Posts Tagged ‘YA Fiction’

After Hamelin by Bill Richardson ~ 2000. This edition: Annick Press, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 1-55037-628-4. 227 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. Sorry, Bill. This one was a bit hit and miss with me. You got an extra point from me for old times’ sake, because I’ve been a (mostly) appreciative fan of yours since CBC Radio “Sad Goat” days.

I really liked parts of it, especially the character of Penelope, with her 101-year-old words of wisdom, and I admired the imagination of  the Frank L. Baum Oz-ish dream world, but I really had to push to see this one through to the end. I kept stopping and yawning and mentally saying “Where are we? Oh, yeah, she’s in the dream world now…”

And while the bizarre (and nicely imagined – I laughed at these) realms of the ski-footed flying creatures living in the land of perpetual ice and moonlight, and the rope-skipping, directionally challenged dragons next door were quirky and funny and sweet, the dark overtones of the menace waking from its sleep struck a harsh note. And I couldn’t really get what the Piper was all about. Even if he woke, what was going to happen? I mean, how bad was it going to be? Just another magician gone wrong…

And the whole turning-eleven thing. Obviously a puberty ritual, but surely a bit young for the whole “welcome-to-womanhood” chorus of the villagers? Or maybe I’m reading too much into that. Probably a cigar is just a cigar, and it’s merely a cute plot device.

This is not a bad book, and it had some great sequences, but I didn’t immediately love it. A pleasant, light diversionary read, for mature-ish children, say 10 and up, to adult. Well-constructed “after the end of the fairytale” story. Good discussion starter, or as part of an exploration of alternative fairy tales and such.

Oh, and an extra .5 point for the talking cat. (One of my personal weaknesses. I do so love a talking cat.)

Gorgeous cover art, too!

*****

Everyone knows the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. How, in a town plagued with rats, there appeared a mysterious man who promised to rid the town of the creatures, and, after being promised a lavish reward, did just that, piping out a magical tune that drew them from every nook and cranny, as the piper led them far away. Coming back for his promised reward, the greedy town councillors refuse his pay, at which point the piper takes revenge by calling all of the children of the town after him, save one crippled child, who cannot keep up and so is spared. This is where the story ends. But what happens after?

After Hamelin is Bill Richardson’s fantasy about the next stage in the story. In his version, not one but two children remain behind. Penelope, who has just woken to a sudden deafness on the morning of her eleventh birthday, and Alloway, a blind harpist’s apprentice, who gets lost as the horde of children travel through a forest. Between Penelope and Alloway, Penelope’s elderly cat Scally, the village wise man Cuthbert, and his three-legged dog Ulysses, a rescue is carried out, through the medium of a trance state – Deep Dreaming – and the liberal use of magical skipping-rhymes.

Narrated by Penelope herself, who, at the age of one hundred-and-one, still looks back on her long life and unbelievable adventures with clarity and humour, the tale is told through a series of flashbacks and reminiscences.

A children’s story for all ages.

And here is an interview with the author, which puts everything into context.

Bill Richardson Interview – After HamelinJanuary Magazine

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The View from a Kite by Maureen Hull ~ 2006. This edition: Vagrant Press (Nimbus Publishing, 2006. Softcover. ISBN: 1-55109-591-2. 338 pages.

My rating: Majority of the book: 9/10. Last few chapters: 7/10-ish. I found this book to be a compelling and sharply presented read, and, for a book about a tragically-backstoried teenager in a tuberculosis ward, unexpectedly funny. Occasionally the TB references felt a bit “teachable moment”-ish, but in general this aspect was handled well. (I had a bit of a chuckle when I later learned that the author had homeschooled her two daughters for seven years; I could definitely tell she was very familiar with the art of including information in a narrative in an interesting and almost flawlessly “natural” way – the mark of the very best historical fiction writers we homeschoolers love so much.)

I did feel the momentum dropped towards the end, as the author brought the strands of the story together. The ending felt a little too neat and predictable, not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the “young adult” nature of the novel, but I personally felt a rather vague disappointment, as if I had expected just a little bit more creativity from such an obviously capable author.

Overall recommendation: very well done. Well worth reading.

*****

I am a Dangerous Woman in a Dangerous Dress.

The gym is foggy with chiffon: rose, peach, aqua and mint, with dyed-to-match pumps spiked to the bottom, strings of pearls looped around the top – a pastel smear of background for the scarlet shout that is me.  Gwen. My dress is a lick of silk, the molten edge of a suicidal sun. I move through the crowd like a reckless kiss, a flash of crystal at my stiletto heels, nails enamelled in heart’s blood.

His hair is too long, dark curls thrown into confusion by the knife edge of his collar. He draws frowns but no direct criticism because he just doesn’t give a damn and can’t be made to. He pulls me into his arms, the band blasts me up off the bed, trumpets and trombones in a frenzy, some crazed person hammering the bells off her tambourine. I cling to the edge of the metal frame, tangled in the sheets, hyperventilating, what is that tune? Sweet Jesus, it is not, yes it is. “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

I see them through the half-open door, the Salvation Army Band, all dressed up in black wool, red collars, and shiny brass instruments. The leader winks at me as he whips the ensemble into a straight and narrow line, aims them at the crashing, metallic finale. Then, with the barest pause for breath, they fling themselves “Into the Garden Alone.”

I fall back onto the bed and stare at the ceiling. Check my pulse. One hundred and thirty, roaring and frothing through my veins and arteries. Check my watch – 9:30, still the same damn Sunday morning. I have napped for less than half an hour.

Meet 17-year-old Gwen MacIntyre, temporary resident of the Cape Breton County Sanatorium. It is the mid-1970s, and though tuberculosis is fast becoming an obsolete disease, there are still a few specialized treatment facilities dedicated to mopping up the final cases, and providing a home for the incurable “chronics.” Gwen’s TB is being dealt with, but the disease is only one of her pressing issues. Her family, once happy and united, is irretrievably broken, and with Gwen’s growing maturity comes the need to find a way to move forward into a more hopeful future.

The novel is written in the form of chapter-long diary entries. Gwen’s private voice is articulate and keenly humorous, with occasional lapses into poignant regret for what has gone before, and fear for the future.

Understandable, as Gwen is the survivor of a partially successful family murder-suicide episode…

A diverting and, dare I say it, “educational” – in the very best way – read which I enjoyed. The protagonist’s spirited voice kept the dire subjects addressed from being too pathetically sad, and there was a sharpness to the wit which felt very real and refreshing. Sex, friendship and religion, among numerous other compelling topics, are frankly discussed by Gwen in her conversations with herself.

Marketed as a Young Adult read, this is definitely cross-genre enough to find a home on the Adult bookshelves as well. Shades of Betty MacDonald’s autobiographical “The Plague and I” (1948), about another clever observer’s time in a post WW-II TB sanatorium. I found it interesting to compare the two accounts; they are ultimately very different but also quite similar in that sophisticated, self-aware humour is used to deal with the frightening and personally humiliating experience of battling the “dread disease.”

I found this review after I had written the rough draft of my own; I include it here because the reviewer’s take on this story was very similar to my own. By reviewer Marnie Parsons, Quill & Quire, November 2006:

Ambitious and well-written, Maureen Hull’s first novel tells the story of Gwen, a 17-year-old in a TB sanatorium, and later a TB hospital, on Cape Breton Island during the 1970s. Gwen’s natural curiosity and her talent for writing combine in the narrative, as she observes the characters in the sanatorium with thoughtful, often wry insight, and simultaneously acquaints herself with the history of TB, its treatment, and its more famous victims. Typical teen pressures of boyfriends and burgeoning sexuality are interwoven with Gwen’s stories of life in the San, of late-night escapes by patients, her own sometimes horrific treatments, pranks played on nurses, and lists of preposterous historical cures for her disease. Her dreams of an exotic writing life in Paris are that much more poignant because, as the reader discovers, her life outside the San is far from happy. As she recovers from her TB, Gwen must also come to terms with an almost unspeakable family tragedy.
Gwen is an engaging character; her voice is strong and compelling. However, there’s too much happening in this novel: Gwen’s illness and life in the sanatorium would have been quite enough without the added complexity of her grandmother’s long-ago illegitimate pregnancy and developing senility (not overlapping), her father’s shellshock, and her parents’ murder-suicide. Hull works hard to blend the divergent strands of narrative, and there’s much to recommend this novel, which is an admirable and enjoyable effort. But in the end it lacks a sense of proportion. Less would definitely have been more.

Maureen Hull is a life-long native of Nova Scotia, born on Cape Breton Island and currently living on Pictou Island. She seems to have had a diverse and experience-filled life, including studies at Dalhousie University and the Pictou Fisheries School, and stints in the costume department of the Neptune Theatre (Halifax), as well as twenty-two years in the lobster fishery. This is the author’s first novel, though she has been actively writing since 1992. Her other published work includes several children’s books, short story collections, poetry, and creative non-fiction.

A contemporary Canadian writer to keep an eye out for, if The View from a Kite is any indication, and worthy of further acquaintance. I will be looking for more of her work.

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Sunshine by Robin McKinley ~ 2003. This edition: Penguin Speak, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-14-241110-0. 405 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Points lost because it tends to ramble; points added because the author unapologetically lets herself go on rambling! And because the vampires perish messily and satisfactorily in sunlight. My son and I, both McKinley aficionados, like to refer to this one as the “anti-Twilight” – no sparkling vampires here, though Sunshine’s heroine gets all silly about her undead crush occasionally, which we agreed was one of our our biggest objections to Twilight – Bella’s sheer stupidity regarding the worst choice ever for boyfriend material. (That, and the terrible writing. And the sparkling.) But, as usual, I digress.

Ah, Robin McKinley. Something of a comfort read author for me, ever since I first read the Damar stories, The Blue Sword(1982) and The Hero and the Crown(1985) quite a few years ago. I have lost track of the number of times I have now read these two books, and I’ve also read everything else she’s ever produced with varying degrees of enthusiasm, with the lone exception of her 2010 novel, Pegasus. I might be losing a bit of my enthusiasm for McKinley’s more recent stuff; her editors are letting her spread herself out a bit too much, the drawback to being such a huge bestseller-producer;  too many times quantity becomes confused with quality, when what they really need to do is refine, cut, and tighten things up. (Someday I will share my opinions on J.K. Rowling and the later Harry Potter books…)

The internet abounds in reviews of all of McKinley’s works; Sunshine is no exception. If you want to see a various range of opinions, just check out the Goodreads page: Goodreads – Sunshine by Robin McKinley  Over 2000 reviews! So I don’t think I need to add to this in any substantial way.

McKinley creates an interesting alternative world to Earth as we know it; she uses much of what we are already familiar with and tweaks it just enough to keep us paying attention – a technique she uses in all of her novels. Her heroine is a bit of a loner and a social misfit – no surprises here – and she also owes some unsuspected abilities to her ancestral bloodlines, which no one has seen fit to tell her about, leaving her to discover her powers for herself. Again, very much a McKinley trademark. The setting is almost dystopian, but people have adapted to the new, post-apocalyptic normal, and go about their business for the most part cheerfully and optimisically, which is something else I like about this tale.

The first time I read Sunshine I was totally engrossed – it was a “stay up till it’s finished” enterprise; this week’s reading was my third, and I am now seeing flaws and tweakable bits here and there, but all in all the story is holding its own.

A heads-up to those familiar with McKinley’s earlier “young adult” novels. Sunshine has lots of sex, some of it graphic. Probably best for the older teenage crowd, and of course McKinley’s legions of adult fans. Oh, and lots of blood. And chocolate! Kind of a weird book, in retrospect. But I’m still a fan.

The cover at the top is from the latest edition, obviously aimed at the teen girl market. I much prefer the original cover art, which I’ve included here as well.

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Let’s Kill Uncle by Rohan O’Grady ~ 1963. This edition: Bloomsbury Press, 2011. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-60819-511-4. 279 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. Extra points for the creepy and darkly humorous plot, the very thoughtful and poignant musings of Sergeant Coulter, and the grand British Columbia Gulf Island setting, apparently based on the author’s visit to Saltspring Island. (I chuckled at the naming of Benares; shades of Ganges and Vesuvius on Saltspring!) Points off for the cardboard cutout characterizations of most of the characters. Points off for the occasional swearing, which, though mild, felt out-of-place, even if this story was aimed at an adult audience. Extra points for letting the cougar finally ultimately be a cougar, and for letting the villain be purely evil with no redeeming qualities! Far from a flawless effort, but I liked it much more than I didn’t.

*****

You’ll find lots of reviews on this one; its reissue by Bloomsbury a year ago brought it into high profile.

This was a weird little book. I had read quite a few reviews before I ordered it, so I knew what to expect, but heaven help the innocent reader who thought they were picking up a mild children’s tale! Nothing innocent here; chock full of the darkest human flaws and emotions; the humour (of which there is a lot, all intentional) shades from gray to ebony black.

Two 10-year-old children from very different backgrounds are sent to stay on an isolated, and, incidentally, long-childless island. (Every son from the past generation has gone away to war and thus perished, except for one: the island’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, Sergeant Albert Coulter. The bereft parents and grandparents view him with a certain resentment and suspicion making for a bitter underplot.)

Orphaned Barnaby is the heir to a ten million dollar fortune; he is coming to spend the summer with his uncle at a rural retreat. Christie is the sickly daughter of a struggling more-or-less single mother. Her parents are separated; her father is a good-for-nothing drunkard; her selfless mother is working extra hours to pay for Christie’s country holiday with Mrs. Nielsen, the island’s “goat-lady.”

The children meet on the ferry ride to the island; it is hate at first sight, but that doesn’t prevent them ganging up, running wild and wreaking havoc the entire trip. They are gratefully off-loaded, and the first person that makes an impression on them is the local Mountie, Sergeant Coulter. Luckily both children are struck with hero-worship at first sight, and Sergeant Coulter’s calming influence starts their personal transformations from brats to pleasant children.

Turns out that Barnaby’s Uncle Sylvester is not the mild, mannerly and caring man he appears to be. He is a psychotic murderer with a long history of killing for pleasure and profit; Barnaby is pegged as his next victim, and soon Christie is doomed as well. The children are on to him, and unite to plot right back, deciding to strike first to save their lives. Uncle foils them at every turn. Enter a surprise ally, an outlaw cougar, One-Ear, livestock and child killer, who is hiding out in the underbrush. One-Ear tolerates the two children associating with him, sparing their annoying lives only because he can’t afford to draw attention to himself; the three end in working together to act as Nemesis to stop this wickedest of uncles.

Nothing in this story is quite as expected; the ground continually shifts under our feet as we think we know what the author is going to have her characters do and say next; we often predict completely wrong. Sergeant Coulter is one of the most surprising characters. Initially he is a figure of fun, a slightly blustering, generally disregarded, musical-comedy type policeman. But the Sergeant has hidden depths. He writes long letters to his unaware (and happily married) love interest, rips them up and casts them on the waves. He has survived being a prisoner of war, and, in the novel’s very serious thread which runs through all the farcical nonsense of the murder plot, condemns the political forces that send young men away to kill and be killed, destroys innocent civilians, and allow the evil of the Jewish Holocaust to happen. A few incidents involving First Nations people, or, as 1963 lingo describes them, “Indians”, would likely not get past today’s politically correct censors.

There are quite a number of parallel stories going on in this novel; the author competently intertwines them and brings them to their rightful conclusions. A highly moral tale, when all is said and done.

Let’s Kill Uncle has a superficial feel of being a children’s story, and it definitely works on that level as a straightforward if morbidly fantastical adventure, but I finished with the strong feeling that the intended audience was very much the adults, and the message much more sophisticated than the plot description allows for.

The author’s name, Rohan O’Grady, is the pseudonym of June Skinner, a Vancouver writer who published five novels between 1961 and 1970, of which 1963’s Let’s Kill Uncle seems to be the best known. The others are:

  • O’Houlihan’s Jest, 1961.
  • Pippin’s Journal; Or, Rosemary Is for Remembrance, 1962.  (Also published as The Curse of the Montrolfes and The Master of Montrolfe Hall.)
  • Bleak November, 1970. Michael Joseph, London, 1971.
  • The May Spoon, 1981. (Published under the pseudonym A. Carleon.)

Edward Gorey illustrated Let’s Kill Uncle; I regret that the Bloomsbury reprint contains no art except for a rendition of the original cover on the title page.

This is a very hard book to classify. I’m trying to think of another similar book to compare it to; A Series of Unfortunate Events has been suggested as its natural successor, but Let’s Kill Uncle is a much more complex work than the contemporary Lemony Snicket series.

I enjoyed this quick read; it will be even better the second time around. Recommended.

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A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich ~ 1931. This edition: Scholastic, 1964. Paperback. 318 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

American writer Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954) is likely best known for her popular novel, A Lantern in Her Hand, the story of Nebraska pioneer Abbie Deal. I had read and greatly enjoyed that novel, so was quite looking forward to reading A White Bird Flying, which follows Abbie’s granddaughter, Laura Deal, on her own coming-of-age journey.

I am sorry to say that strong Abbie’s granddaughter is a wishy-washy little thing, and that I was generally disappointed in this lightweight  novel. It reminded me of some of the more sentimental twaddle perpetrated by our iconic Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote in a similar time period and genre; much as I love some of her stronger novels, she was also capable of churning out some dreadful slush; ditto Aldrich.

The first part of the book is perhaps the strongest. Abbie Deal has died and been buried with due ceremony; young Laura stands in her beloved grandmother’s house a few days after the funeral, and tries to come to terms with death and what will happen next. Laura is a deeply emotional, imaginative child; at twelve she already aspires to one day be a writer, and she thinks in those terms.

She was half enjoying herself in an emotional way. There was a sort of gruesome ecstasy in making herself sad with memories. She would like to write about it. “The girl moved about from room to room, touching the things lovingly,” went through her mind. She was in one of those familiar moods when she looked upon life in a detached way as though she herself were not a part of it. She could never talk to anyone about it, but in some vague way she felt withdrawn from the world. She lived with people, but she was not one of them.

Perfectly captures the essence of an introspective adolescence.

Laura goes on her dreamy way, often at odds with her practical, striving mother who is often bewildered by her introverted, sentimental daughter. Laura continues to pursue her private ambition, turning out poems and stories and seeing the world through detached eyes.  She often thinks of her grandmother, and of how Abbie had given up her own ambitions to dedicate herself to full wife- and motherhood; Laura is appalled at the thought of a similar fate for herself and resolves to form her own life quite differently. She decides that she will turn her back on love, and particularly marriage; instead she will dedicate herself to her art and become truly fulfilled in a way a mere housewife can never attain.

Well, the inevitable happens. Laura dreams her way through college, and attracts the attention of a boy from her own home town, Allen Rinemiller, who has strong ambitions to improve the family farm with modern ideas, and has a rather interesting philosophy himself, which Laura scornfully dismisses.

Allen proposes; Laura naturally declines.

“…I can’t think of anything more prosaic than settling down here…and sort of letting the world go by.”

“I don’t call it letting the world go by,” he returned quickly. “I call it tackling a small piece of the world and making something of it. You admit Morton and his bride and all the rest of the old pioneers did a great thing when they crossed he river and started their settlements. You’ve said it was romantic and intensely interesting, and quite worthwhile. You think their own love lay at the bottom of their acts of courage and bravery. All right – did you ever stop to think that maybe we’re pioneers, too? Haven’t you the vision to see that? Why isn’t it something of pioneering that I’m trying to do? Agriculture in most quarters has been a hard, wearisome proposition…I’m pioneering, too – and a whole lot of other young fellows from colleges and universities, we have visions, too – a new outlook on the whole thing…We’re pioneering…starting a new class…the master farmers who are attempting to develop agriculture to the nth degree. Why couldn’t you enter into that in the same spirit your grandmother did? …Because you’re rooted in the soil, need you be a nonentity?”

Allen’s stirring words fall on deaf ears; Laura has already decided to pursue the celibate life, and has even promised her wealthy, childless aunt and uncle that she will remain unmarried and look after them as a daughter would, in return for inheriting their fortune, justifying this strangely unromantic and mercenary agreement by the excuse that it will allow her to pursue her writer’s career without worry and interruption.

The only fly in this particular ointment is that Laura is no prodigy; her talent is modest at best, as she is slowly beginning to realize.

The rest of the story follows its predictable-from-the-first-page path; no surprises here. Laura does marry Allen and dedicate herself to the farm; there are some tough years, but even through these Laura`s issues are not on par with those of her grandmother’s generation. Laura bemoans the fact that she cannot afford new curtains, and a new carpet, and a new dress; Abbie Deal dealt with life and death concerns and had a much more elemental notion of what the truly important things in life were than her grandchild ever faces up to.

I do get the feeling, however, that Aldrich portrays this dichotomy deliberately; the decadence of the descendents of the pioneers, though sympathetically portrayed, is a common undercurrent of her books I’ve read so far. She was obviously very interested in the generational and cultural shifts of the pioneer-to-modern era, and by and large captures the essence of the succeeding generations and their attitudes towards those who came before.

I will be reading more of this author’s works, as opportunity allows, though I doubt I will go to a lot of effort to seek them out. And while White Bird was not a particularly strong novel, it had its generally well-written and thoughtful moments, and I will overlook my vague annoyance at self-centered Laura and her self-created melodramas to classify it merely as a lesser entry into the long-respected Aldrich canon.

I am editing this review to add a Young Adult classification. It was re-published by Scholastic, after all, and the subject matter may be of interest to teenage readers, though I suspect many of them will be as annoyed at Laura as I am.

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The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden ~ 1975. This edition: Viking, 1976. Hardcover. 243 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Two English half-sisters are sent from boarding school in England to join their divorced U.N.-diplomat father in India.

15-year-old Una and younger sister Halcyon (Hal) are respectively gifted in mathematical ability and singing; Una in particular worries that their new Eurasian governess-teacher will not be able to teach to the standard required to qualify her for entrance to Oxford. This proves to be the case; Miss Alix Lamont turns out to have other qualities which the girls’ father, Sir Edward Gwithiam, has chosen her for; namely her beauty and personal charms. He is openly infatuated with Alix, and the girls’ presence is meant to give a plausible reason for her inclusion in his household.

Una and Alix find themselves in the position of jockeying for position in Sir Edward’s affections; Alix is strongly entrenched, and Sir Edward intends to marry her. Una, smarting from her father’s rejection (she was always his confidante, but he has distanced himself from both of his daughters since Alix gained his interest), becomes involved with Ravi, a young Indian gardener on attached to the U.N. estate, who is actually a well-born Brahmin student in hiding for his part in a violent political protest. Meanwhile, Hal has become infatuated with the son of a deposed Rajah, Vikram, who is in turn in love with Alix. This seething mass of emotional undercurrents leads to Una’s disastrous flight with Ravi and the laying bare and reworking of all of the relationships thus involved.

Quite a well-done story; generally plausible and sympathetically told. All characters are well-developed and complex, and are treated very fairly by their author in that we see the multiple facets of their personalities and fully understand their motivations. The ending is quite realistic, though not perhaps what one could call “happy”; the various characters move out of our vision with these particular issues resolved but many more looming. All in all I thought it was one of Godden’s better coming-of-age novels; I enjoyed it more than I initially thought I would from the reviews I had read.

Suitable for young adult to adult. Frank but not explicit sexual content including extramarital relationships and the sexual involvement between a schoolgirl and an older man; pregnancy and abortion are discussed though mostly by implication. Rumer Godden in this novel has kept abreast of the times; she was 69 when this novel was published and though a bit dated here and there the tone is generally contemporary.

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Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park ~ 1980. This edition: Puffin (Penguin Australia), 1998. Softcover. 196 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This well-written coming-of-age, historical fiction juvenile novel by New Zealand-born Australian writer Ruth Park is deserving of all the awards and rave reviews it has garnered through the years.

14-year-old Abigail – Abbie – Kirk is still deeply wounded by the separation of her parents four years earlier. In her anger at her beloved father for his desertion, she has changed her name from his chosen Lynette to “an old name, a witch’s name” – Abigail.

Anger seethes within Abbie, though she is learning to hide it. She is

…a girl who wished to be private.

Outside, she was composed, independent, not very much liked. The girls at school said she was a weirdie, and there was no doubt she was an outsider. She looked like a stick in jeans and a tank top; so she would not wear them. If everyone else was wearing her hair over her face, Abigail scraped hers back. She didn’t have a boyfriend, and when asked why she either looked enigmatic as though she knew twenty times more about boys than anyone else, or said she’s never met one who was half-way as interesting as her maths textbook. The girls said she was unreal, and she shrugged coolly. The unreal thing was that she didn’t care in the least what they thought of her. She felt a hundred years older and wiser than this love-mad rabble in her class.

Her chief concern was that no one, not even her mother, should know what she was like inside. Because maybe to adults the turmoil of uncertainties, extravagant glooms, and sudden blisses, might present some sort of pattern or map, so they could say, ‘Ah, so that’s the real Abigail, is it?’

The thought of such trespass made her stomach turn over. So she cultivated an expressionless face, a long piercing glance under her eyelashes that Grandmother called slippery. She carefully laid false trails until she herself sometimes could not find the way into her secret heart. Yet the older she grew the more she longed for someone to laugh at the false trails with, to share the secrets.

What secrets? She didn’t yet know what they were herself.

So Abbie gets on with her everyday life, going to school, helping her mother in her vintage clothing and memorabilia shop, ‘Magpies’, and occasionally babysitting her neighbour’s younger children.

It is while accompanying one of those children to the playground that Abbie first notices a solitary, crop-haired, strangely dressed child lingering in the shadow of a wall, wistfully watching the others at play. Abbie approaches her, but she cries out and runs away. Abbie is intrigued. Who is the child, and why do none of the others, except for her small charge Natalie, seem to see her?

The next time Abbie sees the girl, she again approaches her, but this time as the child flees Abbie follows close behind. Through a the twisting maze of  The Rocks, Sydney’s historical district, they go, until Abbie realizes that she is completely lost – the atmosphere has somehow changed – evening is coming on – and streets are now lit with gas lights, and down a side-street comes a horse-drawn cab. Terrified now, Abbie continues her flight, following glimpses of the only familiar thing she still recognizes, the fluttering fringes of the mysterious child’s shawl.

Of course, by this time, we have realized that somehow Abbie has crossed through a mysterious portal into a previous time and place, the squalid slums district of 1873 Sydney. Rescued and cared for by the little girl’s family, Abbie goes through a transformation of her own, until at last returning to her own time changed, chastened, older (at least in experience) and wiser.

A highly enjoyable, on the whole well-thought-out time-travel tale; the weakest points are the actual time travel sequences – but these are notoriously hard to write, being, of course, purely imaginative with no real-world references to guide the writer. There are elements of  the supernatural – quite a lot of the plot revolves around the passing on of the powers of something like a ‘second sight’ among a family – and there is a certain amount of realistic romance. The ending is possibly a bit too pat, but in general is well-balanced and satisfying, as it ties up all loose ends but leaves the future optimistically open.

I would recommend this for older children, perhaps 12 and up, to adult. The quality of the writing is very high; the story itself is interesting and creatively presented. An intriguing glimpse into contemporary and historical urban Australia (set, as mentioned earlier, in Sydney, New South Wales), as well as a highly sympathetic protagonist.

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looking-for-alibrandi melina marchettaLooking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta ~ 1992. This edition: Penguin Australia, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-023613-9. 261 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

This jumped of the shelf at me while used-book browsing the other day – one of my quick-shelf-scan rules is that anything with an orange spine and a penguin gets the pull-and-look. What I found this time round was this appealing first novel by Australian writer Melina Marchetta.

The plot is fairly standard stuff; no surprises here. Yet another coming-of-age story, but one well written with a distinctive and believable voice.

17-year-old Josephine is in her last year as a scholarship student in an exclusive Catholic girl’s school in Sydney. Josie fiercely negotiates a difficult year touched by social and racial prejudice: “Australian” versus “ethnic” – no, not Aboriginal “ethnic”, but first and second generation European immigrant “ethnic”.  Also academic challenges, difficult friendships, tragedy, first love, and family secrets revealed – most notably the unexpected discovery and entry into her life of her father, who had disappeared from her unwed pregnant 16-year-old mother’s life before Josie’s birth.

I appreciated the author’s matter-of-fact handling of Josie’s Catholic religion and the way that it played into her family dynamics, as well as that of the larger Australian-Italian community she has grown up in. The frank depiction of teenage (and adult) romantic and sexual yearnings, and how religion and social mores influenced behaviours in those areas was also well portrayed.

Josie is a sympathetic character, with all of her varied flaws, ambitions and ideals, and I enjoyed her relationships with her mother and grandmother – a realistic mix of impatience, resentment, and love. The setting is (naturally) dated (early 1990s urban Australia), and the pop culture references went right over my head for the most part, but those are not necessarily drawbacks – this is a very much a “slice of life” picture of a very specific time and place. It’s also a very Australian book; very matter-of-factly “this is where and how we live”.

I did some research on Marchetta, and was pleased to see that after a ten-year hiatus following the publication of Looking for Alibrandi she has strongly re-entered the YA scene with several more acclaimed “realistic” novels as well as a fantasy series. I will be keeping my eyes open for her other titles in my book browsing.

Check out this link:

http://www.melinamarchetta.com.au/main/page_home.html

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diddakoi rumer goddenThe Diddakoi by Rumer Godden ~ 1972. This edition: Macmillan, 2007.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-330-45330-1. 152 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Also published as Gypsy Girl in some editions. Do not confuse with another of Rumer Godden’s titles – Gypsy, Gypsy (1940) – which is a decidedly adult novel.

I have a vaguely uneasy relationship with this small story of the half-Irish, half-Romani (“gypsy girl”) Kizzy. The writing is of very high quality (no surprise there; Rumer Godden seemed incapable of turning out a poorly written phrase) but the plot – oh! – the plot is terribly contrived, especially when read with today’s sensibilities.

Young Kizzy, about 6 or 7 years old (she doesn’t know her birthday), lives with her great-great grandmother in a shabby, blocked-up gypsy wagon on a corner of Admiral Sir Archibald Twiss’s estate. Ancient Joe, who used to pull the wagon, grazes away his days and is Kizzy’s favourite companion, and all is generally well, if occasionally cold and hungry, in Kizzy’s little world.

The village do-gooder, Mrs. Cuthbert, twigs  to the fact that Kizzy is school-age and decidedly not at school; she cries “neglect!” and calls in the welfare officer and the official wheels are set in motion. Off our wee heroine goes to the village school, where she immediately falls afoul of a village’s worth of young “mean girls” (ringleader none other than Mrs. Cuthbert’s daughter Prue) who set upon her as a ready-made victim for their taunts.

Kizzy copes as best she can, but things get even worse. Her Gran dies, relatives are located and called in to deal with things, the wagon is burned in accordance with Gran’s wishes (an old Romani custom upon a death), and Joe is destined for the knacker’s yard, while an argument erupts over who will take Kizzy in. No one much wants her.

Kizzy takes control of her own destiny, and of Joe’s, escaping in the night and ending up on Admiral Twiss’s doorstep begging sanctuary for her horse. Of course, in the proper melodramatic tradition, she now falls ill and “cannot be moved” (apparently there are no ambulances available in 1970s England to transport a gravely ill child to hospital!) and must be cared for by the Admiral and his two devoted retainers.

To condense: Kizzy is re-homed with understanding Miss Brooke, though with more than a little resistance from Kizzy who was quite content in the Admiral’s bachelor establishment. The bullying at school escalates into a physical episode where Kizzy is injured, bringing the situation at long last to the official notice of the village adults who had been letting things work themselves out. The young bullies are allowed their chance at redemption; Kizzy learns to love dedicated Miss Brooke; a proper home is providentially provided; and all’s well that ends well.

For all of the predictability and sometimes glaring flaws in the plot-line, this story works out quite well. We develop an affection and admiration for this stubbornly individual child who refuses to be a victim of fate, even while being tossed and turned by events beyond her control. Though the ending is a little too good to be true, we feel that justice has been done at last; it serves to satisfy the moral craving for “good to be rewarded, wicked to be punished” which lies at the heart of all classic story tales.

A bit of a period piece. Especially dated, in my opinion, is the episode of the young girl being left in the intimate care of three men completely unrelated to her, with the full approval of the local doctor and the child welfare officer – does anyone else raise an eyebrow at this unlikely nowadays scenario? A sentimental read for teens and adults, and a generally interesting and satisfying children’s book.

Read-Aloud:  Works well as a read-aloud for all ages of children, though prepare for discussion of the bullying as it is quite graphic. There are also two deaths (Granny and Joe), plus a nearly tragic episode involving a house fire. The narrative jumps around somewhat, making it challenging to follow for very young children; I’m thinking 6 or 7 and up is best though littler ones could certainly listen in. This story moves along at a good pace and holds interest well both for the reader and the listeners.

Read-Alone: Good chapter book for fluent readers in the 7-ish to 11-ish year-old age range. Written with an advanced (adult) style and vocabulary; not at all an “easy reader” but a “real book” for a novice bibliovore to tackle.

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