Friday, November 30, 2012

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz is a forthcoming title from Candlewick Press (publication date April 2013). It is a beautifully written book about eleven-year-old protagonist Annie, who lives with her younger brother Rew (short for Andrew) and her Gran at the edge of Zebra Forest. At the end of the school year, she writes down a list of three wishes for the summer, the things that she hopes will happen in the few short months before she has to start school again. She wishes to grow taller, to have an adventure, and to meet her father. Annie explains that these are all impossible wishes: “First of all, I was short and, if Gran was any indication, likely to stay that way…Adventures were scarce in Sunshine, a small town of what Mrs. Roberts called ‘some two thousand souls,’ as if it were populated by ghosts…[and] I could never meet my father. My father was dead.” Still, she writes the three wishes down and goes home to start her summer.

Annie is used to staying around home, helping her Gran with the day-to-day routines that she has trouble with. Annie does all of the grocery shopping, lugging home bags full of groceries from the small grocery store in town, instead of the large supermarket that she once lost her brother Rew in. Because of their living situation, Annie has become an excellent liar; she explains that this is something that she has in common with her Gran. Lying, Annie says, allows her to be a good storyteller, and that, “Rew could think better than I could, but I told the better story, probably because I was a good liar, something Gran had trained me in when I was little.” After Annie and Rew moved in with their Gran when they were very young, they stayed at home, homeschooled because, “[Gran] didn’t hold with institutions…or being locked up in a big building all day. That was back when she talked more and brooded less, though she still brooded often enough even then.” When Adele Parks, a social worker, starts checking in on them and sends Annie and Rew off to school, Annie learns quickly how to cover up the reality of living with her Gran, especially the wide difference between her Gran’s good days and bad days. Annie and Rew spend most of their time reading the second half of Treasure Island to one another (the first half of the book is missing from their copy), and acting out scenes from the book.

But at the beginning of the summer, something happens at the house at the edge of Zebra Forest that makes Annie think this summer might be different than all of the ones that came before. When a man breaks into the house, escaped from the prison that stands on the other side of Zebra Forest, he takes the small family of three hostage and refuses to let them leave the house. And as Annie and Rew get to know the man, they start to realize just how good of a liar their Gran is, and just what, exactly, she has been hiding.

Gewirtz’s writing reminds me of Sharon Creech’s, in that they both seem to be able to turn a very simple description into a lyrical and poetic line. Annie has a voice similar to Zinny Taylor in Chasing Redbird, but comes across as much younger that Creech’s character (and she is only eleven in Zebra Forest). Gewirtz’s writing also makes possible the transformation of Zebra Forest into a character, as Annie explains, “We called it the Zebra Forest because it looked like a zebra. Its trees were a mix of white birch and chocolate oak, and if you stood a little ways from it, like at our house looking across the back field that was our yard, you saw stripes, black and white, that went up into green.”

The only criticism I have of the book is the focus on a television program Annie watched over at her friend Beth’s house, The Iran Crisis: American Held Hostage. Annie continuously references the story, the fact that it aired on ABC, and the comparison it makes to the hostage situation happening at her own house. I think that the historical connection is interesting to make in terms of Annie’s own understanding of current events across the world and her own ability to make comparisons with personal and impersonal experience, but the number of times the reference is made makes the event repetitive and meaningless. I like that Gewirtz sets up the comparison, but she can also provide readers with the credit to continue to make the connection as the story goes on, without continuously bringing up the historical event in every chapter. There is a point where nothing new is said about the Iran Crisis, nor does its mention contribute to Annie’s own story.

For its beautiful writing and surprising story, I would recommend picking up Zebra Forest when it is out next April. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

When Misskaella, a witch and outcast on Rollrock Island, learns that she has the power to coax beautiful women out of the seals who live on the beach below, she trades money with the men of Rollrock who leave their human wives in favor of these new, magical women that Misskaella calls from the sea. Lanagan draws on the selkie myth, mythological creatures from Irish, Scottish, and Icelandic folklore, seals who shed their skin on land and walk as humans, their seal coats discarded and hidden until their return to the sea.

Misskaella’s work is one part experimenting with her new magic, and one part vengeance against the women of Rollrock, who have consistently made her feel different, and as if she doesn’t belong:

Was she beautiful, the sea maid? Fair strange, Doris had said, and I thought that was a fine assessment. Her hair was neat dark wings at either side of her face; her eyebrows were drawn clear-edged against skin that bore not a freckle or fleck. The girl’s eyes were wide and dark; her hands were long, the fingers slender and longer than the palms. Any man seeing this maiden’s lips would want to lay kisses on them; he would want to roll in the cushions of those lips, swim the depths of those eyes, run his hands down the long foreign lengths of this girl. Oh, I thought, women of Rollrock, you are nothing now.

The Brides of Rollrock Island moves between several perspectives of the inhabitants of Rollrock Island, shifting time periods: before the women came from the sea, while they inhabit the island, and when they leave again. The stories span over three generations of Rollrock men, and although there are female perspectives included, Lanagan’s book has the feel of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, a novel about a five sisters but narrated by the men that were in their lives. The selkie women are not given a voice in this novel; none of the many women who Misskaella makes cast away their seal coats directly narrate this novel. Instead, their husbands and sons (there are no daughters of selkies and human men who live on the island) cast them in a brilliant and otherworldly light, and forget the human women who once inhabited Rollrock Island, but left when their husbands chose the selkie women instead of their human wives.

Lanagan’s writing is as weird, wild, and beautiful here as it is in Tender Morsels and her short story collections. Her descriptions of the seals lying down by the ocean are continuously reimagined, so that at one point “the seals lay like bobbins in a drawer, grays and silvers, fawns and browns, some mottled, others smoothly one-colored tip to tip. The babies, very brown, were all movement and enterprise among the lounging mothers”; yet they are later “the many silken bodies lying ashore like poor-piled bolsters, sandbags, jelly bags”; and near the end of the book they are “moving about us like monstrous dark maggots, helpless, harmless, huge.”

Misskaella, the witch, is both described by other characters in the novel and given a section to narrate herself, allowing the reader to judge her for the change she has brought over the island (if the reader can cast judgment, after reading her narrative). She is one of many siblings in her family, the very youngest, and she goes around the town with pieces of cloth crossing her body, keeping her magic safe, secured, and unused. She is always an outsider on Rollrock Island, from a young girl to a young woman, learning the extent of what her seal magic can do. Still, her own understanding of herself is at times painful to read, as she insists, “For a long time I seemed to be everyone’s but my own; I was like a broom or dishrag that anyone might pick up and use, and put aside without a thought when they were done with me.”

Finally, Lanagan writes careful detail and exactness into her depictions of women (and men) shedding their sealskin. Her writing is at its best in these descriptions,both mechanical and practical, imaginative and magical. The Brides of Rollrock Island presents a compelling retelling of selkie mythology, introducing a world of characters to narrate the coming of women from the sea. Each perspective and detail is necessary to the story, and reader investment is pushed to the limit during a particularly high stakes section near the end of the novel. Lanagan’s writing should never be missed, and The Brides of Rollrock Island is no exception.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia Angelina Temminnick tumbles down a dumbwaiter, ruining her dress and her tea; is accepted into Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality; and is bundled up in a coach with a boy heading to a school for evil geniuses and his sister, Dimity, who is on her way to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, all in one morning. With more brothers and sisters than she can count, the fact that Sophronia is taking leave of her family’s country house is a relief to her mother, and her mother’s friend Mrs. Barnaclegoose, or, as Sophronia calls her, a “meddling old battle-ax.”

When en route to the finishing school, the coach is attacked by flywaymen (the equivalent of highway robbers, but with dirigibles) who are searching for something very valuable, something they call “the prototype.” Sophronia quickly learns that the Mademoiselle Geraldine who is traveling with them is not the real Mademoiselle Geraldine, but instead a student of the finishing school called Monique, who has been given the task of retrieving the prototype, Sophronia, and the siblings, and to deliver them to school. Sophronia quickly shows that she is not the sort of fourteen-year-old girl who sits back and waits for someone to get her out trouble; instead, she concocts a plan to rid the coach of the flywaymen, and to steer them out of danger, to arrive safely at school.

The thread that carries through Carriger’s book is that not all is as it seems, for the finishing academy does more than teach manners and etiquette; it trains young girls in the art of espionage, with an undercurrent that “to finish” means to become a highly skilled assassin. Sophronia is one of the only girls to arrive who does not have any connection to the school; most of the girls there are following in their parents’, or grandparents’ example and attending out of a sense of family allegiance. Sophronia has to figure out the quirky mix of “etiquette and espionage,” carefully determining the ropes and when to pull them. And then there is also the fact that the school does not have a precise location. Instead, it floats, a massive airship kept airborne, dropping only occasionally to the moors to collect students.

Among the professors at the school are a werewolf and a vampire, and the werewolf, Captain Niall, is one of the early highlights of the novel. When Sophronia and Dimity first meet Captain Niall, they are struck by both his bare feet and the jaunty top hat that he wears on his head. When he transforms into a wolf, Sophronia “noticed then, much to her surprise, that the top hat was still tied securely to his head. This incongruity served to calm her as nothing else could have. Later, Sophronia was to wonder if this was the reason Captain Niall always wore a top hat, even when he changed – to put people at ease. Or if he believed that, whatever the form, a gentleman should never be without his hat.” As Victorian steampunk, Carriger is concerned with details of dress, and her descriptions of clothing make for the opportunity to slip in a very precise humor. Her description of Captain Niall marks one such description, when she writes, “Captain Niall had a nice smile, and Sophronia liked his boneless way of moving. But she had a sinking suspicion he wasn’t wearing a cravat under the greatcoat. Also, it looked as if his top hat was tied under his chin like a baby’s bonnet. Since she figured it might be rude to point out the man’s deficiencies in attire to his face, she said instead, ‘I do hope the coachman finds his way back to civilization safely.’”

I couldn’t put Etiquette and Espionage down after I started reading it, and I already have Carriger’s other books on order (the five books in The Parasol Protectorate series, described as steampunk paranormal romance). Sophronia is such a likeable character, and, at fourteen, Carriger has tons of potential to map out her experiences as they take place throughout the rest of finishing school. The subtitle “Book the First” certainly suggests that there will be more in the series, as does the ending and where we leave Sophronia and the prototype. Etiquette and Espionage will be published by Little and Brown in February 2013. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo is an Australian young adult novel that rotates between the point of view of fifteen-year-old Amelia Hayes and twenty-one-year-old Chris Harvey. The two work at Coles, a grocery store at the local shopping center. Amelia has just started and it’s her first job, one she sought out because, “Money is never openly discussed in my house, but I suspect that last year was a bit tough. My sister Liza moved out to go to university in Bathurst, and my dad was longer than usual between jobs. Asking for money began to stress me out. Dad would say he didn’t have any cash and to ask Mum. Mum would sigh and look pissed off and give it to me with less than good grace. So I thought, Enough of that.” When Amelia starts working at Coles, she falls head over heels for Chris, even though he’s older and crushing on another girl at work (his age) named Kathy. Still, Amelia never skips a shift and enjoys their friendship (Chris is always calling her “Youngster,” especially after she’s just ranted about a book she’s read for English class when he will say, “Breathe, Youngster, breathe. You’re an Angry Young Woman”), even though the entire time she is hoping for more.

Amelia controls most of the narrative, although the book occasionally moves between “The Purple Notebook” and “The Black Notebook,” where Chris writes about the day-to-day events in his life. For a period of time, Amelia and Chris also exchange letters, and their voices intersect, overlap, and juxtapose one another, as they tell different versions of the same events and allow the other to creep into their own stories as real-life characters. Buzo’s writing moves between poignancy, laugh out loud humor, intricate detail, and an incredible sense of writing believable teenage characters. Although the age gap – fifteen and twenty-one – seems too discursive to fit within the same book, Buzo highlights the new trend of emerging and new adults living at home during and after graduating from college (Chris), and the strange sense of “in between” adulthood and childhood that it presents, strangely similar to the experience of young adulthood (Amelia). Their voices allow Buzo to examine both high school and university, before bouncing back to the common, shared ground of Coles (which Chris continuously refers to as “The Land of Dreams”), where they are similarly positioned.

The book spans over a year in both Amelia and Chris’s life, as they deal with home situations, long shifts at Coles, friendships, work drama, relationships, memory, and moving forward. Amelia and Chris regularly meet in the break room to talk about the things that bother Amelia, specifically, the books that she has to read in English class. Her interpretation of the books she reads comes up against Chris’s interpretations, both of them shaped by their past, present, future, and, more importantly, their experiences with unrequited love. Chris’s own complicated sense of “moving forward” from a relationship with Michaela (after he writes a particularly profanity-laden journal entry and wonders what his grandchildren will think if they ever come across his notebook, he says, “Probably that their grandpa had his heart ripped out, bloody and still beating, from behind his shattered ribcage by a wily Western Australian. Which is pretty much what happened”) shows him reading the relationships in the canonical novels Amelia reads as tragic and doomed. The two discuss Great Expectations in depth, particularly the ending and whether or not Pip and Estella should end up together. They go beneath surface readings, as Chris tells Amelia about Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a friend of Charles Dickens who suggested that he make the ending of Great Expectations more hopeful, with the possibility that Pip and Estella might get together (Bulwer-Lytton, Chris tells us, was also the first author to use the opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night.”).

Both characters are extremely likeable, even at the times when they are also hopelessly flawed. For anyone who has had a job through high school and college, the scenes at Coles are incredibly perceptive, and an entire cast of characters exists in that grocery store to cover a vast range of types and personalities. Chris and Amelia’s age difference makes the story interesting and uncertain, as they maneuver consistently around the arms length space that remains between them. Buzo’s book also has one of the most accessible conversations about feminism that I think I have read in a young adult fiction novel (aside from Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens), and both Chris and Amelia engage in debate from both sides of the fence.

I read Love and Other Perishable Items in one sitting, and loved the anticipation of moving between the two points of views, listening to Amelia narrate a few months of the year before allowing Chris to provide his perspective on the same timeline. In a book about two characters at two completely different stages of life, Buzo aligns their stories with an ease and beauty that makes the two characters seem at home within the same pages. Readers experience the familiarity of high school as well as the yet undiscovered world of college, and watch those two worlds bump up against one another as Amelia and Chris navigate a year in their lives.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Brain Camp by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan, art by Faith Erin Hicks

After reading and loving Faith Erin Hicks’ Friends With Boys, I went looking for her other books and artwork. I found the graphic novel Brain Camp, and Hicks did not write the story (writing credit goes to Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan), she provides the artwork. Unlike the black and white art in Friends with Boys, Brain Camp is fully colored, similar to the bright and lively color in Raina Telemaiger’s Smile and Drama.

Brain Camp is about Jenna and Lucas, two adolescent/teenage characters (both are almost fourteen). When a mysterious man with a briefcase shows up at their houses one night, encouraging their parents to send them to Camp Fielding, they are sent there immediately, even if it’s not really the place that they want to be spending their summer. Jenna and Lucas don’t like each other at first. There are a series of great illustrations that contain Jenna and Lucas’s thoughts about one another in bubbles, namely “freak” “thug” and “nerd” “gansta wannabe.” Both are entering the camp as it is already in progress: there have just been two unexplained openings at Camp Fielding, due to both a boy and a girl camper being unable to continue at the camp.

Kim and Klavan write in an authentic and endearing teenage voice, relocating the cliques and friendships of middle school and high school to a summer camp in the middle of the woods. Jenna and Lucas stand apart from the others at the camp, who are all incredibly smart and characterized as genius. The opening scenes of the graphic novel show Lucas breaking into and stealing a car, and Jenna writing and acting scenes from plays in her room, while her talented sister plays piano for an audience of her parents’ (both doctors) friends downstairs. When they arrive at camp, Lucas and Jenna exchange the epithets that have been used to describe them. Both admit that they are “dumb,” and Jenna tells Lucas, “Actually I’m secretly ‘bright’ but for some reason I’m a real ‘underachiever,’” while Lucas parrots similar descriptors to Jenna, “Underachiever…nice to meet you. I’m a ‘lazy slacker’ with a ‘bad attitude.’” They also meet a kid named Dwayne, and the three form a friendship that mainly revolves around complaining about the camp.

It doesn’t take them long to figure out that all is not as it seems at Camp Fielding. There is something mysterious going on that turns normal kids into geniuses, and numerous disappearances of campers. The most blatant evidence of this occurs on the night when Jenna is locked out of her cabin and has to sleep outside. The next morning, the rest of the girls in her cabin are suddenly smarter, less emotional, and nowhere near normal. Jenna, Lucas, and Dwayne try to get to the bottom of what is going on at Camp Fielding, and the answer is a lot more complicated and horrifying than they could have guessed.

Hicks’ artwork captures the feel of summer camp, and the nuances of the teenaged characters Kim and Klavan have created. Kim and Klavan have written some great dialogue, and the characters are both realistic and interesting. They are also overwhelmingly flawed, which leads to a few plot twists and story arcs that lead the reader down a new and exciting path of story. I bought this book because of Hicks’ art, but loved the story Kim and Klavan crafted, and the summer camp setting that they created in the process.