I'm a huge fan of thrillers: Mankell is one, Deaver another, Lehane too. In the world of YA literature, though, a really good edge-of-your-seater is hard to come by. I mean, there are good ones out there, I'm sure, but as for really good, in the same vein and at the same heart-wrenching, neck-breaking speed as those by the three mentioned above--tough to come across one, and let's leave it at that.
A month or so ago I visited with my editor at Random House, and just outside her office there's a glass bookshelf filled with so many books, and I'm there, so she says to me, "René, would you like to take a couple titles with you?" Are you nuts? I'm thinking. I'll take the whole bunch. I don't say this, only think it, right, not wanting to come across like the book-grubber that I am. At this moment I can't recall the different books I left with that evening; all I know is that she offered and I took. She suggested a few titles, among them McNamee's Acceleration. Listen, it's an older title, from back in 2003 (okay, older if we're talking dog years, but still, it's no spring chicken). I brought it home with me to Texas and set it aside. I meant for my wife to read it. She also likes thrillers and detective mysteries and is a voracious reader; if she read it and liked it, she'd say so and I'd put it on my to-read pile. But then the book ended up put away on a dresser. We must've been cleaning for one dinner party or another and so I lost track of the book. That is, until recently. And one of the things I love about this kind of book is that for the slow reader that I am, I just can't put the book down once I've started it, so long as it's good. And I've got to finish it. This book's got it all: a grittiness, a darkness, that feeling of looking over your shoulder just to be on the safe side. I don't want to be caught in the killer's web.
So, the story's about this toilet-thieving kid, Duncan, long-time friends with Wayne (who's working a dead-end job at a fast food joint, a sort of criminal-lite) and friend of five years to Vinny (a smart guy with three fingers on one hand). Duncan's suffering from a year before having failed to save a girl from drowning. He can't get rid of the guilt. His dad tells him to let it go; that it's part of guys' genetic make-up to want to save a damsel in distress. But the guilt's stuck to him like sweat resulting from heat Toronto's going through at story's telling. Worse for Duncan, he works at a place he calls "the dungeon," what other public transportation employees call "the morgue." It's a lost and found, and he's in charge of fetching stuff from the back whenever, if ever, someone takes the elevator down, way down, to claim it. Otherwise, he sits in a lawn chair in the back packing junk in boxes to be taken away to sell at the Y. Or he rifles through lost things. One day, he finds a diary. Reading it, he discovers there's a serial killer in the making who's used the subway system to hunt for his victims and is now planning on doing the deed. Duncan, Vinny, and eventually Wayne (Duncan's devil on his shoulder and co-toilet thief) join forces to search for Roach, the would-be killer. The search for him alone is exciting, and the story just gets that much better (my leg was shaking and I was biting the skin on the tips of my fingers, and my wife's kind of giggling to herself that I'm getting so into the book, and I know she's gonna read this book right after I finish it) when Duncan is found out in Roach's lair. Thinking about it just now, I got a chill. I'm telling you: you've absolutely got to read it.
Linda Sue Park's latest novel, Keeping Score (which is due out in the spring of 2008) is a baseball story, unlike what readers might expect in a baseball story: right--stereotypically you'd think (I would think it anyway, having played ball when I was a kid) that the hero has to be a boy, who plays ball, who is in one kind of slump or another, who has to find it within himself (usually a grandfather or some older person like that telling him to keep up his chin, that eventually the boy'll get that game-winning hit or whatever other kind of encouragement can be offered) to keep on keeping on, and ultimately, against all odds (usually the pitcher is a hulking monster of a boy who eats batters for breakfast) gets the hit. Well, none of that in Park's historical novel. And get this, the main character ain't even a boy, but a girl, and she doesn't play, she learns instead to keep score the old fashioned way, using the symbology of baseball (Xs and Ss and the like), and the girl isn't Korean, but white. Maggie's story takes place in the early to mid-50s, so the only thing that I would expect in such a book as this is that it would have to do with the NY Yankess, the NY Giants, or the Brooklyn Dodgers. Maggie cheers for the Bums, the Dodgers who reach the World Series time and time again, only to lose and to leave their fans looking forward to next year, always next year. But it's not just about baseball. Maggie is affected by the Korean War. Her friend Jim, a fireman at the local firehouse and who roots for the Giants, is drafted, only to return having suffered greatly during his time as an ambulance driver in this "police action," that only recently has been officially called a war, according to notes from Park. Just as interseting to me about this book is that an "ethnic" writer like Park is writing outside the cultural box. I hope folks won't be so silly as to hold it against such a wonderful book that these are not Korean American characters. It's an awesome book. Meant for the language arts and social studies class both. A treasure.
Lastly, and not just because I've got a story in it, but because the book in total is so solid, but the book to get in Febrary is Don Gallo's next anthology: Owning It: Stories About Teens With Disabilities. Who else has solid stories in the book are David Lubar, who writes a very serious and deep story about alcoholism ("Here's to Good Friends"), Gail Giles with a story on Tourette's ("Tic and Shout" in which she focuses on other of its manifestations besides spontaneous cursing), and Alex Flinn whose main character is, in a sense, born again due to a carwreck she's in that results in brain damage and her having to relearn much of what she learned since birth ("Brainiac"). Other contributors include Ron Koertge, Cris Crutcher, Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson, Bob Lipsyte, Julie Anne Peters, and Brenda Woods. My story's called "Fatboy and Skinnybones," by the way. Gallo has done it again, and I am so honored to have worked with him on this project, a dream come true.
Get them all. Each so worth it in its own way. But great writing every book.
originally published in slightly different form on http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/
Now, yesterday I hung out with students at LBJ Middle, where Cris and Mona fit I don't know how many into such a tiny space. Would that we could tear down some walls and fit in more students and more books. The students there were so good and kind with their questions and comments. Then I went to Beull, and alternative school where I sat and talked to some ultra, super duper awesome students who've opted out of the traditional classroom and chosen instead to study here, where they are excelling. Success to them all! And I wrapped my day up (and my two-day jaunt) with the 6, 7, and 8th graders at Liberty Middle. Janie and Dee have a great set-up in their library. And organized. Wow! They had so much planned, and I thought we might not get it all in, but Janie kept me in line, and everything got done, and right. Thanks to Mr. Sauceda whose drama class adapted and practiced, in like a week, one of my short stories: "Los Twelve Days of Christmas." And they premiered it at our last session at Liberty. What an honor! I loved the art work the kids did, the essays they wrote, and their questions and comments. All in all, a great place to visit. And if you get a chance, find out all that PSJA librarians and teachers are doing to promote true and successful literacy at EVERY campus, from elementary through high school. Authors, if you ever get a chance to visit, it's a great experience.
Thanks to everyone, again.
I'm a bit behind on this posting that dates back to Novemeber 4, 2007. The race took place at the Texas Motor Speedway outside of Dallas. The weather was just right, and the folks I went with, friends from church, are old pros at this NASCAR business. I kept leaning over at Charles and asking about this or that, and he kindly explained about all the nuances. In advance of the race he said I should get ear-plugs because it was sure to get loud, and loud it was. It was music. I know this because for the first three or four laps I left the plugs out and it was a sort of symphony. I don't mean to be melodramatic. But it was good. I certainly will return, in April, perhaps, but for certain in November.