Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Review: Hound Dog True

by Linda Urban
Harcourt Children's Division (September 2011)
Ages 9-12

"Uncle Potluck said when he talked to the moon, the moon talked back."
—Hound Dog True

Some books are so darn delicious, there’s no joy in picking them apart to see what makes them tick. Hound Dog True, by Linda Urban, is one such gem. The voice, characterization, theme and gentle rhythm of words create a symphony of fine storytelling that elevate this simple story to another level. Yes. It’s that good. Hound Dog True had me at the first sentence and held me in its enchanting grip until the very last page. (As I read this, I kept thinking, did Barbara O'Connor change her name to Linda Urban?)

Told in close third person—so close it’s nearly first person—the story follows eleven-year old Mattie several days prior to starting a new school (fifth in as many years). Deeply hurt by the betrayal of a girl at her old school, shy Mattie is haunted by memories of past humiliations. There’s a poignantly funny flashback of one of her former first days when all she could think to tell the class was that she was not a Buddhist. Urban places this scene early in the book, which does a brilliant job of showing just how painfully tongue-tied Mattie can get. This and other flashbacks also serve to establish the interior world that Mattie inhabits, as well as reveal bits and pieces of her past troubles. Flashbacks usually drag down a narrative and slow the progress, but not in this book, where Urban skillfully uses them to bring us into the emotional life of Mattie.

The narration is beautifully composed and fully grounded in the perspective of this sensitive young girl who hopes to avoid the pain of all the treacherous times of day—those “lawless” periods of arrival, lunch and recess—by being her Uncle Potluck’s janitorial assistant. Of course, things do not go as planned and her hopes unravel with the unceremonious introduction of the neighbor's niece, Quincy, who appears to be prime betrayal material. Quincy lands in Mattie’s life with a deadpan delivery that goes plunk plunk plunk right on top of Mattie’s worst fears.

Mattie’s world is small, but it's peopled with memorable characters, such as Uncle Potluck who can spin a yarn like no one’s business (it’s his phrase, Hound Dog True, that gives the novel its title); the not-so-subtle neighbor who’s got designs on him; and, of course, Quincy, who is twelve years old and seemingly weary of life.

Even though Mattie could use a friend, she struggles with the hurt caused by her former classmate in the school she left behind. Quincy, with her teenagery long legs and do-not-care attitude, feeds right into to Mattie’s worries. Although the book focuses on her fear of betrayal and humiliation, the unspoken threat (which Quincy represents) is that of growing up and losing control. Like everything else about this book, Urban handles these themes with a gentle, but assuring touch. And, mostly importantly, with a great dose of humor throughout.

Hound Dog True is a short novel, told over a very short period of time, but boy oh boy, it makes a large and lasting impression. Other than that, I don't have much to say, except this: Read it!

Source: I bought my copy at Barnes & Noble.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Review: Sidekicks

Written and Illustrated by Dan Santat
Aurthur A. Levine Books
Ages 9-12

There must be something in the genetic code of writer/illustrators that gives their work the sizzle and pop of eternal childhood. Whatever it is they were born with, or drank from, they've got a special spark that leaps off the page.

Dan Santat's latest release, Sidekicks, is proof positive that some writers don't just write for small people experiencing childhood—they embody it. The illustrations are as smashtastic as any follower of Santat's work would expect, but to have them in a graphic novel length work is a real treat. He's got a gift for storytelling without overtelling, letting the artwork do its work to convey the energy and emotion of a superhero in peril. Well...maybe not so much peril as allergies and age.

Santat turns tired comic tropes into graphic novel gold as the hero, Captain Amazing, announces auditions for a sidekick to help him battle the baddies without running out of breath. His pet dog, hamster and lizard want the spot, but there's one problem that stands in their way: Fluffy, aka The Claw, Captain Amazing's former sidekick. Turns out things went south some years back and Fluffy is feeling a bit bitter. Santat's ability to weave flashbacks into the storyline without disrupting the plot's forward movement shows he's earned his chops as a high ranking writer slash illustrator slash big kid with loads of talent.

This will make a great Christmas present for those looking ahead...

Source: I bought my book from Mr. Santat when he offered autographed copies on his website. I'm not sure if that offer still holds, but he's kind enough to provide a link to Indiebound as a way to encourage the support of independent booksellers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday Review: My Brother's Shadow

My Brother's Shadow
by Monika Schröder
Farrar Straus Giroux/Frances Foster Books (September 2011)
Age 12+

There's one thing I know I can pretty much count on when I see the names Monika Schröder and Frances Foster together in a book: I'm in for a good read. I learned about Schröder's writing from her middle grade novel, Saraswati's Way, which I reviewed last fall. Saraswati's Way was published under the Frances Foster imprint as well, and when it comes to precious reading time, I often rely on the who's behind the scene to help me navigate the book piles. It took me about, oh, zero seconds to pick Schröder's soon-to-be released young adult novel, My Brother's Shadow, for review.
In short, it does not disappoint. With skillful restraint, Schröder's crafts yet another powerful portrait of a boy caught in the crush of value systems and a world in chaos. In this case, the story unfolds through the public/private strife of Berlin during World War I and a sixteen year old boy, Moritz, whose family is politically divided between his anti-war, political activist mother on the one side and his Kaiser-supporting, soldier brother on the other.

When the story opens, Moritz doesn't question the rightness of the war, even though he and others are barely subsisting on ersatz food and government lies. Life under the Kaiser is all he's known, and he's troubled by his mother's rebellious acts. It's a refreshing and honest insight into a period of history that, when it comes down to it, is not so much World War I as it is World War II, Act I. The fact that Moritz works as a printer for the newspaper allows his story to illuminate the clash of personal and private interests, as well as integrate the conflicts at stake.

Told in first person, the narration of Moritz is as stark and sparse as the unemotional chill of war, once again demonstrating Schröder's use of emotional restraint to reflect (rather than exploit) a harsh existence. It rings true with a voice that reads like a teen of that time, and under those conditions, would view the world, which is to say that Schröder did a fine job of getting inside the psyche of another era. It is not flowery or lyrical, but blunt and, at times, as cold as Moritz's relationship with his ailing grandmother. (There's a scene in which she asks him to apply ointment on her back that is absolutely priceless in its cringe-worthy honesty.)

The fact that the narration is also told in present tense gives the story an eerie sense of real time contemporary political struggles and war. I found myself thinking that, while we have food and shelter, not much as changed in terms of political rhetoric and the fact that it's the poor and powerless who always carry the burden of the prevailing powers' success and failure.

In the end, Moritz gets his bearings and carves a place for himself with his awakening values. He even finds a girl. A Jewish girl. We all know, of course, what that implies for his future. In this regard, the downside to ending a book at the close of WWI is that, by its very nature of unrest and mounting hostilities against Jews, it cannot feel satisfying or remotely tidy. But it does feel genuine. And that, when it comes right down to it, is My Brother's Shadow greatest strength (among many).

Due out September 24th.

Source: Advanced Reader's Copy

About my reviews:
My comments and reactions to the books I read reflect my experience of the story as a writer studying the craft. I write them to examine what makes a story work, rather than sheer reader appeal.