December 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

It's a Moral Dilemma

Sara Zarr continues to chart the ever-challenging family dynamic with her latest title How to Save a Life. Teenager Mandy is pregnant and harboring multiple secrets when she accepts an unlikely proposal from grieving widow Robin. This has all the appearances of a lifeline (and indeed it is) but while Mandy comes with obvious baggage, Robin has some of her own in the form of emotional and grief-stricken teenage daughter Jill. Somehow, Zarr has created a narrative where the least significant thing in a book about an unwed pregnant teen is the pending birth and instead readers will be far more riveted with the relationships between Robin and Jill and Jill and Mandy and how on earth the three of them will navigate the confusing situation they find themselves in. 

The awkward truth that "Dad was the parent I was closer to" and consequently that maybe "Mom feels guilty about being the one who lived" is only one part of what Jill archly observes in the opening chapters. Devastated by the sudden death of her father, she has pushed everyone away from her mother Robin, to her best friends and even her boyfriend. Jill is an angry young woman and while she has not become bedridden with depression, the black cloud hovering overhead cannot be denied. Sweetly serene Mandy, who is bemused by cable television, organic food and guest towels, appears to be no match for Jill's fury and yet the two of them find themselves pulled together through Robin's strong convictions that something good will happen, must happen, in her life. This is a universe built on chaos but order is forced upon it. Conversations take place, revelations happen, decisions are made and nothing and no one will ever be the same again. Zarr insists that her characters will find their own complicated way; she writes life as it is, not novels of how we wish things could be and yet again the messiness of the American family is exposed for her readers to love and linger over.

Holly Cupala and Laurel Snyder have also recently released titles where disappointment and confusion are the rules of the day. In Don't Breathe a Word, Cupala offers up a rather gritty look at life on the Seattle streets for teen runaway Joy who is suffocating under parental concern and an imposing boyfriend's control. In Bigger Than a Breadbox, Snyder gives a bit of a fantasy twist to twelve-year old Rebecca's struggle with her parents' separation. In both cases the protagonists find themselves powerless and seize control of their lives in dramatic ways with complicated results. The big appeal for readers will be how identifiable these characters are and how completely they become consumed with their trials and tribulations.

Breadbox opens with a startling family breakup as Rebecca and her younger brother are hustled out of town by their mother for an extended grandparent visit far away from their home and father. Snyder does an excellent job of capturing Rebecca's frustration as her life careens out of control due to the whim of adults who can't (or won't) intelligently communicate with each other. These are not bad parents -- no one is cruel or abusive or an obvious villain -- and yet they are both pointedly stupid when it comes to doing the right thing for their children. Rebecca, floundering in a new city and school and desperately missing her father, makes a surprising discovery of a magical breadbox that grants her wishes. This welcome diversion takes her down several paths ranging from terrifying to hysterical but the plot never deviates from its primary concern with family. In the end (in a twist that adult fans of Richard Matheson's "Button, Button" will recognize), Rebecca faces a moral dilemma that is a tween version of the Milgram Experiment (no physical pain in this telling but certainly some emotional wallops). The manner is which she takes her lumps and rights some wrongs is in sharp contrast to her mother and father's dithering, which reinforces Snyder's point that sometimes even perfectly decent moms and dads don't know best.

For Joy Delamere, in Don't Breathe a Word, Cupala provides a host of burdens ranging from near crippling asthma to an abusive boyfriend to a disaffected older brother and unpredictable parents. Breathe also begins in a rush as Joy carries out a carefully planned plot to run away from home and take up residence on the streets. Her intention is to stay hidden, free herself from her boyfriend's possession and find a homeless boy whose name she does not know but nevertheless has a strong connection with. Soon enough she is nearly raped, nearly arrested and mercilessly subjected to all manner of terrors and indignities. She finds the mystery boy and he proves to be a savior of sorts while introducing her to a life her upper middle class upbringing has effectively insulated her from. On her own (sort of) Joy must face questions she never thought to ask at home such as just how well she can take of herself and just who she wants to be. (It doesn't get much more basic than that.)

Both Snyder and Cupala excel at crafting believable young characters, girls who readers will recognize and quickly respond to. Snyder's use of the fantasy subplot is not surprising in a middle grade title that must contend with some lack of patience on the part of younger readers but it does occasionally wander in the direction of melodrama. Older teens would certainly feel a kinship with Rebecca's anger at her parents but they might skip this one due to the breadbox spin which makes me hope that Snyder will aim her sights a little older in the future, as I think she is really onto something with the parent-child dynamic and clearly more than ready to lay claim to a more mature segment of the divorce-stricken population. She very effectively captures the feeling of angry victimhood that is thrust upon so many children as their parents break up. There is no small amount of raw and honest emotion in Bigger Than a Breadbox and Snyder would do well to tap into it for future novels.

Older teens will embrace Cupala's novel because she brings them closer to the streets then most will ever know but might be quite curious about. However while the teen characters come across as honest depictions of disaffected youth (both the homeless and those who ignore them), Joy's family struggles to find solid footing. Her older brother reads as a plot device whose motivations appear conveniently false (he blames his sister for how her illness has affected him but evidence of this seems forced) and her parents vacillate between "helicopter" parenting to treating her as a "free range" kid on a whim (and largely it seems to serve the needs of the narrative). Clearly Cupala wanted to write the story of the streets, and it is so good that readers will largely forgive how they get there, but her fans would appreciate a tighter lens on what lies beneath her characters' motivations, as she continues to explore the harsher end of the young adult spectrum.

In a gender shift, teenage boys are front and center in Cecil Castellucci's sly speculative fiction title First Day on Earth and James Proimos's more direct 12 Things to Do Before You Crash and Burn. These slim novels (12 Things is comprised of tightly written three and four page chapters) give young men faced with parental loss radically different ways to persevere.

Castellucci's protagonist Mal identifies himself up front as the outsider everyone knows: "...the kid slumped in his chair in the back row, with greasy hair, wearing all black." Mal is dealing with more than just typical teen angst however -- his father left and started a new family, his mother is deep in a downward spiral and he was abducted once by aliens. He was gone for a few days and he would like to go away again. Yeah, Mal is not the typical malcontent.

First Day on Earth could be a lot of things, but Castellucci works very hard to make it mostly about Mal and his family with the abduction a powerful part of the narrative but not the point. If Mal were alone in a room dreaming X-Files dreams, that would be one thing, but he's in high school and the students are kind of jerks and he is too scared to take a chance and make friends and his father is a very conventional, very typical, very believable straight-out-of-1950s-sitcom-central-casting dad who also happens to be a massive asshole, who has happily moved on from his first family because he can. Because of all this, Mal has a thousand reasons to struggle, and readers will wonder if the abduction really happened. Then Mal and some new friends drive into the desert and everything becomes clear, including just how believable this boy's story has become.

I have long been a fan of Castellucci's work and an argument could be made that First Day on Earth is her strongest novel yet. I think, though, that where the book lags a bit is in the development of the secondary characters; all of them are necessary to the novel and yet they disappear into the background too easily, especially the teens who befriend Mal and have an opportunity to resonate just as strongly as he does but remain underwritten. While it remains an intriguing and significant title (Mal's moment where he realizes he can choose to be the one to walk away from his father is a scene for the ages), one can't help thinking more pages could have gone into First Day on Earth.

Meanwhile, Proimos manages to make the most of every word in the 128 pages of 12 Things to Do. In the opening, we learn that sixteen-year-old Hercules has lost his self-help guru father in a plane crash and is being sent for two weeks to his uncle's home so his mother can deal with the aftermath. ("Herc" is a bit of a mouthy handful and she would like a break in the post-funeral period.) As it turns out, while Dad was very good at telling the world how they should live their lives (and making a pretty penny at it), he was not good at being a father. Herc makes his opinion clear at the funeral when he uses his moment in front of the congregation to say, "He was an ass. My father was a complete and total ass." It makes sense why his mother would need a break.

Uncle Anthony is a hard worker who has a decent relationship with his nephew and decides to challenge him in an unorthodox manner. Rather than allow him to wallow around the house during his visit, he gives Herc a list of twelve tasks (cue the Greek gods reference) that must be completed before he leaves. They include "Choose a mission," "Muck the stalls at Riverbend Farm," "Go on seven job interviews," and "Find the best pizza joint in town." Herc's knee-jerk reaction is to rebel, but Uncle Anthony is undaunted; the boy will do what he needs to do. So, because he really has no choice, Herc sets out (in a huff) and finds himself accomplishing the pizza joint task. From there many other things fall into place and suddenly the list becomes a lifeline not only to filling his days but also facing his long held frustrations with his father and, most importantly of all, figuring out just what kind of man he wants to be. The list gives Herc perspective, it gives him goals, it gives him hope. It turns out Uncle Anthony is a bit of a genius, or at the very least knows a lot more about manhood than you expect. His honest advice, Herc's believable adventures, and Proimos's outstanding style make 12 Things to Do Before You Crash and Burn one of the quickest and best reads I've had in ages. I highly recommend giving it to any teenager. It's outstanding.

Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed the first two Chloe and Levesque mysteries by Norah McClintock and can happily recommend books three and four as well. Scared to Death and Break and Enter continue the (mis)adventures of Chloe Yon, former resident of Quebec, now living in the small town of East Hastings where her stepfather Louis Levesque is the chief of police and her habit is getting caught up in teen crime. There are two things about this series that really work well: first, the mysteries are solid with plenty of believable twists and turns that keep you guessing and second, Chloe's involvement in them makes plenty of sense as well. This is no Nancy Drew (although I bow to her legendary greatness) who is forever saving the hapless police, but rather much more Veronica Mars who is involved in crime because shockingly enough, a lot of teenagers are surrounded by it.

In Scared to Death, Chloe's classmate Tessa Nixon shows up on her doorstep looking for the absent Levesque and then, in short order, shows up again dead. As the last person to see her alive, Chloe is directly involved as a witness in the investigation. Soon enough she is running down clues at the high school (just how was her friend and newspaper editor Ross involved with Tess?) and asking all those pesky questions that no one wants to answer. In Break and Enter the problems are much more personal as Chloe is the center of a cheating scandal that leaves her on the defensive with her history teacher and the school administration. Then there is another dead body (East Hastings is not so bucolic it seems) and while that has nothing to do with the cheating it does involve Chloe and she is up to her ears in bad things and literally running for her life and thank heavens Levesque believes her because it really sucks when your teachers think you are lying simply because you are a teenager (and they do, all the damn time). There is a bit more introspection in these two books, especially in Break and Enter, where friends and foes alike challenge Chloe, and her continued evolution is a joy to read. Levesque remains a decent parental figure (and I say that in the best sense of the word; "decent" is not so common in YA lit) and his relationship with Chloe, her mother and sister is a solid foundation for the action-packed narratives. I am so glad McClintock has written these straightforward realistic teen mysteries, the least appreciated genre in the YA world, (no angels! no vampires! no werewolves! no dystopian setting! no steampunk!), and more of them are sorely needed.

COOL READ: Charles Siebert has written a wonderfully designed square-sized title, The Secret World of Whales, that combines history, science and mythology in a way that truly creates a unique reading experience. With photographs (historic and contemporary) and Molly Baker's winsome illustrations filling every page, Sibert delves into whale hunting, the resultant brush with extinction, whale "song," human encounters with whales (and why we identify with them so much), and most interestingly, the "amazing whale brain." This is general science reading but with the ever increasing popularity of Whale Wars and Japan's tenuous grasp on their idea of "scientific whaling," (where they kill whales to learn more about what might be killing them), and the easy way in which the book has been put together it's pretty darn hard to resist. The serious message is about the animal's future and Siebert lays out several areas of concern including sonar and also nuisance noisemaking machines that are filling the oceans with sound and affecting whale communication. As coastal communities talk about creating special lanes for whales and rerouting shipping traffic, this is a subject that will gain more prominence. The Secret World of Whales is an excellent way to brush up on whales' past and future, a subject of endless fascination.