June 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Your Summer Reading List

When summer finally rolls around we should all enjoy our right to read whatever the hell we want to. I am so against assigned reading lists from schools, and if I am ever queen of the world then I promise to immediately abolish the ability of teachers to control our blissful months of freedom. Here, then, are some summer reading recommendations of books that no teacher will be assigning for the coming months:

One of the most quintessential American summer vacation spots is Coney Island and Tara Altebrando sets her new novel, Dreamland Social Club solidly among the modern teen denizens of this classic Brooklyn neighborhood. As much as Dreamland is about today and how much we all need a place to call home, the plot centers on the Coney Island of yesterday. This allows Altebrando to riff on places and people long gone, most especially Luna Park, the Steeplechase, the Thunderbolt and the Cyclone.

As the novel’s protagonist, Jane, seeks to learn more about her mother and the Coney Island she knew, she visits the past through films and memorabilia found in her deceased grandfather’s house, which has been left to her and her brother at a time when her single parent father is desperate for a port in the economic storm. The siblings soon enter Coney Island High where current questions about the area’s future are causing simmering tensions in the community. Jane is on the side of nostalgia along with an eclectic, funny and quite winning collection of classmates that include a dear friend, a possible rival and the swoon-worthy Leo. There is also the matter of fellow students who insist a carousel horse chained in her living room belongs to their grandfather (and they want it back), assignments for history class that prompt many deep thoughts and the existence of an unusual after-school club with ties to her mother.

There are no big secrets revealed in Jane’s quest for answers, nor thrills, chills or terrors to confront. But Jane is on a mission to understand better who her mother was and who she wants to be, and all of that is tied to Coney Island. As she uncovers more about the community, the layers are peeled back on her own family and how they fit into it. This makes Dreamland Social Club a classic coming-of-age story that should have very broad appeal. It’s one of the few YA titles I’ve come across with a romance that I think boys can embrace; Altebrando has a light touch when it comes to Jane and Leo and makes their relationship both believable and engaging. The biggest point here is finding where you belong and not being afraid to accept that place as home. This is a universal message for anyone who has sought their own piece of heaven and it makes Dreamland Social Club one of my most highly recommended titles this year. Frankly, you just don’t get better summer reading than this one.

If you want some classic summer romance turned slightly on its head then look no further than recent titles by Emily Wing Smith and Neesha Meminger. In Back When You Were Easier to Love, Smith introduces Joy, a former Californian now marooned in suburban Utah and suffering from the devastation of a pseudo breakup with local boy Zan. With Zan, Joy had a soulmate; someone who saw her as the west coast cool kid she believed herself to be while also joining her in snarky comments about their fellow students in the “Land of Conformity.” No bad boy, Zan was smart, cute and bold enough to defy standard style and wear khakis with his grandfather’s old brown loafers. He wanted to leave the town of Haven behind and live in California. Is it any surprise that Joy falls so hard, so fast?

They became a couple, they were happy and then Zan abruptly left for California and early college admittance and Joy can not stand it. She has to get him back because the alternative is simply unbearable. Seeing Zan again means a road trip but without a car Joy has to depend on Zan’s best friend Noah. He thinks Zan has some explaining to do but more importantly, Noah has his own ulterior motives for wanting to make the trip (you can see that twist coming from a mile away but it’s all good). What happens when this trio comes together iswhat readers expect but forces Joy to reconsider not only her relationship with Zan but more importantly how she views herself. And then there’s Noah, who turns out to be a whole other kind of surprise. (It is still a romance after all!)

In Jazz in Love there is a girl, Jasbir aka “Jazz” and there is a boy, the delicious Tyler, and there are her parents, very strict Indian immigrants who could not possibly be more freaked out over the idea that Jazz is hugging a boy let alone a most unsuitable boy like Tyler (with whom she is certainly inclined to do more than hugging). Soon enough Jazz is knee deep in the nightmare “Guided Dating Plan” which means only dating proper Indian boys which leads to the most unromantic and surprising relationship of her life and well, a lot of lying about Tyler. (There’s also a whole other engaging subplot about her aunt and the long missing love of her life that adds a nice spin to the story of true love conquering all.)

Meminger uses Jazz (as Smith uses Joy) to play around with a teen girl's desire for a real romance (whether it's with the right or wrong partner). Using a heavy hand, as Jazz’s parents do, to control that desire or denying it exists is not going to win parents any favors from the kids. Jazz is an obedient and respectful daughter who sees Tyler and loses her grip on reality, not to mention her emotions. This happens all the time, whether you are sixteen or sixty. Unfortunately for teens it often comes hand in hand with a boatload of other drama (Jazz’s life implodes in a dozen ways both goofy and terrifying along the way). Is Tyler worth all this? What should Jazz do to help her Indian boyfriend? Will her parents ever see past their own deeply held fears to who their thoroughly modern daughter is? And what about Jeeves, a very old friend who has his own thoughts on the topic of crushes? It’s a thrill a minute (romance-wise) in Jazz in Love as our heroine navigates the tricky path of desire in and out of her parents good graces. At the end of the day both books prove that Angela Chase is still as relevant as ever and in the case of Jazz and Joy would certainly have much to talk about with today’s teenage girls.

Now, turning to serious terrors that take beach reading way up a notch, I was reading vamp books a zillion years ago (back when Laurell K. Hamilton wasn’t writing porn) but largely gave up on the genre when things got sparkly. I like my occasional vamp supporting character (hat tip to all things Gail Carriger) but as for an actual vampire novel; well I can’t remember the last time I read one. So when Pyr sent me Vampire Empire Book One: The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith I was skeptical. The only thing that made me crack the cover (aside from the cover itself) was the promise of a steampunk setting and a world full of disease and famine. If you’re going to go vampire then I figure go all the way and embrace the fear and cruelty. That is what the Griffiths have brilliantly done here, along with awesome world building, including idiot politicians leading humanity to its doom (go figure), vampires who raise humans for food (finally, something that makes sense!), a heroine who is determined not to be a Disneyesque princess and a hero who is equal parts Bruce Wayne and Zorro... in a dark and broody arrive-in-the-nick-of-time kind of way. We have havoc, near death experiences, obnoxious Americans who save the day, very smart vampires who have gotten a wee bit lazy, lots of smart soldiers both human and vampire, more than one major twist and Princess Adele who just might be able to save everybody if only the idiots running her empire would shut up long enough to listen. Plus there’s the Greyfriar, and he’s awesome.

The set-up is a massive war between vamps and humans in 1870 which leaves the world of 2020 largely split based on climate. The vamps are in the north while humans lives in the equatorial regions, which the vamps can not tolerate. Those human settlements left in the north are constantly under attack and yes, plenty of humans are raised like cattle to feed the vamp population. (One possible outcome from reading this book is that you might turn vegetarian.) Adele leaves her home in Egypt on a final big airship journey before her political marriage to an American hero she’s never met. The ship gets attacked, plots and plans are revealed, and soon enough Adele is running for her life across vamp Europe with only the Greyfriar, a legendary vamp hunter, to help her. More than once she saves her own self, thank you very much, and soon enough Adele and the Greyfriar realize that an alliance might help save the world in more ways than one. Yes, there is romance but it is romance that makes sense (way more Carriger than Hamilton to be sure) but the plot never pauses for deep burning soulful looks of passion because frankly, this is a kiss and run kind of narrative. A sequel, The Rift Walker is due out this fall. Don’t wait for Halloween though, read The Greyfriar now and allow yourself to enjoy a vamp book that will appeal to teens regardless of gender. There’s blood and guts, war and love, and some of the smartest steampunkish characters this side of Cherie Priest (another fabulous summer diversion I highly recommend). I loved every minute of it and can’t wait for more.

For more traditional steampunk excitement, there is a new Burton and Swinburne adventure out from author Mark Hodder. The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man follows on the heels of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (see my review here) with Sir Richard Burton aware that time has been tampered with and his Britain is not as it should be. Along with poet Algernon Swinburne he finds himself immersed in the odd case of a long missing lord who has returned from apparent death to claim his title (and family fortune) at the same time that ghosts seem to be rising up on the streets of London and a legendary treasure has appeared only to be stolen again. Burton serves at the pleasure of his king but finds himself quickly at the center of a swirl of plots and subplots that involve a plot to destroy the empire itself, another time travel mystery and -- horror of horrors -- the rising specter of his old friend turned nemesis, John Hanning Speke. There is also a man in an iron mask, the missing Florence Nightingale, some seriously zombie-ish behavior among the fine folks of London, and the impossible to ignore fact that in the world that was not tampered with, Burton is living a dull but decent life in which he is not under threat of death on a near daily basis. Is it wrong that he loves being at the center of the action? Should he miss his former fiancée Isabel? And what will it take to convince the king that he must return to Africa and reclaim his title as one of the greatest explorers of all time?

All of these questions and more are addressed by Hodder who continues to blend action and introspection in one of the smarter seat-of-your-pants narratives I’ve come across in ages. Burton is brilliant, from start to finish (if you like Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes you will be desperate to see him portray Hodder’s Burton) but stays true to his historical self as he faces down the lumbering behemoth that is the Tichborne claimant, tries to control a mob that is burning down London and goes head to head in a seance with a presence from the future who will stop at nothing to change the world. What I love about this series (the third book is in the works) is that Hodder has taken such care with history and includes real people and events throughout his novels. The brief biographies he writes at the end about how their lives diverge from his fiction serve to show the care this author takes with crafting his tales, something this reader appreciates very much. I recommend Burton & Swinburne’s adventures unreservedly for teens looking for the sort of smart adventure that Dr. Who has made us all demand and hope that Hodder continues forward with this delightfully intense science fiction/steampunk/mystery series.

Finally, summer means getting outside and there is no better way to do that than on a bike. (Okay, you can hike and boat and a zillion other things but bike riding is awesome.) Matthew Finkle and Brittain Sullivan made several cross country trips meeting and photographing bike lovers across America. In I Love My Bike they share these photos and brief comments from the subjects for a collage of the biking life that stretches -- literally -- from sea to shining sea. (It is rather heavy on the coasts though, not so many cyclists in places like Ohio or Florida apparently.) The appeal of I Love My Bike is immediate: the color photography is crisp and strong, the layout is fantastic and the subjects are as varied as it gets. From flannel to t-shirts to delightfully dapper in coats and scarves, this is a multiethnic salute to pedal power. I enjoyed seeing so many different people share something they love and the bikes represent every style and price you can imagine. I Love My Bike won’t make you want to enter the Tour De France (please) but it will make you want to take a spin down to the grocery store. This is what celebrating the outdoors is all about; the fact that it’s also about loving America and the people within it is just an extra added feel-good bonus.

COOL READ: Snotty Saves the Day by Tod Davies wins the award for most audacious and unusual book I have read this year. Framed in a “we found this on our doorstep” ala Spiderwick sort of way, it is ostensibly forwarded to the publisher by a professor from the land of Arcadia as a vital historic document in their country’s history. Davies refers to it as a fairy tale and the reader goes in clearly knowing this is fiction that the author has wrapped up in fact as a plot device.

But that’s not the only way in which Davies is playing sly tricks on you.

“Snotty” is a rather obnoxious boy living an appalling life in a nasty little city in the region of “East New York.” He gets by on his wits, is street smart and savvy to the extreme and altogether on a path that will lead to nothing good but what else can he do. One day, in a race for his life (not unusual in this neighborhood), he follows a dog into a garden that should not be there, falls down a hole and ends up in another world. It’s all very Wonderland including a former unicorn, some war mongering gnomes and a collection of cute and fuzzy beasties who are subversively trying to save the world. Snotty behaves here in the same sharp manner he used to survive back home, cutting his losses, making deals and stabbing in the back anyone foolish enough to consider him a friend. This behavior makes the book rather difficult for a while although I could see a certain humor in the snark of skewering all the familiar fairy tale tropes with such abandon (such tropes are helpfully pointed out by footnotes as they appear). But then some massive twists and turns appear and the whole book (including the less than appealing title character) gets turned upside down and everything that has happened thus far is tossed out the door and it all makes a whole different kind of sense. Which leaves you rather breathless and shocked and appreciative of just what the heck a fairy tale is supposed to be.

I can’t describe Snotty Saves the Day as like anything else you have read. I can only say that if you have a scholarly interest in fairy tales, if you are intrigued by how they are manipulated with such ease by pop culture mavens and movie makers, if you are tired of the way in which we heedlessly hurdle into one familiar story after another then you will find the cheekiness of Davies’ story to be wildly appealing. Regardless, you won’t forget this story or what the author does here and that alone makes it an E ticket ride to me.

Colleen Mondor can be found writing about all sorts of bookish matters at chasingray.com