Sunday, January 30, 2011

High School Nostalgia

Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance 1973
by John Barnes
Michael Printz Honor Book 2010

In John Barnes' debut YA novel (he's a Nebula nominated sci-fi author), he brilliantly recreates the first week of Karl Shoemaker's senior year of high school. Karl is an average kid living in an average midwest town (Lightsburg, OH, a fictional suburb of Toledo); however, he's been a member of a school therapy group, dubbed the Madman Underground, ever since his father died. But this year, he plans to avoid the therapy group and live as a normal teenager. Of course, this is much easier said than done.

At over five hundred pages, Tales of the Madman Underground truly dedicates itself to exploring this one week in Karl's life. Of course, in order to understand the impact of various events throughout this week, there are sundry flashbacks explaining why characters are in the Madman Underground. There's Paul, Karl's possibly gay best friend; Cheryl, the sexually abused cheerleader; Squid and Danny, two athletes with alcoholic fathers; and Marti, the new girl who's been to nearly every gifted school in the country and just wants a chance to be normal. Being outcasts, for the most part, the group does its best to help each other out, and given the nature of some of the kids' home-lives, aid is needed relatively frequently.

While the book is set in the early seventies, having grown up in a boring suburb of Pittsburgh in the new millennium, this still read like my high school experience. I knew a number of kids like the characters in this novel; our problems and entertainments were much the same as Barnes describes them. And, while I usually try to prevent myself from coloring my reviews with emotion, I feel that this novel worked so well because nearly everyone can relate to it. While it might have been a tad unrealistic to have so much happen in just one week, I appreciated Barnes' refusal to neatly tie up any loose ends and write a happy ending for our protagonist.

Grade: A-

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
by Chris Crutcher

While Tales from the Madman Underground is a semi-realistic portrayal of high school life, Staying Fat for Sarah Bynes reads more like an after-school special. The basic premise is that overweight swimmer Eric's best friend, the titular Sarah Byrnes, enters a catatonic state and is admitted to a mental ward. The two had bonded as kids due to their status as outcasts, as Sarah was horribly burned on her face and arms as a child and never received reconstructive surgery. Over the course of the novel, Eric discovers that Sarah's father has been abusing her and is forced to choose between telling an adult and losing Sarah's trust, or staying silent and possibly losing her completely.

While I enjoyed the oft snarky narrative of Eric, and the book did an excellent job of discussing sensitive issues like abortion with all sides accounted for, I feel the end of the book is completely unbelievable. A side character, who is barely present throughout the book, manages to intercept Mr. Byrnes, and the swim coach, who, while she has affection for Eric, barely knows Sarah, takes her in immediately. Had the ending not been so trite, I feel this novel would have been considerably stronger, but as it is, all of the work Crutcher puts into his characters is diminished by this happy ending.

I suppose it's a product of its time. I remember reading a number of novels in the 90s that had their respective protagonist surmounting unlikely obstacles. With a subject such as abuse, one can understand wanting the happy ending, especially when all too often, such endings never happen in reality, but if it had been curbed even slightly, it might have been more realistic. Despite its flawed ending, I still recommend this novel.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 24, 2011

Exploring Humanity's Dark Side...Again

The Curse of the Wendigo
by Rick Yancey

After reading the first installment of The Monstrumologist last autumn, I greatly anticipated the release of the sequel. I received a copy for Christmas and began to read it on the bus home to Chicago (completing about half of it during the trip). While Will and our Byronic doctor return, none of the other characters from the first novel make an appearance in this installment (my husband was rather disappointed with the absence of Kearns, though I've read that he is in the upcoming third novel). As in the first installment, the writing attempts to mimic that of the Victorian Era in which it is set and utilizes several apt literary allusions throughout the course of the work, including that of Dante's Inferno. This installment also includes several historical figures (Jacob Riis, Bram Stoker) in secondary roles, which I felt helped the work with its goal of being read as truth.

While the first book's monster is clearly presented as such, things are not so black and white in this second installment. When Warthrop's best friend goes missing in Canada while investigating the wendigo myth, his wife Muriel (Warthrop's former fiancee) convinces Warthrop to search and retrieve him. Numerous bizarre events occur during the hunt, but Yancey never clearly states if the wendigo is a supernatural being or the psychological ailment that shares its name. This may disappoint younger fans looking for monsters, but we older readers know well that mankind is often the most terrifying monster of them all. Just as the monstrous actions of Dr. Alastair Warthrop were juxtaposed with those of the anthropophagi in the first book, here we are asked once again if one's actions can lead us to become monsters. Was it Chanler's jealousy, both of his wife's love for Warthrop and of Warthrop's superior skills as a monstrumologist, that ultimately led to his dissent into madness? Or did he truly ride the wind and become a wendigo?

The first installment was quintessentially gothic. The action took place in a small town remote from the rest of society, and there were various forays to cemeteries and mad houses. We questioned humanity through the lens of a Byronic hero, who, though extremely intelligent, was equally moody and arrogant. And while he remains in this installment, the shift between the frontier gothic reminiscent of Charles Brockden Brown and the urban gothic that dominates the latter half of the book is a bit jarring. Rather than trying to pay homage to both sub-categories of gothic literature, I feel that the work would have been stronger should it have focused on one or the other. But this is a minor complaint.

Those who enjoyed The Monstrumologist will surely also enjoy The Curse of the Wendigo. And any who complained about a lack of character backstory in the previous installment will be quite gladdened by the amount of information given about our good doctor.

Once again, I look forward to reading the next installment, Isle of Blood, which is to be released this fall. Given its setting in the Middle East, I am curious if it will include any references to William Beckford's Vathek, but I suppose I shall see soon enough.

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Land of Confusion

The Chaos Walking Trilogy
by Patrick Ness
Consisting of: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men
Guardian Award 2008, Carnegie Medal short-list 2009 (The Knife of Never Letting Go); Carnegie Medal short-list 2010 (The Ask and the Answer)

I first began the trilogy in November when my book club read The Knife of Never Letting Go. At first, I didn't particularly like it, as the protagonist Todd and the stream of consciousness style were both a bit annoying, but once the momentum started to build, it was difficult to put down.

The main premise concerns a planet, known only as New World, that has been colonized (presumably by Earthlings, though one cannot be certain, as they refer only to their ancestral home as Old World). On New World, there is a curious ailment, called Noise, that affects all men, broadcasting their every thought to those around them. Animals are also affected by this, but women are somehow immune. At the beginning of the first novel, we are told that all of the women of Prentisstown have died from a virus released by the native Spackle during a war decades earlier.

When Todd discovers a spot in a nearby swamp in which there is no Noise, he reports it to his adoptive parents, Ben and Cillian, who immediately pack up his belongings and urge him to flee, fearing for his safety. The quiet is, in actuality, a girl named Viola, recently marooned in the swamp when her scouting ship crashed. Having no way to contact the coming colonists she left behind, her only choice is to trust Todd and hope that the fabled settlement of Haven has the means with which she might contact the others. Thus begins an unrelenting race to reach Haven before Prentisstown and its power-mad mayor has the opportunity.

Along their journey, Todd and Viola encounter various other settlements, each with a different social hierarchy than Prentisstown, including a matriarchal society and another town where men and women live apart from each other. In the later installments of the trilogy, Ness delves deeper into gender issues, pitting Mayor Prentiss' group of men against a terrorist organization led by and comprised mostly of women. The stakes are amped up higher by Ness' choice to put Todd and Viola on opposing sides, connecting each of them to the leaders of each side (Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle, respectively).

Ness also creates an intriguing race in the native Spackle, who share a collective consciousness with each other and the world itself. Their language is expressed through thought-broadcasting (the Noise so despised by the colonists), and late in the series it is questioned if the human race is capable of ever fully utilizing this thought network as the Spackle do.

While the first novel is narrated solely by Todd, subsequent installments add one narrator each, so the third volume has three distinct voices (Todd, Viola, and a Spackle known as 1017). Interestingly, the series uses different fonts for each character, so one knows at a glance whose thoughts are recorded on the page; however, several members of the book club that I attend have noted that the e-book does not maintain these different fonts.

I don't think I've read such a highly lauded series that so challenges readers' thinking since first reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I cannot recommend this series enough, and although it is often dark and grim, the conclusion is a satisfying one in which we hope the characters might find the bright future of which they dream.

Series Grade: A+

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Brilliant World-Building

*I had written this before Christmas break, but I had no time to post while at my parents' house, and I've only just regained the Internet at my apartment. More books read in December should be posted soon.

The Earthsea Trilogy
by Ursula LeGuin
Consisting of: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore
Newbery Honor Book 1972 (The Tombs of Atuan)
National Book Award for Children's Books 1973 (The Farthest Shore)

Although called a trilogy, each of LeGuin's three novels can easily stand on its own, as there is little connecting the two, aside from the setting and the presence of the character Ged (the protagonist of the first novel). Themes of overcoming self, as well as darkness, are the only other similarities throughout.

The first installment, A Wizard of Earthsea, recounts the childhood and youth of Ged (better known as Sparrowhawk). Unlike the other two installments, which each focus on one major event of his career, this one reads more like an entry in a dusty tome of history, detailing only events that are important to Ged's later career. As such, there is little dialogue, internal or external, which makes it difficult for readers to relate or even care about Ged's exploits.

The main story thread concerns Ged's quest to rid the world of a shadow, which he unwittingly released when attempting an esoteric resurrection spell. Along the way, the cocky boy learns the value of humility and the beauty in simplicity, growing into an adult, as well.

The Tombs of Atuan, which focuses on the retrieval of an ancient ring, is the strongest of the three, I feel. As it spans the shortest amount of time (for the majority of the novel, anyway), it can dedicate time to character development that the other novels cannot. Because of this, I feel I know more about the priestess Tenar, who only appears in this installment, than I do about Ged. I don't want to fault LeGuin for this, as I think her intent was to create an interesting world and its history, not necessarily to create complex characters to inhabit it, and in that she succeeded magnificently.

The final installment is a good balance between the other two Earthsea books, as it permits the narrative to meander a bit while still attempting to develop the character of Arren, the young prince accompanying Ged to the end of the world. While both the third and first installments involve quests where the characters sail to the ends of the earth, due to its dependency upon a limited amount of time, The Farthest Shore is better able to present an entertaining adventure than its predecessor. The main theme of death is also handled well, though if I were more invested in the characters it would have had more impact.

As mentioned before, what LeGuin does beautifully is world-building. Her characters are simply vessels to transport the reader to the richly detailed worlds of her imagination, which can only be compared with Tolkien in terms of scope.

Series Grade: B+