Subway Literature

But Enough About Me. Let’s Talk About Lisa!

I cannot say enough about my critique group. I could try, but I’d fail. Every writer needs one. I couldn’t survive without mine.

So today, I’d like to crow a bit on behalf of one of the people who routinely whips my work into shape, and celebrate her work. Today is the official launch of the cover and trailer for my wonderful friend Lisa Amowitz’s first novel, Breaking Glass, which comes out in July of 2013 from Spencer Hill Press. It’s a YA ghost story with a noir feel to it, but rather than listening to me try and describe it, why not just check out the trailer below? You can also visit her at her blog, or at her author page on Facebook.

I hope you’ll all help me celebrate Lisa’s exciting news. She’s an amazing writer, a brilliant artist, and an all-around super-duper human, and I wish her every success in the world.


The NYC Teen Author Festival comes to McNally Jackson

Tonight, tonight, it’s coming tonight, hot damn, tonight!

Ten points if you can name that tune. In the meantime, clear your schedule right now.

Ever since I started working at McNally Jackson, I’ve been trying to get YA onto the store’s schedule of events, and I am about to get my way at last! Tonight, Tuesday March 27th, the NYC Teen Author Festival makes it’s first-ever station stop at my beloved home-away-from-home, McNally Jackson Books. This is the Mutual Admiration Society Reading, and it is seriously, not to be missed.

Your panel for this evening:

Madeleine George, reading from The Difference Between You and Me

Ellen Hopkins, reading from Perfect

Jennifer Smith, reading from The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

John Corey Whaley, reading from Where Things Come Back 

And the incomparable David Levithan, moderating and reading from Every You, Every Me

If you know anything about YA, then you know this is a rock-star panel. If you don’t know anything about YA, then whether you are a teen or a creature somewhat more aged (but still desirous of excellent literature), I can think of no better introduction.

This is how it happened:

  • 1) David Levithan stops by one day last year when I had some of his books on our summer reads table.
  • 2) Kate strikes up conversation and delivers her “Look how awesome this store would be for YA events” stump speech.
  • 3) Kate stalks Mr. Levithan mercilessly by email.
  • 4) Mr. Levithan is awesome.
  • 5)…

So come by tonight. How can you not? LOOK AT THAT PANEL!! Plus I will have a bag of cookies. Don’t ask me why, just listen to what I’m saying: ask me for one and I’ll give you one. So: round-trip subway fare to Soho: $4.50. A cup of Stumptown coffee from the McJ Cafe: $2.00-$4.25. A night of rock star authors, secret cookies, and helping Kate to vindicate nearly two years of asserting that YA events are THE WAY OF THE FUTURE?


McNally Jackson Books

52 Prince Street, between Broadway and Lafayette, in Soho; get there via the N, R, B, D, F, M, J, Z, and 6 trains.

An Imaginary Curriculum: The Fiction Edition, Part the First

Which it’s a post where I take books generally accepted to be of Great Literary Merit and swap them for books found in–GASP–other parts of the bookstore. This is partly inspired by a conversation I had with a customer at my beloved bookstore gig at McNally Jackson. It left me wanting to rant a little bit, which I got out of my system here and won’t subject you to, but the gist was, a man was looking for “literature” for his 13 year old son and was pretty sure anything I was going to suggest that didn’t look like a classic wasn’t worth his time. But guess what, folks? That’s just lame. Suit up, because just in time for beach-read season, I am going to take you on a safari into the sci-fi/fantasy and kids’ sections, and you are going to LIKE IT!

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The Imaginary Curriculum: Summer Reads, the U.S. History Edition

I just got back from Maryland, where I spent a whirlwind weekend doing Very Important Paperwork Things, running a 10 mile race I totally failed to train for (meaning I ran some and walked more), and visiting my baby nephew Oliver Patrick Lloyd, who obviously is going to grow up to be a statesman with a name like that. In honor of my future-statesman nephew, this edition of the Imaginary Curriculum will focus on United States History.

Now, I should tell you that I never got particularly excited about U.S. history in school. This will probably shock anyone who knows anything about what I write, which tends to focus on Americana, but I really was always more interested in European history. On the other hand, I sort of thought I understood the basics: colonization, independence, the Civil War, World War II (I never was really all that clear about WWI). Enough to pass the tests, anyway. I just never found them particularly exciting.

Which brings us to the books below. Now, I should also tell you that I have, in some cases, cited a connection to U.S. history strictly in order to carry the focus outward into the world. But I think that’s defensible. We should really try to look outward more often, I think. With that said, here we go.

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Nebula Reading, Part the First: One Plus Two Plus One Plus One

That post title is funny to me because I’m hungry and I’m having coffee instead of food. Whatever.

Today, with less than two weeks left of the Nebula nomination period, I am finally getting around to writing up some of the wonderful stuff I am hoping gets some Nebula love. Today I have for you ONE adult novel I pretty much totally adore PLUS TWO young adult delights (well, in at least one case “delight” is really not an appropriate choice of words, but it’s a truly wonderful book), PLUS ONE young adult novel that is officially next on my to-read, PLUS ONE thing I must do before the voting deadline (February 15th).

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Subway Literature: Challenging the Challenge (Part Three), being my thoughts on Speak

It took me a little while to cool down after I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. This was for a couple of reasons. The first was that Speak is the kind of book that makes you stop cold in your tracks. The second is that, several weeks after reading Wesley Scroggins’ op ed piece calling Speak (among other books) filthy and verging on soft-core porn, my anger had pretty much died down. Reading Speak with his comments in the back of my head, though, made me madder than a hornet all over again. Then, of course, having said that I was going to write this as a discussion rather than as a rebuttal, I had to wait for my anger to cool off. So here I am, finally ready to write my post. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure nobody’s been waiting around for it.

Speak is narrated by Melinda, a high-school freshman who begins her first year with all of her former friends–and just about everyone else in the student body–silently hating her for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. We eventually learn that during the summer, she called the cops on a party, and her new world will not forgive her. We learn, in bits and pieces, that Melinda called the cops not to call a halt to the teenage revelry, but because she was sexually assaulted by another one of the partygoers and did the first thing she could think of: she called 911. But she did this from the house, where she was caught in the act, so instead of getting help, Melinda became the girl who busted the party. Instant outcast. Nobody but Melinda and the perpetrator know about the assault, and Melinda carries her secret in silence.

We follow Melinda’s inner monologue throughout the year, watching her withdraw into herself, refusing to speak to her parents, cutting school–in essence, turning herself into that most difficult of creatures for parents/teachers/principals/friends to deal with: a really troubled kid who won’t talk about what’s troubling her. To be fair to Melinda, nobody, nobody asks the right questions. In fact, precious few of the people around her bother to ask anything at all. Isn’t it true that human nature seems to be to ignore what isn’t waved on a flag right in front of their faces? At least when it comes to interpersonal relationships? Plus, it’s so much easier to chalk weird teenage behavior up to the fact that…well, teens are just weird.

You might think that following Melinda’s train of thought as she becomes increasingly withdrawn, would be torture. Far, far from it. Melinda is a sharp, witty,  hilarious. Example: her observations on her school cheerleaders (Jennie, Jen, Jenna, Ashley, Aubrey, Amber, Colleen, Kaitlin, Marcie, Donner, Blitzen, and Raven), in whose lives Melinda senses the work of a divine miracle:

There is no other explanation. How else could they sleep with the entire football team on Saturday night and be reincarnated as virginal goddesses on Monday? It’s as if they operate in two universes simultaneously. In one universe, they are gorgeous, straight-teethed, long-legged, wrapped in designer fashions, and given sports cars on their sixteenth birthdays. Teachers smile at them and grade them on the curve…In Universe #2, they throw parties wild enough to attract college students. They worship the stink of Eau de Jocque. They rent beach houses in Cancun during Spring Break and get group-rate abortions before the prom.

Okay, yes, I included that quote because Wesley Scroggins called it out specifically, implying that Speak endorses group-rate abortions. I hope it’s clear there’s disapproving sarcasm meant to be read into that, folks. Back to your regularly-scheduled post now.

In a happier story, some of Melinda’s observations on high school life would be laugh-0ut-loud funny–but of course, this isn’t meant to be a laugh riot, so we are left aching for this girl who has so much to say and yet will not speak up. Because she knows full well that nobody knows what she is going through–because she hasn’t told anyone–there is no self-pity, no whining about how nobody understands. Melinda withdraws and occasionally acts out (for example, cutting class to build a sanctuary in an unused janitor’s closet) not because she wants attention, but because she feels her best mode of survival is to disappear. Until, of course, something happens that forces her hand: the Beast, the popular kid who assaulted Melinda at the party, asks Rachel, one of Melinda’s ex-closest friends, to the senior prom. Even though Rachel has done nothing but ignore her all year, Melinda doesn’t want to see anyone else hurt, and it is this that finally pushes her to find ways to break her silence and crawl out of the shell she has built, which turns out not to be as simple as finding the courage to speak up.

I could not, could not put this book down. There are books that I cannot help but talk about once I’ve read them, and when I start talking, goosebumps come up on my arms and I start sounding inarticulate. This is one of those books, which is another reason this post took me so bloody long to write. Everyone should read it. Seriously, everyone. High school students should read it–there is the message about speaking up rather than building a shell of pain, and the message about taking note of each other’s pain and asking the right questions, even if they hurt, and messages about bullying and clicquishness, and even a rather beautiful note about how important it is to support arts in our high schools. Everyone should read it. There is so, so much to learn from Melinda. And–shocker–it’s even an entertaining book to read. Melinda’s voice is so wonderful, so funny and heartbreaking and true. Her sarcasm reminded me so much of one of my cousins I found myself having to remind myself that I was reading fiction from time to time.

So now, the daughter test. I haven’t got one, but someday I might. Would I let my daughter read this? What would I want her to learn from it? Yes, I would let her read it. Melinda is entering high school, so I’m thinking even tweens might find this important reading. What would I want her to learn from it? See above. See everything above. I’d want her to learn that no one, no one should suffer in silence. I’d want her to know that sometimes parents don’t see the obvious, even though they really should, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to know. (There’s a really beautiful scene where Melinda almost tells her parents what happened to her because for Christmas they give her a sketchbook and charcoals because they have noticed her drawing. This single act of awareness brings tears to her eyes. And it brought some to mine, too.) But here’s the other thing: I think parents need to read this book, too. I think I learned as much from reading it as an adult as I would want my imaginary daughter to learn. If we want our children to speak, this is the kind of book that can help us find a common language.

As a final note, you can–and should–learn more about this book and its author at Laurie Halse Anderson’s website. One article I particularly like is this one, in which the author talks about a dedicated Twitter feed started by English teacher Paul Hankins to discuss the book’s banning. Speak loudly, friends.

Subway Literature: Challenging the Challenge (Part Two), being a discussion of Twenty Boy Summer

I know, I know, Wednesday’s post on The Chocolate War was really long and super-involved. Don’t worry. I won’t put you through that again. As a quick refresher, this week I’m reading books chosen during Banned Books Week. Wednesday’s was chosen from the ALA’s lists of the top banned and challenged books of the last twenty years. Today’s was chosen because it was one of the books called out as “filthy” and equated with “soft-core pornography” by Wesley Scroggins’ op ed piece from two weeks ago in the Springfield Missouri News-Leader. Mr. Scroggins objected to Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer being in the library on the grounds that it “glorifies drunken teen parties, where teen girls lose their clothes in games of strip beer pong. In this book, drunken teens end up on the beach where they use their condoms to have sex.” I had not read Twenty Boy Summer, so I picked a copy up and read it last night and this morning.

Twenty Boy Summer

Now, as a reminder, I don’t tend to voluntarily read a ton of contemporary, realistic fiction. I like weird cities and bizarre worlds and bending reality. I’m not generally moved to pick up a book unless there’s an element of the uncanny to it. That said, I have stumbled into reasons to read a number of books outside my usual comfort zone in the last couple months and I’ve had reason to be grateful afterward (Bamboo People and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors pop immediately to mind). Twenty Boy Summer is another one I would probably never have picked up, but I’m so glad I did.

On Anna Rieley’s fifteenth birthday, her best friend Frankie’s brother Matt (who Anna has been in love with since she was ten) kisses her. For one month they keep their new (and, I should mention, very chaste) relationship secret, because Matt wants to be the one to tell his sister. Then Matt dies of a previously undiagnosed heart defect. Because Frankie still doesn’t know about Matt and Anna’s fledgling relationship, Anna keeps the secret. For a year the two girls mourn their respective losses, only superficially mourning together. Anna cannot bring herself to tell the secret, and Frankie slowly spirals out of control. Then Frankie’s family decides to try returning to their annual California trip, with Anna invited for the first time. Frankie’s grand plan for the trip is for the girls to meet twenty boys in the hopes that one of them will be the right guy to help Anna get rid of her “albatross”–her virginity (Frankie claims to have lost hers months before). Anna, who still writes letters to Matt in her journal and who (like the rest of the family) feels his presence everywhere, cannot imagine so much as kissing another boy. Then she meets Sam, and despite her best efforts to stay aloof, finds herself drawn to him.

Is it a book about sex? “Soft-core pornography” for teens? Nope. There’s sex in it, but it’s the most gently, gracefully rendered interaction I’ve ever read. It’s not about seduction or sensuality at all–it’s about the decision to have sex for the first time, not about the act. There is some wonderful discussion of the pressure Anna feels (even from her best friend) to shed her virginity–and I hope we all understand that teen girls really do feel that pressure. We see Frankie fling herself desperately at every male who pays attention to her (and Frankie, beautiful and desperate, gets plenty of attention). We see Anna disgusted with this behavior and refusing to involve herself with it. And then we see her fall slowly and reluctantly for Sam, who is so absolutely kind and patient that he winds up being the first person Anna speaks to honestly about Matt. If only every girl held out for her first time until she met someone who actually cared about her, actually engaged her in real conversations, and actually respected her–well, that would be a big step in the right direction. (And yes, Mr. Scroggins, they use condoms, thank goodness. Yes, there is a beach involved. No, they are not drunk. Settle down.)

But this is a book about friends and families, first and foremost. It’s about how friendships change, about how teens and families mourn, and about how what we choose to say (especially when it would be easier not to speak at all) can save us in the end, even if the act of speaking means more pain before things start getting better. It’s also a book about how to move on after the death of a loved one, a book that promises that you never truly lose those you have loved. I actually felt my eyes prickle a little at the end. I kind of hate to admit it, but there you go. It was lovely.

One of these days I’m going to have kids. As I read this book I tried to think of what might concern me  if I was a parent rather than a writer. I think, were I to discuss this book with my daughter, I would want to talk about the teenagerish stuff the girls get up to and discuss how lucky the girls were that nothing went horribly wrong as a result. There is some sneaking around, there is some light smoking and drinking, and there is a lot of flirting with strangers, and I would feel like giving a basic “this is not behavior I approve of” speech. But none of it is glamorized, and most of it is done by Frankie, who is so obviously out of control that Anna spends a good amount of time trying to protect her. I think it’s made abundantly clear that one of them is on a downward spiral, and that her behavior is potentially dangerous. But, being a parent, I would probably want to make sure my daughter didn’t miss the point. On the other hand, I think she’d have to be pretty stupid not to. And there is plenty that I would be very glad to have my daughter discover in this book: things about friendship, about how families can fracture and come together again, about how the memories of our loved ones stay with us forever but must not keep us from living.

Subway Literature: Challenging the Challenge (Part One), being some comments about The Chocolate War

Last week, inspired by the great discussions about banned books that were taking place out there on the intertubes, I decided it was time to read me some subversive literature. I picked three titles, one from the ALA’s top ten lists of banned and challenged books and two from an op ed piece written the week before that really ticked me off. Today I read the first of my picks, The Chocolate War. Now my head hurts worse than it did this morning, and for context I woke up very, very hungover (public service announcement: even at age 33, too much wine is too much wine).  It took an entire pint of espresso ice cream to make the hurting stop. On the other hand, having read Robert Cormier before, I pretty much knew what I was getting into.

My previous experiences with Cormier both hurt: I Am the Cheese and The Rag and Bone Shop. I read each one in a single sitting and then passed each one on to someone else. They are totally different stories, but they have certain things in common: they are both cautionary tales, deep and unsettling warnings. They are pessimistic. They portray teens at the mercy of adults at a time in their lives when they lack the awareness and confidence to know how to stand up to the grown-up aggressors in their lives. Cormier’s teens are not the feisty, scrappily resourceful kids that readers encounter in current YA. Cormier’s teens are everyday kids. They could be anyone, the kid upstairs, the kid down the street, or the kid you were at fourteen. In fact, having read three of his books now, I’m pretty sure the protagonists are pretty much interchangeable. The point is how they are manipulated, and the horrors that result. The kids could be anyone, because the point is that these things could happen to any kid at all. Unfortunately, Cormier knows that most kids, put into the situations he puts them into, will lose. The only hope is not to get into the situation in the first place. So, with that uplifting stuff in mind, let’s talk about The Chocolate War.

The Chocolate War was written in 1974, and more than 30 years later it’s still controversial. According to the ALA, it was the fourth most challenged book of the decade 1990-1999 and the third most challenged book of 2000-2009 due to offensive language, sexual content, violence, nudity, religious viewpoint, and the popular but nebulous unsuited to age group. Many negative reviewers on Amazon said they thought teens should not be asked to read this book because they understood the message to be, conform–that no good comes of rocking the boat.

The plot goes this way: Jerry Renault is a freshman at a Catholic prep school. The teachers turn a blind eye to the secret society called the Vigils, who harass the student body by giving “assignments,” very involved pranks which non-Vigil students are expected to complete or else. Brother Leon, the calculating, manipulative algebra teacher, enlists the help of the Vigil’s Assigner, Archie Costello, to make sure the school’s annual chocolate fundraiser doubles the previous year’s sales. At the same time, the Vigils assign Jerry the task of refusing to participate in the sale for the first ten days, which he does. The trouble is, when the ten days are up, he continues to refuse, for reasons he himself cannot articulate. At first the students, all of whom hate Brother Leon and are sick of the year-round fundraisers, cheer him on. But when chocolate sales begin to drop, the Vigils get involved again and turn the entire school against Jerry, with violent consequences.

I understand why people have problems with this book. I also can’t really say I recommend this book, but for one very subjective reason.  I just didn’t like the writing. It’s the best example of bad use of multiple points of view I’ve ever encountered. It puts us in the heads of characters for entirely unnecessary reasons. Without digressions about Kevin and Danny, Tubs and Howie, the book would probably have dropped a flabby twenty pages without breaking a sweat, and that alone would’ve been a substantial improvement. It dwells obnoxiously on boys obsessing obnoxiously about girls and has several (imho) entirely unnecessary references to masturbation. I can only imagine that this was Cormier’s effort to put himself back into the head of a boy in his early teens (he was fifty when The Chocolate War was published), but it just made me roll my eyes. Cormier is great at evoking the self-doubt and despair of his young characters, which I think evokes the internal world of teens much better than a million references to masturbation and how a girl’s breasts bounce under a sweater (although, not ever having been a teen boy, maybe I’m wrong). The unnecessary and the obnoxious aside, from a story perspective, I also take a little bit of an issue with the fact that Jerry’s rebellion begins by following the instructions of the Vigils and continues afterward for unspecified reasons. Jerry himself doesn’t know why he does it, and never seems to come to any realization other than dimly to have a wish to disturb the universe. Now, I could easily buy a kid doing something and not being sure why, and then sticking to it because going forward is easier somehow than going back. I could also well understand the dim wish to disturb the universe, especially given Jerry’s vague despair at the idea that adulthood means winding up living the disaffected life his father leads. I would actually have found the latter very compelling, if Jerry hadn’t initially refused to participate only because the Vigils told him to. It’s kinda hard to get behind a rebellion when it begins with following bad orders and lacks any kind of conviction.

Here’s my biggest complaint, though. I just don’t think the author succeeded in getting his message across. I don’t think Cormier wrote this book intending the message to be conform, but I can see why people read it that way–and a lot of people do. I also don’t think the message was, kids, do your own thing like Jerry does. I think the intended audience isn’t the potential iconoclastic kids of the world, but their peers and classmates–the kids who have the option of speaking up when they see injustice or allowing themselves to be manipulated by their own fears into silence or worse. But I don’t think that’s remotely clear in the text.  Which is maybe the best argument for this book being used in a classroom setting, where discussion can help tease out that message. One voice of reason can be enough to break the momentum of a mindless mob and inspire others to speak up, too.

What about the rest of it?

Nudity? Can’t remember any actual nudity. Sexual situations…meh. Despite my complaints, they’re pretty tame. I don’t think there’s a single character in the book that’s actually sexually active. Self-abuse references–and by the way, we are mercifully not asked to read about any, shall we say, completed acts–and one kid speculating that his girlfriend might let him “get under her sweater” on her birthday. Color me shocked. Maybe it feels more gratuitous than it would be otherwise because it also feels so unnecessary? I don’t know. It’s lame, but it’s hardly explicit.

Offensive language…honestly, less than five hours after finishing the book I honestly can’t remember any offensive language. The phrase “jacking off” is used, and “goddam” at least once, but other than that I really don’t remember anything. Violence? Oh, my, yes. At the end. But even that’s not terribly horrifying–it’s doesn’t touch, for instance, any of the horrific scenes in Lord of the Flies. More importantly, I think the descent into violence made sense from a story perspective, so I give it a pass.

Religious viewpoint: well, it’s a Catholic high school with at least one truly awful brother teaching algebra, a man who displays some shockingly non-Christian behavior. Archie gives a little speech at the beginning in which he calls Jesus “a guy who walked the earth for thirty-three years like any other guy but caught the attention of some PR cats.” And there are those pesky references to a certain sin that involves spilling certain bodily fluids. Meh. Whatever.

So, my entirely subjective verdict? It’s disturbing on a number of levels and presents its story more or less without hope. As far as I’m concerned, the best argument against this book’s being used in a classroom is the sub-par writing. I wish The Chocolate War was as lean and mean as either of the other two Cormier books I’ve read, because I think it would’ve been a much more powerful book, but I do think there’s an important message in there, one teens can benefit from. You’ve just got to get past the distracting stuff, all of which, distracting though it is, is pretty tame by any but Victorian standards.

So I concede flabby writing, unnecessary obnoxiousness, and unclear message, but does that really justify this being the 3.5th most-challenged book of the last twenty years? Seems a little silly to me. What are your thoughts?

Subway Literature Special Brooklyn Book Fest Edition: Bamboo People and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors

I really, really wanted to participate in the Brooklyn Book Festival. Like, from the minute anybody involved with The Boneshaker started thinking about events and appearances, I wanted badly to be part of it. Apart from the fact that it’s a tremendously awesome event, I’ve lived in Brooklyn for almost ten years now (a fact that staggers my mind every time I acknowledge it) and I have discovered that I love my borough desperately. So when I found out that I had been booked for a panel this year, I was (and am still) over the moon, and although I have been really lame about posting to this site over the summer, it seems only right to take a minute and talk about it. Which brings me to the two absolutely amazing writers I’m going to be sharing a panel with, and today’s Subway Lit Special Edition Double Feature! Before I get carried away by the awesome fiction I’m about to rave about, don’t forget to come see Mitali Perkins, Francisco X. Stork and me tomorrow, Sunday, September 12, at 4pm at the Youth Stoop for our panel, “Making It.”

Bamboo People (Mitali Perkins)

Although I have been aware of Mitali Perkins for some time, I had yet to read any of her work. I knew Bamboo People had to do with the political situation in Burma, something I knew basically nothing about; being mostly a fantasy and sci fi reader, although I’d heard great things about it, it just wasn’t my usual read. But I started it last Friday on my way home from work and finished it Tuesday on the way in. For context, that means I read it in four subway trips, or a little under three hours. I was pretty riveted. Among other things, Bamboo People is paced just beautifully. Here’s one way you know a book is paced beautifully: when what seems like five minutes after you start reading it, you look up and realize that, not only are you a third of the way through the book, but you’ve missed your subway stop.

The first half of Bamboo People is told from the point of view of Chiko, a Burmese boy at the head of his tiny household since his father, a doctor, was arrested for resisting the government. When he goes to apply for a teaching position advertised in the paper, Chiko finds himself press-ganged into the military. Also in his little group is Tai, a street boy desperate to get home to his sister. With Tai’s help, Chiko slowly begins to learn the skills necessary to survive military training under the brutal captain. But, of course, training has to end eventually, and despite all he has learned, when Chiko finds himself part of a group heading into the Jungle in search of a stash of weapons held by a group of Karenni rebels, things go horribly wrong. The second half of the book is narrated by Tu Reh, the Karenni boy who finds Chiko after the Burmese boy’s mission goes off the rails. Tu Reh’s family and their neighbors are refugees, their village having been burned to the ground by Burmese soldiers, and Tu Reh’s world is dominated by hatred of the Burmese. There are voices of moderation (Tu Reh’s father, a young healer and her grandfather), but they are far and few between. If Chiko’s story is about learning to stay alive, Tu Reh’s is about learning to survive hatred. For those readers who, like me, enter into the world of the book knowing little or nothing about Burma’s volatile political situation and its many, many displaced and maligned ethnic groups, Mitali has thoughtfully included some background material at the back of the book. But it’s not necessary to know anything about it beforehand to be drawn deeply into the world that puts the protagonists, Chiko and Tu Reh, on their collision course, and to come to care deeply about both of them.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (Francisco X. Stork)

Here’s another thing I haven’t read a lot about: surviving cancer. Is this me admitting that I shy away from real-world concerns in my reading? Maybe. I started reading The Last Summer of the Death Warriors for the same reason I finally picked up Bamboo People: I knew I was going to meet the author. I wound up plowing through it and immediately ordering Mr. Stork’s previous novel, Marcelo in the Real World, and plowing through that one, too. Total reading time for Last Summer of the Death Warriors: 3 hours (two subway rides and one very late night sitting up in bed getting dirty looks from my husband for keeping the light on until 2am). Once again, I could not put the book down, and I immediately made a mental note of at least three people I desperately want to give this book to. I loved it, plain and simple.

Pancho Sanchez is a very private, very angry kid. He’s lost his mother, his father, and most recently his sister Rosa, who the police claim died of unknown natural causes. But Pancho knows differently, and even if it means he spends the rest of his life in prison (a sacrifice he’s perfectly willing, even eager, to make) he’s determined to avenge Rosa’s death. When he’s dropped off at St. Anthony’s, the orphanage that will be his new home, all he cares about is revenge. But for some reason, D.Q., a very talkative Anglo kid preparing himself to die of a rare brain cancer, chooses Pancho to be his new best friend. D.Q. is also busy writing the Death Warrior Manifesto, a treatise on how to live fully even in the face of death. Despite Pancho’s efforts to extricate himself from D.Q. and his alien world-view and stay focused on avenging Rosa, he winds up accompanying Pancho to Albuquerque for an experimental treatment, where it becomes increasingly difficult to keep himself aloof.

I write fantasy. I can write a story in which a little girl saves the world. But the thing about both Bamboo People and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is the conflicts they present can, at best, be resolved only temporarily. The hope we get from them is the hope that, for the characters we have come to love and believe in, things might end well, and that drop in the bucket might be the one that tips the scales toward a larger peace, a broader quality of life with depth and dignity. Maybe. If all the stars line up right. But even if Chiko survives training, even if he survives the aftermath of his failed mission, even if Tu Reh overcomes the hatred he has come to understand as the natural state of mind when faced with a Burmese soldier, they still have to return to a world in which ethnic cleansing occurs–and so do we. If Pancho chooses the path of forgiveness, if D.Q. finds a way to weather his final storms in the manner he desperately wants to live, they still exist in a world in which cancer kills. In which girls and boys die senselessly and cannot be avenged. In which heartbroken survivors succumb to revenge instincts anyway. That’s our world, too. But the truth is that we need stories that confront us with the sadness and the injustice of the world in which we live, then force us to love and hope despite what we know. We close the book determined to challenge the reality we return to, because how can we do less? It takes a brilliant writer to create works that accomplish what these books do, and to make reading those stories a moving and satisfying experience. I hope you will join me and come to meet these two brilliant writers and hear them talk about these wonderful books. I am richer for having read them. You will be, too.

The Informed Voter Project Returns: The Andre Norton Award Finalists

When last I posted in this series it was a little over a month ago, the day before the voting deadline for the Nebula, Bradbury and Andre Norton awards.  At the time I still had the two full-length novel categories left to review–and, er, two books left to read. It was a close thing. All I have to say is, thank goodness for my two hours of daily subway time and my shocking ability to function on zero sleep. You all voted, right? Of course you did. So did I. And in just over a week, the winners will be announced at the Nebula Awards banquet in Cape Canaveral, Florida. What better reason to leap back into one of my favorite bloggy projects? So without further ado, may I present the finalists for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. My thesis for the Norton finalists is a return to the idea that it’s all about identity–but more specifically, these are books about the quest to discover where one belongs, and The Hotel Under the Sand is the perfect place to start.

Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)

The Hotel Under the Sand begins with these words: Cleverness and bravery are absolutely necessary for good adventures. With this opening, we are promised something classic, and that’s exactly what Ms. Baker delivers. A storm at sea deposits Emma, violently separated from everyone and everything she knows and loves, on the wastes of the Dunes. But it turns out the castaway isn’t as much alone as she thinks: when night falls, she is visited by Winston, the ghostly bell captain of the hotel of the title, the Grand Wenlocke. Built by a strange and brilliant hotelier, Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke the Fifth, the Grand Wenlocke entertained strange guests and was able to boast that within its walls time was forgotten, thanks to the owner’s Patented New Advanced Temporal Delay Engine. Until, that is, it was buried under the sands by the Storm of the Equinox. When another storm on the Dunes uncovers the hotel, Emma, Winston, and the Grand Wenlocke begin their adventures together, along with a pirate called Captain Doubloon; the hotel’s cook, Mrs. Beet; her dog, Shorty; and Masterman, descendant of the hotelier and last of the Wenlocke line. Emmadiscovers a home, a family, and a living, which she defends from pirates, storms, and predatory lawyers. We see her use her cleverness and bravery, but we also see her work hard. We see her lament the family she lost to the waves, and we see her build and protect and come to love the new family the strange hotel has collected to itself. Plus, there are fantastic machines, dread pirates, and the oddest collection of guests any hotel has ever played host to.

Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)

Ice takes East of the Sun and West of the Moon as its starting point, but it’s no simple retelling. Cassie Dasent ‘s grandmother (much to the chagrin of Cassie’s scientist father) always explained the fact of her missing mother’s absence by telling her that her mom, the daughter of the North Wind made a deal long ago with the Polar Bear King and is now being held at the end of the earth. When she turns eighteen, Cassie, who lives at an Arctic research station with her father and never credited her grandmother’s tale as anything more than an attempt to comfort her,  suddenly finds herself face to face with the Polar Bear King himself, who promises to bring Cassie’s mother back from the end of the earth…if Cassie will marry him. It’s a great, great adventure, and while plenty of books update classic fairy tales by resetting them in the present, Ice sets up a powerful contrast between the meticulously detailed scientific world of the research station and the magical realm that Cassie must find and journey through when things go wrong. Also, although while she is with Bear and protected by his power Cassie remains unaffected by the freezing polar setting, it isn’t long before she’s forced to cross the Arctic wilderness on her own, and must draw on all the real-world survival skills she has been taught by her father. But this isn’t just an adventure in which a young woman learns about herself and the depth of love while journeying from the familiar world into fantastic realms to rescue her beloved. Or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but it isn’t only her beloved for whom she is fighting. The stakes are incredibly high. And of course, Cassie finds her place, her family, and her way in the world.

Ash, Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, Sep09)

Like Ice, Ash is a re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, but that’s where the similarity ends. Forced to work as a servant in her stepmother’s household after her father’s death, Ash’s only solace is in moments spent with Sidhean, a dangerous and seductive faerie with whom the girl desperately wants to escape. Ash’s mother had some connection to the faerie realm, and it looks like being kidnapped by Sidhean is the only way out of her new life, so she seeks him out over and over, each time only to be told that it isn’t time for him to take her away. Then she meets Kaisa, the king’s huntress, and begins to think there might be a potential reason to stay in the human world. Malinda Lo does a wonderful job conveying the agonized desperation and confusion of this girl even before she’s faced with choosing between the seductive faerie (and the world she’s convinced herself she’s meant to be part of), and the huntress, who is not only human, but a woman. One of the really nice details is that it is Sidhean who plays the role of the fairy godparent enabling Ash to attend royal gatherings, which adds a layer of complexity to their relationship. Also, while Ash is torn between her attractions to Sidhean and Kaisa, this is not presented as an epic issue of sexuality, but rather the necessity of choosing between two very different people the young woman is drawn to. It’s a story about risk and sacrifice and incredibly difficult choices, and, in the end, about finding one’s place and one’s true home.

Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith has lived in the Theatre Illuminata ever since she was very small–although the details of her arrival there from the outside world are fuzzy at best, and she knows nothing about her mother and father. Surrounded by players bound to the Theatre by the power of a mysterious Book containing all the plays of all the ages, Bertie grows up enjoying something of a privileged existence among them until she told it’s time for her to leave at last. Unwilling to leave the only home she knows, she bets everything on an effort to make a contribution to the Theatre and earn the right to stay, and announces her intention to become a Director. And then things start getting complicated: what begins as an act of desperation meant to keep herself from being turned out into the Outside World becomes much, much more as the very existence Theatre Illuminata itself is threatened from within. It’s been a while since I spent time working in the theatre, but this book brought back memories. It evokes the world backstage, below stage, in the wings, in the flies, in the Green Room, in the Prop Room. It’s peopled with characters so familiar it seems it would be nearly impossible to invoke them in any new or surprising ways, and yet they do surprise, over and over. Bertie herself is an absolute treat, part uncontrollable teen, part lonely child, part artist in search of her magnum opus as she transforms herself to save both the Theatre and her place in it, and along the way, begins to work out the truth of her past. (The second tale of the Theatre Illuminata, Perchance to Dream, comes out later this month.)

Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)

This book is the fourth installment in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, taking place during the same events as the third book, The Last Colony. In this vision of the future, where the universe is constantly at war because there are so few planets capable of sustaining life, a group of human colonists are sent to a previously unknown but habitable planet called (ha ha) Roanoke. Zoe is the sixteen-year-old adopted daughter of the leaders selected for the new colony (the protagonists of the first three books), and this is the story of Roanoke told from her point of view as she comes to discover that the survival or destruction of the colony and all who have made it their home just might wind up depending on her. Zoe’s is one of the best teen voices I’ve ever read. She deals with the standard teen issues (picking up and moving, making new friends, first boyfriend, fights with the boyfriend, that kind of thing) and several non-standard ones (issues with her identity as the blood daughter of a man considered both a traitor to humanity and a savior to an alien race called the Obin; frustrations related to being an all-but-religious icon among the Obin; vexations caused by the constant presence of Hickory and Dickory, two very devoted Obin warriors who have lived with Zoe as protectors ever since she was small). The manner in which this book addresses the questions of identity, purpose, and place in the world embraces all of the usual aspects and several very uncommon ones. To give just one example, there’s a wonderful climactic scene in which Zoe is forced to finally come to terms with her iconic status among the Obin so that she can ask of them a tremendous sacrifice and, well, that scene took my breath away.

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)

New York, 1979. Life starts to change for Miranda when her best friend Sal gets punched seemingly at random by a strange boy as the two walk home from school, then withdraws without explanation from their friendship. It’s a tough time to be without friends; a strange man’s been seen streaking near the school, there’s a crazy homeless man who spends his time lying under a mailbox near Miranda’s house, the boy who hit Sal turns out to be even stranger than the unprovoked punch suggested, and Miranda’s mother is preparing for a possible appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid. Oddest of all, and most worrisome, someone is leaving notes for Miranda inside her house–someone who isn’t her mother or her mother’s boyfriend, someone who seems to somehow know things that haven’t yet happened. This is hard, the first note begins. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key. The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you. The events  the letter writer claims to be coming to alter creep inexorably closer, until at last the pieces fall into place in a shocking act of love and sacrifice. This January, When You Reach Me was awarded the Newbery Medal, the same award Miranda’s favorite book,  A Wrinkle in Time, won in 1963.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)

Just after her eleventh birthday, while her father is away at war and her mother is at work in a factory, September is washing teacups when the Green Wind takes pity on her and whisks her away to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes.  September’s adventures begin immediately: she encounters the Wyverary (part Wyvern, part Library) named A-through-L, the Marid Saturday, and the Marquess who, after succeeding the much beloved Queen Mallow as the ruler of Fairyland, introduced the realm to the wonders of bureocracy, red tape, and rules upon rules upon rules. There’s also a soap golem called Lye, an animate red paper lantern, and all manner of strange wonders, from a city sewn from fabric to a great, elaborate gearwork barrier that separates our world from Fairyland. September discovers that she has been set upon more than one quest, and determines to be as ill-tempered and irascible as she must in order to complete those quests and save Fairyland and the new friends she has made. This is a classically-structured fairy tale quest that pays sly homage to all manner of classics that came before, and the telling is beautifully tongue-in-cheek and begs to be read aloud. It feels old-fashioned, and yet there are tons of bizarre and not-at-all old-fashioned details (the soap golem, for instance, or the much-sought-after sword that turns out to be a wrench, or the volery of wild high-wheeler bicycles that carries September and her friends away from the city of Pandemonium). But most wonderful of all is September, who while being neither ill-tempered nor irascible, is the perfect heroine for this beautiful imagining of Fairyland.

Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

Alek, Prince of Austro-Hungary, is roused out of bed, ostensibly for a piloting lesson in one of the two-legged war engines known as Cyklop Stormwalkers. It doesn’t take Alek long to realize something’s up and wrestle an explanation from his teachers: in Sarajevo, his parents have just been murdered, and the race is on to protect Alek from the same fate. In London, a Scottish girl named Deryn Sharp is preparing to take the tests that will start her on the way to becoming an airman. The actual aeronautics are no problem; it’s the fact that Deryn has to pass herself off as Dylan Sharp, a boy, that’s worrisome. But when “Dylan” volunteers to demonstrate her air sense by going up in a Huxley–a fabricated military airbeast crafted from the dna of jellyfish–the creature is blown off course and Dylan is rescued by the airship Leviathan, where she quickly becomes a member of the crew. It isn’t long before Leviathan’s mission brings it, and Dylan, into contact with Alek and his entourage, where their hesitant friendship alters the early course of the brewing conflict. In his reimagined World War I, Scott Westerfeld’s Axis powers are known as Clanker nations on account of their reliance upon elaborate mechanical war engines. The Allies are Darwinists, and through the use of natural philosophy they craft war beasts like the hybrid wolf-tigers called tigeresques, the Huxley ascender, and the Leviathan, a thing more like flying ecosystem than an airbeast. Both teens struggle with issues of who they are and who they can afford to trust, and although they could not be more different, they are equally wonderful characters and I can’t wait to see where the next phase of their story takes them. The book is decorated with gorgeous illustrations, which are just icing on the cake. (Behemoth, the second installment, comes out in October.)

And with that, friends, it’s nearly 1:30 in the morning, and I have to work tomorrow, so here I leave you for now. I’ll be back next week with the final installment of the Informed Voter Project, which will cover the Nebula Award nominees in the novel category:

  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, Sep09)
  • The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
  • Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
  • The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
  • Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)