Two days before Mississippi “Mibs” Beaumont turns thirteen, her father is critically injured in a car accident and left comatose in Salina Hope Hospit...moreTwo days before Mississippi “Mibs” Beaumont turns thirteen, her father is critically injured in a car accident and left comatose in Salina Hope Hospital. Coming of age in Mibs’ family is special, though—her mom’s side of the family all have “savvies,” superpowers of sorts ranging from doing everything perfectly (her mother) to her brother Rocket’s command of electricity (he burns out light bulbs when he’s upset but is the only one who can jump-start their ancient station wagon) to her Grandpa Bomba’s ability to make new land, like the strip of “Kansaska-Nebransas” where the family lives. So when, on the morning of her birthday, Mibs’ brother’s dead pet turtle seems to wake up at her approach, she’s sure she’s been blessed with a savvy that can save her dad. With her brothers Fish and Sampson and the preacher’s kids Bobbi and Will Jr., she stows away in a pink Bible-salesman’s bus and sets off to get to Salina and Poppa. But when tattoos start telling her people’s innermost thoughts, Mibs starts to worry that she won’t be able to help after all. There’s nothing I didn’t love about this book. Like the best fantasy storytellers, Law immediately creates a world where the wildest things seem perfectly normal. And her language is delicious, full of alliteration, repetition, and inventive similes. Just listen to these sentences from the very first page: “I had liked living down south on the edge of land, next to the pushing-pulling waves. I had liked it with a mighty kind of liking, so moving had been hard—hard like the pavement the first time I fell off my pink two-wheeler and my palms burned like fire from all of the hurt just under the skin.” Not to mention my favorite new vocabulary word “scumble,” a painting term the Beaumonts use to describe learning to control their talents in public. Savvy goes far beyond the standard “it’s hard to be different” young-adult tale to a strong-voiced, delightful novel that anyone who appreciates eccentricity will enjoy. (less)
Reading Alice Hoffman always makes me want to fall in love—-a perverse sentiment, I know, since she’s made a career out of detailing the anguish of mi...moreReading Alice Hoffman always makes me want to fall in love—-a perverse sentiment, I know, since she’s made a career out of detailing the anguish of misplaced or impossible affection. But her characters love with such strength and passion that it transforms their whole lives, and often the natural world around them; it’s the imaginative extension of our own desires, the way our emotions seem so vast we wonder that the universe doesn’t reflect them.
In The Third Angel, Hoffman takes up her theme in a backward-spiraling narrative of three women in love with the wrong men: Maddie Heller, infatuated with her sister’s fiancé; Frieda Lewis, aching for a drug-addicted rock star; Bryn Evans, on the point of marrying a good man yet unable to shake her feelings for her con-man ex-husband. All three stories are pulled together by the Lion Park Hotel in London and room 707, haunted by the ghost of a terrible event that took place there in 1952. What happened, of course, is all wrapped up in the relentless force of tormented love—but, as she often does, Hoffman reveals the power of pain to bring redemption in unexpected ways.(less)
For a Thomas Hardy novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a lighthearted romp: though it’s full of darkness and death, at least the two main character...moreFor a Thomas Hardy novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a lighthearted romp: though it’s full of darkness and death, at least the two main characters, shepherd Gabriel Oak and independent beauty Bathsheba Everdene, remain alive and wed at the denouement. Posy Simmonds’ bang-up graphic novel “Tamara Drewe,” a riff on “Madding,” is far funnier and less bleak than its inspiration, but she doesn’t shy away from modern takes on Hardy’s themes of jealousy, unintended consequences, and the ennui of rural life. “Tamara Drewe” is set at Stonefield, a writers’ retreat in the English countryside, run by philandering mystery novelist Nicholas Hardiman and (mostly) his patient wife Beth. The eponymous heroine has returned to the neighborhood after her mother’s death, and is making a splash: Tamara’s had a nose job, and it’s changed her attitude, her wardrobe, her whole outlook. She’s simultaneously bemused and excited by the new attention she gets from men, which she documents in a wry column for a London newspaper. Local landscaper Andy Cobb, who’s always loved her, doesn’t suit her new lot, and she takes up with indie rocker Ben Sergeant, much to the delight of the neighborhood gossips—and the teenage torment of local girl Jody Long, who’s sure her musical idol would overlook the age difference if he’d just give her a chance... That’s the set-up, told masterfully in a combination of text, news clippings, and loose-jointed pen-and-ink drawings. Like Hardy’s original, it’s a prankish missive that serves as catalyst for the unraveling of the characters’ relative happiness, when Jody and her friend Casey break into Tamara’s house in her absence and send a fateful email from her laptop: Ben, Nicholas, and Andy all get the sentence, “I want to give you the biggest shagging of your life.” Reactions—and tragedy—ensue. Like Simmonds’ previous reimagined classic, “Gemma Bovery,” art and text tell the story from different points of view; while the drawings are more or less omniscient, the narrative of “Tamara Drewe” is told mostly by peripheral characters: Beth, Casey, struggling American novelist Glen Larson, a frequent guest at Stonefield. This allows her to play with dramatic irony, who knows what when, and pulls us into the plot as curious eavesdropper. Smart, funny, honest, and mature, “Tamara Drewe” is a superlative book.(less)
Francesca Lia Block may well be my favorite author: I certainly own more of her books (15 and counting) than anyone else's. She's more magical, winged...moreFrancesca Lia Block may well be my favorite author: I certainly own more of her books (15 and counting) than anyone else's. She's more magical, winged, and punk-rock than Alice Hoffman, with a similar belief in the all-consuming, all-transforming power of romantic longing, and a penchant for lush, detailed descriptions of vintage outfits and ethnic foods and the streets and canyons of L.A. But she's spent her career in the young adult ghetto, because her main concern, I think, is reaching out to the awkward, fledgling souls of teenage girls, taking them by the hand, and leading them out of the twisted expectations of our culture into a joyful and color-saturated space where who they are is enough. That's what she did for me when, at 14, I picked up her debut novel Weetzie Bat. I suppose there are some well-adjusted adolescents that don't need her books: but for the sake of all the weird, smart girls at the back of the room, I'm glad she's still writing.
"Blood Roses" is a series of tiny, perfect short stories. A girl kissed by a David-Bowie-listening painter grows gigantic in her joy; Elodie, in love with a tattoo artist, finds her skin spontaneously generating art; an equestrienne meets the perfect boy in the shape of a West L.A. gang-member centaur. I read this at a gallop--half an hour for a hundred pages. These tales are like sips of ambrosia.(less)
From the New England Primer to Harry Potter. Marcus covers both the business side of things--from the days with no international copyright law, where...moreFrom the New England Primer to Harry Potter. Marcus covers both the business side of things--from the days with no international copyright law, where Americans could publish Hans Christian Andersen and Lewis Carroll without giving them a dime, to the rise of women in publishing as maternal keepers of the children's book departments, and the spawning and eventual conglomeration of all the familiar houses: Simon & Schuster (who started their own company because, as Jews, they were excluded from all others), Houghton Mifflin, Random House, etc. Also deals with the high-minded purpose of juvenile literature, which has been used for centuries as a means to instill "proper" values in the young. Who decides what children read? Marcus asks, and goes on to detail American answers: clergymen, businessmen, librarians, educators, women. A fascinating history of a usually overlooked segment of literature. Plus name-checks of all my favorites: Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, Robert McCloskey (who kept a whole flock of mallards in his studio while writing "Make Way for Ducklings").(less)
Charmain Baker's mother has brought her up to be "respectable": that means no housework, no pets, and especially no vulgar magic. As for Charmain, her...moreCharmain Baker's mother has brought her up to be "respectable": that means no housework, no pets, and especially no vulgar magic. As for Charmain, her only ambition is to talk her way into the King of High Norland's famous library. When her imperious Aunt Sempronia volunteers Charmain to look after her Great-Uncle William's house while he's ill, Charmain sees it as the chance she's been waiting for. Except Great-Uncle William is a wizard, off being cured by elves, and taking care of his house proves daunting: Bags of laundry multiply overnight. There are stacks of dirty dishes but no taps on the sink. And depending on whether you turn left or right on your way through the kitchen door, you end up in a completely different wing. After a run-in with a threatening lubbock—a seven-foot-tall purple insect with a penchant for laying its eggs in doomed human hosts—Charmain realizes her nice, safe upbringing is useless in the real, magical world.
Soon, Charmain is dealing with angry kobold gardeners, William's hapless apprentice, a disheveled little dog named Waif with mysterious powers and an insatiable appetite, and the plight of poor King Adolphus, searching centuries of books and papers for a clue to where his missing gold is hidden—and where the taxes keep disappearing to. Along the way, she leaves respectability far behind, but finds out a few spells come in handy.
This is the third book in the series which began with "Howl's Moving Castle" in 1986 (adapted into a movie in 2004 by anime genius Hayao Miyazaki); the wizard Howl (disguised as a hilariously saccharine moppet named Twinkle) appears here, too, along with his wife, Sophie, their son, Morgan, and Calcifer the fire demon. "House of Many Ways" is a first-rate work of fantasy, mixing humor and danger—the lubbock is downright chilling—and a plot as complicated as Great-Uncle William's house that runs full tilt to a satisfying conclusion without feeling pat. And in a twist on the traditional bookish heroine—who usually saves the day with just her smarts—Charmain must first learn the practical business of looking after herself and other people: a gentle nudge for the young reader to get off the couch sometimes and help with the laundry.(less)
I picked up John T. Price's memoir after hearing him speak at April's Midwest Booksellers Association meeting in Des Moines—he was such an easygoing a...moreI picked up John T. Price's memoir after hearing him speak at April's Midwest Booksellers Association meeting in Des Moines—he was such an easygoing and eloquent speaker I was drawn to his book even though it's outside my usual fictional comfort zone. I wasn't disappointed.
"Man Killed By Pheasant" is a series of interconnected essays about Price's life, family, and Iowa, the native land he tried to leave for decades before realizing it was home. Anecdotes amusing and heartbreaking crowd the page: his adventures as a maintenance man for an apartment complex that—after his soft heart becomes known—becomes a haven for illegal pets; his senile grandfather's escape into memories of a second, more exciting life, full of bear-wrestling and cross-country escapes; his mounting grief for the lost habitats and biomes of Iowa, where only a tenth of one percent of the state's area remains ecologically native. My favorite piece, "Dave and the Devil," follows Price's cousin on the lecture circuit as an expert on Satanism and student-initiated violence. Dave's disgust at widespread ritual mutilation and animal sacrifice is tempered by his tolerance and compassion for the outcast and frustrated teenagers responsible for most of it.
Price understands how to distill real life into narrative, finding epiphanies both small and great. In the title chapter, a young pheasant unexpectedly flies into Price's car window as he drives along Highway 30, scaring man and bird half to death; but it's this unexpected collision of nature and technology that spurs Price to learn more about the flora and fauna that populated Iowa before it was plowed under. "Man Killed By Pheasant" is an asset to the creative non-fiction genre, and the literature of the Midwest.(less)
Saying that the Internet is changing communication falls in the trite-but-true category; what’s often missed while bemoaning chat acronyms and the muc...moreSaying that the Internet is changing communication falls in the trite-but-true category; what’s often missed while bemoaning chat acronyms and the much-hyped isolation of the young is the way “social utilities” like MySpace and Facebook create once-impossible chances for connection. A small-town kid with broadband can find kindred souls all over the world. Every misfit has a niche on the web. Young adult novelists who understand this have turned to a new form of epistolary fiction: the blog novel. Susie Day’s “serafina67” (titled after the protagonist’s screenname) is an engaging entry in this new genre, imported from across the pond. After her dad gives her a laptop for Christmas, 15-year-old Sarah finally starts a ULife blog, for purposes of “documentarying my proper grown-up life, just as soon as I start having one.” To this end, she makes a series of resolutions, ranging from making her mother happy to forgiving her father to losing some weight to, finally, “BE HAPPY AGAIN BY APRIL 22ND,” the one-year anniversary of what she mysteriously calls The Incident. Through Sarah’s entries, Day follows her progress as she tries to change her life. The diary format brings Sarah’s funny, self-deprecating voice to the forefront, and following her moods is sometimes as simple as noticing she hasn’t posted for a week. Her friend’s comments reflect the ebb and flow of teenage relationships. All in all, it’s a compelling way to tell a story, and the language sometimes approaches Joycean levels of inventiveness. *kthxbai*(less)
Trace Pennington is a senior at the top of her class at the University of the Midwest, a double major in English and classics with an intimidating qua...moreTrace Pennington is a senior at the top of her class at the University of the Midwest, a double major in English and classics with an intimidating quadruple minor in psychology, humanities, philosophy, and (after one more class) women’s studies. But when she came to school, she turned down the room-and-board part of her scholarship, preferring to do her studying in the run-down, unheated farmhouse where she lives with her father’s dog and two hundred unlabeled file folders. No one, not even her lifelong best friend, knows her address. She’s not even enrolled under her real name. What Trace is hiding from, however, she is also trapped with: herself, mental illness, memory, reality. Kimmel’s prose, both in her memoirs (“A Girl Named Zippy”) and previous novels (“The Solace of Leaving Early”), has always been lovely; here, it reaches a chilling beauty. She handles two concurrent narratives: Trace’s revelatory jottings in a dream journal for one of her classes (the invitation-only seminar Special Topics in Archetypical Psychology) and her third-person movements through several different worlds: the rural bleakness of her childhood, the posing personae of college kids, the jargon-laced farce of academia, and always, the dark, bristling territory of dreams. The characterization is usually painful and often funny—a cover blurb compares Kimmel to Flannery O’Connor, and they do share the ability to portray people who at once hopelessly cliched and completely individual. Many of the cast of “Iodine” have, in fact, consciously turned themselves into stereotypes, both funny and heartbreaking: the overwrought transsexual, the obese, paranormal-obsessed trailer-wife, the rumpled, past-his-prime professor exiled to a third-rate university. Archetypes, after all, are just caricatures on a sublime scale. And archetypes are where this novel dwells, within the Jungian corridors of the collective unconscious, where Trace’s hallucinations (the coyote walking upright who, when she was six, put a pebble in the back of her neck and led her over the hillside to where her best friend was waiting) are every bit as real as her abusive mother and her too-beloved father. While bits and pieces of Trace’s past are revealed, as the line between author and narrator all but disappears, it’s impossible—and pointless—to tell what really happened. Why iodine? It’s referenced only twice, once within a delusion, but as the title it’s at the back of the reader’s mind throughout: it represents, I think, the attempt to heal, imposed from without—helpful but superficial, leaving behind a stain.(less)