“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news,” begins Stormbreaker, the first in Anthony Horowitz’s bestselling Alex Rider series.
I would definitely concur. The last time someone buzzed me at three in the morning it was my twenty-one-year-old sister-in-law asking to borrow a MacBook cable for someone’s twenty-first speech. Of course, the adventures that followed my own early-morning contact simply involved a bit of sleep-deprived conversation and then some more sleep. There was nothing at all about my uncle having been brutally murdered, his identity being revealed as an MI6 operative, or my being recruited as a young spy to monitor some dodgy wheelings and dealings relating to school computers.
But where life (and sleeping patterns) went quite promptly back to normal for me, the same is not true for Alex, for whom all the above applies. Soon enough, he’s narrowly escaping near-death situations, playing with Go-Go-Gadget devices, and kicking broody chaps out of aeroplanes. For their own good, of course. And then there’s the whole undercover assignment thing where Alex is sent to investigate self-made millionaire Darrius Sayle, whose “computers for all!” philanthropic program seems just a little bit dodgy.
Stormbreaker is a quick and zippy read, but it’s not without its problems. Alex suffers from the everyman-type characterisation issues that plague many heroes in similar series: he’s a fairly flat, bland character who’s really only painted into existence by those around him. He’s given little personality of his own; rather he’s the sum of his skills and gadgets. Where a character in another book might surprise you with an emotional outburst, Alex surprises you with Secret Karate Skills. Or his ability to drive a car. Or his knowledge of jellyfish.
The fact that he’s largely acting alone means also that he’s in charge of McGuyvering himself out of various near-death situations, and the set-up and resolution of these events does become a little samey-samey after the first couple of times. Because there’s no one around for Alex to really engage with, we see very little emotional response from him (ho hum, my uncle’s dead, chaps), and it’s hard to really empathise with him–or feel that he’s ever really in danger. So much of that tension, after all, arises from the way that other characters respond to dangerous situations.
Although there is a reasonably large cast of secondary characters slinking around in the background it’s hard to ignore the pall of stereotyping that’s been cast over them. We have brutal Russian assassins, cruel and humourless Germans, a squat and fat bad guy from Beirut, and two MI6 operatives who fall fairly blatantly along traditional gender lines–the inscrutable, stoic male and the maternal, concerned female (one of three, from memory, females in the whole book). It’s not hard to see that Horowitz is taking his cues from James Bond, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep abreast of social developments, surely.
However, even though I have my qualms about certain elements of the book (I haven’t even touched the plot here, but let’s just say, 14-year-old boy, MI6 and evil via school computers, shall we?), it is overall zingy, action-packed fun, and it would be remiss of me to tear apart the book for being pretty much what it professes to be from the get-go. It’s silly, it’s over the top, and it contains enough action and intrigue that I’m sure there are a bunch of kids out there secretly hoping for their door buzzer to ring in the middle of the night. (less)
Anyone who’s been reading this site for a while knows that I regularly pass on zingy series fiction to my husband. Though his reading interests are polar opposites of mine, he’s possibly an even tougher critic. He’s basically a thirty-year-old teenage boy, and a mere paragraph of extraneous exposition results in him skim-reading–or worse, putting down a book for good.
Presently I can only think of half a dozen or so series that pass the husband test. These include Michael Grant’s Gone series, Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, and the mega-fat Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. With Steven Lochran’s Vanguard Prime books, I can add another to this list. (When I get a chance, Steve, I’ll totally make you a badge.)
The standard X meets Y elevator pitch for these books seems to be Alex Rider meets X-Men, but I’d disagree–and only partly because Alex Rider failed the husband test. My description would be something more along the lines of Percy Jackson meets Captain Planet after a serious red cordial and jelly snake binge. (Strangely enough, very few of my blurbs end up on the backs of books. I can’t imagine why that is.)
But in all seriousness, Wild Card, the second in Lochran’s Vanguard Prime series, is excellent stuff. It’s a book that, like the Percy Jackson books, combines quick-draw pacing with intelligent, self-aware humour and a wonderful sense of the humanity that is underscored by its super-human characters. Lochran has a superb understanding of the power of juxtaposition and contrast, and he uses his superhero glitz and glamour as a lens through which to examine the everyday.
So plot-wise, what do we have? Here’s a quick run-down. Newly recruited superhero Goldrush is off attending a personal development session when he and his chaperone the Knight of Wands are attacked. It turns out that the Knight of Wands is the subject of a Kill Order–but as they try to find out who’s behind the order, Goldrush and the Knight of Wands find themselves caught up in a complex battle of maybe-good versus maybe-bad, with many shades of grey in between. No one’s entirely as they seem, and Lochran plays up the moral ambiguity of the situation to excellent effect, giving us a fascinating cast of characters with conflicting interests and intriguing back-stories.
Unlike many such series, our protagonist is not a kind of blank-slate everyman. He’s surprisingly well-defined for such a slender volume, and Lochran puts him to work battling all sorts of existential and moral dilemmas. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the fact that Goldrush (also known as Sam) identifies as somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (binary?) of ordinary person and superhero. Throughout the book he vacillates between dreaming about what his friends from his “ordinary” life are doing and bridling at the fact that he hasn’t been formally acknowledged as a member of his new superhero family. He also finds himself seeking out the mundane in the extraordinary and vice-versa, and these small moments add up to something that over time creates quite an impact.
At first all of this identity crisis business may seem at odds with the larger business of fighting baddies, but in Lochran’s cleverly realised world, it’s not at all. Goldrush’s identity is key to the decisions that he makes–as is pointed out quite explicitly by the Knight of Wands during his superheroism as a “call to personal evolution” speech. The speech might seem immediately applicable to Goldrush, but in fact it’s universally applicable.
What Lochran is doing with Wild Card is ambitious and clever. It’s less the kind of a superhero story you might see on the big screen, and more one where the term “super” is used to simply exaggerate very real issues. Lochran’s characters speak of superheroes, of superheroism, or superpowers, but in many ways they live in a world of omni-hyperbole. When everything is exaggerated, those exaggerations then become normalised, bringing us back full circle: this series is in many ways a classic bildungsroman–only set against a backdrop of kapows, witty banter and leotards, and with a plot that’s more determined that your typical Terminator to keep on truckin’.
Admittedly, there are some things that felt a little incongruously heavy-handed against this thematic elegance and some very, very slick writing. I do wonder whether the fact that I stumbled over these elements was due partly to my lack of familiarity with the graphic novel side of the superhero canon, which I’d bet that this series draws upon quite heavily. For example, I felt that the switching between the points-of-views of Goldrush and his antagonists resulted in some choppiness, particularly when those scenes were action-heavy and were occurring simultaneously; neither was I entirely satisfied with the nightmares that bookend the story. Curiously, I can see these elements working in a more visually oriented format–and wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this was the effect that Lochran was going for here.
A gripe that’s less readily explained by the above but that can probably be put down to the difficulties of marketing an Australian author to a global audience is the fact that the book feels locationally ambiguous: I didn’t get a strong sense of Sam’s background, and felt that both Sam and his non-superhero life felt a bit unanchored as a result. Once things get moving, however, we’re spirited off to more concrete locations, which certainly helps to ground the book.
Brimming with imagination and wit and with pacing so fast that you’ll be in pain from the G forces, Wild Card is a overall thoroughly enjoyable addition to the superhero genre. And given that it passed the husband test with flying colours, I’m pretty sure it’ll pass the disaffected teen reader test, too.(less)
In my experience, tins and fingers don't go well together. A few years back I found myself at the hospital after losing terribly in a battle against a tin of kidney beans. Kidney beans are good for iron levels, I hear. Bleeding all over the kitchen floor, not so much. Oh, the agony of my hand and its plaintive sobs of haemoglobin.
In tears, I called up my husband, who did his knight-in-a-shining-Ford-Laser thing and rushed home from work. Meanwhile I wrapped up my hand with paper towels galore and a veritable patchwork's quilt worth of hand towels. I had no idea which bit of my hand was cut, precisely, but I didn't relish the idea of peering through all that blood in order to find out.
Since it was late in the evening and the hospital is just down the road, we dashed off to emergency (which yes, does sound a touch melodramatic, but that's the only place they'll admit tin-mauled people clutching tea towels). And then we sat around for a long time listening to very, very ill people coughing up bits of lungs and hazing around in the depths of their ailments.
Finally, it was my turn. I went into the consultation room and offered up my tea-towel swathed hand. The doctor, very kindly, very gently, unwrapped it.
"Oh," she said. "So where is the wound, exactly?"
Once the blood had been cleared away, I wasn't exactly sure, either. Possibly on my little finger? That little bit of skin near the joint?
"I have overactive platelets," I said, helpfully.
The doctor, to her credit, did not laugh at what was an obvious case of hypochondria. Perhaps she was relieved that there was nothing at all wrong with me.
"How about we put a Bandaid on it, hmm?"
I'm only thankful that she didn't offer me one with a picture on it. I'd never have lived it down.
Anyway. If you think that's a ridiculous (if entirely true) story, it's nothing compared with Alex Shearer's Tins (known as Canned in the US, since apparently "tin" is a noun that baffles kids in that area of the world). Our protagonist is Fergal Bamfield, an overwhelmingly, abundantly mediocre kid whose eccentricity is explained away by his parents as his being "clever".
You can get away with plenty of silly or questionable behaviour (see above hospital story) if people decide to dub you "clever". (Although I do hope that whenever it's applied to me it's not always in inverted commas.) In Fergal's instance, one of these clearly divergent behaviours is collecting tins. But not just any old tins, oh no. Discounted tins. Those ones on the sale shelves in the supermarket that are bald of their labels and look as though they've been kicked in the guts with a baseball bat. For Fergal, each and every tin is an ugly little duckling in need of a home. An ugly little duckling that has the potential to be hacked open to reveal all manner of miraculous treasures. Such as duck pate, perhaps. Or pineapple.
Or a finger.
When Fergal opens such a tin, he's less concerned than he is baffled. A finger certainly is a curious thing to find inside a tin. And my, what of that earring found in that other tin? Oh, and that ear, found in a tin snapped up by his "clever" friend Charlotte for her own collection? (Surely you didn't think that tin collecting was so very esoteric that Fergal wouldn't be able to form a community around the endeavour, did you?)
After a bit of deep thought and the subsequent finding of a "please help me!" letter in a tin, the two decide that there's probably something slightly suspicious going on at a local cannery. The two use their sleuthing skills to determine the likely source of these peculiarly defective cans, and one night Fergal slips away to try to get to the bottom of the mystery. Only he doesn't return, and it's only when Charlotte receives a highly personalised letter in a can that she begins to realise what might have become of Fergal...
This is a rambunctiously ridiculous book, and if you have absolutely no issues with reading something of that sort you'll likely enjoy it. Shearer has a page-turning prose style that sees you reading relentlessly (Terminator-style, even) until you get to the final page, and the narrative grows and builds into an immensity of silliness by its end. It's the sort of thing you could imagine in an episode of Rocko's Modern Life (remember that? How old am I, guys? So old.) It requires a certain gleeful suspension of disbelief, particularly where all the fortuitous communication through tin cans is involved, but for the most part it works very well indeed.
My only qualm was the way in which the transition of the third part of the book (Fergal's disappearance) was handled. Here the drama and zaniness steps up dramatically, but the transition is terribly abrupt, with a mere scene marker delineating the gap between Fergal's wondering about the source of the cans and his sudden disappearance. This part of the book, however, forms the key plot twist and climax, and I suspect that it's here that readers will either find themselves enormously in love with the sheer mischief of this story, or will find themselves a bit off-side. I'm a bit on the fence, personally, and don't quite feel that a twist of these proportions was quite set up by the (relatively) mundane events of the prior two parts of the book.
That said, the back cover copy does warn that it may contain traces of nuts...to which my response would be: only traces? If you're after something fun and cheery (and a wee bit gruesome), give it a shot, but please take my anecdote, and this book, as a warning against the terrible dangers of the humble tin can.(less)
Medicine might go down with the help of a spoonful of sugar, but Mary Poppins herself would surely agree that middle grade fiction is a sweet enough m...moreMedicine might go down with the help of a spoonful of sugar, but Mary Poppins herself would surely agree that middle grade fiction is a sweet enough medicine in its own right. It’s the genre I reach for whenever I’m feeling a little down or disillusioned; my fictional heart home. It’s a genre where it’s okay to be cheerful and upbeat, where wonder doesn’t need to be tempered by cynicism.
I’ve had this Eva Ibbotson double volume for years now, having picked it up after reading an essay of hers in a writing handbook back when I was in uni. For some reason, now felt like the right time to read it, and I’m pleased to report that my readerly instincts were correct.
Both stories in this double volume feature an irresistible, irrepressible charm; they’re buoyant, cheery and filled with that unapologetic whimsy that is so wonderfully a part of middle grade fiction. The volume opens with Not Just a Witch, in which witch Heckie sets up a well-intentioned vigilante group known as the Wickedness Hunters and sets about turning wrong-doers into animals. Off to the side we have a fun farcical love triangle (yes, yes, I said something nice about a love triangle) and a case of deception involving a young furrier doing his best to pull the, er, wool over Heckie’s eyes regarding his true intentions about his sudden interest in transforming everyone around into a rare white leopard.
It’s a deceptively slight story: everything seems bright and bubbly on the surface, but beneath the burbling surf quite a few narrative sharks circle menacingly. Heckie’s intentions might come from a positive place, but her decision to take it upon herself to mete out punishment to those she deems deserving of it is actually quite chilling. Ibbotson guides the reader through this quite gently, however, and younger readers probably won’t quite feel the creeping feeling of amorality that older readers might. Heckie gradually widens her sphere of influence, for example, identifying and punishing “wicked” people on an increasing scale; her charisma results in her having quite a powerful influence over younger characters Daniel and Sumi, and there’s a definite cult of personality going on here.
My quibble with Not Just a Witch is that the younger characters almost feel extraneous, and we don’t really get a good sense of who they are. This is Heckie’s story, and though I know it’s pretty much mandatory to have a reader-aged character in a middle grade novel, this one could have easily been just as successful, if not more so, by narrowing its focus to Heckie and her shenanigans. Kid-devoid exceptions seem to be made for animals and paranormal beings, so perhaps a witchy lead could work as well? Because, honestly, Heckie’s hilarious. Take this quote: “At first Heckie had kept this money in her mattress, but [as an animal witch] she was worried that the mice who lived there would nibble it and this would be bad for them.” Or this: Oh, I wish I was an Australian witch! Everything over there is so queer and extinct-looking!”
The hilarity and farcical mischief continues in Dial a Ghost, which is a sheer delight through and through. It’s exceptionally imaginative and deliciously silly, and is what I’d imagine Neil Gaiman might have done with The Graveyard Book had he just consumed a few bags of red jellybeans.
In need of a place to haunt, the Wilkinson family ghosts (“who became ghosts quite suddenly during the Second World War when a bomb fell on their house), sign up to the Dial a Ghost agency, which specialises in matching haunters and hauntees. Though they’ve been paired up with a couple of lovely nuns looking for some pleasant spooks to OoooooO their way around a quaint little manor, a filing mix-up sees them (rather than the commissioned Shriekers) shunted off to Helton Hall instead. The Wilkinsons settle in to manor life quite quickly, and strike up a friendly relationship with young Oliver, an orphan who’s just moved into the hall himself. But things start to get messy when Oliver’s uncle Fulton Snodde-Brittle realises the mix-up: after all, he’s paid good money for a bunch of terrifying ghosts to scare Oliver to death so that he might claim Helton for himself.
Yes, this one’s full of tropes and cliches, but Ibbotson utilises all of these with a wink and a nod, and their inclusion helps offset some of the more gruesome stuff involving the Shriekers, who are quite terrifying, as well as the all-pervasive theme of mortality that might otherwise get to be too much for young readers. There’s so much humour and warmth at play here, and for a bunch of intangible beings, the characters are nicely rounded. Choice quotes: “He was such a clever man, a German professor who had been a teacher in the university before he fell into the canal from thinking about poetry instead of looking where he was going” and “The [nuns] did, however, get the idea that their new guests [the Shriekers] were not completely happy and relaxed. ‘Of course it’s often like that with married people before breakfast,’ said Mother Margaret.”(less)
Juggling three items at once isn’t such a bit deal, according to Sullivan Mintz, but four? That’s something. The Boy in the Box: Master Melville’s Medicine Show is the most recent outing from best-selling middle grade author Cary Fagan, and like its juggling protagonist Sullivan, it finds itself with plenty of balls in the air.
The thing is that although watching someone juggle is a novelty to begin with, it’s really when things start to lose order and control that it truly becomes interesting. A perfectly thrown ball is one thing, but one that requires a lunge to catch? That’s another thing all together.
Sullivan’s story is for the most part one of perfectly thrown balls: it’s that of the bland, middling everyman who is yanked out of his everyday world and into a new environment where he can at long last shine. If this boy were a cereal he’d be Weetbix with skim milk: satisfying enough, but hardly memorable. In fact, he’s so unmemorable that when he’s kidnapped by a travelling medicine show so that his juggling skills–the only thing of note about him–might be exploited, only a handful of people even notice.
In fact, Sullivan and his story are so bland that they’re not really the focus of the book. The book’s focus, really, is how the other people in his life react to his disappearance. His only friend, Norval, for example, develops a strong friendship with repentant school bully Samuel Patinsky because of Sullivan’s disappearance; and without Sullivan to bully, Samuel finds himself reassessing his king-of-the-schoolyard ways. Sullivan, in a way, is almost an anti-character. It’s not Sullivan, really, that moves the book along: it’s his absence.
It’s a risky approach, and to be honest, it was until the last quarter of so of the book that I actually began to appreciate what Fagan was attempting to do here. In large part I think this was because I felt somehow that the writing had a sort of dead, toneless feel to it. No matter the neat plotting and tidily distinguished characters propping up the big top of the narrative, the book just felt flat to me, and I found that I was trying to convince myself to care.
Sullivan himself probably had a lot to do with this. The narrative voice quite strongly reflects Sullivan’s, and is therefore necessarily fairly restrained and uninspired itself. But in a book filled with evil travelling con-artists, performing dogs and carnie kids, it’s hard not to feel that something’s oddly amiss. I desperately wanted to shake some life into it, and would have tried had I not been afraid of trashing my Kindle. But then, the end! The end is what redeemed this book for me, although I suspect it’s one that most readers will loathe. But we all know by now that I’m a contrarian by nature, so I’ll happily go and stand on the other side of the fence.
There’s a scene in the book where Mistress Melville, the cold co-owner of the titular Medicine Show tells Sullivan to up the ante of his act by moving from juggling clubs to tossing about flaming torches. “The audience always enjoys feeling a little terror on behalf of the performer,” she says.
Yes, it’s brutally pragmatic, but honestly it’s as true of a reader as it is a circus audience member. And it’s at the end of the book that Fagan does exactly what Mistress Melville suggests: he tosses aside the clubs, gets out the flaming torches, and subverts all of your expectations. The book begins to lose order and control, and the author doesn’t even attempt to lunge to put things to rights. It’s a non-ending in a way, but it’s also one that, like hurling flaming torches over your head, is supremely brave.(less)
"Alone again, Meg undid the strings of the bag that dangled from a rope belt at her waist, hidden by the long apron she wore over her plain dress. Ins...more"Alone again, Meg undid the strings of the bag that dangled from a rope belt at her waist, hidden by the long apron she wore over her plain dress. Inside the bag were her dolls - "figures", she called them. She took them out and sat them on the edge of the gravestone. There was Dilly-Lal, with her fixed smile, Drum-a-Dum with his sticks held out, reading to beat his drum, and Bolly-Bolly with his sly, knowing look."
Meg is a Maker, someone whose skill at woodcarving goes far beyond the natural. Her work is imbued with life, with spirit, with tiny personalities and skills. But in seventeenth century England, standing apart from everyone else can be a very scary thing, no matter on how small a scale it is. Meg is all too aware of this. She remembers vividly what happened after finding out that she was double jointed in one of her fingers:
"None of them could do it. It was only a tiny thing...it made me feel different and special. Then the next day I was walking down the street and two girls crossed over to avoid me...After that I was glad I was different, but sometimes I wished I wasn't."
It's a slippery slope from there, however. Both Meg and her skilled woodcarver father have caught the eye of other townsfolk, and superstitious rumblings have followed ever since. One night, a local merchant with an axe to grind about Meg's father's independent business dealings shows up with the local priest and accuses Meg's father, and then Meg, of using witchcraft against others:
"First he attacks my business by persuading others not to weave my wool and not to trade their cloth in the village, and now he attacks my family. If it isn't him afflicting Patience, who is it, eh? I tell you, Reverend, someone should burn for this."
When Meg's father disappears, Meg goes on the run, making her way across the countryside with the help of her magical wooden carvings and a number of similarly outcast individuals she meets along the way.
Woodenface is a dark, atmospheric tale, as one might expect from its 1650s setting, and in it Grenfell has created a gloomy yet intriguing historical England. Any levity is in the characters, who are slightly caricatured in their presentation, and who cavort about on the pages with a winsomeness that helps ameliorate the discomfort lent by the unwarranted castigations, persecutions, intolerance and punitive actions rife through its pages. Even the book's design is eerie, with various creepy little sketches snipped from the cover featured at each chapter's beginning.
It's a book that certainly highlights both the dangers and opportunities of being different. As things progress, we see how any difference, no matter how small, can be made an issue if someone more powerful (or numerous) wishes it to be. Intolerance and perceived difference are largely socially created from fear and from lack of understanding--and whether something is good or bad is largely a matter of perception. Meg, for example, likes the fact that she looks like her father until this becomes a point of difference and impetus for prejudice. Her friend Simon, on the other hand, who suffers from what seems like epilepsy with accompanying visions, has the following conflicted view:
"At first I thought they happened to everybody. It was only when I started describing them to my mother that I realised other people didn't have them. She took me to a cunning man in the village. He told us I was either cursed or blessed, but he didn't know which. After she died, my father tried to beat them out of me - he said they were sent by the devil."
We see something similar when Meg, who delights in her wood-carving, watches another Maker at work: "With a shock, Meg realised she was seeing these people as Jake saw them - he could see the worst in any face. She imagined him making puppets of them, a cruel twist of the knife to show their discontent, their anger, their greed, ignoring the good things about them."
There's very much a theme of the world being what we make it, and also of what we allow it to be. The fact that people fall back on superstition and unfounded accusations out of fear or even of complacency is something that resonates in its continued relevance. So, too, is the wielding of power to one's own end. Mr Sutcliffe's tarring those whose business activities undermine his own as witches--which plays out in this book in a way that very much recalls Arthur Miller's The Crucible--is chilling. And the fact that the accused have no recourse or power to respond is frankly terrifying.
There's also the perverse obsession with death and hanging that parallels that seen in Mary Hooper's Newes From the Dead. Death has such a curiously ambivalent place during the time of the book's setting. It's so hugely prevalent that it has to be ritualised, and people seem to both want to avoid it and almost revel in it. It's like by approaching death and observing it they can develop some sort of immunity to it; in contrast, with every death of someone else, an onlooker can take comfort in the fact that they've been saved.
Given its strong world-building and likeable protagonist, I found Woodenface a solid read overall, but did have a few issues with it. At times I felt that it became bogged down by its multiplicity of characters who are often hard to differentiate (for example, Meg's three similarly named dolls) and who seem to just pop up out of nowhere; the ending was also a little too speedy to be satisfying. The writing is sometimes uneven as well, being at times quite mature and at others feeling very young and innocent. And to be completely petty, something about the title rubs me the wrong way.
Still, there's a good deal here to recommend it, and I'm sure that confident middle years readers will enjoy the strong sense of place, the supernatural elements, and even the old-fashioned language--there's even a handy glossary in the back for those more antiquated or regional terms.(less)
“In my opinion you aren’t a total waste of time,” says the town’s visiting Bard to eleven-year-old Jack. “Don’t let that go to your head, boy. You could easily be a partial waste of time. How’d you like to be my apprentice?”
There’s nothing like a glowing appraisal from one’s teacher to set one on the path to self-study and personal development, is there?
But back-handed praise is enough for Jack, who longs for something more from his mundane, bucolic lifestyle as a farmer’s son. He’s not alone in this, either. The others in his life give the impression of being more capable than their presently quiet lives would lead us to believe. Jack’s mother is a practitioner of simple hearth magic, while his six-year-old sister Lucy is quite insistent that she’s of royal blood. For all his moaning and grumbling, too, Jack’s father also longs for something more of his life, although this is something that Jack only begins to see as he studies under the Bard:
“He’d never appreciated Giles Crookleg’s complaining meant no more than the mutterings of crows in a tree. It was a habit crows fell into when things weren’t going their way. Father, too, grumbled by way of easing the disappointment in his life. What mattered was how Father went on in spite of his unhappiness, to create this beautiful place.”
This little epiphany is one of the first suggestions we get of the growth that Jack is about to undergo, and let’s just say that there’s a tremendous amount ahead. And not just for Jack, but for those around him. For Jack’s quiet Saxon life is about to be interrupted by the invading Vikings (or Northmen, as they’re known in the book). Jack and his sister are kidnapped and whisked away by the Northman Olaf to be sold as slaves. But Jack and Lucy are passed in at auction. Lucky them. Olaf decides to take Jack on as his personal mini-bard, and hands Lucy over as a gift to King Ivar and his cranky half-troll wife Frith. Unfortunately, Jack’s efforts to woo his new captor go slightly awry when his spoken word poem strips the hair from Frith, leaving her quite the chrome dome.
She is unimpressed. Lives are threatened. Bargains are made.
And so off they all head on an adventure to restore her lovely locks and thus ensure the continued existence of bratty Lucy. An adventure that involves trolls, giant spiders, Yggdrasil, and plenty of self-discovery. Not to mention a fairly captivating mix of darkness and levity. Take the discussion over the impending quest to Jotunheim:
“It is perilous beyond belief to pass into Jotunheim,” said King Ivar. “I know. I’ve been there.” “And I as well,” said Olaf.
I love that a place that’s apparently impossible to return from alive has survivors galore reporting of its purgatorial nature. And who can resist a bunch of Vikings who exhort Jack to “just say no to pillaging”? But at the same time, the whimsy leads to the text feeling a little uneven. The Sea of Trolls seems to waver between being YA and MG at times, and the humour’s in large part to blame. Lines like Frith’s ”I wanted a fine ogre or goblin, but no. Mother insisted I marry a puny human” sit strangely and anachronistically against Farmer’s thoughtful examination of the intersection of different cultures, belief systems, and the complexity of human nature.
The book is set in 793 CE, a historically fairly unpleasant time for the English, being the beginning of more than a hundred years of Viking raids. This period is neatly alluded to by Jack’s smaller-scale contact with various groups and their ways of life. For example, Jack, himself from a religiously diverse background, finds himself arguing the value of life with monks from the Christian tradition: “Hark at him! The child presumes to lecture his elders. Listen, boy. Long life is but a chance to commit more sins. The longer you live, the more Satan whispers in your ear. Your soul grows so heavy, it gets dragged down to Hell. It’s better to die young, preferably right after baptism, and be taken into Heaven.” Similarly, he finds himself struggling to understand the desire of the Vikings to die in battle so that they might enter Valhalla. “Why does everyone want to die?” he asks. “What’s so bad about being alive?”
Another notable snippet is this one:
“When Odin wanted the lore that would make him leader of the gods, he had to pay for it with suffering. he was stabbed with a spear and hanged for nine days and nights on the tree Yggdrasil.” “That’s just plain stupid,” Jack said. “Your god was nailed to a cross. It’s the same thing.” “No, it’s not.”
Quotes like these abound; Farmer manages to fit plenty of thematic rumination and mythological references into what is a pretty rollicking adventure. Better scholars of this period than I am will pick out resonances from Beowulf as well as from the historical record; although one element I found interesting was that the “Jack and Jill” nursery rhyme apparently arose from this era.
In addition to the spiritual and historical side of things, there’s plenty more into which the reader can delve, including what appears to be a pre-Stockholm case of Stockholm Syndrome–Jack’s relationship with his captor Olaf becomes almost loving. Take this: ”For the first time he understood what drove these violent men. Their lives were short, but every moment burned with intensity. These men knew they were doomed…it was brave and crazy and supremely stupid. But it was noble, too.” And also this: ”Lesser men. That meant he, Jack, was greater. The giant didn’t think of him as a slave…they were equals.”
And yet. You knew that there was a yet, didn’t you? Somehow I didn’t quite connect with the book, as much as I dearly wanted to. It’s a book that I felt like I should have loved, and which offers so many reasons to love it, but I never felt truly engaged by it. Jack and I were grudging travel buddies, and I was disappointed by the fact that the book’s female characters were largely, well, unbearable. The exception was Thorgill, who I would have loved to have seen as the book’s protagonist, given that she’s the one that undergoes the most growth. The writing, too, never quite felt there for me, either, and I felt as though the book’s target audience was never clearly defined.
Still, I’m glad that I took the time to acquaint myself with Nancy Farmer’s work, and given the generally strong elements of this book suspect that I’ll be picking up some more of her work at another point. (less)
Though Crash Coogan's nickname might have had its origins in a football incident involving his cousin and a bodytackle, it's more than applicable to his personal ideology. You see, Crash essentially functions as a human steamroller. He's like one of those suitcase-toting, umbrella-wielding executives storming through the CBD during peak hour: you'd better get out of the way if you don't want to go flying.
But new kid Penn Webb isn't yielding to Crash Coogan's brash, bullying ways. In fact, no matter how much Crash attempts to get in Webb's face, Webb isn't fazed. He's in another world entirely. One of op-shop clothing, pacifism, environmentalism, and anti-consumerism. Where Crash's world is measured by the designer goods and tech gear he's managed to stockpile, Webb's is all about stuff that can't be purchased. And try though Crash might, he's soon learning that a Cold War is tough to set in motion when the other party isn't even aware that you're getting a bit Dr Strangelove on them.
"Who says you have to believe in [violence]?," says Crash. "You just do it."
And now Crash is finding that Webb's quite self-assurance is contagious. His usual in-your-face posturing and aggression isn't exactly effective when others aren't playing the game. It's not just Webb. It's Crash's sister. It's Jane, the girl Crash has a crush on. It's even Crash's parents. But though Crash is realising that he's irrelevant in his own world, he's going to have to come up with another way of coping, because barrelling through life is not proving to be as effective a strategy as he's always assumed. Particularly now that his family has been rocked by an incident that is going to affect them all.
The Mighty Crashman is my first Jerry Spinelli novel (although I do have one of the Stargirl books on my shelf), and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. Spinelli manages to pack so much into such a slender volume, and does so without it feeling overladen or messy. Though the novel's written in the ubiquitous first person present tense, it avoids falling into the trap of lengthy chunks of exposition. Rather, Crash's actions do the talking, and superbly so.
Even where exposition is used, it's done in a way that highlights Crash's unreliability as a narrator: any misdemeanour on his behalf is dismissed with hedges such as, "I guess I took too long" or "I guess I forgot". Even his jealousy about his sister's friendship with Webb is hidden beneath a veneer of disdain: "For some reason it bugs me, how alike Webb and my sister are. Especially with nature stuff. They go walking his turtle together. It shows you how immature he is, hanging out with a fifth grader. And they're both perky." He also tries to dismiss his possible culpability regarding his grandfather's stroke: "That night...my mind went back to the football game, to Scooter, to the tackle. Why did I do it? I was just being me, that's all. The Crash Man."
Crash isn't the most pleasant of point of view characters, but Spinelli manages to write him in such a way that though he's obnoxious and conceited, he feels less like a true bully and more like the conflicted, big-mouthed teen we all recognise in ourselves. His hurt over his parents' long working hours manifests as defensiveness ("Now really, would you rather have my money or my time?" "Your money.") but comes through painfully palpably in his delight over his affectionate grandfather coming to stay with the family, and in his disappointment that his record-scoring football game wasn't recorded--which means that his parents won't be able to see it. Crash's arc is strong and believable, if a little larger than life. But then, that's the whole vibe of the book: it's big and noisy and exuberant. The only weak points are its slightly awkward flashback beginning, and the abrupt conclusion, which in its brevity leaves the reader feeling a little steamrolled.
In all, The Mighty Crashman is a warm, big-hearted account of the incomparable importance of family over material goods, and of Crash's realisation that not all problems--or people--are best managed by steamrolling through them. His grandfather's words resonate on a number of levels when he says: "Don't worry so much about it. It's not the sneakers that count. It's the feet."(less)
"Fairy tales are life lessons disguised with colourful characters and situations," preaches Mrs Peters to her class of apathetic pre-teens, among them our twin protagonists, swotty Alex and snoozy layabout Conner.
After this valiant bit of Aesopian moralising, Peters goes on to bemoan the loss of the original Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm tales in favour of Disneyfied bastardisations and the competing charms of computer games and violent movies. And thus, the scene is set for Chris Colfer's middle grade portal fantasy The Land of Stories.
For Alex and Conner, the tales told to them by their father were a source of support and moral sustenance used to help each square peg twin feel slightly less out of place in this round hole world. But since their father's death (travelling home from his bookstore, no less), the two have had to get by largely by themselves, with their mother working double shifts to help ends meet, and their quirky grandmother off jetsetting about the world.
After some eighty pages of this scene setting, and much of it involving the elucidation of the various morals and teachings of the fairytale canon, Alex and Connor find themselves deposited into a parallel realm populated with all the tropes, characters, and histories so familiar to those with a family tradition of bedtime stories. ("I'm so glad Dad and Grandma read to us so much growing up!" says Conner. "Who ever would have thought it would be this useful?") Think Shrek, only with less humour and less accomplished writing.
Once in the fairytale realm, the twins effectively switch personalities, with know-it-all Alex taking on the role of the dreamer, and dopey Conner morphing into the problem solver. And indeed, they have a few problems to solve, the key one being collecting from about the realm the various fairytale-themed artefacts required to complete the wishing spell that will get them back home. It's a task that sees them pinching glass slippers from a pregnant Cinderella, breaking into the castle of obnoxious and air-headed Red Riding Hood, trawling about creepy troll dungeons and attending fairy courts. Oh, and they're also battling it out against Snow White's wicked stepmother, who's on the same treasure hunting trail.
But though the twins seem to come up against myriad problems and dead-ends and life-or-death situations, each is resolved with almost magical ease, and the book quickly begins to feel more like a scenic stroll through fairyland in search of souvenirs than an actual narrative. Most of the problem solving is done for the twins via a diary that explains what needs to be done in order to overcome each obstacle, or occurs through happy coincidence.
There's a sense of the author speaking down to the reader, with jokes being explained, and thematic resonances being given the same treatment, just in case a reader has somehow missed them. For example, Alex's explanation of the moral of Cinderella is appended with, "Was that really what Cinderella was about, or was it what she needed Cinderella to be about?"
This sort of exposition occurs throughout the book, simplifying and explicating to the point of patness. For example, the amusing reveal of the various Prince Charmings being brothers is diluted by the explanation that follows. ("Of course!" says Alex. "Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty all married Prince Charming! There's more than one! How come I never thought about that?")
The writing is terribly uneven as well. Though the characters' voices are at times inconsistent, it's the narrative voice that needs work, as it often feels amateurish and childlike. Take for example the line describing the children's arrival in the fairy realm: "He completely startled her. Alex lost her balance and fell--headfirst into the book!" There are also a surprising number of lines involving Conner stubbing his toe: "Conner was so upset that he kicked a tree, but he ended up just hurting his foot. 'Ouch!' he yelled". And indeed, the said bookism here is apt, for characters yell, shout, shriek, moan, whimper, growl, demand, bellow and what have you to a rather impressive degree; POV errors occur as well, such as on page 122, where we suddenly slip into Goldilocks' point of view.
In addition to formatting errors such as the curiously centred paragraph following a line break on page 250, there are also a surprising number of examples of structurally or semantically problematic sentences. For example: "They jolted at the sound of another voice besides their own" (semantically strange) and "the higher she climbed, the less she looked down at the ground, fearing it would tamper with her effort to reach the top" (a strange use of "tamper"), "she was so determined to see the top of the tower" (where the "so" is out of place when not followed by a clause beginning with "that"). A few other choice quotes include "The twins could feel their hearts sink into the pits of their stomachs" (a strange turn of phrase given that it's being used to describe excitement, not despair), and "Alex gave Conner a really dirty look" and "'It happened by total accident,' said Grandma" (both instances of the extraneous usage of totally/really/so/completely).
Colfer has his work cut out for him creating something fresh out of very, very well-mined territory, but there are some entertaining, creative moments here. The story's at its best when the inner proselytising adult is set to rest and the kids and the narrator are given space to joke around and enjoy themselves without feeling the need to finger-wag and tsk tsk. Fun little nods such as the name of Goldilocks' horse (Porridge), Conner's disgust at the "obnoxious", perfect unicorns, his suggestion that Sleeping Beauty's empire take up coffee drinking to increase productivity, and his curiosity about princes and their interest in "dead" girls hint at what this book could have been with some solid editing.
As it is, however, the book feels as though it underestimates its target audience, eschewing subtlety and depth in favour of careful explanation and simplicity, and it's this, along with its somewhat bloated length and troublesome editing, that prevents the book from reaching the heights it might otherwise have.(less)
My mother-in-law has always been quite chuffed about her birthday: having been born on the 8th of the 8th, she’s quite the lucky woman. In Chinese culture, you see, eight is a lucky number. But my mother-in-law’s eights pale in comparison with those of the eight daughters of the Huit (yes, the Eight) family of this quirky little series.
Not only were our eight heroines were born on the eighth of the eighth starting at eight, but they are eight minutes apart in age, eight inches apart in height, have eight cats between them, and live at house number Eight Eight Eight. But the sheer abundance of lucky eights in this household isn’t enough to stop things from going awry. The eights (as they’re known throughout the book) are settling in to enjoy a slightly belated Christmas (courtesy of snowstorms in Utah) when their parents suddenly up and vanish.
The eights are mildly concerned to begin with (although their concern about their parents’ absence is a good deal less apparent than their concern about the eggnog that they’ll never get to drink and the firewood that won’t get chopped), but after discovering a note explaining that they’ll learn what happened to their parents all in good time, they turn their attention instead to getting by without adult supervision. What results is a good deal of silliness: dressing up as their father (which involves affecting a British accent and sticking on a moustache), driving the family Hummer about (thank goodness for the booster-seat properties of the Oxford English Dictionary), and guzzling pink cake icing from the can (apparently icing is available in a can. How utterly revolting. But I suppose that’s Americans for you.).
The tone is a curious one: it’s very self-consciously British in style, but regularly makes fun of the disconnect between the old-fashioned narrative style and the modern USA setting of the book. Britishisms are mixed with references to Utah, and Hummers are juxtaposed against references to home-made fruit cake. The girls’ mother might be a highly capable scientist with all sorts of inventions to her name, but apparently exists in a 1950s mindset where she wouldn’t dream of letting the girls go to a party in anything other than a frock. “If [Mommy] were here, she would tell us even scientists should look like ladies. Unless they’re men, of course,” says Annie at one point, rather perplexingly, I have to say. More perplexing is the fact that the family owns a “black and gold robot designed to make our life easier”, and given the generally parochial tone of this book, my eyebrows did shoot up here. Not to mention that the girls’ “powers”, which are to be discovered sequentially as the series progresses, seem to include things such as “being organised” (in this volume this essentially equates to acting as a mother figure) and perhaps the ability to cook.
These themes aside, it’s the narrative that I had the most difficulty with. The eights, you see, are sort of each an eighth of a whole–indeed, the narrator speaks in the first person plural, and the sisters are known to virtually everyone else as the “eights”. And though each book in the series appears to be set up so that each girl has her moment in the sun, to be honest, it’s incredibly difficult to tell them apart (particularly when you add eight cats into the mix). It’s in fact this key conceit that prevents the book from quite working: the eights really only work when they’re a homogenous group rather than individuals, which sort of defeats the purpose of things. And with so many characters to move about, a good deal of the book is spent on logistics rather than on actual plot. The entirety of this book could easily have been condensed into a single chapter or even a prologue.
That said, there’s certainly a good deal of charm here, and the pages drip with humour and silly names. The gorgeous black-and-white illustrations do add to the appeal of the book, and rendered well in my electronic format, as well. On the other hand, I was disappointed by the number of computer translation errors in my copy. Paying good money for an ebook and receiving a subpar product is an ongoing frustration for me, and it’s disappointing that these sorts of production issues continue to persist.
Though I love the concept of this series and enjoyed the quaint tone and humour of the book, my enthusiasm was tempered by the slight plot, the hard-to-differentiate characters and the typesetting issues.(less)
Pearl’s family is a group of three: her mother, her granny, and Pearl. But Pearl’s grandmother is suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s, and Pearl’s mother is struggling to cope. Pearl knows that something’s wrong, but she’s not sure what to do: things are changing, and she’s no longer sure where she fits in. At school, the other kids are busy being kids, but Pearl feels lost and alone.
My class is made up Of groups: The footy boys’ group The ballet girls’ group ... I am in a group of one
But while the unstructured busy-ness of the playground leaves Pearl feeling left out, the structure of the classroom, a place she used to love, boxes her in and stifles her: it has become her prison.
Miss Bruff wants poems that rhyme. Rhyme is okay, sometimes. But my poems don’t rhyme. And neither do I.
With the kids in her class focused on trivial things that are meaningless to Pearl given what she’s going through at home, Pearl feels as though there’s no one she can talk to. Even the library has nothing for her:
Where is the book About a girl Whose poems don’t rhyme And whose Granny is fading?
Granny no longer remembers Pearl, but Pearl remembers the things that Granny has taught her, and her love of stories and poems:
A poem comes When it is needed And writes itself In the way it needs To get its point across
she told Pearl one, long ago. And it’s this advice that Pearl uses as she writes down her deepest thoughts. Poetry is both catharsis for her and a way of honouring and remembering her Granny.
Pearl Verses the World is achingly beautiful in its honesty and its simplicity. The free form verse is a perfect medium for highlighting Pearl’s feeling of disconnectedness and loss; it’s also a limitless medium by which she can help make sense of what’s happening at home and around her in the school yard. The delicate black-and-white watercolour illustrations by Heather Potter are sublimely suited to the book as well, and add an extra degree of poignancy and innocence.
But both the text and the illustrations have moments enough of wryness and gentle humour to prevent this from ever crossing over into melodrama, and though you may well find yourself reaching for the tissues, you may also crack a bittersweet smile or two, particularly when Pearl realises that
Kieran lives in a small town that’s all about weekend football, meat and two veg, and boys being boys and girls being girls. There’s no room for eccentricity, and there’s no room for ambiguity. So when new kid Bon shows up at school sporting a long plait, toting a sketchbook, and favouring storytelling over football, it’s little surprise that he’s unceremoniously cast out from the crowd. “Who’s the girly-boy?” asks one of the football team–an adult–when Bon first makes an appearance.
Kieran’s friends Lucas and Mason are equally unimpressed: “Check out his hair,” they say. Even though, thinks Kieran, Lucas is always fussy about keeping his hair combed and styled, and Mason sports shaggy surfie locks despite living hours away from the beach. The difference is that these two are working within established masculine norms, and they have the street cred built up from years of pushing about the school underlings.
Not-quite-cool Kieran has spent the past year trying to worm his way into their friendship group, but his desperation to be one of the gang means that he’s never quite got there. Lucas and Mason are all he has, though, so he’s hardly going to tell them that Bon is his cousin, is he? After all, Kieran hardly knows Bon, the weird, scruffy kid he remembers only for having stolen two of his toys during a rare visit a few years before.
Bon has always been on the move, you see. His mother Renee does her best, but the challenge of looking after a child is too much when she can barely look after herself. With Renee scarcely coping on a day-to-day basis, Bon fends for himself: he has a fierce independent streak that’s buoyed by his optimism and creativity. But though Bon arrives at school in ratty clothes and without having had breakfast, it’s not this that makes him an outcast. It’s the fact that he’s uncomplainingly content with who he is, and that he’s quietly self-assured.
Though it might be fine for a kid to go about poorly dressed and acting differently if he at least had the decency to acknowledge that he was beneath the others at school, it’s this lack of interest in the strict schoolyard pecking order and the accepted ways of belonging that makes Bon a target, and despite (or perhaps more accurately because of) his placid, neutral attitude, he’s incessantly bullied by Kieran’s friends, and since Kieran, unlike Bon, is fearful of not fitting in, Kieran himself. Kieran is both scornful and dismissive of his cousin: he’s embarrassed to be associated with him, but he’s also jealous of the “special treatment” he feels that Bon receives, and the way that he’s muscled his way into Kieran’s household. ”Do you speak up for Bon?” asks Kieran’s Gran at one point. “Do you actually speak to him at all, Kieran?” Kieran’s silence says it all.
But when Bon comes to live with Kieran, the latter slowly begins to accept that there’s more to his cousin than he wants to admit. He learns how much he has taken for granted in his own life: “haven’t you ever owned a lunchbox before?” he says scornfully at one point. And no, Bon hasn’t. The tragedy of Bon’s home life is most evident in Kieran’s parents’ responses to his demonstrated competence in various areas: “Bon’s actually a really good swimmer. I’m surprised. Where would he have learned?” says Kieran’s mum at one point. And at another, “Bon you’re a good reader, really good.”
The two have a surprising amount in common, including a mutual friendship with a fiercely egalitarian little girl called Julia, who due to her own past, which is slowly revealed as the novel progresses, is a staunch supporter of the wronged. Between this friendship, late-night bike rides, Bon’s telling of stories about “Bon the Crusader and Kieran the Brave”, and his parents’ reiteration that Bon has led a difficult life, Kieran begins to see his cousin in a new light.
Other Brother is a thoughtful novel that touches on the topics of bullying, family, fitting in, and masculinity, and other than a slightly awkward start, it’s a very strong read. Kieran’s ambivalence over his cousin and the ease with which he’s lured by the glamour of popularity is well-drawn, and though it’s not always easy to read, it’s very believable. I did have a few questions, such as why the cafe owner providing Bon’s breakfasts didn’t contact the school or perhaps even Kieran’s family, given that in such a small town she probably knows them; and also why Julia’s mother and Renee happen to arrive in this small town at the same time. Perhaps I’ve misjudged the size of the town, in which case these would be non-issues, but it does seem to be quite a small, insular place.
These small gripes aside, however, this is a solidly written, thoroughly enjoyable read from a popular Australian author. (less)
“I once read somewhere about a list of things meant to break curses,” says Tanya. “The list was being near running water, like a stream or a book, the colour red, salt, turning clothes inside out, and iron.”
It’s a good thing that thirteen-year-old Tanya pays attention to what she reads, because the fairy realm that she’s about to encounter has none sugar and spice and everything nice we’ve been conditioned to expect. No, this is pre-Disney fairy we’re talking about here: the unseelie, the cruel, and the cunning.
Tanya has long been at their mercy: as an individual with the dubious gift of being able to see the fey, she’s singled out for the sorts of torment that other people don’t have to worry about. After a particularly cruel prank on the part of the fairies, Tanya’s mother finds herself at her wits’ end, and sends Tanya off to stay with her cold and distant grandmother at her ramshackle country estate. But Tanya is far from safe in her new surrounds: despite her best efforts, she finds herself swept up in all manner of superstition and intrigue: including a fifty year old mystery that rears its very ugly head.
Tanya and her unlikely friend Fabian, a dorky lad who’s the son of the manor’s caretaker, set about unravelling the truth behind an unsolved murder case that’s haunted Tanya’s grandmother and the other residents of the mansion for many long years. But when you’re dealing with fairy, nothing’s as easy as it seems, and soon the two are fending off charms and spells, avoiding the severe gaze of Tanya’s grandmother, sneaking off into the woods at night, and perhaps more importantly of all, trying to figure out who’s truly on their side.
Thirteen Treasures is a rich, lush book, and it’s beautifully transportative: the reader has a sense of the setting being so very real. I’m always a sucker for a book set in a shambling country estate, and this one uses place to excellent effect. The ancient manor creaks and crumbles on the page, and it’s impossible not to be able to feel the sheer size and grandeur of the building. There’s a constant sensation of the manor being more than what meets the eye, and indeed this proves true of all of the other settings in the book as well–everything from the eerie fairy forest to even the local township. To be honest, it’s the setting that is the stand-out element of this book.
That said, the plot, too, is for the most part enjoyably clever, with the mystery well-drawn and studded with all sorts of small asides that end up being of importance to the larger plot–Tanya’s mother’s birthday, for one, and the strange bus passenger who tries to buy a broken compass from Tanya for another. I enjoyed the way the ending played out, but did find that there were some minor plot lines that seemed to parked for later examination in the book’s sequels: that involving the mysterious “Red”, who is found traipsing through the manor’s secret passageways, but then later all but vanishes, in particular. There’s also the inclusion of the “thirteen treasures” themselves: their appearance is so fleeting as to be only to justify the title of the book, and could easily have been done away with.
I also found some of the pacing a little off, and felt that certain scenes could have been conflated, or timelines altered. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 12 Tanya and Fabian begin a discussion of something designed to create the “fairy sight” in someone who’s a non-seer, but then suddenly adjourn for no apparent reason–this could have been cut altogether and worked into a later scene. A scene involving something that needs to occur exactly at midnight seems also to take much longer than the minute allowed.
In addition, because the narrative focuses so squarely in Tanya and Fabian, there’s little room for the other key characters to be developed much beyond the initial impressions we receive. Admittedly, this is partly due to the fact characters such as Tanya’s grandmother and the Fabian’s father quite actively distance themselves (for reasons that eventually become clear), but it’s a little disappointing not to see them as much more than their simple household roles.
In all, though I appreciated 13 Treasures for its immersive qualities and its unrepentant willingness to delve into the darker side of the fairy realm, and enjoyed the mystery element of the plot, I just didn’t quite connect with the narrative or the characters quite as much as I wanted to. (less)
Number 9 Ravenwood Avenue is the perfect residence for a budding paranormal investigator. Located in the midst of Spooking, the faded and decrepit neighbour of swish Darling, it’s every inch the Poeian architectural spectre it seems as though it should be. Indeed, our tongue-in-cheek narrator tells us, it’s the type of place that “gives off a kind of menace usually accompanied by ominous organ music.”
Though the blurb on the cover likens the book to RL Stine for the young literary set, PJ Bracegirdle has little in common with Stine other than the use of initials in lieu of a first name. But honestly, that very name itself sets the tone for this quirky, self-aware series, evoking nighty-night bedclothes and a sense of chortling old-fashioned humour.
Our protagonist is Joy Wells, a young girl whose habit of ending up in bleak, out-of-the-way graveyards (“graveyards and cemeteries are different things. Cemeteries are always found beside a church,” she informs her father at one point) and obsession with the dusty author EA Peugeot, whose book was bestowed upon her by her paranormally disinclined lawyer father (“the old volume was to be given to a spirited young Spooking girl with a taste for mystery, a thirst for adventure, and an eye for the inscrutable. Not knowing any likelier candidate, Mr Wells had brought the book home and handed it to his daughter.”)
Joy’s preternatural interests seem to regularly cross paths with the rather more banal occupation of urban planning, however; her beloved Gothic Spooking is continually threatened by the Darling set with their grand development urges. In this second outing from Bracegirdle, Joy finds herself investigating some strange goings on at the apparently abandoned Spooking Asylum (whilst conducting a search for her escaped pet toad Fizz), on which Sid Vicious lookalike Octavio Phipps has his dollar sign-filled eye. Told from the perspectives of both Joy and Phipps, the novel brilliantly braids all manner of urban myth and paranoia together with complex and subtle character interactions and a good dollop of misdirection and farce.
It’s not a plot that’s easily untangled, but that’s part of the beauty of the novel: even the most unlikely aside becomes something of importance to the narrative. Though it does take a little while to get into its groove, when it does, it’s a delight. It’s deliciously meandering, pausing here to subject Joy to psychological testing, only to turn its attention to her mother’s unspoken-of childhood; then wandering over there to look at Phipps’s failed music career and his uncanny resemblance to the rockstar who stole his time in the sun; then elsewhere again to a thug moonlighting as a trainee teacher. And all of this against a backdrop of rain, thunder, and creaky mansions. There’s so much wit here, and on so many levels, and the book veritably revels in its sheer silly exuberance: it takes all of those old Hollywood horror tropes and twists them to hilarious effect. Ah, the thought of heavily tattooed Phipps in tennis whites.
The characters, too, are sheer brilliance. I love that Joy, like all of the characters in this book, is at once so incisive and yet so oblivious–though she’s always chasing after the unusual she’s unable to see what’s right behind her nose, and lacks the maturity to see that there’s nuance to the world.
The true nature of her friend Poppy, a pale girl who invariably wears the same clothes and who is unable to touch anything in our world, for example, goes right over Joy’s head. And then there’s the scene where she accuses her mother of having a crush on Phipps. “A crush? How ridiculous! I’m a married woman!” is her mother’s response, and one that will be taken rather differently by a young reader as opposed to an older one. And in a similar vein, there’s the scene in which Phipps’s love interest is described:
Her name was Audrey. She was a haunting beauty. Her hair was long, straight, and blue-black, like something you could have painted a snarling tiger on and sold in a frame at a county fair. Her smooth white skin made people suddenly crave wedding cake. Tennis partners, she and young Octavio were constant companions. There had not existed a single person in Spooking uncertain that one day they would marry. “So what happened?” asked Joy. “What happened? The same thing that happens to all small-town beauties, my sweet innocent child. She hooked up with some rich financial guy and took off to the city. Even as we speak, I’m sure she’s trying on shoes and wearing sunglasses as big as dinner plates.”
The blend of cynicism, witticism and smarty-pantsism is just spot on, and if this book had a weather forecast, it would be “bleak, with a slight chance of hilarity.” If you like your middle grade fiction sharper than a Kasumi knife, then you’ll want to pick up this series. (less)
As someone who works in a software development office, and who’s therefore surrounded by the latest and snazziest geekery, I thought I had it pretty g...moreAs someone who works in a software development office, and who’s therefore surrounded by the latest and snazziest geekery, I thought I had it pretty good. But the various i-gadgets that are stacked up on my desk have nothing on what eleven-year-old Arkie Sparkle has at her disposal.
There’s Datamax, a know-it-all device that’s definitely got the jump on its namesake, the supersonic mini-jet Blur, the time travel device TimeSlip, the parabrella, a Mary Poppins-esque brolly-meets-parachute, and even the in-jokily named HAL, which is short for “House ALarm”.
It may seem like a lot of tech, but years in this office tells me that no matter how arcane a device, it has its purpose. And when Arkie Sparkle finds a ransom note at the bottom of the cookie jar (a misfortune cookie, perhaps?) saying that her parents have been kidnapped, well, of course that parabrella’s going to come in handy.
Particularly given that the kidnapper expects Arkie to take a round-the-world treasure hunting trip, not to mention a jaunt or two back in time, to find them. There are seven mysteries to be solved (and, by the by, seven books in this series) before Arkie can get her parentals back safe and sound.
And so, armed with gadgets galore, Arkie, her super-mega-genius cousin TJ and Cleo the basset hound set off to their first destination: Egypt. Once there, they’re given the task of solving a series of clues relating to Queen Nefertari and the the Temple of Ramses, which they’re then to email (attachments are okay) to the kidnapper as proof of their mad archaeological skills in order to unlock mystery, and therefore book, number 2.
It’s such a fun concept, and I love that we’re given two smart and gutsy female characters to follow throughout. There’s an emphasis on cultural inclusivity as well, and this is highlighted not only within the text, but also in the fabulous illustrations by Roy Chen. The design of the book is superb, and I’m very impressed with the quality of the production throughout, and particularly the attention given to the various little geeky asides and bits of arcana peppered throughout.
To be honest, I found the story quite flimsy–although that’s likely me looking at the world through my Big Girl glasses–and I really struggled with the dialogue, particularly TJ’s, which I felt really missed the mark:
“Did you know that the Chinese invented umbrellas about 2500 years ago? They are also called brollies, gamps and bumbershoots,” [said TJ.] “You sound just like an encyclopaedia sometimes,” said Arkie [snipped for brevity]. “Brrr.” “Double brrr,” said TJ. “It’s because we’re in a desert. They get very cold and very hot. And the Sarahara Desert is the hottest desert in the world. Temperatures can get up to 78 degrees Celsius.” “Doesn’t your head hurt with all those facts bumping into each other?” said Arkie. “No, I’m very neat and my brain is too,” said TJ. “Everything’s filed in the right cortex. And that’s just as well because did you know that the average human has about 70,000 thoughts a day? Of course, considering I’m not your average human, I probably have at least double that.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of a human encyclopaedia, but the dialogue just doesn’t ring true to my ear. I couldn’t help but feel that some of these nerdy soliloquies might have been cut for some additional emphasis on plot and characterisation.
Where the book really shines is in those aforementioned geeky snippets, which are sharp and witty and had me chuckling more than once. There’s the NATO phonetic alphabet insertion, for example, where the author has written out a phonemic transcription of each of the words–few of which are at all phonetic. There’s the description of the various “code” alerts, the urgency of which are measured based on whether or not there’s time for a cup of tea first.
And perhaps best of all, there’s the get-out-of-school note that Arkie forges where she writes “I’m afraid that Arkie and TJ will not be attending school this week. They will be learning from life instead.” How can that sentiment not resonate?
The subsequent Arkie Sparkle books will be released over the next six months, and I look forward to seeing what the kidnapper has in store for Arkie in her next adventure–which will see her heading off to China.(less)
According to the single page volume written by Professor Yobbish on the topic of how to train one’s dragon (never fear, it’s in the book), there’s really not much to it. All you need to do is yell at your dragon. Very, very loudly. Yell until those eardrums burst, and until the little blighter is cowering before you in a puddle of its own making.
Hey, if it works for those flustered parents in Kmart shrieking after Jaxxn and Kiilee, then, it’s bound to work on a dragon. Because bogan kids are way more of a handful than your average fire-breather. They’re bigger, too, if Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III’s dragon is anything to go by. Hiccup’s dragon Toothless is teeny-tiny. With, obviously, no teeth. Even bogan kids have at least some teeth. For a while, anyway.
See, during his first Viking initiation test, Hiccup did a most un-Viking kind of thing. Rather than stomping all over his grubby peers and grinding them into the ground with his Obvious Dragon Knowledge (Hiccup only has knowledge in his favour; he has no upper body strength to speak of), he let compassion get the better of him. Pffft, compassion. Hardly Viking-like.
Anyway, clearly addled by this thinking-of-others business, he passed off the passably good dragon he first managed to kidnap to his buddy Fishlegs. Hiccup’s second kidnapping, unfortunately, netted him a chihuahua. One with scales and wings, admittedly, but other than that, clearly a chihuahua.
A wimpy teacup dragon with a yen for the high life doesn’t exactly scream rampaging and pillaging, does it now?
Particularly when the already soft Hiccup goes against those tried-and-true SCREAM AT IT LOUDLY methods of dragon training in favour of a progressive approach. Any Viking parent–and any bogan parent at that–will tell you that those little so-and-sos aren’t meant to be treated with airy-fairy faffing about.
And to be honest, poor Hiccup is beginning to think that there’s something to be said for that one-page dragon training manual. His lazy, entitled dragon lagging behind his screamed-at, cowed-into-submission peers. Until, until, something big happens, and Hiccup and Toothless show the world that perhaps there’s something to be said for treating others with respect after all.
Oh, this book is so very silly. It chortles along with ridiculous jokes, terrible names, and bizarre anachronisms. The narrator is a head-shaking, finger-wagging old-lady-with-half-moon-spectacles type, and talks up the tale of poor weedy Hiccup to glorious bed-time-tale effect.
It deliciously lampoons societies that favour nepotism and brawn:
“Hiccup will be leading you, although he is admittedly completely useless, because Hiccup is the sun of the CHIEF, and that’s the way things go with us Vikings. Where do you think you are, the REPUBLIC OF ROME?”
Although at the same time, Hiccup’s chief father is utterly, merrily convinced of his son’s inevitable success, merely because of his good breeding, making for an interesting take on the whole supportive parent thing.
The book also has a good old laugh at a Bradbury-esque/Huxleyan world in which thought and erudition are tossed away in favour of mindless entertainment and a glazed-eye withdrawal from the challenges of the world:
Wartihog put up his hand. “What if you can’t read, sir?” “No boasting, Wartihog,” boomed Gobber. “Get some idiot to read it for you.”
There is, however, an astonishing dearth of females in the book, and I submit that it’s the worrying ratio of males:females that is far more of a threat to the Viking realm that a piffling dragon or two. This was certainly a downside for me–when a film adaptation of a book contains more females than the book itself, well, you suspect that something’s not quite right with the world.
I also came away a little cross-eyed from the format of the book, and it’s not because I’m a Viking and can’t read. The pages are peppered with scrappy sketches apparently drawn by someone using their non-preferred hand–okay, this is deliberate, but they’re sort of like great chunks of beetroot tossed into a salad. They’re great on their own, but after a while they kind of ruin the rest of the dish.
The illustrations blob in and out of the text, cutting off paragraphs here, and coming between whole pages of text there, and it does make for some disruptive reading. The font used for Toothless’s speech has a bit of an eye-gouging vibe to it as well, and ancient astigmatics like me may wonder if they need to dial up the intensity of their contact lenses.
And finally, I did find myself wondering what caused snotty little Toothless to come through with the goods in the end. Being pampered and doted on is all very well and good, and surely better than being verbally assaulted all day, but does it really make a dragon decide to do the equivalent of a teen cleaning his or her room? Or is this, perhaps, the point, and Toothless’s heroic deeds aren’t necessarily linked to all that hardcore parenting at all, but something within him? Since kids are a few years away for me yet, I’ll have to report back on this in a couple of decades’ time.
In all, though, this is a ripping read that champions the underdog (underdragon?) and has a good bit of fun with, well, everything, along the way.(less)
Life’s looking up for thirteen-year-old Sassy Wilde: the recording studio execs have come a-knocking, and her new-found fame has catapulted her to the top of the totem pole of school popularity. But Sassy’s not the type to let fame to go her head. She’s going to use the publicity to right the world’s wrongs, save the whales, and educate others about global warming. And do it all without bearing a midriff or being caught up in a scandal.
But Sassy’s good intentions are her own undoing. Her in-the-bag recording contract is vetoed at the last minute after concerns that she may get a bit PETA on the country’s major music chains, and her best friend’s conservative mother freaks out about Sassy’s latest protest, enforcing a strict no-visit policy between the two. Two out of the three best things in Sassy’s life have just gone up in smoke, but there’s always Twig, her sort-of boyfriend, right? But Twig, as his name might suggest, is perhaps a bit young for all this moony romantic stuff, and seems way more inclined to spend his days working on his ollies on his skateboard.
Oh, how quickly the mighty can fall. Sassy, like any young teen, does the only thing that makes any sense in this situation: she throws in the towel on the lot of it, and sets about trying to become a modern day Mother Theresa. Music? Who needs it, anyway?
Having pawned off her guitar and tossed her song lyrics, Sassy throws herself into good samaritanism. And when Sassy’s best friend’s family is caught up in a terrible earthquake in Pakistan, Sassy wants to do her bit to help out. Fund-raising, obviously, is the way to go, but Sassy realises pretty quickly that her best chance of making a difference is sitting in the window of the local pawn shop. But can she really go back to music after all the heartache it’s caused her?
Seriously Sassy – Crazy Days caught me out. Perhaps it’s all that gold foiling on the cover, or the ditzy sounding title, but I definitely took a deep breath of preparedness before launching into this one. But as it turns out, there was no need to do so. It’s a light and easy read for sure, but it’s spot on, too. Though it’s the third in the Sassy series, it stands well enough on its own, and Gibson does an excellent job of working in the details from the previous books on a need-to-know basis; you won’t feel as though you’re lost in a narrative wilderness if you start with this one.
And honestly, there’s so much to like here. The writing’s chatty and witty without being alienatingly so (I even merrily endured the footnotes, which I ordinarily balk at), and Sassy herself is thoroughly enjoyable to spend a few hundred pages with. She’s passionate and kind-hearted, and she’s brimming with optimism and humour. But that’s not say that she’s an angelic dullard: though she makes her decisions with the best of intentions, she constantly finds herself caught up in the unexpected, and often hilarious, shenanigans that result. Poor Sassy is the very epitome of the adage “no good turn goes unpunished”, and yet she presses on with that black-and-white mindfulness that’s so familiar in kids this age, doing everything she can to make things better and live up to her promises.
She’s surrounded by a rich cast of friends, family and teachers that all add their bit to the plot, and though everyone’s as nice as pie, they’re surprisingly well-rounded and easily differentiated from each other. In addition to the main plot about Sassy having to make a tough decision about her music career in order to do her bit to help her friend’s family, there are plenty of little subplots on the go, and all of which serve to round out the novel without making it feel bloated. It’s a feel-good read from start to finish, and given that I read this on perhaps the mopiest, drizzliest day that Melbourne’s ever seen (my shoes are still wet), it was exactly what I needed.(less)
My morning walk to work takes me past the National Gallery of Victoria, and past the gallery’s huge water feature, a thing loaded and glimmering with tossed-in coins. And no doubt, wish those coins, wishes. Every now and then I’ll walk past to find that the water feature appears to have been cleaned out, and I find myself wondering what has become of those coins and the wishes that they represent.
In Verdigris Deep, Frances Hardinge takes things a good deal further than my own vague thoughts about coins and wishes, drawing on folklore to devise a marvellous, eerie tale of well spirits, wishes gone terribly wrong and the corrupting nature of power. It’s my second outing with Hardinge, and I can say that with her vivid, unpatronising prose, wonderful creativity, and unflinching willingness to challenge her readers, she’s certainly wedged herself firmly in my bookish heart alongside the likes of Diana Wynne Jones and Kate Forsyth.
Ryan, Josh and Chelle are dashing to catch their bus home from the forbidden area of Magwhite when they realise that they’re short of coins. Ever the quick thinker, Josh, the entrepreneurial, devil-may-care individual of the group, retrieves a handful of coins from a nearby well and uses them to pay the fare. All’s well that ends well. At least, temporarily. Each of the three begins to notice changes. Chatty Chelle finds that she’s able to tune into the thoughts of others, and that she’s unable to keep from parroting those thoughts. Thoughtful, near-sighted Ryan begins to develop a strange type of second sight that manifests as wart-like eyeballs on his hands. Josh’s sparky personality begins to extend to a mastery over all things electromagnetic. The children soon realise that by stealing the coins from the well, they’ve unwittingly accepted responsibility for granting the wishes associated with those coins.
But as they set about doing so, they find that the wishes they grant have consequences that are rarely positive. While Josh leaps into the wish-granting fray with abandon, striving to grant even those most horrid, audacious of wishes, Chelle and Ryan both find themselves musing on the very nature of wishes. It’s Ryan who realises that, like a conker, there are two elements to a wish: the prickly outside that seems to be the wish, and the hard interior that is the actual wish. When people make their wishes, it seems, they may say one thing while meaning something entirely different–such as the man who wishes for a Harley Davidson, when what he really wants is to be the type of person who rides a Harley Davidson.
Things slowly unravel around the children as their efforts to right things in a world where the very nature of right is in question go terribly awry. Hardinge juxtaposes the literal wish-fulfilment and its outcomes against the backdrop of the children’s lives. Like the wishers whose problems the children are trying to solve, they all have their own problems, things they wish could be magicked away because they don’t know how to deal with them. Or things they believe they wish will come true.
There’s Josh’s desire to be noticed by his parents, who are so caught up in their own world that they have little time for him–which explains in part his willingness to act on his god-like powers. There’s Ryan’s dislike of his biographer mother’s career and the painful consequences it has for her subjects. There’s Chelle’s gaucheness and her inability to fit in, and the way that her newfound gossiping power both ingratiates her into Ryan and Josh’s friendship while alienating her from others. There’s so much going on here, but Hardinge treats her young readers with the respect and equality that they deserve, never speaking down to them, and never offering a simple, pat solution. Things aren’t easily or neatly resolved, and nor should they be in a book about the consequences of simplistic wishes.
Though very different in tone and setting from her debut, Verdigris Deep is rich and complex, compellingly alive with all of Hardinge’s famously explorative prose, and elegantly, carefully layered. Do seek it out. (less)
One of the cupboard doors in my kitchen has a habit of creaking open of its own accord. I’ll close it, only to watch it promptly swing open again, as though it simply can’t abide being shut. It’s not so concerning when I notice that it’s already all the way open, but watching it in action is, well, quite an unnerving experience. However, being the Scully-like person that I am, I now know what the door does what it does: there’s a gap in the mortar in the bricks behind it that lets in a draught.
Dorrie Jose, a young girl living on an isolated island off the Australian coast in the 1930s, however, has her own ghosts. Not only is there the spectre of her lost parents and the fact that her grandfather, with whom she lives, is slowly ailing, but now there’s something new. Two so-called historians have been regularly visiting Dorrie’s home under the guise of taking photographs, something that Dorrie’s grandfather suspects is but a front, especially when their manner becomes eerily determined. Simultaneously, there’s news of a shipwrecked boat and the way that the deaths of those onboard underscores the notable absences in Dorrie’s hamlet, which is still wracked by wartime casualties. And last, but certainly not least, there’s the strange, shadowy figure she keeps glimpsing around her home at night–something that surely can’t be of this world. The truth behind Dorrie’s ghost is not as prosaic as my haunted cupboard, but it’s quite clear from early on what we might be dealing with. However, Dorrie’s ghost becomes the impetus for her to not only seek to protect her home from the treasure hunting “biographers”, but also to seek out the reasons why this couple is so fixated on her family’s past and on her home.
The Ghost at the Point is not the read I expected it to be from my cursory glance at the cover and blurb–it’s not a young adult novel, but one for much young readers. It is, however, a solid one, albeit one that occasionally dithers between being a comic work and a more serious one, with the comic nature coming out in full slap-stick fashion towards the end of the book. There are some beautiful turns of phrase here, too, that very simply describe the devastation wrought by the recent war on the township.
Although I picked the twist early on, Calder does an excellent job of making something truly curious from it and incorporating it into the plot rather than allowing it simply to be a twist for a twist’s sake. I enjoyed Dorrie’s gung-ho, unselfconscious nature and where this, and her ghostly epiphany, led. There were however, a few scenes, such as the one involving her decision to sneak home alone, which I felt were used to progress the narrative but didn’t necessarily quite ring true.
The comparison of the foreign and familiar is also quite neat, although I can’t help but feel that given Australia’s notoriously racist past the shipwreck might had been looked upon slightly differently by the adults in the town. Still, the suggestion that so many families come from diverse pasts, and pasts which have often been buried at that, is a worthy one, and is welcome as a discussion point in a book that’s pitched, as this is, for much younger readers. I thought that the Spanish language scenes were especially well done, and helped emphasise this point.
In all, this one’s a quick, surprising read, although I did feel that perhaps it was a little more slight than I was expecting, and the ending a touch pat.(less)
All I can say is that I would have found it rather more interesting if when I was in high...moreThis review originally appeared at Read in a Single Sitting.
All I can say is that I would have found it rather more interesting if when I was in high school my peers hadn’t passed notes about their crushes and packed lunches, but rather notes that said things like ‘someone in 2Y is a witch’.
Of course, in my school, this probably would’ve just resulted in a bit of reprimanding or a snide remark about not being of the proper character to study law or medicine (the horror!). But at gloomy and oppressive Larwood House, this little note causes a good deal more of a kerfuffle. Witchcraft is a serious, burnable-at-stake offence, after all. It doesn’t, therefore, take long for word to get out about this concise little accusation, and since popularity is negatively correlated with one’s likelihood of being a witch, the attention promptly turns to the class outcasts.
What ensues is a terrific muddle of witchcraft gone wrong, brilliant epistolary asides, hilariously terrible inquisitions (imagine Monty Python-esque roleplays in which characters are asked to play the role of a witch in order to assess their true witchiness), and a sad and sorry subplot of utterly pathetic unrequited love that will have you feeling quite the socially suave individual in comparison.
Against a backdrop of disappearing school shoes, the current class knitting fad and terrible school lunches, Wynne Jones explores in-group and out-group belonging and how easily people clump together against a perceived outcast in order to preserve their own standing. (There’s a brilliant examination of this pecking order provided by one of the characters in a journal entry, where the idea of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ boys and girls is posited, as well as the sheer danger of overstepping the boundaries allowed by one’s social rank.)
But it’s not only the crowd mentality that gets explored in Witch Week, but also the impact of deficit thinking. Where one of the accused is strident in renouncing his possible witch-hood, another finds herself of the mindset that if people are going to accuse her of being a witch, well, why not indeed be a witch?
There is so much clever, witty stuff going on here, and beneath the humour and zaniness is a very intelligent examination of social structures and how they come to be impressed upon us. Up until the very last few chapters (and I’m going to get spoilery here, but you’re big kids, you can take it) I was having a tremendous time. But of course, this being part of the Chrestomanci series, Chrestomanci must makes his deux ex machina appearance. And what comes next is something I’m rather torn over. It’s brilliant, but it’s also disappointing in a way, in that it negates the very existence of everything we’ve just read.
Still, this quibble aside, Witch Week is Diana Wynne Jones in top form, and I recommend picking up a copy if you haven’t already.(less)
When my husband and I were holidaying in Indonesia last year we went out for an early morning walk along the roads and fruit plantations. As we did, w...moreWhen my husband and I were holidaying in Indonesia last year we went out for an early morning walk along the roads and fruit plantations. As we did, we were surprised by the amount of activity going on around us: dozens of people, from the very young to the very old, were picking through the rubbish in the gutters or that had accumulated in stacks around the orchards. They were collecting small pieces of salveagable material–tin cans, bits of plastic, paper–that could be returned for a small sum. What struck us most about these people was that they seemed to be part of an endless cycle: living at barely a subsistance level, and with little access to health care or education, how was anyone supposed to rise above their present situation?
If my voracious reading of R L LaFevers’ Theodosia books is any indication, it seems that I have quite a thing for reading about go-getter female sleu...moreIf my voracious reading of R L LaFevers’ Theodosia books is any indication, it seems that I have quite a thing for reading about go-getter female sleuths in ye olde times. Like the Theodosia series, Karen Wallace’s Lady Violet Winters books feature an upwardly mobile, precious lass for whom no mystery is too great, and who has no qualms about throwing herself into the midst of the most nefariously plotted coup. However, where Theodosia leans heavily on Egyptian mythology and boasts no few fantastical elements, the Lady Violet Winter series has its feet firmly rooted in reality–or as least as much as a book about an amateur detective teen in the early 1900s can be.
If there’s anyone who’s living (well, dead, I suppose) proof of nominative determinism, it’s the brothers Grimm. All that stuff about happy endings a...more If there’s anyone who’s living (well, dead, I suppose) proof of nominative determinism, it’s the brothers Grimm. All that stuff about happy endings and princesses with shining hair? Made up by Disney and Mills & Boon. The real Grimm stuff is just that–grim indeed. If you can measure the worth of a story based on its blood, guts and decapitations, well, it’s no wonder that these are classics.
When I was younger, I worked my way through most of my school library’s collection of Robin Klein books. Needless to say, when I saw this one on the s...moreWhen I was younger, I worked my way through most of my school library’s collection of Robin Klein books. Needless to say, when I saw this one on the shelves at my in-laws’, one of a number of books that had clearly been required reading for my fiance when he was at school, I couldn’t help but smuggle it home with me.
Though published back in the olden days, a year or so after I was born, the brilliance and relevance of Games endures, and I found myself marvelling at Klein’s subtle skill as an author. I’d pit this one up against Robert Cormier’s best work: it’s a chilling examination of the power dynamics between a group of schoolgirls and the escalating paranoia and resentment that arise based on their distrust of each other.
The other day I was stopped at the pedestrian lights when a guy leaned out of his car, pointed to my red shoes, and yelled, “Hey Dorothy! Cl...more3.5 stars.
The other day I was stopped at the pedestrian lights when a guy leaned out of his car, pointed to my red shoes, and yelled, “Hey Dorothy! Click your heels together!”
This was an affront on a number of levels, not the least of which being that in Baum’s original, Dorothy’s shoes are not red, but are in fact silver. And indeed, there are a number of differences between the novel and the film adaptation with which we’re all so familiar. Where the film is garishly naff, all vivid Technicolor and twee singing and chirruping, the novel has a good deal more depth to it–and a surprising amount of eeriness.
For the most part, the plots of the book and musical run along similar lines until after our group of intrepid heroes “receive” the wishes they’ve longed to see granted, but after this things begin to diverge. When Oz floats off in his hot air balloon, Dorothy does not simply tap her shoes together to return home, but instead embarks on a dangerous mission to the witch Glinda’s property, which requires a surprising amount of hiding and killing.
Though YA readers might want to take note that this book is pitched at more of a middle grade audience, The Puzzle Ring is full of beautiful places, intriguing puzzles and characters that you won’t want to leave, and I don’t doubt that you’ll thoroughly enjoy your time in its pages. Oh, and extra points for the bonus marmalade cake recipe in the back of the book.
Last year I read and enjoyed Ebony McKenna’s whimsical, dreamy debut Ondine: Summer of Shambles, and was delighted when the second in the series lande...moreLast year I read and enjoyed Ebony McKenna’s whimsical, dreamy debut Ondine: Summer of Shambles, and was delighted when the second in the series landed on my desk. What made Ondine so utterly enjoyable in my mind was its charming mix of nostalgia, magic, absurd pop culture references and, well, talking ferrets, and the follow up offers more of the same, but in an even stronger and more delightful package.
The guide and I entered by that hidden path, to return to the clear world: and, not caring to rest, we climbed up, he first, and I second, until, thro...moreThe guide and I entered by that hidden path, to return to the clear world: and, not caring to rest, we climbed up, he first, and I second, until, through a round opening, I saw the beautiful things that the sky holds: and we issued out, from there, to see, again, the stars.
So says Dante in the final canto of the Inferno. And this is how Jeanne DuPrau’s The People of Sparks begins as well. Having emerged, blinking into the light after hundreds of years of living below the earth’s surface, the people of the City of Ember can only anticipate what awaits them. And they’re entirely without preconceptions, having spent their lives reading propaganda telling them that they are the “chosen” ones, and that nothing exists beyond their underground city. And, perhaps, indeed this was true for some years–Ember is, in effect, a colossal bomb shelter, a Noah’s Ark, where a select group of people were sent in the hopes that some of humanity might survive in the aftermath of a series of terrible wars.