Monthly Archives: April 2016

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

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hark a vagrantHark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant is not strictly YA, but nonetheless has enormous appeal to older teens. We’ve had several of the comic strips up in my library and, though it was a bit of a slow burn, they now have many committed fans among the cool young cognescenti.

The comics are witty, erudite, supersmart (though definitely not above a fart joke), have a feminist bent, and make me laugh harder than anything I’ve read or seen in ages. The black and white drawings are deceptively simple, but the characters’ expressions embellish many of the jokes. The helpful and funny footnotes aid comprehension, though not in an entirely straightforward way.lord byron

Collected from a long-running website, the short strips are mainly grouped around satirical literary themes. Hark! A Vagrant opens with ‘Dude Watching with the Brontes’ (“So brooding!”), has a poke at the Scottish Play when one of the three weird sisters can’t meet up when the hurly burly’s done because she has a dental appointment on her calendar, has Nancy Drew’s Ghost of Blackwood Hall playing Bennie and the Jets, and compresses Crime and Punishment into 24 panels, the key clue being Raskolnikov’s article “Murdering Old Ladies: Not Even a Big Deal”. Dracula, Edgar Allan Poe, Robinson Crusoe, King Lear, and many others, all get their serious ideas shredded for some pointed laughs.

Beaton also get some yuks from history with insights on some well-known topics like the French Revolution and the Founding Fathers, but also enjoying sport with the obscurity (at least to us) of Canadian history, and the downtroddenness of “every lady scientist who ever did anything till now.”

But writing any more just continues to prove that Kate Beaton’s writing is way funnier than mine, so the  best thing you can do is grab a copy of one of her books, or click onto her website and enjoy plenty of those satisfying I’ve-just-understood-an-obscure-reference chuckles.

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner; illustrated by Julian Crouch

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maggot moonMaggot Moon by Sally Gardner; illustrated by Julian Crouch
Candlewick, 2013

I got an email recently from Goodreads telling me that I was in the top 1% of reviewers (by quantity not necessarily quality!) and my most liked and commented on post was for Maggot Moon. So I thought I’d share my review, with some tweaks here:

What an amazing read! I re-read this as soon as I’d finished it – first time I’ve ever done that. This is like reading 1984 narrated by Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

It is set in a 1956 in which the Britain lost the war. It is not explicitly stated which dictatorship now rules England, but there are clues. One of the elite kids is called Hans, a teacher has a Hitler-style toothbrush mustache, and the flags are red, black and white, all suggesting a Nazi victory. However, the home of the ruling class is referred to as the Motherland, which suggests the USSR, rather than the Fatherland of Nazi Germany. Maybe Ms Gardner did not want to be specific, or maybe she wanted it to be an amalgam.

Standish Treadwell and his grandfather live in Zone Seven – where the ‘impure’ are sent. Standish is dyslexic (maybe, again never stated explicitly) and it is his use of language that makes this such an incredible read – he is not a ‘train track thinker’ and twists everyday adages which creates startling new images, “a hare’s breath” for example.The story is rooted in Standish’s beautifully evoked friendship with Hector, a new arrival to the area, and a mysterious spaceman they meet.

The illustrations of rats, flies and maggots, which run along the bottom of the pages like a flip cartoon, baffled me at first, but on the second reading I could see how they run as a harmony to the prose, as well as personifying (if that’s what it is with an animal) the corruption, decay and rot at the heart of the Motherland. In the text itself, there is some brutal violence which is made worse by the apparent everyday casualness of its occurrence – it is not Hollywood movie violence, but is imaginably and viscerally real.

This is a really short book – 100 chapters, some of which are only a paragraph long – and deceptively simple, but as the author does not spell everything out for the reader it is a densely rich,intense, and rewarding read.

Fifteen Lanes by S. J. Laidlaw

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Fifteen LanesFifteen Lanes by S. J. Laidlaw
Tundra, 2016.

Named after the fifteen lanes of Kamathipura, one of Mumbai’s red light districts, this heartrending story, narrated by two struggling teen girls from vastly different social circumstances, was inspired by the author’s social work in India. Noor is the daughter of a sex worker, and despite her mother’s efforts to keep her at school, the brothel owner wants to sell her. Grace is ostracized at her school and then cyberbullied. As a result, she volunteers at an NGO which helps the daughters of sex workers to stay out of prostitution, where she meets Noor.

Noor is the heart of the novel. Her compassion, resilience, love for her younger siblings, and clear-eyed acceptance of her life sing out, and the many secondary characters in the brothel, the streets and the school of the Kamathipura chapters are all vividly created.

Grace, on the other hand, is a well-written, but much more traditional YA character – the introverted girl whose best, and only, friend leaves, and who becomes the target of the mean girls. I found the characters in this section of the book to be much more caricatured. The only exception is VJ Patel, the son of a Bollywood star and a rising name in the film world himself, who befriends Grace and acts as something of a deus ex machina, using his charm, wealth, and influence to solve everyone’s problems.

The balance of the novel feels somewhat offkilter as, though Grace is clearly having a very hard time, even she appreciates it pales in comparison to the institutionalized terror of Noor’s existence. As the girls’ stories do not converge until nearly half way through the book, their time together, when their lives are reaching a crisis point, feels rushed and not as well thought through or credible as the buildup.

The content of the novel is clearly intended for older teens as it doesn’t pussyfoot around the horrific realities of a sex worker’s life, though the brutalities are reported rather than experienced, and Grace cuts herself and contemplates suicide. However the rather glib and convenient resolution feel mismatchedly middle grade.

Like The Bitter Side of Sweet, Fifteen Lanes does an excellent job of bringing the attention of Western teens to the horror of life for some kids in other countries. But I found it problematic that Grace and VJ are used to ‘save’ Noor, taking the agency from Noor, who has coped for so long, and the Indian NGO.

Though I have a few significant concerns with Fifteen Lanes, I think it is a worthwhile novel for readers interested in different facets of global social issues.

Snow Job by Charles Benoit

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snow jobSnow Job by Charles Benoit
Clarion, 2016

It’s the end of 1978, and Nick is stuck in a small town in upstate New York with few prospects. His family are indifferent, and even hostile, to him, he’s failing school, and he earns $2.65 an hour at the Stop-N-Go. He wants to change his life and has written a list to guide him: “Stand Out, Stand Up, Stand By, Stand Fast.” And then one person walks out of his life and two people walk into it, and, between them, they force his hand.

This is a YA noirish slice of life with a gritty late 1970’s white working class setting, signaled by music, clothing, hairstyles, and a much more casual attitude to smoking and drinking.

The main characters follow their classic film noir prototypes: Nick is the innocent, upstanding rube, Zod is the sharky low life criminal, Karla is the good friend, and Dawn is a femme fatale with a Joan Jett haircut. The secondary characters, from school friends to the drug dealers that Nick gets tangled up with, have the tense dialog and jittery undercurrents of a black and white 1940’s crime drama, but without any depth or development.

A lot happens in a very short time, and though the novel doesn’t have quite the sour ending you might expect from a noir, it plays out in a satisfying way. Snow Job will work well for teen readers looking for a moody, character-driven not-quite-a-thriller with an edgy setting.

We Know It Was You by Maggie Thrash

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we-know-it-was-youWe Know It Was You by Maggie Thrash,
Simon & Schuster, October, 2016

At the start of this warped dark comedy mystery, the students of Winship Academy watch as a cheerleader in the Wildcat mascot costume apparently commits suicide by throwing herself off a bridge. But luckily the members of the Mystery Club are on hand: Benny Flax, one of the few Jews at the school, and blonde-haired Virginia Leeds set about getting to the bottom of this mystery.

Benny and Virginia do investigate and find clues, and they do uncover what is going on, and the plot does reach some sort of satisfying conclusion. But to read this deeply bizarre book as a straightforward whodunit would be to completely miss the point.

Benny set up the Mystery Club because he “believed in justice and inclusivity, and that everyone deserved the chance to improve themselves through the act of mystery solving.” But he eschews the human element of detective work, preferring the more cerebral observation work. Conversely, Virginia is deeply interested in people and what they get up to, but tends to get bogged down and sidetracked by small details. You might think this is the set up for a screwball romantic partnership as well, but you would be wrong, at least in this book. It does appear that this could be the first in a series.

Winship exists in its own bubble with its own logic, and there is a whole miscellany of support characters who, while familiar in some senses, are also completely out there versions of their archetypes. Brown-skinned Brit Zaire Bollo despises all things American; Gottfried the slacker German exchange student has managed to extend his stay to two and a half years; Corny Davenport, a cheerleader with a heart of pure schmaltz, and her boyfriend, Winn, who has an unusual relationship with his grandfather’s Civil War rifle.

Thrash, whose Honor Girl graphic novel (Candlewick, 2015) is also terrific, has a thrillingly deft hand with language – it’s both pinpointedly specific and observationally exhilarating. Here are just a few examples that I highlighted on my way through the book:

“Every time [Virginia] started to think Benny was kind of a badass, she’d catch him doing something really nerdy, like using ten different colored pens to take notes, or playing the flute way too earnestly.”

“Zaire had fantastic clothes, which seemed like a waste, because all she ever did was study. Who needed plush velvet skirts from Milan to read Moby Dick and do algebra?”

A musician is described as having “a round face and a trad Republican sidepart haircut that either his mother gave him or was supposed to be ironic.”

This is a mystery for those who don’t mind holes in their plots, or extravagantly unlikely resolutions, and who enjoy a setting and characters who might have stepped out of a YA David Lynch movie.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The End of Fun by Sean McGinty

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end of funThe End of FUN by Sean McGinty
Disney Hyperion, April 2016.

Though heavily disguised with all sorts of gimmickry, this is a poignant tale of growing up, and accepting the world for what it is.

After the death of his grandfather, the will leads 17 year-old Irish-American Aaron O’Faolin on a treasure hunt, but, of course, what he is really searching for is connection with his family and friends, and to fall in love.

Told with a mixture of fairytale whimsy and gonzo humor, Aaron narrates his history, from his failed suicide attempt at 10 when his mother left, through abandoning his prescribed medication and running away to San Francisco, and finally his return home to Antello, Nevada.

Overlaid on top of this is the augmented reality implant FUN®, in which Aaron’s virtual buddy Homie™ keeps popping up with unsolicited advice, and Aaron scores points by giving “yays” to such entertainingly and pointedly over the top brands as the Hearthealth™ lifestyle of Kashi® Heart to Heart ™ Honey Toasted Oat cereal. To add to all the other ideas crammed into this novel, there is also an outbreak of Avis Mortem, in which a large proportion of the bird population is dying.

The different threads just about coalesce into a whole as Aaron follows the path of an Irish fairytale given to him by Katie, a 23 year old Irish-Basque teacher with whom he falls in love. And, of course, his quest leads him to the realization that reality is more fun than FUN®.

The sympathetically drawn, fully realized extensive cast of characters includes Aaron’s family, his best friend Angelo ‘Oso’ Sandoval, the Mormon Latham family, and his love interest, Irish-Basque Katie.

McGinty’s debut novel has an appealing voice and attractive characters, and readers who have enjoyed Andrew Smith’s off kilter fiction will find a home here.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Holding Smoke by Elle Cosimano

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holding smokeHolding Smoke by Elle Cosimano
Disney Hyperion, May 2016.

In this grippingly paced YA fantasy, a supernatural thread gives edge to a character-driven mystery.

Following a near-death experience, John “Smoke” Conlan’s spirit can separate from his body and walk through walls – a useful skill as he’s incarcerated in the Y, the Greater Denver Youth Offender Rehabilitation Center. For four months, Smoke has been using this ability to gather information, one of the currencies of the Y,

On one of his nightly expeditions, he comes across Pink, a tough young woman who can see and communicate with his spirit. Smoke’s present tense narration brings a taut immediacy to his and Pink’s investigation of the murders that he was (naturally) wrongly convicted for, and as they get closer to the real culprits, they face mortal danger inside and out of the Y.

The author effectively conjures up the beyond grim conditions in the Y, with its warring factions, smuggled drugs and weapons, and guards who don’t always follow the rules. Similarly, she brings a noir feeling to the seedy underworld of the low level dive bars that Pink works in.

The characters, including the two White leads and significant Black and Hispanic secondary characters, are morally complex and largely avoid being clichéd. Though it is mystery, with a good twist that I didn’t see coming, the plot is driven by the development of characters rather than by straightforward jigsaw-piece clue collecting.

Cosimano writes from personal experience of the prison system, and the harsh setting and speculative plot gives the novel a dystopian feel that will have wide appeal to teens.

Review based on an ARC.