May 2010

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Nothing is Just a Story

Robert Wiersemaís novella The World More Full of Weeping is a very subtle fantasy that is ostensibly the story of a lost boy, but teen readers in particular are going to read a lot more into what goes on between eleven-year old Brian and his parents. In a lot of ways this is not really a book about being lost at all, but rather about how parents can lose sight of a child, even when heís right there with them, desperately trying to be heard. First though, are the woods and what they mean to one particular sort of kid.†

Brian lives with his divorced father, Jeff, in small-town, rural British Columbia. Out the back door is a great sweeping section of woods that he is allowed to explore at will. Brian is the kind of child who carries a microscope and collects creek water samples. He seeks out birds' nests, and lingers over tracks and scat. He is a nature kid, through and through, but his parents have decided the school in Henderson is insufficient, and he must move to Vancouver to live full time with his mother. Henderson will only exist for weekends and holidays; the woods will not be his anymore. Brian doesnít want to go, but his parents feel they know what is best. Left with no options, he goes out to the woods his last morning, but does not come back. That is how this slim book opens, and what follows is equal parts thrilling and tender as everyone looks for the lost boy, and his father slowly comes to terms with where Brian has gone, and, more tellingly, why. †

The twist here is the presence of Carly, Brianís forest-loving friend, who seems to have a mysterious connection to Jeff as well. Brian and Carlyís adventures are told in alternate chapters via flashback as the search unfolds. Meanwhile, as Jeffís own childhood memories of Carly return, he is forced to go into the woods himself and seek out his son and the girl who was a friend to each of them.†

Teens will find a lot to respond to in Brianís frustration with his parents, and all the ways they think they know their son, and yet so casually ignore what matters to him. They will also understand how something could mean so much that he was willing to give up everything to have it, and how frustrating it is that the people who love him might not understand that. Itís a compelling read, a heartfelt one, and it flies by like the best bits of Stephen King. The ending is perfect and crystal-clear, part and parcel of a literary wonder that clutches your heart in the dearest way imaginable. And yes, itís a fantasy, because Carly is not what you expect, but entirely what you believe. This one is a stunner and as recommended as it gets.†

Cherie Priest returns to the Clockwork Century world she created in the outstanding steampunk adventure Boneshaker with a new novella, Clementine. Her characters are firmly set in an alt-history 1880s, where the Civil War has not ended and a rash of wartime technological advancements have resulted in all manner of fascinating machinery. Spinning out of Boneshaker with supporting character Croggon Beaureguard Hainey, escaped slave and now infamous sky pirate, Clementine is a standalone title which includes hot pursuit of a stolen dirigible, Pinkerton detectives, an asylum, a weapon designed to bring destruction of unparalleled power down upon the masses, and one former real life Confederate spy named Isabelle Maria Boyd. Let me just say that the inclusion of the infamous ďBelleĒ Boyd pretty much made this former history teacher weep with sheer joy.†

Hainey and his two shipmates are on the hunt of their stolen ship, now renamed Clementine by its hijackers. Boyd, recently hired by Pinkerton, has been sent on a mission funded by the Union to protect Clementineís cargo and stop Hainey. It quickly becomes obvious to both of them that the stolen ship is carrying something of incalculable value on a mission of dire seriousness. Circumstance throws them together as they find the truth among the lies, and chase down the ship until it arrives at its final destination. Along the way another ship is hijacked, a big gun is unleashed, Boyd proves her mettle (more than once), and the fine line between crazy and sane is revealed. Plus Priest gives readers a hard look at American history with passages like these:†

Hainey didnít answer because further discussion mightíve made him look paranoid, or weak. Simeon came from another place with its own set of problems, to be sure; but he wouldnít have understood, maybe -- how nothing on earth summoned a mob with a noose or a spray of bullets quite like a lady with an accent and problem with the way sheís been looked at.

Even a look, misinterpreted or even imagined.

Shades of Emmett Till and a thousand others reside in those words, and Priest doesnít let you forget it. Clementine is serious adventure -- itís exciting, edge-of-your-seat kind of action that never lets up -- but this is also the story of three black men and a white woman in a time and place where the mere idea they could be powerful people is barely tolerated, let alone celebrated. Priest knows that, and addresses it, but she doesnít let the plot get weighed down by it. Thereís a fine line here between keeping her characters moving and letting them stop and think, and just as she has done so effectively in her previous novels, the author accomplishes that balance again with great aplomb. Boyd and Hainey are people with few options left but pride, but they are not the sort to back down, let alone fade away. They will do what they have set to do, and to hell with anyone who would dare stop them.†

Effective on all counts, smart and strong and written at a breakneck pace, Clementine is the best kind of fun reading. Priest gives her readers an excellent time, and adds more layers to the world she so carefully created with Boneshaker. She also gives readers characters with depth -- in particular, two memorable characters (along with an excellent supporting cast) who are so incredibly above average and unique from standard tropes that one wonders why it has taken so long for anyone to write this kind of book. The answer to that is obvious, of course -- steampunk has been waiting for Cherie Priest to arrive and take the genre by storm. How lucky for us that the wait is finally over.†

Coincidentally, Kate Milfordís debut novel for the ten-and-up crowd shares a title, The Boneshaker, with Priestís earlier work. Milford is doing something vastly different, however, and with this blend of fantasy and Americana (and a touch of old-school scary) has created a novel that right now Iím calling a serious Newbery contender. Regardless of the awards it might receive, though, itís a dandy read that is one of the more thoroughly kid-pleasing titles Iíve come across in awhile. If you are twelve you will love it, plain and simple. †

The Boneshaker is set in 1913 in Arcane, Missouri, a small town located a short way from a crossroads, and its failed settlement that died years before under mysterious circumstances. Thirteen-year-old Natalie is full of love for her home and her storytelling mom and mechanical genius dad. Through her eyes, readers meet the townís denizens, including the doctor and storekeepers, the inhabitant of the only mansion, the blues player who might have met the devil, and a pack of friends who are alternately helpful and annoying (and, thus, completely relatable). There is nothing really special about Arcane except the odd events that occasionally occur at the nearby crossroads. And then, after its own confrontation with one of those events, Doctor Jake Limberlegís Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show is forced to divert to Arcane in search of vehicle repairs. Their offer to put on a show for the town is readily accepted, and suddenly Natalie finds herself in the unenviable position of seeing truth while surrounded by people clamoring for fiction. Dr. Limberleg offers cures you see, wonderful, amazing, near-magical cures. Very nearly everybody wants one, including those Natalie holds dear. Soon enough, to save her friends and family, she has to go head to head with the kind of terror that makes vampires seem like toys; Natalie has to face old-school evil -- and if she wants Arcane to survive, she has to win.†

Milford nods to a lot of classics with The Boneshaker, from Ray Bradburyís Something Wicked This Way Comes to Madeleine LíEngle's A Wrinkle in Time, and the story of Tom Guyot at the crossroads is right out of the Robert and Tommy Johnson myth of the birth of the blues. But she doesnít get too close to any of these inspirations, and the story, with its mechanical marvels and determination to hit the heavy questions of good and evil, life and death, remains wholly and completely her own. Milford is careful to make clear, however, as Natalieís mother shares with her, that ďnothing is just a story.Ē These bits and pieces of America that we have carried around in our collective cultural soul for decades (even centuries) all come with a certain element of undeniable truth: strange things do happen at certain places, some people do have unnatural talents, and if it seems too good to be true then really, it is.†

The Boneshaker has elements of true bravery, the kind that anyone, regardless of age, is capable of. Itís about many frightening and many beautiful things, and a place and time that are as real as today. I felt like I was reading an American classic while I turned the pages of this book and I know Iím not the only one who will sense its limitless appeal.†

With Ragtag, author Karl Wolf-Morgenlander gives middle-grade readers an animal adventure over the skies of Boston that is equal parts military action and political drama. The book opens with a bang as young ďRagtag,Ē a swallow and member of the Feathered Alliance, finds himself an outcast from his family and friends. The Alliance itself is in a precarious position as the dangerous Talon Empire, comprised entirely of birds of prey, has declared war. The raptors have been pushed out of their forest home by humans and are now intent upon capturing the city through subjugation or murder. The Alliance, comprised of everything from pigeons to gulls to sparrows, stands little chance of defeating the Empire, but is determined to try. Unfortunately, a treacherous act finds them on the defensive, and suddenly Ragtag, so easily dismissed by everyone at the beginning, stands as their only hope.†

As I was reading Ragtag, I kept picturing a typical bored ten-year-old picking this one up and then losing themselves in the twists and turns of a story that includes disappointment, redemption, defeat and victory with every turn of the page. Ragtag is a hero of the moment -- someone who is made heroic by his willingness to meet adversity head on. He is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, from supercilious brother to warrior sister, and an assortment of other stalwart friends. There is a lot of foxhole humor found here as well -- from the clueless pigeons to a number of canny individuals determined to be on the winning side, and laying odds as to which that will be. Mostly, though, this story is about an underdog who is brave and smart, and understands that giving up is never an option he (or anyone else) can live with. Itís also about a lot of swoops and spins over the skies of Boston, which makes it pretty wicked cool to read. †

So, who is the best audience for Ragtag? That ever-growing bored bunch of readers who would really like to read books where something happens. They donít want to hear about divorced parents, the pratfalls of love, or navigating junior high. They want to cheer and groan and worry and celebrate, and they want it to be in a novel that takes them completely and utterly away from whatever worries might fill their own lives. They want a truly good story. Kudos to Karl Wolf-Morgenlander for accomplishing all that and more in a book about birds -- well done.†

Set firmly in the Robin Hood period with a fantasy twist (as in elves), The Shadow Hunt by Kathrine Langrish struck me as a middle-grade version of Ladyhawke, minus the romance. (I know, itís hard to think of that movie without Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer in love, but if you focus on Matthew Broderick, then the comparison makes sense.) Wolf is running from the abusive abbey where he was unceremoniously dumped by his father who had one son too many. Agnes (ďNestĒ) is the daughter of one of King Richardís heroic knights, but without her long-deceased mother to bind the two together, they have long been estranged. Her future is predetermined, and includes marriage to a man she has not seen since they were children, and a destiny of dutifully fulfilling the expectations of everyone but herself. Wolf and Nest are thrown together through luck and circumstance via the discovery of an elf girl who Sir Hugh is determined to use as key to the Elf Kingdom, and rendezvous with his deeply mourned wife. The story, then, is all about doors to other worlds, language that no one speaks, and hope against everything. †

Hmmm. Now that I think about it, the romance angle is there -- it just resides in the mourning parent, and is not part of Wolf and Nest, who are trying to stay alive and out of trouble long enough to find the lives they actually want to live. Their challenge is to get the elf girl to talk, and thus satisfy the questions of Sir Hugh. Things get complicated when Nestís fiancť arrives and has along with him Brother Thomas, Wolfís abusive archnemesis from the abbey. Cloaked in religion and long-held traditions of subservience and fear of God, Brother Thomas is terrifying to behold. To defeat him, and also gain some revenge for years of cruelty, Wolf is tempted to throw his support behind a stranger with an amazing ability for trickery. Events quickly move beyond the boyís control, and he and Nest find themselves on the run for their lives, desperate to save the elf who has become their friend, and Sir Hugh, who has become a stranger. There are creatures of the night and a fearsome storm and awesome power and magic and all kinds of moments where proving yourself is critical to survival. Through it all, the two friends donít lose sight of the fact that in the whole wide world no one has ever cared about them as much as they do -- in other words, adults are often selfish, narrow-minded jerks, and sometimes a kid just has to take a chance at freedom if he or she really wants to be free.

The Shadow Hunt surprised me because in some ways it is a very old fashioned adventure -- but just like Ladyhawke, it defies traditional expectations. Modern readers will easily fall for this one; it skirts the familiar tropes of fantasy while offering a lot of nuance and subtlety. There are a wide range of readers who will enjoy this book; I hope it finds each and every one of them.†

I have been banging the drum for more science fiction for MG and YA readers for a long time, but it seems like all I keep getting is SF of the dystopian kind -- which is all well and good, but where the heck are the spaceships and flying cars? Thatís what really makes my heart beat faster. Imagine my delight then when Mark Teagueís The Doom Machine came my way. Set in the small town of Vern Hollow in 1956, it starts out as a fairly innocuous alien story. Teen Jack Creedle is a gearhead who spends most of his time working at his uncleís gas station and dodging the local sheriff, who hates him mostly because he exists. (Heís a Creedle, and thatís enough.) While working his paper route, Jack sees a flying saucer land in the nearby woods. Soon enough the whole town vacates from fear, and then the military arrives. Jack is determined to stay out of the way until Isadora and her mother find themselves at his station looking for much needed auto repairs. Determined to break through the army blockade, they head out with Jack and his Uncle Bud along for the ride. Unfortunately, the sneaky way out of town is right through the woods.†

Isadoraís mother is a scientist, and she has been homeschooled by her motherís friends her whole life. With a deeply analytical mind, she views kidnapping by aliens from one perspective while Jack, who has been hands-on his whole life, sees it as another. The kids are quickly separated from the adults, and set off on an adventure to stop the aliens from capturing and using an invention that will enable them to takeover Earth. For nearly 400 pages, Teague sends the two up against violent creatures on alien worlds, into the heart of a growing rebellion (a la Star Wars, but way less organized), to the mercy of space pirates and into a fortuitous meeting with an accidental time traveler. They also meet a hitchhiker from back home with a penchant for folk songs, and a solitary planet dweller who is a cross between Yoda and the Little Prince (with maybe some Richard Feynman thrown in for good measure). Through it all they work together, find various strengths and weaknesses (which are often unexpected, and balance the two quite well), and provide an excellent spacefaring adventure for readers. Itís all very kitschy, and certainly owes much to the B movies of the 1960s, but itís also decidedly satisfying. Teagueís black-and-white illustrations are a nice complement to the story (especially as they reveal the true ickiness of the aliens). but mostly youíre just along for the wildly over-the-top ride on this one. Itís flat-out fun, and Iíd like to thank Mr. Teague for finally getting kids back into space. Itís been a long time coming.†

Finally, Jane Yolenís first foray into graphic novels is a bit uneven, and succeeds more as a promise of what might come. Foiled sets itself up as a sporting coming-of-age story about dedicated fencer Aliera. As a determined athlete in a solitary and largely unrecognized sport, she is ďinvisible at high school.Ē But because she has competitors who respect her and a coach who believes in her (plus a nice family), sheís a well-adjusted kid. What throws her world into upheaval is the new boy, Avery. Heís cute and popular with the girls but also very weird -- like horror-movie, donít-take-your-eyes-off-him-because-he-might-jab-a-fork-in-you weird. In other words, he is her Edward, and you just know where this one is going when they get assigned (of course!) as lab partners for the annual, ever-popular, done-in-everything-from-E.T.-to-a-very-special-episode-of-Roseanne dissection of a frog.†

Of course he asks her out; of course he isnít what he seems; of course she finds herself fighting for her life against otherworldly elements that she never knew existed; of course Aliera is a very special girl. Honestly, Iím okay with all of this to a certain degree, because mortals have been getting themselves tied up in the politics of faerie for as long as kids have been discovering they are the chosen ones. What bothers me about Foiled is the clunkiness of the narrative. Yolen is usually an exceedingly elegant writer, but her pacing is off here. The reader is expected to accept a lot -- from a fencing foil that is one thing until it has to be another, to a fencing mask that reveals nothing until it is called upon to reveal something, to a boy who is a boy until the story demands he be something more. Even the fact that Aliera is colorblind is absent from the story until suddenly called upon to explain why illustrator Mike Cavallaro has gone from muted grey tones to riotous splashes of blue, red and yellow. It all starts to feel manipulative after a while, and then in the final pages, a literary bomb is dropped, and rather than enjoying the whimsy of it, you shake your head thinking, well, yeah, of course. Thatís the only shocker weíve missed so far, isnít it?†

Hereís the thing -- there are some really cool ideas in this book. The fencing is brilliant, and Aliera is a very endearing protagonist. Sheís smart and spunky and relishes her outsider status plus she has the ability to back it up. This is no passive Bella, thatís for sure. Her family is also quite enjoyable, especially the cousin she spends time game-playing with each weekend. I saw a lot of possibilities in the friendship of those two girls. But either there were not enough pages to tell this story, or there was an editor who didnít appreciate the nuance of pacing, but the realistic tale of the athlete and the fantasy about saving the faerie world really donít fit together, and Avery is justÖ well, heís everything annoying about Edward with nothing sexy or appealing. Thereís no reason to ever think Aliera would fall for this boy, other than the fact that the plot demands it, and this is a bit of the nail in the coffin for the story. The reader has to believe Aliera is smart and capable, but also foolish and silly. Itís too much to ask, and unless Yolen can really pull things together in the sequel, then I donít think Foiled is going to find the success its premise promised.†

COOL READ: I was incredibly disappointed recently to find Shaun Tanís brilliant Tales From Outer Suburbia in the graphic novel section of the childrenís department of the biggest Barnes & Noble in the history of the universe (or at least in Seattle). This utterly unique illustrated short story collection is like everything Tan is part of -- incapable of easy definition. Placing it with Marvel Adventures and Babymouse is a colossal cataloging error that pleases neither those looking for simple stories for younger children, nor older kids in search of unique, meatier fare. Fortunately, due to the wide success of The Arrival, Tan does stand out, and his fans know to ask for him by name. Upon review of Outer Suburbia, they will discover journeys into the surreal that are more thoughtful than scary, and push readers further into the reaches of their imagination than most. Artwork is done in styles as varied as paintings, drawings and collage, and the characters travel from front yard, to neighborhood, to literally off the map. Itís gorgeous and intense and as hip as it gets. Tan is a writer and illustrator I canít get enough of, and Tales From Outer Suburbia is an excellent work for anyone who loves story, and will follow it wherever it goes.†

Colleen Mondor can be found writing about many things literary at Chasing Ray. She also invites readers to check out Guys Lit Wire, a group blog recommending titles to teenage boys.