Thursday, June 23, 2011

It’s Okay to Know Everything: A Review of I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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Some years ago when I first began writing seriously, I got together with a few others and we tried to start a critique group. At an early meeting, I read a passage of my work-in-progress and one of the others jumped all over me about point of view. She claimed I could only know what one person was doing, seeing, thinking, etc. I suggested that an omniscient observer was a valid point of view, but she dismissed that idea as idiotic. I brought Bel Canto to the next meeting to show an example of omniscient observer that worked awfully well. Shortly after, the group broke up.

I'll Be ThereIt seems to me in this day and age, the vast majority of published fiction is written in either first person or close third person. What I’ve read in writing books and heard at conferences is that this has become the way things are done so as not to confuse our readers. Kind of insulting, I think, but it is what it is. It can be a distraction unless it is done really well, and that is actually rare. I just finished a book in which the omniscient observer point of veiw is really done well, so I recommend that you run right out and get Holly Goldberg Sloan’s debut novel, I’ll Be There.

This is a young adult book, but since I read a lot of YA and write YA, this should be no surprise. But I must say, even if you don’t read a lot of YA, you should give this one a try. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this book. (My friend Morgan Mussell just posted What is YA and Who Reads It on his blog. You might find it interesting.)

Holly Goldberg Sloan
I’ll Be There is the riveting story of two brothers, one seventeen and one twelve, who live in the most precarious of conditions. Sam and Riddle live not so much with their father, but in spite of him. They were jerked away from their mother and some semblance of a home when they are only two and seven by their father, a darkly villainous man who is driven by a larcenous soul and strange voices only he can hear. The boys have been kept from anything normal since he took them. They’ve had no school, no permanent place to live or health care or enough food to let them thrive, etc. Riddle, asthmatic and allergic, can hardly breathe much of the time and seldom speaks. Sam is a hero almost from the first page, doing what needs to be done to protect his brother and keep them both in survival mode. But they are special boys. Riddle is an extraordinary artist. Sam is a gifted guitarist, self-taught, and music is his salvation. Sam goes to church every Sunday he can. Not because he is religious, but because of the music. It is in a small-town church Sam and Emily meet.

Emily, also seventeen, is the shy, quietly intelligent, and sensitive daughter of a college music professor and a nurse. Her best friend persuades Emily to go out with a popular boy, Bobby Ellis. She’s not much interested and it shows. What could possibly make her more fascinating to Bobby than that? But she’s not playing Bobby. She is captivated by Sam and can’t get him out of her mind. She finds him and makes sure he can be in her life. Bobby becomes obsessed with Emily and, in following Sam and investigating him and his family, spooks the boys’ crazy, paranoid father and sets things in motion that careen wildly out of control, endangering the boys in unimaginable ways.

Bel Canto (P.S.)Sloan has created characters who will grab your heart and hold on for dear life, taking you with them on this incredible journey. And it’s a love story, and I’m always a sucker for that. But it’s not just a love story about Emily and Sam. Sam and Riddle’s love for each other is powerful and amazing. And there are other kinds of love that grow organically around these characters that make it a very rich read. How good is this book? I was grateful I had to wait forty-five minutes for a test at Kaiser today so I could have some uninterrupted time to read this delicious book. There wasn’t a moment I spent with I’ll Be There when I wasn’t thrilled to lose myself in the pages. Oh, and don't forget Bel Canto, that other well-written book written in the omniscient observer point of view.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Couple of Things and a Review of Chris Crutcher’s Angry Management

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It’s been a bit of a gap since my last post, but I’ve been very busy with reading and writing and baseball. I’ll talk about each of these today, with the bulk going to reading and a review of something I’ve read. But first, from Grandma’s Sports Desk…

As those of you who have read my work know, baseball is a very big part of my life. It has a major role in some of my works and a minor role in some others. There’s a reason for that. It’s always been something I’ve enjoyed – playing at family gatherings and in school, watching the teams in whatever town I lived – but became a force after I met my favorite son-in-law, Gordon. (I only have one son-in-law, so I can say that, but he’s also a favorite person in my life.) Gordon lives, eats, and breathes baseball. He taught me to really love the game and helped me learn the nuances and to appreciate the beauty of it. He also passed all this along to our grandson, Gehrig, age nine. This is a boy who is living up to his name.

Yesterday, Gehrig’s Little League team was in their first game of the playoffs. I don’t know what position they were in – maybe fourth or so, but they had to play the first place team. His team played with great heart, surely playing the best game of their season. Gehrig was behind the dish for three innings and made some great plays, saving at least one run on a great tag out at the plate. Then he pitched for two innings -- the first of those was an 11 pitch, 3 up 3 down inning. He got on base every at bat and had a key RBI hit.The other team even tried to intentionally walk him – in a Little League game! Unbelievable. Even though Gehrig's team lost by one run, the coach of the winning team awarded the game ball to Gehrig. What a night. What a game. I am so proud of all the kids. They were awesome. And, not that I’m biased, Gehrig absolutely deserved the game ball. He was the best player on the field. Anybody ever tells you Little League is boring, you are talking to someone who doesn’t know baseball.

I love having a blog. I can write about anything I want. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. I’ve been writing a lot and am busy making submissions this week and next, sending out things I believe are finally, really ready. I’m not superstitious, but I am buying both a Ganesha and a St. Jude this week to keep on my desk. Keep your fingers crossed for me, but please don’t let that prevent you from leaving a comment!

Angry ManagementAs far as reading goes, I’ve been plowing through things – some for reviews for the Sacramento Book Review and some for pure pleasure. Some are in both those categories. Back in March, I wrote a post called An Homage to Writing God Chris Crutcher. If you haven’t seen it, click here and have a peek. In that post, I mentioned I would review his new book, Angry Management, as soon as the Sacramento Book Review published what I wrote for them. You can see the short review by clicking here, if you like, but I’d like to expand on that a bit. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a huge fan of Chris Crutcher.

Angry Management is comprised of three novellas. The characters in these stories are largely characters Crutcher fans already know, characters from earlier works. How often have you read a book, fallen in love with the characters, and wished you could visit with them more? Well, he’s giving us just that opportunity. The stories are framed by group counseling sessions run by a Japanese-cowboy-counselor by the name of Nak (Mr. Nakatani), a character from the first Crutcher book I ever read – Ironman. Nak is working with kids going through tough times, facing difficulties beyond their years.

The first novella, Kyle Maynard and the Craggy Face of the Moon is a story of great hope and beauty. Sarah Byrnes (Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes) was horribly abused and physically scarred, then abandoned, as a child. Angus Bethune (Athletic Shorts) is a big guy. Not just big, but enormous. He comes by it honestly. His parents are enormous as well, and divorced, and re-married to each of their gay lovers. Woof. How bad can it get? But however bad it seems, there is great redemption in this story of two flawed people. It is a coming-of-age story, although atypical in that these two are already quite mature, but they haven’t really come into their own yet. It’s also a love story and one of the most satisfying you can read.

Montana Wild takes on issues of the foster care system with the story of beautiful, smart Montana West (The Sledding Hill), editor of the school newspaper and adopted daughter of the president of the school board. Uh-oh. Looks like trouble. When Daddy Dearest throws obstacles in the way of publishing her controversial article, she ends up doing an article on the football team. She’s not prepared to fall in love with one of the bad-boy football players, Trey Chase (new character for Crutcher), but she does. They decide to take on the establishment (read Daddy) together, with the support of Trey’s incredible grandmother. (I love incredible grandmother characters!) The showdown scene couldn’t be better.

Meet Me at the Gates, Marcus James is, in my mind, the greatest gem in this book of finely cut gems. Marcus (another new character) is black and unabashedly gay. Unfortunately, he is the only student in his up-tight, small-minded high school to be either black or unabashedly gay. Oh, and he’s got an IQ of Rhodes Scholar caliber and is a great swimmer. When someone leaves a pink noose on his locker, he decides he should wear it – since it was a gift and all. One of his teachers, Mr. Simet (Whale Talk) does what he can to help Marcus through it, but his greatest, and unlikeliest, ally turns out to be Matt Miller (Deadline). This is a powerful story and not one for the faint of heart.

Chris Crutcher doesn’t write tidy little stories with perfect characters. He writes about flawed, often damaged (read as REAL) characters confronted with the all-too-common problems young people face today. I’ve never read a word in his books that seemed contrived or unreal. I've never read a line of dialogue that seemed anything less than authentic. This is a terrific book, perhaps his best, but it’s hard for me to choose a best from his long list of fine books.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Land of a Hundred Wonders by Lesley Kagen -- A Book Review

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Land of a Hundred WondersWhistling In the DarkA year or so ago, my sister Tudy gave me a book she had enjoyed: Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen. I was transported to a small town in Wisconsin in 1959, a time and place where innocence prevails. Or does it? It was a wonderful coming-of-age mystery I couldn’t put down. 

When I was preparing for my trip to Pennsylvania for the Highlights Founders Workshop I wrote about in my last post, I went to the bookstore looking for an airplane book, something to keep me entertained that would transport me away from a long, boring trip. I was happy run across another book by Lesley Kagen, and I picked up a copy of Land of a Hundred Wonders.

I have to tell you, I love quirky characters. It’s always fun to run across one, and a really good one will likely keep me reading more than any other single thing an author can do.  Land of a Hundred Wonders, takes place in the small town of Cray Ridge, Kentucky. The main character, a champion of quirkiness, Gibby McGraw had been in a terrible accident. Her parents had been killed and Gibby had suffered a serious head injury. She is NQR (Not Quite Right) because of it. She lives with her grandfather and cleans tables at his diner to earn her keep. His deep love for Gibby becomes clear early in the book. He spends a lot of his efforts trying to find ways to help Gibby to become QR (Quite Right) again. It is Gibby’s greatest wish. She believes becoming QR is the only way her dead mother can have peace. Gibby decides the best way to do this is to solve the mystery of a murder. She has found the body of the richest man in town, and she intends to solve his murder and write about it in her newspaper. Yup. She has her own newspaper, Gibby's Gazette, and spends much of her spare time writing stories about the townspeople. It’s a clever device used by Ms. Kagen to give us a lot of back-story without being in any way obvious about it.

Now I mentioned I love quirky characters. (A favorite quirky-character book is Audrey, Wait by Robin Benway. It’s one of the funniest books you’ll ever read and Audrey’s best friend, Victoria, is one of the best quirky characters ever created. Check it out. But I digress. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.) This book doesn’t just have just one. The town is full of quirky characters. Gibby’s best friend Clever, Miss Florida, Vietnam vet Billy, Sneaky Tim Ray Holloway, and others. Yet, if you’ve spent any time in a small town as I have, you will realize Ms. Kagen hasn’t created too many quirky characters. This is the way small towns seem to be. I had no trouble buying into this story populated with so many quirky characters, some pretty shady, but most caring and kind.

This is a coming-of-age story, although an odd one, since Gibby is twenty years old. (I do think the publisher is missing a bet by not marketing Kagen's books as Young Adult or at least crossover.) But remember, she’s NQR. Challenged by some frightening happenings – Grampa’s heart attack, the impending birth of Clever’s baby, Buster Malloy’s murder, on-going abuse by Sneaky Tim Ray Holloway, and others, Gibby begins to find her way out of the severe loss of memory she suffered as a consequence of her accident. As layers peel away, we discover, along with Gibby, who the people of Cray Ridge really are and more than one mystery is solved for us and for Gibby.

Good GracesTomorrow RiverThis charming book is not only a coming-of-age story, but a mystery and a love story as well. Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny (just ask the folks on my flight who probably think I’m a pretty quirky character), but keep the tissues at hand. You will be touched by this sweet and funny story. Oh, and I just found out Ms. Kagen has another book out -- Tomorrow River, and another one coming out in September, Good Graces. I guess I'll have to make more trips to the bookstore!