Sunday, July 23, 2006

No Brainer

Levi's Will by Dale Cramer aka the best Christian fiction writer on the market ( though I am still awfully fond of the Thoenes ) won the Christy Award. This may not mean a lot in the grand scheme of secular bookselling, but I have tried to inflitrate him into the Faulkner/Harper Lee/ Leif Enger readership so I hope my small contribution is somehow aiding a bigger effort. Namely, take the two Christian extremes ( Apocalyptical horror a la Frank Peretti and Jenkins/ Lahaye and Mail-Order Bride Historical series with amish people and goats ) and even them out into something greater; Something so fantastic you can slide it to a secular friend without them knowing what they are reading. The archetypal safe fare of poorly written first person romantic narratives paired with the recent fascination with celtic people, the slave trade and composers of hymns as the male leads, should instead be replaced by sterner stuff; books that are literary and challenging and substitute a bludgeon over the head with a more subtle ethical background. Grace at the foremost, yes, but not the kind of grace that expects your reader to be spoonfed the gospels.... or moreover, the kind that shovels it down your throat if your unsuspecting mouth seems to be drooping wide. I want to be proud of Christian fiction. I want to pair the Dostoyevsky and Hugo I slid into the Christian Library I worked at with contemporary pseudo-masterpieces.

A Retrospect: I once engaged in a book I thought held eons of potential. It was set in Oxford in the 1960's and its major motif was that of the Inklings---that famous theological grouping that held Lewis, Williams and Tolkien at the now infamous Eagle and Baby. Here, the aforementioned would gather and plot and discuss--Sometimes deliciously allowing a brilliant female to intercept their predominantly male gatherings. (Here, of course, I refer to my theological goddess/mystery maven Dorothy L. Sayers ). I eagerly read on gathering that the book was peppered with romance, and thought my delight.... Shakespeare. However, there was a car crash, a weepy wide-eyed night worthy of Lavyrle Spencer and, horrifically, a sequel where the once ambitious Shakesperian scholar-to-be traded her Oxford education for a potential brood of children( at the tender age of 21, I believe ) because God had called her to raise a large family. Words cannot descibe how incensed I was at the author and the book. Who am I to question the Will of the Almighty when it comes to dropping higher education to raise children? But, with few other books to counter this familial archetype, I was distraught. If readers who dapple fleetingly in the Christian market are subjected to women adhering to a long-passe social role, how can we ever convince them that there is light outside of Mitford, that not all Christian women are baking in the kitchen, and that the whole of the Christian marketplace is not the rainy-day, feel-good squishiness of Karen Kingsbury.

I want Christian Fiction with heart and guts and brains. When I was in elementary school, my young and developing imagination had no problem seeping the works of Janette Oke and BJ Hoff. The italicized prayers were wonderfully appropos, the cheesy covers ( the gawdawful covers ) with their pastels and portraits of ladies bonneted and gentleman in strawhats and suspenders did not phase me. Then, I grew up and titles like " When Hope Springs New" didn't cut it anymore. For a long time the Christian market did not exist outside of the "prairie" romance; The long series where books 2 and 7 were always out of print or unavailable. And, when it did occasionally stray from the expected, it was only to delve into the antiromance, the antonym. Raise your hands if you're still freaked out by Peretti's Door to the Dragon's Throat. Throw in a Chuck Colson and a Grant Jeffrey for good measure and you have a wavering pendulum. Sappy historical and death, destruction apocalyptic with one or two of a Grisham like law book in between. And is it utterly impossible for these people to throw anything remotely literary into this jargoning jingoism? I was delighted to read " Because of Winn Dixie " by Kate Di Camillo because I found strings of religion in the figure of a mangy mutt. How desperate are we?!?!

Yet in lapses of despair, I have never ever given up on the potential of a great Christian read. Perhaps something that leans more to the Tolkienian ideal of Pre-Evangelim.... a Christian book that has more to do with ethical themes and a woven strand of subtle grace than down right allegory or sermonizing.

Ironically, the book Christy by Catherine Marshall , the namesake of Cramer's recent award, seems still ( and encouragingly) to be a placid middle ground for some readers. Even if it has never been published with a cover worthy of its inner-genius, it is the antidote for a the rumbling rant I have presently typed. I had a customer today come back after falling head-over-heels for Neil MacNeil ( hel-lo! She's human, isn't she? ) and tell me " My friend told me that this was a Christian book. Is that true?" Ahh.... bliss. Carry on Dale Cramer. Break down the barriers and please spare us from the sisterchicks, the uber-apocalyptic destruction scenes ( with the low budget Kirk Cameron spinoffs ) and most of all the new Austen-ish vein of taking a heroine and throwing her in calamitous situations only your great grandmother would find even remotely amusing. If she does crosswords in her spare time, even worse!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Patricia C. Wrede, "New Moon", and some sea-faring for the kiddies

Okay. So, I really like teenie lit. We all know this. But we also know that I can chalk it up to *ahem* research because I am finishing my own teenie lit series. Also, we must recognize that it is summer and I just finished a Specialist degree in Victorian Lit. So, I have paid my dues and read many eight thousand long books with words like "thither", "ponder", and surreptitiously."

Having listed my credentials, I should basically be able to read whate'er I want.

So.... I do.

Take for instance, this wonderful, blossoming genre of Regency-lit for kids. I would like to start by thanking Patricia C. Wrede for this delightful, delectable, delicacy. First, through Sorcery and Cecilia and The Grand Tour: sort of an epistolary Georgette Heyer for the small fry; and now, enchantingly, Mairelon the Magician and The Magician's Ward. Magic of yesteryear is indeed sexy. I like to think of man "Darcy-clad" in cravats prancing ( a la Scarlet Pimpernel) about the "ton" ,as it were ,and flashing their magic tricks. Kudos to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for further whetting the world's appetite for this sort of thing.

Mairelon the Magician and its worthy sequel are peppered with witty banter and rapport, and enticing "cant" used by the streetsmart Kim who unwittingly ( and unwillingly) becomes ward to the "toff" Mairelon: Magician by day, spy for the British Office and Lord of the upper gentry by night.

The relationship between Kim and Mairelon took some unexpected turns that had me squealing late, late into last night . This is the kind of book you want to sneak the flashlight under the covers for.

I also read New Moon-- the sequel to Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. This book takes an unexpectedly dark turn and I must say I was completely thrown off guard by the direction it is now heading in. I am sure she will round off the trilogy nicely in the promised third sequence.

Details I shall keep tightly under lock and key seeing as I was fortunate enough to read this in its galley proof and most of the rest of the world is still anticipatorily expecting their amazon pre-orders.

I have a thing for boats. We all know this. It will be my downfall ( meaning I will one day rush off to sea, toss my self aloft and somehow, strangely, drown), but I can live vicariously through wonderful sea faring tales of the dark and deep. I am always intrigued when authors of the YA persuasion use this setting for their coming-of-age tales. For really, Horatio Hornblower, and the early non-Aubrey/Maturin O'Brian books, use ships as the vessel for self maturation.

I can eagerly recommend Peter Raven Under Fire, a recent nautical acquisition. Also, the Young Man and the Sea ( a well-needed update of the Hemingway classic for the 9-12 age range. And, my love of all things Maritimer was well-founded in Pirate's Passage by Gilkerson.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" by Rachel Cohn/David Levithan, "Catherine, Called Birdy" Karen Cushman

Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist:

First off, I like the throw-back to the Nick and Nora of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man.
Secondly, I enjoy both of these authors when they are writing singularly. I especially enjoyed the books Gingerbread and Shrimp by Rachel Cohn. The fresh, quirky narrative reminded me of Francesca Lia Block's fantastic "Dangerous Angels"/Weetzie Bat series.
I also enjoyed the premise of "Nick and Nora"---two music lovers meet at a punky, sweaty concert. Nick grabs the closest girl next to him to kiss just as the girl who broke his heart walks by and Nora obliges. This part consumated in the first chapters and the need for a buildup to reach the moment ( as is the case in so many teen novels ) relinquished, the next hundred-odd pages jumps His/Her perspectives, as Nick and Nora learn about each other and New York. New York becomes their playground; it is a whirlwind of adventures and the perfect scene to add to their rotating music video-type life.

One of the off-sets of the writing is the perpetual need to curse. Honestly, I am a bit of a prude, but even I shrug off a strong word now and then for the sake of poetic license. In Nick and Nora's case it actually detracts from the narrative. The reader is instead puzzling " How will Levithan and Cohn slide this "f" here and this one there...."
I know that in the name of edginess, the teenie novelists are dying to scrape down the conservative wallpaper of inhibition. But please, does originality have to be sacrificed in its stead?

An interesting whiz perfect for a night when you feel like hitting The Bronze with Buffy and's that kind of book.

Catherine, Called Birdy is the first novel by Karen Cushman-- a now hugely popular YA novelist ( specifically in the YA genre ) who has won the Newberry. Set in the medieval time periods, Catherine is a spunky heroine who keeps an " account" of the goings-on in her quiet home and village . Although she is well and high-bred, her family's poverty asserts she marry wealthy. A score of suitors show up to court the young maiden and Catherine fights them all off... with pranks and pleas and costume changes ( such as mouse bones in her hair and blacking soot on her teeth ). It is Catherine's pursuit of her own happiness that makes this book so intriguing. Her perserverence and her refusal to marry anyone deemd unworthy sets her above the rest.

Cushman paints the medieval period without romanticism. It is grubby and gritty and dirty and crass. We see the grease, learn of the privy and hear many of the time's exclamatory remarks.

not a bad read at all. I can see why it is a favourite of some of today's more prominent young adult novelists ( Meg Cabot, et al).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

ahhh Vampires. What would I do without them? They never quite captivated me with the exception of Count Dracula on Sesame Street. But then, early in the century, a blondie, British Manchester united fan, with a wicked ( pun intended ) sense of humour graced the small screen with his interpretation of the men of the night. This coffin-sleeper, grave-dweller, caught me ( especially when he was wandering around Sunnydale in a suit with Giles the Watcher ) and kept me. I liked the forbidden romance motif. The vampire and the slayer. Doomed, right? The ripest of forbidden fruit. This time the forbidden fruit is a little more subtle. This vamp is not dating a Slayer, instead a sweet tempered, self proclaimed "albino" senior at a high school in Forks, DC. The gorgeous vamp is Edward Cullen: a wispish thing with tawny hair and a dazzling crooked smile. He is not, as is usually thought, burned by the sun, yet sparkled by it. He is more angel than vamp, and more often than not ready and willing to save our hapless heroine from the trouble she seeps apt to find herself in.

Twilight is told in first person. A well-narrated first person is a treat for the gods, a bad one is ...well, I think we all know my low tolerance level for it. Meyers' Bella is a treat. She is believable ( as believable as a senior with a hankering after vamps CAN be ) and the story whips through its 500+ pages rather rapidly. I usually don't find myself drawn to the pretty boys but this Edward thing is quite the looker/rescuer/guy. Having lived since the early 20th Century is musically inclined ( and proficient at that ) and has read a heck of a lot ( to the delight of the bookwormish Bella ). He speaks articulately and always seems slightly out of reach. Physically inpenetratable, but nonetheless a foil for some of the most intense unacted sensuality I have read in a teen book in a long time. You could cut the vamp/human sexual tension with a knife. Especially when Edward takes the unsuspecting Bella to a sunny meadow. His body lights like twinkles on a Christmas tree and I thought for sure they were going to take their playful kissing a step or two further ( I might not have minded ).

Meyers kept me hooked. I appreciated her use of older names for Edward's "vamp" siblings: Esme and Carlisle and Emmett and Rosalie: distinguishing the unhuman dead ones from the rest of the high school and the small, rainy town. Meyers relinquishes a lot of the popular vampire lore, instead twisting it and making it her own . A self proclaimed LM Montgomery fan, I was sure Jasper Hale was a shout out to a certain stuttering recluse in the Chronicles of Avonlea.

There were two major problems with the novel. First, the concept of timing. I felt Edward and Bella's relationship happened quickly and rather abruptly. Secondly, that we never really knew how long they had known each other. Now that I have finished, I realize that the arc of the story is framed by the beginning of school in chapter one and the Prom in the epilogue.
The second problem is the Vampire baseball game. This is the crux that catapults the beginning of the terrifying climax but it didn't seem the right way to begin the spiral to the end. It was a little silly, to say the least and the least credible of what I thought was a fairly easy-to-fall-into world.

Good show. Now cracking the spine of New Moon: the Second in what is to be a trilogy.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The last time I read the Secret Garden I was young.... very young. So young, my young self thought that the London mentioned in stories must be the same as the one where my aunt lived ( in Ontario ); not that far out of reach. The Secret Garden had such an impact on my burgeoning imagination, that traveling to visit London Ontario, every beautiful Victorian farmhouse dotting the villages and hamlets leading to the city ( Arva, Lucan, Birr ) were all potential candidates for where the story took place. Don't try to tell my eight year old self that the Yorkshire moors are a far cry from Huron County farm country. I wouldn't believe you.

I cannot believe I waited this long to revisit the magic of one of the very first novels I remember reading. Yet, funnily, everything came back so easily it seemed as if it were one of my oldest friends. I loved reading of Dickon: the magic boy who could enchant the wildlife around him, of Mary the contrary miss who barked at the servant Martha but was still given ( by the same ) a skipping rope, and of Archibald Craven, the slightly deformed, Rochesterish lord of the manner, who came and went at will, who probably dressed wholly in black and who neglected his hypochondriac ghost-son named Colin---- so afraid of developing a lump to match his father's, Colin stayed in bed all day. Until Mary rescued him.....and a garden. At the same time.

Of course the rebirth motif is completely lost to a whipper-snapper, but Burnett weaves so well the awakening of the soul and the revitilization of the spirit with the sudden rekindling of the magic garden: locked after the death of its beautiful, timeless mistress. In fact, by the end, the garden and the boy Dickon seem so seamlessly intertwined, one wonders if Dickon actually existed. Is he instead a human metaphor for the liveliness the garden instills in those who tend it?

The reunion scene between the once-lame Colin who runs to his father, breathless and refreshed is very endearing.

I am glad I stumbled upon this again. Loved gushing over it with my friends and making them revisit it as well. I think it is one of the books that influenced a lot of children when they were young.