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Jul/Aug 2005 Book Reviews

Boy Proof, 48 Shades of Brown, The Order of the Poison Oak, and The Riddles of Epsilon

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor


Cecil Castellucci.
Boy Proof.

Candlewick Press. 2005.
Ages 12 & Up

I seem to be knee-deep in unusual female literary heroes lately, something I'm not going to complain about but do find surprising. I have yet to hit a slump, read someone dry or dull or boring and I'm getting a little worried. I know this can't go on forever. The latest, and probably most unique leading lady I've discovered, was found in Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci. My initial attraction to the book was Castellucci's unabashed declaration of herself as a "card-carrying geek" and avid science fiction fan. As someone who grew up on the original Star Trek and saw the real Star Wars in the theater (go ahead, do the math, I know how old that makes me), I have lots of memories of science fiction geekdom to keep me warm during the pending dark days after Enterprise has left the airwaves. I used to watch Logan's Run baby; I am 100% Sci Fi geeky!

Okay, I digress. I wanted to see how Castellucci would handle writing about fans of science fiction while crafting a mostly traditional coming of age novel around these characters. They are usually the ones you pity in the group, the ones not even worthy of outsider consideration. They are the ultimate geeks. (Although after The Matrix I don't know how anyone can look down on a Sci Fi fan.) What Castellucci has done is given us Victoria, otherwise known as Egg, a truly original character creation who with all her surliness and love/hate relationship with the Sci Fi world, manages to be an enormously complex and lovable narrator.

Victoria idolizes Egg, the female star in the movie Terminal Earth, she even wears a cape to school just like Egg. (I have to admit that I wore the Princess Leia twin buns on-the-side-of-the-head look when I was in the 5th grade. It suffered from a hairspray deficiency and didn't make it through recess.) She lives in Hollywood where her mother is an actress and her father a special effects make-up artist; clearly the girl is doomed to yearn for something other a life at the Wal-Mart check-out lane. What makes Victoria appealing to readers who are not Sci Fi fans, or residents of Hollywood, is that mostly she just doesn't know who she wants to be, like all the rest of us. Egg is her hero because Egg is not real, and when Victoria meets the very real actress who portrays her in the film then everything changes dramatically. This might have been an expected plot twist if there weren't so many other things going on Victoria's life. There is a boy (of course), there is her surprisingly enjoyable job as photographer on the high school newspaper and most importantly, her growing affinity for her father's craft. More than anything though there is her search for personal definition, for finding something about the world that matters to her and something about herself to matter to everyone else. And although a science fiction movie or comic book might seem like a small thing when compared to all the issues affecting our environment and world peace today, they are still something to reach out for, something to enjoy. As Victoria discovers though, they are just part of a larger picture comprising who each of us are. Go to the theater and cheer for your favorite inter-galactic warrior one day and then march in a protest against genetically modified foods the next. That's how you truly save the world and manage to have a good time in the process.

And incidentally, it doesn't hurt if you have a dreamy boy by your side.

I really liked Victoria a lot and I hope that Castellucci returns to this character in the future. She did not break the young adult stereotype wide-open with this book, but I didn't really want her to. What I was hoping is that Boy Proof would be a mainstream novel about characters that dwell outside of the confines of typical teendom. Victoria is not at all who I expected to find in this story, which makes it a solid and unqualified hit for me. Now Cecil Castellucci, go write some more!

 

Nick Earls.
48 Shades of Brown.

Graphia. 2005.
Ages 13 & Up

I couldn't help but think about halfway through 48 Shades of Brown that Nick Earls's book is the perfect primer for teenage girls trying to figure out teenage boys. Dan is so confused about how he is supposed to act and think and so clearly wears his heart on his sleeve that he easily takes his readers along as he tries to figure out just what he should be doing about everything. His parents are living in another country, which is okay because they gave him the choice to stay with his aunt Jacq or go with them, but Dan still finds himself missing his mother on occasion, missing her in a most uncool, unhip kind of way. And there's his aunt's roommate (also his roommate now), Naomi, who is so pretty and so sweet and looks so good sitting on the porch trying not to sweat in the Australian afternoon.

She looks too good for Dan, if you know what I mean.

And there's his best friend who is pretty much an idiot, but only because he acts like any teenage boy would act when in the presence of Jacq and Naomi and exactly how Dan does not want to act. How embarrassing! There's also navigating the difficult world of a university party when you are only seventeen, trying to learn pick-up lines for university girls (they like guys who are smart and sensitive so figuring out a recipe for pesto and memorizing some esoteric information on things like birds is a must), and well that whole "what am I doing with my life while I can hear my roommate having sex on the other side of the door thing" definitely plays a part in the decisions a guy makes everyday.

It can, in short, be exhausting being a teenage boy.

48 Shades of Brown is a very funny book. Let me stress that again, this book is funny! Dan is an engaging hero, he's vulnerable and confused like pretty much every other guy his age and it's nice to see him portrayed in such an honest manner. You can't help but like the guy which makes all his crazy leaps of logic (and the resulting hilarious backlash) that much more fun to read about. His relationship with his Aunt Jacq ends up being more important to the story than I originally thought, surprisingly so, and their mutual discussions about Dan's mom (Jacq's much older sister), prove to be a very mature analysis of mother and sons, without getting all movie-of-the-week. (None of that soap opera crap, thank you very much.)

I could not help but enjoy this book. It sneaks up on you and makes you laugh and proves to be both an excellent diversion and an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon or two. When Dan starts learning about the color of birds so he can impress Naomi (the 48 shades of brown from the title), you just know that nothing really good is going to come of his latest experiment. But you cheer him on anyway, because you like the guy so much. And that's the best kind of book sometimes, isn't it? Take this book to the beach or the pool or a blanket in the backyard this summer and have a good time. That's what it was written for, and for me, it succeeded on all counts.

 

Brent Hartinger.
The Order of the Poison Oak.

Harper Tempest. 2005.
Ages 13 & Up

When I was junior high I became good friends with a boy named Bobby. All the way through junior high and high school Bobby and I stayed close friends and then after graduation, just like so many others, we drifted apart. The last time I saw him was Homecoming Weekend six months after we graduated. That was November, 1986, and I haven't seen him since.

Bobby Bowen, whatever happened to you?

When I read Brent Hartinger's first book The Geography Club I couldn't help but think of Bobby, because just like Russel in the book, Bobby was gay. We always knew Bobby was gay, when we were thirteen, fifteen, seventeen; there was never any doubt in our circle of friends. It wasn't something we talked about though, not seriously; this was the eighties after all. (There was no Will and Grace for us.) Bobby never admitted to any of us that he was gay, he even dated girls a few times, but when I saw him that last weekend he was completely out of the closet. His parents were upset, he wasn't living at home anymore, and he was having a hard time figuring out what to do next. He didn't know where to fit in, and I couldn't help but think that without all of us, without the friends who didn't ask and didn't really care, he seemed adrift and alone. More than anything, he seemed incredibly vulnerable. And I should have done something, should have said more, should have had a solution for him, or at least an idea of what to do. But all we did was hang out at the football game, then go to MacDonalds and then we all ended up at the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We had a great time, a perfect time for that first year out of high school, and then it was over and we were gone.

And I haven't seen him since.

In The Geography Club and now in its sequel, The Order of the Poison Oak Brent Hartinger makes it clear that he knows what high school is like for a gay kid. He also nails perfectly what it is like to not belong on any level in that arena, to be uncertain and afraid about how you look or what you say, who you know, what you do. His main characters, Russel, Gunnar and Min are all immediately recognizable as kindred spirits to anyone who ever struggled to fit in for a moment as a teenager. They are also funny and smart and normal; they fight and make mistakes just like everyone else. This clearly isn't an Olson Twins adventure; it's real kids with real concerns about surviving the emotional rollercoaster that is Robert L. Goodkind High School. The fact that Russel is gay, Min is bi and Gunnar can't seem to work up the courage to even ask a girl out let alone date one is just secondary. Readers love them because they know them, they're friends with them, they are them. And by the time they reach the end of the first book, they want to be right there with them. No matter how old we are, we all want friends like them.

As for the plot of the new book, Poison Oak picks up right after Geography Club ended. The gang has established the Goodkind Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance and all of them are suffering because of it, even straight Gunnar. They are desperate for summer so they can get a break from the constant name-calling and other abuse that their notoriety has brought them. They manage to get jobs as camp counselors and Russel looks forward to a non-gay summer, where nobody knows anything about him, which of course is not what happens. The really big surprise though is what he learns from the campers themselves, the first group of which have all suffered disfiguring burn injuries. Russel always thought that he didn't fit in but after spending time with those kids, he learns just what the word different really means.

And there's lots of teen angst, in a slightly non traditional manner. Both Russel and Min fall for the same guy, who might or might not be a jerk. Gunnar could meet the girl of his dreams, if he wasn't such an idiot when it came to girls and their jobs as counselors might be the hardest thing any of them have ever done because some of those kids are major brats (such controversy!). Other than the fact that Russel and Min are checking out the same guy, this book could be the same books I grew up on, the same ones I read over and over that were all about classic teen struggles and young love. And that is maybe what makes it so fantastic. I recognized this book and its plot; I've been there myself (as a female version of Gunnar pining after a distant boy). What Hartinger has done again is show that gay kids are still just kids first but while crafting another book that will have obvious appeal to the gay community, he has also simply written a flat-out good young adult novel that will appeal to any teen anywhere. And for grown-ups like me, who remember the way it was, these books are the answer to what we never knew we were missing so long ago. I don't know if they would have mattered in 1986, I will never know. But if only I had the chance to try, if only.

Russel is my new hero, and I think Brent Hartinger is as well. Geography Club and The Order of the Poison Oak are fun, smart, witty books that I found immensely appealing. They also have the power to change the world. So here's a question to think about, what are you going to read this summer?

 

Christine Morton-Shaw.
The Riddles of Epsilon.

Katherine Tegen Books. 2005.
Ages 10 & Up

About halfway through reading The Riddles of Epsilon I suddenly had a flash of recognition for another book in my library, The Egyptian Jukebox by Nick Bantock. Jukebox is not a young adult mystery, or even a conventional story for that matter. It is the history of one man, Hamilton Hasp, told primarily through the contents of ten drawers from a mysterious cabinet found in his home after he disappears. Study the pictures, read the brief vignettes that accompany each one and crack the code to find out what happened to the missing millionaire. I love Bantock's work, I have nearly all of his books, and I think The Egyptian Jukebox is one of his smartest and most fascinating creations. However, I still haven't solved the mystery. Every now and again I get ambitious and take another crack at deciphering the code but so far it has proven elusive. This has done nothing to reduce the book's appeal for me, nor the appeal of any other mystery I can get my hands on. And that is why when I first came across The Riddles of Epsilon I knew I had to read it. It's a mystery with a code just like Jukebox and as I discovered early on, it has also been written by someone with a passion like Hamilton Hasp for "cunningly contriving conundrums".

Epsilon centers around the adventures of fourteen-year-old Jess White who along with her parents has moved into an old family house on the island of Lume. Jess is bored and disgruntled and annoyed; nothing surprising or spectacular there, but she rapidly becomes caught up in a serious of mysterious events. They stem from a nearby seemingly abandoned cottage and are under the direction of a person who appears and disappears from her computer chat roomówithout anyone else noticing.

Well that's weird.

After the first couple of chapters where readers are given the "lay of land" the plot takes off in all sorts of very creepy directions. There is a voice from the past, diaries, locked boxes, maps and codes. There's an old song and an old legend to decipher and consider and lots of people who seem to be one thing but really aren't... maybe. And the further along you go the creepier the story becomes until it gets downright scary when Jess's Mom is suddenly in very real danger and an old tragedy of epic proportions is revealed.

There's more than one shocker in this book.

Jess keeps plugging along though, questioning everything that is thrown her way and very diligently working through one code after another. She's angry and frustrated and not at all interested in being a girl detective (God love her) but she's also as fearless as she needs to be to see the mystery through. And the ending is great, a very satisfying and believable payoff on all the events leading up to it.

What most impressed me about The Riddles of Epsilon though was not the story itself (which was excellent), but how smartly developed the codes were. This book hinges on the codes and how effectively they were crafted; if the reader can not logically follow and decipher the clues then the story isn't really going anywhere. I was with Jess every step of the way as she worked herself through each new discovery and revelation. And I was properly spooked along with her as well as she learned what horrible events were rapidly unfolding around her.

(Let's just say that not all English villages are quiet little places to relax. It all makes sense now why that Miss Marple was always so busy.)

The Riddles of Epsilon is most certainly a conundrum, and a very smart and intriguing one at that. Christine Morton-Shaw has given her readers something to think about and puzzle through and a story that is definitely never boring. And just like Bantock's book, it will appeal to "anyone possessed of wonder and an open imagination." It doesn't hurt if you have a thing for old legends either, or if you are willing to play detective, at least for a little while!

 

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