An odd, beautifully written re-telling of "The Snow Queen" as a children's book.

Hazel is a little girl who's peculiar and alienated in the way that a lot of people who grow up to be writers were: engrossed in unpopular books and interests, pre-emptively disdaining most people her age so she won't be as hurt when they reject her. She was adopted from India by a white family, and is not only the only Indian girl in her school, but knows nearly nothing about India; this isn't a huge part of the story, but certainly adds to her feeling of being different.

Her one friend is Jack, a boy whose father is gone and mother is depressed. Everyone tells them they shouldn't be friends, because boys and girls aren't at that age (eleven) and because Hazel is weird. Then one day, Jack suddenly dumps Hazel and starts hanging out with the popular boys. Everyone tells Hazel that this is natural and she needs to find girl friends. Her mother warns her that you can't make someone love you again when they've stopped; she knows because Hazel's father left her. And then Jack disappears - moved away, supposedly.

But Hazel is certain that Jack didn't just naturally stop loving her. She thinks he was enchanted and kidnapped by the Snow Queen. So Hazel follows the rules of fairy-tales... and finds herself in a creepy fairyland, questing to bring back her best friend.

This a well-written, melancholy book with striking images and a strange subtext. Though the fairyland is real, and Jack's enchantment is real, everyone in the real world but Hazel believes that the enchantment is a metaphor. They tell her that childhood friendships often break up naturally, that people often fall out of love, and that no amount of wanting and persistence can make someone love you when they don't. This creates an odd tension to Hazel's quest: is it real? Even if fairyland is real, is the enchantment really imposed from outside, or just the externalization of the truth that Jack no longer loves her. If he really doesn't love her, is it heroic or self-destructive and stalkery for her to keep trying to get him back?

Then again, he really did disappear. And the Snow Queen really does have him. There is no metaphor supplied for that scenario: that is reality. But it's a reality that sits oddly with the "he really doesn't love you" metaphor.

This is a book where I really did wonder what the author's intent was. Were readers meant to take the "You can't make anyone love you" admonitions as the truth, and believe that while she saves Jack's life, he will never love her again? Or were those statements merely obstacles Hazel faces, and she really did see through them to the truth that he did love her, that his enchantment was metaphoric for depression and peer pressure, and that if she kept standing by him, eventually he'd remember that he cared for her all along? I may be taking all sorts of unintended subtext from this book, but it's very metafictional to begin with.

Hazel's quest is like an illusion-picture that flashes back and forth between being a young woman and an old woman every time you blink. Heroic affirmation of persistence and friendship. Blink. Unsettling story of an emotionally immature girl desperately pursuing a boy who naturally grew apart from her.

Breadcrumbs
Pamela, a lonely little girl, lives in an isolated house with her two aunts (one nice, one distant and strict). Her absentee father visits occasionally, and her mom is dead. But her life gets a lot more fun when she gets a magic amulet that enables her to meet a mysterious boy her own age and his herd of pastel ponies.

Obviously, the best part of this book is the pastel ponies. Who wouldn't want a herd of pink, blue, sunset, and sunrise-colored ponies named after clouds? I wish I'd read this book when I was nine, because I would have absolutely reveled in the pretty, pretty ponies. Probably a better title would have been The Rainbow Ponies.

Ponyboy is annoying - the book was written when it was common to portray boys being sexist as cute and funny, and that has not aged well. But like I said: pretty, pretty pink ponies! If you think you'd like that, you will certainly enjoy this book.

Season of Ponies
This is a book I liked as a child, which I lost and then re-read as an adult.

I have to confess that I have never been a fan of Daniel Pinkwater. His books are just too surreal for my taste, and I don’t find them that funny. This is true of lots of widely-loved writers, most notably Douglas Adams. It’s not a criticism of them to say that I fail to appreciate their work.

However, while attempting to track down one of my missing childhood books, I found to my surprise that it was written by none other than Daniel Pinkwater, under the name of Manus Pinkwater. The few reviews I found noted that it was an early, non-representative work. “Not funny,” one said disapprovingly. This is probably why I liked it— not that it’s not funny, but that it’s not like his other books. It’s not surrealism, but magic realism: fantasy governed by whether the magic makes emotional sense, not by logical explanations.

Donald Chen, aka Chen Chi Wing, is the only Chinese boy in his school in New York City in an unspecified time in which it’s possible for a poor kid to buy the first edition of “Superman,” but it’s old and used. His horrible teacher is horrible to him, and while he’s not bullied, exactly, he doesn’t have friends either. He gets singled out for being poor, his mother is in the hospital (she doesn’t die, FYI), and he’s lonely.

After a particularly bruising experience, he starts packing comics into his school bag, then climbing the girders of the George Washington Bridge and reading comics all day. One day a winged man lands on the bridge beside him, not quite seeming to register him, like the pigeons who sometimes do the same thing. He’s clearly some sort of superhero, but described more with the language of fantasy. And he’s Chinese.

This atmospheric fantasy mixes precise details of ordinary life with small but very sense-of-wonder bits of fantasy. The magic is never explained, but is clearly there to help out the hero: both to give him a better time in his everyday life (his new teacher appreciates his art, which is inspired by scenes of ancient China that Wingman showed him), and to let him explore his culture in a way he wasn’t otherwise getting to do. But Wingman seems to have a life of his own, which has only brushed against that of a lonely little boy; at the end, they’re spending less time together, but still existing in the same world.

It’s a lovely little book, interspersed with cartoons. There’s some aspects that feel dated, but most of it still works. The deliberate timelessness helps. Even apart from that I identified with being the only person of my race in the school, I can see why it stuck in my memory for 30 years.

Wingman
Audiobook read by Glenn Close. In this sequel to Sarah, Plain and Tall, a drought strikes the prairie. The family hangs on as long as they can, but after a destructive and terrifying fire, the father stays on the land and sends Sarah and the kids back to Maine.

Though this has a lovely happy ending, and is as well-written and moving as the first book, the characters are so unhappy for so much of the book that it was nowhere near as enjoyable for me as the first book. This was exacerbated by listening to it on audio rather than reading it, so the pace was much slower. For much of it, I felt as frustrated and gloomy as the characters.

That being said, it has important plot developments for the next book, which hopefully will be more cheerful.
Audiobook. I liked the narrator.

Stead wrote an excellent, complex children’s novel, When You Reach Me, which won the Newbery Award. Her follow-up, Liar & Spy, is similarly structured, with a lot of seemingly disconnected subplots which fit together into a thematically consistent whole with all mysteries solved.

Georges is a 12-year-old boy who’s having a very bad year. He’s being bullied at school, and his architect father was laid off, forcing the family to sell their beloved house and move to an apartment. His mother, a nurse, has to take so many double shifts at the hospital that Georges literally doesn’t see her for days, and is forced to communicate with her via leaving messages spelled out in Scrabble tiles.

However, he meets a boy his age, Safer, at his new apartment. Safer, who is home-schooled, has a charmingly eccentric family (his siblings are named Pigeon and Candy), and Georges finds a refuge both in Safer’s home and in getting trained as a spy. But Safer and Georges’ spy games become more and more intense, and Georges worries that Safer’s obsession with spying on a man living in the apartment may be getting out of control. (I will tell you now that this story does not involve child abuse, which I did wonder about at one point. Also, the man is not a Holocaust survivor, which also occurred to me as the most maudlin possible outcome.)

This summary, by the way, leaves out multiple subplots involving a Seurat painting, the chemistry experiment of True Love and Doom, a wild parrot nest, and an overly peppy PE teacher. There is an impressive amount of material packed into a short space, without seeming rushed or incoherent. I enjoyed this a lot – it’s funny, well-written, and clever – up to a certain point.

I didn’t think this one worked quite as well as When You Reach Me - the bulk of the story was wonderful, but I had some issues with the ending revelations and outcome. They were cleverly set up, but opened up large cans of worms in terms of characterization and plausibility.

Huge spoilers for entire book below cut. Read more... )
Audiobook read by Glenn Close. I would not have recognized her voice if I hadn’t known. Excellent reading, though the little boy’s dialogue is a bit shrill.

A short, sweet children’s book, spare and moving. Though it won the Newbery in 1986, it is amazingly not depressing!

Somewhere on the Great Plains, some time in the 1800s, a farmer advertises for a wife. His own wife died years ago, leaving their daughter and son motherless. Sarah, a spinster on the coast of Maine, begins corresponding with the entire family, telling them about her life, her cat, and her beloved sea. Eventually she comes to visit, to see if they all like each other well enough to become a family.

I’ve read a lot of books with the general story of “kids might be getting a new parent/parent of kids considers remarriage.” This is the only modern one I’ve ever read in which the conflict is not the children feeling ambivalent or outright hostile to the new prospective parent. The children in this novel start out with positive feelings about getting a new mother, and fall in love with Sarah. The conflict is whether Sarah, who loves the sea, can reconcile herself to a totally new environment.

This is a beautifully written, atmospheric novel. It isn’t sad, but the audiobook did bring tears to my eyes at one point. The ending is especially lovely. It has a lot of similar appeal to the Little House books, but in distilled form.

Sarah, Plain and Tall
Since I now have a substantial commute, I have been listening to audiobooks from the library. I checked out Redwall because it’s a semi-classic kids’ series which I never read when I was the right age for it.

The first book is about a peaceful abbey of mice besieged by an evil rat and his rat army. If the mice are to survive, they must find the legendary sword of the mouse hero Martin the Warrior, the founder of their order. The tone of the novel is old-school pulp adventure with pastoral atmosphere and lots of food descriptions, and reminded me a bit of Robert Louis Stevenson. Enacted by mice.

Brian Jacques has an absolutely wonderful reading voice. (He was from Liverpool.) I actually wish it wasn’t a full cast version; I’d prefer just listening to him. His descriptions of the whisker-twirling, minion-slaughtering, eeeeeeeeevil rat villain, Cluny the Scourge (or, as Jacques phrases it, “CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE!!!!”) had me in fits of laughter. And I mean that in a good way. If you’re going to have your villain be the most villainous villain who ever villained, you definitely should read about him in a manner which suits his villainy. If I was reading this book aloud to kids, I would do my best Brian Jacques imitation for the parts concerning CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE!!!!!

The actor doing CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE’S actual dialogue appears to be imitating a very angry, possibly drunk, Spanish BRIAN BLESSED. A lot of his dialogue is somewhat or completely incomprehensible, but I found that if I just mentally substitute “Arrrrr! I’m a villain!” for anything I can’t understand, the scene makes perfect sense.

(Warning to Oyce: contains villainous rats.)

The story is your basic “villain invades peaceful pastoral setting; orphan boy is somehow going to save everyone.” I’m a little bored with that story, so for me, the attraction (apart from Jacques’ voice) is that they’re all animals.

This is the book where I realized that I generally like animal stories in direct proportion to how important it is that they’re animals. One of my very favorite things about Watership Down was the rabbits’ limited understanding of the world: when one of them figures out that they can get across a river by floating on a piece of wood, it’s a genius-level conceptual breakthrough that none of the other rabbits really understand. The rats in Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents have magically-created intelligence, but still have many real-life rat behaviors, like widdling and eating their dead (except the green wobbly bit).

Jacques’ mice wear clothes, fight with swords, and are friends with predator animals. The physical scale is also non-realistic – their badger friends, while bigger and stronger than the rats, can’t just solve the entire problem by eating the rats. CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE wears a mole skull as a brooch, which in real life would be the equivalent of a man wearing a human skull. One of the characters is possibly half-rat, half-weasel. And so forth.

It’s not only a suspension of disbelief problem, it’s a question of why bother making them animals at all, if you’re not taking advantage of their animal qualities. So far, this entire story could be told with humans, and nothing would change.

Redwall [Audiobook, Unabridged]
Since I now have a substantial commute, I have been listening to audiobooks from the library. I checked out Redwall because it’s a semi-classic kids’ series which I never read when I was the right age for it.

The first book is about a peaceful abbey of mice besieged by an evil rat and his rat army. If the mice are to survive, they must find the legendary sword of the mouse hero Martin the Warrior, the founder of their order. The tone of the novel is old-school pulp adventure with pastoral atmosphere and lots of food descriptions, and reminded me a bit of Robert Louis Stevenson. Enacted by mice.

Brian Jacques has an absolutely wonderful reading voice. (He was from Liverpool.) I actually wish it wasn’t a full cast version; I’d prefer just listening to him. His descriptions of the whisker-twirling, minion-slaughtering, eeeeeeeeevil rat villain, Cluny the Scourge (or, as Jacques phrases it, “CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE!!!!”) had me in fits of laughter. And I mean that in a good way. If you’re going to have your villain be the most villainous villain who ever villained, you definitely should read about him in a manner which suits his villainy. If I was reading this book aloud to kids, I would do my best Brian Jacques imitation for the parts concerning CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE!!!!!

The actor doing CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE’S actual dialogue appears to be imitating a very angry, possibly drunk, Spanish BRIAN BLESSED. A lot of his dialogue is somewhat or completely incomprehensible, but I found that if I just mentally substitute “Arrrrr! I’m a villain!” for anything I can’t understand, the scene makes perfect sense.

(Warning to Oyce: contains villainous rats.)

The story is your basic “villain invades peaceful pastoral setting; orphan boy is somehow going to save everyone.” I’m a little bored with that story, so for me, the attraction (apart from Jacques’ voice) is that they’re all animals.

This is the book where I realized that I generally like animal stories in direct proportion to how important it is that they’re animals. One of my very favorite things about Watership Down was the rabbits’ limited understanding of the world: when one of them figures out that they can get across a river by floating on a piece of wood, it’s a genius-level conceptual breakthrough that none of the other rabbits really understand. The rats in Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
have magically-created intelligence, but still have many real-life rat behaviors, like widdling and eating their dead (except the green wobbly bit).

Jacques’ mice wear clothes, fight with swords, and are friends with prey animals. The physical scale is also non-realistic – their badger friends, while bigger and stronger than the rats, can’t just solve the entire problem by eating the rats. CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE wears a mole skull as a brooch, which in real life would be the equivalent of a man wearing a human skull. One of the characters is possibly half-rat, half-weasel. And so forth.

It’s not only a suspension of disbelief problem, it’s a question of why bother making them animals at all, if you’re not taking advantage of their animal qualities. So far, this entire story could be told with humans, and nothing would change.

Redwall [Audiobook, Unabridged]
My quest to read more self-published books is mostly demonstrating to me that there is often no difference in quality between them and traditionally published books. In fact, in certain genres, it is much easier to find more ambitious or unusual books, of equal literary quality, in self-publishing.

I am tempted to say that this middle-grade book is more ambitious than most, but recently middle-grade seems to be getting more ambitious, while YA, overall, is getting less so.

It's divided into three timelines, which bleed into each other from fairly early on. In modern times, American Meredith is sent away from her beloved pregnant Lipizzan horse and her mother, who is recovering from cancer, to accompany her archaelogist aunt on a dig in Egypt. In ancient Egypt, Meritre, a singer in the temple of Amon, worries about her pregnant mother and the pharoah's daughter, who is sick with a mysterious plague. And in a cyberpunk future that has cured most diseases, Meru pursues her missing mother into a secret quarantine zone.

This novel reminded me of a childhood favorite, Mary Stolz's Cat in the Mirror, which also contrasted dual timelines, of the same soul reincarnated in ancient Egypt and modern New York. Tarr's book is more complex and ambitious. The three timelines are not merely compared and contrasted and paralleled, but directly affect each other.

The book starts a little slow, probably due to having to set up three plot lines rather than one, but becomes quite a page-turner by about the one-third mark. The themes are grief, times changing and times staying the same, the inevitability of death, and the equal inevitability of life going on: reincarnation, and birth, and life itself.

Satisfying and complex. I especially liked the pets of the three girls: a horse, a cat, and a half-insubstantial alien creature.

Note: The author is a friend, so I'm probably not that objective.

Living in Threes
Lovely British children's books about a family of eccentrics. The mom is an absent-minded painter who named her children after paint colors, the hilariously insensitive father is nearly entirely absent, and the four kids are up to assorted hijinks involving keeping hamsters in pockets, stowing away to Italy, and searching for Saffron's inheritance, a missing stone angel.

A plot description doesn't do these books justice. McKay is one of those writers (mostly British, in my experience) who writes short, seemingly simple books about ordinary life in which every sentence is perfect, scattered details build to hilarious comic set pieces, and can turn on a dime between laughter and tears because the characters and their emotions seem so genuine. Light but not shallow.

Saffy's Angel

Indigo's Star
Sherwood Smith has a new book out! The Spy Princess

I'm reposting a handful of brief reviews I put up on Goodreads. Some are of books I first read ages ago, but I am always still up for discussion.

Shadow Ops: Control Point, by Myke Cole. Good premise, nice military details, generally promising first third. Everything after the first third slowly disintegrated under the weight of the hero's incessant flip-flopping between "the magic army is evil and I want no part of it and will loudly say so at every opportunity" and "I'm in the army now and I better make the best of it," not to mention his truly remarkable ability to make the worst and stupidest possible decision under any given circumstance. This Goodreads review dissects more plot issues. Good on Ace for accurately depicting Oscar's race on the cover, though.

When I was a kid, I read the entire available stock of Choose Your Own Adventure and Dungeons and Dragons books, in which YOU are the hero and can choose your own path, carefully marking the divergence points with fingers or scraps of paper. There were a bunch of these in the eighties, all different series. I also recall Wizards and Warriors. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently re-read a couple.

Mountain of Mirrors, by Rose Estes. A somewhat uninspired entry in the D&D Choose Your Own Adventure series, following an elf into the depths of a mountain-dungeon. Best part: Nigel the grumpy blink-cat, and the drawing of him crouched drenched and unhappy in a giant mushroom cap atop a raft made of giant mushroom stems.

Circus of Fear, by Rose Estes, was my favorite Choose Your Own Adventure, D&D version, and I believe the only one with a female lead.

YOU have heard of an evil plot, and must hide out in a magical circus! What makes this one stand out is both the unusual magical circus setting, and that it's further divided into three possible adventures: with the freak show (surprisingly non-offensive), with the acrobats, and with the animal tamers. The animal tamers is the best. They have blink dogs, gryphons, pegasi, and other magical beasts.

This book warmed the cockles of my magical beast-loving thirteen-year-old heart. Except for the parts where I got eaten by a living net.
Sequel to Night Gate, in which, you may recall, I was fascinated by the twelve-year-old heroine's stirrings-of-first-love relationship with Billy Thunder, her dog who turns into an attractive teenage boy when they go to fantasyland together to try to wake her mother from a coma.

Now back in the real world, it turns out that Rage's mom briefly rallied, but is now worse than ever. Oops. To Rage's sorrow, Billy Thunder is a dog again. For the first half of the novel, Rage has brief dreams of fantasyland, but much of the action involves her battle and then friendship with a troubled bully from her school, Logan. A human rival for Billy Thunder, I thought.

But when she finally confides her magical adventures to Logan, he becomes fascinated - even a bit obsessed - with her descriptions of Elle, her dog who became a beautiful blonde girl. For the rest of the book, she and Logan have somewhat random fantasyland adventures while Rage longs for Billy Thunder and Logan longs for Elle. This is the first novel I've ever read in which the romantic quadrangle consists of two humans and two transformed dogs.

A third book was promised, but that was seven years ago.

Winter Door
Note: Prompted by Goodreads, I am reposting some archival reviews I did ages ago while working at the Jim Henson Company, many of them for a series of proposed children's fantasy TV movies which never actually happened. Alas.

BB is the pen-name of Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905-1990), based, according to Goodreads, on the lead shot he used on geese. He wrote a whole bunch of nonfiction about the English countryside, which I am certain I would adore. Unfortunately, it's all out of print and expensive.

The Little Grey Men

The last gnomes in Britain, three tiny brothers, decide to go looking for their missing brother Cloudberry, who sailed up the river two years ago and never returned.

This book ought to be on the same list of British countryside classics as Watership Down and The Wind In The Willows, which it somewhat resembles. (Down to a mystical drop-in by Pan.) It was a favorite of mine as a child, and it holds up when I read it as an adult. “BB” balances sweetness with the harsh realities both of nature and of encroaching civilization to create a book that is enchanting but unsentimental.

While there is enough adventure, danger, and charming tiny details like the gnomes’ name for rabbits (Bub’ms) or the delicious-sounding meals the gnomes create from smoked minnows, blackberries, and peppermint creams to delight the child that I was, I found myself now responding most to the sad and lovely evocation of the vanishing English countryside, and of time passing by. In 1942, according to the author, there were only four gnomes left in Britain; now, one supposes, there are none.

(When I posted this on Usenet's rasfw about a million years ago, Jo Walton replied on Usenet's rasfw with a great little monograph on the endangered gnomes of Britain, who did indeed survive into the present day.)

Little Grey Men

BB also wrote a sequel, Down the Bright Stream

Bizarre sequel to the lovely Little Grey Men.

Read more... )

This book reminded me of the hilarious scene in What Katy Did Next in which Katy got so bored with telling stories to Amy about a sickly-sweet pair of siblings that she told one in which they were crushed by an avalanche and not found until the snow melted in the spring.
New Zealand fantasy and children’s/YA author Margaret Mahy has died at the age of 76.

A wonderful prose stylist and creator of atmosphere, with books that turn on a dime from slyly funny to deeply moving, a master of twisty plots who was also brilliant at sketching vivid characters in a very few words, she is one of the very few writers whom I would compare to Diana Wynne Jones. Their books read very differently, but both had similar virtues as writers. Both were true originals. Their books meant the world to me, and I regret that I never got to meet either of them in person.

If you have never read Mahy, I offer a sampling of possibilities below. She wrote the kind of children’s books which are just as rewarding to adults, with sparkling surfaces and genuine depth. Unusually, she wrote both fantasy and realistic fiction, but her realistic novels read a bit like fantasy, full of mysteries and the sense of wonder. She’s also very good with families; unlike Jones’, they tend to have problems but generally be loving and functional.

Mahy was extremely prolific. I haven’t read any of her books for very young children, nor have I read all of her books for older kids and teenagers. What I have below is just a sampling.

I am very sad that most of her books appear to be out of print in America. However, if you’re in the USA, used editions are very easily obtainable and inexpensive. I have linked to those.

The Changeover. Probably Mahy’s best-known book, a fabulous contemporary fantasy. When Laura Chant’s little brother falls deathly ill due to a curse by an evil sorcerer, she teams up with Sorenson “Sorry” Carlisle, school weirdo and witch, who can help her unlock her own powers. This is one teen romance that really works for me, with discreet sensuality and witty banter. The awakening of Laura’s powers is tied to the awakening of her maturity and sexuality – a theme which Mahy uses a couple times, and always well. Very atmospheric and well-characterized.

Catalogue of the Universe. Gorgeous mainstream novel about the romance and friendship between a troubled popular girl and a brilliant boy; not remotely what you’d expect from that synopsis, though. It’s beautifully written, emotionally perceptive, and what I’d point first when I said that Mahy’s mainstream novels have as much sense of wonder as her fantasy. It reminds me a little bit of Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful, overlooked Very Far Away from Anywhere Else.

Here's a post by Gwenda Bond which does a way better job of discussing the two books above; no spoilers.

The Tricksters. Fascinating, sophisticated, subtle, and very, very weird. 17-year-old Harry (a girl) is writing a terrible, id-vortex novel, full of lush descriptions and barely subtextual sexuality. Three mysterious men show up at her family’s summer home, to shake up everyone’s lives and shake loose some family secrets. Are they ghosts? Characters from her novel? Something else entirely?

Memory. I cannot believe I am recommending a novel in which a troubled teenage boy meets an old woman with Alzheimer’s. It sounds like a classic problem novel, and depressing to boot. But it isn’t, it isn’t, and it’s actually very good – a character study and a story about a relationship, not a story about issues.

The Haunting. This frightening, penetrating tale concerns Barney Palmer, who discovers that one person in each generation of his family has had supernatural powers; has he inherited this dreaded curse? Not as complex as some of her other books, but very atmospheric and spooky, with a nicely unpredictable plot.

The Other Side of Silence. A mainstream novel about a large, quirky, brilliant family, narrated by Hero, the daughter who doesn’t speak. Dark in parts, but not depressing; the family has problems but also a lot of strengths. This one is all about character growth and self-knowledge, and I loved the ending revelation about Hero’s silence.

Underrunners. When he wants to forget about his life, Tris visits the underrunners, the vast network of underground tunnels near his home. It's a fantasy world he tells no one about--until he meets Winola, whose escape from the Children's Home makes her Tris's perfect partner. Then they discover someone is watching them--suddenly their imaginary adventure turns horrifyingly real. It sounds like a suspense thriller with a helping of social issues, and it sort of is. But it’s also spookily poetic and full of mythic resonance. It reminds me a bit of Night of the Hunter, a thriller about children in danger that plays out like an old fairytale.

Please discuss any of Mahy’s novels here, including ones I didn't mention. Spoilers fine if they’re clearly marked in the subject heading.
Cover copy: Rage Winnoway’s closest friends have always been her four dogs: Bear, Billy Thunder, Elle, and Mr. Walker. When Rage sets off for the hospital where her mother lies in a coma, the dogs and the neighbor’s goat tag along. On the way, they run into the firecat, who talks them into going through a magical gate. And something wonderful happens! Each of Rage’s friends is transformed. Bear becomes a real bear; Billy Thunder, a teenage boy; Elle, a warrior woman; Mr. Walker, a small, large-eared gentleman; and the goat, a satyr with an inferiority complex. Together, Rage and her companions embark on a quest to save the world of Valley, a journey that is somehow tied to Rage’s family.

I love this premise. I am a total sucker for any sort of "let's establish these characters; now let's see what happens if you make a huge change to something very basic about them." I also really like shapeshifters other than cliche versions of werewolves. So the dogs-become-humans thing? All over it.

The execution is sort of there and sort of not. We get just enough of the animals as animals to see how their altered versions match their animal personalities. But it's a comparatively short children's book with a comparatively large cast, so no one gets as much development as they needed for the whole thing to be amazing. And the plot is very standard old-fashioned quest fantasy in which the heroine gets directed to gather plot coupons.

In between plot points, Carmody was doing some quite ambitious things, such as paralleling the broken relationship between the mother and son dogs (now a bear and a boy) with Rage's relationship with her mother, AND her mother's relationship with her family. Lots of deep issues of love, trust, attachment, and abandonment... but not dealt with in a very deep way. The age level and genre tropes fought the more sophisticated and interesting elements, and what was left was a book that promised more than it delivered.

(Rage, by the way, is short for "Rebecca Jane." I would find this more convincing if a) she had chosen it herself, b) she had any rage.)

The part that fascinated me the most was the incipient sexual tension between Rage and Billy Thunder, her beloved dog who is now a boy her own age, who loves her unconditionally and will say so. He's also described in a quite sensual manner. AND HE'S A DOG. None of this is ever explicitly thought of by Rage, but it is written in a way which I am pretty sure is meant to make the reader think it. But nothing comes of it.

SPOILERS answer your burning questions: does Billy Thunder go back to being a dog? Do any dogs die?

Read more... )

There is a sequel and a promised third, which may or may not materialize. Has anyone read any of Carmody's other books? I feel like she'd probably be more successful writing to an even slightly older audience, like at a YA level.

Night Gate: The Gateway Trilogy Book One
Akata Witch is a children’s fantasy novel set in a marvelously vivid modern Nigeria, in which a society of magical Leopard People operates out of sight of the Lamb People, which is to say, us.

Twelve-year-old Sunny is already used to living in two worlds, as she’s both Nigerian and American, and a black person who looks white due to being an albino. So when she discovers that she’s a free agent Leopard Person – born with magical powers, but without magical parents – it’s all part of her cultural between-ness. Both that and her albinism turn out to be key to her powers: Leopard People who are physically disabled or non-neurotypical are often extra-powerful, with magical abilities which relate to, but do not erase, their disabilities. (This trope is hugely controversial, so I’ll just say that I thought it was sensitively handled. Your mileage may vary.)

Sunny is initiated into the world of the Leopard People, learning to summon her spirit face and make an invisibility spell from a sheep’s head (she does this quite openly in her kitchen, and feeds the leftovers to her family as soup), and rewarded for knowledge gained by showers of magical coins and friendly magical insect companions. The story ambles along episodically, as Sunny learns the ways of the Leopard People, makes friends, and tries to balance her new magical life with the need to stay in school and not let her family find out. One of my favorite parts of the book is the excerpts from a magical how-to book Sunny reads, written by a snarky, superior Leopard Person who looks down from a considerable height upon both Lamb People and free agents.

At a somewhat late point, she is told that she and her buddies need to stop a serial child-killer; they don’t do much about it until they are abruptly told that the time is right, and then they hastily confront him in a battle which, while dramatic, was too rushed to feel truly climactic. I could have done without that whole storyline. I was much more interested in seeing Sunny poke around her strange new world, being traumatized by witnessing bizarre Leopard People duels and conscientiously praising her pet magic wasp’s artistic creations lest it get so disappointed in her as to commit melodramatic suicide before her eyes, as magical wasps are apparently wont to do.

I also would have liked to have seen more attention paid to Sunny’s family. I couldn’t tell from her narrative whether the level of corporal punishment tipped over into abuse or not, but the situation with her father seemed so bad, emotionally if nothing else, that I wanted it to be dealt with more than it ever was. That and the serial killer stoyline were tonally different from the magical dangers in the rest of the story in a way that never quite meshed.

This is the third book I’ve read by Okorafor. It has many of the same virtues of The Shadow Speaker (my favorite so far) and Zahrah the Windseeker: a playful sense of humor, a fantastic sense of place, and a packed-to-the-brim sense of invention. It also shares the flaw of a rushed and poorly set up climax. Her worlds and their funny, clever details are fantastic; her prose and plotting don’t reach the same heights. (I read a little bit of her adult novel Who Fears Death, before setting it aside for a time when I’m more steeled for depressing content, and the prose in that much more was much more impressive.) Akata Witch is fun but the worldbuilding, while charming, didn’t feel as deep as it did in her more profoundly transformed settings.

Akata Witch
The continuing adventures of reviews of books I read a while ago but never got around to writing up.

Front cover: An earthquake leaves Kriss stranded with an old hermit and a "talking" chimp!

Back cover: Capers for every kid. Adventure. Mystery. Science fiction & fantasy. Hilarious escapades... by many of today's favorite authors.

This is why thrift stores are great sources of books. I can't imagine finding this weird little unknown work-for-hire book by a very famous author in a regular bookshop, and indeed I never have. I had vague recollections of reading this book as a kid, though I had not remembered the author (I probably read it before I read any of Yolen's more typical works), and recall finding it rather disturbing. I re-read it as an adult. For a very short kiddie adventure novel, it actually is rather disturbing.

The beginning introduces Kriss, a clumsy California boy who wears glasses. His father refuses to take him camping on the grounds that he's so terrible in the outdoors that he'll instantly break his leg, his glasses, and get poison ivy. Annoyed, Kriss decides to sneak out and hike to his grandmother's house. He'll show them!

It is mentioned in passing that a few years previously, there was a huge earthquake and Los Angeles fell into the ocean.

Kriss hitches several rides to get to the wooded area through which he plans to hike. I check the copyright date. Huh, I guess in 1981 the idea of a kid hitch-hiking wasn't OMG SHOCKING, because nothing is made of that. His last ride is with a guy transporting caged signing chimpanzees to a lab. Then the Big One hits! The truck crashes. The driver is killed. All of this is described in pretty vivid detail - again, especially, for a book intended for eight-year-olds.

Kriss releases the chimps, who stick with him. I have to say, after reading about the guy whose chimp ate his face, I would have regretfully left them where they were. But these are nice signing chimps, not face-eating chimps, and they and Kriss wander around the wilderness, helping each other and fleeing the people who immediately reverted to cannibalism pet dog-eating - okay, I guess Yolen did make a concession to the age of her audience. Then one of the chimps falls into a crevasse and is killed.

Kriss then runs into an old vegetarian hermit named Chris. They have adventures together, including trying to rescue some pets from a pet store (most are already dead - I told you this was dark), but he does get another chimp. Then Chris has a heart attack. Surprisingly, he does not die. They are medevaced out by a mysterious, possibly sinister helicopter, and Kriss releases the chimps into the wild and certain death lest the helicopter people do something awful to them. Kriss still has no idea whether or not anyone in his family is still alive.

The end! Only not, because Yolen has an author's note discussing signing chimps. It concludes - this is the last line of the book - But even though scientists may disagree about the talking chimps, they all agree that there is a real possibility that one day California will have a different coastline than the one it has today. Have a nice day, California readers! It is scientific fact that one day you and your family may be killed in a giant earthquake!

I don't give this an "awesomely depressing" because it doesn't actually read that way, despite the dead people, dead chimps, dead dogs, dead pets, possibly dying buddy, and possibly dead family. It reads as an entertaining but slight adventure that would probably have been more memorable at a longer length. But seriously, that author's note! What was she thinking?

The Boy Who Spoke Chimp (Capers)

So, what weird children's books do you recall, or wonder if you imagined? Have you read any of them as an adult? How were they?
Things Corinna Stonewall likes:

1. Power.

2. Secrets.

3. Rain.

4. Lurking in cold, damp, pitch-black cellars.

Things Corinna Stonewall doesn't like:

1. Sunlight.

2. People.

Corinna is a Folk Keeper, assigned to live in a cellar and feed, ward off, and placate the hungry, spiteful, dangerous Folk, who otherwise will eat the animals and destroy the crops. An orphan, at age eleven she decided that she was sick of doing boring housework, and so cut her hair, disguised herself as a boy, and learned to be a Folk Keeper. She has spent five years lurking in a cellar. Then she gets taken to a new estate overlooking the ocean, where everything changes...

This was GREAT. The language is gorgeous, Corinna's voice and character are prickly and funny and wonderful, the characters are all vivid, and the story is full of twists and cleverly used folklore motifs. I saw the most important surprise coming, but didn't catch about three others.

If you liked Billingsley's Chime, you will almost certainly like this. It has some similar motifs and virtues, but is shorter, simpler, and less dark.

The Folk Keeper
Sponsored by [personal profile] lnhammer.

I’ve re-read this at least once before, but not for years. I was always more of an Emily girl. So I had totally forgotten that the first three chapters are titled, “Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Surprised,” “Marilla Cuthbert Is Surprised,” and “Matthew Cuthbert Is Surprised.” (Later, there is a chapter called “Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Properly Horrified.”) I had also forgotten how funny it is – not only in incident, like the “getting Diana drunk” chapter or the “jumping on Aunt Josephine” bit, but in the prose itself. Montgomery has a great, wry sense of humor which especially shines in her descriptions of personalities and of village life, and the contrast of Anne’s romantic imagination with the relentlessly down-to-earth people around her is never not funny.

I had not, however, forgotten the classic meet cute in which Anne’s beau-to-be, Gilbert Blythe, calls her hair “carrots” and she breaks a slate over his head. Still a classic scene! But I did forget the equally classic scene in which Anne is punished by being made to – horrors! – sit next to Gilbert in class. He slips her a candy heart. She heartlessly crushes it underfoot.

For those of you who don’t know the story, it was written in 1908, and is set on the lavishly described, rural Prince Edward Island. Aging siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to adopt a ten-year-old boy so they can have someone to help Matthew with the chores. (I was horrified while reading this at how nobody seems to find the slightest thing wrong with that. But then again, the way we treat non-adopted orphans in contemporary America isn’t much better. Or, in many cases, better at all.) But a miscommunication means that they get sent red-headed Anne Shirley instead, a chatterbox who lives largely in an imagination shaped by romantic novels. With some reluctance, they decide to keep her. She proceeds to make Avonlea a far, far more interesting place. Hijinks galore!

Anne was my introduction to L. M. Montgomery, and I read all the books, though I didn’t care for the last couple. (Bored by the later generation, except for Walter, who I adored. Uh-oh.) I also liked Ilse much, much better than Diana, whom I thought a bit dull. Honestly, don’t you think Anne deserved a friend with a bit more spark to her? I also lost interest in Gilbert once their relationship went from sizzling love-hate to dull love. Emily had so many more shipping possibilities than Anne, and I think I sensed that in my little proto-fangirl’s heart. (For the record: Emily/Ilse.)

Still, there’s a bit in which Marilla finds Anne sobbing hysterically for no apparent reason. It turns out that Anne had been imagining Diana’s future wedding (remember, everyone is still ten at this point), and herself as the bridesmaid, “with a breaking heart hid beneath my smiling face. And then bidding Diana good-bye-e-e.” Here Anne again bursts into tears.

The scene made me laugh, and yet… I remember, when I was about eight, suddenly bursting into hysterical sobs in the middle of a playdate. Why? Because at the end of the playdate, Angela would have to go back home and leave me! (Until the next playdate.)

Anne of Green Gables is very, very funny, and the characters are vividly sketched. But maybe one reason it’s so enduring is that Montgomery remembered the intensity of friendship between girls of a certain age.

Anne of Green Gables
It's not too late to sponsor me for this read-a-thon! Click on the "read-a-thon" tag for details.

Sponsored by [personal profile] pameladean and [profile] slrose.

A boy named David reads an ad in a newspaper, asking for boys between the ages of eight and eleven to build a spaceship, from materials they happen to have around and without adult help, for an exciting mission to outer space. David and his friend Chuck oblige, and are selected for the mission by the peculiar neighbor Mr. Bass, who explains that he is a mushroom person who grew from a spore and that he senses that his people, on the unknown child-sized planet Basilicum X, are in need of help. He helps them space-proof their ship and suggests that they bring an animal mascot, and off they go.

The mushroom people are indeed in need of help, but luckily (or was it only luck?) one of the items Chuck and David brought with them is exactly what they need. Unlike many children’s fantasies of this time period, the conclusion does not involve a mind-wipe, the suggestion that it was all a dream, or anything of that nature.

This is a children’s classic from 1954. This is my first time reading it, which is too bad. I enjoyed it as an adult, but I would have loved it at age eight or so. It precisely captures a particular type of child’s adventure, when you and your best friend equip a cardboard box with provisions for a journey, and take off for outer space. (Or Fairyland, or Narnia.) The details of the mushroom planet are very much like something a child might imagine, as is the solution to the mushroom people’s problem – a child’s idea given an adult’s scientific gloss.

Amusingly, all the adults are happy to support David and Chuck’s expedition, because (the reader understands) they assume the boys will just be camping out overnight. David doesn’t realize this, and is both pleased and baffled that his mother doesn’t object to his journey into space.

The language is very old-fashioned (“Gee whillikers!”), and so is the whole idea of scattering tons of accurate scientific details amidst the fantasy, clearly with a didactic intent. (In the sense of teaching, not of preaching.) I enjoyed learning new things from books when I was a kid, and I enjoyed reading this book, but I’m surprised that it’s still in print. The whole idea of scattering bits of useful or interesting knowledge into children's books is something that seems to have gone way, way out of fashion.

When I opened my copy, purchased at a used bookshop, I found that one of my SAT students had written her name on the inside cover! It was a coincidence (or was it?) that fit right in with the off-kilter, quirky spirit of the book.

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet
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