Going back through the books I read this summer to choose one to review was a fun romp through my adventures over the last three months. I was torn as to what to highlight - lighthearted but meaningful (the series Breakfast with...Lunch with...and then Dinner with Buddha) or deeply deeply meaningful (Everything I Never Told You). I went for the latter because this piece not only walks the line between meat and potatoes and dessert (i.e. literary and fun reading) but also does things from a craft perspective that are really worth talking about and gets at issues currently in the collective conscious.
Basic premise: Teenage Lydia is missing. Later, she's found dead in the local lake. Was it suicide, or was it murder? The family unravels with Lydia's death, and in unraveling, reveals their own hopes and unfulfilled dreams, fears, heartaches, and regrets.
The great Tim Wynn-Jones once said that the focus of YA is learning to get a grip, whereas with adult lit, it's learning to let go. And there was talk amongst my author friends whether this is YA or Adult. I personally listed it as YA because teenage death is so very pertinent to the YA audience, but because Ng dips into the POV of every character from 8 year old sister to 45 year old father, I'm happy to list it as adult here. I have a feeling, much like, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, this will cross from initially adult literature to a younger audience. It's both that pertinent and that accessible, not to mention well written.
By telling the story from omniscient 3rd - first & second talking points - Ng enables us to see the effect Lydia's death has on each member of her family. Since the family is also Asian American in the 1970s, a time when multicultural families were rare, we get a glimpse into the effects of discrimination on all age groups, third talking point. Finally, the mom's, Marilyn, POV brings up a discussion that's been on my radar lately with teenage girls about to leave the house - can you really, as a woman, have it all? Fourth talking point.
Let's take omniscient 3rd, the much loved and hated POV. Arguably, it is the most fitting, especially given the title. We learn everything everyone didn't tell and might never share. Further, Ng sets it up so that only because of omniscient third can we, the reader, and only we, solve the mystery as to what really happened to Lydia (don't worry, no spoilers). That's making POV work for you.
The We Need Diverse Books campaign has a winner here. We get a glimpse into multicultural Asian families of the 1970s, and, with Ng's reader's guide, also of her childhood. Anyone who has lived in a foreign culture, understands what it means to stand out as different. This, of course, goes much further, because the Lee's are American, thus, not foreign to their setting or culture, and yet, because of prejudice, are treated as such. Add to that, that Lydia, because she could pass for white, suffers acutely and differently from every other member of her family.
I've already touched upon accessibility and pertinence to a widely diverse audience according to age, thanks to the multiple perspectives we get to experience, and that gets at the mother's POV. Marilyn is more than qualified and smart enough to be the doctor she wants to be, but she finds herself trapped in the role of stay-at-home mother once she gets pregnant and then married. To her, it's suffocating, only partially fulfilling, and ultimately drives her to put the crushing weight of all of her hopes and dreams on her daughter, Lydia's, shoulders.
Now here's the thing, women of the 1970s were breaking ground for my generation. When I got to college in the late 80s, classes were pretty evenly male/female. And yet, today, women still do not fill an equitable number of positions of leadership in business or government. Further, the pressing question for the generation of women just entering the workplace and about to enter college is: can I really have it all? Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor at Princeton, mother of 2, and someone I read extensively while working on my PhD because she's in my field, herself eventually left her position in the Obama administration for her family. She addresses the issue of work and family in a 2012 article - "Why Women Can't Have it All", in The Atlantic. This is great food for conversation and thought and really has me thinking about our perspectives as a society.
So, if you want a thriller that also leaves you hunched over like The Thinker deliberating all sorts of bigger issues, look no further. Everything I Never Told You is that book. And for other great Fall treats, skip over to Barrie Summy's site. She's dishing them out cool and crunchy.
In breaking with my world tour of literature from Down Under to Italy, I decided on a good, ole-fashioned monster book that doesn't even take place in this world...much, Always October by Bruce Coville.
Admittedly, it would seem this has a Fall slant to it, but no!, Always October is another world, a world inhabited solely by monsters who arise from human nightmares. Ghoulish, right?
But no! not ghoulish, not entirely. The monsters are actually nice, some of them anyway.
Basic Plot: A baby is abandoned on Jacob's doorstep with a note asking that someone take care of it. Jacob and his mom take said baby in. He's sweet and adorable so they name him Little Dumpling. But alas, when the moon is full, Dumpling turns into a full-fledged monster.
Methinks Coville has spent many an hour with small children.
As it turns out, Little Dumpling isn't just your run of the mill abandoned on the doorstep monster-baby. He is actually the savior of the world of monsters and humans, and there are monsters out to get him. Jacob and his friend, Lily, must travel (are first chased, actually) to Always October, world of monsters, in an attempt to save Dumpling from the bad guys, only to discover they have to cross back into the world of humans and hide Dumpling to keep Always October and the human world from total annihilation. The journey there and back again is a monster-style Candy Land with a River of Doom and Bridge of Doom and Veil of Tears and Queen of Sorrow and CliffHouse.
The action and fast-moving plot aren't what made me choose this book for my review, though (or the need for a good horror read during the doldrums of summer!). It is Coville's use of alternating first person POV between Lily and Jacob. I was excited to find a middle grade with alternating POV. I'd tried the trick before myself, and I was eager to see what someone with Coville's writing chops had done comparatively.
To keep the characters and POV separate, each chapter is labeled (Jacob), (Lily), (Jacob), etc underneath the chapter title. Coville gives Lily a quirky metaphoric vocabulary with a decidedly B-horror movie bent, while Jacob has physical quirks, e.g. he has to tap the wall three times when going upstairs, or he taps his fingers against his thumb to calm down. It's a pretty ingenious approach, connecting with expressive trends within this middle grade age group.
Nevertheless, I found myself flipping back to the front of the chapter to remind myself who was narrating, and I began to wonder why. Why does alternating POV work seemingly so much more easily in YA vs. MG? I came up with a couple of possible reasons: 1) the dual characters in YA, as in this MG, tend to divide up along gender lines, but in the YA case, love enters into the dynamic, and so we readers get two different viewpoints on love. 2) It helps that in the dual YA I've read, somebody usually is turning into, say, a werewolf, or other monster. The human/monster dichotomy goes a long way in keeping characters separate. 3) I've also read adult lit with alternating POV when both characters are of the same gender. Usually, in that case, age tends to differentiate characters and their views of the world are thus seen through the lens of more or less life experience.
Despite these de facto differences that may make it easier to write more distinctly different older protagonists, I still believe alternating POV can work better in middle grade. I'd love to hear from anyone who has read Always October and whether they had the same experience, or if you've got a suggestion for a middle grade title in which the alternating POV worked well. I'm on the hunt!
After a string of Australian books both adult and children's, I was beginning to feel like a serial Aussie reader and decided to get out from down under if only to vary my reading.
So, I went to Italy. I've been craving gelato and chianti ever since.
There is a significant difference between old-world writing and stories from the "colonies", penal and otherwise. The old-world has, not always, but very often, a very melancholy feel to it, whereas "newbies" from the colonies seem to have been able to free themselves somewhat from that melacholy. Their more upbeat feel may be what's so alluring to me. Or the accent. These have all been audio books.
Nevertheless, a little melancholia isn't a bad thing. What's more, My Brilliant Friend is jam-packed with writing tricks. But first, a synopsis:
My Brilliant Friend is the story of two young Neapolitan girls growing up in the harsh conditions of a very working class, poor neighborhood, their dreams, the diversions those dreams have to take due to economic hardship - one girl gets to go on to school, while her smarter friend is forced to quit school and try to marry up - and the successful, but flawed, women the girls become.
What is the absolute, most brilliant aspect of My Brilliant Friend, is its final line and how it ties the entire book together and then rips it apart, much like the last line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's last sentence to One Hundred Years of Solitude deconstructs and erases the entire story that has gone before with one slash of the pen. Ferrante is brilliant in her alteration of this trick, to tie and deconstruct her story at the same time - all was for nothing - or so it seems since this is the first in a series of books called the Neapolitan Novels. However, I didn't know that as I listened to the last line and actually stopped my car from the force of that line. It made me think, reponder, rethink, re-reflect. It's that brilliant.
It's usually first lines that are so mesmerizing, pulling the reader in, hooking her, and making her want more. But if the last line snags in a reader's heart, it really never lets go. It haunts the reader, challenging her to think and think and think. It's an amazing writer tool I can't wait to use.
I had the great pleasure of knowing Dana while I was a student at Vermont College. She is a woman of many talents and a thought-provoking speaker. Her novel, Like Water on Stone, was a labor of love that started, I think, while she was at Vermont College and continued on after she'd completed the program. I cheered when I heard it had been acquired, not simply because a fellow VCFA'er had placed a story but because this book brings a rich form of diversity to not only kidlit but literature overall.
Basic Premise: It's 1914. Shahen dreams of moving to New York where part of his family has already immigrated. His father, initially, stands in his son's way. He loves their life in Armenia. And then the Ottoman empire, in decline, goes to war. Religion suddenly matters, and not in a good way. Much of Shahen's family, Christians, including his parents and older brothers, are murdered by troops. Shahen and two of his sisters flee across the mountains to safety and, eventually, a new life in America.
The story was inspired by Walrath's own family story of immigration.
There are a variety of interesting elements to take away from this piece. The most hard-hitting is that this is a story of genocide. How does a kidlit writer tackle such hard stuff and not overwhelm her reader? Walrath chose to write her story in verse, her reasoning being, the material is so graphic, so emotionally full, by painting with thinner strokes, it is possible to share and yet not overwhelm a younger audience. Not once did I ever feel words were missing, nor did I feel as if I couldn't keep reading. It's a masterful use of a writer's tool. In so doing, Walrath exposes her audience to the concept that genocide is, very unfortunately, a recurring theme in human history, and opens the story of for debate by leaving the reader wondering: why? Why do we as humans tend toward annihilation of others? It's a contemporary topic.
Further, the novel is told from alternating POVs. It was truly fascinating to both read and see POV change by changing poetic structure. It's yet another tool to add to the toolbox.
For other great reads, you don't even need to get out your galoshes, just spring over to Barrie Summy's website. Happy reading!
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Until recently, I'd never cursed an author, definitely not for making me care. It's what I want as a reader.
And then I read Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The deeper I got into the story, the more often I found myself making silent bargains with Flanagan to just lighten up, please. I'd still like his book.
But he didn't lighten up. He made me care and feel in ways I only ever have for my own characters.
And that's when the cursing began. I even shook my fist at one point. And yes, I cried. I'm not a book cryer. Movies, weddings, a particularly good episode of "Modern Family" and I'm shamelessly weeping, but not books. Not even The Fault in Our Stars. I think it's an occupational callous I've built up over the years. Or, I thought it was. Until Flanagan.
Basic plot: Dorrigo Evans is an Australian doctor who is taken prisoner during WW II by the Japanese and sent as a POW to help build the Death Railway through Siam and Burma. It's a story he recalls in his old age, unable to find love and remembering the one, forbidden love he gave up before leaving for war, his uncle's wife, Amy. In his own words, Evans says, "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else”.
Remorse is a powerful emotion. But if a whole story were solely about remorse and wallowing, I'd just as soon get up, make a cheese sandwich and abandon the story. Life is too short. While Flanagan's tale is full of remorse and regret, opportunities missed or not taken, it's also about those moments in life when a human being gets the chance to be more than they are, and - scared, unsure, but unwavering - takes it. It's the inseprarable interweaving of these and the connections they build that makes The Narrow Road into Deep North such an unforgettable read.
That and the amazing writing. Would that I could romance, cajole, sometimes even bully or beat words the way Flanagan does into sentences and thoughts with such pervasive effect.
If the cold, dreary, dark days of January have blanketed you, this is just the right read. Don't Call Me Ishmael is Bud, not Buddy hilarious and set in Australia, where, currently, it is summer! So pull up a chair and toast your toes on the warmth and humor of this story.
Basic plot: Ishmael Leseur, a Year Nine student (that's down under for ninth grader), suffers from ILS, Ishmael Leseur Syndrome, which is Ishmael's name for his particular brand of adolescent/early teeanage agony. It's made up of a "crawl in a hole" embarrassing story why he parents named him after one of literature's most renowned protagonists, a bully who teases him about said name, a girl whom he is crazy for but who doesn't know he exists, and a group of misfit friends who are constantly getting themselves into embarrassment squared messes.
I discovered this book in, of all things, German (although the author is from and story set in Australia, so no worries, you can easily get it in English). My husband comes from ye olde country and we've raised our daughters bi-lingually, which has meant a lot of audiobooks "auf Deutsch". I chose this title for its length. Shameful, I know, but it was six hours long instead of the meager two so many middle grade German audible books come in at. So there you have it, random parameters (barrage young ears with as much second language as possible) unearthed a humor goldmine.
I wish I could say I know how Bauer does it, but I don't, which is why I've gotten the other two books in this series to get behind his humor trick. He is spot on with adolescent funny. My daughters and I laugh out loud in the car on the way to school every morning. Me, maybe more. The agony of teenagerdom maybe hits a little too close to home for barrel laughs for them. Theirs is more the "somebody else is going through this?!?" ha-ha-whew.
So there you have it. Pick up a copy of Don't Call Me Ishmael and start 2015 off with a good laugh and an uproarious story. For more cheer in these bleak months, check out the reviews on Barrie Summy's website (and pray that groundhog doesn't see his shadow!)
In the spirit of the cold winter months' clamor for a good book to curl up with, I present Belzhar. I had the great pleasure of listening to Meg Wolitzer speak at BEA in May. She is an author of predominantly adult books who's tried her hand at YA and delivered a strong, new voice to enjoy.
Belzhar is the story of Jam who has basically given up on living after she loses her boyfriend. She stops functioning at school and becomes so depressed her parents and therapist send her to The Wooden Barn, a school for teens struggling with traumatic issues in Vermont. There, Jam is enrolled in a special English class that changes her life. Not only does she meet a new boy but also, at the same time, gets to communicate with the boy she's lost in a world unlike any other. Jam makes friends, rebuilds her life, but cannot move forward until she not only faces but relives the trauma that imploded her old life.
Woltizer's writing is strong, her characters both flawed and endearing, and her alternate reality within reality a great hook that entices the reader throughout the story.
There is an interesting trend, almost rule, within YA that the story is written in present tense. This is to make the reader feel closer to the events happening, and to mimic how very much teenagers are affected and live in the "now". It has made me wonder how exportable present tense storytelling is. I've used it in a picture book, just to try it out, to get a feel for the effect of tense. In a way, present tense makes even the past seem very present. It speeds up action and imbues what is happening with novelty, urgency and unpreditability. There's no telling how the story can end, especially if it is in first person POV. I just ran across a chapter of present tense in an adult novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Man Booker Winner 2014). The story up until that moment had been told in simple past, then suddenly, present tense appears. It was a jarring, blast of air that pulled me out of the observer's position and into the narrative. I straightened and listened more closely. This had to be important. What a difference a tense can make.
For more great books to balance out the hustle and bustle of the end of the year, check out Barrie Summy's site. Happy reading and a wonderful new year!
I review books that surprise me, jar me, make me think. They are books I've bought, borrowed from the library, or been given as a gift. I do accept ARCs, but will only review a book if it moves me. It's about the writing. If I'm moved, I pass it on in a review.