Saturday, January 12, 2008

Edward Bloor

by Edward Bloor
Recommended Age: 14+

The Florida-based author of Story Time and Tangerine hits us with his biggest, deepest, richest, and most complex book yet. It is a book for teens, but not the ditzy, glitzy, image-obsessed type of teen book. Young readers who are ready to face a bit of harsh reality, or who have faced it in their own lives already, will love this book the most. This book contains the anguish of being different, the ignorance of hatred, the loneliness of being abandoned, and the heartache of love and loss. It confronts the problems of struggling small businessmen, cynical politicians and journalists, apathetic teachers and students, the mentally ill and addicted, broken and healing families, cops and suspects, and even religion.

Are you ready for all this? Are you ready for a story narrated by a 16-year-old girl whose mother was murdered seven years ago, whose father never spends time with her, and whose body is way behind in sexual development? Are you ready for Roberta’s life, divided between school (where journalism is her favorite class) and the mall (where her family runs a virtual-reality arcade)? Are you ready for a wave of hate crimes, an extreme makeover, an internship at a local TV station, a drug bust, one and a half suicides, and a case of chicken-pox that changes a girl’s life? Are you ready to see the painful ending of one friendship and the almost equally painful beginning of another? Are you ready for scary nighttime encounters, horrific daytime tragedies, daily thunderstorms that seem like the end of the world, indoor disasters, and conversations with more than one character – including a young Arab-American and a Jewish Holocaust survivor – that may challenge your thoughts and beliefs? And can you take, on top of it all, a murder mystery, a family crisis, and a teenaged survivor’s claws-extended fight to save her community?

If so, read this book. You will be well rewarded.

If not, read this book. It’s time to open your mind and your heart.

Also, it’s well written. It contains a good plug for learning the Latin language (“It’s the secret language you have to learn before they let you make any money”). And it makes 30-something Hagrid lookalikes cry, particularly at the point where Mrs. Weiss explains how she traveled all the way to the gates of Bergen Belsen just to leave flowers and a bundle of recipes at the gates, in memory of her mother:
“I always thought that some passerby, some poor woman, picked up those recipes, took them home, and used them. Then she passed them on to her daughter, and that daughter is still using them now. That probably didn’t happen. Some fat guard probably came along and tossed the whole thing in the trash. But I’d like to think that’s what happened.”
This is a thought-provoking, intelligent story, yet the pages keep effortlessly turning. It is emotionally engaging, even moving, yet not simplistic or overtly manipulative. At times it is shocking, scary, funny, and sad, yet it is never self-righteously preachy. In fact, Crusader shows that people on all shades of the opinion spectrum can be wrong, even about the things most important to them. It shows that good people can be weak, and in pain, and even pushed to the point of desperation. It shows that, in some cases, bad people can be redeemed. It shows pettiness in people you thought were good, and surprising moments of nobility from people of whom you never expected as much. But above all, it shows one girl’s determination to rise above a thick tangle of troubles.

Go ahead, just read the first little bit of it and see if you like it. But perhaps you should clear your schedule first...

Story Time
by Edward Bloor
Recommended Age: 13+

This is only the second of Bloor’s books that I have read, yet already I have picked up on a recurring theme in his work. In Tangerine (which I also highly recommend), Bloor spun a wrenching yet affirming tale of one boy’s courageous battle against the seemingly almighty powers of his community, his school, and his home; but just under the surface of that great story, was a sharp critique of an educational system that puts athletic glory and hidebound rules ahead of the welfare of kids. And now, in Story Time, Bloor trashes the idea of “test-based curriculum,” in the outrageous story of a school terrorized by a homicidal demon that, at times, seems a bit less dangerous than reducing children’s education to a matter of standardized test performance.

The Whittaker School, in Story Time, is a windowless, fluorescently-lit pit of mindless drills, protein shakes, and elitist jerks. It is a place where the will of a corrupt few tramples all over the rights of many less-fortunate people. It is a place from which Kate and her younger uncle George need to escape, but once the school-district lines are gerrymandered to surround their block, they have no choice but to watch their parents being pushed around by the Whittaker family, and their own skin turning green from lack of sunlight. And the same Whittakers prove, time after time, that being conditioned to ace an exam does not imply that one is a decent, well-brought-up, or even intelligent human being.

But the nightmarish Whittakers and their cadre are soon confronted by a different sort of nightmare: an evil spirit that lives in a storybook, that takes over one victim’s body after another, bringing shame and ruin and even, in many cases, death. It’s a subversive story in that, at times, the protagonists almost seem to be rooting for the demon – though this isn’t so strange, since it may be their one ticket out of Whittaker School.

This is a bizarre, quirky, sometimes gruesome novel filled with black comedy and, in my opinion, a very damning satire of a culture of corrupt officials, airheaded politicians, opportunistic experts, and the desperate students and teachers caught in the crossfire. It will leave you questioning the rightness of focusing the educational system’s resources on “results,” without considering the character, abilities, and useful knowledge of the children. It will make you ask, “What is learning?” And it will also make you laugh, cringe, gasp, and gnash your teeth at the antics of the wide variety of adults, children, and spirits who populate the halls of Whittaker School.

by Edward Bloor
Recommended Age: 12+

Paul Fisher is a seventh grade soccer goalie who wears very thick glasses because, technically, he is legally blind. He really sees fairly well, though -- but in a way few others see.

The book begins as Paul and his family move to Tangerine County, Florida, where his older brother Erik is about to start his senior year of high school. Everyone but Paul seems caught up in the Erik Fisher Football Dream, and no one seems to pay much attention to Paul’s middle-school soccer career. Another thing no one understands is why Paul is terrified of his brother. Even Paul himself does not fully remember why—until, piece by piece, it comes back to him.

You could say it is a story about memory. Told in the form of a journal that Paul keeps on his computer, it explores the strange way truths unfold in the mind of a frightened, yet brave, young man. It also builds up a cloud of danger, dread, mystery, and irony. The Fisher family lives in a palatial suburban housing development that, under the surface, seethes with corruption, treachery, and decay. Meanwhile, Paul goes (by choice) to an inner-city school where fierce, competitive, even threatening people turn out to have a heart of gold.

Friendships, family ties, and even the whole basis of a community are tested. The paradise of Tangerine County is threatened by plagues of insects, fire, ice, lightning, mud, crime, and death. Atheltic triumphs, athletic disasters, a fight to save a citrus grove, and the first hints of juvenile romance combine with shattering revelations about a family, a school, and a town in this surprising, moving, and thought-provoking book.

I think you will like Paul. And I think his story will really grab you. Here’s an example of the way Paul speaks...
In addition to my regular glasses, I have special goggles, prescription goggles, for playing sports. They’re made out of some kind of astronaut plastic that could crash-land on Venus and not break. Nothing can break them. If the dinosaurs had worn these goggles, and the Earth had been bombarded by mile-wide asteroid boulders, the dinosaurs would still have died, but their goggles would be intact. Nothing can break these goggles.

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