Thursday, September 29, 2011

The 10 p.m. Question by Kate de Goldi

Twelve-year-old Frankie Parsons worries about everything. He worries about the batteries missing from the fire alarm, the lack of food in the cupboards, and the “ominous” lightness of the pink china pig that holds loose change for the bus fare. These small events lead Frankie to the “10 p.m. Question” – his nightly talk with his mother that happens to occur at ten o’clock at night, when all of his worries need to be dispelled. His anxiety is palpable and relatable, and just one small detail that makes Frankie so sympathetic and important. Kate de Goldi’s novel follows a few short months in Frankie’s unique and funny life, from February until June.

Frankie’s cat is called the Fat Controller and his father is called Uncle George, a fact that isn’t actually revealed until halfway through the story when Frankie has to re-assert that yes, Uncle George is his father, he just doesn’t call him by that title. Frankie’s life is turned upside down at the arrival of Sydney, a girl with dreadlocks and a history of never staying in the same place for a very long time. Sydney and her siblings are each named after the place that they are born in (one is called Calcutta) and she instantly befriends Frankie and his best friend Gigs. Both boys are impressed by her skill at sports (which surprises them, since the only girl they’ve known to be athletic is their friend David Robinson’s sister: “But Gigs rightly said this was because Julie Robinson was practically a man; she was big and fierce and had a six-pack where other girls had breasts). Frankie starts to like Sydney almost immediately and they begin to write and illustrate a book together for a class project.  

The book is organized by chapters that run every second and fourth Tuesday of the month, which also coincides with the occasion of Frankie’s three great aunts – Alba, Teen, and Nellie – coming over for dinner. The women are described as gloriously fat and full of life, and their visit usually coincides with Frankie’s sister, Gordana, exiting the house. Frankie’s brother Louie, however, always comes over for the dinner (and also to do his laundry and to take the spare change off the counters).

de Goldi completely throws everything into creating memorable characters whose dialogue, description, and action gives them the most physical and tactile presence. For instance, before working in a school, Frankie and Gigs’ teacher, Mr. A, worked in a prison. de Goldi brings out this backstory and history in Mr. A by juxtaposing the sort of unknown past and “battle-hardened” disposition with the more lighthearted comedy that comes from Mr. A’s teaching. The two sides come together frequently throughout the novel, one of which occurs early on:

There were many stories circulating at Notts School about the origin of Mr. A’s scar: he’d been in a motorcycle accident; he’d fallen through a window; his wife had thrown a broken plate at him; a deranged prisoner had gone for him with a knife…
“Maybe he just had cheek cancer,” Gigs suggested once. (Frankie hadn’t even known there was such a thing, and he’d added it to his long list of terrifyingly possible diseases.)

But amidst the humor is an underlying feeling of wrongness to Frankie’s life. Even though his mother runs a cake business out of her kitchen, baking teetering layer cakes for the local businesses, she hasn’t left the house in nine years. Frankie has memories of living with his great aunts when he was younger, when his brother and his sister were able to remain at home. And then there are the worries that Frankie repeats in his head about his father’s busyness and the trouble he has in the morning finding things for school and his proclamation, “This house doesn’t work!”

Frankie reminded me a little bit of Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, except this book seems less of a crossover novel than Mark Haddon’s was. The characters, dialogue, and situations in The 10 p.m. Question read so vividly and importantly – de Goldi’s care and investment the story that she creates is evident in her writing. I really came to care a lot about Frankie’s character in the story, and I kind of wanted to share a lot of the small details about him that were collected throughout the book, because they stuck with me for a while. I mean, Frankie’s experience at the swimming pool kind of resonated:

And last Saturday when they’d been there, he’d had his annual unsavory collision with a Band-Aid. There was nothing more revolting in Frankie’s view than freestyling your way, innocent and blissful, into the path of a used Band-Aid. In Frankie’s private hierarchy of squeamish experiences, the casual caress of a stained Band-Aid was right up there with accidentally catching sight of writhing maggots in a forgotten rubbish bag. He’d had to get out of the pool immediately last Saturday and lie on his towel in the sun to recover.

I loved this book. And I loved the characters. And I laughed a lot before it was over. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley was another book that I was really lucky enough to pick up an advanced reader’s copy for at a conference last spring. It had just been published by Little and Brown, and it seemed like the title that they were really the most excited about. And I have to say, as soon as I saw the cover and read the jacket flap, I actually started to immediately recommend the book to other people, without even having opened the book and taken a look at the story. There’s this certain kind of adolescent and young adult novel that, at first look, Where Things Come Back reminded me of. It’s something that takes account of a summer where things happen, maybe not big, exciting, grandiose things, but small moments that add up to a truly well written and poignant story. I would place Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech, and Keeper by Kathi Appelt in that category. But again, it was just based on the synopsis and the cover, which, I know, is not always great to do.

Where Things Come Back takes place in small-town Lily, Arkansas, and focuses on protagonist Cullen Witter during the summer when the Lazarus woodpecker, a bird not seen since the 1940s, is spotted in the town. Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel has just gone missing, and the summer follows Cullen through his small moments of experience and the larger understanding that his brother has disappeared and isn’t likely to be found.

At the same time, Corey Whaley interweaves another narrative with Cullen’s, that of college student Benton and his roommate Cabot. This narrative focuses on a spin into religious fanaticism, and the way it influences the relationships between Benton and Cabot, and the people they love. Eventually, Corey Whaley makes these two vastly different narratives join together, resulting in an ending that is satisfying for its easy tie-up, but frustrating also because this same ease of solution. 

I wasn’t just reading this ARC last spring. I was also reading Noah Barleywater Runs Away, which I had received at the same conference. And a lot of the problems that I have with Where Things Come Back were also the same ones that I had with Noah Barleywater. Corey Whaley writes very strong male characters, and his focus on friendship between these characters is one of the strongest points in the book. However, it seems to be at the expense of the female characters that he writes. There are moments where the male characters completely disregard the female ones, and their throwaway comments don’t read as subtle commentary on the difference between teenage boys and girls, but instead seem more pointed, and more sexist, when they are written. Cullen’s interactions with the girls and women in his life fall short and result in underdeveloped relationships since the characters don’t have enough dimensionality to flesh out believable connections with one another.

It was a quick read that really did immerse me as a reader right into a particular moment at a particular time in a particular summer. And I really like that. I like how a book can make a temporary world that creates its own time, language, and story to hold a reader there for the time it takes to finish. But at the same time, I couldn’t completely throw myself into the narrative, or narrative(s), because the characters aren’t very sympathetic, and I couldn’t invest in them enough to want them to succeed. Now I’m not sure I’d recommend it as much as I was doing before I even read it (which I still kind of feel bad about). But, you know, it was still a little bit worth it for that really atmospheric summer story. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Before The Book Thief, which is probably Markus Zusak’s most well-known book, he published I Am the Messenger (there was also Fighting Ruben Wolfe, but I didn’t ever have a chance to read it – I just sort of saw it on a shelf at the bookstore I worked at about a billion times and thought, “I should pick this up, it’s right here, how hard would that be?” except I never did). I read I Am the Messenger first, and there was a small write-up in the back of my copy about The Book Thief, so I picked that up afterwards. The two books, I kind of found them a little night and day from one another. I don’t think I would have guessed that the same author had written both of them, and that’s sort of rare sometimes. It always seems like an author has at least a little bit of a recognizable style, but the form, content, and narrative of these two Zusak books were just so radically different that it was like reading out of two different places. I liked that. It doesn’t happen very often. And I’m a little curious to see what his earlier books are like, and whether there’s a pattern there or if everything is different from the last book

Ed Kennedy, protagonist in Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger, is a funny and empathetic character who lies about his age to get a job as a cabdriver and thinks that “sex should be like math”. Life is pretty underwhelming for Ed, until he begins receiving instructions in the mail, written on the back of playing cards. Ed embarks on a strange four -part journey, following people and finding addresses through instructions he receives from an invisible and unknowable source. These messages instruct him to watch the actions of a family through the window of their home, to visit an elderly woman on a regular basis, and to help a teenage girl find her confidence. The instructions are not as straightforward as they initially seem, and Ed is forced to confront his own values and how far he is willing to go in a game he doesn’t exactly know the rules for.

Ed’s delivery is engaging enough to keep the reader turning pages until the end, where the reward of finding the answer to the mystery makes the process worth it. Zusak blurs the meanings of messenger and message, process and ending, crafting vibrant teen characters and a compelling story along the way. Ed’s language creates his character, and his way of talking transmits more than plot, allowing characters to hang around even after the story ends. There are some really recognizable and poignant scenes throughout that seem to get young adult experience and voice right, and they stick out of a sometimes plodding and convoluted narrative to show that character really does drive a lot of literature for teens.

To choose between this book and The Book Thief, it’s really a difficult decision to make. They are so different. This is realistic fiction at its finest, while The Book Thief has a historical/WWII/Holocaust/experimental narration/unidentifiable genre/crossover literature thing going on. But together, both highlight the skill and importance of a novelist like Zuzak, who can write so radically different across to novels in the same category (young adult literature). And his writing, and the variation between novels, keeps me wondering, “What’s next?”

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor

I don’t know if you could say that writing about vampires was the thing to do over the last ten years, but the publication history sort of points in that direction. It was heralded in by Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight Saga generated a lot of popular fiction for young adults in that area. But a writer who is recognized by a Canadian literary community, whether happily or not, followed the trend, too. Which is why Canadian author Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer caught my attention a few years ago, when I picked up a copy at the bookstore and read the subtitle: A Native Gothic Novel. Hayden Taylor’s novel first appeared as a play, A Contemporary Gothic Indian Vampire Story, commissioned by Young Peoples Theatre in Toronto and he wrote it into novel-form at the request of Annick Press for a 2007 publication date.

Set in the Otter Lake Reservation in Ontario, the novel revolves around sixteen-year-old Tiffany Hunter and the much older Ojibwa vampire, Pierre L’Errant. Although Tiffany lives on the Otter Lake Reservation, she also leaves in order to attend school off the reservation. Her home life has changed immeasurably since her mother left her father, and her Granny Ruth moved in to help out in the house. Tiffany’s father has taken in a lodger in the basement, the mysterious Pierre L’Errant who has just arrived from Europe. Tiffany’s answer to the changes that have taken place in her household is to stay away from home as much as possible. She goes to school, hangs out with friends, and goes out with her boyfriend Tony. Tiffany is shown not to have that much ambition, and her failing grades are constantly discussed throughout the novel. Even her Granny Ruth is disappointed in the lack of agency and interest that Tiffany conveys, particularly when she finds Tiffany’s report card: “Granny Ruth read the letter. It was Tiffany’s school progress report – the mid-semester assessment. And it was not good. Tiffany was failing practically everything in school, except art. It was a well-known fact that gym and art were the hardest to fail, but somehow Tiffany had managed to get a failing grade in her gym class.”

But as she finds out more about the mysterious lodger in the basement, and, as a result of her conversations with him, learns more about the area that she lives in and more about the history of her home, Tiffany begins to grow, develop, and mature. Hayden Taylor also creates an opportunity to discuss Aboriginal issues in Canada, and Tiffany’s boyfriend’s abuse of her taxation-free status constitutes a major plot point in the novel. And then there is that gothic thread that runs underneath, drawing the novel into darker and more ominous territory as the story progresses.

I was sold on the book before I read it, just because of Hayden Taylor’s name on the novel. I had read his Motorcycles and Sweetgrass a few years ago, a novel that sort of would rank ridiculously high above this one (it’s really good). Reading a young adult work of fiction by the same author sort of had the reverse effect of what has been happening lately in young adult literature, where literary authors are turning from writing adult books to writing books for young adults, and really exceptional books at that. Hayden Taylor’s didn’t really stand up so well. It’s a fun story and it gets in that nod at the vampire trend while making it into something sort of new, but it still felt like there were a lot more places Hayden Taylor could go, and a lot more of the gothic to mine from an Ontario setting. Still, it was nice to see a Canadian author try the young adult vampire story, and to see it happen on a reservation in Ontario, even if the novel didn't take it too much farther than that.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Abarat by Clive Barker

In anticipation of September 27, which, you know, is actually a little bit of an exciting day for fantasy publications, mostly because Terry Pratchett’s I Shall Wear Midnight is coming out in paperback and I’ve been staring at the hardcover for about a year now, wishing that it would come out in paperback because every single other Terry Pratchett book that I own is in paperback and at this point in time, it’s sort of good to keep the pattern, BUT, in anticipation of the release of Absolute Midnight, the third book in Clive Barker’s Abarat series for young adults on September 27, I’m going to talk about the very first one in that series, titled, sort of simply, Abarat.

My knowledge of Clive Barker comes from a few different encounters and sources, but he was kind of an author that I greatly underestimated the breadth of work for, because the first book that I read by him was his novel for young adults. It wasn’t until I was working at a secondhand bookstore that I started seeing a ton of his books coming through to the horror and genre paperback section and realized, “Oh wow, so Abarat. I guess that was just one of many.” Later, I read his introduction to one of the Sandman volumes by Neil Gaiman, and then I saw a movie that was adapted from one of this books, and it slowly all came together and gave me this picture of Clive Barker, a sort of, “Well, this is what he’s like. All of these pieces here, they fit together and give you a pretty good idea of his work.”

But Abarat was my first encounter and I absolutely loved it. It is a thick tome that contains Barker’s own artwork throughout, large oil painting that have been reproduced for the novel. They are grotesque and beautiful and horrifying (particularly one of Christopher Carrion, a man who surrounds himself with nightmares), and more than anything, they help bring Barker’s fantastical world to life.

Because Abarat itself is a world built from Barker’s imagination. It consists of twenty-five islands, each of which inhabits a different hour of the day (except for the twenty-fifth island, an hour unto itself). It makes for vivid settings, especially when you see the way that Barker himself conceives of each hour of the day when he begins to flesh it out into an island, its inhabitants, mood, and atmosphere. The reader encounters this new world at the same time female protagonist Candy Quakenbush does. After lighting the lamp in the lighthouse at the edge of Chickentown, her home, Candy summons the Sea of Izabella from the parallel world of Abarat and journeys there by ship. She’s given an introduction to the islands and then the book is set up for her exploration, one that she shares with readers.

Abarat was followed up by Days of Magic, Nights of War, and now, seven years after that publication, the third book is being released (Barker has mentioned before that there will be five books in the series). And it was kind of a long wait.

When that third book comes out, I’m kind of looking really forward to it. And there will definitely be a review on here. Between the writing and the images, there’s really nothing but stunning imagery throughout. And there are still a few weeks to catch up before the new one gets here.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

A few weeks ago I sort of acted like it was kind of a revelation that watching the movie The Princess and the Goblin led to reading books by George MacDonald, that reversal of the usual “read the book, watch the movie thing.” It’s definitely not an isolated case, because after watching HBO’s Game of Thrones this summer I went out and bought the first three books in George R. R. Martin’s series:Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords.

It was a really weird experience. Watching the series as a television show, I was seriously shocked and intrigued by the way the plot unfolded. I hadn’t heard that much about Martin’s series except for when I worked at a secondhand bookstore and I’d sell a couple of used copies every once in a while. It’s very rare with books, TV, and movies that I go into them completely blank slate, without having seen a trailer or read a synopsis or a least having looked at a few photos released ahead of time. But with Game of Thrones, the only thing I really knew going in was that it was a fantasy series on HBO. And that was definitely enough.

Game of Thrones is a work of high fantasy by George R.R. Martin that takes place largely in Westeros, a sprawling kingdom separated by boundaries, borders, and rulers. Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark lives at Winterfell in the North, and he leaves for the south when he is summoned by the King, this sort of old friend that he can’t say no to (and he’s the king. There isn’t really something like the answer of “no”). North of Winterfell is the Wall, which is really just that: a wall that separates the wild and fantastical north from the rest of the kingdom and is guarded by a motley collection of men who have “taken the black” to protect the kingdom. The books largely center around Ned’s family as they find themselves going their separate ways and having their own adventures, much like how in Lord of the Rings the Fellowship starts out all together but then splinters and leads to several small factions traveling in different directions.

When I started reading the book after the series ended, I was kind of like, “Hmmm, is this just going to be a reiteration of everything that I just saw on television.” Well, to a certain extent it was, which says a lot about how faithful the book to movie adaptation was. Almost all of the dialogue in the book makes a straight leap into the script for the television show. And even though I knew what was coming up this time when reading the book, I sort of felt like reading it fleshed out a lot of what I missed or didn’t get or skipped over in the TV show. For one thing, it’s a lot easier for me to keep track of characters, particularly characters in high fantasy with names and titles and lineages, when I read a name instead of just hear it. I felt like I had something like one of those police identifications, where some poor witness has to stand in front of a glass wall and say, “That one! It was that man right there!” or “Her! She’s the one! I’d recognize that nose anywhere!” I’d get a new piece of information from the book about a character and I’d have the actor/actress do a quick materialization in my head like, “That one! This information goes right there! That makes so much sense, wow, I mean, I really wish I had picked up on that while watching this on TV.”

I was really hooked after finishing Game of Thrones. Most of the impetus was to get to the next one, A Clash of Kings, where all of the new material was. And I really loved that one. I’m halfway through A Storm of Swords now and I really love the way perspectives change from chapter to chapter. When you’re dealing with thousand page books, it’s awesome to switch back and forth between characters so that everything still seems new. I love multi-protagonist books as it is, but Martin really uses perspective to his advantage. He lets his characters have pretty good coverage of the world he has created to hold the story, which means that he is always actively world building through the perspective of several different characters. It’s very effective and you get a sense of geography, character, and plot filtered through various ways of looking at the world.

I’m not alone in having gone out to the store to pick up the series after HBO aired the first season. There are a lot of reports that purchases of Martin’s books are giving the publishing industry a small boost right now and really, on the bus or subway it’s all George R.R. Martin paperbacks all over the place being read. Which is impressive. They are not small books. They are quite hefty. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

These aren’t new books at all, but sometimes I think the reason I read so much fantasy now sort of goes right back to all of those quartets by Tamora Pierce. Tamora Pierce writes young adult fantasy, and for a really long time they were in the form of these four-book quartets that would overlap characters, setting, and story. I think a few years ago she wrote two books in a series instead of four because she had said that Harry Potter kind of really proved that young readers would pick up and read much longer books. It was this model that caused her to reorganize the structure of her novels.

The first quartet, The Song of the Lioness, begins with Alanna: The First Adventure. That book started this binge reading of Tamora Pierce for me that ended twenty-four books later. I started reading them in elementary school and continued right through until high school – whenever a new one came out I’d pick it up, no matter which quartet it was part of or who the characters were, or what world and setting Pierce placed them in. I knew I’d be reading exceptional fantasy, and importantly, exceptional fantasy with a strong female character. I can think of a lot of fantasy books that do have well-written, well-rounded, and engaging female characters – Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Abarat by Clive Barker, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman – but there was something in the fact that Pierce writes high fantasy, completely separated from the real world, and she chooses to populate the world that she builds with compelling female characters.

The thing about Alanna, the very first of Pierce’s books that I picked up, is that you’re immediately immersed in the character Alanna’s thoughts and experiences. The choices that she makes are recognizable; even when it seems like she makes the wrong decision, Pierce immerses the reader so fully within Alanna’s way of thinking that at least it is possible to see how she gets there. This is a point that has been brought up frequently with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: sometimes protagonist Katniss Everdeen makes decisions that seem really unwise to just about everyone else around her, however, because Collins spends so much time inside Katniss’ head, it is possible to at least understand the reasoning that leads to a lot of it.

Alanna begins with the protagonist, Alanna, and her twin brother Thom switching places in the fantastical world of Tortall. This allows Alanna to adopt the name “Alan” and travel to court to become a page (and eventually a knight), while Thom is free to go to the City of the Gods to train to be a sorcerer. Disguised as a boy, Alanna begins training and quickly makes both friends and enemies at court. Two of her friends are sort of unique in that one is Jonathan, a prince, and the other is George Cooper, the Thief King.

Alanna’s story progresses through four books and follow her progression from page to squire to knight. I can’t help but always come back to the fact that the thing about Alanna is that she really is a strong female character, and it’s impossible not to be completely drawn into this world where she has to pretend to be someone she’s not in order to do the one thing she wants to do, while all the while using the one thing that she keeps like a secret to herself – that she is a girl – to make it happen. Pierce’s world-building is impeccable. Tortall is such a tactile place with it’s own politics, rules, borders, and history. As Pierce continues to write, this place becomes even more fleshed out and brilliant, as new characters provide detail of very specific areas of the kingdom.

These books hooked me on fantasy really early. I’ll go back and read the entire quartet every once in a while, and I’m always fascinated by how the story and characters work so well together. I’m still on the lookout for new Tamora Pierce novels. Twenty-four books in and I’m always so excited for the next one.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

There were A LOT of different monster trilogies coming out around the same time  – Stephenie Meyer’s depiction of vampires in Twilight, Maggie Stiefvater’s use of werewolves in Shiver – but Generation Dead by Daniel Waters really stood out as something to watch for. And it was something with zombies.

Generation Dead imagines what would happen if teenagers all of a sudden started coming back from the dead. And if they did, what would that mean for confronting the friends and families that they left behind, for returning to school, for trying to be normal when their situation was anything but that. And then on the other side, how everyone else reacts to them. The novel primarily revolves around Tommy, a newly reanimated teen returning to high school, and Phoebe, the living girl who kind of falls for him. 

There are a handful of things that really stayed with me after I read the book the first time. And they’re kind of important in that I can remember them and be transported right back into that “something is not right” feeling of the book:

1. There is this forest that borders the high school where Tommy disappears after a football game and there is something about a forest by a high school that seems all at once creepy and chilling and dreamlike.

2. Waters writes one of the most horrifying zombie death scenes that I think I’ve ever read in a book or seen in a movie. It isn’t just the method of how it’s done, it’s the way Waters writes a handful of teenage characters who have this sort of overwhelming hatred that can lead to murder.

3. The love triangle between protagonist Phoebe, the teenage zombie Tommy, and Phoebe’s best friend (who is also living), Adam. Phoebe's interest in Tommy and her desire to show that she doesn’t discriminate against the new zombie teenagers at her school ends up causing her to confuse love with just caring deeply about Tommy and his situation. And the ending of this book is really not to be missed.

4. Zombie Tommy decides to try out for the football team. He isn’t as fast as everyone else and there are more serious consequences for being hit too hard (such as losing limbs that don’t really have a great chance of coming back), but he does it anyway. It enacts this sort of instant sympathy in readers while also creating the animosity and tension that drives the book towards its surprising conclusion.

5. That anyone comes back to life in a book provides the occasion to talk about a lot of important things to do with death. However, because Generation Dead is about deceased teenagers coming back to life, Waters has the opportunity to raise quite a few important questions. He introduces many reasons for the deaths of the teenagers who come back: suicide, disease, accident, etc. Teenagers inhabit a very transitory space in development. It is a temporary place that's just sort of between childhood and adulthood. When Waters makes the temporary permanent by bringing back deceased teenagers, he also raises the issue of aging and maturing without growing older. And for the character who commits suicide and is then forced back into living, Waters brings up  this sort of “return to” the problems that death allowed this character to leave behind.

Generation Dead was followed by Kiss of Life and Passing Strange. Both books are set in the same world that Generation Dead introduces to the reader, one where teenagers mysteriously come back from the dead and live in a half-state of life and death. Waters succeeds in making a world that seems familiar: we can almost believe in the events that he imagines even though they belong firmly entrenched in fantasy. It kind of reflects that same in-between of the zombie teenagers who are unable to be young or old, without being able to be one thing or the other. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

Lynne Rae Perkins’ Criss Cross follows two fourteen-year-old protagonists, Debbie and Hector, as their experiences of young adulthood “criss cross” with one another throughout the novel.  Hector is learning how to play guitar. Debbie is trying to will something magical to happen. Both are surrounded by a larger group of friends who are similarly trying to navigate the space between childhood and adulthood. Allusions and references identify the setting as the 1970s, but Perkins' ability to write character and dialogue makes Criss Cross almost timeless. She connects character with character and makes their actions affect how the story plays out for others in the novel. In this way, Criss Cross feels like it connects outwards as a larger story than is contained to the novel. Perkins becomes deeply involved in the uncertainty of the characters, and the universality she enacts through the story allows readers to connect with this uncertainty while crossing reader experience with character depiction.

Although the story is a very strong point of this novel, Perkins also does a lot with form. For example, she scatters hand drawn illustrations throughout. My favorite comes at the beginning of the novel, an illustration of “The Spectrum of Connectedness” which places 0% connection at one end and 100% connection at the other. And at either end Perkins writes, “No one is here – no one.” In between “people move back and forth in this area like molecules in steam.” The images support the story, but more importantly, Perkins seems to use them when a visual depiction is more effective than words. She chooses the moments of illustration carefully instead of using them as a gimmick.

One section of the book employs a sort of newspaper column format where the page splits in half to follow the action of Debbie on one side and of Lenny on the other. Debbie is reading Wuthering Heights. Lenny is reading Popular Mechanics. The parallel structure does a compare/contrast thing between the content each character seeks out to read while also offering a really complementary chapter that takes both sides of character perspective and makes them look like one. 

Perkins also uses haiku to tell story. Debbie thinks that the senior photos in the yearbook should use haikus instead of quotes, such as “Jeff White is handsome, / but his hair is so greasy. / If he would wash it --.” The poetry of haiku is supported by Perkins' inclusion of song lyrics in the novel. All of these formal innovations really show how adolescent and young adult literature push against generic conventions.

Although Hector and Debbie are the main characters in this book, Perkins also introduces Debbie’s missing necklace as something that is sort of like a character and sort of like a plot point. Debbie’s necklace physically travels from place to place as the book progresses, and it encounters other characters and situations that border Debbie’s and Hector’s. Chapter Nineteen is called “Where the Necklace Went,” which makes it possible to map out the journey of Debbie’s necklace physically by location in the book, but also in terms of plot, character, and story. This reminds me a lot of Daniel Handler’s forthcoming book Why We Broke Up. I received an advanced reader copy and loved the premise of the book. Narrator Min Green fills a box with things and leaves that box at the door of Ed Slaterton’s house. Each item allows Min to tell the story of why her and Ed broke up. I really like the way that "things" inspire story, or they make the story known by the presence that they leave behind. Debbie’s necklace was a lot like that - it had a physical presence in the novel that was almost like a spare character or setting.

After I finished Criss Cross, which won the Newbury Award in 2006, I picked up Perkins' other adolescent novels, All Alone in the Universe and As Easy as Falling off the Face of the Earth. Both reflect the same connection that Criss Cross evokes. Books can be largely about making connection – between people, stories, and experience – and Perkins seems like she knows exactly how to make that happen. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Golden Key by George MacDonald

In a funny reversal of how it usually works, I found out about the author George MacDonald through a movie adaptation of his book, The Princess and the Goblin, instead of the sort of standby of “Read the book, watch the movie, complain maybe a little bit about how stuff gets left out of movie adaptations all the time, although maybe, when I think about it, Lord of the Rings did a pretty good job.” What I mean to say is that this was one of those funny happenings where watching a movie led to reading a book. And The Princess and the Goblin, this animated children’s movie that had these small goblins who had six toes on each foot, led me to George MacDonald.

Actually, watching Game of Thrones on HBO has caused me to read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Sword of Storms, but that is another small post altogether, so sometimes I guess television adaptations lead to reading books as well, or maybe just HBO series because now that I think about it True Blood swayed me into reading the first five Sookie Stackhouse books.

The Golden Key by George MacDonald is actually nothing like True Blood or Game of Thrones. I don't even think it was turned into a movie. Published in 1867, the novella is now in the public domain and you can find the text all over the internet. The Farrar, Straus, and Giroux edition of the novel was published in 1967, and boasts an impressive collaboration of text by MacDonald, illustrations by Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, and an afterword by W.H. Auden. The novella, or story really, is about Mossy and Tangle, a boy and a girl who become engrossed by the search for a golden key. The key is the subject of many stories that Mossy is told by his aunt as a child, a mysterious object and no one quite knows what it opens. Mossy lives “on the borders of Fairyland” and his search for the key leads him straight into the path of magic, supernatural people and beings, and strange otherworlds that Mossy and Tangle travel between.

I find this story difficult to go back to and explain other than to say that it takes the form of a fable/hero's quest. But it’s layered with example and allegory and metaphor, and is a story that seems to need to be taken and experienced instead of reiterated in summary. The closest comparison I can think of to The Golden Key is The Little Prince, another book that I can’t explain except for to say that there is something in it that stays with you for quite a while after the book is finished. I’ll get to the end and find that I say in this little voice, “Oh. Well. That’s really cool. And also really sad. And also ridiculously perfect.”

If this is an obtuse review, it’s only because I think it’s more about saying, “The Golden Key. It’s amazing. Please read it” instead of going ahead and saying just why exactly. Because the why is written right into the entire novel. It forms this scaffolding behind every word and has to be read, beginning to end, to feel that structure, form, and meaning.

There’s this small section of the novella where Tangle is talking to the Old Man of the Earth as she tries to figure out how to find Mossy again, since she’s been separated from him over the course of the journey. And the way the Old Man answers her, it’s these kind of exchanges scattered throughout the story:

Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.
“This is the way,” he said.
“But there are no stairs.”
“You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”
She turned and looked him full in the face – stood so for a whole minute, as she thought: it was a whole year – then threw herself headlong into the hole.