Monday, October 30, 2006

 

Rose Steals the Show

Yay! The library had Hilary McKay's second Casson novel, Indigo's Star (Simon and Schuster, 2004) . At last I could catch up on what happened between Indigo and visiting American Tony. But this is just as much Rose's story as Indigo's, actually—Permanent Rose is more of a sequel to this book than this one is a sequel to Saffy's Angel, because of Rose.

So. After a bout of meningitis, Indigo returns to school, to once again face the bullying gang that has been, we learn from Rose, tormenting him. But something has changed—there's a new boy in school, visiting from America. They become friends and covictims of the gang. Eventually Tony's story comes out—he has basically opted out of his family (remarried father with new infant daughter). Of course I knew there was a baby sister, because I had read the next book already, but such is McKay's power that I forgot once the story got going, and it really was a shock when Tony's cold rejection of her is revealed.

I'm usually sensitive to flaws in the portrayal of American characters in British novels. But McKay is such a great creator of character that Tony was just Tony, except at one point when he calls someone a "prat." That is such a British term that I couldn't see Tony using it without some conscious comment on it.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

 

Taxi, Taxi!

Don't read I Am a Taxi by Deborah Ellis (Groundwood, 2006) before bed: it will make you sad and you won't be able to sleep. Billed as the first of "The Cocalero Novels" this is the story of Diego, who helps to support himself and his family by running errands for the women of San Sebastian prison, where his parents are incarcerated for the crime of cocaine trafficking. I read the book yesterday, and in the way of these things, an article I was reading over breakfast described someone as a former coca farmer trying to redignify the coca leaf. This is one of the points of Ellis's novel: that something useful and benificent has been taken out of its proper context, and so has been made dirty and dangerous: first frowned on, then regulated, then criminalized and destroyed. (Think of tobacco in North America.)

The Breadwinner was sad, too, but it was also funny, somehow. This book, despite the dignified courage of the main character, is just sad. Maybe it's because I feel more culpable for Diego's situation—even though I don't use illegal substances, my culture does, and so has created the market that oppresses Diego and his people.

Still, Ellis's knack of telling a vital story in the most simple, unsentimental way is remarkable. She's like a perverse Beverly Cleary; perverse because instead of setting her readers inside a familiar home on a familiar street, she puts them in a place of untenable hardship and makes it feel familiar. In "Taxi," the connection is bullies: whether in the schoolyard or the jungle drug camp, the method is the same: have pride in yourself, be polite, use humour if possible, agree without toadying, never show you're afraid.

Ellis's writing is so plain and adorned, I've been puzzling over why she could be as good (as celebrated, as necessary, as creative) a writer as, say, Avi, who is the more literary one. The way Ellis works, at least with these contemporary reality books, is almost journalistic: go to the place, collect the facts, listen to real people's stories, then distill it all into a novel. She starts with a desire for social justice—apparently. (She is also a writer, with a writer's desire to write and to be published; who, through a lucky stroke of history—world attention to the subject of her first novel—discovered her perfect subject and voice.) Avi, on the other hand, is my idea of "a writer": stuffed full of Story, seized by what-ifs? and following them until they're worked out. (Hit and miss, really—but when he hits, it's out of the park.) So, what makes them equals? Ellis tells stories that people need to hear in the way they can best hear them; Avi tells stories people didn't know they needed to hear until they heard them. Perhaps. I don't know.

Friday, October 27, 2006

 

Lisle Stalking

Couldn't resist going through a box of "help yourself" books when visiting the office of an educational publisher I do some work for. Picked up The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle (Simon and Schuster, 2000), just because I remember liking Afternoon of the Elves, and I know I have read and liked other books by this author. (Sorry about the bad joke in the title—I couldn't resist that, either!) And because there was absolutely no blurb on the back cover.

"Cool" is about a boy who moves with his mother and younger sister to Dad's home town, while Dad is away flying with the RCAF, at the beginning of the US's involvement in WW II. No one talks about Dad, which Robert finds strange. It is Elliot, Robert's cousin whom he didn't know existed, who teaches him how to negotiate this family. Elliot is nervous, odd, an artist and probably "on the spectrum"; he copes with Grandfather's mean temper by bending to it, and escaping. Robert likes his cousin, but doesn't like how he and everyone else tiptoes around Grandfather. He's ready to stand up to the old bastard—until he finds out the truth about his father.

While the story is about what happens in a family ruled by a bully, it is also about what happens when society is seized by a bully mentality. The community where the story takes place is on the coast, and home to a large military installation. Bit by bit, Abel, an artist who escaped fascist Germany, is tormented to death by ignorant "patriotism."

This is a dense read, good but not for the fainthearted. The characters are vivid and solid, and the ending is happy, without being simple or easy.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

 

Well, Orson


Hats off to the flap copy wizard for Orson Scott Card's Treasure Box (HarperCollins, 1996). A full column and a bit of highly descriptive copy about dysfunctional families and true love, and only the tiniest hint (noticeable only in hindsight) that the book is a made-for-the-movies story about Apocolyptic evil. Succubi, evil children and the beast in the shape of a dragon—the whole nine yards. I should have paid attention to the library's clue: the words "science fiction" stamped tinily on an endpaper. Oh, well. It was a ride, anyway, and ol' Orson is pro enough to make it worth reading.

Monday, October 23, 2006

 

Well, I Tried

The Sisters Grimm is a new series by Michael Buckley, in the vein of Artemis Fowl and the Children of the Lamp. The series (I've seen numbers 2 and 3 as well) is beautifully designed and illustrated (by Peter Ferguson, who is getting a lot of work these days). The first book, The Fairy Tale Detectives (Harry M Abrams, 2005), starts out sounding like Unfortunate Events (seemingly orphaned sisters, unsatisfactory fostering arrangements). Turns out, however, that the weird character the girls have been placed with really is their grandmother, and they are the descendants of the legendary Brothers Grimm, destined for the family business of looking after the Everafters: that is to say, all the characters from the fairy tales who, with the help of one of the brothers, fled persecution in the old countries and to find a new home in America.

I got through the first third of this book, and then gave up, utterly bored. I was impatient with the conceit from the start, and I couldn't engage with the characters, who feel empty to me. There was a scene where the girls meet a pranksome boy whom they don't recognize, and when the fellow explains that he's Puck, I can see that his disgust at their ignorance ("Doesn't anybody read the classics?") is supposed to be funny—but funny to whom? I know who Puck is, but I still felt trapped in the girls' reaction: Okay, whatever.

So, what's wrong here? These books—this series, Children of the Lamp, the Nobodies/Anybodies—are jumping with funny ideas and packed with action. Why do I find them so boring, then? It's the main characters, I think. Despite all the action, are they not essentially passive, bouncing along from crisis to crisis? The sisters Grimm are differentiated by one of the them being the (worrying, careworn, skeptical, impatient) eldest and the other being the (happy-go-lucky, impulsive, credulous, cheerful) youngest, physical appearance (useful for illustration only) and not much else.

The problem could also be me. Maybe I'm getting bored with children's literature. And then I remember that I read 2 Nancy Drews, and threw away the third after a few pages—I got bored. Same with the Bobbsey Twins and every other series popular in my youth. (Somehow all those books by Ruth Chew stuck, though. I wonder why....) Is it so surprising that I only read 4 Unfortunate Events books, and the latest Harry Potter is squatting in my mind like a chore I keep putting off?

Same with most genre fiction, series by another name. And genre series? Well, Janet Evanovich, so fun and fresh at first, paled at title 3. (And I wasn't even reading those, just listening to the audiobooks while I cooked dinner!) The moment of doom comes when I recognize a sentence construction, or plot set-up, or character type. Oh, that, I think, and then my interest plummets.

Unless it's a favourite author. DWJ deals has several character types that come up again and again, and plenty of familiar plot set-ups. And sentences can be constructed in only so many ways, surely. Ruth Rendell—another one who deals in similar situations and character types all the time. So, what's the difference? Sigh. I need a book group!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

 

Ah, Susan

Another good read from Susan Cooper. Before I go on about it—did I mention already that I have been reading Over Sea, Under Stone to Son, and am finding it actually rather slow and . . . boring? It takes so long for something to actually happen, and then when it does, it's just, well, finding places on an old map. No wonder Son didn't get anywhere when he tried reading it on his own. I'm not giving up, though. We'll see how it goes with the others.

Anyway: Victory (Simon&Schuster, 2006). Son asked if it was a time-travel book, and I said, More like a time haunting. An English girl moves to the USA because of the remarriage of her mother, and picks up an old biography of Lord Nelson, which she takes home only because she is so homesick for England. At the same time, we follow the adventures of Sam, nabbed by a naval press gang and put to work in the galley of the Victory, Lord Nelson's ship during the Battle of Trafalgar. The two stories cross over Sam's tiny scrap of the flag of the Victory, which Molly found hidden under the inside cover of the book. At the end, the two stories come together most beautifully.

Susan Cooper brings home to a North American child reader how beloved a figure Nelson is to the English. Sam's story has the feeling of that movie whose name momentarily escapes me based on Patrick O'Brien's book and starring Russell Crowe—ah, Master and Commander—that manly, immediate and emotional. Molly's story is interesting, and different—interestingly, Susan Cooper uses petit mal epilepsy as a door into visions (without saying so; but it's there; so Romantic!) and this somehow makes the haunting truly of her blood and bone, right from the start. And Cooper blends the respective strengths of English and American children's literature so well, in this book. It has the chewiness of the former's literary pedigree, and its ability to be modern without being faddish; it has latter's fresh juiciness, and its spaciousness, in which anything is possible for any individual.

Christian fiction is enamoured of the past, I guess because we assume people were more generally Christian then, and times were simpler. I was still puzzled that Beverly Lewis chose to set her book (The Covenant, Bethany House, 2002) about some Old Order Amish sisters in 1946, though. Why put characters who already live in the past, in the past? A conversation with a friend cleared that up—back then, everyone was a farmer, he suggested. So there was less difference than now between the Amish and the community next door. Hm. I'd like to read the same book set in the now, then, and see what difference it makes.

The book was pleasant reading, but it was less a story than a long country ramble with some exotic but charming characters, breaking off for a rest at a point where the view ahead is just obscured enough that you'll want to continue the ramble in the sequel. There's nothing new in it, but the author knows her Amish stuff and I had no reason to fall out of the world she brought me into. The sexual facts of one sister's life are tastefully conducted out of sight of the reader. No pandering to the flesh, here!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

 

Detective Fiction for Jaded Readers

Have just finished books two and three of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Tears of the Giraffe and Morality for Beautiful Girls. I gave up trying to find them at the library and bought them, in a nice boxed set with book 1.

What is so likeable about these books? They are like the house of a good housekeeper: orderly, clean, cozy. They present a functioning Africa, which is something North Americans see so little of. The characters in them are almost mythic in their simplicity: the orphanage matron, the goverment man, the bad girl, the good man. They are firm in their presentation of detection as a form of working moral philosophy. They appeal to the Western reader's sense of philosophical sophistication (we smile at Mma Makutsi's ingenuous deconstruction of existentialism) while comforting her or him with the possibility of a simpler life lived rightly. They are vaguely Christian, they are mild: they expose sin without horror and forgive it without excessive judgement. And Mma Ramotswe is herself firm, fat and forgiving—a very comfortable character. We'll see how well her world sustains itself as the series continues.

Monday, October 09, 2006

 

Relative Obscurity

From a reader's point of view, that one can stumble upon a book by a writer "of over sixty books for young readers" whom you have never heard of seems amazing: how full of books the world is! From a writer's point of view, this is depressing. Think of all the writers toiling away in utter obscurity, book after book. Of course, the obscurity is only relative; it's only that the "extremely popular" Secrets of Droon series have never swum into my attention that I am not acquainted with Tony Abbott. Obviously, he has fans.

So, Son read Firegirl (Little, Brown and Co, 2006) first, and asked me what I thought as soon as I was done. I thought at first, Maybe it's a satisfying challenge to a writer to stick so closely to the chosen voice, which here is that of a not terribly clever or articulate 12-year-old boy; if that voice makes for apparently dull diction and graceless style, well, the reader should respect the craft. Lots of people have great respect for this kind of thing, after all; and then, lots of other people don't notice the craft involved and simply respond to the "authenticity." Lots of people have passionately loved The Catcher in the Rye.

So I persevered, and at the end had to admire what the author had achieved. Like a game of pool, life can strike a blow that drops old things out of significance and lines up new arrangements for us to contemplate. In Firegirl, a graceless, plain, but nice boy is shocked into a new trajectory when he allows himself to be touched by someone unusual. He doesn't know what it means, but he can't stop thinking about it; and he perceives that, having allowed himself to be moved, he is now travelling in a direction he might not have gone in otherwise. Son agreed that the narrating character was very real; and also agreed that maybe he wouldn't have seemed so real if the author had made the language richer and more interesting (to him and to me). Still, this wasn't a book I clutched to my bosom and sighed over. I see it studied in grade seven English classes, though.

One last point: while I was reading, Son pointed out what a good cover the book had. Good design, and also illustrated perfectly something that happened in the story.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

 

Books That Say It All

Ordered Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli (Random House, 2003) through the school book club. Son said, "I have to warn you—it's sad." Discovered I had read it before.

This book really says everything about the main European shame of WW II, the decimation of its Jewish population. Aside from its utility as a teaching tool in this respect, it is simply a great novel. In the very way that Spinelli has chosen to tell this particular bit of the WW II in Poland story, it shows how complicated human life always is. This boy is not orphaned by war—quite the opposite. He's familied by it, and then orphaned again in such a way that this time, it means something. This is the part that is sad, I think, for my son. For me, the sadness is in how the boy is utterly ruined by the war. And the literary beauty (the story redemption) is in the way he couldn't be any other person but ruined; yet, even ruined, he is given his portion of love. At the end of the story, he ceases to be an orphan; and it is at such a time in his life as he can most appreciate the particular grace of family love.

This inimitable and delicious Richard Peck does it again in Here Lies the Librarian (Penguin, 2006). I don't think this one is as solid as The Teacher's Funeral but it's still funny and still just as full of strong female characters organizing the world, despite the best efforts of the men around them, in the way that pleases them. Peck carries off a great trick which I can't discuss out of respect for the sister with whom I recently discussed Peck and who is waiting to read this. But I was delighted and impressed. Peck is one of the writers I would love to have dinner with.

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