Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Think lovely thoughts

I've never read (actually I've listened to all of them) a Dana Reinhardt novel I didn't like. I had issues with the audio version of Harmless, but liked the book itself and I really enjoyed both How to Build a House and A Brief Chapter of My Impossible Life (listened to pre-blog). Reinhardt tells brief, precise stories of older teenagers in insightful and compelling ways. Their brevity and smart, strong narrators make them great candidates for listening. The Summer I Learned to Fly is her first book for (slightly) younger readers, but it has all the hallmarks of a great Reinhardt read.

Drew Robin Solo was actually given the first name of Robin at her birth -- and called Birdie by her loving parents; but her mother changed her name when Drew's father died suddenly when she was three. Drew was her father's name. She's a loner and lonely girl growing up in a small town on the central California coast in the mid-1980s, but her 13th summer turns out to be one full of big changes. Her mother opens a specialty cheese shop in a dying downtown and Drew loves to hang out there, even if she has to smuggle in her beloved pet rat, Hum, past the health inspector. She plans on spending her summer helping out in the shop, crushing on the dishy college student/surfer dude who works for her mom.

She meets a boy, slightly older than she is, one night at the back of the shop. He introduces himself as Emmett Crane and tells her how much he appreciates the still-good, but not sellable, cheese she leaves out by the dumpster. He also seems to know a lot about rats (the pet kind). He and Drew begin a tentative friendship, one that encourages her to push her boundaries, ride without her bike helmet, disobey her mother. Things happen that shock, sadden, and even thrill her and her safe, manageable world tilts a little bit. Drew is telling us her recollections of that important summer from a distance of five years.

Reinhardt's mastery is how few words she needs to tell us so much. Drew's relationships are so carefully portrayed (we learn about her slightly-mean-girl friends in a spare paragraph or two), her small town is vivid -- Drew's understanding of the state of her mother's business is perfectly described as she beholds Safeway. She's a bit of an unreliable narrator, in that she's got a 13-year-old's tunnel vision, but her voice sounds so authentic. The bird/flying metaphor is there, but it's not intrusive.

A narrator new to me, Shannon McManus, reads the book. She has a pleasant voice and speaks with the rhythms of a teenager. Drew's quietness and sensitivity are nicely reflected in McManus' undramatic -- but still lively -- reading. While Drew sounds like a 13-year-old, I also got a slight impression of the older person (all of 18) telling us the story. McManus slightly voices the novel; her characterizations are subtle but the important features of each personality are clearly captured. I really liked the fact that her portrayal of Nick the surfer was not a caricature in any way. There was real emotion in her reading, I heard the lump in her throat when Drew reads a section of her father's notebooks. I'd listen to her read again.

This was my second novel in less than a month blurbed by Markus Zusak: "When you start reading a Dana Reinhardt book, it's like discovering a new friend." The other one was Jason Wallace's Out of Shadows: "Honest, brave and devastating -- more than just memorable. It's impossible to look away." I'm seeing more and more books for young readers with blurbs on the cover, most recently Michael Grant (The Marbury Lens) to Audrey Niffenegger (Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes). Does this matter to teen readers? Or are they strictly aimed at adult buyers? Do you ask your friends to do this for you? Or does your publisher?

[Hum the rat is named for Drew's favorite cheese, Humboldt Fog. The beautiful photo (that's "vegetable ash" running through the cheese) was taken by Jon Sullivan and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt
Narrated by Shannon McManus
Listening Library, 2011. 4:24

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