Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Audrey A-muse-d Me

Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway
4Q 4P; J/S (Gr. 9+, language and a few sexual references)

If you're looking for a fun book that will make you laugh, this is the one to grab. It's one of my favorites of the year. (I know, I've been saying that a lot lately. What can I say? A lot of really good books came out in the fall/winter of 2008!)

When Audrey breaks up with her boyfriend Evan, she expects that he'll be hurt. But she doesn't expect that he'll ask her if she'll still come to hear his band that night, and she doesn't expect that his band will debut a new song that night -- a song about their break up called "Audrey, Wait!" The absolute last thing she expects, though, is that that song will become a huge hit and make her famous. How horribly embarrassing! She could kill Evan!

Suddenly, everywhere she goes, people are staring, pointing, and taking pictures. Everywhere she goes, she hears, "That's Audrey! She's the one that song is about!" For crying out loud, kids are cutting school to go to her school to see her! They're lining up to see her at the Scooper Dooper (doubly embarrassing, since it's the suckiest afterschool job a girl could have). They're even writing about her on message boards on the web! They're blaming her for the breakup, even though Evan was so wrapped up in himself that she could tell him her cat was on fire, and he'd just say, "Cool. So, we've got a gig on Friday night." They don't even know her, but suddenly what she wears starts fashion trends. (And then, of course, people start snarking about how out of style she is!) It's crazy! They're crazy! And it's all driving Audrey crazy.

Of course, there are some perks. She goes to a concert and gets invited upstairs to the VIP section. She even makes out with the lead singer of one of her favorite bands. But um...that doesn't work out so well, actually. To put it mildly.

People are sending her free stuff, too. What girl wouldn't want free cosmetics? Or use of a really cool BMW? Who wouldn't want to star in her own reality show? Her best friend Victoria thinks it's all great and thinks Audrey is nuts for not wanting to take advantage of everything she's being offered. But Victoria's not the one everyone's looking at. Victoria's not the one that the paparazzi are chasing. It's not Victoria's love life that's suffering.

Oh, did I forget to mention James? James is one of those guys who's really easy to overlook. He's tall, geeky, and waaaaaay too into his job at the Scooper Dooper. He's a dork. At least, that's what Audrey thinks at first. But on second thought, dorks are surprisingly cute. Hot, even. And...whoa! Surprisingly good kissers. If they could just get a few minutes alone somewhere a little more romantic than the freezer of the Scooper Dooper. Just one more reason that fame stinks! Because if there's one thing that Audrey doesn't want to wait for, it's another kiss from James.

Quotes for your reading pleasure:

...But it wasn't all bad, of course. I mean, I had loved him, I really had. There were better times, the quiet moments when no one was talking and even our breath was the same, rising and falling under our tent of blankets like we were made to breathe with each other, for each other. It's funny how bed and pillows and covers can change a conversation. Words turn quiet and you mean more and say less. It's like you can build your own little world, Population 2.
Evan would play with my hair and wrap it over his wrist and reel me toward him until our lips touched. They were small moments but I could only hold them like water in my hands before he was slipping away, pulled back by melodies or friends or rehearsals, leaving my hands empty and my heart too full to hold alone.

Victoria paused and I could tell she was trying not to smile. "Did you just say 'frolic'?"
"Is it not a word?"
"Who the hell says 'frolic'?"
I spun the lock on my locker and waited for it to stick like it always did on 33. "I say frolic," I told her. "And more people should."
"They should say frolic or actually frolic?"

(Audrey, needing something to keep her hands and mind occupied during school so she can pretend not to notice the staring or hear kids calling "Audrey, wait!" in the halls, has braided her hair in lots and lots of tiny little braids.)
[Victoria] was giving me the fish eye. "What's up with your hair?"
"Oh, um..." I reached up and fingered a braid. "Nervous habit."
"It's sort of like Bob Marley meets Pippi Longstocking."
"That's not a compliment, is it?"
"Hell, no."

"Audrey." Now Victoria was using her please-don't-f**k-with-me-or-so-help-me-God-you-will-regret-it voice. (She's gonna make an awesome mom one day.) "Get over here and talk to her. She's a reporter, not a Dementor."

(Audrey's parents are setting some new ground rules, for her own safety, since Audrey's fame is getting her a lot of unwanted attention.)
"We're not trying to ruin your life, you know."
"Yeah, I know."
"Because if we ruin your life, then you're going to be one of those kids that lives in the den and never moves out, and your father and I have plans to retire someday. It's not in our best interest to ruin your life. We'd like to see Tahiti."

If kissing Simon had been like wildfire, kissing James was something smaller and stronger. It was birthday and prayer candles, ones made for good thoughts and strong hopes and wishes and promises.

I grabbed her by her hoodie strings. "Victoria," I hissed. "We kissed."
That stopped her short. "Who kissed?"
"We did."
"We did?"
"No! James and me, in the freezer at work last night!"
[several lines skipped]
Victoria squealed with delight. "I knew it! I knew it! Oh, can I do the I-told-you-so dance? Please? I'm so good at it."

I loved Audrey. You have to admire her determination not to let the fact that everyone else thinks she's famous/special affect the way she lives her life. She's also got personality to spare. She definitely gave off an "I'd enjoy knowing her" vibe. I also loved Victoria and the girls' relationship. It felt real. I also liked Victoria's boyfriend Jonah and the dynamics between the three of them. James starts out a little pale in comparison, but he comes into his own in the latter half of the book. I enjoyed his sense of humor and liked him for being able to roll with the punches of Audrey's fame. And it's also a welcome change that Audrey likes and respects her parents and vice versa. (And hey, they're funny too!) In other words, these are characters who feel like someone you not only could know, but would like to know, in a situation that is absolutely believable, if you just squint a little and cock your head at the right angle. Audrey, Wait!, you rock.

(I can't tag this as BBYA yet, but it has been nominated. I'll eat my hat if it doesn't make the final list.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Liberty for All?

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
5Q 3P; Audience: M/J

By all rights, Isabel and her sister should be free. That's what it said in Miss Mary Finch's will. But Miss Finch's nephew refuses to believe Isabel or even to read the will. To him, Isabel and Ruth aren't girls, they're money in his pocket. To their new owners, Master and Mistress Lockton, they are hands, feet, and strong backs. They certainly aren't people.

It is particularly galling to be a slave when all around you the talk is of liberty, freedom, and independence. In 1776, those words were on every American's lips, though some spoke them with passion and desire and others said them with scorn and fury. Isabel and Ruth are caught in the middle of the battle, in more ways than one. The Locktons are Loyalists, true to the British Crown and up to their eyeballs in plots to bring the upstart Patriots to their knees. Curzon, a slave in a Patriot household, coerces Isabel into spying for the rebels. It is the Patriots, he tells her, who will give the slaves their freedom. If she throws in her lot with them, the liberty she craves will be hers. It is not an easy decision. The Locktons are not kind masters. If she spies and is caught, she will pay in ways too horrible to imagine. She isn't concerned only, or even primarily, with herself. Ruth is only five and prone to fits. If anything happens to Isabel, who will care for and protect Ruth? Still, Isabel burns with the desire to be free. It is worth taking the risk.

With the stakes are so high, it is all the more crushing when Isabel is forced to realize that the Patriots' passion for liberty is limited. Despite their fine talk and promises, the freedom they seek does not extend to slaves. They will not help her, and they will not protect her. Has she put her life and her sister's in jeopardy for nothing?


It is easy to understand why this book was nominated for the National Book Award (Teen category). It is beautifully written. Anderson excels in both character and plot, and her writing is graceful and compelling. Isabel is feisty, strong, loving, rebellious, and determined. She is often afraid but always courageous. She's no paragon, which makes her seem all the more real. Mistress Lockton and Lady Seymour are two sides of a coin, one loathsome and one as good as the times allow her to be, and both evoked visceral responses. Images of Curzon stay with me, too, as I picture him first cocksure and confident and then diminished by betrayal and circumstances. Because these characters are so vivid, even readers who are neither fans of historical fiction nor interested in the historical period will be swept up in Isabel's story. Anderson has the wonderful ability to drop nuggets of information into her story in a way that never seems forced or obtrusive. I knew New York was important strategically, but I didn't realize what a hot bed of Loyalists it was or that a great fire destroyed much of the city. I certainly didn't know about the enticements both sides offered to slaves and indentured servants in order to coerce their support, nor how often those promises proved false. This book does, of course, present those promises from Isabel's point of view, and certainly not every army officer (or founding father) consciously
used slaves' desire for freedom to their own advantage (consciously being the operative word here), with no personal regard for the slaves themselves. But Chains brought home to me forcefully and movingly the hope and heartbreak of having liberty so enticingly close, only to have it snatched away, as well as the irony of promising "liberty...for all" and giving it only to some.

I am glad that we will be hearing more about Isabel and Curzon in the future. I am not ready to leave them behind.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Of Butterflies and Cults

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante
3(.5)Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Agnes, Honey, and Benny know no other way of life than the one they have at Mount Blessing. Agnes wants no other life. Honey is desperate to leave. But nobody leaves Mount Blessing. Not without Emmanuel's permission, anyhow. Everything at Mount Blessing runs according to Emmanuel's wishes. He is, after all, as close to God as a human being can get. It is Emmanuel everyone desperately tries to please. It is Emmanuel who rewards, and it is Emmanuel who punishes.

The day Nana Pete arrives for an unexpected visit is a day that Emmanuel has punished Honey and Agnes, leaving welts on their bodies and bruises on their souls. Agnes is agonized because she has, once again, fallen short of the example of her namesake, Saint Agnes. She strives to be a saint, but she all too often sins. Honey isn't agonized. She's outraged. All she did was kiss a boy. Is that such a crime? Is it truly deserving of the welts and the "HARLOT" scrawled across her back? Nobody speaks of the Regulation Room, where all of this punishment takes place. Nobody, that is, until Benny lets something slip to a horrified Nana Pete, who resolves to take her grandchildren and Honey off the commune before they can be harmed again. But before she has the chance to put any sort of plan into action, Benny is in a horrible accident. Instead of allowing an ambulance to be called, Emmanuel declares that he will pray over Benny and thus heal him. His followers have no doubt that he can do this, but Nana Pete is appalled. Now she is even more determined to get the children out. Honey is only too happy to help. Soon the five leave the Mount Blessing compound, four of them for the very first time.

Agnes is horrified and furious when she learns that Nana Pete has no intention of bringing them back. What will Emmanuel say? What will he do? Leaving Mount Blessing without his blessing...nothing he's ever done to them in the Regulation Room before will touch what will happen when he finally tracks them down and brings them back. Even worse, outside of Mount Blessing, wickedness is everywhere. It's in the music, it's in the clothing, it's in the food, it's on the television. How can one ever hope to achieve a saintly life when evil is everywhere you look? Honey doesn't see the world that way at all. She is rapturous in the freedom she now has, away from Emmanuel's ridiculous restrictions. Though she misses Winky, her guardian, and the butterfly garden they both tend, she can only look forward now. Being in a world where it's not a sin to think your own thoughts or kiss a boy...that's her kind of heaven on earth.

Neither Agnes nor Honey expects what they find at the end of this road trip, which brings them to Nana Pete's daughter, the woman whose name is not allowed spoken at Mound Blessing. Amid tragedy, secrets are revealed, new understandings are made, and faith is restored and redefined.

Much of this book is very well done. Told from both Agnes's and Honey's perspectives, the two voices are distinct and believable. Agnes's struggle to be as saint-like as possible could have made her a tiresome, unlikable character. But her honest faith and her despair at never being able to be reach the level of goodness she strives for makes her a sympathetic character, though many readers will probably share Honey's frustration that she simply does not understand how brainwashed she has been by Emmanuel. More readers will probably empathize with Honey, who has never succumbed to Emmanuel's magnetism. Honey wants freedom, friendship, beauty, and love, and she knows that the world outside of Mount Blessing offers her those things. The interactions between these two life-long friends as they negotiate their different views on their lives so far and their lives in the future is particularly well done. Both girls are allowed to score valid points as they explore their feelings about religion and faith and what it means to believe.

The nuances and strengths of other parts of the book made it quite disappointing when Galante settled for a too-easy solution to one of the book's main questions (and therefore, one of its main dilemmas). When I got the first hint of where she was heading, I actually groaned and said aloud to a lunchroom companion that I couldn't believe she was going there. This one plot element weakened the book as a whole, rather like a wobbly leg makes a table less than sturdy. Though still fine to look at, the table doesn't support all the weight it was designed to bear. She handled the ambiguities of the faith discussion so well that I was surprised to find her settling for the easy way out in this situation.

While this won't be everyone's cup of tea and I don't expect it to fly off the shelf, I think it will have an audience. I would not be surprised to hear a teen recommending it to another, and I can easily see it being used in book discussion groups.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Another Reading Roundup

I've got five books on my pile to write up, and two of them have been waiting for two or three weeks. So I'm just going to put up a couple of quick impressions about a couple of them, just to clear the pile a bit.

Bonechiller by Graham McNamee
4Q 4P; Audience: M/J/S

I love booktalking Acceleration, and although it's a very different kind of book, Hate You is also a powerful read. So I've been waiting for a new McNamee book for years. Though this one didn't captivate me as much, it was still worth the wait. McNamee always tells a great story, and there's always more to it than just what's on the surface.

Ever since his mother died, Danny and his father have been moving from place to place, trying to escape their memories. In cold, desolate Harvest Cove, Danny winds up trying to escape from more than that. Deep in the most isolated reaches of Canada, this small Army outpost town holds a terror that most people don't even realize exists. Danny encounters it on a night that was already unsettling: he has just witnessed an arson/murder. His mind reeling and his nerves already taut as he walks home in the pitch dark, it takes him a little while to realize that he's being followed. At first it's just a feeling. Then he catches something (but what?) out of the corner of his eye. Maybe it's just a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Maybe it's just a dog. He tries to shrug it off. But then he hears the growl. It's a growl so deep it hurts his ears. And then he sees it. This is no plastic bag, no dog. But whatever it is, it's big. And it's fast. It is, in fact, a huge beast right out of legend, with teeth and claws eight inches long. Danny is sure he's a goner when he falls into a ditch and the beast catches up to him. But no - - the only mark he has to show for his meeting with the beast is a blue dot on the back of his hand. A fang mark? As the days go by, Danny realizes that no, the blue dot isn't the only mark the beast has left on him. His body temperature drops and he can always feel the beast watching and calling him. He can't sleep. The beast has invaded his dreams. He knows the beast will be the end of him. It's just a question of when.

Danny is not the only teen affected. One boy in their community has already succumbed to the call of the beast. Danny's friend Howie has also been bitten, and his symptoms are even worse than Danny's. Danny, Howie, Howie's psycho brother Pike (the aforementioned arsonist), and Danny's girlfriend Ash need to know what's going on. A little research reveals that dozens of local teens have disappeared over the years. Though common wisdom has it that they were runaways, the details point toward something else entirely, something that Danny and Howie know all too well. The beast has been luring teens to their death for thousands of years. What are the odds that Danny and Howie will break the cycle? 1000-1?

McNamee generally builds the tension well. Some readers may be irritated when the focus switches from Danny's present to Danny's memories of his mother and how her absence has affected his life. Others will recognize that these sections add to Danny's sense of isolation and that the emotional coldness he's been left with mirrors his physical coldness. Most readers will also appreciate the relationship between Danny and Ash, especially as it often adds a welcome note of humor that breaks the tension. In the beginning, much is made of Pike's mental stability or lack thereof, so I expected it to play a bigger role in the story and for things to play out a little differently as a result. Despite any quibbles I may have, I think Bonechiller will be popular, particularly with teenage boys. It's a book best read straight through, preferably with a warm blanket wrapped around you.