Posts Tagged ‘YA Fiction’

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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Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones ~ 1985. This edition: Greenwillow, 2002. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-06-029885-5. 420 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Half point off because of the typical DWJ ending – a re-read and an explanation by the author almost mandatory. Maddening. So close to perfect!

*****

This one took two tries. The first time I didn’t make it 20 pages in, but the second go, several months later, I was completely enthralled. I knew I would like it (I always end up liking Diana Wynne Jones, but sometimes I really need to work at it), but that the timing would need to be just right. Hit it perfectly, obviously.

Okay, here we go. This is a book that deserves a long, scholarly explanation, but I will try to keep it fairly brief – I need to work on that – brevity – I really tend to ramble on. Stream of consciousness typing. Heh.

College student Polly Whittaker lies on her bed in her room in her grandmother’s house and muses on a number of things. On the coming academic year; on the mysterious photograph on her wall which she has loved since childhood – hay bales burning in a field, with a huge hemlock plant enveloped in smoke in the foreground – as a child Polly remembers seeing people in the picture, but that was surely youthful imagination, because they certainly aren’t there now; and on the book of stories she’s been reading, another childhood favourite, except that the stories are not quite as she remembered. Growing up is so dreary, Polly sighs to herself; you see things as they are.

Or do you?

As she muses and digs deeper in her mind, Polly begins to remember more details that certainly can’t – couldn’t possibly – have happened. But there they are, that second set of memories, emerging from the hidden recesses of her mind and forming as she thinks about them. This set of memories begins at the age of ten, with the meeting of Tom at the funeral…

Flashback! And we’re off. Polly now remembers meeting a rather shy, mildly dreary young man at a neighbour’s house where she has inadvertently trespassed into an after-the-funeral will reading. Tom had looked over at Polly, realized that she really shouldn’t be there, and inconspicuously spirited her away, out of the house. The two are immediately and deeply attracted to each other in some elemental way, though Polly is, as I mentioned earlier, a child of ten, and Tom Lynn is an adult. He’s a musician, a cellist in an orchestra in London, and after returning Polly to her grandmother’s house, with the fire and hemlock picture which he has given Polly from his share of his just-announced inheritance – six pictures – he vanishes from her everyday life, though a letter soon comes from him, and the two then embark on a running epistolary narrative, with Polly reinventing herself as a Hero, or rather, assistant-Hero, to the Tom figure she has embellished into a heroic crusader-for-goodness, Tan Coul.

They write, and occasionally meet, while Polly’s life goes through some shattering events, such as the separation of her parents and her mother’s disastrous relationships with new men; Polly fortunately has a haven in her grandmother’s house, and keeps emotionally afloat though we wouldn’t blame her if she gave up and let herself drown in misery; awful things happen, many of them fantastically unlikely.

This book is, by the author’s own explanation, deeply influenced by a number of legendary tales: Tam Lin is the most obvious, with Polly obviously taking on the role of Janet, and Tom Lynn the doomed hero whom she saves from the sacrificial rites of faeryland. We also have Thomas the Rhymer, who cannot speak a lie, the gift-curse of his particular faery queen; for our tale’s Tom this becomes the gift/curse of whatever Tom imagines taking on reality. Tom’s faery queen is his divorced wife Laurel, an ominous figure who maintains her grasp on Tom even though they are supposed to have parted ways. The Odyssey is in there,  with Tom/Odysseus journeying through the years and often being seduced away from his faithful Polly/Penelope labouring away at home; Cupid and Psyche, and the tragedy of Psyche’s curiosity separating her from her true love; and eventually and most hard to pick up on, unless tipped off by the author’s explanation, as I was, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and this stanza:

In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
       You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
       You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
       You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
       You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And this bit:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Confused? Trust me, it will make sense when you get to the last chapter, and chaos ensues, and nothing seems to work by the rules you think you know about, about Janet clinging to Tam Lin to bring about his salvation. Something very different happens.

This is really a non-review, an un-review; you need to read this book, and, if you are in the right time and space, it will be perfect for you, and you will love it. If not, set it aside, for weeks, months, years – but do give it a second try. This may be Diana Wynne Jones masterpiece; the book which elevates her considerable body of work to the next level, to something beyond juvenile fantasy to a very mature level indeed.

(It also works beautifully as a plain and simple story, though that darned ending rather knocks the unwary reader down.)

And once you’ve read the book – and NOT before – read the author’s thoughts on Fire and Hemlock here, in an essay called The Heroic Ideal – A Personal Odyssey
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Here are some more reviews you will appreciate, because the writers give proper plot summaries (unlike my wishy-washy avoidance of doing so) starting with the one which contains the links to The Heroic Ideal, copied above:

Two Sides to Nowhere – Fire and Hemlock

Valentina’s Room – Fire and Hemlock

Jenny’s Books – Fire and Hemlock

Shelf Love – Fire and Hemlock

A Musical Feast – Fire and Hemlock (a more critical review, worth reading because it puts into words the bothersome flaws in DWJ’s technique)

This is just a small sampling. Happy reading!

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M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman ~ 2007. This edition: Harper Collins, 2007. First Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-1186424-4. 260 pages.

My rating: 8/10. It’s Neil Gaiman – what else can I say? When he’s good, he’s great. Some of his stuff is a bit out there and twisty for my squeamish comfort, but mostly I’m a solid fan.

But I disagree with the marketing angle for this collection – this is not a book for children. The true audience here is teens and up, in my opinion. Some of the reference are totally aimed at adults. Not to say kids shouldn’t read this – not at all! Like most of Ray Bradbury’s work, whom this collection was inspired by according to Gaiman’s forward, the fact that some of the stuff is over their heads will be immaterial.

None of the material in this book is original to it; the pieces have all been published in other anthologies and collections, with the exception of  The Witch’s Headstone, which is an excerpt from and a teaser for The Graveyard Book, which was about to be published the next year, 2008,  and Gaiman’s Introduction.

*****

  • Introduction ~ “When I was a boy, Ray Bradbury picked stories from his books of short stories he thought younger readers might like, and he published them in R is for Rocket and S is for Space. Now I was doing the same thing, and I asked Ray if he’d mind if I called this book M is for Magic. (He didn’t.) M is for Magic. All the letters are, if you put them together properly. You can make magic with them, and dreams, and, I hope, even a few surprises…” ~ Neil Gaiman, August 2006
  • The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds ~ 1984 ~ A take-off on the hardboiled detective story, a la Dashiell Hammett. The main conceit here is that the characters are nursery rhyme figures. Meh. Cute idea, but it doesn’t really work. (Starting on a low point. Don’t worry, it gets better.) 5/10.
  • Troll Bridge ~ 1993 ~ Omigosh. Angst Alert! A boy encounters a troll at the tender age of seven and bargains successfully for his life. But if you live long enough things may just come full circle. 8/10.
  • Don’t Ask Jack ~ 1995 ~ A pointless little vignette featuring a jack-in-the-box and Time. Methinks the author was reading too much Bradbury before he penned this one. 6/10.
  • How to Sell the Ponti Bridge ~ 1985 ~ Okay, now we’re warming up. The story of the perfect scam, and how to turn lust and greed back on itself. And I award this one a  perfect 10/10.
  • October in the Chair ~ 2002 ~ The Months are telling stories. Beautiful set up, and one of those endings which leaves you just hanging there gasping in mid-air. Nice. 9/10.
  • Chivalry ~ 1993 ~ Mrs. Whitaker finds the Holy Grail in an Oxfam Shop, and things get interesting. Gorgeous! And very funny.  Another 10/10.
  • The Price ~ 1997 ~ This one bothered me, being a cat person. An adopted Black Cat apparently guards his human family against the devil, but the battle is proving too much for him. Sad. 6/10.
  • How to Talk to Girls at Parties ~ 2006 ~ Vic and Enn crash the wrong party. These girls come from a long way away. 7/10.
  • Sunbird ~ 2005 ~ The Epicurean Club finds a new and mostly fatal dining experience. A strangely entrancing tale. 8/10.
  • The Witch’s Headstone ~ 2007 ~ An excerpted chapter from the yet-to-be-published (at the time of this collection) Graveyard Book. Young Bod falls in with the ghost of a witch, and does the perfect thing. 10/10.
  • Instructions ~ 2000 ~ A poem lays out the fairytale guide to life’s journey. 11/10. (No, that’s not a typo. Love this one that much. Hmm, maybe I should post it.)

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt ~ 2012. This edition: Random House, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-06796-4419-4. 355 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Very nicely done, especially for a first novel.

I’m sure this one will deeply appeal to the YA crowd, though I found it in the Adult section of the library. There’s nothing here that a modern teen couldn’t handle with one hand tied between her (or his, though this feels rather like a girl’s book, if I may be so bold as to stereotype it) back.

*****

I’m considering tagging this one historical fiction, because the sense of a very particular time is so strong, and it captures those early days of the AIDS epidemic so well, when we were all more than a little scared and confused, and traded rumours in whispers. The story is set in 1987, twenty-five years ago.

The internet is swarming with reviews on this one; I’ll try to keep this simple.

Young June Elbus, fourteen years old and deeply embroiled in the angst of adolescence, has one person she can count on unconditionally, her Uncle Finn. Finn, a renowned painter, now leads a semi-reclusive life in New York; he hasn’t exhibited anything for years, though he is still painting. He’s working, in fact, on a dual portrait of June and her older sister Greta.

The portrait is of supreme importance to everyone concerned; it is likely the last work Finn will ever complete, for he is dying of that mysterious and deadly new disease, AIDS.

Finn’s sister, June’s mother, is brutally shaken by Finn’s death early on in the story, as she has some unfinished business with her brother. She vents her anger at Finn’s lover, the unknown man who she claims has deliberately infected Finn and who is now, in her eyes, his murderer.

June has some baggage of her own. She has been secretly in love – full-blown romantic love – with her uncle, a middle-aged gay man (and June knows this), who, to further complicate things, is June’s godfather. The two share a deeply emotional connection, though Finn has many secrets which June is only to find out about after his death.

With Finn’s demise, and the entry of the mysterious lover, Toby, into the plot, things crank up a notch, and the narrative moves from completely believable to slightly fantastic, in the stretching-of-belief-and-probability sort of fantastic. But it makes for a good story, so allowances can easily be made.

All in all, a very likeable, suitably complex heroine and an interesting plot. I did find it quite predictable in many ways; people did what I thought they would, and the big secrets were telegraphed fairly clearly; clues were distributed with a generous hand.

Beautifully written, with an abundance of heart-tugging emotion. Though I didn’t personally tear up at all, old cynic that I am, as so many of the reviwers over on Goodreads did.

What else?

Good handling of the gay characters; this can be hard to get right without straying, even unintentionally, into parody, and I think Brunt did a very good job with that.

Absolutely gorgeous cover, which reflects the excellent content within. One to share with your teens, and borrow to read yourself.

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The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery ~ 1911. This edition: 1st World Library, 2007. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4218-4202-8. 312 pages.

My rating: 9/10. What a delicious period piece. Loved it! Why have I not read this one before?

Beautifully evocative of golden childhood summers in a faraway time. Sweet, but never cloying; the very human children keep it real.

*****

An absolutely charming set piece about a group of cousins and friends spending a mostly idyllic summer together on Prince Edward Island.

The narrator is a grown man, Beverley King, looking back on his childhood, when he and his brother Felix travelled from their home in Toronto to spend the summer on the old family farm while their widowed father travelled to Rio de Janeiro on business. They are to stay with their Aunt Janet and Uncle Alec, and cousins Felicity, Cecily and Dan. Nearby is another motherless cousin, Sara Stanley, living with her Uncle Roger and Aunt Olivia, with a father in Paris. Uncle Roger’s hired boy, Peter Craig, and a neighbourhood friend, Sara Ray, round out the group of children.

Nothing much happens in this book, but the days are nonetheless filled to the brim with interesting incidents. The cousins and friends do their chores, play, squabble and run wild as often as they are able. They are generally good children, but not unreasonably so, and their numerous falls from grace drive the narrative, along with the endless succession of tales told by cousin Sara Stanley, the self-named Story Girl, who has an endless collection of anecdotes from a myriad of sources – local and family fables, legends, fairy tales and Greek myths – something for every occasion. Gifted with a natural dramatic ability, Sara Stanley could “make the multiplication table sound fascinating”, as she does on one memorable occasion.

Observant, restless Bev; chubby, sensitive Felix; self-confident, proud Dan;  beautiful, bossy, domestically talented Felicity; sober, stubborn, peace-loving Cecily; plain, imaginative Sara Stanley; over-protected, tear-prone Sara Ray; self-sufficient, passionate Peter – these are the eight personalities which make up the core group, though other family members and friends – and a few animals – take their part as well. Ranging in age from eleven up into the early teens, glimpses of the young men and women the children will become are very much in evidence, though childhood emotions and interests still hold sway.

Tragic (and joyful) family love affairs, a mysterious locked blue chest filled with a disappointed bride’s prize possessions, magic seeds, poison berries, various “hauntings”, a neighbourhood “witch woman”, reports of the end of the world, a competition regarding dreams, adolescent crushes, a brush or two with death – all of these (and more) serve to add spice to this halcyon summer, looked back on with fond memory by the adult narrator. A few clues as to what the future holds are given – hired boy Peter is deeply in love with beautiful, scornful Felicity; the Story Girl will perform before royalty in Europe – but by and large the narrator stays focussed on that brief time between heedless childhood and care-filled adult life.

*****

This book, along with The Golden Road, The Chronicles of Avonlea and The Further Chronicles of Avonlea, was the basis for a highly successful CBC-Disney television series co-production, Road to Avonlea, which was widely broadcast from 1990 to 1996. I completely missed this one, having by then entered my “no television” years, but reports by L.M. Montgomery aficionados claim that the show departed drastically from the books, both in characters and plot. Canadian actress (and now screenwriter and film director) Sarah Polley played the Story Girl in the series.

The Story Girl is followed by The Golden Road, another Montgomery book which has been on my shelf for some time, but which I have also not yet read – I will be remedying that this winter. If it is as charming and amusing as The Story Girl, I am in for another nostalgic literary treat.

Read-Aloud: The Story Girl would likely work well as a Read-Aloud for ages about 8 and up – there will be some rather long-winded parts here and there as episodes as set up, so you may need to self edit depending on your listeners. A few of the stories are a wee bit gruesome – in one reference a lost child is found the following spring as only a “SKELETON –  with grass growing through it”; ghosts are often referred to; there is a neighbourhood eccentric thought by the children to be a witch – if you are at all concerned over such themes it would be best to read ahead a bit to see if the material is acceptable to your listener’s sensibilities. Many references to and some plots centered on religion. All very era-appropriate. Nothing too extreme, in my opinion, but you may want to preview, especially before starting this with younger children.

Read-Alone: For reading alone, this one is most likely best for older children, say 11 or 12, to adult.

The largest challenge the reader will find themselves faced with, though, is envisioning, or, in the case of a Read Aloud, replicating the Story Girl’s magical talent for tale telling. Good luck! (And enjoy.)

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Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery ~ 1937. This edition: Bantam Books (Seal), 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-2314-0. 217 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Jane Victoria Stuart is one of the more likeable young heroines in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s repertoire. Great gaps in believability here and there, but overall an engaging tale for romantic souls from youth (say 12-ish) to adult.

*****

Jane Victoria Stuart is eleven years old, and for eight of those years, the years she can remember, she has lived in a huge mansion in Toronto with her extremely wealthy, emotionally frigid grandmother and her delicately beautiful, weak-willed mother. As far as she knows her father is dead. He is never mentioned, except in snidely allusive references by her grandmother to “Victoria’s” tainted ancestry as demonstrated by her “low” tastes – a desire to cook and fraternize with the housekeeper in the warmly cozy kitchen, and a friendship with the young maid-of-all-work in the boarding house next door.

Grandmother makes no secret of her distaste for Jane Victoria – every creature comfort is provided but emotional needs go unfulfilled. Jane, as she secretly calls herself in defiance of her grandmother’s preferred Victoria, shares a deep love with her mother, but open demonstrativeness is impossible – even a glance or a motherly caress is deeply resented by bitter and jealous grandmother, who clings to her own daughter with fierce possessiveness.

The days go by uneventfully, and the future stretches forth relentlessly, until a chance taunt by a schoolmate reveals a secret which has been hidden from Jane by her grandmother and mother. Her father is not dead, but very much alive, and her mother is neither widowed or divorced but rather in a limbo of estrangement, unable to move either forward or back in the restricted social life engineered by the household matriarch.

Jane confronts her mother with the news and asks if it is true, and in one of her rare human moments Grandmother apologizes to Jane for keeping the secret for so long. But now that you know, consider him as dead, she orders Jane, and Jane solemnly and willingly agrees – this man who has abandoned her and made her mother so miserable is best forgotten.

Imagine Jane’s dismay when a letter comes soon after from Prince Edward Island, requesting Jane’s presence at her father’s summer residence over the summer holidays. With great trepidation Jane sets off into the unknown and greatly dreaded wider world.

Needless to say, everything works out, and happy endings abound. But before we get to them there are a number of little dramas which must be worked through, some more unbelievably than others.

A really nice heroine, practical and earnest and well-deserving of the good things which eventually come her way. Give this one to your pre-teen daughters, but don’t forget to read it yourself; mildly melodramatic and ultimately very satisfying.

Might make a good read-aloud, for ages maybe 8 and up. Marital troubles and divorce are central plot themes, as is emotional abuse by Jane’s grandmother, but these are necessary to the building of tension in the storyline. Rather reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess in mood, I thought, including the improbable (but most satisfactory) way everything clicks into place in the end. No loose threads – all neat and tidy! Jane would approve.

Disney made a movie of this one a few years back, which I’ve not seen, but apparently it departs wildly from the original story and is not recommended by aficionados of the book.

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The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff ~ 2009. This edition: Viking-Penguin, 2009. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-670-02099-7. 214 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. A fast little read. Fairly typical “young adult” adventure-romance, but a well-written and nicely plotted example of its genre.

The author’s name sounded familiar, and looking on her list of previous titles I realize I already own and some years ago read one of her earlier books, How I Live Now. Must delve around for that one – it was quite different in setting – fictional post-apocalyptic Britain versus vaguely historical Industrial Revolution Britain.

I’m tagging this one “alternative world” because though the setting has many real world parallels, it doesn’t feel quite right in a historical sense; it is apparently set in the 1850s, but is almost medieval, or possible mid 1700s, in some of the incidents, and how the people think, talk and live. (Or maybe it is quite historically correct, and the disconnect is just my own take.) For much of the book I was wondering if this was perhaps set in post-modern times, in a newly primitive society, and that was even before I made the How I Live Now connection.

*****

On the morning of August the twelfth, eighteen hundred and fifty something, on the day she was to be married, Pell Ridley crept up from her bed in the dark, kissed her sisters goodbye, fetched Jack in from the wind and rain on the heath, and told him they were leaving. Not that he was likely to offer any objections, being a horse.

Though Pell sincerely loves and respects her childhood sweetheart Birdie, she is repelled by the thought of what marriage means: a subservient position versus her present equality as Birdie’s tomboyish companion, a life of continual pregnancy and childbirth, and the speedy degradation of her body, as typified by her own mother’s sorry example. The morning of her marriage, Pell sneaks out of the family cottage with her few possessions, and accompanied by her horse Jack and her small mute brother Bean, heads into the unknown.

Pell has no real plan but to escape, though she feels that she might find employment at Salisbury Fair, so that is where she heads, narrowly missing discovery by her father who has headed there as well to seek out his errant children. An itinerant fire-and-brimstone preacher, Joe Ridley has a compulsive weakness for strong drink and womanizing, and his neglect of his family has been the root cause of Pell’s decision to flee.

Pell and Bean fall in with a fatherless Gypsy family, and meet with a certain amount of kindness from strangers during their days at Salisbury, though by the end of the fair this hopeful beginning has come to nought. Pell has been stiffed by the man who employed her to help choose some horses, and Bean and Jack have disappeared.

Bad turns quickly worse, as Pell desperately seeks her missing brother (and her horse); she eventually ends up spending the winter living in a shed beside a poacher’s woodland cottage. The poacher, never named but dubbed Dogman by Pell, is a mysterious, silent man who mostly ignores his desperate hanger-on, until she falls afoul of an amorous villager, whereupon Dogman rescues her, brings her into his home, and, inevitably, his bed.

The horse and the boy have their own adventures, and Pell eventually reconnects with both, as well as with two of her younger sisters.

Much angst, tragedy, and drama, and teasing gleams of romance. Pell of course has marvelous hidden abilities – a stereotypical necessity for a classic YA heroine – in her case an almost magical affinity for horses. This is a very horsey book, by the way. In quite a good way.

Suspend your disbelief – and oh, yes, you’ll need to! – and go along for the ride. Nicely diverting tale, for teens and adults. Rosoff gets my nod – good work. (Gorgeous cover, too.)

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Various Positions by Martha Schabas ~ 2011. This edition: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-374-38086-1. 325 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Reasonably readable, but left me feeling queasy.

*****

Well, my last review was of a sensitive coming-of-age novel set in the late 1930s, Maureen Daly’s deliciously sensuous Seventeenth Summer. I have just read the contemporary counterpart, young Torontonian Martha Schabas’ highly praised (and seemingly as often highly damned) first novel concerning a fourteen-year-old facing a similar turning point in her life. The two heroines couldn’t be more similar in their focus on themselves and their emerging womanhood, or more different in their morals and actions.

“It was like sex was in everything,” writes Martha Schabas in her deeply unsettling first novel, “lodged in men’s heads and drowning in women’s bodies.” The thought is given to Georgia, a 14-year-old student at the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy, whose increasingly fraught and confusing reactions to her own burgeoning sexuality lead her into a horribly inappropriate and dangerous interaction with the academy’s artistic director. Schabas is unforgiving in her examination of the way sex and ballet collide, often with terrible consequences for the young women who are too innocent to comprehend the nature of the forces they are trafficking in. No lazy moralist, Schabas lays bare the misunderstandings and insensitivities on all sides: the well-meaning adults who want nothing more than to help Georgia in large part end up making things much worse. The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said that being an artist means never averting your eyes. Schabas, to her enduring credit, resolutely refuses to do just that.

Steven. W. Beattie, Quill & Quire, November 14, 2011

First off, though I’ve tagged this story with a “dance” designation, it isn’t really about ballet. The dance academy background does allow for the extreme focus of the characters on themselves, their bodies, and the brutal competition between young teens to be better in every nuance than their peers, which is actively encouraged by the adults in charge of these fragile egos encased in steel-strong musculature tightly strung on still-growing bones and covered by the freshly dewy skin of early adolescence.

And though it’s also tagged “young adult”, and was found on the teen shelves at the library, I’m thinking it’s not really a story for many younger teens, even though the main character is just fourteen. There are very graphic passages describing pornography, and the pages of this deeply disturbing story are soaked in sex. Actual sex between teens, and the forbidden sexual yearnings between adolescents and adults. The student-teacher crush has doubtless existed since time immemorial, and has been frowned upon with very good reason. Outwardly repressed young Georgia is a seething mass of inner emotional conflicts, which find vent in the most inappropriate ways possible.

Here follow loads of spoilers.

Fourteen year old Georgia Slade is the daughter of an upper class, outwardly successful but deeply dysfunctional family. Her father Lawrence is a cold, emotionally distant psychiatric doctor who openly sneers at Georgia’s ballet fixation; her mother Lena is a much-younger university lecturer who became involved with Dr. Slade while in a student-professor position; their affair was the cause of Dr. Slade’s first marriage break-up. Lena is teetering on the edge of a mental and emotional breakdown; the marriage is fragile as eggshells and cold as ice. There is a vibrant, scholarly, Mediterranean first wife in the background, and a university student older stepsister, who turn out to be the most empathetic and likeable members of Georgia’s dreadful little world.

Georgia lives her life on a knife-edge, playing peacemaker and go-between at home, and carefully navigating the increasingly complicated waters of her school world. Everything there is all about peer pressure and implied and actual sexual relations; Georgia frigidly refuses to participate in any of the games, but is nonetheless very aware of the avid stares of the boys and the casual cruelty of the girls. The only place she can let down is in ballet class, though let down is perhaps an inapt term – Georgia’s quest for control and perfection have taken her to the head of her class, and her teacher recommends an audition with the prestigious Royal Ballet Academy.

Georgia passes her audition, and breathes a sigh of relief. Surely here there will be less focus on sex and more on the purity of the dance. To her dismay, the dancers are decidedly interested in all the usual teen girl preoccupations, including boys and sex. And Georgia now comes into contact with the cruelly demanding but physically attractive Roderick Allen, senior instructor and choreographer at the school.

As the dancers are pushed hard to achieve their highest potential, Roderick’s classes take on a special importance to Georgia. Every look, every fleetingly necessary placement touch from her instructor is analyzed and brooded upon, until she convinces herself that she and Roderick are involved in an unspoken mutual relationship. How best to bring it out into the open?

Georgia’s newly awakened curiosity about the possibilities of a sexual relationship with a much older man lead her – where else? – to the internet, where she discovers the pornographic permission for all sorts of illicit relationships. Looking at the poses of the nubile young women on her computer, Georgia is inspired to take similar self-portraits of herself. She prints these off, wraps them in her underwear, and, after confronting her instructor in his office with a passionate advance, slips the photos into his desk drawer.

Meanwhile a subplot has been going on regarding one of the other dancers. Not quite as slender as her peers, Chantal has been brought to tears by the comments of Roderick and the sneers of the inevitable clique of mean girls in the class. Georgia, in a mood of commiseration, decides to help Chantal out, and gives her advice on how best to starve herself to lose weight, information Georgia has used in her own turn to maintain her stick-thin dancer’s figure. Turns out Georgia has had a long-time obsession with Gelsey Kirkland, hardly a healthy role model, for all her undeniable talent and ethereal beauty.

Chantal comes back to school from Christmas break a mere skeleton of her former self; she is checked into an eating disorders clinic, and her parents talk of suing the Dance Academy. Roderick is pinpointed as the esteem-breaker of the students, and is under investigation on this matter when the photos of Georgia come to light, dramatizing the situation even further.

Roderick loses his job, and only avoids criminal prosecution by Georgia’s confession that she has made all the advances. Her parents separate, with Lena and Georgia moving to an apartment. Rejecting her stepsister’s caring advice, Georgia alienates herself from the one normal member of her family. She willingly surrenders her virginity to an old classmate at a drunken house party, and we find ourselves not really caring if her sexual inhibitions are fixed by this or not. Georgia leaves the Academy, and the last we see of her, she is auditioning for a place in yet another ballet school, along with none other than the very anorexic girl she previously “helped” into a hospital room.

There’s other stuff as well, but I think this is enough to give a broad picture of this dramatic little novel. What a soap opera!

*****

What are my conclusions regarding this one?

Well, first off, I’m not terribly bothered by all the sex. Teens, even those as young as (and often younger than) fourteen, think about, talk about, and (hide your eyes!) even have sex. We have no grounds to get all huffy and pretend that it’s not going on, because it is. It went on back in Maureen Daly’s time, it went on in my teenage years – and though I was one of the late bloomers myself, I had ears and eyes – nothing in Various Positions was all that shocking, seen it all before – and by golly, they’re still doing it today, albeit much more openly and possibly more inventively than in the immediately previous generations.

For every sexually precocious teen there are lots of more conservatively minded ones; from observing my own teen children’s friends and acquaintances I see the whole array, and I’m not seeing anything terribly worrisome – good sense is there in abundance, and our up and coming generation is fine and pure as gold in many ways.

Are the striving dancers painted as too competitive and cruel? No, not at all. My teen daughter has been heavily involved in dance for the last twelve years, and I’ve been privy to some shocking displays by the most sweetly innocent-looking creatures you can imagine. Again, this is not the norm – there is a wide range – but it certainly exists.

Anorexia and bulimia are still the elephants in the room; good teachers and studios deal openly with those issues, but the onus on private behaviour and how far to go does lie with the individuals. Dance, especially at the more advanced levels, can be a cruelly competitive world, especially if the career track is a possibility and a goal, and there are many pitfalls for even the best-nurtured teen in navigating that particular labyrinth. Bodies do matter tremendously, particularly in ballet, and the stick insects are still in vogue, thanks to Balanchine’s long reaching influence and his preference for the sylph-like form.

My biggest quibble was that I just did not like the character of Georgia. Even allowing for her dreadful home life, she made all the wrong choices, right up until the last pages. What was this obviously very bright, talented and focussed child thinking? Not just about the sexual thing with her teacher, but everything in her personal life seemed to have a serious kink. I’m not quite sure if this was deliberate, or if we’re supposed to understand the whys and wherefores and make allowances.

Martha Schabas certainly has writing talent, but I have some qualms at how she’s used it here. First novels are notoriously autobiographical, and much is made of the fact that Ms. Schabas seriously studied ballet herself, until being asked to leave the National Ballet School at age fifteen because of problems with her feet. While a number of critics have breathlessly gasped – and I here paraphrase – “How bold and daring! A courageous debut!” – I see instead perhaps something of an infatuation with the titillation of the sexual adventures of a Canadian Lolita-ballerina.

Would I give this book to my own sixteen-year-old dancer daughter? I had originally checked it out for her – she asked me to pick her up some interesting books, and this one looked like an easy winner. I read it and then offered it to her, and she asked what it was about, glanced through it and shrugged it off. “Too mainstream, too pop-fiction,” she said. “Too drama-queen for me.”

*****

And for the final word, to balance my rather dismissive review, here is Angela Hickman’s National Post review, from July 5, 2011, found here.

When Martha Schabas was five years old, she took her first ballet class, kicking off a decade of intense training and dreams of becoming a ballerina. Then, at 15, she was kicked out of the National Ballet School’s summer program for having bad feet — her arch wasn’t pronounced and she had a low instep. “I just didn’t fit into the ideal,” she says. “That very precise balletic ideal.”

Although she quit ballet after that, Schabas has now returned to the National Ballet School in her debut novel, Various Positions. Despite its setting and the balletic ambitions of Georgia, the 14-year-old central character, Schabas didn’t set out to write a ballet novel. Initially Georgia was older, but as Schabas started to dig into the issues of feminism that interested her, she says the character just started getting younger.

“I wanted to write about some facet of being a young woman in our so-called third wave feminist climate,” she says. From there, she adds, it made sense to place Georgia in a context that she was familiar with.

The novel opens in the middle of an unexplained disaster, with Georgia arriving at the ballet school in the morning and discovering it is closed for the day. Georgia feels responsible, but we don’t know what happened, which sets up a sense of dark uncertainty and unease that carries forward throughout the novel. After the initial scene, the story rewinds to the beginning before bringing us back to the steps of the school with a full understanding of what it is Georgia has done, and continuing forward into the aftermath.

But Schabas takes her time setting up Georgia’s life — her parents’ dysfunctional marriage, her idolization of her stepsister Isabel, and her all-consuming love of ballet. When Georgia is accepted into the National Ballet School, it is as if her life is just beginning. She wasn’t happy at her previous public school, where sex was starting to tint the air around her in a way she didn’t understand or like, and ballet seemed like a perfect escape from that.

“She starts off with this idea that she will pursue this very asexual, pre-adulthood aesthetic form of ballet, and that will be her means of staking out her own parameters for her body and for power,” Schabas says. “And then the real world slowly starts to seep back in: she’s inundated by ordinary, healthy teenage girls who have an interest in sex; she’s starting to piece together information about her parents’ marriage; she’s studying men on the subway and realizes that, you know, ‘I made a mistake. Ballet is not separate from sex. The two must go together because sex is in everything.’ ”

The tension between the body and power and sex propel the story forward as it climbs toward the crescendo you know is coming. When Georgia ties ballet and sex together, she begins to see her teacher, Roderick, as a sexual person; she also assumes he sees her the same way. Georgia becomes acutely aware of each time Roderick touches her or notices her, and she becomes fixated on the idea that if she can work out what Roderick wants, he can propel her career.

“When she’s pursuing Roderick in a sexual way, it’s more about getting at the heart of what it means to be a woman for her, and also a woman as a dancer,” Schabas say. “So the two things get conflated.”

Georgia is a dancer at a very high level, and her connection to her body and its movement is pronounced. In a way, Schabas says, Georgia tries to understand the world through her body, which means that every touch and movement takes on other dimensions. Georgia’s physicality means that she doesn’t just think about doing things, she does them, often without a thought about consequences.

“I think a lot of these issues haven’t really been written about much before,” Schabas says. “The idea that [Georgia] actually looks up porn and tries to recreate porn, thinking that this is OK. She actually pieces information together and thinks ‘This is a pretty logical way to pursue what I want to get.’ That can seem outrageous on the one hand, but at the same time, when we look at the millions of mixed messages that we send young women and … the idea of sexuality and the public sphere, maybe she’s a bit of a whistle-blower calling us on the real implications of our values.”

Much like the heroines of classical ballets, after the action, Georgia is left powerless, and it’s devastating to watch her grapple with what happened and then to be unable to take responsibility for what she did.

“Horrible things happen to ballet heroines and they die and go mad – it’s the mad, bad, sad thing – but [they] are ultimately victimized,” Schabas says. “In a way it’s Georgia who’s victimized by something of her own perpetration.”

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Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly ~ 1942. This edition: Simon & Shuster, 2002. Paperback. ISBN: 0-671-61931-4. 291 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Every time I re-read this book I love it all over again. I know I tend to overuse the term “evocative”, but if there’s any novel I’ve ever read that qualifies fully for that term, this is it. The young author started working on this book when she herself was seventeen; it was published when she was twenty. With the expected flaws due to the youth of the author, it does not stand up well to pure literary analysis, but as an emotionally appealing record of a teenage love affair it is a delicate little masterpiece.

I’m sitting here trying to think of other titles to compare it to, and I keep coming up with I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, a book I love so much that I’m avoiding reviewing it because I don’t quite know how to put into words its very special quality and appeal.

Though the setting is completely different, and much more realistic – could I Capture the Castle be described as plausible? – I don’t think so! – Seventeenth Summer has a similar mood and delicacy of feeling. Innocent, sensual, agonizingly evocative of a girl’s romantic and yes – I’ll say it – sexual awakening – though anyone expecting the protagonist to actually go “all the way” will be shamefully disappointed. It’s all in there, though.

Maybe a girl’s, or a woman’s book, more than a man’s? Or maybe not. Anyway, I like it – a lot – and confidently recommend it to my fellow readers, at least those of you who think highly of Dodie Smith, Rumer Godden and their ilk.

*****

One early summer evening, in the small city of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the late 1930s, seventeen-year-old Angeline (Angie) Morrow, newly graduated from her all-girls Academy, catches a smile from public high-school grad Jack Duluth. A few days later they meet again; Angie is barefoot in the garden picking early radishes, and Jack, driving his father’s bakery delivery truck, stops to inquire about her mother’s bread order. Jack is as taken with Angie as she is with him; he invites her sailing, and the summer love affair is on. And off again, and then on, with all of the teenage angst and glorious peaks and abysmal valleys of emotion and “Does he like me? Really like me? And how much do I like him? And what’s next?”

As the flowers in the garden bud, flower, and reach their blowsy peak in late summer, the love affair follows its predicable natural course. The ending is not as expected, and is, in my opinion, perfectly fitted to what has gone before.

How much should I go into detail here? The internet abounds with reviews; it’s not hard to find a complete dissection of this novel with a minimum of effort. Somehow it has ended up on many high school reading lists, and has suffered far much over-analysis and way too many reluctant-student book reports.

Ignore all of these. Ignore the comments that “nothing happens in this book”, and “Angie is impossibly innocent”, and “how could a little thing like table manners condemn Jack if she really liked him?”, and “the metaphors are so obvious – tomatoes and radishes and poppies – we get it!”, and ” gee, they sure drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of ice cream”, and “what’s the matter with the mother, and why can’t her daughters talk to her?”, and “what about Lorraine (Angie’s older sister) and her parallel love affair with the abusive and manipulative Martin?”, and “what the heck is that ending all about – don’t we get to know what happens?!”

Ignore all of these. Pick up the book, remind yourself that the author was just seventeen herself when she first put these words on paper – because for a little while you will probably be thinking “What the heck? This is so lame!” – and surrender yourself in full to Angie and Jack’s golden summer of personal discovery, restrained passion, and first true love.

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Boss of the Namko Drive by Paul St. Pierre ~ 1965. This edition: Ryerson Press, circa 1970. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7700-3024-6. 117 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Paul St. Pierre perfectly captures the atmosphere and people of Interior British Columbia’s “Cariboo Country” Chilcotin Plateau. He’s dramatized things to make “good fiction”, but not so much as you would think. I live here. I know people – heck, I’m related to people (by marriage, that is – my husband’s family is venerable Cariboo-Chilcotin pioneer, 1860’s gold rush era) – who could have stepped into or out of this story.

My husband says he remembers reading this as an English class novel in the early 1970s, and I also remember a class set in one of my Williams Lake schoolrooms, though I never personally “studied” it. Reading this novel for the first time as an adult was a real treat, for I had read so much regional literature by then – stellar and otherwise –  about our personal stretch of country that I realized how good this fictional vignette really is; if not a sparkling gemstone, then at least a nicely polished, glowing golden agate from the banks of the Fraser River.

The story moves right along; a quick little read for teens and adults. Highly recommended.

*****

Author’s Note:

Young people for whom this story is written should not try to find Namko on the map of British Columbia. It is fictional. So are the characters in this book.

There is such a region, however. It is the westernmost extent of Canada’s cattle country, lying between the Fraser River and the Coast Mountains. The story is my attempt to tell the truth about life on these remote ranches. If it does not, the fault is mine.

15-year-old Delore Bernard starts out as the lowest hand on the 200-mile cattle drive led by his father Frenchie from the high Chilcotin to the stockyards in Williams Lake. Soon into the trip, before they’ve cleared the home ranch meadows, Frenchie breaks his leg as his horse bucks him off and falls on him. Frenchie, to everyone’s surprise, appoints Delore as “boss” in his place, a decision unquestioned by the rest of the cowboys, who for various personal reasons, are perhaps quite happy to have a young and green official leader.

Delore’s trip to the Lake is complicated by a stampede, cows caught in bogholes, packhorse wrecks, a runaway or two, an encounter with a murderer on the run, and the cowboys’ weakness for strong liquor, among other things. But, as Delore implies on the other end, it’s all in a day’s work for a Chilcotin cow boss: “Nothing to report.”

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