Title: Sister Mischief
Author: Laura Goode
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Since I went outside my usual genre for You Against Me, I figured I might as well go for broke. This is another one that's not typically on my reading list, about a hip-hop girls group in a high school. I'm always ready to learn something new if it's interesting or useful, so we'll see how this debut novel goes!
I'm having some sort of existential crisis or something but I definitely do not recommend going directly from TimeRiders to Sister Mischief as I did today. You'll break your neck with the whiplash.
This title is supposed to be young-adult fiction, but now I'm wondering what young-adult means in this context because if this were a movie it would be very likely be rated NC-17! Here's another reason not to read prologs - you might get more than you bargained for! Laura Goode is definitely not going to have a good effect on me!
Wikipedia says that young-adult fiction can also be called juvenile fiction, but then what does juvenile mean?! I am starting to wonder if I needed to change anything at all in Seasoning in order to re-publish it as Seasoning YA!. Wikipedia also says that "55% of young-adult fiction is purchased by readers over 18 years of age", so Laura Goode wil be right at home there with this novel.
It took a few pages to properly get into this. I got the impression that Goode was trying a bit too hard to sound hip and cool, but once I got into the rhythm, it felt a lot better. The story is entertaining and interesting so far even though all it is, ostensibly, is just another disaffected highschool story about love, rebellion, bullying, and acceptance. But that's an old theme, so the trick is in the telling of it, and I'm enjoying that so far.
I'm not sure about the cell phone texts which the characters send to each other. They're amusing and informative, but they're shown as numbered footnotes on each page. It’s an interesting technique, but I’d have preferred them to be an integral part of the narration. It’s less distracting from the story that way to me. I found it a bit like watching a foreign language movie with subtitles. Film is a visual medium and whilst dialog is important, if I wanted to read it instead of watch it, I’d get the novel!
When I'm watching a movie I don't want to be constantly be forced to take my eyes off the imagery to read what they're saying, especially when the subtitles don’t actually convey accurately what’s really being said. I’d rather watch it dubbed, which isn't perfect, but is a lot less dispruptive to me. Maybe Goode has something in mind with her approach here. We'll see.
It was interesting to note that in the first couple of pages there were two 'samples', given that a theme of the story is hip-hop and lifting samples to make new music. Goode lifts a quote from Rita Mae Brown to start off the novel, and in it Brown lifts the term 'polymorphous and perverse', which I first heard in the Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall, but which comes from Freud (afaik).
Then Goode herself puts the phrase 'white man's overbite' into the narrator's mouth to signify how white people are perceived as dancing. This may well come from Billy Crystal's character in When Harry Met Sally, which means it comes from Nora Ephron.
That description seems rather racist to me, but isn’t it the case these days, for example, that non-white comedians can get away with racist jokes about whites, which whites get called on when they do the same in reverse?
I know whites have a lot to be sorry for in the way they've abused (and continue to abuse, let’s face it) non-whites, but the way to address that pendulum is not to let it swing all the way to the other end of the arc; it's to stop it dead in the middle and never let it move again.
Anyway, I read the prologue! Yeah! But this goes to my beef about prologues: in this case, I don’t get why it’s a prologue and not chapter one. I don’t know if this was Goode's idea, or if she put this in just to fit some perceived norm (which would betray her theme in this story!), or if her editor/publisher made her do it. It’s hard to tell when so many people have had their fingers in the pie in producing a novel, but to me, it’s not a prologue; it’s chapter one!
In this case I'm glad I read it because it's really chapter one, and it adds a bit to Esme's character. Unfortunately, the main thing it conveyed to me is that she's a rather mean person. That's not a good trait to perceive (rightly or wrongly!) in a narrator. I happened acciendetally across the website which returns trivia about any name you type in, so I tried Esme and got this page!
Esme is the narrator of Sister Mischief, and we discover pretty quickly that she's gay, but she had doubts about her sexuality (who doesn't! lol!) and wanted to test herself by losing her virginity to some guy who had wanted her for a long time.
She was not impressed, and this evidently confirms something to her, even though their coitus was interruptus by two cops. I'm by no means convinced that having abortive and uncomfortable sex in the back of a cramped vehicle is the best test (as indeed one of her friends points out!), but it’s apparently enough to convince Esme, and she's so decided that she comes out to both her friends at school, and her dad (her Jewish mother is long gone) right after the episode in the car.
Yes, these are very mature themes.
So next we find Esme and her homies in school. There are four of them: Esme is MC Ferocious, Tess, who is religiously protestant, but not insanely so is The ConTessa; Marcy who is Catholic in origin if not in practice is SheStorm, and Rowie who is Indian of no specified religion, who is MC Rohini (which happens to be her actual name). I mention the religious stuff because religion is raised a lot in the first few pages.
Rowie is a bit reminiscent of Sal in TimeRiders, curiously enough, but she's a much more developed character than Sal ever was, and this is in just the first few pages. Marcy is very tall, evidently skilled at basketball, and the most butch hetero Esme has ever seen! Tess is a bit shy and retiring, which is odd because she's the lead singer in their amateur band. Esme doesn’t tend to blab much herself so you have to impute things from her narration.
The villain of the piece so far, is Mary Ashley Baumgarten (or MashBaum as they refer to her - yes, the author has an eye for a Goode turn of phrase), who is determinedly anti-gay. I hope this isn’t going to be one of those black and white good v. bad stories, but Mashbaum is highly religious, so to find this bigotry isn’t surprising. The fundamentally religious can be depressingly intolerant. Maybe that's one of Goode's themes.
People of color (as Goode refers to them) are very rare at Esme's Minnesotan high school in Hollyhill (or Holy Hell as they view it), so her hip-hop wannabe band is 75% white. They're very much into their music, and discuss it in terms which seemed to me to be a bit mature for their age group and disposition, but these girls are all very smart, so perhaps it’s not outside of their character to relate to each other in this way. They work hard at school and get good grades because they want out of Hollyhill badly, and wisely see college or university as their ticket, even though they rebel against a lot of what’s required of them in school. And therein lies a story!
They discover, after another in an evidently ongoing series of minor fights with MashBaum that their school is instituting a set of anti-hip-hop rules, accusing that culture of being disprespectful, lewd, violent, etc. All four in the band immediately rebel against these regulations and declare that they will start a 4H club: Hip-Hop for Homos and Heteros, which they plan to try and get accepted as a school club. They figure if the school can establish religion by allowing a religious school club, then they ought to be able to have their hip-hop group.
So our four heroes get called into the principal's office to discuss their refusal to sign the pledge of dis-allegiance, and they negotiate with the principal to have use of the 'school shack' for their group. Provided that they do this on the down low, and that it works out without any problems, they'll get to have an official school group. The shack is technically not on school grounds, so the principal really isn’t giving them much, but they see this as an acceptable victory since they're still getting away with not signing the pledge - at least for now.
Later, MashBaum has the nerve to stop by Esme's house to try and sell her poinsettias, the profits going to some right-to-life group (it’s a new school year, so this is taking place in the fall). Esme gives her lip and shuts the door on her, and she and Marcy head out to overnight at Rowie's to work on their music.
Marcy is driving, and she detours so they can steal a sign from MashBaum's yard. The sign is promoting her dad's candidacy for some public office or other. The sign says 'Herb for Hollyhill' and this amuses them (herb, weed, grass, and so on). At Rowie's, they rapidly get derailed from their music making plans as Marcy produces an old joint she dug out of her older brother's car, and the three of them (Tess having left) repair to a tree house in Rowie's yard to toke a bit and listen to some tracks and stare at the Moon.
I found myself recalling that scene in the movie succubus or something, like Bo in Lost Girl, and is sacrificing her relationship with her daughter because she doesn’t want Esme to be contaminated and turned by her presence! But no.
Esme replaces her mother with her mother's books, reading them and paying particular attention to anything she underlined or noted in the margins in case it reveals any intel on why she split. She's currently reading The Diary of a Young Girl and discovering that Anne Frank was evidently gay. Either that or really, really curious! It's interesting to note that Frank was approximately the same age as Esme when she died of Typhus in a German prison camp only a month or so before the camp was liberated by the allied army.. I hope this doesn't portend Esme's future! But then Esme is an only child, whereas Frank's older sister died with her.
Back to the story. Esme's relationship with her father, is very healthy and open. She can pretty much tell him anything, and she reflects on this at one point, feeling that it's a bad thing in some ways because if she has no secrets, then it’s like she really has nothing to call her own. I'm not sure I agree with that philosophy, but from Esme's PoV it seems to make sense.
I find myself wondering if we’re learning a lot about Laura Goode here as we learn things about Esme, but since I know squat about Goode, I have no way of knowing that; however, if I keep getting drawn into the story as I am, and wondering what disaster is lying in wait for these people (or if any even is), I'm starting to think I'll need to rectify my lack on intel on that score!
So what Goode telegraphs at the sleepover, where she indicates that Rowie and Esme will be sharing a bed, comes to pass in the treehouse after Marcy leaves. The two of them decide to kiss to see what it's like since Rowie hasn't really kissed anyone, and from that point on it's all desi-re esme! Their relationship blossoms, but they tell no one of it.
Their next activity is to perform at open mike night in a bar and so they head out there in Marcy's truck. For people who are supposedly as rebellious and loosely hanging as these girls, they have a seating order in the truck, with Marcy driving, Esme riding shotgun, and Tess and Rowie in the back. I don't know what's up with that, if anything, but at one point later, Esme ends up in the back with Ro, and Tess rides shotgun.
Anyway, the story really starts to take off, beginning with the concert. Their hip-hop open mike is a huge success and they go home really pumped. Es and Ro spend the night together, again. They're now doing this several times/week and it’s inevitable that Es's dad is seriously wondering what she's doing, so she 'fesses about her and Ro.
They have their first meeting of the 4H, at which MashBaum gatecrashes and tries to steal Es's notebook, getting bitchslapped by Es for her trouble, which makes Ro really hot for her even as she herself is wrestling with her fear of fallout if their relationship becomes public knowledge, and her parents disapprove.
Halloween comes around and the four try to recruit Mrs DiCostanza, head of the English department, to be their faculty advisor for the group; then all hell breaks loose - almost literally - as some school jocks pull a prank, coating the floor and stair rails in soap and Crisco (now there's a good cuss word! I once thought of rewriting part of the Prince sing Let's Go Crazy substituting Let's go Crisco! and touting it to Procter & Gamble as a commercial jingle! See below)), and setting off the fire alarm at fifteen minute intervals, as well as loosing four goats in the school, some of them covered in fake blood!
The school is evacuated, and when they hear Mrs. DiCostanza on her phone suggesting to the principal that he get on top of this and close the school for the day before the media learns what's happening, Marcy immediately tweets the local TV news to tell them of it. She knows someone at the local TV station, and soon enough a reporter and camera operator come out there and interview the girls, who use this as a golden op to plug their 4H problem with the school!
Definitely some high humor here and a lot of fun, but this made me wonder if something is going to come crashing down in counterbalance. While on that topic, a word might be in order about Esme's notebook - not a computer but literally a notebook in which she writes thoughts, ideas for songs, and caustic observations. These scribblings are footnoted just like the texts (the texts/scribbles reach number 41 on page 141). The notes appear under the header 'SiN' for 'scribbled in notebook', which is amusing to me since it makes Esme a prolific sinner! They're irreverantly funny, too, at times, like when she scribbled in a chemistry class something to the effect that she has no valence electrons and her nucleus is showing.
I think I'm jealous of Esme in that she has such a confident and feisty streak and such good and close frinds. I was always lacking confidence and very shy in high school, and the school culture itself didn’t help. It was a royal pain to me; I wasn't happy there, but as the camer guy advises Esme when he hands her his card for any follow-ups to the halloween high school horror story, there is life after school (and I survived it!). Hopefully Esme & Co. will survive it too. It would have been nice to have had some of the warm school experiences which Esme enjoys; although I think I could do without the Hollyhill holocaust of soap, goats, and Crisco!
Cue the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince!
Dearly beloved, We are gathered here today to get through this thing called high school!I like the way Goode approaches religion in this novel. She's healthily skeptical about it and discussions of it pop up periodically because there are four different religious perspectives in Es's group: Catholic, Protestant, Judaic, and Hindu (presumably! Ro doesn’t say a lot about her faith, assuming she follows one).
Electric words high school.
It don't mean smoking weed and that's a mighty long blunt
But I'm here to tell you that there's something else: Halloween!
A day of never-ending craziness where you can always get someone's goat
So when you call up that TV station in Holly Hill
You know the one: Dr Film at 11
Instead of asking principal how much of your mind is left
Give him a piece!
'Cause in this life, things are much harder than being dead in a hole
You're on your own, and if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy - soap the school floor!
If you don't like the school you're studying in
Take a look around: at least you've got friends
You see when I called the TV news
with a hot scandal, they picked up the phone
and came right over!
Sister Mischief is all I heard.
Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down?
Oh, no let's go!
Let's go Crisco! Let's get goats!
Let's look for the soap on the bannisters
'til they close the school, let's go!
Tess is overtly religious, although liberally so, and they get into a brief spat in the truck on their way to Ro's house over Marcy's tarring all believers with the same brush. Es is not at all together on her position. Despite the Judaic world being patriarchal, your Jewishness (if I can put it that way) runs matrilinearly: if your mom is a Jew, then so too are you. Es feels confused because although she's technically a Jew, she's never had any training or education whatsoever on how to be one or what it means to be one because her mother left her at such an early age.
At Ro's house, Es is met by Ro's mom and given a birthday cake. She's very moved by the realization that Ro's mom is the best mom Es has ever known! It becomes apparent that there is still tension between Es and Ro. Es wants to go public with their relationship, but Ro is too scared of the consequences to be OK with that. She fears not only the public exposure, but also how her parents will react suce they evidently expect her to mary a nice respectable Bengali boy.
Tess sits at Ro's piano and plays a hymn: How Can I Keep From Singing?, which I'm actually listening to as I write this. Of course, Tess isn't performing the one I'm listening to; it was recorded by Enya aka Eithne Ní Bhraonáin (is that a cool name or what?!). Enya's words are subtlely different from Tess's.
The first time this song was mentioned in the novel, I thought they were referring to the Enya song on her Shepherd Moons album because I wasn't aware of its origin, but Goode reproduces the words for a couple of verses and refers to it as a hymn. None of the girls evidently knows about this (perhaps Goode doesn’t know it either) since Enya's recording of this song isn't mentioned.
Es decides that she should have a belated bat-mitzvah - the coming of age ceremony for a Jewish girl (for the boys it's a bar-mitzvah) which they normally have when they're 12 years old (or 13 for a boy - the develop more slowly don't you know!). So Esme's is belated by five years, but she decides it’s going to be a hip-hopaffair and the crew is all onboard with that idea. They're also talking about a holding a concert for their band, since they're expecting to be featured on the news that evening, after their interview at school earlier, so I was guessing at this point that the two events would be coincident, but they were not. The bat-mitzvah is never held. The concert is!
I have to say that I think Laura Goode, from her pic in the back of the book, is much more my idea of Esme Rockett than is the girl on the front cover of the book (Goode's short hair notwithstanding). I just don't see that girl as Esme no matter how hard I try. This is another problem with the disconnect between author's intent and publisher's interference. Maybe it's just me; maybe Goode is good with that cover, but for me, it doesn't represent. Actually, neither does the title for that matter, but at least the title is the author's! And not that it would be easy to convey the breadth and depth of this novel with one cover image or a two-word title.
So this book is in three parts: Before Rowie, During Rowie, and After Rowie. Yes, they break up over Rowie's inability to handle this relationship and her uncertainty about who she is. The break-up is moving, and it precipitates almost out of nowhere, although the portents have been long in the air, as we've seen. Esme goes through hell, and Goode does an amazing job of portaying it without over-doing it. I hope she's not speaking from experience because no one should ever have to go through that, but it sure sounds like she knows what she's talking about from her writing.
So the 4H meetings go ahead without Rowie, who starts 'dating' an Indian boy at the school and Es feels it very deeply. Mrs DiConstanza stops by one of the 4H meetings and it comes under assault from some jerks wearing Boy George masks who toss a roman candle into the hut. After they flee and it's ascertained that no one is injured, the meeting goes on and is one of the most interesting parts of the book.
Esme writes a long, rambling, and frankly boring letter to her mom, but we don't learn if she actually mails it at this point. The letter is interesting to me only because it shows that Es now feels guilty about how she treated the boy from the prologue - the one in the back seat of that car. She makes her peace with him after he comes out in support of her and what they're doing. That's a nice touch.
After the school principal blows them off when they meet with him to complain about the assault on their 4H meeting, the Sister Mischief crew plans a rebellion. In order to carry it off, Es needs to meet with Ro, to whom she hasn’t spoken, almost literally, since they broke up. Ro comes back on board and the four of them bust up the principal's all school assembly on student behavior (lol!) with a well planned hip-hop performance.
The problem with these performances is the same one I had when I started wirting this nvoel abotu aband, years ago. it was never finished, but reading Goode's lyrics, I feel how empty they are without having the opportunity to hear the music and see the performance. Sister Mischief isn't about poetry (although that's part of it) it's aboutwho these girls are, and without their act on stage and without the music, we're missing over 60% of who they are and what they represent.
Obviously, in a book like this, there's no choice, since it's the written word (or typed, whatever! Leave me alone already will ya!), but I sure hope someone gets with her and they put the words to music and have some appropriate (or more likely, inappropriate, given Sister Mischief!) quartet perform them and put it up on You Tube.
Anyway, the fallout from Sister Mischief's disruption of the school assembly is that they're suspended for a week, but the harsh and immovable principal inexplicably caves and grants them everything they asked for! That seemed out of character for him.
After that, the novel completely fizzles. Es gets a lame-ass letter from her lame-ass mom indicating that she might be coming back to the USA - not because she was moved by Es's letter (which evidently Es did send), or because she feels bad, or because she wants to try to be the mom she failed to be, but because her visa is expiring! After eight years! Way to make Es feel like a second hand bastard.
Somehow this magically makes Es feel okay about her mom. That didn’t ring true to me after all the pain she's endured and still carries, and all the confusion with which she'd been swaddled by this huge betrayal and abandoment.
I frankly expected something a little a bit better than what she gives after Goode's mastery of the story-telling which precedes the ending. I don't know, but it just seems like she gave up, or didn’t know quite how to end it (a position I can both empathize and sympathize with!). We don't even learn what becomes of MashBaum! After all the issues with her, and the talk of her father being elected, that just fizzles into nothing, too.
No, I didn’t expect a reconciliation between Es and Ro, not after what Goode had given us, so it wasn't that, but it would have been nice to have something. As it is, Es is just left there sitting on a frozen lake with nothing in her future but vaguery. Is that the negative take-home message?
We never see if or how Ro's problem with accepting (or even finding out) who she is, is resolved, regardless of what’s in store (or not) for her and Esme. It might have been nice to have offered perhaps faint promise for those two - like they're both accepted at the same college, or failing that, that Es happens across someone else who offers a bit of promise. Or gets it on with Tess lol!
Even if you want to leave her out on her own like that, without Ro and with no forseeable prospect for a partner, I still want to have an idea of what happens to her! It’s not like she can’t make it on her own, but I'm left with a bad feeling for her, a worry about what will become of her, and we're allowed no real idea of what she's going to do next with her life. Maybe that was Goode's intention, but that's not what it seemed like she intended to me; it’s like she just put Es on hold, as though her week-long suspension from school bled into the rest of her life!
We learn nothing of the future of this band, which seems to me to be the biggest problem with the ending, since the very name of the novel is the name of the band: Sister Mischief. It served only to emphasize to me the question of why that title, especially given this ending?
With all the crew apparently bound for different colleges, it looks like all this power-talk about the band, and what it was, and what it was going to be, and how important it was to the girls, just shrunk away like an old balloon, and that seemed to me to be at odds with the story's bass line and with the positives from earlier where, for example, Es is told by more than one person (Tess's older sister, her own father, the camera guy from the interview) that things will get better.
We’re left without no real feeling that they did, only the hopeful and blind assumption that they will. It's funny, but in a way, it made me feel a bit like Es did after Ro's abrupt departure from their relationship! Laura Goode dumped me!
But enough whining. I still think this is a great novel and worth your time to read it.