Monday, May 26, 2008

 

Don't Think About It

Around the time Norah Jones' first CD was leaving the atmosphere and heading for the stratosphere of popularity, I read a piece about its popularity in The New Yorker (where else?), which concluded that sometimes, the reason something's popular is because it's good--simple as that, no need to think about it. It's just good. I feel that way about Lori Lansens' The Girls (Knopf, 2005). I don't even want to talk about it.

Younguncle Come to Town by Vandana Singh (Viking, 2006) is a good-old-fashioned kids' story, that reminds me of Erich Kastner a bit, but lighter and more modern. I enjoy reading adult novels set in India or from Indian writers--there's a whole lot of good storytelling coming from that land. I am happy to say that includes children's storytelling. And this is a book you can give an eight or nine-year-old reader who finds a standard chapter book a bit daunting. It's episodic, for one thing; but it looks inviting, too. The typeface is open and friendly, there's lots of leading and the occasional illustration loosens things up even more.

Leaving Simplicity by Claire Carmichael (Annick, 2007) had a promising premise: boy from a closed, simple community enters near-future world dominated by corporations and advertising. It was disappointing. Our simple hero is never in the least persuaded by "the chattering world": he and his critical education always stay firmly above it all, so we never learn anything but the standard and obvious media-lit things about advertising. (What was the reaction-reading appliance embedded in his tooth supposed to read?) His cousin is a stereotypical Valley Girl from beginning to end, with hardly a mind of her own; yes, she learns that her "Uncle" the senator is a bad man, but the reasons he's bad are also obvious and basic.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

 

Two Awesome Reads... and Then Some

A Sister recommended The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber (HarperTempest, 2005) and it is terrific. A forest witch adopts takes in a foundling, against her cat familiar's better judgement; she engages a bear as a nursemaid, and bids her bonded efreet add a nursery to her house. Then she goes back to work. It's clearly not entirely her fault that the boy turns out dangerously spoiled and cold; choices are made, and they are not all hers. The book turns several folk/fairy tales inside out as the witch's story becomes the boys and then joins them up again. Sometimes, as Son pointed out, this creates reader's agony, as you wait for the characters to realize what you already know; but this is made up for the in gloriously satisfying ending.

Siberia by Ann Hallam (Orion, 2005) was recommended by a work contact, and it is also terrific. A girl arrives with her mother at a winter prison camp--this part reminded my of a novel I read years ago, about a girl who grows up in Siberia after being exiled there with her mother. Anyway, this girl comes to believe her mother has some kind of magic, after observing her at a secret, mysterious task after work hours one night. After a while her mother starts teaching the girl how to do the task herself: which is growing, keep and preserving a group of miniature creatures. Due to the girl's youthful carelessness, her mother is arrested again and taken away, and the girl, who is clever, goes to a boarding school. There, after a number of things happen, she realizes she has got to do what her mother promised they would do toegther, one day: take the cretures, called Lindquists, north and west, to "the city where it is always light". She sets off, always pursued by a man who may or may not be a friend. Aside from being a fantastic survival adventure, this story presents a chilling picture of some possible outcomes of global warming and rampant industrialism.

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkins (Warner, 2003) is unusual and ambitious and many other good things; but I didn't finish it. I was not in the right frame of mind--you have to commit to following a thread of meaning that weaves into and out of several stories across several centuries and continents, and I was tired and had so much else to read.

A couple of older Kevin Henkes novels: Protecting Marie (Greenwillow, 1995) and Sun and Spoon (Greenwillow/Puffin, 1997). Stories about layered moments and family relationships. Girl stories, one might say. And then, a book which, while I was reading it, reminded me I had read it before. I put it that way because it didn't feel like a reread at all. It was The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley (Aladdin/Simon&Schuster, 1999). Short and complex; alas, too much so (and too chilling) for use at work.

I couldn't resist Pictures in the Dark by Patricia McCord (Bloomsbury, 2004), a story about wo sisters dealing with a mother who is off her rocker. It was a swift read, accomplished pretty much in a day; a sad story, well built but somewhat artless in the telling. It was told in the 12-year-old's voice, and she seemed to be able to see what was wrong too easily or plainly. She told herself too much. I guess I expect, in this kind of story, the kind of strangled, painful half-articulation of 12-year-old Fanny in Protecting Marie. Why does that seem "realer" to me?

Becca at Sea by Deirdre Baker (Groundwood, 2007): more moments and family relationships, but coupled with some very felt and lived-in experience, mostly to do with nature and the outdoors (sailing and sea swimming, forests and beaches). Episodic but with a happy ending.

Meanwhile, I have read and discarded a few fantasy novels; one, The Divide (Scholastic Inc.) I might have finished if I had the time.

Monday, May 12, 2008

 

All Over the Underland

For work I picked up Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Inc, 2003?) and it was so good, I got ahold of the other four in the series and ripped through them at high speed. They are Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, and finally (2007) Gregor and the Code of Claw. A neat bow to the author for ending it there. Son and I agreed that the Underland would make a fantastic setting for a video game: lots of characters with different skill sets; battles on land, on sea, and in the air and in darkness; dipping into the museum stores for special supplies; moments of rager attack which would be energy-costly but effective.... "I can just picture it!" said Son, fresh from his birthday weekend of nonstop Super Mario Brawl.

Continuing in my Festival-influenced reading, I borrowed A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel (2001, Broadway Books/Random House). A memoir about "growing up small in Mooreland, Indiana" (a town of 300, then as now); loving and funny and spare. At the Festival I bought Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, 2008) and this was very good. A novel in short stories about/around a woman who very much reminded me of Hagar Shipley. Only a little less self-deluding, perhaps.

Jean Little's Dancing Through the Snow (Scholastic Canada, 2007) is like the orphan stories that satisfied me when I was a child. Am I now too old, or my joy too lost, that I don't trust that satisfaction anymore? Perhaps I should read it to Daughter, and see what she makes of it. The cover is fantastic.

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