Viking, 2008

Finished: April-ish 2010

Source: checking library catalog

Genre: YA fantasy with a moral and several Issues

On the Scales: welterweight

Don’t read this book.  If you haven’t read any other Graham Joyce novels, skip it and read Dark Sister or The Limits of Enchantment.  Then, if you are brave and have a strong stomach and stronger nerves, read Indigo.  Chase it with The Facts of Life so you can get to sleep that night.

Joyce writes what they were calling interstitial fiction a while back–a term designed to repel all boarders if ever there was one.  It applies to Mr. Joyce because (this frustrates me so much!) he is the sort of uncategorizable writer who keeps getting swept into the cracks.

It’s also worth mentioning that he’s British, because more than most, his sensibility for 20th century British cultural history is a big part of what makes his books so great.

Points In Favor of Graham Joyce

1.  Atmosphere:  Local, complex, and pregnant.

2. Characters:  Lively and believable, especially when he takes you inside their heads.

3.  Plotting and Pacing:  Flawless, tight.

4.  Description:  Concise.  Almost magically evocative.  Rich visual details never bore or overwhelm the reader.  And he does macro and micro equally well.

5.  Dialog:  Wry, charged, and individually tailored to the character.  Often very funny when juxtaposed with characters’ thoughts (see 2).

6.  Ideas:  Diabolical.  Moving.  Mythic.  Weird.  Feminist.  Fantastical.  Reassuring.

Points Against Graham Joyce

Just one–he shouldn’t be using the YA template.  Joyce’s YA novels are exceptional.  You won’t find better “issues” books.  With coming-of-age themes evident in so much of his work, he’s a natural candidate for the current crop of suspense/magical realist YA writers…it’s just not what he does best.  Which we all know is what every author ought to be doing.  Chain him to his desk and crack the whip.

Entertain, minon!

Joyce allows himself the frayed children’s lit device of a magical object that teaches a lesson.  That’s okay; he’s one of the few authors who could pull it off.  The real problem with The Exchange was that it was too short.  There simply wasn’t enough time for him to give Caz and her magic bracelet his usual treatment.  Aside from Caz and a couple of classmates, all the charachers are loosely sketched grownups–not looking too closely at the inner workings of grownups (ick!) being a YA tradition.  I enjoyed them anyway: lovelorn tatooist, bossy old lady, depressed mom, painfully nerdy male teacher.  Joyce couldn’t help help making them real.

For example:

The next day in school, Caz is called to see Mrs Crabb, the Head.  Mrs Crabb is a kindly old stick, but she takes no nonsense.  She reeks of cigarette smoke because outside of lesson times she is a chain smoker.  The fingertips of her right hand are the colour of acorns because of the nicotine, and her teeth look like a mouthful of autumn leaves.  Aside from that, the kids like her, and Caz does, too.

She has a “study,” which is actually just a stockroom piled high with dusty old books from the 1960s.  There’s a small desk and two chairs.  Even though no smoking is allowed inside the school, Caz thinks the “study” smells like a pub ashtray.

Caz and her friend get underage jobs bussing tables at a bar.  I especially liked this walk-on part for a amatuer rock singer:

It’s a strange night at the pub.  The band playing that evening are spectacularly bad– so awful that people drift away–and by ten o’clock only a handful of drinkers are left.   The sound less like a rock band than a group of road diggers in hard helmets.  Caz hears Frank Swear.  “That’s it!” he shouts above the industrial din.  He marches to the side of the stage and suddenly the guitars go dead.  The drummer plays on regardless.  He’s in his own world, drumming with his eyes closed.  The singer, a guy with eyebrows that join in the middle and a ratty fringe hanging in his eyes, bellows away for a few moments until he catches the sound of his own miserable wailing.  He looks astonished at how bad his voice is, as if he’s never heard it before.  Then the drummer opens his eyes and drops one of his drumsticks.

The band all turn and look at each other.  Then they all look at Frank.  He’s holding the main supply plug high up in the air for them to see.  The entire pub goes quiet, as do Caz, Lucy, and the rest of the bar staff.  The silence is broken by someone who claps and cheers Franks intervention.

“You’ll thank me for this one day,” Frank says.

“What?” spits the singer.

“Every young band needs to be told the truth of how bad they are if they’re to get better.  That’s why I say you’ll thank me when I tell you that you are the biggest pile of garbage ever to stand on that stage.  And believe me we’ve had some crap here at The Black Dog.”

“I’ll second that!” shouts one of the stalwart drinkers.

I just got the papercut of my life.  Shirt cardboard.  Between writing the above and coming back to the computer to post it, I went to start a load of wash, and I wanted to put a new T-shirt in the load.  It was wrapped in plastic, folded on a piece of cardboard.

I ripped it open, and it ripped me open.

I pulled the full length of the long edge of the cardboard through my pinky.  Ow, ow, ow!  I always forget how much these things hurt.

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

read by Lincoln Hoppe

Listening Library, Random House, 2009

Finished: March 19, 2010

Source: Jenny’s Books

Genre: YA issues novel tackling multiple issues

On the Scales: Lightweight

Hi, commenters.  Reader’s Request next time.  I wanted to post this one while it was fresh in my mind.

Marcelo is looking forward to senior year at Paterson, his private school.  In the mean time he has lined up his summer dream job at Paterson’s therapeutic riding stables.  Marcelo’s father, a high-profile patent lawyer, thinks Marcelo should switch to public high school because it will make him act less weird if he rubs elbows with normal high school kids.

So Papa Arturo exercises the eternal parental prerogative.  He proposes a “deal” with Marcelo that is no deal at all: Marcelo must spend the summer working in Arturo’s Boston law firm instead of at the stables.  If Marcelo refuses to do this, he must go to public high school in the fall.  If he works at the law firm and his performance meets Arturo’s standards, Marcelo may choose where he goes to high school.  If his performance at the law firm doesn’t satisfy his father, he must go to public school.

Beside the fact that it is rigged, I had several objections to Arturo’s deal.

1. As if, by senior year, there was enough time left for it to make any material difference where Marcello went to school!

2. Arturo springs his proposal on Marcelo a few days before he’s arranged for him to start work at the law firm, which seems devious and self-serving.

3.  Correct me if I’m remembering this wrong, but I don’t think it was ever mentioned what (or if) Marcelo would get paid?  What’s more real world than a paycheck?

I liked this book, and eventually found Arturo a sympathetic character, but I just hate it when parents do that thing. Better to say, “You’re going to work at the law firm this summer,” than to frame your command as a bargain between equals.  That’s an abuse of power.  If you exercise your right to have your will over child’s, but frame it as something else, you are taking away your child’s right to protest your decision and try to change your mind.  And Aurora the mom is not much of a mediator.  So, not an auspicious beginning, for me.

The audiobook reader was decent but really slow.  No doubt this was Lincoln Hoppe’s interpretation of Marcelo’s character, but for me a laggy reading widens the gap between reading silently and reading aloud even further.  It obscures the author’s pacing–so important in a YA-length novel.  I also think it was just a bad choice in terms of character.  Marcelo has something resembling mild Asperger’s, but while the plot hinges on this fact, Marcelo coping with his brain stuff is not the point of the book.

Verbal tics aside, Marcelo could be any sheltered, odd teenager.  His hurdles could be anybody’s, growing out of innocence.  This made Marcelo in the Real World different from “into the mind of an Autistic” type books I’ve read.  For me, the best way to approach it was not to think of Marcelo as someone with a specific condition.  Marcelo himself muses about how he feels when people try to find a clinical term for What He’s Got.  Among other things he feels guilty because he understands the suffering that goes with more severe Autism, because he’s seen it at Paterson–as if he were claiming a pain to which he had no right.

His concern is typical of mature, balanced Marcelo, whose “special interest” is pondering religious and moral questions.  Marcelo is a likable guy even at Lincoln Hoppe’s snail’s pace.  He was even kind of funny–it didn’t come across in the audio version, but I bet it would have done in print.

Many of Stork’s readers will know a teenager who, like Marcelo, is not in step.  My half-brother is one of them.  I thought Marcelo’s insider-but-also-outsider descriptions of “special interests” and “internal music” were compassion-inducing alternatives to obsessing, perseverating, and zoning out.  When you have a real reason to use them, terms for Asperger’s-type behaviors quickly become tinted by the frustration and anxiety of the helpless observer.  Marcelo is like a local guide: great at showing us how a place might inconvenient for tourists but has its compensations for the people who live there.

Then again, Marcelo is imaginary.  I’m wary of wish-fulfillment endings when I read books featuring characters with cognitive or developmental disorders.  They are so easy for authors to fall into.  Stork dodged the bullet because he was able to convince me Marcelo’s difficulties were moderate enough that he might actually hit on an achievable life-plan while he was still in high school.  I was also willing to accept that he was personally appealing enough to find the right person and right place to help him make those plans a reality.  But it was a close call.

I first heard about Marcelo In the Real World at Jenny’s Books.  Jenny found something a little disturbing in the way his Asperger’s-or-whatever-it-was got treated like something he only needed to grow out of (paraphrasing freely, here).  I got that too.  Mostly I objected to the idea that a mail room job in a law firm qualified as the real world, or that Marcelo’s interactions with slimy, believable Wendell Holmes (loved the name for the character) would be what set off the sudden growth spurt!  Or even Jasmine.  I enjoyed her, but she wasn’t alive to me.

I liked the writing, I liked the dialog.  I liked the Rabbi, but not the nuns or Aurora.  The social activist / humanist stuff went a bit overboard.  That’s personal preference: it makes me uncomfortable when doing the right thing is dramatized in a certain way, but I can say with conviction that Stork did a good job of writing the book he set out to write.

My favorite bit of dialog was near the end, when Marcelo asks Jasmine if Belinda was a better worker than Marcelo.  Jasmine says that Belinda was faster, but whatever Marcelo did, he did well.  (Again paraphrasing.)  Marcelo accepts this and muses, “in the real world, faster is better.”

And I thought, “Ah ha!  Living in the real world is a choice.  You can live with the idealists instead.  You can live with the nuns.  You can live in your music.  You can live in backwoods Vermont.”

I’m glad I don’t live in the real world.