Underground Reading: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
Underground Reading: Scimitar by John Abbott

Review Round-up: Kids these days

With the launch of two new young adult imprints (from established genre presses) in as many days, it may be time for quick trip down memory lane with some vintage tales.

Take Me to My FriendIn Hope Dahle Jordan's Take Me to My Friend (1962), seventeen year old Julie Jameson is faced with the biggest challenge of her life: driving from Florida to Illinois. Julie, her mother and her grandmother are all enjoying their time at the beach when they learn that Julie's father and uncle have been in a car crash. Her mother flies back, as there's no time to spare. This leaves Julie - indecisive, shy Julie - with the responsibility of driving her grandmother and all their stuff back. 

Poor Julie. From the opening pages, the reader is doused liberally in her insecurities. She's by no means a failure - good grades, good looking, good boyfriend, good future - but Julie's never been able to find her own way. "She feels unworthy of her parents", Julie describes herself (in the third person), "she wanted to be the bystander, not the star" (12). In fact, Julie only defines herself by her outgoing boyfriend, Peter. Slightly older and a much more dominant person, Peter lets Julie do what she wants: follow. 

The challenge of cross-country driving terrifies Julie. She's terrible behind the wheel and has no sense of direction. Plus, this is late December and the very idea of driving on snow (not a problem in Florida, but definitely a challenge once in the Midwest), leaves her petrified. Her grandmother is good company, but has her own (real) problems to deal with, like being very old and very ill. Julie exclaims for a bit, but is overruled. She's going to have to grow up and make the drive.

Things start off badly. Julie is badly scared by some dangerous drivers in a "jalopy". Despite her grandmother's reassurances, it is clear that neither of them think that Julie has the ability to complete the journey. With this in mind, they stop to pick up a pair of "college boy" hitch-hikers. Julie needs help driving, and the two women want the reassurance of male company.

The decision, to no one's surprise, is a terrible one. The two hitch-hikers, Hal and Johnny, turn out to be disastrous companions. Although Johnny is a good driver, that's small consolation for his boorish behaviour and irritable manners. Hal, the other boy is standoffish and icy, communicating only in sinister giggles. Why, they're not even in college

Matters go from bad to worse. Hal and Johnny refuse to leave. While Julie and her grandmother spend the night in the motel, the two hitch-hikers stay in the car. Eventually their indiscreet stalking turns into outright criminality - Julie and her grandmother become hostages in their own vehicle. Her grandmother's health begins to collapse, the boys grow more vicious and poor Julie is left to save the day.

Three Desperate DaysWhich, for all practical purposes, she never does. Julie only overcomes her crippling security to make tiny feints in the direction of heroism. Mostly, she sits in the car, fiddles with her knitting and hopes desperately that her boyfriend will show up soon. (Spoiler: he does.) The best she does is hide her grandmother's rings. Yet, somehow, the final chapters of the book (post-rescue) are spent with Julie applauding herself for her newfound confidence. Her family ooh and aaah over her, and her boyfriend admits that he now sees her, if not as an equal, as someone that might have opinions of her own.

Take Me to My Friend (later re-released as Three Desperate Days) has dated badly. If nothing else, the entire situation is rendered moot by a single cell phone. (In fact, I can't remember why Julie doesn't just call the police from a payphone or a motel - there's some reason.) There's also the wonderfully outdated sense of threat. These hostile hitch-hikers might steal her grandmother's rings or wreck their car. In any modern thriller, they would've been menaced by cannibal serial sex killers. Still, at fifty years old, the age of the book is the only excuse for Julie's marginal character growth. She begins the book as an insecurely passive lump and ends it as a lump secure in her passivity. Julie never learns to act, she merely endures - surviving the challenge, not overcoming it. Her eventual reward? To become the sort of girlfriend that her boyfriend "consults". 

Loving AprilLoving April (1995) is one of Melvin Burgess' early books, published a year before his chart-topping, media-exciting Junk. Set in the 1920s, Loving April is the story of Tony and the titular April. Tony and his mother have moved into a rural village following their father's desertion. Both of them are fairly useless Downton Abbey types - neither capable of cooking a meal or cleaning their own house. Still, while Tony whines, his mother does her best to make do, buying a "cook book" and trying to "get a job", much like the common people do. 

The two are saved by April, a local girl of Tony's age. April is deaf and unschooled - she runs around the village with her collection of rescued animals, unintentionally making a huge nuisance of herself (in one of the book's better scenes, she brings her pet swan to church on Sunday morning). April initially scares Tony, who has never met anyone like her. But she confidently takes over the running of their household, appearing (like magic) to cook meals and do practical things like "start fires". In turn, Tony's mother teaches April the basics of etiquette, table manners and how to dress - all things that no one else had ever bothered to do.

As is inevitable, April (who scrubs up nicely) and Tony (who loosens up nicely) start to get warm and squishy feelings for one another. Tony stays conscious of his class and background throughout. He sees his situation as temporary, and thinks himself above the rest of the village (April included). His mother's somewhat "single" state also upsets him. The village men all flirt with her shamelessly, which turns Tony's stomach and poisons him towards relationships in general. While Tony (like Julie), wrestles with his insecurities, April (like Julie's grandmother) deals with more pressing problems. As someone neglected by her family and scorned by the village, April is stuck fending for herself. Her attachment to Tony only makes her more of an outcast - the ugly duckling adopted by a family of fallen swans. The local boys also have a distinctly predatory air. As April sheds her protective layer of dirt, she finds herself with even worse problems.

Loving AprilLoving April starts better than it ends. Tony is never likeable, but at least at the beginning, he's somewhat empathetic. As the book continues, his desperate snobbery and misogyny make him more and more irritating. His mother is certainly manipulative, but, unlike Tony, she has a grasp of their situation and is trying to make do. April is a less grating character (if somewhat overly fey), but that only makes her constant series of misfortunes more painful.  Their romance is improbable because of the class divide and impossible due to their different personalities. April's a genuinely good person, while Tony is an utter knob.

Mr. Burgess specialises in providing unDickensian anti-karmic resolutions to his stories an Loving April is par for the course - only one of these two people deserves a "happily ever after", and it will certainly not come from being conjoined with the other. Tony is not unlike Take Me to My Friend's Julie - he survives his situation, but never surpasses it. April, however, exudes the sense of character growth that Tony does not, and Mr. Burgess charitably gives the reader the impression that she's on the path to bigger and better things. One can only hope that Tony is left far, far behind.


By Jared (@pornokitsch) who also fears the wild jalopy.