Friday, March 26, 2010

What We're Reading: Sharp Teeth

The Alex Awards, sponsored by the Margaret A. Edwards Trust, are given every year by the American Library Association to 10 books written for adults that have special appeal for young adults. Edwards was a young adult librarian for many years at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, and over the years she has served as an inspiration to librarians who serve teens. (The awards are named after Edwards, who was called “Alex” by her friends.)

One of 2009’s Alex Award-winners was Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow. Warren Zevon’s song was running through my head when I first started reading it:

I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a pina colada at Trader Vic’s
And his hair was perfect.
Aaahooo, werewolves of London
Aaahoo.


Of course, you hear the word “werewolf” these days, and if you are a teenager or teen-friendly (or movie-savvy), your thoughts immediately jump to the Twilight franchise (Team Jacob), or maybe Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause. But that’s not this book at all. Although many of the characters in the book are lycanthropes—which in this case means less than wolves, a bit more than dogs, but anyway shapeshifters—it is not the most important part of the story. While it is significant that the characters are able to shapeshift, the story is about so much more than physical identity. Set in the streets and hills of Los Angeles and roaming down into Mexico, it follows a meandering trail amongst such characters as a kindly dogcatcher, a battered wife, a pair of bridge-playing bully boys, a curious cop, and some distinctly unsavory drug dealers. It explores the complexities of loyalty, loss and love in a truly poetic fashion.

The book is written in free verse, which is probably why it was singled out as teen-friendly, since there are a few trend-setting young adult authors writing in that medium—most notably, Sonya Sones (Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, and What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know) and Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Impulse, Burned, Glass, Identical, and Tricks). But while these popular and award-winning authors write in a terse, modern style, Toby Barlow’s book is a bit different.

When Buena Vista’s teen librarian, Anarda Williams, mentioned Sharp Teeth to our high school book club as a possible choice for next month and told them it was written in free verse, one of the teens said, “Oh! Like the Odyssey!” No, I thought to myself, modern free verse is quite different from Homer—but now I have read Sharp Teeth, I am surprised to say that, in some ways, that is the perfect description. This book has a broad, epic feel to it, with characters whose stories seem unrelated until they intertwine through events that are somehow fated. Sharp Teeth is a most intriguing mix of fantasy, horror and epic poetry. I always hesitate to use the word “unique,” but I can’t think of another book like it. It’s dark and violent, humorous, sweet and touching. Check it out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Anytime you want to make reference to the great Warren Zevon is fine with me!