Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Book Review Club - Always October

Always October
Bruce Coville
Middle Grade

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!

For more great summer adventures, paddle (here in the midwest anyway) over to Barrie Summy's website!


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Book Review Club - My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante
Adult

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.

For more great reads, cinco de mayo your way over to Barrie Summy's website!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Book Review Club - Like Water on Stone

Like Water on Stone
Dana Walrath
YA

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!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - The Book Review Club

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Richard Flanagan
Adult

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.

For other great reads, saunter over to Barrie Summy's website. Mudslides or blizzards, she delivers!


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Book Review Club - Don't Call Me Ishmael

Don't Call Me Ishmael
Michael Gerard Bauer
MG/YA

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!)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Book Review Club - Belzhar

Belzhar
Meg Wolitzer
YA

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!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Book Review Club - Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
science fiction

I am no longer a closet-case sci-fi fan. This is my third sci-fi review this year. I think it's time to face facts. I am a sci-fi junkie!

I looked forward to reading Ancillary Justice when I'd seen it won the Hugo and Nebula awards. I cut my sci-fi teeth on the likes of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Frank Herbert's Dune in between installments of Little House on the Prairie. That is the seventies in a nutshell. And I figured, if Leckie could beat Andy Weir's The Martian, which I love, in the awards category, I was about to fall in love again.

Let's just say Ancillary Justice and I got off to a rocky start. It was not love at first sight. In fact, the novel frustrated me  (incidentally, it was the same when I first met my husband).

Basic plot - a space ship decides to take revenge on the leader of the culture that made - and ultimately attempts to destroy - it (Ancillary Justice, not my marriage; it's still happily intact).

It's fascinating stuff. AI taken to a whole new level. However, the AI can't decipher female from male and so refers to everyone as "she". Sometimes, gender is specified, but then the ship reverts to calling said characters "she". For me, it made connecting with characters really hard. And that made me wonder, why does gender matters in story? Or rather, does gender matter in story? Should it matter? What does Leckie gain by making her story more or less gender neutral?

I haven't finished figuring all of this out, but I have come to the conclusion that for the story, by making everyone gender neutral, characters become sentient beings. That's it. They have flaws and quirks, but in remaining gender neutral, they never became much deeper than that. This may, in part, have to do with the boundaries of my hermeneutics. I live in a world in which, for the most part, the gender of any person I interact with, is clear. With that comes mounds of unspoken data.  Without that, I have to rethink my world. That is what Leckie forced me, as a reader, to do in her novel. I had to see it through a different lens, a new lens, one I haven't completely finished sanding down yet, and won't, without further interaction.

The absence of gender imploded my hermeneutic structure of interpretation. It made me feel uneasy. And it's kept me feeling uneasy. And thinking. In other words, it's genius.

For more great reads, visit Barrie Summy's website. She's got a bushelful!