Sunday, August 28, 2011

First Descent

Pam Withers sets the pace for her latest novel, “First Descent” (Tundra Books, 2011), with the opening sentence: “When the shot rang out, I leapt from my bed, lifted a corner of the bedroom curtain, and looked down on the river bend.”  (It’s not what you think.)
            At the age of seventeen, Rex Scruggs is already a world champion kayaker. Now, he is determined to descend the Furioso, a Columbian river that lives up to its name. Only one man has ever attempted to kayak the Furioso: his legendary (and thoroughly unpleasant) grandfather, Malcolm Scruggs. This is Rex’s chance to carry on the family legacy—and   prove his worth to the gruff old man. His grandfather’s one request was that Rex find the Calamb├ís family: a starving daughter, so the story went, had given him a necklace in return for an avocado sandwich. The necklace has become Rex’s good luck charm.
            Once in Columbia, Rex meets the young woman who will be his guide along the river, Myriam Calamb├ís, an indigenous Columbian who has lived along El Furioso her entire life. At this point, you may have deduced that Myriam has some connection to the necklace, but it’s not as far-fetched as you might imagine. In Myriam’s chapters, which more or less alternate with Rex’s, we learn that her community is beset both by the guerillas, who supposedly fight for the poor, and the paramilitary soldiers, hired by the rich landowners to fight the guerillas. Myriam dreams of attending college and becoming a journalist so that she can make others aware of the plight of her people.
            Rex, who in many ways is like his grandfather—narcissistic, dismissive of others, and over-confident—soon learns that the real danger in this new world is not the river, but the guerillas and paramilitaries. Can he achieve first descent, and do right by the people he has come to care for?
            Pam Withers is a former whitewater kayak instructor and raft guide, and her expertise shows. I’m not a kayaker, but the book’s whitewater passages are so full of strategy, muscle, and energy that you can almost feel the water’s spray as you hurtle down the page.
           In her effort to familiarize readers with Columbian life and culture, Withers sometimes explains the obvious. Most American readers, after all, will not need to be told that empanadas are “meat and cheese pastries.” But the occasional authorial intrusions are a minor quibble with what is otherwise a compellingly readable tale of courage, sacrifice, and adventure.

I received an advance review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewer program. This review was originally published in the News-Gazette on Sunday, August 28, 2011.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wild About Nature

I just got an emergency delivery of chocolate from Switzerland from my dear husband, so the writing should be zipping right along in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I'd like to encourage you to check out my author interview on the blog Wild About Nature. Thanks to Laura Crawford, the author of In Arctic Waters and many other terrific books for kids, for interviewing me!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Dreamland Social Club

I recently visited Coney Island, famed for its Cyclone rollercoaster, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, and freak shows. So of course I was primed to read Tara Altebrando’s young adult novel “Dreamland Social Club” (Dutton Books, 2011). 

Set in Coney Island, this book perfectly captures the nostalgia and gritty wonder of Brooklyn’s legendary playground, full of quirky, colorful characters.

Sixteen year-old Jane Dryden and her older brother have spent much of their lives moving from one place to another, following their father’s work as a rollercoaster designer and engineer. 

Still grieving ten years after the death of Jane’s and Marcus’s mother, the family inherits their mother’s childhood house in Coney Island from a grandfather the children never knew, Preemie. “There was an amusement part here in the early nineteen hundreds,” Jane’s father explained. “Dreamland. Incubators had just been invented…Your grandfather was part of a premature baby display when he was born,” who later made a living “harassing people on the boardwalk into playing a carnival game where you shoot clown mouths with water guns.” 

Her grandmother, Jane learned, was a sideshow act, supposedly part bird. Jane is determined to explore the secrets of her mother’s past, a life she both loved and longed to escape.

Jane is a wonderfully complex character who just wants to find a place where she can fit in, call home. But at Coney Island High, her new friends are Leo, the Tattooed Boy; Babette, a goth dwarf; Debbie, who sports a peach-fuzz beard; H.T., who has no legs; and a giant named Legs. Normal never seemed so…weird. Jane discovers that her mother founded the mysterious Dreamland Social Club, something that everyone seems to know about but her.

Over the course of the year, Jane finds herself in the middle of a decades-old family feud involving a carousel horse chained to the radiator the living room as well as an ongoing battle between a development company that might have a job for her father and preservationists who fear that their beloved Coney Island will be turned into another slick theme park and shopping mall.

This book is steeped in Coney Island history and the carnival-like atmosphere of Jane’s new world. If you’ve ever been to Coney Island, or know anything of its history, you’ll be nodding your head in delighted recognition throughout the book. If you’ve never been there, you may well find yourself making travel plans—or wishing you could. Fortunately, Altebrando lists some excellent resources for readers wanting to learn more about The People’s Playground.

This review was first published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, August 7, 2011.