Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013
336 pages

This is a book that kind of surprised me. I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it, but in the end I enjoyed it very much. The thing was, when I started, I was kind of - meh. The dynamic in this book is often found in children's books with an environmental theme: little guy, loves the swamp, all good; big bad guy, inexplicably hates all nature, and is totally, almost comically, irredeemable. Little guy through dint of hard work and some luck shows up the big guy, who vanishes from the picture, never to return. Paradise is saved.

I find this plot and character dynamic really problematic for a couple of reasons, but let's flesh out The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp a bit first. The success of this book is in the details. And do not get me wrong: this book is successful. It's funny, tender, clever, creative, and hugely enjoyable. I'll get my vent off my chest first, but then I'll get to the good bits.

In this case, the "little guy" is actually played by three characters in two separate but connected storylines: Bingo and J'miah are the titular true blue Swamp Scouts, raccoons who have taken an oath to protect the swamp and serve the Sugar Man, the giant creature who mostly sleeps but occasionally wakes to eat some delicious sugar cane or deal out some mayhem to enemies of the swamp. Chap Brayburn is the 12-year-old grandson of a man by the name of Audie, proprietor of Paradise Pies Cafe, birdwatcher and swamp dweller. Audie is recently deceased. So now, enter Sonny Boy Beaucoup, our first big bad guy, owner of the swamp who is about to repossess Paradise Pies Cafe and turn the whole mess into an alligator wrestling stadium and theme park with his business partner and World Champion Alligator Wrestler, diminutive, unsavoury, and fierce Jaeger Stitch. Our second strand of big bad guys, to counter Bingo and J'miah, are the Farrow Gang, a family of big, bad, itinerant wild hogs bent on eating the swamp's delicious muscovado sugar cane. The swamp is in terrible, terrible danger from foes human and not.

Okay, so my problem with setups like this is that there are never any grey areas, and maybe for children's literature that's okay, sometimes. Kids do have a more defined idea of right and wrong in situations like this, and cut-and-dried "swamp/other undervalued natural area = good, development of said area = bad" with heroes and villains really does appeal. Heck, it appeals to adults; I felt as satisfied as anyone when Sonny Boy gets his. And I am a naturalist, I would even go so far as to call myself an environmentalist: I am all for anything that celebrates nature and the environment and touts its value. I can enjoy a wish-fulfillment fantasy where the developer who hates nature gets his ass kicked in the end.

The problem with this kind of black and white situation is that it exists essentially nowhere in reality and while it's fun to play that wish-fulfillment game, it's also destructive. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that there are quite so many supervillainous, obsessive nature haters out there as environmentally-themed fiction would have us believe. People who don't see the value of a meadow, yes; people who want to destroy the meadow because it's a personal affront to them that it exists? Who rub their hands together, revelling in their gleeful evil plans? I am not so sure. Perhaps I am wrong.

The thing is, this black and white rhetoric isn't limited to fiction; it's been a staple of some segments of environmental movements, and that kind of rhetoric doesn't generally win friends or supporters. I did genuinely believe as a kid that people who built parking lots and malls were evil and actively hated the planet, but as an adult I can see that's not the case; they simply don't see it, I think, and sometimes they do see it but they also see jobs, economy, and yes, personal cash. (As an aside sure to win me friends, I do still occasionally wonder if the tar sands operators and their political champions do actively hate nature; I am not quite sure how they can justify what they do without some sort of pathological issue.) I can see where jobs and economy and protecting nature intersect, I can see where there are no simple solutions and where pretending there are does everyone, including the environmental movements, a disservice.

All right, so there, in a too-big nutshell, is my problem with this book, which is mostly a problem with this type of book. On the surface this is a simple, moral-heavy story with incredibly simplistic solutions. I want a little more nuance in the discussion, because I think kids can handle the nuance. I think adults need the nuance. Let's get to the parts that I liked, the parts that had me reading quickly and past my bedtime and occasionally giggling out loud.

The narrator's voice. And I know I'm not going to be joined in this by everyone who reads this book, but I really, really enjoyed the narrator's voice. Perhaps it puts me in mind a bit of a very Southern US E. Nesbit, with its empathetic warmth, the comic asides, and chattiness, and I like that sort of thing. The narration should have seemed hokey and overdone, but it didn't. To me, it added to the charm and the atmosphere of the book. And the narrator keeps the pace moving at a good clip; I can't believe how quickly I read once I got going. I didn't want to put the thing down.

Many of the sections are told from the point of view of the raccoons, and these were by far my favourites, though I liked Chap a lot. The raccoon storyline was what brought originality to the book, made it something beyond the little-guy-vs-big-bad environmental fable. It's a bit coming-of-age, a bit of myth-making, with the denizens of the swamp heavily anthropomorphized but still animals. I developed an incredible fondness for Bingo and J'miah and that could be because I do have a bit of a fondness for raccoons in general (while still recognizing they can be terribly destructive, even slightly malicious little jerks) but it's also because Appelt makes them relatable, charming, full of mischief and also full of good intentions.

I loved how human ephemera plays a roll in the ecology of the swamp. Bingo and J'miah live in an old Chrysler De Soto, and J'miah discovers some treasures in it - to tell what they are is to spoil it, and part of the joy of the narration is the way it hops around, lighting on things and connecting them, bit by bit.

And - slight spoiler - I loved that Appelt felt that the existence in the swamp of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, that elusive but perhaps still-extant dweller of the deepest parts of the swamps of the southern States, could remain a question mark. That kind of ambiguity and subtlety is missing from the overall plot and I would have liked more, but I am happy with what I got.

Recommended and I'm really looking forward to hearing what the parent-child book club has to say about this one. If the cut-and-dried environmentally-themed narrative with bad guys and good guys doesn't appeal to you, this will probably irritate you on some levels, and if you're not a fan of folksy narrators this book will drive you up the wall and likely over it. People who have problems with anthropomorphized animals will also want to steer clear. But if you're curious about an original story, steeped in atmosphere, told with warm humour and charm, this is a good choice. If you like an environmental message and like it when people get their nature facts right, this is also fun. If you like rattlesnakes, if you wish the bad guys would just be unsympathetically bad and lose a little more often, if you want to believe that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is still there somewhere in the deepest, darkest part of the swamp, pick this one up. Many thanks to Cecelia for bringing it to my attention in the first place!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

Starry River of the Sky
by Grace Lin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012
288 pages

I have been very remiss in posting this review; I finished the book nearly twenty days ago. They were twenty very busy days, what with March Break being included in there, and family stuff, but twenty days! That's a long time to go between reading a book and writing down one's thoughts.

Happily, I did actually write them down. I just did it the Old Fashioned Way, in my Old Fashioned Moleskine, with my Old Fashioned Ballpoint Pen. And now I shall transcribe them using my Old Fashioned Fingers. Well, transcribe with embellishments, let's say.

I'll start out by suggesting that I don't think this book, written second but set hundreds of years prior to the story of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is quite as good as the latter. Which is not to say that this isn't an excellent book; some of the places where I felt Mountain suffered were much better here, and some of the places where I feel that Starry River suffers are better in Mountain. It's a little hard to decide, too, which book it would be better to read first, because I did it in publication order and it works, though I think it would also work the other way. My parent-child book club will be looking at them in reverse order, so I may get their opinions once they've finished the two.

Also, it's weird for me to be writing about a companion book so soon after I read the first, and I suppose comparisons are inevitable because it's that much more fresh in my mind. I have such a large TBR that I don't typically read the same author even twice in one year, let alone twice in three months. So with that and the fact the books are related, I find it a little hard to detangle my feelings about Starry River from Mountain.

That said, they are two different books, noticeably different, even though they share many things, including the structure of the folktales interspersed with the main storyline. Rendi is a stowaway in a merchant's wine cart, and is discovered in the tiny, drought-stricken, impoverished Village of Clear Sky. Dumped out, he is immediately taken on as the chore boy at the village's inn, as the eldest son has disappeared and Master Chao is in need of help. But though the village's sky may be clear, it is moonless, and Rendi is haunted by the sound of groans and weeping every night. A beautiful storyteller, a seemingly senile old man, and the innkeeper's young daughter round out the close characters, and each have a specific part to play in Rendi's own tale.

I think the big difference I noticed was that the story is a lot slower. It is, unlike Mountain, set in one place, and I think this robs the narrative of momentum. On the other hand, I think I developed a deeper emotional connection to Rendi than I did to Minli. This is also because we spend the entire book in Rendi's head, with the exception of the folktales. He is not a comfortable character to spend time with, either, especially at first: Rendi is spoiled, bitter, and angry. He's running away from something, he's incredibly selfish, and he's apparently pretty much determined to make everyone around him as miserable as he is. That said, he's also stubborn and not above taking help where it is offered, both characteristics that stand him in good stead throughout the book. I did find him somewhat endearing, but not immediately. The mystery of his origins was enough to keep me reading at the beginning, and then when I realized who he was (a reader who has read Mountain will figure this out sooner, but perhaps not by much) I had to know how that played out. And soon after I discovered I actually had grown rather fond of the boy.

As with Mountain, some of the fun is thinking about what pieces of the narrative are important and connected to the folktales and vice versa, and there's even more to be had in finding the little connections between the two books, which are there for the noticing and as mentioned above may lead to the reader figuring out clues a little sooner. As for the folktale-narrative connections, I did find them a little bit less subtle, a little more predictable, and therefore I felt a little less amazed and excited by them as I did in Mountain. I do wonder how much of this was just familiarity with the structure and style, and might not have noticed this as much if I had been reading Starry River first.

I should make brief mention of the ending: I loved it. I was kind of amazed at Lin's guts, but I loved it. I am really curious to see how the kids in my book club handle it. It's hard to say anything without spoilers, but I think I can safely say that it ended in a very open way, and there is lots of room for speculation as to what comes next. I am very comfortable with this kind of ending, but I suspect others might find it abrupt. It did make me want to read Mountain to see if I can get any clues as to where Rendi ends up immediately post-narrative.

As before, too, this book is beautifully put together and the art is lovely, and fitting. I wanted more of the artwork, but I'll take what I can get. The imagery and description in this book is beautiful, and there was a particular part that I can't talk about without spoilers that was that perfect combination of imagery and narrative "click" that makes me a very happy reader. I'd read the whole book over again just for that part. (And almost certainly will.)

Recommended. Starry River of the Sky is stand-alone, as is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but I do think reading them [relatively close] together has been a good experience. If you're only going to try one, I'd say go with Mountain, but neither are difficult or long reads, so you might as well meet and spend some time with prickly Rendi too.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

After the Golden Age
by Carrie Vaughn
Tor Fantasy, 2012
342 pages

Sometimes a girl just needs to shelf graze. I have an enormous TBR list; it's well over 1000 items now. I have series I'm half-finished and books I have to read for book club. But every once in a while I indulge in the luxury of browsing library shelves and seeing what sticks out, picking it up based on whatever information can be gleaned from the cover and the synopsis. One can find the most wonderful things that way.

Superheroes. Superhero comics. I have always more loved the idea of them than I've actually loved the comics themselves; though a big graphic novel fan, I've always found traditional superhero comics to be hard to follow, art-wise, and they are often darker, grimmer, grittier than I generally enjoy. But traditional superhero stories and tropes? I love them. So what is essentially a superhero comic in prose, sans visual art, is like candy. If it's a little light on the grit, so much the better. Add in one of my favourite concepts - exploring the superheroes from the perspective of the mundane folks around them - and I had trouble not thinking about this book all the time. I was stuck right in it. I revelled in being stuck. And, lest I over-think this in the following paragraphs, let me please make the point that not only was this book interesting in concept, it was so, so much fun.

The book follows the story of Celia West, only child to the greatest superheroes Commerce City has ever known. Celia has no superpowers herself, a grave disappointment to her parents, her father especially. Growing up she has struggled to find her place, to distinguish herself in her own right, to find her way out from behind her parents' shadows. Now a forensic accountant with a prestigious firm, she is assisting the DA put her parents' greatest enemy, the Destructor, behind bars by following his financial trail - much to her father's chagrin.

Okay, yes, the superheroes' daughter is a forensic accountant, which was probably my first big trigger to pick this up. I love mysteries, and I loved that Celia's job was so unglamourous compared to her superhero background (so does she.) Celia has had a rough go of it; in addition to being a major disappointment to her parents, she's a favourite target of the criminal elements of Commerce City, because of her known connection to the Olympiad, the organization of four superheroes who look after the city.

And now we have come to the point where the superheroes are middle-aged. Their nemesis is behind bars, their secret identities are blown. They still do their work, and they do it well, but they are past their prime. And some people know that, and they're about to take advantage of it. And Celia is going to get caught right in the middle, despite the fact that she has made it her life's work to stay as far out of her parents' way as she possibly can.

So, there are some problems with this book, and I'll get them out of the way first. I should say, too, that any problems I noted are generally the same sorts of problems that superhero comics enjoy: plot holes (how can the DA possibly ignore the major conflict of interest he introduces when he asks for Celia to work on the prosecution team?) and larger-than-life characters that seem a little static, a little rote (um, you know: superheroes.) I am pretty sure this isn't a coincidence. This book is nothing if not a loving homage to the superhero comic. It's not beyond investigating the tropes and poking a bit of fun, but overall it's going with the flow, and so what would probably lose me in a different kind of book only made me shake my head here.

I have been trying to figure out what, beyond the concept, kept me so very, very engaged, and I think it must have been Celia herself. The characters around her - even the potential love interests (less so for one than the other, certainly), and the friends - are comic book characters, perfectly groomed and inscrutable, fully committed to their missions and not terribly emotionally deep. Even Celia's father, Warren West aka Captain Olympus is very much a comic book character, and in Warren's case I think the intention was to get a little bit deeper.

The writing is pretty standard, by which I mean it fades into the background, which is much harder than it appears. Occasionally repetition was a bit of an issue; observations of certain facts or character traits were made more than strictly necessary, which occasionally felt like being foreblugeoned. Flashbacks are present, so if you're not a fan, watch out. They actually had less of an impact on the pacing than I usually find flashbacks do, though I'm not sure they did exactly what they were supposed to do, which was (I think) deepen my understanding of and sympathy for Celia. I liked her just fine without the flashbacks, and still didn't exactly buy her stupid mistake, even when it was shown and not just told. Which, maybe, was part of the point? That it was as inexplicable and uncomfortable to her, looking back, as it was to everyone else around her?

This is a gentle, fond examination of superhero tropes and ideas. The superhuman past his prime. Superhero as concerned parent unable to handle a rebellious teenager. Vigilante justice. Superhero-police relations. Hero worship. Celebrity media culture. What Vaughn does, to good effect, is to take the superhero story at face value: the city is called Commerce City, the superheroes have names like The Bullet and Captain Olympus and Typhoon, all without apparent cynicism or irony. They have a secret command post, various outlandish vehicles. Looked at through the eyes of a mundane observer, even one entirely used to the spectacle, this all takes on a faintly ridiculous cast, but it's taken seriously. Vaughn takes some of this to its logical conclusion, too: what would it really be like to have telepathic powers? What would happen if a superhero was caught out after curfew and shot at? How would it feel to grow up knowing you could never, ever, even in your wildest dreams, follow in your father's footsteps? How would a superhero act at the dinner table over delivered pizza? (The answer: not well.) What I mean is, I wouldn't call this a parody or a satire, nor a tribute, exactly. It's something in between. It's a fine line to walk, I think, and it's so well done.

Highly, highly readable, enormously entertaining, funny, sweet, occasionally moving, and sometimes thought-provoking. Recommended if you're a fan of fantasy or a fan of comics. There is a follow-up, Dreams of the Golden Age, which has just been released, and which I already have on hold. I loved living in this world and I'm really looking forward to going back.