Friday, October 31, 2014

Boys of Blur

I have always wanted to like N. D. Wilson, the author. I loved the language of LEEPIKE RIDGE and 100 CUPBOARDS and I wanted to enjoy those books more than I did. For some reason, I could barely trudge through those stories though. So much awesome prose, but so much confusion in plot. Wilson has a wildly descriptive voice that can at times, clutter up his narrative. He trusts that his readers are smart enough to infer details left out but with such wordy prose, that is not always easy to do.

While BOYS OF BLUR is similar to the unique style of prose in his other works, I have finally found an N. D. Wilson novel I can get behind! BOYS OF BLUR is a tour de force!

In Taper, FL, among the burning fields of sugar cane, football is life. BOYS OF BLUR begins with the funeral of historic Taper football coach Willie Wisdom. Coach Wisdom's death has affected everyone in the community. Charlie Reynolds is in town with his mom's new boyfriend Mack (one of Coach Wisdom's former players) for the funeral and Charlie can't help but notice his mother's uneasy looks and nervous apprehension. For Charlie's family, a return to Taper means a return to the place they left Charlie's abusive father. When Mack receives an offer too important to turn down, Charlie may be forced to remain in Taper for the time being. Little does he know, the community of Taper will soon need Charlie to save them from a muddy, deep rooted evil.

The setting in BOYS OF BLUR is one of the novel's biggest strengths to me. Wilson takes his time developing the southern setting and soon, he pulls you in among the burning cane and swampy muck and just like Mack, you feel compelled to stay. Of course the fantasy elements of the story are foreshadowed and hinted at early on, to entice readers, but the early pages of this book are entirely devoted to Taper and Charlie's family unit. This grounds the story in reality and makes the final epic resolution all the more convincing.

I was also impressed with Wilson's handling of Coach Wisdom's character. Often times, authors will introduce readers to a character that they wish to write as "larger than life." Coach Wisdom truly is larger than life. Everyone in Taper has a story to tell about Coach Wisdom and each story is unique to the character. He has impacted the lives of many young men in Taper, none more than Mack. At one point this is evident when Mack tells Charlie about Charlie's father:

"Your father made mistakes. We all do. But instead of working to set things right, he chose to protect those mistakes - he let them be. He even fed them, which made them so much worse. Mistakes don't just hang on the wall like ugly pictures. Mistakes are seeds." He thumped his chest. "In here. They grow. They take over. You make a mistake, you gotta make it right. Dig that seed out. Old Wiz used to say, 'Fruit rots, wood rots, but lazy-ass boys rot the fastest.'"

I like how Coach Wisdom develops as a character, even after his death. Furthermore, it was fun to watch Charlie grow throughout the story. His transformation from being wide-eyed and curious to becoming a sword-wielding hero was very heartbreaking but convincing.

BOYS OF BLUR may not be for everyone what it was for me. The fantasy elements may not interest every reader and the south Florida setting and Creole lore may be too specific to generate wide appeal. But you cannot deny Wilson's talent. No one writes prose like N.D. Wilson. I can also appreciate a solo effort (everyone writes fantasy trilogies these days) and fitting it all in under 200 pages is impressive as well!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza

A disclaimer: I read this book as an experiment. I have never read a Joey Pigza book. There are multiple Joey Pigza books out there, even a Newbery Honor Joey Pigza book, but I've never touched 'em. I read this book, because often in Newbery Medal discussions, it is important to remove one's bias toward a novel that is part of a series, as past books in a series should not be considered when arguing for a book. I thought it would be fun to read THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA with no knowledge of any prior Joey Pigza books.

If the Cohen Brothers were to adapt a children's novel, I feel like Joey Pigza would be right up their alley. A little Raising Arizona, a little No Country For Old Men (for kids, of course), THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA is one wild, zany ride. There were so many moments where I wondered if things could get any quirkier or out of control for Joey and just at that moment, chaos and havoc would ensue! I'm not quite sure how Joey survived, let alone baby Carter Junior, but they did!

Joey Pigza is turning his life around. His baby brother Carter Junior has brought joy to his life and he is excited about a fresh start at school. Then postpartum depression sets in for his mother and Joey finds himself sacrificing a return to school for the time being in order to be the man of the house and take care of Carter Junior. Things get worse and worse for Joey as his father enters the picture wanting Carter Junior for himself.

While Joey's off-topic, rambling voice as a child with ADHD is rather impressive (his mother hid his only remaining med patches before admitting herself into the hospital), I immediately realized I was at a disadvantage in appreciating this novel without having any background knowledge on the previous Joey Pigza stories. There were too many lingering questions for me that maybe would be cleared up have I had read earlier installments. For instance, what in the heck is wrong with Joey's father's face? Why is he disfigured? Joey is surely sympathetic and forgiving of his father's past transgressions, but as a new reader, I'm left confused. Joey's father comes off as a cartoony James Bond villain. It's difficult to take the relationship seriously without the backstory.

"Here we go again. Just when I thought one good parent was better than two lousy ones I end up with no parents."

And is Joey's mother struggling with drug abuse? I realize she has checked herself into a hospital for what we are led to believe is postpartum depression (she calls Joey from school threatening to hurt Carter Junior), but it seems as if there is more here. Joey's mother is off, and it doesn't seem to be just the postpartum depression. But again, I don't have any background knowledge on Joey's mom. Gantos does a great job building her character ("A mother is supposed to give love, but I can't because I hate myself and now I'm so full up with self-hate I'm filling him with the overflow") but the potentially intentional feeling that it is more than postpartum depression ailing her is upsetting.

As I said, Joey's voice is pretty incredible, and it's hard not to root for him though. Joey has made me look at some of my own students with more patience and understanding. He has a fantastic positive attitude and is determined to rise above the deck he's been dealt in life. He has support from his blind girlfriend Olivia and their relationship is touching throughout the middle section of the novel, but it's not quite enough to change the overall gloomy, depressing tone of this story.

My issue with the story is not with Gantos's writing. Gantos's writing is very good. My issue with the story is that I couldn't really get over my dislike of the mother and father to appreciate Gantos's writing. A commenter over at Heavy Medal took comfort in the ending of the story, feeling that Joey will be able to rise above whatever trouble he may find himself in in the future. I'm not so sure about that. That isn't the feeling I walked away from this novel feeling. Joey is as proactive as they come (paws-i-tive) but it's only a matter of time before mother and father fall off the wagon again. And Joey has a number of more years at home yet!

Any child struggling to find focus in today's world, may find reprieve and solidarity in Joey Pigza. They could do far worse, in regard to writing and role model.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish

Kid Lit authors don't come much better than Jenni Holm. Her books have fun characters, are kid-friendly, and are filled with great figurative language. You can usually count on some fun history lessons too!

Holm has also had significant success where the Newbery Medal is concerned. She's made the shortlist three times (OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE) but has never brought home the gold. Her track record though, could suggest that it is only a matter of time.

At first glance, Holm's latest novel, THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH does not appear to be your typical Jenni Holm story. Her novels tend to be so rich in setting and developed in a particular historical time period. THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH is technically a work of science-fiction and set in present day. One similarity: it is as character driven as any of her previous novels. Fans of Holm's will not be disappointed.

Ellie is having a rough start to middle school. Her parents have separated and her best friend Brianna is forming new friendships with her volleyball teammates. Ellie is craving companionship but is too proud to admit it. Enter Ellie's grandfather, Melvin. Melvin is a scientist of sorts, obsessed with finding the cure to aging. And he does! In the form of a rare jellyfish that ages backwards. After injecting himself with DNA from the jellyfish, he ages backwards to Ellie's age and is forced to join her in middle school. The result is a heartwarming coming of age story about friendship and the circle of life.

THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH took some time to develop for me. Ellie's snarky voice was vintage Holm right out of the gate, but suspending my disbelief and accepting the quirky premise took a little more effort for some reason. The themes Holm seems to be exploring are so deep yet the plot of this story is rather zany. It wasn't a good match at first. In the beginning, Ellie's grandfather appeared so abruptly and his quick-forming relationship with Ellie seemed more of a plot device than anything genuine. By the end of the novel however, that changed. The relationship between Ellie and her grandfather is by far, the strongest element within the book. With her best friend slipping away, the companionship Ellie is seeking comes from the place she least expects it. The relationship between her and Melvin is heartwarming.

Jenni Holm could teach a fine workshop on figurative language. Her first person, prose always fits her character's voice so well. Take the following few examples for instance:

"Nicole has long buttery hair and looks like she should be in a shampoo commercial."

"Middle school is like one of those highway restrooms in the middle of nowhere. It's dirty and smelly, and it's crowded with strange people."

I also love the relationship between Melvin and his daughter, Ellie's mother. I like the comedic irony in Melvin the teenager, not relinquishing his responsibilities as Ellie's mother's father and in her retreating to the role of caretaker and guardian for her teenager father. Their banter provides some hilarious moments, especially as Melvin accompanies her on a date.

It's amazing how much depth Jenni Holm provides this quirky, absurd, Benjamin Button style story. The themes of friendship, family, and mortality are all expertly explored. On the surface level of this story is this bizarre plot about a teenager befriending her mad-scientist grandfather who has injected himself with a special jellyfish that has caused him to age backward. Underneath the absurdity though, is a touching story about finding yourself and the fragile nature of life.