Friday, September 29, 2006

Gideon the Cutpurse vs. Montmorency by Eleanor Updale Round 1

Mid-Gideon the Cutpurse by the sort-of talented Linda Buckley-Archer, I am thrown into a fit of puzzlement.

Gideon has been extremely well advertised by the publisher. I mean, who didn't get a copy of the ARC in the Spring. Everyone got one !! I saw a couple of squirrells at Queen's Park reading them.

There are banners and posters and slip covers and booths dedicated to its glory at bookfairs and preview shows and I am wondering why, WHY is Gideon the YA book of the year. It certainly has had the best publicity of any new kids' novelist this past year and yet, it is not the best book I have read. The expectations were high. The bar was waaaaaaaaay up there * Melrose demonstratively draws line in air with finger* and the book is, well, erm... half way down.

See, kids, I have discovered some fantastic YA novelists this year. It being my guilty passion, I read a ton of it. And Gideon is lagging somewhat behind.

I have heard Gideon compared to the fantastic and breathtaking Montmorency series by Eleanor Updale. Updale is one of the few YA novelists who has really broken many of the rules. Her series is fresh and groundbreaking. I sell it to kids and adults alike. The reason being, Montmorency the Jekyll/Hyde-esque thief and gentleman is not a kid. Moreover, none of the other characters in the novels are. What a concept. To write a challenging and engaging series for kids that does not underestimate them;That expects them to reach her level. They are expected to keep up and move on.

Another exception to the rule is the beautiful novelist, Megan Whalen Turner, whose hero Eugenides has captured hearts of many in the gorgeously-woven Attolia series ( The King of Attolia being the most recent ). Turner's darkish character, Gen, spins a fresh thread of dual-nature. The politics undermining the duelling kingdoms is complex and illuminating. Kids can breeze through it for its fantastic adventure and creepy dark caverns and corners, yes, but they must have their thinking caps on. It is almost mythical..... a legendary fantasy set in a time not unlike how I picture ancient Greece.

Catherine Webb is a 2nd year history major at the University of London and already, at the meagre age of 19, has written a handful of fantasy books. Damned good fantasy books at that !The one that most captured my heart was The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle. Dr. Who meets Sherlock Holmes in this rollicking mystery set at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Webb is an atmospheric writer with a tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase and one of the best senses of humour I have read in a long time. Once again, Horatio Lyle is an adult star the children who help ( Thomas the young aristocrat and Tess the pickpocket) are yes, more than archetypal, but still figure as secondary characters. I am aching for the second installment( "The Obsidian Dagger" ) to reach my doorstep later this week ( godspeed!! )

So, with all of this outstanding ( and most importantly, literate ) YA stuff out there why are the publishers so attracted to this particular story?

Is it the time travel thing? ( ummm, think not !! Read the Fetch by CC Humphreys.... it has smoother transitions from the modern period to the age of the Vikings. Gideon's time-hops are clunky and awkward ).

Is it the historical aspect? Nope. There's tons out there. Even from the 18th Century.

Is it the boy/girl dynamic? I think we can all safely say that that has peaked in Meyer's blockbustering phenomenon Twilight and its sequel, New Moon.

Is it the character waning between good and evil ? Nope. Read Jonathan Stroud.

Is it the scar-faced villain? Ummm, the "tar man?" I should think no imaginative youngster is trembling in their boots. No hair is raised unsuspectingly on their arms. No spider-like tingle is crawling up the backs of their hairlines.

I am absolutely flabberghasted as to this fall's major kids' pick. There's no code to break, no style to start, no movie options. Why is this thing so huge?!!?

That being said, it is a mellow and entertaining novel, and Gideon ( the mysterious aristocrat/cutpurse ) of the title reads very much like Percy of the Scarlet Pimpernel ( read the long blonde queu and the engaging smile and the other "hidden" side).

But, as far as I can tell it is not worth this unprecedented acclaim. In fact, unless Buckley-Archer crams in a lot of explaining as to "why" the transported children hover phantom-like between past and present and "why" they were slipped through the sky to a field of yesteryear, then I will be a very sceptical reader.

What connections does this lady have ?

Read later on for why I think the same over-hype is perpetuated in the build-up to the Thirteenth Tale by Setterfield.

NOTE: I have just read the reviews for Gideon on amazon and have discovered that most good reviews come from adults who got advanced reader copies. Ironic.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reading Challenge

most people are doing October reading challenges, pertaining to dark and dreary things.

I am making my own.

It's not actually a challenge because I am very excited about it, and some of the books I have read before, but we shall have gothic, cookies ! lots of gothic!

---Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

---Dracula by Bram Stoker

----the Obsidian Dagger by Catherine Webb

----The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin

----The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

---the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, September 17, 2006

violence. violence.

I often hear movie-goers gripe about the amount of gratuitous violence saturating the films nowadays. There's gore, there's explicitly rendered scenes with people being riddled with bullets or sliced right open, and society does not always approve.

Though a different medium, I have often wondered how many lobby against violence in fiction. Should it not, in its imaginative realm, fixate the mind with more gruesome images when conjured in your own way?

My love for Harry Potter is only waylaid slightly by the amount of violence in it ( especially in the Goblet of Fire ) , people are murdered, Harry and Voldemort confront each other in a less than tame way, and children are shivering in their beds at night, unable to sleep. Could Rowling not evoke the same dark magical realm without the needless and long-drawn battle scenes that momentarily eclipse anything innocent or light in her stories?

While watching the crux of Goblet of Fire, Harry stalwartly brandishing Voldemort, wand in hand like sword, my cousin was so overwrought with fright she was almost incontrollable. She loves the books and the movies, but somehow that dismal part and the death of Harry's comrade that follows it, shake her to the bone. Should she then dismiss her love for Harry Potter merely because she is so frightened by, what I feel to be, overtly horrific scenes? Should we expect our younger readers to get over it merely because it is the trend in YA fantasy today? Should my cousin change and slip on a thicker skin, or should Rowling cater to her proven audience? She knows how young children are when they start her books (the peer pressure so taut, they open them younger and younger now, or parents read Philosopher's Stone aloud to their toddlers ), as the film producers know the demographic of their audience.

Children's Lit like Harry Potter is not the only problematic genre. My recent reading of Bryce Courtenay's excellently atmospheric novel, Tommo and Hawk, forced me to contempate the need of such explicitly graphic sequences. The brutal rape and beating of a six year old child ( while still in chapter one of the novel, I might add ), made me momentarily slam the book shut and close my eyes. How much is too much? Especially since readers are known to have such vivid imaginations? Courtenay's novel was soaked in graphic imagery. So much so, it often broke the narrative to the part of redundancy. I became immune, the shock value wore off.

CC Humphreys' Anne Boleyn-esque legend, The French Executioner, is no different. There are scenes in that book that haunt me still though it has been years since I read it. The violence did not enhance the plot. The author would probably argue that it was necessary for capturing the essence of the time, the injustice, the conflict, the brink of war.

I argue differently, as I shove Bryce Courtenay near Fr. Executioner on the shelves that contain my mass market books. Violence does not have to be necessary. It is as gratuitous in fiction as it can be in film. Images splashed ---whether across the eyes or the brain-- are equally potent to the imagination and the capsule of memory.

Consider an author such as Bernard Cornwell. His Sharpe series, though occasionally graphic, is one I often recommend to younger readers. Though possibly not as talented a writer as the two aforementioned, he certainly can capture his audience, AND ( most importantly ) Sharpe's rank-rising amidst the Peninsular wars, without the overly-described bloodshed I have found in other novels of late.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

"I'll Tell you a Secret" by Anne Coleman

This seems like the first "real" book I have read in ages; probably because it infused in me the profound awe I have when I read an author explicitly extraordinary. It is a well-spun classic, in my mind, and I am now very proud to spine it in the Canadian literature section of my personal library: ready for further examination on another weekend.

I have long had an obsession with the Canadian authors who I feel manifest the Golden Age of Canadian literature. The striving, seeking, finding kind most definitely subscribing to the school of my favourites: Leacock (back in Orillia, natch!! ) W.O. Mitchell ( rounding out the latter years ), Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies ( the silver lining..... ) Hugh Maclennan and, of course, the indomitable Morley Callaghan.

Sometimes I think, in the case of Maclennan and Callaghan especially, that my admiration rises more from their representation of a literal "type" then the actual works they left behind. For example, I have always been far more smitten with the colloquial, yet unspoken language expressed through Callaghan's boxing gloves when he punched out Ernest Hemingway than I have with the colourful palette of his memoirs ( That Summer in Paris resonates most in that peerless climax figuring Hemingway and Callaghan's metaphoric battle ...which I read to be that of champion and defeated in the realm of Canadian/American literature ...while F. Scott Fitzgerald stands timidly by). If Callaghan encapsulates the binary world of Toronto the Great of the 20's and the Paris idolized by that "Moveable Feast" of Hemingway's circle, then surely MacLennan is ensconced in the marriage of writer and poetic prism a la Cape Breton Island and the determined miner's plight.

Both represent a type of collared world that holds such lasting significance to our bustling and changing Canadian realm of identity and mystique. We hold these figures steadfastly as we do our bilingual language, our colonial ties, our bloody win at the Soviet Game late 70's and our Olympic Gold Medals because they help us forge an identity writers like Will Ferguson and Alice Munro have been shoving at us to maintain for years.

Thus, my inclination toward Hugh McLennan as literary model as well as renowned author was fully realized in Anne Coleman's self-proclaimed "Memory of Seven Summers". The "secret" she evokes in her title is that of her lasting coming-of-age relationship with Hugh McLennan at the cottage resort town of North Hatley in Quebec.

The struggle of identity painted so vividly in McLennan's masterpiece, "Two Solitudes" is once again forked out Coleman's remembrance of Quebec in the 1950's. Amidst the cold war, the lasting Francophile and Anglophile conflicts and the changing patriarchal and parochial roles in the boarding school Anne attends and later at McGill, Anne fleshes out a tender relationship any fourteen year old girl with a passion for reading and an insatiable mind would die for.

Hugh McLennan becomes a sort of trinity: father, mentor and almost-lover, as Anne relates to us ( ellipses occuring when memory lapses ) the story of an eager young girl infatuated with a celebrity writer many years her senior.

The word" master" is often used: as becomes the diction of a girl so enveloped in the world of Jane Eyre she peeks all over for "Mrs. Rochesters" and molds her own story on its figurative counterparts in her favourite novel.

My liking for Hugh McLennan was not lessened by this odd ( and at times seemingly irrational and almost dishonourable ) relationship, yet heightened. Anne does not taunt us with a recount of some "Dynasty"-worthy spill-all. Instead, she threads out the bundled and bustling awkwardness of adolescent calamity. She invites us into her world and keeps us there. Our heart catches for her nearly-blossomed relationship and somewhat sinks when it doesn't quite evolve.

She pushes hard and teases and lures..... but that ending, the one you crave despite the inevitability of history, fate and time, keeps you staunchly( albeit wisely) at bay.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

oh my god it's the Thorn Birds!!! ( except it's in America).

Our heroine ( a sort of Kate Chopin's Awakening type for the millenium ) travels to an island off of South Caroline where spiritualism and eroticism combine in the form of a sexy, ascetic Benedictine Monk.

So, there's lots of brooding and steamy glances and some good descriptions of a historic chair which serves as the hub of the combined Higher and comparitively lower and lustful world.

Whatever. It's all entertaining for lunch breaks at Mariposa Market but a far cry from a real emotional tweaker like The Awakening.

For instance, our heroine returns to the pretty island of her childhood because her mother purposely chopped off her finger with a machete and is now deemed psychologically deranged because she keeps it in a mayonnaise jar beside her bed.

( that's right Sue Monk Kidd, you keep those psychological shockers coming ! )

There's the stock lot: the mentally inept Benne who understands the town's adopted dog, the godmother, Kat; who serves as pendulum between Jessie and finger-decapitated mom and Mage, and a lot full of other eccentrics ( including Mr. Smouldery Richard-Chamberlain-in-waiting) and the poor, desolate husband at home ( who, incidentally, happens to be a psychiatrist).

But the water and rebirth motif is in full form and everyone is liberated and off on pilgrimages. Oooooo eeeee!

And, yet another bookclub perennial and New York Times Bestseller, well-reviewed by Publisher's Weekly gets ticked off of my list..... with another grizzly yawn.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Who says that the internet is an impersonal, automaton, non-entity? They are wrong, I tell you, WRONG!!

Some good duck I met on LJ sent me a slew of Lisa Samson titles this week. And, as a follow-up to the worthy Songbird, I was equally impressed with Straight Up and Club Sandwich.

My favourite of the lot so far is Tiger Lillie; about a ( and I quote her ) "Strong Hungarian" singleton who co-ordinates extreme weddings in the Baltimore area. The daughter of an Episcopalian "priest" ( not preacher, she adamantly informs us ), her narrative intersperses her logs of theology and faith. As I am learning is customary with Samson's well-written first narrative ( YAY!... we all know how I hate a badly written first-person ), elements of faith and the prospective hypocrisy of Christianizing the world through organized religion play through.

I enjoyed some of the literary (natch! ) parallels between the carefully constructed episcopalian world of Lillie's blind father and that of her brother-in-law's dictating, cultish, Scientology-like religion founded under the perverse and power hungry con, Alban Cole.
At times violent, disturbing and challenging, Lisa Samson deals with things I thought long hushed in the strict CBA. For example, the unpracticed homosexuality of Lillie's best friend Gilbert, the sexual awakening of Lillie's younger sister Tacy, the saturation of secular "pop-culture" idiosyncrasies, the loose and liberal language and mostly the round-table discussion housing both sides of the "free will" debate.

Samson is definitely fresh and unusual in today's Christian market. She seems to single-handedly redeem so much of what is wrong in its nature and conservative safe-place.

I yearn to rise up onto my soapbox and proclaim "Fear not worthy, intelligent Christian reader!! Though shalt not be subjected to Gilbert Morris and Janette Oke for the rest of time."
I think the face of Christian publishing is slowly revolving. I like to think Dale Cramer is the pioneer of resuscitation when it comes to the refurbishing of the Christian literary world, but I see now I have to include Samson's powerful, pseudo-feministic sprawls as well. She definitely holds her gutsy own.

In Brett Lott's A Song I knew by Heart, I was thrilled to find more than a thread of my favourite story of the Bible: that of Ruth. The aged Naomi and her recently widowed daughter-in-law travel statewide to settle in the South of Naomi's past. Here plenty of skeletons pop out of her seemingly pure closet. With a mixture of heartbreak and subtle grace, I was delighted to find the parallels between the scripture I so love ( that Boaz is just the bomb!!) and a gentleman author who fits nicely in the hub of the Oprah-lore of the past decade.

In kid's lit, I explored the tasty travails of Emmaline Cayley, pioneering aviatrix and her rapscallion, often airborne guinea pig Robert Burns in The Strictest School in the World by Howard Whitehouse Deliciously illustrated and with hilarious captions, this book reads like Lemony Snicket out of Wackford Squeers ( the totalitarian despot disguised as a schoolmaster in the treacherous sequences of "Nicholas Nickleby" ) Emmaline takes flight.... it's charming, fantastical and humorous. Highly recommended to those who share my passion for the neo-Victorianized fantasy world of Horatio Lyle.

The Book without Words by Avi was quite a different experience than the Crispin books I had recently read and loved. Pure fable, Avi teaches his young readers about the power of proverb and parallel. The story of Sybil, Odo the raven and a treacherous alchemist swearing the secret to spinning gold is filled with dramatic irony, creepy foreshadows and spine-tingling terror. Avi's prose is sparse: but decidedly clever words help paint an ambiance that would chill even the most stalwart of readers.

Avi excels in his archaic worlds and this particular fairytale is no exception. His powers often seem limitless.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"I, Coriander" by Sally Gardner

This book intrigued me because it received so many fantastic reviews. Not to mention, it gobbled up many children's literary prizes.

Coriander's story reads like a fairytale: her birth mother seems to have one foot steeped in the land of mystical magic ( think the rule of Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" ) and the other planted firmly as the mistress of a wealthy home in London..... tantalizingly near the bridge.

The Cromwell rebellion strikes and soon Coriander's world ( and that of her mythical mother's ) seems to slide downward.

Once an epoch in her young life, the discovery and testing of a pair of silver shoes is far too soon the crux between an enchanted world and one of realism, devastation and despair. Coriander loses all that she holds dear while , paradoxically, the land she so loves is overtaken by war and plague.

Balancing a world full of magic against the puritanical reignings of two new locals, Gardner sets Coriander midplace in two drastically different spheres.

I was much taken by Mr. Thankless ( the aptly named tailor ) and his shy apprentice, Gabriel. Not to mention the role of the effervescent "Puck"- type character, here fleshed out in the noble Tycho.

Gardner's prose is outstanding, liquid, moving.... her worlds taut and tangible.

I only wish this stellar book had developed more of one side of Coriander's life.

Read it for yourself and find out why.

Monday, September 04, 2006

"Songbird" by Lisa Samson

This is one of the edgiest and most riveting of the Christian fic fare I have ever read. Not since Dale Cramer's debut have I been so impressed by an author boasting faith in their novels. A highly-flawed character, Charmaine Hopewell adds a humane and relative voice to the world of derelict despair she finds throughout her Southern life.

The atmosphere and dialect read like Billie Letts meets Faulkner. The deep integration of characters into the piece reminded me somewhat of John Irving.

I was thoroughly impressed with Samson's gutsy rhetoric. This story----with its sin and long-time-in-finding redemption ---points the finger at some of the less tangible strains of evangelism: the reliance on the promise of God over medication, the scandalous surroundings of televised programs and their subsequent revivals ( mostly those in the mid-80's with the surge of retreats and resorts a la PTL).

Our focal couple, Charmaine and Harlan, remain the groundwork for a sometimes unbelievable whirlwind of hypocrisy, doubt and selfishness.

This " on the road" novel dips and dives in places I never expected it too. Though it lacks some of Cramer's subtlety, it has a much-needed literate slant that continues to evade so many in the marketplace.

I will definitely read more from her.