Twisted Shakespeare

Where will you find Star Wars, Harry Potter, Charles Dickens, Scooby-Doo, Nancy Drew, Tennessee Williams, the Bible, The Wizard of Oz, Tchaikovsky, Sons of Anarchy, Disney, and the works of William Shakespeare, all in one place?

Where else? In the young adult novel Tempestuous, by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes, the “Twisted Lit” incarnation of the venerable Shakespearian play, The Tempest. It is a fun, captivating, smart, and insightful slice of twenty-first century Middle-American adolescence. This is a coming of age, girl-(reluctantly)-meets-boy, locked-room mystery, buddy-romp, that rushes headlong through one single, non-stop night that changes just about everyone’s lives.

In Shakespeare’s play, the tempest is a storm, bringing all of the characters together on an isolated island. And what better choice for an island in the modern teenage world than setting the story in the Mall? The authors effectively isolate the Mall-bound characters from the outside world by introducing a snow storm, certainly nearly apocalyptic, at least when seen through teenage eyes. The tempest in this story, however, is not the weather, it is the main character, Miranda Prospero (yes, Prospero, like the family in Shakespeare’s play): the unyielding, unstoppable, unavoidable whirlwind who brings her personal maelstrom to the lives of every character, and every locale, that she comes into contact with.

Miranda is mostly likable, highly intelligent, self-reflective, benignly expansive, and sometimes infuriating; generally evoking a sense of sympathy, friendliness, and empathy with readers. The potential difficulty that some readers might not be able to accept and relate to her, because of her relatively privileged social and economic status, and her until-recently rich-girl unapproachability, is mostly mitigated by the authors, as they escort readers through Miranda’s emotions and circumstances while she navigates her recent fall from grace, that took her from unlimited popularity with the “it” crowd and an unlimited shopping budget, to a wage-slave job at the Mall food court among a group of social-misfit new friends. 

The way the authors involve Miranda as the narrator of the events of that tumultuous night approaches genius. Miranda’s thoughts are presented in an inspired mix of American-standard teen-talk infused with amusing pop-culture connections, and generously sprinkled with literary allusions, poetic references, and formalized English, from multiple centuries-past of English literature. There were moments when Miranda’s inner monologue is almost Shakespearian. The believability of a teen girl talking to herself like this is discovered in Miranda’s background, as she voluntarily steeps herself in historical literature, motivated by her devotion to the memory, and the influence, of her deceased mother. Yet when Miranda escapes her thoughts and talks out loud, the juxtaposition is enjoyably jarring: she speaks to her friends, and her enemies, pretty much just like a teenage kid.

The parallels to, and branching away from, Shakespeare are witty and clever, and the contemporary setting brings a bit of new insight into the Bard’s own story-telling, and into the psyches and interactions of the contemporary American teen. The mall where the adventure unfolds is populated by teenagers of all types: geeks, worker-bees, rich kids, popular kids and their sycophants, wannabes of all social strata, electronic gamers, poor and working class kids, indie musicians, nerds, talkers, doers, heroes, and, especially, a cast of many more central female characters than Shakespeare wrote into his original version of the story. Miranda is their undisputed queen, even when her subjects don’t acknowledge that she rules over their world; in her plotting, scheming, problem-solving way. She is a benevolent dictator except to those who may have slighted her. She tells herself that whatever she does is for good reason, and as the story progresses through that fateful, whirlwind night at the mall, Miranda becomes more and more self-aware, and she begins to internalize her place among the pantheon of her friends, and subjects, as a caring and beneficial earth-bound, and snow-bound, goddess.

In Tempestuous, there is just about everything a great young adult novel needs: adventure, action, angst, broken relationships, budding romance, problems as big as the universe, growing pains, adults who range from clueless to malevolent, and even a life-or-death struggle. Just about every scene is filled with people the reader wants to know more about, events the reader wants to experience, and relationships the reader wants to be part of.

Kim Askew and Amy Helmes, and their publisher Merit Press, brought new life to this age-old story. As the events of the stormy night progress, to borrow Miranda’s words, the “plain, old, wonderful weirdos” laugh, fight, bond, party, mature, and survive. I think Shakespeare himself would want to read this novel.

Copyright 2014 Michael Angel

Your Friends Are The People You Know In Real Life

A Book Review of

"Who R U Really?" written by Margo Kelly, Merit Press, 2014

    It starts as a day-to-day exploration into the world of an American teen-age girl. But, almost immediately, a growing sense of danger and dread hovers over the pages of author Margo Kelly’s inspired portrayal of teen life: friendship, embarrassment, angst, and love, all deeply felt as only a teen can experience them.

    “Who R U Really?” is the story of Thea, who traveled the harrowing path from average American good girl, to ever-more duplicitous friend and daughter, to a person no one really knew and who did not even really know herself any more. I am convinced that Ms Kelly’s novel, inspired by real-life events that happened to her own family, should be required reading for teens and their families in the twenty-first century.

    Thea is the every-kid. She and her best friend form an unbreakable clan of two. She fantasizes about having a boyfriend. She is involved in after school sports. She maintains a sometimes fragile dedication to her family. And, like life for teens everywhere, everything happens in epic proportions.

    Ms Kelly gives us people to care about, people to be suspicious of, and possible solutions to increasing problems. And just about every time the reader has something figured out, a gut-wrenching twist pulls us back into mystery and foreboding. Thea often shows a distinct lack of confidence to stand up for herself, but no lack of strength to support a friend who needs help. Because of this, we might wonder how Thea could ever save herself, as we watch her spiral away from the comparatively idyllic life she once knew.

    Initially tenuously trusting her gut feelings about what she knows is just not right, Thea has to learn to lie to herself to accept what she desperately wants to believe. It does not take long for her to force herself to ignore her instincts. This internalized deception soon extends to the world outside of herself: she hides the truth, and she hides what is happening to her, from the friends and from the adults who care about her.

    Thea is pulled into a reality inhabited by Kit, a boy she meets online while playing a computer game. She develops a relationship with Kit’s character, who then inserts himself into her life outside of the game. Against her own best judgement, she reveals more and more about herself to Kit, while he tells her only what he knows she wants to hear, never really telling her any more about himself than is necessary to keep her emotionally connected to him. Kit uses sweet talk, guilt, promises, threats of suicide, and words of love, to ensure Thea’s primary focus is on him. Kit masters his manipulation of her through chats, texts, and phone calls, trying to keep Thea from having any other life but the one he is grooming her for. Is he really as wonderful as Thea’s hopeful heart wants him to be? Is he as sinister as her unheeded instinct keeps prodding her to consider?

    Thea wants to make Kit happy. She changes her participation in traditional family activities. She wears the clothing she thinks he would like. She gives up sleep to keep in contact with him. And she feels terrible when she is not in communication with him, because she is afraid that her absence from his moment-by-moment existence could result in his decision to take his own life.

    When Thea’s family and friends are finally able to realize the extent of what has happened to her, they leap into action to help her, to save her. Any disappointment or anger that her circle of supporters might feel, are overcome by the decision to do whatever it takes to try to free her from what her mother and the police believe is an Internet predator. But Thea does not work as diligently for a solution as her family and friends are trying to do. Her wish for Kit to be who he told her he is, her desire for his words of love to have been real, and for her to have the future he promised, places her in a new level of danger.

    This novel propels the reader through every page, reading as quickly and as often as possible to find out what is going to happen next. The teen-girl voice seems impeccable, the tribalism of teen friends is revealing and realistic, and Thea’s combination of naiveté, devotion, and forced maturity create a true-to-life cautionary tale that entertains and educates. I believe it is not overstating to say that the message of “Who R U Really?” could even minimize potential suffering, or possibly save a life.  

Copyright 2014 Michael Angel

December 8, 2014

Unaccompanied Minor

By Hollis Gillespie (Merit Press)

    If this story were not completely fictional, I might be more nervous about the world around me. Buckle up for a non-stop, full-speed novel that unapologetically attacks the credibility of step parents, lawyers, most adults in general, the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board, law enforcement in general, the family court system, courts in general, banks, inmate-operated animal training programs, airline pilots, flight attendant training and work practices, rules for airline employees that are supposed to keep the flying public safe, baggage handlers, and pilots and flight attendants who prowl the hidden recesses of aircraft with carnal or criminal or rule-breaking intentions when they are supposed to be working. It is fiction, isn’t it?

     “Unaccompanied Minor” by Hollis Gillespie, is a fast-paced, and somewhat twisted, flight through the world of April Mae Manning (yes, April Mae), a runaway teen who lives in airports and onboard aircraft, rather than go to a home with an absentee mother (who is in a mental health facility against her will), or to a step father and his new wife (who have money and murder in mind).

    We are introduced to a world that April, and really, no teen, should have to live in: abandonment and marginalization by the institutions that are supposed to operate in the best interests of children; and hatefulness and hurtfulness at the hands of the people who are supposed to be entrusted to take care of her. April undergoes rejection, alienation, fear, confusion, disbelief, and pain. She finds herself in the middle of kidnapping, chases, homicides, hijacking, and terror in the skies. What fifteen-year old could endure all of this? If anyone can do it, it is the intrepid, intelligent, resourceful, and unstoppable April.

    April quickly establishes herself, her loyalties, and her enemies. She is smart, sassy, and strong-willed. She sees her mother as caring, loving, self-sacrificing, mistreated, and misunderstood. Her deceased father and grandfather are still strong influences on her choices and actions, examples to her of the best in bravery, ingenuity, and unselfishness. Her friends are tough, loyal, devoted, and imperturbable. And her step-father and his wife are selfish, mean, scheming, and violent. April's reality has few gray areas: she unconditionally loves those who are within her circle of trust, and she fully believes not one good thing about the people who have shown her or her friends animosity.

    The novel begins with a turbulent, sometimes fractured, account of what April has been doing recently. A normal day for an American teen? Not for April: She is being interviewed by the police and the government about her threat to bomb an airplane, her decision to breach the aircraft’s secured flight deck, and her involvement in a plane crash. April has had an eventful day.

    April’s answers to her interrogators’ questions appear to meander all over the place, taking investigators, and the novel’s readers, on a question-and-answer roller coaster. She seems sometimes to lose focus, to make unrelated comments, to rave; her thoughts whirling and spiraling. What we finally find out is that April is not only leading the story’s investigators to the conclusions she wants them to come to, but she is also doing the same thing to Ms Gillespie’s readers. We all join April in an unrelenting series of harrowing, death-defying, and even deadly, events.

    April, who worships her institutionalized mother, a career flight attendant, is the child of a multi-generational family of airline employees: pilots, engineers, and flight attendants. She takes her legacy seriously, feeling that she is their heir-apparent, even though it is only by emotional birthright and not actually through employment. We have to remember, that she is, after all, still only a teenager. When she speaks of the contents, rules, training, and information in her mother’s Airline Flight Attendant Manuel, she speaks with religious devotion and zealotry. A child of the airline, she is most comfortable when she is within that world, even when facing the fears that all air travelers have contemplated; crime, danger, and death at 40,000 feet.

    Her mother taught her: “Don’t freak out, figure it out”. Employing this mantra, and armed with her MacGyver-esque capabilities in just about any emergency, April navigates turbulence that most teens probably hope to never have to go through. Loss, fear, peril, hopelessness; April and her friends, teen and adult (and animal), go through a maelstrom of trouble. April uses almost super-human ingenuity and force of will to turn the worst circumstances into an almost happy-ish ending.

    The author is herself a flight attendant. Ms Gillespie gives us an insider perspective into the aviation world.  However, speaking on behalf of most readers, I believe I can say that we hope the raucous, seedy underbelly that we encounter within her book is constructed completely from flight of imagination; although I think that her portrayal may be more true than most air travelers might like.

    “Unaccompanied Minor” is an entertaining and engaging interweaving of action, sassiness, drama, practical advice, villainy, and heroics. Once you start reading April’s story, you will be unstoppably, and gladly, swept into the action, emotion, quirkiness, and adventure.

Copyright 2014 Michael Angel

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December 25, 2014

“Silent Night: A Spenser Holiday Novel”
By Robert B Parker (and Helen Brann)
GP Putnam’s Sons, 2013

    In the spirit of the season, I want to say great things about this novel.

    I have gladly and avidly read every novel Robert B Parker has written, and they are incomparable in their wit, pacing, dialogue, relationships, and story-telling. This novel, “Silent Night”, was unfinished at the time of Mr Parker’s death; it is said that he had a manuscript on the screen of his computer, that he was working on when he was found dead at his desk.

    It seems that it was time for a Spenser Christmas novel. Mr Parker has opined, through his characters, about almost every other American institution over the course of his writing career. Here, Mr Parker expresses his holiday-related views, as seen through Spenser and Company’s eyes, regarding religion, commercialism, gift-giving, riches, poverty, selfishness, altruism, family, selfishness, and the basest and most elevated of human desires and interactions.

    In this novel, you can find the seeds of a classic Parker story. The banter between Spenser and Hawk, the connection between Spenser and Susan, Spenser’s altruism in the face of personal danger. There are even a few revelatory moments, that it seems he wanted to offer a Christmas gift to his readers: had Mr Parker lived to complete this novel, we may have learned something substantive about Hawk’s childhood, and how he became the man he grew into.

    Mr Parker’s wife Joan gave his long-time agent, Helen Brann, permission to complete the novel. Ms Brann surely knew Mr Parker as well as almost anyone could, at least professionally. She knew his writing style, she sold his books to his publishers; she was his literary agent for thirty years. I do not know much more about her, but I do know that, even with her long association with Mr Parker, this novel proves she does not write like him. But who could?

     Completed as a labor of love for Mr Parker and his readers, Ms Brann very likely did the best she could. But there are elements within this novel that are very un-Parker. Ms Brann’s contribution to the writing is evident: She presents Spenser as blunt in his pronouncements, rather than speaking in his trademark combination of self-deprecation and self-regard, and his literate and mischievous wordplay. He just comes right out and says, twice, that things he is about to face scare him; however Parker’s Spenser is known to express his fear through almost absurdly grandiose self-descriptions. He conveys doubt about his capabilities; but the traditional Spenser knows he is good at what he does, and even if he does not know what he is doing at any particular moment, he knows he will eventually find a solution. He nudges Susan to get her attention; typically, Spenser and Susan are portrayed as so in-sync with one another, they know when the other has something to express or reveal. He almost begs for help from the police; generally, Spenser and police Captain Quirk have worked together with respect for each other’s abilities, but not until a few minutes of repartee. And he describes his clothing but does not describe his gun and holster; Spenser often makes wry comments about how his gun does or doesn’t match his wardrobe. And for the first time in any Spenser novel, there is an instance in which Spenser’s name is misspelled as Spencer.

    The story does provide an engaging Spenser-esque Christmas scenario. A poor do-gooder tries to help street kids make something of themselves, rather than let the kids face the inevitability of becoming thugs and criminals. Spenser, Hawk, and even Susan, take personal interest in the salvation of the group of boys, and in one young boy in particular. There are also mysteries to be solved, bad guys to be thwarted, and days to be saved.

    There is a lot of this story where the characters have the same names as the people readers might know from other Spenser novels, but who are sometimes almost unrecognizable here. This is a novel to be read out of allegiance to Robert B Parker and Spenser. The experienced Parker reader can detect the outline of a Parker story, and some bits and pieces of Mr Parker’s unmatched prose; and the loyal reader will automatically fill in the blanks to Spenser-ize, where Ms Brann tried but did not quite succeed in completing this book as Mr Parker might have done himself.

    “Silent Night” is mostly a Spenser novel in its embryonic form, and it is completed as an affectionate eulogy to Robert B Parker’s history-making and enduring heroes.

Copyright 2015 Michael Angel