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Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews

Other Echoes, The Vanishing Point, and Monsoon Summer

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor


Adele Geras.
Other Echoes.

David Fickling Books. 2004.
Ages 12 & Up

One of the things that frustrates me most about young adult fiction in the U.S. is the way it constantly sells its audience short. The theory seems to be that young Americans have no interest in foreign countries, particularly those outside of Europe, and even less inclination to learn anything of significance from a story. Serious topics seem to come from an approved list: sick parent, dead parent, sick sibling, dead sibling, sick grandparent, dead grandparent, you get the idea. And while some of these books can be very well done (Madeleine L'Engle comes to mind), most are just the same old Lifetime movie of the week wrapped up in a juvenile storyline. With the world in chaos around us these days, it seems more important than ever to find something for a child to read that matters, something that will make them think about anything other what to wear.

It really seems like an impossible dream sometimes.

Adele Geras, who is British, has done the remarkable with Other Echoes, however. She places her main character, Flora, in northern Borneo and then introduces the reality of Japanese prison camps during WWII. Flora learns a shocking secret in a haunted house that affects her in ways she never imagined. And Geras shows her readers just how personal and life-changing war can be, even to those who never directly experienced its trauma.

Look out people: this just might be the good book we've all been looking for!

Other Echoes takes place over two distinct time periods: the present day—which is the late 1950s—and eight years earlier. In the present, Flora is resting a sanitarium at her boarding school, recuperating from a "nervous shock." She has no idea why fainting has resulted in such a severe cure, nor what she is supposed to do with all of this forced relaxation. In an attempt to stave off boredom, she begins to write her memoirs, something that at age eighteen even she finds funny. But the memories flood her, overwhelm her even, and she's soon writing about the year she was ten, when she arrived with her parents in Jesselton, North Borneo. Her British father had apparently been sent here for work, and the family was quickly absorbed into the politics of the English community. In the memoir Flora finds herself suffering all of the normal trials of an outsider: picking the right clothes, the right friends, the right things to say and do. She makes a lot of mistakes along the way as she struggles to accept her own weaknesses and decide just who she wants to be. In this respect the story is a very typical coming of age tale, albeit in a very unique setting. But then Flora begins to learn the story of the haunted house on the hill and the family who resided there, and that is when Other Echoes takes its readers completely off the map.

It is not a ghost story, not a magical story, not anything that you might expect. It is, more than anything else, a war story, although the war is over, the debris is cleared, and no one is really thinking about it so much anymore. There is no blood or gore, no combat, no trials. There are only a few memories, a few losses, a few mentions of the sad way that things were, "back then." And there is the haunted house, which contains everything that war is truly all about and everything that a young reader needs to know about man's inhumanity to man. It will tell you why war is bad, and why eight years later, Flora still can not forget that lesson.

I have strong feelings about war and peace. They come from studying history in college and then teaching it to soldiers. It's hard to teach students who have no time or interest in reading dozens of books on war about why it is wrong, though, why it never ever seems to save us. They always think it hides romance or heroism, they think it hides something they have been looking for all of their lives. Adele Geras seems to know that about her readers; she knows that they understand the little battles between children so well while remaining blissfully unwilling to consider the truth behind adult conflicts. Her book explains it all, however, in the most quietly devastating way. Other Echoes is a book about a girl who took dance classes, won an essay contest, and tried to find the courage to jump off of a roof. Somehow, in the middle of all, she also found a war, and it changed her life forever. It changed everything.

 

Louise Hawes.
The Vanishing Point.

Houghton Mifflin. 2004.
Ages 13 & Up

I've gone on record in the past with the claim that historical fiction for young adults pretty much scares the crap out of me. It is nearly always boring and foolish and much more concerned with cramming facts and figures down the throats of its readers then actually telling an engaging story. The characters are never first but rather a distant second to the historical setting, and famous people are always just dropping by at opportune moments to remind the reader that yes, this is historical, now learn something, dammit!

Frankly, it is not my cup of tea.

But I couldn't resist the plot synopsis for The Vanishing Point, or the dazzling, gorgeous cover. I'm usually a bit immune to cover designs (we've all been burned that way), but Vanishing Point's is so impressive and so perfectly matches both the setting and story that I picked up the book. And then, well, then I got lost in the Renaissance and the life of a young woman named Lavinia Fontana.

Lavinia Fontana really was a sixteenth century Italian painter. She was apparently one of the most famous female painters of the Italian Renaissance. I had never heard of her, but thanks to my public school education, that's no surprise. (But ask me, just ask me about those Pilgrims! Boy did I learn about them every single, relentlessly dull year!)

In the book, "Vini's" father, Prospero, is a very well known and regarded painter with a stable of young students learning his craft. Vini watches his lessons from the window and practices on the sly, yearning to be accepted. She wants to paint, and from a young age she is very very good at it. But Vini is a girl, and girls do not become painters at this time in Italy. Vini is from the upper class, so she is receiving an education, but from the looks of her mother she is destined to live a life of embroidery and meal planning interrupted by numerous attempts to present a son to her overbearing husband. Antonia Fontana does not seem to aspire to anything other than motherhood, something Vini cannot understand. She wants to paint, she wants to be like her father, and for her mother she has only confusion and pity. Why would anyone be satisfied with such a small life? Why should anyone have to be?

As Vini takes chances with her work and enlists the help of one of her father's students, she eventually makes her talent known. Dramatic events then cause her to reevaluate the life she had planned for herself, however, and reconsider just who and what she will become. She is also given the chance to reassess her mother and experience their relationship on a completely different level. This allows Vini to better understand both of her parents and prepares her for the book's shattering and wholly unexpected conclusion.

Louise Hawes has accomplished something truly lovely with The Vanishing Point. She has created a historical novel that, while knee-deep in the period it inhabits (her descriptions of the Bolognese puppet shows are fascinating), manages to bring the cares and concerns of her characters easily into the twenty-first century. There is romance and mystery, fear and tragedy in this book, all of which would easily work in a novel placed in modern times. The fact that her attention to detail keeps the book firmly in the 16th century just makes it a richer and deeper reading experience.

Finally, I was quite pleased to see a note at the book's end which explains why Hawes chose to write about Lavinia Fontana and what happened to the young painter in real life. This is the sort of information that I find terribly appealing and that will be much appreciated by the book's fans. It perfectly caps off a book that I enjoyed immensely and has managed also, somewhat unexpectedly, to transform my opinion of the historical fiction genre. Here's hoping the next time I pick up a book of this type for young adults, I will be equally pleased.

 

Mitali Perkins.
Monsoon Summer.

Delacorte Press. 2004.
Ages 13 & Up

There is a certain standard young adult book that tells the story of a girl—who thinks little of herself—and the boy that she longs for. The boy is always a friend, an old friend usually, and he may or may not be fascinated with the popular girl in school, but still his best friend is the girl the story is about. She is the girl that he turns to for advice on all the things that matter, and even though she puts herself down, he thinks she is wonderful and smart. But she does not believe this. (You should be channeling images of Eric Stotlz and Mary Stuart Masterson right about now.) The story progresses in a predictable fashion, the girl always has a revelation (oh, I am worthy of you!) and the boy has one as well (oh, I did love you all along!) and they live happily ever after... or at least attend prom together. There are a million books like this out there right now, and I imagine I read a least a few thousand of them when I was growing up. I don't know what this says about me, or publishing, or what America thinks of young women, but it is a fact of life, and it's not going away anytime soon.

And then there is Monsoon Summer.

I expected the cliché when I picked up this book. To be honest I always expect the cliché these days. There is the expected girl, Jasmine Gardner, and her best friend, the object of her unrequited love, Steve Morales. Jasmine thinks she is too stocky, too muscular for the perfect Steve to ever see and appreciate as a "girly girl." She thinks she will lose him to the popular girl (enter Miriam with short skirts and drama queen talent) and Steve will never know how she truly feels. She thinks there is no hope for happiness, no hope at all. (Vision of teenage girl sighing dramatically should now be filling your head.)

All of this is revealed in the first two chapters, and I thought I had Monsoon Summer fairly nailed at this point. I thought it would follow the formula. But author Mitali Perkins introduced just enough unexpected plot points to keep me wondering. "Jazz" and Steve are not only best friends and track teammates, but they also have their own thriving small business, a very unique but totally believable venture for a couple of teenagers. Jazz is also half Indian, and her mother wants to take the family on a trip to India for the summer to work at the orphanage where she grew up, a trip that opens up all sorts of possibilities for both the plot and young Jazz. The trip has a galvanizing effect on the entire Gardner family, in fact, and blows open any preconceived notions the reader had at the start of this book.

Needless to say, a lot happens when the family leaves California. In India Jazz must come to terms with her differentness, with the fact that while she is biracial, in appearance she seems less Indian and more American than anything else. She has a choice, an opportunity to refute her ethnicity, if that is what she chooses. While she ponders the physical differences between herself and her mother, she also begins to realize the different definition of beauty in India and finds herself suddenly, and incredibly, immensely desirable to the young male population. She obtains some sense of self confidence and self worth while simultaneously becoming frustrated by how ambiguous the whole concept of beauty seems to be. In short, she begins to form her own identity, to decide just who Jazz Gardner must be.

There is also a very engaging subplot involving a young girl who works at the orphanage and enlists Jazz's aid in forming her own small business. This allows Perkins to introduce and explore the very different set of choices that face young women in India as opposed to the United States. Jazz makes friends with girls from several different socioeconomic levels and finds herself drawn out into the wider world. She also begins to see her parents in a new light and consider the choices they have made less from the perspective of an annoyed teenager and more from that of a responsible adult.

Basically, Jazz begins to finally see the world around her, rather than just herself, a vision that all of us could use and should strive to acquire.

Mitali Perkins has very successfully taken the formula and turned it in such a way that, while still remaining comfortable and reassuring (Jazz's issues with Steve are considered and confronted throughout the book), Monsoon Summer manages to take its readers to a place that is usually absent from young adult fiction. This is not home, and it is not fantasy, it is rather a part of the world that western teens know little or nothing about and generally choose to ignore. Jazz had no choice though. She had to visit India. Readers can decide if they want to join her on her journey or return to the standard, boring, unchallenging dreck that already fills their lockers and bookshelves. This is a book for readers who want to know more, who yearn to know more. It is adventure reading for smart romantics, and Jazz is a jewel of a heroine.

 

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