Monday, January 30, 2012

Rotters or Let's All Just Get Cremated

Rotters. Oh Rotters. You were disgusting. Just as I thought it was as gross as it could get, there'd be something else more appalling, repulsive, and desecrating.

Joey Crouch's mom is dead. He's in nowhere Iowa where people hate him just because of his strange and very smelly dad, who locals refer to as The Garbage Man. What his dad actually does is far more disgusting than waste management - he's a grave robber and the scent of rotting corpses clings to him. Soon, the grime and stink of his father's illegal trade will cling to Joey, too. This will bring him more difficulties than adjusting to a new town and getting over his mother's death. It will bring with it a familiarity of death and decay and danger.

The opening is magnificent. Joey catalogues all the ways his mother could die, but doesn't, ending with her actual death. The rest of the novel is propelled from that point, both in how his life changes, and how the past brought about his mother's death, and his future.

However, after that there's almost 200 pages of set-up. It's not unnecessary, and it's vital to Joey's character development, but between the gorgeous prologue and page 195, (where we're treated to a rousing and detailed explanation on how to escape being buried alive - and yes, I've committed this to memory, Lord save me. One must be prepared for anything), there is little to truly advance the plot, and is, therefore, the weakest portion of the story. Daniel Kraus' language is strong, but the school bullies, especially Woody and Celeste, are generic, lack depth, and could be transplanted to any book where bullies are required and fit right in. The first 200 pages is primarily devoted to making Joey miserable enough that he's able to descend low enough for the rest of the book to happen.

Science teacher Gottschalk was extreme, but not overboard, until the reproduction lesson on pages 142-3. Here he crosses over into sexual harassment of Joey, which seemed too much, given the character was cruel, but didn't seem stupid, and there's no real way to know that someone wouldn't rat him out to someone else who would make a stir. Gottschalk by action and even previous speech clearly felt he was a law upon himself in that school, and based on the behavior of the principal and vice-principal, I can see why - but those two did respond to incidents that could result in bad press, and this was surly one of those. Although it did not.

Continuing with first half character issues, is Boris and his family. They were so close to Joey that they shared his grief, and took him in until his father could be found, but Boris more of less immediately drops him? His parents never inquire after him? Make any overtures? When my reading of the situation was that had his father not been reached, it was likely that he'd just stay with them permanently? I know that this was done to further isolate Joey, but why even have the family in the story? Why not just throw him in temporary foster care after his mom dies? It'd be much easier for me to believe that some sketch foster family didn't care about him after he left, than Boris' family. But then, without friends, Joey had less to lose.

The grief and alienation of the first half of the book, leads to a desperation so strong that once Joey is brought into the "digger" clan, and is bestowed a nickname, "Son", he muses, "I felt an unexpected rush: If I were given one of these names, I would be part of a club. I would no longer be alone" p225. It's all he has, it's his only option, and, as he did with his academics, he throws himself all in. Into grave robbing.

Enter Boggs, who is a fantastic, believable, horror villain in his invincibility, psychosis, and grotesqueness. He he seriously one of the best villains I've encountered in ages, and it is his mania, unpredictability, and, er, villainy that propels the last fourth (plus) of the book. Unfortunately, it takes him far too long to enter the story. I would have liked, at the very least, more build-up or foreshadowing regarding him, to work us up to a good lather, since, let's be honest, yeah, there's the whole self-discovery, bildungsroman thing going on, but it's Boggs who gets the plot moving, and Boggs who drives Joey into the rocks at the bottom.

The details of grave robbing are fascinating, as are the rather disgusting details of decomposition. These are largely what keep the reader going during the first portion of the book. I should have pulled some of the really disgusting quotes for you, but I didn't think of it at the time, oh, wait, that's what Amazon's Search Inside is for. Let's just enter a rather unique phrase I remember, "coffin liquor." Yes, that'll do.

If you happen to be eating, I'd skip this next quote. Don't say I didn't warn you.

"I concentrated on my father. He was dealing with another ring that wouldn't dislodge from its puffy finger. He let the hand drop and it smacked into two inches of black slime. We call that coffin liquor, my father said as he reached for his wire cutter, and it's the result of bacteria in the casket's vacuum turning the corpse to mud. I watched him take the woman's left hand. Most of the skin sloughed off in a single sheet like a translucent glove - slip skin, my father assure me, nothing more. He let the skin dissolve into the coffin liquor and regripped the moist green hand. I noted with dull astonishment that the woman's nails were painted candy pink" p 110.

lalala. But really, you can't look away from that, right? And imagine your teens' reactions? Oh, I'm almost tempted to read that paragraph aloud during my next book talks... excellent.

I do think, ultimately, despite taking it to task above, that this is an excellent book. And if you can stomach (or revel) in that last quote, you definitely should read it. Or at least know who should.

On bullying: "The noses of the Incorruptibles [the popular bullies] were trained to detect fear, and in my metamorphosis to the Son I had lost that musk. A new target, therefore, had been chosen" p 350.

The question remains of whether or not there are grave robbers among us...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Annual Wild Guesses for the ALA Youth Media Award

I think I'm going to skip the live stream of the announcement this year. Largely because it's not on MLK day, which means I'll have to work, and getting up at 5:30 am on a workday doesn't sound as good as being able to go back to bed after the announcement. But we'll see.


The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf
Honest truth? I was bored out of my mind for the most part - and still flummoxed that anything about the Titanic could ever be boring, but this one managed it. HOWEVER, I can acknowledge that it is very literary. The biggest hurdle Watch will need to overcome is whether or not the committee thinks the enormous cast of characters is hindered by its sheer size. The fact that the reader spends so little time with each voice may result in less passionate arguments - and arguments that some characters are superfluous or under developed (not all, some were palpably wonderful, but they were buried in the avalanche of voices and struggle to be heard through the melee). The appendix is excellent and massively interesting, though, highlighting that the research was thorough. Watch will get bonus points for that.

Life, An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
So I'm a little unsure this is really a book for teens, despite it's publishing status. However, Peet has yet to be recognized by this award, and Life might be the book to do it. The fact that only a very small portion of the narrative is devoted to teen characters may hurt it's chances.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
I think the librarians who buzz about these things will be shocked if this doesn't get recognized. Shocked. I think that if there was gambling on the Printz outcome, this is likely the safe money. It transcends ilk in language, structure, world-building, and originality. It's ultimately a paranormal romance with angels, which you'd think would be kryptonite to adult readers of YA by now, but there's always an epic quality to Taylor's writing, and never moreso than here.

Rotters by Daniel Kraus
This is probably a bit of a dark horse, but I absolutely wouldn't be surprised to see this horror story get a nod. It all comes down to the composition of the committee, and whether they can stomach it (not that they aren't objective, they are, but... Rotters is gross. More on that later [as in I have a post-worth to say about it].).

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Buzz for this seems to have dropped off some, but including it, especially with the Wolf and Peet might be thought to balance out the list, and would represent only the second time a graphic novel has been recognized by the Printz. Anya's art is supurb, and the illustrations speak just as loudly as the words, which is exactly why this is worth looking at.

The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta
I confess that historically Marchetta and I don't jibe, and I have put off reading Piper because of that. It seems to me that the world of YA readers breaks down into those who love Marchetta, and those who do not. Those who do are rabid, and I'll concede there is a lyrical quality to her language and that her characters are robust, but her plotting dives me batty.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young
I'm not holding my breath for this to be recognized, but it was the Costa winner, and I loves it with all my hearts. Not a big fan of the cover (or title) of the sequel, though it won't stop me from reading it as soon as I can possibly get my hands on it.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
It has a lot of starred reviews, but while I haven't read it (it's next up), I've never warmed to Stiefvater's language. I wouldn't be shocked if it was announced, but... I don't know. My gut instinct doesn't go there. But perhaps I'd change my tune if I had/have enough time to read it before the announcement.


Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
Schmidt is well-loved and this one (which won my system's mock Printz) is definitely adored, despite an over-the-top ending that could seriously hurt its chances. While I believe the ending was a misstep plot-wise, I can't say that I wouldn't be anything but happy if this ends up with a medal. While it would be eligible for the Printz, I think it's chances are better with the Newbery.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
I always though that Ness was British, but I guess he just lives there? If he's still a citizen of the US, then this is eligible, and stands a good chance. Would this be more comfortably set in Printz catagory? Probably, and then we wouldn't have to think about citizenship issues, which make my head hurt.

Hidden by Helen Frost
Likewise inhabiting that tough zone in between middle grade and YA, I think Hidden could find a home here. Frost got a Printz honor back in 2004 for Keesha's House, but despite that, I feel that she's largely underrated. She continually shows how verse novels should be done, and force you to take them more seriously than many of the popular free-verse examples would lead you to believe. She is innovative in form and structure. There's nothing wrong, and many thing right, with free verse, but Frost hammers home how much more the verse novel can do than simply be sparse. *ducks*

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
I don't know if this is a real contender, but it's sweet, fun, and clever, and I think it would be lovely to recognize this in the vein of Princess Academy. Regardless, I believe that someday George will get a silver or gold SOMETHING.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
To my recollection there aren't many National Book Award finalists that crossover to the Youth Media Awards, but this would be the one to do it this year.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Selecting Breadcrumbs would be a crowd-pleaser. I haven't read it yet, I'm still on the waiting list, but with at least three starred reviews and an entire community worth of Twitter buzz behind it, you know the committee has read it. I really do think I'm the only one who hasn't read it at this point. This probably has the best odds.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
In direct competition with Okay for Now, will this be an either or? Or will they split the vote and usher in a lesser-known? Of course, we've seen more than one girl-protag historical in one year before, so both would make it an amusing turn-around. But Gantos has more of the gross-out ground covered, and depending on how prim our committee is, Norvelt could take a hit.

I like I Want My Hat Back by J. Klassen and Where's Walrus by Stephen Savage. But let's be obvious here, my picture book cred is random and not to be trusted.

We already know the finalists. My imaginary money is on either Girl of Fire and Thornes or Where Things Come Back. I don't know why but I don't think it'll be Paper Covers Rock or Under the Mesquite. Which leaves Between Shades of Gray as a wildcard. My heart is with Where Things Come Back, as you probably know.

Coretta Scott King
Bronxwood by Coe Booth was good, but had a touch of the middle book syndrome, so look to Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri and Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson to be recognized.

I'm wracking my brain here and having a tough time isolating the titles I'm aware of that would be eligible. Stick by Andrew Smith comes to mind. There's way more in the abuse and other topics that take center stage, and there are ending issues (a common refrain this year), but Stick is noteworthy. I'd love to see Sean Griswold's Head by Lindsey Leavitt recognized, but it's much more about a daughter coping with her own issues that are triggered and magnified by her father's illness than about the dad's disease - which definitely meets criteria, but I think the focus is nevertheless unlikely to match with the Schneider. It is an absolutely delightful read, though. Compulsion by Heidi Ayarbe, is utterly compelling, but the ending isn't as hopeful as these tend to be. And that's what I've got. That I can think of.


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Room by Emma Donoghue* are easy targets for inclusion on this list. I wonder if Ready Player One might be, as well, although I don't know if the heavy 80's references are a plus or a minus for its chances. I haven't read any of them, but I'm waiting for RPO's audio book to come in. A collegue enlightened me to the fact that Wil Wheaton narrates and that it is awesome in general and hilarious in specific when Wheaton is forced read aloud about himself.

*For some reason my brain forgot what year it was by the end of this massive post. Room was of course recognized by the Alex in 2011, as DDB pointed out on my Facebook link to this post. *faceplant*