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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: 'The Real Boy'

By Anne Ursu
Middle grade fantasy
September 2013
Walden Pond Press
ISBN: 978-0062015075

Oscar is a young boy who loves what he does -- he gathers herbs and other plants and prepares them for use by Caleb, the magician who took him in years ago.

The routine calms him, his world is orderly, he and the cats get along well and he secretly reads some of the untold number of books in Caleb's library at night. He sleeps in a small room next to his workroom, both underground. The only thorn is Caleb's apprentice, Wolf, a cocky older boy. They work in the Barrow, shops where small bits of magic go into what is sold, for both regular people and the rich ones who live in the barricaded city.

When Caleb leaves on business, Wolf and a young female apprentice take off for an afternoon in the forest. They don't survive. Caleb ends up spending more time away than he's at the shop, while Oscar is overwhelmed trying to help customers. When he makes an amazing discovery, it's a good thing he finally has someone he can talk to -- the healer's apprentice, Callie. She's nearly overwhelmed herself, as the healer starts spending as much time away as Caleb has been.

Left on their own, and with the world around them changing, Oscar and Callie have a strenuous hero's journey to undertake in Anne Ursu's beautiful high fantasy, The Real Boy. Reading only on the level of adventure, it's a grand story indeed. But Ursu has woven a far richer tale. The Real Boy also has Oscar questioning everything about himself and what he thought he knew.  Since the author has a young son who has autism, Oscar's questions are poignant and revealing. Readers also are led to question the world that the city folk have set up for themselves, and what happens when people try to keep hurt and risk at bay.

The Real Boy is a wonderful story for middle grade students and above, including adults who think they know what is best and don't listen to children any longer. There is a generous spirit at play in these pages to delight any who would enter.

2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Javiar Marías

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further comment:

She waited twenty minutes for him at a restaurant table, puzzled but not overly concerned, until the phone rang and her world ended, and she never waited for him again.

-- Javier Marías, The Infatuations

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: 'Enon'

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews

ENONBy Paul Harding
Literary Fiction
September 2013
Random House
ISBN: 978-1400069439

Paul Harding's first novel, Tinkers, appeared to have captured lightning. It was a small book published by a small press. It was the story of an old man dying in his living room, thinking of his family who came before and who followed him. It also was a brilliant, eloquent, poetic, unflinching look at love, family and flawed human beings who deserve admiration and forgiveness. It won the Putlizer in one of those instances where the winner honored the award.

Harding's second novel mines similar territory and, similarly, captures lightning. Charlie Crosby is the grandson of George Crosby from Tinkers. He has suffered the tragedy of Kate, his young daughter, dying when her bicycle is struck by a distracted mom chauffering her own children. Charlie knows he is sinking into oblivion but he is too filled with despair to change.

The year following his daughter's death is a portrait of relentless grief. No matter where his mind may wander -- remembering times spent with his beloved grandfather or adored daughter -- Charlie always comes crashing back to the realization that Kate is gone. Not even the painkillers and booze keep that knowledge at bay for long.

There is a quietness in Harding's beautiful prose that permeates this study of a New Englander who loves his hometown nearly as much as he loves his daughter. That quietness, that underlying awareness that knowledge and strength can come to those who persevere, help turn this portrait of sorrow into one of the fullness of life.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Toni Morrison

Inspired by David Abrams, Fobbit author, at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I've read this week, presented without further comment or explanation:

It may even be that some of us know what it is like to be actually hated—hated for things we have no control over and cannot change.

-- Toni Morrison, forward to The Bluest Eye

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: 'A Tale for the Time Being'

By Ruth Ozeki
Literary Fiction
March 2013
ISBN: 978-0670026630

Time, our place in time and our place within a social structure are focused on in Ruth Ozeki’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, A Tale for the Time Being. What gives the novel its philosophical foundation are the beliefs of its author, who is a Buddhist priest.

This foundation also provides an emotional and moral center to the tales of three women, what they believe and the love they feel that is grounded in their beliefs.  Throw in quantum physics, Schrodinger’s cat and folklore about crows, and the result is a heavyweight novel that is easy to absorb  and worthy of contemplation.

Ruth is the present-day narrator who  shares with her author creator being a writer and a Buddhist priest living in British Columbia. The fictional Ruth and her husband live in a small village on a sound, where the ocean waves still manage to deliver a package. It at first appears to be a copy of the Proust novel À la recherche du temps perdu saved in plastic.

It is instead a journal remade with the novel’s cover, a journal written by a teenage girl in Japan around the turn of the 21st century.  Nao was raised in Silicon Valley when her father went to work there, but the bursting of the dot com bubble sent the family back to Japan. She is the epitome of a stranger living in a strange land.  She isn’t fluent in Japanese. She’s behind in school. And she is bullied. The bullying is relentless and  harrowing. Her classmates even hold a fake funeral for her and put it on the internet.

Without consulting her, her parents decide to send her for the summer break to her great-grandmother Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun in a remote mountain location. This nun is the kind of fictional character who should exist in real life. She’s a spiritual Auntie Mame who helped form some of Nao’s father’s best memories as a boy and is showing, not telling, her great-granddaughter the power of zazen, a method of meditation. She also hopes Nao develops a superpower.

Ruth could use the power of meditation. She’s been trying to write a memoir of her mother, who died several years ago after suffering from Alzheimer’s, but has been stalled for ages. As a writer, she knows this is not healthy:

An unfinished book, left unattended, turns feral, and she would need all her focus, will, and ruthless determination to tame it again.

Instead of her own work, Ruth is captivated by Nao and worries about her, even though the journal was written years ago. It may have reached Canada in the vanguard of debris drifting over after the tsunami and Fuskushima disaster, which is ongoing.

Ruth doesn’t even know if Nao is still alive. She not only wrote about killing herself, her father is sinking into depression ever more deeply because he cannot find work after they return to Japan. He isn’t even successful at killing himself. He does roam the streets at night, and sometimes Nao follows him. These sections are highly reminiscent of Murakami’s writing, especially in 1Q84 during night sessions involving a playground swing in the middle of a metropolis. Ruth also is having a hard time finding evidence online that Nao is real.

Meanwhile, Nao plans to write a biography of Jiko but like Ruth, she gets off-track and the work is not done. Jiko admires early Japanese feminists, and may or may not have written an “I-novel”, an early form of Japanese confessional fiction. Is this what Nao’s journal is? She is deliberately reaching out to someone who will one day read what she has written:

Maybe when I ask you a question like “You doing okay?” you should just tell me, even if I can’t hear you, and then I’ll just sit here and imagine what you might say. You might say, “Sure thing, Nao. I’m okay. I’m doin’ just fine.”

Is she practicing I-fiction or trying to find someone, anyone, since her new life is so desolate?

While Nao’s father is trying to commit suicide, the reader also learns about Jiko’s son. He was a kamikaze pilot during World War II. But he also was a scholar, a lover of French literature and poetry. Writings of his also surface.

Perhaps it is inevitable, but there is an element of the fantastical toward the end of the novel before Ozeki brings everything back together. I can’t say much without going into spoilers but again, it felt like wandering into Murakami territory and it felt right.

Ozeki weaves in ideas about bullies, both personal and corporate, sustainability, old growth and how to live at peace in the multiple POV narrative that doesn’t feel forced. There is ultimately a calmness that the writing delivers, and it has to do with realizing how connected we all are.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: 'Black Spring'

By Alison Croggon
YA fantasy
August 2013
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-6009-3

Wuthering Heights is one of those seminal works that can sweep away a reader. Often, the earlier a reader discovers this work, the stronger a hold the story of doomed lovers Catherine and Heathcliff can be.

So it’s no wonder that Alison Croggon was inspired by the Emily Bronte novel in writing Black Spring, about doomed lovers Lina and Damek, for a YA audience. The pair live in a harsh European setting in an inhospitable land, away from the softer, more sophisticated life in the south of their land. Wizards live among them, vendetta is a way of life and these willful children are determined to live as they prefer, society be damned.

Croggon’s novel follows the same narrative as the Bronte novel, from a stranger meeting a deranged Heathcliff, um, Damek, and seeing the ghost of Catherine, um, Lina, to the inevitable ending.

Added to the tale is a touch of paranormal. Lina is a witch, which usually means a death warrant, but she is protected by the king. When her father dies and his estate is given to a rough toadie, the local wizard plays a role. A highly structured vendetta that lasts for years showcases how noble the condemned men who have killed in vengeance are (yes, really) and, in a last-minute poke, is supposed to show why the nobility are above all that.

Croggon excels in creating a highly effective atmosphere of overwrought emotion that is as foundational to her setting as the harsh landscape. She also pays full homage to the novel and characters that inspired her own work.

Black Spring raises the same reservations that Wuthering Heights does. Although Lina despairs of being loved for herself and not coveted as a possession, and the society in which she lives gives women little chance of that happening, the idea that it is only as half of a couple that one truly is alive does not bolster this independent spirit. But for those readers who think Bella’s love of Edward is the height of attainment, Black Spring will fit their interest for more in the same vein.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Paul Harding

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further commentary:

What I loved most was how the contents of each batch of books mixed up with one another in my mind to make ideas and images and thoughts I'd never have imagined possible.

-- Paul Harding, Enon