Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Belated Summer Reading

I have just finished Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage, a middle-grade novel that received a 2013 Newbery Honor from the American Library Association. It came from friend and fellow obsessive reader Emily L., to whom I'd like to say "Thank you!" in a heartfelt way.

Three Times Lucky initially looked like typical summer-reading fare: set in a small Southern town (Tupelo Landing, North Carolina), kids reveling in the first freedoms of summertime, seeing teachers outside of school and totally freaking out about it, all ensconced within a murder-mystery! In some ways it is typical, but it pleasantly thwarts other expectations. "Miss Moses LoBeau, rising sixth grader" is a girl with a mysterious past and a quest to unravel it. She arrived in a hurricane, an infant riding out the storm on a billboard, found by the Colonel (no, not that one, Looking for Alaska fans) whose amnesia compounds Mo's own mystery. These two orphans of the storm find refuge in each other, and in the kindness of Miss Lana, another newcomer to town. Mo's quest is for her "Upstream Mother," the woman who released her into the storm. The Colonel, surprisingly, seeks not his past, but a present for his patchwork family.

These three misfits find a place in Tupelo Landing running a cafĂ© which becomes the town's social center, so when, eleven years later, a cranky  old regular turns up murdered, they join forces with other townsfolk and visiting detectives to solve the mystery, and, perhaps, prevent another murder.

Turnage does well at setting the scene--she has the hot, sticky ambiance of a Southern summer down pat, and the cadence of the rural South (even if the colloquialisms are a teensy bit overused). She effectively directs and misdirects the reader (and her characters) toward the killer and the reason for the murder. Not surprisingly, the murder is solved, as is one of the mysteries of the characters, but, more surprisingly, the other isn't. As is typical of contemporary children's literature, the book offers strong affirmation of family: families that are built by choice, community, and love, as well as families created by blood. She affirms the value of friendship across lines of gender and age, and reminds readers that sometimes rising sixth-grade is the perfect place to be.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Rebecca Donovan's Breathing series

Poor Emma Thomas (short for Emily, which is an irritation unto itself) is looking for reasons to breathe first in Reason to Breathe, again in Barely Breathing, and still in Out of Breath (all 2013, Skyscape, which I believe is an imprint of Amazon Children's Publishing). Yet the more I read, the more I think she ought just to stop, and not put any of us through the work of it anymore.

What particularly maddens me about the series is the character. She's stupid. Willfully stupid, willfully depressed, willfully resistant to helping herself. About two-thirds of the way into book three (Out of Breath) she has an epiphany, which is delightful and makes me like her for a little while, then she slips back into her old patterns and habits of self-loathing, which make me hope that the next time she walks out into the ocean, she just keeps going. (Note: I listened to the trilogy on audio, and it is a credit to narrator Kate Rudd that I moved on to the sequels. Well, credit Ms. Rudd and a very long road trip.)

Author Rebecca Donovan is ambitious, which I like, but needs a stronger editor, which I don't. If I had a paper copy, which I don't, it would be so marked up with grammar and phrasing edits that the original text would be hard to find. And of course, that's me, self-professed Editor of the World. The style might not be so frustrating for other readers. Donovan uses language in an interesting way, but too often the creative diction is subverted by poor grammar,  repetitive phrasing, and word choices which are just-ever-so-slightly off ("mouth" for "lips" and vice versa, for instance) which becomes enormously frustrating, and involves many shouted corrections. In  book three, Donovan undertakes an interesting narrative shift, using two first-person narrators. Because I'm listening rather than reading, I cannot address how the shifts are handled in print, but audio narrator Rudd does an excellent job distinguishing her characters from one another, particularly when the narration switches between main characters Emma and Evan. All the characters have distinctive voices and tones, and Rudd maintains them consistently throughout the series, adroitly navigating the sometimes abrupt narrative shifts in the third book.

I asked a writer friend how much realism is too much, and she answered, very sensibly, that if you don't like the character, that's a disservice to the reader, the book, and the character herself. So, while it might be argued that Emma is responding exactly the way a real-life teenager might respond in the same hideous circumstances (and they are, indeed, hideous), if it makes me dislike her, if I can find no redeeming qualities, what service does that do for the reader? Even in periods of deep (and often very, very dark) realism in YA literature (the late-1960s into the early 1980s, for instance), the literature had something beyond the misery to offer the reader. Readers might see themselves, their own pain, their own fear or helplessness, but these texts offered the reader alternatives--"Do I dare disturb the universe?" If not this time, perhaps the next. Real, stark, but with possibilities.

Donovan fails to offer even this much to her character, and thus to readers. Even the proscriptive "happy ending" does  not alleviate all the misery, helplessness, and self-suppression in which poor Emma Thomas has engaged. And while I'm ultimately glad (if surprised) that Emma didn't walk back out into the ocean, I really don't care as much as I wish I did. So I'm still mulling the question of realism: how much is too much? How much wallowing makes sense before characters need to find some agency and take responsibility for themselves and their own happiness?

Note: I wrote an earlier version of this blog as a review on Goodreads. See it here.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

In the Dystopic Age of Victoriana

Gabrielle Zevin's Birthright trilogy posed an interesting dilemma for me. I listened to all the books on CD, and was prepared to be wowed, as Zevin's Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac both impressed me. And, actually, I was wowed, though the first novel, with the impossible-to-resist title All These Things I've Done, seemed a bit more steeped in the teenage romance genre than I would have liked. The story of Anya Balanchine (mob-daughter), her siblings, grandmother, and friends, could easily slip into the myriad conventional tropes applicable to YA dystopian fiction, YA romance, YA realism . . . YA, period.

But . . .

Zevin never approaches her subject conventionally. She offers us her world as a pre-conceived idea--we are not in the process of world-building, or world-destroying, or even of world-changing in the more conventional sense of Lois Lowry's The Giver and its sequels, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (and its sequels). Instead, in this trilogy, Zevin offers a love story, a family story, a story of riches to rags and back again. And, yes, the world is changed a bit along the way.

The series opens in 2083, and is set primarily in New York City, though we make significant stops in both Mexico and Japan, and hear a good bit about the Russian mob. I would've liked more dystopic background, as is usually my inclination: What happened? When did it happen? Why did it happen? How are we going to fix it? We ARE going to fix it, aren't we? Instead, Zevin paints a devastating portrait of the New York City that is, with echoes to the New York City that was: buildings stand empty; gangs control Central Park; the Metropolitan Museum of Art (immortalized for a generation as the home-away-from-home of E. L. Konigsberg's Claudia and Jamie Kincaid) houses the equivalent of a gin-joint, a club where underage revelers can indulge in illicit caffeine, and completely licit alcohol. Paper books are rare and considered absurdly old-fashioned. Water is scarce, and "the water problem" is a thread of which readers are always aware, yet never informed. The final book shows us the New York Public Library, recast as Anya's crowning achievement: the legitimization of the family business: chocolate.

While the environmental difficulties are presumably world-wide, the problem of water seems particularly acute in North America; similarly most other countries have not banned chocolate or coffee, as the US has done. Zevin effectively opens questions of the what and the how of Anya's world, and ties them intimately to the issues of the American government's role note in alleviating problems of violence, crime, or water, but in exacerbating them, and in exploiting the nation's limited resources for the use of a privileged few.

I like Anya because she is a strong protagonist: one with drive, ambition, loyalty, a strong sense of duty, a powerful love for family, and a potent self-preservation instinct. In short, she has the flaws and virtues of both traditional genders. Yet her gender is incidental; her primary obstacles to being taken seriously as a business person, or a responsible person generally, are her age and her family. She is 16 when the series opens, and hasn't hit 25 by the time it ends, and is the daughter of the former Balanchine boss and potential heir to the role of family boss. Anya perseveres despite these obstacles, proving herself, again and again, a savvy manager, and a worthy leader of a crime family on the brink of extinction. She also, to my delight, learns to trust others, and to delegate responsibilities (the absolute inability of so many teen protagonists to trust others is an ongoing pet peeve of mine, and Zevin's Anya is proof that a teen can behave maturely in authentic and believable ways in fiction).

The Victoriana I reference in my blog title is primarily a function of tone: the language is formal, the courtesies of the day are also curiously formal, perhaps as a result of the increased and pervasive nature of street crime: young people and women seldom walk anywhere unescorted, particularly after dark, and Anya's first person narration often formally addresses the reader, breaking the fourth wall in tried-and-true Victorian convention: "Dear Reader . . .". The curious juxtaposition of futuristic setting and old-fashioned language, work beautifully, marrying our readerly anxiety about a future that seems all-too-possible with the familiarity of a clear, formal style that demonstrates that, formally, at least, everything is under control.