Friday, March 30, 2007

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou a player?

Romeo's Ex by Lisa Fiedler
4Q 3P J/S

Who doesn't know the story of Romeo and Juliet? It's the classic tale of two (very) young teenagers in love. Many love it for its romance, many love to cry over its tragic ending. Amidst all that love, it's easy to forget what a player Romeo is. Just a few hours before he falls madly, passionately in love with Juliet, he's in despair because beautiful Rosaline won't give him the time of day.

That is where this book begins. We are told the story through (mostly) Rosaline's eyes, though Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt, and even Romeo all have their say as well. Rosaline is busily and happily engaged in learning the skills of healer, far too single-minded to spend any time paying attention to Romeo's vows of undying love. Basically, she hears his lovesick pinings, rolls her eyes, and says "As if!"

But Rosaline isn't all business. She enjoys a bit of mischief now and then, which is why she has coerced her younger cousin Juliet (who is far too well-behaved and docile as far as Rosaline is concerned) to sneak into the Montague's garden to steal some flowers. What a fine joke, to decorate the Capulet tables with perfect blossoms stolen from the soil of their sworn foe! Unfortunately, the plan backfires when Romeo comes along. While Juliet hides, Romeo professes his undying love for Rosaline. Juliet the eavesdropper finds it all hysterical and ridiculous, though as we all know, it's a different story when he uses the same lines on her just a few hours later.

Rosaline doesn't hate the Montagues, even though she is a Capulet. Indeed, she wishes they could all live together in peace. She is not alone in this. Benvolio, too, wishes the fighting would cease, as is revealed in another scene familiar from the play, though told from a different slant. Coming across the servants of the feuding families about to come to blows, he tries to stop the fight. Rosaline, watching from the sidelines, admires his bravery (as well as his looks!). But hot-headed Tybalt calls him out for a duel and an all-out brawl begins. Rosaline is appalled to notice a very young boy caught up in the fighting. Surely he will be hurt, possibly even killed, if someone doesn't get him out of harm's way. She plunges into the fray and grabs him. But though he is safe, she is not. She is stunned by a blow to the back of her head. As she falls, a pair of strong arms lifts her to safety. Before she completely loses consciousness, she feels a hand caress her brow and cheek.

Who saved her? Whose hand touched her with such tenderness and concern? Love plays cruel tricks. Though Benvolio saved her, it is Mercutio who takes the credit. And thus begins Rosaline's own tale of romantic confusion, for though she is drawn to Benvolio, let's face it, Mercutio is hot.

While Rosaline tries to sort out her own feelings, she also observes Romeo and Juliet fall in love. How could her docile, oh-so-proper cousin fall in love with such a fickle boy? Can she not see the danger? Rosaline can, and Benvolio can. They try to talk some sense into the two, but neither Romeo nor Juliet will listen. They can not prevent the tragedy we all know is coming.

And therein hangs the tale: on one side we have the heedless, impassioned, all-encompassing love of Romeo and Juliet, while on the other we have Rosaline, somehow drawn to both Mercutio and Benvolio, but unwilling to lose her head (or anything else) to either. Which is the tale of the truer love?


I don't want to give anything away here, but it just occurred to me that there's a similarity here between Romeo and Juliet and a certain pair of Lost lovers who met an untimely death. If you saw Lost this week (3/28/07), you'll know what I mean. ::shudder::

I love the way Fiedler is able to encompass Shakespeare's own words so naturally into her own work. It was also fun to catch the references to other Shakespeare works and characters. I'm sure I missed a few.

I also really enjoyed the sense of humor that is often on display, which is excellently balanced by Rosaline's sense of danger and impending tragedy.

Fiedler creates a good sense of place, and the voices of each character are distinct. She also does a fine job with the romances. I like the fact that Rosaline's heart-passion doesn't take precedence over her healing-passion. She is perhaps a little too modern-minded for her times, but I enjoyed her no-nonsense attitude towards romance. This isn't a girl who's going to fall for a player's seduction lines!

Favorite lines:

(Rosaline): He (Romeo) smothers me with his fondness! I marvel that his teeth have not rotted from the sugared sweetness of his vows.

The whole scene in the garden when Rosaline tries to explain to Romeo that she does not love him and intends to focus on medicine, not love, is laugh out loud funny, but here's a bit that I especially like for both the humor and the way it tells so much about the two characters:

(Romeo): "...I shall take the earthly course and ingest a fatal poison. Or stab myself repeatedly, so that you will be compelled to come near me, if only to stanch the bleeding...If illness is what you require of me, lady, then beginning here and now I will be sick."
(Rosaline): Truth be told, I've begun to feel a bit nauseated myself!

(Tybalt) "I was dressed perfectly for some cheerful violence..."

(Tybalt) "Swordplay, and arrogance, and honor, and heat, all combined to take a life. Men as boys on a summer's day, swinging danger in an arc, balancing hatred on a rapier's blade."

(Tybalt) "...My being is a part of the morning itself...I am a filament, a moment, a thought unthought. I am trembling nothingness...I mingle with the heat of the coming day. Sunrise is a smudge of apricot color along the horizon - O, for a tunic the color of daybreak! But what use have I for clothing now? For I am more like a morning than a man, I am a smudge of wisdom and sentiment against the sky."

Neither Tybalt nor Rosaline have much sympathy for Romeo and Juliet's impetuous behavior:

(Tybalt) "Mayhap she believes herself courageous for tempting Providence so boldy, but I see her action is more cowardly than brave. So childish is Juliet that the prospect of having to fight for what her heart desires frightens her enough to provoke a deed so dangerous."
(Rosaline) "'Love?' I roar, fists clenched. 'Bloody hell, that word should leave a blister on your tongue. Your recklessness, yours and Juliet's, was an affront to true devotion, your irreverence dishonored love. You met and admired one another and impiously called it love. 'Twas quick and bright and dangerous and magical. But you did not think. You settled for desire, but did not allow time for love."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Good Old Days weren't all that good

Bowery Girl by Kim Taylor
5Q 3P J/S

Another post brought over from my old LJ blog. Not everyone would agree that this book is appropriate for junior high school kids, but I think most eighth graders can handle the harshness and grim realities it presents.

I hope the fact that this is historical fiction doesn't keep teens from reading it. This is a book that immerses you in the sights, smells, and feel of a different time. I was a little surprised at the sometimes-rough language, but it's entirely appropriate to the lives these girls live.

It's February, 1883, and Mollie Flynn is on her way to The Tombs. Her roommate, Annabelle Lee, is finally being released from prison after serving her sentence for prostitution. Mollie is thrilled to see her, but she's not thrilled about Annabelle's condition: pregnant. How can a pregnant prostitute make any money? And Mollie and Annabelle need money, more than Mollie can make alone with her pickpocketing skills, good as they are. Their apartment isn't much, just one small room without running water or a toilet. But it's theirs. They've been homeless before, and Mollie is damned if they're going to be homeless again. So she's been borrowing money from Tommy, Annabelle's pimp/lover. How will they earn the $20 they owe him (an enormous sum in those days)? Life soon settles back pretty much to normal. Annabelle isn't showing much yet, so she still gets a few customers. Mollie picks a few pockets. They hang out at the saloon with Tommy, Seamus, Mugs, and Hugh, drinking beer mixed with benzene and getting mixed up in brawls with rival gangs. They watch the rat fights. They watch the Brooklyn Bridge being built and dream of making enough money to move to Brooklyn one day. They try to survive.

Life in the Bowery is dirty, rough, and backbreakingly hard. Forget trying to move up in the world. This was a time when most people who had money felt that those who didn't had nobody to blame but themselves for their condition. They didn't work hard enough. They were immoral and therefore deserved to live a wretched life. They were shiftless, lazy, and Irish (or Jewish, or Polish, or some other ethnic group), so what could you expect from "them"? But this was also the time when the idea of social work was just beginning, and there were some people, often women, who started settlement houses that were designed to give the poor and the immigrants skills that would enable them to make money without resorting to thievery, prostitution, gambling, and other criminal pursuits. The houses offered job training, gave basic education (reading, writing, math), hygiene classes, and tried to give their clients the tools they needed to make a better life for themselves.

For Mollie, when Emmeline DuPre opens her settlement house, it's a threat. What does this do-gooder want? Why can't she go away and leave them alone? Mollie doesn't want her charity, and she doesn't want to be beholden to anyone. But Annabelle doesn't feel the same way. She wants to learn to read, and she wants something better for herself and her baby. Because Annabelle begins to go to the settlement house, so does Mollie. While Annabelle learns to read and write, Mollie begins to learn to type. Maybe she can get a job as a typist and earn an honest $3 a week. Mollie laughs at the thought. She can make $3 a day, when the pickings are good, and Annabelle could make more than that. But then Mollie, who still owes Tommy that $20, gets involved in a robbery gone horribly wrong. Suddenly the honest $3 a week and the safety of the settlement house begins to sound a lot better.

Life in 1883 was hard, and this book reflects that. It doesn't end with Mollie and Annabelle and the baby in a cozy little Brooklyn apartment, looking forward to the wonderful life now ahead of them. It's more realistic than that. It left me thinking about Mollie and Annabelle and wondering what life was like for my own relatives, who also lived in New York about this time period. (Fortunately, I don't think any of them ever had to resort to things Mollie and Annabelle and the gang resort to.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

I Hear Dead People

Dead Connection by Charlie Price
4Q 4P J/S

(This review is carried over from a blog I had on Live Journal. Over the next few weeks I'll be copying those reviews over here, interspersing them with new reviews.)

I really liked the way this story is structured. It follows several characters, most notably Murray, a psychic who has conversations with dead people in the cemetery, Gates, a sheriff investigating the disappearance of a local high school girl, and Vern Billup, the alcoholic Public Affairs Officer in the local police station. Some readers may find it hard or frustrating to follow the storyline, since each (short) chapter alternates the point of view. We start out following Murray, then move on to various other characters, coming back to each several times. This really worked for me as a technique, particularly because the mystery and investigation aspects of the story lend themselves to following various leads to may or may not pan out. It also helps build the suspense, since some of the characters are considerably less stable than others. I do have a quibble with the ending, which relies on a revelation that comes pretty much out of nowhere. But I liked the book anyhow.

Murray's a loner. His mother is a prostitute (even if she probably wouldn't describe herself that way). He's a poor student. He has no friends, unless you count Dearly Beloved, Edwin, and Blessed Daughter, his favorite dead people at the cemetery. He has long, satisfying conversations with them. But of course, he can't tell anyone that's what's going on, because everyone will think he's crazy and ship him off to some psych hospital. That's what he thinks when Pearl Janocheck, the cemetery caretaker's daughter comes up to him in the cemetery to ask what he's doing. He blows her off, which ticks her off and makes her vow to get revenge. Her revenge is sweet but short-lasting, since her father quickly realizes Pearl has set Murray up for a crime he didn't commit. That's an unusual way for a friendship to develop, but it happens anyhow.

While Murray and Pearl are slowly developing a relationship, Murray is being watched by Billup. Billup can't stand the kid, because of an incident between Billup and Murray's mother a while back. Billup just knows the kid in the cemetery is up to no good, and he's gonna get the kid if it's the last thing he does. But first he has to deal with his alcohol problem and the blackouts that are happening almost daily now. If he could only remember what happened the night before...

Meanwhile, Gates is pursuing any scrap of a lead he can dig up on what happened to Nikki, the high school cheerleader who disappeared in October. One of those leads is Robert Barry Compton, a schizophrenic former crackhead who knows he saw something, but can't remember just what it was.

All of these threads begin to come together the day that Murray hears a new voice in the cemetery. It's a girl's voice, and she's saying something like "Find me."

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Maggots and Dead Bodies - Please, sir, can I have some more?

The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson
3Q 4P J/S

Grrrr. Argggh.* This is the book I've been holding on to longest, so I'm afraid I've forgotten a lot of what I was going to say about it. So I'm going to say that middle school kids can handle this one if they can handle the CSI series. But fair warning: Ferguson does not shy away from the details of an autopsy or a seriously decayed dead body.

Seventeen-year-old Cameryn Mahoney has known for years that she wants to become a forensic scientist. She's done her research, too. Her father is the county coroner, and she's read all the books he has on the subject, and as many others as she can get her hands on. She's been waiting for just the right moment to ask her father if she can act as his assistant. This morning, the morning he gets the call about the floater found in a bathtub at the local hotel, is her chance. Her grandmother (Mammaw) is flat against it, but surprisingly, her father agrees. Cameryn is thrilled.

A floater is not a good way to get introduced to the job of county coroner, and that's especially true when the body isn't found for a few days. Even though Cameryn knows in her head what she's getting into, the reality is a little different. She's embarrassed and humiliated when she's caught vomiting by the sheriff's new deputy. To make it worse, her father hates the man and won't tell her why. And to make it even worse, the deputy is actually kind of...cute. But Cameryn has a job to do, so she gets her mind off the vomit and the deputy and does it, to the admiration of her father and the great annoyance of the medical examiner, who thinks a teenage girl has no business at an autopsy and certainly has no business stating her opinions during it. No, right from the start, Cameryn learns the job isn't going to be an easy one. It's about to get even harder. The next death she has to deal with is not only a murder, it's the murder of a friend.

Cameryn's best friend, Lyric, is really into psychics and psychic phenomena, but Cameryn thinks it's all a crock. She humors Lyric, but honestly, why do people fall for charlatans who claim they can see into the future or get messages from beyond the grave? So when Lyric and Adam, a boy from their class, start babbling on about the live TV show Shadow of Death and Jewel, the psychic who claims he talks to the dead, she rolls her eyes, especially when Adam claims that the scene that Jewel described in last night's show reminded him of their own small town of Silverton. Get real, she says, there hasn't been a murder in Silverton since the Gold Rush days. Only minutes later, she gets a phone call from her father summoning her to the scene of a crime. She can hardly believe it when she realizes that the body is Rachel's. And yes, the scene is very similar to the way Jewel apparently described it. But Cameryn believes in science, not psychics.

Things get even creepier when the evidence begins to indicate that Rachel was probably the latest victim of the Christopher Killer, a serial murderer who has killed several young girls around the country, leaving a Saint Christopher medal on their bodies.

Who could possibly have killed Rachel, and why? Was it the Christopher Killer? Why would he come to a tiny town like Silverton? Why would he target someone like Rachel? It doesn't seem very likely. In fact, it seems far more likely that Rachel's killer was someone who knew her. Maybe somebody who had a crush on her. Maybe somebody like...


This is an interesting book. One of the things I appreciate about it is that it doesn't pull punches when it comes to describing the realities of murder and dead bodies. Most mysteries for teens either shy away from murder entirely or make it pretty antiseptic. Yes, there's a dead body, and yes, there's some blood. But it isn't, like, icky or anything. Yeah, right. Alane Ferguson doesn't insult the intelligence or the stomachs of her audience. Which means if you don't like maggots, blood, and graphic descriptions of what happens after death, you'll either want to skip reading this book or cover your eyes for a paragraph or two here and there.

Another point in this book's favor is that she's created some interesting dynamics between her characters and planted the seeds of some situations that have promise down the road. (Yes, this is the first book of a series. Book two is already out, though I haven't ordered it for the library - yet.) Right from the beginning, we learn that Cam's mother abandoned her long ago, but we don't know why. Neither does Cam. Cam just knows that whenever she wants to do something her grandmother doesn't approve of, it gets blamed on her mother's genes. That's a lot for a girl to deal with right there. Cam's father walks a tightrope between his daughter's wishes to immerse herself in forensic science and his mother's anger that he'd even consider it, when she should be concerned with learning to cook and finding a nice job for a young lady. The tension between Cameryn and her grandmother is very believable (though Mammaw maybe leans just a wee bit towards caricature, at least in this book). Cameryn also has to deal with being attracted to someone her father clearly hates and wants her to have nothing to do with. Cameryn isn't quite sure if she likes the deputy as a person or as a guy, but she does know she doesn't understand why her father thinks he's such a bad guy. She finally discovers the truth, but it doesn't exactly clear the path to her father being perfectly fine with her developing a friendship with him. Another interesting angle to follow up in the future.

Could I see the solution to the mystery from pretty far away? Yeah, I could. I'm not sure there are enough surprises in this book. That's what keeps me from giving this book a higher grade in the quality department. But I think there's room to build here. In future books, more attention can be paid to the mystery and a few more serious red herrings, now that the character development and basic premise have been well begun. I'm very glad to have this book to recommend to teens who want to read a good mystery.

*Extra credit if you get the reference. :)

Funny ha-ha or funny strange? Anchors or Tentacles?

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
4Q 3P J?/S

I'm very backed up on blog posts about books I've read over the past month (see previous post for explanation), so this one may be briefer than usual. (Cheers abound, I suspect.) I didn't take notes of any particular lines or moments I liked, for instance.

Note about the cover: It's great. It's absolutely perfect for the book. But that becomes apparent only after reading the story, so I don't know if casual browsers will seize on it.


Craig Gilner lives in New York City, which means he has the kind of opportunity most kids entering high school don't have. In most cases, kids who go to public school have very little choice about the schools they go to. All the kids who live where they live go to a particular school. Charter schools are changing this in some communities, but it's only in places like NYC where kids actually have a smorgasbord of schools to choose from. Are they interested in math? There's a high school specializing in that. Are they into the arts? Try to get into the High School of Performing Arts. And so on. Craig's a smart kid, and he wants to have a really good job when he gets out of school. He wants to be a Leader of Tomorrow. So he decides he wants to go to Manhattan's Executive Pre-Professional High School, where students get prepared for jobs on Wall Street and Fortune 500 companies. He preps for the entrance exam with the single-mindedness of bear going after honey. Forget friends. Flashcards and test prep books are his constant companions. And they work. He gets in. So does his best friend, Aaron, who gets in having done no cramming whatsoever. They celebrate by getting high and throwing a party. Maybe this is where it all begins to go wrong for Craig. Three things happen that night that start the ball rolling downhill: the pot, the realization that Aaron didn't have to sweat the exam the way he did, and losing Nia, the girl he's just realized he's in lust with, to Aaron.

It takes a while for Craig to realize that any of those three things are a problem. But it doesn't take long for Craig to realize that Executive Pre-Professional isn't the dream school he thought it was. Sure, he aced the test. But so did everyone else in his class. The truth is, he just can't hack this school. Everyone is smarter than he is. He has a 93 average, and in this school, that's barely skating by. He can't keep up, so he begins to give up. He doesn't do his homework. He doesn't join any clubs. He comes home, gets high, and daydreams the day away. And then those daydreams turn into nightmares. He is pursued by all the Tentacles in his life, the things he must do that he can't do, the things that grab at him and drag him down, tie him into knots so that he can no longer function. His Anchors, the things that keep him safe (like his parents and little sister), aren't enough to keep him above water. Little by little, Craig starts to spiral down into a deep depression. He can't sleep. He can't eat. He can't work. None of this is helped by Aaron or Nia. The more Craig sees them together, the more depressed he gets. Why couldn't Nia have chosen him?

Craig's parents are concerned and involved, and they see that he gets into therapy. For a while, it helps. Craig is put on Zoloft, and his depression begins to lift. In fact, after a while, Craig decides he's cured and no longer needs to take his medication. It's a Tentacle, not an Anchor. This turns out to be a very bad decision. This time, the depression that hits is even worse. But nobody realizes just how depressed Craig is until the day that he decides to kill himself by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. But first he's going to say goodbye, sort of. He has a last conversation with his sister, he calls Nia and asks if he ever had a shot with her, and he asks his mother if he can sleep in her bed. All night long, Craig waits for his moment. Suddenly, it's 5:00 a.m., and if he's going to do it, it had better be now. But before he goes, Craig picks up a book from his mother's bookshelf: How to Survive the Loss of a Love. He's paged through it before, but this time, it has a different meaning for him. And this time, he follows through on one of its suggestions and calls for help. The suicide hotline volunteer convinces him to head to the nearest hospital's emergency room and ask for help. He is checked into the adult psychiatric unit.

Over the next five days, Craig interacts with and observes his fellow patients and learns quite a bit about himself in the process. Among the most important things that Craig discovers is really a rediscovery. Years ago, he loved to draw. He didn't draw houses and trees and dogs; he drew maps. But over time, he left art behind. Here, in the psych ward, art becomes an Anchor. He begins to draw his maps again, but this time, they are more than maps. This time, they become brain maps. People maps. Maps that connect people. Maps that connect him with himself.

Craig isn't the only teenager in the psych ward. There's a girl here, too. Her name is Noelle, and she's in the ward in part because she attacked her own face with scissors. Noelle is not an easy girl to get to know. But Craig quickly realizes that Nia may have outer beauty, but inside, she's more screwed up than he is. Noelle may have some problems, but her head is on straight in the ways that count. This may not be the start of a beautiful friendship, but it's the start of something really important.

Craig doesn't spend a long time in the psych ward, but it's long enough for him to start figuring what he needs to do to get rid of all those Tentacles. It's long enough for him to realize that there are times to walk away from things that used to look good to and for you but are really rotten. And it's long enough for him to realize that life is worth living after all.


This is Ned Vizzini's third published book, and he's only in his mid-20s. I think he knows a little something about the pressures of living up to expectations. I know he knows something about being in a psych ward. He starting writing this book a week after he spent five days as an inpatient in a psych ward in a New York hospital and finished it in about a month. To learn a little more about Ned, visit his My Space page.

What did I think about this book? I didn't love love love it the way most reviewers did, but I thought it very well done. One of Vizzini's trademarks is his sense of humor, and that is in evidence in this book, too. Craig's observations about himself and, especially, the people around him (mostly in the hospital) are full of a humor that isn't at the expense of anyone. Craig can laugh at his fellow patients because he knows they're just human, and that he's just human, too. I also enjoyed the verbal jousting between Noelle and Craig. I thought the scenes involving Nia, Noelle, and Craig were very interesting. Which girl is the healthier mentally? Not, I think, the one you'd guess at first. I did have a problem, though, with how quickly Craig seems to recover his mental health. Here's a boy who hasn't been able to keep a meal down for weeks, but as soon (as soon!) as he checks in, he's not only eating full meals, he's having seconds. Hmmm. He also seems to lose any suicidal feelings almost immediately. I imagine that it's a huge relief for him to step outside of life for a while, and that the safe confines of the psych ward make it possible for him to pretend that everything is okay. But it seems too easy, too fast. And where is the therapy in this ward? His therapist sees him twice, I think, and no doctor (psychiatrist) sees him (other than to decide to admit him) the day he checks in. The music and (possibly) art therapy seem to be done by volunteers. There doesn't seem to be any group counseling. It all makes it seem a bit like Craig is just on a mini-vacation. I was happy to read the scene where Craig panics when he gets a call from his school principal, because that made it clear that his problems hadn't just vanished. Still, overall, this book holds together, and the ending is a rallying cry for anyone who has ever been depressed, as well as for those of us who need to be reminded regularly to cherish the little moments in our lives.

Hmmm. Did I say this would be short? I think I'm congenitally unable to be brief in anything but physical stature. Sorry!

You know, LOST went on hiatus, too!

Just when a few very nice people decide to mention my blog in their blogs, I'm up to my neck in work, out on vacation, and ramping up to opening night of a play I'm performing in. Thus, no posts for nearly a month. I have about six books to post about, and I'm going to try to get to at least a couple of them this weekend. Don't give up on me!