Wednesday, March 28, 2007

 

Bush Ghosts

Wendy Orr's Spook's Shack (Allen&Unwin, 2003) is delightful. Nim's Island was terrific. I've got to read more of this author. Spook's Shack is about a boy who is staying with his aunt while his parents are abroad finding a place for the family to live. He encounters a ghost who isn't at first aware that he is a ghost, in a shack in the bush on his aunt's property. Adventures ensue. The characters are great—real fiction characters, genuine yet fanciful. The main conceit—that while in the presence of the ghost the boy can feel inside the animals he encounters in the bush—is richly delivered.

Friday, March 23, 2007

 

The Stone Angel Revisited

Jonathon Scott Fuqua's book Darby (Candlewick, 2002) was a product of another project, collecting oral histories in Marlboro County, South Carolina. I found it surprising that the narrating character turned nine in the story; I had thought she was older, though when I think about it I see that perhaps that was only because the story was so well and elegantly told. Darby separated from her narration—her activities, her friendships—is certainly her age.

No wonder this book has already won awards—the subject matter, racism and community in the beginning of the Depression, makes it educational. Darby herself, plus the wealth of period detail and language, and the confidence with which the author uses it, makes it simply a good story. I had forgotten that another name for dragonfly is "mosquito hawk" (a more descriptive name); tying a thread to one and treating it for a time like a flying pet is just one of the fascinating ways Darby and her friends entertain themselves. I remember a friend's mother telling us of growing up in BC's Okanagan area; one of the things they did for fun was to climb up a youngish deciduous tree, then ride it to the ground after friends had chopped it down. We found this outrageous and fascinating—children with axes! chopping down trees for fun! Darby and her brother do something like that, less destructively, choosing young, flexible pines and simply riding the bend. Darby also makes "penny peeks," holes in the ground that are decorated like shop windows, with flowers and such, for friends' viewing.

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu (Houghton-Mifflin, 2005), a fantasy, is set in a city by a jungle, in a world where computers, along with everything else, are grown. Despite having such a plant-based culture, the people in the city are terrified of the jungle. Its precincts are forbidden and not even the books can say for certain what is there. Making her way in this world is Zarah, a girl who is part jungle herself, with vines growing in her hair. Despite her parents' pride in her "dada" nature, they don't really know what it means; and like parents everywhere, their encouragement can't undo the damage she suffers from her peers. She has so thoroughly internalized their fear of her, that when she discovers her dada gift, she is too afraid to explore it. It isn't until she is forced into the jungle by a greater fear, fear for her best friend's life, that she rises (literally!) to her potential. This is an excellent parable about control versus creativity. Interesting, mind-altering drugs are presented as part of the landscape—not a recommended or wise choice for young people, but available for people who want them. In the Dark Market, not the regular one, of course.

All hail the solid, old-fashioned novel. We all loved Crow Lake by Mary Lawson; we can also love The Other Side of the Bridge (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)—especially those of us who have read and loved The Stone Angel. Here is the story of Hagar's sons, minus Hagar (not literally—these boys are named Jake and Arthur, not John and Marvin—though, do you see the resemblance?—and their mother isn't called Hagar; and the story takes place in a northern Ontario town) and from Arthur's point of view. The narration is shared by Ian, son of the town doctor, who is chafed by role in a different but similar way as Arthur is; their stories alternate. There is too much in the novel to go into here, but it was utterly lovely. Note the dedication: "To my brothers...who love the north." The whole novel says, "To my brothers, whom I love."

Monday, March 19, 2007

 

Pick a Peck

Having rediscovered Richard Peck in the last year, I picked up Dreamland Lake (Puffin ed, 2000) which was originally published in 1973. I saw in this the reason I did not read Peck beyond the Blossom Culp books, back then. Nothing grabbed me in this story of two guys' friendship and how it changed one year. It is set up like a mystery/horror but it isn't, really. I'm not sure what it is.

Before the above I read Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson (Bloomsbury, 2006) which I had seen reviewed in The Horn Book. Not that the review signified; I didn't really get past the author's name. I liked this book, which in spite of being a bit King in the Window and a bit Golden Compass and a bit of everything we have seen in children's fantasy over the last...five years? decade? Anyway, in spite of containing enough to drive the fantasy-sated reader away, the story still held its own, mainly because of the loving friendship of its two main child characters and because the power of love, the child struggling and prevailing against powerful adults, the ways of secret societies, are all themes whose richness can never be bled away.

I hope that the young person out there who needs it finds Snap by Alison McGhee (Candlewick, 2004) for its portrait of a moment when friendship asks more from a girl than it gives back. This was a well-written novel that I whipped through in an hour and may or may not forget in a month. Time will tell.

Have been curious about Orca's line of hi-lo books for teens for a while, especially given the list of authors who have written for it. Home Invasion by Monique Polack was great until the stepdad decided he and the narrating character were going to try to catch the invader together, at which point the story stepped right off the reality scale. I still don't see why that was necessary, when the ending (and the capture) was achieved realistically.

Finally, there was The Girls They Left Behind by Bernice Thurman Hunter... sort of (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005). This book was finished by BTH's daughter after her death. The thing about BTH is that though her writing is not always original in form (it's so full of common idiom) it's always original in function—alive, and her. Her style, without her, becomes intolerably heavy with cliche. By the end of this book, I felt like there was a bell in my head, bonging them out: my heart sank like a stone, having one of her spells, a veil like a shroud, not a worry in the world. Then, there were the few historical details I questioned, which of course turns my mind to all the details I didn't know enough to notice but were probably there. For example, I'm pretty sure Toronto was not "Canada's biggest city" just after WWII; and would an airman really have written home in such detail (with a diagram!) about a bombing mission? (How it got past the censors is explained, but what about motivation? It just didn't seem real.) And then there was the character herself. There wasn't much that was unusual about her—she's seems nothing more than a teenager of her time, interested in boys and earning money for herself doing war work while she can. There's nothing wrong with that at all—until the end, when the sub-author decides it isn't enough. Suddenly this character should know "deep down" that she has "a future much different from [her] friends"; suddenly she has "a mission"—to become a history teacher and "teach the young" that there must be no more war. With this, historicity goes boom.

Oh, well. It's a hard job to follow after your mother, I guess.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

 
Here's a new thing—a book group. An out-of-town friend was visiting on the night of her book group meeting, which was taking place in Big City, a half-hour drive away. So I went with her. I got the book only a couple of days before so I had only read about three-fifths of it; enough, however, to talk about. The women there that evening were all ones I knew from my own previous life in Big City, and they are stellar women every one. It was awfully enjoyable. These meetings happen with months in between, which seems a sensible way to do things: you have time to look forward to it.

The book was excellent: Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Scribner, 2002). It tells of a young Bangla woman who is married off to Bangla man more than twenty years her senior who lives in England. The story is told entirely from her point of view, and it's basically her transformation from a deeply passive village girl to a woman who is capable of choosing what is best for herself and for her children, despite the tangles of love—both slow-cooked married love and love of a more passionate sort—and perceived notions of duty. Meanwhile, there is much said about how women manage their affairs, how men manage theirs, and about the compromises and hypocrisies peculiar to Islam. It had its faults—I still don't get why the sister's letters were written in such a deliberately execrable style, and there were other strange choices of dialect that just didn't work. But the portrait of the Benylin-swilling usurer—and the main character's challenge to her at the end—was great.

Before that, I read Black Canary by Jane Louis Curry (Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster, 2005), which I borrowed because of its music connection. It was all right but not utterly solid. The story didn't deliver the significance promised by the details of setting and character it set up with.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

 

Missing Someone

Wenny Has Wings by Janet Lee Carey (Aladdin/Simon&Schuster, 2003) is about a boy whose sister dies after a truck runs into them both at a crossing. The boy is trying hard to fill the empty space this has left in his family (Dad, pregnant Mom), writing "letters" to his dead sister describing his efforts, in a journal given him by a helpful counsellor. The problem with telling stories this way is that they make a dull read—you are limited by the child writer's limitations, of language and expression. The dullness is alleviated in this case by the interesting truth the boy can't immediately share with his parents, and the interesting activities he gets up to (trying to contact Wenny) until he finally does share it. The boy had a near-death experience, so knows that Wenny has gone to a good, beautiful place—which he himself chose to turn away from, because he didn't want his parents to be completely alone. How he expresses this to his parents is very touching.

Friends recommended Jodi Picoult; I couldn't remember which specific title so I picked up Vanishing Acts (Atria, 2005). It was a great Sunday read (right before the violent illness that swept through my family kicked in): woman discovers she is not who she thought she was when her father is arrested for kidnapping. There follows a roller coaster of finding mother—losing (imagined) mother—rejecting mother and accompanying triggered memories. After reading, though, some things bugged me. I couldn't believe the (quantity of) details she remembered; and just how much had the boyfriend meddled with her? The urinary tract infection implies a lot; but sexual abuse to extreme, though she might not remember it, would have affected her sexual relationships as an adult. And I thought the ending was odd: the understanding seems to be that if Eric shapes up, he and Delia will get back together. But then what will Fitz do?

Also, note to publisher: it's annoying to the eye to use different typefaces for different voices, and it adds nothing to understanding—I still had to flip back to find out who was telling the story.

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