Monthly Archives: October 2016

Naked ‘76 by Kevin Brooks

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naked-76Naked ‘76 by Kevin Brooks
carolrhodaLab, 2016 (first published in the UK in 2011)

Brooks follows up the success of The Bunker Diary (2015) with the American publication of this realistic YA novel set in London in 1976, when punk rock burst onto the British music and cultural arena. This was of particular interest to me as it’s about the defining era of my youth. However, it should be noted that I’m a middle-aged Brit, so I’m not the target audience!

Lili Garcia, narrating from the future, is asked by charismatic Curtis Ray to be the bass player in his band, Naked. As the band start gigging, they get deeper into the punk scene, and the author blends fiction with fact as they mix with seminal bands including the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and iconic figures like Malcolm McClaren.

At the same time, Lili and Curtis become a couple, though he seems more interested in drugs, alcohol, and hanging around with the really cool kids, and Lili seems pretty passive about this. But when William, a mysterious young Irish man with brilliant hazel eyes joins the band, the romantic tensions add to their music, while fracturing the relationships. An IRA sub-plot is rolled in here, though with little explanation of the Troubles.

The mostly upper middle class, mostly white characters represent only one side of the London punk scene, and the author does not seem particularly interested in the class or musical divisions that created this paradigm shifting culture.

The prose is pretty straightforward and unadorned, perhaps as befits a novel about a stripped down anyone-can-do-it music form and the plot moves forward in a linear and mostly unsurprising arc.

The author does touch on the alienated and alienating side of punk, which contemporary teen readers may be able to relate to. However, with its very specific milieu, Naked ‘76 will likely have limited appeal to American readers.

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The Best Man by Richard Peck

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best-manThe Best Man by Richard Peck
Dial, 2016

Richard Peck’s perceptive and sunshine-warm middle-grade story of male role models naturally integrates a love story between two men, but is slightly marred by some stereotyped characters.

In a comfortably middle-class white suburb of Chicago, 6th grade narrator, blithely naïve Archer Magill, starts the story as a white velvet beshorted ring bearer at one wedding, and closes it as the Ralph Lauren-clad best man at the wedding of his Uncle Paul to teacher Ed McLeod. Between the two, Archer gives us vignettes of his school life, and the reader gets to know Archer’s laid back and empathetic Dad, and big-hearted Grandpa, and will understand why Archer wants to be them.

Peck succeeds admirably in creating two gay role models for Archer, though they are perhaps a little caricatured, with their emphasis on looking good (and it appears that not wearing socks with wingtips is a signifier of homosexuality). However, both Uncle Paul, a hotshot PR guy who remains close to his family, and swoony Mr. McLeod, who, literally, comes out in defense of a student bullies label as gay, embody the idea that “being gay isn’t a decision. How you live your life is a decision.”

However, the author irritatingly stereotypes female educators as either ineffectual and fluffy or battle axes, whereas dreamy Mr. McLeod, not yet qualified, is imaginative, authoritative and effective. And a British character is introduced who appears to be inspired by 1950’s ideas of what an English aristocrat should be. While this is clearly nothing like as egregious as stereotypes of people of color, it detracts and unbalances the other more realistically created characters. (I should note that none of the reviews mention these – maybe being a British female educator has just made me a bit sensitive)

There are many laughs in the novel – from Archer’s Youtube appearance with his split velvet shorts to the farce of Mr. McLeod’s first entrance – as well as more serious moments when Archer begins to get to grips with what growing up, and being grown up, mean. Overall, the author builds an idyllic, yet realistic, slice of one boy’s life, with its ups and downs, while gently slipping in a message of tolerance.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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fangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

I enjoyed Eleanor and Park (2013) very much, but I was much less keen on this overlong second novel by Rainbow Rowell.

Cath Avery is making a poor job of navigating her first year at college. She was expecting to hang out with her twin, but Wrenn has struck out on her own. Cath’s roommate, Reagan, is rather intimidating, and Cath’s writing partner in her fiction class seems to be stealing her work. But she can, at least, escape into the world of the Harry Potter-esque Simon Snow, and has her place in that world as an enormously successful fan fiction writer.

I was irritated by Cath’s drippiness, and eye-rolled my way through her frequent outbreaks of crying. How this sullen, almost silent, girl ends up attracting the charming and affable Levi is something of a mystery that I think has more to do with authorial wish-fulfillment than real life.

The novel is interspersed with excerpts from both the ‘real’ Simon Snow novels and Cath’s fanfic, usually presaging something that’s about to happen in Cath’s life. I found these extracts to be rather too long in places – particularly when Levi wants Cath to read to him (what a bookish girl fantasy that is!) – and though I mostly enjoyed these Potter-esque sections, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out Carry On (2015), Rowell’s Simon novel.

There are some interesting ideas bubbling around the idea of creative writing. Cath finds herself so much more comfortable with fanfic, writing about someone else’s world and characters – but is this plagiarism, as her fiction professor believes? And does she really need a professor to tell her to use characters and situations from her own life instead?

I listened to this book and really enjoyed much of it, but I found the pace of the second half really slow, as we wound to the inevitable conclusion. Nonetheless, Cath is a credible and sympathetic portrait of an introverted young woman, and I understand why this book is so popular with many of my library-lurking students.

The Lost Compass by Joel Ross

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lost-compassThe Lost Compass by Joel Ross
Fog Diver; Bk. 2
HarperCollins, 2016.

This satisfying sequel to the Cybil-winning middle grade adventure The Fog Diver (2015), picks up immediately where the previous book left off. Following a brief introduction to get the reader up to speed the reader is plunged straight back into the post-apocalyptic world in which the Earth is covered by a sentient Fog made of nanites that are toxic to humans, and people can only survive on mountain tops and in the air above the Fog.

Chess, the fog diver, and his crew have escaped the economically stratified Rooftop and arrived at idyllic and more equitable Port Oro, where they discover that the only way to save the world from villainous Kodoc is for Chess to dive down again to find the mysterious Compass which controls the Fog. Naturally, Kodoc also wants to get his hands on the Compass and is prepared to do anything to achieve that.

It becomes apparent that the crew are more than just a serendipitously well-matched group. Hazel, the quick thinking leader, Swedish, the ingenious pilot, Bea, the preternaturally gifted mechanic, are there to support Chess as his affinity with the Fog means he could be the one to save the Earth. These four characters, plus brawling Loretta, continue to be the warm heart of the story. Though a few new characters are introduced, they pale in comparison and are more plot device than flesh and blood.

The plot is a judicious mix of action sequences and exploration of the world. Port Oro has plenty for the kids to discover and because it is a more fair and just society than that of the Rooftop, it gives Chess a reason to put himself in peril.

Once again there is some entertaining and clever word play on phrases from the old days. Norse is a tapping code used by the Vikings. The Amazons are fierce women warriors who fought battle and sold books. There is a long-running gag with Hazel keeping a Captain’s Log that begins each entry with Start-8. This is smart stuff that is perfectly pitched to be both witty and comprehensible.

The author has made the bold and cheer-inducing move of completing the series in only two books. This keeps the pace fast and the explanations brief, but at the same time doesn’t shortchange the reader. An excellent duology that I would recommend to any scifi or dystopian loving upper elementary or middle schooler.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.