Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Silence is Not Golden

The Silenced by James Devita
4Q 3P/ J S

Wow. I just finished this book and even though I have two other books I should be writing about first, I need to write something about this one now, while the feelings are still fresh.

Wow. Talk about an atmospheric book. There are some books you don't want to stop reading because they're so good. There are some books you have to stop reading, even if you don't want to, just to give yourself a chance to breathe and your heart to stop pounding. I put this book down at least six times because I needed a break. I couldn't stand the tension or the fear of what I thought/knew was coming. I needed to do something mindless for a while, so that I could give myself a chance to process what I'd read and what was coming.

No long summary here. In a nutshell, this book takes place in an unspecified future time in an unspecified country (but I still read it as the U.S., though that may be U.S.-centric of me). A war was fought within recent memory, and the Zero Tolerance party is now in power. We're not talking about zero tolerance for teasing, or zero tolerance for drugs, or zero tolerance for weapons in the schools. We're talking about zero tolerance for tolerance. Zero tolerance for individual thought. Zero tolerance for different religious beliefs. Zero tolerance for deviation from the official government line. Zero tolerance for different. In the initial phases of the new government, many of those who fought or protested were "neutralized" - government-speak for killed. But it wasn't enough to hold those people responsible for their actions. Their families are held responsible as well. The families have been sent to readaptation communities all around the country. Suspect spouses are put on house arrest, while the children are re-educated in schools that are nothing more than indoctrination facilities.

Marena is one of those children. She only has brief flashes of memory of what happened the night her mother was taken, but she can remember what her mother believed. And one of the things her mother believed was that you do not have the right to stay silent when evil is happening around you. Marena is already resisting in as many ways as she can: she mouths the words of the anthem and the loyalty oaths they are forced to repeat, she refuses to give up her precious paper, pens, and papers when writing implements are outlawed, and she refuses to believe what she is told to believe. But when a favorite teacher is taken away and a new and stricter administration is brought it, Marena knows that it's time to take a harder stand. She convinces her would-be boyfriend Dex and the new boy, Eric, that it's time to actively rebel. They slash tires. They vandalize the school with slogans. They spread leaflets. They spread the word: The White Rose will not be silent. But their rebellion comes at a very high cost.

Any similarities to the Nazi regime are completely intentional. This book is a tribute to Sophie Scholl, her brother, and the other members of the White Rose resistance group, who fought the Nazis with pamphlets, leaflets, and graffiti, spreading the idea of resistance throughout their university and beyond. It's also, I think, a protest against the people in our own country right now who insist that voicing objections to actions of our political leaders is nothing short of traitorous. But if the people don't remind their government to have a conscience, then we open ourselves to nightmare scenarios. Sophie Scholl, Nelson Mandela, and Marena could testify to that.

Lest I have made this sound like a book that only those of a political bent could enjoy, let me assure you, it is not. Despite its length, I think many teens who don't really like to read could get caught up in this one. Rebellious teens fighting against the authorities. Questions about who you can trust (can you even trust your own father?). Midnight trysts and post-midnight illegal actions. Short, cliff-hanger ending chapters. This is a compulsively readable book that will have many readers riveted to the last page.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

This Skulduggery is very pleasant indeed!

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
5Q 5P J/M

I've been reading some really heavy books lately (more on some of those soon), so I was really looking forward to something a little lighter in tone. I was not disappointed. What a thoroughly fun read this book is! And I do believe there'll be more where this one came from, which is truly cause for cheering.

When Stephanie's Uncle Gordon dies, she knows she'll miss spending time with him. Gordon was not, to put it mildly, everyone's cup of tea. The famous author was known for his horror novels, not for his tact or ability to get along with people. He didn't even get along with own brothers. But he and Stephanie clicked. She loved his books, and they enjoyed each other's company. But was that reason enough to put her in his will? Much to everyone's surprise, apparently so.

Stephanie and her parents are summoned to the lawyer's office for the reading of the will, as are her loathsome uncle and aunt. Also present: the strange man Stephanie saw twice after the funeral. This isn't someone you'd overlook or forget. He's tall and thin, with a shock of wild frizzy hair escaping from under his wide-brimmed hat. Even inside, his face is completely hidden by a scarf and huge sunglasses. His coat is fully buttoned. He is wearing gloves. His name is Skulduggery Pleasant, and as Stephanie is soon to discover, he is ...well, let's let that wait for a bit.

The reading of the will does not go well. All Skulduggery gets is a piece of advice, though he seems to accept that with grace. All Stephanie's greedy uncle and aunt inherit is a car, a boat, and a bit of worthless jewelry. They're furious. They get even angrier when Stephanie's parents get Gordon's villa in France. But they get absolutely livid when they learn that Stephanie inherits everything else: all his royalties, all his other property and possessions. What they don't know is that Stephanie also inherits numerous attempts on her life, close encounters with a number of unsavory characters, and the burden of knowing that the fate of the world rests with her ability to solve the puzzle of what else Gordon left for her that these people want so badly.

Of course, Stephanie doesn't know at first that Gordon's bequest is anything other than it seems. But being the intelligent girl that she is, she quickly realizes something is up. Her first clue? By a fluke of circumstance, she winds up spending a night alone in her new home. Also being a very self-sufficient girl, she's fine with that...until she gets a threatening phone call from someone demanding to know her name. When she refuses to give it, he breaks into the house and attacks her. With his hand around her throat, he demands she give him "the key". Enter (dramatically, to say the least) Skulduggery Pleasant, who turns out to be a surprisingly good hand-to-hand fighter. He also turns out (it's hard to stay in disguise in the middle of a brawl) to be a skeleton. In fact, he turns out to be a skeleton who can conjure up flames, among other things. In case you haven't guessed, that's Stephanie's second clue that something odd is going on. What did Uncle Gordon get her mixed up in?

Being the headstrong girl who doesn't take no for an answer that she is, Stephanie decides that it's time for her to learn what's going on. She learns the following:
  • Skulduggery Pleasant was her uncle's (only?) friend.
  • Skulduggery Pleasant is a detective.
  • Skulduggery Pleasant can do magic.
  • Skulduggery Pleasant works for
Oh, come on. You don't really think I'm going to spill ALL the beans, do you? I've gotten you up to page 60. I'm leaving you the pleasure of finding out the rest for yourself. But I will tell you this much:
  • Names are important. Don't give yours out to just anyone.
  • You could be a sorcerer. Yes, I mean you.
  • Fiction may not be fiction.
  • We're talking fate of the world here.
  • Stephanie Edgley is intelligent, self-sufficient, headstrong (but you knew all that already) and determined. Don't get in her way. She's also sarcastic, outspoken, and rebellious. This probably makes her a teacher's nightmare, but it also makes her a reader's dream.
Favorite quotes:

Pick a page, any page. Pick a paragraph, any paragraph. Okay, here are just a few. (I'll try to restrain myself.)

"To be honest with you, it's not even *my* head."
"It's not. They ran away with my skull. I won this one in a poker game. [A few sentences snipped.] You look faintly disgusted."
"I just...doesn't it feel weird? It'd be like wearing someone else's socks."
"You get used to it."

"Stephanie, I'm not altogether sure you're respecting my authority."
"Yes, I'm not."
"I see. Okay then."

"I try not to depend on magic these days; I try to get by on what's up here." [Skulduggery] tapped his head.
"There's empty space up there."
"Well, yes," he said irritably, "but you know what I mean."

Stephanie: "And am I going to be accompanying you?"
Skulduggery: "That depends. Do you need your parents' permission?"
Her parents wanted her to find her own way in life. That's what they'd said countless times in the past. Of course, they'd been referring to school subjects and college applications and job prospects. Presumably, at no stage did they factor living skeletons and magic underworlds into their considerations. If they had, their advice would probably have been very different. Stephanie shrugged. "No, not really."
"Well, that's good enough for me."

"Fashion," said Ghastly with a shrug. "It's life or death."

Ghastly nodded. "That'll teach him to underestimate stupid people."

Stephanie and Skulduggery are discussing the grim realization that it's time to visit the relatives:

Skulduggery: "Being a detective isn't all about torture and murder and monsters. Sometimes it gets truly unpleasant."

A few links:

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Life's a Cabaret, Old Chum!

Dramarama by E. Lockhart
3Q 4P J/S

I'm a drama geek through and through, so I knew I was going to enjoy this book. And I did. Anyone who is into theatre, especially musical theatre, will relate. (Alas, the part I can relate to all too well is the part about loving musical theatre but not being much of a singer!)

Sadye, formerly known as Sarah, is from a small town in Ohio as lacking in character as Cream of Wheat. ("In Brenton, Ohio, where I'm from, committing suicide would be redundant.") She's the only teen in town who cares anything about theater. The only way she can slake her love of the arts is by traveling twenty miles away four times a week to take a decent dance class. Nobody gets her. Until Demi.

Demi goes to Sarah's school, but neither of them realizes they have a mutual interest until Sarah sees an audition notice for Wildewood Academy of the Performing Arts Summer Theater Institute. She has only a week to prepare a song and learn a monolog. She can carry a tune, but truth to tell, she's not much of a singer. And she's never acted in her life. But she is a very good dancer, and she's counting on that to get her through.

The audition is pretty intimidating. Everyone is so GOOD! They can do it all - sing, dance, and act. Even though they Sarah doesn't really know Demi, at least he's a familiar face. Before they know it, the two have bonded, and Demi has even given Sarah a new name to match her new haircut: Sadye. He gives her encouragement, too, and some advice on how to approach her audition. Much to her delight, she actually gets accepted to the Institute. There was no question that Demi was going to be accepted. Not only can he act, sing, and dance, he's seriously good looking. He's a star waiting to be discovered.

And therein lies the problem. What happens when your best friend becomes a star and you have to settle for being a bit player? What happens when you realize you aren't as talented as you want to be?

This being a summer camp full of teens, you know that love is going to be involved, too. Demi is hog heaven, thrilled with being able to be himself, not having to act the straight guy so he doesn't get beaten up. But is he falling in love with the right guy? For that matter, is Sadye? Do any of the guys she has her eye on have his eye on her?

This is a book that I'd have been thrilled to read as a teen, when I prowled the shelves looking for books about acting. Finally, there's a book that deals with the work that goes into putting a show together, something that really focuses on teens honing their talents. But I got a little frustrated with Sadye at times. She knows she's not a good singer, but she really wants to be a performer. So why doesn't she even try to find a way to learn to sing better? So when she's depressed about not doing well with her singing, I can't say I felt all that sorry for her. On the other hand, Sadye gets into a lot of trouble for saying too much in some of her classes, and I did feel sorry for her then, because what she says appears to make sense. I kept yelling her in my head through the last half of my book, so I was quite happy to discover by the end that she'd heard me. ;) I won't say anything more than that!

Overall, I'd say this book veers towards the over-the-top, but doesn't ever really go too far. If you enjoy quick, light reads with a nice blend of romance, humor, suck-it-up-truth, and theater, theater, theater, you can't go wrong with this one.

Billie Standish (the book and the girl) Needs Some Love

Billie Standish Was Here by Nancy Crocker
5Q 3P J/S (mature subject matter, including a rape, makes this a book for older/mature readers)

This is an absolutely beautifully written book that I suspect will not get the attention it deserves. At this point, it's on my shortlist of the best YA books of the year. I would not hesitate to recommend it to adult readers as well as teens. However, it's a book that will be best appreciated by readers who enjoy characterization and setting, rather than those who prefer fast-moving action. I don't think what I say here truly spoils the book. It all happens in the first fifty or so pages. The book is about the journey, not the individual stops made along the way. But you may disagree, so please be forewarned that this review reveals two major events. If you prefer to read something that is more circumspect, check this review/interview from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. (This review, from Big A, little a, is the one that got me interested in reading the book. But be aware that this review also gives away those two plot points.)

Billie Standish knows exactly where she stands in her parents' lives. It's pretty clear when your name is William Marie Standish that a girl wasn't what they hoping for. The fact that they rarely talk to her and leave her alone for hours at a time just reinforces their lack of interest. But the morning that eleven-year-old Billie wakes up to find the town deserted really hammers it home. It's not until the old lady who lives across the street tells her that the levee is expected to break and flood the town that she has any idea of the danger she's in. Miss Lydia explains that the only people left are Billie and her parents and Miss Lydia and her son. And her parents never gave her even as much as a warning of what to do if trouble came. Miss Lydia takes pity on Billie and invites her to come to lunch. As Billie says, she'd rather have gone to church in shoes two sizes too small. She's no good at chitchat in the first place, but having to make conversation with someone who could remember when God was a boy? Oh, no.

But Miss Lydia insists, and Billie gives in. It's not long before Billie is over at Miss Lydia's most of every day, doing chores for her and in exchange learning about cooking and crochet and the old days of Miss Lydia's youth. She basks in the feeling of being welcomed and liked. As the weeks pass, Billie realizes she's made her first friend.

The one fly in the ointment is Miss Lydia's son, Curtis. Curtis gives Billie the creeps. She doesn't like the way he treats his mother and she doesn't like the way he looks at her. She knows Curtis's reputation, and she knows that he once killed a girl in a drunk driving accident. But she doesn't know just how bad he can be until the day he brutally rapes her. One horror follows another when Miss Lydia discovers what has happened and takes the law into her own hands. She has seen her son destroy one girl's life. She's damned if she's going to allow him to destroy another.

It is 1968, and rape is a shameful secret that is never discussed. And, of course, neither of them can ever tell what Miss Lydia did. As close as they had been, their secrets draw them even closer together. It is Miss Lydia who helps her deal with the aftermath, sharing her own equally traumatic experiences and assuring her that in time, she will be able to trust, and even love, again. The only person she can bear to be near is Miss Lydia. But when fifth grade starts in the fall, Billie has to go. School has never been her favorite place. The teachers are bad, the girls are clique-y, and she has always been the odd person out. But here, too, Billie finds an unexpected friend. Harlan knows as soon as she enters the room that something bad happened to her over the summer, though he never asks what. He is just there for her in his own quiet way. And soon the twosome becomes a threesome.

Billie Standish Was Here covers years in Billie's life. It is not a book about rape. It is a book about forgiveness and understanding, but most of all, it is a book about the healing power of love and the saving power of friendship. This is a book to be savored and reread often.


I loved this book for many reasons, but I fell in love with its voice and humor. Here are some quotes chosen because they tell as much about Billie as they do about the person she's describing:

For a long time I was mostly invisible. That was okay, though. Once you've figured out you can't do anything right it's just good sense not to call undue notice your way. Why step out of the shadows and get yelled at for blocking somebody's light?

Nothing much bigger than a silent fart can get past the neighbors in a town this size, though, so I suppose I was looked after in a way.

About her mother:
I could see her with my eyes closed, slicing the air with her hip bones and elbows as she crossed me off the list in her head and moved on. Another chore taken care of.

Describing Curtis:
...his manners were neat almost to the point of finicky. Outside of TV, I had never seen anyone raise their pinky as they lifted their glass and I never could have imagined it with a dirty fingernail...For some reason, I remembered the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood," who put on clothes and talked and was a good enough imitator to pass for a human being.

Describing her teacher:
There just doesn't seem to be enough of a person there to account for half of a couple.

Discovering love:
I don't believe in love at first sight. It might make for an easy shortcut if somebody's writing a movie, but in real life I think it's nothing more than hormones performing a parlor trick. I have come to believe that real love is like learning to read, one letter at a time, sounding things out until it all comes together. It takes time to build, step after step. And I know that was the exact moment Harlan climbed up that first step for me.

About Miss Lydia:
She left me knowing who I am without looking into anyone's mirror.

Printz Committee, are you listening?

Hooray for the Cybils Awards, which selected Billie Standish as one of the finalists in the YA Fiction category.

I have also posted a booktalk for this book. If you like it and use it, I'd love to know how it went over with your group.

(This post was edited slightly on 5/1/08 to reflect the Cybil Award nomination.)