Sunday, March 23, 2008

An Easter Penguin

I decided that I would give myself Easter weekend off. Completely, one hundred percent off. I did check my BlackBerry, but not before promising myself that if I was asked to do anything, my response would be "it's Easter. See you Monday." Fortunately, I ended up not having to piss off my boss to enjoy the weekend.

SO. Given that I've actually set aside this whole big chunk of time for myself, I finally -- finally -- had time to finish Bianca Reagan's entertaining first outing in the world of published fiction (not counting the fictional aspects of her blog, which is a different sort of publishing). Bianca -- whose real name is Mahlena-Rae Johnson -- has taken the path of the true entrepreneur and self-published her first book. Boy, I admire this woman's guts. I'm scared to even submit a short story to a college magazine, and here she goes publishing her own whole book. Sheesh!

The book, which, like her blog, is titled Steve the Penguin, is set in the not-too-distant future, where we're not quite told that Hillary Clinton has won the election (possibly (?) with Barack Obama as her vice president -- oh, Mahlena, I do love your optimism :)), and, more importantly, where our heroine, Bianca Reagan Erin-Dempsey, is about to attend her ten-year high school reunion. Fraught with mixed emotions, Bianca tries to simultaneously juggle her demanding career working for a programming VP at a small entertainment company, a friend going through a difficult divorce, the requisite drama of visiting family you haven't lived with in years, and the most hand-wringing of all: the prospect of facing her high school crush.

Mahlena captures the stress and self-doubt I think most of us feel at the prospect of facing people we haven't seen in years, and thereby facing a version of ourselves we haven't seen in years. Have we improved? Have we stagnated? Have we grown up? Have we gotten old? Have we abandoned our hopes? Have we fulfilled them? Bianca reflects on her years as an argumentative, unpopular teen and realizes that, for some reason, she now cares what these people think of her. She hopes to impress them -- and perhaps to erase some of the sting of the rejection she, like the vast majority of us, faced in high school.

The book's tone is informal and conversational, which makes it an easy read -- and much moreso if you're relatively "up" on pop culture. As is fitting for a book about a woman enmeshed in the entertainment industry, a healthy familiarity with that industry will add to the book's resonance, as the book is liberally sprinkled with pop culture references. In fact, the title itself is a pop culture reference -- or, rather, two pop culture references tied together.

The book also has a thing or two to say about stereotypes and assumptions. Bianca, herself a victim of many such careless stereotypes, comes to realize that everyone deserves a fair shake -- including those she herself might have prejudged. Although not a new lesson, it's one that bears repeating. Through the experience of her high school reunion, and subsequent return home, we see Bianca's evolution from awkward high schooler to a more confident, hopeful version of her teenage self.

Steve the Penguin is something of a reverse fish-out-of-water story. Bianca seems more at ease with the life she has chosen for herself, in Los Angeles, than with her former life on the small island of St. Thomas. The intrigue, and the action, focuses on how she reconciles the two, and makes peace with her own childhood. I won't spoil anything, but I will note that one of the last few scenes seemed reminiscent of one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Bridget Jones' Diary.

The end leaves open a few plot points I found myself wishing were resolved. When I turned the last page, though, I realized I need not fear: a sequel is already in the works. And I feel like I kind of have to read anything titled Hot Penguin Action.

I highly recommend checking out Mahlena's book -- and Bianca's blog, which is full of musings about all things political and cultural -- some serious, some irreverent, and some completely hilarious.

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At March 26, 2008 at 4:20 PM, Blogger Bianca Reagan said...

Thank you so much!


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