November 2010

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Keep It Like a Secret

I have written before how easy it is to find mysteries for middle grade readers but nearly impossible for older teens. My endless frustration over this genre desert knows no end, mostly because I can’t see a reason why it exists. Kids love mysteries and secrets, adults love mysteries and secrets but for some reason teenagers apparently don’t -- or the assumption is that they will happily read adult mysteries once they get past the age of thirteen. (You would think Veronica Mars had put an end to this but like a literary zombie, it lives on.)

After chasing down every weak attempt at YA mystery that comes my way and being disappointed more times then I can count, I was delighted to come across two recent reissues from Norah McClintock: Over the Edge and Double Cross. These first two titles in the “Chloe and Levesque” series are interesting, indepth, and perfect for their teen audience. High schooler Chloe comes across as honest and sincere -- she reads like a teenager, with thoughts, motivations and actions exactly as you would expect. Most importantly the mysteries that land in her lap are exactly the kind that would involve an unofficial teen detective and could be solved by one as well. There are no false words here and it is because of that the series succeeds so well and should be a winner for readers.

In Over the Edge Choloe, whose stepfather Louis Levesque is the chief of police in her small town, is still reeling due to the recent move from Montreal. When a fellow student she barely knew is found dead from apparent suicide it affects her in only the slightest way. But in the days that follow she begins to notice some odd things in the behavior of others and the dead boy’s mother believes Chloe was actually his close friend. In short order she finds herself knee deep in clues that make no sense unless you consider the possibility that Peter Flosnick was pushed to his death. She has to find out who is lying and who’s telling the truth and with a little help from Levesque she gets to the bottom of what turns out to be a classic high school mystery.

In the sequel, Double Trouble, fellow student Jonah is determined to prove his father innocent of murdering his mother. It’s an old crime but he can’t let it go (for obvious reasons) and it has eaten him up to the point that his anger has gotten him in a lot of trouble. Drafted by a teacher to tutor Jonah, Chloe finds herself sympathizing in spite of herself and starts considering who else might have wanted to see Jonah’s mother dead. Just as in the first book, McClintock again gives Chloe the sort of questions only a perceptive teenager would think to ask which ultimately unravel the clues and reveal the truth. Levesque is ever present again but the teens are key to the solution and Chloe’s stubbornness and determination see her through to a very sticky, but satisfying, end.

There is a ton to love about this series, from the multi-ethnic cast (Chloe is the daughter of Chinese and Caucasian parents), to the great love for Canada in general and Montreal in particular, to the entire cast of smart teens who act in a variety of selfish and selfless ways that makes you love and hate them all in equal measure. Out now from Kane Miller in very inexpensive mass market size from your closest indy bookstore, Chloe & Levesque make excellent stocking stuffer choices. Two more titles in the series are scheduled for the spring.

Not a straightforward mystery but full of all sorts of mysterious revelations, Richard Scrimger’s Me and Death: An Afterlife Adventure presents itself as a traditional Christmas Carol-esque story. (Absent all mention of the holiday and anyone resembling Tiny Tim.) Jim, a very disagreeable teenager who is a bully well on his way to being a serious criminal, is hit by a car in the opening pages and quickly appears to be near death. He is whisked away to a celestial waiting room (ala Beetlejuice and just as depressing) where he is escorted through his life by three ghosts who are hoping to impart some wisdom and send him back to earth a changed boy. We have all seen this movie before and so I thought it might be a diversionary title but little more. Color me seriously wrong on that score.

What’s impressive about Scrimger is that nothing is wasted in his books. Everyone Jim meets in the opening pages, before the accident, is critical to the story. You think this is just Scrimger setting up for the accident but he is a far smarter writer than that. Every interaction is critical, every plot point significant and after Jim comes back to life, bemused by his experience and still unsure what has happened, Scrimger sets him out in the world where events unfold in a way that carry him along to an absolutely shattering final few pages. The ending is unbelievable -- it makes you want to go back to the beginning and read everything all over again so you can see what brought you there and just how Scrimger has crafted a perfectly managed plot. (It’s not a trick like The Sixth Sense but it has similar drama.)

Me and Death is an incredibly quick read and with its message of thoughtful redemption, careful living and why we must never forget that nothing is ever as it seems, this is one that I highly recommend to both hard core bibliophiles and reluctant teen readers alike. In the beginning Jim is a jerk and he doesn’t lie about himself, how he got there, or how screwed up things have become. But his eyes are opened in a believable way and his education is succinct, sincere and painful. You get where this kid is coming from and just why he has a shot at moving in a different direction. Scrimger knows what he is doing here -- don’t doubt for a second what an honest and powerful storyteller he truly is.

In Fixing Delilah author Sarah Ockler is much more straightforward about the importance of finding hidden truths. It’s the summer before her senior year and Delilah has been getting into some trouble. She’s sneaking out, she’s spending time (a lot of time) with a boy who can’t even bother to make sure she gets into her house alright and she was recently picked up for (accidental) shoplifting. Her workaholic single parent mother thinks she is going to hell in a hand basket (cue familiar refrain of “Why are you acting like this”?). Unfortunately there is no time to deal with Delilah because her grandmother has just died and mother and daughter must travel back to Vermont to deal with the family house, the memories it holds and whatever it was that tore the family apart.

Yes, Virginia -- we’re talking serious family dramarama.

As it turns out, Vermont is awesome. The house is on a lake, the boy next door is in residence and eighteen and a seriously cute guitar player and Aunt Rachel is home as well to deal with the mess. Delilah is hopeful that finally the past will be explained. She wants to know more about her Aunt Stephanie who died almost twenty years ago and is still dearly mourned by her sisters. She wants to know why no one can explain how Stephanie died and also what made her grandmother so angry that she cut herself off from her daughters in a bitter fight eight years earlier. And then Delilah finds Stephanie’s long missing diary and begins to learn the questions she needs to ask and slowly, carefully, answers are discovered that explain everything but don’t make it anything easier to accept.

What’s great about Fixing Delilah is how effectively Ockler nails what it is like to be a teenage girl. There is one particular passage as Delilah recounts to herself all the ways in which her life has moved beyond her control -- the simple cruelties exhibited by her classmates, moments that flew rapidly out of control, mistakes that she can not take back. It’s all too much and also, it’s all too typical:

What happened? Right. I want to tell my mother the whole shameful tale, but when I open my mouth, the only words that fall out are “Things are just different this year, Mom.”

There is a wealth in those words and it is all truth; all sad, predictable, eternally repeated truth. Ockler had me with this passage, she had me hard and fast and it is because of moments like this that I’m willing to forgive what later struck me as some over-the-top reactions on the part of everyone involved. Yes, teenagers can be emotional but sometimes authors seem to use that as an excuse to advance the plot and I felt like Ockler was dangerously close to that misstep on a couple of occasions. Even with that caveat however, Fixing Delilah is a novel that takes readers on a tight journey into all the ways secrets can make a family fall apart and what happens when you don’t see that someone is drowning right in front of you; and what you can’t take back when it’s too late.

Another family full of secrets can be found in Beth Kephart’s latest, Dangerous Neighbors, her most beautifully written YA novel to date. Set during the Philadelphia Centennial Fair in 1876 it is the heartbreaking story of Katherine and the death of her twin sister Anna. Katherine is overwhelmed with grief and guilt and spends the book alternately remembering moments with her sister and plotting a suicide to join her. Thwarted early on by Anna’s boyfriend, Bennett, Katherine is determined to climb to a high point at the Exhibition and jump -- literally fly away. She believes this will be the perfect ending to everything that has gone wrong and the only thing left she can do. But Bennett is always watching, determined not to let Katherine disappear and demanding that she see her sister for who she truly was.

It’s hard to qualify Dangerous Neighbors because while it is fluid and elegant and gorgeously constructed -- almost like a literary Chihuly -- it is also nearly absent of plot. Over a span of several days, Katherine moves between home, where her parents are remarkably disassociated from the loss of one child and pending departure of another, and the Centennial. At the same time her thoughts travel back and forth from the time Anna first met Bennett and began to pull away, to the present where her abrupt absence is destroying Katherine. The sisters fought over the changes the secret romance with Bennett brought to their relationship, their caring father struggled to discover what could be causing the shift in his daughters’ friendship, their suffragist mother remained willfully ignorant of any change she did not control and in the end, when one very small moment changes everything forever, it is a revelation that is just a whisper in the narrative. You knew something was coming from the very beginning and now, finally, you understand why Katherine is so determined to go away as well.

First and foremost, this is a love story to the Philadelphia of long ago. Kephart has steeped herself in the city’s history and it shows, especially in the detailed way she writes about the Centennial events and displays. But it is also the story of a secret love and how keeping that secret can be especially appealing to a teenage girl -- how it can lead her to forget about everyone else and how watching that secret grow larger and larger can torment those who keep the secret with her. Dangerous Neighbors is about sisters and a city and a whole lot of love and tragedy. While not a thrilling mystery it is a confection of singular depth nonetheless and just as irresistible.

Charles de Lint’s latest urban fantasy, The Painted Boy boasts a young man hiding something you can not imagine, a town struggling under the weight of gang warfare and a group of friends walking a fine line between that which they know to be true and a deep belief in what might be. It also has an Arizona setting with an Asian American teen protagonist and a host of Hispanic characters who welcome him into their lives as he embarks on a quest to embrace his true self. This journey involves more than one walk on the wild side, some deadly confrontations and a reckoning with destiny. If you know a teen who’s been wondering if contemporary fantasy exists without the standard set of vamp, werewolf or zombie tropes then this is the book for them.

Seventeen-year old Jay Li arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo purely by chance after his grandmother, (who he describes as “kind of like Marlon Brando in The Godfather") challenged him to choose a point on the map that felt right. He does not know what drew him to the small desert town, but he was called nonetheless and now must discover why. A chance encounter brings him the friendship of Rosalita and her family, who run a Mexican restaurant, along with her friends who have a popular local band. It is not long before close quarters reveal Jay’s secret: that a massive image of a dragon is painted across his back and arms. It is not, he explains, a traditional tattoo but rather an imprint that appeared over several days when he was eleven years old. It marks him as a member of the Yellow Dragon Clan and even more, a true dragon.

Now that whole “man on a mission” thing starts to make sense.

The local street gang is run by an actual tiger, the area animal “cousins” ranging from jack rabbits to ravens to lizards to Coyote himself, are present and most of the “five-fingered beings” (aka humans) are just try to keep their heads down low so they don’t get caught in the ongoing gang-related drug and smuggling wars. The cousins are trying to hang on, hoping that the gangs will go away and peace will return to their home, but they can’t take these guys on, they need a champion and that is where Jay, albeit reluctantly, comes in.

If you remove the fantasy elements from the story there is a lot of Joseph Campbell’s (or Clint Eastwood’s) traditional heroic quest at work in The Painted Boy. Jay has come to a town in need of help and he is a hero in search of a challenge to set him on the path to righteousness. He initially fights the call but after a tragic encounter with the bad guys, in which all of their badness is made clear, he rises up and does what he has to do and finally, fully, acknowledges who he really is. (Which in this case is a dragon so the big fight is epic.)

But De Lint has more than one surprise in store for his readers. First, violence is quick and mean in this small town and De Lint doesn’t worry about sugar coating it. There is nothing romantic about the blood that is spilled and it serves the novel’s harsh look at the impact of gangs on the surrounding community. Further, there are still one hundred pages to the story after the big confrontation between Jay and his adversaries. De Lint goes out of his way to show that being heroic carries a heavy price of responsibility not just for the hero but for everyone who has witnessed what he did. Jay and his friends have to find a way back to a normal relationship while accepting who he is now. The author throws readers a curveball by taking the teen from a Sergio Leon-style street confrontation to squatting in abandoned shopping mall trying to find a way to live with the blood on his hands. This elevates The Painted Boy above standard action fare and makes it an excellent coming-of-age story and one of those rare birds that shows, along Francisco Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors and John Barnes’s Tales of the Madman Underground the sort of necessary steps on the path to manhood.

I was initially drawn to the middle grade novel Zora and Me solely because the main character is based on the childhood of the wonderful Florida novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Authors Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon have created the first project to be endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust and it is a singular delight -- a laugh out loud and run-for-your-life adventure/mystery that pits young Zora and her friends Carrie and Teddy against everything from ghostly alligators to morphing monsters to the truly horrifying worst of Jim Crow. There are dead bodies, mean girls, and stories that defy all logic and yet Zora will not be stopped in her pursuit of a truth that both terrifies and enlightens. She is a force to be reckoned with, even at a young age and the authors have done an outstanding job of showing just who she must have been back then to accomplish so much greatness later.

Told from Carrie’s point of view, Zora and Me takes place in turn-of-the-century Eatonville, Hurston’s hometown and one of the first incorporated African American communities in the U.S. Initially it is all about tall tales and outdoor adventures as the kids respond to life around them through the lens of Zora’s great imagination. Bond and Simon show she was a storyteller from the very beginning with stories that had relevance to her life at the time. Zora is steadfast in the face of schoolyard taunting, insisting her fantastic tales are true. As the novel unfolds readers think initially they are larger than life but slowly things happen and prove that they might not be as outrageous as they seem. Zora is right more often than not, and her unique way of seeing the world proves to be not only dramatic but honest as well.

What happens is someone is killed by an alligator (it’s not very bloodthirsty so no worries for young readers), everyone is abuzz about a new visitor in town, a traveling musician goes missing and Zora discovers a book that holds all the answers to Florida’s myths and legends. Insulated in Eatonville the children have a somewhat idyllic life marred by the absence of Carrie’s father who is long overdue from a job out of town. None of them are wealthy and Zora’s father can be difficult and demanding but the children are loved and safe. This makes the final revelations all that much more devastating but the kids handle it as we know they will and prove themselves to be a lot more clever then some of the adults. Zora and Me thus not only takes its characters on a coming-of-age adventure but shows how peeling back a community’s secrets can often reveal far more than you expect and introduce heroes and villains in the most unlikely ways. This is historical fiction at its best: exciting, informative and achingly real. I’m delighted to see Zora Neale Hurston be introduced to a new generation of readers and hope Bond and Simon will return to these characters in the future.

Of all the titles reviewed here, Holly Cupala’s Tell Me a Secret is probably the most obvious when it comes to the impact hidden truths can have upon the lives of others. This family drama centers on Miranda, a high school student who struggles under the weight of her older sister’s recent death. (Excellent opening line: “It’s tough, living in the shadow of a dead girl.”) Xanda was all things cool and wild and what happened to her and why propels the plot along until the startling revelation in the final pages. In many respects, Miranda is just along for the ride in this story, drawn in Xanda’s wake, tossed about by her parents’ denials and lies, and overwhelmed by a new best friend who exemplifies much of who Xanda was but has mean girl qualities that provoke all sorts of awful misunderstandings. There is also a boy (always, always a boy), and Xanda’s colossal mistake with that boy is what blows everything up. Yes, kids -- we’re talking about an unplanned pregnancy and all the hell breaking loose that goes with it.

There is an undeniable After School Special element going on here but Cupala handles it with aplomb and Tell Me a Secret really is compulsive reading. Miranda is a sympathetic figure and her determination not to forget her sister, and demand more from her parents (both of whom have checked out in rather particularly cliched ways), will be very appealing to readers. You want to know what happened to Xanda and you want Miranda to find out who her friends really are and you want it all to be sorted out. Cupala accomplishes this step by step, taking no shortcuts and making you wait for every blessed second. This can be a bit tedious at times (mean girl Delaney’s motivations are obvious) but it is also typical high school fodder so certainly belongs here. My main complaint is that perhaps there is too much heaped on: a teen that runs away and dies suddenly, a family that caves in on itself, a mother that is overbearing, a father that is absent, a boyfriend that is clueless, a friend who is cruel, another who is forgiving and a kind woman who tragically loses her baby but swoops in for the rescue just when you need her the most. In the end Cupala manages a surprise or two and Miranda certainly finds out everything which means the final pages are turned in a most satisfying manner. Tell Me a Secret is Jodi Picoult for the teen set and I mean that as a compliment. You might see some of the turns in this literary highway from a mile away but that doesn’t meant the trip isn’t enjoyable. It’s meatier fare than most YA dramas and a diversion worth taking so you can find out just what happened and why and what Miranda will do.

COOL READ: At some point, we, as a nation, decided that the Founding Fathers were awesome and while there have always been those pesky rumors about Thomas Jefferson and the children he fathered with his slave Sally Hemmings, everybody else has pretty much gotten off scot free, wrapped blissfully in the flag and forever remembered as “THE MEN WHO MADE AMERICA GREAT.” Allow this former American History teacher a moment to shudder a bit from the latest round of nationalist fervor while asking that everyone go out and get their hands on Liberty or Death: The Surprising Story of Runaway Slaves Who Sided With the British During the American Revolution by Margaret Whitman Blair. This would be the story of the men who were promised freedom if they helped the British and as the Colonists had no equally appealing counter offer, it should come as no surprise that quite a few slaves jumped at the shot to get out from under the boot of oppression. Just how many picked up arms for the British is largely unknown but as many as 20,000 ran to the side of Lord Dunmore in Virginia when he made the offer of freedom in exchange for fighting. (This number included women and children.) What they all wanted was liberty from their oppressors which sounds mighty American to me; they just wanted to gain that freedom by fighting against the Founding Fathers. Oh -- and did I mention that one of them was owned by George Washington himself?

Blair covers slaves who fought for the Colonists as well and what happened to all of these people afterwards. She follows the Loyalists ex-slaves to Canada and Africa, showing their ongoing struggle to find freedom years after it was achieved in America. By taking the long view the author manages to make this more than a historical snapshot and bring history to the present day, as Sierra Leone was the primary location the former slaves who fought for the British ended up seeking refuge. (And found themselves lied to yet again.)

Learning American history demands constant caution against a desire to believe cherished myths (that one about the cherry tree just won’t go away) and Blair has gone a long way against righting a very big one with this title. Her inclusion of one quote in particular from the Revolution war hero and close friend to Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette is especially significant: “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America,” he said after the Revolution, “if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.” It wasn’t all picnics and roses, folks. If you want to know how long the fight for freedom truly was then books like Liberty or Death are essential. (Tons of color illustrations, quotes, etc. are included.)

Colleen Mondor blogs on literary matters over at chasingray.com. She also invites you to visit the group blog guyslitwire.com, which runs daily literary recs for teen boys.