June 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training


Summertime is a wonderful thing and summertime reading is, well, magical. I must admit though that when putting together a list of excellent beach blanket reads this year, I never in a million years expected to be raving about a mermaid book. It's not that I have anything against mermaids (I still have especially fond memories of visiting Weeki Wachee as a kid), but generally fiction does not treat them much respect. Dragged through way too many lazy plots to mention, mermaids have become a cliché. That is why Bennett Madison's September Girls is a revelation.

First and foremost, Madison has crafted a coming-of-age novel about teenager Sam and his brother Jeff (home from college) and their screwed-up parents who can't seem to figure out who they are, let alone if they want to be together. Here is how the most amazing summer of Sam's life begins:

The summer following the winter that my mother took off into something called Women's Land for what I could only guess would be for all eternity, my father decided that there was no choice but for him to quit his despised job and take me and my brother to the beach for at least the entire summer and possibly longer. "A boy should go to the beach at least once in his life," my father declared at the dinner table the night before our sudden departure. This edict was made in a decisive tone that I was more than familiar with by then -- one that indicated he had no idea what he was talking about.

Things, of course, do not go as planned. After arriving in the Outer Banks for what looks to be a relatively predictable few months, Sam cannot help but notice that there are some very beautiful, very strange girls working in the town. Every other chapter Madison teases the reader with brief looks into their weird lives: into how they suddenly arrive in town, always alone, how they choose their names from objects and advertisements, how they have a penchant for salty French fries and love shiny things. Right away, the pretty girls notice Sam and he can't help but wonder why they think he's so special.

On the surface then, September Girls seems to be a slightly magical romance. Gorgeous, mysterious girls, teenage boy who has apparently won the love lottery, slightly dotty father who pays little attention to what his sons are doing; this appears to be the recipe for a decent diversionary read. Except none of that is the point. Madison is certainly writing about love and sex and boys and girls and mermaids, all of that is here and it's fantastic. But more than anything, September Girls is about a mother who woke up one day and decided to go find herself someplace else and a father who never noticed she was even looking and the boys who are stuck growing up in this environment and wondering if they need their parents anymore? And it's about killer sentences like this one, about the beautiful girl that shocks herself by breaking the rules and falling in love, and then threatens to break Sam's heart: "DeeDee was gone now -- she had flown off -- leaving behind another girl no different from the rest of them. Beautiful and tan and radiant, but hard-eyed and complacent and a little empty, too. A girl who had no idea who she was; a girl like an Eskimo who couldn't find a single word for snow."

It's images like that and so many more, of brothers with their beautiful girlfriends seeing each other across a bonfire, of endless lines of bored girls turning the pages of magazines and waiting for fate to step in and save them; of a confused and fractured family like so many others that becomes more and more appealing as each page goes by. Readers will see themselves in all Sam's yearning, in Jeff's acquiescence, in the way that nothing is said when so many things need to be heard. Everyone's parents are like these at one time or another, and for all that the beautiful girls are beyond our world, their longing is in the heart of every teenage girl who was ever born.

In a dozen different ways, September Girls is a great summertime read; all the expected elements are here and they are wrapped up in stellar prose and appealing characters. More importantly however it is also the most inventive and mysterious mermaid story that I can imagine. Madison has not just reinvented a classic; he has blown the doors off readerly expectations. Powerfully good reading for older teens and not to be missed.

In Molly Beth Griffin's Silhouette of a Sparrow, Garnet Richardson is off for her own summer vacation by the water as well (a lake resort in Minnesota in her case), but as she is a teenager in 1926, the circumstances here are much different from September Girls. Garnet is off to stay with relatives as her father's ongoing collapse from WWI has reached critical levels and getting away from home is a necessity. Her saviors are problematic at best: her father's cousin, Mrs. Harrington, is a snob of the worst description and her daughter Hannah an unpredictable challenge who can not be trusted. Garnet is supposed to be "civilized" by exposure to these wealthy relatives. She has a boyfriend back home who is making noises about marriage, and being married off would ease her mother's concerns. Garnet just is not so sure that perfectly suitable Teddy and his perfectly suitable marriage is how she wants to spend her life.

Author Molly Beth Griffin has done a marvelous job of channeling summertime life in an early twentieth-century lakeside resort with this thoroughly engaging novel. She brings alive all the little dramas between townies and tourists, the racial tensions between guests and staff and the urban dweller thrown into nature. Garnet is already a nature girl and determined birdwatcher; her talent as a silhouette artist is what gives the book its title, and Griffin's patient descriptions of how she practices her craft are fascinating. What blows this quiet story up, however, is Garnet falling for an entertainer at the local dancehall, a young woman with a sad sweet story of her own and a heart as big as the world. Here is Garnet's fall:

I cast my line back into the water. The rocks made a rough seat and the sun glared down at me. I'd left my hat back with Isabella. But I barely noticed any discomfort as I gazed out at the lake and watched the sailboats drift like white clouds across the blue. I thought about egrets and fathers and aunts and beautiful girls in pants, and I thought about how many kinds of love there are in the world.

Inasmuch as there is a scandal when Garnet's relationship is revealed, it is not the sort of explosion one expects. Every inch of this novel builds slowly, from Garnet slowly falling for Isabella to her awareness that she can hope for more from life than that of a sheltered daughter or wife. The same-sex relationship is not actually the biggest revelation here, but rather the frustration (shared in degrees by every young woman in the story) about the possibilities and limitations of the future. "Perhaps the modern woman had been liberated from corsets and granted the right to vote," thinks Garnet, "but there were some things that still weren't done." She has ceased her tomboyish ways, "...years earlier I'd abandoned dissecting owl pellets and climbing trees to look in nests." Now Garnet watches birds and cut silhouettes. This is how she copes with reduced expectations, how she reins in the dreams of science and nature that filled her childhood. What happens in Minnesota is not just loving Isabella, but imagining the life of discovery and learning that she thought she had left behind. If you can take a chance on love, after all, can't you take a chance on the life you want as well?

Silhouette of a Sparrow is an elegant, thoughtful, and powerful charge to live life to the fullest. As she finds herself surrounded by women doing what is expected, Garnet realizes that all too often life demands too much and returns far too little. Her hopes and dreams, both for love and learning, are wonderful to read about. I adored this lovely novel and strongly recommend it for those carefully tending their own big hopes for the future.

Australian author Meg McKinlay gives younger teens a nice coming-of-age mystery from Down Under with her exploration of a manmade lake in Below. I have a fascination with stories about landscapes intentionally flooded for dam projects, and Below delightfully feeds that curiosity. Old Lower Grange was flooded on the day Cassie was born, and now, twelve years later, she and her friend Liam begin to uncover some long-hidden secrets in the lake's depths. A drought has hit the region, and parts of the sunken town are slowly making their way to the surface. As Cassie and Liam are the only ones swimming over it (that side of the new lake was deemed off limits after the flooding), they have to piece together an abstract series of clues to find out just what is hidden beneath them.

As it happens, Cassie has another problem to deal with as well. Born prematurely and suffering subsequent lung issues, she has found herself both the object of familial hovering (everyone wants to know if she has done her prescribed daily laps in the local pool) and also kept oddly distant from her siblings as the much later in life accidental offspring. Everyone loves Cassie, but she is still a separate, solitary child with a brother in college and a sister in the workforce. She is the little one, the sickly one, the one who almost died and she has been viewed that way for twelve years even as she has grown up and changed along the way. Her frustration breaks through as she swims with Liam and spurs her to follow the mystery and keep her secrets close.

For Liam, who was nearly killed as an infant in an accident, the scars left on him and his family are more evident. The two tweens are thus traditional literary lost souls, although neither is a true outcast. McKinlay walks a fine line here, showing why these two kids might reach out to each other, why they would be likely to break the rules a bit for their lake swims, and why they would easily have time alone to do that. But in most ways this is not an angst-ridden novel, but rather a questioning one. As New Lower Grange prepares for a massive celebration of both itself and its long-flooded neighbor, Cassie starts to wonder just how everyone has chosen to remember the events of the past, and how stuck they are in that perspective. Eventually, in an exciting cascade of events, she and Liam reveal a truth about the flooded town that no one ever suspected.

Below has a bit of suspense, some warm family conversation and a nice consideration of geography and memory. There's no romance to muck things up, just a nice buddy novel about two great kids who get to the bottom of things (literally). I liked this one a lot and see it as a solid summer mystery for middle grade readers.

Shirley Reva Vernick's Remember Dippy is the sort of "summer plans gone awry" novel that will seem comfortably familiar to many readers. This is not a knock on the story -- in fact, its Hallmark Channel-esque narrative conjured up images of many family-friendly reads that I enjoyed in my childhood library. Remember Dippy is about decidedly normal young teens who spend a summer where nothing awful happens. They navigate a few problems, find the humanity and appeal within a bully, and engage in cross-generational friendships that result in a final chapter where everyone gets along with everyone else. It's a decidedly nice story, which sometimes can seem rather revolutionary.

The novel opens with Johnny learning that his single-parent mom must leave town for the summer for work. He is to move in with his aunt and autistic cousin, Remember (the title is his rather unfortunate name) for the duration. Johnny's only responsibility will be to take care of his cousin and mow the lawn back at his home across town. Neither of these things are difficult, though they do have their moments. As the weeks go by, he discovers that for all of his idiosyncrasies, Remember is incredibly good at video games, and also that his older next-door-neighbor needs some assistance that the boys are unexpectedly able to render. There is also a calamity at the local pizza parlor, several friends to make, a gentle romance for Johnny (if all the miscommunications work out) and the guidance of wicked cool hard-working Aunt Collette. Oh, and the bully almost drowns, but the kids save him and thus another friend is made.

The final pages of Remember Dippy are not surprising but still well received. Older tweens and younger teens should find some easy smiles here and a kind story to enjoy over lunch out in the sun. For those looking for an exceedingly "clean" read, Remember Dippy is a good choice. Vernick has done a nice job of writing about decent kids without getting preachy or bowing under the weight of a message.

Finally, when I was growing up summertime meant surf fishing with my father. While Tony Taylor writes about rivers and lakes, his love of fishing struck a chord with me, and the way he weaves natural history, biology and a lot of deep thought into Fishing the River of Time makes this an outdoors memoir that I think will appeal a lot to older teens. (Basically, if you know who James Prosek or Norman Maclean is, then you need to read this book.)

In the opening pages, readers learn that Taylor is returning to the Cowichan River on Vancouver Island to teach his eight-year-old grandson to fish. The little boy does not join the narrative until the final chapters, however, giving Taylor plenty of time to recall his previous years there as a geologist and his involvement in the heavily logged area's early conservation movement. The narrative follows his discoveries of changes to the region and his delight in the act of fishing, which he makes clear is always more important the actual catching of fishing. ("A hundred years ago anglers were obsessed with numbers but today it is size," he writes. "The truth is neither is important, but fishing is.")

For all that summer is the time for teen reinvention and temporary romances of the Danny and Sandy kind (go watch Grease, please), it's also the best time to spend long lazy days outside, and if you are lucky enough to get some time with a rod and reel, then you need to do it. There's a lot of thinking that takes place when you're trying to catch a fish, a lot of time to figure out who you are and who you want to be. Taylor excels at this sort of thoughtful consideration, and as he looks back at a long life spent near the water and appreciating the animals that dwell within it, his words of wisdom are pretty hard to ignore. Fishing the River of Time is thoughtful and respectful and wise, all good traits to emulate for anyone who wants to live a good life. The fact that he has caught a lot of fish along the way just makes the reading that much better, something anyone, adult or teenager, should understand.

COOL READ: Working with some incredible underwater photographers, author Erich Hoyt has put together a full color survey of some wickedly weird and unexpected creatures in Weird Sea Creatures. Against solid black backgrounds that show off the photos brilliantly, Hoyt writes factual but reader friendly descriptions of some truly terrifying-looking beasts, such as the Black Dragonfish, Orangeback Flying Squid and Deep-Sea Barracuda -- which is one-hundred percent the stuff of nightmares.

There are plenty of more harmless things to gaze upon as well, (the Piglet Squid in particular is quite adorable), but mostly Weird Sea Creatures is the sort of page-turner that strikes awe into the minds of readers. Hoyt has gathered a collection that defies belief, including many that have not even been formally named yet (which is pretty cool when you think about it). Aimed at curious readers from middle grade and up, there is plenty here to entice anyone who has ever wondered what lies beneath. The age range on Weird Sea Creatures is vast and it is exactly the sort of nonfiction that should be celebrated for design and content.