Friday, August 31, 2012

Lush, by Natasha Friend

Samantha struggles with a father's drinking problem and her mother's denial of it.  And in addition to those extraordinary issues, she also has the more typical problems of boy issues, mean girls at school, and petty jealousies between friends.  To help her through things, she maintains an anonymous relationship with a high school senior, who helps her put things in perspective.

A straightforward and well-written story about being thirteen and dealing with a family that is falling apart.  Nothing extraordinary, but sometimes that really isn't necessary to have a good story.  Sam is an appealing heroine.  She's articulate and stands up for herself well.  The book itself is a brisk read.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Darkbeast, by Morgan Keyes

Keara is about to have her 12th name day and when young people turn twelve in her world, they are obligated to present their companion "darkbeast" in Bestius's godhouse and kill it.  For nearly her entire life, Keara has lived with Caw (a raven) who has communicated with her telepathically and guided her when she made mistakes and bad choices.  Now, as she approaches adulthood, the ritual slaying of her darkbeast is required by tradition.

Everyone has a darkbeast.  For most children, being rid of their darkbeast is something that they look forward to it.  But for Keara, too much is tied up in Caw -- the friend who has kept her company when no humans quite measured up.  And, despite the promise of becoming a young woman, she fears the horrible moment when she must end Caw's life.

I loved this book for many reasons.  In addition to the fact that it was well-written, with good pacing and interesting, well fleshed-out characters, I loved the concept.  Taken literally, the idea of twelve year-old children murdering their pets to achieve adulthood is repulsive, but that misses the point.  Rather, it is a wonderful analogy:  the darkbeats is a device through which children can relieve themselves of guilt and learn from their mistakes. To grow up,  they must throw it off so that they can become responsible for themselves.  The feelings that Keara has towards Caw will feel very familiar and immediate to the book's intended middle school readers.

Then there is Keyes's absolutely amazing detail.  Keara's world, while alien and different, is exquisitely drawn out.  With details ranging from the pantheon of deities to little things (like the villages collecting ashes to make soap and various dietary miscellanea), Keyes put a lot of thought into the setting and shares much of this world with the reader.  So, the story works not just as a fable with highly relevant observations about the pain of growing up (and the difficulties that people who buck convention face), but also as a thrilling tour of a complete and logically consistent world that is so different (and in surprising ways, very similar) to our own.

In sum, a truly astounding and beautifully crafted fantasy book for middle readers.  The book comes out on August 28th - look for it!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch

Thirteen year-old Miles is short for his age and even his best friend Phelps thinks he's a freak.  Miles cares, but he'd still rather spend his sleepless evenings on the mud flats outside his South Puget Sound home, hunting for clams and other sea life to sell to local restaurants and collectors.  But when Miles discovers a rare giant sea squid beached at low tide, the world's attention turns to him.  Soon, Miles is discovering dozens of rare species and noticing all sorts of unusual changes to the bay.  At first, he racks it up to his patient habit of listening and observing, but after so much acclaim, even he begins to wonder if he is somehow prophetic.

With the unusual sea life intended as an extended metaphor, Lynch's adult book about a boy coming of age in the South Sound is effective and convincing.  It combines a little magic with some hard cold rational explanations and mixing Miles's talents for finding rare life forms with his generous and observant behavior towards the adults around him.  The narrator (Miles-as-a-grown-up) is more worldly and articulate than Miles would ever have been, but Lynch captures enough of Miles's mannerisms to give the character some authenticity.

I'm not a big fan of adult books about adolescence.  They tend to be too glib and backhanded in their treatment of childhood transgressions.  However, Lynch's writing is strong and the story self-contained and it makes an enjoyable read, even if it is not really YA.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The House of Tomorrow, by Peter Bognanni

Sebastian lives in a large geodesic dome in Iowa with his eccentric grandmother, herself an acolyte of R. Buckminster Fuller.  Sebastian's mostly content with his life, but aware of the fact that he rarely meets anyone his own age and has no friends.  Then one day, he meets Jared (an angry boy about his age with a permanent scowl and a love for punk rock).  Jared is recovering from a heart transplant and hates the world.  Sebastian has never seen the world.  They are perfect for each other.

A well-written and well-paced story about friendship, finding yourself, and coming to terms with your world (with a bit of getting along with the adults and dealing with girls thrown in).  I didn't warm to the boys and they didn't evolve enough to change that initial alienation I felt, but the story didn't drag and it will appeal to folks looking for a good book about male bonding.  The references to Fuller were interesting and even the take on punk music (which is more about the boys' naive perspectives than any serious observation on the music) is worthwhile.

Hush, by Eishes Chayil

Back when Gittel was nine, she lost her friend Devorah to suicide.  And while the adults claimed that the event was unfathomable and inexplicable, Gittel knows why Devorah did it.  Powerless as a child to confront the guilty parties, Gittel grows up haunted by her inability to set things right.  In her closed Hasidic community in Brooklyn, one does not talk openly about the things she has seen.

I approached this book with some reluctance and delayed reading it for several years.  I didn't expect an ultra-conservative religious community to be an appealing subject.  And I didn't imagine that I would enjoy the inevitable power struggle between stubborn patriarchs and a lone subjugated young woman that I expected the novel to deliver.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by what I read.

Wow!  The book and its story is incredibly moving (it was a real struggle not to cry in public as I finished it on my flight home last night!).  It succeeds because Chayil has avoided the cheap shots and opted instead to produce a book about understanding and healing.  First of all, she obviously loves her community.  It isn't just the rich cultural details that she immerses us in.  It's the nuanced view of that community that she paints.  Avoiding stereotypes, the villains are not mean old grey men, but normal people driven by love and fear.  And in this way, the story becomes universal and transcends its milieu.  Chayil's point is that evil is not a simple thing where individual people can be called out.  Rather, it is the result of customs and habits that bind people to the point that they don't know how to do the right thing.  Gittel's bravery in standing out from her community (and standing up for the weak) is stunning, but Chayil's challenge to the reader resonates longer.

Larry and the Meaning of Life, by Janet Tashjian

In the first and second books in the series, Larry (a.k.a. Josh Swenson) saved the world and tried to get elected as POTUS.  How do you top that?  The answer is by not trying to do so.  The trial for the third book is much more modest: Josh has lost his will for change.  It's a few months before he goes off to school at Princeton, but he doesn't really care.  He no longer writes anti-consumerist manifestos.  He's even given up on trying to find his ex-girlfriend.  Instead, he just sits down at Walden Pond and ponders the wisdom of Thoreau.  But one day he meets a man named Gus, who offers to become his spiritual teacher, and an opportunity opens for Josh.

Very much in the spirit of the other books, but at the same time different.  The scope is smaller and while elements of the plot are just as contrived, having a smaller scale makes them seem somehow more realistic (or at least plausible).  Larry still seems a bit goody-goody but the preaching is curtailed (the novel's primary cause seems to be eradicating landmines this time, but it's not pursued heavily).  I suppose people could criticize this book for not being as agenda-laden, but I appreciated being cut a break.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Hero, by Perry Moore

Thom is a pretty amazing basketball player and that's been the thing he's relied upon to make his father proud.  His father is a loyal fan and Thom works extra hard on the court to be a hero in his eyes.  But the truth is hard to hide and between the rumors floating around and some slip-ups at home, Thom isn't sure how much longer he can hide his sexual orientation from his father.  As much as he wishes he could be honest with his Dad, he knows how much it would kill his father to know he was gay.

But that isn't the only thing Thom is hiding.  Thom's got superpowers.  And Thom's got a real chance of joining the A-ist crime fighters of the League in their epic battles:  Warrior Woman, the Spectrum, Golden Boy, and that amazing hunk Uberman (whom Thom's had a crush on for years).  But Dad can't ever find out about Thom's dream -- Dad was once a superhero himself and was cast out in disgrace.  Superheros aren't welcome in their home.

What we get is an amazing mash of comic book worship, teen gay angst, and coming to terms.  After all, nothing says homoerotica better than comic book superheros, does it?  So, what Moore does is play on that to create a story that is both well-written pulp and serious teen gay novel -- a world where a young man who is both a potential superhero and gay has to prove he is not a freak.  It's X-Men meets Edge of Seventeen.  While that probably gives the novel a split personality, it's truly amazing how well it actually fits together.  The last 100 pages or so of blood and guts action didn't do much for me, but they're integral to the nature of the piece.  What really worked for me was the idea that coming out as a superhero or as a gay man could be equally heroic.  And I think it worked for Moore as well.  Kudos for something unique in LGBT lit!

Frozen Rodeo, by Catherine Clark

Fleming spends the summer stuck at home, helping her pregnant mother take care of her three brothers and sisters.  She's lost her driving privileges because of a car accident earlier in the year.  So, she's consigned to pouring coffee at the Git n' Go gas station and studying Intermediate French in the mornings.  Not much excitement there!  Even worse though is that her Dad is committed to completely humiliating her by appearing at their town's annual rodeo in an ice-skating routine.

It's all a bit random and basically amounts to "Fleming's sucky summer." That really would not have drawn me in, but the blurb promised that all the craziness would get tied up in the end in a really amazing way.  It sort of does, but I didn't find the ending worth the slog.  Anecdotes can be fun, but without an overarching story, there really isn't a point to this book.  The most promising plot line (Fleming's problems with getting her parents to accept that she is growing up) gets resolved in the laziest fashion possible:  after amazing injustices she finally explodes at them, they realize their errors, and become amazingly considerate (does that ever happen in real life?!).

[Note:  This book is apparently also published under the title of Better Latte Than Never (not sure if this is a better title or not).]