Posts Tagged ‘YA Fiction’

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 brideship joan weir 001The Brideship by Joan Weir ~ 1998. This edition: Stoddart, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7736-7474-8. 218 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10. This one gets a “just missed” from me. It was marred by a seemingly unlikely but at the same time groaningly predictable plot, and a selection of overly stereotyped characters.

I initially questioned the historical accuracy, which didn’t quite ring true to me: a group of teenage girls is apparently sent by the Anglican Church to be prospective brides in the female-starved British Columbia and Vancouver Island colonies in the 1860s. This was indeed correct; I obviously do not know quite as much B.C. history as I like to think I do!

The writing is competent enough but the whole package didn’t do much for me. Some teens may find this an acceptable read, but I would hesitate to recommend it, except for its dramatic focus on a little-known chapter of British Columbia and Cariboo Gold Rush history.

*****

Fifteen-year-old Sarah is an orphan in England in 1862. Uncooperative and outspoken, she is a disruptive presence in the orphanage where she has ended up after the death of her parents and then her uncle, so is recommended with great relief by the orphanage head to join a group of teenage girls who are being sent to the western Canadian gold fields as prospective brides for the miners. This arbitrary emigration is presided over by a (hopefully atypical!) prospective Anglican Church minister, the sinister and vicious Mr. Dubonnet. Sarah’s frail older cousin Maud is also part of the group, as are a number of the usual variety of orphans in this type of fiction, including Lizzie, the cockney ex-pickpocket with a heart of gold, and Arabella, the mean-spirited snooty beauty.

Sarah makes the trip in fine fettle, despite continual run-ins with Mr. Dubonnet and various adventures on board. Poor Maud makes it only as far as the Falkland Islands, before succumbing to her constant cough, as we’ve expected from very early on in the narrative – the girl very obviously has the cloud of doom hanging over her right from the first chapter, with her meek disposition and delicate consitution. The surviving orphans weather the rest of the voyage, which is marked with melodramatic incidents to keep things interesting. They eventually arrive at Vancouver Island, are off-loaded at Esquimalt, and are then shipped up the Cariboo Road to Barkerville.

Sarah refuses to accept her prospective husband, and teams up with Lizzie to start an enterprise of her own as a laundress. Justice in the form of Judge Begbie nails Mr. Dubonnet, true love arrives for Lizzie and Sarah, and everything is looking up as we close the last page.

I was curious as to the verity of the “bride ship” angle, so I did a bit of research, and found that the author did base this tale on true events. See Victoria History – the British Columbia Emigration Society, for a brief discussion.

I’ve included several articles from other sources to balance my not terribly enthusiastic review. The Brideship isn’t a bad book, but compared to other similar works in the genre it is on the lower end of the spectrum, in my one-person’s opinion.

I’ve just been reading Marianne Brandis’ stellar 1830s’ Ontario trilogy of The Tinderbox, The Quarter-Pie Window, and The Sign of the Scales (reviews pending), as well as Suzanne Martel’s The King’s Daughter, following a French fille du roy sailing to Canada from France among a similar shipment of “brides to be” in the 1600s. These other books stand head and shoulders above Weir’s Brideship, at least for this reader, reading like properly engaging novels which just happen to be set in historically important and interesting times versus a packaged up collection of “teachable moments” clothed in stereotype and unlikely melodrama.

*****

In a University of Manitoba author profile, Kamloops, B.C. writer and retired college creative writing instructor Joan Weir talks about some aspects of the process of writing The Brideship.

“Usually when I start, I feel very strongly that, when the whole thing is over, I want to have made some sort of comment that is worth making. (I)n Brideship, I wanted very much to get across the idea for modern kids that, no matter where you find yourself, life’s an adventure and you’ve got to seize the moment and take it and go with and make something out of it… I start with that, and from there I go to character, but I have to know ‘why’ I’m writing the book before I start. I don’t know the ending. I think the ending has to grow out of what happens as your characters suddenly take on a life of their own which is greater than you thought when you started. It’s out of their growth that the ending grows, and very often the ending isn’t what you thought, even in a sort of vague way, that it was going to be at all. It surprised me very much what happened to Lizzie in Brideship. Lizzie becomes almost the strongest character in the book, something I didn’t intend at all when I started. I thought she was going to be very much a secondary character. So many readers, when they talk about Brideship, say, ‘Oh, I really liked Lizzie.’

“In the actual historical story of those girls who came over on the Tynemouth, one girl did die, and I felt committed to put that in because I felt so badly about that poor little orphan, Elizabeth Buchanan, who was buried at sea. Sarah’s cousin, Maud, in Brideship is patterned on Elizabeth. I didn’t dare use Elizabeth’s name because this is fiction, and I didn’t want to get involved in ‘this is true and this isn’t true,’ for Elizabeth didn’t have a cousin with her or someone back in England to marry, as my Maud character does. The Anglican Church organized and sent over three boatloads of girls from orphanages, but the first trip is the only one that there was any sort of information about at all. The conditions were absolutely like I’ve described them in the book. I’ve got an artist’s sketch of the ship which was drawn from pictures on file in the museum. It was a tiny little craft that had over 300 people on it. The girls really were housed down below in the hold compartment with only these little tiny portholes.

“The book’s cover was interesting because often publishers don’t give authors any input at all on covers. Kathryn Cole was wonderful because she sent me sketches of what they wanted to do with the cover which was a picture of Lizzie and Sarah dolled up in Mrs. Worthing’s clothes, with parasols and fancy hats, smiling and tripping around the ship’s deck. When Kathryn asked, ‘What do you think of it?’ I replied, ‘We’ll, it’s a very pretty picture, but I’m afraid that it sets the wrong tone for the book. When you look at it, you’ll think it was a happy journey, and it wasn’t.'” Kathryn then asked Joan for her cover ideas. “‘I would like a picture of Sarah below decks in the storage compartment in which they’re living, looking out that one little porthole. And, if possible I’d like her holding her doll.’ Even though that detail makes Sarah look younger than she is, that doll was the only thing that she owned. I was delighted because the artist did exactly what I wanted. The cover sets the tone, and it was not a happy trip. But, if you’d have had the title Brideship and these girls on the original cover dancing around, you would have thought it was like a Love Boat.

And here is an edited excerpt from the CanLit.ca review of The Brideship.

Four dozen orphans, some of them as young as sixteen, are sent off to the West Coast of Canada on the vague promise that they will find work there. Sarah eagerly volunteers to go; she will do anything to get out of the hated orphanage. An Anglican clergyman has organized the emigration, and this fact alone seems to guarantee that the promised positions will materialize, and that the four dozen girls are in good hands.

Appearances, however, deceive. A few days before their arrival in Canada, the girls find out that “there aren’t as many jobs available” as had originally been thought, and that they are to be “brides instead.” The clergyman, too, is not what he seems: aside from being responsible for deceiving the girls, he is also a thief. He triumphs in the short run, but his dishonesty eventually catches up with him. Sarah, however, never gets to meet the man intended for her. She escapes to Barkerville, sets up a laundry business there, and falls in love with someone she chooses for herself.

The Brideship concentrates more on action than on emotion. Sarah gets somewhat pushed into the background by the question of whether the Anglican Church really did organize shiploads of female orphans under the pretense of getting them positions as governesses, then offering them as brides to the miners working in British Columbia instead. And if, as Weir contends, the answer is “yes,” then one wonders why the author neglects to show some outrage in at least one of the unfortunate “brides.” Not even the heroine expresses any offense at such a monumental deception; she is worried that the husband the clergyman has chosen for her might be a brute, but it does not seem to enter her mind that the clergyman had no right to choose a husband for her in the first place. Although The Brideship has a lot of action, it is short on psychological realism.

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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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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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