Marcelo in the Real World

by Francisco X. Stork
ages: 15+
First sentence: “‘Marcelo, are you ready?'”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

It took me too long to get to this book.

Seriously.

I don’t know why it took me so long — perhaps it was a bit of the “if it’s that hyped, it can’t be that good”phobia I have — but honestly, you think after nearly six years of blogging, I’d have learned to trust you all. Because when you say a book is good, the book is good. (Which means, I suppose, I should cave and read Maze Runner soon.)

For the ten out there who haven’t read the book, it’s the summer before seventeen-year-old Marcelo Sandoval’s senior year. He’s on the autism spectrum; he likes to tell people his “condition” is closest to Asperger Syndrome, but even that doesn’t describe it fully. It takes a while for him to process interactions with other people. He hears something akin to music in his head, something he can’t quite describe to other people. His fixation is religion, though he loves working with the ponies at Paterson, a school for disabled children. Life is good, or at least as good as Marcelo wants it.

Then his father, who has never really accepted there is anything “wrong” with Marcelo, decides that Marcelo has been disadvantaged by living in a bubble world at Paterson, and that what he needs is a good dose of the real world. He arranges for Marcelo to work in the mail room at his law firm, something which Marcelo doesn’t really want to do. And yet, because his father is insistent, it’s what he ends up doing. And, for good or ill — or maybe a little bit of both — he ends up experiencing a little bit of the real world.

Written from Marcelo’s point of view, and in Marcelo’s voice, readers are invited into his world, a place I found amazing. Marcelo is comfortable with who he is, and he tries so hard to understand the world around him. His explorations of religion were fascinating, as is, as he gets deeper into the real world, his questions about beauty, about sex and about human interactions. (Yes, it’s frank, and there is some language, but nothing ever felt gratuitous.) There’s a bit of a legal mystery and romance to add to the inner dialogue that Marcleo has. It’s a deep book, one full of difficult questions and tough answers. And yet, as I finished it, I was surprised at the love and the hope that radiated from it, which brought tears to my eyes.

In short: absolutely wonderful.

Mare’s War

by Tanita S. Davis
ages: 13+
First sentence: “It’s just a sporty red car parked across our driveway, but when I see it, my stomach plummets.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

The last thing fifteen-year-old Octavia wants to do is spend the summer with her older sister, Talitha, and their grandmother, Mare. She’d rather be looking for a job. Or hanging with her friends. Anything but sitting in a car, driving from San Francisco to Alabama for a family reunion. All sorts of boring. Especially since she really doesn’t get along with either Mare or Talitha.

Except as they start driving, Mare starts talking about her past: what made her run away from Bay Slough, Alabama and join up in the Women’s Army Corps near the end of World War II. Her experiences in both a segregated south and a 1940s midwest, not to mention in the army. The chapters alternate between then — Mare’s history — and now — the road trip — and as the book unfolds, we learn more about all three of our characters. It’s an interesting journey, for both the characters as well as the readers. In the course of the book, Davis tackles both womens- and race-issues from rape to segregation to sibling rivalry to parental expectations and everything in between. It would seem like this would be a heavy-handed book, but it’s not. It’s got a lot to think about and talk about, but it’s like a sugar-coated pill: it goes down easy. Mare’s a fascinating character, all bumps and edges with a heart of gold underneath. And while I foiund Talitha and Octavia are less charming, they are certainly not uninteresting.

Which means this is one of those rare breeds of books: entertaining while educational at the same time. Well done.

Al Capone Does My Shirts

by Gennifer Choldenko
ages: 9-13
First sentence: “Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd surrounded by water.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

Moose Flannigan is NOT happy about his father’s new job. His father is a guard and an electrician on the most notorious prison in the country, especially in 1935: Alcatraz. And, because it’s 1935, that means the family gets to come along, too. Which means Moose has to leave his friends and start over.

All this is complicated by his sister Natalie’s condition. With today’s knowledge, she’d be diagnosed with autism. In the book — and I give Choldenko so much credit for making it seem as it probably really was, which was alternately quite revealing and very painful — she’s just got a “condition”, something that needs to be “cured”. Moose and Natalie’s mother was the hardest character to stomach: she couldn’t deal with Natalie, pretending she was ten for years, because younger children have more of a “chance” and because she just couldn’t deal with the fact that child was not “normal”. That I cringed every time she began to speak is a testament to how well Choldenko wrote her.

While autism, as well as Natalie’s acceptance to a special school in San Francisco, played a major role in the book, it wasn’t the whole plot. When Moose wasn’t struggling with his feelings about, or taking care of his sister, he was trying to figure out how to deal with the kids on the island — especially Piper (whom I wanted to smack!), the daughter of the warden, and who had it in her head that she could get away with just about everything — and trying to make friends at a new school, which is never easy. Choldenko got middle grade awkwardness down pat, from Moose’s reluctance to make waves to Piper’s bossiness. I also felt like she caught the time period; it felt like the 1930s, or at least what I imagine the 1930s to feel like.

Oh, and the ending: perfect.

Which makes me wonder what she’s done with Moose, Natalie and the island in the sequel. Something interesting, I hope.

Doubles

Double tagged — by Julie and Mrs. S — for a double meme, both of which I’ve done before, but what the heck.

6 more incredibly random things about me (that I haven’t already listed somewhere):

1. I can balance a spoon on the end of my nose. I think it’s easy, but either I’m a terrible teacher or it’s harder than I think it is.

2. I recycle, wear Birkenstocks, bike (not as often as I should), do yoga, don’t watch (much) TV, garden, and home-can, and yet I don’t think of myself as counter-culture.

3. I’ve been a member of the same church my whole life. (No, we’re not polygamists. Yes, I dance. Those are the answers to the two most common questions.)

4. Our honeymoon was in San Francisco, and yet we did not fly there. Instead, we chose to drive across Nevada (in a red mustang convertible). It about killed the marriage right there.

5. I had two miscarriages between C and A, and that’s why they’re nearly 4 years apart. (Maybe that’s overshare??)

6. Though I joke about it, I’m actually looking forward to planning four weddings. I even want to do the cakes.

The 123 Meme
I don’t think this meme ever died; it’s been making the rounds for over a year now… The rules (to refresh your memory): Go to page 123 of the nearest book, find the fifth sentence, and post the next three sentences. Then post a comment on the blog of the person two steps up the chain (so if I tag you, you would leave a link to your post on Julie‚Äôs blog).

From The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart:

“The bay was very quiet, almost as if the frost of the past weeks had held it icebound, then, a place line under the darkness, you could see the gap between the far headlands where the wide sea whitened. To the right — the south — the black forest climbed to a ridge, while toe the north, where the land was gentler, the big trees gave shelter. A perfect harbour, you would have thought, until you saw how shallow it was, how at low tide the shapes of rock and boulder stuck black out of the water, shiny in the starlight with weed.”

Now to tag (choosing mostly randomly): Abby, Shelf Elf, Becky, Corinne, Heather (at Errant Thoughts). And anyone else who wants to have fun with these…

Gilda Joyce Psychic Investigator

This book, by Jennifer Allison, is a lot of fun. It’s not deep, it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a little ghost story with a friendship story thrown in. But it’s a lot of fun, for one reason: Gilda Joyce.

I loved the main character in this book. Gilda was funny, sassy, quirky, easy to like. That, and she reminded me (very much so) of C. In the first few pages, 13-year-old Gilda’s sitting in the last English class of the year, and her teacher asks her what she’s going to be doing for the summer. Going to San Fransisco, she replies.

“And what will you be doing there? A vacation with your family?”
“I’ll be writing a novel.” Why did she tell Mrs. Weinstock that?
Gilda’s pale, freckled complexion turned pink with embarrassment, and Mrs. Weinstock peered at her suspiciously. Gilda had been known to make up stories in the past, and she knew Mrs. Weinstock regarded most of her comments with a degree of skepticism. “Writing a novel is a pretty ambitious plan for a girl your age.”
Mrs. Weinstock obviously didn’t want to believe that an eighth grader could write an novel, even if it was Gilda, who had a unique talent for witting in a voice well beyond her years. In fact, because Gilda had used vocabulary words like specious and trenchant in some of her assignments, Mrs. Weinstock had unfairly hinted that she thought Gilda had plagiarized on several occasions.
“I’ve already written a few novels,” Gilda replied, “so it’s no big deal.” This statement was partly true; her bedroom closet was stuffed with bizarre stories that she hoped would someday make her famous.

She had me hooked.

The plot develops from there… Gilda actually does make it to San Francisco (her letter inviting herself is quite ingenious — and funny) to visit her mother’s second cousin, Mr. Splinter. It turns out that Mr. Splinter has a daughter named Juliet, and they live in a haunted house. The “psychic investigator” part comes in because Gilda takes it upon herself (with Juliet’s begrudging help) to figure out why (and whether) Mr. Splinter’s sister, Melanie, killed herself by jumping from the tower (and in the process, figure out what those late-night ghost noises are). It’s mostly, though, a series of adventures and intrigues and embarrassing situations that Gilda puts herself in to. And they’re mostly very amusing.

My only caveat to this story is the whole psychic thing. It’s not for those who have a strong aversion to it, though I think it’s all handled very tactfully (I normally don’t go in for seances, Ouija boards and the like, but it didn’t bother me). In fact, the seance that Gilda conducts is quite amusing (though she does come up with some answers…) I also think, though this one is considered middle grade fiction, that it’s for the older end of the age group. C was interested in it from reading the back blurb, but I think I’d rather she wait until she’s a bit older. M, on the other hand, is enjoying it thoroughly.

One last side note… I was puttering around the web looking for more information on Jennifer Allison (the book’s missing the author blurb — which I always read for some reason), and I discovered her web site. On it, she says that she’s from a “small town in Michigan” and listed among the review blurbs there’s one from The Saline Reporter, my home-town newspaper. In my experience (which is admittedly a bit out of date), the Reporter doesn’t normally do book reviews, especially ones of middle grade fiction. Which leads me to wonder: is Allison from Saline? Did we attend the same high school? (Did I actually *know* her? I don’t recognize her picture, but then people change from high school.) I have to admit that it would be really cool… and that would give me just another reason to recommend the book.