Saturday, January 23, 2010

Currently Reading ... When You Reach Me

This year’s Newbery Medal winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, is exactly my kind of book. It has all my favorite elements: great voice, well-drawn characters, a moving story, a clear sense of place/time, an intriguing mystery, and lots of allusions to one of my most-beloved books (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle). Best of all, it’s got … yes … TIME TRAVEL! I enjoyed it so much, I could hardly believe the Newbery committee picked it.

Maybe that’s overly cynical--I’m actually a big fan of the Newbery books. I liked last year’s winner (Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book). And I love Cynthia Lord’s Rules (2007 Honor Book), and Ingrid Law’s Savvy (2009 Honor Book, which I reviewed on my blog here), and Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy (2006 Honor Book). Really, I agree with the committee’s selections more often than not. But, for some reason, this year I was expecting something less entertaining. More, uh … “literary”, in the worst sense (depressing and inaccessible).

When You Reach Me was a wonderful surprise. It’s about Miranda, a twelve-year-old sixth grader in New York City in the late 1970s. Stead’s prose is neither flowery nor overly descriptive, but it is very effective--and evocative. I can clearly visualize the Manhattan public school (complete with dentist’s office), Miranda's apartment where her mom practices for her upcoming appearance on $20,000 Pyramid, Jimmy’s sandwich shop, and the corner with the homeless guy lying under the mailbox. I’m not going to write a synopsis, because I don’t want to spoil this one. Just read it.

Currently Reading ... Noah's Compass

Noah’s Compass is Anne Tyler’s new novel.

Before reading further, please note that there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead!

Liam Pennywell, a teacher in his early sixties, decides to economize by moving to a small apartment after he’s downsized out of a job. He goes to bed on his first night in his new digs … and awakens in the hospital, after being attacked in the night by an unknown assailant. Although his other memories are intact, Liam remembers nothing about the assault. His doctors assure him this is normal, and his friends and relatives ask, “Why would you even want to remember that?” But Liam becomes increasingly obsessed by his memory lapse. He feels something essential about himself--a pivotal moment, perhaps--has been stolen from him.

Liam encounters someone who employs a professional assistant--a “rememberer”--who prompts him with names and assists him through transitions in his day. Convinced that he, too, needs a “rememberer” to help him recover his memory of the assault, Liam becomes a bit of a stalker, lurking in his car, hoping for a glimpse of the assistant. When an opportunity arises, Liam introduces himself to Eunice, improvising a fictitious connection to her employer. Eunice, a quirky, socially awkward, and impulsive young woman half Liam’s age, jumps to the conclusion that Liam needs her help with developing a resume. Their relationship quickly progresses: from acquaintances to friends, and from friends to lovers. Although this is kind of weird (and Eunice is unbelievably annoying), it’s rather sweet. But there’s a big problem, one that can’t be resolved. Eunice has been lying to Liam--she’s married. Though he’s not religious, and is in fact divorced, Liam believes in the sanctity of marriage. So they break up, and … yeah. That’s it, pretty much. Liam gets a job at a preschool, and presumably goes on living a stark, pared down existence in his stark, pared down apartment. Alone.

The best thing about this novel is its characters. Anne Tyler is brilliant at finding just the right words to describe people’s personalities, their quirks, and their foibles. Even if you’ve never met anyone remotely like the people in her novels, you find yourself nodding, feeling that you really know them. Liam, Eunice, Liam’s impatient older daughters, his opportunistic-but-nice teenage daughter (who moves in with him), the teenage daughter’s questionable boyfriend, Liam’s ex-wife, his small grandson who’s been spoon-fed bible stories from an early age … all these people leap to life on Tyler’s pages, making me feel I would recognize them instantly if we met on the street.

What I didn’t like so much--first, the repetitiveness. We’re told again and again about how disturbing Liam finds his memory loss, to the point that I wanted to yell, “All right, already--I get it.” There seemed to be a lot of this sort of redundancy, belaboring the same point over and over. Eunice is a fashion disaster ... yeah, yeah. Got it. Liam's been emotionally absent from his family for years, and has few friends ... yup, got that, too. I almost felt like Tyler was insulting my intelligence, assuming I was profoundly slow on the uptake.

Secondly, I disliked the unsatisfying ending--see above.

Currently Reading ... The Lacuna

Hooray!--Barbara Kingsolver's long-awaited next novel is finally here! Even though I am a big Kingsolver fan, I wasn’t sure whether I would like The Lacuna. I had read a couple of not-so-favorable reviews, and thought it sounded a bit dry and political. But I gave it a go ... and, I'm happy to say, I loved it!

The Lacuna is the story of Harrison Shepherd, a fictional young writer growing up in Mexico in the 1930s and 40s. As a teenager, Shepherd is hired by famous Mexican nationalist painter Diego Rivera as a plaster mixer for his mural project, and is befriended by Rivera’s wife, the brilliant and passionate painter Frida Kahlo. He becomes their cook, secretary, and a trusted member of their household. Rivera and Kahlo, both Communists, provide political sanctuary to Léon Trotsky, exiled during the Stalin regime. Though Shepherd is never officially a member of the Communist Party, this association comes back to haunt him during the McCarthy era, after he has moved to the United States. Shepherd, who is gay, becomes a popular author, but suffers from agoraphobia, and is always something of an outsider, at home neither in Mexico nor in the U.S. He forms a close, though nonsexual, relationship with his secretary, Violet Brown. When he is under investigation, blacklisted for his Communist ties, Shepherd orders Brown to destroy the journals he has been keeping since he was a child, lest they fall into the wrong hands. But she defies his wishes and hides the journals instead. These journals, along with letters and newspaper clippings, comprise most of the novel.

I recommend The Lacuna to fans of historical fiction, strong, well-developed characters, and beautiful writing. It is a highly engaging and very moving story. It is Kingsolver’s most complex work, and, in my opinion, certainly one of her best. While sad, its ending (unlike that of The Magicians) is emotionally satisfying.

Currently Reading ... The Magicians

I’ve read some great books in the last few weeks. And I’ve read some that I loved right up until the end, but wanted to throw across the room as soon as I read the last page.

Here’s a review of one of the throw-across-the-room ones:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is an absorbing “What If” novel. Its premise--that magic is real and exists in this world alongside the non-magical--is, of course, reminiscent of Harry Potter. It also draws fondly on elements from other beloved children’s fantasies, including Narnia, Earthsea, and Middle-Earth. Lev Grossman’s characters, though, are not the innocent and noble kids of J. K. Rowling’s or C. S. Lewis’ worlds. They are young adults who deal with their issues by drinking excessively and having indiscriminate love affairs. Picture a promiscuous, passive Harry with baggage and a drinking problem.

What is interesting about The Magicians is that magic doesn’t fix everything. Sure, you can make things easy for yourself; money never has to be an issue; you can wield enormous clout … but with this ability comes a sort of existential angst. What do you do with all this power? What’s the point of life if everything is easy? Is anything worth struggling for?

This book is lots of fun to read; once I started it I didn’t want to put it down. It’s also thought-provoking; my husband read it too, and we discussed it for days. My main gripe with The Magicians is that Quentin Coldwater is such a wimpy, passive, self-absorbed main character. That’s fine, at first--because you believe he will change. He’ll eventually come into his own as a magician; he’ll discover something worth being passionate about. Basically, he’ll grow up. As I read, I expected character growth with every turn of the page. But, nope. Quentin doesn’t grow. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t learn a thing. He betrays the woman he loves with a casual fling, because he’s such a dope. You keep expecting their relationship to somehow be redeemed--but, nope. He does work very hard at one point to develop his skill as a magician, with the goal of somehow regaining the love he’s lost. Yes! Finally he’s doing something through his own effort; he’s working toward a goal! But he fails … and gives up. At the end of the book, Quentin’s former teenage crush reenters the picture, now a “hedge witch” (an untrained magician) herself. Probably they’ll get together now. But did this occur through any action of Quentin’s? Uh uh. Has he developed any strength of character, any determination, any moral principle that will make things work this time around? Sorry, but again the answer is no.

Maybe that’s Grossman’s point--that magic doesn’t solve everything. This is a literary novel, not a true fantasy, so it doesn’t have to follow the fantasy tropes and provide us with a neatly packaged happy ending. Okay. But I still feel gypped. It’s a great premise and a gripping story, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

YA or MG Novel Contest on KidLit Blog

Mary Kole, a literary agent with Andrea Brown, has a great new writing contest on her KidLit blog. You can submit the first 500 words of your completed middle grade or YA novel--and you have the opportunity to have a portion of your novel professionally critiqued! Here's the link with rules and directions for entering.