Christina is leaving her island home off the coast of Maine for mainland school. But she has hard lessons to learn when she discovers her headmasters have a singular focus on isolating & emotionally breaking down her friend Anya.
I loved this series as a kid & I picked it back up from my library after recently having a couple of sick days where I didn’t leave my bed. Cooney is fantastic with atmosphere & dramatic details that kept younger me reading. But the thing that was enjoyable to rediscover this time around was how horrifying certain parts of the story really were. I don’t mean the weird pain vampires & the spookies that accompany them; the process that Christina goes through having her world change as she grows up is heartbreaking. This protected kid who thinks her life has been full of wonder & adventure learns very quickly about poverty, group-think, conformity, & adult manipulation. It is easy to substitute the Shevvingtons’ supernatural motives into some other kind of exploitation or sociopathy & get thoroughly creeped-out as a result. Some of the usual rules of teenage love triangles & simplified prose style still apply, but there are some fascinating parts here.
Recommended for readers who like classic YA horror & those who’ve read the story before & are curious if it still holds up.
The turn of season between winter & spring. The sky is bright but the wind is harsh. Snow flurries appear & then melt while a songbird sings at dusk. And I think about the wine label I saw last weekend that seemed to depict my thawing feelings. The picture was a black-and-white static field with hearts scattered through the negative space. The persistence of life despite the colorless apathy that drifts through my mind.
Aristotle Mendoza is a quiet, tough-to-reach boy growing up in Texas in 1987. Dante Quintana is a irrepressible, curious boy who teaches Ari how to swim & becomes his best friend over the summer. They bond over their unique names, their differing perspectives, & being oddballs in a community that seems to expect something undefined from them. When the summer ends with Aristotle saving Dante from a speeding car, the two are brought closer together, only to be pulled apart by a cross-country move & their separate paths to maturity. When Dante returns to Texas the next summer, Ari must rediscover his friendship with Dante & confront why he means so much to him.
So there is really one reason why I originally picked up this audiobook & it’s because Lin-Manuel Miranda narrates it. The premise itself, two teenage Latino boys in the 80s becomes friends & eventually fall in love with each other, was interesting & piqued my curiosity since I had just finished a Love & Rockets binge. (Which, by the way, if you like L&R & are willing to give YA a try, you’ll like this.) I ended up loving Sáenz’s story, which is very atmospheric & consistently conveys the tense immediacy of a teenager’s perspective. The relationships outlined here, not just between the boys, are also well-illustrated & kept me listening to the story, particularly Ari’s struggle to connect with his father & Dante & Ari’s arguments on who was “more Mexican.” A fantastic story that gives readers a different take on the “young love in the summer” trope. I’m more curious now about Sáenz’s other books & hope the upcoming sequel will live up to the first.
There is one obvious clue that admits daily my redneck background–the curve of the brims on my caps. A tight arch that narrows one’s vision & draws direct attention to one’s eyes when they’re looking in your direction. That narrow curve is the only way to wear caps, as far as I’m still concerned, & whenever I see someone wearing it differently, I have to bite my lip to keep from saying, “Hey hon, can I break that in for ya?”
Flashback to high school biology class, where boys seemed to outnumber the girls. I sat in the very back with other slacker kids who didn’t want to be there. (I was a fake, a girl who typically got good grades slumming with “the bad kids”.) One knot of five guys near the front were all rednecks who were polite to the teacher but occasionally did chew in class & never ever took off their hats. Big guys that sometimes were on sports teams but more often than not went off to the vocational wing after lunch & who did not seem to give a shit about a single thing–grades, their life past school, underage drinking, bringing a knife to school.
If I had been born a boy, I probably would have actually tried to fit in with these guys, my dreams of genderbending artistic androgyny aside. (But then again, Perry Farrell once said that that part of what he was doing was trying to get guys like rednecks interested in looking past gender norms so maybe this is an easy internal conflict to understand? It’s easy to say what could have been when you look back at an imagined life.)
But there was one guy in my class who was kind of in-between cliques just like me, except he sat a little higher on the popularity scale because he was actually good-looking. He knew the redneck guys by name, somehow wore black cowboy boots in my woodsy Virginia town without looking tacky, &, later admitted, watched the same sci-fi/fantasy TV shows as me. How did he do this? I did not know but I became obsessed with the curve of his hat. Because he could essentially put on a camouflaged cap with the mandatory fish hook tietack slid on the right side of the brim & just be that guy, the guy with the loud drawl & the cigarettes in his shirt pocket who was gonna be rowdy & say what he wanted & did not care–unless someone in charge was around.
And so, one day before class began, after a few weeks of preparatory small talk & flirting, I asked him the secret–how to get the perfect bend to a capbill. I had tried unsuccessfully on hats of my own & they often just looked beat up or crooked. “Are you serious?” he asked, “You’re really curious about my hat?” I don’t even know what lame answer I came up with but, yes, yes, I admitted, tell me about your hat.
What followed was like some secret male recipe of cool: fold the bill up & down in half symmetrically until it breaks, shove the folded bill into the band in the back as far as it will go, then stick it in the freezer for a day or two. After you take it out & thaw it, you can either wear as is or sleep with it under your mattress until you’re satisfied with the curve.
I felt like I had gotten some glimpse into a world that I would never really traverse & perhaps this is why I still wear my hats this way. The sensation is a familiar one, something I think I’ve written about often–a girl on the outside looking into the boys’ world & trying to decode its’ symbols. I come across one & uncover some small meaning & take it away to wear as an accessory of triumph. No wonder the trappings of femininity are still alien to me–I’ve rarely applied the same interest to other girls.
David Kohl is a phonomancer, a mystic who can understand the magic of a song. He is pressed into service by the Goddess to investigate changes to one of her aspects: Britannia who once presided over Britpop. As the scene that gave David his unique power changes & simplifies, he changes as well–and not for the better. He must hurry & find whose interfering with the past before he becomes a shadow of himself.
The above plot explanation really only scratches the surface of what Phonogram is about. The forces of memory, inspiration, & art are at play here & Gillen has a dense, intelligent story for readers who thrive on music. The music references are super-insider-y but there’s a detailed index in the back for those who are curious. This may make it sound like Phonogram is a challenging story to get into but Gillen works hard to say something sincere about culture & how it brings people together, how music speaks to & essentially changes us, & the aftermath of heady euphoric times once we move past them.
Wry, self-aware, & totally committed to simultaneously making fun of & venerating pop culture, Phonogram is an interesting dissection of the heart of obsession & is an interesting warm-up for his next series The Wicked and the Divine.