Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tamar: Appearance vs Reality

Tamar by Mal Peet
4Q 2P    S

I usually try to do an overview of a book and then write about my impressions. But 1) I read this book several weeks ago and details are starting to fade, 2) what I started to write was dull, and 3) cutting to the chase (well, as much as I ever do!) feels right.

When I finally got my hands on Tamar, I only had three days to read it and Dreamquake, because I was trying to finish them in time to cast a vote for the JHunt Award. They're both over 400 pages, and I wondered how I could possibly do it. But Tamar was compulsively readable. How could I not get wrapped up in the story of two young men working with the Dutch Resistance in service to the British Army? How could I not get invested in a love triangle between those two men and the Dutch woman they both secretly love? How could my stomach not tie up in knots at the danger these three faced? The tension of these situations kept me riveted as I read.

Tamar's assignment is to gather the various factions of the Dutch Resistance and get them to work together under one leader with one common goal. Dart is his radio man. Tamar has the advantage of living in a farmhouse with his lover and her grandmother. Dart has a less cozy cover story, posing as a doctor in a local psychiatric hospital. Peet is a master of building and relieving tension. While it's obvious that anyone working in the Resistance must have led a life of constant stress and fear, I had no idea how nerve wracking it was to be a radioman in particular, or about how many of them became dependent on pharmaceuticals as a result of having to deal with long stretches of tedium interrupted by minutes of sheer terror. Just reading about Dart's first attempt to get past the Nazi soldiers guarding the gates into town had my heart racing along with his. My stomach was in knots later in the story when the moment he's feared for so long actually arrives. By comparison, Tamar seems to have it good. Networking and diplomacy aren't the beacons for the Nazis that turning on a radio signal is, so although he must be careful, his chances of being caught by the Nazis while doing his job are not as high as they are for Dart. And he has Marijke, his lover, to turn to. So when the story turns to them, we get a different view of Resistance work. We see the methodical, longterm planning and experience the frustration of trying to bind together people who don't want to be melded into one. We also see more of the privations that people in occupied territories faced. But we also get a love story. This is an adult love affair, told from an adult perspective. Having been separated once before, Tamar and Marijke cherish each other all the more. But they must be circumspect about their love. To the outside world, Tamar must appear to be no more than a laborer for the family. Tamar also fears that their partnership would be weakened if Dart learns about his love for Marijke. So this is one more secret for him to hide on top of all the others they must keep.

The secrets and the stress that we witness in the WWII sequences come home with a vengeance almost fifty years later, starting with Tamar's suicide. Before he jumps naked from his balcony, he leaves something behind for his granddaughter, also named Tamar. It is a box, one that she refuses to open for months afterward. When she finally does open it, it turns out to be a Pandora's box of sorts - all sorts of secrets come out as a result.

I've heard some complaints that the 1995 sections of the book are less compelling than those that take place during the war, and I can't disagree. They are slower, and the romance angle of it didn't work for me. But I also felt that they gave the book more context and more richness. This is a story that demands that some insight into how actions and decisions of the past impact the future.

Tamar is very much about
what seems to be isn't always what is, so it shouldn't be all that surprising that there's even debate about who this book is written for and who it will appeal to. Tamar tells two stories. The one that is most compelling and which takes up the majority of the book does not feature a teenage character. Because YA literature by most definitions must feature a teenage character in an integral role, some are questioning whether this is adult fiction or YA fiction. Good question. I think this is a book that has appeal for both adults and teens, and I think it would be very interesting to hear the discussion if a group of adults and teens read the book and got together to share their thoughts on it. But it's also fair to say that this is probably not a book that is going to be widely and hugely popular among teens. It's a niche book. Teens who like to read books about other teens and don't like historical fiction may not be able to relate to Tamar-the-younger enough to find this book appealing. But teens who like war and espionage stories, romance intertwined with danger, and stories that take their time in the telling are going to relish the time they spend with it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

When Is a Joyride Not a Joy?

Okay...this was written in August and never posted, apparently. Since it's been two weeks since I posted anything other than a stop-gap post, I'm going to go ahead and publish this even though I must have wanted to edit it or add another thought. Since I have no idea what I had in mind, there's no point in waiting any longer.

TWOC: Taken Without Owner's Consent by Graham Joyce
4Q 3P S

Matt’s having a hellish time. He’s on probation and seeing a court-mandated counselor/probation officer. It’s not unusual for him to wake up screaming from horrible nightmares. And during the day, he’s haunted by the mocking image of his brother Josh, who died over a year ago. Matt taught Josh everything he ever needed to know about TWOCing – stealing cars to go joyriding. What Matt would like to forget, but can’t, is the horrible night he, Josh, and Josh’s girlfriend went on a terrible joyride that ended with Josh dead and Jools (the girlfriend) horribly disfigured. Only Matt walked away from the crash seemingly unscathed. But with those nightmares, strange memory lapses, and seeing Josh outside every window, Matt’s only unmarked on the outside. Inside, he’s a mess.
Matt’s parole officer offers him the chance to participate in a weekend Outward Bound-type program that will, if he finishes it successfully, reduce his probation time. They'll be rock climbing, hiking, and (::sigh::) participating in group discussions "in a spirit of openness and honesty". Matt's not the outdoors type, and he's not convinced that this is anything he wants to do, but he's not really given that much of a choice. He has two companions on this trip. Gilb's a quiet kid with horrible acne ("even his zits have zits"), spiked, henna-dyed hair, and a vacant look ("he has a look about him, like someone removed the front part of his brain"). He's also a graffiti whiz, which Amy, the third companion, thinks is pretty cool. (They've both seen his work, and he's good.) Amy's a much bolder personality. Her hair is so short, you can see all the cuts on her scalp ("it looks as though she tried to cut her own hair with long-handled tree-pruning shears". Later she sports a multi-colored mohawk.) She's a fan of army-surplus clothes, and heavy goth-type makeup. She's also an in-your-face kind of girl who doesn't take any guff from anyone, least of all Matt. Amy's prone to setting fires where they don't belong. It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that this weekend trip is a big turning point in Matt's life. He learns a lot about himself over those two days, and some of it is stuff he'd really rather not have discovered. It also probably won't surprise anyone when Matt winds up bonding with Amy and Gilb. But Graham Joyce takes his readers on a heck of a ride (in more ways than one - this is, after all, a book about a kid who likes to go joyriding!) while Matt is on that journey of discovery. I'm pretty sure that even teens who don't really get into books will find themselves holding on for dear life when Matt, Amy, and Gilb break out of camp, steal a car, and take off on a joyride that starts out as a thrill and winds up in a place that gives Matt nightmares. This book is an interesting mix. It reads like realistic fiction, but the main character insists he is being haunted by the ghost of his dead brother. It has moments of action and suspense, but it also has many quieter scenes. Personally, I often found myself holding on to the edge of my seat (figuratively speaking) as I read, and I think I held my breath more than once. I also laughed far more than once. Matt, the main character, has a wicked sense of humor and he’s a very sarcastic observer. That makes for a fun read in between all the suspenseful and action-packed moments. But even with the humor and sarcasm, Graham Joyce never lets you forget that Matt is a very damaged kid who is dealing with a world of hurt. I cared about Matt, and he felt very real to me. Ultimately, I thought that Matt's problems and the book itself are resolved too neatly, and that the development of the relationship between Matt, Gilb, and Amy was a little too quick and neat. Because of those factors, this book hovers between a 3 and a 4 in quality for me, but I went with the four because the voice is so consistently strong and I found the storyline compelling. I wasn't sure where Matt's story was going, even though other aspects of the book were more predictable. British terms and slang are used throughout. That’s usually not a problem for me, but this time, I did get puzzled by a few terms. I wish I’d known that there was a glossary in the back. It would have helped. A couple of the terms I wasn’t familiar with turned out to be slang for part of the male anatomy. Others were sport-related terms that may or may not be specifically British. I was familiar with other terms from other books, but if you haven't read a lot of books written by British authors, you'll want to look at the glossary first.


A few lines from the book, chosen to give you an idea of Matt's voice:

(Sarah, Matt's probation officer/counselor, who is pretty hot:) "You seem so distracted, Matt. I wish you'd tell me what's going on in that head of yours."
Is she winding me up? If she can cross her legs like that and not know what's going on in the head of a sixteen-year-old boy, I don't think she's much of a probation officer.

A taste of Matt's day/nightmares. Jake has just handed Matt a bag, telling him he's too thin:
But I don't know about this bag. It has a bad weight. I open the bag, reach in, and pull out some of its contents. In my hand is a human ear, slightly ragged and bloody at its edge. And a toe. And a finger amputated at the second knuckle....I glance up from the bag and there is Jake outside the window laughing his head off, and in my hand are these body parts and I start screaming loud, louder. I start screaming and I don't stop even though no one downstairs can hear me because Slay Dog Dog are laying down some really heavy chords and screaming vocals themselves. But then the track reaches its end and I'm still screaming when my dad bursts into the room...."It's all right son, it's all right," he says, taking a bag of biscuits out of my hand.
Matt talks about learning how to break into and hotwire cars from his brother. At one point, he explains that they didn't always steal the cars. Half the fun was in seeing how fast they could break into a car. Sometimes, just for fun, they'd leave their business card for the owners:
"Your car was checked today by the NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH SCHEME. It took only (blank) seconds to enter your car and poke around the glove compartment, where we found (blank - we would write things like "condom," "G-string,", etc. in this space). Please take greater care in the future and have a nice day. With the blanks neatly filled in, we would leave the car on the seat for the driver to find. We even did a police car once. You're dying to ask, aren't you? Thirty-nine seconds.
Matt's not too impressed with the conditions at the camp. The food in particular is less than inspiring. And this royal feast, this banquet for kings, is garnished with a sprinkling of green plastic-toy frogspawn, which on closer inspection proves to be tiny bullet-hard peas, boiled to death for God-knows-what crimes against humanity. And I'm not going to quote anything from this, but I'll tell you that the horse riding scene is one of my favorites in the book.

In the time since I wrote this, I can see that the 3P rating seems pretty accurate. But that's how it does just by sitting on my New Books shelf. I think it would sell pretty well in formal/informal booktalking situation (I may test that this week!).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

...the behinder I get

For the past couple of weeks I've been concentrating (or trying to) on a school visit I was supposed to do* this Friday. I've been reading and writing booktalks for that, so I haven't had the chance to post here. Soon. Books I've read that I intend/hope to post about:
  • Tamar by Mal Peet
  • Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick
  • Sight by Adrienne Vrettos
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

*(It's now been postponed for at least a few days.)