Nation by Terry Pratchett

nation Thirteen-year-old Mau is devastated when a freak tsunami takes out his entire island  village, leaving him with only shy tree octopi and the less than charming, projectile-vomiting Grandfather birds for company. But not for long. The same storm that destroyed his people also shipwrecked the Sweet Judy upon his island’s shore. The lone survivor is Daphne, a properly bred English lass who appears to be a “ghost girl” to the dusky-skinned Mau. Together they form an unlikely friendship as they attempt to rebuild Mau’s lost “Nation” with the straggling survivors from nearby islands who continue to wash up on the beach. While working to raise food, create laws, and build defenses against the local cannibals, each teen struggles to overcome their own personal demons. Daphne learns that manners don’t help when it comes the necessary murder of a charming, yet psychotic pirate, while Mau discovers that after the tragedy of the tsunami, he no longer believes in gods he grew up with, and refuses to accept that only the gods have the answers: “I want to know why. Why everything. I don’t know the answers, but a few days ago I didn’t know there were questions.” The only thing that’s certain is that one day Daphne’s father will come looking for her. But if he finds her, what will happen to the newly minted Nation? Will Mau and Daphne’s created community just end up as another British colony? Or will the two inventive teens find a way to send everyone home happy? Daphne reminds me of Pratchett’s other headstrong heroine, Tiffany Aching of Wee Free Men fame, while her bond with Mau is reminiscent of the relationship between two of my fav characters in recent YA literature, Matt and Kate from Kenneth Oppel’s awesome Airborn. Pratchett’s trademark humor comes through in the hilarious cultural misunderstandings between Daphne and Mau, especially in the birthing of babies and the making of beer. But he also leaves readers with plenty of food for thought in terms of the politics of nation building, the dubious comforts of religion, and the enduring tenacity of humankind. An unusually thought-provoking survival story of the first order, and winner of the 2009 Printz Honor medal for Best YA Novel of the Year.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

tender morsels Fifteen-year-old village girl Liga, emotionally and physically battered from bearing two children, one beget through incest, the other through rape, is given a well deserved respite when the Universe smiles on her by magically transporting her to her own personal Heaven, a gentle, patient version of the rough medieval-like world she once knew. Here, there are no brutal fathers, no leering village boys, no stone-faced grummas to judge her. There is only a beautiful little cottage in the middle of a wood populated with friendly beasts, (including a gentle enchanted man-bear who treats Liga’s children like his own cubs) and a welcoming village full of kind and smiling people who never lie or betray. Here, Liga raises her two sweet daughters, fair Branza and dark Urdda, in perfect peace. But the membrane between Liga’s heaven and the real world has grown thin over the years, allowing some who are not as pure-hearted as Liga and her daughters to enter. And likewise, the girls discover they can pass through into the real world of Liga’s tortured past. When teenage Urdda accidentally pushes through into the material world one day while exploring, she finds a place of passion and pain that is completely opposite of her woody haven. She doesn’t want to leave, but she also can’t bear the thought of leaving her beloved mother and sister behind. With the help of a powerful sorceress, she attempts to bring them to her, and sets into motion a chain of events that shakes her family to their core and irrevocably changes the path of their combined destiny. What I have described here barely scratches the surface of the captivating, complex world Aussie author Lanagan has created. Pushing the boundaries of YA literature, this dark, violent fairy tale, containing elements of everything from The Color Purple to the Grimm Brothers’ Bearskin, is rife with themes of memory, identity, lost childhood, family and what it means to grow up. You will need to digest these Tender Morsels for yourself to discover the magnetic power of her dense, gorgeous prose. Deeply imaginative and beautifully written, this is easily one of the best books of 2008.

Would You by Marthe Jocelyn

would you

“Would you rather have your father sing at the supermarket or your mother fart in the principal’s office?”

“Would you rather lose all your hair or all your teeth?”

“Would you rather know what’s going to happen or not know?”

Natalie and her friends play the “Would you…” game all the time, with the highest marks going to the grossest or grimmest options. In fact, it’s just after they’ve been sitting around shooting the “would you” bull on a perfect summer night when Natalie gets the call that changes everything. Natalie’s older sister Claire has been hit by a car. She’s in a coma and it doesn’t look good. Now all Natalie can do is wait. Her life has slowed down to moments that pass like eons while she waits for Claire to either wake up, or…the alternative is impossible to imagine. “Would you rather die or have everyone else die?” Who is Natalie without Claire? Not only doesn’t Natalie know the answer to that terrible question, she’s sure she doesn’t want to find out. Marthe Jocelyn paints an incredibly intimate portrait of a family responding to a crisis. Grieving turns out to be heartbreaking and sometimes even heartbreakingly funny. The dialogue between Natalie and her posse is so crisp and real it feels like Jocelyn has somehow been party to the conversations that flew around your own rec. room on a slow Saturday night. If you only read one book before you go back to school this fall, I would rather it be this one. (2 weepies)

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody by Mike Dawson

If your life had a soundtrack, who would be on it? For comic artist Mike Dawson, the answer is simple: “When I think of Queen, I can remember my whole life.” From the moment he sees Freddie Mercury strut his stuff on Top of the Pops as a wee lad, Mike knows he’s found his muse. When his family moves from England to New Jersey, Freddie is there, singing “I Want to Break Free” and “Death on Two Legs.” When everyone in his high school in 1991 is rocking out to Nirvana and all the other “alternative” bands, Mike can turn up his nose in favor of Freddie, who “can actually sing.” When Wayne’s World makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” a mainstream hit, Mike can brag that Queen was “his” band first. As he develops his drawing skills, suffers through his first serious romantic relationship, and tries to discover who he really is, the classic rock music of Queen is always playing in the background. This quiet, slice of life graphic memoir emphasizes the incredibly important role music plays in our lives, especially during our teen years. Dawson’s art is realistic and fearless–he isn’t afraid to depict himself in all his adolescent glory, bad haircut, braces and all. Occasionally, Dawson literally “rocks out” on impressive two page spreads (one of which hilariously depicts him singing an endless rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at a local talent show, while the MC keeps trying to shoo him off the stage) that juice up his gently paced narrative and temper his contemplative tone. If you’re a fan of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, or the late Freddie Mercury, you’re gonna want to give Freddie & Me a go.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

sawtelleThis epic story of a lonely boy, his loyal dog, and his family’s betrayal at the hands of his bitter uncle has haunted me (in a good way) since I read it, and I hope it will resonate with some of you as well. Set in rural 1970’s Wisconsin and employing some of the same elements as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the novel explores the inner life of mute boy Edgar Sawtelle and his family’s amazing fictional breed of near-mind-reading dog, simply called the Sawtelle dogs. (You can’t get one, because they don’t exist, but by the end of the book, you’ll want one!) Edgar’s life raising and training dogs on his family’s farm is idyllic until his father dies suddenly and Edgar suspects his uncle was involved. Determined to bring the man to justice, Edgar makes several crucial decisions that will change the course of his life and the fate of the Sawtelle dogs. Now, just because this buzz book is going to be all the rage in your mother’s book club next year is no reason to dismiss it out of hand. Trust me, underneath all the heaps of praise from frou-frou literary critics, a passionate, frustrated heart of adolescent angst beats at the center of this big book. (And don’t complain about the length, either. You ran right out and bought that monstrously huge Stephanie Meyer book, and didn’t even blink at the number of pages of the last Harry Potter. I just don’t buy that “I don’t read books this long” argument anymore.) So drop by your local library and grab it off the best-seller table or your dad’s desk and have at it. Then come back here and tell me about it…

Runaways: Dead End Kids by Joss Whedon and Michael Ryan

The multi-talented Joss Whedon (he of the critically acclaimed
“Buffy” television series) has taken the wheel of my fav comic series Runaways and steered those bad boys and girls left of the present and straight into the past, circa 1907. For those of you not in the know, the Runaways (created by the awesome Brian K. Vaughn) are a group of teens who discover their parents are super villains. After unleashing their own super powers on their unfortunate ‘rents, the California kids (originally from L.A.) bounce back and forth from coast to coast as they flee their parents’ evil legacy and try to adjust to their new-found strengths. Finding themselves once again in New York, the kids team up with the crime leader Kingpin, in a blind attempt to gain some security in a strange city not their own. In return for his protection, they agree to stage a small heist. Only they recognize the stolen object as a time travel device and decide to hold onto it for a bit. Naturally, the Kingpin wants what’s his, and sends an army of ninjas (yeah, you read that right—NINJAS) to get it. So before you can say “turn of the century,” the kids jam the device into one of the portals of their long-legged all- terrain vehicle (nicknamed The Frog) and scoot out of harm’s way and back to the 1900’s, where things actually aren’t much better. They find themselves in the middle of a turf war that’s just like The Gangs of New York. Except, these strikers and rabble-rousers, known in their time as “Wonders,” also have super-powers and are turning the tenements into a super-big mess. It will take all the kids’ strength and ingenuity to extricate them selves from the battle and get back to present-day New York in one piece. Whew! Whedon has penned a fast-paced doozy of an adventure that does not disappoint. The genius behind Buffy deepens each of the kids’ characters, especially conflicted leader Nico, and provides cyborg Victor with a romantic storyline that rivals Leo and Claire, I mean, Romeo & Juliet. From what I can discern from the single-issue reviews, it’s better to digest Whedon’s work all in one gulp in this collected volume so that you can more easily follow the complicated time travel plot. Want to know what happened first? Start here. But for those of you who are already fans of the tricked-out teens, I can’t think of a better way to wile away a lazy Sunday afternoon than spending time with these Dead End Kids!