Saturday, March 22, 2008

Someday This Book Will Be (Fill in the Blank) to You

Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron
4Q 3P S

Lots of librarians, reviewers, and bloggers are falling in love with this book. I confess that I remain at the same distance from it that its main character, James, stays from every other person in his life except for his grandmother. And that's at a pretty significant distance. I just couldn't fall in love with it in the same way that so many others have. But I do acknowledge that it's well written and I think it may be very popular with some teens, particularly those who like books like Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rats Saw God.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Are You Listening, God? It's me, Kiriel.

Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins
5Q 3P J*/S (Technically, VOYA's J is grades 7-9. I think this one will be more popular with high school students.)

Kiriel is a fallen angel who has decided to take a vacation from his job (reflecting regret and guilt). Just as Shaun is about to be hit by a car, Kiriel steps into his body. Shaun's soul leaves, but his body lives on, with Kiriel animating it. Kiriel wants to experience what living is all about, and for those who like this kind of thing, it's quite fascinating to watch him get so caught up in and thrilled by the tiny details of life that we don't even notice (wind on your face, what it feels like to touch and smell even the most mundane things, like a dirty t-shirt). Ultimately, he decides there are three things he wants to accomplish: help Jason, Shaun's younger brother, to find at least a little happiness (Jason is a very angry and unhappy boy); convince at least one human being to stop the kind of behavior that will find him in Hell later as one of Kiriel's charges; and to have sex. How he goes about these things and what he learns about himself is the plot of this deceptively quick read. But it is also takes on what our role is in the world and whether God knows and cares that we exist. Yes, even fallen angels wonder about these things. I guess that gives us something in common.

I said I wasn't going to quote, but I am, briefly, because these few quotes really hit me:

This is one I should be taking to heart right now.

There was a white scar on his forehead that he'd received from falling off a swing when he was a child. I'd never heard him say why he chose to wear his hair on his face, but I wondered if he was trying to hide the scar. I rather liked it. How wonderful, to bear evidence of an event that must have been packed with emotion! How satisfying, to always have a physical token of something you'd experienced.

If you don't like passages like this, this might not be the book for you:

After I finished the shower, I filled the tub and took a bath. I filled it as high as it would go. I liked this water; I liked the feeling of it. It was warm and floaty. I slapped the surface to make little waves that disappeared quickly, and then I slid Shaun's whole body back and forth to make big waves that slopped over the side of the tub. When the water got cold, I filled the tub again, with even hotter water that turned Shaun's skin red. I watched his fingers and toes prune up. I lay back so his ears were under the surface, and I listened to his skin squeak as I rubbed his legs and bottom along the porcelain. Then I knocked on the side of the tub and listened to the echoing clunk. Cool.

It's always good to be reminded that everyone, whether its ourselves or someone else, matters and is somehow connected to someone else. I also like this because of what it means to Kiriel.

I had assumed that a human was bound by its activities and habits, its way of acting and speaking. But now it seemed that there were other threads that wound around someone like Shaun, connecting him to other beings - threads of affection and trust. Shaun was gone, but his place hadn't been quite empty. No matter how I tried to act as he would have, the threads he'd been associated with would always hold his shape. Well. It looked as though I had just learned something.

Even fallen angels have their doubts.

Shaun was lucky. He, at least, would be missed. Shaun Simmons had made a specific mark on the world, simply by being. A discontent rose in me. I thought, This must be Envy. It didn't feel particularly good or particularly bad. The only thing about it that seemed even slightly sinful was the way it clung and gnawed, as if it could easily take on a life of its own. Shaun's pillow cradled my head. I'd stolen a boy's body and the Creator didn't even care! If mankind was of such great import in the overall scheme of things, shouldn't He Himself have shown up to take care of that? But he hadn't. He hadn't even sent anybody. It was as if nobody was running the universe...Maybe the reason that no one cares about my absence, I thought, is that I don't have to be there..."

Passages like the last one make me think this would be a great book discussion group choice. This is a 2008 Printz Honor Book, and I like the choice.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Blog Lull

For any of my handful of regular readers, first of all, thank you for being readers. It feels good to know you're out there. Secondly, this is a brief announcement to say that posts may be even fewer and father between than usual over the next month or so. I'm recovering from a surgical procedure and have just learned that I've got some other hoops to jump through. Since I don't think it's fair to review books when you can't give them your full attention and read them in an appropriate frame of mind, the most I expect I'll do is post a sentence or two about what I've been reading and if I liked it. I do hope to finish and post the half-written review of Platinum (Barnes) I was working on last.

I did read a couple of YA books over the past week, but I think I wasn't in the frame of mind to appreciate them fully. Fortunately, I started The True Meaning of Smekday at a good time, so I do want to give that middle-grade novel a thumbs-up and thank Adam Rex for giving me something fun to read while gearing up for/coming out of surgery. It was a perfect book for the time.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Oh, Say, I Don't Want to See!

PLATINUM by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
3P 4P J/S

This is a sequel to Golden, which sets up the basic situation: Lissa, her little sister Lexie, and her parents move from California to small-town Oklahoma. Lissa was popular at her old school, but one look at the Goldens in her new school and she knows she wants no part of that crowd. She'd rather be a Non, as in "your social life in this school is dead", than be a part of such a nasty group. But purposely Non-ing herself has frustrated Lilah, top Golden and the daughter of the woman her uncle is dating. Lilah's not happy, and Lilah's not someone you want to be on the bad side of. Unfortunately for both of them, there's some mysterious tie between them that keeps pulling them together when they really want to be miles apart. Lissa hopes that she's also leaving behind her color visions, but no such luck. Complicating that: her Sight has followed her, and it's going to get her involved in a life or death situation.

Well, as it turns out, Lissa's not the only one with Sight, and she's not the only one who really, really doesn't want it. Much to her dismay, Lilah, who got roped into Lissa's supernatural adventure in the first book, is suddenly seeing people who aren't there. She's even talking to them. And they're talking back. The guy is hot. He has an annoying habit of calling her Princess (well, maybe it's not that annoying). And he keeps making cryptic statements that she can't figure out. For instance, he keeps saying he's not dead, but he's most assuredly not really there, so he's got to be some kind of ghost, right? She doesn't just see him hanging around her in school or in her bedroom (can't a girl have a little privacy?). No, he's also one of the star players she's having in the visions she keeps getting. The deadly ones.

This is not good. She has a reputation to protect, after all. And when standing in the middle of a bunch of Goldens and you're caught arguing with thin air, that reputation is going to take a hit. Unless Lilah can do damage control. Lilah is very, very good at damage control. (Just ask Fuschia, her best friend, who makes the mistake of putting moves on Lilah's boyfriend. What happens next is not pretty.)

This second book in the series was pure fun to read. Lilah, while not the worst of the unholy trio in the first book (Golden) shows herself to have a little more heart and conscience than Lissa gave her credit for. Yeah, she runs roughshod over all the Nons in school. Yeah, she'll squash flat anyone who tries to get the advantage over her. And yeah, she doesn't go out of her way to be nice. But who would have guessed that she actually feels bad about almost all of that? Or at least, that she doesn't enjoy it much? And much as she tries to play the cool sophisticate who has no use for anyone who isn't a Golden, she's a sucker for Lexie, who is the epitome of all good things.

(Editorial note: The previous section was written two weeks ago, prior to surgery. In keeping with my recent blog post, I will add just a brief note or two so that I can publish the post in an almost-complete form.)

Despite how desperately, she doesn't want to know, Lilah is forced to See that Hot Guy is trapped in some sort of cycle, and it's clear that it's up to her to put a stop to it, or things will end tragically. And not just for him, but for people she is very, very close to. She also Sees that there's more to her relationship with Lissa and Lexie than meets the (normal) eye.

One of the fun things about this book are the chapter titles and the commentaries that follow them. A random sampling:

  • Lying. The easiest way to lie is to convince people you're a bad liar and then prove them wrong.
  • Me. If you want to be popular, it's not nearly as important that you know who you are as it is that everyone else does.
  • Truth. Gossip. If I say it, it's true. And if it isn't, it doesn't matter.
  • It. The It Factor. If you have to ask, you'll never know. And if you don't think you have it, then you're right.
  • Information. It's not what you know. It's not who you know. It's what you know about who you know.
  • Hurt. Once you feel it, it's real.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Real Deal on Faking Zen

Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick
4Q 4P M/J

What is the sound a librarian makes when she loved one book by an author (Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie) and had a decidedly mixed reaction to his second (Notes From a Midnight Driver) after she finishes his latest? In this case, it's a sigh of relief. For more than one reason, I'm happy to say that I enjoyed this one almost as much as DGDP.

San Lee has a lot to contend with when he moves to his latest new town and enrolls in his latest new school. There's the Asian-kid-adopted-by-Caucasians thing. There's the my-father-is-in-prison-and-I-hate-him-thing. There's the we-have-no-money thing. And as though all of that wasn't enough, he's the new kid again. It stinks being the new kid. He has to suss out the kids and figure out who he should be this time. He's already been a skater dude, a Bible-thumper, a jock, and a preppy. But taking a look around his new homeroom makes him think none of those identities is going to work here. He's going to have to think this over. As it turns out, the decision is practically made for him. His social studies class is studying the ancient world, and they've just gotten to their unit on Buddhism. San's been there, done that, last year back in Texas. He even did a project on it. Without even thinking much about it, he tosses off a comment or two that make him seem pretty up on all things Zen. And since San is Asian, and since his mother can't afford to buy him clothes that are appropriate to winter in Pennsylvania, he winds up looking and sounding (at least to his classmates) like the real Zen Buddhist deal. Hmmm...that would be an interesting persona, wouldn't it? Especially since it looks like Woody, the guitar-playing beauty in his social studies class, really could go for a Zen kind of a guy.

Just like that, San has his new persona. Of course, there are a few moments of panic, since he doesn't really know as much as people think he does. (Fortunately, the local library has a good selection of books on Buddhism, though checking them out causes other types of problems). The Zen Buddhist thing really starts to work for San. It gets Woody's attention, for sure. They even wind up as partners on their social studies project. And somehow, the other kids start to believe he really is some sort of Zen Master. There's one kid, though, who isn't buying any of it. He's the kid who sits next to Woody in class. He seems to be around her pretty much everywhere they go, actually. And that's a bummer, because this kid is a whole heck of a lot bigger than San is, and a whole lot meaner, too. And it's clear that he's none too happy at the idea of San and Woody being together. The trouble is, Zen Buddhists don't do confrontations, so San can't really defend himself. He just has to sit back and take whatever this kid dishes out. He doesn't dare blow his cover and let people discover who he really is.

Because of course, San isn't any sort of Zen, let alone a Zen Master. And pretending to be a Zen is actually putting him in some awkward situations while not really helping with his other problems. It doesn't make being suddenly poor any easier. It certainly doesn't help him come to terms with what his father did and how he feels about it. No, lying about who he is isn't solving anything. And the fact of the matter is, the truth will always come out. And when it does, ommmm, my gosh, San is going to be in big, big trouble.


Sonnenblick has a talent for taking what could be heavy subjects and leavening them with humor. While San's problems aren't quite on a par with coping with a little brother's cancer, he's still dealing with a pretty full plate. Questions about who you are and how to deal with a parent who deeply disappoints you are not problems one can easily shrug off. The laughs would be few and far between in most books for teens dealing with those subjects, but not in this one. Some YA books try so hard to be funny that it's almost painful to read them. (This may just be my sense of humor. I'm also not a fan of stupid-movie comedies, and slapstick makes me squirm.) Give me humor that comes from someplace real, please. And that's what Sonnenblick does.

A few quotes to give you an idea of San's voice:

Good thing I had probably won her heart by tumbling backward over my own chair at our first meeting. Chicks dig that kind of suave and manly display. Now all I had to do was talk to her, and she would most likely just melt into my muscled arms. My average arms. OK, my totally hairless, scrawny-chicken-looking arms.

From a moment in class when San is developing his Zen identity: I played it cool. "I guess you could say that." A mysterious and knowing half-smile played across my lips. Wow, I had a mysterious and knowing half smile!

The first time San purposely tries to project a Zen image is a little uncomfortable, given that he's sitting on a rock with his legs tucked up on each knee, it's mid-winter, and he's not exactly dressed for the weather. It crossed my mind that if the goal of sitting zazen was to forget about all conscious thought and just be, counting and purposely not counting were equally counterproductive. It also crossed my mind that the followers of Zen might not be enlightened; maybe they were just really, really sleepy. After a while I did manage to stop thinking about breathing by a clever trick: I concentrated on feeling all the individual molecules of my butt freezing solid, one by one. When my whole butt was completely numb - and I mean novocaine numb - I focused on the numbness. But numbness isn't the same as not thinking: it's just thinking about how you have no feeling in your tushy.

They smiled at each other for a moment, sharing some secret adult satisfaction of breaking in another generation to the yoke of book slavery.

On my rock the next morning, I achieved a moment of near-perfect insight. I mean, I know I was only fake meditating, but come on -- don't cubic zirconiums sparkle too?

Over the years, San has come up with a few rules for eating in school cafeterias. One of them is to stick to the pasta and fruit, since no school he's ever been to has ever known what to do with meat. This works really well when you're pretending to be a Zen Buddhist, who do no harm to living things (hence, no eating meat). Thing is, he hates vegetables. Hates them. Hates them. Cut to San and Woody volunteering at a soup kitchen together and being served dinner. Nice, juicy, charcoal-y hamburgers. San's mouth is watering and he's about to enter hamburger heaven when Woody reminds the nun serving them that San is a vegetarian. So he gets stuck with a veggie wrap:
Sadly, it was a fat wrap. There were the mandatory sprouts, which popped in my mouth and shot out foul, dirt-flavored liquid. There was the tortilla itself, which tasted like some horrible mutant offspring of carrot and spinach. There was something slippery and unspeakably spongy -- tofu? A fluffy mushroom? And the whole shebang was drenched in a ghastly ranch dressing that tasted like month-old mayonnaise would taste if you were licking it off a dead cat's mangy fur. With garlic...The next orning I could still taste the sprout-and-garlic horror...Do you know how hard it is to meditate when your mouth is a vegetable disaster area?

You can read more about Jordan Sonnenblick on his web site.