Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

And the last late reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the little bookroom eleanor farjeonThe Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon ~ 1955

This edition: New York Review Books, 2003. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-590170-489. 336 pages.

My rating: 8/10

A collection of twenty-seven delicately written fairy tales. Aimed at the younger crowd, but possibly more suited to real appreciation by adults. A few are slight, gentle and – in the very best sense of the word – childish, but others are rich in their imagery and complexity. The stories were selected by Eleanor Farjeon herself, and are deliciously and perfectly illustrated by the one and only Edward Ardizzone. Rumer Godden’s Afterword is a lovingly worded compliment to the author.

My own pretty well grown children are sadly long past the stage of being read to, but I am keeping this one close by both for personal pleasure and perhaps to one day share with as yet theoretical grandchildren.

sensible kate doris gatesSensible Kate by Doris Gates ~ 1943

This edition: Viking Press, 1969. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Doris Gates is perhaps best known for her Newbery Award runner-up children’s novel Blue Willow, as well as the widely read Little Vic, both viewed as important early examples of “realistic problem fiction” for young readers, not a genre I am particularly fond of as a rule, but which is perfectly acceptable when the characters and their story are over-emphasized over the “problem”. Doris Gates gets a pass; these are “real” novels no matter how they’re categorized.

Sensible Kate was Gates’ third novel, and it is a pleasant example of children’s literature of its era, with the young heroine facing her rather daunting challenges with good expectations of positive outcomes. The Kate of the novel is a likeable girl, flawed enough to be realistic, but with a solid core of goodness which makes her most appealing.

Kate has been an orphan as long as she can remember, and has been cared for by various “shiftless” relatives since babyhood. Now the relatives have decided to move out of the state, and they have decided to turn Kate over to the county relief office. Kate is placed as a foster child with an elderly couple, The Tuttles, and she soon makes herself beloved of them and many others whom she meets, including a young married couple, both artists, who are the very reverse of sensible in their daily affairs, and who are most appreciative of Kate’s practical talents.

A sweet but never saccharine story, with some interesting characters and scenarios which lift it a little over the average for its vintage and genre. Possibly one might pick up on the lightest shade of Anne of Green Gables, what with the red-haired heroine being an orphan and going off to live with an elderly couple, but the parallel ends right there. Kate is most certainly no Anne, and her creator has not attempted to model her so.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmithPeople Who Knock on the Door by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

This edition: Penguin, 1983. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006741-8. 356 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

A rather unusual book, a noir almost-thriller with some odd twists, including a subplot involving a teenage girl’s abortion. Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this one came as no surprise.

Here we have a normal middle-class family, the Aldermans, with an insurance-salesman father, stay-at-home mother volunteering a few days a week at a children’s hospital, and teenagers Arthur and younger Robbie. Arthur is getting ready to go to college, has a satisfactorily active love life, and he is poised to get on with his life when his whole world takes a sickening lurch.

Robbie falls ill with a mysterious infection and is suddenly on the verge of death. The doctors turn away in dismissal – the boy is going to die –  but Mr. Armstrong refuses to give up hope, and prays diligently to God for a miracle. Robbie recovers, and the previously un-religious father is so moved by the experience that he embraces religion and joins a highly evangelistic Christian sect. Mrs. Armstrong and Arthur view this at first with mildly perturbed eyes, but Robbie fully embraces his father’s new-found faith, with eventual horrifying consequences.

A can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration, with none of the characters completely faultless, including our pseudo-hero Arthur, the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

 the wedding of zein tayeb salihThe Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih ~ 1968

This edition: New York Review Books, 2009. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-59017-342-8. 120 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Two short stories and a short novella – the title story – by the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, set in the country around the northern Nile .

The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid speaks to the importance of tradition, and to the quiet resistance of the people of the Sudanese country to outside influences.

A Handful of Dates concerns a young boy who becomes aware for the first time of the realities of rich and poor, and the role his grandfather has played in a neighbour losing his inheritance.

The Wedding of Zein concerns an unlikely hero, a physically deformed “village idiot” (for want of a better term), who insistently falls in love with one after another village maiden, only to be disappointed as they always marry someone else. Imagine then the shock of everyone when it is announced that Zein has at last found a prospective wife, and an unexpectedly wise and beautiful one at that.

This book gives a diverting glimpse into an unfamiliar world, and the stories are told with clarity and understated, rather sly humour. A short but worthwhile collection.

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the ocean at the end of the lane neil gaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman ~ 2013. This edition: Morrow, 2013. 1st Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-225565-5. 181 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I ration my new books quite severely, for several reasons.

One is that new books are so darned easy. I love the second hand book hunt an awful lot, and relish the finding of literary treasure in all its forms, from the well-known bestsellers of yesterday to the quirky little short-run oddities which pop up now and then, and everything in between. I generally have a wish list of authors I’m currently interested in, but the serendipitous finds are what I keep going back for.

Another vital consideration is price. New books are expensive. Case in point, Gaiman’s latest which I’ll be talking about here. This one set my back $27.99 (Canadian) at my local independent bookstore. Yes, I know I could have purchased it for less through one of the big chain bookstores, or online from the big “A”, but I am trying my hardest to limit new book purchases to the local folks, to do my small part in keeping them in business.

But $28.00 (plus tax) for one book, which, considering Gaiman’s popularity and the size of the print runs, will be readily available for pennies on the dollar in a year or two in the Sally Ann book bins, is a chunk of cash which I need to think about fairly hard before parting with. For that investment I could walk out of even the most lavishly over-priced second hand book store with a handful of volumes, or purchase a true rarity online. Something to think about…

Well, was it worth it? Was my money well spent in purchasing a book because I wanted to read it now, not in a year’s time, or whenever my turn would come in the queue at the public library?

The answer is a resounding “I’m not quite sure…” While the story itself was well up to Gaiman’s best work, it was a slight little thing, quickly devoured and leaving one vaguely unsatisfied and wanting more. Not perhaps such a bad thing, come to think of it. We’ll see how it holds up to a reread in a year or two, once all the hype has faded.

I won’t go into too much detail, as the internet is seething with detailed reviews – over 10,000 (!) on Goodreads alone. I didn’t read any of these before I read the book, but I dipped into them briefly just now, and yes, there’s a lot of words being bandied about, some very thoughtful indeed.

But please, dear fellow reader, read the story cold, if you can, which is what I did. I do feel it is a much better experience, not knowing too much going in.

From the front flyleaf:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

Not quite sure about that last bit, the “groundbreaking work” part, and the “rare understanding of all that makes us human” puff, but I do agree with the delicate and menacing bits. This was a very creepy story, but in a good way, fictionally speaking.

Lying in bed early this morning, mulling over what to say about the story, a few things stood out for me, and I felt all clever and wise, but glancing through the other online reviews show me that everyone else caught them, too, so I don’t feel quite so special any more.

I saw that it The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be viewed as an allegorical tale much along the same lines as the Narnia books, or any of the oodles of fairy tales and legends preceding that most well-known of story-as-hidden-propaganda-for-a-worldview. Or perhaps “propaganda” is not a fair term. Let’s say “explanation”, then, or something similar. In any event, it’s as old as history, this perhaps-not-so-groundbreaking story line.

In this one, the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity, the requirement for the protagonist – a feeble creature indeed, standing in nicely for all Mankind, if one continues with the allegory – to act with full faith in their protection, the smug “good will always trump evil” atmosphere of the Hempstock farm, and the pseudo-sacrificial bit at the end, complete with water imagery and resurrection on another plane, all feel very familiar, as they indeed should, as we’ve seen their like before. Many times.

But Gaiman’s interpretation is unique and horrible and beautiful and very well imagined. I enjoyed it thoroughly, as a piece of creative contemporary fiction. Maybe the allegory is all in my head, and the story is just a story. Works either way.

So, asking myself again, was it worth the $27.99 in reading value? I have to say, after more consideration, that the answer is probably “No.” But now I have a nice hardcover copy, still crisp and clean even after being read by everyone in the family, which will look very nice on the shelf until the re-reading impulse strikes in a few years. It’s all right. And I’m hoping that my bookstore got a decent cut!

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a knot in the grain robin mckinleyA Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley ~ 1994. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-44064-0. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10, with the aside that these five short stories are über-fantasy-romantic, perhaps a tiny bit too fantastical for anyone past the age of about, oh, probably 13 or so.

Or maybe not. For anyone, teen to adult, this is total escape lit. Especially nice if you’ve already spent time in Damar.

I seriously love the cover illustration on this one, all romantically Burne-Jonesy. It’s by someone named Bryan Leister, and kudos to him, because it is perfect.

This is a collection of five short stories, three of which were previously published in other anthologies. Two are obviously set in the alternative-reality world Damar of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, two more are set in an unnamed alternative world, which could be Damar, and the last is set in the “real” world, in contemporary times. All feature completely sympathetic, strong female characters, and their male counterparts.

The Healer (1982)

The child was born just as the first faint rays of dawn made their way through the cracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low. The new father bowed his head over his wife’s hands as the midwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Black curls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but when the little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and closed its mouth as if it knew that it had failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife’s own, black, and clearer than a newborn’s should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife’s own eyes.

The baby, Lily, has been born without a voice, but she has another trait that more than makes up for that lack, at least in the eyes of the world: the gift of healing. Lily grows up beloved of her parents and ever-increasing siblings, and at the age of twelve she becomes apprentice to the midwife who was present at her birth. The two live together in love and harmony, until one day, when Lily is twenty, and she encounters a mysterious stranger on the road who can communicate with her mind-to-mind, without spoken words. Turns out that Sahath is an ex-mage, a once-accomplished master of the arcane arts, who has inexplicably lost most of his powers. One thing leads to another, and soon Lily and Sahath are sharing not just unspoken conversations but shyly blushing glances. And when Sahath puts forward the suggestion that perhaps his old mage-master could help Lily find her lost voice, the resulting journey to the mountain lake of the mysterious Luthe (yes, fellow Damar fans, that Luthe) brings all sorts of potentials to fruition.

The Stagman (1984)

She grew up in her uncle’s shadow, for her uncle was made Regent when her father was placed beside her mother in the royal tomb. Her uncle was a cold, proud man, who, because he chose to wear plain clothing and to eat simple food, claimed that he was not interested in worldly things, but this was not so…

The princess grows up under the oppressive shadow of her quietly malicious uncle, until, on her name day, when she is to be declared queen, she is instead offered as a living sacrifice to the mysterious Stagman, half-man, half-deer, who has been summoned forth by the Regent’s magicings in a swirl of ominous storms. The people of the kingdom raise no objection to the sacrifice of their princess; it is well known that she is a poor thing, of weak mind, for has not the Regent himself tried his hardest to educate her, without notable success? Into the cave then goes the maiden, to be chained to the stone wall to await her sacrificial fate. But things don’t go quite as the Regent has planned…

Luthe reappears in this story, offering succour to the Princess Ruen, unnamed until the end of her desperate journey to the inevitable mountain lake.

Touk’s House (1985)

In the best fairy tale tradition, a woodcutter steals into a witch’s garden for herbs to save his beloved youngest daughter’s life, is caught, and forfeits his next child to the witch, who claims she wants an apprentice to pass along her herb lore to. And then, still in best fairy tale tradition, things do not turn out as one would anticipate. For starters, the child in question, young Erana, has absolutely no aptitude for messing about with plants…

That’s all I’m going to say about this one; it is quite delightful, and my favourite story of the five in this book. You’ll just need to read it for yourself! (And, one more thing, because it’s by Robin McKinley – you probably don’t need me to tell you this – but it predictably morphs into a love story.)

Buttercups (1994)

There was an old farmer who married a young wife…

… but contrary to predictions, all goes well. At least until the farmer’s curiosity arouses a sleeping power emanating from Buttercup Hill…

A lovely story of a May-December romance, with two genuinely good people at its heart. A rather unusual story, this one, which doesn’t turn to tragedy as it so easily might in another author’s hands.

A Knot in the Grain (1994)

The last story in the collection returns from not-quite-here lands to contemporary times. High school student Annabelle reluctantly accompanies her family to their new home in a quiet New England town. She’s left all of her lifelong friends behind, and is having a hard time finding her new groove. Spending her summer visiting the library and rereading childhood favourites (thus giving the author a nice venue for mentioning her own favourites, from E. Nesbit to Mary Norton to Diana Wynne Jones, with a tiny shameless plug for McKinley’s partner, fellow author Peter Dickinson – I admit I chuckled a bit at that one, though I’m not much of a Dickinson fan) Annabelle is just plain ready for something to happen.

Which it does. One day, while staring at the ceiling in her attic hideaway, Annabelle notices an interesting knot in the wooden beam, which turns out to be the key to a hidden staircase, and another room. And in the room Annabelle finds a box. A box full of… well, I can’t tell you. (Nor can Annabelle.) But interesting things transpire, in a low-key sort of way.

A cute story, with a very likeable bunch of teenagers, including our heroine. Very nice. Just a titch too good to be true, though? (Says Inner Cynic.) Well, nice is a legitimate state of being, too…

*****

I feel like I should say something to sum up this collection. It’s a competently written group of stories, and very typical of the author’s early work, before she got into the edgier, darker, more adult realms of Deerskin and Sunshine. These fairy tales are aimed at the young teen reader and up, and the first four are strongly tinted with the veiled eroticism which is present in all of her longer novels. These heroines definitely all have hidden depths, and their male counterparts tend to be of the smoldering passion, glance-full-of-meaning type. Nothing to make one even blush, but it’s definitely there.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize. No masterpieces here, but it definitely should be on the shelf of every McKinley fan. I find myself rereading this one every so often; one day I’ll replace my battered ex-library paperback discard with a better, preferably hardcover copy. So – probably a recommendation, if you need it!

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the raven boys maggie steifvaterThe Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater ~ 2012. This edition: Scholastic Press, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-545-42492-9. 409 pages.

My rating: It’s complicated. I’m giving it a 7/10, pending the next installment. Stiefvater’s a very fine wordsmith, and she’s showing some lovely talent here, but there were some issues I couldn’t ignore which had nothing to do with excellent quality of the prose.

If you want to read a proper review, the internet is alive with them. Goodreads has an abundance – over 7000 ratings and 2000 reviews. The ones I read on the first page alone were very nicely done indeed, so I won’t duplicate those here.

Here’s the blurb from the dustjacket; it’s as good an explanation of the premise of this book as any:

“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

From Maggie Stiefvater, the bestselling and acclaimed author of the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races, comes a spellbinding new series where the inevitability of death and the nature of love lead us to a place we’ve never been before.

*****

And here are some ratings and personal opinions I’m jotting down, because I feel like I have to say something.

I liked this book. I didn’t love it, though. Steifvater’s last book, 2011’s The Scorpio Races – I think I can honestly say I loved that one. So my expectations for The Raven Boys, while high, were reasonable. I figured that this next one would be below the crest of the previous wave, and I was right.

So The Raven Boys was better than I’d really expected, but the author is going off an a totally different tangent here, and it’s a bit soon to see what the end result will be. With a four-book cycle projected, it could either get even better (oh, yes please!) or deteriorate. I can’t call it at this point. But I definitely would recommend The Raven Boys to the YA fantasy/paranormal romance crowd. I’m not in that demographic, though I do enjoy the odd well-crafted tale from the genre, but I appreciated this book enough to spend the better part of Christmas Day very happily power-reading through it.

Opening Chaper: 10/10. Nice set-up. Once a year, on St. Mark’s Eve, the dead-to-be – all those will die in the coming year – are visible as spirit manifestations along the mystical “corpse road”, to those with the psychic powers to penetrate the veil between the spirit and living world.  The members of the extended family of (all female) psychics living together in a rambling old house in Henrietta, Virginia have those powers. All except for a non-gifted daughter, 16-year-old Blue. Blue comes along because her one power is that she “boosts” the psychic powers of the others. In her many years tagging along on St. Mark’s Eve, she’s never seen one of the will-be-deads. Except tonight, when one boy appears to her and names himself – “Gansey.” When Blue finds out that this vision means Gansey is either her true love, or she will be the cause of his death, she files that startling bit of news with her other long-held bit of foreboding knowledge: if she kisses her true love, he will die. Needless to say, this severely cramps Blue’s style romance-wise. Too bad she’s about to meet some very tempting potential lovers – the Raven Boys – a group of four friends from the town’s exclusive boys’ school. One of whom is named, inevitably, Gansey.

Characterizations: 10/10 for the heroic leads – Blue and Raven Boys Gansey and Adam. A meager 6/10 for the villains – Whelk (“Whelk”?! Seriously?) and Adam’s brutal father. Too obviously bad. No shadings. The ones who we’re not sure of – Ronan and Neeve – let’s give them an 8/10. Could go up or down. Raven Ghostly Boy Noah – he started out as a 2 or something like that, crawled up to about a 7 or 8 once he started to de- and re-materialize and his whispers showed his sense of graveyard humour.

Family Stuff: We had the range, from really pretty tight and reasonably awesome (Blue’s, Gansey’s, Noah’s) to dysfunctional but trying hard (Ronan’s) to literally call-the-cops terrible (Adam’s). So I’ll give a 9/10. Lost a point for the convenient but kind of annoying extreme wealth of Ronan’s and Gansey’s tribes. (Sure, it’s just jealousy.) Oh – and the missing father (Blue’s) who I’m sure will turn out to be crucially crucial in a later episode – duly noted that he’s in the mix and will likely show up in person.

The Quest: 4/10. Ley lines and the North American burial-place of a mythically sleeping, potentially wish-granting Welsh King – meh. Cop out, Maggie. I’m a bit jaded with the whole Celtic mythology thing. Couldn’t you make something up? Or use some North American-based folklore?

Neat Little Details: 10/10 – Gansey’s choice of ride, the ’73 Camaro – unexpected. Especially the detail about the car perpetually smelling like gas. They really do. Verisimilitude = perfect points. The helicopter pilot sister – nice and handy. I liked. The warehouse digs. Very cool. Blue’s personal style. The “normal” of the matter-of-fact acceptance of Maura being the “town medium”. The psychic hotline.

The Pacing: 5/10. Pretty darned slow. I know it’s setting up the back story for – get this – THREE more books, but it felt like molasses on a cold January day. (And I’m a fast reader.) I wish this could be cleaned up, tightened up somehow. Less is so often more. (But I know how hard it is to edit – look at the horribly long reviews I write. It’s a definite fault in a professional she-gets-paid-for-it writer, though. Don’t get me started on J.K. Rowling’s too-much-detail verbosity in the later Harry Potter books.)

Sexual Tension: Oh, let’s see. About a 20/10. That should keep the main fan base (teen girls) fully engaged. No kissing allowed because of the whole death thing, so every tiny touch is magnified about a million-fold. Is it hot in here? Why yes, yes, it certainly is. Oh yes.

Annoying Little Things: The Latin-speaking trees. The baby raven – “Chainsaw”. Too cute. The backhoe in the last chapter. Too unlikely – I’m sure someone would notice the inevitable disturbance left by the amateur operator. The whole time-shift thing, because it wasn’t really that well done or, quite frankly, all that believable. The fact that the cops couldn’t seem to find Noah’s car, though you’d think that after they were tipped off to the human remains they’d be doing a fairly wide sweep through the woods. Just maybe? Other stuff I can’t be bothered to type out. So a 3/10 for those bits.

The Ending: Boo, hiss. Not exactly cliffhanger; more like “is a page missing?” Maddening. *** It. Just. Stops. *** C’mon. If it’s a great read, we’ll buy the next book even if you toss us some sort of a wrap-up to the action so far. The Dead Stop feels manipulative and disrespectful to the engaged reader. So a 1/10 for that.

The Actual Writing: It’s good. Very good. Plus it’s frequently very funny. 11/10. I think Stiefvater is already doing well, but I’m betting she can get even better. I’m rather disappointed that she’s doing such an ambitious series, because it feels really rambling already. I think the discipline of the solitary stand-alone novel (yes, like The Scorpio Races) would be a better way for her to refine her already more-than-decent style even more.

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archer's goon dianna wynne jones 001Archer’s Goon by Dianna Wynne Jones ~ 1984.This edition: Greenwillow Books (William Morrow & Co.), 1984. Hardcover. First American edition. ISBN:0-688-02582-X. 241 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Lost a point at the end. Alpha Centauri – seriously?! Total cop-out, DWJ! But that’s such a minor quibble – I loved this book – slyly humorous the whole way through.

*****

I came to reading Dianna Wynne Jones late in life. Like right now. Of course I’ve long since met Howl (with a very serious anime-fan kid how could I miss Miyazaki’s amazing Howl’s Moving Castle? – and of course we had to read the book – loved both versions – wow wow WOW!) – and the Chrestromanci books, but the yet-to-reads vastly outnumber the already-reads. I’m remedying that.

DWJ’s books were not among the choices in my school library growing up, or, if they were, I was completely unaware of them. We had very well-stocked libraries in my grade school days – times in B.C. were good and there was plenty of school district budget money for books and such, much more so than at present. Looking at the publication dates in DWJ’s Bibliography, I now realize that she really hit her stride after I’d left school, so that logically explains the DWJ-shaped blank spot in my childhood reading experience.

Anyway – Archer’s Goon. Good stuff. Where to start, where to start?

*****

AUTHOR’S NOTE

This book will prove the following ten facts:

  1. A Goon is a being who melts into the foreground and sticks there.
  2. Pigs have wings, making them hard to catch.
  3. All power corrupts, but we need electricity.
  4. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the result is a family fight.
  5. Music does not always soothe the troubled breast.
  6. An Englishman’s home is his castle.
  7. The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
  8. One black eye deserves another.
  9. Space is the final frontier, and so is the sewage farm.
  10. It pays to increase your word power.

Got that?

Not quite?

Don’t worry, by the time you’ve finished this story, you will.

So, ultra-brief review, because this is one you’ll want to discover for yourself and figure out as you go.

Thirteen-year-old Howard Sykes comes home from school one day and finds the kitchen full of Goon. Not just any Goon, but this one comes, or so he says, from Archer.

“We don’t know anyone called Archer!” Howard snapped.

The Goon grinned, a daft, placid grin. “Your dad does,” he said, and went back to cleaning his nails.

Turns out Mr. Sykes – Quentin – owes Archer something. Words. Two thousand of them. The quarterly payment hasn’t reached its destination, and Archer is peeved, hence the Goon.

Howard, his little sister Anthea (known widely and appropriately as Awful), au pair Fifi, and Howard and Awful’s mother Catriona are stumped by this strange situation, and things just get more complicated when Quentin arrives. Disclaiming knowledge of anyone named Archer, he miffily remarks that Mountjoy gets the words, and that they were sent on time.

Tracking down the missing words, and the reason they are in such apparently high demand, brings Howard and the rest of the Sykes family into a strange parallel world, and puts them all at the mercy of the mysterious beings who “farm” different sections of the town infrastructure: Archer (Finances and Power, ie. Electricity), Hathaway (Roads, Records and Archives), Dillian (Law and Order), Shine (Industry and Crime), Torquil (Music, Religion, Sports and Commerce), Erskine (Water, Drains and Garbage) and Venturus (Housing, Education and Technology).

The human characters are outstanding, and family relationships (of all sorts) are a key focus of this wonderful story. Don’t let the “kid’s book” designation put you off – it’s a grand read for adults, and very, very funny.

I’m stopping right here, but if you want to know more, the internet abounds with rave reviews. Here are two good places to start.

Jenny’s Books – Archer’s Goon

Green Man – Archer’s Goon

Did I say highly recommended yet? If so, I repeat it. Highly recommended.

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The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton ~ 1961. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1984. Softcover. Illustrated by Patsy Berton. ISBN: 0-7710-1386-8. 159 pages.secret world of og cover pierre berton 001

My rating: 6/10. It has its moments, hence the rather generous “6” rating, but I’ve been exposed to Og three times now and I’m still not a complete convert. Sorry, Pierre. And Patsy. This one is a cute Berton family in-joke, and I appreciate your sharing it with the country at large, but my personal enthusiasm for Og and its viridian denizens remains restrained.

*****

My first exposure to this Canadian children’s “classic” was back in the early 1970s, when a keen grade school teacher read it out loud to our class over a series of afternoon reading breaks.

This tweaks my memory – does anyone else from B.C. remember those after-lunch U.S.S.R. periods – Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading? Occasionally these would morph into read-aloud sessions, to the great joy of most of the students in the class, except for those few of us hardcore bookworms who would really have preferred to be left alone to focus openly and with official permission on our own reading choices.

I even remember the book I was sneakily perusing as the teacher read Og. I was deeply engrossed in Jade by Sally Watson – an absolutely marvellous book about an upper-class teenage girl who ends up crewing on a pirate ship, with a desperately swoony captain <ah, sigh>  – a saga which I remember with great fondness and which I always meant to track down for sentimental reasons and to share with my own daughter, but which I haven’t yet gotten my adult hands on. Gosh, Sally Watson was (is! – now in her eighties, she’s still writing away, last time I heard) a wonderful writer. But I totally digress. Back to Mr. Berton’s fantasy-land.

I caught bits and pieces of Og but nothing that made me close my own book and listen with great attention. Little green people in a tunnel. And some dead rabbits. That’s about all that stuck.

Years later, as a mother gleefully equipping a children’s library for my own book-loving youngsters, The Secret World of Og kept showing up on all the “best books to share with your Canadian kids” lists I came across. “Well, why not?” I thought. “So many recommendations can’t be wrong.” So Og was duly acquired, in the great big edition illustrated profusely and with more enthusiasm than finesse (Camberwell Art School regardless) by Pierre Berton’s now grown up daughter Patsy.

secret world of og pierre patsy berton 001

Our own attempted Og read-aloud session died an early death, as the book was replaced after only an evening or two by Kipling’s Just So Stories, which were a much greater hit with the listeners. Og was soon buried in the stacks, and eventually packed away out of sight. I found it again just last week when I was nostalgically going through boxes of children’s artwork and old lesson papers, preparatory to discarding most of them. Og was a the very bottom of a pile of Grade 3 math worksheets, which was quite a few years ago now. We hadn’t even missed it, or thought about it in the meantime, which is a rather telling state of affairs concerning a book in this household.

“Aha!” I thought. “This will be perfect for the Canadian Reading Challenge! Classic Canadian author, quickie-reading kid’s story – how can I go wrong?”

So, third time lucky, I have finally read The Secret World of Og with my full attention focussed on it, fully prepared, after Captive Reader Claire’s enthusiastic review, to find it at long last quite wonderful myself.

Oh, dear. It wasn’t to be. I liked it well enough, and I can see why others love it, but it still didn’t totally 100% click with me.

I happily admit that I laughed out loud at the best bits: the hilarious Lucy Lawless titles, the marvelous relationship between Paul (the Polliwog), his Pablum, and Earless Osdick the cat, and Yukon King, the small dog who thinks he’s a huge husky. A continually witty commentary comes very obviously straight from Father (our Mr. Berton himself), but I just couldn’t bring myself to much very care for those darned annoying children. And Og itself isn’t a much of a fantasy world, nothing like Alice’s rabbit hole, or the secret rooms of Mary Norton’s Borrowers, both of which seem to have influenced this Berton family fairy tale.

Here’s the story in brief.

The five Berton children – Penny, Pamela, Patsy, Peter, and Paul (aka the Pollywog) – have a playhouse in the woods. One day Pamela looks up from her comic book to see a very small, very sharp saw outlining a trapdoor in the playhouse floor. A small green creature pops up, looks at her, and promptly disappears. Pamela, living in a world of imagination most of the time, and well used to the scornful dismissal of those around her to her observations about unlikely things, neglects to tell anyone about this.

Until, that is, the afternoon when the Polliwog is left alone in the playhouse for a few moments, and vanishes, along with Osdick, into what seems to be thin air. Pamela remembers the trapdoor then, and the siblings manage to worry it open and descend into what turns out to be a tunnel leading underground, to a land surrounding a luminescent river and forests of coloured mushrooms, and populated by hundreds of little green people whose only word appears to be “Og”. Pause for much rambling on about the details of all of this.

The cat is destined for the butcher block; the locals think he is some sort of exotic rabbit, (which quadruped they much love to eat, having discovered the gourmet glories of mushrooms with rabbit sauce); the Polliwog is, as usual, in jail. Needless to say a rescue is effected and everyone returns to the surface in one piece. And that is that.

*****

Some of you might remember the headlines a few years ago, shortly before the revered Pierre Berton’s death at the age of 84 in 2004, when he stated, in a CBC television interview, that he had been recreationally smoking marijuana “since the sixties”. Though he insisted that he didn’t use it when he was “working”, the trippy aspect of the World of Og suddenly looks a little suspicious of something more than mere fatherly imagination!

Okay, okay, I apologize for casting such aspersions. (If you could see me, you’d know that I’m grinning like mad in a conciliatory way right now.) Pierre Berton was awesome; he wrote great books, and by and large was a worthy Canadian literary icon. But you have to kind of wonder… 😉

Some bits of this book are absolutely brilliant; much of it is truly very funny. Give it a look, decide for yourself. Me, maybe I’ll pack it far away again and bring it out to try on the (very much speculative at this point in time) grandchildren. Or maybe not. 🙂

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farewell summer ray bradburyFarewell Summer by Ray Bradbury ~ 2006. This edition: Harper Collins, 2007. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-06-113155-4. 198 pages.

My rating: 8/10. The old Bradbury magic was still in fine working order, in this the last of his published full-length novels. It is really more of a novella; a sequel of sorts to 1957’s Dandelion Wine, picking up with young protagonist Douglas Spaulding in that famously faraway October of 1929.

It took a few pages to settle into Bradbury’s randomly rambling narrative, but once I found the groove the journey was smooth and honey-sweet.

*****

Doug Spalding is thirteen, and poised rebelliously on the edge of a looming maturity, digging his heels in desperately against the advance of time. The old people of the town (barring Grandmother and Grandfather, exempt from their joining their peers in the minds of Doug and younger brother Tim by reason of long familiarity and familial love) are seen as the enemies of the young; especially the four ancient members of the school board, who plot to steal Youth’s time and force the golden boys and girls into the ranks of the elders in their turn.

A war erupts between Doug and his cohorts, and the staid elders of the town, headed by Mr. Calvin C. Quartermain, eighty-one and hanging on to life with both hands even more fiercely after the sudden death of one of his fellow school board members, triggered (possibly) by the actions of one of the boys. The battle takes on epic proportions (though mostly in their collective minds, young and old alike) and is fought with and amongst chessmen and clock towers and haunted houses, until Doug is unexpectedly undone by that age-old adversary of careless youth, the siren song of love.

The very essence of a magical boyhood is conjured up in Ray Bradbury’s vivid words. Visiting the town’s candy shop to prepare for a sacrificial ceremony, the boys find

… honey … sheathed in warm African chocolate. Plunged and captured in the amber treasure lay fresh Brazil nuts, almonds, and glazed clusters of snowy coconut. June butter and August wheat were clothed in dark sugars. All were crinkled in folded tin foil, then wrapped in red and blue papers that told the weight, ingredients and manufacturer. In bright bouquets the candies lay, caramels to glue the teeth, licorice to blacken the heart, cherry wax bottles filled with sickening mint and strawberry sap, Tootsie Rolls to hold like cigars, red-tipped chalk-mint cigarettes for chill mornings when your breath smoked on the air …(D)iamonds to crunch, fabulous liquors to swig. Persimmon-colored pop bottles swam, clinking softly, in the Nile waters of the refrigerated box, its waters cold enough to cut your skin…

Meanwhile, among the old men, Bleak says to Quartermain:

“You remind me of the perceptive asylum keeper who claimed that his inmates were mad. You’ve only just discovered that boys are animals? … We live in a country of the young. All we can do is wait until some of these sadists hit nineteen, then truck them off to war.  Their crime? Being full up with orange juice and spring rain. Patience. Someday soon you’ll see them wander by with winter in their hair…”

The young and old battle with their various metaphorical and actual weapons and eventually make a truce of sorts, as disguises are penetrated and eyes meet and recognize each other under the superficial masks which time has imposed.

An unusual and beautifully written book, likely best appreciated by those whom, at whatever age, have been brought up short by the stranger’s face in the mirror and the sudden realization that the eyes alone are as remembered.

This writer is often thought of as an author for youth, but I think his older readers will appreciate the true poignancy which lies behind the surface stories. This book is for the already-converted, and for those I will say highly recommended.

New to Ray Bradbury? I’d advise you to perhaps start instead with The Martian Chronicles, or some of the short story collections. You’ll need to adjust your brain to his unique voice and way of thinking to make sense of the kind of coloured crystal envisionings which he occasionally indulged in, and which Farewell Summer is a prime example of.

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