Friday, April 8, 2011

Camel Rider- Prue Mason

Interesting. A book called Camel Rider that isn't about riding camels. There are a few scenes that involve camels. There is a young camel rider in the book, though he doesn't drive the narration as much as his co-protagonist. So, why did Prue Mason title her book thusly, and why did the publisher put a camel on the cover? Let me guess-- to sell a book about the Middle East. Wouldn't be the first time.

So what is it really about? It's mostly a long chase scene set in a fictional country, presumably based on one of the Emirates. There's a fictional war, too. Bratty expat kid Adam is home alone when his neighborhood evacuates. He decides to go back for his dog because, well, I guess he's young and impulsive and it seems like something a brat would do. Meanwhile, Walid is a camel jockey from Bangladesh who rebelled against his employers and is running away. Their paths cross, and they must rely on each other to escape/ get home safely. They don't speak a common language and they come from different backgrounds, so this is where we get the HEY EVERYBODY THIS IS A CROSSCULTURAL NOVEL.

The plot is pretty thin and the characters on the pithy side, but Mason has done something interesting in talking about these disparate communities living in the UAE. The dialogue involving Walid's cruel masters has a surprising ring of authenticity-- I say surprising, because the book hits that mark better than it does Walid's characterization.

I didn't know what to do with this book. Perhaps it would be interesting to kids who like action-based plot, but it seems like it's all about the "small world" themeology (hey, you have a pet? I have a pet! you like chocolate? I like chocolate!) above anything else. Certainly well-intentioned, but this isn't a book I'd recommend. And to say it's about camels totally misses the point.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Mango-Shaped Space- Wendy Mass

This is a book about synesthesia.

Wonder where the plot might come from? Yeah, I did too. But this is one of those great books that is not all about explaining a condition. This is really a book about the relatable Mia, who is going through a process of learning about herself.

For Mia, letters, numbers, and words have colors and textures in addition to sounds, values, and meanings. Sounds and energy also have hues and physical shapes. Unfortunately, this makes a loud cafeteria a chaotic explosion of visual "noise." In Spanish class, it gives the word amigo totally different properties from the word friend. And it makes doing math problems impossible, where the sum does not reflect the qualities of individual numbers. Mia has kept her condition a secret, but when she does badly enough in school, she and her parents finally learn there is a name for this-- synesthesia-- and that Mia is one of many.

Through the internet, Mia starts to learn all about a community that she had no idea she was part of. This is where things get interesting. She becomes absorbed in the exploration of her condition, blocking out her family, classmates, teachers, and even her best friend. Mia also has a wheezing kitten she loves very much, and when the little cat goes missing, you know it's going to be bad news but also the impetus for revelation.

I think it's worth noting that really successful young adult books teach readers something about themselves as well as about the world. Mia is not alone in her obsession with self-discovery and her resulting self-isolation. Wendy Mass effectively captures that train of thought that takes Mia so far away from everyone else, and I think that's what makes the story so effective. Many YA novels incorporate pithier plotlines that have us screaming "Why are you treating your best friend like that? Why are you ignoring your parents?" and already we know that there is going to be a little "I told you that was not cool" at the end. Here, Mia gets to a place of mutual empathy and understanding with the people who care about her, and it feels genuine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Three Knocks on the Wall-- Evelyn Sibley Lampman

Three Knocks on a Wall is among the few, the proud, the rereads featured on The No Twilight Zone.

When I went looking for this book last year, I was shocked to see that not only was the book out of print, but it didn't appear to have been widely distributed in the first place. Growing up, her books seemed to be everywhere. Of course, by "everywhere" I mean "at my school and in the town library," and it's not shocking that these places would be stocked with books by an Oregon author about the state's history.

I loved, and still love, her books. Historical fiction was my favorite genre as a kid, and it was incredibly satisfying to read about the history of the place I lived. I read pretty indiscriminately back then, so I couldn't have told you what I thought of the narration or characters except that they were "good." But I am not the only one who thought Evelyn Sibley Lampman was special. There is an award named after her. Her grandparents were pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail to settle in the state-- that alone blows my mind.

I can't say for certain that her books are still in school libraries. I can say that when I rediscovered her writing a year ago, I was struck by how contemporary it feels. Three Knocks on a Wall deals with adultery and absent fathers. It was written in 1982, so it's not ahead of its time, but is probably more progressive than 90% of books available to me at that time. The writing is textbook: solid, establishing characters and setting right away, paced and flowing. In fact, the old-school feel of the book is more on account of its adherence to the writing "rules" than anything else, but that's part of what makes the book so comforting.

Marty, the twelve year-old narrator of Three Knocks on a Wall, is great. She is matter-of-fact, unsqueamish, and something of an old soul. She is great with animals, aloof with other girls, and doesn't know how to react to boys. She has a logical mind, and so when she hears knocks coming from behind the 10-foot high fence that surrounds the neighbor's house, she assumes it must be old Mrs. Hutchins or her daughter Miss Rebecca. But it's not Mrs. Hutchins. And pretty soon, she finds out it's not Miss Rebecca, either. Marty promises to keep her new friend's identity a secret, but regularly brings her news of the world outside: school and social events, WWI, small town dynamics, a world war, and finally a flu epidemic that brings them face-to-face.

Marty's parents stood out to me on this last read; they are older, a bit unconventional in their child rearing, and (perhaps on account of the former) gossip-averse. They speak to Marty like an adult, which explains her undramatic narrative tone and the fact that she is more comfortable around adults than people her age. I liked that her parents were portrayed with some nuance.

I was also pleased to find that I liked Marty's character as much as I did the first time I read Three Knocks on a Wall, though it seems plucky heroines are a dime a dozen these days.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bat 6-- Virginia Euwer Wolff

This great little book was the young adult selection for a reading campaign to celebrate Oregon's 150th anniversary of statehood. Wolff is a celebrated Oregon author, and I actually liked her book much more than the culturally stereotyping adult selection.

The story is told from the perspectives of 21 different girls who make up the rival softball teams of two little towns in Oregon. It's 1949. The adults are still talking about the hardships of war. One of the players, Aki, has just returned with her family from an internment camp. Another player, Shazam, is also recovering from postwar trauma, but it takes the whole course of the book to unravel that. When the game ends in tragedy, everyone wonders why, or what they could have done to stop it.

The girls' distinct narrative voices and the piecemeal storytelling make for good reading. I loved the dynamics between them-- their polite disbelief in encounters with Shazam, their regard for one another, their shock and tendency to blame themselves for what transpires. I also appreciated that the book didn't offer any easy answers, and that the community at large also had to acknowledge their role in what happened.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

First Crossing: Stories About Teen Immigrants

First Crossing: Stories About Teen Immigrants is a collection of short stories that purports to illuminate the experiences of young first-generation immigrants.

That's my summary.

Remember what I said in my last post about how perceptible an author's connection to her characters can be? First Crossing illustrates this point nicely-- that is to say (for the most part) horribly. In the endnotes, one author admits he was trying to settle on his character's country of origin, and settled on one after he saw a book on the library shelf. Some characters speak in broken English, even in their own narrative voice, others never progress beyond the stereotypical "what is this America?"

Where the authors manifest a stronger grasp of their characters' situations, these stories seem to be formulaic and diluted. I got the sense they were throwaway first drafts in the development of a novel.

I was sorely, SORELY disappointed by this collection. There is a huge need for these kinds of books for young adults. Sadly, I think this book is cashing in based on that need, without really delivering a product that does the concept justice. I hope we see more, and better, anthologies on this subject.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Keeping Corner-- Kashmira Sheth

When I read Keeping Corner, a few things clicked in my head.

At this point, I have passed the halfway mark with my reading goal for the year. I have a long way to go, but I have still read some excellent books, some bad ones, and many in the middle.

Here are some of my realizations, mid-journey:

1. Character development is hard. Now that I am trying to do it in my own writing, I am constantly reminded of this. Sadly, I have also found well-developed characters rare in young adult novels. Some books skip over this completely, assuming a generic chatty "young person" tone for the narrative; others dig deeper, but only manage to successfully develop the main character.

If you are writing about a person very different from you-- which most authors are-- poor character development is even more troubling. Which brings me to the next point...

2. The author's level of connection to the character is obvious. Some writers incorporate aspects of themselves, or autobiographical experiences, in their characters. However, some authors can tell an amazing story when the connection is personal but removed, like Adam Bagdasarian in Forgotten Fire, or Padma Venkatraman in Climbing the Stairs. You can sense the kindred connection, even when authors are writing about an experience not their own.

Such is the case with Keeping Corner.

The heroine of Kashmira Sheth's novel is inspired by the author's great-aunt Maniben, a child widow who fought to continue her education. Sheth explained that the novel took her much longer to write than her other young adult novels, but the work gave her incredible satisfaction. The result is a remarkable little book with a family of sympathetic characters, subtly interwoven with details on culture, tradition, and history.

The heroine of Keeping Corner is Leela, who was engaged at two years old, married at nine, and widowed at twelve-- before she went to her husband's home, or ever really knew him. Indulged and pampered throughout her childhood, Leela is unprepared for the life of suffering she must now endure. Leela was never interested in school, but when Saviben offers to teach her, Leela discovers a love for knowledge, a gift for words, and an understanding of the political events that are changing the future of her country.

Well-done, all around.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dark Dude-- Oscar Hijuelos

Rico is a "dark dude" growing up in Harlem; ironically, it's because he is a fair-haired and freckled cubano. Tired of the constant hassling on the streets, the violence in his school, and his best friend Jimmy's drug problem, Rico persuades Jimmy to hitchhike out to Wisconsin. Life on a farm has its benefits, but Rico misses the Latino community and, most of all, his family.

Rico's narrative voice is well-developed and the story's pacing is quick despite the fact that time passes slowly on the farm. I would consider the book solid, rather than extraordinary, but there is some sentimental raising of identity and family issues that will appeal to some young readers.