Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen by Glen Huser

Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen is one of my favorite titles, and I think I picked up the book on that description alone. The book, by Glen Huser, is about teenaged Tamara (Skinnybones) and Mrs. Barclay (the Wrinkle Queen). Tamara is paired with Mrs. Barclay for a class assignment, as her class walks the three blocks to the Sierra Sunset Senior’s Lodge to visit with the seniors there. Tamara has jumped from foster home to foster home to land with the Shadbolts, Shirl and Herbert, and their two children. An aspiring model, Tamara fakes an allergy to flour (modeling it after a program she watched on TV about gluten intolerance) after noting the absence of any healthy food at all in the house. Still, the Shadbolts make a change from the previous family she lived with, the Rawdings, “with their lists of rules all over the place, taped to the fridge, in the inside of the bathroom door: Don’t use more than 6 squares of bathroom tissue during a visit. Don’t open the refrigerator door unless you have permission.” She skips school frequently to watch Fashion TV, and has to check in regularly with her social worker, Mr. Mussbacher.

Mrs. Barclay, on the other hand, has ended up in the Senior’s Lodge by an unfortunate mistake: thinking that she was going to die quite soon, she signed power of attorney over to her nephew, Byron, who insists that she sell her house and her car as soon as possible. Mrs. Barclay notes, “Six months ago, when the pain was so bad I made me dizzy, I was sure my boat was headed out to sea, all primed with tar, reading for the torch. I said things; I signed things. But the funeral barge wasn’t set afire. And, God, it’s hard to have to hobble back to shore and find Byron waiting for you.” She intersperses her knowledge of opera (which is full of Norse mythology) with her understanding of people and places, her go to set of allusions to describe a situation.

The two form an unlikely pairing when both set their sights on the west coast, Mrs. Barclay hoping to attend the opera in Seattle and Tamara wanting to register in a modeling workshop in Vancouver. They decide to make that happen, and set off from Edmonton in Mrs. Barclay’s boat of a car.

Although there are places where the journey and what will happen on it seem transparent, Huser is always conscious of his characters and imbues them with a personality that doesn’t get lost in the predictability of the story. For instance, he carefully alludes (only once or twice) to how Tamara’s dream of modeling affects her well being, noting at one point when she almost faints in a meeting that she could have had more to eat lunch. Similarly, Huser only subtly shows Mrs. Barclay’s own knowledge of her “bad” days, her confusion when she sleeps an entire morning away, or Tamara’s worry when Mrs. Barclay isn’t herself. The story is told through their intersecting perspectives, moving between Tamara and Mrs. Barclay throughout the book.

Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen is a quick, light, and satisfying read, with a fun map-out of the journey from Edmonton to the west coast and back again.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

The first book that I read by Nick Hornby wasn’t High Fidelity or About a Boy or Fever Pitch, even though those are the titles that he is most known for. Instead, the first Nick Hornby book that I read was his YA novel Slam, about a teenager obsessed with Tony Hawk who ends up being a teenage father. The next time I picked up one of his books was when Juliet, Naked was released in 2009, a book about a woman named Annie who is dating a man who is a fan of the musician Tucker Crowe. It wasn’t until this year that I finally made it back to Hornby’s earlier books, when I found a stack of them in a used bookstore.

One of my favorites was Hornby’s A Long Way Down, a book about four very different people who all find themselves on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve, all of them up there with the intention of jumping off. There is Martin, a TV personality who has since slipped into degenerative celebrity since being caught sleeping with a fifteen-year-old girl; JJ, an American living in England and working as a pizza delivery boy, depressed enough to pretend to be living with a terminal illness as a way to make his depression seem more justified; Jess, a seventeen-year-old girl who has just been deserted by her boyfriend Chas; and Maureen a middle-aged mother with a handicapped son. Hornby moves from perspective to perspective, braiding the four characters together at the same time that he unwinds their individual stories.

A Long Way Down had a distinctly YA feel to me, and aligned with the way I felt reading Hornby’s YA novel Slam. I’m not sure if it’s the inclusion of two younger protagonists (Jess and JJ), or the subject matter that seems to widen the potential audience for this book, but it seemed like something that would appeal to teenagers as well as adult readers. Hornby’s humor is on display here as well, and he has a lot of material to work with as he describes four very nuanced characters. At first it seems as if the entire book is going to happen in one night, covering the span of New Year’s, but then it slowly expands over a longer stretch of time as the book goes on. I really liked the immediacy of the “one night” story at first, but liked it even more when these four individuals continued to keep in contact over the several months that follow the night that they met.

Hornby describes the Toppers’ House rooftop as famous in London as a suicide destination, and I think it’s Martin who describes that it’s the perfect height to ensure that it does the job. Hornby creates four distinct voices – none of the characters ever start to sound the same or run together – coming from backgrounds that are dissimilar enough that they all have a different reason for trekking to Toppers’ House on New Year’s Eve. Maureen is the second to arrive, after Martin:
“And then I saw Martin, right over on the other side of the roof. I hid in the shadows and watched him. I could see he’d done things properly: He’d brought a little stepladder and some wire cutters, and he’d managed to climb over the top like that. And he was just sitting on the ledge, dangling his feet, looking down, taking nips out of a little hip flash, smoking, and thinking, while I waited. And he smoked and he smoked and I waited and waited until in the end I couldn’t wait anymore. I know it was his stepladder, but I needed it. It wasn’t going to be much use to him.”
Jess joins them next, “roaring towards” Maureen and Martin as they negotiate who gets to use the small stepladder next. Jess says,
“I shouldn’t have made the noise. That was my mistake. I mean, that was my mistake if the idea was to kill myself. I could have just walked, quickly and quietly and calmly, to the place where Martin had cut through the wire, climbed the ladder, and then jumped. But I didn’t. I yelled something like ‘Out of the way, losers!’ and made this Red Indian war-whoop noise, as if it were all a game – which it was at that point, to me anyway – and Martin rugby-tackled me before I got halfway there. And then he sort of kneeled on me and ground my face into that sort of gritty fake tarmac stuff they put on the tops of buildings. Then I really did want to be dead.”
Hornby’s humor mixes with an exploration of depression and unhappiness, and the reasons why suicide suddenly seems like the only option. He uses four characters and four distinct backgrounds in order to navigate the separate threads of depression, and draw them together in one story. I loved A Long Way Down – it’s my favorite Hornby book so far – and have Housekeeping vs. the Dirt on hand to reread next. 

(Also, I’ve just discovered that A Long Way Down is going to get a movie adaptation soon!)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Jaclyn Moriarty is one of the few writers, who, when a new book of hers is released, I go to the bookstore that day and read the book within the first twenty-four hours of picking it up. A Corner of White, the first book in The Colors of Madeleine trilogy, was released in Canada on April 1, although it’s taken me a while to sit down and write a review of it. It introduces two characters, Madeleine and Elliot, who live parallel to one another: Madeleine in Cambridge, England and Elliot in the fantastical Kingdom of Cello, in the Farms (Moriarty provides a brief travel guide to Cello at the beginning of the book, which describes the farms by stating, “Blahdy, blahdy, hooray for Farmers! Blah, blah, pumpkin pie! etc. Seriously, though, if you’re short on time, give the Farms a miss”). Although Cambridge exists in a present context that readers will be familiar with, the Kingdom of Cello is something much different. Although the characters live out an existence that seems as contemporary as Madeleine’s Cambridge (there are TVs and radios and advanced warning systems in Elliot’s town), there is something that seems more timeless, and unique, about Cello. At the time Elliot’s story is set in, the two princesses of Cello are touring the kingdom, stopping off in each town to meet with their subjects. And then there is the fact that there are colors – Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, etc. – that attack and affect the people who live in the kingdom. It is an interesting variation on a fantastical setting, and one that is explored in interesting ways throughout (for example, what the color Red would be capable of doing plays along with color/word associations in neat ways).

Although Madeleine and Elliot’s stories seem separate, they are brought together by a crack in a parking meter in Cambridge that corresponds to a crack in a sculpture in Cello. Through that crack, Elliot and Madeleine are able to exchange a series of letters and notes that are interspersed throughout the book. For me, Moriarty’s books have always been about the multiple forms of communication that she uses to tell a story. Rarely does she use a third-person narrative that is present in A Corner of White. Instead, she typically uses letters, journal entries, notes left on the kitchen counter, and transcripts to tell, and sometimes supplement, a story. These innovations are present in A Corner of White –letters, newspaper editorials, and excerpts from the Cello travel guide appear throughout – but they don’t form the entirety of the story as much as they usually do. I missed this for a good chunk of the book – probably the first half – but then was able to take A Corner of White for what it was instead of what I wished it would be. It is a fantasy trilogy that does require another form of writing than Moriarty’s other books, and it works well for the story that she imparts. However, I still felt relieved when I encountered a longer series of letters between Elliot and Madeleine near the end of the book, where they are included in a volume that seems closer to what is present in The Year of Secret Assignments or Feeling Sorry for Celia.

Moriarty also highlights a series of historical figures who spent their time in Cambridge, most notably Lord Byron and Isaac Newton. Their own stories become integral to the fictional characters’ own. As well, both Madeleine and Elliot are both trying to deal with their family situations, which have recently been changed dramatically. Madeleine is used to a lavish life of pent houses and travel with her mom and dad, but when she runs away from itnone night her mom follows, and the two move to Cambridge leaving Madeleine’s father behind. Elliot and his mother, however, have been left by Elliot’s father, although the details of his disappearance are not clear. Elliot believes he has been taken to the nest of a Purple, and travels across Cello to try to find him.

A Corner of White was not the story that I had been expecting, but is instead a trilogy that I am looking forward to reading to the end. The book ends with the suggestion of a possible real-life meeting between Madeleine and Elliot (even though Madeleine spent the majority of the book disbelieving Elliot’s existence, or the world that he claimed to live in), and I am really looking forward to that (if it happens!). Moriarty writes teenage relationships so well, whether they are romantic or just friendships, and there seems to be so much potential for Madeleine and Elliot (and the other characters!) to continue to explore in the books that are still to come.