Friday, June 18, 2010

June YA Roundup

If I wrote these things more often I wouldn't have to cram multiples into one post, but my blogging is falling so far behind my reading I need to diminish the stack a bit. And I realize I've had a number of great YA reading experiences lately -- it's a category I don't read super-often, but that I tend to enjoy (if perhaps with an occasional smirk of superiority/relief that I am no longer a teen.)

Folly
by Marthe Jocelyn
(Wendy Lamb Books, May 2010)

This book and the following one I read "on assignment" -- I was asked to take part in a YA brainstorming conference call by our inimitable Random House children's book rep Lillian Penchansky, and these two books were our homework for the call. It was kind of a delight to plunge into something that I could read in a day, and the two works, while both historical fiction, were very different. Marthe Jocelyn's Folly was the better of the two -- the story of a 19th century British servant girl who gets knocked up by a dashing soldier (when that was both common and enough to ruin your life), it's told in first person by various characters whose dialects are both defamiliarizing and believable. The backstory of the book is fascinating too: Jocelyn found out that one of her ancestors grew up in a "foundling hospital" like the one in the story, and imagined his life and his mother's from there. Reading this led to a bunch of conversations about how of course, in whatever era you're born, you're a teenager and you're filled with desire, but in this era there's no sex ed and no birth control and no safety net -- in the case of a servant far from home, not even family or friends to take you in. I loved Mary Finn, smart and kind and resourceful but still screwed over; and I loved James, the boy in the foundling hospital whose story intertwines with hers -- his internal monologue contained some meditations on the lived experience of history that I wish I could quote (I gave my galley to a certain bookseller who is said to resemble the girl on the cover -- have to remember to ask her whether she liked it too.) And even the "cad" soldier, Caden, is sympathetic -- he's just a teen as well, and totally clueless about what to do. Though it's got no creatures of the night (as way too many YA novels seems to these days), this book is dark in the way real human life is dark -- recommended for the brave reader of any age, Folly is moving and eye-opening.

The Madman of Venice
by Sophie Masson
(Delacorte Books for Young Readers, August 2010)

This book, while a charming adventure story with some resonant historical detail, reinforces my theory that YA is just where romance novels have migrated. Reading it had the slightly guilty pleasures of a historical romance: the dialogue is dramatic but not especially believable, the heroine is plucky, the hero is brave but tongue-tied about his passion for her, and it takes some life-threatening adventures to bring them together. Nevertheless, the context gives it some added weight: the British boy, girl, and chaperone are on a mission in Venice to thwart some pirates and find a missing girl, who happens to be a Jew from Venice's infamous Ghetto. There are echoes of Shakespeare's Shylock here, of course, and some not-too-heavyhanded analysis of what it meant to be a Jew in pre-Modern Europe. And yes, there are escapes by Gondola, fights in Venetian castellos, and enough twisted plots that the entire last chapter is devoted to explaining them. Great for a kid interested in this particular place and time, who doesn't mind some mushy stuff in between adventures.


The Museum of Thieves
by Lian Tanner
(Delacorte Books for Young Readers, September 2010)

This one is my favorite of the lot -- the kind of fantastic adventure I loved as a kid, that can still keep me glued to the couch on a beautiful weekend day, dead to the real world and immersed in the much more convincing world of the novel. I was invited to an author dinner for Lian Tanner -- which turned out to be a lovely affair, and Tanner the most charming New Zealander, just the kind of person you hope should make their fortune from writing a great yarn. I thought I should glance at the book before the dinner out of politeness, and ended up reading the whole thing in a day, and raving about it like a geek that evening. Set in a town where children under a certain age are kept chained, to their parents or glorified babysitters, the Blessed Guardians, "for their own good," the story's hero is the impatient and irritable Goldie Roth. When the ceremonial Separation Day -- a coming of age that involves literally cutting the cord -- is canceled because of what is essentially a terrorist attack, Goldie in despair breaks her bonds herself and becomes a fugitive. And it really is a dangerous world she lives in, though the danger is not where she has been told. Finding her way to the city's Museum, she comes under the protections of its keepers and discovers that her less-than-legal predilictions make her a perfect candidate to join the ranks of those caring for the weird contents of the building, which is bigger on the inside than on the outside (one of my favorite fantasy tropes, as it rings true metaphorically about so many things). I won't say more about the plot because I don't want to spoil too much of this splendid reading experience -- but the themes of the novel are obviously the tradeoffs of freedom and security, the claims of the official and the illicit, which resonate both politically and for every teen or pre-teen testing the boundaries of the allowable. This is the first of a trilogy (another of my favorite things about fantasy), and I can't wait to pick up the story again -- I definitely recommend this journey when the book comes out in September, whether you are under 18 or not.

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald
(Random House Books for Young Readers, January 2010)

This inexpensive little hardcover is part of the Looking Glass Library series, which reissues classic children's books with introductions by contemporary writers. I'd always meant to read George MacDonald, who I knew was a huge influence on C. S. Lewis -- and his story inspires the same kind of slightly mixed affection for me as an adult reader that The Chronicles of Narnia or even Tolkien's Middle Earth does now. The story of the child princess who is targeted by the kingdom's enemy goblins, and the miner's son who helps to save her, is a masterfully written fable, and also a theological metaphor, masquerading as a children's story. It's all about doing what you know is right, believing in what you know is true even if you can't see it or others don't believe you. The Princess' mysterious grandmother is a God-like figure, and MacDonald's theology of selflessness and a calm faith in the good is one that resonates for me. But his depictions of the goblins can seem kind of... racist. Yes, they are mythical creatures, and so you can make them as nasty and stupid as you want -- but sometimes it seems their very ugliness is held against them, as if having a weird face means that you're a bad thing. In a book clearly intended as allegory and instruction as well as delightful adventure, the lesson of disdain for the ugly and odd is absorbed right along with the lesson of devotion to duty and truth. It's a complicated little morality tale, much like the Victorian era from whence it comes -- in craft and sweetness definitely worth reading, but perhaps with a grain of salt for a modern ethical sensibility.

Whew -- now to get my nose out of the books and go play outside...

Monday, June 07, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
(Knopf, June 9, 2010)

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Reading this book was a little like starting a conversation out of general politeness, and discovering that you're talking to someone you passionately want for a best friend.

Jennifer Egan -- full disclosure -- is a friend and customer of Greenlight Bookstore. I'd hosted her before for events at other stores, and chatted with her and her kids at Greenlight, but to my own detriment I had never actually read any of her fiction. (Even though, as often seems to happen, it seems in retrospect like obviously the sort of thing I would like: the smart but not overtly political feminism of Look At Me, the Gothic nested stories of The Keep, etc. -- good storytelling in the service of big ideas, or vice versa, without sacrificing the one for the other.) It seemed like now would be the time to pick her up, though, since we're hosting her launch party for the book on Wednesday. So I opened the intriguingly titled A Visit From the Goon Squad earlier this spring.

And found a new addition to my personal author pantheon.

As I wrote for our recent staff picks email, A Visit From the Goon Squad is ostensibly (and quite effectively) about the world of rock music, and the intersections of the realms of commerce and creativity (and the dysfunctional folks who inhabit both). But it's really about life on Earth, in all its heartbreaking and maddening and rich and loveable complexity. It's about the mistakes of each generation, about being young and growing up, about adventure and domesticity, about interconnectivity and isolation, and (especially) about the brutality and kindnesses of time.

And it doesn't hurt that it is structured in my favorite form: the novel as interlinked stories (cf. my pantheon authors David Mitchell, Charles Baxter, Joan Silber, and others). Some of those were published in the New Yorker -- trust me that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, though each story has its own poignant and complete miniature arc. One of them perfectly evokes being a young and foolish professional woman in New York City (ahem). One is written flawlessly from the perspective of a very young gay man, one about a record exec, several about the intersections of children who have grown up too fast and adults who are not very grown-up at all. One is composed of a series of PowerPoint slides and is alarmingly literate and moving. San Francisco, Italy, and Arizona make appearances, as do the 1970s, the 1990s, and a near-future that is the most believable I think I've ever read (wait till you learn what a "pointer" is). The meaning of the title is illusive, but when it hit me it hit hard, and shaped my understanding of the project of the novel in the way the best titles can do.

And did I mention the damn thing is funny, too? Apparently Jennifer Egan is one of those rare authors who can quite literally do anything.

I have already seen Jennifer post-Goon Squad reading, and gotten out of the way my mumbled fangirl admiration. Luckily she seems as delighted at how it came out as her readers will, and is in fact the sort of kind and smart and idealistic and charming author that you hope to find at the other end of your favorite novels.

So, obviously, go out first thing tomorrow morning when it goes on sale and get yourself a copy of A Visit From the Goon Squad. Then, come out on Wednesday night and drink wine with the author. If these heights of happiness are not feasible for you, just get your hands on the book as soon as you can, and then find me so we can talk about it. In the meantime, I'm going to need to go back and read everything Jennifer Egan has ever written.