Sunday, October 31, 2010

Charmed Knockoff or YA Treat? Why Not Both?

Let's jump right in, shall we?  The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June, by Robin Benway.  I didn't like this book as much at first because it wasn't quite what I expected.  It's a very small and immediate book--when the three sisters realize they have these marvelous powers, it doesn't thrust them onto a broader world stage.  It changes their relationship with high school, their parents, each other, and themselves.  It's about boys, friends, divorce, and being 14/15/16.

At the beginning of the book, I was expecting something more--epic?  adventurous?--and it felt like it was dragging.  But as soon as I realized I was reading a high school drama that was mostly about dates and boys and figuring out who you are, I realized that it does that really, really well.  The voices of the three sisters are sharp, witty, sarcastic, and young.  I kind of hated all three characters at first, and really loved them all at the end, which is just the right path for the book. 

There are places where it's a little heavy-handed--April's worrywarting has a breadth that is quite literally unbelievable (did you know white bread can kill you?) and June's ability to change the subject from, say, a car accident they were just in to what people will think of her new skirt is maybe a bit more teenagery than I remember real teenagers being. And the level on which their response to their superpowers--seeing the future, being invisible, reading minds--is "Omigawd!" (in every tone of voice you can imagine it uttered)--well, I'd have given teenagers more credit than that.

But what do I know?  I'm 34.  It was a really good book.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Avi Revisited

On advice of readership, I read Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? this week, and I have to say, this book kind of shines.  I think it's because it's meant for younger kids, so some of the inconsistencies and over-simplicity don't bother me as much.  It's a fun small-town mystery, Nancy Drew-light, and a lot of fun.  So I guess Avi's still on the table after all.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Avi

I knew a guy in college named Avi.  He was a friend of a friend, but he didn't like me very much.  The nicest thing he ever said to me (after I gave him a two hour ride home at Thanksgiving) was, "You know, you're not as flaky as I thought you were."

I try not to hold this against the renowned and prolific children's author Avi.  According to his website, he's published about 64 books so far, and I've been reading them on and off since they were age-appropriate, or at least just after.  I've long thought of him as an author I like, but after this week's disappointment, I've been thinking back over his books and trying to think about why.

One of his first books that I ever read was The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. I read it in college, actually, since it was a childhood favorite of my roommate that was lying around the common room for a while.  I think this is why I became an Avi fan, and it's stuck with me for a long time.  This is a great book.  First of all, I'm a sucker for a seafaring tale; secondly, girls doing things that are only for boys are pretty much all winners with me.  And yeah, the premise that Charlotte, ladylike passenger, would end up leading the sailors when the captain is overthrown is pretty unlikely, but in a book intended for 12-year-olds, you can see the appeal.  So yes, Charlotte Doyle, big fan.

Now there's a big window of years here where I could have sworn I'd read and enjoyed a few more Avi books, but looking at the list on his website, I can't see that.  All the books on that list that I've read have been in the past three or four years.  And I didn't love most of them.  Crispin: The Cross of Lead was great, full of history, danger, and adventure, but the sequel, Crispin: At the Edge of the World was, I would say, one tick shy of mediocre.  Shy on the down side. 

I'd say the same about  Seer of Shadows--or maybe it's straight up just-all-right.  This was about an apprentice photographer in the early 1900s whose dishonest boss wants to start selling bogus spirit photos.  This part was kind of great.  But it turns out that the family he's selling his story to is really being haunted--also a promising twist.  Haunted by their daughter who they abused in a positively cartoonish way, losing all the power of the story.

I've been looking back over the Avi experience because I just finished the book Bright Shadow, an older book of his.  And my God, was it bad!  A young girl inherits the last five wishes in the kingdom, along with the warning to use them wisely and not to tell anyone about them.  She has no other information.  The cruel king knows the wishes are out there and needs to find the person who has them to prevent an uprising.  Morwenna (our "heroine") is one of the most passive, indecisive, useless people I've ever had to read about.  And this is not about her learning to have strength--she remains passive and undecided right up to the very end, while the action of the story takes place around her.  Her only proactive moves are to occasionally try to flee--not from the bad guys, but from responsibility.  At no point does she step up, become empowered, or even experience a glimmer of usefulness.

So yeah, I hated this book.  And it made me look back and wonder where I got the idea that I liked Avi so much.  But you know what?  I'll give him The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and I'll give him the first Crispin book.  And heck, I'll even read the third one.  But I'm going to resist his clever titles from now on.  I know my limits.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Best Cover Award

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, by Thomas Mullen, has a lot more going for it than its title and cover, but they are pretty great, aren't they?

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers: A Novel 
I wish I’d had time to read this book slowly; I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was someone who liked to linger.  In spite of the bank robbers and chase scenes and resurrections (yes, plural!) it’s really a book about atmosphere, about the world of the Great Depression and the kind of people it created.

Jason and Whit Fireson are bank robbing brothers, the head of an infamous gang who’ve swept across middle America stealing cash and leaving behind legends.  This part of the story probably isn’t unfamiliar to anyone—it’s the Depression and no one loves the bankers.  The Firesons—known more romantically as the Firefly Brothers—are seen alternately as wreaking havoc and giving back a little of the suffering that the fat cats have caused.

But this is all backstory.  Actually, at least half the book is backstory.  In the present, the brothers have been shot dead and are lying on slabs in the morgue.  They wake up cold, naked, and full of holes, listening to the police upstairs celebrating their capture.  Confused, with no memory of the last week and no hint to what’s going on, they steal some clothes and are on the run.

From here, we have two timelines—the present, where they’re on the run, looking for their girlfriends, visiting their mother and straight-arrow brother, trying to figure out what might have happened and how they can get away.  In the meantime, Jason’s troubled girlfriend has been kidnapped for the ransom her wealthy father might provide.  We follow Darcy, we follow Jason and Whit as they try to find each other and figure out what to do with this new life.

But fully half of the story is the other timeline, the past.  Through flashback we get the year leading up to their capture, the year of the Firefly Brothers’ greatest notoriety, and through memories and descriptions, we get more information, how the three brothers were shaped by their father, his belief in the American dream and his terrible downfall, how each of them came to be who and where he is, and how far from each other they really are.

This is really the story of the Great Depression, and every character illustrates a different facet of it—Jason, unrepentantly self-centered, Darcy, whose life of miserable wealth leaves her unsympathetic to those starving around her, Whit, who believes bank robbing can be a form of Socialism, and Weston, the brother who lives like everyone else in the Depression, anyone who doesn’t have the option of robbing banks to eat well.

The story lingers on all these characters, the scenes that reveal them and show their connections and make them who they are.  There are plenty of gunfights, more resurrections than you’d expect, and plenty of drama, but that’s not why you should read this book.  In fact, if you’re reading the book for these reasons, you’re probably not going to enjoy it as much.  Because the Americana is by far the more deeply rooted, the more thoroughly dramatized, the more meaningfully portrayed part of the story.

I have a few complaints: the ‘big reveals’ at the end are very easy to see coming.  Some of the jumping around in time is off-putting, especially when it comes to Weston.  But I think this was the most enjoyable, accessible, compelling book of the Depression that I’ve ever read.  If that’s what you’re in the market for, well, there you go.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Dream Team

I have a new favorite crossover fantasy: Richard Feynman meets Leo Marks.

It took me months to read Between Silk and Cyanide, but you shouldn't take that as a criticism of the book.  It's episodic and a bit of a whirlwind, which made it pretty easy to put down and pick up.  In a lot of ways it worked better to read it that way--the information flies fast and furious, and it's easy to get overwhelmed by names, operations, plans, codes. 

The author, Leo Marks, is the son of the owner of 84 Charing Cross Road, which you really absolutely have to read if you haven't yet.  The book is about his experience in the code department at SOE, which was one of the British intelligence agencies in World War II.  He was a bit of a wunderkind and developed most of the codes that were being used by the end of the war.  He was unorthodox, uninterested in (and ignorant of) politics, intense about codes and unambitious about everything else.

Sound like anyone else?  Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman is a different kind of memoir--most of Feynman's hijinx only coincidentally took place in the war effort.  But the civilians trying to work with the military to accomplish a big job while jumping through bureaucratic hoops are all very similar.  And I think Dick Feynman would have been fascinated and excited by Leo Marks' coding revelations.  My 11th grade history teacher, Miss Lavoie, had a guest list for the dinner party of historical characters that she'd have if she could.  I'm thinking this is mine.

Silk and Cyanide is a fun read, but there are certain things one might expect that it's not.  It's not a very personal story--the story feels very personal, and you get the strong emotional weight of the lives that are on the line in their work, but none of the story whatsoever takes place outside of the office (with the exception of the author's realization that the portly gentleman across the alley who never draws the curtain in his bathroom is a general).

It's not really a place to get a good overall picture of the history of the war, either.  Marks doesn't try to tie everything together--there are dozens of operations, hundreds of agents, officers, coders.  Everyone has a code name.  You meet a lot of them only once.  Not many of the stories are closely tied together--they're great anecdotes, each one offering a glimpse of the experience, and they create a very real portrait of what the experience was like, but they don't let you recreate the history.

This is a book that's about the ride, not the destination.  There are acronyms for departments that never get defined, characters you only meet once.  It's deftly handled, though--if you need to remember someone, they get a nickname or a clear identifying trait. 

Maybe my review isn't perfectly clear, but I really loved this book.  It was funny and informative and inspiring, and I kind of love Leo Marks a little.  It wasn't what I expected, and I started out feeling overwhelmed, but once I went with it, trusting the author to give me all the information I needed to understand what was going on, it was a smart, fun, fabulous ride.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Thank God That's Over

Shelf grabs--stuff I wander by at the library and grab, or wander by in the bookstore and write down in order to later go to the library to grab--are always hit or miss, of course.  But after reading The Rules of Survival, I found myself back in the Nancy Werlin section of YA. 

Black Mirror

I picked Black Mirror based mostly on the blurb, though I did like the cover.  Take a moment to look at the cover here, because it's relevant.  What does it lead you to expect?  Well, first of all, I think the wintery landscape and the title Black Mirror clearly has me thinking that someone would drown in a pond.  Right? 

It's no spoiler to tell you that there's nary a pond in the book.  Maybe if I hadn't spend so long waiting for one I would not have been as disappointed with the book as it was.  Instead, the black mirror of the title has a cloth hanging over it, because the main character (pictured on the cover) is sitting shiva for her brother.  It takes place at an exclusive New England prep school.  Nobody drowns.

The fact that the main character is Jewish does not actually conflict with the cover of the book--her name is Frances Rosenthal, but her mother was Japanese.  She's never fit in anywhere, too short and Asian for her overbearing bubbe, too curvy and frizzy-haired to be seen as Japanese, to awkward and unsociable for anyone.  Her brother is the all-American one, the one who throws himself into their new school and its exclusive service club.

Let me skip all of the small things that might have bothered me about the book, because to be honest there was just as much good stuff on the small scale as bad.  Yeah, if I heard them call Unity Service a "charitable organization" one more time I was going to start hurling donated cans (seriously, do teenagers in a service club call it a charitable organization), but the descriptions of the things Frances is drawn to--her sculpture project, her art teacher's cottage--are appealing and pleasing.  So it's not that this was a badly written book overall.

It's just that Frances is in a story that's not about her.  I suppose I was reading about her internal coming of age, but when there's a mystery and a suicide and drug dealers and rich people with sketchy motives and danger and violence, it comes as kind of a letdown that Frances never does anything or stops anything or solves anything or saves anything.  She does figure something out, I'll give her that--but on her way to report it to the authorities, she finds out that it's already been reported and it's all under control,

All the drama that the book builds up to takes place in a flashback in the last couple of chapters, where the people who were really involved in the action tell Frances their stories.  Frances, whose big accomplishment was to realize that something might be going on, finds out about most of the danger and intrigue later on.

I don't think Werlin is failing to accomplish her goals, though.  I think the story she wanted to tell is about a misfit who has never felt anything but completely alone in the world realizing that she can respect and admire herself, and that that's the foundation she needs to live a life that isn't as oppressive as she feared.  Which is all great.  But even the "Frances learns not to be miserable" story is kind of choppy, in that of the five or six human connections she sort of starts to make in the book, only one of them amounts to anything at all. 

I won't say it was an awful book.  But it wasn't terribly entertaining, and the whole thing felt as awkward and clunky as Frances herself seems to feel.  I didn't really enjoy reading it, and I can't say I recommend it.  I think the audience it might work for would be teenagers who feel just like Frances--and at 15, a lot of us felt that way.  But at that age, the light at the end of Frances' tunnel wouldn't have been enough for me.

Saturday, October 02, 2010


I'm almost as much of a sucker for buzz as the next guy, so I'm not surprised when I pick up something that is being raved about.  And you know, often enough it's worth it--The Time Traveler's Wife, The Red Tent, Graceling, American Wife--all books I've enjoyed reading, some even loved, that I found because of the buzz.  But The DaVinci Code, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius--sometimes I get the word on the street wrong, or I just walk away feeling like, meh.

Room, by Emma Donoghue, was one that I jumped on, probably (I admit with chagrin) because the premise is so titillating, and intriguing.  It's the story of a five year old boy who has lived all his life in one room where he and his mother have been locked by the man who abducted her seven years ago.  Shocking, ripped from the headlines. 

Thinking about it in retrospect, it's also a premise that promises a lot of the detailed world-building that I find appealing in a lot of books--exactly how do you manage your space, fill your time, keep clean?  What resources do you have?  How do you try to escape?  These are the kinds of details that will always draw me to a subject, whether it's police procedures or servants in a manor house or art fraud investigators.  I love a how-to.

Room delivered on that.  It won't be a spoiler to reveal that the entire book does not take place in the room, but it's very much about it.  Jack is the book's five year old narrator--yes, narrator, and if that sounds like a gimmick, it's just as impressive as you think that it's not a gimmick.  He's a smart, articulate five year old whose vocabulary is impressive, syntax is very five, understanding of the world is like that of a Martian.  He knows things from TV, but has no conception of what is real, or even what real means.

Jack's mother is amazing, and the author's ability to create a portrait of her through her son--who loves her intimately but barely knows that anyone else exists in the world--is just as amazing.  She's not flawless, and her ordeal has not failed to affect her, but her parenting is just off the charts. 

I think this is one of the first books that made me think this hard as a parent.  It was almost unreadable in parts, actually, in a way that it wouldn't have been if I wasn't a parent.  The idea of not being able to protect your child is a tough one to wrestle with, even when you've never actually been unable to protect your child.  My tolerance for kids in trouble in fiction is lower than it used to be, but Jack and his Ma just make you think about what you're capable of.  And I can't imagine being capable of some of what they do. 

But it's a mark of what a great book it is that I'm so proud of them for everything--everything they do to navigate their world, even when it doesn't go smoothly.  It's cliche to say that this book makes you think about what it is to be human, but it kind of does.  It makes you think about what you're capable of, what we adapt to, and how subjective all our ideas of normal are. 

Such a good book.