Libba Bray, Going Bovine
John Barnes, Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance, 1973
Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
Adam Rapp, Punkzilla
Rick Yancey, The Monstrumologist
Barnes's Madmen Underground: I wasn't wild to crack open this book, maybe because it pained me to see 1973—a year I can remember—described as "historical." (Actually, I was probably just burned out from historical research.) But once I started, I had trouble putting it down. It wasn't anything narratively unusual, just a first-person account of a boy's first week of school. But when the boy is a member of the "Madmen Underground"—a group of students put into psychological counseling throughout the years—and he has a drunk for a mother, a late father who was the town mayor, and five jobs, his struggles to find his place are compelling and fascinating. This novel is pure YA just for the voice, which was strongly opinionated, funny, and believable. This was a long book, but the pages flew by.
Heiligman's Charles and Emma: If there's anything I love more than a good story, it's a good true story. While many books have examined the life and work of Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species and the theory of evolution, this is the first to look at the relationship Darwin had with his wife, Emma, and how it framed and supported his work. While the writing style tends to be simple and abrupt (I do love my compound sentences), it's meticulously researched and endlessly fascinating. I would recommend this book to readers of any age who are interested in natural history and Darwin's work. (Charles and Emma also received a National Book Award honor citation.)
Rapp's Punkzilla: This is one of several YA novels by Rapp, who's also known for his stage plays, and I have to admit I didn't get it. It's an epistolary novel written by a 14-year-old military school dropout who is traveling cross-country to see his older brother, who is dying of cancer. I didn't mind the graphic language or sex, or the portrayal of the difficult times that young Jamie—street name Punkzilla—has experienced on the streets and on the road. But there's an inherent weakness in the story-through-letters format; first, everything feels very episodic (and when it doesn't, it feels very un-letter-like), and second, we can't see the denouement firsthand, when Jamie finally arrives at his brother's home. The format felt very self-conscious to me, and the climax-after-the-fact it necessitated was unsatisfying.
Yancey's The Monstrumologist: This book was a surprising inclusion on the list for me, not because it wasn't well-written—it was—but because of what type of book it was: horror, filled with suspense, lots (and I mean LOTS) of gore, and breathless plot turns. It's the kind of book I'd expect to see on the bestseller list, not an awards list. But Yancey's writing is so lush and precise, easily evoking the Victorian era of his setting, that it was a pleasure to read about his vicious, headless monsters devouring their human prey. The human characters are interesting, as well, as is the fast and twisty plot. I enjoyed it very much; it just wasn't the kind of thing I expected to see on an awards list, which doesn't usually reward popular fiction.
Bray's Going Bovine: I went into this book blind, as it was the first e-book I ever borrowed from my library and there was no cover or jacket flap to clue me in. The opening was like many a YA novel, with high-school outsider Cameron giving a funny account of his irksome days in school. But then it took a strange turn, which the title kind of gave away: the narrator discovers he has variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, better known in cattle as "mad cow disease." There's no treatment for this brain disease, which leads to growing dementia and then death, so Cameron escapes from the hospital and goes on an increasingly picaresque journey in search of a mystical cure. His adventures get wilder and wilder—involving a teenaged little person hypochondriac, a talking garden gnome which is actually the Norse god Balder, a punk angel guide, a strange cult obsessed with happiness, and possibly universe-traveling physicists. As each adventure gets weirder, we're more inclined to think they occur only in Cameron's head, and that the possibility of a "happy ending" is less likely. When I got to the end, though, it still felt satisfying, and the ride to get there was endlessly imaginative and even funny.
So, overall a pretty good year for Printz books, with a wide variety to please lots of different tastes. For now, though, my taste is going to return to Janespotting. As I said, I'm having trouble acquiring the 2011 Printz winners, and my busy schedule means I'd rather not have to read five books for one blog entry. So look next week for my review of Emma, and all the books and movies it has inspired. That should keep me busy for a while!