Friday, January 09, 2009

Hey, Big Spender, Let's Dance!

Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher
5Q 3P; Audience: J/S (Grade 9+)

It's Chicago, 1941, and life is tough in the Yards. Money is hard to come by at the tail end of the Depression, especially if you're female and young. Ruby Jacinski's mother's rheumatoid arthritis is so bad, she can no longer work in the meat factory. Ruby has no choice but to drop out of school and get a job to support herself, her mother, and sister. She too goes to work in the hated meat factory, and she loathes every minute of the dull, smelly, bone-aching work. The only bright spot in her life is when she gets to dance. When Ruby hears music, her body wants to take off into it. When she dances, people stop to watch. That and her feisty personality bring her to the attention of Paulie Suelze, recently dishonorably discharged from the Army and a small-time hood on the rise. If her mother knew she'd talked to - kissed! - Paulie Suelze, Ruby's life wouldn't be worth a plugged nickel. But Paulie is exciting, dangerous, and handsome, and all three qualities are appealing to Ruby. Just as appealing to her is the new work he suggests for her. Why not earn money doing the thing she most enjoys doing? Why not teach dancing at the Starlight? Instead of $12 a week, she could earn $50. She could pay off their back rent and grocery tab, get her mother's wedding ring out of hock, and maybe even earn enough to get them out of the Yards and into a nice place. What's not to like about a job like that? As far as Ruby's concerned, this is a wonderful opportunity. But she knows that as far as her mother is concerned, Ruby's dancing with strange men for money is one step short of going to hell in a hand basket. It's just the first of many secrets she has to keep from her mother.

Ruby soon discovers that Paulie hasn't given her the full story either. She isn't a dance teacher. She's a taxi dancer. She dances with men who buy her time. And if she works it right, they'll buy her dinner, too. They'll take her out to night clubs. If she sets her line just right, these fish will show her a great time, and all it will cost her is a few dances and a few stepped-on toes. But Ruby is far more naive than she thinks, and before long, she's got herself caught up in a real mess, and the only person who can get her out of it is Paulie Suelze. Dangerous, charming Paulie, who makes her heart race. Dangerous, charming Paulie Suelze, who can't be trusted.


Everything in this book is sharply drawn, from the characters right down to the details that bring the early 1940's alive. Ruby is a multifaceted protagonist, and there's no attempt made to make her look particularly good. She makes plenty of mistakes, she's headstrong, cocksure, and unwilling to listen to good advice. She's a naif who thinks she knows it all, and it takes several knocks for her to even begin to realize that she doesn't. Ruby knows how to stand up for herself, but doesn't always know when to lie low. And she most certainly isn't a good judge of character. But Ruby is loving, loyal, and good-hearted, and she can look past her prejudices to value an individual. You get the sense at the end of the book that Ruby has grown a lot and is becoming not only a woman to be reckoned with, but a woman who has learned from her mistakes and is the wiser and better for it.

Atmosphere simply oozes out of this book. With talk of iceboxes, cold water flats, one bathroom shared by an entire apartment building, one telephone in the neighborhood, dancing at the corner drugstore, "black and tans", and the knowledge that everybody knows everybody's business, the 1940's come alive. Period detail extends to the casual use of derogatory terms and rampant racism and male-female relationships. Ruby is at first appalled at the idea that she has to dance with black and Filipino men and her fish (men she has on a string) insist that she does not. Her friendship with a trumpeter in the band has to be their secret, and going to jazz clubs where blacks and whites mingle is scandalous and dangerous. Women are subordinate to men and most just want a man to take care of them. A man beating a woman on a public street simply means that people walking by avert their heads and continue on their way. Premarital sex is wrong, and once you've had it, you know too much to ever be a carefree girl again. Fletcher effortlessly blends all of these elements into her novel, letting period detail enrich rather than overwhelm her story.

This is a book that adults will read with as much enjoyment as teens. Highly recommended.

Shift, Poison Apples, and a most excellent My Excellent Year

Quick thoughts on a few books I've read recently:

Shift by Jennifer Bradbury
Two good friends (or are they?) take off on a cross country bike trip the summer before they head off to college. Neither of them has ever done anything even remotely like this before. Do they have the stamina for it? Do they have the maturity for it? Win's father doubts he has the guts for it. Chris and Win are determined to prove all their doubters wrong. But along the way, Chris begins to have his own doubts. Something is going on with Win, but he isn't talking to Chris about it. Chris is getting a bit fed up about it all. But he had nothing - nothing - to do with Win's disappearance. Too bad the FBI and Win's very, very powerful father don't believe that.

This one was intriguing. The use of flashbacks intercut with Chris's interviews with the FBI agent was very effective, making me impatient and curious to find out what had happened on the trip. I wouldn't call this a mystery. It's more a novel of self-discovery. Ultimately, I didn't buy the whole thing, but I wasn't left dissatisfied, either. Best read by people who don't need non-stop action or heart-stopping suspense but do like reading about interpersonal relationships.

The Poison Apples by Lily Archer
Three girls. Three rotten stepmothers. One boarding school. Not-so-instant bond. And then...revenge!

I liked this well enough, but I thought there were things that didn't hang together well. For instance, we're given to understand that Reena is a compulsive liar. Why introduce that personality trait if it doesn't play a significant role in the book? The subplot about Molly's mother is forgotten for large portions of the story. When it finally comes to the forefront, my first thought was, "Finally!" My second thought was, "Wait...she just found out (:x - not going to give it away here) and she does nothing about it?" The ultimate resolution of that story point seemed to come out of left field and felt tacked on, as though it wasn't very important to either Molly or the reader, even though it most certainly is. I also kept wondering if I'd missed or forgotten something when the romance elements crept in. I don't remember Alice meeting Jamal, but suddenly she had a huge crush on him. Say what? I also thought that the girls' voices weren't distinct enough. I could tell who was talking (each girl gets to narrate parts of the story), but only by what they said, not how they said it. Despite these quibbles, it was still an enjoyable read. I recommend it to teens looking for something quick and light. But readers looking for something with depth and complexity will probably want to look elsewhere.

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger
This book is also told in three (well, mainly three) voices, and unlike the previous book, the voices are distinct. You can't possibly confuse T.C. with Augie or Augie with Alé. The book purports to be written as an English assignment as they look back on the diaries they kept during their "most excellent" freshman year. It's the year that T.C. falls in love and is forced to realize that being charming only gets a guy so far. It's the year that Augie realizes he's gay (it's no surprise to anyone else) and falls in love for the first time. It's the year Alé discovers that her talents lie in the performing arts, not the diplomatic corps, and that she's not as immune to charming as she'd like to think. It is also the year they meet six-year-old Hucky and get a whole new appreciation for Mary Poppins and American Sign Language.

Quick thumbs up/thumbs down:
  • Thumbs down: Of course Augie loves musicals and is a wonderful perfomer. He's gay, isn't he? (I'm a little tired of this stereotype.)
  • Thumbs up: Augie is also good at sports. Lots of them! And so is his boyfriend (who is not quite the performer that Augie is).
  • Thumbs up: Yeah, they're gay. So what? (This brings to mind David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy. Not realistic, but very refreshing to read about a gay guy whose only angst is due to not being able to figure out if his crush likes him or not.)
  • Thumbs up: The notes, faxes, emails, and chat room conversations which break up the diary entries. I especially liked the ones between T.C.'s father and adviser as they play the "we're not really falling in love" game. (Adults actually get quite a lot of page time in this book.)
  • Thumbs downish: Some of the parental notes get a wee bit cutesy, and Augie's mother's notes seem a bit tacked on.
  • Thumbs up: Parent-child relationships are strong and positive.
  • Julie Andrews comes through! (Hey, what can I say? Hucky's not the only one who loves Mary Poppins!)

Though this is a light, fun read, at its heart, it is about the power of love.
Though romantic love seems to get the most attention, there's also the love between two best friends and their families who decided long ago that biology counts for nothing when it comes to what brotherhood is really all about. There's the love between parents and their children, both when it's there in abundance and when there's no parent to provide it. It's also about the love that causes people to go the extra mile for someone. It's a hug of a book.