to age up in their reading should certainly check it out.)

Jacqueline Kelly has written a historical drama set in 1899 that takes readers into the heart of Texas and the life of one particularly unusual little girl. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is about eleven-year old Callie Vee who has three older and three younger brothers. She is dearly loved by her family but also coming to grips to the reality of her future. While the boys have school, business and possibilities ahead for them, Callie is facing a life of learning to cook, sew and clean so that she will make a proper wife. The fact that her best friend is good at all these skills is a mystery to her. Callie does not like any of it, nor does she appreciate that while her mother works hard everyday, everything she accomplishes vanishes in an instant. ("But my mother's life was a never-ending round of maintenance. Not one single thing did she ever achieve but that I had to be done all over again, one day or one week or one season later. Oh the monotony.") Her despondence over this lifetime sentence of "helpful service" is palpable and part of what propels Callie to reach out to her mercurial grandfather.

In the long tradition of retired Victorian gentlemen, "GrandDaddy" is a naturalist. Deeply accomplished as a businessman, he explains to Callie an epiphany he experienced during the Civil War which led him to pull back from industry (and hand it over to his son) and turn instead to nature. When Callie approaches him with a question of nature he directs her to find her own answers. Rising to the challenge, the two become inseparable, each seeking to find whatever is out there and bent on observing, as much as possible, everything there is to see.

At first just a hobby, Callie begins to consider that science might be even more. This runs full force into her parents' plans for her and more importantly, the expected life of any young girl at that time. Callie is a good daughter, a loving daughter, but also one that does not fit into her assigned world. She wants to chase grasshoppers while her mother encourages embroidery. The notion that she could make an unorthodox choice for her life is very compelling to Callie and startling to everyone else (other than GrandDaddy of course). But she's no revolutionary, simply a loving child with her own stubborn interests. Gently, carefully, she navigates her way through both worlds before her, always respecting her parents but not backing down an inch on who she wants to be, or what she will do to become that person.

One of the best things about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is how easy it is to identify with Callie. This is not a rebel bending her family and the world to her will. Instead, Kelly has created a believable character who is very much a creature of her time but also fortunate enough to have someone who encourages her unique interests. Her curiosity is infectious and her frustration at accepting what society says is her gender assigned lot in life is easily understood. Callie doesn't want to change the world so much, she just wants to go see it all, starting with her own fascinating little corner of Texas. Collecting bugs never looked so grand as it does here; where sending a plant to the Smithsonian is about the wildest thing a girl could do. After reading this book readers will be encouraged to find their own inner Calpurnia Tate, and set across the yard in search of whatever they might find. Budding Darwins (both girls and boys) especially are not going to want to miss this one.

The ultimate adventure for many teens is to form your own band and that is exactly what happens in the hilarious So Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother by Micol Ostow. The trials and tribulations of would be rock star Ari Abramson are the highlight here, as he struggles to maintain his love of music and his sanity while attending Leo R. Gittleman Jewish Day School. The pressure is on Ari to make his parents proud - which mostly means doing exceedingly well on the SATs and going to Brandeis. The problem is that while there are many things Ari would like to do with his life (including art and music) attending Brandeis is not high on his list. When faced with the huge gulf between what he wants to do and is expected to do he does what any teen would do in his place - lie like crazy and form a band. To say the results of his musical endeavors are surprising would be a vast understatement.

Ari forms "Tribe" along with his best friend Jonas, incredibly popular and gifted with a mother willing to indulge his every wish, including a sudden need for a bass guitar. There is also Yossi, a conservative observant Jew who nonetheless possesses two necessary band qualities: a drum set and a house big enough for them to practice in. Reena, Yossi's slightly younger sister who is about as wicked cool as it gets, also happens to sing. They are thrown together by the sheer force of Ari's need to form a band. But after their first appearance, at Ross Fein's Bar Mitzvah, and the resulting cavalcade of support from Gittleman students for their one original song, "Hava Negillah," they can not be stopped. They have invented a new sound something "…like you've never heard before, with a ska-klezmer remixed beat, soft, Sundays-style vocals, and a Pixies riff or two thrown in for good measure." The Tribe has accomplished the impossible and made Ari popular which means, of course, trials and tribulations are sure to follow.

This is one funny book. So Punk Rock is everything about the sheer exhaustion and exhilaration of being a high school kid with the added trauma of your parents' dreams for your future weighing you down to the pits of your very soul. The drama is all here - from making them proud, to lying to them, to disappointing them, to doing the same thing with girls - except in a more intense fashion. Friendships are made, broken and mended. The right girl is found, lost, misplaced and rediscovered in proper teen order. Ostow knows her teen drama for sure - and she keeps it hysterical while also not looking down on her characters or their worries.

Beyond the excellent story, there is the accompanying art by David Ostow. Illustrated in graphic novel style at various points in the narrative, Ostow's deadpan depictions of the kids, their families and their important moments is a perfect accompaniment to his sister's cheeky text. The combination of art and words is just that much funnier.

Beth Kephart's Nothing but Ghosts is about coping with grief but with a girl detective twist that keeps it from sinking into the ever avoidable gulf of "trauma porn" (thank god). Teen Katie is sorely missing her mother who passed away recently from illness. Although she is still very close to her father both of them find themselves struggling mightily with their loss. Her father handles his sorrow by burying himself in his art restoration work and concocting intricate gourmet dinners. Katie finds it easier to pull away from her oldest friends and immerse herself in a new, less complicated situation: working for the summer as a gardener at the estate of a local recluse.

Soon enough, she can't resist wondering just why Martine Everlast hasn't left her home in decades or why the head gardener has asked everyone to excavate a certain patch of land. Katie starts to dig through the past at the local library with a little help from a very glamorous librarian and one of her fellow gardeners (who is mighty cute). What she finds is very unexpected and leads to answers both at the estate and in Katie's own heart. The fact that her father is working on a painting tied to the Everlasts makes the story come together and also goes a long way toward helping father and daughter heal.

There were a lot of ways Nothing but Ghosts could go that would have led it down a more traditional YA path. While grieving is a relatively common fixture in teen novels, combining it with an unrelated local mystery is not. Kephart does not take up the trail of Nancy Drew here but she does show that Katie has the same basic instinct we all have to uncover the truth. The puzzle of Miss Martine is also something to keep her occupied; something that involves digging through someone else's life rather than dwelling on the emptiness in her own. The Everlast mystery is very compelling on its own. Readers will be intrigued as Katie digs through newspapers tracking the life of a debutante who withdrew from life at the height of her society moment.

Kephart's incredibly elegant writing style is what really stands out. Her use of language is startling at times and it cuts right through all the clichés that burden so many novels for teens. Here is Katie remembering a final vacation with her parents: "History is never absolute truth. It isn't just the thing that was. It's the thing that could have been." It's a lovely sentiment and transcends Katie's memory to Martine's loss.

In ways the reader will not expect the two are brought together which makes the ending that much more bittersweet. I loved Katie, loved her dad and all the memories of her mother. I thought the mystery of Martine was authentic and interesting and the way that Katie followed it, with help of the coolest librarian ever, to be quite engaging. The supporting cast also stands out well from Danny (boyfriend material) to Olson, the man who might very well have all the answers. The ending is about as good as it gets making Nothing but Ghosts one of those classic summer success stories. The adventure here might be small, but it's a trip worth taking.

Finally, in Flygirl, Sherri Smith uses the backdrop of WWII to craft a novel about young Ida Mae Jones who makes a monumental personal decision so she may pursue her love of aviation. Forced to pass as white in order to gain admittance to the Women Airforce Service Pilots program (WASP), she worries about being caught and revealed as a black woman.

The situation is even more difficult when during flight training she must deny her visiting mother and address her as a family maid. In trade for this emotional turmoil, Ida Mae gains acceptance among other female pilots and works her way up to an exciting turn landing a B-29 with two engines out. This passage alone makes the book incredibly exciting (and appealing to airplane aficionados of either gender) but the bigger adventure here is leaving home and taking a shot at your dream, regardless of the heavy payment society requires.

Smith deserves a lot of credit here for tackling the history of "passing." Ida Mae is very light skinned due to the patient planning of her father's family, who have sought for generations to marry lighter so their children could pass and enjoy better lives. Her father married for love however and Ida Mae's mother is dark skinned. While that pigment is obvious in both of her brothers she retains the lighter skin of her father's people, something that has brought some jealousy from her girlfriends while growing up in Louisiana. It is only when the chance to become a WASP is presented that being mistaken for white becomes an attractive option for Ida Mae. She already knows how to fly (thanks to her father who made extra money crop dusting) and more importantly she knows that she loves it. In her mind this is a way to help her country, her family and in no small way, herself. The tradeoff is not something Ida Mae truly understands at first and so she decides to try.

Flygirl would be an excellent text for school or pleasure - readers learn a lot about America here and through Ida Mae's trials will likely discover something about themselves as well. (I must point out the scene in the hardware store as particularly gripping and more informative than anything my high school history classes ever taught me. Stunning.)

Until next month, catch me at chasingray.com where we are talking about What a Girl Wants among other literary matters and also don't forget guyslitwire.com where two dozens bloggers are always ready to recommend new books for teen boys.

Cool Reads: Two very different adventurers to celebrate this month, painter Thomas Moran in Yellowstone Moran and science fiction author Jack Vance in This Is Me, Jack Vance!. Vance's memoir is unexpected from an author; rather than dwelling on topics in his fiction he shares his many real world interests detailing a life spent building boats and houses, traveling the world and seeking out all sorts of fascinating experiences. From a California childhood marked largely by an absent father, he writes about finding work, joining the war effort in WWII, and seeing the world, mostly because he has an interest in seeing it. There is no master plan to Vance's life - he and his wife Norma spend years refining a piece of property around their home, they build a boat with friends because it seems like fun and they live in various countries for months at a time just to see what it is like. "Our old wanderlust" Vance refers to it as, and on every occasion this drive to live someplace new is embraced and enjoyed. The birth of their son John does not in any way make them turn to a more sedentary lifestyle. John is packed up along with everything else and goes along for the ride. In the end Vance considers that perhaps he should have discussed his writing more but that isn't the point of his book - other than the fact that the writing could and did take place anywhere in the world and it all worked out swimmingly, didn't it?

Like Jack London, Vance is an author who has embraced life on every level. His anecdotes of meeting with fellow writers and friends, his delight in embarking on voyages to new destinations or building projects is palpable in his book. This Is Me, Jack Vance! is far more the recollections of a writer; it is most delightfully, a blueprint for living life to the fullest.

In Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West author/illustrator Lita Judge introduces the Philadelphia illustrator who was tired of drawing pictures of people and places he had never seen. He thus volunteered to join an 1871 expedition into Wyoming that resulted in paintings so captivating they helped persuade Congress and the President to designate the region as our first national park: Yellowstone. Ford recreates Moran's spectacular fourteen foot by seven foot mural of Yellowstone Canyon giving readers a small taste of the actual picture's significance (the original is now on display in the US Department of the Interior Museum in D.C.). She also describes in an author's note how deeply she was affected by first seeing Moran's work as a child and the many other expeditions the painter participated in (the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Yosemite to name a few). While artistic teens will be intrigued by the practical application of Moran's talents, budding naturalists or would-be adventurers will love reading about how he rode a horse for the first time in his life on the Yellowstone trip and the difficulties the entire group overcame in order to map, study and sketch the area. They discovered Old Faithful - how cool is that?!

Yellowstone Moran is a picture book but it's ageless in every way possible. The artwork is arresting, the story gripping and Moran a true hero. Good stuff - and I bet Jack Vance would have loved to share a meal and a few dozen stories with him.