Tuesday, February 26, 2008

You Suck, by Christopher Moore

I actually got this book for the same trip I got Twilight--a surfeit of vampire novels. Of course, the tone of these is completely different. Twilight is a nearly claustrophobic romance novel, and You Suck is comparatively a breath of fresh air.

Christopher Moore is more or less a comic novelist, and I have enjoyed a number of his other books: A Dirty Job; Fluke; Lamb. I believe thereis an earlier vampire novel, Blood Sucking Fiends, which I have not read but looks like the prequel to You Suck.

Even not having read the earlier book, I enjoyed the hell out of this one. Moore, as you might expect from the title, has an entirely different atmosphere going in his vampire world. We are introduced to vampire slackers--urban underachievers who don't even have to change their sleeping patterns much to adjust to the vampire life.

Our heroes, such as they are, are Tommy and his hot vampire girlfriend Jody. They have been dating for a while: when the novel opens, Jody has just turned Tommy into a vampire. He is not entirely pleased--for one thing, she never asked him if he wanted to be a vampire. Now he is stuck with his skinny body for eternity. On the plus side, his acne has all cleared up and his foreskin grew back, which makes vampire sex even better than it was when he was a human.

Tommy works nights stocking a grocery store with a crew of other slackers known collectively as "The Animals." When they are willing to concentrate, they are an awesome night crew, but they more usually spend the night drinking beer and bowling frozen turkeys at 2 liter bottles of diet soda. This is because the diet stuff doesn't have sugar, so it doesn't get sticky when they explode.

There is a plot, of course, such as it is--more fun is the way Moore draws the intersection of modern life and vampire lore. Tommy and Jody decide they need a minion--someone who will do their errands during the day. Tommy meets a goth girl--she is all of 16--at a goth nightclub, and she is thrilled to be Chosen. This is a girl with about 80 pounds of body mass, all of it attitude, and large parts of the book are excepts from her diary in a distinctive teen speak that takes the existence of vampires in stride.
These are vampires who pay a homeless man to sleep in the stairwell of their apartment: he uses the money to buy booze, they drink his blood after he has passed out. These are vampires who miss coffee, and discover they can drink it if they mix in a little blood. These are not your ordinary vampires.

Or, more to the point, perhaps they are. This is what 21st century people would live like if they were suddenly turned into monsters. No coffins, no gloomy castles, just staying up all night getting by.

A great contrast to the vampires of the Twilight series and a book that made me laugh out loud.

The Twilight Series, by Stephanie Meyer

These books are all the rage in middle school these days. Pony has refused to read them, and is genuinely put out that I bought them, because they are "too popular." Her friends are pushing these books on her, but have failed to give her any reason to want to read them. "They are sooooo romantic!" is not a good recommendation in Pony's book.

So, she claims to hate them, although it is more true that she hates the way her friends are obsessing over them. Bunny seems immune--perhaps 6th grade is not into swooning over boys in quite the same way 8th graders are.

I picked up Twilight in paperback because I needed something to read on a plane trip, and it was the best of the admittedly limited selection available at Target. I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

So, we have the first person narrator, high school junior Bella Swan, leaving her life in Phoenix to live with her non-custodial father in Forks, Oregon. The change is extreme for her--from the sunny hot desert to the rainy, overcast coast. She meets some students, but for some inexplicable reason her science lab partner hates her. She even catches him trying to switch science classes just to avoid her. We soon learn that Edward Cullen, as well as his "siblings" are vampires, and Bella has an overwhelming blood scent that addicts Edward. Twilight tells the story of their first year, as Edward tries to resist either killing or falling in love with Bella. New Moon continues their junior year while Bella is being tracked by an outsider vampire; and Eclipse wraps up the hunt while presenting Bella with a second suitor, Native American Jacob, who is also a werewolf and mortal enemy to vampires.

Meyers is an engaging writer--she captures some of the human experiences very well: the feeling of being the new kid on the first day of school, trying to find classes and someone to sit with at lunch. She makes the Bella's adjustment to living with her other parent real as well. The vampire stuff? I'm still deciding.

As I read Twilight, I was reminded of the books I read in high school at the beginning of the wave of romance titles. Back then (it might not be true any longer) there were certain "rules" for writing a romance: the hero had to be older than the heroine; the heroine had to be a virgin at the start of the book; there had to be complications to delay the consummation of the relationship and draw out the yearning part. Twilight conforms to all those conventions, with the exception of the consummation part--and that is because Meyers has written three novels with no consummation at all.

The hero, Edward, is frozen at physical 17, although in reality he is closer to 100 years old--enough of an age difference to satisfy anybody, I would think. Bella is not only a virgin, but she has never dated anyone or kissed anybody until she arrives in Forks--hyper virginal, she is. The vampire thing is a classic separator--he loves her, he is bound to her by destiny, but he is dangerous and she must stay away from him because he must fight to keep from killing her. . .plus, her dad is the local sheriff, and he would be pissed if he found out his daughter was dating a vampire. Okay, so Meyers inject a bit of the prosaic into her romantic fantasy--Bella cooks dinners and does laundry, something romance heroines rarely do--but this is the stuff of romantic fantasy. Edward is perfect--perfectly handsome, courteous, well educated, strong, and always there to save Bella when she needs it. If this book were not written in the first person, it could well have been a formula Harlequin-type romance.

The problem grows as the novels progress and Meyers introduces another young man with a claim to Bella's heart--Jacob the werewolf. Bella's determination to become a vampire and spend eternity with Edward is tested; sadly, we see her choice between fanged immortality and fully lived humanity reduced to the choice of "which is the right boy?"

And yet--I am unable to fully dismiss these books as starter porn for young adults. And by "porn" I mean "beautiful but ultimately unattainable perfection staged for consumption, leading the consumer to believe that such airbrushed gorgeousness in any way reflects real life." The scenes between Bella and Jacob are touching as they grow to become friends, and the friendship slowly turns romantic. Bella struggles with her feelings, with what she wants and its effect on the people around her. Edward refuses to turn her into a vampire unless she marries him first, and her very modern reply is "I'm not that girl--the one who gets married right after high school." There are moments when the novel I was reading was no longer a "vampire romance" but a very well written young adult work, showing the struggles that come with growing up.

Okay, plus I admit, I am a sucker for the emotional kick these novels carry. At the end of Eclipse, Bella realizes that she loves Jacob, but that she has to stop causing him pain. The raw emotions that accompany their conversation had me in tears. Literally. Which was rather embarrassing on a airplane during the safety demonstration.

Are these good books? Would I recommend them? I'd have to say I wouldn't recommend them to any 14 year olds I know--the view of love is unrealistic and no one should expect that this is the way relationships are. They aren't bad books: the writing is good; the characters only kiss so there is nothing sexually inappropriate--I can't recommend them due to the temptation to believe that any boyfriend is ever going to live up to Edward.

I was strongly reminded of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series as I was reading these. Hamilton is strictly adult reading, but there are strong similarities in the triangle formed by a human woman, a vampire and a werewolf. The vampire and the werewolf each represent two different (and largely incompatible) life paths and both Anita Blake and Bella Swan must make choices about who they are, and how they will live, in the face of these extremes. Anita Blake finds a way of life that allows her to love both the vampire and the werewolf, as well as others, recognizing that these are all somewhat different kinds of love, but love nonetheless. I rather respect that of those books--the insistence on Bella and Edward being "soul mates" makes me uncomfortable. I'm old enough to recognize that for the fantasy it is, but it is dangerously attractive view of love.

Of course, so was Romeo and Juliet.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie, by Jordan Sonnenblick

This is a book my sixth grader brought home to read for the Maud Hart Lovelace awards. It is the story of a 13 year old boy who is trying to muddle through middle school while his 5 year old brother battles leukemia.

There is much you would expect from a book on this topic: frightening scenes of watching his baby brother getting stabbed with long needles, the death of another patient on the pediatric ward, the steady progression of the protagonist through the various stages of grief: disbelief, bargaining, anger, sadness, acceptance.

The beauty of this book is that all this is done with a very light touch. The tone is chatty and fairly lighthearted, while handling a hard topic. The author claims he was inspired to write it while teaching in a middle school, when one of his students had a younger sibling get cancer. He felt she needed a book that showed her that it was okay to laugh, and take joy in life, even during such a serious health crisis. Because he couldn't find that book, he decided to write it.

There are times where the 13 year old voice wears thin--he starts out sarcastic, and as things get harder for him, we get reporting of his emotions--we are told, not shown, because the snarky tone was so strongly established, that it's hard for Sonnenblick to move his character into a different emotional space. Instead, we get sentences like: "Suddenly, I realized that tears were running down my face, and I didn't know why." Maybe he doesn't know why, but shouldn't we?

Still, this is an "issue" book that isn't pompous or overbearing in handling its subject, which is sometimes all you can ask for from a YA book.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Memoirs of a Teen Age Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin

If Naomi had chosen heads, none of it would have happened. So begins this latest YA book I read. Once again, we have a 16 year old trying to figure out who she is in the context of the boys/men in her life. This hoary and frankly regressive format is made more tolerable by the use of amnesia. Naomi has hit her head on the stone staircase at school, and wakes up unable to remember anything about the last four years--her entire middle school and high school career.

She is found at the bottom of the stairs by James Larkin--a sulky James Dean type boy, who rides with her to the hospital. She quickly is reintroduced to the eccentric Will--who claims he is her best friend--and Ace, her tennis playing jock boyfriend. She also has to confront her parents' divorce, her mother's remarriage and four year old half sister, a new house, and who she has become over the last four years.

There is an interesting premise that hovers tantalizingly over the first half of the book--does a girl given a clean slate make herself anew, or does she fit herself back into the person she used to be? Naomi does a little of both--she gives herself some time to figure out what she saw in Ace, before deciding that whatever it was, he's not enough for her now. She finds herself drawn to the mysterious James, who nobody seems to like, and who runs hot and cold unpredictably. She settles into Will's proffered friendship, both because she genuinely likes him, and because he can tell her about who she used to be.

The amnesia causes some practical difficulties for her, which are handled deftly and with a light touch. She can't remember how to drive, but hates being dependent on her father to take her places. She remembers math and science, but not language, and she struggles to keep up with her classes while working on the larger problem of who she is and where she fits in.

It won't be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen Sixteen Candles that Naomi's fascination with James breaks Will's heart--because Will has been in love with her forever. What Zevin does with this triangle is slightly different from the usual--Naomi doesn't figure out that Will loves her, and she develops a relationship with the troubling James. However, she's with him long enough to learn that he isn't really right for her either. She eventually recovers her memory, realizes what Will means to her, but that relationship is no longer viable due to the choices she has made since the accident.

Will is angry with her because she has quit the yearbook, which the two of them were co-chairing, first to appear in a play, and then to be with James. Will gets another girlfriend, who is also angry at Naomi for how she has treated Will. By the end, however, the two of them have been through enough that they are able to (slowly, cautiously) reapproach each other.

The emotional territory Naomi moves through in her relationships with Ace, James and Will are authentic and well handled. Zevin has overloaded the book, I think, with more plot than she can handle. Naomi was adopted by her parents as a baby from Russia, which creates another identity crisis that is more or less just thrown in briefly, then dropped. Similarly, Naomi finds a food diary in her bedroom, indicating an incipient anorexia with it's obsessive focus on minimal calories. She (wisely) throws it out, calling it insane--and the issue also disappears. We later learn that Naomi was an outstanding tennis player--an athleticism with is at odds with the food diary. Again--more plot than Zevin could handle.

The whole issue of her parents' divorce is also more weight than the book can handle. The pre-accident Naomi has refused to speak to her mother, because her mother's infidelity ended the marriage. The two never quite make up, but neither does Naomi really have a believable emotional arc over this new disruption in her life. Her father, too, is about to remarry--a decision that pre-accident Naomi apparently was a complete bitch about, but post-accident Naomi accepts with slightly more grace--but not entirely believably.

Finally, the exquisitely depressed James (as Will derides) turns out to have serious and recurrent depression, a failed suicide attempt in his past, and more demons than he can handle. He ends up in California, and Naomi lies to her father and goes to meet him there. James is sinking rapidly, and ends up abandoning her for hours on a beach where she has no way to get in touch with anyone. James' problems are too large for a girlfriend to shoulder or solve, and this harebrained trip to California is not really consistent with the girl we are discovering. In fact, the post-accident Naomi seems to have messed up her life as thoroughly as pre-accident Naomi did, just in new and excitingly different ways.

Zevin does a nice job with the amnesia, so it's not merely a gimmick, but does lend some emotional crediblity to Naomi's attempts to find her balance. It's just sad that neither Naomi seems to have had any real female friends, or really any non-romantic relationships with boys either. Still, it's sensitively written and the emotional path she takes to find her way to Will feels authentic. A few less disasters would have kept the book better balanced is all.

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You, by Ally Carter

Yup--I'm doing a bunch more YA reading recently, as the kidlets are reading books that they enjoy a great deal. So, since I'm not picking such great reading material, I'm borrowing theirs.

Tell/Love/Kill is a hybrid spy/romance/boarding school novel and is clearly setting itself up to become a series. Our Heroine, Cammy Morgan, is the enrolled at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Girls, and all girls boarding school outside Washington D.C. that is actually a training school for spies. The humor comes from the juxtaposition of spy training with ordinary school routines, as well as the on-going joke about all the things invented by past "Gallagher girls." "Duct tape didn't invent itself, you know.

Cammy is in an unusual position--her mother is the headmistress of the academy, and her father disappeared on a mission some years back. As a result she has become "the Chameleon"--a girl who fades into the background so she isn't noticed. Things change one night when the girls are allowed into town to attend a carnival, and a boy sees her. Really sees her, which is so unusual that Cammy is surprised.

A relationship develops, which Cammy tries to keep secret from her mother, while sneaking out to see Josh--a task which is made possible by her spy training. She then invents a "cover" for Josh, since she can't tell him she's a Gallagher girl--he doesn't have the right clearance for that kind of sensitive information.

Things develop as you think they might, made fresh and funny by the spy motif. Cammy and her friends rappel in and out of Josh's house to confirm he isn't there to infiltrate the school--Cammy goes along because she's dying to know more about him. Things come to a head as she's about to be outed to Josh as a Gallagher girl, so she decides she has to break up with him--sacrificing their budding relationship to maintain secrecy. So it's just too bad that her Covert Ops final is sprung on her as she walks away--poor Josh sees her grabbed, blindfolded and pulled into a speeding van. Safe to say that very few Gallagher finals have concluded with a town boy driving a front end loaded into a school building to rescue his girlfriend.

Written with some of the flippancy of Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series, Tell/Love/Kill covers the excitement of developing romantic relationships while warning girls of the pitfalls of trying to be someone else for a boy--a lesson made easier to swallow by the whole spy theme. The book ends satisfactorily, but without a clear and final resolution for Cammy and Josh. There is already a sequel out, Cross My Heart And Hope To Spy, and that one will be coming home too.