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Sunday, September 18, 2011

DOUBLEDAY Early Review

You Against Me
by Jenny Downham

Published by Doubleday Canada
Hardcover, $19.95 CAN

This is pure genre fiction, on a number of accounts, but quite deft. I read once that we judge the formulaic not by its originality, but by its fulfillment of the formula. By that measure, this book is successful.

Here we have yet another version of Romeo and Juliet - two families at war over the most serious of crimes between them, the young blade of one family and the shy innocent of the other falling in love before she knows their families separate them. Romeo and Juliet, or should I say Mikey and Ellie, are perfect teen-novel characters. He is kind and caring, despite his desperate background, and stunningly attractive. He works in a pub kitchen, hoping to become a chef. It is one of the leit-motifs of the novel, his food preparations, alluding to his state of mind, his growing wisdom and even his dangerous and difficult situation. She is studious, and thoughtful, with a scar on her face from a dog bite in her youth (not sure what to make of that). Her motif is nature, the imagery expanding from birds to whales, as she gains in independence and rebelliousness.

The supporting families are still more sketchy and stereotypical: on the one hand Ellie's family, from the world of the highly entitled, are exam-taking, golf-playing and rich, with the father and son united in their bullishness and TV tastes, and a repressed and proper mother; on the other, there is the distressed and fatherless family of smokers living in a public estate, comprising not only the sweet Mikey himself, but the creative and light-hearted 8-year old sister, the feckless yet loving mother. Even the victim of the situation, Mikey's middle sister, is hardly drawn out. For much of the novel she is only a bundle of nervous rage refusing to leave the house. She is only a catalyst. Her story does not matter here.

In this case, the issue itself, the crime between the families, is also a hot-button genre for our times: did a slightly older, privileged boy (her brother) actually rape the 15-year old drunk, mini-skirted, poor girl (his sister), or was she asking or even hoping for sex with him?

The Romeo and Juliet theme continues as the two families spin towards implosion, and the two lovers realize that they cannot survive the situation. (Da-da-daaa–imagine the dramatic music) Or can they????

Although I read the praise for Downham's first book as "luminous" and "thrilling" and "mold-breaking", I found this book to be no more than competent and readable. It's not art, but I think girls will take it out of the library in droves.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

DOUBLEDAY Early Review with Bonus Feature

The Summer of Permanent Wants
by Jamieson Findlay

Published by Doubleday Canada
Paperback, $14.95 CAN
Juvenile Fiction

I have become a connoisseur of everything in a book besides the text - notes, footnotes, translator's notes, bibliographies, colophons, acknowledgements, blurbs and anything else there might be. I picked this book up first, from a small pile of YA books to review, because the back cover summary hit all my buttons: sailing in southern Ontario, on a boat-bookstore, selling slightly obscure books; the story extending slightly into the realm of fantasy; the main character having language issues, requiring the use of Sign Language (a secret interest of mine). No blurbs at all! I have to also say I love cover art (and follow Chip Kidd - superstar of cover design and also novelist - see Bonus Feature below) and this book has a particularly appealing and apt cover. First impression: this grown-up's delight. The questions is, will a kid want to pick it up?

As I was reading, I realized how great it is when a writer works within his knowledge zone. It is fuddy-duddy-ish of me, I know, but my hackles are raised by ignorant elisions, and my serotonin flows nicely when a writer writing about living aboard a small boat knows things like you need to use two anchors to anchor a small boat offshore, that you must have a boat hook aboard for its myriad uses, that the water looks exactly "still and otherworldly" at the break of dawn from an anchorage. It just so happens that I actually spent my young life enjoying summer vacations aboard a sailboat on Lake Ontario, from Toronto over to the Thousand Islands. It gives a feeling of reliability for other parts of the story where I know less, like kinds of lizards, and motions made for certain signs, and that makes me comfortable recommending the book to the young and impressionable.

Because of that underlying feeling of accuracy, I kept checking and rechecking the biographical notes on Findlay – ah yes! a science writer and, LIVES in Ottawa. I admit I was surprised that I had not noticed at first that the writer was a man, with his two main characters an 11-year old girl and her grandma, both so well-imagined and voiced.

The writing in the first half of the book is just that unobtrusive, more descriptive than poetic, not author-y, if I may coin a phrase. However, the intriguing and apocryphal title, and the fantastic chapter headings (my favourite is "At War with the Caliph of Darkness") hint at what is to come. Suddenly, just before a chapter called, darkly,  "The Patriot of the Night" there is a shift in the narrative style: a first person narrator takes over from the omniscient narrator, in post-modern kind of way, talking to the reader about these stories told to him by the main characters, and the language also shifts toward the starry and poetic. The wrap-up is cute and sweet, making sense of the novel's time and the book's.

This really is a delightful book, a cut above, remarkably free of the tics and habits of kids' fiction. I prize freshness above almost everything, and A Summer of Permanent Wants offers that. I have said, and hopefully will get to say again, how much I love books like this that are Canadian without being CANADIAN. And, it gave me another experience in discovering the existence of a new category for LibraryThing. Let's see...I'll tag it "shipboard naturalist children/SNC" wait..."kid explorers on board/KEOB"...I'll think of something. It is pure pleasure to be able to say that I will put this book on my kids' shelves, and suggest they look into it. I will make a point of finding Findlay's first book, which also has an intriguing title: The Blue Roan Child. I imagine we would all like to read it, too. What about you?

Bonus Feature:
Although I don't usually do this as part of a book review, for this book there is kind of a related reading list:
Joshua Slocum: Two Years Before the Mast (my sailing father's on-board bible and the first title mentioned in this book)
Leah Hager Cohen: Train Go Sorry: Inside the Deaf World (a stunning autobiography of a deaf person at Gallaudet University for the Deaf that will forever change your ideas about the language-ness of Sign Language)
Chip Kidd: The Cheese Monkeys (I mean, honestly, that title alone...although it's not for kids) and Veronique Vienne's monograph on his covers: Chip Kidd
Eva Ibbotson: Journey to the River Sea (a lovely book from the new category "shipboard naturalist children", or uh...)
Jacqueline Kelly: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (honorary "SNC" book, because it happens in Texas, not on a boat)
Ernie Bradford: Ulysses Found (my favourite live-aboard book, which I read aboard one summer holiday, tracing the possible voyage of Ulysses in the modern Mediterranean)