Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nothing is Impossible, But Impossible is Somethng

Impossible by Nancy Werlin
5Q 4P; Audience: J/S

My familiarity with the folk song Scarborough Fair comes via the plaintive, hauntingly harmonized Simon and Garfunkel version. I like the song and usually sing along to the chorus whenever I hear it. But Impossible made me realize I'd never really listened to it. It's surprising enough to realize what's being sung under the melody, but how is it that I never wondered about the impossible tasks the singer is asking of his lover? Nancy Werlin is a far better listener than I, and she did wonder, which led her to write this book. What she came up with as an explanation makes for a rich, romantic read.

Though she doesn't yet know it, Lucy Scarborough's family has long been cursed. It is not wise for mortal women to spurn the advances of an elven lord. The price Lucy's long-ago ancestress paid for doing just that was madness, and that is the price all her descendants will pay until one of them successfully performs the impossible tasks the elven lord demands of them in retribution. Lucy doesn't realize the significance of Scarborough Fair, the song she has always associated with her mother. She only knows the fear and embarrassment she feels when Miranda comes around, never knowing when her mother will burst out into a tirade or publicly humiliate her. She does not realize that this song is Miranda's attempt to tell her how to break the curse.

Some girls would have found the stigma of an insane mother too much to bear. But Miranda has always had the loving support of her foster parents, Leo and Soledad. She has good friends, too, particularly next-door neighbor Zach and Sarah. Lucy needs that support system when she unexpectedly gets pregnant, thereby setting the curse into action. It is not until she finds a long-lost diary that she truly understands what that curse is: she will have a child before she turns eighteen, and then she will go mad. And her only way of saving herself and her child is if she can solve the riddles of Scarborough Fair.

I don't have anything profound to write about regarding my reactions to the book. I simply found myself utterly caught up in Lucy's story. I liked these people. Lucy's no superhero fantasy creature. She's just an ordinary girl you can't help rooting for. I admired her strength of will, her determination, and her courage in the face of a fearsome future. And while it's certainly not a ground-breaking move in a novel for teens to have two neighbors and former best friends fall in love, the development of the relationship between Lucy and Zach was deeply satisfying, even for someone who doesn't typically read romance novels. Zach is probably a little too good to be true, but he's also the kind of guy who should be the illustration accompanying "love/lover". This book is masterfully crafted and beautifully written, with characters who are ordinary yet memorable. It can be read on a surface level, but it can also be read more deeply. It is one of my favorites of the year.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Bonds Between Us

Absolute Brightness by James Lecesne
5Q 3P; Audience: J/S

As far as Phoebe is concerned, it's bad enough that Mom is letting Leonard, their not-really-related cousin come to live with them. The family is already messed up enough, what with Dad living with his girlfriend and Daphne unwilling to spend time with anyone but herself. Who needs an interloper to mess things up even more? It's not like he's old enough for his friends to be potential boyfriend material. But Leonard isn't just there. He's weird. What thirteen-year-old boy wears pink and lime-green plaid Capri pants and platform sandals, pierces his ears, and sings "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things" out loud? Not only is Leonard clearly gay, everything about him seems to invite ridicule. Phoebe and her sister Daphne quickly decide that Leonard is on his own.

As the weeks go by, Phoebe can't help but notice that Leonard doesn't seem to mind this. He's almost always smiling and optimistic. Taunts seem to slide over and around him without him ever noticing or reacting. In fact, Leonard seems to go out of his way to connect with people, whether they want him to or not. He's friendly to everyone, even the guys who steal from him. And even though his own personal style is sadly lacking, he has a knack for helping other people choose clothes, hair styles, and make up that not only change their look completely, but sometimes actually revitalize lives. (It rather rankles Phoebe that she's the only one he never tries to change. It bothers her even more when he finally tells her why.)

Phoebe can't afford to let Leonard get too close to her. He sees too much, and he's too weird. So she doesn't truly realize just how much of an impact he's made on the family and on her in particular until he disappears. As the days go by with no sign of Leonard, Phoebe is consumed with finding out what happened. Somebody knows, and she needs to find out who.

It is, in fact, Phoebe who stumbles (more or less literally) on the clues that will provide the answers. But those answers only bring up more questions. Why do we do the things we do? What is mercy? What is justice? Does love automatically mean forgiveness? What makes the bonds between us, and what do we do when they are broken?


I don't have (yet, anyway), a list of my Top Ten books of the year, but if I did, this one would be on it. This is another book where the actual writing (turn of phrase, character descriptions, voice, etc.) was as strong a pull for me as the plot. There were moments I paused just to appreciate how something was phrased, and yet that never pulled me out of the book. I also found myself really appreciating Lecesne's ability to write about (and as) a character who isn't always very nice, yet at the same time make her vulnerable and appealing. Similarly, while the reader can understand why Phoebe finds Leonard embarrassing and odd, it's also obvious that Leonard has special qualities that anyone would appreciate in a friend, had they given him a chance to be one.

I do think that Daphne's storyline is somewhat underdeveloped. When Phoebe mentioned (pretty much in passing) that Daphne had changed a lot a few years ago, I wondered what had caused that change. We do eventually get an explanation, and there is a payoff, but I felt a need for more between Phoebe and Daphne. This is a BIG THING, and it feels unfinished. I had a hard time believing that Phoebe would back away from making Daphne talk about it with her.

There were a lot of passages that caught my attention for various reasons. This is merely a sampling. (If you're looking for quotes for a book report, trust me, you'd be far better off reading the book yourself and finding the quotes that are meaningful to you. These quotes do not necessarily represent the most important themes of the book.)

I read this thing all about how the whole world is actually a pulsing, glowing web of invisible fiber optics that connect one person to another...it said the stronger and truer the bond between two people, the brighter the strand becomes. The more strands, the brighter the overall glow.

I loved these character descriptions:

[Ms. D, the drama teacher] had a small head and tiny features that were all crowded into the center of her face as if each one wanted to take center stage. Her dyed-black hair was cut in a pixie style with mental-hospital bangs, and she always wore bright-red lipstick and a crip, white, man-tailored shirt. If she happened to wear a skirt (a rarity), it somehow looked, on her, like a pair of pants. Her shoes were formidable and could be heard as clear as Frankenstein's when she walked.

Peggy Brinkerhoff was a sweet-faced woman with a gray perm and piercing pale-blue eyes. She wasn't the type to wear high heels, but she was a convincing argument for their invention. In her stocking feet she was barely five feet tall. If it hadn't been for her voice - a voice that seemed to crack and whine and cut through glass - people might not have paid attention to her.

The yearning and sense of loss here is almost palpable:

And now years later, sitting with [Dad], this time in the little apartment he shared with his girlfriend, all I could think of was "quote, unquote." Perhaps what I always wanted from Dad was for him to fill in the quotation marks with some truth about himself or about life or about how two people who have lived their whole lives together could end up sitting opposite each other at a turquoise table on a Monday evening with nothing to say. Had it always been that way? I wondered. I couldn't tell. But this, I thought as I sat there with him, this I will remember.

Regrets, she has a few:

Of course, Leonard wasn't the kind of hero who saved lives; he had never walked into a burning building or battled terrorists on their native soil; and notwithstanding the restyling of Mrs. Barchevski's wig after she lost her hair to chemo, he hadn't created a particular moment of glory that would survive in anyone's memory long after he was gone. Nothing like that. He had simply been courageous enough to be himself in the face of everything that had tried to persuade him to be something else. Despite the fact that I was unwilling to recognize it when he was alive, Leonard's determination to live his life was a desperate act of daring worth of note, if not deserving of actual medals and a VFW picnic.

I think most of us can relate:

But do any of us know what we're doing?...Isn't this rightness, this I-know-what-I'm-doing attitude in each one of us, isn't it just something figured into our DNA so that we won't always be looking over our shoulders, second-guessing and generally freaking ourselves out, because we don't know *anything*? Could it be that survival...depends on the belief that we *think* we know what we're doing? And whether some unseen, all-knowing and omnipresent God has installed this trait into our hard drive or it's the result of a long and drawn-out process of Darwinian natural selection, well, it hardly matters. Chances are that anyone will tell you that they know exactly what they're up to. But do they? Do they *ever*?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nuclear War or Just Plain Madness?

The Compound by S. A. Bodeen
3Q 3P; Audience: J

Imagine that you've just been told that a nuclear airhead strike has just been launched at the United States. Where would you go? What would you do? Fortunately, Eli doesn't have to wonder. His father has been preparing for this moment for years. He's built an underground compound for the family and stocked it with enough food and clothing to last fifteen years, long enough for the nuclear fallout to dissipate enough for safety. When the warning comes, the family is able to get to the shelter in time. All of the family except for their grandmother and Eli's twin, Eddy, that is.

Eli has known for years that Eddy is the good twin. He was the one that everyone liked and wanted to be around. Eli was the one the other kids accepted because he was Eddy's brother. Eli is the selfish one. He knows it's really his fault that Eddy and his grandmother didn't make it into the shelter, and he'll never forgive himself for that. Eli's pretty much decided that he won't love anyone anymore. He hasn't let anyone touch him in ages. He barely talks to his sisters (one older, one younger) and avoids his parents. He's angry and he hates everything about where he is and how they live.

The compound is stocked with everything a family could need: clothing in various sizes, plenty of books and music to keep them occupied, even computers and lessons so that they can continue with their schooling. It has plenty of food, too. Until it goes bad, that is. The animals die, too, due to poisoned feed. What looked like a fifteen-year food supply isn't going to last even half that long. That's why Eli won't go through that yellow door. He doesn't see how his mother and sisters can bear it. Because what's on the other side of that door -- the Supplements -- no. It doesn't even bear thinking of. It's too gruesome and sick to even contemplate.

Living in the shelter is hard on all of them. His little sister goes around talking in an English accent all the time, and his older sister doesn't talk much at all. His parents obviously get physically close, since his mother has been pregnant pretty much continuously in the six years or so they've been in the compound. But they don't seem to like each other much. His mother's okay. If Eli can bear to be around anyone, it would probably be her. But his father is getting stranger all the time. Sometimes he rushes around in a frenzy of energy, and other times he'll stay in bed for days. He controls everything they do. They're all just a little afraid of him. As it turns out, they should be.

It's not until Eli accidentally stumbles on a computer meant for Eddy that the horror of his situation starts to become clear. Because unlike all the other computers in the compound, this one connects to the Internet. How can there be an Internet? Wasn't the world destroyed? Apparently not. And when Eli actually gets on the Internet himself and sees what he sees...well, then he begins to question everything that's happened in the past six years.

Could it possibly be that his father was lying to them all the time? And if that's true, what possible reason could he have for keeping them locked up in this compound? Is reason the wrong word to use in connection with his father? What do you do when you are locked in an underground compound with an insane man who is the only person who knows the key to getting out of it?

Though not a perfect story, this is still a book that will hold readers' interest and have them holding their breaths waiting to find out just how twisted a mind can get and whether it's possible to outwit a crazy man.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This and That

This is a great time of year if you're a book lover. I've read several in the past month (already blogged about) that were terrific reads. In the past week, I've read three more that were also excellent, along with a couple that didn't reach that height but were still enjoyable. I hope to post about them all very soon, but I'm feeling swamped! And I've got a dozen more on my to-be-read list, several of which I have very high hopes for. It's a feast of books!

One of the books that just came in that I won't be blogging about separately is The Sorcerer of the North by John Flanagan, book 5 in the Ranger's Apprentice series. I enjoyed this one every bit as much as I enjoyed the rest in the series. But arggh!!! It ends smack in the middle of the adventure! But it is good to see Alyss again. She got lost in the shuffle during the first book. From the looks of things, she's going to be sticking around this time.

A shout out to Lauren Myracle and her fans who have made their way here because of a post on her site. Thanks for visiting. I hope you like what you see and come back for more. And on that same note, I've just got to say that it's a thrill when I discover an author has visited my site and appreciated what I wrote about his/her book. (It's not nearly as much fun when the author doesn't like what I wrote and writes to tell me so, but fair's fair. If I can have my say, they can have theirs.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Three Little Words - But Not the Obvious Ones

Three Little Words: a Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter
3Q 3P; Audience: M/J/S/Adult

There are books you read that make you say "There but for the grace of God go I." This is one of those books. It will make you angry at points. It will make you cry at others. Ultimately, it will make you cheer in admiration of a strong, intelligent girl who hasn't let a hard knock life keep her down. "I love you" may be her three little words now, but they were a long time coming, and they were not the ones her journey began with.

Before she was eighteen years old, Ashley Rhodes-Courter had

  • 73 child welfare administrators

  • 44 child welfare caseworkers

  • 19 foster parents

  • 23 attorneys

  • 17 psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists

  • 5 Guardian ad Litem staff

  • 4 judges

  • 4 court personnel

  • 3 abuse registry workers

  • 2 primary case workers

  • 1 Guardian ad Litem

She also had, eventually,

  • 1 man

  • 1 woman

  • 2 young men

who would give her a home and a family and change her life forever. But all those foster parents and caseworkers came first.

Ashley's story begins with a very young mother who had an unerring instinct for choosing guys who were bad news. Drugs, prostitution, and an inability to properly care for her children inevitably followed. As a result, Ashley and her brother Luke (Ashley has dim memories of another "secret" brother who died) were shunted from foster home to foster home, beginning when Ashley was around three years old. Ashley's account of their many placements makes it abundantly and poignantly clear how badly the foster care system needs to be overhauled. One of their first placements was with her grandfather, which might be considered a good thing if he hadn't had multiple brushes with the law, substance abuse and anger management problems, and a history of mistreating his own children. Though he was not abusive to Ashley and Luke, it was his partner, Adele, who truly cared for them. Although there were times that her grandfather frightened her, this was a home where Ashley felt loved and mostly safe. That was taken away from her the day her grandfather was shot, and it would be years before Ashley ever had that feeling again. The foster care placements that followed left Ashley in the care of people who were at best indifferent and at worst child abusers.

As appalling as it is to read about the abuse and neglect Ashley and Luke suffered in the foster care system, it is equally apalling to realize that they were placed in these homes by people who were supposed to be looking out for their best interests and failed utterly to do so. In one instance, they were placed illegally and were lost in the system for a couple of years. In another, Ashley was placed in a home when the police were actively investigating allegations of child molestation against the foster father. (Though he never abused her, she was exposed to pornographic movies.) In the most horrific example, Ashley, Luke, and several other children were fostered in a home where they were mistreated in a variety of ways. Despite telling social workers and other invesigators on more than one occasion about being beaten and being made to swallow hot sauce and squat in awkward positions for hours, caseworkers always chose to believe the foster parents' claims that the children were making these things up. Ashley was eventually removed from this placement and put into a group home. (She later filed a class action lawsuit against the couple.)

Though Ashley was eventually adopted, the damage from her early experiences is made abundantly clear as Ashley describes her difficulty settling in to her new family. She'd seen too much to believe it when her new family told her they loved her and that she would always have a home with them. Lots of adopted kids were sent back to the group home, and she was certain that that day would come for her, too. It took months for her to learn to trust, and even longer for her to allow herself to love, and it took a lot of patience, steadfastness, honesty, and caring on the Coulters' part. Now that that point has been reached, Ashley is sharing her story of where she's been, where she is, and where she intends to go. With her spirit and intelligence, that will clearly be far.

Fans of Torey Hayden, Dave Pelzer, and Jeannette Walls may find this book to their liking.

Peeled: Getting to the Core of the Truth

Peeled by Joan Bauer
3.5Q, 3P; Audience: J/S

Banesville, NY has a problem. But not everyone agrees on what that problem is. Some people think it's the hard economic times the town is going through after two bad harvests in a row. Some people think it's the strange things happening in and around the old Ludlow mansion. And some people think it's the way the town newspaper, The Bee, is using those events to create a climate of fear and unease in the community. Hildy Biddle is in the latter camp.

Hildy is a reporter for the school newspaper, The Core, and she and her fellow reporters are disgusted by The Bee. A newspaper is supposed to be about facts, not about fear-mongering. But the Bee seems fixed on the latter rather than the former. Someone is posting signs saying things like "Danger to all ye who enter" and "You Didn't Think It Was Safe, Did You ?" on the old Ludlow House property. Instead of trying to get to the bottom of who is posting them and why, The Bee is writing about ghosts, haunted houses, and how they're making property values decline. When the body of a man is found in a grove of trees on the Ludlow property, the Bee proclaims it a murder, though the police have refused to comment or confirm that. By the time the truth comes out, fear has gripped the community. People are afraid to leave their homes at night, they're looking over their shoulders during the day, and some are even talking about moving out of town.

Hildy's only in high school, and she has better journalism skills than the Bee's reporters. Where are their facts? Who are their sources? Why aren't they investigating and finding out what's really going on? Well, if they won't do it, then she and the other Core reporters will have to. With the acerbic help of Baker Polton, a former reporter and managing editor of a respected newspaper, they go after the story. They get the facts, and they report them. People begin to listen. There's definitely more going on in Banesville than meets the eye. But some adults don't take kindly to the idea of teens showing them up. The principal shuts The Core down, saying the school system can't afford the lawsuits The Bee and others are threatening. Hildy is incensed and discouraged. What happened to freedom of the press? But what can they do? They're only teens. They have no power. Or do they? Maybe a school-run paper isn't the only way to get the real story out there.

Joan Bauer is noted for her strong female characters and her ability to write with humor about serious subjects. This book is no different in that regard. While many books for teens focus on the main character's social life, Bauer's main characters usually have their eyes on the wider world as well. Hildy is certainly interested in her friends and boys, but they have to ride shotgun while she focuses on protecting the First Amendment and ensuring that the citizens of Banesville get the truth, not manipulated. Hildy won't be fobbed off with a glib answer. An equally strong aspect of Bauer's writing is her ability to create dynamic, believable relationships between characters. In particular, scenes with Baker Polton crackle with energy. Her scenes with her cousin are much lower key, but the affection and understanding between them, despite their very different personalities, is clear in every one of them. The growth of her relationship with Zach is sweetly delineated, and Minska is every bit as inspiring to the reader as she is to Hildy.

So, with all of those positives, why am not giving this book a glowing review? As good as Bauer is in creating three dimensional main characters, others are far less believable, having little or no shading. And in a realistic fiction book, is it realistic that only a handful of teens and senior citizens are suspicious and willing to look beyond the surface, while most of the rest of the population is so easily frightened by tales of ghostly sightings and sensationalistic reporting? I found it hard to swallow that most of the adult population in town is so gullible and/or quick to cave in to bullying behavior, and I think teen readers will be equally skeptical. There's a fine line between making teens the heroes of a story and making them superheroes, and I think this time Bauer stepped a bit over that line. Hope Was Here did a better job finding the balance point, showing teens playing a very important role in galvanizing a community without making it seem as though they were pretty much the only ones aware that it needed galvanizing in the first place. I think a few more Bakers and Minskas were needed in this one, for believability's sake.

(This post was begun a month ago and finished today. If it gets buried beneath my more recently written posts, that's why.)