Thursday, February 23, 2012

Paranormal Young Adults

Some crazy things happen to teenagers in America today, if the YA fiction I've been reading lately is any indication. It's so not normal as to be paranormal. Or fantastic. Or some similar designation - I'm not always clear on how SFF genres differentiate themselves. At any rate, all of these heroines were leading what should have been perfectly normal high school lives, and then, things changed.

First teen up is Jessica Mastriani, who is, duh, struck by lighting in Meg Cabot's When Lightning Strikes. (Cabot originally published this series under pen name Jenny Carroll.)  Jess doesn't think it was a big deal, until she woke up the next morning knowing where the missing kid from her family's milk carton was located. With the help of bad boy Rob Wilkins, she discovers that yes, she really can find missing people. And no, it's not always that excellent a skill to possess. Particularly when some people are missing for good reasons, and also, the FBI are really freaking out your mentally unstable family members. 

I've not read much of Cabot's other YA work (though of course that's what she's known for) but I have gobbled up her Airhead, Heather Wells, and Queen of Babble books. They're fast and fun, not too quirky and consistently charming. After Lightning, I quickly moved on to the rest of the 1-800-WHERE-R-YOU books (Code Name Cassandra, Safe House, Sanctuary, and Missing You) and although I was jarred by the big time gap between the 4th and 5th books, I found them all very readable. I'll definitely be keeping Cabot on my radar.

Our next not-so-normal teen is Lenzi, the narrator of Mary Lindsey's Shattered Souls. Lenzi's still mourning her father's voices-in-his-head driven suicide when she turns 17 and starts to hear voices of her own. This freaks her the heck out. Her boyfriend Zak does what he can to calm her, but Zak has his own issues, and besides, it's a bit out of the realm of his experience. This becomes patently obvious when one of the voices takes corporeal form, and quite a cutie-pie form Alden is, too. What's more, Alden informs Lenzi that they've known each other for centuries, that the other voices are those of dead people who need her help to pass peacefully from this world, and that his job is to help her help them.

It's a lot to process, and Alden is both confounded and distressed by the fact that Lenzi can't remember any of this on her own. Gradually she comes to believe in him, and in the need for their work to continue. External pressures in the form of angry dead people, angry Zak, and the angry governing body of soul movers don't help Lenzi's journey, but she's a strong and resourceful character. Lindsey, by the way, is a neighbor friend, and this is her debut. I've been looking forward to its publication for a while now, and enjoying following her journey into authorship. After this inventive novel, I'm eager to see what she'll come up with next.

Finally, meet Kaye. Now, when Kaye was a little girl, Holly Black tells us in Tithe, she played with faeries. Everyone else thought they were her imaginary friends, but when she and her mother return to her grandmother's house after a few peripatetic years, it becomes clear that the Fae Realm is all too real. What's more, if the free faeries don't offer up a sacrificial human to the Dark Court, they'll be bound to the not-at-all-nice queen for seven years. And the free faeries - who include those long-ago playmates of Kaye's - have a plan wherein Kaye becomes the tithe. They explain that they'll trick the queen so Kaye won't die. Probably. Meanwhile, Kaye has befriended a bad boy of her own (these books always include bad boys, I'm finding. Bad boys are good.) He's a servant of the Dark Court, and none too happy about it. Things don't exactly go well for anyone, but Kaye is an intuitive and clever girl who has discovered a lot of power, and isn't willing to stand back rather than use it.

The second in this series, Valiant, alludes only peripherally to Kaye's adventure, but the third, Ironside, brings Kaye back front and center, and adds the characters in Valiant into the mix. Black built a complex world that works nicely with traditional faerie lore, at least as far as I've gleaned it from the unaccountable number of books I've read lately that include both Light and Dark Faerie Courts. (Those Fae get around literature like you wouldn't believe.) There's a distinctly dark and menacing side to Black's rendition, and Kate Rudd, who narrated the first and third audiobooks, captures it deftly. She also infuses a perfect amount of youthful uncertainty and anxiety into Kaye's voice as she deals with myraid new social situations. Renée Raudman voices Valiant, and is a tad breathier than the grittiness of Val's story necessarily merits, but her handling of pacing and suspense is always stellar.

I'm going to have to look for some YA fiction that takes place entirely within the non-magical non-dystopian world I know. Until then, bring on the ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Show Will Go On

D is in the school musical. It opens tonight. We never see him anymore.

It’s Oklahoma!, and he’s a rancher. A dancing, singing, roping rancher. (Can’t you just imagine him, going off to some coastal state for college, at a dorm mixer all, “Yep, course I can lasso you. I’m from Texas, ain’t I?”)

The way it happened was this: a few friends are theatre people, and they have speaking parts. There was a shortage of guys for the chorus. So they recruited him. Not that he knew how to dance a step, but I think I’ve mentioned before how he’s a musical genius and all. (Okay, but really, he is a great and versatile musician, and sings like an angel upon this earth.) (Well, probably he does. I have a tin ear, what do I know?) So: tall, nice sounding guy willing to learn grapevines, and he got the part.

Earlier in the school year, he mostly spent a few Saturdays learning dances, and did some after-school time. Not insanely busy. (But: tall. The choreographer likes tall. He’s in, like, all of the dances.) He still ate dinner with us many nights, and I could brow-beat him into doing chores on a regular basis.

This semester, that changed drastically. Rehearsal every day after school, just about. Saturday work days. Sunday roping lessons. Oh, yeah, and the Model UN conference was last week, so there were position papers to research and write, and every class had a test or quiz while he was at the conference, so there was all the make-up work. (He won Best Delegate for his subcommittee – the only MUN kid at his school to win an engraved gavel. I’ma get me a bumper sticker: Ask My Kid About Refugees.)

So Thursday, opening night, he will show up at school in full makeup at 6 a.m. (K’s 12 Year Old Little Brother Destiny has been fulfilled. “D, are you wearing mascara?” “D looks so pretty in his makeup!” “I can’t stop looking at D’s beautiful face!”) He might be home closer to 11 than to midnight. He has a Spanish II test first thing Friday morning.

Did I mention he’s still maintained his perfect GPA through all of this? Although there is a chance that Spanish and Chemistry will be low As instead of high As this grading period. My kid, I tell you what.

So join me, won’t you, in admiring him from afar? Not that I don’t relish the three or five minutes we spend together after I pick him up from rehearsals. It’s good to be reminded not to take time with him for granted, especially as he gets older. I treasure the texts. I bask in his angelic voice down the hall singing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” or “People Will Say We’re in Love” as he toils over his homework or scrubs the eyeliner off his beautiful face. And maybe next month, when the show closes, I’ll get to see more of that face during daylight hours.

Until then, if the dishwasher needs unloading, or his laundry positively has to be done by morning, don’t look for D. The role of Member of This Household is being played by his understudies: his parents. We don’t mind overmuch, for now. We even hopes he gets the speaking part he’s hoping for in next year’s musical, with all the attendant logistics it will entail.

Break a leg, kid.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Narrator Spotlight: Davina Porter

I have a few voices in the audiobook world I'll follow around from author to genre, thanks to the excellence of their narration. Davina Porter is one. I first encountered her reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, which, if you haven't read it and you even a little bit like the idea of a time-traveling historical romance set in the Scottish Highlands, go check it out and thank me later. Porter also reads Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series, which also involves Scotland, but otherwise is an entirely different animal. Isabel is an editor of a moral philosophy journal, and frequently finds herself investigating problems for friends and acquaintances. 

Someone recommended Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon series. Porter narrates them, so I downloaded the first in the series, The Mistress of Magic. It's been a long time since the romance of the Arthurian legend spoke to my soul, and Morgaine was never my favorite of the bunch. Still, this retelling from her point of view is definitely intriguing in an anthropological-feminist sort of way. Perhaps my expectations were too high, given the solid recommendation and my weakness for whatever Porter chooses to tell me, but I was constantly drifting off during this book. I was frustrated by Morgaine's inability to apply rational thought to her situation, less than moved by the Greater Good type issues of her aunt, and not enchanted by the magical connection between Arthur's parents (her mother and step-father), who may have been fated from centuries of past lives, but aren't very good at noticing the relationships happening in front of them in their present. I'm probably too much of a completest with series (earlier today I read Ally Condie's Crossed, even though I spent half the summer making fun of the audio of Matched with my son and niece as we commuted to and from work.) But I think I'll stop at this point with this particular series.

Far more engaging for me is Nicola Upson's Josephine Tey Mystery series, also, of course, narrated by Porter. I may or may not have mentioned how much I've enjoyed discovering Tey's mysteries over the past year. Since I read them all, though, I was looking at a Tey-less future until I found out about Upson's series, in which she brings Tey to life as the heroine of her own detective stories. Tey teams up with her friend, Scotland Yard Inspector Archie Penrose, to suss out murderers in their world. Tey is Scottish, which suits Porter's voice so well, but Porter also accents all of the English voices beautifully, giving Penrose in particular a strong charm that enhances the difficult relationship between the friends.

The first novel, An Expert in Murder, is set in London's West End, where Tey's first successful play is ready to close, with murder in the wings. Tey is struggling with the changes in her life that the play's popularity has brought her, but her private issues don't stop her from diving into the investigation, to Penrose's mingled dismay and gratitude. Things between them are at an uneasy truce by the end of Upson's first novel, and as Angel with Two Faces opens, both are hoping that a holiday in Cornwall (Penrose's childhood home) will give them a chance to clear the air. Unfortunately, a murder right off the bat gets in the way, and Penrose is left walking a delicate line between local boy come home and Inspector in the midst. (There is a bit of a Lady in the Lake overtone to this novel, so all of that Avalon stuff was a good refresher, at least.) I thoroughly enjoyed Upson's twists and turns in this one, especially, and felt like I could walk into the village and name at least every third inhabitant by the end. I'm so looking forward to reading more by Upson, and have just downloaded the third in the series, which came out a week ago.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Two Minervas You Should Meet

Without particularly meaning to, I listened to two books with excellent protagonists named Minerva, who go by Min (not Minnie), with unruly hair and strong voices and romantic problems. Other than that, they're not a lot the same story, but both are told so well.

In Why We Broke Up, written by Daniel Handler and illustrated by Maria Kalman, Min Green is a 16 year old with a broken heart. She was never one of the popular girls, but got along well with her don't-call-them-artsy friends. Then she and Ed, the star of the basketball team, got together. Their relationship was intense and charming and doomed. The novel is the letter that Min writes Ed to accompany the box of memorabilia that Min hoarded over the course of their relationship. Each section is a story that relates to the objects that Kalman illustrates.

Min's voice is so lovely and true. Maybe she's a little emotionally prescient, but she has all of the passion and obsession with minutia and Grand Romance that makes this novel a success. Ed is a pretty amazing character, too, at least as seen through Min's eyes. How much of the generous, compassionate, sensitive soul yearning to break free from the constraints of his popular, charming jock persona is truly him as opposed to what Min invests in him remains to be seen. But in my imagination, Ed actually reads - and reflects on - the box of memories and the accompanying letter, and some day he breaks free of those chains of his own accord. Min is given a perfect blend of earnestness, heartbreak, naivete, and intelligence by narrator Khristine Hvam. The audiobook includes a PDF of Kalman's charming illustrations, which you need to get the full impact of the text.

My other Minerva is Min Dobbs, heroine of Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me. This novel opens with Min being dumped, though she is less devastated by it than Min Green was. Of course, the jerk who dumped her, David, hasn't got the redeeming features of Handler's Ed. Then again, it doesn't look like Cal has a lot of redeeming features of his own. Still, when Min overhears a bitter David betting a skeptical Cal that he can't get Min to sleep with him, she decides to spite David by accepting Cal's dinner invitation. The fact that Cal only meant the bet to be for a meal provides most of the misunderstandings between them for the next month, but David and Cal's ex also do what they can to drive a wedge between the two.

Min has issues with her weight - her mother is, among other things, terrified that she'll make little sister Diana's wedding look bad because Min is too fat. Cal has issues with his emotional intelligence - struggling with dyslexia as a child in a successful family means being perceived as stupid is a hot button for him. And although Min and Cal find plenty of other reasons to push each other away and ignore the rightness they feel when they are together, they each see immediately through the biggest issues. Jumping to each other's defense, and helping each other reframe their issues in a positive light, they get under each other's skin. It's very Cinderella for both of them, and very charming and sweet and thought-provoking, to boot. Narrator Deanna Hurst is always a great bet for contemporary romance - she is light and clear and you can hear the smile in her voice.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Memory Lane

Over lunch yesterday my sister and I got to talking about our earliest memories. We moved from our house at 1722 Corral Drive (the address will never leave my memory banks!) when I was 7 and she was 6, so we know all the memories from there are our earliest. She has the layout of the upstairs fixed in her memory, as do I, but I also have clear images of most of the downstairs and back yard.

Here's me at almost 2, sharing my big brother's bed. I don't remember sleeping in that room (despite the EXTREMELY AWESOME wallpaper), but have plenty of mental images of the room my sister and I shared. The first wallpaper was green with fluffy bunnies everywhere, and later it was all Old English-type roses, which I'd stare at for hours picking out shapes in the patterns.

I remember standing in the den peering over the edge of my baby brother's bassinet. I was almost 3 when he was born, so I know this has to be among my earliest memories. The bassinet was in the den, which had wood paneling and some truly memorable gold sofas (here they are on Christmas when I was in 3rd grade. I'm the one delighted by my Cinderella doll and my first sewing machine. Check out big brother's Star Wars figures - my sons have those now.) On the other side of the half-wall was the room with the pool table, which had a mirrored ceiling. This made it easier for the four little kids to watch what was happening when the grown-ups played pool. It also left me with some memories of jokes from my parents' friends that I had to sort out when I was much older.

Our dining room, with the blue flocked wallpaper and built-in intercom / radio, I barely remember. We didn't eat in there much. (This is my 4th birthday. Do you love my red robe? I loved my red robe.) The birthday itself I don't remember - the first birthday party I remember was my 6th or so. Try as I might, there are few specific events I remember before starting elementary school. Sis and I both vividly recall traumatic scenes from first grade - I barely made it to the trash can to throw up because I was afraid to ask to go to the restroom, and she got yelled at for littering in the classroom. We remember playground scenes, and walking to and from school, and the time it snowed and we had hot cocoa in front of the fireplace. (Houston: not much of a snow town.)

So I was curious what my boys remembered. They're a lot closer to their earliest memories, after all. D remembers a bit about the townhouse we lived in until he was 2 1/4. He remembers wanting to go up the stairs, but being blocked by the baby gate. Since our house after that had no stairs, I know this is a true early memory. He also has a strong recollection of the dump truck-load of dirt that we had in our driveway when he was 2 1/2 and we'd just moved to our current home. He really, really, really liked that pile of dirt.

There are other early memories he shared with me. His preschool class (and apparently I was prone to giving Lectures About Life even when he was 3.) (But hey, he doesn't judge people based on skin color, so they worked?) He recalls a good bit about a trip to Hawaii with my extended family when he was 3 3/4. He remembers - I love this - coming to the hospital at 4 1/4 to meet his baby brother for the first time, and thinking that he didn't know K would be so cute. He doesn't remember my giant pregnant belly, but does remember being an only child, and knowing that he had a sibling on the way.

K remembers the house I grew up in (not on Corral Drive, the one we lived in after that.) My parents moved from it before he turned three, so the fact that he can describe "the round room with the white chairs and blue carpet and glass table" is clearly a very early memory for him. (He's 1 in this photo with his brother and cousins. How cute are they all, seriously?) K also remembers going on an expedition to buy sheets for his Big Kid Bed. He moved from our bed to his own room when he was about 2 1/2, so the sheets would have been bought around then.

Like his brother, his more detailed early memories are around 4 years old. My parents took everyone to Alaska when he was 4 1/2 and he can tell me a ton about that trip. A year before that the four of us road tripped to Colorado, but that doesn't really stick in his mind. All of the trips to Ireland to see R's side of the family kind of run together for both of them into a giant mash-up of Nana feeding them sausages and rashers, playing football with cousins in the back garden, and getting 99s to eat while walking along the Irish Sea. (In this picture, D is 6 and K is 2. Neither particularly remembers that day, but just look how adorable they are. Doesn't K's curly head just slay you?)

So what does trekking down Memory Lane bring you? Is there some vivid wallpaper in your past, as well, or did you not get to live in the 70s wonderland that I did? And what exactly do you think imprinting on that wallpaper did to the formation of my young brain?