|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
Houghton Mifflin. 2005.
Carl Deuker is known for writing sports based novels for teens, but I like the way he has branched out with Runner. Although Chance Taylor is indeed a cross country runner, the story is focused on other far more serious issues than athletic competition. Chance has family problems, big family problems, and the way he decides to try and resolve them takes him down a dark path that ends in awesome tragedy. He is also trying to figure out just what makes a good American and why he cares so much about his classmate, Melissa Watts. All of this is far too much for any teenage boy to handle and when the house of cards he is tending blows up in his face, Chance finds himself in an impossible situation; a situation that could only live in the new and dangerous 21st century.
The family drama in Runner is sad but not surprising. Chance's mother is gone (she had to get herself together) and his father is an alcoholic. The father and son live on a barely seaworthy boat and struggle to make ends meet from a variety of dead end jobs and local charities. Chance feels like a freak and is certain the world could not possibly understand him. This belief is reinforced by his meetings with Melissa and her friends, all of whom are nice but none of whom know what it is like to be poor.
Unfortunately, Chance decides to take it upon himself to fix the family finances. My grandmother always said (at least a million times) if something sounds too good to be true then it is--and you don't know the whole story. Chance falls for a blissful sounding proposition, all he has to do is pick up the occasional package and deliver it to a locker during his regular nightly run. Ask no questions and get paid in cash. Is he carrying drugs or something far worse? There are no answers to be found in this new job, only a subtle yet direct pressure to keep getting the job done. Eventually, he learns that he is miles over his head with no obvious way out. That is when everything goes to hell in a hand basket and Chance has to make an agonizing decision and watch someone else pay for his mistake.
I'm not sure that I agree with Chance's final choice at the end, in the aftermath of the book's climax, but I can understand why he makes it. I'm sure a lot of teenage boys would stand right in line behind him and nod their heads in agreement over how he atones for the error of his ways. I hope they think through what they are about to do however and understand that it is not a game, or something they can walk away from. I also think everyone should follow up reading Runner with Geert Spillebeen's excellent WWI novel, Kipling's Choice. Sometimes, you can't be prepared enough for growing up, but the two books read in succession make a good attempt at doing just that.
Jane Yolen & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Eds.
The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens.
Tor Books. 2005.
I'm a huge fan of the short story format so when I see a good anthology idea, I'm all over it. I don't know why it has taken so long for a decent Sci Fi and Fantasy anthology to be marketed for teens, and I'm disappointed to say that although this first volume is excellent, and has received great reviews and very solid sales, Tor is not going to continue with the series. I'm really puzzled by this decision as I'm sure that once young readers have a chance to know the book is out there, they will continue to look for it in the future. It's also a perfect way to introduce new readers to some great writers, and remind them of who they might have missed while they were growing up.
So here's hoping someone else will pick the series up for the future.
Anyway, Jane Yolen and Patrick Neilsen Hayden have certainly tried to be all things to all people when making their story selections. There is urban fantasy, high fantasy, hard science fiction, dystopian future science fiction and a classic ghost story from Rudyard Kipling. Specific stories will certainly appeal to some readers more than others, but that is what a selection like this designed to do: give you some predictable favorites based on your own interests but expose you to stories you might never have seen otherwise. For me, it was a roller coaster ride that took me along from one extreme to another. Overall, I was mostly just impressed by how well the editors were able to pack so many great and highly original stories together in one collection, and produce a great book for anyone interested in seeing just what the genre has to offer.
So, on to the stories. Kelly Link has an excellent urban fantasy with "The Faery Handbag." It's sort of a cautionary tale about the land of faery, something that has been covered in other books and stories but most certainly never in this way. Link is very much one of the new big names in fantasy and she delivers with this tale exactly as her fans would expect. It's a hip, funny, and sometimes dark tale and a great way to start the book.
I'm a book geek so Delia Sherman's "CATNYP" was about as good as it gets as far as I'm concerned. Setting a story primarily in the NY Public Library and offering up an alternate world ala Charles de Lint's Newford tales was just great. Sherman takes us into a whole different side of the library, and plays a bit with the changeling story tradition to write this original tale. I liked the ending most especially--it was perfect.
Adam Stemple, quite frankly, scared the crap out of me with his changeling tale, "A Piece of Flesh." It actually reminded me of a slayer episode of "Angel" where a girl who has been committed wakes up to find herself with vampire slayer powers. (This all makes sense if you're a Buffy fan.) She knows things and can do things but she's crazy-- right? Well, think about what it would be like if you know that thing in the crib was not your baby brother--you knew this for sure, but no one else believed you. What would you be willing to risk to make it go away, and what do you think everyone else would think of your actions? Who's crazy, now, right; who's crazy now. (Stemple's ending for this story was so perfect it gave me the creeps--I loved it, but I wish it could have been different, if that makes any sense.)
There are a lot of other stories to love in The Year's Best, from the sci fi war action of "Sergeant Chip," to a really dark story about paranoia and fear in "Dancer in the Dark." Honestly, I could go on and on here, telling you what impressed me, what blew my mind, and what made me smile. (Leah Bobet follows up with the winged monkeys after the death of the Wicked Witch of the West in "Displaced Persons"--how cool is that idea?!) I hope that somebody elects to give the concept another try because there is a lot to look forward to from this volume. In the meantime, this is the book of choice for any young adult fan and quite frankly, any adult who likes a good short story will want a copy too.
Bart Moeyaert, translated by Wanda Boeke.
Front Street. 2005.
Bart Moeyaert takes his own life apart in this really fun collection of essays about being the youngest of seven boys. (Let's all pause for a moment and feel sorry for his parents--very, very sorry!) As the book's subtitle suggests, everyone had their own separate identity in the group: "the oldest, the quietest, the realest, the farthest, the nicest, the fastest and I." What makes this book such a standout is that it is a perfect way for young adults to enter into the memoir genre. Very few authors even consider writing memoirs that will appeal to teens, but then somehow as adults we are expected to seek them out. Well, this is the way to learn just what makes a person's essays about their own life enjoyable to read. And it doesn't hurt that Moeyaert is a very funny writer to boot.
It is clear from the beginning that being the youngest is not always easy, as when Moeyaert's brothers tell him that "if your right hand itches, you'll lose it." they do include him in all manner of adventures however, from the day they tried to decide how they were going to amount to anything (they decided to decide on another day) to their poorly planned attempt to steal an apple pie from a bakery van (it ended badly, just as they knew it would). There is nothing spectacular in this book--no one is abused, no one runs away, no one acts like Paris Hilton or Britany Spears or, heaven forbid, Michael Jackson. Nothing Hollywood is happening in Bart Moeyaert's world. And really--who would want it to? This is a collection of short essays about a bunch of kids who do some fun things in their hometown and have a good time doing them. It's pretty much the sort of collection that most kids would write about their lives if they could and thus it is the sort of writing that is easily consumed and fondly remembered. The fact that Moeyaert is Belgian just makes it all that much more perfect: he lived halfway around the world and his brothers sound exactly like my own. There is no difference between us; there is in fact, an enormous amount in common.
Brothers is the perfect sort of book for picking up and setting down before dinner, for reading before bed, for shoving in a backpack. It will certainly make you laugh and shake you head and wonder perhaps more than once, just how all seven of Moeyaerts made it to adulthood. If every memoir I read was this enjoyable then I think the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, most of us who had happy childhoods don't think we have anything to write about. Moeyaert easily proves us wrong with Brothers and hopefully will show a generation that it is okay to write--and read--about the good times.