Friday, May 26, 2017

Breaking into Song

This week’s challenge was to read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+. Using this list, I came across Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle. Since this is a book we enjoyed listening to in the car last summer, I opted for the sequel Five, Six, Seven, Nate!

In the first book, middle schooler Nate Foster travels to New York by himself to audition for a Broadway show. After several mishaps, Nate lands a spot in a new show called E.T. The Musical. 

The second book opens with Nate saying goodbye to his best friend Libby as he packs for rehearsals. Back in New York, his Aunt Heidi gives him both a place to stay and an appreciation of his dream – which is all but nonexistent at home.

Awkward and simultaneously self-conscious and confident, Nate stands out in the cast of polished, experienced child actors. Nate soon finds support from the dance coach and a seasoned actress playing the understudy to E.T. She recognizes Nate’s gift of a photographic mind that not only remembers lines, but whole scenes of blocking. While he tries to stay out of way of the show’s star Elliott, played by his hometown nemesis Jordan, he is comforted by the gifts left by a secret admirer.
Even though the director, who has only worked on video games, can’t remember his name, he will soon have to rely on Nate in ways he never expected.

Narrated by Nate, the novel is funny, snarky, and sweet. Nate never shies away from voicing his unique perspective of the theater, his fellow middle schoolers, and his own view of himself. As he commits the musical to heart, he becomes a star – both on stage and off. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Call Backs

When I was little, a local music store asked my dance teacher if her dance class could appear in its new commercial. I don’t remember much about the experience except for endless takes of grapevine-ing across a hot parking lot in front of the music store. I did see it on TV a few months later.  Our little dance routine was on the screen for a few seconds. I figure I still have about 12 seconds left.

For those seeking their 15 seconds of fame, I recommend the following titles:

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond
Hammond takes us into the world of child actors. Centering around an agent called Mimi, the novel follows a circle of characters as they hope to be discovered.  

Ruth and her daughter Bethany have just moved to Los Angeles from Seattle. Ruth is all too eager to purchase the headshots, remove the braces, and visit the beauty specialists required. She also ferries Bethy to auditions, acting lessons, and showcases the agent insists on (and charges for). 

Angie and her daughter Laurel have left the Southern pageant scene for Hollywood. However, Laurel, at 16, is getting too old for most parts, so time is running out.  

Quinn, since being dismissed by Mimi, is couch surfing and also worried about the future. Trying for a part in a new Gus Van Sant movie may be his last chance.

From on-set scenes (equal parts homework and Cinnabons) to acting classes with vaguely familiar has-beens, Hammond makes the process look both grueling and well, grueling.

I’m Glad About You by Theresa Rebeck
After college (and a stint in Seattle theater) Alison Moore moves to New York with hopes of making it as an actress. A friend calls in a favor and soon she is auditioning for the role of “witness” on a crime show. One hit show later, she is walking the red carpet and appearing in celebrity magazines.

Her ex-boyfriend Kyle works as a pediatrician in their hometown of Cincinnati. Newly married, his wife Van is eager to start a family but wary that Kyle may still have feelings for Alison.

The novel follows Alison’s career and the people she must (or chooses to) leave behind.  Like most celebrity obsessions, we empathize with their trials while at the same time rolling our eyes at the drama.

Rebeck, a playwright and television writer (also the creator of one of my favorites), engages the reader with clever dialogue and characters that you'd much rather watch on the screen than befriend  

Friday, May 12, 2017

Charismatic mega-vertebrates

Setting out to read a book that is set within 100 miles of my location, I turned to Hannah’s Dream by Diane Hammond.  

Technically, the town of Bladenham, Washington is fictional.  However, since it purports to be within smelling distance of Puget Sound, I’m going to count it.  

Max of the Max L. Biedelman Zoo was born in Seattle but grew up on safaris in Africa. When her parents left her at age 25, she moved to their 50 room estate surrounded by 300 acres of farmland in Bladenham. By the 1950s, her estate had become home to a number of wild and exotic animals. Just before she died, she acquired a young elephant by the name of Hannah. She appointed one of her new hires, Sam Brown, as Hannah’s keeper.

As Hammond writes, “When he first met her, Hannah reminded him of nothing so much as a worn-out, hip-shot, low-slung, dog-ugly, poorly dressed old floozy in bad shoes.” After 40 years, Sam and Hannah are still together, but Sam and his wife Corinna are looking forward to retirement. Although she is happy with Sam’s morning delivery of Dunkin’ Donuts and daily walks, Hannah dreams of having companions and room to roam.

The zoo’s new director, Harriet Saul has grand plans. After realizing Hannah has the potential to bring in money and visitors to the zoo, she hires a new elephant keeper, Neva Wilson. Neva soon finds an ally in both Sam and Truman, the director of operations. They soon find themselves hatching a plan to find Hannah a new home at a California elephant sanctuary.

Sam’s affection for Hannah had me hooked from the first chapter. However, it was the cast of characters from Neva’s eccentric landlord to Truman’s potbellied pig Miles that kept me reading.  All, not just Hannah, are charismatic mega-vertebrates. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

“When you make dal for another woman’s child, keep it a little bit raw”

To meet the challenge of reading a book with a central immigration narrative, I had to look no further than Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, a book I requested as soon as I heard about it on NPR.

“Popocalo offered no work, only the growing and eating of a few stalks of corn.” Thus begins the story of Solimar Castro Valdez. Soli’s parents have paid a coyote to take their nineteen year old daughter from Oaxaca. Mexico to California. Despite their best laid plans, Soli strikes out on her own and hooks up with some young boys riding the trains north. She and Checo are attracted to each other instantly. When tragedy strikes, as it always must for those migrating, Soli then finds herself on an onion truck heading to San Francisco. After landing in the Mission district and thinking she was back in Mexico, she connects with her cousin Silvia. It is Silvia who points out that Soli is pregnant, but she finds her a job as a housekeeper in Berkeley.

Meanwhile Kavya , a chef, and her husband Rishi, an air quality engineer, are thirty somethings living in Berkeley. Their Craftsman home is within “wafting distance of bakeries and storied restaurants.” All is as it should be until they decide they are ready to try for a baby. One unsuccessful year later, the fertility treatment that wipes out their savings ends in miscarriage. They consider adoption. When the private agency proves beyond their means, they turn to fostering in hopes of adopting one of their charges.

Fast forward to one harrowing afternoon after Soli has given birth to Ignacio (Nacho). When Soli loses sight of the little girl in her care, she calls on her cousin to help find her. While driving around, she and her cousin are arrested after Silvia runs a red light. Nacho enters the foster system while Soli and Silvia are taken to a detention center.

Kavya and Rishi end up taking in Ignacio (Iggy) and after some weeks of adjustment fall into the exhausting but fulfilling patterns of parenting. Meanwhile, Soli is left wondering what they’ve done with her baby. Months of waiting and hearings pass. In the end, Soli makes a decision that will affect everyone’s future.

Sekaran draws out a compelling story that illustrates the heart-wrenching complications of deportation when the person in question has a U.S. born child. This novel craftily manages to elicit sympathy for both mothers, but at the same time, provides a satisfying ending. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Just So Happens

Struggling to overcome my jet lag from a much anticipated trip (17 years) to Japan and the demands of dirty clothes, science fairs, and baseball practice kept me from writing last week.  In addition, they almost kept me from reading. Every time I sat down to read, I would fall into a disorienting nap, dreaming I was still in Kyoto or Kamiyahagi.   

Rewind to April 7. After the novelty of the in-flight entertainment had worn off, a couple of movies had been watched, and dinner had been served, I turned to my Kindle for some late-night reading. I thought it would be fun to read a book set 5,000 miles from my location…5,000 miles (or so) from my location. Finding one available for the Kindle the day before my trip proved much harder. 

Luckily, I discovered and downloaded Just So Happens by Fumio Obata.

In this graphic novel, the main character Yumiko sets the scene, “I am Japanese and still go back to Japan now and then. But here, London, is my home.” After hearing of her father’s death, she returns for the funeral. On the plane, she remembers her last trip to visit her father in the sweltering heat of summer. In the midst of fireworks and fans, she stumbles into a nighttime Noh performance. Later at the funeral, as she questions the meaning of the ritual, she remembers the masked dancer she saw on that earlier visit.

With realistic drawings that capture the essence of both London and Japan, Obata tells a story that is sparing in words but rich in emotion. Anyone who has traveled or moved far away from home can relate. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Cotton and Cyanoacrylate

This week’s challenge was to read a fantasy novel. Enter Anna-Marie McLemore. Reminiscent of those written by Alice Hoffman and Laura Esquivel, her novel The Weight of Feathers is a magical romance between the children of two feuding families. 

The Corbeau and Paloma families have been rivals for as long as Lace can remember. Lace Paloma is a performer in her family’s traveling mermaid show. Cluck Corbeau makes the wings for the high climbing dance performances of his family.

One night an accident at the chemical plant causes a searing rain. Lace is saved from severe damage only because Cluck carries her to safety.Her beauty damaged, Lace becomes an outcast.  She finds refuge in Cluck’s family only by leading everyone to believe she is a local instead of a Paloma. 

As her relationship with Cluck deepens, she discovers the extent of his scars and the truth behind the generation-old family feud.

McLemore blends the magical realism of feathered humans and bloody curses with the all too real problem of abusive families and deep-seated prejudices. Readers will be swept up in the spectacle and brought back down to hard realities.  

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Nameless City

In preparation for landing here, I’ve prepared a couple of posts in advance. Needing to catch up on my reading challenge (It's April already?), I went for challenge #6 – read an all-ages comic.

Using this handy list, I found The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks (color by Jordie Bellaire). Volume one follows the adventures of Kai, a young Dao fighter-in-training. In the first pages of the book, Kai meets his father, a higher up in the army, for the first time. Having been raised by his mother outside the city, Kai is eager to reunite with his father who decides to show him around the city. After one taste of city life, Kai is in love. Eager to find more meat on a stick, he returns the next day on his own and meets city dweller (and orphan) Rat. Impressed by Rat’s running skills, Kai returns morning after morning, bearing baskets of food in exchange, to learn her tricks. In the meantime, a plot is unfolding to assassinate the current leaders. With Rat and Kai’s help, the plot is …well, you’ll just have to read the book.

Hicks’ drawings contrast the austerity of the palace training, the grit of the city, and the tranquility of the monk’s enclave. Younger readers will appreciate the action scenes and marvel at Rat’s leaps across the city’s rooftops. Older readers will appreciate the allusions to the fragile balance between war and peace and the arbitrary nature of language when it comes to ownership and power.