Friday, September 26, 2008

The 'Catcher' Cult

King Dork / by Frank Portman

"I suppose I fit the traditional mold of the brainy, freaky, oddball kid who reads too much, so bright that his genius is sometimes mistaken for just being retarded." (p.5)

Tom Henderson might be called "Chi-Mo" by others (hint: not a coffee), but he'll always prefer his own self-tailored moniker, King Dork ("...a silent protest and acknowledgement of reality at the same time"). No, he doesn't command a "nerd army, or preside over a realm of the socially ill-equipped"; he's just been rendered inferior by all his "psycho-normal" peers that stalk the halls of "standard, generic High School Hell". When his personal dignity's not under assault, he and co-dork Sam Hellerman like to hang out at his ultra-dysfunctional house where, avoiding whiny sister species and flaky parental units, they continue work on their band's next album. Make that its first album...rather, its first song...or, failing that, a new band altogether.

Being 'below the bottom' of the high school pecking order's bad enough, but not knowing why your cop father was killed in the line of duty is its own self-sustaining mystery. Indeed, it seems a hopeless quandary until strange clues unearth in the most insanely ironic places; a wackjob teacher's crusty sarcasm, an old copy of Catcher in the Rye, mysterious Bible coding, etc., all start to shed light on the "accident" in question. Meanwhile, something even more mystifying emerges. Tom/"Chi-Mo" begins having "girl" encounters after a clandestine incident at a halloween party--involving a rather precociously attired female--sets him on the trail of an altogether different mystery.

Longtime Rock singer/songwriter Frank Portman has quite a knack for fiction. Not only is this book an authentic characterization of protagonist Tom/"Chi-Mo"/"King Dork"..., it's a downright laugh riot as a totally dead-on depiction of the cynical teenage mentality. Where soooo many books/movies/TV/music go wrong-wrong-wrong in duplicating the teenage microcosm is where King Dork gets it right: a recognition that the high school domain is all too often just the "familiar monotony" of "tedious" and "horrifying" incidents. Even with the somewhat tacked-on subplot, this book is a can't-put-downer as Tom eventually establishes some authority to accomodate his angst-ridden, skeptic-laden identity.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Before I Die / by Jenny Downham

Truth sits upon the lips of dying men. -Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

16 year-old Tessa lives waiting to die. Terminally ill from a young age, she and her parents have exhausted all available options. Now in her final months Tessa stares down fate alongside family and friends until, in an effort to 'feel' alive, she embarks on a 'list of things to do before dying'. Sex, drugs, crime, love, fame, reunite parents, etc., each item is heedlessly pursued even as the necessary treatments and transfusions sustain her steadily depleting health.

Readers won't confuse Tessa's list with any media-friendly, 'Make-a-Wish' endearment. It's a resentful pastime despite any sentiment; only reaffirming her impending exit from a world that will continue without her. But not all's bleakness. As days, then weeks and months pass away Tessa's made 'aware' of each conscious experience (good and bad) amidst her vanishing livelihood, recieving what's given even after all is lost.

Frankness more than sadness gives this story its distinction as Downham illuminates the eternal fate with a rarely-glimpsed authenticity. A first-person narrative, it's dying seen through someone. Tessa's situation is unique but her behavior won't deny any real reactions or consequences; her illness doesn't make her a saint or forgive abuse. Her family and friends--perhaps more emotionally wrought than herself--still maintain intimacy with her, not some fragile creature. It's this deeply intrapersonal tone that edges the drama toward its staggering climax, depicting life's final moments like nothing before it.

Tenderness / by Robert Cormier

Every soul needs tenderness. Something still haunting Lori Cranston as she flees yet another of her mom's abusive boyfriends. Her desire for emotional intimacy now targets Eric Poole, a boy with whom she shares a strange history. Eric needs tenderness also; even with no capacity for feeling. Incarcerated five years for slaying his parents, he's now free to pursue the 'tenderness' he's been deprived of so long. But Detective Proctor knows--even if no one else does--that Eric is a monster, that his parents weren't his only victims, and it's only a matter of time before the next.

Chocolate War author Cormier sticks to his New England roots in this psychological thriller about two people linked by a twisted consciousness and a third monitoring their every move. The real clutch of this book is intuition, an awareness of each character's contribution to the story and the motives which propel their actions. Nowhere is this better seen than the author's depiction of Eric, a most unlikely teenage sociopath.

Something Wicked This Way Comes / by Ray Bradbury

Mr. Dark and his Pandemonium Show are a carnival like no other. Rolling into town one full-moon October night, their eerie attractions soon entrance even the cynical and possess a power beyond conception. But a terrible fate awaits fairgoers as fulfilled dreams can become nightmares when beauty is fleeting and charm is deceptive. With their town succumbing to Mr. Dark's malevolence, 12-year-old Jim Nightshade and best friend Will are the only ones to foresee a dreadful end for those they love.

Ray Bradbury's imagination knows no bounds. A figurehead of the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre for decades, his works include Farenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, and The Martian Chronicles. This book marks the debut of 'The Illustrated Man', a character whose unusual tattoos come alive. First published in 1962, 'Something Wicked'... was made into a Disney movie starring Jason Robards.

Less Than Zero / by Bret Easton Ellis

Winter break brings 19-year-old Clay home from his first semester back east. The son of wealthy LA ‘people’, his life and that of his equally over-privileged friends seamlessly yields back to the partying, out-on-the-edge days before college. But mirth is lost on a dissolute Clay as drowning in his own solitary void, his numbness to the high-times is only compounded by the ugly depravity of his once-closest friends.

American Psycho (both book and movie) made Ellis a cult icon but Less Than Zero first acknowledged him as a voice for Generation X. Published in 1985, the novel stirred controversy with its revelation of California’s drug culture and some its most loyal patrons--children of LA’s wealthy upper-crust. Perpetually aware but never surprised, Ellis’ style is essentially devoid of emotion. Clay’s world is one without hope, without feeling where characters exist below the surface. No action is interpreted and reactions are never personalized with Clay's own reflections remaining far from the plot's content, focusing instead on distant memories from the past. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, Clay’s character is still felt by the book’s end.

Ironic Footnote: This book was made into a 1987 movie starring Robert Downey Jr.

Vision Quest / by Terry Davis


"...and I guess that's why we got to love those people who want it like there's no tomorrow. 'Cause when you get right down to it - there isn't [tomorrow]."-p.23
Louden Swain lives ‘over-the-edge’ caring little for rationale or moderation. A high school wrestler anticipating his career-defining match, he perpetually pursues his breaking point, eating just enough to sustain his body while pushing it to (and beyond) its natural limits. Mentally his concentration rarely deviates from the impending date and opponent Gary Shute. It’s his own battle but he’s never alone with a supportive father and live-in girlfriend not to mention his coach and dedicated teammates.

Before Cris Crutcher made it cool to be a triathlete, Terry Davis wrote Vision Quest. Published in 1979, this was a new kind of YA novel. Not really a sports book as there aren't any archetypal action sequences or 'championship' climaxes, it's more of an intrapersonal soul journey, a story of being not doing. Louden’s focus is the pain, his emotional and intellectual reflection the object rather than the culminating event itself. Like any 'YA' book, it's concentrated on adolescence but doesn't exclude other audiences and would be a great read for anyone.

Rats Saw God / by Rob Thomas

Semi-local author Rob Thomas has published several YA novels over the past decade. This, his first, chronicles teenager Steve York at multiple times during high school.

Steve's last day of eighth grade is turned on its head when his parents announce their impending divorce. The untimely schism ultimately places his mother and sister in San Diego leaving him in Houston to live with his repressive (and somewhat despotic) father--"The Astronaut".

Facilitating things the best he can amidst unfamiliar surroundings, Steve carves out his new existence; gradually making friends and learning to survive his homelife simultaneously. His saving grace appears in the form of Wanda "Dub" Varner, with whom a steady-crush morphs into love by the end of freshman year. Until its bitter end his junior year, the reader is let in on all the relationship's details through segmented entries describing the 'then' blissful romance and his 'now' emotionally-reduced, drug-addled life after the break-up.

Though Thomas' later books were less well-received, Rats Saw God will find an audience with its drenched-in-sarcasm attitude and gritty realism. The 'then and now' style really fleshes out Steve's personality and relationships; displaying how both compliment each other and play off his actions. Generation X & Y'ers of the 80's/90's period will identify with the book's cultural aspects.

Riding in Cars With Boys / by Beverly D'Onofrio

Adversity is the trial of principle. -- Henry Fielding

So it goes with Beverly Donofrio, a bad girl who makes good in this memoir of an early-life crisis. Pregnant at 16, she rode the downward spiral for some time before things finally improved. Here she shamelessly chronicles her life as a high school dropout, parental reject, early bride, wife of a junkie, divorced teenage mom, hippie chick, liberated woman, drug user/dealer, and welfare recipient. Only after a nervous breakdown (of sorts) does she acclimate herself to a better life; growing and learning life's lessons even as her son, Jason, matures with her.

You can't spell memoir without "me" (or moi), an all-too-ironic nuance of this book which practically begins each sentence with "I" or "My" and ends in an angry expletive. With no shortage of attitude Donofrio entertains even as she self-evaluates going so far as to infuriate her own (real life) parents at the time of publication. Drew Barrymore stars in the 2001 film adaptation that won several independent film awards.

Ender Rendered

Sci-fi author Orson Scott Card has garnered loads of acclaim for his Ender's Game/Ender's Shadow series', a sequence of novels about two boys involved in a war between Earth circa 2150 AD and an alien race known as the "Buggers". In Ender's Game, Ender Wiggin is a prodigy groomed at an elite battle school for ultimate leadership of earth's forces. First published in 1977, Card later wrote Ender's Shadow (1999) which parallel's the plot of Ender's Game from the viewpoint of Bean, a battle school friend and cohort.

Ender's Game
Destiny was intended for Ender Wiggin; it had to be or else all was lost. Part of a n experimental batch of ultra-gifted children singled out to someday thwart the 'Bugger' onslaught, he's initiated into the International Fleet's Battle School at age six in a desperate attempt to locate Earth's next (and maybe last) strategic hope. Functionally, battle school is intended to train student/soldiers through simulated, anti-gravity encounters--one team against another. But from the outset, nothing's evenhanded for Ender as peers and administrators do their best to expose weaknesses in his vastly superior skills. Intentionally burdened, his only solace is found commanding his team's nightly practice sessions orchestrating maneuvers with his classmates. But little does Ender suspect the training ground as more than just a 'game' and that his leadership applies to more than just 'his team'.

The personal side of things is as much involved; Ender's older siblings Peter and Valentine share the same genetics albeit dissimilar characteristics. What begins as intellectual pandering by each during Ender's absence soon morphs into a far greater sphere of influence, and in the malevolent Peter's case--far more power. It ultimately falls on Valentine, one person not out to use or harm Ender, to shield him from Peter's malice and the unyielding demands of a broader world.

Ender's Shadow
At the tender age of 2, Bean escapes a genetic breeding factory only to end up an orphan in dire poverty on the streets of Rotterdam. Learning life's knocks the hard way, his fortunes place him at the feet of Sister Carlotta, a nun who soon discovers Bean's hyper-intelligence and facilitates his acceptance into Battle School. It's here where Bean meets Ender Wiggin, his war games team captain who's undefeated as a commander. But not all's fun and games. Little is with matches administratively fixed in an effort to fully realize Ender's tactical prowess.

It may not be Return of the Jedi, but Ender's Game shares that same aura of epic challenge, of hero against the universe (literally) in which the immensity of everything is concentrated into one consciousness. But like good science fiction, Card eases the backstory along steadily giving time for the characters to establish an identity prior the inevitable confrontation. Any perplexing aspects of the futuristic world are well-counterbalanced by private issues more close to home. Ender's 'self' is complex, maintaining ethical boundaries even amidst a high-pressure/high-stakes atmosphere, a trait revealed as much through contrasting characters as with Ender himself. Gifted in an almost warped fashion, the 'child' in Ender isn't always visible; a problem Card may have levied with peripheral characters Peter and Valentine and ultimately complemented with Bean's emergence in Ender's Shadow.

Not merely a sidestory, Bean's evolution from street orphan to battle school and ultimately beyond illuminates his own pivotal role in the saga, entrenched in every dynamic of the story. Bean has his own conscience and crisis' befalling him even as much of his energy helps uphold those very issues in Ender. The two books, each spawning several further sequels, are as separate as they are interlinked within the same-time/same-place/similar-person correlation.

Lord of the Flies / by William Golding

"Fun and Games?" (ch. 12)

During wartime, a plane carrying a group of schoolboys crashes on a desert Island. With the pilot perishing in the destruction, the boys--ages 6-12--must fend for themselves with no food, provisions, or hope of rescue. Initially, a called assembly reveals the lack of authority to be a blessing; some of the older boys loosely laying out guidelines amid a vibrant atmosphere of jubilation. Yet with immediate necessities needing constant attention, a long-term plan for survival is all too evident. Leadership is initially undertaken by Ralph, a rational--if naieve--sort, with little objection until sightings of a mysterious "beast" incite an uproar over its potential danger. The debate ongoing, Ralph's authority is soon challenged by Jack, leader of the "hunters", who proposes relocating the camp for more protective measures. Deliberation becomes anarchy when continued attempts at arbitration and self-governance descend into chaos, transforming the already primitive island society into savagery and martial law.
The title "Lord of the Flies" is a literal reference to the Hebrew word Beelzebub, also meaning "chief devil" or "prince of the air". The term is more commonly associated with the biblical Satan following his fall to Earth. Allegorical in nature, the book mirrors how civilization orchestrated by man inevitably fails. Even positive motives toward a harmonious society are an illusion; witness how quickly Ralph's intention for everyone "to have fun" dissolves into rancor and grievance. Golding wasn't solely concerned with the 'man against man' conflict though. Deeper aspects of the book point out man's obstinacy as the primary source in undoing the natural world, ultimately seen through the destruction of the island itself.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Red Necklacy by Sally Gardner

Gypsy orphan Yann Margoza has an ability to read minds and throw voices, and so the story begins when he is in a magic show with a magician and dwarf. The setting begins in pre-Revolutionary France. They are persuaded to perform for a private party of the Marquis de Villeduval. During the performance the evil Count Kalliovsky messes with the trick and as a result, the magic is mortally wounded. There is begins an ordeal of fleeing for his life, murder, deception, secrets and on a positive note, he meets the lovely Sido. Sido is the abused, neglected, shy, lame daughter of the Marquis. The authors spins a story of mysterious heritages (of Yann and Sido), a serial murderer who leaves behind his signature (red garnet necklaces), and the turbulent times when servants turn against their rich master’s with blood and vengeance. Teen Ages 12-up Probably adults will like. Historical fiction One of best teen books I’ve read in a long time.

Peeled by Joan Bauer

Hildy Biddle, a budding reporter for her high school newspaper Cored, takes her journalistic responsibilities very seriously, just like her beloved father did. When evil things begin to happen and the local apple economy seems to be under a curse, Hildy and her friends decide to investigate. Neither ghosts nor haunted houses nor other reporters will keep the Cored staff from exposing corruption and evil and fighting for justice for their neighbors and town! But how do you verify a curse, and how do you interview a ghost? This quick read is funny, clever and engrossing, and Hildy is the friend everyone wishes they had.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Shabanu : Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Staples

Shabanu, the second daughter of nomadic family in the Cholistan desert of Pakistan, has always had more freedom and fewer restrictions than most young Muslim girls of her tribe. She knows that traditionally daughters must be obedient to their fathers and wives must follow their husbands wishes, but she has always hoped for the freedom to follow her heart. Her mother warns that things will change quickly as her older sister approaches her arranged marriage day, and Shabanu herself nears her mandated betrothal day. Then tragedy strikes and Shabanu must decide whether to follow her dreams of independence and justice or sacrifice those plans to save her family.
A haunting, eye-opening book.