Monday, November 21, 2011

This YA novel is more than okay

Gary D. Schmidt is now my favorite young adult novelist. His second novel, The Wednesday Wars, is one of the funniest and most heartwarming novels I've read ever. His latest one, Okay for Now, is also a keeper, a book that should be displayed prominently on your shelf.

In The Wednesday Wars, the character of Doug Swieteck was a minor one, playing second fiddle to the lovable Holling Hoodhood. Good thing that Schmidt decided to make Doug the lead in Okay for Now. As a protagonist, Doug represents all the potential that young adults can become, given the support and encouragement of family and friends.

The novel is set in a small town in New York state during the Vietnam War. Doug's family has just relocated to this quaint spot, where the library is only open during Saturdays, where every one seems to know one another, and where first impressions usually are important. For Doug, the last one can be very problematic, because of his troublesome father and his wayward older brother.

Pretty soon, Doug becomes friends with the indomitable Lil Spicer, whose father owns Spicer's Deli where Doug eventually works as delivery boy during Saturday mornings. It is during these delivery trips that he meets some of the eccentric residents of Marysville, New York. And during Saturday mornings, he takes up the habit of visiting the library where the librarian teaches him how to replicate Audobon's beautiful watercolors of the birds of America.

Audobon's book is the centerpiece of the town's library, but since the town is sometimes in need of cash for some project, it has sold one Audobon plate after another to different individuals. Doug then decides to collect back these plates. So how does Doug do it? Well, his methods become some of the endearing and funny parts of the book.

Okay for Now was nominated for this year's National Book Award, and I was hoping that it would win. (The Wednesday Wars was a Newberry Honor Book, which I felt was well deserved.) Doug's adventures in Okay for Now will often make you teary eyed and whoop for joy at the same time. I had no choice but to root for Doug all the way.

For a novel just under 400 pages, Schmidt has written about the aesthetics of Audobon's watercolors, the appeal of Jane Eyre to readers (the novel was a reading assignment in Doug's class), the horrors of gym class, the effects of war on families, and the causes of juvenile delinquency, among other things. Trust me, dear reader, Okay for Now is a wonderful and meaningful reading experience.

I do hope that Schmidt releases another novel soon. Schmidt's message of hope and redemption in Okay for Now is something that people need. Doug's persistence in learning Audobon's technique is admirable. His triumph in the midst of familial discord is a cause for celebration. His well-earned respect from the people around him is something every child can aspire to. All these make Okay for Now my favorite young adult read this year.

Read this book if:
  1. You love Audobon's plates.
  2. You'll read any YA fiction with a very lovable character.
  3. You know that when things go really, really wrong, they can only get better.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two boys, a house, and one very good novel

Children can be cruel toward one another, no? Their words sting, their fights physically hurtful. Susan Hill's 1970 novel, I'm the King of the Castle, explores what happens to two boys thrown together by parental circumstances. Having the same age, these boys are expected by all to be the best of friends, but in Hill's novels, these 11-year-olds turn out to be bitter, savage rivals.

Charles Kingshaw, the son of a husbandless housekeeper, moves into the grand ancestral house of Edmund Hooper, the son of an aristocratic Englishman. From the start, Edmund makes it clear to his father and Charles that he has no intention of being friends with Charles. Edmund is one territorial child, somehow perceiving that Charles will encroach in his domain.

But it's not enough that Edmund verbally abuses Charles. He locks Charles in his grandfather's room which houses a creepy collection of dead moths. He engages Charles in a fistfight. Charles makes it a point to get out of Edmund's way every day, but Edmund is intent on being the bully, the stalker, the antagonist. One can see that the situation is hopeless unless the parents intervene. Charles's mother and Edmund's father, however, remain clueless to the goings-on in their house. The parents have struck an awkward flirting phase with one another.

I'm the King of the Castle provokes a host of reactions from its readers. Some mention that the novel has a gothic, creepy feel to it. With the novel's setting and Hill's sombre turns of phrase, this reaction is justified. There's a pervading gloom in every page of the novel, as if Hill is preparing the reader for the eventual catastrophic climax.

Others mention that the novel is a crossover one, a work of fiction that can be read by both adults and young adults. This is rightly so, especially with Hill's accessible gift of narrative. I'm sure that both audiences will be able to relate to the themes of parental blindness, bullying, and dreams of fleeing.

I'm a big fan of Susan Hill, especially her ghost stories. The Woman in Black is my favorite ghost story. The Man in the Picture and The Small Hand are great creepy reads during rainy nights. Hill provides I'm the King of the Castle with a different kind of terror. It's a terror that's all too real and familiar, and it's from individuals whom you never imagine can give it -- children.

Read this book if:
  1. You've been scarred for life from bullying.
  2. You love Susan Hill's atmospheric novels.
  3. You're a parent of precocious children.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tuscany, LOL!

There are just a few places where I imagine spending my retirement years. The beaches of Boracay is one, and the rolling hills of Tuscany is another. The sumptuous food and wine, the glorious weather, the wonderful scenery! How can you go wrong with living in Tuscany! But in James Hamiton-Paterson's hilarious Booker-nominated novel, Cooking with Fernet Branca, Tuscany becomes the setting where everything goes wrong.

In Cooking with Fernet Branca, we meet two of the most hysterically funny characters in recent fiction -- Gerald Samper and Marta. Gerald, a Brit who ghostwrites celebrity biographies, has a fascination for a cuisine one might say is experimental. Marta, a native of the ex-Soviet republic called Voynovia, is a composer, working on the score for the film of a famous Italian director. Gerald and Marta are neighbors, much to each other's chagrin. Here's a sample of a dish that Gerald made for himself. Try not to be queasy. (There are a lot of these dreadful recipes in the book!)
Mussels in Chocolate

You flinch? But that's only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. (Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.)

2 dozen fresh mussels, shelled and cleaned
Good quality olive oil
Soy sauce
100 gm finely grated Valrhona dark chocolate

You will need quite a lot of olive oil because you are going to deep-fry the mussels, and no, that bright green stuff claiming to be Extra-Special First Pressing Verginissimo olive oil with a handwritten parchment label isn't necessary. Anyway, how can there possibly be degrees of virginity? Olive oil snobs are even worse than wine snobs. . . [page 15]
Hamilton-Paterson's novel is a comedy of errors in the craziest sense. Marta believes that Gerald loves the horrible alcoholic drink fernet branca so much that she lets him drink lots of it. Gerald, on the other hand, feels that his obligation to drink up as much as he can of that awful stuff, thinking that Marta likes the drink too. Now bring in coke-addicted drug stars, crazy family members, and a famed porn director and his son, and you've got a very rowdy mix of a story that Hamilton-Paterson expertly handles.

One feels that Hamilton-Paterson parodied the expat's life in this corner of Italy. It's a very successful attempt, with Gerald coming off as the stereotypical prudish Brit who feels entitled to the promise of solitude and beauty that Tuscany can offer. He has the habit of singing arias and other operatic pieces despite his little knowledge of the lyrics and the wanting quality of his voice. Marta uses Gerald's singing in the film. When Gerald first hears the score, he feels that the music is "vaguely familiar."

Cooking with Fernet Branca is a fun novel. It's the kind of novel that you read on a lazy Sunday afternoon when you think you can use a good laugh. And Hamilton-Paterson does bring in the gags. The novel is one comedic scene after another, with the reader relating to either Gerald or Marta. Read it, dear reader. You'll weep with delight.

Read this book if:
  1. You like parodies of famous travel books (Under the Tuscan's Son!).
  2. You're taste in food is also experimental.
  3. You'll read anything set in Tuscany.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Beautiful and grotesque

What can you expect from someone who came up with a character such as Pinhead in "Hellraiser"? Why a wonderful book filled with otherworldly characters of course! And it's been a while since Cliver Barker wrote something wonderfully strange and horrifying. His most recent adult fiction, Mister B. Gone, was just so-so; it's quite difficult to imagine that it's the same person who wrote The Books of Blood, Cabal, Imajica, and The Damnation Game (which inspired the movie "Hellraiser"). Mister B. Gone totally came from left field that I felt cheated.

It's a good thing though that Barker has a series (a quartet?) for young adults that is just as deliciously strange as his adult fiction. And third book in the series, Abarat: Absolute Midnight, doesn't disappoint.

Because this is a work from the twisted imagination of Barker, the characters range from the divine to the damned. Mater Motley, the book's primary villain, is a crazy old crone who wears a dress weighed down by the souls of the tormented. Motley is constantly surrounded by other monstrosities, and Barker's description of these is fascinating. The only "normal" character is Candy Quackenbush, the heroine of the series, who is still at the mystical land of Abarat.

To imagine Abarat, you will have to suspend all disbelief. It's a place, terrible and wonderful at the same time, that is made up of islands. Each island corresponds to a particular time of day. So there are islands who are bathed in sunshine at all times, and those that are perpetually clothed in the nighttime, such as Midnight where Mater Motley resides. In book 3, Mater Motley comes up with a plan to bring eternal midnight to the whole of Abarat, and it's only Candy who can stop her.

Barker doesn't come out with an Abarat book every year. Why? Each book has hundreds of paintings, which are all by Barker himself, that go hand in hand with the story. (And I'm guessing that it does take some time to paint.) Barker's style is what I would consider as grotesque; it complements his monsters.

Here are some of my favorite images in the third book:

With all the young adult fiction featuring vampires, zombies, werewolves, fairies, and other usual boring supernatural characters, Barker's Abarat comes off as refreshing. In a way, Abarat reminds us of the monsters that we expected to come slithering out of our closets at night when we were children. I can't wait for book 4 to be published!

Read this book if:
  1. You feel a strange affinity toward Pinhead.
  2. You love monsters.
  3. Your favorite time of the day is midnight.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In the mood for high fantasy

The high fantasy bug must have bit me recently, for I can't seem to get enough of these wonderful novels. Give me wizards and witches, sorcerers and sorceresses, royalty, gods, mythical beasts, and dragons. I want them all. (Never mind that I'll be reading these books in mass market paperback format.)

Of course, it's about time I get to read these "classic" high fantasy novels. The Eye of the World is the first of many, and I'm hoping it's as good as a lot of people tell me. The Once and Future King has on my TBR for the longest time. And The Sword of Shannara will be the first Terry Brooks I'll get to read.

And then there's high fantasy for young adults! Brian Jacques's Redwall, Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three, and Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle! All books are the first in a series which I hope will motivate me to read the rest.

I've started on some recently published high fantasy (poly-bookist that I am), and I must say that they're very, very good. Sara Douglass's Hades' Daughter is high drama as well involving labyrinths, Greek gods, and ancient England. Steven Erickson's Gardens of the Moon is fantasy with a heavy dose of military angles. And I've heard a lot of good things about Brian Sanderson's Mistborn. Again, all three are the first in the series.

How about you, dear reader? Do you have a high fantasy title that you would like to recommend to me?