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.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Yup. Reads Like A Newbery Book To Me.

Small, small town + eccentric characters + child character (preferably female) who thinks deep thoughts + death = Newbery Book.

I listened to The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron on my trip to Vermont on Thursday. You know--The Scrotum Book.

First, let's deal with the scrotum issue. I thought a young girl being fascinated by a dog being bitten in the crotch and wondering about that part of male anatomy was one of the more realistic aspects of this book.

I found a lot of the plot elements in this book unbelievable and painfully meaningful. But I feel that way about a lot of books that are highly regarded by adult readers. No, I can't begin to guess what that says about me.

For instance, Lucky, the main character, lives with her father's first ex-wife, who he called in from France to come live in the desert and care for her when his second ex-wife (her mother) died. While I do find the scenario of an adult and child who are not genetically or legally related sticking with one another simply because they want to fascinating, this couple didn't do it for me. I didn't believe that any eight-year-old child, (Lucky's age when her mother dies very suddenly) would take to being cared for by a stranger who barely shares a language with her. I didn't believe that said caretaker would have put up with living in that desolate place. Why didn't she pack the kid up and get the hell out of there?

A lot of those plot elements seemed quite random to me, too, as in I missed the causal relationship. All of a sudden, Lucky starts recalling her mother's funeral. It didn't seem to follow what went before. And after she runs away and has the whole town hunting for her, when they find her, she suddenly decides to conduct a second memorial service for her mother, whose ashes she had brought with her. And everyone immediately falls into line with her plan instead of getting hold of her and giving her a good shake for having taken off.

That's what I mean by painfully meaningful, by the way.

I never figured out what Lucky's higher power was, either.

It occurred to me that perhaps this was a Zenny book, that the plot didn't matter because you were supposed to get into the moment of each chapter and that I couldn't do that because I was too busy driving and getting excited because the computer in my car claimed I was getting incredible gas mileage. But I think it's more likely that I couldn't get into the moment because I'm not that crazy for the formula of small, small town + eccentric characters + child character (preferably female) who thinks deep thoughts + death.

Labels: ,

Monday, July 16, 2007

Now This Is A Historical Novel

According to legend, I had an ancestor of some sort who played professional ice hockey back in Canuckistan. He died young, however, under mysterious circumstances, and we Gauthiers learned our lesson. To my knowledge, no one in my family has been involved with a team sport past the kiddie leagues since that time. We had two competitive high school wrestlers and three martial arts students, two of whom made black belt level, suggesting that while we're not team players, we're very scrappy. But I don't have many relatives who even watch sports on TV, and if anyone knows what the heck the Super Bowl is about it's because he or she married into the family.

My point is that I can't help my lack of interest in baseball. I totally don't understand the romance of the game or why it has cult status. Putting the word "shortstop" in the title of a book is not going to be a draw for me. The word "samurai," on the other hand, might pique my interest.

And thus I recently finished reading the really fine historical novel Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz. I knew I wasn't going to be killing time reading a cookie cutter teen novel after I finished the first chapter, in which the main character's uncle commits ritual suicide and his father indicates that he'll be following him sometime soon.

Samurai Shortstop is a historical novel that is as strong on novel as it is on history. Gratz has a good story and well-developed characters to go along with his research. To me, this is what a historical novel should be.

One of the things that I think makes the book so good is that it deals with culture clash. According to the Author's Notes at the end of the book, Japan didn't open up to Western culture until the 1850's. By 1890, the time in which Samurai Shortstop takes place, the old Japanese ways were being displaced by all things western. Among those things was baseball.

Will young American readers get the zenny aspects of this book and "the way of the warrior?" Or will they find old Japanese culture too remote to be of interest to them? I don't think so because a great deal of what's going on in Samurai Shortstop deals with school life. Even though we're talking about a boarding school with a code of behavior unheard of in our time, it's still school. I also think young people understand the attraction of the new, and the young people in Samurai Shortstop are seriously attracted to the new sport of baseball.

At the same time, though, there is no doubt that these young people are from another time.

By the way, did any other readers catch the references to the original Iron Chef? In a chapter in which the Ichiko students have to start running their dining room's kitchen themselves, one character, while talking about miso soup (an Iron Chef staple), says, "If memory serves--" Every episode of Iron Chef opens with the Chairman using that phrase. Later, another character says, "Allez cuisine!" Again, a favorite expression of the Chairman's.

The Author's Notes I mentioned before are excellent, and Gratz includes a list of sources.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Starting The Tour

I've been feeling a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of The Summer Blog Blast Tour. So very, very much reading for me to do. Nonetheless, I was able to get to Finding Wonderland's very good kick-off interview with Gene Yang, author of American Born Chinese. He has some interesting things to say about culture. After the interview you'll also find a list of additional links for more reading on Yang and his writing.

Remember how I went on and on about trying to read The New York Sunday Times? Well, I did finally get to the Book Review, which had what seemed to me to be a rather odd review by Ned Vizzini of American Born Chinese. While the overall review ended up being favorable, it started out raising the question "Is it so bad to grow up Asian in America?" The first two paragraphs sounded as if he were wondering, Hey, why do they need a book?

Labels: , ,

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Love That Monkey King

I love the term feral reader. That's how I feel about myself--I'm a feral reader with a poor attitude. I usually find it difficult to enjoy books I'm supposed to enjoy. Award winners, for instance. If a book has some kind of sticker on it, I can usually be assured I'm going to find it formulaic or a victim story or derivative or sappy or often some combination of all the foregoing.

Notice I didn't say the book would be any of those things, just that I'd find it so.

Even honor books often rub me the wrong way.

But I really am delighted when I can be like everyone else and love one of them sticker books the way I love American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Oh, man. I loved all the parts and never saw what was coming.

I've read a few graphic novels over the years, but I've never read one that I so completely "got." The panels completely merged with the text so that I just knew what I supposed to know as I was reading.

Or I thought I did. Maybe I didn't know what I was supposed to know, just what I thought I was supposed to know. Nonetheless, I loved the book.

If, like me, you want more of the Monkey King, try visiting the Monkey Kingdom.

Labels: ,

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.

Labels: , ,