Thursday, September 17, 2009

New fiction & fantasy for September (and poetry, too)

There's more to being a teenager than the latest movie tie-in novel might suggest about vampire crushes and rock-star dreams. Here is a quick look at some current books that go below the surface of their high-school settings and deal with the complexities of friendship, family, pain, and real life. There's some fantasy here, too, but fantasy with a real, emotional edge. You can find copies of these books using the World Catalog / Amazon search boxes here on BookBag.

The Wandora Unit,
by Jessy Randall (Ghost Road Press). It's the Duran Duran 1980s: Wanda Lowell and Dora Nussbaum are two word-obsessive high-school girls, as well as being the two editors of the school's literary magazine, "Galaxy." Their friendship is surrounded on all sides by doubt, and not just the kind that questions the middle-class values of prom dates and getting into good colleges. Now as they near graduation, there's a growing acceptance of adult responsibilities and the realization that nothing can ever be perfect. Unfortunately for Dora this means watching her friendship with Wanda change until it shatters into a million pieces outward into the expanding universe. Even the "Galaxy" magazine they edit becomes a struggle, as they choose between poems from other students: many illuminate the loneliness and confusion of being almost-adult, poems with edges of loss and darkness among the metaphors. It's a clever story told in fractured fragments, with quotes from poets like Diane Wakowski and Gwendolyn Brooks acting as guideposts along the way (and if you blink you'll miss the explanation of how the staff's made-up game of Kapcki Mapcki got its name). The poems that make up the "Galaxy" magazine at book's end are real ones, from the real Brighton High literary magazine of the 1980s, and the authors are duly acknowledged; the poems are made of equal parts teen-age anxiety and aspiration, and they're good, too.

Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems by Teenagers, edited by Betsy Franco (Candlewick). Falling Hard was compiled mostly by email from teenagers from many different backgrounds, and
with different sexual orientations. Only their names and ages are given. The poems are written in free verse and are honest, sometimes explicit, and creative (there is an ode to a piano, and a "Pledge of Affection to a Nerd"). The teen poets in this lively anthology knock greeting-card clich├ęs even as they celebrate their romance and their passion (“I want to wrap around you / I want to get inside you”) and vent their hurt, anger, and longing. Most poems were submitted to Franco by e-mail from the U.S., but some also came from abroad. Just the teens’ names and ages are given, but their writing reveals a wide diversity of race, sexual identity, maturity, and lifestyle. With a spacious open design, the poems are not arranged in any particular order, true to the way readers will dip in and browse. Some of the simplest lines say the most: “I want you less than I thought I did. / And I love you more than I ever knew.” From the pain of breakup and denial to affection and desire, the feelings in these poems will ring true to gay and straight teens alike.

Secret Keeper, by Mitali Perkins (Delacorte/Random House). When her father leaves India to look for work in America, Asha Gupta, her older sister, Reet, and their mother must wait with Baba’s family in Calcutta. Asha’s solace is her rooftop hideaway, where she pours her heart out in her diary, and begins a clandestine friendship with Jay Sen, the boy next door. Then news arrives about Baba ... and Asha must make a choice that will change their lives forever. As often as she can, Asha escapes to the rooftop to confide her woes to her secret keeper, a diary; breaking the rules of the house, she also befriends the son of the family next door, who gazes at herthrough a window. But their relationship changes irrevocably when tragedy prompts Asha to make a painful sacrifice for the sake of her mother and sister. Readers may not always agree with Ashas bold decisions, but they will admire her courage and selflessness as she puts her family's needs before her own. Besides offering insight into Indian culture, Perkins (author of Monsoon Summer) offers a moving portrait of a rebellious teen who relies on ingenuity rather than charm to prove her worth.

Gateway to DreamWorld, by Brenda Estacio (Eloquent Books). This intriguing fantasy shows the power of hope and the strength of love to overcome seemingly impossible odds. The Colby family is rocked by a series of events that threaten to pull the family apart, and after a horrible automobile accident that leaves Pete, the youngest, in a wheelchair, his brother Jason begins to dream of a mysterious stranger named Morpheus. Jason is shown the wonders of DreamWorld, and Morpheus is Jason's guide to this realm where everything can be perfect, if Jason has the will to believe. Is DreamWorld real, or only a trick? Jason must choose, and If he can convince his family to join him in DreamWorld he has only a short time in which to bring them safely across the Gateway. The novel is good at expressing those fears of the unknown that all children face on their way to adulthood, and there is a lesson to be learned here in confronting pain and uncertainty by taking risks. Younger readers will find the family drama opening a little slow, but the DreamWorld action is quick and fast-paced, and readers will find the challenges facing the brothers Pete and Jason exciting to follow.

Pretty Dead, by Francesca Lia Block (HarperTeen). When her twin brother, with whom she shared a magical bond, died of a fever, Charlotte Emerson wanted to die. She wanted to live forever. One wish came true. Generations later, when her best friend dies of an apparent suicide, Charlotte wishes only for death. But that option, she fears, is no longer open to her. Pretty Dead is an unusual slant on the "moody young vampire" subgenre that is sweeping the shelves and leaving countless young readers swooning in the aisles. For one thing, Francesca Lia Block is a more accomplished and talented writer than many of her peers in the field, so readers know going in that her prose will have a poetic touch that pulls you in and wraps you in words. Despite all the trappings of freedom and wealth in her big Los Angeles home, it's certain that Charlotte's life isn't as perfect as people around her believe. She can desire but never love. She can appreciate art, but not create it. And she can exist, but never truly live.We spend a little time in a high school classroom, but not so much that it dominates the setting. Charlotte is only there because she's bored, not because she wants to be a cheerleader or flirt with boys.This short, simple novel is lovely in its fragility. There is romance, but that's never its focus. It's wistful, and a little heartbreaking. It's beautiful and sad, steeped in melancholy and, perhaps, just a hint of hope. It's really quite different, and quite good. (review by Tom Knapp,

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic). Each year in the ruins of North America, 24 teenagers are forced to enter the Hunger Games. Only the winner survives. Every moment is televised. Could you survive on your own, in the wild, with everyone watching you? Katniss is a 16-year-old girl living with her mother and younger sister in the poorest district of Panem, the remains of what used be the United States. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called "The Hunger Games." The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed. When Katniss steps in to take the place of her sister in the Hunger Games, she knows it may be her death sentence. If she is to survive, she must weigh survival against humanity and life against love. Be sure to have time to read it in one sitting. Who hasn't heard that before, but make the time to do just that. Stephenie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series, took it to a dinner party so she could keep reading it under the table!

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