Thursday, March 31, 2016

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I've passed by the bright red cover of Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda several times while at Canadian bookstore Chapters, but didn't pick it up until now. I really regret not reading it until almost a year after it's April 2015 publication.

Protagonist Simon Spier begins the book by observing, "It's a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don't notice I'm being blackmailed." The blackmailer in question is Martin Addison "a little bit of a goobery nerd, to be honest," who logs into Gmail after Simon vacates the library computer. Unfortunately, Simon has left himself logged in to his secret email account, the one he is using to email Blue, a gay teenager at his high school. Neither has shared their real identity with the other and the emails provide a place for them both to communicate about their experience. 

Martin takes a screenshot of the emails and threatens to post them to the school's Tumblr, The creeksecrets: "ground zero for Creekwood High School gossip." Simon is not openly gay, and if Martin shares the emails on creek secrets, the school will know immediately. And there's also the fact that Blue will be involved, a relationship Simon doesn't want to jeopardize. 

Simon's narrative voice is so compelling. He's a keen observer. The book bounces back and forth between Simon's narration and the emails he and Blue are sending back and forth to one another, providing readers with "first impression" observations, and also those that are more carefully curated in order to send to Blue. High school drama plays also plays a role, since Simon (and Martin) are involved in the school's production of Oliver! (a play that Jon van de Ruit's Spud also took up). During an early showing of the play to the high school classes, Albertalli's writing becomes so evocative of the high school experience and atmosphere. Her description of a teacher trying to lecture an auditorium filled with high school students took me right back to that experience:
There's this drone of quiet conversation and denim rustling against seats. Someone shrieks with laughter, and someone else yells, "QUIET!" So then a bunch of people start giggling.
"I'll wait," Ms. Albright says. And when the laughter dies down, she holds up the notebook. "Does anyone recognize this?"
"Your diary?" Some asshole sophomore.
Ms. Albright ignores him. "This is the Creekwood handbook, which you should have read and signed at the beginning of the year."
Everyone immediately stops listening. God. It's got to freaking suck to be a teacher. 
As a reader, I was so invested in finding out Blue's real name alongside Simon, but throughout the process, Simon's sense of finding himself takes precedence. Simon's family is just as interesting, and their balance of being both supportive and also over-interested in Simon's life is a strong addition to the novel. 

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda was such a fantastic novel, and after finishing it, I found a December news article reporting Fox 2000 acquired the rights for a movie adaptation. Simon's compelling observations and wry narrative voice aren't quite over with the end of the book, and I'm looking forward to seeing this novel adapted into a visual format. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee

I am always on the look-out for a new middle grade novel by Kathi Appelt. Her Newbery Award-winning The Underneath told the story of a dog named Ranger and a small cat family who inhabit "the underneath," the space beneath the porch of an angry man named Gar Face. Keeper is a whimsical book about a blue moon, mermaids, and a seagull called Captain. The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp follows Bingo and J'miah, two raccoons who are trying to save their swamp. 

Maybe a Fox is a collaboration between Appelt and author Alison McGhee. YA expert Teri Lesesne posted about her tear-stained copy of Maybe of Fox a few weeks ago, and it was a reminder for me to pick up the newest Appelt novel. 

Appelt and McGhee write about two sisters named Sylvie and Jules who live with their father in a wooded area of Vermont. Their mother died of a heart defect before the book begins, and now Sylvie and Jules have a more active role in taking care of themselves. This involves a new arrangement, where they are responsible for catching the school bus alone, and after their dad leaves for work at the lumber mill. They also live by their dad's four rules: "Do not get of earshot of the house. Do not mess with wild animals. Do not miss the bus. Do not, under any circumstances, go near the Slip." The Slip lies in the woods that border their house, and, 
According to Sam's dad, who was a forest ranger, it was a freak of geology, the result of a seismic shift, a small earthquake that forced the river's bed to disappear into a large cavern that was hiding there all along, opened up by the shifting earth.
But they do go near the Slip sometimes, a place where both girls - and their best friend Sam - cast wishing stones. Sam, for instance, wishes for his brother Elk to come home from Afghanistan, where he is serving with his best friend Zeke. 

One morning, instead of running to catch the bus like they usually do, older sister Sylvie takes a wishing stone into the woods and doesn't come back. But on the day she disappears, a new fox kit is about to be born, a Kennen fox named Senna. The paths of Senna and Jules continue to cross throughout the novel, winding a path towards its conclusion. 

Maybe a Fox is a beautiful book, best read in a single read. Appelt and McGhee's collaboration is seamless, and their voices merge into one authorial voice. I absolutely loved this book. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

22-year-old army veteran Atticus Turner has just recently returned home from the Korean War, and is traveling from Florida to Chicago after receiving an urgent message from his father, Montrose. While driving north, Atticus consults The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a map created by his uncle George that lists the restaurants, hotels, and gas stations that will serve African Americans across the United States. The trunk of his car is filled with paperback copies of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and Atticus has read widely across the genre; some of his favourite authors include Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. P. Lovecraft. His reading falls into mainly white-authored genres, causing discord between him and his father. For example, when Atticus reads Edgar Rice Burroughs, who writes about a protagonist named John Carter - a U.S solider turned Martian warlord - Montrose comments, "A Confederate officer?...That's the hero?...Ex-Confederate? What's that, like an ex-Nazi? The man fought for slavery. You don't get to put an 'ex-' in front of that!" 

The opening pages contextualize the United States in 1950s, and what it means to be a black man in Jim Crow America. When a police sheriff pulls Atticus over and rifles through his books, spilling the paperbacks out onto the road, this violation of privacy prefaces the horrors of being a black man in American in the 1950s. Later, Atticus encounters much worse. 

When Atticus gets to Chicago, however, his father isn't there. He's in Ardham, Massachusetts (which is very similar to Arkham, where many of Lovecraft's monsters are located), and Atticus sets off with his uncle George and his childhood friend Letitia to find him. Lovecraft Country is told through a series of episodes, each of which focuses on a character from Atticus's family: a focus on Atticus begins the novel, followed by a focus on Atticus's father Montrose, his uncle George, his friend Letitia, Letitia's sister Ruby, and George's wife Hippolyta, and their son Horace. The episodes are supernatural in nature: Atticus learns that his heritage connects him to a secret society to which he might just be the key; Letitia buys a haunted house; Hippolyta wanders into a portal that takes her to another planet, one that guarded by a creature called Scylla. 

Lovecraft Country is an incredible look at racism in the United States, merged with the uncanniness of sci-fi and fantasy.  It's a rich and compelling read and one of the most surprising books I've read in 2016. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

Meg Medina, author of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, recently released her new YA novel. Burn Baby Burn is set in New York during the summer of 1977, notorious for sky-high temperatures, arson, and serial killer the Son of Sam. 17-year-old Nora Lopez is in her final year of high school and working part time at Sal's deli to cover the costs of living at home with her mom and brother Hector.

Nora's brother Hector has started to go off the rails, although her mother blames it on hormones and puberty. She tells Nora, "Boys go through these things...Then they become good men, believe it or not. He'll meet a good woman one day who will straighten him out." These comments contradict Nora's feminism, highlighted by a Woman's Day march, a focus on the National Organization of Women, and the name bestowed on Nora's best friend's hamster (Gloria, named after their favourite feminist, Gloria Steinem). Hector becomes more and more abusive at home, his behaviour escalating as New York is plunged deeper into uncertainty.

Nora is Cuban-American, and Spanish dialogue punctuates many of the exchanges between Nora and her mother. Nora is a vibrant character, no-nonsence, and practical. When she describes her past boyfriend, Angel, she is straightforward and pragmatic,
I blame it on the fact that he has the same puppy eyes as Freddie Prinze, may he rest in peace. But Angel is nothing like the character I fell in love with on Chico and the Man, all kindhearted and sexy. Nope. One minute we were kissing in Angel's room, and a little while later he was driving me home, my shirt buttoned wrong and a wad of toilet paper in my underwear to catch the blood. I cried to Kathleen that whole night, worried about babies and all the scabby diseases Miss Sousa covered with great gore during Heath and Hygiene. But mostly, I already knew in my gut that Angel had used me, and sure enough, he spread the word to anybody who would listen. I was easy.
Yet, she is also ambivalent about her future, anxious to graduate high school and move out on her own. She expresses interest in shop and woodworking, and demonstrates her carpentry abilities several times throughout the novel. Her neighbor, Stiller, encourages her to take on this non-traditional type of work for women, and Nora also has supportive teachers who reinforce her interests. 

Nora goes to the movies often in Burn Baby Burn, sometimes with her best friend Kathleen, and other times with her new boyfriend Pablo, and 1977 becomes as famous for its run of films as it does for the other social events that form the novel's background. Nora sees or references The OmenRockyCarrie, and Star Wars over the course of the novel, as the movie theatre becomes the place for socializing, especially during the heat wave. The movie references fall in line with an article by Cheryl Eddy for titled "Why Why 1976 Such an Amazing Year for Horror Movies?" Although Nora is viewing these fi;ms at the end of the winter/early spring of 1977, it's apt to view the horror of arson, unrest, and abhorrent murders against the horror of popular films.

Burn Baby Burn is another exciting and surprising book by Medina, presenting a strong teenage voice and a compelling historical context.