Monday, February 25, 2013

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

Wildwood by Colin Meloy is the Decemberists singer and songwriter’s first foray into children’s fantasy. Meloy explores the fantastical story of a forest that borders Portland, Oregon, which has been given the name the Impassable Wilderness. Beautifully illustrated by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis (who also provided the art for The Mysterious Benedict Society), Wildwood belongs standing shoulder to shoulder with such fantasy series as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The story begins with eleven-year-old Prue McKeel setting out on an everyday adventure with her baby brother, Mac. She pulls him in a Radio Flyer wagon hitched to the back of her bike, and takes the reader on a geographical journey through Portland. When she stops at the park to take a break, a murder of crows swoop down on her brother and carry him off into the sky. When she watches them take him towards the Impassable Wilderness, a forested area that she knows not to go into, she understands that she is going to have to go and find him and bring him back.

The Impassable Wilderness, however, is not just a forest. Instead, it contains a magical host of characters, animal and human alike, who have been living there for years. There is a particular magic that keeps the residents of Portland out, and keeps the inhabitants of the Wilderness safe inside. Teaming up with Curtis, an exuberant boy from school (and my favorite character from the book), Prue ventures in to save her brother.

Curtis and Prue are separated from one another not long after they entire the Wilderness. They are startled by a host of coyote soldiers who call themselves by Russian names, and Curtis gets taken while Prue manages to escape. Their separation from one another allows them to cover even more territory than they would be able to explore together in the pages of the book, providing the reader a more clear and comprehensive picture of the Impassable Wilderness and what it holds inside. Curtis spends time battling with the coyotes, donning their uniform and fighting for their cause (even if he’s not exactly sure what that cause it). Prue is taken by a mailman to the South Wood, where she experiences bureaucracy taken to another level, a corrupt government, and a sorrow-filled history. When she asks for help from the government she finds it a complicated route. As the narrator notes,“[Prue’s] only struggle with bureaucracy was when she’d been on the waiting list for a particularly popular book at the library.” The government of the South Wood is something much different.

Prue and Curtis become more and more entangled with the politics and culture of Wildwood and find their way into its complicated history and relationship with the human world. Mac sits at the center of the story, the person Prue is searching for, and the key to the personal history of her family that she could never have known. Wildwood is a lyrical book and even includes several songs sung by a band of bandits. It is reminiscent of The Hobbit in that way, and allows the reader to fully interact with the world. I would recommend following up with the sequel, Under Wildwood.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges

Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges is a graphic memoir that explores the author learning, from a psychic no less, that her father has not passed away from colon cancer like her mother and sisters have always told her, and follows the subsequent reordering of her understanding of her family. It yokes together the aspects of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and David Small’s Stitches that made them so notable – a careful detailing of the author’s childhood and resulting affect on their future lives as relayed by a loose frame narrative set in a sort-of-present.

The title – Calling Dr. Laura – comes from Georges calling Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s conservative radio advice show (and one of the most hilarious images in the entire book is Georges representation of Schlessinger as the sister in Dinosaurs) as she tries to come to terms with the fact that her mother and sisters lied to her. She includes the transcript of the phone call, having recorded it as it took place. As a character in her memoir, Georges illustrates herself tucking the tape recording of the phone call away and hiding it from her girlfriend Radar.

Georges begins the book in Portland, OR, where she lives with a handful of dogs, chickens, and a new rescue chicken named Mabel. Her artistic style changes as the book jumps back and forth from past to present, and her depiction of her childhood is rendered in a less descriptive and more iconic way, which suits her younger age and the material presented. Georges depicts a series of boyfriends and husbands that her mother was attached to while she grew up, many of them distant and one abusive. Each of these men gives the young Georges a present – a stuffed animal by at least two and a dog from another – and her mother insists that Georges name the gift after the boyfriend/husband who gave it to her. I thought it was hilarious to see Georges’ collection of animals growing, each one named after a man who had quickly been inched out of her mother’s life.

Relationships are at the heart of Georges’ memoir: with her mother, her two half-sisters who are ten and twelve years older than she is, her girlfriend Radar, her close friends, her dogs, and her amorphous, unknowable father. Georges is stuck up in the middle, trying to make sense of how she stands in relation to the people she loves, and how she can carve out her own identity when there are so many different ones that others want her to subscribe to.

It is an intriguing story and beautifully illustrated book. I really loved Georges’ artistic style and the times that she illustrates scenes set in Portland were some of my favorite. Although Dr. Laura is integral to the title, she only occupies a small series of pages near the end of the book (where the transcript of their phone call conversation is included), but her importance to Georges as an outlet for advice at a difficult time is notable. Likewise, the psychic who gets so much wrong about Georges gets one very important thing right – her father is still alive. The ending is almost heartbreaking, and the story as a whole is well worth the read. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

I know Marian Keyes books aren’t technically young adult, but I started reading her books (Rachel’s Holiday, Sushi for Beginners, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, Last Chance Saloon, and Watermelon) between the ages of 12-15, so I feel like they belong here anyway. The last Keyes book that I read was This Charming Man, which had one of my favorite male characters (the eventual cross-dressing boyfriend of the character Lola Daly) that I’ve found in a book in a while. But This Charming Man came out a few years ago, and I’ve sort of lapsed on keeping up with her newer publications. In the time between, Keyes has had a few more publications, and I’ve been catching up over the last few weeks.

The Brightest Star in the Sky is a multi-character narrative (one of the things that I enjoyed the most about This Charming Man was jumping from one character to the next, wandering through their lives and itching to have all of the individual stories laid out in one go), and all of the characters just happen to live at 66 Star Street in Dublin. Maeve and her husband Mark live in a flat on the first floor, and then there is the cab-driving Lydia who rents a tiny-sized bedroom alongside two Polish men, the aging psychic Jemima and her dog Grudge, and Katie, the successful PR rep who lives at the top of the house. Their stories are slowly woven tightly together by a mysterious narrating spirit who has taken an interest in the residents of 66 Star Street, and is counting down the sixty-one days that the story takes place in.

In every multi-character Marian Keyes book, I always find that I pick a favorite character, and my favorite doesn’t seem to change much from beginning to end (for example, Lola in This Charming Man). But with The Brightest Star in the Sky, the further into the story I got, the more I fell in love with each of the characters, from Lydia to Maeve to Jemima to Kate. One of the things I like about books that follow the story of a handful of characters it that the story never seems to get boring, or slow, or old, because it is constantly being rejuvenated by a new perspective that carries a narrative thread further in its own direction. I wished I could read the four perspectives almost continuously, like a four-column page with them all going together at once. Keyes’ main characters are so nuanced and likeable, and the cast of characters that in turn supports each of their own stories (including Katie’s PR team, Lydia’s three brothers, and Lydia’s two Polish roommates, Jan and Andrei, who at times steal the show) are just as well-written.

The spirit that watches over the house, and, as we find out, has an investment in the people who live there, pieces together their lives through the small details of their conversations and routines and schedules, guiding the reader towards possible conclusions and through devastating and humorous backstory. These separate people whose experiences are compartmentalized by their separate flats are slowly pulled into one another’s orbits, drawn closer and closer together as the book drives towards its startling conclusion. There is also the loosely structured fairy tale that knits the entire book together, referenced only a few times, but in a meaningful enough way that it adds an important layer to an already full story.

As an introduction or starting-off point to Marian Keyes, any of her books is a good one to begin with. There is something so distinctly “Marian Keyes” about her writing, a promise that every book she writes will be a satisfying read. But for the book that reintroduced me to Keyes’ writing after a few years without it, The Brightest Star in the Sky was the perfect story. 

Marian Keyes on The Brightest Star in the Sky

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

I have been intrigued by the premise of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece since I first heard it – the ashes of Jamie’s sister Rose, who died in a terrorist attack in London, sit in an urn on the mantelpiece and have for the past five years. I’ve been meaning to pick it up for a few months now, but hadn’t been able to track it down in a bookstore until just recently. If I had known David Tennant, or, Doctor Who, had written a blurb on the back of the book to say, “I couldn’t put it down,” I might have tried a bit harder to find it then I did. Also, if I had known author Annabel Pitcher worked on the British soap opera Coronation Street, I probably would have ordered this straight from Amazon the second that I heard about it.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is told with an immediacy that is in fitting with its ten-year-old protagonist. Jamie is as likeable as he is perceptive, and the way he cobbles together a picture of his damaged and grieving family through snapshots of their present life fits perfectly with the subject matter. Jamie opens the book by telling the reader, “My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London. Mum and Dad had a big argument when the police found ten bits of her body. Mum wanted a grave she could visit. Dad wanted a cremation so he could sprinkle the ashes in the sea. That’s what Jasmine told me, anyway. She remembers more than I do.” Jamie’s sister Jasmine is five years older than he is, and more notably, she was Rose’s twin. There is a striking moment at the beginning of the novel when Jasmine shows up with her hair dyed pink and cut off and wearing a brand new style of wardrobe. Her parents are devastated because she no longer gives off the impression of how Rose could have looked were she still alive.

Jamie keeps the story rooted in the real and the now, and even though he is dealing with the aftereffects of Rose’s horrific death and his father’s rampant racism, there are many everyday, touching, and humorous moments that keep this book launched heavily towards a middle school or young adult reader.

When the story begins, Jamie and Jasmine are relocating from London to Ambleside with their father. Jamie describes Ambleside as completely opposite to London: “It’s so different here. There are massive mountains that are tall enough to poke God up the bum, hundreds of trees, and it’s quiet.” Their mother has just left them for Nigel, the man that she met at her support group. Their father relies heavily on drinking and lying around the house all day, and so Jas has taken over taking care of Jamie, even though she’s still a teenager herself.

Rose haunts the lives of her family in every way. There are boxes moved to the basement of the house in Ambleside marked “Sacred,” all of them full of Rose’s clothes, her life arrested at the age of ten. The urn sits on the mantelpiece. Jas constantly feels the absence of her twin. Jamie, who was only five when Rosie was killed, has a different response to grief and recovery. He can’t remember her, hardly anything at all. He says,

One day for homework I had to describe someone special and I spent fifteen minutes writing a whole page on my favorite soccer player. Mum made me rip it up and write about Rose instead. I had nothing to say so Mum sat opposite me with her face all red and wet and told me exactly what to write. She smiled this teary smile and said When you were born, Rose pointed at your willy and asked if it was a worm and I said I’m not putting that in my English paper. Mum’s smile disappeared. Tears dripped off her nose onto her chin and that made me feel bad so I wrote it down. A few days later, the teacher read my homework out loud in class and I got a gold star from her and teased by everyone else. Maggot Dick, they called me.

The dialogue is related through italics that slip right into the descriptive text, the two running together in a semi-stream-of-conscious style. It is a leisurely but deliberate read about one family’s coming to terms with the loss of Rose, and how it takes more than years to come to terms with grief.