A Top Shelf review, originally published in the May 8, 2014 edition of The Monitor
The books of professor, writer and editor Jerry Craven are always aA Top Shelf review, originally published in the May 8, 2014 edition of The Monitor
The books of professor, writer and editor Jerry Craven are always a surprising joy. A well-traveled man of letters and adventure who has taught in places as far-flung as Malaysia and Azerbaijan (as well as the wilds of Waco and Beaumont), Craven manages to blend almost mystical awe with whimsical bemusement, especially when he deposits the most unlikely figures in the heart of strange surroundings.
Craven’s latest novel, The Wild Part, takes the 1950s Venezuela he explored so thrillingly in his memoir Saving a Songbird and fictionalizes his youthful adventures in that country. The story begins in medias res as 11-year-old Don Seal, whose family moved to South America pursuing work opportunities, sneaks into the back of a truck with his friend Rosita, hoping to simply hitch a ride to a neighboring village to see old bones and shrunken heads.
The driver, however, heads in a very different direction, taking them deep into the jungle. Both excited at the adventure and anxious to get back to their own town, the pair set off on an amazing trek across the wild part of Venezuela. Don, who narrates the tale, is a brave boy and keen observer, but he is naïve and less knowledgeable about the country than Rosita, a sharp and fiery girl who saves them both on more than one occasion.
Along the way they run into miners and villagers warring over gold who think Don is the long-lost son of their murdered patrón; they steal a canoe to escape and soon find themselves drifting idyllically down a broad river. Though the jungle is fraught with danger (piranhas, bats, spiders, snakes, waterfalls), Don and Rosita revel in the beauty and freedom it affords them for a few days, naked and unencumbered by adult nonsense, debating their place in the universe and the nature of god as they live off the land.
Eventually, of course, they emerge into civilization again, getting caught up in the antics of Craven’s trademark oddballs (Sylvia, the bruja whose magic might just be real; an American missionary and killer; a snake-oil Texan). Confronted with questions of faith, reality, good and evil, the children learn the difficult, duplicitous nature of the world. “Believing is the only thing that makes something true,” but “not believing in [bad things] won’t make them go away.”
A thoughtful, lush novel replete with beautiful writing, suspense, humor, feminism and profundity, The Wild Part will appeal to both adults and thoughtful young people. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with which it has much in common, Craven’s book, though featuring children as protagonists, is more than just an adventure story: it is a genuine literary exploration of the relationship of human beings to god, nature, and one another. ...more
A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 9, 2014 edition of The Monitor
In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published his massive follow-up to his 19A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 9, 2014 edition of The Monitor
In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published his massive follow-up to his 1937 children’s book, The Hobbit. The three-volume work of fantasy known as The Lord of the Rings was a tough sell at the time, and Tolkien’s publisher turned to established authors for blurbs and marketing, including Naomi Mitchison.
Just two years earlier, Mitchison, who was a fan and friend of Tolkien’s for years, had herself published a slim fantasy novel titled Travel Light. The book in many respects reads as a conversation with or response to Tolkien’s work. Both authors were adapting epic heroic tales to modern sensibilities, but Mitchison arguably went further than her peer, turning the genre utterly on its head.
Travel Light tells the story of Halla, a princess who narrowly escapes the clutches of her murderous stepmother. She is brought up for a time by bears before being adopted by a dragon, under whose tutelage she gains the ability to speak to all living creatures and other small practical magicks.
Halla also learns to hate and mistrust heroes, whom dragons see as dangerous ideologues rushing off to murder and ransack. Indeed, great tragedy befalls her at the hands of a hero. Forced to leave the dragons’ world of treasure and ancient lore, she faces Valkyries, unicorns and other mythical creatures before being told by Odin All-Father to “travel light.”
Wandering through the world and the centuries, Halla finds herself in the company of men, whose tendency to want to rescue maidens from dragons without consulting with the ladies has always seemed suspect to her. But this particular band of men seeks to get justice from the Emperor in Constantinople, and Halla’s unique skills and world view are a godsend for them.
Right down to the twist of an ending, Mitchison is deftly subversive with genre and gender expectations while managing to tell a beautiful, moving story. She tackles issues of government, religion and tradition with a light but critical touch so that the book is simultaneously very accessible to children and immensely rewarding for adults.
Mitchison, who lived to be 101 and wrote some 90 books, may have been largely forgotten while her male colleagues Tolkien, C.S. Lewis et al. have been immortalized, but this engaging, witty and intelligent book needs to get into the hands of all the fantasy lovers you know, both young and old....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 7, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Middle Grade Dystopia
he nominees for the Andre Norton Award for YoA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 7, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Middle Grade Dystopia
he nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy were recently announced by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and since I’ve already reviewed two of the titles for this column (Railsea and Summer of the Mariposas), I’ve decided to try to read through as many of the rest as possible. I’ve started with the science fiction book Above World by Jenn Reese, a novel intended for middle grade readers (i.e., from 8-12 years of age).
Centuries from now, genetically altered humans live in the oceans, the deserts, the skies—dependent for their existence on ancient technology intended to provide an alternative to overcrowded cities. When this technology begins to break down in the undersea City of Shifting Tides, the elders meekly accept the situation as their destiny. Outraged, Aluna and Hoku (two young kampii or merfolk who haven’t gotten their tails yet) decide to leave the ocean in search of HydroTek, the legendary company who engineered their ancestors. To reach their destination, they will need to struggle against other hybrid humans (aviars, equines, etc.) and make allies. At the end, they discover they must deal with the frightening, cyborg-like Upgraders whose leader holds the key to the kampii’s destruction or survival.
Reese handles her young characters pretty well. The strong female, Aluna, is driven by heroic notions, and her hunting training gives her the tools to face enemies and lead. Hoku, her young male friend, is tech-savvy but less aggressive, and the two play off each other (and their friends Callie and Dash) quite well. The world-building is clever (if a little simplistic in spots, understandably so for a middle grade book), and Reese can certainly write an action scene. For some reason I struggled to get into the story before the protagonists left the sea; once they were on solid ground, however, the plot rolled along, brisk and entertaining (though a bit predictable). The book reminded me a lot of La estrella, a Spanish YA novel I reviewed last year, and that’s a good thing. It’s the first in a series, and I could see myself reading another volume in order to revisit the characters and their peculiar world. Not as good as Railsea or Summer of the Mariposas, but worth giving to that kid in your life....more
A Top Shelf review, originally published in the February 14, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Discovering the Secret of Love
Sometimes you get lucky and findA Top Shelf review, originally published in the February 14, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Discovering the Secret of Love
Sometimes you get lucky and find a book so compelling, so beautifully written, so satisfying and important that you want to run around telling everyone to buy it NOW. That’s exactly how I felt after reading the last page of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by poet and author Benjamín Alire Sáenz. Grappling with heady themes of family, identity, violence and forgiveness, this YA novel (winner of the 2013 Stonewall Book Award, Printz Honor Award, and Pura Belpré Author Award, among others) manages also to tell a thrilling coming-of-age story with spare, poetic artistry.
At the core of the book is the friendship between Aristotle (Ari) and Dante, two Mexican-American teens living in El Paso in the late 80s. Ari’s parents love him very much, but his relationship with his veteran father is difficult and uncommunicative. Hanging over the family is the violence that landed Ari’s older brother in prison, after which he was basically erased from all conversation. Ari, who keeps to himself but has a reputation as a fighter that keeps the bullies at bay, meets Dante at the municipal pool. Intellectual, uninhibited and very outspoken, Dante comes from a family in which nothing is hidden: communication and open affection are the norm. As is often the case when outsiders bond, the boys help each other deal with their journey toward independence and maturity, and their engaging, deep conversations ring very true. They get through some very difficult times together, each becoming an integral part of the other’s family.
Then Dante’s father gets invited to teach a year at a Chicago University, and the book shifts gears as Ari struggles to deal with his increasing depression alone, while letters from Dante track the other boy’s dawning realization that he is gay. When Dante returns to El Paso and is confronted by violent responses to his orientation, Ari begins a journey that could either land him in prison like his brother or finally heal the open wound that has kept his parents and him from full happiness.
Sáenz is a master of pacing and dialogue, his prose poetic and deeply affecting. I also found it very refreshing that the boys’ parents, as flawed as they might be, are integral parts of their lives (rather than distant figures who have little impact on the story or horrible ogres who just don’t “get” teenagers). The concluding pages are some of the most powerful writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and though some critics have found the uplifting final scene a little too pat or unrealistic, Sáenz earns it through his careful development of these wonderful, real characters. Beautiful. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the January 17, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Riding the Rails to the End of the World
Award-winning writer anA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the January 17, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Riding the Rails to the End of the World
Award-winning writer and academic China Miéville has made a career out of what he calls weird fiction, eloquent fantasy that simultaneously harkens back to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and draws from modern (often Marxist) responses to the tradition. Much of his work is decidedly adult, but in 2007 his first YA novel, Un Lun Dun, hit the shelves, a Neil Gaimanesque tale of a mirror London and an unlikely heroine. 2012 saw the publication of his second book for young adults, Railsea, a powerful post-apocalyptic story that subverts the Moby Dick narrative delightfully.
Ages from now, the seas are dry. The atmosphere at what is presently sea level roils with noxious clouds that obscure the forms of strange alien beasts floating enigmatically. Continents are desolate, dangerous, poisonous places. The ocean floor teems with massive mutant moles, owls, antlions and other creatures, each a predator, all hungry for human flesh. And in place of the currents that once swirled in great blue depths, the railsea spreads in all directions, a vast tangle of railways lain in the distant past by unknown entities and maintained by autonomous locomotive “angels.”
Sham is a teenaged orphan boy apprenticed to the doctor on a moler, a train that plies the railsea in search of giant moles whose fur, meat and oil are very valuable.Its captain is obsessed with her philosophy, the enormous mole named Mocker-Jack that reputedly bit off her arm years earlier and in whom she finds the meaning of her life. And though Sham yearns for a different occupation, he is gradually adapting to the rhythms of the rails.But a brief salvage expedition reveals a deeper mystery and mission to young Sham, and he soon finds himself joining up with two other orphans determined to finish the dangerous exploration that ended their parents’ lives. Their adventures take them quite literally to the edge of their world, and what they discover there will startle and amaze you.
A big fan of Miéville, I was nonetheless astonished at how much I liked this book, which feels written for just the sort of literate, oddball young person that I was 30 years ago. The literate but accessible style is reminiscent of the very best of Stevenson, Cooper and Wells, richly written and never insulting the intelligence of its teenaged readers. The pace is exhilarating, the adventures hair-raising, and the philosophical issues handled with an impressive deftness. Sham’s character arc is great, also: imagine if in Moby Dick Ishmael had the courage to redirect Ahab’s obsession so that his crew wouldn’t perish. A top shelf addition to the YA fantasy milieu....more
TOP SHELF Review, originally published September 27, 2012, in The Monitor.
Young Woman Swashbuckles Through Time
Steel is the latest young-adult novel fTOP SHELF Review, originally published September 27, 2012, in The Monitor.
Young Woman Swashbuckles Through Time
Steel is the latest young-adult novel from New York Times best-selling author Carrie Vaughn, best known for her urban fantasy series about Kitty, a werewolf DJ. An accomplished balance of action, personal discovery and historical exploration, Steel is a perfect read for teens who love fantasy, pirates and strong female protagonists.
A teenage fencing prodigy with Olympic ambitions, Jill Archer loses her chance to be in the Junior World Championships by mere seconds. Though she’d rather mope, her parents drag her off on a family vacation to the Caribbean. There she discovers the rusted tip of an old pirate sword buried in the sand, a shard of metal that seems to hold magical secrets. When she pockets it, she sets off a chain of events that lands her nearly three hundred centuries in the past. She soon finds herself joining the crew of the Diana, a pirate ship captained by Marjory Cooper, who is on a Moby Dick-like quest to destroy her former skipper, the ruthless Edmund Blane. She recognizes the bit of metal as the tip of Blane’s mighty sword, created in a horrifying rite of black magic. Cooper uses it to track her nemesis down, avoiding the Royal Navy all the way. But to defeat Blane, she’ll need Jill’s help… if the teen can only overcome her hesitancy at the prospect of defeat.
Vaughn artfully manages the task of balancing a realistic depiction of pirate life and keeping the book appropriate for a young-adult audience. Jill luckily falls in with one of the more humane pirates: Cooper frees a group of enslaved Africans from the ship transporting them, taking them to Jamaica to be protected by Grandy Nanny (an historical figure now considered a national hero). The “articles” or code of conduct of the Diana echo the norms of modern capitalist democracies, and Cooper makes it clear to her crew that Jill is to be respected (if given all the rookie chores they can dredge up). Jill herself is a nicely drawn character who spends the first half of the book being gradually drawn into life at sea before coming into her own as a fencer and a woman toward the end. The young man entrusted with showing her the ropes is a spirited mulatto named Henry, and the friendship that grows between the two, while tinged with romantic tension, never devolves into the smitten dependence with which too many YA authors saddle their heroines. Jill is a brave, confident young woman who makes her own decisions and lives with the consequences. I came away from the book believing her a great role model for my own daughters....more
TOP SHELF review, originally appearing in the August 23, 2012, edition of The Monitor.
YA Novel Takes on Wrestling and Relationships
Body Slammed! is thTOP SHELF review, originally appearing in the August 23, 2012, edition of The Monitor.
YA Novel Takes on Wrestling and Relationships
Body Slammed! is the latest by writer Ray Villareal, whose 30 years as a teacher and reading coach in the Dallas Independent School District are reflected in the powerful appeal of his books for teens. The title is a follow-up to My Father, the Angel of Death, which was included on the 2007 Books for the Teen Age, a list of the very best compiled each year by the New York Public Library. However, Body Slammed! can be read with no knowledge of the previous book.
Jesse Baron is a 16-year-old living with his grandparents in San Antonio. His father, Mark Baron, is the nationally famous wrestler known as the Angel of Death. Mark’s work in the ring keep him away from his son for most of the year; his clinging to the profession has cost him his marriage, and he is quickly missing out on his son’s high school years. Though Jesse joined his school’s football team to please his dad, he has no real interest in playing, and his father’s constant absence has demoralized him: he spends most of the season on the bench.
Then his father introduces him to Tristan “TJ” Masters, a 22-year-old wrestler with a devil-may-care, hedonistic view of life. TJ takes Jesse under his wing while Mark is away, determined to show him a good time. But TJ’s personal life has left him with little respect for authority, and their outings gradually escalate in danger as the wrestler draws the teen into his world. Jesse begins to neglect his friends, his responsibilities, his family. He even uses his budding romance with quirky and unusually named Wally Morúa as a cover for a disastrous outing to Nuevo Laredo. In the end, however, Jesse learns a valuable lesson about friends and family, one with repercussions for his father’s career and his parents’ broken relationship.
Written in an accessible, engaging voice, Body Slammed! is a perfect title for young men, especially reluctant readers or avid sports fans. Its San Antonio setting and Hispanic cultural trappings make it great for high school English teachers searching for relevant texts. One of the appeals of the novel for me was the refreshing way Villareal explores the reality of professional wrestling, exposing practices like “jobbing” (deliberately losing) and “pushing” (allowing a less-known wrestler to win multiple matches) without undermining the sport’s integrity as a crowd-pleasing spectacle. The addition of other POV chapters toward the end of the book is a bit messy (the majority of the book having been from Jesse’s perspective), but I loved the resolution anyway.
David Bowles is a writer, educator and editor. You can contact him at email@example.com. ...more
This Top Shelf Review originally appeared in the July 19, 2012, edition of The Monitor
Timeless Tales with a Modern Twist
René Saldaña, Jr., is a PeñitaThis Top Shelf Review originally appeared in the July 19, 2012, edition of The Monitor
Timeless Tales with a Modern Twist
René Saldaña, Jr., is a Peñitas native and award-winning author. Known for the striking, poignant realism of his Young Adult stories centered on life in the Valley, Saldaña has also tried his hand at middle-grades detective fiction with his fantastic Mickey Rangel Mystery series. His latest collection, Dancing with the Devil and Other Tales from Beyond, takes his readers deep into the world of Valley urban legend, riffing in six fantastic stories on the cuentos our abuelas and tías would tell us when we were little.
In “La Llorona Sings a Happy Song,” the story of two boys being chased by the legendary wailing woman is interwoven with a retelling of her origins from the perspective of one of her sons. “Louie Spills His Guts” explores the old admonition that children shouldn’t play with knives without their parents’ permission lest their intestines end up snaking their way out through the cut they’ll invariably receive. “Dancing with the Devil” recounts the famous urban legend, setting it at a middle-school and narrating it from a jilted boyfriend’s perspective. One of the strongest stories in the collection is “God’s Will Be Done,” in which a young girl, set on meeting up with a boy her parents don’t approve of, mocks our ubiquitous si Dios quiere, insisting that she’ll get her way even if God doesn’t will it. The consequences of her rebelliousness and the lesson she learns make for compelling reading. I was reminded of the old Twilight Zone series when reading “Have I Got a Marble for You,” the story of Felipe, whose desire to be top dog at the Peñitas Marble Championship leads him to make a deal that he will forever regret. The final piece, “All Choked Up,” gives aGoosebumps-style twist to the story of la mano pachona.
Dancing with the Devil has been published by Arte Público Press as a bilingual flipbook. The Spanish translation by Gabriela Baeza Ventura deftly captures the wonder and horror of the original English. Perfect for middle grade readers and young adults, the collection will make a great addition to the growing corpus of high-interest Hispanic fiction. I heartily recommend its use in classrooms to engage struggling readers. Boys in particular will delight in these gruesome but delightful tales. Saldaña has outdone himself, and I eagerly await his upcoming projects, which include a children’s book and an anthology of short stories and poetry he’s editing....more
Top Shelf Review. Originally appeared in the July 25, 2012, edition of The Monitor. A Magical Mexican-American Odyssey
Guadalupe García McCall is an upTop Shelf Review. Originally appeared in the July 25, 2012, edition of The Monitor. A Magical Mexican-American Odyssey
Guadalupe García McCall is an up-and-coming Latino author whose first book, Under the Mesquite, won this year's Pura Belpré Prize and was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. Born in Piedras Negras and raised in Eagle Pass, García McCall—like many along the border—straddles two overlapping worlds, and that convergence of culture and geography enriches her character-driven writing. In her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas, she takes arguably the oldest story in literature—the Monomyth or Hero’s Journey—and reshapes it to resonate with the unique harmonies of Latina sisterhood and motherly love.
Odilia Garza and her four sisters (independent Juanita; the irrepressible twins, Velia and Delia; and little, kind-hearted Pita) have a unified reaction to their father’s abandoning the family: they run wild. For a year, they do little to help their mother, preferring instead to exist free and unencumbered by responsibility. But when they discover a dead man floating in the Río Grande, they are drawn on an odyssey that rivals that of Odysseus himself. Guided by la Llorona, the weeping specter that bitterly regrets her crimes, the sisters take their father’s old car and drive the body across the border into Mexico, intending to simply return him to his own family and then visit their grandmother, whom they’ve not seen in some time. But dark forces block their path at every turn: witches, lechuzas, chupacabras, naguales and other mythic beasts. To defeat this bleak menagerie, the girls must learn to overcome the heartache that threatens to tear their family apart. With the help of shamans, their grandmother, and the Virgin herself, the Garza sisters are able to stand together, true and pure of heart, even in the face of their greatest trial: the return of their father.
Beautifully written, heart-wrenching, action-packed and funny as can be, Summer of the Mariposas is a must-read for kids 12 years and up. I especially recommend its use in schools with large Latino populations. In Texas, mythology is now a greater component of the essential knowledge and skills for English language arts, and I can envision units that pair this novel with the Odyssey or other traditional texts. García McCall is herself an English teacher, and I’m willing to bet that the interests and needs of her own students inspired her to craft this magical adventure.
Summer of the Mariposas will be published in October by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, which graciously provided me an advance reader’s copy. ...more