Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes, It Does

Personally, I believe there's an under-the-radar sort of genre involving books about early-twenty-something characters who are coming to terms with the fact that life, well, sucks. That pretty much describes, in a nutshell, the graphic novel Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, and Warren Pleece.

The basic set-up for this book is just brilliant. Two years before the start of our story, our hero, Dave Miller, applied for a night job at a convenience store so he could attend community college during the day. The store owner, Radu, (who prefers to be called Lord Arisztidescu) is an immigrant (from some eastern European country, I'd guess)who turns Dave into a vampire. Now Dave must be Radu's...er, Lord Arisztidescu's...low-wage slave--through eternity! As if that isn't bad enough, Dave can't tolerate the idea of blood so he can't go around preying on humans. This means he'll never become a strapping, healthy vampire, just a miserable, little weak one with a job working permanent nights. Really permanent.

Yes! Life does, indeed, suck!

While not necessarily roll-on-the-floor funny, Life Sucks definitely is drole and clever, particularly if, like me, you enjoy dark, subtle humor. There's lots of humorous takes on traditional vampire lore. And, I guess, traditional convenience store lore.

I can't say I loved the art, but it is dark and moody to fit the subject matter, and it carries the narrative very well. I read a rather lame graphic novel a couple of weeks ago that had to use a lot of what I think you might call narrative boxes because the graphics weren't telling the story by themselves. Nothing like that here. The art carries everything but the dialogue.

This book would be a big draw for your older, edgier YAs who are already beginning to suspect that life sucks. While I was reading it, I was wondering who I knew who might like it for Christmas.

Life Sucks is one of this year's graphic novel Cybils nominees.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Werewolves In The Twenty-first Century

In Martin Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl, Verasa, Mistress of the Werewolves, is concerned about bringing her Scottish werewolf clan into the modern world. Werewolves in Millar's urban fantasy live a long time--a long time. They keep their youthful good looks and vigor for many decades but some of them seem somewhat stodgy and middle-aged. They can't even bring themselves to talk about the young orphaned twin werewolves who are intent on becoming successful punk rockers in London when they're not in drunken stupors, which is pretty much all the time. (Much like the fairies in Millar's Good Fairies of New York.) And when the twins show up at the family castle, all the moms and dads are quick to tell their puppy offspring that, no, they cannot dye their hair pink or blue the way their depraved cousins have.

The MacRinnalch's are sort of like any large, well-to-do, conservative family in one of those stories (or TV series) about family intrigue. You've got brother fighting brother for control of the family. You've got an ambitious fashion designer who wants nothing but to forget her relatives and concentrate on her work. You've got an icy academic. You've got backstabbers and hangers-on. You've got a cross-dresser.

They're just all werewolves.

As I always tell the kiddies when I do a school presentation, I find bringing unlike elements together funny. I like this kind of thing. A lot.

Like Good Fairies, Lonely Werewolf Girl is one of those Zenny kinds of books that require the reader to get into the moment. It's made of a whole series of short vignettes about its large cast of characters. It doesn't take long to get to know them and start feeling excited because the story has moved back to the Fire Queen (a former warrior queen from another dimension who now fights all her battles over haute couture) or Dominil, who might be described as a bored werewolf bitch (as in bitchie, not female, though she is). However, a stronger narrative drive kicks in about halfway through when the conservative and violent Sarapen becomes really serious about killing off many of his relatives in his bid to become head of the clan.

I have to say that the book seemed to begin with an odd "telling" type style in places, but either Millar gave it up or I liked what I was being told so much that I no longer noticed it.

Since this is a kidlit blog, I must raise the question of whether or not Lonely Werewolf Girl, published as an adult book, can work as a crossover work for YAs. I think so, particularly for older YAs who will have more interest in adult skullduggery, given that they're closer to it.

Plus there is the Lonely Werewolf Girl, herself, Kalix. At seventeen, she is far younger than her siblings--a sort of menopause baby in werewolf terms--and suffers from depression, anxiety, and what sure looks like anorexia to me. In her early teens she fell in love with the brooding and poetic Gawain, a werewolf not up to her family's standards. After her father, the leader of their clan, banishes Gawain to get him out of his daughter's life, Kalix physically attacks him. Since she could be said to "suffer" from a sort of madness when in battle, she gets the best of that encounter, and injures the old man so badly that he later dies. She heads out for London, and other members of the family want to hunt her down and bring her home for punishment, which may or may not mean death.

You know how a common YA theme is separating self from family? Well, there you go. Kalix is separated and suffering, living on the street, filthy, lovelorn, and drugged up on laudanum.

This young teen character initiates the action--because she killed her father, his position as head of the clan is up for grabs and leads to a war between her two older brothers. Kalix's grandmother wants her dead, and the brother who will kill her will get grandma's support for his bid for leadership. In fact, a lot of people and werewolves want Kalix dead, and as a result, though the action moves to other characters, it keeps coming back to her and the teenage human university students who are helping her. Help, by the way, includes exposing her to cable TV and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

Both in terms of characters and pop culture, there's plenty here to hold a younger person's attention. But Millar has been described as a counter culture novelist. I think that aspect of Lonely Werewolf Girl will also be attractive to teen readers who are desperate to read something off an official school reading list.

Lonely Werewolf Girl was inspired, in part, by the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer , in that Millar has said "I felt such a dreadful loss, I thought I'd have to write my own." I can see the influence in that, as I got toward the end of this quite long book, I felt I was going to miss spending time with many of these characters.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Older Young Adults

A few years ago, there was talk of extending the YA designation into the early twenties. I haven't heard much about that recently but Justine Larbalestier is leading a little commentary on the subject.


Monday, February 04, 2008

Magic For Readers

About a month ago, I was roaming in my local library's YA area when I came upon new a volume called Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. Now, this did not look like YA to me, and my longtime readers are probably thinking, Oh, Gail must have had a meltdown right there in the library because she needs everything to be very clearly defined. Well, I thought of it. But then I recalled reading something I think Roger Sutton once wrote about part of a YA librarian's function being bringing the young to adult literature. I like to think that I am teachable, so, okay, I was able to understand and appreciate that philosophy.

And I brought Magic for Beginners home.

Now, Magic for Beginners is a collection of what might be described as weird ass short stories. And I mean that in the best possible way. I will say right up front that they tend to be the kinds of short stories that I finish reading and go, "Ah, what?" There may be an epiphany thing going on here, and I find that with those kinds of stories I often don't share the main character's revelation. Nonetheless, these are endlessly inventive tales. I believe we're also talking nonLatin American magical realism, edged with a tinge of horror. Link is obsessed with zombies, for instance, so much so that by the time I got to the story Some Zombie Contingency Plans I was beginning to think, Yes, perhaps I should have one. One of her stories takes place near Ausible Chasm, which I assume is Ausable Chasm. When I was there, maybe fifteen to twenty years ago, the infrastructure for getting about seemed a little old and creepy. Perhaps there could be zombies down there who come up to go shopping at a local convenience store as Link contends in The Hortlak.

In addition to dealing with the magical in every day situations, Link has a couple of stories in this volume that sort of telescope into themselves. The title story, for instance, appears to be about rabid fans of a television show until you realize they also appear to be living within an episode of that program.

Many of these stories have YA or at least older teen characters, which certainly would make them attractive to younger readers. On top of that, part way through reading this book, I suddenly experienced a flashback to my own teen years. Back then, I went through a Richard Brautigan phase and have held on to the three books I bought then, even though I can't say I ever understood much of what's in them. Brautigan's attraction for me was that his stuff was weird and different, unlike the books I found in my high school library. His work was a tipoff that there were all kinds of strange and marvelous things out there to read, if I could only find them. I got the same thrill yesterday when I was in the UConn Co-op looking at books you don't find stacked on those tables at Barnes & Noble.

Link's work, to me, is far more accessible than Brautigan's, but it gave this reader that same feeling of possibility I remember getting back when I was first exposed to Trout Fishing in America. Magic for Beginners could very well encourage older teen readers to go looking for more of the same.

According to Link's website, she has a YA collection, Pretty Monsters, coming out from Viking.

You can read the first story from Magic for Beginners, The Faery Handbag.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

My Kind Of Fairies

Faithful readers of this blog may have picked up on the fact that I cannot abide fairies. I am cringing as I think of them. However, as it turns out, they are far more tolerable when they are drunken Scottish punk rockers.

I am vague on the glories of punk rock, but I find Celtic music to be masses of fiddles and whistles that after a while all begin to sound alike. Surely giving it a punk rock twist as the fairies Heather and Morag are intent on doing in The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar can only be an improvement.

The Good Fairies of New York is what I think of as a Zenny book. In order to enjoy it, you have to give up any need you may have for a strong linear story line and get into the moment. The Good Fairies is told in chunks that meander back and forth among a large number of characters, many of whom are named MacThis or MacThat. Each chunk, though, contains some kind of entertainment, some kind of gem. You just need to give in and enjoy them.

Heather and Morag are in New York after being thrown out of Scotland for blowing their noses on the MacLeod clan's banner. They are both fast friends and bitter enemies, and they separate, each taking up residence with a human who can see them. (I can't remember why. But does it matter? Not a bit.) They wreak havoc throughout the city while trying to bring together Heather's nasty, unattractive young man and Morag's lovely, sickly young woman, which, they hope, will mean they can take possession of the young man's fiddle because...

Well, that's a lot less important than the fact that neither Heather nor Morag knows the other fairy is plotting to bring the humans together.

Then there are the Marxist fairies in Cornwall plotting to bring down the English fairy king. And the bag lady who thinks she's a military figure from Greek history. And the advertisements for phone sex that keep turning up on the TV.

Because the plot rambles so, there's not a strong narrative drive that will make readers call in sick to work so they can stay home to read more and see what's going to happen next. On the other hand, nearly every page holds some kind of delight. (And, especially in the second half of the book, many of those pages contain some kind of copy error. Millar's copy editor failed him badly.)

In short, The Good Fairies of New York is a light, pleasant but edgie read for people who don't take their fantasy too seriously.

The Good Fairies of New York was nominated for a Cybil last fall, though it was published as an adult book. Since at that point the award didn't have a policy regarding whether or not adult books would be considered (something I think should be decided one way or another before next year), it was part of our reading list. While the fairies in The Good Fairies are into sexual activity and drinking, and then there's those quite graphic phone sex advertisments, those aren't the main reasons I wouldn't consider the book a strong contender as a YA book.

Generally speaking, I think that in order for an adult book to make the cut as a "recommended" book for YA it should have YA characters. The human characters in The Good Fairies of New York appear to be twenty- or thirty-somethings. It should also have YA themes. Say, something along the lines of separating one's self from family or determining identity. The theme for the adult characters in The Good Fairies of New York would be closer to "Here I am, engaged in my life, and it sucks. A big disappointment." I don't think that's a bad theme, by the way. It's just more a theme for books about twenty and thirty year olds than it is for books about teenagers.

Older teens, the kind who are more into rock than fairies, may enjoy The Good Fairies of New York the way they might enjoy any adult book. It probably shouldn't be shelved in the YA section, though.

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