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Archive for the ‘Coming of Age’ Category

JacketAh, jeez – as with so much else we know, it ain’t so. If Horace Greeley ever said, “Go West, young man,” it was in the context of quoting someone else who said, “Go West, young man,” and that may even have been an attempt to create a Greeley-sounding quote. Whatever the case, for some it was advice many young men had already taken on their own. Among them were the trappers and traders who pushed into the Rocky Mountains to forge relationships or fight with the Native Americans over the lucrative fur business.

In 1820, William Wyeth is determined that he is going to make his fortune in the West and prove to his father that he is a man of worth. He signs on with a trapping company in the frontier town of Saint Louis and heads out under the guidance of an experienced captain. Thus begins his adventure, and it is a wild one.

Wyeth is also coming up against the consequences of the fur trade. The companies he works for are pushing the boundaries of American influence against the settled Spanish and the British and French trappers who have long considered the West theirs for exploitation. With each tense encounter, the possible causes of war increase, and some of Wyeth’s companions would not necessarily mind the consequences. And the success of the trade means that more trappers and traders want to get in on it, so resources are disappearing even as conflicts are building.

Burke takes the tropes of the American Western and turns them into a literary jewel. His beautiful depictions of the landscape, exciting details of hunting, trapping, racing, and close observations of both the white men and the natives he encounters become opportunities for Wyeth’s self-examination on the meaning of manhood. There’s also a satisfying love story, a complex antagonist who helps Wyeth determine his own course, and men who open Wyeth’s eyes to the complexity of the native cultures.  Into the Savage Country offers an old-fashioned Western feel and a wonderful coming of age story.

Check the WRL catalog for Into the Savage Country

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When We Were Animals, by Joshua GaylordMost of us run a little wild at times as teenagers, but Joshua Gaylord’s When We Were Animals takes us to a town where this idea is not just a figure of speech but a literal truth: the teenagers, for a time that varies for each, but usually just a year or so, spend a few nights each month running naked and wild through the streets of their small town and surrounding countryside. They commit acts of sex and violence, following primal urges while adults and young children stay inside and keep the secret from the outside world.

Our heroine is Lumen Fowler, who recalls her youth from the vantage of middle age. As a girl, Lumen was a devoted daddy’s girl and late bloomer, well-behaved, fiercely intelligent, and overachieving, she was determined not to “breach” as other teens in her town did. She’s surrounded by a believable cast of other teens who one-by-one give into the strange call–a best friend who turns into a rival, a “mean girl” type who tries to dominate the other, a charmer of a boy who all the girls have crushes on, and a rough poor kid whose raw behavior frightens them all. Through it all, Lumen stays determined to follow in the footsteps of her deceased mother, who Lumen has been told never succumbed to the wild behavior.

This blend of Gothic horror and coming-of-age story can be enjoyed on the literal level of its exciting story or as an extended metaphor about the teenage years and the pull of darker instincts. The tone is haunting, but beautiful, and the sympathetic heroine as luminous as her name suggests. One can see the direction where the story is going, but it doesn’t make the conclusion any less powerful.

If you enjoy this as much as I did, Gaylord has written other books under the pseudonym Alden Bell, most notably The Reapers Are the Angels.

Check the WRL catalog for When We Were Animals.

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Red RisingWhat if you had worked your whole life, based on the hope of a better world for your children, and then discovered that the better world already existed, and that you weren’t allowed in? And what if that better world was built on the captive labor of you and thousands of others like you?

That’s the premise of Red Rising, the first novel in a trilogy by debut author Pierce Brown. Young Darrow, a member of a social class called the Reds, has toiled for his entire life on the bleak interior of Mars, mining raw materials that are to be used to terraform the surface someday. But after a string of events that turn his life upside down (I don’t want to give away too many plot points), he is brought to the surface and discovers that the terraforming is already done, and that the Golds, the top class in a society where different colors have different places, live there in godlike luxury.

The trouble is that the Golds also have godlike bodies and minds, leaving the rest of society without the tools to revolt against them. But the Sons of Ares, the secret organization that has brought Darrow to the surface, have the surgical skills to build him into someone who can pass as a Gold. Darrow is to infiltrate the company of other young Golds and try to rise to a powerful position in their society, a position from which he might be able to foment a civil war. To reach that point, Darrow will have to compete in a contest of savage war games with shifting rules between houses of young Golds, many of them with almost godlike physical and mental powers.

This is science fiction, but it reads like epic fantasy. If you’ve been looking for a book that blended the worlds of The Hunger Games and an epic fantasy like Game of Thrones, you’ll love it. Brown builds his world in a way that seems effortless but is completely satisfying. His characters are diverse and intriguing. Unlike many epic works, the story here takes off quickly, and readers will be pleased to find that they don’t have to wade through hundreds of pages before they start getting the payoff. Best of all, whenever it starts to look like the story will get predictable, Brown finds a major twist to raise the stakes for Darrow. One warning, Brown has created a violent world, and if you don’t care for that, make another reading choice.

I’ve finished the second book of the series, Golden Son, and it’s every bit as exciting as the first. I’m not always quick to read series, but I’ll be in the line when they release Morning Star in 2016.

Check the WRL catalog for Red Rising

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Drama HighThe subtitle of Michael Sokolove’s Drama High reveals many of the reasons one might like it: “The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.”

The brilliant teacher is Lou Volpe, a forty year veteran of the teaching wars, nearing the end of his career, a man who took over a drama program even though he had no experience as an actor or in teaching acting. He simply loved the theater, and taught himself how to mount major productions. By the time of his career on which the book focuses, he is so accomplished that major Broadway producers like Cameron Mackintosh ask him to test edgy or complicated shows to see if they can be licensed to high schools and small theaters.

The struggling town is Levittown, Pennsylvania, a former steel town struggling to maintain its economy and population. It’s a surprising place to find a great drama program. Usually that elite status is reached only by private schools with lots of wealthy and talented parents who can pay for expensive production elements and donate their time to teach top level skills. But Volpe’s students aren’t the typical drama kids, the edgy and emotional types, and they certainly aren’t affluent. They’re working class kids who make choices like whether or not to continue with a sports team or underdogs who struggle to be in a show while they keep a part time job that helps out the family. This gives them an affinity for some characters that wealthy, artsy kids can’t always find. They’re also the kind of students Volpe has and knows, and he makes the best of them. He’s built a program so good that many of his students find their way to scholarships and professional careers.

The magic of theater is displayed through the productions that Volpe stages during the year in which author Sokolove is a regular presence in the classroom. Where most high schools are still performing the same twenty shows that schools were performing in the sixties or seventies, Truman High is tackling contemporary theater. In particular, there’s Spring Awakening, a musical with a historical setting but very modern teen morals, and Good Boys and True, an edgy drama that Volpe’s students hope to perform well enough to take to national competition. (I won’t spoil the story and tell you whether or not they make it.) Rising to the occasion of performing well in emotion-laden, high-quality productions puts a lot of pressure on the kids, but most of them grow and even flourish with the challenge. If there’s one weakness to this kind of book, it’s that it will leave you wishing you could see for yourself the productions that Sokolove describes.

There’s also a “can you go home again?” appeal to this story. Sokolove was a student of Volpe’s long ago, in days when Volpe was a young, charismatic and influential English teacher, not yet a drama teacher. He remembers when Volpe was married to a likable woman (that status has also changed, but again, I won’t spoil the story) and motivating students like himself to journalistic careers. Volpe’s subject has changed, and Levittown has declined since Sokolove’s youth, and his own attempts to come to grips with the changes are part of the drama.

If you like theater, or underdog stories, or inspirational tales of any kind, you’ll find something to like in Drama High.

Check the WRL catalog for Drama High

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gaimanThe Graveyard Book was originally published as a novel in 2008 to a flurry of well-deserved praise, eventually earning the Newbery Medal, Carnegie Medal, and Hugo award. The story follows a boy named Nobody Owens, nicknamed Bod, who, as a very young child, flees to a graveyard after his parents are murdered by a man named Jack. The ghosts, after a heated discussion, extend to Bod the Freedom of the Graveyard, which protects him and allows him to interact freely with the dead. Of course, there is a limit to what a ghost can do, so Bod is assigned a Guardian, named Silas, who is neither living nor dead, and who can go out into the world of the living and procure the supplies that the boy needs. He begins his new life amongst the stones and tombs, protected from harm as Jack continues to search for his missing victim.

The story is wistful and haunting. The reader feels the great loss that Bod has experienced, yet he is himself too young to understand it fully. It’s not that the ghosts make bad parents; it’s just that a bit of emptiness haunts the margins of the book: the reader’s knowledge of the family life and friends that this little boy has been denied by virtue of his situation. This sense of longing can’t easily be shrugged off. Even leaving the graveyard puts him in serious risk, as the killer Jack can reach him if he wanders outside the gates.

The novel has been adapted by P. Craig Russell, who has won Harvey and Eisner awards for other projects, and who also created a exceptional graphic adaptation of a previous Gaiman book, Coraline. In this instance, the adaptation was done by Russell, but he only drew one of the chapters himself. Each chapter is done by a different artist, seven in all, and the illustrations are stunning. Sometimes having multiple artists can adversely affect the continuity of the visual storytelling, rending it difficult to recognize a character from one section to the next, but not in this case. Each section is unique, but all of the artists do a remarkable job of capturing the atmosphere of the book.

Recommended for readers of science fiction, horror, and graphic novels. Although the book is marketed as being for young teens, it is appropriate for adult readers as well.

Check the WRL catalog for The Graveyard Book, Volume 1

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heroRefreshing and reinventing old superheroes has become somewhat fashionable recently, with rather mixed results. Some characters, like Batman, have seen so many iterations that it is difficult to separate them all, or find new ground to cover without being completely repetitive or utterly discarding canon. One good thing that has come out of this trend is the resurrection of old characters that never caught on, but were worthwhile for one reason or another.

The Green Turtle was a World War II superhero with a very limited run. He was created by a cartoonist named Chu Hing, who was one of the first Asian-Americans to enter the American comic book industry, a business with limited diversity, especially back in 1944. Hing obscured the face of his protagonist so that, even if he was not allowed to make his character officially of Chinese descent, there is enough obfuscation for the reader to make their own decision about his heritage.

It is this character that has been brought back to life in The Shadow Hero. Living in Chinatown are two immigrants and their son, Hank. Each parent brings with them shadows of their old life and unfulfilled expectations from their new life. Hank is the reluctant heir to a melting pot of their issues. There certainly isn’t any early indication of his superhero future, as he is quite content to work in his father’s grocery store, nursing the hope to eventually pass it on to his own son someday. But no superhero comes to being without some trauma, and his parent’s legacies eventually, violently, come to alter their offspring’s future in unimagined ways.

Gene Luen Yang, author of the Printz Award winning American Born Chinese, brings a strong sense of time, place, and culture in this story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero story where family and cultural heritage is this central to the creation and continued development of the character. The people surrounding Hank encompass a wide range of types without sinking in to caricature. His mother is especially complicated, being infuriating and relatable in equal measure. Parents want what’s best for their child, but so often their view of what is best is founded on what they perceive to be missing from their own life.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels, superhero stories, and anyone with an interest in stories about family dynamics.

Check the WRL catalog for The Shadow Hero.

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giantsBarbara is a fifth-grader who lives with her big sister and her older brother. She sticks out from her peers for myriad reasons: she wears a different pair of animal ears every day; she is completely unable to interact with people in a normal manner; and she is obsessed with her quest to kill giants. She tells stories of many bloody, violent battles with the monsters, and sees signs of an impending attack that no one else notices. Armed with Coveleski, the Giant Slayer (the name she gave her war hammer), she is tough, smart, and in many ways completely unlikable. When finding herself cornered, either physically or emotionally, she lashes out with a vicious intensity.

Offsetting her brutal ferocity is Sophia, a sunny, gentle girl who is new to the neighborhood and is fascinated by Barbara’s stories of giants and the imminent war. As damaged as Barbara so obviously is, she cannot completely cast Sophia aside, and the reader gets glimpses of what looks like desperation for normalcy peeking through her façade. But Barbara is pretty expert in keeping people from hurting her emotionally, and even Mrs. Molle, the school psychologist, finds Barbara a tough case to figure out.

Heavy in the air is a secret, something so terrible that it is driving Barbara into a world of fantasy in order to find some solace. So strong is her emotional shutdown, that even people’s words are blacked out whenever the topic is mentioned. Bit by excruciating bit, her secret is revealed to the reader, as she finds herself unable to keep things contained and her raw pain is brought to the surface

Graphic novels can be a fantastic medium for delving into tough, sensitive topics, as the art can make a reader comprehend those quiet moments of complete emotional devastation better than any possible combination of words. The illustrations by JM Ken Niimura are subtle and explosive as appropriate. Joe Kelly’s writing is nuanced and tense. Recommended for readers of graphic novels, and anyone who likes journeys of self-awareness or coming-of-age stories.

Check the WRL catalog for I Kill Giants.

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