Now, I know I left a blog around here somewhere.
Just give me a minute…
Ah! Here it is! It’s always the last place you look. 😉
So, if you keep up with my Twitter stream, you know I have finally emerged from the swirling black abyss of my last grad school semester. I suppose I have only myself to blame. What possessed me to think that working a brand new job and being a full-time master’s student was a good idea, I’ll never know. The last few months have been a big lesson in patience and a massive test of faith, but, as He ever is, God has been faithful. I made it through, got the degree, and find myself, less than a week later, turning back to the written word. Truth be told, I never stopped writing. The later the semester got, the busier I became, and it took every word I had (not all of them nice) to see it through. One of the upsides was that I did a ton of reading for my young adult lit class and, more importantly for our purposes, a lot of reviewing too. So, I thought I’d jump back in tonight with some highlights from that work. And while I realize this post is something of a TV series season-4 clip show, it’s nice to be back all the same.
Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Set in the unspecified future, the wonderfully named Bacigalupi creates a world in which humanity has travelled down the path of unchecked global warming. Sea levels have risen, drowning coastal communities, creating yearly “city-killer” hurricanes, and remaking the social and economic order. This backdrop, which is more post-apocalyptic than dystopian, frames the story of Nailer, a teenage ship breaker. Part of a “light crew”, Nailer works to strip washed-up ships of their light, valuable commodities like copper wiring and aluminum sheeting. He’s fast and good at his job, earning a living despite his drug-addicted, sociopathic father, Richard Lopez. After a particularly brutal storm, Nailer and his best-friend Pima find a wrecked clipper ship, as “swank” as they come. Overjoyed at their big break, the ship breakers are brought up short when they find that one person has survived: Nita Chadhury, a massively rich heiress on the run from political enemies. Nailer is faced with a choice. Is Nita a human being in need of his help or is she just another piece of salvage? Will he be his own man or will he be his father’s son? The adventure which follows is full of rich characters and dynamic tension. While Bacigalupi’s word choice can occasionally be repetitive, he has nonetheless created an engaging story which is essentially about the nature of relationships. The book is classed science-fiction largely because of its futuristic setting; the technical elements of the created world are more window-dressing than vital plot structures, however. I actually listened to this as an audiobook (my first!) and was surprisingly pleased with the recording by Joshua Swanson. He had a good way of bringing out the Gulf Coast Creole accent. It was also nice to get a male protagonist in a YA sci-fi book for a change.
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
Woooo, doggie, is this a good one. August Pullman, Auggie to his friends and family, was born with a startling cocktail of disorders that left his face so deformed it makes small children cry (no, really. It’s a scene in the book!). As August himself puts it, “whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (p.3). His uniqueness is purely physical, but it brings with it a whole host of social consequences, especially when he starts middle school. Having been homeschooled his whole life, Auggie’s mom, dad, and sister, Via, were able to protect him. Now, the reality of the world, of school-life in upper Manhattan, is a reality for Auggie too. Bullies and friends, betrayals and ambiguities, Auggie navigates them all with a genuineness that endears him to the reader. Wonder is a novel about middle school which, in its spare prose, avoids feeling juvenile. And while the themes might be familiar, the execution is refreshing. The narration passes between the main character and five others who orbit August to greater or lesser degrees. Interestingly, all the narrators are children; no adults give a perspective. Despite this variety of views, the story remains tightly told, never straying too far from Auggie’s evolution. The ending is somewhat too pat, but is also as uplifting as the book deserves. Although Palacio doesn’t run from the realities of bullying, she never lets her characters descend so far into the darkness that they can’t return safely (though not unchanged). In the end, the book is a hopeful message to the bullied and those who love them.
American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang
So, you know those people who say they just don’t get graphic novels? Are you one of those people? This book is the right answer. The story is creative, deceptively complex, and complete. Moreover, the text and images work symbiotically as Yang weaves together three seemingly disparate narrative lines. The mythical Monkey King, a kung fu master and ruler of Flower-Fruit Mountain, seeks entry into the upper echelons of heaven. When he is denied, the Monkey King begins to change himself in order to become accepted and acknowledged by the other deities. He wants to be anything but what he is: a monkey. Jin Wang, ostensibly the title character, is the only son of successful and traditional Chinese immigrants. As his story opens, the nine year-old Jin’s family has just moved from San Francisco’s Chinatown to an unnamed suburban community. He is the only student of Chinese descent, and Jin’s expected alienation is articulated in an efficient, believable way. And then there is Chin-Kee. You almost feel bad laughing at him. The embodiment of every racist, anti-Chinese stereotype, Chin-Kee is the inexplicable cousin of the very Anglo-looking Danny. Chin-Kee visits his American cousin every year, causing so much embarrassment that Danny has transferred schools three times by his junior year in high school. As the book progresses, the focus shifts from one story to another, their thematic similarities becoming increasingly obvious. Within two chapters, Yang deftly unites the plots in an unexpected, but satisfying, way. The conclusion requires a willingness to accept certain fantastic elements of Chinese origin, but at that point in the book the characters have been so thoroughly developed that most readers will be willing to make the leap. Adding to the interconnectedness, Yang also blends elements of Christianity into the Chinese-inspired mythos. This mixing of cultures, a searching for a cohesive social identity amidst the East-West disparity, is central to the story Yang has so brilliantly illustrated.
Hidden, by Helen Frost
So, I don’t usually get down on verse novels, but it was a requirement for class. I’m glad it was. This is a deceptively beautiful book. The plot is fairly straightforward: eight-year-old Wren Abbot is inadvertently kidnapped when West Monson steals the van in which Wren is hiding. After one day and two nights, Wren manages to escape the Monson home, but not before making a fleeting contact with West’s own eight-year-old daughter, Darra. West goes to jail, the girls get older, and life goes on. Six years later, however, just as West is getting out of prison, Wren and Darra cross paths at a summer camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. From a certain point of view, the storyline is too contrived to carry any emotional weight. What saves it, though, is Frost’s poetry and her avoidance of any cliché angst by the teenage protagonists. Wren and Darra, as they learn to deal with each other and the past, don’t over-analyze the situation or agonize over that which was outside their control. The friendship which eventually develops is sweet and hopeful, but not devoid of the emotional conflict necessary to make it real. The poetry is told in two voices: free-verse for Wren and a narrative long-form for Darra. Each poem is well-articulated in and of itself, but also essential to the overall story. Darra’s poems are, according to the author’s notes, in a style “invented for this book” (p. 145). As they are printed on the page, there are several lines longer than the others. If the reader follows the last word in each long line from top to bottom, Darra’s character and story dramatically expands. This detail, best read at the end of the novel, belies Frost’s artistry and attention to detail.